Letter 8 From Mexico One day I looked out from the town beach and a huge white cruise ship was anchored in the bay. It unloaded gringo passengers into covered life boats with wooden benches that had toilet seat-like patterns on them, so the passengers would know where to sit. These souls appeared to be in better shape than the Apple Tours Minnesotans. They were herded around by athletic looking men with ear phones on their heads and microphones that curved around in front of their mouths. To my horror, they all disembarked from their very used looking life boats and lined up to take the little Zihautanejo water taxi COOP boats to the beach I was heading for some quiet snorkeling. I jumped down from the wharf into a water taxi and got away in a boat filled with Mexicans. We passed close by the cruise ship, whose name was Ocean Majesty. The white painted steel plates of its hull showed welded seams that seemed more raised than I would have expected, as if over time the force of the water had bent the plates inward. It looked like an old made-over freighter, with an added topside with luxury liner accenting. In short, there was a something a little fake and shabby about it. Its anchor held and its radar spun, but the distance from its lowest deck to the water would have been a very long jump, and I began to feel a certain sympathy, almost concern for the passengers who were in boats behind me, coming to invade my beach. By night they were gone. Their dollars for the most part leaving with them, except for a meal or two on the beach, and I suppose fares to the water taxis ($2.38 a piece). They had not really overwhelmed the town. As far as I could count, only three or four life boat loads came ashore, maybe eighty people, at the most. Surely there were more passengers on the ship, but they chose not to disembark, either because they had "done" too many Mexican ports already (that seems unlikely; there aren't that many), or they were too infirm, or they simply preferred Mexico from a distance, or they were afraid. Or there were card games and friends and movies and television and food and drink, and they were simply not interested. Next come the yacht-ies. I have to tell you they intimidate me. They anchor in the bay after God knows what hair-raising experiences sailing down the coast at night (someone has to be on watch and remember to keep the safety harness clipped to the boat), and then they ride their Avon and Zodiac outboard-driven inflatables into the playa municpal (the town beach) and park them in the corner near the wharf, drag them along on little stowable wheels, and leave them up above the high tide mark. These people walk through Mexican Life as if they had dealt with far more difficult things, like dodging reefs at night. To me they seem fearless, unperturbed, steely, and, as far as I can see, unaffected. Deep down, because of what they've been through, the nights of sheer terror when they're not sure where they are, they know they are not morally bound to worrying about whether or not they're being cross-culturally successful. They have returned to Dry Land for a while. And that is enough. Then there are the gringo regulars, maybe snow birds, maybe people who hang out all winter. They sit on the beach at Playa Ropa (a long walk from the town), exchanging cigarettes, comparing the price of beer at this or that watering hole from La Ropa to Ixtapa, reading Danielle Steel novels, and speaking to each other in one-liners and friendly put-downs in the cadence and flavor of TV sitcoms, spinning a comfortable web of language and understanding that gently isolates them from the world of their barefoot waiters, who bring them beer and rich hot dishes of bacon and mushrooms and shrimp, heavy with cheese -- clearly a Mexican plot to stop their gringo hearts at an early age, and keep their dollars. This is the best beach, with its almost white sand and fresh breeze from the bay opening, but it is not my favorite place. All these kinds of gringos and then some stroll through Zihuatanejo, exploring the boundaries of their sense of what is dangerous and what is not, what is comprehensible and what is not. Like newly arrived astronauts, they take tentative steps, testing the forces pulling on them, taking the measure of their environment. And then there is the last category of tourists -- me. I, a professed vegetarian, sometimes twice a day (usually) ate baked, pan sauteed, or charcoal-roasted sweet fresh flaky Red Snapper and dorado and sipped beer and watched strolling tourists, both Mexican and gringo, working fishermen, happy Mexican children, and young women playing volleyball on the basketball court, watched the lights from La Ropa, or by day the shimmering blue Pacific, and I praised my good fortune to be sitting there in the balmy wind far (but not that far) from the dangers of Route 37. I took the water taxis the twenty minutes across to Las Gatas beach, rented fins, snorkel and mask for twenty five pesos ($3) for the day, swam out to the reef and peered down at the most glorious fish, who peered back up at me, darting toward me a few inches as they defended their two foot square world. One even nipped me a warning on the end of my little finger. Some were smoky blue, silky-finned and large, and others with brilliant blue and purple and violet iridenscent spots, shy creatures that slipped back into their corral caverns when I approached. Schools of small fish, stripped yellow, black, and white, who seemed to swim close to me, I thought, for protection. And a long straight torpedo-like fish with pale sand and yellow, almost translucent colors, that I thought must be dangerous with its long snout (nearly a third of it was snout), but which did not attack -- but did seem fascinated with me. Each day I saw new fish. I wore a shirt to protect my own pallid limbs from the sun, as I swam, and applied lots of sun screen to the back of my knees, spots that become very exposed. And when I felt my body temperature dropping after an hour or so, I climbed out, slow and prehistoric myself, took off my fins and mask and snorkel, staggered to the renter's shack, thanked him, retrieved my knapsack, which had been sitting in a corner (untouched) and wandered down the beach to the western point (there is a restaurant where I seem to be the only customer) for Red Snapper in garlic and butter, guacamole, potato salad, hot tortillas, and cold cerveza (beer), brought to me by amiable young Evangelina (who says, "Lo esperabamos" with her broad smile -- we were waiting for you). And then I sit in the shade of a little olive-like tree, watching the breakers roll by, the fishing boats waiting for the proper moment to move forward through them, and just looking, looking, looking. I read an article from La Jornada about a rebellion in the ruling PRI party, or the arrest of members of a Judiciale Anti-Kidnapping unit by officers of the Policia Federal de Caminos (like federal highway patrol) when the former are caught trying to dump a tortured body (which leads to scores of indictments), or the iron grip of the army tightening in Chiapas. And when that becomes too exhausting, I slip over into the hammock, tilt my straw hat over my eyes and listen to the movement of the sea and the sporadic faint laughter of young round-faced Evangelina, far away in the kitchen. An older Scotsman out for a brisk walk told me about a trail to a beach that no one ever went to. I hadn't listened all that closely, but I set out one morning, found the key landmark (a plank bridge leading away from the beach, my unfavorite La Ropa), climbed up a low mountain, made three false starts, picking my way down dead end trails (close enough to the ocean to hear it), making marks in the ground so I could find my way back through the hot, dry jungle. I learned that you always take the most used trail regardless of its apparent direction, because at least it is going somewhere. In this case farther and farther away from the beach and the land of tourists and its known safety. I picked up a stick someone had cut from a young, living tree -- a piece maybe four, four and a half feet long, as thick and hard as the thin part of a base ball bat. This was a trail without burro droppings, hence one not traveled by campesinos going to their milpas, its purpose and character therefore not something I understood. And so I considered the degree of danger I might be putting myself in, in the heat, not knowing what or who was ahead of me or behind. And I began to recall everything I had ever heard about the martial arts of stick fighting and what I remembered of my one year of karate training. Everything and anything I had even seen in the movies about hand to hand combat. I decided on a simple choreography. First a thrust to the throat or solar plexus with the sharp end. Then striking up with the butt (lower end) of the cudgel, to the side of the head or the ribs (if his arms are raised), then following through with the swing, around my head, and coming down hard on the top of his head, or a swinging, spinning (whirling myself around) blow against his legs, or a slanting blow to the soft area just above his waist. And then repeating the process. All of this accompanied by blood-cuddling cries of aggression. The trail dropped down through an arroyo, wound through shoulder high elephant grass, then re-entered the forest. The heat, the ample sun screen coating I had given myself which didn't let my body breathe in the heat, and the 30 seconds of murderous preparation all combined to make my head throb. The trail came out on a deserted rocky beach (no sand), I walked to the southern end, found some shade, and took cover, and drank my water. I studied a pool between some boulders where the water level seemed to remain fairly constant and where there seemed little danger of being swept out into the breakers. I decided I would have to watch the spot for a couple of hours in order to be able to predict that larger waves would not arrive and bash me against the rocks or carry me away. Plus, there were sea urchins, creatures about as big as a cupped human palm, with five inch spines that bury their tips in you, causing great pain (I still have one in the base of my palm from being washed up on the reef). I found another trail leading up off the beach, heading south along the coast, again through sharp waist-high grass. There were cactus, black volcanic rock, and the blue shimmering sea, and to the south a beach that must have stretched twenty or thirty miles to a cabo (point) at the end -- named Playa Larga. On a mountain top maybe two miles from me (inland) I saw what looked like an army observation post, maybe to watch the beach, the coast in general, the general movements of all the players: the drug gangsters, the ragtag guerrillas (the EPG, the Guerrero Army of the Poor), the Judiciales, and the Army, and the people. All one big Mafia family. And me. And yet there was nothing moving. I wanted to walk to the observation post. To see if there were Army in it. The was a bulldozed road here, with no tire marks and no foot prints. There were mountains ahead of me, a road leading through them. I've had this problem all my life, that I've wanted to see what was on the other side of a pass. A young man approaches me, coming from the opposite direction. He must be as surprised as I am to see anyone. I ask him how far it is to a road. He says an hour, hour and a half. "Muy lejos" -- a long way. He's says I'm walking away from Zihuatanejo. He wants to know what I'm doing there. We stand at some distance from another. I decide to turn around and go back by way of the stone beach and the first trail. We walk together. He is sullen, conversation is not easy. I feel something is not right. I hold my cudgel on the side away from him. I try to make conversation. He's on his way to a sandy beach, somewhere down below the cactus and grass and bluff. He's going to fish. He does it twice a week. He walks for an hour and a half to do this. I ask him about the observation post. He says it isn't one. I ask him who passes through this area. He says no one and asks me again why I am here. There are long pauses, which disturb me. I say I think there aren't many jobs in the area. He says just tourism. I ask him if it's safe out here. He seems to brood on this. Finally he says it's not completely safe. I say: if there is disorde, it must have to do with poverty. He mumbles something. I mention Chiapas. He says nothing. I mention Lucio Cabanas (tilde over n), who led the guerrilla army in the Seventies, that spread into this area, until the countryside was saturated with Army, villages bottled up, people tortured and disappeared, and help for the guerrillas dried up out of fear. Marcial says he doesn't know (Once when I was the only passenger, one of the uneducated water taxistas, the captain of the craft, proved to be an expert on this history, and added that Lucio had escaped to Europe, all of it told as if it had happened just yesterday and not twenty years ago). I ask Marcial what he thinks about Chiapas. Silence. No answer. We walk along without speaking. This impressed me: that he was not going to talk about Chiapas, that he was not going answer anything. Not the kind of conversation, not the kind of behavior I was used to. We reach the place where his path branches off. I step forward and shake his hand and then step back. He says, "Ten cuidado" -- be careful. I watch him walk down the trail. I find my trail. I keep looking back. I drop down onto the stone beach -- checking behind me. I walk the length of the beach. He is not following. The climb back up is exhausting, my pulse is going too fast, I slow down. Nobody knows where I am. Nobody would begin to know where to look for me. There's no air moving in the jungle forest. At last the trail drops again into the La Ropa basin. An hour later I am on La Ropa beach, drinking two large lemonades, sitting among the regulars, and listening to them talk about where to get the cheapest beer in the bay. That night I lie in just my underwear, under the slowly turning overhead fan, and watch Mexico's two famous telenovelas (soaps): Mirada de Mujer (The Face of A Woman) and Demasiado Corozon (Too Much Heart), the latter about drug-police-government corruption. As I watch Mirada de Mujer I list the names of the sponsors: Columbia Pictures, Telcel (cell phones), Vicks Vapor Rub, Penthium computers, Elektra (like Circuit City, and owned by the people whose show it appears on, Azteca TV, with finances coming from Western Union), Hecali (a Mexican version of Sears), Brut scent, Allen Cleaning (a house cleaning substance), Boots Cigarette (offices in Nevada, U.S.A), Petalo (Mexican toilet paper), Raleigh cigarettes, Burger King, Kellogg's, Nestle, Angel Face (a product of Ponds), Nescafe, Pampers, L'Oreal de Paris (lipstick), and TelMex (Mexico's telephone monopoly). I have just come from a nice waterfront restaurant where I (and mostly other gringos) sat listening to small waves on the municipal beach, felt the balmy wind in my hair, and ate tender white dorado with garlic and listened to Andrea Bocelli singing Romanza. I am in a country that is sliding, I'm afraid, toward civil war. Salaries continue to fall (44.8% since 1994 in manufacturing, in dollar equivalence). There is NAFTA (Jan 1, 1994), and now the Acuerdo Multilateral de Inversiones (AMI) -- something like "Multilateral Investment Accord" -- is in the works. It is connected to the WTO (World Trade Organization), and its goal (free trade) seems to be to remove any (protectionist) investment controls by governments. Stealth senates, unelected, run by speculators and their managers and lawyers, appear to be making rules before which weaker economies and their governments are relatively helpless. I am wondering how else to explain the market penetration so apparent in the advertising of Mirada de Mujer. If what I am seeing is almost some kind of extorcion against governments like Mexico, the application of economic pressure so that the markets are open, allowing new investments schemes, Wall Mart, Payless, and Price Club, and all the advertisers in Mirada de Mujer, and something like 150 new maquiladoras per month (assembly plants where workers can not organize, where materials are often foreign-supplied, and where the finished product is shipped out, along with much the profits, without the need to pay taxes or tarrifs) against which Mexican companies can't compete. (A continuing pattern of Mexico not developing domestic industry). I'm wondering if it's something like, (with a polite smile over cocktails or coffee), Drop the restrictions or we will move the billions elsewhere (with a tap of the computer key) and your economy will go into free fall again, as it did in 1994. That sort of thing. I am not in the states, so I can't tell you. But have you seen any Mexican products advertised on US prime time shows? Or is the penetration just one way? Dianne reminds me as I write this that we have heard from a friend that businesses located in Mexico must be 52% owned by Mexicans. This might seem like good news, but then we have to revisit an historical Mexican tendency toward internal colonization, capital flight (Mexican deposits in banks in Houston, for example), and the concentration of wealth. We have heard that of the 10 million people in Mexico City, one million of them are as rich as any rich people in the world, and that 8 million of them are as poor as any poor people in the world -- leaving in that city a shrunken middle class devastated by the 50% devaluation of their wealth in 1995. When I left for the airport, I boarded a true colectivo, a beaten up VW bus, white, with room for ten persons. I paid 3 pesos (36 cents) for the half hour ride to the airport, not the 100 pesos ($11.90) tourists pay from the airport to Zihuatanejo. I was traveling in the second economy, and the second economy is where 80% of all Mexicans travel. In a few days I'm flying to Zihautanejo again, to meet a friend from California. He wants to rent a car and drive the coast road a bit. I told him I wasn't sure how good an idea that was. Another friend who has been coming to Mexico for thirty years and who has a house in our village has just returned from driving that road. He reported seeing Army all over, even a patroling armored car with a machine gun turret. Apparently this is the time to travel there, maybe even crossing from Zihuatanejo to Urapan (by day). Except that after a while, people agree here, the security forces will "forget," and thing will go back to where they were before. And people like the Second Secretary of the Egyptian Embassy and his family will enter zones whose degrees of danger they don't understand, and they will become victims. These are some of the things I will be thinking about as I press my nose to the window of the 20-seater or the 6-seater -- whichever one they pull out -- as I look down on the Tierra Caliente, this other part of Mexico, with its dry mountains and iridescent fish and the pelicans and the Red Snapper in butter and garlic, and the kind decent people who live there.
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