Wednesday, January 29, 2014


The last few weeks have been both really busy and really relaxing. On the full days, I was too busy to write, and on the laid-back days, too relaxed! But today I’ve achieved just the right combination of empty schedule, ocean breeze, and good tea. We’ll see how many stories I can tell…
I woke at 3am to the clanking of the anchor chain over my head. Once again, Bryan had gotten up long before dawn for the long trip from Isla Isabel back to the mainland. I went back to sleep and woke again after sunup about 30 miles out of Chacala. We’d read that Chacala, a little bay north of Bahia de Banderas, is practically perfect in every way. Palm-lined, golden sand beaches edge the eastern rim of the bay while hills to the north offer protection from the winter northerly winds. We came in around midday and got the boat settled with a bow and stern anchor to keep our bow to the mild swell. The girls wanted a little downtime (and we didn’t feel like nagging them into presentability) so Bryan and I dropped the dinghy and headed for shore. We landed on the main beach through the surf and pulled the dinghy up past the high tide line.
The beach was teeming with activity. Several thatch-roofed restaurants stood along the sand. Vacationing families sat under bright umbrellas and busy waiters hurried by with trays of lime-topped beer bottles. A bright bell signaled the approach of the ice cream cart.
Walking vendors wove through the crowd offering wooden carvings, local jewelry, and sweet treats. Sandy kids played in the gentle surf until parents or older siblings called them to the table. Local bands meandered through the tables offering musical options: big-band-style mariachi music or conch shell with hand drums.
We settled at a likely looking table and put in an order for dinner. I drooled over a nearby fruit stand and finally walked over to ask for their specialty—piña y fruta—a juice drink make in a pineapple with fruit on top.
Here…just look at the picture.
Partway through dinner, a band kicked up near our table. Several other customers got up to dance and soon the whole restaurant was participating, nodding and clapping along. Several locals stepped forward to dance.
A roving vendor set down his wares and took center stage, leading the dancers in ridiculous gyrations until he had the whole crowd shaking with laughter. We dropped a small tip in the conch shell; the show was more than worth it.
We kept an overprotective eye on Rover. Several people walked by for a closer look and one young man plopped down in the bow, kicking the stern high up in the air. A few minutes later, he stood, stripped off his shirt, and tossed it across the gunwale. By the time we were ready to leave, he had moved on. I rowed, while Bryan gave me a big shove through the surf and hopped in. We must have impressed some of the swimmers nearby; we rowed back to the boat through a smattering of applause.
We were running a little low on cash and Chacala doesn’t have any ATMs, so the next day, Bryan caught the “collectivo,” the local airporter taxi/bus, into Las Varas, about 6 miles inland. The girls and I went to shore with him but stayed behind in Chacala and commandeered a beachside table for the day. We ordered cold drinks, read books, and watched the ocean. Bryan got back in the mid-afternoon and we ordered an early dinner. The waiter came up a few minutes later, all sad face and apologies. I figured out that the restaurant was closing, but not what the problem was. I ventured a few guesses. “You need us to go somewhere else for dinner?” “No, there will be dinner here.” “OK, you’re bringing food over from another restaurant?” (This was not as strange a guess as it sounds. The menu was almost identical to the place we’d been the day before and the feet-in-the-sand restaurants clearly had many relaxed policies.) “NO, NO. We will feed you!” No one at either of the nearby tables spoke English. Finally, our waiter pulled out a cell phone and called a waiter from down the beach to come and interpret. He came jogging up a minute later and cleared things up. “You can stay here as long as you like, but after they bring your food out, they’re closing, so they need to put away the shade umbrella.” No problem! We ordered another piña y fruta for the girls and made friends with the dog who sat hopefully at our feet all through dinner. The beach was noticeably less busy than the day before and by 4 or so, most of the restaurants were closed. We found out later that our first day in Chacala had been a national holiday with many locals taking advantage of a day off at the beach.
After dinner, Bryan and I left the girls for a few minutes and walked down the beach. Bryan had seen a strange fruit growing on the trees on his way to Las Varas, so we came back on the road through town and stopped by a fruit stand to buy one.
The gregarious shop-owner gave us instructions, complete with gestures and sound effects. “Wait until it smells good, then cut it and put it in a blender with milk. It is very sweet, very nutritious.” He turned to Bryan and squeezed his muscles. “It will make you strong to work all day!” When we told him we didn’t have a blender (I couldn’t remember the word he’d used, but found my own gestures and sound effects worked just as well.) he said, “That’s fine, it’s OK by itself too.”
We did a little research when we got back to the boat. Turns out, we’d bought a Yaca (sometimes spelled “Jaca”), which is also billed as Mexican Viagra. Make you strong to work all day…Suuuure.
The next day, we met our friend, Will, for a hike up a volcano. We’d heard there was a trail through the spiritual retreat center and up the hill to a caldera at the top. Sure enough, after a bit of wandering and a failed attempt at asking directions, we made our way up the hill. We crossed a wooden bridge and stopped to pick some plantains from a nearby tree. Can you see the blossom at the bottom of the banana stalk?
On the way, Meira spotted what she thought was a monkey (we found out later it might have been a tejon We explored a half-finished building and walked on through the jungle.
We came over a rise to hear Will say, “Watch out for the wild animal in the path.” I laughed when I saw a shaggy horse nibbling its way down the path.
We passed the “wild animal” without any mishap and made our way to a dirt road on the other side. We wound up the road, marveling at the flora. Baby palm trees sprouted fully formed palm fronds straight from the ground.
Young palms stood half-height, floppy fronds looking like they could use a good haircut. The older trees stood tall and stately, symbiotic deciduous wrapped up their thick trunks, bromeliads dangling from their branches.
We came around a corner to signs of civilization carved out of the jungle.
A shrub-lined path led the way to a tall security tower where a guard greeted us kindly and offered permission and directions to the lookout over the bay and the caldera beyond.
On our way up, we stepped out of the path to let a truck pass. The driver stopped to chat, with help from his friend who spoke English.
His family owns the orchard, he explained, one of only a few paces in Mexico where this unique fruit grows.
He told us its name—guanabana—gave us instructions of how to eat it, and invited us to pick a few. We climbed up a few more yards into an orchard, and looked down into the caldera on the other side of a rise. The center was all meadow, filled with tall, thick grass. The caldera was a place removed, its sights and sounds from an ancient time. Birds called overhead and insects whirred. Any second, it seemed, a giant lizard would burst through the trees and rampage across the meadow.
We sat in the shade of the orchard on the edge of the green and pulled out our snacks.
We watched leaf-cutter ants at work and flirted with passing butterflies. Bryan climbed a nearby tree to reach a beautiful guanabana (it’s soursop in English, but we’d never heard of it in either language.) We cut one open but it wasn’t ripe yet.
The girls hacked at it with a knife and Meira cut her thumb a bit.
She wasn’t really hurt, just annoyed with herself. We picked a couple more guanabana to take back to the boat to ripen. The guanabana blossoms were yellow and leathery, like a lemon rind, and we bent underneath the tree to peek into their heart at the nascent fruit inside, each person taking a turn, each one exclaiming at the miniature gift.
This trip is teaching us a better sense of enough. It’s easy to always push harder, to always wonder what’s on the other side of the next rise, around the next bend. Easy in our greed to always want more, more. Bryan looked at me and we nodded—time to head back. On the way back, we stopped at the security tower. The guard invited us in and showed off the crafts he makes to fill the down time. His current work, a beautifully designed and brilliantly crafted reed picture frame, sat at a table near the window. Behind the table, a black spiral staircase led up to the night watchman’s cot and beyond to a bell hanging in the top level. Meira and I ventured up to the very top and the guard called up permission to ring the bell.
Back we went, down the stairs and down the hill. We stopped to pick thorny pods off a tree and biting ants came out, crawled all over my hand without a problem, but somehow managed to sting Bryan ad Hannah. The stings took quite a while to stop hurting, but neither one complained. The day was more than worth it.
Toward the end of the hike, we ran into a man and a woman hiking together on the same path. We exchanged pleasantries. They were interested in our travels and we in their purpose here—a Universalist Sufi retreat at a local spiritual retreat center. They invited us to crash their retreat that night for Sufi dancing.
After we got back, and Bryan and I got the girls settled for the evening, we decided to take them up on their offer. I didn’t know when we would get another opportunity like this. We rowed to shore and walked the path to the beach, then across the sand to the retreat center. As we got close, I got nervous. What if we couldn’t figure out where to go? What if we weren’t really welcome? I shouldn’t have worried; right away, we spotted Roger on the patio. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “I got my dates wrong. It’s actually tomorrow.”
So we headed back up the beach in the moonlight. I carried my shoes and a headlamp in one hand, scuffing my feet in the warm surf. About halfway back, I shifted my grip on my shoes and realized I’d dropped one somewhere along the way. We didn’t bring extras and this pair was my favorite—quick-drying for wet landings, comfortable enough for a hike, not too ugly for a date. We walked all the way back to the retreat center with a couple of dim headlamps and a bright, bright moon. All the way back, we hoped we’d find it on the sand, tossed up by a big wave. And then, there it was. Sandy and sopping, but still usable.
The next day was a lazy boat day, with one exception. I took pictures.
Partway through the day, we got an e-mail about some fraudulent charges on our account. We’d expected this to happen at some point during our travels, but it was still difficult to handle without easy communications. Sometime in the last few days, since he visited the ATM in Las Varas, Bryan’s debit card had gone missing. The fraud department required claims to be made by phone so we rowed in a little early that evening to try an internet call. It turned out that the fraud was on my card and Bryan’s missing card was just a coincidental piece of bad luck. We got them both cancelled and new cards on their way to our home address in time to walk up the beach to the retreat center again.
I brought shoes, but tucked them safely into Bryan’s backpack and didn’t put them on all night. This time, we didn’t recognize anyone on the patio, but we asked directions from a small group of women and they told us a bit of what to expect as they led us to the recently completed temple. We don’t have pictures of the evening; it seemed disrespectful to pull out the camera. You’ll have to use your imagination.
Sandy flip-flops lined the entryway as we stepped into the luminous room. Wood floors shone golden in the soft lighting and candles on an altar added to the radiance. The western wall was made up of glass doors, which were partially folded back to let in the sounds of the surf and the evening jungle. I had expected to sit and watch, but right away, we were swept into the swirl, walking barefoot on the smooth floors around the small band in the center.
Within a few minutes, the dancers shifted to form a circle. We couldn’t resist their welcoming encouragement, though we stood a little closer to each other in our uncertainty. A woman spoke up to officially open the evening, asking if anyone could offer the traditional opening prayer in Spanish, “…for our new guests.” We stumbled through an explanation, likely more confusing than helpful, of what had brought us here. Another woman spoke the prayer in Spanish anyway and then a willowy brunette sang it in haunting Arabic. I breathed in the gift of music and entered in. Different people taught each dance, repeating the simple words and steps until we were all comfortable joining in. The songs were familiar concepts if not familiar words or tunes. “Soli Deo Gloria,” we sang, “To God be all the glory.”
Bryan and I separated and met again in a spinning circle dance. Step in, step out, spin to the right. Sing of the light that shines in us all. Turn to the right and sing to your partner, palm to palm, face to face—“shine, shine, shine.” Over and over, we sang to new partners, as the brilliance of each soul shone out from bright eyes—“shine, shine, shine.”
The evening went on, singing, whirling, bowing down together. We moved to the edge of the room to witness the last dance, a heavy, chanting song of remembrance, and I offered a prayer for a friend who had recently lost his father.
These days, I have plenty of opportunities for gratitude, many chances to stop in awe, but it was an added gift to be led in worship, to enter into a thin space with others. I stepped away from the evening reluctantly. Several other participants lingered to talk and we laughed when we realized we were all former pastor’s kids, accustomed to staying until everyone else had left.
We had hoped that at some point in the trip we’d be welcomed into a worship service with practices and language foreign to our own. We expected it to be Spanish, likely Catholic. We never imagined it would be a group of mostly middle-aged white people singing in Latin and Arabic.
We walked back in the moonlight—for once, just exactly as romantic as it sounds—and rowed out to the boat. It was late, almost 11, and, once we did the math on how soon we would need to leave to get to Puerto Vallarta in the daylight, we decided to just take off right away. Neither one of us wanted to get up after only a few hours of sleep for the long trip down. Bryan needed my help to get both anchors up in the crowded anchorage. Then, as we passed the first of the boats on our way out, our oil pressure alarm sounded. Bryan went below to check the oil levels. We were a bit low, but he had some extra oil stashed away somewhere. With a little push from the ebbing tide, I kept the boat pointed out to sea while Bryan tore the engine compartment apart and added oil. I watched the boats and the bay fade behind us and breathed a sigh of relief when we cleared the islets at the entrance of the bay and fired the motor back up in the still sea.
After all the evening’s excitement, I found it hard to sleep. I dozed off and on, but was awake about 3 am when Bryan came up to the V-berth and whispered my name. His voice was filled with excitement, not weariness, and I swung quickly out of bed and followed him to the cockpit for my first ever sighting of the Southern Cross. I’ve read multiple sailors’ accounts of their travels in southern waters and wondered if we would get far enough south on this trip to see this epic constellation. I grew up watching the Big Dipper dance across the northern night, its little sister pointing the way to the northern star. And now, we were seeing the southern equivalent, an unmistakable cross marking the way south.
Bryan stayed at the helm until the stars faded and morning filled the sky. Together, we navigated safely past the unmarked rocks near the entrance to Bahia de Banderas and then he headed off to bed, leaving me to run the last few hours into Puerto Vallarta across the beautiful blue bay.
Photos from our Yaca fruit processing adventure. The pit is sticky with a resinous sap that doesn’t dissolve in water. I think we could have used Yaca fruit sap instead of epoxy to build our dinghy.