A Golden Friendship.
Cancun in 1996, by any stretch of imagination, was not Mexico. Cancun, in appearance, was the United States of America. Although the market has opened up a lot to the ‘average’ traveller, since my visit there in 1996, I am sure that Cancun is still very much the playground of the rich USA set. Certainly, I found that anything representing Mexico had been turned into some ‘Disney-fied’ version of Mexico aimed at tourists seeking a ‘theme park’ version of Mexican culture. I found this rather sad. Mexico has such a rich heritage and such a vibrant culture. Why would anyone not want to indulge in the authentic beauty?
Don’t get me wrong, Cancun seemed a fantastic resort if you want to enjoy beautiful, glossy hotels on the stunning Gulf of Mexico coastline. It’s just not the place to go if you want to be able to say “I’ve been to Mexico”, for it bears no resemblance to the real Mexico; a land of fascinating ancient and modern history, a people of the most kind and generous nature I think I have ever experienced in my worldwide travels, a landscape of such natural splendour and a society that still stands with one foot in the third world, while stepping boldly, into the first.
I had enjoyed a few days of rest soaking up the sun, good food and all of the comfort that a luxury hotel, made of dollars and marble, can offer. The rest and the luxury were restorative and I am truly grateful for the privilege that my dad’s career afforded us. It’s just that I am not a luxury hotel, sunbathing all day kind of guy. I like to make my own food, shop where local people shop, mix with real people, speak in the language of the country I’m visiting, experience the culture and learn from meeting random people from all walks of life. There’s nothing better than sharing stories of living life, around a fire, with home cooked food, honesty, tears and laughter.
Besides, my discomfort at being guest in this fine hotel was increasing. I had been fortunate to experience many fine hotels in my life. My dad’s work in the film industry had offered us many high-end indulgences. I had, however, worked in a fine hotel in the heart of London’s Seven Dials area, in Covent Garden. This was a six star ‘de-luxe’ hotel and was regularly home to Royalty; hosting various events and functions. Once you work in hotels, you feel a sense of ‘family’ with anyone else working in that field. That never leaves you. Having done the job, it felt uncomfortable to be served by others; particularly once I started speaking with the hotel staff in Mexico and discovered that their salary was shockingly just $12 per day!
One of the hotel staff I would regularly chat with was a man called Oro. He was in his forties and he told me he was married and had several children. He described how he and his wife had a home, some distance from Cancun, in a city called Valladolid. Oro described how he worked in Cancun during the ‘tourist season’, to make money to support his family. He explained how the very low wage was supplemented by taking tips. He showed interest in me, in England and the UK and we shared stories about working in hotels. Initially his interest was perfunctory and no doubt aimed at achieving tips but very soon we started to chat and seek each other out for talk of culture, politics and humanity. I told him of my plan to go back packing round the Yacatan Peninsular and how I wanted to visit the beautiful pyramid and ruins at Chichen Itza. Oro was so proud of his heritage.
Oro told me that his name means ‘Gold’. He described how he had been named that because, in the first moments of his birth, a small gold bracelet had fallen from where it hung on the wall to land on the floor beside where Oro’s mother lay as she gave birth. Oro revealed that the bracelet had belonged to his grandmother. Apparently, knowing she was soon to die, she had been desperate to see the arrival of her first grandson. Sadly, she had passed away before Oro’s birth and so missed his entry into the world. The family took the fallen bracelet as a sign that the grandmother had found a way to be present, in spirit. His Mother had reached out to pick up the gold bracelet at the moment of Oro’s birth. She named him Oro, in honour of the gold bracelet and his grandmother.
Oro, who I thought to be an urbane man, asked me more about my plans and he revealed to me that his house in Vallalolid would be en-route to Chichen Itza. He was going to have a couple of days off now that his shift was coming to an end. He would be heading home the next day but he invited me to visit with him and his wife, in Vallalolid. I was touched to be invited. What a privilege! I gratefully accepted.
Oro told me that he thought I was unlike most tourists. He said he found it so unusual that I actually spoke with hotel employees as equals. He stated that he was impressed that I was making effort to get by in using the Spanish language, that he found me to be very polite and kind. Oro, who was at the end of his working day, sat with me discreetly and I brought out a couple cigars, which we smoked as we continued to chat. It was dark, we were sat at a small wooden table with wooden chairs and the sound of waves breaking on the shore provided the sound-track to our cigar-fuelled chat about life, the universe and everything.
This was a connection between two people from such different worlds. There was an honesty between us and a sense of brotherhood. It felt great to just sit and talk openly and honestly with someone who, despite so many differences, just connected with me and understood something deeper. We talked for hours about our different life experiences.
The next day, I researched how I could get to Vallalolid. This would be my chance to see the real Mexico and I felt so honoured to have the wonderful offer of an evening at Oro’s house with him and his family. I would have to get up early to catch one of the plentiful tour coaches at the beach that were heading to mighty Chichen Itza. I would have to arrange to jump out en-route, to find Oro’s house in Vallalolid.
Oro had offered an apologetic description of a traditional stick-built house, with a relatively new breeze-block extension; which he had told me he had afforded by working at the hotel. He described that the house was on the outskirts of the city and that I should disembark from the tour coach some way short of Vallalolid and catch a small village truck that would bring me into to his village on the outskirts of the city. I felt clear, organised and ready. I was ready for adventure.
I said my farewell to my Dad; assuring him I’d get back to the hotel by no later than four days from then. He was cool about it. I was in my twenties and he had been adventurous in his life, so he was supportive of my desire to just ‘head out and see what happens’. This was before I ever had a mobile phone, so there was no safety net in terms of having communication available if something should go wrong. That was just the norm, back then. I kind of miss that, today.
It felt liberating to leave the confines of my ‘marble palace’; to leave Cancun with just a back pack and head off. I had a pocket of cash; US Dollars seemed to be the currency to use. I had no idea where I would sleep that night but that was part of the excitement. I didn’t want to just assume that I could stay with Oro and his family overnight and I had been too (English) polite to ask. I soon found a large tour coach at the beachside and waited for a while in a queue, in the soaring heat.
That is when I met Olive and Blossom; two fifty-something African American women who, as they told me, were best friends holidaying together. They were from Chicago and I immediately fell as in love with their accent as they had fallen in love with mine. We clambered onto the coach and set off towards the mighty Chichen Itza. The driver, who reeked of stale garlic, mumbled from under his peaked cap and through his significant moustache, that he knew where I wanted to get out and that he would signal me when it was time for me to disembark.
I was mesmerized by the vast stretches of the road; really just a very wide dirt track, which were of the most vivid deep orange coloured soil. It looked like Martian soil, I imagined. The vast number of miles of jungle and forest stretched out in all directions, at times. I’m not sure I had ever felt so remote from civilization, but in a good way. The small windows of the coach were open and the noise of the wildlife in the jungle could actually be heard over the noise of the coach and passengers. It was the most vibrant, alive sound I have ever heard.
I enjoyed chatting with my two new friends from Chicago but little did I know that the conversation I was having with Blossom and Olive would soon be interrupted by gunfire…
(c) Deano Parsons. 2021.