I sit in my dimly-lit hillside villa, overlooking Zihuatanejo Bay. A thin sprinkling of lights suggests the water's outline, the black void itself punctuated by just a row of swaying white anchor lights atop the masts of sailboats moored just off the beach. Beyond them, nothing but the Pacific some 8,000 miles to New Zealand.
Our living room has only three walls; the fourth, seaside, was never built, never needed in this mild-to-hot, two-season climate. Instead, a planter of pink bougainvillea spans the room, integrated with the formed-concrete structure as if it had all come out of the same mold.
So the delicious Pacific air, calmed from this afternoon's rambunctiousness, wafts in, as does the agreeable sound of live Santana covers from the beach down the hill and two blocks away. Still, every twelve or thirteen seconds the surf, like some insistent old lady, tries to hush the band.
Occasionally, a sound makes me stop what
I'm doing and reminds me that this is Mexico.
CHARROS AND CHACALACAS
Our end of Zihuatanejo—the La Ropa neighborhood—is usually pretty quiet. Its only arterial road passes the front entrance of our little cluster of rented villas, but traffic noise just kind of blends into the soundtrack of life—birds, people chatting, some construction activity down the street, and, always, the surf.
Occasionally, though, a sound makes me stop what I'm doing and reminds me that this is Mexico: ranchero music blaring out of some guy's truck; the hypnotically simple flute melody advertising the itinerant knife-sharpener with his foot-powered grinding wheel; and, just this morning, the commanding squawk of a few onomatopoeically-named chacalacas, a nearly pheasant-sized bird we're hearing in our part of town for the first time this year.
Sometimes, it's smells: the haze of wood smoke from brush fires in the surrounding countryside; the fresh, clean scent of the cleaning solution they mop our floors with every day; the floury, flowery aroma of fresh tortillas.
As I write, no fewer than five geckos cling to my white stucco ceiling, waiting for the unsuspecting bug to fly in. (Last year, we witnessed the epic stalk, strike and swallow when one took down a moth nearly half its size.) Now four of them are exchanging words in the corner of the kitchen. They sound like birds—raspy-voiced ones like grackles.
SHADES OF SERENITY
I'm tired. Sally and I walk the couple of miles into town every day—and back. There are a few long ups and downs along the way, as well as a couple where a similar ascent is concentrated into a much shorter run. Sometimes, we do the walk twice.
And the sun is powerful and pervasive. Even if you're not standing in its full, straight-down blast—the kind Richard Dreyfus experienced at that railroad crossing in Close Encounters—you feel it circumventing the shade of your visor, radiating up off the ground and every other surface all around you. We know now why many Mexicans still honor the tradition of the siesta.
While those who know better nap, we walk. We've learned the fine art of pacing ourselves, taking just a few blocks at a time and then resting a few minutes. We've discovered the choicest spots of shade along the route—several of them doubly blessed with not just shade but zephyrs of bay breeze captured and concentrated by favorably-oriented building walls.
It's not just this soft, moist air; this whole place is delicious. I've written many times about the colors, comparing them with rich, savory, spicy food. The pace of life is unhurried, not just for the locals, who know there's no point in stressing out over things generally beyond their control, but for us visitors, who relish their example.
I dream of gabbing away with a Mexican family in a real, unmitigated conversation over dinner or a game of Conquian or dominó.
TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT
There's always a sense of adventure here in "Zihua," at least for those of us for whom the locals' everyday experiences seem exotic. The constant presence of the sea. Taking a local bus and pasajero down the coast to La Barra de Potosí or Petatlan. The drama of everyone—from workers to street dogs to huge, prehistoric-looking iguanas—plying always-evolving strategies to compete for scant resources.
There's also the sheer presence of creatures that, simply because we're not used to them, can scare the living bejesus out of you. Last night as I turned back the covers from my side of the bed, I spotted something dark and leggy between the corner of the mattress and formed-concrete bed platform. On closer inspection, it turned out to be one of the biggest spiders I've ever seen—though not a tarantula, it was nearly three inches across.
I'm ashamed that I didn't figure out a way to accommodate the poor thing—like I have so many times, like with bats at home, a scorpion felt inside my pants leg in Texas and cigar-sized cockroaches in Costa Rica. I just couldn't abide the thought of this thing—whose intentions I had no way of knowing—having to scurry just twelve inches to explore my face.
TALKING THE TALK
Part of the adventure, for me, is finding situations in which it's sink or swim with my Spanish. For nearly a decade I've made this beautiful, melodic tongue my second language (actually, third, if you count German, whose hard, guttural sounds have never resonated with my romantic soul). I'm getting pretty good at it, and jump on every chance I get to practice my craft.
The other day, I attended a traditional lamb barbacoa with some fellow guests and friends and family of our host here in Zihuatanejo. I hope I wasn't rude to the non-Spanish-speakers, but I was just irresistibly drawn to the end of the table where all the Spanish speakers were sitting.
When I started learning Spanish about a decade ago, my very first objective was simply to be able to chat amiably with a cab driver about his life, his family and the fortunes of the local futbol or beisbol club. Now that goal has been far surpassed, and I dream of gabbing away with a Mexican family in a real, unmitigated conversation over dinner or a game of Conquian or dominó.
I find myself unable to decide which is the
problem: that things are way more complex
than I'll ever know…or way more simple.
A HARDSCRABBLE LIFE
The people here are wonderful. Sure, we've met the occasional surly cab driver or waiter, but the vast majority of our interactions with Zihuatanejenses have been warm and engaging. In so many Spanish-speaking places we've gone, folks assume we're careless tourists who don't really give a rip about their lives and culture.
But here in Zihua., people seem quicker to take you as you are. It doesn't take them long to recognize my considerable investment in learning their language and getting to know a bit about Mexican geography and culture. They seem to really appreciate that. (Of course, I have to be sensitive to the flip side of the culture thing, which is that many Mexicans are eager and proud to show off their increasing grasp of English and of US culture.)
I don't know how Mexicans ever got the reputation, as they did in my parents' generation, of being lazy (This must have arisen in an era in which all "foreigners"—as if there were ever anyone else coming to settle in the US—were seen as challengers to every previous immigrant's slice of the pie.) The folks around here are some of the hardest-working we've ever seen—and often for the least reward.
Most of us seasonal visitors wouldn't trade
places with these folks if it were the last thing
we did, yet, still, we envy them.
In the tourist industry, the inequities seem all the more poignant. Given the vicissitudes of seasonal demand and misconceptions about the omnipresence of narco violence, flu outbreaks and other perceived threats, the waiters and taxi drivers and maids and fishing boat captains and tour guides—I could go on—have, somehow, to fund a constant cost of living with a widely variable income.
We feel like we should somehow compensate them for this, while at the same time understanding that too much generosity can reinforce the rich-gringo stereotype and financially impact others who also have to live her year-round. This is just one of many examples of how, despite our growing sense of ownership of this place, we have to remember that we will never understand how things—the economy, politics, machismo and many others—really work around here.
I often find myself unable to decide which is the problem: that things are way more complex than I'll ever know…or way more simple.
HAVING IT BOTH WAYS
I sometimes wonder how these hard-working citizens can seem so complacent in the face of inequities, poor infrastructure and widespread governmental corruption. Still, there's a profound strength about this community. We see it in big brothers and little brothers, daughters and grandmothers walking hand in hand; the colorful waste baskets and "Save Our Bay" signs along the beachside promenade, made by school children; in the large turnout every Sunday night for cultural events at La Cancha, Zihuatanejo's version of the ubiquitous zocalo; in what seems a universal pride in being Zihuatanejenses.
Most of us seasonal visitors wouldn't trade places with these folks if it were the last thing we did, yet, still, we envy them. If only we could have both our privilege and freedoms, and their unshakable values.
I guess this is why I so treasure my connections with Mexico and Mexicans. I can pretend to be that close to the real demands of a life totally committed to family, friendship and faith, without really having to pay the price.
The only thing I have to pay is money…and, I'd like to think, attention.