Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Playa Mafia, Part 1

G-man and I arrive in Playa del Carmen mid-afternoon on Saturday, just after Semana Santa. We prefer to travel in February (an excellent time to leave Vancouver), but business has been slow, so we assume we’re SOL as far as travel plans go.

Then I find a cheapo flight to Cancun from Seattle, so we take a shuttle bus down a few hours prior to flight time, enjoy dinner with a friend and catch a southbound red-eye that brings us to Cancun around noon the following day. We clear customs, grab our luggage, and high-tail it (as one does) out of Cancun on the first collectivo heading to Playa.

We check into our beachfront hotel, Costa del Mar, peel off our jeans and get into tropic-wear, although it’s actually kind of cold and windy out. Next stop, beach pallapa and several margaritas. Then we float around town a bit, soaking in the festive Saturday night vibe. There’s live music everywhere, and I’m all abuzz with a deliriously tired sort of excitement.

We hear intriguing reports of a reggae band that’s to play on the beach at our hotel, and being an irie sort of chick, I’m pretty stoked. And exhausted. And not exactly sober. Realizing suddenly that we’ve been up for about 36 hours, we go back to the room for “a little lie-down.” There goes Saturday night. We hear the reggae band start up outside, and they sound amazing, but I turn to G-Man with my eyes half-shut and say “Not if the room was on fire.” We fall asleep fully clothed and wake up that way the following morning.

Well-rested and showered, we go and scope out our situation at the reception desk. As is our habit, we’ve only booked a room for our first night, because it’s pretty reassuring to know for sure we’ll have a place to crash. We’ve stayed at C del M on a couple of previous visits, and found it charming and reasonably priced. It’s still charming.

Upon hearing what we owe for the night, G-man and I give each other the look unequivocally signifying “Fuck this”, pay up, and check out. Then we wonder a couple of blocks up and away from the beach and stumble across the quaintest place – La Iguanita. It’s perfect – big trees, beautiful little garden courtyard with a u-shaped, adobe-esque hotel set around it. There’s an outdoor communal kitchen and a really cute little bar. Hammocks everywhere. We’re intrigued and decide to check it out.

Standing behind the reception desk are a thin, ball cap-wearing English guy about my age (Keith, the hotel manager) and an even thinner blonde woman Hellga, the co-owner) who looks very chic, but also – I know instinctively – like someone you absolutely do not want to fuck with. She’s dressed all in white, which offsets her very dark tan.

We inquire about room availability. Keith and Hellga are both friendly (Keith especially), but they inform us all the rooms are full until this afternoon. A large group of people is checking out though, and if we’re interested, we should come back later.

Hmm… “How much per night?”

“Depends on what you want,” Keith explains. “Basic room with a ceiling fan is 400 pesos a night, with air-con it’s quite a bit more.”

“Oh, we’re fine with just a ceiling fan,” G-man says. “Other than that, all we really want is a comfortable bed and hot water.”

“No hot water. In fact no cold water, the plumbing is broken,” Keith says, winking. “And we have Attack Iguanas.”

Attack Iguanas? We’re sold!

Keith and Hellga tell us we can leave our luggage behind the desk, so G-man and I take them up on that and go off to Java Jack’s next door for some of the best coffee in town and a bite to eat. Then we go for a long walk down la playa.

We come back to the La Iguanita around 1 p.m., but our room isn’t ready. We’re okay with that. We sit around in the lobby playing Dice and Backgammon. There’s a gaggle of Mexican university kids waiting to check out. I don’t know what those ninas pack in their suitcases for a spring break trip, but this luggage is huuge! Eventually, the kids that had been staying in our room clear out, the maid cleans it, and we haul our stuff in. The room is just what we’d hoped for – high ceiling with a skylight and a kick-ass fan, colorful Mexican blankets and folk art. And hot water. No sign of iguanas. We get into our beach gear and head back down to the sea.

After a swim in the liquid silk known as the Caribbean and a couple of requisite cervezas, we return to La Iguanita at sunset. We shower, dress, come out of our room, and what do you know, the little bar is open! Not only that, it’s festooned with multi-colored balloons and the floor is covered in rose petals. (I later figured out they weren’t rose petals at all, but bits of flowers that had fallen from the Bougainvillea tree that canopies the bar.) G-man and I exchange the look meaning “Let’s go check it out” and proceed to sit ourselves down in a couple of comfy wicker chairs.

A long-haired, bearded man in a Panama hat (we’d noticed him wondering around earlier) walks over and introduces himself. This turns out to be Sven, Hellga’s business and life partner. He explains that there’s a going-away party tonight for Marta, his bar manager, who’s off to Europe within the next few days. “You must stay and meet her,” he says, “and sign her book. She’s coming in tonight expecting to work her last shift, but the new manager is here. So please, stay and enjoy yourselves – it’s gonna be a fun party.”

Understatement? Yeah, I would say. The bar starts to fill up with Marta’s friends, and eventually, the lady herself shows up. She’s breathtakingly gorgeous – I mean, this girl looks like (pre-pregnant) Salma Hayek. And she’s charming. Sven introduces us; we wish her bon voyage and ask if we can buy her a tequila shot. “Why not?” she laughs. “Everyone else is!”

She holds her nose as she downs the shot, and I can’t resist teasing her. “Holding your nose? What kind of Mexican girl are you, anyway?” Marta shrugs and smiles. “This is how my mother taught me to drink tequila.” BTW, the tequila in question, Sven informs us, is primo stuff. Clase Azul, the Cadillac of agave products. Nicer than any single-malt scotch I’ve ever had. Anyway…

G-man and I are getting our drink on, and Sven is spending most of his time hanging with us, despite the fact that it’s his bar and he knows everyone in the room. G-man is a drummer; we’re both music-loving freaks; Sven used to be a band manager back in Sweden, so the three of us have lots to talk about.

Hellga and her dazzling white smile make an entrance. Hellga is clearly the kind of woman who never just walks into a place – she makes an entrance. She’s looking very elegant in a white linen pantsuit and fedora. She comes over to say hello, chats pleasantly enough for a few minutes and then takes off to Work The Room. This may be Marta’s party, but it’s most definitely Hellga’s place. She holds court at the bar, glass of white wine in one hand, cigarette in the other, a group of adoring folk hanging on her every word.

Later it occurs to us that maybe Sven spent a great deal of time at our table partly because we were a Safe (read: Hellga-free) Zone. You’ll understand.

Meanwhile, Marta’s over in a corner of the bar, dancing with a group of her friends, blissed out as can be. But she’s a little girl, and she’s consumed a lot of tequila, so you can guess what’s coming next.

G-man comes back to our table from el bano at one point and tells me that Marta is no longer dancing in that corner, but rather, tossing her tacos all over the floor. Poor thing!

Marta’s friends carry her to the lobby to lay on the couch. I employ one of my best-developed skills – taking care of drunk people – and get a cold, wet hand towel from our room. I apply the towel to Marta’s forehead; she smiles gratefully, and then, a skinny, suntanned, manicured, jewel-encrusted hand reaches around me and takes the towel away.

“She doesn’t need that,” Hellga growls. “She’s gonna be fine.”

Okaaaay. (Here’s a good opportunity to share one of my favorite quotes: No good deed goes unpunished, Clare Booth Luce)

I shrug and go back to our table, where G-man and Sven are engaged in lively music-oriented conversation, and some of the regulars have joined us. Keith is there, as is Jack from Java Jack’s next door and his wife, Stella. Jack puts on a good tough-ass from Brooklyn kind of show, but he’s hilarious and friendly. Stella’s a chain-smoking sweetheart of a woman, the kind of person who wakes up smiling. Keith totally cracks me up – Attack Iguanas! He tells G-man and me that he and Hellga had instantly liked us when we’d first arrived that morning. I’m flattered. And drunk.

G-man seems to be feeling no pain either, but it’s nearly 9 p.m. and I realize we haven’t eaten since lunchtime at the beach. “Weesh’ g’get some food,” I suggest. “Yeshh,” my man agrees.

Sven recommends a nearby restaurant owned by his friend Kristoff and swears that if we’re disappointed, he’ll buy us drinks for the rest of the night.

“Order the Arrachera.” he says. “It’s fantastic!”

“Arra what?”

“It’s a type of marinated steak that melts in your mouth.”

“How do you say it again? Arra..”


“And the restaurant is where?”

“Oh come on, I’ll just take you guys.”

Sven walks to the restaurant with us and introduces us to Kristoff, a genteel and hospitable man. Kristoff actually kisses my hand! You just don’t find that kind of old-world charm very often.

We’re seated at a table along the patio railing. Sven wishes us bon appetit and starts walking back to La Iguanita.

Halfway down the block, he turns around, walks back to our table and whispers, “Arrachera.”

G-man and I proceed to consume the best meal we’ve ever had. Kristoff gives us the royal treatment, and the Arrachera is arra-fucking-amazing! It really does melt in your mouth. My taste buds have an orgasm.

Tummies full and brain cells ready for killing, we return to La Iguanita for more drinks. The party’s still in full swing. Marta’s still passed out on the couch in the lobby.

Sven immediately wants to know how dinner was, and feeling like a bad little monkey, I can’t resist saying “Dude, that totally sucked. I’ll have a margarita, please.”

But the millisecond I see his face drop, I say “I’m joking, of course! Best meal we’ve ever had. Thank you so much for the recommendation.” And I hug him.

More people have joined our table (it’s a big round table), and Keith introduces us to another Englishman, his friend Mike. Mike seems like a decent guy, soft-spoken and kind. He warns us not to drink the tap water. (Thanks Mike, we’ve been to Mexico before!) G-man and I are both pleasantly buzzed, drifting in and out of different conversations with different people.

At one point, I overhear Mike talking about his wife, and it sounds as though some horrible accident has occurred, or even something as tragic as suicide. He’s talking to Keith, who looks all concerned and sympathetic.

I certainly don’t want to intrude though, so I get back to my conversation with whoever I was conversing with at the time. Memory’s a little foggy, you know?

Next thing I know, Hellga’s sitting next to Mike. She’s enraged. And she’s loud.

“Whatever, sorry about what happened, but fuck you, Mike.”

“But Hellga…”

“No, fuck you, Mike!”

“I’m really sorry.”

Fuck you, Mike!!”

Hellga waltzes off to the bar, and Mike is in tears.

He looks my way and knows that I’ve seen (and heard) what had gone down, so I go sit next to him and say something to the effect of “Wow, that seemed pretty harsh.”

“Oh, she’s a good lady. Just got a bit of a temper when she drinks.”

A bit?

Soon enough, we move on to light topics and I manage to cheer him up.

And this is my first mistake, I realize, as I see Hellga glaring at me from across the room...

Ready for Part 2?


Anonymous said...

that's great pappy! can't wait to see what happens next.

Papillon said...

Suffice it to say, Hellga goes off again! And Papillon is not immune... ;-)