I’ve never been one to get hung up on notions of authenticity when I travel. A place is a place, whether it provides a challenging dose of “foreign culture” or not. But to describe my booze-addled, blurry, all-inclusive week in Acapulco by saying that “I’ve been to Mexico”? It may not be wrong, but it feels wrong.
I left Canada for the first time in March 2001. I had turned 19 just a couple of weeks earlier. Graduation was looming – in those days, Ontario’s high school gauntlet included a thirteenth grade, prolonging the awkwardness for one extra year – and a group of us, forty or so members of Canterbury High School’s soon-to-be class of ’01, had booked ourselves into a week-long binge. We were joined on our official tour group by nearly a thousand other students from neighboring Ottawa-area schools, some of whom we knew, most of whom we didn’t. The pack of us would be distributed across a handful of high-rise hotels in the heart of the Acapulco strip; we would be invited to all the same supersized beach parties by day, and our ever-present plastic wristbands would get us into the same sequence of mega-clubs by night.
By chance, our final high school holiday coincided with the U.S. college spring break, so at all those parties and all those clubs we would be rubbing elbows with a few thousand American co-eds. It was a package tour on steroids, and a parent’s worst nightmare. It was just about the furthest thing from an “authentic Mexican cultural experience” that I can imagine.
I went armed with exactly two Spanish words: veinte pesos. I’d been told that no cab ride on the strip should cost any more. The rest of my preparations were of the retail variety – I shopped for platform heels and mini-skirts and halter tops so flimsy they should practically have been labeled as wear-once disposables. I bought my first bikini, and gritted my teeth through my first bikini wax. I also packed a box of condoms – the first I’d ever walked into a pharmacy and bought for myself.
If travel is supposed to be about pushing beyond our comfort zones, knocking down the personal boundaries that hem us in and then exploring beyond them, then I suppose for me, Acapulco qualifies. I’d spent the bulk of my high school years lurking in cargo pants and knock-off skate shoes and baggy t-shirts, my face in a book. I did my best to prepare, to be ready to dress and act the part I thought I should play. But the truth was that I had no idea what I had signed myself up for.
I don’t really remember all that much about the trip; the haziness is one reason why I don’t like to claim that I’ve “been” there. I know we left the school parking lot on a charter bus in the dark of an early winter morning, the parents who’d dropped us off waving as we rolled out, bound for Toronto’s Pearson International Airport a five-hour drive away. I remember fistfuls of students running the wrong way up the moving sidewalks at Pearson; I remember the harried looks from white-haired snowbirds as we filled the plane with frantic, too-loud conversation. (“The BEER is cheaper than WATER!” one girl repeated for the tenth or hundredth time.) I know that we found our way to Senor Frog’s within hours of our arrival in Acapulco, and that a group of us finished that first night off by running down the dark beach and into the water – marveling at its warmth – with our clothes still on, then rode the elevator up fifteen floors with salt water pooling around us.
After a couple of days, I’d established a routine. I’d make my way downstairs each morning around 9am, for breakfast and my first cocktail of the day – a tequila sunrise, of course, because nothing goes together like teenagers, hard liquor and word play. Then I’d find a lounge chair on the deck and stay there, broiling myself under the hot sun and drinking steadily until lunch. I’d switch to pints of Sprite for a couple of hours in the afternoon, chatting with friends, watching the “lifeguards” play tequila volleyball in the pool, flipping myself regularly, like a hamburger patty, for even sun damage on my pale Canadian skin. After dinner I’d drink with the group in the hotel bar and then eventually make my way back up to the room I shared with three friends, where we’d shower off the day’s sweat and sunscreen, and primp and prep – still drinking – before heading out, around 11 or 12, to that evening’s designated nightclub. By 4 or 5am I’d be back at the hotel, ready to collapse for a couple of hours before getting up and starting all over again.
It’s the clubs I remember most clearly. One of them was up high on the cliffs, black-lit with a wall of glass windows and a view of the bay, and one filled up with foam so that we were soaked and soapy from the elbows down, and one was the size of a football stadium, but they were all the same, really. The drinks were stiff and bought with a wave of that magic wristband. The music was a mix of European techno, mainstream American Top 40 pop hits, and a selection of raunchier novelty hip hop tracks that would never have seen radio play. We danced and drank and giggled to each other and made out with Midwestern college guys, collecting states like trading cards: Pete from Minnesota, Dusty from Wisconsin, Steve from Ohio. And at the end of every night, we threw our arms around each other and swayed to the city’s anthem of the moment, Acapulco Night – an empty, hedonistic kumbaya.
Is there any meaning to be derived from my week in Acapulco? Are there broad traveler’s lessons to be learned, or particular local insights to be teased out?
I learned that the ice cubes in the hotel drinks were not, in fact, imported from England, a rumor I’d initially, incredibly naively, believed – and were thus a violation of the “don’t drink the water” rule. I learned about the existence of McPatatas, spicy home fries that I’ve wished ever since would be adopted by my local McD’s. And I learned quickly enough to take that afternoon pause, to down a couple plastic cups of Sprite by the pool in lieu of more daiquiris, after spending a night in the hotel room vomiting and shaking with chills, suffering the combined effects of sunstroke and alcohol poisoning, the sounds of my roommate and Dusty from Wisconsin out on the balcony rising and fading as I veered in and out of coherence.
More broadly, and probably more valuably, I learned that geography matters – that the world changes when you change locations. Never having left Canada before, I had had trouble grasping the idea that any place could really be all that different from what I knew. I learned that lesson right there on the pool deck, with the unimaginable sun slow-cooking me in my lounge chair. The heat didn’t make any sense to me, and its strangeness, its impossibility – relentless, scorching sun, in March! – hinted at the greater strangeness to be found elsewhere in the world. Easy enough to dismiss an all-inclusive bender as a worthless exercise in liver damage, but in a very real way, Acapulco got me started as a traveler.
Have I been to Mexico? I suppose I have. I’ve met one of the country’s incarnations, and that particular Mexico is not one I’m eager to encounter again. But there are others, too, as different and strange to me now as Acapulco was to my teenage self, the dolled-up bookworm with a single stamp in her first passport. I’d like to meet them someday – preferably without showing a plastic wristband for admission.