Isla Circus

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Horoscope, December 31, 2010: “Part of the reason you love to travel is that the unfamiliar environment makes you feel brand-new. Getting lost and finding your way out is exhilarating.”

What is this precision?! Does the StarTribume’s “Holiday Mathis” have an inside track to the stars? I take this both as a prediction for the day, the year, my life, and a summary of all past travel pleasures. And suddenly I’m remembering Isla. Fran, my husband, went there with me even before he was my husband, there being Isla Mujeres, off the coast of Cancun. Isla hadn’t been discovered yet, not really, though acquaintances recommended a cerviche or cold seafood cocktail at a certain corner with a picture window. How we chose the hotel, I can’t recall, but it was ocean-front, three stories of salt-clogged sliding glass doors onto rusty balconies, and rooms with queen-size beds made with rumpled green sheets. Every day the owner Tony’s wife removed our towels, washed them, and hung them in the courtyard to dry. Showers had to occur before 10 or after 4; otherwise we’d have to air dry. Did we care? Not much. We were youngish, giddy, in love and startled into enchantment by Isla’s lazy, sand-clogged way of life.

Along with chickens and a few constantly crowing roosters, “Rope dog” wandered the sandy street into town: low to the ground, with plume of tail and floppy ears, an animated pot-bellied dog statue like the one I’d bought a decade before in Merida, in my first marriage. Mayan dog, who’d broken free from constraining rope, Rope Dog bayed at us as we slogged toward the street of T-shirts and breakfast. The restaurants were still serving conch and turtle, that first year we escaped Saint Paul snow and ice. Before ocean advocates helped put a stop to conch and turtle–tortuga–I tried conch. Nothing could persuade me to eat endangered sea turtle. As sat upstairs in another corner restaurant, amid breeze and palm-frond clatter, I put conch in my mouth: tough, almost unchewable, with no taste: the first and only time I attempted the innards of those beautiful spiky shells which as a girl I’d collected on South Carolina beaches.

We did feel brand-new on Isla, new in the skin of togetherness, new in the easy-going local manner of Isla, squinting through dazzling light toward brilliant turquoise sea. Isla held no geographic challenges: with perhaps only a mile width at the town-end, two at its widest midsection, and five miles long, Isla was easy to circumnavigate on bicycles. In the bramble-and-mosquito-infested interior, we followed a hand-lettered sign to “Mundaca’s.” According to legend, a pirate named Mundaca had “discovered” Isla Mujeres, Island of Women, in the early 19th century, but of course, even as we recognized the fallibility of “discovery,” another legend insisted that Isla was named for Women because a shrine to a Mayan goddess stood at its slender southern tip.

Overgrown, with small trees poking their heads above the roofless hacienda, Mundaca’s slumbered in its enchantment. Below the oyster-shell house, low wide steps led to an overgrown garden with weedy rosebushes still pushing out a few dispirited red blooms. The benches with oyster-shell backs were shaped like tall biscuits, rounded into two breasts at the top, with low arms and oyster-shell skirts. It was as if a fabricator of fantasy had defeated boredom in the daily construction of these dream benches where no one would ever sit. Legend had it that Mundaca settled Isla, in love with an Island woman, where he died and, yes we would soon attest, was buried in the town cemetery under a skull and crossbones. His overgrown plantation was the only vestige of Spanish conquest we found on Isla. And it was giving way to brambles: a real ruin, those first years we visited Isla, until a surge of money after a major hurricane in the early 90s, punched the place into shape, gave the hacienda a new roof, cleaned out the brambles, founded a little zoo nearby, and charged admission. We visited once in its newness, not nearly so fresh as the original ruin.

That first year, we also met a butter-eating parrot at a breakfast place on the square. Isla breakfasts delighted the glutton: pancakes Americano, with maple syrup poured from a Log Cabin bottle, but also huevos rancheros, local eggs cooked with peppers, onions, and tomatoes; toast soaked with butter, more than you could ever eat, and delicious fruit: pineapples, mangos, papayas, bananas. The parrot lived in a wicker cage with a bell and mirror and “breakfast” strewn on its floor: cut-up apple, nuts, seeds. We’d seen the huge car-ferry dock daily, with local boys unloading crates of foodstuffs, so we knew where breakfast Americano came from. The mangos, bananas, and papayas hung from local trees. The eggs walked around on two stiff legs, waiting to be laid.

A tourist stood at the parrot’s cage, feeding the huge beak from a paper of butter. The parrot squawked and jingled its bell. Amid the mild uproar I was startled to identify Minnesota voices, with their slightly lilting speech which, now, after years of living in the Twin Cities, brings me home. But I wasn’t home. What were these OTHER tourists doing on our island? Much the same as we, it turned out as we swallowed our pride of first discovery and agreed to join them for dinner, same place eight hours later. They were from “out-state”–Bemidji, Brainerd, Little Falls–flown into Cancun just as we had, but staying on the bay side of town at a place called Posada del Mar. Who could resent anyone who’d located such a beautiful place to stay? “It’s got a lighthouse,” one woman told us. Thus began their rendition of discovery–sheets, towels, spiders as big as quarters, dogs, pelicans, fishermen who pulled in their catch on that calmer beach, plus tidbits about the ferries and local musicians. Soon they were talking snow stories, ice-fishing, local sheriff-and-cafe scandals. We had little to contribute, aware that living in the midst of the state’s biggest city, had fed us few tales to contribute to this round of exaggeration and deligh. Amused, shivering a bit at hearing what snow horrors we were missing, we decided that for our next few days until we had to return, we would avoid these reminders of what we had hoped to escape.

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