We rented a little blue car with too many dents to count, the windshield was cracked and the rear door didn’t open. The gas tank was empty. The woman at Dollar Rental had me draw a line where the gas gauge rested, instructing me to return it the same way. This was their economy car. Tires barely touched down as Kristen drove washboard roads to our lodging at Tree Top Bungalows. The car was parked at the bottom of a steep drive beneath coconut trees.
“If you park there,” Jeffery told me, “coconuts will fall on it.”
Coconuts hung like giant orange basketballs above our heads, so I drove it to the top of the hill, but the emergency break didn’t work so it rolled down again with me chasing after. Jeffery drove it up this time, putting a cement block behind the tire. Jeffery is our host, an expat who left the United States 24 years ago.
“Let’s just say that the United States and I agreed to disagree.”
His smile is broad and his manner easy and gracious. He is the only one on the property that speaks English.
Our bungalows have roofs thatched from palm branches opening to the outside allowing mosquitoes entrance for evening feed. Netting drapes over a lumpy “matrimonial” bed, beautifully made up and cared for. Think camping in a structure on stilts. My bed is in a loft, at a height I am afraid of. A rope dangles from the ceiling to help me up, but after one night I ask him to bring the bed to ground level.
Isabella and Kristen occupy the large bed because I still have vivid memories of night time kidney punches from Isabella’s young feet and waking thrashed, like I’d crossed the Rocky Mountains in a buckboard.
The sea is at our elbow crashing day and night. “Don’t want to go in there now,” Jeffery tells us. “The squalls are high.”
I imagine galleons from the Spanish Armada firing endless rounds against the British in great blasts of sound, back and forth through a sleepless noisy night. Kristen fears a tsunami. Morning brings relief and a fresh start. Isabella plays with Bago, Whereas and Lady, the resident dogs. They play soccer, share hugs and the hammock.
A stunning Mexican woman named Maggi cooks for us in an outside kitchen near the sea. She prepares fruit plates of mango, banana, pineapple, green grapes, coconut and papaya with a kiss of honey on the top. Later she sautés shrimp with garlic, lemon and pasta, makes pina coladas (no alcohol please) the best guacamole I’ve ever tasted served with homemade chips, then finishes with bursts of ice cream.
We inhale her offerings as Kristen pulls out her language book to make a friend. Her assistant is a woman with eleven children and a husband too ill to work. I slip her assistant fifty bucks. Kristen promises to mail children’s clothing from the States.
I hand Kristen the car keys because she is bold and unafraid. (I miss that in myself and wonder when it left me.)
I give her the keys and the money and the language and she does well with all of it, launching into vocabulary she has never spoken, determined to be understood and to understand. She smiles, she tries. She extends a warm heart and open hand. Soon we are surrounded with new words and new friends, while I remain a shadow, a witness at the scene. I ask how she does it and she tells me it’s from living in Greece.
“You just have to dive in.”
But the only diving I do is into the swimming pool, because words get stuck in my throat. The Spanish words I do know surface too late from memory, coming out as French or Italian instead of salsa and chips. This inability makes me seem distant and aloof, uninterested and invisible. I am not a social person. Words come from my eyes and my hands but rarely from my mouth.
Colors shout at us from buildings in bold shades of unashamed. Even plants are screaming in notice-me reds as we travel winding roads into Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa, Troncones and Playa Linda. We pass a mother driving with a new baby in her arms and lots of trucks filled with folks standing in the rear. The simplicity and lack of regulation in Mexico is appealing.
Old women line up to buy produce from the rear of a delivery truck as Kristen maneuvers through cobbled streets as aggressive as the others. She shoulders her camera with an exhibit in mind. Old men smile at her above mountains of dried red chilies and young men ask her name near mounds of freshly picked corn.
We change money, buy hand sewn blouses and gifts for friends, stopping to admire children sleeping in hammocks and eye-bulging Mexican dogs. Isabella has her hair done as we lunch by the sea. It is woven by a mother-son team who fashion long locks into delicate micro braids with colored beads at each end.
Older dark skinned men with Aztec blood ferry us across rocking waves to Ixtapa Island or Isla Grande, where we do what we’ve come to do, be pampered, play in the sea and make mother, daughter, granddaughter memories.
Kristen drinks salt-rimmed margaritas trimmed with bougainvillea and lime as we sit underneath red and white sun umbrellas that dot a bragging blue sky. Kristen reclines in the shade, while Bella and I run into the waves like we were born there, salt water traveling in our ears, our hair and our smiles. We play until we turn the color of the sun and then stay longer, layering sun block over aloe, over vitamin E. There is no coming out. There is no will for it. We order more food, breathe it in and run back to azure waters. Small yellow stripped fish lap at our feet near coral shores.
I snorkel, then get an hour long massage costing only $25. I have two. We go on a banana boat and Jet Ski. I am healthy and alive here, more 21 than 65. My medicine is left behind in the drawer and I hope it rots. I am myself in this place. The sun sees the woman in me and invites her out. I feel my body soft and sensual. I am no longer layered or hidden beneath fleece and rain. I can show myself and I like it.
The combi is a small pick-up truck with standing room in the center and wooden boards for seats on either side. We decide to take it to a local fishing village. It travels a dirt road sounding the horn. Riders appear from nowhere, surrendering shade as they hop aboard. Getting off involves moving to the front and pounding the roof above the driver’s head to indicate your stop, very simple and direct.
Our cameras are full of alligators, iguana, parrots, lizards, snakes, stingrays, snapping turtles, white birds, dogs, sunsets, sculptures, indigenous people and Isabella, always Isabella.
Hammocks wait near each restaurant table to be enjoyed with chips and cervisia (beer). The simplest order will take an hour to prepare so we might as well doze. Isabella resents our forays into town because it takes her from the water. We are the same that way.
Coming home we board the wrong combi and head to parts unknown. I stand with the wind in my face taking photos as we travel too far on unknown roads. Kristen yells through glass at the driver.
“We are lost,” she says in Spanish.
“Si” the driver yells back.
We finally get off with a woman meeting her boyfriend. The woman invites us into the cool interior of their modern car and tells the boyfriend to take us home. We make it to the dirt road leaving us two miles to walk in midday sun. We walk and sweat, putting one foot in front of the other, being cooked by sweltering heat.
A couple from Montana circle back after passing, pick us up and take us home. Isabella springs from the car yelling, “I love water. Water is my friend,” as she jumps in the swimming pool with her clothes on. I follow but not in my linen skirt.
We have lived our days outside, unplugged from cell phones and computers, clocks and distractions. It’s been great never knowing what time we fall asleep or what time we get up. Jeffery has taken pity on me and given me a cabana of my own with privacy and my own lumpy matrimonial bed under mosquito netting, a precious and much appreciated gift.
Stars blanket evening sky inviting us to gather, share stories and visit with other guests from hammocks and dining stools as Maggi dishes out more love and nourishment. Isabella has an unending sandbox, a swimming pool, animal friends and the sea to play in. She has homemade ice cream and people who love her at every turn. We make a mountain for the sea to wash away. She is happy and so am I.
A friend of Jeffery’s has met Kristen and fallen hard. He wants to date her and speaks of visiting Oregon.
“Yes,” Kristen jokes, “I attract very young men and the very old.”
Maggi offers his address but I tell her to keep it. The man is my age. I find his attentions disgusting and tell them so. They laugh at me but I’m serious. I want to get a stick and beat his legs as I chase him away.
I want to yell, “Find some other young woman to make your aging spirit feel whole.”
I wait in a busy airport with hot skin, listening to many voices, my sunhat above a white dress, a dusting of sand frosting my toes. We are the embodiment of a stolen summer in the middle of a northern winter. Our plane is an hour late. Kristen pays $5 for a small can of potato chips from the airport because Bella is hungry but I refuse. I can not be robbed in that fashion. I will give $5 to the old woman who waits in the restroom to hand me a towel and beg for change, but not to overpriced airport concessions.
We board. An old Mexican woman in the seat across the aisle begins to fan herself and breathe hard. She is going into heart failure. Stewardesses gather. A nurse is called from the passenger list. We don’t go to Los Angeles as planned but put down in Tucson where we wait for hours as she is tended and eventually taken from the plane. We miss our flight to Portland and regret leaving our cell phones for the first time.
We’re tired and hungry. The folks at customs are unspeakably awful, first a young man and later a woman. Kristen begins to break under pressure; she is ill and hasn’t eaten. I step in to calm the scene. The customs officer is large and black, ready to sit on Kristen’s head.
“You don’t want to be messin’ with a federal officer!”
I have visions of spending the night in jail or a small unventilated room, but we are released to wander the airport in search of vouchers that will allow us to stay in a hotel and board another flight the next morning. The shuttle bus is full of Portland folk arriving from Mexico, humor improves, the people are exhausted but kind.
The hotel has white sheets and a deep bathtub.
“Look mom. The bed goes down when I sit on it,” Isabella says.
We rest, we eat, I soak in the tub and we fly home the next morning to a sky heavy with grey and rain.
I am not glad to be back but I will adjust.