This time of year last year, I was planning my first trip to Mexico. I had no idea at the time that a simple six nights would change my life, forever.
At last year’s Superbowl, I randomly won $1,200 through a silly gambling game illegally run out of my then-boyfriend’s bar (I’ll call him Paul, for future reference). We’d been talking about taking a trip, and this unexpected windfall solidified that the trip was no longer a pipe dream, but actually going to happen.
Where would we go?
A few years before, Paul and I had visited Lahaina, Maui, for a wedding. I fell in love with the pace of life there, the culture (we’d even picked up two teenage hitchhikers on the Road to Hana, who offered us weed!), and the immense ocean life that broadcast itself in National Geographic wonder just five feet out from shore — beautiful reefs and fish, straight out of the pages of a magazine. Growing up, I’d toyed with the idea of going into marine biology — and acting, and opera singing, and interior design — but my love of the ocean was unshakeable. Every vacation I’ve ever planned, or dreamed of planning, involves the sea.
So I knew I wanted to relive the tropical experience in the Caribbean. I researched Aruba, St. John, Turks and Caicos, every island possible. But everything was decidedly too expensive. With time running out, or so it felt, at a family gathering with Paul’s family, his sister recommended Cozumel. I don’t even think I’d heard of the island until then, and going to Mexico certainly hadn’t crossed my mind. An avid diver, she wooed me with stories of the marine life there — rays, and giant sea turtles! — and suddenly it was clear that I had to get to Mexico.
A voyage to Latin America had always been a dream. Paul, on the other hand, was skeptical. He wasn’t as good of a traveler as I. He’d been to the Bahamas, and enjoyed himself, and saw no reason why we couldn’t choose a well-worn destination a little closer to home. The Bahamas, I told him, was like going to Florida. We were not going to Florida.
When we landed in Cozumel of June of 2011, I was immediately in love. In love with the Mexican man stamping my passport, in love with the smell, the Spanish language ATM, the shared van to our resort, and the crabs dancing through the open air lobby. This wasn’t just tropical, but exotic. Another culture. Another language. I was in rapture speaking Spanish with hotel employees and people we encountered in town and drinking tequila on the roof each evening as the sun melted into the ocean like sherbet.
Paul was nonplussed. Throughout our days he’d pointedly say that he was having fun, but that we should’ve gone to the Bahamas. I didn’t understand what the island was missing. I wanted to explore more, but Paul preferred to stay behind, armed with his iPod and anthology books of New York Times crossword puzzles. I wanted to spearfish, to talk to strangers, to buy churros from the downtown vendors, to be submerged in that glorious water the entire time. With that, I booked a snorkeling trip, but Paul didn’t want to go.
“Are you sure?” I asked him, at least a dozen times.
“Yeah, I’m working on a new puzzle,” he’d say, flashing his pen.
It was our last full day on the island.
The boat arrived at the hotel dock, and off I went, alone, perturbed that my partner couldn’t sacrifice a few hours to snorkel with me, but I wanted to enjoy myself, not make a fuss. Was I nervous about being alone, surrounded by strangers? Yes. But this was what I wanted, right?
We visited three reefs over the course of about four hours. I drank a few Tecate and yukked it up with a married couple we’d gotten to know from the resort, and a pair of big-boobed sisters from Louisiana who proudly proclaimed they “loved flirting with the Mexicans.”
On the water, a bit alienated and tipsy, having witnessed the marvel of the ocean by my lonesome, and even after getting stung by a few jellyfish, I suddenly felt … different. Stronger. Clearer. I looked out at the water, at the palms waving as we sped past, and I knew for the first time in a long while what I wanted out of life. Adventure. Excitement. I wanted to be on boats with strangers. This was living.
When we got back to Boston, Paul and I broke up for an hour. I wasn’t emotionally ready though, and we got back together. But I still felt short-changed by our vacation and by Paul’s lack of wanting to explore, so I booked another trip to Cozumel with a girlfriend for November, for my 29th birthday. And it was amazing. And I knew there then that I’d changed the first time in Mexico, and there was no going back.
This year, on the day after the Superbowl, after six and a half years together, Paul and I broke up for good. I’m in love with someone else, and his name is Adventure.
Imagine, at 17, I had dreams of becoming an interpreter.
I was infatuated with the Spanish language then. I was a pretty turbulent high schooler, to say the least, more interested in harassing older men, making out with losers, and smoking cigarettes behind the mobile units that doubled for classrooms in our school’s parking lot. I was smart, but school was boring, and it certainly wasn’t a priority. I wasn’t challenged or engaged until Spanish entered my life junior year.
Señora Freiberg was skeptical at first. I failed my first few tests. I’d joined the class late after fighting and fighting our curriculum’s foreign language requirement until I realized without two years of language, I wouldn’t graduate. Even the simple, present tense confounded me. One night I went home, opened my frayed copy of Bienvenidos, and absorbed it for the first time. As a poet and writer, I love language, so Spanish immediately became something I enjoyed, and even came naturally to me. Even when I got the words wrong (often), it sounded so right.
My hometown, Greensboro, N.C., holds an ever-expanding immigrant population. One of my favorite memories is of the Hispanic workers building houses in my friend Nathan’s new neighborhood. Everywhere there were people to speak to, to boldly test this new language. “Yo bebo la leche!” (I drink the milk) I’d holler. “Yo quiero la vaca!” (I want the cow). Who cares about a vexed look!? They understood me, and that was thrilling. The sounds of Spanish words and the new-found ability to say something in another format appealed to my poetic sensibilities. After all, that’s what poetry is—using language to reinvent experience into something new, unexpected.
Señora Freiberg was impressed by my dedication. My F’s turned into A’s, and with my enthusiasm for the language, I was unabashedly her prized student. I was also a little obsessed with her, too. She was a Jewish Brooklynite, teaching Spanish in the South. She made us sing songs in Spanish, sparking my lifelong obsession with the song “La Bamba.” And who could forget Simón Dice—the all-Spanish version of Simon Says. When she learned I wasn’t buying the yearbook senior year, Señora Freiberg purchased one for me anyway; it was a present, she said, for being such a good student.
After two years under her tutelage, Señora Freiberg had a serious discussion with me about becoming an interpreter; she said it was the job of the future. I did like the idea, and I considered it, but college laziness sunk in; so I stuck with English and literature, again enrolling myself into a few Spanish classes to meet graduation requirements, but that was it.
Until now. I’m currently enrolled in a Spanish class at Harvard Extension School. It’s pretty rudimentary—I’d forgotten a lot, but not as much as I’d thought. I’m having a blast honing my skills everyday, practicing with my Spanish-speaking friends, and preparing myself for my upcoming Mexican adventure.
And I love that I get to trill my R’s on a regular basis. Qué rrrrrico!
[This is from my Nov. trip to Cozumel. These mariachis were at La Choza, and are singing “La Bamba!” That’s me screaming at the end.]
I’m a Boston-based poet and writer who fell in love with Mexico, so I moved here. At least for two months. These are my adventures.