I should be writing about a dive trip to the Philippines right now. Instead I am holed up in my house, recovering from surgery as the outside world has descended quickly into total chaos. I have decided that with the extra time I suddenly have on my hands, I will go back and write about some of my travels from before I started Birds of the Air. So far I’m finding it fun to revisit old memories, and see how much my photography has improved over the past seven years. This will be my first throwback post. There may be more, there may not. It totally depends on my mood going forward. I have also started journaling during this time. At first I started to document the recovery process from my accident and injury, and as COVID 19 has gripped the globe, journaling has felt more and more therapeutic to me. I may write about my accident at some point too, even though it is far removed from my usual content. Right now, I’m not really ready to do that yet, and I plan to be putting out positive posts about happier times.
Sometimes life doesn’t go like you think it will. 2020 is shaping up to be one of those years where you wonder if maybe you ticked off some evil ghosts when you were traipsing around ancient Egyptian tombs last spring. In this time where nothing seems to be going right, I am reminded of a trip where so much went wrong that we started joking that we must have accidentally bought a cursed talisman from the tourist market. Despite the myriad of mishaps, which included one of our friends landing in the hospital, I have nothing but fond memories of our long weekend exploring the shores and jungles of Quintana Roo, Mexico.
It was November 2014 when Vince and many of his coworkers were sent to Querétaro, Mexico for a week of learning at one of their company’s sister sites. After their official business was over, some of them planned to spend a few days relaxing in Cancún before flying home. While I was not involved in the business side of this trip at all, Vince and I had enough points to fly me down to Mexico for the fun part. And so, twenty-four-year-old me boarded a plane bound for Dallas alone. I had scarcely flown in my life, and this was my first time flying alone, and my first time flying internationally. It’s crazy to think about now, but I was extremely nervous about the whole affair.
When I landed for my layover in Dallas, I turned on my phone to find that it had been flooded with messages that the group was extremely late for their flight out of Mexico City, and might not make it to our hotel in Cancún until the following day. I spent my layover frantically texting Vince about the situation. I had no idea what I would do if I arrived in Mexico and found myself totally alone, but I was already past the point of no return. I was one leg into my journey, and my only option was to board my next flight and hope to see some familiar faces when I landed.
It was dark by the time my next flight landed in Cancún, where I got my first ever passport stamp. I had no further word from anyone in the group about whether they had made their flight, but I managed to get to the domestic terminal to wait and hope for their arrival. To my great relief, they had made it. The next half hour was a frenzy of everyone filling me in on their ordeal as we loaded into a shuttle bus. Traffic is Mexico City had been abysmal, and they made it into the airport around the time that their flight was supposed to depart. They lost all of their liquids because they didn’t have time to check bags. One of them even jumped completely through security because it was taking too long, and then they all sprinted to their terminal just in time to get on their plane.
By the time we were all caught up, we were at our resort, the Grand Oasis Cancún. This was one of the cheaper all-inclusives on the strip, and we would soon find out why. The check-in process was a bit of a mess, but eventually we all made it to our rooms. That’s when Andrew and James discovered that they hadn’t received the arrangements they had booked (their room had one king instead of two queens). They were moved to an entirely different building and had to deal with their air conditioner leaking and flooding their room for the rest of the trip.
But small inconveniences weren’t enough to put a damper on our trip. The next morning, we woke up ready to spend a relaxing day at the resort. We hung out at the beach, ate at a few of the resort’s many restaurants, and enjoyed its quarter-mile long pool. It was an uneventful day, until we found out that a couple of our friends’ credit cards had been stolen from their room. In case you’re keeping track, this brings the curse count up to three.
Still, we were unperturbed. We were planning to have fun, and that’s what we were going to do. The next morning, eight of us got up early to catch the ferry to Isla Mujeres, a small island that lies 13 km off the coast of Cancún. After the short ferry ride, we made arrangements to rent a golf cart and a couple of scooters for the day. These would help us get around the small island easily.
In addition to this being my first trip where I flew alone, this was also my first international trip where I planned the activities for everyone. I had put an embarrassing amount of research into Isla Mujeres, so I knew that there was a beach near the south side of the island where we could spend some time snorkeling. With that in mind, we puttered south, packing the little golf cart to its five person limit.
The weather was beautiful, the sun was shining, and we were all in high spirits as we arrived at Garrafón de Castilla. We paid the entry fee of 60 pesos per person, and started exploring. The beach was crawling with iguanas, which monopolized a lot of my attention initially.
But with the day growing hotter, even iguanas couldn’t distract me from the turquoise, Caribbean waters for long.
Soon we had all donned our snorkel gear, and were floating in the beautiful water, chasing fish around a small reef. At this point in my life I had only been snorkeling a handful of times, and had never been diving yet, so I was thrilled with everything we saw in the water.
It was a fun morning at the beach, but we did manage to bring the curse count up to four as Bonnie got stung by a jellyfish and cut herself on something sharp in the water.
Within a few hours we were all feeling relaxed, if not slightly sunburned, and we decided to move on and see a little more of the island. We hopped back on the road and drove the short distance to Punta Sur, a sculpture park atop staggering sea cliffs on the southernmost tip of Isla Mujeres. Punta Sur is also known as Cliff of the Dawn because it is the easternmost point in Mexico, and therefore sees the sunrise first every morning.
At the time, I had never seen anything like Punta Sur before. We stood on the cliffs looking down at beautiful, blue waves crashing against the rocks far below us. Then we walked along the cliffside to a small ruin right at the edge of the island. There, we found a pathway that led down the bottom of the cliff. The rock face was covered in sea shells that must have been driven into the stones by the force of the waves.
Everyone was weary of being out in the hot sun by the time we finished exploring Punta Sur. Some of us were waiting by the golf cart while a few people lagged behind. That is when Bonnie decided she wanted to try driving one of the two scooters we had rented. Before she had even driven a few feet, the scooter toppled, landing directly on her leg. She was fine save for a small cut and a big bruise, but the scooter was scratched and Bonnie ended up having to pay for the damage. Curse Count: Five.
After grabbing dinner at a restaurant near the famous Playa Norte, we caught the ferry back to the mainland. Vince and I went into the city that evening and did some shopping before meeting up with his dad. At the time, his dad lived in Colorado, but as luck would have it, he happened to be vacationing in Cancún at the exact same time as us. We caught up over margaritas, then called it a night.
The third morning of our trip started before dawn as we piled into a huge tour bus bound for the ancient city of Chichén Itzá. I may have been new to international travel, but I already knew what to expect from a big tour like this. I had wanted to rent a car and drive to the ruins on our own, but with the number of people in our group, it would have been a logistical nightmare. Almost from the moment we boarded the bus, our guide was trying to sell us souvenirs. We could get our names written on a scroll in Mayan, and we simply had to buy all of our souvenirs from the shop where they planned to take us, and not at the actual ruins. The bus ride was very long, so there was plenty of time to nap whenever our guide wasn’t talking about Mayan history or trying to sell us something.
We ended up finally arriving at Chichén Itzá around midday, and the heat was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. Although the city is surrounded by dense jungle, the site itself has been clear cut, so there is nothing to protect visitors from the intense tropical sun. Since I had never been anywhere that was so hot, and I wasn’t quite prepared for how much energy extreme heat can suck out of you. A mere two years later, I would discover that there are actually hotter places out there when I travelled to Cartagena, Colombia.
Although the heat was extreme, nothing could temper the excitement as we gazed at one of the wonders of the world. The pyramid of Kukulkan is of course the first place your eyes land when you enter the city. How could you miss it? It towers above the rest of the area, dwarfing all of the other ruins by comparison. The pyramid was not the first stop on our tour though. Our guide led us over to the ball court first, and taught us about the ancient game, Pok-a-Tok.
He then led us to the Temple of the Warriors. Along the way, he pointed out some interesting carvings.
After a short talk near the temple, our guide set us loose for a couple hours of free time to explore at our own pace. We all scattered, and began poking around the ruins. I thought the back of the pyramid was interesting because you could clearly see where stones had been borrowed in order to restore the front to its former glory.
We walked slowly because of the heat, ducking into the shade cover of the jungle along the city’s perimeter. In the shade, there were seemingly endless tables of vendors selling cheap souvenirs. Vince and I bought a small Mayan calendar that hangs in our house to this day. When we were ready to brave the sun again, we found two of my favorite ruins, El Caracol (the observatory) and La Iglesia (the church).
Once our time at Chichén Itzá was up, we piled back onto the bus, more than ready for our next stop, Cenote Ik Kil. This deep sink hole filled with water would be the perfect place to swim and cool off after the sunny ruins.
We had a buffet lunch once we arrived at the cenote, and then we were set free to descend the carved steps into the cave and take a swim.
The water was refreshing and beautiful. Long vines hung from the ceiling of the cave, which was open to the jungle above. Little catfish circled in the clear water below us. I felt incredibly peaceful as I floated on my back, gazing up at the greenery spilling into the cenote. All-in-all it was a wonderful end to the tour.
Our tour to Chichén Itzá had gone off without incident, and I was beginning to think that maybe we had broken the curse as I drifted off to sleep on the bus ride back to the resort. Little did I know what the next afternoon would bring.
Our only plan for the following day was to relax at the resort, and we spent the morning on the beach, and then moved onto the massive swimming pool. Our major goal for the day was to get a drink at every single one of the pool’s swim-up bars. Since the pool was a quarter-mile long, we knew this would take up a good amount of time. The drinks were insanely weak, it was more akin to drinking juice than alcohol, so we managed to make it to every bar without even feeling drunk. This wasn’t a problem though; we were having a great time goofing off and enjoying each other’s company. That is, until James came down with a bad case of heartburn and went back to his room to get some antacid.
The rest of us went about our day, and made sure to relay our dinner plans to James so he could meet back up with us. Unfortunately, when he appeared at the restaurant, it was obvious that he was feeling even worse. As the hours passed, his condition only worsened, and eventually we all came to the decision that he should go to the hospital. Vince and Andrew went with him, and Bonnie, Amy and I stayed behind.
It took hours for the guys to return, and when they did, James was not with them. Vince and Andrew explained that his heartburn was actually pericarditis, an inflammation of the heart lining. James was going to be fine, but he could not fly home with the rest of us the next day. Although this wasn’t the best news, we were relieved that he was going to be ok. The curse had finally taken out one of our ranks in this sixth and final incident of bad luck. The only thing we could do was high-tail it back to Michigan, one man down.
The next morning, Bonnie, Amy, and I collected a couple of coconuts from the grounds of the resort. We had been talking about trying to open one and drink the coconut water, and we wanted to give it a try before we left. As it turns out, coconuts are incredibly difficult to open if you don’t happen to have a machete with you. We tried dropping them from the top floor of the hotel, but that didn’t work. Eventually Amy managed to pry the husks off of them. One of them was cracked open already, so we passed it around and drank its water, but the other one was still whole. Lacking any tools with which to break it open, we instead found a marker and everyone signed it. We then brought it to the hospital and left it with James as a get well soon (and sorry we’re leaving you in a hospital in Mexico) gift. Legend has it, he managed to get the coconut through customs when he reentered the US.
We said our goodbyes to James, and then caught a cab to the airport with a final curse count of six. Despite everything that had gone wrong on the trip, we’d managed to have an amazing time. We had a litany of new inside jokes that we still laugh about years later, and I had learned some valuable lessons that still carry with me to this day when I’m traveling. One of them is to always do your research. Vince and I managed to avoid having anything stolen from our room because I had researched the resort beforehand, and knew that many guests had experienced theft. We made sure to pay for the room safe when we arrived, and left all of our valuables in it. Perhaps even more important though, is to roll with the punches. Every trip, no matter how well-planned, has the potential for something to go horribly wrong. It’s better to accept that eventuality ahead of time, and make sure that you don’t let small hiccups get you down. In the end, the mishaps often make the best stories anyway.