I was never a beach person. I didn’t swim well and I hated the way I looked in a bathing suit, even when I was young. But this wide mile and a half swatch of beach on my friends’ property was isolated, with no one around to make me feel self-conscious. Every morning just after dawn I walked the beach, either with Molly and her dogs before she left for work in Cancun, or by myself. The waves rose and fell on the sand gentle as a baby’s cradle rocking. The sand was always cool underfoot because of the chemical make-up of the granulas and the way rivers ran underground. This was as close to heaven as I’m likely to get.
But Luis Felippe’s beach wasn’t only special to me and the few other home-owners who lived there. That beach has a history that is important for all of Mexico. In 1511 Gonzalo Guerrero, a Spanish sailor, and Geronimó Aguilar, plus fourteen other men and two women were headed on a ship to Santo Domingo when they were shipwrecked in the Yucatan Peninsula and came ashore in what is now Quintana Roo. According to Luis Felipe, the way the tides go that shipwreck likely happened right in the waters in front of his property.
When Aguilar and Gerrero landed they were immediately captured by the Maya and taken as slaves. Eight years later Aguilar escaped, but Guerrero stayed and married a Mayan woman. Their children became the first Mestizos, mixed children of Spanish and Mayan descent, the first true Mexicans.
One morning I was thinking hard about Guerrero, aware that I was tracing the footsteps of history as I ambled slowly along the shore. Suddenly stretched out in front of me so close I could have tripped over it was a body, tall, deeply tanned, with grey hair and wrinkled chest. He looked to have been in his late seventies. He was lying on a towel on the sand face-up, sun-bathing naked as a plucked chicken. What right did this ballsey stranger have, stealing my solitude?
As it turned out, Gaspard was a long-time friend of Luis Felippe’s, a French director and actor who had given up his successful career and taken up painting in later life. He had come to stay and had no plans to leave. Just like Guerrera, he took up with Mayan women half his age and made Mexico his adopted home. I hated his garish paintings of women, but he added color, a sense of abandon, and a great French accent to our small collection of .international strangers who lived there. In time, I began to think of him fondly, like a child who had something to teach me, if I could only let myself learn.