Cancun, by any stretch of imagination, is not Mexico. Cancun is the United States of America. Although the market has opened up a lot to the ‘average’ traveller, since my visit there in 1996, I am sure that Cancun is still very much the playground of the rich USA set. Certainly, I found that anything representing Mexico had been turned into some ‘Disney-fied’ version of Mexico aimed at tourists seeking a ‘theme park’ version of Mexican culture. I found this rather sad.
I think this snapshot sums it up:
Don’t get me wrong, Cancun is a fantastic resort if you want to enjoy beautiful, glossy hotels on the stunning Gulf of Mexico coastline. It’s just not the place to go if you want to be able to say “I’ve been to Mexico”, for it bears no resemblance to the real Mexico; a land of fascinating ancient and modern history, a people of the most kind and generous nature I think I have ever experienced in my worldwide travels, a landscape of such natural splendour and incredible beauty and a society that still stands with one foot in the Third World, while stepping boldly, and directly, into the First.
I had enjoyed a few days of rest soaking up the sun, good food and all of the comfort that a luxury hotel, made of Dollars and marble, can offer.
Please don’t think me ungrateful. I was extremely grateful for the gift of this holiday that my Dad had provided for me and of the time I had with him. It’s just that I am not a luxury hotel, sunbathing all day kind of guy. I like to make my own food, shop where local people shop, mix with real people, speak in the language of the country I’m visiting, experience the culture and learn; learn from meeting random people from all walks of life, sharing stories of living life, around a fire, with home cooked food, honesty, tears and laughter.
Besides, my discomfort at being guest in this fine hotel was increasing. I had been privileged to experience many fine hotels in my life. My Dad’s work in the Film Industry had offered us many privileges. I had, however, worked in a fine hotel in the heart of London’s Seven Dials area. This was a six star ‘de-luxe’ hotel and was regularly home to Royalty; hosting various events and functions. Once you work in hotels, you feel a sense of ‘family’ with anyone else working in that field; always. Having done the job, it felt uncomfortable to be served by others; particularly once I started speaking with them and discovered that their salary was shockingly just $12 per day!
One of the hotel staff I would regularly chat with was a man called Oro. He was in his forties and he told me he was married and had several children. He described how he and his wife had a home, some distance from Cancun, in a city called Valladolid, and that he works in Cancun during the ‘tourist season’, to make money to support his family. He explained how the very low wage was supplemented by taking tips. He showed interest in me, in England and the UK and we shared stories about working in hotels. I told him of my plan to go back packing round the Yacatan Peninsular and how I wanted to visit the beautiful pyramid and ruins at Chichen Itza.
Oro told me that his name means ‘Gold’ and that he had been named that because, in the first moments of his birth, a small gold bracelet that had belonged to his Grandmother had fallen from where it hung on the wall, to land on the floor beside where Oro’s Mother lay as she gave birth. Apparently, the Grandmother had been desperate to see the arrival of the first born male Grandchild, but she had passed away before Oro’s birth and so missed his entry into the world. Of course, the family took the fallen bracelet as a sign that the Grandmother had found a way to be present, in spirit, by making the bracelet fall to land beside Oro’s Mother during his birth. His Mother had reached out to pick up the gold bracelet at the moment of Oro’s birth and she named him Oro, in honour of the gold bracelet and the Grandmother.
Oro, who I thought to be an urbane man, asked me more about my plans and he revealed to me that his house in Vallalolid would be en-route to Chichen Itza. He was going to have a couple of days off now that his shift was coming to an end. He would be heading home the next day but he invited me to visit him and his wife (whose name I sadly cannot recall) in Vallalolid.
Oro told me that he thought I was unlike most tourists; in that I actually spoke with hotel employees (including in my best effort at Spanish that I had learnt at school), that he found me to be polite and kind and that it would be an ‘honour’ for him to welcome me to his home and a great opportunity for his children to meet somebody from England. He gave me the address and he told me to arrive in two evenings time. I very happily accepted this kind invitation and then Oro, who was at the end of his working day, sat with me discreetly and I brought out a couple cigars, which we smoked as we continued to chat. It was dark, we were sat at a small wooden table with wooden chairs and the sound of waves breaking on the shore provided the sound-track to our cigar fuelled chat about life, the universe and everything.
When I reflect on this experience, I am reminded of the value of friendship, but also of the benefit of taking the risk in talking with people and learning about people. The risk lies in a fear of rejection and the benefit is that all people have something to share and to offer each other. My entire memory of my trip to Mexico was changed by meeting with Oro.
The next day, I researched how I could get to Vallalolid. This would be my chance to see real Mexico and I felt so privileged to have the wonderful offer of an evening at Oro’s house, to meet his family. I would have to get up early to catch one of the plentiful tour coaches at the beach, to Chichen Itza; jumping out en-route, to find Oro’s house in Vallalolid.
Oro had offered an apologetic description of a traditional stick built house, with a relatively new brick built extension; which he had told me he had afforded by working at the hotel. He had also told me that the house was on the outskirts of the city and that I should disembark from the tour coach some way short of Vallalolid and catch a small village truck that would bring me into to his village on the outskirts of the city. I felt clear, organised and ready.
I said my farewell to my Dad; assuring him I’d get back to the hotel by no later than four days from then. He was cool about it. I was in my twenties and he had been adventurous in his life, so he was supportive of my desire to just head out and see what happened. This was before I ever had a mobile phone, so there was no ‘safety net’ in terms of having communication ‘at the ready’ if something should go wrong. It certainly felt good to leave the confines of my ‘marble palace’, leave Cancun with just a back pack and head off. I had a pocket of cash (Us Dollars seemed to be the currency to use there) and no idea where I would sleep and, after saying goodbye to my Dad, I set off on my adventures. I soon found a large tour coach at the beachside and waited for a while in a queue.
That is when I met Olive and Blossom; two fifty-something African American women who, as they told me, were best friends holidaying together. They were from Chicago and I immediately fell as in love with their accent as they had fallen in love with mine. We clambered onto the coach and set off towards the mighty Chichen Itza. The Driver, who reeked of stale garlic, mumbled through his significant moustache that he knew, from my description, where I wanted to get off and that he would signal me when it was time for me to disembark.
Here is a photo of the type of house that Oro lived in. I had heard that Mexican people dislike you taking a camera to their homes and so I just took snapshots from the window of the coach along the way. The photo below is very like Oro’s house. Stick built but with a brick annexe:
What this photo doesn’t show is that vast stretches of the road (which was a wide dirt track) were of the most vivid orange soil; deep burnt orange, through deep red and back to brown. It looked like Martian soil, I imagined. The vast number of miles of jungle and forest stretched out in all directions, at times. I’m not sure I had ever felt so remote from civilisation; in a good way.
Little did I know that the chat I was having with Blossom and Olive would soon be interrupted by gunfire…