El Castillo is the main pyramid at Chichén Itzá in Yucatán, Mexico.
It’s good to not know what I’m doing.
My wife texted me on a recent Thursday afternoon, asking if I was into a last-minute cruise.
“Okay, cool!” I wrote back.
Early Friday morning, we hopped into my Prius and drove south out of Detroit and snow squalls toward sunny New Orleans.
After an overnight stopover in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, we had a birthday breakfast at one of their Waffle Houses where the waitress replied, “Get the fuck outta here,” in a deep southern drawl when we told her it was my birthday. They sang Happy Birthday to me and Gator, another patron whose birthday — he claimed — was that day too. Then we hopped back on the road. Hours later, we boarded The Vision of the Seas, setting sail south toward Central America.
Travel is good for so many reasons, not the least of which is how it presents us with new obstacles to overcome and new experiences to stretch our minds. Breaking free from the everyday is always a good thing.
It was sunny, yet still a bit chilly as we hopped the steamer south.
If I was home, I probably would’ve been tuning into MSNBC and the latest Trump travesty. I’d have my routine in front of me and know pretty much how I’d spend the day, the week. Instead, a few days after our spur of the moment decision, I found myself bumping and jostling my way back to port in a small tour bus after a shore excursion to the magnificent Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
The pyramid and surrounding complex is a masterpiece of astronomic precision. The Mayans were sky-watchers of the first order and Chichén Itzá was completed more than a thousand years ago. The main pyramid has 364 steps, 91 on each side. When you include the last step to enter the temple at the top, it matches the number of days in the year. The whole thing tracks each of the four phases of the year; winter, spring, summer and fall. It also has an enormous image of a stone snake lying from top to bottom on the main staircase. During the spring and fall solar equinoxes, it is intriguingly lit by the sun’s diagonal rays.
We didn’t know this tour to an ancient site was even a possibility until we got on the ship. Normally we’d plan out our travels, get everything set, researched and take off knowing we’d done our homework. Not this time, baby! We drove and boated and vanpooled by the seat of our pants. And it was thrilling.
The view of our ship from a 17th-century Spanish fortress in Trujillo, Honduras.
Sure, we missed out on stuff. Like, did you know on cruises they have formal dinner nights sometimes? Yeah, me either. I walked into our dining room dressed in the normal attire of “smart casual” slacks and polo shirt, only to run into eight hundred people dressed to the nines. They served us anyway, but we were off in the “don’t embarrass us” corner along with the other folks who booked late.
It took a while to get my sea legs. And that’s another component of the not-knowing-what-I’m doing feeling. Sometimes the stairs rose up to meet me: sometimes they drifted downward so I never exactly knew where my next step was headed. But I loved how metaphoric that felt as I grasped for the railing.
And even though we couldn’t sit on our comfy, stationary couch watching MSNBC, the network kind of came to us in the form of David Cay Johnston, one of their frequent guests who was also on the cruise. I bumped into him first at the formal dinner. Then we found out he was paid to take this Caribbean cruise so that schmoes like us (if we’d had tickets — which were tougher to score than a couple Hamilton matinees) could listen to him talk.
I snapped this photo of Marci looking up from under the water in Costa Maya, Mexico.
Not knowing what I’m doing is good.
As a recovering journalist, I used to be in new situations all the time. There were dangerous ones like when I was threatened with physical harm; there were potentially serious times like when I was in Haiti and a crowd gathered all around me; but mostly there were fun, fascinating or just plain ol’ new surroundings for me to adjust to.
I miss that. I miss marching into the unknown and finding some type of order amidst my personal chaos. This vacation was just the ticket.
Marci spent hour upon hour learning to be a dancing zombie for an end-of-cruise choreographed Thriller presentation.
Never having cruised before, I learned things like the food is mostly free, but the slow WiFi costs about $150 bucks. It was all pretty cool (and cheap too, having gone last-minute). We were the first cruise ship in our line to visit a small Honduran town where we climbed a hill and looked out over a blisteringly blue sky and ocean to see our boat in the bay. We also participated in a soothing, almost mystical Mayan Healing Ritual which I’ll write about later.
We hit a few different ports of call on the Yucatan peninsula. That’s appropriate to my not-knowing-what-I’m-doing, because Yucatán is the Mayan word for “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
I thought I’d be done with my steep learning curve when we came back to shore seven days later. But it was on a Saturday and we didn’t know beforehand we’d be in the midst of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. So we stepped back into the unknown again.
Jazz and beignets — two of New Orleans’ most iconic institutions — are best served hot.
We toured all through The French Quarter and sampled some beignets a few times, as well as some delicious muffaletta sandwiches a few more times. We took the St. Charles streetcar (the oldest continuously-operating streetcar system in the world) and got a private ride one way, then a completely jam-packed car going back. We went around the Garden District and thought we were all done with this cool city.
Navigating with a sousaphone through The French Quarter isn’t easy; the neighborhood was already packed, well-before nightfall.
But we decided to try and experience the Krewe du Vieux, “New Orleans’ rudest, crudest Mardi Gras parade,” according to the Times-Picayne. So we took a Lyft back into town that night and wandered through the panoply of pageantry. Wow! It was crazy, silly, debaucherous and fun. We waited, though, til we got back to the hotel to have a drink. We’d heard too many tales of Bourbon Street and Basin Street Blues.
Revelers of a feather, flock together before the Krewe du Vieux parade.
Speaking of getting back to the hotel, we coined a new phrase for ourselves, “It’s like getting a Lyft out of Mardi Gras.” We waited an hour-and-a-half as one driver after another agreed to pick us up, then got stuck, lost, or picked up another closer rider. Lyft actually wrote and apologized to me. We gave Marcus, the driver who finally picked us up, a nice $20 tip on an $8 fare.
So much of this trip took us well-out of our comfort zone. That’s a great thing. We weren’t put on this planet knowing all the answers, knowing how to handle everything. I firmly believe we’re here to learn (and to love, as one of my favorite authors Richard Bach writes). We learn by doing, by leaping, sometimes before we look.
Having leaped — if everything goes right — you come back with an incredible experience — and some fun pictures (helped greatly if a couple of you are photographers).
Back home now, I’m back in the know.
I miss being in the not know.
Marci snapped this shot of me as the fog rolled into New Orleans while we tried to summon a Lyft.