It is 2003. I’m turning 50 soon. We haven’t had a major trip since Spain, two years ago. In between my dad died. The twin towers came down. Work finishing our cottage goes on and on. We build a suite in the top floor of E 19th. Buy a development property in our ‘hood, down the hill on E 14th. Next year we will build a 4-plex on the lot.
But for now, it is time for a travel fix. A journey that reminds us of all the fine places on the planet. But also a way to come to terms with new realities. Dead dads. Terrorism. Aging. Another construction project. Mexico is always a good antidote to too much reality.
We start in Puerto Vallarta at a pensione in the Zona Romantica, right on Basilio Badillo. Posada Yasmin. Great location. Lousy room. The bathroom gets wet and stays wet after the first shower. It’s musty.
We get a cheaper rental car by buying a time share. Craig never forgives himself. Costa del Sol. We have money from the sale of Kimberly. For 10 years we make good use of it. Then the costs start to sky-rocket and we walk away from it. Live and Learn. On this trip we are still wide-eyed innocents and don’t yet know that we’ve been ripped off.
Heading south, we travel along the sea and through coastal jungles. Barra de Navidad is a day’s drive away. We find a room at the Delfin, the dolphin. The place has not yet been discovered and it is deserted. A few barely open restaurants. It’s November, the off season, in a place that looks like it struggles to have an “on” season.
We drive north, through Guadalajara (where we get lost) to Guanajuato, arriving late at night, after dark. Enter a tunnel and begin to realize that the city streets are all underground. We drive in a series of intersecting tunnels, with no idea what part of the city we are under. We have no clue where we are going. There are places where the road pops up to the town, into a parking lot. We randomly choose an exit to the surface, hoping to find a place to ask some questions about accommodation. To our great relief there is a motor hotel across the street. Que buena suerte! What good luck! We park the car and hoof it for the next few days.
We love Guanajuato. The colonial architecture, plazas, the many viewpoints up one side of the hill or the other. The city sits like a saddle on a ridge in a valley.
The opera house is built in the style of the French at the turn of the last century. Porfirio Diaz, the president of the day, enamoured with everything French, went on a building spree; the Guanajuato opera house is one of many of his legacies.
A black cat inhabits our motel. It rubs around our table at breakfast.
San Miguel de Allende is the jewel in the crown of this trip. A colourfully beautiful adobe colonial town in the high country, inhabited by artists and artisans, chefs and musicians. We stay at the Monejas. The Monks. A former monastery on the south end of town.
We are gobsmacked by the shops and the quality of the arts and crafts. The food. The patios and courtyards. The cathedral. Too bad my skills with my new digital camera (a 50th b’day gift from Craig) are not up to the splendour of SMA. We’ll return for my 60th, when both the camera and the photographer will have improved. For now, though, they are all a bit blurry and grainy.
On the way out of SMA, heading toward the coast, we stop at a hot springs. On its own, just off the main road, in the foothills of the surrounding mountains, the place is deserted. Just us and the caretaker. It is a series of pools that get progressively deeper in the ground. The last one is about 20 ft down. The ceiling is domed glass, flush with the ground. As I am entering the last pool, something falls on my head and slides off into the water. It startles me. At first I think it is a snake or lizard that has fallen through a crack between the earth and the glass roof.
It’s a small mouse and it’s swimming for dear life in the warm, frothy water. I try to ignore it but of course it is impossible not to notice that the wee thing is drowning. It is gasping and moving furiously, but mostly it is a losing battle. Thinking to save it but not wanting to touch it with his bare hands, Craig returns to the entrance to the first pool to get a sock to scoop him up with. Which we do. Then another trip back to the entrance, where we place him in a small nest of grass. I leave the sock.
The mouse is panting and gasping. I don’t know if he ultimately survives. But we’ve done our best to save him.
By saving him we have also saved our valuables from being swamped when the caretaker turned the water on to fill the pools. We’d left cameras, passports, money, etc in a day pack at the entrance. When Craig returned to get the sock, the rising water levels were already lapping at our bag.
As we drive away I can’t stop thinking about why the mouse was put in my path. Mexico is a place of mystics and mythology. Catholicism and paganism. Nature worship. Day of the dead. Dia del Muerte. Frida Khalo’s paintings. Colourful imagery of a cacophonous world of spirits.
Lori & Sam, friends from Vancouver, are living in Zacatecas and we visit them there. I tell them about the mouse. It is on my mind a lot.
In Zacatecas we stay at the Quinta Real, a hotel built around an old bullring. Lori’s sister gets us a good deal on a 5-star room. A gothic cathedral is the main attraction here. Zacatecas is the capital of the province of the same name so there is an administrative feel to the place. A bit like Regina.
We drive east and south, toward the coast, stopping for a few nights north of Puerto Vallarta, at Rincon de Guayabitos. We are the only guests in the hotel and the only tourists in the town. It’s too quiet. Not much to see or do, nothing happening. Just the beach, which is full of fishermen in the morning, deserted in the afternoon, teeming with locals in the evening. We are glad to leave and head south to PV.
We check into the Girasol, just south of town, a day before the other guests are due. We’re out swimming the next afternoon when they arrive. Donna & Ron, Jim & Shelley. Seonag comes later and, over the years, tell the story of how drunk we are when she arrives. Shelley falls down getting on the bus, so we haul her back to her room, throw her on the bed and go downtown without her. Cafe Olla. Halfway through our meal I start to worry about Shelley, lying on her back, vomitting and then aspirating. I check her immediately when we get back, several hours and many margaritas later. She has not moved. Comatose. Alive. Yay!
We ride horseback and swing from ropes into a pool. We go to Las Animas on a boat from Mismaloya. We eat at the restaurant on the point. Something to do with John Huston. Night of the Iguana is still a big deal in PV lore.
Everyday the beach flags fly red or black. Danger. Extreme danger. We ignore them, swim past the surf and bob until we are tired. Getting back in is tricky. Watching the waves. Diving through those that can knock you down. Never turning your back on the sea.
One day, getting out, and making all the classic mistakes, Seonag & I get hit hard by a big one from behind. I hit the sand and get the wind knocked out of me. I churn around in what feels like a washing machine. Even though I have never been in a washing machine, I can tell you that this is what it would feel like and be like. No air. Nowhere. I start to worry that I will reflexively gasp and fill my lungs with sea water. Then I break the surface and I get a bit of air out and a bit in. I get hit again, a second time. Into the washing machine. This time thinking “I’m dying. This is how it is going to happen. And it is happening now”. A sickening dread. And then I hit the beach and am out of the ocean.
I’m laughing and crying and swearing. Seonag is laughing and I think maybe she hasn’t had the same experience. “I damn near drowned” I shout. “Me too”, she says, “Twice!”.
Later I am sleeping on a beach bed, sea water trickling out of all of my orifices, dreaming about the mouse. He is the Hindu elephant god Ganesh and he is flying above the water while I am flailing beneath it. I can see him through the ripply water, waving his trunk at me.
I wake up suddenly and know why the mouse and I crossed paths a week ago. My actions were karmic. I saved the mouse, the mouse saved me.
I try to tell my friends about the dream and its significance and they laugh it off as crazy confabulation. But at my birthday dinner the last night one of my gifts is a metal sculpture of a mouse. I don’t remember where we ate or what we ate, but I remember that gift from Jim & Shelley. A life-sized metal mouse. My protector. My talisman. Good luck charm. Over the years I will collect more mice, all of them gifts from friends. And I will always find it hard to kill mice, preferring to trap them behind the couch, scoop them into a shoe box, run down the lane and release them into a bush. In protecting them, I hope they will protect me.