On Isla, coming as we did only once a year, many things transpired whose consequences we recognized but without knowing their origin. So, with Tripod Dog. He resided, as far as we could tell, across the boulevard from the Naval Station, with its array of flags, low-slung barracks, and big guns painted naval gray. Missing one back leg, Tripod Dog could carry his black and white, short-haired body only so fast. Perhaps one of the Isla red taxis had hit him as it gunned around a push-cart of fruits. Perhaps he’d been wounded in Hurricane Gilbert, like the huge hulk of a ferry, grounded and rusting off shore.
It’s odd how one reacts to injured people or animals. Perhaps because we felt vulnerable on Isla–knowing only a bit of Spanish, reveling in the island’s natural beauty but stymied by tourists’ careless trashing of the beach and sea, and bothered by local poverty–we bonded with Tripod Dog, and looked for him as a sign of the island’s health. Its mascot or icon. Word eventually reached us that the sailors at the Naval Station had adopted him and fed him. Perhaps they’d also paid to have his shattered leg amputated. Or in the mysterious ways of nature, perhaps the dog had healed himself. He was not fawning or overtly friendly. And we, as we approached, slowed so as not to frighten him. He would cross the boulevard as we advanced, waiting in the median with its flowering hibiscus and nascent palms, then once we had walked beyond, he’d recross to his spot of brush along the beach. He may have been eating washed up fish as part of his diet.
Another denizen of the beach was the Monkey Man. Tall, elegantly bronzed, wearing only a brilliantly white sarong, he flipped back his sun-bleached hair and strode from his cabana to the waves where he launched a wind-surfer (if that’s the right term for this peapod of a boat with its sail held erect by the rider). Every year, we would eventually locate him along the turquoise strand at the north end of the island, the beautiful white sandy beach where some tourist women and men took off all their clothes, and lay baking in the sun. Was Monkey Man a native Isleno? Certainly he was taller than most of the Mayan people, and his insouciant swagger suggested not only that he knew how to use his beauty but cared not a whit for the admiration of transient underlings. One year he acquired a tiny monkey on his shoulder–thus the name we gave him. Occasionally we’d pass him walking from the beach into town, still clad in his sarong with the monkey about his neck. Only much later in our last few years on Isla did we encounter him fully dressed, and by then we had acquired shreds of his story.
About halfway through the almost twenty years we visited Isla, we moved from Posada del Mar with its pink and white lighthouse to a beautiful complex on this tourist beach: Maria del Mar. Maria’s offered many choices of residence: the tower of three or was it four stories with motel-like rooms and balconies overlooking either the lush garden or on the bay and beach; cabanas for family groups, then across the sandy road, another lower tower above the breakfast place. The gardens were maintained by a wizened man, with the courtesy of a gentle soul. His hibiscus, rubber trees, purple passion vines, banana and orange trees, and many other flowers and bushes I can’t remember were carpeted with heavy green grass–maybe the only grass that held its own against the salt and heat and sand of the island.
Who knows why we fell in love with Maria’s? Perhaps the painting in each room, rather crudely done, of a damsel in white dress and flowing dark locks walking the beach; or the painting’s look alike who greeted us wearing the typical Mayan dress, a white huipul over a white petticoat. Or perhaps we fell in love with the garden where tiny Mayan doves descended in small flocks, where we’d spy orioles and darting wrens and warblers, and pure white pigeons cooed companionably from their dovecote. There wasn’t as much noise at Maria’s because the main boulevard didn’t pass that way, though one season our floor of the tower swarmed with Philadelphians who stayed up to all hours partying. Fran had gotten fatigued of the “Uno, uno, uno” and the cock crowing near Posada: the first from an elementary school; the second from servants’ houses behind the hotel.
We rarely swam at the turquoise beach–something about the competitive display of tourism depressed me. I never felt my body in its black swim suit could past muster. Instead once we discovered the Mexican Beach almost midway down the island, that’s where we went to swim and to eat the huge grilled fish called, I believe, coronado. It was a family-style beach on the bay side, reached from the road by crossing a lagoon where for a number of years we encountered exotic wading birds like oyster catchers with their red beaks and tuxedo bodies; or ibis rather clumsily maneuvering orange chopsticks, or several times, roseate spoonbills and pelicans. But only once flamingos, lifting their claw-hammer heads out of the water to make us ohhh and ahhh.
The first time we discovered this beach, and sat under the long gallery of a restaurant there, I ordered a club sandwich. Fran chose the fish platter. It was the exquisitely right choice: not for the “sides” of canned peas and dry rice but for the huge, aciote-flavored grilled fish. From the open gallery of the restaurant, we could spy the large grill where men tended the catch, more than a yard long. It was the best fish we had ever eaten on Isla or “nel mondo.” And the people saved it for themselves.
We weren’t the only gringos who discovered this inexpensive, delicious meal, but we were among the few. Among the local family groups, children raced around the gallery, adults watched with their elbows on the tables, talking and gesturing in Spanish. We tried not to stand out, but of course we did, playing Scrabble after we ate. But eventually, one at a time, we entered the warm, shallow water, floated way out, occasionally testing the bottom, passing a pelican or two also paddling about, while overhead, the sky built up huge castles of white clouds and far up in the blue, a plane flashed its silver bottom. We were very far from home, lulled into believing we belonged here just like the kids splashing and their parents standing up in the water, still talking.