By Christine Swanberg
Author and Poet
Now that I am Medicare age, I’m tempted to take an all-inclusive package trip to Cancun. It would be easy since flights leave from my hometown each winter, transporting hundreds of sun-starved Midwesterners to a gentrified island paradise. Perhaps some day I will board one and head off to the Yucatan, but every time I think of it, I wonder how it would feel to return to places that 40 years ago were high adventure — wild, raw and sometimes terrifying.
Forty years ago, Cancun didn’t exist, except as a sand bar large enough to be considered an island. There was no way to get there, except to put your life into the hands of an unlicensed captain of a boat that was probably contraband. Even the word “license” was an anomaly in Yucatan country, where I spent a while with my new (and only) husband, who was as crazy as I was when it came to adventure. We had no itinerary. It was all-inclusive: new love, the exotic ancient ruins, jungles, the sparkling waters of the Yucatan, danger and lots of time to explore — all on $5 a day.
The place to go was Isla Mujeres, now an excursion from Cancun. My friends say Isla Mujeres is quite chi chi, but back then, there was only one place to stay: a beat-up, unofficial youth hostel composed of hammocks strung to palm trees and a few dilapidated rooms in a plaster casa del mar. You went there to dig the sun and gorgeous water, the hammocks, and hang out with ex-patriots and adventurers who had also stumbled onto this tiny island paradise. Paradise didn’t come with umbrella drinks. A cache of Tequila and a few beers were brought in sporadically. Isla Mujeres had one major luxury: an embarrassment of lobster, lobster so large and plentiful that it was the staple food of the island.
We traded travel tips, and that’s how we got to swim with the sleeping sharks of the Yucatan off the Great Barrier Reef of Belize and dive through schools of fish that parted like the Red Sea in shimmering azure water. We learned that Caye Caulker had a few cheap cabins on stilts if you didn’t mind the chameleons that tickled the walls and sometimes your ribs. Once — I swear this is true — I flicked a cigarette butt into the sand outside the cabin only to see a crab crawl out and grab it with his pincers. Turtles were the staple then, which I found disturbing; thankfully, they are now protected, which is some kind of progress. The island, however, now swims with tourists; snorkeling with the sharks turns out to be a pretty good business.
Word among travelers in the jungle that used to be the Yucatan buzzed about which ruins to visit. These ruins lived up to their name. Jungle growth covered the tiny steps of pyramids and symbolic sculptures like penicillin mold. No safe roads led to ruins such as Chitzen Itza or Tikal. Dirt roads were lined with broken-down buses, and I swear a couple of crashed DC-3s. Yet, we prevailed in our arduous adventure, pushing buses uphill when they didn’t have the power to make it on their own. We climbed those tiny steps, holding onto the chains, praying that they would hold us until we reached the top of whatever pyramid du jour we trekked to. I remember gazing at sacred cenotes of sacrifice hoping we wouldn’t be next, keeling over from heat exhaustion and tourista dehydration.
Trekkers raved about Guatamala, Lake Atitlan and the town of Panajachel, so somehow we managed yet another rickety, chicken-squaking bus to get there. Political unrest hid under the surface of everything like a bad immune system, but even that didn’t stop us. I fell in love with the tiny Mayan people, their villages and thatched roofs, their beautiful weavings and ancient way of life. I could feel trouble might be coming to them.
I wrote in my journal the beginning of a poem:
They tell me you have been ravaged, Mayan Mother.
Your small bones crushed by earthquakes and guerrillas.
Your small son wears a black arm band now.
The brightly colored weaving I bought from this young mother still hangs in my studio. When I feel old and forget that life is a great adventure, I turn to it.
Of course, I’m too damn old to try that sort of stunt again, and frankly, I’m content with lesser adventures. Yet, I don’t think I can take the plunge into that all-inclusive vacation yet. I can’t quite get on board with the notion of travel as a consumer package after living life on the edge in Central America. Somehow, it seems insular and unauthentic, though I don’t begrudge anyone who enjoys it. How would they know? And who knows, maybe someday I’ll return and have no choice but to stay in some fancy place, eat all meals in the same hotel that serves lobster flown in from Maine — on $500 a day, all inclusive.
Christine Swanberg is a local author and poet. She received the Lawrence E. Gloyd Community Impact Award at the 2012 Rockford Area Arts Council State of the Arts Awards.
Posted July 29, 2014