It was 1999, a few days before New Year’s Eve.
I’ve just finished watching a the sunrise from the beach in Playa del Carmen. The coastline at dawn here is always eerily silent, the quietest it will be all day. For a few hours at most, no one is stirring. The dozens of bars and restaurants that line the shore appear abandoned, like a ghost town.
My lounge chair is wedged into the sugary white sand just out of reach of the crashing turquoise waves. The sky is an infinity of blue, and the sun’s rays merely lukewarm, like an oven that’s just been turned on but which hasn’t yet had begun to warm up. A seagull circles overhead, effortlessly floating in the breeze like a kite, and I wonder if he, too, is merely half awake.
A small wooden fishing boat powered by a small outboard engine sputters across the horizon then turns toward the shore and heads straight for where I’m lounging.
The vessel carries two men. They wear the look of locals, probably in their early twenties, buff and shirtless. One of the men kills the motor, pushes down on a lever and lifts the engine out of the sea, and the boat glides directly onto the sand a few meters away. They glance in my direction and smile. I turn to look behind me to see if they’re acknowledging me or someone else more familiar to them whom I might not have previously seen—but I’m the only one around.
They stay put in the boat, fastidiously working on something but I can’t see exactly what. It looks like they’re slicing up an orange, and maybe an onion. Twenty minutes passes, possibly more, and I soon forget that they’re there. My eyes are getting heavy again, but just as I’m about to doze off, I sense one of the men approaching. He’s smiling, barefoot, and even more handsome up close than I previously thought. He’s carrying with him a small paper serving bowl. I perk up.
“Would you like ceviche?” he asks, tilting the bowl toward me. It’s a beautiful presentation of pearlescent flesh tossed with colorful bits of orange, onion, cilantro and jalapeño.
“It looks amazing,” I say. “What kind of fish is that?”
“Wahoo,” he says. “Just caught it.”
“How big was it?” I ask.
He holds up his hands, then moves his palms away from each other until they’re about two-and-a-half feet apart.
“For real,” he says.
“How much for the ceviche?” I ask.
“Not for sale,” he says. “It’s a gift.”
I accept the bowl and shake his hand, and before I can say thank you, he’s already trotting back to the boat. He turns and waves and climbs back into the boat. His partner pushes the boat back into the water, he lowers the engine, and the vessel putters away.
I take a bite of the fish. It’s incredible, as fresh and pure as the undisturbed sea air at sunrise in the Riviera Maya. It’s almost time for a beer.