Learning to Read Puerto Vallarta

By Jane M. Downs
I’m at Baca, the open-air mercado a block from my home. “Buenos tardes, Norma. I’ll
have an avocado for the next day and this many tortillas.” I indicate a half inch between
my thumb and index finger. The avocado is hard. The tortillas warm, the cobblestones on
the street different shapes and sizes that make walking a challenge. The stones form
complex patterns as if painted by an abstract artist. Intermittent rainstorms washed away
the sand that once covered and filled the spaces between them. So many patterns running
this way and that. I’m always searching for hidden patterns.

When I first arrived in Puerto Vallarta, everything formed one single gorgeous painting.
Palm trees, ocean, tiled rooftops all covered by a glaze of newness. The eye can only take
in so much at a time. Slowly, objects claimed their independence. The glazed painting
broke into a puzzle, each piece distinguished from another. A chachalaca chattering in a
tree. Bougainvillea dazzles, blossoms like rubies, their stamens tiny, startled eyes. Bricks
painted white form irregular lines up and down our casita’s walls. The reassuring grid of
terracotta tiles on the floor. Books spines lined up on a shelf.

Moving here broke up the pattern of my California life. For forty-four years I woke and
slept in the same bedroom in the same stucco house. Buckeye trees blossomed every
September. Front yard birch turned golden. Winters, redwood cast their seeds on our
walkway. The lines down the middle of our street were yellow and straight. Familiarity is
a comfort. It also creates a kind of blindness.

For ten years, I co-owned a press. We published letterpress books using handset type. In
typography, rivers are gaps in typesetting that appear to run through a text due to a
coincidental arrangement of spaces. These gaps form white rivers. To test for rivers the
typographer holds the proof upside down where the text is viewed more readily as a
pattern rather than a group of familiar words.

The poet Louise Glück said we look at the world once, in childhood. I grew up in a house
with leaded glass windows. As a child, I learned to see the world broken into diamond-
shaped pieces – arms of oak, deep yard moving to the river, each pane an abstraction of
the whole. To know the world, I paid attention to detail, learned to assemble the pieces.

Learning the world is like learning to read. Letters, words, sentences. Lines of text lead to
new ways of knowing. In trying to make sense of a difficult poem my mind is torn away
from predictability and thrown into a temporary chaos then the thrill of newness. As a
writer, I notice the details of the world and try to arrange them to create mental pictures,
that, perhaps, lead to meaning.

The streets of Puerto Vallarta form a north -south, east-west grid. This makes navigation
easy but is deceptive. There are hundreds of small alleyways, hidden courtyards,
stairways, bridges suspended by cables over the Rio Cuale. Puerto Vallarta is more like a
trellis covered with winding flowering vines that hide its basic form. Pedestrians jaywalk,
trucks bounce and rattle over cobbles stones, stop signs are ignored. Wisteria drips over
broken sidewalks where children and small dogs scamper underfoot threatening my

Reviewing my life, I find it is more like a cobble stone street than unbroken pavements.
Each stone a different shape and size. Time and summer rains have crafted each pebble
singular and shining within the whole. As I make my way from the market to my new
home on Rivera del Rio, the scent of cilantro in my shopping bag, laughter of children
playing in the river, the complexity of an enormous banyan tree trunk distracts me. I try
to pay attention to the uneven pavement. I don’t want to lose my way or fall.



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