A SERIES ON WOMEN LIVING SOLO IN THE AKUMAL AREA – Part 4
A Solitary Life? Not so much!
Her apartment is up a long row of concrete steps on the third floor of a brightly painted complex of several canary yellow buildings near the end of the Akumal beach road. Tucked in the back over-looking a pool and garden is where she spends most of her time these days. With the “shelter in place” order from both the American and Mexican governments, she does not take the Covid-19 situation lightly.
For her, it is as much about following the government directive as it is about protecting her health. At 79 years of age she is struggling with COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary
Disease, a lung condition characterized by serious breathing difficulties due to poor air flow. In her case, she admits it is entirely due to smoking for most of her life. She remembers sitting at one of her favorite beach bars, LolHa’s, and “everyone was smoking and no one complained.” Now with her smoking days behind her, life is much better. To help with the situation, a dear friend gave her a 50 foot hose that hooks to her oxygen tank allowing her to walk about the premises.
Her apartment is simply put, lovely! Surrounded by windows on all sides, it overlooks the tops of palm trees affording her distant views. She can look down on her pool and garden from what previously was an outdoor terrace, since converted to a second living space and dining room decorated with feminine, comfortable furnishings in shades of blue. I see a man, Pablo, busy in the kitchen.
Pablo is her caretaker, a local Mexican man of 65 years who was originally hired to be the gardener. “He’s a cool guy,” she remarks and I can see in her face the respect she has for the man. “He left at one point,” she remembers, then adds “but I got him back.” She remembers going to his home and “begging” him to return. As years passed, management duties were added to the gardening ones, and as her health declined, the need for him to manage her care increased. He has proven himself over the years. “He’s a good man!” Indeed, and she considers him part of her family.
Pablo had been waiting for me as I’d arrived ten minutes early and sat in my car answering text messages. When the time for our meeting came, I made my way over to the property and there at the entrance was this friendly face ready to greet me. I’d wondered how long he’d been waiting there, but he didn’t come over and intrude; instead, he stood patiently in the hot sun. Pablo nodded as I approached and motioned to follow him up the many steps to the top apartment. He quickly made his way inside and disappeared into the kitchen making himself busy. I immediately began wondering who this person was.
We are served fresh squeezed orange juice in tall stemmed wine glasses from a blue and white carafe made of china, which she says she “rarely ever uses” then reaches, to pour the juice. Pablo quickly retrieves the carafe from her hands and pours it himself. They exchange words in English, which surprises me, and she says, “He’s been so good about learning English. I wish I’d learned the Spanish language”, which is one of her big regrets. “His English is so good.” There is an unspoken kindness and gentleness about the relationship between the two that I find comforting, rare, and memorable.
Watching Pablo deftly pour the orange juice from this delicate carafe into the wine glasses filled with ice, I have to admit, I have never been so excited about drinking orange juice in my life! I somehow felt special, maybe because in it’s simplicity, it was simply elegant and divine!
Next, Pablo brings us watermelon and jicama, a vegetable cut into squares and served with salt, lime for drizzling, and a chili sauce for dipping. When I ask if the chili is hot, he laughs and says, “Un poco.” I can tell from his smile and his held gaze, he means it’s hot. I smile back knowingly then avoid dipping my fruit. After checking if she requires any more assistance and reminding her to call him if she does, Pablo disappears.
At this time her health is better than it was twenty months ago. Ambulance rides to Cancun hospitals were the result of an ulcer, four broken ribs, and COPD, though not all occurring at the same time. She returned home after the latest hospital stay just as the pandemic was rolling into Quintana Roo. Staying inside and sheltering in place in isolation was not going to be a problem for her. Friends and acquaintances weren’t sure if she was “even going to get out of the hospital at all … They thought I wasn’t going to make it. But she did make it! Her cheeks are rosy, her eyes bright and shiny, and she gets up out of her chair far easier than I do, and I’m 25 years younger!
She’s been in Akumal full-time for 16 years, after first visiting the area for only one day in 1971. “I fell in love with it!” She and her older brother, Robin, brought their mother to Cozumel to see Mexico for the first time that year and wanted to see the Tulum ruins. Akumal was the safest harbor to reach Tulum, and provide protection should they encounter bad weather. They “came over by speed boat … putt, putt, putt,” she says sarcastically of the slow boat trip in something that was anything but a fast moving watercraft. I quickly got a sense of this lady’s wonderful dead-pan sense of humour.
Standing in the back of a pick-up truck traveling along Sac Be (Mayan for sand road), they were the only people at the Tulum ruins – a totally foreign experience for anyone who has spent time there, pre-pandemic. They returned to Akumal after the day-trip south and stopped at a restaurant next to CEA (Central Ecologico Akumal). She remembers the Akumal beach back then being “full of palm trees right down to the water’s edge”, and is amazed at the changes the area has endured over the years.
That one visit left a profound impression on her, but it wasn’t until twenty years later in 1991 that she spent time in a home on Half Moon Bay with her brother, Robin. This visit is really what cinched it. “I kind of fell in love with it,” referring to the area. “I kind of fell in love with the people who were here.” She remembers they went to the Beach Bar every day to visit with friends, and soon became fascinated with the sport of diving, which led to getting certified at the age of 54. “I never thought I’d sit on a boat’s gunnel and fall backward into the water. I knew how to swim, but Kentucky doesn’t have the ocean. I was absolutely fascinated.” And she was hooked. “So Akumal became the place I wanted to vacation.” From that point forward she started coming down twice a year.
In Louisville, Kentucky she spent her early working years as a high school English teacher, completing her Masters in Education at the University of Louisville. Through friends she got interested in local politics and worked on various campaigns, then took on the larger role of working statewide politics. This led to four years employed at the Kentucky Department of Education, requiring travel to other states where she represented Kentucky education interests. She also traveled week-ends to begin her doctorate at Vanderbuilt University.
As her time in state government was ending, she started working for the City of Louisville as Training Department Manager. This position focused her talents in teaching city employees a variety of skills from basic office practices to management and leadership skills. If she wasn’t busy enough, she also continued her own interests in education by transferring her Vanderbilt credits to an Advanced Program in Public Service at the University of Louisville, studying for her Doctorate. All course work and two major exams were completed, then it was time for the dissertation. After a year or so, missing the course work, and getting bored with the dissertation work, she “folded her tents and silently crept away.” Asked if she had regrets for not earning a PhD, she offers a laughing response, “Heavens, no! It became time for Akumal!!!”
Born in 1940 in the western part of Kentucky, her mother was college educated and taught Latin and Biology. They moved to Prestonsburg, a very small town which became home during her younger years until her mother wanted her children to have more education opportunities, which meant a move to the state’s largest city, Louisville, when she was 14. Although her parents divorced when she was young, she doesn’t feel it had any real long term affect on her. “Of course [divorce has] a big impact on any child … but, I don’t remember it as traumatic. Well, it was, and it wasn’t.”
Her face lights up as she fondly remembers years of “interesting jobs as a family when I was young”. She, her mother, and brother took jobs for three months at Isle Royale National Park, a resort on an island located in Lake Superior, Michigan. Her mother was the dining room manager, her brother a bellhop, and she, a waitress. “It was wonderful. That was a fabulous experience.” That lasted for four summers, with subsequent summers spent at other resorts in Minnesota and New Hampshire.
She married in 1962 to a man she met at college, it lasted 16 years, but no children. Reflecting on the marriage, she says, “Whatever. Things happen. People change. I still hear from him occasionally even now.” She never remarried.
Her mother was a great influence when it came to her independence and traveling solo as a young woman. At one point she volunteered for Habitat For Humanity in the Philippines and spent time in Thailand traveling solo. Travel has been a big accomplishment for her, having been to Europe with her husband; organizing and chaperoning high schools students to travel to England, Austria and Germany; group Riverboat cruises to Russia, France, Amsterdam, and Portugal. Solo travel to Spain, Ireland, China, and Italy, were later life passions. She recalls that these were “true single gal experiences”.
When it comes to being a woman alone in Akumal, she doesn’t have qualms about being solo in Mexico. Friends back home wondered how she would manage on her own, but she never did. It never occurred to her to consider moving back to the United States at any point.
During her 16 years here she bought and operated a small clothing shop called Ixchel Boutique, located right beside Turtle Bay Bakery & Cafe. She owned and operated this business with a partner and thoroughly enjoyed the challenge it gave her, but acknowledges running a business in Mexico can be complicated. “Owning a Mexican business takes lots of know how – my partner and I quickly learned the value of having an accountant that knew the business laws of Mexico.” She begins telling me of all the women-run businesses in the area, and emphasizes that Akumal is truly “a woman’s place”.
After her partner left the business, and running it alone for 4 years, she felt the time had come to spend more time on herself and enjoying life. After all, she also ran a rental business in North Akumal – Tranquilidad Properties – at the same time she ran the boutique. “It was just time to leave,” she recalls, and finally after eight years she closed the business and fully embraced her retirement. Today she spends her time with friends. “They’re really my family.”
Despite all the good in Akumal, she ponders the things that make living here difficult: the Mexican government being high up on the list, the inability to vote to give her a say in things, and not always knowing “the rules”. One truly distinct difficulty has been not speaking the language. These are the most limiting factors, not only for a woman in Mexico or in Akumal in particular, but for anyone.
“I feel very safe here. I am not foolish – just as I would not go to known unsafe areas in the USA or any country. But my Mexican world is primarily Akumal.” She recounts that there is very little crime here, but “finding who to trust is important – be it a property manager, the lawyer, the repair person – is a challenge.” She’s right, and continues “An answer to this is meeting other people who have the same challenges facing you. Often this is done in a social setting. At one time in Akumal – before cell phones/email/etc. it was important to go to Happy Hour at the LolHa Beach Bar. This is where you met people and found so much information.” She adds that other local haunts, like La Buena Vida and Turtle Bay Bakery, also became equally important “information-sharing spots, as well as lots of fun.”
In a later email to tie up loose-ends in our conversation, she writes to me good advice about living here alone:
“Be a self-starter. Diving advice applies here: Plan your dive; dive your plan. Plan what it is you want from Akumal and how you are going to achieve your plan.” And just like the wise-old diving advice, “It is always good to go with a friend”, but in this case she is referring to dining and shopping. On a more serious note, she adds “I would suggest that at some point in your stay in a foreign land, you establish how you are going to get your money to live on and pay your bills. I also would urge you to make contact with a medical professional. You don’t have to be sick to do this.” Most importantly she adds a note “About doing things – don’t wait!!!!” I have to say, she has offered very sage advice!
As I make my way down the long flight of stairs at the end of our visit, I can’t help but feel a sense of enjoyment surrounding my time with Mary Henderson. Her sheer confidence and matter-of-fact demeanor about living in Akumal solo can make even the most vigilant and aware person ponder a moment the virtues of setting up a solitary life in this place. Thank you for that, Mary!
You can find Mary on Friday nights with friends enjoying a beverage at perhaps LolHa, Lunita, or Que Onda, and nearby will be Pablo. She’d love it if you stopped by and said hi!
written by Brenda Calnan