Friday, April 26, 2019

Spring 2019 Trip to Mexico, Part 5. Hacidenda Carmen

Hacienda El Carmen is the Mexican version of a Venetian villa or English country house that has been converted into a luxury hotel and spa. It’s an oasis of manicured lawns, blooming bougainvillea, and gurgling fountains. It’s separated from the dusty village of El Carmen by a high stone wall.
I am not bowled over very often, but wow, I was bowled over.  The place is fantastic.  It’s a far cry from my usual Courtyard by Marriott.  It was as if we were in the home of a Mexican aesthete from the 1940s where they hardly changed a thing to convert it into a small hotel.

I expected to see Zorro (Douglas Fairbanks, Guy Williams, George Hamilton…take your pick) each time I turned a corner. Instead, I saw shadows.

The place was all brightly colored thick masonry walls, Catholic memorabilia out the ying yang, more Spanish Colonial decorative arts than I’d seen in my entire life, with a with a touch of crazy thrown in to keep it interesting.

It’s definitely the other F word: fabulous.

It was a Monday night, there were just a few other guests about. We could tell fart jokes all we wanted without bothering anyone. Except for numerous statues of Catholic worthies, I mean.

The fart jokes would have to wait since we had spa appointments. Did I mention that Hacienda el Carmen is a spa too?

Robyn made it very clear to us that we needed to bring swim suits so that we could go to the spa. So there I was, in my more vintage than it used to be swimsuit, from Lands End’s Paunchy Aging Wahoo Collection. A bunch of little holes in its left leg are testament to many years of wearing Stone Harbor beach tags.

The spa was in its own building, a short walk from the big house.  In its former life, the building was a granary, but today it’s a chic spa staffed by technicians in crisp white uniforms.  We’d already discussed the available “spa treatments” so I knew which boxes to check when they handed me the English language version of the spa menu.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I opted for the "Fruit Exfoliation", I figured if anyone could offer a unique perspective on "Fruit Exfoliation", it would be me, especially since Jesús the male stripper from Puerto Vallarta was nowhere to be found. Interestingly enough, there was no discount for bringing your own fruit.

After the requisite paperwork was done, I met my spa Fairy Godmother, a woman of a certain age named Martha. This Martha didn’t speak English. At all. My Spanish won't get me through the Taco Bell menu. As you might guess, communicating was a challenge.
But when Martha handed me the pair of paper boxer shorts, I understood that my Lands End swim trunks, even though they were from the Paunchy Aging Wahoo Collection, were not up to her standards. But the paper shorts....they were hideous. They had to have been made in East Germany.   I put them on and joined the party in the hot tub for a soak.

When I was sufficiently soaked, Martha led me by the elbow (did she think I was going to get lost?) to our treatment room. Apparently this is a thing they do...leading you around by the elbow. Who knew?! I was feeling broadened already.

Martha—I’m not exactly what her job title is—masseuse, exfoliator, worker-over-er—was a short woman, with a grandmotherly figure, big smile, and the hands of Rosa Klebb. While she was all smiles and warmth, I had no doubt that in the blink of an eye, she could, based on ancient Aztec techniques of hand-to-hand combat, break several parts of me that I consider important, if not downright crucial.

My first challenge was to change from the baby blue East German paper boxer shorts into a new garment (and I use the term loosely) that Martha gave me.  It guarded a lot less of my modesty than the paper boxers.  This thing was as a strip of blue paper connected to a couple of loops of narrow elastic.  It was completely confounding to me, especially since it came with no instructions, at least instructions in English.

I figured that it was to cover up my nether regions but I couldn’t quite figure it out to work it. And that was how I ended up putting it on sideways.  After struggling into it, I decided that even if I had the figure of an underwear model, wearing it would have been illegal in several states.

As someone who aspires to move from geekbod to dadbod, this bit of baby blue Handy-Wipe was just not cutting the mustard as a way to protect myself from Martha’s clutches….or the other way ‘round.  I was grateful I hadn’t had a tequila or two at lunch since I might very well have decided to go with it just the way it was.

Fortunately, I had a Eureka moment and it hit me that it was an East German g string and that the strip of blue fabric went from front to back instead of from side to side. Even the right way 'round the thing's probably still illegal in Texas and Tennessee. Then again, governments in both of those states  look askance at fruit exfoliation.

When I was all situated, Martha came back in the room, put on some soothing music and proceeded to rub my skin with a wet mixture that was a cross between kosher salt and crushed Life Savers.  Then she covered me up, whispered something in Spanish in my year, and turned on the shower in stall at the end of the treatment room. When I heard her leave the room, I guessed it I was to get up and wash off my exfoliated fruitiness.

After my shower I saw that Martha had put out a new East German G-string for me.  So I put that on—the right way ‘round on the first try. When I was situated on the massage table, she came back in and slathered me with what I guessed to be strawberry Chobani yogurt.  After the slathering--and she laid it on thick--she wrapped me up in a plastic drycleaning bag and left the room. I would like to say that it was relaxing and I fell asleep as my skin was gently rejuvenated by a fruity emulsion. However, a dab of Chobani started to drip into my left ear. Argh! I was stuck. I couldn’t wipe it out since I was mummified in a drycleaning bag.

Eventually Martha returned, turned on the shower, put out a new East German G-string and then whispered something into my ear that I think meant "Get up and wash this stuff off" or “In all my years of fruit exfoliation, you’re the fruitiest.”  I just don’t know.

After I washed off the Chobani and put on my clean east German g string, it was back onto the table for a post-exfoliation massage. I'm especially grateful that Martha didn’t resort to any Aztec jiu-jitsu as she readjusted my chi.

Readjusted and exfoliated, yet still fruity enough to harbor visions of strippers from Puerto Vallarta named Jesús, I was ready for a relaxing evening of cocktails, conversation, and delicious fare on the rear terrace of the big house. It was a lot of broadening for one day: I slept like a log that night.

Spring 2019 Trip to Mexico. Part 4, Tequila!

The day after our trip to Chacala, we left bright and early for an overnight to trip to Tequila. (Upper case Tequila is a place. Lower case tequila is a drink.) Paul is a tequila guy the way that some of my UVa friends are bourbon guys, or plutocrats are are single malt scotch guys. Paul appreciates nuances in tequila that are lost on my low end tastebuds.

We drove north along the coastal road for a ways—some of it looked familiar since it was the road we took to my cousin Jake’s wedding two years ago. Paul and Robyn were thoughtful tour guides, giving us the low down on places we passed.
Near San Blas, I think it was, we got on a new toll road. There wasn’t much traffic, the road was in fantastic shape, especially when compared to Pennsylvania highways.

We stopped at a rest stop to use the facilities.

I loved the signage for the men's room.

After a couple of hours, we were in a landscape of agave fields—the juice extracted from the blue agae plant is distilled to make tequila.  In my pre-broadened state, thought I’d seen agave fields between PV and P and R’s house, but those fields were pineapple, not agave.

Until I went there, I had no clue that the region around Tequila, filled with fields of blue agave, was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tequila has been distilled there since the 16th century and UNESCO recognizes that the region is a key part of the Mexican national identity.

The city of Tequila reminded me of medieval Italian city: built for walking, not driving, ancient buildings in various states of disrepair, narrow cobblestone streets, and thriving tourist economy.  Paul found a place to park near the city center.

After a quick look at the swanky Jose Cuervo showroom, we headed for the main square. Paul stopped to talk to two boys who holding an iguana tied to a bit of nylon rope. After some haggling, he (or she, I don’t know how the iguana self-identified) was Paul’s for 100 pesos, about $5 American. After untying him, which took some doing, Paul and Billy walked up the street and released it at a vacant patch of land.  I don’t know if the iguana scampered away to safety or just waited to be caught again by those two boys to be sold again at the town square.

We walked around the square, looking like tourists.

 We watched people taking photos in front of the large Tequila sign and took some of our own.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception was at one end of the square. Its exterior is quite primitive with the exception of some carved stone elements on the entrance front. (And of course, a neon cross at the very top!) 

The interior is a handsome classical space with a polychrome vaulted ceiling. I was expecting bells and smells, but there were no small chapels illuminated by flickering candles.

Instead, there was a memorial to a Father Toribio Romo Gonzalez, who was killed by government troops in 1928 during the Cristero War. Until that moment, I'd never heard of the Cristero War, it was a broadening moment. 

There's an even larger statue of him in the plaza in front of the church.

He was canonized by the church in 2000 and is now seen as the patron of migrants. My guess is that The Donald wants his friends the two Corinthians to beat the crap out of him.

We had lunch at an outdoor café on the square. In addition to some government function taking place under a big tent in the square, there was a performance in the square too.

The performers were seven indigenous people, aka locals, decked out in red trousers, white smocks with floral sashes and lots of fringe, and hats that looked as if they were made from repurposed maracas.  They danced around what looked like a May pole, while one of their number played the drums and another the pan flute. Of course, I’ve never seen a real maypole in real life. I’ve seen plenty of poles, some of them in the month of May. But none were anything like this.

The dance around the maypole lasted long enough to make you think that you’d never, ever, get their indigenous ear worm out of your head.

At the end of the dance number, five of them climbed up the wobbly pole, which was perhaps 40 feet tall. At the top of the pole, four sat on a rickety looking frame, while the fifth stood atop the pole played the drums and pan flute simultaneously. Clearly this was not a job for President Gerald R. Ford, who, according to Lyndon Johnson, could not walk and chew gum at the same time.

Four of the men wrapped ropes around their legs and stepped off the rickety frame and twirled around the pole till they reached the ground. It was a circus act without a net. I was glad I’d picked different parents than those guys.

According to Wiki, it's called the Danza de los Voladores.

You could take a tasting tour of the area in buses shaped like a red pepper or a tequila cask, but I'll have to wait for the next visit. Hacienda Carmen was the next stop on our itinerary.

Spring 2019 Trip to Mexico. Part 2, Zacuaplan

After Billy and Alicia arrived, we took a cab to the bus station, a trip of just a couple of miles.

We got to there just in time to buy tickets and catch our bus.  We were headed to the town of Las Varas—a two hour bus ride—where Paul and Robyn were going to meet us. We were the only Anglos on the bus, which eventually became standing room only.

The bus seats were roomy--the ride was more comfortable than any bus I've been on in the U.S. And, interestingly enough, there were no young women wearing sweatpants and carrying a pillow, something I've seen on every Megabus ride I've taken. At one stop, a food vendor walked through the bus selling cellophane bags of what looked like potato chips and a bunch of different sauces with which to customize them. As snack foods go, they looked....interesting.

We disembarked in Las Varas right on time.

I barely had time to photograph the blinking shrine at the store that serves as the bus stop when Paul and Robyn arrived as promised.  In short order, we were on the way to their house. It’s about 30 minutes from Las Varas.

Since we were all peckish, we stopped for dinner at a little place in Zacuaplan.

Zacuaplan is a farming community, with shops, car repair places, and a cheese shop that Paul and Robyn swear never has any cheese.

In the center of town, there’s a large church that looks as if it were designed by a committee. It faces a small park in place of the traditional town square.

The town doesn’t have a lot of curb appeal, but it’s but brimming with authenticity. If there was any sort of chain store or franchise outpost there, I didn't see it.

Paul pulled over at the Loncheria El Sazon de Silvia, one of the few places open at that time of night. It wasn’t a place people go to for the atmosphere; if it were a food truck, it would have been missing a fender. In fact, the State College Board of Health might have sent in a SWAT team to close the place for a hairnet violation.

But even without a hairnet, the woman at the grill made us a delicious dinner. Perhaps I was just ravenous, or perhaps it was the super tasty salsa on the table, but my tacos were spectacular. Plus, since I ate them with a knife and fork they gave me the opportunity to demonstrate my lack of travel-related broadening. I didn’t need to worry about drinking the water, Billy walked down the street and brought back cold beer.

As I sat there at a table on the sidewalk, still wearing my blue blazer, eating my tacos with a knife and fork, drinking a cold beer, I wondered if I had been transported into a W. Somerset Maugham story.  Or would that have been a Graham Greene story?

My friend Martha would have known who I meant. Unlike me, she's probably knows all about those  English authors who wrote about fish-out-of-water Brits in distant corners of the crumbling Empire.  I’m as thick as a plank when it comes to anything literary.

I was consoled by the fact that Mr. Bass Pro Shops probably didn’t know the difference between W. Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene…though by this point he might have known something about strippers named Jesús. I just had a feeling.

Spring 2019 Trip to Mexico. Part 3, Chacala

On my first full day in Mexico,  Paul took us on an four-wheeler excursion, through the jungle and onto the beach. A. and I stood up on the bed, behind the cab as we held on for dear life, going down and up paths that, at times, I thought were impassable. We checked out giant termite nests, marveled at the flora, and saw where a lava flow met the ocean zillions of years ago.

My favorite part might have been buzzing along a deserted beach; it was a blast.

Near the end of the trip, we stopped so I could check out a trailside shrine. Someone had dropped dead at that very spot in November 2001. I think these shrines are fascinating, and in this part of Mexico, they're practically ubiquitous. I can't imagine how long a trip I'd need if I stopped to photograph each one.

Someone had placed a small sculpture of the Holy Family at the base of the cross atop the shrine. Joseph was missing his head. Do you think it was from the scratch and dent rack at the religious ephemera store?

We stopped by another, larger shrine, on the main road, closer to the house. Paul pointed out to me that roadside shrines were often near a curve at the end of a long straight stretch of highway. Drivers tend to get a little aggressive on the straight stretches and then lose control when they have to make the corner. Death doesn’t take a holiday: hence shrines.

In addition to a little hut filled with a low rent funeral home's worth of plastic flowers, this shrine was decorated with plastic flags in the image of the Pope. I am not entirely sure which Pope it’s supposed to be, but don't think it was any Pope Urban VII. Has anyone ever taken the idea of Pontifical Flashcards to the venture capitalists on Shark Tank...?

The next day we drove to the small town of Chacala to have brunch and hang out at the beach with two of Robyn and Paul’s expat friends.

According to the tourist bureau’s website:

Everybody forgets about Chacala!  This small little fishing village (reminiscent of an older Sayulita) sits 9 miles off the main highway, just a little north of La Peñita.  Perhaps the short drive is what keeps people from discovering this gem of a town.  This community sits at the north end of a gorgeous, expansive, half moon bay.  

I don’t think that anyone who’d been to Chacala could forget about it. The town seemed like a microcosm of everything I’d seen in Mexico. The town was a mix of old and new, with rich and poor right next to each other. There were families, musicians, food vendors, tchotchke sellers, and even some commercial fishermen at the beach.

We ate at a beachfront restaurant. After a super brunch, we had time for the beach and exploring. There was a dock for the fishing fleet at the north end of the bay and a swanky resort hotel at the other. It was so swanky that the sandwich board on the beach advertising the daily specials was in English. There were a couple of bands playing on the beach too. Those guys should keep their day jobs.

Sure, Chacala is off the beaten path. But to me, at least, that was part of its charm. What it's lacking in male strippers named Jesús it has in a beautiful beach, fishing, fun places to eat and drink. Oh, and a bunch of really cool people.

Chacala is fantastic. How could anyone forget it?

Friday, April 19, 2019

Spring 2019 Trip to Mexico, Part 1.

I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Mexico on the Nayarit Riviera earlier this month. I had a fantastic time.

If you have a chance to go there, take it!

If my cousin Paul and his lovely wife Robyn invite you, run, do not walk to the airport and get on the first plane. They’re great hosts and make a beautiful part of Mexico even more alluring.

Speaking of planes, as anyone who flies commercially knows, getting there is not half the fun. I had to be at the State College airport in time for a 5:30am flight….which meant getting up at 3:45am. Ugh.

However, the guy at the United Airlines counter gave me two thumbs up for wearing a Hawaiian shirt in my passport photo. My view of the photo is that it's ready for its moment on the Post Office wall.

Then there was a guy with the sparkly-est shoes ever on my plane. He said they were inspired by blood diamonds. As they say, travel is very broadening.

While the flight to Chicago was on time, my next flight—from Chicago to Puerto Vallarta—had some issues.

After we boarded, it turned out that there was some sort of mechanical problem. The cigarette lighter in the cockpit—or perhaps it was the co-pilot’s airbag—was on the blink and that meant a procession of technicians to the front of the plane to try to fix it. Apparently unplugging everything, waiting 30 seconds before plugging it in again and restarting it didn’t do the trick, since there was more waiting and head scratching. The folks in the back of the plane, in boarding group 7, got a little restless.

The delay was long enough that we were allowed to get off the plane as long as we took our carry ons with us.

The delay wasn’t entirely a bad thing, since it gave me the opportunity to buy a $10 dry turkey on stale bread with the poorest-excuse-for-a-piece-of-lettuce ever sandwich for lunch instead of going with the $15 something-even-more-dismal on the plane.

Quality time in the airport also gave me time to go to concourse’s bookseller and to buy a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’d decided that I was fifty years late in reading it.

The other person in my row—we were separated by an empty middle seat—was a cute guy wearing a Bass Pro Shops hat….in the airplane. Born in a barn, I guessed. The only word he spoke to me on the entire flight was when he said “Thanks” after I offered him my pen to fill out his customs and immigration forms.

Instead of reading To Kill a Mockingbird, he was reading The Bible.

If you're not super keen on flying it's not exactly confidence inspiring when the person sitting next to you is reading The Bible. I suppose I should be thankful that he wasn't reading How to Survive a Plane Crash

I didn't get a good look at his Bible, but I hope it he was using it to hide a guide to the gay nightspots of Puerto Vallarta. P.V. is Mexico's gay hot spot and tourists need to know which clubs have strippers named Jesús who perform miracles involving Jell-O shots nightly. After all, religious experiences come in all shapes and sizes, even if you're wearing a Bass Pro Shops an airplane.

Upon arrival in Puerto Vallarta, I was to wait for my cool cousin Billy and his equally cool gf Alicia at the airport. They were flying in from Seattle a couple of hours after me. Since we’re old, we made a plan to meet and stuck to it without texting each other seventy-five times.

That gave me more time for To Kill a Mockingbird, searching the Internet for those sparkly shoes, and wondering if I had time to go into town for some Jell-O shots before Billy and Alicia's arrival.