Finding Your Mojo Without a Top or a Bottom

Mojo. It’s when the stars align and passion carries you forward into the best you can do. In baseball it means seeing the seams on the ball as you swing the bat, but for a travel writer, even wardrobe malfunctions can be the exodus you need to push your writing to another level. I give you…my mojo without a top or a bottom.  

A journalist turned cigar shop owner who counted Fidel Castro as one of his friends and a machete-wielding river tour guide were the Puerto Vallatra and Sayulita mojo-producing stories of my ten-day Mexican vacation.

We spent just one day in Puerto Vallarta, and that was more than enough. Hurricane Nora had gone through just a few days before our arrival, and it had decimated the city’s sanitation system. Brackish water covered the cobble-stoned streets up to the curbs and fountains of brown water bubbled up from the city’s manhole covers. The smell? It was like a dog park where too many dogs had a party and tried to hide the smell by peeing on it. The locals called it “aguas negras,” or literally “black waters” spilling into the ocean.

In spite of the smell and the creeping tide of sewage water, I had done my research, and I knew the exact six-block radius of shops between the Cathedral of Guadalupe and the Puerto Vallarta waterfront that would yield the best art galleries, women’s boutiques, and 2 for 1 margaritas. Shopping is my life; I’m truly gifted at it. To keep Paul hoping we were just around the corner from the aforementioned margaritas, I occasionally have to find him a store that he thinks he discovered. It gives him a point in the win column. The shop must embrace manliness.  It doesn’t have to stock things for men per se; it just must make a man feel manly to cross the threshold. A shop sign jumped out from under the eaves of an old hacienda—La Casa del Habano. A cigar shop. Paul’s eyes lit up. He could tell his brothers he bought Cuban cigars. It was a win for both of us. He got the cool brother nod, and I got the coolest wife award.

After wiping our feet off thoroughly, we stepped into the store and were immediately wrapped in curls of cigar smoke.

“I’m going into the humidor,” Paul said with his hand on the doorknob of a glass-paneled door. Inside I saw rows and rows of cigar boxes containing wrinkled, brown stubs all snuggled up together in the dim light.

“I thought a humidor was a box with a see-through lid,” I said flatly.

“That is our home humidor. This is a man’s humidor,” Paul said softly as he eased the door shut behind him.

I looked around at the shop. This was a man’s world. Bottles of tequila, rum, and mezcal lined the window frames and bookshelves, and a brick staircase led down into a cool basement where cigar smoke was puffing from the corner.

“Welcome to my shop,” a voice said from the shadows. A light switched on, and a man who vaguely resembled Ernest Hemmingway was ensconced in the corner of a worn leather couch the color of Havana coffee. He was portly with a wrinkled shirt tight around his belly, a close-cropped silver beard and matching silver hair partly hidden under a Panama hat. “Drink?” He held out a bottle of mezcal.

“No thanks. I am waiting for my husband.” I looked around. There weren’t a lot of places to sit. I slid onto the leather couch at the other end from him.    

“I smoke ten cigars a day. Five at home, five here in the shop.” He went silent and drew in a drag that filled his chest.  “Smoke?”

“Not a day in my life,” I responded folding my hands over the purse in my lap.

“Too bad. You might like it. Especially had you started early.” There was an uncomfortable pause. “What do you do?” he asked.

“I’m a writer.”

He leaned toward me and put an ash tray between us on the back of the couch. He tapped the ashes and then held the cigar out to me. “I’m a writer too.” I ignored the offering. “In fact, I was one of the only writers Fidel Castro allowed to interview him.” He blew smoke in the general direction of the ceiling. “Castro told me he’d had sexual intercourse 35,000 times in his life. Before breakfast, after lunch, and during siesta too,” he said breathlessly as he exhaled.

I felt sick to my stomach. “Well, I am headed to the humidor. Time for us to get going.” I trotted up the steps and pressed my hands and face on the outside of the cool glass of the door and used my fists to get Paul’s attention. I tipped my head towards the outside and motioned to my husband I was leaving.

While Mr. Fake Hemmingway wrapped up Paul’s purchases, I stood outside and smoothed my dress down in the stifling heat. Sweat dripped off the ends of my hair onto my skin and slid onto my neck, and I realized something didn’t feel right. I looked down and two buttons on the bosom of my dress had come undone. Not only was my chest open to the world, but my bra was a little tight and the ladies were propped and pushed like Marilyn Monroe’s.

I thought about telling Paul about Mr. Fake Hemmingway’s sleazy behavior towards me, but then I remembered there were three more stores to go, and one of them had multicolored leather sandals. People thought Marilyn Monroe was a ditz, but she managed to deftly handle an iconic playwright, a salacious president, and a major league baseball player with coyness and a pouty expression. I could take a page out of that gal’s playbook. I felt my mojo hum.   

How do you tell a proud, macho tour guide that he dropped his machete in a small and accidental pocket? Paul shook his head in the negative as we stood behind Jorge, our tour guide for La Pila del Rey, a national heritage site for the Altavista petroglyphs, carvings made by the Tecoxquines, an Aztec tribe from the 16th century. His eyes gleaming in a wicked grin, Jorge had tossed the machete into the air over his shoulder. He thought it landed straight down into the big pocket, but instead it had tumbled it in the water bottle pocket leaving a two-inch slice in the worn fabric. I shook my fist at Paul silently and gave him the stink eye. I can’t believe a man’s delicate pride was more important than the very real chance I could be sliced by a bouncing two-foot-long rusty machete with bloody first aid tape for a handle.

Paul and I have hiked quite a bit together, just not in the last decade. With Jorge in front of me and Paul behind me, I didn’t have much of an exit strategy. I was stuck behind the machete, and all I could do was watch its movement. For the next two hours I trained my eyes on the machete like it was a bomb in an action movie.   

Happily sharing his knowledge, Jorge led us on a scramble over boulders, a thigh-deep rain-swollen river crossing and sudden screeching halts to view over one hundred carvings. The machete swung wildly in every direction but gamely stayed in the small pocket.  In the end I learned three things: one, the Texcoxquines deeply valued their gods and mind-altering substances; two, I was faster, quicker, and more resilient than I thought as I ducked and dodged the flipping and sliding machete (in fact, Jorge nicknamed me the little goat); and three, just when you let your guard down, trouble really happens. At the end of the river portion of the tour, Paul and I shot through a rock chute, down a waterfall, and into a deep pool. The force of water was so strong it stripped my bathing suit bottoms off and deposited them near a particularly large cluster of petroglyphs. For a moment I thought Jorge might pick them up with his machete and hand them to me, but thankfully he turned his back while I struggled to put them on in the churning water. You better believe my mojo was humming then.

For a travel writer, having your mojo in place is living life at its best. Losing my top and then my bottom may have been an uncomfortable way to arrive at that best of places, but Mr. Fake Hemmingway and Tour Guide Jorge, were the means to writing about this part of Mexico—where the sound of a tuba playing carries across the water, surfers linger off the coast waiting for the perfect wave, visible generations of dogs dash through town, never ending milk chocolate water crosses the path at the corner, walking through a cemetery is one way to get to the beach, and speed bumps come with tops or are topless. Tops and bottoms aside, I’d have called you crazy a week ago if you had told me Marilyn Monroe’s ghost would be the one to help me find my mojo.

I Need to Fall in Love

Falling in love is not just for lovers, it is for travelers too.  

We are in Sayulita, Mexico, on the Pacific Ocean where pelicans cartwheel into the water, their outer feathers ragged from diving for tiny fish. Our home for ten days is one of seven little bungalows split from an old villa called Los Casa Arcos. A white stucco alcove with a red tiled roof, black-painted windows, and surrounded by worn brick paths, our temporary home is tucked between an old cemetery settled into the hillside above us and a canopy of trees that muffle the crashing waves against the rocks below us. Just after sunset, candlelight flickers between the crypts, and the geckos, birds, and cicadas take turns whirring and chirping from the spreading branches.

Antonio, the innkeeper, gardener, bug sprayer, and roof leak fixer stomps around the grounds and the houses. He is trailed by his little girl, Nina, who chatters at him like a tree gecko searching for her family. Antonio shoos Rita, the white cat with a brown face, from our covered patio, but since she cries with pleasure when we return from our adventures, we adopt her and sneak her little pieces of cheese as she winds around our legs.

Antonio shows us the secret tunnel that runs underneath the length of the villa and hands us the keys to the gate at the far end that opens onto a crumbling staircase above a hidden beach. The granite rocks glitter with shimmering mica, and Paul is enchanted by all of it—especially the tunnel.

Thunder and lightning race across Sayulita Bay each midnight and Paul knows where to put the bowls and towels to catch the water streaming in from the cracks Antonio has not yet fixed. On our third night, a violent storm hung over the villa for an interminable time, and Rita became frantic on the patio howling and moaning for help. Against Paul’s better judgement, we let her in where she raced to the bed and dropped a two-inch long cockroach in the middle of the tangled sheets. My screams pierced the night greater than any boom of thunder, and Paul and Antonio met at the ancient door of our abode and silently exchanged the squirming cat. Both men were in their underwear, but they only wanted my shrieking to end, so they silently agreed to let appearances—Antonio in his boxers and Paul in his white underpants—to pass without comment.

I have never seen so many beach hawkers trudge through the sand and ask people to buy from the rainbow of wares piled on their backs, hanging from their arms, or tucked away in large, flapping bags. Old men with tired, dirty cowboy hats open their briefcase-like boxes to reveal brilliant, shined silver jewelry, while pairs of women grab corners of neon blankets and frilly table clothes and shake them aloft to showcase the expansive colors. Grim little boys hold bouquets of roses and lilies aloft and cajole men at each table; they know they must sell them before returning home to their mothers.

But it is the musicians of Sayulita who greet you on every street corner, beach entrance, even under our patio one night. No one sings softly, everywhere ukuleles and bongo drums play country music, and guitars pound the chords to 1970 hits—especially Hotel California—which gets in your head for the rest of the day, but it was the Mariachi band that made me fall in love with Sayulita.

A band of five coronets, a bass guitar, an accordion, and one violin crowd into the beachside restaurant where we are having dinner, and other diners grumble as they scrape their chairs closer to their tables.

“200 pesos a song,” the leader announces. Only eight dollars. His hand rests on the shoulder of a young boy, about twelve, with flawlessly gelled hair and a blank expression on his face. His coronet hangs next to his leg; his fingers slack around it. None of the diners speak up and instead turn to their dinners.

“I want a song,” I call as the group makes its way down the back stairs of the restaurant toward the beach. They pause as I stand up and welcome them back to our table.

“How about you play it?” Paul motions to the young man.

“Paul,” I turn to him horrified. “He is just a little boy.”

The young man uses his fingers to pull on the soft fringe of his hair and shifts his weight from foot to foot. His green-brown eyes, like the sunburned hills surrounding the water, are large in his face.

“You don’t have to,” I protest seeing his lower lip tremble.

“No, he can do it, Senorita,” the leader said. His own hair is slick too; he is the boy’s father. He slips his hand into his pocket and pulls out a mouthpiece for his son’s coronet. He pushes it into the boy’s hand and squeezes the boy’s small fingers with reassurance. He clears his throat and announces, “The song is called El Perdido Niño, and is about a parent searching for their child. It is an old Mariachi song.” He smiles at me. “In English, it is known as the ‘Lost Child.’” Carefully, holding his coronet at his side, he turns and walks out of the restaurant into the twilight.

Oh my Lord, I thought. What have we done?

The little boy is sweating and licking his lips painfully. He shoves the mouthpiece into the instrument. The band members pat his back and ready themselves to play. He trains his eyes on me and then closes them.


“Listen. They wouldn’t have let him come if they didn’t think he was ready.” We lean forward.

Outside, a cry comes from a distant coronet. It calls into the night where the sun has just set into the bay. It reaches out like an anxious mother calling to her missing child. Fear and beauty are woven together in its hanging notes. The talking around us stops. I wait to hear the coronet’s song again, but it is silent and dark outside.

In front of us in the warm, humid air of the cheerful restaurant, the young man’s shoulders relax, and he fills his cheeks with air. Raising his instrument to his lips, he returns the distant call with the same melody, the same haunting cry. He is the child searching for his parent. He drops his head and listens. Eyes closed, he waits. The boy’s face turns red as he catches sight of his father beaming through the restaurant playing the refrain again. With a huge sigh of relief, the young man blows hard into his instrument and drums his fingers on the valves. The rest of the group picks up their parts and the song bursts to life. It feels exactly like the child has been found. The diners who had gone silent during the lonely call and response, clap and slap their hands on their knees.

I put my hand to my sunburned neck where my pulse pounds. My face is flushed and happy. I lean forward and say to him over the music, “You touched my heart.” I lay my hand on my chest and look at his father. He grins, one parent to another. Paul hands the young boy a generous tip. He holds up his hand and the boy gives him a high five.

I have fallen in love with Sayulita. There is no doubt about it.