We had only been waiting for two minutes at most when the colectivo rounded the corner and pulled up to the curb. After travelling all day by way of a cramped mini bus for six hours through murderously winding mountain roads, we had finally arrived in Potchutla, a transit town, where we were to catch the next leg of our trip to Playa de Zipolite. Though we could have given in to the pressure of taxi drivers incessantly calling out to us, we were determined to catch a colectivo to our beach destination which was about a 30-45 minute drive away. We knew from our research that they are dirt-cheap and are the local method of transportation, but we were not totally sure what to expect.
Zipolite? we asked the colectivo driver. Si! he said as he reached for my pack and tossed it into the cargo hold over the cab of the truck. We boarded the truck, which had two wooden benches built into either side of the bed. No seatbelts, no handholds, just a blue tarp canopy overhead and a wooden platform for our bags.
The colectivo sped off up the road as we got our bearings in the new micro community of the back of the pickup. Two women seated next to each other on one bench chatted animatedly, paying us no mind, while a young boy and a young girl sat at opposite ends of the other bench. Ben sat next to the women while I sat in between the girl and the boy. For a few minutes, the young girl and I held a shameless staring contest, both intrigued by each other’s skin and hair, not saying anything, but occasionally getting thrown against each other when the colectivo veered around a bend.
After hours of stuffy air, no room to stretch or breathe, and a blaring radio, we relished the sharp wind in our face and the bumpy ride with strangers. Though our faces quickly became coated in a sticky layer of smoke and dust, we were relieved, exhausted, and happy.
To disembark, the boy next to me pressed a button above him, which notified the driver that he was ready to get off. We had assumed that the women and children were together, but it soon became apparent that everyone was travelling separately. Frequently the colectivo would stop along the roadside for more passengers. They would climb aboard, greeting everyone with a Buenas tardes which everyone returned.
After countless hairpin turns and many different faces, a core crew of about five men, varying in age from about 30 to 70 rode the rest of the way with us. They were all fairly dirty, with muddy feet in sandals, and dust in the creases of their faces. They were kind with each other and one would hold the other’s bag while he adjusted his hold.
For a while I did not think anyone would address us, and was thoroughly enjoying a private narrative in my head, when one man asked where we were going. Zipolite, we replied, and it became apparent that most of them were going there too, for work. Some had bags and others, including the very old gentlemen next to me, carried machetes.
The oldest man of the bunch began an impossible conversation with us. His accent was thick and his voice was as creaky as floorboards and we suspected he had a few marbles loose. From bits and pieces we gathered that he once worked in Florida but had to come back to take care of his mother and has not left since. One man finally interrupted and told the older one that he had to speak slowly and clearly. Another man with a big sombrero carried a large bag filled with wooden wind chimes. He spoke clearly and explained to us the different towns we were passing along the coast as we neared Zipolite.
Suddenly the colectivo pulled over and everyone jumped out onto the dusty road, telling us to follow them to the beach. I had imagined turquoise waters and white sand viewable from the road, but instead all we could see was jungle and an uneven dirt path. We paid the driver about 25 pesos ($1.50 for us both), and followed after the man with the big sombrero and wooden trinkets. He told us how he was planning to try to sell his wares to people on the beach and Ben wished him luck. After about five minutes of strenuous walking in incredibly humid heat, we finally reached the beach and bid our new friend farewell.
Though it was a much appreciated welcome into town, I couldn’t help feeling extremely guilty about the obvious disparity between us. Here we were, wealthy white tourists coming from the USA to indulge in a nice little beach getaway, taking local transport because it was cheap and a fun thrill, while these men probably were getting themselves and their families by on less than 100 pesos a day, or $5.
I would be surprised if any of them made any sales that day. The beach was practically deserted. It was off-season and the waves were monstrous. The sand was finely grained, the views of the rocky shoreline were impressive, and the mist from the ever-raging surf was dreamlike, but we were among a small group of tourists there to see it.
After a bit of trial and error we finally settled on a room with a private bathroom in a little hotel called “Posada de Esmeralda” just a stone’s throw from the beach, for $4.50 a night per person. We were Esmeralda’s only customers.
Though we had already been traveling in Mexico for some days, it took time for us to slow down to the pace of Zipolite. It was exceedingly hot and the dangerous ocean provided no relief except for a short dip during the sunset on our first night.
On our second day we watched the 20-foot waves, build, curl, and crash one after another from the comfort of an umbrella and two lounge chairs at some beachside restaurant. As we sipped our 2 for 1 cocktails, vendor after vendor trudged by through the incandescent sand, fully clothed to block the sun, heaving all different kinds of souvenirs, clothing, jewelery, coconuts, and assorted trinkets to sell to tourists. Over and over we turned them down, feeling guilty when we thought of the nice men we met on the colectivo and how difficult it must be coming here day after day to sell items to the twenty tourists on this one beach all day in the relentless sun.
After being consistently solicited by vendors, we had adopted a very friendly quick No, gracias! with a generic pasted smile, so that we could avoid offense while continuing our conversation.
We were engaged in a leisurely deliberation about the relative merits of travel, weighing the benefits of tourism versus the detriments to locals, when yet another vendor crossed in front of us in the bright haze, calling something out. As usual, we yelled out a cheery No gracias!! in unison. In the corner of my eye, I saw a sad smile flicker across his face as he continued his trek onward.
Suddenly, with sinking nausea we simultaneously realized that the man we had both just waved off like a fly was the same man who had led us the beach the night before. And not only that, but we realized seconds too late that he had not been trying to sell anything to us at all. Hola amigos! is what he had said.
We sat in silence for many minutes, trying to make sense of our blunder and realizing we couldn’t. Short of running after the man and apologizing profusely, all we can do is try to use the experience as a reminder of the importance of recognizing the humanity in all people we meet- the vendors, the bus drivers, the hostel owners, the street cleaners, the waiters, and the beggars alike.