My driver Jorge and I picked Jim and Donna up at the Progreso shuttle drop-off area; a parking lot converted into a makeshift market that effortlessly manages, in spite of the trinket stalls, vendors and t-shirts, to continue to exude the charm of what it is in real life: a dilapidated Mexican parking lot. Surrounded by concrete block walls featuring painted signs scrawled over barely-covered chipped paint advertising in a chicken scratch font that newcomers to the area find ‘charming’ and long-time cynics like me find downright ugly, the space is a study in the third world aesthetic. The nearby, partially completed Hotel Jose looms over one side of this mess, the first thing tourists see when arriving in Progreso from the luxury accomodations of their cruise ship. This is what is condescendingly called “the real Mexico” on travel forums where heated discussions take place regarding the inclusion of this port as a stop for the Carnival circuit out of Mobile or New Orleans. Real, indeed.
Leaving the charms of Progreso behind as quickly as possible, I chat with Donna and Jim as we head towards Merida and our days destination: the Mayan ruins of Uxmal, some 90 minutes away. Donna is an IT person in a web design company, while Jim is a consultant for AT&T and an accident has left him in a wheelchair. I ask them if they are coffee drinkers; they both enthusiastically nod and so we make a beeline for the Starbucks near the Gran Plaza mall.
Back on the road, vanilla mocha cappuccinos in hand and with trusty Jorge at the wheel of the car, I give them a little background on the history of the Mayans, the Spanish, the henequen industry and other Yucatan related subjects and we chat about life in Merida vs. life in the U.S.A.
At some point, between the tricycles and market bustle of Uman and the green hills of Muna, the coffees long since finished, the subject of a bathroom comes up. Jim, who is in the front seat next to Jorge, taking in the view such as it is, mentions that he needs to stop to relieve himself. I ask him how much time we have.
“How many minutes have we got, Jim?”
“None” he replies drily. I assume he is joking, as most folks can hold it in until we get somewhere. Jorge mentions a bathroom at Yaxcopoil, but then realizes that the wheelchair will make that option difficult. I say nothing, thinking that when we get to Muna, the Pemex gas station will be a good place to stop.
Jim breaks the ensuing silence. “Pass me one of them Starbucks cups”. Donna chuckles, I am at a loss for words and Jorge’s expression, which I see in the rearview mirror changes from placid to one of horror. Jim is not joking. I hand Jim an empty cup, taking off the plastic lid first.
Jim takes the cup as Jorge desperately tries to look elsewhere unwilling to believe what he is about to see. Donna has seen it all before, but Jorge and I have not and are not prepared for what happens next.
Bending over in the front seat, Jim lifts his left pant leg, positions the cup and opens a valve and begins draining what Donna explains is a bag. Jorge and I are somewhat relieved that we are not being treated to another kind of display and Jim is evidently more relieved than both Jorge and I. As Jorge eases the car to the side of the road, Jim opens the door and I tell him to just go ahead and dump the Starbucks cup there. It’s the rainy season so the underbrush is green and creeping up to and onto the shoulder and, as usual, there is trash strewn liberally in the vegetation. Jim empties his cup and then, turning back to me, offers to hand me the cup. I tell him that since there is already a lot of garbage on the side of the road, one Starbucks cup won’t make a difference; it’ll be alright. Jorge quickly adds that it is biodegradable, not to worry. Jim tosses the cup and we sit in silence for the next few minutes as Jorge once again gets us on our way. Donna breaks the ice and explains that this is a normal procedure and we all have a little – albeit nervous – chuckle.
The rest of the trip went well, but to this day I will never look at a Starbucks cup the same way again.