I’ve been home two weeks and just managed to get my suitcases off the floor. All of my clothes from the trip have been washed and dried several times; I put some back in the open-face suitcase just so it looked a little fuller, the rest have formed a nice body pillow on my bed. It’s like I can’t mentally let go of this trip. I feel that if I really unpack, put my clean laundry away and store all of my tiny, TSA approved toiletries, the experience is over. I can’t deal.
In my mind, I see the low, burnt, orange peel of a moon that guided us from Alexandria to Shreveport, through to Dallas and on to the bright, freshly squeezed sun of Cancun, and I smile. I should have known that the rare moon symbolized how unique and unpredictable the trip was going to be. The group trip, my first real trip with more than my family and a few friends, to Tulum, Quintana-Roo was new nostalgia, permanent memories that have only crossed me in my dreams ever-so often, but not quite enough.
Last night I stuck my mouth under the cool faucet for a rinse after brushing my teeth, a feeling I reveled in like never before. We couldn’t do that in Mexico, not where we were (though I wouldn’t recommend doing that anywhere. I think my stomach is still pissed for the few sips that seeped in.) That refreshing swish reminded me of how easy we have it in America, the simple luxury that is pure drinking water; we’re spoiled. The word germophobe seems like the most asinine term in the dictionary; we know nothing of germs, disease, or real poverty here. In Tulum, I had to wipe and throw my toilet paper in the trash, as there is no real sewage system. As you can imagine, this wasn’t pleasant for the first day or so, but we all got used to it. Well, kind of.
The simple act of being unable to flush my poop humbled me, though I was humbled over and over throughout the trip, and thought constantly of how I hoped my attitude towards the place I call home would change.I am here to say, my perspective has been thoroughly and forever reshaped; the United States, and the people in it, will never be the same in my mind. It’s one thing to read about countries like this, it’s another to see it; while we definitely do have an impoverished, homeless population here, the face is totally different from the one I saw in Tulum.
Our Riviera Maya AirBnB surpassed spectacular, though I wasn’t positive I was going to feel that way getting there. I’ll admit it, I was being judgy. After arriving in Cancun, we had to find transportation to our home in Tulum, which was about an hour or so away – technically two but there is one speed in Mexico and that is fast: the speech, the food, the taxis. All the speed of light. We drove through Cancun in all of its over-sized, Americanized, touristy glory. We drove past dwarfing entrances to exclusive resorts, spas and – what I assume to be – rehabilitation centers. And then, just as I was nodding off, weary from thirty hours or so of awakeness, we entered Tulum.
The roads were dirty and only lightly peppered with people, a sight I am always happy to see, especially when traveling; crowds aren’t really my thing anymore. We zoomed through what I mentally labeled “Bohemia” and eventually slammed in to the residential area that backed up to the jungle – yes, you read that right. I didn’t know what to think, so I surveyed the area in a decaffeinated haze: overcast sky, trees everywhere, many stray dogs. Isn’t it supposed to be sunny? Where’s the beach? I was promised beach!!! A faint stench in the air filled my nose – trash and salt, mostly – not a great smell but my senses adjusted quickly. Late twenties early thirties men stood at all levels, working on various houses. Some looked on with friendly faces, others whistled, while the rest just stared and laughed at the group of Americans trying to count pesos. – We didn’t get very good at this until the third day of the trip. And by we I mean everyone else, because I would just melt in to a weeping, margarita puddle every time we had to figure out what we owed. I learned I am not good with currency exchange.
Our host greeted us a few minutes later and upon opening the door to the casa we could only stand with our jaws on the floor or meander around in wonderment. The house was three stories high, ground floor hosting two more than reasonably sized rooms, a large kitchen and dining space, and a patio/swimming pool to boot. Second floor was the master suite, which include a giant office/multimedia room, and the top floor was designed for open-seating and hammock swinging. We were in paradise, and we hadn’t seen the beach yet!
I immediately tossed my bag on the floor and began exploring the house…the massive, amazing space I’d only seen in my dreams or magazines on airplanes. Our host, a lovely Scottish chap, completely designed the place himself and lived a few doors down in an equally impressive casa. I could do nothing but drink it all in; two hours in to Mexico and I’d already mentally filled half of a notebook with observations.
After we’d settled in to our spaces, the seven of us set off in search of tacos, because what else would we want after landing in Mexico? We found tacos, we found the best tacos straight out the gate at a little hole in the wall, La Chiapaneca. I think everyone was picturing dinner at a beautiful, patio-style restaurant with a menu pages and pages long. Instead, the seven of us huddled around a table just big enough to fit us all, were served drinks with no ice and ordered tacos by the plate, which were served plain. I was so excited I got to decorate my own tacos with: hotter than hell Habanero sauce, cool jalapeno sauce, lettuce and sliced radishes. I was in taco heaven.
I promised myself I would eat fifteen tacos on the trip, though only made it through five; I had to branch out and try some other things. Authentic Mexican fare was just too good to pass up.
Other fresh delicacies that couldn’t be missed? Local markets that were filled with amazing fruits and vegetables that we would eventually chop up and snack on all week.
I have to take the time to mention the freaking spectacular mojitos at a local bar named Batey’s (Ba-tay.) Seriously, if you’re ever in the area, this is a must. We were ushered in by the friendliest staff in town and served mojitos so fresh I looked around for a mojito tree. The large glasses of the sweet drink were packed with homegrown mint, fruit of your choice (I chose watermelon, for the first few)and completed with a raw sugar cane. Can you say perfection? The evening was just beginning as our first round of drinks arrived and Maria and her husband – a 60+ professional flamenco dancer/guitarist duo – took the stage. We were entertained by the charming couple for a few hours; long enough to catch a thick buzz that would lull me in to the sleep of the dead.
Our first morning in Tulum was cloudy and gorgeous. I was surprised when a cool breeze hit me in the face as I walked up the steps for an early swing in the hammock. Everyone else slept while I took in the quiet sounds of morning. I rocked back and forth and thought about how just hours ago I’d been on American soil, feeling overwhelmed by the arrival and passing of summer. Life is constantly pushing us forward, and sometimes, rather quickly.
Through my contemplation, I heard the arrival of the men building new houses in our neighborhood. I heard one talking loudly, a voice so close I thought he was behind me. I said, “Hola,” to the faceless voice and heard nothing, then out of nowhere, a tiny hat and pair of dark brown, smiling eyes popped up over the edge of the house and the voice greeted me, “Hola, senorita.” I smiled back, waved and headed down the stairs as the hat disappeared.
Other voices were exchanging random dialogue as I meandered back in to the house in search of coffee. Here’s a thing about Mexico that I don’t like: instant coffee. Though I didn’t understand why then, it has donned on me since that instant coffee uses less water for preparation; makes perfect sense now, though I still don’t enjoy it. To satiate my coffee craving (craving = addiction) my loving boyfriend and his sweet sister took me to find a cup of hot coffee. We walked through the quiet streets scouting out potential supper spots, noting where to rent bicycles, and who had the best vegetarian menus. I popped in to a few small Bodega in search of “non-preparado” coffee, with no luck at all. They really drink this shit like this?! Impossible! I’m coffee snob, no matter what country I’m in.
The night before, on our short trek home, Krishna pointed out a little spot, Burrito Amor. I made a mental note that we should try it out, “how bad could it be? The word ‘burrito’ is in the name!” I’m so happy I love burritos so much and can be lured in so easily; it was hands-down the best decision of the trip…well, maybe. There, Neil found an iced coffee, Krishna an iced latte and a hot macchiato and a bag of coffee the size of my forearm for me. I was so so so pleased that I didn’t have to “suffer” through instant coffee for the rest of the trip. We brought burritos home for everyone, which we quickly consumed before heading to the beach.
Here’s where the trip becomes one long series of sunrises and sunsets for me. I don’t remember much of the details of each day because I was in such bliss. Our cab ride to the beach filled me with such wild anticipation, like I’d never seen a beach before or something; really, it was slightly ridiculous, but I didn’t care. The beach, any beach at all, is instantly my happy place. There’s something about the cohesiveness of it all: the sights, the sounds, the smell. I take it all in for as long as I possibly can, like a vitamin. This beach, Tulum, was no different; in fact, it was more.
We were dropped at a public beach, which if you’ve ever been to Pensacola or Destin, is beautiful but slightly overwhelming because of the crowds, nearby resorts, etc.
This beach was completely untouched, and I mean that when I say it. No resorts, no restaurants, no nothing aside from the small tiki bar that was serving up coconut drinks and fresh fish all day; talk about glorious. Upon walking up, it took everything in me not to drop my things and immediately run in to the water like a child. Sand, whiter than snow, ocean, bluer than any ink or paint I’ve seen on a palette. I close my eyes and think of it now and all I can do is sigh. How something like that can seem ordinary to anyone is beyond my comprehension.
The next few days were filled with long strolls through the jungle of Tulum to get from point A to point B, separate cab rides since vans were hard to come by, and random explorations of different parts of the city. I ate gorgeous fresh food, drank exotic coconut drinks and slept better than I have in years. It was equal parts vacation and work and I loved it. Working for your fun is totally worth the semi-headache.
I think my face was actually in water more than it was out and I’m pretty positive my hair was only dry while I was sleeping. I snorkeled in a cave! A CAVE! I did yoga in the middle of the jungle, taught by a woman who spoke more Spanish than she did English and then, I snorkeled some more. I felt like a living mermaid the entire trip and really gained some perspective about what’s been going on in my life and the world around me. It’s easy to feel small when you’re floating above a stingray that could cover you like a blanket.
Mexico, for me, was about understanding that we need less than what we have and that we should be thankful every damn day that we’re immeasurably blessed with more. Growing up, I always stayed in resorts and had every little thing handed to me when I wanted it. I adored traveling that way, but even then I felt like I was missing part of the puzzle of these amazing places I was experiencing, and I was. I wouldn’t trade those memories for the world, but I’m glad to have to opportunity to immerse myself in different cultures in a fresh way.
One thing I can’t get over: when we went grocery shopping, we filled an entire basket full to the top with all kinds of things I knew we’d never eat in four days. What would have cost $150+ here was a whopping $70 there. I think about this every time I go to Wal-Mart/Target/wherever now. There were people just waiting for us to leave so they could go through our trash to see what could be salvaged. Could you imagine doing that? I know habits can’t change overnight, but this part of the trip humbled me in a way I can’t explain, and I am definitely making a conscious effort to clean my plate when I eat.
I realize I’m leaving out so many parts of this excursion of a lifetime, but I couldn’t possibly write it all down without it being lengthier than it already is. Tulum will always be this dream trip, where I swam with exotic fish while holding hands with the love of my life. It will be me looking over my shoulder on the ride back to the shore and seeing the Mayan ruins staring back at me. It will be the schoolkids buying tacos and ice cream from the cart outside their playground. It will be the long walks to nowhere and back, in the sun and in the shade. It will be sunsets, sunrises and the freedom, promise, and gratitude of more.