El Panadero de Sayulita: A Musical Vignette from the Jungles of Nayarit, Mexico
By Tommy Alexander
The song brings me back to a rough coastal road near Sayulita, Mexico — barefoot and wild-haired, walking into town from the highway in the warm, fresh darkness. The way wound through lush tropical forest peppered with occasional shops and houses. As we strolled, we were lulled by the slow, gentle rhythm of crashing waves, only occasionally disturbed by the roar and rush of a passing car. The night was young and the stars were blinking into place. Two friends and I were sleeping on the beach here for the week, a madcap adventure that was borne with spontaneous abandon from the rhythms and routines of San Francisco life.
At some point, we became aware of the syncopated bounce of horns and the jolly, confident cadence of a man singing in Spanish.
“¡El panadero con el pan!
¡El panadero con el pan!
¡El panadero con el pan!
¡El panadero con el pan!”
We heard the pan man’s refrain before our eyes were able to absorb the scene: a station wagon idling on the shoulder of the road, its back hatch propped open and throwing soft golden light into the jungle night. The windows were down, and the music was bumping from the dashboard speaker system. The trunk space of the old car was laden with a colorful selection of authentic Mexican pastries, and el panadero himself — an enterprising local baker — stood proudly peddling his wares.
I pranced with delight. The whimsy of the scene seemed endemic to this moment — a wonderful absurdity wrapped up inextricably within a particular time, location, and state of mind. Magical realism. I felt as though this baker and his song and the pure, golden light shining from the station wagon could not possibly exist beyond this bend in the road, as though they had always been here, or had flickered into existence at the precise moment that we rounded the corner. Perhaps this is the wonder speaking, and perhaps it is the truth. In retrospect, I assume that he had stopped for a moment on his way into town, where he was planning to sell pan to crowds of hungry tourists.
At any rate, I knew that I had no choice but to investigate. We approached the panadero, and the music grew louder.
“¿Tienes pan?” I asked. “¿Cuantos pesos?”
“Si,” he replied. “Cuatro cada uno.”
Pesos and pastries exchanged hands in the warm glow of the station wagon. The song, “El Panadero,”* was running on loop. The baker smiled. We waved our gratitude, sugary treats in hand, and then continued our trek toward the salty Pacific. The horns faded from our awareness as we followed the curves in the dusty road, munching on sweet bread, free and unencumbered and present in the humid night.
That bread has been long since digested. I have returned to my home in San Francisco, nearly 2000 miles to the northwest of Sayulita, and the gentle tides of time have washed over my mind so thoroughly that Mexico may as well be a distant dream. Yet the song of the panadero sometimes wafts through my subconscious like the sweet, warm scent of a fresh-baked pastry, or the salty sea breeze in the thick jungle dark.
This is the joy of transcending boundaries: when a stranger leaves a subtle yet indelible impression upon the memory. To this man on the night road in rural Nayarit, I was only another ephemeral foreign customer. In a serendipitous twist of audacity and humor, he has baked himself into my awareness of the world. None of us can ever know the breadth of our own ripples.
When we travel, we collect vignettes of other people’s lives. We are jumping through puddles down the sidewalk on a rainy day, and each step splashes into the next, and the journey runs together in a river like so many drops of infinite rainwater. And if we are barefoot — if we are curious, and open, and true — then we soak up these moments as memories, and they inform our humanity.
*“El Panadero” is a song originally performed by Tin-Tan, the famous Mexican entertainer, in the 1951 film, ¡Ay amor… cómo me has puesto! In the movie, a lovelorn, low-class baker wins over the heart of a beautiful girl who is pledged to marry another man. He delivers his bread by bicycle, singing, with the pastries balanced expertly in a large basket atop his head. A spiritual predecessor, if you will, to the Panadero of Sayulita.
About the Author:
Tommy Alexander forges words and fosters community amid the colorful hillstreets of San Francisco. His work appears in local news outlets like Hoodline, Business Insider, and the SF Examiner; magazines like AFAR and The Bold Italic; and literary journals like The Offbeat and Remembered Arts. His music and visual art have also featured in various local shows.