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The International Writers Magazine: Winter Beaches

Akumal Beach Resort - Mexico
Dean Borok

My 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 wouldn’t 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.

It’s 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 Mexico’s 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.

All 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. It’s jarring to hear stories of people who have lived all their lives in Mexico City and who left because they couldn’t take the stress of the insecurity any longer.

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 weren’t getting zonked and stealing each other’s junk. Now the place has discos, Argentine churascurrias, exclusive spas and Italian hotels – and they haven’t 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 Escobar’s 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 the place.

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-don’t-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 bottleneck.

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 day’s 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 experienced.
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, I’m 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 can’t 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 overtime pay!"

Akumal means "Place of the Turtles" in the Mayan language, and they weren’t 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 fascination.

Huge meaty pompanos and enormous fat cowfish patrolling their territorial imperative. A squadron of three squid-like creatures adorned in so may colors, it’s 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 iguana’s back because I hadn’t thought to bring any skin cream along, and they didn’t sell it in the hotel boutique. You’d 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 wouldn’t 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 bar’s 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. That’s 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 world’s 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 you’re 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 you’re 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 TV’s 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 chef’s sampler of chicken, beef and pork in a casserole with some of Mexico’s 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 wasn’t 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.

Meanwhile 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 didn’t take long. I mean, he hasn’t 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 Obama’s 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 that’s 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 d’etat even before the inauguration takes place.

And to make matters worse for Obama, the Clintons didn’t 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 they’ll let him run for a second term, but I doubt it. They’ll 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

© Dean Borok - New York - December 2008

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