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The International Writers Magazine

Dean Borok

“Thank God for the Queen of Spain!” exalted the taxi driver as he sped us down the modern autoroute leading to the south of Cozumel Island. It was a clear, dry day and the temperature was climbing into the high 80’s. On either side of the highway the mangrove forests soaked up the life-giving energy of the sun, striving to regenerate themselves months after the devastating assault by Hurricane Wilma had denuded the trees of their leaves, leaving a barren tableau reminiscent of the devestation visited upon the Vietnemese jungle after an Agent Orange deforestation campaign.

Above us the hawks glided on currents of hot, rising air, their job of locating prey on the ground made infinitely easier by the total absence of vegetation.

The driver continued his litany of thanksgiving. “The Queen of Spain called the state governor, and when she heard the magnitude of our suffering, she immediately dispached three military cargo aircraft filled with water and food. Otherwise we surely would have perished because all our water was contaminated.

“The hurricane lasted two days,” he continued. By the second day our houses were flooded and the water was up to our chest. We had to go on the roof in the wind and rain with our children, who were all crying. We thought we were all going to die, and we prayed to Jesus for our salvation.

“Finally, by the grace of God, the storm moved away. If it had lasted two hours more all the people in my barrio would have been swept away and killed. There was a great wailing of relief and thanks to God that we had survived. We sat on our roofs and waited for help, because we had no water or food. When at last we saw the Spanish Air Force planes circling above us, those of us who could ran to the airfield to await their landing, and when they landed we went inside the airplanes and emptied them by hand, passing the cartons out in a chain until all the supplies were stacked on the tarmac.
And so, because of the benevolence of the Queen of Spain all the people survived.

“After came the Canadians and the Americans. Then the Mexican Navy ships docked in the harbor. They brought soldiers with trucks and helicopters, and the soldiers and police patrolled the streets to keep order. By the grace of God, all the people survived. Not one person died. Unfortunately nobody was able to save the poor animals and they all perished. All the dogs and cats, the horses and donkeys, the chickens and roosters. All dead! The only animals that survived were those birds that knew how to survive in the water, and when the water receded from the town the streets were filled with the corpses of the dead animals.
“This highway we’re driving on now, when the water receded, was strewn with thousands of dead fish all the way to the southern end of the island, as far as the eye could see.

“For two months we had no work and we only lived on what we received from the government. They gave us water, food and ice every day, but no alcohol or beer. Let me tell you, that was the worst of it! I can live without seeing a woman for two months, but two months without beer in this heat, and nothing to do – that was the worst. A black market developed where you could buy a bottle of tequila for five hundred pesos, but nobody had any money, and if the police caught you they sent you to jail.” He reiterated, “I don’t care if I don’t see a woman for two months, but no beer – that’s the worst!”

My girlfriend Magpie and I had taken an efficiency apartment in the center of San Miguel, on the malecon, or oceanfront boulevard, just a couple of blocks from the ferry terminal. For whatever reason, the downtown business district and central plaza, with its lush tropical foliage, appeared untouched by the devestation, but that might be because the authorities determined that it be beautifully appointed for the needs of the tourist business, which is the island’s only source of income. This central plaza was a far cry from what it was the first time I visited Cozumel twenty years ago. Then, it was a devastatingly ugly patch of dirt right out of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, a lazy, filthy unshaded mound of barren soil surrounding a concrete bandshell, fit only for “borrachos” and the North American dropouts that inhabited the surrounding flea bag hotels.
At that time Cozumel was only visited by a few hard-core divers and by small groups of day travelers from the mainland attracted for snorkeling excursions into its wonderfully rich coral reefs. The town had one rickety dock, a t-shirt store and a store selling silver jewelry. The rest of the place was a real dive, with pigs and chickens freeranging down the middle of its shabby side streets.

Each time I came back, the island had incrementally improved, and when the cruise lines finally glommed onto its exotic tropical beauty, a gold rush soon followed, with government and private investment pouring in, followed by an exodus of migrants from all over Mexico, seeking opportunity, as well as rich Mexicans and Spaniards who established oceanfront residences. A new ferry terminal, the muelle fiscal, was constructed directly in front of the town square. A gigantic port built to process cruise ship passengers was built a few kilometers to the south. Shopping centers housing boutiques for Cartier jewelry and Rolex watches sprang up in formerly desolate lots overgrown with weeds. Luxury resorts sprung up like jalapeño poppers. Restaurants and bars charging New York prices spread into the side streets like kudzu vines overtaking an abandoned jungle shack. Now the town, with its miniature malecón, or oceanfront boulevard, resembles nothing so much as a tiny Havana or San Juan, much more charming than Cancún, and with a distinctly Mexican and Mayan personality.

And now that Cozumelenos, as they refer to themselves, are racing along the information superhighway with the rest of us, with 100 television stations and internet cafes on every block (not to mention the ubiquitous cell phones that they have seized upon with the voracious fury of a ravenous octopus), the people on this once-isolated backwater are every bit as sophisticated as the most jaded denizen of Mexico City or New York. Since Magpie and I had neglected to bring along a radio, we more or less left the TV on in our room full-time for background noise.

Mexican television is pretty good. There are a lot of music video stations featuring the whole gamut of popular music ranging from norteno music, which is updated mariachi played by hard guys dressed in vaquero suits and sombreros, to latin hip-hop. There are plenty of movie channels, most featuring dubbed-over American films, but also with plenty of vintage black-and-white Mexican westerns and romantic comedies. You have the choice of watching CNN en espanol, which is broadcast live from Atlanta, but with really cool, elegant latin announcers sporting sharp haircuts and modern suits. There are always soccer matches featuring the best teams of Europe and Latin America. And for hard-core political junkies, there is a public access station that shows parliamentary debates from the Chamber of Deputies in Mexico City, which was a real eye-opener!

The hands-down star of Mexican political commentary for our week in Mexico was undeniably Venezuelan president Hugo “Chavez, who is not passing up any opportunity to project himself throughout Latin America. He was on CNN two or three times every hour all week, and he had a lot to say about Mexico’s ruling party, the PAN, calling them lap dogs of George Bush and the Americans. Since this is an election year for Mexico, the PAN deputies in congress are highly exercised about what they consider Chavez’ interference in the country’s internal politics in favor of the left-wing candidate, Obrador, who is the mayor of Mexico City.

Magpie and I watched a legislative session where the deputies were debating a PAN motion to investigate Chavez and statements by the Venezuelan ambassador to Mexico to determine whether they constituted Venezuelan interference in Mexican domestic politics. It was a raucous debate, the Mexican sense of political decorum not extending to restrained behavior by elected officials. The speakers all started their speeches softly and politely, with reasoned dignity, and then built up to a crescendo of denunciations and accusations, sort of like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, to the accompaniment of shouts, jeers, whistles and points of order by the assembled dignitaries. Everybody was playing to the home audience, and they knew what their constituents expected of them – something spicy!

The motion to investigate Chavez passed, but later that day, when the Venezuelan strongman appeared on the screen, as though in response, he sang a song by the fantastically popular Spanish singer Rocio Durcal, a kind of singing Simone Signoret, who had died earlier that day. Later on, the Venezuelan government announced that it was increasing housing subsidies for all its low-income citizens.

What effect all this is having on Mexican voters I cannot say. But the other big story of the week, the massive demonstrations taking place in the States by undocumented Mexican workers protesting the imminent immigration legislation by the U.S. Congress, aroused plenty of emotions and indignation. Every Mexican knows somebody working in the U.S., so the issue has an emotional aspect as least as strong in Mexico as it does in the U.S.

This issue has many conflicting aspects to it. Nobody wants to raise the point that those regions of the U.S. that have been most impacted by Mexican immigration are areas that were historically Mexican territory for many centuries before they were annexed to the U.S. as a result of the Mexican War of 1845, a war that was described by many commentators of the day, including no less an authority than Ulysses S. Grant, who participated in it, as an abomination and a blatant land grab. This area, stretching from Texas to Northern California, was the richest part of Mexico, so on one level you could say that the Mexican people still retain the residual sentiment that they have some indefinable rights in that region.
Another aspect of the situation is that NAFTA, unlike the European Union, made no provision for movement of people across borders to compensate for the inevitable dislocations and contradictions that would result as a consequence of free trade. This glaring omission has unfortunate racial overtones to it, the Americans and Canadians wanting access to the not inconsequential Mexican market and cheap labor pool without having to accept the possibility that Mexico might come to them.

Anyone who takes the trouble to read the classified section of Mexican newspapers, where jobs are advertised as paying one hundred fifty dollars a MONTH, knows that trans-border migration is inevitable. The problem is that this influx of cheap labor is depressing wages in the U.S., where American employers are happy to pay these substandard wages and no benefits for work for which they would otherwise have to competitively bid.

It should be noted that Mexico takes the integrity of its own borders very seriously, maintaining a large standing army, navy and air force, and has long pursued a policy of forcibly repatriating illegal immigrants back to their poorer neighboring countries to the south.

Magpie and I enjoyed a week of near-perfect weather during our Cozumel vacation, and every day we visited a different beach or snorkeling area. The big nature park at Chankannab had been devastated and was closed for repair, but a few kilometers to the south a beach called Playa Sancho was open for business, and we rented a couple of deck chairs under a newly refurbished palapa.

I swam out a couple of hundred meters to where the water was sparkling clear. The coral, which had been covered in sand kicked up from the hurricane, was arranged in little bouquets separated at intervals of a few meters and extending in all directions. Despite the bland, almost lunar aspect of the sand-covered landscape, it was clearly rich in nourishment, as schools of large blue, purple and black angel fish darted between the formations to leisurely nibble at each for a while before zooming to the next. I would hover at the surface above them, studying each feeding group for a while, when some other point of interest at the periphery of my vision caught my attention, and then I would swim in that direction. Sometimes it would be a particularly large and colorful parrot fish or an intricately sculpted coral formation that drew me. I found a sunken ridge of coral fragments and, knowing these depressions to be particularly attractive to the fish, followed it for several hundred meters.

All at once, I found myself in a murky, brownish patch that, I discovered to my horror, to be infested by a very large school of thimble-sized jellyfish. This was a particularly wild stretch of beach, Magpie and I being the only bathers as far as the eye could see in any direction that day, and jellyfish, even tiny ones can do a lot of damage to humans with their toxic discharge, so finding myself hundreds of meters from the beach, in the midst of a swarm of them, filled me with inquietude. I had once seen a television show about an Australian diver who had just narrowly escaped death after being stung by a jellyfish no larger than a fingernail. Were these ones toxic? Would the exertion of swimming cause the poison to circulate faster through my bloodstream? These were some of the questions that went through my mind.

I finally managed to get clear of the swarm of jellyfish, apparently no worse for wear, to find myself comforted by a large heterogeneous group of brightly colored tropical fish feeding on a coral formation. Large blue angelfish;, lovely grey fish with blue markings; grey ones with just one large white dot at the posterior end of their torso; fluttery blue and yellow fish resembling delicate, charming feather dusters; robust black-and-white checked fish with lurid, red bottoms all swam about their business, taking no notice of me.

Suddenly there emerged from this idyllic scenario, as if to remind me once more that I was in the midst of wild nature with absolutely no device of human civilization to shield me, an enormous golden barracuda, more than a meter in length and headed unswervingly in my direction. The face he presented to me had a serious, not to say grave, aspect to it, quite unlike the cute little denizens of the deep served up in the Walt Disney “Nemo” movies, and the fact that he was following a direct trajectory toward me was not in the least reassuring, particularly since I was about a half-kilometer from shore.
Magpie is fond of reminding me that barracuda do not attack humans. They also say that about sharks. But these are wild animals we are describing here, and they do not follow any literary rules of etiquette, as guys who have lost arms and legs, not to mention even less fortunate witnesses, would be happy to attest if they could still be around to discuss it.
I took a page from the Octopus School of Wisdom, and started thrashing my arms and legs wildly to let the creature know that I was alert and robust, and he swam away.

Deciding that I had had enough Wild Kingdom for one day, I made a dash for shore, stopping every few meters to turn around and make sure I wasn’t being tracked. I was plenty alarmed. Next thing, I came face-to-face with another barracuda (or maybe it was the same one? How would I know? It’s not like they wear license plates!) I performed the same thrashing manoeuvre, and this one swam away as well.

At length, I reached the shore and made it back to the palapa where Magpie was relaxing with an iced rum cocktail. She had immediately returned to shore after experiencing the jellyfish. When I told her about the barracuda, she casually remarked, “Maybe they were attracted by your gold chain. In their mind, the sunlight reflecting off the gold reminds of the glittering scales of a fish.”
I immediately removed the chain from my neck.

The Palenkar reef, which stretches between the Fiesta Americana Dive Resort and the El Presidente Hotel is our favorite snorkeling site. There is a small beach at Dzul-Ha where, for the price of a drink, you can inhabit a shaded table on a seaside terrace all day and walk into one of the world’s greatest coral reefs at your leisure. Magpie and I put on our snorkels and swam southward in the direction of the Fiesta Americana, about a kilometer down the beach, in search of a beautiful undersea forest of purple fan coral where we had spent many hours exploring the previous year.

Every modern artist works by the rule that colors and shapes possess the latent energy to release emotions in the beholder, so it is a mystery to this writer why more artists have not taken to the undersea world for inspiration in the same way that Georgia O’Keefe brought the mysteries of the orchid or the American Southwest desert landscapes into the salons of the art world. Why have not dress designers gone in search of striking color combinations and patterns so readily available as to be literally at their fingertips just by donning a mask and wading into the therapeutic, warm coastal waters of the Mexican Caribbean?

Alas, the marvelous coral forest was gone, decimated by the furious devastation of the hurricane. Shattered fragments of fan coral lay on the ocean floor, covered in grey sand, the myriad of exotic sea life that formerly sustained itself on them in such harmonic tranquility also gone. But as we swam, a closer inspection of the terrain made apparent to us that the miraculous restorative evolution of nature was already at work in this hidden garden. Tiny purple fans the size of maple leaves were already springing from the ocean floor, and vibrant, green patches of brain coral had affixed themselves like skin grafts to the surface of dead formations. Magpie returned to our beach transfixed at having been privileged to witness the rebirth of nature at such close proximity, and we wondered aloud how this powerful, eternal cycle of destruction and restoration may have transformed the psyche of the indigenous Mayan civilization. The Mayans, who had a highly evolved culture of architecture and astronomy, also had great mathematical expertise, having discovered the concept of the number zero. They also had a written language, which implies literature. Tragically, the conquering Spanish destroyed all the written records of this great civilization. What marvels of philosophy and poetry, inspired by the terrestrial paradise they shared with the animals of both land and sea were lost to the drunken conquistadores and sociopathic agents of the Inquisition? Who has the insight to imagine what psychic imprint of wisdom is left on the souls of the surviving Mayans, secrets locked forever in the genetic chemistry? That is the role of the artist.

On our last full day of snorkeling in Cozumel, Magpie and I went to Playa Paraiso, just north of the cruise ship terminal, which we know from previous trips to be a real hotbed of sea life.

The cruise ship pier being under repair from the ravages of Wilma, the ships, huge, immaculate floating hotels with names like “Pearl of the Caribbean,” were moored at sea right in front of us. At the side of each ship’s hull, near the waterline, was a solitary little door were the shuttle launches would pull up to disembark cruise passengers and bring them to shore for a day of sightseeing. You expect passengers of huge ships like these to disembark down a big gangplank at a dock, so seeing ferries pull up to this little side door was a bit incongruous.

Anyway, what interested Magpie and me was what was teeming beneath the surface, not what was going on above it. We adjusted our masks and snorkels and jumped in.

You’re immediately transported to another planet. Floating above this world in the clear, warm water you soon forget that you’re in water at all, and it is like flying through the air at the top of an atmosphere whose inhabitants are also flying few feet beneath you, as though you were flying in the air above the birds. That is part of what makes exploring sea life so fascinating, an extra vertical dimension that you don’t get on dry land.

One wonders what our culture would be today if the ancient inhabitants had had access to those mundane objects that we so take for granted today, the sealed diving mask. Of course, the engineering expertise it takes to fit a glass lens to a rubber mask that forms a vacuum around your eyes and nose has only been perfected in the last century. Prior to that, people could only gaze over the water’s surface and speculate on what took place beneath. If previous civilizations, with their great sculptors and painters had had access to this simple instrument, the mask, might not our world today more reflect that which takes place over 90% of its surface? Would not our architecture reflect the inspiration of coral formations, our clothing and interiors mimic the shimmering, gaudy reflections of the deep? Would not the epic poetry of the ancient Greeks and Romans have recounted mythic adventures that took place beneath the ocean’s surface, our religious deities portrayed as gods residing in magnificent undersea palaces? Unfortunately, now that we have the tools to study these heretofore forbidden regions, the masks, scuba tanks and undersea vessels, we have not the artistic inspiration or curiosity to bring them into our cultural realm.

Magpie and I found what we were looking for: what had once been a huge school of silver fish that resided in these waters. On previous visits, we had been astounded by the size of the school – millions of fish, a carpet of them, stretching hundreds of meters. This immense megalopolis was an astonishing sight, and we wanted to see it again before returning to New York.

Unfortunately, this swim brought home to us a more graphic understanding of what damage Wilma had effected on the marine environment than had any of our previous excursions. The huge school of fish had been completely decimated. Where once existed millions upon millions of fish was now reduced to a small group of perhaps several thousands. All those millions of fish gone! It would take years for the school to return to its former size. People see the surface effects of the hurricane, Magpie had kept insisting, without giving any thought to the damage done to the marine life by the seismic churning of the sea.

The stupendous magnitude of the damage was incontrovertible, yet what was left of the school behaved eerily like nothing had gone amiss. What that school of fish does there, I couldn’t possibly imagine. It had been there for years that we knew of, and never broke ranks, even to hunt for food. Was it in the path of a current of microscopic algae and could just sit there as its food was brought to it? The shimmering reflection of the sunlight on the fish’s scales reminded me of what Magpie had told me about barracuda confusing my sparkling gold chain for a fish, and now I came to really conceptualize the logic of that.

What marvel of intelligence or communication causes fish to gather in the millions, to instantly separate and regroup as though by instantaneous thought transference, swimming back on themselves and forming a complex and intricate geometric ballet, forming kaleidoscopic patterns of visual enchantment?

Might it not be indicative of a collective wisdom formed by billions of years of evolution? Who says that fish are stupid? People have never given any thought to submarine intelligence except in dolphins who are, after all, mammals, and therefore more comprehensible to us, but who knows what thoughts or wisdom are locked in the mind of a fish.
People are generally conditioned to think of fish as dumb corpses packed on ice in a Chinatown stall, but I have had occasion to look into the eyes of many a live fish in his own natural environment and have discerned from those experiences a lively intelligence and curiosity. They have not hands to construct, or a spoken language, but who can imagine the thoughts, memories and emotions that might be trapped inside them, that might obsess them?
We came across a huge eagle ray, a monstrous spotted creature at least ten feet across, with a barbed tail at least twelve feet long. His face, impassive and pensive, was eerily humanoid. He stared as us for a moment without curiosity and then fluttered his batlike wings at us, as though to bid us adieu, before swimming out to sea.

© Dean Borok June 2007>
Barbés sur Mer
Dean Borok on Brighton beach
Stepping out of the house, all set to go work out, in my sweat suit and carrying my boxing gloves, I felt the warm temperatures and saw the beautiful sunny day, and I knew I couldn’t go through with it.

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