The beach view at the Mayakoba resort in Mexico. Elizabeth Lavin

Travel

The Thing I Miss Most About Travel Isn’t the Beach

It's the opportunity for a random poolside encounter with a former Watergate Committee junior staffer.

A little over a year ago, while in Mexico on a photo shoot for our February cover feature (“11 Post-Pandemic Beach Vacations a Direct Flight From Dallas,” which is online today), I lost our staff photographer, Elizabeth Lavin, somewhere in the Andaz Mayakoba gift shop.

We had gone in for sunscreen, but she was quickly distracted by the chic linen dresses with braided leather cords, floppy straw hats with beaded hatbands, and hand-embroidered linen napkins. I could hear her muttering rhetorically to herself, or maybe me: “I should buy something. This is too matchy-matchy. What’s the exchange rate? Seven thousand, two-hundred-fifty pesos. So that’s … I don’t know. I just bought patio doors.”

I was hot. I headed to the pool.

I swear we’d only had two glasses of sauvignon blanc with our lunch on the beach, just enough to wash down our grilled oysters and shrimp al mojo de ajo. But when I surfaced from the water, there she was in her tankini, doing a dance for me along the pool’s edge. “How about this?” she asked, waving a frozen piña colada and giving me her best Caribbean take on Elaine Benis, all hips and elbows and wild, sun-dried curls.

As I snort-laughed, I saw a dark shadow approaching shark-like through the water to my left. Here we go, I thought. Blood is in the water. I squinted through my sunglasses at what turned out to be an overly tanned sixtysomething gentleman with short, black hair tinged with gray at the temples.

“That’s a nice dance,” he said, grinning like Bruce in Finding Nemo. I choked back another snort.

“You want some more of this?” Elizabeth teased, getting even more spastic.

Although I wasn’t in the mood for small talk, inertia and the shared piña colada held me in place. The next thing I knew, the three of us were submerged up to our necks and discussing politics. Donald Trump had just been impeached (for the first time), and our new friend was animatedly arguing that we were in danger of a military coup — or at least a violent insurrection — if Trump wasn’t elected to a second term. Turns out the guy had been an unpaid junior staffer for the Senate Watergate Committee and had helped investigate Richard Nixon before going on to become a Canadian real estate magnate and author a chapter in Trump: The Best Real Estate Advice I Ever Received. So he had a number of thoughts from both sides of the fence.

Shortly after he gave us an entertaining impersonation of Ivana teaching Donald to ski (he knew Ivana from his youthful days as a ski instructor in Montreal), his wife arrived to take him to dinner and we went our separate ways. But that brief encounter has stayed with me. It ended up being one of the very last times I would forge an instantaneous friendship of sorts with an absolute stranger before the pandemic put a kibosh on all such encounters.

The Atlantic published an interesting article recently titled: “The Pandemic Has Erased Entire Categories of Friendship.”  The author, Amanda Mull, points out that while we’ve grieved the loss of closeness from loved ones, we’ve also lost something we weren’t really paying attention to: that mix of casual, incidental friendships that she terms “weak ties.” They’re all the relationships that we don’t really have a word for but that add so much of the background sparkle to our lives. They’re the baristas and servers, the sidewalk buskers and bus drivers, the peripheral coworkers and sideline soccer parents with whom we used to be able to share a smile and maybe hear a story or a perspective that we didn’t already know or have.

Those serendipitous encounters, for me, have often been the best parts of travel, and I’m starting to think that I miss them more than the tropical vistas. It’s going to be a minute, though, before I get back to either. Experts, like Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, are rightfully advising people that the best course of action for the time being is to stay home. Even the top-rated vaccines aren’t 100 percent effective, tests aren’t always accurate, and new variants continue to emerge. Countries and states are issuing new lockdowns by the day.

If you’ve been watching all of the news surrounding the Australian Open tennis tournament, which began this week in Melbourne, you also know that even the best laid travel plans can quickly go awry. For a country-slash-continent that has managed to limit deaths due to the coronavirus to under 1,000, it was a real wakeup call when it was discovered that several of the carefully vetted tennis players, coaches, officials, and crew who traveled on specially designated charter flights tested positive for the virus on arrival. Plans for practices and quokka selfies had to be scrapped for 14-day quarantines and rodent feedings.

So, yeah, it’s not advisable to plan a big trip at the moment. But a girl’s got to dream. Of frozen piña colada-fueled dances. Of casual poolside conversations with strangers about high crimes and misdemeanors. And of a magical dinner under a ceiba tree, where, after several lemongrass margaritas, three random tablemates and I ended up sharing coming out stories late into the night, laughing so hard we cried, or crying so hard we laughed.

But that’s another story for another time. Now is the time to plan—or to dream. Our February cover story is online today. Read it here. The CDC says it isn’t safe to travel yet. But it is safe to think about where you’ll go once it is.

Each of these 11 locations are just a short flight from Dallas. You’ve made it a year, so give it a little longer before you take the plunge. It’ll be worth it.

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