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Veni, vidi, bitch-i… Puerto Vallarta

15 February 2009

I’ve rented a rooftop room (an unknown trick in Mexico… often the rooftop has a few rooms mostly for the staff, and — if all you want is a bed and a bathroom, and aren’t turned by unrestored antiques, is usually a bargain).  A bed, a chair and a shower is all I really need, and a room’s a room, so I’m staying for the next few days at the Posada Regis in downtown Guadalajara.  Besides the rooftop view, there is the added advantage that I’m right across the street from a high-class hotel with wireless … and can tap in by sitting in my doorway.

pv-1I was originally planning to be in Puerto Vallarta for three nights, but couldn’t see hanging around after calling on the one English-language bookstore (THE Book Store, which, for those in Puerto Vallarta… or environs… is inside the Soriana at the Caracol Shopping Mall… right across from Register #1.  And, yes, it does carry Gods, Gachupines and Gringos, among a wide selection of new English and Spanish titles).  I was going to go to a meeting of the local writers’ group, but never really heard back from them, other than to suggest it would not be “fair” to their writers’ to allow me to present anything on such short notice.  I was also planning to get up to another bookshop in one of the other little resort towns, but didn’t hear anything until Saturday morning (or rather tonight, when I got around to accessing my email).  I may be going back to Puerto Vallarta in a month or two — for a signing perhaps — so will try to get up the road then.

If I’m invited back after giving my impressions of PV.

One thing I am happy to report is that my stated impression that Mexicans know their history and appreciate those who do was confirmed.  I have to warn baggage handlers and taxi drivers that my luggage is very, very heavy (I’m managing to keep in shape on this trip, anyway).  They generally ask what I’ve got in there, and I don’t mind telling them.  Which leads to conversations about the books.  Which leads to Mexican history.  Being a tourist-cetric community, the bus station is out in what seems the middle of nowhere… by the airport… close to the resort hotels, but not anywhere near the city itself, and rather inconvenient for we humble vendores, who aren’t staying in some high-dollar resort hotel out there.  So, the taxistas and I had time to converse.

My first taxista was tickled that someone had written Mexican history in English.  “They need it,” he said, before launching into a litany of “saints”… Carranza, Lazaro Cardenas, Emiliano Zapata.  My driver back to the airport, like me, was a resident of Santa Maria de Ribera in the pre-hip days.  He was my best bud when I knew that Madre Conchita (the terrorist nun of the 1920s) lived there… but not until I confirmed — diplomatically — that I don’t think Lopez Obrador lost the 2006 election.  It wasn’t so much that he and I are somewhat in political agreement (though it helps),  but I at least knew about the election and the controvery.  And… he was interested in indigenous languages… specifically Otomi and Zapoteca.  Being a long ride (there was some constuction delays), he also got into a riff on Pancho Villa, a man he greatly admires — for two things.  The first really surprised me.  It was the use Villa made of Felipe Angeles’ expertise in artillery.  I only mentioned Angeles in passing in my own book, but here’s a blue collar guy who can speak with confidence about a figure probably as important (or, rather, as obscure) in our history as Count von Stuben without being an expert on the Revolutionary War.  I can’t tell you a thing about Count von Stuben, other than there was a county near where I grew up named for him.

The other thing my taxista admired about Villa was that Villa attacked the gringos, for what he argued, were good tactical and political reasons. What struck me was not so much that I’m right that Mexican — even working class guys like taxi drivers — know their history and are knowledable of it, but that the gringos have no concept of the inner life of their neighbors.  If they even see the Mexicans as neighbors and not as scenery.

While I think it’s worth mentioning that unlike other tropical “paradise resorts”, its safe for the tourists to leave their permiter zone… you find perfectly nice — ahem, “Mexico-challenged” brightly-pink people on buses and in the supermarkets everywhere (try that in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic!).  Good on them.

The locals seem to accept — or at least tolerate — the inability of those from north of the border to ever be at ease with their environment.    In Mazatlan, at least one humorist has re-named our north of the border quasi-residents “los robotos” for their tendency to march — not saunter — looking neither right nor left, and bowling over anyone in their path.  WITHOUT SO MUCH AS SAYING “¿Con permiso?“.  That, and the unfortunate need for everyone connected with tourism (even bus drivers and cleaning women and waiters) to speak more than a little English, are probably the trade-offs one should expect in a tourism centered community.

pv-2It’s downtown is quicky becoming “quaint” and sanitized for gringos (at inflated prices) to be sure, but downtown Puerto Vallarta seems to be a city without Mexicans (except as workers, or a few shopkeepers).  Being of the theory that “English spoken here” is code for “we inflate prices by at least 25%”, I was hard pressed to find a MEXICAN Mexican restaurant.  I did, run by a couple little old ladies — real home cooking — but it took some doing.

And, much as I enjoyed the civilized eclecticism of  “Uncommon Grounds Chill-out Lounge” (a Buddhist coffeehouse slash bar slash restaurant slash aromatherapy center slash et cetera) and was impressed by The Book Store,  both seem exceptions to the rule.  While both of course cater to the gringos, that is as much an accident of their product as anything.  What was appalling was the number of restaurants, bars, clubs, that are designed to discourage Mexican clientele… or at least “THOSE Mexicans”.

pv-3What I’m talking about was my visit to what the tourism brochures have started referring to as “Playa Romantico”… and is more properly known as Playa de los muertos”  (“Dead-men’s beach”).  This is where you find “The Blue Chairs” — written up in every tour book as THE gay place of Mexico.  It isn’t.  It’s the gay white foreigners of a certain age place of Mexico.  I saw almost no one under the age of 50, only one or two persons of color (who stood out for that reason alone).  Apparently,  one occupies a chair and buys overpriced (by Mexican standard) snacks and drinks, and talks about the same old shit you talk about back in Fargo or Vancouver or wherever.  It was a giant “wrinkle room” with less clothing.

If that wasn’t appalling enough, I noticed that THE big gay club’s cover charge is 150 pesos.  That may be acceptable in the United States for all I know, but very few Mexicans can afford that kind of money (disriminatory cover charges are either legal in Jalisco, or the law is bent for the colony.  Discrimination based on economic status is certainly illegal in the Federal District, and such a cover charge would earn at least a visit from the Human Rights Commission).  There was a line waiting to enter the place… all in English, obviously not Mexicans.

I did go to another club, up the street, where there actually were a few Mexicans…. who spoke English, and who were there as “guests” (or would-be uhhh…. temporary employees?… of foreigners).  I will admit there were also French speakers there, so it’s not just a U.S. thing.

Visitors (mostly oblivious to the whole thing) seem happy with the services they receive in Puerto Vallarta, and I can’t blame them for pouring in, to the point where the coast is wall-to-wall condos, hotels, developments.  But, the colonists I spoke with seem just as oblivious.

I know I’m painting with a broad brush, but when I had breakfast and asked for a nota the old guy at the next table wanted to know what I had said.  And he ate there every day for years.  When I said a receipt for my business expenses,  he was not only surpised that some of us work for a living (ok, I’ll accept that there’s an assumption that all foreigners are retirees or living off ill-got gains from elsewhere), but DEMANDED to know why I’d bother paying taxes.  “Um, I live here.”  And, I heard much more about circumventing Mexican law and custom — and looking for an opportunity to work with other gringos — than about actually just living in Mexico.

A visit to PV is an immersion in colonialism.  In Tennesee Williams’ 1948 short story (and subsequent 1961 drama), “The Night of the Iguana”, “the central theme of temptation in a paradise that may be imprisonment“.  The successful 1964 film version — which made it into my book as a seminal event in Mexican history (or at least seminal in the post-world war II tourism boom) — may be partially responsible for turning paradise into a prison.  A rather nice, sunny prison, but a prison nonetheless.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. otto permalink
    15 February 2009 8:30 am

    top post

  2. 16 February 2009 8:25 am

    I pulled the rooftop deal in Taxco. Wow – best views at night of Santa Prisca from anywhere in town.

  3. 24 January 2011 12:29 am

    Hola Richard!
    Great to find out about your book & good to know others know about the rooftop cheap lodging in Mexican cities. When I was 17 & 18 I rented the roof top of a super funky beach hotel in San Blas and set up my tenet there… for 3 months! I think it was about 75 cents(US) per night. It was my penthouse…ha! The next 3 months was yuppier: at a funky beach hotel in Puerto Vallarta called Hotel California. I think it was $3 a night. That 9 room hotel was torn down and it’s now big condos. I figure they probably changed the locks by now…

    Looking forward to reading your book. Will there be a Spanish-language edition?

    Maybe we can meet for un cafecito someday in Mexico. I work in Guadalajara, Mexico City, sometimes in Acapulco, and up here in Arizona.

    If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to attend one of the great film festivals in Mexico. As with anything in Mexico, it will endear you even more to the country and her people.

    Happy new year, assuming you observe the Aztec calendar…

    H.M.

  4. 5 August 2012 10:11 pm

    10 years ago there a was a thriving book selling business in Guadalajara across from the Cathedral. I enjoyed my time studying there. There is a great Ballad about Villa: “En Nuestro Mexico Febrero 23,”

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