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?"

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