Winding Down

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Seventeen months ago I began this blog, full of expectation as we began a long-awaited adventure. We were in the process of packing our belongings for storage and becoming nomads for a time. As I wrote, I wondered how the journey would change me. Who would I be without the anchoring identity provided by a place in the world, the roles I played in life, and the structure that had evolved around it all?

Our original plan was to travel the perimeter of the United States in our little RV, Casa Blanca. The first leg would be the Eastern seaboard. Because we had a commitment in Florida (my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday party), we would cover the southern part first, and later in the summer do the Northeastern coast.

Best made plans. The very first day out, we experienced the inevitability of change, when a dramatic storm flooded our world right before our eyes. Amazed, we waited in the driveway from which we would soon depart for the last time. As the rain finally let up, we navigated though the deep creek that had recently been our street. Shortly thereafter, our vehicle began to misfire. Some wires had gotten wet. The next day (somewhere in Delaware) we learned that since the needed parts weren’t readily available, Casa Blanca would be unable to get us to the party in time. We made the drive to Florida in a rental car, feeling more than a little deflated from the anticlimactic start to our journey. Still, the family gathering was wonderful, and we were off to a good start. We retrieved Casa Blanca, and eventually completed the Northeast through a long and glorious summer. By November, we were ready to retire Casa for the winter and head for Isla Mujeres, Mexico. We would continue our drive around the states in the spring, or so we thought.

While in Mexico, though, we changed some of our plans. Maybe it was the water, the heat, or a combination of the two. Somewhat impulsively we decided that summer would not find us on the road, but in the skies. We booked flights to Bali and Europe, which, if you have been following this blog, is old news.

Admittedly, I have some mild regrets about not completing our journey around the US. I still don’t regret our changes in plans. What a gift it was to be able to be flexible and see and do so much! Not following our original plans was an important step. It freed us in a way that we couldn’t anticipate.

Why am I rehashing this now? Since winding down from our whirlwind summer adventures, we are slowing down. Coincidentally, I am blogging less and less. While we will not be settled into a new home before Christmas 2016 as we once thought, we are thinking more about the future. Increasingly, we find ourselves looking forward to the day when we will have a place of our own. Aside from our camper, we have slept in multiple hotels, rented spaces, and as guests in the homes of countless friends and family members. Even as I celebrate the achievement of having become unencumbered, a sense of being displaced has been its companion.

We are slowing down. We spent almost two months in New Jersey after returning from Europe. Now we are back on Isla Mujeres for a three-week visit before spending the winter in Vermont. Winter is a good time for ideas to incubate, and we hope to make some wise decisions about our future during that time. Certainly the cold winter will be conducive to decisions about nesting, just as the Mexican “winter” gave us permission to make loco decisions about new adventures.

My last two blog entries have felt different to me, as I have shifted internally from wanting to focus on my geographical meandering to reflecting more on my inner journey. When I completed my last entry, Full Circle, I felt that if this blog were a book, I had just written the last chapter. In spite of this feeling, I didn’t decide anything. I’m learning to let things percolate.

So here I am. I have missed writing more frequently, missed the responses I get, and the feelings of connection they bring. You can’t begin to imagine how meaningful your comments are. Please keep them coming! I’m not sure where my reflections will bring me now that we are slowing down. Maybe my blog will become boring –  I’m hoping not. I’m expecting that being still may be even more insightful than moving. Sitting to write helps me focus on what the lessons are.

Speaking of lessons, I want to end with a story, a true story about something that happened here on Isla Mujeres late yesterday morning. We were driving down the road along the ocean in our golf cart, on the way to hunt for sea glass. Just another day in paradise. Charlie looked out over the water and saw a vulnerable little boat tossing about the waves. As it came closer to shore, we could see that it was inhabited by about fifteen people. A crowd was gathering, because, as we had surmised, it was a boatload of Cuban refugees and it was about to land on the shore right in front of us.

Cuba is ninety miles from Isla, and it is a well-known fact that refugee boats arrive here with some regularity. If the refugees are lucky, they disappear into the fabric of the island. But we had never seen this with our own eyes. As the crowd gathered, I felt sick to my stomach. A police officer had arrived and was radioing for backup. Onlookers had their phones out and were taking videos and photos, as these desperate and defenseless people were carried on the waves directly toward the sands before us.

I could only imagine how fervently these people must have wanted to escape their country to endure crossing the sea in a small boat with a plastic tarp for a sail. They wanted freedom, but as the police gathered it looked as it they were going to be captured. I didn’t want to watch, but it was happening so fast that I didn’t really have  a choice. The boat scraped the sand and the Cubans were scrambling in all directions. Some got away, others were caught. At least one officer had a weapon drawn. It was surreal.

I don’t know what happened to those who were apprehended. Perhaps they were treated with dignity, perhaps not. I only know that this saddened me deeply. Here I am, reflecting on creating the next chapter of my life, on building a new home. I have never known the hardship behind the drama that played out before me. I was going to look for sea glass!

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Instead, the sea brought me an indelible image of human suffering, the fear of cruelty side by side with the hope of liberation. The refugees can no longer be seen. Some went with the police, and I hope others found shelter. The little boat still sits on the shore.

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Life is never as simple as a stroll through paradise. We must remember this, and most importantly, we must remember to maintain our humanity and compassion above all. I appreciate any reminders that my concerns are miniscule in this cosmos. ©

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Words Fail Me

A few days ago, my daughter Ellie told me this story: She was exiting a local business, when she encountered a little boy. He looked up at her and said, in that earnest way that only children can pull off, “You look like a nice lady.”  She answered him, “And you are a nice boy.”

The image of this encounter delights me. I have revisited it more than once over the last few days. A chance moment between an adult and a child, a few kind words spoken that did not need to be said.  And now, joy in the telling and retelling. So simple.

Funny thing: when I was sharing this story with Charlie last night, I realized that, though the incident happened in Westmont, New Jersey, I was imagining a Mexican child. I saw a boy of about five, with wide dark eyes, silky black hair and an open face. Every time I encounter a Mexican child, which is several times a day, I fall in love a little bit.

Which is one of the main reasons I grow frustrated with my laborious acquisition of the language. Lets face it: I’m turning sixty years old in less than two weeks. These old synapses are not as flexible as they were back when I should have been more serious about learning foreign languages. I have continued to work on my Spanish, but I will have to be much more committed if I am going to get further. It’s really true that immersion is the only way, and I haven’t tried hard enough to engage with the people on a daily basis. I’m always afraid I will end up out on a limb of incomprehension.

Having long flourished in the world of verbal expression, it is difficult for me to try to communicate with only a limited arsenal. I dread that moment when I run out of words, wanting to express a thought or question for which I lack the vocabulary. It’s like starting to cross a bridge to a splendid place, and discovering that the bridge has not yet been completed. You can see where you so fervently want to go, but instead of a road to get there, you face a churning river. Maybe there are alligators, or you’ll drown. So jumping in and trying to swim doesn’t feel like an option. That’s me trying to speak Spanish.

Beyond not being able to befriend small children, another major frustration for me involves taking cabs. I HATE riding in cabs. Many of the cab drivers don’t speak English, and I feel like the ugly American, sharing in silence a small, almost intimate space with someone who is performing a service for me. Yesterday we took a cab downtown for dinner. The cabbie had cheerful instrumental Latin music playing, and I said, “Me gusto la musica.” He laughed and I could tell he appreciated my comment. It was a little bridge, so we were humans together for a moment. The ride was very pleasant.

But I can’t always create that little bridge. Or I get so far, but no further. Case in point: Yesterday Charlie and I were in the artists’ market – this week, a fantastic artist’s market with artisans from all over Mexico is on our island. Charlie was buying a lovely hand-stitched shirt while I was at a table nearby, perusing amber jewelry from Chiapas. Charlie came over to me and asked, “How do I ask him where the shirt was made?” So I (momentarily…) left the amber table, and asked Charlie’s vendor, “¿De donde es la camisa?” The young gentleman smiled widely and said, “Isla Mujeres.” It was made right on our island! A little surprised, I asked again, “¿Isla Mujeres?” He pointed at the colorful sign at the front of his table, “Isla Mujeres.” And then we had what I call a bobble-head doll moment, when we smile and nod our heads in lieu of communicating more deeply. I would have liked to ask him more. Who makes this beautiful clothing? Is it sold anywhere on the island regularly? My inquisitive mind works faster than my words can communicate, and I get frustrated, and turn into a bobble-head.

Last weekend we were on our way into the big supermarket, Chedraui, and happened upon some vendors selling pottery on the sidewalk in front of the store. We decided to purchase two mugs, and made our selection. Alas, we did not have small enough bills and the vendor did not have enough change. I had a simple request – can you hold these mugs for us while we go into the store and do our shopping, because then we will have the right change? But I could not communicate this effectively, although I did my best. We ended up having Charlie stand down there with the two mugs in his hands, while I went up the escalator, into the store, on the cashier line, made change, and went down to complete the purchase. Awkward, but we got the mugs.

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While on the subject of Chedraui, I recall that early in our stay here we needed to purchase a frying pan. Charlie found one there that seemed nicely heavy, which everyone knows is a good quality in a frying pan. The pan was covered in a colorful cardboard wrapper with a lot of writing on it, then covered again in cellophane. Charlie couldn’t read the writing on the cardboard, but it was clearly a frying pan of the size we desired, as we could tell by the contours and the handle sticking out from the packaging. He brought it home, and upon unwrapping it we discovered that it contained not only a frying pan but about two pounds of powdered chicken broth, which actually comprised the weight of the parcel. It was actually a flimsy, lightweight pan! Well, we thought, who knew that chicken broth came free with the pan???

A couple of months later, when shopping again, I discovered several of the very same packages on the clearance table. With the Spanish I had gained in the interim, I was able to discern that we had NOT purchased a pan with free chicken broth, but rather, we had purchased chicken broth that came with a free pan! Such are the perils of shopping in a foreign country.

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Getting back to taxi rides: I need to vent. As I explained early on, our transportation on the island is a tapestry of walking, bike riding, rental golf carts when we have guests, sometimes being lucky enough to catch a ride with friends, and, as a last resort, the occasional cab ride. I’ve already expressed the hatred I feel about this option, but it seems important to elaborate. To begin with, there is a lot of negative feeling about the taxi business on the island. The drivers have a union, and, I’m told, a good deal of political clout. It is suggested that the taxi folks don’t always use that power for the common good.

That being said, I have nothing against the individuals who are struggling to earn a living providing this service. In spite of all the popular complaining about the cabbies, I have observed that the drivers are struggling just like everyone else…their lifestyles are just the same as their neighbors’, they work long hours, and no doubt deal with some very unpleasant customers in the bargain.

Added to my frustration with not being able to communicate sufficiently with the drivers while sharing their space, there is another sticking point: the fares. Not because they are expensive, but because there is such a strange dynamic involved. When we were first tourists on the island, we would dutifully pay the driver what they asked of us, and we felt we were getting a fair price. As we spent more time here, we began to realize that there was a wide chasm between what the tourists paid and what the locals were charged. Often a local will ride up front with the cabbie while another fare sits in back, so that essentially the driver collects two fares on the same trip. No problemo. It makes things more interesting.

As we grew to be aware of the two-tiered fare system, our local ex-pat friends gave us the scoop: “Don’t ask the cabbie what you owe them, just give them 30 pesos,” and, “Ask them what the fare will be before you get in the cab, and refuse the ride if it is too much,” and “Make sure you have the right change.” While I found the whole ordeal more than a little uncomfortable, Charlie embraced this approach. (After all, he has family in Sicily.) After a year or so of experimentation, he now has this down to a science. Before we leave the house, we gathers 30 pesos, exactly. Then we hail a cab, and when we arrive, as I disembark, he hands the driver the money and we say adiós. The cabbies accept this – even though, had we asked them what the fare was, the answer would have been anything from 40 to 70 pesos, sometimes even more. Apparently, by just handing them the exact change, the assertion is, “I know what this costs, don’t pull one over on me.”

For me, the word-woman, this is just a little too nonverbal, too posturing. The other day, as we were vamoosing out of a cab, I said to Charlie, “I feel like we’re Bonnie and Clyde and we just pulled off a heist.” I just can’t shake that feeling, with two consequences. One, I always let Charlie be “the man” and pay the money. Two, I refuse to take a cab by myself, because, as much as I don’t like the method, I’m certainly not willing to revert to paying the turista rate. So, in this one aspect of travel on the island, I am not an independent mujer. I have been known to walk three miles in the burning sun to avoid that experience. Crazy, I know, but we are all allowed our little quirks on Isla Mujeres.

As I write this, we have one week and one day remaining on this beautiful island. We have begun our process of taking leave, as we discuss what restaurants we want to visit one last time, how to spend our diminishing days, and how hard it will be to take leave of this place that has become another home for us. If I have one regret as I write this, it reverts back to my disappointment in the slow development of my fluency. If I had these four months to live over, I would spend more time immersing myself in the language by speaking with the locals more and the English-speakers less. You can get by on Isla Mujeres with little or no Spanish, but you miss out on getting to know many wonderful people, with stories to tell that are truly the fabric of this magical place. I am sorry for the stories I have not heard, and hope to hear more next time.

Bonita Isla

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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New Friends

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.

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The Colors of Mexico

Ceramic Chicks

Ceramic Chicks

It’s raining on Isla today, and I’m not sad about that, other than the fact that I missed my narrow opportunity for exercise this morning. We will have a quiet day at home. There’s been so much excitement lately, it is good to kick back.

The ceiling fans are all running….the downstairs ones, in the living room, the kitchen, and the dining area/entryway. Keeping the air moving is one of the tricks to life in this climate. It makes a huge difference! Having air conditioned bedrooms is great, and most houses keep it at that, if they have AC at all. Electricity is expensive. When we are home during the day, we have the front and back doors open as well as a couple of windows, with the fans running. It’s very comfortable, especially when the sun isn’t shining, like today. (If it were shining, we would probably be heading for the beach.) Pobre de nosotros (Poor us).

My other tricks for climate survival include: cool showers, light-colored clothing of natural fibers, much agua, occasional dips into either the AC or the ocean as needed, and limited activity between noon and 5 pm. Siestas aren’t bad, either. Like much of life, it’s manageable if you use your noggin.

As well as stay out of the way of terrorists. My heart goes out to Paris, and to the rest of this troubled world, from this oasis we are so fortunate to call our temporary home.

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We are now the proud owners of two beautiful new bicicletas! We have our amiga, Inga, to thank for this new development. On Thursday we accompanied Inga on a day trip to Playa del Carmen, for the purpose of obtaining our bikes. Inga used to live in Playa, and she told us that everyone rides bikes there, and that consequently they can be purchased much more cheaply than in Cancun. As Inga needed to head to Playa for some errands, she invited us along. We started out on the 10 am ferry, and were met on the mainland by Manuel, with whom Inga had arranged transport for a mere $20/hour. We were surprised, because while we had understood that Inga was renting a van for that price, we didn’t have a clue that it included a driver!

Manuel took us in air-conditioned comfort to Playa del Carmen, a little over an hour south of Cancun. The plan was to take care of Inga’s business along the way to the bike shop. Our first stop was a Mexican blown-glass store, which was as amazing to us as having a personal driver. While Inga collected the assorted items on her list for her workplace, we ogled the colorful and sparkling merchandise. “I’m buying some things,” I warned Charlie, to which he admonished that we had better watch our cargo, since we would be biking home from the ferry. In spite of best intentions, we could not resist the beautiful Mexican glass. We purchased four drinking glasses, four Tequila shot glasses with delicate three-dimensional cacti at the bottom of each (bottoms up!), two Margarita glasses hand-painted with Mexican scenes, three wine-glasses, a glass bird, and four red hearts for my Christmas tree. We only spent about $820 pesos ($50). We will enjoy out purchases here, and figure out a way to get it all home to our storage unit in March.

Garden Center

Garden Center

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Our second stop was a garden center, as Inga needed to purchase some plants as well as photograph some planters for a friend who is remodeling a newly purchased casa on Isla. The planters were so whimsical, I photographed a few myself, in lieu of taking them home with me. We then stopped at a Mexican ceramic supply house, which was as fascinating as the blown glass store, but not inexpensive. Inga purchased a sink for her remodeling friend, while we explored and photographed the extensive and colorful inventory.

The Ceramic Place

The Ceramic Place

Finally, the bike shop! How to describe it? Endless rows of bike frames hung like the unfortunate ducks of Chinatown, but again colorful and varied, a la Mexico. Jesus (pronounced the Spanish way) would be our salesman, as he spoke some English. We were each to choose a frame and then select seats and hand grips, as well as choosing whether we wanted hand or coaster brakes. Jesus would then assemble our bikes. We opted for the least expensive frames, since everything rusts on Isla, anyway, and we only need them for four months. The bikes are sturdy and serviceable, and cost about $90 U.S. each, including one wire handlebar basket, installed.

Mi Bicicleta

Mi Bicicleta

While Jesus transitioned from salesman to techie and assembled our purchases, we had lunch with Inga and Manuel at a lovely spot, a restaurant, El Jardín, owned by her friends Paula and Honza. (If you are ever in Playa del Carmen, you must visit this restaurant!) The yummy food was served in a comfortably shaded garden setting. As we ate, Inga somehow negotiated the purchase of an antler fern from her friend Paula (this was a restaurant, not a garden shop). After lunch, Manuel hauled it to the van. While Charlie joined him to load the bikes, Inga and I made a final stop at a nearby natural food store.

Then back on the road, zooming to Puerto Juarez for the ferry under Manuel’s competent care. Though I forgot to mention that Manuel had difficulty restarting his Dodge Caravan after each and every stop we made,  I would not hesitate to engage  him again.

We departed back to Isla on the 4:30 ferry, cervesas in hand, having brought on board two bicycles, three cartons of glassware, seven large plants, and a sink. It was the first time in my life that “everything but the kitchen sink” was literally untrue. We arrived feeling a good bit more Mexican than when we had departed.©

The ride home

The ride home

Gringos in Paradise

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

November Tenth

Having just opened my laptop for the first time since our arrival here twelve days ago, I am dismayed to discover that the number keys on my trusty eight-year-old MacBook have stopped working. Frustrating, but this is my first opportunity to sit and write since our arrival on the day before Halloween, so I will let that be as it may and use words to express dates and numbers. So far so good, but I just realized that this also means that the little symbols above the numbers, such as the parentheses, the dollar sign, the asterisk…….even the exclamation point, don’t work. Perhaps this is the computer’s way of keeping me honest, or at least less dramatic?

We spent the first three nights on Isla in one of our favorite hotels, Casa Sirena, and experienced an iconic Day of the Dead celebration. (Innkeeper Steve Broin knows how to throw a party.) As you can see, my keyboard issue has been fixed.

And so, having concluded the Summer of 23 Beds and 41 Showers, we moved last Monday into our own digs for the next four months. Casa Laguna is a comfortable two bedroom house, Mexican style. Unlike that of most island visitors, our casa is in the heart of a colonia, a word that loosely translates as a neighborhood. Our neighbors are all locals and, while our casa is delightfully appointed and quite spacious, it is not quite as luxurious as a typical turista rental. That is: no pool, no ocean view. Still, Casa Laguna has features that I find particularly endearing. The first is a private tropical backyard facing a lagoon. Thus egrets, waterfowl, and an occasional heron are among our closest neighbors. The second is a rooftop deck with a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view and sunrises and sunsets to die for. To be fair, it is too hot to sit up there during the heat of the day, and if Casa Laguna were truly ours we would add a dipping pool, and a palapa for shade. Yet over coffee in the morning or a cocktail at night, the roof can’t be beat. The third delight that Casa Laguna bestows upon us is its proximity to the Salina Grande, a large salt water lake in the center of the island which is surrounded by a promenade, and which is connected to our laguna.

Casa Laguna Sunset

Casa Laguna Sunset

So, here we are, gringos living on Avenida Jesus Martinez Ross. My frustration over not being fluent en español is mounting. We smile, like foolish bobble-head dolls, at each neighbor we encounter. For the most part they smile and bobble back, so I think we are getting along. It would be so nice to have a chat. Por lo que va. So it goes. I am learning a little each day.

Rooftop Vista

Rooftop Vista

In fact, lest you think we are simply lounging on the strand like fat, beached tourists, dear reader, let me tell you about my to-do list. Writing is of course at the top of the list, as is painting. Mexico, with its joyful colors and piquante sabores, is very inspiring to the would-be artist. I am committed as well to improving my Spanish, un poco cada día. Finally, I am making it a habit to get up early enough most days to power-walk around the Salina Grande before it gets too hot.There you have my four primary objectives, unless life interferes, as often it does. For example, we just spent our first week entertaining our first guests, Eleanor Leenman and Skye Saetta. They were a pleasure.

Ellie and Skye

Ellie and Skye

When we have guests, our goal is their comfort and enjoyment, and, of course showing them around nuestra isla bonita. In addition, there are the relentless tasks of housekeeping. Yesterday we did laundry for the first time. We are so lucky as to have a washer/dryer, in the little bodega attached to the house. (While I’ve always known a bodega to be a little store, here it apparently means an outdoor supply closet.) Our bodega contains the washer/dryer, as well as a little sink, mops and brooms, rags, cleaning solutions, and a clothesline. It also serves as a storage space for things that can be kept in a semi-outdoor environment. All told, it is a very useful little bodega.

One household chore that we find endlessly interesting is grocery shopping. I am admittedly easily entertained, but I have always been enchanted by shopping in foreign countries, and even though we have now been visiting Isla for fourteen years, grocery shopping continues to captivate. Usually we shop at Chedraui, a Mexican-style super-store sadly reminiscent of Walmart, sans the negative connotations. When we first started visiting Isla Mujeres, Chedraui had not yet been built. In fact, arriving one year to find its sinister form shadowing the center of the island, with its ground level parking and escalators to the store level, we were duly dismayed. Yet here’s the thing: nobody on the island seemed to mind, and the general consensus seemed to be that Chedraui made life easier: for the locals, and certainly for the restaurant owners, neither of whom any longer needed to make a day trip on the ferry to Cancun to buy necessities. (Fun fact: the only traffic light on Isla Mujeres is at the entrance to Chedraui. It is only a blinking light, and the intersection is no less chaotic for its presence.)

In addition to Chedraui, there are two markets on the island called Super Express, and dozens of local mini-supers, which are little bodegas (shops, not supply closets) that are as varied in their merchandise as their name is an oxymoron. There are also numerous ‘mom and pop’ vegetable stands scattered through the neighborhoods, as well as bakeries (panaderías) and the like. El Centro (downtown) boasts a sort of farmer’s market, Mercado Municipal. So, the ‘shopportunities’ are infinite.

One of our greatest challenges on the island, though, is getting from place to place. Renting a vehicle full time would be as expensive as our monthly rent, which is crazy, but the way it is in Mexico. On Isla, many people, tourists and locals alike, drive golf carts, and they are as expensive (or more) as a car to rent. In fact you cannot rent cars on the island, but you can bring them on the car ferry from the mainland.

Lacking either a car or a golf cart, your options are the taxies, bikes, or a rental motorbike. None of these are ideal. In the heat of the day riding a bike can be daunting, and your cargo is limited. A motorbike won’t work when we have guests, albeit entire Mexican families, with a couple of kids and a dog, commonly ride together. Lastly, each taxi ride is a challenge of communication, as well as an exercise in assertiveness, since the drivers notoriously overcharge the gringos. In addition, most of the cabs are not air-conditioned, ie, HOT, and they drive fast with all the windows open, messing my coiffure, and making for a generally uncomfortable experience. We put up with them, but on a daily basis they become increasingly annoying.

As much as we would like to have a full-time vehicle, we cannot afford to double our monthly expenses. Our solution is piecemeal. We are planning to purchase bicycles this week, but when we can’t bear to ride them we will use the cabs. When we have guests we will splurge on a golf cart, which you can rent by the day, week or month.

Luckily, Chedraui is only a few blocks away!©

Days of Reckoning

Autumn Reflection

Autumn Reflection

Our first 3+ months of traveling in Casa Blanca were a rousing success! The proof is in the pudding: a week or two ago, we spent an entire day cleaning her out. We removed every personal item and piece of non-attached equipment that had accumulated in the RV since June 22: clothing, dishes, food, toiletries, Arla’s art supplies, CDs, our portable CD player, sun hats, Arla’s books and writing materials, towels, sheets, decorative items, Arla’s sea glass and rock collection, our tablecloth, candles, etc. etc. Then, after emptying everything out, Charlie vacuumed Casa Blanca while I tried to figure out where on earth we were going to store everything that we had just removed. Once that was accomplished, we had a moment to sit in Casa Blanca, at our table which reminds me of a booth in a diner, with the autumn breeze floating through the louvered windows. And what we felt was a stir of wistfulness for the sweet summer days and nights spent there, when she was our home and the long road beckoned. We both agreed that, Mexico notwithstanding, we can’t wait until next spring when we can re-inhabit Casa Blanca and work our way westward.

Now it is autumn, four months since we first left our previous home. With the shortening days and the cool nights, we are glad to be winding down our travels and thinking ahead to what’s next: winter in Mexico! Four months in one place, making a home in Casa Laguna. Charlie looks forward to going to the beach a lot, and I look forward to swimming, painting, writing, cooking, and having some friends and family visit. We have several people to thank for taking us in over the past four months, and we will  “pay it forward” by being equally gracious hosts. It’s going to feel like playing house! I loved playing house as a little girl……….do children still do that? I hope so. I hope that the ubiquitous ‘iPad-as-babysitter’ has not erased such simple rites of passage. I’ll let you know when I have grandchildren……….just kidding, kids! No pressure. Oh, I forgot….most of our kids don’t read my blog. I can say what I want.

Are you wondering why I would be SO excited about staying in one place for four months? Well, today I ran the numbers. Since departing Voorhees, NJ on June 23…………

We traveled 11,200 miles.

We slept in Casa Blanca at 2 National Parks, 14 State Parks, 4 RV parks, and 3 private campggrounds.

We slept in a total of 23 different beds, when you count Casa Blanca and what follows below.

We spent 17 nights in 11 hotels.

We were the houseguests of 6 family members and 7 friends, and spent time with countless others over meals, at celebrations, on the beach, and at a professional soccer game.

We showered in 41 different showers (Gail Licata, yours was my favorite!)

We went on 22 hikes.

We failed to count how many campfires we had or marshmallows we ate.

We watched at least 6 firework displays, one from above.

We suffered one tick bite.

We only ate at two chain restaurants!

We didn’t gain any weight!

We actually lost a few pounds.

As you can see, I’ve been counting! Thankfully I didn’t tally the calories we consumed or the money we spent, although we did begin doing the latter…….. but we gave up. It felt too much like work.

Right about now, four months of playing house seems just about perfect. It is time to slow down, I feel it in my bones as autumn sets in.

As our summer travels were winding down, our lives were touched by witnessing close friends go through losses. We attended a few funerals, and now another friend is facing the imminent loss of a parent. I have been through the pain of loss myself, but somehow bearing witness to another’s loss has a special poignancy. It is easier to see the entire cycle of life and death when you are not the one grieving.

Charlie and I have a running good-natured disagreement: I prefer living in a place with four distinct seasons while he would prefer a more tropical climate. I am excited to experience this coming winter in Mexico, and yet I feel like I’m cheating the gods. For me, experiencing the four seasons is as fundamental as being born, going through childhood, becoming an adult, growing older, and dying. The changing seasons reassure me that all is as it should be.

The chill of autumn, and the death it portends, serves as an annual reminder of our mortality. As I grow older, I find that life softens me the way water sculpts stone. My heart grows heavy with tenderness as life carves lines in my face and etches my heart with loss. With each year the autumn feels more poignant, and still it remains my favorite season.

We are all travelers through life. This traveler is flying to Mexico on Friday morning. I’m going to experience the Day of the Dead AND a Mexican Christmas! (I hope the gods will forgive me for cheating. If not, they can freeze my butt off next winter.)©

Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres

Insomnia

Another sleepless night. It angers me that sleep has become not a soothing respite, but instead a kind of torture. Some nights trying to sleep is akin to  a job, and I awaken in the morning feeling as if I have worked a very long and strenuous shift. Dreaming can be that way too: a plodding through. I am a soldier standing guard in a blizzard, trudging back and forth, back and forth, getting nowhere.

Nowhere. If you look at the word as if seeing it for the first time, you realize that it is ‘now here.’ ‘Nowhere’ is a word that conjures nothingness, while ‘now here’ contains everything. Perhaps this is the very lesson I needed to learn in the silence of this sleepless night. When I stand at the edge of nothing, the moment contains everything.

Winter Harbor, Maine

Winter Harbor, Maine

While my days have been a cornucopia of pleasant adventures these past few months, I have not been without my demons. Mostly they visit me wrapped in the blackness of the long night, in the guise of worries about things I cannot even pretend to control. This is a special weakness of mine. You might even call it an indulgence, for who am I to think I am so important that any of this matters?

So here I sit, on a couch that is not mine (we are staying with Gail and Tom for a few days) at 3 a.m. Tonight this couch, this room, is a blessing. Were this a sleepless night in Casa Blanca, there would be no separate room to which to remove myself, and I would have had to tough out the dark hours, tossing and turning in our small bed, trying unsuccessfully not to piss off Charlie.

Instead I am comfortable, computer in lap, having given up the fight for slumber in favor of the reassuring task of writing my thoughts. I am now here.

One of my regrets about the past few months has been that I have not been able to blog as much as I wanted. There were so many moments I would have liked to have shared, yet I couldn’t keep up. Like sleeping, being ‘on the road’ can be quite a demanding job! It is satisfying work: the tasks of simple housekeeping, planning and navigating, and then taking it all in, hopefully with awareness. I have found it extremely rewarding, but my writing has been, of necessity, catch as catch can.

Now we are at a transition. Two nights ago we spent the last night sleeping in Casa Blanca for 2015. Katie’s wedding is this weekend (Yay!), and after that we are going to regroup for a few weeks before heading to Isla Mujeres, Mexico for the better part of the winter. Four tropical months! We are going to try our hand at being snowbirds, and then resume our travels in the early spring of 2016.

Casa Blanca in the Pinelands

Casa Blanca in the Pinelands

I was sorry to spend our last night in that little bed. We were at a lonely campsite (the campgrounds become remarkably deserted after Labor Day). Still, the evenings have started to get chilly enough that sitting outside isn’t as pleasant. (Gratifyingly, the bugs think so too.)  It is already getting dark much earlier. The grip of autumn is exactly on schedule. The super-harvest-moon eclipse served as the grand finale of the entertainment nature provided us all summer.

Last night I got to stay up late with my sister-in-law Gail, sharing stories and catching up. In our rambling conversation, we touched upon how important it is in life just to “keep showing up”. To that I would add: being aware. Because if you show up, and then you fall asleep while the show is going on, or you are too self-absorbed or too high or too afraid to really see, well, you may just as well have skipped it.

This blog is an opportunity for me to “show up” and reflect my experiences to those willing to bear witness. I am grateful for each and every one of you for reading it.

Showing up. We were inclined to skip the eclipse on Sunday night….we were tired, it was a little chilly, the trees might have blocked our view or maybe it was cloudy out. In the end, my inclination to embrace experience prevailed, and we witnessed one more little miracle in the series of miracles we call life. ©

Sunset, Lyme Connecticut

Sunset, Lyme Connecticut