Thursday, January 17, 2013

Puerta Vallarta, Part Five

We got off to something of a slow start this morning. I was up really late, and none of us has had an easy time sleeping here, so it was well after eleven before we got our poop in a group and headed out. Today was Town Day, the day we’d decided we were going to see some of Old Town, the flea market, El Malecon and eat some good food. I tried to get a cup of coffee before the trip, because I am barely human without caffeine in my system, and ended up having to leave because the Starbucks staff was having a particularly difficult time with a lady’s credit card. Because I had not yet had my first coffee of the day, I hated them to my core. All of them. Forever.

The bus had a board nailed over a hole in the floor. The ride was incredibly hot, as Puerto Vallarta was rocking a solid 27o C (80.6o F) on the way out and for most of the day. Still, the scenery was quite nice, and we all decided to judge our previous bus driver much more harshly for calling out “Last stop,” before driving off with people still on the bus because our latest driver did no such thing and we got quite a bit closer to the boardwalk because of it.

N was a trooper today, walking for hours despite a heavy belly, swollen feet and a back that hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in a week. We got off the main drag pretty early, and were treated to some of Puerto Vallarta’s slightly less visible gems: a gate trimmed in gold, a beautiful spiral staircase that led to a platform made of sticks, a parapet, crumbling old brick buildings and beautiful white plaster masterpieces, a restaurant painted like a huge work of graffiti, a rocky beach where locals sip pale yellow beers and don’t bellow their wares at you. It was nice to get another look at the city that lives just beyond the tourist plazas and resort malls, though I caught more than a few dirty looks as we made our way.

With a little foresight, we could have planned a bus trip straight to the Malecon, but where’s the adventure in that?

El Malecon is like an outdoor tourist mall. Standing on the beach, you can see where it starts: everything is pristine and beautiful, nothing is falling apart, the buildings are well kept, the statues are polished, and every restaurant is offering some sort of deal on food, booze, or both. We wandered a little aimlessly, shooing off the persistent salespeople who insisted we should go to this restaurant or go into that shop, or take this tour, or make these reservations. We took in the statues, from the man with a half-skull face holding a pair of swords to what could only be described as a matron yelling at two young girls on a ladder to be careful (Z postulates that the statue was actually a single alchemist creating two homunculi in her own image). There was the statue of the boy riding a seahorse that is in every advert for the city, and a pair of naval mines we’d seen in the airport. There was a mermaid and a merman looking at one another in apparent conflict; I was particularly impressed with the attention to detail on the hair.

Oh, and we forgot to bring anything that takes pictures.

Getting peckish, we decided to see what the area had for food. We had no intention of eating at Senor Frogs, and have thus far managed to keep to that, so we chose to get off the main drag again and see what we could find as far as more local cuisine goes.

When we were getting off our plane and into the city, there was a fellow who was both incredibly helpful and determined to sell us a timeshare. I don’t make nearly enough money to buy a timeshare (my income, combined with N’s, wouldn’t come to half of what you need to buy a timeshare). Z works at the same place I do. But he did give us a lot of information about the city that we have found really valuable. He told us about buses and where we could find one at our resort, he told us about the Malecon in the first place, and about tours and activities we could partake in, he told us about the city’s main cathedral, and he’d also told us about a restaurant we’d need to try if we were in the Malecon area. N suggested we start walking towards that, and if we found anywhere else that looked like it would be a good place to eat, we’d stop there instead.

First, we were confronted with the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Turns out, the Cathedral was pretty much exactly on our way to the restaurant, and we had completely missed that we were getting closer to it. The place is gorgeous, but I’m not really a Cathedral guy. I’m not Christian, for one thing, and certainly not Catholic. Also, there’s a sign at the front that tells you, in Spanish, exactly what you’re not allowed to wear, but it doesn’t make it all that clear in English, so while I was able to go in and take a boo around, N and Z decided to stay as near the entrance as possible because neither was wearing their Sunday Best.

I’m always in my Sunday Best.

The Cathedral is a beautiful example of Mexican Catholic piety, with incredible stained glass windows and a giant, tortured-looking Jesus Christ fairly close to the entrance. There are pews, and there were people praying at them, and there was a crucifix off-center at the front of the worship hall. I didn’t stay long, and I certainly didn’t explore or anything, but it was a neat little bit of architecture in a city that is filled to the gills with nifty architecture.

To get to the restaurant in question, a place called Pipis that apparently enjoys an international reputation, we worked our way through streets just off the main. If you were to come at the place from the main drag, it’s a single block away, and that block has a number of cute tourist shops. Coming from the direction we did, we got narrow streets and tiny corner stores, a couple of beautiful restaurants that weren’t really what we were looking for (I don’t come to Mexico to eat Italian food!) and school kids just getting out of class in their smart-looking white and red uniforms.

The restaurant was clearly designed with tourists in mind. It’s the sort of clean, Americanized eating experience that makes for a good meal, but not necessarily a memorable one. Where the first in-town restaurant we ate at was chock full of local flavor and small-town charm, Pipis is a well-built, well marketed, American-style Mexican restaurant. The food was undeniably better prepared, with fresh ingredients and a keen understanding of seasoning for a Gringo tongue. But the place oozed with stereotypes, from the musicians playing La Cucaracha to the signs offering a big bowl margarita.

I had the “Aztec” soup to start, which was just a tortilla soup. It was spicy and well balanced, and the avocado slices helped cool the tongue a bit, but I was hoping for something a little more exotic. I had the Supreme Fajita, which was a beef/chicken/shrimp stew with onions, peppers and mushrooms, served with a plate of guacamole, refried beans and salsa and soft tortilla shells to wrap it all in. Z went with the beef fajita, which was the same thing minus the chicken and shrimp (fellow doesn’t much care for seafood). N went with the Fajita Burrito, which was a monster. It was easily a hand-and-a-half long and would have taken two hands to wrap around, served with refried beans and iceberg lettuce.

It was far too much food, which is pretty much the best way to do food.

On our way out, we crossed paths with a pack of stray dogs. They were clearly starving, ribs showing through their fur, and they were digging through garbage looking for something to eat. There were a bunch of different breeds, from small lapdogs to larger hunting-breed mutts, and it was deeply saddening to see suffering creatures so near the luxurious resort side of town. They noticed us looking at them and started following us some, interested in N’s leftovers, and we hurried on towards the flea market, but not before stopping at one of the incredibly small corner stores to pick up a Mexican Fresca, a thing about which Z has been quite excited since noticing them. He was hoping they were the same as a great Fresca he’d had as a child – he was happy with the experience, and I found it largely to my liking as well.

There was a rope bridge. I think that any time an excursion involves a rope bridge, it’s officially an adventure.

Across the river, there were dozens of kiosks where people had their wares out for display. If the Malecon was annoying for having salespeople approach you, the flea market was ten times as bad. We couldn’t pass a kiosk without someone telling us to go in, asking us to look at something, telling us how good the deals were or asking if we were looking to get high. The stuff for sale was all the same kitschy souvenir bullshit you can find all over Mexico, with the inclusion of large knives and bullwhips, so we didn’t spend a ton of time there. N bought a present for her friend T. Z and I picked up a present for the boss that we think he’s going to like and on which we spent entirely more than we should have. Then we made the slow trek home, bellies filled with food that insisted on naps immediately.

Tonight, N and I spent some time at the pool cooling off after the long, hot trek into town, and spoke with some precocious children about how awesome Canada is. Canada, for the record, is pretty awesome.

Game Stuff

So, I basically had a random encounter today. I wasn’t expecting to see a pack of stray dogs. I certainly wasn’t expecting them to take any sort of interest in us. And I wasn’t scared of them, I was sad for them.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about in regards to role-playing games is the concept of Engagement play. We don’t always play role-playing games because they’re fun (or at least, I don’t). Sometimes, I play incredibly difficult games. Sometimes, I’ve played games that have made me sad or hurt my feelings or made me angry or brought me a sense of happiness. Games of all sorts are a vessel for experience, and the range of experiences that can be brought out by role-playing is incredibly wide. Wider, I think, than any other sort of game.

While this is just a brief note rather than an exhaustive study on the subject, I felt it was worth bringing up, at the very least. Sometimes I want a random encounter to hit me in the feels, and I think that’s something we should be looking at carefully.

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