November 2012

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To eat or not to eat the dorado

A panga in Sayulita with a dorado painted on the front. The fish used to be prolific in these waters.

The other day I was talking with Dennis, who owns Gecko, the rental car company here in Bucerias. Dennis does all the work on the Blue Whale and I wanted to see when I could bring her in for some scheduled maintenance work. Dennis is also a big fisherman so I asked him how the fishing was in the Bay of Banderas. He said it was good—lots of tuna and marlin.

“How’s the dorado catch?” I asked him.

He shook his head. “Not good,” he said. “It’s all fished out. Too many long-line boats.”

I found that shocking to hear. The dorado catch a few miles off the coast has always been phenomenal. And now, according to Dennis, there just wasn’t much out there anymore. Which explained why, the day before, when I’d gone to Mega, hoping to pick up some fresh fish to grill for dinner, and had specifically looked for dorado, they didn’t have any. Which really surprised me at the time. Now I knew why.

I bring this up because last Sunday, when Jeff and I spent the day in Sayulita, we saw one of the fishing pangas coming back from an excursion with several tourists, all of whom got out of the boat holding dorado. They weren’t particularly large dorado, but dorado none the less. So evidently they’re not completely fished out. Still, it made me wonder if the tourists knew that they had caught fish that are becoming increasingly rare along this part of the Mexican coast. Probably they had no idea.

Late that afternoon, as we were preparing to leave, we wandered down to the little fish market close to the bridge. A couple of fishermen were cleaning some shrimp they had brought in that day. Just out of curiosity, I asked them if they had any dorado. One of them nodded and went behind a curtain, coming back with an ice cooler. He opened it up and showed me several filets of fresh dorado.

Now here was my dilemma: I knew that dorado were being over-fished. But I was really lusting after one of those fillets. So part of me was going, Don’t buy it; the fishery here isn’t sustainable. The other part of me was going, They already caught the dorado; if you don’t eat it, someone else will.

In the end, we bought it. And it was even better than I’d hoped. But I can’t honestly say that I really enjoyed it.

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The surfer girls in Sayulita

A group of local surfer girls pass by me on the beach at Sayulita. Photo by David Lansing.

Sunday we decided to make one last visit to Sayulita. We set up our beach chairs at our usual spot in front of Don Pedro’s and waited for the clouds to clear before getting in the water, but it never really happened. At one point, it even started raining a bit. No one paid any notice. Abuelita might hold a folded newspaper over her head but other than that the children continued to throw sand at each other, poppa snored in his chair, and the wild dogs ran up and down the beach barking at each other.

On weekdays and Saturdays, Sayulita is populated with snowbirds from Canada and plump teens from the States, as well as the odd doughy English couple or rasta heads from all over the world, but Sundays the beach belongs to Mexican families. Any other day, you’ll see nothing but white kids getting their first surf lessons here, but on Sundays, the water is filled with nut-colored boys and girls, mostly local, getting free (or highly discounted) surf lessons from young Mexican instructors. It’s wonderful to see. At one point, when it looked like the sun might actually make an appearance, I waded out in the surf and bobbed not far away from a surf class where a young woman was teaching four chicas, no more than 15 or 16, how to surf. The girls screamed and giggled the way young teen girls do, but they also caught quite a few waves and did quite well.

I talked to their instructor in the water for a few minutes. She told me the girls were her personal project. “When I was growing up here, you never saw any young girls in the water,” she said. “They were too intimidated.” In fact, she’d learned to surf in California after moving there as a young girl with her parents. But a few years ago, she’d moved back to Sayulita, and now she wanted to give these young girls something she’d never had here—confidence in the water.

“There is no reason they can’t surf here as well as the boys,” she said. Then she turned her attention to one of the young girls who was paddling hard to catch a modest wave. The girl got ahead of it, lifted herself quickly up off her board, and gracefully rode the swell all the way in to the beach. It was a lovely to see.

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The boys at Rincon de Guayabitos

The beach scene at Rincon de Guayabitos.

When Rose heard that Jeff and I were going up north to Custodio to visit the Fletchers, she suggested we stop at Guayabitos on the way back. “It’s my favorite beach,” she said. “The bay is so calm.” So Saturday when we were having breakfast with the Fletchers, I asked Malin what she thought about Guayabitos.

She hesitated just for a second before saying, “It’s okay.”

Now if you know Malin, you know that a tepid response like that is about as close as she ever comes to saying she doesn’t like something. She’s one of those rare people who finds it almost impossible to ever say anything negative about something—even a beach. But when she said, “It’s okay,” what I actually heard in my head was, “I don’t like it.”

Guayabitos—or Rincón de Guayabitos, as it’s officially called—is a small town about 70 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta. For decades it was nothing much more than a fishing village. But in the 70s, the Mexican government developed it as a vacation destination, perhaps thinking it would become the next Acapulco. It never developed much of an international draw, but it did become quite popular with thousands of middle-class Mexican families who flock to the area on weekends and during Semana Santa, Mexico’s Spring Break equivalent.

We turned off the highway and drove slowly down Avenida del Nuevo Sol, the town’s main drag, passing the usual hodge-podge collection of auto-repair shops, cheap restaurants, and souvenir stands selling inflatable floats, beach umbrellas, and suntan lotion. There were any number of inexpensive hotels lining the strip painted in sherbet colors of tangerine and lime and cherry. Every once in awhile, we’d catch a glimpse of the beach on our right but it wasn’t clear as to how you accessed it or where there was public parking. Eventually we decided to just pull over near a laundromat and go exploring.

Traveling, as I have, all over the world in all sorts of circumstances, I’ve learned to trust my gut instincts about a place, and what my instincts were telling me here is that we should not leave anything valuable in the car—and we should not leave the car unattended for more than a few minutes. Which is why I suggested to Jeff, before locking up, that he might want to take his backpack, which contained his wallet and passport, with him.

“But we’re just walking down to the beach,” he said.

“I know,” I told him. “Still, I wouldn’t leave that stuff in the car.”

Maybe it was the group of shirtless teens lolling about in front of a taqueria. Or maybe it was the down-at-the-heels man squatting on his heels in front of the laudromat. Something about the place just didn’t feel right.

We walked down the avenida until we found a dirt road that veered off towards the beach. It was lined with a sewage canal that gave off fumes of muck and trash and dead animals. At the end of the road was an open-air restaurant right on the beach. Two little boys were playing Pogs on the concrete floor while a teenager sat hunched over a laptop. There were 20 or 30 tables in the restaurant and although it was just after four—comida time for most Mexicans—only an elderly couple, sitting silently in the corner, were dining.

We passed through the restaurant and walked out on to the wide, brown sandy beach. The bay was full of Jet-skis and pangas. Hundreds of families sprawled on blankets and towels up and down the beach while vendors hawked hammocks and silver bracelets and shrimp-on-a-stick and plastic cups full of sliced pineapple and watermelon. In short, it didn’t look terribly different from the scene you’d find at Sayulita, just 15 or 20 minutes further south, but it just felt different. And not in a good way. Jeff and I had originally thought about spending the afternoon here, but after taking a short walk up the beach, we decided we’d seen enough and decided to leave.

Back at our car, several of the shirtless youths we’d seen hanging around earlier were now huddled around our car. I smiled. “Buenas tardes,” I said. I got no response. Slowly the boys moved back a few feet as I unlocked the car.

“You are visiting Guayabitos?” one boy said in English.


“Good restaurant across the street.”

“I don’t think we’re staying.”

“No? Why not? Very good food.”

“We’ve already had our comida.”

The youth slowly nodded, carefully watching us as we got in the car. It was hot inside and I rolled down the windows. The youth leaned his arms across my open window, his face just inches from my own. “Come back again sometime,” he said with a smile. “We welcome you.”

I nodded. “We’ll do that,” I said. And then he moved away from the car and we drove slowly down the street full of potholes, the boys standing there watching us go.

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The oh-so-stylish Malin wearing one of her many hats. Photo by David Lansing.

Earlier this year, Malin celebrated one of those big birthdays with a big 0 behind it and I volunteered to make a video for the party. Her husband, Chris, gave me literally thousands of photos to sift through for the video. Shots of her growing up as a child in Sweden, coming to California as an exchange student, her courtship and marriage to Chris, then the three babies that followed. When I’m putting videos like this together, I’m always looking for some sort of theme running through the photos, something I can hang a story on. With Malin, it was hats. Over the years, there were shots of her wearing Swedish naval hats and Viking horns; fur hats, felt berets, and wool caps; big, floppy JackiO straw numbers and peculiar British hats with feathers and such.

I thought what I’d do is interview Sally, her wonderful, stylish mother-in-law, and rather tongue-in-cheek, have Sally point out that as a mom-wife-volunteer-teacher-Swedish advocate, Malin obviously wore a lot of hats in the family. And intersperse Sally’s interview with dozens of quick shots of Malin over the years wearing various hats. But the video got to be a bit long as I was putting it together and I had to scrap the hat idea.

What I didn’t stop to consider when I was thinking of Malin and hats is that her husband, Chris, also has a fondness for odd hats. As you can see from this photo I took of him last year when we went birding in San Blas. If you look closely, you’ll see that he’s actually wearing two hats: a baseball hat and then a floppy straw number. It’s rather striking, don’t you think? Perhaps some fashion designer will see this photo and all the male models will be wearing double hats during fashion week next spring.

Chris just might start a new trend in the fashion world with this double hat look. Photo by David Lansing.

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Turtles and a sunset in Custodio

The sun sets over Custodio in Mexico. Photo by David Lansing.

Jeff and I planned to drive up to Custodio mid-day to visit the Fletchers but by the time we actually got out of Bucerias the day was almost gone. We took the stone steps down to the water’s edge and crossed the estuary in waist-high water to Playa Tortugas. At the turtle preserve, they were preparing to release a thousand or so baby turtles. We watched as one of the workers dug deep holes in the sand looking for any turtle eggs that hadn’t hatched yet. The man in charge said they would release the turtles about half an hour before sunset and we could help, if we wanted, but we would have to pay. The amount of money he wanted wasn’t a lot, but the request irritated Chris. He has happily donated hundreds of dollars to the turtle facility and I think he was annoyed that now he was being asked to chip in more just to watch them release the turtles tonight.

The three of us—Chris, Malin, and I—have done the turtle release several times and none of us were really interested in waiting around for another half hour to watch it again, so instead, we walked further down the beach, passing by several dead fish washed up just beyond the tide line that were being slowly picked at by vultures. The vultures didn’t seem particularly hungry. One or two would rip a gash in the stomachs of the fish and pull out the guts to eat but there was no feeding frenzy going on. It was all very civilized, considering they were vultures.

By the time we got back to the estuary, the sun was very low in the sky. The tide was a little higher and it was more difficult crossing over. If the water got above your waist, it would pull you out towards the ocean or inwards towards the estuary, depending on which current you were in. Blue crabs, the size of abalone shells, skittered about at our feet. Every once in awhile you’d nick one and you could feel their pincers lashing out.

When we got back to Casa del Mar, there was just barely enough time to shower off the salt water and make a pitcher of margaritas. We sat out under the palapa, all of us rather quiet, watching the sun as it dropped like an orange balloon into the ocean. The day was done.

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