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?"