Feb 1st 2014
As a step toward the eradication of my paralyzing fear of life, I have decided to go to Cancun. On my own.
I am now sitting on a sofa at a friend’s apartment in Miami, feeling challenged by the lives of other girls who have lived life free of inhibition and oppressive anxieties. They’re out clubbing right now. I didn’t go because I wanted to plan something bigger. This trip matters to me because it’s a vast unknown.
It’s 3:52 am. My commitment right now is only to describe what is going on inside me and outside. I am delighted that I have taken a minimal step towards confirming the trip: I paid a deposit for a cheap hotel room on the beach. But apprehension still squirms inside me and there is limited wiggle-room. I have no idea what the trip will be like between the hotel and the airport.
I wanted to write a long poetic and fantastic account of what brought me to this decision but I am too tired to think right now. The point is, I did it. I took a step. One bite out of the fear pie. I’m munching it and I find that it’s very dry.
I know my new year’s resolution came late. It’s only one simple resolution. I did not bog my conscience down with a list of clunky demands that don’t fit together like ill-placed tetris shapes. I chose only one thing and that is to stop being afraid.
But why Cancun? Well I did gather some data. As this is entirely an emotional experiment, I will not bog you down with statistics and whatnot. But I did receive many messages from the internet and my Latin American friends that Mexico city was too dangerous to be wooed alone. My goal is not to put myself in immediate danger. Cancun seems less threatening, further away from the drug lords and tourist kidnappers of Mexico city, but near enough to stimulate my fear demons. I am putting myself somewhere where I know my fear will be triggered. And that, boys and girls, is my true enemy.
It fascinates me how I rise to the occasion sometimes when challenged by just the right thing. It may have been a mix of things actually like the fact that I will be leaving Boston soon and my last chance at absolute freedom looms near. Or maybe it was the time I walked into a theater to watch The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I expected it to be a spectacular and inspiring film that would make me want to get up off my seat and into the dangerous world and take ravenous bites out of its butt cheeks. I was so uninspired by the film, however. It did not kick my ass for being such a wuss all this time. It didn’t pull me by the ear and scream “Get UUUUUUP! NOOOOOW! GOOOO BE A MONSTER!”. Until I met Walter Mitty himself. And that was my cousin Reem. She came to be my “nurse” while I went into surgery for my eye. I was dreading her arrival because I knew I would see in her all the things I wished I was, all the things I wished I had fulfilled. I was dreading all the ways in which she would impose her robust hunger for life on me, making me recede into the shadows more and more. But “Walter Mitty” was so unassuming in the way that she did inspire me. She challenged me. It may have been that I was ready to be challenged. Was I priming myself to react this way to her presence?
I found myself confessing to her over lunch my paranoia about being raped, abducted, or kidnapped. I saw how silly and overgrown my fears were, all reflected on the look on her face.
Reem, apparently, is not afraid of anything. She is a spirit made of mud, grass, water and air. She goes anywhere and into anything with only the expectation that life will embellish her bronzed shoulders with the medals of experience. She gulps life. She eats and feasts on it. She delves elbow deep in sauce and licks her fingers after. Everyone is a friend and anything is doable. She is too strong to fear being a victim of any one’s vice. She’s an explorer, a collage, a mountain climber in every sense of climbing. She’s a lot of things I wanted to be when I was little but was too shy, too scared to actualize or even to admit. I grew like a daisy following the path that was long before set for me and she grew like a tropical weed that managed to push itself outside of the bunch.
I don’t know to what extent I can battle my fear. I don’t know how far I can take myself. My fear comes in waves. It reminds me of all that could happen to me should I choose to step outside of the teddy-bear comfort that was my life. It comes in waves like nausea and it is not easy to fight. I wonder how thick my bones would be should the world choose to break me. And that makes me even more afraid.
But I chose this project as a tester. The facts are right now, that I did book a hotel and, also, a room in a nice Mexican lady’s home. Here, I will call her Juanita. My bohemian sensibilities, those that ache to live barefoot in the world and to meet souls not people, hoots at the idea of staying with her. My other self, that one that has had the reins for so long, the one that my parents carefully brought up, seeks comfort in the idea of a hotel where there is guaranteed safety.
So now I have these two options secured. But I haven’t booked a flight yet.
I’m waiting for Joe to get back to me.
Enter Joe. Joe Dwyer one of my colleagues – I can’t call him anything else right now because that is exactly what our relationship is – offered to come with me to Mexico. Which was such a bright and refreshing thing, coming from him!
Joe is very handsome. He has a face that is desperate to be on a billboard but is hidden instead under a baseball cap. He has a voice that you could put in a bow and hunt a deer with. It hits your ear, just in the right spot, a rich baritone that is not too low.
Joe has an odd sense of humor. At least, I rarely get him. I normally would have refused his offer and felt awkward about the idea of traveling anywhere with him. I don’t know him that well. He’s a nice guy but I don’t know the way in with him, I find it hard to chart the map. I don’t get his jokes. I don’t know how to make him laugh.
The idea of going with someone out of the blue, not a friend you’ve known for a long time, or a family member, certainly defies the rule book. I have no expectations with Joe. I’m imagining that is the very thing that would make all of this an extra layer of interesting… if he came.
Let’s see if Joe will come. I would absolutely love it even if we end up staring at each other and not saying anything for hours!
Finding God in the stomach of a whale! In the curves of the ocean as it spreads and culminates into white tips of frothy sun and foam.
I believe there are pieces of him inside of us, immortal kindnesses.
To go out and live, to challenge myself, to push myself, knead my limbs, stretch my consciousness far and wide…would I perhaps find a greater me and through that, a greater you? You gave me a world. All of it. Is it mine for the taking?
The potential danger of my trip is still eating me alive. In some moments of clarity, I get excited about the possibilities and about discovering a new place. But other times I am plunged into the acidic bowels of fear. I imagine being kidnapped on my way to the city from the airport, before I even get the chance to see anything. I imagine being robbed just waiting for a taxi. I see myself being raped on my way back to Juanita’s house. What if I went to the ruins of Xichen Itza and a gang of hooligans abducted me? What if Juanita and her family are a bunch of crooks hanging around Airbnb just to snag people into their trap?
I stop to wonder how much of this imagery is fueled by proliferated stereotypes of how Mexicans behave. Take Juanita, for example, my would-be hostess. She has a lot of wonderful reviews on Airbnb and it looks like all her guests left her house unscathed and stuffed with delicious enchiladas. But that is the power that stereotypes have. They organize certain scenarios by linking them to people and places so that the fearful will know what to look for and what to stay away from. Or have stereotype been invented by the fearful? Stereotype or no, Mexicans were strangers to me. I had never been to that part of the world before.
Writing this, I instantly recall images from one of the Bernstein Bears books, Talking to Strangers. I remember that spread where Sister Bear sees the world through a dark and crooked lens and how the strangers on the street were drawn with a mean upward tilt to their eyes. The old man’s cane was crooked. The apple was crooked. The worms inside the apple were crooked. Those pages used to scare me. And this is how I am seeing the world right now, just like Sister Bear when she developed a fear of strangers.
I believe I’ve developed a fear of strangers, or a fear of strange things, or a mistrust of the world, of people, of the human race, and of fate. I catch myself thinking a lot about irony. It would be ironic if I got abducted just when I graduated and got my Masters of Fine Arts in film production. So ironic that I almost believe it will happen. It would be ironic if I were raped now. Because what comes after happiness, success, and achievement but misery and suffering? And those things, right now, are on the top of my list of fears.
I don’t know where I picked up my habit of expecting the worst, believing it, even when it does not happen. I don’t know why I can’t have faith that life can be good, safe, carefree, and liberating.
That’s what I want to find. If I don’t find it in Mexico, I want to at least be on the way to finding it.
I’ve been telling people about my trip today, almost wanting to catch them disapproving or fearing for my safety. At times, I wonder if going to Mexico now, like this, is crazy. I still have an apartment to pack up and clear out.
I thought about something today. Could I possibly have been creating so much fear in my imagination, feeding it everyday, bit by bit, like it’s some form of insurance? What if, without my fears, I would truly have been a bold and reckless person? My therapist says that our fears are parts that are trying to protect us. What if I never developed these fearful parts? Would I have possibly have had my neck broken by now?
It’s actually wishful thinking on my part to consider this idea because I so want to be a bold and reckless person!
FYI: Joe is not coming.
So I will go alone. I cancelled my hotel reservation. I’m going to stay with Juanita.
I stood on a thick tree branch and bellowed out my jungle call. Then, I called my dad and announced that I was going to Mexico.
“You’re going to Mexico?”
“Yes. To Cancun.”
“No, you’re not going to go.”
“I already have my tickets and boarding pass.”
My dad launched into a rant and hurriedly decreed that a family meeting must be held in the evening when he gets off of work and that my mother must be present so that we can “discuss the matter”. And what about my eye, which is still recovering? What if something went wrong with my eye? I should stay in Boston and watch it like a hawk in case it twitched, wiggled or unceremoniously turned purple with orange polka dots!
My eye is fine. It’s a little irritated right now, at the corner but I suspect it’s fine. The doctor said it’s fine. It felt fine all week. It’s fine. Right?
“There is no need for a family meeting,” I said, “I am going to Mexico. My eye will be fine.”
So my next train of thought after I hang up from my dad is: what if something does go wrong with my eye just because I didn’t “listen” to him? What if I prove him right? What if by letting go of my fear, by practicing my right to autonomy, I stir the jokers of irony and I come back with an eye that looks like an eggplant?
I read online that - just as I suspected- the eye itches after the surgery because the sutures are dissolving. That makes perfect sense to me but why do I still hear those jokers rattling in their boxes?!
I called the ER at Mass Eye and Ear. They paged a doctor on call. She said there was nothing to worry about. I tried to convince her that there was. Then I tried to convince her that there wasn’t. The result is, I have a brand new bottle of antibiotic eye drops ($102), which she was reluctant to let me use.
They took it all away. There is nothing in my apartment but a few random items and my bed.
I had so many things I had wanted to write about this moment. But all I can think of right now is this: I’m sitting on a blanket in the middle of the hardwood floor. Everything echoes now. The door makes it’s awful gluey sound when I open it and the sound resounds and bounces off the walls. There is nothing in here to contain it, nothing to contain me but my bed to which I hold on and together we stay afloat. We float in a cloud of disbelief, my bed and I, that life here has folded its page already, keeping faith alive that something large and robust and wonderful will come out of it all. Even though I will be going to live in the most dismal place on Earth after anywhere in Afghanistan. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Tomorrow morning, I will be the woman who emptied her apartment, severed her ties to what will be the past and went off sunny Mexico! Literally.
I only got four hours of sleep so far before I woke up and imagined Juanita drugging me in my sleep and taking me somewhere even more foreign than Cancun. What if I woke up in another room, or a box, or a cellar, or my grave?
So I got up and made a reservation on Expedia, my new best friend, for one night at a hotel on the beach just in cast I got some strange vibes from this woman, just in case something told me she wasn’t right. Although with my senses as tangled as they are at the moment, I don’t know how I will have the clarity to pick up on anything!
It’s time to pray. I pray for safety, common sense, and a smooth ride, for the most part at least.
I’m on the plane to Miami. I can see an expanse of nothingness – the ocean. It rolls along toward the edge of the window like one long uninterrupted breath that no one really heard, no choke, no cough, just like the haze before the world was born. I can see New England, crusted with layers of ice. It’s a tundra down there.
Let me describe to you what was happening to my stomach as I put my baggage through security. Inside this cavernous hole, where I digest my food, there was a security guard yelling things in a volcanic language at a frail child in a corner that cowered with its palms over its ears. Then they both, child and security guard, coiled into one tight mass and bit one another in the neck, grappling for release. In short, it was a difficult stomachache, only one of the checkpoints, I suspect, in this trip.
But there’s no point in worrying about it now. I am on the plane and it seems to me, this rushing forward into an unknown on a rapid vehicle with no choice to backtrack is very similar to death. Do I fear death? I don’t think so. I only fear the journey towards it, the pain of it, the suffering. I fear the fear of it.
Mexico is located on a continent that I’ve never been to before, much less on my own. I’ve never taken a trip alone, outside the US, which to my family and I, is almost a second home. We know the language in the US and not just the spoken one. We know what to expect there, how we will be treated. We know the mannerisms, the culture, the jokes, the rules, the regulations. We know what to do in case of emergency. Call 911.
The same I guess can be said about Europe. We know Europe. We speak Europe. But Central America? What is Central America? Even though it is not new land per se, I feel like an explorer about to discover new land for herself. Where people in the past saw new land approaching across the horizon as they bobbed in their ships, holding back the bile that’s been sitting there for months of fighting seasickness, we see it from above through a tiny pretentious window, with one knee crossed over the other. No bile. Possibly some anxiety. Or a great deal of it.
On the flight to Cancun. I considered running in the opposite direction when they called for the flight at the gate. My legs were alive and buzzing with consciousness as I walked into the plane. I felt the same way before I bungee jumped when I was seventeen.
Here’s to Cancun.
5:23 pm. Cancun,
I’m not real. I’m a paper doll from my own imagination. I’m a 2D character from a Woody Allen movie. I’m alone. I’m scared. I’m crying.
At Juanita’s house, darkness seems to be the paint by which they painted not only the walls but everything else, the heirlooms, the stairs, the air itself. The brightest part of the house that I’ve seen so far is my room, high up on the third floor, closer to the treetops and the tropical birds. It’s hot. There are cracks on the door and there’s no lock. Juanita is leaving and coming back in a couple of hours. Her husband, Eduardo is leaving to pick up their daughter from God knows where.
Again, I am scared. A phantom rises inside me from a barrel of resentful tar and shakes a finger at me. Why did you have to put yourself through this in the first place? Why this? All for a stupid experiment with fear? Do you realize that that door has no lock? Why did you not just go to a decent hotel where you can be served by people in uniforms and eat at the restaurant downstairs?
I don’t think I have the stomach to describe Juanita or the room or the house, or Cancun, or the airport or my ride from the airport. All I want to do now is observe how surreal this feels and perhaps scramble at attempts to make myself more real.
I want to go home.
The sun is going down. I’m going to sit here and be scared to death.
A lot to write. Where to begin?
My first shot of Mexico was one of barely controlled terror. It all started when the nice half-Brazilian American lady tried to make me aware of the dangers awaiting me just outside the airport.
We were standing in an obscenely long customs line. Plenty of time for me to develop a very vivid picture of what could happen to me if I just took a step outside! I considered a flight back.
She was chattering to a gentleman who was standing behind her in line. She had long Kardashian hair, tied up in a neat American ponytail. Her adequately voluptuous chest was very nicely framed with a plunging neckline. Except for the cleavage and the tanned arms, she looked like she was dipped in black ink and then given a pair of heels and a Louis Vuitton bag. Her name was Luma.
“I was talking to my boyfriend on the phone and I was telling him, ‘Can you imagine that I am going to be getting into a taxi alone? What if I got kidnapped?’” She said, sounding like a bottle of Sprite about to flow over.
The young lady – me – standing in front of her had a pair of antennae that went up immediately and starting honking signs of danger. I braved a conversation a few minutes later.
“Excuse me,” I said, “I overheard you talking about taking a taxi from the airport. Have you been here before?”
I knew she had.
“Yeah,” she said, “You have to be very careful! Are you alone?”
“Yeah, especially if you’re a girl and you’re alone!”
She leaned forward conspiratorially.
“Especially if you’re American and they know you’re a tourist, they’re gonna be after you! Be safe! Once you get out of customs, they’re gonna start approaching you.”
Her voice lowered for effect.
“You know there have been many kidnappings. Be careful. You could get kidnapped.”
We chatted, she, the gentleman – Larry – and I as the line pushed us closer and closer to the exit.
Larry turned to me and said, “As soon as you go through the door, you have to act confident. They’ll know you’re a tourist just by looking at you and you look nice. You’re from Boston.”
Shit. How in the blazing hell can I not look nice? When will I stop being called NICE!!!
“Be safe! You have to be safe!” he said.
Larry took my phone number to make sure I was ok. Now here was the situation: I needed pesos to pay the taxi. The ATM machine would not accept my card. I felt my stomach nosedive.
I found another ATM machine, an American one, in another terminal but reentering the arrival terminal again was an adventure. The security guard ushered me away from the door and pointed toward the gang of Mexicans who were ready to kidnap me and said, “Taxi! Taxi!”
“I don’t want a taxi! I want to go the information desk!”
If there’s one rule I knew about crazy airports is that you need to go to the information desk for a Taxi because you could easily fall prey to “unofficial” taxi cabs that either make you pay dearly or – you got it – kidnap you.
The security guard shook his head and would not let me through. He kept pointing at the crowd of people again. Now in my head, this was what I was saying to him:
“Now you listen to me! I will NOT get kidnapped today. You may not know this but I am Saudi and I know how to deal with lurking idiots like you who make up stupid senseless rules. We have a lot of them back home!”
I spotted the currency exchange window inside.
“Currency exchange!” I said.
He hesitated then let me through. I rushed to the currency exchange window because I knew he was watching and pretended to have a conversation with the currency exchange lady, who spoke no English. I found the security guard waiting by my elbow to escort me back to the door. I pushed past him. He followed me, speaking in Spanish.
“I need to speak to the information desk!” I said forcefully. Ignoring him, I went to the kiosk and booked a private shuttle for $68. How’s that for safety?
I landed myself in a fancy yellow cab with Miguel. He had the longest thickest darkest set of eyelashes anyone was allowed to have. He didn’t say a word to me.
I said all my prayers and launched Google maps to see exactly where this guy would be taking me.
When he stopped the car to speak to the security guard in the kiosk at the airport’s exit, the conversation felt a little too long for me. What were they talking about and why in God’s name did I not learn Spanish?
“Problema?” I asked him, surprising myself.
He drove me downtown, following the Google maps route almost to the point.
The city was rundown. It reminded me of the Southern parts of Jeddah, almost derelict, somehow keeping itself full and upright like a cheap bag of chips. Between the lush clusters of trees and palms, I saw churches that were painted in lively colors – yellow and washed out aqua. The paint was flaking off the sides of the walls and the alleyways led to unkempt gloom beyond. It hit me for the first time, in that interval of quiet, that this was Mexico. What am I doing here?
Juanita, as she appeared to me first was much fatter than she looked in the picture. She seemed to me like a pile of dough melting downwards with honey oozing in its mix. She melted in big blobs out of her sleeveless white shirt. Her breasts came down, down, down and very much outwardly. Her hips bulged in her sunflower yellow skirt and then they melted downwards too. Her hair was almost silver, as though I had traveled decades in time from the picture on her airbnb profile. Or she had forgotten to dye it.
She gave me hug when I met her. The skin of her arm and back was warm, soft and dewy. I could have taken a fistful of her skin and made little buns out of it to be popped into the oven. She smelled sweet but in a very human kind of way. She smelled like a human who had taken in all the smells in Mexico, fragrant and putrid, digested them in her insides with her breath and sweat and produced a kind of perfume of her own. A part of me was pleased but another wanted to gag.
The dog met us in front of the door and barked at me, a short fellow quite confidant of his own importance in this residence. I could have stepped on him by mistake.
I was surprised by my own cool congeniality. Juanita took me inside where I met her husband who was sitting at the dining table looking surly. The living room was dark. All the shades were drawn. It looked like some Medieval or Moorish lord had woken up with a terrible hangover and needed the room to be subdued in every possible way.
Her husband; the way I can describe him is that he was just there. He was the stodgy type that was cut out only to complete the portrait in the marital picture frame. Juanita lived in this house. He only sat in the chair.
She took me up two flights of tight winding Spanish stairs to what would have been, in consideration of Mexican architecture, the equivalent of a tower room.
She had it painted in an emerald green on one side and lavender on the other. The bed she dressed with a beautiful Mexican blanket. The room had a view of the tiny front yard. Opposite that window, there was a door to a balcony with a view of that side.
It was quaint and right up my alley. Except for one thing. The door did not have a lock, as I mentioned before.
She left me to “change” and make myself comfortable. I sat down on the little artsy rocking chair and it was that moment where I left off writing yesterday.
Juanita and her husband could be my friends. We could keep in touch after I went home. Coming in and out of a tight and very ethnic home like this is so picturesque for me. Being fed and spoiled by these people. Quesadillas. Snippets of history. How they met. Their children. If there was a war one of them remembered. The dog eating from my hand.
But when I left, that very afternoon, on the tip of sunset, the dog barked at me. I couldn’t stay at Juanita’s because, you see, that moment I sat on the rocking chair, my detachment from myself turned into disbelief and the disbelief, gathered itself from every alley in my body and turned into a roiling storm of dread. And that storm broke into sheer terror.
All the doors in the house did not have locks, except for the bathroom. Juanita had left for work. Her husband had told me he was leaving to pick up his daughter. The house was very dark now as the sun was going down, it almost threatened to swallow me alive. I was suffocating. What if this was a ploy to somehow abduct me? What if they both came back with other people to “take” me? What if they came in through the said unlocked door and drugged me at night? What if Eduardo, her husband, came in at night and found himself a doll to play with?
The alarm went off in my body. There was a big vooom that rushed through me and forcibly made me pack up my things and go! Go! GO!
I stumbled downstairs past the barking dog and soon found myself in the yard. Past the gate, I prayed for God to show me the way to the main road. The sun was not kidding about setting. Sunny Mexico must have been fun but I did not like the idea of dark Mexico.
It was two blocks away, just like Eduardo had explained. I had to take a leap and trust the taxis with the green stripe to take me to the hotel that I had reserved a room in as a back up plan for the one night. My phone’s battery was dying with every minute that I used Google maps. Was the driver taking me to Blvd. Kukulkan? Yes he was. Was he making any odd turns? No he was not. I spoke to him in English. He spoke to me in Spanish. Somehow we got along and by the end of the ride – the phone died – we were able to communicate in Spanglish and find the humor in the adventure of finding the damn hotel. With the windows open, wind rushed into my lungs. It was like God was telling me to breathe. And I did. I felt alive again. All of my selves rushed into one who was very much present.
The “hotel” turned out to be more like a motel. No reception or lobby. The rooms opened into an outdoor corridor, behind which was an open courtyard. Holes were burned into me with the sketchy stares that came from the sketchy strangers who hung around. At least they were sketchy to me. Remember Sister Bear?
I threw myself into the room and locked the door. All I wanted was to be alone. It dawned on me as I tried to relax that the day had cost me my North Face jacket, which I had traveled with from Boston and which Juanita had hung by the main door. In my frenzy to save myself from the gangsters that were soon arriving, I had forgotten I even had a jacket. It also dawned on that my Bank of America debit card was still in the ATM machine at the airport. Shit! Shit!
I was already half-asleep as I rotated between calls to Bank of America and Expedia to book a new hotel which actually had a lobby for the rest of the week.
Still three more days to go.
I battled my fear today with armor and war cries. I spilled myself out onto Blvd. Kukulkan and braved the bus, back and forth. To the ATM machine. To the mall. To the bank. All just to get a wad of cash in order to pay the taxi that will take me to my new hotel. I found out that the bus was safe, as opposed to what Luma had told me, and that the taxi was just extra expense.
I saw the boulevard by daylight and it was kind of sort of wonderful! Once I had finally settled down in a place I could call my own in these upcoming days, I spread out my towel on the beach and lay down in the sun. I hoped to bake a little. Sweeten up a little. I wanted my meat to be soft and ready for fun. Or a mimicry of it.
I relaxed for what might have been half an hour until I read an email from the Saudi Cultural Attache warning us of a storm on the east coast of the US. Snowstorm Leon is approaching and I immediately began to wonder if this will have any effect on the weather here in Mexico. I looked at the forecast. It confirmed a thunderstorm tomorrow starting at 11:00 am. I couldn’t sit still any longer!
I’ve been feeling miserable ever since. All I keep seeing is scenes from “The Impossible”. Naomi Watts crouching by the glass wall watching a tsunami wave, a mile high, crashing down on her.
My sour mood was not improved when the cabana boy tried to “helpfully” wipe the sand off my face. I became surlier and surlier with him because, you know, what if he and his cronies, the waiters, were working their way around me with a manual in their back pockets called “How to abduct rich Canadian tourists”? All the guy probably wanted was a tip! And yeah, I’ve been parading as a Canadian. Not a lie. I do have a Canadian passport. It’s more like a crutch. See, people seem to think that Saudis are loaded and I generally try to avoid divulging the fact that I wash my hair with black gold everyday. Another stereotype for you!
No one has kidnapped me. No one has abducted me. In fact, all people have been to me so far is nice. I’m the one keeping myself captive. There’s a five year old girl right now, sitting on this chair in this hotel room, indoors on this beautiful day, literally sobbing the words “I want to go home!”
I don’t know what to do with her or for her. I want to help. I can’t keep running to people. I am not going to call anyone. I need to go through this on my own.
Three more days to go.
Mission North Face. I need to rescue my jacket. I need to go back to that place and face the people I ran away from.
My polite excuse for my disappearance was that I decided to be closer to the beach. That would have been that. But Boston is cold and there is no way I can put a single toe out of the airport without my North Face bear hug on. Besides those things are damn expensive! Otherwise I really would not bother to go back and face Juanita and Eduardo. I am too ashamed. I am still afraid.
So I took a cab. I am getting comfortable in the cabs now but not enough to become complacent. My antennae are sharp and I watch every detail out the window and every twitch on the driver’s face. Cancun in the afternoon is actually quite lovely. It reminds me a little bit of Jeddah’s sweeping drive at the Corniche. Things glitter in the sun. If only I could bask. I need to get that piece of me that I left behind first. Once of I’ve gathered all my forces, my North Face jacket, my beach towel, my sanity, then maybe I’ll be friends with the sun today and perhaps a glass of calming-the-fudge-down!
I made sure to ask Eduardo to please bring my jacket outside by the gate. I told him I didn’t want the taxi to leave. The truth is, I don’t want to go inside again. Nothing could induce me to.
Eduardo holds my jacket out to me with a benign look on his face. He must have been thinking I’m a funny and terribly confusing young tourist creature. Or maybe he wasn’t thinking of me at all. Maybe I’m just one of the people his wife hosts, who pass by unnoticed and unremembered.
But I feel like a child that has arrived home after an ordeal. I hug my jacket to me all the way back to the hotel. It feels like a puffy pile of safety.
Back at the hotel, with all my belongings intact, I shower to gain a new perspective, which is something I habitually do when my mind goes on overdrive and into a ditch. Later, by the poolside, I’m clean and comfortable and I smell like cigarette smoke.
After I showered, I did two things in the lobby. I booked a tour for tomorrow to Yucatan. Yes, I am going to another state in Mexico. It’s a tour that takes you to see the pyramids of Xichen Itza.
I figured, if I’m getting antsy about three more days alone and scared, I might as well go on a tour with a bunch of people, tourists like me, and make friends with them. Is it safe? Incredibly safe. That’s what the concierge lady said. Also, the tour guide is supposed to be very well-liked.
Ok. This is the information that I have.
The other thing that I did was I bought a pack of cigarettes. I’m not a smoker and I abhor smoking but I’m so high-strung right now, I am hoping a couple of cigarettes will calm me down.
I took my first puff, after struggling to light the damn thing. One thing I learned was that you have to hold the cigarette in a certain way so that it doesn’t bend when you fumble around for stuff in your purse. Another is that a cigarette consumes itself so fast that I really don’t get where the calm comes from. If you have to race the embers and smoke it faster than it dies, like a gangrene spreading from tip to tip, how do you get truly lost in the act of inhaling and exhaling? From what I experienced just now, the cigarette only made me hyperventilate!
This was not my first cigarette. No, really, it wasn’t.
It does work. Apparently, I was hyperventilating before I even took my first drag.
I smoked another one as I looked at the moon. I’ve never done that before. Smoke and look at the moon. It’s a moon dipped a few inches into the sky. The bottom quarter of the circle is missing. The sky is blue still, but a darkening secretive blue that makes me want to be the lady whose soul it belongs to.
I’m calm at last.
From the state of Quintana Roo to Yucatan, on the way to the ruins. I’m a sleepy Tintin today. I look out the bus window between weaving spells of sleep and I see forests so thick, rambling deeply inwards, and bright with yellow wildflowers. I wish the forest would swallow me up but sleep swallows me instead.
I wonder if I would survive in the forest. I’ve always wanted to know. I want to disappear into the breast of the wildflower bush until I become all soul and no body and maybe manifest into a flower myself. The sight of beauty brings me to the foreground and my mind succumbs into quietude.
I spent last night working myself and the bed sheets into a state of incessant worry. I think by now you’re well acquainted with the pattern here.
What was I frightening myself about? Was this tour another ploy to abduct me (and the others)? Was the nice lady at the concierge desk in on it?
I won’t bore you with the myriad of scenarios that floated in and out of my mind but one of them involved my sending an emergency text – because, obviously, I would not be able to make a phone call with hijackers on the bus – to Maha, my older sister, in the middle of her business meeting:
Hijackers on bus. Call embassy. License number….
The bus is fancy actually with color-coded Mayan snakes painted on its side. It looks bullet proof. It has monitors and a good sound system. I still took a picture of the license plate.
Mayan villages are passing me by and I can’t get enough of them. It’s wonderful to watch these beautiful people in brilliant Hispanic clothing, indigenous if not for the eroding faculties of time. They stroll with ease among adobe shacks. They live life like they were in a portrait where there’s no rush to move past the frame and gallop into the continuity beyond.
We’re getting close to Xichen Itza.
I try to remember which Tintin book had the ruins of Xichen on the cover. I think it’s Tintin and The Picaros. The ruins in the comic seem to be overgrown and hidden. But, in reality, the pyramids have such stature in the midst of a field so vast it could fit thousands of tourists taking pictures, or Mayan’s praying to the gods.
We are shown around the Mayan village; the pillars, the sacrificial stones, and the court where the Mayan’s played ball. It all looks like an expansion of the computer game, Zuma.
The God Kukulkan was said to be summoned at sunset as a testimony to the emperor’s deity. If you clapped your hands on the field, you would hear the echo of your clapping rain down on you from the pyramid in a series of “bird cries”.
The acoustics of the pyramid, of course, were designed such that the topmost chamber, would send that sound back down to you. The emperor would urge his people to clap so that Kukulkan would descend. Imagine thousands of Mayans clapping and hearing the sound of their God in response. They clapped until the sun went down at a certain angle and a shadow would slither down the steps of the pyramid. The bird-snake would awaken thus and the Mayans in utmost ecstasy to behold their Godly kind supported by, before their eyes and ears, by the celestial heavens.
As the Mayans wipe their tears in awe, I stand there hundreds of years later thinking the bird-snake is kind of cool. It wasn’t just cool. It was elegant, raw, vicious and luscious, like a bowl of fruit unraveling with two sets of fangs.
The enclosure holds a large crow of tourists who can’t seem to stop being reverent of the pyramid’s multiple angles. And I am one of them, unable to stop taking pictures. I’m hoping to capture time in those shots, or the cascading energy that the pyramid still vibrates with. To stop and be at awe, is sometimes the best cure for fear. I forget about my little panicky heart for a good two hours as I stroll in the winding pathways around pyramid.
Where I imagined there would be gangsters waiting for me, there are vendors instead, selling a busy caravan of Mexican trinkets. There was so much revelry in the colors. Ceramic plates with exploding greens, purples, oranges and yellows you would want to feast on or gulp and paint yourself with. I bought a round Mayan calendar made out of clay, not for the historic significance but for the deep ocean indigo pigment.
I taught myself how to haggle. They say that when you face a big fear, lesser fears become laughable. For me, that lesser fear was of losing a bargain on the spot. With my broken Spanish, I bought bags and bags of gifts and souvenirs that I didn’t really need. But the joy realizing my inner swarthy yellow-tooth haggler kept me going an eventually emptied my wallet. I had to carry those things home.
I am not interested in much else after my shopping epiphany. They take us to see the town of Valladolid, which is an enchanted place that looks like it was under the spell of long dead hero or saint, who, before he died, never released the town folk from its hold. It is faded place, wrestling to keep the cover of beauty. But the paint shows underneath and the dust and the sage faculties of life passing by.
I have lunch there with an obnoxious Egyptian family. We were drawn to each other for our mutual Arabness. But they throw current Egyptian politics onto the ground and step on its already broken nose with lacquered boots. They throw corn husks and onions at religion and anyone who even whispers a sense of belonging to Islam. They throw glares my way when I speak up. With the views that I personally have, by some fundamentalists, I might be dubbed a hypocrite, a liberal, a god-forsaken blasphemer. But I never aim my point of view at someone sitting across from me at a meal table and shoot them with it. I was hoping to make friends but I am lonelier than ever now. If I can’t find solace with my own people, then I am truly alone in Mexico.
The xenote comes last. It’s like I’m being take into the heart of a sapphire as it made love to an aquamarine. A xenote is an underground natural pool of water that is nestled inside a cave. Upon first glance, you would think the water had magical properties. But then you would think that modern tourists no longer believe in magic and that the water was just water.
The dying sun comes in through the opening and brightens the green of the moss and stirs the blue of the pool. I wish that there were no such things as social conventions, that human beings can just strip naked and enjoy God’s Earth in the moment with all of their senses. I feel like there’s a missed opportunity for enlightenment here. But I turn away because it is time to leave.
The Cancun diary is going horribly wrong for no apparent reason. I have a tight nausea in my stomach and it’s not the kind that comes from poor digestion. It is the emotional kind that translates as “I don’t want to be here,” or “I don’t want to be in this situation.”
I thought I would be having grand epiphanies or even small ones. I did, I won’t rob myself of that but why does it feel like I’m giving up already. I feel like the part of me that is a sucker for comfort and safety (and people who speak a language I can understand) has been the boss of me so far. Does that mean I have lost my quest before it is even done?
I was just on the phone with Expedia and American Airlines trying to see if I could change my flight from Saturday to tomorrow. This nausea says Yes! Yes! At the thought of leaving here tomorrow. I really want to go home to Boston and then from Boston home to my family.
I tear up right here in the lobby. My eyes burn. I miss my family. Horribly. It’s like a giant octopus of longing spreading its giant tentacles into my sleep, my dreams, my waking minutes and into every anxious breath I take. Those tentacles steal into the future scenarios that I create as I walk and talk back home, into the conversations that I see myself having. I tell them things. I show them things. I want to see them again. I hope I see them again.
I wonder if this nausea is a mutilated form of homesickness that is so sick I can’t even recognize it. It’s covered with moss and other dangling things. It moans in my chest, the dark cave that won’t let anyone or anything in.
I don’t trust anyone here. Or my anxiety doesn’t trust anyone. It doesn’t trust anyone with my money, with my body, or with any information about me. So far, I’ve been Canadian and I’ve been here con amigos (very much a lie, unless you count my imaginary friend Joe!) And this constant protective state is making me even more on edge.
I wanted to study Mexicans, to get to know them, perhaps to make a friend or two but whenever I speak to somebody, they ask me where I’m from and if I’m alone and it makes me crawl right back into my crab shell and keep the torpedoes ready.
I wonder if that is what European or American people feel like when they come to the Middle East. For the fun of it, I will describe to you what type of American I’ve been in the past couple of days: I’ve been the Academic, Ivy league type of American that knows so much about the world from books and the internet but knows nothing about getting along in the third world! And I come from a third world country!
A girl with hefty breast sits in front of me in the lobby, rubbing herself with oil. Her breasts almost spill out of the bottom of her bikini bra. She looks like a sepia version of herself and her face is so featureless. If not for the lines that indicate eyes, nose, and mouth, there would not have been any features there to speak of. People are so relaxed around me, rubbing things on themselves and getting every part of their bodies that protrudes red in the sun. I try to absorb their carefree vacation attitudes but whenever I look at a woman, I see her with someone and never alone. I am probably the only woman in this hotel that is alone.
But so what? If this was true, why should it have so much weight on me? I’ve been trained my whole life to constantly have a companion for safety because I was a young woman. It was difficult for my parents to digest the idea of me being alone in Boston. It took me years to shake off the general rule about women traveling alone. When I’m in Saudi Arabia, my dad sometimes still insists that I don’t cross the street to my grandmother’s house alone after sunset.
A guy just came and sat next to me. He’s the guy who works at the restaurant at the beach. This guy reminds me of the gum you find in the most unpleasant places – like under the table - and unprecedented moments – like just now when I’m clearly writing and look busy. He comes up out of nowhere and puts himself in my face trying to engage me in conversation, sticky conversation, uncomfortable conversation, perhaps because he subjects me to the hard stare of his olive-like eyes.
I just gave him a mean “what do you want? Leave me alone” kind of look and he got the message. I feel proud of myself for getting him to leave me alone but then I comment inside my head on my stiff tendencies. I can’t believe I came to Mexico and expected the Mexicans to leave me alone!
The knot releases as I write. Looks like I’m staying the day that is left and the good news is, I found a good service to take me to the airport.
I need a cigarette.
You can’t come voluntarily to a place and not want to be around the people it belongs to. It just doesn’t make sense. I deeply apologize to all Mexicans who might be reading this. I need you to understand that I am under construction.
My mouth tastes just like a rebellious old lady’s mouth. I just had a smoke. I wish cigarettes had no smell or taste. I would probably have been a smoker if they hadn’t.
There’s a thrill to lighting a cigarette. It’s somehow a sign of maturity if you’re able to light it right away. If you light it right away in the wind, you’re a master and I bow to you.
There was a considerable shift this afternoon. I was worried about not scoring those much-wanted epiphanies. Well, I had one today: I walked to the mall. It was the miraculous idea of the day, just the right fix.
The mall was 500 meters away from the hotel. All I needed to do was actually get out of my head and out of the hotel and walk in the sunshine. As I wended my way along the boulevard, I felt the nausea melt like a hunk of butter and effervesce.
Kukulkan Boulevard is named after the feathered snake, a descendant of the Mayan Gods, which the ruler would summon to keep the people in a state of immortal awe. Kukulkan would slither down the sides of the pyramid in Xichen, flanking the steps, and you can see its head carved in stone on either side.
Kukulkan Boulevard has no feathers but it has a lot of palm trees. It is green and curvilinear and wide and luscious. It slithers along the coast like a sinewy well-oiled man in a suit carrying a silver tray with a weasel-ish well-practiced smile on his face. Welcome! Welcome! Good hotels for good people! Have a good time, eh? Have a good time!
The mall was a landmark of normalcy. There was a Starbucks. There was STARBUCKS! I saw it in capitals! I could have sat on the doorstep and fell asleep there, quite at home. God bless America and God bless Starbucks.
I was completely myself again and I ventured ---
I was sitting at the bar on the beach, just now, writing in my little moleskin. I left off writing because I found myself in the middle of a conversation with two gay gentlemen with whom I spoke for almost half and hour.
Harun and Gillaum. They were so refreshing. I was refreshing. The air was refreshing. The coffee was good, I had it con leche.
They traveled the world, these two gentlemen. They spoke so many languages. They were charming and congenial and we were best friends for that half hour. We spoke about places in South Africa and how untouched the country is, the weather in Boston and Canada, the occasional passive aggressiveness of Americans, the awful guy whom I’ve previously dubbed gum-guy (and they agreed with me that he’s weird), Egyptian cuisine, Naguib Mahfouz, phrases in different languages, among them Arabic, and we said a warm goodbye because it was getting chilly.
As evening fell upon us, I found myself thinking about how simple the solution to my previous panic attack was. Get out! Go outside! I felt very clear. My head was clear. I was once again holding hands with myself. The crows of fear abated, lingering only as a row of sentries along the horizon, barely visible, yet still noticeably there.
My anxiety comes and goes. For the most part, I can prevent it no more than I can prevent a sore throat from developing into a cold. It happens and I live through it, in its most alive and mildly theatrical form, and in the morning- the morning of anxiety’s end, that is – I see clearly once more and, like I do every time, I realize how much of it was unfounded fluff.
It happens mostly at night. When I was a child, it was bugs. Now it’s abduction, rape, kidnapping, failure, loneliness, what have you. I go on the ride every time with my arms and leg flailing and well outside the vehicle and when I’m sober, I pray and find release.
Right now, I’m at peace with Cancun, not in love, but tentatively at peace.
They keep calling me asking me when I would like a taxi. I don’t know if it’s the same person or not but I do know that one of them actually troubled himself to climb up three flights of winding stairs, bang on my door, and tell me to make sure that I call him when I need the taxi on Saturday.
The phone rang just now, causing me almost to lose my mind. They asked if I had ordered a taxi (I asked about one, last night).
“If need a taxi I will call.” I said.
“You need a taxi?”
“No. I will come down to the reception when I need a taxi.”
“You will come later?”
I slam the phone down. I did not tell him that I had already booked and paid $60 for a private shuttle to take me to the airport on Saturday morning.
This was half an hour ago. Another wave. I can see it coming. Why are they so keen to find me a taxi? Are they planning – bear with me please – among themselves to abduct me?
Where they just eager for a tip? Please let this be about the tip! Please!
I wrote down the US states that I know to distract myself. I could remember only forty. My heart is still thrumming like a moth trapped in a box. I might have to sleep in this condition.
I can’t wait to get out of Mexico.
One last stop and that is the airport. Tomorrow I will wake up at dawn – 5:00 am – and take my two dangerously bulging bags full of Mexican goodies and have someone drive me through the wee hours of morning.
I have a sense of foreboding and I know that this will be my last challenge (unless there’s any trouble with my I-20 at customs in the US – which I hope I’m well prepared for. But let’s not get into that right now). Regardless of what dangers the world will or will not present, I feel this is the last emotional barrier for me on this trip. If I get through this, then I will officially graduate from my self-imposed phobic intervention program.
I am charging forth into this last stop in my journey with the philosophy that dictates “something has to go wrong”. All’s has been well, despite my own paranoia. I don’t mean to summon bad omens but I am on edge right now. What if something does go wrong?
What if the cherry on top is that I actually do get kidnapped?
Please. Please. Please. Keep me safe.
You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine.
I had a dream last night that I was sleeping on the white recliner in our basement in Riyadh. I was sleeping such that I was too wedged in the corner of the chair – there was a corner somehow – and I was more soul than body, humbled, frightened and exhausted with dread. Then Mama came, also a shapeless soul herself and I felt her leaning over me, embracing me with her body heat. She put her lips close to my forehead.
I woke up breathing hard, heart pounding. My forehead still tingled from the formless kiss.
I made it to the airport, safe and sound. The only trouble that I had was that I needed to buy a silly beach bag with “Cancun” splashed across it in order to check the pile of Mexican goodies that I bought onto the plane.
Once I was in the waiting area, I texted my mother and I told here where I was. I told her about my dream.
“That’s because I was thinking about you a lot today. Really. I was worried about you.”
I sat staring through the vista of glass, at the airplane that waited outside and cried.
The hobbit has returned to the Shire.
I landed in a winter wonderland and oddly enough, after my constant bitching about the snow, I found it a most welcoming sight, like I could cover myself up warmly with the snow and fall asleep, so soft and sound. Where the runway in Mexico was brightly flanked with palm trees dancing to the tune of “sway”, the runway here was dark and frigid, plump whiteness all around, men in arctic garb ushering the snow-coated plane through.
I am at home. My wonderfully messy apartment is in shambles right now as is my life in Boston. Everything says goodbye to me, the ring of the elevator as it arrives, the echoes of my voice in the shower, the simple act of getting the mail.
I went to conquer something and, while it may take me time to absorb all that I’ve learned, all the layers that I’ve shed, I do know one thing: I’m a neurotic paranoid person with various degrees of anxiety disorder. Despite that, I am a wanderer. I brave things in my own way. While I’m basking in comfort right now, I have a feeling that I will not be satisfied here for long, where I know my footsteps and motions by heart. I will want to go out and conquer the world soon, one bit of earth at a time, country by country, place by place, risk by risk, and by doing so, conquering and mastering myself.
I’m a true traveller in the making. Maybe someday, I will brave the jungle on my own. Someday.
And only because I cannot resist…there and back again.