The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Pepino de Mar

We hired a cab to transport us to a special beach south of town called La Lancia. The waves are supposed to be better there. Our cabbie said he would take us, go home (which was only a couple of kilometers away), have lunch with his family, and then come back to pick us up. It was a gorgeous spot. About a mile of pure sand beach across the bay from the gigantic Four Seasons Resort. Unfortunately, we were a bit too early for the good waves but, as a consequence, had the place mostly to ourselves.

There were two men with large plastic buckets sitting near the end of the trail in the shade. A few surfers waited on their boards for waves. Pelicans flew in formation over the water and dove now and then for fish which they ate in large gulps. Two sailboats floated in the distance and directly in front of us the Marietas sat in the middle of the sea.

Then I noticed something in the water I couldn’t quite make out. It looked like a swimmer but that didn’t make much sense. Who would swim 100 yards from shore parallel to the beach? Whoever it was had fins and something trailing behind him tethered to a float. The mystery resolved itself half an hour later. A man in a short wetsuit, mask, and very long snorkle emerged from the sea with a net filled with something. The men we had seen earlier quickly approached and held out their buckets while the swimmer placed small objects inside.

Of course, I had to know what it was, so I went over and asked if they were fish. They all shook their heads no. Then what is it? I asked, and the snorkler dug into one of the buckets and pulled out an oblong spiny thing about the size of a sweet potato. “Pepino de mar,” he said, “brown sea cucumber.”

November 26, 2010   Comments Off on Pepino de Mar


I ran into a Canadian from Edmonton with a broken arm who runs the local bookstore. He asked if I wanted something. I stared into the basement space with cases of used books lining the walls and decided I didn’t. His hair had once been blond, I thought, and his face ruddy but it was pale now which is unusual for Mexico. He said he had a computer working if I wanted to access the Internet. The conversation seemed absurd—maybe it was my mood or the idea of making a living by selling used book in Sayulita—so I asked if “Crash and Burn” Airlines was still running between Calgary and Edmonton. What? he asked, and then said he spent six months here and six months in Canada. Business had been off sharply since the reports of the drug killings in Mexico. Last summer he had his housekeeper stay in his flat gratis because she took care of the place. The book shop only made $200 the whole summer. Life is hard in Mexico, I decided, even for some expatriates. Like our landlord, the owner of the book shop is barely getting by.

November 26, 2010   Comments Off on Librería

Pisos y Azulejos

November 26, 2010   Comments Off on Pisos y Azulejos

A Steve’s Adventure

Yesterday, for an adventure, we tried to get lost south of Sayulita on unknown roads but after a couple of miles found ourselves at a private beach, where no one spotted us because I was still holding my cup of coffee and we seemed like American tourists who belonged there, and then we clambered over rocks along the beach through another resort until we got to one of the seldom used beaches south of town, where we took a path between two barbed wire fences which climbed to the tops of the hills and then sharply downhill toward the ourskirts of Sayulita. In places it was like walking through jungle on dirt paths. Unfortunately, it didn’t qualify as a “Steve’s Adventure,” because we didn’t get lost, run out of water, or were forced to eat one another for food.

The truth is the coast of the Mexican Riviera is rather tame. For the most part, it is now one long stretch of expensive homes and resorts nestled in the hills or on the beaches overlooking the ocean. It’s a pity in a way, but not for the locals who depend on the jobs and incomes created by the need for builders, handymen, electricians, plumbers, gardeners, caretakers, maids, and cooks.

November 26, 2010   Comments Off on A Steve’s Adventure

The Beach

I had no idea this woman knew I was taking her picture—I didn’t even see her—but she certainly did, didn’t she? The main part of the beach—opposite downtown Sayulita where the waves are the best—gets congested in the afternoon. Because I imported some beer from a convenience store, we got kicked out of our spot by the waiter from the cafe and surf shop opposite. It was either pay 100 pesos or get out, so, of course, we moved on. No big deal.

November 25, 2010   Comments Off on The Beach

Breeching the Gap

Some Mexicans have wonderfully soft laughs. Sadly, my Spanish normally makes it difficult to elicit laughter, except at my mistakes. Yesterday, while getting tamales for our trip to the Marietas from two young women on the street, I decided to go for it after we made our order, and started the names of Mexican films: “Y tu mamá también; Amores perros,” etc. I had them laughing out loud, partially out of amazement and partially out of embarrassment. It just goes to show that intention is the essence of communication.

November 25, 2010   Comments Off on Breeching the Gap

Yet Another Celebration

Today is the third day after the anniversary of the Revolution, and the Mexicans are celebrating again. In Sayulita, the locals sit on plastic chairs on the ragged football pitch in front of an elevated stage where a mariachi band is playing salsa. At intervals, fireworks detonate in the sky. Our neighbor, Ottemar, whom I accosted (in an indirect way) for disturbing me has decided to play nice (or perhaps I have). Turns out he’s a retired professor from Reed College—thus the loud voice. In point of fact, I had no choice but to get along with him. The wireless router for our casa is located in his casa, and often needs to be reset. It’s a case of su casa es mi casa, though he probably doesn’t see it that way.

November 24, 2010   Comments Off on Yet Another Celebration

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

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?