Dear Manager,

I recently returned from several weeks in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I found this wonderful town over thirty years ago, and have visited at least once each year since, staying in the same resort that I was fortunate to find on my first visit. It’s a small resort on the beach, one with greater Mexican flavor than you might find in the “Americanized” resorts that have cropped up in more recent years.

This oasis has become a sanctuary for me, my writing, and a window on the world that can be difficult to find at home. While the resort is very beautiful, it’s all about the people, the friendships, memories and the quality of life that’s always captured my imagination. It’s been a rewarding study of a culture in great contrast to my own. I’ve learned a great deal from this culture, and am convinced its essence and purity have impacted both my professional and writing philosophies. A few years ago as Sally and I arrived one October, we had no idea that within just a few days, our oasis would be in great jeopardy.

The Mexican people living in their native land are one of the most intriguing peoples I’ve ever known. They are a people who have, in many ways, accepted and flourished with the very little provided them by the Mexican government. Entitlement, as a word, can’t be translated into their native tongue. Clearly, this is one of the greatest contrasts to the expectations held by our American society.

Of equal (perhaps greater) contrast is the average wage of $5.00 or less per day. This is why tourism, its economics – and yes tips – are so essential to the Mexican food chain. Certainly there is corruption, but this is consistent with nations whose limited resources are overshadowed by poverty. I find this to be a footnote in the grand scope of a people I admire greatly, and a culture whose characteristics and priorities may be much more grounded than our own.

I’ve asked myself over these many years, how can a culture and people with seemingly so little opportunity by American standards find such rich fulfillment, and inspiring contentment? How does one bottle it and take through Customs to the United States? How would they react if what “little they had” were, indeed, placed in jeopardy?

On our fourth day there that October, we were warned that Hurricane Kenna (I know . . . what are the chances?) was heading our way the next day. Hurricanes are almost nonexistent in Puerto Vallarta, because Bandaras Bay and its ring of mountains this has historically sheltered this area from harm’s way. Effectively, the eye of the storm would require a pilot boat to successfully navigate a small inlet in the bay to reach the city.

Since few storms have impacted the city in the past, certainly placing sand bags at the sea wall gate “would deter any high water.” I spotted four at our gate prior to retiring to bed that night. By morning, the winds and waves had picked up; we were all preparing to watch the effects of an exciting storm. Kenna had been upgraded to a category five hurricane, but still there was little concern as breakfast was being served in the palapa just a few feet from the beach.

Within minutes of sitting down, there was a distinct transition in the barometric pressure, the wind and rains picked up, waves could now be seen swelling up to thirty feet. The sea wall, not to mention the bags, was overwhelmed by the tidal surge. The Mexican staff immediately announced an evacuation of the resort’s first two floors. Five minutes later, a second evacuation had been announced for the entire building. We literally ran through the street to a shelter in a nearby convention center to wait out the storm.

Many of the resort staff stayed behind to secure the facility, and to insure that all guests had, in fact, been evacuated. Their own families were now at great risk; many homes are not constructed to weather a storm of this magnitude. We waited five dark hours in our evacuation facility. We had no idea of what to expect or when we would be able to return to our resort.

Staff brought bread, juice and water to take the edge off our lack of breakfast. Runners were sent back and forth to update us of the plans in motion. Their single priority was our safety and comfort in a very difficult and unanticipated set of circumstances. There had been no practice runs; this was the real deal, and it had to be executed as if it was a common occurrence. It was.

By mid afternoon we were allowed back in the resort, and each guest was accounted for and escorted back to their rooms. We immediately went to the balcony of our seventh floor room to assess the damages. Waves of sand had completely flooded the pool, restaurant, and common areas, which were 100 yards from the ocean. Refrigerators from the restaurant had been picked up and swept fifty feet. Palm trees on the beach were down, their root structures completely exposed. Once the tides receded, the entire ocean side of the resort was left with from six to twenty-four inches of sand. The lush green was now gray. It was a devastating scene.

It was now time for the very best of what humanity can provide. Mother Nature and the sea had taken ownership of our resort; it was time for the guests and staff to take back this ownership. While all sixty condominiums had a broom and dustpan, the resort only owned three shovels and one wheelbarrow. Over eighty guests and staff pitched in with buckets, hoses, pots & pans – any primitive tool that could be scavenged and used to make a personal impact. With sunset only five hours away, the sense of urgency was well at hand.

It felt like an old-fashioned barn-raising; it also felt like moving a mountain of sand with soup spoons. By sunset, one of the prettiest in days, nearly 70% of the restaurant and pool deck areas had been liberated from the sea’s unwelcome gift. With dinner and drinks on the house, and the sense of satisfaction and relief felt by all, it was a memorable day for all of us. We had all learned something new about ourselves, the Mexican culture, and our fellow Americans.

With daybreak came a realization that “the perfect storm” had indeed hit Vallarta. The city’s two-mile boardwalk and its retaining wall had been overwhelmed and demolished, along with all of its shops and restaurants. Boats and cars were now resting in furniture stores and banks, and villages to the north were completely destroyed. Many ocean front hotels were flooded, to be closed for a month or more; some have never re-opened. A fragile economy, a financially deprived culture and its people had faced a significant setback. It was very sobering.

Within days, huge progress had been made. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend – no, I would encourage – visiting Puerto Vallarta, for it will always be a slice of heaven. There’s something to be learned, and brought home, on each of my many visits to this wonderful place. It’s a culture of harmony and genuine happiness; a more measured pace that the world as a civilization can learn from. Mexico continues to grow and modernize thanks to its neighbors to the north. We also have much to learn, and we have no further to look than to the south.

This is a society that suggests family values and friendships are the singular priority and true meaning of life. These are children and parents who, as a family, have all learned how to genuinely smile from their heart and through their eyes. We can learn from a culture that rewards simple values, hard work, and living within ones needs and means. I feel honored and privileged to have been given the opportunity to have once again been its student.

Personal Regards,


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