A cool morning in Surprise, Arizona, you can hear paddles striking balls several streets away from the Happy Trails pickle ball courts.
“There are 15,000 pickle ball players in this area,” a woman educates me as she sells new pickle ball paddles and takes names for her E-mail list at her vendor stand by the entrance to the courts.
This morning, while much of the park sleeps, men over 50 warm up, talk strategy, stretch, get their game faces right. Once individual games start there are paddles slammed into the ground, curses, and strained expressions. All the results of the pairings are written down on a bracket board by the scorers table. This is a tournament to crown the Happy Trails Pickle ball Champions in doubles, men over 50, 2015.
Pickle ball goes down on a small court with lots of stretching and reaction, strategy and competition. Even old guys don’t lose their desire to crush other old guys, even if they all have beers after the tournament and talk about good shots whenever and whomever they came from.
Having your name engraved on a silver cup becomes for some, at some point in their life, a great prize. Bragging rights can be some of the best.
After watching the tournament, I still don’t know where the name pickle ball comes from?
Nobody here looks like a cucumber.
Every journey has an end.
The Mazatlan aeropuerto is small. U.S. Airways charges twice as much for a ticket as they should and the fact the airplane is only half full going down and three quarter full returning tells volumes about the state of tourism in Mexico. Years of gang killings, drug wars, and poverty in Mexico have taken a toll on traveler’s psyches. No one, except the most resolute, would venture across America’s southern border into a country that so many people die trying to leave.
A sign in the airport says, “End of the Road.”
Alan, Dave and I are waiting in shorts and T shirts to go back to the United States. Winter is going full blast there.
I can see why ancient tribes followed the Bering Strait into the America’s and kept moving till they found more hospitable places to live. Even then each journey had twists and turns and adventurous souls took chances for better results.
Mexico has become the third international ring on Scotttreks right hand but us travelers sometime have to go home to catch our breath.
Roots won’t keep me from packing my bags again when time, money, and imagination conspire.
We are flying back to Arizona where I drive back to New Mexico, Dave drives back to Colorado and Alan drives back to Texas.
Living far from friends and family isn’t a viable excuse anymore for not doing things together.
On the way to the beach at the Hotel Playa de Mazatlan, there is a mural painted on a hotel wall by some unknown Mazatlan artist.
The characters are easy to recognize.
There are homages to traditional lifestyles when women wore non-revealing clothes and carried baskets on their heads heading homeward after a day of laundry or working in the fields. There are mustached musicians strumming guitars and wearing huge sombreros. There are tourists taking pictures and children playing with turtles. There are bright, bold colors and exaggerated poses.
It is all in good fun, if not questionable taste, and full of contradictions – just like Mexico itself.
There is poverty in Mexico and unbelievable wealth. There is violence and lighthearted fun. Some people work hard and others little. There is pride and lack of pride, crumbling infrastructure and modern architectural wonders. There is sun and surf and family outings and beach vendors selling hats and trinkets for a pittance.
This mural is one of the first things we see when we go to the beach, and one of the last when we leave on our way back to our rooms.
Whether you cry, or laugh, depends on you, the moment, and how much beer you have had.
ThIs mural is a Mazatlan postcard painted on a wall.
All you need is a stamp and a mailbox.
In the hotel lobby, each day, this artist/craftsman unfolds two tables.
He is dipping his brush into color and applying paint as I watch. When done with one color, he cleans his brush in a glass of water, wipes the residue off with a towel, then switches to another color on the bowl he is working on.
These little bowls are finely detailed.
The one I purchase has turtles swimming on the inside. Any of these will look good on a coffee table and put conversation in motion. They make a good place for rubber bands, hard sweet peppermint candies, wandering coins.
An ancient God, playing flute, dances around the inside of another finished bowl.
Whether his muse is Gods, or money, is a question only he can answer?
On the walls of his home he might have spectacular canvases of Incan jungles, ancient costumes, and wild untamed animals, or reproductions of Diego Rivera’s murals, posters of soccer stars, or photos of his wife, children and grandchildren.
Modern urban life can take the spirit right out of you, if you aren’t vigilant.
This is a conundrum.
At first glance these are footprints on the beach. At a second glance you discover the footprints are not pointing the same direction.
At first thought, I wonder how this happened?
Maybe a man with a peg leg twists his right foot in the opposite direction and lights a Cuban cigar as his Labrador Retriever plays in the surf? Maybe a couple with a devilish sense of humor indulge passions before the sun is truly awake? Maybe Big Foot is on vacation in Mazatlan and is showing Little Foot how to confound humans?
On our last day in Mazatlan, this is fit for a call to Sherlock Homes.
If anyone can figure it out, it will be him.
Some of the grandest moments on a trip to the ocean are when you wake up and when you go to bed.
First thing in the morning the sun pushes itself up onto its throne and has its cleaning staff sweep away darkness with stiff brushed brooms. Last thing in the evening the sun falls tired under the waves like a huge prehistoric creature grabbing one last breath before diving to the deep.
You walk the beach and see clouds tinted with reds and yellows and pinks. The sand and water meet like opposing armies and you can look far to the horizon where sky dissolves into water.
On a morning or evening walk, you feel breezes tug at your shirt sleeves and sand grabs your toes.
Sleeping on the hotel balcony with a blanket and a pillow for my head, sunrise and sunset are always welcome.
Waves roll in and out like drum rolls and it is okay to be insignificant.
One of the first things I come across on this Stone Island beach is a handwritten message scratched in the sand, still hours away from being erased by the incoming tides.
It brings up an old question – “If no one hears a tree falling in the forest, does it mean the tree didn’t fall?”
It brings up a new question – “If no one sees our messages, does that mean we weren’t here? ”
Soon enough, this author is going to get all the reviews he or she ever wanted.
My comment, not written in the beach margins, is, ” how can you be sure? ”
They should have left their phone number.
Writing always raises more questions than it buries.
Our expedition boat docks, by a grouping of mangroves,and we disembark into a thatched eating area where a local family will serve us fish for lunch in a few hours.
While they prepare our tour’s meal, we are taken for a tour of this island’s coconut farm, watch Polo skin a coconut using a metal spike stuck in the ground. When done, he cracks the coconut shell into halves and distributes the white meat inside to any of us who want it.
There are chickens roaming free around the home, lying on the hot sand or pecking each other in territorial disputes. In one cage is a crocodile, and, in another, snapping turtles fight over fish in a small bowl.
When done with coconut skinning, a gray haired man in a ball cap loads our group into the back of a long wagon with wood seats and a canvas top, starts his tractor, and we are pulled up a winding sandy path to the uninhabited beach on Stone Island where we will beach comb till lunch.
“Be back in an hour,” Polo says to us, as we hit the beach, then he looks for a chair and a shady spot to talk with the tractor driver, a couple of young men renting ATVs, the skipper of our boat, and a few tourists who don’t care about seeing more sand.
The beach here stretches unimpeded for miles in both directions and coconut trees tower over all. It must have been what islands in the Pacific looked like to our father who fought in World War 2 as a LST Captain. He didn’t talk about the war but I’ve seen old black and white filmstrips of action in the Pacific and it was never a tourist vacation.
Members of our group spread out along the beach according to their interests.
Some walk with heads hunched over looking for shells. Others spread blankets and take a sun bath. Some walk in the waves. Others look for pictures in paradise. Some are talking in intimate conversations while others are just roaming down this beach that goes as far as you can see in both directions with nary a hotel, resort, home or business in sight.
The island has been protected by an order of a past President of Mexico – Felipe Calderone. He decided that the island, once owned by a rich family, would serve the public interest by being left protected. This simple decision has probably had a more lasting influence on his country than some of his more lofty calculations. Presidents can do many things but not all of them are right or necessary.
After our beach jaunt, we are taken back and have lunch on a big covered patio. Byron, an older man in his eighties who can barely walk and uses a cane, has taken this exact trip for twenty nine years but can not come next year because his hotel, under new management, cancelled all timeshares at the El Cid Hotel in the Zona Dorado. He is a farmer from Minnesota who kept coming back to Mazatlan because the people here have been friendly.I sit with him and he is sad he won’t becoming back next winter and guesses he will have to find a new place to weather midwest snow storms.
On our way back home, Juanito, Polo’s tame pelican, revisits us on the Acutus and Polo sits stoically on the bow, places a fish on his head, and lets a frigate bird lift it away in his beak, right out of Polo’s thick black hair.
It is a memorable expedition. No one gets lost. There are plenty of refreshments and diversions. The price is cheap, thirty U.S. dollars, our guide is informative.
It would be fun to spend a night on the beach and have a bonfire made of driftwood and listen to pirate stories.
I would pay to go on that one too.
As our tour boat moves slowly through the water, paralleling Stone Island, we see mangroves form a wall to our east. We leave the marina and head north past large shrimp boats, tuna ships with miles of net piled on their decks, one of the largest fish canneries in Mexico, the Pacifico beer bottling plant, some ship repair yards and ocean going vessels in various shades of rust.
Rounding the northern tip of the island, we head now, towards the south, on the opposite side of the island from where we began. You can look further south and see breaking waves as waters of the Pacific meet waters of this estuary fed by rivers. Mangroves grow where salt water and fresh water meet and they are crucial for the aquatic environment.
While we chug along, a pelican flies down to the deck at the bow of our boat and looks at Polo, our guide.
Pelicans are odd looking birds with huge beaks, beaded eyes and bald heads, huge jointed wings. This visitor’s webbed feet splay out on the deck and he isn’t going anywhere.
Polo reaches for his microphone and tells us a story.
“This is my friend Juanito,” he begins. “He comes and joins us on most of our trips. I will give him fish later for a reward …”
Polo waits a moment before continuing, waits to get everyone’s attention. He sees that some passengers want to take pictures so he lets us come up and sit by Juanito and get our pictures. The pelican is a perfect gentleman, keeps his attention on Polo, but chases off other birds who want to land on deck and steal his spotlight.
“Some years back,” Polo continues, “we found this pelican who was covered with oil and couldn’t fly. So we wrapped him in a coat and took him home and my family cleaned him up and fed him till he could fly again. We had him at home a year before we brought him back here and let him go. His home is over there …”
Polo gestures at the mangroves with a free hand.
“He joined us on a tour one day and now he always comes to see us. He is a very smart bird. When I feed him he knows which fish to eat and which fish to leave alone.”
After telling us about the value of mangroves to the ecosystem, and stressing the importance of fishing to the local economy, Polo feeds Juanito his first treat.
For a bunch of tourists, on vacation, Juanito is a high point.
It isn’t every day you are visited by a Pelican and get to watch him grab a fish in his beak, wiggle his long neck to get the fish down to his stomach, then look back at you with contentment and anticipation as his friend, Polo, reaches into a white five gallon paint bucket for yet another snack.
Juanito takes this fish gently from Polo’s hand, and swallows.
He has become, and he knows it too, our official trip mascot.
Back in the day, after school, our tribe would gather around the new black and white television in the family room and watch TV serials.
There was Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, the Little Rascals, Gene Autry, the Three Stooges, and Tarzan.
One of the pleasures of childhood was watching Tarzan live in the jungle free from teachers, swinging on vines, communicating with a grunt, fighting evil men stomping through his jungle with guns on their shoulders and gold on their minds. Every show a lion would get one of the slave traders and make him lunch, which brought cheers. To be able to swim every day in crocodile infested waters and pal around with Cheetah,who was always the middle of mischief ,was the greatest luck.
This morning, our expedition is going to Stone Island outside Mazatlan, visiting a beach with no hotels or development, having locals make us lunch, then taking the long boat ride back home.
Around nine in the morning we board the Acutus following Polo, our guide for this trip.
The plank walkway down into the boat is steep. There are life vests on board though no one is forced to wear them. There are plenty of drinks, including cerveza, and Polo does the tour in two languages. He talks in Spanish a while and then repeats the same information in English. Though it sounds like he gives a bit more insight in Espanol, he is funny and makes the tour educational.
These tours are a mainstay of a vacation. You take them for the tidbits they bring, and, over time, you accumulate insight into a place from someone who lives here and knows it.
Life here follows tides, seasons, weather.
Chugging around Stone Island, we become just another piece of the Mazatlan puzzle – a small tour boat in the lower right hand corner of a colorful jigsaw puzzle, a slow moving excursion boat with sun burned visitors wearing baseball caps and straw hats.