During my first year in Cancún, there were times I forgot I was in Mexico. I’d be working on an article — conducting interviews in English, reading and writing in English, discussing the story with my husband, Kinich, in English — and would step outside for a break and be momentarily startled to feel the blazing sun on my face and catch sight of the little store sign across the street that reads Nuevo Paraíso, New Paradise.

Angela, who owns the Nuevo Paraíso corner store, waited until I had been patronizing her business for months before she asked me, “¿De dónde eres?” Where are you from?

“New York,” I answered.

As I turned to leave, I overheard Angela tell another customer that perhaps she would ask me for English classes. Shy person that I am, I continued walking out of the store instead of swinging around and telling her I’d be happy to teach her my native language.

Angela never did ask me for English lessons. And the rest of my neighbors were equally distant. I exchanged no more than a few words here and there, a smile, buenas tardes, with a couple of them when we passed each other coming or going. I told myself that they were busy with their lives and I with mine. But I still felt a twinge of loneliness when I saw them gather together on Friday nights: members of an inner circle of which I would never be a part.

My Mexican husband’s parents and sister, her boyfriend and two children, warmly welcomed me as a new addition to their family. With them, I found a sense of belonging. But all I felt for Paraíso, a residential neighborhood 20 minutes and worlds away from Cancún’s hotel zone and the place I had chosen to call home, was a sense of disconnect. A year after coming here, I was still the outsider, la gringa.

That is, until this October, when Hurricane Wilma came rattling into town.

A flooded parking lot in the recently constructed shopping
center known as Hollywood Plaza, which is located in one
of Cancún’s residential neighborhoods. Some businesses here
have yet to re-open. (Kinich Ramirez)

Preparing for the worst

Initially listed as nothing more than a “tropical storm,” Wilma barely caught my eye at first.

But once I read reports of preparations in Florida, I began to worry. And by Wednesday afternoon, as the weather updates became increasingly ominous, I headed to the supermarket to load up on food and other necessities. The next day, Kinich and I hurriedly organized ourselves in anticipation of the hurricane. Not wanting to face the hordes that had descended upon the supermarket, I decided to buy extra water and other odds and ends from Angela’s corner store.

It was frenzied madness at Angela’s as well. Customer after customer came in, searching for flashlight batteries or tape for their windows. Most seemed panicked now that it looked like the storm would bear down right on us. It had been nearly 20 years since a storm of similar magnitude — 1988’s Hurricane Gilbert — wreaked havoc on the area, and many people had grown complacent during the intervening years.

On Thursday evening, Kinich’s parents, sister, and her children arrived. We had arranged that they would ride out the storm with us, and their arrival brought an almost festive air to our apartment.

But where was Morocco, the family dog?

Apparently, there had not been enough room for him in the car, so my mother-in-law and I drove back to get him. On the open road, we felt the full brunt of the rising wind as it swooped down from a foreboding gray sky, shaking the tree branches forcefully. A stoplight swung violently back and forth in the wind, looking like it could snap off its pole at any moment.  

Morocco seemed filled with nervous energy on the car ride back. Jerking his head from window to window, he could barely keep his balance as we zigzagged through the streets, trying to avoid other drivers who seemed too preoccupied with getting home to pay attention to the road. It was a relief to pull into my apartment lot at last.

The apartment was a flurry of activity. My father-in-law and husband were nailing up wood outside to protect the apartment. My mother-in-law began putting away the extra food that the family had brought with them. And my sister-in-law, niece, and I set to work covering the windows with tape.

Our movements carried a sense of urgency, as the shrieking wind and sporadic rain reminded us that we did not have much time to get things in order before the storm descended upon us.

Neighbors from Cancun’s Paraiso neighborhood
form a conga line at an impromptu street party held
after Hurricane Wilma passed. (Kinich Ramirez)

Nature’s fury

That night, we ate dinner and watched television, trying to behave as if it were just another family gathering. But despite our best efforts, there was a palpable tension inside the apartment as we heard the wind growing ever fiercer outside.

My niece and nephew fed off our nervous energy, jumping about and refusing to sleep when my sister-in-law called them to bed. Finally, close to 10 p.m., we all settled down to our respective rooms: My sister-in-law and her two children in the guestroom-cum-office, my in-laws in the master bedroom, and my husband and I in the living room.

I couldn’t sleep, kept awake thinking about what Wilma had in store for us. Around midnight, a loud noise sounded in the distance, jerking Kinich out of his sleep. “What was that?” I whispered to him.

“One of the transformers just blew,” he replied.

Right then, we heard another explosion: the second transformer.

Later in the night, the third and final transformer died, and with that, we lost our electricity.

By Friday morning, the wind had died down somewhat, but conditions were still miserable enough to keep us trapped inside the apartment. When I peered out one of the few windows we had not boarded up, I saw that the steady rain had shrouded our neighborhood in a murky darkness. It was difficult to make out much else. I turned away from the depressing scene outside the window and focused my energy on helping with the kids and catching up on sleep for the rest of the day.  

That evening, the battering of our city reached full force. By this time, we had all moved into the guestroom because water had begun to seep into the living room and master bedroom. It was like a family sleepover, complete with joking and play-fighting amongst all of us, as we tried to keep our spirits up.

But by about 7 p.m., the amount of rain cascading into the master bedroom had become a serious matter. One side of it looked like a wall of water. With the bedroom windows rattling so hard they were on the point of shattering, we all took turns mopping up the deluge with towels, until Kinich devised a barricade to route the rapidly rising water into our bathroom. Utterly exhausted, we turned in to sleep at 9:30 p.m.

Once again, I was too nervous to sleep, imagining that every clatter and boom I heard was something crashing into our windows. The gales of wind had reached such a crescendo that I was sure the roof was going to be torn right off our third-story building. The force of the wind was so strong that at one point, the building began swaying. In the wee hours of the morning, my father-in-law and I rose to check on the water level in the master bedroom. We spent an hour mopping and then went back to bed.

On Saturday, we woke to a subdued weather situation. Since the only radio station broadcasting news about the storm had abruptly gone off the air, we began making calls to friends and family in other parts of the world, in the hope that they could give us any information about the storm. I finally got through to a friend in Texas, who told me that Cancun was now in the eye of the hurricane.

So, despite the eerie calm outside, the storm had not yet passed.

We shared the news with our next-door neighbors, the Guzmán Martinez family, and then decided to reinforce some of the front windows, as the wind was slated to change direction once the eye of the storm passed over us.

My father-in-law and I went out on the front terrace to nail an air mattress up over the wood, but a gust of wind lifted him right off his feet. He managed to regain his balance by bracing himself against the wall and, together with Kinich, we hurriedly finished securing the air mattress before rushing back into the safety of the apartment.  

Finally, on Sunday morning, after hours of being shut up inside, we woke to the news that Hurricane Wilma had moved on, heading for other unlucky destinations.

My three-year-old niece, overwhelmed with giddy happiness, began singing a song she composed on the spot that translated into something like, “The sun is shining and now we can play. The hurricane is gone!”

An overturned phone booth overlooks a
deserted beach in Cancun’s hotel zone, a week after
Hurriance Wilma wreaked havoc on the area. (Erin Cassin)

It takes a village

By a minor miracle, our apartment had remained completely intact through the hurricane. The only damage sustained were the holes in the walls where we had nailed up wooden planks for protection against the wind. There was also mold growth in nearly every room.

I compared notes with Doña Ramona from next door. Their apartment had lost some of its windows and water was still leaking into every room. My problems were minimal in comparison.

Yet, our next-door neighbors took care of us those first days after the storm passed.  Ramona gave us fish, chicken, and barbecued meat, from her seemingly endless supply of food. Her husband bestowed a couple of cold beers upon us, a luxury since no home had refrigeration capability due to the loss of electricity and the city had forbidden the sale of alcohol.

That first night after the storm, my husband, his sister, her boyfriend Javier, and I sat down for a meal of steaming hot fish soup and a couple of chilled beers while the children slept. Javier had been the first to check on us, stopping by briefly during the eye of the storm and returning once again after the hurricane passed.

We were chatting after the meal when we were interrupted by the sound of a drum and then cheers from the street below. From our balcony, we saw that a group of neighbors had gathered in the darkness of the street and were dancing to the beats of a skilled drum player. My husband grabbed his camera and practically flew down the stairs, with me clumsily stumbling behind him. Soon, we were in the midst of an impromptu street party.

Other drummers arrived and one neighbor, who I had never seen before, began honking her car horn in time with the percussion music. Another neighbor gestured at me to dance in the middle of the circle. People had been showing off their skills one by one, but I shook my head. She pulled me into the middle of the circle anyway and I performed my usual routine of snapping my fingers for two beats before heading back to the anonymity offered by the circle’s outer fringe.

My neighbor Angela was in the crowd and we greeted each other with hugs and talked about how liberating it felt to be out of the house after so many days of being trapped inside.

Soon, we had formed a conga line and started doing the limbo. Then, someone pulled his car up and started blasting music. Various couples paired up to show off their intricate moves. My husband and I twirled about, making up for our lack of skills with plenty of laughter. After about 40 minutes, we headed back to the apartment with the sound of the music following us.

Ceiba del Mar Spa Resort stands forlornly on
the shores of Puerto Morelos, which neighbors Cancun
to the south. The ravaged spa will be closed for at
least six months due to the damage caused by
Hurricane Wilma. (Erin Cassin)

Paradise lost and found

The following week was a busy one, as we cleaned up our apartment and organized night watches with neighbors. The lack of electricity that first week drew people out of their apartments, onto their balconies and into the street. Without computers or television, many of us re-learned the old-fashioned art of neighborly conversation to occupy our time.

When I went to hang up laundry on the roof of our building, I ran into the neighbor who had pulled me into the dance circle. We started talking and Lupe told me that she was from Mexico City but had moved to Cancun to give her children a more peaceful life. We spent a good half hour up on the roof chatting and I left feeling like I had made a friend.  

And for the first time, I hung out inside Doña Ramona’s apartment, when I stopped by to present her with gifts of candles and hand sanitizer that I had picked up at the only open supermarket in the vicinity.

Ramona has lived in Paraíso for 15 years. She tells me that it doesn’t look like the same neighborhood anymore after Wilma. She was accustomed to looking out her window and seeing the vibrant green of our street’s vegetation. It pains her to see a wasteland of dead trees instead.

It has been heart-wrenching to see the damage in and around Cancun. The storm has left a maze of destruction in its wake, as the city’s resplendent foliage has been replaced by rotting stumps and withered branches. Much of the beachfront’s glistening white sand has been supplanted by menacing-looking rocks, and the hypnotizing turquoise of the sea has been churned into a dark grey froth. Nature will restore herself eventually, but for now, my oasis has been shred to tatters.

I am saddened by the destruction but it is heartening to see the rapid pace of the recovery efforts and the ingenuity of everyone working to return the neighborhood to normalcy.

And for once, I truly feel part of the community. While looting and chaos broke out in other parts of the city, my neighbors, my family, and I were dedicated to protecting all of us on this street from any further misfortune.          

This sense of community has remained with me, even now, a month after the hurricane hit.

Doña Ramona and I spend more time talking on our shared terrace than we ever did in the year leading up to the storm. She is busy now that she’s returned to her regular routine, but I’ve made her promise to come over for coffee once her schedule calms down a bit.

As for Lupe, I bumped into her in the corner store last week and she hugged me like an old friend. She told Angela to make sure to include me the next time they plan a night out with the other women of the neighborhood. Angela agreed, saying it would be a good way to “integrate” me.

It looks like there is place in that inner circle for me after all. It just took a hurricane for me to realize it.  

The author browses through a rack in front of
a closed shop on Avenida Tulum, the main
street in downtown Cancun. Various vendors flocked to
this area in the week following Hurricane Wilma, as
many of the usual marketplaces were not open for business. (Kinich Ramirez)

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