Women Of Akumal, 3

A Calling

This story is going to start at the end. 

For this woman of Akumal, the end of the story is really a new beginning, one of many in this diverse life of someone who has lived in Akumal on and off for 26 years and is now about to embark on a journey: a new life on the other side of this vast country, in the mountains of the Baja Peninsula. “Things are going to be different, I can tell you that,” she remarks.

She has had a “rather interesting relationship with Akumal” which is one of the reasons she keeps coming back and why she keeps leaving. Her ability to “stay open to the adventure”, whatever that might be, is what keeps pulling her away. She admits her view of Akumal is somewhat jaded.  The illusion seen by tourists of ecological diversity and pristine beauty, versus the reality of environmental destruction, animal exploitation and corporate greed is hard to deal with. She feels the changes that have occurred on this coast have created a culture that does not care enough about the environment and humankind’s impact on it. 

Anyone who knows her knows she is an animal advocate extraordinaire, having saved over 150 dogs and cats from neglect and abuse. She actually fostered 23 dogs at one time, and began rescuing animals when rescuing wasn’t a thing. No organized groups, no social media money-raising campaigns, it was all on the rescuer to come up with funds for surgeries, food, and medicine. “If there is anything that rules my life, it’s compassion. It’s the animals. It’s just trying to alleviate suffering. I was one person with no funds and I did my best.” And she is still doing her best, having recently raised money to sterilize 15 dogs and cats in the Akumal pueblo. 

Animal protection is what drew her to move to Akumal in 1995.  In those days “the beach dogs would lurk at the edge of the circle of the beach bar at dusk, and I knew that they were in bad shape, that a lot needed to be done.” She laughs, remembering she was probably in a margarita-induced haze, but it was definitely the closest she’s come to experiencing a calling in her life. 

While still in the USA, planning her move to Akumal, she woke up one morning and said, “I’ll cater.” Like most of her adventures, the road trip to Akumal was iconic. Traveling from California in an early 1980’s Volkswagen van, laden with a windsurfer, kayak, and all the essentials a mid-30’s burgeoning environmental activist would need on her quest for a higher calling, there was a failing ignition in Texas that forced her to push-start the van all the way to Akumal. But she made it!  She lived in Bungalow #3, which had been destroyed in a hurricane, requiring her to renovate the place to make it livable. This would be far from the last construction project she would take on. And between catering and using her massage certification, she managed to eke out a living. 

In 1998 she married and moved to Uxuxubi (pronounced U-shu-shu-bee), built a little round palapa to live in, and continued to rescue. “I was the only gringa out there – I was pretty much the only non-Mayan out there.” The marriage was short-lived. 

She left Uxuxubi and bought jungle land west of Akumal and lived for two years in a small palapa with an outdoor kitchen, sleeping in a hammock. There she built her current home, designing it by hand with a pencil on graph paper.  There were several jaguar visits during those years that proved lethal to dogs and heartbreaking for her.

In 2003 she started a small takeout food place in a “hut” as she calls it. Over the years she offered Asian food, seafood tacos, veggie empanadas, and homemade ice cream. At the Turtle Bay Bakery And Cafe, her name lives on, paying homage to her delicious ice cream. Later on she opened a restaurant and bar where Tequilaville is located today. There she found moderate success and satisfaction – for a time. 

In 2010 she went back to the USA with 14 of her rescued dogs and cats.  “It was just time,” she said, citing burnout from rescuing, the difficulties of doing business, and a bit of intellectual boredom.  She had been bitten by the wine bug and was determined to find a niche in the wine industry. 

During the next few years she ran an Airbnb near Yosemite, took her sport bike to the racetrack, studied wine, became a Certified Sommelier (wine steward for those not in the know) and attended culinary school. Akumal drew her back at least once a year for holidays and to work at the ranch. 

It was during the last part of this absence that her jungle home was vandalized – stripped of everything including electrical wiring, windows, and even the window frames. Bats, bugs, and wildlife moved in. Returning in early 2019 with her three remaining elderly pets, she had a goal of fixing up her home. She proved to family and friends that she never really gave up on her piece of Mexico, that the relationship to the land was too strong – she just needed time away. 

Before long, she was back to rescuing, albeit on a lesser scale.  So much for more freedom in the next stage of her life once her ‘kids’ were gone! On her way through Akumal pueblo she could not turn a blind eye to the frequent sight of pregnant animals, dogs chained and neglected, and starving cats scrounging for scraps.  In spite of rescue groups and their amazing efforts, the realization crept in that little had changed, no one cared. This was normal for the local communities and she struggled with it. After so many years of trying to stop the pain and suffering of these animals, the reality of the situation was overwhelming.  

This time, her leaving comes with “really poor timing”. The purchase of the Baja ranch happened just prior to the onset of the global pandemic, making getting to her new home challenging and renting her Akumal house difficult! What’s one to do during this time but ponder life and maybe begin writing one’s memoirs? And, of course, grab a machete.

She spends a lot of time outdoors, working on the land.  Coming from an outdoorsy family, this feels natural to her. Her small family uprooted themselves from England and moved to Washington in 1966 for her father’s job at Boeing. Teenage years were a challenge.  “I was the black sheep.”  Her family was “on the straight and narrow and I was just … out there. I was a radical environmentalist at a super early age.” She developed an abiding love of the wilderness, probably due to her parents’ influences, and her obsession with John Denver as a teen.  She recalls the gas crisis of 1973 and writing in her journal by candlelight.  “All I wanted to do was run away to the mountains and live by myself in a little cabin.” Well, it sounds like that wish is about to come true! Or at least once the world’s chaos with Covid-19 settles down and the highways are free again for her to travel to her “little cabin” in the mountains of northwestern Mexico. 

As a young adult she knew she was never going to do anything “normal, like work behind a desk from nine to five.” She completed a French degree, but she really minored in activities like rowing, ski team, kayaking, traveling, and backpacking, even taking a Scottish country dance class. As a self-professed generalist she says, “I was no academic.” These days she realizes she has always been what is sometimes called a “multipotentialite”.  That’s someone who probably could do anything with her life if she put her mind to it, but who rarely sticks with anything long enough to have great success, often leaving a job out of boredom. She believes this has made her life “really challenging”, but she loves being able to talk to a lot of people a little, about a lot of different things! 

As one who is not afraid of change, she has a “thirst for life and for experiences” as “it’s all about the trip, not necessarily the destination”.  That is certainly true of one particular adventure she had as a young woman. Yearning for freedom from family and seeking new experiences, she ended up on the east coast of the USA just after the America’s Cup, advertising “21 year old bilingual female. Will go south. Can cook”. She was offered a job on a sailboat as crew despite having no experience. It was a nightmare trip to Bermuda involving hurricane-force winds, a leaky bilge, seasickness all around, and a pontificating Brazilian communist captain. The subsequent voyage landed her on the West Indies island of Montserrat (pre-volcanic eruption), serving rum punches (which, by the way, we were drinking at the time of this interview) to the likes of Elton John, OMD, and other famous faces. 

Surprisingly, as a 21-year-old getting on a boat with a bunch of strange men, sailing to some unknown destination, she had no fear about what could happen to her. She still doesn’t fear the unknown, and believes this was instilled in her in part by her parents, who always encouraged solo travel. If the fear isn’t ingrained in you as a young child, you grow up lacking that fear as an adult, and you can steer your life in a path where decision-making is not affected by fear of the unknown. What a worthwhile lesson she had learned! 

Not long after the Caribbean adventure, she found flying and decided to become an airline pilot. “Some times the biggest decisions happen incredibly quickly.” She had a chance encounter with a young pilot who took her up in a 1944 Stearman biplane, doing aerobatic stunts that thrilled her. It was a pivotal moment in her life. Starting in the mid-80’s she worked as a flight instructor, flew cargo and air ambulance and earned her Airline Transport Pilot’s license.  Ten years later she was hired as a first officer for a regional airline. Then she quit and moved to Akumal. 

When asked about the obstacles facing women alone in Mexico, she responds, “I think that there’s a subtle obstacle that we don’t often realize … this is still a patriarchal male-dominated society.  I am sure that there are many times when I haven’t even thought about it, but whether it’s going in to do business or take care of a legal issue or simply dealing with a male worker … I am a woman. And if I don’t have a guy standing behind me or beside me … I can’t really put my finger on it as people are so polite here – I just know it exists.” Later she adds, “I don’t know if a woman alone out here in the jungle is exactly a brilliant idea anymore. I have so much more fear than I used to, so much more.” 

For a woman who from a young age has had little fear of the unknown, setting out on yet another adventure at the age of 58 is nothing to her.  She is one courageous lady. We don’t know if this leaving will be followed by another coming back but we certainly hope so. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what her life’s journey has in store. We do know that Akumal will be waiting for her, and like she says, “Akumal just draws people back. It’s crazy.” 


Thanks, Lucy James, for sharing your adventurous life with us! 

—by Brenda Calnan

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