Playa del Carmen is a carnival, a screaming strip of souvenir shops and bars with names in English. A Starbucks obliterates an entire corner, obstinate and white like a citadel. Shop owners hawk Italian lingerie, plastic watches, and t-shirts with printed slogans and lists like, “10 Reasons Why a Beer Is Better Than a Woman.” For us and Playa del Carmen, it is hate at first sight.
We pour over our guidebooks for saving graces, for hidden gems among the bikini bars, but the one restaurant we’re dying to visit is shuttered and silent. We opt for a second that has a decent writeup, ascend the stairs to the second floor, and hope that the city will prove us wrong.
Richard is dark-haired and gym-ready and symmetrically tattooed. He introduces himself, shakes our hands, as soon as we enter.
“Where are you from?” asks Brea.
“California,” he says. “You?”
He seats us at a table near the edge so we can watch the endless river of people move up and down Fifth Avenue below in a winding, unbroken stream. Blur’s “Woo Hoo Song” blares over a speaker. The minimalist decor—white walls and hard plastic chairs, a neon-lit bar—isn’t exactly promising, but makes it seem like someone tried, at least.
Richard tells us that the restaurant has recently re-opened with a brand new menu, which explains why so little of what’s on it was mentioned in our guidebook. It’s a weird mix of sushi and other stuff—quesadillas, a pasta dish with shrimp, beef with a marsala wine sauce—that can’t seem to agree on which cuisine it is. We’re starving. Richard takes our order and steps back from the table.
“Do you like my jeans?” he asks. “I just got ‘em.”
Later, when he brings our water, he asks us about the weather in New York (it’s January; it’s bad), and chats about the endless sun in California.
“Yeah, I’m from this little town outside of Los Angeles called Long Beach. Have you heard of it?”
When the food arrives, it is reflective of what was printed on the menu in only a ballpark sort of way, as though the chef was in a mood to improvise, or only got half of the day’s scheduled deliveries. The mushroom-and-chorizo quesadillas contain no chorizo. There is nary an onion in our beef-with-onions-and-potatoes. This is only the beginning. Odd flavors abound. The shrimp in the pasta dish is covered in balsamic and is hacked into tiny pieces, as though to disguise what it actually is. The beef is marinated in something garlic-y and sour and barely gives under our sawing knife blades. When we finally succeed in hacking through it, the whole thing separates and flops over: The chef has folded it in half, like a napkin.
Later, we will discuss the purpose of this ad nauseum. Was the chef trying to make it look like a better cut of beef by making it into the shape of a better cut? Or is this an actual cooking technique? Or maybe one that he made up?
We walk away dumbfounded and speechless.
“Well,” I say, “At least it was cheap.”
“That it was,” says Brea. “That it was.”
On the street, the ATMs will only give us American dollars and the rare ones that give Pesos charge exorbitant fees. We are exhausted and annoyed and fairly desperate for a drink, but we can’t muster the courage for any of the famous bars, the ones that play “Macarena” at full volume for half-drunk Australian teenagers and serve margaritas dyed a toxic-looking blue. We opt instead for a tiny rooftop bar near our hotel that oozes music and laughter.
We climb the stairs and what we see immediately thereafter confuses us so completely that it takes a moment for our eyes to adjust.
I look at Brea. “I think we just got sucked into a worm hole.”
Thirty or so people are seated in ragtag plastic chairs, all of them drinking and laughing. The youngest ones are in their mid-fifties. They are all wearing faded, boxy t-shirts and Teva sandals. The number of hugs and cheerful hand grips between them gives the impression that they all know each other. Standing in at the front beside a lopsided Christmas tree, holding court, is a man in his sixties wearing a blue flannel shirt, a straw cowboy hat, and a smart pair of Buddy Holly glasses. He’s playing a blues song on a gleaming yellow Fender, and he’s really good.
I buy a round of Pacificos at the bar (20 pesos each) and we snag two open spots at a picnic table.
This is when I spot the beer coozie. It is sitting in front of, and presumably owned by, a gray-haired guy in a t-shirt that says Go Fishing or Die. And it is adorned with a maple leaf. Brea, almost simultaneously, spots another man in a maple leaf t-shirt. We look at each other in the same instant, eyes widening: These are not Americans. These are Canadians.
We have apparently stumbled upon an ex-pat bar, or a bar in which Canadian ex-pat night is well and truly underway. The accents around us suddenly become all too telling, all those flat vowels floating past.
A roundish woman named Linda makes a request and then joins the guy in the glasses up front to sing along, but she only knows one line of the song.
“The call her One-Line Linda,” he says into the microphone.
“I’ve heard her called worse!” shouts a man who had been sitting next to Linda at her table.
Later, we’re instructed to sing Happy Birthday to a pretty blond sitting near us. She’s surrounded on all sides by hopeful-looking guys in polos. Her name is Leslie.
Brea goes up to the bar to buy Leslie a glass of wine for her birthday, and I lean across the table.
“Excuse me, sir,” I shout over the din at the guy sitting across from me. He’s wearing a Minnesota Vikings t-shirt and has a bristly walrus mustache. “What’s that guy’s name?” I point at the guy with the guitar.
“His name is Brent Parkins,” he says, very matter-of-fact, “And he’s from Winnipeg. Are you from Minnesota?”
“No,” I say. “I’m from New York.”
“Oh,” he says, looking disappointed. “Well, what are you doing here?”
“We wanted a beer,” I say.
“These folks are mostly from Canada but a lot of people from Minnesota hang out here, too,” he says, waving at the assembled crowd.
Brea sets Leslie’s Merlot beside her and touches her on the back. “This is for you,” she says. “For your birthday.”
Leslie pops up out of her seat and throws her arms around both of us. She kisses me on the cheek.
Exhausted, we head for the door, but not before we find a Playa del Carmen that we can live with—the realest or the most unreal, either or both.