As the plane flew over the Gulf of Mexico, I felt like I was flying between two heavens: the vast ocean below, the borderless sky above, and the plane, just another cloud between two endless pockets of blue. I spent much of the time on the plane alternating between watching some Meg Ryan movie and glancing out the window: Are we over the ocean yet? The first time I looked out my tiny window and realized that, yes, we were over the ocean, I almost cried. For me seeing the water below meant two things: 1) I was almost in Mexico and 2) (more importantly) I was looking at the ocean (Obvious, no?). I recently realized that this past year in Colorado is longest I have ever been more than a 30 minute drive from the ocean. Then, the opaque ocean I know disappeared and became a translucent green. I was speechless. From above, the water of Cancun was breathtaking.
On the plane, wide mouthed, gaping at the splendor of the tri-color water, I told myself I would check out the beach after I got to my hostel. That never happened. At the airport, after the initial shock of what felt like 100% humidity in 90 degree weather, I found the public bus and realized that I had just spoken more Spanish in the short time I had been in Mexico than the last few years in The States. I was on the air conditioned bus, watching some American movie dubbbed in Spanish, heading to my hostel, reveling in the realization that I am in Mexico. I didn't want beaches full of tourists, I wanted to explore Cancun and see how the Mexican's live. My hostel happened to be in the downtown area and after finding it, I headed to the supermercado to buy food to cook for dinner. The streets were dirty, trinkets being sold on every corner, traffic barely stopping and me, joining the crowds, ran across streets trying not to get hit by some bus. A smell that I had forgotten came back to me. I cannot pinpoint the exact source of the smell - exhaust, sun on old pavement, gasoline - but it is a smell I can only associate with a Mexican city. Standing on a random corner, sweat beads sliding down my face, my stomach, the back of my thighs, like a dog I sniffed the air and smiled. After 10 years, I finally was back in Mexico.
The next morning, I had arranged to catch a bus at 7:30am for the hour ride down to Playa Del Carmen. I set my alarm and passed out. When it went off, the room was dark and muggy. All I wanted to do was hit snooze and sleep in a wind tunnel but, knowing neither one was on my list of choices, I got up. Plus, the idea of my curly-haired driver, Ricardo (I met him the night before), nudging me awake was tad-bit too humiliating to want to stay in bed. I stumbled downstairs to ask Alberto, the man in charge, if there was any coffee. He told me it was on the stove, and then I noticed it was only 5am. I, like the moron I can be, set my clock wrong. My only condolence was that I was still on Colorado time. So, up way too early, in the dark morning, surrounded by tropical plants, I sat on a terrace in Mexico, drank the best coffee (ever), and listened to multitudes of bird sing to each other as Cancun slowly awoke from her slumber.
I could and should stop the story there, but what is the fun in that? Overwhelmed by the surreal feel of the morning, I decided to do some stretches as the sun rose. Isn't that the kind of relaxing stuff I am supposed to do on a vacation? I decided to stretch on the upper deck of the cement patio - that way I could view the park across the street. Well, because I am a graceful ballerina, as I began to stretch, I stumbled backwards, slipped off the deck and hit both my knee and my face on one of the poles supporting the patio awning and fell back into a few of the chairs. I heard Alberto running up the stairs. Luckily, I was able to get in one of the chairs and feign wellness. Noise? What noise? No, I didn't hear a thing. Despite being in Mexico, I was glad to know that I still could find ways to bruise my legs. I could hear my friend Monique's words: "Where you at, there you is." The saltwater stings the cut on my knee.
The night before, I had decided today would be spent doing nothing but laying on the beach. I got to Playa Del Carmen, put my stuff away and walked the 1/2 block to the beach. Once again, when I saw that water my brain shut off except for one thought: WOW! I have to get in that emerald water. The beach here is fantastic. The sand is the softest (yes, 'soft' is the right adjective) I have ever felt. Walking through the sand feels like whipping cream that has been beaten in a food processor until it is light and fluffy. It just shifts and lifts with each bodily movement. Let me say again, the sand here is soft. Soon, I learned, it also acts as an adhesive to wet skin. I rented a lounge chair for 4.00$ (American dollars) and read a book for about 5 hours. The only time I left that lounge chair was for the occasion dip in the Caribbean Sea. The sea salt was so abundant I didn't have to fight the ocean to stay afloat; I just layed in the water and stared at the sky, thanking a God I didn't even know I believed in for allowing me each of these amaxing moments. I thought about the sterotypical cerveza commercial and if it wasn't for my not-so-flexible budget I may have traded in my water bottle for a beer.
Playa Del Carmen, it doesn't take a genius to figure out, is a mecca for tourists. The main street, Avenida Quinta, is a brick walk that follows the coastline. In truth, I found it to be a sardine packed cement canister of shops, hotels, and bars. I could not walk the street without being accosted at every other shop to buy this or buy that or accompany some man to go dancing in the evening. At night I went exploring with a Canadian woman, Olivia. At 10pm, Avenida Quinta was more crowded than it was at 3pm. I was sorry that I was staying there two nights and decided to leave for a day trip the next day. From the top terrace of my hostel, I could see the lights of Cozumel in the distance. After experiencing Playa Del Carmen, Cozumel was not an option. I could only imagine all the same tourists riding the ferry to experience that island.
Today, I found the priceless gem Puerto Morelos. Puerto Morelos is a small pueblo about a 30 minute bus ride north of Playa Del Carmen. Nobody in the hostel had heard of the town and the man working the desk had nothing to say about it. Already, a sign of good things to come. The bus dropped me off at a corner of Hwy 307 where a taxi waited. The taxi man, a thief in civilian clothing, wanted to charge me 10$ for a ride to the town. Quickly, actually without a bit of hesitation, I decided my legs worked just fine. The walk turned out to be 20 relaxing minutes along a rode lined with Mangroves. I didn't even know what a mangrove was when I woke up this morning, but now.... Sadly though, many of the mangroves were dead due to Hurricane Wilma in 2005. I am quickly learning that Wilma, that crazy girl, destroyed a huge portion of the Riviera Maya and much of it still has yet to be restored. I would equate walking into Puerto Morelos to holding your breath in a long, dark tunnel and finally exhaling in the bright, warm light of day. It is a quiet town with few tourists. I walked straight to the ocean and met Paco and Gustavo, two men who run a snorkeling business. They made me feel comfortable right away. Maybe it was because Paco has a friend, Steve, who lives in Denver. Ah, Steve. Good guy. I eventually went snorkeling with their guide but first I walked the bright and empty streets. I saw a few workers, a small farmer's market, and only a handful of cars driving by. The town was quiet except for an occasional child's voice and a lone bird. I was in love. The quiet solitude of Puerto Morelos was a sweet fruit after all the crowds and noise of both Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. Following the advice of Paco and Gustavo, I found a group of palm frond huts where the local artisans were making and selling woodwork, ceramics, hammocks and clothes. One woman showed me how she handstitched and embroidered all the dresses in her shop. From a corner she brought out the materials she just recently bought to make blouses. I was truly honored to be talking with this craftswoman. I regretted not bringing more money because her work was exceptional. Instead of the blouses and dresses that I coveted, I opted for a simple blue, hand-embroidered head scarf. I then headed to the vacant beach where the only other tourists were native spanish speakers - except for the woman sun bathing in only a thong, I suspect her to be European. Walking the streets, smelling the sea air, hearing a solo bird sing, I couldn't help but smile. Here, in Puerto Morelos, nobody tried to sell me a tacky beer holder or overpriced "Riviera Maya" labeled hat. I didn't want my day in Puerto Morelos to end. Compared to the crowded, over-developed Playa Del Carmen, here I was on my own private island. If you ever get a chance, go check out Puerto Morelos. But be sure to find Paco and Gustavo near the leaning light tower. I recommend paying 20$ and spending 2 hours snorkeling - your life will shine a bit brighter afterwards.