Friday, April 10, 2009

Another Winter in Yelapa

This was our fifth winter in Yelapa, the still pleasantly offbeat Mexican village some twenty miles south of Puerto Vallarta that, unless one has a vehicle and chooses to drive the twisting, dusty jungle road down from El Tuito to where it ends on the ridge above Yelapa, can only be reached by boat. The people who make that drive are mainly fliers who come down in trucks or SUVs with their paragliders; one sees these birdmen (and birdwomen) almost every day, soaring in the updrafts above the beach with the buzzards.

We arrived this time on New Year’s Eve, after flying into Vallarta on the 30th, and were in Yelapa until April 7th, when we flew back to Spokane, where we'd left our car, to spend the night there before driving to our home on Laird Creek outside Nelson, B.C. We got back to find, as we'd hoped, that spring had started in the West Kootenays.

There were noticeably fewer tourists in Vallarta when we arrived at the end of last year; the bank on Insurrentes, for instance, where we use the ATM and ask for change afterwards, was virtually empty, whereas in other years one had to stand in a long line before reaching a teller.

I went down this year sick with colitis, gambling that I’d get better in Yelapa’s muy tranquilo atmosphere. And indeed I have gotten better — my diseased intestines are working again and I have my old energy back — after seeing a young Mexican iridologist and naturopathic doctor early in January in Vallarta who, after studying the photographs he took of my eyes, told me to avoid carbohydrates (including, except for small, occasional portions, even beans and rice, formerly one of our staples), stop enjoying those guilty pleasures I’ve long indulged in (sweets, alcohol, coffee), and put me on a strict diet of vegetables (mainly raw) and protein (mainly fish, a little chicken, no red meat). In addition, he prescribed a “liver cleanse” of the juice of three limes mixed with three teaspoons of olive oil each morning on an empty stomach, followed by three teaspoons before each meal of what he called “the scorpion,” a blended mixture of an entire glass of lime juice, seven cloves of garlic, a large red onion, and seven tablespoons of olive oil. Also lots of juices during the day. My wife April joined me in taking the liver cleanse each morning, as well as a dose of the scorpion.

Through January and most of February I kept strictly to the doctor’s diet. Then gradually I began cheating a little. I started by enjoying a cup of coffee again — one only — with breakfast (helped me go!), and I graduated from there to having a drink now and then, usually a beer at Mimi’s or the at Yacht Club, and occasionally treated myself to a flan at the Pollo Bollo or the avocado pie at Tacos y Mas. Such periodic indulgences seemed to do me no harm, but I had to admit that old age had caught up with me, alas, and my intestines were tired, as the good doctor had informed me. I must more or less follow his diet, he said, for the rest of my life.

Which thought reminds me of the end of the life, in January, of Yelapa’s great representative of its gringo community, and how “the rest” of one’s life can suddenly be very brief indeed.

Isabel Jordan was an American woman who had lived here since 1971 and was felt to embody the lively spirit of this tropical paradise by her fellow expatriates. Her Casa Isabel, which included, apart from her own palapa, a number of rental casitas, served as a retreat for winter vacationers, as well as a place to stay for her friends among the Huichol, natives of the mountains of central Mexico, when they came down to Yelapa to sell their beaded artwork or hold a sacred ceremony.

Isabel was a student of the ancient culture of the Huichol, and she helped to preserve it by buying and selling their intricate and colorful art to galleries and at exhibitions in the United States, Canada and Europe.

We missed seeing her this year, though we were in the habit of walking up to the Casa Isabel to pay our respects shortly after arriving. We might have seen her at the Yacht Club on New Year’s Eve (had we not stayed home and, tired from travel, gone to bed early), where doubtless she enjoyed the celebration. Part of Isabel’s legend is that she never missed a party.

A few days after the New Year’s Eve party she went off on vacation to another part of Mexico where, in a freak accident, she fell and broke a couple of ribs that punctured her vital organs. We heard of the accident from our friend Paloma on January 9th, by which time Isabel was in intensive care in Puerto Vallarta. She died ten days later. She was 81, or perhaps had passed her 82nd birthday. By all accounts, she’d had a full, adventurous life.

A memorial for her was held on the beach at the Lagunita Hotel in Yelapa on March 22nd, attended by one of her daughters and a brother, here from the States, and more than a hundred present and past members of the gringo colony, as well as Yelapa natives especially close to her. A Huichol shaman, in splendid traditional garb, was noticeably present.

Chris the flyer (and pounding keyboard player at Mimi’s every Friday night), and his wife Beverly, flew tandem over the beach in his paraglider and cast rose petals into the air. And after everybody had filled up on the potluck food, a number of those who’d known her stepped up to the microphone to tell favorite stories about Isabel. Most touching was the cheerful email she wrote to a friend on New Year’s Day from Yelapa — read to us by an old friend — that was full of news and plans for the future (notably she was looking forward to watching Obama’s inauguration on television), full of life, in short, the life she was soon to lose.

Apart from our usual activities down here — April’s QiGong and yoga, my writing, our afternoon walks, visiting with friends, sunbathing on the beach and occasional swims in the ocean, etc. — we took more side trips this year.

Our first, which we take every year, was in mid-January to El Tuito, the mountain town above Vallarta and Yelapa’s government seat, for the Virgin of Guadalupe festival. It’s a spectacle that includes, in the morning, a procession carrying an effigy of the Virgin, Mexico’s patron saint, to the church, followed by, after dark, the fireworks in the churchyard in which a three-story bamboo tower strung with fireworks is lit, starting at the bottom and working up, to produce an awesome, twenty minutes or so display of blazing, hissing pinwheels, shooting, exploding rockets, and culminating with the entire top of the structure lifting off like a fiery magic carpet to rain bits of flaming debris on the delighted crowd and nearby buildings, resulting, it seems, in neither burned flesh nor property damage.

As usual, we spent the night in a hotel in El Tuito and returned to Yelapa the next day.

A few days later we witnessed the quinceañera of the fifteen-year-old daughter of the owner of Yelapa’s largest tienda (store), the largest celebration of its kind that the village had seen in a while. In Mexico a girl “comes out” at age fifteen in her quinceañera, which is put on, usually at great expense, by her parents or extended family. This one was for Iris, daughter of Hortensia, and began with the morning procession to the church for the ceremony there, followed by the evening reception, held in the village hall, at which virtually everyone in the village, Mexican and gringo alike, was served a free plate of chicken cordon bleu with mashed potatoes and a salad, deliciously provided by the Yacht Club, whose owner, Elena, is a family relative. As well, there was the traditional bottle of tequila on every table to wash your food down.

Following the meal, projected onto a big screen in the hall, we were treated to a “home” movie starring the beautiful Iris performing before the camera — dancing by the sea, lolling on the rocks, striking sexy poses like a professional model in a shoot for a fashion magazine. It struck me that Mexican girls are more comfortable in their bodies than American or Canadian girls, or maybe it’s just that I haven’t been around many teenage girls lately.

There was a series of robberies in Yelapa about this time (only the second such “wave” in the five years we’ve wintered here). The rumor was there were two “bandits” at work, one whose family in the village reportedly paid $10,000 to get him out of jail after he’d been turned in by an aunt for stealing from her and served a two-year stretch. Reportedly, he and another young man, also just out of jail, had returned to their burglarizing ways.

Another rumor was that the culprits were non-local workers on the paths upriver, doing a little off-work moonlighting. In any case, and whoever they were, the thieves were hustled out of town by visiting police after giving some other young men the idea of doing a little breaking and entering themselves. These kids, so the story went, locals for sure, were taken upriver by “elders” concerned about the threat to tourism, forced to dig their own graves (in Mexico a classic intimidation, it seems), and told that if the robberies continued they’d be put into them.
Whatever the truth of this tale, there have been no further reports of robberies this winter.

Toward the end of January we made contact with Gretchen and Glen Backus, friends from Nelson and members with April of the Nelson Choral Society, who were staying in a swanky hotel near the Los Muertos pier in Vallarta; we got together with them and stayed overnight in their suite.

Then, hardly an hour after our return from Vallarta the next day, who should show up at our door but my brother Mike! I hadn’t expected to see him this year, though he lives in Mexico with his Mexican wife Araceli (mostly in Cabo San Lucas, sometimes in Guadalajara, where his wife is from) and had planned to meet us at the airport on our arrival and stay with us awhile. That was before hearing he’d lost all but some $40,000 of his 1.8 million-dollar fortune (acquired from the sale of his half of what had been our parents’ golf course outside Minneapolis) in the financial crash.

Turned out his financial “guru” had been playing with his and other clients’ money — the news of which came out after he’d reportedly died in his sleep at age 38, probably of the stress of watching his crooked house of cards collapse. Subsequently, my brother learned the guy committed suicide, thus escaping prosecution and leaving his bilked clients high and dry.

Anyway, since they were more or less in the neighborhood, Mike and Araceli drove down in their SUV from Guadalajara to Vallarta, and Mike came out to Yelapa, leaving his wife in the city with a couple of girlfriends, and stayed two nights with us. After that we went up to Guadalajara with Mike and Araceli and stayed two nights with them. While there drove to nearby Lake Chapala, where a lot of American and Canadian retirees have settled. Saw both places for the first time.

Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, is immensely spread out with no tall buildings, it appeared, other than churches, museums and government structures (and they more massive than tall) — no buildings higher, I’d guess, than were in ancient Rome. The residential areas especially with their straight narrow streets lined with two- to four-story houses or apartment buildings, neat constructions of brightly painted (blue or yellow) cement, some very handsome in the Mediterranean style, reminded me of what remains of ancient Pompeii. Then too the vender trucks going by in the streets, as they do in most Mexican cities, loaded with plastic water jugs or metal cylinders of gas, and announcing their passage with recorded jingles, seemed like modern equivalents of what Seneca or Pliny the Younger must have known.

I’d read that Lake Chapala — that is the lake itself — Mexico’s largest body of fresh water, is gradually being drained for irrigation and to provide water to the city of Guadalajara, but it’s still huge, stretching to the horizon from the city park where Mexican families were enjoying their Sunday off the day we visited there. I wondered how much had changed since D. H. Lawrence visited Lake Chapala in the mid-1920s.

We were driven back to Vallarta by my brother and his wife and said goodbye to them. “We’ll try to visit you again before you leave Mexico,” Mike said, but I doubted that, and indeed it never happened. When last heard from, Mike was back in our native Minnesota, looking for a job on a golf course, and Araceli was in Cabo. His hope is to obtain a visa for Araceli so she can join him in the States, where he’s probably going to have to live from now on.

The other places we visited this year — for the first time — were Moscota, a mountain town northeast of Puerto Vallarta, reached after a two and a half-hour bus ride, and Sayulita and San Poncho, both on the coast north of Vallarta.

We went to Moscota on March 1 with our Yelapa friend Adrianna, a longtime resident in Mexico, and shared a room with her in an elegant old hotel for 350 pesos for the night — Sunday night in Moscota, where, in the town’s crowded plaza, we witnessed an age-old spectacle: a parade of young men and women, men on one side, women on the other, counter-circling the plaza’s promenade in order to display themselves to one other. One saw many significant exchanged glances, etc. (though we saw no examples of the practice we’ve heard about of young men throwing roses to the young women they fancied for the encouragement of having them picked up). We might have been in Spain or Italy two hundred years ago.

On the bus the next day, heading back to Vallarta, I started to itch, and in our hotel that night in Vallarta, both April and I found ourselves infested with what we thought were bedbugs, probably picked up in our Moscota hotel.

Back in Yelapa we were assured that the bites covering our bodies were from guinas, the tiny ticks you’ll encounter if you stray off the paths in tropical Mexico. Where had we got them? Probably in the overgrown ruins of the ancient church we explored in Moscota. We were careful not to leave any in our bed in our Vallarta hotel but found a few still on us when we got to Yelapa, sticky brown mites smaller than a kernel of rice that popped when you squeezed them. April found a bloated one the size of a ladybug on her groin. On advice from one of the villagers, we stripped and disinfected each other with a mixture of lime juice and rubbing alcohol, after which I carried our bedclothes and mattress onto our front balcony and sprayed them with Raid.

We went twice to Pizota, the still “primitive,” mostly “unspoiled” village just south of Yelapa, a 15-minute boat ride around The Point and down the coast a short way, the first time in February with our friends Sophia and Earl and Lannis, then again in March with Sophia and some other people we got to know that day. More so even than Yelapa, Pizota could be on an island in the South Seas, with its sandy, palm-lined shore and thatched houses set back in the trees. Just getting off the panga in Pizota, rocking in the surf after the boat has nudged onto the sand (Pizota has no pier), is an adventure: you’re liable to get wet. And you’re for sure likely to get wet, possibly drenched, getting back on the boat after your visit, because it’ll be late afternoon and the sea will be high, and even though the boatman will have backed his panga onto the sand to make it easier for you to board, the waves will be coming in, right over the bow sometimes, and over those unfortunate enough to be sitting too close to the bow. I’ve seen people get washed off their seats.

In mid-March we went with a Yelapa acquaintance to Sayulita, a coastal town less than a two-hour bus ride north of Vallarta, where who should we meet on the crowded beach but our friends Earl and Lannis, who’d left Yelapa a couple of days before to head slowly back to their St. Louis home. We stayed there only long enough to have lunch with them and to find Sayulita too loud and expensive and touristy, its main street being torn up to replace the old cobbles with smooth cement, the better to attract more tourists, probably, before hitching some two or three miles down the coast to even more expensive but much more attractive San Poncho (or San Francisco, if you prefer), charming, quieter, its side streets all nicely paved and tree-shaded — classy, in contrast to Sayulita’s apparent crassness and Yelapa’s funkiness. (Not that Yelapa doesn’t have pretensions, but they’re hardly on San Poncho’s level: in San Poncho they play polo, in Yelapa croquet.) Caught a ride with a friendly Mexican who, though he was heading to Vallarta, took us first in the opposite direction to San Poncho, where we meant to stay the night.

We looked for the American expatriate called Joaquin, a landscape gardener we’d met in Yelapa early in our stay this year and who’d encouraged us to visit him in San Poncho and stay in his house. We didn’t find him. Instead we met a beautiful woman of early middle age named Mika. She looked like an upper-class Mexican or an old-time gringa but was, we learned, a Yaqui Indian, born in Sonora, Mexico, an ex-fashion designer, ex-model who’d lived in Europe, now living in Mexico, somewhat precariously, on her child support and from teaching yoga. She knew Joaquin and, took us in her car to where he lived in one of the Villas Paraiso, a lovely complex of white- stuccoed condominiums (known unofficially as the Taj Mahal) at the far end of the long, virtually empty beach past the town center, but he wasn’t there. He was golfing, we were told.

We decided to wait for him, and to kill the time and at Mika’s assurance that it was all right, we swam with her and her twin boys in the Villas Paraiso’s swell pool. Before she and her boys left, Mika said that if we failed to find Joaquin, or otherwise couldn’t stay with him, we could stay with her.

Joaquin never showed up, and anyway, after knocking at his door for the second time, we learned from one of his guests that there were three cats in his house. I have an asthmatic allergy to cats, so we decided to take up Mika’s offer. We found in a tent on the beach, ready to spend the night there with her boys. But she gave us the key to her place! Which turned out to be a small, two-bedroom, ground-floor apartment, neat and tidy, if a little stuffy, but we slept very well in her bed (her boys’ was a mattress on the floor in the next room) with a fan going all night.

The next morning Mika appeared as we were having breakfast, and April went off with her to her yoga class. I stayed in the apartment, making use, at her invitation, of her laptop and high-speed Internet connection to check and reply to our e-mail.

After she and April returned from yoga, Mika drove us to the highway outside town, where we caught the bus to Vallarta, and from there the bus to Boca, and finally the six o’clock boat to Yelapa.

We had three weeks left here. They were soon gone. We didn't want to leave. But then, we never want to leave, while at the same time, after three months in this tropical paradise, we are ready to go home. We go with our memories of the place and the thought we'll be back next year.

Morning in Yelapa: the drone of a panga’s outboard on the bay, the cackle of chachalacas (pheasant-like birds) in the trees, the crowing of roosters around the houses, the oi oi oi of a trogon (a colorful, shrike-like bird) in the jungle. The sun hot, just lifted over the mountains and shining through the east window in our bedroom.

We get up, do our morning ablutions, our exercises, on the flat roof of our place, April her QiGong, me my calisthenics. I finish with some pushups and situps, gradually increasing their number each morning. (When I started, after recovering my health this year, I could hardly do one pushup, and only a couple of situps; I can now, with some difficulty, do a dozen pushups and twenty situps, and note a gratifying firming up of my flaccid old body.)

Then, following the “liver cleanse” of lime juice and olive oil that both April and I adhere to from Dr. Adrien’s diet, a breakfast of granola or scrambled eggs and a tortilla, with a cup of coffee for me (my only one of the day), and for both of us a fruit smoothie.

Following breakfast, this was our routine over the three months:

Three days a week, April went off to yoga in the village, leaving at 10 for the 10:30 class, while I, at least six days a week, set up my laptop on the front or back balcony (depending on the weather: the front is warmer on cool and cloudy days, the back cooler when it’s hot and sunny) to engage in my morning struggle with the novel I’m attempting to write.

April’s return about 2 p.m. was my signal to stop writing and help prepare our lunch. Following lunch, soup and a salad, say, we usually read and napped, April in the hammock on our front balcony, me on the couch. Then we usually took a walk, upriver or along The Point, or to the playa, where we’d always find members of those among Yelapa’s gringo colony who frequent the beach, sitting around a table or two at one of the palapa restaurants enjoying the ocean breezes and drinking their afternoon margaritas, and where April sometimes joined the table of regulars playing Scrabble. Sometimes we swam off the playa, when there were no jellyfish in the water to sting you, and sometimes off Isabel’s little beach on The Point.

Evenings we often ate at one of Yelapa’s restaurants, the Pollo Bollo, Tacos y Mas and Brisas’ being our favorites. We ate at El Manguito upriver once or twice, and a couple of times at April’s (not my April’s) Passion Flower Gardens upriver, where there’s “dinner and a movie” Monday nights and La Noche Romantica on Thursdays. We’d split one of April’s American-style meals there, or just the dessert (a piece of one of her decadent pies or cheesecakes).

Wednesday and Saturday nights there was disco at the Yacht Club. Friday night was open-mike music at Mimi’s.

Other nights we read or played the simple word game (for ages 8 to adult) called Quiddler, or cards — gin rummy, usually, after April taught me. Of the ten books I brought down with me this year, I read seven of them, including two fat biographies of writers William Humphrey and Richard Yates and Oakley Hall’s Warlock, his fat, superb “western.” Now reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, which I started and never finished almost thirty years ago, and as many stories as I can in Alice Munro’s Runaway before having to return the book to Mimi’s lending library.

April, more concerned than I am with health and “growth,” read books on somatics (re the mind’s control of movement, flexibility and health) and on neuro linguistic programming, most of the stories in Munro’s Runaway, and has just completed The Shack, a paperback bestseller about an encounter with God, and is now racing to complete The Book Thief, another borrowed book, before we leave.

As a final excursion, we hiked to the waterfall upriver this past Thursday — took an hour and 45 minutes under the hot sun or cool shade, depending on where the dusty path led us — and had the place to ourselves to go skinny dipping in the refreshing pool below the falls. Then stopped for the obligatory meal at Christina’s far upriver health food restaurant on the way back.

As a contribution to the community, April and I helped in a garbage cleanup organized by Bob McCormick, a children’s book writer and longtime resident of Yelapa, along with a group of Yelapa children. Then April and I, with several kids, did a second cleanup. Garbage, ever a problem in Mexico, remains a problem in Yelapa.

And as for the novel I’m working on, after two years of snail’s pace writing and rewriting, here and at home in B.C., I’ve compiled a rough 61,000 words (including many wrong turns or loose ends that must be fixed or tied up somehow), and I’m at the point where I might start working toward the book’s climax (I see it as a short novel of from 75,000 to 80,000 words), except that I laid it aside a couple of days ago to write this piece for my blog.

On Palm Sunday, at the start of semana santa (Holy Week), we watched the procession through Yelapa of palm-waving villagers following a man on a donkey to the church in a reenactment of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The man portraying Jesus was none other than ascetic-looking, long-haired Tomás (Thomas, no doubt, to his American mother), a longtime gringo resident of Yelapa who, wrapped in a blue robe, was the very figure of the Messiah.

Our last night in Yelapa we had our landlords, Emilio and Norma, and two of their three children, Nora and Omar (Emi was in Vallarta), for a farewell supper.

The next morning Emilio, in two trips, carried our two heaviest pieces of luggage to the pier. We caught the 10:30 boat to Puerto Vallarta, flew out at 6 p.m. to Phoenix, and from there to Spokane. Drove home the next day.

And so — next year in Yelapa!

No adios, as we told our friends here, pero hasta la vista.