Friday, March 24, 2006

And if we go to Mexico....

Until last week, the nearest I'd ever come to a holiday in a place that could be called a resort was a day trip to Mosney. And it's not that I didn't love the painted chalets and the sunken garden and the coffee lounge (ooh! coffee! posh!) where you could sit and watch the swimmers in the adjacent pool through a wall of glass (rate of bare arses pressed against the pane: approximately 2 per minute)...I've just been, well, a bit of a snob about holiday destinations since then. Once I began to travel at all, which was pretty late in the day, I tended only to go to cities or to very isolated rural or coastal spots. The idea of sharing a week off with thousands of people all heading for the same beach, shopping for the same souvenirs, and sporting the same bikini-stap sunburn marks made me turn my little Trinners nose up in the air. Lying around on a beach? Pah! How could one waste time in that way, when there are galleries to be visited and museums to be seen and sculpture to be gazed up at in rainy streets? How could anyone spend even a single day, never mind several, just lying on a beach, doing nothing??? I mean, you couldn't even read a book properly on a beach. Sand would get between the pages and suncream on the colour plates and saltwater between the binding and....oh god....I'll just traipse around Prague or Bologna for a few hours and walk off the very idea.


Now, I still love visiting cities, obviously - I mean, I moved to New York last year, and not to work on my tan - and my holidays in Prague, Bologna, Verona, Dubrovnik, Barcelona, Paris, have been hugely satisfying. But last week, we flew into Playa del Carmen, a town about an hour's drive from Cancun in Mexico. Playa has gone, in the last 20 years or so, from being a quiet and idyllic (and dirt-poor) fishing village to being a smaller, sleeker, more friendly version of Cancun, yet still a full-blown resort town, with dozens upon dozens of hotels, miles of beach onto which so much development has poured than only a strip of sand remains as the actual beach, and a long street lined with identical shops selling identical sombreros, ponchos, rope necklaces, porcelain bowls, t-shirts saying "I'm Home Take Me Drunk" and "Who Are These Kids And Why Are They Calling Me Dad". Those two T-shirt slogans actually sum up two-thirds of the typical demographic of holiday-makers in Playa, especially around this time of year (the American spring break period): you have the early twenties kids, all beach bodies and tequila overdoses and dancing on the bar in clubs that kick off at 2 a.m. and hold 2000 people, and then you have the young families, spending most of their time around the hotel pool or on day trips to the many, many amusement and water parks that are ranked along the highway linking Cancun to Playa and stretching on to Tulum and beyond. On that drive, it's incredible to see the actual resorts, places like the actual Copacabana... all of these enormous walls, like palace walls, at five minute intervals, some of them announced by 20-foot high stone carved lettering, Taj Mahal-inspired entrance gates or elaborate landscape gardens, some of them clearly improvised, with hand-painted signs and quickly cobbled-together access roads, the brainchild of some landowner deciding to capitalise on the presence on his land of cenotes (limestone-walled sinkholes, very dramatic and beautiful for swimming and snorkelling, day and night) or caverns.


And the other third of the demographic: the retired couples, who come to the same hotel year in year out, who have built a holiday home along the beach themselves, or who live in the truly scary-looking pseudo-town that is the place called Playacar, the gated community filled with swank houses and hotels that are absolutely gargantuan (and blissfully vulgar...Saddam's palace regularly comes to mind looking at these places, no joke). A subset of this group is the millionaire old guy with the 19 year old girlfriend, a couple of whom we spotted during our five days. Oh, and the 4-carat diamond rings are everywhere in evidence, too. Lots of rich Texas wives coming down here for their spring holiday. In one bar, I thought I had suffered a detached retina until I realised that I had just been momentarily disoriented by the glint coming from the ring finger of the woman next to me (a diamond as wide as my thumb nail, and longer, and real). Women were coming up to her and practically grabbing her hand. I was going to do so myself, for the craic, before my margarita-soaked attention span was caught up, instead, by a group of green-clad spring breakers, St Patrick's Day revellers, to whom I drunkenly started directing questions of the "are any of you actually Irish?" variety. Very proud of that now, obviously...


Anyway, we pretty clearly don't fit into any of those three categories. I'm open to being a 19 year old married to a millionaire, but the logistics of that might prove tricky. Technically, of course, we are spring breakers (horrible term, sorry miglior, I know you'll object), but beyond the technical resemblance (young, on mid-term from an American university, devoid of young families, zimmerframes or the botox-n-bling look), we don't really qualify for that category, either. We're not young enough. We're not tanned enough. We don't sit in groups on the beach screaming DUDE and TOTALLY and NO WAY, MAN and bribing Mexican waiters and having tequila-from-watering-can drinking contests and hiding our erections during beach volleyball matches (at least, I don't...) and we don't, I have to admit, get excited when the guides hawking day trips all along the main strip tell us that they can take us to a big party with 50,000 people and a DJ from Ibiza or whereverthefuck.

And yet we still had one of the best holidays ever. The beaches at Playa are spectacularly beautiful, despite the crowding (and actually the crowding is not that bad - it's more the sense that buildings are encroaching on the sand so much which is bothersome, but most of the buildings are pretty tastefully done, so the eyesore factor is absent to some degree). The water, which you glimpse like a high wall from the main shopping and hotel strip, 5th Avenue, is that glorious deep blue shade that you can never really visualise unless you're looking straight at it...it's shocking, the colour of the sea there, especially if you've grown accustomed to seeing seawater that, while beautiful, is closer to the shade of a dirty dishcloth than a turquoise stone. Our hotel was lovely, quiet and small, with a tiny pool that was such a relief at the end of the day, and the atmosphere in the town was really warm, friendly, pleasant...maybe we've spent too long living in Dublin, but we were both pretty floored by the complete lack of cynicism, manipulation or rudeness that we encountered in the restaurants and bars and on the beaches. The attiude is by no means servile; it's just not false. Nobody is charging you 150 euros for a lacklustre meal and expecting you to get the hell out and clear that table so that someone else can be ripped off. Nobody treats you like idiot dirt because you're a tourist (I didn't go to any of the souvenir shops, mind; that notion might well be tested there). Mind you, of course it's also true that the prices are cheaper because it's Mexico - beyond the slick hotels and the candlelit restaurants, there are shanty towns, just a few blocks back from the sea. And Playa, being a resort, gives only the tiniest glimpse of the country. But we had an amazing, relaxing time. Snorkelled for the first time - once disastrously, out in the sea, where I had more panic attacks than I had in the entire month coming up to my Leaving Cert, and majorly pissed the guide off by gasping "help!" at regular intervals, refusing to believe that my lifejacket would keep me afloat, and then again in the waterpark called Xelha, which has breathtaking lakes, cenotes and caverns full of the weirdest and most wonderful (and in one case, fuck-off-terrifying) fish I've ever seen. A and I got pretty cocky after a while, and headed off by ourselves into the middle of the lake, and it was there we passed over a fish that, we learned afterwards, was indeed a barracuda...hovering over the sea bed like an enemy submarine. That was fun...apparently, they don't disturb you unless they see something sparkly, and then they'll come with teeth bared, thinking you're a tasty fish. I had my ring on, but he didn't seem impressed. Now, if that broad with the thumbnail diamond were to go snorkelling, that'd be a different story...

Ah, Playa. We'll be back. And I won't be such a resort snob ever again.

2 comments:

Miglior acque said...

Oh it sounds so cool. I am very jealous. Get the pics. Need to catch up soon, you around?

tex-patriate said...

I'm definitely still with you.