It’s impossible to tell the story of Lourdes without first introducing her mother, Maria.
By the time I met Maria, life had taken its toll, at least physically. She was short and heavy, her belly swollen from bearing four children and a lifetime diet of corn and beans. Her hands were rough and calloused from constant labor.
And when she laughed, which she did often, she revealed a mouth filled with more gaps than teeth.
Yet to me, she was beautiful, for it was Maria, more than any other person in Punta Mita, who accepted and welcomed me from the start.
Barely educated in any formal way, Maria was a genius at survival. Leaving an abusive marriage inland, Maria had hooked up with another man and his young son. Together they had made their way to Punta Mita, and by the time I met them, Maria had successfully built a business that could sustain her family.
She did this by turning her home into a restaurant that provided meals for the fishermen who came to work in the waters off Punta Mita. (Most of these men had to leave their wives at home for months at a time and needed someone to cook for them.)
Maria did that while also providing a respite from the hard work and loneliness of their lives. At long tables set up on the sand, the men had a place to gather and share their teasing, laughter and stories. No women, except for Maria and me, were allowed to sit in on these sessions.
My Spanish was so bad that I spent most of my evenings playing loteria (Mexican bingo) with Maria’s children. But I also grew comfortable around the restaurant and with Maria’s customers—something that proved crucial when it was time to get help for Lourdes.
For it was Lourdes’ broken and badly healed wrist that kept Maria up at night. The thought of a child whose injury would keep her from being able to do the back-breaking labor required to survive in Punta Mita haunted Maria and sent her out each weekend in search of another witch doctor who might have a healing potion that could make it all right again.
But I didn’t know this. For although Maria shared with me her concern about her eldest daughter’s sudden interest in men and her stepson’s disregard for school, so great was her fear for Lourdes that she kept it to herself—until the day she came and asked if I would take Lourdes to see a brujo (witch doctor). It was then that I learned Maria had been taking Lourdes to witch doctors on and off for a year. And although nothing had worked, she had faith that if she found the right healer all would be well.
I was aghast. It was clear to me that Lourdes had broken her wrist and needed a real doctor to perform surgery. Maria was horrified by my suggestion. She’d never been to a doctor and was clearly terrified by the idea.
Beyond that was the question of money. Even if she had wanted to follow my advice no one we knew had any. “But doesn’t Mexico have nationalized health?” I asked Maria.
She had a good laugh at this, but finally agreed to take Lourdes to the nearest clinic. Of course, the nearest clinic was hours away and Punta Mita was so cut off by bad, almost impassable, roads that few, if any, people ever ventured in or out of the village.
It was about this time that the Eskimos showed up. I cannot even remember their names now. I only remember what they did.
The first thing they accomplished was to get to Punta Mita—in an old, hippie-style RV no less. Seems they’d been coming out that way for years, staying at different places along the coast. This year, they’d lumbered into Punta Mita. And surprise of surprises, (or not if you are a believer in Eskimos), the wife was a nurse. She took one look at Lourdes hand and convinced her husband that they should take Maria and Lourdes to the government clinic.
My job? Attempting to run the restaurant while Maria was gone. Otherwise she could not leave. It should be said now that Maria was a fabulous cook. She could whip up meals for 20 or 30 people and everything was fresh and delicious. I had never cooked for numbers that great and consider myself all thumbs in the kitchen.
Of course, Maria didn’t have a kitchen. Just an old gas stove that had been rigged for kerosene, a broken desk she used as a chopping block, a barrel of water brought in by mule and lots of tops to put on everything so the rats and cockroaches didn’t carry it all away. But somehow I managed to serve up meals three times a day. Everyone helped, from Maria’s oldest to her 5-year-old. Her boyfriend even lent a hand, although he rigged a door to the “kitchen” so no one could look in and see him doing “women’s work.”
The only area where I proved a complete disaster was in the making of tortillas. Since no one in Punta Mita ever used a utensil, tortillas were essential for getting food from the plate to your mouth. But flipping tortillas on a hot, sizzling grill using only your hands was not a skill I ever mastered. Thank heavens for Maria’s daughters.
Meanwhile, Maria and Lourdes visited the government medical clinic, where, after waiting almost a whole day to be seen, they were told that Lourdes hand would get better as she grew. Used to disappointment, Maria might have returned home after this but the American husband and wife team refused.
They took Lourdes to a private doctor and paid to have her arm broken and reset. So foreign an environment was the hospital to Maria that when they put an oxygen tent over Lourdes she cried that they were stealing her daughter’s soul.
And then there were the utensils. No one in Punta Mita used any, but hospitals do. So Lourdes and Maria had their first run-in with forks and spoons. Once the doctors were sure the arm would set properly, everyone headed for home.
But not before the American couple bought Lourdes her first-ever toy: a stuffed teddy bear wrapped in cellophane. It was the only store-bought toy any child in Punta Mita had ever seen.
Everyone, from 15 years to 16 months, would pass the teddy bear around, holding it and hugging it. Yet no one ever took it out of the cellophane, fearful that it would get dirty or sandy.
Its resting spot? A kind of altar in Maria’s home—a place high enough that rats and small hands would have a hard time reaching it, but low enough for everyone to be able to admire it.
I think about that teddy bear now, sitting in its wrapper in an alcove of a home built from tree sticks and thatch. When you Google “Punta Mita” now what comes up are pictures of a tropical paradise brought to you by Four Seasons Resorts. The trash is gone from the beach. Drinking water is no longer brought by mule. There is gas and electricity. I’m quite sure the roads are not only passable, but beautifully paved. I’ve heard Punta Mita has become a playground for the very rich.
And so I comb the pictures on the Internet, looking at the people who serve in the restaurants, the women who give the tourists their massages, the boys who bring the towels to the pool.
Is that Lourdes kneading someone’s muscles with a hand that is now sure and strong? Does her stepbrother mix drinks at the bar?
What has happened to Maria and her four daughters? Were they pushed back into the cities when the bulldozers came? Or have they come north by now?
Some say a paradise has replaced this poor fishing village. But for me, Punta Mita’s paradise was the one built on kindness and giving.
By Jamie Simons for PeterGreenberg.com.
Don’t miss Part 1 of Little Miracles in Punta Mita.
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