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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fish out of water

I'm here in Florida with my Dad during what is the end of his life. Just that. I'm staying at the home he shared with Mom for the last several years, prior to her death. It's both comforting and unsettling to be here alone with many of the things of the past. I've been going through photos, reliving many experiences while I talk to Dad, before they fade from him as well.
When I was 12 I'd never been out of the country. My uncle worked on a Iowa/Yucatan farmers exchange program. Because of that, we had the opportunity to visit Merida, and spend time with a wonderful family, the Vaqueros. During the holidays, as a bonus. They had kids close to my age. Merida is a very old city, and full of things that interested me, cool old buildings, a public market, traditional restaurants. But the best thing about the hotel was the bar/restaurant across the street. It was owned by a Lebanese family, and served Middle Eastern food, along with local canned beer which was always brought with lime and salt. My parents continued that tradition long after our return.
Along with the drinks, there was hummus, dolmas, chickpea salad, all kinds of Mezzes which were gratis. Consequently, we went there a lot. We also frequented a place that had the best Arroz Con Pollo I've had to this day. A trend was started there. Our orders came haphazardly. One of us, then 15 minutes later a couple more, and then.... My Dad was always, and I mean always last. And FYI, not the Prince of Patience he...
We got to experience Christmas with the Vaqueros. Tradition in Yucatan for Christmas Eve is that everyone in the neighborhood lays out a spread of food that would make a Roman banquet look like prison fare. Then all of the families go to each house, hang out, sing, eat, visit. I was up later that night than I had ever been in my life. Senora Vaquero was a fantastic hostess. I spoke little Spanish at the time, other than the counting I learned from Sesame Street, and when we arrived she took both of my hands in hers, as she did with all of the guests, and welcomed me with a heartfelt speech that I didn't understand. I didn't need to.
We were also invited to a wedding of the Vaquero family friends. The reception was definitely one of the biggest parties I've ever been to. The waiters were so spot on that as soon as your glass was empty, another full one appeared as if by magic. The adults got VERY happy. I had hardly danced in my life at that point, but the second youngest son, who was so handsome I had an instantaneous crush on him and his best friend, would not accept no for an answer. I was cajoled, in Spanish, and ended up have one of the best times of my life.
We took a side trip to Cozumel. I kid you not, there were only two hotels on the island then. The El Presidente, which was very chi-chi, and The Hotel Barracuda, where we stayed. The curse of the hunger pangs continued with my Dad here, as there was only one restaurant on the island. I continually ordered chicken enchiladas Suiza, and he continued to grit his teeth and wait. At the time, you could only rent a moped, or a Volkswagen Thing. The round trip is oh, roughly less than a score of miles, and it's rough terrain. We chose The Thing. I have never seen so many Iguanas in my life. We stopped at a beautiful lagoon, and went snorkeling. Cozumel had crystal clear, turquoise water. I got a mood ring for Christmas, which I ruined about a week later climbing the rocks near the lagoon on Cozumel, when a big wave splashed over me. Mom was pissed. You can see for hundreds of feet, or it did at the time. Magical.
Then there was the Barracuda incident.
My Uncle Bill and I were swimming at the little beach by our hotel. I had my mask on, what do I see? BARRACUDA. I told him, just look, dip your head down, there they are...My Dad, who of course can read me like a book, started giggling. Bill was nonplussed. NAH... My Dad shouts "Bill, if she tells you there are big toothy fish in your vicinity, THERE ARE BIG TOOTHY FISH IN YOUR VICINITY...
Something y'all should know, Bill had MS that was in remission, but one paralyzed leg. Still, in a feet don't fail me now moment, I've never seen him move so fast. My Dad fell out of his beach chair. Bill left a flip flop behind in the melee, then he fell over laughing. He is gone now, and I miss him like crazy.
The visit to Uxmal was a defining moment in my life. We had to arrive late, in the dark, as there was a light and sound show. There was one other spot in the area, where the family stopped. A hotel with a bar of course, and we waited out the time there, and then headed over. There was a hindrance, a long climb up steps of the ruins, lit by bare bulbed garage light. My Mom complained a lot. We got to the top , and were seated.
What enfolded was BRILLIANT! Deep, Scary, Quetzocoatil, sacrifice, myth.
When we stood up, and our eyes adjusted to the low light, welll, we were on the ege of a 100 foot drop or so. My Mom about had a stroke. Again, good times...
Chichen Itza. I had no idea. The car was due at 9am, it arrived at 11. As we walked out we observed that the guys that brought it were desperately wiring the tail pipe back in place. I would say the drive to Chichen Itza was about two hours, and as soon as we left the city, we discovered that the horn on the car only worked if the headlights were on. All the way out into ever increasing remote country, guys in trucks kept leaning out of the driver's window and pointing at the headlights. My Dad was eventually like, yeah, yeah, I see you, whatever. We passed many, many traditional white washed adobe houses with dirt floors and hammocks, I was fascinated. We stopped at a cemetery. It had the most beautiful elaborate and colorful headstones I have ever seen, Goth in training, I loved it.
In the interest of full disclosure, when we left Merida, we ran a stop sign, and were pulled over by a motorcycle cop. It was Mom, Dad, me, and my two cousins. Mom and Dad are the original members of the martini and Frank Sinatra crowd. Driving was my cousin Tom, and his girlfriend at the time, Kate. Really seriously cool people. This was in 1975, and they were serious hippies. Tom handed the cop his license, and at the bottom it said "not valid for motorcycles". The cop said, "NO MOTORCYCLES!!! and put the license in his uniform pocket. Then he motioned us to follow him. As Tom pulled out and followed him, I kid you not, my Dad looked at me and said "We're gonna rot in a Mexican prison".
After we went a few blocks the cop stopped us and came back, and handed the license to Tom. and motioned us forward. To this day, we postulate why. He felt sorry for us? He wanted a bribe? Dunno. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
So, Chichen Itza. One of the coolest places I'd ever been. Our guide was very knowledgeable, and being a somewhat goth and gruesome girl even at that age was fascinated by his stories of those that lost the ball game and lost their heads. The acoustics there are amazing, He demonstrated this by having all of us stand at one end of the field, and then talking in a normal voice we could hear him. He told us that the opposing Kings wanted to hear each other. I went up the pyramid of the Sun. 99 steps, tiny steps. Not hard going up, Hell coming down. We went to the Temple of the Warriors, covered in skull relief, which of course appealed to me, grim and serious at the same time. Every one of the skulls is an enemy, or a warrior down.
On the way back, late in the day, the tiny, tiny town there was mostly empty. We needed gas. There were some local kids sitting on the arch of the entrance of the ruins, and my Dad was like "Petrol? Petrol?" They pointed us to an ancient Quanset Hut. We pulled up and a guy appeared out of nowhere. In my life, a few times, I've seen things that remind me how easy I've had it. Butter in fresh churned churned chunks in England, for instance. I've ever seen butter not in a stick in my life. This man took the biggest funnel I have ever seen, stuck it in the gas tank, filled what looked like a milk jug form a 50 gallon drum with gas, and poured it in. I loved the whole day.
The last thing that happened on that trip, we were all sitting at the little beach in back of the hotel on Cozumel, packed, ready to leave. I saw something bright and shining pink in the water, took off. Mom was like, "WHAT ARE  YOU DOING?" I waded out, and my jeans were crusty with saltwater the whole flight home, but I retrieved the most beautiful Conch Shell. I still have it.