I travel whenever I am afforded the opportunity. Good for the mind, good for the soul, travel can teach a great deal about life. It makes plain the common elements of man. It can reveal the colorful fancy of culture. Sometimes, as was the case with my year 2000 trip to Cozumel, it can expose the intricate and delicate fabric of the heart. All of its fear, all of its hope, all of its simple dreaming.
Looking back, the trip evokes so many differing images, snapshots filled alternately by peaceful remembrance of that tranquil island, and by the haunting revisiting of a near-death experience there. These memories are complex for me now, and I focus more on sorting and categorizing them, searching them for meaning, than I do simply recalling them.
My friend Justin was the mastermind behind the trip that was to become, we were quite sure, the “time of our lives.” Eight of us would depart for the Caribbean, our itentions being simple…to take over the island. With the proper respect and reverence due, of course, no matter where the road may take you. But there could be no mistake. With this eclectic and so very hungry for fun crew, we would get what we had coming. Deliverance. Release from the mundane, colorless, dreary repetition of daily life. We would take a stand, stake our claim, and for at least a brief moment, consume all of life’s offerings.
So on the second day of the new millienium, Justin, Jenny, Scratch, Tony, Jessica, Corey, Travis and I arrived in “The Land of the Swallows.” Instantly transported into a world that held no boundaries for us and required nothing of our time.
The colors of this place engulf you, from the impossibly blue of the waters to the red, orange and yellow stuccos of nearly all the island’s buildings. The skyscrapers and strip malls that dominate our homeland would not be missed. The one-story attitude here brings peace with simplicity. Relax, have a drink, and have no worries, my friend. This place spoke to me all along the day. And while I cannot offer any literal summarized translation of what it said, I’m quite sure I understood perfectly.
For the first several days of the journey, our activities followed the same basic routine. I would awake before the others and immediately depart for the eastern side of San Miguel, Cozumel’s only city. This is where I went to be alone with my thoughts, and to also see firsthand how people here really live. Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke provided a perfect soundtrack for my early morning venturing. These little island ghettos are sleepy in the morning, but I was wide awake here. The sun burned so brightly, took hold so completely of your spirit, left you drenched but still dry in the heat. I’d wander until I had my fill, then head back toward our modest hotel. My friends, just collecting their tired wits, might be enjoying a slow breakfast or perhaps just relaxing. We’d take a taxi to the beach, and spend the whole afternoon drifting. We’d snorkel, play, drink, eat, laugh….waste the day away. Only nothing felt wasted. If felt like time perfectly spent.
In the evening, things got a little bit (re: a lot) funny. Each night, we’d dance until dawn, never tiring, or at least that’s how it seemed. Considering the motion and the drink and the occasional valium (just to take the edge off!), it now strikes me as a miracle we could pull off such feats. We’d dance with folks from around the globe, or at least the continent, all without pause or discretion. The cliquish, self-absorbed mentality of American nightlife was nonexistent here. We were all on holiday baby!
After three days of unparalleled revelry, we hit a wall. Our spirits remained high, but it was clear we all needed rest. And not just eight hours, mind you, I mean a full day of unimpeded, uninterrupted relaxation. We knew the next day we’d be renting two jeeps and heading for the eastern side of the island. Which could only mean one thing—more trouble. More beaches, more drink, more howling like voracious wolves. Definitely needed rest for this. We geared up.
Pasqual, our local connection for as he put it “anything you need” would be our go-between in acquiring our jeeps. After a lengthy and frustrating round of bopping from dealer to dealer, place to place, we got what we asked for. Except our Jeeps were Geo Trackers. We offered some mild resistance, but soon were satisfied to set out in two tiny little freedom finders. We took the only west-to-east road the island offers, and when we reached the east coast, everything took a turn for the…different. This side of Cozumel is much more picturesque than its more popular and populous side (where scuba predominates). Large waves and sweetest white sand roll endlessly on the coastal side, while thick brambly jungle dominates the inward side. There was an immediate shift in mood when we reached this deserted (never inhabited?) paradise. What we were all seeing was beyond description. Glory. Now, I profess no affiliation with any standardized God, but I must admit that in this place I could feel—well, not really feel—but readily conceive such a presence.
If it is just a glowing orb of blissed-out power. If it is an idea based purely in the mind. If it is exactly what my Mother claims it to be. If it is true, her God is smiling when he thinks of this place. While I pondered these scraps of existence and our aging bodies, it became apparent to me that this, in and of itself, devoid of any supposedly necessary consciousness of it, was God. As far as I could actually know, or see with my own eyes, this was the heart of creation. I could live with that.
We cruised on a while, then slowed our vehicles to a gap in the brush where there was a lone ramshackle “store” and a makeshift parking lot. We were unable to deny the water any longer. The name of the place was Playa Bonita, the “beautiful beach” if you speak the English. Upon stopping, an ancient local rushed to greet us, offering us a spot to park if we would only have a quick look at his wares. I noticed the same tightly woven, multi-colored Mexican blanket I sought for days. He told me it would be fourteen U.S. dollars, a fantastic price by the island’s standards, but I wasn’t carrying much cash and had many beers to purchase. I told him ten, and he snorted back that no, that just wouldn’t do.
Tony, Justin and I sped down the steep embankment toward the surf, tearing off t-shirts as ran boy-like. Manically we shook off shoes and sandals and rushed toward the sea. Playfully, we bobbed up and down in the waves. We dove under five footers, rode the tops of six footers, laughed casually at four footers.
I had not observed the danger signs as had my friends, but had I, it would have mattered little. I was an excellent swimmer. I had spent my life in Weaver Lake. I had been in the ocean before. No problems. No worries.
After a span of careless exultation, I decided to head back in to shore. I turned to ask Tony if he cared to do the same, and that is when I saw the ocean had taken me to another place. While the water had been up to my thighs, my belly at best, I could no longer touch the sand below me. The water that so simply, albeit powerfully, had moved straight in to and straight out from shore, now moved in a violent circle. The rhythmic nature of the waves was no more. The spirits were no longer playful. I pushed and pushed and stroked but didn’t advance an inch! My breath became only a spastic…staccato…attempt at control. I was panicking. With my back to the sea I couldn’t see the waves bearing down. Whoosh! Over my head, and into my stomach and lungs the salt water mixed.
I screamed to Justin, whom I could now see on shore. “Help me! I can’t get in! I can’t!” I implored him to come help me, but much smaller than I, and having just come through some of the same surf, he called out that he could not. He implored me to swim parallel to shore, and I saw him making dramatic gestures with his arms, directing where I should swim. Physically I heard the words, understood them, but they took no purchase in my mind. My rationality had expired with my strength, cleanly washed away by terror. My only instinct: go directly to shore. I thrashed at the waves, palsy-like, but the best I could do wouldn’t. Over and over and again the waves flooded into my mouth. The tide roared powerfully around me, muffling the admonitions of my friend on shore.
By now my muscles were spent, aching, useless, and I began to consider simply giving up. Oh, sweet, peaceful giving up–the most divine of feelings. I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes, and there was no tunnel. I would die here, so close to my friends, and although this seemed confusing, it did not strike me in the remotest way as tragic. The glorious peace of the fun and the sea would never be lost on account of my tiny struggle. I did picture my Mother getting the news that something had gone tragically wrong, and although I knew this was sad, I understood deeply that it was just life, and it wouldn’t stop the sun shining. I was ready, as in our time we all must be. This was good.
As I mechanically thrashed, my friend Tony made his way to shore and down the beach to where Justin stood. Upon hearing of my plight, he came immediately for me. When he reached me he admonished me over and again to breathe, no matter what breathe! “I can’t!” He took hold my hand, and we both struggled, kicking and thrashing our free arms. He told me he would not leave this place without me. Beaten by the waves, ready to leave a useless body, and so full with this water, I told him dead-eyed “I’m not going in.” Tony pulled and fought, but my muscles were dead, with no oxygen, no food.
I remember exactly what he looked like, the wholly determined expression on his face, his long arm pulling so purposefully. Finally, Tony’s toes found the sand beneath us. We would move in a foot to be pushed back three. In a foot, back out. Then, both of our feet touched the sand. I would not die today.
Still I needed his hand to calm my shaken soul. As we walked painfully through more shallow waves, my head began to throb, what seemed a thousand hammers pounding fresh blood into the brain. The adrenaline that had been my only solo chance would now make me pay. You cannot expend so much of yourself and simply walk away. Minutes later I broke down, crying. Justin by my side, I realized how I had accepted my coming death. It frightened me to think how easy the decision seemed, though obviously, it was made under extreme duress. From the time Tony came to the time I would have ceased fighting would have been measured in seconds. My friend had saved my life. Salvatore.
After spending a few minutes composing myself, we gathered up our things and headed back to the Trackers. We reached the peddler’s stand, and there he was blanket in hand. He said only “Give me the money.” This struck me as great irony. When I had no strength, will, or desire left to haggle, the prize I was after would be mine, and at my price. I gave him the cash, we headed south, and my life began once again.
All through the day, and the rest of the week, my eyes would meet Tony’s. I could see in his a measure of fear, a definite compassion, but most of all an understanding that we had seen the same exact thing, the fragility of these shells of body. The futility of our scrawny muscles against the raw, undiluted, insane power of billions of gallons of water, unified in its plan–only to keep on moving…always. Responding to no consequence, and intent on delivering a thousand dreams of peaceful meditation, and a thousand lessons in nature as the King. When I would see my friend’s eyes, so full and yet somehow scared and hollow, we would embrace, as brothers might, and hang on until we were whole again.
The next day I needed solitude. I would sit by the ocean, and explore what was learned. It came in the form of a poem, and in my analysis, a frightening aspect was revealed. I hesitate to call it a wish, but in the writing the theme came through. Had I wanted it to end differently? Could it have been a wish too real to come true? In that ocean I struggled, fought, but there was also an eerie calm and realization that either way, everything moves on and will be okay. Maybe it was the proverbial calm in the eye of the storm. Or perhaps it was simply the exhaustion that would have made it so easy to give up. With that reality, I gave my respect to the sea, and found myself lucky to see the new day.
Since I returned home, my world seems a little less dreary, a little less colorless. I know those colors remain in my mind, my heart, and also down on that island. They also remain brilliant in the colors of my blanket. A funny thing, that blanket. It has taken on great significance. Makes sense I guess considering it was purchased at the beautiful beach. But often times when I’m trying to get to sleep, I revisit the events of that day. Inevitably I end up tossed around once again in the surf, I can taste the salt in my system, my heart beats faster, and sleep is not so easily mine. I have entertained that the blanket itself induces such visions. That it covers me not with warmth, but with hot shock, fear, and anguish. Some nights, I even discard it, tossing it with relief off to the side of the bed. Confusing to be sure. Silly to be honest.
I wrestle with the fact that the colors disappear in the darkness. If they cease to be, even until morning, what can I make of their influence? But the thing is, I know they are there, even while I sleep.