THE ROAD CUT through dense swathes of palm trees and vegetation, shadows and silhouettes swaying in the darkness. The bus shuddered over the potholed tarmac towards the coast and our destination of Puerto Vallarta. Dawn saw me in a taxi, flying along the highway bisecting the city. The overnight journey had taken its toll, and I rubbed my sore eyes wearily and cast doubtful glances at the rows of high-rise hotels drifting past my open window; the fresh salty air pleasantly stinging my nostrils as the the populace awoke for another day beneath a blistering sun.
I'd headed up here from DF after hearing about a upcoming postion for an instructor at one of the shops. Having had quite enough of towns and cities for now, I was aching for boats, beaches and sharks. It had been almost two full months since my last immersion on Utila in Honduras, and for a dive addict, that is a hell of a long time. My taxi driver was a chatty fellow, and we talked about the town. He told me that he had a nice room to rent long-term if my hostel wasn't comfortable enough? He gave me his number. I dumped my bags at the door to the hostel, grabbed a milkshake from a lady in the street and waited for them to open up. It was still very early.
I paid for three nights up front, thinking that this would give me plenty of time to speak to the dive shop, find my feet and decide where I was going to live. Stomach growling, I headed downhill into the pueblo around the river's mouth, the sea visible ahead of me. The place had a nice atmosphere, the cobbled road leading alongside the river and through narrow streets towards a small plaza. Many food stalls and local stores had cheery owners sat outside shooting the breeze with passers-by; I stopped and ordered shrimp ceviche on tostadas from one of them, and a fresh orange-and-carrot juice from the elderly lady next door. I like to share my money around a little. And the little old lady was very funny, squeezing oranges with an old mechanical juicer...pointing out her toned biceps while she worked, after I'd pointed out that she didn't need a gym with that kind of work to do.
Belly appeased, I set off walking again. I liked the atmosphere of the place, and saw a couple of potential homes with Se Renta painted on them. Towards the beachfront things got a little too glitzy for my liking, but then Vallarta is a large resort. Hopefully I'd be able to avoid most of this in my day-to-day routine. Then I reached the bridges across the river. They may as well have been the gates of Hell.
The cute old town ended immediately at the bridge. On the other side the shiny developments, bars and restaurants started. Starbucks. Two of the horrific Señor Frogs chain of bars...the true Méxican experience, no? This was like being back in Cancún. My heart sank to my flip-flops as a beaming local hailed me from a shop doorway "Hey, buddy...how are you liking your vacation?" As of thirty minutes ago, I'm hating it, thanks for asking. I continued on, gazing at the upmarket shops and restaurants as I walked down the Malecón, the pedestrianised seafront. It depressed me. Ancient tourists in sandals and white socks, slathered in sunblock, ambled along the front and hung out in front of the bars with their frozen cocktails. Three days. Three bloody days here? Did I learn nothing from the Taxco experience? Apparently not. I sat chiding myself for being so stupid, especially as I recalled the prominent No Refunds At All sign behind the desk at the hostal. Jesus. So the internal debate was: do I just bin two nights accommodation in favour of not wasting 2-3 days of my remaining time? Tough call.
I got halfway down the Marina and stopped dead in my tracks; turned around and walked back to the main road and hailed a bus back to the hostal. I'd email the shop from there and tell them Thanks, But No Thanks. Why waste time walking over there when I'd clearly made up my mind? Even if the diving was outstanding, which the Méxican Pacific isn't, there was no way on earth that I could live in this tourist hellhole. I'd sooner live in Mogadishu. Honestly.
I awoke from a nap to find a short, shaven-headed Canadian fella a little older than myself rolling a joint, cross-legged on the dormitory floor. His name was Karl. He told me he'd just arrived, but had lived here previously. "Man, it's changed around here. When I was here fifteen years ago, this road was never even here...just trees. I just bought some tacos for 60 pesos. They were 20 when I was here before. Maaaan...I lived on the edge of the jungle up there..." he indicated a forested ridge above us "...just me and my girl. Hardly any Westerners here...I just spoke Spanish all the time, man. Learned it in two months. Everything's different now." He passed the joint. He filled me in on the area and his experiences...all good and interesting so far.
We chatted some more about his plans to get further North up the coast, to find some less-populated areas and beaches. Sayulita was on his list, as well as mine. "Man, Sayuita's probably changed, too. I was there fifteen years ago..." After a couple of hours Karl went from someone who could have made the three days bearable to a painful stuck record. Stuck fifteen years in the past. I'd quickly realised Karl's angle before he spelled it out "Man...you should have been here fifteen years ago...everything was better. You've missed it...you're too late." Karl is a I Was Here First And Everything Is Rubbish Now merchant. These types become tedious pretty quickly.
"Thanks, Karl...I'm sure there are still some places worth visiting... México hasn't died just because one place gets the taste for tourists?"
"No...sure. I'm just telling you like it was, man. Fifteen years ago..."
You get the picture.
He accompanied me out to get an afternoon coffee. I had to keep stopping to let him catch up. I'd estimate his pace at a mere 2km/hr.
"Karl...can't you walk any faster?"
"Maaan..." he grinned, stoned out of his mind behind his sunglasses.
"Man nothing...get a bloody move on...coffee'll be out of fashion by the time you get there."
"Maaan...you need to get your Méxican groove on...slow down, man. I got my Méxican groove down..."
I wanted my coffee. Not my Méxican groove.
"I'm not even walking that fast, Karl?"
My London pace gets left at Heathrow airport. Well...mostly.
"Just speed up a little, Karl...look..." I indicated the abuelita passing him "even little old ladies are overtaking you."
He was nonplussed, a big, beatific grin on his face.
"What's the rush, maaan? We're just walking..?"
"Yes, but walking is a method of getting somewhere in order to do something else...like sit and drink coffee?"
But bloody nothing.
"Tell you what, mate...meet you there?"
I needed a coffee some time that afternoon...not the weekend after next.
I visited the beach at Boca the next day, a half-hour bus ride South. It was a better vibe here, the tourists being Méxicanos rather than Western. Sat on the beach all day and read my book, then had a walk upriver and chatted to a few locals. A nice day out. It broke up my time in Vallarta nicely, too. I'd spent all my time in the old part of town anyway, refusing to cross the dreaded bridge ever again. The dive shop didn't reply to my apologetic email about the vacancy. No great loss...I'll never be back.
I'd packed the night previously, and headed out for my final shrimp ceviche tostadas and orange juice. It was midmorning, and the burly ceviche vendor was already on the ale. We'd chatted a lot the last few days, and he offered me some beer and grass, if only I'd hang out at the stall with him and his friends. As enticing an offer as that was, his compadres were a great bunch, I had to escape this town. Getting back to the hostal to grab my bags, I bumped into Karl on the stairs. He asked me how I'd found Boca? I told him very relaxing and peaceful. "Maaan, I bet it's all changed since I was last there. I remember fifteen years back there wasn't even a road down that way. I could sure tell you some stories..."