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A date with the shady lady on Acapulco

Wendy Devlin

Valentine's Day brought me face-to-face with the shady 'lady' hidden in Acapulco. Not only did I meet the 'lady'; I was mistaken for her!

Acapulco is one of Mexico's oldest coastal tourist destinations. Before Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, Ixapta and Cancun found glossy copy in romantic tourist brochures, Acapulco reigned as queen of the tourist experience. Although the port city is still a popular spot with great tourist attractions, another face of the city lies hidden from view. This is the face of the shady 'lady'. Some people describe Acapulco as an aging whore of a city. When I drove there with my family five years ago, the history of this image caught me by surprise. Reality sometimes bites the unsuspecting. Little did I suspect to be included in Acapulco's steamy sexual history. My cita (meeting) with the shady 'lady' lay three days and one hundred and fifty miles ahead to the south.

I found the wild, undeveloped coastline of the Mexican states of Michoacán and Guerrero exotically beautiful. The Lonely Planet guidebook advised alertness while travelling through this region. This advice relates to periodic political unrest and the relative geographical isolation of the coastline. An ongoing trickle of intrepid road travelers ventures down the south coast highway towards Guatemala. My mental images of danger grew sharper as highway road conditions deteriorated south of Manzanillo, Colima. Most tourists choose to fly directly to the resort destinations of Acapulco and Ixtapa/Zihuatenejo. They seldom see common Mexican realities hidden by the abstract lens of resort wealth and prosperity.

These travel warnings promoted a decision to drive in tandem with a German couple and their five-year old son through the region. Gunter, Liselle and young Fritz spent the previous winter riding the buses throughout the south of Mexico. Thrilled by their previous adventure, this year they flew directly to Los Angeles from Germany and purchased a cheap van. Their $500 purchase converted readily into a camper van and they headed south towards Panama. Six months later, the couple sold the van and flew back to Germany.

This mutual travel arrangement worked great for our five-year old daughter, Rose. She played with young Fritz for many long traveling hours. On those rough south Mexican roads, making one hundred miles in eight hours was considered a good day! As each evening approached, all eyes craned the sides of the highway for a suitable camping spot. Liselle spoke fluent Spanish, learned while growing up in her parents' hotel near the France-Spain border. She asked several restaurant owners for permission to camp alongside their restaurants. This travel tactic works when formal campgrounds are not readily available in Mexico. In return for purchasing meals, drinks, goods or services, permission to camp is often granted. However, this day met only with refusals.

As night approached I started to feel a little desperate about being on the 'wild west' coast of Guerrero without a place to camp for the night. Cornered this way, something within me seizes the moment and offers up creative suggestions. When normal thinking processes are out-stripped, this inner voice shouts more audibly, " Try this! Try this! Or perish with your limitations!"

I've learned to grasp hold of a new thought like a drowning man to a life raft. Today's life raft appeared as a government compound. At first glance, it seemed like a military barrack but while talking with a man outside one of the buildings, I discovered that it was a guarded ' agua purificacióne' (water purification) plant.

The suggestion to my fellow ' desesperados' (desperate ones) that we affix ourselves to this compound for the night, met with a responding round of '¡Si!' Bill, mi esposo, pulled our van and trailer alongside Gunter and Liselle's van into the compound's adjoining dirt parking lot. An hour after our arrival, Lance and Sheila, from Nova Scotia, Canada, joined their van to our camper's circle. All three families had met the evening before in a hotel campground in Playa Azul, Michoacán. All three of us had failed to find a suitable campsite on the coast by nightfall. A peculiar thought popped into my mind. Our circle of vehicles resembled a pioneer wagon-train encampment!

Security assured, our amiable group enjoyed the equally serious business of partying in Mexico! A penitent delegation set off for the near-bye tiny ' tienda'. (store) A lone bare light bulb lit the shack that rocked with the crackling blare of mariachi music. Locals crowded around us, ready for a chat. Eventually I pried myself away from their curiosity and returned with cool cervezas and snacks for my grateful amigos back in camp. By now, neighborhood children joined our four collective kids in an evening of balloon bashing and soccer around the dusty parking lot. The party carried on!

A cacophony of sounds blasted the morning awake at 5:00 a.m. Every rooster within ten miles started crowing. At least a hundred! Every pig grunted and each donkey brayed. Awakened, the owner of the tienda cranked up the mariachi music again! Time to hit the road!

The day's drive proved hot, dusty and grueling. While resting on the highway margin for a pit stop, a Mexican police car pulled quickly up to our van. My heart leapt to my mouth as I rolled down the window, to politely inquire, "¿Si, senor?" The friendly policeman only advised us not to drive at night in the region.

Besides the terrible road conditions, local social factors slowed our journey. Several strategies appeared operative. Impoverished locals placed a long log across the highway attached by chains. This roadblock ground traveling to a full stop. While thus blocked, people approached to ask for 'donations' before moving the log to permit free passage. By this time in our Mexican travels we were much accustomed to paying tolls to drive the improved sections of highway. But down here in the south where few tourists ventured, our pesos contributed to the unofficial local economy. Small boys or old men also lingered by the highway margins. Hidden in the shade, they patiently waited for the next approaching vehicle before leaping out, shovel in hand, to ask for payment before filling in the next huge highway pothole. Although willing to pay the small toll, I wondered if the day's work consisted of filling in and routinely emptying that same pothole! Admittedly I took my social cues from the Mexican truck drivers whose highway behavior; I have learned to sometimes copy. If they pay, so do I!

Acapulco remained some thirty miles in the distance as night fell rapidly around our dusty tires. We decided to turn off on a paved road towards the beach to avoid arriving into the city after dark. Gunter's van's higher clearance permitted him to drive more quickly over the numerous topes that crossed the villages' streets. Our van pulling its low-riding trailer slowed to a crawl over each one of Mexico's silent police force. While moving at this snail's pace through the village, men and even boys approached the van. When they spotted my gringa face, they yelled obscenities accompanied by suggestive sign language. Following the slow-moving van they hurled a barrage of sexual remarks.

This aggressive behavior surprised and unsettled me. The men saw easily the faces of my husband and my three children through the windows. Yet this fact did little to deter their behavior. I noticed another peculiarity in this village; small groups of women huddling in doorways and glaring at me as we passed. The women's dirty looks hurled psychic daggers my direction. Why was I the target of such negativity? Months of traveling and socializing with Mexicans from all walks of life never hinted at this social possibility. For once, I was happy for my weak understanding of loud, fast Spanish!

Twenty minutes later, we caught up to our German friends. Liselle recounted her experience in the same village with a similar sense of bafflement.

Appreciation of the wide, sandy beach swept aside the unpleasant feelings. Liselle asked the owner of the largest palapa restaurant for his permission to camp. Paco, the large, paunchy owner, tore his eyes momentarily away from a torrid novella to grunt his agreement providing we purchased meals from his restaurant. He laid languidly in one of his numerous ' matrimonio' sized hammocks, which slung from the supports of the palapa. Business languished equally as slowly at this beach with its dangerous thundering surf. Only one other gringo couple occupied a bungalow and no one walked the beach. Paco's wife ran the entire business. She busily cooked and cleaned all day while Paco rarely stirred his big body from his hammock. The reading of novellas (comic book romances) absorbed his attentions completely.

From the beginning of our two-day stay, Paco regarded me with an uncomfortable interest. My friendly social manner met with his furtive looks and misunderstandings galore. In gracious Mexico, his was unusual behavior!

The strangeness began from the moment I introduced myself as "Wendy." Paco reacted visibly to the name. He sat up in his hammock and insisted on showing me a novella with its graphic depiction of soap opera sex and intrigue. Politely I tried to refuse the invitation but his torrent of Spanish persuasion persisted until I looked at the comic book. Immediately I noticed that the name of one of the novella sex kittens was "Wendy." Apparently Paco wanted to know if I was "like" the 'novella' woman. Politely I attempted to tell him that I was not interested in him. Being polite was a big mistake! The more attention that I showed him, the more persistent he got at pressing his desires. It was like talking to a wall! Finally I just broke the contact and walked away without further comment.

My family and friends enjoyed their road rest of our two-day stay while I took great pains to avoid crossing Paco's path. I generally like the Mexican men's habit of ' piropos' (tossing gallantries at the ladies) and experience few problems with the famous ' macho' behavior. But Paco's continued sexual attentions soured my stay. While travelling in Mexico, I've learned from Mexican women to generally stay low profile and avoid eye contact or conversation with men in general on the streets. Only when invited into people's homes, or staying in restaurants, hotels or campsites, I let my reserve down fully to relax and enjoy myself. The warmth and hospitality of my amigos lulls my fears to rest just as singing, dancing, joking, drinking, hugging and lively conversation takes the upper-hand.

Earlier during our trip, I noticed a chain of stores selling household goods. These 'Wendy' stores feature beds and mattresses! Of all the luck! My husband, Bill began teasing me about 'getting lucky' in Mexico. "Luck like this, I don't need!" I retorted.

While driving back through the unfriendly village, the derogatory remarks began afresh. Their venom increased when some villagers recognized our distinctive van and trailer. I continued to wonder what it was all about. We carried on to Acapulco where many shanty barrios (neighborhoods) hang precariously to eroded hillsides on the outskirts of the city. These same barrios washed to the sea in torrents of mud during Hurricane Pauline. The coastal highway now swept through the famous, opulent and modern hotel tourist zone. Huge blinking neon signs announced the message, "Valentine's Day Special! Ladies admitted free. All you can drink. Prizes for the sexiest pair of dancers."

The neon signs struck me as peculiar in Mexico. But when my husband, Bill drove by a particularly fine-looking grocery store without stopping to replenish our supplies, I growled at him. The world was conspiring against me! Smoldering under the glare of the Mexican sun I burst into flames. The domestic tension of thousands of road trip miles ignited the friction of the past few days. "MAYBE, you'd better let me out at that Valentine's Day Special. I don't need all this aggravation. Unlimited drinks sounds like a great idea," I stormed. " If people here think me a whore, then I might as well start acting like one!" I ranted. "Besides, I'll take all the men in Mexico on-one by one. Let me at them!" I further raved. Bill, a sane man ignored my taunts and drove silently on. Miles later while driving through the Guerrero countryside, the tension evaporated like sweat off a donkey.

Back at home in Canada, I read that Acapulco remains a city with a disreputable past. As the first resort development connected by highway to the Mexican capital, Acapulco developed a reputation for sex and fun in the sun. Generations of Mexican men discovered gringa sex among the plush hotel and club scene. Many North American women found the attentions of Mexican men equally attractive. The Latino charm is legendary and the pursuit is relentless until the final objective-sex, is obtained. In English, the expression for such mutual need is "horses for courses."

Tourist zones encourage and promote the image of romance and sexuality and all sides are ready to buy it!

Also prostitution flourishes among the streets of Acapulco. Accompanied by HIV infection and broken family life, the shady 'lady' image lingers on here. This appears the social legacy that I unwittingly wandered into in the search for off-the-beaten track Mexico.

In 20/20 hindsight, this personal incident is not a big deal. I'm not against sex, nor fun for that matter. It's the treatment of people as commodities against their consent that concerns me. It's the missing of intimate connection and mutual respect from the social equation. It's adults taking their needs and pleasures before the welfare of children that I argue with. I can do little to offset the hard sell of such values.

I try hard not to judge Mexican or any other culture by my own values. Even while I struggle to maintain a personal sense of balance over such social issues. And as I've often said, " I'm no expert in these matters!"

Also I've met with worse harassment scenarios in my own country and in the United States. I've met with "if you can't f… it, kill it" as social philosophy. I've been assaulted and stalked. Times exist when my own life or the safety of my family appeared threatened by people with few qualms about doing great harm to others. The world continually presents itself, as it is not how I always wish it to be.

Mainly my Valentine's Day in Acapulco serves to remind me that every culture has many faces, not all of them pleasant or in the open.

Incidents like this perturb me but fail to stop me from visiting Mexico. Every time that I travel there, I learn more from the culture and its fascinating people. Besides, I can always change my name from "Wendy" when I travel again to Mexico. Change it to something safer and sweeter like, say, "Lydia."

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