For this first international voyage in the new times, Mexico was an easy choice. Spirit offered a direct and cheap flight from Baltimore, and the officials of Quintana Roo had all but promised that the Semáforo would not be turning red again, so tourist dollars were welcome.
Recalling the advice of blackbootz, who always has better vacations after donating his phone (and sometimes wallet) to the local criminal element, I decided to leave my phone in airplane mode after landing. There were moments when a bit of research or electronic navigation would have come in handy, but for the most part I enjoyed just being a person in a place, experiencing the moments rather than trying to capture them with photos or escape them.
One of the appeals of Mexico, and travel in general, is the randomness, the complicaciónes that break familiar patterns and require making decisions more consequential than what to order for dinner. It began before we left home, when the airline e-mailed to say there is a new entry tax of 224 pesos per visitor payable in advance at a website which was not secure until recently. I tried twice and got only an ¡Ocurrió un problema! message. I figured we could pay at the airport.
Canada Transfers provided round trip airport transportation, $15 cheaper than USA Transfers and undoubtedly friendlier. The booking instructions alerted us that there would be timeshare vendors at the airport, "do not listen to them and just keep walking." This was excellent advice, but the result was that we never bothered to pay the entry tax, and no one ever asked about it.
I never changed any money, except to break bills into tipping-size denominations at the hotel front desk (1:1 exchange rate, but when I extracted my emergency hundo from the innermost wallet pocket on the last day, it was scrutinized very carefully before acceptance in exchange for a stack of ratty fives).
The Riviera Maya has been battling a seaweed invasion in recent years, which makes the beach and water near the shore unpleasant for swimming. We took the ferry to Cozumel island for a day trip with a proper ocean swim. Getting tickets was the kind of simple yet nerve-wracking experience that somehow, usually, works out. Wife and kid secured a place in the long line outside the terminal entrance while I worked the tour booths. The first guy told me (I'm pretty sure) US$20 per round trip. I went to the next guy, and he said he was out of tickets (making eye contact with the first guy) but also mentioned that I could get tickets at the ticket office, barely visible in the distance at the front of the line. I went back to the first guy, then had to jog over to my group to assure them that I was still working on getting tickets. Back to the first guy, he confirmed that he had three tickets, $28 each. Okay, whatever, part of the purpose of the trip was to throw some dollars around and the budget was still young. I gave assent and he got on the phone — he didn't have tickets either but connected with a ready scalper on the first try. She walked over from a storefront a minute later, while my group continued to make progress toward the entrance. I got the tickets and handed over the cash, then both sides examined the goods. The tickets were about four days old and kind of smudged, but in better shape than my currency so I decided to go along with it. I couldn't even tell what the ticket was for, but eventually noticed that they were "Valido por 1 a?o | Valid for 1 year".
We got to the front of the line and passed through with no trouble.
The voyage back was easier with tickets in hand, except the schedule printed on the back of the tickets showing hourly departures was a lie (sujeto a cambios) and at 4:45 the next departure was scheduled for 6 p.m., a long wait in the summer air with no chairs in sight. But it's Mexico, the officials told us not to worry and sure enough, when a crowd had gathered by 5:15 another boat was put into service for a 5:30 departure. In some sense this was more gratifying than a 5 p.m. departure would have been (especially after noticing that latecomers would have to wait for the next boat).
I had many chances to use my high school Spanish to talk about all the things you learn about in high school Spanish. Mostly I asked about 2020. It was a hard time for the hospitality workers. The resort had closed for several months and only gradually restored about three-quarters capacity in this high season. People reported sitting at home, working in construction, cleaning homes, studying English, whatever they could manage to get by. Vaccines were just becoming available to the 30-39 age group, and mask enforcement and chemical sanitation was at U.S. levels from six months earlier.
Service at the hotel was unfailingly excellent. It's subjective but I sensed that the guests were not treated with unctuous courtesy simply out of rigorous training and tip hunting, but from some appreciation that sunburned tourists are not as unfailingly reliable as the loggerhead sea turtles which come year after year, seaweed or no. One waiter who kept suggesting a tequila-sushi pairing told us he knew how much it cost to travel to Mexico and stay at the resort, so he appreciated the guests. When we left a larger-than-usual tip (still insulting by D.C. standards), he seemed moved, or perhaps he was nipping at the tequila, and told us it was more than his daily salary. In fact he told us he took home US$8 per day, six days a week, plus tips, which seemed a bit shocking at the time, and in retrospect might be a bit of an exaggeration, but the national minimum wage is about US$7 per day, so who knows.
One evening I left my cap at the restaurant. I figured they would stuff it in a nearby drawer, so I went back to the hostess to pick it up, another chance to exercise my español. I said I forgot my "capa de color naranja" first — a false start, though now on reflection and with the benefit of the online dictionary I can see how an orange cape could come in handy. "Sombrero" didn't seem like the right direction, but I tried it with hand gestures rather than giving up and saying "baseball hat" in defeat. The pantomime seemed to work and she repeated a word I didn't recognize, to which I of course enthusiastically agreed.
After some minutes of scurrying and radio calls, I was informed that Security would be bringing the article. Bueno, gracias, I said, trying to smile through the cursed mask, and took a spot by the door to wait. It turned out to be a while, and I experienced idleness, staring at the tourists or out the windows with my phone in my pocket. Finally someone from the front desk appeared, bringing my hat and the paperwork. In contrast to the casual handover I expected, I had to provide name and room number and signature to confirm receipt of the lost item. Also, a description. I asked for help and found out it's called a burra, so I carefully wrote BURRA NARANJA in the space, and offered more invisible smiles and gratitude before walking off with my hat, thinking the new vocabulary word would be easy to remember because of the similarity to burro.
Back home, the online dictionary confirmed that the word is gorra and I had in fact signed for an "orange she-ass," which helps explain the smiles I got wearing the hat on the following days.