One of the most disconcerting things about travelling for me is the reconciliation between how I imagine a place to be and its reality. When I envision Hungary to be like Russia with less snow, and it turns out to be more like Boston. Cities and countries are always more complex and multifaceted than the travel brochures I create for them in my head: messier, the people's faces more pinched, the food greasier, the streets less swept with more missing cobblestones, the stray dogs slightly more menacing. It's always something to get used to, but it's never bothered me before, and I've always ended up liking the real thing better.
When my mom and I started planning this trip to Mexico, months ago, not long after the divorce, I envisioned Mexico as I've seen it in movies, especially "La Misma Luna," one of my favorites. Bright orange stucco buildings and handpainted billboards. Children everywhere. Young guys in leather jackets riding mopeds. Shacks in every available space, some ramshackle, some not, selling tamales and tropical fruit. Reggaeton blasting out car windows. My mother told me that we would be staying in a resort, but because I've never stayed in a resort before, that did nothing to my perception of what this experience would be like. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, when you stay in resort in foreign country, the resort is the experience. The goal is not only isolation from the real country, but from reality in general.
When we crossed the border and drove through a small city on our way to "the Mayan Palace," I saw Mexico exactly as I had envisioned it. Orange building here, handpainted fruit stand there. A young guy in a denim jacket stood on a street corner holding six roses, obviously waiting for someone. He looked adorably, preciously vulnerable, and I wanted to hug him. But we kept driving. We passed the last gas station in town which advertised the loteria mexicana, and kept driving. We got so far into the middle of nowhere I almost expected us to be going on walkabout, with only a flask of water and our wits to keep us alive. But no. We eventually reached a large compound of buildings. I'm sure the goal of the location was "oasis" but all I could think was "prison." Like in Holes, perhaps this place had the only water for miles. After two security checks, we were allowed inside.
From a distance, the place looks like a mental hospital, or a residential/office park that is on its way out. Once you get closer, you see the overlarge fake Christmas tree, the machine-driven fountain. All non-ocean waters feel artificial. The pavement is Disneyland smooth. But it isn't until we enter the main lobby that my stomach hits my knees.
Mayan Palace is a pretentious name, let's face it, and the whole resort experience to me is a big-budget, long-anticipated epic film that all critics pan as "missing its objective." All swelling John Williams score when the characters embrace, no real chemistry. The whole place smacks of "trying too hard." Trying to do what? Win my loyalty? Lull me into a trance? I still haven't made up my mind.
For a Mayan Palace the place feels vaguely Roman to me: the staff all in white, bustling about importantly serving comped margaritas, the vastness of the marble front corridor, the pillars, the smokeless fireplaces. I feel like I should be lounging on my side eating grapes. The concept is Hollywood Mayan Palace--perhaps the way Walt Disney would envision it--everything is a little too clean and polished to be real. All the opulence of the Mayan empire without the human sacrifice, without the messy, embarrassing blood. Even the quasi-authentic replica of a Mayan statue is too shiny, his tiny walnut-sized junk set back from the edge of the table, completely unlike the near-pornographic virility of the real statues I've seen in museums. He looks unsexed, castrated and impotent. Mayan culture de-offensive-ized for the wealthy sensibility. I feel sorry for him.
I don't know if I'm being stubborn or foolish to feel this way about the resort after one day. I know I'm being reactionary, but the whole place is obviously designed to evoke strong emotion. I feel manipulated, because that is the nature of the beast, as it were. The hallways are big and echo-y. Each apartment door feels isolated and surreal. There's an ashtray every few feet and I feel a strange urge to start smoking.
What really surprises me is how being here changes my perception even of myself. What kind of people come here? What kind of person does that make me? Am I self-indulgent? Xenophobic? What's the point of coming to another country and staying in an artificial environment? This is a cruise ship on land. I feel sick.
When I get undressed to take a shower, I stand naked in front of the full-length mirror. The too-bright fluorescent lighting accents every dark vein, every stray hair--every imperfection. I feel bloated and freakishly white, like a cooked lobster. I also feel a strange urge to circle all the parts of my body that I don't like with a black magic marker. I start to jump up and down in front of the mirror, to see what jiggles, then remember I learned that trick from a girl in high school who was anorexic, so I stop.
On the one hand, it's a testament to this resort's power that I feel this way. One place evoking so many emotions, and so strongly I feel I can't control them. But the power feels ill-gotten, despotic. Being a student, I would never qualify, but most guests here fall victim to the allures of a timeshare promotional presentation, which can last up to three hours and have hundreds of dollars attached to your mere attendance. The mindset reeks of an aggressive religious revival, or perhaps organized crime. I've never been so grateful to be poor in my life.
This is the hardest thing for me to say, but I'm still going to say it. Most of the people here like it. They like the isolation, the illusion of safety it offers. I say illusion because although I am less concerned with the possibility of mugging (and crime in general) than I would be elsewhere, when my little brother went missing this morning I had the same visions of him being loaded into a van and sold for scrap organs as I would have back home. I was still just as relieved/pissed off when we finally found him. But still, what is the difference between me and the people who enjoy this environment? What is wrong with them, or me? That's a real question, and one I will try to address later.
My final disappointment is this: I feel that the time I spent practicing sassy Spanish responses to catcalls with Chandler was completely wasted. I've been stared down, but not catcalled. Everyone here speaks English anyway. No Spanish catcalls so far. And I was really looking forward to that. Oh well.