Rising from the ruins When a too-French Club Med told us to take a long walk on a short pyramid, true Mexican hospitality saved the days on the Yucatan Peninsula.

January 18, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

COBA, Mexico -- "I'm sorry," said the manager, though clearly he wasn't. "You are not on the list."

These may or may not have been his exact words. Possibly it's the residual anger that distorts my recollection of the incident, even of his name. Was it Michel? That would have been more appropriate for a French hotel. But Mitchell sticks in my mind, so that's what I'll call him.

He had the look of one of those Europeans who don't do well in the tropics, who are given to lethargy and who knows what unwholesome practices, a Malcolm Lowry character right out of "Under the Volcano."

And his accent? The kind of French of someone who spoke Spanish most of the time, or a Spanish speaker who spoke French some of the time, English not often.

He was the manager at the Club Med's Villa Arqueologia in this village in eastern part of the Yucatan Peninsula. I had to demand his presence after his Mexican assistant, who had fixed me with an intense look of distaste the moment I appeared, told us for the first time: "You aren't on the list, senor."

"Not on the list? What list? I want to see the manager!"

This hotel was the only place to stay for many miles around, except for a small pension just up the road, and it was chock-a-block with truck drivers and young travelers with knapsacks who survived on jerky.

Since we read the newspapers and keep up, we were aware of the estrangement between the United States and France these days, kind of a mutual national aversion fueled by the historical mixture of resentment and envy.

But I hardly expected to be a casualty of this continuing cold war, an innocent tourist in a neutral country. Besides, I have nothing against the French.

Modest desires

All we wanted was dinner, an hour or so with a margarita before turning in, a moment to watch all those stylish French people gamboling through this primitive milieu in pursuit of whatever it is that French people pursue. Joie de vivre? A good time?

We had paid for it, after all. Prepaid, actually. We had a confirmation.

But we were turned away, my wife, Susana, and I. Dismissed with a kind of mumbled arrogance, and a truly magnificent Gallic shrug. I will never forget the shrug.

"I have the reservation right here," I protested to Mr. Mitchell.

Shrug!

As he did this, two couples, probably straight from Paris, skipped in all flushed and happy. In a wink, Mr. Mitchell transformed himself into Mr. Hospitality. A tray appeared like magic. Mimosas for all. All but us, of course.

We emerged from the hotel, dragging our three heavy bags back to the car, which we had only moments before unloaded. Standing there in the parking lot, I still held our Club Med confirmation crumpled in my hand, with its number that wasn't on Mr. Mitchell's "list."

I wondered whom the manager had sold our room to. Which one was it beyond the sumptuous tropical patio? If I knew that, could I have gone and pounded?

Nah! Other arrangements would be necessary. I began breathing deeply.

Long journey down

Joie de vivre would have been nice. It had been at the center of our thoughts through the previous 14 hours or so, ever since we left Baltimore at 6 that chill morning in late December, flew six hours to Cancun, rented a car and headed down the coastal highway, then inland for Coba. We sped the last 30 miles or so: It was getting late, and we both knew it's never a good idea to be on a lonely Mexican road after dark. Wandering animals and such.

Club Med's facilities at the end of it glittered in our minds like El Dorado.

We were on vacation. Our plan was to visit Mayan sites, big ones like Chichen-Itza and Uxmal, smaller ones like the one here at Coba. This, according to the guidebook, had been a major trading center allied with magnificent Tikal far to the south, in Guatemala.

Since El Dorado was not to be ours that day, I set out in search of whatever alternative I could find. Being hot, dirty, tired and sweaty is not pleasant. It is less so when the prospect of ending this condition is not before you. Where would we sleep?

Susana watched the car and waited at the town's only cafe.

Village of Coba

Coba is a modest village, squalid around the edges. The ruins and the tourists who come to see them are probably its only source of income, though some people might work the ranches out in the forest. There are a few shops that sell trinkets -- Mayan calendars, blankets, serapes and such -- a police station, school and about 30 or 40 houses. Some of these are made of concrete, but most of sticks and straw.

Most of the people are poor. Not in the North American way of being poor, having things, but not a lot. Rather in the Third World way: having virtually nothing. One does not see TV antennas above the thatch. One does not see private cars, except for the rented ones of tourists.

I found a small grocery store and explained our predicament to the owner. Assuming all troubled people eventually wound up in church, he directed me to the evangelical establishment down the road.

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