Friday, January 8, 2010

A Week in Paradise Called Mexico

It may be funny to some that, in spite of my constant desire to explore new places and my travel experiences in such far off locations as Asia, I have never been to the most obvious travel destination for North Americans, Mexico. I have had the opportunity to travel there in the past. Many of my college friends spent spring break in the well-known fiesta locales of Mexico. But a week of binge drinking in a little bubble of college spring breakers was hardly the unique experience I wanted in a country like Mexico. So I refused and waited for the right time when I could do Mexico, Mexican-style. Now, first year out of university and no longer a slave to a rigorous class schedule, I was able to plan my long-awaited trip to Mexico.
I heard that November was a great time to go. Sure, one might be taking their chances given that November is the last month of the rainy season, but I was from Seattle where a little wet never stopped me. November is a time when everything in Mexico is green and lush. Travel to Mexico in the middle of the tourist season, which is also in the middle of the dry season, and the land is thirsty and fading to brown. Tickets in hand, I packed my backpack and made for the airport.
Eight hours later, I landed in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Everyone clapped and cheered when the plane landed. Joining in with the other strangers, I felt a sense of companionship with the other travelers. I stepped off the plane, excited and curious, found a restroom where I could change into suitable clothing, and made my way into the humid Mexican evening to meet my friend.
I am a huge fan of Mexican food and one of the aspects I was most excited about upon traveling to Mexico was the chance to try authentic Mexican cuisine. We do get some tasty Mexican food in the United States, given the large Mexican population, but dishes are always smothered in melted cheese, piled five inches high with iceberg lettuce, and served with the same sauce regardless of whether one orders a burrito or a taco. The first evening in Mexico, I settled down in a cozy, family-run restaurant in the backstreets of Puerto Vallarta with my friend to savor the good company, a couple margaritas, and one of my all-time favorite Mexican dishes, fajitas; strips of meat sautéed with pepper, onions, and spices, and served with homemade salsa, a variety of sauces, and tortillas that melt in my mouth when I take a bite. Walking out onto the main strip, we dabbled in the Puerto Vallarta nightlife. Take the typical club scene, transport it to a tropical environment, add some middle aged women in provocative clothing, and subtract some years off the top 40 music station, and you have Puerto Vallarta nightlife. But, with the weather so pleasant outside, the party is not solely within the confines of the building, but merge with the boardwalk outside. We strolled along the sidewalk, margaritas in hand, admiring the view of the city lights stretching along the bay and laughing at the random processions making their way down the main strip, enticing the party crowd to scream and go wild. Tomorrow, we were headed into the "real Mexico," where scenes such as the Puerto Vallarta party life were rare.
An hour drive outside of Puerto Vallarta, one crosses into the Nayarit. We made our way to San Pancho, a small village one beach up from the surfing town of Sayulita. Mexico has so many activities to offer the active tourist. The next days were filled with surfing and sailing adventures, beaches, hikes, and culinary explorations.
I found myself sleeping more soundly in Mexico than I had in a long time. Days are brought to an end shortly after the sun sinks behind the hills. I crawl into bed leaving the doors and windows open to the sea breeze that cradles me into a deep, relaxing slumber. Mornings are the most beautiful time of the day. The sun is soft and the heat is bearable. I awake early, snag a cup of coffee, down a fresh fruit smoothie, and make my way down to the San Pancho seashore. My friends head for the ocean for some morning surf and I spread out on the beach, take a quick dip in the cool water, and settle in to read, thinking as a look up at the cloudless sky that I have finally found a piece of heaven on earth.
My friend has a small piece of property up on the mountains outside of San Pancho and we drive up the hillside on a dirt road filled with potholes and deep trenches, reminders of the past rainy season. The property is bare, but filled with promise. They are trying to start a garden filled with typical Mexican fruits and vegetables. Fresh fruit must be one of my favorite parts of traveling to tropical places. I could, and have in the Dominican Republic, lived entirely off avocados and mangoes. I peel the mango skins off with my bare hands and eat the sweet meat as I would an apple in Washington State. Mangoes grow on trees, much like avocados, but the most interesting fruit is the pineapple, which grows from the center of a plant whose arms wrap around the prickly fruit in a protective cradle. I leave them to the watering and make my way down the mountain to a private beach. The waves are rolling in. I shed my clothes and swim out. Once I make it beyond the chaos of the surf, I lie on my back in the water, hands overhead and hair flowing freely, and allow my body to go limp and float on the surface, rising and falling with each passing wave. The world is silent except for the whoosh of water in my ears. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and smile.
I had never been on a surfboard before, but here I was in Mexico, hiking through the forest to a small forgotten beach boasting some good learning waves. A short beachside walk-through on the technique and I was ready to hit the waves. Paddling through the water, it takes an expert eye to spot the promising waves, rolling in as large humps from the ocean's unknown. My friend sat watching the water and upon his call, I would paddle with all my might towards the shore. When I felt the promising push that meant the wave was carrying me along, I would snap to my surfing stance. Sometimes I made it, but many times, I stood too soon, lost the wave, or lost my balance and fell into the water. Falling off your surf board can be scary and frustrating, but if one learns to let the water overtake the body and allow the body to move with the water, then a quick dunk into the cool abyss can be refreshing; a deep breath before one climbs back on to the board to confront the next wave. Finally, after a couple unsuccessful attempts, I stood up and rode my first wave. The feeling of exhilaration and excitement caused me to break into a rewarding cry that could be heard the entire ride to shore. Yipeeeee-eeee-eee-ee-ee. From that moment forward, I knew that I would be consumed by the desire to feel as free as a felt on that first successful ride.
Sailing has also been known to give people a sense of freedom. Finding oneself in the middle of the ocean, with no boundaries and no constraints, can be the most liberating moment of one’s life. I have been on many sailboats before and always found the feeling to be one of claustrophobia. Here I was, staring at all of nature’s freedom, but unable to access it because I was stuck within the confines of a small boat. I do enjoy the trip, however, even if my sailing skills are limited to small lasers. Our destination was the Marionetta Islands, well, as long as I was not put behind the steering wheel. The islands are the only large pieces of land that can be seen from shore in this area of Mexico. They rise above the ocean, looking much like a crocodile with its snout pushed out of the water. It is a nature reserve, barely touched by the influence of humans. The beaches are white and the water is blue, clear and on this particular day, rough. We grab snorkels and head into the turmoil. Fish float aimlessly in the water, knowing that their efforts to steer would be lost and allowing the current to carry them along. Sea urchins and colorful coral cling to the rocks on the ocean floor. Being underwater is being introduced to a silent world. No talking, no cell phones, just watching. In this world, I am no longer an active member, but an observer of a realm I do not completely understand.
One can get quite lost in the back roads of Mexico, but that is the joy of exploration. I do this frequently in new cities. I head out with no destination and allow my curiosity to steer me. I absorb and watch. Then, when I am tired and lost, I find my way back. Mexico was different because instead of the city, nature was my new backyard. We climbed up a mountain to a small village boasting a breathtaking view of the valley and ocean below. Architecture in Mexico tends to be extremely colorful. It may be one of the few places in the world where one can find houses in every hue of the rainbow. The windows and doors are supported by metal strips shaped into intricate, rounded patterns. Flowers are an essential part of every Mexican home, and they weave themselves through the building as if they were as much a part of the design as the walls. I wondered through the small cobblestone streets of the village, observing the daily routine of its inhabitants. Old men sit on porches, smoking and playing games. Women shout from the interior, as smoke billows from stoves into their faces and the smell of spice waft onto the streets for the enjoyment of the people passing by. Young children run through the streets, chasing the free-range chickens that scrounge the side of the road for insects and seeds. One man walked a donkey strapped with a heavy load up the mountainside. Everyone was smiling and at every step was laughter and cheer.
Down in the valley, we drove the car down a forgotten trail, overgrown with brush and littered with boulders, over a stream and into the forest where we emerged in a small opening. A young man with his hat pulled over his face was taking a siesta in a hammock strung between two palm trees. Here was the entrance to the petroglyphs; old carvings made in the rock by the indigenous people of the area. Indigenous groups have held ceremonies here and the place has a sacred ambiance. We wondered through the woods, trying to spot the artwork among the shadows and hidden crevices of the forest. Following the river, we arrive at a place where the limestone rocks have been carved into almost perfect squares and stack up as the walls of a small canyon. The river has slowly eroded the limestone to create small pools of water and trickling waterfalls. The spring water in the shadows is cold and fresh. On the side of the pool is a small fire pit, filled with trinkets and offerings. We spot some of the most detailed petroglyphs, which are still only light shadows in the side of the rock. Finally, we make our way back on the trail and out into the orchards and green grasslands of the Mexican valley.
My last night in Mexico, we went salsa dancing at a waterfront restaurant in Sayulita. I love music and I love dancing, although I have never been salsa dancing before. The band was rocking, the people spinning and we jumped right into the crowd. The steps were easy to pick up- 3 steps, 4 beats- but my skill at the more complicated moves was limited. I tried to spin and turn, and I did, sometimes losing a beat or a step and laughing at my clumsiness. Latin American dancers have been trained to move their bodies from side to side at a young age. We, on the other hand, tend to move our bodies vertically. After a while, we sat back and watched the other dancers being led around the room in constant spins, turns, and jumps, admiring their skill and passion at the dance.
Then, it was time to head back to the real world after a week in paradise. It felt like I had been gone for much longer than a week. For me, Mexico was a land of many firsts. One could never be bored in Mexico, for there is so much to do and see. My experience in Mexico caused me to reflect on my own lifestyle, for here is a land where work is play, play is work, siestas are an essential part of every day, good humor and delicious food are always present, and dancers never miss a beat…

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