Why I like the word "Olas"

With students coming from all over the country to Stanford, it was pretty common after Freshman year for people to get together for road trips instead of going home. Since I was so close to home, my parents saw me on a fairly irregular basis anyway, so I joined in a couple of those road trips. The first was a trip to Mexico with just four guys. Dan Gerrity, Eric Wendlandt, Bob Reay and I decided to head to Mexican beaches for a week in the sun. The first thing to understand is that we didn't do a lot of planning. We bought airplane tickets from Tijuana to Mazatlan and that was about it. So, we drove to the Mexican boarder figuring that we could get a taxi to give us a ride to the airport. On the US side of the border, there was a large parking lot which we thought was thoughtful. We pulled into a parking space and before we even had a chance to start unloading a card drove up and offered a "taxi" ride to the airport. Well, we really didn't know what taxi's looked like in Mexico, but it all seemed pretty easy so we loaded up. A quick trip through the border check station and we were on our way. The driver was a friendly guy who spoke great english and offered to be at the airport when we arrived back at the end of our week. We gave him our flight information never expecting to see him again. But when we arrived back at the airport, he was there with a smile and his same beat up car. We hopped in and chatted lightly about our adventures.

When we got back to the border, there appeared to be some sort of problem with the U.S. Custom's agents. They asked a lot of questions and finally had us pull over into a "hardcore" inspection area. The driver got out, quickly huddled with us and told us to tell the guys with the guns that we were cousins just visiting Mexico. We looked at him like he was nuts. We didn't know what was wrong, but no way we were going to lie to the border patrol. And, these guys tore the car apart like you wouldn't believe. They took the seats out, they took off the tires, the hub-caps and removed much of the carpet. They siphoned gas out of the gas-tank. They were serious. Turns out that our "Taxi" driver was just a guy with a car who was making money being an illegal taxi and he had just exceeded the maximum number of border crossings allowed before they tear your car apart. They questioned us at length, and when they finally decided that no drugs were involved they left us to put the car back together.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's get back to our arrival in Mexico!

We hit the beaches in Mazatlan with gusto. Fabulous beaches that I remembered well from my youth. While growing up, most of our family vacations were to Mexico and always over winter break. Don't ask me how we managed to spend three weeks in Mexico every couple of years in December with never a worry about school (although when I was older, I took a Basketball and was constantly searching for places to shoot hoops to keep my "touch"). Usually there were grandparents or cousins, aunts and uncles along, but regardless of who went with us these trips always started the same way; with an all-night car ride from Healdsburg into Mexico. Only later did I find out that the reason my Dad drove all night long was to make the trip quicker for us kids. While we slept (somehow kids can sleep in cars?!?) my Dad drove and magically we would find ourselves in Yuma Arizona and town that always seemed to be a mile long and only two blocks wide.

There we would find the local Sanborn's office to purchase car insurance for our trip. The concept of insurance was mostly lost on us kids, but the absolutely wonderful travel guides weren't. To this day, I've never found anything like the mile by mile guides of Mexico roads that kept us busy for hours and educated us about the country we were visiting. Seriously, these guides talked about almost every thing you passed. Rocks with interesting writing, microwave antennas on the hill in the distance, a side road to an isolated town, everything. There weren't large gaps either. Someone would read out loud almost the entire trip. It was wonderful. Wanna make a mint today? Do MP3 files for roads today. I'd buy 'em.

Although there were overnight stops, the main goal of this trip was to reach Mazatlan. Yes, we had adventures on the way there. We arrived at an border check point that was quite a ways inside of Mexico during a lunch break and my Dad bribed the guards to process us through instead of wait. At one of the overnight stops, we stayed in the Hotel Dora (yup, like my grandmother's name). Man, was this hotel Blue. Anyway, it was hot and the pool looked inviting. Looks can be deceiving. You know that feeling when the cold is so intense that you can't breath? Well, someone had to pull Steve out of that water. We learned to stay away.

We stayed in Mazatlan for weeks. Sometimes in the same Hotel, sometimes in different ones. Hotel Gaviotas a couple of times. Hotel Del los Arcos another. Regardless, we were always on the beach where we built amazing sand castles, played in the waves and lived wonderfully. Going out far enough that the waves were just swells that would lift you off of the bottom and gently set you down again was my favorite water sport. Although there are family pictures, the most amazing sand castle in the world exists only in our memories. Although we took pictures, Longs Drug store in Santa Rosa ruined 13 rolls of film from that trip. We got 13 free rolls, but not another replacement vacation from them.

Fireworks were always a big part of our trips. They are everywhere in Mexico. Our favorite thing to do was to take large bottle rockets and fire them into the waves as they were breaking. These things are waterproof, so the explode underwater. If you time it just right the rocket would explode just as it hit the wave and illuminate it for a few years on each side. Sometimes you could see fish in the waves. Cool.

In addition to the bottle rockets there were firecrackers. There were the regular old small ones that we had a blast with and there were bigger ones. Some of the big ones we called "big beachos". Others we called "1/2 stick of dynamites". You get the idea. These things were huge and huge firecrackers are just invitations for mischief in kids. We tried lots different things with them. The most memorable was when we decided to build a huge mound of sand about 3 feet high. Then we dug a tunnel into the side and placed the 1/2 stick in the bottom. We lit it and then quickly sealed the entrance with a coffee can. Then we ran. And waited. We weren't disappointed.

We had built this pile about midway between the breaking waves and the beach hotels. Unfortunately, we dug the tunnel on the side facing a hotel with a nice beach-side patio. An elderly couple sat at a little table about 50-75 feet away from our creation. When the fire cracker went off the can flew and we followed it as it arched through the sky straight toward the couple. It landed on the table between them and bounced away. The man, who was reading, calmly looked up and yelled "Could you take that a little further down the beach?". We did. And we didn't stop our experiments either.

We had our favorite restaurants in Mazatlan. El Shrimp Bucket was #1 on our list. Huge buckets of shrimp that I didn't like, but the french fries that filled the bottom of the buckets was like heaven. The place has business cards on every wall and Mariachi bands nightly. We were always welcomed as friends and we knew the waiter's by name.

Sometimes the adults had a bit too much to drink - I guess the Margaritas were spectacular. I do remember being in Uncle Pete's van after one of these means and just yelling "Once more around the fountain" as we went round and round the round about with the fountain in the middle. Perhaps Pete shouldn't have been driving.

It was in Mazatlan that we discovered Quesadillas. Anyone in the US today wouldn't even think twice about these, but in 1968 nobody had heard of them. It was in a little restaurant where the owner asked us if we wanted to try something unusual. They were fabulous and we ate way too many. From that point on, Quesadillas were served in the Deas household.

We also rented motorcycles here during one of the later trips. We drove those things up and down the beach road past miles and miles of open beach unmarred by Hotels. During my college trip, we found that Mazatlan had expanded to gobble up that land with miles and miles of hotels. With that explosive growth came an expanding population that quickly outstripped the inadequate infrastructure of this "little" town. You had to move further and further down the beach to the newer hotels to get clean water and pristine beaches. The town that we visited as college students was experiencing growth pains.

We had Christmas in Mexico at least once. There were small things, but the "big" Christmas was reserved for when we returned home. But we did pinatas and celebrated anyway. Speaking of Christmas in Mexico, Mazatlan wasn't the only city we visited. If you haven't seen the streetlights in Guadalajara at Christmas time, then you haven't lived. Amazing scenes over every intersection with white lights block after block. Pretty cool.

I don't remember a lot about Guadalajara except the lights. We also visited Puerta Vallarta, Mexico City and Acapulco one some of the trips. I remember walking up the pyramids at Teotihuacan, the floating gardens of Xochemilco, the Cliff of Acapulco. In Puerta Vallarta I remember a wave so large that my hand got yanked out of my Dad's and I tumbled up the beach while we both search for "up". Although we had other adventures, Mazatlan held our hearts.

I was probably thinking about these trips when Pamela and I decided to Honeymoon in Mexico starting at Mazatlan. Here it was in 1986 and we found ourselves eating at El Shrimp Bucket with me telling stories and even seeing waiters that I recognized. We booked our stay at Hotel Cid, that was located so far down the beach road that I'm not sure we even went that far on the motorcycles. The hotel was notable for being the vertical equivalent of Yuma. It was a mile tall and one room wide. If you haven't been there, you can't imagine it. We were on the 40th floor and the building swayed. Our room looked out over the ocean and 4 hotels under construction. 40 floors down we could see the swimming pool.

But it was the 4 hotels under construction that made us move. After a fairly nervous night.... I found myself in the morning watching the construction project next door. It was a concrete structure and after careful examination, I could identify only a small amount of rebar. The forms were held in place with trees. Yup, need some wood, go get a tree and cut most of the limbs off. Wedge it in and you've got support. The concrete was being mixed at the bottom and a 5 gallon bucket was lowered for the 20th floor down using a rope and pulley system. The bucket would be filled, pulled up, poured and lowered again. I swear, every pour produced a cold joint.

One of the wonderful things about being married to Pamela is that often we find ourselves in agreement about the important things in life. Well, it started early. We were thrilled to vacation in Yellowstone in the Winter (something we still enjoy) before were were married. And, we were unanimous in our decision to move. We found a wonderful place were the rooms were like caves. Our room was at ground (or a little below) level and glass doors opened onto the patio. In the evenings the band for the bar was bit too close, but we laughed at hearing Nueva York, Nueva York multiple times every night. It was in this room that I almost died.

Remember that meal at El Shrimp Bucket? Or maybe it was El Senior Frog's. Who knows for sure, but two days into our trip, I was hit with the worst case of the touristas that I ever had. Trust me, I know how to travel in Mexico. I don't drink the water. I don't get ice in my drinks. I'm extremely careful about what I eat. The world is ruled by virus' and bacteria we can't see. Most of the time, they let us live here pretty well. But sometimes they get pissed.

One of the things they tell you when visiting Mexico is this - if you get sick, call a doctor. So after a horrid night mostly spent on the floor of the bathroom, Pamela called for the doctor. I remember lying there in bed, moaning when he came in. He was young and handsome. He examined me and told me that he wanted to give me a shot of antibiotics and vitamins. I was in no condition to protest. He took out a glass vial, broke off the top and pulled the contents into a syringe. It took me a few days to feel well enough to travel, so we had to postpone our plane ride to Mexico city by a day. I don't think that my new wife had expected a "For Better or For Worse" situation quite so soon. Oh, and if you're going to be sick in Mexico, pick the cave hotel in Mazatlan with the young doctor and the Nueva York Band.

Pamela and I went on to Mexico City were we stayed in the Hotel Geneva. A Hotel that you could only get to by turning down a one-way street the wrong way. This was a few years after the big Mexico City Quake and there was a lot of construction and damage still evident. We found a great restaurant that was clean and good, so we ate many meals at Delmonico's. We visited the same pyramids and floating gardens. And, Pamela spent a long time in the bathroom.

I didn't know the whole story until years later. But it was in Mexico City, after I was healthy again, that Pamela started to second-guess the whole "For Better or For Worse" deal she had agreed to. For me, I was just hanging out on our bed reading and relaxing. Evidently, I wasn't very in-tune with her this day. Turns out that she found herself in the bathroom, naked with some strange guy, who she really didn't know all that well, who was between her and her clothes and passport. Panic set in. She tried to figure out how to get me out of the way and plans a complete getaway that included finding a taxi that would take her the wrong way down the one-way street. She was pretty sure that if she could get to the airport, she could get home. Who was this guy anyway? She really was too young to be married. Married?!?! Surely this is a dream/nightmare. In the end, she decided to just come out. I said "Hey, wanna go to Delmonicos?" She said "Sure". Ignorance is bliss.

After Mexico City, it was on to Cancun where we learned that if you walk up to the Hertz counter during lunch the "We rent junk cars" guy hangs out and preys on people who think he's Hertz. "Air conditioning? Nobody needs air conditioning in Cancun! It's always 75 and sunny". We got in and started to look for a Hotel. We didn't make any reservations ahead of time, intending to just be spontaneous. We tried a few hotels on the beach and they were all full. After each stop, the car got hotter and hotter. Finally, my beautiful bride, turned to me with sweat running down her face and said, "I don't care where, but get me to a hotel NOW". So, we settled for a nice little place in downtown Cancun. Only after we settled in and started to relax did I see that the car contract didn't say "Hertz". Take it from me. Get air conditioning in your car if you go to Cancun.

We had a great time visiting ruins at Tulum, snorkeling and generally sightseeing. All of this brings me back to our college trip and why I like the word "Olas".

So, here are four college guys hanging out in Mazatlan. Bob Reay learned the fine art of bargaining. A guy comes along the beach with dozens of cowboy hats that Bob admires. One hat in particular caught his fancy and it was offered to him for $20. Bob replied that he only had $1 with him. The vendor, knowing this game well, tells Bob that, for him, the hat could be purchased for $15. Bob replied that he only had $1. The vendor looked annoyed, nodded and agreed to $12. Bob replied that he only had $1. The vendor walked off down the beach only to turn around and come back after going 100 yards or so. He offered Bob the hat for $7 - a price that would only recoup his cost. Bob replied that he only had $1. The vendor stalked off 10 yards, returned tossed the hat to Bob, who paid him $1. Hmmm...

Here it was 1981 and there were more activities to do in Mazatlan than when I was a kid. We drank too much at El Shrimp Bucket. I remember girls dancing on tables and tequila shots. This was new to me and, although I drank too much, it really wasn't all that much. There were also parachute rides. For this activity, you go to the beach and find a dude with a parachute. No paperwork, no liability waivers, just a guy taking your money, and hooking you up in the harness of a parachute that connects you via a LONG LONG rope to a speedboat that is out beyond the breakers.

Once you're in, they wave a flag and the boat takes off and, well, you do too. It's quite awesome. They only thing they said to me as I took off was, "Are you sure you want to take your camera?". I had my Nike FE around my neck. I nodded and we were off. As I started to gain altitude, I wanted to take a picture. This was tricky since it meant that you had to let go and trust the harness. I figure I can hold on with one hand and grab the camera with the other hand. A I raise it to my eye, I realize that the telephoto lens is zoomed in all the way and that they only way to fix this is to let go with my other hand. I get my courage up, let go and grab the lens with my right hand and give it a quick twist and... it comes off in my hand. So, here I am "miles" above the ocean hanging from a parachute that really needs me to hold on and I've got a camera body in one hand and a telephoto lens in the other. I briefly thought about dropping both and going with self-preservation. In the end, I carefully put the lens back into the camera, locked it in place, took a few quick pictures then dropped the camera to dangle from my neck and held on for dear life for the rest of the ride.

After our fun in Mazatlan, we spent a night in a small village hotel that cost $7 per night. It was clean and wonderful. For the life of me, I can't remember the town's name. I do know that we entered it in style. We really didn't know where we were going and, darn it, GPS navigation systems hadn't been invented yet. Anyway, we have a heck of a time with the traffic in the town. The main street is one big traffic jam. After trying to horn our way in between vehicles, we finally made it into the long line of cars. Then we notice that the streets are remarkably crowded with people and that they are all watching the vehicles. We were so focused on directions and street names that we didn't realize that we had entered a parade. Every car, truck and bus in town was decorated and we weren't. We waved like crazy and people waved back. If you find yourself accidently in a parade, always remember to smile and wave boys!

Our destination was San Blas, a sleepy fishing village on the coast. We stayed in a nice little hotel that was just a few blocks from the main square. If you've every found yourself in a small Mexican village square at night, you know that it's where the locals go on evenings, especially weekend evenings. People would form small groups and walk around the square greeting others and generally enjoying the night. It's a cultural thing. When Mexicans do the same thing in our Healdsburg plaza, the local complain about the loitering. Instead of seeing it as a wonderful community event, it's loitering.

Anyway, we joined in the plaza stroll on a Saturday evening and had a great time. Just four gringo's hanging out caught the attention of 4 young ladies from the University of Guadalajara who were also vacationing in San Blas. They asked if we wanted to go dancing and led us down a back alley to an open courtyard where we settled in at tables for dinner, drinks and dancing. They were fun, innocent and made fun of our attempts at Spanish, but they didn't speak any English, so it's all we had.

At the end of the evening they invited us to meet them the next day at "The most beautiful beach in Mexico". Of course we agreed and the next morning set about to find it. What we found was a beautiful, white sand beach that led in both directions as far as the eye could see. And, at about 11am we were the only ones there. Soon the 4 girls showed up and we hung out on the beach, talking and occassionally heading out into the waves.

It was then that I asked Maria how to say "waves" in Spanish. We were kinda off by ourselves standing in waist deep water letting the waves break against our backs. Actually she was out a bit further than I and she was facing the beach. She told me the word was "Olas". I looked confused and repeated "Holas".. like "Hellos?". She giggled and said yes, you know like "hello" as she waved with her hand. It finally dawned on me that waving with her hand was saying "Hola" which is a "wave". Ola. Just then, a large wave came up behind her and I said, "Hay una Ola Grande!!!" just as the wave broke over her completely removing the top of her bikini. I turned my back to her, to allow her to recover, but I still really like the word "Olas".