I'd been warned. When asked why on earth I'd booked a flight to Cancun, rather than Mexico City, my answer involved the diving on Cozumel and the cenotes, ancient underwater caverns, that had been high on my lists of must-dives since my first aquatic descent in May 2008. The Yucatan Peninsula and Quintana Roo are flooded with Americans. Now I have some good friends who are American, but they are in the switched-on minority as far as I have experienced. The rest seem to be an overweight, myopic bunch who didn't know where Afghanistan was until they bombed it, and believe culture to be something which grows in a petri-dish. That's assuming they know what a petri-dish is. Cancun arrivals lounge was full of them, all shorts and baseball-hats, white socks and sandals. And that was just the stylish ones. I can see myself knocking Americans a lot on this trip, so I'll apologise beforehand to the intelligent ones. And until I meet some Australians or Frenchmen, your countrymen will just have to take the flak. Sorry.
It was 6.30pm and dark when we arrived. After a blundering first try at Spanish at an information desk (Darren pointed out that it was terrible, in case my blushes didn't indicate that I was aware of how amateurish I sounded) we were directed to the bus terminal nearby. We were keen to get out of Cancun and make for the relative safety of Playa Del Carmen. The usual nonsense was happening outside: touts trying it on, telling us buses had all finished, and that a $90 taxi was the best bet. Another pair took us aside, and said that they worked for ADO and could get us tickets for $40 on a private bus. Suspicious, I asked him where the office was, and we'd book there. He told us the office was closed, and that he was an ADO rep. I eyed the non-ADO logo on his shirt pocket. Yeah...right. They followed us up the concourse, the price dropping as we neared the office, disappearing as we mounted the steps. A ticket was bought for the next bus at $10. First rip-off avoided nicely.
Well, if Playa Del Carmen compares favourably to Cancun, then the latter should be bulldozed into the sea right now. The main drag is full of tacky shops selling all manner of shit, and nasty bars. Fast food outlets from the States line it. Two Americans we were walking behind seemed relieved to see the KFC, as one of them pointed it out. "At last, buddy...something we can eat." His companion told him not to worry, as he'd seen a Burger King a few blocks back. Nothing like sampling the local cuisine on the road, eh? Myself and Darren whiled away an hour with coffee, people-watching. A woman in her 60s strutted past; bleached-blond, sun-wrinkled skin, clad in a sparkly mini-dress a 40-year-old divorcee wouldn't wear to a disco in Barnsley. She scanned the street from left to right behind her huge sunglasses, to see who was watching. Everyone, love. Great figure for your age, but let it go. Just let it go. It's undignified. As was the huge couple walking down the street. Well, I say walking...waddling would be far more accurate. The guy was gargantuan...at least 25 stone, I'd say. His chin disappeared into his chest, with no hint of a neck. And his partner-in-pizza wasn't far behind. I was particularly taken by his Thousand Yard Stare as he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, the patches of sweat from his armpits reaching as far as his waist. They seemed oblivious to the giggles of locals, some of whom were taking pictures with their phones. The shame of it.
So we decided to head to Cozumel, the island made famous when Jacques Cousteau discovered the beautiful reefs off there in the 60s. My heart started sinking rapidly as we approached the harbour; there were four huge cruise ships docked nearby, each the size of a small town. I could imagine the clientele populating the town before we had even disembarked. The ocean front is a strip full of those shops you need when travelling: Louis Vuitton, Gucci et al. Themed restaurants everywhere, Darren even spotted a board advertising "The Real American Eating Experience", a huge burger the size of a 4-year-old with a 40 oz Coke. And you wonder why you're waddling down the street?
We found a decent place to stay, and a great local taco place...the best food we'd had so far. I found a small food market serving Indonesian and Filipino food. This must be a cheap alternative to the expensive places in town, right? Wrong. I ordered a shrimp nasi goreng which would have cost me 50p in Banda Aceh. I was coughing up lumps of shrimp when the bill came in at £7. And you should have seen this place...basic. I had a nice chat with some Indonesian and Filipino sailors from the cruise ships, though. They were working a 4 day route: Miami to Cancun to Cozumel. Wow...see the world in 4 days, no? Americans buying tax-free goodies, no doubt. I tried some Mexican stall in there the next day, at far more reasonable prices. Sitting down, I ordered chicken tacos, and began regretting my decision as I cast my eyes around the place. It made the Black Hole Of Calcutta look clean. My chicken and tacos were being microwaved, and the huge lady behind the counter was sweating like a French rapist as she stirred my cold beans into life. When it came, the small comfort I took was that it couldn't possibly taste worse than it looked. How wrong I was. As I ate this revolting fayre, I noticed a strong smell of unwashed bodies, the tang stinging my nostrils. I cast a dirty look at the bloke behind me, and went and sat at the table next to the old lady at the front drawing customers in. I was to rue this move literally thirty seconds later when Big Mama left the kitchen to sit with Granny...it was her needed the soap. The fetid air around her was so thick I was almost chewing instead of breathing. Fighting the gag reflex, I finished what I could and cast a large note on the table. Keep the change, it's better than waiting for it with my eyes streaming.
I could write a thousand words on overheard inane comments I overheard, but two choice ones illustrate my point. Myself and Darren were waiting for a lunch order in a cafe when three American 30-somethings walked in and sat next to us. After a while they were studying the map of Cozumel, which was obviously annotated in Spanish. One girl was confused by the compass, which had the initals N, S, E and O. One girl asked what the O was for. Her male companion explained it was North, South, East and...uhm...Ocean. Yeah...Ocean." The girls were relieved this had been explained. Not Norte, Sur, Est and Oeste then?
He started explaining the Zapatista war in Chiapas province to the girls. He was over-simplifying it, to say the least. To ease their frowns, he said "They're kinda like fighting for their homeland against the corporations and...uh, like corporations...kinda like, uh...have you seen the movie Avatar?" They had. "It's kinda like that..." Cue smiles all round. "That's so cool" one girl cooed "where do you learn all this stuff?" He shrugged "From my Mom." I'm guessing Mom doesn't lecture in American History at the Arizona State University?
Another classic was overheard by Darren. A 60-something American was with a crowd of friends watching a few latino kids playing with an ice machine outside a shop. "Shee-it, man...those Koreans don't have nothin'. I tell yuh. Nothin'. An' I should know...I fought there." Brilliant.
There's only one half-decent bar in Cozumel: Abuelita's (Granny's). It was the only place that had more than five people drinking, and a sprinkling of local regulars inside. We took a table and proceeded to get pretty hammered. Getting friendly with a few of the locals after I'd put on a few Rolling Stones and Doors tracks on the jukebox, we ended up sat at the bar. This one went down less well, but I enjoyed it. Took me back to Friday nights in Sankeys, Manchester, back in the 90s.
One guy was squinting an examining Darren's bald cranium. "Your head..." he said in heavily-accented English.
"Yes?" said Darren.
"It look like a knee."
"It is like...your head...a knee. Looks like a knee, your head."
"Cheers" said Darren, laughing.
"Your head is a knee. Kneehead. Is like a knee."
"Ok, mate...I get it."
Kneehead it is, then. Excellent.