Friday, January 14, 2011

Los Ayala, Mexico

Looking up, I am reminded of the Galapagos, so many years ago, where these elegant black birds with their long thin wings and forked tails soared effortlessly overhead. It was mating season then, and some of the males were temporarily unable to fly, but perched in tree-tops, their bright red throat bladders filled like balloons, apparently a sure enticement to the females, despite the impediment to movement they caused.

Here their bladders are empty. And here they are called not 'frigates,' as I knew them then, but 'tarjetes,' or 'scissor-like,' referring of course to their long thin and forked tails which open and close in flight. Great colonies of them soar overhead. When the fishermen are in, cleaning their catch and tossing heads, tails and guts onto the beach, the tarjetes swoop down, make a quick grab and soar up again. They're unafraid of the humans who stand, just feet away, watching the spectacle. Some like me in admiration. Others, more familiar with their aerial acrobatics and piratical natures, with indulgent indifference.

Their much heavier and more ungainly beach-mates, the pelicans, careen rather than soar, crashing into the water with great splooshes.  Some of them prefer to float sedately in shallow bays.  The tarjetes, strung out on hydro wires like over-sized crows, look on with, one imagines, disdain.  One can almost hear their commentaries: "Hey did ya see that landing!  What a clutz!"  "Ya, I did better when I was just a chick."

We are in Mexico, in a quintessentially small dusty town on the coast just north of Puerto Vallarta. Los Ayala is a mostly Mexican holiday destination, although at this time of year there are a substantial number of retired Canadians, and some Americans. 'Snow-birds,' whiling away the winter months in a place where not only does the sun shine reliably almost every day, but the temperature never drops below comfort for t-shirts and shorts. Where flip-flops flap.

I wondered about the name, 'Los Ayala.' Even with my limited knowledge of Spanish I knew that 'los' was a masculine plural preposition, while 'ayala' appeared to be feminine, and singular. I asked our host, a genial guy reminiscent of Caesar Milan, the dog whisperer, although perhaps it's just the accent. The story goes that in days gone by, when Los Ayala was nothing but a collection of a few rude huts and one dirt road, there were a couple of brothers, last name of Ayala. They lived in a cave near town. They were banditos, who made their living robbing travelers on the road that runs from Puerto Vallarta and Tepic. They had horses, and were able to make quick getaways – at least quick enough to avoid being captured by the federales. More importantly, they endeared themselves to the townsfolk by sharing their bounty – Mexican Robin Hoods. So when the federales came looking for 'a couple of banditos,' the townsfolk smiled broadly and said 'no, no one here by that description!' And they're not here now, of course, but their name lives on: Los Ayala, the Ayala brothers – long may they ride.

The town was busy when we first arrived, still full of Mexican families celebrating Christmas and New Years. The beach, a half-mile stretch of not-quite-golden sand, was lined with carts covered with canopies or beach umbrellas. Vendors selling ceviche, tamales, slices of fruit, plastic beach toys, cerveza, peanuts, candy. Gals and guys walking with trays of muffins on their heads, or laden with brightly coloured sarongs and sun-dresses, woven grass mats tucked under their arms. Everyone had something to sell. Now it's almost deserted, save for the few Norte Americanos who sit reading their books, watching the surf, counting the days.

It's a quiet place. Except for the main road, which is paved with cobblestones, the town's road are dirt and rock. But there are sidewalks, and more are being built. And there's a big new plaza with a band-stand. We walk across it on our way to and from the shop where we buy groceries. We almost never see anyone in it. It's new; perhaps they're uncertain just what to do with it. At its margin is a rudely constructed shed, the local church, with wooden bench seats and a picture of Jesus up front. It was packed on Sunday, stragglers standing outside in the sun.

There are more 'hotels' and shops than tourists – more than there ever were tourists. Built with the dream of fortunes that would be made when the tourists came in great waves. Many now forlorn and shuttered up, or worse, with broken windows, unfinished foundations, crumbling brick walls. First there was the H1N1 scare, now it's the drug wars, and of course the 'economia, no es bueno,' they add with a shrug and a smile. We snow-birds at least buffer their imagined losses. Some of us even buy houses, or hire Mexicans to build us big expensive estate homes with pools and security systems. We hire maids and gardeners. We keep the dream alive.

Today there is a circus in the nearby town of Guayabitos. Yesterday, in Penita, a town just a little further away, we watched as caged lions, tigers and jaguars were paraded through the main street. My god these animals are BIG. I felt sorry for them, not just for their small cages, but for the noise – loud-speakers blaring – and the cars and cafuffle around them. For their part, they looked bored. Several slept, perhaps in avoidance. Later that day a small plane flew overhead, loud-speakers mounted under each wing, exhorting one and all to come to the 'espectaculo!'

This form of advertising is common here. Every day trucks of various descriptions roll by, loud-speakers announcing what they're selling: the gas company's “Centra, Centra, ya ya ya” song etched indelibly in my mind. Or they just honk and yell – 'bread,' 'watermelons,' 'mandarinas.' We shop from our balcony, yelling down 'a loaf of whole wheat and two pineapple pies please!' No need to go anywhere.

But we do. We walk to both towns, for exercise and entertainment. To shop for exotics like bacon, cheese and tea. According to my husband, the bacon here is better than in Canada. More flavour, less fat. I like the yogurt – very creamy (no low-fat dairy products here!). And of course the fruits and vegetables are fresh and wonderful. We want for nothing.

Of course, there are drawbacks. The most annoying, and in common with other developing nations, is the burning of garbage, including plastic, at any time of day or night. The fumes are cloying and caustic. Why do they do this? And why, oh why, do they just throw their garbage everywhere? The streets, the beach, the parks are all liberally littered. It's so unfortunate. A few days ago we met a Canadian woman carrying a plastic bag and cleaning up the litter on the beach. “My exercise,” she said. The task is never-ending.

But their gardens are lovely, and the people even lovelier – friendly, helpful, relaxed, and almost always smiling. And hey, we are here, and not back home, where there was just a major dump of snow. Somos muy fortunados!

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