Momentum

We end up staying in Cozumel for an indulgent ten days. Not because it is the best desitination we have been to, but we simply don’t know where to go next.

Arthur and I find a surf spot that we like at Chen Rio on the east coast, it is big and choppy, and to enter the break we have to wade over a coral forest that lacerates our feet. There are three or four local surfers that we meet there, tough older guys in their fifties, but they welcome Arthur and I into the pack and help us find the exit point on our first day so we don’t get smashed into the reef. Even so I kick a sea urchin coming out of the sea and Menna has to dig many deep spines out of my toes that night.

Wheelie!

One Sunday we picnic on the beach besides the break and get sunburnt. As we pack up Menna spots a crocodile wallowing in a swampy stretch of water inland, right by where we have parked the car. I edge down the sandy bank to get close and take a good photo as it lies immobile at the waters edge. Suddenly it lunges up into the air to snap at a dragonfly and it scares the absolute living daylights out of me. That scrabbling dash back up the sandy bank is the stuff that nightmares are made of.

We manage to finally go on the snorkelling trip that we were supposed to do on Matilda’s birthday. We get a boat to the outer reefs and spend a long time floating serenely above coral cities that surge out of the white sands. We see an eagle ray, turtles, octopus, lobsters and multitudes of brightly coloured fish that I don’t recognise. After various different snorkel sites we are taken to a lunch spot where the lagoon extends for miles at waist height and the water is a crazy toothpaste green. We stand in the sea eating ceviche and guacamole with cold beers.

Then suddenly a dark shape appears.

Arthur investigates.

It’s a Manta Ray!

We potter around Cozumel in our little rental car, exploring wild litter-strewn beaches in the south and rock shelves where the sea is forced up through geysers. We drive down through mangrove swamps to the north of the island and park up on a desolate muddy marshland. An obese boatman offers to take us ‘over there’ for one hundred pesos, gesturing vaguely at a sandy spit across the water.
“What is ‘there’?” we ask.
“What is anywhere? There is a playa muy bonita there.”
”Take us there,” we say.
We find ourselves on a deserted promontory where the remnants of a resort hotel decay gently in the sun. The palm fronds have moulded off the beach huts. There is an old wooden scaffold in the shallows where hammocks once hung, it is now a sea gull perch and for a short time our climbing frame. A troupe of racoons hold dominion in the empty bar. We play there alone until sunset when our boatman drifts silently across the estuary to take us home.

It’s hard to tear ourselves away from this little Caribbean corner, but we must keep moving onwards, we cannot stagnate. But Menna and I are unsure where to go next. The clock is running down now on our grand tour and we just have a couple of months left. We need to maintain momentum and that means moving onwards from Mexico – but where to? Asia is still shut, most of South America is quarantined, USA is too western, Canada is too cold, returning to Europe feels unadventurous.

We find ourselves immersed again in that familiar nocturnal morass. Beery nights in hot apartments whispering about visa requirements while the kids sleep; analysing Covid stats and lockdown policies that change daily. For a long time we try to find a route to visit our friend Nico in the Caribbean, but key flights are canceled and we can’t make the connections work. We try to get to our friend Dan in Colombia but the quarantine rules there are getting tighter.

After five nights of circular discussions we have decision fatigue, so when one of us throws a curveball (I can’t remember who), it sticks somehow. Brazil! Yes, that could work. it was pretty terrible in the early days of the pandemic, but the covid caseload seems to be flattening out now. Besides, it’s a huge country right? And when you look state by state, there are areas that are doing way better than most places in Europe. And the climate is great. There’s no quarantine. The surf is epic. And we could learn capaoiera. And it’s fuckin Brazil man! Home of samba, Pele, the Amazon rainforest, Ayrton Senna…

And so it is, late one night in the dying days of February, ignoring all the horrified reactions and earnest advice, we book extremely expensive flights from Cozumel up to Dallas then onwards to Saõ Paolo and finally to Natal up in the Brazilian Noreste region.

Once the tickets are paid and the commitment has been made, the kids are over the moon but Menna and I find ourselves in a strangely emotional state. We have made an grand gesture for freedom (we think), we have found impetus and forward motion (we hope). We are taking the road less travelled and renewing our commitment to the adventure (right?).

There is an ominous drum beat though somewhere in the background. Slow now but gaining tempo.

We pretend not to hear it.

Spot the boy

Dolphin Rescue

Another port. Another ferry. Another stumble along the docks loaded with bags and boards. Another island.

This is Cozumel: dusty squares, ferry ports. mermaid statues, dive shops, empty benches. There is real beauty here but it is hidden away below the waves. Coral cites, cliffs and craters, underwater landscapes stretching away into the world’s second largest reef system. This is is a famous scuba-diving destination. It is also a key stop on the Caribbean cruise circuit – except in this pandemic era there are no cruises of course. So it’s pretty much just us and the locals.

We aren’t here for scuba – I have scarred ear-drums and the kids are still too young. We are here for a more important event and detailed requirements have been specified some months in advance. We will need an apartment with three bedrooms, a swimming pool, hammocks, a big tv, an oven, balloons, various ingredients. There must be great snorkelling, lots of chocolate, no hiking, no bugs. It is Matilda’s birthday.

Making a small girl’s birthday special is going to be a challenge. She has no friends to call on, no space in her backpack for bulky new presents. She has been reluctantly trailing around beaches for the last nine months so a trip to the seaside won’t cut it. She is someone who cares deeply about birthdays – particularly her own. We feel pressure.

Matilda has specified that she would like to go on a snorkelling trip for her birthday treat, but as luck would have it there is a storm coming, so the tour boats aren’t putting out. Menna and I have a stressful night trying to cobble up an alternative birthday activity. In the end we find a fallback: dolphins! Who doesn’t love dolphins?

The 19th February arrives. We serve hot chocolate in bed, facilitate various birthday zoom calls, guide Mademoiselle down to the dining table where we have been extravagant with balloons and breakfast patisserie. The condo manager has even rustled up a Feliz Cumpleanno banner. She opens her home-made cards and then the motley gifts: a fish guide, snorkel kit, clip-on earrings, Mexican voodoo dolls, swimming costume, baseball cap. Everything is going well.

We pile into the car and head off to find the dolphins. They are waiting for us in a vast hotel theme-park complex that is clearly aimed at cruise ship hoards. We screech into the car park at 11am and pile out of our little rented Clio, leaving it looking lonely in the huge acreage of shimmering tarmac.

Matilda and Menna are signed up for the complete ‘Dolphin Discovery Package’ whereas Art and I are basically tagging along. To get there we must pass through many entry gates, cordons and check points where we realise we have entered an efficient money extraction system, designed to impoverish you through a thousand smiling fees.

We sign forms, receive wristbands and resist various attempts to upsell us into buffet ‘n’ cocktail combos and deeper more meaningful interactions with marine creatures. I get a little grumpy with the lady who tries to offer us the ‘Chat with Sea-Lions’ package. We don’t spend dollars to have a photo with the naked Mayan warrior sitting bored in the courtyard. We don’t sponsor a porpoise. We don’t get a dedicated photographer. We divert the kids away from the gift shop.

Despite all our dodging, Art and I are still made to pay a hefty dockside access fee and coerced into a ‘bronze-level’ endless buffet so we may accompany the girls to lunch. We are many dollars deep already and Daddy’s birthday smile is getting a little tight. Somehow along the way I find out that we have unwittingly signed up to a ‘Manatee Encounter’.

Bright atriums echo and miles of decking stretch away empty in the sunshine. Mariachi music plays. The quayside bars flutter with white table cloths and happy-hour cocktail offers, the fountains run dry. In the end there is no buffet anyway (“because of el Covid señor!”) so we all sit at a table on the dockside and order from a waiter. The food lives up to its bronze-level billing, but birthday girl sees off her burger with gusto. I make Menna drink three beers.

The girls are whisked away for a lecture from a world-renowned dolphinologist before being ushered to the marine arena. Art and I are led to a side pool to pet the manatees. They are big slobbery creatures covered in a slimy algae, but somehow they steal our hearts, particularly Edgar. We look into each other’s eyes as he slurps a lettuce out of my hand and I feel strangely sentimental. Then five minutes later we are done, escorted back to the dockside, forbidden from taking photos or straying out of our cordoned area.

The waves are picking up and a storm cloud lies dark across the horizon. I watch the girls over on the other side of the marina, surrounded by cetaceans. Two faraway dolls being flipped into the air then caught, caressed and nuzzled by their new dolphin friends. I can tell that they are laughing and squealing. I take some illegal photos but it is too distant for my cracked phone camera and the results are blurry. Arthur is soon bored, he steals Matilda’s new snorkelling set, slips the barrier and floats off to look for octopus in a small coral reef near the shore. The sea is getting wild.

Official photo!

I sit alone in the face of the oncoming storm, torn between the spectacle of my wife and daughter being tossed around by dolphins and my son being dashed onto the rocks by waves. In the end I just go to the bar and order a bronze-level beer. The endless buffet has now ended, I am told. That will be fifty pesos please.

Matilda cannot stop talking all the way home. They were so soft! And silky! But they were so powerful when they pushed you along in the water. Her favourite was Bright Star (that’s not his real name Daddy but that is what I called him).
“The dolphins were all rescued,” she says dreamily, “And loved, and very well looked after.” How beautiful the hotel was! How amazing the food!

As her chitter-chatter washes over me the words become indistinct like birdsong, leaving the same warm afterglow. It takes a kid’s eyes to strip away the cynicism sometimes. ‘What a great day out!’ I say vaguely. Then after some moments of groping, searching back absently for what exactly it was that had been so great… ‘That Edgar! He’s the king of the manatees!’

We even look alike!

Into The Underworld

Tak Be Ha is one of many windows into the land of the dead. From here we may enter the first of the nine layers that make up Xibalba, the ‘place of fear’, the Mayan realm of the underworld.

We climb down through a narrow opening in the ground and find a wooden ladder in the subterranean gloom. After the heat and dust of Mexican midday, the cool darkness is a shock, we shiver away on a rocky platform. Then we must submerge ourselves into the cold clear waters below, sinking down under the surface, ritually dying.

From above the water looks flat and still, a milky azure, shimmering gently in the darkness of the cave. Once we dive under the surface though a dramatic jagged landscape of underwater mountains and crevasses suddenly appears. There are stalagmites and columns lit up by hidden phosphorous lights. Deep ravines fade into midnight black far below us. The underwater world here is far wider and more expansive than the size of the cave above should allow. The limestone walls slope far away beyond the upper chamber and they seem to go down for ever. But beware! If you explore too far outwards you can’t surface for air – the roof traps you underwater. Spectral wraiths slither out from caves far below us in the darkness, lit up by underwater lanterns. We think they are scuba divers silently exploring the deeps, but who knows?

Tak Be Ha: syncopated hard syllables that evoke a brutal ancient language, Tak, a chopping sound. Bay, the exhale cut short. Haaa, a whispering sigh as the soul is released. There would have been sacrifices here without a doubt. There must be bones, daggers, gold, ceremonial masks lying undisturbed down in those dark crevasses, but we are only equipped with snorkels and goggles, so we float on top of the world of the dead. Our time has not come. We will not journey to the deeper layers.

This is one of many freshwater sinkholes in this part of the world – one of thousands even. Some are as large as lakes and open to the skies while others are just holes in the vegetation, narrow shafts with subterranean chambers branching out from them. There is no standing or running water on the surface of the Yucatan peninsula, no rivers or lakes, instead rain has dissolved away the limestone over centuries, and the water table permeates below the surface in underground chambers and channels that riddle the bedrock.

The Mayans named these cenotes, ‘sacred wells’. They were not just a vital source of water but a crossroads between the worlds of living and dead. Here at the gateway to the spirit world Mayans could communicate with their gods, perform religious ceremonies, carry out burials and conduct sacrifices.

We have already visited Cenote Azul, a pleasant system of outdoor swimming holes, rock jumps and picnic spots where fish nibble your toes as you dangle them in the water. It was well-run and the entrance fee was reasonable. We saw none of the gods amid the nicely maintained wooden walkways and recycle points but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Tak Be Ha is a very different experience though. We have to find our inner Indiana Jones as we enter. The underwater landscape is scary but spectacular and for hours we flap our way through underwater caves and limestone labyrinths, Matilda’s little white legs writhing like underwater snakes ahead of me in the turquoise gloom.

We are very into Mayan mythology at the moment. We have already ritually sacrificed Matilda on a stone altar to Ix Chil, the moon goddess. This was high on the cliffs in the Mayan ruins that overlook Tulum, the city we call home this week. Now I am wondering if we need to make another offering to Yum Cimil, the Lord of Death, down in this subterranean cave. Arthur would be the obvious choice.

In the end we risk the gods’ displeasure and return to Tulum with a full car, even squeezing in three hitch hikers, for somehow Avis has sent us off with a minibus instead of the SUV we ordered.

We are enchanted by the magic of the underworld though – silent, cavernous, cool and blue, a sanctuary away from the heat, dust and searing light up on the surface – and so we end up seeking out a second cenote in the afternoon. Cenote Calavera is a single bat-filled cave sitting in a stretch of jungle just outside Tulum. To enter the cavern one must jump through one of three holes in the ground and plummet down into the water below. The drop is about five meters. It is a leap into the dark in the truest sense.

It takes Matilda a long time to pluck up the courage to do this, but once she is initiated, the magnetic lure of the deep is established. She and Arthur spend the whole afternoon throwing themselves into the fathomless waters time and time again, trying ever wilder jumps and dives.

There is a hysterical American lady who takes on the role of sacrificial victim. She spends half an hour hesitating, moaning, unable to pluck up the courage to jump (“Um gonna do it! Um gonna do it! Oh gawd, uh can’t!). Various onlookers scattered around are chanting and cheering her on. Roll back the centuries Oh Ixtab!

Matilda appears beside her to offer advice, an ephemeral spirit-guide in a pink swimming costume, showing how one might enter the dark waters of Xibalba with a neat pencil dive. She has become emissary to Camazotz the Mayan bat monster I think. I see it in her red rimmed eyes, those sharp little teeth, that insatiable yearning for blood.

It is a deep and mystical week we pass in Tulum. We are steeped in legends of bloodshed and sacrifice, of psychedelic gods and shamanic rituals. We visit the incredible Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and sit before the great pyramid that was built in homage to Kulkukan the God of the Wind. Then onwards we go, to the nearby Cenote of Ik Kil, which is not wild and spiritual at all, but run like a soviet swimming pool complex. At its heart is a deep well shaft that has been reinforced by concrete walls where trailing creepers hang, so we feels like we are floating in a giant abandoned nuclear reactor.

We visit next day the cenote of the Dos Ojos, two pools each with a central island that is ringed with dark glittering water like kohl-stained tearful eyes. We commune with the dead one final time here and then we come back to the surface and walk away. We are done with cenotes.

We go back for a last night out in Tulum before we move onwards. Menna and I flirt with Acan, the Mayan god of intoxication.

Winds of Fortune

After a couple of nights in Cancun we’ve had enough. We move on to Holbox, a small Caribbean island off the Yucatan peninsula. A ferry leaves from a scorching port and twenty minutes later we are a little wooden shanty town where the roads are just sand and clay and the only mode of transport is golf buggy. It seems a little desolate at first, in the way that poor Caribbean communities can do – corrugated iron shacks, stagnant pools of ground water, rusted car skeletons – but then we emerge into a charming little town square, tree lined streets of restaurants and bars, a white sand beach thronging with travellers, kitesurfers and fishermen. We see dreadlocks and beards, fire spinners, a guy doing a roaring trade selling organic empanadas on the beach. The tattoos are soulful, feet are bare. It is the antithesis of Cancun.

There is no conventional surf on the island, the coastal shelf is too gentle, but the winds are strong, so Arthur and I are going kitesurfing. Arthur is a total beginner and while I used to kitesurf a fair amount, it is about a decade since my accident on Lancing Beach and I haven’t been back out since.

It is a burning day when we walk round the island to get to kite school. On that long hot walk, I can’t help dwelling on the accident, obsessing over it perhaps, so it starts to feel like I am trudging towards some kind of reckoning.

We are back in our Brighton flat. It is Father’s Day and there is a new, loud baby boy in our lives. Menna is telling me something, laughing and crying. She is pregnant again! We drink champagne. And to celebrate my heroic contribution she will take me kitesurfing. I haven’t been out on the water since before Arthur was born.

The conditions are not so different on the day when we rock up to Kite Beach in Holbox though the sea is warmer here. The wind is blowing about fifteen knots or so, the waves are rolling in, there are white horses on the lagoon. Arthur gets led away by chatty Cathy to learn the rudiments of wind theory. I end up with a laid-back Czech guy called Henrik for my refresher session. I tell him I am nervous. He eyes me up and down and tosses his dreadlocks.
“Ach, you will probably be ok,” he says.

I have two kites – A 9m Cabrinha and a 13m Slingshot. The wind is strong and the smaller one is certainly right for the conditions. Somehow while inflating it I pull out a strut, or a valve blows or something. It deflates rapidly and is useless. I can either to go home now, or take the bigger kite and be over-powered for the session.

Henrik and I set up the kite on the narrow spit of beach between the lagoon and the thorny bank of brushwood. He’s putting me onto a 17m, even larger than that time before. Kite technology has come on some way in the last decade, he tells me. There is more power in the new shapes but you also get much more control. I nod and smile insincerely.

I’m not a great kiter but I have just sired a new offspring and I am feeling invincible. And as soon as I set off I know it is the right decision. The water is cold bottle green, whipped by crisp winds, the sky pale blue. I am screaming along, clearly out of control, hitting waves, crashing, relaunching, wiping-out spectacularly in the deeps. I shout a lot. Life is great right now.

Arthur is out on the water already before we have even set up our kite. He suddenly looks tiny underneath the huge clouded sky, bobbing in the waves, attached to a green kite that is straining on the lines. He is too young for this, I think to myself, how can he possibly take on the elements? How will they catch him when he gets blown away over the sea’s face like an abandoned crisp wrapper?

After an hour on the water it is time to wrap up. Quit while ahead. Menna is feeding our baby up on the headland, her face is turned to the horizon in that way that wives look out to sea, waiting for their absent seafaring husbands. I will ride in and perform a stylish stop in the shallows for her. Perhaps a little jump to finish off. 

Henrik surfs the rig out to our launch spot on the sandbank, leaving me to walk across the lagoon to meet him. It is a slow wade through chest-deep water in my harness, helmet and the annoying lifejacket he insists I wear. I make the far sandbank and am transfixed by a group (school? platoon?) of five or six stingrays that are hunting there, gliding along in perfect formation in the turquoise waters. They skim beside me as I walk over to where Henrik is waiting.

Of course I wipe out on Lancing Beach. That is how the universe works. My board catches an edge in the shallow water. I flip face-down into the shore break. Undignified, but no immediate harm done. Except that as I fall, I unleash a combination of factors that dramatically change my situation: Firstly I pull hard the kite bar, putting my too-large kite in the maximum power position. Secondly the kite drops in the sky, finding a 45˚ angle downwind of me, an area known as the Power Zone. Thirdly a major wind gust happens to occur at precisely this moment.    

“It is a big kite,” says Henrik in the present, “so you will let it do the work. Keep it high, do not drop it too low. If you go too much downwind past the buoy there, then you must come back in and we will walk back upwind on the sandbank. If you go past the end of the spit we are in trouble, for you will get blown out to sea. Ok you know what do do. Off you go and I watch”

It is the closest I have known to true flight. A sudden whiplash acceleration upwards, legs pedalling, mouth gasping, eyes wide. In a second I have achieved a crazy stomach-lurching height, Lancing Beach is stretched out far below. Then the upward force dies and there is a weightless moment at the apex before gravity reclaims me and the rocks rush up. Blackness.

I look mutely at Henrik but his face is bland, expectant, it reflects none of my fear. Alone I must go into the wind and waves, still reverberating with that long-ago bone-shattering impact. The kite strains at its apex pulling greedily at me.

Then we are moving and the breeze blows the past out of my mind, salt spray washes the worries away. I am pulled into the present, floating on turquoise waters, smooth and slippery as a sting ray. The kite hangs above me silently, capturing the power of the wind. We find a balance between the force of the kite, the position of the board, the pull of gravity, the angle of the waves. It all works perfectly for a minute or two, then I hit a trough and the equilibrium disappears. I wipe out.

I recover, set off again and next time I crash harder. I smash the kite down into the water and struggle to relaunch it. I drift fast downwind for many minutes with my kite twisted and shuddering on the sea’s surface, swamped by waves. The lines are taut and tangled, attached to my harness, pulling at me. People can see I am struggling and shout things at me from far off, but I can’t hear them.

Somewhere far away back towards the coast I see a small boy suddenly plucked out of the water by his kite, then there is a big splash. I nearly smile.

I feel the fingers of panic gripping my gullet and the bitter taste of self-recrimination – of dreadful inevitability. That sense that I have put myself in jeopardy once again. Why do I seek pursuits where the highs are overshadowed by fear and disaster? I am treading water, swallowing water, the lifejacket is bunched around my neck. How do I find these situations? I drift towards the end of the spit, the point of no return, alone, the vast open ocean waiting beyond. I shout impotent insults at the kite and at myself.

Finally the wind picks up a little and ponderously my kite turns over, then lifts. I finally get it up into the power zone and perform a desperate and humiliating body-drag back into shore. I trudge a long way back up to Henrik who smiles and shrugs, takes the kite from me and zips off in search of my board, floating somewhere far out to sea.

Then minutes later we start over. Again the fears of the past fade, replaced by the rush of the present. Lessons float away unlearned, for while it is true that disaster seems ever waiting, there is a corollary that I also know to be true: it always works out alright in the end.

Soon I am up and riding again, hollering, crashing, skimming, laughing, flying, drowning, wading back time and again to receive Henrik’s quiet advice.

But this time I do not snap my humerus in two like a twig, I don’t damage my shoulder socket, there is no morphine, no surgery, no titanium implants, no year of rehab.

Just wind, waves and the spectre of imminent disaster, riding beside me like a shadow. Like an old friend.

I sign myself and Arthur up for another session tomorrow.

The higher the hill, the stronger the wind: so the loftier the life, the stronger the enemy’s temptations.

John Wycliffe

L’Enfer

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?

Zumba!

“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!