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Hola – Hollah!
Niambi Brown Davis
“No ticket, no taco.” Translation: hold on to your Mexican immigration card – you can’t go home without it. “Drink plenty of Mexican beer.” Meaning: guzzle as much Tecate as you can. Our tour company representative was a closet comic and the perfect ambassador to the Riviera Maya.

The trip was thrown together at the last minute. This time the Caribbean didn’t work out. The next best tropical destination was Mexico, although I had doubts if it would meet my sun- sand-and sea standards. One day into the trip and I was ready to award five waving palms to Mexico and the Iberostar Paraiso del Mar. For the “traveler not a tourist” purist, an all-inclusive is the equivalent of Bedlam in the 16th century. This time I didn’t want a “dress-down” vacation. I was all too happy to join the other inmates inside the beautiful hacienda-styled “asylum.”

Lush is often overworked, but it’s the best word to describe the grounds of Paraiso del Mar. When developers carved it out of a jungle, they left many of the original palms, tropical flowers and cenotes (underground rivers) in place. Pink flamingos graze in a lagoon set between the marble walkways. Peacocks and other tropical birds stroll the grounds and terraces, leaving stray feathers behind as their calling card.

The Yucatan in August is hot as hell (but I loved it!) By late morning the pool water was the temperature of bath water. For a slightly cooler dip, Paraiso Beach was a short walk away. The ¾ mile stretch of sand fronts some of the bluest water I’ve ever seen. Even so, some hotel guests never made it past the pool that wound through the property like a never-ending blue ribbon. Instead, they lounged on covered poolside beds, relaxed in the Jacuzzi, drank at the swim-up bar or took part in salsa and Spanish lessons. When the Star Band set up, a poolside salsa dance party broke out.

I’m convinced that The Iberostar Group runs a do- or- die boot camp for its staff. I’m also convinced that it should become a franchise. Customer service was outstanding - no stone-faced greetings or barely civil service, even with the most difficult vacationer whose server couldn’t catch a break. Each day the housekeeping staff left us with chocolates, hibiscus flowers and towel art. How many hours of practice does it take to fashion a dog, an elephant and a Mayan Indian out of terry cloth?

If we didn’t want to leave the all-inclusive cocoon we didn’t have to. One evening a group of locals arrived, dressed in white shirts and black pants or skirts. At first glance I thought “folk entertainers.” until they set up a moveable village marketplace stocked with carvings, pottery, silver, paintings, leather goods and handcrafted clothing (I should have bought that black leather gaucho hat…).

The Star Friends and the Star Band deserve the title of hardest working staff in hotel entertainment. For most of the day, and a lot of the night, they were on duty at poolside, entertaining the children at Lucy’s Kids Club and the adults with salsa, Spanish, archery and pottery lessons. At lunchtime they’d grab a plate, pull up a chair beside their guests and share some of that Iberostar hospitality.

No strangers to the stage, at night, they literally became stars. In one performance shrouded in darkness, a feathered dancer depicted the majesty of the Mayan past. On Las Vegas night a black clad man moon-walked across the stage, a dead ringer for the Gloved One. An elaborately costumed segment from The Lion King brought the audience to its feet. It may have been America served whole in Mexico, but the crowd, especially families with children, loved it.

In Playa del Carmen around the corner from the famous Carlos and Charlie’s, I got a glimpse of Mexican commando-style security. Looking no more than 18 and dressed in black from head to toe, the guard in front of a jewelry store gave off a “Die-hard” stare. He gripped a shotgun in both hands and wore a pistol strapped to his waist. He did not look like a fun kind of guy. So when my daughter ran over and asked to take a picture with him, I was sure we’d be calling home collect from a Mexican jail or she’d learn some Spanish words they didn’t teach in school. He nodded and they posed, with “turista” written all over his otherwise stoic expression.

Further down the street, we ran into some new-found south of the border brothers. “Hola, my sisters,” they called out, waiting for us to “hollah back.”

We loved that part of Mexico so much that we tried to stay an extra day. It didn’t happen, but the last days were the best. On Isla Mujeres (The Island of Women) a shopkeeper and I communicated in a little English, a little Spanish and a lot of hands signs about Mexican artist Frieda Kahlo. Later that day eight of us, joined by the camaraderie of vacationing strangers, took a catamaran sail around the island. Nearby, a Mexican flag the size of a small airfield rippled in the breeze. Out on the open water, we claimed the day as a spiritual massage. Reggae and rhythm and blues vibrated from the speakers on the slow, smooth sail through water every color of blue imaginable. We sailed past a white beach backed by palm trees and dotted with turquoise beach umbrellas and thatched palapas. Before heading back, our captain dropped anchor and we swam in the Mexican Caribbean. Near the end of the trip, he gave us a close up of a luxurious, but vacant home built on a rocky edge of land. It was unplanned perfection, like a random shot made even more beautiful because the picture wasn’t posed.

The next time I’m in Mexico I’ll have more time. I hope to see the sacred Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, and head over to Oaxaca or Zihuatanejo. Either way, I’ll keep you posted.

Copyright 2008 Niambi Brown Davis
From Dusk to Dawn, April 2008

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