It was a whirlwind trip- ostensibly for business, but it turned out to be more complicated than that. I made new friends, I saw incredible things, and I succeeded at something I never dreamed I would. I was also disgusted at the dishonesty of the tourist industry in Mexico, I was terrified at the prospect of presenting a paper to some of the smartest people in the world, and I almost met my death in the Caribbean. This was my trip to Cancun, Mexico for the IEEE WCNC 2011.
Arrival in Mexico
When I first departed I was pretty apprehensive. I landed and was immediately drenched in sweat from the humidity. I wasn’t eager for the trip thanks to Jaci’s recent departure, and the fact that I was already on travel and I wanted to get back to work moving forward with my code. As I finally passed through customs, I was greeted by the instistant demanding of people seeking to give me transport; luckily I had already arranged round trip transport to my hotel, and my name was on a placard as I walked into the tropical night.
I arrived in darkness. The room was average- no desk for my laptop? I realized that I was exhausted, what time zone was I in? I thought it was -6, central time here?
The next morning I awoke to a stunning panoramic of the blue, blue- washing detergent stunning blue of the Caribbean crashing into the whitest beach I’d ever seen. I realized that my room was not sparse, but modern, and the hotel soared to a stunning interior atrium that I hadn’t noticed in my sleep deprived arrival. Although it was -6 (central time), daylight savings time in Mexico wouldn’t happen for another week, so I was effectively in Mountain Time. Room service brought coffee.
I had gotten up too early and still jetlagged I went to the gym before I showed myself at the conference. I ran hard, I cycled hard. I have a triathlon to run, after all. Feeling fit, I dressed and went out into the streets of the zona hotel, searching for the Cancun Center- and after only a few wrong turns I found it.
Where was I? The place seemed empty, a few Indians and Chinese and Professor-y looking people roamed the halls; the only indication I was in the right place. I found the registration desk, and with some difficulty, the native Spanish speakers managed to locate “Bengfort”. I only had to explain that my name started with a “B” four times. Lunch, though promised, was not to be found; WiFi, though promised, was also missing in action.
I attended my first session- deployment of relay stations in LTE-Advanced networks- seemingly my area of expertise. It was presented by second-language English speakers. The room was sparse– it contained a good friend, though I didn’t know it yet– I worked on my paper.
Out of the Social Comfort Zone
I skipped the afternoon session (sorry boss) and returned to the gorgeous Caribbean that was doing it’s best to break through the shore and beat the cabanas senseless. I figured I could swim in it. After changing and grabbing my flippers, I went in, mindless of the red flags. Thirty minutes later I was exhausted and half drowned. The undertow had dragged me a quarter mile to sea. When I finally dragged myself out of the water onto the beach, the lifeguard merely said “[translation of what I presume to be, the weather will get better towards the end of the week]”. I went to the gym, got on the bike, and then got on the treadmill.
I am not a social person, so I contemplated skipping the welcome reception the entire time I dressed for it and as I walked to the hotel where it was being held. When I finally go there, it was a shock to see my peers and my elders drinking and eating with familiar ease. I barely kept myself moving forward with thoughts of “It’s free food and free drinks at the very least”. Fortified by my first free margarita, and plate of appetizers, I approached a seemingly sympatico peer standing by himself by the bar. It was the best choice I could have made.
Madushanka and I had much in common right off the bat- it was our first paper, our first conference, and we both had the same research area. But for some reason, Madushanka attracted people. Simply being in his presence meant that I met the group of people I would spend the rest of the week with- Sabarish, Yuvika, Charka, and Sanjeema (as well as several other professors and PhD candidates that introduced themselves to Madush, and therefore me). They were good friends and first time presenters also, and it was an honor to get to know them! I hope that our social and professional relationship continues to grow over time, they are incredible.
The next day the conference didn’t seem to be such a foreboding, lonely place– not with new friends there. I went for a swim, the waves crashed into me with the same vengeance as before, and I was ready for them. But this time the guard came out after me– he didn’t like the risks I was taking. A turn on the bike and the treadmill took me to my first tri-sport workout. I dressed for the conference, excited to meet my new friends.
They didn’t disappoint- we went to sessions together, had lunch together and a great conversation. I went to their presentations, but soon enough, I realized that the next day I had to present, and anxiety began to overwhelm me.
I still hadn’t heard from my advisor about the status on my presentation- I was alone, with my paper distilled into 22 Tactical Network Solutions branded slides. I had no idea what I was doing. The presentation was only hours away, and so after more time in the gym, I went to the bar to wait for my new friends.
The mojito was excellent, and the wind was bending palm trees at their base. The outdoor lounge was being swept away, but the hot Caribbean air seemed so… natural. I noticed Shane by himself in the corner of the lounge, and buoyed by my success the night before, I approached him, and once again made a new friend. Unfortunately, my social awkwardness prevailed in the end, and I didn’t invite him to the planned dinner with my new group, and it wouldn’t be until later in the week until I would have the chance to get to know him.
Sabarish, Yuvika, Charka, Sanjeema, Madushanka, and I wandered downtown Cancun looking for a place to eat, not expecting trouble. Finally we settled on a place called Carlos Charlie’s after an hour of walking around punctuated by disagreements about the various dietary requirements of the group. Apparently, Mexico is not vegetarian or Buddhist friendly. We could have been walking into an Applebee’s for the decoration and the table layout. But only fifteen minutes after we sat down, at precisely nine o’clock, a club materialized around us.
The margaritas were 32 ounces and three feet tall. They went down quickly, and we hadn’t eaten yet. A girl with tequila shots walked around, pouring the tequila down our throats and shaking our heads while tweaking our nipples. The waiters were more entertainment than food servers, inciting their diners to dance in conga lines that went out into the street and onto the bar. It didn’t take long for our entire table to find ourselves rhythmically and unceasingly moving to the heartskipping thud of the bass. We ate finally, only to have the drink Sex on the Beach poured directly into our throats while a waiter held a towel around us, and didn’t stop until we choked. Yuvika managed the impressive feat of almost a minute of straight drinking! They challenged us to beer chugging races, they asked us to buy them drinks, it was a club, it was dinner, it was Cancun!
When we finally stumbled into the street, our wallets significantly lighter (we were charged for every drop that we, and the waiters imbibed), and thoroughly partied out, I realized I had to do a podcast in only four hours. Thank goodness Will understood and we rescheduled for Thursday. But that didn’t change the fact that I had to present that afternoon.
Slides and Sliding
The morning meant more workouts, if only to reduce my anxiety- it didn’t work. I ate nothing at the conference luncheon for fear of spilling on my shirt… or puking. My new friends, only slightly hung over (bottled water works miracles) tried to encourage me, but they were planning on attending my presentation, and that didn’t help.
It went like a dream. I didn’t read from my slides, I was confident, I was asked important questions that I could answer. Why was I nervous? Of course, I was the only author presenting in my session of five papers. Everyone else was assigned the task of presenting another person’s research. Still, I convinced important professors in my community that my work was important; and this when my own advisors didn’t think my paper was worth much! Still, that night when we went out to dinner, I took it easy, and we didn’t leave the hotel for fear of Cancun outside.
The next morning I managed the podcast successfully from the hotel, and my new friends and I departed for Chitchen Itza afterwards.
Tour groups are weird things. They keep you on schedule, but you don’t get enough time to do the things you want to do.
We stopped by a cenote (pronounced keh-note-ey), a sinkhole in the middle of the jungle, first. Of course, I wanted to swim. After changing we walked down 30m of steps, then dived the final 10m into the clear blue water filled with fish. I went deep on my cliff dive, but surfaced with exhilaration. Waterfalls surrounded the sinkhole, the jungle was all around, stretching to the water below, and the sun was a distant memory. I dived. I went 10, then 15 meters, but still the water was bright blue. I dived again, I made 20 meters- 10 times the length of my body, but still no bottom. I choked as I surfaced, and had trouble treading water. I grabbed for a nearby vine to hold myself above water, and it was then that the conservation officer blew his whistle wildly at me (apparently nature is more important than humans breathing above water). We managed pictures before we had to run off to catch the bus.
A a brief stop at a restaurant, and then Chitchen Itza. It appeared out of the jungle like the sun appearing behind a cloud. It was magnificent, the most perfectly preserved ruins that I had ever seen. We explored for hours, and at every turn we found something amazing to discover. The echoes were sublime. In one place, on the ball court (original lacrosse!), echoes were repeated 9, then 11 times. In another, a certain type of clap would create echoes as though it were a bird sound! We were harassed by multitudes of Mexicans trying to sell cheap souvenirs, and we bargained for a few. I was ripped off for one, and Sanjeema successfully negotiated for another. More preserved than Cairo or Athens, it was though we were transported in time, brought back to reality only for the need for the air conditioning of the bus. We were exhausted and amazed by the time we finally reached Cancun again.
The Final Tally
The week ended too quickly, in fact, it was a surprise to wake up to find it was the last day of the conference. I quickly packed, but when I checked out I was dismayed to find many hidden charges on my bill. It is one thing when craftsmen and con artists in tourist areas selling cheap replicas on blankets try to cheat you, it’s quite another when the Hyatt Regency in Cancun, an American company, does the same thing for close to USD $250! Everything in Mexico has a fuzzy relationship with the American dollar, and they know how to suck the money out of you, whether you are selling beads for dix pesos, or you run a TGIF/Club, or even a five star hotel; in fact, it is simple as this: when you are in Mexico, be prepared to be lied to about how much things cost, and not escape without paying a tourist surcharge of approximately 24%.
Returning home was no easy task either. Federales were a conspicuous presence on the way out, whereas they were an invisible presence on the way in. American immigration treats everyone of brown skin with a cold, suspicious courtesy that borders on hostility, and the Delta baggage handlers managed to utterly and completely destroy the contents of my checked luggage. Dogs patrol the bags with armed handlers who look at you suspiciously if you look at them or their K9s, and I had to try to control the desperate fear that someone has slipped something in my luggage making me an unwitting mule.
However, as I sit here in Atlanta, drinking beer in an airport bar and contemplating my first real trip to Mexico- I try to figure out the differences between there and here. As in Cancun, everything in Atlanta is bilingual, English first. Most of the staff here speaks Spanish, and aside from the southern drawl noticeable in the airport, and the distinct lack of salt-fortified humid air, nothing seems that different; they are the same restaurants, the same people, and the same frenetic moving in all directions. Only here, they don’t heckle you to come to their restaurant.
It was a wonderful trip, and I met wonderful new friends. I saw the wonders of the ancient Maya, and I dived in the beauty of the Yucatan jungle and the Caribbean sea. I achieved a professional accomplishment– publication in the premier IEEE Communications Society Conference, and I made many excellent professional and research contacts. At the same time, I was lied to, cheated, and generally sapped for my cash by con artists, hawkers, and professional drink slingers. I had to overcome social and professional anxiety, and I almost drowned… three times. It was exactly the kind of trip that I wanted.