Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Dispatch 25 The Buses in Mexico

We can’t leave this great country without at least a nod to our favorite form of transportation. We have taken many buses here and, in general, we love the experience. First there are the day to day, get around town buses. They range from retired tourist buses to school buses to little van type buses. They are occasionally air conditioned (usually costs 10 cents more) but usually they are not. They run often and on time because they are the primary form of transportation for many of the people in Mexico. The bus drivers are often frustrated race car drivers, they race from stop to stop, cut in and out of traffic and obviously love to cut off fellow buses whenever possible. The bus stops are marked, or not, but the drivers have an amazing knack for reading body language and can always tell when someone wants a pick up just from eye contact or a nod. They seem to stop anywhere in most towns both to pick up and drop off.

The drivers judge their passengers and know when they can take off like a bat out of hell the second someone steps on the first step (usually able bodied male passengers) vs. wait to take off until the elderly lady gets part way down the aisle and has a hand hold. They also often don’t even make a complete stop for those able bodied passengers. They make change from a box in front of them and the experienced riders hand them a coin, keep walking and reach behind them to collect the change from the driver. Sometimes there is music playing, but usually not in our experience. The bus is often decorated with personal flare—fringe around the windshield, posters of the Virgin of Guadalupe next to the buxom model poster, something to dress up the stick shift. In PV, Richard noted that the buses often didn’t have instruments—no speedometer, no dashboard instruments to speak of. For sure they don’t have shock absorbers (recall the moment when Richard said, “hell, I’m not even sure there are tires on these rims.”) and the ride is rough. Many of the buses have molded plastic seats. Clearly Mexican butts must be smaller than ours as the molds didn’t really fit the contents in our case which is strangely uncomfortable (and we’re definitely not your overweight riders!) And, as usual, the leg room leaves a lot to be desired. In Acapulco, the busses are privately owned and are painted with amazing murals in a bus one upsmanship contest.

The bus gives us an opportunity to study our Mexicans neighbors. Fancy this—not one woman in Mexico has gray hair—what a lucky stroke of genetics that is, huh? Their hair does come in some suspicious colors of red and streaking however that suggests something other than the hand of nature involved. Answering cell phones on the bus and eating food are perfectly acceptable. Every Mexican seems to have a cell phone. One taxi driver showed me pictures of his 2 daughters and some short video of them on his phone while we were driving through Zihua! Chivalry is alive and well as young men usually give up their seat for old women. The Mexicans take the aisle seat and make anyone who wants to join them climb over to the window seat.

To determine which bus to take, one needs to know the area of destination as the various large landmark stops are painted on the front or side window of the bus. Most often we were taking buses that went to Centro (we quickly learned we better figure out the name of the place for the return trip from Centro!) and past the large grocery stores (Soriana, Comercial, Gigante, Walmart, Sam’s Club) all painted on the bus. It really made it easy to get around.

Finally, it probably goes without saying, that the buses are cheap. We paid a maximum of about $1.20 to take a bus 45 minutes from La Cruz into Puerto Vallarta. Usually the fare was around 50 cents everywhere.

Then there are the long distance buses with several premier bus lines. While they’re not cheap, these buses are unbelievably comfortable—air-conditioned, cushioned seats that recline and have back of the leg rests and tremendous leg room, individual headphones for the movies that are shown continuously and, on the last bus we took, snack packs gratis with a drink and a sandwich. In some ways it’s better than flying anymore since where you end up is usually near the middle of town and, like I said, they serve food sometimes.

So a hearty thanks to all the Mexican bus drivers who conveyed us here and there! We can highly recommend them to all who visit.

Dispatch 24 Acapulco

March 16-?
Acapulco was a mere 120 miles from Zihuatanejo which we did in an overnight motor jaunt. Just for reference, our boat travels about 5 knots (5 nautical miles per hour) which is somewhere between a quick walk and a slow jog speed. (A nautical mile is slightly longer than a statute mile). So 120 miles would be 24 hours. The coastline here in Southern Mexico is flat, fairly featureless in terms of bays or inlets and runs NW to SE very close to W to E. The ports are far apart and require one or more overnights. This will continue to be the case through much of Central America.

Acapulco is one of the oldest ports in Mexico and is a natural protected harbor. The bay is shaped like a mushroom and is very large. By day the entrance is notable for the large skyscraper like buildings and, by night, the hills around the bay sparkle with lights. The “skyscraper-like buildings” turned out to be high-rise hotels on closer inspection and Acapulco is the hugest tourist trap area we’ve been to and it was busy. We thought people had stopped coming here as we had not heard any of our friends planning a trip here. Certainly the boat cruiser community tends to steer around this place as it is a large city and not particularly friendly to our, ahem, generally cheap lifestyle. We planned this stop only because we had gotten a couple high quality dental referrals here, and, looking at the surroundings, we expect we may be paying US prices for the privilege of seeing these dentists. But, if a root canal is needed, we felt we wanted someone we could trust. As of this writing, the jury remains out on the dental situation as our appointment is tomorrow.

We pulled into the harbor near the Club de Yates, the oldest marina in Mexico. It is pretty snooty and we planned to anchor outside, but, a Mexican in a dinghy approached us and offered to tie us up to his mooring for a mere 100 pesos/day ($10) and we accepted as the anchorage was deep and reported to be fouled with debris. We dinghied into the yacht club planning to flash our yacht club membership card so we could receive reciprocal privileges and use the dinghy dock, showers, pool, etc. for free. Imagine our chagrin when they pulled out a list of member yacht clubs and ours wasn’t on it. Hummph. The alternatives were, pay $35/day for the above services (no kidding, who do they think they are?) or fly below the radar and just act like we belong there as we stroll through the grounds to the street. You see, we need a safe place for the dinghy. Well, so far we’re trying to fake it.

We decided to “see” Acapulco the second day so we walked out to the street and hopped on the waterfront bus. This air conditioned bus took us around the whole bay over about 40 minutes and for 5 pesos (50 cents). What a deal. What we learned is that the waterfront is one big long tourist strip ending in bigger and bigger hotels with more and more party places for the tourists. Yikes. Well, we realized that we hadn’t done our homework and the guidebook was on the boat, so we debarked the bus at the far end of the bay and decided to go find a map of the city.

The first stop was the Hyatt Hotel where we walked into the lobby to face the mayhem of the transition between the first and second week of spring break. It should have been a tip-off that there were Dos Equis posters on the busses welcoming the spring breakers and telling them to drink responsibly. There were hundreds of college age kids in the lobby of the hotel with giant suitcases (how many shorts, t-shirts and bathing suits do you need for a week??) We walked through like an entitled pair of middle-aged gringos and I approached the concierge to consider the various tours they offered saying we just arrived and wondering what activities we should do in Acapulco? I asked sweetly if she had a map to help us get oriented and she handed me the typical tourist brochure with a map that showed the location of Club Hollywood, Hard Rock Café, Carlos and Charlies and other important historic landmarks. Sigh, what was I thinking. On the flip side, it was air conditioned inside the lobby with very nice US style bathrooms and it was 95 degrees and 88 percent humidity outside. Why hadn’t we thought of this before??

So we walked out and backtracked a couple blocks to Walmart thinking maybe they had a city map. Hold the phone—Walmart????? I have entered exactly 2 Walmarts previously in my life and, on both occasions, I fervently wished for a different store to get whatever it was I needed. This Walmart seemed different somehow and Richard and I found ourselves falling into a trance state which is the only possible explanation for the 2 hours we spent there. Remember the AC and bathrooms of the Hyatt? Ditto for Walmart. And look, there are so many things here to choose from. We both developed an immediate hankering to have lunch at the Subway shop at the front of the store. We wandered the aisles on our hunt for the map and found ourselves buying Damiana, a Mexican honey liqueur in a bottle shaped like a very voluptuous woman (the price was good), a Sudoku book, a small area rug and almost a set of sheets. We never found the map but the search was inexplicably pleasurable.

We succumbed to our urge for Subway. The customer before us was one of the aforementioned spring breakers. He told me he was from Lon Gisland (that’s how they say it) and was a freshman in New Hampshire at Dartmouth. He was with a bunch of his buddies, and, judging from the quality of the conversation we overheard, we hope their grasp of English is better in written form. His main concern about ordering the subway was how old the tuna was, worried he would get food poisoning at a Subway in Mexico. Odd. We doubt he’ll take in any of the taco stands in downtown.

We emerged from our department store Stepford trance and lurched back into the city to find the “real” Acapulco. We boarded another of the wonderful buses and took it back to the Zocalo and the historic Fuerte de San Diego. The fort is atop a bluff and is star shaped and surrounded with a moat (no water in it) with good old fashioned drawbridges. Great stuff. As we walked a back street down toward town from the fort, we found ourselves at the back of a building called Casa de Mascaras. I ran around to investigate the front and we excitedly discovered a tiny museum of masks from around Mexico and a few from around the world for comparison. We love masks and this was an enchanting discovery (surprisingly not marked on my tourist brochure from the Hyatt although we could SWIM WITH THE DOLPHINS or go to the CRAZIEST POOL PARTIES according to the brochure). We loved the museum.

We walked through the main square and saw the Moorish style cathedral and backtracked to the Mercado de Artesanias to look for a doll in the costume of the traditional mask dances. The Mercado was unbelievable—stall after stall of tourist junk which we certainly had seen before in PV or Zihua, but the merchants were desperate for business and very tenacious. We did find one of the dolls after grudgingly admitting what we were looking for and paid merely 50% more than we should have (bargained down from 3 times what we should have). When we realized that some of the glassware was 10 times the price we’d seen in other stores, we just laughed and beat it out of there with merchants trailing after us lowering the price as we walked away to 8 times, 5 times, 3 times the going price…

Next, we decided we better go see the cliff divers. As a local Spaniard boater said to us our first day, “What do you see in Paris, the Eiffel Tower, right? And in Rome, the Vatican. So here, you must see the cliff divers.” Point taken. We walked from the Zocalo toward the hill where we thought the cliff divers were. We asked a guy on the street where the Quebradas are (the cliffs) and he directed us—just up the street and follow the hill around and you can’t miss it (well, that’s the translation of the Spanish and hand gestures he gave us). As we approached, the street was increasingly filled with people, many families out for a Saturday night show. We found out the next dive was scheduled in an hour and a half. The cliffs are stunning and it was worth the walk. We had a beer and an Elote (a street food of corn on the cob slathered in mayonnaise, cheese and hotsauce which we had learned to love in San Carlos) and started to walk back in the sunset. Then we decided, what the hell, and hung out and saw the cliff divers from the overlook as they dove after dark from the lit cliffs. It was a great experience and we felt we’d done our tourist duty so we walked back to the yacht club. There we walked in like we belonged with a “Buenas noches” to the guard, found our dinghy right where we had left it and came home to enjoy the cool evening in the cockpit. We decided we enjoyed the day in Acapulco. We wish we were done with it now and could move on but tomorrow is D-day (dental day)!

And here I writing the addendum to say Acapulco will have our business for another week while Richard gets a root canal. Believe me, this wasn’t in the overall plan. The good news is, despite the incredible luxurious office our referral dentist had with the drop dead view of Acapulco harbor, the cost of the root canal is 1/3 that of the US, she speaks English well and we trust her. Better that than an unexpected tooth abscess on a 5 day passage!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Dispatch 23 Ducky the Van and Dentists

March 1- 15

The cruising life is full of chance meetings and coincidences. For example, one night at dinner in San Carlos, we realized Richard and our dinner companion sailed together with a mutual friend in Mexico 22 years ago. As we pulled into Santiago Bay near the large port city of Manzanillo, thanks to e-mail contact, we knew our friends Stan and MJ who had bought Ducky the van were recently settled into a small house on the hill. They are former sailboat cruisers now land-cruising in Ducky. So, we rounded the corner into beautiful Santiago Bay and hailed them on the radio, “Solmate, Solmate, this is Qayaq.” Also as former boaters, they know how to get at the heart of their fellow boaters, so, when they answered, they offered to pick us up (in Ducky!), take us to provision, do laundry, have lunch, whatever. Ohmygod, heaven sent offers to be sure.

We took them up only on the lunch and an afternoon hang-out/catch-up, cool off with a beer, session which we did. It was great to see them. We found out that our van has carried them mostly trouble-free through an additional 6000 miles. I can’t help personifying something like old vehicles with personalities like Ducky. It struck me that we had saved Ducky, who had been put out to pasture and was pushing up the weeds in someone’s back yard, and gave it new life. Now it is happily retired in Mexico, traveling to interesting places and transporting all kinds of fascinating characters in their adventures. What a save!

We enjoyed Santiago and Manzanillo. Santiago Bay is lovely and the water is nice for swimming. Mostly we hung out with friends, which is always great. We also took a bus into the city of Manzanillo (30 min. bus ride for 6 peso (60 cents)) and walked around exploring. It’s a port city with much the same container traffic as Seattle so it seemed familiar. At the main square they have a humongous statue of a sailfish that is very striking! We had lunch in town at one of the markets, did a little shopping on the way back out to the beach and enjoyed the stay.

Next stop on our itinerary was Zihuatanejo, a 2 day/2 night journey in our boat. We had brief good sailing followed by a lot of motoring and arrived in the morning as planned. There, cruiser friends from Seattle got us oriented as they had been there 6 or 7 weeks and had eaten their way from one end of town to the other. They showed us all the important spots, had gotten us a walking map and a program for Guitar fest which was to start a couple days after our arrival—how lucky is that? Zihuatanejo is a lovely spot, a destination tourist resort that retains a Mexican flavor. The harbor is pretty to look at, but, as with many city harbors in Mexico, sewage is dumped untreated directly into the bay making it less of an appealing swim spot. The harbor is large so the hundred or so boats who attend the Zihua festival in February fit without problems, and, by the time we arrived, the boat population was down to about 40, well dispersed.

We probably would have enjoyed Zihua more, except sudden health issues reared their ugly heads. As we headed out for 2 days to get here, Richard caught his toe on a line on the deck of our boat and ripped off his big toenail. He did well with that, but it meant that he couldn’t immerse his foot in the sewage riddled water. So I dropped him off at the public dock then landed on the beach with help from Nathaniel, the self-appointed dinghy guardian. Well, I told Nathaniel about my husband’s foot infection (couldn’t really figure out how to say he ripped off the nail so used a word I knew) and he was sympathetic. Then Richard confessed to a 2 day toothache he had been having which was getting worse. It started at the same time as his severe sore throat, but continued after the minor cold symptoms abated. Shoot, this really was going to need to be addressed. The next day I told Nathaniel about the tooth—he made a motion like someone having their tooth pulled. By then, I think Nathaniel had his own image of my basketcase of a husband.

So we polled our experienced friends and learned about a dentist they trusted as compared to the one who had done a hack job on them the year before and we walked in on a Saturday to see if she could see Richard. She works with dentists from the U.S. who come down to help her take care of “the poor” and her English was OK. She schedules appointments but also took walk-ins and we shared the waiting room with 2 families with kids and others arrived while we waited. By the way, it is usual for doctors to work on Saturdays here in Mexico and not unheard of for dentists to do so as well. She agreed to work Richard in and did an x-ray and decided to try conservative therapy first, and, if that failed, a root canal might be necessary. Guess who was motivated to do better with conservative therapy?

Well, as always, the decision to pursue medical or dental care in a foreign country where one does not speak the language is fairly traumatizing. While medical care is something I can judge, I’m equal to anyone else in my ignorance for the most part of dental issues (other than my own personal experience of course). Compound that by the fact that both of us are dentist phobic (raise your hand if you’re NOT dentist phobic) and, well, it’s been a tense couple of days. The jury is still out on Richard’s tooth, but, as I write this, we are waiting for our follow-up appointment and, so far, he is improved with conservative therapy (can you say “placebo effect”?)

So, while this drama was unfolding, we had planned a rendezvous here in Zihua with one of my college roommates, a friend for over 30 years who has lived outside of Mexico City for the past 16 years. She and her husband flew to Zihua to meet us. They stayed in a friend’s luxury condo and we hung out with them for 2 and a half days and had a lovely time catching up. Truthfully, we hung out in the pool or shower a lot. The timing of this rendezvous was no accident—we HAD to make it happen because my friend just got a job in Ghana, Africa! So we talked about Mexico, international affairs, their 3 sons and their college experiences, our various middle age observations and everything we could think of to store up for another several years of not seeing each other. We took them out for a delightful afternoon sail where the wind cooperated and blew 10-15 while we sailed out of the harbor and back for a couple hours.

The second night they were in town we went to the opening of Guitar Fest, a week long festival with over 20 guitar musicians playing at various venues. The opening night featured all of the artists with 15 minute teasers of their music so that we could decide who to pursue in the following nights. It was a blast with a combination of excellent and interesting music, and some not so much to our taste, all being played at a restaurant on the beach with a backdrop of a gorgeous sunset with crashing surf. I’m telling you, it doesn’t get a lot better than this. Meanwhile, one of the musician’s girlfriends was at our table on and off and, as we chatted during the evening, it turned out she had previously lived in Accra, Ghana, Africa, exactly where my friend Anne is moving for her job. I guess we will stop being amazed by these coincidences one day, but they still seem so cosmic when they happen. I don’t think I could have told you where Ghana is prior to my friend getting a job there and suddenly 2 people at the same table, perfect strangers, shared experiences in Ghana.

Our next port of call is Acapulco and we’ve researched possible dentists just in case. Southern Mexico is getting hot and humid as spring advances. We try not to be bothered by the weather as we don’t expect improvement in the hot/humid department until we get to Ecuador and who knows when that will be? As we deal with our various thankfully minor health issues, we wish all of you good health and a pleasant spring.