I’d been Stateside a couple of times, but never to the coast, only the landlocked states of Montana and Indiana. Both were interesting in their own ways, but nothing had prepared me for the majesty and beauty of endless swells of water. It was awe-inspiring, and I immediately fell in love with the waves.
We spent most of the day at the beach, alternating between getting the crap kicked out of us by seven foot waves and relaxing in sun chairs, warding off the merchants who insisted we should own their hats, buttons or earrings, get our hair braided, or some other such bit of ridiculous. I don’t do a lot of “rest” vacations; I’m one for adventure and zaniness, so just sitting on a beach while the others read might not seem like my cup of tea. It was, though. I ate tacos, I swam in the ocean, I napped lazily in a beach chair, and I thought.
I really like the ocean. I would live by it, given half the chance. I could see myself loving the life of a scuba instructor, for instance, or perhaps a sea taxi operator. Be on or near the ocean all the time, working and living in a beautiful coastal area. I would need to move to somewhere that isn’t Canada for that, though, and Mexico is not as kind to immigrants as it could be.
We went into the town of Puerto Vallarta. It’s a pitch-perfect rendition of a stereotypical Mexican city, to me. It’s green and beautiful, with ivy growing on the overpasses and palm trees dotting the landscape. It’s also clearly poor, with buildings that are falling apart and streets that are barely kept. Anything off the main strip is desolate and sad, with kids punting a stuck-together ball in the street and a small tavern serving as the local meeting spot. There was nothing for us, there, and it took far more wandering than we would have liked to find a decent spot to eat.
It turns out that in an incredibly Catholic nation, nothing is open on Sundays.
We did eventually find a little fast food place tucked in between a KFC and a strip joint, and sat down for a bite. They brought us salsa that seared my mouth with spices, radishes and lime, and a variety of sauces less immediately threatening than the salsa. They came with a small flatbread that was authentic tortilla chip, and we dug into them with the relish of people who have been looking for a place to eat for an hour.
I had the sausage and cheese tacos, which were delicious, and exactly what I was hoping for when I ordered tacos at the beach. Three soft tortilla shells held a line of minced meat veined with cheese, and a plate with roasted hot peppers, fried onion and bell peppers and refried beans. It was the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, and it was in a little dive on the main strip that I think most of the tourists were walking right past. N had a burrito that looked delicious, and Z had some chimichangas that were delightful to look at, and I can only imagine better to eat.
I also had a Coke with sugar in it for the first time in months, and it was incredible.
We ate a tasty desert of crème caramel, which they simply called “flan,” and and I had a cup of rice water, which is almost exactly like coconut milk if you take the coconut taste out of it.
We stopped by a grocery store on our way home, and paid far less for our food there than we did the day before at the grocery store near the resort. I dare say the resort grocery store is trying to capitalize on our tourist naivety.
When you’re thinking about the places your characters are, try and look at how they differentiate from the stereotype. One of the coolest things about Puerto Vallarta is that it is two different towns with very different styles. One is the clean, posh, incredibly rich tourist town, where people stay in mock-Aztec resort rooms and laze on beaches in the midday sun. The other is the busted down shanty town where people are doing their best to eke out a living that doesn’t totally suck. I like both towns, I really appreciate the great Mexican food at the place you’d pass right by if the nicer restaurants weren’t closed. I like seeing a bunch of kids riding third-hand bikes and playing like I remember kids doing in the ghettos I grew up in. I like seeing the Real Mexico, and I like lazing on a beach and occasionally punching the ocean in the waves.
The Real Mexico isn’t any more or less real than Resort Mexico, it’s just much more MEXICO, which I think is neat. I think the same could probably be said of Edmonton, in a lot of ways; there’s the touristy Whyte Ave district with the nice shops and the beautiful old-style buildings, there’s the posh hotel down town with bus service directly to the beautiful university district, there’s the sprawling monstrosity of a mall that serves as Edmonton’s tourist hub, and then there’s long stretches of Jasper Ave. that look like they were designed by Soviet Russia in the 1950s. Everything is bare concrete and slummy bare patches of dirt in front of terrible apartments rented by poor, broken people. Which of those is more real? Which of those is more Canada?
Maybe your town has an adventurer’s district, a few clean roads and gorgeous magic item shops that cater to that specific clientele. Maybe there are some really posh inns, resorts even, where for a few hundred gold, you get an apartment of your own, with maid service and access to a private beach. And maybe a few streets off of that, you see the real city, the parts of the city that the façade aims to hide. Not necessarily a bad place, just a poor place, or a place that has nothing for these strange roaming wizards and fighters.
And maybe your adventurous player characters will never see that part of town because they’re too busy seeing how the +7 maquahuitl cuts the heads off of dragons.