Thursday, August 7, 2014

Changing faces in Escazú

When we pull up to his Escazú home, Gerardo Montoya hits play.

Parade sounds fill this sleepy neighborhood in the hills overlooking Costa Rica’s capital city. Crashing cymbals and snare drums punch off time as we walk down the driveway towards a garage workshop where our host awaits, dancing among the monsters he’s created, each large enough to swallow a man whole.

He cuts the music and announces: “Meet my second family!”

There is el Chupacabra the blood sucking goat killer, just chilling next to Martina the spunky abuela. There are grinning diablos crowding long-nosed brujas, witches in cahoots with their equally hideous boyfriends, the brujos. There’s the hot pink-cheeked Rosita, a fat Spanish madam who spends most of her time with the hairless, tirelessly ambitious el Calvo. There’s la Segua, half beautiful woman, half dead horse. Her hobbies include hanging around water and scaring the pants back on unfaithful husbands. There’s Pancho the humble rancher, El Chino the racial stereotype and in the back there is Gerardo, a mask modeled after its maker, the likeness uncanny.

The “real” Gerardo Montoya beams as he explains the family history. His grandfather was Pedro Arias, one of the most famous mid-century Costa Rican mask-makers or mascareros, who defined an aesthetic style still used all over the country to make these paper mâché  “payasos,” beloved guests at every popular festival or celebration, prone to spontaneous dancing and the chasing of children.

Montoya founded this workshop about 20 years ago, after hard times drove the family to sell its farmland in Escazú. Property values promptly sky-rocketed. Montoya has said within three years the German investor who bought that two hectare property was offered more than triple the amount he paid. This kind of story is typical of the rapid transformation taking place in this increasingly affluent cantón, 8 kilometers from central San José.

To get to the mask workshop, we first pass “new” Escazú’s towering condominiums, its gleaming skyscrapers and a colossal shopping mall. We don’t stop at Hooter’s, nor at the liquor store with an LED sign called La Bruja. We ascend narrow residential streets lined with locked gates, shiny cars and for sale signs featuring swimming pools. Near the end we pass an historic Catholic Church, a mural dedicated to cattle ranching and a 100-year-old adobe house where legend has it a real witch once lived. Finally, we climb the steepest grade yet, toward the cloud forests of Pico Blanca. Half-way up we arrive at Montoya’s home and workshop, 200 meters past the water treatment plant where he now works as a technician.

That’s his day job, but “…This is happiness for me,” he says, motioning to the masks.
“To sell a mask would be like selling a son.”

He does have seven of them. Two of these sons have learned to make the traditional masks, using clay to create molds that are then covered in strips of newspaper soaked in yucca gum, left to dry, mounted on wooden or metal frames and painted. It´s a month-long process before they are ready. Montoya doesn’t sell the masks, instead renting them to municipalities for popular festivals, which abound in Costa Rica. Famous for exemplifying the Central Valley style, Montoya’s masks were even used during the 1998 presidential inauguration of Miguel Angel Rodríguez.

At our tour Pedro Montoya, one of the seven sons, disappears under the skirt of a giganta, her gaudily made-up face and blonde hair a parody of a colonial Spanish dueña. He begins to dance like there’s nothing at all precarious about this situation, flirting shamelessly with our driver and facilities manager, Ricardo.

Next we assume some strange forms ourselves.

Upon reflection, wearing that mask and dancing like a maniac in Montoya’s driveway reminds me of learning Spanish through immersion. The giddiness and the sweat. The sense that whatever I want to convey is distorted by what I can convey. Feeling foolish and realizing that is actually kind of fun. The lack of subtlety. The laughter and the art of not taking oneself too seriously.

Reposted from Academia Tica's blog, where I am a guest writer, editor and student for the summer.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Where I am

My place is in the middle, not so much boundary as mixing point, where country peters out and city starts to fill its many voids. In one direction The Clouds, a village called Las Nubes known for fine cheese and honest horses. The other to San José, sprawling seat of government, capital of Costa Rica.

Most mornings I am awake with street dogs, early and reticent, sniffing at mountain air laced with bus exhaust and baking bread, trying to decide which way to go.

When I go up, the road courts a river through farmland, past hundreds of dairy cows knee deep in emerald swell. I find a trout pond so full I can reach out and touch the fish, fingers sending spasms through the mass of slick muscle. It takes just the flick of my wrist to catch one with a bit of chicken grist and a hook on a string. I eat it, eyeball and all, a few minutes later while a smiling woman of about 70 scrubs the pan, sharpens her gutting knife.

Upwards still the pavement ends, a whole lot of mud and rock held together at certain points by flecking scabs of asphalt. Water takes the right-of-way, road unraveling into tangle of muddy skeins cut from forest and cloud. I have no idea which way is north, only that in profound confusion, I can always follow the water back down.

In the city water has a way of hiding, darting into dark tunnels, buried pipes. It leaves me scratching my head where I swear there used to be a river. But then, I guess everywhere used to be somewhere else.

The children’s museum was a jail. The national museum was an airport. The art museum a liquor factory. At a bar that used to be a radio station I watch the soccer team play the World Cup quarter-finals, this country’s first time to advance so far among superpowers of the sport.

On the barroom screen a distant cheering multitude seems divisible only by the megatron singling out really avid fans. People around me sing along to the national anthem with tears in their eyes. We all rally fiercely around the band of ideal men in white uniforms, the guys nobody thought could do it. We scream for their blood and sweat on a field built especially for that purpose. It's pretty weird, actually. As the zeal grips me, begins to remind me of something else, I think, "Well, at least Costa Rica doesn't have a standing army."

The game stalls to penalty kicks, the agonizing overtime of overtime. When the Dutch keeper blocks a goal, clinching victory for his team, the air goes out of this city like a popped balloon. But in a matter of seconds the barroom breaks into applause, incessant honking on the street.

Minutes, then hours, the cheers don´t stop. I start to wonder: “They know they lost, right?”

People dance in the city’s main thoroughfare, closed to traffic. Confetti rains down on us. A petite woman all in white hands me a flag to wave. I think she says “Welcome to Costa Rica,” but it’s hard to hear over the bleating of vuvuzelas.


reposted, more or less, here 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

volcano=4, we/our/us=18

The distinction between earth and sky seems more negotiation than fact from atop Volcan Irazú this May morning. Clouds below us spread like plush white carpets all the way to the Caribbean on one side and the Pacific on the other. On a clearer day we could see two oceans at once, a staggering perspective unique to this place in Central America, the highest volcanic peak in Costa Rica. No matter. We left our superlatives in the car. Didn't bring a guidebook. Even with fog sniffing around like wind's unmannerly pet ghost we see a dense mosaic of rain forest, farmland, rivers and mountains.

Black sand directly underfoot. Eyes plummet down barren slopes, 1,000 feet to the bottom of Irazu's principal crater. We marvel: what made this monumental hole in the ground so lifeless also created the brilliant greens of the surrounding hills. Briefly tempted to test the alien ground, topography nebulous and inviting as the sky. Desire tempered by gravity slides and dire signage. We back away to rejoin other animals and plants boldly staking claim on the volcano. Scraggly tufts of grass thicken enough to host picnicking Ticos not far from the crater edge. Low shrubs make a daring comeback, then fierce little Myrtle trees post up. Man makes like a monkey in one, swinging from a limb and howling ew-ew-ew-oh-oh-oh while kid laughs and wife takes pictures on her phone.
Towers on the densely forested ridgelines above Irazu's principal crater are vital telecommunications sites for all of Costa Rica. Steel scarecrows painted up red and white. The volcano has erupted seven times since 1900, causing more than USD $150 million in damage. The latest major eruption began in 1963, the same day JFK came to San Jose.  In a brief speech to university students he said the word "free" a lot:  11 times. Said  "people" 10 times, "right" 8, "great" and "nation" 7 each. "We," "us" and "our" counted together = 30. No mention of "volcano" or the 20 inches of ash blanketing the city, choking rivers and flooding nearby valleys. The  eruption outlasted JFK by two years. When an American President returned to Costa Rica in 1968 the most used non grammatical word in his airport address was "share."

Of course this has nothing to do with anything. Not like "Nature of Magma Plumbing System," a recent and comprehensive assessment on Irazu's petrography, geochemistry and geobarometry, which concludes that two distinct magma chambers are "co-existing, evolving and  mixing" under the crater. The "eruptive style of Irazu" it concludes, is mainly controlled by magmatic gases and water, working through their differences with increasingly frequent catastrophic results for human property and life.

All this is beyond our expertise, which is general. But still a pride in our hubris begins to swell, pride that people compare this national park on top of an active volcano to the moon because people have been to the moon, pride in the pictures we take with our cell phones, in the over-worked metaphors and contrived conclusions we use to describe them, pride most of all in our ability to remain optimistic, to picnic on the edge of certain doom and to mimic monkeys so hilariously.

North of Irazu's principal crater, the rain forest literally draws a line in the sand, beyond which we must once again go under rather than over that which impedes us.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Pura vida

Nearly there, wherever that is. On the cusp of seasons in a room that gleams like a freshly scrubbed toilet bowl. Scoured in electric blue bedspread, single serving soap. Nothing so generous as a fan that works, so cruel as one that doesn't. Today is a generous one. No semi automatic weapons sighted since crossing the border into Costa Rica. Mere pistols. Cantaloupes for the people. Sipping mescal and reveling in that familiar feeling of almost having made it. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014


Swimming with blind fish. Tiny grubs shine like crescent moons under my battery-powered beam. Out there a tropical sky sweats 11 AM, but here it's darker than night. Deeper we go into this windowless palace of limestone, constructed by that most tireless of architects. The river flows underground for untold miles before bursting down an exposed cliffside at Cascada el Aguacero in Chiapas, Mex. We hire a guide to enter the void first, to say "cuidado" at reassuring intervals. A drip from above lands in my mouth. Follow a thin nylon rope upstream -- two waterfalls meet in a milky pool, then the way becomes too narrow for humans still corporeally confined.   

Bats buzz my head. Reaching for silken rocks, fingers stick in crannies like cake icing petrified mid-swirl. I think of Mr. Jennings, my seventh grade science teacher. Searching for familiar shapes I imagine the bloodspots on his hands as he writes CAVE FORMATION on the whiteboard before dispatching us to lab stations equipped with coca-cola, egg shells and tupperware. We pour, wait, watch Bill Nye. Meanwhile the egg shells, which like limestone consist of calcium carbonate, turn brown and dissolve in the acidic liquid. While not as rapidly corrosive as Coca-Cola, water flowing over calcium-rich rocks also does this trick. It's just a matter of time. 
Out of the cave and back on the road. The landscape thickens and we mere tourists suddenly become ecotourists, staying at ecohotels and ecocampgrounds, driving past ecothis and ecothat enroute to the archeological site at Palenque. Like the cave, this Mayan ruin impresses the profundity of time with waterfalls and limestone, rock formed mostly from the skeletal fragments of ancient marine organisms. Palenque's temples are backed by the steep, forested hills characteristic of the Chiapas' highlands while its labyrinthine central palace faces an open plain stretching some 60 miles across the lowlands to the gulf coast. The history keepers ditched Palenque 1,100 years ago  -- the end of time for its modeled stucco and celebrated bas reliefs. In all the centuries of grandeur preceding this mysterious demise, nothing references the daily lives of commoners, save the ruins themselves. Unless of course, gods built it all. 
King Pakal the Great is entombed under the largest temple, a nine-tiered pyramid crowned by hieroglyphic inscriptions. Some glyphs reference events a million years in the past, others foretell 4,000 into the future. Nine guys were buried alive with this king, "regents of the nine levels into which the underworld was divided," according to Mayan belief as told by the museum's placards. We're still a couple of millennia shy of the future as told by the Temple of Inscriptions, where ecotourists hold iphone cameras up to the sun. A grassy flat surrounding the temple is littered with souvenirs, little girls hustling bracelets and Mayan calendars.  Their pitch  begins: "When is your birthday?" Merciless underselling ensues. 

Wending through the surrounding jungle, Palenque feels anything but abandoned. Life is everywhere. Ants battle ants and more ants, schlepping stones, bodies, prisoners, what may come -- building an empire one unrealistically heavy object at a time.  Fierce, fast-moving red ants run single-file. Black ants equipped with their own personal back hoes fan out. Spiders untold. On ruins near the exit a baby graboid looking thing devours a snail, its armored back wriggling greedily. 
Time to move on. We take a rough road out of town, which archaeologist Ronald Wright describes as "a living thing that shakes its coils and sheds its skin according to the seasons. The pavement is fragile, discontinuous, buried under landslides, cracked by subsidence, held together with strips of gravel and clay." 

This description dates 1985, though not much has changed. Banana sellers pull strings across the road as we approach, part of an insistent sales pitch. If we just keep driving its only a string being torn from someone's hand, but the psychological effect is pretty powerful. The look on one woman's face slows me just long enough for her to step in front of the van. She refuses to move, bag of banana chips held high. We insist, "No, gracias." But the baby nursing at her breast breaks me. I roll down the window, take the bag of chips and pass her 10 pesos. She cracks a sly smile, asks: "Want another?" 

A plan is afoot to build a toll road in place of this living, shaking thing; to turn the indigenous territories of the Lacandon Jungle into "a world class tourist destination," replete with  golf courses, resorts and an elite lodge overlooking a waterfall, accessible only by chartered helicopter. Opposition is fierce. As I look out the window at river after river, at still smarting clear-cuts and mountains spilling their guts into semi-trucks, at the nursing plantano seller's little smile  -- I get the faintest inkling why. 

The Palenque toll road is a facet of the MesoAmerica Project and its predecessor the Plan Puebla Panama, mega-schemes backed by the federal government and development interests, which in Chiapas have led to the construction of another toll, two massive bridges, a deep water port and an international airport, all since 2008. 

Once over the mountains we turn away from San Cristobal, the colonial capital of Chiapas, and instead head towards Comitan, Zapatista territory. Through a pastorale valley of pine, oak and sweetgum, past homes and ranches tended by impeccably dressed men and women. With all the embroidered blouses, combed hair and clean shirts it looks like Sunday, but it's not. On local signage the date  "17 de Noviembre" and the words "communidad autonoma" become almost as ubiquitous as the Coca-Cola insignia. 

Near Comitan 50 or 60 men gather around a square at the center of a communidad autonoma, each wearing a clean shirt and a very serious expression. No one waves back. Three days earlier young Zapatista Jose Luis Solis Lopez  killed in La Realidad, Las Margaritas, near Comitan. According to a blog post from the Frayba Center for Human Rights, a melee involving 140 people, many reportedly members of the political parties PAN and PVEM, and  68 Zapatistas. Guns, machetes, sticks and stones.  A school and a clinic badly damaged. Five injured. Lopez brutally killed: shot in the leg and head, face split by a machete. The clashing parties and unions assembled for ongoing talks called "Towards Hope and Good Government, Together."

The fringes of Comitan. Chasing the sunset to Lagunas de Montebello on the Guatemalan border, stopping for dinner at a roadside comedor -- informal restaurants that serve whatever the lady of the house is cooking. Mole. Two little boys poke at enormous beetles peppering in the gravel. The principal decorative motif is as usual, coca-cola.  Coca-cola fridge kept at 4 degrees celsius, coca-cola chairs, coca-cola clock, flat bottles of coca-cola as centerpieces on coca-cola tables. In exchange the dona fills her quota, probably not that worrisome in a country that consumes more coca-cola than anywhere else in the world.  

Number one for coke, Mexico is number two for bottled water, much of it sold by coca-cola companies. Interestingly, it takes at least 3, some say as much as 9 liters of potable water to make one liter of Coca-Cola. According to reportage from Casa Collective, a social justice org. for Chiapas and Oaxaca, the Mexican government granted 27 water concessions to Coca-cola's mexico affiliate between 2000 and 2008, drawing on 19 aquifers and 15 rivers. In 2003, the company paid USD $29,000 for these rights, countrywide. In 2004, it reported $40 million in profits at the Chiapas bottling plant alone. 

Meanwhile, coca-cola says it aims for "water neutrality" by 2020 and that its currently "helping (the Mexican government) develop financial mechanisms to promote a sustainable water economy."

A cold coke helps pretend away nausea, rally through the last leg of driving to the Guatemalan border,where an emerald lake and an ecohotel await. We make it to Tziscao, an ejido (collectively run village) within the Parque Nacional de Montebello. Delighted to feel fog and wear a jacket.  The lakes of Montebello are collapsed limestone caves, sinkholes filled with crystalline waters that connect via underground streams and exhaust my interest in describing nuances of green and blue. There's 59 lakes in the 15,000 acre park, most of them inaccessible except by foot or horseback. Mayans of yore purportedly threw in precious objects, gold, children. Survivors were believed to bring a message from the gods about that year's harvest.  I keep my eyes peeled for anything portentous as we snorkel across Lake Pojoj. We forget to ask the local guide about crocodiles, but think of them later, when the inviting shallows turn an all-encompassing deep dark blue.  
It's my birthday. Back at shore one of the guys who ferries people across the lake on lashed wooden rafts asks us to help him search for a cell phone dropped by a long-gone tourist into about 20 feet of water.  Alessandro swims over and points it out, also points out that its not likely to work anymore. He is assured that "no, it will work, it's an expensive phone." 

We make a few attempts, though nothing gallant when confronted with the head-splitting pressure. Then the other raft operators start stripping off clothes and calling dibs. They take turns wearing our masks and fins, diving boldly down and jettisoning straight back up. "Slower!" we warn, but something macho is happening here. Few go more than once. Finally, the last man still trying nabs it. A hell of a dive. He comes up dazedly, takes a couple of seconds to grapple and slowly raises his prize: one dripping iphone. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Gracias a la Virgen

<<This post is inspired by a piece of art I saw at a cooperative in Oaxaca de Juarez --- hundreds of notecard-sized paintings on tin by a single artist, each depicting a scene from someone else's life with a sentence beginning "Gracias a la virgen..." While the celebrity of the virgin is still pretty foreign to me, gratitude becomes more familiar every day I spend in Mexico.  Here's a recap of the past two weeks, traveling from the state of Morelos to Chiapas, with Guerrero, Oaxaca and Tabasco in between.>>

Gracias a la virgen that when I lost my glasses in the ocean I did not drown as well.

Gracias a la virgen that the banditito who stopped us in the road between Acapulco and Puerto Escondido was not able to open the driver's side door, that we did not run over the other children who threw themselves in front of the car while slow-moving grown men with shovels approached, and that we got away from the whole scene with less agitation and property damage than is generally caused by unmarked speed bumps on MEX-200.

Gracias a la virgen that when the signs warning of upcoming speed bumps are obscured by homemade signs for COCOS FRIOS, at least some of those coconuts really are cold.

Gracias a la virgen that the high road to Oaxaca City from the lowland coast is not even the tiniest bit narrower.

Gracias a la virgen for the gold, the jade baubles, the human skulls inlaid with turquoise, the carved bones, the necklaces made of teeth, the obsidian spears, the animalistic figures and the ceremonial vessels; for the crucifixes, the crowns set with emeralds and rubies; for the saddles, the copper stills, the iron blades and all the books; for the rifles, telegraphs and radios; the cameras, cigars and bilingual audio tours for M$50;  for all the things in Oaxaca's cultural museum in the former convent of Santo Domingo, a vast stone complex containing the makings and unmakings of empires past, present and future, items carefully catalogued and overwhelming enough to drive me several times from the hallowed inner rooms to the courtyard, where with eyes closed, mind blank I listened to the fountain spill into a stone bowl.

Gracias a la virgen for AGUA PARA USO HUMANO, but most of all for AGUA POTABLE.

Gracias a la virgen for mescal, too.
Gracias a la virgen for the mescal makers, particularly for Sr. Pedro Aurelio, who doesn't object to looky-loos as he toils by the road among maguey thorns and smoke, waiting a decade or more to cut out the hearts of his crop and clucking kindly at his little black horse as it strains to pull a stone wheel over this season's long-awaited harvest -- a mesquite-roasted, fibrous mess that must be shoveled into a barrel and distilled three times before about 1 liter of mescal for every 20 pounds of cactus trickles out beneath an alter a la virgen.

Gracias a la virgen that right when we were so tired of driving and closely pursued by darkness, a little unnamed road on the GPS led to a dusk-kissed lake with free camping.

Gracias a la virgen for allowing me to climb right up a certain sandstone waterfall in Chiapas, where a million cold clean fists pounded my chattering skull until the roar of it all became like quiet.

Gracias a la virgen that what felt like creatures nibbling at my ankles in the river bed was actually just the current kicking up sand.

Gracias a la virgen that Bruno the dog kept pumas away while we slept soundly in our hammocks.

Gracias a la virgen that so many helpful people care where we are going and how we are going to get there.
Gracias a la virgen that the cave was not as terrifying as I thought it would be and that none of the bats pooped on me as I swam on my back, open-mouthed, beneath their roosts.

Gracias a la virgen that I can visit a rich man's tomb without staying very long.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Holy Week

Holy Week in a region of great tectonic tension-- we stray  briefly from Jalisco's highlands to camp on the coast of Nayarit for a few days before doubling back to Guadalajara on Easter Sunday. Semana Santa (aka Holy Week) is like national spring break in Mexico, where census says Christians, (vastly Roman Catholics),  make up 93 percent of the population. Suddenly the razor's edge we cut through this dense and heaving country reveals a distended cross section --- Mexican vacationers clog roads and gas stations, overtake mountains and seas.  The very pious and the very drunk parade by, while regular folks wait to use the bathroom.  
As we head south from San Luis Potosi,  pilgrims and penitents walk single file over  scorching desert mountains and across valleys of blue agave, carrying icons to a remote sanctuary. We stop for a couple of nights at a ranching village  in a canyon about one hour southwest of Guadalajara, sheer pastures willed out of rock and cactus. The central church of Barranca de Santa Clara was damaged by a reecnt earthquake. Tower fissured, loudspeakers toll instead of bells. 
Our host is Maria, the mother of a lover of a friend, though her hospitality never hints at the tenuousness of this connection. Degrees in natural medicine and psychology hang on the wall opposite Maria's airy kitchen, in which she prepares us delicious food. She proposes I use white vinegar and tranquility to treat an allergic reaction that has temporarily disfigured my face and dampened my spirits, likely the result of unwise flower picking in the desert of San Luis Potosi. 

One side of Maria's face seems affected by stroke - an eyebrow always raised knowingly at you. According to her daughter Fabiola, she was drawn to the church in Barranca de Santa Clara by an 85-year-old mystic and illiterate named El Segundo, who reports from the astral plane while Maria takes notes for an as-told-by book.  Story goes, El Segundo's mom died when he was three. Unwilling to accept this loss and ignorant of decomposition, he dug up her grave. But the sight of her rotted corpse only shocked and grieved him more. Then his mother appeared bathed in celestial light to deliver a message: as an adult El Segundo would have powers to travel in other dimensions, to relive the lives of saints and the cruxifixion of Christ, to ward off evil and save souls from hell.  All these things came true, Maria says.   Bearing in mind the limitlessness of other dimensions, El Segundo prognosticates a bleak future for the world as most of us know it. The end is near, etc. However Barranca de Santa Clara will remain a protected place, a spiritual refuge in times of great suffering. 
Moving westward, we cross something like seven mountain ranges. Our prickly path becomes lush green an hour from Sayulita on the coast. Joined by two teenage hitchhikers -- Brian and Beto -- springbreakers on their way to a beach rave, elated to listen to American funk and soul music. They offer us obsidian and crystals, "por protecion";  we thank them with a Taj Mahal CD. 
Salt water and  a cortisone shot revive me. Chance would have us stay up all night on Monday April 14 to see the moon turn "blood red," the first of four total lunar eclipses happening every six months over the next two years. This rare "lunar tetrad" is a source of meaning for all kinds of believers.
Evangelicals seem inclined to doom. A couple of Americans have been best-selling books aligning the eclipses of 2014-15 with Biblical verse Joel 2:31: "The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes." 
A cheerier outlook on the beach in Sayulita the night of the first eclipse. Unaware that anything auspicious is going to happen, Alessandro plays his guitar while I navel gaze. Three women pass, then one comes back, inviting us to join a meditation circle down the way. Not a trap. It's a ragtag group of friends and strangers, tourists and local tea-leave readers, lighting candles, singing, banging and clanging on stuff, chanting,  playing Aztec ritual, burning wishes and saying thank you to the moon. The MC is  a 70-something white guy named Gary, wearing a Mayan calendar tee-shirt. Gary says this will be time for change, a time to let go of something that's been bugging you, a time for relationships to make or break. A beautiful woman wrapped in traditional textiles sings folk songs, her infant son asleep under the thumping hand drum. An unlikely variety of instruments emerge from the candlelit sand. Gongs the size of man-holes.
The moon bruises then bleeds in a contained way, like a smooshed toenail on its way out. Other stars and planets emerge from the falling darkness. 
The next day we peruse crowded souvenir markets, admire handicrafts of the Huichole culture. Exquisite embroideries, peyote-inspired beadwork, sacred symbols for sale. Cocos, too. Young women use machetes to decapitate and drain them into plastic bags, cutting bright white flesh into manageable pieces for the throngs of dehyrdated, sunburned 20-somethings that have descended upon Nayarit's coast in the tens of thousands.
Pilgrims they ain't and by Good Friday our pretty little campsite by the beach turns into my own personal Hades, crossed by the river Piss. Its like a civil war reanactment with no history buffs; a religious revival with no religion. Dome tents pimple every inch of ground; every boombox plays a little louder than the one next to it. There's like, five obnoxiously drunk dudes for every one inscrutable, hiccuping girl. 
Before the Holy Weekend brings 3,000 people into our five-acre campground, I don't quite grasp how completely the situation in Sayulita will transcend any one puny person, no matter how bitchy, tired or entitled she may feel. 
It's only Wednesday, after all.  Almost midnight. Murmurings of a tropical shore obliterated by our neighbor's smackfest thinly veiled in nylon. Way way worse is the terrible dance song they are playing on repeat at bowel quaking volume. I implore Alessandro. He cajoles Jorge the night guard: is this really permitted here? Its only Wednesday, after all. Already midnight. 
Dutifully, Jorge interrupts the rustling tent while we hide in ours.  The music dials down for five minutes, gets louder incrementally over the next ten.   
Jorge works 12-hour nightshifts guarding this camp, dealing with the campers. He's paid less than one us dollar an hour. He welded the new zip line. He has another job in the afternoons. "I've been to the US," he says. "When I was 13." "With your family?" I ask. "No, by myself." An uncomfortable look passing over his face. "For work."
He's 44. Wife lives in town with another guy. Son estranged. Sister in Salt Lake City. Mother dead. Father gone.  Eventually I ask him what he does for fun and he closes his eyes for long second, sighs and really can't think of anything. "Work," he shrugs. Its 2 am and a marching band strikes up in the near darkness, accompanied by full horn section. 
We find refuge thanks to a guy with a massage tent of the beach. He sees us cleaning the surfboards, asks if we are "serious surfers" and then volunteers directions to a secluded spot, something along the lines of "go down the little road out of town to the power plant, park there and walk along a fence, through the jungle via the creek until you hear howler monkies." 
Then he apologizes for being so drunk so early in the day. It only takes us the better part of an afternoon to find secluded playa de los burros, where we spend two days surfing a mellow point break, snorkeling and laying around under trees, trying not to rile up any mad little bugs too much. 
Back to Guadalajara, reluctantly. An earthquake precedes us by one day. Our host Polo reports he was home in his underwear when it began.  For a second he debated putting on pants, then ran outside without them in case the building gave way while he was doing something foolish like putting on pants during an earthquake. On the still street he found himself alone, indecent and embarrassed.
Easter Sunday we head to the city center -- riding with Polo along wide, shop-lined avenues -- fancy storefronts clad in wedding dresses, bars and familiar brands, then down into a pitch black tunnel that leads to the center. Desert sun to reeling darkness, no headlights, the smell of fried chicken. Polo seems unfazed. We emerge in a parking lot and ascend to the roof for a view of the city's sprawling lines, hard edges capped by ubiquitious church domes. Makes me think of all those tents in Sayulita.
In the central cathedral on this Easter Sunday the crowning virgin gazes as she always does, ever downward on the sacristy, a curio cabinet of holy crap and old bones. A line forms for the eucharist as a more haphazard crowd gathers on the north side of the church, under the impassive figure of Domingo de Guzman, patron saint of astronomers. Guzman guards the point of interest, an ornate terrarium blooming with white tafetta and lace, the face of a sweaty cupcake. 
A child martyr, her eyes are closed peacefully under smears of pale white flesh and tendrils of copper hued hair. Taped to the reliquary is a color photo of the real Santa de Innocencia from Guadalajara -- a girl of maybe 8 in a contemporary white button-up top,  the sheen of sweat on her deep brown skin, her jet black hair in schoolgirl's braids. Story goes, Guadalajara's Inoncencia was the daughter of a very bad man. After she was beaten mercilessly for asking to take first communion, a nun taught her catechism classes in secret, advising that when in a damned if you do, damned if you don't siutaiton,  better to ally with good than evil. Following her first eucharist, Inocencia ran into the kitchen to tell her father, who promptly stabbed her in the chest. Blood spurted all over the onions he was chopping. 
True story. In a sense, anyway. More than three sources confirm Inocencia's existence in the Guadalajara cathedral; two talk about the well-meaning nun who taught her to pray, the abusive father who stabbed her to death; only one says it happened in the kitchen with a chopping knife. The onions are made up, maybe true. Mulling gospel truth. Only Luke mentions that under torture Christ turned down a sedative of wine and gall, a desert plant akin to nightshade. Only Matthew mentions a sudden darkness and an earthquake following the crucifixion.
At the Easter Sunday Eucharist service in Guadalajara, a procession of open mouths take communion, a cracker for the body of Christ, thimbles of wine symbolizing the blood of the Lamb. Afterwards we find a taqueria overlooking a pedestrian street -- a menu of  lips, head, eyes, tongue, and cheek. Tacos vampiro?  Meat served with blood, Polo says.  We all order ahogada tortas, a regional speciality consisting of pork on a bun drowned in tomato-based sauce. A sandwich eaten with a spoon.