Sunday, 19 February 2012

Lost Amongst Men Without Hats

PUERTO ESCONDIDO TRANSLATES as Hidden Port in Spanish. And to be perfectly honest, if it had remained hidden then I wouldn't have missed out on much. It's a sizeable seaside town populated by drunken Australian surfers barely-tolerated by moody locals. But the rowdy behaviour of the former probably accounts for the attitude of the latter. I'd been forewarned by several people about this, so I wasn't completely taken aback on arrival. The Aussies, like the Israelis, generally travel in packs and congregate in the same locations. This isn't all bad, as you know which places to avoid; they don't stray far from their hostels, unless it's too buy more booze. In no way am I knocking all Australians here. I've met some pretty cool ones on this trip, but none of them were travelling with fifteen mates in tow.

The town itself surrounds a gaudy high street which runs parallel to the main beach; the usual bright lights, noisy neon-lit bars and crappy souvenir shops. It is within the convenience stores on the main drag that you'll receive the rudest service in México. I shopped in one regularly the first two days in town, and was unfailingly polite. The young lad working there was chatty, but his mother was a different kettle of fish; a sour face like a bulldog licking piss from a thistle. She'd flatly ignore me and my daily greetings, which was bad enough, but the last straw came when she put my change on the counter, ignoring my outstretched hand. Now I'd observed the inebriated antipodeans staggering around in her store at all hours of the day, but felt offended to be tarred with that particular brush. I left the premises under a dark cloud, vowing not to give her my custom any longer; I'd shop elsewhere. But then I decided to go back in the next day and, when she asked me for twenty pesos without taking her eyes off the TV behind me, I just slapped the coins loudly on the wooden counter, inches from her palm. Manners cost nothing, and treat other people as you expect to be treated in return?

So it seems that tourists are barely tolerated here, some locals appearing to resent the fact that they rely on us for their livelihood. Sean and Susy, the surfers I'd spent some time with in El Salvador, had warned me about the aggressive atmosphere in the bars and clubs of Escondido. And they weren't wrong. You'd be quite foolish to try chatting up a pretty Méxicana in this town: you'd probably get your head kicked in. I've not met locals so hostile since the exchanges of pleasantries San Juan Del Sur in Nicaragua. In the low season things seem to simmer on a reduced heat, but I wouldn't like to be here for the high season or the dreaded Spring Break when American youth descends on the bay. Puerto Sangre, I'd imagine?

But head ten minutes north out of town, via the coastline walkway which hugs the cliffs, and you come to the beautiful bay of Playa Carazalillo. This shallow strip of beach is barely a hundred metres long and ten metres deep, and is an oasis of calm. No unwelcome hassle from hawkers here: the ones who ply their wares are friendly, and remember if you've said No when they return in the other direction. Besides, the food they're selling usually means that you say Yes. When I wasn't buying from the beach vendors I ate regularly at a tiny, ramshackle café at the bottom of the 176 steps from the street above. The fish tacos here were delicious, crispy, stuffed with chunks of fresh avocado; I sometimes ate them twice a day, they were so good. Floating on your back in the cool sea, facing the cliffs and contemplating that first afternoon beer, is a simple pleasure not to be underestimated. It was easy to while away a few days here. The sunset looks best from the steps, and after it had disappeared I'd have a quick passing chat with the artisano selling bracelets and the like at the top. His name was Fabio. He was 40-plus, and Méxicano...not the usual crusty Israeli or Argentino you see in that line of business. He'd given me his sales patter the first time I'd passed. "Yeah, I've been here a few yearss...I have an American girlfriend, she looks after's not an easy life...some days I have a few pennies in my pocket, some days I don' know...I just gotta keep going, thanks to you're from England? God Bless England, man...yeah..." The wistful look out to sea which accompanied this pitch, and his sun-weathered, gap-toothed smile, may have worked on young surfer babes, but I saw through it. And he knew that, and grinned wider still. A nice guy, Fabio...but I'm not buying a bracelet.

They say that the world is a small place. It is. I met a lad from Adelaide who was bemoaning the fact that the town, especially our hostel, was crawling with Australians. I told him I imagined it would be like myself arriving on the Costa Del Sol in Spain. Horrific. We had a quick chat, as my sister has lived in his hometown a number of years. He was from the same neighbourhood, and mentioned that he was a teacher. I jokingly said that I bet he'd tell me next that he taught at my nephew and niece's school? It turned out that he had, and knows them both well. Funny.

The Aussie asked me about the diving in Escondido, and I told him to give it a wide berth. I'd spent a morning out in a fish-stinking boat a few days before, diving two of the worst dive sites it has been my misfortune to visit. I won't waste breath, ink or web space on the first. The second had been a pile of rocks around the corner from the main beach, with very limited visibility and nothing of note to see. I was actually pleased when the dive guide started getting cold, as it was an excuse to end the dive. The owner had told me that a couple of days previously she'd seen mantas and a whale. Where? On a TV documentary? Talk about being led up the garden path; the guide said he'd seen one whale, in the distance, in a year of diving here. Now you can't guarantee anything in diving. When people ask if they'll see sharks or the like I'll always say that it's like planning a trip to LA and wondering if you'll see Brad and Angelina? might. But, on the other hand, you might not. But I don't like being bullshitted. And word of mouth can work both ways as far as recommendations go. So Puerto Dive Center won't be getting any more of my hard-earned. And I won't be sending any travellers their way, as I do with the Argentino guide, Nico, who showed me the cenotes in Tulum with five amazing dives.

Considering that I'd imagined getting work here, I had to laugh after these two dives. I could hardly bring myself to log them, they were that bad. It's a measure of their bleak dreadfulness that my first thoughts as we headed for the bottom was that I would have to wash and dry my equipment for this shit? Not the indicator of an enjoyable dive. Back at the shop, after the owner enquired after how my day had been, I'd told her that the visibilty was terrible, the guide suffered from the cold, we cut the second dive short and that'd we'd seen nothing much in the way of wildlife. Her response? A beaming "Perfect!" Not really, dear. But never have my money.

So after the gear had dried (mercifully quickly), I was packing up again. I was heading for a quieter spot that had long been marked on my Mexican map: the beachside town of Mazunte.

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