We are in Mexico. Home of Aztecs and Mariachi, of cactus and cartels; a land where tequila flows, bullets ricochet and masked bandidos dispense rough-shod justice in desert towns. We are ready to immerse ourselves in this vibrant culture: to strut, to elongate our vowel sounds, to eradicate cockroaches with a flamboyant stamp of our silver spangled boots. We will wear sombreros if that is what it takes.
None of these stereotypes are immediately accessible though as we touch down after three flights and twenty odd hours of travel. In fact there are no obviously recognisable Mexican traits at all, other than our driver’s accent, which has strong notes of B-movie villain as he charges us $100 for a twenty minute ride and roars off, chortling round his cigar.
We are in Cancún of course. Cancún, the city upon which culture turned her back – then spat on the floor, flounced off and swore never to return. Cancún, home of the frat boy. Cancún, spring break Mecca. Cancún, where the All-Inclusives include nothing you really want.
The kids love our hotel. It’s huge! There is an extensive system of swimming pools and waterfalls so there is no need to walk the additional twenty steps to get to the Caribbean Sea. From the nucleus of the pool, radial branches of sun loungers spiral out invitingly, so you need never worry where to sit. There is constant loud music so you don’t even need to think.
An energetic Entertainment Team is very present. They have deeply tanned bodies, microphones and a non-stop high-volume schedule of pool-side karaoke, zumba and organised drinking games. There is a nightly cabaret where the same Entertainment Team, now dressed as Buggsy Malone gangsters, throw themselves around enthusiastically and belt out off-key music hall numbers. There are bars everywhere, offering plastic cups of beer and Long Island iced tea from 11am. There are five different restaurants offering unlimited portions of what always turns out to be variations on the same theme of rubbery beef, dry chicken or mushy white fish. None of the guests speak Spanish. Why would they?
“So, let me get this straight” Arthur asks with a bemused frown, “I can just pick up the phone and order them to bring me chicken nuggets and chips up to the room.”
“You can ask for chicken nuggets and chips, yes. If you order the person to bring it then it’s like being an evil overlord. They are hardworking underpaid waiters and they deserve respect”
“I can just go up to the bar anytime and order them to give me a milkshake?”
“Again, you don’t order them to do anything, you’re not some princeling. Ask nicely. Be polite. Just order the beverage.”
“I can lie by the pool and order the waiter to bring me a burger?”
“The object of the verb is burger for God’s sake, not waiter! I can lie by the pool and order a burger from the waiter. Yes! Knock yourself out!”
“Sweet! Got it. Hey Matilda, let’s go and order them to bring us chocolate and donuts! And Fanta! And M&Ms! Come on!”
You can judge a place by the tattoos on display, I think to myself sourly down by the pool. As I look around I see eagles, daggers, military shields, American flags, names of kids or wives or past lovers, Chinese symbols. None of the artful geometric designs, the hipster arrows, the concentric forearm bands of the surfer camps I now yearn for.
Arthur and Matilda fizz past my peripheral vision, chasing each other from one plunge pool to another. They are shrieking and laughing, feet barely touching the floor, propelled by the rocket fuel of sugar-laden drinks and trans-fatty acids. Across the vast poolside terrain I can see at least three other groups of drunk adults doing pretty much exactly the same thing.
It is like a hyperactive kids playground here. I would love to get into it but somehow to my dismay, I’ve turned into a disapproving grumpy old man.
I get caught in a groundhog elevator moment. A crowd of topless boys and a bikini girl are staggering around in the lobby, shouting at each other, repeatedly calling the lift and then forgetting to get in it. Each time the doors start to close, they hit the ‘up’ button again, the doors shudder open – and there I am! Standing patiently in the elevator, looking out, unable to depart.
“Dude this must be sooo annoying!” One of them shouts at me. I nod. He gives me thumbs up.
“Come on Frasier, get in the lift!”
“Ah, I’ve missed it man. Where’s Brad?”
“I’ve called it again dude, c’mon jump! Aw, get off me Monica.”
“Ha ha you said jump! You want me to jump you.”
“Wait man! Where’s Brad?”
Four of them finally fall into the small lift with me.
“Sorry dude, I’ve lost my mask!” says a smirking guy with a severe buzz cut – Brad?
“Me too!” echoes his smaller sidekick – Frasier?.
“And me!” screeches the girl – Monica! – like she’s made the best joke ever. Then she stumbles and drapes herself on the third boy (unnamed) who has his eyes shut. He jerks awake and pushes her off.
“Get off me Monica!”
“Hope I don’t have Coronavirus,” says Brad, making sure I’ve got the point.
“Me neither,” says Frazier. There is a sweet moment of silence and through my mask I inhale their second-hand alcohol fumes, possibly laced with Covid.
“Oh my God!” screeches Monica suddenly. “Where’s my baby?” Everyone looks at each other.
“Uh, she’s up in Ron’s room with Shanice remember? Or was it Adele that took her now?
“Yeah. That’s it. One of them has got her for sure.” She slumps back against the wall. Then after a moment she croons, “My lil girl. I miss her so much.”
The guys get out on the second floor and gently push Monica back into the lift when she tries to get out with them. She and I travel on upwards together.
“I’m gonna go find my lil girl” She says to me petulantly, her voice suddenly small and hoarse. I nod.
At school we studied No Exit, a play by Sartre: a looping conversation between three people locked in a waiting room. The audience gradually becomes aware that the characters are dead and this is their limbo. These three are destined to talk round in circles forever, each misunderstood, each misunderstanding. In this circular hell, they will each become each other’s torturers. I think about an updated version, set in the elevator of an all-inclusive resort.
L’enfer, c’est les autres!