Thursday, January 28, 2010

Punto Maldonada to Taxco

The drive to Acapulco looked a little long so we decided to pick a half-way point for an overnight stop. Punto Maldonada got the vote, a seaside town off the 200. We pulled into the village. We were aliens again. We drove down to the water and asked about a place to camp. There was a little track that led down to a point and we bumped and rolled along til we got to the end of the road. We found a little restaurant on a rocky beach. I jumped out to ask if we could camp. Sure. How much? Nothing if you buy something at the restaurant. That's dinner sorted. We pulled under a pretty little tree fifteen feet away from the water. The kids played in the water and we set up camp.

By the time supper came along, the kids had quite a collection of crabs in their pails which they 'put to sleep' under the van. When we discussed dinner with the owner her husband was cutting the spines off some nopales, we asked if it was on the menu. "It could be" was the answer, yes please, we said. What time would you like supper? she asked. "Around 6", we said. "Seven it is", she replied. Okay then, seven. We went back to the van to set up the beds. A few minutes later, the husband came toward the van and then walked on past toward the cactus tree beside the pigpen and broke off a few new shoots. Shortly thereafter Henri appeared with a couple of totopos piled high with a yummy nopale salsa.

When we ambled over to the palapa, the husband was building a fire on a special fire table, the legs were what looked like bamboo, the top was a hardened clay-mud concoction. Atop the flat surface were three horseshoes of the same substance, all different sizes and depths, with grills lying atop them. The hubby set about lighting a fire under one of them and put a huge flat round dish on the grill. Dinner was great. Hubby deep-fried the fish, which was perfect, the pescadillas were delectable. The kids had a blast making tortillas with the lady and we had a great time watching her cook them in the clay pan.

We woke up early and hit the road. On our way back up the dead end road to the 200 we passed dozens of kids in uniforms on the their way to school. The looks we got said it all: "Where did those people come from and how did they get past us on their way in?" We also encountered a pick-up on the side of the road with the hood open. We stopped to see if we could help. We ended up driving one of the passengers to the next town so she could buy some oil. She barely said a word in the car and what she did say was mostly unintelligible to me. Her obvious discomfort made the usually very chatty kids shy and awkward. It was very clear she didn't know what to make of us and I think she was pretty happy when the ride was over.

We continued on our way to Acapulco. A drive that should have taken no time at all was unending because of the blasted topes. Happily, the scenery was beautiful and the roads fairly straight. More distant mountains and arid land with drying river beds. The span of the bridges over what were often mere trickles of water made us want to see Mexico in the rainy season when everything is alive with rushing water. The fields are parched and faded. The one persistent element of colour has been this incredible tree we've been seeing since we entered the state of Oaxaca, a tree that looks absolutely barren except for the flowers -- these little explosions of pure yellow pigment which emerge from these round brown pods. I finally found out what the tree is called and whoever named it obviously doesn't admire it as I do. It's called Cojones de Caballo -- "Horse Testicles".

We stopped for lunch at a little shack on a pueblo corner. The sign said "Gorditas Mary" and when we realized that gorditas (chubbies) were one of the few variations on the tortilla theme that we hadn't yet sampled, we did a u-turn and pulled up. They were maybe the best yet. These ones were made of ground corn, not Maseca, mixed with water into a paste and shaped in a ball around a filling of spiced chicken and chorizo. Then it's squished in a tortilladora and cooked. The filling makes the inside puff up like a pita which collapses when it cools. She had cut them open and put some doble crema cheese inside. The salsa on the table was delish. Mmmm

Acapulco was not at all what we expected. First of all, it is massive -- over three million and growing fast. The city, now subdivided in three, sits around a lovely bay with a small opening on the Pacific. Just beyond the beach, the buildings climb up the sides of a ring of very abrupt mountains. Not exactly ideal for roadmaking, the city is congested beyond belief. Having said that, we got a really nice feeling from the place. Walking along the Malecon, the city, in all its kitsch, oozes fifties cool. The beaches are full of Mexican familes swimming and picnicking and dancing. Because there were no cruiseships in town, the place was remarkably empty of tourists. We were on a quest for cheesy American food, looking for a chain that befit the mood of the place, but we never found one. We ended up buying hotdogs on the street (mexican hotdogs wrapped in thin bacon, served with minced tomato, onion, jalapeno, mayo, catsup and mostaza) Then we hopped a cab to the Quebrada to see the famous clavadistas do their thing. What a spectacle. The cliff is 35 metres high. The clavadistas begin by jogging down the stairs in their tight little black speedos carrying flaming torches past the throngs of onlookers. When they reach the bottom of the long string of steps they jump in the water, swim across the narrow inlet and then take turns climbing the cliff on the other side. One by one, sometimes two at a time, they await the moment when a wave deepens the narrow to 6 metres, then take turns launching themselves into the air executing back flips or perfect swan dives into the churning water below. Seriously cool. When it was all over, the divers came back up the stairs to a round of applause and then awaited us at the top, with a collection bag. We asked our taxi driver how one gets to be a clavadista and he told us later that they traditionally come from one family. The oldest is almost 40, the youngest is 10 and seniority determines what height you jump from. You start at 10 metres (!) and work your way up. Thank god I wasn't born into that family.

We left Acapulco to head to Taxco. Getting on the right road was, as usual, an adventure. Thankfullly Wil drives like a Mexican now, pulling u-turns across three lanes of traffic without hesitation. The bus drivers were the new revelation for us in Acapulco. Each bus, a cross between a school bus and a Mack truck, is personalized with incredible paint jobs. The windshield is a canvas for expressing the individuality of the driver. Beside the driver is a man who hops off everytime the bus stops, who scans the street and tells any prospective passengers that THIS bus is going where THEY want to go. I had been wondering about this system since we first got to Mexico. If the busses are run by a company, I thought in my very Canadian mind, do the drivers always get to drive their bus? I was going about it all wrong. The driver IS the bus company. Bus drivers are not passive unionized employees here. They are the most aggressive drivers on the road. The personalized paint jobs are so the passengers recognize the driver and if he got them to work faster than the other bus driver yesterday, they pick his bus if they see it again.

The drive was on a toll road which means little traffic and quick moving. It still took us an eternity because of the elevation, fom sea level to 1700 metres. Our little van that could. The vistas beautiful, the land pale scrub, wild burros wandering everywhere, the theme song from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly kept going through my head. We'd drive forever and suddenly a tiny pueblo would appear in a little valley. How the Spanish even found half the towns, never mind took them over is a real mystery to me.

We pulled into Taxco mid-afternoon. The approach to the town is incredible, you come around a turn and the city, which is really a mountainside, is laid out before you in all its colours and layers, top to bottom framed by cliffs and more mountains. The streets were obviously not conceived for motorized vehicles but that doesn't stop the hundreds of white Beetles and VW vans that fill the streets. The only flat section of the city is the little Zocalo. The cabs are fitted with a strap that connects the passenger door to the dashboard which the driver clings to whenever a passenger gets in & out to keep the front door from swinging open too violently. The vans are combis, busses that have been retrofitted with a bench for three in the back and another two-sided bench in the middle so the van fits 11, including the driver. The sliding side door never closes. We had breakfast at a place on a corner that no car could make. We spent the whole time watching three-point turns, sometimes two simultaneously as cars coming from both directions pulled around the corner.

We pulled into the "parking" (a dead end full of cars) of the hotel where we wanted to stay. The front door of the hotel was confusingly around the corner, an unremarkable door in a line of unremarkable doors. I ran around to ask if there was room. There was, but only for one night and I was sure that Taxco was a two-night town. After running back to the car, I stood by the van conferring with Wil. Meanwhile the parking attendant kept asking us to move, a policeman was looking on, and we started feeling uneasy. Then a woman suddenly appeared from inside her store. "What's the problem? she asked. When we explained, she waved the policeman over "Poli, poli! she called. She talked to him for less than a minute, telling him how nice it would be for him to let us park in one of the spots he was meant to be guarding in front of the big jewelry store. It felt a lot like Obi Wan waving his hand "These are not the droids you're looking for." The policeman sheepishly agreed. She whispered to us afterward, slip him 20 pesos and everything will be fine." That's one problem sorted. Now as for the room, I know of a place just up the road with two double beds and a roof terrace for 300 pesos a night. She didn't mention it was her place but we followed what turned out to be her daughter up through a maze of narrow streets to their guesthouse. It wasn't perfect (I so wanted a hot bath) but it was cheap and we were so grateful to not have to drive around looking for another place that we agreed.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the narrow cobble streets, trying desperately to keep the kids close to the walls. Every dog I saw was only walking on three legs. We were accosted by a man with a menu on the street who urged us to come up to his rooftop terrace for a drink. We followed him up one, two, five steep staircases to a rooftop with room for three little tables. We sat looking out over the cathedral while Wil got me drunk on Don Julio and we were serenaded by two guys on guitars who sang lovely mexican tunes in perfect harmony.

We wandered through the market, even more labyrinthine than a normal Mexican market with its narrow alleys and steep steps. A couple of ladies tried to sell us little plastic bags of live beetles which, apparently, are delicious for salting a sauce. We had tasted the grasshoppers (chapulines) in Oaxaca, but the beetles of Taxco were just too much for us. We couldn't resist a woman selling shrimp ceviche on the street. She handed over a perfect little plastic cupful which we shared on the narrow sidewalk. She very apologetically said that she didn't have any totopos to go with it so she offered us a fish quesadilla instead. Yum. We slipped off the street into a little restaurant for dinner and then headed back to the guesthouse. We spent the next morning shopping for silver. An amazing variety from teeny tiny stud earrings to leather saddles trimmed in nothing but polished silver. The craftsmanship was astonishing. Sadly all the silver is now imported from Zacatecas, in a distant part of the country. It made me realize that the beauty of Mexico's tradition of very local artisanal crafts is a bit of a double-edged sword; skills handed down from generation to generation leave the population vulnerable if the natural resources used to make them dry up.
When our morning of shopping and dodging taxis was done we decided that for a family with youngish kids, Taxco is actually a one night town. We returned the key and hit the road before lunch.


Annabelle said...

what's a 'topes' (as in "blasted topes" en route to acapulco)? also, wanted to know how the kids are getting along in spanish?

sarah cobb said...

topes are really big speed bumps... some are little lumps, some are giant foot high platforms. All of them just kill the car unless you come to an almost absolute stop.