*How I Spent my Summer Vacation (Part Uno)
It wasn’t that long ago we sprang out of bed at 4am, excited not for the hour or the sunrise or the lack of sleep, but thrilled to be off to the airport for our vacation to Mexico. Friends of mine were getting married in the tiny fishing village of Puerto Morelos, and had enlisted me as their photographer. I had managed to take this opportunity and stretch it out to six nights on the Mayan Riviera, with my other half, one of my BFFs, and her significant other. On airbnb we rented a two bedroom, two bath condo on the ocean (with a pool, for good measure), with a lovely balcony overlooking the Caribbean, and a beach bar steps away, with swings to sit on and sip cold cervezas.
The rest of my friends were staying at a resort at the southern tip of the town. The resort was beautiful, and I did look at staying there, but we went the airbnb route for multiple reasons. One, the value couldn’t be beat. Sure, we weren’t going to get giant buffets, but we were going to get a local taste in exchange. I feel like if you stay in a resort, you may as well stay at a hotel in your own city. The resort experience only varies in which body of water you happen to be looking at. There was no way we were each going to eat $150 of food every day, and if I wanted to sit in a pool with 400 drunk white frat boys I could just go to Las Vegas for a hell of a lot less. When visiting somewhere I want to see what makes it tick, what makes it special, who the people are, I want to eat like a local, I want to be on my own schedule. I don’t want to be on a tour bus full of fellow vacationers who are all anxious until they’re safely behind the walls and barbed wire surrounding their compound-like resort. There’s something special about staying in a home, in a new town, and making your way around.
Landing in Cancun is bizarre – it’s an airstrip in the middle of a jungle. You fly in, and you see massive compounds and tiny farms dotting the landscape of flat green jungle in every direction. The control tower at the airport has a giant Corona bottle painted on it. The airport controls the taxis – it is illegal for a cabbie to pick you up at the airport, you must use special shuttles either from your hotel/resort, or you can rent a car at an inflated price, or you have to rely on their own (overpriced) shuttle service. Walking through the airport is like running a gauntlet – you are being yelled at from every direction, people offering rides, tours, snorkeling, you name it. We ignored it all and went to a counter to purchase our grossly inflated ride into the town 20 minutes away. We were further yelled at as people started asking how we would get BACK to the airport, that we should book our ride then and there. We ignored them, and got in our van for Puerto Morelos, lighter by about $80 USD for the four of us. For the record, a cab from Puerto Morelos back to the airport a week later, for the four of us, was a mere 350 pesos, or $27 in USD.
We rented a car in Puerto Morelos on a Monday afternoon, and returned it Thursday afternoon. The extra insurance is worthwhile, but no insurance they offer covers tires or windows – so do beware where you leave your car. That being said, Puerto Morelos was an indescribably beautiful, quiet, small town. Within a day or two of our arrival people were recognizing us and learning our names. It had its share of people selling snorkeling tours or offering to take you out on a boat, or trying to sell you a shirt, but every person we dealt with was polite and friendly and helpful and we never felt uneasy.
Our first night in town we drank beers at the beach bar, until we were chased back to our condo by the mosquitoes. We sprayed ourselves with lethal doses of deet and walked down the little street into the town. We ate at one of the first places we came to, El Pirata. The man in the corner with his keyboard and guitar was covering hits (heavily accented), including a strangely charming mariachi sort of cover of The KKK Took my Baby Away. (Oh, how I wish I’d gotten video!) We sat on a table on the sidewalk, in the incredible heat and humidity. Stray dogs wandered by for pets, a small black kitten also came by and befriended me. I have terrible food allergies, peppers and avocados are big no-nos as is anything from the ocean. But I ate chips, drank cold Sol beer, and toasted to vacation with my friends. The chef and owner even photobombed our group photo (he, the waiter, and our musician were all tipped well). The plates of guacamole had to have weighed several pounds each, and I safely munched on cheese tostadas quite happily. All caution was thrown to the wind that night – we all broke the rules and ate local fruits, veggies, and other things that hadn’t been “cooked” or “fried.” And on Sunday we woke up, like nothing had happened.
We strolled on the beach, we played in the pool. We shopped in the town. We arranged to pick up our rental car on Monday (substantially cheaper than at the airport). I splurged on a beautiful pair of Mexican silver earrings, a whopping $30USD, at one of the shops in town. It was as lazy a vacation day as you could imagine. We drank cold beers and snacked at a local bar, La Sirena, where the staff hung out and chatted us up, we had some of the best macaroni and cheese in the northern hemisphere (seriously, and strangely true), and then we walked to the pier a block away. The famous tilted, broken lighthouse of the town leaned towards the ocean, the water was impossibly electric green and blue and clear to the bottom. We saw tropical fish swimming around the pilings, and even a giant manta ray fluttering around the bottom. Late that night we saw the town come to life as children and dogs filled the town square to play soccer and adults sat around chatting, a food cart set up with hot nuts and churros.
A day of lounging, mentally prepping for the wedding on Monday, relaxing, shopping, and eating made it feel well and truly like a wonderful vacation. We didn’t have to be anywhere, or do anything, at any certain time. Another benefit of staying on our own schedule – we quite simply didn’t even have a schedule. We filled our fridge with dozens and dozens of Sols, and some oddball canned liquors, and relaxed in the A/C. Actual monkeys lobbed immature mangoes from overhead onto the pathway of our condo, and stray cats found us again for attention and food.
Monday morning rolled around and found us again in the ocean, before getting cleaned up for lunch. We went to a local hole in the wall. At the other end of town, in a three sided building with a tin roof and a comical handwritten sign, “NO SOMOS MCDONALDS,” we sat in plastic chairs in the oppressive heat and ordered cold refrescos. One wall was lined with poster boards, with handwritten menu items. When the restaurant ran out of sodas, they sent a kiddo down the street with a pocket full of change to buy us more. The owners’ cat lounged on the tile floor, ignoring everyone, and hoping for the heat of the day to go away. The four of us ate like kings – several tostadas, empanadas, and panuchos cochinitas each, plus various salsas and guac, and with our cold sodas and mountains of food it came to $17. Total. Not each, $17USD total. It would become our favorite spot in Puerto Morelos!
My other half and I picked up the rental car, freshened up in the A/C, and made our way through the town to the resort where my friends were getting married that evening. The resort was surrounded by mangroves and swamp, complete with signs warning of crocodiles (which were actually spotted by several guests), and of course the requisite high walls and barbed wire. He went one way with the groom and his groomsmen, and I went with the bride and her girls to photograph the craziness.
I’ve known the bride’s sister in law since we were in 7th grade, and over the years have gotten to know the bride and her other bridesmaid from hanging out in San Diego with them annually. It was fun to be with people I knew, in a beautiful place, and I was excited to meet my girlfriend’s 8 month old baby for the first time, too. The wedding was wonderful, casual, funny, intimate – all the things you want from a wedding, really. We laughed, we cried, we drank, we ran on the beach, we danced, the bride drank tequila from the bottle at the reception.
As I’ve grown older, as I’ve attended hundreds of weddings, I’ve learned a lot about these events. Mostly I recognize stability and love and trust when I see it. Not perfection, not fairytale, but true relationships – I can see them. I think we all can, really. And when a couple works, it’s incredibly fulfilling to spend their wedding day with them. I get choked up remembering it, actually. Partly because I’m a sap, partly because my photos of their day will be passed down through their families, partly because being around that much love and trust and respect feels good. It’s amazing to celebrate the happiness and love in the world. It makes me fall in love with love all over again, every time it happens. These aren’t people who have had a wedding because they wanted a kick ass party – these are people who fell in love, grew a wonderful relationship from nothing, married each other, and their party kicked ass because they included everyone who had helped them get to this point in their lives. Their wedding was amazing because of them – and it would have been amazing even if the Caribbean hadn’t been crashing on the white beach outside. (But damn if it didn’t help…)
But the fun was just starting – my friends who got married are awesome. They’re the sort of people who on a whim bought, and learned to ride, motorcycles – and now take drives along the west coast. They are the sort to go swimming with whale sharks. They met during a real honest to god dance off – they’re incredibly fun, bubbly, hilarious, outgoing, friendly people, and we knew the wedding was going to be a mad blur. We knew that it was going to be hard to corral family and friends for photos and get the party started. We knew we needed time to take portraits. We got in plenty the night of the wedding, when her hair was beautiful, her eyes stunning with eyeliner and mascara, the jewelry, the everything. But we saved the best for early Tuesday morning, after the wedding. We picked up the bride and groom, drove them to our condo. I put her back in her dress, and off we went. To the pool, to the beach. We visited the lighthouse, and to finish the adventure, they jumped into the ocean off the pier, then swam into shore. These are the people photographers fall over to photograph – beautiful, fun, adventurous, easygoing, and madly in love.
But our day didn’t stop with a sopping wet bride in a wedding dress in our backseat, no. When we dropped the bride and groom off at the resort, we swapped them for a backseat full of our other friends and their baby. Four adults and a baby, FYI, cause some serious bottoming out in the Mexican rental version of the Aveo. While I was at their wedding last year, the four of us hadn’t all been together since my trip to San Diego with my “new boyfriend” shortly after we started dating. We spent the next couple of hours playing in the ocean with the baby, relaxing in the A/C, and then we all went back to the little restaurant for another sweltering yet fantastic meal. I have known this woman since the early 90s, and playing with her baby is surreal. We are now the age her mom was when we met – I look at her and I see her mom, I look at her and see our 20+ years of friendship, I have so many memories and connections with her – I was with her on her wedding day, and now I was holding her little boy on my lap. She made a tiny human. Even better, the man she is sharing this adventure with is fantastic – I cannot imagine her with anyone else.
I don’t know if over one of our hundreds of sleepovers in the last two decades we could have ever predicted the random places our lives would lead us, or that we’d see each other more often in the last few years on the left coast (and now Mexico!) than we did the previous ten while in New England. I don’t know that we could have imagined the men we’d fall in love with, the new friends we’d surround ourselves with while still keeping each other around, but I am incredibly lucky to have had some time on the beach with her, her fantastic husband, and their perfect baby, with my other half snorkeling around and entertaining the baby with things he found in the ocean (like a live conch). My life is incredibly wonderful, thanks to my friends and loved ones.
But that’s just a taste of my “summer vacation” in Mexico – I still have to tell you about my 35th birthday at a Mayan temple, the best incident of monkey poop in history, swimming in a cave full of bats, and sitting on the beach eating dinner while a warm rain fell. More in my next post about Mexico.