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Lust and bullets at Rumba Beach
If Chaucer had retired to a trailer in Margaritaville, would he spend his evenings watching Fellini movies? He might.

Editor's note:This is the first in a series of occasional dispatches from our correspondent in coastal Mexico.

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By Carlos Amantea

March 1, 2000 | It's true what they say about the cold and the bones of the old. When late fall comes, our joints start to ache and we, like a bunch of honking geese, migrate south.

My winter home is far, far away, small and quiet, close to the Guatemala border. We call it Puerto Perdido. When I am there, I live just outside of town in a small trailer in the orchard we call "La Huerta." It's an acre or so of lemon, mango, orange and palm trees. There's a tiny creek filled with icy water and a couple of huts looking out over a valley.

Twenty years ago, when I started going to Puerto Perdido, there was no electricity, no television, no stores to speak of, one doctor (who, it turned out, was actually a veterinarian), no paved highway into town and very few cars. It's changing, but, in truth, Puerto Perdido is still small-town '50s America.

The kids leave their bicycles outside, unlocked. People congregate in the streets at all hours, male or female, young or old. The one park in town is busy until 2 or 3 in the morning, filled with food carts and balloon men and shy-of-light lovers. The public market is noisy, sometimes odoriferous -- especially where they sell the pig meat -- filled to overflowing with cucumbers, tomatoes, tomatillos, satsumas, ugly (but delicious) oranges, five varieties of banana, 12 varieties of pepper (hot and cool). And my favorite: potatoes that have been dyed red to hide their age.

I come here by driving south through Texas, through tiny towns (Hebronville and Falfurrias and Linn and Alice and Edinburg and Elsa). Except for the occasional 7-Elevens and Wal-Marts, in that part of Texas there are no living creatures. The asphalt parking lots are filled with cars, but I see no people, and suspect that I've arrived in a dead land created, perhaps, by the Texas Chamber of Commerce, filled with false storefronts, cardboard houses, plastic lawns.

The moment we cross over into Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, however, the streets are thronged with people, dogs, pigs; people laughing, talking, wandering about -- grannies with their grandchildren, boys with kites, friendly and noisy old drunks. "That's what's happened," I think: "All the people have migrated from the badlands to down here where they are allowed to walk about, to live and laugh and talk. Texas has died," I think, "but no one knows it yet." The moment I come over the border into Mexico, I am home, and for the next five days of driving, I am on my way to paradise.

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Naked lust is not a pack of flea-bitten dogs

To help me with chores around La Huerta, I once hired a worker named Valentine who had an insatiable appetite for fruit, booze and whores, not necessarily in that order.

He was big and hairy. He looked vaguely like King Kong before he got hooked up with the Empire State Building and that screechy woman. Those of us who had been around him for a while knew that, despite appearances, he wouldn't hurt a fly, but he was a menace to a bottle of mescal if he happened to pass one.

Valentine was friends with most of the ladies over at Chamisal, Chamisal being a collection of the local houses of prostitution. He would pick any ripe fruit that was growing in La Huerta and take it over as a present to the ladies. I was told that his love offerings were so well received that he never had to pay for a single night of passion.

We Americans have been convinced, since the U.S. attorney general closed down New Orleans' Storyville district in 1917, that naked lust can and must be banned. As Jimmy Swaggart and countless others will testify, we know how successful that has been.

Mexico, fortunately, has a Catholic pragmatism: The people there know that you can't chase away lust like a pack of flea-bitten dogs. So they keep it marginally visible, and marginally regulated. Every Mexican village, as far as I know, has its own Chamisal: somewhat apart from center city, dedicated to the raucous pleasures of drink and lust. The community's sin is thus properly sited in one single area, so the rest of the city can keep its nose clean.

In Puerto Perdido, our center of pleasure is located, appropriately enough, just across the highway from the gas works. It is actually a hutch of houses -- about six in number.

During the dry season, Chamisal is the home base for a road show. Whenever any of the towns within a hundred miles has its annual fiesta, the staff and management of Chamisal load up a couple of buses and take their entourage out to the sticks.

A pied--terre is set up in the village: Studs are planted in the ground (if not in the beds), palm fronds are tied atop the cross-struts and the whole is enclosed in a black tarp. Metal tables and chairs and a very noisy stereo system -- preferably one with huge, tattered speakers -- are installed, and a cooler is brought in for the beer. A corner of the palapa is set aside with one or two enclosed spaces, sheathed in tarp, complete with mattress, for what we think of as the heart of the operation -- "los negocios."

There always seems to be a crowd of young men hovering just outside the entryway of these portable love nests. They are as nervous and distracted a bunch as I have ever seen. They look inside and, amid the winking red and yellow and violet lights, gander at the ladies sitting around the tables. One of the things that may make them so dilatory is not shame, nor fear of some terrible disease (these places have hired medical inspectors to keep the wages of sin from killing off the paying customers), but more likely the inflation rate now piled atop the regular tariff. The going rate has risen dramatically in the past few years, being, now, up to 150 pesos (about $15) a shot, with what we used to vulgarly call "around the world" going for double or triple that, depending on the shopworthiness of the merchandise. For most workers here, that's two to four days' wages in the hot fields, picking peanuts, planting maize, sweating.

After a week or so, the fair runs out of steam, the love nests are dismantled, the ladies are loaded on buses and shipped back to Chamisal and the whole thing disappears in an evanescent haze, as if it had never been, as if it, and we, were a mere dream.

. Next page | The shooting in Las Negras

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