Friday, September 25, 2015

Finding Paradise in 1979, Neil & Abby Fox

Abby and Neil Fox 2015
White sand-swept beaches, emerald green palm trees, jewel-toned flowers and turquoise water – how could they not fall in love with Mexico? 

Vacationing on Isla Cozumel in 1978 to celebrate their daughter Hilary’s 13th birthday, her Bat Mitzvah, Abby and Neil Fox heard of a more primitive island, one that was undeveloped and wild: Isla Mujeres. 




1979 Sac Bajo coastline - looking north
Returning home from Cozumel they made plans for a week-long adventure for the family on Isla Mujeres.  In 1979 flying into the Cancun airport was an adventure in itself.  Passengers wandered through a ramshackle collection of small huts – cartónes – and a few chairs, picking their way to and from the airplanes.  Mexican customs and Immigration consisted of one sticky-topped card table, a chair and an antique manual typewriter; a stamp in the passport and you’re done.  Bienvenido a México!  A long taxi ride to Puerto Juarez, then a slow crossing on the passenger ferry to the Island and finally they had arrived.  On the way into the harbour they spotted a small sign on the west side of the island: Tortugranja, turtle farm.  Fascinated by turtles they made plans to visit the hatchery while on Isla.  

Hotel Berny - sand streets in 1979
Once they settled into the Hotel Berny in Centro they explored the tiny community of approximately 3000 inhabitants.  The streets were covered in soft white sand creating tricky driving conditions for the few island vehicles, especially at the intersections.  When Neil and Abby arrived on Isla there were only a handful of cars and motos.  Today the estimate is 1800 golf carts, 300 taxis, countless motos and who-knows-how-many cars and trucks.  In 1979 the islanders were just starting to spread out into the Salinas Grande area, but Centro was where the majority of homes, businesses and the only church were located. 

Tortugranja 1979
Anxious to visit the Tortugranja, Neil and Abby were able to cajole one of the three island taxi drivers into transporting them to the turtle farm at Sac Bajo, along a rock-strewn bumpy one-car-wide lane.  The taxi driver continuously grumbled and complained about the road, the rocks, potholes, and the bumps.  Bad!  Very bad for his car! 

Turtle meat was still a staple food for islanders, and a delicacy in restaurants world-wide.  At the Tortugranja the new hatchlings were corralled in large concrete pools for a few days.  At release time the squirming baby turtles were doled out, a dozen or so in small buckets, to the island kids.  The children jubilantly set the babies free on the smooth sandy beach at the facility, cheering as “their turtles” swam to freedom. 

Sac Bajo looking south
With snorkels in hand the family ventured into the wilds of Sac Bajo, snorkelling past Su Casa, the eight rental casitas built in the mid-1970’s by Joseph and Miriam Greenstein of Woodstock New York.   Swimming north of Su Casa they spotted another sign: Lotes en Venta, lots for sale.  They exited near Steve and Lindell Lehrer’s newly built home, and headed back into Centro.  At the hotel they called the number listed on the sign, but the number was not in service.   For three or four days Neil and Abby asked islanders if they knew how to get in touch with the vendor of the lots on Sac Bajo.  Eventually they were pointed in the right direction.  The salesman, who was authorized to sell the lots for the owner, had a store on Rueda Medina where the current Señor Frogs store is located.  The sign outside helpfully stated: Broken English Spoken Here

1980 - finally windows and doors!
Neil asked the salesman about the lots.  The man pulled a map of the island out from under the counter. “How deep do you want the land?”

Pointing to the lot they were interested in, Neil replied, “We want one with an easy entrance to the water.”

The salesman nodded and shrugged, “I don’t have headlights on my car.  I’ll take you tomorrow morning.”

In the end they settled on the lot, with the vendor asking for one half of the purchase price as a deposit.  Neil chuckled and replied, “No, I’ll give you one hundred American dollars until the land changes ownership.”  The salesman shrugged again, “Si. Claro. Okay.”

Christmas - furniture stuck at customs until Jan 2nd
And then the adventure began.  In 1979 all of their building materials had to be transported to the island.  Plywood cost $150.00 US dollars per sheet.  Cancun did not have any furniture stores so Neil and Abby arranged for fans, mattresses, sofas, appliances, tables and chairs - anything and everything necessary to furnish a new home to be shipped from Florida by air to Cancun. 
  
Their first Christmas on Isla they arrived with their two teenagers and their parents only to discover that the house wasn’t completed.  It didn’t have any doors or windows!  Plus the shipment of furniture sent weeks before was stuck in customs until after the New Year; everything was closed between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  

Abby - hugging their new hot water heater
Abby laughs at the memory, “What did we know?  We were all alone in this adventure.”

The only food stores were Super Bettino, where the Super X-Press is located in Centro, and the Mirtita Tienda that is now Willy’s grocery store.  

For many years Abby brought a variety of things to Isla Mujeres.  She ingeniously froze chicken pieces in metal tennis-ball cans for easy transportation.  Cat food was packed in suitcases, along with cream cheese and other necessities.





El Zorro - Abby waving from their boat 1984
In the early years utility services were practically non-existent: water came from a cistern that needed to be refilled; electricity was intermittent and of exceptionally low voltage burning out refrigerator motors on a regular basis or barely illuminating incandescent light bulbs; propane tanks had to be personally transported via the passenger boats and refilled in Cancun.  

And the internet or Wi-Fi!  It wasn’t invented yet.  No one worried about slow internet speed, weak signals, or checking their emails.  In 1988 Hurricane Gilberto knocked down out the electrical system on Isla Mujeres necessitating an island-wide upgrade by the power company CFE.  When the power was switched back on it was an amazing improvement! 

North Beach from the air - hotel is now called the Mia
The only gas station was at the end of the Lima’s dock, near the present day Ballyhoo Restaurant.   Now there are two busy PeMex stations on Isla; one on Aeropuerto and one on Rueda Medina.  The common way to refuel a vehicle was to use empty paint can for the gasoline and a rolled up newspaper for the funnel.  On one of their adventures into town the vehicle that Neil was driving ran out of gas near the naval base.  In the early years the base was unfenced and a lot more approachable.  They were able to fill up their gas tank at the naval station, and for no cost.  A short time later Neil purchased a proper gas can, only to discover as he was stepping out the front door of the store that the gas can had a hole in it.  Turning around he asked the store proprietor for a refund or an exchange. 

Makax Lagoon - before restaurants, bars, & marinas
“How do I know you didn’t put the hole in the can?” the man responded.
Shaking his head in frustration Neil pointed out to the man that he hadn’t fully left the store.  One foot was still inside when he discovered the problem.   No. No refund, no replacement.  End of conversation.

Over the years Abby and Neil became familiar to the islanders, many offering advice and help with their new house.  One teenager, Javier Ayala became a fixture in their household and best friends with their son Lennie.  Typically when the Fox family arrived for the new winter season many things in the house had ceased to function from lack of use - plumbing, electricity, and door locks, although doors on the island were seldom actually locked.   Javier tried to help out where he could - locating servicemen to do repairs, workers to help with additional construction around the house.

Dolphin Discovery was later built on the leftside of photo
Abby developed the habit of coming to Isla two weeks before Neil to open up the house, and to ensure that everything was functioning.  Eventually she also stayed two weeks longer to close up the house.  With no nearby neighbours, Javier insisted that his little sister stay with Abby at night, to keep her company on the long, lonely, stretch of road.  There were two other American couples who had also recently purchased property in Sac Bajo: the Greensteins and the Lehrers, but neither house was situated near the Foxes.  Today, if you drive along Sac Bajo you will see the Puerta al Mar condos, dozens of homes, the Rolandi Hotel, Dolphin Discovery plus beach clubs like Playa Tiburon, The IceBar, and Zama.  It is no longer a lonely stretch of road.

Abby Fox - Dinner time!
So that Abby would have a way to communicate with her family Neil paid for telephone installation for the Ayala household.  Telephones were a rare and expensive luxury costing $600.00 US for an installation in town, and not available for many more years in the remote parts of the island such as Sac Bajo.  

Other times Abby stayed in Centro with the Ayala family or traveled with Javier’s mother to Merida, staying with her family, playing games with the children.  It was a fantastic way for Abby to learn conversational Spanish and to understand the Mexican culture.   


Home Sweet Home - 2015

Through all the adventures and crazy happenings their very best memories are of the large informal family gatherings; food and drinks, and noise and fun; the huge lobsters and a myriad of tasty fish that were caught right in front of their home.  The friends of their son Lenny and daughter Hilary invading the house.  Laughter and high spirits and love, much love.  

Thirty-six years in paradise and enjoying every minute of it.
    
Thank you for sharing your memories with us!

Hasta Luego
Lynda & Lawrie


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9 comments:

Linda in Houston said...

Thank you for doing this! I enjoy all your posts, but it is especially interesting to read about how things were years ago and to learn a little history of some of the expats. We have been visiting Isla Mujeres since 2002 and have seen many changes, but nothing like what those who started visiting much earlier than us have experienced!

Lynda & Lawrie said...

Hi Linda - we absolutely love hearing personal stories from both the expats and the locals point-of-view! Especially when they have photos from the "old days!" Cheers Lynda & Lawrie

Life's a Beach! said...

Great post! Love the story and the old photos!

Lynda & Lawrie said...

Hi Becky. It's always so much fun to tap into other island's memories. Sparky and Tommy send their best-furry hugs. Cheers Lynda

Gailmarie7 said...

Love Neil and Abby! I knew they'd been here a long time, but never thought about how hard it was to build a house and furnish it 35+ years ago! I admire their grit, and all those ex-pats who established homes here so long ago.

Lynda & Lawrie said...

Good morning Gail - I know! Talk about a challenge .... but they are still smiling and enjoying life on the island. Cheers L

Lindell and Steve said...

What a great adventure !!

Lynda & Lawrie said...

Good morning Steve and Lindell - a great adventure, as was yours. Cheers L

Michael Thomas said...

Awesome post. Just love your pictures. That Cancun trip looks amazing. I also visited Cancun last month and my experience was also as good as like you. Really delicious the foods are there and I love the places I visited there. I took help of Oscar Cancun shuttle a local shuttle service provider there suggested by my friend and they really made my trip fantastic.