Dancing with Dogs
How Sereia Raised Hell In Acapulco

 

“Holy shit, that’s delicious!”

I took another bite of my picadillo, a freshly-grilled tortilla filled with a miraculous combination of ground beef, spices and cream. “How did she do that?” I glanced back at the stocky indian woman framed in the concrete doorway. Two gray braids plaited together in back, an ancient flowered housedress. She stood before a low, dented metal brazier, flipping these sensational tortillas with her gnarled hands as rain pelted the cobblestone streets behind her.

The direct translation of picadillo, apparently, was “Food of the Gods.” Actually, it meant “chopped meat,” but as far as I was concerned, the stuff may as well have been ambrosia.

And yet I couldn’t get Sereia off my mind.

“Do you think she’s OK?” I asked Peter for the umpteenth time.

“I don’t know,” he answered honestly.

Men never learn. “I don’t want an answer,” I instructed him. “I want reassurance. As in, ‘Yes, honey, of course she’s all right.”

“Yes, honey, of course she’s all right,” Peter parroted. He swallowed his fifth picadillo. “Look. We have 250 feet of anchor chain out, and I’ve been watching the weather. There’s nothing there. We should be fine.”

Should be fine. The fact was, we had both had a bad feeling ever since leaving Acapulco two days ago. Something didn’t seem right. “Maybe this is how parents feel when they leave their children with a babysitter for the first time,” I suggested. “We just need to trust that she’s OK, so we don’t turn into more of those freaky cruisers too scared to actually visit the countries they cruise to.”

“Yah,” he nodded his head at my little “freaky cruiser” speech, which he’s heard many times. It was in the same vein as my “anal-retentive captain” speech, as well as my “paranoid American” speech. These were all who we didn’t want to be, because we were young, and free, and—

“Except we didn’t get a babysitter,” he reminded me. That was true. When we’d prepared to leave the boat in Acapulco on Wednesday, we’d weighed whether or not to hire someone to watch her. We’d decided not to. Acapulco looked like a rough town, and the idea of advertising the fact that we would be away from Sereia for several days seemed like an invitation to disaster. Not like anyone would steel 21,000 pounds of boat—that would be extremely difficult—but there was plenty of stuff on board they could help themselves to. In a country where the minimum wage is $5 a day, we had GPS units, radar, laptops. The little stainless steel shackles alone cost $70 to replace.

Peter reached under the table and squeezed my knee. “Look, there’s nothing we can do about it now. Let’s just enjoy ourselves here, and tomorrow we’ll go back and see her. After all, it’s a roll of the dice, right?” He grinned. Somehow, being young and free seemed less cool when I had this knot in the pit of my stomach. I smiled back, then rolled up my damp pant legs, zipped up my foulies, and we strolled out into the rain.


“There she is! See, she’s fine!” The cab zipped along the Acapulco waterfront, the day was hot and clear, and I spotted Sereia’s masts on the water. “Peter? Did you see her?”

He looked back at me from the front seat. There was a strange, stiff look on his face.

“That’s not where she was when we left her.”

The adrenaline rose in my throat and my heat beat fast. I knew that. I knew there was something wrong with her position; I was just so relieved to see her floating, masts straight up and down, not on the rocks

“Well, what do you think happened?”

“She either dragged, or someone moved her.” Then he was quiet.

This was bad. A sick wave of nausea rose in my gut.

The thing about spending all your time with one other person, especially in the close quarters of a sailboat, is that you get to know one another very well. Too well. And I knew perfectly damned well that Peter was being quiet because he was nervous, and he didn’t want to worry me. And the reason why he didn’t want to open his mouth is that some really scary shit was going through his mind right then. And even though I didn’t have nearly the sea miles that Peter had, I knew that both those scenarios were bad. If she dragged, she might have hit other boats, injured someone, damaged property, and then if she was moved, it might have been the Mexican Navy who moved her, we might be in really deep shit with the Port Captain, or—

Fine, I thought. Two can play at that game. I’ll be quiet, too. We finished the cab ride in silence.


The oars were right where we’d left them, in the dinghy. So that was good. No one had stolen the dinghy or the oars. Maybe the dock wasn’t crawling with thieves, after all. We hauled our bags into the dinghy and shoved off.

Lesson One:
Not everyone is trying to rip you off, just because you’re American.

The thing about Acapulco harbor is that it’s a terrible place to anchor. The waterfront is crowded with dingy-looking skyscrapers, relics from the 60s when Acapulco was apparently the hip place to groove. Now, everything looked run-down, tired, and tacky. The harbor itself is dominated by two marinas, both of which have piers built out into the most protected waters, so that the anchorage itself is almost entirely sixty feet deep. With 300 feet of chain, this means we could theoretically leave out plenty of scope and be fairly secure, except for one small detail: we could have an enormous swinging radius. The idea of Sereia swinging free in a circle with a 200 foot-diameter was a little nerve-racking, considering how crowded the harbor was. And the harbor wasn’t crowded with boats at anchor, either. Almost every single one of them was on a mooring.

Lesson Two:
When all the other boats in a strange anchorage are on mooring balls,
there might be a good reason for it.
Or:
Why didn’t you get a mooring ball, stupid?

We were getting close to Sereia now. Peter couldn’t see, as he was rowing, his back facing forward. “What do you see?” he asked.

“Well, it’s obvious she got moved. She’s in real close to those other boats. I think she must have been moved; there’s no way she could have dragged there in between all those other boats without getting tangled up. Other than that, she looks okay. She’s not listing, but —“

“What?” Peter asked, his voice tight.

I squinted. “It looks like there’s no outboard.”

Peter craned his neck back. “Yup. No outboard.” He pressed his lips and kept rowing. I knew he was imagining what else was wrong, the worst that might have happened. That probably happened.

Sereia loomed up before us. “She seems okay, other than the outboard—oh God.” I felt sick; my heart hurt. A jagged chunk of the taff rail was gouged out of the starboard side. Our beautiful new paint job was scratched and scraped, everywhere.

“Oh, Sereia—I’m so sorry,” I murmured softly. Peter began rowing the dinghy slowly around the boat so we could assess the damages. “Here… and here…” we each began pointing out marks and cuts, scrapes and bruises on our home.

Because I am not yet a mother, the only way I can describe this feeling, this feeling of nausea and nervousness, beating heart and fear, guilt and pain, actual physical pain in my heart, is to remember when I was a nanny, and the little boy in my charge, who was learning to walk for the first time in shoes, fell down. I turned my head for one moment, and when I turned back he was face-down on the cement patio, and I ran to pick him up, and there was that bewildered, baby silence while he realized that he was in pain and frightened and he didn’t understand why—right before he took a breath and screamed in fear and pain and confusion, and for the rest of that afternoon I was cleaning the blood off his mouth, and feeding him Popsicles, and explaining to his mother, and talking to the pediatrician, all in a kind of breathless rush, and it wasn’t until later, when the baby was fine and I was driving back to my apartment, that I had to pull over to the side of the road because my hands were shaking too violently to hold the wheel.

That’s what it felt like to find our boat all banged-up, and if you are a mother and not a sailor, and you think I am being naïve and melodramatic, then all I can say is you try voyaging 3,000 miles over the ocean on a hunk of plastic and see how you feel about it then. I cannot help anthropomorphizing my boat; she is my haven, my vessel and my life-support system. And I knew we had let her down.

“Oh, God… look… and here…” More scratches, more gouges. We tied up the dinghy and boarded Sereia. “That outboard wasn’t stolen,” Peter pointed out immediately. “It was ripped clean off.” Sure enough, there was the aluminum engine mount for the outboard, a jagged tear visible in the metal where the outboard had cracked off. “Something hit us hard,” Peter remarked. “Or we hit them.”

 

 


 

 



Slowly, gingerly, we made our way about the deck, examining her wounds. Scrapes and bruises everywhere. Outboard gone. Bimini frame scratched all to hell. One stanchion so severely bent it looked like a palm tree in a hurricane. Starboard running light ripped off, wires exposed. Forward deck covered with dried mud and scratches. “Someone pulled up the anchor by hand,” Peter noticed. “All this crap on the foredeck is from the anchor chain lying here in a pile.” As if in a dream, we walked slowly back to the cockpit.

 

 


“Aw, Christ, the stern anchor is gone!” Sure enough, our 45-pound Danforth, worth about $400 in a marine store (and worth the value of our boat and our lives in a dangerous blow), was gone. “Where’s that rum?” Peter demanded. “I need a drink.”

We took a pull off the rum and sat in the cockpit. “But who did we hit?” I asked out loud. “How many boats did we hit,” Peter corrected. “Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll come and talk to us.” He stood and peered over the starboard rail. “Yup, here’s one now.”

A small man, an Indian, was paddling a chipped blue rowboat determinedly toward us.

“Hola!” I called out. As designated Spanish speaker, I did most of the talking, though my vocabulary was approximately the size and complexity of the average four year old’s.

“¿Que pasó?” The guy asked, paddling his boat to stay in place. “¿A donde fueron? ¡Avía una tormenta muy fea! ¡ ¿No miran a las noticias?! ¡Y viene un otra hoy en la noche!” What happened? Where were you? A torment came, an ugly torment. Don’t you watch the news? Another one is coming tonight!”

And that’s how I learned how to say “storm” in Spanish. Tormenta. A torment.

The man grabbed the side of our boat and put down his oar. He was obviously upset. He began chattering away in Spanish, peppering his words with slang expressions I had no hope of understanding. I got the gist of it, though.

“He says he takes care of that other boat for its owner. He says we hit it—”

I looked where he was pointing. Oh, shit.


Sereia had quite a few scratches, that was for sure. And she was missing a chunk of her taff rail. But fifteen feet away, a tourist boat named “Coral Cristal” had its entire bow pulpit chewed off. It looked as though a sea monster had risen from the depths, taken a bite out of her, chewed her up and then spit her out. Her metal shade cover was also bent out of shape, twisted up like a child’s discarded toy.

I looked down at our cockpit, trying to figure out where the impact point had been. That’s when I noticed the fiberglass. Little pieces of fiberglass everywhere, some pieces no larger than a fingernail, a couple of chunks as big as a beer can. They weren’t Sereia’s. They were from Coral Cristal.

“Oh, shit.” I turned to Peter. “This is gonna be expensive.”

“Tell him we want to speak to the owner of that boat,” Peter instructed. To me, he added, “We’re gonna have to pay him for the damages. I can’t believe we did that!”

I translated for the guy in the rowboat, but he was already taking off. “I’m gonna call my boss!” He was yelling in Spanish. “I’m gonna tell him you hit his boat!”

That’s when I learned my next important Spanish word: golpear. To beat or strike, to pound or pummel. Apparently, Sereia did a lot of golpear-ing while we were away on our little trip. And I know it was sick, and I know it was wrong, but through the fear and the guilt I couldn’t help but feel a little bit proud. Damn, Sereia. You fucked his shit up. It was as though someone had messed with my kid, and she had turned around and busted his nose.

As I say, I know it was wrong. I’m just being honest here.

But before Peter and I could discuss what had happened and what we were going to do, two more inflatables began to approach. One had two young men on board. The other one had a big fat man, who started yelling in English as soon as he got close enough to be heard.

Lesson Three:
When someone starts talking to you in English without greeting you first in Spanish,
he’s usually trying to hustle you.
Also, if he calls you “buddy,” watch out.

“Hey, buddy, where wass you?!” The fat man called out. “Der wass a stohrm, ay beeg stohrm! You gotta geeve dee’ guys a beeg teep, man, dey saved your boat!”

Peter started to answer, but the fat man interrupted.

“We dee’ not know who you were, where you were, we call da Port Captain, we call da Policia, da Federales, we tink maybe there are drugs on board! Your boat wass on da rocks, man!”

“What?! No, no drugs,” I called out, alarmed. How crazy was this thing going to get? What exactly were they accusing us of?

“You are captain?” Peter asked in English, with typical sang froid. He even managed to smile. “Where is your boat?”

“My boat is dere, man,” replied the fat guy, gesturing to a sport fishing vessel at the other end of the anchorage. He calmed somewhat, seeing that we weren’t about to fight with him. Then, in slow and simple English, Peter started asking questions. What were their names? What exactly happened? Where was our boat when it was found? How many men worked to save her? What did they know about the new storm that was coming that night?

Slowly, a story began to emerge, though it wasn’t always the same story, and the details kept changing. The storm had been Friday—no, Saturday night. The two young men in the first inflatable had saved our boat in the middle of the night when it washed up on the beach—no, the rocks—no, they’d saved it when it crashed into another boat, or lots of other boats. Four men had worked to save it—no, five, then six.

”Where is the stern anchor?” Peter asked.

“Dey trew eet out!” the fat man nodded vigorously, his eyes wide-open and sincere. “Dey put eet on da line an’ try to use eet!” Peter pulled up the line that had been secured to our taff rail. No anchor. Either someone had tied a really pathetic knot, or somebody had himself a new Danforth.

Part of the problem was that while my awkward Spanish was perfectly adequate to pass the time of day, I didn’t understand many of the nautical terms, such as “dragging anchor.” The other part of the problem was Alejandro, the fat man. It quickly became clear that he hadn’t been anywhere near the accident—he was just the self-appointed bulldog for the two young men, Miguel and Chepe, who had saved our boat. They didn’t speak English, and it appeared Alejandro had offered to strong-arm us into giving them a “beeg teep.”

But Peter wasn’t interested in talking about tips just yet. “Is another storm coming?” he asked. “Do you know of a mooring we can rent?”

I’m pretty sure I saw green dollar signs pop right out of Alejandro’s eyes, cartoon-style, before he buzzed off in his inflatable to find us a mooring. As I watched him pull away, the magnitude of what was happening began to dawn on me.

“Jesus Christ, Peter, we didn’t see anything. We’re gonna be the meal ticket for every panga in this harbor that wants an upgrade.”


“Don’t worry about that right now,” he shot back. “What we need to concentrate on now is getting Sereia safe if there’s another storm coming.” He glanced quickly up at the sky, which was turning an ugly shade of yellow. “I’m not giving out any money until we hear everybody’s story. But I know one thing’s for sure,” he shook his head. “It could have been a lot worse.”



Yeah,
I thought. But we’re not done yet.

“I’m not trying to tell you all what to do,” Jeff reasoned, sipping the lukewarm beer we’d offered him. “I’m just saying that going to the Port Captain shows you respect the laws of their country, that’s all.”

We were swaying gently on our mooring ball in the late morning sunshine. There had been no second storm, or at least it hadn’t hit the Acapulco harbor. Alejandro had tried to rent us a mooring for two nights for $100—a princely sum—and we had talked him down to half that price. At least we didn’t have to worry about dragging again, as long as the mooring chain was secure.

Now, reclining in the cockpit, matters didn’t look quite so dire—but I still had no desire to show up at the Port Captain’s office. “It’s not the laws I don’t respect,” I argued, “it’s the cops. I’ve been searched multiple times traveling through Mexico and Central America, for no reason, by cops with guns. I’ve been hit up for bribes. I’ve been escorted to an ATM machine at gunpoint so I could get out the maximum amount of money, for Chrissakes! It’s not the laws I’m worried about, it’s the corruption.”

Jeff was a charming sailor Peter had met that morning as he was rowing over to inspect the damage we had incurred to Coral Cristal. An ex-radio and movie producer and a black man, Jeff had named his 45-foot Formosa “Amistad.” Having retired from an apparently brilliant career at the age of 38, he had been cruising for the past 35 years. Now in his seventies, he sat on our taff rail in his embroidered Panamanian shorts, showing off biceps a man half his age would have envied. “All I’m saying,” he countered, “is that it would look good for you to go to them, that’s all. It’s no big deal. Let me tell you about the time I escaped from prison in Jamaica, now there’s a story...”

We sat there, spinning tales, for an hour or so in the sunshine, then Peter and I got our bags together to run some errands in town. As we did so, we talked about whether we should involve the Port Captain. “The thing is,” I argued, “if we hit a boat in the San Francisco Bay, we wouldn’t go running to the Coast Guard. We’d contact the owner directly to pay for the damage. I say we leave a note on the boat that we hit, then give him time to get back to us.”

Peter agreed. Corrupt port officials and police officers in Mexico were practically a cliché among cruising sailors; if we wanted to avoid la mordida, it would be better to keep them out of it.

We left a note on Coral Cristal, then we spent several hours in town, running errands. We purchased water and produce, checked our email, and put the word out on the dock that we were looking for a new stern anchor.

When we got back to the dinghy dock at 5:00, we were greeted with two pieces of news. Someone had a used, 33-pound Bruce anchor he was willing to sell for $180 with 50 feet of good line, which was a terrific price.

And the Port Captain had come looking for us.

“Shit! Shit! Shit!” I sat in the cockpit, clutching my head.

Peter swung gently in our hammock, steadying himself by leaning his toes against the wheel. “What are you freaking out about?” he asked, concerned. "Why are you getting so worked up?”

“Well, let’s see.” I took a big gulp of Modelo Especial, which was mercifully cold. After our recent misadventures, we felt that the least we deserved was a little ice. “We have no Mexican insurance, and no American insurance for that matter. We didn’t see what happened. For all we know, half a dozen boats have filed complaints against us, and we don’t have a legal leg to stand on.”

Peter took a deep breath. “Well, how ‘bout this. What’s the worst thing you think might happen? Maybe if we look at that, it won’t seem so bad.”

I looked straight at him. “We go in tomorrow morning and they arrest you and impound the boat. I have to find the American Consulate, so they can direct me to a Mexican lawyer who will defend our rights in Spanish. We’re stuck in Acapulco for months, and it costs thousands of dollars.”

Peter looked a little pale. “Okay, that would be bad.” Quickly, he knocked back the rest of his beer. “But that’s not going to happen. I think we’ll go in there tomorrow and everyone will have their hand out, and it will cost a little money, and then it will be fine.”

“But who’s going to assess the damages?” I argued. “If we damaged multiple boats, they’ll probably have to hire an official surveyor, at our expense. It could take weeks! And my nieces are coming to visit in Puerto Escondido next week!”

“Well, hon,” Peter said softly, “If I’m in jail, they may have to cancel their trip.”

He paused, then looked grim. “What’s wrong?” I asked, worried.

“I’m just thinking about Mexican prison,” Peter mused. “And all the things I might have to do there, that I really don’t want to do.”


It was two weeks previous to this mess that we’d had one of those truly wonderful Mexican experiences, one we’d remember for years to come. We’d taken a bus high up into the mountains of Colima, to find a village called Suchitlan. Nestled amongst a few dusty roads, wandering cattle and active volcanoes, Suchitlan was renowned for its mask makers. We found a gregarious artist named Erminio, who showed us his masks, told us his stories, and sold us a beautiful piece. On the way back down to the coast, we hitchhiked. And we met a good friend.

We never got his name. He sat us up front in his pick-up truck, insisted on buying a six-pack of beer, and told us stories while his little boy clung to the seat behind us and we went barreling down the mountainside. “Is drinking beer while you drive a problem in Mexico?” I asked. He wasn’t drunk, and I wasn’t concerned about our safety, just curious. “In America, they take away your license and put you in jail. Is it the same here?”

“Oh, no, here it’s much easier!” he laughed. “Here, you just pay a little money. ¡En Mexico, con dinero, bailan los perros!” I translated this for Peter, and he grinned appreciatively: In Mexico, money makes the dogs dance.

That guy drove us directly to the bus station, and wouldn’t allow us to give him the remainder of the six-pack, insisting that we needed some “for the road.” He gave us a ride, cold beer and companionship, and he gave us a little gem of wisdom, too.

The night before we went to see the Port Captain, Peter and I lay in bed, holding hands. My heart beat hard in my chest; I was too nervous to sleep, too nervous for sex.

“It’ll be okay,” Peter reassured me. “Just remember, money makes the dogs dance.”

“I hope you’re right.”

And I lay there, staring wide-eyed into the darkness.


I was a flea at the wrong end of a telescope. Far above me, massive and black, the letters loomed large: “CAPITANIA DE PUERTO.” This was it. Judgment Day.

“Try not to get too emotional,” Peter whispered reassuringly. “Just translate between me and the Port Captain.”

Visions of torture instruments danced in my head. “Okay,” I answered weakly.

Within moments of identifying ourselves as the owners of the sailboat “Sereia,” we were ushered into a clean, business-like office with expansive views of Acapulco Harbor. The Port Captain, dressed in an immaculate white uniform, rose to greet us.

I caught my breath. Where was the five o’clock shadow, the Winchester, the ammo belt? What about the half-empty bottle of tequila, the flies buzzing drunkenly in the sweltering heat? This Port Captain wasn’t a desperado, he looked... professional.

Mucho Gusto, Capitàn,” he greeted Peter. He motioned for us to sit. I indicated that I would translate, so he began to speak in clear, slowly articulated Spanish.

“I have called you in today to have a little talk,” he began, “because in the recent storm, your yacht dragged anchor and apparently hit several boats.”

Several boats. Christ. How many boats?

The Captain continued. “I have received a denuncia in your name.” Denuncia. What the hell is a denuncia? I began frantically flipping through my Spanish-English dictionary. Politely, the Captain waited for me to look it up.

“Denuncia: Accusation, Denunciation,” I translated for Peter, looking wild-eyed in his direction. A Denunciation? Isn’t that what got people thrown on the rack in the Spanish Inquisition? My mind was instantly flooded with memories of a museum show I’d seen, featuring fifteenth-century Spanish torture instruments. There was the one that twisted off women’s nipples, the one that broke every bone in your body and then wove you through the spokes of a wagon wheel, there was the Iron Maiden, there was—

“I will give you a copy of this Denuncia so you can read it,” continued the Port Captain, apparently unperturbed by my morbid visions. “You will need to meet with the parties involved and come to an agreement. Once you are all in agreement, you will ask them to sign the denuncia, then as far as I am concerned you are free to go.” He picked up his telephone and began to dial.

Free to go? What about the nipple twister? Breathlessly, I translated for Peter, then the Captain put down the receiver. “The woman in question can be here in fifteen minutes. If you wouldn’t mind waiting outside in the hallway, she will take you to review the damage.”

We shook the Captain’s hand, and stepped outside to wait.

Lesson Four:
Every official in Mexico is not a shifty-eyed desperado.
In fact, some of them are courteous and professional.

Out in the hallway, I stumbled through the denunciation with the aid of my Spanish dictionary. “The woman’s name is Elena...She says... on the evening of June 2, our boat hit hers... we damaged her bow pulpit and shade cover... that sounds right... on the starboard side.”

“But our damage is on the starboard side!” Peter corrected. “Coral Cristal got hit on her port side.” He thought for a moment. “Maybe she just didn’t understand. She’s probably a secretary or something.”

I kept reading. “Oh, Christ. This accusation isn’t from Coral Cristal at all. It’s from a boat called ‘Aries’!”

“Aries! Which one were they?” Peter walked to the window and peered out onto the sidewalk. “Uh-oh. I think I see her coming.”

“How does she look? Does she look nice?”

“No. She looks old and mean.”



It actually wasn’t as sexist as you might think that Peter assumed Elena was a secretary simply because she was a woman. The fact of the matter was, most women we had met thus far in Mexico worked very hard: at making babies, rearing babies, and blending fruit smoothies on street corners. As is often the case with travelers, we generalized our limited experience after a few months’ living abroad into sweeping declarations about The Way Mexicans Are. And The Way Mexicans Are, in our estimation, most certainly did not include female entrepreneurs.

We couldn’t have been more wrong. Elena, it turned out, was a pistol in a pickup truck. Far from being “old and mean,” she was an elegant, obviously educated Señora who exuded the kind of sexy self-possession I had hitherto associated with mature Parisian women. She did look tough and guarded when we first met, probably expecting to be greeted with a couple of irresponsible American hippies, but once we offered our sincere apologies in Spanish, she softened, and shook both our hands.

Elena directed me to sit beside her, while Peter climbed into truck bed in back. I tried to make polite conversation.

”When the hurricane came to Acapulco in ’97, did you suffer any damages?”

“Hurricane!” Elena flashed me a crooked smile. “That hurricane was no problem. YOU caused more damage than the hurricane!” My heart sank, but Elena burst out laughing. At least she has a sense of humor. Maybe she won’t slit our throats, after all.

On the way to the boatyard, Elena told me about her business. She owned four tourist boats, which she ran between Acapulco Harbor and Isla La Roqueta, a small island no more than a quarter mile from the mainland. On La Roqueta, she owned a stretch of beach and a restaurant, where she set up a complimentary buffet and a cash bar. Essentially, she had a vertical monopoly in place, whereby she was positioned to send out four tourist expeditions per day, remaining in control of the profits from the boat ride, tours, food and cocktails. It was brilliant. She chatted openly, weaving in and out of Acapulco traffic without batting a beautifully coiffed eyelash. In her beige, silk-knit jogging suit and her wire-rimmed spectacles on a thin golden chain, she impressed the hell out of me.

But just because she was friendly didn’t mean she wasn’t going to have a little fun at our expense. Once the pickup clattered over the speed bumps at the entrance to the boat yard, she began touring us around to the boat workers and sailors on the dock, all of whom were enormously amused to see us trapped in her truck.

“Rogilio! Berto! These are the owners of the sailboat!”

“Ah, si? Son del velero!” (Mass hilarity.)

“Dju see?” Elena asked me in accented English. “Dju are famoss, ‘eere!”

Great, I thought, wistfully fingering my money belt. Famous, and soon to be very, very poor.

But Elena wasn’t out to screw us. She stopped by a young man who was standing by a snack truck, stuffing his face with delectable-looking gorditas. “Jesus, can you come out with me to look at the damage to the boat?” she asked. “Give me a fair price to fix it, a precio justo.”

Jesus grinned and wiped the chopped cilantro off his chin, obviously delighted to see that Elena had nabbed her gringos. “Sure, Elena, no problem,” he answered in rapid Spanish. She was obviously everybody’s favorite old auntie on this dock. “Can I just finish my snack first?”

We stood on the pier, waiting for Jesus to have his snack. It was just ten o’clock by then, but I could feel the sun searing my scalp right through my straw hat.

Pointing out at the boats, Elena began to explain what had happened.

“The storm was very bad, muy fea, and I came down here with my muchachos to watch my boats, to make sure they were safe. I saw your boat came sliding across the anchorage, and your chain must have got caught up in my chain, the one on Aries,” her voice grew louder and more urgent and she explained, her brown hands cutting the air around her words.

“I called the Port Captain and I said, ‘Who are these people? Their boat is crashing into my boat!’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, they never checked in with me!’ I asked him, ‘What do I do?’ And he said, ‘Don’t do anything, it’s not your problem!’” At this, Elena rolled her eyes heavenward. “Not my problem! But if I leave it, both boats will sink! So I called to my muchachos, and I told them, go out there and move that boat! But by then, you had already hit my boat, and that boat, and—”

“And they also hit my boat, the Maria Luisa.”

Elena whirled around. A wiry-looking man had sidled up behind us, and now he was pointing at a third boat in the anchorage. Quickly, he shot us a look of exaggerated concern. “You hit many, many boats. You will have to pay for the damage...”

“Mmmm-hmm.” Elena eyeballed this gentleman over her wire-rimmed spectacles, then turned back to me. “Would you like to wait for Jesus in my office?”

“Certainly,” I agreed.

Sipping cold water in the shade of Elena’s office, Peter and I made ourselves comfortable on a soft, worn-out couch while Elena sat heavily down behind her scattered desk. Slowly, dramatically, she leaned forward, pulling down the skin beneath her right eye with one finger.

“Yo Miré,” she declared. “I saw what happened. That man is lying. You hit two boats, Aries and Coral Cristal. Nada Más. Besides,” she continued meaningfully, shuffling the papers on her desk. “He doesn’t have a legal right. He has submitted nothing to the Port Captain.”

Lesson Five:
It might not be such a bad idea to involve the officials, after all.
A paper trail could protect you from hustlers and con artists.

Briskly, Elena walked across the room and picked up a 2,000,000 candlepower spotlight, pantomiming her story as she did so. “I have had cancer,” she explained, “and my immune system is very weak. On the night of the storm, I could not go out in the rain. So I crouched here in the doorway, and shone my light on the boats.” She switched the spotlight to one hand, while she again pulled down the skin beneath her eye. “I saw what happened.”

Damn, this woman is impressive, I thought. An entrepreneur and a cancer survivor. She saved our boat when she didn’t have to. And now she’s letting us know she’ll be a witness if we’re falsely accused!

Out loud, I said, “Gracias, Elena. Thank you for your honesty.”

For the next few minutes, as we waited, my gaze wandered curiously over the wall of framed documents behind Elena’s desk. Degrees from various schools, commendations over three decades from dozens of government groups and tourist organizations, “For Contributions to the Tourist Industry of Acapulco,” “For Services Rendered to the State of Guerrero.” This lady was no small shakes.

“See that one?” She pointed out a photograph of a young man, standing with a handsome politician. “That’s my son, with the Presidente de la Republica, Alejandro Fox.”

“Wow,” I replied, duly impressed. “Your son is a politician? You must be very proud of him.”

Elena smiled wryly, leaning back in her wooden desk chair. “Yes and no. It is good he is successful, but I would rather he worked here with me. For us in Mexico, tourism is a good business. Politics is, we say... nadar en aguas arriba. Swimming upstream.”

Once Jesus finished his snack, he came to fetch us at the office, and we met up with Julio, the owner of Coral Cristal, before going to view the two damaged boats.

Actually, Aries didn’t look too bad. She had some cracks in her bow pulpit, and a couple of wiggly stanchions, but this was nothing a little fiberglass and paint wouldn’t solve. Coral Cristal, as we already knew, had been chewed up and spit out by Sereia. She would need steel work as well as fiberglass. Sitting in the cockpit of Aries, discussing the final numbers, I felt the familiar surge of nausea in my throat. In the Bay Area, at San Francisco prices, we would be in for thousands of dollars—that is, if we were lucky enough to escape a lawsuit.

“Well, Aries is pretty easy,” Jesus began. “Just a little fiberglass. Say, $1,500 pesos.”

One hundred and fifty dollars. I began to breathe again.

“Coral Cristal, though, is more complicated. I will have to talk to a metal worker. The fiberglass work can be done for $2,000 pesos. But the steel...”

“Can you give us an estimate?” Peter asked. I translated.

Jesus thought about it. “3,000 pesos should cover it.” I looked hastily over at Peter, repeated the words in English.

“One-fifty for the first boat, two hundred for the fiberglass on the second boat, and three hundred for the steel. Six-fifty American, total.”

Peter thought about it for approximately half a second. “Done!” he declared, and everyone smiled.

 

Within half an hour, we were on our way back to the Port Captain’s office. Jesus was only too happy to drive us to an ATM machine, and once the money was in hand, both Elena and Julio, the owner of Coral Cristal, signed off on the denuncia. As we left Elena’s office, we apologized again for the damages we had caused, and Elena held up her hand.

“I want to show you something,” she insisted. She lead us to a warehouse next door, filled with outboard engines and miscellaneous boat equipment in various stages of disrepair. She pointed to a rusted old CQR anchor, about the same size as our anchor which had dragged.

“I bought this years ago for one of my boats,” she explained. “It is muy malo! It doesn’t work in this bay! With no wind, you are okay, but with poquito viento, your boat will drag and crash! Don’t use this anchor!”

Of course, in the States, we might not even have been talking to this woman, we might very well have been communicating through acrimonious lawyers. But not only had she charged us a fair price for the damage to her boat, she was giving us local anchoring advice. I simply could not believe how differently everything had turned out from what I’d expected.

We thanked her and said our goodbyes. Everyone shook our hands, and as Elena said good-bye to me, she touched my cheek and murmured, “Suerte, muchacha.”

Good luck, kid.

A few minutes later, we were piling into a cab to make our way back to the Port Captain’s office, when a familiar voice called after us.

“Hey buddy! Dju steel gotta problem, man! Dere’s lotsa boats dju hit! You gonna have ta pay dem, man!”

Peter and I both turned around at once. Sure enough, it was our old “buddy,” Alejandro. I opened my mouth, ready to try out some of my nasty new Spanish expletives, but Peter just smiled. “No,” he answered courteously. “No more problem.”

Alejandro was panting and perspiring, having evidently chased us up from the boatyard. “Yah man, dju gotta beeeeg problem! Dju gonna hafta pay dem!”

“Tell them,” suggested Peter, as he got into the cab, “to write a letter to the Port Captain if they have a problem.” He shut the door on Alejandro and turned back to me. “Now let’s get the hell out of here before anyone else decides we hit them.”


Back at the Port Captain’s office, the Captain glanced at our signed denuncia, then gave our paperwork to a clerk to be stamped for an exit permit. Before he let us go though, he gave us both a look of concern.

“I must ask you,” he began in his slow and careful Spanish, “to remember that this is the season of the hurricanes, and I must ask you to please be careful. Do not leave your boat without hiring someone to look after it, and please remember to watch the weather.” He handed us a Mexican weather report, with the forecast for the Acapulco area highlighted. “This is the website where our local weather updates originate.” He smiled at us, and shook our hands.

“Please be careful.”

Between the tips we paid out to the boys who actually saved Sereia, the damages we paid to the owners of Aries and Coral Cristal, the mooring ball for two nights, and the used Bruce anchor we bought to replace our stolen Danforth, our little Acapulco misadventure ended up costing us about a thousand dollars. Among sailors, inured to the painful expenses associated with their overpriced hobby, this is known as “one boat unit.”

Back in the States, the battles between insurance companies would have gone on for months, probably with additional expenses tacked on for lawyer’s fees and “pain and suffering.” Everyone would have taken their cut, and the final tally could easily have risen to twenty grand or more. But here, despite my paranoid American fears, we had been treated fairly and courteously, almost everyone had shown concern for our boat and our safety, and the whole episode was concluded reasonably within a few hours.

Of course, it helped that we had the cash in our bank account to pay up when we needed it. I’d rather not think about what might have happened if we didn’t. Likely, we would have been asked to trade objects of comparable value: our GPS, for example, or our single sideband radio. I don't think they would have hauled out the Iron Maiden for a couple of gringos with an anchoring problem.

But you know what they say: En Mexico, con dinero, bailan los perros.



 

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© Copyright 2006 Antonia Murphy