Wish You Were Here: Playa Del Carmen

Playa del Carmen

I don’t know how an unseen man playing the saxophone on a rooftop can make it feel like Christmas on a sunny afternoon in October, but he does. My husband says he’s seen the man, but I can never find him. As I sit out on our narrow balcony and search the uneven landscape of cement rooftops adorned with flower gardens and banners of gently rustling laundry like colorful oversized prayer flags, the burnished jazzy notes seem to come from nearby, and just out of sight.

He always plays at that lazy time in the afternoon before it turns toward evening, when the light is the color of nectarines, and the children are not yet screaming, and the horns are not yet bleating, and the bicycle cart vendors of panuchos and tamales have not yet begun their circuit around the neighborhood, each with his signature clap or call to tempt people out of their houses.

There is a liveliness to our neighborhood in Playa del Carmen, the likes of which we haven’t encountered in any other city. Well into the warm nights families will take their toddlers and and their infants for unhurried walks, they will sit on the curbsides, they will play brassy Mexican songs. The family pets, cats and dogs, are let out at night to wander the streets, sometimes barking, but most often sniffing the cars, and scaling the walls, and sprawling on the big flat roofs. Especially with the fat, four-inch grasshoppers that can be seen flying awkwardly or perching like statues in the trees, I can’t help but think it’s a bit of a cat’s paradise around here. They visibly relish the freedom of teasing the dogs who are locked up behind fences during the day, and at night the city roofscape is one big cat tree.

playa statueWe are enjoying our own freedom here as well. The 150cc scooter is now my definitively favorite mode of transportation. Even the hottest day feels cool when you’re flying along, enjoying jolts and bumps like a carnival ride. Our daycare, our coffeeshop, and a multiverse of delicious taco stands and restaurants are all within a five minute ride, not to mention several beaches where you can watch the clouds contort themselves into voluminous, fantastic columns and fronts.

I know I’ve found a kindred country whenever we discover a big sky. Partially because of low cloud cover and lack of interesting cloud formations in some cities, and partially because of high or disjointed building skylines, most cities do not give the impression of living under the grace of a vaulted dome. Growing up in Spokane and making frequent trips to see relatives in Montana, I was glutted with sky, and spoiled by it. I didn’t realize until we traveled that some cities are stifled under low, claustrophobic ceilings. Some cities are so big that you forget about the sky entirely. Not so in Playa del Carmen. The clouds here are playful and multi-colored. They twist themselves up into castles made of spun sugar. They remind you that you are very small, and graciously give you the peace of forgiveness for that smallness.

playa nomad familyAlthough we butt up against the tourist industry here, which unfortunately includes a few oblivious party-till-you-die types, we also find that the locals are much easier to get to know here than in some other places we’ve been. Unlike in Europe where my so-so (okay, not great) French was met with blank looks and responses in fluent English, if you try out your Spanish in Playa del Carmen, they will speak in Spanish back to you. And though I can feel the errors tumble out of my mouth, I’ve never met with criticism or even laughter. We are friendly with the coffee shop folks we see every day, the taco stand we eat lunch at, the lavanderia on the corner. When I unknowingly gave him one of Spencer’s shorts with purple crayon in the pocket, the owner explained to me what had happened in Spanish, and didn’t charge me any extra for doing the wash again, though I felt terrible. He laughed when I mentioned my son.

Yet again and as always, we are pleased to find that we feel safe and welcomed by the people of Playa, more welcome than we often feel in the impersonal, frenzied, chain store culture in the States. We’d like to explore more of Mexico, but for now Playa feels like home.

If you’re reading this, I wish you the serenity of music and the comforting familiarity of people who may not know you well, but who look forward to seeing you every day.

playa sunrise

Leave a Reply