Another port. Another ferry. Another stumble along the docks loaded with bags and boards. Another island.
This is Cozumel: dusty squares, ferry ports. mermaid statues, dive shops, empty benches. There is real beauty here but it is hidden away below the waves. Coral cites, cliffs and craters, underwater landscapes stretching away into the world’s second largest reef system. This is is a famous scuba-diving destination. It is also a key stop on the Caribbean cruise circuit – except in this pandemic era there are no cruises of course. So it’s pretty much just us and the locals.
We aren’t here for scuba – I have scarred ear-drums and the kids are still too young. We are here for a more important event and detailed requirements have been specified some months in advance. We will need an apartment with three bedrooms, a swimming pool, hammocks, a big tv, an oven, balloons, various ingredients. There must be great snorkelling, lots of chocolate, no hiking, no bugs. It is Matilda’s birthday.
Making a small girl’s birthday special is going to be a challenge. She has no friends to call on, no space in her backpack for bulky new presents. She has been reluctantly trailing around beaches for the last nine months so a trip to the seaside won’t cut it. She is someone who cares deeply about birthdays – particularly her own. We feel pressure.
Matilda has specified that she would like to go on a snorkelling trip for her birthday treat, but as luck would have it there is a storm coming, so the tour boats aren’t putting out. Menna and I have a stressful night trying to cobble up an alternative birthday activity. In the end we find a fallback: dolphins! Who doesn’t love dolphins?
The 19th February arrives. We serve hot chocolate in bed, facilitate various birthday zoom calls, guide Mademoiselle down to the dining table where we have been extravagant with balloons and breakfast patisserie. The condo manager has even rustled up a Feliz Cumpleanno banner. She opens her home-made cards and then the motley gifts: a fish guide, snorkel kit, clip-on earrings, Mexican voodoo dolls, swimming costume, baseball cap. Everything is going well.
We pile into the car and head off to find the dolphins. They are waiting for us in a vast hotel theme-park complex that is clearly aimed at cruise ship hoards. We screech into the car park at 11am and pile out of our little rented Clio, leaving it looking lonely in the huge acreage of shimmering tarmac.
Matilda and Menna are signed up for the complete ‘Dolphin Discovery Package’ whereas Art and I are basically tagging along. To get there we must pass through many entry gates, cordons and check points where we realise we have entered an efficient money extraction system, designed to impoverish you through a thousand smiling fees.
We sign forms, receive wristbands and resist various attempts to upsell us into buffet ‘n’ cocktail combos and deeper more meaningful interactions with marine creatures. I get a little grumpy with the lady who tries to offer us the ‘Chat with Sea-Lions’ package. We don’t spend dollars to have a photo with the naked Mayan warrior sitting bored in the courtyard. We don’t sponsor a porpoise. We don’t get a dedicated photographer. We divert the kids away from the gift shop.
Despite all our dodging, Art and I are still made to pay a hefty dockside access fee and coerced into a ‘bronze-level’ endless buffet so we may accompany the girls to lunch. We are many dollars deep already and Daddy’s birthday smile is getting a little tight. Somehow along the way I find out that we have unwittingly signed up to a ‘Manatee Encounter’.
Bright atriums echo and miles of decking stretch away empty in the sunshine. Mariachi music plays. The quayside bars flutter with white table cloths and happy-hour cocktail offers, the fountains run dry. In the end there is no buffet anyway (“because of el Covid señor!”) so we all sit at a table on the dockside and order from a waiter. The food lives up to its bronze-level billing, but birthday girl sees off her burger with gusto. I make Menna drink three beers.
The girls are whisked away for a lecture from a world-renowned dolphinologist before being ushered to the marine arena. Art and I are led to a side pool to pet the manatees. They are big slobbery creatures covered in a slimy algae, but somehow they steal our hearts, particularly Edgar. We look into each other’s eyes as he slurps a lettuce out of my hand and I feel strangely sentimental. Then five minutes later we are done, escorted back to the dockside, forbidden from taking photos or straying out of our cordoned area.
The waves are picking up and a storm cloud lies dark across the horizon. I watch the girls over on the other side of the marina, surrounded by cetaceans. Two faraway dolls being flipped into the air then caught, caressed and nuzzled by their new dolphin friends. I can tell that they are laughing and squealing. I take some illegal photos but it is too distant for my cracked phone camera and the results are blurry. Arthur is soon bored, he steals Matilda’s new snorkelling set, slips the barrier and floats off to look for octopus in a small coral reef near the shore. The sea is getting wild.
I sit alone in the face of the oncoming storm, torn between the spectacle of my wife and daughter being tossed around by dolphins and my son being dashed onto the rocks by waves. In the end I just go to the bar and order a bronze-level beer. The endless buffet has now ended, I am told. That will be fifty pesos please.
Matilda cannot stop talking all the way home. They were so soft! And silky! But they were so powerful when they pushed you along in the water. Her favourite was Bright Star (that’s not his real name Daddy but that is what I called him).
“The dolphins were all rescued,” she says dreamily, “And loved, and very well looked after.” How beautiful the hotel was! How amazing the food!
As her chitter-chatter washes over me the words become indistinct like birdsong, leaving the same warm afterglow. It takes a kid’s eyes to strip away the cynicism sometimes. ‘What a great day out!’ I say vaguely. Then after some moments of groping, searching back absently for what exactly it was that had been so great… ‘That Edgar! He’s the king of the manatees!’