Hey, I went to Mexico and I didn’t meet one “bad hombre”!

A lot has been said about Mexico and Mexicans in U.S. news lately, and very little of the rhetoric  has been positive. Unfortunately, there’s been a broad and sweeping perpetuation of negative stereotypes that paint the country and its people as a mass exporter of drug dealers, rapists, and savage murderers. Sure, every country has some rotten eggs in the bunch (mine, and this one included), but guess what? I just got back from a trip to Playa del Carmen, and I’m happy to report that I didn’t meet one “bad hombre”.

Mexican sombreros
Trying on colorful sombreros on 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen

Well, to be 100% percent honest, I am deliberately not counting the crusty heeled and dusty feet guy standing outside one of the Yucatan’s most famous ruins who approached women telling them in halting English, “In America, people would call me a gigolo.” Oh, and get this, he listed the cost of his “services”  as 500 pesos a day. In my mind, I was like, dude, please. You better go wash those unpleasant looking feet! LOL. (No, I am not kidding.)

But seriously, in dire contrast to the ugly caricature being portrayed about an entire nation, I met some great people and had a fantastic time on my mini vacation.

So, what exactly did I do and see?

I shimmied my hips with friendly and gregarious men dressed in tribal costume while they chanted to a hypnotic drum beat.

I gobbled up freshly made tapas, delicious tasting tacos, and drank refreshing sangria  whenever I could.

Mayan woman making tapas in a traditional hut.

I wandered happily and aimlessly through the streets surrounding the popular Avenida Quinta (Fifth Avenue) area looking for souvenirs, admiring the facades of buildings, and observing the interactions between the locals and tourists.

Shopping in Avenida Quinta, Mexico
Browsing the stalls on the busy Avenida Quinta (5th Avenue).

I checked out the trendiest beach clubs, where sun-worshippers and beach goers have access to lively music, drinks, food, and even massages for a fee.

Trendy beach club
Zenzi Beach Club, Playa del Carmen

I had interesting conversations with hard-working people like hotel front desk agent Belén, whose name is the Spanish version of Bethlehem (the place in Judah where King David and Jesus were born). Plus, I listened keenly to our day trip driver, Sergio, as he told me about his family, and their plans for expanding his small transportation business with help from his multi-lingual daughter who is scheduled to graduate from college very soon.

Tour driver in Mexico
Meet Sergio Ramirez, proud owner of his own transfer and tour company.

I also visited underwater and above-ground swimming pools (cenotes) that were all naturally formed when limestone bedrock collapsed to expose the groundwater underneath.

Many cenotes are in underground caves, but quite a few can be accessed above ground as well.

Due to the constant exposure to the sun, the water in the open-air sink holes are believed to have blue green algae that is rich in nutrients, making it an excellent source of minerals that nourish and protect the skin.

Zacil-Ha cenote
Admiring the crystal, light blue waters of the Zacil-Ha cenote

The water in the underground caves? Nah, that’s just COLD. (Men, extra long dips have been known to result in shriveled body parts. My female counterparts, local folklore declares that we look five years younger after a swim).

Mutl-Tun-Ha cenote
Inside the Mul-Tun-Ha cenote

And.. I wandered spell-bound through the ancient ruins of Coba, Tulum and Chichén Itzá, three cities that were at the center of the Mayan empire at different times. I’ll write a more detailed post on those ruins soon (with tips included).

Cona Ruins, Mexico
One section of Coba’s impressive ruins
El Castillo at Tulum
The remains of El Castillo at Tulum
Main pyramid in the Chichen Itza complex.

What was I reminded of with this trip? Sometimes things are not what others make them seem. It’s always best to explore for yourself so that you gain experiences and form impressions of your own.

Have you been to Mexico?  If so, tell me which part, and what you thought about it.

The intersection of race and travel: A few lessons to note

Those of us who live in America are reminded of simmering and overt racial tensions far too often. We see it in news images of black effigies being hung from a tree in a front yard while the homeowner goes on record saying that the world shouldn’t be ignorant; he just wanted to make his place scary for Halloween.

We also hear it in the quivering voices of grieving family members who, having lost loved ones under questionable circumstances, have had to face intruding cameras to try and make coherent and dignified statements when the justice system sets the aggressors free. And many of us can’t help but connect with the raw emotion of kids like the courageous nine-year-old Zianna Oliphant, who felt compelled to make a desperate plea to her city council to “stop killing our fathers and brothers”.

Image source: Affinity Magazine

Since I write about travel, I couldn’t help but ponder how narrow-mindedness and bigotry affect people who go on vacation in this country and abroad. Make no mistake my fellow globetrotters, this sort of incendiary behavior isn’t limited to the United States alone. If a billionaire like Oprah Winfrey can have a retail sales assistant in Switzerland refuse to show her a handbag because she felt she couldn’t afford it, and Solange Knowles (Beyoncé’s  sister) and mother can get screamed at on a train from Milan to Basel when no one else is being treated that way, you’ve got to wake up and smell the coffee. The intersection of race and travel could converge around you!

I wrote about my first encounter with racism here, and I encourage you to read that story when you finish this post. Below, I share a few other incidents that resulted in valuable insights along the way. My experiences may be different from yours, but the lessons are universal.

Lesson #1: In-your-face racism can happen when you least expect it. If you are not in physical danger, stay calm and try not to let it get to you.

I remember once when I was a kid, my family and I went for a dip in a pool at a time-share in Daytona Beach, Florida, and everybody inside suddenly remembered they had someplace else to be – at the exact same time. We simply splashed around for a short while after the mass exodus, then left with our heads held high.

Also, on another occasion when I was on a business trip to West Palm Beach, I went to exercise at the ritzy hotel gym that doubled as a private club. Almost immediately, I felt daggers shooting from the eyes of a few older patrons who appeared startled when I displayed a legitimate room key that guaranteed my entry. One gentleman was so put out, he left. With the palpable rancor in the room, I was tempted to leave myself, but I remembered Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and other civil rights activists who risked their lives and limbs so that I could be free to go wherever I pleased. That knowledge kept me rooted in place. Facing the staring squad, I raised eight-pound dumbbells in quiet and dignified defiance.

Lesson #2: Sometimes the encounters are more subtle, which makes it difficult to tell if you’re being profiled because of your race, your accent, or your nationality. It will irk you, but don’t do anything to give the individuals justification to take the harassment to another level.

Case in point: I was pulled out of the immigration line in China and questioned in halting English about the validity of my picture, despite having the required visa (issued by my local Chinese embassy) in my Jamaican passport. After a few moments of apprehension, I was able to figure out the “issue” that caused me to be singled out, while everyone else in line went through without any additional interrogation. They thought I looked older than my passport photo.

A faulty picture? Yeah, right. More like an unfamiliar and “third world” passport.

Miraculously, upon more detailed review, tangible evidence of access and travel to “first-world” countries in the form of U.S. and U.K visas and stamps seemed to make me less of a possible border threat. Eventually, I was allowed to go.

Lesson #4: On occasion, prejudices can affect your trip budget. Always have access to back up funds that you can tap into when faced with unforeseen circumstances. 

Italy remains one of the most alluring countries I’ve ever visited, and I love it, but unfortunately there are people with biased predispositions residing there, too. Years ago, when I took a spring break trip to Europe, my best friend and I were denied entry at an inn in Milan because they mistook us for African immigrants. We were students crisscrossing Europe by train with no set itinerary or agenda, and because it was the era before Airbnb and travel apps, as soon as we arrived in the city we went directly to the tourist board to get help with securing budget-friendly accommodations. The officials there gave us recommendations and called ahead to one of the facilities that said it had available rooms.

When we arrived at the address and rang the buzzer at the gate, they spoke to us through the intercom system (which had a prominent camera in place). Suddenly, they had no space.

We argued our case to no avail, and when we went back to the tourist board to let them know what happened, the people there apologized profusely. They called the innkeepers back and challenged them about confirming the space then turning us away, and they admitted to thinking we were not the persons the tourist board had sent over. I still chuckle when I remember they had the gall to invite us to come back.  Naturally, we were having none of that. It was on to the next prospect, regardless of cost!

Lesson #4: Narrow-mindedness reflects on the individual spewing the hate, not necessarily on everyone who resides in the country you’re visiting. So, never let one negative incident color your overall impression of a place.  

I recall being on a walking tour in Buenos Aires in which the Mexican-born guide was reciting the city’s history. out of the blue, he mentioned that Argentina was “lucky” they didn’t get any African slaves when the Europeans arrived. To this day, I still wonder if that was a deliberate statement or a factor of details getting lost in translation. His English was not very good, but the guy had been nice to me up to that point. Shortly after boarding the bus he had found out I was Jamaican, and we’d had a brief conversation about cricket, and my country’s uncanny ability to excel globally in music and sport.

I pondered saying peace out and walking away after that explosive comment,

but it was my one extra day in the city after a week-long conference, and I wasn’t going to allow him to dim my glow. I’d already paid for the tour. Plus, I was getting to spend time with my buddy from college whom I hadn’t seen in years. He was from Argentina, and he assured me that the man’s views were not reflective of his people and his country, so I bit my lip, ignored him, and got back on the bus. Surprise, surprise! The dude turned out to be an equal opportunity abuser with a serious case of verbal diarrhea, because he went on to say unflattering things about people from Paraguay and Chile, too.

A few ensuing moments of lulling vehicular motion helped me to zone out the negativity of that “transplant” to the extent that I was able to get through the last hour of the tour. I’ll confess there was a certain amount of poetic justice to the fact that he had to drop me off last – the only black person on the bus –  at The Four Seasons.

Lesson #5: There may be individuals who actually feel they have the right to invade your personal space because they consider you intellectually or socially inferior. Stand your ground!

I will never forget the white Afrikaans woman who sat behind me and my mom on a South African Airways flight to Johannesburg. At four o’clock in the afternoon, she decided we had no right to have our window shutter open because she wanted, and was entitled to, a dark cabin to sleep. It didn’t matter that it was about 30 minutes after takeoff, nor that she had an eye-patch issued to her by the airline (like the rest of us), or that the price of her ticket was the same as ours – perks free.

Without any request or other form of conversation, she took it upon herself to reach across my Mom to slam the window shut, brushing her shoulder in the process. We could hear the accompanying harrumph punctuating the self-serving move.

Our jaws almost fell to the floor. Naturally, we were having none of that.

“I beg your pardon!” Mom turned around and said indignantly. My darling mother wasted no time pushing the shutter back up.

The crazy woman then started ranting about how we clearly didn’t know the protocol on international flights, which in her world meant you closed the windows right after takeoff, even if it was still daylight. Seriously, who needs to sleep for 15 hours straight? Of course, I didn’t feel it was important to list how many international flights we’d been on up to that point, but we shut her down nonetheless – in a manner that could never be misconstrued as ‘angry black woman’ mode.

Pretty soon, multiple flight attendants came running over to avert the brewing situation. At the same time, we started getting thumbs up signs and notes of encouragement passed down to us from neighboring passengers who were as outraged as we were at this woman’s pompousness.

She eventually simmered down when she realized no one was taking her side. It took her a little time to realize she wasn’t dealing with ignorant or submissive folk. I won’t bore you with all the details, except to say the incident resulted in me writing and submitting a formal report to the airline about her obnoxious behavior. Upon deplaning, the purser and flight crew met us at the door to apologize again, and to thank us for how well we had handled the situation.

Lesson #6: Don’t let fear of possible racial slurs or uncomfortable situations keep you from pursuing your desire to travel. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and negative incidents are usually few and far between. First ensure your safety, then deal with whatever comes your way with grace and dignity.

In spite of the bad eggs in the bunch, my wanderlust hasn’t ceased, and my travel wish list just keeps growing. When taken by surprise, I always push myself to remember a quote from Nelson Mandela about his time of imprisonment. He said in part, “we would want it [Robben Island] to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil, a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness. A triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.”

My country’s most famous icon, Bob Marley, also talked about emancipation and the fact that “none but ourselves can free our minds.” So, I say forward and onward in this generation, my fellow black travelers. And do it triumphantly!

Do you have any stories to share? What happened, and what did you learn from it?

Let’s talk about racism, profiling and travel

I think I was eight or nine when the n-word first invaded my world. It crashed through the walls of my childhood utopia with the speed and precision reminiscent of an experienced tradesman wielding a powerful sledgehammer, and the visceral blow swept through me like a raging fire capable of bending steel and collapsing metal.

The incident scorched my soul badly, but thankfully, I did not implode.

Musing about life. (Photo courtesy of Tina Foster Photography.)

It was my second international trip, and my younger sister and I were on a family vacation at our uncle’s house in a middle-income subdivision in Winter Haven, Florida. One afternoon, as we played with a boy in a neighborhood park, he suddenly darted from behind a tree, pulled up abruptly, and pointed to a dark smudge somewhere between the side of his shin and ankle.

“You see that dark spot right there?” he asked nonchalantly.

Mildly annoyed, yet curious about what triggered this disruption in our enjoyable game of hide and seek, we nodded our heads blandly.

“That’s you, you black ni_ _ a”, he spat, literally and figuratively.

Having grown up in the Caribbean, it took a few seconds for the racial slur to sink in.  At first, my sister and I simply looked at each other stunned.  We then looked closely at the boy to ensure it was the same kid we’d been happily playing with for at least half an hour.

I can’t remember if it was me or my sis who quickly pointed to a white spot on one of our shirts and returned verbal volley.

“Well, you see that white spot right here?  That’s you, you white pork.” 

(Yikes! Like, how lame is that? Yes, we really said that.)

In retrospect, it certainly wasn’t the most eloquent or polished response. However, bear in mind that we were children, and in a kid’s innocent world, drastic times called for drastic measures. Up to that point, all our favorite cartoons had taught us to stand up to bullies, so we knew we had to get a word in before we hightailed it out of that park and into the arms of our doting parents. Dusk was fast approaching, and as naïve as we were at that age, instinct told us it was time to get the heck out of dodge.

Fast forward to years later, and I belatedly realized that was my very first face-to-face experience with racism. I enjoy visiting new destinations, and quite honestly, most of my encounters in foreign lands have been good ones. Until now, I have only shared the high points, but given the overt resurgence of racial tensions worldwide, I would be painting an unrealistic picture if I didn’t also admit there are occasional downsides to traveling as a person of color, or with travel documents that don’t include a First World passport.

Have incidents related to your race or country of national origin ever negatively impacted your travel experience? If you have a story to share, I’d love to hear about it. I’m also curious to know what were the coping mechanisms you used to get through the experience.

Sadly, this is 2017, yet the question is still blaringly relevant. Over the years, I’ve found myself in not-so-great situations in Argentina, Florida, Italy, and on a flight to South Africa. But here’s the moral of the story: None of the negative rhetoric has affected my insatiable desire to see the world.  I’ll share some of the valuable lessons that I’ve learned from those experiences in a follow-up post soon. Stay tuned.