©1996 by Lynn D. Troldahl Hershberger (Lynn@ColorJoy.com)
Playa del Carmen
We spent our first night in Playa del Carmen (PLAHyah del CARmen), across the Caribbean from the island of Cozumel (ko-zoo-MEL), about 40 minutes south of Cancún. I had stayed there for a long weekend two years ago. It has grown immeasurably since then, though the friendliness remains. The beach at Playa is fabulous; the water is pure turquoise, the sand pure white. Also there are few city lights (unlike Cancún) so the sky is clear and the stars are like flashlights in a nearly black sky. It is breathtakingly romantic.
[Photo: The Caribbean beach at Playa del Carmen.]
We enjoyed several pleasant meals in Playa. For our first lunch we found a small restaurant on a side street in Playa. The building was like most, with three walls and an open front (it had something like a garage door for locking up at night, which we saw all over Mexico). It was about the size of a small two-car garage. There were two tables of local people eating something that looked like chicken with a dark sauce on it. It seemed like a good bet, as we both like chicken.
It turned out that the meal of the night at this restaurant was chicken with mole (mohLAY) sauce, made from ground pumpkin seeds and chocolate, among other goodies. The meal also included a broth-based soup and corn tortillas. We were given a few drink choices and decided that orange soda pop sounded fine. We were surprised with what we got: soda made with fizzy water and orange juice, absolutely delicious!
The mole was wonderful and very filling. I was thrilled throughout the trip because of the abundance of corn tortillas. I am unable to eat yeast breads and so I sometimes go a bit hungry in a restaurant. I had no trouble filling up with tortillas during this trip, however. It was a small luxury but one I appreciated.
While we were enjoying the meal, there was a small TV playing in the tiny restaurant. We watched "Lassie" with Spanish overdubs. We didn't lose much in the translation, though, as "Lassie" is almost totally visual. It was entertaining.
The meal came to about $8 US for the two of us, and we were stuffed. The owner told us of the feast he planned to serve the next day. We regretfully informed him that we would have to miss out, as we would be moving on to another city by then. I still wonder what we missed
After we found our hotel room, the sun started to set and we decided to walk down the beach to the main street of Playa. It is blocked off to motor vehicles, and people hang out there all night. Merchants call to you from every corner, something we experienced throughout the trip.
Brian had an entertaining interaction with a sandal-peddler. Brian thought perhaps the merchant might have something more comfortable than his current shoes for hiking the ruins in the next few days. This poor guy had Brian try on every single pair, though none fit quite comfortably enough for Brian's purposes. I tried to be an interpreter, but I was more entertaining than helpful. This guy was quite the salesman, however. He didn't miss a trick; he even had Brian's shoes in a bag so that he could wear his "purchase" home instead of his old shoes! In the end, no purchase was made and the bag was returned to the merchant, but we did enjoy interacting with him just the same!
[Photo: An unusual house on stilts, about two blocks from the beach in Playa del Carmen. Perhaps a retirement home with a view of the ocean from the second floor.]
Later I found a merchant with several qualities of blanket for sale. After much discussion in my very shaky Spanish and the merchant's decent basic English, I settled upon a blanket of half wool, half cotton. It was very well woven and much better than the tourist-quality acrylic blanket I got in Playa two years ago. We enjoyed talking with this blanket merchant and his friend. Brian was carrying his banjo ukulele (a ukulele that looks like a tiny banjo) with him, and it attracted the usual comments and questions. Finally, the request came to play a tune.
Well, Brian got out the ukulele and I got out a kazoo (I design Hershberger Art Kazoos and love to play them). We played "Sweet Georgia Brown" to the merchant and his friend. It attracted a small, curious and appreciative crowd. We had a blast, and did a pretty decent job of it for that matter. It was one of the most fun and memorable moments of our early trip.
We decided to ask these gentlemen for advice on a restaurant for dinner. They asked what type of food we would prefer: chicken, beef, or ? I responded that I actually preferred frijoles (beans, my favorite food and a staple in Mexico). They lit up and said that we needed to try a specific restaurant which had a special bean dish they liked. So off we went in search of the place with good beans.
It turned out to be a rather large and somewhat fancy tourist-oriented restaurant. At first we were seated in the outdoor courtyard, but when it started to rain a bit (nothing really came of the threat) they moved us inside where all the action was taking place. It was good that we were moved -- we got quite an entertaining show.
The restaurant specialized in flaming food items. At one time, they delivered something that was in a pineapple decorated with a face if I recall properly. In the top of the pineapple, there was a flame to cook whatever came with the dish. We couldn't see everything but it was impressive.
So what had started out as a search for some good beans (which turned out to be decent but unexciting pinto bean soup) turned into an evening of entertainment. Boy, did those servers work hard for their money! It was a joy to watch the efficiency with which they worked. And when the waiters slowed down, we could listen to the romantic quartet of singers and guitar players (and one snare drum) serenade from table to table out on the front courtyard.
We were tired from our flight and so we walked back to the room via the romantic beach and crashed early. The next morning we allowed the sunshine to awaken us instead of our usual alarm clock. It was delightful.
It had rained during the night (though I slept so hard I didn't hear it) and so as we went to check out, we watched hotel workers squeegee the sand off the tile walks. We went back to our car, this time being careful not to set off the car alarm, and started driving out of town. It then occurred to us that Tulum was in a fairly isolated area and that we had best find some breakfast in Playa while we had choices. On the way out of town, we saw another typical three-walled restaurant with some local folks eating breakfast. We stopped.
This was the first place we had gone on this trip where they were unprepared for English-speaking tourists. It was quite a struggle for me to order breakfast with my broken Spanish and no menu to read. They finally told me that they had a "huevos rancheros" breakfast that they recommended. We were game to try anything, and agreed.
It turned out fabulous. It was something I suppose we could have ordered at home, but it tasted better somehow in the morning air. It turned out to be scrambled eggs with ham in them, and black beans (frijoles negros; freeHOLEace NEHgross) on the side. In addition, there were all the fresh corn tortillas we could devour.
By then we had discovered that, in Mexico, you don't immediately get the check after being served your meal. They seem to expect you to sit back and enjoy the company of your friends and digest the meal slowly instead of rushing off as we are used to doing. In order to get a check in Mexico, we really had to work on it. So I finally put together what I thought would be a proper sentence, if clumsy, to ask if we could pay. The waitress had all she could do to keep from laughing out loud at my attempt. She re-stated what she thought I wanted, and indeed she had translated properly. We paid the check and continued on our trip.
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