“Senor John, Your Covid-19 test is negative.”
Whew, I breathed a huge sigh of relief when my ears heard those soul-lifting words. My daughter Katie and I just happened to be hunkered down in a makeshift testing center off the lobby of our hotel in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. When we initially booked this sun-splashed sojourn south of the border, we had no clue that a guaranteed return to the good old USA would require such a nerve-wracking nasal swab and sweat. Horror stories about Yankees retained due to the ‘Rona had understandably piqued our pucker factor.
Remember now, I was also coming off attending Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles—a veritable international super spreader event. Combine that with travel to a country the CDC strongly advised against visiting, and you can see why I had second thoughts about going. Irresponsible? Perhaps it was. In the end, the lure of tropical eighty-five-degree weather, delectable Mexican seafood cuisine, and pristine sandy beaches proved too difficult to resist. Plus, Katie and I were both vaxxed and boosted, and—most importantly in our minds—the money we plunked down was totally non-refundable.
So, off we went—like Dumb and Dumber—for our father/daughter getaway.
Taking all that Covid angst and apprehension into account, this mid-winter respite still rated five stars in both our books. Puerto Vallarta, a beach resort city located about halfway down the west coast of Mexico, is an easy three-hour flight from Los Angeles. The city expanded to about 300,000 inhabitants in the 2020 census, but there’s an understated elegance and small-town charm you simply can’t find in other tourist meccas such as Cabo or Cancun.
There’s a boardwalk downtown—a seaside esplanade set apart from the narrow cobblestone streets, the bustling traffic, and the multitude of restaurants and shops radiating up the adjacent hillside. The cityscape has a bit of a European flair—like a poor man’s Portofino without any of the haughtiness, pretentiousness, or multi-colored buildings.
Occasionally, a whiff of cannabis penetrates the nostrils, but it’s quickly overcome with the aroma of grilled chorizo and peppers wafting from a nearby grill. Street vendors hawking sombreros and jewelry are everywhere. They politely keep their distance from me, as if somehow suspecting I’m tight with my pesos.
Closer to our hotel is the marina district—a more upscale cornucopia of shops, spas, and restaurants hungry for your tourist dollar. The walk around the waterfront harbor is spectacularly elegant, perfect for burning the extra calories from that double scoop of dessert gelato that you really should have skipped.
Remember, it’s also Valentine’s Day, so couples are everywhere, romantically strolling hand in hand along the numerous pedestrian pathways. Katie’s biggest fear is that we’ll be mistaken for one of them. She makes it known to everyone within shouting distance that I’M HER DAD—not some over-the-hill sugar daddy on a secret tryst with his floozy.
The Puerto Vallarta weather and beaches certainly didn’t disappoint either. What’s not to like about mid-eighties, perpetually sunny, with a light ocean breeze? The food was even better—seafood ceviche, squid ink paella, and the most tender steak fajitas this side of Guadalajara.
If you’re not already relaxed after my narrative thus far, I’d highly recommend a Mexican massage. This is nothing like the Thai version, where you’ve got Attila the Hun mercilessly twisting your torso. Nope, this is more the Swedish adaptation—soft, sensual, and soothing. Be sure to leave your modesty at the door. I guarantee you’ll leave with a smile on your face.
Beware of the dry-heat saunas, however. Five minutes in, I was sweating like Richard Burton in Night of the Iguana (filmed nearby). Ten minutes later, the coating on my prescription eyeglass lenses melted right before my eyes—literally. Sometimes you’ve got to live and learn. Thankfully, I brought a spare.
For the outdoor enthusiast, there are all sorts of sea excursions, four-wheeling, and ziplining adventures from which to choose. Katie and I elected to swim with the dolphins. Please don’t judge—the last thing I want to do is exploit animals. But I was a huge Flipper fan growing up, and I wanted nothing more than to pal around like Bud and Sandy.
Say what you may, the Aquaventuras Park—home of the Dolphin Discovery—has seen better days. It’s primarily a waterpark, with the usual assortment of slides, chutes, and flumes all bleached and faded by the relentless Mexican sun. Like many other tourist destinations, Covid has sucked the life out of the cash registers. There are no lines, so we hop on for a couple of quick, refreshing rides. One of the lifeguards looks like Enrique Iglesias, so Katie takes her time with an extra leisurely lap around the lazy river.
I’m here, however, to learn about dolphins. We’re paired up with Dorie—and she’s a beauty who’ll steal your heart in a second. Sleek and rubbery to the touch, Dorie’s nearly half a ton of cartilage, muscle, and pure love. There are six “Dories” here, and they all seem quite content. They dine on fish imported from Canada and they’re protected from other marine predators. In return, performing a few tricks and hobnobbing in the water with gringos like me seems like a pretty fair tradeoff.
But did you know some dolphins can live over fifty years? That’s a long time to be corralled in a small pen with no hope of escape. After forty-five minutes, I’ve had enough. I wash off all my guilt and shame with a quick shower before high tailing it out of there. How about some photos (at an outrageous $80 a pop) to document your experience? Thanks, but no thanks.
Four days in paradise passes quickly. On our final morning by the pool, I watch as a family frolics happily by the water. I can’t help but think of our prior travels together as family—Katie, Kanisa, and myself—the three of us together on some wild harebrained adventure without a care in the world. Now, sadly, it’s just Katie and me.
It’s bittersweet traveling alone with my daughter. On one hand, I treasure this time together and wouldn’t trade it for all the tea in China. On the other hand, there’s an unspoken sense of blame and remorse for always leaving Mom at home—well taken care of with food and protected from predators, but still trapped in her own corral of depression, psychosis, and mental illness with no hope of escape.
I’ve grudgingly learned over this past decade, however, that life must go on. You have to take the good with the bad. Soldier on, regardless of circumstances. You never know what the future will hold. Ironically, because of the bad, I find myself really savoring the good. I believe it was King Solomon who said, “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other.”
King Solomon was much smarter than me.
By the way, as I passed through passport control and customs on the return to the States, the border agent never asked for my Covid test results. All that dread and uneasiness amounted to nothing after all. How often does our fear of the future ruin our enjoyment of the precious present? If I’m honest with myself, it’s happened way too often in my lifetime. I promise to do better.
My final connecting flight into Lexington was late, arriving just before one o’clock am. At that bewitching hour, there are no Ubers or Lyfts available, and a taxi was going to take an hour and a half. I thought about calling my brother, but he needed the sleep, and I figured I could use the exercise. So, I walked the two miles back home. If you saw a dark figure wheeling a carry-on suitcase along Man O’ War boulevard early Friday morning humming La Bamba, that was me.
You gotta love life. You gotta love Lexington. It’s good to be home.
If you enjoy my writing, you can follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs. Also check out my latest book KENTUCKY PASSION at https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669