Hello Luxury, Goodbye Paradise Part 4

We rediscovered our favorite chicken place on the opposite side of town from where it had been a few years earlier. Sayulita is magical like that–things open and close, move with no warning, change and evolve in ways peculiar to Sayulita. Like the recently paved road, which has been masterfully poured but ends dramatically with exposed re-bar threatening every tire that passes, restaurants and shops seem to work outside the rules of normal business practice. I turned a corner and there it was: La Pechuga. I marched right up, whipped out my meager Spanish, chatted briefly with the very nice man wrapping up my bird, and paid for a feast: a whole chicken with rice, fresh tortillas, and homemade salsa (85 pesos), and roast potatoes (15 pesos). I carried my quarry back to the den, proud to offer up such an unexpected delight to my family. We ate like kings (sorry Punta Sayulita, maybe dukes), rounded out by a couple Mexican Cokes (no corn syrup, but real cane sugar as the sweetener) and a vast appreciation for the simple pleasures of Mexican pollo.

We were so happy to rediscover our chicken place, which consisted of nothing more than an enormous rotisserie oven and a bunch of plastic bags to wrap up the birds, that we had to share this gem of intelligence with the new friends we had made in our housing complex. We planned a dinner for all of us, and we bought two chickens with all the trimmings. We sat down to our shared pollo meal on their rented patio overlooking the sea, amazed at our good fortune. And they too became enamored of the chicken place.

Our last night in Sayulita also happened to be the birthday of one of our new friends, so we agreed that getting a La Pechuga chicken was the best way to celebrate Brian’s birthday and cap our perfect vacation. At about four-thirty the men-folk mounted up and set out for the glory of the hunt. We women and children remained behind, with our sage leader, my father, rounding out the tribe.

We waited. We waited and waited. We wondered where they could be; had they come to harm along the peaceful Sayulita streets? Had they ended up in a bar doing shots with young surfers for Brian’s birthday, leaving us to our over-active fantastical imagination? Had they in fact found the chicken so irresistible they ate it all before they got back to the house, and now, having realized their folly, needed to acquire more fodder for the tribe? We toddled down to the beach at dusk to look for baby sea turtles. We toddled back. Our husbands were still not there.

The sun had left Sayulita, and a blue half-light covered the town. The ocean was roaring in the distance, now invisible as night had fallen.

They arrived at last, chicken in hand, weary, travel worn, but in one piece.

“The chicken place was gone,” Brian said. “They moved to Guadalajara.”

This was unexpected.

We had walked by the day before, planning with our stomachs how many chickens to buy for our celebration. There, La Pechuga’s long line, its rotisserie turning out perfect chicken, its staff of two helping its devoted customers, had beguiled us with a future that was not to be. It had faded overnight, gone, like a mirage. An oasis of chicken disappearing into the mists of Sayulita businesses gone by.

But our husbands had brought chicken, a mystery yet to be revealed.

“We didn’t know what to do now that there was no chicken place, so we just started walking through the town, hoping we could find an alternative.”

This was not ideal, as my husband is rather inflexible when it comes to his stomach and its cravings. He had been banking on La Pechuga, and now that it had disappeared overnight, he was at a loss. Brian and Lars wandered into the little downtown across the tiny river, looking up dirt roads and down little avenues for dinner alternatives to be revealed. They came upon a dry erase board with a hand-written name “Yolanda” on it, an arrow pointing them up a dry dirt road to their next best chicken hope.

They came up empty-handed–Yolanda’s chicken place had also closed up shop, making them wonder if there was a dire chicken shortage that had befallen Sayulita, the Great Pollo Disaster of 2010.

Finally, perhaps because she took pity upon the strangers staring at the place Yolanda’s once stood, or maybe noting that they had walked past in some circular, confused route, a woman sitting in front of her house asked them what they were looking for.

“Yolanda?” my husband asked.

“Yolanda is gone,” she replied.

“Closed?” they asked.

“Just gone,” she said, in a way that made them wonder if Yolanda had slipped the yoke on this mortal coil. “What are you looking for?” she asked.

Pollo, chicken. We’re looking for chicken for dinner,” they said.

She shrugged, “I’ll make you a chicken.”

They looked at each other. She had a grill in front of her house, and its coals were hot. Why not?

“How many chickens you want?” she asked.

Dos,” they requested.

“Half an hour, you come back,” she said.

So our husbands wandered off into town again. They covered the whole downtown and doubled back, meandering through alleys and streets, with potholes the size of small ponds. The town is small enough that they re-traced their path many times before the half hour ran out and they ambled back to the woman’s house.

“Fifteen more minutes,” she said.

They set out again, taking spurs and side streets they hadn’t yet investigated. They had covered most of the town by the time fifteen minutes past.

“Not done yet,” she announced, so they chatted politely in front of her grill while she puttered about. The sun had pretty much set behind the future Punta Sayulita community, and the dusky blue wrapped them in cool light when she finally held out the bag with two chickens in it.

“Wow,” we said, back at the house. “She just made you two chickens? Just because?” We were stunned and moved. Her two chickens cost 170 pesos, about 12 dollars, but completely priceless. They were different from La Pechuga chickens, but delicious just the same. It was a meal worth waiting for.

•   •   •

My husband, bless him, thinks that Punta Sayulita is a pipe dream that will come to nothing. They supposedly broke ground in February, 2009, and looking at their website I see that out of their future plans for “just 62 exotic and handcrafted homes” only three plots are noted as sales “pending.” The rest are “available” or marked as “future releases” which gives me hope.

On the other hand the “unspoiled 33-acre peninsula of lush and tranquil shoreline” has been purchased by someone, or some consortium, and ownership implies development, even if Punta Sayulita fails in its mission of creating a luxury hideaway for Americans who only want to see other Americans. But what a loss. What a loss for the people who purchase their stake in an Intimate Kingdom; no random chicken stories for them in their tightly modulated experience of luxury.

And what a loss for the residents of Sayulita, who deserve better than more people like Mr. and Mrs. Walrus washing up on their shores, demanding service they have no right to demand in ways that give a bad name to all travelers who arrive there. We have tried hard to be good, if fleeting, citizens of Sayulita; to honor the spirit of the town’s easy-going and casual atmosphere, even if we know that there is still a level of hypocrisy in our sucking up the best beachfront real estate for our brief visits. But we are open to the experience of Sayulita, not Club Med.

And what of the “unspoiled 33-acre peninsula”? It will be spoiled. By the very act of breaking ground, the spoiling has begun. How can anyone read such base descriptions of pristine shoreline and the “new ocean sanctuary...set to rise” without feeling bile tickle the back of their throats just a little? We shouldn’t aspire to being royalty in our intimate kingdoms, especially in someone else’s country. Best to aspire to being good neighbors, equal in the desire for good stewardship of such a precious jewel.

Sayulita, and all its residents, tamarindos, iguanas, and mangoes, deserves no less.

Hello Luxury, Goodbye Paradise Part 3

The brochure for Punta Sayulita was left behind in the house that we rented, living in the stack of airport magazines abandoned by previous visitors, and my husband, always on the lookout for a new periodical, picked it up. It was expensively produced, with an embossed cover sporting only Punta Sayulita's inscrutable logo, and delicate strands of transparent buzz words floating in the background: relaxation... authenticity... camaraderie.... If the Artist Formerly Known as a Symbol had a housing development, this would be it.

The folder that accompanied this well-produced brochure was filled with information regarding the houses that were going to be built on the pristine point at the edge of Sayulita. And there would be no need to ever leave the point, as everything was gated, exclusive, luxurious, all inclusive.

"Jesus," my husband said. "This place is insane." I took one of the sheets touting the dimensions of what would be a "Casita," presumably the smallest house on the Punta, as "casa" was followed by the diminutive "-ita." The house itself, sitting on approximately 10,000 square feet of lovely jungle overlooking the Pacific, had almost 2,928 feet of interior living space. This did not include the "cart garage" (no cars allowed), the pools, terraces and decks, which added another 2,000 square feet. At a hair shy of 5000 square feet, this created a living area equal to more than three of my houses in Portland, a stunning amount of footage to keep clean.

Of course, that's irrelevant in Sayulita since everyone has "help." No less than our little week-long oasis had a dedicated housekeeper named Cynthia, who came and made our beds, washed our dishes, swept out the buckets of sand we dragged in every day. And because I'm a bad tourist with even worse Spanish, I tried and failed to communicate with Cynthia about her life there. In the end I simply let her clean the house. I didn't know how to tell her to leave the dishes in the sink, and it made her visibly upset every time we intervened in some menial task. This was extremely embarrassing for me, and probably annoying for her. "Just let me clean the damned house, you crazy gringa! I have to be here anyway because that's what they're paying me for! Get out of my way!"

This sort of cultural friction does not exist in the brochure for Punta Sayulita, because the faces are uniformly white. Punta Sayulita is not to be a Mexican oasis for Mexicans. The happy faces glowing in the Sayulita sun are blond, sun-kissed, reflecting the joy of having all their mental, physical and emotional needs met. Surf boards for the whole family--plus instruction, if you desire. Dining at your outdoor grill, eating fresh seafood brought in by invisible hands. Margaritas after a dip in your own pool. Yoga to regain your equilibrium after all the mental anguish of having to decide your recreational activity for the day. Do you even want to expend the energy to grill your own shrimp? Walk to the Punta Sayulita restaurant instead. Drink at the Punta Sayulita bar. Work out at the Punta Sayulita fitness center.

This sort of insularity gives me the creeps. Not simply because the unseen hands anticipating your every need will invariably be Mexican, but because this embryonic nurturing of the self is so utterly contrary to the joys of Sayulita. Part of the reason Sayulita has been such a strange success is the extremely relaxed mingling between the Mexicans and the gringos. We don't go to Sayulita to live in a McMansion and be cut off from Mexico. We want the fish tacos, the halting but polite communication with the residents, who are so patient with us as long as we give it our best, the beautiful hand-crafted folk art, terracotta stoneware and bead work created by the Huichols. We want to be in Mexico, not Sun City, Arizona.

But the developers of Punta Sayulita don't see it that way. They don't have a very finely tuned irony alarm either, as they've peppered their brochure with almost comical headers: "The Camaraderie of Club Life," and "An Intimate Kingdom to Call One's Own." Let's ignore that we've pretty much ruled out monarchy as a form of government, but to crown oneself "king" is also an awkwardly indiscreet flaunting of pomposity.

Perhaps the most egregious double-speak in the entire twenty-odd pages is the header which announces "A Return to Authenticity." I'm curious about the authenticity to which the future owners are returning, isolated as they will be from the actual town in Mexico they are presumably a part of. Which is fine with me, really. But if overgrown mini-mansions are authentic, and the only people you are likely to mingle with are Americans like yourself, I'm quite sure I have no idea what Mexico is all about. And the only place I've seen hulking monsters of real estate like these have been in US suburbs, places called Happy Valley and Country Walk, suffering now due to a mortally wounded housing market.

So if you're willing to spend 1.75 million dollars (US, not Pesos, just to be clear) on your Casita in Punta Sayulita, you have a grand experience awaiting you. Not a Mexican experience, certainly, because that's been stripped away by the very nature of its Club Life. But you can hang out under your Authentic Palapa™ or at the communal Jungle Pool™, meeting other Small Kings of your Intimate Kingdoms, after surfing in the Unspoiled Pacific Waters.

I'll be at my favorite restaurant in town, listening to the roosters crow, mangling Spanish with the Mexican residents who politely tolerate me, eating fresh fish tacos and drinking Negro Modelo.

•   •   •

Hello Luxury, Goodbye Paradise Part 2

As a private residential community of just 62 exotic and handcrafted homes, this serene Mexican hideaway will also offer its residents a stunning Beach and Surf Club designed by de Reus Architects with an engaging beach bar, lounge, Jungle Pool and stylish restaurant. There will be a modern fitness center and spa facilities and Concierge services, outdoor yoga pavilions, community watercraft and a casual Surf Club boasting an array of ocean activities for the entire family.

--Brochure for Punta Sayulita

The mythology of Sayulita is this: it was discovered in the 70's by two surfers who came through on a lark and stayed for the easy life. From them, Sayulita has grown up from an isolated fishing village to a recreation destination for both Mexicans on vacation and Northerners looking to escape their chilly climes. And now, having grown up through several generational shifts, the children who are residents have known no other town than the one with a transient tourist population, swinging through in weekly migrations. Many of them benefit from this peculiar migrant population as restaurants and shops have grown up to support the tides of travelers.

And many of them still do not speak English, which makes me easy, somehow. Even though their town is at any given time probably a third to half foreigners, they have retained their cultural heritage and their language. Or at least the language of the earlier, more violent colonial invaders; it seems that many of the locals are in some part descended from the Huichols who still maintain a vivid and brightly decorated presence there.

We discovered Sayulita several years ago, well after it had already been established as a hidden jewel of Nayarit. But the problem with hidden jewels is no-one seems to be able to keep the secret. I share responsibility and some of blame for this: several of our friends have also made the trip to Sayulita based upon our ringing endorsement, and I'm sure that they in turn have passed on the secret as well. And they told two friends, and they told two friends...

But Sayulita is at a crossroads. It's a 45-minute ride down a winding two lane highway from Puerto Vallarta in whatever taxi or bus you find to take you. There were no paved streets in the town itself save the highway until recently; now there are paved roads. Granted, they don't really qualify as "improved" since they start and stop abruptly, one of them actually ending in tire-destroying re-bar which juts out, threatening every vehicle willing to take the risk with a flat. But just the same, paved. And it's no surprise that they needed some paved roads in town, as the development around little Sayulita is rocketing along at a tidy clip.

We got a taste of its pace at breakfast time as we walked to ChocoBanana, a weird little restaurant that seems to anchor the Norteños and the locals together in some funny unsettled way. And at eight in the morning, the streets are rumbling with the engines of countless trucks all going to the new construction sites throughout the town. There are many trucks going to many sites.

Development is no new thing here. The entire beachfront seems to have been swallowed up by larger and larger complexes of houses, each one boasting more amenities and greater size than the ones before. We have availed ourselves of this extreme decadence, though we do it with a touch of sheepishness and a little confusion about our intersection with the lifestyles of the residents of the town. But we, being part and parcel with the Northwest, are always looking for new ways to flee the weather, and Sayulita has become the point on our radar upon which we focus.

The residents to date seem to be placid about the massive transient population that has washed up there. There have been great entrepreneurial possibilities opening for those willing to suck up the foreign cash, which is in abundance. Still, just the same, I can't help but sense that we have, by swallowing up the choicest sections of beachfront properties and then hiring the Mexicans from Sayulita to build them, clean them and manage them, imported our inequitable treatment of the residents with us from the Northern reaches. Even though we are in effect the migrants.

•   •   •

The best thing about a place like Sayulita is that one is forced, by the very nature of its inaccessibility and sleepiness, to take it slow. The greatest challenge that faced us each day was what to eat and where to eat it. Tacos? Fresh fish pulled from the sea? Maybe a little tamale from the Señora that wandered through the complex?

Anyone who has been there knows the Muffin Lady by reputation; she sells freshly baked pies and muffins every morning along the beachfront houses on the North side of town. Breakfast while rubbing our eyes free of the night's humid descent was always a non-issue as our son would cram cheese pies in his face and we adults would drink stiff coffee with our orange muffins baked in old tin cans. If one chose, you could not move from under your palapa on your rented terracotta patio for the entire day: muffins in the morning, tamales for lunch, grab some shrimp from the fish trucks that drive through town shouting the catch of the day from the back. Throw them on a grill and you've had yourself a good day.

But the benefits of moving off the patio are great: if you like surfing, or just smelling the ocean you've got it made. The jungle rises up behind you on steep hills, and there are horses to ride through them, led by the enterprising locals. Boat rides, beers on the beach, simple basking in the sun, weighed down by nothing heavier than the tropical humidity. Everything is slow.

There is a sort of friction between old and new Sayulita as it becomes more popular. Just to absorb the huge influx of tourists, the roads have to be improved. The demands for accessible health care have risen from the potential drowning victims who wallow in the deceptively placid ocean and an unfortunate outbreak of dengue fever, and tidy new clinics have resulted. There is a necessity for efficient waste management, and a bunch of little recycling bins have spread throughout the town. The new sewage treatment plant is a huge improvement in the quality of life there; the smell on funky days was pretty punishing. The tiny rivulet that separates North from South Sayulita seems wholesome again, though I wouldn't drink the water on a bet.

Many of the features that we travelers find so intimately alluring must be an unendurable pain in the ass for people who live there. The potholes in the unpaved roads are so enormous and voluminous that cars and trucks must go through fabulous numbers of shocks and repairs. So while we Norteños wander through on foot, wearing our flip flops and beach pareos on our way to discover some other quaint delight, the more respectably attired locals on their way to work on new constructions or to open their shops, or unloading their goods from the back of trucks battered from crappy roads, must wish for a nice route through the town.

But convenience for them will mean the loss of charm for us. It's an uneasy moment in Sayulita, and the ex pat community is cognizant of the need for and awareness of growth regulation. The very active foreign community encourages the involvement of Mexicans in their own destiny, which is good but may overtake all of them no matter how well-managed their growth.

And as the foreign presence swells, so does modernity. It is impossible at this point to get much work done if you're from the north; the internet is too spotty. But even this is changing, and cafes and restaurants all tout their Wi-Fi connections. Speed is not aces, but then, who would want it to be? Not when you could toddle down to the beach with a beer and watch the pelicans diving. The last day we were there, high speed internet was being installed in the complex we were leaving. It's only a matter of time, really, before everything is wired, even the odd chicken roticerias. And who am I to complain? It will probably ease the annoyance of many there. And yet, I'm grieved by the addition.

The charm of Sayulita has been it's laid back, timeless quality. In this, change is in the air. There is a stylish convenience store right in the center of town now, looking flashy and modern standing next to the rather less well-put-together farmacia/tienda next door. They are both populated with all the same passers-by, but I can't help but feel that the Oxxo has put the farmacia on notice: evolve or die.

And then there is the newest addition to Sayulita: Punta Sayulita, a gated community developing on the once pristine ocean point just outside of town.

Hello Luxury, Goodbye Paradise Part 1

A stone's throw from the allure of Sayulita, there is an unspoiled 33-acre peninsula of lush and tranquil shoreline. Upon this romantic sweep of coast, amidst a tropical jungle thick with wild orchids, mangoes, tamarindos and pelicans soaring overhead, a new ocean sanctuary is set to rise. --Brochure for Punta Sayulita, a development in Mexico on the Nayarit Coast

The speed with which our taxi driver raced into the complex to drive us to the airport was contradictory to all our other experiences in Sayulita, Mexico. Certainly it was contrary to our experience with the same driver only seven days earlier, who picked us up in a Chevy Suburban with a cooler of Tecate which we swilled with impish delight on the winding highway through the jungle to Sayulita. We drank with some part "fuck you" to the rules and regulations of the United States, and some part ablutions to the lords of vacation.

But upon vacation's end, the driver Antonio was in a frenzy. He threw our bags in the back while being verbally assaulted by the source of his excitement, an overgrown walrus of an American telling Antonio there wasn't room for our family, that he needed the taxi for himself. Antonio was trying to explain to him through obvious strain and his thick Spanish accent that my family had arranged for the taxi days before; the walrus was an interloper injecting himself into a car that wasn't available. The walrus neither heard nor cared, and harrumphed into the seat in front of the other object of Antonio's distress, the walrus's girlfriend.

Having come late to the party, we were confused. We had arranged with Antonio for a round trip to and from the airport; sharing the taxi was not a part of negotiations so we were similarly miffed. Plus I had no idea we were to share a taxi with Princess Grace's lesser sibling. Through her Midwestern twang she barked at Antonio, "There's not enough room for them, we need this taxi FOR US." Antonio got in the Suburban and started to drive. He called someone on his cell while navigating the potholes and crevasses that opened up in Sayulita's completely unimproved streets, speaking frantically while avoiding skinny dogs and surfers clogging up the road. "He wants to talk to you," Antonio said to Princess Walrus, handing her his cell phone.

She berated the voice on the other end. "We need to be at the airport AT FIVE; I want YOU to PICK ME UP. We're in a van with other people; there's no room for other people. You meet me and drive me YOURSELF. We're going to our hotel NOW. Twenty-five minutes, I want you THERE." She handed the phone back to Antonio who was quietly seething in the driver's seat. "Just take us to our fucking hotel," Princess Walrus complained. Over staggering potholes of dirt road we jumbled together, our six-year-old the only one laughing at the absurdity of the thing, the van's shocks failing us over every bump, making it better than any amusement park ride.

I turned to my husband. "This is like the West Bank," I explained. I've always tried to describe it to him--the Middle East Relations major who never got the chance to visit the Middle East--and this was it: bad roads, insane Americans bitching at people, taxis bottoming out every five feet, dust covering everything. Sometimes the Third World seems universal: one dusty road populated by a bitchy American woman assaulting a local is as good as another. Princess and Master Walrus tumbled out of the van at their swank hotel on the spectacular Nayarit shore, apparently more inclined to miss their plane than to share a taxi they were never welcome to in the first place. The last I saw of the Walrus Tribe was Princess Walrus yelling at anyone who would listen how unfairly she had been treated.

Antonio was puce with fury as he drove back down the impassable narrow dirt path to the main highway. "Pendejo" featured prominently in the tumble of Spanish that fell from his spluttering lips as we pulled away. He spat out words to explain what had happened, between gesticulations at the truck that almost backed into us, which we pieced together however we could: The Walruses had jumped in his taxi when he dropped another fare, and he, both because they were too stupid to listen and too belligerent to care, couldn't eject them. They wanted his taxi, and damn it, they were going to take it. That there were other arrangements did not enter the equation, even when he picked us up, the totally mystified family who had scheduled ahead of time.

"They had another taxi, but they didn't wait for it--they just took this one. No pay, no nada! And she's yelling at me! I drive them to their hotel, I call the other company for them..." He dissolved into a tirade of Spanglish so thick we couldn't parse any more, other than that his hatred for the Walruses knew no bounds. I was completely sympathetic. She was the stereotype of horrific American tourist: nasal, bitchy, entitled. We hated her even before she humiliated Antonio, with her insouciant freshly-fucked hair-style, expensive yoga pants and high heeled flip flops. It was all façade; the small blunderbuss rammed up her ass was evidence of no true human contact in more than a decade. Though I despised him, I also pitied Mr. Walrus; it was an unbearable trip to go across an idyllic village in Mexico with this piece of work; a trip across the country in a plane with her would qualify as torture under Geneva.

•  •  •