Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Carolyn: How We Found San Pancho

The San Pancho Writers In My Living Room

If it hadn’t been so cold in the winter of 1995, we wouldn’t have bought our house in San Pancho. That year my husband Jonathan and I flew down from frigid New Mexico to meet my sister and brother-in-law in Puerto Vallarta. Our 19 year old daughter, Thea, on her Christmas vacation from college, joined us. My sister and her husband picked us up at the airport in their Mercury Grand Marquis and Jonathan, Thea and I sank into the plush of the enormous back seat for ten days of touring.

My sister and her husband were trying to convince us to join them in buying a vacation house in Mexico, preferably something in the interior, something colonial. They liked the Chapala area with its large foreign community and reportedly-perfect year-round climate. Neither family had much money; we set our upper expenditure at $7,000, that is, $3,500 each. Not unreasonable in those days for shopping in Mexico, it was a lark we could afford, and Mexico was an old friend.

Couples sometimes occupy the poles of fiscal responsibility. Jonathan and I, however, are equally impulsive, equally cautious, equally foolish, equally sensible when it comes to spending money. On this occasion we found ourselves, out of the blue, equally ready to have a Mexico home, though, in our early fifties and deep in our careers, we couldn’t foresee getting much use from it.

When we got off the plane in Puerto Vallarta the air had been sweet and warm, but as we climbed through the coast range it got colder and colder. The winter we had fled was flowing down into central Mexico between the great eastern and western mountain ranges. Nopal cactus were frozen black and snow flurries shocked Guadalajara. Our wardrobes and hotels were caught off-guard. In Chapala we trooped down to the front desk to beg for blankets and were turned away to huddle for a long night under thin sheets and bedspreads.

My sister and brother-in-law already had a house for us in mind. They had seen it the year before in a village just across the hills north of Lake Chapala. The Se Vende sign was still there. Helpful neighbors said the owner lived in another town but found the key for us—eight inches of hand-forged iron. There was a large house and garden surrounded by a wall with the brightly-tiled dome of the church visible over it. By the time we emerged, we were all seriously interested. The neighbors waited in the street, eager to impart information, which they mostly didn’t have. Our translator, Jonathan, asked if they knew the cost. From the hubbub arose, “Seventy thousand pesos! Seven hundred thousand! Old pesos! New pesos!” The house could have been perfection at $7,000 or be well beyond or budget at $70,000. Wait! How could we talk with the owner? She was living in the remote town of Mascota. A telephone? No. How do you get there? They looked at the Grand Marquis and said we couldn’t get there in that.

Impulsivity stymied and colonial be damned—one more night of a cold that reminded us too much of New Mexico and we fled back to the warmth of the coast. While watching the sunset in Barra de Navidad, we decided to do something special for Thea. Her friend, whose mom, Connie, was our friend, was staying somewhere up the coast in the village of San Pancho. Connie had bought a third of a house, sight unseen, and her daughter was down for a first visit. The village wasn’t marked on our maps or mentioned in our guide books but we knew it was north of Puerto Vallarta and in a few days we set off to find it. Finally, at the northern end of the Bay of Banderas, we were successful in getting directions—about half an hour further. Turning inland from the bay, the road entered a tunnel of huge trees meeting overhead. Here and there the vista opened to steep hillsides with palms, lianas, trees with red, twisted trunks or with points of colored bloom, a Tarzan jungle, a decorator jungle. Then the tiny, clean and colorful village. The main street led to a perfect beach with rocks and cliffs on either end. The surf was spectacular.

“Well, Connie landed on her feet,” I said, already infatuated.

Thea’s friend proved easy to find and we left the two of them to hang out at the beach together. While my brother-in-law was maneuvering the Grand Marquis around in the little street, we blocked an ice cream truck blasting its tinkling music and Jonathan got out to buy me a cone. We could see him in animated, laughing discussion with the beautiful woman selling the ice cream. Their conviviality went on a lot longer than appeared necessary and I was prepared to tease him with some feigned jealousy, but when he returned I was appeased with the information that she had some property for sale. We thought it would be in San Pancho but found ourselves following a speeding ice cream truck for twenty minutes up the coast.

She showed us two places, one of them her own home. An old uncle was making ice cream in the garage and children with exotic names such as Ingrid, Vladimir and Jefferson tumbled about, hung on her and climbed into her lap. She told us that she and her husband had produced two and adopted four. She was a nurse and he an engineer but salaries in Mexico made selling ice cream a better option for supporting a large family and was enabling them, little by little, to build a hotel. Neither house tempted us, unfortunately, but we couldn’t imagine a nicer person to give our money to.

Back in sweet little San Pancho we ate lunch at the restaurant owned by a gringo with a Mexican wife. There was a notice of a house for sale at $7,850. On the lot, we found a two-room brick hovel. It had rained the day before and the roof was still dripping into buckets—the only running water in the house. There was a rudimentary bathroom outside and a tank of water with attached washstand for dishes and clothes. The neighbor’s pig had a nice wallow in the back. The yard was large, however, and had beautiful coconut palms and other mature trees of unknown variety. The coconut palms did it. That day Jonathan and I, in our equally impulsive mode, decided we wanted to buy it.

But how? There is a prohibition in Mexico against foreigners owning property within 50 kilometers of the coast. This house was about a kilometer from the beach. Back at the restaurant, the owner told us that we could use a presta nombre, a Mexican national who “lent” his ”name” to buy the property for the foreigner. The scheme had been invented by the great landowners to reconstitute their holdings, de facto, after the haciendas had been broken up following the revolution. We asked how we could trust someone to own our property.

“These people are honest,” he said. “It’s paradise. Enjoy it.”

We liked this guy. We liked the warmth, the bougainvillea, the huge waves crashing on the beach, the tidy streets. We never stopped to think if there was anyone who spoke English besides him. Anyway, I liked to mouth the notion that trying to learn a foreign language in one’s “certain age” would keep the mind agile. But who could we trust to own our property? We thought immediately of the ice cream lady with her house full of love and adopted children.

She had left us with her phone number; Jonathan called and asked if we could visit. That night we met her handsome and charming husband and more children.

Stating the point of the discussion is literally the last thing you want to do in a Mexican conversation, so only after the exchange of family histories, beliefs about the meaning of life, and the drinking of multiple vinitos (tequila and Squirt), did Jonathan introduce the presta nombre plan. Likely they had expected that we wanted to buy one of their properties and were clearly surprised when Jonathan made our proposal. The husband found his voice. They were humbled. They were honored beyond words. That we would trust them! How they would value the nobility of our gesture! No less than a pact of North American and Mexican friendship. It went on in that vein for a good while. We had found a presta nombre.

My sister and brother-in law didn’t want the house or the ownership arrangements and, more and more impulsive, we decided to go it alone. No more than our stated intent to buy had been accomplished by the end of the trip, and we returned home with the number of San Pancho’s single phone and a promise of help from the restaurant owner. Each time we called, someone had to run down the street to the restaurant to look for him. Occasionally, he made it to the phone and we learned of the progress of the sale. The price rose to $10,000. A counter offers apparently weren’t done. Oh, all right, $10,000. Clearly, we were hooked.

In a couple of months the sale was ready. We wired the money. Jonathan flew down. Not one second thought had surfaced. We had spent the time deep in a fantasy of building, remodeling, planting. I was studying Architectural Digest’s tropical vacation homes and filling a notebook with diagrams.

“What are you doing here?” the restaurant owner said when he saw Jonathan. “This has nothing to do with you.” So Jonathan hid around the corner while our presta nombre went into the office of a lawyer and bought herself a nice little lot with all our money.

In a few years the designation of property in San Pancho had changed so that we could use the proper method for coastal-dwelling foreigners to hold their land—the bank trust. Instead of a Mexican citizen owning the property, a bank would, and, for a yearly fee, guarantee possession, right of sale, and inheritance. Actually, “trust” doesn’t enter into it. Now we own our house in this manner too, but our Mexican adventure began on a different note. We leapt before we looked, we risked on intuition, we trusted, and all came out well.

Little by little we did build and remodel. We planted and painted bright colors. We tiled and decorated. We came for two weeks a year, then for two months, than for six. For several years Jonathan worked half a year in Mexico and flew back every six weeks to convince his company that he valued his job. Three years ago we sat gazing into our garden and decided to move entirely to San Pancho. In months we had sold our house in New Mexico where we had lived for thirty-six years, retired, and chosen one more adventure—a Mexican life.

No comments: