I don’t want to be a one-trick writer known only for her tales of DANGER! so I’m going to get this out of the way early. As in Africa, in Mexico there are many dangerous things. I had a sense of this before I relocated. Witness this excerpt from my travel journal, Puerto Vallarta, 2008:
The buses are like amusement rides. Why pay 65 American dollars for a zipline tour or ATVing when for 55 cents you can be jostled and bounced around on the cobblestone streets? Make sure you locate and anchor yourself to one of the woefully sparse hand rails or risk being unceremoniously flung to the filthy floor. When you’re ready to get off the driver will open the door and slow down, or not.
Standing at the top of the bus stairs watching the street stones whipping past, sweaty hand slippery on my spot of rail, I say a prayer and descend onto the lower step. Surely he’ll stop or at least bring the bus to a speed lower than 40 km/h?
It’s so absurd to me, coming from a country where even the smallest safety infraction is tsk-tsked ad infinitum. I’m galaxies away from car seats, kneeling buses, life jackets, and twittering crosswalk lights, instead perilously perched in the open doorway of a bus shimmying down a four lane highway. I’m unsure about protocol – people don’t merely whisper a prayer and launch themselves onto roadway when they want to get off a bus… Do they?
I’m going to jump. I think of the virgin Guadalupe. I’ve missed her festival by a single day. Yesterday in Vallarta, believers made a trek to the church in the town square on their knees – an excruciating prospect even if the streets were paved by Nerf. I realize that I must lob myself out the door and leave the rest to faith. I allow the virgin’s face fill my imagination and poke a single be-Birkenstocked foot out the door. My leg muscles tense and I close my eyes. I let go of the rail, and suddenly my feet are on terra firma. The bus belches out a great black effluvium as the driver puts it into gear, starting from a complete standstill. Feeling utterly idiotic, I straighten my posture and turn to depart, immediately falling into one of the myriad gaping holes in the sidewalk.
In Vallarta the sidewalks are so treacherous that a sober mountaineer would be well-advised to watch his or her step. I’m not talking about mere disrepair. These sidewalks have been designed to fuck you up. First, they’re built a full one to three feet higher than the roadway. This ensures that any wobbliness – and this place is rife with things to make you wobbly – will be rewarded with almost-certain injury. Next, they are crater-ridden, slanty, and occasionally, gone. They’re narrow, too narrow for two to walk side-by-side, making a lover’s stroll an impromptu round of roller derby (loser falls into the road – ha ha!), and are garnished by exposed tangles of rebar. Sometimes the sidewalk will be 45 degrees off, and you’ll abandon your casual stroll, compensating by tilting your body 45 degrees away from the road, feet scrabbling, legs apart and bowed like a novice downhill skier.
Let me go on record now: in the end, anything covered by Vallarta’s Public Works is cool. It’s the natural world you really need to watch out for.
I’ve been generously offered a place to live in Mezcalitos, a Mexican village outside of Nuevo Vallarta. Nuevo is a suburb, manicured and golf coursed. In Toronto, I was given a link to Mezcalitos so I could see it on Google Maps. It failed to render. My host eventually sent me latitude and longitude. You need coordinates to see Mezcalitos. Here they are: 20.715055, -105.282562. Pop that code into Google Maps and zoom in.
You’ll see the roof surrounded by a coconut grove. I instantly dubbed it the Jungle Palace (Jungla Palacio, pronounced hoon-glah pal-atzio). You might also see chickens, but chickens aren’t the only creatures at the Palace. “Scorpions,” Nancy’s boyfriend Rodolfo told me. “They don’t really live in the city, but out in Mezcalitos there are deadly scorpions.”
“It depends on the person and the scorpion,” my new boss Katy said casually. “If the scorpion is particularly poisonous and if the person is allergic, it can be fatal.” Silently I crunched the probabilities. “You just have to make sure you check your dish towels because they like damp places,” Katy continued. “And don’t leave laundry on the floor. They like piles of clothes.” I nodded. “This is why you always want to keep some flip flops by the bed – in case you have to get up in the night.” Now that was an image I could have done without. “And also be aware that they’re gravity-defying.”
You know, you’d think that would have been it for me, but ultimately it wasn’t the scorpions (or the venomous caterpillars or the house-breaking snakes or the not-so benign coconuts that might fall from the high palms in the grove and split my head open) that kept me from moving into the Jungle Palace. It was the bridge.
Toronto’s weather is so inclement that we had to invent a scale to measure the suck, and so the Humidex was born. I’ve arrived in Vallarta in the rainy season, into weather that the Humidex can only dream of measuring. On the other coast, Hurricane Karl has drowned Veracruz, and in my short time here I’ve already witnessed two astonishingly forceful storms. One unfolded in front of me as I cringed in the passenger seat of a CRV that was essentially floating down the highway. Lightning struck a light pole not 100 yards away, causing a shower of fire to rain down on the soaked pedestrians below. I saw several savvy Mexicans stripped down to nearly naked in an effort to lighten their load under the weight of the water.
Just before I arrived in Vallarta, a bridge collapsed during a heavy rainfall. What I failed to realize when I first heard about it was that it was the bridge to the Jungle Palace. As a result, the one remaining bridge – which was formerly southbound only – is now the sole route for all traffic going either way. It’s created a terrible traffic snarl and has made the Palace more remote than ever.
Between eerie isolation and the plague of scorpions I decided to take the hint. I won’t be moving to the jungle after all.
As I sit and write this, the now-familiar pre-storm winds are gathering outside my window. The temperature has dropped, a welcome relief to the cloying humidity of mid-day. Any minute the sky will crack and quick fingers of electricity will slicker across the mountains. The thunder here isn’t distant; it’s like standing in the mouth of a roaring lion. It’s like pressing your ear against the hot barrel of a rifle as the trigger’s squeezed. It’s like waiting on the dotted line of the 401 for that big rig to run you down. Seriously, it’s like the world is ending.
The rains are flooding the streets again. As blinding sheets of light cascade over the flimsy windowpanes I reflect on the ancient Mayan civilization. I’m beginning to see their point. In a world this overwrought, I’d be tempted to play soccer with a severed head too.