“In the magnificent fierce morning of Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new.” – D.H Lawrence
One thing I didn’t consider when gleefully packing in my London abode to go to Mexico the following day for a week was that I would need a visa waiver to pass through America, or what’s better known as an ESTA. I did have an ESTA, but I’d also had a new passport since then, and I hadn’t considered how that would invalidate it. Besides, I wasn’t even going to America! I was jumping on a connecting flight to Cancun at Houston, Texas. Why would I need approval to enter the USA?
“Madam, the computer is saying you don’t have an ESTA to travel to Texas,” Richie, an employee at American Airlines looked up at me with his best attempt at regretful eyes, knowing just as I did that I was a fucking idiot. After explaining I wasn’t going anywhere without one, I sucked up my panic and tears and walked off to apply for an ESTA on my phone, going through every page of the application with a shaky hand and blurred vision.
Nearly an hour later and I hadn’t been approved. My pub breakfast I’d got at Heathrow had gone just as cold as my blood. There was a notice plastered in red at the top of the ESTA site that said you needed to do this application a minimum of 72 hours before your flight into the USA. I started calculating my losses.
But – by the grace of God and all things good – my ESTA was approved just over an hour later, and I ran like a mad woman to get through security. As I jogged to the gate smiling, sweaty and high off the fact that I’d made it, a woman stopped me in my tracks.
“Miss Khan? You have been selected for an additional security screening. Please come this way.” I sighed, but this was nothing. After all, this was the third time I’d been selected for a random security screening on the fourth occasion I’d ever flown to America.
Houston, We Have a Problem
As we passed through the arrival gate at Houston only to go through security and enter the departure gates to catch our flight to Cancun, I saw a sign that said ‘Welcome To Houston!’ with a cheerful astronaut floating by the welcoming words. I went to snap it. But before I’d even taken the picture, a man in an airport uniform ushered me aside. “Come over ma’am. Come on.”
“Did you just take a picture of me?” He asked accusingly. His brown mustache seemed animated, like it was snarling at me. “No,” I said, explaining the sign. He wouldn’t let up. “Show me your pictures. Come on, show them to me.” I showed him the last picture I took, which was indeed the ‘Welcome to Houston!’ sign- albeit blurred since he hadn’t given me the chance to take it properly. He insisted on having a better look to make sure I hadn’t captured him on my phone, but below that picture were about ten pictures of weed a Mexican friend had sent me, and now I was paranoid. “It’s just blurry pictures! I didn’t even get to take it!” I exclaimed, moving my phone away from under his nose slightly.
“Why, what’s the problem?” my friend asked him, and that was apparently the wrong idea, because then he started ranting about how we could sue us if he was in any pictures I had taken.
“Give me your passport. I can do that, you know! Hand it over.” He could hardly contain his excitement at the opportunity to get to use the tiny piece of power he had. As expected, he saw my British passport, and then it was time for him to shit himself. “I got you, okay,” he said in his southern drawl, his voice easing up into something more friendly. He let me take the picture of the Houston sign and continue on to get my connecting flight. He never noticed the weed pictures in my phone gallery, thankfully. He was just looking for any excuse.
The air was hot and the day was bright when we landed in Cancun after 13 hours, our minds understanding but still feeling confused as to how the day was still prevailing after spending so many hours in the sky. We paid 700 for a week in Cancun, flights and hotel (non-inclusive) included. We stayed at The Royal Caribbean. The hotel was huge, a balcony with a dining table and loungers there just for us, murphy beds in a sizable living room, a master bedroom that looked fresh out of a brochure. But the room smelled of the sweat of past inhabitants of the room, and I couldn’t shake that off. Outside we had pools upon pools for our use and a view of the Caribbean Sea from our balcony. The water remained furious throughout our entire stay there, crashing violently onto shore throughout every night. The sound was soothing; strange given the oceans capability of annihilation.
The Ocean is Enthralling
The next day we sat on the shore for hours, on our bottoms, letting the sea crash over us with every wave and sending us flying, legs tipping in the air, salt water rendering us temporarily blind. We had sand in our shorts and sea water up our noses and we couldn’t stop laughing; every time a wave swallowed me whole for a moment it took my breath away, washed me anew and filled me with adrenalin so addictive that we kept creeping further into the water so it would send us flying harder next time. There is something so mesmerizing about the ocean that I trust it far more than a sane person should. Statistically, it is absolutely terrifying – we know more about space than we do of the ocean that resides on earth itself. The ocean covers 70% of the earth, and yet we’ve only explored 5% of it. Yet I’m attracted to it so very much, this huge glorious sinister body that nobody actually knows. Maybe it’s because our bodies are 65% water, or because I am a water star sign, or because deep down, I want to be swallowed whole by the abyss. Whatever it is, time in the ocean is incredibly healing. To let something far more powerful than you knock you down over and over again is humbling. To venture into the ocean knowing that it could sweep you away forever at any moment is to put incredible trust in mother nature. It feels like a baptism of the ego.
Timeshares and Magic
Before we went to the beach, a Cuban dude knocked on our door. We were still shattered from our flight. His name was Rafael and he came across honourable, but he was a blagger. He came to welcome us to the hotel, to tell us what was on offer, but more importantly to him, he was eager to sell us a hotel membership, and assisted we went to a presentation about it. He spoke to us about how he was a good practitioner of magic, Santeria no less, and that he wouldn’t do us wrong. The presentation was funny, to put it one way – it took over an hour and what they were asking us to pay to join was absurd (about 10 grand!), but enduring the timeshare gave us money off excursions booked at the hotel, and so it was (kind of) worth it.
Seafood is available in abundance in Cancun, and as pescetarians when no halal food is around, this was good. My favourite restaurant was Captain’s Cove – admittedly a tourist hot spot, I let go of the guilt of not being adventurous or authentic enough when we tucked into their seafood risotto, stuffed with octopus and shrimps that tasted as fresh as I’d had them in a long while (note: I think the best seafood I ever had was in Lisbon). We went back another night and had their special – the lobster risotto – which was out of this world. The experience was topped off by a surprise visitor thrashing around in the waters below us – a crocodile, eyes glowing up from the water into the night sky. It swayed around in the waters beside us the whole time, beadily watching us eat.
We also tried seafood linguine and basa fish fillets baked in banana leaves in our hotel restaurant. Octopus tacos at the Sand Dollar (within the Royal Sands Hotel, which was so gorgeous I wish we’d stayed there) were also incredible, as were the shrimp tacos we got as a takeaway from Captain’s Cove one night – these were things you wish you could recreate at home, but they’d never be remotely the same.
When in Mexico, you have to visit Chichen Itza. Built around 600AD and prospering until 1221, the pyramid is one of the seven modern wonders of the world. The site served as a religious centre for the Mayans and like other structures built in ancient times – from the Egyptian Pyramids to Stonehenge – this mysterious wonder holds significance to the sun and is a popular visit during the spring equinox, when shadows create the miraculous illusion of the ancient Mayan snake deity Kukulkan (the ‘Feathered Serpent’) slithering down the pyramid itself as the sun sets.
Cenotes and Sacrifices
We did a day tour to Chichen Itza via tour company Cancun Passion, and they also took us diving in an ancient cenote (sinkhole). Diving in, praying the life jacket worked and watching birds fly in circles above our heads from deep inside a crater caused by an asteroid millions of years ago was one for the bucket list. Cenotes can be found all around the region of Yucatan – there are said to be about 6,000 of them. The most famous of them all, however, is almost certainly the Sacred Cenote, steps away from the pyramid of Chichen Itza. What is special enough about this particular cenote that thousands of tourists flock to it? Well, it was used for human sacrifice. The ancient Mayans would communicate with the Gods at this cenote, offering humans up as the ultimate gift. Hearing the tales from the tour guides, you can almost imagine people plunging – or being pushed – to their deaths as you stand there. The water looks heavy with darkness, it’s opaque. Thousands of people dived to their deaths in that one small pool of water. Unsurprisingly, this is one cenote you can’t swim in. Not that you should want to, either.
I Am Tired Of Being Tired
There is something about Mexico, and in particular Yucatan, that provided me with some invigoration of the soul. Western values are overrated. Put on your pressed shirt, go to your shitty 9-5, dream about doing something better, feel too exhausted by the bad weather and the pollution and the bills and the rat race to ever be able to do something about it.
We are barely surviving on this never ending cycle on rotation, like a hamster on a wheel with the delusion that he is getting somewhere.
To be in the Mexican jungle was a relief. It was hot, I was barefoot and sweating, at this stage I’d stop bothering putting deodorant on, my skin glowed, and I was constantly damp – I started to understand why our hotel room smelled the way it did. Being on my phone was no longer a primary thought, locals spoke to us of vibrations and energies, and it all made sense to me.
They had Worry Dolls for sale everywhere – the idea is that you buy these little voodoo dolls that you share your concerns with, and once you have, your concern becomes their concern. Worry Dolls originated in Guatemala, where the legend began.
The tale goes that the Sun God bestowed a gift upon the Mayan princess Ixmucane – the ability to solve any problem us humans worried about. Maybe there is something to the idea that legends, saints or Gods can help you that takes the pressure off that provides relief. Blind faith in most capacities is a wonderful placebo. As I learnt of these legends our backs were burning in the sun, but we were all a little closer to earth, and it was a feeling I couldn’t replicate when I came back home.
This isn’t to fetishise another community who undoubtedly have a life harder than us in the UK. But to be within a community more connected to each other than technology, forever in the sun, more connected with their own spirits, felt more freeing than I have felt myself be in a long while. It’s a feeling I had in Cairo – unexplained magic. I wonder if it is a coincidence that both lands are home to pyramids that are also wonders of the world.
Get Wet and Wild at Xel Ha
One day we visited Xel Ha, a water park perched on the coast of the Caribbean sea. We went snorkeling in a river hunting for cool fish to spy on, then we sailed down a river surrounded by mangroves in a rubber dinghy. It was a day of water. Water slides, zip lining over a river, an assault course over water… we wished we’d had two days at the water park – we didn’t get to do half the stuff they had on offer there. We did get to see the dolphins, iguanas and macaws dotted around the park though.
They also do a manatee experience, and an underwater dolphin show. It is also an all inclusive water park, so easy on how many margaritas you have before diving down the slide, which is 30 metres high.
Get Over It
Seaweed was a crazy thing in Mexico. I didn’t know tons of dry brown seaweed washed up on shore, and that it was a real problem. Our hotel did clean it up for the most part, and honestly it was fine. You just jump over it. That’s what we did all holiday, skipping over sand that is so white and heavily comprised of coral and shell fragments that it never burns despite the heat, and jumping over piles of brown, stringy seaweed before diving into the deliciously cool, merciful sea that could wash you away in the blink of an eye.