Stories from Casa Isabel

Chewing the Fat

Welcome to the details behind the scene, the optional-extras of vacation planning, the tasty tidbits that tell you more about life in the Yelapa jungle.  It’s not always easy navigating our quickly changing world, and time-outs for refreshment make such a difference. While many among us embrace technology and its new opportunities, Yelapa reminds us of earlier ways of being.  The scale is the very opposite the norm of huge houses surrounded by cars and roadways. 

An increasing number of digital nomads enjoy life while working remotely from this vibrant jungle town.  Yelapa was refreshingly unrestricted through the pandemic, a logical response to lives lived mostly outdoors or in open-air  houses.  Occasional waves of infection swept the town and a few elders died, normal in a pandemic.  Vaccines were available and promoted but never mandated.   Those choosing not to vaccinate were not shunned.  When I asked our wonderful worker how the town’s unemployed were doing (in the single early lockdown), I learned that families who had work fed families who did not.  A non-government social safety net is alive and well.  Many western nations have forgotten that we mostly don’t need much of a government to take care of us.Ancestral memory sighs with relief under big trees in a small town.  People mostly walk around, and it’s always worth leaving early because you will surely need to stop and chat when you run into friends.  How great is it to have to wade across a river to get to the beach or the other side of town?  On one upriver trip I was delighted to see two horses pulling machete-cut logs home, their owners elsewhere. 

The horses’ owner likely spent very little to build his own simple house one bit at a time.  What mortgage?  The rebars commonly seen sticking out of flat Mexican roofs are called “esperansas” – hopes – as in they hope to find more money sometime to build an addition.

Mexico has a popular reformer president making headway against entrenched corruption.  When sanctions against Russia resulted in gas shortages and doubled prices, Mexican gas went up only a peso (20cents) per liter.  A graduated taxation system will reach its ending in 2023, taking Mexico up to northern standards.  However, government overreach is still absent – nobody is making more expensive regulations to keep us “safe” –  and the cultural vibe is one of people helping people.  

When tropical storm Narda hit hard in 2019, it wiped out homes of 35 families who had blithely ignored strictures against building on a floodplain.  Whoops.  One beach restaurant owner told me that his mother, recently passed at 102, had warned him not to build there.  The storm arrived just before sundown – an hour later and the damage would have been even worse.  Morning-after survivors were uniformly grateful.

**photo of mouth of river**

Boat owners raced to the shore along paths where rainwater rose quickly from ankle deep to waist deep.  Not all were ahead of the logjam roaring downriver, and within minutes 20 boats were rammed off-anchor and bobbed on the bay without their captains. The next morning men with shovels were removing waist-high sand from the main paths through town.  Within a day a boatload of water and toilet paper arrived from PV.  Goods continued to arrive as out-of-town friends and family pounded the pavements for donations.  The only government assistance came much later when some fishermen were compensated for equipment losses. Many friends of Casa Isabel threw in $500US each and we gave mini-kitchens to the flooded families. Bedding, clothing, food … it was downright festive in town as generous boatloads kept arriving and everybody lined up for assistance, flooded out or not.

For an expat from northern Canada, less government is very refreshing.  The streets of Puerto Vallarta have designated jay-walking paths, and pedestrians have no right of way.  In other words, go for it, but don’t come to us if it goes wrong.  The concept is that people have the good sense to decide for themselves.  Imagine.  On the flip side, Mexican law has harsh penalties for offenses, and the same “decide for yourself” attitude shows up in jails where you’d better have somebody from outside bringing you goods, because the responsibility for your care is your own.  Of course if you were really taking care you would be unlikely to be in jail!

20+ years ago our son went to school here for Grade 9.  Mathematics was more advanced than up north, and the curriculum leaned less to “creative” and more to  “memorize”.  Parents had to show up at the school every 2 months, sitting in little desks and answering roll calls with “presente”.  One task for our group was serving the food at the independence day celebrations.  At Christmas every family had to bring 200 rocks, to be used for a new room for the school. 

Every day the students had one non-academic class – team sports and art used up 3 days.  A fourth day was spent cultivating beans:  planting, watering, weeding, drying, selling.  Another day students were taught to waltz, a preparation for the quinciniera party that marks the transition of 15 year olds into adults.  The long gowns and formal wear seem bridal, and old tradition has it that the boyfriend may “kidnap” the birthday girl, and at the end of weekend away, they were considered married.  The delightfully rowdy owner of Tienda Yuri enjoys such a marriage. Prominent catholicism and a strong family culture means many teen marriages thrive.

There are many ways of life and multiple styles of governance.  As technology increases exponentially, even so far as military initiatives to make human-computer interfaced cyborg soldiers, an increasing number of us are leaning hard in the opposite direction.  Back to basics.  Nature knows best.  How can we reclaim power over education and  food systems?

Casa Isabel is Yelapa’s oldest continually operating guest house.  Isabel was a pioneer in the earliest days of tourism, arriving in 1971 and falling in love with the magical little fishing village.  And with Pepe.  He was the black-sheep grandson of a Mexican president who was raised in exile in France then returned to his native land, not to palaces in the capitol but to a wee village without road access.  Pepe taught the locals unique palapa designs and spread passion fruit vines around the town, using the basic vehicle of little boys and the downhill end of their digestive tract. He was aristocratic and broke, so Isabel and Karina often left quiet envelopes of money under his pillow.

Pepe also invented a fine tool for the land-crab emergence.  Land crabs hibernate underground in the dry season – that’s what the tejones and skunks are digging up.  They emerge with the rainy season and there’s always one day when you cannot walk down the trail without squishing at least one. Land crabs are catadromous – they breed in the sea then return to land.  It’s very common for some to crawl into a corner or pocket and die then the smell – peeyew.  Pepe’s invention was a funnel over the face with a hose on the funnel, to pin down where that elusive rotting smell came from.

Yelapa is a communidad, an uncommon organization that formed even before Mexico.   Cortez’ crew was warmly welcomed by the locals, then a burning-bush virgin manifestation cinched the deal.  The King of Spain drew a line on the map and said this land is for you.  Currently some few hundreds of locals are card-carrying members of the communidad, and only they may own land.  Land may be claimed by members by erecting and maintaining a barbed-wire fence.

Pepe helped Isabel secure the land from Juan Cruz, a town leader who had the first dugout canoe with a 20 horsepower motor.  Earlier boating in Yelapa included the dugout but did not include the motor.  One old local friend told tales about paddling to Sayulita with a canoe-load of Raicilla, the agave moonshine of local fame. Juan Cruz was blessed with energy and kindness.  He also bought a lot of barbed wire, for which his descendents, including Casa Isabel’s landlady, are most grateful.

Technically Yelapa is an agricultural zone, and technically leases are through the communidad, but really the card holders just rent their land out.  The joke among landlords is that we farm gringos and they grow us houses.  Lease time is always harrowing, but what a better alternative than the usual roughshod of colonial takeover.  I have appalled myself lately reading about the attitudes of the colonizers.  So many truly believed they were encountering heathen barbarian inferiors, who would  be improved by religion or enslavement and whose resources could be justifiably transferred to the homeland.  We certainly have a lot of messes to clean up to claim the prophecy of 1000 years of peace.

Isabel lived in Yelapa for 40 years.  Her first lease cost $50US per year and her last lease was up a hundred fold.  Before she went north after her first summer, she prepaid to have the Casa Isabel property cleaned up, imagining weeds gone and lovely trees remaining.  Shock #1 on returning was a bald hillside, the local notion of cleaned up land.  In the early years pigs ran wild, and the original Casa Central – way back when – was once a pig stoop.  The giant huancaxtle tree in the center of the property is now in old age, but when Isabel arrived her teenaged daughter could jump through the first Y of its branches.

Isabel had a rare talent to make you feel like the most important and interesting person in the world.  Even if there was a line-up to see her, her attention was 100% on whoever she engaged with.  When I had an unfortunate incident at my parent’s 50th anniversary party, and an uncle reassured me that they were still disappointed that I was wasting my life, Isabel knew just what to say – she was glad I was wasting it down here with her!

Iz was one of the first gringas to integrate with the locals, lapping up gossip about whose donkey was stolen and which young girl brought her new baby home to Mom.  Casa Isabel was her hobby-as-business, a gradual building up  with different partners for different houses, always a great collective vibe. Isabel was previously a bursar at UC Santa Cruz, and her laundromat notices started bringing in guests.  In early years she vowed to always find space for guests no matter what. 

Chris and I started showing up here In Isabel’s middle years.  She let us pay what we could afford and made the development of composting toilets a requirement of residence.  Iza often gave up her bed to a needy guest and would come crash on our couch.  She was so in demand that Chris and I did her the favor of ignoring her in the main season, or would only intrude to report a completed project.  

In later years we would have “Just Say No” lessons.    “NNNNNNokay”   Isabel would say. She taught me the difference between being proud and being pleased.  One time 4 of us were standing around and somebody paid Isabel so she paid me so I paid the guy who just finished sharpening our knives and we all laughed about the circle.

The Huichol are indigenous peoples who backed off into the mountains when the Spanish invaded, and maintained their traditional ways until this generation got cellphones.  They are a peyote culture whose shamans undergo a 12 year apprenticeship.  We have directly experienced their unexplainable powers, and feel so pleased to know that such a people still exists.  Despite cell phones, their culture remains vibrant and intact.  A fully-beaded volkswagon bug was done by Huichols from Nayarit, and is displayed in a Mexico City museum.

Isabel was an early sponsor of Huichol artists.  It was common for a group of six to show up hoping for supper and beds.  Many times the Huichol would do their beading and yarn painting on the patio, loading a cactus needle with beads then quick as lightning put them into the pitch-and-beeswax mix that held the beads to the sculpture.  Once Isabel told me to not let her buy any more Huichol art, as she was overloaded.  The gods laughed and sent a single mom with 2 little kids down the trail, selling art. 

Isabel took up fire dancing at 78 – she was good!  She died in 2009 after a fall in a friend’s home.  Two days before her fall she was on my table getting bodywork and, out of the blue, told me that when she died I had to look after the place.  No, nooooo I cried – I can’t talk to people that much.  I can’t run a guest house.  Well hire someone, she said, hire Judy.

We’d been joking around earlier that she’d probably live to be 100, so I blew that one off.  Right.  At Isabel’s memorial at least a dozen people said she was their best friend in the world.

Isabel’s daughter laid claim to Casa Isabel and tried to sell it, but the three candidates ranged from possible to no way to you’ve got to be kidding, high heels and false eyelashes in this place?  For a year we carried on regardless.  Iza had been a collector, a natural response to living in a tiny roadless town in a third world country with few goods.  A few months before she died she went through one of her many piles and only managed 10% garbage, 10% let’s-use-this, and 80% went back into storage.

It took a full year to sift treasures from trash.  A free rummage sale under the big tree left many people very pleased to have reminders of Izamamma.  The funniest things we found were the skiiing nosewarmer Iz had knit for her young daughter 50 years ago, and the 247 dead flashlights that she was sure somebody would be able to reconfigure and get them to work.  Most of them went into a cement wall in a shady zone and are still intact.

For the final decade of Isabel’s life we had a group of Xmas regulars, and the same gang showed up for the first Xmas without Isabel.  One of the group had come for 30+ Christmases at that point, and brought his employer.  Dee looked 15 and claimed to be 71 but as it turns out she was 83!  She kept hinting around about what would we do if we bought the place and I got the feeling she wanted to help.  When she repeated the questions the next day I started to get excited, and she said to Bob – “Well this might just solve my little problem in Switzerland”.

Turns out her lawyer husband who spoke 6 languages had died 2 years back but Dee had just discovered that a pension from the Swiss government was sitting in an account there.  Dee gave Isabel’s daughter a wad of cash for her claim to Casa Isabel, and passed it to us, nothing owed, nothing further coming.  “Werner would be so pleased to see his money help secure this little paradise “, she said. We did the work so the fairy godmother found us.

Isabel had enough personal power to hypnotize a guest into thinking a cold-water shower was a jungle adventure.  It’s not so easy keeping mechanical things going in this humidity…  Chris had the technical skills to develop hot water solar systems.  

Together with the workers, we spent  eight summers rebuilding all of Casa Isabel, using the same flat spots and footprints but switching to non-compostable construction style.  Casa Central was the most dicey – it was the biggest one and by September our personal savings were gone and we had only enough $ for 2 more weeks wages for the workers.  That was the year that I joined the workers in drinking Coca Cola – what it’s midnight and we’re not tired?  What a drug! Got that one out my system anyway…  At the 11th hour reservations started coming in, and we plodded on.

All of the cement in Casa Isabel was carried up the hill on somebody’s back. Every bit of sand came from the creek in the canyon – we would mine it down to bedrock and after just a couple of storms it was filled up again.  It is the ultimate renewable resource.

We’d always heard that a bamboo grove was a single organism, joined by their spreading root system. This year one of the groves went to seed, apparently the end of grove life, but some plants have a few leaves.  Watch out for several new bamboo applications as we work through the harvest.

What is the future really like?  Check out the next section called Team Apocalypse.

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