First, apologies for yesterday’s weird post – literally, it was a slip of the finger.
I’m on a short break from the blog, so I’m offering you a rerun of an earlier post. Sneak preview – a future blog will reveal some significant changes in my travel style. Stay tuned. And now, without further ado, this week’s post……
Twenty years ago today
Sergeant Pepper said take a vay-cay
And that was when I found myself at an all-inclusive resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Here’s my trip report…..
POSSIBLY my favorite part of any vacation takes place in my bed, months before I board the plane. Get your mind out of the gutter, this isn’t about pre-vacation sex; I’m all too single. No, it’s about lying awake in anticipation, the movie in my head starring moi sipping a café crème at the Flore, hiking the Atlas mountains with a Berber guide, swinging through the Costa Rican jungle tethered to a leather harness.
So why am I on a last-minute flight to Mexico in March? And an even bigger why, on my way to an all-inclusive, adults-only resort (a welcome porno DVD on the pillow)? My typical vacation M.O: Eject me from the plane, hand me my walking shoes, and point me in the direction of a little-known museum, an architectural masterwork, a backcountry hiking trail. Wind me up at 9:00 a.m. and set the timer to run for twelve hours.
But after vaulting the twin hurdles of a Bar Mitzvah (son) and college applications (daughter) over a period of several months, the thought of my usual forced-march style holiday makes me want to reach for the smelling salts. A few days lazing by a pool, joined by some friendly singles or sociable couples from the hotel, sounded like just the ticket for a stressed-out single mom.
My suitcase is stuffed with paperbacks, tubes of sunscreen, and a brand-new beach cover-up to conceal my brand new body, ten pounds heavier than it was a year ago.
I think I might be in trouble when, 3000 feet in the air, a twenty-ish guy in a Hawaiian shirt limbos down the aisle chanting “No Drinking in Cancun.” Right on cue, up pops a commercial on my TV screen for one of the most popular DVDs of all time – that’s right, Girls Gone Wild – and it suddenly dawns on me. I am fifty-one years old and I am en route to Spring Break In Cancun.
But when I arrive at my hotel in the more sedate Playa del Carmen, I realize that isn’t my problem. As I check in, a panel of six huge TV screens lights up with the words Welcome Andi Brown, and I know I won’t find bodacious young people puking in the lobby and hooking up on the lounge chairs. Because I am on… a cruise. As in, I’ve told my friends that if they ever hear me using the words going and cruise in the same sentence, to put me out of my misery. Immediately.
Okay, so this hotel isn’t about to leave its moorings, but here are the dead giveaways that all that’s missing are the lifeboats and a guy in a cap and gold-trimmed double-breasted blazer. Four restaurants – Asian, Tapas, French-Mex and Whatever-You-Want-We-Got-It. Fitness center. Volleyball. Elvis crooning Can’t Help Falling in Love with You on the loudspeaker.
I head to the tapas place for lunch, where, when I’m served my ensalada Mexicana, I learn that the English translation for the Spanish romaine is… iceberg lettuce. For tomato, it’s wan supermercado fruit substitute.
Around noon, I’m able to get into my room, where the dominant feature is a marble-enclosed jacuzzi-for-two. The fact that I’m only one means I can spread out my, um, spread, and relax. How to operate this thing, anyway? The faucet works the normal way, and I figure those buttons on the side will do the trick for the whirlpool. I fill the tub, ease myself in, push the button, and help! A fire-truck’s worth of water is headed straight for my head at 100 mph. I’m madly pushing buttons, trying to get this thing to shut off, or at least calm down. Since I’m not on fire, I hop out, frantically pushing those defective buttons. I call housekeeping, and while I wait for the downpour in my room to subside, I reminisce about my last aqueous adventure.
I was in Rome, when, on a stroll by the Colosseum, nature called. Urgently. Thinking it ill-advised to answer the call by crouching behind a Corinthian column, I run to the nearest public building, a subway station. Miraculously, someone had just exited the bathroom, and there’s no wait. I tear into there, and the door slams shut behind me. The room is as dark as Hadrian’s tomb. I stumble around, seeking the toilet, which my toe discovers first. Ouch. I sit in the darkness and take care of business, forced to “drip dry” since my groping of the wall fails to yield a single square of toilet paper.
As I rise from the seat, I hear a giant whoosh, and, before I can get out of the way, my rear end, shoes, and pants are sopping wet. Is this some sort of fun-house, upside-down shower? Are the Romans so fastidious they need a high-power bidet every time they go? After a bit more drip-dry time, I pull myself together and make for the door…which is locked. It’s still pitch black in there, and I now cover every square inch of the stall searching for a light switch. Niente. I begin to shout, Aiuta me!
After about five minutes, some subway functionary appears and promises to arrange my release from my Roman jail cell-cum-bathroom. Five minutes later, I hear what sounds like a crowbar land on the floor outside. Lots of banging and swearing ensue, then silence. Ten minutes pass. I spend the time singing camp songs in my head. The warden returns with a new set of tools, and five minutes later, I am a free, albeit very wet woman.
Maybe my cruise aversion is due to bad karma with water.
Nonetheless, I spend my first vacation afternoon strolling the beach, calmed by the turquoise sea and cheered by the warm sun and the knowledge that back home in Boston, the temperature hovered around a frosty ten degrees. When I return to the hotel, I sign up for the next day’s excursion to the nearby Mayan ruins at Tulum, coupled with a snorkeling trip to Akumal. This will necessitate rising at 6:30, but ten’s my usual bedtime anyway.
Ha! The party’s just getting started at ten, and they want me to join, since the local Grade Z garage band is serenading me right under my window. A week’s salary I’m paying for El Hotel Todo-inclusivo, and I can’t even control my own bedtime.
A snorkeling landscape ought to feature lovely flora among the fauna, but the cove at Akumal offered no more than plain old garden-variety rocks and I could’ve encountered a greater variety of ichthian species at my local pet store. I later learn there was more spectacular fish-viewing to be had in the area, but those sites weren’t offered at the travel desk in my lodgings.
Back at the hotel, I check out the French-Mex place, where the staff asks where my esposo is, their shocked faces at my admission that there is none signifying that they saw my like about as often as they might spot el unicorn.
The next day, I decide When In Rome. In another words, chill by the pool with one of the three books I’ve brought. I slather on my 60+ sunscreen, grab a lounge chair, and start to read when an announcement comes over the loudspeaker. It’s time for the Sport of Queens (as in Flushing) – Bingo! The guy next to me pumps up his arm and yells “Yeah, Bingo!” In the spirit of I’ll Try Anything Once, I grab a state-of-the-art Bingo card, which features, instead of the usual markers, strips of plastic that slide over the numbers. We’re playing a fancy variation – two rows to win. N43. Nope. B10. Nada. O59. Yes! I’m back in third grade.
But after no luck with G44, my neighbor yells out Bingo! and we hear that Randy from Milwaukee is the winner. Of what, it’s not clear, but I’m game to try again. Oh my God, G59, got it. I22, got that too, and suddenly I have two full rows. I yell Bingo! as if a Mercedes were at stake (I later learn we’re playing for t-shirts), and the caller comes over to check. He eyes me sadly while informing me that this time, we’re playing for a full card. I am many squares short. But a few numbers later, Randy jumps out of his lounge chair and shouts the magic word again! Could Bingo at this Hotel Playa Grandissimo be…fixed???? Is Randy sleeping with the caller?
Bingo’s over for today. Pool music ranges from Elvis to Tony Bennett to the BeeGees. My book and I remove ourselves to the lounge chairs on the beach, where the music is fainter, though I can’t totally escape the day’s next activity: Team Chicago vs. Team Ohio in a relay race featuring kayaks in the pool, the transport of water from ocean to land, and the blowing up of balloons. The stakes are higher this time – a bottle of Tequila. I’d join the game if the prize were the silencing of the loudspeaker.
I slip into the lobby rest room. From my stall, I hear a gentle crooning. It sounds like a Mexican love song, low and lilting. I emerge to find a hotel staffer singing as she polishes the toilets to a pearly shine. I smile and thank her for the impromptu concert, a rare moment of quiet grace in this boisterous monster of a hotel.
Just before leaving for Mexico, I read an article about cenotes¸ limestone sinkholes connected to caves, which dot the Yucatan peninsula and were hallowed places to the Mayans. One in particular, Cenote Azul was cited as especially lovely and advantageously located fifteen minutes from my hotel. None of the three concierges have heard of that particular one, but they do know where I might find a cenote. And then I do something I’d bet no one at this hermetically-sealed hostelry would consider without a loaded gun to the head. I take public transportation.
The ten-seater van I catch in downtown Playa del Carmen fills quickly with tourists and locals. I tell the driver where the concierge has advised me to disembark and he nods energetically, “Si, Cenote Azul.” Exactamente!
I get out at the entrance to Cenote Azul, where, at the small entry booth, I pay my 50 pesos, around $5. The cenote itself is a ten minute rocky walk through a landscape that’s half woods, half swamp, featuring spindly vegetation and, blessedly, the only sound that of the birds. I pass two small cenotes before arriving at the larger one, the size of a small pond. The water is greenish due to the moss-covered rocks on the bottom, but clear and clean. There’s no one there but me.
The signs say “Only biodegradable sunblock allowed.” My #60 is probably the Exxon Valdez of sunscreens. Can I save myself from cancer and wrinkles without creating an oil spill?
I spread my towel on a small wooden deck, whip out my book and read for around half an hour, savoring the quiet beauty. I’m joined by visitors eventually, first a group of American birders carrying a telephoto lens that looks powerful enough to capture craters on the moon. They lend me their binoculars so I can get a close look at the brilliant yellow orioles. Two local families appear, and I watch the kids chase each other around a tree, hitting each other with small sticks and laughing hysterically. I jump off the deck for a swim; the water is bracing, but I warm up quickly enough, and head for the small cave at the far end of the cenote, where I see my first-ever stalactites. They’re smaller even than the icicles that dangle from the eaves of my New England home, but I can now claim to have seen an actual stalactite.
Not usually much of a swimmer, I feel I could spend hours in the water. Eventually I emerge, dry off, and lie on the deck, listening to the birds and the Babel of Spanish, French, Mayan, and English.
A little girl approaches and tells me she’s happy about the rain – it’s started to drizzle – and I ask if I can take her picture. She runs to ask her mother, who looks over at me, smiles and nods. The girl poses fetchingly, then, suddenly, she turns into a performing monkey, jumping about and making silly faces. I’m not fast enough to capture all of them, but I manage to get some good shots of darling little Maria.
I join her parents and baby sister; her dad, a waiter, spent three years selling mangos and bananas in a Manhattan fruit store. He’s determined to raise his children trilingually, and Maria is happy to teach me the words for water in Spanish, English and Mayan. I spend the rest of the afternoon swimming and chatting with the family, applauding the dad as he dives from a promontory above the cave.
What surprises me about my day at the cenote is that I didn’t realize how much I needed it. Maybe it’s time to rethink my inertia –body in motion staying in motion – approach to vacations.
After on-and-off drizzle, the sky looks more ominous, and I pack up my towel and book. I bid adios to my companions and catch the next van back to the hotel.
On the return trip to Boston, I sit with a young couple expecting their first child, who’d spent a week in a quiet nearby village. They describe their charming, small hotel, within walking distance to beach and town. The mix of families and couples. The excellent local restaurants. I feel a pang of regret that I haven’t shared what sounds like the perfect vacation spot for a stressed-out single traveler.
So, what have I learned? Vacation in haste, repent at leisure. It’s really okay – salubrious actually – to rest on vacation. And finally…I’d probably hate a cruise even more than I ever imagined.
But now, with my Parkinson’s diagnosis, I just might find myself cruisin’ down a river somewhere. Though I guarantee it won’t be on a ship the size of a city, requiring formal dress for dinner and schlocky entertainment.
Speaking of cruises, you MUST read David Foster Wallace’s expose, Shipping Out, in Harper’s. It’s way funnier than my piece and I guarantee you will laugh out loud.