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One Man's Family's 20 Year Love Affair With Mazatlan : Same Time, Next Year

December 16, 1990|MICHAEL MUNZELL | Munzell is a San Francisco free-lance writer currently working on a screenplay

MAZATLAN, Mexico — We went back to the Bungalows Sandra last year--Mom, Dad and I--back to where it all began. The cab driver shrugged and said, " No existan " when I gave our destination. I had to direct the way, along the coast road with its endless tawny beaches and battalions of palms picketing the median strip. As each tree whispered by, another memory flashed momentarily to life.

We rattled past the once-infamous Copa de Leche cafe, up the steep switchback where the Collegio Pacifico hangs out almost into the surf and into the saddleback of the hilltop where, to the southeast, all of Mazatlan sweeps out below.

The bungalows were still there, hard by the crumpled concrete of the street. And "ours" was still inhabited. But its once-dazzling, canary-yellow walls were gray and scabrous. From broken window panes came exhalations of soured foodstuffs and hopes. In ironic contrast, an orange bougainvillea that was but a stick in 1969 had erupted into a glowing lava flow of flowers over the front of the building--nature adorning that which it consumes.

We got out of the cab and walked half a block up the precipitous road, sniffing the air, marking the years. When it all began, I was just back from Vietnam and it was to this enchanted hilltop retreat that I brought my bride to escape the blood dreams and the hatreds that poisoned the United States. For a year we basked in mellow Mexican sunshine and some of my youth was miraculously restored.

That Christmas, my parents, Obie and Tony, came all the way from Missouri by land to visit. It was their first real trip outside the United States. Obie has an ear condition that prevents her from flying, so traveling long distances is arduous. But they came--partly in parental concern and partly because of the lip-smacking letters we had written about the beauty of the town, the beaches, the people. With a single sampling, they were hooked.

Every year since--21 in all--they have returned to Mazatlan for a few weeks at Christmastime. And every year save one, I have flown from my California redoubt to be with them. This weekend I pack my bags yet again.

After bunking with us in the bungalow the first year, the family subsequently moved to a hotel. The best in those early days was the Playa Mazatlan at the northern terminus of the paved coast road, a few miles from city center.

There were a couple of other decent hostelries in town, but for ambience, comfort and elan, the Playa had no rivals. All the local swells, their lilting senoritas (and their duenas ) swarmed onto the expansive ocean-side terrace to sip exotic rums and dance the darkly sensuous steps of Latin courtship.

Vacationing in Mazatlan could be a challenge. Water supplies were iffy and tended to peter out as the day wore on. But all that has changed now. This year, the Playa even added special taps in the bathrooms delivering purified water for drinking. In a perverse way, we miss the old days: Spotting the folks--caught in mid-shower when the water died--as they sneaked into the dining room with shampoo still bubbling in their hair.

The years have brought vast changes to the Playa Mazatlan, but the important character of the place has remained the same: tiled floors and balcony corridors, a casual elegance that permits bikini and tuxedo to meet on equal standing in the public rooms. There are much grander hotels now--the imposing Camino Real; the stark, high-concept El Cid, and dozens of others purveying myriad notions of what a resort hotel should be. But for my money, the Playa is still the only place to be.

Of course, the Munzell family, like many others that migrate annually, has been assimilated by the hotel family. The hotel staff has had remarkably few changes. Obie knows all the names, the spouses and the children. And she knows as much of the dramas of their lives as she can piece together with her limited Spanish, their limited English and her uninhibited--and wholly inventive--sign language.

Tony, too, weighs in with his share of local lore, though he is more restrained when it comes to nosing into other people's lives. But since he is the fisherman in the family, he hobnobs at dawn, waist-deep in the surf with locals and tourists alike. In the brotherhood of fishermen, rank is determined not by nationality, salary or color of skin but by the size of the catch. It's a great lesson in egalitarianism. And rankings change daily.

Until recent times, Tony would sail for the horizon aboard one of the many sport-fishing boats several times each vacation. And I, the ever-dutiful son, would accompany him on one outing per annum. In the years before the divorce,while my bride was still in the picture, she was an ever-eager accomplice. But I set a strict limit. My excursions are remembered through a poison-green haze. Most of the time I doubled over the rail and prayed not for marlin but for deliverance.

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