Sunday, November 21, 2010

Marge and Neil Celebrate 30 Years of Marriage

"Would you like to sit on my handlebars?" the strapping young gentleman on the bicycle with a handlebar mustache asked the beautiful co-ed.  "No, I don't trust you," she replied, and then clicked her heels and walked away leaving him to contemplate his next move.  As both students were horticulture majors at Oregon State University, they continued to share classes together, and later began studying together and eventually dating.  On November 3, 1980 Marge and Neil married in Grant's Pass, Oregon, and have been together ever since.

Roughly 28 years later our paths would cross in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, at a moonlit rooftop happy hour overlooking the sparking sea.  Marge, Neil, Allan and I would eventually become great friends and epitomize the Playa del Carmen experience: a bunch of slightly tweaked individuals who love a little adventure and are very open to new ideas and experiences meet in this sunny beach side oasis and become part of this large disjointed family living in Mexico.  Although life long friendship bonds are irreplaceable, there is something remarkable about the level of trust and openness that each one of us has for each other.  Perhaps it is due to the fact that we left our friends and family behind in the US or Canada and came here not knowing anyone.  A common bond of adventure and willingness to meet new people and try new things has united us.

30 years after Marge and Neil were married, roughly 30 of us atypical adventurers united on a warm moonlit evening on the soft sands of Coco Beach to attend their wedding vow renewals.   Both Marge and Neil donned sandals and gave each other costume jewelry as rings.  The atmosphere could not have been more jovial and lighthearted, especially from a group who has learned that life is about painting your own picture, having fun and surrounding yourself with great loving friends.

After the short beach side ceremony we retired to a poolside buffet to feast and fraternize.  The affair was catered by the local restaurant La Fregata, and the food certainly did not disappoint.  A few cocktails into the affair we were up dancing to the music of local musician Barefoot Skinny and doing what is very important in life - laughing, loving life and having a great time.

If you were to ask me when I lived in Boston when was the last time I laughed out loud for an extended period of time I might not be able to answer the question.  Whereas Playa del Carmen is most memorable for joyous laughter, warm hugs, bright eyes, large smiles and a carefree attitude.  Since moving to Mexico I have met some amazing people who have made our experience here such a real joy:  Marge and Neil, Mary Lou, Jim and Janet, James, Scot and Vicki, Jan and Rick, Maria and Steve, Kim, Barbi, Scottie and Jim, Roger and Jonelle, Diane and Brent... to name a few. 

Marge and Neil's wedding vow renewal ceremony was certainly a highlight on our social calendar.  It was one of many amazing experiences with great friends we have had in Playa del Carmen.  Just the other night we were celebrating another ex-pat friend's birthday, Scot (who just so happened to live in Kingston, MA, 1 mile from my best friend's home).  There were 19 of us twisted souls eating Arrachera steak, downing Tequila shots, and musing how anyone of us would help out another group member in need.  Surrounded with such a loving and caring expatriate family, Allan and I look forward to the next day with anticipation and contentment.

Marge and Neil - still gorgeous and in love after all these years.
The fiesta!

Yummy food

Debi shows us how balance a full glass on her head and still look stunning.

Let the dancing begin.

Mary Lou and Diane

Henry and Maria

Neil leads by example - drink up, let loose and have fun!
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Monday, November 15, 2010

Speaking Spanish Fluently

After 10 years of studying Spanish in school (middle & high school, plus college), 6 months studying abroad in Spain (2 months in high school and 4 months in college) and 2 years living in Mexico I can finally speak and write Spanish fluently.  One would think after all this time I would have been fluent years ago.  I guess with patience and a bit of perseverance almost anything is possible.  It gives hope to some of my friends who struggle with the language that they too can learn Spanish after a decade of practice!

Granted my Spanish skills and accent are not perfect.  I frequently make errors or use wrong words and verb tenses.  However, I can sit down and watch a Spanish movie and understand most all of it.  In conversations I can both communicate my ideas with ease and understand the words of others.  So for the most part Spanish to me has become rather simple.

One especially interesting aspect is that I am now forgetting certain words in English.  Take surge protector, for example.  Since our business is in property management, and we are consistently making sure all our Playa del Carmen condos and villas are outfitted with surge protectors ("interruptor" in Spanish).  Since I say interruptor so frequently my brain requires a bit of time to come up with the word in English.  Another example is...wait while I think of the word...electrical outlet.  In Spanish it's called contacto.  In English I am now calling it contact, and even in this blog entry I had to rack my brain to think of electrical outlet.

A similar experience occurred when I studied abroad in Spain in college.  After a week of living with a family in Barcelona, I struggled to remember English.  It was as if that part of my brain had completely disconnected.  Another comical experience is when Allan and I return home to the US on vacation.  For the first couple of days we wind up speaking Spanish to anyone who looks non-white, say Indian or Chinese, and works in either a convenience store or restaurant.  I guess in Mexico we are so used to speaking Spanish at such locations to non-white looking people, our brain is just doing as it's been trained.

Diane relaxes at XCacel Beach

Allan and Marge at XCacel Beach

Allan shares his kite with 2 kids

Allan, Mary Lou and I at Playacar Phase 1's Beach

The beach at Playacar Phase 1

Sailing Ship

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Day of the Dead 2010

How often do you think about your friends and family who have passed on?  If you are like me, you might respond "very little".  In Mexico they have this wonderful holiday called Day of the Dead which commemorates loved ones who are no more.  Temporary alters are adorned at home and decorated with items from the dearly deceased, and include trinkets like their favorite foods.  Grave sites are visited and tombs decorated.   A life lived which now only exists in memories is contemplated and cherished. 

Last year Allan and I vowed to make a Day of the Dead alter for Allan's mother who passed away 2 years ago.  This would include a picture of her, making an arch to symbolize the passage from life to death, a glass of water to represent life and purity and to quench thirst, candles to represent life and hope and to guide the journey, and lastly flowers, preferably marigolds who's bright color and fragrance is synonymous with Day of the Dead, to represent the impermanence of life.  This alter would be assembled on a table in our house and kept maybe for a few weeks.  Of course constructing an alter requires proper planning and commitment and some forethought - of which we had none this year.  Given our wild Halloween the day before which included us dancing on a bar, Allan spent most of Day of the Dead recuperating in bed while I went with some friends to the XCaret theme park to partake in the festivities.  So instead of remembering our deceased loved ones we essentially did nothing to commemorate their lives besides me having a little fun at a theme park.

XCaret holds an annual Day of the Dead celebration spanning 4 days which includes Mexican celebrities reciting poetry and stories, dancing shows, painting your face like a skeleton, eating delicious local food like tomales and churros and enjoying a bit of local culture.  It's become a tradition for us to visit the park and experience a bit of culture in our beach side oasis.  I wouldn't say it made me think of my dead loved ones anymore, but it did add a bit of excitement and fun to my evening.

We walked around the gorgeous park, enjoying all the kids and adults made up with black and white makeup to look like skeletons.  Not wanting to miss an opportunity to participate I visited one of the many free makeup booths to do my face as well.  The sites, sounds and smells at XCaret are also remarkable.  Right when you enter the scent of copal hits your nostrils, an incense used to clear negative energy and to help the dead find their way.  In the background music and poetry dance in the night sky.  Dancers in colorful costumes spin on various stages while a myriad of both natives and tourists enjoy the all inclusive activities.

By the end of the evening we were exhausted from all the various forms of stimulation.  Hopefully next year we will make an alter or visit a grave site to help us really reconnect with the dearly departed and contemplate the true meaning of Day of the Dead.  Like Christmas it's easy to get caught up in all the commercialization and fun and loose track of the real significance of the holiday.  Regardless of one's cultural or religious denomination, I think it's still crucial to think about the substance behind traditions.

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Merchandise for sale at XCaret

Alter for Miguel Hidalgo, a priest who started the revolution against Spain and served as Mexico's first president.

Some sort of alter to Mexico

I try to get into the festivities by painting my face, albeit poorly.

James poses with a women in traditional Mayan wear and a sign indicating the area for food.

Ladies in traditional Mayan wear make food.

A skeleton kissing a skeleton

Skeletons made from powdered sugar

A gentleman explains (in Spanish) how he makes the sugar skeletons.
It's hard to hear him with the background noise, but still worth sharing.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Snorkeling Among a Cornucopia of Colorful Fish at the Puerto Morelos Coral Reef

Snorkeling at the coral reef in Puerto Morelos is like swimming in a giant salt water aquarium.  Salt water aquarium owners pay big bucks to acquire a diverse array of colorful sea life whereas we were snorkeling with these colorful marine creatures in their own environment.  We have yet to experience such a large variety of fish and in such abundant quantities in any reef thus far.  The plethora of sea life and colorful coral can be attributed to the reef being named as a national park and all the protections that come along with such a post such as restrictions against boating, fishing and swimming.  Snorkeling at the Puerto Morelos reef by far is a can't miss activity for our Playa del Carmen rental clients.

Since the Puerto Morelos reef is protected you must go with an experienced, certified guide.  Otherwise you will be turned away or kicked out of the water.  If you are caught fishing we have heard you go straight to jail.  We opted to use the tour and guide services of the Snorkel Shop in Playa del Carmen located on 28th Street between Flamingo Ave and Kool Beach Club, since this is also where we purchase all our high quality, reliable snorkeling equipment.

The Snorkel Shop picked up Allan and I along with 2 friends at our door in a van and whisked us away in relative comfort to a small beach side restaurant in Puerto Morelos which would be our starting base.  We pre-ordered lunch off the menu, since it's included in the tour and so it would be ready upon our return from the water.  On a small boat we boarded with mandatory life vests and were escorted a few hundred feet off shore to water with a relative depth of 7 feet.  Along with 2 guides and a photographer who would later provide us with a CD of our adventure, we were accompanied into the water and instructed to stick together, as it was easier to point out interesting sealife, to take photos and to control what we were doing in this protected marine environment.

What struck me most was the plethora of fish.  In other reefs you might see one or two colorful fish; here you can see dozens.  Purple fan coral spread across the sea bed like an inviting pathway to the unknown.  We saw a squid roughly the size of a football with shimmering silver exterior which lit up like a New York billboard.  The guides also pointed out large black moray eels hiding in holes within the coral.  We also held a small, sparkling sting ray which felt warm and squishy.

After a while swimming we boarded the boat and headed to another, shallower part of the reef where we spent a while snorkeling in similar water, except here the coral formations were larger and more intriguing.  Each one invited us to swim and explore their aquamarine communities.  By the end of the tour we were all snorkeled out and ready to feast on our delicious beach side lunch while musing over a wonderful afternoon.  The lunch included guacamole, ceviche and an entree like grilled fish or chicken fajitas.  The food was scrumptious and the ceviche was some of the best we have ever eaten, and this is coming from someone who typically does not like it.  

Our afternoon snorkeling at the Puerto Morelos Reef has been one of our favorite activities thus far.  We would highly recommend the service of the Snorkel Shop on 28th Street near Kool Beach in Playa del Carmen (  The guides were knowledgeable and bi-lingual, van was clean and comfortable, tour was exceptional and overall service very pleasing.  Please remember to mention North American Standards when booking.  We will surely we venturing from our cocoon in Playa del Carmen to visit Puerto Morelos again.

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Colorful fishie

Allan before the dive




Colorful fishie




More fishies
Lots of fishies

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Acting Like Kids on Halloween in Playa del Carmen

Halloween represents the party of the year in Playa del Carmen.  It heralds in a time for celebration and release of your inhibitions.  Adults in disguise don a wide variety of crazy costumes and can experience the freedom of anonymity.  Grown-ups can act like kids again and help to rediscover that part of their childhood hidden deep inside.  Allan and I paraded down 5th Avenue in costume and experienced some of the most fun we've had all year.

I dressed up as Cleopatra.  Planning ahead this year I bought the costume back in May in New York City.  However, when I retrieved the get up this past 31st I realized I didn't have a dress!  I scrambled to find dress designs online, ran over to my tailor and then was unfortunately rejected due to his lack of time.  Luckily at last minute our friend, Marilou, brought over a dress and was able to complete my Cleopatra costume.  Allan dressed up as Katrina, Lady Dead, with the same dress and hat as last year.  It's a wild design which never gets old.

Down 5th Avenue we strut along with Marilou dressed as a devil, our friend Claudia as a witch, Jo Anne as a bar maid and 5 other friends not in costume.  Throngs of Mexican children dressed in costume bombarded us asking for candy.  We sported bags of sweet spicy watermelon gummies, strawberry candy covered in chili and corn flavored Popsicles covered in chili.  The local families have picked up the American tradition of Halloween and now the groups of costumer wielding youngsters grows exponentially each year.  Within 1/2 hour we were out of candy.

I had a hard time letting go of my inhibitions.  Wearing costumes and letting go is just not really my thing.  However after a couple of beers I was able to relax a little bit and get more into the role.  On the other hand Allan was the life of the party.  He never resisted an opportunity to lift up his dress to show a little leg or fondle the balloons positioned on his chest.  At one point Marilou, Allan and I were dancing on the bar at the Tequila Barrel and swinging on a stripper pole affixed atop the bar.  At each bar visited we ran into friends and acquaintances also sporting nifty costumes.  Each bar served as a haven for the costume wearing crowd.  In total we hit 4 bars, danced on 1 bar, were asked to pose for no less than 30 photos, walked for roughly 1 mile and returned home around midnight exhausted and exhilarated.

Even though the next morning our joints were sore and cerebrums aching, we longingly wished Halloween was a monthly event.  We are already brainstorming our costumes for next year.  Hopefully we'll see you strolling down 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen wearing a crazy creation next Halloween!

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The candy we handed out

Allan, I and Marilou

Jo Anne and I

Marilou, I, Jo Anne and Allan

Claudia, Allan and I

Allan and some children on 5th Avenue

Me with a squirrel on my chest and a lizard on my head

Allan and his long lost sister

Allan now has a job as a mannequin

Marilou, Allan, I and some girls on the stripper pole on the bar at the Tequila Barrel

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rio Secreto - An Unforgettable Underground River You Must See

Close your eyes.  You hear nothing but silence and the faint sound of trickling water in the background.  Imagine you are 80 feet below ground with your eyes open in the pitch black.  You are one with Mother Earth.  You are somewhere along an 800 meter stretch of a 14 kilometer underground river that originates in the interior of the peninsula and empties into the sea.  The lights come back on.  Look up and see thousands of jagged-edged stalactites pointing towards your head like the tips of poison Mayan arrows.  It looks like you are either on another planet or on the set of a blockbuster Hollywood movie.  This is Rio Secreto.

Good friends of ours, Jim and Janet, won free passes to Rio Secreto while Jim was volunteering at Mayakoba. We have been talking about us all going for months, but could never seem to coordinate our schedules.  Then unfortunately due to medical problems Jim and Janet could no longer use the tickets and gifted them to us.  Not wanting the passes to go to waste since they expire this winter, we arranged a trip this past Friday.

We really did not know much about Rio Secreto other than it was another cave/underground adventure, and that the likes of Samantha Brown from the Travel Channel and other famous figures had visited the eco-park. Despite our lack of familiarity we were game for another wild experience.

Our day began like any other Friday in recent memory: we packed the car with friends, drove to the park and proceeded over extremely bumpy roads several miles into the jungle to the entrance to the cave.  At the park we were provided with complimentary wetsuits, life jackets, water shoes and helmets with lights. Then we walked a few hundred feet back into the jungle to what looked like any other cave we've seen on the peninsula.

We were soon surprised at how different Rio Secreto is from other caves we've been in.  Rio Secreto is like stalactites on steroids.  I have never seen so many in one place.  Then the cave is completely dark - there is no artificial lighting, other than the light on your head, and no other groups - just you, your guide, and your group of up to 10 or so people, wandering through an underground river 80 feet below the ground.  The path was quite treacherous: up and down, in and out of water sometimes above your head, crouching down to fit below low underpasses.  Luckily the terrain was not slippery.  It is certainly not for the faint of heart or for anyone with health problems.  This is most definitely for those with an adventurous spirit.

At one point we entered a cavern that was filled with giant coral formations which were so large, I felt like a spec drifting among a reef in the sea.  This was all ocean at some point millions of years ago.  We trekked along this river for approximately 1.5 hours, exploring just a minute part of this gigantic subterranean aquatic highway.  I can say we have never experienced such an amazing cave system so far in our time in Playa del Carmen.

What's striking is that Rio Secreto was discovered only 4 years ago when this 80 year old man saw water vapor rising from the ground.  He began to dig, discovered the river, and then mapped the 1st kilometer himself, before opening the river to the public 2 short years ago.  To preserve the system they have 3 tours which cover different routes along the river, and alternate them over time, shutting one off and opening others to prevent wear.  Lack of lighting helps prevent the growth of algae and maintain the authentic underground experience.  By arranging small tours at 9am and 1pm, they stagger the river's visitors aiding in making you feel like you and your group are alone in the river, rather than running into other people multiple times.

We highly recommend Rio Secreto to all our Playa del Carmen rental guests.  At present we are going to rank it among the top 3 greatest activities we've experienced in Playa and the surrounding region.  At only $59 USD per person or $250 pesos for locals with valid proof of residence, it's a real deal.  You should call the park ahead of time and make a reservation.

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At the start of our adventure: Mary Lou, Allan, Carla, Jane and me
Our group before the big event
Look at those stalactites
Admire the large coral ceiling formations
Either we are in a Gothic castle, Hollywood movie or hell
Another pretty formation

Allan floats down the river

We're going to have to visit Rio Secreto again

Just before the exit