Cancun

The promised storm arrives on schedule Friday, snow just beginning to stick as the day begins. By midday it has turned mostly to ice, and a 2PM closing is announced. Wise choice, but I have so much to do on this last day before I leave on vacation. By 1:30PM most department managers have let their people go earlier still. At my desk, a colleague calls me at 2:15 to say that I need not hurry — there is a traffic jam consisting of the hundreds of employees on site trying to leave the premises at once.

I wrap up the last of what I can finish before I leave, finally exiting a bit before 3:30PM. A smattering of cars still remain, and a small fleet of plows make their rounds, trying to make the lots passable while the sleet falls rapidly in their wake. It takes a frigid eternity to clear my car enough to leave. As I leave the property, one car is off the road, no one hurt and security already on site to assist.

The routes down the hill are miraculously open and I make it down into the lowlands, reaching Route 287 only to find that I could as easily walk the 5 miles to the Turnpike. I inch along. The bits of ice strike my car and bounce, looking for all the world like a small swarm of albino insects leaping about. The turnpike by comparison is racing along at 35 mph. The entire trip to South Jersey — normally about 1.5 hours — takes me 5 hours. During which I feel remarkably and uncharacteristically calm in the face of the travel conditions.


In the morning we double-check with the airlines to ensure the flight is still scheduled and whether any airport delays or notices are posted. None. We make our way over mostly unplowed streets to the airport, parking in a lot that is a solid and uninterrupted sheet of ice some 3 hours before our flight as requested.

Lines snake through the airport, from one end of the terminal to the other. Travelers stranded in last night’s cancellations and this morning’s delays wait in the same line as ticketed passengers hoping to board flights. A person one loop ahead of us tells someone on their cell phone that they’ve been there for 3 hours already. No priority is being given to departing flights, and planes leave half empty as their passengers wait helplessly in line. If announcements are being made, no one can hear them over the din of a thousand people waiting with varying degrees of patience. The result is a problem that will never right itself unless new steps are taken.

Flight crews who have been grounded by weather are pressed to service to help facilitate check in. For the first time, an airline employee shouts over the tumult to call forward anyone on a departing flight.

Ours.

We are placed in a new line that also fails to move, but at least we know they know we’re here and their intention is to get us on a plane. And finally, we are checked in, asked to hurry to our gate — only to be told the flight is cancelled.

Only it isn’t. Or not quite. The plane is here, and the crew arrived in Philly the night before — they simply haven’t arrived to the airport. They’ve been paged. We’re waiting, hoping they will answer and come. We wait, we read, we bond with our fellow travelers. We applaud the arrival of the pilot. We wait again — longer still — for the rest of the crew.

Finally, off we go. The flight is smooth to Cancun, where we go through the endless immigration and baggage collection process, and step outside to find the pre-arranged resort pickup. Failing to find them, going through the rigmarole of getting a local phone card, calling the resort to find out what the situation is, only to find out that in spite of all our confirming information, they have no record of the reservation.

In the end, we take a cab. We arrive in the resort, check in, and discover no light bulbs in the lamps in the rooms.

But even if the first day has been lost to travel we can still laugh at the horror of it all. We have arrived, at long last, in Cancun.


We have dinner in the resort restaurant. Well, if you can say “in” — the restaurant is an open-air affair, beachside. It’s beautiful if chilly in the blustering winds of an earlier storm. Waves splash up over the retaining wall, and the set of tables nearest the edge are doused.

In the morning, the sun is up, everything dry. We walk into town for a few supplies. A merchant calls out to us — as we soon learn they all do. Looking at me and my pallor: From Canada? USA? I spend the better part of the day poolside, away from the worst of the wind. When a cloud passes overhead and blocks the sun, the wind feels cold. I use my beach towel as a blanket, and huddle for warmth. Still, the day is bright and beautiful, and a far cry warmer than the vision of winter we left behind. On the days thereafter the breezes are simply refreshing.

The days pass this way. Reading by the pool, or at the beach. We take an all-day excursion to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. Inland, away from the sea breeze, it promises to be 10 to 20 degrees warmer.

We wait for the tour bus to pick us up. One tour guide comes in for another tour group, says hello to me in Spanish, and when I respond, “Como estas usted?” he smiles and responds in rapid Spanish. I look at him in confusion, shaking my head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand any of that” I tell him in what’s left of my Spanish. He laughs, then says that my Spanish was so good from my hello that he thought I was a speaker. I laugh with him. “Good accent, no vocabulary,” I tell him.

Our tour finally arrives, and we board the bus. The first stop is for vastly overpriced souvenirs (I buy none) and snack food (having been picked up before the hotel starts serving breakfast and learning that the “early lunch” is at 12:45, several hours away). The second stop is at a sinkhole, where swimming is permitted — though only a brief window of time is allowed for it. We do not partake, only photograph. The third stop is for lunch, a barely edible buffet (no drinks included, and all drinks vastly overpriced) in a building that resembles the Mexican equivalent of a VFW hall. What appears to be a single family serves and then dances for us — children performing traditional dances, traditional garb. It is meant to be entertaining on the surface, but the reality of these people dancing every hour for another busload of tourists in hopes of getting tips is only grim, depressing, grotesque, as if we’ve thrown money on the ground at their feet and demanded imperiously, “Dance for us!”

But of course we tip — what else can we do — and we go on at last to Chichen Itza. It’s hot and there is very little shade, but there is a surprising breeze blowing, and the day is not nearly so unbearable as we feared. It is the day before the equinox, a significant day on the Mayan calendar. There are crowds, but smaller than usual (shocking to think) because so many are planning to come the following day to see the snake descend the west side of the statue. One day before the equinox, the shadow is not perfect, but the effect is still there. There is so much that is fascinating to see, and we see what we can of it in our limited time. We are accosted at every turn by people offering us trinkets. “Almost free!” says one (“See me when it IS free,” one thinks) and “Cheaper than Walmart,” boasts another. The worst are the children, pleading little eyes begging us to buy, and it’s heart-breaking to me even as I realize that they must practice this look in their mirrors at night to perfect it so.

Even without stops, even with a movie played for us — some dreadful bit of overacting by Kevin Costner to make the time pass — the ride back seems endlessly long. Rides back from somewhere often are.


The next day we return to the beach. For my mother, the measure of a successful vacation is made up of some algorithm related to the warmth of the sun, the color of the sea, and the quality and quantity of shells to be found. I catch up on my reading, alternating between sunlight and shade. She invites me on a walk up the beach — a scouting expedition for her, an opportunity to stretch and to feel the ocean for me — and off we go. Meandering up the beach, pausing frequently to find some new treasure.

I get to the pier ahead of her and start my way back, watching the water lap at the sand. Single bits of shell that appear stranded on the beach are enveloped in waves that seem to advance only just far enough to reclaim them, as if all along this business of tides is really just a rescue mission. “No shell left behind.”

Which could as easily be my mother’s motto.

I am thinking this, wandering back down the beach, and I hear a voice. Male, English-speaking, American-sounding. I don’t really hear what’s said — my assumption at first is that I have simply overheard a snippet of someone’s conversation — until the voice says a bit louder, “Do you speak English? Miss?” And then I look. The voice belongs to an older man — not much older, I think — sitting in a low-slung chair facing up the beach and toward the resort, so that I’ve come up behind and alongside him. “That’s my sailboat,” he says in his almost complete lack of accent, “The white one.” He pauses, but looks neither at me nor at the sailboat, continuing to stare up the beach and out to sea. He’s wearing a hat against the sun, escaped bits of hair bleached white perhaps as much by the sun as by time, blowing in the breeze. “I take people out by the hour.” There is something about the way he says it — though there’s no change in the tone, no oddness in the inflection, and still without having looked at me — that makes me look up the beach to see where my mother is. She’s still a good 20 yards away and intent on her shelling. I am not sure, even as I look for her, whether I am hoping she heard — another set of ears to tell me if I am hearing what I think I am, an undertone beneath the sales pitch — or whether I am hoping she hasn’t heard, a child guilty at someone else’s wrongdoing. I feel oddly uncertain about how to respond. “Good to know,” I say, and just then two Asian women come up to him, gushing over the sailboat — is it really his? — and how they’d just love to sail. They are angels sent to my rescue, and suddenly I am set free to continue on my way.

Despite the strangeness, there is something about him that reminds me of Eric. Something vague, not in appearance or in sound. Maybe in all that confident nonchalance. Maybe in the idea of a man able to retire from one life, now living the life he wants to. Earning a purely supplemental income, but still working after a fashion. Still meeting people (meeting women, in this case it seems), still getting to touch their lives in some measure. Maybe it just pleases me to think of Eric being able to have and enjoy a peaceful life, a life free of self-imposed stress and a degree of working that steals all his time away from him. Whatever shape it might take, I like to think of Eric having a life that suits him, makes him happy.

That is what I tell myself.

The thought of Eric comes and I turn it over briefly in my mind as if looking for sharp edges. I am pleased to find there are none today. I smile down at the waves lapping gently over my feet as I walk. This is how it is. Ebbs and flows, like waves. A little wave carries a thought of Eric to me, and then it’s gone again, tumbling over and over itself and for a while there is nothing — and then another comes.

No rogue waves come today. Nothing that might knock me down, pull me under, leave me breathless in the face of the pounding surf. No sharp bits of coral to sting me. Just these waves, a light and refreshing touch. And I let them come, not sure I could stop them any more than I could stop the tide from coming in. But I don’t step away from them either, to a place where these little lapping waves might fade to only the occasional ocean spray, then just the waft of salt in the air, and then nothing at all. That will happen soon enough on its own; that is the way of things.

Today I like the waves. I choose to enjoy them while they last.

I look out over sea and sky reflecting one another in jewel tones. Aquamarine, then sapphire. How tempting it might be to dive in and let it wash me away. Endless reaches beyond what my eyes can see, endless depths I could spend an eternity trying to learn and explore and never know it all. But no point; the limits have been set as clearly as the ropes that denote the edges of the swimming areas, just inside the edge of the shallows. And I am not so strong a swimmer, after all.

It would seem I am suited to the shallows, to only the whisper of salt water on my skin.

It is, therefore it is enough.

I walk back up the beach feeling at peace with the universe, even as the soft waves of Eric come back to me throughout the day, as steady and reliable as the tide — as I sit under the umbrella, as we get ready to go to dinner, and so on through my days, as much here as anywhere else.

But I notice that sailboat through the rest of the week; the small Mexican registration flag barely noticeable from a distance, and dwarfed by the American flag that is ever-visible, whipping sharply in the wind.


I tire of the pool and beach sooner than my family does, and head up earlier, to the gym (empty during prime beach hours) or simply to the room. Making my way through the halls I am occasionally struck by a wave of work-related worry.

“Breathe. Let it pass. Let it go. It’s only one week.”

Another day of generic beaching, reading, resting is capped off with a trip to Plaza 28, a central shopping flea market. We take the bus into Cancun proper to get there. Every stand houses similar objects, and every stand owner calls out to us, sometimes following me down the hallways. “Come in, free to look.” I look. One shop keeper throws an arm around me, “Pretty lady… you want buy pretty necklace? No? You want marijuana pipe? No? You want Mexican boyfriend?” I laugh as I exit. I laugh often, seeing the humor in the hawking, finding it easier to laugh at their constant seller’s come-ons than to have to say a plain and harsh “No” constantly.


One afternoon I am coming back to the room, the empty halls echoing my steps and the setting sun pouring in through the windows, I am struck by the silence. My silence. I have no one to talk to here. We don’t talk, not in ways that are deep. Just surface things, daily details.

I feel like I have a thousand thoughts in my head and no way to let them out. I’m trapped inside myself; I feel like I could scream and no one would hear me. It’s my failing, my inability — and yet it’s not universal. There are people I can talk to. Maybe not enough. Maybe too far off, maybe just for the moment. Home and contact is only a few days away, but I can hardly catch my breath.

I feel like a bird caught in a cage, with no way out to spread my wings. I want someone to let me out!

But it’s my cage, after all. Don’t I have the key somewhere?

In a while the feeling passes, and all is well.


On our last day, I’ve decided to go out on a day trip to Isla Mujeres. The trip includes a catamaran ride across to the island, snorkeling and parasailing.

The ride across is wonderful. On the ride across to Isla Mujeres and the snorkeling reef, we speed across the vivid turquoise water writhing beneath us. I love the roughest waves that rock us front to back, find myself rocking in balance with the boat fluidly in a way that I imagine would not so different from riding a horse.

Not that I would know, to say whether it’s a fair comparison.

I meet a single woman from the Edmonton area. She’s excited to learn I’m from Jersey — she vacationed in New York recently, and notes what lovely fall colors we get here. In Edmonton it doesn’t get pretty, she tells me, the trees just go yellow — not all reds and oranges like we get. I tell her that I’d heard good things about Alberta though, from a friend who used to live in Calgary. Because of Banff, she tells me, all those beautiful mountains.

Beyond that she gushes about the resort she’s staying at — an adults-only affair that she makes sound like a hotbed of hedonism (and sexually transmitted disease likely just from using the pools) — but great for singles. I’m not so sure, as the day goes on. There’s another group of people hanging around together from there. Five of them, 2 girls and 3 guys. As the day sets out it is all one big party for them, and they are all joined at the hip but at the end of the day it’s clearer that they are 2 couples and one single guy. He’s been fun for them to hang around with, a great drinking buddy, but I notice that at the end they separate from him and he leaves the boat alone, seeming lonely for all his boisterous energy during the day.

I’m not sure I’d want to stay in a place that is mainly couples on display and singles desperate and hungry to find company, even briefly.

When we arrive at the reef, the cold that struck me during the night makes me feel like I’m gagging. This prevents me from trying to snorkel. I am disappointed beyond measure not to be able to see, just for a moment, the wonders beneath the surface, or to feel the much-needed cool of the water on my skin.

Isla Mujeres is a disappointment — just another shopping opportunity, with much the same merchandise we saw at the Plaza, but more expensive. Even so, I buy a hat against the heat of the day and sun in my face. The heat is becoming oppressive as we reach the lunch location — another disappointing (though not unexpected so) buffet — but a cool limeade, some time in the shade and a brief dip in the shallow water of the limited beach revive me quickly. Our time on this quiet slip of beach is an oasis of peace in the day.

The drinks are free on the catamaran, and those that are drinking are getting sillier, or louder, as the day goes on.

When the Edmonton girl covers up against the sun, the videographer comes over and strikes up a conversation with her. He’s flirting with her under the guise of concern. From the corner of my eye I can see that he’s playing with the towel where it drapes over her knee, an excuse to initiate a light touch. She registers what he’s doing, allows it. Interesting to watch this exchange between them, a dance to which I do not know the steps. But ultimately it’s a dance not meant to be observed. I look away.

On the way back across the channel, we cut the motor and sail this time, a smoother ride and remarkably fast. We stop to parasail. I’ve been before, and love it — but they won’t let me go; only strong swimmers are permitted in these currents.

Most of the people on this excursion, it turns out, are from western Canada. There’s one couple from the UK, one from Germany, one from the Philippines. A large man from Minnesota who tells the Edmonton girl that Minnesota comes from a native word that means “Land of Lakes” and that Minneapolis is from a native word meaning “City of Lakes” (I stifle the urge to point out that -polis is from Greek; it doesn’t matter). A handful from other parts of Mexico.

I am standing by the railing when hands close on my hips briefly. I am startled by the touch. When I turn to find out who is touching me, it’s the husband of a woman from Calgary to whom I’d spoken earlier. He asks my pardon to get past me to where his young daughter is standing, as he presses past. No intention, I realize, it’s just that he’s been drinking and is that much more unsteady on his feet while the catamaran rolls. When the crew men touch me on the shoulder every time they pass on their way to tie us up at dock, it’s only because I’ve managed to sit in the corner, a touchstone in their way to keep themselves steady.

Off the dock people go their own way. I smile and wave goodbye — noting for the first time how much older than the other four the fifth member of their party now seems, and how sad and lonely he seems as he walks alone back towards his resort.

I head the other way for the bus stop back to our resort, where a shower and dinner sound absolutely divine.


In the morning we pack for an early departure. Dressed for home, we feel constricted and overheated even so early in the day. As we stop briefly for coffee — no time for breakfast — I see the sailboat at its usual docking point. I am tempted to run down the beach, to find the man again. I want to know the name of his boat; I want to learn his name. There is no time; no explanation I could offer for it that would satisfy anyone but me. Even if I were to shake his hand — weathered, strong, bronze warmth enveloping my small pale one — even if I were to feel the heat of it traveling along the nerve endings up my arm and up by spine, it wouldn’t matter. I would only credit it to someone else’s account.


We return to the airport, quieter from the outside than when we arrived but inside it is only slightly less chaotic than Philadelphia was. We inch through a seemingly endless line to finally get checked in, then race across the airport through security and finally to our gate.

I hand my boarding pass and passport to the attendant. I watch his hands as he looks at my paperwork. “Melissa Grace?” he asks me. I look up then, and smile. “That’s me!” He smiles back. “Beautiful eyes,” he says as he hands me back my paperwork.

They are the last words anyone speaks to me on the soil of Mexico.

Copyright © 2007

 

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~ by lorakceel on July 27, 2010.

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