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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Friday, September 18, 2015

What a Bright Idea!

Local artist, Victor Villegas, recycles old light bulbs into whimsical plant hangers and jewel-like chandeliers.  

It’s a fascinating use for something that would normally end up in an overcrowded garbage dump or landfill site.  Tiffany Yenawine Wareing clued us in on the artistry of Victor Villegas.  

As for other unwanted items, Mexico’s recycling program is still very much in its infancy, giving me pangs of guilt about what we toss out. 

Items that are still useable, but not needed in our household go to local friends or are set out on the curb for anyone to pick up and hopefully put to good use.  Things made of copper are highly prized by scrap collectors.  

Aluminum and tin have some scrap value
Aluminum beverage cans have some value.  Tin cans have a much lesser scrap value.  I put the cans in a separate bag so the garbage guys can easily add them to their personal stash of good stuff.   Large cardboard boxes, the types used for TV’s, computer, appliances are flattened and left at the curb for the city trucks for pickup. 

At various locations around the island there are wire bins for recycling plastic beverage bottles.  The plastic bottle recycling program was originally started by Friends of Isla Contoy, with funding from PEACE and various island businesses. 

I asked a few folks, and it seems that items such as broken plastic patio furniture, plastic bags or yoghurt containers are not wanted; they cause a huge problem with sorting and recycling.   The bins are a small start on being environmentally responsible. 

Some glass beer bottles are recyclable.  Purchasers pay a hefty deposit for the bottles when buying a complete case at the suppliers. To get a refund the purchaser must return to the original location with the receipt, all of the beer bottles and the case.  This is the biggest reasons bar operators don’t want their customers walking out with a beer bottle in their hand.  If you want to drive with a beer in your hand, just don’t do it with their expensive recyclable bottles!

Cleaning up veggie and fruit scraps
With compostable items such as fruit and vegetable scraps our daytime herd of semi-tame iguanas do a good job of cleaning up.  Anything they don’t want the night-shift of hermit crabs is happy to consume.  Pretty much everything else gets tossed in the waste cans.  It pains me to throw away so much stuff! 

Then I had a middle-of-the-night epiphany; why not ask some of the local charities and service organizations what new or gently-used items would be useful to them.

Can be recycle to students in need of gym shoes
Tiffany Yenawine Wareing enthusiastically responded with a number of good ideas.  

Gently used sneakers for the students who need them for gym classes would be welcome, even adult sizes because many of today’s kids have larger feet.  Old or mismatched housewares will be recycled for the domestic violence shelter on the mainland – the Continental Zone area of Isla Mujeres.  Contact her via her FaceBook page, or drop off donations at Marina Paraiso’s office.

Hey, we'd like to go for a walk with you!
Eileen Regn at Isla Animals said they are always looking for used sheets, towels, and stacks of newspaper to help out with their bi-weekly spay and neuter clinics.  Pet cages, carriers, dishes, collars and leashes are welcome.  And there are plans for a larger clinic/shelter so additional household or office type items would be gladly accepted.  You can contact Isla Animals via their FaceBook page if you have items to donate, or stop by their current location at the entrance to the Mundaca Hacienda Park.  You can also donate your time and a bit of love by taking a homeless dog for a much needed walk.

2014 Diabetes Clinic
Karen Rosenberg, organizer for the annual Diabetes Clinic said they would happily accept any unopened current-date products for diabetics.  

She also asked that we remind everyone about the upcoming clinic September 21st starting at 9 am, at the Cruz Roja (Red Cross).  

Diabetes is now the number one cause of death in Mexico, so please spread the word to other islanders.

Karen says: “We have 200 glucose meters to distribute and many strips, and lancets.  No insulin or pills but the doctor from the Cruz Roja is going to be part of the clinic along with 4 nurses and EMT's who are Islenos!”

Well, my thought processes have wandered from tin cans and bottles, to stray dogs and old towels but you get the drift; just a reminder to put a little thought into what you toss out, and what you recycle. 

It’s a beautiful paradise we live in, let’s keep it pretty.

Hasta Luego
Lynda & Lawrie

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Friday, September 11, 2015

You know you are an islander when …

Crocodile round-up in front of new hospital main entrance
You know you are an islander when:
The recent round-up of baby crocodiles makes you smile knowing that they are being moved to a bigger and better location instead of being destroyed as a nuisance.  Their mother has already been moved to the Hacienda Mundaca Lake, and now it is time to catch the youngsters.  

You go get 'em!  No, not me!
A crowd of city workers stood on the edge of the marshy swamp near the new hospital, jockeying for a better view, but still keeping their feet on dry ground.  “You go get them.” one man said, playfully pushing his co-worker towards the dark foreboding water.  “No! You get them!” the other man responded, shaking his head, no!  Baby or not, crocodiles have sharp teeth and vice-like jaw muscles.  They can do a lot of damage to hands and fingers.  We didn’t stay to watch the round-up, but I was told they have been successfully relocated.
Stumpy prefers left over cat food.
You know you are an islander when:
Thirty-five iguanas of assorted sizes come knocking at our patio door every morning.  “Hey lady!  Where’s our fruit?”  We buy a steady supply of watermelon, bananas, papayas, and sweet peppers – anything red, orange, dark pink or yellow.  Those colours attract iguanas.  They wait impatiently on the back patio, pacing along the edge of our pool as I dutifully cut up the fruit and skins into iguana-sized pieces.  
Iguana fruit & veggie salad
They don’t have teeth, just bony ridges that can shred things to a certain extent.  A too large piece can result in choking problem, and I don’t really want to do the Heimlich Manoeuvre or CPR on a frantic lizard.  I chop and cut, slice and dice, then scatter the goodies over the back yard and rocks.  There’s a flurry of scurrying bodies, scrabbling claws, flicking tails and then the fruit is gone, leaving behind deposits of fresh iguana poop.  Stumpy the large one with the short tail tries unsuccessfully for seconds, following me back to the house begging for more.   He looks very disappointed that I don’t fall for his antics. 
Dolphins - photo by Bruce Roberts
You know you are an islander when:
A pod of dolphins cruises past in the late afternoon, cavorting and courting.  Their lithe muscular bodies flip out of the water, corkscrew through the air and slice back into the ocean.  All you can do is stop and stare in wonder at such beauty.  We were so preoccupied by the display we forgot to take photos.  The one included with this post was taken by our neighbour Bruce Roberts.  The pod played for several minutes in front of our house before taking their circus act further south, past where David and Diane Daniel are staying at Casa Toloc.  David has a fun new toy, a drone.  He filmed the pod at sunset.   You can see it on YouTube – link below.   They also have an interesting FaceBook page, New Nomads, where they post videos taken from the drone.  Check it out!
Fishing boats at sunset
These are just a few of our daily experiences of living on Isla Mujeres.  There are many more amusing things that happen, but we have always tried to have photographs with our blog, and sometimes I just don’t have the right photo for the situation.  For instance: the police vehicles that cruise around the island 24/7 with their emergency light flashing - red and white and blue.  In most countries flashing lights on a police vehicle means one thing: pull over now! We want to talk to you.  In Mexico it means, yep, that’s a police vehicle.  When they want your attention they will “blip” the siren.  That’s when you know you need to stop, right now.
Island living has a personal quirky charm.  That is what makes living here magical.

Hasta Luego
Lawrie & Lynda

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Friday, September 4, 2015

September in a Caribbean Paradise

Lawrie and Freddy - brothers from a different mother

It’s September.  

If we still lived in Canada we would be thinking of the upcoming harvest of crisp apples, juicy plums, pears and grapes; grapes to eat but more importantly grapes for delicious Okanagan Valley wines.   

Cool nights and warm sunny days.  September was always our favourite time of year in Canada.

Swimming with 40 foot Whale Sharks
Many miles to the south on our little island in paradise we have different priorities: fresh fish, pineapple, mangoes, watermelon and icy cold beer.


The days are still hot and very humid, the nights warm and a little less humid.  Occasional thunderstorms quickly roll across the island, or miss us entirely, soaking Cancun instead.  The ocean is calm, the winds light – perfect for scuba diving, snorkeling, and swimming with the Whale Sharks.

In Mexico the children return to school from their summer break in late August and the day to day rhythm of the island changes.  We have more traffic on our street in the mornings as parents take sleepy children to classes that begin at seven.  Ugh!  We are early risers now, but not when we were kids.  Neither Lawrie nor I would have appreciated getting up so early to sit in a hot and stuffy classroom while a frustrated teacher tries to cram information into our sleepy brains.

Flirting is international!

In the afternoon we hear the shrieks of laughter as the pupils make their way back home.  There are many more walking home from school than to classes.  The parents deliver the kids to ensure they arrive on time, but for the most part let them find their own way home after classes.  The second shift starts at one in the afternoon and finishes up around six in the evening.  We can hear the late afternoon gaggle of gigglers passing by; boys flirting with girls and girls flirting with boys.

Girls waiting for a chance to sneak into a pool
Every September the new crop of high school students amuses us with their covert scouting of the various swimming pools along this street.  You can almost see their thought processes as they troupe along the beach in their school uniforms. 

Anyone at this house?  Anyone watching?  Maybe we can slip into the pool and no one will notice …. Oh, darn, those cranky people are watching us!  

The students preferred style of swimming is fully-dressed - removing only shoes - jumping in and out several times while covered in beach sand.  It seems to be a new-kid right-of-passage for the juniors, and a mother’s nightmare getting the uniforms clean and dry by morning.

Flag salesman - making money wherever he can
September on Isla is also known locally as Sept-Hunger.  In most of the world the youngsters are back in school and there are fewer tourists.  Less tourists equals less income for the people employed in tourist-based businesses – restaurants, bars, hotels, and tours.  

Family expenses continue plus the added expense of school supplies and uniforms for the new semesters.  Money is tight, and families struggle to make ends meet.

Cry of Delores - midnight on September 16th
But the worry about money evaporates for a day or two in mid-September with the important national celebration of Mexican Independence Day.  At midnight on September 16th, the Cry of Delores is reenacted all over Mexico.  

It’s a stirring sight to see a large crowd of nationals stand and shout: ¡Viva México! ¡Viva México! ¡Viva México!  The celebration continues with fireworks and an all-night fiesta. 

Lynda - kayaking on calm seas
If you haven’t thought about visiting Mexico in September it might be time to reconsider your plans.

It’s a great time to be in Mexico!  It’s a peaceful time to be on Isla Mujeres.

Hasta Luego

Lawrie & Lynda