I had the great privilege to attend the Nordic Business Forum conference in Helsinki last week. As a writer for Nordic Business Report, I was tasked along with four other reporters with producing short pieces following talks by Pixar’s Ed Catmull, entrepreneur extraordinaire Gary Vaynerchuk, tiger mother Amy Chua, and others. My pieces can be found below:
This piece originally appeared in Reisikirju, a collection of travel stories published in Estonian in 2014.
This is What Happens in Mexico
Some people say that the morning after is difficult, but for me it’s beautiful. Sitting on a balcony overlooking an abandoned white stucco building, dog barking somewhere, collapsed-in thatched roof, shaded by palms.
The guys are in the room snoozing. They don’t even know that I am back. The last thing they know, I wandered off with some nightmare hippie girl from the Booze Cruise. They were combing the beaches for me and we were hidden in the bushes. We watched them walk by.
I even remember the way Tom the Marine was holding his head down in the moist nighttime air stepping over the hooking up couples, writhing bodies sexing everywhere in the sand. This is what happens in Mexico. The hotel owners want money for you to hook up in the rooms, so the people come down to the beach and do the deed there. Men with hands full of women, women with fingers full of men. Then a Mexican hombre with a rifle strapped over his shoulder will show up and interrupt your lovefeast under the palm shadows with a query for dinero. “You wanna do it, gotta spend the dinero, muchacho.” But we have no money. Yes, we are from the wealthy Estados Unidos, but we are only 20-something college dudes. I mean, come on.
Tom the Marine, solo, walking the beach. Couldn’t tell if he thought I had fallen overboard drunk or just depressed that his carton of condoms remained underneath his cot in the hotel room unopened. He was the one most excited about getting laid in Mexico and he hasn’t snagged a girl yet. Any way you may you look at it, it has been a nightmare. For this is a bad dream, Mexico. The disco music from hell, the easy women, the muscle-bound fraternity idiots with their tattooed machismo. Yet nothing could compare with what happened earlier this morning, with the angry guards and the walkie-talkies. And yet I got out of that mess. I escaped big Mexicans with guns. Last action hero!
An open truck full of soldiers goes zooming by but the sound doesn’t awake my sleeping comrades who snore on, mouths open, as flies flit around the room. One of them, James, I think, lets out a terrible sounding fart. Like a plane crash. I can’t smell it though. All I can smell is truck exhaust, the smell of the sea, the stink of booze still hot on the breath. It’s been hours and now, at last, I think I am completely sober. Maybe. There are azure waters beyond this building, an old supermercado by the looks of those faded soft drink and cigarette advertisements on the walls, and there is a broken down truck beside it. Who knows what kinds of other terrible scenes this old supermercado has seen. Rapes? Murders?
At dusk last night, we were down there by the water buying sugary cinnamon sticks from local ladies. It was so innocent, the transaction. Hard money for homemade food. The innocence of those women’s ancient Mayan faces. All dressed in cottony white. The way the cloth billowed around their soft brown limbs. Cinnamon sticks! They are holy people the Mayans, even if they practiced ritualistic human sacrifice. The Mayan ladies, those tormented looks in their eyes to even have to deal with us. Gringos! Idiots! Drunks!
Whenever I am with the local people I am reminded of the village we stopped in years ago, not too far from here I think, but way out in the jungles, away from the strip malls, restaurants and nightclubs. How the little boy ran up to me in his crisp Catholic school shirt, a tremble in his voice, a hesitant fear in his eyes, trying to sell the fellow little boy from Estados Unidos some candy.
I was eight then, tall for my age, but still bluish pale, with brown hair cut across the front, like a miniature Paul McCartney. I asked my parents to give me money so that I could buy the homemade toffee, wrapped in colorful pieces of paper. When my father reached for his wallet, there were more children around him, begging him, “Please, sir, please, would you like to buy some candy, sir?”
We fled to the tour bus. All along the highway to the ruins at Chichen Itza we passed desperate scenes, the stone houses with roofs made of palm leaves, naked children playing in the dust. When my family got back to the hotel, we were famished and ordered room service. I remember how I called up and asked for a hamburger, thinking about the candy seller and what he might be eating. Through the windows you could hear the wind and that soothing, lullaby crash of the ocean waves.
You can hear it in Cancun right now.
Where was I? Ah, yes, the tequila. The tequila cuts you down like a machete, explodes in your guts like the hydrogen bomb. It goes down and plants a seed in you and then the mushroom cloud of alcoholic gas comes back up and billows through the nostrils. This sweet-tasting, clear-colored Mexican drink of choice breaks your consciousness up into bits and pieces, smithereens, molecules, atoms. There is no more you on tequila. There is just tequila and only tequila, if that makes any sense.
There are five of us in the room and each night we buy a bottle of it, Morelos Blanco Tequila, cheap, then return home to divide it all up. Hecho in Mexico. Tequila Blanco de Agave. 38 % vol. The victuals are taken at seven o’clock in the evening, it’s that precise. Jude really does look at his watch and announce in his leading man stage voice, “Gentlemen, ahem, I believe it is that time.”
Then the shot glasses are dispersed, and James fills each to the brim.
“To getting laid in Mexico!” James cheers with a dirty shot glass in the air.
“TO GETTING LAID IN MEXICO!” the men around the table chant.
And so it goes, the tequila, down the hatch. BAM! EXPLOSION! The start of something atomic and terrible.
Tequila Blast Off happens only a few hours after we have “lunch.” Nobody has breakfast on Spring Break in Cancun. We sleep through the morning hours and have one of the cheap meal options, all you can eat quesadillas, refried beans, and rice. And even if we had staggered in wasted bleary eyed in the early morning hours, ashamed of our conduct, swearing we would never touch a drop of drink again, when the Mexican waiter in the white suit comes and asks us what we would like to drink with our lunch, we typically go for a beer – Dos Equis, Corona, or, for the stronger stomachs, the heavier Negro Modelo, menacing Mexican grog that will get you running for the nearest toilet.
Sometimes we go to the beach and wade in up to our necks, the water so clear you can see the hair on your toes. Oh, the Caribbean salt water. Like the best bath water of the best bath you ever took as a child. We watch the muscle-bound jocks and their bodaciously-bodied bikini-d babes play volleyball and entertain ourselves by eavesdropping on their idle idiot chit chat. “Oooh, oooh, oooh! Who is that hottee over there in the yellow swim trunks?” a beautiful black girl purrs to her friend. “I think I’ll be seeing him at the nightclub tonight.” These are the faces of young America. In a few months or years, we will be but highly greased gears in its tireless corporate machines. We we will always have those sinful and wicked memories of those sexy lost weekends in Cancun though.
But first, to make the memories.
From the beach, it’s a short walk to the liquor store to get our hands on the tequila. A bottle of rum is purchased, too, to build on the tequila drunk, but I prefer the clear rum so much more. That slightly sugary mellow taste. The way it doesn’t burn on the way down but just settles in like an old friend on your living room couch. On tequila, a man barely can spell his own name. On rum, a man can think, philosophize, write embarrassing love poems to brown waitresses in high school Spanish.
… Los ojos bonitos, de color de cafe, de color de chocolate caliente. Mi corazon funde …
Si! Your heart melts for her like simmering hot chocolate, Justin. Mi corazon funde … Mayan and Iberian girl. A mix. A mestizo. You run down the steps to the restaurant downstairs, hand the letter over to her companion waitress because you are too nervous to give it to her yourself. Later when you pass their restaurant, her friend calls out to you and whistles, “Hola, hombre, Ella esta aqui!” but the object of your Mayan-Iberian affection is in the corner blushing in her lovely black braids and blue dress. These are the fleeting moments of contact with the locals. We see each other, but so often we just ignore each other. We are just the barracho-ed drunken gringos. Money, that’s all.
The radios call out to us with the sounds of nightmare carnival.
A little bit of Monica in my life, a little bit of Erica by my side
A little bit of Rita is all I need, a little bit of Tina is what I see
A little bit of Sandra in the sun, a little bit of Mary all night long
A little bit of Jessica here I am, a little bit of you makes me your man.
Lou Bega, “Mambo No. 5”
When I asked the the Mexican hotel owner what he thought of Shaggy, Britney Spears, Lou Bega, he replied, “It’s the music from hell.”
It is. And we are from hell. We are walking zombie disasters. If you see us coming down the Calle, hide your daughters away, dear Mexican papas, lock your doors. We are like Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones, except that we left our guitars at home, have no money, and live in a two-room apartamento in a hotel where the plumbing is so weak that we have to run across the street to the three-star hotel, to use the facilities. DO NOT FLUSH PAPEL DOWN TOILET, THANK YOU! warns the sign in our room.
There is nothing that is beautiful or innocent in Cancun. Even the love that is made on the beaches at midnight is not love. The sex that occurs is not sex. All that occurs within Cancun is degraded. And we are just pieces of this flotsam degradation. They lay it all at our feet – Hey Gringo! – But we did not create this soup of sperm and spit, vomit and palm trees and coconut lotion doubling as paradise. All You Can Eat Quesadillas. Special Offer. It’s not me. It’s us.
So sad about us.
One question always forms on my mind on hot blurry Mexican nights, when your body seems to sweat alcohol, and I am staring back at the pink flushed faces of four other twenty-year-old university students and that question is, “When did I fall in with the wrong crowd?”
When did it happen? Where did I go wrong? James is studying film, okay, fine, Tom is going into the Marines. Both Drew and Jude want to be actors though they’ll both probably wind up as waiters. All I do is write secret thoughts in this journal. We are losers. There is no way around it. There is not a future president or chief executive officer among us and our behavior is atrocious. Drunk and disorderly every night. First the tequila, then the rum, then the misadventures.
So when did I fall in with the wrong crowd? How did it happen? OR the even more horrifying question – Am I the wrong crowd and have these innocent men merely fallen in with me? I used to think I was innocent, but I am no longer so sure. Who is the devilish man among us who has partied hardest this year? Who is it among us who ends every weekend with his face in a toilet bowl? Who is it who almost got arrested while yelling at the cops when they came to break up a party? It is me. I am the wrong crowd. I am the sinister one. Maybe that’s why, for me, Cancun is so much fun.
“Did you hear about Williams?” asks James in his Southern accent. We sit around the wooden table playing cards. James’s got on his dark-rimmed hipster glasses, his yellow curly hair is a mess. Most of the women I introduce to James say he is my only good-looking friend. And when I look at him with his cherubic face and blue eyes, I have to admit, James the Virginian does look like a young Bill Clinton fresh out of Arkansas.
“No, what about him?” I ask.
“Williams,” he lets out his breath, “is gay.”
“No. Shut up, Williams is not gay!” Drew spits some tequila out of his mouth and onto the cards.
“What the hell are you doing?” Jude says. “That was good tequila. We paid for that you twit!”
“I know it was, I know, I’m sorry, man,” says Drew. “I just couldn’t believe that Williams is gay.”
Drew Schwartz is an aspiring actor from New York City. He is the German Jew in our midst, black curly hair, black eyes, brown complexion, the face of the man who should be driving a sports car around Hollywood. And maybe one day he will, if he can focus more on finishing college and less on what he should wear to the cast party. Everything with this actor Schwartz is an exclamation. He wears Hawaiian shirts, khaki shorts. He dates Catholic girls and then calls up his Bubbe in Miami and apologizes for it. “Don’t worry, Bubbe, I’ll find a nice Jewish girl soon, I promise…” Schwartz is my roommate. He is also an insomniac but only I know this.
Jude Hart is our Russian Jew, but not quite. Lanky. Pale. Black hair. Fine features. For some reason, women like him as much as James. Jude always wears dark clothes to reflect how he feels about the world. His father is a Wall Street stockbroker and his mother is an heiress from Saint Petersburg with connections to pre-Revolutionary Russian society. Jude is a womanizer. He will do it for all to see. It’s both animal and mechanical. We all know this.
“Listen up boys, Williams is indeed gay,” says James. “Tom knows. Tell them what you heard, Tom.”
All eyes around the table settle on Tom, our shirtless, shaved headed Marine. Tom O’Kelly. Another Southerner, this one from Mobile, Alabama. He didn’t want to join the Marines, but his brother is a Marine, and his father is a Marine, and his grandfather, and all of their brothers, cousins, acquaintances, et cetera.
“Well,” Tom peaks out at us with his Irish blue eyes. “What I heard is that Williams got up at one of those meetings,” he leans forward, “you know, where all the gay kids at school get together after classes, and started talking about his feelings and stuff.”
“No!” exclaims Schwartz. “He didn’t!”
“Our Williams?” I say. “The funny kid with the red hair who always walks around playing the harmonica? Our Williams is not gay. He showed me a picture of his high school girlfriend.”
“I swear to Lord Jesus Christ and God Almighty, I do,” says Tom with that dancing Southern twang. “And Williams said, and I quote, ‘I-I can’t help it. I-I am also i-interested in m-m-men.'”
“He did not!” Schwartz exclaims.
“Drew, would you please settle down,” Jude chides him. “You’re embarrassing me.”
“Also?” I say. “Also doesn’t mean he’s gay, Tom. Also means he’s probably just bisexual.”
“What it means,” says Tom, looking out from above his shot glass, “is that Our Williams is a butthole surfer.”
And like that, Our Williams is excommunicated from the church of heterosexuality.
A few laughs around the table, but mostly a collective groan. “That’s just not funny,” says Jude.
“You know what I think we should do with Williams,” says James.
“What’s that?” I ask.
James leans in. I can smell the tequila on his breath. “We should get him really drunk one night, tie him up, and carry him up to Dupont Circle.”
This is the gay neighborhood in Washington, DC, where men make out openly in the park.
“No, you wouldn’t!” exclaims Schwartz.
“Drew, I most certainly would,” says James. “Here’s what we gonna do. First we hang with him. Get him good and wasted. Then we take him up to Dupont, chain him up to one of them trees in the park, and let the gays have their way with him. ‘Here you go, Williams!'”
An evil laugh. It’s so evil, I have to laugh too.
“No, that’s just not cool,” says Jude. “You should respect the man’s choices. Respect his lifestyle.”
“Pssh! Lifestyle? Why the hell shouldn’t we do that?” says James. “That’s what Williams wants. You heard Tom. He can’t help it. Hell, he’ll probably thank us for it later. Hey, Petrone, what kind of bullshit are you writing there now?” James stares down at my journal.
“Just a poem,” I look up. “For the waitress downstairs.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Petrone,” James shakes his head at me. “Will you please just kill that romantic shit? It’s fucking killing my party mood. We came here to get laid and drunk. Tom and I brought two cartons of condoms for that purpose. Not to fall in love with some Mayan girl with gold teeth!”
“But that’s what makes her so hot! Gold teeth! She’s a real person. Not like these other girls.”
A plume of laughter from the mouth of James. “A real person?! She’s just some Mexican.”
“Gold teeth!” Drew exclaims.
“Okay, show me what you wrote,” says Jude, leaning in. “And it better be fucking good, Justin. None of the prissy shissy sheisty.”
“Oh are you drunk,” says Tom and refills Jude’s glass.
“I’m not showing you a single word,” I say.
“Show it to me now,” Jude snatches the book from my hands.
“Give it back! It’s personal!”
Jude just smiles and opens the book and begins to read. “Ahem. Los ojos bonitos, de color de cafe,” he raises a dark eyebrow. “De color de chocolate caliente. Mi corazon funde …” Wow, Justin, this is pretty good,” he tosses the book back into my lap but I don’t even take it because my head is so hot with tequila and embarrassment.
“It’s not good,” mutters Drew. “It’s a ten year old’s love letter.”
“Why don’t you write us some poetry in Spanish? Let’s see how good it is,” says Jude.
Everybody looks at Drew and then they look at Jude and then they look like me. Then Tom says, “I know how to settle this. Let’s drink some more tequila.” He raises a glass high up, “To getting laid.”
“In Mexico!” Drew exclaims. The tequilas go down hot.
“You should just go marry that Mayan girl,” says Jude to me with a pitiful grin. “El matrimonio.”
“You’re a dickhead,” I say. “I told you not to read my poem and then you read it.”
“I think it’s a great future for you, Petrone. Marry the Mayan girl, stay here, open a nightclub, play Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Lou Bega, all your favorites. We’ll go back to America …”
“Yeah, good for you.”
“… get fabulously rich, send our sons and daughters down to your club for a good time.”
“And your Mayan wife can mop up the puke.”
Jude keeps talking but I can’t hear him any more because I am lost deep in the fantasy of becoming a Cancun nightclub owner with a Mayan wife. Puke mopping aside. In fact, I’m secretly starting to think it’s a great idea.
Later, we take the Booze Cruise ferry to Isla de Mujeres, which is a spit of land off of Cancun covered in palm trees and one town, population 12,000. I went there when I was a kid, too, went snorkeling, took pictures of the fish underwater with a special underwater camera and collected pieces of interesting looking coral. Still have a bag of the stuff tucked away somewhere, along with the obsidian arrowheads from the gift shop at Chichen Itza. I remember the food that day was good, fried fish, pasta dishes, beans, delicious, and the food on the island was again so good, except this time we arrive late at night.
To stand on the white sands, surrounded by noisy jungle, is to feel oneself on the moon. We are alone here on the island, just hordes and hordes of young drunken tourists. The Booze Cruise. The whole premise of Mexico is sex. They announce it over the PA on the boat. “Nobody has a boyfriend or girlfriend on Cancun.” On the boat, the shots of tequila and rum are watered down and too expensive at the bar, but I pay for them anyway. Anything to stay drunk. Anything to forget where I am, what I am turning into. The whole time over I have my eye on this girl with dark hair, voluptuous figure, maybe half Japanese. An exotic girl in a sparkling dress, but a normal girl. I try to chat her up but nothing seems to stick because she is just normal, banal, average, not a spark between those ears. All I can get out of her is a name and a sentiment, which is either nice or good. And then Drew Schwartz, the actor, he’s in my face on the beach exclaiming, “You’ll never get that one,” with his Hawaiian shirt catching the light off the stars, and I say, “Why the hell not?” “Because you’re awkward, that’s why,” he exclaims. “The hell I’m awkward.” “You write love letters to waitresses in Spanish,” exclaims Drew. “That’s pretty awkward.”
And he’s right, because voluptuous half-Japanese girl is soon under a palm tree somewhere kissing a muscular, fraternity type in a black t-shirt. I am so angry with Drew meantime that I tell that thespian exclamation point to go to hell and run away. I leave Drew, Tom, James, and Jude forking over piles of beans at the benches by the tables of food and follow the loud electronic beats. There is an illuminated stage there out in the island jungle and they are playing hip hop music and men and women are taking turns rapping into the microphones.
This all takes place in front of what feels like thousands of half-naked people trying to dance with each other. The whole scene is so corroded, so degraded, so blurry, and drunken that I wish at times I had never been alive, or at least think perhaps that I am in hell. Then I notice a girl watching me from beneath a palm tree. A big girl, big face, big breasts, big legs. Shoulder length brown hair, tan as tan, and blue eyes, and I mean those eyes are too blue and they scare me a bit they are so light. I go and sit beside her. She can barely string words together and neither can I. I don’t remember what we talk about, but it probably involves the Grateful Dead. Maybe I have my Grateful Dead t-shirt on or because she has a tie-dye Grateful Dead shirt on. We have a connection! The same t-shirt! I think her name is Jill or Jessica, but this does not matter to me. What matters is that this girl is henceforth known as Nightmare Hippie Girl.
After the ferry takes us back, Nightmare Hippie Girl and I are in the bushes at the beach, which is where we see Tom the Marine and the others walk sullenly by to their terrible apartamento with its unopened cartons of condoms, moving their heads from side to side, as if searching for something. That girl who got away. Then Nightmare Hippie Girl says she wants me to go back to her room and I say okay. But the owner at the front desk won’t let it happen. He tells Nightmare Hippie Girl that the room is full and that we will have to pay for another room. I try to play dumb with the front desk man and tell him that I am from Italy and that I do not speak English, but he does not believe me. Meantime the Nightmare Hippie Girl is losing her patience with the owner and with me. “God, you are really drunk, aren’t you,” she says. “I’m-a-sorry,” I tell her in front of the owner. “I’m-a-from Italy. I a-no-a-speak a-the-English.” Then we tell the owner, ‘Okay, you win,’ and head outside into the night.
What time is it? There is no more time. When the owner’s head is turned, we are up the stairs and into the room. But we are both so exhausted now that we just collapse into bed and fall asleep. When the sun hits my eyelids, they open. I kiss Nightmare Hippie Girl on the forehead and am out the door. An armed guard walks by and I duck into a closet. Then I get down the stairs and out into the morning sun. And who is waiting for me, but the owner, all dressed up in a white suit, with his big black mustache! He sees me and nods and grins, like some kind of predatory forest animal, and then he lifts the walkie-talkie to his lips and mumbles something. In the distance, I can see the high metal gates to the hotel start to close. The rest of the hotel is surrounded by tall hedges. The high metal gates are the only way in and out of the hotel. The owner is standing there with that satanic joy on his face, and I see that more armed guards are coming from the booth at the gates. What will they do to me? Arrest me? Beat me up? Extort some money out of me?
But I have no more money. I spent every last peso on the Booze Cruise!
He’s staring at me and I am staring at him. And that’s when I decide to make a run for it, lunging past him and up toward the hedges. Behind me, I can hear the owner yell into his walkie-talkie, hear the sound of boots pounding on the path as the armed guards come after me. I can see daylight through the bottom of one of the thick hedges and go for it, down on my knees, wriggling through this tiny hole, with all of the branches poking and scraping at my skin. In a moment, I am out, free, on one side of a highway. There are no cars on this side. I run straight across the road to the other side, where a local transit bus is waiting, hop up onto the bus, and slide into a seat beside a gray-haired Mexican man in a button-down shirt and blue pants, probably on his way to work.
In fact, I am the only gringo on this bus. It’s all working class Mexicans, the ones who make the beds, make the quesadillas, sell the souvenirs. These people make their livings off of Young American Idiots like me. Like us. I look back sadly at the Mexicans on the bus and all I can say is, “Hola.” Nobody answers me because to these people I am invisible. They are invisible to us and we are invisible to them. None of us are actually here in Cancun. Nobody has a name here. Nobody has a boyfriend. Nobody has a girlfriend.
None of us exist.
To think of the Mayan waitress at the restaurant downstairs again, to think about her life. She works every day, so hard for so very little, smiling through it, maybe to take care of a few children, and then gets some juvenile poem from a gringo youth. I am so ashamed of my country, of its people, its dark ways today. I am ashamed of myself. I would just like to erase myself from all of these scenes, cut myself out of any remaining photographs. There is no meaning here in Cancun. There is no enlightenment. There are palm trees, wonderful beaches, beautiful people, shopping centers, and the spiritual depth of a salsa bowl.
When my roommates awake in the lousy hotel, I am greeted with astounded looks.
“We thought you were dead,” says James in his drawn-out drawl. “We thought you drowned.”
“We were just hanging out on the beach, in the bushes,” I tell them.
Tom squints at me. “That was you, Petrone? In the bushes? I knew I saw people up there.”
The way they are grinning at me out on the balcony is congratulatory. Even Tom O’Kelly goes so far as to say, “YOU ARE THE MAN!”
But I don’t feel like the man.
Later, I leave my comrades at the all-you-can-eat quesadilla lunch buffet and take a bus south until I reach the hotel we stayed at when I was a child. There was a limestone Mayan ruin on a hill behind the hotel, so I walk through reception, pass the pools in the back, and climb the hill toward the ruin, passing all of those lizards that lounge on the rocks.
When I was a boy, I came up to this ruin many times, and fell so in love with it that I stole one of the pieces of limestone and brought it back home with me in my coral collection bag. I forgot to bring the small piece of limestone with me to return it to the ruin, but I have it with me here in spirit. I lay a hand on the side of one of the walls, close my eyes, and whisper an apology to the Mayan Gods.
Then I open my eyes, run my hands across the ruined wall, feeling the texture of the stones, and put the invisible rock back into its proper place.