Cast in Sand

by Carol Clark

No matter where we were in Mexico City or what we were doing, our thoughts returned to that one brief “reader recommendation” in our 1970 edition of Mexico on $5 and $10 a day.

We might be sitting together on a white marble bench encircled by red roses on low bushes in a shady courtyard of a sculpture gallery; we might be contemplating in the National Anthropology Museum the giant, round, stone Olmec heads, carved more than 3,000 years ago; or watching children feed the squirrels and pigeons some peanuts purchased from old men with pushcarts in central Alameda park; or sitting in plush, red, upholstered seats in the top gallery (el paraiso—literally “paradise”) marveling at the crystal curtain—one million tiny bits of shimmering red, blue, green, orange, yellow, clear, and white glass pieced together into a mosaic of the volcanoes, splendid flowers, and old cactus surrounding the valley of Mexico; we might be waiting for that curtain to rise for a performance of the Ballet Folklórico’s pre- and post-conquest dances; we might be sharing a Sunday in Chapultepec Park with working-class families taking their children to museums and the zoo, picnicking on sandwiches and soft drinks, keeping an eye on their older children shouting from the rented two-person yellow plastic pedal boats on the dingy lake, and holding the hands of their two-year-olds who insisted on feeding crumbs to rude, noisy swans.

Eventually our discussion returned to that lone paragraph on the last page of the chapter on Guerrero State describing Zihuatanejo, a relatively undiscovered Mexican fishing village on a calm blue bay on the Pacific coast.

Tom had grown up near Long Island Sound, and I had grown up two miles from Lake Michigan. We had already compared our childhood memories of swimming for hours in icy water, collecting discarded soda bottles for recycling, raking the sand in search of coins, fishing from a pier of old timbers, and sailing heavy, clumsy wooden boats. My family visited the beach even on windy winter days to wonder at the giant blue and white waves frozen in action. On our first Christmas vacation together, Tom and I held mittened hands and tramped along his snow-covered childhood beach, imagining people living in other countries across the vast gray water. The thought of spending part of our honeymoon in a quiet village on a Pacific beach was too enticing to resist, and we booked one of the few daily commercial flights to Zihuatanejo.

When we arrived at the Mexico City airport the morning of our departure, I wasn’t expecting to walk with a few Mexican tourists onto the asphalt runway to board a tiny six-passenger Cessna plane. Nor did I foresee, as we took our seats, how grateful I would be later for the older señora sitting across the aisle from me who crossed herself, bowed her head, and mouthed a silent prayer before takeoff.

The tiny plane flew low over the rugged mountains between Mexico City and the flat rocky Pacific coast. From above, the mountains looked like the tranquil countryside of toy train sets with brown plaster peaks dotted with pine trees of stiff green bristles. The trip, however, was not so still. Invisible wind currents hitting the unyielding peaks sent the light plane rising and plunging and rising again, and rattled the flimsy cabin walls. I took deep breaths to keep my stomach in place, sat up with my spine erect, and stared straight ahead at the back of the pilot’s head, as if by concentrating hard I could calm the wind. Tom touched my fingers, which I had dug into the black plastic armrests, and glanced at me with one of his reassuring smiles. But I noticed his eyes were not twinkling with the usual mischief.

Even though we had only been married a few weeks, he already knew to wait until later to recount the story the Mexican gentleman sitting next to him had told him before takeoff. When small planes like this one crashed in these mountains, search parties found the bodies of passengers and pilots with their hands and fingers missing. Rather than having to pull rings, watches, and bracelets off over the hands or fingers of the dead, bandits found it easier simply to cut off the appendage. After we returned to Mexico City, he shared this conversation; and though it made no logical sense, each time we took this flight in later years, I removed my wedding ring and watch before takeoff.

After a very long hour, the plane leaned into a wide smooth circle, and I saw below us the gentle curve of the rocky shoreline encircling a bay of sparkling blue water. The pilot brought the plane down onto the airstrip a short distance back from the bay; we bumped along the dirt-and-grass runway and came to an abrupt halt. Before the walls and ceiling of the passenger compartment even stopped shuddering from impact, the young pilot jumped out of the cockpit, stooped to open the small baggage compartment underneath the plane, pulled out our backpacks, and handed them to us. He climbed back into the cockpit and took off immediately, leaving us standing dazed and breathless in the silence of an empty field in the suffocating tropical heat.

Anxious to get out of the midday sun, we found the dirt-and-sand path, which the “reader suggestion” had explained would take us to town through a moist, cool banana grove. Our shoulders brushed past the shiny green palm leaves as we walked around, long, fat bunches of ripening yellow-green bananas hanging into the path.

We crossed a wobbly, hand-built, wooden plank bridge over a shallow pebble-and-sand stream and walked into the small settlement on one side of the bay. To our left, the calm water sparkled and the sunshine bleached the sand to a light tan. To our right, stretching back from the wide beach were three sand streets lined with one- and two-story houses, made of either painted plaster or concrete. Green awnings on the second-floor windows shaded the fronts of the houses, and the first-floor doors opened directly onto the sandy sidewalks. In the afternoons, women sat in their doorways in multi-colored plastic beach chairs, mending, chatting with neighbors, and catching the cooling sea breeze while they watched their little children play in the sand.

The first floors of some of the houses had been converted to little tiendas selling soft drinks, oranges, candy, eggs, butter, jars of Nescafé instant coffee, boxes of chamomile tea, etc. A few other families had installed wide, glass patio doors and turned their first floors into sunny tourist shops where the mainly Mexican tourists bought bikinis and matching swim trunks sewn by village women on treadle sewing machines in their homes. That season the material of choice was a paisley print, either green and gray, or pink and gray. We bought pink. Those who did not want suits could buy floppy, brimmed straw hats, sandals, beach towels, and suntan oil.

At the time of our first trip, the only vehicles in the village, besides bicycles, were a taxi and a beer truck that doubled as an emergency vehicle. We learned this when Tom cut his toe on a sharp rock as we climbed up the hill in back of town to peek into the windows of the long, low, lime-green elementary school during their summer break. Tom’s cut was minor and did not even require a bandage, but the informal neighbor-to-neighbor communication system worked well in this quiet, uneventful town. In no time, the beer-truck driver drove up, screeched to a halt, and jumped out of his truck with his black medical bag in hand. He took Tom’s elbow, gently helped him to a nearby boulder, and motioned for him to sit down. The driver was about twenty-five years old, slender and good-looking, with the dark, full mustache that was so popular among young Mexican men at the time. At the same time, and out of nowhere, appeared five of the town’s teenagers, two girls and three boys, to observe the unfolding drama.

The driver set right to work, gently brushing the sand off Tom’s foot and inspecting the wound from several angles to determine next steps. From his medical bag, he dug out a brown bottle of Merthiolate, poured a few drops of the stinging, pink antiseptic on a cotton swab, and cleaned the cut while Tom grimaced dramatically. Then, with great show, the driver tore off the thin paper wrappers of two plastic drugstore Band-Aids and pressed them snugly to the toe. He pronounced that the wound was too grave to allow us to walk the two blocks back to town and insisted that he must drive us straight to our hotel where Tom could rest. I stood back and grinned as I watched the driver offer Tom his sturdy arm and Tom leaned on it as he limped—way more than necessary—to the truck. After we had climbed into the cab, the driver closed the battered door, ran around to the driver’s side, and slid in beside us. The five teenagers climbed into the open truck bed behind the cab. While they had watched in silence throughout the emergency situation, they were chatting and laughing now. I suspected that at dinner that evening, their families heard a memorable tale of heroism, foreign intrigue, and their integral roles in escorting a wounded gringo back to safety.

Our hotel, the Bel-Mar, sat on the edge of the sand bordering the calm, clear blue water, perfect for early-morning swimming. It had a cold-water shower, a ceiling fan to keep mosquitoes away, a dark stone floor that stayed cool all day, and screens at the windows. Every morning and night, we ate whole red snapper salted and fried by a local woman whose little restaurant had a single table on the small front porch of her white plaster house. On one wall, a local artist had painted an arrangement of bright orange, blue, and yellow tropical flowers I did not recognize. For lunch, we peeled the thin black-and-green skins off local oranges we had discovered at a little fruteria. Never having seen oranges without a speck of orange on the skin, I asked twice of the plump woman who ran the fruit stand, “¿Son naranjas?” Since the Spanish word for orange is very hard for me to say, I said naranja very slowly and clearly. “Sí. Sí, son naranjas,” she assured me kindly, though she probably wondered why I couldn’t recognize an orange when I saw one. Still dubious, I bought four to try and returned daily afterward for more of the sweetest, juiciest, and most delicious oranges I have ever tasted.

We learned, the painful way, that Mexicans took siestas from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. to get out of the burning sun. After that first day, we went native and took siestas in white string hammocks under thatched lean-tos on the beach. After our siestas, we walked two blocks to the ice-making factory, a large, square empty room with gray, cinder-block walls, and a cool gray concrete floor. Windows just beneath the high metal ceiling let in misty sunlight, and invisible motors droned continually, producing ice and clean water for drinking and for making delicious fruit paletas. We always hoped to arrive just when the eight-, nine-, and ten-year old village boys rode in on their short bikes with the long slender banana seats popular at the time. The boys leaned their bikes against the aluminum handrail attached to a cement stairway, and we sat together on the lower steps eating our paletas and listening to their jokes, when they remembered to slow down enough for us to understand.

The usual English translation for paleta is popsicle, but if we had offered a US popsicle to these boys and told them they were paletas, they would have laughed at what they thought was a joke. “¡No! Paletas son de fruta.” And they were mainly fruit—large chunks of fresh pineapple, mango, papaya, watermelon, whole strawberries, or grated fresh coconut—frozen in a bit of juice to hold the fruit pieces together around the short, square wooden sticks. I tried all the flavors, but my favorite was made of large, irregularly cut, pale orange chunks of frozen cantaloupe, including an occasional slender white seed, and just a suggestion of sweet pure water. We didn’t lick these paletas. We ate them bit by bit, waiting for the fruit to warm just enough so we could take a bite without freezing our teeth, but not letting them thaw so much that the fruit pieces separated from each other and the paleta fell apart in our hands.

Later in the afternoons, we sat on the sand watching the village women in their white slips standing knee deep in the gentle waves, cooing and baby-talking, as they held their giggling, squealing toddlers firmly under their little arms and dunked their chubby brown legs in the warm shallow water. Next the fishermen’s wives arrived with flat woven baskets to meet their husbands’ small, wooden, painted motorboats returning from a day of fishing. They helped their husbands and older sons unload the day’s catch into the baskets, and then hoisted the heavy baskets onto their heads, swaying their hips rhythmically as they walked straight-backed from house to house selling the freshly caught fish to neighbors for their evening meals.

Although they had fished all day in the heat and must have been exhausted, the men and older boys stayed on the beach until just before sunset playing soccer, running at top speed, shouting and yelling to fellow team members and friendly opponents, stooping to hit the ball with the tops of their heads, and falling nearly flat on the soft sand for a spectacular kick. They elicited mad cheering and clapping from players and spectators, including even the temporary tourists drawn into the excitement and skill of the game.

After the men and boys went home to dinner, Tom and I sat alone on the still-warm sand, listening to the quiet lapping of waves. Tom took pictures of the wispy clouds on the horizon as they reflected the red and golden of a fat sun sliding smoothly out of sight into the vast expanse of water. We remained sitting as the water tinted orange by the sun turned gray and the waves grew more spirited as night fell. We marveled at the glow of phosphorescent plankton in the churning salt water, and speculated about whether the old Mexican silversmith would present us with our wedding rings the next morning.

Just around the corner from the beach and our hotel, we had discovered his shop with its sunshine-yellow and a deep sky-blue painted wooden façade. The white-haired artist opened it every morning about 10:00 by removing a large board in the front to form a wide-open space where we stood to watch him work. His shoulders, stooped from years of meticulous work, bent over a wooden worktable as he fashioned necklaces, earrings, and other beautiful objects for quinceañeras, baptisms, weddings, and other important celebrations of rites of passage in people’s lives.

Tom and I had decided before we were married that we would have our wedding rings made in Mexico, and we showed this silversmith what we had in mind. After wrapping a measuring tape around our ring fingers with his long lean fingers and penciling a few numbers on a little scrap of paper, he explained he would cast the rings in sand and said he had all the information he needed. He shrugged when we asked how long it would take, so we returned that evening and every morning and evening after that for several days to ask, “Are they ready yet?” Each time he shook his head and said, “No, not yet,” though never in a way that said our impatience was inappropriate. No, it was more as if he was speaking in an artist’s way, suggesting that it would take time to create beautiful silver rings we could cherish forever. And as I think about it now, perhaps he was speaking as a man who had spent a lifetime with a wife he loved, and he understood how love grows slowly year by year and with each shared ordinary and difficult experience into a gentle, enduring trust.

Finally, one morning, the silversmith greeted us at his open window with a smile and handed us the two silver rings, looking exactly as we had told him we wanted. When we returned to Zihuatanejo the following year, his shop was gone—not even the joyous yellow-and-blue painted front remained. It was as if he had never been there. But I still have our two silver rings as proof of the wise, old silversmith.

One morning, we rented two weary, sway-backed, old burros from a local family to ride over a steep rocky hill to Majahua, a rarely visited beach on the open sea. We rode single file along the narrow path, Tom leading. His feet hung an inch from the ground, making him look from behind like Don Quixote on his old sway-backed horse, Rocinante. I felt sorry for my bony burro and soon climbed off to walk beside him, leading him over the rocks with his rope. We tied the burros to wind-blown bushes at the edge of the lonely beach and turned toward the water. Towering waves broke and crashed to shore, leaving shattered shells and roiling sand in their wakes as they raged back out to sea. Realizing it was too dangerous to swim, we took shelter in the only evidence humans had ever been there—a hut of dried palm fronds—and waited for the burning sun to lose its strength before we set out on our burros back to our calm bay.

Later, the Mexican government developed the whole area into a popular and expensive beach resort called Ixtapa, and Majahua became a day-trip destination. Zihuatanejo became a place for tourists to dine at new beach restaurants and bars with jukeboxes playing loud Mexican music and to spend the day imperiling swimmers as they sped along the shore on rented jet skis pulled by noisy outboard motor boats. Zihuatanejo could no longer remain a small, undisturbed fishing village. But until it grew and changed, we returned three times.

One morning, during one of those visits and before the sun rose white-hot in the sky, we spread our towels side by side on the sand in front of our hotel and sat gazing out at the quiet blue water. As we sat marveling at our good fortune, three six-year-old girls in shorts and sleeveless cotton tops marched barefoot just up to the edge of Tom’s towel, stopped, and stood shoulder to shoulder in front of him, staring sweetly into his eyes and suppressing giggles. After his usual quick glance at me to make sure I was ready for our next shared adventure, he smiled and greeted the little girls saying, “Buenos días.” In response to his “Good morning,” they giggled again, and without moving their eyes from his twinkling eyes and rosy cheeks, replied, “Buenos días.”

The little girls had clear, tan, unblemished skin, long slender arms and legs, dark eyes with long black eyelashes, and the confidence of well-loved children. Each clutched something we could not see in her sandy fists. The little sister of one of the girls stood silently just behind the older girls. She was not more than three years old and down her back hung a single black braid secured at the tip by a blue plastic barrette. Tiny turquoise studs in her delicate earlobes shimmered against her brown skin and made her dark eyes sparkle. She wore pink shorts and a blue jumper top with a large square yellow patch pocket on each side and stood stock still on her plump bare feet, her deep brown eyes scrutinizing the older girls’ every move.

The older girls looked at each other, giggled, shrugged their thin shoulders, and opened their sandy hands to show Tom the tiny shells they had found on the beach that morning. He admired the shells. “¡Ay! Qué bonitos,” he said. When he took two shells from one little girl’s hand to show me, I studied it and smiled at the girls, agreeing that the shells were indeed very pretty. Then the bravest little girl held her hand out to Tom and said they were regalitos (little gifts) for him. “Gracias. Muchas gracias,” he thanked them. The girls stood for another half minute watching him place the shells, one by one, in a small plastic case he had with him. “To keep them safe,” he explained. The girls looked at each other, laughed, and ran off, grabbing the little sister’s hands as they passed by her.

We chuckled, appreciating the charming visit. Tom stood, shook the sand out of his towel and lay down to read. Before he had read even a page, the girls reappeared with more shells. Seeing he had shaken out his towel, each older girl placed her few shells in his cupped hands, being careful not to drop a single grain of sand on his clean towel. Again, they stood back, dusted the sand off their hands, and grinned at him.

The littlest girl, one patch pocket bulging, stared at Tom with serious eyes, as if not knowing quite what to make of him but not going to be outdone by her sister and friends. She walked shyly up to the very edge of his towel, stopped, and reached into her lumpy patch pocket. Pulling her little clenched fist out of the pocket, she held it over Tom’s towel and opened one pudgy finger, then the next, and the next, as children do when they are learning fine motor skills. She held her open hand out to show him and then turned it over to let the few shells, but mainly sand, fall on his towel. She smiled—a huge accomplished smile.

When Tom said, “gracias” to her, she continued to stand there, staring at him, wordless. Her sister tapped her sandy hand, now down at her side, and whispered, “Dile ‘de nada,’ Lupita.” Lupita did not move her eyes from Tom’s face while she considered her older sister’s reminder to respond to his thank you with the polite “it’s nothing” or “you’re welcome.” She wrinkled her brow and murmured, “De nada,” just loud enough for Tom to hear. The older girls giggled and turned, and her older sister caught Lupita’s hand. Running as fast as she could on her three-year-old legs, Lupita just barely kept up with the older girls as they ran down the beach, waving back at us, and calling “¡Adiós!”

In the big picture, these are unimportant events in a village that no longer is. But when I recall that little fishing village, the men and women living their lives of companionship, artistry, and skill, those young girls’ sandy gifts, and Tom’s sweet gratitude, I know what is possible.

Carol Clark lived and conducted economic research on schooling, child health and nutrition, and women’s work in Guatemala from 1976 to 1980 and co-led, with Tom, semester-length college study-abroad programs. They lived six months at a time in Guadalajara, Mexico from 1985 to 1993. For eighteen years, she taught economics, interdisciplinary studies, and women’s studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina.

About Cast in Sand—This essay appears in a book provisionally titled Agua y Luz–Water and Light, in which I recount stories Mexicans and Central Americans told us about their lives, hopes for their children, and nonviolent efforts to create more just and democratic societies. Tom and I shared forty-two years traveling, learning, teaching, meeting generous people, working for justice, and coming to understand with our hearts that “gracias” comes from “grace.” This first trip was the beginning of my lifelong fascination with Mexico. I wore my wedding ring for more than a year after Tom died and then placed it beside his in a ceramic box. Every so often, I open the box, see our two silver rings, and smile.

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