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Kids on the Coast

Our cabin in San Agustinillo turned out to be perfect for the three of us: separate bedrooms, the upstairs one for Deborah and Les with a full bath and a balcony, a kitchenette and bed and WC downstairs, a shaded front area with chairs, tables, hammocks, net swings, and no other guests. Young Derek-in-charge took could care of us while the Irish owner was away in her Irish home. We stayed three nights and two activity filled days.

 

North of the flat, steamy, wind-farmed strip along the Isthmus, Oaxaca’s Pacific Coast offers three salient geographic features. The Sierra Madre Occidental, whose rounded, forested peaks top 3,200 meters (11,000 feet), rise precipitously to the east. The rivers that plunge down from them often have spectacular waterfalls.

     

The 20 km strip of hills between the mountains and the shore is covered mostly with dry jungle and thorn scrub. Here the rivers smooth out as they wind between the hills, sometimes spread into swamps, and in the tiny flat deltas before the sea become estuarial.


This is mangrove country: snakes and crocodiles, turtles and iguanas and basiliscos, lizards that when frightened thrust out imposing wing-like head ruffs, rear up and scamper on their hind legs across the swampy water as if it were solid land. In English this walking-on-water gives them the name Jesus-lizards. If the insects and small fish should ever give out, the whole reptile crew could make a good living as extras in horror flicks. I’ve only heard about the snakes but I know they are there: a snake skin just up from the beach.  

Most folks around here first thing every morning rake the leaf litter from the paths around their houses just so there won’t be any surprises as the kids scamper off to school or to the beach to play soccer. I’ve seen all the rest of the reptile menagerie many times.

 

The hills thrust right out into the Pacific, where the crashing waves have often undercut them to leave formidable cliffs so there are no roads right along the shore.

           


In between these hilly redoubts are beaches of fine sand, or in some places pebbles. Some are a few kilometers long, some a few hundred meters, some barely wide enough for a half dozen sun-bathers. The ocean floor is as irregular as the above water landscape, so the waves and currents at each beach vary considerably. Some are good for family bathing; some for surfing; some for fishing. Tourists routinely underestimate the rip currents on the wilder beaches, and if they are lucky, one of the lifeguards who occasionally patrol the popular beaches pull them to safety before they drown.

 

The coast can be beastly hot and muggy —at least for the casual visitor— but except for the early afternoons we found it fairly tolerable. Les had a touch of the newby stomach rumbles, so the first morning she slept in. Deborah and I got up early and were at the nearby estuary and beach Ventanilla by 7:15. We walked and gawked for a couple of hours and had so much fun there that we repeated on day 2, this time with Les, and this time for nearly the whole morning.

 

Ventanilla is home to a small indigenous community of fishermen who in recent years have collaborated with the government and some NGOs to turn the estuary, the neighboring swamp, the mangroves, an old coconut plantation, the beach, and a stretch of forest that the ever-shifting waters have currently turned into an island, into an ecological reserve. They have purchased a handful of boats for taking tourists into the estuary and back and forth from the island, have trained some villagers (and newcomers) as guides, and over the last couple of years have built a handful of cabins to house ecologically minded tourists. I expect I will stay there rather than in San Agustinillo or Mazunte on my next coastal visit.

 

We park the car in the shade, hang our binoculars around our necks, hike out along a path through the coconut palms, the beach on one side, a swamp on the other, toward the estuary.  

           

 

The goal: to check out the critters, the clawed, the winged, and the scaly. Except for a couple of dogs in the village we don’t see any of the first group, but the winged are all about in profusion. Almost every type of heron, egret, cormorant, and kingfisher known in these parts, were on the beach or in the estuary, with some doves, orange-breasted buntings, yellow-cheeked woodpeckers, orange-fronted parakeets, rufous-naped wrens, hulking black vultures and acrobatic frigate birds to liven the mix.

From left to right: green heron; snowy and cattle egret; ringed kingfisher; boat-billed heron; black-bellied whistling-duck.

 


After recording the census at the mouth of the estuary for half an hour, we followed a small raised boardwalk through the swamp to the boat dock across from the island, where we found a couple of young men cleaning the boats for the tourists whose days start much later than hours. One of the men looked familiar to me, and as I stared he squinted back at me.

 

            “I remember you. You’re the writer. You came here with some older folks a couple of years ago. And you told me about the origin of my ex-wife’s name, Jáuregui.”

 

            “Yeah, . . . right; and you’re . . .”

 

            “Sergio. Sergio López.”

 

(Bird names I seem to remember, and villages in rural Spain; but people all look so much alike that I find it impossible to tell them apart.)

 

            Sí, claro, . . . Sergio. And as I recall, you know a lot about birds.”

 

            A couple of young women, carrying baskets of cleaning materials and what appear to be tortillas wrapped in napkins, join us on the dock. They chat with Sergio. He turns to us.

 

            “I’m taking them over to the island. You want to come? No charge.”

 

            Deborah nods her head yes. She translates, and Les confirms.

 

            “Sure, love to.”

 

 

           



We take our seats in the boat and Sergio looks around for a paddle. There doesn't seem to be any. He picks up a broken board, climbs in, pushes off, and slowly propels us toward the island. The estuary is only about a dozen meters wide, but the board is not much of an oar, and there is a current, so it takes a while. One of the women takes off a flip-flop and uses it to help row. For some reason, nobody but me is trying to stifle a laugh.



“It would be faster swimming, wouldn’t it?” 

 

            “Not if you want to live,” answers Sergio, pointing out a crocodile sleeping —apparently— on the muddy bank under some mangroves. It looks to be about three meters long.

 

        


 

            “Wow. He’s enormous,” Deborah observes.

 

“Only average.” He points to something in the water on the other side of the boat. “Look there at that one.”

 


It looks like part of a floating log. “That’s Poto, he’s the alpha, he’s king in this part of the estuary.”

 

As we slowly drift by we can see the log’s eyes and snout rising just above the water. “Measure from the eyes to the nose. See it? About 50 centimeters. Then multiply by 10. That tells you how long he is: 5 meters (about 16 feet). He’s a real old-timer, maybe 30, 35 years.”

 

OK, I got it: no swimming.

 

On the island Sergio and the women head off toward a group of palapas, wall-less buildings covered with palm thatch, and Les, Deborah and I in another direction to see if we can spot any lizards. The island is entirely sand, the shoreline is fringed with mangroves, and 5 meters in from the water the rest of the island is lines of coconut palms, obviously part of an old plantation. We fan out, and Deborah slips into a thick patch of vegetation to take care of some necessities, yelps once, and calls for us to come see.

 

“Up there, in that tree. I heard a rattle and then everything was moving.”

 

Sure enough, it’s iguanas. They’re not the gray ones that prefer to live near or on the ground and—despite being protected— are hunted everywhere along the coast for their meat, but the long-tailed, exotically-fringed green ones that prefer to be arboreal. Deborah evidently startled their nap in the sun on the high branches and they were scuttling for cover. We caught glimpses, and I got one photo in the tree, and another on the ground.

 


 

By now we are hungry, so we make our way to the kitchen-palapa and order up a mess of eggs and beans for breakfast. I drink coffee and Deborah orders coconut water. She seems surprised when it comes in the original container.

 

 

Turns out one of the cooks is Sergio’s sister, so he comes over to chat with us as we eat. When we’ve finished, he leads us to a large caged area containing a tree, a rope swing, and one old spider monkey.

 

“There used to be lots of them along this coast, but they’ve been hunted to near extinction. When they find one who’s been hurt, or is sick, they bring it here and we take care of it. Right now, he’s the only one.”


            We approach the fence and the monkey comes over and sticks is two arms, one leg, and his tail through the fence. Sergio grooms him, stroking his fur, pretending to pick off fleas and lift them to his mouth to eat them.

 

            “That’s how monkeys socialize, and since this one is alone, I have to do it for him. Look how he shows you where he wants you to scratch.”

 

            An so he does, with two fingers he draws aside the fur on a patch near his belly, and contorts so that it will be next to the fence for grooming. Deborah obliges, and the monkey curls his tail around her arm.

It is nearly 11:00 when Sergio paddles us (somewhere he has found a real paddle) back across the estuary, giving us first a tour to see the nests of green herons, fledgling boat-billed herons, a laughing falcon high in a tree, some brightly colored mango crabs, and another dozen or so crocodiles.
He seems to know the name of everything we see in Spanish, English, French, and Latin, and says he is learning them in German.

 

           “And Chinese?”


            “Not yet, but if we start getting a lot of tourists . . .”

 

            Sergio is not native to Ventanilla, but they have accepted him, up to a point, because of his knowledge, enthusiasm for things ecological, and willingness to do the work like everyone else: cleaning the boats, raking the paths, and taking his turn when the co-op assigns guides to groups. He has a degree in psychology, but he lives and works here. He says he hasn’t seen his ex-wife in two years but —son of a gun, there she is!, with a group of tourists, over where the iguanas hang out.

 

“I can’t believe so many coincidences: your showing up here again, your remembering about the name Jáuregui, and then her appearing here on the island after two years . . . And she doesn’t acknowledge me, doesn’t even wave . . .”

 

Our late breakfast on the island cancels the need for a lunch, so we rest at home through the hottest hours and then spend a lazy hour in the late afternoon beaching and swimming. When it cools a little we order a pitcher of agua de guanábana — a tasty fruit drink — and watch the ocean pushing waves into the shore.

 

         


Toward sunset we drive a few kilometers to the little deep-water harbor of Puerto Ángel to watch the fishing boats coming and going. And the younger men playing soccer in the sand. The boats that have been fishing all afternoon chug their way carefully into the harbor, pick out their mooring spot, rev up their outboard motors, rush headlong at the beach, crash through the surf, and then at the very last possible moment lever their motors out of the water and plow up onto the beach. The boats that will be fishing all during the coming night, turn their boats around so that the prow faces the water (it takes 10 people, mostly men to swing the heavy boats around on the sand), slide it down to the water’s edge, and push it into the swirling surf. The two men who will do the fishing and who are now waist-deep in the water, swing themselves up onto the stern alongside the outboard motor, and the 8 others retreat to the high sand until it’s time to launch the next one. Overhead, squawking gulls, and frigate birds with their sharply angled wings and forked tails, prowl over the breaking surf, ever hopeful for a scrap of discarded bait.  

 


            We spend the next afternoon at the tortuguero, the tortoise/turtle/terrapin facility in Mazunte. As we all know, turtles (amphibious, air-breathing, webbed feet, spending much of their time in fresh or salt water), tortoises (un-webbed feet, preferring dry land), and terrapins (neither one nor the other, a little of both, preferring brackish water: if they were in the Kosher world, they’d be parve) are threatened. The threatened part is true everywhere as habitats shrink, climate changes, and people’s taste in soup evolves. The names are somewhat interchangeable, depending on place, local preference, and whether or not people are interested in observing taxonomic niceties. Whew!

 

            The Mazunte center is part museum, part zoo, and part nursery. Perhaps three dozen varieties of t/t/t are displayed in large, well-watered enclosures, with explanatory notes in both English and Spanish. They range in size from silver dollar to medium size surfboard, and in shape and coloring from the stereotype that most of us hold in our heads to odd shapes with peculiar attachments that would have sent Doctor Seuss scurrying for his sketchpad.  And nursery tanks, intended to help repopulate the sea—or at least the Oaxacan coast—with some of the scarcer and more threatened species, are thoroughly engaging. This was my third visit, and on the other two I coincided with scientists leading school groups that got so excited that they had literally to be dragged away when it was time to board their buses.

 

 

            Then we wrapped up with a fresh fish dinner at Sal y Pimienta, my favorite restaurant on the Zipolite beach, listening to the surf, and watching the horizon rise slowly up to engulf the sun. Not a bad life.

 

 

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