A Happy Family Beach in Puerto Vallarta

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Something good is happening in Mexico in spite of the country’s sluggish official economic figures. My metric, my indicator, is the large number of highly visible Mexican families who are newly vacationing at the seaside. It seems to me that traveling from the interior of Mexico after making reservations at a beachfront hotel, and actually staying there for a week or more, sings out, “middle class!” That’s true even if the hotel in question is a little run down by gringo standards, and almost awful according to the criteria of the Mexican upper class.

How do I know those are new seaside vacationers? Easy! First, they don’t know how to swim at all. (Unlike the US, Mexico does not have a swimming pool in nearly every high school and in every little cheap motel.) So, Mexican newcomer families do something very sweet to take advantage of the warm ocean. Dad, usually the tallest of all, will stand in the water up to his chin. Mom will sit on his extended knee, with her arm around his neck. The children hang from one or both of them as best they can. Families can do this for hours, with satisfaction and pleasure written on all faces. More experienced vacationers either swim or simply avoid such jejune displays of affection. The standing still in the water makes sense, though, because it’s very hot outside.

I had to talk myself into swimming that morning. It had rained heavily the night before.

The second way I am able to spot the newbies is by what they wear and what they carry. They seem to prepare for their vacation by consulting women’s magazines and now, increasingly, the internet, in order to find out what equipment is required at the beach. So, in addition to brand new bathing suits, small arm floats to keep children above the surface, just in case, and large ones, yellow or green, shaped like giant ducks or dinosaurs, to sit on. Many carry both kinds. In addition, thanks to Chinese industriousness, their children have many, but many, brightly colored sand tools. Colorfulness alone is often enough to spot the neophytes.

This may sound condescending, but it’s not. It reminds me a little of my own childhood, although my family was composed of transgenerational beach veterans. A bit of retrospective envy is involved here: instead of a dozen tools for each child, we had three cheap tin sand tools, in all, which had to be shared among four children.

Anyhow, one day I was swimming within 40 yards of a tiny hotel beach circumscribed by two small breakwaters. I had to talk myself into swimming that morning. It had rained heavily the night before and a nearby river had projected its brownish alluvial waters far into the normally blue Pacific Ocean. One of its branches was approaching my little beach. In the end, I went anyway.

At one point, I heard female voices yelling insistently. This went on long enough to pierce into my consciousness.

When I say that I was swimming, it’s almost an exaggeration. I was lying face down in the water, giving myself a little push by fluttering my straightened legs every so often. As is my habit, I was wearing a face mask. I use one almost whenever I am in the sea because I like to catch any sign of life near the bottom while I swim. And then, there was that time on a crowded beach in the Virgin Islands when I spotted and caught by hand a nice-sized lobster on the sandy seafloor, and I was allowed to keep it. I was never the same afterwards. As people say nowadays, it was a transformative experience. I was not using a snorkel that time on the little Mexican beach, so I had to raise my head to breathe every so often.

Moving around like that, only a short way from the sand, I remained faintly aware of the laughter and other happy noises from people in the shallows. When I lifted my head, I also saw, without giving them any attention, vacationers walking or playing on the sand, or just standing, gazing at the ocean. Soon I became absorbed in my vague search for creatures and in my swimming thoughts (a special kind of thought — some other time). At one point, I heard female voices yelling insistently. This went on long enough to pierce into my consciousness. Slowly, I realized that those specific shouts were not part of the repertories of either happy women or angry women. (I have a decent experience of both, if I may say so.) And also, it was not the time or place for such vocalizations. When I raised my head to breathe, I detected that there was no one left in water deeper than two feet. I just failed to add two and two. The shouts redoubled in both loudness and in urgency. I noticed that they came from two teenage girls standing on the water's edge with an adult woman.

I couldn’t make out what the trio was yelling except that every yell started with the word “Señor.” Well, I am kind of dense, but not that dense. It dawned on me finally that there was a good chance the women were shouting at me. (If they had shouted “Señora,” I would have thought differently, trust me.) I was in no hurry to understand what else they were shouting, because who wants to pay attention to overexcited landlubbers? I know, I know what you are thinking: dumb, inattentive, oblivious, probably arrogant gringo ignores the advice of wise natives. Will pay for it! I know what you are further thinking, because this was happening in and on the edge of tropical waters, as in a movie.

Finally, finally, I recognized the long word at the end of the shouted sentences: “cocodrilo” — “crocodile”!

Making things clear: my Spanish is, frankly, good — in general. (That language is only a dialect of Latin, like my own native language, French. It helps.) There is one Spanish word in particular that is engraved in several parts of my brain because I have free-dived and speared fish in Mexico hundreds of times. The word is the term for shark: “tiburón!” It’s always accompanied by an exclamation point, or even two, Spanish style: “¡tiburón!” Well, I had definitely not heard the women on the sand shout that word. It would surely have drawn my attention if they had. So I returned to my leisurely swim.

Then others joined the women in screaming something incomprehensible; some of them were almost jumping up and down in their excitement. I looked around and determined that I was the only possible target of all this agitation. I swam a little closer to the sand. Finally, finally, I recognized the long word at the end of the shouted sentences: “cocodrilo” — “crocodile”! Well, damn it, context is everything; how was I supposed to guess that? I am an old Paris boy, after all. There has not been a crocodile in the Seine for a couple of million years, or something like that.

I raised my head, looked to my right, looked to my left, and finally turned around on myself. Sure enough, a crocodile as long as I am tall was peacefully lounging two or three feet from me. For the first time that day, I swam fairly fast, until my belly hit the sand. And, yes, sure thing, the creature was only as big around as my thigh. It was maybe a teenager. Still . . .

After I left the water, I thanked the nice middle-class women from Mexico City for saving my life, or perhaps a limb, or worse. Then I walked along the water’s edge to follow the beast’s slow progress while keeping my eyes on it. When it disappeared behind one of the breakwaters, I felt a sense of loss. It was my first time swimming with a crocodile after all.

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