Marketing a Story of Mexico in the Tourism Capital of the Yucatan

I just got back from the Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico, where I saw ancient Mayan ruins, snorkeled in underground limestone caves and, on the way to the airport, got into a car accident.  I gotta say one thing:  I definitely got the full tourist experience!

I have been to Mexico many times but I’ve never really been to tourism zones.  I am pretty proud of my ability to speak high level Spanish, so I usually go to places where I can truly practice the language.  And this rarely happens in first class tourism zones where you get to meet other tourists—places where all the money-making is geared toward English speakers.


So, this time going to a place that is the mothership of Mexican tourism taught me some interesting lessons about marketing.  And marketing really is all about storytelling, which is what this blog is about in the first place.  You see:  for you to get true value, you have to feel like you got to experience true Mexico.  Those guests at the all-inclusive resorts that tag you with fluorescent bracelets and suck you into the vortex of their black hole buffet—those guest don’t feel like they have experienced true Mexico if they don’t at least once have a street taco.  They make it a point to wander out from the hotel megaplex at least once during their vacation.  It’s on the checklist.

The paradox of wanting to feel like you’re in “true Mexico” (despite the fact that you are in Las Vegas) comes in the fact that a certain kind of distortion has to happen—small lies, slight of hand, smoke and mirrors.  There are obvious ways that this is done:  in the beachside tourist zones, the business people really play up the kitsch Mexican factor—the colorful embroidered huipiles that all restaurant hostesses must wear, the strolling mustachioed mariachis who pluck their instruments under flapping plastic banners that catch the ocean breeze.  Usually, the plastic banners strung across courtyards are made out of paper for a one-time fiesta…but, you see, if every day is a continuous fiesta, you need something more durable, something that will not fade nor tear.  Something that is not cut by hand but cut by machine.

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A less obvious distortion comes in the fact that almost all of the restaurants feature seafood but none of the seafood is fresh.  Almost all of it is imported, frozen, from other parts of the world—shrimp, octopus, lobster, calamari.  “The clams are fresh,” offered my Italian waiter.  “We ship them in from Southern California and they are still alive with bubbles in their mouth.”  We were in one of those fancy Italian restaurants that actually had an Italian waiter and an Italian manager.  There was a Mexican guy rolling out pasta in a glass case.

“Why isn’t there any fresh seafood available?”

“I don’t know.  I think it’s because the water is too hot for the fish here.”

To me, this is curious—a real mystery—and the waiter’s explanation was suspect.  You see, all the beach zones in the Riviera Maya started off as fishing villages:  Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum.  And you can still book a sport’s fishing vacation in this area and bag yourself that trophy swordfish that you can stuff and mount in your living room—a souvenir of some great times in the aquamarine glisten of the Carribean ocean.

But I suspect that there was some basic economics to this.  You see, all the restaurants have to offer seafood because it wouldn’t be a Mexican fishing village without fresh seafood.  But these restaurants have to always make sure that seafood is on hand.  Not only does it need to be on hand but it needs to be standard in size—something that seafood caught from small suppliers can never be.  There is also the convenience factor:  seafood shipped from industrial plants are not only put into usable storage containers (cryovac bags) but also processed up to a desirable point (cleaned, scaled, prepped).  And this all means a smooth, well-running kitchen that can get the food out fast.  It also means there are not only no shortages but you can get Alaska King Crab and meaty Salmon from the very best farms in Scotland.

There’s probably another thing about tourism that is more insidious.  You see:  you might want to be in a Mexican fishing village.  And while in Cancun, you might long for the days when it was once a sleepy Mexican fishing village.  But you actually don’t want to see a Mexican fishing village.  The ships are an eyesore.  They are in no way picturesque.  They will ruin any selfie taken on the beach and add an element of stink to what is supposed to be an ideal vacation—the one vacation you will take all year.


Then, too, there is simply basic economics.  Who wants to fish when you can make good money taking tourists out on a boat for a fun time:  the money is guaranteed, the labor is easy.  Tourists are just better than fish and a lot less heartbreaking.

The waiter brought out the food and it was indeed delicious.  He made a show of cracking pepper from a four foot wooden grinder at everybody’s table.  But he didn’t do it at our table.


“Maybe we asked too many questions.”

“No, I’m sure he just forgot.”

“I don’t think we ordered enough.”  I looked at the other tables with their overflow of appetizers and the bottles of wine poured into long-necked crystal decanters.  Everybody was ordering by the bottle but we were just ordering by the glass.

Clues of Colonialism in Coffee

I’m in Mexico—the Yucatan peninsula.  But this is not without a few glitches.  The first night, my brand new hotel was—well—shut down for mysterious reasons.  I spent a few hours finding new lodging.  Then, fraud protection on my card kept me from getting pesos.  I had dollars.  But we had arrived so late, that it was hard to change any dollars.


Still, that is neither here nor there.  We were just spending one night in Cancun owing to a late arrival.  And by the next morning, we were en route to another city—the grand colonial capital of Merida–looking for the one thing that keeps me going:  coffee.  And this mishap brought me to the subject of this blog, because it actually got me to thinking about how coffee can be one of those lenses by which to look at the world.  Detective fiction is always interested in looking at the tell-tale object and finding within it the source of deep violence and disturbing realities:  the bobby pin left on a counter with a lock of silver hair dangling from its clip.

You see, the story of coffee is one of deep violence.  Latin American countries like Mexico are major producers of coffee and should have it coming out their ears.  But the irony is that, of course,  they don’t.  They don’t have access to their very own natural resource.  You see, to make their money, they have to send the very best of the production abroad.  And only then, after satisfying their responsibilities to the international market, can countries like Mexico get the crumbs—the cruddy second grade product, the left-over-unwanted-ugly-stepchild coffee beans.  They can’t come up short on their obligations.  This means they get the sweepings off the floor.

I had to learn this the hard way when I traveled through South America for a year after grad school.  I naively thought that coffee would be everywhere—plentiful.  But what coffee that was available was not well processed.  Neither was it well brewed.  If you were lucky enough to come by it, the fragrant black bean was over-the-top expensive.  And the only travelers who knew this as a fact were the Israeli’s—seasoned, long term travelers who spent at least a year, often more, after their time in the army, working through their PTSD.  They always carried their own coffee, along with the apparatus to brew themselves a cup just the way they like it.


I almost didn’t bring my French Press this time.  I was obsessed with the idea of “traveling light”—that neo-Puritanism of the backpacker that elevates carrying nothing to a state of moral righteousness.  But at the last minute hullabaloo of departure, I threw the French Press into my luggage and quickly ground a small Ziploc bag of French Roast.  And this turned out to be the best decision of the trip.

Our new hotel didn’t have coffee, nor a coffee maker, nor hot water.  And only later as I tried to find coffee on the way to the ancient Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza did I realize how crappy the selection is; it took me over two hours to get on the road; the search to find good coffee landed us at McDonald’s.  An utter disappointment.


My last trip to Mexico City fooled me.  I was surprised to find that you could get coffee in the capital and this lulled me into a false sense of security in my preparations for the current trip.   I actually came across amazing coffee from the famous growing region, Chiapas where the green hills provide an ideal growing climate.  Chiapas is only one state away, I reasoned.  “The coffee must make its way to the Yucatan,” I told my wife.

But the Yucatan Peninsula is one of the poorest regions in the country, filled with the dispossessed Mayans.  The coffee goes to the richest and the most cosmopolitan in the country—the city slickers from the capital.  These are people who not only have the money but also have the tastes to consume coffee.  The native Mayans have no taste for the coffee in this region, even though it is a product that comes from the land that was once occupied by their vast kingdom.


It is only the truly wealthy Mexicans—the professional class that has been abroad, the class that drives black European cars and surfs on silver American computers—that have developed a taste for a product like coffee.  The host of my AirBNB is an architect whose house is a wonder of modern construction.  “There is no good coffee in this region,” he says.  “I love coffee, too, but it is not here.”  So he goes to the Walmart and gets his lackluster beans and he keeps one of those machines with the single-use canisters in his kitchen.

Mexicans have to import their coffee from abroad.  They don’t have the technology to process the bean well.  And in any case, all the best beans are gone—gone abroad.  So, rich professionals like the architect pay a premium for a middling bean that returns with the imprint of Nestle—a boomerang that smacks them in the head and becomes deprived of its feeling of being an indigenous product.  Coffee—once you get it, after a brief hiatus, following an interlude in another man’s hands—has all the scent of a strange fruit from a far-away mountain, a place of wild and monstrous beauty that is almost as unimaginable as pyramids rising from a dense green jungle.


Crossing Borders: A Trip to the Yucatan

I’m about to take a trip to the Yucatan, that peninsula chock full of Mayan ruins, colonial cities and white sand beaches.  One way I do my tourism in Hispanic countries is to engage in a slightly tedious, focused task that will force me to hone my Spanish.  And I decided that the task on this occasion would be to get my favorite hat repaired.

I’m kind of a fledgling hat collector, and the Borsalino is an antique felt fedora–brown and battered–that looks like the sort Indiana Jones might have set upon his noggin.  It is a classic: the quintessential detective hat–the hat of manual typewriters and damsels in distress and bottles of whisky in a filing cabinet.


But the hat has seen better days:  it shrank a bit from a week long stay in Mexico City where heavy torrents pummeled the mountain city every evening during the rainy season.  The embossed leather sweat band, which was once in cherry condition, deteriorated upon contact with water.  And the grosgrain ribbon, which is a silken oddity in a world that has gone full polyester, bears the powder white traces of the salt that comes from a decade of sweat.  I also probably shouldn’t have packed it in my check-in luggage.


Embarking on a project like this does take some research.  You don’t want to run around the city with your hat in your hand.  You want to identify a reputable hat dealer who either offers those services or can send you in the right direction.  And you want to dispatch of the task immediately so that the artisans have enough time to perform the job properly.  You’ve got to do your due diligence.

So this leads me to the topic of this post, which is not so much about hats as it is about feet:  you see, the other day I was googling for hat leads and I came across an advertisement on a Mexican website for a pair of knock-off Toms shoes.  Toms shoes are those cruelty-free, vegan shoes that are supposed to make the NPR set feel less awful about themselves as global citizens living in the consuming-est corner of this planet:  for every Toms purchase, a child in deepest darkest Africa gets a pair of shoes, too.

So, in purchasing these shoes, you are also involved in a humanitarian cause:  helping a kid avoid all sorts of foot borne diseases, like parasitic worms.  Perhaps you are enabling a budding young scholar to get to school on those undeveloped roads, or allowing a mother speedy access to the only source of clean water for miles around.  One thing is certain:  you are making sure that animals are not harmed in the process.  What could be better?


The curious thing about this advertisement came in the fact that the shoes were available either in fabric OR in leather.  And they were marketed not as a humanitarian item but as a symbol of Westernization—of wealth, of status.  So the vegan element, so crucial in the merchandising of footwear to the NPR set, became irrelevant to the aspirational Mexican upper middle class consumer.  And the promise to help the Third World–a promise that is always front and center–was nowhere to be seen.  This shoe was now simply a status symbol—a way to get something that remains difficult to procure (because of distribution and tariff) from the ever-elusive West, which lies far across a nearby border that is, increasingly, impenetrable.

By no means is this an attempt to make fun of well-heeled Mexicans.  Rather, this is to call attention to a phenomenon that I have encountered over and over again:  Third World products that imitate Western goods often seem a bit wonky.  And as I sat there in the dead of night, looking at a pair of shoes I would never want, I realized it had a lot to do with this simple fact: the act of translation often means subtle shifts in value and meaning.

This makes sense:  Imitation is not simply faithful reflection but a kind of distortion.  Put another way, nothing is the same once it crosses borders–not people, not ideas, not material objects.  For instance, a hat is a noteworthy object in Los Angeles where it can be seen almost as if it were a dandy affectation–the stuff of rock stars and movie actors–but in Mexico, a hat is a common item…so much so that it is taken for granted.  I suspect that people don’t even see hats anymore in that part of the world; they are so much embroidered into the quilt of the expected that all but the most outstanding ones are filtered out.

johnny Depp

Johnny Depp is known for his hat game and he favors Borsalino…

Encountering the Fake Toms made me think of the time I spent in Northern India in the tourist-heavy state of Rajasthan, which is colorful and bright.  The fancy hotels pay local young men to perform folk dances and music in traditional costumes–turbans and scarves and gowns that catch the light with their metallic threads.  But as soon as the performance is over, those guys rip off the costumes and put on machine-woven sweaters.  And on all these sweaters appear the words NIKE, drawn in magic marker:  crude, sloppy, counterfeit.


It is in the imitation that we can learn a lot about the original–our prejudices, our hidden expectations:  the things we take for granted.  For these young men who must earn their upkeep somehow, the classic clothing of the Rajasthani musicians is simply a costume–a tourist-act.  It is this cruel hoax of life that, in making their way from the provinces to a tourist center with mighty hotels–an actual city–that is the center of modernity, they must pose as the backward native people that they thought they left behind…in order to get by.  And it is in the crude imitation of the Nike logo that we see the true selves of their best dreams spelled out.

The same phenomenon can be seen in so many tourist zones.  In Brasil, the music that tourists come to listen to is Bossa Nova.  It is played in the swank hotel lobbies for a mostly white audience.  But the real music that the blacks of Brasil love is Rastafarian fare.  That’s what is played in the backstreet cafes where only locals hang–those places where you set your hat down and smoke a joint with a sweating bottle of beer.

In Brasil, I once met a Rastafarian from Ghana.  He was spending time in the Northern Brasil stronghold of Salvador—a place that was once the land of plantations and is now filled with freed descendants of former slaves.  The Rasta had a British accent and excellent English, most likely because his country was at one point a British colony.  He invited me to his apartment, not far from the tourism center.  “You are a very trusting man.  And I appreciate it.  Not many tourists would go so far to this part of town with someone he just met.”


Most people think that Rastas are the sign of a deep African-ness and indeed there is definitely a “back to Africa” element in the Rasta culture.  So it can seem a contradiction to see a true African attempting to return to African and free his mind by adopting the clothes and music of a people who had once been enslaved in Jamaica.

But my new friend had a good laugh and agreed with my assessment:  For me, a Rasta is the sign of the West—the sign of a person who has had a profound encounter with colonialism that he will spend a lifetime erasing and, paradoxically, reinforcing.  “When I come to a new place like Salvador, it is the Rasta who owns a cell phone,” I said.  “It is the Rasta who understands the international exchange rate, and the way the internet operates.”  It’s never the local people who quite often are oblivious to the way a global world works.

These were the thoughts that scuddered like rippling pebbles through the pond of my head as I trolled through the internet–pleasant memories of past travels–that interrupted my search.  Looking at those shoes–an imitation of a Western product flickering back at me through the pixilated images–made me wonder about the desires that come from the hat I put on my head–a hat that originally came from Italy, a hat that I encountered in a small shop in Chicago, a hat I carried with me to Los Angeles, a hat that now I was ferrying across the border to get fixed.

Death Valley Superblooms & Oscar Night

Sorry I’m late about doing this blog post. Usually I try to post regularly, but I had to make a choice this weekend: Write a blog post or go to Death Valley to see the Superblooms.

What are the Superblooms? The Superblooms are a wildflower event that happens once every decade or so, in Death Valley. Death Valley is on the eastern border of California and Nevada. It is one of the driest places on earth.  It only gets 2 inches of rain a year. But not this year.

Death Valley

This year was the year of El Niño or the Super El Niño which didn’t quite happen in Los Angeles–because of a high pressure system that blocked the flow of the jetstream–that would have transported rain our way.  El Niño did happen in a big way in other parts of the state.


This means that Death Valley–a desert basin where the Panamint mountains deposit their minerals on a sinking floor and where pioneers crossing the California landscape met the road block of ill fortune that gives Death Valley its forboding name– is now awash with wildflowers. The wildflowers are golden and purple and white.  They are lacey and bulbous and spiny.  Some are hearty colonizers.  Some bloom one night, seeking shade underneath the umbrella of other plants, and fade the next day.

But the dominant color is gold–everywhere–gold.  The most common flower, the Desert Gold, boasts an uncommon beauty.  It looks like a cross between a dandelion and a sunflower with serrated petals that are cadmium yellow up against a pollen-y center that is exactly like the amber of a runny egg.

All of these wildflowers have existed dormant on the valley floor waiting for rain, and even though they do pop up regularly during the Spring, this Superbloom is super crazy.  There are vast ribbons of yellow in some spots like a beautiful girl who is suddenly confident in the first blush of her beauty.  There are sprinkles and dustings and scatters in other spots–spots that remind you of the barren-ness of this, the hottest place on earth, a place that is cracked and barren and toxic.

Death Valley

One of the great things about going to a National Park is that you meet a lot of interesting people from all casts of life.  And this time, there was an added bonus that made these people really cool: They were the kind of folks who are going to the National Forest not as your run-of-the-mill tourists.  Rather, they were people who know that this event is important– that it only happens once in a blue moon.  They were pilgrims with a purpose.

I met a man at a gas station–the last stop for a fill-up in the town of Baker, just outside of the park– who was Vietnamese like me. “Are you Vietnamese?”  I didn’t need to ask.  I could tell by his accent.  I could also tell by his clothes:  unflashy, utilitarian, practical.  He was dressed for the theme of the outing:  khaki shorts and a clean pressed souvenir shirt from Yellowstone National Forest.

“Yes,” he told me.   “This is been so exciting.  This is only time I see the Superblossom.”  He told me that he missed it fifteen years ago and had been kicking himself ever since, checking the reports every year and every year, disappointed.   “So this time, it come, I say ‘oh boy’ you better jump on this opportunity.”  He made me promise that we would drive into the National Park together, right after he took his kid to the bathroom to take a leak.

I could understand his enthusiasm.  I had missed the poppies last year in the Antelope Valley, just north of LA, where they go on a riot of display in March.  Legend had it that last year was the best of any other year–and I kept putting off the drive out of sheer laziness–and then a hot spell descended upon the Southland and destroyed those delicate gold flowers in less than a day. Moral of the story:  Wildflowers don’t negotiate.  They wait for no one.  They just don’t give a fuck.

At the end of the day we met two sisters– Belgian – who were on the way from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. The younger sister was finishing her PhD in Aquaculture, and the other sister was a court stenographer working underneath a famous judge.  We met around a fire pit at the local watering hole.  And we watched them quietly and diplomatically fend off two men who could have been their fathers.


“I have some…”  Then he put his thumb and index together and let the air out from between his lips, while pressing his fingers to his mouth–the international sign of marijuana.

“Maybe later,” said the aquaculturalist.  But I knew there would be no later.  There would be no sexual Superblossoms in the desert night of Death Valley, at least not for these hopeful gentlemen.

The man put his hand on the young woman’s shoulder and gave it a good shake.  “Maybe we’ll see you later at the campsite, then.  After dinner.”  And the two old men walked into the overpriced sit-down restaurant where only old men with jobs and bank accounts can afford to eat–the restaurant where young men eat, only if they are with their parents.

The younger sisters remained by the fire eating their nachos and chicken wings.  I was drinking a beer and sneaking swigs of whiskey that I had poured into a tiny Perrier bottle.  And they told us about their itinerary.


The pair had flown to Las Vegas for an International Conference on Aquaculture and the younger sister was going through an anxious time at a major moment in her life:  she was about to start filing her dissertation. It would take the remainder of the academic school year and she named all the steps toward the final goal–the proposal, exam, defense, submission–toward that moment of achievement and release.  Afterwards, she was going to travel with her age-appropriate boyfriend throughout the world for year.

“Do you know how I know somebody is really done with their dissertation?” I asked.

“Tell me.”  The young woman was truly interested.  She stopped eating her chicken wing, which she held like a baton.

“When they start talking about their signatures.”  This is actually a crucial moment, because most people talk about filing their dissertations for years and never get to the final stage.  “If they are talking about writing something perfect, I know they are still very early in their progress.  But if they are talking about signatures, that means they will file within weeks, if not days.”

That got us onto a discussion about traveling. You see, my wife and I also traveled after I filed my dissertation.  We actually traveled for a few years, because we thought this would be the one opportunity to do this kind of adventure.  So this launched a kayak into the ocean of conversation, and we compared notes about different places: some of the crossovers in the Venn Diagram of our itineraries, some of the things to avoid, some of the pitfalls–how, for instance, to avoid getting drugged in India.

My wife and I cast before them the pearls of experience.  My tip for dealing with people in India (bribe them). What the what the money situation is like in Argentina (lousy). And what the situation is like in Bolivia (deeply inconvenient but immensely rewarding).  These were all points in a conversation that unfolded naturally and pleasantly as the sky emptied itself of its color and our faces caught the light of a flickering fire pit.


“We will be staying in Venice Beach when we leave for LA the next morning,” the younger sister told me.  While the other sister–the stenographer– took notes, I recommended a few places for them to tour, and I suggested to them a few options in the event they wanted to be among people for the Academy Awards, which were to occur that following evening.

They were thrilled to be lodging in Venice.  It was where Janis Joplin had her ashes scattered and they wanted to walk into the ocean that was her final resting place.  And they wondered about what happens to the landscape of the city when an event like the Academy Awards sweeps into its plains–a hard driving rain waking the people from a world built around the somnambulism of dreams.

We are all Lotos Eaters in Los Angeles.  We are all addicted to our opium dreams.  That at least is common wisdom.

That night, I looked up through the transparent fabric of my tent and was amazed to see that I could see to see, quite clearly, the Big Dipper and the wide expanse of the Milky Way.  The ranger guide says that half the park happens at night–that the firmament is its own display just as spectacular as wildflowers…though perhaps not nearly so evanescent.  And then I realized I had to get back to the city because I had dinner plans for Oscar Night.