Let’s go back in time, to the early 1960s, when Puerto Vallarta was still a sleepy fishing village on the Mexican coast. Everything changed after acclaimed and prolific film director John Huston came to town to shoot The Night of the Iguana in September 1962. Huston immediately fell in love with Puerto Vallarta and purchased a house there. He spent a lot of time in Mexico over the years, and owned several properties(*), in Puerto Vallarta and other locations.
|Night of the Iguana was based on a Tennessee Williams play,
and it shows…
|A prestigious cast:
Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and Sue Lyon
The Night of the Iguana, released in 1964, became an award-winning movie, but it is best remembered for the off-screen antics of its lead actor, Richard Burton, and his paramour, Elizabeth Taylor. The two had recently met on the set of Cleopatra and had fallen madly in love. Taylor arrived in Puerto Vallarta with her entourage in 1963 and – the legend says – started complaining about the rustic accommodations. Burton reported to John Huston who promptly found a rental home for the couple. What Elizabeth wanted, Elizabeth got. The neighborhood was known as the “Gringo Gulch,” as a handful of American expatriates, including the film director, already called it home. It still sits on a hill today, streets lined with white stucco houses, bougainvillea spilling over red tile roofs, balconies and windows.
Burton and Taylor settled right in. Burton would eventually purchase the house, named “Casa Kimberley,” as a birthday gift for Elizabeth before their 1964 wedding. A few years later, he acquired the property across the street, razed it down, and turned it into a pool house. The pool house became the “dog house” where he would hide and play cards with his friends when Elizabeth kicked him out of Casa Kimberley during their infamous fights. In the 1970s, a romantic Burton built a pink bridge, modelled after the Bridge of Sighs in Venice and connected both houses. Locals nicknamed it “the Lovers’ Arch,” or “El Puente de Reconciliacíon” (no translation needed!) Over the years, the Burtons found a real home in Puerto Vallarta; visiting often with their family; generously donating to local charities; and making a profound impact on the once unknown town when reporters (the early paparazzi) would follow the world-famous couple around.
|Enjoying the good life in Puerto Vallarta
|… and making a home there…
|Gone but not forgotten: The Burtons,
remembered at La Fuente del Puente restaurant, Puerto Vallarta
|Gone but not forgotten: John Huston Plaza, Puerto Vallarta|
After two weddings and two divorces, Liz and Richard, “les enfants terribles,” finally called it quits in the late 1970s. He died in 1984, and Liz refused to go back to Casa Kimberley because the memories made her too sad. She sold the house, leaving all their belongings behind, in 1990. It changed owners a few times, at one point a bed and breakfast and a museum. I was determined to see it, and took Les Boys with me, up steep Calle Zaragoza, behind the Church. El Gringo Gulch has not changed much, but the house that once sheltered the happy early days of the Burton/Taylor marriage, was closed and in a bad state of disrepair. The pink bridge was still there.
|Liz and Dick… in the old days…
The Burtons successfully settled in Puerto Vallarta. Why did they like it so much? Was it the weather? The beautiful scenery and beaches? The relative anonymity? Maybe they kept coming back for the laid-back lifestyle they could share with their many friends. Overtime, they became locals, not just tourists, and they started blending in (as much as the world’s most famous and most romantic couple could blend in, that is.)
I understand how wonderful that feeling must have been, the transition from being a tourist, a gringo; staying in a place for a limited amount of time, often with one’s own countrymen; taking it all in, hopefully with curiosity and open-mindedness, but ultimately staying on the outside, looking in. On to a different status, a different state; becoming more than a transient visitor; traveling deeper; understanding better.
Ten days ago, when we flew back from Puerto Vallarta, I felt good about our traveling experience. The happy memories I shared with you in the last post explain why, at least in part. There was more. You may remember we caught up with Seattle friends in Mexico. This is a family we met at Junior’s school at home. They happen to have Mexican relatives, and as soon as we arrived, we were generously welcomed within the group. So not only did we explore the fantastic area around Puerto Vallarta, we also benefited from the experience and knowledge of our friends. There are restaurants we may not have discovered right away; local stories we may not have heard; there was an international dinner party, with Americans, Frenchies, Mexicans, and even fun-loving Argentinians laughing and communicating, come what may, around the same table. There was also a special trip we took to a local elementary school, in a poor part of town.
|It took 30 minutes, and a bumpy taxi ride,
to reach San Ancho, South of PV
|The local grocery store… no Whole Foods here!|
The purpose of the trip was to accompany a member of the group who represented the local branch of the Rotary Club. I have had a special connection to the Rotary Club ever since they sponsored part of my college studies in Atlanta, GA back in the 1980s. As a former Rotary scholar, I can appreciate the help these good people provide to Mexican children, in particular through the Becas [Scholarship] Program (**). We learned that school is only mandatory until 6th grade in Mexico, and that a lot of children, when they turn 13, are expected to earn their keep and start working for the family. A lot of parents can’t afford the $250-300 needed to finance a junior high or high school year. Enter the Rotary Club who finds sponsors for the most motivated and deserving children, providing an opportunity for these kids to continue their education. Junior’s friend, John, is sponsoring a Puerto Vallarta student and met him for the first time a couple of weeks ago. The purpose of our visit to the small, humble elementary school that day, was to witness the installation of a new computer system, operated with Microsoft software (Microsoft Mouse Mischief,) and donated by the Rotary Club and other sponsors. What a unique opportunity for our 6th graders to meet children who live in such different circumstances! They both did very well, and I am betting they will remember that day for years to come.
|A small school, surrounded by the jungle…|
|Our group is greeted by the school children while
a proud Rotarian (and grandfather) looks on…
|We interrupt a science class when we arrive… The kids do not seem to mind|
|A rather spartan computer room, but learning is happening here…|
|The Seattle boys visit the school’s library|
|Appreciating cultural diversity…
Civics and ethical education is part of the curriculum
|One laptop, connected to the students’ mice, a projector:
The new equipment is finally working!
|Learning to use a mouse…|
|Students, Rotary Club, and guests|
|I will remember these friendly faces…|
It would have felt strange to go back to the luxurious world of Nuevo Vallarta’s resorts after visiting the school that morning. I asked our driver to drop me off in the old town, while the rest of the group headed back. I walked around Puerto Vallarta for a couple of hours, letting it all sink in. This was indeed a special day, during a special vacation in a special place.
Until we return – and I hope we do – I will remember Mexico, its people, and its dogs, fondly.
|“Bugs” and dogs traveling together…|
|“Scarface,” the pitt-bull rescued from the dog fighting ring…
Enjoy retirement, buddy!
(**) The Rotary Club Becas [Scholarship] program in Puerto Vallarta. Learn more here.