Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Mayan Riviera 36 Years Later

I last visited  Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in 1975, when my husband and I spent our honeymoon there.  We were poor, ill-prepared and rode buses to the ruins of Chichen Itza and slept in hammocks at Isla Mujeres.  Since development at Cancun only began in 1970, there were just a handful of hotels and about that many tourists.  When I returned this summer to the now named Mayan Riviera for a family wedding, I was dumbstruck by the changes.

Our Continental flight from Houston was filled with summer clad tourists who happily accepted the offer of beer or Margaritas in the air.  At the Cancun Airport, the control tower was even wrapped in a large ad for Corona beer.  Planes from around the world nosed into their gates -   Air Canada, Air Cubana, and even the English Thomas Cook charter known for packaged holiday tours.  Twelve American airlines and thirty-one foreign ones now serve this very busy, modern airport where English is the first language of announcements.  An enormous customs hall filled with agents processed the approximately 1,000 arriving travelers within 30 minutes.

Outside, a squadron of white-shirted tour representatives held  placards as they searched for their named tourists.  Fortunately, mine was in a red shirt and easy to spot.  We chatted while awaiting the emergence of my sister-in-law. He felt about half the tourists came from Europe and half from the United States and Canada.  It had been slower this year, he said, but that was hard for me to gauge.  I did note the outdoor bar for those who just couldn’t wait.

The drive from the airport to our resort was along the four lane Highway 307 linking the 79 miles from Cancun through Playa del Carmen to Tulum in the south.  Spread along this road were literally hundreds of hotels and resorts.  Trip Advisor lists 258 hotels in the area.  Some are for adults only, others have great children’s programs, many are all inclusive and a few are for budget minded travelers.  The larger hotels cover acres and have pyramids peering over the trees.  One driver described them as “pueblitas” or little towns.

Security is a major concern today even though this area has not seen the crime waves reported in other parts of Mexico.  But the hotels take it seriously.  At each of the resorts for the two couples in our van, a guard at the gate checked the guest list before allowing us through.

Our resort, the Royal Playa del Carmen, faces the beach in the middle of the town of Playa del Carmen.  While it had no gate, security was heavy around the large driveway. We also saw policemen patrolling the area with regularity and even one handcuffed man being whisked away.  But there was never a moment that we felt at risk, even as we strolled the streets of the town.

Our hotel shone with  marbled floors, manicured lawns, numerous swimming pools and was filled with approximately 1500 friendly, hard-working employees who greeted us with “hola” and a hand over their heart.  It was a far cry from our motel at Chichen Itza years ago where we were just happy to have air conditioning.  This was also my first “all inclusive” experience and I could get used to ordering freely from the menu and not having to calculate tips after every meal. The choices were international with many fusion dishes but the portions small.  If you were still hungry, just order another course - which was true of the weak drinks they served.

Destination weddings are increasingly popular because of the romantic settings, reduced costs and  shortened guest list.  At our niece’s lovely wedding, we enjoyed  a familiar ritual in a tropical setting.  White gauze entwined the ocean front wedding gazebo where I had enjoyed a yoga session that morning.  Chairs with white covers were arranged on two sides of the aisle and parasols available for those in the sun.  The groom’s brother-in-law officiated even though he had no real power. The bridal couple had married in a civil ceremony in California before coming.  Evidence of our presence south of the border were numerous. Throughout the service and dinner reception, live and recorded music played from a harpist, Mariachi band, and a great DJ.   Groomsmen wore white Mexican shirts and sandals and sunglasses soothed the eyes of guests.  The wedding party had shots of tequila after the service while the hors d’oeuvres displayed all the wonderful fresh fruit and flowers available in those parts.

The resorts on the Mayan Riviera do provide a relaxing environment to eat, drink, sun, swim as well as marry.  Although the quality of lodging has changed significantly since our first trip there, the clear blue-green waters and white beaches haven’t.  I’ve long noticed how few Americans are traveling in the out-of-the way places I frequent.  But I found them on the beaches of Mexico, enjoying a taste of luxury at reasonable prices.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Marilyn Stephenson's Path to Paris, Texas

Marilyn in front of her apartment with the Army Flag

This is the second in an occasional series of stories about people traveling TO Paris, Texas to live.

Marilyn Stephenson is easy to spot in the winter.  She wears a Tyrolean hat from Bavaria tightly pulled over her military haircut.  Summer finds her in t-shirts and comfortable shoes.  Her gate is forward and deliberate, and she speaks with Army punctuated precision just as a retired sergeant should.  It’s clear from her accent she’s not from these parts.  But her path to Paris is a story of American mobility.

Originally from Crown Point, Indiana, of bank robber Dillinger escape fame, Marilyn comes from a family of three daughters.  After attending college for two years, she headed to California where she worked in a small IBM department.  As she points out, there were no women supervisors then and she was released after five years.  The military beckoned but her age was a problem.  At 32, she was too old to be in the Navy but not the Army which she joined on July 6, 1967.   Training was separate through the Women’s Army Corps in Ft. McPherson, Alabama.

During her 20 years of service, Marilyn was posted from California to the Pentagon and three times in Europe. Her first ten years were spent as a communications specialist where she “pushed messages”, learning to read the holes in  teletype messages that arrived from all over the world.  This was a typical placement for women at the time.  After emerging from  NCO training as Staff Sergeant, she had eight men under her who didn’t know what to expect from a woman leader.  She told them,  “See these stripes.  They’re brand new.  I worked for this promotion.  I didn’t brown nose anyone and I’m not losing these stripes for any of you.  If you’re concerned about a woman supervisor, let me know.  I don’t want you working for me”.  All the men stayed.  When the work at the Pentagon got tedious, she asked to change to a chaplain’s assistant.

Marilyn's medals
In her new position, she was again among mostly men.  Marilyn got to go into the field and even participated in war games in Germany.  The primary duty of the troops there was to be prepared to “fold the gap when the Russians came.” At that time, it wasn’t a question of “if” but “when” the Russians tried to penetrate the Alps.  She served abroad three times in Germany and Belgium  between 1972 and 1981 and served at Grafenver with the 3rd Armor Tank Division (Patton’s old unit) on her last tour.

A chaplain’s assistant’s job is more varied than you would first imagine.  Marilyn tells stories of weddings that tried to derail, including one in which she had to sew the groom’s pants shut because of an unfortunate tear.  Because she was in charge of all chaplains’ assistants in Europe,  Marilyn made herself useful.  Before computers, she used cards to keep track of when each chaplain was leaving so she could be sure of an easy and smooth replacement.  Marilyn served as the highest ranking enlisted officer in the division.

After leaving the military in 1987, she lived in Ft. Monroe, Virginia until 1998 when she returned to California. She bought a truck and 5th wheeler and traveled all over the country.  Marilyn’s next door neighbors in California were Sam and Marc Williams.  Marc drove a long distance truck for Schneider trucking and had seen the United States from the highways.  He always said he wanted to retire to Paris, Texas because it was a nice little town that would be perfect for his later years. When he and his wife finally moved, Marilyn decided to come, too - sight unseen.

They all arrived in Paris in 2003 and Marilyn jumped in. Her activities have included Prime Time, art lessons, music lessons, Red Hat Society, lay reader for Holy Cross Episcopal church, domino player, and exercise classes and trips through Prime Time.  She believes there’s something to Texas hospitality although she had a hard time understanding our accent upon arrival. She notes people are very friendly here.   “Nobody says hello in California.”

When the Chamber of Commerce promotes Paris as a great place to retire, Marilyn could be the poster child.  She came without knowing anything about us, was greeted with open arms, and decided to stay and to participate. She’s proof that America’s mobility can benefit Lamar County.

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