Hasta Luego, Amigo
The Mexico Life
This is a story about the second time I visited Tepic, the capital city of Nayarit on the west coast of Mexico. It was in the winter of 2005. My first visit was in 1984.
I didn’t have particularly sweet memories of Tepic from 21 years ago, the last time I was there. But today’s sojourn there erased what few fond memories I have of the place. Come to think of it, I don’t have any memory of Tepic at all, except that I changed buses in its nasty bus station when I traveled from San Blas headed to Puerto Vallarta.
I am staying at Casa Mañana in Playa Los Cocos. The owners, Lourdes and Rinehard, live in Tepic. It was Monday morning, and Lourdes had been at the hotel for the weekend. She was headed back home, and she kindly offered to give me a ride to Tepic. I wanted to do some souvenir shopping.
She has a spiffy new VW in a sedan I haven’t seen in the States. Almost all Volkswagens in North America are partially made here in Mexico. Street-ready VWs cannot be bought south of the border and driven home across that border; they don’t meet US specifications. More’s the pity, because they are significantly less expensive here. Many of the city police cars and taxicabs are VW bugs.
Playa Los Cocos (Coconut Beach) lies about 30 miles south of Tepic at the end of a harrowing, curvy road that weaves through the jungle and tests the nerves of even the most skilled driver. Having driven the road many times, Lourdes didn’t seem to notice as we sped along, slowing only for Mexico’s ever-present speed bumps. When we reached the outskirts of Tepic, she apologized to me and said she hoped she was not scaring me with her driving.
“One can’t be too polite when driving in the city. You have to assert yourself,” she said as she cut off a dusty pickup truck and came close to clipping a bicyclist. Seeing the near misses just as she was speaking, I believed her every word.
Salvador, the Casa Mañana waiter who has adopted me, and helps me improve what can only be described as my deplorable Spanish, had drawn a map on a napkin showing me the location at the station of the buses that traveled the road to Playa Los Cocos and would let me off in front of the hotel. He told me to use as a landmark the tall cathedral on Victoria Street. It was only five blocks from the bus station.
Lourdes dropped me in front of the station. Across the street was the “zocolo,” or the town square. There were the usual fruit stands on the zocolo edges, and a student band was just concluding a noontime concert. I kept to the street leading to the church. There was a variety of shops and farmacias. I wanted to buy presents for my family and cut-rate medicines for me. But first I had to have some cash.
There was a Banco Mexico on the street, and I went in to exchange a travelers check written in US dollars for pesos. Knowing I was supposed to co-sign the check in front of whomever was going to cash it, I started to sign it at a teller’s window. She waved me away and pointed to a counter with a pen and a calendar on display. Anyway, I thought she was pointing to the counter. I was confused, but I signed the check and took it back to her window.
“No,” she said, pointing to a bank officer in the back. At least I guessed she was a bank officer. She was seated at a desk rather than a teller window. In the States, such a configuration usually indicates a lower-rung officer.
The well-dressed, beautiful young lady, took my travelers check, and told me I had to sign it again. I pointed to my signature now in two places on the check.
“No,” she said again. “Aqui,” she insisted, pointing to a space under the signature line. I signed it again.
She took the check, carefully inspected it back and front and asked for my passport, which I handed over. She examined the photo on the passport, which is probably the worst photo ever taken of an earthling. Daniel, the kid at the hotel, who cashed a previous travelers check, teased me about it, saying it looked like a picture one would find on a wanted poster.
The bank officer held the passport up where she could compare the photo with my actual face. She frowned. By this time, I had not seen a smile in the entire bank. Everyone looked at me as though I might be an imposter at best and Ma Barker at worst.
Trying to lighten things up a bit, I said, “Yo tiene un malo dias.” I was trying to say, “I was having a bad day,” pointing to the passport picture. But whatever I actually said seemed to deepen her concern. She took the check and my passport to a more official bank officer. This one sat in a floor-to-ceiling glass office. That glassed-in officer now held my passport aloft and inspected my countenance some more.
The un-glassed-in officer came back to her desk. There were still no smiles or the slightest indication of the standard “friendly banker.” She punched a few numbers on her telephone and started writing on the back of the travelers check. When she finished, there were four closely spaced lines of numbers on the back of the check and more on the front. I’ve cashed many travelers checks in Mexico, but I’ve never been subjected to that much scrutiny.
At last she gave me the check, my passport, and a printed slip. The slip had more numbers on it. Now I had the slip, my passport, the numbered and re-numbered travelers check, but still no pesos. She returned my steady gaze, except to look around me toward the front door.
No, I thought, it’s not Ma Barker. She thinks I’m Bonnie and she’s looking for Clyde who must be waiting for my signal to burst into the bank, tommy-gun blazing. I made the gesture with upturned hands and raised eyebrows meant to indicate, So, what do I do now? She stood up and motioned for me to follow her.
Back to the original teller we went. I had the feeling she wanted me to put the items in my hand into the metal scoop at the bottom of the glass partition separating the teller from me. I looked about pondering that the officer at the desk where I sat for so long was the only individual in the bank not in a glass cage. She looked very small, but she was obviously capable of taking care of herself. Maybe she was a black belt or one of those colors that mean her hands must be registered with the Federales as a lethal weapon.
Now in front of the teller again, I felt sure I would at last get my pesos and be off on my shopping spree.
The teller punched some buttons on her telephone and listened as she wrote more numbers on what was now a tattered travelers check. She, too, sized me up by my passport photo and frowned. I smiled at her. There was no show of reciprocated friendliness from inside the teller’s cage.
At long last, she riffled through a stack of multi-colored paper money and pushed it at me in the metal scoop.
I thanked her profusely. “Mucias Gracias,” I said.
“De Nada,” she answered, still not smiling. At last they let me go. Glancing at a clock as I made my way to the door, I saw that my transaction had consumed 40 minutes of the banco’s and my time, just to cash one of those quick and easy travelers checks.
Leaving the bank, I walked four or five blocks up Victoria Street, stopping in first this shop, then another. I bought shirts for the grandsons, some wooden tops, five pens, each decorated with a yarn and feather God’s eye, and I bought Daughter Mandy a pair of orange and yellow sandals “Hecho en Mexico.”
I crossed the street beside the large cathedral Salvador told me about and started down the other side of the street toward the zocolo, stopping to take a picture of the church’s tall spire against the puffy clouds in a beautiful blue sky.
I had only gone a few steps, when someone touched my arm and said, “Excuse.” I turned around and saw my arm was being touched by the long arm of the law. A member of the policia had interrupted my shopping spree.
How nice, I thought. Like so many policemen in Mexico, he was going to inquire if I needed directions. Something was wrong, though. This one didn’t seem the least bit friendly. He must be related to someone in the bank, and it runs in the family, I thought..
He rattled off some Spanish, and I picked up the word, “photograph.” As I always do when I don’t understand a word and I think someone is being helpful, I said, “Ah, si.”
His eyes grew wider, as he took a step nearer. The touch on my arm now turned into a grasp. Not menacing, but nonetheless a grasp. I looked at it and said, “Que?” (What?)
After a few minutes of mutual misunderstanding, I realized he was asking me if I took his picture.
“No,” I answered, and shook my head. Then, I was astounded when he asked if I took a picture of the bank. (“Photograph banco?”)
“No, nada,” I answered as plainly as I could.
There were several more questions from him all of which I answered with “Mande?” or “Que?” Then I realized he was asking me if I didn’t take a picture of him or the bank, what was I shooting?
I searched my limited Spanish vocabulary for the word, “church,” but came up with nothing. I pointed at the cathedral. Taking out my camera once again, I pantomimed as I pointed to the top of the church’s spire. I said, “church” about five times.
Having shot pictures all over Mexico, I know the protocol: (1) If you want to photograph a man, his child or his burro, ask permission. Ladies don’t seem to mind. The man will probably ask you to pay. It is rude at that point not to cross his palm with a few pesos. (2) Never take a photo of an Indian. In fact, don’t even let an Indian know you have a camera on your person. The story about a guy being stoned to death because he took a photo of a local ethnic group may be a Mexican urban legend, but I never take the chance. (3) Buildings are fair game. Shoot away.
The policeman was finally satisfied I was not taking pictures of him or the bank for the purpose of sharing them with my bank-robbing comrades. We would just have to case the joint in person. Besides, the bank was three blocks away, and it wasn’t even close to the church steeple way up in the sky. I don’t know where the cop was when I snapped the picture. But should there be a next time, which I doubt, I will proceed with the picture-taking assuming the police are all Indians.
I made a quick decision then to take a bus back to Playa Los Cocos as fast as I could. I didn’t exactly feel welcome in Nayarit’s capital city.
I made my way to the bus station and was told the bus that passed by the Casa Mañana would leave in one hour. Fine. I forked over 13 pesos, much to the confusion of the ticket agent. He pointed to 30.00 on the ticket. I just as vehemently pointed to the 13.00. I’d had about enough of Tepic’s inhospitable attitude.
There was a boy standing at the ticket booth who, I was told, had spent a great deal of time in California. The boy pointed to the 13 and then to his watch. Whoops! The 13.00 meant 1:00 p.m., and the 30.00 was the amount of pesos the bus trip cost (about $2.73). I was a little embarrassed, but all three of us laughed. Amazing! There were at least two people in Tepic who knew how to smile. I felt better.
I bought the ticket and took a seat in the street level waiting room. The buses left the station by an exit immediately adjacent to the place where I was sitting. It soon became clear I would die if I sat for an hour breathing their noxious exhaust fumes. I sought refuge on the upper level where the buses took on passengers.
I waded through my memory weeds trying to remember leaving from that very bus station for a trip to San Blas many years ago. The bus I was to take today was considerably bigger and in better shape than the bus I rode 21 years ago.
Remembering there were reserved seats on the primera classe buses, I mused they must have abandoned the assigned seating because no one paid any attention to it anyway. When we climbed aboard the bus that was to take us to San Blas in 1984, I remember there were two people sitting in the seats that had been assigned to my husband and me. We said nothing, and took seats in another part of the bus.
When at last the driver indicated the 2005 bus was about ready to take off, I climbed aboard and sat in the second seat on the right-hand side. Almost immediately, an older Mexican gentleman told me I was in his seat. He asked to see my ticket. Mind you, almost all this communication was accomplished using hand signals. I wasn’t sure what was going on.
“Ah, cinco,” he said, pointing to the number, 5, previously overlooked, on my ticket. He pointed to the seat across the aisle.
“Lo siento,” I apologized, and stepped across the aisle to take my correct seat. A Mexican lady of my approximate age and weight sat down beside me in the aisle seat. We were a bit crowded. Our passenger list now numbered six, but I knew we would pick up more who would hail the bus from the roadside.
We were soon out of town and back on the jungle curves where we were to spend the next two hours if we were lucky. If we were not lucky, we would either spend the time in the hospital or in the morgue.
The driver, obviously trying to break a land speed record, “put the pedal to the metal,” as we said in those carefree teen years. We zoomed through the jungle missing by mere inches vehicles coming from the opposite direction.
There were tiers of mountains, fading into blue haze on the horizon. There were banana fields, agave and tobacco fields and thick jungle foliage sprinkled with the intense colors of tropical flowers. Yes, it was beautiful. I half expected to see Sigourney Weaver at the edge of the jungle cooing to a mountain gorilla. I did spot a truly fine iguana that blinked its eye as the bus sped by.
I tried to think only of the breathtaking scenery, but mostly I was scared.
Suddenly feeling a little sick, I slid the window open next to my face and drew in the fresh air. About this time, the lady in the seat beside me drifted off to dreamland. Sharp curves to the right caused her sleeping body to lean into my terrified one, crushing me against the side of the bus. She neither knew nor cared that the Angel of Death awaited us at the apex of every hairpin curve. Had he not claimed many a life at a curve in this very road, now marked with a memorial cross? Had he not called home many at one time where the curve was marked with many crosses, no doubt done in by a bus crash?
My seatmate seemed perfectly comfortable as she took her afternoon siesta. The line was crossed when her head drifted toward my shoulder. She also neither knew nor cared that I have a life-long prejudice against being touched by strangers. The same prejudice had already been breached in Tepic by the cop.
She apparently wanted to cuddle as she laid her head so close to my face, her hair tickled my neck. I jerked my shoulder upward, which brought her out of her stupor enough to lean in the other direction, thereby avoiding what could have been a nasty scene.
As it happened the bus arrived at my hotel in only one hour and 50 minutes, knocking off 10 minutes of our ETA and at least that many years off my life. I stumbled over the cobblestones in the Casa Mañana parking lot and climbed the steps to my room. Once there, I plopped down on my bed and was soon off to dreamland myself.
But before I dozed off, I promised myself I wouldn’t take a bus or any other form of transportation, including a burro, to visit Tepic again. Enough, as they say, is quite enough.
Addition to story as of 2014: In my usual manner, I spoke too soon. I have now been in Tepic many times with no harm befalling me at all. My favorite dentist practices there, and several friends live there. There is a beautiful new bus station at Tepic, and most of the buses no longer belch noxious fumes. I still love Casa Mañana, and I have spent many wonderful times at the hotel. That area along the Pacific Coast is now called Riviera Nayarit, and the tourist office is marketing it as the next big tourist area of the many big tourist areas in Mexico. My friend, Lourdes, is now a grandmother, although she still looks as though she has not yet seen 45. She built a casita on a farm near the hotel, where she raises fruit trees and keeps horses. I have yet to see it, but I hope to visit again soon