Friday, January 12, 2007

Cruise Journal: 12/11/2007

For Better or Worse

Today I realized, I am an American, for better or for worse. We went into Progresso and Mérida Mexico, in the Yucatan. I’m not really sure how I feel about anything. Some of the buildings were lovely, stucco over stone, painted in cheerful colors with white shutters and wrought-iron accents. But you look close and the paint is chipped, the wood rotting. The doors open into cool caverns of rooms no longer used or outfitted for anything like their original purposes. Now the walls are hung with cheap merchandize, tables are set up and loaded with more cheap merchandize, and people sit looking black against the shaded white walls, with a listless air. There’s activity and bustle out on the sidewalks, and many of the women wear straight white cotton dresses with brilliant embroidery. There are lovely parks and busy corners. And there is decay. All of these only add to my sense of dissociation and disorientation.

I’m one of a group of 10. My mom is about twice my age, and she’s the next youngest. Our group is white middle class conservative ex-military. They’re wonderful people. But they make me impatient. They know just little enough Spanish to mispronounce everything, send me off to ask the wrong questions, and make it difficult for me to understand the answers I get, because while I’m trying to ask in Spanish and understand the person I’m talking too, they’re asking in English with a few (mutilated) Spanish words, and talking louder than I’m willing to.

If I’d been by myself, I would have wandered through the markets smiling and shaking my head, meandered into bakeries and eaten one of everything, bought a necklace for way too much or way too little money, taken pictures of every little architectural detail that caught my eye, asked questions quietly and shyly, probably of the children and little old women. Instead I’m wandering along with people who are on one hand childishly proud of their ability to navigate a foreign country, and on the other wishing it were more like Disney World. Everyone is out to cheat us, so we must never pay what they ask. For all I know, this may be true. Americans are all rich, after all, and so why not make a little extra money off of their naïveté.

But the poverty I feel lurking just beyond the bright paint and impeccably clean parks tears at me. I *am* so wealthy compared to these people. They may very well live better lives than I do, for all that. But I know they lack comforts I take for granted. Free toilet paper in public restrooms, for one thing. And so, for a minute, let’s pretend they aren’t trying to cheat us. Just asking a certain price we’re well able to pay for a service they are well able to render. Like a taxi ride into town. How do we look, refusing to pay any more than a quarter what they ask? How do we look when we don’t know enough Spanish to understand what they asked in the first place, and so offer two pesos instead of the requested two dollars. And how do we look when we care so little for how we look?

I want to see these cities as something other than an American. I want to be someone they don’t expect extra profit from, and someone they don’t expect rudeness from. I want to eat their food and read their signs, attend their services, and slip quietly into shadows at the end of the day without having spent less money than I could have and more money than I should have. But for better or worse, I’m an American. With my Spanish and the improvements I would expect it to undergo after several days here, I might be able to pass for, if not a native, at least a Canadian. But my group is unmistakable American. So really getting to know the country will have to wait until some other time.

The Dinner Table

Maybe this fascinates only me, but let me tell you about the typical dinner table, and the typical cruise dinner. First, you sit down at a place setting that goes like this. From left to right: bread plate with small butter knife. Yes, everyone gets their own butter knife. It's fabulous. Salad Fork. Dinner Fork. Napkin. Dinner Knife. Um, salad knife? And above the knives, water goblet. If the wait person is standing near you, he/she will pick up your napkin and drape it over your lap. The wait person hands out the menus and puts out baskets of bread (slices, baguettes, and dinner rolls) and trays of butter packets (bowls with ice in them, with a vented cover that the butter rests on. They will bring you wine, or you can bring your own and they’ll pour it out. They fill your water goblet, and you open your menu.

The first section of the menu is appetizers. Next come soup and salad selections. On the facing page you have entrees, and below that, desserts (by far the most tantalizing part of the menu, as far as I’m concerned). From this list, you select as many as you want of whatever you want. I’m serious. Mom had two entrees from tonight’s menu (salmon and strip steak). I had two desserts (flan and chocolate soufflé with Irish cream sauce). The portions all tend to be reasonable. The appetizers and desserts are small enough that ordering two isn’t really that excessive. At least in the two standard restaurants (The Four Seasons and The Terrace). The Italian restaurant (The Trattoria) was somewhat more… abundant. And we ate there last night, which was lobster night, so the lobster lovers each had at least two tails. I had an absolutely smashing pork chop.

Basically, I’ve become addicted to butter on my rolls. They’ve got these little packets of Borden salted and whipped butter. God, it’s good stuff. I’ve also been making an absolute pig out of myself, and compensating by taking the stairs. I swear, they’re going to have to roll me off this ship. But the food is so GOOD! Everything about this whole cruise experience so far simply screams excess. I’d like to do this again some time, but I’m not sure my conscience will allow it.

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