Mario in Puerto Escondido

Nine hours crammed in a minivan with five Mexicans. One toilet break. Rain so fierce it almost pierced the ceiling of the van.  This is how we have spent today, travelling the convoluted road from Oaxaca to the beach-side town of Puerto Escondido, situated on the west coast of Mexico. There were times I feared for our lives as we were squashed in that van. We passed violent cliff-drops and navigated around never-ending potholes. At one point the rain was so thick I wondered how the driver could see at all. Needless to say, I am more than happy to be standing on solid ground.

It’s dark as we step out of the minivan and  flag down a taxi to take us to our hostel. I’m so tired I forget to do the customary check of the driver’s identification like they recommend in all the travel guides. I’m losing my touch. Justin has given me his sunglasses to look after while he organises the packs. I accidentally leave them in the back of the taxi. He still hasn’t let me forget it.

We pull up in front of a white shack-like building. We lug our twenty kilo packs from the boot and say “gracias” to the driver. The air is muggy and sweat runs down our faces. Inside, a fan is blowing and the owner greets us in English. We organise a three bed dorm and are taken to a spacious room with another noisy fan blowing from the wall. It’s going to be difficult sleeping in this heat.

Outside I can hear a group of Aussie backpackers yelling and drinking; adding to the reputation that we are possibly the most wild nation of travellers. They are sitting around a long table consuming Coronas and playing cards. Justin and Eddy have decided to go out for dinner but I am so exhausted that I immediately fall asleep listening to the repetitive clink of the fan.

In the morning the sun trickles through the curtain. It is about thirty degrees in the room and my face feels dry from where the fan has been blowing on it all night. The three of us go for breakfast at a laid-back place on the main beach that serves pancakes and juice. We sit in the shade and watch as locals wade out in the ocean with their surfboards. Above us are coconut trees swaying in the breeze. The majority of tourists here are Mexicans, holidaying over the weekend. There are people everywhere, hanging out on yachts or braving the wild surf.

Justin and I spend the morning riding the waves at the beach. We rent two deck chairs complete with sunshades off a man who drives a hard bargain. The sky is stormy and the waves are rapidly growing larger. Puerto Escondido is the perfect place for surfers and we talk to an Australian guy who has been here for months, traipsing from one beach to the next to catch the waves, in surf heaven.

In the afternoon we amble up and down the main stretch. It is a typical beach town with a range of tourist shops selling everything from shell rings to 30 dollar bottles of sunscreen (extortion if you ask me). So far, the highlight of the place has been the beach. It is different to the Listerine waters I was expecting. The water is rough and ragged and there is a strong ‘surf-town’ vibe in the air.

Later, we wander out in search of dinner and pass several Italian restaurants. They each have a similar menu offering a range of basic pizzas and pastas. We stop at a place called Mario’s because it seems to offer the best value for money. We are warmly welcomed by a young man who speaks impeccable English.

After a short while an Italian man on the next table starts to talk to us. He asks the usual questions – where are we from, where are we staying, where have we travelled to in Mexico. I have answered these questions so many times I don’t even have to think.

An hour later we are well acquainted with Mario, the man from the next table and the owner of this restaurant. He has joined us and we are drinking his wine and avidly listening to his life story.

Mario was born in Italy but his wife, Anna, was Mexican. His children attended local schools in Oaxaca. He points out the black and white photos of his wife that adorn the wall next to our table. Her milky, brown eyes and warm smile make her look perfectly beautiful. Mario’s eyes glisten with tears as he informs us she passed away a couple of years ago.

Meanwhile, my eyes are drawn to a photo of a young man holding a humungous fish. It is practically the size of him. He is staring at the camera with a smile that reaches the corners of his eyes.

“What is that?” I ask, pointing toward the photo.

Mario’s eyes crease with nostalgia.

“That is the marlin I caught just around the point from here. It was so strong and so hard to catch that it almost capsized our boat. It dragged us along with it and we eventually had to let it go. But, then it was amazing – we found it again and it took everything we had to drag it from the ocean.”

The person in the photo is young Mario; a youthful man of around thirty.  He tells us of his friends, of the excitement when they first saw the marlin in the water. He tells us that he has its horn somewhere hidden in the cluttered cupboards of his restaurant.

I am drawn in by this story-teller. He paints a vivid picture of his life. He tells us about his daughter living in New York City and how he visits her from time to time.

“I like that I have family all around the world, it gives me someone to visit.” He says.

He tells us he was the first Italian to open a restaurant here and over the years the others started to spread around him like wildfire.

Around midnight, after hours of conversation, Mario asks us to return tomorrow night to share a bottle of wine. We graciously accept and wander back to the hostel.

In the morning we return to the beach. We have more freshly-squeezed juice and waste time rolling about amid the waves. In the afternoon we sit by the beach at a local cafe and order coco locos from the menu. I am expecting fresh coconut juice but as I take my first sip I become aware that what I have actually ordered is about six shots of rum mixed with the juice inside the coconut. Eddy, who has ordered the same, blanches in surprise and Justin laughs at us. He has ordered the cold, refreshing, plain coconut that we assumed we would be getting.

20 minutes later, the combination of the heat and the alcohol have made me so drunk my vision is blurry. It’s strange being completely out of it in the middle of the day. I buy a hat from a man who has cleverly crafted it out of palm leaves. In my drunken state, it is one of the most clever things I have seen. I throw it on my head and feel immediate relief from the hot rays of the sun.

After a quick swim and rest in the hostel, we head to Mario’s restaurant. The street market is on and locals sell the usual tourist fanfare – t-shirts and the like.

This time Mario is there to greet us. He welcomes us with a bottle of red wine and pulls up a chair at the same table we sat at last night. He asks us about our day before we are, again, mesmerized by tales of his life. Tonight, he is emotional and recalling the early days with his wife. They built the business up from scratch, working together to provide the tourists with authentic Italian cuisine served with the famously warm Mexican hospitality. They made their own pesto.

“It has a very special ingredient.” Mario tells us, laughing.

I like the way Mario’s voice sounds. His Italian accent is still strong despite the fact he has lived here for more than 20 years. The food is excellent too, served by his son. The pizza is delicious and momentarily takes me back to the days of walking the streets of Naples, eating simple pizzas with rich tomato pastes and crispy crusts. I feel a surge of love for travel for bringing me to these unexpected moments.

I can see a sadness in Mario’s eyes. He, again, shows us some black and white photos of his wife. He is crying tonight, speaking of a life without her that has been empty. I find myself crying along with him.

As it gets later, Mario’s mood gradually improves. He fishes through his cupboards and with a smile that touches his eyes, presents us with the marlin nose. It is long, straight and pointy. He holds it up before us like a trophy and there is a sparkle behind his eyes. He is stuck in a moment that happened long before we entered the doors of his restaurant; long before I was even born.

As we finally leave for the night, Mario disappears into the kitchen and returns with a jar of his famous pesto. The label reads Anna’s Pesto. I am touched when he places it in my hand and gives it to me as a gift.

“You’re good kids.” He says, over and over again.

We have our photo taken side-by-side. The four of us beam towards Justin’s camera. I love that photo. It’s not the highest quality but it reminds me of that night. It reminds me of the one of the many wonderful people we met along the way. And as for Anna’s Pesto, well, it’s the best I’ve ever had.

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