Sunday, 19 February 2012

Dreddlock Holiday

MUD SUCKED HUNGRILY at my feet, squelching between my toes as I tiptoed through the shallow, brackish water towards the sandbank. A muffled roar sounded from over its crest, a dull rumble as the impact of thousands of tonnes of water transferred its kinetic energy through billions of pieces of silica. The early afternoon sun was burning hot across my shoulders as I emerged from the trees; three young boys mended a weighted net, preparing to fish the shallows. A blistered, peeling, pale blue fishing boat sat atop the rise. Mazunte's beauty was revealed all at once; her beach curled away to my left, a half-mile to the far headland. Small islets of rock broke the surface of the ocean around this headland, the water churning white as the waves rolled over and around them; larger islands further distant burned bright white in the sunlight they were so encrusted with the white guano of the sea birds that wheeled and screeched around them. I walked a little further, the grin cracking my face; few places inspire love at first sight quite like Mazunte. To my right the beach narrowed around a small headland; beyond it was the main beach surrounded by small cafés and bars, small houses dotting the cliffs and hills above. I sat in the sand and watched a couple of Méxicano youths skim-boarding, silhouetted in the glare of dappled light dancing on water. With my eyes closed for a moment, I enjoyed the rumble, the boom of sea bullying land, the serpentine hiss as water retreated and was sucked away from between particles of sand.

"Señor...señor..." I opened my eyes. A small boy of five or six was regarding me, all tousled chestnut hair and chocolate eyes. I peered over the lip of the bucket he was carrying: it was filled with small plastic boxes. "¿Que tienes, chiquito?" I asked him. "Tacos de pescado" he smiled shyly. The boy's mother had caught him up by now, she walking more slowly in the heat; crouching beside me, she removed a large basket from atop the sarong wrapped around her head. As she prepared my four tuna tacos for the princely sum of two dollars, we chatted and I complimented her on her guapo young son. She beamed her thanks. The tacos were stuffed with guacamole and chilli, and she bid me a good afternoon as she handed them over, packed the basket and headed away. I waved and told her I'd see her tomorrow. And the day after. I'd no sooner finished my tacos, fingers painted green with guacamole, when my next visitor arrived. The old man laboured down the beach, immaculate in a smart pair of trousers and pressed white shirt, a white Panama hat casting a strong shadow over his sun-beaten face. He pushed a small wooden wheelbarrow before him. It contained a small urn. He nodded a greeting as he got closer. "¿Es helado, señor?" A beatific smile creased his face as he proudly presented me with two small samples of his ice-cream. "Si." This was a man confident of his merchandise. He had every right to be, it was incredible. Learning Spanish has not always been easy, but it's well worth the effort to be able to have a chat with a friendly local. Though he spoke no English, I was able to find out that Alvaro had given up a job that he wasn't happy in, and had been making the ice-cream in his house for fifteen years. He's 70. His working day starts at 4am, and he has fresh helado ready to go by ten o'clock. Laughing, he told me that not even his wife gets up so early. I'd come to try a few flavours over the next few weeks, but the first one I tried was the best. Walnut. Creamy. Delicious. Alvaro proudly informed me that he sells out every day, and I'm not at all surprised.

Alvaro left for another waving customer. My hands sticky with ice-cream, I got to my feet and sauntered down to the water, waiting for the foaming waves to recede. I waded in, the cool water soothing my hot skin. Duck-diving, I swam through the green silence for a few moments before sufacing to float on my back, arms outstretched and facing the sun high above the cliffs. I had little more than a month of the trip left, and I already knew that I was going to spend the majority of that time here.

Mazunte is a tiny Pacific coastal town an hour or so south of Puerto Escondido by local bus. From the highway stop of Punto Angel, it's a further fifteen minutes by collectivo along a palm-fringed, potholed road. I've not visited a more relaxed place in the Americas. There are no police stationed here, and they visit the town infrequently; the locals seem to police themselves. As a result, the place exudes a very relaxed vibe, obvious when you see the people enjoying a joint or a pipe with their lunch. I would pass many a peaceful afternoon enjoying the view across the bay while building myself a spliff to accompany a fresh Americano.

Alex from Colima had recommended a new hostel near the ocean. La Isla was run by two couples: two Argentino lads and their German and Russian girlfriends. Pablo ran the kitchen, his girlfriend Kathy the bar with Alicia while Lissi did the DIY and played with the three dogs which lived in the hostel. There was a fourth dog, a puppy I renamed Hendrix after he ate half a bag of my grass and spent the next eight hours stretched out asleep beneath a hammock. I love dogs, and have met few who haven't returned my affection. I think they recognise a fellow simple being. The foursome running the hostel all left Playa Del Carmen after a few years of working over in Quintana Roo state. Kathy, being a dive instructor like myself, misses the place and the hustle and bustle. But life in Mazunte is more relaxing, and far more Méxican, than being over in Playa. After a holiday in the town, they'd decided to return to build a hostel and start a new life here. They are easy company, and are going to do well, I am certain of that.

There are probably more dreddlocked white people here than anywhere else in México, and you all know my opinion on those Plastic Rasta types. But I'll take these over gangs of pissed-up Aussie surfkids. Besides, the majority keep themselves to themselves; bar one rude individual who would wander into the cafés and approach your table while you were eating. "Bracelet?" she asked me simply one afternoon, her chunk of woven bracelet-clad bamboo shoved in my face, between my open mouth and my food-laden fork. I briefly studied her manky single lock of matted hair, tufts of black, protruding armpit-hair and filthy fingernails before holding up a piece of my lunch and indignantly answering "Falafel?" She huffed and walked away without a word. Pig-ignorant. There was a cake-selling crusty on the beach every morning who I warmed to, though; his infectious grin indicated a happiness at being alive in this place. Besides, he wasn't pushy, and only had one small, manky dreddlock: the rest of his head was shaved.

Alex had mentioned that he had a holiday coming up as I'd left Colima; said he might come down to Mazunte for a few days. So I was pleased when he emailed and said that he was on his way. He arrived dusty and worn-out after 1500km and two days astride his BMW bike. I wasn't surprised he was mentally fatigued, as those roads from Oaxaca, with their speedbumps, patches of gravel, broken tarmac and packs of deranged dogs in the tiny villages lining the route must have been testing. I was pleased and relieved when he finally turned up. And even more pleased and relieved when he revealed that he'd brought Chinese Japanese with him. Unfortunately he couldn't fit Julieta and Teresa on the bike, but we made do. For the next few days life repeated the pattern that I'd happily sunk into while living in Colima. Except that we had the beach on our doorstep.

Mazunte is an important point on the map for anyone interested in yoga and holistics. There's an abundance of health food shops, bakeries and massage centres. So along with the yogis and bean-eaters, there are bound to be a few New Age oddballs knocking around. I certainly came across a few. We took a walk up the hill to Punta Cometa one afternoon. This headland to the north of the town is the best point from which to watch the sun end its shift. A small crowd was ranged across the clifftop watching the crimson ball in its final moments. The peace was interrupted by a fat, bald and shirtless westerner with a wispy, manicured beard, who took to banging a small drum with monotonous regularity. Alex raised his eyebrows at me, and I suggested we could maybe push him off the cliff? The Frenchman was in agreement, especially when Buddha began blowing into a conch shell at the sun's very last moments. If you want to add a bit of atmosphere or drama to such a moment that's fair enough, but listen to it on your iPod and leave everyone else to enjoy a contemplative moment in peace? I'd liked to have shoved the conch where the sun doesn't shine...he'd have been obliged to eat plenty of beans before getting a note of it after that.

The night previously at our hostel a group had celebrated a birthday. A tall, bespectacled American man had serenaded them on acoustic guitar. While the guy was pretty good, he'd been playing louder and louder, turning to everyone else's table in wide-eyed glee and screaming out his songs in a "Hey...look at me...aren't I wacky and crazy?" kind of way. No, mate...but you're really fucking annoying. We'd been having a pleasant chat until he'd turned up. He was like a creepy, manic Jack Johnson. He arrived on the cliff now, and made his way around the groups offering shoulder massages. But not the, it was the men he wanted to get his hands on. This strange man rocking up and offering to rub their boyfriend's bodies appeared to perturb one or two, and distrusting glances were thrown his way as he tried with the next couple. Alex voiced my thoughts. "Let's leave before he gets to us."

On the way back to wooded hill above the town, there is a set of natural steps down to the rocky foot of the headland. In one tiny corner here is a natural jacuzzi, surrounded by cliffs: it's a basin pool worn into the stone through centuries of erosion. The waves surge through a tiny gap between two expanses of rocky wall, overflowing violently into this pool with a burbling roar of white foaming water. I've never seen anything quite like it. It's like being in a huge natural washing machine. If visited at midday, there is a small suntrap in which to dry off and relax. It's a serene spot, and barely visited; I was lucky enough to have it all to myself.

All too soon, the Frenchman's visit came to an end. Once more, I didn't feel too blue at his departure; I have a feeling I'll be seeing him again within the next year. It's funny how you can meet someone while travelling and click with them immediately. I felt like we'd known each other far longer than five weeks; that we'd be friends for life. He's OK, for a pinche Francés. As he revved the bike and departed in a cloud of dust, he told me that Colima would be waiting, and to give him some notice before I came back so that he could have a room ready. I'll be taking him up on that.

With Alex gone, I decided that I'd have a change of scene. Time was running out, and I wanted to see a few more beautiful Oaxacan beaches before my departure to wintry London. And just down the road from Mazunte was a legendary spot that I just had to hit. I packed my bags and made ready for a morning departure.

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