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Lost and found in Puerto Vallarta

Wendy Devlin

After a month riding long and short distance buses, the unthinkable happened! Reaching for the travelers checks hidden in my security belt, to pay for the hotel in Puerto Vallarta, I discovered them missing. Not just the travelers checks, but three return plane tickets, three tourist visas, my passport, travel journal, notebooks and small packsack – the whole shooting match! Inwardly I groaned.

Earlier that afternoon, when the city bus turned unexpectedly to the left instead of the right, I yelled to my two teens to jump off before the bus careened several more blocks - too quickly and without thinking!

In the excitement, I grabbed two travel bags and left the small packsack sitting on the city bus floor. During the six-hour bus ride from Guadalajara I’d removed the bulging security belt for comfort and placed it in my small packsack. What to do now? How to get that packsack back in Mexico?

From the busy desk of his family’s beachfront hotel, José Valadés’s eyebrows arched in greeting,

Mi buena amiga. You have returned to beautiful Puerto Vallarta!”

“Sí. I am here but most of my important documents have been lost.”

Lo siento. But I remain ‘ tu servidora’. How may I help you?”

José’s verbal reassurances did not match the glance he flung at his desk clerks. Negativismo was etched across Ramón y Juan’s dark faces.

Did this mean that packsack is a goner? It was Thursday, New Year’s Eve, and the kids and I were scheduled to fly home to Canada next Tuesday.

My fault. Mi problema!

José waved his wrist towards the hotel telephone, his dangling gold bracelet catching glints of the sunset’s last rays.

“I will help you make any phone calls that you wish, amiga. What bus were you riding today?”

“A blue bus.”

His slate-brown eyes flashed the “foolish gringa" glare.

“Are you sure that you did not lose your things on the long distance bus from Guadalajara? What line were you on? I can phone them for you.”

“No, I’m sure I left the packsack on a city bus. Do the local buses have an office for ‘lost and found’?

“No they have not.” Lean fingers tapped staccato on the desk. “You are better replacing your important papers with the Canadian Consular Agency. But they are past closing now on New Year’s Eve. Plus they are not open tomorrow on New Year’s Day. I do not know if they open on Saturday. Everyone is closed on Sunday. Perhaps you can get help on Monday.”

“But the kids and I have flights home to Vancouver on Tuesday!”

Naively I inquired further, “Might the packsack or papers get turned at the police station?” Swiftly shot a retort, “DO NOT involve the police in this matter!”

Fifty years ago Jose’s family built the second hotel in Puerto Vallarta. His elderly father was twice mayor. I took his advice. Four days stretched uncertainly ahead, taut like a rubber band.

Snap! I needed a plan!

Time to take inventory.

Health.

Bueno. Encouraging!

Wealth.

Bueno . Some pesos and a bankcard rested safely in my fanny pack wallet.

Happiness.

¿Question mark? My fingers itched to pull out my proverbial hair even when remembering my driver’s license, photocopy of the passport and travelers check numbers taped inside the larger luggage bag.

The scattered monkeys in my mind stopped jumping with the idea:

This might make a good travel story for Mexico Connect!

“José. May I use the phone, por favor?”

He handed over the receiver like it was a long stemmed rose.

“Sí. My phone is yours.”

Twenty minutes of talk over the toll free number set up replacement of the travelers checks. Now no further arrangements could be made until the morning. Except the very serious business of enjoying New Year’s in Puerto Vallarta!

José invited me to join his Canadian guests for a private party. My teens were hanging with a younger set this evening. Champagne corks popped on the hotel balcony to greet the exploding of fireworks, dazzling the Bahia de Banderas at midnight. The twinkling lights of a city at play wreathed the bay like an endless necklace of glittering diamonds. My evening’s companions, Hank and Flo, Richard and Stella celebrated another New Year’s with José.

Hank joked, “We’ve known José from when he was just a kid! How old do you think I am?”

Surveying his wispy white hair, his deeply creased and tanned face I hazarded; “Newly retired?”

“Heck, no! I’m seventy-six this year! And my gorgeous wife here is only sixty-seven.”

José’s jet-black head nodded, “But to me, Señor Coldwell, you are always a young man. And your wife is a most beautiful woman.”

Hank threw back his head and roared, “You see why we love this guy!

After eighteen years we keep telling ourselves that we should try out a new hotel. But every year we come back here again for several months. It’s our home in Puerto Vallarta!”

Later our party wandered onto the Olas Altas, the street that parallels the beach in romantic Old Vallarta. We sat down at a festive sidewalk café. On this second visit to this city section, I mused how much a neighborhood it seemed, compared to the city’s general tourist hustle. Many people lived in the surrounding hotels and apartments and used Olas Atlas much like an outdoor living room. Completely at home, José greeted nearly every person on the street by name. Many times I witnessed him search for a missing person, lend money when a bank machine failed and other kindly acts. Every day he helped his old friend with a leg lost recently to diabetes, in his silver jewelry shop, keeping him company and his spirits up. Always alert, watching his turf, friendly and helpful.

“You are like the Mayor of Olas Altas!” I joked.

A beaming smile, “ Bueno. Cervezas for all of my amigos, por favor! I know many people. When my father first came here from Guadalajara, he came by horseback over the mountains, several days' travelling. From their hacienda, he and his brother loaded their horses with supplies they could sell on the way. Puerto Vallarta was just a tiny fishing village. My father bought land by the beach and built a one-room casa. Then he began a store business. By now there were five of us children so he built another room. The business did so well he built two cabins. That was our first hotel!”

“And now you have this big hotel?”

“Yes. And my family just finished condominiums beside the new cruise ship dock. In the early years there was no bridge across the Rio Cuale. My father could see a future for Puerto Vallarta. Although he is PRI, he could not get any government money. So with his own construction company, he built it himself.”

“Your father sounds a determined man!”

A wide grin followed his hand flourish.

“You call that ‘determined! Years later, when the old pier in Vallarta became no good, he petitioned money from the government to rebuild. His request was refused so he built the pier himself. Now it’s a landmark. Last year my father wanted to upgrade Olas Altas with new cobblestones and cement curbs. Again, no money. Again my father built them!”

Music and laughter poured from the surrounding restaurants drenching us in the fiesta spirit. José hired a roving guitarist to serenade our table. He joined his fine voice to accompany our requests to the musician. Will I ever tire of men that can sing and recite poetry at the drop of a hat? (It’s doubtful.)

Trailing baskets of bright flowers and potted poinsettias garlanded the Olas Altas for the holiday season. A lone white donkey stood patiently tied to the grillwork of another sidewalk café. Nursing a cerveza, his grizzled owner waited for a customer to hanker for New Year donkey ride.

Suddenly, people spilled out of restaurants and started dancing upon the cobblestones. José grinned wider, “Ahhhh! Gringos. They are so locos! Pero me gustan.

Tourist policemen in crisp whites and safari helmets motioned traffic through the gathering crowd. As more people flooded the street to join the dancing, the police admitted defeat. The traffic detoured when police cruisers obstructed both ends of the block.

Amiga. Shall we join them?”

“Why not?”

By now the block swelled with hundreds of revelers, who tripped the light fantastic towards the dawn.

The following morning I headed to the airport to see about replacing the three airline tickets. The helpful English-speaking clerk gave me the correct form.

Señora. The return flight stops one hour in Los Angeles. You need a signed affidavit from the Canadian Consulate in Puerto Vallarta as to your true identity. U.S. customs can detain you indefinitely without it.”

“But,” I protested, “Isn’t a valid driver’s license and credit card enough identification to replace the tickets?

“No. You must visit the Consulate office for formal identification. It is probably closed for three days until Monday. And it will be sixty Canadian dollars to replace each ticket.”

Back at the hotel, I tried phoning the Instituto Nacional de Migración to replace the tourist visas; meeting with an endless ringing. Scribbling his name upon his business card José handed it to me, urging, “Ask for Señora Arreola at the entrance and show this card. It will get you the help that you need tomorrow.”

Saturday morning, I headed to the Migración office quartered near the Marina Vallarta next to condos belonging to José’s family. A sign declared the office opened but no one answered my knock. Replacement of the tourist visas now waited for Monday. After bussing back towards the Rio Cuale I sank into the comfort of a chair in the cool, air-conditioned American Express office. The travelers checks were fully replaced with ease.

Saturday morning I walked to the Canadian Consular Agency near La Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, the ‘alma’, soul of Old Vallarta. The agency opened only Monday to Friday. I needed the blessing of the First Lady of Mexico!

“Monday, Monday. Can’t trust that day!” sang the old song.

“Could all arrangements be made on Monday before flying home on Tuesday afternoon?”

Accompanied by the sweet refrain; “At least I am still in Mexico!”

The Canadian Consular Agency faces the Plaza de Armas in the heart of Puerto Vallarta. This early hour, only a street sweeper shuffling his cart and brooms, tidied the heavily littered park. From the dappled shade beckoned a gleaming white wrought-iron bench. Sitting down, I recognized a large gray stone building containing a large bank below and a huge apartment above. José’s family’s elegant six-bedroom apartment lay vacant, as his aging parents now need a ground floor apartment at their hotel. It faced directly across from the Presidencia Municipal. José joked that on important civic holidays, his family always sat on their balcony across from whatever Mayor and his people were currently in power.

“We like to look straight in their faces!”

But even growing up in a fabulous corner of Mexico among increasing fortune hadn’t protected his family from life’s vicissitudes. Two brothers died in separate car crashes before they turned forty. One brother lay gravely sick back at the hotel with advancing alcoholic related cirrhosis. José struggled for sobriety and stability from a potent mix of past substance abuse and broken relationships. His only sister’s marriage currently unraveled.

“It’s like the TV show “Dallas” only in Mexico,” I mused. “Is it for her family’s recovery that his mother prays every day at the cathedral?”

José’s day generally revolved around meeting the wishes of his parents; like running the front desk every day from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., driving his mother to mass, discussing matters at an afternoon family meal and a host of hidden obligations.

Their circumstances strike a chord in my own struggle to find balance and understanding in a family similarly riddled by substance abuse, early suicide, broken marriages, chronic illness and early death. Often my deeply alcoholic father had warned me that “Money could not buy happiness.” The Valadés family’s fortunes provided proof in the flesh.

Upon my return to the hotel, José glanced up from the desk and casually commented,

“A man claiming to be the bus driver is looking for you. He says that he has something for you. He was carrying a black plastic bag.”

“So, where is the bag?” I asked breathlessly.

“Well. He refused to give the bag to me. He said that he would only give it to Señora Wendy Devlin. I think he wanted a tip.”

Visions of the man vanishing, absorbed into los barrios flooded my mind.

My lips bit my mental criticism crisply.

Why did my friend not give a tip for me?

Heaven knows it shouldn’t be the money. His family owns this hotel! Plus I’d gladly pay him back double for the trouble.

José leaned forward on the desk inquiring sweetly,

Amiga, mía. What is your wish now?”

“Sit in this lobby with the hope that this bus driver returns!”

I stalked the lobby fridge for a cerveza, then sat on a large leather couch to wait.

Maybe I should ask for some blankets too!

Still being Mexico, hope glimmered that anything could happen.

The desk phone rang shrilly. José called with a knowing smile,

Señora Devlin, are you still here?”

I leapt from the couch and raced to the front desk. A torrent of Spanish poured from the receiver. It could only be the bus driver!

Since the Spanish was a blur, I directed simply, “ Aqui! En el hotel.

Seconds later, a large man with a small boy dressed in full soccer uniform approached the leather couch. He had phoned from just across the street.

Señora Devlin?”

Sí!

Emilió Gardea handed me the black plastic bag. I hugged him and kissed his cheek. The bag held the important documents although the packsack itself, cheap camera, water bottle and other small personal items were missing. We chatted while I gave him a tip and another big gracias. I told him that my oldest son plays soccer. His little “futbolista” shook my hand solemnly before they departed.

Then I sank back on the couch with relief.

Strolling over from the front desk José asked; “Do you not want to know how he found you?”

I nodded.

“Well. All of your documents had only your address in Canada. He looked in your travel journal and notebooks. He doesn’t speak any English but he noticed the small map of Puerto Vallarta and a list of hotels in your journal. He has been going to the hotels one by one and asking for you. He has been looking for two days. He went to your first hotel where you stayed four weeks ago. They said that they had not seen you since then. He noticed the list of names and street addresses of people that you have met on this trip. That is where he saw the name of this hotel!”

Gratitude flooded me anew! This bus driver is a great guy! What a blessing!

With 20/20 hindsight, what was the worst case scenario? That I would have to stay longer in Mexico? What a fate! Still it would have been an expensive trip extension and more time-consuming experience with bureaucracy. Next trip my important documents will not leave my skin for a moment outside of a hotel safe. Things were “lost” but others “found” again in Mexico.

Some of the more helpful links ranked from top to bottom.

JR. at the first site below is very helpful on the Mexico Connect Forum whenever anyone asks questions about PV. I've asked him and Susan at GoVallarta for links as I am in recent contact with them. The e-zine goes up a few times a year and I like its cultural focus.

Published or Updated on: August 1, 1999 by Wendy Devlin © 1999
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