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“I’m going by myself.”
I hadn’t known many people who’d ever spoken those words. The idea of a solo vacation smacked of long evenings watching Jane Austen movies, cups of chamomile tea, and a phone bedecked in cobwebs. Everyone’s well-meaning advice to remain in Toronto had its own rationale, but most had to do with jungle heat, tourist decapitations, and undrinkable water. After I postponed Mr. Solomon’s root canal for two weeks, he cautioned me about drug cartels. I explained Cancun was a well-policed tourist destination.
“Oh, there are never any drugs in a tourist trap, Dr. Woodson.” He chuckled on his own irony despite a mouthful of cylindrical sponges.
“It’s four days.” I pushed the suction probe into his mouth, propping it against the wall of his cheek. “I promise I won’t come back like this.” I swiped gritty toothpaste across my upper lip. “Or perhaps we could just do that root canal as scheduled, sir.”
Yet another refusal, but at least this one made relative sense, though his mouthful of dental equipment made it difficult to translate.
No poor attempts at irony or well-meaning advice tendered to me around my parents’ dinner table at Christmas altered my plan. I arrived on December 27. In less than six hours, my prospects had ascended as the latitude descended; I left a frozen -2 degrees C. for a toasty 27. The tang of limes and scent of coconut sunscreen had replaced candy cane scented candles, and not a moment too soon.
The air-conditioned shuttle jerked through traffic on overbuilt thoroughfares into a safe, pathetically normal tourist Mecca. Figures of tanned Santas in sombreros and swaying palms decorated with Christmas lights lined the route. The hotel lobby’s rear window faced a horizon of endless turquoise. At 4 P.M., I jumped into clear ocean water, and bathed in a tsunami of my own brilliance. As I stepped out onto my tiny hotel balcony, I looked down at a middle-aged couple on a Bali bed. The bed’s flimsy curtains shimmered in the breeze; frozen drinks were delivered to their pasty bodies on a tray. Equally pale was I, the woman who fought envy nearly to a draw before taking myself out for margaritas.
After three frozen green vats of insight, I figured a single, thirty-one year old needed not an outdoor snog on a vinyl-covered bed, but an adventure. As I explored, the hotel district yielded to huge bars, quaint pseudo-authentic restaurants, and overpriced Laundromats. Past the picture-taking opportunities with the “Most Interesting Man in the World” look-alike, I found Cancun Adventure Tourism.
The fast-talking salesman watched my eyes run down the list of options and prices. “You’re a fit woman. You could do the Ultimate Jungle Package.”
Though I was tempted by Mayan ruins and the trip to Chichen Itza, blasted white stone pyramids and ball courts, I agreed to zip lines, ATV’s and a jump in “the most remote cenote in Quintana Roo.”
Soon, the well-tended hotel district was a memory. Couples swapping honeymoon kisses twinkled all about me. I continued to wage my battle with the joys of the single life as I sat next to a handsome Latino in his late 30’s, the only other solo on the trip. When the shuttle driver left his seat and insisted my seatmate autograph his t-shirt with a Sharpie marker, I was intrigued.
“You give autographs?” I asked.
He bowed his head. “Miss, I am not as famous as I once was, so when someone is excited to see me, I am grateful.” His accented, rapidly-spoken English forced me to concentrate. “But now, I’m merely another dinner theater act in Distrito Federal. I’m a baritone.” He smiled, cleared his throat, and hit an arpeggio dead-on.
The bus driver yelled over his shoulder. “He’ll always be El Lobo to me.”
The bus scooted into morning traffic as El Lobo, a.k.a. Armando Eduardo Luego Sandoval, proudly explained his history of telenovela stardom. “I starred in El Lobo y Las Tres Cerditas.”
“The Three Little Pig-girls? Were you a werewolf who enjoyed pork roast?”
I had anticipated an interesting story, and got one as Armando explained his novela was shown late at night. “I had three voluptuous girlfriends.” His hands curved the silhouette of a female figure into the air. “I had to keep them all happy for thirteen weeks despite their many troubles. Best job any man ever had.”
Soon, he had me chuckling; he told me to call him Lobo. “Melissa,” he whispered, “I have an interesting snack.” He took out a small bag of dried brown bits. “I grew these myself.”
“What the blazes is that?”
When I smelled the musty contents, he offered me a few grams. “You’re going to zip-line, drive an ATV, and dive into a cenote after taking mushrooms?”
“These are mild compared to the ones Carlos Castenada took. This is not my vacation. It’s my vision quest.” He made a fist and stared at it. “The way of the warrior. Actors who commit themselves to the walk of power find fortune again.”
“What kind of macho madness is that?” I mumbled. “Castenada was a hack and a fraud. Everyone knows that.”
For every objection I brought up, Armando had an answer. “Mystics through the centuries have all found the same answers. He is just the latest…”
“In a long line of charlatans. He plagiarized from Hindu mystics. There was never a don Juan Matus.”
Armando, who got a little louder with every defense of Castenada’s genius, was not as stoned as I expected when he hopped out of the bus. “The zip line teaches that ‘the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length,’ as don Juan said.”
“Well, getting stuck in the middle of a zipline wouldn’t be entertaining, would it?” I watched Armando climb the tree and completely expected his howling response across the void as he jetted through stubby trees and raised his fist in triumph at each of the three platforms. When I spanned the space, I laughed as my small frame shuddered in the loose harness.
Since there were only enough ATV’s to ride two in a vehicle, I insisted on driving ours out to the cenote. The rocky ride on dusty, boulder-encrusted roads excited me more than the zipline. Armando quoted the don again: “All the paths lead nowhere,” he pontificated over the roar of the ATV engine.
“Then why are we out here?” I wondered if I should have told the guides that he’d been shrooming. Then again, it was Armando’s vision quest, and he was committed to it. After he stripped off his shirt and showed off some nicely carved abs for a man his age, I put on his life jacket.
The rustic wooden diving platform was 25 meters above the black watery abyss of the cenote, which was heavily buttressed on all sides by scrubby bushes that squeezed their way from between gray rocks. Stone steps up the side of the cenote enabled the divers to return back up from another go at a near-death experience. I kept looking over the platform and listening to instructions, not planning to jump. Ever.
“Couples should not jump in together,” the guide advised. “It’s romantic, but it’s not safe.”
As one of the husbands demonstrated his bravado by cannon-balling into the pit to a round of applause, I noticed Armando was missing. I found him completing his bizarre series of meditation gestures held behind the van and asked him about his pseudo- Tai Chi. “I am communing with the spirits of the jungle and the dark water.” But when he was ready to jump, he was unstoppable. “Don Juan says the superior man learns by experiencing the world. I am not a wolf, but an eagle.”
Before listening to my reminder of how eagles actually could fly, not drop like a granite block, he took a running leap, arms up, into the cenote. After he hit the water in a beautiful arc, he emerged. “Dying and living are but two sides of the same coin, Melissa!”
Yet, as he climbed the wet stone steps, Armando stumbled. He toppled back into the water, and cried out: “Mierda!”
A small red streak was visible on the rock.
“Ay! Mi pie!” The narrow passage and the dampness of the stone steps made help ineffective. By the time he rose, it was clear some stitches would be required to close the small, deep cut near his arch. The bumping of the reckless ATV ride would only make the bleeding worse, or so said the guides as Armando claimed he could not stand the sight of his own blood.
“We’ll get the jeep. Man, his bleeding ain’t stoppin’.” One of the guards ordered me to stay with him while he remained lost in his drowsy, pained euphoria.
“Yes, run away while the warrior remains!” Armando shouted as the last ATV drove away.
“Warriors know when to quit,” I told him.
He took a flask from his backpack and drew deeply, then hobbled back to the diving platform.
“Don’t do it, Armando!” But, of course, vision quests are what they are: not subject to the advice of anything but the higher power or sham prophet who recommended them. This time, he hit the water feet first.
“The cleansing!” He swam toward the stone steps, but by the time he arrived, he’d realized he’d made his problem worse.
A bright woman would have left him to his own devices. I, however, jumped right in, headfirst. I paddled over and helped him push his way out onto the steps. With every two feet, curses tumbled from his mouth. I remained a single step behind, for two reasons: to assure myself of my Good Samaritan-ism, and because jumping into a cenote to rescue Armando, warrior king of Cancun, hadn’t been prudent. The water left me shivering as I climbed the slippery rock steps.
When we rose, I counseled Armando with an open hand hard across the face, a gesture he enjoyed far too much. It gave him the false impression that don Juan Matus had the potential to be Don Juan the lover. After explaining that slapping him and kissing him were not two sides of the same coin, I used the priceless Barcelona Soccer Club jersey he’d brought in his bag to stem the tide of blood from his wound.
“Silencio!” I commanded above his protests.
As I tended to him, my phone’s one precarious bar displayed the Wikipedia version of the many perversities of Carlos Castenada: plagiarism, his cult of womanizing and other vices too numerous to mention. “Do you see? He was in the UCLA library, not wandering out in the desert.”
Armando sighed, pointed and mumbled, eyes half-shut. “You can’t see the woman I see floating above my head, but she doesn’t agree. Ah, she glows, just Castenada described. You need to relax, Melissa. Try the juice in my thermos.”
Naturally, Armando’s “juice” was three parts tequila to one part pineapple. Five sips were enough to take the edge off. Armando continued to relate his visions until he passed out for a half hour. The thick, iron stench of blood filled my senses while the mushroom-induced women kept Armando entertained.
When two hours later, the jeep had not arrived, I called the travel agent. It was the only number I had, and it was busy. The cenote’s cold bath had not stopped our clothes from drying in the jungle heat. Dark clouds massed above. I saw four undernourished coyotes pass, noses lifted. Naturally, Armando took it as a sign.
“Coyote! A visit from the trickster!” As one of the scrawny beasts approached, I scurried around and found a thick, brown palm frond, prepared to beat the creatures back and lose. The only optimistic thought I had was that the blood attracting them was Armando’s. Just then, I heard the jeep in the distance. The coyotes howled, ran back into the thick woods, and the jeep parked upon the rocky pathway.
My gratitude led me to hug both the driver and his assistant. “Tire problems,” one whined as the spitting rain began. Since none of the jeeps had roofs, the journey was bound to be long, wet, and full of Armando’s ramblings.
All the way back, coated in the warm strike, then chilly aftermath of tropical rain, we dodged low-lying branches as we drove over the dirt and gravel road; little more than a path, it intersected dangerously with a main road that seemed absent a speed limit. The pumping of the engine and dumping of the vehicle into ruts and pits left me nauseous, but I kept applying pressure to Armando’s foot. We drove all the way out to the Hospital Galenia together. I wanted to leave, but a vaguely sober, whiningly-in-pain Armando insisted on my presence in the Casa de Emergencia. After they gave him stitches and an oxycontin, I left Armando to sleep his troubles away.
The next day, I woke determined to stick to the usual tourist attractions, believing that I’d been utterly mistaken about the road less-traveled, but fate intervened. I was called to the front desk only to find two EMT’s accompanying Armando, who was propped on a crutch.
“He says you are his traveling companion, and a medical professional,” one of the EMT’s explained.
“He’s mistaken. I’m just a dentist on vacation.” Over my protests, the EMT’s drove off, leaving Armando in my care. He claimed he hadn’t been given the opportunity to retrieve his money, so his meals were on me. He sat by the pool and I brought him drinks while a group of bikini-clad chicas begged him for autographs and tales of telenovela stardom. After a nice dinner at El Mariachi, Armando told me he needed to take a nap before calling a cab. Unable to rouse him, I slept on a barely upholstered bench atop every damp beach towel in the room.
In the morning, two complementary tickets to Isla Mujeres were delivered to my door by Cancun Adventures for my trouble two days before. I dressed as silently as I could, but escape was impossible. After Armando finally issued me an apology for the mushrooms and all else that had followed, we enjoyed a boat ride and picnic in an authentic Mexican graveyard. Riotous colors, fantastic gravestones, and niches of ill-fated dancing Caterina figures accompanied by their skeletonized orchestras led to more of Armando’s painfully mundane reflections on the meaning of life.
“When we find ourselves in the next world, we will look upon this world with disdain. What comes next is the superior path.”
I asked Armando who’d returned to provide such important information. Since he had seen it all in the water of the cenote, he assured me it was a done deal.
Under a cracked ceramic figure of Jesus, Lobo guzzled some rum punch, then requested me to “explore the depths of the jungle” with him. Though the semi-drunk Lobo was more entertaining that the mushroom-enhanced version, I begged off, and insisted I had a headache. After the boat trip back and a few more drinks from my room’s refrigerator, Lobo’s actual intentions became apparent. He agreed to leave only after depriving me of the pesos left in my wallet, explaining that Castaneda believed that superior people like himself were entitled to live by different rules, and then reminding me he had no cab fare.
I told him superior people could usually find their way home without begging or stealing, but my spot-on insight didn’t give me my last few pesos back.
So, leaving for the snows of Toronto seemed the lesser evil after all my adventures. I boarded the plane back to my New Year’s Eve destiny, a family party laden with “I told you so.” Sitting next to me? Sebastien, a middle-aged Latino obstetrician who’d spent his days in Cancun at a medical conference. Since all he had time for was a quick expedition to Tulum’s ruins, he found tales of my adventures perversely fascinating. Nothing like watery pits that terminate in Hell, an over-the –hill novela star, mystical rantings, a pack of hungering coyotes, and petty theft to make for a memorable Mexican vacation.
So, in an interesting twist of fate I interpreted as my reward for dealing with El Lobo, Mexico brought me someone worth dodging snow banks for, an escape from my parents’ New Years Eve Party, and a new respect for sobriety.
Yet I still felt the urge to toast at the one-guest New Year’s Eve party Sebastien and I enjoyed at his comfortable suburban home. “To las tres cerditas,” he said. “Must have been fine swine.”
I lifted my champagne glass to meet his and laughed. “Y a los lobos.” We howled, sipped, then howled again.
As our glasses clinked, Sebastien gestured to an end table full of travel brochures. I told him I preferred root canals.
Embe Charpentier has been most recently published in Science Fiction Romance Quarterly. Her award-winning Nanowrimo novel Vouchsafe is published on Jukepop.com. She writes for her local newspaper, teaches English as a Second Language, and provides warm, supportive hugs and far too much advice, even when not requested. Find her on Facebook at [email protected]