Don Bauder 7:30 a.m., Dec. 9
I will start this with a disclaimer. This is about a first world problem of epic proportions, therefore I make no apologies. I am simply stating a fact and sharing my experience with the reader. So, take offense if you wish, but bear in mind I will not respond to harsh criticism regarding how lucky I am to actually be able to take a vacation. Also, I was on vacation. This was not a meant to be an opportunity to explore culture and art, as some may think I got what I deserved by treating Mexico as a playground. I harbor no such reality. As my story progresses, you will see that I was punished harshly.
My husband and I left for a long-planned vacation to Playa del Carmen last week. He booked us at a beautiful all-inclusive resort, upgraded our flight tickets to first-class (God bless airline miles) and was so excited about our upcoming lazycation that he e-mailed me every other day with a countdown - "only 35 more days until our trip!!" - you get the picture. His enthusiasm was so cute that I was starting to feel REALLY guilty about my nagging feelings of dread about spending 10 days at an all-inclusive resort. Having done it a few times before over the course of 12 years, enough time had passed between the trips that I would gloss over my reasons for not really enjoying myself and remember the food, the beautiful blue ocean, and the endless cocktails that were part of the package. That would bolster me enough to get into it. But this time was different. We had gone on a family trip to an all-inclusive in Mexico two years ago, and it was still relatively fresh in my memory. We had a fabulous time, visiting the ruins and going sailing. But my husband booked us for another few days after the rest of the family left. I will explain in greater detail later why I was now looking at our upcoming trip with a strange mixture of anticipation and dread.
So, come Friday, I put my game face on, over packed, and away we went, being driven by my husband's dad, our faithful driver whose generous offers to drive us to the airport we shamelessly take advantage of. Things are going splendidly. We get in line with the announcement of "we would now like to welcome our first-class passengers to board", feeling that peculiar mix of smugness and embarrassment that accompanies first class travel. Let me explain this. I am by no means a paying first-class traveler. Anytime I have ever flown first-class was due to an accumulation of airline miles converted to an upgrade. But when you sit in those seats and the coach passengers file by, something weird happens. It is almost as if you cannot make eye contact with them. I try to smile and convey that I am just like them, I just happened to luck out, but I can feel their resentment at having to shuffle to the back of the plane while I am already holding a drink. Trust me; I know these feelings well, having been the shuffler many times. I have felt the first-class passengers willfully not making eye-contact, burying themselves in their books and laptops until the riffraff has passed through and they can finally relax in their rightful place with their people. It sucks going through first class to coach, and why the airlines do this is beyond me. It is a class-conscious separation of travelers, much along the lines of the great ships of yore that divided their patrons into groups based on wealth. Coach is steerage. But after awhile I too tire of the hostile stares, and look down into my book until the coast is clear. It was then that I quaffed my champagne, ate my warm nuts, said "eh, what the hell, when in Rome" and relaxed into my good fortune.
We have a short layover in Dallas-Fort Worth with no delays, and land at the Cancun airport. For those that have never landed at this airport, it is a sea of people trying to sell you time shares, which you have to part with a very direct "no, gracias" in order to pass through and get to the transportation that will take you to your hotel. The proprietors of these "vacation opportunities", which they have been trained to call them (time shares being no longer used as they have a negative connotation), can be extremely aggressive and intimidating, which would explain why otherwise sane people are being pulled aside and are sitting slacked-jawed at a table in a foreign country being pitched a product they are not interested in. They are unskilled in the art of negotiating around the hard sell. And why should they be? Most are from the Midwest, where they rarely, if ever, have encountered this type of behavior. And offers of fantastic freebies for just a few minutes of your time (read: two hours) are sometimes too hard to resist. The way to get around this is to have transportation set up. Having been stranded at that same airport years ago while transportation was withheld from us until we agreed to sit through a pitch (which I stubbornly refused) has taught me a few things about foreign travel. I parted the sea with my gleeful sing-songing "we have a car" that even left my husband impressed. And there he was. Our driver, holding a sign with our name on it. Just like in the movies.
This all sounds wonderful, right? And it was. Our driver was a terrific guy, chatty and full of information regarding where we were going and what we should do. We get to our hotel and say good-bye to our now-on-a-first-name-basis driver, Jesus. And what a hotel it is. It is gorgeous, marble everywhere - I expect Mr. O'Rourke and Tattoo to pop out any second. Smiles everybody!! Plus, we arrive late, so we miss the second shift of the time share sell that accompanies pretty much any stay at any all-inclusive hotel in Playa del Carmen. We get to go straight to our room after check-in and get settled, then head out to check-out the grounds.
Very nice. Pools, tennis court, cabanas, bars, and the beach RIGHT THERE. The sand is like baby powder. I am starting to relax, thinking, I can so do this. What was it that was bothering me? Oh well, I forget. Waiter?
It's too late for dinner, so we relax with some drinks in the lobby bar, which has a show going on and cabana beds that you can kick-back on. We appease our hunger with guacamole and salsa and proceed to get a nice buzz going. After a few hazy hours, we call it a night and go to sleep on one of the softest beds I have ever slept in.
I awake to a familiar and unwelcome sensation - my mouth is dry and my head feels like a bag of rocks. I am hungover. I start to think back to the previous night. I only had a few….HOLY SH*T! I had at least eight drinks. Over the course of three hours, I managed to knock back eight drinks. This is the evil side of the all-inclusive. It is ALL-INCLUSIVE. Which means all your food and drinks are included. And this is when I start to remember why I am uncomfortable with this style of vacation.
You see, I am a somewhat over-disciplined person. I have to be, as I have in the past been prone to serious bouts of irresponsibility and have arranged my life over the course of the last fifteen or so years to be one of high productivity to offset the guilt I have over having a good time. This is in part due to a working mother who never once let up about the need to WORK, WORK, WORK or you will never amount to anything. It also explains why I initially rebelled and was a complete party animal until I turned 30. Also, my mother-in-law is dictated by appearances, and therefore maintains diligent oversight on all of our behaviors and physical impressions. I also am very hard on myself, because I can easily fall back on past behaviors, those being the wasted weekends when Monday morning rolls around and the thought of going to work makes me start to think about physically harming myself in order to get out of it.
Well anyway, back at the all-inclusive, do you know how the guests cure themselves of their hangovers? Why, by parking themselves at the pool at 10:00 in the morning and drinking more!! By more I mean all day, to be exact. I am going dangerously into snob territory here, but I am going to describe to you the typical all-inclusive guest. Remember, I am not judging or stereotyping, because what I tell you is the honest-to-God truth. These resorts are beautiful. The people that like to visit them are, for the most part not, so sometimes it is difficult to reconcile the mentality you encounter, not to mention the expansive displays of flesh that is everywhere, but here goes.
The average age is 45-55. Accessory of choice? Cigarette. Or cocktail. Usually both. Language spoken? Blue collar redneck. Food choice? Nachos, hamburgers, chicken wings. The skin that is not meant to tan has been broiled to a skin-cancerous mahogany, after first being burnt to a brilliant red that has adjusted after four or five days to a daily diet of ten plus hours, sans sunscreen, of blistering south of the border sun. Again, most are from the Midwest, where coming back from a vacation with a dark tan is a badge of honor, and trust me, these folks work very hard at getting as dark as possible. I don't tan, so already I am something of an alien. I give it a try, though. Again, my when in Rome mentality kicks in, and I try not to be such a pain in the ass. But I am from San Diego, where we know better. I also hate sunbathing. I feel sweaty, dirty and gross laying in the sun. Always have. But I slather sunscreen on and don my floppy hat and sunglasses and commence tanning. After fifteen minutes I am going out of my mind. How can anyone lay in the sun all day?!??! All I can think about is that I just inflicted a year's worth of sun damage in less than one-half of an hour. I go in the pool. No one is swimming in the pool. They only go in to rinse off. They say the water is "too cold". I swim some laps and feel a little better. I go back to my chair and read. We make sort-of friends with a group that is traveling together, apparently old time friends that do this every year, and we get into the habit of saving the same area of chairs every morning. I cannot travel with friends, only family. I am not able to wait for others to get ready. If I want to go do something, I want to do it without a collective agreement to time and location. We are just fringe friends to this group, laughing a bit at something funny or sharing a tale about someone's something or other, and I feel a little envious of the comraderie shared by this group of life-long friends who are so at ease with one another. Also, these eight people individually could drink Larry Hagman under the table. This is something I am having difficulty with. I can no longer drink like I used to. I mean, I can, but I hate being hungover. But at an all-inclusive, the guests drink ALL DAY. I am serious. The same people get the same pool chairs everday and proceed to drink at least 25 drinks apiece. So, I decide against my better judgment to go ahead and get wasted like everyone else. It helps kill the time at least, and it's fun, but in the mornings I keep getting that nagging feeling that I want to go home.
By the fourth day, I am lonely and bored. I try to integrate myself with these other guests, but they are put-off by my New Yorkers and my Alice Sebold book about her rape. A few have only read The Lovely Bones. I am starting to feel like an outsider, desperate suddenly to win the approval of the in-crowd, but unwilling to dumb myself down in order to do so, and knowing in my heart that I will always be an outcast and a loner in these situations. I try to talk about the food. Mind you, the food there is fantastic, but all I saw were people taking thirds and fourths of bacon and eggs and asking "who the hell eats fish for breakfast?" This is the second rated hotel in the Riviera Maya, and the fresh fish, meats, shellfish, fruits and vegetables are in abundance, all prepared for you in as many combinations as you can come up with. "Isn't the seafood here just wonderful?" I venture. Every single one of the guests I spoke to about the food had the same inevitable response. "I just wish I could get a cheeseburger on the beach! I don't understand why this place doesn't have a Goddamn poolside grill right near the beach so I can get my burger! All I want is my damn burger!" Mind you, they only have to walk maybe two hundred yards to get a hamburger, but that would require walking. I politely explain that the hotel we are staying at takes their guests' comfort so seriously that they know serving food by the pool attracts flies and birds and makes a God-awful mess and that they pride themselves on the cleanliness of their grounds. That's it. It's over. The next day the folks we sort of befriended have secured new seats on the other side of the pool. I am officially persona non grata.
By day five, what is one man's pleasure has become another's pain. I am sick of and from alcohol, desperate to go home, but do not want to hurt my dear, sweet husband's feelings. I am determined to stick it out. Let me tell you a little about the man who planned all this for me. He did it because he thought I would enjoy it. He can fit in anywhere. He knows how to vacation, how to relax and enjoy just being. He can take naps. He is friendly, open, and unself-conscious and likes beach vacations. I am everything but. I also have a bad habit of subordinating my own needs to make others happy. Putting on a bathing suit in front of hundreds of strangers is no picnic for me, even though I was on the low end of the spectrum. There is a certain let it all hang out mentality that I cannot wrap my head around, being acutely aware of the southern California standards of perfection that seem to not exist ANYWHERE here. I was envious of this as well. I wanted to be comfortable parading around in my swimsuit, but my uptight body issues refused to let this be.
This is when I start to remember our last vacation, where we stayed a few days longer. I was done by day seven of the original vacation, when we had activities planned everyday. I was going stir-crazy not doing anything but lying around, eating, drinking and sleeping. I cannot do that for two days, let alone ten. Seeing the gluttony that goes along with the all-inclusive mind-set, with people eating not because they are hungry, but because they can eat for free, makes me upset. The waste is unreal. People are starving. I went home bloated, sunburned and aged. This is what was happening again. I wasn't having fun. Every fiber of my being screamed "GO HOME!!" This is partially my fault. I had asked for a non-structured vacation, where we would make plans as we went along. Having been to the Riviera Maya three times before and absorbing much art and culture, I realized during this trip that there was nothing more I wanted to see. Wednesday evening, my husband was napping after another blissful day (for him) of poolside nothingness. I woke him up and said "I want to go home". He looked at me like I was nuts. "What's wrong?" he frantically asked. I told him if I had to spend one more day doing nothing, I would go berserk. I could not read anymore, having spent at least 40 hours reading. I missed my pets. I missed my house, my routines, my things in all their proper places. We went to the computer room, and within one hour I had a flight out at 7:10 in the morning. I begged him to stay there rather than come home with me. He actually needed a vacation, and I needed to be alone after all that exposure to so many people in one place. He made it clear that he understood my reasons for leaving had nothing to do with him, and we parted with him holding the taxi door open for me. A kiss, an I love you, a goodbye. As he is still there, he has no idea what happened next.
Part Two to be Posted Tomorrow