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How my hat got in trouble on the way home from Cozumel

My friend Nancy asked me to accompany her on a cruise to Cozumel. Departing Miami on Monday, September 29, 2008, the ship made a brief stop in Key West on Tuesday and arrived at Cozumel, an island just off the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, around noon on Wednesday for an overnight stay, with a shore excursion planned for the afternoon.

Deciding to forego an exciting, eight-hour expedition with Nancy to the mainland to view Mayan ruins at Tulum, I opted instead for a less strenuous four-hour sightseeing and shopping tour of Cozumel on a bus that had air conditioning but no restroom. I dressed comfortably in chambray capris and a cute new blue top and capped off the outfit with my favorite old stand-by hat, a straw Panama Jack fedora with a pleated blue flower-printed band, for protection from the Mexican sun; I carried only a small shoulder bag with my digital camera in it, a few dollars, and a bottle of water from the ship.

Cozumel is a small and sparsely populated island, much of which is without power; the plumbing is antiquated in some places and nonexistent in others. About halfway through our tour, I began to develop a fairly severe case of intestinal distress. Our next stop was at the beach on the east side of the Island and, our guide informed us, the only toilet facilities to be expected for the rest of the tour were in the jungle bushes on the other side of the street. I crossed the street to check out the trampled, smelly area among the bushes that was partially shielded by a portion of worn, rickety bamboo screening, and seriously considered relieving my distress, but really could not bring myself to do so, as the logistics of clean-up were impossible to imagine. So, instead, I stoically tried to admire the view, search the rocky sands for shells, and take a couple of pictures of the sea. A fellow traveler was kind enough to use my camera for a picture of me on the beach with the water in the background.

Here I am, wishing that I could be fully present in the moment and enjoy this beautiful vista and trying desperately to gauge the likelihood of making it back to the ship, in about three more hours, without seriously embarrassing myself. The bet was even money. Fortunately, the very next stop, contrary to what our tour guide had previously led us to expect, blessedly had a perfectly decent restroom. Not to be indelicate, but I made it with mere seconds to spare. I’d been warned, of course, about “Montezuma’s Revenge,” but had been sure it wouldn’t happen to me, as I’d done nothing to deserve it, eating nothing on shore and carrying my own water. Apparently, just breathing the air there can do it to you (not entirely surprising, considering the state of the plumbing).

Anyway, our afternoon in Cozumel was followed by a “fun day at sea,” as we made our way back across the Gulf of Mexico to the port in Miami. I treated myself to an hour’s full-body massage at the Spa, got my bags almost packed for debarking the next day, and Nancy and I enjoyed a sprightly musical revue in the Dynasty Lounge theater that evening. Getting off the ship and through Customs at Miami on Friday morning went very smoothly, and my friend and I dragged our bags out of the terminal to wait for our Cruise Connect bus to pick us up for the ride back home in St. Petersburg.

By the by, here is a quick plug for Cruise Connect. We had intended on driving to Miami and back, but the parking facility near the port cost twenty dollars a day. I could have dealt with that, actually, but it wasn’t clear how we would have got us and our bags from the garage to the ship, and I was also apprehensive of negotiating the Miami traffic and getting to the ship on time. The Cruise Connect bus picks you up on the morning of your trip (albeit at an ungodly early hour) and delivers you directly to your cruise line’s embarkation area, for a round-trip per-person fare of only $85, approximately equivalent to the cost of gas and parking, with no worries about weather, traffic, or getting lost.

As the driver called out our destinations for boarding to come home, Nancy and I were the first to get on the bus and, so, had our choice of seats. On the way down, she had sat in the front seat across from the driver just aft of the front door of the bus so that she could have a clear view of where we were going; I sat in the seat behind her. Getting on the bus in Miami to come home, she realized that her preferred seat had a “priority” label on it, meaning that it was intended for use by a handicapped rider. I located a seat halfway toward the back of the bus, and she took the seat in front of me – but she clearly coveted the position at the front of the bus. I told her it was a metaphor for the way we approached life: she likes to face it head-on and see what’s coming at her; I don’t mind sitting back and watching as it passes by.

She decided to go up and claim that front seat but, if she had to relinquish it, she wanted to be able to come back and sit in front of me again. To hold that seat, she picked up my hat, which was with my purse and jacket on the seat beside me, and she put it on the seat in front of me, “In case I come back,” she said. Then she sat up front and remained there.

I reclined my own seat and closed my eyes while the bus made the rounds at the port, picking people up from other cruise lines. A group of friends who had traveled to the Bahamas got on, and a man and woman settled themselves into the seats behind me. Well, “settled” isn’t exactly the right word: first he was by the window, then they switched. Still restless, she says “Do you want the window, Dear?” and he said “OK,” so they switched again, of course, bumping the back of my seat while they completed their maneuvers each time. Meanwhile, I kept my eyes closed, trying to ignore the disruption.

The woman clearly was not happy that dear hubby did not have sufficient leg room, owing to the fact that my own seat was fully reclined. She fussed, possibly hoping that I would raise my seat back (which I was not about to do), until he politely suggested to her that they would both have more room if she sat somewhere else. At which point, the little lady decided to plunk herself into the seat in front of me which, as you may recall, was occupied by … my hat.

Now, here I am, eyes closed, pretending to be asleep and, frankly, annoyed with these people and in no mood to engage them in conversation. I decided that the hat would not be a problem, so I would just let her sit (or not sit) as she pleased, and I could deal with the hat later.

Subsequently, a discussion arose between the woman and some of her friends across the aisle about the hat that she’d found in the seat. It was quickly decided that (A) it was a man’s hat and (B) a previous (male) passenger had left it behind. The woman was sorry for the poor guy who had lost such a nice hat, and she declared that she would turn it in to the bus driver before she and her friends left the bus, so that whoever had left the hat behind might contact the bus company and get it back.

Oops. This is not going well. If I had only done nothing, I could have let her do that, and then I would have gone to the driver and claimed the hat. But, I did not know where she and her friends were getting off. I thought that if I tried now to tell her that it was my hat, how to explain what it was doing in that seat, and why had I not spoken up sooner? Perhaps I could have managed it but, in my mind, I could envision only a complicated conversation, along the lines of “I didn’t say anything earlier because I didn’t feel like talking to you, but …," and so on.

Since it was Nancy who put the hat in the seat, I decided that Nancy should help get me out of this pickle. I casually got up, stretched, and sauntered to the front of the bus to have a little chat with my friend. I told her that she needed to pretend it was HER hat and that she’d forgotten that she had left it on that seat halfway back in the bus. Clearly not happy about the subterfuge, she reluctantly said she would cover for me.

After a while, it was time for a lunch break, at a MacDonald’s in Fort Meyers. Everyone got off the bus, the end of the line for some, and the rest of us got a snack and a drink. Getting back on the bus, I thought that our disruptive friends who had made such a big deal about my hat had departed, as their seats were all empty, with nothing left behind except, of course, my hat. I didn’t really need to touch it at that point, but I picked it up for some reason and put it in the overhead rack. Why? I dunno, just stupid, I guess.

As luck would have it, however, when everyone was back on the bus, the lady and her husband and all their friends were back in their seats. Of course it was noticed that “someone” had moved the hat, and there was much speculation as to who did it and why. Well, my friend Nancy came back to sit down for a minute with me, just to chat, before the bus got under way again and, before she left, I took the opportunity to declaim “Hey, did you forget your left your hat here?” She didn’t actually respond to that, but as she got up to resume her seat at the front of the bus, I surreptitiously motioned with my head for her to take the hat with her, which she did.

Well, I must say, this was not met well by the party who had appointed themselves the Guardians of the Forgotten Hat. “She took that hat with her … can you believe it … how dare she … that’s not her hat, that’s a MAN’s hat,” and so on. The lady who’d originally sat in the seat with the hat was, by now, in another seat across the aisle with her friends. They started talking about this woman who had stolen the hat and discussing appropriate action about the matter, the least of which would involve reporting it to the bus driver – if not the police. You know, there is an organized band of people called Travelers; maybe they ride back and forth on cruise buses, looking for abandoned property to steal … maybe she’s one of THEM.

OK, I thought, this is getting waaaay out of hand. I can’t let this escalate any further, I have to put an end to the whole thing and just ‘fess up. So I lean over the aisle, smiling, and I say to the woman, “I’m sorry, but there’s no problem here, the hat really belongs to me.” “No, it doesn’t,” says she, “you’re lying – that’s a man’s hat.”

“No, really,” I counter, “it’s MY hat; I can show you a picture of me in that hat,” thinking of the many cruise photographers that capture every happy moment of your trip for you – one had caught me disembarking from the ship on the day of my Cozumel shore excursion. “OK,” she says, “let’s see it.” “Well,” I demurred, “it’s in my suitcase, in the luggage compartment under the bus.” “Yeah, right … you’re lying; I don’t like liars or thieves, and I don’t appreciate being made a fool of.” The more I tried, still smiling as sweetly as I could manage through clenched teeth and trying to convince her that the hat was mine, the madder the woman got. Her neck turned a mottled red, and I fancied I could see little wisps of steam escaping from around her collar. She finally told me to leave her alone so she could read her book in peace. Knowing I could not persuade her, I gave up and left her alone, but for the next hour, I wrestled with the situation, as I knew I had to diffuse it before it spilled over to the front of the bus and involved the bus driver and unflattering accusations about my friend. There had to be something I could do, and I really needed to do it pretty soon.

So, I am riding along, minding my own business and giving the woman her space, and the realization slowly dawned on me that, on the digital camera in my purse, there was a shot of me, IN MY HAT, on the beach at Cozumel, taken by the kindly fellow traveler. Eureka, I thought; here’s my proof. I dug out my camera and reviewed all my pictures until I found the one of me on the beach. Of course, the small LED screen does not have the best resolution, but you can at least see the silhouette of a pudgy woman in a hat.

Armed with my camera, with the crucial picture on the screen, I diffidently made my way back to the seat beside the woman across the aisle. Just before I could sit with her, the bus driver either hit a bump or braked a tad too precipitously, and I stumbled and fell backward, taking a nasty bump on my leg. The lady and her friends were all immediately solicitous, so I thought, OK, this is good, at least a little sympathy might get her to listen to me again. I showed her the camera and said I’d forgotten that I had it in my purse.

She looked. And she said flatly, “It’s not the same hat.” Holy cow, I wondered, what is it going to take to convince her.

This is the point in the story where Divine Intervention Saves My Bacon. The bus hit another bump, causing my finger to accidentally hit the zoom button on my camera. Until that moment, I had no idea that I could enlarge a picture on the LED screen by hitting the zoom button, but God must have known I was trying to Do the Right Thing and had pity on me. I saw that something had happened to the picture, and I had a moment’s panic until I realized that the picture was BIGGER! I hit the zoom again and again, and pretty soon, my face, unmistakably my face, with my hat, blue-pleated hatband and all, was clearly visible. “There,” I said, showing the woman the enlarged picture, “this is me, wearing that hat.” “Yes," she said, “I see it now … but why did you lie about it?”

OK, I know how to grovel when I have to. I explained that when she got on the bus, I was sleepy and, frankly, not in the mood to engage in conversation. I’d believed that the hat would not be any trouble to anyone, so I kept quiet, thinking I could just set things right later. Then when I realized that she and her friends had decided that the hat had been left behind by some man, I thought they wouldn’t believe me if I told them then that it was mine, so I asked my friend to pretend she had left it behind. I told her that I was very, very sorry for the deception. I saw her eyes soften as she forgave me. Suddenly, we were best friends. We chatted about our respective trips – mine to Cozumel and hers to the Bahamas.

When the lady and her friends finally got off the bus, it was at the stop before mine. If I had just never said anything about the darned hat, she would have given it to the driver, and I could have gone to the driver and got it back. No problem. But I had to go and weave that tangled web of deceit, and it caused more trouble than I really wanted to deal with on the way home from a nice vacation. Other people get to enjoy pulling harmless pranks and have a nice little laugh about it, but I guess I just don’t have the knack.

The truth might be dull, but I think I will stick to it from now on.

How my hat got in trouble on the way home from Cozumel

Ginny Schmidt

St. Petersburg, United States

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Artist's Description

It all began when my friend used my hat to hold a seat on the bus and then someone else sat there. The hat was innocent, but trouble none-the-less ensued.

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