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Despite my nearly legendary work ethic, it didn't take any extraordinary feat of salesmanship to convince me to give up programming for a week and spend some time scuba diving in a tropical diving in a tropical paradise. So on Monday morning, I swapped out my laptop and cables for a pair of flip-flops and a change of underwear, switched my work IM client to a "Be right back" message and drove down to the Austin airport. A few hours later, my plane was landing at the only runway at Cozumel International - a one-room terminal that doubled as a military training camp. I met up with my cousin, who my family had ditched there several hours before, and together we crammed into the back of a pickup with twenty other bewildered tourists. As we drove through town, it became apparent that the one city on the island was little more than a seedy American tourist trap - all the ads were in English and the prices were in dollars - there was no sign of legitimate Mexican culture anywhere. There were however, little reassurances that we were in fact in the third world: the streets had that familiar scent of raw sewage, mopeds frequently served as family vehicles - carrying up to five people, and the police/militants in the truck bed in front of us all carried rather large automatic weapons.
We were staying at an all-inclusive resort that offered all the food, drink, and entertainment you could ever want without the troublesome obligation to travel more than a hundred feet from your room. The rooms themselves were a strange dichotomy of luxury and cot-cutting - the towels were wrapped into elaborate swan shapes and the toilet paper was folded into floral origami, but the beds were hard as rocks, and in a particularly brilliant money-saving measure, the shampoo in the complimentary bottles had been replaced with water. The TV had far more American channels than Mexican ones - with two versions of HBO and Cinemax, there was really no reason to ever venture outside. There was a convoluted network of snack bars and restaurants that served unlimited, free food at all hours of the day and night - they had hamburgers, pizza, french fries - I actually didn't encounter a single taco the whole time I was there. This hotel made its best effort to shield you from the disturbing reality that you were actually staying in a foreign country. Nature, however, had one undeniable triumph over the facade - it seems the island has a bit of a bug problem; upon my first step out of my American jet, I was bitten about six times; mosquitoes covered the ceilings of our rooms, brought about a speedy desertion of the beaches at dusk, and immediately coated any limb that a snorkeler was foolish enough to suspend above the water; in the dining hall, flies reigned supreme - nearly every item in the buffet and anything brought back to the tables was immediately swarmed - though the clouds that hovered above the fruits and meats were not nearly as disturbing as the salad dressings which were routinely speckled with dead flies - I stayed away from these. By the end of the trip, the bugs didn't bother me anymore; I think this was because of the healthy dose of RAID that I ingested from the protective coating that would be applied to the buffet before every meal.
We went snorkeling off the beach the first day and saw many fish and rays as well as some artificial reefs made from discarded car engines; though this seemed fairly impressive at the start of the trip, once we had dove 90 feet down to some of the most amazing reefs in the world, floating around at the surface hunting hermit crabs in the sand somehow lost its appeal. I had not been diving since I got certified two years ago so I was hoping for some sort of refresher course, but when the boat arrived at the site, everyone just jumped off and immediately descended to the bottom (a good 40 feet deeper than I'd ever been before); fortunately I remembered which device I was supposed to use to breathe just in time to prevent drowning. There were a lot of subtle techniques and precautions that I had obviously forgotten; on my first trip down, my uncle started making frantic hand gestures and pointing at my depth gauge and air meter - I interpreted this to mean one of two things: 1.I was going to out of air and die, or 2.Bubbles would soon be forming in my brain and I would die; luckily this problem seems to have worked itself out and the rest of the dive went smoothly. Since I was using rental gear, nearly every single dive was wrought with equipment failure; the most memorable was when I discovered there were leaks in both my BCD and regulator so that I was using air at twice the normal rate and stuck at the bottom of the ocean, but most of the time I was looking through a film of salt water that had seeped into my mask or awkwardly kicking with a flipper with critical pieces missing. One thing I never figured out was neutral buoyancy; my family branded me the "reef wrecker" because I was constantly crashing into the plants and animals at the bottom or the ceiling of any tunnels we passed through as I desperately tried to inflate my vest to the right level.
We did a total of 11 dives over the course of 5 days (you need a 24-hour period between diving and flying); we edged along walls that dropped into seemingly infinite abysses and navigated between coral pillars that stood over 50 feet high. We saw 5 sea turtles, a 12-foot moray eel, a lobster roughly the size of a Buick, a 10-foot nurse shark, 5-foot barracudas, and a hundred other marine species of every shape and color imaginable. The night dive was likely the most fun; it was a lot like the day dives, only darker - we were each given a flash light which we waved around as our sole means of spotting the nocturnal creatures, seeing where we were going and communicating with our dive buddies; no one was very successful at putting all these things together, so everything soon lapsed into utter chaos; the different members of the group all floated in random directions and no one knew where anyone else had gone or what they had seen until we ran out of air and surfaced 40 minutes later.
Besides scuba diving, we got the family to go out on the water for an afternoon of parasailing; this was hardly the adventure sport some would make it out to be; assuming you didn't unlatch yourself from the chute (a misjudgment that would provide an exhilarating 400-foot free-fall into the drink), you basically just sat there and helplessly bobbed about as the dictated by the whim of the wind; it did however, offer great views of the jungle-covered isle. At some point, we rented a jeep to tour the island; we drove down to Punta Sur park where we climbed a lighthouse, learned about a Mayan temple reportedly used for weather prediction, and saw some crocodiles being fed chickens' feet. We drove up the east coast for a few miles; this side offered great surf and unique rock formations but not much of anything else.
The resort offered a number of activities to occupy those of us who were not content to lounge in the sun 14 hours a day. I made an attempt at windsurfing; this was free of charge, but the catch was that if you ever went outside the swim area, you would have to be rescued and pay a fine of 25 bucks; they seem to have rigged the boards so that they only go out to sea, and as a result, I did a lot of paddling. The next resort over had these neat inflatable contraptions in the form of huge, floating icebergs which were covered in handles so that you could climb to the top by swinging from rung to rung; this was one of those things that was far too dangerous to ever be legal in the States - once at the top, you were precariously perched in a depression until enough weight was applied to elsewhere to displace you and send you rolling off 15-feet into the water; at one point, me, my cousin, and some random Mexican girl were all lying almost comfortably at the top when someone made the grave mistake of moving, causing all of us to plummet to the water in the most awkward ways possible - I managed to land on the side of my face - you can say what you want about belly and back flops but I assure you, falling on your cheek and right eye is definitely the most painful way.
There was a hotel staff who planned random events throughout the day; there was at least one beach volleyball game daily, and the girls of the Dos Equis Bikini Team would frequent these events to lend their athletic prowess. We also had water polo, salsa/meringue lessons (which always ended with a tequila drinking contest), and perhaps the most thrilling of all, a class on guacamole making. There were shows every night that were practically identical to anything you've ever seen on the Spanish channel. The first night was the Mr. Reef Club show; here four guys from the audience competed in a series of events such as a striptease, a song in drag, and a race involving push-ups, bicep curls and sitting on a balloon; the show ended with everyone getting up on stage and doing some random dance that had nothing to do with anything. When I anxiously attended the Ms. Reef Club Contest the following night, I found that although the balloon-popping event was repeated, the striptease sadly did not make the transition (stupid double standard); the most interesting contest here was one in which the girls each ran around the audience and tried to kiss as many guys as possible in a given time frame - I was standing next to the pool, so when the final girl bounded over to kiss me, she tripped and fell into the shallow end (insert obnoxious pun here), luckily she came back to win it anyway. There was not much of a nightlife that I could find; a flood a week earlier had utterly destroyed the underground discothèque (pardon my French) and pool hall.
Prior to arriving on the island, my cousin had come up with the brilliant plan of spending a day running all the way around the perimeter; this struck me as a perfectly reasonable thing to do until I looked at a map and discovered that it was at least 60 miles around. In reality, it was a terrible place to run; there was one perfectly straight highway that stretched for miles through malarial swamp without passing anything of the slightest interest. The first morning I ran 5 miles in one direction from my hotel and ran into nothing; the next morning, I repeated the exercise in the opposite direction and still ran into absolutely nothing. At some point, I noticed a 16 km sign on the road next to the resort and resolved to simply run until the mile marker read zero - that would surely put me somewhere. I was right, after a short 10 miles, I arrived in downtown; unfortunately, the water in Cozumel is terribly unsanitary and I had neglected to bring any money with me, so I was reduced to walking around to the various shops and begging for bottled water; for some reason members of third world nations are not all that receptive to the plights of rich Americans. I eventually was able to siphon enough rain water out of patio coverings to keep me alive for the trip home; the ten miles back was 80 minutes of solid pain - all my muscles and bones stopped working one-by-one and the mosquitoes feasted on my sun-baked skin; I greatly regretted my decision to leave my taxi fare at home.
We made a few trips to town, but never did my family venture out of the few blocks that composed the tourist district. On the first trip, we made no effort at finding culture and went and played 2 games of pool. On subsequent trips we went around to different shops and got hassled by the myriad merchants trying to pawn off vulgar t-shirts on us. Rather than seek out the bargain meals I had expected from Mexico, my family managed to locate what was probably the most expensive meal I'd ever eaten. Every entree had some combination of steak and lobster and the water glasses were filled from liter bottles; I'm not going to say that my grouper fillet wasn't good, but really all I wanted was a giant burrito.
The trip back to Texas could have been better; after sitting for three hours in Cozumel's single departure waiting room, I got on a plane where I was fed a lunch which consisted of a dinner roll with a single piece of chicken and a piece of cheese, dessert was a sugar cookie encrusted with stale cornflakes - how I miss the five-course meals of the European airlines. Half an hour outside of Houston, the pilot announced that he was dropping into a holding pattern due to severe weather (in Texas of all places!); this only lasted for fifteen minutes and we arrived at the airport with a comfortable 30 minutes before my connection departed; little did I know that I would be spending the next 45 waiting in customs. Luckily thunderstorms had delayed the flight to Austin, and my all-out sprint across the airport allowed me to get to my gate just in time to wait on the plane for two more hours before setting out on the 28-minute flight.
Now's it back to work, no longer shall I be forced to lie for hours on end relaxing in the sun; now I can return to the warm rays of the computer screen and the comforting onslaught of deadlines, meetings and obligations. It's great to be back.
The resort. Anyone for a swim?
The second of the two things to do in Cozumel: Sitting on the beach
Me and the Dos Equis Bikini Team (Disclaimer: This is not an endorsement for beer; these women were attracted not by alcohol but by my mad volleyball skills; kids, stay in school.)
Another day, another game of volleyball
My cousin and his unique approach to diving
Me, seconds before crashing into a reef, destroying yet another fragile ecosystem
The smallest (and blurriest) Hard Rock in the world
I've heard Mayans were short but this door didn't come past my knee