Our travel luck has run out

My wife and I just got back from a long weekend trip with friends.  We’ve been to the greater Playa del Carmen area of Mexico a bunch of times. We figured that this would be an easy trip.  And for the most part it was.

Hotel Basico, as always, was awesome. The rooftop bar and pool is great. The food is amazing. I’m not sure how they do it, but the fried fish nuggets are amazing. 

Playa, sadly, is slowly being turned into a more rustic Cancun.  It became noticeable last time we went and this time it was all too obvious. More stumbling drunk idiots and more chain stores. This is not a good trend.

For a change of pace, we headed down to Tulum to check things out there. Overall, we liked the area. There is, however, a fundamental problem with area’s value proposition. Most of the hotels are on the water and are rustic.  We had some very serene moments just watching the waves roll in.  But that being said, the price per night for one of these hotels seems to average about $170. That just is too high a shower whose pressure resembles a Windex bottle and a room that lacks A/C.  At $100 or less, the value prop works, but I just have a hard time paying for what I know to be a glorified back packer flophouse. (And in case you think I am being a snob, I have spent many a night in low budget hotels around the world and loved them. Much love to Archie’s House.)

So our travel luck…

On any trip there will be some hiccup along the way, but nothing that cannot be accomodated. On this trip there were three.  First up, Sunday was Day Light Savings in Mexico. Who knew? Clearly we didn’t but, apparently, the hotel staff did but neglected to mention it. A bit of frantic pre-coffee thrashing about but I’ve done worse. We had planned on leaving an hour earlier than usual to grab some breakfast back in Playa so the time change didn’t throw us off too badly.

Second up – on the way to the highway and north to Playa, the check engine light goes on in our rental. Thinking that it is just a gas cap related, and frankly having no other options, we pushed on. Then the engine light started blinking. The car started to shake when I gave it the slightest amount of gas. And then it died at a stop light.

Plane leaves in 3.5 hours. We are 1.5 hours away. Car, though not smoking, was not in a good way. Clock’s ticking.

There’s a Hertz kilometer so behind us and so we coax and cajole the car back there. Sunday morning at 7:30, I am not expected anyone to be there.

But there was! And at this point I must credit my friend L. She is a fluent Spanish speaker. But how many non-native speakers are familiar with automotive vocabulary? So L conveys the situation. The staff were amazingly helpful. Within twenty minutes we were rolling again.

Thus far we have dodged about as much trouble as one would expect to encounter on a trip. But you know me better than that. The next thing we had to deal with was bigger than the first two combined.

North of Playa, we get pulled over by the Municipal Police. Again, L to the rescue. But how many non-native speakers know how to talk their way out of a speeding ticket? According to the slightly pudgy cop (or at least the guy in the cop uniform) I was speeding. And according to him there are two things by which the police cannot abide: speeding and drinking (I think he meant drunk driving). He referred to me as “Speedy Gonzalez.”  He might as well been reading from the “Guide to fleecing tourist” handbook.

Did he mention how fast I was going? No.

Did he point out the speed limit? No.

But did he know enough American culture to refer to me as Speedy Gonzalez. Of course he did.

And what happened next was he said that my driver’s licenses, and me, had to go a half an hour away to be processed. (Keep in mind that downtown Playa del Carmen was, at most, 15 minutes away.) This option didn’t see so appealing.

L, smartly, asked if there was another way to deal with the fine for speeding. Our friendly overfed constabulary said there was. We could pay the fee right there by the roadside. The only problem was that he didn’t have a receipt to give us, but if we didn’t mind we could jsut pay him anyway. Sure, whatever. Amazingly enough, Mexico fines speeders in US dollars… $200 to be exact.

$200. Think of your last speeding ticket. If you got hit for $200, you were likely doing over 80 with up to, but not exceeding, 2 pedestrians squished on your hood.  $200 for doing, at most 10 km/k over the limit in a 100 km/h zone, seemed a tad excessive.

We didn’t have $200 on hand and weren’t really in the mood to part with that much scratch, L pressed on and asked what the fine would be pesos.  You know pesos – the currency of the country in which we were currently pulled over by Officer Hada Couple O’Churros. And so he starts to write on his hand and comes up with a figure 2000 pesos.  The exchange rate was in our favor but 2000 was way more than we had.

How about 1200 pesos?

Ok. Let’s just keep this between us.

Sure officer. Have a nice day.

And just like that we had just negotiated our “speeding ticket” down to $75. We even paid him. Now I asked you, how many non-native speakers know how to bribe pay a speeding ticket to the police officer by the side of the road? This is not a set of phrases they teach you in your high school Spanish textbook.

(BTW, I’ve heard from a reliable source that you offer 100 pesos and go up from there. Live and learn.)

So this threesome of troubles combined with the far larger Thailand affair has got me thinking that our travel luck has run out. For nearly 10 years we have had flawless travel luck. Best room in all of San Sebastian, for free – sure. First hand account of the brutality the Khmer, told quietly, honestly while sitting in traffic in Siem Reap – a treasured memory. An unplanned side trip to a family olive farm – a lovely surprise. I’ll be the first to admit that we’ve had more than our share of lucky breaks on the road. I’ve got to face it – we used up our good travel karma and now have to pay back the debt.

Not that that is going to keep us from traveling. I mean what’s the worst thing that could happen to us when we hike the Inca Trail this summer… on second thought, don’t answer that.

“Tequila shot. Lemondrop. How YOU doin’?”

IMG_0310.JPGJust back from Playa Del Carmen.  Went on a quick vacation for my wife’s birthday.  We’ve been going to Playa on and off for five or so years.  It has changed big time over the years.  Playa’s gotten built up, lost a lot of its clunky charms, and become more, well, Cancun-like.  That being said there are still some great things about it – notably Hotel Basico.  Basico is both a hip design hotel and an unpretentious place to unwind.  It has about a dozen rooms which are deliberately spartan.  The real draw is the roof “pool” – consisting of a few hammocks, a few pool-side beds and two water tanks cum swimming pools.  Add a bar and a great kitchen cooking up fish tacos.  Top that off with a distinct lack of loud guests and you have the makings for a private penthouse experience that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Tourism is PDC’s major business and from all accounts business is good.  It’s just a little unnerving to hear “Tequila shot. Lemondrop. How YOU doin’?” yelled at you while you walk down the street.  Strangely, it felt like a Hong Kong evening on Nathan Road…