Up to Code

No one ever inspected the old Isla ferry riding like a double-decker, open-air church across the bay from the Cancun mainland to the heavenly body of Isla. Later, hydrofoils would compete, rising high on their hunk of spray, zipping across so fast they obscured the approach to salvation. Give me the slow, old way.

On the slow boat, a band of tuba, trombone, guitar and rat-a-tat helped get us there. We recognized a large blind man on tuba. With his companion, a tight-knit black fellow, he tap-tapped along Isla streets or sat by the pier, waiting to convey us out, which was the last direction we rode with him because the next year, the old ferry had departed for more celestial realms. Maybe somebody decided it was not up to code. But the first years, we rode with breeze and spray on our cheeks, dolphins cavorting off one flank, and the mystery of faces opposite, looking like ancient Mayan carvings.

This slow boat transported us from fumes and combustion into another medium: half sea, half immense sky with frigate birds so high they looked like tiny scissors cutting across the castle clouds. Our lives, reduced to a slip of wood bouncing along a changing surface.

I want that reminder: that we are mere spindrift, sparkling for an hour, then gone. Because for that brief moment, our connection is made plain. There is so much above and below we can only spy–grey, sleek backs; scissor wings. The humans traveling with us shine forth their mysteries, ones we do not need to solve or command. Only gaze at with quiet astonishment.

Should I relate that, with the old ferries gone, dolphins no longer followed our passage to Isla? It was impossible to catch sight of frigate birds since the hydrofoil windows were smeared with spray. Yes, we occasionally got sick during our visits: we didn’t drink water from the tap; we ordered beer or colas or coffee. We lugged up to our room at Maria’s a huge bottle of purified water. The sickness didn’t happen every year, only a few times–the sudden rush. Reminder that our insides weren’t acclimated to the local fauna.

Did we care enough to stride off in a huff? Seek more sanitized American amenities–like the huge pleasure palaces in Cancun? Never. Though one year, I was bitten by a spider. The bite, once we were home, rose into a huge enflamed knot. Soon flat dots of red began to emerge over my trunk, arms, legs. Purpura, which means the blood was seeping out of its veins toward the surface, sign of a serious allergic reaction. Treatment? The local docs were mystified until a visitor from Indian happened into the emergency room: yes, she confirmed: spider bite. Steriods plus waiting. I recovered but for several years remained very reactive to any kind of bite. We didn’t visit Isla the next season, went instead to Savannah where in a high canopy bed we watched the Academy Awards on TV.

Sometimes I parse our national fascination with codes and sanitation: we are a very litigious people, we sue at the drop of a hat. Despite the current furor against government regulation, we want our lives purified, regulated and protected. To this end, oh how we encase ourselves.

A friend once related that a charter school, devoted to environmental education, had to move because parents in the wealthy suburb were very nervous about letting their children loose in the local woods. “Is it up to code?” inquired one anxious mother. Hmmm, what is the code for woods? Can one legislate against spiders, hawks, ticks, rabbits? Not exactly, but with a “code” sufficiently stringent, one can systematically remove, replant, reduce, until habitat resembles not its natural, rather wild but balanced, indigenous self, but instead a garden catalog.

There is a place for gardens to grow vegetables and fruits, but often they thrive best when a mild accord is allowed between what is naturally present and possible and what the gardener desires. We call that kind of farming “organic.” During our first few years on Isla, we were closer to the organic life of the place. The T-shirt hawkers almost apologized for encouraging us to purchase; they hadn’t learned about “Blue Light” specials; they didn’t stride into the street and yell in our ears. I know: progress comes in many forms. Yet, when I think of the best times in my life, I’ve slowed down, given over, stopped rushing. It’s a different kind of code.

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