Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Snorkeling, zip lining and rappelling! Oh my!!!

What happens when you bring together eleven strangers for a day to experience the chance of a lifetime?

In my case, you get Real World - Tulum.

As in Mexico.

I recently had the distinct pleasure of taking my first trip to this beautiful area. Warm breezes, white sand beaches and blue-green water paradise aside, this one day in the ancient Mayan city will be forever in my memory.

We signed up for this excursion not really knowing what to expect. As we hopped in the van, bleary eyed from the early wake-up call, we were greeted by what appeared to be three young girls who hadn't quite slept off their tequila from the night before. (We came to find out that it was a mother, her daughter, and her friend.) Marissa, 18, rode shotgun, and began interrogating each passenger as they entered the vehicle. "Where are you from?" "How do you like your resort? Ours sucks!" And to the driver, "Do I have time for a smoke?" "How long until we get there?"

Our driver, Carlos, was a younger, spry, good looking Mexican who spoke broken English with an endearing accent, and Marissa didn't miss a beat chatting him up in the front seat. Carlos made a point to ask everyone in the van if they had any limitations: Fear of heights? Asthma? Claustrophobia? Marissa's young friend Christina had them all.

The next couple was from Jersey, and about as opposite as the TV show Jersey Shore as you could imagine. An adorable pair, we found out later that Dawn and Barry were celebrating her recovery from a serious illness, and away from their kids, ages four and six, for the first time.

Jen and Terry, married five years, hailed from Virginia. Jen was a lively and sweet, but lamenting just turning 30. She voiced some apprehensions of the day, but seemed willing to take a stab at conquering her fears. Terry was a Marine and a former chef who had studied in Ireland but had put cooking on the back burner in order to take a job that would enable him to spend more time with his wife. He seemed like her knight in shining armor, and by the sight of the tattoo bearing her name on his shoulder, he was quite smitten by her as well.

Then there was Ruta and Gerimantas, a Lithuanian couple living in Chicago. We got to know Ruta and found, though quiet, she took on each event of the day with a sweet determination. We also discovered later that Gerimantas was mostly silent because he did not speak any English. What a day that must have been for him!

After what seemed like an interminable drive over rocky roads and countless "topes", or "speed bumps" (which they take very seriously in Mexico), we arrived in Tulum, and spent our first few hours on a guided tour of the Mayan ruins.

Tulum is the Yucatec Mayan word for fence or wall, and the walls surrounding the site allowed the Tulum fort to serve as a defense against invasion. From the numerous depictions in murals and other works around the site, Tulum appears to have been an important site for the worship of the Diving or Descending god. The history was fascinating, and we marveled that these structures were still standing and how the buildings of today would never hold up to the substantial architecture of this period. My companion commented that it was interesting that much remains unknown about this history, as our guide used phrases such as "We believe", "The theory is", and "From what we gather...". We chuckled when our young tour-mate Marissa, hot and bored, wondered why we were spending so much time looking at "a bunch of rocks".

After touring the ruins and enduring the blazing heat emulating from the rocks, we disbanded and walked up to the cliffs overlooking the ocean to take in the cool breeze. Many walked down to the waterfront and shed their sweaty clothes to hop in the surf to cool off. This water was a stunning shade of blue-green, and our view from the cliffs was breathtaking. Iguanas seemed unnerved by the tourists, and crossed our paths right and left.

Feeling refreshed, we were about to get a blast of frigid water that lay in the underground caves where our next adventure would take place. For the next hour we snorkeled in these deep caverns, dodging stalactites and listening to the squeals of the young girls when they spotted the fish that they were sure would nibble on their toes. This was my first snorkeling in a very long time, and I was thankful for the calm - albeit cold - waters to practice my technique.

We returned to "base camp" to move on to what I had been waiting for - zip lining. This was something I had always wanted to do and was not disappointed. We buckled into our harnesses and donned helmets and large gloves. As Carlos showed us the ropes - literally - we learned what to do (lean back) and what not to do (hold on to the main cable), then began our ascent up the stairs of the first of three towers, 53 feet, 53 feet and 66 feet, respectively.

When we arrived at the top, there was really no time to panic as one by one he hooked each of us up to the main cable and pushed us on our way. The ride seemed to only last seconds and was incredibly exhilarating as we glided over the trees, first for 459 feet, then 590 feet, then the longest zip line, 853 feet. On the last pass, I took my camera and snapped a few shots as I sailed through the air, but it just didn't do the ride justice.

What was surprising to me was the lack of fear I had. Maybe it was that we weren't given a chance to think about it. No one in the group really seemed to have an issue with the height, even though several in the group had mentioned their trepidation. We swapped cameras, gave the thumbs up, and reveled in our bravery.

This confidence would be put to the test, though, at our third and final adventure of the day. From the zip line towers, we moved to a rappelling tower 75 feet in the air. Carlos, standing on a low practice perch, again demonstrated the technique and invited Dawn - one of the most apprehensive - to hook up and lean backwards over the edge. We were all a little uneasy for her, but she mustered up her courage and stepped back at a 90 degree angle from the perch. OK, if she could do it, so could we. We ascended the tower and two by two were clipped to our ropes.

The most fear I had all day was standing with only my toes on the tower and leaning back into what seemed oblivion. My pedal and brake was my right hand, grasping the rope at my backside. My left hand was only for balance on the rope above me. It took me a few seconds after he said "Go" to lean back, but after some deep breaths and some "OK. OK. OK."s, I did it and rappelled my first steps down the side of the tower. From there, my feet dangled as I slowly lowered myself to the sweet earth.

What a rush.

We stood and cheered those paralyzed at the top like we had been, and encouraged them on like old pros. We praised Jen, our one tour mate whose fears overcame her and she declined to rappel. In her words, "I was scared of them all, and conquered all but one. It's been a good day."

It was a good day. After a catered lunch of some of the best chicken and Mexican rice I've ever had, we headed back to the van that would take us to our respective resorts, now chatting like old friends. We reviewed the day, talked about our families, and exchanged emails, promising to share photos and stay in touch. This whole group - divided by states, languages and ages, bonded together for a day that will live forever in each of our memories. And we may never see each other again.

If that is the case, I would like to say to Marissa, Shawna and Christina, Dawn and Barry, Jen and Terry, Ruta and Gerimantas and especially Chris: Gracias. Thank you for being a part of one of the most amazing days of my life. I could not have spent it with a more wonderful group of people, and I wish you all many, many more adventures in life.

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