Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Sick (and sooky) in paradise

The morning of our much-awaited wedding anniversary trip to the beach, I almost don’t make it out of bed. I’m in the second stages of a Very Bad Cold, and I don’t so much awaken from a night’s sleep as surface to consciousness for the millionth time since I went to bed. My nose is both blocked and streaming, my throat feels like sandpaper, my head aches and my ears are thick with fluid.

‘Do you want to go?’ asks The Husband, once his screaming air-raid siren of an alarm is switched off. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to go tomorrow?’
‘I’m sure.’
There is no way I’m having one less day at the beach, no matter how much I’d love to stay in bed.

I drag myself in and out of the shower. No time or energy to wash my hair – which I will later regret, because I’ve forgotten to pack shampoo and conditioner. Clothes thrown on, hat and sunglasses donned, enormous knapsack with laptop, 700 page book and notebook shouldered – and we’re out the door. Every part of me labours under the twin strains of the bag and the very act of walking. I sneeze and blow my nose into scraps of toilet paper as we walk to nearby Plaza del Sol and the bus stop for our ride to the terminal.

Ten minutes later, just as I’m starting to whinge, we’re at the appointed spot by the side of the road. The Husband flags down the approaching bus, which lurches to a halt long enough for us to clamber aboard, then continues its hurtling journey along the neat bitumen roads of Guadalajara. I squint into darkness, through my sunglasses, past the broad brim of my hat, and try to shove my ten pesos at the moustachioed driver, who steadfastly ignores me until the first stomach-churning stop, when I am thrown backwards.

The Husband, more street-smart than me (as ever) is waiting at the back of the bus. I notice as I sit down that the windows are tinted nearly black, explaining my blindness.
‘The drivers on this line are crazy’ says The Husband. ‘Lots of people are killed on these buses each year.’
I am strangely comforted by his qualifier. The bus is packed with passengers, even though it’s 7.30am on a Saturday. Maybe these are weekday city workers going home to their rural families?

The air at the bus terminal is choked with fumes, much more so than our temporary home in Chapalita. The clear blue sky is crisscrossed with dappled rays of light, illuminating the haze that blankets the crisp air. This is pollution, not moisture.

The terminal itself is airport-glossy, all smooth tiled floors and mall-style souvenir shops. The pay toilets, however, remind me that we’re in the third world, with their ubiquitous bins for toilet paper and signs about not flushing, accompanied by the unmistakable stink of shit.

After a side-trip to an adjacent hotel for a buffet breakfast, it’s time to board the bus. We’re handed small plastic bags of food as we hand over our tickets, dispensed by a uniformed woman behind a plastic cart, arranged with a selection of drinks – bottled water, lemonade, Coke. I choose water. Once on the bus, cushioned in our generous seats, we look through the bags and find a ham sandwich and packaged biscuits in each one. Not bad for a 250 peso bus trip (around $US25). We roll out of the bus terminal, passing rows and rows of empty buses on the way.
‘The hard part is over’ I say to The Husband. ‘We’re nearly there.’

Five hours later, we arrive in San Patricio Melaque, both of us sick and exhausted from the long effort not to vomit. I’d been excited by the opportunity to finally visit the mountains that form the backdrop to Guadalajra, but hadn’t imagined that the winding mountain roads would make me so ill.

The scenery is breathtaking. Fields of corn, wheat and agave (the plant that tequila is made from), mountainsides covered with squat, hardy bushes, tall, finger-like cacti, picturesque ruins and crumbling, brightly painted rural shacks. Dirt roads barely carved out of the landscape, lined with huts beneath thatched-palm rooves. The occasional sprawling adobe farmhouse among the cornfields. Children bouncing on a trampoline amidst the cactus. Mustachioed, leathery men in white cowboy hats and jeans, Mexicans dressed in the garb of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

Every tiny town, every clump of dusty houses, supports a tacqueria selling beer and street vendors selling vegetables and snacks. In some towns, tractors and utes chug along the road, young men standing in the back in groups or sitting atop piles of produce. Bus shelters with buckled corrugated iron rooves sit lonely by the roadside. Everywhere, all along the journey, small fires crackle in the fields; sometimes visible by flame, mostly only by billowing columns of smoke. Once, I feel a quick flash of heat on my left side and glance down to see orange flames teasing the side of the bus, inexplicably leaping from the roadside.

‘We’re here!’
I’ve nodded off, briefly nausea-free, when The Husband wakes me for our stop. I grab my hat from the overhead locker and spill hurriedly into the street, my sandals scuffling in the dust. I have landed beside a row of taco vendors beneath a blue plastic Pepsi shelter. At the end of the street, a line of dark little stores, brightly hung with inflatable crocodiles, fluorescent floatie rings, floral boardshorts and fish-strewn beach towels. To the far left, the mountains. Across the road, a tired-looking bus office. I expected to be greeted by the water, but so far the shops are the only sign that we have reached our beachside destination.

Heavy bags aloft, we trail listlessly past the row of mostly identical shops, interspersed with hotels and bungalows, Lonely Planet guidebook in hand. Glimpses of pools or poolside furniture tempt me. At the end of the road, we turn right towards the water and enter our first choice of accommodation, a complex of bungalows boasting an outdoor pool and a beachfront terrace. A squat, withered old man speaking broken English in response to The Husband’s broken Spanish shows us to the bungalow we MIGHT be able to get, if the scheduled guests don’t arrive to claim it soon.

We enter into a cupboard-sized kitchen area and stand looking at two worn double beds and a built-in wardrobe below a peeling ceiling fan. My heart sinks. In my fantasy for this trip, we find picturesque decay (or luxury, of course), not a seventies-era motel room. I don’t know why I was expecting that.
‘Where’s the pool?’ I ask, and The Husband translates into Spanish. Our guide emits a big belly laugh and shakes his head.
‘What do I need a pool for, when I got this?’ he gestures at the thatched-palm roof of the terrace, where deeply tanned bathers are gazing relaxedly on a glittering expanse of ocean, rocky islands carpeted in bush on the near horizon. Sailing boats bob in the far distance. It is, I have to admit, spectacular. Steps lead from the terrace onto the sand.
‘This is pretty good’ mutters The Husband.
‘I don’t know’ I pout. ‘The Lonely Planet said there was a pool. Not that it matters, I guess. And every other bungalow has a private terrace, but ours doesn’t.’
Our guide is calling the owner on his mobile to check if the room is available. I stand alone in the bungalow, frowning up at the black mould behind the ceiling fan. The man reappears, downcast. It seems that the booked guests are coming after all. The Husband is disappointed; I am secretly pleased.

We drag our feet back in the direction we came, the blue sky and hot sun savage overhead. I sniffle and sneeze as we go. We stop at another Lonely Planet listing, a hotel boasting ‘one of the best outdoor pools in the neighbourhood’. I can tell The Husband wants to please me, or at least to remove my scowl. The pool, an oblong of shining aqua in a tiled recess behind a dim bar room, is visible from the street. We follow the hotel clerk up stairways and along balconies, until finally we reach the proposed room. As badly decorated at the first, though slightly less shabby, it boasts multiple double beds, a cupboard and an okay bathroom. None of the seclusion of option one.
‘How much?’ asks The Husband.
‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know?’
‘I’d have to ask the owner.’
After much prodding, the clerk finally suggests 1000 pesos a night (equivalent US$100). The last place was 28 pesos a night.
‘Usually five people would stay in this room’ he explains, in slightly accusing tones. It’s a long and grumpy walk back to the street.

‘Where next?’ asks The Husband.
‘Let’s just go where your friends stayed.’ I am past caring. In my eyes, this trip is already somewhat ruined. This dusty strip of souvenir shops is not my idea of a romantic holiday.

We end up at the furthest hotel from the bus station, and the main drag (at least, the furthest listed in the Lonely Planet). It’s not on the beachfront, which doesn’t please me. Lobsterlike North American retirees spilling out of their bathing suits parade around the lobby and up and down the stairs, shouting to each other. The place is cheerful and clean though, fitted out in white and nautical blue, with plastic chairs and tables arranged invitingly along the balconies. Beach towels hang from the railings. I glimpse the ocean. We take the room.

The Husband and I lie on the double beds, side by side. We are each sprawled across our own bed, beneath matching painted headboards featuring lighthouses and seagulls. I blow my nose several times and try to ignore my now hopelessly blocked ears, made worse by the journey through high altitudes.

After ten minutes or so, we emerge in our bathers and shorts (actually, The Husband has brought no bathers to Mexico, so he’ll swim in his cut-off cargos) and head for the water. The beach is only a few steps away. I’m already feeling much better about things; more so when we hit the sand. The waves literally glitter in the sun, and gold flecks in the sand sparkle beneath our feet when we near the water. It looks like the fools’ gold I used to dig for in the playground as a kid. Restaurants with the ubiquitous palm-fringed rooves line the sand, set above the beach with steps leading down to tables topped with multi-coloured umbrellas. The mountains we have recently left are on the right; the left coast of the beach stretches to a far away ending: the twin resort town of Barra de Navidad, five kilometres away. The islands visible from the other end of the beach loom larger here, and the small boats are almost close enough to swim to. (In fact, we do see someone to swim to one.) More motorboats are lined up on the sand nearby.

We walk along the beach, past the vast ruins of the Casa de Grande, a hotel demolished by tidal waves resulting from an earthquake in 1995. We pass a row of beachfront restaurants and hotels and climb the hill past our original bungalows back to town. I now agree with The Husband that they were a good deal, and winsomely recall the beachfront terrace.
‘Will one be free tomorrow, perhaps?’ we ask the caretaker, who stands sentry at the gate, where he greets us as we pass.
‘Sure, sure’ he says. ‘I’m waiting for the owner to come now about the other place. He should be here.’
‘That’s a pity. So, we’ll come in the morning?’
‘Sure. Come at 9.’
I look at The Husband and shake my head.
‘Can we come at 12? We want to sleep in the morning.’
‘The owner should be here.’ He is distracted and not really listening. We say goodbye and move on to the main street, as he mumbles that he will see us at 9 tomorrow.

Back at the souvenir shops, free to browse now we’re not weighed down by our bags, we realise we need beach towels before we can swim. We find several Barbie and Disney Princess towels embroidered with ‘Melaque’, then eventually find plain coloured towels and marine designs. The woman who runs the shop eagerly pulls them down one by one and unfolds them for our viewing pleasure. I am horrified by one, which depicts a blue sea swarming with sharks. Like the others, it proudly bears the name ‘Melaque’. I choose fish instead.
‘Do you think there are sharks here?’ I whisper. The Husband laughs in response.

It is late when we finally swim, but worth it. I swim with my sunglasses on – partly because I was neck-deep in water before I remembered, partly because I need to keep my throbbing ear above water.

We eat at the nearest beachside restaurant, La Sirena. Its logo is Ariel the mermaid – the Disney character. Disney, Coke, Pepsi: all ever-present in Mexico. The Husband has steak, salad and rice with tortillas; I eat ceviche (diced fish with salsa). It’s good, but not great.

Back to the hotel to change. I lie in bed after a lukewarm shower, staring at the television, too exhausted to move. The Husband watches soccer beside me. I would stay here all night, nursing my cold and my ear and sleeping, but The Husband is keen to see the plaza, which his friends have told him ‘comes alive at night’. I should tell him how I’m feeling, but don’t.

In town, the shops are still open, children sitting in the footpath playing under the eye of their parents, babies sleeping in bassinets among racks of clothing. Now I can hardly hear from my right ear, and it’s throwing me off balance. I stumble from gutters and miss stairs on my way up or down. I beg The Husband to take me to a pharmacy to get something to fix it. Of course, most of the farmacias here, as in the US, are also supermarkets. Most of them stock more in the way of ice cream and groceries than medicines. Finally, we find a farmacia with a wall of medicines and The Husband explains what we want, in Spanish. It takes a while, and a willingness to persist on the part of the kindly pharmacist, but eventually he produces ear drops.

Plaza at night: photo by The Husband

We eat at a bar overlooking the plaza, its balcony garlanded with fairy lights. The Husband photographs the plaza below while I take my ear drops into the bathroom and shut the propped-open door behind me. When I return to the table, I drink my Sangria with my head tilted at right angles. On the street, the plaza is illuminated with lights, particularly the dolphin fountain at the centre. Families, couples and gangs of children congregate in groups; talking, laughing and eating. Taco stands have sprung up. A green-haired clown wanders the crowd. A small girl fondles a balloon animal. I go back to the bathroom to prod at my stubborn ear (now whistling like a seashell), falling off a step as I go. The bar staff must think I’m on drugs.

Small girl in plaza: photo by The Husband

At the hotel, as we climb the stairs to our room, we pass a white-haired, brown-skinned couple huddled on the stairs of the laundry room, giggling over open beer bottles like teenagers. Directly outside our window, a gaggle of similarly bronzed and leathered retirees are whooping it up at one of the tables. Their booming conversation is impossible to ignore as we try to sleep. Soon, we find ourselves hooked on listening, as someone called Fred regales a Doris and her husband about his yachting adventures in ‘Oss-straylia’ and New Zealand.
‘Ohhhh, it’s my DREAM to go to Osstraylia’ squeals Doris.
‘It’s wonderful, but I really loved New Zealand. You can go deer shooting there. They got too many of them. Killing the motorists.’
‘It’s the same in Canada. Moose kill more motorists than ANY OTHER CAUSE.’
When it’s finally time to part company, Fred asks the couple for their names again.
‘I always forget names’ he bellows.
‘Oh, it’s impossible to remember everyone in a place like this. Still, we’ll see you tomorrow, I guess.’
‘When you’re a MUSICIAN, you forget everyone. But they all remember you. They come up and talk to you and you think “who are YOU?” It’s just terrible.’

We almost miss them after they’ve retreated to their rooms. But not quite.


ThirdCat said...

'The Lonely Planet said there was a pool'. Heh. And there should be a restaurant around about here...

You know these posts are just so evocative for me. I keep coming back to read them over and over. I even checked out flights to Mexico the other night! I'm going to make sure my partner reads this one tonight.

Ariel said...

So it´s not the Traveller´s Bible after all ...

What a very nice thing to say, and to hear. Yes, I definitely recommend coastal Mexico wholeheartedly. Guadalajara, too, but I´m a sucker for the coast. I could retire in Melaque.

Markitos said...

Great post !! Thanks so much.
It's fun getting to town feeling lost like a little puppy lookiing for a bowl of water. The ole lonely planet as helped us out a number of times. However Mexico is never as it appears. Thanks again great reading M

redcap said...

Ah, what a pretty spot. I hope the cold gets better soon.

It's amazing how many people say, "Oh, it's my dream to go to Australia." You're in what looks to you like the most beautiful place in the world and they want to be somewhere else.