December 2011

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La Tovara crocodile. Photo by David Lansing.

Friday night about three I woke up in a cold sweat after dreaming that I was sitting in my house in Bucerias when it got hit by a hurricane. Of course, it’s not hard to figure out why I had this nightmare. My time in Bucerias has been a nightmare. And a hurricane of disasters. So I decided that I would get up at six, with everyone else, and tell them I wasn’t joining them on their excursion to San Blas. But when I got up and told Chris this he said, “Forget about it. You’re going to San Blas with us.”

And so I did.

La Tovara, the national park in San Blas, is sort of like the Mexican version of the jungle cruise ride at Disneyland. Guides in little boats slowly take you up the twisting waterways of the San Blas water refuge and point out the open-mouthed crocodiles on the banks and the turtles sunning on logs. Except these animals aren’t animatronics. They’re the real thing.

The cruise isn’t quite as much fun as it used to be. Even a few years ago, when you showed up for your cruise at seven or eight in the morning, they’d offer you a free beer. But times are tough at La Tovara; now you have to buy your own beers.

The Fletchers have done this cruise eight or nine times and know that you want to get there right after they open, around seven. That way you see more wildlife and avoid the crowded boats that tend to zip through the mangroves later in the day. So there we were, the first boat on the water, admiring the orchids growing wild on the tree branches and hundreds of tropical birds—tiger herons and green kingfishers and mangrove warblers—when we come around a bend in the river and there’s a six-foot long crocodile just hanging out with his mouth open. I asked the guide why he stood there with his mouth open and he shrugged and said it was how crocodiles regulated their body temperature. Or perhaps he was just thinking of the good ol’ days when tourists would come by and pour a little Corona down his gullet.

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Releasing Olive Ridley turtles

Volunteers releasing 2,000 Olive Ridley turtles at Playa las Tortugas. Photos by David Lansing.

The Fletcher’s house in Custodio, Casa Corona del Mar, is situated on a rocky cliff about 30 feet above the ocean. To the north is Punta Gorda jutting out like a crocodile head from the coastline and beyond that San Blas. To the south is an estuary that is a sanctuary for all kinds of seabirds. If you cross the estuary during low tide, when you will still get wet up to your navel, you reach a beautiful long white sandy beach, called Playa las Tortugas, where Olive Ridley turtles come and lay their eggs in the sand. Usually the turtles lay their eggs in the fall during the arribada, which is sort of like a turtle version of the invasion of Normandy. Who knows how this is coordinated or who is the turtle general that decrees that now is the time to assault the beach, but this is what they do.

Of course, even assaulting the beach in mass, the odds are against the survival of their offspring. Each female will dig a hole in the sand with her rear flipper and deposit 100-110 eggs that then must incubate undisturbed for 55 days before they hatch. Even if they survive hanging out on the beach for two months, the odds are not good that they will survive in the wild. First they have to crawl across the beach as seagulls and other birds pick them off one by one and then even if they make it to the surf, they have to contend with all the fish in the sea just waiting for an easy meal. In fact, it’s estimated that only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings will survive. Not great odds.

So although the arribada is over for the season, there are always a few old girls who didn’t get the memo and continue to find their way to Playa las Tortugas to lay their eggs in November or even December  which means they are hatching just about now.

Yesterday afternoon a small group of us went down to the turtle sanctuary and discovered that they had maybe 2,000 baby Olive Ridleys that they would be releasing about an hour before sunset and we were invited to help with the release. One of the student volunteers came down with a plastic tub with the two thousand squirming turtle hatchlings and told us the rules. He drew a long line in the sand and told us we were all to stay behind that line. We would be given a handful of hatchlings and we were to place them on the sand facing the ocean and let them go. Do not help them, he said. It is very important they crawl over the sand and find their own way into the water. It is how they remember where to come back in 10 or 15 years when it is time to lay their eggs. And then he walked down the line of volunteers with his plastic tub and gave everyone large handfuls of turtles and at his signal, we all gently put them down on the sand. Watching, like nervous parents, as they took tiny steps towards the pounding surf. Knowing full well that from these 2,000 or so hatchlings only one or two would ever return. If that.

I guess I’m the grinch in this bunch. I look at all these tiny little turtles struggling to even get to the water and it seems almost impossible to me that even one will survive. Chris and Malin, on the other hand, wander up and down the beach, finding the little hatchlings that have already been carried by the strong current several hundred yards from where they were released and thrown back up on the sand by the powerful surf. They carefully pick up the dark bodies, weighing less than an ounce, and, very much breaking the rules, take them back to the ocean. They do this over and over again, even as the sun has long ago set and it is almost impossible to see. For them, there is always a possibility of life.

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San Blas fish stall

This morning Chris, Pete, and I got up a little after six. We were going fishing. The day before, Chris had arranged with Diego, a fisherman who lives at the bottom of the hill in Plantanitos, to take us out in his panga. The dorado are running but to get to where they are you have to go far out to the islands, and if you ever saw Diego’s small outboard motor, which he covers in a dirty old T-shirt, you’d think twice about going an hour or more offshore in his boat. Instead, we would just fish along the coastal reefs where the local fisherman go.

So just before seven, we were all loaded up with rods and reels and tackle boxes along with some water and snacks for the morning, but when we got to the gate, the guard told us that Diego had come up earlier in the morning to let us know there would be no fishing. The winds, which had been blowing for the last couple of days, were making the surf too big and he was afraid his panga would get swamped pushing off from the beach.

This was too bad. I had really been looking forward to going out in Diego’s panga and doing some fishing. You get out in the deep blue water where the dolphins break the surface all around you and the water is so clear you can look down and see the large schools of jack crevalle or toro swimming beneath you and you tend to forget that you have a house in Bucerias that has some major plumbing and electrical problems.

Well, I said as we drove back to the house, perhaps we can go out tomorrow. Tomorrow, Chris said, we were planning on going to La Tovara in San Blas to look at the birds and the crocodiles. We can go fishing on Saturday.

Which is a bit of a conundrum for me since I was planning on heading back to Bucerias this afternoon after fishing. I would like to go fishing Saturday but I do not want to go to San Blas and it seems silly to sit around the Fletcher’s house tomorrow while they are all doing the jungle cruise in San Blas. So now I will have to decide whether to drive home tomorrow and see what sort of new horrors await me in Bucerias or stay here for a couple more days.

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Chris and Malin Fletcher at the bat caves. Photo by David Lansing.

It’s always a full house at the Fletcher’s home in Custodio. At the moment, besides me, they’re also hosting several friends from Southern California and Chris’s cousin, Wendy, an artist who lives in Puerto Vallarta, who was here with a large posse of friends, just left this morning. In addition, Chris’s brother, Dave, and his wife are in residence next door along with several of their friends. So it’s a large group.

And the Fletchers aren’t the sort of people who like to just lie around the pool (although they do that as well). Yesterday when I arrived, everyone was getting massages by a woman who came up from Sayulita just for that purpose, and then later there was paddle-boarding up the estuary followed by a twilight walk along Turtle Beach. This morning there was a power walk into Platanitos before breakfast followed by a yoga session led by a woman from Alaska and then water aerobics. Not for me, of course. I mainly just hung around the pool and watched the pelicans fly by along the coast.

Late in the day, Chris announced that we were all going to the bat cave. You go there just before sunset and, he said, thousands of bats come out of the caves in the cliffs and chase the clouds of mosquitos that come out at night. So plans were made. Dave Fletcher made pitchers of margaritas. Chris made up some gin and tonics. Everyone doused themselves in bug spray and piled in to various SUVs and we drove a short distance through the jungle and then walked along a path that ended up at a bluffside platform about a hundred feet above the ocean. Below us, supposedly, were the bat caves.

We sipped our cocktails. We watched the sky turn purple orange. We complained when one or the other of us was bitten by a mosquito or no-see-um. And we waited. About ten or fifteen minutes after the sun had set, but while there was still light in the sky, the first bat appeared. Flying drunkenly over our heads, chasing bugs. And then a few more joined him. Eventually we saw a dozen or so bats. Some careening within feet of us as they chased down their dinner. A few of the bats almost banged in to Leah who decided she’d had enough. She started walking back to one of the cars. At this point it was getting dark so the rest of us decided to head back as well. Using the beam from a single flashlight to carefully make our way through the vines and overhang of the jungle. We hadn’t exactly seen thousands and thousands of bats. But it was kind of a cool experience anyway.

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Marta, the Fletcher's cook and housekeeper at Custodio. Photo by David Lansing.

It’s a nice drive to Custodio. For half an hour or so you slowly wind your way through the jungle, usually crawling along in a conga line of traffic led by a shuttering old truck or a heavily-laden bus bound for Guadalajara or Tepic, until you get to San Pancho where the road opens up and you pass by dozens and dozens of fruit stands selling coconuts and papayas and star fruit and even dried shrimp.

At Las Veras you turn inland and drive for about half an hour over narrow country roads passing farmers on bicycles or horses. Always there are a few tractors on the road making things interesting. Eventually you come into Zacualpan, a sleepy little town that may hold the record for the most number of speedbumps on the road. Turn left at the church, pass by the paleta stands and the women grilling chicken along the side of the road, through Ixtapa, down the cobbled road towards Plantanitos and its many thatched beach restaurants, and up the hill to Punta El Custodio.

When I arrived at Casa Corona del Mar, the Fletcher’s home on the bluff overlooking the ocean, no one was around except for Marta, their cook and housekeeper. I love Marta. She has taken me in to her kitchen to show me how to make tortillas from scratch and let me play sous-chef as she made her wonderful chicken mole. And even though I usually only see her once a year or so, she always remembers me. So here I was, standing outside the Fletcher’s house by the fountain, looking in through the open kitchen window at Marta who was working at the sink, and she looked up, surprised to see me, and immediately welcomed me with her warm smile.

It was good to be back in Custodio.

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