Saturday, July 29, 2017

El Viaje Primero



The clouds were passing very thick and white across the long, glimmering length of ocean and beach behind us. We sat at the bar of La Palapa, a Mexican restaurant with good tequila and expensive frozen drinks. She shuffled the cards and I stared at her warmly as she neatly interleaved them at the corners and then slid them together into her hands. It was hot. The counter was wet and sticky from sugar and syrup and spilled drinks, and the cards were getting soggy and bent as we played. My luck had run out since the day before. I had held onto a respectable lead and it had irritated her, and now she was playing to win. She smiled and laughed and relished in her victory as she won over and over again. A pair of bees, rum-drunk from all the alcohol in the drinks, swarmed around me and menaced my head and hands as I tried to focus on softening my losses.

"This is hopeless," I said. 

Laughing and rolling her body toward mine she said, "I'm glad. Now you know how it feels."

“You do, too."

Out on the beach the waves hissed as they fell and sunk into the sand. Giant pelicans floated high over the shore like feathery fighter jets, waiting for the right moment to dive down and splash into the water for a fish. 

"It's your turn," she said. 

"Is it? Sorry, I feel out of it."

"We don't have to keep playing if you don't want to," she said with a smirk. 

I played a few more hands and lost more than I won. We walked outside and went past the sweating maitre de toward the beach boardwalk which was hot even under the clouds. We'd been in Puerto Vallarta for a few days now. Most of the time we found ourselves walking the length of the malceon, stopping here and there for a cold margarita or to look at a piece of art, all while being pestered by people who tried to sell us things we didn't need or want. Other times we laid on the beach drinking cheap Mexican beer sold to us at exorbitant prices as the sun pressed itself against our sunscreened skin. At night, after a day of drunken leisure, we'd roam the cobblestone streets of the city in search of an authentic Mexican restaurant or a solid street taco. After, we'd walk back to the hotel room and kiss and fuck and fall asleep. Before the trip I'd never been to another country, never mind with a girlfriend. I'd been to Canada twice, but that hardly counts; English is the dominant language there and the place is barely different enough from America to be called a separate country. That's not the case in Mexico, even in a tourist town. Perhaps especially in a tourist town. 

As soon as we landed we made our way through the airport to stock up on some local currency: pesos. We waited in line in front of what we thought was an ATM but instead turned out to be a bus ticketing machine. Luckily we realized before feeding it 2000 pesos each. No one ever tells you about the sinks in a Mexican airport. They don't have motion sensors, or handles that can be lifted or turned. I tried three different sinks before considering I might be doing something wrong. Beneath the faucet dangled a strange metal rod with a bulbed bottom. I tried pushing it up with my hand but nothing happened. A moment later someone else appeared beside me and applied a liberal amount of soap to his hands. I watched curiously to find out what his next move would be, half hoping to see him struggle as I had, if nothing else for confirmation of my own sanity. Instead water gushed from the tap and, after drying his hands, he was gone. Huh. I walked to the sink he'd used and inspected it for any variances. Nope, same sink. Suddenly he reappeared to claim the sunglasses he'd left behind. "Push it to the side," he said. Ah, of course. 

We walked out of the airport and crossed an overpass perched above the highway. It terminated at a dirty, half-busy looking Mexican joint. We were starving so we approached the entrance. Something felt out of place. I suddenly felt unexpectedly anxious and indecisive. After a minute of hushed deliberation we awkwardly decided to get something closer to the hotel and hailed a cab. We drove through streets full of dilapidated storefronts and old buildings showing clear signs of disrepair. The streets looked dirty. A decrepit old Volkswagen beetle passed by and kicked up soot and black smog that choked the air. I felt like I was backsliding. There was a certain dizziness about landing. The subtle imbalance and wobbliness of arriving in a different country, especially one with such obvious signs of poverty, had my head spinning. More than that there was the feeling of guilt; the realization that this town was a byproduct of American exploitation.

After a day or so the guilt receded. Numbed to it, I began to relax. Drinking helped. There’s something palliative about sustained sunshine, margaritas and Mexican food. They soften and slow the mind, almost to a fault. Because it was the week of New Year’s Eve, all of the resorts and restaurants along the beach were full. Tourists flocked to chains like Señor Frogs, Bubba Gump Shrimp and McDonalds. Why, I’m not sure. There was plenty of good, local food a stones throw in any direction, but there is safety in familiarity I suppose. One day, while walking through the city on high sidewalks paved with uneven, half caved-in bricks, we stumbled upon a streetcart selling delicious smelling tacos. The cart was called Moreno’s. We sat down on the dark metal benches and placed our orders. After my first grande taco, I couldn’t help but order a second. The experience was odd though. There was the feeling of being an intruder, of being secretly unwanted. Never before had I experienced what it was like to be a complete outsider, a minority in a foreign land. When I spoke the language I knew I must have seemed a bumbling fool, displaying all the grace, eloquence and mastery of a four-year-old who’d just thrown up on his shirt. What’s worse was that it was unclear whether this feeling was real or imagined. It could have easily been a projection of my own feelings of inadequacy and general helplessness stemming from the knowledge that I couldn't effectively communicate. I didn’t even know how to say “toilet paper.” Papel de baño

Speaking of toilet paper. It would be a point of pride for me to be able to say I went to Mexico without suffering the wrath of Montezuma’s revenge. And I almost did, save for one morning after visiting Moreno’s for the second time. Before we left the hotel room my stomach had been feeling a bit off. I had slight heartburn and Holly had given me a pack of Tums.

“How many should I take,” I asked her.

“Just one, I think. They’re extra strength."

“Fuck it, I’ll take two, just to be safe.”

Back at the taco stand, as I took the last bite of my lunch, I felt something inside my stomach crawl and then putrefy menacingly. Maybe it was the Tums, I thought. We left and walked aimlessly through the town in search of somewhere to get a drink, possibly a snack. We were on the outskirts of civilization, in a veritable no man’s land when it hit me. I had to take a frothy brown piss, and I didn’t have much time. I knew where we were, and I knew that there weren’t any bathrooms nearby. I quickened my pace. When we passed the block with the bus depot I was battling the urge to break into a light jog. It was important to me to maintain a poised and cool exterior. “Let’s swing by Margaritaville for a drink,” I said. I knew the place was called Margarita Grill, but we’d cutely been calling it by the wrong name the entire time and I wanted to stay true to form so she wouldn’t suspect anything was wrong. When we turned the block I darted for the bathroom. I must have been wide-eyed and sweating, as panic stricken as a car racing the wrong way down a one way street. A worker in the back saw me and immediately asked, “baño?” as he pointed me in the opposite direction. Relief was close, I could feel it. The thought occurred to me that the bathroom might be single occupancy, that there might be someone already inside, and I prayed to Jesus Christo that wouldn’t be the case. When I got to the door I found it unlocked and unoccupied. Hurriedly I ran in and tried to shut the door. A horrifically Pavlovian thing happens to the body when it knows it’s inside a bathroom. In extreme cases of distress certain muscles begin to twitch and tremble, flirting with the idea of relief, regardless of whether your pants are still on. This meant I had only seconds. But the door wouldn’t close. I pulled it open and tried again. And again. Still no luck. Something was blocking it. My intestines were bubbling, kicking from the inside. Frantically, I eyed the crack of the door and found that there was a wreath precariously placed so that each time I tried to close the door it swung out into the crack and prevented the door from closing. I shut it more slowly this time, taking care to avoid displacing the wreath, but the goddamned wreath still found its way in between the door. I cried out in frustration and started yanking madly at the wreath until I ripped it clean off the door and I hurled it into the sink behind me. I locked the door and sat down just in time for the avalanche. After, back at the bar, when I relayed the story to Holly she laughed uncontrollably at my misfortune and nearly fell off her chair. We decided, as a cautionary measure, that we should remain that day at all times in close proximity to a restroom. So we did. 

On one of the nights we'd gone out to a high-end restaurant, to see what finer things Puerto Vallarta had to offer. We made a reservation and walked there, arriving right on time. It was fancy. We were seated outside, in the back, on a romantically lit patio decorated with exotic plants that lent the impression of being in a jungle. We ordered the tasting menu with the wine pairing. We didn't realize it at the time, but this meant we'd receive a full glass of wine with every course. The meal started with an oyster covered in foam. It was perhaps one of the most delicious oysters I've ever tasted in my life. In the middle there was a pumpkin soup with something indescribably creamy in it, and at the end we received a piece of duck cooked so expertly that the meat fell right off the bone if you looked at it long enough. The meal was incredible. The creme brûlée was so good it was criminal. Still, I think my favorite meal had been the night we'd drunkenly bought a roast chicken. It had been placed into an aluminum foil sack full of roasted potatoes and handed to us with two plastic containers; one full of beans and the other rice. We walked back to the hotel, intent to eat our dinner on the beach, when we realized we didn't have any utensils. In the hotel restaurant we bargained with our lives for plastic forks and knives. On a darkened beach we found two empty chairs separated by a propitiously placed small table. We sat and ate. The chicken was mouthwatering. I ate it with my bare hands, which felt warm and juicy against the cool ocean air. The skin was so flavorful that we each let out small moans of satisfaction after each bite.

The days bled together. The listlessness and leisure permeated even the clocks, caking the gears with sand and heat. Everywhere there was the smell of coconuts, salty air and sunscreen. On one particular corner, down the block from Margarita Grill, there was the foul smell of hot, fetid trash, which was unfortunate because a beautiful mural decorated the wall there, made of cut glass and colorful stones which swirled and danced over the building's face. The malceon, which stretched almost the entire length of the playa, sometimes smelled sweetly of fried carnival foods and Spanish corn. In the evening, the artwork would glow and big, brilliant piñatas would illuminate the night. Street performers danced and sang and played wooden flutes for the nonstop stream of passerbys. Once, on nearly clear night, we stopped by the shore to sit and watch the waves. Out in the darkness, floating like a buoy on the water was a pale and stoic pelican. Holding hands, nestled up against one another, we watched him on the waves. 

"He looks lonely," I said. 

"Yeah."

"Oh, look, he's got a friend."

Another pelican emerged from the darkness and sat near him. 

"Lie down with me," she asked as she flattened her back against the ground. 

We stared up at the thin, wispy clouds drifting across the sky. Little stars poked through, glimmering like blue diamonds caught in a celestial wash of cotton. A feeling of vast insignificance blew in from the ocean and floated down from the sky above.

"Look at all the people," she said, "they look slanted."

Arching my neck, I tilted my head back to see all the upside down people behind me. They did seem strange, almost insectile; a sea of clothed bugs clamoring around a piece of fruit. Looking down at us, some of them held eye contact for too long as they passed. I wondered whether they thought we were drunk or on drugs. In a hushed voice a nearby panhandler told me he had de weed en de blow. He told me he had it right now. His urgent expression seemed to suggest it was something I needed to have. I thanked him and told him we were fine. His sweating face receded like a squid-ink shadow into the crowd. Eventually we left the spot, passing through the teeming throngs of people and the barking toy poodles with flashing lights for eyes, and made our nightly voyage back to the hotel.

Sometimes, in the night, after having dreamt she'd been taken, or having forgotten entirely she was in bed beside me, I'd wake up and reach for her in the dark, just to feel her there. When I would touch her, goosebumps would spread out over her legs and soft breaths and sighs would float from her mouth as she'd gently wake and pull me nearer. A note, full, resonant, and deep hummed inside me and harmonized with hers. I felt a rising wave pulling, lifting us up to that brief place of buoyancy and patiently holding us there. Until earlier that day I didn't know what it was like to feel the pull of the tide. Since I was a child, and because I never learned how to swim, I hadn't set foot in the ocean. I never wanted to. The ocean had always represented a beautiful, aqueous sort of danger to me, and fear kept my feet in the sand. That'd all changed when I followed her into the water. I loved the symbolism of it. Hand in hand, smiling, laughing, with mouths and eyes full of saltwater, we battled an endless ocean of waves. Some of them clobbered us, some of them we moved through with ease, but through all of them we had each other; in the unforgiving, uncaring largeness of it all, we weren't alone. She laughed at me and found my apprehension endearing. I felt clumsy but her happy nature was contagious and soon I couldn't wipe the salty wet smile from my face. Suddenly we were in a place so sacred even gravity had to loosen its hold on us.

The sky was clear and blue and brilliant the day before we left. We woke and decided we should leave the city and head south, to visit Puerto Vallarta's botanical garden. We found a bus to Tuito that would take us there and we arrived just as it was to depart. We climbed on, sat on the side nearest the ocean, and stared out through the dirty, partially cracked bus window. The drive was 30 minutes of curvy coastal roads that twisted in and out of thick jungle overgrowth, mountains and palm trees. Every so often the bus would decelerate, almost to a complete stop, to roll slowly over a speed bump. Next to us, a Mexican kid played high-BPM dance music loudly from his cell phone speakers. Soon we arrived at our destination. We were immediately scammed into paying for a giant bottle of Off insect repellent, to protect us from all two of the mosquitos we would later find in the garden. After reapplying some sunscreen, and a liberal dose of our newly purchased and much needed Off, we headed to the trailhead. 

We passed through hanging gardens and walked over an old swinging rope bridge, we ambled across a small creek and tried hard to avoid killing little lines of traveling ants. It was hot, so it felt good to be in the shade. Eventually we emerged at a narrow path filled with many butterflies. In the distance there was a faint and far away music; the sound of violin and slow Spanish guitar. Butterflies of all sorts and colors flittered and fluttered with an easy, languid grace. A stone stairway led us down to a wide river and we waded in it. It was icy and refreshing on our legs. Upstream a few naked children splashed in the water with their families. We followed the sound of music and found ourselves scaling the stairs of a large restaurant with a gift store at the bottom. When we got to the top we walked past the band and took a seat at a nearly empty bar. They made perfect piña coladas. We left before we were tempted to have a second round. On the way back to the hotel I asked the bus driver to let us know when we arrived at Punta Negra, a beach I remembered reading about once before. He did, and we spent a few hours there in the water. I jumped in wearing cargo shorts and underwear. She buried her wallet and our phones and all our money in the sand. I hid my camera under my hat and kept a watchful eye on our belongings from the water. For a long while we laughed and jumped through waves, kissing as they came. Later, when we got back to the hotel I couldn't find my ID or hotel key. 

"I could have sworn I put them in your shoe," I said, as we both looked down at her black pair of Keds. 

"I don't remember seeing anything," she said, taking them off. She shook out the shoes and a card fell out of each one.