When the posada’s night clerk opened the door to our “cabana,” I blanched. Before me was a cubicle with four plywood bunks laid over with thin blue vinyl mats reminiscent of high school gym class. My husband forged ahead, toddler in arms. There was barely room for him to turn around to look at me, still standing in the doorway.
My husband had begun the day, Thanksgiving, with a dead car in Oaxaca City, a mechanical headache that gave way to a day of torn-up roads that cohered only in time for a winding Sierra Madre descent reeking of baby puke. Then, at dusk, nearly clear of the mountains, there was a protest blocking the road (politely, and with a clear time frame—one hour—if not a clear message). When we arrived in Mazunte—eight hours late and having eaten little beyond the 4 kilos of tangerines I’d bought leaving Oaxaca—he had walked up and down the beach shouting the names of the friends we were intending to visit. At last he gave up looking for the second palapa up the second trail from the first beach. The last thing he needed from me at nearly 11 p.m. was a rejection of what might well be the only open hotel in town.
But we had paid real money—400 pesos—for the room.
And our two-year-old would have to share my bunk—surely my 6-foot-tall husband would need all of his 5-foot plank.
Worst of all, in the eyes of someone eight months pregnant, there were neither pillows nor sheets.
I couldn’t let it go, but I did begin my offensive slowly.
“There are no sheets,” I said to the night clerk, looking him over.
He was wiry and middle-aged. I supposed he was Mexican, given his Spanish, although his shirt, which depicted copulating crocodiles, said something in French.
“Sheets cost extra,” he replied. I had heard him tell this to the backpacker couple checking in at the same time we did, but they had already been trying to talk down the price of a dormitory room. I assumed a cabana would come with sheets. But then I assumed it would come with a real mattress too. And really, I’d expected a bathroom.
I pulled my black rolling suitcase back out of the room. It didn’t belong there anyway. I shook my head.
“We need a normal bed,” I said. “A matrimonial. And sheets.”
The clerk looked annoyed. My husband looked exhausted.
“There are the hanging beds,” the clerk offered after a pause. “They’re matrimonial, and the same price.”
“Show me,” I said, gesturing at my husband to stay put. He’d done enough. I was picking my own fight.
The clerk led me back to the front and then up a dimly lit path to a switchbacking staircase. He started up the stairs two at a time, so I put my hand on my lower back, stuck out my belly, and caught my breath for a minute before I began to climb, slowly, holding the railing.
At the top of the hill, visible in the yellow light from a covered public space, were about ten palm-thatched structures, each with a double bed (wider vinyl mats) hanging from four corners and veiled with mosquito netting. In the darkness below, the Pacific surf crashed on an outcrop of rock. Out to sea, moonlight and stars glinted on dark waves. The breeze smelled sweetly of marijuana smoke, and in the yellow light were several people drinking beers while one man strummed a guitar.
Once upon a time, this would have looked like paradise to me.
Once upon a time, I was good at roughing it too. I “backpacked Europe,” alone, after high school. In college, I studied abroad in India, Nepal, and Tibet. After I graduated, I lived in Central and South America for three years. In short, I have slept on sidewalks outside train stations, in hammocks, on floors, on night buses clutching my stuff, and on the hard ground of a yak pasture at 16,000 feet above sea level. Then, on a bus rumbling past volcanoes in Ecuador, I swore off backpacking. Forever.
It was an emotional day. I was leaving South America; I’d said goodbyes—those brutally permanent traveler goodbyes; I’d given away everything short of the clothes on my back, my laptop and camera, and the meaning-charged mementoes packed up in an Army surplus sack in the belly of the bus. I sat next to my not-yet husband, who was also not yet leaving Ecuador, and glared out the window lest anyone get near my worn-out bag.
I was tired of volcanoes and buses. I was tired of the ladies who boarded and hawked fried fava beans and fruit ice creams, the best bus foods in the world. I was tired of looking at pretty patchwork hills and rolling pampas. I was tired of movement and vigilance.
“When we come back,” I announced (I knew we’d be back to Latin America), “we’re coming back to live. Like grown-ups.”
Feeling the pull of home, however abstract the concept was back then, my long-time traveling companion didn’t argue.
Five years have passed since that bus ride ended at the Quito airport. We’ve gotten married, bought a home, gotten a few new degrees, had a baby (albeit not in that order). Now we’re back in Latin America, in Mexico, trying to live like grown-ups.
I looked once more at the hanging beds, at the moonlight on the sea. Then I turned back on the impatient clerk.
“Where is the bathroom?” I asked.
Once upon a time, sleeping on a bluff above the Pacific with nothing more than a mosquito net would have been an adventure, something to write home about. But now my rubric had changed. A road trip in an unreliable car, 200 kilometers of construction and stomach-clutching turns with a toddler and a big, awkward, contracting belly were things to be lived with (although I would pick a new route home). Being 8 hours late for Thanksgiving festivities and then improvising a Plan B, well, this was Mexico. We were still travelers; Latin America was still Latin America. But now I had to think about potty training and nightmares, about the likelihood the casual beer drinking would get louder before it died down, and about whatever precipice I couldn’t see in the darkness. I had to think about waddling to the bathroom myself six times in the night. I had to think about the fairly large snake we had stepped over in the street outside the posada. What we did in the daytime was one thing, but at night, I wanted comfort and security and clean bodies.
The clerk led me down another path to a concrete structure that contained—although it had neither a roof nor a door—a single, seatless toilet shared by all the female hanging bed residents.
Then, with a sigh, he showed me the shower and the luggage lockers too.
“Well, do you like it?” he asked.
I shrugged and didn’t answer. We went down again.
“Well?” my husband asked in English.
“Still no sheets,” I said. “But double beds.”
He looked at me with a look that meant I had to make this call and make it quick.
Then the clerk piped up.
“For 400 pesos, you can get a cabana with a private bath,” he suggested.
We both turned and stared at him.
“400 more?” my husband said doubtfully.
The clerk looked confused.
“How much did you pay me?” he asked.
As we gathered our child and roller luggage and tired selves and set out to evict the backpackers from our cabana, only the clerk was laughing.