Rejuvenating Mexico Trip

Cam and I spent the past week on an exhilarating Mexican adventure. After landing and narrowly avoiding a hotel scheme to get us to buy a time share, we took a rousing SUV cab ride into Playa del Carmen to a Bed and Breakfast named Hacienda El Sol. En route our driver relayed stories about the fast economic growth of the area and even taught us a few Mayan words he'd learned from a co-worker. Despite our late night arrival at the hostel, Hamza, our host greeted us with Grapefruit Margaritas. We talked late into the night and his wife Paula easily joined in our conversations, after she arrived late from a singing gig. We talked about how we'd arrived to meet in that moment- how they'd come to live in Mexico from Europe, why Cam and I work so much, Gypsy's, Yoga in Netherlands, and our plans for the week.

We slept sound that night and awoke to the sun filtering the windows of the room and the sound of a kid riding his skate board on the street. Stumbling down the stairs, we were happy to see a lovely breakfast complete with fresh fruit smoothie, coffee, yogurt, bread, cheese, and a hard-boiled egg. Borrowing their spare bikes, we attempted to navigate the roads in the neighborhoods of the Playa del Carmen suburbs as they gave way to the touristy international beach front. While riding, we saw houses in various states of construction using the cement and rebar technique. Along the road we saw empty lots overgrown with trees and refrigerators dumped into corners. Men worked with blow torches in a garage. Dogs barked from their yards. Women drove tricycles with kids seated on homemade bench seats made out of a 2x4. By the time we reached the highway overpass, I realized we were surrounded by other bikers on their way to work or run errands. They cruised past me as I relished that moment of briefly being a part of their daily routine. Arriving near the downtown promenade, the road shifted to become a tourist site where people were speaking all languages and walking every which way.

We wanted to locate our friends, Travis and Brooke, who were getting married. (the reason we came to Mexico) After a false lead at one hotel, we heard Travis' dad yelling "Cam" from a rooftop. We headed into the hotel and met friends who had come in from all over the U.S. to attend the wedding. Following a catchup, we headed to the rooftop to help Travis work on an Archway he had designed for his wedding. Artist mode intact, Cam and I had fun feeling useful as we painted burning hearts surrounded by water and lots of flowers.

After finishing our work, we rode back to our B and B stopping for food at a roadside restaurant where they cook in front of you. Feeling adventurous, I decided to try Mondongo, this tasty broth was surprisingly made from cow stomach. I wasn't as tough as I thought, after drinking much of the broth and a few chunks of feathery looking stomach, slightly grossed out, I concentrated on drinking my safer Choco Milk.
Back in town later that night we ate and hung out with all the new arriving visitors. A highlight was my silly challenge to Peter to have a sun salutation competition. He confidently accepted and I think we completed more than 20. I felt this in my arms for the next three days.

Friday we rode into town needing to look for a hostel as our place had prior weekend reservations. We spent the morning doing one of my favorite travel rituals; wandering. Pattern crazy fabric stores. Side streets with tourist shops promising Artesania from all over Mexico. Old men that called out to Cam, "Hey Mr. Weeeiskers, I got what you want." Designer clothing stores from Italy. Tired and wanting to escape the crowds, we ate lunch at 100% Natural, a vegetarian friendly cafe with a giant menu to match, where I had a delicious nutty veggie burger covered in grilled mushrooms.

We walked to the beach and ran into members of the wedding party. Cam joined a bunch of people in the turquoise blue water as I settled in the sand for a nap. Ahh, the sun felt like a rejuvenating antidote to the winter laziness that chased me in St. Louis. Biking home in an unfamiliar neighborhood, we tried to beat the setting sun.

That night was the rehearsal dinner and so we attempted to catch a cab downtown. Navigating pubic transit is one of my favorite things about traveling, I particularly like any situations where I encounter people who live in a place, and if I can I do my best to strike up a conversation, it could be anyone a cab driver, a passenger, a person waiting for a ride. I've been known to sing with cab drivers, I've gotten free rides, and I've learned about their families. While trying to find a taxi, we ended up in a collectivo van headed to Tres Hermanos. Earlier that day we had talked with three men at an Artesania shop that told me that they were Tres Hermanos the shoe place. ( I was looking for a pair of shoes to wear to a beach wedding. ) I figured we could definitely figure our way to the rehearsal dinner from there. "Tres Hermanos!" called out the driver, I was surprised to see that we had arrived at a two building storefront shoe store with that name, it was not the Artesania shop! Synchronicity of travel, sometimes you find a place you were looking for when you least expect it.

Back at the rehearsal dinner at Indigo we ate a yummy meal. The presentation honored the local cuisine; a bouquet of fruit on a stick, green salad topped with Caribbean fruit. My favorite was the dessert, a rice pudding infused with jasmine and garnished with honey and fresh vanilla flowers on top.

The day of the wedding Cam had to help setup the archway and prepare for his role as groomsman. Paula invited me to join her morning yoga class at The Gym. I was reminded how spectacular it feels to do yoga in a new place and connect with people through that practice. During class I felt powerful reenacting the poses I'd learned from lines of teachers before me. Emily, Ken, Kathleen, Rhonda, and all their teachers. Although I was weak in my arms and a bit embarrassed that I'd worn them out doing Show-ga those few nights ago, I was happy to challenge myself in other flexible feats and even tried to "fly" while in lotus. Paula drove me home and told me of her future plans; still singing opera, writing a book. We laughed as she'd watched Eat, Pray, Love, the night before and I mused that she was basically living that novel in her own style. I was sad to say goodbye to their hospitality and engaging conversations.

I relocated our stuff to our new hostel; Casa Tucan and then took myself on a little walking adventure to eventually seek lunch, a place to write, and that pair of wedding sandals. At the Cafe, my mind flooded with remembering- past loves in Mexico, a heart I had broken, people I had traveled with, senses, smells, and memories that had been dormant until this return trip. There in that space forgetting what language to speak feeling Spain self, Mexican self, South American self, wondering what to call them when housed in a Gringa from the States. Looking at people around me, I questioned if they ever felt moved enough to write. Beyond these thoughts there was a deep sigh of arriving that felt so clear. How could I keep this sense of travel?- the lightness of my bag, the immediacy and intimacy of my conversations, the sense of wonder.

With great haste, I walked to Travis and Brooke's Condo to change and catch the wedding bus. We rode out to Club Blue Cacao and were received by the blue blue ocean, split and enclosed by the archways we had built and a small arrangement of chairs. The light was perfect just before dusk and it was slightly cloudy so it was cool.

Travis and Brooke had a meaningful wedding that was built around the involvement of their friends. A close friend married them, Musician friends played songs, I read a Mayan wedding prayer, and another friend read a bit of Dante's Inferno. After they kissed, a mariachi group began to play and then continued to entertain us as the wedding party took photos. We moved into the enclosed reception patio just as rain started. Drinks and dances later we headed inside to eat. Scalloped Chicken, papaya salad, fresh bread, creamy mashed potatos. mmmm. Travis and Brooke cut a Tres Leches and chocolate cake then we returned to the patio to dance. As the night became more raucous people danced in the swimming pool and a group of wild souls, my self included, went for an ocean swim in our wedding clothes. On the bus ride back home people danced up and down the aisle. I hope that the festivity of the wedding might represent all the joyful years the bride and groom have ahead of them.

Waking up late the next morning, Cam and I pondered what kind of adventure we could have, as we had already missed the buses for many day trips, that left in the early morning.
Six years earlier I had traveled around Mexico by myself and culminated my trip by visiting the Centro Ecologico, a turtle refuge in Akumal, Mexico, that allowed individuals to stay there in exchange for volunteer work and a small donation. This site was both a highlight and a low point on my previous trip. I had been moved to tears by my first experience snorkeling there as I saw an incredible amount of reef life. Then that night I was debilitated by a frightening painful sickness made even scarier by my being alone in a secluded town. Realizing that such dramatic experiences had tinged my viewpoint of this place, I was curious about how the town had changed in relation to my memory and the booming tourist expansion.

Arriving in Akumal, I was surprised about how many new buildings there were, while also relieved that it had somehow maintained a quaint atmosphere. Trying to orient myself, I looked for the room where I had stayed. Where was the center? We located the center and then I looked at the beach that was no longer desolate, but now surrounded by condos and sunbathers. We rented bikes and rode out to a lagoon that I had not been able to see my first stay there. The ride was sunny, animals darted across the bumpy road intersecting with puddles and the occasional car. At the end of the road we arrived at the lagoon, paid the park fee, and rented snorkeling equipment. Suiting up, we headed towards the water and as we entered the water we were already stunned by the amount of fish life that we saw within our reach.

I enjoyed having Cam identify all the fish around us and liked watching him diver under to try and see a fish closer. I myself attempted to become a part of schools of fish; swimming after them only to be left behind. We swam for several hours and eventually headed towards the ocean and coral. Less fish so we turned around. The only moment I felt scared was when I realized that I had swam into a shallow passage of small jellyfish. I escaped by awkwardly climbing on some rocks. Finally getting cold because of the setting sun and also needing to use the bathroom, we climbed out of the water. We explored the rocky landscape stopping to examines the sculptures that had been interspersed among the shifting stones and patches of trees.

Back at the center of Akumal, I snapped photographs still trying to locate the place I had stayed. We stopped to eat some appetizers at a newly built restaurant and from my seat, I recognized the building I had stayed, now disguised behind tall bushes. Walking near the building I located the phone I had used to call my mom in my scariest moment. It all seemed rather plain and old fashioned now. The center of the town housed a basketball court that had been empty my previous visit, it was now occupied by a craft shop. Inside we met a woman that crafted beaded jewelry and I bought a pair of earring that matched my top for around $3.

Tired from our day, we walked back to the highway to try and catch a bus. A few minutes into our wait a collectivo pulled up, the door opened revealing many people who worked at the hotels some even dressed in traditional indigenous outfits. We climbed in and got to experience the post work pick up and drop off, car pool Yucatan style. We showed up just in time to reach the wedding crew for dinner on the beach complete with fire performers and shared foods. Its fun to eat dinner with my feet buried in the sand.

A long line at the ATM the next morning, followed by a hurried breakfast, a fast walk to ABYSS the SCUBA shop, and a plea to change our snorkel reservation into a scuba dive, only to learn that we would have a better dive if we went the following day. Deciding we wanted a complete dive experience, we headed to the bus stop to see if we could reach the COBA ruins.

All signs said COBA was unreachable after 10am although I thought that we could find a way if we took a bus to Tulum which was near the turnoff for COBA. We road the bus to Tulum, another location I'd stayed six year ago and then walked from the bus stop to the Coba road turn off. The road was unfamiliar to me and I could not place this booming street built around the high way with my minds memory of a small town with a gravel road. Reaching a roadside restaurant surrounded by Taxis, I asked a Taxi how much to Coba, some negotiating and conversations later, we agreed to ride out to COBA with him and take a bus ride back. With our window down the cool air whippped our faces and cooled the sweat we'd amassed from walking in the sun. Little cafes and artesania shops surrounded the roads, now closed in the afternoon, following the busy tourist morning.

When we reached the COBA ruins we were told that we had an hour to explore so we ought to head to the big pyramid. Walking through the woods, men driving bikes offered to give us rides to the big pyramid warning us again that we had better hurry. The time of the day suited me as it was cooler and the light was trickling through the leaves of the trees. They reminded me of sun light in river birches in the Missouri river bottom land. The great pyramid was large, not as large as say Teotihuacan, but still a worthy climb. Using the "zig zag" technique we quickly arrived at the top beating those doing the "strait up climb with rope assistance". The view at the top was amazing you could see across all the tree tops and get a peek at a river in the distance, the clouds made dynamic white shaped compositions in the sky.

Back on the ground, we wondered among ancient basketball courts and early painted structures now faded due to time and weather. On the path surrounded by trees, Cam shot a picture of me and framed it just like a drawing I had just completed that was based on a postcard from the Czech Republic. Was I meant to be here? Was I now the figure on the card?

Searching for the bus stop, we luckily spotted an ATM so we could afford to buy both our tickets and a shared meal. We ate a Yucattan style prepared fish wrapped in a banana leaf, it was excellent. Post food -we sat in front of the bus station on lawn chairs and watched the town respond to the end of the day. I completed the sketch below of another palapa (thatched roof) restaurant. People of all ages gave each other rides on the back of bikes. Children ran to the convenience store loading up on snacks. Mothers pushed babies in strollers. Laborers walked and rode home from work. Grandmas ambled up and down the street stopping to chat with other people seated outside. An hour passed until the bus arrived, Cam and I climbed into the packed bus and located seats apart. I feel asleep to the rain of air conditioner condensation misting my face.

Arriving in Playa, we met up with Travis and Brooke, to celebrate their last night in town. We spent the night walking around the neighborhoods stopping to eat pizza at an Italian Restaurant, gazing in the windows of store fronts slowly closing, and finally walking the beach at night one last time before they left.

The next day we said goodbye to Travis and Brooke after sharing brunch with them. Then Cam and I headed to the Scuba shop to get ready for our diving adventure. After watching a video from the 80's with funny but helpful instructions like, "Breathe Normally", we tried on our wet suits and went to the hotel pool. Our instructor Cathy went over the equipment with us and I felt fine until we submerged into the water. Underwater she signed to us and we tried to demonstrate the skills she had shown us. A few minutes into the water I felt super panicky and I signed for her to come up.
"What's wrong?" she said.
"I feel like I am getting too much air!", I answered.
She laughed and said "I am more worried about the opposite".
Her laughter reassured me so I went back under water and completed the skills still a little uncertain if I could remember it all and complete the dive.

We climbed through a rocky beach to reach the boat and then hoisted ourselves inside. We talked with another diver who was excited to be completing his certification that afternoon after a rough dive the previous day due to diarhea and nausea from the boat ride. The boat ride out was choppy, but the site of massive turquoise water and the ability to gain the perspective of the town from the viewpoint of the ocean was well worth any bumps. When it was time to dive into the water Cathy showed us the procedure with such confidence and ease that by the time we were underwater, I had barely realized we had already reached the bottom.

It was breathtaking under water. With snorkeling I always had the view looking down at a world below me now suddenly I was immersed and surrounded by fish and sea life. While we begin to swim the little mermaid song played in my mind as I began to notice all the fish and sea urchins. Cathy was quick to point out new fish to us and would sign or show us their quirky behaviors. Fish that appeared to always be sleeping. Eels that looked like little seaweed and would pull into the sand like something out of Avatar. Giant sea turtles eating from plant life on the ocean floor. Eagle Spotted Rays with their little winged arms moving like a creature flying through the water. Giant schools of fish the spiraled in double helix forms moving with such unison that they kept their form and it was nearly impossible to follow the path of a single fish. We were the aliens in their world and they could care very little who or what we were. No sooner had the dive begun and it was over. Back on the boat, the man getting certified complimented Cam and I, saying how peaceful we made the experience and how much he thought we were natural divers.
Needles to say Cam and I decided to go on another dive with them. This time underwater I felt more comfortable. I let go of my grip on my respirator and confidently glided under water like Ester Williams with gills in an astronaut suit.

How can I explain this? When I was thirteen I was convinced that there was nothing I wanted more than to be a marine biologist- to swim among fish and to protect their way of life. I developed this romantic dream out of my love of swimming and my 90's environmentalism. It was an odd thing to consider since I'd grown up landlocked with minimal experiences in the ocean save vacations. By the time I had to chose a college, I had only picked schools near the ocean, in line with this dream, but finally opted to go to a state school after having a realization that perhaps I was more of an artist than a scientist. So it was like rejoining my thirteen year old self with my 33yrd old self.

Being underwater in a coral reef is like entering a strange amazing ecosystem. Wonder, imagination, is activated by the animated sea life. A giant moray eel ducks his head in and out of a cave- a strange frightening creature just as scared of me. As I kneel on the ocean floor little fish enter into my moving hair and nibble at my scalp like I am giant plant. I can't think of a more convincing experience as to why we need to protect our oceans than experiencing this bizaare and wonderful world.

Coming back onto land I felt more connected to Playa del Carmen, to the environment. We met up with Kyle, another wedding attendee, to say our food goodbyes to Mexico. Tacos from a hole in the wall near our hostel, licuados at our favorite dig, elote near the park where bats flew, and finally some shared empanadas and steak at an Argentinian restaurant. We bought our goodbye souvenirs, walked, and then talked late into the night. We awoke in the morning to start our long journey home.

Looking back on this trip I feel an internal peacemaking with myself. The first time I made the trip to Mexico I impulsively decided to travel by myself. Don't get me wrong, I wanted the empowering adventure of doing it on my own. Alone I could do much less if I wanted to be safe and so I relied on my gut instinct, no adventuring at night, and the occasional kindness of strangers as travel partners. As fun as it was, I ended that trip sick and then eventually breaking someone's heart. Now on this trip with a partner I loved, I was able to travel with confidence and ease and share that with someone that also loved to discover and try new things. I was able to make new memories of this place through a lovely wedding. I highly recommend traveling to this area for anyone wanting an easy mid range affordable vacation with a lot of outdoor adventure, tasty food, and plenty of people willing to help you navigate the vicinity.

Here back in the U.S. I write this with a sort of melancholy. I write this because I wish to hold on and remember this trip particularly now as I enter a stressful period of job working. This trip helped me to connect to dreams I have inside to travel for a longer period of time, to do volunteer work, to see places I have not yet, to learn to scuba dive. Here I am bound by a schedule of commitments that I made previously and that I will see through. Meanwhile inside, I am ready for a slower life, one with more travel, more art, and less commitments. This is the bittersweet nature of Campbells' hero's adventure; how to integrate the experiences, insight, and growth from a trip into an individual's daily life. How to make way and space for the new self and tomorrow's adventure.


Lisa said…
It sounds like an amazing trip!

Thinking of you in New York,

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