In February 2004, I took the family to Mexico. Sort of the way Chevy Chase took his family across the U.S. in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
First, I arrived at J.F.K. early on a Saturday morning with my wife, Christa, my two children, Kate, 16, and Devin, 14, and Kate’s friend Stephanie — but without our passports. It wasn’t that I forgot them. That would have been understandable, if infuriating. It was that I hadn’t needed a passport the last time I went to Mexico — in 1983 — so I thought driver’s licenses would still work.
When the ticket agent told me we couldn’t travel without passports, I thought there would be wiggle room. There wasn’t. So there we were, the still, sad point of a world swirling with happy travelers, stared at by, among others, my daughter’s East Hampton High School history teacher and a few clusters of her schoolmates.
It’s not my nature to be assertive, but I threw myself on the ticket agent’s mercy, pointing to my family as if they were refugees whose return to East Hampton would be catastrophic. Miraculously, she worked out a complicated, three-stop itinerary that would give me enough time to drive back to East Hampton, retrieve the passports, and return to the airport.
The following morning, after stops in Monterrey and Mexico City, we arrived in Cancun, where we would spend three days before driving down the coast to Playa del Carmen. After a day of relaxation, I decided we were ready for an eco-adventure. The kids and Christa wanted to chill at the beach, and the prefix “eco-” smacked of righteousness, but I insisted on a jungle tour, which consisted of piloting not-so-powerful and not-so-new Jet Skis through the green mangrove channels along the Cancun Lagoon.
We were led by a guide, Kate and Steph in one boat, Devin and Christa in another, and me bringing up the rear. As soon as we left the dock and hit open water, the wind picked up and the chop intensified. I had thought it would be a short run to the mangrove channel, but I was wrong. It was a good half-mile across open water against a stiff wind, and it felt as if the crossing would never end.
We finally entered the channel, where the water was calm and mangroves lined the shores. It was exotic and peaceful, but I wondered why the guide was speeding up and increasing the distance between him and us. The channel had its twists and turns so that you couldn’t see too far ahead, and it was while rounding one of those turns that I saw Christa and Devin at a dead stop, Kate screaming, and Steph in the water.
Fearful of losing sight of the guide, the girls had taken a turn too fast and crashed into the mangroves. By the time we got Steph back on her Jet Ski, we saw she had cut her face, torso, and legs, and blood was oozing everywhere. We returned immediately to the dock, where the tour organizers had only a couple of Band-Aids.
Our hotel was able to get a doctor to come to our room. Steph was bandaged up and given antibiotics, but the girl who had been dancing on a Cancun bar the night before was devastated by the doctor’s warning that there might be scarring.
On the fourth day we drove south to Playa del Carmen, happy to get away from the disappointment of Cancun. Through a website, I had secured a three-bedroom house directly on the beach, which I hoped would compensate for my previous miscalculations.
We picked up the key at a small hotel in town and drove the few blocks to the property. At first glance it was not exactly enchanting, but it was on the beach. Except between our house and the beach was an eight-foot-high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. It was not an encouraging sign.
I tried to put a good face on things and suggested we could make do. Then Christa discovered that someone had put a fist through a wall in one of the bathrooms and left a nasty-looking hole. For the third time on the trip there were tears.
So we started, first on foot, then in the minivan, in search of a hotel, but every place we tried was booked. At one point I drove up a street that dead-ended at a hotel. After learning it, too, had no rooms, I started backing up. Christa advised me to turn the van around, since it didn’t allow much of a view to the rear, but I refused. If I retained any confidence at that point, it was in my driving.
That’s when I backed into the motor scooter. There followed two hours of looking for the owner and negotiating a settlement, not to mention few choruses from Christa and the kids of “We told you so.” Two hundred dollars later, we took stock of our situation. Hungry, tired, and convinced that we would not be able to find accommodation, we decided to cut our losses and head back to Cancun. Devin insisted we first stop at a shack Lonely Planet claimed had the world’s best shrimp tacos. I acquiesced.
I pulled into a motel parking area to turn around and saw a sign that said “Vacante.” And that was when the trip finally turned around. Within a few minutes, we were settled in and, since it had started to storm, we decided shrimp tacos were called for.
The taco joint was on the main commercial strip that ran up and down the Riviera Maya. While the rain thrummed on the tin roof, we gorged ourselves on the definitive shrimp tacos, washed them down with lots of local beer, and decided it was all worth it.
After settling our bill, we saw that the rain had stopped and the sky was clearing. “Who’s up for parasailing?” I asked.
Mark Segal is a writer for The Star.