Can I Be Opposed to Yankee Imperialism and Still Surf in Mexico?
What’s a traveler’s responsibility when a once quiet destination gentrifies?
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Dear Sundog: Two decades ago, my friend and I drove far south of the border until I came to a perfect little fishing village on the coast that I’ll call Playa X. We camped on the beach, surfed, and subsisted on fish tacos and avocados. I went back many times, hardly spent any money, and what I did spend went to the local people. Now with a husband and children, we still go back to Playa X, but we don’t have months to spend, so we fly from the U.S. and rent a casita online beforehand.
Playa X has changed! Where we once camped for free, there are lounge chairs and umbrellas for rent by the hour. The taco shacks and palapas have been replaced by upscale sushi bars, yoga studios, and boutique hotels. Most of the houses listed on Airbnb are owned by gringos. I still have a good time in Playa X, but I liked it more 20 years ago. And here’s the thing: the mobs of tourists look a lot like me. I feel that just by being here, I’m fueling the gentrification and globalization I oppose in other elements of my life. Do I have to give up my favorite place and stop coming here? —Wanting Waves
Dear Wanting: Sundog feels your pain. He, too, alighted upon a picturesque Mexican village in his pickup truck in the late nineties where an unpopulated right hander peeled coolly from a reef all hours of the day. I’ll call it Playa Y. I returned once, took a long look at the condos and crowds, and kept driving, never to return.
But then there’s Playa Z, which gets fancier each year, and even though I didn’t necessarily long for a guy with a man bun to serenade me by playing “The Girl From Ipanema” on his trombone while I eat my plate of shrimp, I can’t seem to quit this place. Turns out I like buying half a kilo of freshly roasted organic coffee from the señor pushing a wheelbarrow down the cobblestones. Yet it raises ethical questions about cultural imperialism and the power we yield with the money we spend.
Like you, Sundog longs for the simpler, less commercial playas of yesteryear. Bound as he is to the rigorous production of this column and the backbreaking demands of his capitalist overlords, however, he simply doesn’t have the month or three required to drive to every point and cove on the Carretera al Pacifico between Mazatlán and Escondido in search of that perfect little place, unchanged since 1989.
The global capitalism you detest has greased the cogs for the convenient family vacays you enjoy today. Remember the seemingly endless military checkpoints where armed teenagers rifled lazily through your duffle bags? Back then air travel was limited and expensive, and now from much of the U.S. you can fly direct to a dozen Mexican beaches for less than a ticket to Hawaii or the Caribbean. Gone are the days of duct-taping a stash of traveler’s checks to the bottom of the driver’s seat and fretting constantly about it getting stolen. In Playa Z, the ATMs dispense dollars, tender as legal there as pesos. Back in the day, merely getting a surfboard to Mexico was an arduous undertaking, riddled with dings, theft, and lost oversize luggage; these days Sundog pays the dude in the surf shop a hundred bucks per week for an unlimited sampling of the 25 boards in his quiver. The web provides not only thousands of lodging options, but also detailed directions to every break between Tijuana and Salina Cruz and the name of a guide who will accept your money to drive you there when the swell pumps.
Is it wrong to spend $50 on a meal, or $500 for a night in a beachfront hotel, in a country where the average wage is $20 per day? This depends on your own ethics. One who praises “free markets” might say it’s fine. One who is troubled by the long history of the exploitation of Mexican workers by American companies and people might say otherwise.
What about renting a home from an American who lives in America and hires local maids and gardeners to look after the place? In this instance, your money may provide low-wage income to the servants, while the lion’s share goes to a gringo who presumably could purchase the property with access to norteamericano capital that the local people lack.
In short, if you’re committed to dismantling capitalist structures that perpetuate class inequity, then I’m afraid the vacation you’ve described does not make the grade. With more research—and patience—you might find locally owned accommodations.
At the risk of sounding hopelessly middle-of-the-road, it may be worth examining some of your assumptions about globalization. It appears that you (and I) have acquiesced enough to capitalism that we can drop a few thousand on recreation; is it right to carry an ideology that would deprive Mexicans from also joining the middle class? As another example, despite the vagabond romance of a road trip, it’s unclear whether paying your money to Pemex, Mexico’s nationalized gas stations, is any more ethical than giving it to Delta or United. What’s more, often those complaining loudest about how developing nations like Mexico are being ruined are the Americans. The sort of industrial tourism of which you speak is riddled with problems, and yet it also boosts economic opportunities in a nation where they are frequently scarce. As for that subculture of young vagabonds sleeping in hammocks and living to surf, it still thrives—it’s just that now it’s mostly Mexicans instead of gringos, and that alone seems a positive outcome.
And let’s face it: those simpler early times weren’t always perfect. We remember the days that we drove 30 miles down a dirt road following a map scrawled on a napkin and scored perfect waves all to ourselves; we tend to forget the same drives in those pre-Surfline days when that same drive delivered us to a flat, surfless dead end.
If it’s impossible to practice what you preach, then perhaps begin to preach what you actually practice.