Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Survivor Puerto Vallarta, Episode 1: Flying down to the Vallarta Wal-Mart

December 4: Can you believe it? I'm actually on my way to Mexico!
I get bored just hanging around the house in Berkeley and love to travel -- but right now Puerto Vallarta is the only place I can fit into my budget. $198 round-trip airfare and the offer of a friend's couch once I get there? I can't afford to stay home!

Right now I'm sitting in a plane next to two semi-rich American bitchy ladies who are conversating about their mutual funds and the rental condominiums they own. But they can't be TOO rich. After all, they are sitting in economy class next to me!

"I just had knee surgery," said the one lady. She looked about somewhere between 50 and 70. It was honestly hard to tell her age. And she wore diamond earrings to die for.

"I try to work out every day," said the other lady. Yeah right. What exactly is her idea of a workout? Lifting her martini glass up and down? Now, Jane. Stop being catty.

"When my hip gets fixed," continued Lady # One, "my back pain will go away." I want my knee pain to go away. And my ankle pain. And the endless nagging pain roaming around in my brain that keeps shouting at me about how I need to start dealing with the future or else. To heck with that. I gotta learn to live in the moment. And right now the moment consists of flying over the blue Pacific Ocean's amazingly beautiful beach-and-surf coastline.

"My daughter-in-law does nothing all day but take care of my grandson and chain-smoke," said Lady # 2. "My son works so hard and they tried so hard to get pregnant."

"Were they able to do in-utero fertilization or did they have to implant the eggs?" Too much information! Welcome to the world of the upper-crust Puerto Vallarta American ex-pat.

Apparently there are 50,000 Americans and Canadians living in Puerto Vallarta right now. I'm jealous. I want to live in Puerto Vallarta too. "And our condo only cost $250,00!" Scratch that idea.

Guess what? I used somebody's frequent flyer miles to get a hotel room for my first night in PV. It's out in Nuevo Vallarta's hotel row where all the big luxury tourist resorts are. Can I get a bus to Nuevo Vallarta? Our plane is about to land. I'm about to find out. "Welcome to Mexico, Jane." Gracias.

Once inside the airport, a bunch of con-artists tried to sell me this and that -- tours, dinners, gold cards. "We'll get you a taxi to your hotel for only $30!" Thirty dollars? No way! So I went outside and crossed the street in order to catch a bus.

"I'll take you to your hotel for only $18," said a gypsy cabbie as I crossed the street. Nope. Then I met this really nice Mexican man who helped me find the right bus. And guess what? Everyone down here knows how to speak Spanish! Even the bus drivers and the little kids. Aren't they smart.

After approximately 45 minutes and approximately 45 buses had passed, my new friend finally found the right one for me. And it only cost me $1.25.

At my hotel, I got a whole big room to myself. But I was hungry and the nearest street-corner taco vendor was miles away. Maybe I could buy some chips or something at the hotel gift shop? I asked an older Canadian couple on the elevator if they knew any place where I could purchase a snack. They laughed. "Didn't they tell you when you checked in that everything at this hotel is free to the guests?"

"Even the food?"

"Even the food." Then they took me off to the buffet and you can pretty much imagine what happened next.

"They even have a free floor show," said one of the Canadians. "We come down here every winter. After living above the Arctic Circle for 25 years, this annual visit is really a treat!" I'll bet.

"How in the freak do you keep warm up there?"

"Its not so bad. We heat the houses and dress really warm when we go out. Only your eyes show. It gets so that we recognize people just by the color of their eyes, the color of their parkas or the way they walk. But we like living up there because the neighbors are all so friendly. We all have to be. We depend on each other."

"But I would miss the city," I said.

"You would be surprised. You think that you will -- but you don't." Sorry, guys, but it's just not going to happen. I'm not Santa's helper. No North Pole for me.

"However," the Canadian lady continued, "we don't actually live above the Arctic Circle any more ." Aha! "After 25 years, our bones just got too old to endure all that cold." So. I'm not the only wimp at this table. I bet they moved to Thailand or something. "Now we live right outside of Banff National Park. Oh. So that whenever they get homesick they can go hug a glacier?

"How did you decide to re-locate there?"

"Well, we looked around or a while; lived in Thailand for a few years..." Double aha! "...then we started looking for a nice place in Canada -- a small town but one near a major airport in case we needed to travel." I feel ya. "Then we started going to cafes and eavesdropping on conversations with the locals, looking for people we could relate to. And we found this town that we love -- right near the Calgary airport."

that's the kind of information one should file away. Then if I ever decide to move to Iowa -- or Rwanda or Burma -- I'll remember that bit about the local cafes.

December 5: I got an e-mail from my Puerto Vallarta connection. "Meet me at 1 pm at the Que Pasa Cafe." Oh goody. Now I can start my eavesdropping campaign already. PV is near a major airport. But what about low-income housing? Is there any? The guy I'm meeting works for a local online magazine entitled The Insider's Guide to Vallarta at He would know.

The bus that took me from the all-you-can-eat hotel to Puerto Vallarta (16 miles) passed a lot of farms, orchards and vegetable fields. Apparently they got a growing season like crazy here that lasts all year long. Botanically speaking, everything here is totally green. Flying over northern Mexico resembled flying over southern Afghanistan. But here? "Tropical paradise."

Our bus stopped in front of a Wal-Mart. "I've never seen such a gigantic one," said the American tourist sitting next to me. "The one in Carson City is huge, but this one is even bigger. And more crowded. I've never seen so many shoppers. But the products are the same -- even the baked goods are the same."

"And are the prices the same too?"

"Exactly the same." I guess NAFTA has been stocking Wal-Mart's shelves. NAFTA and China. If China sells thorough Wal-Marts like this throughout the world, then they won't need to depend on US markets. That's scary. Then they could easily stop buying up our debt markers and/or convert the ones they already have to euros or something. And if they did that, the US economy would be screwed. I may have some of the details wrong here but the bottom line is that our economy's health depends on China -- and now apparently upon the kindness of Sam's Club too.

In any case, I managed to change buses at the bull-fighting stadium and make it to the cafe on time without getting lost more than once. Damn, I'm good. "What about housing in Vallarta?" I asked my friend. "Is it cheap?"

"Some of it is. If you want to live in a little village further up the mountain, you could probably buy something for around $50,000." That's a hecka lot better than paying $700,000 for a two-bedroom house in Berkeley! "But if you want a nice new condo next to the beach, prepare to spend up to half a mil."

"What about rentals?"

"You could probably rent a downtown two-bedroom for around $600 a month." Too expensive for me but probably not for some retiree getting $1,000 per month from Social Security. "Plus you don't need a car. The bus system is good. Utilities run about $10 to $20 a month." Really? "And food is really cheap." And good. At the cafe we had hand-made guacamole.

Then I brought up the subject of Wal-Mart. Which led to a discussion on NAFTA. Do NOT get this man started on NAFTA unless you have all afternoon. Which we did.

"NAFTA is the worst thing that ever happened to Mexico. It totally ruined the poor family farmers here. They couldn't compete with the subsidized agro-business imports from the United States and lost all their farms. But back when the treaty was actually signed, it was supposed to be beneficial to Mexico, giving it access to American businesses in exchange. Well. THAT never happened. Mexican products were supposed to be trucked to the States. What, eight years ago? But the teamsters never let the trucks come through because the big American corporations wanted the trucks stopped. And in the meantime, these same corporations are having parts made and goods assembled in Mexico, and then they are shipped to the US and then shipped back to Mexico again TO BE SOLD AT THE PUERTO VALLARTA WAL-MART."

Under NAFTA, Mexican workers get screwed. Under NAFTA, American workers get screwed. But China, global corporations and Wal-Mart do okay. Oh well. That's life. And no one in America seems to mind. Which is probably why this man is living down here instead of up there.

Then another friend came into the cafe and offered to put me up for the week. He was a former Berkeley type. None of us former Berkeley types can afford to live in Berkeley any more. So we reminisced about the old days. He used to work for the Berkeley Barb. "I used to be on the front cover!" And then he moved up to Mendocino. "Hey, I did that too!" Now he has a business here selling exotic plants. Want to buy some exotic plants? Just go to and ask for Rick. Then we happily went off to get me settled at his house. And we got there by bus.

Stay tuned for Episode Two of Survivor Puerto Vallarta. I don't have a clue what that will be about. Do you?