by Lydia Linton Pontius
If you have been to Akumal in the last 20 years, there is a very good chance you have met, or certainly heard of, Redbeard, born Kevin McKee. In Akumal it is like six degrees of another Kevin—Bacon; it seems everyone can be linked to Kevin McKee in six links or fewer. To play the game, we will allow electronics or cars to be connectors. It might go something like this: I just moved to Akumal, I have never met Kevin (Redbeard), but I just bought a car from someone in Playa who got it from Redbeard. Wow, two steps. Or, I attended an underwater wedding ceremony officiated by Minister Kevin McKee—one step. But inevitably there will be a connection well within six.
Kevin was affectionately named Redbeard, and it stuck, when many of the staff at La Buena Vida had difficulty pronouncing KeBEEN, and that combined with the fact that if his name slipped people's minds, the distinguishable red beard did not.
We sat down with Kevin over breakfast on the beach and decided it was time to share his stories with others. Now understand, this is more the prologue rather than the whole story, because Redbeard is a wealth of information and tales, from where to get the best fresh-squeezed orange juice to how to get that hard-to-find part for your vehicle.
In 1987 Redbeard came to Cancún to do some diving. It wasn't until 1989 that he first laid eyes on Akumal and dove the area; he did two dives just off shore on the same day. In '95–96 he added cave diving to his experiences, staying at DeRosa's and diving cenotes and the underwater cave systems.
He drove down to the area for the first time in 1998, and since then he has made 77 driving trips to date, either alone or helping others navigate the way.
In 1996–97 Kevin knew other divers who had come here through a Baltimore diving club, Kay and Gary—you know them best through LocoGringo. Kevin headed down this way when the dive shop he was working for in the States went under, and not in a very good way. So instead of getting mad, he picked up and started over.
His first road trip was in January 1998. He started out in Maryland and drove along the coast. He vividly remembers arriving in Francisco Escárcega on Highway 186 between Villahermosa and Chetumal, where he couldn't find a room, so he chose to sleep in his car. There were three people with two vehicles, and all of them were awakened by the sound of gunfire, finding themselves in the midst of a shootout between rebels and the army. Bienvenido to Mexico! But, as he quickly explains, that was his first and ONLY scary experience of that type. He was driving a 15-passenger van that he was looking to sell. He went all the way to Belize but was unable to sell it. Gary from Casa Cenote ended up taking it off his hands and using it to haul the building materials for his casitas.
Redbeard returned to the States from August to December of that year. Many times when he came back to Mexico he would drive another vehicle to sell. On average he found it was quite easy to sell vehicles in Belize and could usually do so in anywhere from 45 minutes to three days at the longest. So he would drive the vehicle into Belize, cross back into Chetumal and grab a bus back to Playa. As we said earlier, he has racked up 77 frequent driver trips. And each time, whether he was bringing vehicles, delivering goods or escorting others, the work all came by word of mouth.
With all the talk of danger along the borders of Mexico and the U.S., I had to ask what he thought was the safest route; he advised crossing the border at Los Indios, near San Benito, Texas, the birthplace of Freddy Fender. Yes, Redbeard not only has the routes but the trivia to go along. He also suggests that you get your permit ahead of time, then go when the bridge opens at 6 AM.
The worst place to cross in Redbeard's opinion is Tampico!
There are many benefits to Redbeard's experience, and with experience comes great knowledge to be shared. He can tell you the best place to get fresh OJ. In a small, five-tope town, it is the last stand at km 14 and he recalls paying 15 pesos for the delicious jugo and enjoying it by the pool, with a little vodka to taste.
Not all of his trips have been without hair-raising adventures. There was the time Hurricane Matthew hit and he was traveling along its path. It washed out two bridges and in 72 hours they received five feet of rain. Luckily over the years he has met some interesting people and made some good friends. One helped by called the federales, who directed him to head to the West Coast and come back through Guatemala.
Then there are the times when you just can't get that needed part in Mexico, even if it happens to be hecho en México (made in Mexico). If it is available only in the States, that means it needs to be sent from California to Mexico City, meaning you pay for the part, FedEx fees, and, of course, Mexican taxes. The process would take about five days. There must be another way, and these are the circumstances where Redbeard gets resourceful. He made a few phone calls, the part was found in Maryland and, as luck would have it, there was also someone coming down from the States who could deliver the part. All Redbeard had to do was rent a car and drive to the Cancún airport to meet the person. Sometimes things just click and, as Redbeard says, "It comes down to a few good friends and timing!"
These adventures in and around Mexico kept Redbeard busy for several years. Recently he has taken on a new role—minister! When asked why, he said, "Nothing else was working," with his usual grin!
What first inspired him? That may very well have been when a good friend of his got married, many years ago. This was one of those people no one expected ever to tie the knot. It was an "alert the media" moment. The invitations came for the Fourth of July; noon softball and beer were part of the plan. A Unitarian minister dressed as Uncle Sam officiated and everyone lined up to peek at his credentials. As Minister Kevin is well aware, not everyone wants formal ceremonies; there are many who want alternative weddings, beach weddings, underwater weddings, whatever-floats-your-boat weddings. Kevin is willing to fit that bill. He is fully open water and cave dive instructor certified, and ordained by the Universal Life Church. He is willing to give many, many options but does ask that the ceremony be for the same species. But if you want your dogs to tie the knot too, why not? And last-minute, impulse weddings—no problem.
But don't get this wrong; these are not weddings to be taken lightly. His first wedding was for a couple who was previously married. They wanted to incorporate their children into the ceremony. They added a blending-of-the-sand component, which symbolized all of them becoming a family. And they each took some of the sand as a reminder each time any of them touch it. Nothing could be more beautiful.
Stay tuned, as we hope to share many more of Minister Kevin McKee's, AKA Redbeard's, adventures, and maybe a few of his favorite spots and don't-miss stops in upcoming issues.
Contact Kevin if you are planning a Mayan Riviera wedding. And follow Redbeard's adventures on www.whereisredbeard.com