Tonight was going to be my first workout since returning from vacation last night around midnight. Running a little late for boxing class, I swiftly kicked off my work shoes in the locker room to swap them for my gym shoes when I looked down and realized...those aren't my feet. Whose feet are those? The toes look different. Stumpier, shorter. The ankles are fatter. Why? Oh wait, both legs are swollen from toes nearly to knees.
I started to run through all the things that had happened on our big Yucatan trip that could have resulted in this. Walking in Merida in skimpy sandals, I'd kicked the back of the blue-eyed boy's foot and had gotten a bruise on my pinkie toe that had turned all the colors of the rainbow (of which I had taken a million photos, Flat Stanley-style, posed with iguanas and ruins and things). But the toe was feeling better now, so it couldn't be that, could it? Shockingly, I hadn't gotten any notable bug bites, or did I, without realizing it? Ah, or was it the sunburn? On Sunday, on a beach in Tulum, the blue-eyed boy and I both turned red as lobsters (a trite expression for a really scary and painful experience) in a regrettable turn of events, which, I feared at that moment, would change the course of our trip from awesome to barely withstandable. But it didn't. Like Destiny's Child, we're survivors. And our trip freakin ruled, for real.
Here's how it went down.
On Thursday we flew into Cancun, rented a hooptie-ish Nissan Tsuru (which makes me laugh, because Tsuru is just like a Yiddish word meaning, roughly, aggravation, or like, issues, as in "girl has major tsuris," or at least that's the way I use it, which may be kind of a bastardization), and drove by way of the very expensive toll road (the cuota) all the way to Merida, the capital of the Yucatan. The 300-peso or so road offers only one stop, in Vallodolid, and is almost curiously well marked with signs that mostly tell you you're driving too fast. It's a straight shot through nothing but jungle.
Arriving at last, we checked in to an adorable little B&B, sheltered from the noise of the rather frenetic city behind thoughtful landscaping marked by waterfalls and a secluded pool. From this HQ, we set out the next day for our first day trip, to the ruins of Uxmal. A spectacular site. I told the blue-eyed boy, "As soon as we leave this place, I am going to imagine it was all a dream." Because it's so surreal, to see that glorious pyramid rising out of the jungle. We shared the cost of a guida with a family from Seattle, who had two little boys who were very well behaved. I liked this family because the dad was inquisitive and asked a lot of smart questions, and reminded me of my dad. (Later, at Chichen Itza, we'd meet a pair of medievalists-turned-engineers who I would take to for the same reason.)
Back in Merida, after a siesta, we strolled through the town in search of the pretty filigrana style of earrings I had wanted (but apparently you can mainly only find affordable, quality versions of these in the U.S., imported from Mexico, and not in Mexico itself). We ate and ate and strolled and strolled (the toe incident happened somewhere in here), and tried to find some ballet folklorico performance at the university, but alas it was happening instead the following Friday. That allowed us the opportunity to sleep earlier and wake earlier for the next adventure, this one to the ruins at Chichen Itza. I urge you to go and see Chichen once before you die. It is spectacular.
And the thing is, it's a major tourist attraction. Tour buses filled with mainly Europeans and Asians flood into this place, but, at least from my perspective, it didn't have that touristy feel; the former city is so huge—many kilometers in diameter—that the tourists are all spread out. And the fact that it's a wide-open space surrounded by and intermingled with jungle kind of dampens any noise. Even the dozens (hundreds, probably) of vendors who hawk their pottery and embroidery and things to the hoards actually kind of add color and spirit to the place, rather than take away from it. The vast ball field, observatory, and of course the iconic pyramid were among my favorite spots, and the figure of Chac-Mool carved there in stone seemed so deeply cute to me. Loved him. Bought a magnet bearing his likeness. See? Vendors.
Another thing? It's hot as all get out in Chichen Itza. We stayed three hours, but could have explored for days if not for A) it was suffocatingly hot and B) we, like, have jobs in California.
N.B.: Inexplicably the ruin sites on the Yucatan peninsula seem to have the most luxurious public bathrooms anywhere. Lots of marble. Kind of like the Wynn. OK, not like the Wynn, but more luxe than you might expect from public bathrooms in a Mexican jungle.
Moving on. Heading back toward the east side of the peninsula in the tsuris, I mean Tsuru, we stopped for a dip in Dzitnup, a cenote, or sinkhole in a cave filled with glassy fresh water. I had read much about the cenotes, including that Dzitnup offered water so turquoise and clear that "it might have been plucked from a dream." I'm going with no on that. The cave seemed a bit dank, and the water far from turquoise, with little natural light actually coming from the hole in the top of the cave. (Later, at Aktun Chen, my faith in the Yucatan's famed cenotes would be restored.)
With almost no daylight left of Saturday, we pulled into Tulum. In the darkness, we couldn't see the ocean yet (I was practically vibrating with anticipation; the beach portion of the trip had been the part about which I'd been dreaming forever), but we could sure hear the waves crashing feet from us. We checked in to our eight-room hotel; the reception desk is unmanned, so you go ask the bartender, who at his own pace finds the housekeeper, who strolls down the beach to find someone who feels like giving you a room key.
You see, there is no rush in Tulum for anything, and there is no need to throw your towel and bag down on the perfect spot on the beach before someone elese takes it because A) the spots are all perfect and B) there is no one else there. Thank god there is still a place like that on this earth. (Come to think of it, Treasure Beach, Jamaica is like that too, mon, likkle more.) Sun and wind power the hotel (both are in large supply), which has no air conditioner, but does have a ceiling fan, in which the blue-eyed boy accidentally inserted his hand while raising his arm to put on his shirt and sliced through a couple of fingers. It is fortunate that the casualty was not more significant; there aren't really hospitals in Tulum, so the general rule of thumb is, "be careful, for real."
When the sun came up, the vast expanse of beach sprawled in front of us, the sea a color so blue it requires a new word for blue, or not a word, but a gesture, or not a gesture, but a sigh. Incredible, unspeakable. You run out of superlatives quickly at the sight of Tulum.
As far as I can tell, Tulum is the playground of A) fancy, classy, adventuresome travelers with taste and at least a vague interest in yoga and B) total freakin hippies. Mostly palapas and cabanas and a few very diminutive hotels dot the beach; so too do tents set up by Berkeley types (probably at the end of their volunteer stints building latrines in Chiapas junior year) on the now completely unmanned stretches of sand formerly occupied by tiny hotels that were wiped out by Wilma in 2005. It's a peaceful commingling of types on this beach. Just peaceful and perfect.
So perfect. We walked easily along the beach a couple of kilometers to the ruins in Tulum, the only Mayan city built on the sea. We stopped for lunch at a very Corona-commercial-looking restaurant/hotel called, aptly, Vita e Bella, and later hired a fisherman to take us out to the reef where we could snorkel. I actually think I saw a barracuda, and some other great big fish, but it was a windy day in Tulum and the sea was choppy; I was seasick even swimming. (This is kind of classic, because I'd actually remembered to take Dramamine; I'd bought out the complete stock of over-the-counter therapies at the CVS in Westwood before we left). I was trying to talk to the fisherman in Spanish, but everything was coming out in Italian. It's funny how much Italian I realized I still know when I was trying to speak Spanish.
Yada yada, SPFs of all varieties, reapply, reapply, swim, sweat...look, we got real sunburned. It was bad. It was regrettable. By the end of the day, we were the big gringo jerks who were red as beets. And we had opposite reactions to the affliction: The blue-eyed boy couldn't get cool enough, and I couldn't get warm enough. I had the chills. After dinner (which I barely remember in my feverish state, but the photos I took suggest it was a gorgeous place), the blue-eyed boy sprawled out horizontally on the bed because he was trying to maximize the windshear coming from the open window. All I could do was moan, and I think I said something about needing some rum, but I was asleep by 9.
Falling asleep early in Tulum is a useful thing, because it is natural to wake up with the sun. Despite there being no technology- or traffic-type noises, there is plenty of noise indeed: The waves crash loudly and the birds' songs are, ahem, robust. It's a delightful kind of cacophony. Determined not to let our full-on gringo sunburns slow us down, we left Tulum for Aktun Chen, a spectacular sprawling cave and cenote in the jungle just north. Underground was the right place for our pink selves, and our guide shared so many insights about the geology that makes the Yucatan such an unusual place: something about it being like Swiss cheese under there, which it certainly seems to be. We wore hard hats to travel about 600 yards through many chambers of the cave; first we thought the hats were goofy props to make tourists feel like they were doing something treacherous, but we soon realized that they're actually smart tools against hanging stalagmites of all lengths. In the last chamber was a cenote that looked as clear as if there were no water there at all, only air. Faith in the beauty of Yucatecan cenotes: fully restored.
A few kilometers north still, we stopped for a quick snorkel jaunt at Akumal, a lagoon that is very protected from the open water and therefore waveless. I saw three turtles swimming together, and was just tickled. I found a piece of brain coral on the beach and picked it up. The blue-eyed boy kept teasing that customs was going to imprison me for plucking nature out of the reef, but whatever. I so didn't.
In a surprisingly uncharacteristic move, we pulled into Playa del Carmen with no hotel booked; I was almost testing myself to see if I could leave the last night of the trip to do whatever the heck we pleased, in whatever place, without totally freaking out that there was no plan. And I passed my own test. We ended up finding a completely adorable hotel, all colorful tiles and pretty bright linens...but not before getting pulled over by a Mexican motorcycle cop in aviators who was a ringer for one of the CHiPs. You see, the blue-eyed boy had mistakenly maneuvered the Tsuru the wrong way down a one-way street for a short distance before realizing his error, and we got busted. Somehow, in this moment, I spoke fluent Spanish, or so the blue-eyed boy tells me (I was so nervous and desperate, I kind of forgot what I said). Anyway, no ticket. Just a warning for the sunburned gringo and gringa who busted out the politest kind of text-book-learned high-school Spanish under pressure.
Our night in Playa was rather dreamy; the main drag, Avenida 5, is as touristy as anywhere (i.e. you could, if you wanted, buy there a T-shirt emblazoned with "I Love to Fart. Playa del Carmen") but really has charm and elegance somehow too. That night, I refused to take my glasses off in bed because that would be acknowledging that sleep was coming, and that would be acknowledging that the last night of our trip was over.
Not to waste a moment, we hustled the next day to Cozumel by ferry for a snorkel session amid parrot fish and schools of others in hues like neon purple. Back at Playa, it was back in the Tsuru (on which we logged more than 1,100 kilometers, all told) for the ride to Cancun to catch our flight home.
And that's where I am now, in bed with my cat and my mysteriously swollen legs. Looking at our zillions of pictures, I can't say we looked like Beyonce and Jay Z snapped canoodling in St. Tropez by the paparazzi, which is kind of how I thought we'd look. (Seriously, how deluded am I?) But, look, it's real hot out there and you sweat and you get sunburned and shred your fingers in the ceiling fan and stub your toes a bit and get seasick and your hair gets crazy frizzy when you dunk your head in the ocean if you don't instantly reapply product.
And that's how you know you're alive.