Friday, August 27, 2010

Summer 2010: Extended Sparknotes Version

I spent six secret solitary days in Santa Rosa after returning from Bologna, quietly recovering from my nine hour Italian jet lag and mentally preparing for my summer south of the border. Lots of relaxation with my parents and not even one plate of pasta. Soon enough it was time to pack again, only this time I'd just be bringing my backpack and a guitar.

The flight from San Jose to Guadalajara was forgettable, but I recall everything after that. I caught a taxi from the airport headed to the Nueva Central Camionera, where I would catch the five and a half hour bus to Melaque, the destination closest to La Manzanilla. Stuck in traffic, the taxi driver decided to strike up conversation. Or rather, he decided to begin a monologue. It wasn't that I was shy or disinterested; he just didn't let me get a word in edgewise as he raved about the girls from Los Altos de Jalisco with their ojos tapatíos- the prettiest in all of Mexico. After five minutes he paused to ask if I was married. Hearing my negative response, he offered to drive me to a brothel. I politely declined, saying I needed to get to the bus station as quickly as possible. He shrugged and asked what soccer team I liked; I was keen enough to spot the red and black car freshener dangling from his rearview mirror and lie, "Atlas, claro." He smiled broadly and continued with his monologue. Eventually we arrived at the bus depot and said our goodbyes. As I turned to leave he called me back and insisted on giving me his phone number for the next time I found myself in Guadalajara, promising to help me look for a jaliscience girlfriend with green eyes and a body "like that".

I missed the 7:40pm bus to Melaque by three minutes. Instead of arriving in La Manzanilla at 1:30am, I would have to catch the next bus at 10pm and arrive closer to four in the morning. No big deal, I was finally back in Mexico and life was good. I dropped my backpack, set down my guitar, and took a seat in the general waiting area. I pulled out my journal and began to write, but within two minutes the only other vato in the room strutted over and sat down across from me. I could tell he was an OG because of the three teardrops tattooed near his left eye.

"Oye homie, ¿de dónde eres?" I told him that I was from California and he immediately launched into the details of his six years locked up in Pelican Bay State Prison. He showed me huge scars on his abdomen and left shin, and then the Grim Reaper tattoo on the back of his shaved head. I couldn't help but notice the "SUR 13" emblazoned on his left hand. His name was Alex, but he said they called him "Kevin Smith" across the border. He told me that he missed gang life in California, where it's all about respect and status. In his hometown of Tijuana, things were getting too crazy and he had to flee to stay alive. Now he was hawking stolen merchandise out of a duffle bag, trying to raise enough money to buy a ticket to Querétaro. By the way, did I perchance need a bottle of lotion, a Discman or maybe a leather jacket? No? Well they're here if you need them. What about a nice gold watch?

When Alex's homie Manny- an 18th Street disciple- showed up and asked for 20 pesos to buy some Cokes, I was friendly, albeit wary. I artfully fished 18 pesos out of my pocket, lying that it was all I had. Suddenly Kevin Smith hit me with a question: "Yo do you have any primas around 27 years old? Let me get their emails and Myspaces." At first it seemed funny that this hardened cholo was asking me about Myspace profiles, but then I remembered that Myspace is full of gangsters, all of whom are slowly making the move over to Facebook. I wrote down the invented name and email of Caterina Hernandez, my supposed 24-year-old brunette cousin with blue eyes. He asked if I wanted the Myspaces for any of his six sisters, but I lied that a girlfriend was coming to visit me in La Manzanilla so I was already set. Around this time I told Alex that I was gonna check on my bus, but before I could escape with my backpack and guitar he stopped me. He reached deep into his pocket and pulled out something thin and pointed. "You have a piece of paper?" he asked, handing me the pen. I pulled out a scrap and he spelled out his MSN Messenger screen name for me: Alex13Mickey. "Hit me up sometime, homie." I told him that I would, knowing that I wouldn't. And with that, I left those sureños behind and snuck into the first class waiting room, laying low for twenty more minutes until it was time to board my bus.

Bus travel in Mexico is significantly better than bus travel in the US. You normally have a choice between first and second class; the former is plush, with comfortable seats, drinks and snacks, movies and radio. And best of all, it's cheap. My 15-minute taxi from the Guadalajara airport to the bus station cost $20. My 5.5-hour first class bus ride from Guadalajara to Melaque cost $25. I managed to sleep on the way, which was a huge blessing because the road is extremely curvy and I would have definitely been nauseous had I been awake. The trip was pretty uneventful with the exception of an annoyingly talkative, ridiculously effeminate Guadalajara native seated in the row across from me. As I was writing in my journal at the beginning of the journey, he leaned over and asked, "What are you doing? Is this your first time in Melaque? It's gonna be my first time, I'm so excited! I hope the beach is nice, do you think the beach will be nice? Am I bothering you? I feel like I'm bothering you. I'm sorry, I'm just so excited! I'll shut up now. But did you say this is your first time to Melaque? I hope the beach is nice!" After around twenty minutes of fake sleeping on my end, he curled up in his seat and passed out. I woke up to my watch alarm at 3:45am, fifteen minutes from Melaque.

To my extreme delight, a taxi driver was waiting for me as I got off the bus. He introduced himself as Victor, groggily set my backpack and guitar in the trunk, and verified again that I was indeed the Mateo he was being paid to drive to La Manzanilla. As we wound along the coastal road for twenty minutes, I could see dozens of crabs scuttling across the pavement due to the recent thunderstorm. There were frogs too, and bats in the trees. When Victor dropped me off at the steps of my summer home, I had to barge through a terrifying gauntlet of flittering lightning bugs and fleeing geckos, but finally I made it. Liz Cabrera- a wonderful friend from Harvard and the contact who made possible my summer in Mexico- opened the metal gate, gave me a big hug, and unlocked the sliding glass door of my first floor bedroom. She had made a colorful welcome poster and prepared my room immaculately, but by that point I would have slept on a concrete floor. It was nearly 5am when my head hit the pillow, and I was running on five hours of sleep from the night before. Needless to say, within seconds I was dreaming with the little angels, gently rocked to sleep by the rhythm of crashing waves.

I woke up at 11am to glorious light streaming through my sheer window curtains. As I sat up in my bed, I could see the turquoise ocean and all sorts of pink and purple flowers blooming in the front garden. I quickly organized the few clothes that I brought in the empty dresser, took a shower and made myself a sandwich in the upstairs kitchen. Liz was teaching a class, so I went back downstairs, pulled out my guitar and started playing in the sunshine. Over the course of the summer I would spend countless hours like that, inspired by the natural panorama and La Manzanilla's small town tranquility.

Those first few days blend together. Liz gave me the town tour which consisted in a couple small stores, a few restaurants, Juanit@'s taco stand, the Foundation classroom, the church and the beach. There's one paved street in La Manzanilla that circles the Jardín, or main square. And that's pretty much all there is to the town of 1000 residents. No post office, no hospital, no high school, no street names, no policemen, no library. I found myself living in a place where you're more likely to see a herd of cows in the road than a convertible, a town whose power and water would fail for up to 20 hours every time it rained, and sometimes even when it didn't.

But don't think I didn't love it. For every little thing La Manzanilla lacked, there was something else in abundance. Hospitality, for example. Trust. Generosity. Jellyfish. Iguanas, crocodiles, and canclos. (Don't look up the latter unless you want to have nightmares for a week. Seriously, don't.) What I liked most about La Manzanilla was that time moved slowly. Whereas the clocks at Harvard go ticktockticktockticktock, Mexican time in my summer pueblo was more like tic.



And that's the way I liked it. A change of pace is a wondrous thing, especially if you know it will only last for two months. Waking up without an alarm to sunshine and ocean waves, taking a nap in the afternoon heat after a turkey and avocado sandwich, and falling asleep after tacos and a telenovela episode should not be a privileged lifestyle left only to retired Mexicans and Canadian hippies. Don't think I was lazy; when it was time to prepare lesson plans, photograph graduation ceremonies or teach English, I put on my game face and took care of business. When it was time to work, I worked. That's a virtue of which I am very proud, a skill some of my college counterparts and many members of today's work force lack. Let's be honest- when it's time to work, they browse Facebook. They check their emails. They go to the bathroom or eat a snack or get distracted by a million different things. Am I right or am I right? It's a question of work ethic into which I'm not gonna delve any further, but know that I went to Mexico to work with an educational foundation, and that I did work.

To combat the monotony of life in a coastal paradise, Liz and I escaped from La Manzanilla pretty much every weekend. We began our adventures right off the bat- I arrived on a Wednesday, and two days later Liz's Harvard roommate (and honorary comadre) showed up to visit. A couple quick words about Rosalía: she's crazy. Banda music and all things Mexican exacerbate her condition, as do starry skies and conversations about philosophy after 3am. She has the ability to write Shakespearean verses but chooses to speak her own variant of Spanglish, a dialect understood by few and in which I am a sorry beginner. I had the pleasure of taking a Brazilian Cinema class with her during my sophomore year, and the even greater pleasure of taking her to my Adams House formal. Through Rosalía I met Liz, and through Liz I landed my volunteer stint with La Catalina Educational Foundation.

Our special guest arrived Friday evening, and as soon as she was settled the three of us walked down the hill into town to do what everyone else in La Manzanilla does on a Friday evening... to eat tacos at Juanit@'s. You'll notice I use the gender-neutral @ symbol, and that's because Juan liked to be called Juana. I don't know when or why that switch occurred, but I do know that Juanit@ has a God-given talent for making tacos, and I gladly partook in that gift two to three nights a week. We ate more than we should have and then made sure to dar la vuelta around town, which meant walking from the beach to the Jardín and talking to every third person we passed.

Early Saturday morning we caught the bus from La Manzanilla to Melaque, and then another to Autlán de Navarro. The former ride was 20 minutes and comfortable, while the latter was 2 hours and hellish because of its unending curves and my terrible motion sickness. Rosalía suffered quietly as well, but upon arrival we voiced our anguish and vowed not to return to La Manzanilla unless drugged up on some magic Dramamine pills. By the time we walked to our hotel room we were feeling considerably better, so we ditched the nap idea and went to get lunch with Ruby, one of Liz's friends from Autlán (and the cousin of another Harvard classmate, Salvador). Ruby took us first on a mini tour of the city, which just so happens to be the birthplace of my godfather, Carlos Santana. We snapped some photos with his rocker monuments and then dined at a nice restaurant with live mariachi. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped to check out the cathedral and say some prayers of thanksgiving for safety on the road and the blessed companionship of true friends. The three of us took a quick nap at the hotel, lulled to sleep by the sounds of Los Temerarios emanating from our color television. When we awoke it was dark and time to get ready for the big dance, a baile in Autlán's Plaza de Toros featuring bull riding and the moderately famous Banda San José de Mesillas.

Autlán has a population of around 50,000 people, and I would wager that around 10% of all its residents were at that dance. The arena was packed with dolled-up Mexican girls and their cowboy counterparts. I had the good fortune of accompanying Rosalía, Liz, Ruby, and a friend named Zaira to the event, all of whom were dressed to impress and looking sharp. I registered lots of envious stares as we entered and found our seats, but I didn't mind one bit. The show started with an opening band covering lots of Mexican songs I recognized but had never learned by heart like everyone else around me, followed by bull riding (the bulls mostly dominated their riders, with the exception of one champ). Finally Banda San José de Mesillas came onstage in their black slacks and purple jackets, belting out their #1 hit "Por Que Sin Ti" with 5000 fans. I only knew parts of the chorus, but I fake lip-synched the rest and nobody knew the difference. After several hours of standing and dancing and sitting and singing, the concert finished and we walked back to our hotel. It was after midnight, but along the way Rosalía decided to stop at a street vendor's cart and buy a hot dog overflowing with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, jalapeños, chips, cheese, and Lord knows what else. She took one bite, said she didn't want it and gave me the rest. Crazy? Perhaps, but I ate it.

After spending the next morning wandering around Autlán's downtown market, we stopped by a pharmacy to buy our magic motion sickness pills and caught a bus back to Melaque. Since these were drowsy pills, we slept like babies the whole way. Then we got on the bus to La Manzanilla and slept some more. And then we got home and took naps. These were powerful little pills, for real.

But in time their effect wore off and the trio was back in action, now with a fourth partner in crime- Shanna, a former volunteer in La Manzanilla who had skipped town before I arrived and was now back for a quick visit. We spent the week watching World Cup games in the mornings, tag team English teaching, and sneaking into a private pool in a wildly unsuccessful effort to teach Rosalía how to swim. One night we all had a late guitar session and spiritual discussion. One morning Rosalía cooked an unbelievable Mexican breakfast for the rest of us. I don't know when she learned how to cook between AP classes, rock band practices and Harvard, but she did and for that we were all grateful. The highlight of the week though- for me- was our visit to the Wyndham Luxury Grand Bay Hotel on nearby Isla de Navidad, an exclusive resort fit for kings and rich tourists. We went there for lunch, not so much to eat as to drop our jaws in awe of the incredible layout- more pools than you could ever need (including one with a swim-up bar!), private beach access, a gorgeous dining area, tennis courts, a yacht dock, a hairdresser and a shoe shine boy. Honestly, look it up. We just so happened to eat lunch outdoors on a day when the entire Monarcas Morelia professional soccer team was fooling around on the ping-pong table and in the pool directly in front of us. No big deal, just another day living the life in Mexico.

Eventually Rosalía and Shanna left, so Liz and I returned to our miserable reality of afternoon naps and evening tacos. But we weren't stuck in that rut for long, because the following weekend we set out on another adventure, this time to Liz's pueblito of San José de Gracia. It was an epic journey by all accounts. We left La Manzanilla in a taxi at 4:40am on Friday in order to catch a 5:15am bus to Autlán. At 8:30am, after two orders each of 5 street tacos for 10 pesos, we boarded a rickety bus to Ciudad Guzmán. Three and a half hours later we pulled into the Guzmán bus station, expecting to meet our ride there and discovering that he was without a cell phone and nowhere to be found. We waited anxiously for 25 minutes and eventually the talented Mr. Tire showed up, decked out as usual in his cowboy hat, boots, and black and white shirt with two roosters stitched on the back. He must cherish that shirt dearly, because he wore it Friday, Saturday AND Sunday. Nobody really knows why we call him Mr. Tire, although one of Liz's cousins told me that during his childhood Mr. Tire was unbeatable in the game of sitting inside a tire and rolling down a hill. After meeting the legend, I would not be surprised at all if that were the truth. So Senor Neumático packed me and Liz into his truck, tossed our bags in the back and set off on the bumpy road to San Chepe City. By the time we arrived an hour and two micheladas later, our magic pills were just starting to wear off and we had the energy to eat bírria and drink Fanta, health food that broke our drug-induced slumber and brought us back to normal.

San José de Gracia is like La Manzanilla, except there are more cows and less beach. Okay, there's no beach. Also, besides the cows, pretty much everyone in San Chepe is related to Liz. That was my favorite aspect of the town because it meant that we were invited to more delicious meals than we could possibly eat, we had free tour guides our age, and I got to play soccer with kids older than 7 (no offense to La Manzanilla's finest). For the first time in my life, I drank pajarete- a delicious morning concoction made by mixing coffee grounds and sugar with milk straight from the cow's udder. Everyone told me that I was gonna have an upset stomach, but I felt fine and even went back the next day for more small town Starbucks. Saturday afternoon we hiked to the top of the tallest hill for a nice panorama of the land; it was cool to see other small pueblos in the distance. That evening we went to mass, and then the next day took the soccer bus to nearby Zacoalco, where we cheered for the San Chepe team in their semifinal game. They tied 1-1, but everyone in the stands still attended a celebratory barbeque at one of the players' houses on the way home. Small town living, gotta love it. Early Monday morning Mr. Tire drove Liz and me back to the Guzmán bus station, where we caught our buses back to Autlán, Melaque and finally La Manzanilla.

Days and weeks in La Manzanilla kind of just blur together. Liz and I were almost always busy teaching, planning the summer program, watching our novela, eating tacos or taking naps. Sometimes it would rain and the power would go out, other days it was sunny and the power would go out. For three days straight Liz and I went running every morning. We taught ourselves how to cook enchiladas, chilaquiles, eggs, pasta and Frosted Flakes (my specialty). One time I found a scorpion in my closet, and another time I saw a spider catch a lizard in its web and then suck it dry. We went back to Autlán a couple times for various reasons, and once to Manzanillo, where we got lost and walked for three and a half hours. I traveled one overcast weekend to Puerto Vallarta, where I strolled up and down the boardwalk six times and had a serendipitous encounter with a friend from high school. My last two weeks in La Manzanilla marked the first two weeks of LCEF's summer program for kids. I was the PE teacher, which is actually a harder job than one might imagine. The difficulty didn't lie so much in the lack of materials, but rather in the fact that this was the laziest group of adorable snot-nosed kids I had ever seen in my life. I would say, "Let's warm up by jogging one lap around the field." Barely half of those little rascals would finish the lap, after which they would drop dramatically to the ground like they had just completed the Boston Marathon. Then we would stretch for a few minutes and I would start explaining the activity we were gonna do that day, at which point they would complain about being tired and thirsty and hungry and in sandals and not wanting to get dirty. After a few days of this, I got wise and invented activities based around something every kid loves on a hot day... water balloons! We played Capture the Flag and relays and Three Flies Up and Hot Potato and volleyball and occasionally I just threw a balloon or two at some of them if I felt like it, which they LOVED. The summer program was a success due to good planning, quick thinking and creativity on the part of all three teachers: me for PE, Liz for English, and Isaura for Art.

But eventually all good things must come to an end (at least that's how the saying goes, right?). My time in Mexico was almost up, so Liz and I decided to spend our final weekend together exploring Guadalajara before I had to fly home. I said my goodbyes to everyone in town and we caught an afternoon bus to Autlán, where we spent the night. Early the next morning we hopped on a three-hour bus to Guadalajara, taxied to our hostel, dropped off our bags and went in search of sustenance and adventure. We found a taco-motorcycle (faster than a taco truck!) and ate to our heart's content, crossing our fingers that Moctezuma wasn't out for revenge. Later we walked to the city center, where we met up with another of Salvador's cousins who's studying in Guadalajara (the younger brother of Ruby from Autlán). Carlos drove us to Zapopan, where we visited every mall and dined on scrumptious Chinese food made by authentic Chinese-Mexicans. After dinner we went to the movies to see the new Adam Sandler flick called Grown Ups. It was stupid and we loved it.

After Liz left on Sunday I met some of the travelers in my hostel and we all went out to sightsee in the center a bit more. Back at the hostel we played guitar and talked about studying abroad- one of the German guys and a girl from New Zealand had just arrived in Guadalajara to study for a semester at the university, and they were staying at the hostel until they could find apartments. On Monday I met up with Boone, a California girl I met in Rio de Janeiro who had spent her summer in Querétaro studying Spanish. Small world, huh? We grabbed something to drink with two of her program friends and then walked around San Juan de Dios, Guadalajara's enormous indoor market where you can buy everything from deep-fried bull testicles to pirated Britney Spears cds (if you're into either of those things...). The next day Boone and I got together again to walk around Parque Agua Azul, where we enjoyed fine greenery, fought with aggressive birds and tried to catch butterflies on our fingers. In the evening we went to the theater to see El Origen, better known by its English title, Inception. If you still haven't seen that film, check it out right now. Right now! It was trippy and we loved it.

On Wednesday I spent my last 220 pesos on a Chinese lunch buffet and a taxi ride to the airport, and before I knew it I was saying adios to Mexico through the plane window. Had that been my entire summer, it would have been sufficiently wonderful. But there was more!

I spent a couple days at home and then flew up to Oregon to visit my brother in Eugene, who was working there all summer while living with my aunt, uncle, and cousins. Since he had Spanish finals and it was his girlfriend's last week in the USA before her semester abroad in Chile, I had to fight hard for David's attention. Luckily my lovely friend Alex Gnoss (remember her from my Moroccan escapades?) was also working in Eugene, and willing to take me hiking to lakes and rivers and waterfalls. Did you know that Oregon's natural beauty is positively breathtaking? If not, now you know. I had a marvelous week with Alex, David, and his girlfriend Kerry, whom I finally had the pleasure to meet. Unfortunately time in Eugene is pretty similar to time in Cambridge, so the clocks went ticktockticktock and before I knew it I had to fly back down to the Bay Area. Besides a five-hour flight delay at the gate, there were no real problems.

I laid low the following week in Santa Rosa because I had to focus and fill out a Fulbright scholarship application. Among other endeavors, I'm applying to teach English in Brazil for nine months following graduation. It would be fully funded and amazing. I'll keep you all posted.

This final week of summer has been fantastic. I had a chance to play soccer, go to church, and see almost all of my closest friends. Last night I ate a spontaneous dinner downtown with sixteen amigos, probably the most hilarious event I've attended since Karina's birthday celebration in the cabin of a sleeper car on an Eastern European night train. I've missed those fools a lot.

Anyway, I have to leave in a few hours to catch my plane back to Boston. I'm eager to see all the friends I ditched sixteen months ago, but not so much for the Harvard coursework. Alas, they don't give diplomas out for nothing, right? Summer- it's been real. Readers- thank you for making it all the way to the end. I'll try to post something again before I graduate, but no promises. Peace and love to you all.

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