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.

On the Road Again: Hasta La Vista, La Peñita

La Peñita, I shall return! Well, I would not equate myself with that eccentric WWII general, but I do plan to come back to La Peñita next winter – how could I not? To return to that vibrant little village by the sea has too many reasons to list – most of them too complicated to try to explain here. But I would do it in any case, if only to see Martín again.

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Downtown La Peñita

That reason is complicated too. What an interesting character. Martín is a carpintero (a carpenter/woodworker, builder of windows, doors, cabinets, and furniture of all kinds) in his small shop La Peñita. Some would consider him an anachronism or maybe an inefficient economic actor in a worldwide industrial system that has passed him by. When I met the old man – well, I’m not sure if he’s older or younger than I am – three years ago, I felt an immediate affinity. That little old man with rotting teeth, standing in his flip-flops on the dirt floor of his woodshop, just glowed with serenity. He seemed completely comfortable in his carpintería on a side street a few blocks from the center of town. Martín had worked in the U.S. for awhile many years ago, remembering only a few words in English. We talked about wood and the world for an hour, despite my broken Spanish.

Searching for Huanacaxtle

I had been looking for a source of Huanacaxtle, a tropical hardwood sort of like mahogany, but with beautiful complex grain patterns. It is found throughout Central America and goes by several different names. I had seen some beautiful tables and other furniture made of Huanacaxtle in a gallery in Mazatlán, when we stopped over there, near the end of our first road trip to La Peñita. The grain, color, and figure of this wood are amazingly varied, rich, and muy bonito. After seeing finished pieces in that gallery, I seriously wanted to buy some to take home and make something with it.

Martín is a rare find in this world today, even in Mexico. He’s been working with wood for over a half-century. I might not have found Martin had I not asked a rather unlikely source if he knew anyone in the area who cut or milled Huanacaxtle. Seff Ramirez runs a typical roadside fruit stand on the highway a few km north of La Peñita. He operates a rather nice nursery there too. The man knows how to use a machete. We had stopped to get some of those delicious mini-bananas that are so prolific in the area. I had decided to ask anyone I met if they knew of a carpintería where I could buy some Huanacaxtle.

The Road to Martín

I always try to speak Spanish in Mexico; too many Norte Americanos expect everyone to speak English. That seems presumptuous to me, despite the surprising number of expats and tourists living or traveling in throughout Mexico. Seff surprised me when he answered my question in California English. I asked about that; turns out my guess was right, he’d lived in California for many years. Anyway, when I asked about Huanacaxtle, he said he knew a guy in the local pueblo up the road aways who occasionally cut planks to make furniture for himself or his neighbors.

I asked Seff if he could contact the wood-cutter to see if he had some to sell. It was getting close to our time to depart La Peñita and drive north through the central highlands and deserts to cross the border at Juarez. I wanted to buy a few pieces that would fit in the bed of my pickup truck amid all the other stuff we took with us on a three-month trip through Mexico. I wanted to make something of that beautiful wood in my home woodshop. That did not work out at first. (More, in the next installment of the “On the Road Again” series.)

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.