Long ago, in an early spring of the late seventies, a wrong turn in the road, the coming of night and my youngest child first took me to the Island of Women. After a long drive through the jungle from Merida, we came at dusk to a small port on the northeast tip of the Yucatan peninsula and knew we were lost. A glitch on the map which showed a non-existent road from Chitzen Itza going toward the southeast coast of Quintana Roo had us traveling in the wrong direction for the whole afternoon. We thought we should be at Playa del Carmen where we would catch the ferry to Cozumel, but a local fisherman told us this was Puerto Juarez, and now we could never make it down the coast to Playa in time for the last ferry, not this day. Night was upon us. There was no Cancun as we know it now, and then we knew nothing of it at all. The old fisherman told us we could take a small boat to a small island just off the coast, if we hurried, and there we would find food and lodging. Weary and anxious, I knew we couldn’t sleep that night with my two-year old daughter in the rented van. And, alas, she was down to her last clean diaper. I needed a village. We grabbed our luggage, locked the van and followed the fisherman to a small wooden dock where a small, open-sided ferry waited. The hull was painted the color of lapis.
It was full night when we stepped into the gently rocking ferryboat but there were many stars. The ferryboat’s engine shuddered and groaned as it wallowed at the dock, tethered not all that closely to it by two narrow ropes. I believed it wanted to be away. The ferryman sounded his mournful horn three times to ask for tardy travelers, before the engines revved, whined and sputtered and the lines were thrown off and the ferryboat moved quickly away from the dock. It seemed to me it danced as it creaked and groaned. The smooth black water grew choppy as we drew into the open Bay and the waves we plowed through were nigh as high as the sides of the boat. I thought for a moment the waves might wash across the narrow low open deck, but the ferryman was too clever. Only a fine spray from the sea fell on my face like rain. It was very dark, it seemed we’d lost the stars. The only pale thing I saw was the silver of the wake and the dappled moon.
My sister-in-law and husband sat on either side of me in the middle of the boat and I held my child close and put her to my breast till she slept. There were perhaps a dozen other people on the ferry; dark brown people with dark doe-shaped eyes. They spoke softly to each other in the musical tones of Spanish or another language I didn’t recognize. They sat on the wide wooden benches or leaned against the columns that supported the roof of the boat, string bags and cardboard boxes tied in string were clustered against their sides or on their laps, even about their sandaled or bare feet, along with their beautiful sleeping children. They spoke no English, but their eyes were soft and guileless and their smiles were quick and sweet when they looked at my daughter. For the first time in a long time, my shoulders and neck relaxed, and I hummed a low tuneless song.
The crossing took over an hour. Then we drew alongside the Island dock and the boat’s wooden plank was drawn out and we stepped, for the first time, onto the time-worn wooden planks of the ferry dock of Isla de Mujeres. After the lonely jungle afternoon drive and the dark crossing of the Bay I was dazzled to see the lights and bustle of a town, and almost dismayed. We stood there on the dock, a small island of people and luggage, puzzling: What would we do now? People were brushing past us, headed for the ferryboat that was making ready to leave on its final crossing of the day, back to the mainland. Holding my sleeping daughter, I looked toward the town, and then into the eyes of my companions. Where in hell to now? We started to gather our luggage and wander toward the town when I saw, darting and skipping across the planks of the dock, a small boy running toward us. He was perhaps nine years old and absolutely lovely. He came up to me, looked up into my face solemnly, and picked up my bags. “Senora, I will show you everything on this Island.” I looked at my husband and his sister and we all shrugged and smiled: why not? In his sparse but beautiful English the boy explained he would take good care of us. He pulled the bag of soiled diapers from my hand and said he would have them washed that night and return them to the ferry dock at noon the next day. Then he showed us the way to a hotel in the heart of the village, which was not a far walk. It was old, adobe and small, as was the room with its two sagging double beds, a ceiling fan and a separate bano: toilet, sink and a shower that was a step down on the tile floor behind a shower curtain. No one spoke English there either, but it was plain to see what we needed, and after a few words from the boy, the face of the old woman at the desk split into a heartening smile of welcome.
After showering and dressing in as few clothes as possible, we took to the streets. Narrow cobbled streets lined with small adobe houses that opened directly onto the sidewalk or street. Only a few blocks wide and a few blocks long, it was impossible to get lost in this pueblito. We found a restaurant on the water and ate fish and rice with sliced tomatoes and onions, and tortillas warm and fragrant from a little covered basket. There was salsa, red and green, mild and hot, and many bottles of cerveza. We pulled two chairs together and with a pillow under her head and my shawl thrown across her, my daughter soon fell asleep stretched out upon them. The sea sings a wonderful lullabye.
The boy was late returning to the dock the next day, or maybe we were late, but we couldn’t make the ferry that would have taken us to the mainland in time to get to the ferry to Cozumel. We didn’t care. We stayed two more days. That morning we’d found Playa Cocos at the north end of the Island. There was nothing much there then but pale sand and clear, placid water; miles and miles of it or so it seemed. The water in the sunlight was unlike any I’d ever known: it was like glass tinted the palest green near the shore, and then a dazzling turquoise with bands of deep blue between the sand bars, but here and there were pools of purest blue blue-green—the color some call aquamarine. But then and ever after, I've called it the color of Isla. I’ve never seen that color in a sea--anywhere else at all.
After we were sure we’d missed the ferry, but had collected the diapers from the lovely boy, we grabbed a cab and let the cabbie have his way with us: He took us to another beach called Indios which faces the mainland and then another where great gentle sea turtles wallowed in the shallows allowing my beaming little daughter to gleefully straddle their backs. But we always went back to the north beach, Playa Cocos for the water that was calm, clear and shallow, to swim and play and soak up the sun. I remember at night there was a gibbous moon—a crescent with its horns pointed up—a sign.
That is how I first came to Isla, we did eventually make it to Cozumel and stayed there a week before we drove down to Akumal and Tulum and then back to Merida for our flight home. Of course it was not the last time I came to Isla, I’ve been there many, many times. And each time has been different, though the Island has always seemed to me very much the same