First impressions can be superficial. I arrive in Mexico forgetting that it takes time to appreciate and understand something foreign and complex. What I first see: homes and businesses in stages of stalled construction or general disrepair, lots of trash on the streets, and dozens of scruffy dogs and ragged chickens and roosters pacing or lying in the dust, barely moving as cars or people go by. An incessant crowing and barking crescendos in pre-dawn hours and tapers off toward midnight, with an inexplicable frenzy of sound in the wee hours. Tap water is undrinkable, and vegetables must be decontaminated before eating. Driving is fraught with dangerous passing and turning practices. Mexican music plays at high volumes, sometimes from many directions. Pop-up stands peddle questionable juices in used plastic bottles, or piles of second-hand American clothing. Vendors in open trucks drive by with loudspeakers blasting out, hawking bottled water, natural gas, beds frames and mattresses, or jicama jicama jicama!
We walk the side streets, step over trash and dogshit, gingerly skirt around dogs who are oblivious, barking or just watchful. A puppy toys with a (hopefully) dead rooster who wandered too close.
The streets, once cobblestoned, are a mix of potholes, dirt and remaining stones standing out in relief, a foot-bruising, ankle-twisting walkway. The warm air is sprinkled with flies, occasional mosquitos. Tiny geckos leave traces of tiny gecko poop on the floors, and massive spiders occasionally venture from cracks reminding you that this is their home too. Birds nest above haphazardly parked cars, mingling birdshit with street dust, turning vehicles to the same muddy hue.
I take a deep breath, admitting that I brought my 21st century mindset with me. Letting go of my first world expectations, a new charming layer supplants these sights. I turn a blind eye to things I can’t change, and warm to the pleasant foreign delights that seductively surround me.
This is small town Mexico, where internet isn’t king, and the only troll is a growling dog. Kids and pets run loose, the corner store has much of what you need, and prices are low. When business is slow the storekeepers visit and hang out, their home just a few steps away. Prices get totaled up on a calculator, eggs are sold individually, and a dozen warm tortillas are available nearby. There’s a simplicity and charm to this Pacific coast gem, a place where life is straightforward and uncomplicated, and the transforming wave of tourism hasn’t yet hit. This is why we travel.
Mesmerized, I watch the steady parade of exotic yellow-winged caciques, flycatchers, whimbrels, enormous anhingas and frigatebirds, pelicans, herons and egrets. The blue water of the surf pounds on a steep shore nearby.
The markets and roadside stands hold a tantalizing array of jackfruit, passionfruit, papaya, and pineapples. I savor my first much-anticipated coco frio, fresh cold coconut, prepared by a small woman wielding a machete.
A few paces out our front door is the taco stand that provides our go-to meals or snacks all week long. Sonia runs her business from a fold up metal stand outside her house, and come evening she’s in a chair on the street, chatting with friends and family, and stoking a wood fire as she stews meat in a huge metal pot. In the morning she’s back at her portable grill, chopping, frying, flipping fresh tortillas, serving the birria tacos on small styrofoam trays, along with large cups of fresh squeezed orange juice, all for just a few bucks. We spoon on cilantro, onion, cabbage, and various salsas from a little table covered with a pillow case to keep the flies off, and sit at one of two plastic tables perched on a small ledge of cement that barely separates us from the dust of the street.
Trashy streets contrast sharply with scrupulously clean floors. People continually dust, sweep and rake in front of their businesses. I watch a woman sweep the outer walls of her store with a broom. The bathrooms in restaurants are spotlessly clean and stocked, even as the toilet paper goes into the trash instead of toilets.
We are staying with our cousins who are among an increasing number of North Americans making Mexico their second home. It makes sense with warm weather, beaches, fresh seafood, cheap prices, natural beauty, friendly people, stretching their retirement dollars. The gringos build or remodel houses, and become part-time residents.
When I told my brother where I was going, he said, “Don’t wreck it,” because that’s what happens to these sleepy villages up and down the coast. One town gets too crowded, nearby towns are next to go, and just by being there we change it. But there’s good change and bad, and good guests and not so good. The question becomes how can we move from place to place with the least negative impact?
We’re all familiar with communities changing because of newcomers, and in Portland many longtime residents are vocal about their anger, complaining that it’s not like it used to be, that it’s lost its charm, grown too crowded, too expensive, skyrocketing housing prices, too much traffic. We said the same in California, and I’m pretty sure this is true in most growing cities, as moving to a “better” place is the American Way.
As a new Portlandian I jokingly confess to people that I am one of those evil Californians that make everything worse for the longtime city folks. Most people are gracious about it, but “No California” stickers pop up on real estate signs, and vitriolic news stories and social media attack people who buy houses for cash, increasing housing shortages and bidding wars. One person even got their car and home graffitied with “California Go Home.”
Our cousins demonstrate how to be good guests. They’re intentional about offsetting their presence in the town. Fluent in Spanish, they talk with locals and I see a wall of politeness and tolerance fall away, faces grow warm and open, and conversation move to issues people care about. They create relationships with locals, and ask after the families, befriend the children, join in the banter, and set people at ease. They spend their money locally, and when they can’t find things nearby, they try shopping within Mexico rather than importing what they need from the States.
They refrain from giving advice on what the locals should be doing, how they should live their lives. Yes there’s trash, unspayed dogs roaming, noise, sub-optimal sewers. They adapt as best they can, and adjust their expectations as if it’s the U.S. with a 1970s awareness and technology for dealing with problems.
Another group of admirable guests are a cooperative of gringo residents who repay their use of the town and its resources by creating relationships with the government and people, and contributing to the town’s health and well-being through a recycling program, supporting local education, free neutering clinics, fundraising for special needs, and so on.
Sadly, a lot of foreign residents in this Mexican town don’t integrate or learn Spanish. They hang out with their own kind, creating a separate community. They prefer the restaurant-bar that plays North American music, and prefer businesses that sell familiar goods and comfort food from back home.
Long-term townspeople are afraid of things changing for the worse with a big influx of new ex-pats, and there’s an underlying sense of losing something. They’ve seen it in other nearby towns.
When new folks try to “improve’ a place by making it more like the place they left, it’s insulting and invasive, whether in Portland, Mexico or anywhere. It’s up to newcomers to offset their impact by trying to learn the culture, support what’s already there, and what drew them in the first place. We can contribute our talents and skills as well as money. It makes a difference to the locals when you try to integrate instead of forcing your lifestyle on others.
One night we walk to the beach to check out the high tide under a new moon. A thick fog lies over phosphorescent waves pounding close to our feet. Just a few yards away is a Great Blue Heron, standing upright and astonishingly tall, about chest height to us. We stand quietly looking at him as he looks back, and as a large wave crashes at his feet, he rises straight up and flies soundlessly into the misty night.
Thanks to Alan for some of these photos!