Su Lum: Slumming
December 14, 2010
When cruising in the Caribbean, you often have to fight your way through vendors selling trinkets, but on a recent Holland America trip down western Mexico I learned things the hard way.
We only had three stops: Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas, all three of which are newly developed big resorts. My friend Hilary had gone off on a snorkeling trip and, after checking out the “What to do in Mazatlan” sheet that had been delivered to our cabin’s mail box, I decided to go to a nearby aquarium, touted to be excellent.
I can’t walk very far and the electric scooter I’d rented for the trip was too heavy to mess with. My plan was to leave the scooter on Deck 1 and walk down the short flight to Deck A, thus avoiding the huge Deck A crowds of people coming back on board and trying to catch one of the two elevators with the scooter on the return trip. I could just walk back up the stairs to Deck 1, where there were four elevators.
A long tram car covered with “thanks for your tip” placards took passengers from the ship through a winding maze of those huge containers ships carry – a city of containers, containing who knows what – to a compound of dockside shops, taxis, tour boats and a hoard of barkers loudly pimping their products.
My first mistake was to stop and look around, getting my bearings. Little old American lady – not on oxygen, so not as pitiful looking as usual, but with a distinct air of prey about me.
Within seconds a man was at my side asking if he could help me and I replied that I wished to visit the aquarium. The man immediately went into a spiel about taxis, the cost of taxis. He whipped out a map, circled the spot marked Aquarium, then circled another spot which he said was a development he represented. If I would visit his destination, a taxi would then take me to the aquarium with no charge whatsoever.
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I may be old, but I’m not too old to smell a rat. “Timeshares,” I said, “I am not interested in timeshares.” The man gave a good-natured shrug and said, OK, in that case I just needed to take a regular taxi and nicely hailed one for me and told the driver to take me to the aquarium.
Sweet driver, Pablo, didn’t have much English but pointed out the sights. The cruise ship maps are wanting in detail, but the aquarium appeared to be very close to the ship – within reasonable walking distance if one could walk – and here we were driving for miles in traffic that made Aspen look like a one-horse town.
Finally, Pablo pulled up to the back of a large building accessed by what looked like a thousand stairs, and announced that this was the aquarium. I gave Pablo a sizable tip and, hanging onto the banister, hauled myself up the endless stairs, ending up in a large room reminiscent of the Union train station in Chicago. Hawkers were hawking all around me, men were trying to hand me bracelets and necklaces and someone was bellowing that all the cruise passengers should come forward for free jewelry.
There wasn’t a fish in sight. Timeshares. They were trying to suck us into a timeshare presentation, the lowest of the low. I fled down the front-door stairs through arms dangling the free “jewels.” Taxis were lined up in front, and the first driver didn’t understand the words “boat,” “dock,” “Holland America” or “cruise ship.” I went to the next taxi where the driver seemed to possibly understand, though who knows if he wouldn’t take me to another timeshare place or back to this one. I was pissed. The trip back was faster, and I was relieved to see the Oosterdam ship looming in the water and more relieved to get on my scooter on Deck 1. The scooter has speeds going from Turtle to Rabbit and I Rabbited into the elevator and down the long halls to our cabin, feeling that I had escaped the guillotine.
I knew there had been a warning, but it took me a long time to find it in our pile of papers. It was in an e-mail from Mazatlan Tours to Hilary, regarding her snorkeling expedition. “Do not ask taxi drivers or other tour agents as they’ll get you lost or send you to a timeshare presentation.”
Times are hard. We were the only cruise ship in the harbor, while there are usually four or five. The only other ship in the area was the stranded Carnival Splendor, disabled by a fire. All three of the resorts we stopped at were covered with towering timeshare buildings, most of them in progress, the units unsold. Timeshares had their day but with the recession this area was clearly overbuilt and undersold. Still, it didn’t excuse what amounted to kidnapping. It left a bad taste and made me wary of getting off the ship on the next two stops.
I did, with some trepidation, take a taxi into Puerto Vallarta for a look-see. I had gotten some pesos in change for a purchase, and when I grabbed a $6 taxi ride back to the ship, paid the fare and gave the driver my pesos as a tip. The driver’s gratitude was so enthusiastic that I checked my receipts and discovered that my pesos had amounted to a $14 tip. I did not begrudge it – he hadn’t whisked me off to a timeshare presentation.