Calling a week away from home a "vacation" is redundant when you're retired and your life has no fixed schedule to begin with. So we avoid the word and call our vacation-like outings "trips."
Last week we were on one of our trips, this one to Barra de Potosí, a beautiful beach located in a cove a half hour south of the Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa resorts on Mexico's Pacific Coast, and a seven-hour drive from San Miguel.
The weather was perfect; breezy, sunny and in the mid 80s. The beachfront house we rented was equally idyllic, located barely one hundred yards from the water. Two longtime friends from Chicago joined us and everyone had a great time, mostly eating, thinking about eating, reading, playing Scrabble and talking, with no TV or radio to get in the way. A five-minute walk from the house three or four small restaurants offered fish so fresh it practically jumped out of the water and onto your plate.
Stew tried to play a couple of movies on his laptop but it didn't work. Something was wrong with the audio. Just as well. The only disturbance was the relentless pounding of the surf though after the third of fourth day we didn't even notice that.
In fact it was the quiet that after a while started to get to us. This is supposed to be the peak of the high tourist season and yet there was hardly anyone there. Up and down the beach there were empty hotels, beach houses and condominiums. Scores of cheap white plastic chairs at the beach restaurants looked similarly forlorn, half-stuck in the sand.
Even Ixtapa, north of Zihuatanejo, one of those ready-made resorts developed by the Mexican government and offering a Miami-style skyline of hotels and condominiums by the beach, the ambiance was palpably downcast. Across a six-lane boulevard, a shopping area had several holes where stores used to be.
Where is everybody? Where are the boatloads and planeloads of American tourists that normally crowd the area's hotels and roads? The answer, as far as we could figure out, is that the gringos are afraid. Afraid the U.S. economy may not recover; afraid of losing their jobs or their homes; afraid of the present and the future.
But most of all probably afraid of what is generally called "Mexico's security problem." Bullets, narcotraffickers, drug cartels, beheadings and general mayhem, made ten times worse by the fact that Mexico is a foreign place with a salty reputation for bandidos, cheap hookers, lawlessness and who-knows-what. Think Tijuana and other honky-tonk border towns. No matter how calm Mexico is or may become, for many American it'll never be quite as comfortable as the more familiar Tampa or Dollywood, Tenn.
American media can be blamed for not parsing the bad news coming from Mexico--indeed the U.S. media really doesn't parse or analyze much of anything--but you still have the fact that during the past five years 45,000 people have been killed as a result of the country's drug wars, give or take a few thousand. That's an awfully big pile of bodies.
Yet Stew and I keep on going on regular road trips, to Mexico City, the beach, Chiapas, Oaxaca, Xilita, Chihuahua and the Copper Canyon. We're planning other jaunts to Mérida and a resort south of Mexico City, a tour of cheese factories near Querétaro. For some reason, we don't feel afraid.
Part of it is familiarity. Last summer we went to Chicago and later read that during our five-day visit twelve people had been murdered. But we're not afraid to visit because we know the place and where to go and what to avoid. Stew and I lived there for thirty years.
Same thing may be happening with us in Mexico, as we enter our seventh year here. We've found out through interminable rides on buses and cars that Mexico is a huge place and that there are spots in which you don't want to linger, like the towns along the border where the overwhelming majority of the drug-related killings take place, or the hinterlands of Guerrero state, where Acapulco is located. Outside of those areas, Mexico feels safe to us.
Every report I've read also says this is an intramural war within the narcotrafficking world, that hasn't spilled yet onto the general population, as was the case in Colombia several years ago where kidnapping folks off the highways was a national pastime. In Mexico we drive with our car doors locked and will resolutely turn down any requests to transport cocaine or methamphetamines in our pickup.
These explanations and nuances hardly add up to a credible marketing campaign to revive Mexico's tourism sector. If nothing else there are a lot of other beaches and warm spots all over the Caribbean and Central America where there are no drug wars or killings--or at least none Americans have heard of.
In Barra de Potosi we should have been happy there were very few other tourists to block our views or mess up the beach. And frankly, we were. But it was still a bit sad to see the worried looks on so many people who depend on tourism to survive. Even the beach mutts who live on handouts seemed to be working extra hard.