The beginning of an eighteen year love affair (una parte)

Lately I have been a little preoccupied.

We will finally be going back to the island. It has been two years, so to say that I am anxious to get there would be an understatement.  Thinking (and thinking and thinking) about Isla Mujeres these past few days weeks has made me remember our very first trip.

Sometime late in the fall of 1995, Jim’s brother called and asked him for a favor.  He was getting married and wanted Jim to be the Best Man.  The big catch – the wedding would be in Mexico!sombrero

Now, at that point in our lives neither one of us had ever even flown on a plane before.  And Mexico!? Who goes to Mexico?  Certainly not us…what little we knew of Mexico was from the movies…Tijuana tourist traps, crime, every bad western we had ever seen… why would we even consider it? And then I got to thinking; we were in our 30’s and had never really been anywhere.  I had recently returned to work full-time and was making a decent salary. We had taken a long weekend trip without the kids the year before and had a wonderful time.  We had been all alone, with no responsibilities but ourselves. It was amazing and also helped us to remember why we enjoyed each other’s company in the first place!

After checking with our parents to see if they would be able to babysit, we decided to go for it.  When we learned about how inexpensive the trip was we were excited but a little dubious.  We really didn’t know much about where we were going, but what the heck; it would be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure!

Bay of Mujeres blue water

I will never forget the day that Jim brought the plane tickets home.  We had ordered them from a Travel Agent – his brother and fiancé were taking care of the hotel reservations.  I was busy doing something with the girls and he came in the room with a huge grin on his face.  He handed me a brochure with a picture on the front of a beach. The water was the bluest color that I had ever seen! We didn’t know we were going to the beach! There were beaches in Mexico? And that water…the pictures MUST have been retouched.

Fast forward to February of 1996. We flew out of Toronto because it was much cheaper.   You could get direct flights back then, charters that served mimosas and gave you hot towels.  It was thrilling and a bit frightening to be flying on a plane.   We thought we were going to a resort because anyone we talked to that had been to Mexico had gone to an All-inclusive.  That could not have been farther from the truth….

My very first memory was the wave of heat and humidity that hit us when we stepped off the plane onto the tarmac.  We walked down the gangway and across the hot asphalt into the airport, which at that time was little more than a concrete block building.  I remember that there were very long lines at immigration.  There were advertisements and travel posters hanging on the walls, some of them mentioning Isla Mujeres (which at the time we pronounced “ Is-la-Moo-Jur-Is”).  All of the signs on the walls and the announcements on the PA system were in Spanish, making us feel confused and disoriented.   We presented our papers to a very stern looking Mexican official, who stamped a small piece of paper very forcefully and quickly before he shoved it at us and dismissed us to another line.  At the end of this line was a small traffic light with a button at the bottom.  A representative from each traveling party was to push the button.  If the light was green, they would be waved on.  If the light was red they were detained and their belongings were searched.

cancun customs

Jim pushed the button and (thankfully) the light was green.  From there we made our way down a long, chaotic hallway where everyone was shouting and waving papers in our faces, offering ground transportation,  time shares and day trips.  At the end of the gauntlet we were pushed and shoved out into the blinding sunlight.  Thankfully, Jim’s brother was there waiting for us with a taxi that was to take us to our next stop.

We piled into the small red vehicle and the driver sped away into the maze of traffic.  We must have been quiet as we looked around.  The scenery was a little bit bleak; there were miles of jungle that still showed some of the effects of Hurricane Gilbert, which had struck several years before.  The patches of palm trees with twisted tops and deep forests that seemed overgrown were a bit fearsome. Some of the buildings along the side of the road were still unfinished, the rebar poking up from the tops of cement block walls, giving them a slightly  menacing appearance. The traffic seemed to have no particular set of rules to follow – cars and motos whizzed by on the left and right, weaving and honking at one another. Families of four could be seen riding on one small moto, some with helmets and some without, small children being held on their parents’ laps.  These sights were overwhelming, and I remember thinking “wait…wasn’t there supposed to be an ocean?”

It was about this time that Jim’s brother introduced us to the driver, who looked at my husband’s obviously worried face and asked “What’s the matter Jaime?  You not happy?” Since that very moment, Jim became “Jaime”.  His brother introduced him as Jaime to everyone we met and to this day whenever he is not with me they ask “Where is Jaime??”.

Soon after that we arrived at the Port, where an old wooden ferry would take us to across.  Once we started out I looked out the side window to see the most beautiful water I have ever seen.  The colors deepened and changed during the 20 minute crossing, first blue, then green, then aqua.  I am so thankful that we arrived during daylight hours that first trip, as the sight is etched in my memory forever.Isla Mujeres Ferry 1996

We arrived on the island and disembarked and then had to quickly grab our luggage before it was whisked away by the porters, who we had been warned would be looking for a propina (tip) to return them to us.  Since our hotel was not very far away we refused the tricycle luggage vendors who were hawking for fares on the side of the street and walked the few blocks through the town to get there.

The Francis Arlene, where we were to stay in was very quaint…not the resort that I had originally assumed would be our accommodation. The rooms were not at all fancy, but very clean and comfortable.  There was no pool or bar, but there were several large porches and verandas where other guests were relaxing, and a beautiful little courtyard with a garden. The Magana’s, the family that owned the place,  also lived on the premises and were very friendly and helpful. Little did we know at the time that we would eventually come to consider this place our home, and consider the family like our own.  We have stayed there every year since that original visit, and attended birthday parties, anniversaries and christenings with them.Hotel Francis Arlene

That first one week stay was and adventure like no other for me. To say that my very first experience with the island was love at first sight would be a stretch.  There were so many things that were strange to me…the first one being the fact that you could not flush your toilet paper! Many areas of Mexico do not have septic systems capable of handling solids like paper, so it is customary to dispose of them in a small waste can found in the bathroom.  This was a bit difficult to adjust to, but I actually did just fine with it – after a few “fishing expeditions”, of course.

I had  also been told by many people before we left not to drink the water.  This made me very nervous, as I was fearful of “Montezuma’s revenge”.  Since I did not want to risk any kind of stomach problems, I was extremely careful to brush my teeth with bottled water in hand, and keep my mouth closed in the shower.

Ave HidalgoThe restaurants on the island are all quite small and intimate, and the kitchens even smaller.  I was quite distrustful of everything I ate that first trip, eschewing any kind of fruit or vegetable that may have been rinsed with water and only ordering things that were cooked very well.  I did develop a lifelong love of guacamole, though, and I yearn for the cardboard tasting homemade tortilla chips that were served in nearly every establishment when I am back here on the Hill.

There is much poverty on the island, and that was also disturbing to me. Seeing so many families who lived in one or two room tar paper houses made me feel privileged and spoiled.  I couldn’t imagine raising my family under such circumstances. The daily wage of most of the workers was extremely low – less than $10 per day – but the warmth that the local people showed us, and the connections that they had to their families was obvious.

The beach on the other hand, was amazing and lovely, with soft, white sand and crystal clear water. We were visited daily the many vendors who would come by and offer to sell us bracelets and pareos and snacks like nuts and frozen ice cream bars.  We drank cervezas and pina coladas at the small thatched roof bars that lined the beach, and we made friends with the most remarkable group of people, the likes of which we would have never met back home in rural Western New York.  They came from everywhere; places like North Carolina, Philadelphia, Denver, Canada and Germany to name a few.  Many of these people had been coming to the island for years and stayed for several weeks at a time.  It was fascinating to hear about their lives and their travels.Sunset at Playa Norte

Our week there flew by, the wedding and reception were so much fun (and a story for another day), and just as we were starting to get the hang of everything it was time to leave. We were more relaxed than we had been in a very long time, but also anxious to get home.  Communication with home was difficult back then. There were no internet cafes or cell phones, and we missed our comfortable beds and yes, even the children!

When the week ended and we were ready to go home our trip did indeed seem like a once-in-a-lifetime event.  It was amazing and wonderful and exotic, but we were just small town “regular” people.  We bid all of our new friends farewell and prepared to board the ferry back to the mainland, the airport and eventually reality.  As we were leaving a friend made a recommendation.  She told us to throw a blossom into the water before we departed, thus guaranteeing our return.  It seemed like a quaint custom, so we obliged.

Thank goodness we did, for that was the very beginning….

hasta luego


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