Thursday, June 14, 2018

Why Did Frida Kahlo Become an Icon

    I reported for an independent newspaper in the late 70s in a small California college town. As the lone woman on the writing staff, I wrote a lot of features for a while until I got my sea legs.

      I covered an arts lecture given by a Kahlo authority whose name I no longer recall. That was my introduction to Frida. The lecture also included a slide show of Kahlo’s works. Needless to say I was intrigued, mesmerized—at times startled—by her work. I loved the colors, her style, the woman (Frida) as center of the universe. Two words to me described her—No fear.

     And then there was the Mexico connection: Her flamboyant, indigenous clothing, her raven hair parted in the middle, either pulled back in a tight bun or gloriously wild, the artsy jewelry. She appealed to me, in all her gutsy wonder. But I was not alone. She appealed to everyone, though long had she lived in her husband and mentor’s shadow. By the 1970s, Frida was breaking out and breaking the mold. She was becoming, dare I say it, as popular as her husband, famed painter, muralist and revolutionary, Diego Rivera.

     Frida became an icon because the world was finally ready for her. A strong woman who stood equally alongside an alpha male, years his junior, but as powerful in her way as he was in his. Rivera had prompted her, mentored her to continue to paint. A star was born. Did she overshadow her husband? Who can determine which painter held more power? That so many Kahlo paintings were self-portraits, that in itself was a symbol of a different spirit. She had been through hell and back (maybe Never back) beginning with suffering through polio and at eighteen, being hideously injured in a trolley accident in Mexico City. She wore a metal body brace her entire life. Her poor tortured frame would not allow her fractured body to push out a baby. And each time she became pregnant, not only did she lose the baby but her body suffered immeasurably due to the added pressure on her lower torso. But that didn’t stop her from portraying her suffering in her artwork, for all the world to see. Her suffering became the gateway to her art.

Though she never carried a child full term, as an artist – she pressed on. Years later, when I owned my bookstore in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, her paintings hung front and center on the walls. My favorite was Frida in the jungle with the monkeys. Love you, Frida. You have been an icon for decades – why? Not only because of your immense artistic talent, but also because of your staunch independence, your genius, your anarchistic politics, your free spirit, your shock value, and your bravery. And because you resonated with a spirit that became a universal spirit. Thank you for the beauty and the pain you portrayed, and shared, and were not afraid to share. We love you Frida.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Alma Reed and Felipe Carrillo Puerto: Tragic Romance of the Yucatán

     Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Yucatan’s progressive governor of the Yucatan, and San Francisco journalist Alma Reed are two names forever linked to Yucatan history.  Their romance fueled pages in newspapers on both sides of the border, but the unlikely outcome of their very public romance enlisted all the elements of Greek tragedy.

            Reed was born in San Francisco and became one of the city’s first women reporters.  An advocate for the poor, Reed assisted a Mexican family in commuting the death sentence of their 17-yer old son in 1921.  The story was picked up by the Mexican press and due to heightened publicity, Mexico President Alvero Obregon invited Reed to visit his country.


     As a stringer correspondent, she reported for The New York Times and was sent to meet Edward Thompson, the leading archeologist excavating Chichen Itza.  During the visit, Reed met Felipe Carrillo Puerto, dynamic governor of the State of Yucatan.

     Carrillo had commissioned a road to be built from Merida to Chichen Itza, opening the budding archeological site to both tourists and scientists.  To commemorate the event, he’d organized a welcome ceremony inviting North American journalists and archeologists.


     At the ruins, Reed interviewed the famed Thompson who had gone to Yucatan specifically to excavate Chichen Itza. Thompson took a liking to Reed and divulged he had in fact dredged Chichen Itza’s sacred cenote, garnering gold and jade jewelry and ornaments he’d taken from the sacrificial victims. Astonished by the enormity of Thompson’s admission, like the true-born paparrizis she was, Reed asked Thompson to sign a confession, which he did.

            After Chichen Itza, the assembled entourage went on to Uxmal.  During this leg of the journey Reed and Carrillo got acquainted.  Reed was fascinated with the charismatic Carrillo who had been called both a Bolshevik and a Marxist for his sweeping reforms.

     In her interview with the governor, Carrillo explained Yucatan had been inhabited by a handful of powerful families dating back to 1542 when Merida was founded. These wealthy landowners were basically slave masters, and notorious for their cruel treatment of the Maya.


            In 1910 Carrillo had fought alongside Emiliano Zapata in Central Mexico. From their association he took Zapata’s battle cry, Tierra y Liberdad, (land and liberty) for his own.  Back in Yucatan, Carrillo claimed part Maya, part Creole heritage and began his reforms by setting up feminist leagues in Merida that legalized birth control and the first family planning clinics in the western hemisphere. As governor he seized uncultivated land from powerful hacendados and distributed it to the Maya, stating it was their birthright. He built schools. He reformed the prison system.

            No small wonder Reed named him the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico.  As a liberal she agreed with his reforms. And besides that, she was smitten.  But as a divorceé and Catholic, she tried to ignore the feelings she was developing for the married father of four.  She left for the US, vowing never to return, hoping to severe ties in what was becoming amor calido (romance of the steam).

            Two months later, however, The New York Times sent her packing back to Mexico to cover the archeology scandal that involved Edward Thompson and the Chichen Itza cenote.  She had a job to do.

     On her second round in Mexico, both Reed and Carrillo’s feelings couldn’t be ignored.  In the ultimate taboo, Carrillo divorced his wife to become engaged to Reed.  He even had a romantic love song composed for her, still popular today, La Peregrina (The Pilgrim).

     It seemed a match made in heaven.  The two idealists prepared for their wedding that would take place in San Francisco.  Reed hastened back to the U.S. to make arrangements before her permanent move to Mexico.


     Shortly after her departure to the US, however, another revolution seemed imminent.  Fighting had broken out in the Yucatan, and henequen planters and hacendados were trying to overthrow Carrillo.  President Obregon’s right hand man, de la Huerta, was opposing him and because Carrillo backed Obregon, he was at risk.  Carrillo was forced to find guns to fight both the planters and de la Huerta’s forces.  And to make matters worse, he now had a $250,000 reward on his head.

     To secure the guns and ammunition they would need to do battle, Carrillo went by night to the Progreso coast with three brothers and six friends as guards.  Just as they waded out to the launch that would take them to New Orleans where they’d acquire firearms for their revolution, a Navy captain signaled to soldiers lying in wait on shore.  The soldiers rowed out and captured Carrillo who told his small group not to fight, but to go peacefully.

     De la Huerta’s forces took them back to Merida, jailed them for the night and planned an arraignment in the morning.  Carrillo refused to make a plea. He was, after all, governor of the state, and refused to recognize a kangaroo court.  He was condemned on Janurary 3, 1924, and taken to Merida Cemetery where he, his brothers and friends were lined up against the wall to await the firing squad.  The first round of volleys was sent over their heads; the soldiers didn’t want to kill them, so fiercely local were the Yucatecans to Carrillo.

            The commander shouted that those soldiers were to be shot, and over the dead bodies of the first soldiers, Carrillo, brothers and friends were executed as they stood with their backs against the cemetery wall.


     In San Francisco, Alma Reed had been alerted that trouble was at hand. She heard the news shortly afterwards that Carrillo had died in the Yucatan, a martyr’s death,  at 49.

     Reed insisted on returning to Merida to see the spot where Carrillo fell.  She stayed but briefly in the Yucatan, and on arriving back to New York, was sent on an assignment to Carthage to explore ancient ruins.  She would never re-marry. Her reporting life eventually took her back to Mexico where she helped establish the artist José Clemente Orozco.

     One of Reed’s fears was that President Obregon had a hand in killing Carrillo.  He had, after all, assassinated Zapata after luring him to a truce meeting along with Pancho Villa.  Reed thought Carrillo’s radicalism may have aroused opposition from the Mexican president, but she could never prove the link.

            The pueblo of Chan Santa Cruz, south of Tulum, changed its name to honor the Yucatan governor, and now goes by the name Felipe Carrillo Puerto.  Alma Reed died in Mexico City, November, 1966, while undergoing surgery.  She was 77.

Jeanine Kitchel is the author of Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, and the upcoming nonfiction book, Maya 2012 Revealed, Demystifying the Prophecy, and coming in April: Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival.  Contact the author through her website,

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Stephens and Catherwood Take the Maya World: Review of Jungle of Stone

IN 1839 an energetic American writer and a talented British artist, adventurers to the core, braved the jungles of Yucatan, Guatemala and Honduras and became the first English speaking travelers to explore this region originally known only as Maya.

Though a lawyer by profession, John Lloyd Stephens fell hard for archeology after a two-year sabbatical took him to Europe and the Mediterranean in the mid-1830s.  After trekking through deserts and ancient pyramid sites he came away fueled with a desire for more of the same. Simultaneously he discovered he could write and was dubbed “the American traveler” after he penned his first best seller about Egypt’s pyramids, the Nile, Petra and the Holy Land.

British artist Frederick Catherwood gained his footing during the “Egyptomania”
craze that hit London in the 1820s. A bit older than Stephens, he reached Egypt and the Nile in 1823 and discovered he had an uncanny ability to portray ancient monuments and archeological digs with great accuracy. Egypt was the start of an odyssey that in the end would take him to Copán and Palenque, Uxmal, Labna, Chichén Itzá and beyond.


Serendipity brought the adventurers together in London, and shortly afterwards.
Stephens received a special ambassadorship to Central America from President Martin Van Buren to negotiate treaties with several Latin America countries.
Stephens immediately contacted Catherwood and asked him to come along for the ride. After political issues were settled, they’d go exploring for ancient ruins.

The duo headed south and after an intense journey through war torn Guatemala and Honduras, Stephens finished what he could of his diplomatic workload. It was time for exploration with their first destination Copán. Spurred on by a letter written to the Spanish king about ancient sites with large stone structures from an explorer named Deigo Garcia de Palacio three hundred years earlier, Stephens and Catherwood followed the trail of Central American patriot Colonel Juan Galindo. Galindo had discovered the archived letter and traveled to both Palenque and Copán in 1834. Stephens and Catherwood would arrive five years later after pouring over sketchy site coordinates from Galindo’s report made to higher-ups.


Galindo believed whoever built these stone monuments had been an advanced civilization, and the artisans who created the works did so without iron tools. The monuments were covered in hieroglyphics and he conceived it was phonetic writing, which proved accurate, though it would take more than a hundred years to confirm his theory. He believed the site was the seat of a great power, a large population and a people advanced in the arts. The site had a grand plaza that could compete with the coloseum of Rome, he said. He emphasized that local inhabitants had little knowledge of the site’s history. And unbelievably, the account that pushed Galindo to explore Copán had accumulated dust in the archives of a Spanish court for more than three centuries. This mysterious and intriguing report was the reason Stephens and Catherwood found themselves in the depths of a Honduran jungle.

Because terrain in southern Mexico, western Guatemala and Honduras is a thick tangle of vegetation filled with rain forests and swamps, parts of the land were a mystery even to the Maya who lived there. Locals had no explanation for the stone blocks and imposing structures and knew nothing of their creators. So dense was the jungle that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés passed within one hundred miles of Palenque in the early 1500s, never learning how near he was to a massive pyramid site. (The classic Maya collapse occurred around 900 AD).


Galindo’s revolutionary view of an ancient sophisticated civilization with no ties to their Northern European brethren fell on deaf ears. Early explorers of Palenque in 1787 insisted it had classical Roman and Greek influences, speculating somehow one of these cultures had crossed the Atlantic, conquered the native locals, built the structures, never to be seen again. Another explorer said it had to be the work of the Lost Tribe of Israel’s doing, underscoring how hesitant each and every western explorer who came in contact with the Maya was to give an advanced indigenous culture its due. 

These discoveries continued to baffle western intellects and religious scholars alike. The existence of vast sophisticated cities hidden in the middle of Central American jungles threatened the biblical order of the known world. Where did these people come from and how old were their cities? One explorer, a crazy outlier named “Count” Jean-Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck, made an accidentally correct claim when he stated Uxmal was at least one thousand years old, basing his claim on the concentric tree circles he counted from a tree that implanted itself in the building’s entryway after it was already in ruins.

It would take Stephens and Catherwood, seasoned with their old world explorations, to examine the evidence at the sites and forge a new, correct narrative.


Though Stephens’ written descriptions of the sites were detailed and informative, it was Catherwood’s otherworldly sketches that would forever change the way the world viewed the mysterious, previously unknown Maya culture. On their first week at Copán, Catherwood would toss out countless attempts at capturing the Maya stelae (stones with hieroglyphs) that he found. At first his western mind could simply not contemplate, then draw, what he was seeing. To him, a western European, the gigantic Copán sculptures, some four to five meters high, were so profoundly different than the antiquities of the mideast that he had a difficult time rendering them. The two veteran travelers who had toured the wonders of Egypt knew they were in the cross hairs of an incredibly advanced civilization and they were now on “new ground” as Stephens wrote later in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán, his best seller about the Maya world.

To capture the soul of the sculptures and to assist himself in so doing, Catherwood took photos with his Camera Lucida, the precursor to a modern camera, then from those drawings, he attempted to re-draw what he saw.  Though it took him many tries, a slight shift in his perspective broke through and with powerful persistence, he finally got it right. He filled page after page with drawings rich in detail of the unfathomable hieroglyphics, monuments, sculptings. His drawings would prove so accurate that long into the future, archeologists would be able to read them when they finally broke the Maya code in 1976 at the famous Palenque Round Table.

But at the time, to convince an uncertain world of what they were seeing, it would take not only the stark beauty of Catherwood’s detailed drawings to put Copán, Palenque and other Maya sites on the map, it would also take Stephens’ energetic and romantic prose to seal the deal.

Copán and Palenque were just the beginning of Stephens and Catherwood’s Maya explorations. They would go on to view forty-four sites in all, many detailed in Jungle of Stone. The struggles they endured to bring this discovery to the world hit them hard. Both were forever plagued by side effects of malaria and other diseases contracted while chasing pyramids.


Even if you’re not in the mood for a long read, Frederick Catherwood’s incredible sketches shown in the book, many in color, make Jungle of Stone worthwhile. It’s available at Alma Libre Bookstore in Puerto Morelos, 360 pesos.

Jeanine Kitchel, author of Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, has a new novel out this April, Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Isla and Me

     Waking at Maria's on Isla Mujeres was paradise personified.  Nestled in a low comfortable bed in the corner of the rustic stucco room, I stretched and took in the slightly musty smells that always came with a Mexico vacation.  A thick branch of fuchsia colored bougainvillea spilled across the screened window, leaving way for a clear shot of the Caribbean.  I could hear the waves lapping on the shore.  Maybe this was perfection personified.  Time to greet the day and find out I decided, as I slowly crawled out of bed.

     A few hours later Paul and I were hopping out of a taxi onto the main malecon of Isla right across from the No Name restaurant.  It was 11 a.m. and the streets weren't busy except for assorted vendors who had set up their wares--mostly fruit and vegetable sales it looked like to me. Ivory colored jicama with a dash of chili pepper seasoning was arranged on one woman's cart. Too early for that.  Another vendor had bunches of small ripe bananas tied with heavy rope just waiting for the next sale.  Next to the banana vendor, a wooden cart painted a faded blue had pretty cups of yellow mangoes sliced up like tropical flowers.  Gorgeous and edible.  The owner, an older mujere, smiled at me and pointed to her cart as she sat alongside it on a small wooden stool, peeling more sticky fruit into an art form all its own.  I paused and decided.

     "Mango, por favor?"

     "Cinco pesos."

     "Gracias," I said as I dug the coin out of my bolsa, or purse, and handed it over.  "Que bonita dia!" What a lovely day.

     "Si, por supuesto," she answered.  "Where are you from?"

     "San Francisco, California."

     "Aaah, California!" she smiled big at that one.  "I know someone from California.  I was in a movie.  They, the people in the movie, they were from California."

     Her conversation was straining the bounds of my newly acquired adult ed Spanish, but slowly I put her words in comprehensive order.  The struggle was worth it.  We were talking--in Spanish!  Did she say ciné?  Aka movie?

     "Of course!  Against All Odds!  This was that street, the street Jeff Bridges went up to ask if anyone had seen the woman he was searching for on that small island.  This island! And wait a minute!

     "Paul!  I think this woman is the one from Against All Odds!"

     "Yes, yes," she said, now beaming a huge smile my way.  "Jeff Bridges, movie, me!"

     "You're famous!  Famosa!"

     "She started laughing and Paul and I broke into laughter, too.  "It's her," he agreed.  "We're right where they filmed the movie."

     Against All Odds, filmed in three Mexico locations--Isla Mujeres, Tulum and Chichen Itza--had been a catalyst for our Mexican sojourn.  We'd never seen water that color of turquoise, nor pyramids of any kind and the sultry movie with Bridges and Rachel Ward had catapulted us across the border.

     After saying our good byes with a few more exclamations on this mujere's fame, we walked to the plaza and the back down to the malecon.  Today we'd decided to go to the mainland.  We boarded the ferry for Cancun.

     Hours later after lunching at an outdoor cafe and shopping at Mercado 23 for silver and trinkets we ventured into the hotel zone to go to dinner on a splurge.  Someone had recommended a hotel-restaurant on the beach with great food and we thought a day and a dinner in Cancun would be fun.  The restaurant had all the amenities all right.  Beachside, low lights, candles.  But where was dinner?  Talk about the slow food movement.  This one had crawled to a stop.  After our second request to the waiter about our dinners, we started to panic, slightly.

     "What time is the last ferry?" I asked Paul.

     "At 10."

     "Uh oh.  I'm beginning to wonder if we'll make it."

     "Let me call the waiter over and ask him to bring the check when he brings our dinner, so we can dash out of here."

     At 9:30 p.m. after gulping a delicious fish dinner, with our margarita high slowly fading into oblivion, we bolted out of the restaurant and into the arms of a waiting taxi driver.

     "Puerto Juarez, the dock!"

     As we sped off I caught sight of our waiter at the door, waving good bye.

     The trip to Puerto Juarez was longer than we thought, much longer.

     "We'll never make the ferry," I groaned, now desperately nervous.

     "You're probably right."

     As we pulled up at the dock, madly throwing pesos at the driver, Paul, first out of the cab, spotted what we didn't want to see.  "Oh, no!  It's already left!"

     "Oh, darn!  No.  No.  No!  Now what?" I cried.

     "We'll have to find a hotel here in Puerto Juarez," Paul said.

     I stomped around the dock's parking lot in a huff.  "God, could they have been any slower at the restaurant?  What are we going to do?  This place is a total dive!"

     "It's hotel time.  We've gotta go look for one.  Now."

     That brought me to my senses.  Forget about the warm breeze, the lapping water, the backside of our departing ferry now far in the distance.  It just sunk in; we had to find a hotel in this hood.  Yuck.  These were the early days, and Puerto Juarez hadn't gone through its beautification process yet.  Hardly.  Its most outstanding feature was the steely facade of a military base on the outskirts of town; nothing looked like a tourist mecca here.  Nothing at all.

     I dragged myself back to the pot-holed street and looked both ways.  About a block farther down the road I spotted a sign for a hotel.  As we approached I could tell from the looks of it this was not the Ritz.  Very unappealing.  Very unappealing, indeed.

     "A room," I choked, "how much per night?" I asked the hotel clerk.

     "Thirty pesos."

     Oh great, three dollars.  "Can we see it, please?"

     As the clerk led us down a dilapidated, unlit walkway, around a towering banyan tree to a concrete building with a dented door, I knew that paradise wasn't waiting for me inside.  As he turned the key into an ancient lock and the door creaked open, that familiar tantalizing odor of bug spray wafted across the threshold.

     "We'll take it," Paul gagged, giving me the what can we do now look as he turned his face away from the smell.  He was right.  In Puerto Juarez it was pretty much lights out by this time of night.

     We followed the clerk back to the office like dead men walking and shelled out our thirty pesos.  On retrieving the key I asked if there was a place nearby to get a cold drink.

     "There's a cantina across the street."

     "How late are they open?" I asked.

     "Til midnight but we close the office here at 11 p.m.  If you stay out later, just ring the bell and I'll come let you in.  After you leave I'll close the gate behind you."

     We pushed open the authoritative gate, hearing the click of the lock behind us as we sauntered outside the hotel walls, about two meters high, with the de rigeure broken bottle top finish on top--definitely not a style choice--and wandered into Puerto Juarez' lone open cantina.

     We each ordered a Pacifico.  One was all we could take.  It was nearing 11 and we didn't want to miss another deadline, not two in one day, even though we were on Mexican time.  But the thought of staying in that grungy hotel room with eau de DDT wafting about, well, we just couldn't go back too soon to that before we were sleepy enough to pass out.

     Good as his word, gate shut.  Paul was right behind me.  I turned the iron latch--it wasn't 11 yet--and nothing.  What?  I turned the latch again and pushed.  Nothing!

     "Oh, no.  Locked out.  Now we're locked out!"

     "He said to ring him," Paul, ever in control, responded.  Now he was turning and pushing the latch, too.

     "Where's the bell?  Is that it?  Toca, with the arrow pointing to it?  What a weird way to say ring.  Toca means take.  Take the bell?"

     "Just ring it already," Paul said.  Language class was over.

     "Toca, toca, toca," I said each time I pushed it.  "I don't hear anything.  Have we been gone that long?"

     "Try again."

     I pushed til my index finger went numb.  "Now we have a three dollar hotel room and no way to get into it! What are we going to do?"

     "Let me think a minute.  Over there.  At the end of the wall.  See where there's no broken bottles?

     "Yeah, what about it?" I asked, thinking bad thoughts.

     "I think it's time for a reverse jail break."

     "Don't be ridiculous!  You could never climb over that wall!" I said.  Who did he think he was?

     "Not me, Juanitia," he smiled at me charmingly.  "Tu."

     "Me?" I choked, shocked.

     "But I'm in a skirt."

     "I promise I won't look."

     "Oh, shut up, " I said, realizing he was right.  That was the only way.  All hands on deck. "Okay."

     In the dim light of a lone street lamp we made our attack at the far end of the hotel wall.  Good thing it was dark out, I noted.  I wouldn't want to be caught dead climbing into this dive.

     Paul bent over and laced his palms together providing me a step up so I could then reach the one spot on the wall without broken glass.  I was just at the point of almost heaving myself carefully over when I heard him gasp.  What the heck?

     "Buenos noches."

     Buenos noches?  Who could he be talking to?  In his conversation mode he'd backed away from his helping me over the wall stance and I was dangling unbecomingly about six feet above ground, with my skirt moving up my backside rapidly, also unbecomingly.

     I twisted to the side, no easy feat, and looked down on a Mexico policia.  Police!

     "What are you doing?" he asked.

     Paul:  "Helping her over the wall.  We're locked out, but we have a key, see?" He held up the church key that would open our room inside the gated, walled compound, from which we were firmly locked out.

     "Why not just ring the bell?"

     "Toca el timbre?" I asked.  He looked up at me.  Could he see up my skirt?  I wondered.

     "Si, toca el timbre."

     "Locked out."

     "I'll try," the policia said.  Toca, toca, toca.  We waited.  all three of us.  Two by land, one by air.

     "They are asleep," he said matter of factly.  "It is late."

      That it was.  "But," he said with what I am sure must have been a smile on his face, "I'll help you."

     "How?" Paul asked.  "Call them?  Do you have their number?" as he scanned the sign for the name of the hotel. Hotel Fizal?  How in the world did they come up with that?

     "No, no.  We both push her."

     So with my bottom now being gently pushed by Paul and a gendarme, my skirt slowly hiking up in an unladylike manner, I slowly made my way up and over Hotel Fizal's two meter wall.  I started to laugh as I touched dirt on the other side.

     "I'm in!" I yelled, feeling like one of the Dirty Dozen.

     As I started to walk down to the gate and let Paul in, I heard him speaking to the policia.  "Mil gracias, and buenos noches to you, too."

Friday, March 9, 2012

Why the Maya?

I've been totally entranced with the Maya since I started visiting Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula in the 1980s. Living in California made the west coast an easy destination, and I'd traveled extensively from Guadalajara and San Blas to Acapulco and back more times than I can remember, but had never ventured to the Yucatan or Quintana Roo.  But the pyramids had always beckoned, and it wasn't until I met Paul, who later became my husband, that I made the trek cross country to Mexico's east coast.  Well, I fell in love. Totally, unequivocally, hard.  I've never made it back to the west coast since.  There was just something about the Maya, the pyramids, the culture, and the outbackness of the Yucatan that did it for me.


We started out early on just having awesome vacations.  First we traveled to Isla Mujeres in 1983. It was so 'undiscovered', that when we went to a travel agent in San Francisco, she'd never heard of it.  We assured her it existed as a friend told me there were two great islands off the Cancun coast --Cozumel and Isla Mujeres.  She said if I wanted to get a more real feel for Mexico, go to Isla Mujeres, so we did.

We arrived on the last ferry from the mainland, in those days called the people's ferry, and by the time we reached the hotel, El Faro, out near North Beach, they'd given away our reservation.  It took them an hour to locate our room.  We discovered an outdoor bar under a palapa, settled in, tired from the long trip,  and sipped a cool drink while they figured things out. The air was warm, there was a light breeze, the stars were out.  I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven.  I could have just slept under that palapa.  I was falling in love.  With a place, with a country.  Ayyyy caramba!


Our adventure started the next day when we ran into the ferry captain at a little restaurant on the beach we nicknamed The No Name Cafe.  He was moonlighting as a waiter--his aunt owned it, he explained-- and he helped her out in the daytime.  This was our first clue that Mexico was different from where we'd come from.  People led different lives.  Completely different.  Waiter by day, ferry captain by night?  He was friendly and fun, and we said we'd be back.

Although we liked El Faro, we'd heard about a romantic little place on the beach far out of town called Maria's.  It had only six rooms and a great French restaurant, and we knew it was hard to get reservations--at either place.  We hopped into a cab around noon and breezed on out there. Wow.  What a set-up.  The cabanas were situated down a garden path crowded on either side by bougainvilllas, flor de Maya, and hibiscus. The path itself was made from cement that had been hand stamped with little iguanas, just too cute to describe.  We saw the charming restaurant with zapote deck nestled on top of the cabanas.  It had a palapa roof, enormous jungly plants, white table cloths on the tables, candles and flowers, too.  This was the place!  We were ushered in by a waiter dressed in white; only one other couple was dining.


He brought us the menu and we ordered French onion soup and little else that I can recall.  The day was hot and we were really there to try and get a reservation for the cabanas.  "Do you have any openings in the hotel?" I asked.

"You have to talk to Maria," the waiter told me.

A few minutes later Maria came out.  She was worldly, in her forties, dark-haired, curvaceous and quick.  She took a liking to us, sat down at our table and asked if we'd like a glass of wine.  "Por supuesto!"

She assured us she had one room, not her best, but if we were willing to take it, the couple who was occupying the best room would be leaving in two days.  A fait accompli!  We had a room at Maria's.

"Why don't you go down to my beach," she instructed, "and look at the large tortugos.  Sea turtles."


Following her instructions, we passed the compact kitchen and an enclosure for her live lobsters with scale nearby, then wandered down another garden path that soon led to the beach and there it was:  white sand, bleached out Adirondack chairs just waiting for someone like me to sit in them and that flat turquoise sea.  A wood stick cage with door wide open sat on the far side of Maria's dock.

"I want to put my feet in the water," I told Paul, as I ambled towards the sea.

Bath tub warm.  My favorite part about the Caribbean.  The water is so warm.  I waded in up to my ankles, stood and just stared, and then I saw him.  A huge sea turtle!  His green mottled body swam towards me with his flippers outspread.  He must have weighed three hundred pounds, and he was right in front of me.


"He always goes in at night," I heard someone say.  Where did he come from?  I turned and recognized the desk clerk who was doubling as a beach sweeper, now standing next to me.  "Into the cage.  She has us let them out each day, but they always go into the cage at night, on their own."

"Interesting," I said.  "You'd think he'd want to be free."

"But we're at Maria's," he said.  "What could be better than this?"