So, one more overnight bus later, and I learned that I had at last been hit with that travel sickness that comes with challenging your body to new water new air new time zone and most of all, tacos al pastor. And so I spent the first afternoon in Merida playing with the hostel husky in a day of quietness. Already my skin gathers sunlight and toughens, and my tongue is stronger, practicing vocabulary outside of the Asturian region that I had grown to understand.
At one point I pulled myself together long enough to venture out to Uman by colectivo, the white vans that are the consistent transportation system in a countryside without trains. It cost 20 pesos for about 30 miles. And on the way, the driver switched on Sweet Dreams by the Eurythmatics and all the passengers began to sing, a truly magical moment. Ultimately, after a transfer in Uman to Chochola and one short bike taxi later, I found the Cenote de San Ignacio. Cenotes are a natural feature of the Yucatan Peninsula, water systems in deep caverns that make up a long disconnected stretch through this region. You have probably seen them in one of those viral lists named something like “20 Places To See Before You Die” or “Places that Cannot Possibly Be Real but ARE”. I, myself, am guilty of devouring endless internet time of earth porn, poorly written and recycled photographs and all. Anyways, this is how I learned of the existence of cenotes. Some are exposed to open air, and others are covered, artificially lit–in a way that makes you believe that some heinous beast from local legends will emerge from the depths of the clear water from one of the many deep caverns that open near your toes and issue strange bubbles.
Merida is charming, to be sure, a colonial style town with numbered streets, but I found it difficult to embrace immediately. This is largely due to the sickness and partially due to its reception of the huge overflow of tourists from Cancun donning shirts that read “I’m in Cancun, bitch” and trying to pay for their quesadillas in US dollars. I ultimately didn’t give it enough of a chance because that first afternoon was also my last, and so I spent about 13 hours total in Merida. While sitting in the living room reading and chatting with a couple from Vermont, I was approached by an enthusiastic man with nice teeth and tattoos like a Jack Sparrow impersonator. He looked to me with bright eyes and said, “My name is Armando. Soy pirata. Tonight, I go back to my island. You have ten minutes to decide.” And then he goofily danced away to the next group to say these lines. So I was shaken. My natural mistrust tells me that I should not follow strange men in Mexico to islands. Especially not a pirate.
Ten minutes later, after assuring him that I am happily married, I was heading towards the overnight bus to Chiquila. The owners of the hostel in Merida assured me that he was a family friend who was overall harmless if not only slightly deranged in his friendliness. (But his response to my marriage…”pero, soy pirata!” But I’m a pirate!)
By 5 AM, we had jumped aboard a ferry to Isla Holbox, a tiny island to the north of Cancun originally inhabited by seven pirate families turned fishermen. So in this regard, he wasn’t lying. The sun rose over the Gulf of Mexico and I felt myself light up. To me, the smell of the sea is intoxicating.
The first thing he did upon arrival was to say hello to every single person who lives on the island and then pull two snappers out of the water to fry with beer for breakfast. It would appear that I arrived with the right person. The island had recently been overcome by storms, and so its beaches were drowned in seaweed, but its charm undeniable. Because everything must travel by ferry, milk, eggs, produce, etc. are inflated in price, but fresh fish and lobster for ceviche as well as coconuts and beer are staples. One elderly Canadian couple whom Armando had taken fishing for years hugged me and welcomed me to what they believed Cancun was like in the early 90s before its heavy commercialization. It turned out that they are dealers of real estate interested in buying up all of its property. So it goes.
Armando took me out on a fishing expedition that circled the island, where we saw wild dolphins and flamingos and eagles. Fish swim around your toes. The island is also known for whale shark sightings. And from the boat, Armando taught me how to properly gut a fish, which, well, I have no idea when that will be useful…but these are the moments when I especially love travel because it offers an education outside our traditional means.
On the ferry I also met a group that had been traveling together for a few weeks, and I was very happy to have found them there. After turning Armando down for a spot in his hammock and a promise of a pirate’s lifestyle, I joined them at the hostel Tribu, which was like a huge series of treehouses. It was the best sleep and best shower of the entire length of my trip, which can really come to mean a lot after weeks of both sleeping restlessly among 5-9 other people and caked in dirt. Soon after, I agreed to join their merry tribe for a few days of exploration in the Yucatan. It is rare to find a group so content in their shared movements and so quick to laugh, the universal method of communication (aside from English, knowledge of which I continue to be infinitely thankful for). And that aside, it was fun throwing around Hebrew, Portuguese, and French over mojitos on a beach so tranquil that it looks like a mirror. At night, phosphorescent plankton appear to you in the water if you are brave enough to swim. Though in length it is only about 7 miles, there is a sand bank just off the shore that lasts the whole stretch, to give the appearance that you are walking on the sea. And I think I wore shoes twice during my time there. However, just after sunset, the mosquitoes emerge from nothingness with a serious vengeance, and they absolutely sucked me dry of my mango sweetened American blood. The nights are quiet, the only vehicles being golf carts, and there are only about three bars, one being a part of the hostel. I’m smelling quite beachy now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I learned that Mexico in Nahuatl means “the moon’s belly button”, and so, it appears that I am following the moon onwards.