The ride to the airport across the desert sands took about thirty-five minutes.  I couldn’t help but notice the maximum security penitentiary, just out of sight from the tourists. It was only in the 80s at the time, but by summer, when the temperature reached a scorching 124º the place would be a virtual oven. Even the boldest of the bull-queers wouldn’t have it in him for prison sex in this kind of heat. In contrast, we were booked at the One and Only Palmilla, a first class joint nestled between the beach and a golf course. This was quite a step up from the first time my wife and I traveled to Mexico. It was about twenty years ago and we had just gotten married. In those days, I was still pretty much living the graduate student life, living on the cheap, couch surfing, sleeping bags, and eating meals on the street. Our first daughter was about six months old, and we took some time off. We caught a flight into Zihuatanejo, a fishing village on the Pacific coast with some of the nicest beaches in the world. The old town is located next to Ixtapa, the newly constructed, ultra modern tourist town. It is designed for those rat-brained tourists that prefer the Epcot version of Mexico to the real thing.

While we were waiting for transportation at the airport, my wife noticed that everyone on the plane had booked reservations in hotels in Ixtapa, and that we were the only ones headed for the more rustic, read, cheaper, hotels in Zihua. I didn’t care. The restaurants in the old town were affordable and the place had charm. In ancient times, it had been a refuge for the Aztec emperor, who had to detox from too much pulque (read: mescal), peyote and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Our hotel was right on the beach, and we would fall asleep listening to the waves roll in. Not only was it romantic, it was cheap! I didn’t even notice that it was a slightly run down. At forty dollars a night, I was living high on the hog! The place had a kitchenette, a place to eat, a front room, a balcony, bedroom, and Mexican-style bathroom, which means that the shower is right over the toilet. This, of course, meant savings.

When we arrived, however, my wife was not impressed with my selection. I might still think like a tight wad graduate student, but I had a six-month-old daughter. She could get sick staying in a place like this? Where would we find the doctor? It was clear: I was an ass and my wife was enjoying her anger. The fact that we had arrived in the middle of a tropical rain downpour didn’t help. The “resort” as it came to be known was smack dab in the middle of a palm-tree grove, which made for a spectacular array of geckos, iguanas, large ground crabs, tropical birds, and bullfrogs that sounded like coyotes at night. It was something out of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Joseph Conrad. I liked it.

My wife, however, gave me the “look.” Things got worse when she saw the room: the kitchenette consisted of a rusty refrigerator, a semi-functional gas stove, assorted knives and spoons, mismatched plastic plates, and no dish soap or toilet paper. Although the room had a kitchenette, the caretaker explained, we were expected to purchase the supplies for our stay. The hotel only provided sheets and towels. He was a cheap bastard who wore mismatched socks and shirts that were two sizes too large for him. He was the kind of guy that counted the sheets of toilet paper his wife used, and seriously contemplated using one-ply tissue to hold costs down. He pilfered whatever was left in the rooms as soon as the guests cleared out.

Not only did we have to run to the store for basic supplies, but my wife started obsessing on the fact that the mattress was sitting on a concrete slab. The only appliance that seemed new was the ceiling fan, which shredded a thick coat of dust when we turn it on. My daughter was taking her nap. So, I unpacked and went to the beach.  In retrospect, I didn’t show the proper amount of empathy. I really didn’t see the problem. My concept of luxury was limited to sleeping in a bed and having hot coffee in the morning.

About an hour later, my wife came out to the beach and informed me that we spend the afternoon looking for better accommodations. There was no pay she was going to stay in this “shit-hole” and I had “better get my act together.” I had better get with the program or I would be hearing about it for a long time.  After lunch, we walked down the beach named La Ropa, a place where Chinese pirates set out their cargo of silk to dry after enduring a rough storm at sea, stopping to check out the hotels along the way. The only other decent hotel on the beach was the Catalina-Sotovento, a multi-storied white building perched on the cliff overlooking the bay.

It was here that Harvard professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert held their LSD-fueled summer internship program. Their students received course credit for dropping acid and hanging out on the beach for weeks on end. It was the off-season, so no one seemed to mind a bunch of freaks dancing naked, like neo primitives, in front of a raging bonfire into the wee hours of the morning. The course was also popular. They would have established a major if the government hadn’t cracked down on them. Even though the Catalina was only a three star establishment, it was full. The other two hotels on the beach, complete with drunken gringos, were worse than the hotel we already had: flooded hallways, rooms with mosquitoes, and shabby surroundings.

Never one to give up, my wife ordered a taxi and we took made the trip around the bay toward the newly constructed luxury hotel next to the boat docks. The place was gorgeous: it was right out of a Hollywood motion picture. Each room had its own private Jacuzzi, which was strategically placed so that the couple could recline in the foaming suds and bubbling hot water and watch the sun descend into the ocean. The floor leading from the Jacuzzi to the master bed was a ceramic-tiled pathway, sprinkled with rose petals. The architects, however, neglected to consider that most of the guests would be so sunburned that a hot, steamy bath would feel like standing naked in a sand storm. The master bed was surrounded by four Roman-style columns that instantly gave me a Circus Maximus fantasy, complete with chariots, whips and a trapeze.

The room also had a price to match. Undeterred, my wife set to bargaining with the manager trying to bring down the costs. One night in that room was the equivalent to what we would pay for six nights in the other, and if we took the room, we would have to eat all of our meals in the hotel restaurant at grotesquely marked up prices.  Still wallowing from the thoughts of gladiators and vestal virgins, I stayed out of it. To me, these hoteliers were blood-sucking vermin that deserved to have an empty room. After twenty minutes of useless bantering, my wife, daughter and I were on our way back to our hotel, deterred but not defeated.

Although my wife wasn’t happy with the hotel I picked out, we were shit out of luck. I finally broke the silence: we can either stay in the expensive hotels and starve, or sleep cheap and eat like kings. What will it be? My logic was irrefutable. But there was more to the problem than the money. I had made the decision on my own, and my wife always considered herself a first rate traveler. For my wife, the actual value of a good hotel room is directly related to how hard she works to find it. If you just call and make a reservation, any fool can do it. If the mountain was easy to climb, it wasn’t worth it. A room with a view, marvelous breakfast, comfortable accommodations, and a friendly staff, is a true find and a rewarding experience. I guess that there could also be an epic struggle of lost bags, flight delays, termites, thunderstorms and flashfloods. And, since I sincerely believe all hotels look the same when you’re asleep, I let her plan the travel. From then on, I knew my place in the Great Order of Vacation Things. I was not destined to be the picker of hotels and restaurants. I was to carry luggage, and make sure my wife was happy. Some would sneer at this realization, but I will live a long and happy life. 

While it seemed that we were stuck in “El Cheapo,” my wife got the final word. That night, my daughter woke up crying. She had spilled some baby’s milk from her bottle and a platoon of ants invaded her playpen, marching right over her. My wife went to the hotel reception, called for the owner, and reamed her out for not seeing to it that the room was sprayed for bugs on a regular basis. “Any idiot that lives in the topics knows that if left unattended, the jungle will swallow everything.” The owner turned to the caretaker and reamed him out, calling him a dumb brute for not spraying the room before we arrived with a baby. The owner knew that if she didn’t do something quick we would be out the door. She immediately told the caretaker to fumigate the room on the second floor and to help us move our things. After my wife inspected the room, the deal was done. The caretaker’s blood appeased the Vacation Gods, and everything was right with the world.

Cross-posted at My Ongoing Struggle with Misanthropy: http://jimmygabacho.com/?p=470

Gabacho– according to the Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy– is derived from an old Provençal word “gavach,” meaning a person from the foothills of the Pyrenees who spoke incorrectly. These days, it means “outsider,” somebody who just doesn’t fit in.

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