All summer long, we read Old Man of the Sea, Hemingway’s novel of fishing and hoping. Waiting to find a whale shark off Isla Mujeres, off the Carribean coast of Mexico, we channeled some of that sentiment. It was the end of a rollicking trip from a wedding in Dallas, to exquisite tackiness in Cancun, journeys to see Mayan ruins, some snorkeling, and other adventures, as well as pauses along the road to look at life as we sat at a ceviche bar overlooking the ocean.
Cancun would be the reward, but first we had a wedding in Dallas to attend to. Trip after trip after trip to Texas in recent years, the road keeps bringing me back to the scene of the crime. In the case of my story, it begins in Dallas, where we lived from 1979 to 90. That was the Dallas of movies and bike rides where I explored the city, from Greenville Ave to Addison, Highland Park Shopping Center to Deep Ellum, the legendary music hub, and back again. Up and down the North Dallas Tollway, to the School Book depository, down Elm Street for music, around the city, South to Duncanville, with road trips to Austin in between, losing my innocence as much as I possibly could (with anyone consenting to take part).
That was the Dallas I would show (minus some of the details) Caroline, who was with me for Dave, my childhood chum’s wedding.
My best buddy for the better part of decade, we carpooled together, watched R rated movies, listened to ACDC records, zoomed our bikes through the Greenway Parks, watched our parents fight, split and shuffle off too soon. Off to college, out in LA, we watched riots and suicides, changing our lives, as we set off for separate stories, toward parts unknown, away from childhood chums, bidding our childhoods adieu. That was decades ago now.
The most eligible bachelor in town, Dave is one of the last of my tribe to join the whole catastrophe of marriage.
So we celebrated with his family and some of the childhood friends, from that old carpool, our waste lines getting bigger, along with the smiles.
Mazel tov Dave. Thanks for including us in the amazing day together.
Caroline and I did what I always do in Dallas, we romped about, getting lost on the colossus of highways and sprawl extending out ever further and further, as the border of the metroplex extends through Richardson, Plano, and parts unknown. We romped by old Greenhill High, where I spent a decade hanging with Dave and my other buddies, enjoying the highjenks of youth until it all disappeared in front of our eyes. From lessons about the Dr Leakey, the Sumerians, and To Kill a Mockingbird, to Latin translations of Virgil and his descent into the underworld, where Dante was inspired to write his best lines, TS Elliot reminded us that this is the road through Wasteland, and Borges took us into a magic realist detour, lost in a labyrinth, eluding a minaotar. Many of us would spend a lifetime walking there, lost on highways, wandering, wondering whose on the other side of the city, what is the other side of ourselves?
We walked through the football field, where we lost championship games, cheered, and Jim Morrison recalled that, after all is said and done, “this is the end.” Championships losses are rarely as dramatic as those old highlight reels with the Doors playing.
Others stroll through there now, as do the peacocks, which remind me its Greenhill.
I am usually most comfortable in Dallas at the Inwood Theater and Deep Ellum, deep in downtown, where I worked and played, and we explored before our trip out of town. Its never easy entering these memories of where life took me and dad spent the better part of three decades, rarely able to leave for long. Much of this experience began at 534 Nakoma drive and our beloved Greenway.
“if you go down to deep ellum, keep your money in your hand,” jerry sang.
Leaving, we visited the scene of another crime, from November of 1963, a crime that put Dallas on the map, marking the city in our consciousness forever, always makes me sad.
And we caught a flight to Mexico.
Cancun the next day was amazingly tacky. I cannot say we were not warned. With American crap everywhere, the mass accumulation of hotels, resorts, hooters, steak houses, vegas like schlock was still more that I could have ever imagined or wanted to contemplate along this newly created mega resort. Sometimes plans happen faster than trip research. You just plan for a place with a beach and some beer and hope to find something authentic. Or maybe you do not? But there we were. I must confess that I always feel like a complete idiot the first day or two in a new place, until I find my sea legs, a place for some solace, a cup or coffee, cerveza, and something real.
After working on our tans and exploring the surroundings day one, we decided to go find some ruins. Day two, we’d leave at 7 am for our trip to Chichen Itza, the city of Mayan Ruins two our south in the Yukatan. This Mayan civilization thrived from 400 ad to 12000 or so when it faded into history after a series of clashes and wars. Vines covered the spaces, and it was forgotten. It would be another six hundred years before some Americans archaeologists stumbled upon it, peeling off the vines and unpacking its majestic history of this people still walking through Mexico. The Mayans never left.
Everywhere I travel to Mexico, I think about its history, the ages of Aztecs, indigenous people, Spanish colonizers, intersecting religions, and icons, through struggles with independence, drug warsd and neoliberal colonizers anew, every bit as a culture crushing as the Spanish conquistadors.
On the way, we stopped in Villadolid, a small colonial city between Cancun and Merida. In the South end of the town square sits, Iglacia de San Gervasio, a 1706 replica of a 1545 church erected by the Spanish, snakes and crosses intermingling as the new religion sought to appropriate the old religion, and its icons. The Christians have always had a knack for connecting their traditions with the old gods and heros, myths and folk tapestries. Inside a mural depicts a horrified priest witnessing the arrival of the colonizers.
And continued our journey, stopping for lunch, for tacos, rice and beans, made with fresh tortillas.
I have been to Istanbol and Rome, seen the celtic crosses in Ireland and crumbling clues about civilizations past all my life. Without messages written on stone, its all conjecture. But the ruins of this lost space humbled me. The battling Mayan games and sacrifices, temples, and prehistoric pyramids reminded us there is much we do not know about who came before us.
Finishing the trip, we went for a dip in a cenote, a fresh water swimming hole, two hundred feet below the ground.
Refreshing and invigorating, trees, extending out of the walls, looking down at us, a silhouette above us as we swam, greeting the sun, feeling lucky to be alive, padding through this 48 foot deep pool.
The next day, we spent Snorkling in Isle Mujeres. Looking a clown fish, stergen, and coral, we felt like the trip was well worth our while. I always love the feeling of being in vieques, in Puerto Rico. But this isle of 100000 people felt just as alive and quirky. Its beaches and people just as friendly and inviting.
“Wale sharks, lets swim with them tomorrow” Caroline insisted. “This guy will take us tomorrow.”
We’d set out again early the next day, grabbing another ferry to Isle Mujeras. The island growing on us more and more with each trip. Caroline was a tad nervous when we woke.
We walked around the town, taking in more of the flavor before our boat shipped off at 9 am.
Is it ever a wise idea to swim with sharks, I wondered on facebook. Few agreed. Still we set out for our 25 mile boat ride to find whale sharks. As Mellville reminds us, whales only come our when they want to. As the fisherman from Hemingways story reminded us, there’s no guarantee to see or catch a fish. We were not there to hunt, as much as to make friends or at least see face to face what these maligned creates are all about.
Between bumps on the boat, waves, and butterflies like few I have experienced, even before the most unscripted of civil disobedience actions, I was feeling something awful. Then Caroline felt awful and I felt good. And then we switched, chatting nervously with our traveling campanieros, some Texans, their kids, and the Mexicans guiding us through the experience.
Nothing on the horizon but water.
And then a swordfish jumping out.
And then a group of dolphins dancing.
And then nothing.
And hallucinations of fish fins.
And then nothing for hours and hours.
My stomach turning, food crawling up my throat, acid and fruit gurbling and bubbling, than making its way back down again, and back up, nausea making a coward of me.
And then wale sharks. Something like four hundred of them, swimming, one fin after another, feeding on plankton in the distance.
The scene felt very much like one of those moments on Shark Week. Stupid things Americans do. Run with bulls in Spain and die; swim with sharks in the Caribbean sea, where they learn that sometimes whale sharks find their annoying visitors an inviting substitute for plankton.
But this wasn’t to be. She looked big and peaceful, lurking on the surface where we swam, zipping by without even noticing us. No words of advice about poverty in Mexico or global warming, just as passing us by back into the ocean, where she returned.
I will never forget seeing those lovely creatures, wondering about and encountering the other.
I was so scared I did not think I could swim.
I am not sure I can do this, Caroline had said to our gentle tour guide.
“im glad you told me. I’ll take your hand,” he consoled her.
But she was able to swim.
My adventurous travelling companion.
We snorkeled and swam, explored all afternoon.
Isla Mujeres has perhaps the most the most beautiful beach in Mexico, noted our tour guide, inviting us to swim in its blue waters.
We drank a celebratory beer and enjoyed ceviche.
The water here was warm and delicious. Bidding our friends goodbye, we stayed there all afternoon, exploring the town, stumbling upon a cemetery and making plans to come visit again.
Mexico has always been a majestic place to visit (even if the drug war, vexing inequality, and poverty caste an ominous shadow). Its people kind, even if they caught in the global drug clash, trade battles, and cultural schisms which rock our modern consciousness. But walking through this town, it felt like a Carlos Fuentos was lurking at every corner. The quirky cemetery felt like a scene from his death artenio cruz, his transhistoric novel, I read in one sitting on a train 24 years ago from Rome to Florence, another stop along the road after leaving Dallas behind.
There are so many surprises of history and our lives. Finishing the day, we felt lucky to just sit at the
Ceviche bar back in Cancun, drinking pina coladas, looking at the water.
Later that night, we sat looking at the beach. A bird was flying overhead. As old as the dinosaurs, these majestic creatures have seen a lot of human plans. They’ve seen the Mayan games and sacrifices, the Spaniards looting the region’s riches, the hotels popping up and down, along with zappatistas, trade deals, and other misadventures. I wonder what they think of us humans down here, hatching plans. They’ve certainly seen us come and go, as we will.
We are getting older, Caroline and I noted, as we woke the next day. Fifteen years together, aging is a privilege many never have the luck to experience. So we are enjoying it.
Meanderring back we navigated storms and set backs in Miami, rampaging, panic as flights were delayed, canceled, people sprinted hoping to make their connections, flights long gone.
We stayed at the airport and finally made our way back home. Not quite like Odysseus, it was still our journey.
Back home, we picked up the dos ninos, who’d been independent of us at camp, and made our next step back toward the camino de Santiago. Time to finish what we began. But also to relish where we've been.