G is for Good Enough, Guacamole, Guayabitos, and Gringos

As usual, I’m a few entries behind in this A to Z Blogging Challenge. It is easy to fall into feeling badly about not getting it done on time and in lock-step with the schedule, but the reality is that it doesn’t really matter. By at least keeping up with the writing on a semi-regular basis, I’m doing Good Enough, which is far better than I was doing in March, which was absolutely zippo when it came to writing.

So. G. As mentioned in previous entries this month, I spent some time recently in the lovely little Mexican beach town of Rincón de Guayabitos, located about an hour north of Puerto Vallarta on the Nayarit Coast. If you’ve been reading to this point, you already know that my dad has lived here for the past 16 years, along with a host of other ex-pats, mostly Canadians and a sprinkling of retired Americans (or, Americans tired of America), i.e. gringos.

I did not know, prior to this trip, that the term Gringo is used to describe Americans, but not Canadians or other northern white European types. There are several theories as to the origin of the term, but the one I prefer is that it refers to the green-uniformed American soldiers who were there during the Mexican American war (1846-48) and were told to leave (i.e. “green go”) and was shortened to gringo.

But, the gringos bring in money and the locals seem friendly and welcoming of the white tourists. The primary economic driver in Guaybitos is tourism—restaurants line the beachfront and the main street through town, and the other store fronts are filled with tchotchkes and trinkets: potions, t-shirts, bags of salt, cheap bracelets, shot glasses, flip flops, and straw hats.

Vendors ply the beach, hawking everything from beadwork they claim to make themselves (a dubious claim as many vendors sell the same damn beaded birds on a variety of local beaches), to donuts, to shrimp on a stick, to tajin covered mangos, to wooden cutting boards, even tattoos and hair braiding.

Early on my dad warned me against eating anything from a beach vendor, especially any meat on a stick. They once had guests who ate some shrimp and spent the next ten days, their entire vacation, in their rooms puking and, well, the other thing. But we did spend a lot of time musing, My Travel Companion (MTC) and I, about who is eating those things, because if they weren’t selling they wouldn’t be out every day selling them.

I did finally give into the urge to purchase a delicious tajin-covered mango on a stick. The only ill effect was the stringy mango stuck in my teeth. But otherwise we stuck to the restaurants where I managed to eat so much guacamole that I didn’t think I would ever want any more ever again. But, turns out, I still love the guac.  I could eat guacamole and totopos forever. With Pacifico or, better yet, a margarita. Or three.

The beach in Guayabitos divides neatly into two parts, the Mexican-tourist end, south of the spot where the fishermen sell their catch early each morning, where the pelicans flock for fish guts, and the gringo end to the north, closer to the Zona Residencial. Meals and drinks at the restaurants on the northern end of the beach are quite a bit pricier than meals on the southern end. And we found our favorite places to eat and drink. For breakfast, MTC and I independently discovered Huicholitos, for huevos al gusto, hugo naranga, papas rayada, and frijoles. Weeks went by before we discovered we were eating breakfast at the same place on the beach just at different times!

I spent many days at the north end of the beach just sitting and listening to the waves and taking in the views of the Isla de Coral. I boogie boarded and played in the water as well, and took Bodhi for beach walks most mornings. On the afternoons when I didn’t have to work, Dad, and occasionally Marilyn, would meet us there with a bag of fresh popped popcorn and his Coca Light while I gorged on the Queso Ruffles and Corona Light. A habit I’m still trying to break.

F is for Family, Fear, and Forgiveness (and a Fun Fruitful Lesson on Family Systems)

Families fall apart in myriad ways. I see it all the time in my work with counseling clients, and my own family is not immune to this fracturing.

After two years of estrangement, I found my father at the La Penita Thursday Market, manning his real estate booth (see D is for Dad). Or should I say, my travel companion (MTC) found him and breathlessly reported back to me.

“He looks like he’s having issues moving, and his eye is kind of funky,” she said. “You really should go over and see him.”

I wasn’t sure. After the initial wash of relief that he was still alive, I chafed at the fact that he had not responded to my emails and texts telling him I would be in the area. I didn’t know what sort of reception I would get. I wasn’t sure I could handle him refusing to see me. But that was my frightened child self.

My adult self, my Mother Self, knew differently. I couldn’t imagine refusing to see one of my own children, no matter how hurt I might be, no matter what they might have done, no matter what their feelings for me. And like I say hundreds of times a week (it seems) to my therapy clients, “we are all more alike than we are different. If you feel this way, chances are others do as well.  Operate from that assumption rather than from fear.”

Still, I stood, immobilized by my fear, feet frozen to the cobblestones among the push and shove of gringos haggling over pesos with the artisans and tchotchke vendors. The vibrant colors of Mexico blazed in the early morning sunlight.

“Go see him, Pam,” MTC urged. “He might not have much time left.” Maybe she was being hyperbolic regarding his health (after all she didn’t have a baseline), but she did have recent experience with her own mother’s death, her own problematic parent. “What do you have to lose?”

I often find myself describing family systems to my therapy clients as a mobile, a delicately balanced objet d’art, and when one piece is moved (or removed), the entire piece is thrown out of alignment. In order to restore balance, the other pieces must shift positions or forever be askew.

But, systems resist change. Especially the family system. It seems easier for the missing or moved piece of the mobile to simply resume its assigned place rather than for the other pieces to change. Often, family members will continue to resist the change, opting instead to dangle there in their dysfunction, rather than shifting and adapting to a new arrangement in order to restore optimal functionality.

So it was when my parents divorced at the turn of the last millennium. For the better part of twenty years, I resisted my father’s new reality, his new marriage, his move to Mexico, his pursuit of his happiness, irritated at the changes, the inconveniences, the occasional bad behavior.

Our own Family Fun Mobile grew even more askew when Dad’s wife emailed mid-pandemic (or texted or possibly even called) my brother and then me to ask if we could take care of Dad for a couple of weeks while she had hip surgery. Reader, it seems petty in retrospect, but that request sent us over the metaphorical cliff.

For starters, I had just put my house on the market and literally had no place to house Dad, had I been willing, but I had also spent the past few years caring for Mom, his ex-wife, who had dementia and was now in a care facility. I continued to harbor resentment for what I saw as his abandonment of her (to be fair, she was perfectly healthy when they divorced). Still. Somehow, I saw him as responsible for her all these years later. Even though I can’t imagine being held responsible for my ex-wife even five years after our split.

And I continued to be irritated about how he had treated me when I came out as a 17-year-old lesbian (it wasn’t great, Reader, but it was over 40 years ago). My brother’s refusal to look after Dad sprung from deeper, more recent wounds, but without getting into details that are not mine to share, suffice it to say, I stuck up for my little brother. As I am wont to do.

Long story short, we didn’t just tilt our mobile. We ripped it down and threw it in the trash.

And that’s where it was as I stood in the hot Mexican morning trying to decide if I could begin the process of repair. Our family had fallen apart in some very specific ways. Could it be salvaged?

I took a deep breath and decided to put what I knew into practice, to be the grown up adult I knew myself to be. I told MTC I would find her later, and I walked down that cobblestone path toward forgiveness.

E is for Español

The last time I spent more than a couple of weeks in a foreign country I was in my early 20s and backpacking around Europe—I didn’t spend too much time in any one country, so only had to pick up enough of each language to ask for a room and to navigate the trains and metro systems. Knowing enough of a language to actually live in a country is another matter entirely—it didn’t take us long to feel like we had no idea what was going on most of the time we were in Mexico.

We picked up a few cultural nuances easily. For example, I learned to say “Buenos dias” in the morning as we encountered local folks, and at some point I noticed that many Mexicans would either greet me or reply to my greeting with a shortened version: “Buen dee-UH (instead of Buen-O dee-AHH-sss).”

So, I started greeting folks with the shortened version. It sounded friendlier, more akin to a “Mornin!” than the more formal, and let’s face it, mouthful, “Good Morning!” And for the most part, I got the same thing back, and no one seemed to care. Until one morning as I was out for a short run, I panted a quick “buen dee-UH” and what came back to me was a very precisely annunciated and less-than-friendly “BUEnos Di-AH-sss.” I felt slightly reprimanded and not a little confused. Had I violated a cultural norm? Was I being inadvertently rude? I just didn’t know.

This flauta was deliscioso, but I never was quite sure what I might end up with for dinner.

Somehow, I managed to graduate from high school and college (with three degrees) and still not have a mastery of any language but English (in my defense, I can parse the hell out of any sentence in English). I finished high school with a single quarter of Spanish, taught by an extremely Nordic woman (it was an unaccredited Christian church-affiliated school, so I kind of give them props for even trying). Still. Somehow, I managed to get into and back out of college without nary a drop of further language education. It’s no one’s fault but mine, but it’s not like I skirted any requirements. There weren’t any. And the younger version of me was very committed to coasting as painlessly as possible through my degree.

Papas picante. Muy bien.

Even so, as a tourist, I’ve never expected folks from the countries I visit to speak English, and, I try my best to communicate with the rudimentary skills I have, often leading to unintentionally comic results. Like the time I felt fluent enough in the little Spanish I had picked up during one short trip to announce to a roadside seller of coco frio, “Mi papas casa es in Mexico.” He handed me my coconut with the straw poking out from it with a puzzled look.

Only later did I realize I’d told him that my potato’s house was in Mexico. No wonder he looked confused! There’s something about being in the moment while a local is awaiting a response–the pressure builds and even if we’ve studied intensely beforehand, whatever we know leaves. That’s what happened to my pal who came to visit. She faithfully listened to and practiced a Spanish lesson every day for weeks before she came to visit. And still I ended up interpreting for her most of the time. Me!

I never had trouble ordering a margarita.

It’s one thing to navigate the market and menus, ordering and paying, conducting basic transactions, but quite another to understand a response in Spanish to any sort of question I might ask. And forget about understanding why things are happening, like why the brand-new bus station is roped off and the buses all stop at the Pemex station instead or why the cops look like The Militia and often, but not always, take the license plates off the buses.

Why do Mexican drivers pass on blind corners or use their flashers so often? Why don’t any of the restaurants on the beach stay open past dark? Why, exactly, can’t we drink the water? Where in god’s name do I buy a ream of printer paper and how am I going to act out printer paper and do you think anyone will understand if I pantomime typing?

On my first attempt to procure distilled water for a visitor’s CPAP machine, I thought I had used enough accurate hand gestures and replicated what Google Translate gave me sufficiently to indicate to the farmacéutica what I needed, but when I got home I discovered I had ended up with a bottle of sodium chloride. Just the opposite of agua purificada.

Yes, Google Translate helps, but not always. I can ask for a haircut using Google Translate, and I can show the barber a picture of myself with what I would like, but once the barbero puts the cape on me and picks up the clippers, I have to surrender. I got two haircuts in Mexico. More on that later, in H is for Haircut.

I can’t imagine learning another language sufficiently enough to express the nuances of a haircut or well enough to banter with the barber like I would chat with my hair stylist at home. It’s a deeper sort of awkwardness. I’ve become somewhat accustomed to being away from home and the disorientation that often accompanies waking up in different towns, states, campgrounds, and driveways, but say what you will about these United States, it is very good to be back on familiar ground.

D is for Dad (or Donde esta mi padre?)

Before my travel companion (hereon referred to as MTC) and I relocated from the suburbs to our new casa in Guayabitos, we made a couple of trips up the coast to explore some of the smaller beach towns: San Pancho, Lo De Marcos, Los Ayala, Chacala. I’d been to them all before on trips when I came down to visit with my dad and his wife, Marilyn. I wanted MTC to see how amazing the coast could be—palapas on the beaches, $1 beers and $3 margaritas in the sand, boogie boarding in the warm waves.

And, I wanted to check out my dad’s house. I hadn’t spoken to him since early in the pandemic when he and Marilyn came to stay with me in Bellingham for a few days. We’d had a falling out in the meantime and I didn’t know if he was even still down here. My last trip to Mexico had been during Christmas/New Year’s 2015/16, and I’d come down with friends on a vacation, not to see my father. At that time, he and Marilyn had rented their home out and were in a smaller, cheaper place on the same street, so we visited once or twice, but I hadn’t been to stay with them since.

Sixteen years ago, about five years after they married, Dad and Marilyn sold their belongings and moved to Mexico where they built a house near the beach in Guayabitos, and I’d been to visit a handful of times. At first, I didn’t want to enjoy myself. I was mad that my parents had divorced, mad he’d remarried, mad that when they moved he had returned all the framed photos of my family I’d given him over the years, mad he’d moved so far away. But, it turned out that I really enjoyed Mexico, loved their home, and had a wonderful time whenever I came to visit. So, it became more difficult to continue my adult child temper tantrum.

I navigated our little rent-a-dent rental car down the cobblestones on Flamingos Avenue.

“This is it!” I exclaimed as we bumped to a stop. “This one with all of the For Sale signs on it.”

I parked the car and jumped out for a better look. I jumped to try and see over the adobe wall. I couldn’t jump high enough, so I wedged the toe of my flip flop between the door and a protruding brick and levered myself up to peer through the high window in the iron gate.

“Looks pretty unoccupied,” I declared. “No car in here. They either don’t live here or they’re out.”

I climbed back into the driver’s seat. “I wonder where they are. If they’re even down here.”

It was an odd feeling, not knowing where my dad was. I’d been angry and annoyed with him the past two years, and now I just really wanted to know that he was okay. Up until now, I hadn’t given much, if any, thought to his whereabouts. Suddenly it felt imperative to find him. And, I wasn’t certain he’d be happy to see me, even if I could find him.

Last time we communicated, I hadn’t been very nice. For a variety of reasons, some of which I continued to feel justified about, others that I could let go of. I did not want to continue our estrangement. I didn’t want him to die thinking I didn’t love him, that I hadn’t appreciated him, believing I’d rather he wasn’t in my life. After all, that’s how things ended between him and his father. I’m a big believer in ending the cycles of family dysfunction (though, I’m sure I’ve initiated a few of my own). When my grandmother died, my dad severed ties with his four sisters. We didn’t need more family cut-offs.

To add to my confusion about whether or not he’d want to see me, I hadn’t received a reply to my Merry Christmas email or my Happy Birthday text. Nor had he responded to any of the emails I’d sent alerting him to the fact I would be in his town for a few months.

I knew that if he was still in the area, and still selling real estate (the for sale sign has his name and phone number on it), he would likely be at the Thursday market in La Penita, the little town about a mile north of Guayabitos. MTC and I made plans to attend the market—it just happened to be the next morning. I knew she’d want to visit the market—it was a cultural experience, a full-on explosion of color and smells, a combination artisan, tchotchke, flea market, textile, Mexican food market. Dad used to have a real estate booth there.

Maybe he still did.

C is for Casa (or how hard could it be to find a place to live in Mexico)

I’m ready!

The phone rang late on Thursday night. I was supposed to be in Mexico, but I was still in Texas because, in spite of showing up to the airport at 6:30 that morning, I hadn’t been able to fly out. It was too cold to put Bodhi in the cargo hold. Come back tomorrow, the Aeromexico attendant said. It’s going to be warmer tomorrow.

My travel companion’s panicked voice pierced the late night quiet: “Pam, this place is awful. We can’t stay here. The driver took one look around and asked me if I’d already paid. He said he couldn’t leave me in danger.”

“Hey,” I tried to be reassuring, “it’s been a long day of travel. I’ll be there tomorrow. Try to get some sleep. I’m sure it’s fine.” I rolled my eyes. We’d picked this place out on Airbnb, the pictures were cute. How bad could it be? I tried to muster a reassuring tone. “I’ll be there soon. Just breathe and get some rest. It’s Mexico—it’s gonna be a little funky.”

I arrived the next day, and it was just as bad as she had tried to tell me. Way worse than funky.  

There was really no way we could have known the kitchen chairs were broken and uncomfortable or that the one (as in only, single) non-kitchen chair in the room sank all the way to the ground if one sat on it. Or that the “river” was a dried-up mud pit that, when it flowed, flowed with sewage. Never mind that they didn’t bother to mention to rooster farm next door nor the 24/7 cockadoodle-dooing. I have to admit reader, we didn’t read between the lines on the reviews: “exactly as advertised,” and “basic but fine.” No one mentioned the construction next door or the cranky mama pitbull.

It took us five days, but we found another place, for less than half what we’d paid for this one. We snuck out under the cover of early morning darkness because by now we had read the reviews thoroughly, especially the one about the fight with the landlady’s husband and the tone with which the landlady replied to all of the negative reviews, well, let’s just say, she gave us pause.

Our new house was perfect. Clean, quiet, affordable. Cute enough. Safe. The owners, made sure we had what we needed and then left. It was perfect. Until we realized we’d landed in the Mexican suburbs. Suburbia. Where nothing happens, where there’s nothing to see but a gazillion homes that all look alike—a lovely representation of the Mexican middle class. Just one problem—I had not come to Mexico to spend three months nowhere near the beach.

My travel companion didn’t seem to mind, but I knew we could do better. She advocated for nearby Bucerias (so crowded, so expensive, so clogged with gringos) or Nuevo Nayarit (ditto). We just needed to head north, I explained, up the coast, beyond Sayulita. A handful of lovely beach towns dot the coast between the touristy cesspool that is Sayulita and San Blas, an ancient military stronghold about four hours to the north.

“C’mon,” I begged my friend, “It’s so much better in San Pancho (though it is too pretentious for its own good), or Lo De Marcos, or Guayabitos—cheaper, cleaner, better/cleaner, more sand and surf, more bars and restaurants to explore on the beaches.”

She reluctantly relented, and we headed north to Guaybitos, the little Mexican resort town, a feisty town full of tourists, sandwiched between Los Ayala, to the south and  La Penita to the north, a place I’d spent several vacations visiting my father and his wife who’ve lived there for 16 years.

The funny thing about this town is that it’s very near the dateline between Central and Mountain time, which meant we spent a lot of time asking strangers for the correct time. As we sat at Juan’s Place on the beach, sipping our morning margaritas, I turned to ask a gentleman for the time. Which led to a longer conversation about our need for a nearby rental.

“Our neighbor’s house is for rent—he’s leaving tomorrow for California. It’s about 400 yards from here.”

Reader, it was perfect. Affordable. Clean. Close to the beach, fenced for the dogs. Big enough for guests.

A casa to call our own.

B is for Bodhi

When I sold my home and bought a van in late 2021, my primary mission was to minimize my responsibilities. I’d shucked my mortgage and utility bills, given away my lawnmower, and stuffed my storage unit. I looked forward to an unfettered future—just me, my van, and my mountain bike. 

Camping at Muley Point, UT

Indeed, for a few months things unfolded pretty much as I envisioned. I chased a girl to Austin, bought a #vanlife van, and moved in, never imagining that I would soon have a four-legged traveling companion. Not to be cold-hearted, but my kids were both launched and my old old cats had finally died (RIP Kai and Mittens, truly, we loved you), and my mother was safely in the care of Brookdale and my brother. The open road beckoned.

There’s no cut and dried way to explain how Bodhi ended up a #vandog, how I ended up with a dog in my van, but here we are, counting down to nearly a year together in June. Long story long: I met a woman on Match.com early in the pandemic. She had just rescued a Mexican street dog she named Bodhi. I fell in love with that dog, and even when the woman dumped me, I pined for Bodhi.

Bodhi, when we first met in 2020

Bodhi is the perfect dog. He’s indifferent to food. He could care less what I’m eating and rarely, if ever, begs. He’s low-key, not jumpy, not barky, certainly not yippy. He’s loyal and loving, and though he can be incorrigibly needy at times, he can also be independent.  He is as cute as a button and unimaginably personable.

I went on Match.com and fell for a dog. Unfortunately, the dog’s owner and I did not part as friends, and when she went away, so did Bodhi. Then, fast forward two years to last June, and quite by accident, I discovered that Bodhi’s owner had recently fallen seriously ill, and, upon reaching out to a mutual friend, I learned she was not expected to live.

I asked after Bodhi. “Where is he?” “Is he going to be okay? Are you guys keeping him?” I figured our mutual friend would keep him—they already had one dog and two kids who knew Bodhi well. I just wanted to make sure he would be well-cared for.

Van Dog

“Do you want him?” she asked, laughing as if she in no way expected me to say yes.

“Yes!” I said without even hesitating. Not a second to contemplate how I had just complicated my life. “Yes. I want him.”

“Seriously? But you just sold your house to live in a van!”

“Yeah, but I love that damn dog! Where is he? When can I get him?”

Reader, I picked him up that very afternoon in June, and he has been with me ever since (except for a few weeks here and there when I just couldn’t have him with me). In fact—he’s the reason I ended up going to Mexico, now that I think about it. Had I not left him behind with my friend and her dog, she of the wine-addled international travel planning in my previous post, I probably would not have spent the past three months in Mexico).

Life sure takes some interesting turns, doesn’t it?

A is for Adios Amigas!

Last summer, after a couple of bottles of wine, and addled by the summer sun, a friend and I decided it would be a great idea to spend the winter in Mexico. She had spent six weeks the previous winter on the Caribbean side in Porto Morales, and I had spent several short vacations north of Puerto Vallarta over the last decade visiting my father in Rincon Guayabitos. We both knew we’d rather walk our dogs on the beaches than in the snow and rain.

Initially we thought we would drive my van down, meeting up in Austin (where I had spent November and December), and departing from there, winding our way to the Nayarit Riviera. Our friends and families, however, had strong opinions about why that might not be a good idea:

“That van would make a nice cartel drug van!” “Two old ladies alone in a nice van? Are you nuts?” And so on. I remained undeterred.

Our original rental in Sayulita. Pictures can be deceiving!

We scoured Airbnb for affordable places to stay and finally settled upon two that looked suitable. One in Sayulita for six weeks and one in a sweet little beach town up north called Chacala.  We put our money down. But as the summer days dwindled into fall, my courage waned. I was mere days away from departing the Pacific Northwest for Texas, but I didn’t know how to tell my friend I was chickening out on driving. I didn’t want to get killed by the cartel. I didn’t want them to steal my van. I didn’t want to be a headline. And neither of us spoke Spanish which made the drive seem even more reckless.

It felt like chickening out, but I gathered my courage and confessed my fears. Turns out my friend was thinking the same things but was also afraid to tell me, sucking up her fears and putting on a brave face. After all, she had navigated around the world on her sailboat. Why would she be afraid of a little drive to Mexico? But, age does funny things to us. As does the news media.

We laughed and reconfigured our travel plans. My biggest challenge was figuring out how to get my dog, Bodhi, down there, but I didn’t have the bandwidth to worry about it yet. I still had over 2000 miles to drive, camping sites to secure, work to do, sites to see. I would have to fly now, and my dog, Bodhi, too big to travel under the seat, would have to fly in cargo. I’d figure it out, I told myself. Shouldn’t be too hard Dogs fly all the time.

I didn’t have the bandwidth to worry about it yet. I still had over 2000 miles to drive, my sweetie and a rental awaiting me in Austin, Texas, camping sites to secure, work to do, sights to see.

A to Z Challenge, 2023

I’m going to try this again. I’m a day late, but I’ve got my A blog ready to go. I know I haven’t finished this series in a number of years, but maybe this year will be different. I need to start writing again. I need to commit to something besides work. So. Here we go. I plan to make this blog about my recent adventures in Mexico: how we ended up there, what we discovered, how it turned out. I may also sprinkle in a few tidbits about vanlife and how that is all unfolding: the challenges, the benefits, the weird and unexpected things that pop up.