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For many travel writers, Trollope or Theroux or Bruce Chatwin is their guru. My guiding light happens to be a contemporary named Jeff Greenwald, who several years ago penned The Size of the World, an account of his round-the-world journey. It was a nice-enough travelogue, but nothing in the book impressed me as much as the introduction, in which Greenwald noted that half a dozen corporations had outfitted him free of charge with everything from computers to backpacks to Therm-a-Rest mattresses. Now this was my kind of travel writer—a freelancer extraordinaire who not only figured out how to turn globetrotting into a book but made it his own "comp"-filled royal highway, his Camino Real.
As a longtime magazine writer relatively new to full-time travel, I live in a much smaller-sized world of perks, but every so often I find a few glittering nuggets in Mexico, where freebies are referred to as cortesias, a polite way to describe the hosting of writers like me who have no expense account nor trust fund. The highlight is the Tianguis Turistico Trade Show, an annual tourism fair in Acapulco where thousands of tourism officials plan things like the popular six-day, five-night packages to Cancun that appear every winter.
Invited to the convention earlier this year, I didn't need much convincing to accept five days in the tropics… free airfare, hotel, food, and drink...the promise of golden beaches and sunshine...the lure of all-night galas and disco-till-dawn revelry. All I had to do was promise to be "productive"—publish or perish, something, anything, somewhere, anywhere. But things got off to a bumpy start when I arrived at the Mexico City airport on a Sunday evening expecting a ticket to Acapulco to be waiting for me. Instead, I encountered a good-news, bad-news situation: The good news: two leggy Mexican señoritas wearing white, satin "Tianguis" sashes across generous bosoms were waiting to escort me to a hotel. The bad: they weren't staying.
Forced to overnight in Mexico City because evening flights to Acapulco were overbooked, I finally arrived in the coastal city mid-Monday. Immediately, I was transported to the Convention Center where the pressroom was crowded with journalists. The media entourage consisted of the Mexican press and 40 U.S. travel writers, plus a sizable contingent from Europe and Asia, many of whom were in a snit when I arrived.
It should be noted that travel writers are not unpracticed in the art of complaining; we're largely regarded as the Food & Whine experts, ever ready to bitch and carp about every inconvenience (and then wax hyperbolic about such things as a hotel's bathroom fixtures) but these writers were doing more than the usual moaning and groaning. Apparently, event organizers had botched the transportation of many journalists. The European contingent was so angry it was threatening to boycott the event next year. The announced winner of Mexico's "best writing" prize, the Pluma de Plata (the "Silver Pen," not the "Plum Plate," as one catty non-winner took to calling it) cancelled her trip because of organizational problems. I was handed an official welcome folder with the wrong press badge, an identity tag for someone named Eduardo Banderas. His photo displayed a bald, ashen-faced man who looked as if he'd smoked two million cigarettes. He had the trenchcoat eyes of a film-noir anti-hero, and the more I stared at Eduardo's photo, the more I admired him and his macho name. From that moment on, I decided I would be known as Eduardo Banderas.
Meanwhile, my late arrival meant I'd missed opening ceremonies and various press events, not to mention the accompanying margaritas, cervezas, and seafood. Scanning the afternoon line-up of press conferences to attend, I decided there was only one thing to do: Vamos a la playa! Let's go to the beach!
Jumping into a taxi, I headed off on a 10-minute ride to my hotel, the five-star Fiesta Americana, a luxurious high-rise set along the city's inner bay. The heat was palpable—hot, sticky, soaked-through-your-armpits humid—but I was happy to be back in Mexico where I can unwind, pretend I've never heard of George Bush, and forget Janet Jackson has nipples. South of the border, palm trees, ancient faces, and the concept of mañana-as-a-career-goal steer my neurons, brain cells, and body chemicals along some alternative pathway.
Or maybe it's just the change of scenery.
"There are lots of beautiful girls in Acapulco," the cabbie was saying, as we drove past a Selma Hayek-lookalike.
"Sí," I replied. "I wish I were a young man."
"You wish you had a young man, señor?"
"No, no, I wish I were a young man," I clarified, my use of the subjunctive needing some work.
"You want a young man," he persisted.
Acapulco, of course, was Mexico's first glamour retreat, the 40s- and 50s-era playground of John Wayne, Cary Grant, and Errol Flynn. Orson Welles wooed Rita Hayworth here. John and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned here. But as gringo travelers have opted for newer, fresher resorts, Acapulco has acquired the glossy looks of a former movie queen, its aging, garish face plastered with too much make-up.
These days, Acapulco can be Yuckapulco, overbuilt and overcommercialized, its main boulevard, the six-lane Costera, just 50 feet from the sea but so overwhelmed by high-rise buildings, bus exhaust, and the faint smell of sewage that at times you think you're in Bayonne.
At the beach behind Fiesta Americana, I sank my toes in blissful sand and breathed in the salty air. Only those who are right with God, or at least up-to-date on their tetanus shots, dare swim in the inner-city waters, so I remained content to close my eyes in the sand and entertain thoughts of going AWOL from Tianguis. Once on a press trip to Denmark, I traveled with an editor who spent his entire time in the bars. When he returned home, he handed off his press kit to his intern, who manufactured a feature, going so far as to describe the precise kind of clouds that lingered ominously above Hamlet's castle. People said it was the best article the editor never wrote.
At the beach, I tried to meditate on the sky and sea, but there were parasailers dropping from the sky. Kids with boogie boards squealed. Beach vendors wanted my money. Feeling like a Buddhist monk slipped some Ritalin, I hustled back to the Convention Center.
A concrete, bomb shelter-like complex, the center was straight out of the Soviet Airport School of Charmless Architecture. It was fronted by a long promenade reminiscent of an Aztec causeway (think Montezuma merged with Tony's Cement Co.) and surrounded by rifle-toting soldiers. (Add an outtake from The Three Amigos.)
I headed over to the exhibitors' hall, a frenetic scene featuring several thousand government officials, airline execs, travel agents, and other industry professionals. Everyone was exchanging business cards, presenting pitches and making deals. The savviest of the travel writers were "working the floor," too. There was Bob, an earnest sort who collected so much press material that he brought along an extra suitcase on wheels to transport it all. Susan, an upscale-magazine writer, was canvassing booths for the newest, chicest, stylish property de moda. Larry, a Southern California journalist in a faded pink beach shirt, was chatting up the manager of a five-star Cabo resort. He'd given me a good tip. When I complained about being placed in a hotel's worst room on a recent press trip, he said he always told the manager: "Put me anywhere you want—anywhere you want me to take lots of photographs."
Unlike the others, I didn't need to do the journalistic scramble because I wasn't writing on deadline (and had completed my research time on the beach). However, the dozens of hospitality booths in the exhibitors' hall presented a golden opportunity to learn more about Mexico and introduce myself to tourism officials who could prove helpful for future assignments. Skipping the introductions, I concentrated on getting to know the regions. At the Yucatán visitor's booth, I got a quick lesson in local flavor when I sampled some wickedly hot habanero salsa. The Corona booth turned out to be educational, offering free beer and roulette. At Veracruz, there were handfuls of hand-rolled cigars; in Ixtapa, ecstatic piña coladas; in Cuernavaca, quintessential tequila. By the time I reached Jalisco, I was getting to know Mexico better and better. Then, an absolutely lovely, innocent, dark-haired, bright-eyed, mermaid-come-ashore, maiden-from-a-Garcia-Marquez-novel murmured, "Have you ever heard of the Guadalajara Mariachi Festival?"
Why, no, I hadn't.
Would you like some information?
Por supuesto, of course.
And so, Maria, a college student in real life, proceeded to describe the joys of an annual September event that draws 80 mariachi groups. She certainly knew her mariachi—its history, its pop-culture role—and I was mesmerized for a full 30 minutes, with my brain turned to guacamole, before I remembered I hated mariachi music. I would rather eat sheep's intestines than spend a weekend listening to 80 mariachi groups. Thus, I had to bid a sad adios to soulful Maria.
Besides, it was time to think about food.
Breakfast had been a feast, a spread of sumptuous fresh fruits, six kinds of fresh-squeezed juice, and tables glistening with pastries and sweets. We could choose from staggering displays of chilaquiles, enchiladas, and other Mexican hot dishes or sashay through different stations where chefs in white toques prepared omelettes, waffles, and pancakes. Faced with such dilemmas, travel writers know just what to do: we choose everything, starting the day off right by piling on a good 4,000 calories. It was like being on a cruise ship without the inconvenience of having to go out to sea.
Lunch that day was more of an adventure—an outdoor buffet serving shrimp that had been marinating in the tropical sun. "I eat everything," one writer confided. "I'm on the Salmonella South Beach Diet."
It's a truism that a travel writer's most incisive, penetrating question on a press trip is: "When's dinner?"
Look, there's the Roman Forum.
Look, there's the Eiffel Tower.
Dinner that evening was late, a starlit affair at Casa Sardan, a spectacular private estate used for parties in the vertigo-inducing Las Brisas neighborhood overlooking Acapulco Bay. Sponsored by Sol Meliá hotels, the party was legendary at Tianguis for its elaborate Las Vegas-like entertainment and broad, groomed lawn with a billionaire's view of the bay.
When I arrived, it was dark and crowded. Hundreds of guests had gathered around an outdoor stage watching half-naked dancers romp around in a skit involving swordplay. The party always had a Big Theme—this year, it was pirates, in other years, Lord of the Rings and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Two massive video screens flashed images of the performers. A fabulous sound system blasted out high-energy rock. "I bet they sank 100 grand into this party," I overheard someone say.
Meanwhile, an armada of cooks stood over huge woks of langosta-filled paella while waiters delivered sushi and bartenders were willing to serve you Don Julio añejo, a glorious tequila you could serve to God. The party had the potential to be positively bacchanalian, something I wasn't opposed to, but as the evening wore on, it acquired a sublime, mellow quality, a cigar-savoring, life-is-beautiful-and-you're-one-of-the-lucky-assholes mood of indulgence. Basking in a balmy midnight breeze at the edge of the lawn, I gazed down at the dark bay surrounded by twinkling lights and realized that—if you're rich enough—Acapulco at night slips on its magical evening gown and returns to its former glory.
"Imagine what the Conquistadors must have thought when they wandered into this bay," said Dave, a California editor.
"When they weren't thinking about gold," I said.
"Well, there's gold here, too," he laughed. "Acapulco gold."
The next morning, I arrived early at the Convention Center prepared to carry out the real purpose of my trip: contact with Mexico Boutique Hotels, an association of small, deluxe properties. I had a proposal ready, a request to stay at one of the organization's premier hotels on a hidden, tiny island. There was one complication: My story-project involved a family reunion; thus I needed "comps" not just for me but for my extended family. It would be a little tricky asking to accommodate 13 of us without sounding like Jed Clampett dragging down his entire clan of hillbillies, but if Jeff Greenwald could cop computers and gear, I could score a bit of hotel largesse for a somewhat shaggy family-travel story.
As soon as the press conference ended, I tried to corner the group's president, but a line had already formed. A Mexico City magazine writer appeared, followed by a TV cameraman, and then a photographer. Just when I thought I was alone, a Canadian travel agent barged in, cutting in front of me. She had shoulders like a hockey player and a handbag the size of Manitoba, which she kept swinging and slamming into my side as she cooed—"Your hotels are so-o-o-o exquisite, so-o-o-o exhilarating"—on and on, until I thought she'd expire from lack of oxygen. Instead, she launched into a long-winded tale about her recent safari trip to Kenya, which finally put me over the edge. Exasperated, I stuck my knee into the back of her thigh and gave her a good thwack. It didn't faze her. I had no choice but to wait. And when I looked up, a minion was hustling my potential sponsor out the door.
"Hey, I've got this great idea," I yelled, trailing after the official and attempting to launch into my pitch, but it was too late. Hordes of people were streaming in for the next conference. The commotion made communication impossible.
"Let me lay all of this out in an e-mail," I managed to whimper, helplessly watching my family reunion idea float away, turn north, and head straight back towards my backyard (barbeque OK with everyone?). I wondered if I could borrow Greenwald's Therma-a-Rest mattresses.
Travel writers are not given to reflective talk; we're on the move, constantly rushed, eager to find the newest, best thing. We rarely discuss meaningful issues of craft—why we write, what we hope to achieve, how to overcome obstacles. We don't even talk about the ethics of taking "freebies," perhaps because we feel so isolated on our private islands, scrambling madly to survive as the publishing industry reduces pay to pitiful amounts, seizes writer's copyrights, and regularly reminds us how eminently replaceable we all are. It conspires to produce a get-it-while-you-can, stuff-yourself-at-the-buffet guiltlessness. Living well is the only revenge.
But occasionally there is a meditative moment, and at Tianguis it came at one of the final cocktail parties, a buffet hosted by the state of Chiapas. When Subcommandante Marcos didn't show up to serve us margaritas, there wasn't much to do but stand around in the hotel ballroom and chitchat over cold chicken croquettes and greasy empanadas.
Conversation turned to the day's announcements, which consisted mostly of familiar news about hotel development in Mexico's major beach destinations. Mega-resorts were popping up all over Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Puerto Vallarta.
"I love Mexico, but this isn't the country I used to write about," colleague Bob said. "It's all about luxury hotels and spas now."
"And cruise ships," added Maribeth, a San Diego writer. "They're going to ruin Zihuatanejo if they approve a pier in that town."
"It's all about money," said Bill, an industry insider. "Look at Loreto. You wave money at FONATUR (Mexico's tourism development agency) and you get whatever you want."
"So?" I said, "don't we bear some responsibility for writing about these places?"
There was silence.
"I mean, we promote these places, we're salesmen, aren't we?"
"Well, we can't control what developers do to the land or whether cruise ships dump waste into the sea," Dave said.
"We can't even control what we write about," said Bob.
It was still possible to find "the real Mexico," but you had to get off the beach and go inland, someone said. But what was "the real Mexico"? Were we to forsake luxury hotels and our cache of "ex" adjectives ("exceptional, exclusive, exhilarating, exquisite, exalted") for some elitist notion of Mexico as a Gauguinesque paradise dotted with noble villagers? Didn't Mexicans deserve their shot at middle-class comfort, neuroticism, and Janet Jackson's nipples? There was much hemming and hawing and general brainlock when Dave rescued us.
"You know, Mexico has 6,000 miles of coastline," he said. "They can't screw up all of it, can they?"
Reassured, we headed back to the buffet line for seconds, happy to wade into our stream of Acapulco gold.
Nick Gallo (email@example.com) is an award-winning Seattle writer who has been publishing in national magazines for more than 15 years.