Friday, January 13, 2017

Mexico 2017 – Day 10 – In flight head stabilizer

Our final day. I relished the delicious, sweet papaya I ate for breakfast and tried to imprint the taste of that wonderful fruit on my memory, as I likely wouldn’t be having another one like it for some time. We made a big bag of sandwiches for the airport, and then we gathered up all the rest of the food and supplies and took them over to Mom’s place. We had a short visit there and said good-bye to everybody, including Jose and Soani and family, who fortunately happened to be home at the time.

The airport shuttle showed up right on time and whisked us off to Cancun airport terminal 3. Our check-in was a breeze, and the security line was short, making us wonder why this always has to be such a torturous experience in Toronto. We entered the terminal and had ample opportunity to spend whatever pesos we had left in any of the dozens of shops.

The flight left on time at 3:15 and once we were in the air I strapped on the in-flight head stabilizer that I was to test for my friend Tony. It worked perfectly! The only problem was that the other passengers waiting in line for the toilet noticed my restful sleep and kept waking me up to ask where they could get one. I have 27 orders I will forward onto Tony when we get back. We landed in Toronto around 6:40pm and actually made it through immigration quite quickly, but then had to wait a very long time for the bags. We caught the shuttle back to the car park and were back home by 9:30, safe and sound, but still in the confused daze that results from the rapid climatic shift from tropical paradise to winter wonderland.

So how did we like Mexico? I think it always takes a few days after returning from a trip to figure out what you liked and what you didn’t because during a trip you are just so focused on taking it all in that you don’t really take the time to think much about it.

Ana and I talked about how this vacation compared to the ones in recent years where we’ve gone to all-inclusive resorts, usually in Cuba. When Ana used to work for WestJet we never went to all-inclusives and instead rented apartments or hotels wherever we went. So this sort of vacation is not at all new for us, but after not having done one for a while we were reminded of how much work goes into grocery shopping, planning meals, making meals, doing dishes, packing lunches, negotiating plans, driving around, and so on. At an all-inclusive this is all taken care of for you so the time available for fun stuff is maximized. Saying that, part of the fun of being in a new place is getting an idea of what it is like to live there, and you certainly get no sense of that while staying at a resort. The apartment we stayed in was not within walking distance of much at all, so we had to use the van or public transport to get anywhere, which is fine if you are staying for a longer time, but for a shorter vacation it is nice to be within walking distance of the action. We got an incredible amount of Spanish practice while in Mexico – much more than we get in Cuba, simply because you are forced to communicate with people to figure things out. So that part we really liked. The other aspect of this trip was we had Ana’s folks along, as well as my family, so we were a very large group. At a resort, this is super easy as they have giant tables at restaurants, and throughout the day people can basically do what they want and you don’t have to travel as a giant herd. This becomes a little tougher during an apartment vacation. During this trip we really didn’t have any problems with it, and we all managed to agree on what we wanted to do each day, but it is logistically more challenging.

Ana asked me if Mexico was what I expected and I had a tough time answering that. In some ways, it is much like the other Latin American countries we’ve visited - friendly people, a little dirty, music always playing, and we felt comfortable getting around and figuring things out. In other ways it was different – things seem to generally work very well, the traffic was rarely congested, the Spanish was easier to understand, and there were so many US style big box stores. Although we ate the majority of our meals in the apartment, we weren’t overly impressed with the food so that was a disappointment. I really enjoyed the tacos and the ever present sauces, but once you ventured outside of that food category it was hit and miss. I expect that we will visit Mexico again, but next time we might try a different location, perhaps somewhere on the west coast, so that we could experience another region and culture. That said, the idea of spending a lazy week lounging around Isla Mujeres certainly appeals to us.

The other big difference for us on this trip was that we traveled at peak time. This is something we NEVER do, but in this case we found a good price on flights and realized that the kids’ school break extended into January so they would not have to miss school if we traveled during this time. I’m not going to say we regretted this decision, but I will say that standing in lines, fighting crowds and paying top price for everything is not how we like to spend our vacations.

In the end, we had an awesome trip and got to spend quality time together with our parents and explore an amazing part of Mexico. I think we covered a great deal of ground in the short time we were there and got a decent feel for what the region has to offer. Above all we found Mexicans to be extremely friendly, helpful, thoughtful and fun loving. We will be back.

Mexico 2017 – Day 9 - Cozumel

I was so happy this morning when I returned to the bedroom we were sharing with the kids and saw Magnus on the bed in his fart pose – on forearms and knees with arse sticking straight up in the air, enabling maximum release of wind. Stella was standing there and I screamed at her to run but she was  paralyzed by fear. As expected his butt exploded and the horrible smell penetrated the bedding, the pillows, the plaster, us, and the floor tiles and he laughed diabolically seeing the destruction he had caused. It was good to have him back to his regular self.

We hopped a bus with Don, Donna and Mom and headed downtown. Our goal today was to take the ferry over to Cozumel, and it was a perfect day for walking as the temperature had really dropped with the storm the night before. Ana and I have always called Latin America the Land of the Lost Radio Songs and we were not surprised this morning when the bus radio blasted out a painful Laura Branigan ballad and then a series of terrible Abba songs. I just bobbed my head and enjoyed wearing a tank top in January.

We arrived at the ferry terminal just in time to pay our 100 pesos round trip fare and get on the boat that was just about to leave. The ride started out smooth but once we escaped the shadow of the mainland the seas got big and choppy and started tossing the ferry around. One young Guatemalan man, let’s call him Mr. Barfy, ran up to the garbage can and lost his breakfast. Several others turned various shades of green, but managed to hold it in. It took about 40 minutes to reach Cozumel and by then the wind was truly howling, but perhaps that’s business as usual here because the ferry captain and crew had no trouble getting us docked and everybody off safely.

The ferry terminal is right in the centre of the main tourist area of Cozumel so we went for a lengthy walk, exploring shops and poking around. It was nice, but very cruise shippy, as opposed to Isla Mujeres which had more of a scuzzy, backpacker vibe. Magnus found a switchblade he was interested in and did some hard bargaining with the owner but she would not let it go for less than 30 bucks, which was a rip-off considering the questionable quality of said, illegal in Canda weapon. The ladies found a shoe store and spent what seemed like a very, very long time in there trying on shoes, but in the end they were successful and each walked out with at least one pair. I found one shop that had more pigeons inside than people, although I imagine this changes when the cruise ships are in town, which they were thankfully not today.

We chose a restaurant that was just off the main square and had a decent meal of tacos, burritos, fajitas and seafood soup. Don and I enjoyed some beers and were threatening to hit the tequila shots, but then we remembered that we had to cross back to Playa on that rough ocean and thought better of exposing our stomachs to unnecessary irritants. There was some fine, traditional Mexican music coming from giant speakers in the square, but then the restaurant next to us started blaring that same stupid Laura Branigan song we heard on the bus in the morning. Euww.

We caught the 3pm ferry  and had an equally rough ride back to Playa, but this time the waves were such that we got a blast of seawater in the face every once in a while. Ana was right beside me, all snuggled up, so I got a towel out of our beach bag and put it over top of us which worked well. At one point I was looking out at the sea and saw half a dozen flying fish launch themselves out of the crest of a wave and skitter across the surface for several seconds.

Back on solid ground we made a half-hearted attempt to find a barber shop that was open because I wanted to try out one of the 30 peso (two bucks Canadian) haircuts, but many business were closed, likely because it was Sunday and late in the afternoon. So instead we bussed back home, and the ride was so comfortable that Magnus fell asleep in his seat and only managed to avoid falling by leaning against a Mexican man who was standing beside him. Stella didn’t seem to notice and she continued her conversation with her sleeping brother all the way to our stop. She is a great listener, but an even better talker.

We returned to our apartment, made a big meal with all the food that was left, and then we went over to Mom’s for a short visit and ended up watching Nacho Libre – perfect movie for Mexico!

Mexico 2017 – Day 8 – Shopping Day

Today was the day we were to relinquish our lovely van, so we ate another big breakfast and took off downtown. John and Maria stayed home as John had now picked up Ana’s cold and his foot was still a little swollen, but much better then yesterday as Ana had gone to the pharmacy and gotten some cream meant to bring down swelling.  I told him that if he put more cream on his foot to make sure he washed his hands before went to the bathroom…they did have the whole apartment to themselves all day – you never know.

It was a beautiful, hot morning and the forecasted rain for the afternoon seemed like an impossibility. We returned the van to the parking garage, went to the office to close the contract, and then let ourselves loose on 5th Avenue. I finally had a chance to do some journal writing so I set up shop in an atrium close to an electrical outlet while Ana and the kids went shopping. Magnus was determined to spend his trip money; so far he hadn't found anything that appealed to him but he had a feeling the perfect souvenir was right around the corner.

I was happily typing away for an hour or so when Mom, Don and Donnie walked up and surprised me. They were going to meet us downtown for lunch and came early to do some shopping. Rick decided to take a day off from all the activity, so I supposed he would get together with John and Maria and they would hit the tequila hard all day and we'd find them all passed out by the pool when we got home.

After they left I wrote for a bit longer and then moved over to the open air restaurant that was beside the car rental place and ordered up a lemonade, which was sickly sweet and disgusting, but icy cold. At around 12:30 I was wondering where everybody was, as we were supposed to be going for lunch, and at that exact moment Ana and Stella arrived and gave me an earful. Something about not telling them where I was going to be. I took the verbal beating fairly graciously and then we grabbed the others and wandered around the back streets to try and find more of a local restaurant instead of all the kitschy places on 5th. We found a good one called La Patrona del Playa (the Lady Boss of the Beach), right across from the giant, tacky Coco Bongo nightclub. The wait staff pushed three tables together for us and we got seated and then put in our drink orders. The tables were nearly all full, the atmosphere was local, and the barely moving air was saturated with grease from the fryers. A perfect Mexican loncheria.

After a huge feed we walked over to the nearby Mega grocery store to pick up yet more groceries and then we rode the bus home with a plan to return to our respective apartments to change and then meet down at the pool. Moments after we walked in the door the heavens opened and we were hit with a punishing, tropical downpour that turned the streets into rivers and sent people running for cover. Pool party be damned! Instead we hung out in the apartment, did some reading, enjoyed a drink or two, and listened to the sound of the rain battering the rooftops. When the rain finally let up we scurried over to Mom's and helped her get all her devices figured out. Mom is big on devices but over the weeks things had gotten out of control – there were locked iPads, lost passwords on iPhones, Blackberries, lists of phone numbers and a small baggie of SIM cards from god knows where. The whole scene was much like one of those Escape Rooms where you are faced with insurmountable puzzles and have to think your way out. With a combination of sheer determination, Google searches, a bit of luck, and some rum and coke, we succeeded in getting everything up and running. They should be good for a week.

We finished up the day by walking over to the local pizza joint and enjoying some unbelievably good pies. Our experience with pizza in Latin American countries can be summed up in one word - corn. Why the hell would you ever put corn on pizza? Every time we've ordered pizza in the past in any Spanish speaking country, it has arrived with kernel corn sprinkled all over it. Thankfully the pizza man here got the memo – corn belongs on cobs and in chowder…not on pizza.

We walked back home and passed that beautiful Christmas tree from the day before, except that overnight somebody had lit on fire and it was now just a charred, needle-less trunk with sticks. Once settled back at the apartment we finally figured out why Magnus had been such a quiet and strange mood – he was totally dehydrated, evidenced by the small quantity of brown urine he expelled into the toilet. We realized that we hadn't been getting the kids to drink much water so we tied them down and water boarded them both for half an hour, which they didn't appreciate, but it certainly put a bit of life back into Magnito.

Mexico 2017 – Day 7 – Shpu-Ha

Despite the delicious papaya, pineapple, watermelon and bananas we had been eating for breakfast every morning there was a noticeable lack of fresh juice stands around town. One would assume that with all this lovely fresh fruit around, and the young organic tourist crowd, there would be a roaring market for freshly squeezed juice and smoothies. But surprisingly, we only came across one such vendor a couple of days ago, and since we had just eaten we weren't in the right state of hunger to indulge. Ana had a theory that perhaps Mexico exported the majority of its best fruits, leaving little behind for juicing. Or maybe they just preferred beer?

The original plan for today was to visit Akumal – a beach between Playa and Tulum known for its large population of sea turtles within each reach of the beach if you had a mask and snorkel. But we found out that today was King's Day – a national holiday in Mexico to honour the 3 Wise Guys that brought Jesus those strange gifts, and also the day when Mexicans exchange presents, marking the end of the Christmas festivities. So that’s why they were still playing the damn Christmas music in the shops. We were told that on national holidays you did not want to go anywhere close to free Mexican beaches unless you wanted to sit in your car for hours looking for parking.

On the advice of Mom's neighbour Jose we went to a private, paid beach called Xpu-Ha. Yet another thing we've learned during our time in Mexico is how much they love the letter "X". You see the letter X everywhere, which is particularly odd in that the letter X is barely used in any of the other Spanish speaking countries we've visited or lived in. Perhaps it's the Mayan influence? Drive the Yucatan Peninsula and you will see signs for Xcaret, Xel-Ha, Xplor Park, UXmal, X'Canche and X'Keken, to name just a few. And it seems the X is pronounced differently depending on the word. Today's destination was pronounced "Shpu Ha" which is just so fun to say that this word has been rolling around in my head ever since.

Don, Donna, John and Maria joined us in the van and we made it there in about 30 minutes. A long, narrow, potted gravel road led off the highway and, after depositing 80 pesos per person with the young man working the manual gate, it opened up into a backpacker's paradise – sturdy, simple tents for rent, hammocks strung everywhere, palm trees providing shade, a faint aroma of marijuana in the air, a beach of white power sand, a shack renting sailboards, kite surfing boards and snorkelling gear, and several beach restaurants. And there were few people on the beach, so we unloaded our half ton of beach gear and set up base camp and then went for a swim and body surf in the largish waves. We were told there are turtles here too but the waves made it tough to get very far our snorkeling.

While we were in the water two young Mexican ladies had set up beach chairs behind us, stripped off all their clothes except the microscopic, G-string bikini bottoms, and fired up a bit spleef. I was wondering if John would pretend not to notice them, but when we went for a big beach walk a while later he asked me, laughing," What do you think of those bathing suits?"

 "What bathing suits?" I replied.

After an hour or so, Jose dropped off Mom, Rick, and his son Sebastian to spend the day, as we didn't have enough room in the van for everybody. Half of us went for lunch at the first beach restaurant and the food was pretty terrible and overpriced. John and I ordered a whole fish, expecting a red snapper, grouper, or some other scrumptious ocean fish but they brought out an over fried, muddy, fresh water Tilapia, supposedly grown in Mexico, but I expect it probably came from Vietnam or China. We sent the second shift of eaters to one of the other restaurants and they said the food and prices were decent.

Magnus had been in a strange mood all day – quiet and reserved, very unlike himself. So I took him for a drive to cheer him up and we went to visit the nearby Cenote Azul. We paid the entrance fee, and then walked a short jungle path to reach the first of the two swimming holes, both of which were shallow and small and only had a few people. So we continued on to the main cenote, which wasn't hard to find as it was packed full of people and many of them were cheering as people jumped off the small cliff into the deep water below. We put on our snorkels and went for a swim, finding hundreds of little fishes of many varieties, many of which were very colourful like ocean fish. We decided to take a rest and found a nice sloping stone beneath the water where we could sit and remove our masks. As we did so, a few of the fish swam up to our feet and began munching away – a free fish spa! My right ankle in particular attracted a lot of attention and Magnus counted 20 fish picking away at whatever microscopic organisms were living there. We sat there laughing hysterically as the fish tickled our feet.

After we had fully explored the cenote we gathered our things and walked back to the first set of pools and Magnus stopped for a quick swim and found one of them full of some type of catfish. It was interesting how different this cenote was than the first one we visited and it made me curious to try out even more of them – but this would probably have to wait for a future trip as we had to return our van tomorrow.

We drove back to the beach and joined the others for some final beach time. Stella decided she wanted to learn how to juggle so she found three large tree nuts and I gave her a quick lesson. Little did I know that this would consume her for the rest of the trip – from this point on we all had to protect ourselves from the out of control nuts being tossed around.
Just as we were packing up to leave, Jose and Soani showed up so they joined Mom, Rick and Sebastian as the rest of us drove back to Playa. There, we had a short rest and then went back out to the mall and supermarket to pick up the groceries we would need to get us through to the end of the trip. I actually ducked out to the food court with my laptop and did some journal writing while the rest of the gang explored the mall. One thing that struck me in the mall was the amazing variety of people there. Yes, there were many typical looking Mexicans – short and a little boxy, but there were others of all shapes, sized and colours. It was clear that there were many different ethnicities within Mexico that contribute to such a diverse range of people.

On the way home we noticed that a beautiful, live, picture perfect Christmas tree had been placed outside the gate of one of the apartments. It seemed hard to believe they were able to grow such trees in this climate, but I think it was the nicest Christmas tree we had ever seen.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mexico 2017 – Day 6 – Speed Bumps

What do you think Mexico specializes in? Taco, yes. Burritos, yes. Tequila, definitely. But none of those are the answer. What Mexico specializes in are speed bumps. After driving around here for a few days, I can honestly say that I have seen more varieties of speed bumps than I have in my entire life. The sheer creativity is amazing. In fact, they are so amazing that I am thrilled every time I see one because I am able to slow right down, stick my head out the window, and marvel at the engineering excellence.

The first and most common type is what I call the Panty Stainer. These are the ones that are small protrusions in the concrete arranged out in a wide strip across the road and are the only Mexican speed bumps not designed to destroy your automobile. I don't even think they are meant to slow you down because the effect is the same whether you are going 10 KPH or 100 KPH, so they are really just for fun. You also can't really see them, especially at night, so when you are driving back from the cantina with your chica, who has been drinking Dos Equis beer all night, and you hit a strip of these, they energize your body with a supersonic burst of vibration which causes that full bladder to leak just a little bit; hence the name.

The second type is called the Undercarriage Grinder. These are speed bumps so large that just after your front wheels reach the top, the momentum of the vehicle causes the giant concrete mound to scrape off the underside of your vehicle, clearing away anything that is not firmly attached, such as your entire exhaust system and sometimes the fuel tank. If you hit these too hard (and often you do because they are the same colour as the road and are not usually signed) it will launch you into a Dukes of Hazzard commercial, except that in place of Daisy Duke in her backseat hot pants and Bo and Luke hollering and pumping their fists out the window you have an airborne mini-van of exploding air bags, old people going into cardiac arrest, and kids shitting their pants.

The third type are the Balls of Death. These are perfect stainless steel half spheres that have been hammer drilled into the pavement and are usually only two rows deep but stick up at least six inches. If you take them too fast they act together as sort of a land mine and your entire car will blow up. When you slow down for them your tires get mashed between the balls, which jerks the steering wheel out of your hand, destroys your alignment and puts the car on autopilot for a brief moment. You can't go too slow through, for that will cause your tires to get permanently trapped in the Balls of Death and you'll have to walk home.

The fourth type are called Mexican Laundry Day. Legend has it there was a female Mexican engineer whose lazy husband didn’t work and just sat at home all day eating tacos. To make things worse, he refused to help out around the house so his wife, after returning home after a long day at the office, would first make dinner and then have to take the washing board out back and scrub the grease stains out of all his clothes until her fingers and knuckles were bleeding. After many years of this she became a man hater and plotted her revenge. She designed a Mexican speed bump based on the common washing board that would make men’s lives miserable (only men drove back then). This design has persisted to this very day.

Today we had planned to go to Punta Morales – a town between Playa and Cancun that has a great beach, but Mom learned through the Real Ibiza apartment grapevine that there had been a rash of protests because the government has goosed gas prices by three pesos per litre this week. Some bus drivers had completely blocked the highway to Cancun and people were getting stuck there for hours. She also heard that some gas stations had been vandalized so many of them were closing down. Because of this, we decided to go out and fill up with gas to ensure we had enough for the rest of our trip in case things got worse. So John, Mom and I went out and found an open gas station with long queues, but we waited patiently and were able to fill up. After this we stopped at the grocery store for Mom to pick up a few things and made it back home by 11. Everyone was in a bit of a funk because our plan for the day had been thwarted, so Mom suggested we go to a smaller, local beach in Playa del Carmen that was on 88th Street and typically a lot less busy than the main beach.

We packed up the Odyssey with a hundred pounds of beach gear and cruised downtown. Mom guided us down this road that appeared to be built for foot traffic and not vehicles, but it opened up into a public parking lot complete with free showers and bathrooms. The beach was spectacular and there were few people there so we set up camp and jumped into the beautiful cool water for a glorious swim. I thought about the freezing cold temperatures back home and our driveway undoubtedly packed in with snow and it made that ocean water and sun in my face feel even better.

Magnus and I took a long walk up the shoreline and found a shallow cenote that was just off the beach and actually drained into the ocean through a narrow stream at one end. Interestingly, you could see the place where the fresh water was pumping itself into the cenote from cracks in the ground, almost like a Cartesian well. There were dozens and dozens of Mexicans there – mostly kids – splashing around and having fun. In the middle of the cenote was a small island with beautiful palm trees and it was packed with people on lawn chairs and blankets watching the kids playing in the water. It was such a treat seeing all these Mexican families having so much fun and I will admit that I felt a bit like an intruder, but the people didn’t seem to mind us being there at all.

Back at base camp, things were taking a turn for the worse. One of John’s feet had swelled up into a club shaped object and he had developed a headache. He blamed it on the heat but we had a feeling it was due to his lack of diligent attention to his diabetic nutritional needs, which did not include multiple beers per day and vanilla ice cream cones dipped in chocolate. But hey, give the guy a break, it’s his vacation. He did check his diabetes level later that night and found it to be as high as it’s ever been so he went back into dietary restriction mode, which left an awful lot of beer for me to take care of.

Shortly before we left I did another walk to the cenote with Stella, Ana and my mom. Stella was wearing a cute bathing suit, fancy hat and oversized sunglasses, making her look like quite the celebrity. She definitely takes after her mom – always wants to look good and is even taking great care of her hair these days too. We had a nice, slow walk down the beach all the way to the cenote and Stella held my hand most of the way. I will be a sad man the day she decides she is too old to hold her dad’s hand. There is truly nothing better in life than walking down a beach in January, hand in hand with your little girl, with the sun shining down on you and the ocean breeze caressing your face. It got even better when I found a lovely pair of Oakley sunglasses sitting in a pile of seaweed.

We drove back home, dropped off both sets of parents, and then the four of us drove back downtown to do some shopping and wait for my uncle Don and aunt Donna’s bus from Cancun to arrive. They had flown out of Saskatoon this morning and would be spending the next two weeks with my mom. Magnus’s love of shopping rivals his mother’s and he had been itching to spend more time on 5th Avenue exploring the shops. So off he went, hitting every single souvenir store while Ana focused in on the silver vendors. Stella either hung out with me (leaning on the doorframes of shop, crowdwatching) or popped into a shop if she saw something interesting, which she eventually did and spend nearly her entire trip budget on a fancy backpack. Magnus looked and looked but just couldn’t find anything he wanted.

The kids and I decided to stop for a drink while Ana continued on and we found a place that was playing old rock videos on a huge screen so we enjoyed our overpriced drinks to the soothing sounds of ZZ Top and AC/DC. Ana joined us for a drink and then we made our way back to the ADO bus station and met with Don and Donna, who looked understandably wiped after the long travel day, and got to do the walk of shame back to the van through the humid Playa evening in their blue jeans and white faces.

We returned to Mom’s to find a full-on pool party in motion. Some Argentineans had the charcoal grill fired up and were cooking enough meat for a small army. We loaded charcoal into the other half of the grill and I started cooking our more modest quantities of chicken, pork and burgers. Jose, Soani, Sebastian and Jose senior joined us and we ate and drank together as family.

We finished the evening with a nightcap at Mom’s and got into a great conversation with Don as he was telling us of his next prospective purchase -  a street legal dirt bike. The males on Mom’s side of the family are all gear heads and never met a bolt they didn’t want to torque.

“So how many motorized vehicles do you actually own?” Ana asked.

“Hmmm.  I’ve never actually stopped to count them, “ Don replied. “Well there’s our two vehicles at home, a motorhome, 4 snowmobiles, 2 ATVs, a side by side, 2 demolition cars that use for the redneck races in Alberta and.... a mud truck.”

“What’s a mud truck?” Ana asked.

“Sort of like a monster truck. It’s awesome.”

“OK, so that’s 13 motorized vehicles?”

I piped in, “So are you saying you don’t have a riding lawnmower?”

“I did, but I gave it to my brother Blaine.”

“Well,” Ana continued, “We have three motorized vehicles – our two cars and the sailboat – and even that’s too much to deal with."

“Oh yeah, I have a boat too – forgot about that. That makes 14.”

Mexico 2017 – Day 5 – Isla Mujeres

The Island of Women. Now with a name like that who could resist? Our oldest family friends the Fords have been visiting Isla Mujeres faithfully for the past 12 years for periods ranging from a week or two to several months, not surprisingly during the Canadian winter months. Legend has it that they even claim the exact same spot on the north beach every day – a pristine triangle of palm trees, perfect for hammock slinging and building a defensive perimeter of coolers, grocery bags, backpacks, beach chairs, blow up toys and snorkeling gear, all designed to send a clear “This Space Is Taken” signal. I couldn’t wait to see it.

We followed the highway all the way to Cancun and took a drive through the city and found absolutely nothing of interest. So we continued on to the hotel zone which is peninsula just off Cancun city that runs for over 20 kilometers and is littered with hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, tourist attractions, and gorgeous beaches and serves as the tourist epicenter of the entire region. We drove down to the 14 kilometer mark and found it to be most reminiscent of south Florida – extremely clean, orderly and oozing money. We parked the van near one of the public beaches and took a short walk, finding the famous CANCUN sign with a queue of about 50 people waiting to take photos so we diligently got into line and started practicing poses while we waited our turn. I was thinking of rolling up my shirt sleeves, combing my hair and doing the Fonzerelli “Eyyyy” thumbs up move. Then I thought I’d do the Chinese teenager Hello Kitty move with outstretched fingers pointed to my eyes and a mischievous grin. I also considered the muscle head double biceps display with wide smile and whitened teeth, but since my biceps are thin and my teeth off-white I decided against that one. In the end I just sat there like a dork with a lippy smirk – the one move I can pull off effortlessly. As usual, Ana looked like a movie star, despite her cold getting even worse overnight, but she was doing her best to ignore it.

I must mention, while waiting in line I saw the likely winner of the “worst tattoo in the world” contest. Some dude had a huge tattoo of a rabbit on his forearm. I looked at it, and then noticed some letters below the rabbit, that would perhaps make sense of such a ridiculous tattoo. So I kept looking and eventually the guy moved so that I could see it, and what I saw were the words “Fuxx like”. Wow. That is one high class individual.

We drove north to Puerto Juarez, parked and then got in line for ferry tickets to Isla Mujeres. Although there were oodles of people there waiting, the line went quick and the ticket purchase was fast and effortless. One thing I will certainly say for the Mexicans is that their stuff works. And if you’ve travelled to many Latin American countries, you have probably noticed that very often stuff simply does not work. Kudianos to the Mexicanos.

The ferry to Isla Mujeres took 20 minutes, and every one of the 450 seats was filled. We arrived to a terminal jam packed with people, but of course as we were exiting there was Brian Ford waiting there to meet us. I could go on and on about Brian and Marge Ford, and sometimes I do, but suffice to say that I have known them since I can remember and my brothers and I grew up with the Ford kids, like brothers and sisters. So now, as adults, being able to hang out with them is extra cool, especially since Brian will just give me a beer and I don’t have to steal one from his fridge. We never pass up an opportunity to see the Fords. Brian welcomed us to the island and took us on a quick walking tour that ended at Reuben’s cafe – his best recommendation for lunch. We sat down, ordered up some food, and ate a delicious and authentic Mexican meal of tacos and burritos, all slathered up with delicious and spicy green and black sauces. This was by far the best Mexican food we had eaten thus far on the trip.

Brian returned as we were finishing and walked us over to the beach. Isla Mujeres is very small – only about 500 metres wide and less than 8 kilometres long so everything is easily walkable and close. As expected, Ford Camp was fully configured and Marge was on guard in a comfy beach chair. The hammocks were strung up in the triangle of palm trees, and there were even double “bunk bed” style hammocks in one section that the kids immediately piled into as Brian was handing out cold beers to everybody. The beach was beautiful and full of people and there were dozens of boats anchored just offshore, reminding me of Port Dover on a hot summer day.

We spent a long time chatting with the Fords, catching up on news from Saskatchewan and hearing of the goings-on in Isla. Marge’s brother Guy, as well as her oldest daughter Allison and their families had just left the previous day after a two week visit. Brian told us that over the years Isla had become more and more busy and had gotten to the point where they are researching other potential winter destinations in less busy parts of Mexico. Despite the busyness, we loved the island and could easily imagine ourselves spending some time here.

After a big swim Brian walked with us around to the other side of the island near the Mia resort to do some snorkeling near a reef that always has many fish. The kids had a great time snorkeling around and John, Ana and I just waded around in the water enjoying the sunshine. Brian seems to know every square inch of this island and with that dark brown tan he would only need a fancy Mexican moustache to be mistaken for a local.

We returned to Ford Camp for another round of drinks and Brian and Marge introduced us to a series of beach characters that wandered by. These included Emilio the vendor boy who sells beach trinkets, an older Quebeccer dude who parties hard, has a young Mexican girlfriend and blows giant bubbles on the beach, and also a group of young, cool Mexican studs who work on cruise ships, travel the world, speak multiple languages, and were currently hosting an impromptu beach party for all their lady friends, complete with tequila, music and fresh ceviche made with fish that one of them had just speared out in the ocean.

As the end of the beach day arrived we packed up our gear and walked over to the Ford’s apartment – a super cool bachelor suite with a giant rooftop patio overlooking the entire island. A few of us took advantage of their shower and had a nice fresh water rinse while the others had a round of drinks, munched on some snackS, visited and enjoyed the view. Brian pulled out a big bowl of sea glass he had collected during his daily morning walks along the coast line. He then had the kids each choose a piece they liked, and then he used a Dremmel tool to drill holes through them and made necklaces – the kids were impressed! I am sure these will become their favourite souvenirs from Mexico.

We decided it was time to head home so Brian walked us back to the ferry terminal and we claimed a space at the back of a gigantic queue, but it went very fast and soon we were on ferry and headed back to Cancun. Upon arrival we retrieved our car and I took us on the highway, quite sure that I knew how to get back without the GPS. After driving for 40 minutes I wondered aloud why all the road signs were showing Vallodolid and Merida instead of Puerta del Carmen. We realized we were headed in the wrong direction. So I cut a path back to where we were supposed to be and once on the proper highway we made up a bit of the lost time. It was nice to rediscover the joy of getting lost in a foreign country, something that is increasingly difficult to do these days when we all have a GPS in our pockets.

Mexico 2017 – Day 4 – Ek Balam

Today we planned to drive to Ek Balam, one of the best preserved Mayan ruins in the region. I chopped up a papaya for breakfast and it was incredibly good, such a different flavour than the ones we get at home which just don’t ever seem to ripen properly. I also cooked up a Mexican sausage that we had bought at the grocery store. The sausage turned to mush when I cooked it so it was presented on the table as an unappetizing bowl of greasy, red meat grounds. I think I was the only one who ate it. It was pretty good.

The van we rented came with a quarter tank of gas so we needed to fill up this morning. We drove to the local gas station but all the pumps were closed and the attendant told me they had no gas. So we drove around for a while trying to find another station but then decided that we’d just get gas along the highway, as the one we took yesterday seemed to have many stations. So we followed the GPS onto a highway that Merida Cuota. Now although Ana and I both speak Spanish, the word “cuota” is one we are not familiar with. After driving for a while we arrived at a gate where we had to take a ticket and then realized it was a toll highway. Still hoping for a gas station we continued along our way and the further we went the thicker the jungle became, and there were even occasional monkey bridges crossing the highway overhead, but no exits, few vehicles, and no gas stations. We checked the map and there looked to be a major highway junction within range, so I watched the gas gauge dropping steadily, trying to keep my cool as Ana was getting more and more nervous. We reached the junction on fumes and found a booth where we paid the toll and I asked the guy how to get to a gas station. He said it was 80 kilometres ahead and my jaw dropped. Seeing my look of horror he then told us he could call the petroleum cavalry (my words, not his) and a guy in a truck would be there within 30 minutes with ten litres of gas for around 200 pesos.

We pulled over and waited, a little suspicious of the situation, but since we had no other option we could only speculate at how badly we were about to get ripped off. A car pulled up to us and the driver asked if we needed help. Ana told him the situation and he pulled over, introduced himself as Jaime, and said he would wait with us to make sure the situation turned out okay. He was a lovely man and since it took nearly an hour for the gas guy to arrive we had plenty of time to practice our Spanish and learn a lot about Mexico. He told us all about the politics, the drug cartels and the crime situation and we asked him many questions.

The gas man arrived with a portable tank of fuel and gassed us up. Sure enough, he charged us 200 pesos and we were on our way. I hate to be so suspicious, but we’ve been ripped off so many times when traveling that we are naturally wary. It all turned out fine in this case and I was left with only the embarrassment of making such a rookie travel mistake.

We got off at the Tacim exit, found a gas station and filled her right up to the top. Most of us paid 5 pesos for a bathroom break and then we continued on to Ek Balam. We took a wrong turn and ended up doing a little detour through Ek Balam village, which looked like a typical Mexican pueblo and looked to be home to a lot of very poor people. We turned ourselves around, found the archaeological site and paid the entrance fee.

We walked through the ruins of some smaller structures and then moved onto the main pyramid. I was told by my dad that there aren’t too many ruins left where you are allowed to climb, but this was one of them. The structure was impressive and very well preserved. It had a giant staircase leading up one side and two levels along the way with temples and rooms. Magnus took off running up the steps at top speed and Stella and I ascended after him. It was an easy climb to the top and the once we reached the viewing platform we looked out to see miles and miles of nothing but thick jungle. But the main thing on my mind was the scene from the movie Apocolypto where the Mayan priests were chopping heads off the human sacrifices and first tossing the head, and then the headless body down the steps where they would slide, bounce and flip all the way to the bottom in a spray of blood and gore. I’m glad the kids hadn’t seen that movie, because they were scared enough to be up there and were reluctant to even turn their back on the staircase so I could snap a quick photo. As we were preparing to go down I saw that Rick had made it almost all the way up to the top, but the rest of our gang had chickened out.

It was  a lot tougher getting down the stairs so we took our time and the kids stayed right beside me most of the way down. We spent a little while longer looking around the site and then we jumped back into the van and drove to the nearby town of Valladolid, which is a regional centre of sorts. By this time we were starving so we found a Mexican style food court near the main square and ate a slightly underwhelming lunch. My tacos were pretty good but most of the others were not too impressed with their food so they finished up quickly and went to explore the few retail shops in the food court. I decided to walk across the street to the main square and found a nice piece of shade and a curb to sit on and take in my surroundings. I saw vehicles of all varieties. I saw female cops directing traffic. I saw young Mexicans in love, walking hand in hand through the park making googly eyes at each other. This town reminded me of so many other places in the world we have visited, and it reminded me nothing of Canada because in Canada right now anybody in a town square was probably wearing snowshoes and had their face double wrapped in a scarf, which makes flirty googly eyes very tough to pull off.

The rest of my posse soon emerged from the food court and we had a walk around the square and then checked out a few more shops. The kids bought some souvenirs and I picked up a pack of mini Montecristo cigars. Our final stop was for a round of ice cream cones and then we were back on the toll road with a full tank of gas headed for Playa del Carmen.

Once at the apartment Ana went for a nap as she had picked up a damn cold and was feeling terrible. I helped Maria with supper and we fried some delicious, thick tuna steaks accompanied by salad, fresh bread and a can of these terrific, prepared Mexican beans. The kids got to work on their daily journals – something I encourage (or perhaps force?) them to do every time we go away on a trip. At times they really don’t like having to do it, but they do enjoy looking back at the journals they have written from previous trip so I think it is a good exercise.

Together the six of us enjoyed a late dinner together and discussed what it would be like if this was our regular home and we all lived together. The kids thought this to be a ridiculous idea, but then they learned that both of their grandparents had grown up in houses smaller than this and with more people. What a life we now live.

Mexico 2017 – Day 3 – Cenote

Today was the day to pick up our rental vehicle so for the following five days we would have wheels. Mom, Ana and I took a bus downtown, found the rental place by 9:30 which was the pickup time, but the place wasn’t open yet so we waited.  It was located right on Fifth Avenue and happened to be right across the street from a cigar factory so I browsed their selection and picked up two dark, thick, aromatic Mexican stogies.  The girl working at the rental place showed up about 45 minutes late, but fortunately Ana had first place in line so it didn’t take too long to get the vehicle. We were pleasantly surprised to find they had given us a practically new Honda Odyssey. And it was the premium model as opposed to the basic one we owned at home so it had a backup cameras, right turning signal camera, great stereo system, push button start, cooler box, an 8th seat, and automatic side doors. The only thing missing was a chauffeur, but I guess that was supposed to be me.

The drive back to the apartment was a little hectic, and I nearly got smoked when a taxi cut across two lanes in front of me to make a right turn. The trick with driving in a foreign country is watching how they drive and then try to drive in the exact same manner. The best way to get into an accident is trying to “take it easy” because then you are just a menace to other drivers. The driving in Mexico is actually quite good, and people seem to follow the rules, so once you get used to the lack of defined lanes you are okay.

We picked up the gang, loaded up our beach gear and drove down to Tulum, which is less than an hour south of Playa del Carmen. The main highway passes right through the center of Tulum and the town looks like nothing more than a giant truck stop. After a couple of misses we found the road that led to the beach and followed it for several kilometers until finally reaching the ocean road. Here, we found a narrow street with a solid line of slow moving traffic and many backpacker types pedalling bicycles amidst the traffic. On both sides of the road was a solid line of shops, restaurants and hotels, making it mostly impossible to see the beach, other than glimpses between buildings. We continued along until there was a break in the commercial zone and suddenly a beautiful beach appeared on our left. We immediately found a parking spot, perched perilously on a rock breakwall, and we unloaded our gear and set up shop on the beach. After discovering that a colony of ants had Trojan Horsed their way inside our cooler via a hunk of chocolate bread that had been left on the counter for too long, we cleared out the invaders and then enjoyed our ham and cheese sandwiches on the beach, in true family backpacker style.

After lunch we explored the shops and John found an awesome, classy, Hemmingway hat that was a perfect replacement for the nasty ball cap he got free from the nut and bolt shop in Brantford. Magnus and I found an older, groovy, plaster and stucco hotel with architectural curves like a beautiful lady, so we entered her and toured around while the others were sifting through the souvenieristic junk in the shops. We found out later that the hotels in Talum are extremely expensive, so I have a feeling many of the backpackers we saw were actually flashpackers; that is, youngins who want to see the world in a low impact, organic, dreadlocked, MC Hammer pants, free spirited sort of way but have a voluptuous budget able to support seaside hotel stays and meals served on plates instead of in bags.

We returned to the van and did a drive through the actual town where the locals live, hoping to find some hidden Tulum gems but we didn’t find anything like that at all, so we either missed the good stuff or Tulum doesn’t have that much to offer beside the ocean road. Yes, there are the amazing Tulum ruins, but there were so many cars and tourist busses jammed into the entrance that we decided to skip it and visit one of the other ruins instead later in the week.

We started back on the highway and soon arrived at the Los Ojos cenote, the second of our touristic targets for the day. Now before coming to Mexico I did not even know the word “cenote” so how happy was I to learn that the Yucatan peninsula is chock-full of inland, freshwater pools that are spring fed, cold and unbelievably clear. I imagine that in days of old most of these cenotes were hidden in the jungle and you could machete your way through and enjoy a refreshing swim in solitude. Now, they are major touristic attractions and I think Los Ojos may be one of the most popular ones because it cost us 200 pesos each to get in (about CDN $14) and the facilities were a little threadbare. For example we couldn’t find any change rooms so had to don our swimwear in a dirty toilet with a quarter inch of piss on the ground. But once we got through that and feasted our eyes on this amazing site we were not disappointed. After descending a series of stairs in the jungle we found a giant cavern that contained a large body of water which, in turn, contained dozens of human bodies, some wearing snorkeling gear, some wearing full scuba diving gear and others not wearing much at all. In fact, after surveying the crowds of swim suited females, I was worried that Ana was going to be fined for being the only lady wearing a bikini bottom with fabric where the ass goes. The standard ass-less bikini bottom was a single thread of fabric escaping from the top of the butt crack and connecting around the sides to a thin strip of fabric at the front. Dreadful, just dreadful.

We put on our masks, pushed through the crowd and jumped into the water. The initial cold blast was painful, but after a few moments the body adjusted and we snorkeled around the area. The middle part of the cenote was about 12 feet deep but the closer you got to the edges the deeper it went. I dove down about 20 feet and looked to see an expansive cavern below, probably reaching a depth of at least 60 feet, and I could see light coming from the second cenote, connected to this one through the underwater passage. We explored a while longer and then got out and walked over to the second cenote, and found it was much larger so we had an amazing time snorkeling through the waters and seeing all the deep trenches, fish, boulders, and even stalactites hanging from the cavern roof. The four of us snorkeled together and found some areas where there were no other people, making it feel like we were exploring this underwater cavern by ourselves.

We packed up our gear and started walking back to the van when we got hit with a massive downpour so we took refuge in one of the small massage shacks where two Mexican masseurs graciously let us in and even offered us chairs. When the rain let up we scurried back to the van, got changed, and then drove back to Playa del Carmen, quite satisfied with the day’s adventures.

This was Randy’s last night with us as he was leaving tomorrow so we had a barbeque at the pool in our apartment complex. As we were cooking the burgers and dogs on the charcoal grill one of the kids pointed out the lovely crescent moon, which was rotated 90 degrees compared to home, producing a delightful smiley face in the sky. Seeing the moon so happy made me happy too.

Mexico 2017 - Where are the taxis?

I started the first morning of my vacation with Walking Club. This is when all the ambitious people get up at daybreak and go for an early morning walk. I left sometime after 7 and walked west on our street. Beyond our complex was half a kilometer of jungle and brush and pretty much every inch of it had garbage thrown upon it. This is one sign that you have reached Latin America – lots of garbage tossed around. Some of it must have been quite fresh because the smell in spots was atrocious, so I held my breath and walked faster through these odorous patches.

When I returned everybody else was up and we put together a breakfast of fried eggs, flavour-packed mini bananas, habanero sauce, grapes and cheese, all delicious. Although there was only one bathroom, after breakfast we all managed to shower and clean up without stepping on each other or getting any full frontals.

We decided to spend the first day of 2017 on the beach in Playa del Carmen. Now our apartment was about 5 kilometers away from the beach, so public transport was the name of the game, and we were assured by Mom and Rick that the main street near the apartments was always full of taxis, collectivos and busses so getting downtown was never a problem. Mom’s neighbour Jose offered to load his car with passengers and give us a lift to the beach so half of us jumped in and rest of us – Rick, Randy, Ana and I walked to the street to hail a cab. I knew Rick and Randy had it all under control as they had been here so long they were practically locals. So we took up a spot on the corner and started waving for a taxi. A few drove by but they were all full. Then a few dozen drove by and they were all full. Then a nice looking Mexican couple walked up to our corner, swiped the spot ahead of us, and immediately flagged down a free taxi. Well that was lucky, I thought. A few more full taxis drove on by. Then a young girl walked up and again took the spot ahead of us. What the hell kind of protocol is this, I wondered? I looked at Rick and he seemed cool, then I looked at Randy and he was giving the Mexican girl the stink eye, but she was ignoring him. After a few minutes a free taxi pulled up and picked up the Mexican girl. Also, across the street another group of people got a taxi. So Ana and I decided to get smart and we crossed the street and grabbed pole position right on the corner. Ten more taxis passed by, all full, and Randy and Rick were now three spots down from the corner as more Mexicans started arriving and each displacing the other from the good spot. As Ana and I watched, two groups jumped on busses, leaving Randy and Rick in the prized corner position. But then a Mexican hoochie mamma wearing a short skirt and half a shirt walked right up and stole the spot, and there was simply no way our boys were going to get a taxi before that girl.  So Ana and I crossed back over, as our side of the street was completely dry, and walked way up the block to try and scoop everybody. Our plan seemed to be working, as we were now first in line, but all the damn taxis were full. I even walked across the street to the Oxxo convenience store and tried recruiting the taxi parked there, to no avail. I walked back over to Ana, and I was getting pretty thirsty by this time as the sun was hot, so imagine my delight when I noticed a full, capped beer sitting in the grass right beside a power transformer.

“Look! Free beer!” I exclaimed as I was bending over to pick up the bottle.

“No!” Ana said, “It’s a trap! Think about it – who would leave a free beer sitting on the sidewalk?”

“I don’t know. I guess it’s possible, like maybe a happy 2017 present from somebody?”

“Don’t touch it, bad idea.”

I decided she was probably right, but now I was really desperate as there were no empty taxis passing by at all, although there were plenty of busses. We walked back over to Randy and Rick, who were still standing there like a couple of chumps.

“This is useless. What’s going on?” I asked.

“It has never taken us this long to get a cab, not even close,” Randy replied.

“Why don’t we just catch a bus, most of them say Centro on them so I’m sure they go downtown,” Ana suggested.

“Nope,” said Rick, “Don’t take them busses, too hard to figure them out.” We found our later that last year Rick tried taking a bus to the grocery store to buy meat and spent three hours riding around Playa del Carmen with his bag of steak because he didn’t know where he was and couldn’t remember where he lived.

So we decided we might as well start walking and Ana and I headed in the direction where the scent of ocean water seemed to be coming from. Rick was sticking to his guns and refused to walk. Randy wasn’t convinced of our plan, but he did start slowly walking, not wanting to ditch Rick but still wanting to do...something. At that moment, Jose pulled up in his car right beside Rick, and was wondering what the hell we were doing all spread out on the street like that.

Jose whisked us downtown at high speed and dropped us off in the same place he dropped the others. We were shocked when we saw all of them still there, but they had spread out the beach chairs and were patiently waiting for us. We explained our failed cabbing attempt as we gathered all our things and walked down to the beach. The beach was very nice, but was also right in the heart of downtown, close to the ferry terminal for boats to Cozumel, so there were people everywhere. We got settled in front of Wawa’s, one of many restaurants there. Finally, we were on the beach so I laid back and soaked some of that glorious sun into my white, dried out, Canadian exoskeleton. The first day on the beach you always feel like a real knob because you’re so white so it’s important to get good and burned so you can peel away that terrible layer of winter skin and start tanning some fresh stuff.

Ana, her mom and I went for a long walk on the beach to check out our surroundings. We found a long line of bars and restaurants and many, many people – some of which looked like leftovers from the New Year's Eve party last night. A young couple, mostly dressed, were sleeping on beach chairs and looked like they had been there for a while. The other guy we saw wasn't as particular with his choice of overnight accommodation and was face down in the sand, asleep and getting scorched by the hot sun. I pointed to him and said to Maria, "Hey, that's what I used to do all the time before I met Ana!" She thought I was joking.

After a while thick sheets of dark clouds gathered and the menacing blackness drove us inside the restaurant. We ordered up a bucket of beers and some lunch items. After an unusually long wait the food arrived –Ana and I shared some decent shrimp tacos and the rest had Mexican chili fries and burgers. The food was more expensive than I was expecting, but then we were eating in a beachside restaurant right downtown so that should not have been a surprise.

We went for a stroll along 5th Avenue, which is a bustling pedestrian street that runs for twenty blocks and is packed with stores selling everything a tourist may need from diamonds to lucha libre wresting masks to bottles of tequila to cigars. The majority are junky tourist shops, but there are also some traditional and authentic Mexican stores such as Old Navy, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks and Hugo Boss. I really liked when a parade of cruise ship passengers passed by Magnus, John and I as we were sitting on the steps of a shop waiting for the girls. They each had a giant number stuck to their shirt and at the head of the pack was a loud-mouthed guide holding up a large sign with this same number, so they wouldn’t get mixed in with some other cruise ship potty parade.

We returned to the beach for a little while, but by this time it was insanely packed and the horrifyingly over-tanned, speedoed, extensively tattooed and dread-locked Quebecer couple that had been laying in the direct sun all day in front of us looked like they might have died because they hadn’t moved for ages, and we didn’t want to go through any police interrogation so we got the hell out of there.

We taxied back to the hotel (no trouble at all this time, besides getting ripped off on price) and got settled around the pool at Mom’s place. We met a friend of theirs named George and his girlfriend Grit and heard some incredible sailing stories. Over a span of three years he and various different crew members had sailed his 2010 50 foot Hunter sailboat from Vancouver down to Central America, across the Pacific, through the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, Australia and all the way up to Langkawi, Malaysia where it was currently located. He was still trying to figure out which route to take the boat next, and had learned that the most recent innovation in the sailing world was to hire a sniper (usually around $20 grand) to join you on your boat as you travelled through pirate waters. These guys are typically ex-military and are experts at pinging off pirates if they get too close. For some strange reason, Ana thought this would be an excellent retirement gig for us. I guess it does offer excellent working conditions and great pay, as long as you don’t mind murdering Somali bandits.

They recounted another amazing story where they were caught in a storm in Thailand and while on watch Grit spotted a man in the water floating on a small piece of wreckage. She could hardly believe her eyes as they were in huge seas in the middle of nowhere. After several attempts they managed to get him out of the water and on board. He was close to death, but fortunately for him Grit is a nurse and was able stabilize him while they got him to safety. He was a Burmese fisherman and had been floating for three days; his face was completely cracked open from the sunburn and the little ocean fish had eaten the flesh away from his Achilles tendon, leaving the white, stringy fibre completely exposed. They ended up transferring him over to the Thai coast guard and saw in the news several days later that the coast guard had taken full credit for the rescue!

We had all the leftovers from the previous night for dinner at Mom’s, and while we were there the neighbours Jose and Soani invited Ana and I out for drinks. So we sent the old folks and kids home and then joined our new friends at a local drinkeria called Azul. We orders beers and wine and had an amazing time talking about all the great things travellers like to talk about. They are Venezuelan but had only recently moved to Mexico to live, after spending nearly 15 years living and working in the UK, so they spoke English perfectly. They told us about what it was like living in Mexico and their reasons for making such a move. It is always so invigorating to meet people who are not afraid of make big changes in their lives and taking a chance on something new.

Mexico 2017 - Arrival

It has been a very long time since we’ve been close to missing a flight, but it was looking like a distinct possibility today.  Although we left home at 2:45 in the morning, we were only 30 minutes from departure and still stuck in the incredibly long, winding security line that seemed to have no end. At times like this you choose to do one of two things; stay calm or flip your lid, both of which would likely have the same result. I choose to wait patiently and preserve my sense of tranquility. Actually, as I was waiting I learned a new, third option. A lady ahead of us dropped her and her husband’s boarding passes on the ground, which I picked up and gave back to her, only for her to realize that she had also dropped their passports somewhere along the line. Start panic mode now. They began frantically scanning the floor and walked back through the line, searching everywhere for their passports. Somebody in line told them that the passports had been found and were being held by security so they jumped out of the line, went straight to the front and were given their passports and allowed to pass. I will keep this fine scheme in mind for future flights.

We squeaked through just in time to get on our flight, leaving ourselves just enough time to buy a sandwich from the shop at the gate. But we do not like paying $14 for a crummy airport sandwich so we boarded breakfastless, coffeeless, yet very happy that we didn’t miss the flight.

My friend Tony is an inventor and wanted us to beta test a new rest aid for air travellers. Now I don’t know where he gets these amazing ideas, but he took a standard low profile, 90’s style fanny pack, turned it upside down, slipped in a card that says, “Ask me where you can get your own amazing head stabilizer!” and kaboom – an indispensible in-flight sleep aid. All you have to do is put the pack over your face, which cinches your head to the seat (and doubles as a light guard), have the passenger behind you buckle it up for you right on top of their television screen, and it’s bedtime for Bonzo. Now I was so excited to try it out, but the device was in Stella’s bag and she was seated in the next aisle so I couldn’t get it, and I was so tired I fell asleep instantly in the standard fashion with my head flopping all over the place. I will have to test it on the way home.

We arrived in Cancun, checked through immigration, and retrieved our bags in no time. Outside, the beautiful, damp, Caribbean air was welcome and our dried out skin sucked up the moisture greedily. We found a man holding up a sign with our names on it and he lead us to our taxi, which was complete with a driver named Juan and a cooler with Coke, water and Corona. We cracked the drinks and made a toast to the start of our holiday!

In under an hour we arrived at our rented apartment in the Real Ibiza complex in Playa del Carmen. The owner of our Air B&B rental was there to meet us and showed us around the two bedroom unit, which was smallish, but more than sufficient for us and my in-laws John and Maria who had joined us on the trip. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that the owner had provisioned it with basic groceries to get us started.

The reason we had chosen this particular area was because my mom and step-father Rick were renting an apartment in an adjacent building and came here yearly so were very familiar with the city. After getting settled and unpacked we went over to Mom’s place and they had lunch all ready for us. With them was their friend Randy who was visiting from Sylvan Lake in Alberta and is an old friend of Rick’s.

After lunch we moved down to the pool so the kids could enjoy their favourite of the four elements and we could sample the local Mexican beer. The complex is comprised of eight buildings and each pair share their own pool – a very nice set up and a great way to meet the neighbours. The residents were an interesting mix of Mexicans and foreigners – some living and working in Mexico while others were short or long term vacationers from many different countries. We decided to take a trip to the nearby Walmart so we could do a full grocery shopping so we flagged down a taxi and a $2.50 cab ride got us there in less than ten minutes. The Walmart was structured much like the ones in Canada but with a different variety of foods and merchandise. We retrieved some Mexican pesos from the ATM and then explored the aisles and got our first taste of rally-style shopping cart racing with the fast moving, never yielding Mexicans. I also picked up a pair of splendid $5 sunglasses because the sunglasses I was supposed to bring (in fact the only item I was responsible for packing) were still secured safely in the convenient sunglass holder in our van, currently frozen into a parking stall at the Skyway parking lot at Pearson Airport in Toronto.

After a long, blisteringly hot wait in the taxi line, we cabbed it back to our apartment, unloaded the groceries and then returned to Mom’s. The kids had befriended the neighbour boy Sebastian, and we met his parents Jose and Soani, both Venezuelans but living and working in Playa del Carmen. We enjoyed an extended happy hour and then Mom served up an assortment of dishes for dinner - taquitos, roasted pork and meatballs, accompanied by pico de gallo and guacamole sauces. After eating, I could see the early morning start and busy day had taken its toll on everybody and our eyelids were starting to droop. There remained little chance we would be able to make it to midnight for the 2017 New Year, so instead we threw in the towel, returned to our apartment and put a knife into the heart of this day.