Monday, March 3, 2014

The Exclusions of All Inclusive Resorts

The gorgeous beaches of Playa Del Carmen
From Cancun to Playa Del Carmen, Mexico's Northern Yucatan Coast is rapidly turning into one huge resort. Some of these expansive decadent getaways for (mostly) Americans and Europeans are what we call "all inclusive" meaning food and (bottom shelf) liquor are included in the price of your stay . You can drink and eat to your heart's content. Hundreds of thousands vacationers flood these resorts every year, ingesting, imbibing, soaking up the sun,  and enjoying the exclusive  private beaches before returning home.

Fair enough, right?

"Playa Del Carmen is dying. The all inclusive resorts are killing it", Diego tells me during our interview with him for our Travelers of the World section at JustaPack.  Acutely intrigued by this statement I met up with him a week or so later to pick his brain.

The "first world" has entered towns like Playa, introducing hard capitalism, and turned what used to be a quiet fishing hamlet into a thrumming throbbing beach town, filled with boutique shops, pricey restaurants, and obnoxious booming nightclubs. The growth has been rapid and is no where near finished. Playa is on it's way to being a premium destination for vacationers. The locals have adapted to this new way of life, and ply all sorts of services to the outsiders. You walk down the main tourist strip and are offered everything from clothes, massages, food, "buy junk you don't need before you leave" (according to one witty salesperson), and drugs. Always ends with the drugs. "I got the party, the real stuff. Marijuana, Coke, X. I got it all." As you can imagine this has led to a sharp increase in violence and theft in the area, as where drug dealers roam thusly roams strife and danger. One example I was given when I interviewed Diego was the sharp increase in bicycle "muggings". You slow down on your bike at an intersection and barely even perceive the danger before you are knocked to the ground, perhaps beaten, and have your bike taken. This happens in local areas as the police patrol tourist sections like hawks.

Locals suffer, we relax and party. Familiar story.  

5th Ave, Playa del Carmen.
Now say you are staying in an all inclusive resort. You might leave the grounds one of the four or five nights you staying and decide you want to actually explore the new location you have found yourself in. You normally are a few kilometers from the main tourist areas, and take a taxi into town. You certainly aren't buying food or liquor, which are probably the top draws of the tourist strip of Playa known as 5th Avenue.  Yeah you might buy some trinkets. Or you go to the brand new Gucci/Levi/Prada/Nike/Forever 21 stores and buy some shit there. The locals feel the crunch. The competition for the left over scraps is fierce. This leads to every local establishment having a tout or two outside, hard selling the goods/services offered. They make eye contact if they can, turn your head with any comment that might grab your attention, and then swoop in in a fashion that most outsiders find disarming at the very least. Since they only get paid if you actually spend some money the sell is desperate and at times bitter in nature.  They aren't selling local culture or handcrafts either, they are selling imported bullshit from China. T-shirts with logos and stupid quotes "I like to fart- Playa Del Carmen" and cheaply manufactured "Mexican" sombreros dominate the sales landscape. 

In Mexico citizens can buy stays at Mexican all inclusive resorts on lay-a-way. Basically you pay the price over the course of a year or two, take a long bus ride from Mexico City and find yourself in a little private piece of heaven, away from the bustle, crime, and pollution that the non elite or non tourist are subjected to in that sprawling urban monstrosity.  Since you have probably been putting most of your vacation money away to pay for the all inclusive resort, you are much less likely to spend any more money out during a trip to the town. The locals of Playa are really bitter about this type of tourist, seeing it as a betrayal from their own kind. The "all inclusive Mexican" tourists are frowned down on more than any other sort in Playa, due to the nature of that bitterness. 

The all inclusive resorts rarely hire locals. They offer unpaid internships to Mexcians from all over the country who have gone to hospitality school, and import them for their knowledge of English and other languages, and for their education. This freezes the locals out almost completely, as many of the best paying jobs are in the hospitality industry that caters to the short term vacationer.  Nor do the locals see any sort of profit sharing from these places. The all inclusive resorts pay a tax (or a bribe, depending on how realistic you want to be about it) to the national government. One would think that by nature of their locations the resorts would give SOMETHING back to the community. Nope. Aside from some infrastructure they barely use the locals get nothing but shit upon. Oh, wait, they DID get a Wal-Mart! Lucky them, huh? Freshly built this gigantic mega store is the all inclusive resort of shopping. It sells everything and features prices that are mostly out of range of the locals. One stop shopping is highly convenient and Wal-Mart, as it's done everywhere it has laid its insidious roots, has  managed to put all sorts of other local owned shops out of business. 

There are talks of building a gigantic shopping center near Playa Del Carmen, called the Dragon Mart. The investors of this project? The Chinese, with some American support. They are paying the government millions of dollars in "taxes" for the right to do so. An estimated 5,000 jobs will be lost and that's not taking into account what it might do to local industry, while 4,000 new jobs will be created. Who gets these new jobs? Think about that for a second.


If you said "the locals" you have not been paying attention. The Dragon Mart will, in all likely hood, be importing Chinese workers.  As Diego put it "we are about to have a Chinatown in Playa." 

The moral here? Our very presence in these beautiful pieces of paradise have a direct influence on the way of life of the original inhabitants. Sometimes we bring a healthy change with us, but mostly we superimpose our way of life in an unhealthy fashion.

Found in Playa Del Carmen.
So, when you come to Playa, or decide you want to visit the horrific Cancun, or Maui, Bali, or Costa Rica, PLEASE try to stay some place other than an all inclusive resort. Try to remember that your very presence has contributed to an insanely rapid and mostly negative change in way of life for it's people, and allow that to humble you. In all honesty you will pay less for your stay if you book a 3 or 4 star hotel, and eat and drink out at local places. Trust me you will still have a great time. The food will be better, the liquor won't be bottom shelf, the cervesas will be just as cold, you will actually experience a new culture and it's fantastic people. Hell you might even meet someone you'd otherwise never be exposed to. Most of all you can proudly know that you did your best not to directly contribute to the suffering of the local population whose home you are calling your vacation play ground.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

First Stop, Cancun

First stop on a year long trip from Mexico to Argentina ... Cancun.

There is much to be said for cheap flights. The shorter the stay somewhere the higher percentage of total budget is spent on the airfare. Even with long trips you almost always want to save as much as you can on the flight in. Common sense, right? When first planning this trip I had a couple of first stop destinations in mind. Cancun, San Jose C.R., Panama City, and Managua Nicaragua were high on the list, followed by a direct flight into Guatemala. I went with the absolute cheapest tickets i could find (that weren't Spirit airlines, because trust me you NEVER want to fly Spirit unless you are going to Florida sans luggage) which is how we ended up in Cancun. For the record i have never had any interest in visiting Cancun, but decided to give it a shot for a couple of days. Because, why not?

Ahhhh, Cancun, bless you for your beautiful strip of beach, and curse you for everything else. Cancun is a bit of what the Vegas strip circa 1995  would look like if it were located on a gorgeous strand of ocean swept white sand. It's cheesy, over priced, tacky, and filled with whiny white people in too small swim attire. Seriously, if you don't fit into your bathing suit do yourself a favor and buy a larger one.

Cancun is known for its Spring Break debauchery but what does it look like when the frat boys and sorority girls are still working hard on their 2.75 GPA's? Well, it looks like a cruise ship tipped over discarded it's passengers into resorts. These are not the world traveling type of vacationers. And there is nothing wrong with that, right? Right? I should stop being so judgmental, everyone needs a break now and then and the beach there was undeniably better than any beach ive visited in the States. However...

The second morning I was having breakfast with Randi in our 4 star hotel on the "zona hoterla"  in Cancun. The Zona is basically a giant strip of luxury accommodations for gringos, all set up along a fore mentioned beach. We stayed there only to get our bearings while spending a couple of days just chilling on the beach. The area has all these giant clubs and stuff,  and it's a huge party zone at night in places.  We didn't go out either night,  as when we briefly explored this area we found it  basically a desperate attempt to appeal to "western sensibilities",  or at least what the locals think we gringos want and enjoy. Gaudy, tacky, dominated by flash and loud noises, guys in The Mask and Spiderman costumes posing for 10 dollar pictures with the vacationing crowd. And guess what? It was packed with gringos acting like they were in an amusement park. Not even the sight of Policia armed to the teeth with heavy automatic weapons deterred this empty revelry.
Anyway, back to breakfast. The two of us, a waiter and a Bro looking dude with his girlfriend. The Bro was loquacious in the American sense of the word and struck up a nonsensical conversation with the waiter. At some point he asks the hotel waiter if he had ever gone swimming with dolphins,  as he and his girl were going to be doing so later that day. My ears immediately perked up and the absurdity of the question. Bro obviously had no idea how much a Mexican waiter in Cancun makes. He probably never stopped to think about it. 100, maybe 200 a WEEK. The waiter laughed nervously in reply and stated the obvious. "No amigo, I can't afford it." The Bro just chuckled,  still oblivious to how inane his question was. The locals working in Cancun slave away to amuse and entice the spring break vacation crowd while the herd remains oblivious.

The difference between me and the Bro? Exposure to the crushing and crippling poverty that capitalism sentences the "developing" world to. The grinding grasping for money infects like a virus,  and measure of worth is judged by the size of a bank account. We spread  this fallacy and turn the quest for money Into a life goal. It's sick and insidious. A cancer upon our psyche.  I wish we lived in a culture that was aware of the rest of the world. But that might lead to empathy for those you step on on your quest for $$$ and we can't be having that huh?

I don't want to make it sound like I am holding myself above people like the aforementioned Bro. I know I Contribute to the suffering of the third world. I,  however,  have been lucky enough to travel and see reality with mine own eyes. I've seen the "poorest"  people laugh and enjoy life. I've seen the richest behave like empty shells of humanity. I have,  I suppose,  perspective. I would not be surprised if I got robbed for flashing my American toys, I know I look like a walking ATM, and I know I am extremely lucky to be a visitor in these lands. I try to remain aware and respectful whenever I can. And I would never ever ask a local if they partake in the luxury of the tourist. It's flat out insulting.

Needless to say,  we left Cancun as quickly as possible, charting a course due south to Playa del Carmen, and hopefully to catch a boat today to Cozumel, a beautiful Island with what I'm told are amazing coral reefs.


(Originally published Sept, 2011)

One of the many things i learned during the months I spent backpacking in South America was how to turn off my brain during long bus journeys. This is essential as bus travel tends to be a unbearably long, incredibly uncomfortable, and at times downright terrifying. I come from a privleged place where the roads are wide and mostly straight, where rules are enforced by cops in mirrored sunglasses and bad attitudes, and where plunging off of a cliff into a deep ravine is generally frowned upon. I once spent ten hours on a bus with no heat on a sub zero night, sans any sort of bathroom, that hit and butchered a goat which shattered the windshield and blew out the back tire and left us standing in the middle of the road for a hour, and which ended with myself and my two Irish mates being unceremoniously evicted onto a freezing early morning dust swept road near the Bolivian border.

I figured I was ready for anything bus related.

India, once again, humbled me shattering that particular illusion during a ten hour trip between monsoon drenched McLeod Ganj and the high hills of Manali.

The bus itself turned out to be a dingy, oily, tin can on wheels. Pretty much par for the course thus far in India. This particular archaic machine lacked power steereing and possessed a set of equistely squelching breaks. Alright, I told myself, that's fine. Don't judge. Maybe this old sucker has a few moves left in it. I sat down in my seat and tried to make myself comfortable. Sadly, the seat was not designed with comfort in mind.  Browned by age, more metal frame than cushion, beaten down by decades of countless human asses. An iron bar cleverly positioned to palpate both kidneys at once ran in the seat back, reshaping the curve of my lumbar spine. No amount of turning, twisting, leaning, or reclining spared me from the discomfort. Fine, i thought again, this is fine. It's only 10 hours...

The seats turned out to be the least of our concerns. Our driver revealed himseld to be a fucking lunatic. This dusky sleep deprived chain smoking individual, who shall remain nameless, seemed to have zero regard for his own life, and even less for the lives of those stuck in the back of his rolling death trap. Hairpin turns taken at ridiculous speeds at night in the rain, ancient breaks squealing in agony. The bus rocked back and forth like a ship at stormy sea, tires inches away from cliff edge and certain death. Every hole in the "road" (at times asphalt, mostly mud and rock and dirt) sent us flinging up out of our seats, shocks absorbing absolutely nothing. Twice i slammed my temple into an iron bar positioned over the window, it's sole purpose seemingly to punish me for sitting next to it. A passanger behind me started sobbing, expressing with unabashed honesty what we were all feeling. "Holy fucking shit, I'm going to die."

Hours crawled by this way. We pretended to sleep, closing our eyes to avoid looking out the windows and seeing death run parallel to the worn tires. To avert our gaze from the sight of our lunatic captain passing other vehicles. To try and remain sane. Some time around  four in the morning, six hours into this harrowing journey I came to a couple of conclusions. For one - I had, up until that time, valued my life too highly,  held on to the need to LIVE too dearly, was far too impressed with my own existence.  In order to not freak out that very moment I needed to learn how to let go. No way to hit the brakes and no hope of escape. Much like life. Maybe you get to where you're trying to go, or maybe you expire along the way. Either way, you're on the bus.  A tickle rose up inside of me and forced it's way from my belly to my throat.I couldn't contain it. I burst out laughing. Things got easier after that. Hysterical laughter has a way of soothing over extreme stress.

Seemingly against all odds we arrived in Manali sometime near dawn. The first light of false sunrise cast shadows upon the high hills as we stumbled out of the torture device that had passed for our transportation, bleary eyed and ever so grateful to be alive.  I looked back at the bus one last time, silently thanking it for not falling apart. And for the lesson it thought me. We took a taxi up the hill to Old Manali and took a room in the first hotel we found. Utter exhausted we finally slept.

Waking up in Manali was a glorious revelation of blue skies and sunshine. The air crisp and clean, the sun's rays warm, the lush green hills embracing the town in all directions. Almost immediately upon waking i was offered hash by some kindly Irish backpackers and the day rolled into a peaceful invigorating affair. We sampled the local lassi (a curd drink mixed with fruit that is quite delicious) over breakfast, lounged taking in the views sipping tea, and spent hours talking with our new friends.

Two days passed in this manner but we still had a ton of ground to cover to ensure we made it to Leh in time for our flight. Leh was some 500 kilometers north of us, and the passes were at risk of being snowed under. We had to make moves, and as much as i wanted to stay and hang out for a few more idle days, we didn't have the luxery of doing so.

How do you follow up a bus ride from hell? Take another one, of course. I won't go into the excruciating details of the journey from Manali to Leh lest i am forced to rename this blog "Travels of the Discontented". Let me just say that Rhotung Pass translates roughly into "pile of dead bodies pass" and with good reason. It was a mud thickened strip winding up a cliff side, too narrow by far. Terror has a face and that face is the edge of a ravine in a bouncing minibus. Never again i thought to myself after the arduous trip ended. Never again shall my ass touch a bus seat in India.

Terror and discomfort aside the trip exposed us to stunning views of the Himalayas rising out of the foothills we were leaving behind. Snow capped peaks loomed in the distance against the brightest of blue skies. Our road wove through dusty dessert and up brown stone into the heavens. At the greatest altitude we were cliff side at 5,300 meters where the oxygen exchange between air and lung is at some 50% that we sea level dwellers are accustomed too. In other words your head swims with dizziness and it is fucking hard to breathe. Day turned to night and we slowly inched our way into Leh. Arrival was a brisk 19 hours from departure. 

Leh is positioned some 3,700 meters above sea level, so the acclimation process takes a couple of days. Just walking up the stairs at the Oriental Hotel where we me tup with Monet (who had left a day before us) was difficult. The town is called the Switzerland of India, and with good reason. It is ringed in all directions by some of the most impressive snow caps i have seen. The views are astounding, and to be as cliched and trite as possible, breathtaking.

We hung out acclimating for a couple of days and then decided to explore a bit. Waking up early one morning we traveled to Thiksay Gompa, a Buddhist monastery 13 kilometers outside of town. We arrived in time for morning prayer and were treated to the amazing experience of the monks chanting mantras and playing instruments. The mantras were momentarily interrupted by a controlled cacophony of cymbal, horn and drum. The former two were played by elder monks, the latter by the young. (I took a few videos of the prayers that i hope to post when i get back home.) I was surprised by the amount of boys under the age of 10 living and studying there. In retrospect i should have expected it but the sight of twenty or so young boys in red robes took me aback momentarily. These little monks in training were not all quiet wisdom and reflection tho. They were children as well, poking one another during prayers, laughing at the toursists, and recieving semi reproachful looks from their elders. The youngest distributed chai tea and cornmeal soup to the rest as prayer progressed. I wondered at the old saying about the observer changing the observed by virtue of simply watching. I felt a bit like an intruder but the entire experience was incredible.

Our next stop was to be Pangong Lake, some 5 hours out of Leh. Journey to the lake, which lays on the border of China requires a special permit and anyone traveling on a diplomatic visa is denied entry. We had a rented SUV and a driver for the day and were all set to go but were stopped a few kilometers from Thiksay by the Indian Army. Apparently the pass to the lake had received heavy snowfall the night before and the road was unsafe for travel. Reluctantly we turned back around, losing our chance at seeing the amazing lake.

Later that day we climbed a hundred or so meters to Shanti Stupa, which was conveniently located near our hotel. The amazing monument to Buddha was built in the 80's by a group of Japanese Buddhists and boasts some of the best panoramic views available in Leh. The reliefs on the circular monument depict the life of Buddha, from birth to his battle and subsequent defeat of demons and mahanirvana, his death. The entire structure is amazing and the views just add to the awe i felt when spending time up there. Completely worth the breath stealing climb to reach its heights.
Shanti Stupa

Our time in Leh comes to an end on Monday morning. We are catching a flight from here to Kathmandu Nepal, via Delhi. I'll try to post my final impressions on my relatively short time in India next time i post. Till then, be well all.

View from the Shanti.