CANCUN, Mexico — In the end (and the sad realization always comes in the end), my five-day stay at an all-inclusive resort on the Caribbean was more than mind-clearing serenity; it was a frightening look into the human psyche.
The plentiful sun, warm breezes, azure sea and powder-white beach became incidental. My vacation brought to mind seventh-grade English class, in which I first read “Lord of the Flies.” The lesson learned then: Without parameters, we devolve into chaos.
I blame everything on the all-you-can-eat policy.
In the glossy brochure, that part was the most alluring amenity. Secrets Maroma, our all-inclusive resort a 45-minute drive south of Cancun, boasted nine themed restaurants, seven bars and 24-hour room service. But, really, gorgeous terrain aside, this could have been anywhere. The idea is you eat any food, drink any beverage, anytime, in any quantity. It’s possible, and within your civic right, to dine at three restaurants in one night and order everything off the menu — after all, the hit to your credit card has cleared. So for the length of your stay, you enter a world where “no” doesn’t exist in the vernacular. This is a dangerous precedent.
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Day 1: After the flight, immigration, airport transfer and resort check-in, six hours have passed since we last inserted food in mouth. My wife and I hurtle toward the buffet like it’s a Super Bowl end zone with 5 seconds left on the clock.
What happens next is too ugly for words. See it from my perspective: You arrive in a warm-weather paradise where it’s all “yes, sir” and “it’s a pleasure, ma’am.” You’re faint from starvation because your dear wife guilted you out of buying the Sausage McMuffin at the airport. And now, laid out before you, are pasta, sushi, pizza, quesadillas, cakes and tropical juices.
It doesn’t matter that everything but the fruit, juices and Mexican hot foods taste just OK. It’s that I can crowd my plate so densely and that, even with the soy sauce from the sushi sloshing over to the pineapples, I can scarf down cold, salty fruit so voraciously. I don’t care. Post-meal doubling-over be damned; dinner is only three hours away.
Day 2: Eighty-five degrees and nary a cloud in the blue sky. We stake out two poolside chairs facing the sea, where parasailors glide through the air in the distance. Joao Gilberto strums his bossa nova guitar between my headphones.
A friendly staffer in a polo shirt asks if I care for anything. “Mango margarita, chips and guacamole, please.” Thirty minutes later, the margarita glass empty, he asks if I want another. “A mojito this time.” Thus begins a cycle of drinks on the half-hour, not because I crave another drink but because I can. These beverages won’t turn me goofy anyway; even generously, I figure, there’s a shot of alcohol — max — in each glass.
At noon, a gentleman appears poolside, pushing a cart with a round stainless steel pan 3 feet in diameter. “Would you like paella?”
Somebody pinch me. A poolside paella cart! Memories of the breakfast buffet are three hours fresh, but I’d never forgive myself if I turn this down. The rice is the color of sunflowers, suffused with the aroma of saffron, with chicken chunks, mussels and bell peppers throughout. The portion is enough to feed two.
About this time, a flock of seagulls begins circling overhead, trained to realize lunchtime for resort guests also means lunchtime for birds. This is an all-inclusive, after all. They perch atop the umbrella shades, screeching. I place my plate on a wicker stand for a moment, prompting one gull to see his opportunity. He divebombs under my shade and snatches a mussel shell from my paella. The bird immediately drops it to the ground, where half a dozen gulls fight for the errant grains of rice. The mussel snatcher bites at the other gulls that dare encroach.
For 10 seconds, I fume. How dare these stupid birds ruin my lunch. I wish I were wearing steel-tipped boots. Then comes the realization: I’m a visitor on Planet Yes. I flag down the paella cart and get another plate.
Day 3: During morning poolside yoga, the view from my “downward dog” position is eclipsed by an unfamiliar, flesh-colored curvature. Turns out it’s my gut.
Day 4: Dinnertime arrives, but neither of us is hungry. The reason? An hour after lunch at the seafood grill, a billow of smoke had caught our attention. It was the poolside barbecue, and the chef was grilling chicken thighs, burgers and whole fillets of mahi mahi. My wife and I had paid $3,700, or $462.50 per person per day, for four nights. We felt obligated to get our money’s worth. The built-in restraints of an accumulating tab didn’t exist here, so rather than listening to our stomachs, we submitted to the lobe in the brain where irrationality rules.
After that grilled chicken guacamole sandwich (with a side of nachos and Buffalo wings), I waddle back to my room. The gorgeous setting — and this is a no-children resort! — belies any illusions of relaxation in the first three days. I feel miserable. It’s entirely my fault. The combination of unlimited eating, drinking, lounging, other sedentary acts and “vacation brain” compel me to step on the bathroom scale. My God. I think the numbers must be inflated by the exchange rate. I have gained 12 pounds in four days.
Let’s take it easy for dinner, my wife suggests.
Translation: At the Italian restaurant on our last night, we opt for three appetizers instead of four. Rather than a heavy cream sauce with my fettuccine, I go with pesto and the thinner strands of capellini. We split a dessert.
Day 5: There are three hours before the airport shuttle whisks us away from paradise. Even with my epiphany the previous day, rationality is tossed aside on this final morning with a mindset of “the hell with this, it’s my last day.” I begin working in dietary fiber, which by my interpretation means 10 strips of bacon and a quarter bowl of oatmeal.
On the plane ride home, I read a magazine story about some yokel who wins the lottery, then squanders it all and ends up broke a few years later. It’s as if I am staring into a mirror. When prudence is discarded, when rules give way to lawlessness, when the word “no” doesn’t register, we’re no better than boys stuck on a free-for-all island.
In this analogy, I am Piggy.