Close Encounters


If you’ve never left the U.S., you probably don’t know how much space you need between yourself and the next person. It’s likely you go walking through life rarely touching strangers in public, and if you do, you quickly apologize for the infraction. Picture yourself in line for a movie or waiting in line for a bus. It’s probable that you have at least two feet between you and the next person. If someone were to encroach on your space and say, touch you, you would likely make a casual retreat, or expect them to apologize for entering your no-fly zone. Of course, the move away would be smooth so as to look cool and not draw attention to yourself. If that same person lingered in your space and didn’t move away, you would wonder what in the hell was wrong with them, and be convinced they were somehow delirious or hung over from a bender the night before. The only forgiving bump and linger in the U.S. would be from somebody’s grandma, and even that would greatly irritate you. The last thing you would do would engage in conversation with the said “bumper.”

On a bus from Playa del Carmen to Puerto Morelos I sat next to your average Mexican woman – soft arms and very snuggly. As soon as she sat next to me, she located my arm with hers and nestled in for the duration. While our arms shared the lovely warmth, she checked her Facebook page, chatted with friends and made a shopping list for hair colorant and conditioner listed by somebody on Facebook. Of course, as a person from the U.S., the inclination was to do the slow pull away or fold my shoulders together to make myself smaller. Or, I could feign the need to gather goods from my bag or readjust my shorts, but instead, I decided to join her for the cuddle. Our arms were sweetly connected for at least a half hour before she got off the Collectivo a short distance before me. In the back of the bus, as it turns out, Jeff, Max and Theo had been watching the whole thing and were laughing about the woman leaning into me.

The entire time I was connected to this woman, I thought about her and our differences. She never pulled her arm away, because she knows that in Mexico the tiny Collectivo buses are packed, and to not touch the person next to you would be nearly impossible. I thought about how she likely grew up with many brothers and sisters and unlike me, an only child for most of my young childhood, she probably shared a bed with most of her family. She was accustomed to sharing small spaces with many people. I thought about how in the U.S. a 600 square foot apartment is considered tiny and really only suitable for one, but in Mexico, homes for a family of four or five or more are far smaller than that. I realized that I am uncomfortable being touched by a stranger, but forcing myself to stay snuggled with her arm pulled me out of the insane paranoia of the U.S. and back into humanity for a moment.

In opposition to the sweet snuggle on the bus, just prior to our departure from Tulum, Jeff suffered a different type of human contact – the kind you surely apologize for. While body surfing in the giant waves of Tulum, he found himself head to head with a woman half his size.

As I lounged on a beach chair, Max came running up to our post to report that dad had been hurt. Usually, Dad gets cut, so Max’s use of the term “hurt” concerned me. Theo ran back with Max to help Jeff leaving me to wonder what in the world. A few minutes later, Jeff walked up with split skin on his head about an inch and a half long. As I was inspecting the cut and reporting that indeed, he could use six stitches, he starts muttering, “That poor thing.”

“What poor thing, Jeff? What are you talking about?”

“There was nobody there. I thought it was just Max and I. I didn’t see her there.”

While he was surfing the top of the wave, a young lady in her twenties apparently didn’t see Jeff either, and dove into the same wave he was riding. Their skulls collided leaving them both busted and bruised. Apparently, his large head and full-force two hundred pound frame crashed into her skull somewhere near the temple. He said she was holding her head on the side, but he didn’t see any blood. As he walked back down the beach to where we were sitting, he saw her crumple into the arms of an older woman and cry.

During the bus ride back to our hotel while I snuggled arms with the soft Mexican mama, an ambulance passed us, and Jeff wondered if it was the girl from the beach. “That poor thing,” we all heard him saying.

Jeff’s Take

Max and I had hoped the waves would be better.  There was quite a bit of wind, which made them more choppy than the previous two visits to Tulum when we had some nicely spaced “rollers” that made it ideal for body surfing.  The choppy waves produced some curls, but they were hit-or-miss and we had to be vigilant about identifying the “right one” to take.  Every two to three minutes, one would pass and Max and I would start our swimming in the chest deep water to time it with the incoming wave, riding most of them 30-40 feet toward the shore.

While there were a lot of tourists on the beach, there were very few in the ¼ mile section of water we had staked out as a good place to ride the waves.  In total, maybe 20 people were in the water at any given time, and the closest person to us was at least 50 yards away.  I’d keep my eye out for Max and some floating seaweed, but that was it. 

I noticed that hefty wave had overtaken another one and a nice roller was starting to shape up for a good ride. Aggressively I started swimming towards shore hoping to catch the wave and then felt the momentum increase as I rode the curl down quickly.  At that point, my head was submerged, I was unable to see above the water and the wave continued to push me to shore. 

Less than ½ second later…..WACK.  It felt like someone had cracked one of those miniature souvenir baseball bats over the top of my head – very hard. In that split second, while still underwater getting carried to shore, my mind was racing.  “What the heck was that? There was no coral or visible rocks in that stretch of beach. Did I connect with Max’s knee? Not knowing what hit me, I knew one thing for sure. I had split my head open.

I was able to right myself out of the wave and stood up in thigh high water.  While putting my fingers to my head to conduct self-triage, I turned towards the ocean to determine the source of the head-cracking.  A petite woman (well most people seem petite to me) was surfacing from the water with a hand held to her forehead.  I was shocked to see her. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. What are the chances that two heads could collide in this expanse of beach where there had been virtually no one else?  I had not seen anyone. Well, it happened. I came to find out from Max that as I was riding the wave down, she dove under the wave on her way out and that is where we connected heads.  Not shoulders, not arms, not legs, but rather single points on our heads.

While she wasn’t bleeding I knew she took the brunt of the impact.  I was going much faster and probably had close to 100 lbs on the poor thing.  She was talking – using Spanish as her second language (I think she was Italian) as I was asking if she was okay in my equally unnatural Spanish – but I could tell she was dazed.  Standing in the surf, she was bent over holding her head and every time she’d look up at me, I could tell she was in pain and frightened. Increasingly, I began to notice by the look on her face and the horror in her eyes that something was wrong with me. In my concern for her I had forgotten about my own head.  I pulled my hand away and saw that it was covered in blood. Judging by the amount of blood on my hand, I knew my face was covered in streaks of red, and the poor thing probably thought she was experiencing a tropical zombie apocalypse.  I bent over to douse my head under the ocean and the water beneath me turned red.

By this time, Max had made his way to the scene of the accident.  I erroneously asked him to tell me how bad it was.  Max is squeamish when it comes to injuries.  He was barely able to say the words, “It’s bad,” before his sunburned skin turned pale and he bolted from the water running at top speed the ½ mile down the beach to where Sarah and my brother-in-law Theo were hanging out. Great, I thought. Alone to tend to my own injury. Fortunately, he returned quickly with a t-shirt to sop up the blood.

I continued to check in with the woman next to me while we slowly made our way up to the beach. She continued to assure me she was okay, but I wasn’t certain and thought she may be in shock.  I continued dunking my head every 10 seconds and she kept asking what happened. I tried to explain what I thought happened, but my limited Spanish made it hard.  As we got to shore she began to make her way toward a concerned older friend who had noticed something was wrong.  They began speaking in Italian and within a few seconds that poor collision victim put her head on the shoulder of her friend and began to sob.  I expressed my apologies one more time, looked for assurances that she would be ok, and began my trek back down the beach.  As I crossed paths with a couple walking in the opposite direction, I was again reminded that I must still be bleeding pretty bad as they went out of their way several steps through seaweed on the beach in order to keep their distance from the bloody zombie.  I made my way back out to knee-depth sea to dunk my head every 20 yards and to the increasing interest of sharks.

Once I made my way back to Sarah, Theo and Max, they were able to better assess my damage.  We were able to get a couple other beach goer opinions and opted for no stitches.  In our shuttle back up the shore from Tulum, and ambulance came screaming by us.  I had a twinge of fear thinking about that poor girl’s head.


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