TWO SIDES OF THE SAME TOWN
Walk North along Avenida 10 away from town, past 30th street with the tennis and basketball courts and the group of Mexican kids, all point guards, playing half court under the lights.
The scene quickly begins to change. Fewer signs in English, fewer pizzerias, coffee shops, hotels—a few blocks more, no hotels. The worldly is replaced with the local—lavenderias, pollo asado restaurants, taquerias manifested as makeshift kitchens in front of people’s homes, bodegas with old Pac Man machines being pounded and cursed by bored middle-aged men, kids flying self-made kites in the street, families sitting on the curb talking, teenagers making circles of dust on their bicycles, walls of cinderblock and cement, roofs of tin, scraps of rubber in the street, graffiti art, chickens cuddled in the shade or pecking at dirt-stained corn-specks behind their wood and wire fences, students getting off buses in well-pressed khakis and Polos, young lovers leaned against dilapidated walls flirting—
Setenta, ochenta, noventa—where have the gigantic sombreros gone? The modern Mayan capitalists and their war paint? The hawkers of goods with their bizarre English tongues?
They seemed to have been replaced by Mexicans on rigidity bikes. Mexicans thundering past in old Volkswagon bugs. Mexicans talking outside of a church that reads Jesus es la pan de vida. Mexicans walking home with groceries under their arms dressed in the uniforms of the restaurant where you just ate dinner, the spa where you just concluded your daily massage, the hotel you’re staying in.
And the dogs. Check out the dogs. Dogs with dangling teats cross the street unattended, poking their noses at garbage and piss-marked curbs. Dogs pace on the rooftops and pause to peer down at you as you pass. Dogs everywhere being treated like, well, dogs.
Look down the alleys as we walk. A soccer ball kicks itself against the orange cream of an adobe house. Low-hung clouds of sand-dust illuminate a falling sun. See the barbwire spiraling? The shards of glass poked by concrete, lining the tops of the wall?
I know nothing of this place but what I see. And one of the things I see is that not many people in this neighborhood look like me.
I walk. I bike. And no one bothers me.
Now, as we approach my apartment on Calle 102, look down the alley towards the ocean. For what must be 15 blocks the building stretches its blocky mass along the beach in a manner so callous and ugly it’s nearly laughable. It’s certainly cryable. This architectural nightmare known as the Paridisus Resorts looks like a cross between a mall and a juvenile detention center. First protected by a 20 foot wall punched at the top with evenly spaced square holes just large enough to slide a gun-barrel through and blast anyone foolish or desperate enough to try and climb over, then the building itself, an elongated Tetris-block, windowless in the back so vacationers don’t see the neighborhood I have just described, painted entirely in impersonal cream, the few remaining lackluster ivy plants drooping near-dead on the wall.
A drunken 8 year old with Legos could have designed a structure with more aesthetic appeal. I don’t condone the use of torture, but if anyone deserves to be water boarded—say, with deliciously salty Yucatan water—I cast my vote for the mastermind/s behind this embodiment of insensitivity and exploitation. Oh Paradise! The all-inclusive exclusive that blocks my view and access to the beach, and that of many, many residents who cannot afford the $400 a night room charge, like a square, fat, creamy-white middle finger flicked in our face.
“It has clubs, 15 restaurants, everything man. All-inclusive. They never leave. The owner don’t want them to leave. The people scared. They leave in taxi. They come back in taxi. All the money stay there.”
These are the words of Alejandro, a waiter at the restaurant just behind the resort on Calle 88. It is the only restaurant I’ve seen in this neighborhood that caters to tourists, but despite the daily cash-crop being harvested from the revolving wallet-fields of 500 to 1000 hungry Euro and Benjamin-touting vacationers, I have never seen it busy, or even half full. In fact, I don’t know how they stay in business.
Ahh, but it’s not all bad, I promise, even with my cynicism. In the morning, I’m toe-deep in white sand watching the skin-soft silhouette of a short-haired brunette, clear rings of water wrapped ‘round her waste glowing gold with the 9 am sun. A man in his 50’s with a stomach like a sand bag just jogged past me, motivated, determined, alive. A young Mexican family’s child is throwing washed up driftwood to a beautiful mastiff that looks like it could run and splash in the white foam for eternity. Ultimately, who cares if the out-of-town populace here is addicted to buying shit they don’t need and paying too much for rooms at resorts that fuck up the locals sea view and access to the beach? They just want to be comfortable. Safe. Secure.
At Paridisus in the early morning, the workers come in through the back, enter through a large militaristic-looking gate, then head to their respective duties. Sometimes I see them lined up like schoolchildren as I eat breakfast on Calle 88 and talk to Alejandro or the girl who often works in the morning.
When I finish my breakfast, I walk around the resort to the beach, set up my towel on a gentle slope of sand, and watch. Along the stretch of beach directly in front of the resort, which is just to my left when I face the water, well-groomed Mexican men in spotless pressed khaki shorts rake seaweed from the shore and lay towels over big bedlike cushions protected from the sun by gigantic umbrellas. In the early morning before the seaweed has been raked, it is quiet and the air holds all the pungent smells of ocean—salt, sea breeze, water, seaweed. But by 9 am the khaki crew has removed the evening’s washed up seaweed and that salty, slimy, seductive smell begins fading with the rising sun; a subtle scent stolen from the sea.
And then they come. The vacationers. The lucky ones. The couples hand in hand. The ambitious sportive types stretching and jogging on the beach. The big-bellied business man with hairy chest kicking up his feet, lighting a cigar, checking his phone. The young insurance salesman ordering a Corona from the little beach bar—it’s only 10 am, but fuck it, it’s vacation. The families large and small led by Shahs of the highest order, who are so smothered in layers of suntan cream that it drips down their cheeks and over their collar bones like icing on a King Cake left in the sun. They walk the beach holding plastic shovels like scepters and waving beach pales and Frisbees at their obliging parents.
And I am still walking. We are still walking. Walking and watching, on our way to Cuba.
Over the past 3 years I have periodically embarked on a journey that has taken me to four distinct locations around the world. They include:
- Dorf Tyrol, Italy. The Castle of Ezra Pound
- Phuket, Thailand. Tiger Muay Thai Training Camp.
- Paris, France.
- New Orleans, Louisiana
In each country I have studied the skills expected of an Italian Renaissance Man (poetry, combat, visual art, and music so far), but in a modern, more global sense. In other words, rather than learn how to fight with a lance and ride a horse I went to Thailand to learn Thai Kickboxing, also known as Muay Thai–“the art of eight limbs.”
Ultimately, the goal is not to become a “Renaissance Man” in such a short period of time, but rather, to investigate the intrinsic values that lie at the heart of the Renaissance philosophy and see how they can apply to, and hopefully improve, my own life. I am also concerned with the benefits of becoming well-rounded, and of with the knowledge that can be gained by casting myself in uncomfortable, difficult, and sometimes painful (ie: Muay Thai) situations.
This project began three years ago and I only have two months left. The first month will take place in The Dominican Republic and other Caribbean islands where salsa is part of everyday life for many.