Monthly Archives: July 2011

You must be my lucky star

On Sat 16 July, I went for my first night dive ever. The full moon was a night old.

Our Dive Master gave a clear brief as to how the dive would pan out and how he was going to communicate with us, via torch light in the dead of a deep night sea. I must admit, i was glad to hear that we were only going down 12 metres.

I boarded the boat filled with nervous excitement. I remembered a story an old friend had told me about her equipment fucking up on her first ever night dive. She was with her fiancé at the time, who was close by and quick to respond by sharing his air. I was, truth be told, a little scared too.

We motored up to the south end of the island and dropped anchor. While I’m a very relaxed and competent diver, i sometimes find descending a tad tricky. I was relieved when I managed to get down to the floor without too much trouble.

It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the big blackness that bellowed around me. Torches of the other divers flashed in every direction. It was all very disorientating. I located the DM and made mental notes of the color of his tank & fins. And then i looked around me.

I’ve been deep inside the sea’s soul on some 100 occasions. While every dive site is different, there are generally some consistencies in the ‘land’scape, just as there is above sea level. There’s fishes & stuff, plants & rocks & coral. Nothing, Absolutely Nothing looked familiar to me.

I know my heart was beating a lot faster than it normally does. My brain was finding it difficult to make connections with what my eyes were seeing. Once I calmed myself a bit, shapes shifted into the familiar. We started off around the shallow reef. For a little while we didn’t see much in the way of fish and the like. But this gave me time to see the colors of the coral… Under the flashlight, they were a lot more vivid. Rusty ruby reds, luscious lime greens…

We followed the reef wall around a corner, and then the space opened up… I saw sparse schools of queen angel fish (pretty blue and yellow, things they are), parrot fish (who seem to change color as they move about), spotted trunkfish (they’re real dudes, these guys), groupers (I call them the labradors of the sea) and barracuda (who can be a bit too macho for my liking).

I finally had my breathing under control and focused on looking out for the big boys. Sharks, turtles, rays, lobster, squid… This is what I was really hankering to see.

Part of the group had convened near a rock so I finned over quickly to take a look. A big ole turtle had poked his head out, and was scoping for an escape route. He saw an opening and went for it. The group parted ways to make room for him.

We continued on our way, and we came to a bit of a clearing, the DM made the signal for us to all to switch off our torches. We each found a spot to rest in the sand. One by one the lights all went off. Complete darkness surrounded me, swallowing me up, sucking me in. My heart started thumping again. Then I saw some twinkly flashes of light in front of my face. I had been waiting a long time to see this underwater.

Phosphorescence is a light phenomenon which in the sea, is caused by millions of microscopic organisms such as plankton. Sometimes you can see this on the incoming waves when walking by the ocean at night. Check out YouTube for some pretty cool clips. To see it underwater in the utter blackness though, is another thing altogether. As the organisms darted about, I saw tiny lights, about the size of a match head, maybe a bit bigger, sparkle on and off in the blink of an eye.

I decided to have some fun with this. I took a big deep breath and removed the reg from my mouth and held my breath. The regulator is the link between your tank and your mouth, so is basically your air source. On the reverse side of the bit which you put in your mouth, there is a big round purge button which you use to clear it if it becomes blocked (for example, with vomit). When you purge, it pumps out a quick shot of air, so the result is a really big burst of bubbles.

When I did this, there was a flash of sparkles all around me. I started purging like a woman possessed, and then when i realized that simply waving my arms around, also sparked off the sparkles, i began a crazy conductor of a symphony routine. Sparkles! sparkles! sparkles! I started to trip out a bit. When I was a l’il nipper, Disney cartoon films all ended with Tinkerbell waving her magic wand around in circles, which would set off a trail of sparkly fairy dust. I felt like Tinkerbell on acid!

I could have played like that for a very long time. But alas, our DM turned on his light and the game was over. Poor little organisms were probably very pleased when we moved on.

The final highlight of the dive was a second sighting of a grand old dame of a turtle. I was just fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. She popped her head out from under a rock. Another diver and I just waited nearby. The others come over. She eventually figured it was safe and glided straight past us. I could have given her a little smooch she came so close. I kinda wish I had, in retrospect. She was so big and old and looked so sleepy.

Some of the others in our group were starting to get low on air, so we had to end the dive. A quick safety stop, and then we were back on the boat, swapping sightings and excitedly recounting our playtime in the phosphorescent lights.

For the second time that week, I had had an unforgettable experience. I went to bed feeling 4 kinds of lucky.

Sun 17 July

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Little yellow spider

I hired a golf cart so i could get around and see the rest of the island. The island is some 7 km long and 650m wide. You could feasibly cycle or even walk / run it. The only issue is, the average tempature at the moment is around 30 degrees with anywhere between 60 – 90% humidity, so you can add 5 or 10 degrees to that which makes for pretty hot exercise weather.

I took my time, poking around in various small beaches and some of the grander hotels with their lifestyles of the rich & famous type pools. One such place being the elegant Casa Zama where you can drop your swag for the night, if you’ve got a cool USD$800 to blow.

When i first arrived on the island, I met an older French man by the name of John in the cafe / hotel which he owns. John is essentially a sweet older gentleman (although I did get the sense he thought he was in with a chance when i accepted a couple of dinner invitations from him.)

I’m glad I did though, because I got to hear some interesting things about Isla Mujeres, including a story about a man who had built a floating island made entirely out of plastic bottles and other recycled materials. I came across it on my little golf cart expedition. The man-made island is the second one built by an eccentric British artist (the first was destroyed by the 2005 hurricane). It’s 25m in diameter and made from some 100,000 bottles. It has 3 beaches surrounding a house with a garden (including a solar powered waterfall).

I also visited Punta Sur (the South Point) to stand on Mexico’s most easterly point, having done the same thing in Byron Bay, Australia on many occasions. Not sure why but i get a kick out these sorts of things.

The remains of the only Mayan ruin on the island stand here – the structure was largely destroyed by a hurricane.

And there is also a lighthouse which is surrounded by some seriously strange rusting structures which are supposed to be art. The lighthouse also housed the temple which was built for the Goddess Ixchel, the Mayan Goddess of fertility, reason, medicine, happiness and the moon.

There’s a ‘modern day’ statue of her standing there today, which is accompanied a handwritten sign warning those who touch her, to do so with caution. I tentatively touched her hand, asking if I could have the love part before the baby bit, please. I don’t really fancy the idea of being a single mum, if I can possibly avoid it.

A little bit of history… When the Spanish landed here in 1515, they found many female shaped idols and this is how Isla Mujeres came to be named. For the next 300 years, the island was completely uninhabited. In 1821 following the Independence of Mexico, a small village of Mayan fisherman begun to form. At the end of the 19th Century, there were 650 people living here. There is now nearly 13,000. Fishing remains one of the main sources of income for the island, with Tourism being the biggest. My friend Fausto a descendant of one of the original fisherman.

I returned to Centro but not before stopping in at a place which promised me “beer so cold it would make your teeth hurt”. I had to buy the stubby holder. My first so far. I think I’ve been incredibly restrained given my penchant for collecting coolers.

I picked up my laundry and had a chat with Rogelio (pronounced with a lot of rolling Rs upfront… Ro-heh-lee-oh. Love it.) He’s a super lovely bloke. We started chatting about tortugas (turtles) and he gave me a tip off about the fact that they were currently in season, laying their eggs. He told me where to go look for them and suggested the best time would be sometime between 9 & 10pm. The next day was a full moon, so it would be a well lit night.

I met up with Dahlia and her two houseguests, Rachel and Mike and invited them to come along. They were all dead keen. We got some dinner, had a couple of drinks and headed off in the golf cart.

About 1/2 way up the island on what is referred to as the Caribbean side, we came across some locals standing near the side of the road on a cliff overlooking the ocean. We called out to them, “¿Tortugas?” “Si! Si!” they responded, waving us over.

When we looked over the edge we saw 2 guys on the beach carving out what I initially thought were channels to make it easier for the mammoth old girl to leave. Dahlia thought it was more likely they were collecting the eggs for the Tortuga Farm, which has been set up to protect the eggs from being stolen. Apparently, despite being considered an endangered species, there are still some locals who like to eat the eggs (and turtle meat).

Talking to a local lad on the cliff, who volunteers up there and doing a bit of my own research, I learned that she was a green turtle, probably about 40 years old when she hauls her 300 & something kilogram arse up on the sand to lay her eggs (to give you more of an idea of her size, turtles can grow up to 150cm in length. I stand at 163cm.)

Using her hind flippers, she digs a circular hole around 45cm deep. She’ll then start depositing anywhere up to 200 soft-shelled eggs one by one. She then ensures her babies are protected by covering up the hole so it’s relatively undetectable. This entire process can take anywhere up to an hour. Which I thought was relatively speedy work. She then returns to the ocean, leaving the eggs to fend for themselves. Incubation takes about two months. Once they hatch, the baby turtles head for the sea (usually) at night. Apparently they all go their separate ways. And they are usually greeted by a variety of sea life who want to eat them. They must be good eating I guess.

So this is the reason why they set up sanctuaries to allow the hatchlings to grow up and make their own babies.

Anyway, so we saw the first turtle just as she was starting to head out to sea. It was like being in our own personal National Geographic documentary. It all happened in under 1/2 an hour. We were all there willing her on, in a shared sublime silence. When she got to the shoreline and swam off into the night sea, I felt awash with a sense of relief… It was truly a spectacle to behold. Awesome in the truest sense of the word. We all stumbled over a bunch of ridiculously inadequate accolades such as “Wow!” and “That was amazing!” as we climbed back in the golf cart.

We proceeded up to Punta Sur for a night walk. The moon was big and bosomly and lit up a big black sea. We walked to the end, Mike pissed over the edge, and we admired the view until clouds crept over, giving us all the chills. We scurried back to the golf cart with a quick step. A chain which was cordoning off the pathway when we walked down to the point had been dropped, when we returned. We couldn’t see anyone around. We were all a bit jumpy when a car alarm went off in the carpark.

We set off for home back down the same road we came up on, and saw the same group of locals but in a different location. Again they waved us down. It felt a bit special that we were the only gringos there.

This time we saw a grand old mama turtle coming in to lay her eggs. We stayed and watched her for about 1/2 an hour, maybe more. She moved slowly from one part of the beach to another and began digging, but the rate she was moving, it looked like it was going to take her all night, and we couldn’t rally see as much from our vantage point on the cliff. We decided to leave her in peace.

I drifted off to sleep that night, counting my blessings. I felt so incredibly lucky to have witnessed such a thing, and am so glad Dahlia (and her friends) were there with me. I love traveling solo, but it’s these sorts of moments you absolutely want to be recalling with a friend in years to come.

Thurs 14 July

I had a dream, Joe

“Everyone believes that the main aim in life is to follow a plan. They accumulate experiences, memories, things, other people’s ideas, and it is more than they can possibly cope with. And that is why they forget their dreams.” Paulo Coelho

I read this today with some interest. I’m not sure if i’m taking him too literally but it caused me to ask, ‘How would I define a dream?’ I think a dream CAN be about an experience (scaling Mount Everest), be associated with things (to build a school) or inspired by other people’s ideas (to travel into space)… I also believe that if a dream becomes a goal, then it will need a plan of sorts.

Does Paulo simply mean that we need to be crystal clear on what our dreams are.

If we have only one… Does the dream become a passion?

I’ve had two close encounters with people with a passion. I was in a long-term relationship with a musician, who couldn’t wait to get home every day to spend a good hour or 3 mucking around on a guitar that he made himself. I used to love cooking dinner and listening to him sing. I also dated a guy who was mad about machines. Cars in particular, and he would bore everyone senseless with the finer details of how things worked. It drove me balmy, but i loved that he just didn’t know when to stop.

I’ve always envied those who are really passionate about just one thing. It’s that primary reason why they race home ‘after school’, why they want to turn off the television, why sometimes they don’t even want to go out. They would rather gain more knowledge or practice their craft.

I’ve always considered myself a passionate person. But I’ve never had a single passion, a one thing that keeps me focused, and that absolutely drives me. The upside is I can and do have many dreams.

Do people with just one all-consuming passion, have to sacrifice having other dreams?

Is there such a thing as too many? I started making a list of things I’ve dreamt about doing. It looks like a Bucket List. Which is more of a To Do Before I Die List. Is the Bucket List just new nomenclature for Dreams? Or are we talking something different?

Anyway, in no particular order, these are some of my Dreams. Maybe my Passion will find me in this list.

Travel around Australia in a caravan with the love of my life when I’m old & crinkly
Finish seeing all of Malaysia
Do some further traveling around South East Asia (eg, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia)
Live in QLD
Work & live overseas in a major city (eg, NYC or maybe Dubai)
Be able to hold a conversation in Spanish
Learn Italian
Get published.
Build a house for someone
Try my hand at teaching / training
Go to the Galapagos Islands
Learn how to fly a chopper!
Learn how to play a musical instrument
Take singing lessons
Produce art for my own amusement
Make a human
Help them become good at being human
Be better at it, myself.
Learn the Argentine Tango
Do the world’s finest off the back of a hot Columbian boy
Dive with Beluga whales
Take the Trans-Siberian Rail
Incorporate yoga / pilates / some other gentle core strength building exercise into my life
Dine at Tetsuya’s
Help celebrate Martin’s 40th in Scotland
Take one of those fancy pants cycling tours in the Italian wine country with some friends for my 50th
Master cooking the national dish of 7 of my favourite countries
Spend the night in a lighthouse
Go to Burning Man
Hire a house in Spain for a month
Try my hand at set design in an amateur play or short film
Try heli-skiing
Spend an entire week in a lush spa resort with Lynnie
Sponsor a child’s education
Learn to cook my mama’s laksa, curry and satay
Get Dad using a computer & try diving
Learn how to make my own earrings
Do a Voice Over course, get a showreel and and earn money from it
Go to Tamworth Country Music Festival
Learn how to invest
Print and organize my photos
Dive in the Great Barrier Reef
See the Rolling Stones before Keith dies
Swim in all major remaining bodies of water (the Atlantic Ocean, the Southern Ocean and the Arctic Ocean)
Rescue a Really Cool Dog
Visit the place where my Chinese grandparents were born
Record their story as told by mum
Swim with dolphins in their natural environment quite by accident
Fall in love one last time

These are some of the things that I’ve already accomplished that would have made this list had i created it alot earlier. Plus a few cool things I didn’t know I wanted to do, until I did them.

Go to Europe, starting in Turkey and ending in Morocco
Give up smoking
Learn how to scuba dive
Swim with Whale Sharks
Go sky-diving
Bungee-jump
Dive with colonies of sharks
Dive with seals
Take up ocean swimming
Complete a sprint triathlon
Complete a 5km swim
Complete a 11km run
Cross the Nullabor by train
Volunteer with seriously ill children
Shave my head
Go to Gracelands
Go to Glastonbury
Take surfing lessons
Take art lessons
Live on an island
Publish a book of poetry
Organize a major fundraiser
Go hang-gliding

I’d like to be under the sea

Whale sharks are both the biggest sharks, and the biggest cartilaginous fish in the sea – with official reports of the largest being 22 tonnes (19,958kg) in weight and 13.6m in length.

To put this in perspective – the largest land animal is the African Bush Elephant. The largest on record was a bull weighing 12,274 kg and standing 4.2 metres high. The average human weighs anywhere between 54 and 83kg and is around 1.65m tall.

So, yeh – they’re big motherfuckers. I find it absolutely fascinating that despite their size – it is not presently known exactly where they go to mate.

They’re migratory creatures who make an annual pilgrimage to the continental shelf on the west coast of Australia between March & mid July.

The coral spawning around Ningaloo Reef provides the whale sharks with an abundant supply of plankton, which is what they like to eat. As opposed to humans. Which is a good thing. Because they could totally eat us if they wanted to.

A couple of years ago, I went to Western Australia for the purpose of attending Dave & Jen’s wedding, to visit my old party pal Janine, and to go swim with the whale sharks. After traveling more than 1,100kms from Perth to tiny township of Coral Bay (never mind the 4,300km from Sydney to Perth) – I was greeted by a storm which lasted the entire time I was there. The storm was great news for a town that exists on bore water and hadn’t seen a drop of rain for 15 months. Not so great news for me. The whake shark operators in Australia use light planes to spot the fish, but due to the inclement weather either: couldn’t get out; or when they could get out – couldn’t get under the clouds to be able to spot. 385 bucks and 4 days later, the only fish I’d seen was a piece of red emperor. Tasty but not quite what I was hoping for.

So, Isla Mujeres has provided me with a second chance. Isla has the biggest concentration of whale sharks in the world. The usually solitary animals actually convene here for a bit of a social, just 11km off the coast of the island. There are frequently sightings of up to 50 whale sharks between July and September. They don’t use spotter planes here. The whale sharks come with such regularity to the same spot and there’s so many of them, they don’t need to.

I have been in and on the ocean all my life. I learned how to swim at the age of 2 at Coledale Beach, north of Wollongong, NSW. I “compete” in ocean swims (distances of up to 5km). I body surf most weekends from October through to April each year. I have done more than 100 dives, most of them from boats. I love snorkeling, and have introduced many people to the activity. I have been on more than i can count yachts, cruisers, speed boats and tinnies, sometimes in pretty big swell. I have never been sea sick in my life.

We spent close to 2 hours being tossed around on a tiny boat on massive swell. We headed straight into the centre of a horrifically black storm.

And I’m concentrating – eyes closed – with every fibre of my being – on breathing in very deeply, breathing out very deeply.

The boat stops. I immediately hurl up breakfast. I don’t stop spewing for a good 10 minutes. 10 minutes is a long time to be consistently vomiting while still being tossed around on a rough rough sea. In the distance, i could hear someone else doing the same. Except he sounded like he was in The Exorcism. There was a lot of yelling going on all around me.

When I finally lifted my head, to kit up – I saw why. It was utter chaos. There were maybe 15, 20 boats, all with some 1/2 dozen people aboard, a good portion of whom were being sick. The boats were forming a loose wide circle around a bunch of whale sharks, and all the captains and their crews were yelling out to each other, indicating which way the whale sharks were heading.

Then i saw a dark shadow with spots move past. The captain of our boat was crazily yelling at us to hurry up! get ready! someone get in the water! and ironically, “GO RELAX WITH THE WHALES!!!”

When you’re feeling sea sick, you’re usually best off in the water. Without any regard for my fellow passengers, I basically insisted on getting in the water first. I got my mask, snorkel and fins on as quickly as possible and dived right into that rough sea. Almost right on top of a poor whale shark. I swallowed so much water through my snorkel, I nearly threw up again. I tried to snorkel alongside the mammoth animal but he was swift to move on. I needed to calm myself down, so I just floated on the surface, snorkel out, trying to breathe in air as opposed to water. Or 2 stroke engine fumes.

There was supposedly a 2-people-from-each-boat-in-the-water-at-any-one-time rule. I was wasting time in the water. I thought it best, if i got back on the boat and compose myself there, so someone else could get in.

Once I was back on the boat, I started feeling sick again. I saw that the remaining passengers of my boat were all feeling ill as well. One started throwing up. I couldn’t look at her.

Shortly, it was my turn to go into the big blue again… I was a lot more together when i dove off the boat this time. I was greeted by an enormous, enigmatic whale shark coming right towards me, her colossal mouth, spanning the width of her head, gaping open. I started finning slow and strong, lying on my side (I seem to get more speed and am much more relaxed in this position). I was keeping with her pace. They don’t really swim all that fast. She was just so gentle and graceful. I was awestruck and internally open mouthed. I think I stopped breathing at one point. It was unfathomable that I wasn’t inside a documentary dream. I followed her for a few minutes, observing her pretty white and yellow speckled skin, all the fish who were hitching a ride on her underside, her gigantic gills fanning ever so slowly… Her body just went on and on, like a freight train…

She eventually paced up, or I slowed down – I can’t be sure which, as time was warping as it does when you’re witnessing some kind of wonderful. I came face to face with the top fin of her tail which was bigger than all of me. Suddenly it occurred to she could accidentally whack me with it and send me flying through the water, so I started pulling back.

I surfaced to see where my boat was, and Again: all I heard and saw was carnage. People throwing up, lots of yelling, boats circling. Many, many whale sharks were visible from the surface. I hadn’t expected any of this, and it was all very disconcerting. The swell was still huge and I still had the taste of vomit and seawater in my mouth. I took off my mask and cleared it, and was trying to locate my boat – when the 1st mate swam up towards me and started frantically yelling and pointing behind me… I purged my snorkel and quickly submerged my face under the surface. It was a heck of a lot quieter underwater.

I immediately forgot about how hectic everything was and how crook i was feeling – and started swimming with the whale shark. This guy was setting a much quicker pace than the first one. I was semi-conscious there were other snorkelers around and out of the corner of my eye I could see other whale sharks, but I was so completely focused on the animal beside me…He made a bit of a turn towards me at one point, I could have reached out to give him a pat. However there is a 2m distance rule. I also personally generally shy away from touching wildlife unless they specifically come to me seeking it.

Being beside this big beautiful beast, was like getting sucked into a vortex. One where I was happy to go. I don’t recall anything different about the second one from my observations of the first… This time was more about the sensation of swimming with such a magnificent creature. I struggle for words. Needless to say, it is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

After I got back on the boat, a couple more people went out for their second chance. And then there seemed to be a bit of a unanimous vote to go back to shore. It was clear to me that pretty much everyone on the boat was feeling seriously ill and was just over it. I started feeling decidedly green again, and must have looked it. The first mate made a makeshift bed for me on the floor of the boat, and I half passed out. I do remember being thrown around violently for what seemed the longest trip back.

Part and parcel of the tour is lunch and a snorkel at a spot near the Norte Playa of Isla. The captain of our boat offered me shrimp ceviche (raw prawns) and a beer. Umm. That would be a negative. One girl started vomiting again. We were close enough to shore and in shallow enough waters that we could walk home. I didn’t hesitate. I just wanted a shower and my bed. I was absolutely spent. I wasn’t the only one. I managed to squeeze out somewhat of a goodbye to two lovely American girls, who had somehow managed to keep their breakfasts down but only just. They had been very sympathetic and sweet towards me – when they could speak.

I later caught up with them at a bar, when I went out for dinner the next night. Hailing from New York, Dahlia was renting an apartment for 3 weeks and was going to be on the island for mostly the same time as me. She was on her own too, and her oldest friend, Liz was visiting on a long weekend. We bonded over a drink and a very therapeutic debrief. While we agreed we were particularly unlucky with the weather and the seas, we also suspected we had a bit of a maniac for a captain. Another New Yorker who had also been on the tour on the previous day came along and chimed in. I had to agree with him when he said it was disappointing that there was absolutely no educational aspect to the tour. He was also of the view that it was being run by a bunch of cowboys and could do with a bit more regulation.

While this was an utterly extraordinary experience and one I will never forget, nor regret having – I do feel somewhat compromised. All these boats descend upon these poor unsuspecting animals… They’re having a peaceful morning swim together, when suddenly they’ve got a bunch of tourists vomiting all over them, chasing them around… I dunno, I wouldn’t dig it so much if it was me… Granted, they really didn’t seem phased in the slightest, but really – how could we tell? Dahlia likened this to a game safari in Africa.

I also realize it’s all very well for me to say this now I’ve had the experience…

I’d love to see how it’s done in other parts of the world. Maybe what is needed is benchmarking. The people here need to take an ecologically sustainable view to this incredible opportunity they have. I know there are many here, who do. Last weekend the 4th Annual Whale Shark Festival was held here. A raft of people from all around the world, including the local Mayans got together to share their knowledge. I heard that Sir Richard Branson was here. This has to be a good thing for these amazing animals (Virgin logos not withstanding.)

Note: Stats re weights & heights are for storytelling purposes only and have been sourced from the all-knowing Wikipedia. If you know better, tell them. Not me.

10 July

My island home

I spent the next day traveling from Merida to Cancun.

I spent a few hours there, shopping for supplies I thought might be harder to come by, or more expensive on the island.
So if you recall, my experience of Downtown Cancun when i first came to Isla – was that it was just awful. The Hotel Zone in Cancun is also awful. It’s just shiny awful.
Anyone that knows me, knows I’m not good in shopping malls at the best of times. All that fluro lighting, bad music, all those people (don’t get me wrong: I like people. Just not too many of them in the one place at the same time.)

I was very happy to return to Isla Mujeres. There are no shopping malls on the island. No Macdonalds. No Starbucks. Yes there are tourist shops, but they’re confined to a couple of small Avenidas. It’s a small place. Everyone knows everyone. Case in point: Despite numerous attempts,  I hadn’t managed to get a phone number out of Gladys, my contact for the house I was renting, which was very annoying. She’d asked me to send her an email when I got on the boat and she would meet me at the house. Which I did. She didn’t respond. I also couldn’t remember exactly where the house was, having only been there once.

So I went to a cafe and started fretting about how to get on touch with this lady so I could get the key. It was getting on in the day. When along came the owner of the cafe – Gloria, a rubenesque Italian with a warm demeanor, and asked “you have problema, señorita?” Un poco, I replied. I told her my tale and she threw up her hands, and smiled, proclaiming that Gladys was her friend and she could call her. Fixed.

I was met by Teresa, a tiny Mayan lady who worked for Gladys. She took me up to my casita, introduced me to Jorge – a big black gentle giant with a 1000 wattage smile, who seemed to be the manager of the building. We took care of business and I started nesting.

My new little pad was cuter than I had remembered. (Skip 4 paragraphs if  the details of these sorts of things, don’t interest you)

The room featured sandy-yellow walls with a quaint hand-painted mural of a sun setting over a coconut tree, by the bed which was on a raised platform. There was also a painted bedhead on the wall, which was on theme.

At the foot of the bed, there was a leaf-green colored enclave which housed a small bathroom (toilet paper goes in a wastepaper basket in Mexico – the plumbing just can’t handle it). And also a little open wardrobe for my expansive collection of couture).

Next to the bed, there was a space to hang a hammock, and by the window overlooking the busyish street – a small red plastic Coca Cola table with 3 white plastic chairs, all sporting different beer and soft drink brand stickers. This would serve as the location for my classes.

I had a little fridge and a 20L water bottle with a makeshift pump for my drinking water. A little bookshelf for my pantry, with a color TV on top of it, and a 2 burner gas cooker in my kitchenette. I was fortunate to have both wireless and AC. Very simple. Very sweet. A 5 min walk to the Centro. A 10 min walk to the best beach on the island. I knew I was going to be very happy here.

The next morning, I went for a swim in that perfect aqua blue water and wondered why it was so blue. I later did a bit of googling, and there’s a bunch of theories ranging from the cleanliness and temperature of the water (26-28 degrees), the quality of the sunlight and sand, the number of microscopic organisms that live in the water … then i started reading a scientific article about color vibrations and bent water molecules and my head started hurting so I thought better of questioning why and decided it was much easier to swim in ignorant bliss.

I spoke to Coleena my teacher. Turns out she was moving into my apartment block that week, which would be most convenient. We started lessons the next day. 3 hours a day, 5 days a week.

On Tuesday i went snorkeling with Fausto the Fisherman. We met up early and it was just the two of us out there. Soooo many fishes!

It’s a rule that visitors must always wear a life jacket in the Garrafon National Marine Park (clearly the locals are conscious that the loss of a tourist’s life would put an end to a good portion of the island’s livelihood.) But I found it quite limiting and frustrating. I am quite experienced in and on the ocean (for those who don’t know me- I participate in distance ocean swims; I love a body surf; am an experienced diver, etc) So I’m comfortable in the water. Fausto sensed this and let me take off my vest so I could do a bit of skin diving with him. Much better!

We saw reef sharks and trumpet fish and barracuda and groupers and starfish and nudibranchs and a ray and a lion fish. The reef was just so incredibly rich.

Two days later, on the Thursday I went out diving. I did my first wreck dive – the Cañonero C58 C55 (Depth: 33 meters), which was just wicked. It’s a big old WW2 Navy boat about 180 foot long with at least 2 floors and was just thriving with schools of various types of fish. We went through some of the rooms of the ship including what would have been the engine room and the captain’s cabin. The 2nd dive was a drift dive along a reef called Las Pietras Negras, which was a much more shallow and cruisier dive. Apparently this is a great place to spot turtles, but we didn’t see any.

I met two very interesting well travelled sisters, fresh out of college; and their dad on the boat. Dad was doing his Advanced Open Water ticket. The girls had just completed their Dive Masters’ courses in Honduras in a 6 week period because it worked out cheaper than to go diving every day for a couple of weeks. Crazy, huh? One of then had lived there for a while, opening up her own restaurant; while the other had just finished a two year stint in the Peace Corps. At the risk of sounding like the little old lady who lived in a shoe, I find these sorts of young people so inspirational. When I was 23, I was just pissing all my money up against a wall. Imagine what these girls are going to have accomplished by the time they’re 40!

I was absolutely knackered when it came to my lesson. Note to self: No more dives before class. As relaxing as they are, they can also take it out of you. My classes are 1 on 1, so there’s nowhere to hide. It’s been almost 10 years since I studied, so it’s kinda hard work plus the 3pm starts are right about the time my brain stops functioning and I just want to siesta. I know, I know: Cry me a fucking river.

Fri 8 July

Believe it or not

(OK. I really do apologize for the song title for this post, but it’s a great story today, so push on.)

I arrived in Mérida about the time the sun was setting.

I had caught the bus in from Playa. First Class & Even More Premium Than First Class! buses in Mexico give you more legroom than Business Class on your average plane. Seriously. Why don’t they put these things in the sky. They’re modern, clean, spacious vehicles with AC, TV and toilets. On some, apparently you can get snacks. And they’re stupidly cheap per kilometer.

Anyways, I had stuffed a wadful of pesos in my pocket, as I’d started dozing, and thought the money would be safer on my person than in my bag in the open overhead compartment.

When I got to the hostel, I realized I’d lost the money. All 1200 pesos of it.

Now this currently exchanges to AUD$95, so it’s by no means, the worst thing that can happen. However in Mérida, its possible to get a bed, meals, and a beer for 250 pesos, so 1200 pesos could in theory, stretch out to just under a week.

Also, 1200 pesos comes in at just under the minimum monthly wage in Mexico. For a bus driver, it’s roughly a weekly wage. Folks live very simply here. So, it’s a lot of money in this context. I spent the rest of the evening kicking myself for my carelessness.

As I laid down that night, I had the recollection of a blonde lady walking down the aisle to talk to the driver, mid trip. As ours was a direct, no stops route – this led me to conclude that she had little reason to speak to the driver (for example, to ask how long til the next stop). Maybe she’d found my money and handed it in. Maybe.

I went back to the bus terminal the next day and was sent to a different terminal… It was more like a depot. I spoke to a guy through a tiny security grille, who had little English and even less interest in my story. But he went and got another bloke who had perfect English (despite him telling me he only spoke a little… They all do that over here. Un poco, pequeña Engles. And then they’re practically fluent.) Joel was also a good listener.

I told him what had happened, what I thought the blonde lady had done, and that maybe the driver had my money, and if so, maybe he would give it back… I asked if there was any way we could call the driver to ask.

My reasoning was: if you were given a bunch of money and didn’t know who it was – you’d might just think it was your lucky day. If you did know who it was, then you’d give it back, right?

I was told the driver had continued on, on a long distance journey and would be back 9am Friday. Come back then.

It continued raining quite heavily on and off for the next few days, so I didn’t see as much of Merida as I would have liked – but I did wander the streets quite a bit. It’s a simple city with a slower rhythm, a pretty enough Zocalo, and a great marketplace.

The food in Merida is just delicious. More Mayan influence, and so a lot more interesting spices and flavors. The Chaya drink is a must try. (Maria from Guadllarhara, who i lunched with, told me you have to talk to the leaf, but i was a bit skeptical.) And Merida has been to date, the only time I haven’t completely suffered through frijoles (beans). In fact, I quite liked them.

I took a bus out to Chichen Itza (which I want to call Chicken Bitsa) and I gotta say, these ruins shat all over the one I saw on Cozumel. It’s the real deal here. A big fuck-off Mayan temple with lots of other surrounding buildings, including the largest and best preserved ball court in the world. One of the things I found interesting were the jaguars guarding it; they reminded me of the Chinese lions. Anyways, it’s a must see if you’re in the area. Go early to avoid the busloads coming in from Cancun. Expect 100s of vendors all hawking the same souvenirs. And all for just 100 pesos, would you believe it.

So, back to the story of the lost money. By the time Friday morning had come around, I had almost forgotten about the money until Maria greeted me with a cheery, “I think today is going to be your day, Michelle.” So off I trotted to the bus depot to meet my helpful man, and hopefully the bus driver. When I got to the security gate, Joel was there to greet me with a big firm handshake. He promptly went and got the bus driver. The driver and he had a very animated conversation in rapido Spanish, none of which I took in. Joel explained to me that the woman had found the money and had waited around the terminal for a while, for someone to claim it. I assumed that meant that she had taken it. Fair play to her.

That was that, then.

Then all of a sudden, the driver pulls out 1200 peso from his wallet and handed it to me. I just looked at him. Literally gobsmacked. I couldn’t speak. I just started spluttering out chopped up versions of what, why, how. None of which would be particularly meaningful to someone who could understand English, let alone someone who didn’t. I just couldn’t believe it.

Tears started welling up, and it wasn’t at all about the money by now, but about the ridiculously incredible thing that had just happened. Everyone who’d I spoken to about losing the money told me to forget about it. Including the dude at the hostel desk when I left for the terminal, just 30mins earlier. When I did the conversion, I really didn’t know why I was bothering.

But there was just something compelling me to go back to see this driver.

And he had come good for me. Not on the money. But on my, sometimes wavering but mostly solid, belief that people are good.

There had been 3 people who had made this beautiful little story possible. The unidentified blonde lady who found the money and handed it in. Joel Novelo, my helpful man and the driver, German Palma Montero. How incredibly fucking cool is that.

I naturally immediately gave a good portion of the money back to the driver. And tried to give some to Joel, who just flat out refused. I gave him a big hug instead which is probably going against all sorts of Mexican customs, but i don’t care. I’ve undertaken to give 1/2 of the money remaining to someone who really needs it, when I happen upon them. A pay it forward kind of thing. I also intend to write a letter – en Español – to the CEO of the ADO bus company to let him know how fortunate he is to have two such incredibly decent people working for him. I don’t know if that will make a speck of difference to anyone, but if nothing else, it’ll be a good exercise for me.

So many of the guidebooks will tell you Mexico’s a dangerous place with a very high crime rate, blah blah blah. And look, I’m sure it can be, and there is. But I sure as hell ain’t seen any of that in the month I’ve been here.

What i have seen, is a country that is so geographically diverse and so incredibly beautiful. The people here have the biggest smiles and hearts to match. They are genuinely interested to get to know you. I’ve had so many Mexicans give me their phone number, telling me if i needed anything, i could call; stopping to help me (even when I didn’t ask for it); and waiting patiently while i try and splutter out a sentence like a complete retard in my terrible Spanish.

And then this happens. I feel incredibly lucky to have this tale to tell, and intend to tell as many people as I can. Feel free to do the same, by hitting the share button below.

2 July

PS Hostel I stayed in (Nomadas) was one of the best so far: hammocks, a pool, relaxed vibe… the girls in my room reinstalled my faith in my ability to do dorms; plus there were free salsa lessons with a hot instructor. Perfecto!

Caribbean Queen

(be forewarned, I think the song titles are only going to degenerate from herein)

I left Mexico City to do a reccy around the Caribbean coastline at Claire’s suggestion… To find a place I could call home for a month while I take Spanish lessons. My wish list consisted of 3 S’: small, simple and seaside.

Cancun. Otherwise known as Miami in Mexico.

I had booked my one night there too hastily, as I was determined just to transit through. After all I had heard about the place – I knew it wasn’t going to be for me. Note to self: Must read reviews BEFORE booking rooms. (Also must contribute to traveler review sites more often.)

It was, in a word, a shithole. No toilet seat. Holes in the wall – probably where perverts were looking at me get undressed. Musty mattress, barely clean linen. Ants. Flying things. And other unidentified bugs in the bed. Not bed bugs, thank goodness. (I am absolutely paranoid about these since Angie told me horror stories about people having to trash all their stuff, and move out of their house when they were plagued by them.)

Hard to believe only 10 days prior I was in a 4 star hotel. One of the few downsides to traveling solo is that often hostels will charge you for 2 people if you want a private room. A hotel can end up costing roughly the same, but be a bit a lot nicer. Downsides to a hotel is you don’t get the social aspect of meeting people in a hotel. Maybe I need to rethink my attitude to dorms. Ergh.

I dumped my bag in the shithole and went downtown. But not before asking if they could kindly arrange a toilet seat for me, por favor.

Finding a decent looking place to eat proved tricky, so I opted for what was easy. A restaurant / bar with a thatched roof sounds nice, but this was, I realized too late, anything but a nice place. I had already ordered, when a fat old drunk started trying to pick me up from his neighboring table. When that didn’t work, he started whistling at me like I was a dog. It reminded me of the boys in Campbelltown who’s charms extended to hanging their heads out of the windows of their Toranas, and asking,
‘Ya wannna rooyt?’

Geez, how did you know. Okay. Let’s go, then.
I mean, really. Really?

I scoffed down the awful meal, the quickest Corona, and scurried back home. To the shithole.

I stopped to talk to a few people who were hanging around in hammocks by a mosquito pool back at the hostel, but wasn’t really feeling the vibe, so i just made a beeline for my shithole.

The young bloke from reception knocked on my door, and promptly installed a toilet seat for me. Gracias.

I showered. With thongs on. And got into the nasty bed. The only saving graces were that I had A/C, the Family Guy was on, dubbed in Spanish. I retired early, so I could get out of there as quickly as possible the next morning.

Isla Mujeres

Arriving in Isla Mujeres (the “island of women”) was like arriving in paradise. Sure there was a lot of road works and still the ubiquitous tourist shops, but the Caribbean was a sparkling aqua blue that was almost luminescent. White linen covered cabañas and white sunlounges dotted a white, white beach. It was like a perfect postcard, but real life.

I hadn’t organized a room as yet, so I needed somewhere to stow my pack. There was no left luggage at the ferry terminal, but I was lucky to meet Fausto, a happy fisherman, who was half Mayan and had lived his whole life on the island. I could tell by his eyes he was a good man. He locked up my pack in a tiny storeroom filled with fishing lines, while I scoped downtown for a room. I decided on an immaculate hotel with a pool. To make up for the shithole. I am past the days of suffering unnecessarily for an extra day of travel. Ironically it cost me only a few more dollars than the shithole. I went back to pick up my bag and promised to buy Fausto a beer for his trouble.

I immediately went for a swim in that perfect sea. My first in the Caribbean. I could hardly stop myself from jumping up and down, splashing around like a kid, and smiling like a idiot savant. Such a lucky girl.
So many times in the last 6 weeks have I pinched myself and wondered out aloud,
Why me. In the best of ways.

While I have by no means have had the hardest of lives, it hasn’t always been an easy road. There were some truly trying times, growing up. I’ve also learnt a lot of lessons the hard or the long way. I gave up a true love, in the belief that something that was a better fit, would come along. It hasn’t. There was a decent career which proved less than satisfactory. No children. Yet. Less importantly, no white picket fence. One day, I might bore those of you who don’t know my stories, with the details. But for the moment, let’s just say I have spent a lot of time lately, wondering out aloud,
Why me. But in the best of ways.

I don’t know if this trip will be some life altering experience; or if it will simply be a six month holiday. Whereupon I return to my old life. And whether that will be happily or otherwise. I secretly hope that love might be a by-product of this trip. I want to learn to speak some Spanish. I want to write. Above all else, i want to truly live in the moment. At least, this much I can control.

So there I was swimming in the bluest of sea on my own, squealing with joy from the inside, out. Lunatic.

I spent the next two days cruising about the island, getting to know some of the locals, enquiring about casitas to rent, and looking for Laura – a lady who I hoped might become my teacher.

Isla Mujeres is a very small island – only 8km long by less than 1km wide. You could, in theory, walk it but it’s so damned hot and humid in the day- you’re better off getting a cheap as chips taxi or hiring a moped or golf cart. I kept to the norte part of the island for the time I was there, but on my last day, a real estate agent, Edwin took me to the other end, the Punta Sur to see a house that was on the precipice overlooking wilder seas. The place would have provided solace i was looking for, but it was a bit far removed for my liking. I wanted something that would give me easy access to the beach, shops, the locals, and bars- should I want to socialize.

On my last day, I also met with Gladys to see a place which she had personally rented for 3 years. It was light and airy and clean. She had painted the walls with a simple mural. There was a basic kitchenette. And AC. There was a shared terrace upstairs that had water glimpses. It was just moments away from downtown. And the beach. And it was $250 cheaper a month than the other two places I was considering. And about 1/3 of what i was paying for my Bondi apartment. I fell in love with it immediately.

I received reply back from Laura indicating she could do the job, but she was in Merida and had to take an exam for a job and couldn’t start til the following week. No problem, I decided i should take a quick look at Tulum, Playa de Carmen and Cozumel before laying down my swag.

Tulum

Tulum is divided into two parts: the pueblo (town) and the beach. Naturally I gravitated towards the 7km long beach with the jungle right at it’s back… The power grid stops just off the main highway and so you only have generator electricity for a limited number of hours during the day.

There were just three huts in the ‘resort’ i had made a reservation for, and no Reception that I could see. A young man appeared from nowhere to greet me, show me my gorgeous thatched roof house nestled between the jungle and the beach and wave me in the direction of the ocean, which was just steps away. My big beautiful 4 poster bed swathed in a mosquito net was the centerpiece of the cosy room. The bathroom was all water smoothed stones and mosaic mirrors, and organic soaps and fluffy white towels. I noticed not one, but 3 fans (the reason became quite evident as I tried to sleep later that night).

It was nice to duck dive and do some body surfing, as it was the first time I’d seen any waves since leaving home. I had the ocean all to myself bar a few lovers strolling along the shoreline. I showered outdoors, and walked a few meters down the road before happening upon a buzzing little outdoor restaurant, Hartwood.

I sat at the bar, and ordered cerveza. I then introduced myself to the friendly looking local bartender and the handsome young man sitting next to me. Eric and his pretty pregnant wife, Maya were the owners, having moved from New York just 6 months earlier. The menu was really exciting. I started with a crab dip and a Caesar salad done with the fish of the day. I had a few drinks including an amazing Habanero Grapefruit Margarita (!!!) and got to know the lovely young couple bit more, as well as their staff. Valentine looked a bit like a Mexican Merve Hughes and was just larger than life. He had me in stitches. An extraordinarily charismatic man. Maya said they kept him around for “buena energía” – I could completely see why.

Cozumel

Next day I headed to Playa Del Carmen, essentially just to catch the ferry across to the island of Cozumel. I ended up spending 3 nights there. I stayed in the literally named Hotel Dulce. This is where I saw my first swan towel. The housemaids on the coast have a thing for creative towel folding. Think origami in terry toweling. I’ve seen a lot of swans since, and I have to say they’re right up there with tyre swans for me. Love!

So, Cozumel is a large island that’s on the cruise ship route. When you arrive you are confronted by a melee of tourist shops selling t-shirts, jewelry, shot glasses, Mexican souvenirs, blah blah blah. Shop after shop after shop of the shit. and not much else.

Turns out, everything that’s good about the island is on the other side. You can’t get to the other side by collectivo. You need a bike or a car. I enquired about a cab and was told it would cost $50USD to get there, and back. WTF. He also wanted to take me to a very American-looking full service day resort. All I saw was overpriced pre-made drinks, and organized activities. All he saw was a commission.

I decided I’d hire my own vehicle. I initially wanted to get a moped, but after all the haggling and paperwork were done, I had a change of heart. Whilst on the island of Paros in Greece in 1998, i had an accident on a moped, where I broke my right foot. My friend Janine had to help the doctor cast my foot on a bloodied bed (there’d been a shooting just moments before). I’m fine to ride pillion with an experienced driver, but I just didn’t have the nerve to do it on my own. So I ended up going with a jeep instead.

It was pretty on the other side. Lots of lovely little beaches to stop at for swims and drinks. I had the best fish tacos yet at a place called the Orange Iguana, overlooking the sea. I didn’t get around to going in the National Park because it was near closing time and you really need a whole day there. The diving is supposed to be something else. Jaques Cousteau was responsible for bringing this place to the world’s attention many years ago.

It started raining heavily, and the jeep was leaking through the roof, so I decided to call it a day, and take a siesta before dinner.

The next morning, I drove to San Gervasio, which is one of the oldest Mayan archeological sites. It is dedicated to the goddess Ixchel (“She of the Rainbows”) – deity of midwifery, fertility, medicine and weaving. Many women from the Mayan settlements all around Mexico and beyond, made a pilgrimage here to her shrine at some point in their lifetime.

You can read more about Ixchel’s fascinating story here.

I was told that this, was by no means the most oppressive of Mayan ruins I would see, but it was certainly a significant one.

It started bucketing down that afternoon, and basically didn’t stop for the rest of the week. I decided I would see out the rain in

Playa Del Carmen

Playa, is also quite touristy (meh, we’re on what’s called the Mexican Riveria. It’s all touristy) but it has a very international, more grown up feel about it. A lot of Italian restaurants, expensive jewelry shops, designer bikinis and a lot more choice for decent espresso. Fuck, I miss well-made coffee.

There’s a reputable Spanish school, and the beaches are, well, just typically gorgeous… I knew I could be happy enough there but it just didn’t feel like Mexico. There’s very likely a whole other side to it that I didn’t see because of the torrential downpours… I spent most of my time in my hotel, reading, writing, catching up with friends, and sleeping; or in restaurants and bars, eating and drinking. It wasn’t all bad.

This is where I met the surfer boy from El Salvador (see previous post) and also a handsome Italian local man by the name of Luca… He and I shared a bottle of red and some good conversation, under the balcony of the cafe he owned, while it rained and rained, and rained. Swoon…I got the distinct feeling I would rarely be lonely in a place like this, but it wasn’t what I came to Mexico for…

Laura, in the meantime, had fallen through… I had told 2 out of the 3 landlords I was dealing with, I wouldn’t be needing their rooms…I still had one sort of on hold. I commenced a new mission to find another teacher on Isla Mujeres.

I also started considering other options for places to study such as Guatemala. I decided to go to Merida, as i could either head around to Guatemala via Palenque and San Cristobal, or come back down to Isla should I be able to pull it off. It was all starting to feel a bit hard.

Monday 27 July