I don't remember when I first read Michel Peissel's "The Lost World of Quintana Roo", but it was probably when I was in my early teens, flopping un-seatbelted on the back bench of our VW van, bumping along some Saskatchewan road. I would picture the van abruptly turning south and then driving day and night as the landscape changed from white to brown to green until we arrived on the shores of the Mexican Caribbean (Quintana Roo being the name of the state there). This never happened. Much of Peissel's wild and unexplored Quintana Roo of 1958 remained that way until the mid 1980s, but by the time I finally got there it was well into the process of being bulldozed and tamed into the "Mayan Riviera".
We first went in 2004 when Isabel was two years old. We stayed at the last and southernmost resort in the string of all-inclusives that runs south of Cancun. Looking at the empty beach stretching south I began to think of Michel Peissel again and his walk along the entire length of that coast almost fifty years prior.
The sequence of events on our trip are unclear now and I can't recall whether it was before or after Isabel ate a piece of cow shit and became really ill or whether it was before or after I drank an uncountable number of mojitos at the beachside bar that had swings for chairs and became somewhat ill myself, but in any case it was on a day when all seemed right with the world that I set off to the south and walked.
It didn't take long to be around the first headland and out of sight of the hotel. The beach ahead was absolutely empty. It stretched at least two or three kilometers to the next headland. There were no houses or hotels or structures of any kind along it, just an unbroken line of palms. Squinting slightly this was the very postcard picture of paradise, but focusing a bit better the effect of having nobody living on the beach became obvious - there is nobody there to clean up the incredible volume of debris that washes ashore. The seaweed and coconuts and driftwood are all fine, great even, but the plastic not so much. And what plastic! Shampoo bottles from Jamaica. Water bottles from the Caymans. Plastic bags from the US. Oil jugs from Cuba. Toothbrushes from who knows where. And parts of dolls. So many parts of dolls that it began to seem creepy. At one point someone had built a driftwood wind-break decorated with doll's legs and heads. They tinkled in the wind, making me suddenly nervous and edgy.
Flash forward eight years to January 2012 and we're back. This time we're one bay north of the resort in a rental house with two other couples and their children. It was a fabulous week, delivering everything a tropical vacation should, but again I felt the pull of Michel Peissel and again I headed off to the south one morning to see how far I could walk and to see if the coast had changed.
It had changed remarkably little. There were still long deserted stretches and there were still heaps of plastic trash including an irrational number of random doll parts. This time however I did not see any Mexican soldiers (they were all in the town of Tulum, cruising up and down the main street to demonstrate how safe Mexico was, but in doing so giving the exact opposite impression...). This time instead I saw a lone figure walking towards me. As it got closer it became clear that it was a man, a quite hairy man in fact, who was wearing nothing except one of those ultra-skimpy bathing suits I have heard inelegantly called a "pickle pocket". As he got closer still the black pickle pocket revealed itself to have a small tan coloured patch in the middle. The pickle. Oh. He was absolutely naked. Nudism is frowned upon in Mexico, so this was a bit of a surprise. I again glanced at the jungle to my right and considered my options. I decided however to go with "oblivious and cheerful" instead. As we passed each other I looked straight at him and gave him a hearty "Buenos Dias!". He looked down at his feet, or down somewhere in any case, and mumbled "hello".
Fifty years ago Michel Peissel would walk for days without seeing anyone. When he did see someone it would often be a chicle harvester, a "chiclero", who spent months alone in the jungle tapping trees for a rubbery substance that was used to make chewing gum (hence Chiclets). These guys were often unhinged and violent. Now it is drug interdiction soldiers and hairy nudists. And they both seem sad.