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.