Cheaper in Paradise
|Cold, wet and pale, I felt like I was suffocating. Even multiple trips to our authentic local Mexican restaurant, didnt help to lift the net of gloom that deep winter had cast over me. I cant take this anymore, I shrieked, (a waitress had tried to convince me that a yellow lemon was in fact a genuine limon). I threw my napkin on the plate, surrendered eight dollars to a check that had magically found its way alongside my plate halfway through the meal, and escaped out into (yet more) driving rain.
Its Mexico Or Die! Though burdened by an emaciated wallet, I was determined to feel warm sand between my toes, if only for a couple of weeks.
I scouted around for airfare bargains to Pacific resort airports on the internet, and found a round trip ticket to Manzanillo for two hundred ninety dollars. What the hell, I decided. Its on the west coast of Mexico, isnt it?
I had about two hundred fifty bucks left in the kitty. My gut feeling was that things were going to get a little tight before this trip was over. Two hundred fifty bucks, divided by fourteen days, left about enough money to starve to death, if I didnt hitch-hike and gnaw on bananas for sustenance. The good old days of the 60s and 70s are long gone, right?
The airplane landed in Manzanillo after sundown. Forty-five minutes later I proceeded out of the airport terminal with luggage and stamped tourist card in hand. The taxis had formed a cooperativa and had banned transit buses and negotiated fares at the Manzanillo aeropuerto. The cost of a taxi ride to the crucero (intersection) with hwy 200 was a flat fifty pesos. But it didnt seem reasonable to expect a bus to pass by (at ten pm). I elected to travel by taxi to Barra de Navidad. Thatll be ciento veinte pesos, senor (one-hundred twenty pesos). Fifteen dollars and twenty-nine cents! Well, after all, it is a seventeen mile ride. Somewhere, somehow, I would have to make-up for this extravagance. I visualized myself shinnying up coconut trees while clenching a machete between my teeth, and felling green orbs for use as the main course in the coming days.
I exited the taxi in downtown Barra. A sidewalk cenaduria (supper cafe) was doing a brisk business and I was hungry. I took one look at the menu, and saw Pozole Ten Pesos! My heart skipped a beat. Only a dollar and twenty seven cents, for a large bowl of the wonderful Jaliscan stew? I splurged and washed the pozole down with a couple of bottles of agua mineral. The total bill came to eighteen pesos! Two dollars and twenty nine cents!
A short while later I trudged into a rather dilapidated three story hotel and asked about room rates. The proprietor informed me that the best rooms were located on the third floor, which also provided for the best breezes and view. The cost of a room was (to say the least) affordable: Fifty pesos a night, or by the week, forty pesos for a single. This equaled less than five dollars and ten cents a day, for a room near the lagoon in Barra de Navidad, in high season!
The next morning, another splurge was in order when I discovered that a nearby hotel was offering a huge buffet breakfast for twenty-six pesos ($3.31)! Unlimited fresh brewed coffee, fruit, rolls, breakfast cereals, toast, two eggs, bacon, beans and fresh squeezed orange juice! My wallet stopped palpitating; I began to relax and really enjoy my latest foray to Mexico.
I spent the day dreaming on the beach, and returned to the hotel in mid-afternoon. As I passed through the front door, I could hear the insistent chanting of Jale! Jale! Jale! coming from the tiny center courtyard. I looked up to see a large cylinder of bottled gas being hoisted on the end of a rope, to the third floor by the owner and his son. I laughingly recalled the owners promise to have hot water by sundown.
The next six days were spent exploring, swimming, taking long walks on the beach and riding the inter-village bus to Melaque, which is Barras sister city on the north edge of the bay, and . The bus ride between Barra and Melaque cost the equivalent of nineteen cents each way.
Seven days is a long time (almost a record) for me to spend in a town, even a village as small as Barra de Navidad. I had explored all of the streets and even tasted a couple of delicacies in the local gourmet restaurant (Paté : Goose Lever, French, and Bif in her jus).
On the night of the sixth day, I was rudely awakened by the lusty crowing of a seemingly gigantic rooster that had managed to find its way onto the roof of the hotel. Ordinarily, I love to be awakened by the barnyard bellowing of a burro or rooster, but this pinche gallo was sounding battle stations at three am in the morning! Repeated commands of cayete! (Shut up!), had little effect on the flapping alarm clock from hell.
I leaped out of bed and grappled with the door. I dashed up the ladder leading to the roof while managing to snag a mop out of a bucket the day maid left on the landing. Armed with the dripping rooster-adjuster, I proceeded to stalk the rust-tinted trouble-maker. My intention was to use the mop, like a golfer uses a nine-iron and therefore arc him over the top of the palm trees that separated the hotel from the lagoon. But every time I lunged, while swinging the soggy mass of cotton fibers, the wily bird dodged in a flurry of feathers and a cacophony of cackling. To add insult-to-injury, he even managed to Cock-a-doodle-doo, in a triumphant display of, well...........cockiness!
The manager of the hotel pretended that he had heard nothing during the night as I checked-out early the next morning. My mission was to find a place even less congested and more tranquil than Barra de Navidad. My plans included nothing more than to carry my bags to the bus station, catch a north-bound first class camion (bus) and then hop off when I sensed that the time was right.
As I was walking down the cobblestone street away from the hotel, a taxi driver pulled up in front of me, jammed on the brakes, ran around to the passenger door, opened it and proudly proclaimed Todays the day, Senor.
I had forgotten that Ramon and I had struck up a lengthy conversation a few days earlier, and I had voiced my desire to take a leisurely tour of the side roads off of the main highway. I was convinced that this was the only way that I would ever satisfy my curiosity about the condition of many ancient campsites that I have used in prior visits. As Ramon stood there, beaming in anticipation, I reminded him that my budget bordered on bankruptcy, which certainly meant that I couldnt take him up on his final offer of just two hundred pesos made a few days before. Todays the day! he repeated. For you, today only, ochenta y cinco pesos (eighty-five pesos, about $10.83).
Baggage was stowed in the trunk.
I soon found out why Ramon was so obliging as to take me on a long drive for a pittance. I have to take my wife and children to see her mother in a small village north of here; you dont mind? He added, as he swung into a short driveway in the middle of town. Ramon soon had the five of us sailing down the highway at a pace that seemed just slightly less than the sub-sonic rapidity of my airplane ride.
Boca de Iguanas? he announced. Noooo problemo!, as the little yellow taxi executed a passable rendition of a Tazio Nuvolari race track maneuver around a sharp curve .
In late afternoon, exhausted after winding our way up and down countless dirt roads, that ended in the middle of mangrove swamps or sand traps amidst coconut palms, we proceeded slowly into a tiny village at the tip of a large crescent bay. I knew that Ramon had to go home. From the looks of the crowds of pedestrians, including rural campesinos, walking into town I realized that a fiesta might be looming.
Looks like a fiesta is going to happen here Ramon confirmed, as we passed a cart filled to capacity with an extended family pulled by a burro.
After we cruised the two small streets in the village I asked Ramon to stop and let me out in front of a rundown hotel.
Here? he asked incredulously. This is where you want to get out? I paid eighty five pesos for the fare, but Ramon refused to take another centavo. A deals a deal he quipped, and you may need a ride out of here to the airport. He handed me a business card with his telephone number on it. We shook hands and he disappeared in a cloud of dust.
I carried my bags to a spot judged likely to be the office, but nobody answered my calls. I seated myself on some decaying lawn furniture and marveled at the rustic old-fashioned appearance of this tiny beach village. Just about every structure was made out of stuccoed red bricks. Palm trees were waving in the gentle afternoon breeze and every single street in the village was unpaved.
A short while later I heard the clip-clop of hooves and a whinny. It seemed that the proprietress had attended the days charreada and had imbibed a sizable quantity of homemade mescal. She was in no fit condition to regain consciousness, never mind attend to my registration paperwork. My landlady was unceremoniously untied from the saddle by an obliging charro and carried into the family quarters. A short while later, a young girl emerged, laughing, and handed me a key. Shes very drunk, the daughter apologized. Your room is number fifteen. Its very large; youll like it.
I ascended the outside staircase, and fit the key into the lock, when the door opened wide, I gasped. The room was huge -- somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty by twenty five feet, with two beds, a writing desk with four chairs, massive clothes dressers, a walk-in closet and a giant ceiling fan. I grasped my wallet in anticipation of having to pay for the presidential suite.
Hunger drove me downstairs and down the dirt street to the village zocalo, looking for a likely place to grab a torta or something. Vendors were hastily setting up small booths, and workers were unloading tables and chairs off of cargo trucks. The activity was in stark contrast to the laid-back atmosphere of the village. You wont find any restaurants open, senor one man apologized. Every table and every chair from every restaurant in the village is coming here for the fiesta tonight. Silver gas cylinders were being rolled into place, and make-shift kitchens were being assembled. A passing vendor sold me a mango con todo on a stick, which satisfied my food craving
Its the sixtieth anniversary of the man on the bullhorn cried, and we have spared no expense. The zocalo had filled rapidly with villagers and charros wearing brocaded shirts, straw hats and (obviously) their best pair of cowboy boots. Horses were tied to a string, burro carts were parked on a side lot and children were scampering and playing on a couple of homemade trampolines set off on one side of the square. A dozen cocinas were in operation and twice that many women were making handmade tortillas. Hundreds of party-goers were in full swing, munching tacos and washing them down with cases and cases of cerveza.
I found a likely-looking table, in front of a kitchen that featured delicious looking tacos, and joined in. Six tacos and two cervezas later, a blushing little girl announced that my total bill was diez y ocho pesos. Eighteen pesos! A little over two dollars! A mariachi group, imported all the way from Guadalajara struck a few chords, and then ringing notes of half a dozen trumpets was carried on soft ocean breezes through the palm trees and into the night. The mayor was quite correct, I decided. The mariachi band was one of the most talented that I have ever heard.
When the singer took off his sombrero and got down on one knee to emphasize the anguish in the song La Que Se Fue, I stood transfixed. When the song ended, I guess all of the other fiesta participants felt the same way. Sombreros sailed into the air, and a chorus of whistles and cheers rent the warm evening air.
The next morning I got together with three fellow Americans who were also staying at the Hotel. We agreed that it would be a wise idea to fan out and search for a cafe that would accidentally happen to be open early in the morning after a big fiesta. The badly hung-over owner of the hotel had reclused herself, and I still had no idea of the cost of my room, even though it was now my second day. Were paying fifty pesos one couple offered, but we have two children and three beds. Bernard, a hip solo traveller from New York City, had also teamed up with us to find a functioning palapa restaurant right on the beach.
We ended up sitting under the edge of a palm frond roof, with the beach sand as a floor. A thirteen year old girl took our order after reciting the menu from memory. I ordered a simple huevos rancheros, con jugo de naranja. Bernard, ordered the same, except at the end he asked for cafe con leche. I stared at him in surprise.
Uh Bernard I offered Have you ever ordered a cafe con leche in this place? He responded with an answer in the negative. Umm, I advised. You may end up with something quite different than what you intended. Before he could respond to my veiled warning, the sound of a bicycle clattering over stones caught out attention. The thirteen-year-old was headed down the street with a shopping bag draped across the handle bars. No doubt our breakfast shall be utterly fresh, I quipped. I hope that youre not in a hurry. Bernard grinned and stretched. No one could possibly get in a hurry in such tropical surroundings.
We watched an endless procession of waves break twenty feet away and admired the fishing talents of diving brown pelicans, that always seemed to come up with a fish. A short while later, Bernards cafe con leche arrived -- a big mug of boiling milk, accompanied by a jar of Nescafe and a teaspoon. His surprise was soon replaced by laughter; good sport that he was, he drank the concoction, while I chuckled at this old-fashioned (and completely satisfying) error.
Thirty minutes later our breakfasts arrived, and the fish were indeed fresh! The orange juice was still warm from the exprimador and the eggs had those delicious deep yellow yolks that I never get to see in the states. When we asked for la cuenta, the waitress/delivery-person/cashier counted it all up on her fingers and announced the total bill was only thirty-five pesos.
Life in the village soon found me in a routine. Id leave after breakfast and explore nearby lagoons and beaches. Wildlife was profuse. I counted thirteen species of bird in one days walk and that was with an unaided eye. Local pangeros offered me small lobsters for about two dollars, or I could buy a whole fish for less than a dollar. Coconuts were so plentiful that no one ever thought about trying to sell them a couple of pesos offered to a young boy, would immediately lead to him scampering up a tree and hacking down a half-dozen coconuts. La puesta de sol (sunset), found me staring out to sea, waiting for the orange orb of the sun to take the final plunge beneath the line of the horizon. Just as the last speck of sun disappears, sometimes a green flash will appear momentarily. A fitting suffix for the end of such a wonderful day, I thought.
The presidential suite turned out to be a thirty peso per day bargain. Local fruit and vegetables were so cheap, that I ate for (literally) pennies on items purchased from local tiendas.
Zancudos (mosquitoes) were only a minor nuisance, after sundown. In an act of pure wisdom, I had brought along a small tincture of Pennyroyal Oil. Thanks to Lorenas suggestion to me a couple of years earlier, I was educated as to the worth of this natural alternative to DEET repellents. A couple of drops on each limb and head, well rubbed in, repelled the intruders with ease.
One week later, I caught a ride out of town with an affiable gringo family on their way to Manzanillo, to shop. A short taxi ride took me back to the airport, where I reluctantly boarded the jet that would swoop me back to.......
(These costs have been amended to reflect todays exchange rate.)
This averaged $239.40 pesos/day or more correctly $102 pesos/day minus busses and taxi. $102 pesos = $12.75 per day (or $382.50 per month US) for food and hotel room!
Several days, the food budget consisted of market forays and subsequent pigging-out on virtual feasts of melons, and mangoes, banana, and avocado sandwiches. I ate, literally, for pennies. My sea-food binges in Barra and twenty peso breakfasts in the village, made up the difference. Oh yeah! I almost forgot: I bought an entire cheesecake in the village for forty pesos and shared it with my gringo hotel neighbors. They were so grateful, they bought me a lobster dinner in a thatch roof beach restaurant.
Things I would have done differently: Brought a backpacker's stove and backpack, instead of carry-on bags. Brought fewer clothes, but one thermal underwear top for cool evenings.
Realization: I enjoy Mexico much more when I stop spending excessive amounts of money and focus my attention on the "Mexican way of doing things." Simple pleasures, such as exploring a beach or estuary, spotting birdsand wildlife, or attending a surprise fiesta, speak more loudly to me than the most raucous tourist activities in a nearby resort city or town.