Monday, October 18, 2010

Return to Puerto Vallarta

Bo and I left Los Alamos on Monday afternoon. A light rain was falling on the Jemez Mountains as we wound down the long canyon highway toward Santa Fe. By the time we reached the bottom of the hill at Pojoaque, the clouds had parted. My "Darth Vader" window tint has turned out to be a smart investment for the glaring desert sunlight. You can't see in, but I can see out. Like RayBans for the van.

We only made it as far as Lordsburg, NM, that first night. In the morning, we hit the road early, stopping only for a quick McDonald's breakfast (a burrito for me, a sausage McMuffin for Bo). By early afternoon, we were passing big yellow billboards beckoning us to see "The THING," a kitschy tourist trap on the outskirts of Tucson. As I closed in on Tucson proper, scenes with my ex-husband pricked the folds of memory, but receded quickly like footprints on beach sand, minus the old anguish. Tucson is just a place now.

My friends Liz and Jon Bailey welcomed me like family, which a girl without an address needs after so many hours alone in a car with just a dog and Pimsleur Spanish learning CD's for company.

That night I discovered an email from a company in Colo Spgs interested in me for a Creative Director position. I wrote back that I was on my way to Mexico, but would be happy to interview with them on Skype when I got to PV. They sounded eager to talk to me.

Car Larder

At Wal-Mart, I purchased a summer sausage and some canned nuts to stick under the front seat for potential bribes. I debated the purchase of a sexy black nylon console box for my dashboard, but realized the empty white cardboard box used to display craft paints was just as practical -- and free to boot. I'd nickeled and dimed myself to death on little gadgets for the van . . . hand sanitizer on a caribiner, CD sleeves for the visors, collapsible dog dishes, lanyards hung with padlock keys, police whistle, pepper spray and a portable panic alarm. There was a slim Igloo cooler that fit the narrow space between the bucket seats, and my "Jesus" club -- protection fashioned from a table leg, painted bright blue with JESUS in hot pink along the side. For good measure, I hammered round-headed upholstery tacks on the end. The club took the place of a 22" machete I originally purchased on the advice of my friend Lewis, who explained my security strategy this way:

"What you do is, you fold cardboard around the blade, with the seam on the blade side. Run cheap, brown plastic packing tape down the seam. Then when some bandito approaches you, keep the lanyard around your wrist and the blade at your side. When the guy cames at you, hit him with the back side of the blade first. If that doesn't stop him, hit him with the blade side and cut his arm off. The cops won't arrest you for were just teachin' him a lesson."

Of course, in theory, I adored the idea of cutting some would-be rapist's arm off should I get into a tight spot (it would certainly make for great book chapter). But in the end, I thought better of having a lethal weapon that some bloodthirsty Mexican thug could just as easily use on me. I returned the machete to Home Depot in exchange for the table leg. (Somehow, it seemed more benign being bludgeoned to death than hacked to pieces -- go figure.)

Dubrovnik, Here I Come

All the goo-gaws, dogbowls and talismans hanging from the rearview mirror and visor latches made the van feel like a gypsy wagon jangling with wares to sell to the townsfolk of some Latvian hill town. But perhaps the luckiest and most practical acquisition was a TomTom GPS device programmed with routes for the US and Mexico -- a gift from Sheila's physicist friend Hank.

On Sunday night, Liz, Jon and I watched "Avatar" on their flat screen TV. Monday morning, Liz loaded me up with breakfast bars and packets of beef jerky for the trip. After jigsawing a few last items onto the floor of the passenger side and arranging my mascots, Oxxo and Pemex, on a corner of the dash for good luck, Bo and I pulled away from the curb and headed for the border at Nogales. The van was packed as tightly as a Chinese puzzle box, riding low and slow. If I tried to shift one curtain rod, several items would landslide into the front seat. As I steered the Whale onto the Nogales highway, I gazed off to my left, where the sun's rays lanced a mottled ceiling of grey clouds and danced over the Catalina mountains, purple and breathtaking in the distance. By the time I eased onto the truck route heading for the border, the clouds had parted and el Sol was baking the desert.

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Badges

My first stop was the the customs station just the other side of the border. I didn't see the giant cement tope till I was almost on top of it. I tried to slow down, but too late, the undercarriage of the van slammed the speed bump with a seismic jolt. I tried to ease by in the "non-declare" lane, but it was a slow morning and three young so-called customs "inspectors" motioned me into the "declare" lane. I lifted the back hatch and immediately they spotted the dorm-size fridge and a corner of my flat screen TV. The head customs dweeb led me and Bo past a pile of contraband tires and into an office, handed me a piece of scrap paper and told me to make a list of the entire contents of my vehicle. I listed the TV, a radio, a laptop, the fridge, some art. He looked at my list and arbitrarily declared, "894 pesos" (about $70). Secretly I was relieved I didn't have to unpack the whole car.

With my tax paid, I was waved on. A few miles ahead I stopped again to register my vehicle. That process took another hour and another $70 charged to my credit card. A few more miles ahead, another customs inspector pulled me over into a weigh station. I showed the female federale my papers and she, too, waved me on. The border drama was over. It was almost 2 pm.

Night #1, San Carlos

The sun was setting on the Baja as I veered right, away from Guaymas and into the Yankee-fied resort town of San Carlos. San Carlos can best be described as Mexico "light," with beach bars, pool float vendors and billboards in English advertising ReMax, Best Western and Subway.

The main drag was largely deserted. October in the Baja is oppressively humid, with a hot breeze blowing off the Sea of Cortez giving no relief. I stopped at the the renovated Fiesta Real Hotel where I stayed last year. The place was completely empty, but the girl at the reception desk refused to negotiate on the $65 room. I knew from last year's stay that the a/c barely worked and there was no TV. The Best Western was also a ghost town, but the price of a room was just as outrageous and they wouldn't take Bo. I finally settled on the threadbare, but moderately clean Creston Motel. No view, but dog friendly, with working a/c and telecable. The pool looked inviting, but by the time I lugged in coolers, cpap machine, dogfood and laptops, I was spent. It was nearly dark when I took Bo for his evening constitution past some new construction to the beach. He pooped on the rocks, but the loud waves and strange surroundings made him skittish. We trudged back to the room and I barely had energy to watch Dr. Phil on the American Network and nibble on some jerky before dropping off with the TV still flickering -- my gringa nightlight.

Day #2, La Celestina Gasca

In the morning, I packed up the car and waited for the Banamex to open so I could buy pesos. Swarms of gnats attacked the minute I opened the car door. Bo hovered by the bank's plate glass window as I waited in line for a teller.

It was almost 11 a.m. when we finally drove out of San Carlos and picked up the toll highway on the other side of Guaymas. This was the travel day I dreaded most. From San Carlos on, Mexico feels like the dark side of the moon. No comforting reminders of America. No cellphone signal. As I threaded the van through the comparatively manicured streets of Navajoa, I saw a man carrying a filthy mattress on his back in the rain. The stuff we throw in the dumpster in the US, people here re-sell at the local bazaar. Bedbugs are just a way of life in Mexico.

I remember last year's marathon second day on the road, wending my way to the far side of industrialized Guaymas, past the ragged fish shacks, potholes and polluted coastal waters, on to the ugly, smelly city of Obregon, and the long, endless stretches of toll road -- breaking my rule about stopping while it was still daylight. At that time, I stopped for the night in Culiacan, a seedy, depressing city controlled by drug cartels. Despite its alliterative, poetic name, Culiacan is a muggy, homely toad of a town squatting on a matted, grassy plain nowhere in sight of the ocean. The air is thick with the humidity of the tropics, but none of the beauty. A month after I first passed through, federales found the severed heads of two women in a cooler in the back of a pickup truck parked along the highway -- a gruesome message for someone in that hideous Sinaloa turf war. I didn't know at the time that the white sand and blue Pacific ocean were only an hour away as we headed south toward Mazatlan.


I was determined not to stop in Culiacan this year, but the sun was setting and there was a scary development with my vehicle. Twice as I pulled up to tollbooths, the car just stopped -- no brakes, no steering. It started up again, but I noticed the engine light had come on. I was halfway between Culiacan and Mazatlan.

The tollroads are dotted with S.O.S phones. Theoretically, if you have car trouble, you can pull over and summon help. The Green Angels -- mechanics in Volkswagen Beetles, equipped to fix your car and send you on your way -- supposedly appear from nowhere like little gremlin superheroes. When the engine light came on, I pulled over at one of the phones and pushed the button, according to the instructions in English and Spanish. "Bueno," I said into the grilled speaker phone. No response. "BUENO!" I said louder. Nada. The phone was dead. Apparently, thieves had taken the battery. I have since learned that most of the S.O.S. phones are broken, as useful as prop phones on a movie set.

I climbed back in the van and limped along for another 20 miles, watching the engine light. I finally made it to a Pemex gas station, where a police car was parked, occupied by two federales. It was about 6 p.m. The men took a peek under the hood, repeating in Spanish that my "bomba" might be bad. But despite the engine light, it appeared the engine wasn't hot. I told him I wanted to make it to La Cruz. He said, maybe two hours and that it would still be light when I got there.

It was dusk when I drove past the exit for Culiacan. Right at the turn-off for Mazatlan, the car had a complete power failure. I was able to steer into the narrow crook in the road where the road branches off to the Pacific coastal highway. I started the car up again and kept driving. Within half an hour, the sun had dropped like a stone. In another 10 minutes, it was pitch black. No street lights. No shoulder to pull off on. Just my high beams fanning the pavement, sniffing for any sign of civilization.

Around 9:30 p.m. the sign for La Cruz materialized like an apparition floating up from the depths of a Scottish loch. I pulled off and drove a few hundred yards down a blacktop road to a Pemex station. I bought some gas and a fuel additive, and the boy at the pump told me to get back on the highway and count the bridges to La Celestina Gasca; I knew there was a lovely little motel there, my safe haven for the night. At the fourth bridge, I should make a hard right. But I was so tired by then that I was becoming disoriented. I made a wrong turn from the gas station and ended up on a windy back road to nowhere. Fortunately, the GPS helped me get back on the tollroad. I was beginning to look forward to the computerized woman's voice telling me without passion or judgment, "Make a U-turn as soon as possible." Thank you, Bonnie, I most certainly will.

I started to count the bridges one by one. At the fourth bridge, there would be a dogleg to the right. The motel would be there in the hollow. I counted each bridge as it loomed out of the darkness, but somehow I miscounted. I MISSED THE TURN. I would have to drive 23 miles further down the road to catch the retorno BACK to La Celestina Gasca.

By this time, I was praying out loud. "God, I need an angel. Please send me an angel." A voice whispered somewhere in my gelatinized brain, "I will send you an angel when you need one." 46 miles later, I made the correct turn onto the dirt road leading to La Celestina Gasca. It was after 10:30 p.m. I was literally vibrating with fatigue when I stepped out of the car. The girl at the desk took my 280 pesos, swept the crickets out of room #13 and turned the a/c on high. Bo rolled in the lush, dewy grass of the courtyard. On my last luggage-hauling trip back to the room, I kicked a toad away from the doorjam and unlocked the door -- only it wasn't my room. A man yelled at me from the bed and I called out "Lo siento!" -- slamming the door. I whisked by the tableau of praying mantises and geckos congregated on the walls under a coach light, and scurried into my room. Apparently all the rooms at La Celestina had the same key. I pushed a chair up to my doorknob, took a cold shower and climbed into a bed with fresh sheets and a new mattress. Thank God. Dreaded Day #2 was over.

Day #3, Guayabito

I slept late the next morning. The little motel at La Celestina Gasca is an oasis on the edge of the tiny beach hamlet of La Cruz, about 50 mi. north of Mazatlan. It holds special magic for me, because it was the place where Bo first discovered the ocean in 2009 -- and none too soon, after that first miserable night in Culiacan. Bo was so traumatized by the trip at that point, he'd slept on a wet towel on the marble bathroom floor of the Zar Motel. Gazing upon my poor, panting dog, I asked God and my own conscience, "What have I done to my dog?"

When I first glimpsed the ribbon of white sand and blue ocean a mile off to the right in 2009, the residual pall of the night in Culiacan immediately lifted. The sky had turned a bright, beachy azul. I began to watch for a road that would take me to the water. The tiny fishing village of La Celestina Gasca appeared and I turned onto a dirt road that led past the motel, to a magnificent stretch of public beach. Bo and I walked up and down the beach playing tag with the waves. Bo's torpor turned into canine exhilaration as he romped and rolled in the sand. On that day a year ago, Bo and I had stopped at a small tienda where a mother and daughter sold snack foods to mostly Canadian tourists. I took their picture and the woman let me use the toilet in her house, just behind the store. I promised to send them the photo. But I lost the scrap of cardboard with the daughter's email address.

This year, before I left the states, I had four large prints of the photo made. This morning in 2010, I guided the Whale over the bumpy dirt road to the tienda. The mother and daughter were there. They were thrilled with the set of photos. But I told the woman, Sara, that I was scared. I'd had car trouble. And the tears started to flow. We have Jesus, she said. We don't have to be scared. He is with us. Then she and her daughter insisted that they take me to a mechanic in town who could fix my car. It was already nearly noon. I followed their dust-covered, dinged-up Toyota Corolla into town, gingerly guiding the van over rutted streets and potholes the size of kiddie wading pools, to a mechanic working in a small garage.

There was an hour wait, but we passed the time practicing language detente and munching on Wal-Mart trail mix. Once the mechanic got to it, the work went quickly. Sara invited me to spend a night at her mother's house to rest. I politely declined, telling her I really had to get to Vallarta in time to review a theater performance for Banderas News on Thursday. The mechanic replaced the air filter, charged me a whopping 490 pesos(maybe $45). He took me on a quick test drive, and I was back on the road before 3 p.m. God sent me not one, but THREE angels -- exactly when I needed them.

An hour later, I drove through chaotic, dusty Mazatlan, including a nasty stretch of gravelly, pitted road with air thick enough to choke on. Eventually, the city gave way to jungle-covered mountains, broad expanses of lakes and wetlands, with few signs of human habitation. At Tepic, I exited the tollroad onto Mex 200, the serpentine two-lane mountain highway that eventually threads into Puerto Vallarta. But it was slow-gowing, with giant semi trucks downshifting all the way. It was dark when I got to Guayabito, another charming beach town. I spent the night at La Mision Hotel, crossing the street to eat a wonderful meal of coconut shrimp at La Pina Loca Restaurant. After a quick dip in the pool, and a shower, Bo and I crashed. I didn't even holler when a palmetto bug crawled out from under my foot in the shower.

Day #4, Puerto Vallarta

After a walk on the beach and a full Mexican breakfast, Bo and I drove the rest of the way into Puerto Vallarta, arriving around 2 p.m. at Gloria's Hotel. I checked in with Gloria, then drove the van over to my new apt. in Colonia Emiliano Zapata. Unexpectedly, Eva the landlady's half-dozen children all pitched in to help unload the van. afterward, I took the three youngest to the McDonald's on the malecon for icecream cones, then headed back to Gloria's to get dressed for dinner and the "Get Back" Beatles tribute show at Teatro Vallarta; a review was due the next day. On Friday, I wrote my review and interviewed on Skype for the Creative Director job in Colorado Springs. When the young V.P. asked me the quintessential cliche interview question, "Where do you want to be in five years?" I answered appropriately.

But honestly, the life I'm living now doesn't jibe with five year plans. I am so immersed in the present moment, I have no idea where I'll be or what I will be doing in five years. I could be hit by one of PV's diesel-spewing busses tomorrow. The only thing I know is, and all any of us can know is, as my friend Margaret first uttered the phrase a decade ago...more will be revealed. I'm learning to live comfortably with mystery. How about you?

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