My H1N1 Vacation

At last I was going on vacation. I chose Cancun Mexico. It screamed international without having to give up the convenience of Wal-Mart. My sister in law, always game to go away agreed to come before I even finished telling her the destination. Had I said, I was thinking of going to visit Nana, she would have jumped at the chance. My brother, never one to be long winded, shrugged his shoulders and said

“Yeah, sure, where are we going?”

My girlfriend squealed with delight when I suggested we go away. She, like my sister in law, would have been equally happy to go to Afghanistan or Iraq. Luckily, there were no timeshare vacation resorts in either of those war torn countries.

With a few key strokes I was at purchasing our coach tickets for Cancun. Sure the travelers advisory for the Swine Flu virus were worrisome but with fares that good, I was willing to take my chances.

With bags packed and dog eared passport in hand, we embarked upon our vacation. As we walked up to the customs officials in the Cancun airport, my mind turned to the many episodes of Locked Up Abroad. I didn’t have any illegal drugs stashed in my luggage but I felt a nagging concern that my fruit leather might be considered agricultural goods and having been forewarned, I knew I could be charged with a federal offence. As an American, I know that it’s never a good thing when your embassy has to negotiate your release from your vacation.

As we emerged from the airport, the humidity engulfed us like a thick wool blanket during an August heat wave. We sought relief in the pre-arranged airport shuttle and using the broken Spanish I learned from high school, confirmed our destination with our driver.

At first sight, I was relieved to see the resort appeared as stated by recent traveler reviews on Yahoo. The two free form pools shimmered with clear chlorinated water. The swim up bar met our expectations, complete with rowdy drunken hotel guests, clad in bathing suits that revealed the crack of each drinker’s ass.

It was only when we ventured beyond the faux tropical landscaping of our resort that things looked amiss. As we cast our eyes upon the beach, I was struck by the calm of the water. More than calm, the water was so still it looked more like a lake then the ocean. There were streaks of turquoise blue water along the edges of large dark green patches. Upon closer examination, I discovered that those green patches were giant expanses of seaweed.

“Low tide,” I told myself.

As we walked along the beach, I noticed the neighboring hotel had a sand bar so big that I initially mistook it for a small Island.

There was a small group of bathers nearly a half a mile from shore standing in ankle deep water. Beyond them were buoys that outlined the parameters of the swimming area. Had it not been for the buoys, bathers might have had to walk several miles to reach waist high water. I comforted myself with the thought that by tomorrow morning the tide would be in and the blue waves I had hoped for would be lapping the shores by breakfast.

Tired from our day of travel, we had a quick bite to eat and returned to our villa. Our accommodations were spacious and included two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, dining area and fully equipped kitchen. Through-out the villa, were signs warning the occupants to follow the rules of the resort, emphasizing the financial consequences to those who broke them. Among the most important rules was that under no circumstances was one to turn the air conditioning off. The weather was so uncomfortably humid that it seemed unlikely anyone would be tempted to do so, yet soon after we went to sleep, I understood the temptation. The air conditioning was set by a thermostat so it would cool the unit down to a chilling 20 degrees Celsius, and then automatically turn off. In 20 minute intervals through-out the night and all day long, the air conditioning would kick in with such veracity that it sounded as though a garbage truck was backing up next to the toilet in the bathroom. Thus, sleep was sought in 20 minute intervals. When one of us could no longer withstand the shock of jolting awake every 20 minutes, we would set the air conditioning several degrees higher, thus resulting in the villa becoming a human green house. The glass doors would fog up and the air quality would quickly become unsafe for the elderly and people suffering from respiratory problems. When the heat became too unbearable to sleep, we would set the thermostat back down and hunker for 20 minutes of fitful sleep. When sleep became impossible, we would turn on the television which brought its own unique challenges.

There were English speaking stations, Spanish speaking stations, and then a mix of Spanish speaking stations dubbed in English, English speaking stations with Spanish subtitles, and two channels that depending on the program would broadcast in Spanish or English. The volume had to be constantly adjusted when you changed channels. Some channels were barely audible while other channels were so loud that it made any metal objects in the room hum. No matter the channel, when the air conditioning came on, you had to increase the volume.

The following morning we headed down to the wading pool that was our beach. As I looked out onto the still waters, I saw groups of adults clustered in water up to their shoulders. I noticed a large hairy man, his stomach resting on the seaweed clad bottom of the water. I soon discovered that all the bathers were either sitting or lying down in a crab like position to adequately cover their body in the foot high water.

We opted instead for the free form pool. After agreeing on a combination of sun and shade, we drop our belongings by our lounge chairs and went swimming. The heat and humidity were so oppressive that we would get in the pool, and minutes upon exiting, we were overcome by the heat and would re-enter the pool again.

As Americans, as Jews and people who are afraid of skin cancer, we had every variation of sun screen that could fit in a 3oz. travel size bottle. We sprayed, we lathered, and we smeared our bodies with sun block, sun stick, sun screen, cancer block, ranging from spf 30-70. We applied and reapplied after each swim and whenever we sweat. We all got sun burned. From ripe tomato to Maine Lobster, we were all varying shades of bright red.

My girlfriend, who had not been to a beach since the early 70s, seemed to have suffered the worst of it. Despite her unrelenting reminders to reapply, her warnings to make sure we got our backs, and her constant insistence that we sit in the shade, she fried like a crispy critter and made sure that we, her fellow travelers knew of her suffering, every moment of every day, until we came home.

At first she applied any moisturizer that was available but soon graduated to any white cream she could find. When she ran out of cream, she graduated to cancer block. She ultimately went through nearly our supply of sun screen forcing the rest of us to share a small 3 ounce bottle of Extreme Tanning Lotion SPF 8. She applied the cream day and night proclaiming each time that her skin was thirsty. From then on, she only exposed her skin at night. For the days, she created a kind of burka bathing suit to protect what was left of her skin from the burning rays of the Yucatan peninsula.

On day three of our vacation, a handsome Mexican name Max stopped by our villa to introduce himself as our very own personal concierge. He came baring an invitation to taco barbecues at the beach and offered to answer any questions we had in order to ensure that our stay was the best that it could be. Perhaps it was his beautiful smile that never wavered, or his unrelenting interest in the minutest detail of our lives, but it soon became evident that he was there for more than our pleasure. When I told him that under no circumstances did I or anyone of our party want to buy a timeshare at his resort, his smile never wavered. He assured me that he did not sell timeshares, but on the off chance that we were interested, he could arrange for us to have breakfast with his boss Victor, to discuss it further. I cut to the chase. We wanted to go to the Mayan ruins. Get us the discount tickets and we will eat breakfast with your boss for 45 minutes, no more and we’re not buying a time share. He sweetened the deal by making breakfast 30 minutes, threw in a snorkeling trip and all but promised us we would never buy any timeshare for as long as we lived. We shook hands on our deal. Max left beaming.

The following morning, breakfast with Victor was pleasant and no talk of timeshares came up until the last bite of cantaloupe. Victor then came in for the kill.

“Do you like this resort?” he asked

“Yes, it’s very nice I answered, “but I would never buy a unit here.”

“But why?” asked Victor in a saccharine sweet Mexican accent.

In my best high school Spanish I told him.

“La playa esta muy mal,” Your beach sucks.

He shrugged his shoulders as if he hadn’t ever noticed “Donde esta el aqua?” I asked , Where is the water?

“The beach is perfect for families with small children” he replied.

My mind wondered back to the hairy fat man lying on his belly in the water the day before. With that, he moved on to my girlfriend, brother and sister in- law. Having done this enough to know there was no sale to be made; he pushed himself away from the table, signed the check and took us to the office to retrieve our prize.

The transaction continued while we waited in the sales office when yet another salesman came over and tried to sell us a week, just one week at their resort for 699.00 dollars. Jason, unlike Max or Victor sounded like a man whose job depended on this very sale. He followed us out into the hallway offering us just about anything short of digging up a new beach for the resort. We finally managed to get our tickets to the Mayan Ruins tour and then made our way back to the villa to enjoy the rest of the day. While waiting for the elevator, Max smiled his Ricky Ricardo smile at us and reminded us to check out the sister resorts on the other side of town.

We packed our gear including my girlfriends swim suit burka and made our way to the free shuttle to see the other resorts and perhaps find a beach with water. In his eagerness to please, to make our trip the best it could be, Max, our personal concierge had gotten nearly every detail he had shared with us wrong. The hourly shuttle he promised came every two hours and the beautiful Hacienda Resort could not be reached by the shuttle we had taken. Later we learned that no shuttle could take is there, unless you were one of the privileged few who had an interest in buying one of the timeshares over there. In the end, we got off the shuttle at the last stop.

As it turned out, this resort had apparently hogged the best beach for itself. There, before us stood the clearest blue waves we had ever seen. We all had to wonder how Max, Victor and Jason had any hope of selling a unit at their beach-less resort when a mere ten minutes away was the Caribbean ocean.

The following day we rose bright and early and made our way to the lobby for our tour of Chichanexta, home of one of the great Mayan temples. We boarded our coach bus and made our way to the first stop, the healing blue waters of the sacred sink hole. The man at the travel agent desk made it sound like a natural hot spring but upon closer examination, we discovered it was a swim hole, essentially in a cave 90 slippery steps under the ground. We were invited to jump into the cool water if we wanted to but were reminded that we were leaving the sink hole in an hour and not to be late as we would be stuck in a tourist grid lock at our next stop, a restaurant which was to serve us an authentic Mexican lunch. As we walked deeper and deeper into the earth’s crust, the water appeared darker and darker and despite my sweat soaked shirt, I decided to heed my mother’s warning from a conversation we had before the vacation.

“Don’t get killed when you go away.”

My brother, always the more daring of the two of us, chose to jump in but not before 20 or so other people jumped in including several children.

On our way back to the bus, we stopped at the gift shop located conveniently between the sink hole and the bus. There, authentic Mayan trinkets could be purchased for as little as 5 dollars or as much as 50 dollars depending on your willingness to endure the persistent authentic Mayan artisan’s sales pitch.

For lunch we were taken to an authentic tourist trap where we were told to line up for an Mexican buffet lunch that included several taco like dishes, salad with mustard and a trio of casseroles with hard boiled eggs as the main ingredient.

As we sat down to eat, a small group of woman festooned in traditional Mexican attire joined two bored young men on a make shift stage and began to shuffle back and forth to an old worn out tape emanating from a boom box on the floor. At first I thought they were practicing for the show as they seemed to join the dance at their leisure. Furthermore, they seemed somewhat distracted, looking off stage, talking on their cell phones, scratching themselves in various places all while shuffling along to the music. Then in no particular order, they walked off the makeshift stage and the two men put hats on their heads with beer bottles stuck to them. Soon after, some of the woman took trays with glasses and beer bottles glued to them and danced with them on top of their heads. They didn’t perform any tricks and seemed fairly disinterested in the whole affair. At one point, one of the women walked over to the boom box and changed the song mid shuffle. The other dancers didn’t seem to notice as they continued to shuffle to whatever music was playing. Then abruptly they all walked off stage for what was surely a costume change, but no, it was more like they just kind of petered out. Moments later someone took center stage and reminded us that the dancers only made their money on tips thus we should remember to acknowledge their efforts at the tip jar before we leave.

Next stop: The Ruins.

We disembarked from the bus along with dozens of other buses. Once again we were reminded that if we did not return on time, the bus would leave without us. We walked past table after table of venders hawking their wares. Anyone unfortunate enough to make eye contact with one of these vendors was stalked right up to the entrance way. We narrowly escaped thru the turn style while running from a man trying to sell us a giant sombrero.

Our tour guide gathered our group under the shade of a tree, he gave us five minutes to take our photographs, use the bathrooms and meet back for the tour.

The sight of the giant Mayan calendar pyramid thing was nothing short of incredible. Each of us posed before the giant stair case, together, apart, shooting from every angle to emphasize the enormity of the structure behind us.

Then the tour began. Within moments the oppressive Mexican heat beat down on us. The hot still air gave one the true sense of the expression, hot enough to fry an egg on a sidewalk. We were the eggs, and as our discomfort grew our interest in this wonder of the world waned. By the third pile of rubble, I was pouring my bottled water directly on my head. As the tour guide went on to explain how advanced the Mayan culture was, I began to worry about needing medical attention for heat stroke. The more water I poured on my head, the worse I felt.

Our guide possessed a true enthusiasm for both the Mayan culture and the excavation projects already under way. He claimed to be an archeologist which didn’t quite explain why he was giving tours five days a week in 100 degree heat. As a doomsday believer in the Mayan calendar, I thought a visit to the real thing might sway my concerns that the world will come to an end in December 2012. Ironically, the tour affirmed my worst fears; certainly enough to cause me to reconsider buying souvenirs for my friends and family whom would in all likelihood be dead in a few years.

One could not deny the impressive nature of the buildings laid before us but as my brother pointed out on the way home, how advanced a culture could the Mayans be if they are all selling cheap wooden carvings made in China for a dollar a piece.

We spent the remainder of our vacation in search of something, anything, truly authentically Mexican, but kept ending up at the Hagan Daz next to the Hard Rock Café.

We spent our last evening in a giant souvenir shop that had all the allure of Pedro’s South of the Border. We walked up and down aisle after aisle of back scratchers, giant pencils, statues of patron saints, ashtrays, shot glasses, miniature spoons, and coconuts that had the word Cancun stamped on it.

Max made a special effort to stop and say goodbye before we left. He asked how our stay was, where had we gone, what had we eaten and if given the time might have inquired what my plans were for the future of my children. The only thing left unsaid was “Please, I’ll do anything if you buy a timeshare from me.”

We bid Max a fond farewell and made for the airport shuttle before he had a chance to invite us to another taco barbecue. With less than half an ounce of sunscreen left, I think we got out just in the nick of time.

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