At 19 years old I was earning good money as a soldier in the British Armed forces, I was engaged to be married and my fiancé Bekkie was pregnant with our first child; Charlie.
The significance of this is that I was permanently based in Northern Ireland and it had come round to the time of year known as the Drumcree marches. For the armed forces they represent a separation of the Catholics and Protestants over a bridge. Violence is common and tensions rife, in the past soldiers have been killed and maimed, some years it would pass without issue, most years it didn’t.
I specifically remember being tasked to guard a mass barbed wire fence being erected. Whilst standing there minding my own business something hit the side of my face, it was a brick. I looked on at thousands of men screaming, throwing bricks, firing off air rifles and looking generally pissed off. This wasn’t the life for me, besides I had a kid on the way. I needed a holiday. I had to this point never been further than Western Europe and had never been anywhere on my own.
Every guy reading this will know that one of the skills of being in a relationship is the ability to let the woman think she is getting her own way, or things done for her – without them actually being so. With that in mind I decided that since Bekkie was 18 in a few weeks I would plan a holiday and tell her it was for her birthday. She is probably reading this now thinking “sneaky bastard” but alas it is true.
What I knew about holidays would fit on a grain of rice and so I was screwed royally to the tune of about 2 grand for a fortnight in Cancun with the now defunct Airtours. Truth be told it was a great holiday, but Bekkie being pregnant limited a lot of what we could do, nonetheless it was a relaxing couple of weeks in an all inclusive hotel complete with free beer, we still somehow managed to spend about 2 grand in spending money. Goodness knows how!
Returning home from Cancun in June 2001 my dad was supposed to collect us from Manchester airport but wasn’t there. He was legendary for being late (and genuinely was late for his own funeral) but I suddenly saw Bekkie’s parents had come to collect us. Turns out my dad had suffered a stroke. I headed straight for the hospital. I recall sitting with him, whilst he was still confused, showing him photographs of the wonderful tropical fish I had taken whilst diving. He was amazed, we were a poor family and I had seen things we had grown up dreaming about. Mixed with him being borne of a generation where you just got on with things, and my mum being completely self involved, he explained to me that he had to collect my mum from some 100 miles away on holiday, and would I sit in the car with him whilst he drove in case he suffered another stroke. I was completely against it. I phoned my brother, who refused to get involved since he had something that in his mind was more pressing. It came as no surprise to me when some years later he got up and left his young daughter whilst he moved to Cyprus with his new love.
Things returned back to normal, I was back in Northern Ireland and Cancun was a distant but happy memory. I could never have known that sitting with my dad en route to collect my mum, just the two of us, would be the last time I would ever spend quality time with my father. For despite the headaches, bouts of confusion and general unwell feeling, he returned to work as a farmer and ignored all the obvious signs that there was a problem.
I got the call that my dad was seriously ill late one night in September, I was flown from Northern Ireland to be at his bedside, and watched him cling to life for five days before dying on September 13th 2001. He was 54 years old.
The last memory I have of him laughing is sitting looking through the photographs of Cancun and seeing him smile as he explained to me why the sea was so turquoise.
Almost thirteen years later I would return to Cancun with three of my four kids and as we flew from Atlanta I looked down at the Gulf of Mexico and wondered what to expect. Since last going to Cancun I have been to some amazing places and wondered if perhaps the reason I had enjoyed Cancun so much, was because it was the first place I had ever been.
Really, in terms of where to stay in Cancun you have two choices, Zona Hotelera which is the luscious sliver of gorgeous white sand filled with five star resorts, five star prices and an endless stream of tourists. The second choice is the far more reasonable, and much more realistic, Ciudad Cancun, or downtown. At its heart is the ADO bus station which links the rest of the Yucatan and beyond, for the independent traveller it is the preferred choice, and for the budget traveller the only. Local buses frequently run from downtown to Walmart (though it is walkable) and then onto the Zona Hotelera for a fixed one way fee of 9 pesos, which is just less than a dollar (13 pesos to $1) buses have wifi, and are mostly comfortable. Taxis around down town are usually a dollar or two, but in Zona Hotelera start at around $10. By placing ourselves in downtown I knew we would have the cheapest eats (fresh bread and a banana for breakfast is just $0.20 each) fresh Quasadillas are a dollar each and double rooms from about $20 and up. In the Zona Hotelera $20 wouldn’t even get you a curtain, never mind a room. Just to give you some idea of the divide between the two locations, a return boat from just outside the hotel zone to La Isla Majures (an island) is about $10, a kilometre up the road and it’s $19.
I’d explained to the kids the history Cancun held for me, and they were fascinated with Charlie claiming that this must be his second visit. In any case they were excited and enthusiastic, and as we sped about 50 mph on the bus (they are crazy) I wondered if I might have talked it up too much. It is difficult to get a glimpse of the beach from the road as it is literally wall to wall hotels. But the great thing about Mexico is that every single beach in the country is public. Simply you walk through whatever hotel you want and you won’t and can’t be stopped. Obviously I wouldn’t try walking through an army base to get to a beach, but Mexico has made available every demilitarised stretch of sand available to everyone – for free. What this means is that you can easily nab a sun lounger, shower access and if you really want to take the piss, use of the pool and entertainment which is almost always beachside.
I have to say, that first time we saw the beach we were shimmying down the side of a path and I caught a glimpse of the turquoise sea. The white sand, then felt how soft it was and thought wow. It was more amazing than I had remembered. Before I had time to say much the kids were jumping around and sprinting for the cool waters in an escape from the high 30’s and somewhat brutal sun. I found a lounger, sat back and read. And the kids played for hours in the shallow, oddly cool water. It was paradise, broken only occasionally by the hawkers trying to sell mangoes, coconuts and some other thing that looks like brown corn. I actually meant to find out what it was but fell completely into beach mode and forgot. Music blasted out, parachutes pulled by boats would chug past occasionally, jet skis, speed boats and semi naked women filled the waters. I caught a glimpse of Abi staring in horror in a particular direction, Jack and Charlie were staring with the look of happiness on their face. I followed their gaze and saw a woman with huge breasts stood in the water up to her waist, she was topless and unbeknown to herself had just made the day of two young boys whilst thoroughly disgusting a 9 year old girl.
Literally our time in Cancun was spent being beach bums doing nothing more than watching tropical fish, swimming in the sea, relaxing on the sand, doing the Harlem Shake and eating fresh tuna. Unbelievably we even found our own private slice of beach which I am told is quite an achievement. The beauty of Cancun far exceeded what I remembered, but for me it was a solemn reminder that last time I was there I had someone to look up to, someone to approach with concern and someone who was my dad. Drifting in and out of day dreams I watched the kids playing, they were so happy. I wished the grandad they had never met could see them now.
I knew he’d be so proud.