Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Reflections on Vallarta

It’s funny how the nature of a place can change drastically based solely on what’s happening in your own life rather than anything about the place itself. I have been coming to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for eight years and over that period my perception of this Pacific resort has changed from Paradise to Land of Disappointment to something in between.

The first winter I came here I really didn’t want to come at all. I had booked a hotel room by myself based on something I had heard about Puerto Vallarta becoming the newest gay hot spot. I planned my trip months ahead solely because I was dreading another endless cold winter in Rehoboth Beach. But by the time April arrived, spring was already in the air and I didn’t relish going by myself to a place where I didn’t know anybody.

Perhaps it was inevitable that with such low expectations I had a fantastic time. Under the mentorship of a seasoned traveler and gregarious new friend from Alaska, I discovered that young men in Mexico are very open to relationships with older Americans. There was nothing sordid or contractual about it, provided you offered “taxi fare” for your young companion to get home. So I met Carlos #1 and spent most of that week in a romantic haze. Carlos #1 must have lived far out in the suburbs because his taxi fare was 400 pesos. As it happened, he stayed in my hotel room with me and never needed to use his accumulating transportation fund.

The following year I met Carlos #2. We saw each other several times over the next two years. He never had any money but he never wanted taxi fare either. For my 59th birthday, as a present to myself, I took him to La Perla, a fabulous gay boutique bed and breakfast in Guadalajara. It was all very romantic. But I grew weary of Carlos #2 when he persisted in seeking my aide in getting him (illegally) into the United States.

And then came Luis. My two year on-again-off-again partnership with Luis included living together in Puerto Vallarta, New York (legally), and Mexico City. Just prior to breaking up, I had been seriously considering buying a condo in Mexico where we could live happily ever after. For two years I had voluntarily suspended disbelief and had convinced myself that two people, 30 years different in age, one with a secure, if not large, retirement income while the other was yet to hold a job for more than a few months, could have a stable and loving relationship.

When the illusion shattered, it shattered hard. Today as I walk through Vallarta, it does not shine with romantic possibilities but rather reflects a time past in my life. The places I pass by are like holiday snapshots from a long ago vacation. The memories become dimmer, but so does the pain. I no longer see everything in relation to Luis. This is not the spot where we first met or the café where we always had drinks with friends. I now see everything here as it really is.

This place that ex-pats and regular visitors call paradise is nothing more than a Mexican fishing village that has grown rapidly and wildly beyond anything that can sustain itself. It is polluted, noisy, the infrastructure is crumbling, the tourists are misbehaved and dressed inappropriately, time share vendors are aggressive to the point of hostility, nobody speaks Spanish and nobody sees the abject poverty that lurks just beyond the edges of the tourist zone.

As I sit on the shaded patio of my favorite Vallarta condo, a refreshing breeze comes up the hill from the Pacific Ocean. This condo that should have so many memories is now just a place I am staying, a pleasant place to be sure, to enjoy some fine weather as I wait for spring to arrive in New York. I’m looking forward to going home.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


"I've got dozens of friends and the fun never ends at least as long as I'm buying" The Styx, Too Much Time on My Hands

I have a friend who insists that true friends do not allow their friendship to fade easily. She insists that, like a marriage, both parties must constantly invest in maintaining their friendship. When she moved halfway around the world it seemed inevitable that we would drift apart. But she never allowed that to happen. My life is better today because she is such a tenacious friend.

For my Australian friend, the word “friend” can not be used lightly. A friend is one of the handful of people who remain constant and close throughout your life. A friend is someone who has passed the test of time and who has proven to be reliable and trustworthy. Reliable in the sense that you can call that person at 4:00 in the morning because your life is crashing down around you and you have been crying all night and you desperately need to feel connected with someone who cares. Trustworthy in the sense that when you bare your soul, they will not judge you. They will set aside their own problems and listen to you as if you are the only person who matters at that moment. Friends are very special people.

Not all friendships are like that. Many are just arrangements between acquaintances who offer each other mutual advantages. They might provide someone you can call when you have nobody else to keep you company at dinner or someone who can be relied upon to compliment you on your new shirt no matter how unremarkable or someone who will laugh at your jokes or just make you feel superior. For all you know they may be feeling equally superior at your expense. It doesn’t really matter.

Unfortunately the word “friend” has been devalued. We live in an interconnected world where strangers add each other to their friends list, where everyone is on a pulpit tweeting to their followers, and where you can text everyone in your very long contacts list in a matter of seconds. So much easier than a personal email and so much less risky than a voice call. People have hundreds of such friends, but how many of them can you rely on to be there for you in your darkest hour of need?

As I grow older I am learning to be more picky about how I invest my time and emotions. I have learned that, like my true friend in Australia, I must work hard to preserve those friendships which matter. Everyone else is just an acquaintance and life is too short to worry much about them.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mexican Muscle

The Bitter Old Queen is spending the month in Guadalajara, Mexico. Here is another article based on my experiences here.

I joined the Olympia Gym in the fashionable Minerva section of Guadalajara not far from my rented condo. The Olympia Gym is anything but fashionable. You enter beneath a set of Olympic rings (apparently the long legal arm of the International Olympic Federation either doesn’t reach, or can’t be bothered to reach, this far into Mexico) and pass beneath a huge replica of a barbell.

The interior is dimly lit. The walls are covered by discolored and cracked mirrors and faded posters of Arnold Schwzenager and Lou Ferrigno, aka The Incredible Hulk – green version, when they were twenty. One of the posters is signed by The Hulk himself. The equipment is ancient. It wobbles and screeches when used. The pins used to set the weight have long disappeared to be replaced by old bolts and broken screw drivers. The floors are covered by ratty carpet, the color of which defies description, and the whole place has a strange aroma of mildew, disinfectant, and body sweat. Strong, virile body sweat.

There are some serious body builders at the Olympia Gym. They load unbelievable amounts of weight onto the barbells and grunt, and roar, and cheer each other on, as they look to Arnold, Lou, and the others for inspiration. If you ignore the deterioration of the facilities, it’s as if the last forty years never happened.

The most striking difference between this gym and those back home is in the locker room. It isn’t pretty. No ceramic tile floors, inlaid woodwork, blow driers or complimentary toiletries here. Most of all, you can leave your modesty at home. Guys just peal their clothes off and walk naked into the common shower whereas at my New York gym the men have mastered the technique of undressing and dressing while keeping a towel securely cinched around the waist.

I like the Olympia Gym. It isn’t gay, at least not that I have noticed, but everyone is friendly. Some of the boys like to practice their English with me. My muscles are very stiff and sore today so I guess it is serving its purpose. I’m looking forward to going back tomorrow.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

New Neighbors

The dog who lives next door barks all evening. He is a German Sheppard and his barks are deep, menacing. The kind of chilling fierceness that would scare away any would be intruder. But as the night wears on, the strong confidence of his barks gives way to a mournful howling. It sounds more like a desperate plea.

The Sheppard’s entire world consists of a second floor terrace which is about ten feet by twenty feet. It is enclosed on three sides by the walls of the house it is attached to. The fourth side, the side facing my bedroom window, is a 12 foot high wire mesh fence. In this confined space he eats, sleeps, relieves himself, and cries. Nobody seems to be living in the house. I’ve been told that the owners have been away on vacation for about a month. Once a day somebody comes to the terrace and hoses it down. The dried urine stains and the poop wash over the edge into the garden below. The Sheppard wags his tail and brings his ball to the caretaker, but the man wants nothing to do with the dog. He finishes washing the tiles, sprays the Sheppard’s bowls with water, then pours some kibbles into one of them. He leaves.

The dog whines and paws at the door the man left by. He whines and barks and howls for a long time. It tears at my heart. I talk to him from my bedroom window. He stands alert, his ears pointed towards me, his tail wags hopefully. But I can no more climb down and get inside his terrace than he can get out. In the end we both grow weary of the limited contact. He circles around the tile floor for a while then heavily collapses into a curled up ball. He will rest for a while. But the crying will start again. It will be another 24 hours before he has any contact and then only with a hired servant who seems to have no love for his job or for this dog.

Perhaps I am over sensitive. Perhaps I am projecting my own loneliness onto the dog. After all, he is in a safe and protected place, his basic needs are being met, albeit in a minimal way. But what about the need for companionship? What about the need to get out and walk around the neighborhood and sniff at the trees and see what is happening in the world? In his mournful cries, I hear a soul calling for help. I feel contempt for the neighbors I have never met.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Letter

Every time I’ve ever tried to call customer service I get passed through an endless progression of automated menu systems until I finally get to the dead end called “for all other calls, please stay on the line for the next available agent”. Then I get shunted to perma-hold where I am repeatedly informed that instead of pestering them on the phone I could accomplish everything more easily on their web site. So when my health insurance premium was jacked up to over $1000 per month – that’s right, per month; second only to rent as my highest expense – I decided enough was enough. I obediently went to their website to cancel my policy.

Turns out you can’t cancel your policy on the website. I searched through page after page and never found the option to get divorced. So I gritted my teeth and called. I was greeted with the non-news that I should listen carefully as the menus had changed. Like I remembered them from the past? I tried the old trick of immediately pressing zero to bypass the nonsense but they were having none of that. Now you have to speak your answers to the professionally recorded voice that asks you if you want to make a payment or inquire about a claim or find a doctor near you. I responded by reading from a novel that was open in front of me until I hit the jackpot. “I’m sorry. I can not determine how to route your call. Please hold while I transfer you to an agent.” After an interminable wait I finally got a human. As it turns out, you can’t cancel your policy over the phone either. You have to send them a letter. In the mail.

Mail? Who uses that anymore? All my invoices come by email and all my payments are made on the internet. Oh sure I know the U.S. Postal Service still exists. I know this because my whacked out mailman periodically buzzes my intercom, demands that I come downstairs so he can inform me that my name label has faded and is no longer legible. I don’t know why that should matter since the only thing that ever comes to me is addressed to Current Occupant or Our Friends At…

I searched my apartment and found an old box of envelopes and a few assorted stamps. I have no idea how much it costs to send a first class letter these days. Apparently it was 22 cents the last time I bought stamps. I decided that to be safe I better go to the post office and get a new stamp. I used the internet to figure out where the post office is located. I got there at five minutes past five, which was five minutes after the service window was locked up for the night but there was a vending machine in the outer lobby.

It wasn’t any old vending machine. It looked more like a high end copy machine with a touch screen and all kinds of bells and whistles. The welcoming screen asked what it could do for me today. The obvious choice was “mail a letter or package”. I didn’t know there were other reasons to go to the post office. I had to enter the zip code to which the letter was addressed and plow through about ten more screens and place my letter on the scale and finally was informed that it would cost 44 cents and asked if I would like to buy a stamp now. Duh. How many? One. Uh-uh the minimum purchase is three. OK fine. This is getting tedious.

I mailed my letter and took my two unwanted extra stamps home. I threw them in the drawer with the other odd stamps that will never be used. But at least I had officially notified the insurance company that their services would no longer by required. Or so I thought.

Two weeks later as I was leaving my building the whacked out mailman was in the lobby. “Do you want your mail?” he asked with no hint of irony. He thrust a battered and torn envelope into my hand. It was from the insurance company. They were informing me that my premium payment was late and that if I didn’t mail them a check immediately they would cancel my policy. Sometimes I don’t know why I even try.