Sunday, January 20, 2008
The Cruising Life, V3
It's obvious by now that this is not really a travelog. Mainly because cruising isn't really traveling, I guess. Not this cruise, anyway. Call it a Vacationlogue. Our first two landfalls were in Cabo San Lucas and Mazatlan. Not much to say about these places; they're tropical, sandy-beached and palm-treed, beautiful places tailor-made for tourists. (There's more than this to Mazatlan, but we didn't see it.)
Today's port of call: Puerto Vallarta. This place, I like (though I forgot my camera in our room, so we're flying blind). I could see coming back here to get to know the place better. Mostly it's because this seems to be an actual city which we happen to be visiting with a cruise ship, rather than our first two stops which appear to have been formed, or at least to have taken their present form, expressly for the benefit of tourists. We took a taxi from the cruise ship dock a couple miles over to the main shopping district, something we also did in Mazatlan; but in Puerto Vallarta our drive passed continuously through what seemed to be vital, functioning city. Traffic was heavy everywhere, and shops and sidewalks were packed with people. Most of what lay between the cruise ship dock and the tourist area in Mazatlan was Third World: gutted buildings, abandoned construction, vacant trash-strewn lots, very marginal streets, widespread poverty.
I don't quite know what to do when confronted with this scenario. I know much of the world offers up this juxtaposition; and I know--I hope--that these communities are better off for our influx of tourist dollars. But when the things we see as tourists seem contrived expressly to get that money (the shopping district in Mazatlan was clearly not a natural feature), the experience becomes too much like watching a telethon on TV. Puerto Vallarta seemed like a place that would go on thriving with or without the cruise ships, which in turn gives a little glimpse of what life in Mexico is really like. Just a little, maybe, but there was a sense of seeing something real.
This all reminds me of one of the key things we've noticed on this visit. We spent a little time on the beach on each day ashore this time, catching some sun and playing in the ocean (I wish I could find a way to make a career of splashing in the surf; I'd quickly sign up). But the entire time we were on the beach, or sitting in a beachside or sidewalk cafe, we were solicited by peddlers. Every two minutes at least. I don't begrudge these people for a second trying to make a living in this way, and indeed we bought several things from them (a carved wood turtle, a pair of earrings, some fabric, and--the best $10 ever spent--a sun hat woven out of palm fronds; more on this later), but again it has a huge impact on the experience. As you walk the sidewalks, hawkers in front of the stores are aggressive, sometimes extremely so. And it colors your experience. You become adept at saying "no, thanks," and after a while you catch yourself dismissing people reflexively without even looking at what they're selling. And if you look at something or buy something from a walking vendor, others quickly flock to you like seagulls to a handful of bread crumbs. This becomes another discouragement, and so you learn to plot your prospective purchase and make it strategically so as to minimize the trauma. Several times we saw what appeared to be very young children--six or seven years old--out hawking little necklaces or pieces of candy, and had to restrain myself from buying for pity. But then you see the little girl round the corner where her mother is watching her. What does one make of this?
I'm just not sure quite how to do this all with some savvy. Plenty of people on the cruise ship could be heard talking how they wrung some vendor down to a fifth of his asking price. Well, good for them. I don't mind a little haggling, but it certainly doesn't give me much pleasure to take money from someone who already has so little. I don't want to get screwed abjectly (though how, exactly, does a (comparatively) rich American tourist get screwed by someone peddling $10 palm frond hats?), but I'm happy to pay my way. Still, for all the soliciting going on, I would take that environment into consideration for future vacation choices. I don't think this constant solicitation was enough to keep me from coming back, but I'm sure it was for many on this cruise. This all makes me wonder about what is ethically expected of me, and about survival-of-the-fittest type things (god help us if I'm "fittest" of anything). And that's all without getting to the question of exactly who is benefiting from my street purchases. Many people peddling on the Cabo San Lucas beach were dressed in a kind of uniform--white shirt, khaki pants--implying that they were working for someone. Another layer to work through. It's great that the peddler has this job, but I feel considerably worse if my $25 for a carved wood turtle goes not to the craftsman, but to some Floridian who has set up this get-rich-quick scheme using cheap Mexican labor. Ah well, I'm not going to figure it out here.
One other non-sequitur thing to mention: all the taxicabs in Puerto Vallarta, and all the buses as well (which are school-bus-like with a heavy diesel truck frame by Mercedes or International Harvester and a fiberglass body--there were a zillion of them) have manual transmissions. I think I have to go back to elementary school--a full thousand years ago--to get to the last public conveyance I've been on in this country where the driver did not have the luxury of an automatic transmission. It's probably an economic thing, but it seems like a skill lost when nobody in our culture can drive a stick shift anymore, while in Mexico everybody does it well enough to do it publicly. The streets are all cobblestone / paving stones, which rattle the shit out of the little Nissan Sentra taxicabs. The streets vary from nice, four lane roads to narrow one-laners that twist and climb precariously. One some of those hills, the stick shift driver needed to be a virtuoso.
We tried to visit the famous Elizabeth Taylor house in Puerto Vallarta. Alas, closed. She bought the place during Richard Burton's filming of Night of the Iguana in 1963. The film was directed by John Huston, and he became something of a local hero because of it; there's a big statue of him in a nearby city square. Taylor's purchase was supposedly the first of a bunch of Hollywood stars setting up vacation places in Puerto Vallarta, and her villa, on a high, narrow cobblestone street, walled in and choked with jungle foliage, looked very picturesque.
Oh, about the hat. I was sitting on the beach in Cabo San Lucas getting my little remaining exposed skin burned to a crisp (I HATE sunscreen, and would just rather keep covered up, something the natives surely appreciate) and a peddler came by with some lush, freshly-woven palm frond hats. This ended up being the best $10 I spent on the trip, both because it worked really well--it blocked the sun from all over my shoulders, and the wind went right thru it making it very cool--and because it was like an attention magnet. People's reaction to my wearing it around town were about 50/50 laughing derision and grudging admiration; but nobody could keep quiet about it. Everybody looked and smiled; the smiles just didn't always mean the same thing. At one point Susan and I were walking on separate sides of a street and a bunch of partying people at a sidewalk bar on her side called out to me. "LOVE your HAT, MAN!!" I waved and took a bow. She heard one mutter, "Man, that takes GUTS." But other people who looked less like tourists were genuinely admiring, some even asking to look at it and declaring that it was nicely made. Several gave me pointers about how to keep it from crumbling (none of which I apparently took, as it's now starting to crumble as it dries out).