Tuesday, November 9, 2010

So This One Time I Went to Mexico

Being a poor travel writer is kind of like being a perennially single girl who writes about weddings.

I write about exclusive resorts. Swim-up bars. Hydrothermal experiences. 24-hour butler service. Complimentary caviar tastings. Honeymoon packages. Private villas tucked into a labyrinth of gilded lilies and breathtaking waterscapes.

Like the divorced wedding planner who sits at the back of the wedding and raises her glass with everyone else. Here's to your happiness. Bitch.

It's not all hydrothermal gilded lilies. I list the cleanest hostels with the biggest shared bathrooms. I write about eclectic Sydney boutique hotels and mod bars with egg-shaped toilets. I could list every show playing in the West End right now.

But someday? Someday I'm going to be a real travel writer. Not some leech who lives vicariously through resort webpages and Fodor's travel guides like a pathetic parasite. I'm going to be the one who discovers the egg-shaped toilets. I'm going to recount drinking a crowd of Mexican waiters under the table or smashing a guitar over someone's head, Roman Holiday-style.

So, in honor of this goddamn article I'm writing about Playa del Carmen resorts--which, in a stunning rarity, is a place I've actually been to--I present one of the few travel essays I've ever written. 


Chichen Itza, Mexico. It is eighty degrees in March and tourists cluster to gawk at the pyramid. A month ago a woman died climbing this pyramid. Heart failure. Now thick ropes and tour guides prevent us from scaling those narrow, ancient steps. The snarling undercurrent of complaint can be heard among the tour groups: “One rotten heart spoils the bunch,” a man gripes.
Peddlers’ blankets dot every trail through Chichen and my companions stop at each one, marveling to touch the hand-carved frogs, the brightly woven blankets. A mother sees us approaching and snaps her fingers at her daughter. The girl is four or a petite five. She pads up, brushing ragged hair out of her eyes, and thrusts bottled water at us. The mother watches too expectantly. We are a herd of easy targets.
What a pack of bleeding hearts we must seem, all of us seventeen or a young eighteen, awkwardly stepping out into another country like fawns. We are top-heavy from our cameras and wide eyes, and we are eager to bring back souvenirs and photo albums filled with evidence of how cultured our five-day stint in Mexico has made us.
We reluctantly decline the water. Her mother is already snapping her fingers towards a new batch of tourists shuffling down the path. The girl comes up to the pocket of the new man’s neatly pressed khakis, his velcroed sandals scuffing to a halt beside her bare feet. I take the picture.

All day long we have been admiring peddlers’ airy white dresses embroidered with colored flowers. We’ve seen them for sale at every third booth. Jenna stares at a white halter dress, wistfully fingering the material.  She bites her lip.
            “I’m just worried because I can’t try it on, y’know? I don’t know how it’ll fit. I don’t want to spend money on a dress I’ll never wear because it doesn’t fit right.”
            We hesitate. We’re poor, and her logic is sound. A Mayan woman sits in the shade, head bent over her embroidery. We move on.
            Later, we find the same style of dresses at the Cancun Wal-mart. We surge into the dressing rooms, pulling dresses over our heads while price tags wave like surrender flags. The sizes marked in bold are refreshing and the lack of bartering is comforting—-no gringo can be taken advantage of here, no one can unknowingly haggle for a fool’s price. We each buy one for 400 pesos. Later we’ll tug them down over bathing suits and show them off around the hotel pool, flouncing into pool chairs and taking pictures of ourselves reclining like goddesses in our breezy white dresses.
Everything is cheaper in Mexico, we were promised. We are eager to hunt out bargains in the Playa del Carmen marketplace. Shops hum with tourists and shopkeepers smiling little fox smiles, displaying jewelry and wares with a flourish of open palms. One is wooing Liz, putting a turquoise necklace around her neck. She motions me over to translate.
            “Cuatrocientos,” he says firmly.
            “40,” I mistranslate. Four dollars. I’m surprised by the price and believe the necklace must be imitation turquoise.  Everything is cheaper in Mexico. Liz widens her eyes and digs out her wallet to produce four ten peso notes. The man bats her hand aside.
            “No, no. Adios. ¡Adios!” he says, shooing us from his table. Embarrassed, we pretend not to understand, innocently scanning the rest of his wares. “Bye-bye!” he manages, and we dart away to another booth.
            Here in Playa del Carmen, the town reeks of tourism. The shops are full of silver jewelry and expensive paintings, the beaches immaculate, the hotels occupying much of the town’s real estate. Everything is tailored, everything sparkles like the Caribbean. It makes us anxious to see The Real Mexico, we tell our chaperones.
            Leaving Playa del Carmen, we experience our first taste of The Real Mexico from behind our charter bus’ tall, thick windows. Here is the gray stone church rising like an obelisk in the town’s center. Here is the town’s market in the plaza, women clucking and gossiping at each other’s tables. Here is the tarnished yellow bicycle-cart with a crate of oranges in the back. Here are the Coca-cola logos plastered on walls, signs, menus, billboards, even roofs; Mexico was built on Coca-cola. Here is the faded salmon paint, the barefoot boys idling near the cars from the seventies; the houses dangerously tilting into one another, as if leaning on each other for support.
            Our cameras click and whir through it all, through the sad eyes and the torn skirts, through the collapsed buildings and cluttered alleys.
            We head into the mountains. This road is a series of deadly turns and our bus careens around each bend wildly, sending thrills through our stomachs. Without warning, the bus slows. A blue truck with a blackened hood is nestled headfirst into a ditch. Thirty faces press eagerly to the window to see an authentic Mexican car crash. As we pass, I see the charred face of the driver, still half-slumped over the wheel.
To my right, I hear the camera click.


  1. This is powerful.

    I can see it, hear it, smell it and taste it.


  2. Excellent, excellent, excellent. I love your writing, I'm so glad someone pays you for it. You deserve to be paid to write. concise, insightful, and highly transportative. I feel very much like I was with you in the streets, the mountains, the hotel.

    I once wrote a few pieces for a business travel magazine; I was writing for the hotel beat. I felt like a thief. I never stayed in hotels (where did I go?). I was stealing authority just by virtue of publication. I didn't know squat about what it was really like to travel, nevermind what a businessperson might require of her hotel. But the one time I got a free lunch at a great NYC restaurant from the PR guy at a boutique hotel? Yeah, that was nice.

  3. Wow. You basically just described key scenes from my honeymoon. We went to Playa del Carmen, Chichen Itza, enjoyed those beautiful beaches...sigh.

    Then there was the terrifying tour bus ride on narrow dirt roads, cab drivers that tried to take advantage of "the gringos" by pretending he couldn't speak any English (luckily my husband speaks Spanish), and getting kicked out of a jewlery store with the owner yelling at us because of a misunderstanding about prices...Ahhh...good times. :)

  4. Haha oh man, I read through this and thought to myself "oh thank goodness, she didn't talk about that charred dead guy" but I thought to soon. I remember you getting so mad and yelling at someone for taking pictures and I completely agreed with you. That was so terrifying.

    Also, my favorite part was you talking about us flouncing around in the fluttery white dresses. Although, if you remember correctly, there was a particular one of us who bought a blue dress instead and did the most ridiculous flouncing and singing of how pretty she was. The rest of us just sat on the bed while she pranced around for another hour or so. Haha I love our Jenny. =)

  5. Wow! This is great! So, you are seriously a travel writer? That is so cool. I am VERY jealous. How on earth did you get into that?

  6. Thanks for your feedback, everyone. It really means a lot to me, and I thank you sincerely.

    Nicole: Free lunches are always amazing in my book. Even free McDonalds lunches.

    Candice: I either got some amazing jewelery deals or I was robbed blind. Either way.

    Lacie: I'm more like a "Whatever my clients ask me to write" writer. I do have niches; those include food/wine, eclectic fashion, books/book reviews, entertainment, theatre, and travel. Seriously, don't be jealous. I don't get paid to go anywhere. I'm more of a travel planner than a travel writer. Which basically means I'm excellent at obsessively pouring over any and all data to find the best deals, hotels, attractions, etc. to fit the article's audience. And I do enjoy it. But it also makes me die a little inside because I can't afford to GO to any of those cool places.


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