It had been 12 years since Patrick had been on a boat in Isla Mujeres and 20 since I’d frolicked in Mexican time — too long between fiestas.
“Jacqui,” my husband called to me from his hammock suspended over white sand. Before the lime of my first margarita had even puckered my throat, Patrick decided I needed a Mexican persona for this trip and disregarded my formal staid given name, “Victoria,” for the more sultry-sounding, tropical moniker, “Jacqui.” I choked on the tart drink in my mouth and rested the icy cold glass against my too-white-for-this-new-personality thigh wondering if I could live up to the image the name evoked as it rolled off his tongue.
“What should we do tomorrow?” We’d just come out of the tepid water and the hammock under me had barely ceased swaying. Saltwater still dripped from my hair after a plunge into the sapphire colors beyond where we lounged. Right then seemed perfect — why did I want to think about manana?
Like when water is added to dried chilies and warmed in the sun to produce the base for mole sauce, the Caribbean Sea of the Mayan Riviera transforms me into a different personality — “Jacqui,” and I instantly feel like I’m a whole new being — a woman who sips margaritas on the beach before noon with a hibiscus flower tucked behind her ear. However, I can only sustain my Jacqui alter-ego so long, as too many margaritas in the hot sun lead to a painful morning. The Victoria side of me longed to go explore.
“How about a dive?” I asked. I might have been loving the new relaxed version of me, but I didn’t want to miss a single moment underwater by lounging on the beach, so the next day I kicked against a strong current in the same salty waters I’d watched the sun rise over just a few hours before.
Sultry seduction was not only on the beach in Mexico but in the water as well. In front of me, a black and yellow angelfish chased its mate around the reef and when he caught up to her, rubbed his flat body against hers in affection. I followed behind voyeuristically to see where they went but Patrick, who glided beside me, grabbed my hand and pointed above. Caught in the shafts of light between ocean floor and surface, a ray flew through the water. Sapphire blue stripes ran along its four-foot wingspan, blocking the sunlight. Behind him trailed a series of smaller rays that I could only imagine were its mate and family.
I smiled at Patrick and squeezed his hand.
As we kicked farther down the reef, two yellow starfish lay entangled with each other on the hard coral floor. I was not sure if one was crawling over the other or not, but I prefer to think they, too, were holding hands.
Dangerous long dark spikes of sea urchins shot out from an expanse of beige hard coral looking like an underwater firework but acting more like a barbed wire deterrent. I knew to touch was to invite trouble and remembered the howling pain of having to dig broken barbs out of a crewmember’s foot with tweezers and a scalpel years before, but something caught my eye just under the explosion of spikes. I swam a little closer. Patrick yanked my hand and pulled me back. We could not communicate through words underwater, but I’d seen that look on his face numerous times before. He knew my curiosity was going to get me into trouble.
I shook my head and pointed to the crevice just under the wall of sea urchins, pleading my case with my eyes. Patrick’s jaw tightened while he bit harder on his regulator, but his attention went to where I pointed.
Poking out of the dark space were two coral-colored long antennae. These were thicker than the black of the sea urchin and waved in the strong current that passed over us.
Behind his mask, Patrick’s blue eyes twinkled the same color of the sea. He dropped my hand and swam closer. Cowering under the coral, protected by the wall of poisonous barbs, was a lobster as big as the pineapple I’d seen being cut to garnish the pina coladas sold on the beach. Patrick’s arm shot forward to grab dinner. The lobster backed farther into the hole as the sea urchins swayed closer to his bare hand. It was my turn to yank him back, and he recoiled quickly. He cocked his head to the side, corkscrewed his body to try a different angle, but it was no use. The lobster was protected and out of reach. Resigned, Patrick shrugged and swam on, his attention now focused on a green sea turtle that glided above.
It was that lobster I was thinking of later that night when we strolled onto a rust-colored tile patio overlooking the ocean and fell into a chair exhausted.
The menu read Seafood Pozole de Mar with no description of what was in it, but when the waiter brought the enormous earthenware pottery bowl steaming with flavors of chili and the sea, I knew the local fishermen had been more successful at snatching the lobster out of its home than we had.
It was then my two personalities integrated. Jacqui picked up her margarita to toast the fabulous day, and Victoria dipped her spoon into the spicy tart broth eager for the taste of Mexico.
SEAFOOD POZOLE RECIPE
2 tablespoons olive oil 2 onions, chopped
1 head garlic, peeled 2 carrots, chopped
1 stalks celery, chopped 1 teaspoon sea salt
4 lobster tails, shelled *shells saved 2 pounds shrimp, shelled and deveined *shells saved 2 limes, juiced
12 cups chicken stock or water 1 tablespoon Mexican oregano 2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 jalapeños, chopped
1 bunch cilantro, leaves and stems separated
1 tins hominy, drained
2 pounds red snapper, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 avocadoes, diced
2 limes, cut into wedges
1 head romaine, shredded
10 4-inch tortillas, cut into strips Vegetable oil for deep-frying Sea salt
Heat one inch of vegetable oil in a large saucepot over medium-high heat to 350 degrees. Stack the tortillas and trim the round edges to make a square. Slice into ¾-inch strips. Fry 1/3 of the stack at a time, turning with a slotted spoon until crisp and golden. Pull from oil and drain on a bowl lined with paper towels.
Sprinkle with sea salt.
Sauté onions and garlic in olive oil over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Add carrots, celery, and sea salt and sauté for 5 minutes. Cut the lobster shells in half and sauté in vegetables along with the shrimp shells for 5 minutes. Juice the limes into the shells and burn off for 2 minutes. Add chicken stock, oregano, tomato paste, jalapeños, and cilantro.
Reduce to medium heat and simmer 45 minutes. Strain through a colander into a clean pot and simmer 20 minutes more. Add the hominy, red snapper, shrimp and lobster into the broth and simmer for 5 minutes until shrimp is cooked through.
Serve with diced avocado, lime wedges, lettuce and fried tortillas on the side.