Sunday, January 24, 2010

Puerto Arista

We left San Cristobal and headed west, aiming for Chiapa de Corzo to have a look at the Cañon del Sumidero, a stunning part of the Grijalva river that wends its way from Guatemala to the Gulf of Mexico. We sat around for a couple of hours by the embarcadero waiting for a group of fifteen to form and then hopped in a lancha and went for a bumpy ride downriver. We were downright gobsmacked. The cliffs that squeeze in on either side of the river are a kilometre high, a photo op at every turn. We saw crocodiles sunning themselves, hundreds of herons and cormorants and vultures and a grotto with the ever-present Virgin of the Guadelupe.

We'd done a little research in San Cristobal and were heading to Tuxtla Gutierrez's Liverpool, a Mexican mall chain, to see if we could pick up a new Macbook and maybe a camera to replace mine which died in San Cristobal (lenses and sand do not mix well.) We decided to try the Macbook one more time before shopping and, o miracle of miracles, it worked! After a frustrating half hour of talking tech in Spanish, we picked up a new SLR. After our shopping experience (heavenly for the kids, hellish for us), we opted not to stay in Tuxtla. The Pacific was just too tantalizingly close.

The drive on a brand new road was, yet again, spectacular but in a totally different way. If you think you've seen beautiful landscapes, come to Chiapas and prepare to be wowed. Entering Chiapas from the east you find pancake-flat plains full of grazing cattle with attendant herons, then the jungle sets in and thickens, you climb and climb and climb into the clouds and the cold, where every square foot of available hillside is planted in corn, then you drop down the other side, pale brown and dry, a world diametrically opposed to its eastern face into an arid valley ringed with stunning peaks. Then you climb into a new range, red-soiled with golden grasses rippling in the wind and come down again, this time to the sunny, breezy, hot Pacific.

We pulled into Puerto Arista around 5:30 and found a place to camp a couple of blocks from the beach. Pacific sunsets — especially ones that feature a pod of frolicking dolphins, cannot be beat. In the morning, we walked down to the beach before breakfast, in time to see the fishermen bring in their catch. The kids begged to be able to throw the small fry to the pelicans and we chatted with the fishermen about the catch. We talked about Chiapas and how great we thought it was. Before we said goodbye the owner of the boat handed us five fish for supper. We offered to pay but he refused. "Un regalo ... de mi corazon." (a gift from my heart). They made for a delicious supper.

Later on, we drove the twenty minutes into Tonalá for provisions. The town was small so we weren't expecting much but the market knocked our socks off. Markets have become my favourite thing about Mexico, and the way they are broken down into sections, the central part which usually holds the fish and meat sections, the vegetable aisle, the totopo aisle, sweet bread, fresh cheeses, dried peppers, fireworks, penny candy, aprons & shopping bags, with competing music blaring from each one. Competing stalls sit side by side, the stallkeepers chatting amiably as they fan flies off their goods. The kids get lots of attention. Henri's hair is patted regularly and the girls get "Are you twins?" and "as beautiful as porcelain dolls." It's easy to see why when you see how poorly Mexicans are represented on television or billboards. The average woman here seems to stand under 5 foot tall with proportions nearer those of a barrel than an hourglass while the women on television are invariably tall, scrawny and very pale. It's no wonder the girls' looks are commented on so positively — they look like Mexican TV stars.

We had a quick drink at a beachside restaurant to watch the sunset and the owner asked us where we were staying. When we replied that we were camping at José's he invited us to park the van by his new palapa on the beach for 100 pesos. We asked about whether it was safe and he said, "It's my home. It's safe." We didn't have to think about it for very long. After breakfast, we pulled up beside the palapa and set up our hammocks in the shade. Morning playing in the waves, sandwiches and school in the shade, long walk in the late afternoon sun, supper and sunset, ceviche and cocktails. In short, a perfect day on the beach.

Michel (our host) is a 26-year-old part-time fisherman, father of three. He lives here in three rooms with his wife and kids, his mother and father, his brother & his wife, his wife's sister and two kids, his wife's mother, his wife's brother & other sister, the waiter. There are a few other people who's relationships we haven't quite worked out. The fact that everyone handles (and nurses) each others' children like their own makes it all the more complicated. One of the rooms is the kitchen, half of the space devoted to two double beds pushed against the wall, the other half to where they prepare the food for the restaurant they run in the other palapas on the beach. The morning is busy, the rooster gets cockadoodledooing, the men strut around raking, filling the barrel that holds the shower water and the one we scoop water out of to flush the toilets, watering the sand and trees, burning things, while the women occupy the kitchen and handle all the food prep and cleanup. Breakfast, for everyone -- even the three-year-old, starts with a big cup of sweet coffee and galletas for dipping. After breakfast, it's a lot of sitting around and chewing the fat, hanging out in hammocks, waiting for clients that don't come. The kids have found playmates in Michel's kids and in the teenagers, who don't rank high enough to get a bed and sleep on the slab outside. Our kids are getting by in Spanish and are seeing a part of Mexico that we never even hoped to be able to show them.

Our second trip to the Tonalá market, Michel came along to go pay some bills. Once we got to the market, he walked along beside us. I think he was worried about us finding what we needed but when he saw that we were getting along just fine he dashed off to the bank and said he'd catch up with us later. Our trip included a stop at one of the market's many taco stands, about four by four with a counter running along two sides with long wooden benches underneath. The owner, invariably an aproned woman, stands in the middle before a huge chopping block, usually a cross-section of a tree, and the cooking surface (I will find out what it's called). It looks like an upside down wok about two feet across with a four inch vertical lip that encloses it. The lower, outer edges hold piles of different sorts of meat, pork, chicken, beef, chorizo in their own sauces and rings of fried onion, the middle convex part is used to heat up the little taquitos. You choose your fillings and tell her how many you'd like and she fills a plate for you. On the counter sit wedges of lime and a variety of hot and hotter sauces. In a country where the staples of day-to-day eating are fairly limited, the fact that every single taco stand/comedor/loncheria has its own varieties of salsa picante and pickled hot peppers means that every single bite can be altered to one's taste.

We searched high and low for Michel before heading back to the car and then drove around the streets surrounding the market looking for him before we finally decided to head back in the hopes that he'd find his way home. When we got back, I went over to guiltily tell his mother that we'd lost her son at the market. She pointed to the hammock across from the one she lay in and there he was, mid-siesta.

We had considered heading down the peninsula to a little town called Boca del Cielo. The pueblo sits opposite a narrow island which creates a calm and very shallow laguna where it is safe to swim, unlike the beach at Puerto Arista where a wicked undertow shifts with the tides. We'd talked to Michel the other day about whether it was worth the trip, this morning he walked into the palapa and asked whether we would like to go there with him and some family members for an outing/fishing expedition.

We packed up the van and twelve of us got in to head down the road. We parked and got into a lancha to cross over to the other side. Docking the boat was interesting as Michel and his brother Henry, their wives and the boatman argued about where to put in. The boatman wanted to put us in front of his relative's palapa, Michel and Henry wanted a good spot for fishing and Marisol, Michel's wife, wanted us to be at Michel's relative's palapa. We floated around about ten feet offshore in the noonday sun for fifteen minutes as they bickered in what I can only guess is the Mexican way; one proposes something very politely, the rest stare off into space without answering for a few minutes, another proposes something else as everyone else takes their turn looking disinterested. Very confusing and indirect for the onlooker. Marisol finally won out and we pulled into one of the forty or so palapas which stood cheek by jowl along the shore. The adults all took a seat in the very welcome shade while the kids splashed around in the water. We were greeted warmly by the lovely owner of the palapa, the daughter of Michel's father's uncle. We took a dip in the still water and then went out a little further and had fun swimming against the current while staying in the same place.

Michel proposed that we walk upstream along the shore to get some fishing in. He led the way, the rest of us followed so as not to disturb the fish. He carried a round net with him that was about twenty feet across, the outer edges of the circle threaded in three-inch long cylinders of lead. He wound it carefully over his arm, watched the water and then launched it in a swing. The whole thing neatly unfolded and landed in a perfect circle atop the water to then drop and trap the school he'd spotted. Once he pulled the net in he'd drag it to shore and shake the fish out for us to catch and drop in the pail. A few crabs also made it into the net. Henry would throw sand at them to cover their eyes and then neatly pick them up before they could get their pinchers out. The kids found hermit crab shells and Henry taught us how to grind down the sides to make medallions for necklaces.

We made it out to where the waves entered the laguna by mid-afternoon and our stomachs started complaining so we headed back to the palapa. Some of us walked, some of us floated back in the current. When we got back there was more quiet talk between Marisol and Michel, hard to decipher in rapid-fire Spanish, but I gathered it was about asking the owner to prepare some of the food we'd brought with us, these perfect little cooked shrimp that we'd found at the Tonalá market. I could sense that Marisol was uneasy but once we reassured her that we would be happy to order lunch in addition to the food we'd brought, she walked off to the kitchen relieved. Wil followed to order some platefuls. Marisol prepared the shrimp with diced tomato and onion, cilantro, tons of lime juice and a few spoonsful of mayo and brought it to the table with totopos, a cross between a tortilla and a papadum. It was perfectly delicious. We devoured it along with a fried sea bass, a shrimp ceviche and a platter of crab halves cooked in a tomato-chile sauce. The Mexican half of the party, with very little help from our kids, went through an astounding amount of "refrescos" (coke, fanta, sprite) while we were there, downing what amounted to about a litre each, while the two water bottles sat untouched.

I don't know if it is the same with all Mexican families but this one, understandably, has very different ideas about personal space. In short, they don't seem to expect nor do they get any. Our kids were in and out of their rooms all the time and when I asked the adults if they were bothering anyone all I got was blank looks that made me realize my worries were unfounded. Often, as we'd sit down to an intimate family supper, the kids from next door would come stand literally over the table, not to beg, tho' I think they were very curious about our Canadian take on their fare and were more than happy to sample. Sometimes I would ask them for a little privacy as we got into bed or were changing and they'd look at me like they'd never heard the word before... and they probably hadn't.

This morning we watched one of the men of the compound lay the gutted, salted fish we caught at Boca del Cielo out on the bottom of a lancha on the beach. After the daily sunset game of futból with Henri and all the men of the family, the perfectly dry silver capotes were carefully collected and put away.

We are going to leave here on Monday for the city of Oaxaca. Luckily it is a destination long-anticipated by Wil and me and will probably involve a hotel stay which thrills the kids to bits. It's easy to see how we could slip into a rhythm here that could take us well into February but there is too much of Mexico that we haven't yet seen. We've learned a lot from our time in Puerto Arista. Namely 1) that we are much happier living side by side with a Mexican family than in a campground full of other foreigners 2) that these family-run beachside homes/restaurants undoubtedly exist in every town up the Pacific coast and our guidebooks are certainly not the place to find them, and 3) anytime we've ever asked anyone for help in Mexico we've gotten excellent advice so it will probably be how we find accommodation from now on.


Caroline said...

I'm feeling all relaxed just reading your last entry!

Sarah Gilbert said...

estupendo...such delicious road stories and vivid flavours...maybe you should call your future book lime and cilantro, topes and tacos...the kids will have novels to write about this trip someday...caramba!

kelli ann & lorie said...

yum... amazing (as always...)

Jenny Wren said...

All I can say is WOW - your writing makes me feel as if I am there with all the colours, tastes and smells. What an amazing experience for all of you. I loved to see the photo of your faithful van parked on the beach. Love to all as always