I stepped off the plane and walked down a ramp, only to be bombarded by salesmen promising their best offers. To say it was nauseating would be an understatement.
The moment you arrive in Cancun, Mexico, you see its natural beauty exploited and merchandised to satisfy an American clientele. Back and forth you are dragged by people giving you packets to explore the area. The prices are in bright red colors, but the salesman looks you in the eye and say, “For you ma’am, half the price.”
Before you can step outside to find a cab, you have already told 20 people that you don’t want to buy their tourist brochures. Finally, a cab. I reach the hotel and I think, “I have found peace,” but instead I spend the next two hours listening to a representative tell me all the things the hotel offers. I am gifted perfume and 20 additional packets.
Cancun has become the exploited mistress of a tired United States.
I walk down to the beach and promptly three hotel workers come by to ask me if I’d like a drink. I kindly refuse and lay there looking at the white sandy beaches, wondering, “is this really living?”
I get up to jump into the pool, hoping the water is cooler than the beach. My senses are quickly overwhelmed. There are five restaurants, three pools and workers everywhere. One of the pools even has a swim-up bar.
I am swimming, but I can’t really focus because I hear the voices of drunk Americans sitting at the bar acting like they rule the world, telling their neighbors rather loudly how successful they’ve been in life. Drink after drink, the voices get louder. They never have to leave the hotel. They have a pool, the beach, food, stores and drinks all in front of them. The food is catered to Americans: cheese quesadillas, burgers and wings. Almost like “The Truman Show,” I was in Mexico, but was it really Mexico?
I leave the hotel for dinner. On my way, I see an infinite row of hotels. Once I get to the restaurant, I realize that — complete with bright lights, people in flamboyant costumes and beautiful women dancing— I have arrived in Las Vegas. The entire strip was an exploited American idealization. I see stores like Gucci and Hermes, I see clubs that are playing Beyoncé and other American hits. The scene is adorned with classics like Outback Steakhouse and Hooters. It felt like Cancun was this strip of beauty that served to give Americans the world traveler status with all the comforts of home. It was all too much.
Rather overwhelmed by Cancun, I get in a taxi and ask to go to some unknown cities, far-off beaches or perhaps the Mayan ruins.
In the backseat of the car, I realize it takes only 10 minutes to leave the commercial Cancun. The taxi driver starts chatting and I find out that this is the low season. He says the real business is Spring Break, when all the underage Americans come to party because this is where they can drink. He tells me how President Donald Trump, a former real estate developer, wanted to build a hotel here but the city said no. He says this with pride. The more we drive, the more I start to see Mexico — the Mexico I had fallen in love with. He talks to me about politics and the recent presidential election.
Suddenly I am in a different city. I get out of the taxi to look around, and I ask him to wait. I start walking unflooded by tourist packages. I actually realize I don’t understand. I am hearing neither Spanish nor English. The people on the streets are speaking in their indigenous languages. Finally, a restaurant with soft shell tacos de barbacoa. I see the hustle and bustle. The landscape is no longer in English and overflowing with white tourists.
The next day the same taxi driver takes me to the Mayan ruins. Here I marvel at the impressive history. A city and an old empire that had more civilization than the wild parts of resort Cancun. On the drive back, the taxi driver tells me he used to live in the United States. He turns around and says, “I almost tried to go back, but as I faced the border I said it’s not worth it.”
I didn’t know how to reply. I was smacked with my own privilege. I could travel freely. I could enjoy Mexico because the dollar-to-peso exchange is in our favor. Yet, I didn’t want to go back to the U.S., nor did I want to go back to my hotel, but this was a choice. I wanted to stay and feel the humidity and to feel lost because I couldn’t speak Mayan.
It began to feel like the resorts and hotels populating the strip of Cancun were where tourists went to have their egos inflated, to be promised the “cultural experience,” to be treated like royalty with staff at hand and to drink. This was not the Mexico that I love but this was still a part of her truth. Cancun is a reminder that you can sell anything to an American, but like the Gucci belts at the market, there’s no guarantee of authenticity.