She sheds her false eyelashes and gaudy jewelry for me at Playa Caleta. Mostly Mexican tourists and locals make up the crowd here. I'm amazed at how small this popular stretch of beach is; it's really just a bay between two rocky walls. Several boats of varying sizes are tied off in rows.
Vendors sell just about anything, walking through the crowds or displaying their merchandise on narrow wooden canoes in the sand. I'm offered mango slices on a stick, artwork made from seashells, handbags, inner tubes, doughnuts, and fresh lobsters. Children splash in the shore, laughing and screaming. A baby no older than a year walks at an uneasy but rapid stride straight for the water, clad only in a diaper. His smile looks too big for his face as he greets the surf with chubby fingers and flapping arms.
I see a skinny, nervous-looking dog trot between the beach umbrellas. He sniffs around the chairs and sand. I can't tell if he's feral or not, but as I feel the sun beating down on me at a temperature in the high eighties, I decide he needs a drink of water more than anything. I head to a concession stand at the edge of the beach and buy a bottled water with a plastic cup (the closest thing to a bowl I can find). Instinctively, I click my tongue and make kissing noises as I approach the timid animal. He keeps his head down and watches me uneasily. As I come closer, I see he has a short scar on his back where no fur will grow again.
I set the water cup down. He takes a step backward, prompting me to do the same. He sniffs it, backs away again. Laps once and then spills the whole thing. I refill it with what's left in the bottle and set it down. He takes a few licks (fewer than I thought he would) and heads in the opposite direction. I sigh, leave the cup in case he returns later, and walk back to the street. A Mexican family has been watching this entire ordeal and giggling. I don't understand much Spanish, but I don't need to imagine very hard what they're saying. "Stupid American girl trying to feed the dog. What a fool."
Likely the dog thought the same thing.
I take a taxi back to my hotel near Puerto Marques. We drive through the central tourist area of Costera Hotel Zone. High-rise hotels on the beach stretch skyward across the street from American franchises. KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonald's, Hard Rock Café, Costco, Wal-Mart, and Office Depot are just some that taunt me on the ride.
Acapulco has hardly any American tourists these days, but it has all of our chains.
"Yes, we have them all here," says Frederico, my driver. He speaks excellent English. "But there is one you will not see—Taco Bell."
The night before, I had stayed up late listening to a Mexican wedding reception outside my balcony. I'd seen the hotel staff setting up for it all day, arranging enough speakers and sound equipment for a heavy metal concert. I was shocked by the low number of wedding guests in comparison—only about thirty or so in total. But every single one of them leapt from their chairs and danced when the band started. The band would move from playing Mexican songs I didn't recognize to popular American songs. I couldn't help but tap my feet a little against the linoleum floor of my room as the band busted out a heavily-accented version of "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," complete with accordion.
I stopped when I heard something slide under my door. I saw a single white sheet lying on the floor. A short note was typed on the top half in Spanish, with the English translation below. It read:
Next Sunday January 30th Mexico will hold Government Elections. Due to this important event, Mexico's Government prohibits all alcoholic beverages sales before, during and after the election process.
This command will take place from zero hours from saturday 29th to 24 hours of sunday 30th.
We are thankful of your understanding of the interruption in the sales alcoholic beverages in our Restaurants and Bars.
I was intrigued for several reasons. "Next Sunday January 30th " was tomorrow—less than an hour away to be exact. I wondered if the American, Canadian or European tourists here would silently entertain thoughts of, "How can I be expected to do without a margarita or seven while lounging poolside tomorrow?"
Mexico's election process got me wondering. I realized I knew little to nothing about their system. There were some deviations from ours right off the bat: elections on Sundays instead of Tuesdays (which surprised me since Mexico is a predominantly Catholic country) and the prohibition of alcohol sales that day. I imagined this had to stem from the goal to have voters' judgment unimpaired. Clearly, they took their voting seriously. I looked over the Spanish paragraph and attempted to match it up with the English translation.
There were a few phrases not translated, including "Elecciones para Gobernador del Estado de Guerrero" and the term "Ley Seca" in quotation marks. Governor of the state of Guerrero—easy enough to translate—but what was "Ley Seca?" An Internet search informed me that it literally meant "prohibition." Not the American nineteen-twenties-speakeasy-bathtub-gin mentality of the word, but a nationally recognized day.
My taxi ride the next day from Playa Caleta back to the hotel showcased, besides the plethora of fast food restaurants and consumer franchises, outdoor lines of (presumably sober) voters. Spread out along the sidewalks in the main part of town were a few two-manned tables with lines of citizens stretching from hundreds of yards away. I wasn't sure if their voting procedures included secret ballots, but I didn't see any booths around. Just people bent down over the table, writing on paper.
Frederico apologizes for not knowing more English words, when I'm the one who should be speaking Spanish. All I know, though, is whatever resembles the high school French that I remember. Which is to say, I'm hopeless. On one occasion in a restaurant here, I asked for a Coke and realized my mistake when the waiter returned moments later with an enormous green coconut. I felt like kicking myself; knowing that I should have said "Cola." Determined to be polite and not let my mistake create more work for him, I consumed the room-temperature coconut juice, all the while craving something icy and refreshing.
"You like Acapulco?" Frederico asks me several times.
"I love it," I tell him. "It's beautiful here."
"Ah, good. Maybe you come back again. We no get enough tourists here."
I look back out the window. Wild flowers seem to poke through everywhere, even in the run-down neighborhoods. Garbage may be streaming down the curb and sidewalk, broken windows and bottles scattered about, but almost every block has some bright pink or purple flowers sprouting from stone walls or through metal fences. Flowers that could put to shame the merchandise in florist shops back home.
Acapulco, whose name translates to "at the broken reeds" in English, continues to overwhelm me. I knew enough about it beforehand not to view it as an ideal vacation spot. The drug rings, the corruption, the tourist kidnappings, and the poverty. Not to mention the fifteen decapitated bodies and their corresponding severed heads recently found near a shopping center, courtesy of a notorious local cartel. But the entire idea of getting away this week was to escape the Northeast's winter, and Acapulco has the perfect weather. Its role as jilted lover of the resort world intrigues me. Long-adored mistress of 1950's Hollywood, it's now been traded in for younger ladies like Cabo and Cancun.
In this way, I can't help but think that, despite some discrepancies to the analogy, Acapulco is to Mexico what Atlantic City is to the United States. Both cities were playgrounds for the wealthy many decades ago, and are now reduced to second-class tourism destination status. The poverty of many of their residents is what most people can't ignore when hearing the name of either mentioned.
And yet, regardless of the fact that both destinations are well past their better days, they still possess undeniable charms, conjuring the ghosts of their "it" days. Just as allure and nostalgia can be found while strolling the Atlantic City Boardwalk, sampling saltwater taffy and dipping one's toes into the chilly New Jersey waters, Acapulco's natural beauty and eternally sunny skies peek through the haze of its vacant hotels and crime-riddled headlines.
I get the chance to see Acapulco's site of former glory when Frederico drives me to the Hotel Los Flamingos, a bright pink, slightly run-down resort high atop a cliff. Its claim to fame: former playground of the likes of Sinatra, Weissmuller, Wayne and Flynn. From the 450-foot cliff, there is a completely unobstructed view of the ocean and its horizon. Nothing but blue stretching into infinity. A single pink-red flower rises up against the fence; the perfect contrast to the serene backdrop. I can see how this was considered paradise in the Fifties as I glance upward at the green palm leaves and hot pink hotel façade with its thatched roof against the cloudless sky overhead. I try to channel the vibe from so long ago of the "boys' club" and their glitter, their millions, their hedonism.
I'm driven past Playa Caleta again the next day on the way to a snorkeling excursion. The company's driver offers bottled water to me and the other tourists. Some of us accept, thinking he has them in the van somewhere. Instead, he pulls in front of what appears to be a convenience store and hops out.
"Right back!" he says.
We've parked right behind an open-bed Policia truck. All of the officers in it hold large assault rifles and stare directly at me. I remain as still as possible until the driver returns. If I'd known he had to get out and buy water, not to mention place me in full view of at least ten gun-toting cops, I would have passed.
My guilt over touring a city with such severe criminal problems isn't assuaged when we arrive at the water activity center's parking lot. It lies down the stairs from a grand old building by the water. I'm told the building used to be a luxury hotel. It appears to currently serve as a converted police headquarters. Their marked vehicles fill the parking lot. Hoards of Mexican police walk around the grounds, armed to the teeth. Each one cannot help but give sidelong glances to us tourists. I keep my hands still and in plain sight until we've descended the shining white steps.
I start to really feel it now. This irrefutable sense of an American who thinks the world is her oyster. Should I really be in a city that is experiencing such crime and corruption? Should I allow myself to visit such places and have a good time being waited on by people who work harder than I ever have? I think of Jamaica Kincaid's words about Antigua in A Small Place:
"The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being ... Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives—most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor ... to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go—so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself."
Of course, no one I've met here seems angry or envious at all, much less to the degree Ms. Kincaid describes. They are friendlier than we, the tourists, deserve. But perhaps that's just what I can see.
On the other hand, part of me wants to encourage more people to tour Acapulco. In this gorgeous place, most of the locals depend of tourism (which has been pretty scarce) for their living. I'm embarrassed about the relatively low costs I've had on this trip compared to the accommodations and flawless service I've received. These people should be making more money than they do.
I am distracted from these thoughts when we begin our snorkeling tour. I meet Boris, a nickname for our gregarious Puerto Rican instructor; his real name is Juan. He takes us to our boat. The steps leading down to it are under construction, so we're tasked with shimmying down a steep concrete slope alongside them, perched a good ten to fifteen feet over the water. As we move along, we have to hold the widely spaced vertical beams that line the sides of the torn-up staircase, avoid stepping in the wet cement or tripping over a bent nail, and finally leap from the edge of the makeshift dock to the stern. Accomplishing the task is actually easier than it appears to be, even the older patrons manage to get aboard, but I suspect that companies wouldn't be allowed to operate under such conditions in the States.
We head out of the marina and around the bay. The boat driver is a tall young man who can't be more than seventeen years old. Boris points out various sites, such as the honeymoon villa of John F. Kennedy and Jackie, and Isla la Roqueta, a small isle reserved for nature and people who want to explore it. I can see a few hikers in the distance, emerging from the green forest back on to the beach.
The water we snorkel in is murkier under the surface than the waters of the South Pacific I've previously explored, but full of an abundance of tropical fish and bottom-dwelling stingrays. Boris playfully threatens a fish with his fist as it tries to nip his hand. Before the excursion is over, I hold in my hand a tiny, wriggling sea star and a spiky, visibly breathing sea urchin.
Once we finish in the water, the boat takes us further out to sea in the hope of glimpsing a whale or dolphin. I look at the city from afar, and at the mountain near its outskirts that seems to ascend into the clouds. Boris tells me the mountain provides excellent views, that one can drive a few hours to the top and actually "look down on the moon."
How I wish I had the time and arrangements to do just that.
Far ahead, I see the silhouette of a dolphin breach into mid-air beyond the sun-glittering water. Then another. Then three more, closer to the boat. We head a little closer, more and more dolphins becoming visible by the second. I can't tell if they're several small groups or one big pod, but they sprout up everywhere, from as far as the horizon to twenty feet from the boat.
"Never seen anything like this," murmurs Boris. Our young driver concurs.
We pick up speed. Tens of dolphins follow us, breaching and leaping their slippery bodies unbelievably high into the air. They are pure joy as they race each other, race our boat. The driver picks up more and more speed, grinning widely at his racing companions, until we simply rocket through the water. Our new friends keep up in fluid motion. I steady myself on the narrow bow and grip the railings beside me so I can see the ones near the front. The dolphins take turns speedily soaring beneath the surface and thrusting themselves into acrobatic jumps. Small babies, huge full-grown adults, and all sizes in between. They're clearly showing off, and reveling in the attention. Between the dolphins swimming beside the boat and those in every direction from here to the edge of what we can see, there must be at least one hundred. We remain in this newfound Dolphin City as long as our guides are allowed, then reluctantly make our return.
A little piece of me stays with the dolphins. Their unadulterated beauty, graceful, poetic motion, their speed, celebration and pleasure. But above all, their spirituality. I would have loved to dive into the water with them, if only for a brief moment.
As we head back toward the bay, we pass a small rocky island only a few yards in diameter. A nearly life-size shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe is fixed there. She is sleek and gold, and wears a crown. Her hands folded in prayer, she is surrounded by a giant turquoise and gold seashell. Boris draws my attention to a reflecting light beneath the water just in front of it, and tells me an identical statue lies several feet below. The Underwater Virgin, she's called. A sanctuary for scuba divers. I lament that our boat is taking us back to the dock. I wish I could throw on my snorkel and flippers and swim below to see her sparkle under the surface.
I fly back home two days later.
"Of all places in Mexico, I can't believe you went there," people tell me when I return. "You should go to Puerto Vallarta or Riviera Maya or someplace like that next time. Don't go back to that city, it's too dangerous."
But I'm going back. I'm not sure when yet, but I will return to Acapulco.
I want to bone up on my Spanish and communicate with the locals in their language. I want to get lost again in a mob of blissful soaring dolphins. I want to hike through the nature of Isla la Roqueta. I want to see the Underwater Virgin from beneath the water's surface. I want to drive to the top of the mountain and look down upon the moon.
Title graphic: "Yesterday and Today"
Copyright © The Summerset Review 2011.