You don’t need to live in Canada or Alaska—or even Houston—for it to be a big deal to spend Christmas in the sun. But one of the reasons we love living on the Texas Gulf Coast is that we can get to beautiful, sunny Mexico in couple of hours by plane or a day or two by car. As strange as it may sound, I have to say that Mexico is one of the things I like about most Texas, how Mexico's colors, its tastes and its sounds have shaped its former territory over the centuries.
I feel that Mexico is my older motherland in a way, because I feel a permanent sense of spiritual connection to its people, its culture and its land. Of course, my real motherland is Croatia, which sometimes feels like a younger stepchild of Mexico. The older I get, the more I daydream about moving to Mexico and living there happily ever after. There is so much alegría and so many happy memories in my heart associated with many great trips to Mexico: my honeymoon in Isla Mujeres, our best friends and family trip to Dreams Hotel in Puerto Vallarta, exploring Monterey with two babies in tow, the smells and tastes of Mexico City, mystical Tulum—the list goes on, and never once have I had a boring trip.
If I recall my immigrant beginnings in Texas—or my third puberty, as I label it—I remember vividly how my young boyfriend and I drove from Cancun to Merida, looking for adventure, trying to escape the tourism of “La Fiesta Americana” on the Mayan Riviera. This is how we got to experience a simple yet very welcoming and warm life of villagers, meeting chickens on the roadside and people who invited us into their homes with dirt floor and one hammock functioning as a bed, and not much else in the way of physical possessions. Life was gifting us with a totally different perspective, and not the one we were expecting in the least. It is, spiritually speaking, a totally different land, one that emanates love and true wisdom removed from our daily material world.
After many hours of peaceful countryside, we entered its contrast: the hustle and bustle of the happening city of Merida. My eyes were glued to the people and buildings, not the traffic signs, and in that excitement, I almost ran over the traffic cop. As a result, I had to part with an incredible fine of thousands of pesos in cash on the spot (to the cop himself), but then, a few blocks later, I made almost exactly the same traffic violation and was asked for a fine in hundreds of pesos, not thousands. Oh, that maddening realization that I had been robbed by a cop once again! Madre de (swearing in Croatian)… A similar incident had happened to me back home in Dalmatia, Croatia, where the local cops accepted a watermelon on the back of our motorcycle as a payment.
There are so many things in Mexico that remind me of Croatia, the first one being the “under construction” state of the houses all around the countryside. There is rebar sticking up above the first story, waiting for that second floor to be added for an incoming family member, though perhaps mañana…not right now. But the colors and tastes of Mexico are what I truly love. It is like Croatia in Technicolor, from white, red and blue to pink, orange and green—all the bright colors, not just of houses but also local natives' folk outfits, decorated with fantastic images of tropical birds, mermaids and the always-present images of the sun, the moon and the mother of all, the great Virgin of Guadalupe. Croatia’s version is the Virgin of Medjugorje, close to my house in Omis. With my cellist brother in Croatia, I dedicated this song to our virgin mother a while back. It’s somewhat surprising to find it all on YouTube!
The colors of the street markets like the one in the beautiful seaside village of San Pancho, on the Pacific Coast, will attract all your senses and you will find local indigenous people selling their art made from wood, ceramics or even coconut. Some of the images these folk artists come up with will delight you, like the mermaid "with attitude" swimming on the coconut shell that I was so happy to find.
Not far from that market in San Pancho there is a totally mellow beach, frequented mostly by Mexican tourists, with some fun waves for surfing or just having a playful swim. It is all so comfortable because you can easily find shade in all the little restaurants that serve great ceviche with any kind of fish you can imagine, in addition to tostadas, tacos, great margaritas and cold beers all along the beach. Croatia is good this way too, because people love sitting in cafes along the beach more then they like actually swimming or playing in the water. I guess we only swam when we were younger. But somehow, my youth is always awakened on this beach in San Pancho; there is something super hippy and trippy about it, and I run to the water, ready to play. Mexico is mellow but it’s got that energy.
Even Mexican music sounds like Croatian music pumped up with livelier rhythm of the bass and the ever-so-fun-sounding um-pah sounds of the tuba. Mi corazon, mi amor, mi alma, mi dolor are words you'll hear in almost every song because they invite the singers to belt the words with soul and grand theatrical affection. One time upon a return visit to my hometown of Zagreb, Croatia, my friend invited me to see a really cool new band playing at our favorite bar that night. I was surprised to find on stage—in Croatia—a full-fledged mariachi band playing and sounding really great. But perhaps I shouldn't have been. From childhood I remember hearing the great Pedro Infante with his sensual, emotion-filled voice, and I remember our Croatian singers singing "Las Mañanitas" and many other famous Mexican songs in Croatian. But hearing mariachis in Mexico is next-level fantastic, and I can never stop myself from singing along or following the main melody in parallel thirds or sixths. Who can resist that sexy stud, Luis Miguel, when he sings “La bikina, tiene pena y dolor, la bikina, no conoce el amor!”?
My friend and former Montrose resident George has been living in Mexico for the last six years, and that’s who I decided to visit on our most recent Christmas trip to Mexico. George was once a bartender at my favorite restaurant in Montrose, the late, great River Café, and also at the dearly departed Café Noches. Everybody from Montrose to Mexico, it seems, knows George and everybody loves him. He is a character—very cool, very mellow, and always interesting to talk to—so I was truly looking forward to seeing him in his new home in the small village of Punta Mita, about 40 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta. He picked us up at the airport, wearing his colorful Mexican folk bag and carrying Jagger, his smiley-faced Chihuahua. Jagger stole the show from day one. He is the happiest and the luckiest dog in the whole country of Mexico, a true star. He photobombed so many pictures I took of George’s house, he lived up to his famous name.
When you combine the colors and the building styles of Mexico with the modern luxuries and artistic tastes of America, you get the most beautiful house in the world, a.k.a. George’s house. I was in heaven. The concrete floors were painted an intense blue. Tile on the stairs and in the bathrooms were also a vivid ocean blue with Mexican images of moons and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Every detail was beautiful.
Upstairs was a wrap-around terrace with walls painted pink and orange, colors of the endless summer. Artwork in the house came from Texas artists and a wall in the patio was painted with tropical summer scene by a homeless artist in Punta Mita, one of George’s many friends. There was so much artistic detail in every corner of his house that I tried to capture as much of it on my camera as I could. I took a picture of his hand-carved office desk, and upon examining, who do I see in the background, looking all swell and star-like? Of course, it was Jagger.
George and I took a 30-minute car ride to his favorite local grocery store, a Mexican version of Walmart. George’s buddy Brad, an expat from Vancouver, was with us until, suddenly, in the middle of the road at some undefined place, he asked to get out of the car. George and I just laughed in unison, then followed it up with: “That’s Mexico!” Once inside, I was so happy and overwhelmed by all the products in the store, I started touching everything, like a baby at a buffet. I love shopping and I especially love shopping in new stores in foreign countries; it’s always exciting. As George says, "It’s so trippy…" It is trippy seeing him here, in Mexico, an old Montrose character, an old Houston hippie like me. Connected by old Montrose and all the characters in it, George and I have many things to ponder over our visit.
He still does not speak fluent Spanish, but he knows every person in Punta Mita. So the main question is, why and how Punta Mita? George answers with fatalistic tone that it's meant to be, though in a way that still leaves you still wondering. He says that catastrophic major events usually force people to make big changes. In his case it was that he lost his apartment (I remember when they were tearing down the Wilshire Village apartments, across the street from old Fiesta on Dunlavy; they were beautiful); he lost his job (I remember them tearing down the old River Café, my favorite); and his parents passed away. George used to vacation in Punta Mita with his parents since early childhood. He made friends with local kids there, people like Josue, who owns the Tranquillo Surf Company. Josue and George are old surfing buddies from way back when there were no fancy Four Seasons and Regis Hotels in Punta Mita, and it was just a romantic old fishing village.
There is still a great little marina with simple old fishing boats, and a great fish market, right next to “Stinky’s” Beach. But these days Punta Mita also has that celebrity and high-end tourism element. Our handsome surfing coach Isak informed us that those incredible-looking villas next to our beach, La Lancha, are associated with celebrities like Lady Gaga and the current Mexican president.
Yet it is still fantastically beautiful down there… George built his house on Josue’s land, right next to Cita and Lydia, Josue’s aunt and mother. They live like a family in their little commune; George loves this arrangement. He loves Cita, who is 85 years old and still spunky. Right next to them is a fancy Italian restaurant, and very close-by is a chic little coffee shop and a grocery store in a modern shopping center.
Señor George, a happy grateful and spiritual soul, starts his day at dawn, taking his star dog Jagger on the walk to the beach. He meditates, he helps people, he shares his love and peace with the world. He loves the jokes and the lighter side of life. Brother George is a blast and a great friend to all, truly grateful for his life’s fascinating journey. He is an inspiration.
Upon arrival to Houston I contracted “Montezuma’s revenge,” a stomach bacteria also known as the traveler’s disease. George’s comment when I informed him of this was that, clearly, I am allergic to the U.S. and will have to return to Mexico. Mexico, mi alma, mi amor. Si, señor George, I will return again soon.