By Ed Gagnon
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
“Most of my treasured memories of travel
are recollections of sitting.”
– Robert Thomas Allen
I hadn’t been in Mexico a week but I quickly and easily became a regular at one particular local watering hole. A good pub is a melting pot, where all sorts of people come together in the name of imbibing, for their own reasons. If you watch and listen closely their particular lives are unveiled right in front of you.
Many homo-sapiens from the northern hemisphere, called snowbirds, migrate south for the winter to places like Puerto Vallarta, in Mexico. One of the local watering holes I grew attached to there was a place called, Sweeney’s. It’s in the heart of old town Vallarta, only a couple blocks from the beach.
In my case its location was perfect for a pit stop on the way home from the beach, after the sun had left me parched and in need of hydration. Daily, you could count on the same bar staff and regulars, usually planted in their particular seats.
Other than the cold beer and good food, there was really nothing special about Sweeney’s. It was on the second floor, above another restaurant, on the main drag in old Vallarta. It was easy to miss the stairway entrance if you didn’t know it was there or were too drunk to notice it.
A long and steep set of stairs took you up and sometimes challenged you on the way down. A horseshoe shaped bar was at the top of the stairs, directly in front of the kitchen. There were enough wooden tables and chairs to seat about fifty people. The nicest feature in the place was the open balcony that offered a view of the street below.
There was really nothing in the way of decoration, except for a huge mural on the back wall. At first glance it appeared to be a painting of a desert landscape, but upon closer inspection, when you were sober, it was a naked woman lying on her side, with her breasts represented in the mountains and her pubic area shown as an oasis.
When I travel and meet new people I like to combine a person’s name with their hometown, so I can remember them easier. It’s a little trick I learned from uncle Mike from Stratford, who has become Cambodia Mike.
The barmaid, Lee Anna, from Virginia, was the first person I met at Sweeney’s. Regina Dan and Regina Randy, Tex, Nebraska Archie, and Coco were the other barflies. Tex was really Calgary Mike, but he liked Tex better. I think Coco was a local, but nobody really knew.
I was traveling solo on this particular trip so I picked my own special seat at the bar, a spot close to the bathroom, where I had a good view of the whole place. It wasn’t long before I joined in the conversation with the regulars, chatting about how to solve all the world’s problems. Better ideas always seem to come up when you’re drinking.
One of the things I love to do when I travel is to engage in the sport of people watching. In my opinion, everyone is a character and they all have their own story. Some people love to share their life story and some keep theirs a secret or simply just don’t care to share it with anyone.
Coco was one of those characters who kept to himself, but caught my interest. He was a regular at the bar, who everyone called by name, like Norm from Cheers. He even had his own spot up against the wall, at a table near the bar. He usually strolled in around dinner time then took his spot and either watched the rest of us or nodded off.
Curiosity got the best of me and I asked the regulars what Coco’s story was. It varied, but the consensus was that Coco was homeless. Sweeney’s was a safe refuge where he could just hang out. He didn’t necessarily look homeless, but he was elderly and somewhat weathered, with short hair and a fairly trim build. His eyes had that glazed look that comes with age or the onset of cataracts.
I could only wonder what those eyes had seen, but Coco was content in keeping to himself. I said hello in Spanish and English a few times as I walked past him on the way to the washroom, but he barely acknowledged my presence. I was, after all, just another gringo tourist.
Lee Anna said she had no problem with Coco hanging out since he kept to himself and he didn’t bother anyone. I saw her give him water once, but I don’t recall ever seeing him drinking booze.
She said he sometimes leaves with her late night drunken patrons, walking them safely home. I was blown away when Lee Anna told me that Coco had walked her home and she offered him a place to crash for the night. When she got up in the morning Coco was gone. Nebraska Archie said he’d seen Coco come and go for at least the ten years he’d been visiting Vallarta.
On one particular night, after leaving the bar, I had the midnight munchies and I went in search of a snack. I bumped into Nebraska Archie; I seemed to bump into him all the time. It was at a local late-night taco stand, kind of like the drive thru at Taco Bell, but this place had a patio.
While Archie and I were eating we noticed Coco on the sidewalk across the street. Archie called out to him, but he was oblivious to us because of the traffic and street noise. I whistled and Coco trotted across the street.
He joined us on the patio and the usual nods of acknowledgement were made. I usually don’t give street beggars a second glance, but this was Coco so I asked if he was hungry. He just looked at me with those sad brown eyes. I had more food than I needed, so I took one of my tacos and threw it on to the sidewalk in front of Coco.
I wasn’t trying to being rude or ignorant in any way. You see, Coco is a dog, a Doberman Pincer to be exact.
“I’ve met many characters, they come in all forms.”
Excerpt from the book, A Casual Traveler