Cozumel, Mexico -- the best family vacation, ever. Vacation trips can be fun, but they can also be stressful; especially when traveling with friends and family. My recent vacation exemplifies a "typical" family vacation for me; and people wonder why I'm a home body? Seriously, I had a good time, but was wrecked after I got back. And this remains the best family vacation we ever took.
We left at 6:30 a.m. from Cleveland Airport, heading to Cozumel, Mexico (an Island right across from Cancun), which means that we woke at 4:00 a.m. to get to the airport by 5:00. We got to the airport, and were signing in, when my wife gave them her ID; a drivers license and birth certificate. Unfortunately the names didn't match as we're married (duh!), so they needed something that showed both names. Weeks before I had re-gotten my passport but she had said, "it's just Mexico, I don't need a passport". Uh huh. So we spent an hour frantically running around the airport in the predawn hours looking for a someone on a Saturday morning who was a notary, and happened to carry their stamp with them. Finally, about 15 minutes before our flight we found someone, got our affadavit that showed that my wife changed her name, then we scrambled for our flight, and made it in the nick of time.
The flight made it to Houston on time, or it would have been on time but there was a storm that had rolled in. So instead we circled for about an 45 minutes in a holding pattern. That Storm meant turbulence; but no one ended up on the floor, or throwing up - so it wasn't THAT bad. (I've been in a vomit comet before, and this was mild). However, flying around aimlessly, for nearly an hour, meant that when we landed there was a lot of backup in the airport. So we made the mad dash to our connecting flight, then we waited in the new plane while they figured out whose luggage belonged with whom. An hour later we were in the air.
Disembarking was a blast furnace. I'm used to Sacramento or California desert heat; 100-120 degrees - but it is dry. This was New Orleans or Houston type of heat, only worse; 98 degrees, but at 98% humidity. I'm obviously going to live in a bathing suit.
Immigration/customs was a fun event. The pilot had told us we needed to fill out one form per family (by the "head of the household), which I'd done. The Mexican authorities felt that there should have been one form per person; guess who was right? So my wife, along with dozens of others, all had to scramble to fill out forms.
Driving in a foreign country is "interesting". It is like Boston, where lanes are optional. There are two lanes clearly painted on the road (or at least they were once clear, before the mugginess sauna'd them off), but the cab driver (who has packed us 20 to a van) clearly is not bothered by such trivialities. Swerving into oncoming traffic, making a new lane (either inside or outside), and blowing through blind intersection (with a quick beep of the horn to let anyone else know they were going to die if they hadn't stopped) was the norm. It wasn't quite a Tijuana taxi ride (I've had some of those too); but it was "exciting". Still, I quickly figured out why there is such a strong catholic bend in Mexico; heck, I was praying to all sorts of saints or sinners to just get me there alive.
Checking in, checking out?
We made it to the hotel alive and undamaged; ready for some turbo relaxation. "Excuse me, could you come with me?" was tapped on my shoulder.
"Huh, oh... that's never a good thing" flashed through my mind.
My expectations were not disappointed.
It turns out our Hotel (Allegro) had over booked... a lot, as in "no room at the inn". Visions of Mexican alleys, an backup hotel with livestock in the lobby, or Mexican prison flashed through my head, fortunately accomidations were not so bad. They booked us in the resort hotel (Iberostar) next door (which means about 5 miles down the road). This turned out to not be a bad thing; as talking to people that had stayed at both, most preferred the latter; though both were nice.
As the guy was explaining this change in plans, my wife and I are exchanging glances. And he's asking, "is this going to be a problem?". We both explained, "not for us, but we have 6 different family couples that have come here, and they were going to have to move all of us together; and some of them aren't going to take it as well". This was later confirmed.
We had come with a large party of relatives (from all over), and many friends of various family branches as well. This is actually a fun way to travel, as you are never left without company. Of course doing anything can take longer as you have to coordinate with more people. But there are also many "interesting" personalities in a group this large (you get all ends of the bell curve, and everything in between).
I'm not sure of the exact story (as there are conflicting tales), but the basics seemed to be that at the old hotel there was some yelling and finger pointing over the sudden change in plans. In the end, the policia had been called, and some of my relatives had fled the scene in a Taxi (to come to the new resort). As near as I can tell, the manager of the hotel had enough of angry tourists, and happened to take a pretty obnoxious attitude, "You can do this the easy way, or the hard way", and one word to the contrary was considered the hard way. But everyone eventually ended over at the new resort; and those that didn't argue had their visits covered. Those that said anything had to pay for their own stays and will have to fight to get their money back later.
This vacation was an "all inclusive", which means most things are already paid for. Drinks and meals, and most of your normal recreation we all covered. This might be a tad more expensive, but it sure is nice not needing to worry about cash all the time. I would definitely do those again; despite the fact that my wife and I are not big drinkers or eaters, so were probably subsidizing the college kids, lushes and power-eater crowd. And of course they made sure there were plenty of "extras" that you could spend money on.
The rooms were nice and air conditioned; though ours ignored the setting and just tried to refrigerate the room to 20∞ C, no matter what I set it at. That was acceptable, and far better than the alternative. And they kept the mini-fridge stocked with soda or water. The bathrooms were really nice, and we were quite pleased with our accomidations.
Snorkeling on the beach was free, but a day trip to the reefs was $30. Most of the family tried that, and came back absolutely pickled. It seems that those snorkel trips are called a "booze cruise", where you see how many tequilla shots and mixed drinks you can take and still swim back to the boat. They seemed to have a good time.
Another very popular thing is diving; which of course costs extra. But you can get your certification, or just do a mini-course (resort dive) which is an hour class, and hour in the pool, then you go for two dives (in shallow depth) with instructors. All around Cozumel are excellent dive reefs; and this is definitely a popular destination for sport divers. Everyone that went had a good time.
The food varied from fairly good to very good. Lots of seafood options; but I'm not a huge seafood eater and my wife's vegetarian. Lots of steaks and burgers and hot dogs, that were also very good. Did I mention that I don't eat much red meat and my wife's a vegetarian? Still, there was quite a vegetarian choice. The drinks flowed freely (literally), and they gave away cigars (not that I smoke), and generally made a serious effort to keep their patrons happy. Occasionally I'd get a mouth full of nasty while experimenting with foods I didn't recognize; but I'm sure someone thought that was a delicacy. And there were at least a few new things that turned out to be really good.
Most of the food was buffet style and casual. But they had a couple of " restaurants that you booked (made reservations for), then had more the sit down meal. The food was not unlike what you'd get at the buffet, but the presentation was nicer, and the atmosphere a tad more formal. And it did break things up.
They also had a spa and a gym. Since the gym was sort of open to the outdoors, and it was hot, I wouldn't even think of working out. But others used it (Crazy bastards). The spa had the usual, pedicures, braids, facials and massages (all extra, but reasonable). My cousins got a full massage; and they thought it was worth it enough to have a second one. My cousin is not what you'd call an introvert, when they went in for their massage together (him and his wife), he said, "really work on my glute's, then I'd like a hand-release". His wife rolled her eyes and the masseuse laughed, and while the massage was good, it wasn't THAT good.
Flying over the jungles of Mexico, you get a much better idea of how dense jungle can be. This is not the forests of California, or even Wyoming, Ohio, Louisiana or other places in the U.S. I've been. This stuff looks thick, green and much more ominous and dense. As far as the eye can see is a canopy of dense green. Toto, we're not in Kansas any more. Talking to one of the employees, he doesn't live that far away (a couple hundred miles), but it was a 21 hour trek into the jungle by car.
When you travel to the tropics, you get some lessons about humid. One is that wetness is everywhere. And despite great efforts at clean; things smell like mold and mildew. Get used to it. You do of course, but it takes a day or two.
I have sinus troubles, so was concerned about all the plants and mildew and so on; but because I spent a good part of the day in the pool or ocean, this seemed to flush things out and I didn't have any real problems.
I figured it would be hot, and it was, but it was a wet hot, which is hotter than a dry hot. Every day was 31∞ C. And the resort was designed to be open to the elements. The lobby was a huge roofed area, but there were no walls (open to the elements). The same for all the eating places, and the stage where they did various entertainment at night. All open to the elements (no walls). There was one closed restaurant and a closed "Disco", but everything else was airy. I was surprised, because I acclimated in a day or two, and it really didn't bother me; probably because I spent most of the time in the pool. But even at other times, I just got used to living in shorts and a T-shirt, and sweating a little, while fans and a breeze made it bearable.
Another issue in the tropics is bugs and things that bite. And I don't mean little bites and stings like I'm used to. I'm talking things that swell and itch and turn red. Again, get used to it. Bug off and other such repellents seem to work, a little, but you just have to deal. For some reason, they hated my wife (she never got bit; probably the heart medication she is on), they liked me (I got bit like 15 times), and they loved my brother and some others (he got bit like 40 times his first night). They make a big effort to help the problem. Each night at dusk, some guy with a portable fog machine/leaf blower full of some insecticide goes walking through the jungle all in and around the resort, making his own little toxic clouds. My wife hadn't realized this until after she'd put some clothes outside the room to dry (in our hammock); and they were thoroughly toxified. The good news is that those clothes will repel or kill bugs, but the smell of agent orange or DDT is probably never coming out. But you are in a resort in a jungle; kill 99.9% of a billion bugs, still leaves a million hungry bugs.
Talking with the locals, they told me what a good job the resorts do at keeping down the bugs (in those areas). They explained that in town or other places on the island, the mosquitoes got really bad at night. With that unintentional warning in mind, I wasn't about to leave the resort to explore the vampiric nightlife.
I figured with the trauma of just getting there, that most of the rest of the trip would be less eventful. Or perhaps, "hoped" would be a better word. Either way, I was wrong.
One of friends was playing tennis and started getting some tingling on his left side, and decided to get medical help. At first they thought it was a heat thing; but quickly they deduced that he had a mild stroke. He was on a new drug that was supposed to control his blood pressure, but even with the drug his BP was all over the board (and unstable). They constantly tried to contact their doctor back home (at the recommendation of the local doctor), but after 24 hours and repeated efforts, the American doctor had never called back. The Mexican doctor was great, but knew the guy would feel better if he was in an American hospital and was unstable, so they medivac'ed him to San Antonio by jet helicopter. By the time we left, we'd learned that he was stable and headed home. But it was still a bit traumatic.
His daughter, who is one of the Orange County Coroners, stayed behind. The weight limit on the helicopter, the fact that the mother was with him, and there was absolutely nothing she could do, all contributed to her staying behind. And having a support group of friends in a resort, is probably not the worst way to deal with a stressful event. As it was, she turned out to be a kick. This was the first time my wife and I had met her, and we sat chatting about her job, and strange/gross cases and so on. As well as played cards at night, and she dove with my brother and cousins.
Don't drink the water
They say, "don't drink the water" when you go to Mexico; issues with parasites and cleanliness. The trouble is that I drink little else but water, and it is damn hot, and I want ice in everything (which for those from West Virginia, is usually made from water).
The good news is that in most of the resorts, they really want tourists to come back. And montezuma's revenge (various stomach parasites that put one on the pot for the duration of the trip), is bad for return business. So the resorts have done an excellent job of using purified water for everything that tourists are going to drink. And I had bottled water that I drank a lot of as well.
The bad news is that the water isn't the only thing that can get you; as my father will attest. We made it to the last full day before he started suddenly wishing for death. The local doctor looked him over, and said, "parasite". Some super anti-biotics, and a day later he was feeling shakey, but like he was going to live. My father blames it on the brussel-sprouts he had for lunch. But they were cooked, and I had them for lunch as well - and I didn't think that most vegetables were a hot-bed of parasites. On the other hand, my dad did eat lots of shellfish; clams, crab, lobster, and even raw oysters. When I hear hooves, I tend to think of horses; and suspect the raw oysters. But either way, in our party of twelve, we had one serious case of regret. When my wife and I got home, we got a touch of something for a day or two, but nothing too bad.
Zen and the art of relaxation
One interesting thing is the lizards. There are little lizards all over the place; and they come out to sun themselves at various times. But the more interesting thing is the iguanas; which are not little. You're walking along and notice a 4' long iguana on the path, and are like "scooch". I guess once your nearly as long as a human, you develop an attitude that "they'll go around". Eventually they would scurry off if I ignored their hissing and bluffing. But there was one that was about 8' long, that could out bluff me.
But there was something to be learned from the lizards. The real resort sport seems to be tanning or swimming, or swimming and tanning. The general idea is to stay wet, and get lots of sun; and for most people, drink a lot in and around the pool. I went to a tanning booth before we took the vacation, just to toughen up the hide so I didn't get fried. And my first day, I kept the SPF30 on, and spent lots of time in the shade. I got a little color. My second day I was out in SPF15, and in the sun lots more. I got color, and the color was dark pink. Can you say Mexican BAR-B-Q? Actually, I wasn't THAT bad, meaning I wasn't one of the walking beet/radish people, but I was still sore that night and the next day, and it was my nose, shoulders and especially my scalp that got fried.
What was amazing to me was how fast you can get fried, because I was fine until after like a 2:30 break. I'd gone back to the room, and hadn't gotten much color at all. I went back out, forgot the sunscreen, dived in the pool for 30 minutes, and came back red and could tell I'd gone too far. The sun seems a lot nearer this close to the equator. The rest of the trip, I kept getting fried on spots that didn't have enough sun-screen; but nothing major.
Most of this trip for me, was about laying around and not thinking of work or anything stressful. No cell phones, no obligations. Bored out of my gourd was what I was shooting for. I had my computer, but it was just for cathartic writing and ranting at 5:00 in the morning until like 8:00 or so, when the rest of the world gets up (I'm an early riser, and have to do something). I had visions of being bored, and working (playing) on my website, and getting all these things done. Instead my day was something like; relax, eat, swim, relax, swim, drink, eat, do one activity of some sort, come back, relax, swim, relax, eat, socialize.
What I did on the one thing I'd do each day varied, but it wasn't usually something strenuous or work related.
My wife, parents and cousin took a day trip to go into Cancun; which is actually an hour boat ride and an hour drive away, and they had the complete lack of common sense to ask me if I wanted to go with them. I'd rather drive heated daggers under my fingernails, so I gracefully declined. When my wife and cousin got back, it was obvious that I'd made the correct choice; and in the future, they would opt for the heated daggers as well.
It turns out that Cancun has turned into Las Vegas by the sea. My wife had been there 12+ years ago, and it was a sleepy little resort community. Now it had Las Vegas style and sized hotels, and had many malls, and was very, VERY American. She thought it was sad really; if we wanted to go to Miami, then we would have gone to Miami. But that wasn't the part that drove her nuts. Nor was the hour of sea-sickness on the ferry ride over. Nor was the hour long bus ride while watching a particularly violent action film. Mostly, it was relatives. Or in this case, my Mom. My mom isn't a bad person, by any means, but she does like to do things her way. However, sometimes her way drives everyone else nuts. In this case, "her way" was to shop in the main malls, when the whole purpose of going to Mexico (as far as others were concerned) was to shop the back alleys and wheel and deal. There isn't much chance of influencing the choices; you go along or get rolled over. So some people spent 4 hours in taxis and ferries (round trip) and never got to do what they'd wanted to do. By the time they got back, they needed another vacation.
The next day, I took my wife into Cozumel proper, which has a shopping district, but is nothing quite as touristy or big as Cancun. We still bought lots of touristy stuff; t-shirts, salt & pepper shakers, figurines, post cards, and so on. And we got to do it in back alleys (shop that is), and with some haggling; so my wife was assuaged, and we got to spend some quality time.
One day thing we wanted to do was swim with some dolphins. Seems lots of seaside resort communities have this activity. It wasn't cheap ($125/person + travel, pictures, and so on). But the basics are that they have large areas of the ocean (10 acres or so) fenced off (chain link) as pens for dolphins. We spent about 15 minutes watching a video about what we were going to see, intermixed with commercials about other activities in the park we were in, and what to do with dolphins; the tricks we could do, and were to touch them, and where not to touch them.
Don't pat them like dogs, or scratch them; rub them with the flat of your hands. Don't touch them near the eyes, ears or blow-holes. Stay away from their undersides. And basically treat them with the respect that you should for any 300 Kg (600+ lb), incredibly powerful, and semi-wild (but trained) sea creature.
After that was the fun part. We put on life jackets, and got in the water. The dolphins swam next to us and let us pet them. They feel like they are made of rubber. They are pretty smooth, but they have little scratches all over them, which are teeth marks from other dolphins. I didn't get whether they bite each other for play, mating, fighting or all of the above, but they all seemed to have these scratches.
They "kissed" us, and we returned the gesture; all for the camera, and the opportunity to buy those pictures back at the usual tourist prices. I made the crack that they tasted like Mahi-Mahi (Dolphin Fish), but the trainer seemed to see less humor in that than I did.
Then we swam out (about 80 feet), and posed like superman with our legs slightly spread; and two dolphins come up behind you, each put their noses on your feet, and propelled you through the water at a very high rate of speed (picking you up out of the water). I used to do a similar thing by hanging onto a horses tail while it ran through our creek; but it is always amazing how powerful animals can be. Dolphins are amazingly fast and powerful creatures.
We also swam back out, which took a lot longer than it took the animals to motor us back, and we sat there with our arms apart. The dolphins swam up, and you grabbed their dorsal fins (at the base) and they again swam back at a very high rate of speed.
There was also some time out there where you held a pole out of the water (with a partner), and the dolphins jumped over it. And some free "play" time, where you treaded water, and the dolphins just swam around rubbing people. Even that felt a little structured, but I think that is a bad thing (for the safety of all involved). I don't think most people have enough respect for these animals and think of them as big toys. So even though it felt "controlled" and that these animals were doing tricks, I do think they enjoy the company and pleasing people, especially of their trainers. Yes, it is for fish (food), and yes they are caged. But I do think that they generally enjoy their existence and the socialization. So all and all, that was a really neat experience.
One of the more amusing asides was to watch Mexican television. I think you can realize a lot about a culture by the crap they watch (or read). Amusingly, they seem to watch most of the same shows that we do. I was amazed at how WB, Sony (NBC) and FOX were all playing American shows either dubbed or subtitled. There were also the same amusing commercials for such necessities as the AB energizer, egg-wave, some zit-sucker, and so on. While my Spanish is broken (at best), I could follow along pretty easily. Star Wars episode II was just hitting theatres (subtitled). And so on. I've always said that peoples are more similar than many realize; but this stuff just confirms it to me.
Naturally, bad luck comes in threes; so we had four or five, the last of which was not the flight home; which was annoying. It seems that Houston airport is designed so that when you come in from another country and have 45 minutes to transfer flights, you have ìenterî the country (a line), then wait for and claim your luggage (another line), then go through customs (another line), then check back in your luggage for your transfer flight (another line), then go back through security (another line), then run to your gate and check in for your transfer (another line). Iím sure there is a worse way to organize this, and they are hard at work trying to make it even worse; but at the time I was having a tough time imagining what else they could do to torture us. So the grand finale (and final ìeventî) was that they lost our luggage; or actually sent it to Florida for a vacation of its own, because it was not even vaguely close to where we were going. We got it a couple days later, thank you very much.
I'd definitely go to Cozumel again; though I like a little variety, and would probably try other places before I went back there. The all-inclusive resorts are definitely a lot more convenient than trying to budget, or always getting and spending cash. Sadly, while I had a good time, Mexico is losing a lot of Mexican feel. Some of this is good in that it helps their economy - but while a lot of Americans might like to feel at home, I feel like there's something lost in the lack of a difference. And while Cozumel was less "Mexican" than Rosarita, Encinada, Tiajuana and other places I used to go as a kid; it is still pretty out of the way and less commercialized than Cancun and some other resorts.
Seeing the personalities and family is fun; and it is really good to catch up. I'd bumped into my cousins on many family events; weddings, funerals, and reunions. But that's usually a few hours in the midst of some chaos. I hadn't got to spend real quality time with the family since we were kids. So it was a really nice way to do a trip/travel.
And I enjoy my immediate family as well. My parents and brother and I don't socialize a whole lot; being 2500 miles away. Still, my Mom could talk until a psychologist wanted to commit suicide. You may think I'm exaggerating, but really, my cousin is a psychologist and after shopping one day with my mom, he was considering jumping out of a moving taxi just to end the endless chatter.
I'm pretty laid back, and hard to rub the wrong way. (The most mellow in my gene pool it seems). But still, after 7 days of family, I was looking forward to the company of my cat and computer. And there's just something relaxing about getting home and eating your own food, using your own shower, and sleeping in your own bed.