Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Few Days in Mexico

I had the good fortune to be invited to spend a few days in mid-March in Mexico. My cousin Paul and his lovely wife Robyn invited me to spend quality time with them at their home near Puerto Vallarta. It was especially gracious of them to invite me since our friendship only goes back to our family reunion in 2009.

Willis, Sr. in a passport photo taken shortly after he traded combat with Pancho Villa for the more challenging opponent, my grandmother.
While Paul and Robyn have been semi-expats in Mexico for some time, when I think of Bryants in Mexico, I think of my grandfather, known in the family as Willis Senior (as opposed to Willis Seňor) and his time below the Rio Grande. No, he wasn’t in Juarez watching one of those shows with a donkey (I wouldn’t rule it out, but there's no documentation), but instead served under General John J. Pershing in 1916-1917 as part of what was then diplomatically called The Punitive Expedition, now known as the Pancho Villa Expedition.

Pancho Villa
If you were sick or perhaps paying more attention to your spontaneous erection at the thought of taking in-car driver training with the Rogers twins the day this was discussed in your high school A.P. History class, the U.S. of A. looked askance at Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa’s raid on the town of Columbus, New Mexico. One hundred years later, historians are still debating whether Villa was seeking to spend some leftover dollars or just wanted to be able to tell strangers in a bar, “Yeah, I’ve been to the Gadsden Purchase. Hasn’t everyone?” 

Woodrow Wilson
Venustiano Carranza
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson attempted to con Mexico’s president—a guy with the fabulous name of Venustiano Carranza— by claiming that the sending the US Army into Mexico was done with “scrupulous regard for the sovereignty of Mexico".  President Carranza, as one would expect, got his serape into a knot about the—as Henry Kissinger would say-- “incursion” into his country. Although Pershing was under orders to bring back Pancho Villa dead or alive, the United States gave up on the effort after eleven months. In those pre-Yelp days it took that long to learn that the Mexican food was better in Texas than it was in Mexico. Looking back from a vantage point of almost 100 years, no one considers this period to be a high point in the U.S. - Mexican relationship.

I am not a strong believer in omens but I knew that I was going to have an interesting trip when I looked at the fellow next to me in the departure lounge in the State College airport shortly before 6 AM to see that he was wearing bedroom slippers designed to look like some sort of little fuzzy animal. I think they might have been hamsters wearing Persian lamb coats. Apparently they are the perfect thing to go with sweats and a flat brim.

Manspreading in the departure lounge
When I checked in for my flight from Chicago to Puerto Vallarta I found that I could purchase an upgrade from steerage to business class, which is practically Net Jets compared to my usual spot in the middle seat between two folks who suffer from terminal flatulence while eating bottomless bags of bar-b-que potato chips. I weighed my grandmother’s dictum that “the back of the plane gets there at the same time as the front” with my father’s motto, “you don’t go on vacation to save money”. I came down firmly on the side of my father. I was all over that offer like a cheap suit. After entering my credit card credit card number and agreeing to terms and conditions that I never, ever, bother to read, I was practically a member of the leisure class

This meant that when it was time to board in Chicago, I was on the plane early, with my easy-to-spot compadres. They were mostly well dressed, except for guy in the row right in front of me, who thought that gym shorts and an Ohio State golf shirt made him GQ ready. His younger, but hardly trophy, wife sported an equally not-quite-dressy-enough for Walmart outfit. Fellow upgraders, I presumed.

Since Puerto Vallarta is supposed to be Mexico’s answer to Provincetown, Key West, and Rehoboth Beach rolled into one, I used the opportunity of boarding early and lounging in my seat scaled to actual human beings to check out (i.e. cruise) the sans-culottes as they passed by, struggling with their carry-on steamer trunks, anvils, live chickens, and whatever else people try to carry on a plane these days. Among the families and women dressed trampy-by-Las Vegas-standards, there were just two promisingly cute-ish guys. Otherwise, it was slim pickings. The line of passengers looked more like the communion line at State College Presbyterian Church than it looked like people headed south of the border for debauchery on the Mexican Riviera.

After a smooth flight, we landed in P.V., where the plane parked away from the terminal, and the ground crew rolled a stairs up to the side of the plane, just like in the old days. I was reminded of the postcard I bought in Dallas of JFK and Jackie—in her pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat—descending the stairs from Air Force One at Love Field, right before the famous motorcade.  I wondered, “Should I have packed by pillbox hat?”

When they opened the door of the plane, the sudden realization that—Wow! The heat and humidity are doing nothing for my natty outfit of navy blazer, white oxford, and khakis—brought me back to reality pretty quickly.  Oh well, I thought, if the British could subjugate an entire subcontinent in weather like this, surely I was up to the task of a few days of R and R. 

After a short trip through customs and immigration and I was met in the arrival lounge by my cousin Paul’s wife, Robyn.

Our first stop, on the two hour trek north to their house, was Walmart, where we loaded up on some staples and we (OK, I) marveled at the fact that Walmart in Mexico is pretty darned similar to Walmart in the U.S. I had no idea what anything cost since, as the ugly American, I had no idea how pesos translated into "real money". 

 The limes, however, were much limey-er than they are in America.

Speaking of limes, while R. and I were in the store shopping my cousin P. made sure that we stayed hydrated and enjoyed a prophylactic treatment against scurvy with a gin and tonic for the ride to the house.

The trip north from P.V. was quite beautiful, once you got away from bits of unattractive strip mall development, presumably put up to make Gringos like me feel at home.

We passed by more roadside stands than there are in Cape May County, NJ which is saying something. It was coconut season--they were stacked up at every fruit and veg stand like pumpkins before Halloween back home.  Paul pointed out one spot where a strip club was adjacent to a cemetery, the perfect spot for guys who never know if they’re coming or going.

From the coconut district we entered the watermelon district where there were piles after piles of watermelons for sale by the highway. We stopped to buy some. I don’t know how many pesos they were but it translated into not much in American dollars.

Not long after the watermelon district we came we arrived at their home, Casa Largarto just off the now no longer very busy coastal road.

It’s not so much a house as a grouping of three small buildings that take advantage of the steep, lushly landscaped hillside site.

The main entrance and garage were at the street level. The master suite is above the garage, and above that there’s a sky deck, or as P. and R. are learning to say in the local tongue, the mirador.

To me, Mirador is the name of a famous estate near Charlottesville, Virginia that was the girlhood home of Nancy Langhorne Astor, the first woman to serve in the British Parliament. It’s as stunning as P and R’s mirador, but in a different of way.

A few steps from the entrance building there’s a round two story masonry guest house with a thatched roof. Because of the sloping site, the main entrance to the property puts you on the second floor of the guest house. There was another guest room it at ground level.
The third building, a few steps further below the guest house, contained the kitchen, dining, and living spaces. Open on three sides, it was as much a thatch-covered patio as it was enclosed structure. It commanded a spectacular (and I do mean spectacular—on my first evening there we saw whales swim by) view of the little cove and the Pacific Ocean. The kitchen—an extravaganza of colorful tile and modern conveniences was located in the end of the building away from the ocean. P and R had the place decorated tastefully with a refreshing lack of tchotchkes.

A stairway leads from patio outside the living pavilion to the Pacific Ocean, about sixty feet below.

Soup to nuts, the place is beautiful. And you can go there too, since P and R have it on VRBO.

R. took me on a tour to get the lay of the land and to see see the other rock star houses in the 'hood.

Just add Mick, Keith, etc. and you're good to go!
The best part of the trip was the rare treat of hanging out with my cousins—two more arrived the day after me. They're bright, amusing, and fun to be around. We yammered about our family—who drank lighter fluid, who was crazy/a crossdresser/in a cult, who was on the Titanic/Hindenburg/Challenger, what did you really think of our grandmother, and so on.

Somehow I doubt that these are officially licensed NFL products.
During my four days there, we did some touristy stuff like going to a Mexican market.

I got quite a charge out of the Mexican approach to logos:

Nothing says tasty like a cow smacking his lips at his hindquarters being turned into a steak.
Don't all happy hypodermic needles wear lab coats?
But we mostly chatted, caught up on our reading, ate delicious food, and quaffed adult beverages. Not always in that order. It was a relaxing time with great company in a beautiful setting.

My temporary office. View was great; internet, not so much.
And in between all this, I had the DTs (digital tremens) since my phone didn’t work and the wireless available at a nearby restaurant was spotty at best. 

One day, the cousins and I went to the beach—just a short four wheeler drive from the house. There wasn’t a soul there and we got a bucket of beers, and sat in a mostly deserted café at the edge of the sand.  The water was warm and refreshing but before long, it felt as if I had barbed wire wrapped along my leg. Then one of the cousins said, “Did you just feel something?” Yes, we’d all felt it. Lo and behold we’d all been stung by jellyfish. It hurt but wasn’t disabling, like a mild case of shingles. We discussed peeing on our stings and decided against it. I was glad I’d packed ibuprofen.

My final night there, we had a bonfire on the beach. Even in Mexico, in the age old battle between beach bonfires built below the high tide line and the rising tide, the rising tide wins. 

L to R: Kristin, Rick, Paul, and Bill Bryant
The night after our bonfire, it was time to go back to Puerto Vallarta to start my trip home. The cousins and I said our goodbyes, and we posed a family photo to mark the event.

R. and P. put me on a bus and told me that when the bus arrived at an actual terminal and the driver got out, I’d be in Puerto Vallarta.  The bus was modern, clean, and speedy. In fact, the roomy seat reclined so much that it was like taking a 90 minute test drive of a La-Z-Boy Recliner Rocker.  The trip felt much safer and surely was more comfortable than the legendary Chinese buses that used to tote folks around the Mid-Atlantic states. Generations from now, my collateral descendants will not be wondering which ancestor was in a bus plunge in Mexico.

I’d looked into booking a room for my final night in Mexico in a quaint and charming hotel in the olde quarter of Puerto Vallarta. However, after reading Trip Advisor at length, I decided that I couldn’t tell the difference between one commenter’s colorful publican and another’s bitchy old queen. So, I decided to play it safe and stay at the large outpost of the U.S. of A. In other words, the CasaMagna Marriott Resort.

Nothing says quality like a double portrait of J. Willard Marriott and his son Bill that's in every Marriott lobby. I have lots of Marriott points and was able to cash some of them in for a room with an ocean view.

The building is an enormous John Portman-esque thing that would look a thousand times better if they’d just freshen up the exterior paint color. The color wasn’t baby shit brown but it made me think of baby shit brown. And that’s just as bad.

The hotel really was top notch even though check-in took 16 minutes once I got to the head of the line and my “Sucks To Be You” coupon for a discount on a massage wasn’t worth a whole lot since there weren’t any appointments available. But the thought was nice.

The swim-up bar is on the backside of Gilligan's Island.
A stroll around the grounds showed that there weren’t legions of buff, attractive, and amusing gay men who’d had excellent SAT scores lounging and loitering by the large pool with swim-up bar, or even on the adjoining not fantastic even-by-New Jersey-standards strip of beach. Puerto Vallarta may be Mexico’s answer to Provincetown, Key West, and Rehoboth Beach rolled into one, however, at CasaMagna, the Book of Mormon in the nightstand is the one revealed by the Angel Moroni to Joseph Smith so that he could found the church responsible for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Osmonds, and the dearth of Starbucks in Utah.

These guys do not exist in real life. At least in my real life, including my Mexican vacation.
Were the Book of Mormon in the nightstand at CasaMagna a DVD of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical with book, lyrics, and music by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone, well, there would be a whole ‘nother crowd making burnt offerings of themselves down by the pool.

Once I'd settled in, I showered, shaved, and Aqua Velva-d and upped the snazzy quotient with some fresh madras for a cab to the Olde City, Puerto Vallarta's gayborhood. Perhaps it was a communication problem caused by his lack of English and my lack of Spanish, or he didn’t like Aqua Velva and madras, but the cabby was, well, creepy. It was the only time in Mexico I encountered someone who was creepy.

The cab dropped me off at the Cathedral and I gave it a quick Reformed Protestant jiffy tour, taking in of all the bells and smells that I could stand in five minutes.

I walked around the Olde Puerto Vallarta which is like Wildwood, NJ except in Mexico, and it has fewer people who look as if they’re related by blood, marriage, or time spent in the buffet line to Governor Chris Christie. While people were out having fun, if there was Bacchanalian revelry going on, I certainly missed it. (It wouldn't be the first time.)

I had a fantastic meal in an upscale Thai restaurant, of all places. It even had Wi-Fi.

When I’d had given up on the idea of debauchery and had enough of the colonial charms of Olde Puerto Vallarta, I decided to take the bus back to the resort rather than to take another creepy cab ride. I called up the directions on my phone and found what looked to be a bus stop. Trip Advisor told me to wait for the blue and white bus that was going to the Marina, so I waited and waited and waited some more while lots of other buses came and went. After what seemed like an eternity but was probably really six minutes, my bus came by.

As soon as I boarded, I decided that the bus had been a washing machine in a former life. And not a Maytag either, but an East German 2-cycle washing machine that ran on whatever toxic waste there’s a surplus of in Dresden. After the bearings were shot, it was repurposed in Romania into a bus. I have no doubt that it shuttled Olympic athletes of indeterminate gender identity to and from their dorm to the Peoples Gymnasium #7 where they practiced the 250 meter rhythmic dodge biathlon, a sport that combines the floor exercise from rhythmic gymnastics (as in the wacky event where women cavort with the ribbon tied to a stick that calls to mind fly casting) with target shooting and dodge ball. It was considered perfect training for Communist bloc agents who were sent to the United States under deep cover as female gym teachers. But I digress.  

I’m not sure if the bus had an actual suspension, but as we sped down the cobblestone streets, it felt, well, as if we we’re on the love child of the square-wheeled train from the Island of the Misfit Toys and an industrial strength Magic Fingers. I sat there, glad that my nephew was a dentist. If my fillings vibrated out, I’d at least get the family discount on some new ones. On the other hand, the fare was less than 10 pesos, and no one on the bus was remotely creepy. What wasn't to like?

The next day, after a breakfast almost as good as that of The Buffet at Wynn Las Vegas, and enjoying an hour or two of the best weather of my trip, I flew back to the U.S.

When I was waiting in O’Hare Airport for my flight to State College my phone came back to life, easing my DTs (digital tremens). I could now get back to the important stuff in my life, like following Lee Radziwill on Twitter.  I’d had a great time in Mexico, reconnecting with relatives, seeing a new part of the world, and being thankful that I‘d waited as long as I did to get stung by a jellyfish.