January 2009

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Obama in Mexico

Like most everyone else, Mexicans are excited about Obama (let’s face it—after 8 years of The Decider who isn’t just a little Bushed?). The photo below is of a mural, not a poster, painted on the wall of Burrito Revolution in Sayulita, a little surfing town about 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta.

Frankly, the mural is better than the burritos. Still, even though they may be some of the most expensive burritos in Mexico (I mean, come on–$5 or $6 for a burrito?), there’s always a line outside this place because it’s on the main drag and just a couple of blocks up from the beach.


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

If you make the effort to cross the plaza and hike up a little hill, you’ll find a couple of women grilling chicken on the street. For a buck and a half you get the most awesome pollo taco you’ll ever have. Then you go into the family home where they’ve set up a couple of tables and their kids—maybe 7 or 8 years old—will bring you a Fanta or a Pepsi plus some killer homemade hot sauce that will definitely clean your sinuses out. Street food. And true cambio from the Americanized crap at Burrito Revolution.

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The thing about staying at the Fletcher’s Casa Corona del Mar is that you’re bound to gain weight. The minute you walk in the door (even if it’s well before noon) one of the Fletchers is liable to offer you a cerveza or a margarita made with just-pressed limes. Just to be polite, I’m liable to say, “Sure, why not,” thinking I’ll spend the afternoon lounging on one of their oversized outdoor beds on the patio and, you know, make my single margarita last until comida.


Photos by David Lansing

Photos by David Lansing

The problem is that the Fletchers are treacherous people; every time you close your eyes, just for a moment, or grab the binoculars to look at the humpback whales breaching a short distance from shore, they refill your drink.

And then the afternoon becomes what I like to call a Mexican Dorothy Parker afternoon. Remember what she said about martinis? “I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under the host.”

The same goes for the Fletcher’s margaritas.

Yesterday, they hosted a fiesta at their home. Marta and several other cooks at Punta el Custodio made a plethora of food, ending with red and green enchiladas and grilled camerones the size of small lobsters.

Since Marta was otherwise employed and the Fletchers were being gracious hosts, I took over as bartender, making batch after batch of blended margaritas. Of course, I had to sample each pitcher to make sure I’d gotten the ingredients just right, sometimes adding another splash or two of tequila, other times sweetening things up with a bit more Mexican Controy (which, to my tastes, is far superior in a margarita to the traditional French Cointreau).

We drank, we ate. The Latin music was fabulous. People got a little tipsy (did someone fall into the pool?). As often happens, the hangers on stayed late and laughed riotously at absolutely nothing. Eventually when the last guests left, I tucked myself into what the Fletchers call The Chicken Room (because of its yellow walls and tin chicken lamps) and turned off the light. Amazed to see that it was 9:30.

That’s what happens when you start drinking Marta’s margaritas before noon.

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Playa las Tortugas

There are two ways to get to Playa las Tortugas from the Fletcher’s house, Casa Corona del Mar. You can make your way down the hill to Platanitos and then drive for about six miles down a rutted dirt road through Mexican cowboy land (cattle, mango groves, and fields of tobacco) until the roads ends at a huge grove of coconut palm trees, part of a former plantation, that delineate Turtle Beach. Or, if you’d rather, you can wait until low tide and just walk across the estuary.

The latter approach might take you two minutes of wading through shallow water as opposed to a 30 minute drive. But there are risks. When the tide is up the current is strong and weak swimmers can easily be pulled out into the ocean where currents will quickly sweep you up along the coast where it is almost impossible to exit the water because of crashing waves and a rocky coast line. So you need to time your visit properly so you don’t get stuck on the wrong side of the estuary.


Crossing the estuary at low tide

Crossing the estuary at low tide

But one way or the other, you have to go to Turtle Beach. It is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Yesterday, around noon, I crossed the estuary in knee-high water and combed the golden beach for miles, collecting shells, and saw only three or four other beach goers. Later, I just plopped myself down in the shallow water, barely deep enough to cover my body, and closed my eyes as the small waves washed over me. It was as close to an all-natural massage as you’re going to get.


The long, sandy beach at Playa las Tortugas

The long, sandy beach at Playa las Tortugas

I haven’t done this yet, but Babs, a friend of the Fletchers, says I absolutely must take the estuary birding trip with Armando. She says Armando is an autodidact who knows all the flora and fauna here in Nayarit.

“At one point,” she said, “Armando whistled to a hummingbird and it came out to talk to him—just like a Disney movie.”

Hmmm….The Hummingbird Whisperer? 

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Why Wal-E bites Mexicans

Nobody has ever accused me of being a dog lover, but I like Wendy’s dog, Wal-E, well enough. Perhaps because he’s always on a leash. Even when he’s just barking at the low-flying pelicans that taunt him while hanging out with me by the Fletcher’s pool. That’s because Wal-E doesn’t like Mexicans. Even though he’s a Mexican dog. Like Lou Dobbs, he indiscriminately attacks brown people (Is it possible that Lou Dobbs is actually Mexican?). Crazy, I know.


photo of Wal-E by David Lansing

photo of Wal-E by David Lansing

Chris’ cousin, Wendy, found Wal-E in the Wal-Mart parking lot in Puerto Vallarta. Which is how he got his name.

Nobody knows Wal-E’s family history but it’s not hard to imagine. He was dirty, skinny, and starving to death when Wendy spotted him. A street dog. With a chip on his scrawny shoulder. No doubt long abused by whoever came across him. In the Wal-Mart parking lot, Wendy watched one Mexican after another offer Wal-E some leftover nachos or maybe a scrap from one of those chorizo pizzas they sell at the Sam’s Club next door, but despite Wal-E’s obviously dire circumstances, he wouldn’t take their food. Or get anywhere near them without growling.

But when Wendy approached him with some chili and lime-flavored peanuts, he voraciously gobbled them straight from her hand. It just about broke her heart, she said. Now, maybe he just happens to be a dog who prefers spicy peanut snacks to gloppy nachos (who doesn’t?), but I doubt it.

Having decided then and there to adopt Wal-E, she tried to take him with her into Wal-Mart but was turned away. No dogs in the store. So she tied him up to her Jeep and gave 10 pesos to one of those kids who loads your groceries into the car to get him some water and keep an eye on him. When she came back, both the kid and Wal-E were gone. She was heartbroken.

So Wendy drove around the barrio behind Wal-Mart looking for Wal-E. And there he was, hanging around in front of one of those rotisserie chicken joints, the sort of sidewalk Mexican enterprise where you can get a whole roasted chicken, rice and beans, guacamole, salsa, and a dozen corn tortillas for about seven bucks. I love those places.

Anyway, that’s where she found Wal-E. Except he was on the other side of the highway. Which was a problem. Because in this part of Mexico, you can’t make a left turn from the left lane of the highway. What you have to do if you want to turn left is turn right instead onto a lateral road and then go way past where you wanted to turn until you come to a signal and then you cut across the lane you were in five minutes ago to make your turn. It seems crazy at first, I know, but after awhile you get used to it. Just the way some people get used to calling French fries chips and eating them with mayonnaise.

By the time Wendy had made a right hand turn onto the lateral road, gone a quarter mile or so to the next stop light, waited for the turn signal, crossed the highway, exited onto another lateral road, and found the rotisserie chicken place, Wal-E had disappeared again.

Fortunately, within minutes she spotted him. This time he was in the middle of the highway, trapped between four lanes of rickety buses, speeding pick-ups, and over-loaded trucks. Wal-E was doomed. So Wendy did the only thing she could do; she stopped her car in the middle of the road. Which is like coming to a halt in the middle of a Los Angeles freeway (if the freeway was full of potholes, dead animals, and auto parts that have flown off countless vehicles).

She got out and, somehow avoiding death, grabbed Wal-E. He then rode the entire way to Punta El Custodio sitting on Wendy’s lap with his snout tucked in her crotch (you know boys). In gratitude, the minute they got home, Wal-E jumped out of the car and bit two  construction workers mixing cement at Bodega Boys’ parents house across the street. For good measure, he then attacked Ismael, who manages the development. And is the kindest, nicest soul I know. Ismael refuses to spray the compound’s landscaping for mosquitos in the rainy season because it would, you know, kill them. But he threatened to shoot Wal-E. Right then and there. Despite the fact that I’m pretty sure Ismael doesn’t own a gun.

The thing is, dogs aren’t allowed in this Mexican development. Particularly not dogs that go around biting Mexicans for no reason. So Wendy told Ismael that Wal-E was just visiting, which he sort of was, and that he’d go home with her when she left Casa Corona del Mar, neglecting to mention that this wouldn’t be for another four months. Ismael didn’t completely buy Wendy’s story, however. He told her Wally could stay, temporarily, but only if he was always on a leash. Always. Even inside Casa Corona del Mar.

Which is why, yesterday afternoon, Wal-E was tied to my teak chaise lounge, driving me crazy while he barked incessantly at the pelicans as I tried to enjoy one of Marta’s fresh-squeezed lime juice margaritas while finishing my Jon Krakauer book about those violent Mormons. And this is why it was so difficult to explain to Wendy what happened to Wal-E as I dozed off after another margarita or two. The leash was still there. Only Wal-E was gone. Needless to say, I felt horrible. But I’m sure Wendy will find him. Hopefully before Ismael does.   

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Marta, my dear

I told the Fletcher’s cook, Marta, this morning as she was squeezing about 50 oranges for our fresh juice that I wanted her to teach me how to make tortillas this afternoon.

No se ría,” she said without even looking up.

Soy serio, Marta” I told her. “You make wicked tortillas. They’re more addicting than Krispy Kremes.”

Cuál es Krispy Kremes?”


This didn’t impress her. But then again, it’s hard to impress Marta. But late in the afternoon, when I was standing in waist-deep water in the pool, because it was just too hot and steamy to not be in the water, reading Jon Krakauer’s book about evil Mormons, Marta yelled from the kitchen that she was making tortillas for our comida and if I wanted to watch, I’d better hurry. So I grabbed a towel and, dripping water all over the Fletcher’s freshly-polished marble floors, hustled into the kitchen.

 Marta grabbed a golf ball-sized wad of dough, slapped it back and forth between her hands a few times and then smushed it flat between a couple of layers of plastic wrap on a wooden tortilla press. I knew this part. What I’d wanted to see was her mixing up the dough. I wanted to know what went in it. Because Marta’s tortillas puff up, like sopapillas, and that’s just not normal with corn tortillas. Plus they’re sweeter.

“Marta, cuál esta en la tortilla dough?”

She shrugged. “Esto y ése.” This and that. Whenever I ask Marta what’s in a dish, she says, “Esto y ése.” But she won’t tell me what this and that are. It’s this little dance she does with me. The only clue I had was the giant bag of Maseca corn flour on the counter. But there was more than just corn flour and water in these tortillas, which I was eating almost as quickly as Marta pulled them off her comal.

I asked her if she put pork lard in the dough.

Manteca?” she said, laughing, but not really answering my question. But something was making those puppies puff up and it wasn’t corn meal. So I decided to try a new tactic. I filled a warm tortilla with frijoles from the olla pot on the stove and raved about them. These are the best beans ever, I told her. So flavorful. “Muy saboroso. What’s in them?”

Marta, still patting out tortillas, didn’t even bother to look up at me. “Esto y ése.”

I think ignoring me is pretty much Marta’s way of flirting with me. If so, it’s working marvelously. 

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