An Australian lad has to cut his ‘gap year’ short
There was a shoe—or maybe more like a boot—careening in the wave-wash far below. It was hard to tell from the fourth floor of the hotel where my wife and I had been effectively imprisoned by a three-day blow. A northerly, I was told. Not unusual for the Yucatan coast in March.
I watched for a while. And yes, I could finally tell, it was a boot, an over the ankle, heavy duty trekker with tractor tread bottom and one long lace trailing like seaweed as it dunked and twirled then flushed out of sight only to pop up at the far rim of the jagged tide pool.
Bored, tired of reading mystery novels in my room, in the lounge, in the lee of sandblasting gusts, I decided to suss out a mystery of my own, the intriguing backstory behind one shoe floating. And not just any shoe, a boot built for mountain climbing in a world of flat-running beaches. There had to be some skullduggery at play in this land of buried treasures and pieces of eight. Like, why only one boot? Did a snitch tear one foot free before the cement hardened on his concrete overshoes? Did a one-legged ‘mule’ get tossed overboard for skimming a little off the top? Did a returning migrant worker meet the wrath of his impoverished wife for buying $150.00 boots?
My wife broke into my creative musing to announce that the rain had stopped. We could finally walk to a downtown restaurant in search of alternatives to the room service special—ceviche and chips.
After a delicious plate of ropa vieja for her and coconut shrimp and fried platanos for me, we popped into a supermercado for tangerines and croissants (which aren’t called that, but I can’t remember the Spanish word) for tomorrow’s breakfast. We then walked along the sea on what you might call a boardwalk, if it wasn’t made of stone, savoring pistachio gelato in waffle cones. Up ahead, I spotted a young man leaning against the parapet obviously searching for something in the break-wall rubble below. After a moment, he moved down a hundred feet to repeat his search, then again.
I studied him as we approached. He looked like a hundred other young travelers we had encountered on our extended visit to Central America. Bushy, unkempt, sandy brown hair was balanced by a sparse beard-in-the-making. A silver earring, or rather, a large stud on the outer edge of his right ear took the eye to a Maori tattoo that overpowered his skinny bicep.
“Lose something?” I enquired as we approached.
“Mmm,” he muttered without looking up.
My wife kept walking. I paused to look over the rail.
“It’s m’fookin’ trekkin’ boots,” the guy growled.
“What do they look like?” I asked.
“There’s only the one gone missing.” The lad finally looked at me, a pained expression limning his face. “What good’s one boot, eh?”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I agreed. My wife beckoned from up ahead. Go on, I waved back. “Funny thing. Just a while ago, I saw what looked like a hiking boot in the rocks below our hotel.”
“Really? Whoa!” Now I had his attention. He then unzipped his black backpack that looked as though it had absorbed many tosses on top of overcrowded chicken buses and stuffed mini-vans. He rummaged until he extracted a worn, scuffed trail boot. “Did it look like this?”
My first reaction was to wonder what all the fuss was about. After all, the shoe was down at the heel, had a gouge near the toe and was separating along the arch. Its presumed mate wouldn’t be much better, certainly not after a long soak in the brine. “Could be,” I replied. “but it was bouncing in the surf when I last saw it.”
“So, show me where, man.”
We left the strand and trudged along the beach. “Sounds like these boots are very important to you,” I probed.
“Yeah. Y’ could say that.”
Walking single file along a rock and rubble strewn path, the lad called over his shoulder, “See, I’m doin’ m’ gap year, like.”
Side by side now, having rounded the lee side of the island, we were slammed by the full force of the thirty mile per hour wind. “Isn’t that some kind of break you take before going to University?”
“Seems like a good idea to me. I wish some of my high school kids could do that. So many of them just aren’t ready for college. Where’re you goin’?”
“Oh, I’ve been…already sat for my exams.”
“Cultural anthropology. And this is my own version of a gap year before work.”
“So, when you get back, you’ll start looking?”
“Nah. I got a job down in Sidney. Museum. Yeah. A job and a girl. It’s all waiting for me.”
“You don’t sound too happy about it all.”
“Well, I got a month to go, don’t I? And the best part saved for last. I been looking forward to the Mayan ruins in Tulum and Tikal and Copan. All that.”
I didn’t see the problem. “So, you need to get a new pair of shoes…”
“Nah, man. I kept m’ money in m’ shoe, don’t you see?”
I nodded, considered. “Look, you seem like a good guy. You know, I could loan you a hundred or so. You could pay me back later.”
He paused for a long look at me. “Thanks, mate. That’s a good offer. But, no way. No. Besides, I might still get to that boot, eh? Dry out the money…”
We walked in silence toward my hotel a quarter mile ahead. “Where’ve you traveled on your walk-about?”
“Like I was an Abo, eh? Walk about. Funny that. I been all over—Greece, Italy, France, Ireland.”
“Wow! How long have you been at it?”
“Nine months. And I just wanted to finish up down here—one last thing to wrap it up.”
Maybe it’s the guidance counselor coming out of me but I wanted to keep him talking, disclosing. “I wonder what your girlfriend thought…or thinks… about all that time apart.”
“Aw, she didn’t much like it at first. Got all shirty with me. But she came around in the end, like. Just before we left, she gave me the boots, to send me off like, eh?” He paused, smiled. “So, I send her pictures of me wearing the boots in the different countries.”
“Well,” I jokingly offered, “you could always pose with just one boot, foot up on a stump or something, like on the Captain Morgan rum bottles.”
He pulled himself up with righteous indignity. “I don’t want to start deceiving my woman.”
Having arrived at the backside of my hotel, I paused to orient us to my room above. Then I pointed to the rocks beyond the seawall.
“That’s it! That’s m’boot!” he shouted.
Sure enough, the missing footwear was still there, trapped and circling, buffeting into the sharp toothed walls of the natural bathtub that rhythmically filled and emptied through a narrow gap. The guy hunkered down on the ledge. I watched him weigh his options, calculate the odds of retrieving the last month of his protracted bachelor party without suffering serious pain or worse.
I sat next to him, legs over the edge. It would be very dangerous to climb down into that roiling cauldron. He knew it. He really shouldn’t risk it. I tried to distract him, deflect him. “So, how did you come to lose one boot in the first place?” I asked.
His eyes, level with mine, fixed me in a penetrating stare. Could he trust me to keep the universally accepted, chance-met traveler’s seal of confession? After all, we would never see each other again. He looked out to sea, then, and in a soft, embarrassed voice said, “There was this sheila last night, right? Me and her…some beers by the water…” He slid a glance to see if I got his drift. I dipped my chin a hair. “When we woke up m’boot was gone. High tide. High wind…somethin’.”
With that, as if he had found some internal resolve, he eased from the wall and carefully placed his flip-flops on strategically chosen points of rock. One step. One hand reaching back, gingerly, for balance. Another step. Then, a combination of sudden gust and booming roller banged him onto his side. He lay still for a moment while the wave receded, then slowly climbed back up. I could see blood oozing from his knee, forearm and ribs. Nothing dangerous. I offered a hand and hauled him back onto the wall.
After a moment, I tried again. “About the money…?”
He waved me away. “I got enough to get home.”
I stepped back. Knew enough to leave a man alone with his wounds. It started to rain again—wind driven b-bs against my bare skin. “Good luck,” I shouted then made for the shelter of our room. A couple of minutes later, rum and Coke in hand, I watched the rain pound in violent spurts against the salt-rimed pane.
Down below, I could see the boy/man still hunched in the fetal position, hugging his knees, diluted blood pinking his arm, ribs and leg. I watched him slowly unfurl himself to his full height and stare out for a long moment. I could imagine a deep sigh. Then, slowly, majestically, like a Mayan priest atop a ceremonial monument, he held the remaining boot over the tide pool and dropped it in. Then he stepped down, shrugged into his backpack and stoop shouldered his way into the driving storm.