By Jeanine Lee Kitchel
It’s no secret that I was seduced by Mexico 20 some years ago when I was traipsing around south of the border. Mexico offered romance, escapism, excitement. Mexico was then (and still is) a state of mind. It was my Neverland.
I had photos of Mexico beaches, long and windswept, tacked onto my bulletin board at work and at home I had magnets on my refrigerator holding up my favorite Mexico shots: the perfect beach, the perfect palapa, the perfect fishing boat, the perfect sunset. Every leisure thought I had seemed to hinge on Mexico, like waves in the ocean slowly coming back to shore where they belonged.
Each vacation south held some new adventure along with a few traveler’s tales. After years of hanging out on the Pacific coast with surfers, I graduated to the white sand beaches of Quintana Roo in the early 80s at a time when no one else seemed to know this side of Mexico–the Caribbean side–existed.
My fiance (later my husband) and I first heard about Cancun from a friend who’d gone there in the late 70s. She said it was remote and gorgeous and the Maya pyramids were nearby. I longed to see the pyramids so we tried to book a flight with a San Francisco travel agent. She didn’t have a clue where Cancun was, had never heard of it.
Even though the popular movie Against All Odds, starring Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward, and fabulous shots of Tulum and Chichen Itza, had recently premiered, we had to show her where Cancun was on a map. That’s how remote the area was only 20 years ago.
Our Mexicana flight took nearly 20 hours and it was like stepping directly inside Mexico once the plane door was closed, from the flight attendant crossing herself as we left the ground at SFO to the smell of Spanish omelets and tortillas for breakfast. We had three layovers, one in Guadalajara in the middle of the night–scary–and another at some undisclosed location without a name on the terminal.
Our last leg of the journey took us to Mexico City where we laid over for two hours. We were drained, but at least it was daylight. For fear of missing our last connection, we didn’t move from in front of the reservation desk where we’d be booked in. After asking when we would board, more than once, the reservations clerk came clean–they hadn’t received any boarding passes and had nothing to give us.
“What will we do?” I asked helplessly, determined not to let the lack of a piece of paper
keep me from this new adventure.
After searching around under the counter, the clerk produced a brown paper bag. Tearing it in large uneven squares, she wrote our seat assignments and flight number on the torn piece of paper in black magic marker and handed them to me.
I was stunned. “This is it?” I managed to squeak.
“Si,” she nodded and smiled, without apology.
Well, okay, I though, looking at Paul, my traveling partner. “Here we go!”
We were never disappointed in our Mexico vacations. Isla Mujeres, or island of women, named by pirates a couple centuries ago after finding statues of women on the north point of the island, was our first stop. We nearly missed the last ferry to the island after our 20-hour flight but narrowly made the connection.
We fell in love with Isla. Adored North Beach with the shallow, turquoise ocean bumping up onto a white sand beach that stretched seemingly for miles (standard fare for the Mexican Caribbean we were soon to find out) and especially loved Maria’s, a small
resort with French restaurant attached. Maria had only five rooms to rent, bungalows fit for a tropical hideaway paradise, with palapa roofs and a bountiful garden brimming with hibiscus, crotons, and areca palms.
A narrow cement walkway etched with geckos and tropical flowers wound its way down to
the two prized bungalows, close enough to the beach to hear waves lapping on the shore at
night. Although we’d started out in the less desirable rooms closer to the restaurant we
stayed long enough to nab one of the sought-after bungalows below.
We spent long hours on Maria’s lonesome beach, sharing the ocean with her ancient loggerhead sea turtles that swam in the ocean by day and by dusk returned to a funky
zapote cage that straddled the sand at the water’s edge. We hunkered down in Mexican style Adirondack chairs, sunbathed, talked, napped, and dreamed, and I think it was right there on Maria’s beach, that we decided somehow we would escape northern winters and city life and live in Mexico.
That’s how it started for me. My love affair–with a country. And after living here on and off for 18 years, I realize that everyone, every single expat who lives in Mexico, has a story. Their story.
And this is mine.