January 3, 2003

As promised, here’s the

Filed under: Archives — mhoye @ 12:00 pm

As promised, here’s the overview of the Trip. Scans are not yet
available; the film is at the cleaners.

Mexico is a wonderful place to visit, and a week is just about the
right amount of time to be there, though being away from my friends,
my girlfriend and any net connection of any kind for that long was
threatening to induce DT shakes in the last few hours.

Let me tell you about it. I’ll endeavor to make this worth your
while; I know your time is precious, but this was six pretty intense
days, so this may take a while.

First off, the flight: we were on a Signature Tours package,
flying the ominously-named SkyService Airlines down to the Yucatan
Peninsula. Those of you who scanned over that “SkyService” and
“Signature” bits and said “Who?” or possibly “Hrm.” were entirely
right to do so – this was apparently one of the first few tours
they’ve launched out of Canada, and some of the kinks they’re still
working out include basic line management, the normally-binary
status of seat bookings, and pressing questions of what does or does
not constitute food. To their credit the flight out was the least
painful I’ve ever experienced, once we got past the ticket-handling
chair-moisteners and inept queue-wranglers at the front end; the
novelty of a flight departing and arriving on schedule, and better
still of discovering that your luggage did the same thing on the
same plane, hasn’t had many opportunities to wear off. I do almost
all my admittedly-rare flying around Christmas, so I still feel a
little frisson on those infrequent occasions the whole “air travel”
process works the way as advertised. It’s not like Christmas doesn’t
happen on a regular, predictable schedule, for crying out loud. But
if there’s somebody in the public-service side of SkyService
interested in improving their processes, I’ll give you a free hint
– you need to go the NAFTA route right away. Fire everyone in your
organization who doesn’t actually fly airplanes or hustle baggage,
and replace them with Mexicans. Every single one. The flight back
was atrocious, featuring an in-flight meal unfit for livestock and
a full twenty-four people, my family included, booked for a single
row of six seats.

If you want to know where you can find the right kind
of Mexicans you need look no further than the Yucatan tourist
industry, which as far as I can tell is run from the ground up by
people who are courteous, smart and frighteningly multilingual,
efficient far beyond mere competence and who work like hyperactive
Clydesdales. Lazy Mexicans, my white ass.

The actual edifice of the Iberostar Paraiso Del Mar is opulent
beyond rational thought. White marble floors, flamingoes, peacocks
and parrots flocking about the fountain, pillars and cavernous
domed lounges with plush furniture and hardwood trim, and that’s
in the first twenty meters of a complex that’s half a kilometer
long. There’s a pool, a long snaky thing with two wet-bars, two
whirlpools, a volleyball net and a waterfall (!) that runs about
two-thirds the length of the complex, stopping about a hundred meters
from the beach. It’s the kind of grandeur that you can confront
at first only with jaded sarcasm, because if you open your mouth
to say anything else, you’re going to jibber and gush like the
tourist you really are. Instead, you say things like “You know,
this place really isn’t decadent enough for me. I think it needs
more fountains, and maybe some more flamingoes, and swans. There’s
just not enough marble, here. And really, only six parrots in
the foyer? Come on. Where are the rest of the peacocks?”.

Ok, so I guess you come out sounding like a jibbering tourist either
way. It’s a really, really, really nice place, is all I’m saying.

It would be an easy thing to call me a hypocrite, at this point –
I’ve gone on about sincerity and authenticity a lot, and I stand by
what I’ve said, but one of the first things you’re likely to think
about a place like this is the very-obvious “this isn’t real”. And
really, you’d be right. The difference between a week of typical
Mexican life and a stay in Paraiso Del Mar, “Paradise By The Sea”
in English, is night and day, provided that we’re talking about a
day in a beach-side tropical resort and a night on the Moon. But
having said that, let me say these three words: I’m on vacation. I’m
aware that this isn’t reality, and I’ve got two points to make in
reply. First, I think that in order for something to be “fake”,
there must be something comparable already around which you can call
“real”. And second, I suspect that there are very few five-star
hotels that are formed, to borrow a phrase, by the natural erosion of wind
and rain. Assuming that you, like me, are not a drug lord or a
third-world despot, places like this just don’t exist outside the
tourist industry, and though my family agreed that if we came to
Mexico again that finding a small town and renting a house for a
month would be the way to go I have to admit that I had a hell of
a time.

It’s worth remembering that when you’re at an all inclusive resort,
and when los cervesas are included, that it is trivially easy to
consumados los cervesas in excesso. I’m lucky to be wandering around
in a body that is both robust and largely numb from prior abuse,
but I’ll tell you, if you’re going pick somewhere in Mexico to wake
up after a getting good and bent, you can do worse for yourself
than somewhere with a great buffet breakfast.

We visited Playa Del Carmen early in the week, and I really wouldn’t
recommend that to anyone not interested in tourist knicknackery
or hard-core narcotourism. A surprising amount of the silver
jewelry that I saw was stamped “Italy”, most of the shirts are the
same thing you can get at the local rock-shirt hangout with the
word “Mexico” stamped on the side and virtually all the “Mayan”
souvenirs, I later found out, look exactly nothing at all
like any part of the actual Mayan ruins. Too bad, really. On the
other hand, I was offered a lot of drugs. I wasn’t sure what it
was about my appearance that led people to pull me aside and
offer to sell me “marijuana, nose-candy, anything you want”,
but since somebody told my dad that he could sell him a hash
pipe two ways, empty or full, I figure it’s not just me. We did
spend an amusing evening working it out over drinks with a few
different-looking people, one straightlaced guy with the collared
shirt and the clean shave, one fellow with two pierced ears and a
sports jersey, myself as usual, a Mexican guy in a Hawaiian shirt,
etcetera; who got offered drugs? How many different kinds? It was
like playing Clue with the DEA
– I accuse the white guy with the goatee, in the rug shop, with
the earring! We eventually worked out that age was a minor factor,
but that there were very high correlations between unshavenness,
(tourist/tank-top/ultimate-T)-shirt-wearingness and overall
scruffy-white-guyness to getting-offered-drugsness. It took me all
of about three seconds to figure out that the way to make money off
of that deal two ways would be to sell the drugs and then tip off
the Federales about the gringo so both for the same of my health,
“drugs are bad”, and the sake of my health, “I don’t want to spend
Christmas in a Mexican prison”, I politely declined all offers.

All this really tells you is that the fratboy and
mass-produced-trinket-collector demographics apparently spend a
lot of time in Playa Del Carmen, and that they’ve basically ruined
it for the rest of us. It’s a heart-rendingly beautiful stretch of
white sand beach on the edge of a similarly beautiful countryside,
far and away too beautiful to deserve the Burger King, the McDonalds
and the Subway that are festering like infected track marks on the
main causeway.

One interesting Playa Del Carmen story, though, came from one of my
young twin cousins, who had seen many iguana toys that made many
noises when you squeezed them and who came across a large iguana
which she squeezed in a large-toy-iguana kind of a way. They
sit very still, you see. This iguana was clearly non-plussed by all
this poking and turned its head in a non-toy-like manner to get a
good look at its aggressor, which caused my young cousin to flip
thoroughly out. I think it’s good that she had this experience at
an early age, before she naively tries to hug a gila monster or a
komodo dragon or something.

The two most interesting places I saw were Toulum and Chechen Itza,
the two major Mayan-ruin sites in the area. A clear discussion of
this will have to involve my scanning the six rolls of film that I
burned in the last few days of my stay, because these places defy
description. The pyramid at Chechen Itza was awesome; it,
simply put, evokes awe. It occupies a large fraction of the horizon
even from half a kilometer away, and the difference in focal depth
between the base and the top makes it hard to look at directly. I
was there on a busy day, and watching all of the people climing the
stairs I felt a vaguely insect-like impulse to climb with them, as
though I were finally back at the hive. I climbed to the top of the
ninety-one steps (364 altogether, with a 365th at the top – Mayans
had very, very accurate calendars, woven into their architecture in
very interesting ways) each of which was about a foot high and less
than six inches wide, and not a banister in sight. Definitely not to
code, but it’s hard to overrule a priest-king, so what can you do?

One thing you can do when you get up there is see to the end
of the world. It’s the tallest structure, the tallest thing of any
kind visible in any direction. There is nothing between the top of
that pyramid and the horizon that offers any kind of competition,
as though someone had built the Eiffel Tower in the middle of
the tundra. Skyscrapers are big, but there’s always something
pretty big next to them; the stark, unvarnished hugeness of this
pyramid, though, comes free of any comparable context, five times
the size of the nearest anything and many, many times the size of
the nearest me.

If you, like me, are afraid of heights, you can also look down the
steps while you’re there, and then swallow and take a step back
so that you’re not going over the edge when your knees buckle. It
turns out there’s an ambulance on-site in case the gods decide they
would be pleased if some gringo did a header down a hundred feet
of granite staircase. I thought I was scared, and I was, standing
at ground level looking up. Coming down was a severe strain
on some underused parts of my adrenal system, though I did not use
my hands either way, which I still feel inordinately proud of.

A bit of international trivia for you – like most major religions,
the Mayans put down a fixed start date for the beginning of the
world. However, unlike most world religions, they also
fixed an end date. Mayans believed that time is circular,
or possibly a spiral, and the date at which the first (!) full
revolution of that spiral is going to come to a close is December
23, 2012. Apparently the place is going to be packed that night,
so book your tickets early.

There’s also a sports field at Chechen Itza that must have been
the SkyDome of its day – it’s a hundred and fifty meters long,
at least, and the stone hoops in the middle of either side are
about ten metres off the ground. Those aren’t big hoops, and if
I had fifty tries I don’t know if I’d be able to put a baseball
or a disc through that space; to make matters worse, the game was
apparently played with your feet and hips, not your hands. Though
I think that the old story of the losing team getting sacrificed
to the Gods is iffy, (That’s apparently an Aztec thing, not Mayan,
and single-elimination-career seems like an inefficient way to train
good players, even if the incentives are unmatched even by the most
generous of modern professional sports contracts) I can easily see
a lot of extremely tense games ending one-nil in triple-overtime to
the screams of thousands of unbelievably wound-up fans. Some people
like to argue that sports-fandom is a kind of religion now, but I
think that modern team loyalty must be a chirp in the background
noise compared to the old school – your football or soccer
team loses, you go back to your house, take some ribbing from your
friends and go back to your job the next day. With these guys,
lose and the priest-kings will be angry! The Gods will forsake you,
your crops will rot, your houses collapse and your children be
racked with illness for your failure to offer unto them the glory
of victory! Crap! Run harder, you bastards, run!

Scans, I promise, are indeed on the way. Six rolls I burned, and
the highlights of those six rolls I will provided to you in a flurry
of correctly-ordered ones and zeros. Soon!

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