Good Little Imperialists
As I walked barefoot through the cool water of Lake Michigan, amid washed up algae, saturated paper refuse and hovering dragonflies, I gathered my skirt hem in one hand and recollections in the other. On a basic aesthetic level, not much separates a northerly freshwater shore from the white sands of destinations advertised on the upper panels of a downtown train: The light but persistent clapping of waves, the delighted shriek of children building fortifications in the sand, and the distant cry of gulls that hover in the sky above. You’ll hear more Spanish spoken at Montrose Beach than Playa Del Carmen.
Though, I don’t intend to convince you. Not while the travel and tourism industry roars like so much jet propulsion under the wings of a subsidized commercial airliner, encouraging, if not demanding that you cultivate unattainable fantasies for resort living. Unattainable–not for lack of money, or skymiles, but for our own opulent imaginations and capacity for anticipation. We plan, wait, and dream. Then after a collection of hours, find ourselves seated on a plane back home, aware, perhaps consciously, that we were never really there. That’s the trouble with “getaways.” No matter where I go, I find myself there.
“Is this okay?” the concierge asked as he laid a non-adjustable plastic band across my wrist. I nodded as he ratcheted the clip down with the firm press of his hand. It was gold and resembled a hospital bracelet, serving much the same purpose: to distinguish the guests/patients/inmates from the rabble/sane/public. When inside, the wristband guaranteed bottomless alcoholic beverages, enormous buffets, and a seat on the beach; when outside, it marked you like a tag clipped to a doe’s ear. But then again, one does not blend with the local culture when staying in la Zona Hotelera in Cancun, Mexico.
I stood waiting beside my mother at the front desk while the concierge called to see if our room was ready. We had left los Estados Unidos early that morning, and arrived by shuttle to the resort by midday. Many tourists come to Cancun, but never make it to Mexico. Between the all-inclusive culture of gorging, binging, and pampering by a zealous hotel staff, some find very little draw to the outside world—and judging from the rows of American restaurants staffed with Mexican workers (i.e. Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Hard Rock Café) the immediate world outside colluded to further insulate tourists from anything resembling Mexico.
Up until then, my visions of the Land of Enchantment were largely informed by my parents’ travels. Their photographs of dusty dirt roads, exotic wildlife, ancient stone pyramids, and colorful street food roused my imagination. Years before my father was diagnosed with cancer, he and my mother toured many Mexican cities, always returning calmer, darker, and with suitcases filled with coffee and tequila. Even after his diagnosis, the two made special trips south together, refusing to be defeated or deterred by the discomfort of travel– though the strain of his flagging health registered faintly in photographs of their fatigued faces and half-smiles. When my father died this past spring, my mother lost her life-long traveling companion. That’s the trouble with the life-long guarantee—how long a life lasts is an unknown quantity of X. In my father’s case, X equaled sixty-three years.
In the months following his death, there was little cessation of professional responsibilities for either of us, or for either of my two brothers. In typical Harley fashion, we buried ourselves in work, revisiting the remaining compartments of our lives in an attempt to drive out the bitter recollections of a slow death from our memory.
It was in this spirit than my mother suggested we take a trip together—and though I was given plenty of room for input, I left the bulk of the decision-making to her. “A real getaway,” was the phrase that bubbled to the top of every conversation about the voyage, a mantra of indulgence for a family that recently had little to indulge in. And what could be more indulgent than Cancun?
At our resort, we waited to check-in, wandering the grounds of the resort to find our bearings, and find a bar. Again, romanticized visions of resort life clashed with harsh reality. Instead of wide brimmed hats and madras pants, I watched my American compatriots stand in line for the buffet wearing only their bathing suits, their shadowy, flabby asses hanging from lycra and rayon bikini bottoms. The jet-setting fashions of designer resort wear have been thrown out in favor of tube tops, t-shirts and cargo shorts. David Sedaris, author of Me Talk Pretty One Day (and many others), once observed that Americans travelling overseas often dress as if they’ve come to mow the country’s lawn. I’m inclined to agree. There’s something unsettling about the proportion (most) shorts and t-shirts divide the body into. Too often the clothes hang several inches slack from the arms and legs, their hems falling at the elbows and knees, turning forearms and shins into pink, fleshy spokes.
My fellow travelers appeared cooked (and not tanned), their red (and not brown) corpulent bodies shuffling shirtless around an ornate hotel lobby, the flip-flopping of their sandals echoing in an atrium of marble and mahogany. Everything was beautiful about the hotel, except the guests. Side note: Grown men should not wear shorts. Unless you are engaged in an activity that requires them (i.e running, cycling, basketball) or you’re in the privacy of your own home, don’t suffer the embarrassment. I rarely see an adult male in shorts that does not look like an overgrown man-boy. Sadly, this look has been exported to most of the world, and after a few days of casual eavesdropping in the casual dining area, I came to find that the casual look came with tourists of many nationalities. (I can see why France despises us.)
Disgusted by what I saw, and feeling conspicuous as I stood poolside, fully clothed, I felt an overwhelming urge to get away, not one hour after our arrival. Although after a few days, it was the less of the grotesque, and more of the beautiful that twisted what little confidence I once had in my own physical attractiveness. The native women are dark, curvy, and narrow-waisted. I have no idea how the genealogy produced busty, yet pencil thin figures resembling wasps, or hourglasses, or mudflap silhouettes, but it’s clearly not in my blood. My own whiteness was a mark against me, both under the sun, and under the hawkish eyes of merchants who backed off only when I replied vete in clear Spanish.
Truthfully, I might have preferred the Cancun of forty years ago, that quiet fishing village positioned on the coast of the humid Yucatan peninsula. Today, an eternal “spring break” (woo!) persists day and night along the sandy strip. For a nineteen-year-old slut, bottomless alcohol, and topless romps through cheap nightclubs might be a vision of paradise. My ideal holiday, like TV misanthrope Bernard Black, is “somewhere where I can read, sit, and have a quiet drink.”
For the sober mourners, who up until now always had a bit of business to distract us, the wide yawning expanse of time afforded us brought us closer to an aching truth. I wanted a getaway from myself. Instead, time, death, and the cruelly habitual business of life held court in my mind, as all the other places to go closed their compartment doors for seven days. A place less travelled might have better served our “rest and recharge” aim. Cancun attends the body—not the mind; the flesh and not the soul.
Of course, it was not always so. The earliest peoples of the Yucatan revered the corporeal and the spiritual as a unit in harmony. Maya worship of the sun and stars resulted in astrological accomplishments predating Copernicus and Galileo, and prognostications that gained a lot of Google juice around the year 2012. It also resulted in the human sacrifice, typically of young men, whose potent, virile bodies served as the ultimate tribute to the Gods. A ruling class sacrificing the young—nothing changes. The priests, the reigning class, carried out these sacrifices at cenotes, naturally formed wells of freshwater. We know this, not from written records, but from the human remains dredged from the bottom of these cenotes.
As it turns out, the Maya had beach homes in Cancun too. El Rey, an archeological park in la Zona Hotelera is the home to the ruins of a Maya residential park. It is also home to hundreds of iguanas who pose atop the unexcavated rock walls, basking in the heat of the stones and the sun. The ancients could see what 1970s hotel developers saw– the Riviera Maya. Today, nearly a hundred miles of resort hotels and tourist destinations line the coast, over 50,000 beds, fluffed and waiting to serve the body ample sun and sustenance. The wealthy once travelled south to escape the ailments that accompany winter. Today we fly to the far reaches of the planet to overeat.
Can’t she enjoy anything? I came to understand, rather than resist the appeals to the body during my first and only massage. I found Jesus, or rather, he found me. Jesus was the roving spa rep whose job was to wander the resort and make appointments for interested patrons. It was he who brought me to Mary, the tiny, but strong-handed masseuse, and it was Mary that brought me to tears. There’s a muscle that relaxes when you cry. The mind wanders in the dark, and long dormant repressions fall apart. We committed our earthly selves to the care of strangers in the wake of committing an earthly body to the grave. There in the dusk of the small room, resting face down on the table, the remaining compartment doors closed, and I gave into bodily repair.
By the third day, we had become good little imperialists. We learned to recline on resort loungers as dark-skinned employees brought us drinks, and took away our cares. Although “going native” wasn’t one of the services offered by the resort— we did manage make it outside the hotel. Unfortunately, once outside we saw miles of resorts in each direction, each more expansive than the last, towering above the narrow sandbar. We turned to each other, shrugged, and then went back inside.
Victoria Harley is a writer, freelance proofreader, and Editor-at-Large. She favors revisionist history, minimalism, and Groucho Marx. She also has a weakness for men who look like they could play Teen Wolf.