This article is from the November 2001 The Mexico
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Experiencing Old Acapulco
by Nancy V. Sont
Nancy V. Sont is a
travel writer that hails from the wooded hills of Eastern Ontario, Canada.
It was hot and humid. I knew
by the time I got outside to flag a bus I’d be sweating all over.
“Go see Old Acapulco!”
someone on the van had said a few days before as all-American fast food shops
sped by along the drive to the hotel. McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken,
WalMart. I was ready to partake of Old México instead of “Miami South,” as
Acapulco is sometimes nicknamed.
The windows on the old city
bus were covered with dark blue plastic, which was peeling off in places. This
wasn’t going to work, I needed a view! That’s what I was on the bus for! “¿A
donde va?” the young man in the seat behind me asked, beginning a
conversation I soon wanted to be freed from. I moved to the front of the bus
where I could see the traffic and the stores on either side of the main
four-lane road that paralleled the beach. It wasn’t far before El Mercado
Centro showed up along the right side of the bus.
The air was stiflingly hot.
The sky was hazy but the sun still blared down on the cracked and puddled
street. The chugging of many Volkswagen motors mixed with the rattling of the
old bus as it noisily pulled away.
Repetitive voices greeted me
as I began to walk along the tarp-covered sidewalk lined with vendors’ tables.
In a way it was like a department store – clothes, CD’s, cassette tapes,
watches, shoes, belts were all on display.
It seemed that as I walked
through the narrow sidewalk area between the laden tables, vendors would come
alive when they’d see me. They’d be relentlessly repeating the same thing to
me, the name and price of their item. I felt I had to explain how I wasn’t
interested in buying, always making excuses. I didn’t feel polite about
ignoring them. After a short walk, long on the patience, I wondered how the
locals were dealing with it. Did they get the same treatment as I did? As I
stood between tables, out of sight of any vendors nearby, I watched. A Mexican
would walk past them; they’d come to life with that same repetition I had
received. The Mexican might glance their way, or might continue to walk.
The hum of voices throughout
the market made more sense to me suddenly. Everywhere, vendors were repeating
over and over their product and its price when people came into view. I felt a
wave of relief come over me as I realized I didn’t have to make excuses or
pretend to be interested or too poor. I could simply think of the vendors as
living advertisements. That knowledge freed me significantly. I could now relax
and look at things.
Two bushels of red fruits
caught my attention. At first I walked past them, wondering silently what they
were. Then I realized that I’d never know if I didn’t ask. My Spanish was
good enough to communicate, but my listening skills weren’t accompanied by
accurate translation. “¿Que es esso?” I asked, hoping I’d
recognize some similarity in her answer to a fruit I’d heard of. No such luck.
I handed the older woman behind the baskets my pad and pen and asked her to
write it down for me.
I went from being the gringo
with the cameras and backpack to someone wanting to communicate with them.
Selling me stuff was no longer the big deal.
Because I didn’t know the
names of anything in Spanish, I felt limited in my ability to ask prices or to
understand how things were cooked or used. I’d been a silent window-shopping
tourist, asking what things were called in Spanish. My Spanish was that good at
My entire experience
changed. I now felt part of the market lifestyle. I wasn’t there to buy. I had
no place to cook, no need of supplies – I was just there to experience Old
Acapulco. One vendor at a time befriended me as I asked the name of some
strangely colored vegetable or fruit. I’d need it repeated a few times until I
got it right. The accent they used was different from the Spanish I’d been
taught in school years ago.
The market and the market
hum became personal to me. I began to understand the words being repeated over
and over. Green tomatoes, garlic, watermelon, all sorts of things I’d not
known the Spanish words for were now understandable and written neatly in my
When I got to a big aluminum
pot of chocolate milk and later rice milk, my questions peaked. Not only did I
want to know the name, but also how it was made. I’d had rice milk at dinner
once in Zacatecas’ Villa Monarcha in Michoacán. I’d tried to make it at
home, but it didn’t turn out anything like what I’d had at dinner.
Three Mexican young men took
on the task of teaching me the ingredients – sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, milk,
water and rice. Small bags of spices lying on the table proved to be a boon in
the translation process. I couldn’t figure out how to say, “and then you
bring it to a boil?” I’d say things like “hot”or make bubbling motions
with my hands. Finally, one youth brought an older woman over to explain it to
me. I needed a word for cook, but there was no way to ask such a word – all
the other translations had been done with the help of visual aids that lay on
the tables in front of me.
Not only did I have trouble
with those abstract terms, but also the words for vanilla and cinnamon appeared
to be nearly the same, canella and panella.
This conversation led to an
English lesson as well, “How do you say, ‘how do you say’ in English?”
one fellow asked. Before long, I was writing common English phrases down for
him. “How do you say?” “What does ____ mean?” “Please speak more
slowly.” The relationship had turned completely around from the original
experience of walking through the market. I’d now gotten to know the people,
been useful to them, explained to them the standard of living back home, that
not everyone I knew, in fact most I knew, had never traveled to Mexico, they
didn’t have enough money. The Gringos they were meeting down in Acapulco were
more prosperous than the people in my northern community.
Once I felt part of the
market community, I realized what an unusual place it was. It was a family
affair, a small neighborhood. People spent their lives in the market, acting
casually, not putting on airs. Their clothing was plain and practical. No one
wore high heels and makeup although the women were all neatly groomed, usually
with their hair pulled back from their faces. Some vendors who sold food wore
noticeably dirty aprons, though. They didn’t appear ashamed of their
appearances. They were quite content, busy at work.
The purified water that they
drank didn’t come in bottles like I was used to buying at the hotel,
restaurants and along the streets. Theirs were in small, one-liter plastic bags,
labeled “agua puro,” which lay on neatly folded stacks of clothes and other
Cups of partially drunk
chocolate milk also stood amid the merchandise. Some women sat doing needlework
while children played alongside. A baby lay asleep under a table on a blanket
covered cooler. Women at booths nearby nodded and smiled knowingly while I asked
to take a photo and wandered about finding the right angle.
A toddler in a walker rolled
along the crowded, narrow passageway. Children didn’t cry to go home, beg or
demand to be entertained; being in the market was as comfortable as home.
Indeed, their friends were nearby. Occasionally I’d pass a vendor watching
television or see a child playing intently with a gameboy.
The market was big enough
that I got lost. Cars were driving through it in places, in others there was
barely room to squeeze between the displays. I even came upon the garbage area,
a heaped pile of smelly trash. Although the ground was littered with papers and
bits of spoiled vegetables, I knew that the street sweepers would tidy it all up
As I climbed a few stairs
and looked back to see the vendors below, I heard water splashing. A small boy
of about three was being showered off. It was a quick bath: wet, then soaped up,
then rinsed, hair included. By the time I reloaded my film, he was all dressed.
I could tell it was getting
to be lunchtime. More people were sitting around. The smell of cooking food
began to fill the tarp-covered area. For me, lunch was supposed to have been
around noon, but in Mexico, 2:00 pm is lunchtime. Supper is at 8:00 pm.
Although the vendors all had
places to sit, there was no place for me to rest. I had to keep moving. I
finally realized that if I was going to find a place to sit, it was going to be
on the bus.
One last vendor reeled me in
as I passed. He was selling small bags of large wood chips. They were from a
medicinal tree from Chiapas’ jungle. Sagrada Santa. A tall sign naming all the
ailments it cured fascinated me. Finally after much conversation, most of which
I didn’t understand, I purchased a bag, hoping I could take it through
As I stood in the hot sun
along the main road awaiting a bus with a group of locals, I planned my next
experience. I’d not get into a bus until I could see that the windows were
clear enough and large enough for a good view. Buses came by every minute or so.
A ride cost 3.5 centavos, less than a penny.
“¿Pasa por Zócolo?”
I asked as I handed the driver five centavos and waited for him to put it in the
small wooden coin holder box and take the two change coins out of their slots
I was relieved to sit down
in the bus. Too bad it was moving and my time would be up soon. I hardly noticed
as the road curved around, hugging the shoreline, passing stores, parks and the
Zócolo, the town’s central gathering area of benches winding under tall shade
trees and planted thickly with tropical plants.
several people said to me as we passed the gazebo. I missed it, only seeing a
line of vendors along the sidewalk. Not knowing what a Zócolo really was
anyway, that no longer interested me. I was thirsty and tired. Reluctantly I got
off at the next stop. Across the divided four-lane road was the bay with
pleasure tour boats anchored along the dock. A few large shade trees beckoned. I
braved the dangerous dash across the road between the buses, VW taxis and other
Sweat was rolling off my
forehead, my long hair thickly insulating my head. My water bottle was empty. My
feet hurt. I hardly noticed the children playing around my feet and on the bench
beside me, as well as around the tree behind. All I could think about was the
water a stone’s throw in front of me. I wanted desperately to jump in it.
Nearby, a woman with a juice
cart scraped crushed ice into a paper cup before pouring a brightly colored
liquid onto it. How much would that cost, I wondered? Did I have enough? I
looked through my change purse and pack to see what I had. I was about to get up
and buy some, debating if the amount of liquid would quench my thirst. Just
then, I came to my senses. It was ice made with regular water, not purified. How
close I had come to forfeiting my health. I realized that knowing what is good
for you is one thing, but letting yourself get in a position where you aren’t
thinking straight can be very dangerous when you have to be careful of what you
eat and drink in Mexico. I was far too hungry and thirsty. My small water bottle
had not contained enough for the day’s explorations, and I’d not seen any
for sale in El Mercado Centro.
I pulled out my notebook to
record my adventure so far, twisting my hair and holding it up away from my
back, hoping the sweat wouldn’t slide down my nose and drip onto the paper.
Beside the next bench-surrounded-tree, two women stood on either side of a girl,
braiding her hair into thin braids.
Hardly believing my
interest, I got up and asked them what they charged. I’d never had my hair
braided all over. “$150 pesos,” came the reply. I didn’t have that much.
Would $50 pesos do? They debated it for a while, told me it was very low, but
okay. Later, I found out that $50 pesos was the going rate!
My long curly hair was so
thick and coarse that I wondered how in the world she was going to get that
little comb through the day’s tangles. In moments, she had baby oil in her
hands and was massaging it into my mop. Unbelievably, the comb gave her no
trouble as she parted my hair into groups and clipped it onto my sweat-drenched
Feeling almost immediately
revived as the heat was dissipated from my scalp, I once again began to ask
questions. The bird beside us was a long tailed grackle. The proper way to state
my occupation, “I am a writer,” was not, “Estoy un escribadora,”
but “Soy periodista..” No wonder people hadn’t understood me when I told
them what I do.
I didn’t realize they were
putting differently colored beads on the end of each braid. Later I saw a child
with all white beads and realized I could have asked for that.
Buying a peeled mango on a
stick, cut open with petal-like slices, I walked down the wide sidewalk until a
crowded beach came into view. Unlike the Contessa Beach behind the Fiesta
Americana where I was staying halfway around the bay, this beach was filled with
Mexicans of all ages. They were in the water, standing on the sand, sitting
under the trees at plain undecorated tables and on benches. The smell of cooking
food seemed appropriate considering it was mealtime.
I’d heard about this local
beach. It was certainly obvious that Acapulcans knew how to stay cool in the hot
weather. Two blonde tourists sat at a table in the shade. Hoping they spoke
English, I joined them. Sure enough they did. It was such a relief to be able to
express myself and be easily understood.
Overhead we watched and
identified a frigate bird flying high above the water. A robin-sized bird with a
yellow breast that wasn’t in my bird book flew from branch to branch pecking
I had run out of time.
Further, down the beach and around the bend, I would have come to the area where
people go snorkelling. Later as I passed the area in a tour group, the guide
said, “Here’s a cheap hotel. You can stay here for $60 pesos a night. They
even have hot and cold water. Hot in the summer, cold in the winter.”
It was nearly time to head
back. I still needed to and find the Zócolo, a block away and buy bottled
water, which cost the same as it costs back home. I couldn't figure out how
Mexicans made ends meet with the prices so high compared to their salary levels.
It was such a pleasant
surprise when I arrived at the Zócolo. I’d not realized how beautiful it
would be. The trees were full-grown, affording a thick canopy over winding bench
lined paths. Under the trees in large raised beds, tropical plants I’d only
seen as indoor houseplants before grew lushly.
The cement benches were
built into the edge of the raised beds with a short metal grillwork backrest.
Here and there, a raised shoeshine chair dotted the benches. Beneath the chair
was a locked cupboard where the shiner kept his wares.
At the center of the Zócolo
stood a fountain. It was a great place – too bad I’d missed it earlier. I
finished my water, saving only a bit for dribbling on my head. Women wearing
lovely Sunday dresses covered with ruffled aprons sat with their families or
friends. Well dressed youths toted cell phones. A young girl came near me, her
arm covered with long beaded necklaces. Her mother walked along behind, her arm
also draped in necklaces.
I thought as I stood waiting
for a return bus, “Yes indeed, Old Acapulco is much different from ‘Miami
South,’ as the hotel district with its all night bungee jumping, discos and
booming music is nicknamed. Although visitors can easily miss experiencing it,
part of Acapulco is still permeated with the culture of Mexico.