International Writers Magazine: Winter Beaches
Beach Resort - Mexico
first few days at Akumal Beach Resort, I was so stressed out that
I was having trouble breathing. I thought I was having a heart attack.
Then, after a period of decompression, I realized that the lack
of breath was from an involuntary reflex of trying to hold in my
fat stomach so that I wouldnt embarrass myself in my bathing
suit. My girlfriend, Magpie, also had problems adjusting. Seeing
the poor girl stretched out on a beach chair rigid as an ironing
board like to have put tears in my eyes.
Its a long
road from the happy, raucous days of our first meeting to where we find
ourselves today. We have suffered terrible reverses and life has gone
downhill for us. Recessions, depressions, long periods of unemployment
for me, drunken battles, intractable problems, a broken arm (not even
my fault) which required an operation and months in a cast, a case of
pneumonia which induced internal hemorrhaging, miserable work experiences
working for low-class pricks; in short, all the trials of Job. Only
our sense of humor kept us afloat, and that just barely. When we finally
found the means to get away, I insisted on going back to Mexicos
Mayan Riviera, a terrain we both know very well, as a place where we
could enjoy a foolproof vacation without any unforeseen complications.
The motor trip from Cancún airport to the diving and snorkeling
resort of Akumal takes place on Highway 307, which extends all the way
to Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo state, at the Belizean border.
My first experience on that highway was in 1985, when it was a potholed
2-lane kidney buster of a torture trip leading to an embarkation point
for the boat trip to Cozumel Island. Back in those days the Mexican
idea of a highway rest stop was an outdoor souvenir stand selling cheesy
blankets and sombreros where you could get the use of a wooden toilet
stall for one peso. The toi9let had flushing that was controlled by
a tiny valve on a pipe. I remember that when I emerged from the tiny
cubicle, the attendant ran up to me and castigated me for letting the
water run too long.
of that is long gone. I never imagined a place could come so far
so fast. Quintana Roo state is now the richest state in Mexico due
to the tourist boom. People are flooding in from all over the rest
of Mexico for the jobs, the beautiful environment and the relatively
low rates of homicides and criminality. Its jarring to hear
stories of people who have lived all their lives in Mexico City
and who left because they couldnt take the stress of the insecurity
A second international
airport is planned for the area, in the formerly somnambulant Mayan
town of Tulum, which has already been overrun by Italian and Argentinian
investors. As recently as 2-3 years ago Tulum was a totally dead destination
for backpacking hippies and beach bums who got crabs sleeping in $10/night
shacks when they werent getting zonked and stealing each others
junk. Now the place has discos, Argentine churascurrias, exclusive spas
and Italian hotels and they havent even broken ground for
the new airport yet.
Tulum is the location of the dramatic Mayan temple on the ocean-front
cliff overlooking the breakers that is used on all the Mexican tourism
bus stop posters. Previously it was just an archeological ruin surrounded
by a few isolated mansions (deceased Colombian narcotrafficker Pablo
Escobars former getaway is now an exclusive spa resort run by
some Beautiful People from New York/Miami). The interior town was, like
I previously pointed out, a good place for a dog to take a nap.
But if you want a good idea where Tulum is likely to go, the example
is Playa del Carmen, midpoint between Tulum in the south and Cancún
at the northern extremity of 307. The highway itself is a jarring example
of fast-forward, now ultra-modern four- and six lanes, with every modern
convenience and lined with grandiose portal entrances to luxury resorts
which can only be compared to all-inclusive theme parks. Some of the
resorts are so huge they have their own bus lines to get you around
As for Playa del Carmen, as recently as ten years ago it was a cheesy
little fishing village with a ferry service to Cozumel Island. there
was a town square with some bars, a tourist shopping area that sold
a lot of terrible junk, and then the rest of it was a low-end mess for
hard-scrabble peons trying to scrape out a living from I-dont-know-what.
Since then the place was discovered by Italian investment. The whole
downtown has been upgraded and the north end of the downtown area has
been developed to the point where you feel like you are in Coconut Grove.
Playa del Carmen has expanded for miles to the south, west and north
and the construction has transformed that stretch of 307 into an infrastructure
of cement companies, plumbing contractors, ornamental steel foundries,
furniture companies, you name it. All the cement trucks driving around,
combined with the never-ending highway upgrading, give the stretch a
certain je ne sais quoi reminiscent of a Pomona freeway construction
It might strike the average North American as the unsightly corruption
of placid folkloric authenticity, but to Mexicans the whole thing reeks
of opportunity and prosperity, and that is reflected in the little bedroom
communities which are springing up in areas to the west of the highway,
with neat, well cared-for family habitations arrayed around little plazas
and shopping areas, accessorized with satellite dishes and tiny cars.
No wonder all the workers at the seaside resorts always appear to be
so happy and gracious: they are for the first time in the history of
their country starting to live well just from working.
And work is a quality that typifies the Mexican personality. Just think
about the Mexicans in the U.S. You are more sure to get an honest days
work from a Mexican than from just about any other race, without foot-dragging
or equivocating. Obviously, the Mexicans would prefer to get paid for
sitting in an air conditioned office and pushing around a computer mouse,
but they take it where they can get it, and these large tourist resorts
present a myriad of opportunities, from service to landscaping, security,
maintenance, clerical, entertainment, etc.
Fortunately, my "in" with the Mexican employees is an easy
facility with the Spanish language. During the course of many hours
of drinking and fooling around with the resort bartenders I managed
to elicit a couple of serious details that should be of interest to
any North American with an interest in the southward shift of wealth
under the present NAFTA treaty.
One is that Mexicans work an ironclad six-day week of eight to twelve
hour shifts. The other is that overtime pay of time-and-a-half is a
concept that they have vaguely heard of but that none of them have ever
So, why would anybody in his right mind operate a manufacturing enterprise
in the U.S., where you have to pay competitive wages, overtime and benefits,
when you can move it down to Mexico, pay the employees one-quarter with
no overtime or benefits, and then ship your merchandise back to the
States duty free?
I worked for a Spanish boss here in New York for a while, so I have
a little bit of insight into those latifundista pricks management
techniques, which is to behave like a Big Enchilada and give the workers
more money not by raising their hourly rate but by giving them more
hours to work. If a guy is doing a good job of breaking his back for
you, you tell him, "José, instead of having you work 48
hours, Im going to let you work 56 hours. That way you can take
home more money." Another technique is the "company store"
technique, where you get them hooked into indentured slavery by advancing
them loans against their future wages, and then they cant leave.
That way you never have to give them a raise.
This might satisfy an emerging bootstrap country like Mexico, and the
people of Yucatan are embracing it in a feeding frenzy, but it is all
being done at the expense of the American working people, who have no
idea that they are being inexorably sucked into a Neolithic labor parity
because of the incomprehension and sloth of their own politicians, who
do not have the courage to demand a recalibration of NAFTA. If economic
circumstances get any worse in the U.S., Americans are going to be jumping
over the border fence and stealing jobs from Mexicans. What is shocking
to me is that while plenty of people have objected to NAFTA on the grounds
of the dirty industrial environment around the manufacturing plants
that line the border, not one has ever to my knowledge brought up the
fact that Mexican workers receive no overtime benefits, which makes
them even more competitive. The only reason I came to find out about
this is that I ran out of lame Spanish jokes to tell my bartender, and
the conversation drifted around to his job.
Never mind the stoopid fence. This Mexican overtime issue is a potent
issue for any politician. In fact, it is a perfect single-issue approach
to getting elected and staying in the public eye. "How can we expect
to be competitive against a manufacturing giant right on our own border
that pays its employees a quarter of what ours make AND NO OVERTIME
PAY?" If there was ever a case for renegotiating NAFTA this is
it! If you want to export to the U.S. duty-free you must pay your employees
means "Place of the Turtles" in the Mayan language, and
they werent referring to the little pet store turtles. The
ocean beach off of the hotel is home to three gigantic turtles weighing
about 250 kg (500 lbs). Taking together the Akumal Beach Resort,
where we stayed, and the adjacent Akumal public beach, the beachfront
comprises about a kilometer of pristine white sand leading into
80F (23C) clear blue sea water with about 50 meters underwater visibility.
The abundant coral reef shimmers multi-color in the noon-time sun,
growing in a phantasmagoric landscape of shapes and colors that
no artist can hope to duplicate, teeming with an ever-evolving array
of animal diversity. Huge schools of tropical fish swarming over
and through the living coral like quicksilver and hanging out in
little gangs withing the shadowy seclusion of rock crevices, staring
back at the observer with an equivalent amount of intelligence and
Huge meaty pompanos
and enormous fat cowfish patrolling their territorial imperative. A
squadron of three squid-like creatures adorned in so may colors, its
impossible to distinguish the head from the tail, all the more so since
they are able to swim perfectly in forward or reverse gears and then
abruptly spin around and shoot off in the opposite direction. Coming
to a clearing in the coral I noticed a shimmering of the sand on the
ocean floor. Realizing that I was practically on top of a monstrously
huge grey manta ray about 3 meters (9ft) across, I gave a tremendous
start. The ray, sensing my vibration, gave off a shimmer of panic for
its part and immediately took off to fly away through the aqua sea.
Fortunately there was ample comfort room for both of us, and the ray
was able to depart peacefully, but not before I got a shot of it with
my underwater camera.
Magpie and I would get up at the crack of dawn, eat breakfast, swim
all morning, have cocktails, eat lunch, have cocktails, take a siesta
under the shade of a palapa, swim all afternoon, have cocktails, eat
dinner, have cocktails, pass out. One day we took a walk to a little
lagoon at the far end of Akumal, next to a swing bar called La Vida
Buena, where some of the swings are inhabited by skeletons dressed up
in clothes. The lagoon, which charges an admission fee, is very beautiful
and teeming with wildlife. I got a beautiful photo of a heron posing
gracefully on a rock in the middle of the lagoon. Overhead you could
see flocks of pelicans, a frigate bird floating on air currents and
a mighty Mexican eagle scouring the earth for prey from on high, ready
to dive and swoop down on some unsuspecting morsel. Iguanas dart across
the paths and sun themselves on the rocks.
Unfortunately, my face was starting to resemble an iguanas back
because I hadnt thought to bring any skin cream along, and they
didnt sell it in the hotel boutique. Youd think that a beach
hotel in a sun baked place like that would offer skin moisturizer. Anyway,
the guests of Akumal Beach Resort, many of whom were humungously obese
hicks from flyover country who brought their own giant-sized insulated
cups for drinking booze so that they wouldnt have to waste so
many trips walking to the bar, these cretins were not fashion victims,
you better believe it!
I found a little bodega/farmacia near the town gate in Playa Akumal
that had a limited selection of skin cream. Two varieties. One was labeled
in Spanish for 11 pesos, and the other was labeled in English for 40
pesos. I bought the cheap Spanish cream and it smelled exactly like
the air freshener tablets they place in New York City urinals. For the
rest of the trip I smelled like a public toilet. Hey, what do I care?
Dogs love me.
On the way back to the hotel Magpie and I stopped at the Lol-Ha bar
on the public beach. We could afford to pay for drinks, but this guy
Bob told us that the bars happy hour attracted beach bums who
were really hard-up for money and at 5 minutes to 4 they would circle
the outdoor bar like flies drawn to their favorite food like so they
could grab a seat and start guzzling cheap booze. Thats your shoestring
vacation for you. To make matters worse, the Akumal public beach had
posted an interdiction of beach chairs and beach umbrellas, so except
for four little scrawny palm trees there is no shade either, and staying
in the sun is like roasting yourself in a microwave. If you want to
vacation on the cheap and still retain a residue of dignity I would
suggest Cozumel island, where there is plenty of shade and a Chedraui
superstore, which has a vast liquor department where you can buy unlimited
cheap booze. Cozumel is so teeming with spectacular marine life that
you can buy a beer at a seafront bar in San Miguel for $3-4 and you
get a table with an umbrella, and from there you can jump right in the
water and see an unprecedented spectacle of marine activity.
The whole west coast of Cozumel lies directly in front of the worlds
second largest barrier reef, and the water is so clear that swimming
on it is like flying through the air. After a while you forget youre
swimming. Magpie and I threw our masks and snorkels in a bag and took
the "collectivo" bus to Playa del Carmen, where we caught
the ferry for Cozumel. Once at the island we took a taxi to Chankanaab
Marine Park, which is a beach so elegant and pristine that you have
to see it to even imagine such a place could ever exist.
We saw some huge barracuda and schools of large blue angel fish, who
are very aggressive, coming right up to the swimmer and taking little
nips of his fingers and toes while he is swimming. Actually, being attacked
by a large school of them can be rather intimidating because those little
bites hurt a little. A few meters out from the beach the ocean bottom
abruptly drops off to a very profound depth, and you suddenly find yourself
staring into the abyss, which can be a little intimidating, particularly
since Magpie and I are not too keen on dragging flotation safety equipment
along with us on these little excursions. the drop-off goes down to
a depth of about 50 meters, and with the warm clear water its easy to
forget youre swimming and become vertiginous. There is also a
large pen of dolphins at Chankanaab for a show that they put on, and
through the fence we could see the dolphins practicing with their trainers.
After we had swum as much as we cared to we went to the beach bar for
cocktails. The bartender was a charming fellow named Toro, and when
I expressed an interest in Mayan civilization he showed me a book that
he had with him called toe Popol-Vuh, which is the bible of the Quiché
Mayas of Chicastenango. the book explains the origins of the world,
the birds, fishes, jaguars, plants and men. It explains how the gods
destroyed the first men that they created out of wood, and these became
the monkeys. The next men and women they created were made of corn,
and these they permitted to live.
We caught the 5:00 ferry back to Playa del Carment. By this time we
were to exhausted to contemplate the highway trip back to the resort,
so we took a room for the night in a small hotel near the ferry terminal.
For dinner we found a Mexican sports bar a little bit removed from the
main tourist area. the place was large and loud, and we were the only
Europeans. The wide-screen TVs were all tuned in to American football
and tennis, but the music was Mexican. The food was really authentically
Mexican cuisine, which is unfortunately not a compliment. It was reminiscent
of some of the Dominican restaurants in Upper Manhattan, where the food
is barely palatable. I had the flank steak, which came fried in bacon
slices, undercooked and too greasy. Magpie had the chefs sampler
of chicken, beef and pork in a casserole with some of Mexicos
150 varieties of zingy chili peppers, and she ended up dumping most
of it on my plate, which I barely touched. OK, the food stank but, on
the other hand, it wasnt expensive.
On the way back to the hotel we found a swinging little tourist place
with a live band that played Brazilian music and fantastic Santana covers.
A couple of margaritas later we had totally recovered from the shabby
authenticity of the sports bar. I will always be happy to prefer a bit
of charm and sophistication over shabby authenticity, of which there
is rather too much in the world.
After a week of this kind of living Magpie and I had recovered much
of our former optimism, and after ten days we felt positively recharged.
We returned to New York in excellent spirits.
Back in Washington:
But I believe the biggest piece of news I heard while I was down Mexico-way
was the Collapse of the Obama Administration. That didnt take
long. I mean, he hasnt even got sworn in yet. Let me put it to
the reader in plain English: Barrack Obama would rather have his teeth
extracted without the benefit of novocaine than permit Hillary Clinton
(and by extension her ol man, Bubba) to sit in on cabinet policy
meetings and run American foreign policy.
In fact, 90% of Obamas cabinet, including his chief of staff,
are die-hard Clinton supporters. With Hillary and Bubba in the most
powerful cabinet post there is going to be precious little authority
devolving to Barrack. He gets to preside over the Easter Egg Hunt and
he gets to name his dog, and thats about it.
I previously wrote that the Clintons strategy should be to establish
a polarity of power in Washington using her senate seat as a base. Now
I see how woefully naïve I was to discount their overweening voraciousness.
The Clintons are the Party, and they are staging a coup detat
even before the inauguration takes place.
And to make matters worse for Obama, the Clintons didnt even show
the guy the respect of letting him pretend it was his idea to appoint
her. Everybody knows they dictated the choice to him, probably along
with most of his other choices. Clinton operatives leaked the news to
the media themselves, to show that she is unstoppable. (Forget about
Kerrey, and especially about Bill Richardson, whose Washington career
is over. They are just window dressing for the earnest civics people,
to show that it was not a foregone conclusion which is what it
is, bare-knuckle power politics). This is the beginning of the Yellow
Brick Road, and Bill Clinton is the Wizard behind the curtain, pulling
the strings. The only thing I can compare it to is Vladimir Putin, who
has got a puppet president but runs everything. Only we got two Putins,
Bill and Hillary. Oh, you better believe it!
This may be brutal, but somebody has to tell it like it is. We are living
under the Age of Clinton, and Obama is the honorary head of state, like
the Governor General of Canada or the Queen. Maybe theyll let
him run for a second term, but I doubt it. Theyll just shuffle
him off to the side and set her up like Eva Peron.
Unless I miss my guess, we are going to witness every mistake getting
stuck to Obama like a glue trap, while the Clintons are everywhere at
once like free-range chickens. My political cartoon would look like
this: Barrack Obama is wearing a Boy Scout uniform and trying to put
out a fire, while Bill Clinton is setting them with a lighter.Dean Borok
Borok - New York - December 2008
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