Monday, June 06, 2005

More obsolete travel notes: a shaggy-dog birdwatching story

Poleaxed by the heat, everybody getting off the plane stood around dazed at the foot of the ladder, where without intervention we would have perished on the runway like a crateload of poultry broken open in the Sahara Desert. A customs official wearing a regulation frown and reflecto-sunglasses waved us toward a door in the low bunkerlike concrete terminal building. Behind him were soldiers, no two uniforms quite alike, lounging, enjoying the aura of menace given them by their bandoliers and snub-nose automatic weapons. All around was a tropical scrub forest. I was there with my wife Kay, and my daughter Eve and teen-age stepdaughter Anna, and some colleagues of my wife and their families.

We were going to Isla Mujeres. This was 15 years ago, I don't know if it has changed. I wouldn't be surprised if it has. The price for a taxi was negotiable. After a lot of haggling and bargaining we finally all squeezed into a battered Volkswagen bus, which hurtled with a neck-wrenching turn out of the parking lot and shot off down the crowded and narrow highway. Our driver turned up the radio as high as it would go. His decibel-shattered speakers immersed us in an unsteady blast of static shot through with pulses of the operatic passion of Vicente Fernández within its encompassing blare of mariachi trumpets. The driver of another sardine-can minibus considered that being passed was an affront, so he and our driver began a swerving and careening road race, gesturing with their forearms as they passed each other, honking and cursing at slower vehicles. Two teen-agers in our bus were thrilled and shouted encouragement to our driver. Egged on by this applause for his valor and skill our man seized his opportunity and cut off his rival by passing a dump truck in the face of an oncoming vehicle, shooting the closing gap with a fraction of a second to spare. He deposited us at the ferry landing. Thus began a tropical vacation.

Once on the island, we took a more sedate island taxi to our hotel, where four or five small boys seized our bags and carried them a few feet, requesting compensation for their services before the car stopped rolling. Our two American adolescents went off looking for mopeds to rent. The adults stood by the pile of suitcases and began peeling colorful bills off of big wads of currency each of us had in our pocket.

The Hotel Cangrejo (my name for it, I forget the real one) on Isla Mujeres was a three story hurricane-weathered concrete building. The hotel occupied a rocky outcrop twenty feet above the crashing waves of the windward side of the island. I love places like this. They are probably all disappearing. The room had crude wooden louvres and a rusty ceiling fan for ventilation. No air-conditioning, of course. Few hotels on the island had air-conditioning at that time. Isla Mujeres was a budget island. We were budget tourists. The floor was tile, the beds were hard, and the wall was decorated with a faded picture of ducks in a North Woods pond, the kind where the wings of the duck appear to flap if you change your vantage point, an example of a style that could be called Early Diffraction Grating, where science met art to the credit of neither, as with the credit-card hologram today. The mirror on the wall was corroded by salt, and rendered only us faintly visible, an amenity tourists are generally grateful for after a day or two on the island.

Kay and Eve and I decided to go to the beach. The best beach on the island was just as the brochure photos show it--crystalline water, ranging in hue from turquoise to deep ultramarine, white coral sand, graceful palm trees, tanned watchable bodies.

It was very lovely. But some little things you can't see in the brochures. The air was heavy with coconut flavored skin emollients. The sand stuck to the sweat and aloe-vera gel to form a light salty grit giving your skin a new and surprising texture. This is not necessarily terrible, unless you are sunburned. Then it is. My idea had been to swim a little and then sit on the beach and relax and read a good book, but I had discovered I couldn't read without a headband to keep sweat out of my eyes, so I contented myself with drinking Coca Cola and gazing at nearly naked women with stunning bodies and brutal tans who were running and frolicking in the blinding noonday sun.
It can be relaxing and pleasant. Think sauna, or steam room. We go to be suana'd or steamed for enjoyment, where we don't even have palm trees or drinks with little umbrellas in them. Go with the flow. Be here now. And I was.

The next day the sun shown bright through the window slats at 6:00 in the morning. I groped for the 45-power sunblock. It was a day we had set aside to go snorkeling on the reef. We took a jitney down the island several miles to a point where the reef is close-in to the shore. A thriving concession stand rented snorkeling gear. It was kind of a crowded little reef, but the water was nice and the fishes were colorful. It was fun, and close enough to shore for young children. The petting zoo of reefs.

Everyone pronounced the snorkeling a success, and we made plans for the next day’s recreation. I was getting into the swing of this. Time slowed down. We got back to the hotel by noon, and had nothing on the itinerary for the rest of the day. Life was good. The whole group of us were going to take a day-long boat trip, the next day, to a remote and pristine island bird sanctuary.

We showed up at the dock early. Our boat was a very old 20 foot diesel powered wooden boat. Three shirtless, barefoot islanders made up the crew. The owner of the boat stayed ashore, counting his money as we pulled away from the dock. We moved out of the harbor into the open ocean and encountered what we, landlubbers, considered to be heavy seas. Our crew joked and began putting out their trolling rigs to catch fish for our lunch. The boat shuddered with every wave breaking over the rail. The throb of the decrepit engine was like a very irregular heartbeat. Fish leapt from wave crest to wave crest. The boat rocked with the waves in a complex spiraling motion like an incomplete barrel-roll in a stunt plane, and with each roll the passengers' knuckles turned white gripping the rail. The crew broke out some drinks, beer and cloyingly sweet Mexican Coca Cola, finding few takers. I have always been fortunate in not getting seasick, and fortune stayed with me, but not with many of our fellow excursionists.

“Hey, hombre, you no gonna drink the cerveza?” the crew would ask, in the lingua franca.
“Yo no. Not me, man. Not right now.”

The crew began some serious drinking. I don't drink much, so I couldn't help them.

A mile or so from our destination we found ourselves inside a reef, and the violent rocking motion of the boat abated, but by then half the passengers were seasick and making horrible noises in the scuppers. The crew members anchored the boat and said it was time for snorkeling. They were drunk. After equipping themselves with primitive home-made spear-guns they jumped over the side to try to impale the fish which had so far eluded their hooks. The passengers who were not seasick had no intention of entering the water with three armed and dangerously intoxicated spear-fishermen, meat hunters. After 20 minutes or so our men clambered back aboard still empty-handed. We continued on to the bird sanctuary.

We tied up at the deserted and primitive island pier, where, at the last moment, one of the crew somehow hooked and landed a huge barracuda, with a hand line. He carried the fish onto the blazing beach sand and the three of them built a great roaring fire, split open the barracuda and grilled it in the flames. It reminded me of three derelicts I once saw burning a tire in an El Paso parking lot.

But it was delicious. Blackened barracuda as prepared by our cooks, along with Coca Cola and tortilla chips, was one of the best meals I had in Mexico. Trouble is, there was too much. Our crew stuffed themselves till their bellies were distended and the buttons would have popped off their shirts, if they had had shirts, and then they drank more beer.

While some of the passengers watched the giant sting ray that made its home in the clear water below the dock, most of the rest of us dispersed to explore the island. Most of it was a thorny tropical scrub forest with a few coconut palms for shade, but we discovered that there was a rich and unfamiliar (to us) biotic diversity, such as mangrove swamps on the Yucatan side which smelled like rotten eggs. Brown boobies roosted in the mangrove trees, enjoying the spectacular heat. On the dry, rocky Caribbean-side of the island, the beach appeared to be made of badly eroded concrete, like a long stretch of ancient freeway many years after being collapsed into the sea by an earthquake. It was desolate and strange, and in its way beautiful.

I spend the next couple of hours walking around this odd place, nominally birdwatching. I added several birds to my life list.

But a moment of digression here. I am not a good birdwatcher. I do have a life list. In fact, I have several. I keep losing them. Thus I can't verify from records, much less remember, oftentimes, whether I have seen a bird before or not. It makes the whole enterprise of keeping a list seem silly, when you think about it, if you need a crib sheet to tell you whether to be excited about what you are looking at. My mother has the true zen of birdwatching. She enjoys watching the birds at her birdfeeder, every day, though she has probably not seen a species new to her yard in years.

So, this is a lead-up to my confession that I do not remember, and do not have the slightest idea, except for the boobies, what birds I saw at the bird sanctuary island. Sorry. A little of the ecological ambience is all I can give you.

All too soon it was time to return. When we got under way the crew, as a sort of afterthought, hoisted a tattered, patched, stretched canvas jib sail; a big billowing affair that enabled them to cut back the power to the ancient engine and still maintain the same imperceptible headway we had been making before. But the important thing was it stabilized the boat . Our craft no longer rolled with the plunging, stomach-wrenching yaw we had come to know and dread. Soon hungry passengers began to nibble on leftovers, and some demanded beer. The Negra Modelo was gone, but there was plenty of Coca Cola and barracuda, and soon everyone was having a delicious lunch. As we approached dockside, after narrowly escaping being run down by a fast outbound ferryboat, we were singing tourist-calypso classics, "O island in the sun," a little out of sync with the fact that this was, after all, Mexico.

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