GOING PLACES

Z-Z-Z-Zihuatenjo, A Great Place To Do Nothing On A Full-Time Basis

WILLIAM CAMERON March 1 1971
GOING PLACES

Z-Z-Z-Zihuatenjo, A Great Place To Do Nothing On A Full-Time Basis

WILLIAM CAMERON March 1 1971

Z-Z-Z-Zihuatenjo, A Great Place To Do Nothing On A Full-Time Basis

GOING PLACES

MEXICO

WILLIAM CAMERON

You GO TO ACAPULCO because there is something about Acapulco — the sound of the name rolls off the tongue like brandy and crystallizes images of airline stewardesses and tanned gangsters in wraparound sunglasses and discreet, very efficient waiters beside the swimming pool; and you sit on the terrace of the Mirador Hotel and watch the diving exhibitions from the cliffs of the Quebrada while they take your money away from you. You are certainly not in Mexico. You might as well be on Mars. And it is very expensive.

Perhaps you like that sort of thing, but for me it is a little unsettling, this sense of being in an English-speaking nowhere by the sea. (“We are about to perform the high dive,” says the elegant gentleman in white trousers, “and we will collect from each of the spectators 10 pesos, please.”) I do not wear wraparound sunglasses, and I do not own a department store. Acapulco makes me nervous.

Zihuatanejo, on the other hand, does not. Zihuatanejo (Zee-wah-tan-ay-ho) is about five hours’ drive north from Acapulco along Mexico’s west coast, and it is now what Acapulco must once have been, before Western International Hotels and the airlines got there: small, extraordinarily beautiful, and — there is really no other way to say this — real. People live there, real people, at least some of whom do not especially care whether tourists live or die or buy another drink, but instead make their livings directly from the

sea and the calm beaches and the long groves of coconut palms.

Most tourists really do not like being tourists very much; there is something a little unnatural about the whole idea of tourism, the act of dropping into another culture for two or three weeks, and then dropping back out again, without really having done a lot, or learned a lot, and suspecting that one has been swindled, just a little, all the way down the line. In Acapulco, the tourist is a tourist, without pause, and that feeling of being swindled is intense : travelers’ paranoia. In Zihuatanejo it is possible to feel that you are really not very important after all, and that people are not necessarily out to get you.

Zihuatanejo is built on a large bay, inland and sheltered from the full Pacific; there is only one channel to the ocean so it is an ideal and safe harbor, and the life of the town centres around the fishing and pleasure boats that use it. This means that there really isn’t a lot doing most of the time; and most of the time it is intensely, ferociously, unremittingly hot.

There are two things you can do when it is hot in Zihuatanejo. You can go swimming, which takes lots of energy and gives you sunstroke if you do it too often; or you can lie in a hammock on the beach and watch other people swimming. Occasionally, very occasionally, you can watch other people, new arrivals, discovering for themselves that there is nothing to do in Zihuatanejo but go swimming

or lie in a hammock on the beach. “Hi, there, whatcha doing?”

“Lying in a hammock.”

“What’s happening around here?” “Nothing.”

“Hey, how many beaches are there around here, anyway?”

“Four.”

“What’s happening on the rest of them?”

“Nothing.”

This is, perhaps, not strictly true. There is a skin-diving school, and a man who offers burro rides to his coconut grove (which looks like all the other coconut groves), and, at night in one of the three or four expensive hotels just out of town, a discotheque.

But Zihuatanejo is a tropical town, good for sitting around and doing nothing in; and, while sitting around and doing nothing is an acquired skill, most people find that they are quite good at it, and enjoy it, and want to concentrate on it exclusively.

This kind of leisure does something odd to the North American character; it makes North Americans courteous and introspective and almost solemn. Under the blistering sun, the cabdriver from Chicago examines his life, sips his rum, and speaks nicely to his wife. People become unraveled. It is an effort to be anything but pleasant.

There is a small colony of North American expatriates who have found that this lack of momentum is to their permanent taste. You can rent a fully equipped house in Zihuatanejo for $120 per month or a roof with a ham-

mock for about $20, and do nothing on a full-time basis. Arthur Kolby, an architect who spends half a year in New York City and half a year in Zihuatanejo, says, "This is a beach combers' town. There's nothing to do. Nobody's selling you anything. It couldn't be less like Acapulco." Leon, a film maker who lives on a hill above the bay, says, "I came here to figure out where I was going, who I was. This is a fine place for that. The quiet is like a drug."

Acapulco is nowhere, in some luxu rious fantasy geography; Zihuatanejo is solidly rooted in Mexico. The heatborn tranquillity is Mexican; the faces, collapsing into deep creases and bad teeth at 30, are purely Mexican, in a rural Mexico that is almost un touched by, and almost foreign to, the cold and profitable urban activity in Mexico City. The faces are mestizo, Spanish crossed with Indian, phleg matic and meaty, the color of earth. Along the unpaved streets, the Mexi cans leave their doors open, and lie in their hammocks watching the gringos.

This will change, a little. As more tourists discover what a marvelous place Zihuatanejo is for doing nothing in, the inhabitants of Zihuatanejo, with outside help and money are be coming busier. There is a mild con struction boom along the beaches, and some of the young men of the town are discovering that they can make a living simply by being friend ly. ("Hotel? Where do you want to go tonight? You want something to smoke? I can do it for you.") They drift elegantly along the beaches, looking for action and combing their hair, deciding who is rich and who is not. The local whorehouse has hired a puta Americana for the foreign trade; things are looking up.

In five years, perhaps, the green hills around the bay will be crusted with hotels, the beaches will be filled with hustlers, and travel writers will be writing about somewhere else. When a town is jammed with people looking for peace and quiet, peace and quiet disappear, the smart money goes into architecture, the rhythms change. And every sunny southern coast becomes an extension of the same bland, crowded dowdy playpen: Acapulco, Torremolinos and Marbella in Spain, the French Riviera, Miami.

But perhaps not Zihuatanejo; there is a kind of natural, total indolence there, and I suspect that that quality may be a little tougher than it seems. Maybe, even in five years, you will be able to do nothing, in a hammock, on the edge of a hot beach, under the sun. L