Cristina and I had planned a dream vacation to Cancun. But our dreams of Mayan pyramids turned out to be pyramids of sand. They would be obliterated by a wave of circumstance, sweeping Cristina away from me like a piece of driftwood in the tide, requiring me to go madly dashing across the Caribbean after her. Here's the story:
Weeks earlier, we had spent hours choosing the perfect hotels and plans. Me at my computer with a view out my window to the crisp winter Saturday morning of the southern edge of Australia, her simultaneously in the humid summer warmth of a tenth floor apartment in the capital of Venezuela on a Friday night. We talked eagerly of scuba diving with whalesharks and turtles, of Mexican food and tequila, of the ancient pyramids at Chichen Itza and Tulum -- we even found a beautiful hotel on the beach within the national park containing the Tulum pyramids. There was one detail she didn't know though. One that caused me a great deal of anxiety I couldn't share with her. I would have a very shiny diamond ring worth several times more than I'd ever carried on my person before. What if I fell asleep in Guadalajara airport and someone rifled my bag? What if someone in airport security saw it in the x-ray and had their way with my bag while I was still stuck on the far side of security? Should I risk having it on me, and being pickpocketed, or have it in my bag and risk the bag being snatched? I was very very anxious about these possibilities.
A week earlier, on her birthday, I had posted to facebook: "Happy birthday to my darling, my princess, my moon and stars, my pineapple, Cristina Santiago Febres. No distance is too great, no government so strong, that it can compete with our love and keep us apart <3 <3 <3"
Little did I know I was apparently tempting fate to put that to the test.
And to quote myself the afternoon before the flight began: This afternoon I fly to Guadalajara, Mexico, where I arrive at 11:46pm, only to depart there at 6am for Cancun. Which might sound like a miserable layover, but any other combination of flights would have had me arrive in Cancun after Cristina and I'd rather spend six hours in airport hell than lose a minute with her
August 30th, 18:31 - The trip began well enough. I was flying Volaris, some kind of Mexican budget airline with a logo like a heavily pixilated diamond, which immediately conveys this sense that somehow they didn't have the budget it make their logo any less pixilated. But it didn't feel punitively budget like Spirit, dangerously underfunded like Air Asia X, or Ebenezer Scroogingly parsimonious like every US mainstream carrier, just kind of a cheery "we're doing the best with what we've got!" kind of vibe. I didn't feel uncomfortable and all the passengers seemed unusually cheerful, I've never seen so many passengers happily chatting with eachother.
The check-in guys at LAX were casual and chummy, giving me the number of a taxi driver one of them had liked in Cancun during his own visit there a week earlier. I was informed that upon arriving in Guadalajara, I'd have to collect my luggage and exit the controlled area before checking in for the next leg, which prospect left me concerned they wouldn't let me in, and I'd be stuck outside the terminal overnight, clutching my bag terrified to fall asleep for a moment.
As I walked up to the Volaris check-in desks they appeared deserted with no one near them, but then a staffmember who had been headed toward the exit saw me, came over, and checked my bag for me. How nice! I asked if I could check in yet and she sadly shook her head saying in broken English,
"No, they probably won't allow it until 3"
"Hmmm, well I'll try anyway" I said
And she smiled, shrugged and said "maybe."
I walked over to where the doors to the gates were, they were all closed, with half a dozen uniformed security standing about in front, it really didn't look promising. I approached the nearest one with my boarding pass out, a hopeful smile, and some gestures conveying I hoped to go through. The guards quickly opened the door and waved me through. The guards at the x-ray machine were similarly obliging as I went through it by myself and I emerged into the vast almost entirely empty terminal feeling amazed by how friendly everyone in Mexico seemed to be.
Unfortunately they had the air conditioning blasting so I spent the night being very uncomfortably cold, far too cold to even contemplate getting some sleep. Around 4am I thought I should get some food and went looking around: Chili's, Carl's Jr, Denny's, Johnny Rockets, Burger King, Starbucks, California Pizza Kitchen, Subway, another Chili's... I finally settled on a pizza place and only after I ordered did I see an actual Mexican cuisine place, and it even had my favorite, chilaquiles, on the menu! Oh well, I'd have plenty of time for more Mexican food... or so I thought.
August 31st, 08:34 - Arrived in Cancun. Cristina's flight was due in at 12:44, so I lingered in the baggage claim until noon so I would still be in a secured area, not out there where someone could snaffle my priceless cargo. While I was waiting I was informed payment had come for my latest article and it was actually a surprisingly decent amount. I was about to see my wonderful girlfriend, AND I was getting decent pay for writing, life was going suspiciously well. After I stepped out I was having trouble finding international arrivals so I had to ask a guy hawking taxis, who amiably proceeded to guide me the 100 or so yards to the correct place. I was bracing myself for him to want a tip for this (as happens in places like Egypt in such circumstances) but once he had determined I was in the right place he bid me goodbye and went back to where he had been, leaving me once again feeling like everyone here was so nice.
Cristina inbound to Cancun
13:31 - she texts me she has arrived.
13:41 - I text her laughingly about these taxi hawkers out here who tried to tell me the bus I know to be $10 is $40 in order to sell me on their $45 shuttle. They had also tried to sell me on a $189 taxi.
14:05 - the nearby taxi hawkers are asking me where my girlfriend is, since I've been waiting two hours now. One of them, a guy in a red shirt, mentions calling immigration but I say it's okay. Maybe she's just getting cleaned up in the restroom before seeing me or something. You know, girls.
14:07 - she texts she is still in immigration, they have taken her passport, they don't believe we're in a relationship. I'm extremely alarmed but still optimistic that it's just a momentary hold-up that will be cleared up. I had been trying not to talk too much to these hawkers since they had tried to misrepresent the bus cost, but now, since the one had mentioned calling immigration, I start trying to explain to them that she's stuck in immigration. One of the hawkers, an androgenous fellow in a tan shirt, shows me the courtesy phone on the wall where we are (just outside where international arrivals leave the secured area.). and calls immigration for me. He tells me they said to wait half an hour and call back, "and they will do interview."
14:30 - We call back but there's no answer, we proceed to call back every five minutes for the next three hours, alternating me and that same guy, but immigration never again answers.
The taxi hawkers also start calling out "Cristina! Cristina!" every time they see a young lady approaching the exit that could plausibly be her, which is cute.
16:06 - I get the next text from Cristina, after not hearing from her for two hours: "Buscame en migracion" - "come to me in immigration," but of course I can't get in. A simple little plea I heartbreakingly can't fulfill.
16:30 - No me dejaron entrar.
Vuelve a los Estados Unidos no te quedes en Cancun.
Me hacen regresar a Caracas
(They did not let me in
(Come back to the United States, do not stay in Cancun)
They make me return to Caracas)
This is devastating news, the whole vacation has just been annihilated. $1000 in hotel bookings, $1500 in flights, and more importantly the only chance this year Cristina and I have to see eachother. It's been 12 hours since I've eaten, 33 hours since I've gotten any decent sleep, and 381 days since I've seen Cristina.
I'd find out later the immigration officer told her he didn't believe we were in a relationship, and told Cristina that I "might kill her," so they were deporting her for her own safety. Additionally he told her, in a very haughty and conceited manner, that it isn't Mexican culture to meet people online the way we had.
Meanwhile, if I could just get them to allow me to come in for an interview or to exchange documents with Cristina (she was bringing certified copies of identity documents so we could lodge a “registered domestic relationship” in Australia), my plan was to whip out the ring and go on a knee right there in the immigration office. Let them dispute the relationship then!
As soon as I show the text to the taxi hawkers they spring into action. The original guy in the red shirt reappears like a genie saying he knows someone in immigration, and calls him, hands his cell phone to me. I talk to Ernesto, an immigration supervisor who is not on duty but will be tomorrow morning at 9:00. He says at that time they can do the interviews again and I can come in to be interviewed as well and meet with her "and we can get it sorted out." After I get off the phone, red shirt guy asks "how much did he want?" while rubbing his thumb across his forefingers in the international sign for illicit money.
"he didn't mention" I say
"oh," he says looking like he realizes he said too much. Not a second later he and the other guy are asking me what I'm going to do, where I'm going to go.
"My original hotel I guess" I say. Immediately they pressure me to take the $189 taxi. I absolutely refuse this but am amenable to their $45 shuttle because it seems less stressful and quicker than waiting for a bus and at this point I don't want any more stress in my life at all. Literally without giving me a second to think between one thing and another red shirt guy starts badgering me to get some pesos "because it will be a better deal." I let him lead me to the ATM inside and ask him how much he thinks I'll need, thinking he might know the scale of the necessary bribe. He's pressuring me to get a lot out "because you'll have to buy your girlfriend her flight back to Caracas" which sounds alarmingly unfair to me, and in the end I only get just a little more than should cover a shuttle to the hotel and back, 2000 pesos ($102)
Emerging, they try to bundle me into the shuttle bus as quick as they can (“hurry! Hurry! We have other passengers we need to pick up!”)
“how much will it be?” I keep asking, but
“We'll figure it out in the bus we have to go!” they say. Finally I stop at the door and insist they tell me before I get in. In Egypt I learned how getting into a cab is tantamount to consenting to whatever preposterous rate they will later announce, and even if it's moments later you are now moving and will be at a severe disadvantage to disentangle yourself from the “agreement.”
“In pesos it will be...” the tan shirt clad hawker twiddles a calculator seriously and says to me in a straight face “4000 pesos.”
Misconversion of currency is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and I had strongly suspected their motivation for pushing me to pay in pesos was to accomplish exactly this. Being so exhausted, if I had been a dorky tourist on my first time abroad maybe I'd have fallen for this, but I'll never be so fatigued to take a shady taxi hawker's word for a conversion, and I had already calculated $45 to pesos, and the answer was 900. So I exclaimed “WHAT! ABSOLUTELY NOT! It's 900! I'm going with someone else!” and made to turn away. Tan shirt looked alarmed and quickly chattered into his walkie talkie before explaining
“oh I miscalculated! yes it's 900!” I handed over the pesos and received from him a receipt before getting in. Really I should have turned my back on these shady poltroons but did I mention I was very fatigued, and kept thinking “this is surely the last trick they'll play.”
They bustle me into their taxi shuttle all in a hurry, a few minutes go by, and then Red shirt comes back, saying “we don't have any other passengers, so for only 500 more pesos we'll take you right to your hotel. I quickly calculated that to $25. I already knew it was a $10 taxi drive from the Tulum city center to my hotel. To have one complete trip sounded very nice at this point though, since I just wanted to get to the hotel and be done with it, so I agreed and paid this.
Finally we pulled away, away from the rapacious scamming jackals, next stop my hotel!
A few miles down the road we pulled into a gas station. “We will switch to smaller car” the driver explained. Okay. Fine, that seems reasonable. After a few minutes a sedan parked next to us and we moved my luggage to this car, bid goodbye to the first taxi driver and departed in the sedan being driven by a smallish man in what looked like a white chef's jacket.
A few minutes later, “where are we going?” he asks me in broken English. So I pull up the hotel address on my phone and show it to him.
"That's in Tulum!!” he exclaims, seemingly surprised despite that we're headed that direction already, “it's far!”
“Si.” I say firmly, wary of this turning into more shenanigans.
“It will cost much. 900 pesos” he explains.
“I already paid!” I exclaim in exasperation. “Look, here's my receipt!”
He pulls over to the side of the road. It is dark now and the highway is bounded on either side by walls of jungle.
”This receipt has no details on it” he points out. “this is worthless.” Sure enough, while it looks official and has the details for the airport itself it does not designate a specific person or company responsible.
”Call them” I say. But he claims he doesn't have their numbers. Ultimately after some more wrangling I had no choice but to pay 900 more pesos. Or else, be abandoned on a dark highway in Mexico surrounded by jungle with the most valuable object I've ever possessed in my backpack. So altogether I ended up paying $45+$25+$45, ie $115. I console myself that this is actually not far off from what I'm told the fair taxi rate for that trip is ($100) so despite shamelessly abasing themselves, their filthy souls didn't retail for much. Really it isn't even so much about the money so much as being already so fatigued physically and emotionally, to have to continually remain highly on my guard against these reprobate tactics was really really unpleasant, felt like being kicked while I was down.
Even once we had sorted out payments the driver couldn't seem to figure out the extremely simple directions for the hotel. It came up fine by me by typing it into google maps but he couldn't find it on his own phone. So I showed him the map on my phone, it was incredibly simple, turn left on the first left in Tulum, follow it to the end, turn left, continue to the hotel, but he looked at it uncomprehendingly. HOW HARD CAN THIS BE? Finally I changed my map from “north always up” to that cartoonish front-forward view and he was able to comprehend it. We turned off the main highway in Tulum, proceeded down a smaller road for about ten minutes, turned left onto a road like tunnel in the jungle, and slowly looking at hotel signs until we got to our hotel. Even though the driver had been nice other than insisting I needed to pay him, I wasn't about to take his number down for further use.
I flopped down in a chair at the Hotel Diamente K reception desk (an open air office sheltered under a palm leaf cabana roof but with no walls.), and the receptionist, a friendly looking guy around my age, smilingly said “so, tell me what happened.” It was nice to finally unburden myself to someone not trying to scam me.
The receptionist gave me a brief tour of the labyrinthine hotel grounds, snaking between the irregularly shaped cottages, huts, and casitas of the grounds, on paths of sand, to show me the lovely little room we had booked. It all looked so lovely.
I locked the ring in the safe, and then went to find my way to the restaurant, as I hadn't eaten in 18 hours. I became lost, every direction I tried to go on the hotel grounds seemingly coming to the little beach, waves crashing in from the dark open sea. Finally I came to the restaurant and ordered some shrimp tacos (only Mexican food I succeeded in having in Mexico). The restaurant was very cute, spacious and rustic, with beams of bare wood, the underthatch of the palm roof visible as a ceiling, the sides open to the sound of the crashing waves. It was so, muy romantico .. my eyes began to well up thinking of Cristina in some cell in the airport.
Just then I received a series of texts with the distinctive jingle I had assigned to Cristina:
20:15 - Ahora estoy en el avion vuelvo a panama
Ven a panama [come to Panama]
Ya estoy en panama
Mi amor I am in panana
I am in panama.
Presumably until this moment she also hadn't heard anything from me since she had told me she was being deported, and as far as she'd known up till now I may have returned to the states. We were able to talk only until she lost the half hour of free wifi there. I was able to ascertain that she was in Panama but couldn't leave the airport.
I immediately booked the next available flight to Panama City (departing 7:50am), despite not knowing if she'd still be there, or if I'd be able to see her (arriving with Panama as a final destination I might not be able to get into the airside of the terminal where she was, or she might be in some sort of custody even if I did). It would be a leap in the dark. I found the friendly receptionist again (after more wandering through hotel grounds that seemed to defy cartographical physics), and he arranged for a cousin of his who is a taxi driver to drive me to the airport at 4am for $120 ($100 +$20 for being the middle of the night) (the cousin of the hotel receptionist is a usual source for dependable taxi drivers anywhere). I then went to sleep, sadly alone in the muy romantico little room.
September 1st, 03:30 - The stress of the situation allowed me to jump to wakefulness as soon as my alarm went off. Promptly got the ring out of the safe where I'd had a deep paranoia of somehow forgetting it. With all the lights out, the hotel was even more of a labyrinth, fortunately after my course had as usual led to to the crashing waves, a night watchman with a flashlight guided me to reception where my taxi was waiting. I left the hotel without ever having seen it by the light of day. This driver was nice and honest and I hope I haven't misplaced his card in case god forbid I'm ever back in this godforsaken place.
04:06 - Cristina texts me that she has just landed in Caracas, Venezuela. Immigration there assures her that "this is normal,” regarding getting sent back. She had until now thought I'd maybe stay in Cancun or return to the states, and was overjoyed, she tells me, when I now told her to find the next available flight to anywhere she thought she could get into.
05:15 -While I was in line to check in to my flight in Cancun she told me she had found round trip tickets to the Dominican Republic for $460, leaving at 11 this same morning. I told her to book it! Now we just had to figure out how to pay for it from my card.
Half an hour later I got to the front of the line to check in to my Panama bound flight, and then asked the check in guy if I could book the next available onward flight from Panama City to Dominican Republic. He seemed to find this slightly odd but nevertheless clicked away on his computer and reported it would be 16,735 pesos... which sounded like a very large amount. Quick math said it was $862, which makes it almost as much as my Melbourne-LAX round trip for a one way. Also we had not as yet managed to pay for Cristina's ticket to DR, which if we couldn't manage, this ticket would be useless. Nevertheless, I said yes, book it. Another leap in the dark. This leap left me hurtling through the darkness with nothing under my feet for fully 2.5 hours until finally at 7:25 we succeeded in getting her flight paid for as well, we were both booked for the DR!
10:15 I arrive in Panama City as she is checking into her flight out of Caracas. She took off around 10:50. I am left hoping she will make it into the DR. I didn't book a return flight precisely because I wouldn't know if I'd be immediately bouncing out of there in pursuit of her or staying. Dramatically, she lands in DR just moments (12:51) before I take off (12:53), before she gets through immigration, so I know she landed but don't find out if she made it through immigration before I take off.
12:53 I depart for DR to arrive 16:17. I land there after an uneventful flight and anxiously turn on my phone … to find out she successfully got through and is waiting for me outside arrivals!
In stark contrast to our hours-in-the-planning original vacation, we were now in the Dominican Republic's Airport of the Americas with our arms around eachother and no further plans at all beyond that. What now?
I knew someone (Rafael) from the Partners for the Americas aid organization in Dominican Republic, I asked him if he had a hotel recommendation and he provided one. We called, they had vacancies. A guy by the airport door said “taxi?” and we asked him how much. $35, which sounded good from what I remembered from last time we were here (googling just now, “taxis from the airport to any hotel in Santo Domingo should be between $40-$45”), so we went with him, and verily there were no shenanigans. God bless places that aren't Cancun!
September 2nd - The next day I was googling hotels in Punta Cana, the other major tourist destination in Dominican Republic. Google inevitably brings up the tripadvisor and booking.com hotel lists and going down the first two pages of both those lists I was finding nothing but blandly similar looking luxury resorts. I messaged Rafael if he had any recommendations elsewhere on the island and he recommended Las Terrenas (“Cristina, he recommends the tyrannosaurus”). I googled this, and at the top of the page a beautiful resort appeared, Casa Coson, with pictures of a colonial style building and some hut shaped smaller buildings, palm trees, pools. It looked wonderful. I showed it to Cristina (“siii”), and we booked it!
We arrived at Casa Coson after dark, around 8pm, they do not have 24 hour reception, but the security guard ("Marte") was very friendly and showed us to our “villa,” which it turns out was shaped like a beautiful giant two story hut (I have an inordinate love for huts), with the bedroom as kind of a second floor loft, and nice living-room area in the front, and also a kitchen and very nice bathroom. I literally broke into a sweat and started pulling up the reservation on my phone afraid I'd accidentally booked some $300 a night place, but no, this was indeed what we had booked for $85 a night!
The receptionist, Gail ("Ga-eel"), appeared and greeted us, and the security guard volunteered to drive to the nearby town to bring us food (fried chicken and beer). He returned, counting back our change seemingly very anxious for us to know it was all accounted for, and the chicken he brought was actually really good.
That evening, on the soft sand of the beach in front of the hotel, under the countless stars of a sky without light pollution, beside the infinite ocean, as the waves crashed a melodious rhythm, I went on one knee and asked Cristina if she would marry me (“Siiiiii!”).
September 3rd -By the morning's light we marveled at the beautiful grounds of the hotel. We couldn't believe how nice it was! We sat in the breakfast patio and enjoyed a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit and made-to-order omelette, then we had a powwow with Gail the receptionist about activities. We could ride horses to a waterfall and go on a snorkeling excursion to some nearby islands (in the end we were unable to coordinate with either of two local diving companies in the short time we had). For both we should start earlier in the morning so for this day we would just be bumming around the hotel grounds … which was in no way suffering!
We swam in the ocean, walked on the beach, swam in the pool, lounged by the pool, and had a delicious lunch (churrasco – grilled beef) and margaritas – the owners (a matriarch-like old woman and her husband) appeared to be celebrating a birthday in the restaurant at the time and poured champagne for all present, how festive! As there were only one or two other couples in the hotel it really felt like we had the place to ourselves and were being personally waited on by some eight staff.
The next day we enjoyed the lovely horseback trek to a beautiful waterfall. Swam around in the pool below it for an hour. Had pina coladas in actual pineapples from a remote little cafe overlooking it. Swam in the ocean in the later afternoon, and had an amazing shrimp dinner at the hotel that night. The quality of all these meals to say nothing of the general quality of the hotel has left me feeling like it should probably classified as five star!
September 5th - Sadly all too quickly we had to head back to the capital, since the shenanigans with Mexico had eaten up a day and a half from the front end of our already-short vacation (originally 7 days), and because Cristina hadn't been able to find a flight back on the 7th as originally planned for, we lost a day on the back end as well, ending on the 6th.
We needed another hotel in the capital, Santo Domingo, for this last night, and the one we'd stayed in on arrival, while acceptable for business purposes, was a bit dull to be entirely pleasing to us for our purposes. I hate looking up hotels on my phone though -- if I'm planning a serious vacation I like to do it on my computer with 40 tabs open. However I remembered after last year I had written a travel piece for the LA Times (promptly rejected by them), and the format had called for hotel recommendations! I asked my mom to send it back to me since I'd sent it to her for her usual merciless red-pen treatment. Sure enough I had recommended two hotels in the Zona Colonia. Not knowing anything else about them, knowing that I had recommended them was enough for me! One didn't have any vacancies but the other did, so I booked for us at the Hotel Luca.
This hotel had an extremely chic and trendy looking lobby and atrium, a rather disappointing breakfast (omelets cost extra?!), unimpressive room (possibly just overshadowed completely by the super nice atrium building your hopes up before you arrive in a very mundane little room), but it totally redeemed itself with a rooftop jacuzzi! The receptionist emphasized so strongly that we could book it for privacy ("you and your wife will want privacy of course ::creepy knowing smile::") that, though we did book it, we were possessed of a fear that other people had been making the sexo in it. But we were also allowed to order drinks and food up to it so we ended our vacation in a rooftop jacuzzi with a view to the illuminated oldest cathedral in the Americas not far off, eating pizza and drinking mojitos!
Later when Cristina was sending some pictures to her friends I heard her mumble to herself “best vacation ever!” and I smiled remembering what a disaster it had begun as.
Next entry focuses more on the details of our time in the Dominican Republic, as this is kind of a fast forward version just to counterbalance how bad the vacation began. Tune in to next entry to find out how we got lost in the middle of the island, more details about the proposal, and more!