An Expat Perspective: My Morning Walks

An Expat Perspective: My Morning Walks

By Rachel Mills

Moving from rural Upper Michigan to Isla Mujeres is a culture shock on many levels. I find myself less bothered by the language and cultural barriers than I do getting used to a lack of solitude and the sheer numbers and proximity of people all the time. For those coming from more urban backgrounds, Isla seems like a quaint little island with more golf carts and scooters than cars, and a generally slower pace of living than that of a city lifestyle. While waiting in line at the ferry on the Cancun side I recently heard two couples discussing the island. A well-coiffured and beachy-expensively-dressed woman was saying to her companions, “It’s a cute island, but I couldn’t vacation there. I mean, there’s just nothing going on.”

I’m from a place where it wasn’t uncommon to get stuck behind a tractor, horse, or neighbor on a lawnmower going down the road. Where, in my cabin, I could go days without seeing another person if I didn’t want to, and the only human noises were the occasional vehicle coming down the road, which I couldn’t see from my house; neighbors’ target practice gun shots splitting the air; or a distant shout from the neighbor’s children, who’s driveway I could barely see through the trees north of my cabin.

Compared to this lack of people and general solitude, Isla feels like a buzzing, exhausting hive of activity. Especially now, when day trippers from Cancun, spring breakers, and snow birds all collide here at once.

This is the aspect I’ve found hardest to overcome, and I work on a daily basis to find ways to seek out the same balms to my soul just walking through a quiet woods, or down a seldom-driven road provided me my entire life before moving here.

I find myself becoming anxious and annoyed by the sounds and presence of so many people and their loud vehicles. But this is my home now, and it’s up to me to find new and different conduits to that same peaceful state of mind.

My morning walks, many years habit and routine—a trait passed from my mother—are metaphors for my solitude and silence- thirsty self. My walks aren’t just exercise for me and the dog—they’re a time to clear my head. Think about things, or not. Take deep breaths and notice what’s around me. A place to just be.

That’s tough to do on Isla, where I have a limited walking pattern due to our home’s central location on the island, and where I can go with Bea where packs of dogs won’t come at us.

I’ve found a route that works, but it’s along one of the island’s main roads, and unless I go really early (which then puts me more at risk of dogs scoping the night’s leavings and marking territory) I contend with the putter-roar of mopeds; golf cart grind; and speeding taxi hot wind; as well as the occasional enormous transport belching exhaust; cat-calling, and general traffic-humanity rush and presence.

Amidst all this, there’s a good deal of beauty too, and I’ve set myself the task of experiencing and noticing it as well—tuning out what I judge as different from my walks in Michigan, and finding from the experience what I need—truly noticing my new home.

My morning walks are a study in juxtapositions, as are many of my daily experiences moving from The Upper Peninsula of Michigan to this little island off Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

On Isla, walks begin with Bea’s leash in one hand, and a rock to threaten hostile dogs and plastic bag for poop in the other.

We walk out the gravel drive; past the mechanic/everything-fixer-dealer on the right; past Carnitas, customers already seated at plastic tables, the proprietor’s cleaver thumping into steaming pork chunks, stewing pork aromas coloring the morning with flavor. Past the other mechanic on the left, workers perpetually stained, clothes and skin, head to toe with oil and grease—their greeting smiles a flash of white.

Bea sits like a good girl at the alley mouth while I carefully look both ways for speeding taxis, motos, and trucks before crossing the street.

It’s busy the first couple of blocks, and the sidewalk dips and buckles, strung along between driveways, street entrances, and businesses.

Full to bursting garbage bags, piles of construction materials, and mopeds are obstacles to be woven around and through.

Rock clutched in left hand is a reminder to always be aware, eyes shifting left to right for other dogs—the bane of our walks. While nice enough in their own right, I never trust that one won’t suddenly turn on Bea, and her little 45 pound beagle-mix-self wouldn’t stand a chance against a seasoned local dog. A chance I prefer not to take—dog fights suck.

In Michigan, Bea and I saw all types of wildlife on our morning walks: woodpeckers, chickadees, slinky weasels, black-winged ravens, and skipping red squirrels—along with moose and deer tracks captured in mud, otter belly slides printed in snow, and the occasional rare bobcat or Martin print, but other dogs were almost only ever seen in tracks.

In Michigan, morning walk sounds mean a quiet suspended in birdsong, my footfalls, and on days without wind, the sound of my own breathing.

On Isla, morning walk sounds start with the barking of neighbor dogs, next-door mechanic shop metallic whirs and whines, and chattering tropical birds.

On Isla, once we pass Broncos—one of two strip clubs in the five mile long island, both of which we have to pass on our walk—we’re free of the business-congestion and onto mostly uninterrupted sidewalk. We always walk on the western side of the road, because this sidewalk abuts a long fence and green space adjacent to the now-mostly-unused airstrip. The other side of the street is full of houses, hotels, a Six, and several restaurants, but on our side of the street, I can turn my eyes to the west’s green space and focus there.

Dotted along the cement wall are small enclaves. They each have miniature stone Mayan pyramids about four feet tall, and small cement depression pools that only fill with water after a rain. These, I’ve determined after much observation, are small iguana sanctuary-shrines. One such place always has vegetarian-leftover offerings scattered along the sidewalk from the empanada shop across the street. I don’t know if this is out of respect, a fall-back to an ancient Mayan custom, or simply a decorative way to make the sidewalk more attractive, but I’ve come to love them. Iguanas hang from the walls, soaking up sun and driving Bea crazy. She went from chasing squirrels, to chasing iguanas.

We turn around just before Soggy Peso—a local watering hole we often frequent—where more dogs start appearing.

In Michigan, the dirt roads and paths we walk are a carpet of many wefts and weaves depending on the season.

Winter necessitates pulling spiked crampons over my boots to keep from falling on ice in all shapes and textures: bumped and pitted; black and invisible; shiny and cracked; laid in long swathes that make me wish for ice skates instead of boots.

In spring, I often hop from dry spot to dry spot, puddles dotting the road—muddy sky mirrors. The mud smells thick and old and new at the same time—ancient particles unlocked from winter’s chill for the first time in months.

In summer, pebbles and gravel pepper the road, turning my ankles this way and that if I’m not careful. Some days, when rain’s a distant spring memory, just my shuffling feet kick up dust that tickles my nose—sneezes scare butterflies from milkweed flowers into fluttering flight.

Even dirt roads make easier footing than cement. For several months after coming to Isla, I worried I’d developed a tendon or ankle problem in my Achilles/calves, which ached in sharp bursts sometimes so excruciating it was hard to get out of bed. I contemplated a doctor visit, fearing my years of waitressing and cross country running had finally caught up to me. Imperceptibly, the pain disappeared as my legs acclimated to the unforgiving ground.

I didn’t know heat until my morning walks on Isla in July and August.

Walking out the door, I’m already breaking a sweat. I fought it at first, self conscious of the moisture trickling down forehead, nose, cheeks, and chest. But the heat and humidity won, and I soon learned it was easier just to embrace the intensity because it takes too much energy to fight. In summer, sweat is a part of daily life on Isla.

My morning walks on Isla, rather than dodging ice and puddles, each walk I catalogue the fascinating array of detritus scattered along the space where the street and sidewalk meet: condom wrappers; red solo cups; styrofoam plates; chip bags; the splash of blood outside Broncos (the only strip club I’ve ever been in, in my 33 years of life—after which I both cried and went home to shower); multi-colored feathers during Carnival; empty cocaine baggies; sparkling green shards from broken Dos XX bottles; Ultramar Ferry ticket stubs; tumbled and wind tangled plastic bags; single errant flip flops; lost pacifiers; Mexican brand pharmaceutical boxes and popped plastic packaging.

I used to pick up the roadside trash on my morning walks in Michigan, returning home with a random piece of plastic peeking from coat or shorts pockets.

On Isla, there’s far too much to contemplate such an endeavor.

Every morning, a new batch. Many tourists complain about the trash, blaming the locals. But it’s much more complicated than that. Much of the trash is generated from visitors—flying out of golf carts and drunk hands. The island, and Mexico in general, doesn’t have the bureaucratic infrastructure in place to contend with the trash. Americans are used to taking their trash to the curb and having it disappear—that isn’t always the case here.

However, I’ve watched, on countless occasions, individuals in the early mornings along street-sides and medians picking up trash, sweeping, and tidying. The stretch of road where Bea and I walk is maintained by a small, wizened man who sweeps the garbage dutifully every morning. Some days I walk later, and the only evidence of his passing is a clean street and broom bristle patterns etched into the sand. He’s fastidious, and separates biodegradable refuse such as leaves and seed pods from man-made detritus.

When Bea and I first began our routine and passed the weather and age-seamed man with his backwards hat, he only glowered at my smile and cheerful, “Hola” or “Buenas Dias.”

Slowly, day after day, he started to acknowledge us. We don’t always get a smile, but at the very least there’s eye contact, a nod, and a lip twitch that’s almost a smile.

For some reason, this feels like a small triumph. An opening, living in a place where my white skin so often assigns me to the “just another gringa tourist category.”

In Michigan, I know the name of almost every tree, shrub, flower, and weed I pass. I unconsciously hum the names in my head like a poem: sugar maple, milkweed, vetch, queen Anne’s lace, wild cherry, shivering shaking quaking aspen, jack pine, balsam, basswood, pussywillow, tag alder, chicory…

On Isla, I’m slowly learning the names of the trees, shrubs, and flowers I pass: papaya, sea grape (uva de playa), chit palms, saw palmetto, beach morning glory, plumeria, golden shower (lluvia de oro) royal poinciana, ceiba—sacred tree where Mayan gods reside, Bougainville, tropical almond…

One thing both places have in common is that many of these species in both north and south aren’t native—they came on boats from far across the ocean and adapted themselves to lands not their own.

A concept I often contemplate on my morning walks: invasive species. This land wouldn’t be what it is today without the violent invasion of the Spanish. Today it’s inundated by tourists from all over the world—and immigrants like myself.

My morning walks have always been a time to ponder, and lately much of it centers around my place on Isla—invasive species? Immigrant? Long-term visitor? Or like the poinciana tree—adapting.
Rachel Mills is an English Professor, creative nonfiction writer, and cook/food writer living between Isla Mujeres, Mexico and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Rachel balances her passion for education and community with healthy doses of adventure: rock climbing, traveling, and swimming everywhere from cenotes to the lakes and rivers of upper Michigan. She received her BA, MA, and MFA from Northern Michigan University where she taught English for nine years before giving in to the siren song of Isla Mujeres and going to live, teach, and play on her beloved Caribbean island where she resides with her boyfriend, Ryan, and their pups, Bea and OG. She’s been published in The Northwestern Review, marquettemagazine.com, and writes about expat life on her website: www.jezebelstable.com. Follow her on Instagram @rachelmills906.

[Images courtesy of Rachel Mills]

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