Recently, my husband and I took a long weekend to the Riviera Maya for some much-needed together time away from jobs, families and daily responsibilities. Despite my desire to just sit on the beach with a drink in my hand and let the sound of the sea reset my brain to “calm”, we actually did very little of that. My husband heard, “snorkeling”, “sea turtles” and “jungle adventure” and immediately filled up our schedule.
I was actually a bit nervous. I’m not a strong swimmer and had never snorkeled before. In fact, it’s been years since I’ve even put my face in the water. And the idea of careening through the jungle on a zipline added to my uneasiness.
Did I happen to mention I’m afraid of heights and especially afraid of falling? But I decided that I would channel my masochistic side and confront these feelings directly.
As it turned out, I loved snorkeling. The first time I saw a large sea turtle chomping peacefully on sea grass on the floor of Akumal Bay, I steamed up my mask with tears. What an incredibly beautiful sight! We also snorkeled in a freshwater lagoon teeming with the kind of exotic fish you normally only see in aquariums. It was so lovely that when we emerged our heads from paradise, thunder and lightning was all around us, a waterspout was developing in the near distance and all we do was watch in awe. (It eventually occurred to us that perhaps being in water in a lightning storm wasn’t such a good idea.)
And then there was the jungle adventure. I rode the Skycycle, essentially a recumbent bike hanging from a zipline. I was comfortable doing that because it was slow and I could control the speed. Being suspended from a cable didn’t bother me and I was able to gaze out into the lushest, densest vegetation I have ever seen, as well as pedal into a cenote, suspended only inches over water and only inches under flitting bats.
The zipline was a complete fail. I climbed up the platform, was hooked into the harness – and proceeded to have a panic attack. Being shoved off a platform into freefall wasn’t happening, folks. I know it’s stupid to feel humiliated in front of a bunch of strangers I’ll never see again, but that’s how I felt.
After much hemming and hawing, I did end up rappelling down into the cenote. I was bouyed by the attitude of one of the people in our group, while being lowered in looked up at us, mouthing, “F#$%k!” Hilarious, in light of the especially beautiful descent by his 9 year old daughter, who was accompanied by butterflies spiraling around her head on the way down.
As I stood on the edge of the platform and the guide prepared to belay me in, my husband looked me in the eye and said, “You can do this. You’re a warrior.” Well, damn. Can’t wimp out now. I’ve looked death in the face before and kept on going, right?
I stepped off the platform, staring ahead – and found myself delighted to be lowered into a deep cave. No butterflies around my head, but the ones in my stomach were calm at least.
Next up on the list was cave snorkeling.
The water was cold. The cenote was tucked deep into a cave system that was only partially lit in the front caverns. We followed our guide, who only used a flashlight, through narrow crevasses into rooms that were impossibly dark, seemingly vast and almost suffocating.
At one point, he turned off the flashlight so we could experience how “peaceful” it was. I felt simultaneously the limitless, yet eerie yaw of sensory deprivation and the cold water stiffening my bones. And a random thought: “We don’t know this man at all.” Creeptastic.
Someone made a farting noise, everyone laughed nervously and he turned the flashlight back on. I couldn’t get out of that cave fast enough.
If only that had been the extent of our vacation adventure.
Later that afternoon, we returned to our condo and I made a beeline for a lounge chair near the water. I had just begun to relax when my husband came outside and announced. “Something really bad happened. The safe was stolen out of our room.”
The thought seemed so ridiculous that at first it didn’t sink in – until I saw where the safe had been yanked away from the drywall. Most of our valuables, including a very good camera, my husband’s cellphone, several credit cards and our PASSPORTS were in there. There were no signs of forced entry. Our backpacks had been looked through, but other stuff was left intact.
Had my husband not needed something out of the safe, we might not have noticed it until later that evening, which would have been very bad. We were set to leave the next morning. My first two thoughts were, “Who the #$%& did this?” and “Oh my God, my kid. We won’t be able to come home to our kid tomorrow.” Stuck in paradise. Ironic, I know.
We drove about 35 minutes away to Tulúm, where the main police department for the district was located, to fill out a police report. Juan, the property manager, accompanied us to help us through the process. The events of the day tumbled through my head – the 5+ hour excursion into the jungle, the unusually friendly Americans in the condo above us (who were beginning to look more suspicious as time went on) and this ride to another town in a car driven by a man we barely knew.
If I thought I felt unsafe swimming in a cave in near-darkness, it paled in comparison to the fear I had of being in a foreign country without my passport.
I decided at that moment to trust the universe, because I was having a really hard time trusting people at that point. Or my own ability to judge a situation’s safety. I prayed and asked for guidance as the kilometers sped by.
The police station in Tulúm was relatively clean, mostly stark white and quiet for a Saturday night. It was just us and a Mexican national from Houston named María, who was accompanied by her parents. She misplaced her green card and also needed to fill out a police report. María had been in the U.S. for years, so her English was better than Juan’s (who couldn’t provide context for the information on our driver’s licenses, which we thankfully still had, or explain what a Kindle was.) It was no small miracle that she graciously sat with us for several hours, translating and clarifying information, since my Spanish is very rudimentary.
I was feeling more than a bit skeptical that the police report was going to be much help with Immigration and Customs. One of the “ministerio publico” assisting us decided to take an impromptu siesta during our interview, feet propped up on his desk. The other was terse and engaged, but had the unfortunate “Borm to lose” prison-style tattoo on the back of his hand. Yes, spelled incorrectly in English, but as far as we could tell, he couldn’t actually SPEAK English.
By the time we returned to Akumal, it was late and all the restaurants were closed. Juan suggested we go into Akumal pueblo (the non-resort side) to find a place to get a bite to eat from a street vendor. I was tired, shock was giving way to anger and not in the mood to reenact an episode of “No Reservations.”
We found a street vendor making taquitos and other grilled items. My husband was entranced – and the vendor was beyond thrilled that we were there. After a long, stressful night, his wide smile was a beacon of joy. And the food was amazingly good: simple, flavorful and only a handful of pesos.
Thankfully, the story ended well. We had a helpful gate agent at the Delta counter the next morning who took our police report, efficiently handled the entire process to get us checked in, and smoothed the way with Immigration. It took several hours, but we made our flight on time. (Our friend María was not so lucky. It took her nearly two weeks before she was able to return home to Houston.)
A vacation, and yet in so many ways a lesson. The very things I feared so much were the workings of my own mind, and ultimately not the cause of the stress we experienced. The real question is: will I trust enough in myself – and the universe – to step off the platform next time?
Or will I just say the hell with it and stay on the beach? Either answer is the corrent answer, isn’t it? 😉
Photo credit: Hidden Worlds Family Cenote Adventure Park