We arrived early in the morning at our final foreign port for the trip, Cozumel. I hadn’t realized that Cozumel was actually an island off the coast of mainland Mexico. In port with us was the most gigantic ship I’ve ever seen – the Harmony of the Seas. Massive, towering over the hulk of our ship, it looked as if it could contain at least eight of our vessel. Five or six additional decks rose into the sky above us, and a maze of water slides twisted around the rear. Even the workers on our ship were sticking their heads out of the railings to look at the Harmony and some were even taking photos. Walking on the pier between the two was like moving between two huge buildings. We walked down towards the security checkpoint – the most stringent of all the ports yet. No food was allowed on or off the ship. They had dogs sniffing at passengers as we queued to gain entry to the pack of souvenir-crap-filled tents lining the next walkway. I’d packed my bag full of snacks for the kid, as usual, for our excursion. The guard asked me if I had any food in my bag. I grabbed a bag of pretzels, the first thing that my hand touched, and brought it out of the bag as my guilty admission. He looked at it, then waved me along. He didn’t bother to look inside my bag. We were through, and a man directing passengers to the correct meeting places greeted us as we approached, switching from English to Spanish. I guess we looked like we spoke Spanish primarily, and I took it as a compliment. We understood what he said, anyway, and the kid was beginning to greet people with a friendly “Hola!” – at least when he wasn’t grumpy from waking up so early, so we pretty much fit the part. We had to make our way over to a big water bus, the ferry between Cozumel and Playa del Carmen. It looked like a yacht, I guess. We sat up top for the ride over, and I’m glad we did, because we looked out the window and I didn’t feel sick at all from the motion. I guess lots of people get sick on the ferry, because one of the woman working on the boat went around passing out sick bags, “Just in case,” and I saw more than a few people accept them. The ride was about a half hour. We got off and met with our guide, Luigi, the Mexican cave-snorkeling adventure leader. We walked up from the beachfront to the famous 5th Avenue and surrounding shopping extravaganza. I was a little disappointed to find shops just like the ones in the mall back home – Old Navy? I’ll pass. My husband pointed out that I could pay in pesos, which was true, though all of the shops also accepted American currency as well. We went to a two-story kitsch shop and most of our smallish group went in to use the restroom. Luigi said we could also purchase snorkel gear here if we were squeamish about using the rental equipment at the caves. I don’t think anyone bought any. We walked down to park ourselves in front of a Starbucks while we waited for our van. We didn’t wait too long, but one of the guys in the group became impatient and went over to harass our guide, asking him for a refund so they could just go back to the ship (to do nothing, I guess, because snorkeling in caves in Mexico just isn’t worth waiting for…) because everything was taking forever. Luigi jumped up and said that our van was just arriving and we would now walk over to the road where the driver would be pulling up any minute. The van arrived just as we walked up to the road and Luigi told us to be careful because the road was a very busy place, with lots of bicyclists and cars not really wanting to stop or slow down for dumb tourists. We piled into the van and took a short drive out to the caves at Cenote Chaak Tun. We got our gear, snorkels and mask and waterproof flashlight (turned down the wetsuits), and went to stash our clothing and cameras in the lockers. I was a bit bummed out about leaving the cameras, and hadn’t gotten any waterproof ones to take with us. I expected that we’d all get in the water and definitely didn’t want to risk damaging any of the photo equipment. We walked down a path to the first cenote. It is still used by shaman today, apparently. They reserve the space, typically at night, for rituals. We passed a path lined with white stones that glow in the moonlight, but we didn’t get to walk down it. There was also a sort of sweat lodge built into the cave which was also part of the rituals (and therefore off-limits to us, too). We got our floatation vests. Mine was still wet from the last time it was used, and soo cold when I put it on. We got one for the little guy, and the group prepared for our first venture into the water of the underworld. Luigi just plunged in, and told us that was the best way to do it. “Just pretend you’re not cold,” he said. I was the first one to enter the water of our group of ten or so, and just went for it. It was indeed very cold. Other people began to follow, with gasps of shock. Even the folks with rented wetsuits were complaining about the temperature. As Mike began to go in with the kid, screams echoed through the cavern. I thought it was just due to the cold water, but it turned out the little guy was terrified and was definitely not going into the water. Luigi said that since there were two caves to go into, one of us could go into one, and then the other could go into the next, while one person stayed with the kid. Mike told me to go into this one, so I did. We were instructed not to touch the stalactites, or anything out of the water, but formations under the water were fine. Everything was a lot rougher than I imagined it would be. I tried to look under the water with the mask and snorkel but was gripped by terror as I tried to submerge my face, so decided against it. It was cool to look at the reflections of the cave in the water, so I shined my flashlight up at the ceiling often until we came to the area where the bats were living and I felt bad for shining the light at them. The water was quite deep, hence the life vests to keep us afloat, and it was a bit disconcerting to not know the depth of the water below me, but there was really no danger. Mayans used to use the caves and would swim into them to explore and to perform rituals. One person would be in charge of the fire to light the way. A very important job, as if the flame happened to be extinguished, the whole group may perish, lost in the darkness.
The initial cave exploration was of a rather small area. There were more caves connected to the main part, but the entrances were so low in the water that it would be impossible to pass through with the float vests on. We made our way back out to the steps out of the water. It was really chilly in the dark of the cave, but as we walked out into the sunshine to go to the next cave I warmed up again.
Xibalba, or the underworld, was the name of the next cave. We walked in through a long walkway, with different formations lit up with colored lights. As we walked further into the cave we came upon a big sink hole, open to the jungle above us, and the natural light was streaming in in shafts. I was kicking myself for not having a camera. It was beautiful. We walked through the sun rays and onto another wooden deck and to the jump off point (or the steps) into the water. A photographer followed us and took posed shots along the way, with cave formations strategically integrated into the frame. It was Mike’s turn to go into the water this time, so everyone got in again (Luigi jumped in). After the group moved down the passageway into another section of the cave, it got very quiet sitting alone in the semi-darkness. There was enough light from the sky opening to illuminate much of the area we were in, and we could see bats flitting back and forth and guppies and catfish swimming in the water. It was peaceful sitting there, and I sat down lower on the steps in the cold water, just to be at one with the cleansing energy. We told stories in the cave and listened to the water dropping. After a while, the group came back. One of the ladies – the wife of the complaining guy – said, “too bad you missed it” and I didn’t know how to respond so I said nothing. I didn’t feel that I missed anything. There was nothing better than getting to spend that time in the cave with my child. It was exactly where I should have been at that moment. We all walked back and returned our gear and got dressed to go have lunch in one of the caves. It was a buffet lunch, with tamales and beans and juice. Simple, but good. We took some more pictures (I convinced Luigi that I needed to go back into the caves and take photos, though the cool shafts of light were gone from the hole in the roof when I returned) and were subjected to a tequila tasting. No one bought any of it, and the small amount I drank as a sample didn’t leave me feeling very good in the heat of the day.
We drove back into town for our shopping time. I still wasn’t super excited about exploring too many of the shops, so we wandered around town. There was quite a bit of awesome public art around. We went on a little adventure documenting as many murals, decorated cars, and sculptures as we could find. It was soon time to get back to our water bus for the last ferry back to Cozumel before our ship was scheduled to depart. We were supposed to have a little time on Cozumel before we needed to be back on board, and I was looking forward to exploring the island just a bit, since we’d not had the chance to see any of it, leaving first thing in the morning for the mainland. Unfortunately, a couple folks who had gone on an over-land excursion from Belize and were set to get back on board here in Cozumel had become delayed in traffic, so we had to wait for them - part of the benefits, and drawbacks, apparently, of booking excursions through the ship. There had been some shootings in the area just a couple days before we arrived, so security was tight. We sat there until they arrived, and then took the ride back to Cozumel. This time, we sat in the interior, where they had no windows and a large TV playing random videos of reefs and boat safety. I began to feel very sick from the bouncing up and down on the waves, so I tried closing my eyes. The folks that we’d waited for sat down next to me – the younger couple that had sat there previously decided they wanted to go up top, so those seats were vacant. Their large rolling suitcases rolled back and forth along the front of the seats as the boat jumped and rolled. I grabbed one just before it struck me in the shins, asked the woman if she’d like me to lay it down on it’s side, and she responded that it wasn’t hers, it was her friends, so I put it over, and there it stayed. She asked me if there was a bathroom on the boat and where it was. I told her I knew there was one, but didn’t know where it was. She asked me how much longer the ride was going to be. I told her maybe five minutes (in my hopeful state, I figured I wouldn’t make it much longer than five minutes before my stomach gave back it’s contents). We docked shortly after, and there was no time for exploring. One of the crew members was there as we got off the water bus to instruct us to go directly to the long line leading up to the security checkpoint. We waited in line. I still had food in my bag, and I saw trash bins with sandwiches and other foods being tossed, as well as a huge rack where any alcohol bought in port was stored for transport onto the ship, where it would be returned at the end of the final day. I put my bag onto the conveyor belt to be scanned. I really didn’t care if they decided they needed to toss out all the snacks left in there, but they didn’t even take a second look at it, and gave it back to me without looking inside physically. We walked on and boarded the ship.
The last day on board before we arrived back in Tampa the next morning was a bit of an uneventful blur. We slept in for a long time, watched some cartoons in the room, got some food, went up top to the ‘giant’ bubble blowing activity, and I hung out on Deck 5 for most of the rest of the time, taking pictures of the crew cleaning the deck and windows and trying to get good shots of the flying fish leaping from the wake of the ship. I definitely saw a shark, or a very large fish, some trash, lots of macro-algae, and a few sea birds. That evening, for our last supper, the newbies – us and the Canadians – exchanged contact info for a photo and ideas of correspondence (I’m not sure the photo ever came through from them, so therefore we had no way of corresponding with them, and I’m not really broken up about it…). The other couples, the veteran cruisers and the folks from North Carolina said cordial goodbyes, but made no pretenses of keeping in touch, which was fine, too.
We got into Tampa at 7am the next morning, and had to drag ourselves with our bags out to the theater for our assigned disembarkment time. We ended up sitting in the theater for almost an hour before we were able to leave, looking at the folks in front of us compare First Lady and First Daughter inaugural gowns, because that was obviously the most pressing issue at the moment. Once we got to leave the theater, everything moved quite quickly. We got to jump ahead of the line for customs because we were traveling with the young kid, and no one wants to listen to a whining kid (in case he started up). Then we got to jump ahead of the taxi queue for the same reason. We’d decided to head straight for the airport, as I had no idea how long it would take for us to get there and get checked in. Our taxi driver was nice. He told us that his first fare of the day was a woman who asked him to roll up the windows and turn on the heater. It was 65 degrees – cold for Tampa. He said he’d close the windows, but not turn on the heater. He had a thick accent, from eastern Europe or Middle East, and told us he’d moved to Tampa a few years ago. I asked him where he moved from and he said “Missouri.” We drove by a massive “Make America Great Again!” banner hung along side the highway, then we were at the airport. It didn’t take very long. We got to skip ahead to the front of the security check, too, so we ended up with about three hours to kill before our flight. We had lunch at the restaurant in our little wing. (Not too many things to do in our little concourse, unfortunately. There were signs for the hundreds of shops that they were anticipating opening sometime that year, but as of January, none of them were there yet.) We sat around. Then it was time to board. We got on the plane and took off. Within five minutes of takeoff, the Sunshine Skyway bridge was quickly moving from view and we were on our way home!