This article is from the November 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
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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 least.  

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 little book. 

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 goods. 

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 before evening.  

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 customs. 

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 for me. 

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. 

Zócolo!” 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 traffic. 

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 head. 

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 at something. 

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.