The Luckiest Gringo in Mexico – Parts 3 & 4

Rainbow over Zihuatanejo
Rainbow over Zihuatanejo

Part 3 – Prequel:
First Arrival

Zihuatanejo, Guerrero in August of 1974 was a very different place than it is today. There were no paved roads, no street lights, no luxury hotels. Telephones were few and far between. The teacher-turned-armed-revolutionary Lucio Cabañas had kidnapped the cacique and then Senador  Rubén Figueroa who was campaigning to become state gobernador. Roadblocks and military patrols were everywhere, and the army was mistreating everyone. Revolution and repression were in the air. It was inspiring.

Zihuatanejo Bay in the early 1970's
Zihuatanejo Bay in the early 1970’s

Our flight arrived in Acapulco from Mexico City after the short hop over the lush Filo Mayor of the Sierra Madre del Sur. The only thing we’d lost in transit so far was my dart board and darts at the luggage storage office in the Mexico City airport. Since the airline wouldn’t allow our long-haired blonde Afghan hound on the small prop-plane flight from Acapulco to Mexico City, we had to rent a car and drive. The sun was setting and it would be dark soon. In the chaos of transferring all our luggage to the rental car my 8-track stereo, 8-track tapes and Olympus Pen camera all disappeared.

Map in hand, the route looked easy enough. A two-lane blacktop was the only road heading up the coast from Acapulco, and the paved section ended at Zihuatanejo. I was 16 years old with my brand new unrestricted Florida Drivers License, and I was thrilled to be driving on our new adventure into the unknown.

Topes were a new experience for me since we didn’t have them in the U.S. Virgin Islands where I’d learned to drive or in Florida where I’d already driven much of the state including the Tamiami Trail from Miami to Tampa. I got fairly good at spotting them pretty quickly with a little help from my mother and younger brother. Everyone shouting together ¡TOPE! whenever we spotted one.

As we left Acapulco behind in the twilight and started to head down the twisting hillside road towards Pie de la Cuesta I had my first close call. Coming around a long curve at a nominal 60 or so MPH all of a sudden there was a herd of cattle across the road. There was no time to stop, and miraculously I was able to swerve between them. It was pitch black and there were no streetlights. Adrenaline rush over, I decided to drive a little slower. It made missing other cattle on the road a bit easier. There was almost no traffic, so I couldn’t follow anyone caravan-style like I would have preferred. But there were several military roadblocks that appeared out of nowhere, usually on s-curves in the middle of coconut plantations. They were looking for guns and drugs and a missing politician, but they were courteous enough to us, probably because we were foreigners.

Six hours of white-knuckle driving in pitch dark, the glows of small towns like Coyuca, Atoyác, Petatlán and Zihuatanejo the only distinguishing features besides a gazillion stars in the night sky, and we finally arrived at the Hotel Sotavento at La Ropa Beach in Zihuatanejo, right next door to the Hotel Catalina which remains open to this day. We checked in, got a room with running water, and noticed we’d lost our music and a camera in Acapulco. Oh well. We were alive and on an adventure in a strange land and it felt great to be here.

The next morning at first light we went to the Front Desk to make a phone call where by chance we met the ex-pat Gerald Shaw, a reclusive artist who had moved to Zihuatanejo years earlier to escape the racism and general madness of the USA. Gerald was also making a phone call, and he gave us a few useful tips, including the fact that there were only about 4 telephones in town.

My future wife’s family happened to have one of them because her father, don Fernando, had been a telegraph operator during and after the Revolución, and they had also been the first house with an electric light bulb where friends and neighbors would gather daily at dusk. Their original house had been on the downtown beach called Playa Principal next to the zócalo about where Daniel’s Restaurant currently sits. But I still hadn’t met her yet, so all this knowledge was still in my future.

As we went to the dining terrace for breakfast I got my first glimpse through the palm trees of Zihuatanejo Bay and La Ropa Beach. A view that has changed very little through the years and which instantly had me spellbound. It was love at first sight!

View from the Hotel Catalina of Playa La Ropa with Playa Las Gatas in the distance
View from the Hotel Catalina of Playa La Ropa with Playa Las Gatas in the distance

I had a feeling of being on an island, not unlike St. Croix where I’d lived a year earlier. The succulent fresh papaya with lemon juice I had for breakfast and the smell of the ocean were intoxicating. Zihuatanejo was reviving tropical senses dulled from a year of living in Florida, a place that seemed chaotic and pretentious by comparison.

After an invigorating breakfast it was time to go look for a place to live for the next several months. So off we set down towards the southern end of La Ropa beach where we’d heard about a new bungalow available from a man called don Chebo.

At the southern end of La Ropa where the long dirt road from town ended at the beach, the Alemán family had a small tienda with a small enramada and a couple of hammocks. We stopped for refrescos, Pepsi, no Coke. They were kind enough to point us in the direction of the home of don Chebo, a wizened elderly little man with a sparkle in his eye and the gentle handshake of a shy working man. He and his wife, doña Chella, had their modest home on a small rise about 50 meters back from the coast near where Restaurante La Gaviota now sits at the southern end of La Ropa Beach. They had just finished building a simple one-room brick structure with a teja roof another 50 meters or so back from the beach. There were a couple of cots and chairs and a table. No bathroom. No kitchen. There was a light bulb, but the electricity didn’t always work. There were a couple of oil drums for holding water that sometimes flowed briefly every few days or so from a black plastic hose that amazingly snaked all the way from town out to the La Ropa area to supply the Sotavento, Catalina and the Calpulli hotels. Patching leaks in the hose with shreds of rubber innertube was everyone’s shared responsibility if they wanted to have water.

There was only a handful of residents at La Ropa back then. A few foreigners and a few locals whom we would meet in the coming days.

I immediately got to work digging us a latrine and using leftover bricks to build us some sort of stove so we could at least boil water to make coffee in the morning. Don Chebo found us another cot, and we were amazed to find mosquito coils for sale at the little tienda so we could sleep soundly at night. It was rainy season and there was a wide shallow green scum-covered pond-like puddle across the road from our place that apparently connected with a small lagoon.

Our first night we were invited by Margot Chipman to visit her home a short distance away on another hill. Almost immediately I discovered a scorpion as I sat on the steps of her home with her 2 girls, one still an infant. I would discover 2 more before the evening was done, including one at our house.

The next morning was spent in town looking around and shopping for basic supplies, including a large machete for me and some white kerosene for the lamps and for mopping the floors. I met the son of a local tortillería, Paco Ayvar. He spoke English and was about my age, and he was eager to make a new friend. We hit it off well.

I also discovered that day that I loved licuados.

Later that afternoon back at our house my mother, brother and I were sitting on our porch watching macaws fly back and forth when our Afghan hound, Clete, spotted some cows on the other side the shallow green scum-covered pond. Before there was time to react he was flying off the porch, and in about 5 huge leaps he was halfway across the scum-covered pond before he lost his footing and rolled several times. Clete was totally unrecognizable when he stood up. That’s when we saw the “logs” move and realized they were crocs. We screamed and called frantically, and fortunately he came galloping back up to the porch, a stinking algae and mud-covered mess. After trying to rinse the mess out we decided that he would be more comfortable if we just cut all his hair off.

My mother and Clete in St. Croix, U.S.V.I. 1971
My mother and Clete in Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S.V.I. 1971

Don Chebo had another 3-room home that he was putting the finishing touches on, and within a few days after moving into the first house we moved into the larger house just past where La Gaviota restaurant now sits and within a stone’s throw of the bay. One room was a kitchen and bathroom with a shower, the large middle room became the bedroom for my brother and me,  and the entrance room became my mother’s bedroom. My mother kept her cot but my brother and I decided we’d rather sleep in big hammocks. We also hung hammocks on the porch where we could enjoy the view of the bay.

Part 4 – First Meeting:
Love at First Sight

Shortly after my mother, younger brother, Clete and I settled into our new home for the next few months, my new friend Paco Ayvar came to visit me, and we decided to take a walk up La Ropa Beach to the Hotel Calpulli. Just as we were nearing the Calpulli we saw two Mexican girls in bikinis walking towards us. All the Mexican girls I had seen up until then had been wearing clothing at the beach, shorts and t-shirts or blouses, even dresses, but not swimsuits, and certainly not bikinis. Girls in this region were still rather old-fashioned and shy about exposing their bodies. Yet here were two attractive modern looking girls walking our way on one of the most beautiful beaches anywhere, and Paco says to me “I know these girls. I’ll introduce you. The one on the left is Carmelita Sotelo, and the one on the right is Lupita Bravo. The one on the right is also a 24-year old virgin from a good local family, almost like royalty.” I replied we didn’t have girls where I came from that looked like that and who were still virgins at that age. I was awestruck by her beauty and now intrigued by Paco’s somewhat odd comments. I was also reminded of earlier warnings not to mess with local girls because their family might seek revenge and make me disappear if I got one pregnant. So I was on my best behavior and working hard to suppress raging teenage hormones.

As we got closer Paco greeted them and introduced us. When Lupita looked into my eyes and smiled the world spun and I thought my knees were going to collapse. I realized I couldn’t speak and that she was still staring at me with the face of an angel, like no one I’d ever seen before. I managed to croak out “mucho gusto” and shook her hand. When we touched there was a spark like static electricity. And she continued staring at me, still smiling ever so sweetly.

Paco and Carmelita both saw what was happening and cracked into big grins. Paco asked me if I wanted to ask Lupita to go out dancing that night. I said I didn’t know if I should or how to ask in Spanish. He assured me it was okay and told me to say ¿gusta bailar? Okay, got it.

¿Gusta bailar?

¡Sí!

The world started spinning again and my throat started failing me. I couldn’t see anything else but Lupita’s angelic face with her magnificent smile.

Carmelita spoke English, and she suggested I meet her and Lupita at the Kau-Kan discotheque on La Madera Beach around sunset, one of the popular places where local young people went to socialize and dance.

Since Lupita’s father was the manager of the Hotel Calpulli where I also was allowed to run a tab, she and Carmelita went with him back to town for lunch and siesta while Paco and I enjoyed lunch under their huge teepee-like structure.

Hotel Calpulli circa mid 1970's
Hotel Calpulli circa mid 1970’s

After running an errand with Paco to his huerta near El Coacoyul and back to La Ropa, I spiffed myself up and he dropped me off near the Hotel Irma where it was an easy downhill walk to La Madera Beach.

The Kau-Kan was located where the restaurant Bistro del Mar is currently located. It was almost like a cave inside with bare rock walls along the back and subdued lighting. The song “The Night Chicago Died” was playing as I sat down and looked around for Lupita and Carmelita. I didn’t see them so I ordered a rum and Coke and found a table by the wall to wait. Almost as soon as I sat down they showed up.

Because the place was kind of crowded and the music wasn’t that good we decided to walk a little farther down the beach to the Chololo disco, just above the beach and below where the Hotel Casa Sun & Moon now sits.

Remains of Chololo above Playa La Madera without its palapa
Remains of Chololo above Playa La Madera without its palapa

The Chololo was a big hit with the more sophisticated crowd. My friend Jorge Tortuga was the DJ and manager then. This was my first time there, but later on Jorge would ask me to bring my 2 cassettes of disco music someone from New York City had made so that he could copy them. The place always livened up when those cassettes were played.

This first night Lupita and I were interested in learning about each other. We danced a little and smiled at each other a lot. I did my best with my rudimentary Spanish that fortunately I had studied from the 2nd to the 9th grades. So we spent much of that evening talking, Carmelita helping whenever we got stuck on a word or expression. I was determined to speak Spanish with Lupita.

Lupita’s family is one of the most respected in Zihuatanejo. She is almost like royalty, even for all her humbleness. Her father, don Fernando, was at first the telegraph operator during and after the Revolución. Then he became the radio-telephone operator who made the first direct radio-phone communication with Mexico City from Zihuatanejo, and later on he was a civil judge. Their first home on the main downtown beach where Lupita was born, next to where the current Cancha Municipal is located, was the first home to have electricity, at first for the telegraph and later for the radio-telephone. Neighbors would visit after dusk and sit around the electric bulb catching up on the latest gossip for an hour or so after dark with don Fernando and his wife doña Rosa.

I walked the girls back to Lupita’s home so that I would know where she lived. We had to cross the vado to reach town, a dirt road that went through the shallow part of the lagoon and where you either tiptoed across the rocks and wooden planks placed there or you took your shoes off and waded through the shallow water, and then we walked the remaining block and a half to the Bravo family home on the corner of Juan N. Álvarez and Vicente Guerrero streets, which at that time was pretty much the edge of town. Their 2-story home was located across the street from a small park now called Plaza del Artista with its several shade trees. It’s where we’ve lived ever since doña Rosa passed away a little over 20 years ago

The next day after my usual morning licuado de papaya, plátano y chocolate I passed by Lupita’s home where I saw her brushing her hair in the upstairs window. I called up to her and told her I’d wait for her in the little park where there was a large fallen trunk perfect for sitting on. Of course her mother, doña Rosa, also saw me and gave me a hard look of disapproval that only a parent can give. I believe she said something about why didn’t I go play with kids my age. It was expected, but it also reminded me to be on my best behavior.

Lupita and I went and sat on some steps near the entrance to the lagoon called La Boquita at the end of the beach just past the Palacio Federal, now the Museo Arqueológico de la Costa Grande in front of the Vicente Guerrero primary school. She asked me what I did all day. Well, I wanted to be honest with her, so I didn’t hold back.

Palacio Federal and Vicente Guerrero school beside La Boquita lagoon
Palacio Federal and Vicente Guerrero school beside La Boquita lagoon

I told her that I got up from my hammock in the morning, smoked a joint with my coffee, took a hit or two off a bottle of some local homemade mezcal that had a dead fly floating in it, then I walked the mile and a half or so to town to have my licuado de chocolate, plátano y papaya,  then I went and hung out at the beach and drank beer and played Frisbee with my friends. Her eyes had gotten wide while I was telling this, and I could tell I’d shocked her a bit. She was smiling when she said as sweetly as a ripe mango: “Oh, eres muy flojo.” Well, I didn’t know what she’d just said, but by the way she said it and the lovely innocent look on her face I assumed it was something wonderful and I nodded my head in agreement with a big dumb grin on my face, smitten.

What I thought was sweetness was Lupita holding back a good laugh.

Lupita told me she had to get back home, so I bid her farewell with a respectable kiss on the cheek, remembering to be on my best behavior but now acutely aware that we were strongly attracted to each other. it was indeed love at first sight.

The mile and a half walk back to the little house at the end of La Ropa Beach I kept thinking over and over to myself: “My sweetie just called me flojo. It must be something wonderful. I can’t wait to look it up in the dictionary.” And I kept repeating the word over and over so I wouldn’t forget it. Flojo. Flojo. Flojo.

Upon arriving to the house I almost ran to my Spanish-English dictionary, flipping quickly to the “F” section.

Flojo – lazy.

I thought no, that can’t be it. I must be missing the pronunciation a bit, and I looked all over for a similar sounding word.

Nope. That was the right translation all right. Lupita had a good laugh at my expense and the joke was on me, though she was absolutely right.

That was the last day I ever pretended to understand a word I didn’t know.

Lupita and me celebrating at the former Kau-Kan restaurant
Lupita and me celebrating at the former Kau-Kan restaurant

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