Hanging With Dick and Liz, and Other Half-Truths
...it was more like they were hanging with us.
May 13 - June 9, 1996
Hola, amigos, and welcome to our fourth newsletter.
Our last newsletter was sent from Puerto Vallarta, as we were preparing to move further down the Pacific Coast, onward toward other tropical beach locales. But, no, we didn't go, for on that final (and fateful) day in P.V., the evening before we were planning to leave, we spontaneously stopped by the home of a lady Dave had met over eight years ago (back when he used to take "vacations" of the 2-week variety), an American named Molly who owns a beautiful home tucked into the trees along a river spanned by a small bridge in the heart of the historic part of Puerto Vallarta.
Molly graciously invited us in, claimed to remember Dave (kinda sorta... I don't think she really did, but Dave was able to jiggle her memory with enough name dropping, then explained that he actually had a picture of Molly being lofted up over the head of some guy named "Steve"... at which point Steve himself comes walking around the corner! Which is only the first weird thing that happened that night.) The phone rings; turns out, there's a lover's quarrel going on in earnest inside the house owned by some Americans from Michigan. Problem is, the Americans are in Michigan and the quarrel is in Spanish. Hmmmm.
So we five-- Molly, Dave, Whitney, and a couple of rastafarian-looking poodles named J.J. and Taxes (the latter was acquired on April 15... get it?) head out Hardy-Boy style to investigate. We climb a hilly back street of P.V. into an area known locally as "Gringo Gulch" to a pretty stucco house which is in a state of semi-reconstruction. No trace of a lover's quarrel, but maybe the intruders heard us coming and are barricaded inside! We look through windows, fiddle with various keys, finally make it into the front garden, but can't get into the house itself, the lock to the front gate's been changed! We determine that the only others who have keys are The Maid and The Handyman. (All together now: Hmmmm....). We get chills because there's a motion detector light going on and off INSIDE the house! Well, we can't get in, and the crooks won't come out, so we head around the corner to speak to the lady who heard the fight in the first place. She lives across the alley, above the house in question, and can see and certainly hear everything that goes on in the Michigan people's house. This lady shacks up in a place known locally as "Casa Kimberly". Ring a bell? Casa Kimberly is none other than the ex-love palace of a certain Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and you can pay $5 to go in during the day and see all the genuine tacky stuff left by the famous couple themselves. We, being involved in a bona fide mystery and all, don't have to pay the $5, because we've been invited in for more drinks.
Now for a brief but illuminating history lesson: Puerto Vallarta was a sleepy little fishing village until 1954 when the Mexican airlines started to promote the place as a tourist destination. But it really took off 10 years later when John Huston picked the nearby cove of Mismaloya to direct "The Night of the Iguana", and Richard Burton installed his new love, Liz Taylor, at Casa Kimberly. The press generated by the paparazzi is what really launched P.V. to what it is today, and all over town, there are bad statues and paintings of Dick and Liz in tender embrace, attesting to the fact that this is a town built around a legendary romance. Or, more cynically, this is a town build around an adulterous and tempestuous affair liberally soaked with booze and, in the end, bitterness (like when Dick moved his young new blond wife into the house next door just to gall poor 300-pound Liz). This is the version that seems more appropriate.
But back to our unfolding mystery, or more importantly, all the cool tacky stuff inside Liz and Dick's house. It certainly is tacky, and it's all been preserved JUST AS LIZ LEFT IT when she basically abandoned the house in the early 80's ("Too many memories.") The current owners are the lady who reported the lover's quarrel and her 40 year-old son. So here we are: Dave, Whitney, Molly, the two dread-locked dogs, and the current owners of Casa Kimberly, watching "Attack of the 50-Foot Woman" dubbed in Spanish in this legendary love shrine, flipping through the glossies of Liz and Dick in every major and minor role they've played in real and cinematic life ("We're not fans", insists the son, "we're real estate investors".) Fade to black.
We moved in with Molly the next day. She rents beautiful suites in her lovely house, La Casa del Puente, and while the rooms are very reasonably priced, they were still a bit out of our budget. But she liked us, so offered us a room in exchange for some household duties. Mr. Fix-It, Dave, re-bolted windows and I planted flower beds, and we walked the dogs and took them to the groomer. (Funny story: the dread-locked dogs had grown pretty fond of us, so when we dropped them at the groomer, they cried and cried. We came back later to pick them up, and there they were, turned into nasty little coiffed poodles who were just about coming out of their skins, they were so glad to see us. Turns out these were the self-same dogs we'd dropped off earlier in the day, but in their current clipped states, our fondness for them had subsided. Sort of like Dick and Liz.)
So that's the story of how 6 days in P.V. became 10. After a few days we began to think of moving on again, and besides, Molly had paying guests who wanted our room, so we headed south down the Pacific coast for just a few more days of beach before heading inland to higher elevations for the rest of the summer. It has started getting hot, like 90 degrees hot. Combined with the 80% humidity, it was becoming difficult to sleep at night. Plus, we were growing tired of starting each day updating our inventory of mosquito bites. The next few nights were spent at a series of beach spots recommended by various people and guidebooks, but it's the end of the beach season for good reason, and we finally headed northeast to our first really BIG Mexican city, Guadalajara.
Am I the only one who had heard only dreadful things about Guadalajara? Well, it's true that it's a really huge and sprawling metropolis of 4 million people, the second-largest city in Mexico, but the city itself is lovely and full of colonial character. We spent most of our seven days there just walking or sitting in the huge plazas at the center of town, watching people, listening to music (Guadalajara is the original home of the Mariachi band), and sampling various new types of street food (mango-chile popsicles, for instance... more on wacky street foods later). We stayed for a few nights with some parents of friends, a welcome break in the stream of hotels, then moved into a guesthouse downtown to be closer to the action in the city. A highlight was the Ballet Folklorico presented by the University of Guadalajara: wonderful dances and music from various Mexican states, performed in a beautiful historic theater.
We've realized that we're seeing Mexico in a strange order: we started with the most remote, outlying areas (Baja and Chihuahua) closer to the American border, then the more touristy beach locations where the Mexican culture is somewhat diluted by the tourism, but as we move from west to east and north to south and get closer to Mexico City, we're seeing more of the colonial Spanish influence. We're at the edge of the historical path of the Aztecs, moving toward its center. More history: the Aztecs are purported to have come from the Pacific Coast island of Aztlan, or perhaps further north. They began moving east in the 12th century, and spent the next 300 years in a pilgrimage that ended in the Valley of Mexico where they built the seat of the empire that would rule until the arrival of Hernan Cortes in 1519, and the legendary fall of the last Aztec ruler, Moctezuma.
As we drove north from Guadalajara toward our next destination, Zacatecas, we made an unplanned stop at La Quemada, the 1000-year old ruins of an Aztec city, our first taste of pre-colonial Mexico. We had been driving for maybe 5 hours and were an hour so away from Zacatecas, just before sunset. We took a 1-kilometer detour off a side road to take a closer look at some ruins on a hilltop, but the gates to the ruins were closed. The closer we got, the more amazing these ruins appeared to be: huge walls and temples of stone, obviously restored but still very ancient-looking.
They were the remains of huge complex of temples and citadel built and abandoned by the Aztecs before their arrival in the Valley of Mexico, to the south-east, in the 15th century. We parked at the locked gate, grabbed the camera and binoculars, peanut butter and crackers (a well-balanced dinner, you know), and headed down the road for a sunset dinner atop the ruins, but were intercepted by two guards. However, we managed to see enough to know that we had to stay until the next day and explore. We were in a pretty isolated place, the gates didn't open 'til 10 the next morning, so we camped right there on the road in front of the gate. The guards didn't mind, they even came out to chat later that evening. We realized how much we miss camping in our van, something we hadn't done for a few weeks. It's clean, it's comfortable, and it's usually free. Plus, now that we were at nearly 8,000 feet of elevation, the air was clear and cool and delightfully humidity-free.
The ruins proved to be much better than we imagined. For one thing, they're huge: they include various temples for your standard human sacrifices, a ball court (strangely, it's the winners who get sacrificed to the gods), sweeping staircases which lead to the remains of the homes of the governors, priests and other elite who lived in the giant citadel on top of the hill overlooking an enormous valley, all ringed by a giant wall that runs along a kilometer-long ridgetop. We walked almost the whole area. While we were there, a big military jefe from Mexico City arrived in his helicopter, took a brief tour of the lower levels of the ruins, got back in his helicopter and circled the ridgetop twice before flying away. The generalissimo apparently didn't have the breath or the time to crawl up to the summit as we did.
One of the real highlights of the monument is the incredible visitor center and museum that was just opened 6 months ago. It is a beautiful complex which includes a theater with an excellent introductory film (if you speak fluent Spanish, which we don't), recreations of newly discovered, unopened archeological sites, partial excavations, and the pottery, tools, weapons, and other artifacts discovered in the excavation of La Quemada. The building itself repeats many of the themes of the ruins: the pattern of the stone foundations, the layers of stucco and paint that once covered the pillars and walls, and the materials used in the construction of the city.
The impression created by the whole complex is that Mexico really puts its money where its indigenous ancestral history is, because it's clear no expense was spared in constructing this incredible monument. The most frustrating thing is that there aren't yet any materials in English, so we feel like we only scratched the surface of the whole place. We did meet the American archeologist who has managed the project up to this point. His name is Peter Jimenez, he's lived in Mexico for 20 years and teaches at the university in Zacatecas in addition to managing the development of La Quemada, which, it turns out, is only 1% excavated. We asked if he needed some free gringo help, and he does, but not 'til after the rainy season. We didn't hear much from him about the ruins themselves, but we did get detailed advice about all the not-to-be-missed archeological sites in Mexico, and we've modified our itinerary so as not to miss any hot spots.
After our day at La Quemada, we drove on to Zacatecas. This city required something of a detour to the north, but it was certainly worth it. Zacatecas is tucked into a ravine and crawls up the side of a mountain, and was a major silver-mining center from the 16th to the 19th century. The silver barons, mostly Spaniards who exploited the indigenous people first as slaves and later as wage slaves, invested some of their incredible wealth in the construction of spectacular cathedrals, temples, mansions, and cobblestone streets, many of them from a distinctive pink sandstone. During the rebellion against Spanish rule in the early 19th century and the revolution during this century, many of the monuments were plundered or destroyed, but enough remains to make Zacatecas well worth the detour. We're not huge museum fans, but Zacateca's museums were great, too. In particular, one museum, the Raphael Coronel, houses a local artist's collection of over 3,000 ceremonial masks, all Mexican, from various states. (If you want to know what people are really afraid of, check out their masks!) The museum itself is a masterpiece: a restored 17th century convent where the ruins have been integrated into the modern structure, rather than totally reconstructed. The roof of the chapel, for example, has completely fallen in, but remains open to the sky, creating a totally realistic portrait of the heavens.
After Zacatecas, we drove south to another historically and culturally important city, Guanajuato, stopping for a night en route in Aguascalientes. Guanajuato is not only one of the launching places of the independence movement of 1810 and another important silver town, it's a university town, so in addition to being beautiful and interesting, it's also vibrant and fun. When we first drove into town, we were stunned by the fact that all the major thoroughfares actually run underneath the city in ancient cobblestone tunnels built to form the channels of a river. The river was diverted out of town years ago, but the tunnels remain, and they are creepy-beautiful and confounding to navigate as well.
We're now installed in a small but comfortable studio apartment and have enrolled in two weeks of much needed Spanish lessons at a nearby school. Dave had cold sweats at the thought of returning to the dreaded Spanish classes he recalls from his high school days, but after our first day of classes, we're hitting the books enthusiastically, even obsessively. We each speak just enough Spanish to know how very much we're missing by not being able to go farther in our conversations with Mexicans. Our plan is to take Spanish lessons in other cities as well, especially in Guatemala.
The other night we participated in a wonderful Guanajuato custom called a "callejoneada". The tradition is centuries old, apparently borrowed from the Spanish. A group of musicians and singers gather in the local square and play music, sing, tell jokes and generally rabble-rouse as they lead a growing crowd of followers-- in our case, young and old, Mexicans and the odd foreigner-- up the narrow alleys ("callejons") of the town. The other important element of this tradition is the wine. It used to be doled out from casks carried by burros, but now it's sold in these phallic little jugs that you pour into your mouth (and into the mouths of those around you). The wine's pretty bad, and the joke and songs get pretty bawdy, as far as we can tell, but it's really good fun, not the tiniest bit touristy or canned.
Last but not least, here's the bit I promised on weird street foods (all of which we promise to serve to you the next time you come over for dinner). We've been warned repeatedly NOT TO EAT THE STREET FOOD, which of course we do eat, on a regular basis. And we've only been sick once or maybe twice. OK, three times. The best surprise so far has been discovering what red chile powder, lime juice and salt do to a simple fruit salad of watermelon, cantaloupe, jicama, cucumber, papaya and mango (OK, a not-so-simple fruit salad at home, but pretty basic around here). This takes first prize, it's so great (and cheap). If we were smart, we'd live on this and be thinner for it, but no, we also eat the handmade potato chips (with chile); fresh fish ceviche (with chile); fresh corn OFF the cob with gobs of mayonnaise AND cream, fresh cheese, lime, and chile; plus all the Mexican standards like beef tacos, shrimp tacos, enchiladas, etc., all with chile. Some things we took a pass on which look especially popular among the locals: tripe tacos, just like Mom used to make 'em. One thing we almost ate by mistake: tostones (fried tortillas) with something that looked fish-like. That is, it looked fish-like until the purveyors started making snorting sounds and pointing at their earlobes. You got it: slivered pig ear! These Mexicans don't even have the decency to disguise their pig ears in a hot dog (which, by the way, are delicious here when served with bacon, onions, tomatoes, pickled jalapenos, and, of course, chile).
Since it might be dinnertime where you live, out of courtesy I won't even begin describe the meat section at the local market, which for some reason is Dave's favorite section of the market. OK, just one little thing: does anyone happen to have a recipe for "face of pig"? They seem to be in ample supply here in the Mexican markets.
That's it for now. If you can't tell by now, this is Whitney signing off. I just wrote this whole newsletter, unlike the last one, which was written by Dave, and the two before, which were a collaboration. Dave and I have decided to trade off from now on because we've had a few rather heated, shall we say, "editorial differences". Nonetheless, it's been amusing to get feedback from folks who say "it sounds just like Dave speaking" when it wasn't. (But all the fart jokes were Dave's.)
Thanks for listening, and don't forget to send us your news!