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Of cowboys and Federales

The other day I was getting all righteous about how you can knock back a Negra Modelo or two while hanging at the beach in front of Don Pedro’s in Sayulita. And it’s true. But then there’s the other side of Mexico which is less thrilling—the heavy-handed police and military presence. I mean, you’re kicking back on the beach, waiting for the tamale lady to come by, checking out the surf and all of a sudden a couple of military guys come strolling by carrying some serious firepower.

It seems kind of ridiculous. I mean, what are they looking for? Do they think drug runners are slipping stuff in and out of the beach on their surfboards? And if some serious drug lord did show up out of the blue carrying 50 pounds of coke in his backpack, what are these guys going to do? Start shooting up the beach?

But you look at this photo and the dichotomy of Mexico comes into full focus—soldiers strolling along the beach like lovers just in front of a middle-aged surfer.

photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

And then you walk across the plaza, making sure you don’t get nailed by a teenager zooming his motorbike or ATV down the narrow street, and you look up and…there’s a cowboy riding his horse into the sunset.

So strange, so evocative. And only in Mexico. 

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Beach food

One time in California I was sitting on the beach with friends watching the sun set and sipping a really nice New Zealand sauvignon blanc when a beach cop rode up on his 4-wheeler and told us to dump the wine on the sand or he’d give us all citations. Because, you know, we were obviously going to go crazy and start singing out loud or something.

In Mexico, not only is it okay to drink a cerveza or a margarita on the beach, hell, someone will go and get one for you. You don’t even need to bring your own.

photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

In Sayulita, you can rent a chair and an umbrella for less than $5 and then just sit there all day waiting for the food and drinks to come around. My favorite is the tamale lady. She walks the beach with a little styrofoam chest and sells chicken or pork tamales for about a buck each. Man, those tamales are killer. Then you ask a kid to run up to Don Pedro’s and get you a Negro Modelo, and you are set for lunch.

But you can get all kinds of other things to eat and drink on the beach as well. Usually there’s someone slicing up fruit—watermellon, papaya, cantaloupe—that they stuff into big plastic cups. And there are guys walking around selling camerones on a stick or fat tortas stuffed with chicken.

Maybe the most interesting food vendors are the guys selling candy. There’s one guy who walks up and down the beach carrying a white pole studded with red candied apples. They cost 10 pesos or about $.75. Just think how many candied apples he has to sell to make a living. That’s a tough job but even worse, in my opinion, is the guy who pushes a wheelbarrow through the soft sand selling gummy worms and pastel mints, pepitas and chili peanuts. You pick out what you want and he fills a paper cone with the candy or nuts and the whole thing might cost a buck at most. Then you go back to your chair in front of Don Pedro’s and the kid comes over and nods toward your beer bottle and says, “Uno más?” and you say, Sure. Uno más. Knowing no Mexican beach cop is going to come over and tell you to spill your cerveza in the sand.

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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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Jeff prepares to get back in the water in Sayulita. Photo by David Lansing.

Jeff is not a happy camper these days. As he says, he’s dealing with a number of “severe issues.” Jeff is a private man so I’m not going to go into what, exactly, those issues are, but trust me, you wouldn’t want to be dealing with any of them. Figuring that what Jeff needed was to get away from his own dark clouds, I invited him to join me in Mexico. He thought about it for awhile and then told me the plane fares were too expensive and, anyway, he was just too busy. Dealing with his life. I told him I’d find him a cheap plane fare, which I did, and convinced him that the best way to deal with all the crap at home was to flee to Mexico. Eventually he agreed.

I figured a guy in his position needed a little break in his life where he didn’t have to make any decisions. So I told him that once he got to Puerto Vallarta, I’d take care of everything else, including being there to greet him the minute he made it through Customs. Which turned out to be a little more challenging than I expected when, the night before he arrived, the Blue Whale broke down on me. I was hoping to get the Blue Whale taken care of before I had to leave for the airport, but this is Mexico and you never know. I had visions of him standing in front of the Puerto Vallarta airport in the heat and humidity, lamenting the fact he’d let me talk him in to coming down here. But, fortunately, I got the Blue Whale fixed an hour or so before Jeff’s arrival and had plenty of time to get to the airport.

When we got back to my place in Bucerias, I asked him what he felt like doing. “Drinking a margarita,” he said. “And then drinking another one.”

I could see how this was going to go.

Jeff is an old Southern California surfer, so the next morning I suggested we head for Sayulita where maybe he could rent a surf board. That sounded just fine to him. We packed some beers in a cooler and set up our beach chairs next to the rental chairs in front of Don Pedro’s. Now here’s a funny thing about Jeff: Despite the fact that he’s a surfer, he doesn’t really like the water. Any water. For instance, the afternoon before, we took our margaritas down to the pool and I jumped in, the cool water feeling good against my hot, sweaty skin, and waited for Jeff to get in as well. Which he never did. He didn’t even dip his toes in the water. And it was hot. Like almost 90. I asked him how come he didn’t get in the water and he said, without even looking at me, “I’m just fine where I am.”

So here we are at the beach in Sayulita and, again, it’s hot and humid. I’ve gone into the surf a couple of times but Jeff, the old surfer, hasn’t budged from his chair in hours. This is not a good sign. “Listen,” I say, “why don’t you go rent a surfboard? That shop next to Don Pedro’s is pretty good.”

Jeff doesn’t even bother responding. He just stares out at the breakers along the beach. After awhile, I go back in the water for another swim. I float on my back, beyond the breakers, watching the frigate birds circling overhead. When I swim back in, there’s a woman sitting in my beach chair next to Jeff. She’s got red hair and is wearing a bikini and has some sort of beaded amulet wrapped around her right ankle. She starts to jump up out of my chair when she sees me approaching but I tell her to sit back down.

The woman’s name is Gisselle. She’s a hairdresser back home in Vancouver but she also has a house down here in Sayulita where, in addition to doing the hair of women for weddings, she also teaches pilates. She’s trim and attractive and wearing a bikini. Jeff is smiling as he talks with her, which is something I haven’t seen for awhile. After awhile, Gisselle goes back to her spot on the beach not far from us, turning around every once in awhile to give Jeff a friendly smile. He smiles back. “I think I’ll go check out those surfboards,” he says after a bit. A few minutes later he’s walking down the beach, past Gisselle, a surf board tucked under his arm. Before getting in the water, he turns one last time and gives a little wave to Gisselle. She gives a little wave back. And then he throws himself on to his board and plunges into the surf. The boy is back.

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