Imagine: A Vagabond Story Preview
Now what? The voice in the back of my head kept at it, drilling me with the same question for quite some time. I was a super senior. It was my ninth semester of college. I took my time, switched majors, transferred, and partied an unhealthy amount, but now it was time to move on. Yet I had no idea where I was supposed to go next.
It was the fall of 2005, and a snow covered Buffalo, New York, as usual. It was so cold outside that it actually hurt. I had a house with six of my closest friends, and we were living it up, knowing that college was nearing an end. The lease was about to expire, and we were heading out to begin the next chapter of life. Steve had gotten a great job in finance in Binghamton, New York. Dan had already accepted an offer from a powerhouse company in Manhattan. Andy was continuing with his job at an advertising agency in Buffalo. The rest of us were still undecided, weighing whatever options we had.
I’d be lying if I told you that I wasn’t scared out of my mind. Everything in my life had been laid out perfectly leading up to that point. Grammar school and middle school, then high school and finally college, but now what? Where was I to go from here? It was then I got the e-mail that would change my life forever. Apparently I was seven credits short of my diploma.
How could this be? I panicked. Some credits I had taken at a college back home in Rochester, New York, didn’t transfer, and I was a mere seven credits shy of the diploma that everyone I knew held in such high regard. I refused to tell anyone at that moment. Not out of embarrassment but because I truly didn’t know what my next step was going to be. All of my friends were graduating, and our house was going to be taken away.
A few weeks went by, and I put those seven credits on the back burner, not wanting to disturb my “last” semester of college with my boys, the guys who a few years back were new faces floating in an ocean of strangers. The Buffalo cold had gotten under our skin, making the new, not-so-distant future even that much more exciting. Even though some of our paths were murky, the excitement kept us warm in a climate so cold.
I thought about a close friend of mine from my sophomore year, Kerri. She was a dance major and moved to Mexico after college. She had graduated two years before me and ended up in a tiny town south of Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Playa del Carmen is a beach town an hour south of Cancún on the Caribbean coast of Mexico. We lost touch after she graduated but had reconnected in the summer of 2005 after Hurricane Emily had devastated the area she was living in, the storm almost taking her life with it as it dissipated inland from the sea. She called to tell me that she was well and would continue to stay down there after the whole ordeal with the storm. We ended up talking for a good hour or so as I realized that what she was doing down there really intrigued me. The job is called animación, which is a Spanish alternative for, literally, animation, but more broadly means guest entertainment. An animador at a Mexican resort helps run the daytime pool and beachside activities, including snorkeling, beach volleyball, kayaking, water aerobics, soccer, and countless other activities and games that can be played on a beach or in a pool. Listening to Kerri’s enthusiasm about her job and the fun she seemed to be having living this dream life had implanted the idea in my head that maybe, just maybe, I could be courageous enough one day to move out of the country and do the same thing.
The longer I thought about it, the more clearly I knew that I couldn’t stick around for those seven credits. Where was I going to live? Who would I live with? I had been steamrolling down a track and was now completely derailed by the news of the seven credits that would prevent me from walking the stage with my friends the way I had planned. I kept thinking about Kerri living in paradise with what sounded like the greatest job I could ever imagine. I played with the idea like a madman, unable to think of anything else. It was new to me to do something so bold, so new and outrageous. I wondered if I had the guts to pull something like this off. I wasn’t sure, so I kept the idea to myself for a while, though it continued to burn through my head like a hot knife through butter. It consumed every thought I had as I idled in Buffalo, narrowly escaping frostbite daily. I began to think to myself that if I didn’t go, I would be beating myself up about it for the rest of my life.
It was settled, then. I decided that after the New Year I would move down to Mexico. I shared the idea with the guys to see what kind of criticism I would receive or if they would support my desire to get out and see a whole new world. In the beginning they thought I was talking a whole lot of nonsense.
“Dude, c’mon … are you kidding? You’re gonna move to Mexico? Bullshit.” This was the common response, even from my closest friends, and it had two effects on me.
First, I was disappointed and irritated that those who I felt closest to thought I wasn’t going to do it. But more importantly, it was great motivation for me to actually pull it off, to prove me right and them wrong. At this point, with about a month left until 2006, Mexico had completely engulfed any and all thoughts I had. Every breath I took and bite I ate was Mexico. I was pumped, to say the least. I began talking about it more and more to the guys, and they started to realize that I was far from crying wolf. One of my roommates, John, had almost convinced himself that he was going to come with me, though I knew it would never happen.
The semester came to a close in mid-December, and the pipedream of Mexico was becoming more of a reality by the day. I had introduced the idea to my parents, knowing they would be behind me all the way, as I have an overwhelmingly open and supportive relationship with them. They had both embraced the sixties and seventies like good flower children, embedding ideas of tolerance, happiness, and open-mindedness in my head since I was old enough to take them in like the little sponge I was. I knew my parents would take to the idea of Mexico the same as I had, and I was right.
My parents had divorced a few short months after my Bar Mitzvah, when I was thirteen years young. My sister, a year younger than I, was as thrilled as I was that they decided to split up and not stay together just for us anymore. Truly they were never meant to be together, but they had my sister and me fairly soon after they married, extending what should have ended a lot sooner by thirteen additional years. They didn’t fight a lot, and they didn’t scream, but they just weren’t happy together. So finally, in 1996, they did what they should have done years sooner and went their separate ways.
My father moved out but stayed in the same town. I moved in with him, knowing that a male role model was what I needed in my teen years, and my sister stayed with my mother in the house we grew up in. I saw my mother all the time, and my sister Shayna saw my father often too. Since a very young age, I had always been very open with my parents, knowing that honesty was the only way to relate to them. They never punished me, and they never hit me. Knowing they were disappointed was punishment enough. Seeing that look in their eyes as they asked themselves where they went wrong was enough to send me to my room through a haze of teary eyes.
I introduced the idea of Mexico to my parents by prefacing it with the fact that I would be working while I was there and I wasn’t going to waste away on the beach begging for pesos. They were both thrilled about the idea. My father had hinted for a few years already that I should do something like that. And my mother had moved to Israel for a year when she finished college to volunteer on a Kibbutz and travel, so I knew telling her would be a cakewalk. Thus, with the support of my family and the growing support of my friends, turning my new dream into a reality was now within my eager grasp.
Finals week had come and gone, and what I scored on my exams was about as important to me as the weather conditions on Jupiter. I had ceased caring about school even though it was still seven credits from being over. I knew that I could always finish those credits sometime in the future, and my mind and heart were already on the beach of Mexico waiting for the rest of me. At the end of December, I bought a one-way ticket to Cancún leaving the second week of January. Now all I had to do was leg out the last few weeks of snow with my friends and family before the adventure of a lifetime began.
Any disbelief my friends had expressed quickly turned to apologies now that they knew I was for real—and I couldn’t have been any more for real. I picked up a Lonely Planet guide and began investigating my soon-to-be new home. I can honestly say that was the extent of the research and planning I put into the trip. I knew I would find out anything I really needed to know one way or another once I was there. I had taken Spanish in high school but remembered very little from those years. I was going to need to brush up on the ole Español, to say the least.
The holidays and New Year passed, and I barely noticed. I had never had the feeling of the unknown pressing down on me, lingering in the background watching every move I made. It excited me but also intimidated me a bit. I spent the last two weeks in America—and all I had ever known—with my friends and family, like I normally would have on winter break from school. But instead of a gloomy, gray, and morbidly cold Buffalo waiting for me at the other end, I had a beach screaming my name, telling me to hurry up already. I had been so enthralled with the idea of going to Mexico that I hadn’t really thought about what I was actually going to do when I got there. I told Kerri that I had bought a ticket and was going to stay in Playa del Carmen while I adjusted to my new life and tried to find employment as an illegal immigrant. I had been banking on getting a job in Puerto Aventuras, a small resort community a half hour south of Playa del Carmen, where Kerri was living and working, but I figured I would stay in Playa to start off because it was actually a sizeable town. However, in the days and weeks leading up to takeoff, that hardly mattered, nor did much of anything else.
The last days went by extremely fast, and the anxiety I had expected had yet to kick in. I packed a single duffle bag with as many T-shirts and shorts as I could possibly scour from the boxes of my life. I packed a day bag with some toiletries, a few keepsakes, and a photo album of friends and family so I knew I would never really be alone. Then it was January 15, the day before departure, and I was faced with the hardest challenge yet: saying good-bye to my mother.
I drove to my mother’s house, terrified of how both she and I were going to take this good-bye. I spent the evening with her, avoiding the imminent to the highest degree until it was time for me to go and finish up some last-minute packing. We walked out into the snow and stood in the driveway, and just like rain in the springtime, my mother broke down as I knew she would. If you can find me a decent man who can keep a straight face while watching his mother weep, I’d give you everything I’ve got. I embraced her as if she were my own child and didn’t want to let go, not for anything—not even for Mexico, not for the world. I held her little body tight in my arms, knowing the next time I would be with her was an uncertain point in the future. I took it all in as best I could: her smell, her loving touch, and the comfort of her presence. We held each other and emptied our hearts (and tears) onto each other’s shoulders as she assured me that she was crying out of excitement for the experience I was about to have. After telling her that I loved her hundreds of times and promising her I would be safe (to satisfy the Jewish mother in her, of course), I reluctantly pulled out of the warm embrace of my loving and worried-sick mother and slumped into my car. I cried all the way to my father’s.
I have always considered myself to be somewhat of a morning person, but the morning of January 16 brought a whole new meaning to morning excitement. I made sure everything I needed was packed; kissed Tiger and Honey, my two cats, good-bye; and left with my father to get some breakfast before heading to the airport. Breakfast was as normal as possible considering what was to come an hour hence. We chatted about how excited I was and how excited he was for me. It was exactly the outing with the old man I would have asked for. I knew my last encounter with my father before the trip would be effortless. He’s my best friend and the greatest guy in the world. We finished eating, got in the car, and made our way to Rochester International Airport. Unfortunately, since the post-9/11 airport situation has made saying good-bye to a loved one about as warm as a Buffalo night in January, he couldn’t wait with me in the terminal. He dropped me off at the departure gate, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t see tears well up in my father’s eyes as he hugged me good-bye. I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t fighting back tears as well.
Surprisingly, I felt calm as I stepped up to the ticket counter to check in. I made my way through security, bought a magazine, and perched myself on a bench close to my gate. I used the magazine as a façade while I eyeballed every person within view, half dreaming of Mexico and half thinking of my parents and how much I was going to miss them.
A one-way ticket is as horrifying as it is exciting. Still, I saw no sign of any internal anxiety whatsoever. I was really surprised that I was handling the situation with such ease, but I still had a long trip from Rochester ahead of me. Since I was fairly broke and trying to budget the few hundred dollars I had, I purchased a multiple-stop ticket to Cancún. My first stop would be Charlotte, North Carolina, for a two-hour stay. From Charlotte I would fly to Dallas, Texas, where I had an ungodly eleven-hour layover. I couldn’t be too concerned, though, considering the ticket had cost a mere two hundred dollars. I arrived in Dallas at midnight and opted not to get a hotel but instead found a cozy patch of floor to nestle up on and pass the night.
I dozed off for a few hours, dreaming of what was to come. I woke up at dawn to find my once-secluded spot swamped with early-morning travelers. I grabbed my life-in-a-bag and made my way to a more quiet area to sleep away the remaining time I had left in the States, more eager than ever to cross the imaginary line dividing two sovereign countries and two different worlds.
I set the alarm on my cell phone just in case. I woke up about ten minutes before my alarm beckoned, and I made my way to the gate, eager to board the plane. I listened carefully for my row to be called, trying my hardest to battle impatience. After about half an hour it was my turn to board the chariot awaiting me. I tapped both hands quickly on the cold metal of the plane on both sides of the door as I boarded, a superstition I have carried with me since childhood. I couldn’t even be bothered to hide the goofy smile that was breaking the surface, but that was the furthest thing from my mind. Soon enough I would be in Mexico. The flight from Dallas to Cancún would only take about two hours. I quietly took my seat, pulled out my MP3 player, and awaited departure. I gazed out the window, fantasizing about what Mexico would be like. I had never been, and it was a great feeling to be going. I was beaming with excitement and anticipation for the unknown.
It was a rather smooth flight down to Cancún. We began to descend, and I pressed my face against the tiny plastic hole, trying to get a glimpse of what lay beyond my narrow view. The water was so brilliantly blue that words could never do it justice. It was a turquoise so vivid and so clear, as if not a single toe had ever plunged into the water. At this point I was getting giddy. I wished for a parachute so I didn’t have to waste any more time sitting and waiting while what I wanted was in plain sight. The plan was to get out of Cancún the moment I landed and hop a bus south to Playa del Carmen, where I would find a place to stay. I had made no reservations, nor did I have an itinerary in mind. It didn’t bother me whatsoever. I‘ve learned that planning can tend to lead to disappointment.
I jolted in my seat a bit as tire rubber hit the pavement. We had arrived. I was in Mexico. I could hardly believe it. My face was still stuck to the window as I watched the Mexican men waving our plane in to the gate. I connected eyes with one man for the briefest of moments, realizing as he cracked a tiny smile that my excitement was clearly visible. The flight attendant regurgitated what she was trained to say, welcoming us to a place to which she too was just arriving. I scurried up as many aisles as possible without being rude and waited, with my foot tapping, for the door to be opened. I disembarked and made my way to customs, where I would get my tourist visa. I waited in a long line to press a silly red button with a traffic light attached to it. Like you learn as a child, green is go and red is stop. I strode confidently up to the security agents who were casually conversing in Spanish, pressed the button, and saw green.
I went to a transport counter to purchase a bus ticket to Playa del Carmen, having no plans to stay in Cancún. I stepped outside and took my first real breath of Mexican air. Crisp. The palm trees were picturesque, the sky a mirror image of the sea I had admired from the plane. I turned to the airport just as I was about to board my bus to paradise and noticed a massive section of the airport wall had been destroyed and was being repaired. I made the immediate connection to Hurricane Wilma, which had passed through Cancún only three months earlier in October 2005, devastating the city and other parts of the Yucatan Peninsula. I had never seen any damage done by a hurricane up close, with the exception of coverage on CNN, and was taken aback by the fact that Mother Nature could be so violent.
I tossed my belongings into the undercarriage of the bus and found a seat where I would be welcomed by one of the goofiest videos I have ever seen in my life, a cartoon character chattering in Spanish, promoting bus-safety regulations. My brain was working overtime to piece together the few words I understood from the video, but it wasn’t clicking. I was going to have to concentrate a lot and pay more attention than I ever had in class so I could learn this new language. A movie began to play after the informative video ended. It was also in Spanish, and I paid as much attention as possible but still had almost no idea what was going on.
I saw the first sign for Playa del Carmen and got really excited that I was only forty-five kilometers from my new home. I couldn’t wait to see the town I really knew nothing about. I stared out the window and took everything in as an infant does its new surroundings. In front of me a middle-aged Mexican couple were talking about God knows what while three French backpackers sat behind me jabbering about something else I couldn’t figure out. I kind of dazed out for a bit and woke up as I felt my weight shifting in the seat as the bus made a left turn. We had arrived in Playa.
I had never seen such a colorful place in all of my life. We made our way down Avenida Juárez, one of the main roads in town that ran perpendicular to the beach. Streams of people were flowing along the road. The vast majority was Mexican. The women were clad in the most colorful and beautifully woven outfits and tried relentlessly to control their children. The men looked to me like real-life cowboys. It was exciting. Even the stores, restaurants, and homes that lined the streets were painted in exciting colors. Every structure in sight was cement, a good defense against the wrath of the unexpected hurricane. Small children crowded the sidewalks, dressed in their uniforms from school and flashed smiles that said they were on their way home. I was ecstatic, and just like while I was on the plane, I couldn’t wait to get off the bus.
We pulled into the bus station at the corner of Avenida Juárez and Avenida Quinta, or Fifth Avenue, a pedestrian strip that ran parallel to the beach. I got off the bus, collected my things, and stepped onto Quinta. I honestly had no idea what to do from there.
The strip was pleasant but super touristy. I didn’t care. I loved it. Luckily for me, directly across the street from the bus station was a big sign that said HOSTEL. I was relieved that I didn’t have to lug my pack through the hot streets of Playa in search of a place to stay. I had never traveled before without a set plan and was excited to see what life in a hostel was like, especially after hearing amazing stories from friends who had backpacked through Europe. This hostel was called El Palomar, which I later learned means ‘where doves sleep.’ I made my way up a flight of stairs to the reception desk and was greeted by a very friendly Mexican man of about thirty. I asked him the rates, and he explained to me in broken English what they had. I took a bed in the male dormitory for 110 pesos per night, or eleven U.S. dollars. It was rather expensive, especially for Mexico, but this town was a lot swankier than most. I walked into the dorm to see two rows of bunk beds and a wall of lockers. I was assigned to the top of one of the beds and set up shop quickly, not wanting to waste any time indoors as the Mexican sun beat down on the beach only steps away. The dorm smelled like a locker room, but I couldn’t care less.
I scurried down the stairs, flip-flops smacking loudly. I turned the corner toward the beach and stood in disbelief. I felt as if I were standing in a virtual postcard. It was truly paradise. I kicked off my sandals in anticipation well before I set foot on the beach. I dug my toes deep into the sand and realized that even on a day with temperatures soaring high, the sand was as cool as a cucumber. I tossed my things in a little pile and dashed into the water. I awkwardly hopped the calm waves of the Caribbean and plunged in headfirst when I knew I was deep enough not to bash my head on the sea floor.
There was no need to get used to the water; it was the perfect temperature from the start. I flapped around in the water for a little while and made my way to the beach to set up camp. I quickly realized how white I was as I observed the tanned bodies surrounding me. Never in my life had I seen so many beautiful scantily clad women. Absolutely breathtaking women from all around the globe were all around me. I was truly in paradise. The beaches I was used to were on Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, though I can barely consider them beaches anymore.
After about two hours of frying like bacon in the Mexican sun, the rumble in my stomach alerted me that it was time for some food. I made my way down Quinta to find a bite and explore my new surroundings. The street was overflowing with people on holiday with their friends and families. I wanted to find some local food to treat my screaming belly. I stopped at a restaurant a few blocks from my hostel and ordered chilaquiles. I had never had them before. They don’t look very appealing from the start, but the second they hit your tongue you’ll forget your name they’re so good. They were far superior to the Mexican food I was used to from Taco Bell. I frolicked up and down the strip for about an hour after the meal, sightseeing and enjoying, eventually making my way back to the hostel at about 7:00.
I felt the first pang of anxiety, so I picked up a calling card and called my mother to say hi and let her know I had made it to my destination safely. It was great to hear her voice as I looked around at such unfamiliar things. I spoke to her for a few minutes and then decided to head back into the hostel to see if there were any other backpackers looking to have a good time that night. It was my first night in Mexico, and I needed to celebrate.