Saturday, February 19, 2011

Mazatlan mayhem: We shouldn't be alive

MAZATLAN -- It all started so innocently.

OK, fine, we were in Mazatlan in early 2011 at the height of the Mexican drug wars, so we should have sensed the danger. Still, we’re not sellers nor buyers nor manufacturers, so we should be fine. Yes?

Sure, Disney had recently decided to take Mazatlan off its ports-of-call itinerary. Phhht. Disney. No sense of humor, no sense of adventure.

Not only do we blithely take the big ship into the Mazatlan harbor, but we confidently leave the boat and hop a van toward a big excursion to see the local mangroves (these are plants that grow in brackish estuary waters) and bird life. No, really.

The bird-watching goes smoothly enough -- lots of birds, lot of mangroves, beautiful weather, a charming guide (though, admittedly, the garbage washed up on much of the shoreline is distracting). We see a tuna catch coming right off the boat (you don’t suppose they do that just for the tourists, do you?). So far, the day is similar to a day we spent floating the Tortuguero Canals in Costa Rica (minus, of course, the sloths, monkeys, Jesus Christ lizards, crocodiles, and iguanas, and plus the garbage).

So, we board a trailer with enough bench seats for all 44 of us, hooked to a tractor, and begin a slow and beguiling journey across the delightful Stone Island to the Pacific side. It’s sort of like a Mexican hayride. We take a right turn back toward Mazatlan. Cue the scary music.

The breeze is gentle, the temperatures warm, the sky blue, the ocean spectacularly beautiful. We are chatting up the elderly folks who have joined us on the trailer (they’re all elderly but us). There is a sound. An ominous sound. A rhythmic, death-rattle of a sound. And then, it becomes all too clear. 

A tire on our trailer-with-benches has gone flat. Uh oh.

We nervously glance behind us. Miles of white-sand beach. We look to our right. Coconut groves. Ahead -- more miles of white-sand beach. It’s quiet. Too quiet.

At any moment, the crossfire between rival gangs will catch us, we innocent Americans, and we will be headlines for sure.

Or worse, what if this is all a setup, right? A deal has been made among conniving bad people and we’re to be robbed or kidnapped, held for ransom and such. It’s only a matter of time. We spot Polo (as he keeps insisting, it’s one “l”, not two), our tour leader, talking on a cell phone. Right, sure; a cell phone on an isolated beach in Mexico? Ha! So, it’s to be option No. 2 -- a coordinated kidnapping.

We are ordered to get off the trailer, one at a time. We are denied in our attempts to walk nonchalantly down the beach toward the alleged restaurant that was to be our destination. We look around at our fellow travelers, looking for the weakest to use as shields against the hail of gunfire. Having set our sights on an elderly couple who rely heavily on, respectively, a cane and a walker, we are confident that we’ll at least survive the initial attack. And then, the inevitable.

Racing up the beach comes a squadron of tiny Dodge pickups fitted with benches and covers. We are dead meat. We are herded, one small group at a time, into these death wagons. I mouth to Kathleen, “I love you.” She rolls her eyes back at me. So innocent, so naïve, she hasn’t a clue what is about to happen.

We are taken on a bone-jarring ride down the beach and our captors, um, drivers, pull behind a series of buildings. Here it comes. We are ordered out of the trucks, through a stone patio and under a roof of coconut fronds. Oh, they were diabolical, these bad men. The place looked exactly like a restaurant we had visited only three years before, in happier times. In fact, it looked a little TOO much like that familiar beach taco joint, the Molo-Kay (nope, not making that up). We remembered now, entering this seemingly familiar place, that our tour guide for that earlier visit (she continues to insist her name is Alma -- isn’t that out of the Book of Mormon?) had “coincidentally” bumped into us at the cruise terminal that morning. Oh, these people were good.

What irony, this fate, this ultimate demise. We’d been warned, hadn’t we? “Don’t go to Mexico,” our friends said. “Go to Miami, where you can be killed by Americans. Haven’t you heard, they’re beheading people in Acapulco?”

And then, it got weirder still. Fresh coconut shrimp. Beer in little, tiny bottles. A walk, seemingly without our guards, down the beach and back. Then, another tractor-trailer ride (oh, sure, you fixed the flat already?) to the little boat, then to a bus, then to our big boat. 

Before we knew what hit us, we were on our way to Puerto Vallarta. These guys were just that good.

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