Because I’m not usually an international traveler, I arrived at the airport later than I should’ve and was sweating the lines for check-in and security. It was, then, a small miracle that I was in the gate area on time to board. As I walked down the jetway, a head full of the usual grumbling that the state of air travel these days provokes, I realized how very lucky I am to be able to get on a plane and fly to the Caribbean just for kicks. Lucky that the technology exists; lucky to be living close to an international airport; lucky to be an American woman who can travel on her own and feel both competent and safe within the system; lucky to have paid vacation hours; lucky to have the wherewithal to engage in such a lark.
I was off to Cozumel to join my parents, my brother and his wife, and my cousin and her husband for an unprecedented family vacation. My parents have taken a winter vacation to Mexico for the last 10 years, fleeing the endless depressing winter that is a Minnesota/Wisconsin February. We stayed in a beautiful rented condo on the sea, where I discovered that my life would be just about perfect if I could have daily maid service and a concierge to arrange for the satisfaction of my every whim. I have to give credit where it’s due: Scotty does a pretty good job on both counts, but it would be nice if he could also enjoy such caretaking.
But the rarefied atmosphere of our digs only sharpened the contrast between how we were living in Mexico and how the Mexican citizens live in Mexico. The poverty of the island was evident in the ride from the airport to the condo, though I found myself more interested in these ramshackle houses than the fancy hotels, brightly stuccoed as they were in riotous colors, laundry hanging out in the back yard that would take a day and a half to dry (if they dried at all) in the humid air.
It is easy to quickly succumb to tip fatigue in such a place; everyone has his hand out, from the doorman who flags down a cab for you to the young girl who has somehow gained the unenviable job of bathroom attendant and tries hard to do something tip-worthy, like squirting the soap into your uncallused hands or handing you a paper towel. I felt a kind of sympathy with her, spending the entire work day in a small space just as I do, but usually the worst aroma I have to deal with is if someone decides to microwave fish at lunch. She was not so lucky. I told myself that two bucks here and five bucks there would matter more to these hard-working folks than it would to me, but wondered even so if that were true. You become acutely aware that the economy of the island as well as the individual you’re talking to depends on you, the tourist, and the responsibility can chafe a bit, too, I think. Also, the intense consideration you are extended can be a little disconcerting, particularly to middle-class, middle-American folks who aren’t used to domestic help. Both my sister-in-law and my cousin asked me to tell the maid that she didn’t have to wash the dishes we made making breakfast for 7. I told her; she insisted on washing them anyway.
I had a good time on the trip. I snorkeled and swam and watched people and listened to music in the plaza. I talked with my family, all of whom I see infrequently. The weather was hot and tropical, as advertised, and I got the obligatory gringo sunburn despite all my prophylactic efforts. I got to speak Spanish for a change, in rough, rusty fits and unconfident starts at the beginning and fairly smoothly by the time I was chatting with my cab driver on the way to the airport to fly home.
But what struck me and stays with me even now is how spoiled your average American is, and how tremendous the sense of entitlement is in many of us who hail from the United States, forgetting that it is merely an accident of birth and history that makes that the case for us.
Our flight spent 2 hours waiting to get through customs, as there was a plane ahead of us. We stood in long serpentine lines, some silently, some talking with friends, some openly griping at length about the wait, and how the least the Mexican government could do is set up a bar so that the drinking they planned on engaging in for the next week could begin as soon as possible. After all, we were gracing them with our presence and more importantly, our dollars, and the sentiment I gathered from a few unavoidably overheard comments was that everyone in Cozumel should be kissing our pasty posteriors from the moment we touched down because of it. As I looked at the snaking line, I considered what a fat, overprivileged lot we were as a group, myself included, of course. If the sound were turned off, you would look at the assemblage and know without question that we were Americans. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. (And just a side note: if the guy we met at Carlos ‘n’ Charlie’s in Playa del Carmen is now representative of his nation, we cannot get by abroad by claiming to be Canadians anymore, either; it won’t save us any grief whatsoever.)
When we finally did pass through customs, we found that most of our luggage had not yet been put on the carousel. A few folks barged ahead, poking their heads through the opening where the workers were tossing bags onto the belt to bark Spanglish orders to the young men in charge of baggage handling so that they could get their bags first at all costs, as if there weren’t 145 other passengers on the plane waiting for their luggage as well, and as if there were no procedure for luggage retrieval without their self-important intervention. I leaned against a pole and smirked inwardly as they futilely hollered “Nay-gro. That one. Nay-gro—no, the other one,” as a black suitcase is hardly a rare species of the genus luggage. Overloud, overslow English with a lot of pointing was the order of the day. Of course, it was unnecessary for those who spoke English, and useless for those who didn’t.
I never dislike Americans so much as when I travel; so many of them embarrass me. I tend to behave like a guest in someone else’s country, not as the lady of the manor, ordering people about. If I don’t speak the language where I am, I’m the ignorant one, not the people who live there.
Out in the streets, my countrymen descended upon local vendors, assured of their absolute right to unconscionable bargains on Mexican goods, offering prices they would never dream of anyone at home accepting, knowing they couldn’t possibly make a living that way. I was sad to see a culture as complex and amazing as any other reduced to the same stereotypical crap sold in border-town storefronts across the country, as if Mexico meant nothing more than cheap tequila and vanilla, oversized sombreros, $5 sarapes and tasteless rerun t-shirts. And this mere steps from the ruins of an ancient and brilliant culture whose buildings were still standing after more than a millennium. The one thing I really wanted was a book of Mayan art to mine for inlay designs, but no one had anything like that; I’ll have to try to order it from Amazon.
I faced my own spoiled American expectations at the grocery store, where I wanted a pint of ice cream for dessert, and, accustomed to having at least a dozen different brands to choose from, had 2, all instances of which were melted in their freezer. Nor could I find barrettes to keep my hair out of my eyes. Nor milk by the gallon in the refrigerated section—it came in sealed boxes warm on the shelf. I realized how used to having exactly what I want when I want it I’ve become.
That is not to say I feel guilty for being a reasonably prosperous American. Rather, I felt a little chagrined at how much I took that reality for granted instead of truly appreciating what a fortunate position I find myself in in this world. It’s easy to do at home, where all your neighbors live in the same kind of house you do, and at work, where all your coworkers make the same range of wages as you do, and you live your life in an area circumscribed by activities that rarely take you far from your comfort zone. When you step into someone else’s world, you can barely help but see home with different eyes.
When you travel in a foreign country, even a near neighbor, I think comparisons with your own country are inevitable. It is the difference we think we are traveling to experience, but I think it is the sameness that we crave. I think some will judge Mexico to be poor, dirty, and backwards, and go off in search of a more fitting vacation spot, while others will judge Mexico to be just what it is, good and bad, but recognize how well-off they are. The sad part is, only those who can afford the trip will have a basis for comparison. The greater portion of Americans who struggle financially will never know that greater portion of the world struggles as much or more than they do themselves. Perhaps if they could see that, we wouldn’t rail against the migrants quite so much. I don’t know.
That said, the real jewels of the Caribbean, to my eye, were the people I talked to there:
Our tour guide at Tulum, who gave us a very serviceable history of the western hemisphere in the van on the way, matter-of-factly described the double-edged sword that is tourism and immigration to the Mayan Riviera, and its ironic effects on the landscape everyone is coming to enjoy. He also told us that a lot of the local restaurants use iguana in place of chicken in recipes because it’s a white meat, is cheaper, and (inevitably) tastes like chicken. It was thanks to him that my Pollo Maya made with a secret Mayan recipe, with its highly unusual texture known to no chicken in the world, wasn’t a terrible surprise. And it does taste like chicken.
The laborer who sat at the back of the tram and explained to me when I commented on the heat that it was actually a lovely day there, nothing compared to what it was in June through September.
Our overworked waiter whose restaurant rarely saw such business. He was apologetic and sweaty, and literally sprinting to keep up with his tables, failing epically. But he was nice.
The cabbie who brought me back to the airport, who asked me about los indocumentados, and I told him how sad the situation was, how many of them died trying to cross the desert between Nogales and Tucson, and how some people tried to help.
Claudia, the manager of our building and general go-to person, who was amazed to find out that I was a fan of Mercedes Sosa; she didn’t think Americans had ever heard of her. I was equally amazed when she said she didn’t care for Mexican music (which I love) unless it was Mexican rock (which I don’t much love), and asked me to play her an English song. I did, and she closed her eyes to listen. And in that moment, it didn’t matter that we lived two thousand miles apart, and that we spoke each other’s language imperfectly.
As the plane took off, I took in one last long look at this island. My eye was caught by nine white cranes or egrets standing just a few feet off a runway surrounded by wetlands. I counted them. They seemed unperturbed by the roaring of the jets speeding by on the asphalt. In a land filled with such contradictions, such constant collision between worlds, it seemed a fitting goodbye.
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