February 07, 2008

At the end of the world

Baja California has thousands of unspoiled, undeveloped, straight-from-heaven miles of land, acres of untouched beaches and shorelines. Timeshare territory, however, doesn't fit into that category. At the tip of the peninsula, 1000+ miles south of the U.S. border, Alice has stumbled upon – and bought into – a peculiar American enclave.

It's an odd bit of the U.S. imported into Mexico You are a visitor to a country within a country. No getting around it, timeshare owners are turistas. Any place that the tap water has been purified, rendering bottled water unnecessary, is a spot for capital-A Americans.

Cabos San Lucas may call itself “the end of the world,” where desert meets mountain and El Arco marks the end of the landmass, but in Alice’s immediate vicinity, it is hard to tell, difficult to feel the implications of geography and language, nearly impossible to sense she is abroad. She gets the U.S. primary results from CNN.

It is a long way from her telephone-less, kerosene-lit childhood in Haiti, an island with no tourist infrastructure -- where few Americans ventured, where Alice spent 20+ years with no TV and limited electricity.

The "owners' party" feels like a freshman-year college mixer. The opening questions differ slightly. What's your name? your hometown? How many weeks a year do you come here; how many years have you had this unit? What restaurants do you like in town? Done any whale watching?

A mariachi band plays Mexican songs recognizable to the American ear. There are contests for owners to humiliate themselves dancing or imitating a Mexican yell in exchange for a bottle of tequila or a Mexican wool blanket.

No one asks what you plan to major in, and most owners have reached the place in the workforce to which Alice aspires: retired.

Some cultural differences are noticeable: the resort is run Mexican-style, despite the players speaking English. The P.R. person, the sales people, the concierge, the hospitality department, and the front desk are all separate fiefdoms. The idea of an American-style meeting or memo explaining how the departments and the whole enterprise could be coordinated would never be issued.

It is one way to know Alice has left Wonderland. Another is the pelican landing in the swimming pool, something that would never occur in over-chlorinated America. The pelican swam around, took his time before taking flight and seemed no worse for the wear. The third is that the timeshare’s English-speaking doctor makes the equivalent of house calls for $100 U.S. This is startling and useful for Alice’s friend.

For Alice, not so much: the doctor wouldn’t write her a prescription for her U.S. migraine meds, and instead offered something Alice had never heard of, at $4 a pill. Alice sticks to over-the-counter muscle relaxants for which she would need a script at home. She prefers to know precisely what drugs she’s taking.

knows of less touristy locales to explore: San Jose del Cabos, Todos Santos, La Paz. To see those as a traveler, she has belatedly discovered, you need some rudimentary Spanish, a map, perhaps a guidebook and, most definitely, the guts to drive a rental car on bumpy Mexican highways. Perhaps next year, if Alice’s driving skills improve, or if she brings friends better equipped to get behind the wheel.

Mexican roads are better than those in Haiti, home of Alice’s beloved palapas-like chacoons. They are closer to first world streets than those in undeveloped countries. Yet the asphalt is not nearly as smooth as one might expect, given the general emphasis on keeping los turistas americanos from realizing they are not in Kansas.

Last week she and her friend mistakenly took an English-speaking tour of San Jose. The guide glossed over the art galleries, churches, and historic sites they wanted to see, in favor of attempting to make los Americanos do their part to enrich the local economy (and probably his relatives in particular). The guide took them to the Mexican fire opal store, where he hoped his group would drop muchos, muchos pesos.

With Alice, he didn’t stand a chance. She has had guided “tours” of pearl, enamelware, and rug “factories” in places like China, and not only did the fire-opal merchant’s shop tour seem identical to the pearl and other factory “tours” she had experienced, but the sales methods were dead ringers for ones she has previously ignored.

Alice wasn’t buying, not in San Jose del Cabo, not anywhere. Alice has sojourned in and traveled to too many continents to consider herself an ordinary turista. No “bargaining” for her, thankyouverymuch.

Alice practices her minimal Spanish with the housekeeper, and in exchange, teaches her new words in English. It is frustrating: while Alice can converse almost fluently in French, it is a distant enough relation of Spanish that it doesn’t translate. Her Spanish-English dictionary doesn't contain the words she needs.

For the party, Alice dresses the part of an owner, runs through the standard questions, and realizes what she forgot when purchasing her two weeks at the end of the world: that is, she is not an American. Alice lives in Wonderland; she is a native New Yorker. What’s more, she is a yellow-dog Democrat.

Her birthright imprinted on her the sense to consider everything but the coasts is fly-over country, filled with towns she will visit on business or to see friends, but otherwise avoid. The only time Alice has passed through Texas has been to change planes. Given the Texan owners she met, she plans to keep it that way.

Mainstream American culture is too bizarre to contemplate: Alice is single, childless, and lives in a city most owners will never visit. The owners’ party has too damn many gun-toting, anti-abortion, warmongering Republicans present for her comfort. Thankfully, the next day she meets some New Yorkers, upstaters though they may be; some Democrats from California, and liberals from Minnesota.

It occurs to Alice that in her adult life, she has knowingly had only two Republican friends, and she no longer speaks to either of them. After the Shrub slid into office, neither was sufficiently embarrassed to admit what an imbecile occupied the White House. Both former friends have a considerably more mainstream take on what life “should” be than what Alice’s life was or would become. Both are car-dependent suburbanites.

Save for large cities on both coasts plus Chicago, Alice sees the U.S. as a place with favorable currency exchange rates and peculiar customs, all of which involve driving to the mall and countless visits to Wal-Mart. Some involve parties at which Velveeta is the cheese product of choice, and "fine wine" has a screw-off cap, vs. cheap wine from a box.

It is places like Tiny Town, Sleepy Southern state, where the brother and family live. He telephones from the car, the supermarket, or Wal-Mart, never from his home. The South has manners that scare Alice almost to death.

In Wonderland, Alice uses public transportation, and the only call she makes from a supermarket is to ask whether more purchases are requested. Wonderland is blessedly Mart-Mart-less, in Alice's neighborhood where real estate prices make the cost of entry prohibitive to Major Marts, and the zoning laws have been created to keep Mart-Marts, though not 40-story condos, at bay.

It is bad enough that Wonderland has been deluged by local chains, like Duane Reade, a ubiquitous lousy drugstore, and national ones -- high-end cosmetic and mid-range chain clothing and lingerie stores like Origins, Banana Republic, and Victoria’s Secret. The independent bookstores have been eaten by Barnes & Noble; the local leather goods stores pounced on by Coach; the candy stores by Godiva.

There is scarcely a movie theater left that is not a conglomerate-owned multiplex. Individual hardware stores in Alice's neighborhood have been replaced by a monolith known as (Un)Gracious Homes, now competing with Home Depot. Home Depot is situated in the Bloomberg building, which holds the eponymous mayor's business. One of his goals seems to be making Wonderland less so.

Back at the end of the world, Alice tried to make conversation at the owners' party and realizes the fatal flaw in her attempt to amortize trips to warmer climes: in a hotel, guests have varied nationalities, interests, and stories. On timeshare turf, everyone is American, and most, it seems, are conservative.

Too late: Alice should have realized the basic timeshare owner requires no surprises in vacation destinations, whereas Alice is accustomed to and has spent years seeking them. It is only in the communal hot tub that Alice meets Democrats, people with whom Alice shares some basic social values and with whom she can keep up her end of the conversation without apoplexy.

She even gets to play Scrabble and meet people to join on a sunset cruise. The sunsets, too, remind Alice of her younger days in Haiti, albeit without the rum. Tequila is its Mexican equivalent.

A Brit Alice knows refers to Wonderland as "an island off the coast of the U.S." He is correct, and, common language aside, at the timeshare owners' party, Alice was in the country of Americans completely alien to her: Republicans.

Subsequently she has met people who did not come out for the free margaritas and guacamole, those who were on Alice's team on Super Tuesday. She suspects they are a minority.

It is strange to contemplate how many winter weeks Alice has purchased in pseudo-Mexico. All she can tell you is, the welcome mat is open. Any winter you choose, Alice's casa es su casa.

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