Mission: Explore The Real Cozumel!Author: Amelia Lynch
Date of Trip: January 2012
On our last full day in Cozumel we ventured into the “downtown” tourist area to do some shopping for our kids. It all seemed so fake, overly polished and costumed for the cruise ship crowds, of which there were plenty. It was the only time anyone called out to me to come buy their goods, or that I felt like I was just there so they could make a buck. They all had the same things in their shops anyway, it was just a matter of negotiating prices. We saw a parade of horse drawn carriages offering rides, but we had seen signs posted in the less touristy areas letting you know that the horses are not allowed water and last summer one dropped dead from heat exhaustion, so we didn’t take a ride. We had a snack at a place that had logos for both the Hungry Cougar and Wet Wendy’s Margarita Bar, and just chicken nachos and a couple of Cokes was almost $20 USD. We ate at Carlos and Charlie’s before we walked back to the Villa Diamond K, and although the staff was wonderful and the décor was interesting the food was Americanized and bland.
If you want to eat good food get out of the tourist areas. We loved La Jarocha, where we could get ten tacos for 49 pesos (about $4.50 USD) with tasty pastor pork and onions and cold Coca Cola in a glass bottle-just watch out for their “special promotions,” like cheese or a side of beans, that will really jack up the price! At Pescaderia San Carlos we had more delicious fried fish and ceviche, and when I ordered lemonade they made it by hand just for me. We ordered a fantastic whole barbecued chicken from Parilla Cozumel that had been grilled “flat” and came with rice and beans, and the American owner Tim delivered it himself. Our total was about $10 USD but we only had American $20 right then. Tim told us he forgot to bring change and wouldn’t take the money, told us to just order again and he’d catch us next time. We stopped in twice and had more delicious grilled chicken and sandwiches, but Tim had taken a few days off so we didn’t catch up with him-I’m remembering that debt for our next trip. There was even a healthy wrap, salad and smoothie place on 11th Ave close to the Bodega Aurrera that reminded me of a much improved Mexican version of Subway. I think the name of was La Cocina but I’m not sure. Some places don’t have the best English, and they didn’t speak any English so it was tricky to order, but the wraps were wonderful and fresh, with a smoothie that was more like a dessert.
I admit we did stop in at Margaritaville, where we found the prices were easily triple the local food we’d been eating and the atmosphere obnoxious. I was embarrassed for the staff to have to wear grass skirts and dress like pirates; they were making balloon animals and sticking sombreros on the cruise ship customers to take pictures. Most surprising to me was that when I said something in my limited Spanish, even just “hola” or “gracias” they responded in English. Nowhere else did they do that, so I can only think it’s part of the employee training that they must use English only. Culture? What culture? One trip to Margaritaville, Cozumel was more than enough for us.
I’ve seen reviews that describe the area of Cozumel outside of the tourist areas as “not much more than a slum” and at first look it does appear that way to our western eyes. After spending 12 days in it I started to realize that it wasn’t always graffiti on the stone walls, it was their version of billboards, and some of it was beautiful art. Things are small and close because that is Mexican culture; you keep your family and your life close to you. The people are warm and helpful, and while there is not much crime if you are careless your stuff will probably get stolen not because they are criminals but because they are poor. If you can travel here you already have much more than they do and they know it, but they welcome you and treat you as a friend. We walked all over day and night and never felt unsafe for a minute. Whenever we were trying to puzzle out something in Spanish or make a conversion from pesos to dollars someone never failed to notice our struggle and if they didn’t speak English they found someone who did and offered to help us. Mostly we were just practicing and trying to learn, so it was all the more endearing.
As for our mission trip work, a lot of what we did this time around was painting and repair on a house that will become Casita del Corazon (House of the Heart,) a therapy center for children with special needs. There seemed to be a lot of special needs children here, and as a nurse I wondered if there is a higher rate of birth defects than we see in the states or if it just appeared that way. We also visited a home where Friends of Cozumel has been helping the family of 11 who live in one house, and there are two special needs children there. I went there expecting to feel bad, to feel sorry for them in their poverty, but a group of children came running to greet us and pulled us down one by one for hugs. They excitedly demonstrated the pump that one of the mission group men had installed a few days before so they wouldn’t have to haul water with a bucket. The children were fascinated with our digital cameras, so we let them take some pictures. They proudly showed us their Chihuahua, Conchita and took her picture too. They laughed and played with a half flat soccer ball and entertained us. I couldn’t help but be happy, and even a little envious as I wished that my family could be so satisfied with so little.
On the last day I didn’t take any pictures as we left, and I realized that in a way I felt that if I didn’t document this part of the trip maybe I could pretend it wasn’t happening for a little longer. I didn’t want to come home; I just wanted to have my children sent down so we could all stay as so many ex-pats have done. The Cozumel airport was crowded and disorganized, and at one point they played "Sexy and I Know It" over the speaker at our gate and some of the staff started dancing to entertain us. The little Delta plane took forever to get us to Minneapolis and I didn’t get to sit by my husband, but my only real complaint was that I had to leave as soon as I did. See you on next year’s mission trip, Cozumel. There is still plenty of island left to explore.
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