Leaving the little town at the harbor end of Isla, we walked past Tripod Dog and the Naval station, soon reaching the air strip with its overgrown margins of tired oleanders. Soon we were flanked by brushy woods of accacia trees in yellow bloom. We had left civilization behind.
The first few years, in the full strength of relative youth, we rented bicycles and rode past the air strip to the only outpost we knew of, Maria’s Kan Kin (or was it Kin Kan?). The Isla bicycles had no gears, and we panted and pushed hard, going up the slight rise in that direction.
Beyond the accacia woods, we found Maria’s sign by the road, once illuminated in neon, but now reduced to a painted name. Swooping down the steep gravel to Maria’s flaking pink establishment, we parked, that first year of discovery, going on a hint from other visitors, that Maria’s sported a fabled restaurant of French cuisine.
It was more than just a restaurant but a well-tended narrow garden beside attached cabanas, with deeply shaded entrances. Several, as we continued downhill, displayed second stories with high porches. The garden, large of hibiscus, fringed and deeply cut of orange, yellow, red, with rampant stamen jingling with seeds, chattered with life. And the flor di mayo trees, with their knobbed leafless branches, exhaled such heavy sweetness from their waxy pink or white flowers that we thought we’d swoon with enchantment.
Nothing else on Isla resembled the Kin Kan restaurant: Situated on a bluff above the turquoise bay, shaded by a palm thatched roofs, the tables were each graced with an exotic hibiscus, and the waiters, all serious men in white coats, served us like communicants partaking in a mass.
Where else on Isla could you order hearts of palm salad or Sole Meuniere–Fran’s choice that first visit? Where else were the menus hand lettered with artistic care and slipped into large woven folders, whose fronts were decorated with straw flowers? What I ate is lost to time, but what I saw remains indelibly imprinted, for across the turquoise water rose a golden city, its turrets and gables shining in the sun. Though we knew it was Cancun, it was so transformed as to have left solidity behind and become a beckoning chimera. I stared and stared, a little giddy with white wine, and hoped never never to leave its promise of joy.
Every year after that we made it a point to spend one glorious long lunch at Maria’s, always served by the serious men in spotless white jackets. Finally we decided to extend the stay to three days. Nothing could persuade us to remove for an entire week from town–there were too many vistas and sites to revive from past years. We had to say hello to the friendly waiters at Pegueno, the bar beside Posada; we had to visit the cemetery and lay a crumpled flower on Mundaca’s moldering grave. We had to eat fresh coconut ice cream and feed butter to the lunch-time parrot. But for three days and nights, we could spare ourselves for Maria’s. We would begin our visit there.
That year, our plane from Minneapolis suffered a long delay, and it was dark before we stepped off the ferry and looked for one of Isla’s red taxis. The driver, newly arrived from the mainland, hardly knew what we meant, but he gamely followed the road and our pointing fingers. The sign was dark, of course–Hurricane Gilberto had taken out its wattage. But it loomed tall and white by the road, and down the Kin Kan hill, a dim light awaited us.
We had wanted simply a room with bath. In the morning, we discovered Paris was spread across the walls in faded, semi-precious form. There was the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the banks of the Seine, painted and framed, real works in oil. That morning we also met Madame, the owner, a column in silk with a stately head of coiled white hair, and on her wrist a raucous blue and red macaw.
That visit we glimpsed her walking away from us down the path, or glancing down at us from a high screened porch–evidently where she lived in chambers above the garden. Nothing was cheap at Maria’s Kan Kin, but Fran gamely paid for breakfast, while I stayed in the room and ate instant oatmeal and fruit. During those breakfasts–for we were the only guests those three days–the head waiter whispered that he had worked for Madame since a very young man, and now she was not well. With that stoic poise of the Mayan men, he looked grave, Fran reported. One afternoon, snoozing in our room, we heard French being spoken with sharp, ascending accusation. It was answered in deep-voiced, soothing Spanish.
The more we thought about it, the more it seemed to us that these waiters were more than just employees. Whether one-time lovers or something like indentured servants, they spent their lives on the premises, or so it seemed, for we found them there at all hours, and occasionally upstairs in Madame’s abode.
The ways of need and devotion are strange. But so are the breaks. Twice we stayed at Maria’s Kin Kan, enjoying the glory of the garden, and the quiet repose and the cuisine. But that was enough. A few years later, a new restaurant advertised that it was open for business. We puzzled its location, and on a whim, took a taxi beyond the woods toward our old haunt at Maria’s. There stood the new restaurant, right next door to the Kin Kan, sturdy in a new palapa, with a slightly shewed view of the bay and the glimmering promise of Cancun. We ate a fine leisurely lunch there, served by the same group of serious, white-coated men as used to work for Maria’s. They whispered a story about the old woman, but their English, now beyond a tourist menu of needs, faltered, and we only half understood. What was obvious was that they had deserted her. Or, perhaps, in a rage she had fired them. We never knew which. But though enticing for one visit, with a sense of clandestine naughty charm, the new restaurant lacked that “je ne sais quoi” of the smaller, more intimate, and more finely placed Maria’s. That’s when we understood that she, like us, had refined Isla’s native charm with an outsider’s grasp of its limitations, and for years, had poured herself into making an odd perfection created entirely of one woman’s passion for blended cultural beauty.