Pretend this is a week ago. To help you get the flavor of the piece, I’m gonna throw a dateline on it. As if that’s where I am still. (In my head I’m still back there, so go with it, OK?)
ISLA MUHERES — Means Island of Women. Don’t know how or why that name came to be. There certainly isn’t any evidence that the place is overrun with them. Dogs maybe, but not women. Probably should have read the brochures closer.
Some of the younger women who come here — the ones who have colt-like legs and are working on cocoa-butter tans — go topless on the beach at Turquoise Bay on Playa North.
That was probably a cheap shot, throwing that in, but I wanted to make sure I had your attention.
To get here you fly to Cancun. The first thing you do when you get to Cancun is get the heck out of there. Unless, of course, you like lime-colored slacks, pink golf shirts with the little alligator on the chest, 101 American-owned golf courses that were once Mexican soil and hotels and condos that stretch mile upon mile along the coastline.
These hotels and condos are hard to miss. They all look like huge prisons. If you’re on one of those dreaded all-inclusive junkets, you really can’t escape from one, either. You get your meals there, you swim there, you shop there, you golf there. If you want to see a Mexican up close, you check out the guy, or the young girl, in the starched white coat who arrives at your table (or chaise lounge by the pool) with your drink, the one with the adorable umbrella in it. Blue seems to be the hot color for poolside drinks these days.
This is what passes for quixotic travel for most Americans visiting Mexico.
“Oh, look,” the young woman said as she and her husband peered out the window of our shuttle traveling along the hotel zone of Cancun, “we can rent golf carts and go for rides.”
And go where, exactly, sweetie? If your end game is Cancun, you can ride your little golf cart up and down Hotel Row and see other gringos in their golf carts and golf caps … and stare at condos, hotels, Hard Rock Cafes and Ruth’s Chris steakhouses. Ain’t life grand and, boy, ain’t we got fun?
So like Carrie Underwood sings, you get out of this town and if you get lost or off track, we’ll be all right with that.
You ride the shuttle to the end of the line in Puerto Juarez and get yourself on the ferry. It goes over to the Isla Muheres. You’re there in 20 minutes. Naturally, because no good thing lasts forever once American developers discover it, Isla is filled with Mexican construction workers. The palm trees are coming down and the condos and hotels are going up. No matter where you are in the world, this is called Progress. Capital P.
In the center of Playa North (North Beach), at the end of Hidalgo Street where most of the restaurants and shops are, is the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Right next to the church is an asphalt basketball court. On one side of the court is a small concrete grandstand. On the other side of the court are the police station and a shop that sells clay pots.
During the day, when the sun is scorching and the dogs of Isla (each with the same ancestor) go hunting for a speck of shade to lie down in, the asphalt court is empty and as hot as a skillet. If you had a spatula, you could whip yourself up some dandy ranchos huevos on it.
But the nighttime. It’s still 75 in the shade, but there’s a breeze coming in off the Caribbean side and people are sitting in the grandstand. Some of them have rosary beads sticking out of their pockets. Is the fastest way to Heaven: Church first, then hoops.
On this particular night, there is a full-court game in progress: shirts and skins. The skin of all the players is dark and swarthy, their hair black.
Except for one. He’s tow-headed, slender. His skin is white, except for where it is tan. His name is Christian. He’s younger than the rest, about 14 or so. Most of the players look to be in their 20s. He’s got the street game thing going, dribbling between his legs, then driving and feeding a no-look pass to a tall Mexican under the basket. Two …
We stand and watch the game for a while. The kid is easily the best player on the court and the others are plenty good. Chris dribbling, grinning, another no-look gem. Then he makes four straight baskets — fadeaway jumpers and soft kisses high off the backboard on drives to the basket.
“Mmmm. He’s good,” my wife says. “Wonder what he’s doing here.”
Later, I sidle up to the kid as he pulls on a T-shirt. His cell phone, which had been folded into the T-shirt, falls onto a bench.
“Say, Chris …” I begin.
“It’s Christian,” he says. All nonchalant and casual, gazing off someplace beyond the church steeple. Fourteen going on 19.
Christian hails from Tyler, Texas, one of those ultra-well-to-do developments with amenities: gated community, a swim club, a golf course, a private lake. His house would have palladium windows, a pool out back, a basketball court, a game room and at least three full baths.
“I’m out of school for a couple weeks. Vacation with the parents,” he says.
He says this with the ease of someone accustomed to going off to an exotic island while his classmates are splitting infinitives back home in a stuffy classroom that smells of chalk and teen spirit.
I want to ask him where he learned the game like that, hailing from gated Tyler and all, but his cell phone interrupts us. Rock, but with some twang in it.
Christian looks at his palm. A text message.
“Sorry. Gotta blow,” he says. He pulls a purple bike out of the bike rack and is gone, his T-shirt around his neck but still not pulled down over his slender shoulders.
“Cool customer,” I say.
“Aren’t they all?” my wife says.
We left town and headed back to the beach for a swim. There is the smell of coconut oil in the air as our feet sift through the talcum powder sand at Turquoise Bay.
“Eyes in the boat, mister,” she says.
Contact Doug Clarke at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.