Here I am again, in a quiet house, gathering my thoughts for yet another blog. Almost the entire month of January has sped by, since we had several guests back to back. Yesterday, Casa Laguna became quiet again. This was a welcome change even though we enjoyed our guests tremendously – a shout goes out here to Joe and Chris Licata, Charlie’s brother and his wife, who, as faithful readers of this blog, deserve special mention. We saw them off on the ferry yesterday morning at 8:30 am, after the earliest restaurant breakfast I’ve ever eaten on this island. The sweet woman at Elements of the Island let us in at 7:15 am, a quarter hour before they were to open. Our rental golf cart wouldn’t start after breakfast (no big surprise), so Joe and Chris had to drag their rolling suitcases through several uneven blocks of El Centro before arriving at the ferry dock…..bumpity, bump, bump!
We always enjoy meeting our guests at the ferry and getting a chance to see the island through their eyes as they take it in. Then, in the blink of an eye, we find ourselves watching them diminish in size and presence, as the big yellow and blue catamaran takes them back to the mainland. Comings and goings are among the central events of island life.
Over the last few days I have been contemplating what I wanted to write next. It occurred to me that I have never described the island, or at least my experience of the island, in detail.
Many people refer to Isla as a tropical paradise, and leave it at that. This does not do justice to this multifaceted and diverse little oasis. Isla is many different things to many different people. While I cannot presume to see it through the eyes of others, I am ever cognizant of the fact that what Isla is to me is just one subjective viewpoint. As a visitor, which I would likely consider myself even if I owned property here, I try to remember that Isla is not mine, for it belongs, first and foremost, to its sons and daughters.
While the tourists and ex-pats refer so affectionately to Isla Mujeres as just Isla, and seem to claim it as theirs, Isla belongs to its native inhabitants. Primarily of Mayan descent, these gentle and welcoming people have been so magnanimous as to share this place with a growing onslaught of outsiders. Most of us are courteous and appreciative overall, but I frequently reflect upon the contrast between the native residents and the rest of us. Generally speaking, we are wealthier, and I am certain that the sheer volume of just our travel possessions can be shocking to the simple people who are our hosts. I have observed that Isleños get by with very little, and live in very humble dwellings, yet I have never detected any animosity or resentment toward those of us who come here to relax while they work so very hard. For Isleños, Isla is simply home, where they live, work, raise beloved children, worship, and, eventually, die.
The resident population of Isla, year round, was 12,642 in 2010. This represents a 275% growth since 1980. This number swells during high season periods, when tourists inhabit thousands of available beds, and day trippers coming over on the ferry crowd the island. During the holiday season this year, it was reported that a record-breaking 25,000 visitors arrived on the ferry over the course of one day. Even for a non-numbers person like me, this is mind-boggling. When you consider the infrastructure of the island: the delicate plumbing, the trash removal, the water and food, you realize that maintaining this number of people on an island approximately 5 miles long and a half mile wide at its widest point requires a massive effort.
In spite of the growing population, violent crime is virtually nonexistent. The only crimes I have heard about were crimes of opportunity: if you leave your possessions out in the open, they may disappear, as they would most everywhere. That being said, we regularly go swimming in the ocean leaving our wallets, phones, and keys on the beach, and have never lost anything. Domestic violence is said to be an issue on the island, with alcohol consumption a distinct contributor. However, I have hardly ever heard a native raise his or her voice on the street, while I have often witnessed belligerent tourists creating a ruckus. I do not want to come across as a Pollyanna; I am sure there are exceptions to the picture I have painted. But what is paramount is that we feel very safe here, whether day or night, alone or together.
There you have the backdrop of the dimensions and population of Isla Mujeres. Within, it is an island bursting with life, full of people, and resplendent with color. Beautiful postcard settings embrace the Island of Women, especially around the waterfront, and as narrow as the island is, the waterfront abounds.
Isla is beautiful.
There are several colonias, or neighborhoods on the island, which are where the locals live (and some gringos like us). Though parts of these colonias touch the coastal edge, most of the local population resides in the middle parts of the island, on noisy busy streets that feel like city neighborhoods. Overflowing trash cans, litter, noise, and commotion are problematic in some areas. Some cultural differences are worthy of note, for instance there does not seem to be any concern about disturbing the peace. If your neighbors are noisy, too bad. We have noisy neighbors who sometimes blast obnoxious music, but fortunately never at night.
Isla is a bustling slice of ‘city’ life.
A typical feature of Mexico, which seems amplified here due to the size and character of the island, is that poverty and neglect exist side by side with luxury and beauty. Within minutes you can pass a sad hovel, an elegant mansion, construction debris, and a stunning ocean vista, all the while being careful not to step in doggy doo.
Isla is contradictory.
Dogs wander the streets, some clearly well-cared for and others in serious need of attention. Though few wear collars, not all are strays, for the custom here is to allow one’s pets a great deal of freedom. Stray cats are common. I have never been threatened by any animal……they seem to be as peaceful as their people. Many visitors here get upset about the dogs and cats, but there has been a growing and sustained effort to provide veterinary care and control the population of strays through neutering. My impression is that while loving animals is a wonderful thing, we need to remember that we are in a foreign country with different customs and habits, and not become overwrought because things are not the same as at home.
Isla is not the US, Canada or Europe. Isla is Mexico!
One of the best aspects of Isla Mujeres for us has been how easy it is to make new friends. Most of our friends at home are people we have known for a long time, plus some we have met through work, but they constitute an established group. In contrast, every time we come here we meet more people, of those passing through and those who make Isla their home. It feels easier, maybe because people are more relaxed, and because we share the commonality of loving the island. Our “fun” calendar here is busier than at home. We are more social.
Isla is friendly.
Isla is all this and more. It is a vital, growing community where the locals and the newcomers get along quite well. It is fishermen and scuba divers, restaurants and food markets, iguanas and geckos, golf carts and motos, family and friends, mojitos and margaritas, cervesa y limonada, guacamole and grouper, hammocks and beach beds. It is good music and static noise. It is Catholic churches and the ruins of a mayan temple. It is Playa Norte and Punta Sur. It is not just a tropical paradise, because it is an honest to goodness place, not a fantasy. ©
Isla is real.