I am a very wimpy scuba diver. When I get to the bottom of the ocean I either start flailing my arms like a crazy person, or I suction-cup myself to a skilled divemaster who watches my every move, making sure that I don’t magically inflate my BC, float up to the surface, and bob around like a human buoy.
The beaches outside of Playa Del Carmen, Mexico provide the perfect environment for someone like me because only forty-five feet or so down are stunning regions of coral reef. Forty-five feet deep is just not all that scary, therefore the risk of panicked arm flailing (and a subsequently slightly embarrassed husband, usually diving next to me) becomes significantly reduced.
On this trip our divemaster was Diego. My husband might not fear deeper waters, but he has developed an uneasiness of divemasters. This phobia started after he watched a (pretty terrible) movie, the plot of which centered around a naked divemaster sailing away with the main character’s wife after speaking just three words in heavily accented English: “Do you… scuba?”
Trust me when I say there is no risk of this happening to someone with my aging derriere but nevertheless I am truly touched that my husband feels this way.
To my disappointment a very handsome Diego was not only fully clothed, but all business. We got into the water, quietly observed schools of bright yellow fish, slowly swam through cave-like structures beneath the coral, and generally had a relaxing dive. On the way up, though, we got to see cuttlefish. I couldn’t tear my eyes off of them. Diego found my obsession with cuttlefish a bit confusing, as most tourists are looking for more exciting and less edible ocean life below the surface. But I am easy.
Normally during my ascents to the surface I get profoundly nauseous. It is not unusual for me to “feed the fish” on my way up to the boat, and trust me when I say that it is no fun to vomit with a regulator in your mouth. On this dive, hopping into the boat without a bit of seasickness made me want to hug Diego, but a comedic glare from Gavin kept me in line.
No nausea meant I was game for after-diving margaritas, guacamole, and Pico de Gallo, which we enjoyed at our hotel on a little patio by the beach. We were both happy that we chose to stay on the outskirts of Playa Del Carmen. Our hotel was not an all-you-can-eat kind of place. Not one person we came across during our time there would ever dream of doing something like wrestling the person behind them for the last chicken wing on a buffet. From what I heard around me on our trip, dinner conversations seemed to flow in many different languages and were often focused on world events. I think I even heard the letters “NPR”. Score.
Confession: I could live on Pico de Gallo, guacamole, and margaritas alone. Simple combinations of chiles, onions, tomato and avocado washed down with citrus and tequila actually taste unbelievably complex, and are even more delicious if one has just spent hours in salt water. I try to make my own at home, but the taste isn’t the same if you don’t have your feet near sand.
I learned about Mexican cooking during my early twenties, when I spent a few months studying marine mammals off the coast of La Paz, in Baja California Sur.
No question, my marine mammal experiences in Baja were truly extraordinary. However the lessons I received in the kitchen of our “base camp”, located in an empty hotel on a desert peninsula, were equally inspiring. As biology students and interns, it was our responsibility to cook our own meals. This took place under the supervision of a woman who forever changed the way I eat. This motherly figure helped teach me the basics of Mexican cooking. My first Spanish words included the veggies we used at every meal. Ajo, cebolla, aguacate and I became fast friends. I will always associate the fresh, citrusy smell of just-picked cilantro with that kitchen. Meals revolved around whatever fish was caught that day. The daily catch was usually covered in fresh guacamole and pico de gallo and rolled up in a homemade flour tortilla. Heaven. A few times a week we made Sopa Azteca, a salty soup with enormous chunks of fresh avocado and pan-fried tortilla strips sprinkled on top. To this day it is still my favorite comfort food.
The time spent on the desert peninsula did not only change the way I ate, it also changed the way I lived. Looking back, when I boarded the plane in Boston to head down to Baja, I really did not fit the profile of the environmentally conscious student studying abroad. Most of my colleagues in this field studies program were Patagonia-clad, hiking-boot wearing, tanned, active young future eco-warriors. I was a slightly awkward, slightly chunky, pale, smiley-faced science-geek city girl in baggy jeans who had never even seen the summit of a mountain. I think I got off the plane in Baja with 80’s flats on my feet. I was not fit, had never pitched a tent, and I don’t think I had ever considered something like camping in the desert.
I started to watch these eco-groovy hiking hipsters. They seemed pretty joyful. They also seemed pretty darn healthy. So I followed their lead. Every day I hiked across our desert peninsula to the open ocean side of our little base camp. I found, to my surprise, that on most days this was a really wonderful thing to do (the one exception was the day a rattlesnake was stretched across the hiking trail).
I began sleeping on the beach more often. I woke up at sunrise. I found myself joining others in the water, in the middle of the night, when the bioluminescence was particularly stunning and diving into the water created natural fireworks. I found that I loved getting my shower water from a cistern. It was a revelation to learn that washing my hair once weekly was not only ok, I could consider it environmentally friendly. And what a shock, cockroaches were not really all that scary. But as I quickly learned, don’t kill one… others seem to appear in droves as as result, apparently to avenge its death.
From the privacy of some of our more remote beachfront campsites we observed grey whales mothers and calves, and bottlenose dolphins and manta rays became our companions when we were out on the boat. We pitched our tents next to iguanas and met our share of scorpions, but in our little world, we learned to live in harmony with our cohabitants as peacefully as possible.
Without question I came back from Baja “different”. Not a really a new person, as a 20-year old takes decades to learn who she really is and what her place is on this planet. But Baja is where I started the process. My love for the ocean, my respect for the creatures that live in it, my passion for science, and ultimately my desire to experience new foods, new people, and new environments grew exponentially after that trip.
I gratefully brought all of that with me over twenty years later, sitting on that patio by the beach eating guacamole, gazing out at the water after a day of diving, my husband beside me.