by Natalie Blankenship
As I sit on the edge of the boat anticipating my very first dive, my stomach does a back flip while I balance my tank on my back and the weight attached around my middle. My instructor tells me exactly what I need to do, but his instructions make no sense to me as I focus on my nerves and my now-nauseous-stomach. There are too many things to think about and I am getting scared. I put my flippers on my feet and my mask across my face and slowly begin to put the regulator in my mouth. I breathe in and out, my breaths get shorter and faster. I pull my regulator out of my mouth as if to take my last deep breath before venturing down 80 feet under the deep blue sea. Deeeeeep breaths. A loud, “1-2-3” comes from the instructors mouth and I flip my legs over my head and land in the water with a big splash. I am under the surface of the water and everything is a blur. The water is stirred up from all of my equipment and I feel so heavy, I might sink to the bottom of the ocean. As soon as the clouds of bubbles disappear, I see the familiar sight of two figures wrapped in neoprene suits with shiny silver tanks on their backs, accompanied by the friendly eyes of my boyfriend waving to me as if he’s having the time of his life. “Ok,” I tell myself. “I’m going to be alright.” As soon as I press my BCD (buoyancy control device) button to deflate my vest, we begin sinking further and further, pressing our fingers to our noses to clear our ears. I glance upwards and see the surface of the water and the shadow of the boat. It’s a whole new world down here. A smile breaks through that covers the entirety of my face. I can’t control my excitement. The nerves have escaped me, but I continue to direct some of my attention to my slow and steady breathing. A school of bright yellow fish swims right by me, welcoming me to their home, not giving a second thought that there are three giants with metal tanks swimming right near them. As soon as I get a hold of clearing my ears and maintaining the correct amount of air in my BCD vest, I soar through the ocean with not a care in the world. I wrap my arms around my body trying to ignore the chills running through me and look ahead at the gorgeous view of reefs that seem to go on forever, as well as brightly colored fish and plants.
I wake up from my dream and I realize I’m still in the van that drove us from the Cancun airport. As I rub my eyes to make sure I’m really there, I place my feet outside of the car and into the sand and look straight ahead at the palm trees, blue sky, and the bright and shining sun. I take a deep breath and smell the salt water. I am in Akumal, Mexico. Heaven on earth. A pack of sunburned tourists, Dos Equis in hand, stroll by like they have nothing else to do in their lives. As we drive past the Lol-Ha Snack Bar, we arrive at the house overlooking the ocean filled with sailboats and motor boats anchored in the bay. My boyfriend Ryan’s family’s home, the owners of the resort. The water is crystal clear and the sand so white, it has a blinding effect as you as fumble to get your sunglasses on. It’s paradise. I’m in my state of pure joy, and there’s no other feeling much like it.
After my seventh trip to the Riviera Maya in Akumal, Mexico, I know that this is a place where I thrive and love life. Not to say I don’t love life while living at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, but Akumal is a place of beauty and tranquility. Immediately upon arriving in the quaint beach town of Akumal, a smile takes over my face and I feel a wave of relief and happiness. My mental state when I am there is the ideal vacation mode that everyone should be in when they travel somewhere for leisure. I am completely carefree and take each day as it comes to me. Just like the famous idiom says, “take each day as it comes” or “take it one day at a time”. This is a statement I like to live by and especially when I’m on vacation. Instead of worrying about making plans or dwelling on past frustrations, I deal with things as they come and try not to worry about the future. There’s something about being at a beautiful beach and eating delicious food for weeks at a time that just puts me in another world. Although I go often, each trip to Akumal brings me memories of fun times rich in culture that immediately put me in my element.
When I go to Akumal, my favorite things to do are lay on the beach and read a book, scuba dive, eat great food, go to Hidden Worlds, and to Xel Ha (pronounced “shell-ha”). Ryan and I drive to Hidden Worlds with some other friends from Southern Methodist University. We are greeted by a couple of Mexican men wearing blue polos labeled “Hidden Worlds”. They are enthusiastic and immediately begin handing out wetsuits and snorkel gear. We aren’t quite sure what to expect, but we’re trying to ready ourselves to endure some cold water and quite a few adventures. One of the men tells us to wait out front, as a vehicle is waiting to take us to the first activity. A large, open air “buggy” sits in front of us as a man jumps on the front and starts the engine up. About 8 other people of all colors jump on with us and we plunge into the jungle. The ride is extremely bumpy. Ryan explains to me that the “buggy” is pretty homemade—the shocks aren’t exactly that great. I slap my arm immediately after spotting a pesky mosquito and I peer forward, noticing that we are scaling hills and dirt paths. I have one arm on Ryan and one arm on the railing behind my head. I feel as if I could easily roll right out of the vehicle and disappear into the jungle…but maybe I’m being overly-cautious because nobody else is even holding on. The breeze goes right through my hair and calms my worries as I anticipate what awaits us.
We arrive at our first destination: the Sky Cycle. The only one in the world. It’s a sort of bicycle that is attached at the top to a cable that runs through the top of the jungle, like a canopy tour. A man helps me into the sky cycle, and I begin to pedal, all the while looking down at the trees and brilliantly colored red flowers. I take a deep breath and enjoy the ride, feeling as if I am alone in the jungle. The only noises I hear are the squeaky pedals of my bike and a few chirps from a bird in a nearby tree. Peace and quiet. I arrive at the end of the cable and a man greets me with a friendly “Hola! Como estás?” I respond with a smile, and am helped off the cycle and onto the ground on the inside of the mouth of a cave, or “cenote” in Spanish. A “cenote” is an underwater cave, or a sink hole with rocky edges. From there, everyone in our group is handed snorkeling masks and life vests and we get suited up to brave the cold waters of the inside of the “cenote”. We start dipping our toes in the dark water, meanwhile scanning the cave walls and the tiny blind fish swimming around. Once I finally get in the water, I put my face underwater and I notice the fish swim right into me and wonder why I can reach out and grab the fish. The guide explains to me that the fish are blind because they have never seen sunlight before. I am amused by this and continue to grab at fish that swim bu. We are led all around the cenote, snorkeling right behind our guide and stopping every now and then to admire the beautiful stalactites and stalagmites that have taken hundreds of years to form. After we have frozen ourselves to death, we climb out of the cenote and head back for the Sky Cycle to pedal ourselves back to another cenote. We do a series of activities including rappelling down into the cenote, zip-lining into the water on the inside of the cenote, and snorkeling on the inside of another cave. All of the adventures are a lot fun and eventually wear us out.
Akumal is located in the Rivera Maya, south of Cancun. Spanish and Mayan are spoken in the area. The town is Mayan, but the majority of natives speak Spanish. Although the town has a lot of tourists due to the beautiful beach and atmosphere, there is still a lot of culture Akumal has to offer. Whether it is interacting with some of the local waiters at my favorite restaurant Lol Ha, or visiting some of the ruins in Tulum, I still find myself learning new things about the area. The Mayan culture is still alive. When we visited the ruins in Tulum, it was amazing to learn about the Mayan people and what they did to survive such a long time ago. But for the ruins to still be intact and preserved was something that was just amazing. The structures were beautiful and well thought-out. According to the man that founded Akumal in the early 60’s, Mr. Pablo Bush Romero, grandfather of my boyfriend Ryan Wolfe and father of Laura Bush Wolfe, owner of Hotel Akumal Caribe, traces of Mayan culture are still to be found in Akumal and around the Riviera Maya. In Under the Waters of Mexico, Romero says that after Hernando Cortés took possession of Mexico and the Mayans were attacked by Francisco de Montejo, three canons and an anchor were salvaged from the Caribbean. “From that Mayan civilization, projected over the greater part of the continent, there still remain vestiges, archaeological treasures, witnesses of history, silently urging and inviting discovery” (Romero Ch. 2). It’s true even today that there are small relics of what the Mayans left behind, even though the number of tourists seem to be growing exponentially each year. Akumal is such a beautiful treasure that is becoming less and less of a secret.
Also when I go to Akumal, I try to practice my Spanish as much as I can. Nearing fluency is something that has been occurring for about two years now; it’s all about the immersion and practice now. As the waiters come to take my order, I order in Spanish, not because I am so proactive about my practicing Spanish, but because I look to my right and see my boyfriend’s look on his face reading, “Say it in Spanish, Natalie!” It is something else to be able to speak the language of a different country while visiting. You get to learn something each day, even if it’s just one slang word used mainly on the coast. During one visit to Akumal, I worked for the resort during the summer. One particularly memorable moment was when I was assigned to work at the receptionist desk to check guests in and out. I worked with two other people, both who couldn’t speak much English. This was my time to practice my Spanish and really struggle if I couldn’t remember a word. Not only did I converse with my coworkers, but I also encountered another hurdle. As the phone began to ring and there were no guests around, I looked at my coworker to pick it up. She laughed and told me that I would need to answer the phone. I tensed up and answered, “Bueno! Hotel Akumal Caribe, Soy Natalia,” or something along those lines. The person on the other line began speaking rapid Spanish and I froze. I had never tried to speak Spanish on the phone except with my boyfriend who speaks fluently, but it was much slower since he was more forgiving. I struggled, but eventually was able to communicate with the person on the other line. Success. After my second call I felt like a superstar. I could now truly speak Spanish.
With my love for languages, culture, and traveling, visiting Akumal consistently puts me in my element. I am in love with the place. Not only am I tremendously blessed to be able to stay with my boyfriend and his family, the owners of the resort in Akumal, but I get to relax and enjoy the culture and adventures that the town has to offer. Even if I just unwind and lie on the beach, I am happier than ever and I am truly in my element. I am able to enjoy myself while learning and practicing Spanish, something I am good at and love doing. Exploring other cultures, especially Latin American cultures, is something I am passionate about. Because I am able to do what I love and learn at the same time in Akumal, I am in my element and in my place of happiness. I believe that my passion for traveling and emerging myself in other cultures will certainly drive me to explore even more countries and learn even more languages. My dream job is to own my own travel magazine, and not only provide good restaurant and places to stay, but also immerse myself and write magazine articles about what the locals have to say about tourists and what not to do in certain areas. I would like to go above and beyond a normal travel magazine by preparing travelers with the “nitty gritty” and what they should actually expect and anticipate on their trip. My favorite vacation spot, Akumal, Mexico, has geared me up to love culture and languages. I think without the experiences I have had in Akumal, I wouldn’t have such a deep-rooted enthusiasm for traveling and learning languages. Currently I am double majoring in Spanish and Journalism and minoring in French. The next languages on my list are Italian, Portuguese, and German. Ultimately, I would love to write part of my magazine in Spanish and create a large distribution network in Latin America as well as the U.S. My goal is to tie the U.S. and South and Central America together to create “The Americas Travel Magazine”.
Bush Romero, Pablo. Under the Waters of Mexico. 1964.
"Take each day as it comes - Idioms - by the Free Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia." Idioms and phrases. 12 Apr. 2009 .