Saturday, March 7, 2009

Zihua. - Last Day

Got up at 6:30 again to try one last time for the so-far-elusive jurel. Lost two expensive lures in short order and vowed never to fish again.

We spent the day on beautiful Playa La Ropa, realizing that we've seldom done so, favoring walks to town and afternoons on Playa Principal. We enjoyed watching a fairly good Saturday turnout of beach-goers, including a smattering of para-sailers, hobie-catters and boogey-boarders. We walked to both ends of the beach, but mostly just sat and savored our last full day of warmth, fragrance and color.

At low tide, I was able to get well into the rock formation separating Playas La Ropa and Madera, and found some little tidal pools teeming with life. Jet black anemonies, Sally Lightfoot crabs and some tiny irridescent blue fish.

We had our last dinner at La Gula (the gluttony) on Calle Adelita. We'd heard a few positive comments about it on ZihuaRob's message board, but it was mostly a shot in the dark. It turned out to be our very favorite meal of our stay thanks to the combination of good food, friendly, efficient service, and creative, pleasant atmosphere.

Afterwards, we walked to the zocalo to join a modest, fairly quiet turnout of townsfolk for a basketball game and a stroll around the square looking for perritos to pet. Then it was home early to start packing and get a good night's sleep for the long journey ahead.

Some reflections written this morning:

I’m trying to process the ache I’m feeling in my chest this morning as I look out on Zihuatanejo Bay. The little panga launches are criss-crossing the bay delivering worshippers of sun and cerveza to Playa las Gatas as they do every day. The air is still deliciously calm, but by noon sun and sea and mountains will conspire to heat it and then pump welcome breezes. The staccato “mock…mock” of two men playing tennis rises up from the Tides resort a couple of blocks away. Long-tailed grackles and yellow winged caciques fly by below me so I can see their splendid tops. A murmer of busy sounds rises from the street: cars whisper discreetly; trucks grumble at the steep climbs; and strains of happy ranchero music exude from pick-ups and work sites.

I guess this is the ache. Knowing that, tomorrow, we’ll have to leave this wonderful place, these friendly, gracious, hard-working people, and this lifestyle that we’re so privileged—nearly embarassed—to be able to enjoy.

Zihuatanejo is not easy to pigeonhole. There’s still the aura of the sleepy fishing village about it. But mostly it’s about tourists and transplants now. Still, not everyone’s content just to wait on tourists who want a taste of their quaint village. Some aspire to go to school, to learn a trade or to own a business. So there’s conflict, just like there is in other beautiful places, between growing where one is planted and looking for a bigger pot; between short-sighted opportunity and wiser, more enduring values.

We’ve seen first-hand the effects of the global economic crisis, combined with the recent bad press about the narco-violence that’s finally beginning to irritate the underbelly of Zihua. In our villa complex, San Sebastian, most of the nine units have sat vacant for the two weeks we’ve been here. We’ve often been the only, or nearly so, customers at restaurants. A fishing charter can be had for a song. A waiter begged us to bring him some of our fish if we went deep sea fishing again so he could provide his family with some animal protein more than once a week. Today, a beach vendor thanked us up and down for being his first customers. It was well after noon.

Despite the bad press and a few doom-sayers locally, the experience of the average tourist (or expat for that matter) remains pretty innocent. Aside from opting sometimes for a cab after dark and making sure our villa’s locked, we still have not felt anything but safe here.
But the economy? That hits everyone. We’ve (okay, mostly Sally) tried to be generous, tipping well, buying a few things we don’t really need, giving outright gifts to people who’ve touched us. We just hope they can hang on until things pick up again or, better yet, until they see an opportunity to realize a more prosperous life.

That said, I do not feel sorry for most of the Mexicans we’ve met here. With very few exceptions, they seem happy in their own skin. They’re very proud of themselves, their families, their town and their country. But, as in our own country, they’re exploited by a powerful, corrupt elite, and every social and economic institution seems designed to keep it that way.

We will count the days to our next visit to Zihuatanejo. Part of us hopes to see the familiar faces of the many wonderful residents we’ve met. And part of us hopes they’ve been able to move on to bigger and better things.

Friday, March 6, 2009


We got an early start this morning, trying to beat the sunrise down to the northwest end of Playa La Ropa, where a cab driver had suggested fishing for jureles might be good at this time. Navigating the wet rocks was tricky, but I managed to find solid enough footing to cast my pencil popper out a good ways into some likely spots. After a few tries, I finally saw what I’d been visualizing ever since I decided to try surf fishing this year: a couple of fish lunged at my lure, nearly jumping out of the water in their aggression. I felt a tap as one of them struck, but never the good solid weight you feel with a good hook set.
A dozen more casts drew a couple more cautious strikes, but then nothing. Maybe, I thought, something a little more life-like. I changed to my battle-scarred, six-inch, shallow-diving, silver-and-blue minnow with a rattle inside. Beautiful cast… nice… oh-h-h a bit too far right… into… oh no! …a rock. My lure had come down on a one-square- foot rock, the only obstacle within ten feet of where it landed. And it didn’t bounce. It landed and lodged, seemingly with all six of the hook points having grabbed and penetrated solid rock. I hoped the surging tide would work it loose, but it might as well have been welded in place. This didn’t have to be the end of my fishing day, but losing that trusty old lure really discouraged me and I called it quits, vowing to get a fresh start —with a new strategy—tomorrow morning.
We walked the length of La Ropa, looking for a new place to have breakfast, but the place I’d had in mind looked pretty deserted, so we settled for our old standby, Paty’s.
Our afternoon was pretty much the same as the past few days: walked downtown, did a little exploring (found a couple of nice shops and galleries we’d never seen before), and claimed a spot at one of the beachfront restaurants to read, sunbathe a little and have lunch. We were just in time for the morning fish market right next door (amounting to little more than a few plastic sheets spread on the sand with coolers full of fresh huachinango (red snapper) spread out on them). These fish come from the fleet of row-boat-sized pangas that go out every evening and fish, with nets, all night.
Again, the sportfishing fleet seemed to have had a pretty disappointing day. We saw very few catch or catch & release flags on the few returning boats, though there were two idiots who had their two tiny marlin (too small not to have been landed quickly and releasably) strung up on the “gallows” where they postured for pictures as if they’d just landed world records. But the worst part was the fact that many, many of the sportfishing pangas (including our Huntress) had just sat idle in port all day for lack of charters.

We returned to the artisans’ market to pick up the set of lacquered ceramic bowls we’d ordered on Monday. Sr. Garcia seemed very glad to see us and to present the results of his creativity and skill. The bowls were stunning, each signed by the artist.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


This morning, once again, I left our villa loaded for bear. I’ve got the essential lures, connectors and tools for my surf fishing packed into a couple of clear plastic boxes. Those, along with a small pair of binoculars and some extra gear to trade if I need something, fit neatly into my backpack. My nine-foot, medium-weight surf rod breaks down into two equal parts. I can pretty much carry everything with me all day, just in case.
Counting iguana sightings along the way to town, we headed for Zihua Coffee. We lingered over breakfast and a couple of rounds of their rich, strong brew, taking advantage of their pleasant open-air patio to watch the daily goings on along the pedestrians-only street. By then, it was noon (we don’t get started very early!). Sally did some shopping, and then I went down to the marina to see if I could fish from the pier. There are no “Prohibido Pescar de la Muelle” signs, but still I was concerned about what the charter captains and their agents might think of someone managing to fish—no matter how futilely—without paying someone. I started with a few innocent casts in an out-of-the-way place, and soon was casting with impunity between the returning fishing pangas and all around the pier. There were even schools of nice-sized bait fish swimming around to bait my imagination of larger fish, but alas, again no jureles (jack crevalle)!
While Sally read and relaxed in the sun, I walked down the beach to Playa Madera where, at last, the pelicans’ feeding frenzy had moved close enough to shore for me to reach by casting. It may not sound like much, but I was encouraged by the one strike I felt. The quest continues…

Tonight, we enjoyed a really special turn of events at Puerta del Sol, a cliffside restaurant not far from us. The food was excellent, the U.S. 30's and 40's music was mellow and romantic, but the real beauty was that two young members of the staff (our waiter and the bartender, Maira) seemed to sort of "adopt" us. Maira, who speaks no English, told us all about herself and her family, and ended up proudly sharing an album of photos of her recent wedding. We promised to come and see them again next year, and I doubt that Sally will leave this year before getting her a wedding gift. This experience is exactly why I've learned to speak Spanish -- and why we're coming to love Zihua so much.

As I write, five of our resident lagartijas (lizards) are patrolling the ceiling and walls for any unwary insects. (Since we’ve seen almost none, they must catch them before we ever see them.) We’ve learned this trip that these little guys can move very fast and that they can be noisy! Now, whenever we hear a little birdlike chatter after dark, it’s probably the lagartijas.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


I met Sally at Paty’s after her yoga class. After breakfast we walked the mile-or-so length of Playa La Ropa while the sun was still warming up for another day of cooking. We decided that this (the morning walk on the beach) wouldn’t be a bad thing to make a habit.
We stopped to chat briefly with a character we’ve seen every morning in front of Elvira’s. We call him the Walrus. He’s a very, shall we say, robust man who’s toasted himself to a shade of brown that’s hard to find the right words for. The whole time he’s walking or sitting in his partly submersed lawn chair, he’s tuned in to his iPod. He holds court over some imaginary audience with graceful gestures ranging from little fist pumps to arms spread in praise, to moves that would go well with a “C’mon in y’all!” With eccentric people, it’s often a fine line between self-consciousness and joy. With the Walrus, it’s joy.
We spent the afternoon again walking into town, camping out at one of Jesus Christo’s tables at Tata’s, and making another feeble attempt at fishing. Today, not even a lousy jellyfish. We had some beautiful shrimp soup—disarming for the whole shrimp staring up with those bulging black eyes—an order of ceviche and some wonderful cheesy nachos. Jesus, coming to know us and tolerate our full-afternoon stays at his table, is engaging us more in conversation (often in Spanish). Today, as we compared notes about fishing, he—somewhat surprisingly—asked me, if I charter another fishing boat, to bring him a piece of whatever I catch so he can feed his family more than the occasional animal protein he’s able to afford. I found this a bit surprising coming from a Mexican male, so often keeping such things to themselves. But we were both touched by it.
Tonight we headed into town for a movie. The Zihua Cine is, to a norteamericano, a throwback to a different time. In the middle of town a couple of blocks off of the zocalo, it’s got three screens, if you can call the one we entered (with exactly 23 seats) a screen. And the screen? A big white rectangle was painted on the thin stucco wall separating our theater from the next, from which we could easily hear the sound of what was obviously some kind of intergallactic war movie. Getting our snacks was a bit like walking into someone’s kitchen. Sally ordered the ramen noodle soup which the gals prepared with great care in a microwave. My popcorn was a bag of Act I Extra Mantequilla, also microwaved to order for me.
We barely enjoyed Jim Carrey in Si, Señor, a very poor translation of Yes Man. It was in English with Spanish subtitles which softened the edge of a number of pretty raunchy scenes and foul language.
After the movie, we were in the mood for something to eat, so we bought una hamburguesa and french fries from a street vendor and enjoy them on a bench while listening to some nice variations on Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue wafting out from one of the live music bars.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Seems like, with each day here in this totally laid-back place, our agenda shrinks. Today Sally decided to forego yoga so we could sleep in.
About 10:00, I packed my surf fishing gear and we took a taxi downtown to Zihuatanejo Coffee, one of the only true espresso shops in town. With not a word of English from either the menu nor the staff, and lots of coffee terms I didn’t know, ordering was sort of hit and miss, but we each ended up with something resembling the coffees we enjoy so much at home. We also shared a simple scrambled eggs and toast breakfast. Then, about noon, we walked down to La Playa Principal where I was going to try fishing again.
Yesterday, we’d watched the faintly dark spot on the water of the bay—like a cloud shadow—as the resident school of bait fish moved among the moored sailboats, trying to evade the dive-bombing pelicans and, I assumed, the hungry jack crevalles feeding on them from below. At times, the feeding frenzy had come close enough to shore that I knew I could reach its edges with a flashy lure.
We staked out a pleasant table at Tata’s with our favorite waiter, Jesus Christo. While Sally chatted (mostly listened to) an engaging Canadian woman from Vancouver who was sitting at the next table, I continued to practice my casting. But the action managed mostly to stay maddeningly just beyond my range. Nonetheless, I didn’t get completely skunked thanks to the two-inch jellyfish, the three-inch crab and the 12-inch plastic bag I hooked.
I also enjoyed chatting with a group of elementary-school-aged boys on their way home for lunch who took an interest in my equipment and stopped to offer their advice.
The sinister note continued to sound in the background of our otherwise ideal vacation as we learned, through ZihuaRob’s message board, that there’d been yet another policeman assassinated in town yesterday (the fifth this week). One poster (unsubstantiated by any more credible source) claimed to know that the Mexican drug lords had decided to make Zihua. an example of their power and control. Taking all this with a grain of salt, Sally and I still decided to keep our adventures confined to the tourist areas of town where we’d be the least likely to stand out from the crowd.
Meanwhile, our new friend, Liz, had been shopping at the open-air produce market where she witnessed, literally at arm’s length, what she is quite sure was the kidnapping of a young mother, leaving her mother and small daughter both sobbing and all the shopkeepers looking on with resigned concern.
We’d planned to go to a movie Si, Señor (Yes Man), with Jim Carrey at the quirky three-screen theatre, but, when we got back to San Sebastian to clean up, Liz invited us to her villa for a dinner she was making from the fresh ingredients she’d bought at the market earlier. Liz had also invited Mario, our caretaker/host. We brought down our iPod music system, and some of our china and silver, and had a wonderful time over drinks, appetizers, a delicious pasta and zucchini dish and chocolate-drizzled “crepes” (flour tortillas).

Monday, March 2, 2009


Sally at the computer in our "office" overlooking Zihuatanejo Bay.

When Sally headed for yoga class at Paty's this morning, I set out for the end of Playa La Ropa and the southwest edge of Zihua. bay to try my luck at shore fishing again. It was a longer trek than I'd remembered, and, as I indeed had remembered, the rocky shore there was littered and smelled of human abuse. Nonetheless, I was able to further refine my casting skills, learning that, without the stiff headwind I'd had to deal with at La Barra, I was able to throw my large red-and-white pencil popper a good 75 yards, even without very solid footing. Apparently, the fish weren't impressed though.
Our goals for the day: to check out a strange and spectacular building I'd heard about, all but hidden on the hilltop not far from our villa; and to find a set of laquered salad bowls to match our black plates and goblets.
El Partenon is the local nickname of the pseudo-classical cliff-top palace of former Mexico City police chief Arturo Durazo Morano. Known as "El Negro", Durazo was notoriously corrupt, amassing a fortune through his connections with the drugs trade. Since his arrest almost 30 years ago, the property has been unoccupied and its upkeep neglected.
We walked up an unmarked, overgrown road flanked by signs declaring the land government property. As we rounded the last turn in the road, some of the grounds' classical statuary came into view, as well as a spectacular, massive arbor still splendid for its healthy cloak of raucous- magenta bougainvillea. But between us and the entrance to the building stood an iron fence of a scale one might imagine faced the Greeks and their warrior-stuffed horse at Troy.
We jumped when we suddenly heard a voice and saw a face duck behind a wall. I peeked around the corner to see a man, his dog and their little home tucked into one of the out-buildings of the compound. After he donned a t-shirt, the man emerged to introduce himself and begin his informal sales pitch for his guided tour. After agreeing to a fee about a third of what he'd asked, and promising to maintain complete silence as we entered the building,we shook hands with "My" (his best shot at Mike), short for Miguel and he let us in to walk around on our own. The building, with its wonderful columned facade, was full of more statues, Italian marble floors, a number of very bad frescoes, and other lavish (one might say over-the-top) features. The upstairs bedrooms each had a bed platform once suspended by chains from the mirrored ceilings. Some had jacuzzis, now covered in mouse droppings and bat guano.
Miguel finally caught up with us and began to explain that the place had been primarily used for orgias (orgies), and to point out in nearly all the paintings the figure of the Centaur, or, as he referred to it with great drama, el diablo. Other frescoes showed people engaged in all sorts of abhorrent behavior, like gnawing the flesh off of other, still-living people. These Miguel simply described as loco.
Outside, in what might have been at one time a beautiful garden area, was a large swimming pool, now filled with only a few feet of fetid water and surrounded by still more gaudy statues, some toppled.
Trying to forget the sheer wierdness of the Partenon, we continued walking toward town and the artisan's market, stopping along the way for a cold drink and a snack/lunch. The tightly-packed little stalls of the market were sweltering as we went from one to the next trying to find just the combination of materials, size, design and workmanship we wanted for our fruteritos (salad bowls). After about a half an hour of disappointing all the eager shopkeepers, we returned to the first artisan we'd talked with, who offered to custom-make our set of one large and six small salad bowls. I was proud of my improving Spanish language shopping skills, not only communicating our very particular wishes for the bowls, but working the man down from his original price of the equivalent of $120 usd to $60 for the set.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


Highlights today: Another small step toward our feeling like we're "settled" during our brief stays here: our first laundry day. We walked to town looking not too different from the locals, with our black trash bags full of dirty clothes slung over our shoulders. The first order of business, though, was to find a spot for coffee and a little breakfast. While looking for Zihua Coffee, we happened on a "pancake house" and realized how much we both craved something for breakfast different from the scrambled eggs, beans and toast we'd been finding at most restaurants. The pancakes, while not up to Al's blues in Dinkytown, were very good. So was the coffee.
We lucked out and found the laundromat right away and, with much help from the brusk attendant, managed to wash and dry our two loads in about an hour and a half. While we waited, we read the local newspaper which quoted local and Guerrero state officials as saying they were completely in control and that no one need fear the violence, even as it strikes so close to home. No one really believes this.
In the laundromat, we also had a priveleged vantage point for seeing daily life away from the tourist trappings of the waterfront restaurant and gift shop zone. At about 2:00, as every day, we began to see the bicycle carts loaded with sailfish and marlin which hadn't survived their encounters with hook and line and human ingenuity. The air had quickly extinguished their irradescent colors for a steely, lifeless gray. But no matter, they were on their way to a market where their flesh would be as well used as that of the cattle and pigs we slaughter.

Earlier in the week, we'd met Liz (a chef from Milwaukee also staying at San Sebastian). Her mother, her sister and her sister's family had been with her, but left this morning. We figured she might be feeling a little lonely staying on alone, so we asked her to join us for dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Coconuts. Afterwards, we enjoyed the lively (and very loud) salsa band playing in the zocalo/basketball court. Again, there was a great turnout of townspeople, and the people watching was great fun.