January 2011

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The astronaut’s wife

The alcoholic astronaut in the pool at Casa Corona del Mar.

I drove up to the Fletcher’s house in Custodio on Saturday. Usually it’s a 90 minute drive through the jungle from my place in Bucerias but on Saturday it took me well over two hours, mostly because my car, the Blue Whale, wasn’t feeling well. At first her brakes were sticking, pulling me left or right on the road, and then they started locking up. By the time I reached Zacualpan, they weren’t working at all. Which isn’t a huge problem since the road at this point is just a pothole-filled country lane through farm country where you’re more likely to see tractors and horses than another car. You wouldn’t normally go faster than about 30 along here; I just cut it to about 15 or 20 and coasted whenever I could. Going back home on Sunday would be a challenge, but I’d worry about that later.

Both Chris and his brother, Dave, weren’t there when I finally arrived. They were in the annual homeowners association meeting, an all day affair. I don’t know anything about their HOA but I know the one I belong to at Punta Esmeralda is stacked with a few looneys and the annual meetings are something to be avoided at all cost. I think the same might be true of the HOA at Custodio but both Chris and Dave are far more judicious and patient than I am so it’s probably just as well that they actually go to this thing. So while they were arguing about whatever it was they were arguing about, I sat in their pool with a margarita watching the pelicans fly by. The weather was exceptionally pleasant.

Mechas was there, of course, as well as Signe, who was napping on an outdoor bed shaded by a strangler fig tree, and the Fletcher’s mother, Sally who is really one of my favorite people in the world, largely because she likes me to tell her stories, whether they are true or not, and I like telling them to her. She was sitting under the shade of a palapa reading a book on her Kindle and when she saw me, she patted the chair next to her and said, “David, come over here and tell me a story.”

I said, “Sally, you’ve heard all my stories.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, “just tell me one in a different way or make a new one up.”

I love that about her.

That night there was a party at one of the other houses to celebrate the end of the annual meeting (when you see how relieved everyone is to have this unpleasant event over with and how anxious people are to quickly have a margarita and then another one,  you begin to understand how all the quirky little customs associated with religion, like killing sheep or drinking wine, got started). I sat across from two women I’d never met before. One was an attractive woman named Laura who was dating one of the homeowners, Frank, and the other was an equally attractive woman named Pam who, along with her husband Brian, were close friends with Frank. Pam told me she was a therapist—up in Vancouver or maybe Calgary?—and asked me what I did.

“Well, I used to be an astronaut,” I told her. “But I’m not any more. I got booted out of NASA because of a drinking problem.”

“Really?” said Pam.

“Well, that and I was a sex addict.”

At this point Laura started to lean into the conversation. So I explained to both of them how I’d been married six times and then introduced them to Mechas, who was sitting on my right, and told them we’d just met two days ago and gotten married this morning. “So we’re here on our honeymoon,” I told them, clinking margarita glasses with Mechas.

“You two just got married today?” Pam asked incredulously.

“Just this morning,” said Mechas. “He’s impetuous.”

It went on like this for awhile. The problem with telling whoppers like this is that if they are not quickly seen for what they are, you end up solidifying the story until it becomes hard as concrete and then you don’t know how to get yourself out of it. Because if you finally say, “Oh, I’m just pulling your leg,” you make the people feel bad. Because they believed you. So then you only have two choices: either keep going with your stories, digging your hole deeper, or politely excuse yourself from the table and leave the party.

I was just about at this point and trying to decide what to do about it when Mechas got up to get herself another drink. Pam leaned over conspiratorially and put a single hand on my arm. “She doesn’t really seem like your type,” she whispered.

“No?” I said.

Pam shook her head. “Not really astronaut’s wife material if you know what I mean.”

I didn’t. But what did it matter?

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Steaks and booze

Steaks and booze at Mega. Photo by Mechas Grinnell.

The rest of the Fletcher party is flying in tonight. They’ll spend the night in Punta Esmeralda and in the morning head north to their house in Custodio. I plan on joining them up there over the weekend for a day or two. Their house, Casa Corona del Mar, is beautiful but it’s a bit isolated—the nearest real town, Zacualpan, which is really not much more than a dusty little village with a couple of paleta shops and a stand where you can get excellent roasted chicken—is about half an hour away. Usually the Fletchers will stop at the Mega store on their way through Bucerias for basics but since they won’t be getting here until nine or so this evening, I offered to make a Mega run for them to pick up any necessities. Chris Fletcher e-mailed me back with the following grocery list:

–8 rib-eye steaks

–2 bottles good tequila

–bottle of Controy

–6 bottles good white wine

–6 bottles good red wine

–2 bottles Champagne

That was their grocery list. Booze and steaks. Since they’re going to be there for all of four nights I was a little surprised they didn’t need more wine.

In the afternoon, after we’d had lunch at Mark’s in Bucerias, we dropped Signe off at the condo so she could take a well-deserved nap and then Mechas and I went out to Mega. Mega is just like any major supermarket in the U.S. except they tend to run out of things and then it might take a week or two before they have them again. For instance, last week I’d grilled up a couple of sweet potatoes I’d gotten at Mega and thought I might do that for the dinner I’m making tonight for the Fletchers but when I went to get some more, the store was out. A woman in a hairnet stacking tomatoes said, when I asked her if they had any more sweet potatoes, “Sí, vamos a tener muchos más la próxima semana.” Yes, we will have more next week.

One thing I particularly love at Mega is their mix of chili-spiced nuts and sunflower seeds and little crackers. You can get something like it at any Mexican store, but this mix is particularly good. The only problem is that you never know if Mega is going to have them or not. The first day I got here, I bought the only jar on the shelf and I haven’t seen any since. You might wonder, Why would that be? There is no reason.

Anyway, Mechas and I went to Mega and bought the tequila and the wine (we didn’t get the Champagne because there was none) and then we went to their excellent meat counter and asked the butcher for eight good-sized rib-eye steaks.

“It is not possible,” said the butcher, barely glancing up from the massive piece of beef he was carving up.

“No rib-eyes?” I asked, intentionally glancing at the section of cow from which the rib-eye comes that was just inches away from the butcher’s sharp thin knife.

“No,” he assured me. “Only New York steaks.”

“You have New York steaks but no rib-eyes?”


If this was a supermarket in the United States, I would have said, “What about the rib-eyes that are clearly on that hunk of cow you are butchering?” But this is not the United States and such a question in Mexico would be rude and inappropriate. So instead, I just shrugged and asked him to cut me eight New York steaks, which he promptly did.

When we got to the check-out stand, I laid all of the bottles of booze on their side, as they like you to do at Mega. As the conveyor belt brought our horde of liquor up to the checker, I saw her almost involuntarily lift one eyebrow.

“It’s not for me,” I told her. “Es para mis amigos.”

She smiled. “It’s okay,” she said cheerfully. Then the young boy who bags the groceries for tips let out a low whistle and, without saying anything, went off to get us a couple of boxes for all the wine. Under the guise of putting my credit card back into my wallet, I made Mechas wheel out the grocery cart full of booze to our car and load it in the back. After all, I was driving.

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Missing the Tamale Lady

The Sayulita Tamale Lady. Photo by David Lansing.

So much has changed in Sayulita since the flood swept through town last fall with its wall of mud. Many little shops and restaurants that I had gone to over the years are gone. But many new ones have sprung up. And some, I think, have just moved and I haven’t discovered them yet. Maybe they are still in Sayulita, maybe not.

When I used to spend the day at Sayulita lounging on a beach chair in front of Don Pedro’s, one of the things I particularly looked forward to was waiting for all the food vendors to come by with their wares. There were men in white shirts selling grilled shrimp on sticks and spears of freshly cut pineapple and guys pushing wheelbarrows full of candy and nuts in the hot sand. But my favorite was always the Tamale Lady. I don’t know what her name was. Everyone just called her the Tamale Lady. The waiter from Don Pedro would walk across the beach carrying a tray with my icy cold Negro Modelo and he would ask if I wanted to order something from the restaurant and I would say, “No, gracias, estoy esperando a la Señora Tamale. ¿La has visto?” And he would say, “Yes, she should be here soon.” And then I would wait and in five minutes or maybe half an hour, here would come the Tamale Lady.

Like almost all the beach vendors, she was always dressed all in white except for a well-worn pink cap on her head. I don’t know why the food vendors always dressed in white. Maybe to keep them cooler as they walked back and worth across the hot sand. Maybe because it made them stand out more from the rest of the crowd. The thing is, the other vendors—the ones selling bracelets or dolphin-shaped beer openers or instant tattoos—were always more colorfully dressed. It was only the food vendors who dressed all in white.

Anyway, the Tamale Lady is no longer here or, at least, I haven’t seen her. Nor the woman who sold the drowned Guadalajara-style tortas called ahogadas or the men with their skewers of grilled fish and peppers. They are all gone. In fact, the only food vendor I saw at all was a man with a tray of muffins and Mexican sweets and as he was walking up the beach, two very official looking men in dark slacks and dress shirts approached the man and a few minutes later, he too had left the beach. I followed the two officials as they walked further up the beach and asked them if it was now illegal to sell food on the beach. No, they said. You can sell food. Then why are there no food vendors? I asked. “¿Dónde está la Señora Tamale?”

The men shrugged. Maybe she has not bought her license, they said. And then they explained that in order to be a food vendor on the beach, you needed to get a permit. And most of the vendors did not have one. I do not know if this is a new policy, since the flood, or perhaps it have been the law before but they did not enforce it. Or maybe the permits are granted after the first of the year and many of the vendors just have not gotten around to getting theirs yet. I don’t know. All I know is that the Tamale Lady is gone from the beach at Sayulita and it is a shame.

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The back road to Sayulita

The church in Sayulita. Photo by David Lansing.

We had the day to kill before the Fletchers arrived in Puerto Vallarta so I took Mechas and Signe on a little tour of the area beginning with a drive to Sayulita. I myself haven’t been there since the floods last fall. I’d heard that the bridge into town had been washed out but if you just kept going straight on the road to Punta Mita, there was a back way into town. There was a little hand-lettered sign along the road pointing in the direction of the back road which took us through a part of town I’d never seen before. The cobblestone road with pitted with potholes and there were some heavily damaged vehicles, some covered in mud, that had obviously gone through the flood in September.

Mechas and Signe kept asking me questions about what we were seeing and I felt like a bit of an idiot because I couldn’t tell them much. As I said, I’d never been through this part of Sayulita. When you are a gringo and you regularly visit a place like Sayulita, you get used to seeing it one way. You drive over the little bridge and there is the fish store on the left and Burrito Revolution next to the paleta stand and you park somewhere around Gypsy Galeria because you will stop in here before going home to buy some little trinket like a milagro or a beer tray and then you walk a block to the beach and rent a couple of chairs and order a Negro Modelo from one of the waiters at Don Pedro’s because that’s just what you do. And after awhile you think that this is the town and this is where all the people live although if you really thought about it you’d realize it couldn’t possibly be true, that surely the waiters from Don Pedro’s and the woman pushing the cart down the street selling balloons are not living in the nice houses a block from the beach. They are living in the barrio, which you have never seen and, until the road washed out, didn’t even know existed. And now you are driving through the barrio and it is fascinating and full of life and very different from the tourist areas in Sayulita that you are used to.

So we came the back way and parked near the plaza and the old church, which I had never even been in, and both Signe and Mechas wanted to go inside so we did. There was really not much to it. It was just a simple little church, the sort you’d find in almost any little town in Mexico, but Signe and Mechas were quite taken with it. “Isn’t this wonderful?” Signe said, taking in the modest altar with the crucifix and the wooden pews and the wrought-iron standing holding prayer candles. And it was. It really was wonderful.

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Taking the bus from Guadalajara

Mechas and I celebrate her arrival in Bucerias.

During the long evening I’d been in contact with Mechas’ husband, Greg, a couple of times. He’d call me and say, “Mechas is in Guadalajara but she’s thinking of taking a bus to Puerto Vallarta.” It was very late in the evening and his wife was stranded in Guadalajara and thinking of taking a four-hour bus ride on some fairly nasty Mexican roads in the middle of the night but he was calm about the whole thing.

“The battery on her cell phone is dying,” he said, “so we can only text each other. And I’m not sure what sort of reception she’ll get once she’s on the bus.”

I told him to make sure she didn’t go all the way into Puerto Vallarta on the bus. If she did, it would take me another hour to get to her. “Tell her to get off at Bucerias Centro.”

“It’s a direct bus,” Greg said. “I don’t think they make stops.”

“Then she’ll have to talk the bus driver into it,” I said. “But it’s very important that he drops her off at Bucerias Centro.”

The way we left it was that Greg would call me when he got a text from Mechas saying she was in Bucerias and then I would go look for her. This was around midnight.

I sat there on the balcony looking out over the dark Bay of Banderas. The more I thought about things the more I thought this was a recipe for disaster. What if the bus driver wouldn’t stop in Bucerias? And even if he did, what was she to do? It’s not like there would be some place warm and well lit for her to wait for me. She’d just be standing on the side of the road, her suitcase in hand. Her and the borrachos. I couldn’t understand how Greg could be so calm about all this. Obviously he knew his wife better than I did, but if it was me, I’d be nervous as hell.

A little before one Greg called. “She’s there,” he said.

“In Bucerias?”


“Do you know where?”

“I’m not sure. She says there’s a big white building across the street from her.”

Great. There are a lot of big white buildings in Bucerias.

I got in the car and hurried down the highway to Bucerias. The town was dark. I took the lateral road that turned off into the center of town and slowed down, looking for her on both sides of the road but all I saw were the taxi drivers who huddle together on the median in the road playing cards. I tried to think of where the bus driver might have let her off, where it would have been easy for him to stop, but my mind was a blank and so I told myself that I would drive the lateral road through town and turn down every side street until I found her. I got to the plaza and made a u-turn and headed back for the highway. Out of the shadows of the ficus trees lining the street came a tiny wisp of a woman carrying some luggage. It was Mechas.

“The taxi drivers offered to give me a lift for free,” she said when she climbed into my car, “but I told them someone was coming for me. I don’t think they believed it.”

She was tired but not particularly frazzled by her adventures. Certainly not as frazzled as I was. She told me how she’d organized a group of other stranded travelers in Guadalajara and rented a van to get them to the bus station and then how she’d persuaded the ticket seller to sell her a discounted ticket so that she only ended up paying something like $20 for a four-hour bus trip and how she then had to talk the driver into stopping in Bucerias because they weren’t supposed to do that. “It helps that I can speak Spanish,” she said. That had to be the understatement of the evening.

Like I had for Signe, I made Mechas a large cocktail and then sent her off to bed. The last thing I did before going to bed myself was send a text to Chris Fletcher: “The eagles have landed.”

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