Yesterday marked my one-month anniversary living on the island.
I wasn’t particularly nostalgic for back home, it being the 4th of July and all, however I’ve had a chronic hankering for a decent, all-beef cheeseburger while in Mexico, and the holiday only exacerbated that need. A decent burger is so hard to come by, especially here. Most burger patties I’ve gotten here have been the anomalous pre-made sort, the kind that makes me shudder.
I know, I know. Hamburgers in Mexico? But I eat tacos and tortas and enchiladas all day, and all night. I deserve that hamburger.
However, the need is still unfulfilled. I am searching for THE ONE. (If you know where Mr. Rightburger lives, clue a gringa in.)
I’ve been writing up a storm lately, and yesterday I managed to start five — FIVE! — new poems. I think my ‘Mexico period’, to quote my workshop friends back home, will be especially prolific.
But finally I had to abandon a few drafts — it was time to meet with Tatiana for drinks in Cozumel’s main square. I strapped on my sandals and walked downtown. The best part about walking through the island streets are the smells of the food — especially the little open-air shops that grill whole chickens on a flat bed of charcoal. I am going to investigate this soon and report back.
We ordered tequila shots, beers, and a botana and after some much-needed girl talk, we settled in for a salsa band at Wet Wendy’s. After two shots, I was an American girl attempting to salsa dance! I don’t think I did too bad.
Soon we walked over to Woody’s, where a Gregg Allman lookalike was belting out some originals and of course some covers, too. After “Brown Eyed Girl,” I drunkenly whooped and hollered for “Sweet Home Alabama,” which hit the spot.
The singer (a native of Nevada now living in Playa del Carmen) followed it with “Sweet Caroline,” and the crowd joined in. It was like being back home … in Mexico.
But I think next year I’ll request this song:
Of course the night wouldn’t be complete without 2 a.m. tacos and a little political debate. It was a 4th of July to remember.
Like mama always said, Look before you leap.
Yesterday I leaped to Playa Del Carmen for an afternoon date of snorkeling, sun, and adventure. With the best intentions, things went a bit awry.
After noshing at La Choza for a desayuno rico, my lover and I caught the 11 a.m. ferry to Playa Del Carmen. It was a perfect Sunday where you wake up early and decide not to waste time and head out into the world. I love those days.
There was electricity in the air. It was July 1 — Mexico’s national election day. My lover cast his vote for AMLO, and the day would be full of the kind of anxiety I can only liken to the night Obama was elected.
Once in Playa, we rented a car and dove a bit of ways out to Cenote Dos Ojos. We bought our tickets and were heading down another dusty gravel road surrounded by thick jungle when I saw a man, woman, and child on the side of the road. The man was frantically waving his t-shirt in the air. They needed help and I told my lover to stop. We backed up to them.
The woman ran over and was in a panic, speaking Spanish so fast, I could only make out conjugations or morir — death. Something bad had gone down.
They got in the car and we turned around, speeding to the entrance. Minutes later, we dropped the family off and they thanked us. I still had no idea what happened until my lover explained that they’d been clearing brush and the man had been bitten by a deadly snake.
He had an hour to make it to the hospital or he’d die. He told me the man said that he was trying to stay calm, because an elevated heart rate would only push the venom faster through his system.
I felt so deflated and I’m not sure I ever really recovered after this chance encounter. It made me consider so much about my life this year and about my sojourn to Mexico to capitalize on that life.
I gave up everything to come to Mexico, literally. And I’ve had some amazing adventures here, and I’ve been truly disappointed here — by my own expectations, and by people, too. I looked before I leaped; I took a chance. I hoped for the best, and still do. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.
Sorry for the vagueness. Like I said, I’m not sure I ever recovered.
But I hope that man is okay.
We carried on to snorkel the cenote, which is a freshwater sinkhole made from limestone. Stalagmites and stalactites and caverns galore. Tiny fishes and cold water and, in some corners, complete darkness. It was refreshing and a bit of calm after the snakebite, the long drive, and temperatures escalating into the 90s.
We dried off in the sun. I drove back to Playa — my first time ever driving in Mexico. I navigated the topes with caution and we found a cheap hotel for the night.
After dinner, we walked to the pier, and I thought again of the man and the snakebite. I will certainly never see him again. Whoever you are, I hope you are still here.
Remember this scene from the Ben Stiller classic “Along Came Polly”? I wish scuba diving was this glamorous, hilarious, and romantic.
I, however, learned how to scuba dive in a monsoon.
I’ve been a bad gringa — I’ve been MIA because I’ve been busy studying for my PADI Open Water Scuba certification, which I started last week in the midst of a drowning tropical disturbance. That’s the charm of Mexico, which I’ve stated before: something always has to go awry first.
It started at 6:45 a.m. on Thursday, when I awoke and saw the ominous sky, but decided to keep on with my planned scuba class. I couldn’t bear the thought of staying indoors all day long, listening to the rain, bored. I hailed a taxi in the rain — there was two inches of water puddling the street! — and headed out for my lesson, first in the pool, and then in open water.
When I arrived to my scuba locale, the rain was sweeping in in huge sideways blasts, and I took safety under a leaky palapa, watching the lightning over the Caribbean. This bad weather wasn’t going anywhere, so defying every safety principle I ever learned, I was going to plunge into a swimming pool with a big metal tank strapped to my back in the middle of a lightning storm. Perfect!
Also along for the ride was a super-cute couple from Dallas who’d been married for 23 years. In between lessons, they told me how they get remarried each year in Vegas, and gave me some “insider secrets” to marriage success. Armed with barrels full of new information, we all hopped in the pool and after learning some basic scuba skills from our instructor, Clemente, we headed down under to take our first underwater breaths.
It was crazy! And exhilarating. Fear is there, but the air comes.
I was trying to concentrate on everything new I was taking in, but I kept imagining swimming off in the pool, all the time underwater, breathing and alive. The feeling was miraculous, and I couldn’t get enough.
But there were a few little issues. I’m not a technical gizmo girl; I’m a successful airhead, and proud of it. I can operate simple machinery: a computer, a cell phone, and sometimes a car. The bells and whistles on the BCD (our scuba jacket) threw me off — valves, hoses, buttons galore.
But I succeeded amazingly at the other so-called “difficult” skills — taking off your mask underwater, putting it back on, and clearing it of water. Donezo! It was actually incredibly easy.
We were ready for our first dive. Typically, we’d do a shallow beach dive, but we were in the midst of a monsoon, remember? Visibility was awful. So we hauled our gear on the boat and headed out to 40 feet of water for a real, true dive. My first dive. I don’t think the fear registered because I was in a bit of shock.
We had to assemble our gear ourselves. Talk about trusting yourself, and your equipment. I’d assembled my tank one time only, and that was about two hours before the boat ride. A lot can happen in two hours. Like, uh, forgetting.
But with Clemente’s help, I got it together. I turned on my air. I lifted my weight belt and slung it around my waist, then I backed into the BCD, arms through the straps, buckled in. We were ready to go.
One by one we stepped off boat. Once everyone was in place, Clemente signaled our descent. We deflated our BCDs and slowly started to sink. I was breathing underwater, in the Caribbean! Then I looked up and saw the surface and thought: I am breathing underwater, in the Caribbean.
I signaled to Clemente that I was freaking out and wanted to go up. But he swam to me and — there is no talking underwater, of course — signaled to me to calm down, to breathe. I didn’t want to abort my mission. I wanted to succeed. I focused on the bottom, which was now close. I focused on my breathing. My heartbeat began to slow. I had pushed the fear (mostly) away. I was scuba diving!
We did another dive later that afternoon, and on Friday, still in full-on monsoon weather, we dove to 60 feet. I swam right over a nurse shark. I saw a bright green moray eel. A giant sea turtle. Lots of parrotfish, grouper, and barracuda. A lobster!
After some skills tests in the water, and some real tests (see above), I’m a scuba diver!
I promise wetsuit photos are forthcoming. I didn’t want to break out the camera in the rain!
The famed other side of Cozumel — the roguish, older brother of the more developed, touristy mainland-facing coast — is a must-do while on the island. If you haven’t yet paid off the Mexican policia for a rollick on a deserted beach with your lover, well then you haven’t lived. (But that’s a story for the memoir, folks!)
The east side is, simply put, gorgeous. One long highway threads south from the hotel zone, then rounds the base of the island back north again. The route’s peppered with ramshackle bars serving buckets of ice cold Sol and fried fish. But you need a scooter or a car to get there, like our glamorous rental, this cherry red hatchback.
After getting a bit lost, we made our way to Mezcalito’s, plopped down in a hammock, and ordered a bucket of beer. I felt like I was a young Milla Jovovich in Return to the Blue Lagoon, a movie I happened upon when I was 10 or so, and which helped solidify my fascination with crystalline water and capable, naked island men.
Nothing to do but have good conversation, practice my Spanish with my lover, and the most important part of it all: relaxing.
After a few beers it was time to get our toes wet. We drove to a beach, parked in the median, and had ourselves a time. The waves were a bit ferocious, as is the norm, but the water was so crisp, and so clear.
The island nights are strangely hotter than the days. Night falls like a curtain over the sun and yet no reprieve for us. We walk everywhere, hoping each time will be different, leaving the house sleek and groomed and arriving to our destination unkempt messes. If we’re lucky, there’s a strong breeze to cool us down; if we’re super lucky, there’s a light rain shower.
Last night we had both. Stacy and I stepped out for a bite — we had no specific destination, just a gnawing hunger — and that’s when Nilo pulled up on his scooter, carrying — of course — two sixers of Heineken. Dinner plans abandoned.
“You girls,” he said, popping open two bottles in the blink of an eye. “Come see the house.”
If we’d attempted to say no, Nilo would’ve found a way to lure us anyhow. Resistance is futile. Plus, I’d missed the old guy. He’s got swagger. Stacy doesn’t share my affinity for strangers, but I have a history of moving to foreign places and living beside charming men who help me adjust to my new life. (A Bostonian named Tex plied me with rides to the grocery store, homemade chili, and even weed when I relocated to New England.)
Nilo unlocked the door to an empty white room with beautiful high ceilings and a checkered tile floor. No furniture, just a staircase leading to the rest of the house. A wooden cross hung over a fireplace.
“You meet my daughter,” Nilo suggested. “She’s fifteen.”
“Victoria!” he called, and out stepped Nilo’s beautiful daughter, not even batting a lash at the site of her papa with two random American girls. His son even materialized minutes later too, and showed us the new Converse he’d just purchased.
We sat out on the open-aired veranda and talked. The breeze was nice and Nilo was on fire with the audience he so craved. “I told you about Isla Mujeres,” he said.
I nodded. Isla Mujeres and Holbox, two close islands, are in the midst of whale shark season, and during our last meeting with Nilo he’d suggested taking us. “Whale sharks?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “My other work.”
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I paint the pictures for the presidential candidate on the boat,” he said, handing us t-shirts and posters of PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto.
Mexico’s national election is a mere two weeks away, and all over the island are pictures plastered of Pena Nieto. Most of the folks I’ve talked to will be voting for dark horse Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, but Nilo will vote for Pena Nieto “because he pays me.” Stacy is going to cast her non-existent vote for Pena Nieto, too, because she, and hordes of other women, appreciate his handsomeness more than his politics. Stacy thinks he resembles a Mexican JFK Jr.
“You come with me to the mainland,” he told us. “I do my work; they ask me what I want, I tell them a hotel, we stay there for days.”
It began to rain and we headed indoors. Nilo’s kids readied for a night out and pleaded with their papa for money. He handed Victoria $100 pesos and gave her a strict curfew of 11.
We prodded Nilo to show us his Olympic memorabilia, and he emerged with a bag of medals, which we appropriated for an impromptu photo shoot.
A little drunk and even hungrier, we bid Nilo farewell, and he held onto Stacy a little too long. It was her last night on the island and despite his pleadings and charms, she’d refused each one of his marriage requests.
I promised Nilo I’d see him when he returned from the mainland a few days later, and we’d do it up cantina-style at Las Tortugas.
We hoofed it to the Oxxo to buy beer for Stacy’s goodbye party at the condo. Without enough time for a sit-down dinner before the party, we lit the pilot in the oven and cooked a frozen pizza in despair. It was just the right amount of post-Heineken grease to carry us through the next several hours of fiesta!