My Facebook updates from Mexico
Mexico, Day 2: Sunburnt already. We are staying in a darling little room, very clean tile floors (except for one dead orange cockroach under the bed), palm trees and rough ocean right outside the big window by the breakfast table. Enjoying Lisa and Lottie book, published by Lizzie Skurnick Books (Mary has read ahead without me!).
Mexicans don’t care about coffee.
I ran a mile this morning, to pick up some coffee in town, and I passed Mexicans on bikes going the other way, bare-chested Americans also jogging (we will change our international reputation: from a nation of fat people to a nation of fat people who are serious joggers), and two teenaged girls with their two dogs trotting loose ahead of them. There was no real coffee at the stores, just jars of instant coffee crystals. I ran back faster, sweatier, empty handed, and carefree. Marshall cooked us huevos rancheros for breakfast.
You can be unhappy anywhere, because you bring your brain with you. Conversely, you can be happy anywhere, too.
The conversion rate between dollars and pesos is 15 to 1.
The ATM fee in the airport was $31, for instance. We narrowly escaped a time-share sales pitch meeting trap pitched to outside the rental car place. Everything is for sale — Casa Rosa, Casa de La Luna, Casa Luz. Marshall is bummed not to know Spanish. He attempted to strike up a conversation in Italian at a shop yesterday, bless his heart. His Italian is beautiful.
The restaurant last night was overrun by slim, stray cats interested to see if we had ordered fish tacos by any chance.
In the turquoise water at Akumal, just a half mile from our own more rocky, coral reef beach, Mary and I swam and bounced our feet against the white sand under the water. The sun was setting on my left and Mary pointed at it and said, “West!” and then to the other directions and said “East, North, South!”
And then she said, “There’s the sun!” and spun around and pointed to the moon, already pretty high in the twilight sky “There’s the moon!”
The water was crowded with other swimmers: Mexicans, a Japanese couple whose snorkel masks had cute rabbit ears sticking way up from their heads, some blond Americans, some silent grey-haired women in tunics (American?), three French Canadian teens, Spaniards, but mostly Mexicans. It felt like a very local, minor, intimate place to wind up after hours and hours of travel. Water, beach, town, sky, sun, moon, and all of it hemmed in by four bobbing boats anchored two hundred feet from shore — two sailboats and two big motor boats.
While I stayed by our bags and guarded the billions and billions of pesos within,
and watched the bodies of hundreds of fellow vacationers (o the brown skin, the strong buttocks, the dented thighs of Indian grandmothers, the beautiful chests of the diving instructors, the intricate, outrageous, optimistic, and misguided swimsuits, the arm chub of toddling toddlers filling buckets with bits of fossilized coral) Marshall and Mary snorkeled beyond the farthest buoy, where the light blue water starts to turn deeper blue. I baked and contemplated the glory of creation, of life, of vacation and foreign travel. When Marshall and Mary finally emerged from the water, it was like seeing a ghost from the past rise out of the surf, so familiar and beloved! Then I got to swim with Mary.
Then we returned home to our little condo and made lunch, including cold cokes straight from the can. We never drink coke, but this is vacation. Then a siesta: me reading the chapter book about the twins separated at birth, Mary listening intently, and Marshall sleeping on his back beside us.
Then, more snorkeling, this time in the rough water right at our back door, where the beach is festooned with a strip of washed up seaweed three feet wide, all the way down the beach.
We put on our snorkeling fins and masks and waded out, walking backwards so we wouldn’t trip on our giant flippers.
Then snorkeling. The waves were choppy and constant. The mask sort of claustrophobia-inducing. A forest of coral like orange, half-inflated surgical gloves waving at us. Black and grey fish darting away into holes in rocks. We were being swept away, to the east, at an alarming rate. Mary kept getting water in her mask and having to take it off to blow salt water out of her nose, just as waves crashed onto her head. She seemed fine with it, which somehow scared me more than if she were worried.
I saw Marshall looking at us and coming to a decision.
We developed a sign language, much like Infantrymen, and managed to get back to shore. Mary and I were a mess, breathless and snotty, wet hair dragged across our faces like plants. Marshall was stern and relieved, a little exasperated by our poor swimming maybe. No one can say we didn’t get out there and do things.
Yesterday was the canyon, the sinkhole of the vacation, the valley of good and evil.
(I tossed and turned all night and dreamed of group therapy, where the therapist was a hybrid of Hilton Als and Cornell West. He had a huge, magnificent afro, mostly white, and the feeling I had was that someone with such a huge afro MUST be a good psychiatrist. Micah Cormier was a fellow patient, and a few others from real life. The girl next to me on the sofa subtly offered me a stick of gum for my breath half way through my teary complaints about how depressed I was, how I’ll never have another child.)
Yesterday was our road trip day: Tulum, to see the Maya ruins there, of the ancient city Zama. The guide book suggests getting there early, ahead of the tourist buses, so we did, and were in fact one of the first ten cars in the big parking lot. The guys at the info booth in the lot explained our options: 1) a guided tour, with bus legs, an hour for swimming at this beach, more touring, then another hour for swimming at this other beach, or 2) Just the bare minimum entrance fee and we do the tour on our own, no guide, plus no ferry to get the view from across the channel, or 3) the “best option,” a deluxe all-day thing that involved snorkeling in secret caves, etc. Thank the Lord above, and a hunch in my belly, we chose option two, which meant we just paid a few bucks to gain entry to the archeological park and we walked it ourselves. On our way to the entrance gate, a man and woman holding an iguana about the size of our cat approached us and handed the animal over to Marshall and urged him to hand it to Mary, which he did. We took pictures and paid a little fee. The picture is very worth it, of Mary, struggling a bit under the weight (7 pounds, the man told us), very earnest and awed, holding the iguana gently and gazing directly but shyly into the camera.
Hot! Somehow I didn’t have a hat and the sun blazed down. We glanced at the ruins along the path and they were fine. Quite pretty, sure, but I was not really impressed or transported to another time or caught up in in the story, because I hadn’t done enough reading ahead of time. (Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island in Georgia did that more, that thing that ruins can do: put you in the same space with ghosts and thrill you with the passage of time and the reality of past communities, long dead people who lived their lives much as we are right this very second living ours…trying, trying, trying, hoping, hoping, hoping.)
We whizzed past large tour groups getting info in various languages, climbed down some steep wooden steps, and arrived at a tiny beach with a good view of the ruins up above.
I crouched in a foot of shade beneath a boulder.
We took turns swimming with Mary. The waves were pretty big and fun. Everyone has those selfie stick things! The cast of characters on the tiny beach was constantly changing, first this little family, then another. All snapping photos and posing next to the rock cliff.
From there, we could have seen more, but Marsh and I were in full agreement: Let’s go! Now the place was fully crowded and we felt so footloose and lucky to be walking in the other direction, toward the exit and toward some shade.
On the drive home, we saw a handwritten sign for a cenote (a sink hole filled with ground water, a deep, clear swimming hole in the jungle) and without warning, Marshall swerved off the highway and into the gravel parking lot.
There was a listing, raggedy shack that served as a ticket booth. (Mexico is full of rustic, dilapidated structures.) The two young men standing inside the shack explained that there were two cenotes included in the entry free (120 pesos per adult, Mary free). We waffled and thanked them without buying tickets, then walked back slowly toward the car. Three young people (I’m so old! I keep feeling the need to tell you how young everyone is) were coming toward us, having just emerged from the jungle path that led to the cenotes. They looked very refreshed. “How was it?”
I asked, guessing by the red hair on one of the girls, and the general plump healthiness, and the retro green eyeglasses, that they might speak English. I was right.
They were Australians or Kiwis, I can’t tell the difference. “Wonderful!” They raved. And so we got our fins and masks from the trunk and returned to the shack to pay the fee.
At the end of the path, there was a slight clearing and a very clear, bright turquoise pond, with ten or so people swimming in it or sitting at picnic tables scattered among tree roots around the perimeter. To enter the water, there were slimy dark stairs submerged in water, and a yellow rope strung from one end of the cenotes to the other. Pond muck like fuzzy pieces of poop floated all along the surface, but the water was fresh and cool and nice. When you looked through your snorkeling mask, you could see that you were floating in a very deep, rock hole.
There was a wooden diving platform and some of the children were climbing it, then chickening out and going back down the ladder, then trying to brave it again. New people arrived: four handsome young (young!) men, maybe teens or in their early twenties, and one slim girl, a ringer for Amy Winehouse, in a black-and-white bikini and a lot of liquid eyeliner. They ascended the diving platform as a boisterous group, laughing and talking in Spanish.
One was the leader, I could tell. He stood closest to the edge, had a barrel chest, hairy.
He said something like “Watch this,” and then did a backward somersault off the platform. A better looking but less confident man was next, and I felt worried for him. Confidence is everything, I thought for the ten thousandth time. But then I was delighted when, after his hemming and hawing, the unsure Adonis did a beautiful one and half rotation front flip with ease. Marshall had climbed the platform when we first arrived, walked directly to the end and, without pause, leapt off. It was funny, if you were paying attention, after all the children had spent so much time on the edge, worrying.
Here’s a lesson, maybe: We almost didn’t go to the second cenotes. We were already refreshed, after all, and maybe getting a little tired. But we decided to go for it. It was across the highway, then down a long dirt road through the jungle. “Keep your eye out for monkeys,” Marshall said to Mary as we drove, following a few other cars. (We’ve seen two kinds of animals! A big, red racoon/cat creature, and giant rodents with no tails who swarm the mounds of melon rinds heaped in the jungle on the other side of the road from the condos.) After a few minutes, we arrived at the end of the road and parked.
Do you have places that keep showing up, again and again, in your dreams, year after year?
This was one of those places. As soon as I saw the cliff, the deep hole filled with shining, glistening emerald water, the dangerous rope hanging from a branch over the precipice.
This was the real thing — a jungle, hardly a clearing at all, just a worn dirt path close to the cliff’s edge, and most of the people perched on this tree root or that rock were young Mexican families with babies and toddlers in fancy little short-sleeved wetsuits. One very brave ten-year-old, before my very eyes, ran and caught hold of the yellow rope dangling from a tree branch, swung himself out over the cliff, let go, and plunged 15 feet to the water below. Anyway, long story short, there was no pond muck in this cenotes, just miles of water under your feet and secret underwater caves and little black fish darting near the surface.
Mary got it into her head that SHE wanted to jump from the cliff, but not alone, with her daddy. He didn’t want to, but I nudged him. Next thing I knew, my two nearest and dearest were slipping and sliding a bit
(Marshall in his beige crocs, Mary barefoot) on wet, grey rock at the edge of the cliff
and then they were leaping, I was photographing, they were falling, falling, and then a big splash. It’s nice when you feel that you have accomplished something just by urging others to do something you would never do yourself. Later, I learned that Marshall was reluctant not because he was afraid of the jump, but because he thought it wouldn’t be all that safe to do holding Mary, and he turned out to be correct, in that she bumped her chin against his shoulder on their second leap. But she’s fine. Anyway, wait until you see that photo, of them leaping. It looks crazy.
On our first day here, we went grocery shopping and this morning, Marshall reminded me that we’ll have to finish as much of the remaining food as possible. He stood in front of the open fridge this morning and said, “That means cheese, cokes, peanut butter, tortillas, raw peanuts, pineapple, candied taramind, a cucumber, beer, and Amoxicillan today.” (We brought Mary’s liquid antibiotics, in case her ear got worse in Mexico.)
But why did I say that yesterday was the sinkhole of the trip? I shouldn’t be so dramatic, but that’s how it felt when we got into bed. The first bad thing that had happened was an abrupt, unwelcome return to my own head, my ego, the yucky jockeying for position that happens in everyday life. A lovely woman about my age (but supermodel beautiful, with short light brown hair like Rebecca Barry’s) came showed Mary and me that she’d found a hermit crab on our beach and we struck up a conversation. She was here with her husband and two daughters, from Philly. Turns out that she’s been to Ithaca and loved it, camping at Buttermilk, and the conversation went in a regular way, where clues and crumbs are dropped for social placement and ease of understanding, including the following: The New York Times, Quaker, Unitarian, progressive school, muckraking, playground design (and a particular designer, whose name I can’t recall), canoeing, Spring Break, Park Slope, Prospect Heights. And I felt the weird anxiety you can feel when you are in a strange place with strangers, not wanting her to think I am crazy (like the family living in the downstairs condo next to our building, one of whom stood in the surf earlier in the afternoon and peed directly into the surf as he stood in thigh-high water), also not wanting her to think I care what she thinks too much, not wanting to make a new friend, but also not wanting to be cold or dumb. After a day when all human interactions had seemed blessed with the special, mute, mutual adoration felt between any good natured people who don’t speak the same language, the burden of actually speaking not only the exact same language but also having the same dumb cultural currency jangling in our pockets…yuck! I hated myself.
Why didn’t I just pretend I didn’t read the New York Times? Why did I have to nod so knowingly when she mentioned Prospect Heights?
And then, with a pervading shame clouding my blood, the bad American neighbors in the next condo turned up a stereo very loud and started shouting and laughing in the most unpleasant, obscene way, and I felt embarrassed for all of creation. And also sad that our second-to-last night in Half Moon Bay sounded just like the second-to-last night in a motel on the strip in Virginia Beach circa spring break 1993, with Guns and Roses blaring. I said, “I wish we could call the cops.” Three minutes later, a siren came blaring down our little street and Marshall pulled the door open and looked out over the stairs. “It’s an ambulance,” he reported, “not the cops.”
This morning, as Marshall and I sat on the beach with cups of coffee he’d made, watching the sun rise (in truth, it had already risen by the time I made it out to join him), he said, “Everyone’s giving them the stink eye,” gesturing to the bad neighbors’ section of beach. They seemed to be playing up the innocent act, one man walking slowly along the beach there, with his hands behind his back like an abbot’s, and one surely hungover aunt cradling a coffee cup and gazing at the morning horizon.
“I can’t believe them,” I said, just repeating myself from my outrage the night before, which had been mixed with self-loathing.
“Maybe,” Marshall conjectured, trying to make allowances, “maybe they just had a death in the family and this trip is sort of a wake.”
“Hmm,” I said, doubtfully.
“Well maybe,” he said, trying again, “they are all large animal vets who have just completed their residencies.”
“Maybe,” I said, “they are large animal vets who have just suffered a terrible loss.”
“Basically,” Marshall summarized, “large animal vets can do no wrong.”
I could tell you a sob story about missed flights,
exorbitant fees that nearly doubled the cost of our trip, 22 hours awake in airports with very little food, Newark’s longterm parking scam, etc., etc. But would that make for good reading? Instead: our earthly neighborhoods as seen from 10,000 feet, in the evening, when the houses and pools and fields and farms are still dimly visible in shades of moss and mud (very tasteful!) and then millions of orange lights pop on, one by one, soon forming chains and swirls of sinuous glowing, like necklaces of campfire embers.
By the time we were on the crowded tram from Gate A to P4, I was so tired that I seriously suspected the man standing across from me of being a serial killer. The tram came to an abrupt stop and he almost fell, and I saw that he noticed that I noticed that he almost fell, and I was afraid that my being a witness to his momentary loss of composure might be motive enough for him to follow us in the parking garage and kill us. He wore a tweed jacket and a tidy beard that may have been dyed brown. He had unusually erect posture and was staring at all the luggage I had propped up against me in the tram. I felt real dread and imagined what I might be able to say to Mary as we were being hacked to death by his knife that might make her last moments better. Then we arrived at P4 and had to share an elevator with the serial killer and his wife, who looked a bit like Kevin Spacey’s wife in that scary Netflix show. The serial killer kept gazing at us. The wife said, “Did you have a nice trip?” and we said yes. “Where did you go?” she asked Mary. “Mexico,” Mary answered quietly, proudly. “Oh!” they both said, delighted for us. “Did you have a nice trip?” I asked in return. “Yes!” said the wife, and the serial killer nodded his agreement. “I mean, we just went to Dayton, Ohio, but it’s home, where our family is, so…”