It became almost immediately apparent that we had rented a piece of junk. As we bounced away from Cozumel’s tiny town, our bug-style rental car felt increasingly like a toy. A very old, and very well loved, toy.
Problems manifested themselves faster than we could decide whether to laugh them off or worry about them. There were no seatbelts. The doors didn’t lock. The fuel gauge was stuck at a quarter tank – even after we filled him up. “Him” being Señor Frog, affectionately nicknamed after the terrible US pseudo-Mexican chain restaurant that had been oddly prevalent in Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
He was a busted-up, bright green imitation of a VW Beetle, with mirrors so filthy they were essentially redundant. His handbrake was AWOL – replaced by a piece of rusted metal that served no purpose. He point-blank refused to enter second gear and instead jumped straight from first to third with a dangerous clunking sound.
Janet (Journalist on the Run) and I had rented Señor Frog for about £30 from a dealer on Cozumel. We handed over a passport, they handed over the keys, and away we went. It was that simple. Because the car – like, I think, all rental cars in Cozumel – was that ridiculous.
Driving along the pot-holed roads streaking the outskirts of that tiny, wild island off the Riviera Maya, the wind whipping our hair into our eyes, we were in hysterics at each new dilemma Senor Frog created. As we sped through a particularly busy stretch, my passenger door swung randomly, violently, open – nearly taking out a scooter that was passing on the right. The bike swerved; as though dealing with suddenly open car doors is all par for the course in Cozumel. We kept driving, me now holding firmly onto a door that had a new-found mind of its own, Janet guessing our speed because – of course – Señor Frog’s speedometer didn’t work either.
We swung into a car park in front of a beach bar on the windswept coast; our first stop. That was when we noticed that the doors didn’t lock. Crossing our fingers that no one would steal the damn thing (although who would want to?) we hit the beach. And that was it for the rest of the day. We’d stop, pray not to lose the car, explore a little, then speed away again – hoping we didn’t kill anyone with our unpredictable car door.
The next day, we upgraded. Or so we thought. For an extra £20, we picked up a bright red convertible jeep. A jeep in minature, topless; more like a quad bike than a car. The kind of thing Barbie might have driven in the nineties, and ever-so-slightly less dilapidated than Señor Frog. It had its faults, but El Jeepo seemed like a dream compared to the frog. The doors stayed closed. I think they even locked. We were laughing.
Another day spent swooping along the wide, empty roads that skirted the island – lapping up its wild beaches and chipped blue seas. One of those glorious, impossible travel days, the kind where you can’t help but fling your arms wide and exclaim at the sheer beauty of the day, the landscapes, the weather.
Stopping at a beach on the far side of the island, we unloaded Janet’s new toy; a giant inflatable swan bought in Playa del Carmen before we’d hopped on the ferry to Cozumel. And this was when we hit our first snag of the day. Because, as it turns out, you need quite a lot of air to inflate a giant swan.
We were sitting in the sand, taking turns at fruitlessly puffing into the swan’s air valves, on the brink of giving up… when a couple of local dive instructors pulled up in their boat. Once they were done having a nice long giggle at the two ridiculous white girls trying to blow up a swan, they called over in Spanish.
“You can’t do it like that.”
Well thanks for that useful gem of insight, I was thinking angrily, but it turns out they wanted to do more than point out the obvious. Producing an oxygen canister from their tour boat, the two guys offered to inflate the damn swan for us. Which we gladly watched them do in all of ten seconds – and in return, they gladly watched while we attempted to board the swan.
When Instagrammers take those serene, glamorous photos of themselves on inflatables in the pool… they neglect to mention HOW FLIPPING DIFFICULT IT IS TO GET ON THEM. There is nothing glamorous about half-flopping your podgy self onto a slippery plastic surface and attempting to shuffle up like a walrus mounting an iceberg, before sliding back off with a depressing squeaking sound.
But that was how we spent our afternoon in Cozumel. Flinging ourselves onto Alberto – named after the dive boat that had brought him into being – and sliding back off him in a very, very unsexy way.
Not wanting to deflate him after all the trouble we’d had bringing him to life, we tied Alberto into the back of the jeep using scarves and set off towards home. At which point, the heavens opened and we were caught in rain that seemed so heavy it must have been switched on purely for our benefit, to make our day that bit more ridiculous.
Janet switched on the windscreen wipers, and one immediately flung off. While she scrabbled about in the mud at the side of the road to retrieve it, I began a battle with the jeep’s tarpaulin cover. As I struggled with the ties, the cover was filling up with water and sagging more and more in the middle…. until it inevtiably collapsed, proving that we were trapped inside a seventies British sitcom and drenching me with a few bucket’s worth of water.
Soggy, filthy, and utterly defeated, we drove back in the downpour with no wipers, Janet sticking her head out the side window occasionally to get a better view of the flooded roads, me clinging onto Alberto, who was now our only source of shelter, and both of us looking like the most ridiculous sight to have ever graced the streets of Cozumel.
Still, at least we made the guys in the rental shop laugh.
This short travel story is part of my new series focusing on the stories that don’t get told. I’m trying to be a bit more creative with my writing, and share the simple, funny, or poignant moments from my travels that don’t normally find a home on my blog.