Note: Back in mid-summer, I made a pact with myself to spend an entire year hand-writing my first drafts. The goal is to spend less time on the computer and to recapture the magic of the actual written word. There are cons with this approach, namely that (1) I’m not able to write as quickly and (2) I don’t think the quality is as good. But writing things by hands feels more natural, so I’m going to stick with it. For now. Anyway, the following entry was originally hand-written and underwent minimal editing.
October 11, 2022
Getting to Isla Mujeres was a long journey. I suppose it wasn’t that long – a three-hour flight from Charlotte, a half-hour shuttle to the ferry, a 20-minute ferry ride – but when you’re traveling with a 21-month-old, everything is more difficult by degrees. Not that Conley was particularly crabby. He was content for much of the plane ride, even sleeping for the last half-hour, which I never thought he’d be able to do, careening through the air like that. It’s just that shuttling a tiny helpless human around the world – feeding him, changing him, keeping him happy – is emotionally draining. We knew this coming in. We knew traveling to a foreign country probably wouldn’t be fun by any common definition of the word. But we knew, or at least assumed, it’d be worthwhile, in the sense that we would have survived it. This is true about so much of parenthood: it’s not about feeling good, per se, but feeling accomplished, like you’ve triumphed over some immense difficulty. Lugging a child south of the border in a steel cage certainly qualifies as difficult.
Caitlin had visited Isla Mujeres, a tiny golf cart-laden island off the coast of Cancun, something like a decade ago with her dreadlock-toting, bar-owning friend Rand. She’s been telling me for years about how she wanted to go back. So four months ago, we went for it. Booked the flight, secured the lodging. At first, we thought “what the hell are we thinking?” But we rolled with it. We never wanted to turn into boring parents who never did anything. This was the perfect opportunity to put our non-boringness to the test.
I’m glad we went through with it. Isla is beautiful in the way that many places in Mexico are beautiful: naturally stunning, but gritty. Like a gorgeous woman who’s smoked too many cigarettes. Graffiti tags abound. Abandoned buildings. Construction projects half-executed. Feral gatos in the alleyways. Oily water in the streets. The griminess is part of Isla’s charm, especially juxtaposed next to white sand beaches and the clear clear water. You’ve never seen water this blue in America, except maybe on the Emerald Coast. It’s gorgeous in Florida, don’t get me wrong, but it’s no Isla. Or maybe I’ve just been wooed by the island’s foreign appeal, seduced by a land where people don’t speak my language – not as a first language, at least. It’s calming to walk down the street and hear locals speaking words I can’t comprehend. My mind doesn’t feel obligated to process, to judge, what’s being said. This leads to a floating sensation, a pleasant out-of-body experience.
I don’t know what I’m trying to say. Maybe it’s something like this. On the ferry ride to Isla, a grizzled Mexican fellow with a guitar stood on the front of the boat, playing and singing his heart out. He was quite good, mesmerizing even, performing that high-energy latino guitar music. Smiling. Putting everyone in a good mood. There was Conley, standing in Caitlin’s lap, shaking his legs and moving his butt. Grinning at a lady behind us with pock marks on her face. The wind was blowing through Conley’s hair as the ferry cut through the water. “He sure is a happy kid,” said the lady. This is what everyone notices about him.
He won’t remember being happy in Isla. But Caitlin and I will remember the time we were happy with him in Isla. Even if it is a struggle sometimes, more about survival than joy.
Struggle, survival…this may sound petty, but the most strenuous part of the trip thus far was when Caitlin ordered a mojito on Playa Norte and failed to confirm that the bar took cards. It didn’t take cards, naturally, so when it was time to pay, I had to run all over creation searching for an ATM, which left my salty thighs chaffed and angry. I fumed around the streets of Isla. Yet if the worst part of this trip is me having to roam the strip for 30 minutes searching for a cash machine so Caitlin could pay for her mojito, I can live with that. That’s a small thing to complain about.
What happened before that low point, if you can even really call it that, was almost magic. Conley has been hollering about water ever since we boarded the ferry. He looks out the window in the morning, sees the gulf, and shouts “WATER, WATER, WATER!” He sees the pool when we walk outside. “WATER, WATER, WATER!” So we took him down to the water. Playa Norte. One of the most beautiful beaches in the world, according to many online lists. The lists were right: the water’s not only clear, it’s calm. Perfect for our little man to splash around in. At first, he shouted “no, no!” It was too cold. But he quickly adjusted and fell in love with the wet stuff he’d been clamoring for. So cute, in his blue bucket hat. I’d toss him in the air and he’d fall all to pieces, laughing. I’d dunk my head underwater and he’d crack up. He accidentally submerged his face a few times and came up smiling, licking strange salt from his lips.
It made me so happy to see him happy. It was the kind of perfect parenting moment everyone talks about, but non-parents believe to be an exaggeration. Bliss in a child’s eyes, pure joy in a father’s heart. I love him more than I ever thought I could love anything. Sorry, Caitlin.
I’m trying to meditate again. I never stopped, but I’m trying to get back into silent meditation, by which I mean non-guided meditation. Meditation where it’s just me, my breath and the world.
This is the only kind of meditation I did for a long time. It’s much harder than guided meditation, in my opinion, because there’s no omniscient voice telling you what to do. You’re left to battle your thoughts, constantly trying to pull them back to the center, which is never easy. This mind battle happens during guided meditation, too, but it’s somehow less obvious because you’re, I don’t know, numbed by your guide’s soothing voice. With non-guided meditation, it’s clear when your mind has wandered, though it sometimes take a few minutes to realize it’s gone off on another wild tangent.
Like this morning. I went for a short run on the Isla Mujeres boardwalk, then settled down in a private spot for meditation. Twenty minutes worth. The first five minutes are always about quieting the monkey-mind. After that, the mind begins to quiet. Sometimes. You feel the wind. See the water. Hear the birds. It feels good.
Then the distractions come. Let’s say you’re looking at a cloud. Just looking at it. Sensing it. Appreciating it. That’s when the mind starts. Hmm. Clouds. Weather. It’s supposed to rain today. But it was supposed to rain yesterday, too, and it never did. Forecasts can’t be trusted. If it rains today, what will we do? I don’t want our vacation to be ruined. We spent a lot of money and I want it to be worthwhile. I mean…wait a second. What happened? I was just so focused on the cloud, so in tune with my surroundings, and here I am, off on some train of thought I didn’t recognize I was on until now. Oh well. Start over. Breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Feel the wind. Hear the birds.
You see how this can be tricky.
Why meditate? Sometimes it feels trivial. Pointless. Like I’m never actually getting anywhere. Maybe there’s truth to this. But maybe, hopefully, it’s illusionary. I’m more anxious if I skip a few days of meditation. If nothing else, it reminds me how to breathe. There’s nothing woo-woo or mystical about it. What do we tell someone when they’re all wound up? Take a breath. Or 10 breaths. Breathe into the stomach. Ground yourself. Staying in tune with the breath is the best way to stay in tune with ourselves, to remain grounded when life gets rough. And life always gets rough. Meditation isn’t a cure-all, but it can be a useful tool. Especially as a parent, when self-care is crucial, yet so often ignored.
I’ve been reading a Raymond Carver anthology during this trip. I first discovered him in college, because I was an English major (Why? So I could become a firefighter. Duh.) and Carver is, like, the most taught short story author of all-time. I remember liking him back then, and his tales of marital dysfunction (and sometimes, occasionally, function) have only grown more relatable through the years. His stories are about domestic mundanity, about drinking, about the difficulties of relationships. Nothing much happens in these stories. On the surface, at least. Yet there is an undercurrent of profundity.
I felt like I was in a Raymond Carver story last night. We went down to the strip. Had a couple of drinks and some tacos. On the way home, Caitlin stopped at a store to try on dresses. I stood outside, sweating and fuming, because we don’t have a lot of extra money to spend. I was rude when she came to the door and asked how she looked. I was a dick, I’ll admit it. She came out with two dresses for $45. Not a bad deal, but like I said, we don’t have a lot of extra money to spend.
Later, after we put the kid to bed, she went off on me. You embarrassed me, she says. I shouldn’t have to ask for permission from my husband to spend money. I don’t spend much money on myself, she says, which is true, she doesn’t.
Here’s where our night deviates from a Carver story. I apologize. A character in a Carver story would never apologize. I tell her she’s right, that I was rude. I tell her I wish I didn’t have to worry about money, that I wish we could buy whatever we damn well pleased. We’re not living hand-to-mouth, I say, but we have to watch what we spend. Do you understand? The mortgage is expensive for our income. We have extra expenses. Debt. Dogs. Moronic cats. I hate being the Debbie Downer who’s always thinking about money, but until we make more of it, I have to think about money. Do you see where I’m coming from?
Then we romped around in the bed for a while. We hadn’t done that in over a month because both of us had been sick. I guess you could say there was some pent-up energy.
I didn’t have much time to write yesterday because we were zipping around the island on a golf cart. You can go tip-to-tip, north to south, in Isla Mujeres in about 20 minutes, so that’s exactly what we did. We’re staying in the northern part of the island, which is more touristy and features that super pretty beach, Playa Norte. The middle part of the island seems to feature more locals, while the southern tip boasts multi-million dollar mansions owned by, presumably, drug lords and orthodontists. Punta Sur is at the island’s southernmost tip. It’s also the easternmost point in Mexico and one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever seen. High, rocky cliffs lead down to walkways along the blue, blue water.
It was a sight to behold, sure, but Punta Sur wasn’t our only motivation for jetting south on the golf cart (Caitlin called it “golfin’ around.”) We found perhaps the only place on the island that serves cold brew, the fuel that keeps my lovely wife at a baseline level of functioning adult. She’d found plenty of places with iced coffee, but that’s not the same, because iced coffee is acidic and tears up Caitlin’s sensitive stomach. So on the way to Punta Sur, we snagged a cold brew from a place called “42.” Caitlin couldn’t have been happier as she sipped her perspiring drink and we golfed it around Isla, Conley’s hair blowing in the wind as he shouted “yay” and threw his arms toward the sky. We have the same hair, so by the end of our ride, both of us looked like we’d been blasted in the face with a blow dryer for hours on end.
Conley has really enjoyed this trip. This makes me happy. Yesterday, while golfin’ around, I looked at him over there on Caitlin’s lap and felt the purest form of happiness. He’s grown so much, and so much has changed over the past 21 months. Last year, with COVID raging, we wondered if we’d ever be able to travel again. We weren’t even taking him into grocery stores, much less on international flights. So now, to be able to experience the world again, with him by our side…well, it just felt so impossible not that long ago.
This is what I mean when I say experiencing the world: after a delicious dinner of paella at Sunset Grill, we golfed it to Playa Centro. It was dark and this open-air beachfront restaurant had lights strung up outside. Conley was amazed. He shouted “lights, lights, lights” as he reached for them in wonder. Then a fire twirler came up and twirled fire for a few minutes. We had no cash to tip him, so we promised to come back the next night, our last night, with money. And we did.
Later, we stopped at an outdoor basketball game. There was a big crowd. We sat there for two minutes, until some short guy drilled a three-pointer. The crowd went wild. “Clap, baby, clap!” I shouted. He smiled and clapped like it was the most astounding thing he’d ever seen, unaware that he is the most astounding thing I’ve ever seen.
I’ve been writing down all the delights I experience over the course of a year, with the aim of self-publishing a book of said delights I can keep forever as a reminder of the delightful things in the world. This is a rip-off of Ross Gay’s book, named – you guessed it – Book of Delights.
Anyway, here’s one delight from this trip. There have been many, but here’s one:
A man tried to drive a cargo truck of Corona beer across the Playa Norte. He was attempting to make a delivery to the Mia Reef Hotel and Resort, but ended up buried in sand. The driver was embarrassed, having done such a silly thing in front of so many beachgoers. I felt sad for him, because we’ve all been there. We’ve all done something stupid like that.
I can see the driver through the windshield. He’s smiling. The pushing guys high-five, then return to their separate vacations. It was a moment of kindness, of cooperation, of triumph.
Yet he wasn’t alone. One-by-one, bystanders began helping him out. They slid wood under the tires for traction. It didn’t work, but it was a good effort. They tried scrap metal. Another failure. By this point, there’s a crowd. Tourists standing around with their phones aimed toward the action. The truck is no closer to being unstuck. That’s when four or five guys, beachgoers in bathing suits, started pushing. The driver was behind the wheel, gunning it in reverse, as these shirtless dudes pushed with all their might.
Progress is made. Bystanders clap. The driver is almost out of this nightmare. There’s just one last lip of sand he can’t get over. He guns it, the guys push, but the wheels roll right back into the hole. All right. One more try. They push and push and finally the thing rolls out of the sand and onto the pavement. Applause all around. I can see the driver through the windshield. He’s smiling. The pushing guys high-five, then return to their separate vacations. It was a moment of kindness, of cooperation, of triumph. It was a rare wholesome moment.
Our last day on the “Island of Women.” We haven’t done much, honestly. Ate. Swam. Walked around. That’s about it. Yet it’s been a successful vacation. Caitlin and I confirmed this over huevos rancheros at Ruben’s Restaurant this morning.
“Even if he melts down for the rest of the day,” I said, motioning toward Conley eating plantains in a high chair. “This will have been a great trip.”
“Don’t say that,” Caitlin said.
You’re right. Sorry. Don’t jinx it.
I don’t know when, if ever, we’ll return to Isla. There are so many other places in the world to explore that I hate to go to the same place twice. Isla, though, is worth coming back to. It’s the perfect blend of familiarity and foreignness. It’s not overwhelming for a stupid American like me, who can speak like 1.5 words of Spanish. Maybe we’ll be back in two years. Maybe five. Or 10. Anyways, it’ll remain on the list.
This trip turned out to be less about survival than I anticipated. I figured Conley would eventually get sick of it all – the heat, the salt water – and become inconsolable. Though he eventually did grow sick of the salt water (he much preferred the pool), he’s been well-behaved on the whole. This trip was a litmus test for future foreign vacations, and Conley passed with flying colors. Yes, we still have a three-hour plane ride and a two-and-a-half hour car ride tomorrow. We’ll see how that goes. Either way, it’ll be an adventure. It’s going to be hard going back to Western North Carolina, where it’s supposed to be 30 degrees tomorrow night. I don’t fare well in the cold. I get mildly depressed in the winter.
What else is there to say? Yesterday, Caitlin’s friend texted her. He said he’d never take a family vacation to Mexico because of the Cartel.
“Everything’s fine until it’s not,” he said of the violence. “Look what happened in Acapulco.”
He’s not wrong. The Cartel is a real threat. But life is about calculated risks. Violence is everywhere, if you’re searching for it. There are mass shootings damn near every day in America. Terrorist attacks are an ever-present threat in Europe. If you focus on the wrong things you’ll find good reasons to never leave your home. But this is no way to exist. What is the risk of staying home? Stagnation. Paranoia. I’m not advocating overly-risky things. I’m not saying we should throw ourselves into the world without research. What I am saying is that travel is one of the most rejuvenating and important things we can do. We’d all be fools to prefer safety to exploration, to expansion, to life.
The parting shot of our trip was the fire twirler on our final night. He juggled, hurled the flaming sticks in the air, a smile on his face and sweat on his chest. At the end of the performance, every one cheered. But it was Caitlin and I who cheered the loudest. Then we gave him a nice tip in pesos.