Letter 11 From Mexico 


        In Zihuatanejo, off the beach called Las Gatas, my friend and I
performed the ancient rite of surfing. That is to say, one of us did. I
tried it for an hour or so and found it exhausting and incredibly
difficult, never coming close to catching a wave. My friend, who had much
experience, stood up on large threatening billows and rode them great
distances, a steady tall Don Quixote, with grace, skill, and dignity.
        There were also five or six young Mexican surfers in the water, a
few with bashed up, ragged hand-me-down boards. Some were excellent
surfers, some just learning. When the young learners lost it on the top of
a wave, their feet went into the air, and they seemed to hang suspended in
the studied gracelessness of the classic wipe-out, and their companions on
shore shouted "Ole!" and laughed and cried out encouragement and respect --
far different, I am told by my friend, from the sourly competitive,
sometimes downright nasty surfing of Sonoma County, our home in Northern
California.
        We slunk away from Dona (tilde) Elvira's scowls, ate in huachinango
(red snapper) restaurants, and seemed in the process to be getting to know
a cadre of interesting Mexican women. Back in the States I had been told by
a yoga instructor (who gave workshops in Zihuatanejo, at a dollar price
that seemed exorbitant) that the town's name originally meant something
like "a place of the women."
        The Triple A "Mexico" travel book for 1997 makes the same claim. An
officer under conquistador Hernan Cortes happened to know the Nahuatl
language (I personally think it is more likely that the Nahuatl knew
Spanish instead). He asked a Nahuatl guide the name of the natural harbor
(Zihuatanejo), and the guide answered: "Cihuatlan" (accent over last a),
"place of women," supposedly referring to "an existing matriarchal
society." As the story goes, later the dismissive suffix "-nejo" was added
by the Spanish (or perhaps the church) to belittle and disparage this older
meaning.
        Great sociologists that we are, my friend and I found evidence to
fit the theory. On my first trip I had already identified Mirna, in her
late forties, at the ice cream shop -- exquisite pricey stuff imported from
Mexico City -- located right across from Hotel Suzy (near the waterfront).
She was an educated and knowledgeable person, but was not always easy to
talk to her. The little shop is an echo chamber with all its tile. Between
that, the tape player, a very loud refrigerator, the occasional passing
motorcycle, and a roaring fan, and my less discriminating ears, it was not
easy to catch her every syllable -- an advantage I need for filling in the
gaps in my comprehension. I found that I could improve the situation by
placing little plastic spoonfuls of her nearly one dollar a scoop ice cream
on my tongue. I nodded my head as she spoke, but gave a little frown or
blankness in the eyes, so that she would say the same thing in a few
different ways.
        I asked her if there was anyone giving a yoga class in town. She
said she'd look into it. The next day she gave me some directions to a
place that advertised itself as a "Centro de Ciencia Antropologica" (Center
for Anthropological Science). One of its listed offerings was "meditation,"
which Mirna, like other Mexicans I have talked to, confuses with "yoga".
Either word brings polite but skeptical looks because, I have since
learned, there is wide-spread belief that activities of this sort are
followed or preceded by cold showers with all your clothes off.
        Right next door is Lupita, a vibrant, highly independent (married)
woman in her forties, whose wit cut right through the many possible layers
of cross-cultural misunderstanding . She runs a boutique offering lovely
cotton dresses and skirts which she designs and helps sew. She was funny
and delightful and warm and glad to join our seminaring on this and that
with Mirna, who had little good to say about Mexican men, while Lupita
(tongue in cheek) had little good to say about men in general.
        My friend was looking for not only the perfect wave but also the
perfect hotel. Lupita got him a reduced price with her German woman friend,
a powerfully organized and successful hotelera (Hotel Catalina-Sotavento),
overlooking my un-favorite beach La Ropa.
        Before that we tried another hotel called Hotel Raul Tres Marias
(Central), where he ended up storing his surf board (permanently). The
daughter of that family was Lili (early twenties), a bright articulate
student of international business consulting, studying, I think, in
Cuernavaca (maybe Toluca) -- a very hard place to get to because of the
isolation of Zihuatanejo, the dangerous connecting roads, and the
prohibitive cost of flying.
        Her mother was equally charming and intelligent and comfortable in
the world. We ended up editing the English on their entire restaurant menu
(a couple of hours' work) to protect them from the smirks of their gringo
customers and to afford them the dignity their cooking ("Garrobo's" -- I
think the best fish restaurant in town) deserves. For this we received a
free meal apiece, real gratitude, and permission to the store the surfboard
forever.
        Right across from Lili's hotel is where I stayed, with Dona (tilde
over the "n") Elvira (early eighties), who only gave me a room in her
little hotel (also part of a restaurant) I am convinced because I told her
I needed to see the soap opera "Mirada de Mujer" -- which she at first, I
think, found amusing. She said I could use her television in her patio
kitchen. I noticed it was supporting some plants and pots and pans and some
other less easily identified objects. Its one flickering black and white
channel turned out not to be the one I needed, and with that I think our
thin bond began to weaken.
        Dressed day and night in her worn pale blue night gown and thin
pale peach bathrobe, Elvira rules the tiny, lower-end hotel (but popular
high end restaurant), keeping a sharp eye out on all who come and go,
especially on those intent on ascending the circular iron stairway to the
room where I stayed. That stairway was where Mr. Parrot (released each
morning from his cage) liked to roost, pecking the fingers and toes of all
who passed.
        Elvira's mood began to darken when my friend and I began stepping
carefully over Mr. Parrot (four inches tall, in his teens possibly). As we
climbed, he shifted toward our big feet, all the better to peck us -- while
we hauled up the big surf board to my tiny room for safe keeping.
        I'm not sure whether it was the surfboard, my friend wanting to
shower in my room (his was all the way over at La Ropa now), our danger to
Mr. Parrot, or my association with my younger friend (older man with a
handsome younger male friend in tow; too bad it didn't occur to her that I
could have sired him when I was fourteen). All this put together with my
strange interest in a soap opera that no real man would have admitted to,
that on second thought maybe only women should be watching -- all this may
have induced Elvira to begin to sour on me and answer my "Buenas tardes!"
and "Buenas noches!" with a begrudging sour courtesy right up to the moment
I stepped over Mr. Parrot for the last time and left.
        Other women come to mind. The woman at the place where I bought
breakfasts of yogurt, fruit, and granola, and her 7 year-old daughter, who
approached my table with big serious eyes and asked with grown-up
formality, "Quiere algo mas?" -- "Would you like anything else?"
        And then Mari (in her twenties) who left a crowd of young people on
evening as we were strolling the equivalent of the boardwalk and approached
us and stuck to us like a lost dog. She could not carry a conversation. She
did not ask us about our lives or tell us about hers. We could not decide
what she wanted from two gringos. Back in Erongaricuaro my landlady and
Dianne hooted and snorted when we reported our bafflement. But Mari never
hinted at any kind of solicitation and seemed more to have the look of a
burnt out glue-sniffer.
        She wanted to know what hotel I was staying in. I gave her the name
of another hotel and said good-night and left my friend with her. He shook
her by stepping into a taxi and going off to his hotel.
But she found us at breakfast the next morning. I took the waiter aside and
him if he knew who she was. He looked over at her, frowning, taking the
matter quite seriously. No, he didn't know her, and was she bothering us? I
told him it was all right, and I was going to buy her a breakfast, that
maybe she was just hungry.
        When she had finished her scrambled eggs, refried beans, home-made
tortillas (the best in Mexico) and coffee, I asked her gently but directly.
I said I couldn't understand why she was hanging out around us. Was there
something she wanted? She was unfazed. She had one tired mask of a smile
for all occasions, and that was what she gave us at that moment. No, she
said, she just liked foreigners. She didn't go on. She had nothing more to
add, nothing to say. That was it. There was only the smile and her dazed
vagueness and her hunger for something beyond what she had, something we
apparently represented.
        After all this you might wonder where all the men were. I can
account for a few of them. The morning before, in this same restaurant (of
the real tortilla), whose name I can't remember (except that it's across
from Kevin's Bar & Grill), waiters kept pushing tables together until there
were some 25-30 men (in their forties and fifties) seated at one long
table, drinking coffee and talking.
        I could not read the mood and character of the occasion, and so I
asked my waiter, who explained that a man had died, and this was a meeting
of his friends to arrange for the funeral and for the needs of his
surviving family. And I remembered regretting that I probably did not live
in a society (a "place of the men") where it would be customary for
twenty-five or thirty men (who had known me) to get together in this
cordial and civilized way, at my death, and become involved in the
resolution of my affairs, until my mate could continue on her own.


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