I’m hoping someone will find this, and I debated on whether to write this post in Spanish or English, but my Spanish isn’t what it once was and so English won out—even though it’s horribly awkward for me to tell this story in English as it occurred in Spanish, but here it goes: a glimpse into the best year of my life and the soul mate that I’ve lost forever.
Once upon a time, I lived in México. After college and two stays in two cities, I left the States and returned to Puerto Vallarta, locally known as Vallarta, with no plans on ever returning. That last time is when I really met the best friend I have ever had: Caguamo. But Caguamo was so much more than a best friend. His real name was Miguel Ángel Santos Nolasco, but everyone has un apodo, a nickname, in México and my best friend’s meant sea turtle.
The sea turtles of Vallarta.
Caguamo left school in junior high due to problems with a fellow student—I remember he pointed him out to me one day—and I suppose that’s when he headed to the beach to work. During all my time in México, almost all my friends worked on the beach, mainly in the parasailing business that’s so popular with tourists.
The guys who worked on the beach had this ridiculously bad reputation, mainly because they lived an alternate lifestyle, surfed, listened to Reggae, were poor, and possibly drank as much cerveza as every other Mexican, but they were real and had their own view on life that was so different from the other locals I knew. And so, it was with these guys in both cities I had lived in where I fit in.
Caguamo was even more special and everyone knew him. I called him El Famoso Caguamo, which was true—he was famous in Vallarta just for being the person he was. For me, he was more like a soul mate and we had this instant connection the minute I really got to know him in 1998, when we were both in our early 20s, although I was older.
He was one with the sea, hence the nickname, and I couldn’t imagine him anywhere else. He was kind and caring and didn’t have an enemy in the world. He was funny and had this spontaneous, high-pitched laugh that usually left me asking him what he was laughing about. He talked about the most random things and sang me a song about some fictitious person whose father was an imperialist one night. He had supposedly survived smallpox as a child, with the characteristic scars to prove it and no sign of an inoculation on his arm, but it had been eradicated by his birth. He was deaf in one ear from a wave perforating his ear drum in the Pacific that was never properly treated and if I spoke to him while sitting to his left, he had no clue I was talking to him. He couldn’t sit still for five seconds and neither could I. We’d ramble in Spanish and walk the town all night long and were never bored for a minute. But most of all, Caguamo was just so easy where I never was.
Caguamo and some friends.
I had a business that I’d about killed myself to open due to the corruption in México, being foreign even if I spoke fluent, unaccented Spanish and passed for Mexican, and because I was female, which is a real rarity. I was well-known in Vallarta and would walk back and forth from my apartment to my shop with my dog who I’d rescued from the street of a former neighborhood and I knew every store keeper and many people I passed on the street and they knew me. I’d return in the evening after la siesta and Caguamo would stop by and we’d talk and talk. After I closed up shop, he’d walk to a street called Olas Altas to meet our friends and I’d hike up to my big, studio apartment to take shower number three and get ready for the night, because in México, everything happens after the blazing sun sets.
My dog and I would take the million steps to get down to Olas Altas and walk over to el puesto de tacos, the taco stand, of my friend Chore. And there was the entire world: all my friends from the beach and my soul mate, Caguamo. The photo of my friends was taken at that spot. After getting some cerveza and talking with everyone, Caguamo and I would start walking to el Malecón, the boardwalk, and find more friends to catch up with. And so it went: walking for hours and talking for hours and stopping by Caimanes, a bar owned at least in part by a European, and petting stray cats or something along those lines. We’d make our way back to Olas Altas and to the beach known as Playa de los Muertos, the Beach of the Dead, and my dog would run wild on Los Muertos while we wandered down el muelle, the pier, and the best spot in town was all ours.
El Malecón, prior to being demolished and rebuilt after I last visited.
One night, I lost my housing. Before I got that studio I loved, I was staying temporarily with a girl I’d met from Cleveland who lived with her boyfriend, a local guy I knew but not well. They had a tiny, 1 bedroom apartment on another steep hill and couldn’t sleep in the bedroom due to the noise on the intersection below where kids played fútbol non-stop. And since I slept like a log before I got sick, I moved right in for a couple hundred bucks a month along with my dog and a stray kitten. So, there we were: 3 adults, 2 dogs (they had a huge lab), and a crazy kitten I wasn’t thrilled about. What I didn’t know is that my best American friend who I liked so much was in an extremely controlling relationship to say the least and when I was deemed a threat, I got thrown out by her boyfriend while she just sat in a chair and stared at the floor. I heard they got married and he went back to the States with her. She was a great friend and I so hated hearing that.
The details are blurry, but I think I made the long trek to Viejo Vallarta, or Old Town, looking for Caguamo on Olas Altas that night and he helped me get as much of my things as I could. I know he found a friend with a truck the next day and we got the rest of it then. We were loaded down with bags and boxes and I had my dog on a leash as we made our way down from that neighborhood, a huge hill known as El Cerro, and dropped off what I wouldn’t need in my shop, which was a simple store front secured with several, big padlocks.
It was Semana Santa, Easter week, and the town was full of tourists and I needed to find a motel until I could rent an apartment. We ran into our friend Michael, a Belgian who had grown up in Vallarta, and he agreed to take my dog for the night as I knew I couldn’t take him to a motel. I knew my dog would be okay with Michael and he was. Caguamo and I walked the whole night stopping at every motel and hotel looking for a room, but everyone was booked. At around 5:00 in the morning, I found a room at a tiny motel and stayed for a day until I found an apartment building adjacent to that great studio, both owned by a foreign doctor I knew who told me that I could keep my dog, but my cat had to go, so Caguamo took her. We never really bonded, so it wasn’t a huge deal.
I never forgot that night because it exemplified the most important thing to me: having someone’s back—such a rare trait to find in another human being. Caguamo would have helped me whether I had asked him or not. He used to stay with me at night when I lived in the apartment building in a studio smaller than this motel room I reside in. We slept in the same bed because that’s just what we did. There were lots of chismosos, gossips, in that town and the rumors swirled about this odd couple—this Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera without the grand love affair—but only Caguamo and I know the truth about being soul mates and how that really has no true label or boundaries. It simply transcends friendship and romantic relationships.
Frida and Diego
Before that studio in the lot next door became available, the doctor became aware that a guy from the beach was staying with me at night and she told me directly that she didn’t want those types living on her property. I thought that was ridiculous, but couldn’t risk being homeless again, so Caguamo could only hang out after that and I soon got the big studio with the lime tree right outside my door, where someone further up the hill blared Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from The Titanic all day and night.
My studio and my dog, who I usually called Stinky.
After nearly a year of hard work and being open for less than 6 months, I couldn’t make my business work. I’d lost too much money by not getting open by the high season due to customs holding up my supplies and the bribes were just adding to the fact that enough revenue wasn’t coming in and everyone was hurting due to El Niño, which had caused a rare hurricane that year that I somehow survived, but had kept tourism low. I told the landlord of my shop that I’d have to vacate, and up went the se renta sign.
My business in Viejo Vallarta selling raspados hawaiianos, or Hawaiian shave ice.
I didn’t want to go back to Seattle, but I had no choice as the ability to make a living in a developing country is slim to none, which is why all my friends lived with their families still. I sold what I could and packed up the rest as it wasn’t a huge deal to throw a giant suitcase and 4 huge boxes onto an airplane back then, as long as you had enough muscle to get it all out of baggage claim twice and through customs once. I knew another expat from Seattle named Freddie who drove back north before summer each year. He agreed to take the rest of my things, like that hand-painted sign above my shop that disappeared in one of my many moves, in his covered truck with Washington plates and we made arrangements to meet when he returned, all in exchange for a mere $50.00.
My friend Chore’s helper at the taco stand said he and his family would take my dog because I had to go back to my mother’s and step-father’s and they wouldn’t let me bring him. It broke my heart as I’d taken this stray who was starving and covered with ticks, fleas, and lice and given him life, even if I could never tame him. I had named him Chaim, life in Hebrew, because of his story. I remember handing his leash to Chore who assured me his friend would get him that evening, but I don’t think he ever did because when I returned on vacation for Y2K, I came out of the hotel the night I landed and saw my dog standing on Olas Altas, the street I was staying on in front of the Los Muertos, and I turned and quickly walked the other direction before he saw me or I bursted into tears. The dogs on the beach are clean and taken care of by the tourists, but it felt like someone had stuck a knife in my heart.
It was all over for me anyway. I’ve said for years that my fate was sealed when they shut the door on that Alaska Airlines 737 and I remember the long ride to the airport in Freddie’s truck while he air drummed to Roxette blasting though the speakers and I tried to not laugh, but I really just wanted to cry. I had no idea I’d get sick in 3 years and lose my whole life—that these were my last moments. I wish that plane had skidded off the runway and burst into flames, but up and away it went as I looked out the window and tried to not panic due to my fear of flying until my town and the beach were swallowed up by the big bay and then the Pacific Ocean.
Where I left my soul.
I don’t remember saying goodbye to Caguamo, only to another friend named Badua, but I saw him when I went back for Y2K and a dreadful trip after I’d started to get sick in March of 2002. I was so sick on that vacation that I left early and that was the last time I ever saw Caguamo. That night, I left him on bad terms. We were at a new pool hall and he was beyond drunk and that was the only time I didn’t like to be around him and he knew it. So, I left with an old boyfriend and went to Los Muertos. Oh, I spent so much time on that beach at night and on el muelle, the pier, that jutted out from the most famous beach in Vallarta where Caguamo worked.
It was a fateful mistake and I went back to my little motel across the street from the beach that had a balcony with huge iron doors that I left open while I slept. Around 3:00 in the morning, I awoke to someone calling my name but it took awhile to come to. I finally made it around the bed in the tiny room and to the balcony, but Caguamo was gone. I called his name but it was too late. That was on me and he’ll never know I came to the balcony or that I forgave him over something so trivial. I was sick and the change within me had started and I wasn’t the same person I had once been.
For years and years, I looked for Caguamo online. I don’t partake in social media unless blogging counts, but hardly anyone even had a phone line down there due to the fee and while internet cafés opened up, he was hardly the type to use a computer, although I saw him use one—with one finger—that last time I was there in 2002.
I get this feeling when someone is gone, and I had that feeling for a long time about Caguamo. I could never go back to Vallarta due to my health and the horrid humidity that never bothered me before, but he and my town were that tiny candlelight at the end of the seemingly never ending tunnel: that if a cure came in my lifetime, I could return and be with my soul mate in Vallarta where I knew everyone and everyone knew me and I once was happy. It’s the reason I hardly have any photos: I’m not a photographer and was too busy living life, as I always was before I got sick.
And so, I guess I hadn’t done a Google search for Caguamo for nearly a year until last Saturday. Suddenly, I got hits, but I read the same caption in Spanish and English and knew Caguamo was dead and I opened the first site and there he was—the photo on the top of this post, even if the date should say April 6, 2013. I’d know his face even if I couldn’t see at all. This long “no” came out of my mouth and then the tears ran down my face and I didn’t even read the article for an hour and when I did, I wanted to throw up.
I read how Caguamo had been at Playa de los Muertos in a sea kayak, the latest adventure for tourists, when a speed boat crashed into him. He had severe abdominal injuries from the impact, but the captain of the speedboat managed to get him to el muelle, the pier, and the paramedics worked on him and got him to CMQ, a private hospital I went to for X-rays once, and then the huge nightmare ensued over money. I don’t know if Caguamo’s life could have been saved in that town even if they had tried, but if I had been there still, I’d have had my credit card for the damn deposit that he needed to even be admitted. After taking it all in, I just cried for hours and talked to Caguamo in Spanish about what he meant to me, how sorry I was, the injustice of it all, how I loved him and had never forgotten him and never will, and in the end, that I wish he had just died on el muelle, above his beloved Pacific on Playa de los Muertos.
And since I never spoke to Caguamo in English:
Espero que haya un mar en el cielo y que te estés riendo por siempre mí Caguamito. Nos vemos…
El Muelle on Playa de los Muertos, which was rebuilt after I left.
To read the English article detailing Caguamo’s tragic death and the injustice of being denied emergency medicine in México, click here.
Caguamo en el mar.