I finished the glass of whisky and clicked over to Google Flights. I knew if I didn’t buy the tickets now, I wasn’t going to do it. I didn’t ask for the time off but I had earned it last year, and I was taking it whether it was approved or not. New York to Cancun, read my confirmation. 1 passenger.
Thus began my birthday trip for my 31st. I didn’t have enough vacation time (nor enough room in my budget) to head to Europe, and I’d read a little bit in one of my travel digests about some small island off the coast of Cancun called Isla Mujeres. Why not? The price was right – I’d be flying home the day before my actual birthday, but if I counted Arizona as my 30th birthday trip two weeks post, this counted too. I looked up where to stay and found an inexpensive studio apartment with a fridge and microwave right on the beach at Maravilla Caribe (MVC). You couldn’t book online but I sent an email and placed my deposit via Paypal. I could have booked a hotel but I wanted to stay off the beaten path. I also could have tried a hostel – which I still have yet to do – but I didn’t want to indulge in the typical “spring break in Mexico” party scene. I wanted to enjoy my peace and quiet for a few days.
I also researched how to get around. There was a ferry from Cancun but I’d need to get to the ferry terminal. I could take a cab but they didn’t run from the airport. I could reserve a shuttle but they were more than I wanted to pay. I settled on the most economical – and perhaps sketchiest – option: I would take the bus from the airport. I saved the notes in my phone so I wouldn’t forget.
Arriving in Cancun I was surrounded by typical tourists. I once read less than 25% of the American population holds a passport and something like less than 10% actually use it, so when we meet fellow Americans abroad, we should effectively high-five them at their ability to have made it out of the country at all. I have perhaps a more elitist view, and I wasn’t here to party. I kept my shades on as much as possible to hide my light eyes and spoke no English. I got my bus ticket and went outside in the heat to wait.
I realized I’d forgotten my phone charger cable. I had the charger itself, but not the cable. I travel without a handbag and had forgot to put it in my backpack. Already on the way to Isla Mujeres, I was flashing back to the Amazon: if this “sleepy” island was anything like the remote villages in Colombia, I was screwed. I immediately emailed my hosts at MVC to see if they knew of anywhere on the island I could purchase a cable. Then I boarded the bus and watched a poorly-dubbed American film until we stopped at the taxi stand. The bus had wifi and I was able to link in. Ronda had emailed me back already that she’d put out an APB out on Facebook and had a local tell her there was a store on the island similar to a Walmart that would have the cables. Relieved, I put my phone away and found a taxi. The taxis in Cancun weren’t in as rough shape as the taxis in Brazil and Colombia, but I was still feeling the jungle vibe.
Studies show the human brain remembers every experience it has – that is, everything you’ve experienced in your life leaves an impression in your brain, whether or not you remember, and whether or not you’re able to recall. Studies also show your brain fills in the gaps, and – perhaps most interesting of all – your brain compares all subsequent experiences to a prototype. The first time you experience something real, everything else will relate back to it. For me, my first major trip outside the country was to the Amazon, so even unrelated travel with few similar qualities was recalling that experience. The similarities? I was alone, I was speaking only Spanish, I was surrounded by native culture (once I got on the island), I was eating unusual food, it was hot and humid, I did some traveling by boat. Differences: different country, different accents, different living arrangements, different premise for the trip, different tourists, different economy, different food, different activities….the list goes on. And yet my brain was making me homesick for the Amazon.
The ferry dropped me at the port in Isla Mujeres in the heat of late afternoon. I slung my pack over my shoulder and walked down the sidewalk to my right, south, toward MVC. If I’d done my research properly, I would cross over to the eastern side of the island and come to the house in about two miles. There was construction on the road and once I got past the piers and shops, it got quiet quickly. I wasn’t sure I was headed in the right direction but I kept going. There were only two roads leading North to South, around an airport and some natural lakes, and I knew I needed to be near the ocean side, so I had to be going the right way. The house was a bright turquoise – I couldn’t miss it.
And I didn’t. Just past some construction and around some palm trees, I sawthe turquoise house on my left, the soccer dome to my right. I walked in and went upstairs as instructed to meet Ronda and Bruce. They let me into my apartment and then invited me into theirs to chat. I’d had a long day – why not get to know my hosts? We wound our way past their hammocks (“We sleep in them all the time – they’re so much more comfortable! I’m glad you like hammocks too!”), picked up beers in the fridge, and sat on their ocean-facing balcony to shoot the shit for a couple hours while the sun descended.
Ronda and Bruce were from Texas – oddly enough, where Graham had just moved, and why I’d had that whisky the night I bought the tickets. They’d moved to Isla because they loved the slower pace of life, the sense of community, the paradise-like weather, and the beach. They’d come here on vacation, decided to move, and waited for the house to be built once they got the land. I asked why they didn’t list the apartments on more places and Ronda said she liked to keep things simple. She maintains a community blog – hence why she had local connections to help me with my iPhone cable – and enjoys getting to know the islanders. They were such accommodating hosts, I truly can’t recommend a stay with them earnestly enough. They knew I brought my hammock and told me nobody would be in the apartment below me after that first night, so I was welcome to hang out in that porch area for the rest of my stay. They gave me recommendations on places to eat and visit, and – only after it was dark and I was hungry – did they apologize for taking up my first afternoon. “We don’t normally have guests come in and then just get them drunk upon arrival!” I didn’t mind. A couple ice-cold beers after a long day of traveling never hurt anyone, and I was glad to meet such laid-back people who truly understand what’s important in life.
It’s not about how big your house or car are. It’s not about where you work or the clothes you wear. It’s how you treat those around you, how you can appreciate the little things in life, how you’re willing to take a risk to live the life you’re meant to live. I thanked them for their superior hospitality, got my backpack from my room, and set out to find some foo.d