We've been in Zihuatanejo for a week. When we pulled up last Friday, the hotel manager, a retired rodeo cowboy named Nacho, quoted us a daily cost which was much more than we wanted to pay for a beach-view, two-bedroom apartment - something like 1,300 pesos (about $75) a night. After we protested, Nacho said, we have a custom in Mexico - negotiation. He took a seat on the edge of the coffee table. You tell me what you want to pay for the night, he said, and then I will counter with my price. If we can't agree, then we roll the dice.
After a little back and forth negotiation, we remained 100 pesos apart. Nacho took a big wooden die off the bookshelf and handed it to J. You are four persons, he said, if you roll that number, you pay your price. If not, you pay mine. When R explained what was going on to J, you could see the weight of the world settle on the poor boy's shoulders. He knows how we love a bargain, and he probably hates spending money more than any of us, so from his point of view, if anything but four came up he would have really let us down.
"You better roll a four," I told him to keep the pressure on.
J took a deep breath, tossed the die confidently in the air and caught it, and then spun it across the white, tile floor. We all watched it bounce, teeter on edge like a sailboat taking a sharp turn in a strong wind, and settle on . . . four! We all jumped, even Nacho, like we'd just won all the guacamole we could eat in a lifetime rather than saving $6 a night on our rent. But that's how things got started here and it's been just about that good since.
After knocking back a few shots of the tequila that I offered him, Nacho mentioned that if we stayed longer than the four nights we agreed too, he would charge us even less for each additional night. So here we are a week later - we can't pass up a bargain. Nacho was happy too, because, as he put it, he had brought his freedom. Even though he lost his commission for renting under the owner's asking price, the longer we stayed, the longer he could spend the days as he pleased and not have to stand in the street trying to get someone to rent the apartment.
Zihua, as it's called, is our first extended interaction with the working class. Who knows if Nacho really lost his commission. Maybe, but it didn't seem to concern him that much as he later offered us even more of a discount on the rent. Maybe he's got a nest egg to fall back on. I'm not sure others that we've interacted with do. Life seems very much to be a hand to mouth existence for the many who rely on others to buy their wares or food or services.
We negotiated with Jose, who we met on the street while he was buying a cold coconut drink, to captain a boat to take us fishing and snorkeling for 1,000 pesos ($60). Think about that. We met the guy while we were walking past a coconut stand, which was nowhere near the pier, and he pointed at a boat off in the distance in the marina and talked us into letting him captain it for us. Then we gave him 300 pesos as a deposit and got a little piece of paper in return that said we gave him 300 pesos. Then we walked with him to the place where we needed to rent snorkeling equipment for the four of us, and handed all the gear to him to store in the boat overnight. Then we treated ourselves to ice cream like we'd finally settled something that had been a problem for us for a long time. Would that ever happen in the States? Not a chance. We would probably have walked away from the guy thinking he spiked his coconut milk with rum. Instead, here, we had only a little doubt that he was the guy he said he was and would take us out into the bay to troll for fish and would not disappear with our deposit and snorkeling gear. It's just a different mindset on how business is run - everything is informal. For example, the waiters come into the street or onto the beach where you are building a sand castle to try to get you to come into their restaurant.
But back to the point - after Jose actually showed up the next day with the boat keys and snorkeling equipment, how much of our $60 did he take home? Not all of it for sure, but I think he made out okay. He kept most of the fish we caught, so he could either sell them, or more likely, eat them. We tipped him after we learned he had to borrow the boat. We invited him to eat lunch with us - which was the mackerel that J caught and that we brought to a restaurant Jose recommended for preparation, and that restaurant also gave him two Micheladas, a beer and tomato juice concoction I won't go near, as props for bringing our business their way. So, in the end, he walked away with some money, some fish, and a buzz. I know I'd be happy with those spoils.
During high season, Jose is an employee on the same boat, which does deep sea fishing trips and the type of trip we went on, depending on what gets booked each day. R asked if the money he makes during high season is enough to sustain him through the year and he said not really. He needs to hustle folks like us who are just out for a drink of cold coconut milk. Life is hard.
I gave a ten peso tip to the guy at the pier who helped us out of the boat. If he does that 100 times a day and everyone gives him 10 pesos, it's about $60. That's almost equivalent to someone in the U.S. working 10 hours a day at minimum wage. Think about that - 10 hours of work for $72.25. Here, if you earn $60 a day you may be at the higher end of the lower class pay scale. Come to think of it, I wonder how you even get that job as pier host. Is it based on an application or is it more like a giant king of the raft battle every morning amongst all the wanna-bees with the last man standing host for the day? The juice guy we met in Huetamo paid his employees about 150 pesos a day - that's almost $10. Seventy dollars a week. It may be enough to live on, but it's certainly not enough to get ahead on - to save and plan for the future as is so drilled into us in America as the goal to strive for.
One of the American couples we met who lives here is at odds with their parents who feel they are not doing enough for their future. The couple is making enough to live comfortably now, and are having a good time doing what they want to do, but apparently is not making enough to bank for the future. It's a lot of pressure put on us to make enough money for food, shelter, and Netflix now, and to save enough so that we do not have to pick half-eaten bagels out of the trash and sleep on subway grates later. Add children and a college education into the mix, and the daily outlook for fun begins to look even more bleak.
Do we feel privileged? A little bit. We could pay $24 for dinner like we did last night every night for a year and it would set us back less than $12,000. We saved more than that. We could pay the $42 a night we are paying for this place all year and it would come out around $18,500, slightly more than our Alexandria mortgage. We saved more than that, too. But it came with sacrifices. R is self-employed and I work for the government - money wasn't just falling around us from the sky. We planned for this; I drank Pabst Blue Ribbon for a while until I learned the brand was purchased by InBev, and then I drank Modelo until I learned it was purchased by InBev, and then I said the heck with it and started drinking more expensive and better tasting local micro-brews and tried to save money in other ways - I haven't purchased a new CD since Neil Young released Chrome Dreams in 2007. And I know we can eat and live more cheaply here than we have been - which is why, eventually, we are going to leave here. Probably Saturday.
But anyway, let's bring this thing back up from the depths of the deep subjects of which we have just scratched the surface. This is our beach vacation, after all. Things aren't supposed to get so heavy. We've been in the ocean everyday - several times. We've built amazing sandcastles with thick sand walls and sturdy sand towers and decorated them with shells, and rocks, and bottle caps, and watched from our balcony as people have deliberately stomped them back into the beach. Why do people feel compelled to tread on when they can walk around? We've had so much beach time, in fact, that our skin is peeling from our faces and bald heads from sun overexposure. Between my new haircut, which I love, and flaking skin, some would say my head was a mess right now.
We went fishing. Jose took us, and J reeled in a big mackerel. He was as excited about that as he was nervous about rolling for our rent. As we walked from the pier to the restaurant with our big mackerel in hand, people stopped and looked - no one had seen a mackerel that big, or at least not recently - and tried to be friends with us, the mackerel catching family, and we smiled and shook our mackerel at them and waved like the Queen of England.
We go to market and buy fruit - avocados and apples and plums and pineapple and peaches - and vegetables - radishes (big and red!) and broccoli and onions and tomatoes - and juice and fish.
At its heart, Zihua is a fishing village, and every morning the fishermen who have been out all night run their boats into shore (Literally. They line up to head full speed into the beach and pull up the propeller at the last moment before crunching the hull into the sand) to sell their catch which is a bunch of fish that I don't know how to say in English, but also includes swordfish, marlin,and Ronco, the local whitefish. There are also millions of anchovies splashing about in the bay, shouting here I am, come and catch me, and the fishermen come with their nets at all times of day to catch them, and the birds dive headfirst into the sea from the sky to eat them, and other fish stalk them from below the surface and eat them. We've decided life is hard, and probably short, for anchovies.
We've played cards using watermelon seeds - 400 of them from a single half-watermelon - as poker chips (it's a math lesson - probabilities). We've finally sorted out our iPod to contain music that the kids should know - like the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Frank Zappa.
We've had a mechanic check out Wesley after the hard slog through the mountains (clean bill of health), we've done laundry, and we've downloaded some of the things we've needed for the kids to be educated to the standards of the Alexandria Public School System, where they will return to school next year if we decide to go back.
And I've had time to reflect on some of the things we've seen and heard that I was too busy to think about when we were driving every day or every other day. And that's why you get posts like this that go on and on.