Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Metal Detector Man

"Every story has a key, an image that unlocks everything else" confides AA Gill in the introduction to his anthology of 'interviews' with far-flung places.

Well, my image from Playa del Carmen is less of a universal key and more of a metal ring in the wall. The kind that in old-style mystery stories you twist and promptly discover a hidden, and usually quite unpleasant reality lying at the far end of a dark passageway.

As a visitor to Mexico there are people watching you, waiting for your debris, like the ultra-devoted in the Middle Ages used to wait for stuff to drop off their Holy men...hair, nails, teeth etc. The moment you are separated from something it ceases to be yours; there's no comeback, no lost property box.

At around 5pm every afternoon when the winter sunshine was waning and the beach boys had started to stack the sunbeds Metal Detector Man would arrive on our patch of beach, moving in from the south.

With the methodical approach of a lawnmower operator at the All England Club he crisscrosses the white sands perpendicular to the shoreline. A few minutes after he starts his sweep a couple of pre-teens with Made in China backpacks start to scan the sand a little less rigorously in amongst the palm shades. They follow in Metal Detector Man's wake, always maintaining a discreet distance, but they're obviously his flesh and blood. Metal Detector Man's face is locked in a perma-snarl, but every so often he surreptitiously jerks his head at his little assistants as if to say "have a good dig around over there m'ijos."

I have to say I found this daily spectacle pretty disheartening at first. Then I tried to rationalise it away. After all the beach is the natural habitat of scavengers. Us belly-warmers are the oddities here surely? But...the snazziness of his gear, the youngness of his acolytes; something's just not right. I've seen people with metal detectors on the beach at Biarritz too. But that was at first light, and they generally had the cheerful expression of happygolucky hobbyists not the ruthless demeanor of the niche-exploiter.

During the weekend it's harder for MDM to cover the terrain without attracting increased levels of unwanted attention. On the Sunday afternoon we observed with interest when a large departing Mexican family accosted him and asked what exactly it was that he was looking for. He duly told them that the state paid him to search for lost property. His compatriots seemed satisfied with the lie and continued to depart. It's almost believable really. MDM didn't say he gives back everything he finds, did he? Even if the state doesn't actually provide him with a salary, ever since the Revolution, Mexico has been a society run by scavengers for scavengers. It's a culture that stretches far inland from the beach.

There's perhaps no better illustration of this than the way the airport at Cancun is managed. Every other booth in the arrivals concourse is labelled INFORMATION, though that's the least you'll get from any of them. If you dare to approach one with a question you will soon be locked in complex negotiations for stuff you didn't know you needed, all the while fending off information that you don't actually want. The signs ought to say Info-Trap.

Avoiding this kind of entrapment is not simply a matter of hot-footing it for the salida without requesting any help or advice. You de-plane, collect your bags, put them on a trolley and head in the direction of the balmy outdoor air, enticingly only a few metres from the baggage reclaim belt. But at the terminal exit you are stopped by a whistle and a wagging finger from the sidelines - you can't take the trolley outside.

Just think about this - imagine ASDA didn't allow you to push your trolley the 50m or so between the cashier and your parked car. It's possible that in this particular instance we're dealing with simple third world bloodymindedness, but I don't think so. The layout beyond those sliding doors has been given more careful thought by students of human dynamics than most UK town centres. Between the terminal and the car park there's a controlled ecosystem populated by many different species of scavenger.

I watched as Italians attempting to wheel out small towers of big primary-coloured suitcases covered in plastic wrap hit the no-trolley force field like flies trying to exit a room via a closed veranda window. Dazed, they struggled to unload their bags and stumbled out, off balance, into the hawker-patrolled DMZ, still a desperate 20m from the relative safety of the car park. Advantage scavengers.

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