I walked down the promenade in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, along the ocean, searching for nothing. I’d come down for a friend’s destination wedding and after the ceremony the hotel bills had been stacking up, so I checked out and took a right, figuring the universe would provide.
As I approached a pier, it did just that. A departing water taxi filled with people pulled a u-ey and invited me to get on. It was going to a secluded beach town called Yelapa. I was low on cash, so I bought a round-trip ticket knowing I was going to spend to my last dime there, but at least be able to get home.
30 minutes later I was dumped on a beach in a tiny bay with mountains on three sides. The sun was going down and I had to wade across a small river in order to reach the side of the town where I was told there might be a bed I could afford. I encountered a Canadian woman and said I was looking for a cheap hostel and hadn’t planned ahead. She looked at me like I was an idiot. The kind of idiot who walks into a little town with no vacancy and doesn’t have money for a room even if there was. The kind of idiot who was going to sleep on the beach and end up getting raped by a crab. She said I was screwed, in so many words, and took her leave before I put her on the spot to take pity on me.
With that news, I just sat and drank beer with three Mexicans I’d found sitting outside a little tienda set along a foot path. One was a fall-down-incomprehensible drunk with a 70 year-old body, an 80 year-old face, and a 100 year-old set of teeth. From within his slurs, I discerned an offer to sleep on his floor. I had brought a camping mat and enough Ambien that I could sleep anywhere, and though it would be cool to stay in a homeless wino’s guest room, I was going to need a few drinks first.
One of the other Mexicans, Chaparito, a 60 year-old construction worker with 9 fingers bought me a Modelo, and the younger Mexican, a 24 year-old odd-job-doer named Miguel gave me the Mexican equivalent of Funyuns. Miguel suggested I sleep on the roof of one of the many houses that had that under-permanent-construction look about them. That there was an unfinished roof nearby with a lean-to thatch that might keep any rain off. I’d just have to get out of there before the construction workers showed up in the morning. (This was actually my backup plan.)
Talking with Chaparito, my Ecuadorian accent and his cervesa-addled Mexican accent made for difficult conversation, but in trading life stories, we learned that we were each former military, and I guess we bonded. He was in a militia for 24 years and his brother is an engineer in New York. After feeling me out for a bit, he told me to wait there, and went to arrange a guest room from a neighbor. He came back and traded me a set of keys for 400 pesos. About $28.
We walked up a dirt road between dilapidated never-finished cement homes and he pointed to the one that was his. He said in the morning I should come and yell to wake him up and we’d eat fish together. Next to his house was my room. Sorry, my cell. A door made of bars with a single deadbolt marked the entry. Inside was an 8 by 10 space with a tiny bed in the corner and another even tinier, dirtier mattress laying on the floor. In the middle of the room was a pile of dust and sand half-covering the dried-up husk of a 4″ long spider. The private bath was an alcove with a seat-less toilet and a pipe coming out of the wall. A shower.
He asked if this was sufficient. I said it was. It was perfect.
We went back down to the tienda to continue drinking, talking about life, love, and war, when an American couple I’d met earlier walked by. I gave them a tour of my cell and then we walked the stone paths down to the beach where we mouthed shots of tequila and pet stray cats. Wading through the river at night, the girlfriend stopped me from accidentally stepping on the largest frog I’ve ever seen. Her boyfriend, caught it in his hand and picked it up. We drunkenly tickled it, pretending that the frog liked it (for all we know, its protests could have been giggles). It weighed more than a pound. There are chickens with less meat.
That night I dreamed about sex with strange women with strange bodies, and woke up at 7AM to the sound of roosters and cat meows and crying babies.
I went next door and called out, “Chaparrrrrrrrriiiiiiiitoooooo!” I heard him cough and hack and he came to the door, inviting me in. I gave him some granola. The least I could do for free fish. Turns out the fish was for the cat, and the cat seemed picky about it, ignoring it as it lay on the cement floor.
Chaparito’s house was a kind of garage. Four cement walls. No light. The place is filled with things, but they are so varied that you couldn’t make any assumptions about the function of the room. Not in the same way you would walk into a kitchen and see a kitchen, or into a solar and see chairs. There are two stoves. One in the middle of the room, another by the window. One had a couple pans on it, and the other dirty dishes and a bottle of hangover-curing electrolytes that’s been cut in half to serve as a cup. There’s broken fans and broken electronics and a variety of power and hand tools strewn about. Egg crates stacked behind the door. Along one wall, laundry is hung to dry. A machete lies on the floor, but that’s common in jungle towns. A solitary potted plant sits alone in the one open corner with broken things not stacked in it.
He sits and fiddles with a pipe and valve, turning a wrench and blowing clear the pipe. He lights a blowtorch and mentions something about how “gripé” (the common cold), is everywhere. He takes out some toilet paper into which he hacks out a lung. Toilet paper! I need to get some of that! When he stands, he’s maybe five feet tall, and he wears the third world version of Crocs. In no ways does he live a charmed life, but there’s something charming about him.
I borrow some toilet paper and go to brush my teeth back in my cell. It’s there that I learn how cheap toilets deal with low water pressure. I finish hovering over the seatless bowl and flush, only to see the brown chunks of misery rise and rise as the water filled the bowl with nowhere to go. Now I have to go outside to find a stick to poke at it. This was my morning.
Chaparito leaves for work. I pack up my laptop to go in search of internet so I can plan the next stop on my journey. It’s 8:30 AM now. I walk past the tienda and see Chaparito sitting drinking a beer. “Que rico tu trabajo!” I tell him as I walk on down the road. What a nice job you have!
Walking down the street, I see a white man at a cafe using a laptop: the international sign for “wifi.” I sit down and make a little conversation and he offers to buy me breakfast. I ask him what he does for a living.
He makes soap.
I tell him about my adventures so far.
About stumbling onto the boat that brought me here.
About how a couple days ago my taxi driver ran a red light, got himself pulled over, and with the notoriously corrupt Mexican police approaching the vehicle, I had to decide what to do with the two hits of LSD I had in my pocket. Do I take a 5% chance of going to a Mexican Prison, or a 100% chance of tripping balls? I took the two tabs of acid and had to bribe the cop 200 pesos to spare me anymore scrutiny.
Then we went to a time-share sales presentation.
90 minutes, the driver told me. As long as I stay for 90 minutes, he gets paid, and I get a free bottle of tequila and spa treatment. Tomorrow’s his birthday, so I can’t let him down, but I just took two tabs of acid and am about to go into what anyone who has ever been in one will say is absolute hell.
Time-share sales presentations are populated by the slimiest, mind-rapiest sales techniques on the planet. They use Neuro Linguistic Programing, a kind of real-time hypsnosis. They use “pivots”, switching from one salesman to the next, from one table to the next. They use “push-pull” techniques. They do financial worksheets with you and try to get you to sign it. Not a contract, mind you, but you need to sign it. That’s called a “yes ladder”. By the end of the presentation, you’ve signed your approval on gradually more and more complex fake contracts, until the last one is real. But by then, they’ve not sold you on it. You’ve sold yourself. If you show hesitation, they “neg” you. They make a joke or a comment that could maybe be an insult or hints at a backhanded compliment. They tell you how badass and independent you must be. You’re not like that last guy who had to call his mommy before signing. You’re a big man who makes your own decisions.
Well, now if I say I need to think about it, they’ll know I’m a big pussy who can’t dress himself or ride a bike. I’ll take it!
Once you get it worked out and then say you’re going to pass, they express their condolences. It was a deal that was one-of-a-kind because it’s a foreclosure property. Would have been a great deal for you! That’s how smart people do real estate, they say. They get the foreclosure properties. It’s a sad story if you buy a family’s home in Detroit for 50 cents on the dollar, but here, these are victimless! They are victimless because you are buying a time-share that some other asshole bought on impulse and realized he would rather eat the down-payment on the place than keep making payments. And now it’s your turn. The circle is complete.
They would put the “contract” in front of me. We’d worked out the money issues, they said. $4000 down, $250 a month, and $800 a year in maintenance. I could put it on my Visa and walk out of there a man who owns a condo in Paradise! The only thing left was to get me to commit. They’d give me a minute to look at the paperwork.
I stared at the contract, apologizing for taking so long–This is a big decision, after all! They told me to take as much time as I needed. They could see the gears turning in my head, and they would wait forever if they had to.
But I was wasted on LSD. I wasn’t thinking about the condo. I was thinking about the fact that this contract was alive and breathing in my hands. How letters were doing a choreographed dance routine. The junior salesmen might have missed the signs, but it wasn’t until I got to the boss level that I got called out. The king snake of selling snake oil. The master-pickup-artist-turned-condo-salesman. He’s so charismatic, you’re going to buy a condo just to thank him for gracing you with his presence.
He and I talked for 20 minutes about living around the world as he did his best to brainwash me into wanting to be like him: a global jet-setter who bangs models in his many time-shares. Then he finally looked into my eyes. “Do you wear contacts?” He asked.
My blue eyes had been earning me compliments all week. The Mexican sun would shrink my pupils, making them even brighter and this wasn’t the first time someone asked about contacts. I waited for the flattery (the final Hail Mary pass of seduction). But it wasn’t a compliment. It was an observation about the state of my pupils. One wasn’t quite like the other. They kept changing.
I started to giggle and my eyes watered.
And now he knows.
I wasn’t even the usual couple that comes in on their vacation to sucker the sales people out of their free spas and bottles of tequila. I was worse. I was fucking with him. I didn’t get weeded out before the 90 minutes. I went for extra walking tours. I kept going to the bathroom. I would just stare at the contracts in silence until the condo-pushers got visibly uncomfortable. I dragged it out for a full 4 hours. Hell, on LSD, I was probably safer in here than out beyond the walls of the resort. By the end, he tactfully told me to get the fuck out.
I found myself in the lobby with my spa certificate and my bottle of tequila, me just staring at the marble tiles, watching them melt into each other, each knot in the marble a bubble trapped millions of years ago, now unlocked and flowing freely thanks to the chemicals in my bloodstream. The sudden stop to all the ass-kissery, all the pampering, made the place feel much less comforting, so I headed home.
I walked for miles carrying this heavy bottle of tequila. I don’t even like tequila. I wanted to throw it away, but there were no trash cans. I wanted to leave it on a bridge for some stranger to find, but a child would probably come along and take it. I was incredulous. I can’t even throw away a bottle of good liquor!
Finally, I saw a a tourist couple with a toddler and pushing a carriage with a screaming baby. I approached them and thrust the tequila into the father’s hands. “Here. Take this.”
Here was this white guy with a Mike-Tyson face tattoo, stumbling along in Italian shoes and dragging a bottle of tequila. I didn’t look like a tourist as much as a coked-out banker.
“Really?” He said, nonplussed. They had a screaming baby and a too-heavy-to-carry toddler mashing his hands all over mommy’s face, and here some stranger just walked up and gave them a bottle of liquor for no reason. I told them they need it more than me, and then turned and left.
I walked on the beach and resolved to write a love letter to my shoes. My orange-laced Ferragamos used to be my favorites, but I’d spent the whole of the last year cheating on them with blue-suede Allan Edmonds. I was coming down from the trip, but I felt like a man crawling back to his wife. “I love you! I was such a fool! I’ll never leave you again!” I literally took my now-anthropomorphized shoes for a long walk on the beach because they deserved it. They need to feel like shoes again and we needed to spend quality time together if this was going to work.
Eventually I made it back to the hotel. Back to the safety I found in all my new Canadian friends that seemed to populate the place. It was the next afternoon when I strapped on my bag and took a right and took the boat to Yelapa. To go catch frogs and mouth tequila bottles with strangers. To stumble upon a cafe in the morning and start a conversation with an American who makes soap.
That’s the first thing you think of when someone tells you that they have a soap company. Tyler Durden, the Anarchist from the movie Fight Club who funds his terrorist operation by selling soap. Special little soaps with nice wrappers and cute names. Artisanal soaps, over which scents middle-aged women will agonize as they try to decide which one to put in their remodeled bathroom.
He told me how he started making soap in his garage over 21 years ago, but wasn’t very good at it, so he started ordering soap from Vermont and repackaging it as authentic and hand-crafted. He told me how he got kicked out of the Saturday market for being a fraud and then went to the Caribbean to sell the same to tourists, fresh off their cruise ships. “I’m the Caribbean Soap Guy,” he’d tell them as he rode his tricycle down the beach with a stack of fake Caribbean soap in the trailer. Back then he had only $50 to his name. Eventually, he mastered the soap-making process and now they truly are authentic. Now he sells 250,000 bars a year. Millions of dollars of soap, shipping all over the world. He was allowed back into the Saturday market.
One day a man came up to his stall in the market. The man told him how he liked the soap, and hoped it was okay that he’d used some of the soap names and company branding in the book. The man told him he should read it. It’s called Fight Club, he said.
He and his wife spend a lot of time here, and he seemed to be respected by the locals that passed by. “If you’re looking for a story, I’ve got a story for you.” He said. He began to tell me the story of how they got rid of the criminal element several years back. Four guys were addicted to crack, causing trouble in the town. It’s a small town that’s inaccessible without wading through water. Where the streets are still thin donkey trails, paved with stone. This was back before the tourism boosted the economy. Before they got power and water. In a place like this four trouble-makers can cause a lot of problems.
Even now, there’s no police presence here, and back then, they had to deal with their problems on their own. When you have a criminal element, what you have do is, you kidnap them. You walk them at gunpoint up the mountain jungle trails for a couple hours. Then you take them a few hundred meters off the beaten bath. You give them shovels and tell them to start digging, the whole time with pistols pointed at their backs. Once the graves are deep enough, you make them get in and lay down. Make them close their eyes. When they finally start talking to God instead of begging for mercy, you whip out your dick and you piss on them. You tell them they got a choice: Clean themselves up or stay here for eternity. Two fled and never came back. The other two chose the former, and today they live normal lives here in town, each with a job and a family. “That’s how they deal with people who cause problems here.” He said with a mix of pride and excitement.
And the man who makes soap? As I write this, I’m watching him pace around on a cell phone in the veranda of the cafe, talking to some manager in the U.S. about an order of lotions and dog shampoo. Perhaps he wasn’t with the town elders in the mock execution. Maybe he’s just a guy who makes soap, but if not… if there’s something more to it, then this much is true: Tyler Durden bought me breakfast in Mexico.