Newark Airport was abound with adolescents that July morning, as fledgling high school graduates from the tri-state area coalesced for their respective summer trips. Still sleepy-eyed from a graduation party the night before, my cronies and I followed the rest of the Cancun travelers in the terminal, like infant ducklings awkwardly trailing Mother Goose.
The summer sun lit up our silver plane and breathed life into the otherwise drab, tan Aero Mexico letters. Air traffic controllers, like individual notes in a marvelous symphony, busied themselves with their specialized tasks working toward the common goal of a successful takeoff. Every laboring minute felt like an eternity, as the hands on the numerous uniform clocks seemed to retrogress or completely stop to laugh in jest. “Now boarding, rows 1 thru 15, flight 220 to Cancun, Mexico,” thundered the omnipresent monotone voice, awakening a few passed-out night owls, and marking the beginning of the journey to freedom.
Young Americans in Mexico are seen by the natives not as merely happy-go-lucky, fiesta-craving travelers, but rather as a means of swindling a quick peso. Everywhere I turned I saw the locals eying up the naïve vacationers. Immediately, feelings of caution entered my thought process – this 10-day vacation in Cancun would require a heightened state of mental awareness.
True freedom was for the first time experienced by many of the graduates after crossing south of the border and it showed. The airport bar acted as a magnet for numerous travelers, including myself. Luis, our “experienced” tour guide, eagerly awaited our arrival from the doorway of the hotel shuttle and immediately prayed upon our loaded carteras.
“Anyone like Corona?” he cleverly asked the adolescently packed mini-bus in a cordial Spanish accent, as he pulled a giant cooler from the ceiling. “Five dollars!” he slyly shouted, and within a few brief and pricy exchanges of the Mexican dollar, Luis had successfully swindled a small fortune for himself. Some entrepreneur, I thought, as I sipped the delicious Corona.
Along the dusty, sun-beaten road to the Marriot, I allowed my eyes to wander the tropical paradise of the Yucatan Peninsula. The indigenous vegetation contained various shades of brown, yellow, tan, and pale green – the color spectrum an outsider could expect in an equatorial climate feeling the daily effects of an unforgiving, blazing-hot sun. Each type of flora was keenly adapted to survive long dry spells. Palm trees with oversized coconuts lined the median, and either side of the strip gave way to large bodies of water – one being a shallow bay and the other the Gulf of Mexico.
As our airport shuttle approached the hotels, I noticed the cleanly-cut, rich and healthy green grasses, resulting from highly efficient watering systems. I felt as if the majestic Atlantic City hotels were transported to Cancun, and given an exotic flavor, with each hotel attempting to outdo the next. From the tinted glass of the airport shuttle, I gazed upon our hotel. The front landscape housed an array of native flowering plants, shrubs, and trees, surrounding a man-made lake with a marble fountain, cooling a neighboring straw hut, under which the workers could enjoy a brief respite from the sun, or in this case play dominos on the freshly painted picnic table.
From our balcony perch one could see the endless beach, and only guess as to its beginning and end. The fine white sand blended softly into the inviting transparent waters of the Gulf. At times, much to my surprise, the waters generated mature waves that broke onto the shore with a violent passion. However, most of the powerful shore break was instantaneously transformed to peaceful lapping rushes of gentle sea foam. Even the most cranky, defiant and temper-tantrum prone infant could be easily lulled to sleep by the soothing cyclic melody of the shoreline.
Overhead, seagulls danced among the clouds and shared the friendly skies with the reds, blues, and yellows of the Para-sailers’ enormous parachutes – a very popular tourist attraction. The bay – also visible from our perch – was not the same crystal clear color of the Gulf’s saline solution. It had all the characteristics of a Floridian swamp. The sea-weed laden bay, as if compensating for its lack of aesthetic attraction, encapsulated a rich diversity of plant and animal life.
One of the most fascinating aspects of my journey to Mexico was unexpectedly a result of encountering the local fauna, mainly the monstrous lizards that freely roamed outside of the hotel. Walking barefoot from the opaque pool deck to the beach, seeing a lizard cooling its dry leathery scales under the shelter of a shady nook, became commonplace.
The local market, an equivalent to the American mall, appeared to be a hybrid cross between the New York Stock Exchange and Mexican pop-culture. The infinite number of trolleys that frequented the main road made transportation to and from the market easily accessible. A broad cobblestone alley cut through the heart of the shopping market dividing the stores. A sweet smelling aroma of mouth-watering Mexican food loomed above our heads upon entering.
The layout of the market was chaotic, yet simplistic. The merchandise was displayed from the entrance of each store as a means of attracting attention. It was cluttered and spilled into the walkways, yet inside each glass sculpture, painting, or Cancun T-shirt, it was meticulously placed or perfectly folded in its designated area.
With each passing shop came the vigorous broken-English barrage of yells from the merchants, attempting to win over customers from the next store. It was their mini-version of Wall Street. Despite the fact that the humorous cliché shirts each shop sold were exactly the same, all claiming a similar motto – “What happens in Cancun stays in Cancun!” – the greeter did his best to individualize his store and appeal to the wandering tourists. The success or failure of the business depended upon the skill of the fast-talking greeter. Most of the tiny shops played popular Mexican dance numbers, while others, in an enterprising and alluring fashion, played American rap and rock tracks.
My friends and I were swept up in the hustle bustle of the market atmosphere. Upon getting comfortable and more relaxed in this chaotic ambiance, we implemented our elementary Spanish. One thing that I picked up on rather quickly, the price of everything depends on how finely tuned your bargaining skills are. Unlike American stores, the cost of everything is never etched in stone. Bargaining the price down became much easier once we did so in Spanish. I was particularly impressed with the quality put into each piece of hand-made artwork that I came across, especially the clay turtle that I bought for my mother.
Nightlife in Cancun epitomizes the The Catcher in the Rye concept of loss of innocence. Wild parties coupled with underage drinking and no parental supervision led to some life altering decisions. A majority of the 35 high school graduates that I vacationed with either got tattoos or bizarre body piercing. I guess, at that age freedom can go to your head!
The “strip” was local jargon for all of the best clubs in the area. Despite the high priced cover charge, the club scene offered the average party animal the chance to meet other American tourists, and to drink and dance the night away. The loud, modern, hip hop music flooded the dance floor. At times I forgot that I was even in Mexico. It felt like I was at the highly esteemed club Exit in New York City. MTV, known for its wild spring breaks, sponsored numerous events during my stay, trips such as the “Booze Cruise.” From the natural beauty of the countryside, to the crowded markets, to the wild parties, Cancun is a place I will never forget.