Saturday, 14 January 2012

Home From Home

I ADMIT THAT I felt the twinge of doubt within half an hour of arriving in Colima. We'd waited outside the El Litchi hostel for a full ten minutes before a shuffling old Chileno, a guest, opened the door to let us in through the iron gate. There were no signs outside; no reception area; no information at hand; no staff. Was this really a hostel? I left my bags beside a table and chairs at the far end of the enclosed garden space. The Chileño suggested we come back later when Alex, the owner, was around.

A walk into the town was mooted. Heading out of the olive-green building's entrance, dwarfed by a huge rubber tree, we turned right downhill. Passing few people as we approached the main plaza, I began wondering if I'd made an error in coming here: the place was dead. I was already checking my mental map of México to decide where to head for next. Two nights and I'd be out of here. After all, despite ringing the area on my map, it hadn't been anywhere near the top of my list of places to visit. But it had only been a few hours out of Guadalajara, so it wouldn't be a long trek back.

But the place was pretty enough. There are two central plazas with well-kept gardens, hemmed in by the usual arrangement of pastel cathedral on one side and arched colonial grandeur on the remaining three. The high street is barely four hundred metres long; starting suddenly at the far corner of the main plaza and running by the town's only department store before ending abruptly at the parque central, in front of the post office building. It's a decidedly low-rise town, and a solitary concrete monstrosity blots the skyline. Martín pointed beyond town to where the volcano stood. If we could have seen it through the afternoon haze, that is? These empty streets and invisible geological wonder were certainly making me wonder what I was doing here.

Martín took me to meet his Mum at the family's fruit shop, and after a brief chat we headed back towards the hostel. Traversing the deserted main street, he explained that his town was always like this on a Sunday, as people generally stayed home with their families. This explained a lot. In fact England's towns were once like this on the day of rest, too...before the odd department store and supermarket started a trickle of Sunday commerce which would become a flood of shopping madness. Now a Sunday is no different to a Saturday in my home country. It seems a shame we've lost that peace and (relative) quiet. Before we took the gentle hill to El Litchi we came across an elderly couple in the street, sat on small stools in front of a red-and-white-checked tableclothed stall. On it were two large earthenware jars bound with bandage at their spouts. The leathery old man tipped his white hat and stood as we approached, bidding us Buenas tardes. He poured a drink, red in colour, into a small cup. Martín explained that Tuba is made from the sap of the stem between tree and fruit of the coconut tree. In this case, berries had been added to flavour it. The gentleman asked me if I'd like peanuts? Sure, I smiled, but was open-mouthed when he dumped a handful of said peanuts into the drink. I'm used to having a few peanuts with a cold beer, but I'd usually consume them separately? The Méxicanos grinned at me and nodded their encouragement. It was surprisingly good. I grinned back and assured the old man that he would see me again.

Arriving back at the hostel I met Lucy, a permanent resident, who taught at the local college. She'd been in Colima a while, having left North Carolina behind in search of a different life. I got a quick tour of the place from her, and she explained that the place was in its infancy. Having been used to a certain amount of organisation...receptionists, orientation and maps of places on arrival in most hostels...disorganisation was all new to me. But it wouldn't kill me.

Alex, the Montpellier-born Frenchman who ran the place, turned up. We smiled and shook hands. The product of a French mother and a North African father, he'd grown up on the Mediterranean and was understandably laidback. This likely explains why the hostel is the way it is? Mañana, mañana. He'd travelled México extensively over the years, and had lived in Monterrey for a while. But having met a woman in Colima, he'd decided to move there. They'd since split up, but amicably share custody of their cute and precocious daughter Naima. She's 6, a robust bundle of chubby cheeks and a mass of curly hair; already speaking French as well as her native Spanish, and rapidly picking up words and phrases in English. Niki, a German lad of 22 who was staying there on a work placement, was also teaching her words in his native tongue. But life is too short to learn German, even for a little girl. I took to calling her pajarito. Un pajaro is a bird and, in Spanish, dropping the -o and adding -ito (or -ita if the noun is feminine) makes it little bird or birdy. She kept asking Alex why I would call her this, and he explained that it was a nickname. After a while she took to calling me pajarote; the -ote ending denoting something big. So I was big bird. Naima thought that this would stop me calling her pajarito, and questioned her Dad as to why being called big bird hadn't put me off? "I think he likes it" he told her. I did.

Myself and the Frenchman became easy friends. We share a similar outlook on life, have both travelled extensively and have similar tastes in music. Although Alex hates the 80s, a period in which he says music died. Full of shit on that one, I keep telling him. But it's nice when you can hang out with someone with a passion for good music, even if they did have their fingers in their daft French ears for a decade. And music wasn't all we talked about; he's one of those rare people you can have a rambling discussion with on just about anything. Except cooking, of course...what do the French know about that?

We decided that we'd visit the volcano's best viewpoint two days after I got to Colima. It wasn't visible from the centre of town that morning, and I was a little dubious and asked if we shouldn't wait for a clearer morning? Alex said it should be fine, and we set off with Niki in tow. We stopped for lunch on the way, in a tiny village at the volcano's foot. Being sick to the back-teeth of tortillas by this time, the food was uninspiring to me. I went to play with a wolf-like dog rolling around in the dust while my companions ate. After having its belly stroked, it was eagerly licking my hands and forearms. It was at this point that I noted its lower fur was matted with a bright greenish-yellow gunk, discharged from its penis. Obviously I recoiled in horror, gagging. As our table was on the way to the bathroom, I thought it only polite of me to recount the tale and point out the dog's problem while Alex and Niki tried to enjoy their pea-coloured soup...without gagging. Seeing as the volcano was still invisible when we got to the viewpoint, yellow pus coming out of a dog's cock seemed destined to be the cultural highlight of my afternoon, unfortunately. You can't have it all, can you?

Alex asked us that evening had we ever played Chinese Checkers? We hadn't, so he taught us this relatively simple but fascinating board game. It's very addicitive, and we played it for hours on the first night. And the next. And the following night. The set we were using was only cheap and badly made in China. So I told Alex I'd look for a nice hand-made set in Hong Kong on my next Asia trip, should there be one. We were both horrified when Google revealed that the game was, in fact, an 1800s American invention; refined and the board reshaped by the Germans. Our mental images of ancient Mandarins sat around smoking opium and stroking their beards soon evaporated. Shame.

We were introduced to Alex's girlfriend Teresa one evening. Very beautiful though pale for a Méxicana, she reminded me a little of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Lucky Alex. She has a long pair of legs that could make a grown man cry. But Alex has no need to cry, because he is allowed to touch them. Now, Tere likes a smoke, as does her diminutive and sultry best friend Julieta, who came round to visit with her one night. Julieta is a morena Pocket Rocket if ever I saw one: small but perfectly formed. And a lovely girl, with the cheekiest smile I've ever seen. She rolled nearly as many joints as me, too...which was quite impressive. Very cool chicas, the pair of them. Alex brought out the smoky, amber mezcal (far superioir to tequila) which he sources from a local brewer: the locals getting the best stuff from the rear door of the factory, sold in metal jerrycans. So these early evenings ended in a cloud of sweet smoke and a warm fug of mezcal. And hours of Chinese Japanese, as Teresa inadverently re-christened it one evening, to much good-natured laughter.

I was having a pleasant time with the gang. The two days I'd initially estimated turned into a week. I was in a dorm, but alone, so effectively had a private room. And Alex's rates are very good. The atmosphere in Colima was pleasant; it's the kind of place where the locals don't see too many tourists, so you get the occasional stare (and the occasional "Go back to your own country" Lucy told me), and people leave you be...although they are more than happy to chat if you strike up a conversation. I enjoyed wandering the streets at random, edging deeper into the various barrios with their pavements lined with orange and lemon trees. There was an excellent seafood café nearby, where I regularly ate platefuls of shrimp for less than $5, as the puzzled waitresses continually asked me why I was in Colima. A routine is sometimes nice when on the road, and a regular coffeeshop is alwas good; mine being full of mosquitoes, the happy abuelita running it always gave me one of those electric tennis-racket devices to kill the ones bound to annoy me as I walked in each midmorning. Eight blocks away was a basic open-air gym and basketball court. After a couple of visits here I befriended a few locals who invited me to play football with them. It felt like I really was settling into life in Colima. Méxicanos to hang out and play football with, a Frenchman and a couple of witty and amsuing lady potheads to take it easy with, and an ever-increasing circle of mates to go out partying with at salsa club 1800? You could certainly say that I was enjoying myself. I was gradually meeting Alex's inner circle, too. I judge a man on the quality of his friends, I told him...and his are a fine bunch.

That weekend, Alex was at a loose end. His ex-girlfriend had Naima, and his job teaching French at the University didn't involve weekends; Tere was working. So did we fancy going to a very nice beach in nearby Michoacán State? They were already on my map so yes, I certainly did. Alex, Niki, Lucy and myself packed the truck with a tent, beers, cigarette papers and water. We hit the road. There are so many army and police checkpoints in this country that travelling with grass can be a little risky. I know people that do it, but respect the fact that Alex will not: he has a lot to lose should he be caught. As we sped through the lush green valleys of Colima towards the coast, he told me he knew a fellow we could try in a village a few miles beyond where we'd be staying.

We arrived late afternoon and cruised through the ghost-town that was now Maruata. The fact it was off-season, and that a hurricane had ripped through here barely two months previously, meant that hardly anyone was visible on the streets. It made Colima on a Sunday look hectic. The rough wooden-walled, palm-roofed shacks which had survived the winds were still boarded-up. No surfers in sight. Nothing. A local told us that there were no dealers around at the moment. So we took another road to the man that Alex knew. A shallow river meant that we'd have to leave Niki and Lucy in the car and make our way on foot. As we paddled across, the Frenchman briefed me.

"I don't like this guy...you'll have to deal with him" he told me.
"Oh?" I queried.
"Last time I came he told me to go fuck myself."
"And what did you say?"
"I told him to go fuck himself..."
"And then...?"
"He told me to go fuck my mother..."
"Then?"
"I told him that I'd go fuck his mother on the way to fuck mine, as I knew where she lived."
He was silent a moment.
"So he stormed back into his house, then came out and pointed an automatic rifle at my head. He was high on DMT. It kind of got out of hand" he deadpanned.
"Riiight..."
I couldn't wait to meet this chap, obviously.

Considering I was expecting a demented Méxicano Rambo, the guy was fairly nondescript: quiet, small and in his late 50s. Alex waited away from the house while the man wandered off to his stash. Thankfully he returned with a bag of nice-smelling green marijuana...not a loaded AK47. But then, why would he? Leave the ill manners to the French, I say.

We doubled back and arrived at Palma Sola, our destination, as the sank into the ocean. A small settlement lay before of us, one small house with an open kitchen beneath a palm-frond roof held up by poles of felled trees. The family living here were sprawled about watching TV, some in hammocks, the rest on the floor. Alex had been here previously, and went to make arrangements with them. As things had been slow, the small cabaña the family rented out was offered to us very cheaply, and the family would cook for us. We unpacked and made our way down to the beach barely 30 yards beyond. I've seen some stunning beaches in my time, but this one was ours alone. Crystal clear water pounded the golden beach, and we were quick to change and get in for a swim before the light faded. Ceviche was prepared for us, and we saw the sun off with a few beers. Obviously the Chinese Japanese set had been brought, and joints were rolled as the mezcal flowed. It's the simple pleasures in life.

Alex had mentioned a beautiful girl in the family, whom he'd seen when last here. When the father of the family came and joined us on the beach the next morning, he asked about her. The man indicated a toddler on the floor of the kitchen; he said that the child was his grand-daughter, but that his daughter had left for Manzanillo immediately after the hurricane, unable to cope with the sudden loss of her husband. Alex asked what had happened to him. The old man looked out at the surf and said simply "The sea took him." All eyes glanced seaward, and we fell silent.

As lunchtime approached, we were asked if we'd like lobster for lunch. ¿Y porque no? The old fella wandered off back to his home, and we expected some kitchen activity to begin. But no: he came back with a mask and snorkel perched on his head and carrying a pair of fins. No doubt it was going to be the freshest seafood I'd ever eaten. As it turned out, lobster wasn't really my cup of tea...but at least I'd tried it in its prime condition. The tail I can deal with, but cracking claws and sucking the meat out of joints? The German and myself left such savagery to the French and American contingent.

Sunday disappeared all too quickly, and we packed and made ready to leave. Alex brought the bill over from the family. It was more than reasonable, so much so that we would have felt guilty paying it; we gave them a 50% tip on top, which amounted to around $15. They were delighted with this. Tourism levels are never high in Michoacán as it is, due to the danger from the narcotraffickers; the recent hurricane meant that any extra we could give people was bound to be appreciated. And they were good, honest people. I hope I'll see them again one day.

The afternoon light was disappearing fast as we travelled back, the truck speeding through tunnels of trees connecting above us from both sides of the road; the sun closer to the sea at every rocky point we passed before plunging back into leafy twilight; the sounds of the Doors accompanying us all the way. I hadn't listened to them for a long time, and it was perfect. A couple of hours later we were hitting the limits of Colima. And then we were home. I say the word home because, when you stay at the hostel, it feels like like a hostel than it does staying at a friend's house. Alex was flattered to be told this, and said it is exactly how he wants people to feel. Though I'm sure one day it will be a retirement home for mezcal and pot addicts with Chinese Japanese addiction issues. And I'll likely be a permanent resident. A contented one.

I'd been planning to leave the following day, as I'd been there a week. I'd seen all there was to see as far as the local sights go.
"So" said Alex over a mezcal "you're leaving tomorrow?"
"Supposed to be" I replied.
"Chinese Japanese, then?"
"Chinese Japanese" I said, pulling a packet of skins out of my pocket. "Rack them up, then..."

I didn't leave the next morning, and told the Frenchman that I'd be around a few more days. He seemed pleased. Two days later as I was getting up, he asked me if I could ride a motorbike? I answered affirmatively, but said I was rusty. So he said we were going out for the day. I took his 250cc and he went ahead on his BMW 650cc. We left Colima and headed out down the freeway (terrifying) in the direction of the coast again, but peeled off in the direction of the small village of Madrid. Our route was a loop back to the hostel, and on one country stretch, Alex was quite excited to be able to point out the volcano in the distance. Ironic that we could see it from bloody miles away at this point. The hurricane's edge had caused massive flooding in this part of the state, and we stopped for ceviche in an area which had been changed by the course of the floodwaters...including a road bridge completely washed away. It had been a great day out. We got back to the house tired, dusty but happy. Though I reckon my Old Dear would have had a heart attack if she'd seen the speeds Alex had me doing to try and keep up.

Another week passed; another self-imposed deadline to leave also passed. It became a bit of a running joke. I'd kiss Julieta and Teresa goodbye after a Sunday night, telling them I'd see them next time I was in México; they'd laugh and say they'd see me tomorrow. And they were right several times more, as I just couldn't bring myself to depart. You should never force yourself to leave somewhere just because there are other places to see, and it's foolish to rush around a country on a sightseeing tour...travel is about far more than that. I was very happy in Colima. Considering I did little more than visit a nice beach, wander round town and read my books in the park with a coffee, drink and dance at 1800, visit the depressing Colima Zoo quite by accident (a dark day...I never imagined feeling pity for a crocodile), play a board game I'd never heard of while smoking myself (well...Alex) senseless and attempt to kill myself using a motor vehicle, I had a great time. Another friend of Alex's, a girl named Elia, became a friend of mine after meeting at a party in a rented house (she told me there were no more nightclubs as too many people got shot, so they threw these private parties instead); if I spend any more time in Colima I'll see her regularly as she shares my love of cinema. I know I'd also see a lot more of Armando too. He'd called me into his tiny studio one morning and showed me his work, and we attended a play put on by children wearing masks that he and his friends had created; half of Colima turned out for this in the beautiful old teatro. I was impressed. And each time I attended a Tursday salsa night at 1800 I got to know more great people. I even got on with Niki most of the time, despite us fighting like cat and dog occasionally; me labelling him with the nickname Gestapo due to his constant questioning didn't go down too well. It was a bit like having an annoying younger brother around at times, but he was a good kid. He needs to learn Spanish and roll a joint now and again, though...lazy German. Sitting in the square of the neighbouring town, Villa de Álvarez, soaking up the atmosphere amongst smiling local families and eating a paleta (famous local ice-lollies) I frequently wondered whether I could actually live here? I was beginning to think that I could...very easily. Incidentally, you have to try the paletas. Alex had taken us to the well-known square, and we'd quickly become hooked: it became something of a weekly pilgrimage for us. Though we couldn't bear to watch Niki eating his, it appeared he'd been watching too many porn films...myself and Alex felt physically sick at the sight, and asked him if he was sure he was straight?

We had another day out on the bikes, Tere being keen to show us the region she'd grown up in. It was a long way out, and even more beautiful than the route myself and Alex had taken the previous week, terminating at one of the most beautiful waterfalls I've seen in a long time. It was dark as we arrived back in town, and the pair took me on an unfamiliar ride, past the turnoffs for the hostel and the town centre. We pulled up in a small park, where hordes of children were running around, laughing and screaming. Making our way through them to a lit area, I could see a dark shape among them and a smile began to creep across my face. It was a huge boulder...the famous Piedra de Lisa. Legend has it that anyone who slides down the stone will one day return to Colima. I climbed atop it and slid down it's smooth surface with a few open-mouthed kids in my wake. At the bottom Alex and Tere grinned and hugged me. "Now you have to come back" they told me. I laughed. "Who said I was leaving?"

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