By Alejandro De La Garza
This is it? This is Ixtapa? The sunny coastal hamlet in the gleaming brochures and sensuous television commercials? Ah, yes, I told myself, travel agents must reside in the same slimy pantheon as politicians and lawyers. A gallery of potted plants and brilliant flowers crowded the hotel entrance, welcoming us to their humble abode. I glanced back at the barely-visible beachfront, focusing on the whitish-gray sky through the steaming temperatures. I’ve been fooled.
I’d traveled to this small, unimposing community on México’s Pacific coast in September 1991; seeking that elusive utopia, far away from my suburban Dallas home and as close to nirvana as possible in one week on a banker’s salary. I’d come alone – something I wouldn’t do today – but, at the time, México still harbored the purest of romantic ideals; where it seemed you could find true love, or make the perfect voyage into a new life. My only previous excursion to México had been amidst a spring break romp on South Padre Island four years earlier. I drove down there with a college friend and we stayed in our own personal beachfront hotel – my car. We befriended two guys from another school and joined the collegiate masses for a couple of brainless day trips to Matamoros, just south of Brownsville. Aside from babysitting my companions while barhopping in Matamoros, dining on Alaskan king crab at a South Padre restaurant, getting mired in the sand as the tide came in one night and trying to imagine how my brutal sunburn would metamorphose into a hyper-masculine, babe-magnet tan, that voyage was a nauseous blur. But, I wanted the Ixtapa trip to be different and sedate; much more therapeutic, perhaps mildly adventurous – in other words, devoid of Americans acting stupidly.
Quiet and isolated, Ixtapa once was a simple fishing village; an ambience that lingered with a sense of fierce vigilance. It had no five-star restaurants, gleaming shopping malls or world-class golf courses. There really wasn’t much beyond the hotels lining the beach and a bevy of eateries and shops scattered throughout town. It had neither the Americanization of Cancún, nor the crowds of Acapulco – and I liked it that way. I hate shopping (even for groceries); golf – like bowling – really isn’t a sport; and Dallas has plenty of bars and nightclubs. I hadn’t traveled much in my life – still haven’t – but I know what I want in a vacation spot.
I flew into neighboring Zihuatanejo and climbed aboard a colorful, seemingly fragile bus that traversed a narrow, roller-coaster highway; stopping occasionally to drop off people at various hotels. Mine stood at the end of the otherwise scenic coastal route. A slight breeze made the flowers outside the hotel entrance dance. But, I didn’t feel festive when I saw that dismal skyline; wondering if a hurricane was creeping up the coast to destroy the paradise I desperately sought.
The young lady at the front desk greeted me with the same enthusiasm as the plants, and a talkative young man led me to my room. When I tipped him a few pesos, he reacted as if I’d given him my life’s savings. The nondescript, American-style room sported no balcony, and I grew even more despondent, squinting at the increasingly dark sky. But, while standing alone in that dim light, a distant rumbling noise gently rolled onto the beach, up over the trees and into my ears. I stepped closer to the window, realizing it was a sound that could soothe any soul – the pounding surf. The heavy water dropping onto the shores rendered me catatonic. I’d never seen or heard the Pacific Ocean up close and I closed my eyes, forgetting for that moment – for several moments – how ominous the sky appeared. That drumming sound enveloped me and held me tight. It’s okay, the waves seemed to whisper. Everything will be alright. Trust us.
I jumped into a swimsuit and hurried my pale form onto the beach. I stopped at the sight of the massive silvery tides cascading onto the shoreline – relentless and unstoppable. I’d hate to get caught up in that mess, I thought; yet daring myself to charge into it. I guess I should make the best of it, I said with strained cheeriness, and began jogging up and down the beach; briny sprays stinging my face. And, through the low-hanging clouds I spotted a large rocky edifice some distance offshore; a dome of dark nothingness that piqued my curiosity. But, only for a moment – the towering surf held my attention, as amazing as it was frightening. With each stride, though, the sky darkened, the wind intensified and the waves grew bigger. Paradise, paradise, paradise!
My first couple of nights were uneventful; disappointing actually. No hurricane had set its sights on the village, but a stubbornly mild-mannered tempest had. Steady rain began falling later the same day I arrived, and I sat morosely in the hotel’s cantina that evening, consuming one Cuba Libré after another. As a small gray-haired man played the piano, a group of people lounged nearby, talking and laughing loudly. I listened to the sound of the steady rain percolate in through the open doors. It was alternately depressing – since it seemed my brief vacation was ruined – and soothing, since I love the soft tempo of nocturnal rainfall.
The constant rain agitated the ocean, and – high up in my room – the sound of the waves hurtling onto the beach lulled me back into a state of tranquility. Lying naked on the bed in the darkness – my brain marinating in rum – I felt awed that the drumbeats of those swells could reverberate this far away. Perhaps they sensed my frustration with the dreary weather and made enough noise to ease my displeasure. Or, maybe that’s just what they’ve been doing for eons – humanity be damned! I smiled and reached for the TV remote. You won’t need that, the waves snapped; not here! Of course not. I could see enough Mexican soap operas – replete with overly dramatic tales of the 1910 Revolution and faux blonde women – back home. That would be like traveling to France to order a hotdog. Stay with us, the waves said quietly, and give us time.
They were right. By the third day, the rain had stopped. Clouds still littered the sky, but the air was humid. As vendors peddled their goods along the sand, I ran up and down the beach, frolicked in the rough seas and watched birds float aimlessly in the gray-white sky. Yes, yes! This is it! This is what I had in mind! This is what I’d envisioned about Ixtapa! I dropped to the surf’s edge and let the water wash over me; the sun’s rays cascading from above. Okay, so the sun’s rays had to battle the clouds, but I was still ecstatic. This, I said mirthfully to myself, is what I wanted – exactly this. And, I wanted everything else to work out for me down here, too. Paradise, paradise! Like most men, I’m relatively easy to please.
As I wallowed in the cool seawater, my eyes drifted to the nearby patio bar – too near I eventually found out. But, all good beachfront hotels must have a bar within stumbling distance of the shore, especially in México. I began imbibing in high-octane margaritas; thinking tequila was a nectar of the Aztec gods, alongside molten chocolate. And, since I’m part Mexican Indian, it must be okay. ¡Oye, cabrón! This isn’t Matamoros! But, after a few drinks, the churning waves soon looked like my stomach felt. I scribbled my room number on the bar tab and scampered upstairs for a cold shower. Paradise, paradise! Not Matamoros, not Matamoros! My stomach finally settled, and I returned to the patio; remaining in the comfortable shade with a glass of Sprite, savoring the ocean view. Nothing could keep me from that water.
After another day, I decided to leave the safety of the hotel and venture into town; albeit leery of falling victim to desperate criminals or microbe-laden beverages. But, no such evils pounced upon me, as I landed on the patio of a small restaurant and devoured chicken tacos and beer. A pair of emerald birds toyed with each other in a palm tree beside me, pecking sweetly like amorous teenagers; while a middle-aged couple languished in a distant corner, giggling and caressing each other’s hands. The gray sky endured, and the hot air lingered. But, I took a deep breath and realized I, too, was falling in love.
Over the next couple of days I meandered along various streets, stopped into another restaurant and perused the wares of a few gift shops. And, while ambling through town, I noticed something unique: Ixtapa looked to be a favorite vacation spot for the locals. México’s scrumptious secret; a gorgeous miniscule treasure undiscovered – and unsullied – by my fellow “yanquís.” I recall encountering only one other American: a young blond man in a hotel elevator who seemed surprised when I responded in perfect English to his “How ya doin’?” God, I thought, if he’s from Texas, too, I’ll know the Earth is too damn crowded! But, whether at the hotel, on the beach, or in town, the people I saw and the few I talked with came from somewhere in Latin America. I could vanish into this quiet realm, I snickered – disappear and hide forever. Yes, yes, the town murmured like the distant waves; we’ll keep you safe.
I dined at only those two restaurants because the hotel’s food was included in the travel package. The menu offered scores of culinary delights, but the daily buffets – breakfast, lunch and dinner – were irresistibly gigantic. Food covered almost every spot on tables lining the edge of the dining area – enough to feed a small country, or maybe the city of Dallas. And, the aromas – oh, God, the smells of that food! – ambushed me as I stepped off the elevators. No, please, don’t, stop, I begged! All to no avail. They captured me – every day and every night – and victimized me – every day and every night. What else could I do – say no? In the evenings, I seemed to be served by the same waiter – an older man sporting salt and pepper hair, forest green eyes and a pleasant demeanor. “Perfecto,” he replied, when I told him I’d partake of the buffet. Seated by the windows overlooking the beach, surrounded by exotic floral arrangements and listening to guitars strumming softly overhead, I knew I’d discovered a glimpse of the afterlife.
That beach provided the greatest refuge for everyone – families building sand castles; an elderly couple napping in the shade of the covered patio; two young women dancing in the sea; a middle-aged male duo sauntering along the sand; and me racing aimlessly up and down the shoreline as if I had no other care in the world. Lying at the surf’s edge for what felt like hours at one point and thinking of nothing – absolutely nothing – I begged the frothy waters to pull me into their grasp. The ocean had made me compliant by then, hypnotizing me into a willing sense of insignificance; it seemed to have that authority.
Before I took off for the beach, I always checked my room key and wallet into a safety deposit box at the front desk where a vivacious clerk repeatedly asked if I’d met any girls. No, I told him, I was too busy enjoying the scenery and the solitude. I came here to experience a sense of liberty, not engage in romantic trysts. True freedom had been a rarity for me. I often bowed to the whims and comports of people around me; my family, my coworkers, even strangers. A pacifist, always conciliatory, keep peace in the neighborhood, think of what others will say – a wimp! But, as the ocean waters kneaded my flesh, they zapped such flagellations from my mind. None of that mattered. Ixtapa wouldn’t allow it.
During another jaunt along the beach late one evening, beneath a full moon, I came across a group of young people gathered near a cluster of rocks, looking down and chatting excitedly. One man had a video camera propped onto a bare shoulder, and as I got closer, I saw the object of their attention: a sea turtle ambling along the sand. Her massive flippers plowed into the powdery surface with determined ferocity until she arrived at the rocks. Surely as perplexed as she was horrified by the ogling youths – yet unable to defy millennia of evolution – she slowly maneuvered her backside against the rocks and began digging furiously into the sand. Then, she literally stopped and looked up at the crowd. I stormed forward, forcing my way between two skinny girls. “¡Oye, amigos!” I said loudly without really shouting. I didn’t want to upset the turtle. Everyone turned, as if offended that I’d dared to intrude on their voyeuristic escapade. I ordered the cameraman away – “¡Retira (Get back)!” – placing a hand over the glowing light. “¡Dejelan en paz (Leave it alone)!” My kitchen Spanish had unexpectedly matured. The group exchanged curious glances, but amazingly and silently obeyed. Even the guy with the camera pointed the device downward, away from the turtle’s face.
I turned to the amphibian and dropped to my knees; almost hiding her from those leering eyes. She finally finished laying her eggs and hurriedly covered them with sand. It seemed she was desperate to escape and, once satisfied, began waddling back to the sea. As she approached the water, I raced forward to pick up her tired body – a move that surely startled her as badly as the camera light – and placed her into the bubbling surf. I darted back to the egg pit and piled more sand onto it with my feet. Huddled into a shapeless blob, the youths had focused their attention on me. I couldn’t see their expressions and I didn’t care. I said nothing more to them – I had nothing more I wanted to say – and they finally disintegrated into the darkness.
I strolled to the water’s edge, hoping to see the turtle one last time, but she was gone. The moon cast milky white splotches across the gently rolling waves, and I dropped to the wet sand; alone and again wishing the waves would just reach out and grab me. I wouldn’t put up even a semblance of a struggle, but everyone in my life might wonder what happened to me. Disappearing into the mist of a foreign land is psychologically enticing, but literally heartbreaking. So I crept to my feet and meandered back to my room.
The next day, as I reclined in the surf, I found myself fixated on that rocky outcropping sitting benignly offshore – a small island. A nature reserve? Does México even have such things? Maybe it was privately-owned. No, I told myself; it’s just a tall speck of rock and sand, covered in tropical splendor – untouched and possibly unloved. I observed birds gliding back and forth between it and the palm trees lining the back of the hotel and thought for a moment – actually several moments – of trying to swim to that island. The sea was calm, and the sky was mostly clear. What was on that island? Could I swim out there and spend a day just scouting around? No, don’t be silly. It’s too far away. No, it’s not! It’s not that far. I can see it clearly from here.
Yes, I finally convinced myself, I could swim to that island and back. I stood and ambled into the swirling crystalline water, my eyes glued to that dollop of land just a few yards and some serious arm strokes away. I propelled my body forward, determined to reach its virgin shores. I could hear nothing – except the waves jostling against one another – not even the birds floating overhead or my own labored breaths. I was certain I could reach that island and spend some time commiserating with the innocents that called it home.
But, as I plowed ahead, the island suddenly seemed to retreat; demurely at first, as if saying, ‘No, no, you can’t come here.’ I disregarded my flustered vision and continued swimming; my arms curving up and down with machine-like precision and my legs thrashing fiercely behind me. Yet, the island kept pulling away, almost shrinking into the sea. Then, clouds unexpectedly descended from the sky and began wrapping around it. And, the island’s response became more direct. ‘No, you’re not welcome!’ But, I still wouldn’t listen. I wanted desperately to see it up close; to feel its pure cinnamon sand on my bare feet and rest quietly undisturbed. I wanted to be a part of its sanctity; to be more isolated from other mortals. I won’t hurt you, I assured. I think you are incredibly beautiful. ‘I don’t care! Leave me alone!’
I finally stopped and – floating amidst the roiling blue green water – looked forlornly at the island. Okay, I muttered. I’ll leave you alone. I meant no harm. The clouds had covered it almost completely by now – I could barely see its narrow shores – and the water was more hostile; both joining forces to conceal the island and protect it from strangers. Protect it from people like me. I managed to wheel myself around like overweight people do in a water aerobics class and suddenly realized how far I’d swam from shore. I thought of the myriad creatures viewing me with utter contempt from below. And, I could almost hear the birds laughing above my waterlogged head. ‘Fool! You’re not so privileged!’ Obviously not, I conceded. As my exhausted, sun burnt form stumbled back onto the mainland, I looked once more at the island. It stood tall again; the sun gently caressing its peak. I smiled. Yes, you are so beautiful. And, I will leave you alone. ‘Thank you.’
On the day of my departure, the clouds finally disappeared, and the sun blazed in steaming glory. The beachfront looked much like the brochure – crystal clear and gleaming. Okay, I laughed. Do what you want. Besides, I had something more important to worry about – my flight home. I’d awoken late and missed the bus from the hotel, so the staff summoned a taxi. If you’ve ever heard those stories of Mexican cab drivers arriving in a beat up Volkswagen and racing at break neck speeds down narrow undulating pathways – believe every word of it! I know I left my fingertip impressions in the cracked leather of the back seat, contemplating something I’d never thought about: physics and how velocity factored into it. But, I didn’t miss my flight!
I returned home with bronzed skin, reddened hair and a soul thoroughly satiated by the pleasure of extreme solitude. I didn’t have a camera back then, so I engraved that gallery of delectable memories deep into my mind and peruse my very private collection whenever I feel my brain getting cluttered. Every seemingly mundane element about Ixtapa – the ocean, the island, the sound of the waves, the birds, even the turtle and, of course, the town’s utter isolation – are keepsakes more valuable than any glossy photo I could yank from an envelope. And, after so many years, I find I’m still in love with a tiny fishing village that hovers quietly along the delicate border between humble reality and fantastic escapism.