A Beach Moment that Lingers

Seaside in Progreso, Mexico is unforgettable.

If I concentrate, I can still recall sitting on the beach at Progreso, digging my toes into the sand and sipping a piña colada made with sweet, fresh pineapple and soft, sugary coconut shavings. I remember the waiters, who had to cross the beach boulevard from the Crabster restaurant to keep asking me if I needed anything else.

It was not a cruise ship day, otherwise there would have been hundreds more people like me, tourists mulling about looking for T-shirts, or souvenirs, or bathrooms. The first time we journeyed north from Merida by bus and disembarked in this sleepy beach town, we heard the jolting noise of English being spoken with a southern accent. The words, already foreign sounding after a few weeks staying in Mexico, hit me from the tables along the avenue leading to the ocean. Gray-headed travelers in tropical shirts sat ordering beers and margaritas and eating barbecue marinated in the sour orange and lime of the Yucatán rather than the dry rubs or smoke of the places their accents said they hailed from. We walked on without belying our compatriotism. I just wanted to sit in the warm breeze, to feel the sun on my skin, and to look out on the Gulf of Mexico. I wanted to be mesmerized by the waves and by the squawking of flocks of gulls who undulated the same way.

We ate pork tacos with habanero salsa. Huge shrimp encrusted in coconut batter and fried. Beach vendors passed by often, selling colorful whipped sugar candy merengues and caramelized peanut palanquetas. They hawked all sorts of wares held aloft on their heads or in big backpacks. A man selling large baskets had half a dozen draped over each of his arms and more piled on his back. One vendor rode the bus back to Merida with us at the end of the day, his pastry tray stowed somewhere below in a luggage compartment. The ride cost the equivalent of $1US each way. So, we rode with a crowd, though most appeared not to be traveling to sit on the beach.

I watched the fluttering of the umbrellas and palapas, the thatched roofs of dried palm leaves. They shaded tables and chaise lounges set up along the shore. I listened to the surf. I watched a Mexican family pull two white plastic tables together to accommodate everyone for a child’s birthday party. 

Further down the beach large palapas stood at the ready to accommodate more people in search of shade. And still further a newer restaurant with a multi-level, open-air deck that ensured every table had a view of the sea. Swings on ropes and palm trees growing up through the rafters made the place feel like an Instagram picture from Tulum. That made it more expensive than the other places.

Yes, I like piña coladas. This one has a coconut sugar rim, Mexican cinnamon shavings that are like the more relaxed version of cinnamon sticks, and a skewer of fresh pineapple and berries.

Only a few more historic establishments remain after decades of hurricanes and the ebb and flow of tourism on this sleepy coastline. But the city rebuilt the seaside in the last few years. The malecón is now a low concrete wall, turned into seating in spots and undulating along the ribbon of beach kept the sand and water on one side and a wide boulevard on the other for pedestrians, bicycles, and every hour or so a truck full of police decked out in military-style uniforms and holding automatic rifles. In places like Mexico this show of force is a comfort rather than a threat I suppose. I prefer the bicycle cops of California beaches who seem harmless, and yet ready to confront whatever trouble comes. 

Sleeping dogs flopped in the warm sand against the sea wall and lay contentedly snoozing, flipping their tails like horses to defend against the odd fly. The mid-80-degree temperature was perfect. I waded out into the water far enough to feel its December chill, but I never got too warm sitting on the beach to require more water dunks, just more pina coladas, or Mexican beers, or Topo Chicos.

Boats on the Gulf.

The beach faced north, so the sunsets faded out of view. And we meandered back to the bus depot to board the ride back to the city. It was only a little over an hour along the highway. We disembarked at the stop by Paseo 60, the huge new complex right around the block from our rental house. It had a massive open-air plaza with a waterfall cascading over plexiglass, a stage curtained with sisal ropes, old henequen manufacturing equipment turned sculpture. Escalators and shops, a hotel, a coach depot for high-class road trips daily to Cancun and elsewhere. We walked along the narrow sidewalk and turned down Calle 37 toward our house. Weeds edged out from cracks and the concrete crumbled in places. We passed old single story colonial houses, one that had been turned into a boutique hotel on the corner.

It was one key to open the wrought iron gate over the front door, and then another key to unlock the wood door, weathering badly in the tropics. I stepped into the cool of the cavernous living room, slipped off my flip flops to spray the sand off my feet with a water bottle left on a little towel just beside the door. The tile was cool beneath my bare feet and I padded across it into the kitchen and sank down into one of the equipale chairs of pigskin and slats of cedar. The sun of the beach still felt warm on my skin.

If I concentrate, it still does.

A Bit of String in Merida

The cathedral in Merida, Mexico is the oldest church in the Americas.

A labyrinth of concrete, some crumbling, some intact. Facades painted pink, periwinkle or warm orange. Black wrought-iron gates and railings. Oiled hardwood doors. Narrow sidewalks. Cars speeding along thin streets. Centuries old buildings standing silently bragging, like elders, with the assurance that only comes from having seen several lifetimes. This is a place called Merida, Mexico. 

The ancient Maya people of the Yucatan peninsula built massive structures for sport and religion here more than a thousand years ago. They had their own calendar and written language. But when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, they brought Catholicism and erected the large cathedral in the grand plaza in the center of Merida. It stands over the site of much more ancient Mayan structures. In fact, its constructed with stones from the Mayan buildings. So are the colonial houses and buildings that radiate out from the plaza. 

Three centuries later, at the end of the 19th century, wars and innovation brought sudden wealth and growth to the Yucatan again, in the form of string. That’s right, twine. The Mayans had long before used a variety of agave plant called henequen to make rope fiber called sisal. They wove it into hammocks, clothes, and hats. The Spanish decided it was also good rope for their ships. But mid-19th century hacienda owners began growing the plants in earnest. They brought in newly invented machines to strip the leaves and dry the fibers. The demand was so great that it spawned dozens of sisal millionaires. Millionaires! From string!

Henequen plants still being cultivated outside Merida, Mexico.
The fibers from the henequen plant’s leaves are dried to make strong fibers for rope and other textiles.

The wealthy elite built large mansions all along the wide boulevards of Merida. They built schools and hospitals, paved streets, and installed sewage systems. And when the string industry succumbed to politics, revolution, war, other suppliers around the world, and the invention of synthetic fibers, these stately homes and most of the haciendas where sisal was produced were abandoned and fell into disrepair. Some lasted into the middle of the 20th century. Many became hotels. Some became businesses or government offices in this city that is the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan. Some are now part of the newest industry in Merida—tourism.

We toured the Casa Gemelas, an impressive mansion built from string money back in the day. This house just opened a few months ago for tourists to peek inside the palace. The awkward young man who was our guide said the place was at one time host to Jacqueline Kennedy and Princess Grace. He said to google it. 

At the end of our (overpriced) tour, our guide whispered for us to lean in closer. That was a little awkward. But when Ron and I obliged, along with men from Guadalajara and New Jersey, he told us in hushed tones that the owner of the house had just walked by. He discreetly pointed out an older woman as she was leaving through the back gate. Our small group had no idea what to make of that. It was like seeing Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey, skulking around the back of the manor house, embarrassed to have been forced to become a tourist attraction for financial solvency.

A view from our backyard in Merida, where we have our own pair of henequen, or “green gold” plants.

I doubt the Mayans who roam the streets of Merida hawking colorful embroideries feel this discomfort. They’re just trying to make a buck. And the Mayan calendar knew a thousand years ago that history repeats itself. Sometimes you’re conquered, sometimes you’re on top. And while string may make a bunch of people rich for a while, it’s power actually lies in the sturdy tie it makes to fasten around whatever you need held fast. 

Five Simple Time Travel Hacks

  1. Go to Sleep

I once traveled internationally with a slight woman on heavy medication. During a long layover she stretched out on top of a row of suitcases lining a crowded African airport hallway, bunched a scarf into a pillow under her head and dozed off. Her literal layover zoomed by. She was a small spectacle, but those who eyed her with curiosity likely also felt great envy for her ability to time travel. I know I did. And I also admired her unconscious balance.

Ron and I time traveling through the 20th century.

2. Cross Datelines.

In the days when Ron was traveling a lot I remember once he called from Southeast Asia on a random Thursday to update me on his schedule. He sounded tired, and I knew he was several time zones away. He told me without hesitation that he would be back Wednesday. That confused me. Local times and the rotation of the earth seemed compelling evidence that Wednesday had already come and gone over the entire earth. He said he didn’t know, but it had something to do with time zones, and he was really jet lagged.

I said something like, “Okay hon, love you,” and we hung up.

He’s finally done it, I thought. He can travel through time. 

I went to the living room to see if he was in fact already lying on the couch since the day before. 

He was not.

3. Make Up Your Own Version of Time.

In New Delhi, the time zone varies by an extra half hour. This is perhaps due to indecision, maybe a compromise, or possibly an attempt at mathematical precision between longitudinal meridians. Things were made simpler in China, a country more than 3,000 miles wide (similarly girthed to the United States) where they decided to have just one time zone, for the sake of unity. The unified Chinese experience morning whenever Beijing rises in the east; even if the capital is as far east of western China as New York from L.A.

Ron and I time traveling in Ethiopia circa 2005. It was still 1998 there.

My favorite made up time is in countries where the calendar is set on an entirely different year. Ethiopia is seven years behind the rest of the world. Their worldwide pandemic began in 2013 and rages on now, in 2014. I hope their 2020 goes better than it did for the rest of us.

4. Do Nothing or Go to IHOP

Pandemic and retirement together have been a cocktail of tranquilizers given to us like we are about to embark on a multi-year space journey involving a sleeping pod. Doing nothing, and not much, and waiting for the world to re-open is a terrible way to time travel. 

Looking across the Gulf, waiting on the world to change.

I realize that for most people drumming up pity for a problem like this is akin to sympathy for an American suburbanite whose latte wasn’t properly foamed. Still, I know it’s a real problem because it makes me jealous of the earth itself. How dare this planet continue orbiting around the sun and revolving constantly when I am forced to sit still? 

This yearning to be elsewhere is constant, even subconscious. On a recent Wednesday evening our car sort of turned itself into the International House of Pancakes after church. Were we subconsciously drawn to that word “international”? Maybe. It was breakfast for dinner, perhaps in deference to the fall season time shifts. We sat in a vinyl booth and drank weak coffee. 

“At least we have IHOP,” I told Ron, grinning with a mouthful of Swedish crepes and lingonberry syrup. 

Like most people, we’re waiting for the endemic, and more international possibilities than pancakes.

5. Mark Anniversaries.

In 2020, during the dark days of pandemic quarantine when time literally stood still, we began planning something to look forward to. Since then, waiting has seemed like the year-long anticipation of a pregnant elephant. But Lord willing, we will spend 30-plus days in Mexico to celebrate 30 years of marriage this December. 

Sunset in Punta Mita, Mexico, 2018, the last time we left the country.

It sounds amazing, and it is, or rather, I hope it will be. But I feel a little disingenuous talking about it as though it were the only thing in our lives. We have regular lives with problems and triumphs, love and heartbreaks, like everyone. But once every 30 years or so, why not throw a Gatsby-level party for ourselves? Thirty actual years together have happened. Some were better than others. Some were memorable, others not so much. But the cumulation of shared experiences is astounding. And perhaps only long-married people understand how relationships ebb and flow, and how a lover turns into a friend, and then weirdly into a sort of conjoined twin.

So, we’re headed south to party like spring breakers with two heads. Except that now we’re 30 years older, fatter, and creakier. And when I wonder why I feel like I’ve been traveling through space and time for a few decades, I remember that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.

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