A Price for Paradise

by Ed Collins/January, 2002

Here we sit, on the middle leg of a three-plane trip to Panamá. What the next two weeks hold is anyone’s guess. And that’s the beauty of it.

One thing I know––something will happen, something unplanned, unusual, even unpleasant, some kind of unthing. Hopefully, that something will be tolerable and it’ll make for a good story.

A lousy vacation I’ve never had. Not one. Things have happened, sure, but nothing so bad that when all’s said and done, I wasn’t happy I went.

It’s a matter of being fluid, I think. Fluid––as in flexible, loose, open. Traveling without plans keeps it interesting. Decisions are made by instinct, and so far, my instincts have been pretty good. Well, except for this one time.

My wife and I were on the third leg of this trip that went from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido, which is a wanna-be resort town on the Mexican coast.

Deplaning our 18-seat turboprop, we were greeted at the gate (really––the chain-linked kind) by a score (twenty, I think) of people, mostly kids, who stared past Judy and I. Odd––I thought we were the last off the plane.

“Must’ve been a celebrity on board,” I told Judy. “Let’s wait.”

Just as I thought. Out came a guy in a black hooded mask adorned with lime green swooshes.

“A wrestler,” I said. We left him signing autographs in the center of the score.

In search of a secluded yet hospitable beach-town, we left the too-touristy Puerto Escondido.

Puerto Angel, then––my guidebook suggested that it might fit the bill. One hour by bus and we were there.

Also too touristy, and blah—nothing going for it. Backpacks by our side, we sat on a hot crowded beach contemplating our options. As is my habit, I fumbled with my map, in hopes that someone would offer advice. Miguel did.

“We’re looking for a simpler place, quieter, more tranquilo,” I explained to the seemingly amiable Mexican.

“Huatulco,” he says. “It’s a beautiful bay, quiet, with secluded beaches nearby.”

“Good. OK, we’ll go. Can we make it there by dark?

“You have enough time.”

Back to the bus (actually, a pickup truck with a canvas awning covering the back). A family of five board first, complete with dog and a cardboard box poked full of holes, then four field workers, each carrying a machete.

As Miguel instructed, I told the bus driver to let us off at Huatulco. A half-hour later we climbed out of the truck and waved goodbye to the family and the fieldworkers. A tiny sign pointed us in the

direction of Huatulco. With backpacks strapped on, we walked down the middle of a potholed dirt and asphalt road. Miguel said it was a fifteen-minute walk.

The first glimpse of Huatulco was from the other side of a muddy riverbed. You couldn’t see the bay from there. Just cactus, dogs, trash and a couple of kids tossing rocks at a signpost that said No trash. To get across the riverbed we walked on a series of wooden planks.

As is the case whenever things don’t seem to be going well, an uncomfortable silence fell over us.

Both of us were thinking that there wouldn’t be a hotel there, and that it would be dark in a half-hour.

On the other side of the river was a row of old buildings and another dirt street. Around a corner

was a path that looked like it led to the water. It did.

Immediately I put the subject of shelter out of mind. It was beautiful. Serene. Just as he said. The

air was heavy, sweet, still. Hardly a person to be seen, or heard. Hammocks stretched out in front of a cluster of deserted rustic buildings. “If we have to, we can sleep here,” I said to Judy, half seriously.

“You ever tried to sleep in a hammock before?” she asked.

I took off my shoes and walked on the hard sand, occasionally letting the water lap over my ankles. I looked alternately at the pretty little bay and then the buildings, in search of any sign of accommodations. It was a squatter’s village, that’s what it was. At the far end of the bay we spotted a few people sitting on folding chairs. Americans, they were.

“Excuse me,” I said, “Is there some kind of hotel here?”

A man with a beer and a beer belly told us that the tourist season had ended, and that, with the exception of their place, everything was closed. “You can stay here,” he said, pointing at a few hammocks attached to a shabby-looking shade structure.

We walked over to the hammocks. “They’re so rotten they wouldn’t hold our weight,” Judy said softly.

“We could sleep on the beach, in our clothes,” I said.

Judy gave me a look that suggested otherwise.

When the guy saw the look that Judy gave me he spoke again. “Or you can stay in there.”  He pointed at a small building with a corrugated tin roof.

In the middle of the dilapidated wooden shack was an uncovered box springs with no mattress. Judy and I looked at the bed, the shack and then each other, without saying anything. Then we put our backpacks down.

A short while later: The beer was cold, the fish fresh, the tortillas hot. After dinner we sat around

an open fire and chatted with our hosts, Jerry and Pauline, two retirees from Southern Missouri. There was no plumbing, we were told, but an outhouse. “Tomorrow you can take a shower under an oil drum filled with water,” said Jerry. “You just scoop the water out.”

Getting comfortable on a twin bed with no mattress and no pillow, in a hot room with no door, proved a tad difficult.

You’d think that one of the benefits of living in a secluded little village would be tranquil nights for sleeping, but what with the psychoneurotic dog-barking and the occasional burro-braying, it was a veritable cacophony of sounds.

A few hours later, just as I thought I was about to drift off to sleep––at least I had my eyes closed and I hadn’t changed positions in awhile––Judy gasped, sitting up straight, with the help of her hand, which was pressed against my ribs.

Standing in the doorway, arms at his side, was a man. He mumbled something, turned and disappeared into the darkness. “Must’ve wanted the bed,” Judy said.

I laid back down, got as comfortable as I could, then waited for my heart to regain its normal beat.

Maybe it was a half-hour later, maybe more, I know I was asleep, it was probably around 3:00am; I didn’t know if Judy was asleep or not, but the wake-up call got us both upright.

Simply put: Two cats. Under the bed. Fighting.

When we both realized that we weren’t victims of a homicidal woman with a wickedly high-pitched voice, we laughed.

I think I slept a bit more before being awakened by the morning’s first rooter call. After that, every cock in town was doing his part to alert all light sleepers that daylight was only two hours away.

Just before dawn it got almost cool, and the salty damp smell of the air was pleasant. If my back didn’t hurt so much, I would’ve been comfortable.

Breakfast was a feast. Juevos rancheros, fresh tortillas, rice, beans and hot coffee. Sitting up felt

good. The air felt good. The exhausted feeling even felt good.

While Judy and I were making plans to hightail it out of paradise, our expatriot hosts and a local guy were trying to sell us on a boat ride to one of the local private beaches. For five dollars, Pablo said, he would drop us off and come back for us whenever we wanted.

Maybe that was the reason for last night, I thought to myself. Could a secluded beach make it worthwhile?

A good question.

Coarse white sands, aqua blue water, small, perfectly formed waves, jungle that crept right down to the beach. A very welcomed gentle breeze.

Never before had I skinny-dipped in the ocean before.

Back to Huatulco, we’re offered another night in the doorless sweat box. “Tomorrow,” Pablo said, “I take you to another private beach––even better that today’s.”

“Aaahh, no thank you,” Judy said, before I did.

Public transportation back to Puerto Angel, we’re told, is sporadic, but available, “Just wait in front of the general store in the center of the village,” Jerry said. “Just wait.”

So we did. Wait. And wait. In the shade it was not comfortable. When an aged Volkswagen pulled up to the curb, I asked the driver if he’d give us a ride to the main highway. Sure, he said without hesitation.

The driver was an elderly man with wire-rimmed glasses that were as thick as Coke bottle bottoms. His shy wife sat quietly in the front passenger seat. With our backpacks in our laps, we sat in the backseat. The man was very nice and even more inquisitive. He was also very old. He drove slowly and erratically. More than once he drifted onto the wrong side of the narrow road. At one point Judy told me to cut the conversation so he would pay more attention to his driving.

When we got to the main road he offered to take us the rest of the way back to Puerto Angel.

Judy doesn’t speak Spanish but somehow she got the gist of what he was saying.

“No, gracias.” she said, “Tell him we’ll wait for the regular bus.”