Mexico | Whale Sharks

Well shit, I’m in Mexico. I’ve been here sixteen days already and not written a jot because every time I tried to write it was rubbish. It’s too cool here to describe conventionally. I love it. Esta muy bien, or whatever. Still working on the Spanish.

Here’s what I gone and done so far.

Cancun

Nothing!

Cheap flight into the country, fake tourist town full of Yanks in big hotels. Saw some iguanas which were cool.

Isla Holbox

Holbox is where the adventure really began. Little pirate beach town on a tropical island you have to take a ferry to reach. No cars whatsoever. Saloon doors and balconies and Mexico flag bunting and ocean murals. Looks like somewhere Jack Sparrow would spend a debauched weekend. Leaky streets and quad bikes splashing through the clay puddles that form and change every day, so you’re never quite sure which way you’ll be able to cross the street. I met a brilliant circle of friends: Luuk and Bas, from the Netherlands, Megan, from France, and Paloma, from Argentina.

The Dutch guys are travelling together, and like me they started in Cancun, found it wanting, and left for the island. Bas is trendy, calm and quiet, choosing his moments to speak carefully – and when he does speak, it’s very fun and skewering. Luuk is jolly and sociable and can talk to anybody with ease. Megan is dreamlike and funny and full of empathy, and travels like I do – cheap and weird. Paloma is full of Latin fire and loves Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Che Guevara, as do I, and we talk a lot about both. Everybody merged well, and we were thrilled to have found such a cohesive little gang We hung out for three or four nights of fun and silliness.

First night was tacos and salsa dancing, second night tacos and beers. Saw bats and three racoons running through the hostel during pre-drinks. The food here is insane, a world away from Mexican restaurants at home. Fajitas and burritos don’t seem to exist, for a start. It’s all tacos and empanadas and quesadillas and all sorts of other things I’ve tried and loved. Spicy sauce on everything, my favourite. I’ve not had a bad meal here. Poc chuc, a Yucatan dish, is a huge pork slice with lime juice and salsa and the greenest avocado you’ve ever seen. Gorgeous and fat.

Third day (or maybe fourth, time is blurring) was whale sharks. I was scared – for years I’ve had a major phobia of deep water – but the Dutch guys seemed so confident that it convinced me to try. I’ve been working on my fear all summer, forcing myself to go a little out of my depth for just a few seconds at a time. In Bosnia I swam across a deep lagoon, and felt as though the worst of the fear had been dealt with. Open water, however, was another question.

*****

With Luuk and Bas I get up early and meet a boat man at the docks, with the sun rising over the water and little translucent fish shoaling around the old wooden pier. Giant dinosaur birds with black eyes watch from high wooden poles in the water, occasionally diving to spear a snack with their long hooked beaks. Storks stalk the shallows, pausing at intervals as though lost in thought. Stray dogs sniff up and down the beach and come over for a stroke.

We take the boat out onto the sea, zipping across waters calmer than any sea I’ve seen. It was like sailing over a mirror. On the two hour ride out to the open ocean we see a family of dolphins cresting gentle waves, and a stingray flap up out of the water. I didn’t know they could do that.

Storm clouds crest the horizon as we reach open water, no land in sight. Other whale shark boats float at intervals of two hundred metres, each searching for their first glimpse of a gigantic mouth. After a tense half hour with our eyes scanning the horizon, the radio crackles with whoops and hollers, and our driver slams the boat full throttle and we blast off across the surf, pinned into our seats by the acceleration. We reach the other boats, who have formed a queue. There’s only one shark for now, and we can’t see it yet.

When it’s our turn at the front, the whale shark appears. It’s the length of a bus, skin deep blue, peppered with white spots. At first all we can see is the top of a great wide mouth, a fin, and a tail, but then it crests a wave and is reveal fully – a pair of big staring eyes, a gaping jaw, a back so broad and muscular that you could place a table for two on it for a nice candlelit dinner. It pops up right beside our boat, and I’m reminded of the Jaws ride at Disneyland thirteen years ago – except this is not animatronic, and even bigger.

“Okay okay okay okay, go go go go,” say the boat men, and I’m handed a snorkel and a pair of flippers. I clip my life jacket closed, pull on my flippers, and swing my legs over the edge of the boat as instructed.

The shark floats twenty metres away, apparently calm, tail pushing lazily.

“That’s a very big fish,” I say, staring at it.

“Go!” calls one of the boat men, who jumps off the boat ahead of me. I hadn’t expected to go first – I’d expected to have longer to contemplate and be afraid and force myself to brace. But there’s no time, and I instead shove myself off the side and into my biggest fear. The water splashes into my face and I get salt in my throat immediately. The waves are a metre high out here and I can’t see the shark from this level – I don’t know where it is, and I begin to fear it’s coming towards me – that gaping empty mouth. I swim after the boat man, Bas beside me (only two at a time in the water, with the guide), and the waves drop and I see the whale shark heading straight for us. I swim out of its way, still trying to get the hang of the flippers.

There’s no time to figure out how the snorkel works – it’s been years – so I cram it into my mouth and stick my head underwater just in time to see a gigantic spotted tail sweep past, pure muscle. I go above water to catch the last of it, a pair of small, dull eyes, and a back like a submarine breaching the surface. Then the fish is gone, and it’s time to climb out, exhausted after two minutes, adrenaline spiked, insane and proud and raring to go again. I didn’t even think about the depth of the water – I was too astonished to think.

We do a few more rounds, queuing up at the back again, then more whale sharks appear and the boat group splits up, only a couple of boats to a shark. I take another turn and plunge back in again and feel the same fear and adrenaline watching that gigantic mass pass by me, one metre away.

On the way home, soaked and accomplished, we stop at coral reef and jump out again to float about and watch stingrays flap by for half an hour. Then back in the boat we head to an island where we see flamingos and pelicans and little fat fish, and we wade around in the warm water and eat ceviche – fish cooked in lemon juice, served with nachos and diced tomato and onion and a beautiful dollop of the best fresh guacamole I’ve tasted. We sail home and the boat men play reggaeton loud and they dance and don’t even steer the boat, lazing against the back railing.

“Autopilot,” they say, and we laugh.

At night we head to Hot Corner, a bar (on the corner) packed with salsa dancing. Everybody in town heads there each evening to dance and party. With Megan and Paloma we drink our first Mexican tequila shots, and full of energy we head to the beach bar, Bikini Bottom, where there’s a young topless DJ blasting reggaeton to a dancefloor of Latinos going wild. I’ve never seen a dancefloor so vibrant and full of energy – people whooping and clapping and hip shaking and dropping to the floor when their jam comes on, all in sync, hypnotising to watch.

Then, sitting on the pier with our little ephemeral family, we kick our feet in the warm nightime water and for the first time in my life I witness bioluminescence. Our splashing glows blue, like ice, and the ripples from our wiggling toes look like fire and smoke. We decide to go the whole hog, and we leave Bikini Bottom to head down the beach to a stretch with no light or music, and we all take off our clothes and go into the sea in our underwear. The sea is shallow for a hundred metres, so we wade in up to our chests and swim and splash around under the stars, with silhouette palm trees lining the beach, and behind us we leave glowing blue trails in the water. I try a breaststroke and watch as the sea lights up before me. I feel like I’m in Avatar. Unearthly.

It’s our last night altogether on Holbox; in the morning Megan takes the ferry with us and gets the bus back to Cancun, to fly home. Paloma takes a later ferry and from there heads to Tullum. I stay with the Dutch guys – they’re heading to a town called Vallodolid, and with nothing else to do, I decide to go with them, already falling in love with this country.

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