Two Christmases ago, or maybe it was three, my family went to Mexico for the holidays. We booked a room in a resort halfway between Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. The resort was gorgeous and it contained everything we needed. Manicured lawns. Palm trees. Multiple restaurants. A gift shop. An expansive beach with thatched huts on piers along the water. Yoga. Volleyball. Organized games. And several pools with swim up bars. It would have been easy enough to tuck ourselves into the resort and say we’d been to Mexico. And, technically, that would’ve been true.
But we didn’t travel for comfort. We traveled to stretch our comfort zone. We wanted to meet real people and to truly see our world. So on the second day of our trip we ventured outside the protective resort walls. Our first journey was short: we went to Playa Del Carmen. This meant turning left on the main highway and traveling, oh I don’t know, maybe 15 miles (or 24 km) south. Right before Playa Del Carmen there was a police check point. The guards wielded large automatic rifles and were nothing if not intimidating. Though we were doing nothing wrong, I have to admit, we were tempted to turn around and return to the resort. Maybe we could just get a margarita and sit by the pool and ignore those looming guns. But we didn’t do it. We stayed the course and the guards passed us through without incident. They were looking for suspicious vehicles and drug traffickers and we qualified as neither. Over the course of the next week we passed through this same checkpoint several times and, strangely enough, it became routine.
Playa Del Carmen was the beginning of real. People lived there; it wasn’t just a place where one came to work. Of course the downtown area was filled with tourists and it carried those folks that plied on the tourist trade. 5th street in downtown Playa was like a circus; filled with vendors and lights and people wandering about. The vendors hollered from their booths, people shoved baby animals in my kids’ arms vying for a photograph and then there was that guy - the one who tried to sell my husband drugs. Yayo? Mota? Señor? Yayo?
But here’s the thing. Despite the chaos. Despite the drugs. We still felt safe. And it bolstered our confidence. The next day we ventured even further out. We went to Chichen Itza; Mayan ruins which lay about two hours inland from where we were staying. We didn’t want to get stuck on a tourist junket and therefore elected to drive ourselves. Our plan was to get there early to beat both the heat and the crowds. There was a new interstate that had just been built and the trip seemed easy enough. As it turned out we couldn’t find the interstate; the gigantic brand new four lane highway that should’ve been glaringly obvious. We google mapped it and ended up in a dead end neighborhood — twice. We were uncomfortable because we didn’t know where we were. There weren’t tourists there. And we had no idea if we were safe (after all the news in America was about all the Mexican drug cartel and kidnappings and murders galore). After much internal debate and bit of arguing we decided to stop and ask for directions. We pulled up to a tiny neighborhood store (think 7-11) and I went inside. But here’s the thing. I don’t speak Spanish. And the people working there didn’t speak English. But they were kind and sweet and accommodating and somehow, through our broken language, we got directions to the throughway. Turns out we were close. All we had to do was drive through a huge dirt lot and over an area of construction and then bump our way up over curb and, voila, the freeway. My husband was hesitant when I relayed the directions. He was sure we had the communication wrong. Turns out the communication was just right.
Chichen Itza was awesome and inspiring and touristy. We were glad to see it but only stayed a few hours before heading out for our next adventure; Valladolid, Yucatan. This town was on the way back to Playa Del Carmen and a bit of internet sleuthing told me it was worth the visit. But to visit meant foregoing the main thoroughfare and traveling the smaller back roads of Mexico. So long as we traveled during the day we would be safe. So said Dr. Google. We elected to take the risk.
In Valladolid we parked on the main square. And then we got out and walked. And walked and walked and walked. After lunch we found a sweet little coffee shop. And though it was ninety degrees out, and humid, we had to stop. Because. Coffee. The coffee shop was also an art gallery and we bought a small tin painting that I still cherish to this day. The painting was of a man pointing a gun at a woman. The woman was stumbling backwards in fear. Above the man was a saint surrounded by clouds. There were words underneath that told the story in Spanish. The barista translated for us: the saint prevented the man from killing his wife and she got to live another day. This sealed the deal for us because we’d been hot and tired and crabby and had, quite frankly, felt like killing one another more than once. The painting seemed to be sent from above. We agreed to let each other live another day and we brought the painting home with us.
By the time we arrived at the coffee shop we were, ahem, a little lost. I am pretty good with directions and I was fairly certain I knew the way back to the car. And I did know the way; by a hot muggy circuitous route. My family marched through a number of Valladolid neighborhoods; areas that didn’t see much tourist traffic. People stared at us sweating red-faced gringos as we traveled down the street with our cameras. I suspect we were quite an unusual sight. We saw people sitting on stoops, chickens wandering about and dogs straining on their chains. Men worked on cars, women hung laundry on lines and people were making probable drugs deals on the street corner. Clearly we didn’t belong (one of these things is not like the other) and yet every single person was nice. People smiled and waved and sometimes just stared. But not one single person was rude or threatening. A woman at a liquor store even let my son use the bathroom even though we didn’t purchase anything; again an arrangement made through broken language. And while waiting for my son I took a photograph of a gorgeous decrepit building. I have a penchant for decrepit; there is a subtle beauty in it. It is raw and real. The peeling paint and crumbling concrete tells a story. Of life and struggle. Of beauty and decline. Decrepit is a far cry from the manicured lawns of the resorts. And I am so glad we got to be a part of that peeling chipping life, even briefly.
When we arrived home from our trip I printed out postcards. The photo of the decrepit blue building made the cut. The photo of the thatched hut at the end of the pier did not. Because I wanted to remember the good, kind-hearted people that were the life blood of their towns. I wanted to remember us hot and tired and frustrated. And I wanted to remember the raw and beautiful day; the day we skirted the resort and visited the real Mexico.