Over to You

OUR MAN IN A CABANA

Going low-tech in Tulum seemed attractive—until we saw the 'nudites'

JONATHAN DURBIN April 4 2005
Over to You

OUR MAN IN A CABANA

Going low-tech in Tulum seemed attractive—until we saw the 'nudites'

JONATHAN DURBIN April 4 2005

OUR MAN IN A CABANA

Over to You

Going low-tech in Tulum seemed attractive—until we saw the 'nudites'

JONATHAN DURBIN

ABOUT 130 KM south of Cancun—spring break’s beer-bong and beefcake capital—is Tulum, a quiet Mexican town known for its Mayan ruins and cabana-style coastal hotels where electricity is a frill. Tourists tend to be hippie-ish types who plan vacations around sweat lodges and curative massage techniques with slightly threatening names like temazcal and reiki.

It’s a good place to listen to your body’s circadian rhythms. When there’s no electricity you pretty much shut down by 10 p.m., so waking at 5:45 a.m. to catch the sunrise isn’t

much of a slog. My first morning there, I rolled out of bed, stumbled down to a bluff overlooking the beach, and saw the sun boiling through the mist on the horizon, casting beams of light onto a Caribbean Sea the cerulean blue of Windex. It was so picturepostcard-perfect that the moment would have felt disingenuous somehow were it not for the man who resembled Jimmy Stewart, circa Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, jumping rope on the beach below. He was wearing only a white thong; when he was through exercising, the thong came off.

The sunrise suddenly seemed a lot less melodramatic.

Caveat emptor. When a Mexican hotel’s website advertises its beaches as “clothing optional,” it really doesn’t mean the safe,

French Riviera sort of toplessonly clothing optional. Between their bending, stretching, rearranging towels, diving into the waves and lying prone while reading PADI dive handbooks, the naked people were not at all titillating. Swimming in the ocean was like taking a bath with 60 strangers. I began to think of them as “nudités,” a bastardization of “deadites,” the name film director Sam Raimi gave his evil skeleton warriors in Army of Darkness. Despite the natural beauty of the Yucatán jungle and the eerie stillness of the beach at night, the nudités were a pox on achieving peace of mind.

The idea had been to spend a week away somewhere warm and off the grid. Rather than frying skin and brain cells in the MTV-heavy megahotels of Cancún, going low-tech in Tulum seemed attractive. No

power means no email, and spotty cell coverage prevents jawing on the phone. It’s an enforced break from city living. The notion, in fact, was so engaging that in planning the trip, I began to soften my stance against hippies—at least enough to allow that they perhaps have a solid philosophy when it comes to enjoying life. After months of sitting in front of a computer screen, imagining it pulling the pigment from my skin and turning me Kermit-coloured, I was ready for a break. But I wasn’t prepared for

how hard-wired I was to technology.

Technologies aren’t just tools—they create safety zones, comfortable personal boundaries. And it turns out going off the grid wasn’t safe at all. To avoid the nudités, one morning my friend and I chartered a raft the local dive shop called a “boat” to go fishing. Williams, our Mexican captain, presented us with a couple of rods and we went trolling. I hooked a barracuda and reeled the fish in, an ugly thing with large teeth and a nasty temper. Williams stabbed it to death, which made me feel, ridiculously, like Hemingway. Then Williams steered us in, piloting

the outboard motor across six-foot-swells at breakneck speeds. I kept turning around to make sure he hadn’t lost his balance and fallen in. The ride back was exhilarating, nauseating and absolutely life-threatening. The barracuda was still twitching and bleeding out in the boat as we reached the shore.

When we took the fish to the hotel, the chef at the restaurant offered to cook it. We weren’t much in the mood for food, much less for barracuda, so we offered it to the staff instead. They were delighted, and said that since the fish was so delicious, they’d make us an appetizer portion to try. Turns out barracuda is fairly tasty, as long as it’s seasoned liberally with lime. (It was only when I returned home and googled “barracuda” that I discovered eating it can cause ciguatera fish poisoning, which, from the symptoms, sounds like an extremely unpleasant way to spend a vacation.)

After that shaky lunch, we fled the restaurant, bypassed the beach and ran back to our hut— to flip on the iPod. Listening to digital music in such an unrelentingly analog place was soothing, a kind of comfort blanket reminiscent of the intensely distracted lifestyle in the city. (There’s nothing like the luxury of reading a book while watching TV, surfing the web, listening to music and talking on the phone.) Technology might mean constant diversion, but it can create a kind of peace. Yes, it also creates a sheltered and anti-social reality. But when there’s cell service and downloads there aren’t usually any nudités, and life-threatening experiences—not electricity—are out of the ordinary. Going off the grid is second best only to coming back on. So it’s funny that—as I try to answer 3,000 emails a day while my sunburn fades— I’m already prepared to go back. CT1

New York City-based Jonathan Durbin is a /Wac/ean’s contributing editor. To comment: overtoyou@macleans.ca