It is a warm Sunday morning in Acapulco. Downtown, across the bay from the anchorage, a beautiful beach lined with high rises and fancy hotels is tempting me. It looks like paradise from here, a strip of gleaming white sand and perfect blue ocean under a clear sky. But I know, close up, it is dotted with scantily clad, bright pink tourists being hounded and harassed by an endless parade of ladies selling sarongs, shell jewellery and hammocks, most of which still proudly bear a Made in China sticker.
I know this because we stopped there yesterday for a quick look and before we even found a spot to sit the hawkers found us. Most of them were polite enough but there was one persistent lady, hanging around, wearing us down until I purchased something. I thought buying a small trinket would get me off the hook but no sooner had the transaction finished did the other ladies descend, like vultures to a carcass, hoping to pick the rest of the dineros from my pockets.
I turn back into the cockpit where Steve has his nose in a book.
“‘You can bank on the beaches being Speedo-to-Speedo, with rental chairs, umbrellas, vendors, sun-soakers, jet-skies and parasailers dominating the view. But that’s Acapulco.’” He reads aloud from the Lonely Planet.
“That’s not Acapulco, that’s tourist Acapulco, there has to be somewhere else to go. I am not spending my Sunday in Zona Dorado, the Golden Zone.” I make finger quotes in the air “Been there, done that and I have the crappy little knick-knack to prove it.”
“Southwest of here there are the local beaches that are ‘…well worth a visit for their old-time feel. During Sunday afternoons they’re a spectacle of family fun, the shallow water chaotic with splashing children…and paddling vendors selling trinkets’. Now, that”, he snaps the book closed with a smile, “sounds like our kinda place.”
I can’t help wonder if the beach will be the same, colourful and local and laid back, the guidebook is ten years out of date. But always up for an adventure we decided to head out anyway. I pack a small bag with my camera, a sarong and a notebook, put my bathing suit on under my clothes and we head out to the highway to flag down a local bus heading out of the city.
The bus is an old school bus, like the yellow ones we road as children. Tarted up with custom paint jobs, flashing lights, various garlands and stuffed animals dangling from the ceiling and cover the dash boards. The rows of seats are still in the original positions, providing lots of room for the short legs of kids but forcing us to sit with our knees jammed against the rock hard and sticky vinyl. The driver rounds corners at break neck speeds sending the riders swaying to and fro in unison. The grab bars and hand holds are a patchwork of paint, worn smooth by the touch of a decade of passengers. The music blasts so loud that it is impossible to hold a conversation without shouting. But, no one seems to mind and we have gotten used to it.
The bus stops frequently.
Where ever someone stands in the shade on the side of the road and signals with an almost imperceptible wave. It fills up quickly; mothers corralling preschoolers while carrying babies on their hips, men wearing jeans and cowboy boots and giant belt buckles maneuvering already inflated beach toys down the aisles and grandmothers for whom young men always give up their seats.
We have no map and don’t know where exactly we are going so when the bus all but empties at the end of dirt road we get off too. All traces of doubt about being in the right place are erased when I step out of the bus. The air is filled with music and excitement and carries on it the laughter of children and the aroma of fresh tortillas and hot oil. We can hear the pound of surf in the background and see the glimmer of blue through the trees but there is so much going on around us that I am in no rush to leave the street.
“It looks like it’s gonna be a hot one, better get ourselves a cool refreshing beverage or two.” Steve says with a smile. “Let’s check out the tienda over there.”
We cross the street and head towards a nearby corner store.
Out front are two large tubs overflowing with ice, speckled with coloured bottle caps that are arranged in careful rows. After a quick inspection I tell my order to the attendant, “Siese Mondelo, por favour,” and watch as he quickly digs out a half a dozen bottles, stands them up in plastic bag, adds a few scoops of ice and a handful of fresh cut limes. We have matching grins as he hands me my instant esky of beer and motions that I should pay the cashier.
“These guys know how to do it!” says Steve, “I’m gonna check the other tienda, I don’t see my flavour here, meet you by the beach in a couple minutes,” he gives me a quick peck on the cheek and wanders off.
Inside, when I join the line of male customers carrying identical packages, several stern faces turn in my direction. I am dressed modestly but stand a head taller than most of the natives and still pale with a tan so I am use to attracting the odd look or two. Then I realize I am the only woman in the dark little store. I nervously I lift my bag of beer into sight and smile. Instantly I am met with bright eyes and nods of agreement; it is a good day for a cold beer on the beach.
At the shore the blue umbrellas and white lawn chairs are laid out in rows; three deep and packed so tightly their plastic arms rub together. It is well before noon but few of the chairs are empty. With our arms full we quickly find ducking and weaving through the sea of umbrellas impossible so we take off our shoes and carefully wade through the children splashing and laughing at the water’s edge. Holding our bags aloft so they don’t get wet we make our way down the length of the beach before spotting two empty chairs and an umbrella. Our presence garners more than a few stares as we are the only gringos on the beach.
We unpack and get settled in.
Draping the chairs with sarongs so we don’t stick to them and pushing the legs into the sand until they no longer wobble. The beach is a constant blur of movement- new arrivals settling into chairs, families in the water together, kids running through the crowd, food vendors maneuvering their way through the rows of umbrellas, men paddling boats precariously heaped with souvenirs. But there is an ease about things. Soon the looks of surprise about us being there are replaced with smiles and nods of recognition. Everyone is here for the same thing; a nice relaxing afternoon at the beach.
There is an endless parade of food to participate in; a stout old lady with a tray of hot fried tostadas balanced on her head, a man with a frosty glass case full of sweets and a young girl who sells delicately carved cucumber, mango and watermelon slices stuck on sticks sprinkled in chili and drizzled with lime. In the air is the tinkle of bells as the ice cream man pushes his wheel borrow-shaped cart through the sand. A skinny, frail old man with a button down shirt and well-worn straw hat has a tray around his neck and a folding stand in his hand. He meticulously sets up shop in front of each umbrella selling small cups of hardboiled quail eggs with chili sauce and bowls of salty little fried fish garnished with peanuts. We try one of everything, washing it all down with cold beer, filling our afternoon and our stomachs.
When I think I can eat no more a waft of fresh cooked doughnuts tickles my nose, and a crowd of children mob the man carrying the colourful tray. I cannot resist the idea of eating a hot doughnut sprinkled with sugar while in my bathing suit; I wander over to join the fray. One decadent bite and I am transported to White’s Lake beach as a child, the gritty sugar matching the sensation of sand between my toes.
The jostle of kids, now finished their doughnuts and pushing to all fit under an umbrella, brings me back to Mexico. They disappear into the shade to untangle their kite string. The kite is made from sticks and garbage bags and a length of twine wrapped around an empty pop bottle. All I can see is a flurry of hands and feet as they collectively work to straighten out the mess of knots, then they run down the beach between the rows of chairs as they launch their little kite into the breeze. Their giggles and cheer linger after they run away. I smile at the simpler days of childhood, pop the last bite of doughnut in my mouth, lick the last bits of sugar and grease from my fingers and resume my seat next to Steve, leaning over to give him a kiss.
“Umm,” he says, “doughnut tastes good,”
“Perfect,” I reply, “What a great idea. I love days like this.”
“Me too,” he says as he pries the caps off of two more beer, and hands one to me. “To a new tradition, to many more Mexican Family Beach Days!”