It was late. It was dark. It was Mexico. It would have been easy to justify turning in early. The town looked deserted except for a creepy crab sidling down the street and a couple of shady characters hiding in the shadowy doorways of Puerto Morelos. Travel has changed. Terrorists, kidnappers and anti-American sentiment lurk around every corner, at least so I have been told. However, I ventured forth as part of a small pack of gringos in Mexico anyway because “Una mas,” a name we had given one of our group for her ability to find space for least one more beer, asked “One more drink?”
The walls were painted orange and were peeling. There were only a handful of people sitting around the white plastic tables, which all featured a thick coat of dark gray dirt that filled in narrow grooves. Slouching Mexican folks laughed and chatted in small groups around the bar as we loudly and Americanly entered Don Pepe’s of Puerto Morelos – surely the locals cringed.
It was not the “Summer of 69,” but it sounded like it when, within moments of our arrival, a microphone was shoved in my face and I started singing the Bryan Adams tune. It was my first time. De-virginized in Mexico. I was terrible, the locals unthreatening.
Later, I would sing Cuando Caliente el Sol by an unknown Latin American artist. I wanted to honor Mexico even if I didn’t know the words and couldn’t hit the high notes. I would bring down the house with my musical interpretation, at least that’s how I imagined it. The experience tapped the space in my head that’s usually reserved for my acceptance speeches to a special delegation of important people who would validate my whims and deep thoughts, and later present me with awards. The experience also tapped into the mind of a Mexican woman named Claudia shooting billiards in the other room, who actually knew all the words to Cuando Caliente el Sol, spoke Spanish, and could hit all the high notes – she came to save me. We sang together.
Then something amazing happened. My attempt at Espanol broke the ice with the locals. We pushed the plastic tables together as our vibe united in sappy salsa and 80s rock. We culturally exchanged in a spontaneous multi-cultural center that became Don Pepe’s bar. Someone turned on a disco ball. We danced. The globe splashed lights across the shiny linoleum floor littered with cigarettes and beer. The two parties had become one. We had transitioned from lame karaoke seamlessly to genuine party and the locals of Puerto Morelos welcomed us.
Then the short Indian girl’s husband who had been quiet all night announced that his wife’s birthday was that day and asked the room to bring in the event with a bang. The bar exploded in enthusiastic calls of celebration. The calls came from all directions as I was pulled from the stool to hug, kiss, and dance with the newly aged woman. While her proud husband looked on, we took turns congratulating her.
I would later regret not taking photographs of our revelry, our blending of north and south of the border. But at the same time, I understand that we stopped being tourists, stopped being self-aware, and put our cameras away. We became part of the party at Don Pepe’s. We became travelers.
Hours later, as we said our goodbyes, Claudia clutched me by the arm and pleaded for me to stay. “Una mas,” she said. As I walked away, her platform shoes skidded across the sticky floor. I would’ve loved to stay but sadly it was 3:30 a.m. It was time to go. The bill came to 45 US dollars and we paid in mixed US and Mexico bank notes – it was only fitting. I am glad I resisted the urge to turn in early.
As the face of travel changed by the events of 9/11 and other security concerns, organized tours designed for safe innocuous vacationing leave Don Pepe’s as an unexplored oasis. Many travelers don’t have to explore on their own or to risk that night that I recently had.
Of course, I get it. The world is changing, little by little, and seemingly for the extended teeth-chattering future. More and more people will travel to destinations that are surrounded by tall hedges and high gates. The five-star resorts will serve delicious treats and bubbly drinks in tall skinny glasses. I am all for these things that’s why I stayed at Ceiba del Mar, a fantastic boutique resort on the edge of Puerto Morelos. However, I’m grateful to know that there are still bars like Don Pepe’s and still experiences where cultures push the tables together just to dance and sing.
Written by Devin Galaudet
Photography by Theresa Williamson and Allison Neves