I first visited Isla Mujeres when I was fifteen years old.My Uncle Don Phelan—-one of the many “Uncles” I’ve been blessed to have in my life—-bought a small casa on the Caribbean side across from the Navy base. This little, one bedroom casita is home to so many memories with friends and loved ones. My family returned many times over my teenage years, and as an adult I began to venture to the island on my own. Something kept drawing me back. When I was twenty-one years old, I wrote my Bachelor’s senior thesis project—-an essay about Isla. I’ll never forget my director, Peter Goodrich, looking over his glasses at me and saying, “You really like to write sensually about food, don’t you?” It was this rhetorical question that’s shaped the course of my writing, along with the diverse travel and life experiences I collected over the years. But something kept pulling me back to Isla. My Uncle passed away many years ago, and Casa Don Pancho was sold. Eighteen years later, I finally succumbed to the “siren song” and find myself making a home and gloriously happy life here on this little island. I often think what it would mean to Uncle Don, to know the beautiful chain of events he set in motion. What follows is the essay I wrote so many years ago— a little love letter to this amazing place.
The Island herself is a siren, and the ocean carries her song across the mainland and the brackish water, through airport immigration lines where it tangles in my hair and whispers in my ear. Isla. It slides off my tongue like a sigh of longing and holds there, at the edge of my lips. Like a sailor under a spell I return to land, but memories hold fast, like barnacles to a ship’s hull. Isla Mujeres; Island of Women, lying like a jeweled necklace off the coast of Mexico. The gods prayed to on her beaches thousands of years ago still hold sway among the crucifixes and plastic Madonnas. Every visit draws me further under her spell. Memories collected and held—treasured like shells, I draw them out to look at and turn over in my mind. She speaks to her visitors, and those not insensible do not go away unchanged.
My mouth remembers seafood: squid, shrimp, fish, lobster, and conch, so recently immersed in salt water the salty quintessence of the sea lingers within each bite. Snapping fajitas hiss on a well-worn cast iron skillet; onion and pepper fiesta slides spicy against my tongue, watering my eyes. I savor each warm tortilla: delicate flour oval reminds me of hands. Brown hands shape every individual disk, place it crackling into the hot pan lined with oil. History’s labors evolved the tortilla—centuries of oral recipes, and each kernel of corn. Traditions passed down from one generation to the next. Special techniques whispered from grandmother’s wrinkled lips into daughter’s new leaf ear. I walk to the local market through the afternoon’s beaming heat, stumbling through produce aisles like a drunken wasp in an apple orchard. I stroke fresh mangos, melons, guavas, avocados, inhaling fertile, fruity air eyes closed. The pineapple I slice for breakfast arches yellow, sweet, and acidic across the roof of my mouth. I yield to the full flavor, juice running down my fingertips and across my palms. Lunch is La Lomita’s, a block and a half from my uncle’s casa. I ease sun-burned thighs onto the red plastic chair labeled Sol in crafted yellow letters like the sunshiny beer quenching my thirst. The television hums in soft Spanish syllables as the soap opera winds down and around. A stray dog pants in the sun beneath a car across the street, and I consider sharing my left-overs out of pity. The food is cooked in a kitchen though the blue doorway to my left, and I observe family members cooking, trailing laughter. I squeeze a glistening lime across the food on my plate, brushing tangy, stinging juice across sun-chapped lips.
Isla by night is a gemmed ribbon strung along Mexico’s eastern shore. Lights appear to float atop water like a rising Atlantis as the ferry’s wake pushes us to shore. In the daylight, the houses perch in rows along narrow, terra-cotta-colored cobbled streets: an engaging mixture of approachable doorways and barred windows testify to the combination of peace and unrest. Thatched roofs whisper palm frond songs down streets into open evening air. Buildings display a liberal sprinkling of quilted cat bodies drooping over banisters and chairs in the heat. Shy doe-eyed Madonnas peak out of doorways into streets flowing with an eclectic mixture of tourists adorning golf carts dressed down to lycra and bare skin. Sharp-eyed business women with tight buns and bright suits defy the heat, their deportment starched and crisp. Grandfathers carry aloft giggling, round-cheeked children, followed closely by scolding mothers. Vivid red taxis with saint’s favors dangling from rearview mirrors creep blaringly along tight, labyrinthine streets. There is such a sense of isolation for me here. I know I do not belong in the pulling high rise hotel that advertises happy hour with the tolling of a bell every half an hour, as the tourists flounder in from the surf like strange, white, sea creatures. The open doorways are closed to me because my tongue cannot sigh words in a sunny language carried across the ocean from Spain. I attempt to span the gap with a smile. And I do manage to speak, once and a while, in the universal language of gladness.
I pass the pier where fishing boats carry locals and tourists alike across the tossing blue, flinging their luck to gods of ocean and line. The fishermen return wind tossed, flashing their silver bounty for posed pictures. After the photo shoot, locals dissemble each fish behind the scenes, tossing the carcasses back into the ocean—a return of sorts. The malodor of decaying saltwater creature hangs in the air and mingles with salt. Drifting down the lane, feet and steps gingerly avoiding refuse soiling the sun- baked roadway, I idly catalogue the emanations wafting around me. Within two steps, I’m brought up short and coughing by a gust of fumes from a tourist-laden golf cart speeding past where I stand. The trailing vapor moves upward, above stuccoed blocks of houses, and seems to hang for a moment as a pall over the sun. The next breath clears the tang of pollution, replacing it with instantaneous thoughts of my stomach. The open doorway I pass hums with soft murmuring voices and clattering cooking utensils. I inhale the afternoon meal preparation’s warm aura amongst the harmony a family creates when they move around one another in a patterned kitchen dance. With reluctant feet I pass by inviting incenses spilling into the street from doorways standing so provocatively open.
Some days, early in the morning, as the sun breaks its yellow yolk over the edge of the ocean, the soft thump of booted feet on crushed pavement can be heard over the rooster’s morning call. I peer cautiously over the window ledge and observe green khaki- clad boys who would be men, marching two abreast along the path outside my window. The uniformed clunk of feet and a soft clank of ammunition belt against gun recedes as the patrol moves on down the line. They are gone, but the sound remains with me for some time. Before boots comes the rooster. His raucous call breaks through the silence of blue-edged early morning, shrill and disharmonious. The gurgling cackle, so often associated with the country, finds itself at home here. Later in the day I sometimes see him, and his naked-necked-hen strutting territorially among the coral, hunting for lizards. Listening closely, I discern a soft, content clucking as though the warm climate and bounty of lizards are all this feathered couple needs. In the rose and blue tinted evening I sip a salty rimmed margarita, enjoying ebbs and flows of people and voices. The large man with laughing guitar approaches my table. He perches precariously on his chair, picks up his instrument, and begins to play. I’m carried away by the richness of words strung with music that his fingers pluck delicately from the combination of wood and wire. His voice singles out sounds and tosses them to the audience until we’re dancing in the street. Tourists and locals alike lose themselves to the simple sounds of voice and guitar. Music swells like a rising tide, my skirt swirls into a halo around my ankles, and I laugh from a happiness so pure it needs no language.