Day III: Zona Hotelera

01070005Its time for another addition to my continuing series detailing Daniel Harker’s, Peter’s and my adventure in Mexico.  Check out Part I here and Part II here.

In the morning we woke up.  At least I am fairly certain it was morning when we woke, since we had no way of actually knowing.  You see, Daniel Harker, Pete, and I did not have a timepiece among us.  No watches.  No cell phones.  No iPods.  No way of actually telling us what time it was when we woke up.  Or what time it was when we ate.  Or what time it was when we finally turned ourselves in after each extremely full but extremely unscheduled day.  And do you know what?  This apparent deficiency did not bother me at all.  If anything it was a blessing.  We all came to Mexico to escape the pending complications and responsibilities of our lives, and what better way to escape the modern world than to escape time itself.  So, for that entire week, we hardly ever actually knew the hour.  We ate when we were hungry, we slept when we were tired, and we walked for what was probably hours through dusty Cancun streets without any real destination, although Peter’s fascination with maps – in this case a endlessly creased tourist brochure – ensured that while we never quite knew where we were going or where we came from, we always knew where we were.

So, we woke up during what was presumably morning in our small, bare room at the “Hostel Chac Mol,” each on a bunk mattress that would not be out of place in an army barracks.  The walls were thinly painted cement and the floor was covered in cold tiles.  Besides the beds, the only furniture in the room was a bright blue table, a row of metal lockers  (the kind you would find at a junior high school) and a noisy air conditioner, which was the very feature that prompted us to lay down that extra dollar a night to patronize the Chac Mol instead of its nearest competition. 

Before we left Edmonton, Daniel Harker had valiantly advocated for Cancun’s touristy industry by ensuring we were fully aware of the many hotels in the area whose quality could be easily assured with a few small symbols on Expedia, either diamonds or stars or whatever.  But I resisted, and not only because of the other symbol assigned to each hotel: the one that strikes a line through an S.  No, the main reason I had insisted on hostels as our lodging was that they prominently feature something that the majority of Cancun Hotels lack: Mexico.  Oh sure, the hotels in the Zona Hotelera feature paintings of Popocatepetl in their rooms and enchiladas in their restaurants, but many of them are also right next door to the Gap or a billboard advertising Gucci sunglasses or something equally un-Mexican.  Our room in the Chac Mol did not have any paintings on its walls, but its kitchen could have served hot dogs and apple pie and still been more Mexican than the Zona Hotelera.  On my mission I spent 730 nights in rooms just like the ones in Chac Mol, and I spent as many days hiking through streets just like the one outside Cac Mol’s doors.

We roused and showered, then headed down to the little office to settle our debts.  After paying the manager, an industrious man who not only ran the Chac Mol, but also the adjoining laundry mat, restaurant and internet café, we walked a few feet and met his wife and daughter, who were running the kitchen.  Fresh orange juice and toast: that is what we ate.  And really, the toast was superfluous; I could have fueled my entire vacation with that amazing, fresh squeezed orange juice.  And the service was as good as the juice.  Maria, who not only fed us breakfast but also took care of the hostel’s cleaning and laundry, was a saint.  One evening, we asked her where we could buy some tamales (verdes, of course), and she not only pointed us in the right direction – any concierge worthy of the title would do that – but the following morning, she supplemented our toast with a trio of steaming tamales that she had purchased specifically for us.  Maria is the kind of businesswoman that makes the hostels we used more authentic than all the hotels along the beach, because in Mexico, people like Maria are the rule rather than the exception.  The country is full of women just like her, who are willing to treat a couple of grubby white boys like her own sons.

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Hostel Chac Mol

The Hostel Chac Mol was, for me at least, in the perfect location.  No, we couldn’t see the beach from its balcony, but we could see a local taqueria, the neighborhood tienda, and, best of all, Cancun’s Zocalo.  Most cities in Mexico are built around a main square, which is often put to good use.  One Mexican tradition that its NATO allies lack is what is known as the paseo.  Basically, to pasear means to go out into the town square during the evening and just pass the time: playing football, socializing with neighbors, enjoying elotes (Peter’s favorite treat), and generally having the time of your life without doing much of anything.  And based on my previous explanation of why I found our timepiece deficiency such to my liking, you have probably already guessed that the paseo in Cancun’s Zocalo became an essential addition to almost every day we were there.

But not that day, it turned out.  As much as I yearned for the place I remembered from Mexico City’s crowded streets, I, and to a much greater degree Daniel Harker, also like the beach.  Shockingly, the best beach in Cancun was also the beach that was lined with those hotels I mentioned previously – you know, the ones with the stars and the diamonds and the Gucci sunglasses – so we determined to spend our first day in Cancun’s Hotel Zone.  And speaking of Gucci sunglasses, we decided to investigate the true worth of Bobby Boi’s business card, which after our cabbie’s enthusiastic endorsement gained a mystique that now demanded further exploration.  So, on the way to the beach Pete sunk a startling number of coins into a payphone in order to test the Nightclub owner’s promise.  Surprisingly, it appeared to us that the voice to whom Peter was conversing actually honored Bobby’s word, and invited us to the Coco Bongo that night free of charge.  And even more surprisingly Peter appeared to accept.  For a second I was a little disappointed that one of our nights in Mexico would be spent in such an un-Mexican locale, but the feeling didn’t last long.  After all, Cancun is the spring break capital of the world; I shouldn’t have been so concerned with my romantic notions of a Mexico remembered to miss out on the fun that brings thousands of College kids to Quintana Roo every year.  Especially when that fun is provided compliments of Mr. Bobby Boi.

We took the micro to the beach.  It was filled with maids and bellboys.  At one point, a busker even hopped aboard with his guitar, strummed a little tune, and then walked the isle collecting coins.  I am a confessed tightwad, which would usually prevent my surrendering anything to such performers, but I gave this one a coin, if only for adding at least a little nostalgia to this one day where Mexico did not extend deeper than the Zona Hotelera’s bright paint. 

Playa Tortuga

Playa Tortuga

Playa Tortuga, the beach Maria recommended, was everything a beach should be: fine, white sand, and a soft, blue ocean as warm as a perfectly-poured bath.  Petey, Daniel Harker, and I had a great day on the beach, jumping into waves and sneaking into hotel patios. 

At dinnertime – that is to say, when we were hungry – we grabbed a bite at a local eatery a little way from the hotel zone and its McDonalds and Pizza Hut.  I started out with tacos, which, together with Mexico’s almost endless variety of artery-clogging culinary creations, were worth the trip themselves.  And for once I am not exaggerating: I love authentic Mexican food so much that I would fly across the continent for a taste.  Dan served his mission and Guatemala, a country that, despite its proximity to the Mexico, subsisted on a diet completely lacking in flavour.  It took only one meal in Cancun to realize that his entire eating life has been incomplete up to this point; so he decided that from then on out, he would always order exactly what I did, so as to ensure he doesn’t miss any of Mexico’s culinary bounty that I, the group’s Mexican food expert, would ferret out from the darkest corners of each day’s menu.  Peter, who served among East LA’s Chicanos, was experienced enough to order for himself.

What followed that evening is probably the closest I experienced to what most people in the western world would think of as a bachelor party.  But as you will quickly realize from the tale, even the worldliest of our evenings in Mexico was quite different that that of the typical spring breaker. 

The Zona Holetera’s nightlife was the perfect recreation of our Sunday School videos’ depictions of the great and spacious building: a modern Sodom and Gomorrah.  It was dark except for numerous neon signs, it was hot, and it was noisy.  Clubs and bars blasted loud music.  Twenty-somethings wandered the streets, drunk and laughing.  College girls who were probably reasonably studious back home were removing their bikini tops from under their scanty clubwear and waving them above their heads.  Multiple shady characters openly tried to sell us weed.  Or worse.  Equally shady street merchants rudely shouted at us to buy some piece of junk or another.  Apparently, Cancun’s merchants believe that the best way to make a sale is to insult and belittle their customers, since they practically cursed at people when they approached their stalls and definitely cursed at them when they left.  Overall, the festive ambiance was unlike anything I had seen back in Edmonton, even when the Oilers won a game in the Stanley Cup finals.  We made our way through the crowd like a trio of Amish teenagers in the big city on the first night of Rumspringa.

Cervesa flowed in the Hotel Zone.  But Daniel Harker, Pete and I did not partake.  Instead, we took solace in another amber liquid: Manzana Lift!  For those who have yet to drink this godly nectar, Manzana Lift is an Apple Flavoured soft drink that, as far as I know, isn’t sold north of the Rio Grande.  During my mission, I drank more Manzana Lift than I did water.  And I did not hesitate to pick up my habit as soon as we found a convince store and a bench on which to sit while allowing my taste buds to travel back to a simpler, Manzana-filled time. Daniel Harker, who outdid both Pete and I with a full liter of the drink, didn’t actually finish his soda by the time we got up and headed of in search of some sort of diversion before the Coco Bongo opened, but he looked right at home walking the streets with a bottle in hand, as if the apple on the label was a clever way to conceal an open bottle of liquor.

Our first stop of the evening – or second, if you count the convenience store – was a bar unimaginatively named “The Corona Bar,” after the Mexican beer company.  The bar was outdoors and bordering the sidewalk under a large, permanent canopy.  From our vantage point on the street, we could both clearly see and hear the house band banging out a number of popular American rock songs.  Perhaps because it was the closest entertainment at hand, perhaps because of the songs’ familiarity and perhaps because of the way the cute little singer swayed her hips in a way that had Daniel Harker completely memorized, we moved in for a closer view.  From the sidewalk on the other side of Corona Bar’s parameter fence, we had a great view of band and especially those hips, waving back and forth to the beat.

“Hey you guys!”  Our trance was broken by a rough voice, speaking English but with a heavy Mexican accent.  “Come on!  No cover – come, come!”  The voice came from the bar’s doorman, an overweight man with a thick moustache.

“Oh, no thanks” Peter replied politely.  “We’re not planning on drinking anything; and we can see just fine here.”  It was true, we could see perfectly well.

“Don’t matter, come in, no cover!”

“Even if we aren’t going to buy anything?”

“Yes, yes, come on!”  The bouncer must have thought that if he could just get us to a table, we would surely purchase something.  He was wrong.  But the bar was practically deserted, so we decided there would be no harm in sitting down for a while.  On the way in, Daniel Harker even asked about his outside drink, the half-empty Manzana Lift, but the doorman didn’t care if he brought it in.

We headed over to one of the many empty tables to watch the band.  Shortly, a waiter came up to take our order.  Again being as polite as we could, we declined his offers for refreshment.  Well, the waiter didn’t put much stock into our civility, because he looked at us as if we had just made a pass at his girlfriend: he appeared like he truly and genuinely hated us with an ardent passion usually reserved for traitors and rival soccer fans.  He stormed off as we sat sheepishly.  “We told the doorman we wouldn’t buy anything,” we whispered ourselves in justification; “it’s not like were taking a table from a customer.”

Daniel Harker, Pete and I sat at that table for a while.  The singer with the memorizing hips ended her set.  The bar slowly began filling.  Out of the blue, our surely waiter comes back to our table and without a word snatched the still unfinished Manzana Lift from in front of Daniel Harker and stormed off without breaking his stride. Or his scowl.  Another merchant came up to us, this one wearing a flowered shirt, a couple of leis, and a number of oversized sombreros (apparently spring breakers can’t tell the difference between Mexico and Hawaii).  He tried to sell us some of his hats, and then went away as angry as our waiter when we declined.  He even took the effort to extend for us the finger between his pointer and ring.  Someone should really teach a course in customer service here.

I soon noticed a couple of fellow patrons looking over at us (I use the term patron lightly, since we still had not actually bought anything from the Corona Bar).  When our eyes met, Kim and Julio headed over to our table.  The girl was white, in her late twenties, not too pretty, and as if to compensate, dressed even more skanky than most girls in the hotel zone.  From her uncoordinated movements, it was obvious her evening festivities had begun a long time before she met us.  The guy was Mexican, and actually quite put together.  I don’t know what their exact relationship was, because it soon became clear that her purpose in coming over to our table was to hit on Pete, and his was to assist.

Pete took it all in stride, if a little red-cheeked.  Daniel Harker and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience.  We snickered to ourselves as Pete tried to repel the advances of this inebriated, promiscuous suitor.  Although the visit wasn’t entirely free of embarrassment for ourselves, either.  Early in the conversation, I told our new friends how I had spent two years in Mexico as a missionary, as I usually did when people asked how we spoke Spanish so well.  Kim’s response to the explanation was different from the nods of admiration we usualy received.  Her reaction was something like this:

“WHAT?!  You mean you didn’t have any sex for TWO YEARS?!”  This was the first and only thing that came to her mind when we mentioned our missions.  Our abstinence seemed to be both incredibly unbelievable and incredibly laughable for her.  I didn’t tell her that I actually hadn’t had sex ever.

The embarrassment didn’t end there.  While Pete kept himself occupied rejecting more than one offer to go off with Kim, a new act started in the Corona Bar.  A group of “Corona Girls,” dressed in incredibly small mini skirts and equally skimpy bikini tops proudly bearing the name of their sponsor, came out to dance with the bar’s more active customers.  They were led by probably the hottest girl I have ever seen in person.  And I mean hot in its precise technical definition – she wasn’t just beautiful, she was the kind of girl who could cause any RM to replace the found memories of his mission with thoughts similar to those Kim expressed on the subject.  She radiated sexuality like the bass speakers accompanying her provocative movements, and when she complied with the music’s request to investigate how low she could go, it was all I could do to maintain my composure.  (Oh, and by the way, she could go very low).

“You like that?” Julio asked, referring to the Corona Girl like a slab of beef.  I guess I did not keep my composure as well as I thought.  That my lust was so apparent thoroughly embarrassed me embarrassed for a second time that evening, and for the first time since we met Kim and Julio, I would have gladly switched places with Pete.

“She’s pretty cute,” Julio continued, “but I’ve done hotter.”  An obvious lie, judging from his present companion, and from the fact that I simply didn’t believe there was anyone hotter than that Corona girl in all of Cancun.

“You wanna hit that?  I could totally set it up, I guarantee…”

“No thanks,” I interrupt.  “We had better be going anyways.”  Ashamed, I hastily get up from our table and make for the exit.  Daniel Harker, and especially Peter, did not hesitate to join.

After leaving the Corona Bar, we wandered aimlessly for a while, purchasing a tour package to Chizen Itza in a couple of days, heading to the beach for a little reprieve, and watching fireworks over the ocean.  Before too long, a crowded line started snaking outside of the Coco Bongo, a large warehouse-like building with protruding figures of the Mask and Beetlejuice.  Above the door, the marquee read “Big Show Tonight.”  We had learned earlier, however, that the same show occurred every night.  We had also learned that the Coco Bongo’s cover charge was $40, a fact that completed the transformation of Bobby Boi’s card from a curious oddity to a valuable commodity.  With that piece of paper in hands, we made our way to the customer service window, still unsure as to weather they would actually honor the manger’s promise.

They did, I’m happy to report.  The large bouncer behind the window took the card, consulted a list (good thing we called ahead) and momentarily came out of his room to award us each an orange wrist-band emblazoned with the letters V, I and P.  After doing so, he escorted us to the front of the line, which had grown even during the time we spend at the customer service window.  When we arrived at the main doors, which had already opened and were slowly admitting patrons, the bouncer parted the velvet rope separating the line from the street, stopped the queue and ushered us into the club.  Do you have any idea how amazing it feels to have a velvet rope parted for your benefit?  Let me tell you, it was quite exhilarating.  Not to mention our excusal from the queue – years of grade-school field trips with their strict “no budding” line policies were vindicated in that sublime moment, where scores of eager party-goers waited for us to cross the rope and disappear into the club they were paying so much to enter.

There was a row of ticket-takers a little ways through the doors.  One of them, speaking Spanish in a very sweet-sounding voice secretly insulted each spring breaker with the most vulgar slurs his language offered.  When he did this to Peter, my friend responded in Spanish “Excuse me, did you say something?”  The gatekeeper looked a bit shocked that one of us gringos actually understood his insults.  He should have saw it coming, though – we were VIPs, after all.

Coco Bongo’s interior was very spacious.  A large, square bar formed an island in the middle, the walls we lined with a banistered second storey, and a huge stage situated at about the same level as the balcony dominated its front.  When we entered, the floor was already relatively full, but it soon became shoulder-to-shoulder packed.  We made our way to the VIP area on the second storey, where we had a wonderful view of the stage and the entire dance floor.  At first, the only entertainment was the typical blaring dance music, but then the show begin.

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The Coco Bongo

The show consisted of act after cheesy act of celebrity impersonators lip-syncing to top 40 hits.  There was a Michael Jackson impersonator, a Brittney Spears impersonator, a Freddie Mercury impersonator, and many, many more.  The musical show was punctuated with acrobats swinging from the ceiling directly above the crowd and performing skits, such as a highflying battle between Spiderman and the Green Goblin.  It was exactly the kind of club that a man like Bobby Boi would own. 

All and all, we had an amazingly entertaining night at the Coco Bongo watching the ridiculous performers and the even more ridiculous clubbers.  At various times during the night, girls were selected from the audience to go upon stage and dance.  Without fail each one of those poor, inebriated spring breakers snaked one of her legs through the stage’s banister and proceeded to hump a pole.  At other times, the performers lined girls up on top of the bar and poured tequila down their throats.  They did this right over a large vent in the floor that blew air up each of the girl’s legs in order to lift their skirts.  About halfway into our stay, we even saw Kim, Pete’s friend from the Corona bar, up on that bar, having her skirt blown up with the rest of the floosies and loving every minute of it: seeing Peter’s suitor sink to an even lower level of depravity was a highlight in the Coco Bongo’s captivating display of the hilarious effects of excess alcohol consumption among young people.

We must have stayed for hours, but we eventually grew tired of the endless parade of cheesy performers and uninhibited spring breakers.  So we navigated our way through an every-shifting maze of drunken partygoers and eventually found an exit, the scarcity of which would almost certainly be a considered a fire hazard back home.  Then we boarded another micro full of maids and busboys and headed home.

Day II: Memphis, TN

At long last, I am pleased to bring you part two of Daniel Harker, Pete and my adventures in Mexico.  (Maybe we’ll actually get to Mexico in this segment.)  If you haven’t read part one, check it out here.  And stay tuned for the continuing saga. 

As relaxing as you may think it is to nap on a narrow airport bench with no bedding and a rolled-up swimsuit for a pillow, my sleep was restless.  For a few hours before our flight, I drifted in and out of consciousness, waking to the sounds of the Great Falls Airport slowly coming to life.  Once, Daniel Harker got up and photographed us attempting to sleep on our benches to insure there is documented evidence to support our future tales temporary vagrancy.  When the hope of any additional rest became too remote to seriously entertain, I sat up and looked around.  The airport had sprung to life, with tens of patrons scurrying like groundhogs under the airport-cougar’s hungry gaze, buying coffee and removing their clothing in front of diligent security officers.  I stretched, re-packed, and, when Daniel Harker and Peter are ready, joined the throng.

Although a more talented storyteller would probably be up for the task, air travel is so incredibly boring that trying to make its description even remotely entertaining is beyond my modest capabilities.  So instead of taxing myself with the challenge of relating our flight in a way that won’t sour your opinion in my humor, I will fast forward a bit.  I assure you that you are not missing anything of any great significance – all three of us survived the journey, nobody was detained as suspected terrorists, and there were no celebrity sightings.

The day did not pass without any incident, however, and I resume the narrative at our layover in Memphis.  Our first order of business was to grab an evening meal that we purchased from a obese black lady who looked so displeased with her job at Wendy’s that I can only assume it was actually some kind of innovative judicial punishment.  The meal itself was unremarkable.

We next made our way to the terminal only to learn that our flight was, contrary to the widely held belief in airline punctuality, delayed.  Upon learning this, there were only two options available to us, and we availed ourselves of both: first we whined, and then we sat down to wait.  After a short time performing the latter, I began watching our fellow passengers, most of whom were busy doing the former.  I quickly realized that, despite Cancun’s supposed popularity among spring-breakers, Daniel Harker, Petey and I were part of a very small minority of passengers under the age of sixty-five, and certainly the only ones below thirty.  This fairly obvious dearth of youth was probably what prompted Bobby Boi to approach us.

Bobby Boi, as any reflection on his name would suggest, is about as sleazy a character as they come.  If you were to call a casting agency and tell them you need a shady used car salesmen, the actor they would send would not be half as sleazy as Bobby Boi.  He had slicked hair and alligator shoes, and wore a white suit with the requisite gold chain peeking out of his unbuttoned collar.  He slithered over to us and asked if we were headed to Cancun that fine evening.  I looked nervously at Daniel Harker; this is exactly the kind of person I’m sure all mothers have in mind when they instruct their children to never talk to strangers.  But Pete was braver than I and proudly answered in the affirmative.

“In that case, my friends, let me introduce myself,” he began, giving us his name. “I’ve got myself a nightclub right in the heart of Cancun called the Coco Bongo, have y’all heard of it?”

“No,” Pete replied, in an unfortunate tone that invited further conversation (although I’m sure Bobby Boi needed no such indication to proceed).  The Coco Bongo, by the way, is taken from the classic motion picture, ‘The Mask,’ which immediately suggests the club’s potential as a classy establishment.

“Well, I’m mighty surprised to hear that ‘cause my club’s the best in all ‘a Cancun.”  The best in all of Cancun?  Oh sure, I thought to myself.  Judging by its owner, I imagined the Coco Bongo to be a run down seventies-themed disco between Uncle Jim’s All-You-Can-Eat Shrimp Shack and a building whose only identifying mark is a neon sign reading “Girls Girls Girls’.  There was absolutely no way that this loser could own the best nightclub in Cancun.

“I’m sure you’d love it – we’ve got a huge show every night, It’s a big hit, you’ll love it, a huge show.” 

He paused to look us over, as if deciding whether we were worthy of hearing a deep secret. 

“Ya know what?  Y’all seem like mighty fine people, ya are.  Yep, it’s been very fine meetin’ ya’ll an’ everythin’, so I’d like to personally invite you to come by the Coco Bongo and check it out yerselves – my treat!”  With that he whipped out a business card and handed it to Petey, who took it less hesitatingly than I would have. 

“Just call that there number on there, and tell’m Bobby Boi sent ya.  They’ll hook you right up – all VIP an’ everythin’!  You’ll love it, I promise.  It’s the best club in all Cancun I tell ya – the best!”  And with that he took off, looking the other passengers over in order to find some other sap to invite to his club.

If that business card had been placed in my hand, it would have found itself promptly relocated to the trash where it would probably feel more at home.  But it was not in my hand, it was in Pete’s.  And for a reason that I cannot fathom, it shortly found itself inside Pete’s pocket.

Airport patrons continued coming and going, clutching fast food hamburgers and talking loudly into their cell phones.  The three of us took turns walking up to the counter for information, trying to maintain our excitement for this trip, which was then over 24 hours and completely devoid of the beaches and ruins we dreamed of back home.  Presently, a couple came over to rest in the seats across from ours.  The man, probably around thirty-five, was well groomed and dressed in kakis and one of those pastel colored button-down shirts that have become so popular among young professionals.  From his demeanor, it was easy to tell that his ego was of a size that would make anyone proud: he definitely thought he was hot stuff.  And so did his female companion, by the looks of it.  Her hands were all over the man, and her eyes gave off that gleam that suggested she would rather have him all too herself, rather than share him with the rest of us stranded passengers.

“Hey,” he said with a Hollywood smile “off to Cancun?”  Why, out of an entire plane-load of delayed passengers did this doofus choose us to converse with?  But he seemed harmless enough, and I figured he may help us pass the time, so we engaged the couple.  With this minimal show of attention, the man, Chuck, takes off.  As if we were college roommates reunited after years of separation, he cheerfully explained his profession – a real estate developer – and more importantly, the wealth it has afforded him.  In fact, he seemed almost desperate to impress upon us that he is quite rich.  At one point during the conversation, he even pulled a hundred-dollar bill out of his overstuffed wallet and claimed that he would be willing to give it to us right then without reservation.  He didn’t actually do it, mind you, but he certainly made it clear that he could have.  

By the time the conversation turned to the events that had led him to the chairs across from ours, I was actually starting to enjoy the company – if only for entertainment purposes.  In turned out, as the man recounted, that not only has he gathered wealth thorough industry, but also through chance, for his present trip to Mexico was to celebrate a recent lottery win, which earned him a few thousand dollars and the girl at his side. You see, the tale of his winning week included an explanation of how he had only met his present companion, Mindy, the day before (a fact he was extremely proud of) and how they had decided to run off for a weekend in Cancun that very morning.  Mindy was obviously a trophy and almost certainly a gold digger, although a slightly desperate one from the looks of it, considering the relatively meager winnings this guy was boasting and the slim chance that he is actually worth the amount he repeatedly insinuated.

Our rather one-sided conversation with Chuck and Mindy was periodically interrupted by their frequent trips to a nearby airport bar.  After each of these intoxicating recesses, the couple resumed their positions across from us to continue the discussion, although in progressively less congenial terms.  In Chuck’s increasingly drunken state, Daniel Harker, Pete and I progressed from good friends to curious onlookers to potentially hostile enemies.    More and more, he treated us with contempt and suspicion, and every so often became unexplainably angry, spitting out threats or other offensive outbursts.  Each time he did, the couple engaged in a slightly disturbing, yet hilarious routine, that went something like this:

Without any apparent cause, Chuck – who, may I remind you, was just over an hour ago offering us $100 – would suddenly become irritated and threaten something like: “What! Are you saying I’m Gay?!  I’ll show you whose gay, you little punk”  (but with a more colorful vocabulary than I care to employ here).  At this point, Mindy (the less intoxicated of the pair) would play the peacemaker and calm Chuck down by whispering something apparently quite erotic into his ear.  The tactic always worked: whatever it was she told Chuck was certainly explicit enough to take his mind off the imagined conflict.  His eyes would light up, his lips would curl into a disturbing smile, and he would say to us tauntingly, “Do you want to know what she said?”

We would vigorously shake our heads no.

“She told me what she is going to do when we get to our hotel. She said…”

“No don’t tell ‘em!” Mindy would interrupt, giggling.

“I’m gonna tell ‘em…”  He would playfully threaten.  The two would go back and forth like this for a while, using the possibility of her secret perversions being revealed to our innocent minds as potential weapons in this curious display of public foreplay.  Luckily, Mindy always prevailed and we were spared the details.  This bizarre ritual repeated itself with surprising consistency three or four times until, to no one’s relief more than ours, the plane began boarding.

Once again, the flight was uneventful.  We landed in Cancun well past midnight, and wearily made our way through the deserted airport to find transportation to the hostel where we had arranged to stay.  We passed Chuck curled up on a bench in a way that suggested his early evening drinking will leave Mindy’s whispered promises unfulfilled, at least for tonight.  We passed Bobby Boi, barking commands into his cell phoned.  And we passed a gang of obnoxious taxi drivers who loudly heckled us for politely declining their services and opting instead to use public transportation (after navigating the public transit in Mexico’s largest city for two years, I considered myself savvy enough for Cancun’s).  Then, after discovering first hand that the bus terminal had long since silenced for the night, we walked back to the taxi posse, endured their boisterous but admittedly well deserved we-told-you-so’s, and bought passage on an airport van from one of the less obnoxious drivers.

Out of curiosity, Daniel Harker asked the driver if he had ever heard of a nightclub called The Coco-Bongo.

“Oh yes,” he answered enthusiastically.  “It’s the best nightclub in all of Cancun.”  Pete’s hand moved instinctively to his pocket.

Day I: Great Falls

In my farewell post, I mentioned that I am attempting to write a travel story of my trip to Mexico with my roommates a few years ago. Well, here is the first bit that I have wrote. It is a detailed narrative, so it is much longer that a blog post, but I hope you enjoy it. And feel free to leave constructive feedback. So, without further ado…

If my roommates and I acted on every inclination we ever had to travel to foreign countries, we would have likely visited an honest ¾ of the world by now. I’m sure that at one point or another, Daniel Harker, Pete or I must have said something like, “I hear that Uzbekistan is nice this time of year” at which point we would all enthusiastically plan a trip and then never mention the suggestion again. But one snowy January night the stars aligned and the patron saint of travel smiled on us such that one of our dreams of international adventure lodged itself firmly enough in our frontal lobes to survive until we found ourselves, quite unexpectedly I assure you, loading backpacks into Daniel Harker’s car with tickets to Cancun in hand. That is how our trip to Mexico began.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this adventure is the complete lack of planning that went into the whole affair. Actually, that is not completely true: we did a lot of planning, but no genuine plan came from any of it. Hours were spent arguing over every detail of the journey and pouring over a hopelessly outdated map of Mexico like a general positioning his troops for battle. We mapped and re-mapped an epic journey spanning numerous southern Mexican states that would have taken months to complete, even at a furious pace. We have one week.

This particular limitation is not, as you may guess, of our own choosing, and explaining its origin gives me a good chance to introduce my cast. Peter Leavitt, the youngest of us three, is the guy who all mothers wish their daughters would marry, which might explain why he is not actually married. He is a psychology student who likes to read books like “The End of Poverty” during Christmas break, but is also a fun party guest who is particularly popular among the fairer sex. Daniel Harker can best be described by listing his five favorite things: secrets, roller coasters, horror movies, dancing, and the beach. A mere three days after we return from Mexico, he is off to Calgary to enter the working world as a computer programmer. As for myself, I have just finished a genetics degree and will shortly attend law school in Virginia (of all places). Thanks to me, our apartment is the only one I know with its own “Philosophy Box,” and I think its fair to say that all three of us thoroughly enjoy pulling out its ideas and throwing them around: an activity that usually results in a sharp disagreement between Daniel Harker and I, who without a single recorded exception, have held exactly opposite views on absolutely everything we have ever discussed. I would probably sooner call the sky red than agree with Daniel Harker that it is blue – not by choice, mind you; it just seems that, even though he is one of my best friends, it is physically impossible for us to reach any sort of consensus. But anyway, almost immediately upon return, I will marry Theresa, my girlfriend of over a year. So, both Daniel Harker and I are about to shift our lives out of neutral, and we are lucky to be able to squeeze in even the short week that we do have in Mexico. And with that impetus, Daniel Harker puts his car and gear and we drive off, the sun setting behind the Garneu Towers.

My roommates and I are poor students. And more importantly, we are poor students who know we are poor students. So we travel cheap. Which means we’re not flying out of Edmonton; we’re not even flying out of Calgary. We are flying out of Great Falls, Montana, a good seven-hours away. And with a 9:00 AM fight, we have a full night of driving ahead of us, which wouldn’t be so bad if our car had been the kind of reliable vehicle that the Saturn commercials professed it to be. Instead, we had a car that burned more oil than it did gas: our pit stops weren’t to fill up the gas tank, but to take out one of the twenty-or-so bottles of motor-oil we had in the trunk and empty it into the engine. And to make matters worse, every few miles, Daniel Harker’s car would interrupt our otherwise excited conversation to sputter and cough violently, like an old smoker forced to run a marathon. Each time it did, we would all go silent for a moment, nobody wanting to vocalize our fear that the most backpacking we will do this week would be along the side of Highway 2 in search of a rest stop. Then the car would return to normal and the chatter resumes.

But the old girl does admirably, and we soon pull up to the Sweetgrass, Montana boarder crossing. Now, this particular port of entry has somewhat of a reputation among Albertans as the strictest crossings in the province. I can only imagine what the grizzled boarder guards must be thinking as they see us approach at two in the morning, three twenty-three year old boys sputtering up to the line in a car that reeks of oil, pretending their vehicle is not on the verge of collapse. We pull up to the window and are greeted by a clean-shaven port official whose stern demeanor suggests he believes the very notion of American freedom depends on protecting the country from Canadians who have visited a farm within the last fourteen days.

“You know your car is burning oil?” No chit-chat, this is an officer of the United States government.

“Yes officer.” This man stands directly in the path of our international adventures, and we wish to do nothing to offend him.

He drops the issue – however much he may wish to extend his jurisdiction, he’s probably unable to think of anything criminal about driving a piece of junk. “Where are you boys headed for this evening?”

“Cancun, Sir.”

The officer pauses, as if trying to remember if he had ever heard of a town called Cancun, Montana.

“Step outside of the vehicle, please.”

We are escorted into the boarder post, where a number of guards are standing around talking about the guns they received when they opened their latest chequing account (or something like that). One of them, whose name must have been Wayne or Dusty or something, came over and asked us a number of questions. After explaining our story we fill out customs declarations and give our cards to Wayne. He tells us that it will take a while to process our case and immediately goes back to rejoin his friends. We sit in that boarder post for over an hour, too nervous to speak above a whisper, while Wayne impresses his co-workers with stories of all the things he has killed with his banking-gun, our customs cards sitting on his desk the whole time. The office is otherwise empty. Finally Wayne remembers us, picks up our customs and comes back to the counter acting as if he had been locked in his office this whole time, carefully weighing the merits and risks of letting us step over that hollowed line that separates America from the stench of Canadian socialism.

“Looks like everything checks out,” says Wayne, although we all know that absolutely no checking had been done. We politely thank Wayne and go back out to our car, which we find has been searched without us even realizing it. Those boarder guards sure are sneaky little fellows.

We had anticipated a delay at the boarder – Daniel Harker’s brother has many tales of late-night boarder-crossing that have resulted in the prolonged interrogations that can only survive constitutional challenges because they are performed on non-citizens. But thanks to Wayne’s apparent disinterest, we arrive at the Great Falls airport with time enough to check out the famous Great Falls nightlife, if we had so desired. But instead we opt to stay on the straight and narrow – there will be plenty of time for nighttime festivities later.

Not wanting to pay for a week of parking, we begin looking for a suitable area nearby where we could give Daniel Harker’s car a well-deserved rest. However, the Great falls airport is in the middle of nowhere, which would probably come as no surprise to anyone who has ever been to an airport, or anyone who has ever been to Montana. I guess we should have looked into this, but I had simply assumed that the Great Falls Airport would be somewhere in the vicinity of Great Falls. Fortunately for us, another vestige of civilization often found in the middle of nowhere is the trusty service station. In this case, our salvation was called the Flying J. The J is a truck stop across the interstate and mile or so from the airport whose large parking lot particularly caught our eyes. We sputter into one of its extra large parking spots and jerk to a stop, grateful for the small miracle that Daniel Harker’s car had just pulled off by completing her journey. That we need to return all the way home in a week isn’t a worry at this point.

We go into the J’s convenience store to ask if we could leave the car here for the week. (I would rather leave it here forever, but Daniel Harker might object to my indifference to his transportation needs). The store’s cashier was a burnout with stringy hair and droopy eyelids, either from drugs or from the fact that it was two-thirty in the morning.

“Excuse me,” asks Daniel Harker. The burnout looks up. “Would it be ok if we leave our car in the parking lot for a week while we fly from the airport?”

The burnout looks a little surprised. Either this was the first time anyone had ever contemplated parking at the J and hiking over to the airport, or else he is only now realizing there is an airport nearby. He shrugs – a gesture I presume signals the affirmative. I imagine the late-night cashier probably doesn’t even have the authority to refill the hot dog warmer, let alone hand out impromptu parking passes, but I just want to get going.

We return to the car and prepare for the next leg of our journey. We have each packed a standard size bookbag with only the essentials: a couple of clothing changes, a few toiletries, and swimming suits. We shed our jackets and place them in the trunk, even though we realize very quickly that April in Montana is not t-shirt weather. But we leave them anyways, since there will be no need for coats where we are going; and besides, it’s just a short walk to the terminal. Well, that short walk turned out to be a tad longer than expected.

I never would have imagined that our trip to Mexico would include trudging for over a mile of frozen Montana foothills at 3:00 in the morning without any kind of protective clothing. But at least we can see the glowing lights of the Great Falls airport ahead, guiding us like the Moses’ pillar of fire. As my eye remains fixed on the terminal’s florescent lights, my mind’s eye is fixed on its internal heating. Shivering, I will myself to take each step, keeping in mind that at the end of this path is Cancun, with its tropical climate and shimmering beaches.

Finally we reach the airport’s glass doors, which not only offer us the warm that we desperately crave, but a view of padded benches that would be perfect for a well-needed sleep (our nocturnal journey finally starting to catch up with us). Pete, reaches for the door and pulls the handle.

It doesn’t budge.

He pulls again. Nothing.

He shakes it. I try the other door without success. The airport is locked! We are shut out in the cold. I can’t believe it. Aren’t all airports open 24 hours a day? I guess Great Falls isn’t the Metropolis I thought it was.

The three of us fan out to peer into the large windows for any sign of life. I can’t see a soul. The airport is completely deserted. I look back the way we came, back at the Flying J in the distance. Do we actually have to hike all the way back there? We certainly can’t sit at the airport’s front door for who knows how long before it opens. After a brief discussion, we decide we have no other choice. We might as well go back to our coats and try to get a few hours of sleep in the car. We start back across the parking lot, dejected.

But wait – is there someone over there? Yes, there is! Inside the booth at the parking lot’s entrance is a middle-aged and somewhat overweight woman. I haven’t the slightest clue why the airport had decided to man the parking booth all night when the airport itself is clearly disserted. I might be mistaken, but I don’t think many people come out to the middle of nowhere to park in front of a building that is locked up as tight as it would be had asbestos been found in its air ducts… although, I must admit, this is essentially what we did; except, of course, we refused to pay the $8/day to do it.

The attendant was very sympathetic to our plight, if a little surprised that anyone would want into the airport at this ungodly hour. She radioed a security guard, and a few minutes, a mustached officer drove up in his pickup and took us to the front door. He pulled out has impressive key ring and let us in the terminal. We might make it to Mexico after all. We thank the guard profusely, and run into the building, marveling at all of its modern amenities as if we had been lost in the woods for years and have just found our way back into the city. Well, I should qualify that last metaphor by specifying that its like we found ourselves back into a Montana homestead, since the walls were filled with antlers and the building’s central decoration is a stuffed cougar growling at us from some boulders set in a man-made waterfall; the escalator passing within inches of his outstretched claws.

We navigate safely past the mountain lion and find ourselves a couple of benches long enough for us to grab a quick nap. After the night we had, I think we deserve it.