Getting to Akumal – Travails of an Aging Eco-Volunteer

Day 1 – November 9, 2009

Hurricane Ida in Playa del Carmen

Well, things can’t get any worse — only better. It took two taxis, two buses and a colectivo to get here. It cost $14 for taxi from my hotel in Cancun to the bus station, 38 pesos for bus to Playa del Carmen, 18 pesos for bus from Playa to Akumal, but the driver went past Akumal and let me off a mile or two beyond the town, where I had to drag all my luggage  — at least 100 lbs. — over a highway crossing up two long ramps and then down to the other side. It was hot and hard.

Then I had to take a colectivo, — which thankfully came in a few minutes — BACK to where the bus was supposed to let me off, which cost more than the whole bus trip! 20 pesos. Then 40 pesos for a short taxi — about two blocks — from the highway to the Eco center (rip-off). Fortunately, there are about 12.2 pesos to the dollar, so we’re not talking a lot of money — just annoyance.

I was already exhausted. Then they showed me my “home” the co-ed dorm. Three 20-ish guys and one woman were already living there, so I got the last bed in the middle with nowhere to put anything. The guys are not the neatest, and the place looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for months. There’s also a resident mouse, whose droppings decorated the table and other surfaces. I don’t even want to talk about the bathroom. It’s a concrete building with a “palapa top” of palm fronds from which can drop lizards, tarantulas, scorpions, etc. But I was sort of expecting that.

So I spent the next several hours stringing up my mosquito net and made my bed with my nice , new  pink-striped sheets and hot-pink cotton blanket — perfect. To handle the shock of going from a press trip at a five-star resort to my new third-world digs I needed a margarita. I was delighted when Carlos the waiter at the local cafe called me “Beauty,” which I’m sure he calls all the women. But it made my day after all the difficulties.

Carlos talked me into a second margarita to accompany my tasty fish dinner, and then some of the other CEA volunteers showed up and invited me to their table. C

Carlos (left), ?Another Beauty? (middle), Amed (right) who call all the women "Beauty."

arlos kept talking about something free with three margaritas, or some big discount therewith. For some insane reason — or because I thought it was some kind of new volunteer initiation and had to prove myself — I had a third margarita.

I barely remember staggering back to the dorm and I don’t remember paying for my dinner. I went to pop out my contact lens and it landed somewhere besides my hand. I spent the next 45 minutes looking for it with my desk lamp and flashlight, then sweeping the floor — to no avail. To top it off,  the floor was the same color as my contact lens and the lighting very bad. Then there was the half of a cockroach, still half alive and twitching and an entire insect ecosystem on the floor plus all manner of human detritus like toe nails and hair — not to mention spider webs. I began to think if I found it I wouldn’t ever want to use it again. But they are bifocal, gas permeable lenses I’ve had for about six years and very expensive. Then I got up this a.m. and did it all over again —  for hours swept out the whole place examining all the sweepings, which contained the finally dead half cockroach, millipedes, ants, tiny crawling things. But still no contact lens. It was my right one, too, for my good eye. My left eye is spotty from optic nerve damage and not fully correctable.

Well, I consoled my self with key lime pie and coffee for breakfast and asked for a room to myself. They will see. I don’t mind my roommates, it’s just having no room and it’s so dirty. I could keep my own little place clean.

I e-mailed my ophthalmologist to see if I could get a new contact FedEx-ed here. I’ve finally conceded that I may not find my lens after sweeping the floor 50 times and inspecting the dirt. What a way to get settled.

Oh yes, I can’t get my laptop connected on the internet, but at least there’s the office computer I can use.

I kept getting lost last night and this morning. There’s a sort of cluster of small resorts here and it’s very confusing. — like a maze. It all blends into the Eco center. But while lost I did discover a great Mexican folk art gallery with fantastic beaded jewelry.

The cafes here are all very expensive — American prices. Well, I must go buy some food.

Day 2 – November 10, 2009

CEA information palapa. Orange patrol kayak on the left


Today was my training for the Marine and Coastal Protection Program. Dario is in charge and quite good — speaks Spanish, German, English and French. I think he has a biology degree. I was overwhelmed by having to identify and write down all the boats, how many people are on them, plus captain and guide, what they are doing and when, then counting all the snorkelers and kayakers on the bay every hour. There are two dive shops with boats coming and going with snorkelers and divers, plus other boats that come in from elsewhere and the “Pirates” fishermen who take people out to fish or snorkel. I only have to work two or  four hours a day, though, so it shouldn’t be too bad. We went out in the kayak and paddled around. It’s a beautiful bay and the turtles are huge — some the size of St. Bernards.

I’m getting used to the squalor. However, it looks like I can get a room of my own — Yay! Actually, it’s kind of fun living in the dorm and having roommates. They’re considerate and quiet, except for the crazy music my roommate Rally occasionally listens to, but it’s interesting.

I keep gazing at the piles of dirt I swept out of the dorm, hoping my contact lens will miraculously materialize. So far it hasn’t. There were these beyond hideously groaty, flattened cardboard boxes serving as bath mats outside the bathroom. I took them outside, and stood them in the sun, hoping my contact might fall out of one of them (and also that the sun might disinfect them a little — or at least dry them out). Ugh, someone has replaced them back in front of the bathroom.

I decided to put my remaining contact lens–the left–into my good eye–my right. It’s not too bad. I’m a Cyclops. I’ve been in an e-mailing frenzy with my friend, Ellen, who managed to reach my doctor who said my prescription was beyond expired. But my eye doctor finally agreed to order me a new lens. $175 — Gack! I have eye coverage in my insurance but I don’t know exactly what it covers. Those were very expensive margaritas as my friend Claire, comments.

My Mexican roommate Rally (short for Israel) played guitar last night and it was lovely. He’s quite good. Rally is learning to be a dive master and hopes to open his own shop. He was mad all day because he’s trying to get his dive master certification and doesn’t do well on tests. But he passed the test and is happy now. Abraham, another Mexican roommate working on his degree in environmental studies, is also an artist and draws nice fish on the wall.

Some large black thing jumped out of my suitcase today. I had it open only for a few minutes rummaging around for something. I don’t know when or how the thing got in there — or what it was. Probably a mouse. Scorpions aren’t that fast. I’ve kept it zipped up.

Yesterday I went to bed at 5:30! I didn’t want to deal with the mosquitoes or heat, so crawled into my mosquito-netted bed and read for three hours. I am being eaten alive, despite Deet and some fancy antibug patch I bought. At the hottest time of the day, I had walked 20 minutes into Akumal town for some groceries at a depressing little supermarket. They put my six eggs in a plastic bag loose. By the time I came back and made something to eat I felt like I was in a steam bath. So I took a nice shower and went to bed at 5:30

I can’t say I’m having fun, but it’s getting better —  as the Beatles said, “It’s getting better all the time.” I found some other bathrooms I can use that aren’t as bad as the one in the dorm.

Day 3 – Nov. 11, 2009

So many small frustrations. When I first got here I kept getting lost. Everything is very close, but somehow I’d take a wrong turn and get lost. I can’t get my computer lock to work. I thought I did it at home, but now I can’t get it to lock. Oh well, the office isn’t really locked. They put a lock on it, but you can pull it open, however, it gives the impression that it’s locked, so that’s what I’m doing with my non-lockable computer lock.

This is a good place for Buddhist practice — having to accept all the things that don’t work, the things I wish I had, my attachment to various comforts not here, my whole mental attitude of caring about little things that probably don’t matter.

Saw a dead lion fish today, actually four that they caught: three juveniles and one adult about six inches long. The lion fish were somehow introduced in the area and have no predators. They gobble up lots of other juvenile marine life, so are a big problem

It was fun working the beach and kayaking today. The bay is gorgeous.

Day 4 – November 12

Bougainvillea by the office


At first I was freaked out by everything and totally paranoid. I was expecting a scorpion at every turn and was really grossed out by the dirt in the dorm and the old, ugly bathroom that is perpetually wet. There’s a semi-permanent puddle behind the toilet. The dorm was a great shock, sort of what I expected, but worse.  There are two small shelves I can use, but one is too high to reach. There were also three orange crates nailed together that were available. They were covered with mouse droppings and spider webs, so I took them outside and swept them off, but am still hesitant to put anything on them other than bug spray and some books.

I don’t have anyone to hang out with at the moment. It’s Friday night and I want a beer and guacamole. I met Alex today, my age from Port Townsend, WA, but I don’t know where she is now. I also met Miguel, one of the directors at CEA (Centro Ecologico Akumal), and David, my direct boss, asked me if I’d help write articles for the newsletter. I said yes.

Day 5 – November 13, 2004

Happily, Alex came back from Cancun last night and I found her in her room and had a beer and guac with her. Nice to meet another woman my age. She’s been coming here since 1997 and knows almost everyone. She does bookkeeping for them and started in the first days of volunteering here. There’s not much to do at night here, so decided to start this blog. I’ve been going to bed really early and reading and waking up early, too. A new thing for me.

Today one of the fisherman caught a lion fish and gave it to me while I was on bay patrol. They’re also poisonous. They won’t kill you, but it’s a nasty sting and causes various things like paralysis and necrosis.

Big lion fish - about ten inches long

There was a lovely fruit and veggie market here in the little square today. They come every Saturday and Wednesday. I bought some scalloped squashes, lime, avocado, spinach, cantaloupe and an orange — they two varieties, one sweet and one sour —  so will now have some veggies and vitamins. I’ve been living on eggs, quesadillas, and a cheeseburger I bought two days ago but saved half of.

Today I cleaned and strung up a clothes line. Nothing dries here very fast, especially in our dorm where everyone hangs their wetsuits and bathing suits. I scrubbed off the ancient wooden table next to the bathroom, which I found too dirty to put anything on, as well as a long white plastic table that my roommates leave all kinds of junk and food on. It looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in months. The place is helter-skelter with scuba stuff, trash, old food, dirty dishes. It’s a mess. I swept and mopped the floor. They don’t really supply cleaning supplies. I had to ask and borrow some floor cleaner from the boss, Miguel, and Wendy the Mayan girl who helps clean the communal kitchen kindly came in and poured some toxic acid (muriatic) in the sink and toilet. I don’t know how they come up with this stuff, but she did a great job cleaning the bathroom. Then I cleaned the floor. Now, at least I can set things down on the table without feeling like I’ll get hanta virus or something worse.

I bought a clothes line in the store for $1 and some clothespins and strung up the line near the dorm. Then I washed my laundry in the primitive, outdoor, washboard sink (backbreaking) and hung everything up. What satisfaction!

Felt very happy that our dorm is now cleaner. I cleaned the floors around my bed and swept and mopped around. Still no sign of the contact lens — amazing — the Alux. Alex told me that the Alux are the Mayan versions of Leprechauns and take and hide things.

So today was cleaning day for me after a pleasant two hours on the beach talking to people and kayaking and a little snorkeling. I’m trying to get a feel for the bay and my own stamina with kayaking and swimming. It’s lovely, clear and warm — a really gorgeous bay.

There are lots of tourists here.

Day 6 – Nov. 14, 2009

This morning I had jalapeno granola. The granola I bought in El Pueblito (store right up the walk from the dorm — very convenient, but pricey) needs help, so I’ve been frying it in a little oil to toast it and freshen it. With my first bite this morning there was a very peppery taste. I thought someone  sabotaged my granola. Then I realized that someone had probably cooked chilies in the pan I used, and the hot chili oil was still there. Ugh. I managed to eat most of it, but it was rather disgusting.  I had to eat a bunch of yogurt to counteract the hot chili granola.

I’m getting awfully bored at night with nothing to do and with no one. All the young folks go off somewhere. I don’t know what Alex does, but I’ll try to seek her out. She’s only here another week. She told me about a  tourist forum on, but most of the entries were pretty old.

There are so many funny little details. Kitchen utensils in yogurt containers. Packaged granola with fruit separate, the stove lighter that’s only been sparking for eight months, yet works to light the gas range. The gas range with completely decomposed burners.

Stove burners turn into metal potato chips here.

The beautiful bougainvillea that lines the walk to the office. No cleaning supplies for volunteers — buy your own cleanser and borrow the mop and rags. I borrowed floor cleaner from Miguel, our boss.

Wendy the Mayan maid told me this morning not to feed the cats. I’ve been giving milk, water and a little hamburger to Balam, the nice little black calico cat who is now my good friend.

Day 7 – Nov. 15, 2009 — My Social Life Begins! — next post, coming soon.


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3 thoughts on “Getting to Akumal – Travails of an Aging Eco-Volunteer

  1. This is fascinating, Reed. Part of me wishes I were there–but not the part that likes things clean and neat–haha. Still, it sounds like an ideal place to snorkel and kayak. I have only kayaked once, off Baffin Island, but as calm as the water looks, where you are might be a good place to really get the hand of it. Take care and stay well!

  2. Your such a good writer that you make your miseries sound amusing. I am anticipating the next installment, when your social life begins.

  3. Gail Storey

    Reed, this is wild! I read all your posts so far and especially like your observation that it’s a good place to practice Buddhist insight. Can’t wait to see you in your parrot earrings!
    –Gail Storey

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