We stood at the immigration desk at the Cancun airport. The officer cracked open the clean crisp passport of my friend and applied his seal on the first page. Whap. It was official, we were in another country. Too often I forget the novelty of this simple thing, knowing that you are standing on foreign soil, the expectant energy of not knowing what comes next. I looked at my friends reaction and linked my arm in his. I knew exactly how he was feeling.
I was playing tour guide for a week, in the most unlikely of places: Cancun. Normally I use Cancun as a cheap port to Mexico and Central America, taking advantage of the $250 roundrip tickets from Boston and quickly jetting off to where I really wanted to go. This time I was spending a week re-discovering travel though the eyes of someone who had never been outside of the country. For him this was a vacation, for me this was a chance to show him the other side of travel: living cheaply but extremely well, interacting with the locals whenever we could, finding out of the way places that make you feel more like a traveller than a tourist.
It would start with a bus from the airport. The tourists around us were being ushered in taxis by English speaking drivers where they would spend $25-30 to be dropped in front of their $200 a night hotels, with overpriced, lousy food, more expensive drinks and multiple swimming pools. After a week they’d be ushered again back to the airport, hungover and sunburnt, never once stepping outside of the tourist bubble. To me this is the antithesis of travel. It may be Cancun, but there was no reason we had to behave like tourists.
I walked up to the bus ticket desk and started speaking in Spanish. The salesman responded in English. I persisted. This would become the theme for the week, I will extend the olive branch of using your language, even if you use mine. Eventually they realize I really do understand Spanish and switch over. For $4 I had a ticket to the bus terminal in downtown Cancun, a 25 minute drive. We were the only Americans on the bus–mostly it was people leaving their airport jobs, dressed in the various service uniforms they donned at work.
From the terminal we headed to our hostel. He’d never stayed in a hostel, but seemed open to it. On our way we passed the Parque Las Palapas, where a dozen vendors sell Mexican food for cheap. During the week we’d eat here often, trying out different dishes: tortas with pulled pork, rich mole sauce over chicken, omelets with chorizo, frijoles and tortillas. I think his favorite were the churros, a type of long donut, that is deep fried and served in a paper bag.
The hostel was bright and airy, a fresh coat of bright paint on the bunk beds. There were kids from all over the world, taking advantage of the $10 a night beds and companionship. He turned to me, “This is nice”. Later he would make friends here, spending a full day hanging out with someone his age from Mexico City, while I worked. He met up with me that night for dinner, practically breathless. His friend told him about his travels around Mexico, about finding a remote village where they speak a dilect that as a native Spanish speaker, even he couldn’t understand. My friend was starting to do the math. “If you can travel like this, even here in Cancun, where you spend $10 a night for a hostel, eat amazing food for less than $5, then you could travel for…”
I felt him studying me too. I’d haggle with taxi drivers and walk away if they wouldn’t give me my price. We’d hop on the 50 cent bus whenever possible and lay on the hotel chairs at the beach for free. I bought lunch at the supermarket– fresh bread (A baguette was 25 cents), a slab of local cheese and some Serrano ham. “Oh my god Christine, this is so good.” This is the way travelers everywhere live, you take it for granted, that you’ll be eating fresh local foods. You forget that when people vacation, it’s a well crafted dance, from hotel to restaurant to beach, all the while leaving a stream of dollars behind you.
One night we were sitting in a park watching some kids dance with fire. The families were out for their evening stroll and we were enjoying the free show. “This is amazing” he told me. He was charmed, smitten with Mexico, with traveling. We talked for hours that night. The bug had bitten. He wanted more of this, to see the world, and now he was convinced at how easy it would be to come back. The things he used to believe, that traveling cost thousands of dollars or that you couldn’t enjoy yourself without staying in a nice hotel, faded away. He was having more fun than on any traditional vacation he’d ever had.
I found myself nodding to everything he said. I remember the first time I “found” travel. It was in Rome, and it took my breath away. I had traveled before, but that city rocked me. I felt dizzy and drunk on it, and just wanted to hug people on the street with my happiness. To this day if anyone brings up Rome, I gush about it, trying to convey the emotions that city brings out in me. You always remember your first.
And now my friend has made some decisions. He wants to live as cheaply as possible in the States to save for his next trip. He’s planning on taking Spanish lessons. He wants to spend 6 months in Paris. He had a glean in his eye while talking about these things, something I recognize well. He’s fallen in love.