Mexico: a kayaking story for cinco de Mayo…

.. or as my family likes to call it… the near death kayak.

About ten years ago, my family decided we wanted to start traveling for Christmas – get some sun in before the long winter haul of the the northeast USA.

We’re not the all inclusive, cruise people so we decided to go to an Eco-retreat & head for Tulum, Mexico to get there before everyone else did (PS everyone already had gotten there first – I maintain it’s still an escape but it’s not the deserted place described by the backpackers of old). Amazing open beach, delicious food (slightly expensive but yummy all the same), margaritas…. who could ask for more?

I am not going to share here where we stayed as it’s our own fault for heading towards a resort that placed the greater emphasis on eco before we were all really ready for salt water showers, ancient plumbing, very public windows. It was one very very expensive camp out which by the way serves us right. I caution any traveler who wants to fake rough it that sometimes, it can seem that one is paying a premium to do just that  – just be happy you have a bed, walls, roof – forget the thread count, the natural products in the bathroom – you’re staying in a slightly enhanced tent/yurt and either be cool with that or stay somewhere else.

I also blame the bizarre cold snap – you know when the Norwegians staying next door complain it’s cold, well, it’s cold. The mother told me she was worried about her nine year old in the night and tried to cover him up with some more towels and he thought she was giving him a reassuring pat, to say, hey kid, I know it’s freezing & you’ll make it. We comforted ourselves by eating lots of delicious seafood & tacos, going to the Coba ruins, heading into town for supplies and swimming in cenotes, sitting in the sun (really only very cold at night). We just were missing one thing – some time on the water and some kayaking. No worries, last day we planned to head out on a sunset kayak in the nearby biosphere with some bird watching.

There were a number of warning signs… it was far too windy for kayaking, the van was terribly late picking up all the other people at the resorts/hotels/cabanas on the way (who were only going for a motorized version of what we were going to do) and the clincher…. the exhausted and speechless group of returning water people who had been out before us… bells should have rung for sure… but we’re good sports or at least 75% of are (be nice – don’t guess correctly that I am the bad 25% ) and we’d made it through seven days in the Swiss cheese walled cabin, we were ready.

Off the four of us went…. two people to each heavy old fiberglass kayak, no sea skirts and wind so strong now, white caps in the normally calm bay. We were introduced to… let’s call him Pierre (not his real name) – a Frenchman, maybe 22 at most, escaping France for some fun before his real life began. There was a safety briefing but as we’d all kayaked before – both on lakes and ocean – he deemed us fit to shove off. And yes, we were wearing life jackets.

Immediately, we struggled but we pushed on – off across the white capped water, towards an island in the middle to see the birds (later to be called by me the f%^king birds) and while I wasn’t in the greatest of shape, my sister and her friend were so believe me, it really was hard. We had conned the poor friend into coming with us – know her family were practically survivalists to our hedonists.

I was too focused on paddling to notice Pierre had grown agitated – I was maybe appreciating a rest by the island – wishing I were safely motoring around the other side, enjoying a nice Pacifico beer.

My mother, who had been paying attention to all the water swamping into the kayaks, never one to take anything lying down and the most experienced, asked what Pierre’s plan was – she already had identified the way we came as the path of no return. He seemed baffled at the wind, at us and began to lead us to the edge of the mangroves looking for something… and we looked… and we paddled… and we looked… and great news… the sun started to set – really set, not all nice glowing pretty light but headed towards blackness set, no moon in the sky set.

Then…. bad news, he got a bit huffy and then announced that the only way back was the way we came. I’m going to say here that every single one of us cursed him, Mexico and  whoever brought kayaking into vogue.

The wind was blowing at us, not behind us and the waves were just as white capped and the dock now seemed miles away. First words out of his mouth after we swapped boat mates around (I’d like to note here that my sister’s friend got Pierre’s solo kayak and I got him), he advised us whatever we did we had to stay together.

Nope, first thing that happened, the wind blew us all apart…. of course.

And so, Pierre and I began the 1,000 stroke journey. He started hoping aloud for rescue and repeating the F word (totally better if you could hear the French accent).. why didn’t they miss us? he wondered, why don’t they bring the boat to get us? where was everyone? I just paddled.

Eventually, things got better as they do when one is actually going to make it back to dry land. The wind had actually blown a lot of the water out of the lagoon we were in and so you actually could touch, the water was warm and the wind did start dying down. Pierre, bless him, did stop cursing and we got busy. Paddle for ten minutes, gain 1 foot of ground, stop, dump out the kayak, repeat… this went on for some time but we started to make some ground. It was black as night (heck, it was night) and one small criticism of the all natural biosphere – there was only one teeny tiny dock light to guide us in (yes, people, I realize that is the point of the biosphere). I stopped counting my strokes and we got close enough to hear our solo kayaking friend calling our names… she of course being the bad ass that all her family are had reached the dock in good time.

One small problem, where were the others? My mother and sister were still at large and surely someone could get the motor boat out to look for them now? But not to be, no gas… no driver… no key.

I have missed sharing my mother was in her seventies – I have heard from friends we shouldn’t have brought her out but you try telling a sassy, strong 70+ she’s too old to do something she knows how to do better than you that she cannot come along? My sister and mother did not know they could not touch and therefore the whole scenario was much more dramatic. They had struggled longer and paddled further – finally capsizing as the boat was too full with spray and waves and were attempting to swim it it in (impossible to do).

Flash forward…. they did finally show up, just as the gas and the boat driver did. We weren’t going to have to spend the night in the lagoon, clutching the mangroves and everyone survived, sore, but just fine. My sister said she pictured us in a magazine that often features survival stories that have gone wrong…. family lost to lagoon. I shouldn’t joke and I don’t take this lightly. I think anyone who’s spent any time near or on the water knows who things can go down hill quickly – I’ll include high water, low water, frozen water, white water in all of that warning.

We still got our included fish dinner – my mother refused to eat it, stating she was almost with the fishes and was offended… we returned to our camp, sorry hotel cabana, brought her the medicinal gin & tonic and had some good laughs with Pierre who agreed we had been almost screwed.

The moral of this tale… well, you can figure that out.

Happy Cinco de Mayo to you all.