February 02, 2016

Trip o' Log

"Here palms, alpacas, and volcanoes; sun’s disks and stars; ecliptics, horns-of-plenty, and rich banners waving, are in luxuriant profusion stamped…"
--Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Saturday:  Am I really here? Can it be true I'm reading James Michener's Mexico novel on the balcony of a Cozumel inn? Is it possible that I can actually drop something and leave it on the floor (like a sock or hand towel) and not be immediately punished for it by having our pup Max steal it and take it in the yard for me to retrieve, a yard with inhumane wind chills? Yes I think it's true. I take pictures for documentation purposes. I'm not worthy.

We had time at O'Hare, so I checked out the little bookstore “Barbara's Bookstore”, originally situated in downtown Chicago, and found any number of winsome offerings, like a new history of Rome by Mary Beard and the Meachem biography of George H. W. Bush. I looked at the index of the latter to see if St. John Paul II was mentioned with respect to his opposition of the first Gulf War. I thought the pope was wrong at the time but in retrospect he seems something of a prophet. I've also wondered if George W. pointedly ignored the same pope's warning in 2003 due to writing him off as being against his father's war.

The three-hour flight to Cozumel and then land ahoy! Customs, where a dog sniffed our bags but didn't seem concerned about my dark chocolate stash. At the hotel it was love at first sight when we opened the door to our place and saw the vast two-toned ocean, green and blue. Goosebump city, the white-capped waves crashing against the walkway below.

Later I walked the beach, a rather rocky road it was. The fascinating thing to me is this looked like some of the most valuable real estate in the world - beauty untold, coast-line, mild temperatures, gorgeous Caribbean seas and yet…. there's this fascinating decadence two places down from us. A building molding and decaying, looking like the third world. From our first world hotel, a few hundred feet and: decrepitude. (Later I found out it was caused by Hurricane Wilma and they didn't have the money yet to rebuild.) 

I can understand why Detroit, a comparatively un-scenic oasis of lost hope, is what it is. But here? I can only ascribe it to the same reason that parts of Appalachia are startlingly beautiful with poverty to match: it's too inaccessible. It's too remote from developers and the money to take care of a property.


Mass at St Miguel in the same-named town. Distinctive crucifix above the altar where Christ has black, wounded knees, reminding that he fell three times on the way of the cross.

Mix of English and Spanish in a sermon on St Paul's teaching about different parts one body - very appropriate! Different languages and cultures but one body of Christ. First time I recall any English in a Mexican homily. 

Saw a elderly gentleman turn towards the line of communicants as if to hug and say hi to those whom he knew. He seemed a sweet old man with a face of brown, wrinkled leather, a throwback to the past.

How nourishing to hear these devout children of God recite the Rosary (in Spanish of course) before Mass. After awhile I appreciated the lilt of Spanish as a language, especially at calling Mary “Maria”, which sounds somehow warmer and more familial.

They were pitch perfect on the sign of peace for me: eager and initiating a handshake but not fake-smiling or pretending we weren't strangers.

Oddly, the saint statues, like Jesus to the left of the altar and St. Joseph towards the back, were encased in glass. It made the statues stand out, like precious jewels under glass. Perhaps due to fear of theft which, come to think of it, is sort of a backhanded compliment to the Faith since in America there's not exactly a big market for religious statues.

Afterward we wandered around downtown Cozumel on a delightfully sunny and warm morning. Dark-skinned, broad-nostrilled pleasant women act as street saleswomen, asking heavyset whites to check our their wares. The bright colored buildings were enlivened by Mayan hawkers; one woman sat holding the over-sized thumb of a life-sized, cartoonish Fidel Castro statue. I bought a 5-pack of Cuban cigars; she said $45, i said no. She said $35 and i said $30.  We agreed to $32. Later I impulse bought sunglasses at $10 after he started at $25. Not a good buy but I had forgotten my sunglasses at the hotel.

Lines from the hawkers to our crew:

“Everything almost free for you.”

“Come in, no one will bother you inside” (just outside, eh)

“Come on sexy momma, buy a dress, one more dress.” (Said to Steph, not me.)


Swam with the fishes which is better than sleeping with the fishes. Saw one of the bluest blue fish smiling up at me.

From Michener's novel:

    …a remarkable evocation of the cactus and the maguey as contrary symbols of the Mexican spirit. Cactus was the inclination to war and destruction. In contrast, “maguey,” he had written in a much-quoted passage, “has always been the symbol of peace and construction. From its bruised leaves our ancestors made the paper upon which our records were transcribed; its dried leaves formed the thatch for our homes; its fibers were the threads that made clothing possible; its thorns were the pins and needles our mothers used in bringing us to civilization; its white roots provided the vegetables from which we gained sustenance; and its juice became our honey, our vinegar and after a long while the wine that destroyed us with happiness and immortal visions.” Cactus, my father wrote, was the spirit of the lonely hunter; maguey was the inspiration of the artists who had built the pyramids and decorated the cathedrals. One was the male spirit so dominant in Mexican life; the other was the female, the subtle conqueror who invariably triumphed in the end.


Those cigars are burning a hole in my pocket figuratively. I'm ruffled by want of a Cuban cigar. Or more likely, knockoff Cuban.

We headed back upstairs at 5pm, me sun-burnt already. Damn Irish skin. We came to a room of order, clean and tidied. It never fails to amaze me when we come back to a room made up. It's like magic, like faeries came.


Emerald waves fading to translucence upon the shore. Walked down about 10 mins left of us and found a fabulous new snorkel trail. Strong current, so took the trail and walked back. Great numbers of fish, so many that I wondered if they were expecting a handout based on previous snorkelers. Large groups of people were starting where I did. Nice to explore some new “land” here at Cozumel. Saw electric blue fish.

Come 1pm I started thinking I should bike and Steph came along reluctantly out of a misplaced concern foe my safety. Poor does not equate to crime, especially in Cozumel.

We headed downtown on a pilgrimage to two of the other Catholic churches in town we'd not seen: Sacred Heart and Guadalupe. It was also an excuse to drink in the colorfull (literally!) local flavor. We biked past bright yellow shacks with primary-colored laundry hanging. Past many a dog, often laying flat on the street curb, the only front yard to speak of. Past a lot of Mexicans just hanging out, perhaps bereft of job. We went by two lively cantinas with loud Mexicano music. (I wanted to stop for a beer, but that was out of the question for her - Steph was as nervous as an escaped convict as it was).

We did tend to make up own rules as we went along, riding up the wrong way on one way streets out of expediency. But the locals were friendly, giving us none of the hard looks you'd see in many an urban American city, which Steph mentioned later as a big plus. 


Holistically delightful! This clime chimes!

We've found our groove. Good dreams drove out bad dreams like a reverse Gresham's law. At home, too much exercise and drink and and too little sleep. You can have two of the three and get by but not have all three for too long. 

So what a grand bargain this is, to have this rarefied treat. Listened to Neil Diamond's “Longfellow Serenade" while walking the shore, waves like white fireworks when the high surf met rock. "Wing-ed flight” (three syllables) sings the balladeer, an affectation I like but now realize it wasn't an eccentric choice since it was something Longfellow would've said and surely wrote.

After breakfast we fed the turtles out front. They'd take pieces of banana or apple but only after they sniffed them, then taking them literally out of your hand, not deigning to eat what was dropped before them.

Nice run early, 11am, direction north, to the nostalgia playlist. “Jennifer, Juniper”, “Brandy You're a Fine Girl”. My goal was to transform myself from a typically fat American to a fatly-fit American. Or fitly-fat.


Last night the Internet let us down. There are some things inaccessible even using that magic tool. Like how we heard an instrumental song from the '70s or early '80s at the restaurant, a tune tantalizingly familiar. Uncle Mark thought it was from Elton John and I pooh-poohed that notion immediately, knowing it didn't sound like Elton, even more so when he thought it came off the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album. I later played snippets of that Elton album on Youtube but found none that sounded like it. Steph really took it seriously, google searching like a mad woman, eventually finding someone who recorded himself whistling that very tune and querying listeners to “name that tune!”. But, it seemed there were no correct answers in the comments so that was a dead end street. So close and yet so far.

Mark's memory, like the 'net, also let us down. He thought they'd moved the adjacent-to-us thatch hut and chairs much closer to us. But Steph recalled that area from last time, how there was a topless woman there and how she couldn't have seen it had this woman been where Mark thought they were.

(Later): The Internet taketh away, the Internet giveth. That whistled tune DID have a comment/guess which we initially thought was wrong but turned out to be right: the piano exit of Layla by Derek and the Dominoes. Didn't sound anything like beginning of Layla, hence the cognitive dissonance. It's a vacation miracle!


Well today is tragically cloudy, if one can use that oxymoronic phrase. But warm and not too windy so beach-ish weather. Weather reports here are laughable; “partly sunny” is a stone's throw from “all cloudy” I guess. It's like a box of chocolates, you never know what you'll get. But, like chocolates, delightful no matter the variety.

Two fine snorkel trips, second one with down to the start of trail ten minutes away. Again saw a large order of magnitude more fish down there; just blissful to float with the current and enjoy this underwater zoo. Learned a damselfish is the beauty I saw yesterday, the one with a field of pale stars against a deep blue body.


Read some of the Fr Barron's commentary on 2 Samuel (say as “two Samuel” in the hot new Trump parlance). Read out of duty, it not feeling particularly beach lit escapist. 

But inspired to learn that we are about 40-50 yards from the spot where Hernan Cortez celebrated the first Mass in Mexico (three years shy of exactly 500 years ago – what a difference a few hundred years makes!). The first-hand account of this first Mass, by Bernal Diaz:

"The island of Cozumel, it seems, was a place to which the Indians made pilgrimages…They burnt a species of resin, which very much resembled our incense, and as such a sight was so novel to us we paid particular attention to all that went forward. Upon this an old man, who had on a wide cloak and was a priest, mounted to the very top of the temple, and began preaching something to the Indians.

    "We were all very curious to know what the purport of this sermon was, and Cortes desired Melchorego to interpret it to him. Finding that all he had been saying tended to ungodliness, Cortes ordered the caziques, with the principal men among them and the priest, into his presence, giving them to understand, as well as he could by means of our interpreter, that if they were desirous of becoming our brethren they must give up sacrificing to these idols, which were no gods but evil beings, by which they were led into error and their souls sent to hell. He then presented them with the image of the Virgin Mary and a cross, which he desired them to put up instead.

    "The priests answered, that their forefathers had prayed to their idols before them, because they were good gods, and that they were determined to follow their example. Adding, that we should experience what power they possessed; as soon as we had left them, we should certainly all of us go to the bottom of the sea.

    "Cortes, however, took very little heed of their threats, but commanded the idols to be pulled down, and broken to pieces; which was accordingly done without any further ceremony. He then ordered a quantity of lime to be collected, which is here in abundance, and with the assistance of the Indian masons a very pretty altar was constructed, on which we placed the image of the holy Virgin. At the same time two of our carpenters, Alonso Yaiiez and Alvaro Lopez made a cross of new wood which lay at hand, this was set up in a kind of chapel, which we built behind the altar. After all this was completed, father Juan Diaz said mass in front of the new altar, the caziques and priests looking on with the greatest attention."


It already feels like it's been awhile since that first gasp when we got to the room and walked out on the balcony. Water spreadin' out so far and wide, to paraphrase the theme from Green Acres. Wonderful to be able to drink in this view, no pun intended, for a week.

This morning I thought about how I could replicate some of the meditative silence and rest I feel in the mornings here to mornings at home. But I immediately remembered our puppies at home and thought, “what am I thinking!?” 

My Mexico reading includes Manana Forever, thus far a look at the strongly individualistic tendencies of Mexicans. I also want a more micro look: to read more about Cortes in Cozumel, and I found The True History of Cozumel via Kindle and that looks promising.

Intro to another Cozumel history book:
“There was a time when people accepted the proposition that our souls were so precious and beautiful that the devil would do anything to lead us astray in order to deprive God of the precious beauty of our souls.”

(Later): Well we stepped outside our comfortable beach routine and hired a driver named Gerry, an older gent, for four hours. A good time was had by all.

We started with a bang: a tequila tasting tour at the sharp-looking museum/shop that had opened last week, starring our host, a manic man named Manuel. He's a great fit for the job, personable, fast-talking, a jokester. Married three times with “seven kids, none of whom are my own.”

He showed us examples of the magical agave plant, which carries within it all the ingredients for tequila. God's gift to the Mexican people, no doubt. (Later I would notice one of their tequilas is named "Regalo de Dios", meaning Gift of God.) 

The tasting room was large and consisted of handsome wood glass-backed shelves of the fancily bottled tequilas.

We tested four kinds, from the clear liquid used for mixed drinks to the rich dark amber of the 11-yr vintage which Manny calls the “me, myself and I” drink, it being too expensive to share ($189 a bottle!) it went down smooth as silk, without the kick of whiskey. “If you use this in a mixed drink I will come over the border and shoot you!”

After that rousing tour we headed back to the van for the longish drive to Punta Sur Eco beach on the southern tip of the isle. There we climbed 133 steps to the top of the lighthouse, took a tour with a very locquacious guide who talked Mayan history and was obviously proud of his heritage, took photos of Steph with “Cozumel chickens” (parrots) taking a seed from her mouth, learned from the tour guide that sea turtles mate for 28 straight days and lose a lot of weight in the process due to skipping eating, learned the old bell above of was bartered for liquor during America's Prohibition (and then heard the same story inexplicably relayed to Gerry in Spanish - I think this guy thought he got paid by the word, no matter the language.) 

Then back to the beach to snorkel, where I saw a German shepherd gracefully paddling in the water towards his master, and a bottom-camo'd ray, busy burying himself in the sand.

Saw what sure looked like a barracuda, and tried to chase it. Like swimming in a giant aquarium. So many fish! Saw one who looks like he got beat with the ugly stick.


This unreal life, lived unreally. Temperatures with numbers in the vicinity of decent golf scores.


Ahhh….morning sun. A rare and enviable bird this time of year.  We've fallen into the leisurely, loverly mornings: up by 7:30, coffee on balcony till 9, breakfast, then to beach. With a “feed the turtles” interlude for the fellow 'cationers.

Dinners at 6pm, breakfast at 9am. No lunch other than peanut butter sometimes. Works well and maximizes reading opportunities.

I like this much better than cruising if only because it's so much easier to find a spot to lay out. Much more sustainable as far as having privacy here and being able to get into a rhythm.  This is pretty much the beach vacation ideal; hard to believe we skipped seven years before returning.  It's soooo much more interesting scenery-wise; San Miguel is much more explore-worthy than any beach vacation. And the snorkeling.  And even those Mariachi singers, I'll miss them and their happy-go-lucky tunes.


I've collected six journal entries down here and fear (accurately) the cumulative effect will soon lead to the end of my vacation. Studies show that the more days you've expended on a given vacation the sooner it will end. Sadness.

A rum-runner today! Wondrously ingenious concoction, by george and great scott. A tropical-hued drink to match the picturesque doors of downtown San Miguel. The greatest drink of all time. Or maybe that's just the rum-runner talking. A tautology? 


I dream of a world in which Donald Trump skips a debate and it's a three-sentence story at the end of section A. I dream big, yes I do.


Last day, day last. A sobering 127 days till next vacation but who's counting?

I always feel on the cusp of a deep and insightful revelation while on vacation, something that if I just had a couple more days I could learn, but it's probably simply the revelation that I like vacations. So shallow. 

But I feel an almost chemical attraction to this gulf green water and brine-tossed wind. I'm going to miss it and now wonder, dumbly, if I spent enough time this week just staring at the waters. At least I have photos, methadone for the coming cold turkey.

Speaking of, I'm reading this book on the US heroin epidemic and it's fascinating if only because addicts take the pleasure principle to its far and grievous end point. Just as money doesn't buy happiness (witness the carnage of many Hollywood lives), so too drugs fail in their promise to put you in a place of endless bliss. Porn stars aren't any happier than those who get far less sex. There's just no “there” there despite the empty promise. We aren't designed, physically or metaphysically, to slake ourselves on pleasure. Including vacation pleasure. Not to mention how the addict is utterly unproductive and cannot help his fellow man given the obstacle of his fix. He is the least free of anyone, another example of freedom being conditioned upon self-control.

So I take pleasure in the fact that pleasure isn't all it's cracked up to be.

From the Dreamland book: "Levine had never forgotten the first rapturous feeling he got from heroin back in the 1960s. But through the years that followed, he also never felt that high again."

And yet, of course, he revisited the drug endless times.

In a way it reminded me of how Mother Teresa received the “drug” of a vision of God and consolations in the 1950s, before the long, dry period ensued. And yet she obviously stayed ever faithful to God, which is why Fr. James Martin calls her the greatest saint of all time. 

So I guess we're neither built physiologically nor intended for long-term euphoric pleasure in this life. (A startlingly obvious observation but there you go.)

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