It’s not that we didn’t notice the people on the bus wearing masks, it’s just that it didn’t seem that strange to us. We’d both lived in places where wearing a dust mask in the city is the only defense against the legions of two stroke motorbikes that belch out exhaust so thick it leaves a film on the buildings and a sooty puddle in you Kleenex at night. We weren’t on the Baja anymore, that remote paradise of clean air and friendly faces, that world within a world where locals go to vacation. We were on the mainland now, in the big city of Puerto Vallarta (or PV as it is affectionately known). No one stopped to notice us, no one cared about just another couple of tourist. If you’re crazy enough to wear a dust mask and even gloves on public transport than it is no surprise that you cast a suspicious glare in your neighbours direction.
We’d been blissfully out of touch for only ten days, but ten days in today’s world can feel like a life time for some people. For us it was the norm, no internet or HF radio on board. We carry a satellite phone for emergency use and the occasional call home to give a position update or check on family, but no daily connection with the world outside our physical experience. So when we couldn’t find a WIFI signal to steal the very moment we arrived in Puerto Vallarta it was no big deal. The world hadn’t crumbled into chaos while we were out enjoying ourselves, it would survive another 24hours without us logging on. Besides, we had engine problems and in our world that always takes top priority.
When I did find an internet cafe to send out a “we are here” message and check email there were several messages from my brother Thomas, our communications officer when we are at sea. He receives our position reports and updates the website so people can keep track of us, he usually doesn’t have much to say. He never sends me five messages in two days. It was a little worrisome. I opened them one by one to find a variation on the same frantic plea,
“Swine Flu Epidemic in Mexico, get out as soon as possible!!”
The succinct drama of the emails made me giggle. Even if we wanted to leave we had a day or two of engine repairs to complete and the channel coming into the marina was too narrow and too busy and too sheltered to try and sail out it. And where would go? We were in the middle of the Mexican coastline; to leave would be to put to sea for Costa Rica, 1000NM away and across the Gulf of Tehuantepec, a turbulent and stormy bay known for quick weather changes and violent storms. One doesn’t just put a few dishes away, throw the bow lines and motor off into the sunset for that kind of passage.
We’d have to provision and we’d have to check out of the country. With the bureaucracy in Mexico, the multiply copies of documents needed to be taken to several offices all located in separate buildings so each officer can take his copy and add his stamp of approval to your growing pile of carbon copies, literally made with old school carbon paper, that’s a whole other day wasted. No, we couldn’t just drive to the airport and exit the danger zone. Sailing is never that simple.
I checked a few headlines.
There were no reported cases of Swine Flu in PV or the surrounding areas. There were no reported cases on the west coast at all. Flights were not being cancelled, there was no State of Emergency called. And, as I looked around, besides the occasional dust mask and the worry rimmed eyes of a pregnant woman or an elderly man, everyday life did not seem affected. I sent Thomas an email telling him everything was fine. We would be staying in PV for a week to ten days unless the situation changed. I promised to keep an eye on things and stay away from eating pork products. I shook my head at the ridiculousness of the situation, packed up and went back to the boat.
“How’s my little Grease Monkey? Any luck?” I call from the cockpit as I stepped on board.
“Yep, I think we’ll be alright, the heat exchanger is clogged and we need some new hot water hose. Other that, we’re good. Get any emails?” asks Steve as I stick my head down below.
“Only a couple from Thom. You know those masks on the bus yesterday, turns out pollution isn’t the problem, Swine Flu is.”
“Yep, like Avian Flu but in pigs, apparently. There have been cases reported in some little village up north, nothing around here. I told him we’d keep an eye on it. What are we gonna do? It is not as if we can leave.” I nod towards the partially dissembled engine.
“Nope, not right now.” He says wiping his hands on a dirty rag and smearing oil across his forehead mopping his brow.
“Stay away from the pork tacos!” we chime in unison and then laugh together.
“Yep, that’s what I told him.”
For the next couple days we play it safe, finish the engine work and don’t stray too far from the marina. The headlines were getting more sensational but the evidence for it becoming a really serious situation seemed marginal. We started to feel imprisoned.
“Come on, we’re going to town, enough of this hiding in the marina. Let’s get out and have some fun.” announced Steve on Saturday afternoon.
We went to the malecon.
The beach front, and walked along the sandy strip of town that is inhabited by hawkers and tourist and expensive restaurants that sell anything but local food. We walked all day, watching the crowds, trying to find our space, the little niche between tourist and local that we inhabit. That spot that is neither here nor there, neither home or visiting. That grey area that is for travellers.
We find it on a patch of sand at the end of the beach, past the bright pink sunbathers and the high heeled shoppers. The locals, the people of the city who are out also out to enjoy the Saturday afternoon at the beach, are perhaps at first a little weary of us. A little unsure if we are in the right spot. But after we flag down a few vendors and toss out a few lines in Spanish they know we are not here to disturb their afternoons as overbearing and loud outsiders. They see that we too are just looking for a soft spot to rest our weary bones and watch the world go by. Eventually the hawkers of trinkets stop asking us to buy their made in china Mexican nixnacs, and the locals give us a knowing nod and smile at our makeshift cooler of beer, and share in our afternoon at the beach.
We sit and we eat.
Anything and everything that walks by. Instead of cowering in fear of this mystery virus that everyone seems convinced is going to kill us, we rebel against it. Shrimp cooked over a coal fire on a stick served with sticky spicy sauce, I’ll have some. Bags of repackaged popcorn and potato chips drizzled in hot sauce and a squeeze of fresh lime juice, yes please. Chicken thighs smothered in a rich dark silky mole sauce and served with rice, sounds delicious. Mangos and pineapple elegantly carved and dusted with chili sugar, a perfect desert. We wash it all down with bottles of cold cervezca that we take turns buying from the corner shop, bringing them back to the beach in twos and fours in small plastic bags filled with ice.
Next to us is a group of local men who are working the edge of the surf line with fishing rods and casting nets. As the afternoon wears on we watch them as they draw beautiful curling shapes in the air with the tips of their rods. One, two, three flicks and up comes a fish which a young boy takes off the hook and places in a bucket. One man wades out into the crashing waves, a net gathered and draped over his arms, ready. Then, as school of bait fish is corralled by the surf he tosses it, almost effortlessly, so that it opens into a great round web as it hits the water. Then quickly, tugging at the line that will gather the edges as they sink he traps the fish and slowly hulls it back onto shore.
The first couple times he casts his net there are only a few small boys to help him fill his buckets by picking the dozens of silvery little fish out of the holes and pockets of the net. But soon a crowd gathers, men in cowboy boots and jeans, heels digging into the sand, belt buckles shining and hat brims bumping as they haggle over the heaps of little fish.
The birds have noticed too.
The frigates start circling; their dark, sharp shapes swoop at the beach, hoping for scraps or escapees. One boy dances along the water’s edge, hands stuffed with fish as the birds reel about him. He holds up his fists, fish tails and heads poking out from between his clenched fingers, teasing the birds closer. He marches, knees high like he’s in a parade, wads of fish waving, taunting the frigates. Finally he bends and with all his might leaps up and tosses the bait towards the sky. The birds, in perfect timing, catch his offerings in mid-air, wings tucked, beaks sharp and waiting. Time and again the boy gathers handfuls of fish from the nets and heads back to the edge of the sand to toss them to his waiting companions, his knees and elbows mimicking the severe outlines of the frigates in the sky above him. They do this jagged, angular waltz until it is almost too dark to see, until the fisherman pack up and there are no more fish to throw at the sky.
On the way home, impossibly still hungry after a full afternoon of eating and drinking, we pass a busy taco truck tucked underneath a street light and surrounded by jovial locals. The sign on the truck advertises tacos al pastor, which means cooked on a spit “like a Sheppard”. The meat in tacos al pastor is always pork.
We have no choice; the hot and pungent smells lasso our taste buds and pull us in.
The air is filled with the sweet aroma of toasting corn as the lady behind the counter makes tortilla after tortilla. She weighs and measures the dough as she rolls it around in her palms, pinching off bits until in a few quick movements she has a perfect piece of masa. Then one swift hard crunch in the tortilla press to flatten her dough ball. Next she peals it off the press and tosses it gently onto the comal, a traditional shallow pan, that is waiting over the flame of a portable propane burner. While rolling and pressing she flips each tortillas three times, moving it around the heat of the pan, until it is transformed from a pale piece of dough into a golden puff dotted with deep brown burnt spots.
I stand mesmerised, as I do every time I see a woman making tortillas on the roadside; the rhythm, the motion, the squeak of the press, the ease at which time after time she presses perfectly round and uniform discs. I am in awe of how she knows by just the smell and the feel of the pan just when to turn the tortilla, all the while holding a conversation with the women nearby, taking orders and shouting directions back to the grill.
Steve finally grabs my shirt sleeve and pulls me into the queue. We order a couple of tacos each and dress each one in a different colour salsas and toppings. We join the line-up seated on a rickety wooden bench in the shadow of the florescent lights, jostling and balancing our tacos trying to get a bite without dropping something on our laps. We devour one after another, grunt and uttering sounds of pleasure laced with pain. The soft floury tortillas give way to shards of moist, flavour packed pork and hits of piquant salsa. We wash it all down with icy glasses of horchata, its thick rice flavour dulling our searing tongues, and nod our satisfaction along with the crowd.
When we roll out of the taco stand into the darkness of the streets we both wear a stunned look of satisfaction. Steve catches my hand, “Well I guess we survived another one, we can tick Swine Flu off the list.”
“Yeah, wait until I tell them at home.” I teasingly pat his belly. “We’re both gonna slip into a food coma as soon as we hit the pillow.”
“Yeah, maybe we should leave Mexico. If we stay here too much longer neither of us will fit through the companionway!”
“At least we’ll be fat and happy. I had a great day. Thanks for taking me to the beach during Swine Flu.”
“My pleasure.” When he lends to a give me a kiss I can taste the remnants of tacos on his tongue and I am suddenly hungry for more.