Early one morning we can see there’s a big commotion on the Malecon. Sirens are blaring, traffic is blocked, police are on the scene, as well as press photographers. It doesn’t take long to learn that a large section of the concrete overhang belonging to the Belmar Hotel had collapsed during the night. It’s a miracle no one was hurt. This is normally a very busy section with tourist groups traipsing in and out of a high- end jewellery shop. The concrete fainted at 12:30 a.m. Cruise ships and tourist buses had departed long before. The Belmar Hotel is a sad landmark in Mazatlan. Built in the early 1920s, it has beautiful bones. You can still see hand-painted Spanish glass tiles in its magnificent lobby. The Belmar sits on prime real estate overlooking the ocean. Rumour has it that in the glory days two government officials were found shot dead, movie stars came to vacation and large boas were brought in to slither along the rafters to gobble up the rats. Belmar’s neighbour told me a family who lives in Durango owns it, but who knows if that is true. It’s so difficult to establish the real owner. It just continues to erode and crumble before our eyes. Another longing for more regulations sweeps over me. UNESCO would not allow this to happen. Mazatlan crews do work around the clock; the debris is cleared away pronto, the Malecon is back to two lanes and the tourists are shopping for silver again in record time.
Just as that mess gets cleaned up, there is an early evening fire in our bustling Pino Suarez Market. Again, no one is hurt, but this fire is tragic. Over 12 stalls burn to a crisp and we really don’t know who will pay for them to be replaced. The owners have no insurance; it’s practically impossible to buy fire insurance in Mazatlan, as the majority of the structures are concrete — except of course for our 100- year- old- market, which is made of wood and wrought iron. The fire could have been contained very quickly with foam. We hear it’s a disorganized rescue with fire and police departments working too slowly; an onlooker simply stated it was a completely dysfunctional attempt. The market is the very heart of Centro; owned and operated by Mexicans for Mexicans. Another wave of wishing for more regulations overtakes me. I am not missing San Miguel, but this loss of business that families rely on, is serious, and I am angered by the sloppy way government officials have treated the emergency. The smoke damage and pools of water make it difficult to shop. The chef still goes every day; it’s important to support the stalls that were not affected by the fire.
During all of this chaos the garbage department decides to get organized. Out of the blue, our neighbourhood receives an advanced notice in writing, announcing they are going to change the pick up days. Soren and I are proud that we can read every single word. We know the days of the week, the hours of the day and we know “basura” means garbage. We share this with Tim and Betty who are renting Pepe’s first -floor apartment. We take turns putting the bin out the nights the notice stated. No garbage pick up. We try again. No garbage pick up. Finally we get it. The team that decided on the new pick up nights and printed the flyers has actually not shared this information with the truck drivers. Garbage nights remain the same. I toss the official notice in the basura. Tim and Betty promise to watch over our apartment (and take out the garbage) while we escape to the Balboa Beach Club for five days to avoid Carnaval. Part of me wants to stay as we have the absolute best view for the fireworks display. Another part of me knows the permanent banda band at the end of our street will drive me crazy and have me popping Valiums.
Tito takes us in his pulmonia to the Balboa and we are delighted with our room. I don’t think “they were working on it” at all in early November, but it is clean and a decent size. We have a living room, a large bathroom with 1950s fixtures, a good- size bedroom and the real bonus is an outdoor patio overlooking the ocean. We have an ocean view without the high price tag — still just $64 a night. Balboa continues to be tranquil and totally unaffected by Carnaval’s 24 hour party. We have tasty breakfasts in peace just listening to the ocean roll in. We play tennis almost every day and take time to explore the Golden Zone. Starbucks, McDonalds, Burger King, Domino’s Pizza and Dairy Queen are eyesores. We wander into furniture stores, high-end bathroom fixture stores and the many tourist traps that sell ceramics and blankets. It’s in one of these junky ceramic shops that Soren spots a pile of the beautiful plates made in Puebla. Literally, they are stacked like pancakes on the floor. I can still hear Soren’s voice from last October in Ajijic, “Are you sure you don’t want more than four?” I should have listened. As soon as I returned to Pepe’s Pedregoso Palace and began ripping apart the bubble wrap, I immediately regretted not buying two more. Here was my opportunity to add to my treasured collection. Mazatlan is hundreds of miles from Puebla so I was bracing myself for a price increase. I have learned from our Mexican friends that the most polite way to bargain is to simply ask for, “your best price, please” then take a long pause and breath. This owner decided $25 (US) each was fair for him. I am amazed the plates are $10 (US) less in Mazatlan.
Thrilled with my plate purchase, we continue to walk for hours, but the GZ never improves. Restaurants are located on busy sidewalks with bus and car fumes wafting their way up our nostrils. There’s rarely an ocean view. We miss Centro’s charm but it’s too early to go home; Carnaval is just hitting its stride. Our friends Rick and Joan offer to rescue us from the GZ by inviting us to their hotel for sunset drinks at The Riu. From the Balboa by pulmonia, it’s 15 minutes further north — we are entering nose bleed country. The Riu, Spanish owned, is possibly the world’s largest hotel chain. It’s an all- inclusive; it’s huge, it’s brash, it has guards warding off drop-ins, like us. Rick and Joan meet us in the lobby. Too late, the guards have ID’d us. They know we are not staying here and because it’s an all- inclusive, not a single ounce of liquid is permitted to pass our lips. Joan and Rick want to show us their room, offer us a glass of wine, but no, we are stopped at the bank of elevators by another guard. We are not allowed in the elevator. We will never see their room.
This is no fun and I feel The Riu is not doing itself any PR favours. We pile into Rick’s car and head for Karma Kitchen, a new Thai restaurant that would be at least a 40- minute drive from Centro. It’s set in a busy plaza walkway, sort of like a Mexican shopping food court so the atmosphere is not fabulous. What’s that I hear? Oh, it’s just Soren and the owner talking in Danish. The owner’s parents are from Denmark and I never did find out why the son had chosen Mazatlan to open a Thai restaurant. Now, if he had opened a Danish restaurant serving meat balls, rolled pork, herring, hot crackling pork and open- face sandwiches, that’s a journey Soren would make from Centro. Rick and Joan must hurry back to The Riu, as they have a reservation for their all- inclusive dinner. We are happy to have an early night; we must be ready for a 7 a.m. tennis game and then for the Sunday afternoon Carnaval Parade.
Do you know anyone who owns their own set of bleachers? Me neither. But Alfredo has always had his set of wooden bleachers. This is for the sole purpose of watching the Carnaval Parade on the Malecon. After the all-inclusive non-inclusive Riu, this is a very inclusive family invitation for Soren and me. Every year the Herrera children haul the bleachers out of storage and set them up on the Malecon at 5 a.m. Oh, you have to claim your territory early. Alfredo has his coffee and his smokes while the offspring do all the work. Exactly as it should be. The kids check the bleachers during the day to ensure there are no squatters. Alfredo recommends we be there by 5 p.m. as the parade could begin at 6 or 7. At 4 we walk from the Balboa Beach Club, armed with wine and water, and arrive at the Herrera Towers at 5:30 p.m. It’s a pleasant walk along the Pacific and not too crowded. The parade surprisingly begins at 6 with an hour of advertising floats throwing free goodies into the crowds lining the street. There are banda bands galore; the waiting children shout and wave, hoping to catch the freebies. We see all the sponsor floats, from beer companies, to newspapers, to coffee, to telco firms, each float outdoing the next. The preferred float costume for the young Mexican teenagers is terribly tight cutoff jeans and cowboy boots. It’s either that or ornate ball gowns. The sun sets behind the bleachers; we pass the time by chatting to Alfredo’s family and the chef devours Miriam’s homemade burritos. One hour later, the real parade begins with drum rolls, more banda bands, live animals and extravagant costumes celebrating the 2010 Carnaval Queen and King. For many years in Toronto I’d watch the Santa Claus parade; it was an institution that occurred the third Sunday in November. Crowds would bundle up and politely gather on the icy sidewalks to watch the fancy floats. The kids all cheered when Santa finally arrived in his sleigh. In comparison to the Carnaval Parade in Mazatlan, we may as well have all been sleepwalking in Toronto. The Mazatlan crowd knows how to welcome floats and yell their brains out. They scream, they jump up and down, their arms are never still. Now this is a parade filled with zest and enthusiasm.
At the tail end of the parade is a group of people, dressed normally, holding up handwritten signs on giant Post-It note paper. They are making a statement about being expropriated from their land and not being treated fairly. The crowds do not boo; they clap and cheer them on. This is the new Mexico, where freedom of speech is permitted; more or less. I like the fact the parade ends this way; without makeup, without music, without costumes. These are real issues being raised by real people. We are delighted Alfredo included us. I’m just not sure we’ll join them next year. Our ear drums need a rest.
Carnaval ends with a Canadian invasion. Rosemary is due to return, as is Warren for his annual holiday. Two Toronto friends have rented Pepe’s now- vacant downstairs apartment for a month. I am hoping every one will bring zest and enthusiasm for Mazatlan too.