Sunday, September 27, 2009

Notes from Abroad: Playa del Carmen (2)

Before launching into a plaintive piece about the Playa of yesteryear — you know the kind: "It was little more than a fishing village when I first came here..." — I have to fess up that I am enjoying a vanilla latte and free wi-fi at the Starbucks* outside my hotel. One of two I've spotted so far.

I also found the Wal-Mart yesterday evening. Huuuuge. 'We're gonna need a bigger suitcase...' It's packed with stuff I could never get my hands on in Antigua, such as organic chipotle sauce and lemon and chilli-flavoured microwave popcorn.

I'm going back on Monday to get some of those Oaxacan cheeses (quesos de pita) that V adores so much, having learned back in Feb that they can survive an epic journey like this.

This whole town sure hawks at its visitors in unison. "Taxi amigo?....cigarro cubano?**....wannsum blow?...this is the place....I give you very good price....etc."

The joke is that when I wanted a cab in Campeche I could never find one. Here in Playa where I'm quite content to use my patas, the taxi drivers practically chase you up the street. (Back in Tapachula they honked at me so much I thought they might be after a piece of my burro.)

Even the girls at the cheese counter at Wal-Mart were shouting out across 10m of shop floor to the next person to come round the corner with a trolley.

My favourite boutique on the quinta in Playa is still Caravan. It's the one with the flamboyán tree growing through the front window and up into the roof above it. There the elegant, premium-hippy owner from Argentina politely ignores you as you browse. Why don't the other guys get that this is an atmosphere more conducive to actual shopping?

There's always been a bit of Asia-craving in Playa and unfortunately they've gone and built a hideous thing called the Thai Village right next to Playa Tukan which so thinks it's a thing of exquisite beauty.

But I'm trying not to be negative. Sure, when Jeff Bridges was keen for the bean with Rachel Ward in Against All Odds the peninsula was still largely an unspoiled paradise. And when I first experienced Playa just a couple of years after that in 1988, it really was a nothing kind of place. The 'Quinta' was a sand track....

But Mexico's fastest growing urban space for many a year is now very much the Big Enchilada. Those surf shops I mentioned yesterday are just one of its many loveable absurdities.

You just turn up and pick your tribe. It's either on with the white linen shirt and off to Deseo for an absurd cocktail (absurd in terms of both price and content) lying back on one of their absurd bed-sofa hybrids surrounded by loads of other happily absurd and chilled out folk. Or, it's on with the Corona tank-top and off to the sports bar to watch the game before indulging in a bit of one tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor...capped off by puking up all over the pool table.

Luckily there have always been more of that sort across the waters in San Miguel de Cozumel...not to mention the C word further up the coast.

Playa was always the anti-Cancún. The NFL-yahoos were crowded out by chain-smoking gamine French lovelies and carefree Italians travelling, as ever, in packs. Perhaps San Tropez of the 60s was their model, but it didn't last. The 'Mayan Riviera' came to mean white linen drapes and big fat cushions imprinted with the words "Be Fabulous".

The boundary between the Mexico we craved and the Mexico we felt repelled by, was inevitably blurred as the (now) city continued its relentless sprawl up the shoreline. Yesterday I saw an ad for a bar claiming to be 'Just like Playa used to be' but it was on 26th street. When V and I were last here together back in 2006 the numbers didn't go up much beyond 15.

But I'm not going to go all old git on you. Truth is I've always been quite fond of all the little painted skeletons, the mariachis, the 'Eat my Burrito' t-shirts. In the past I've tended to feel like a pasty, straight-off-the-plane intruder into this eurotrashy eutopia of hardened hedonists. In some ways I could make the case that I fit in better now, but a thing can reinvent itself too many times — like Madonna — until you're just a bit tired of it. (Madge is also no spring chicken; but it's not Playa that has aged, it's me.)

I'm glad I passed on the idea of staying at the Hotel Cohiba this time. That whole street was one big open-air night-club last night. Oddly though, the Blue Parrot itself was just a few beautiful people below critical mass.

They certainly came in for the fire show (pictured) but then wandered back into the collective holding pattern outside. They were like jumbos bunched up over Heathrow, except in no particular hurry to actually land. It's supposedly low season but busier than I've ever seen it here. Perhaps the Mexican unis are out for the summer still.

I chucked a few shapes (just glad to be able to chuck something other than conch), watched the show then headed for bed.

* Today's speciality coffee is 'Shade Grown Mexican' opposed to coffee left out unprotected in the sun to crisp up and die? You can just imagine it lying there against a wall, chin down with an oversize sombrero covering its features.

**Yanks who come to Mexico for their Havana cigars eh? They remind me of those other export-only sinners, the Saudis who flock to Dubai for its Moldovan hookers.

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