Island of Women

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From Jane's World

The ferry glides and dips across the translucent green and crystal blue waters. My breathing slows and deepens. My shoulders drop an inch as my upper back expands. I sit up straighter with less effort.

The people on the ferry deck speak unfamiliar languages. I observe mirrored sunglasses encased in gold, and shoes so worn they seem to have no sole. Some of the passengers’ hats are so floppy the rims bounce with the rhythm of the boat; others wear hats with extra-long brims that could poke out an eye if someone leaned in for an intimate conversation; and some have cowboy hats so aged they appear to be a part of the person’s head.

 I sit on the upper deck of the Ultramar ferry crossing the bay from Cancún to Isla Mujeres, “Island of Women,” for the sixth time. Not far off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, the island is about 4.3 miles long and only 2,130 feet wide at its widest point, making it accessible for walking and bike riding. The main forms of transportation, for locals and tourists alike, are golf cart and scooter.

I ask myself: when there are so many places to travel to in the world, why do I revisit the same one?

I’m surrounded by people from all walks of life in a beautiful range of skin colors, from dark, tanned, or burned, to pale. The expressions on their faces are reflective, curious, joyful. The air is thick with anticipation, memories, and nervous excitement. For some people this will be their first time on the island, and worrying about logistics can be a bit harrowing.

The flurry of activity the minute the ferry is secured to the dock reminds me of a carnival. Everyone is standing, moving, and scrambling for luggage, purses, or their parent’s hand.

The smells, sounds, and colors of Isla hit you the minute you set foot on dry land. Saltwater, fish, and fried waffle with Nutella. Vendors shout at the tourists, “Everything a dollar today!” “Try the catch of the day!”

 Parents push babies in strollers, mothers carry children on their backs, and toddlers lag behind while long-legged dads shout encouraging words. Old people, brown and leathered, walk so hunched over you can’t see their faces.  There are dreadlocks, Miss Clairol lookalikes, and shiny bald heads; pretzel-thin, robust and round, and bodybuilder physiques; fully covered bodies, shorts and T-shirts, and bare-chested women and men. Newlyweds who see only each other, just beginning their journey, and couples who have been together so long they look like twins.

Years ago, I fell in love with Isla Mujeres. On the second day of that trip, after I had rested and recovered from the traveling, I basked on Playa Norte, one of the world’s top-rated beaches, dined on local cuisine at an outdoor lunchería, and discovered a bounty of sea glass by the water.

 I now consider myself to be in a lifetime relationship with the island. This doesn’t mean I’ll visit every year but it does qualify me as an islaholic, someone who has become hooked on the simple beauty of Isla Mujeres and its inhabitants.

It also means that I have Isla plugged into the weather page on my computer where I can view the temperature daily; that my Isla clothes are stashed in a special storage bin, ready and waiting; and that I’m always thinking of who I can invite or encourage to visit the island.

Revisiting Isla doesn’t take any work. I book a flight into Cancún and that’s it. I don’t need to worry about booking tours or how I will entertain myself. When I wake up, I walk the shore looking for sea glass and shells; I lie on the beach and read, play in the water, and then shower and go out for dinner. The streets and shoreline are lined with restaurants, and locals set up tables or carts to sell their homemade cuisine.

Every morning in the market one block down from the hotel, four or five ladies make fresh tortillas and package them to sell to restaurant owners, locals, and tourists. I like to be there when they scrape the leftover dough off the machine and take it outside to throw it to the pigeons. Those pigeons know the timing of this grand event and are always punctual.

A vacant lot across from the market is home to dozens of iguanas, some tiny green chameleons, some huge and almost dragon-like, some shedding their skin, some with spikes, others with stripes. I never tire of feeding them bananas.

The cemetery is a favorite place. There are cement blocks of various colors and sizes, the largest ones as big as a Volkswagen bug, and the tiniest about the size of a motor scooter. Many artifacts adorn them: rosaries, colored glass, fake flowers, and stone cupids and angels. Among all the statues of La Virgen de Guadalupe, you can find candles in small glass cases carefully tended and lit daily.

Every day there are street performers playing music, or dancing with a hoop, ball, or drum. Clusters of children walk down the main road, Hidalgo Street, stopping to take their best shot with a wooden stick at a piñata swinging from a rope strung between balconies above the crowded street, while the parents and other children sing and clap.

And the food—oh my! The ceviche is to die for: fresh fish and shrimp mixed with spices, tomatoes, and onions; guacamole so fresh you wonder if there is an avocado tree out back; and red snapper that melts in your mouth.

Why do I continue to revisit Isla Mujeres? It’s a stress-free vacation filled with spicy flavors and fresh seafood, fine white sand that I can sink into for the whole day,  and nightly entertainment if I so desire. It’s as comfortable to me as being home, but with the addition of water—lots of water and sunshine!

Originally Published February 1st, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout