Before leaving on the cruise, my mom had told me, several times, not to “mess around” in Mexico. Mexico is no joke, she said, and I should be wary of traveling too far from the port and into the country. I had even overheard her telling Fredo’s mom, who had planned the trip, to make sure I didn’t get any ideas.
The day we arrived in Cozumel, we were tired. The last two had been so strictly scheduled, with specific start and stop times to every activity, that we were ready to relax. No more excursions, no more tour groups, no more timelines. Just us and the Caribbean. We skipped our standing date with the ship’s wobbly gym and instead planned to spend the day swimming and exploring until our bodies ached for a poolside nap. This was our last chance to feel the warm tingle of salt water on our skin, and we wanted to soak it up.
The walkway from the ship to the city was clogged with American-branded souvenirs and perfectly bilingual salespeople—two things we’d gotten our fill of in the Honduras and Belize stops. We wanted to feel like we were actually in a different country. We had renewed our passports for this trip, after all.
Standing in the cobblestone plaza, bordered by a Ron Jon Surf Shop and Three Amigos Restaurant, I pulsed Fredo’s hand with three quick grabs. He turned to me, nodding. We had already talked about today, so he knew. And he agreed. We just hoped his family would, too. Turning to his mom, he said,
“We wanna get away from all this tourist-y stuff, mom. We don’t wanna just shop again.”
Maria’s wide eyes ping-ponged between my uneasy face and her son’s, waiting for more. Panicked at the thought of having to be the one to say it, I threw my arms in the air and waited.
“So what do you guys want to do?” she asked.
“We’re gonna go walk around and find a beach or something,” he answered, shrugging. Hearing the words out loud, I felt a rush of air leave my lungs. Apparently, I had been holding my breath.
After a few moments we were off, weaving our way through the mobs in search of the city. Within a half mile, we were crossing the threshold between Carnival and Cozumel territory.
Immediately, vendors started shouting at us, coaxing and waving like a photographer at baby’s first birthday.
“Hola, bonita! Come over here! You guys wan a ride? Is jus $65!”
“Hey! Batmen! How about a Jeep to drive jor pretty lady!”
“Hey! Batmen! Batmen!”
Holding Fredo by the waist of his “Batmen” T-shirt, we kept walking, passing beat-up carriages as old as the horses that pulled them and dozens of run-down shops. Already past my comfort zone (turns out, the tourist-y area is where my sheltered, small-big-city self feels safest), we were debating turning around. Then, we saw it. There, parked on the side of the road, was a yellow VW buggy with manual transmission and orange racing stripes. Forget shopping. This, we both knew, was going to be our activity for the day.
Dusting off my bartering-in-Spanish skills, I went back and forth with the salesman until we’d agreed on $55 flat. We just had to fill out a form, leave one of our cruise ship IDs and he’d hand us the key. The thought of leaving either of our Carnival cards—without which, we wouldn’t be allowed back on the ship—worried me, but I silently shook it off as I reached into our bag. As I straightened out the bills of cash, I was surprised to see only four left.
“We just have $42 left…” Trying to keep my voice down, I showed Fredo.
“What? How is that possible?”
” I don’t know. I could’ve sworn me had more,” I paused. “Should we ask if he’ll give it to us for $42?”
We decided to go for it, and soon were exchanging the money and card for the key. As Eric helped me up and over the buggy door, I remember thinking, “This is going to be really fun…when it’s over. Should one of us be more worried about this?” Instead of saying something, I just breathed in deep, hoping to bury the growing lump in my stomach with fresh sea air.
As were were buckling up, the salesman suggested we stop at the gas station up the road and fill up. The tank should be half full, he said, which would get us 40 kilometers or so. But, just to be safe. We didn’t have any money left. The lump jumped another inch in my stomach, but I just pushed it down again. The island’s 80 kilometers around, so if we go just a little ways, we should be fine. We’d be just fine.
– – – – – – – – – – –
After about a kilometer, I had gotten used to the buggy’s crotchety, roaring engine, and loosened up enough to take some photos. I could feel my hair thickening, drinking up the fat, moist air and curling around itself. This was the weather I was built for, I thought. Holding onto our Nikon like an overprotective new mom, I pointed it at Fredo, the road signs and everything else that said “we’re in Mexico” and clicked. When a sign for a nearby beach appeared in my viewfinder, I shouted for Eric to pull off.
When we had parked, I turned to him and asked, “But what if someone steals it? I mean, couldn’t they just grab a few wires and start it up?”
“Well, yeah, they could…” he thought for a moment. “But I can just take the line to the gas and it should be fine.”
“Are you sure?” I didn’t want to admit that the lump was now in my throat.
“Yeah, it’ll be just fine.” He disconnected a short, black tube from the back and slipped it into his pocket. Holding my hand, we headed toward the entrance, snapping photos along the way. But the fun was short-lived. It was only a few moments before we hit a wall—a real, 10-foot-tall brick wall. The beach was paid-access only, and we couldn’t get in.
We decided to head back to the port and either try to find his family, or suck it up and walk back to the ship and use an ATM. Not a block into the drive, the engine started sputtering. But this wasn’t like the loud, unhealthy drumming it’d been doing the entire 3 kilometers to the beach. This was a hungry, lurching, “I’m running out of fuel and can’t go any farther” tantrum. I asked Fredo if that was, in fact, what was happening.
I closed my lips, afraid of shouting, “I told you so! I knew something like this would happen!” if I let myself speak. But I hadn’t told him so, so I couldn’t be mad. And I wasn’t. I was, however, scared.
We pulled over, still not saying a word. I clutched our camera tighter and in a controlled tone, asked,
“Soo, what now?”
He hopped out and walked a bit up the road. I scrambled to follow, catching up just as a passing taxi heeded his upturned thumb. Before getting in, I whispered, now unable to hide my emotion,
“But we don’t have any money! What’s the plan here?”
“Just trust me,” he said. We grabbed hands and rode in silence. The driver stopped where we’d rented the buggy, but our salesguy wasn’t there. I swung open the van door, and was face-to-face with a vendor from the next business over, who shouted,
“Ayyyy chinga! Y que haces tu aqui? Donde esta el carro?”
“It ran out of gas! It’s on the side of the road! Where is he?” I retorted.
He said he didn’t know, and proceeded to try to convince me that we’d have to go somewhere downtown, more than 10 kilometers away, and talk to the main office. We refused to be taken anywhere, and instead asked the taxi driver to call our salesman’s cell. We’d just have to wait to get ahold of him, and have him help us figure it out. In the meantime, we needed money. As much as I didn’t want to split up in what was now feeling increasingly like a scary foreign country, we’d have to. Since I was the runner, we decided it’d be best for Fredo to stay with the cab and I’d race the mile or so back to the ship.
Despite my adrenaline-fueled pace, my legs couldn’t keep up with my mind. In my hurry, I’d forgotten to leave Eric his driver’s license. What if the salesguy comes and drags him downtown? What if he gets stuck in Mexico with no I.D. and no way of contacting anyone? What if I can’t find him when I get back? My mom had warned me Mexico is serious business. I was beginning to think I should’ve listened.
Thirty sweaty, shaky minutes later, I had made it back to the taxi, relieved to see Eric still inside. Our cab driver was only asking for the standard $12 fare despite the wait, but I handed him a $20 and shut the door. Now we just had to be patient. The saleguy had finally picked up and said he’d meet us at a nearby fountain in 15 minutes.
When twice that time had passed, I couldn’t stay quiet any longer.
“I had a feeling something like this would happen. I knew I should’ve said something.”
“I know, I had a feeling, too…”
“Maybe my mom was…Oh, wait! I think that’s him!”
We stepped closer to the curb, locking eyes on the familiar T-shirt-clad salesman as he approached. I had assumed he’d show up in a rusty little two-door, similar to the other cars on the road, or maybe even on foot. But not on this. Not on a scooter. If my blood hadn’t been speeding through my veins, I would’ve laughed.
After a few moments of some of my best, most passionate Spanish, (‘You told us there was half a tank in the car! You misled us in saying we could make it halfway around the island!”) we were done. We returned the key, grabbed Eric’s card, and both let out a heavy sigh. Turning toward the Carnival shops, we linked arms and started walking back.
“Well, we wanted to have an adventure, right? I guess now we have a story to tell,” I shrugged. “…Except, I don’t want to have to tell my mom. I already know what she’s going to say.”