The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Posts from — November 2010

The Marietas

The days are going too fast, but that’s probably a good thing, since our money’s running out. Any activity designed for tourists (eating out, renting boards, booking an adventure) is only slightly less expensive than it is in the States. Street food, groceries, and most other commodities are much more reasonable.

Today the five of us booked a tour to the Marieta Islands, two flat, rocky islands sitting across from one another in the sea like the Monitor and Merrimac ready to fire cannons. Alas, the islands have hardly any life left in them (which is why the Mexican government probably protects them) but make for great snorkling adventures. My favorite spot (Playa de Amor) was a small beach that could only be reached through an arch that almost touched the waves. You had to sneak through.

There really wasn’t much to see in the water, so I ditched my snorkling gear, except for the fins, and swam for what seemed like hours, though it was only about 20 or 30 minutes. We saw whales and dophins, gulls of various descriptions, and other birds of prey. Our guide, Chewy, who had lived in the United States but didn’t like it, was informative but annoying. Like everyone else here, he gave us the hard sell at intervals for other adventures. His favorite saying was “It’s Mexico, there are no rules.” His motorman, Gabriel, was much more interesting, since he only spoke Spanish and was a trove of information.

It was the first time I’ve been in the ocean in Sayulita, and with the salt water boaying me up, studying the rocks for crabs, seeing fish swim beneath my feet, watching the cormorants circle above, I felt truly part of the place.

November 24, 2010   Comments Off on The Marietas

Ms. Hempel Chronicles

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum has written a lovely second novel about the life and loves of Ms. Hempel, an seventh grade teacher in an American junior high school. The narrator is wordy and descriptive, but perfectly nuanced, using language precisely and evocatively, like a brilliant student writing her first novel for her mentor in an MFA program. The quality of the writing pulls us in and we find ourselves desperately caring about this young woman whose life has been both cut short and enriched by her experiences as a teacher. Her heroine is a modern Miss Brill, updated for the present, without the loneliness and infinite regret of the teacher of another age. In short, Bynum’s novel is utterly charming.

November 24, 2010   Comments Off on Ms. Hempel Chronicles

Even in Death

It is still dark. A light rain falls. The cocks have been crowing for about an hour. The compound is quiet except for birds screeching nearby. It is still too early for the trucks to rumble by or for the construction workers to shape their cement structures. The ocean rumbles in the distance. I have a few bites on my legs. One always does. It is useless to resist. It is Mexico.

Even in death, there are two classes here, the rich and the poor. Most people accept it as the normal state of affairs. It is how it has always been and will always be. Few people expect it to be otherwise. The periods in which the middle classes burgeon in history are few and far between.

Although we have a long history of egalitarianism in the United States, marked by periods when the robber barons and upper classes ruled supreme, we do not easily accept tyranny. But this has changed. Leave it to the powers that be to subvert even these values and misdirect the disaffected into voting against their own interests. It is natural, though, and to be expected. The only constant in life is that the rich get richer and poor get poorer by any means possible, fair or foul.

November 24, 2010   Comments Off on Even in Death

What Is It about This Place?

Various vendors drive though the city selling canisters of natural gas and other commodities from trucks. They announce their presence with recorded messages which blare over the speakers on the cabs that can be heard for hundreds of yards. These are the only vendors in town who ignore tourists.

There are a number of North Americans and Europeans who live here semi-permanently, leaving (if they can) only during the hottest part of the summer. In their faded clothes, weathered faces, and long, shaggy hair, many of them are like 60’s hippies. Something about the climate or culture appeals to them in a fundamental way. Some are barely getting by, earning two dollars an hour as greeters and servers at the local restaurants. They live in an alternative reality. Here is better than there, wherever there is.

I often think of Graham Greene in Veracruz or the horrible, masterful drunk in Under the Volcano or James Taylor’s song, “Mexico.” Even after a few days, Mexico works on your mind. Whether it’s the ocean, the tropical climate, or the relentless sun, everything is slowly stripped away until one’s core is laid bare.

November 23, 2010   Comments Off on What Is It about This Place?

300

The crosshatched patterns
Left by the retreating waves
Are ancient and new.

November 23, 2010   Comments Off on 300

School Days

Opposite our compound is a primary school in a large enclosed lot. The kids and parents arrive around 8:00 a.m., talking with one another and milling around the grounds, until the principal with his microphone instructs the kids to line up by grade. This is the signal for the parents to retreat, which they do in a slow and graceful way, and for the custodian to padlock the gates. The principal’s amplified voice shapes the herd of kids into neat lines and gets them marching in place (the younger ones at least), and when he is satisfied with the result, instructs them to file to their classrooms, without running, starting with the first graders and ending with the sixth. It is only then that the last of the parents drift away, catching one last wistful glimpse of their precious children.

November 23, 2010   Comments Off on School Days

An Honest Hombre

Yesterday on the beach my son stepped on a sharpened piece of rebar buried in the sand and cut his foot. We borrowed hydrogen paroxide from the manager of the compound, but needed more, so we walked to Sayulita this afternoon. We also needed groceries.

Our first stop was a carniceria where we purchased meat for carne asada. We bought 75 pesos worth and I handed the clerk a 200 peso bill. He gave me change for 100. I told him I had given him a 200 and he pulled a 100 peso bill from the till and said this was the one I had given him. I insisted, and he finally handed me the 100 he was going to keep to fatten his salary. Oddly, it didn’t bother me. It seemed natural somehow.

Next we stopped at the farmacia. There was a sign in the door saying it was closed for 15 minutes, so my son checked out the break while I waited for the shop to open. Sooner than expected, the clerk opened and I bought a small bottle of peroxide and bandaids. Then I headed toward the beach to find my son. While I stood at the top of the street looking for him, a vendor accosted me. First, he showed me a folding container full of jewelry, then a small glass pipe, and finally said he would sell me the stuff that went inside at a very good price. I told him I was tempted but not interested. Not finding my son, I went back to the drug store and found him buying stuff for his foot. The clerk was the first to laugh and comment. He had picked out exactly the two items I had chosen.

Finally, we went to one of the markets and selected a large assortment of vegetables. It made the owner nervous that I stood around doing nothing while my son picked out items. He asked if we were together. I replied—with what I thought was an obvious smirk—that my son was distracting him while I robbed the place. The owner’s chin immediately hardened and, pulling two knives from under the scale, said no one robbed him. “Want to see the large knife?” he asked. I said yes and he turned around and unstrapped a knife long enough to kill a bear. Not able to help myself, I asked, “Donde es la pistola?” wondering whether “pistola” was the correct word in Spanish, and his eyes immediately shifted sharply to the left. He didn’t pull the gun—he couldn’t—but there was no doubt he had one.

I liked this guy, I decided. He was an honest hombre. You knew what to expect from him.

November 23, 2010   Comments Off on An Honest Hombre

Macho Man

In the afternoon the beach was one long promenade of men in trunks and women in bikinis, chatting, swimming, sitting on lawnchairs in the beachfront restaurants, exercising, and surfing. It was Sunday and everyone was out, I among them, sitting on the sloping shore with my legs crossed, watching my son catch the waves. It was meditative. The surf is hypnotic, especially in those magical moments when the undertow sucks every last drop of water from the sand. It takes your thoughts as well.

Perhaps I was too still and unmoving, for, suddenly, a 30-something guy, small and wiry, began doing headstands a few feet from me, and then a series of flying karate kicks. He seemed to want to take my head off. Soon he forced his older male pit bull on its back and invited his pup to attack it. He egged it on. They kept getting closer and closer. I ignored them, which only caused the man to renew his efforts. Such displays of manly virility must be admired.

Next, he took his surf board, kneeled on it like a panther, and paddled into the waves until he reached the most distant line of surfers. There he easily caught a wave that swelled higher than the others, and I watched as he rode flawlessly to shore, right onto the beach itself. Once there, he stood erectly and looked around, seeming to invite applause. There was none.

November 22, 2010   Comments Off on Macho Man

Fruit in the Market

November 22, 2010   Comments Off on Fruit in the Market

Buying a Pineapple

The weather is warm and humid, but not hot, with a mild breeze coming off the ocean. A woman came by with a container of tamales and another with rolls for breakfast. Tourism is essential to the economy, though there are as many Mexicans here on holiday as Americans. Life is hard for most Mexicans, though there is still a friendliness and gentle decency distinctly different from many Americans, who are normally competitive and calculating at all times. The drug culture seems not to have spread as far as this ocean paradise, though I did notice the police frisking four or five young guys at the beach yesterday. Like the other parts of Mexico I’ve visited, Sayulita is both beautiful and squalid at the same time. The trick, of course, is to accept it as it is, and not place one’s own cultural blueprint over it. The Americans we’ve met love coming here, many for decades. Perhaps as our host suggested yesterday, there is hope for us after all (though I doubt it).

This morning we walked along the beach to town, through the open air market (where I was sorely tempted by a packet of Cohibas), to the town square, and then to the edge of the arroyo, which recently flooded, wiping out the main bridge into town. Near the river we bought a pineapple from the best fruit and vegetable shop in town. The owner demanded that I take his picture, so I obliged (I left him in the shade, though).

November 21, 2010   Comments Off on Buying a Pineapple