On the Road Again: Leaving La Peñita

It was a wonderful four months a year ago last winter in La Peñita, basking in the temperate sunshine of the Pacific coast an hour’s drive north of Puerto Vallarta, the longest time we’ve spent in Mexico. We’ve grown fond of the people we have gotten to know there. They are unselfconsciously generous, easygoing, and ever so polite. That made me reflect on the civility of human behavior in their narrow cobblestone streets compared to the self-importance displayed in Santa Fe’s Whole Foods parking lot.

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Surf Dog

We spent most late mornings at a secluded beach where Copper gets to run free into the surf, chase birds, and play with her new friend Tawny, whose owner camps there often. My quiet time begins at dawn’s first light allowing me to write undistracted and look at the sunrise to the east or its reflections on Tortuga Island a mile or so out to sea. I brought along the woodworking toolbox of ancient Japanese design I had built just before leaving Santa Fe, stuffed with my best hand tools. The house we rented on the hill overlooking Bahia Jaltemba, like many houses there, has a rooftop patio. There, a little room with a counter and bunkbeds provides a possible extra bedroom. I used it as a mini-woodshop where I worked on some wood sculpture, with a beautiful view of the bay.

Those four months reflected the same peculiar nature of retirement itself. With so many possibilities, we find we don’t seem to have enough time! Almost every day, usually after visiting the beach, we went down to the always-bustling Centro to pick up any fresh produce or other supplies. Compared to Santa Fe, it is remarkable how fast food spoils in the tropics, even in the “dry season,” which is more humid than Santa Fe spring monsoon season.

Much talk about “cross-cultural experience” resolves into cliché. Yet, the differences and similarities of people here and there can be instructive if we think about them. For example, La Peñita, a town of about 20,000 residents, is a buzzing commercial center for the surrounding area. Rincon de Guayabitos – just south across the small estuary where crocodiles roam – is primarily a tourist town with many hotels, all-inclusive resorts, endless gift shops, and a calm beach. Many of the folks who live in La Peñita work in the various tourist establishments in Guayabitos. Local economies here seem just as dependent on international economic systems that are poised for failure as global warming intensifies.

The New Great Transformation of both Earth’s ecosystems and humanity’s relations with them is already underway but barely noticed if at all by political leaders in the fog of climate denial and political distraction. I wonder how the people of La Peñita, with so much less wealth and resources, but with such energetic resourcefulness, will do, compared to, say, the privileged elite of Santa Fe, the wealthiest city in New Mexico. In some different respects, both are ill prepared to transform their relations with the ecosystems upon which they must rely for survival as climate destabilization accelerates and the political response remains wholly inadequate to the challenges of the Anthropocene.

Leaving Juaréz

Another in the Mad Jubilado series

Border crossings always involve some stress. After all, borders do represent the absolute authority of the state over the legitimacy of persons. Will the state accept me as who I claim to be or not? Are my papers in order? Will they allow me to cross, or will I be detained for an unknown time? Lots of young men with guns on both sides view everyone with both suspicion and indifference. Crossing an international border can be a critical inflection in the trajectory of a life.

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Crossing at the Bridge of the Americas

Juaréz has become the iconic dangerous border town. Investigative journalists have written Important books about the extreme murder rate, frequent disappearance of women, and drug cartel shootouts, suggesting an endemic culture of violence. For the past few years, we traveled from Santa Fe, New Mexico, down the center of Mexico, stopping in Chihuahua, Torreon, Durango, and finally the old city-center of Mazatlán, on our way to a small town on the Pacific coast.

Although I had been to Mexico many times in my life, only once before had I driven long distances through Mexico. That time I spent most of my 1964 college summer there. My roommate and I drove down the west coast to Guadalajara, spent eight weeks living with Mexican families while completing our college language requirement. Then we drove to Mexico City, climbed the pyramid of the moon nearby, and drove up the east coast to the border. Then, just about out of gas money, we turned west to return to California, where we were teased for our newly acquired Mexican accents.

At the Texas border, the U.S. border guards made us take everything we had out of my VW van, and take everything out of all suitcases, backpacks, etc. We suspected that they were certain these two bearded young men must have been carrying some contraband. They looked disappointed as we took our time re-packing all our clothes, ten-dollar guitar, books, and assorted trinkets into the van. It was a degrading experience, but it was also the nineteen sixties.

Now retired, this Mad Jubilado and his esposa have begun to enjoy spending at least part of the winter in a small fishing village on the west coast of Mexico, where the daytime temperature hovers around 80 degrees F, and the water at the beach is comfortably cool. We take our dog in the cab and too much stuff in the bed of my ever-reliable Tundra.

After three winters in La Peñita, getting there was less than half the fun. It’s a long drive, but we have found some nice reasonable hotels with gracious staff who accept our dog. Las carreteras cuotas are as good as New Mexican highways, with frequent clean rest stops. The peso had taken a dive, with among other factors the U.S. presidential election of 2016 – “I will build a great wall…” So, we are able to live on about the same money as if we’d stayed home.

However, the transition to a warm pleasant winter is all about the border crossing. Once we had gotten our new tourist cards and temporary vehicle import permit at the aduana (customs) checkpoint on the highway south of Juaréz, we felt as if someone had lifted a great burden from our backs. We were ‘good to go’ in Mexico.

Driving through Juaréz is much like driving through Los Angeles, Albuquerque, or any other large U.S. city. Its violent reputation is not visible in the direct experience of driving through mid-day, heading south toward Chihuahua. Everything seemed quite mundane. Yet, the world is changing in very dangerous ways far more rapidly than most of us are aware or will admit. That is largely because the urban-industrial machine that operates across all borders keeps plodding along as if the nations they define were actually doing something about global climate disruption.

Not On the Road Again: Missing the Run to La Peñita

Having grown up in Southern California, the Pacific coast of Mexico has a familiar comfort for me – and it’s warm in the winter. You can actually get out in the surf in January in La Peñita, a small fishing village of about 20,000 people halfway between Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta. I spent the summer of my junior year at the University of California, Santa Barbara traveling throughout Mexico – by VW van or course. I lived with a family in Guadalajara for two months that summer. In those eight weeks, I learned far more Spanish than in all the classes I’d taken at the university. That is when I first could really speak Spanish. I’ve been re-learning it ever since.

Traveling can provide a perspective not otherwise easily obtained. Of course, if you go from one major hotel-chain location to another, or stay in one “all-inclusive” resort, it would be like stopping at a different Burger King joint in any city in the U.S. – the anti-quality of sameness.

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Overlooking La Peñita

That is one of the reasons we chose La Peñita. It is a real Mexican town, even though quite a few Canadians spend the Winter there. Another is that it’s a small fishing village. We had fresh garlic and herb Dorado that Cynde baked for dinner our second night there on our last trip – caught that morning, bought in the afternoon, cooked in the evening – not shipped from anywhere, not “previously frozen” at Whole Foods, not processed in any way other than being cleaned and filleted, once carried from the boat to the Tienda de Pescado. Mmmmm!

Sometimes, in the midst of life in the swirl of the growing dangers of the climate crisis and post-electoral madness of Trumplandia, a little change in perspective can do wonders, just like a fresh-caught fish dinner. The drive down through Juarez, Chihuahua, Torreón, and Durango, with a slight detour to Mazatlan, was itself an education, each time we’ve made it. So many welcoming and friendly people. Same urban dirt and dense traffic in these cities as you will find in any medium to large city in the world.

But I wonder whether the Mexican violence meme may be overstated. I must look up the comparative crime rates with, say, Albuquerque, which reputedly had the greatest rate of citizens killed by police in the U.S. one recent year, before the Justice Department put the ABQ police department in receivership. The non-stop evening news stories of shootings, drunk driving crashes, domestic violence, and drug arrests reflect a certain U.S. social disorder.

My best perspective on Mexico so far, I obtained by engaging with regular folks in the stores and streets of that little town, La Penita, getting the lay of the land and feeling the pace of life. I will miss the long weeks hanging out there this year; medical issues always seem to complicate life.

On the Road Again: the Run to La Peñita

I was never much of a winter person. I grew up in the Los Angeles area, a coastal desert of Mediterranean latitude that became an urban desert many generations ago. The big seasonal changes in LA were not really that big, but very consistent when I was growing up there. Lately, at least for the last couple of decades, climate destabilization seems to be pushing conditions to extremes of drought, fire, and flood.

No “New Normal,” just No Normal!

This year, huge fires caused havoc in Northern and Southern California. Just wait, some winter torrents just may wash away more Malibu hillside homes this year. In the past, we had the occasional forest fire and flood. But today the scale is unprecedented.

Typical LA seasons went from hot and smoggy September and October to rainy winter to spring and summer coastal fog. The high deserts of the Great Southwest, where I now live, are very different. Droughts have come and gone for centuries. So have heat waves.

But things have changed here too. The bark beetle extended its reproductive cycle with global warming and it has killed off most native piñon trees and now threaten the mountain Ponderosa forests. The Rio Grande barely keeps flowing as western states puzzle over water allotment agreements much greater than available water. There is no “new normal.” Normal is gone.

I’ve always like the desert. It has a certain stark beauty that changes seasonally much more than most people realize if they have not lived in a desert, especially a high desert. Of course, the urban desert doesn’t change much from season to season, even though the seasons grow increasingly erratic.

The high desert of Northern New Mexico experiences distinct seasonal changes. Yet its beauty remains as it is transformed each cycle. The monsoon rains of late summer turn the landscape quite green in the Santa Fe area if the monsoons do not fail us as they did last year. Winters are relatively dry, except for the snow, which varies considerably from year to year.

Several years of drought have resulted in part from such a small winter snow-pack that little water is available to store or recharge aquifers. In fact, most of the snow evaporates before it ever has a chance to melt into a runoff. This year looks better so far, but it still seems a struggle to reach “normal” snowpack.

The New Familiar

But after ten years away from Southern California, well, I miss the beach.

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Santa Fe is famous for its sunsets as well as art galleries and high-end restaurants, but the sunsets at La Peñita are serious contenders.

So, for the past few years, we head south for the coldest months of winter. After all, jubilación (retirement) allows a certain freedom of movement. Besides, a good laptop and

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Copper loves to run on the Beach and swim in the surf.

an adequate Internet connection will allow me to write and post my Mad Jubilado rants and also my climate and society posts here on TheHopefulRealist.com. And, I love to take my dog for a good run on a deserted beach.

The road trip from Santa Fe through Central Mexico to a little town, La Peñita, on the Pacific coast an hour’s drive north of Puerto Vallarta takes a few days. But it offers insight into the contrasts and parallels in how people in Mexico and the U.S. live in this era of unrecognized transformation. Each fall now, I look forward to experiencing the wonders, charm, and rough edges of Mexican culture, economy, and those warm sandy beaches over these three months or so of warm winter on the Pacific coast of Mexico. What will the contrast tell me about how we live in the U.S. Southwest? I’ll let you know in coming posts…