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Club Med

Knowing many of you won’t have time to read to the end of this article, which describes my week at the Club Med Turkoise in the Turks & Caicos Islands, just south of the Bahamas, I herewith offer my executive summary of the Club Med vacation: it’s sorta like watching *Melrose Place*. You don’t want to think of yourself as the kind of person who likes it, because it preys upon your most base impulses, both sexual and slothful. You’re embarrassed that it appeals to you, so you participate for awhile with a mindset that is somewhere between *heckler* and *lowbrow camp.* But eventually the calming endorphins kick in. Acceptance occurs. Then, you are hooked, and you will go back.

I’d never been to an all-inclusive resort. The closest I’d ever come to a Club Med was four years ago, when I was staying in a 12$ a night "bring-your-own-bath-towel" motel near the municipal pier in Zihuateneo, Mexico. For a quarter I bought a bag of rolls to keep from starving and snuck down to La Ropa beach, over the course of the day getting kicked off one hotel’s lawn chairs after another. One day I took the city bus over the hill to the planned resort strip of Ixtapa, where every afternoon at four o’clock the shopping district is choked with an insect-killing fog. At the North end of that perfect beach, around another bluff, lay the tennis courts and bungalows of Club Med. Its Playa Quieta cove was dotted with windsurfers and sunfish sailboats. I couldn’t hear the bubbling laughter of a good time being had, but my mind could supply it--I looked upon Club Med the way a pimple-faced high school freshman looks upon the cool cliques in the senior class. I resented it simply because I did not belong, resented it because it sparked in me an envy I didn’t want to have.

To me, Club Med promised luxury. Not just nice accomodations, but a *seamless* luxury; the phrase "all-inclusive" didn’t just mean "no tipping", it meant "your every wish is anticipated." I soon found that this luxury expectation couldn’t possibly be satisfied, because my concept of luxury is one formed entirely by television. Unless the terrain beat out *Gilligan’s Island* and the hotel rooms improved on *Dynasty* and the staff put Pamela Anderson to shame, there was no way I wasn’t going to be disappointed for a day. I should have seen it coming. On the charter from Kennedy I had the row 1 first-class seat, where you can’t stow your carry-on at your feet. The stewardess who enforced this rule refused to put my bag in the overhead compartment, and made me do it myself. I was miffed and completely unable to take pleasure in the joys of having a seat wide enough for two. Arriving at the Providenciales airstrip, a Club Med van immediately took a load of passengers to the Club, but I was perturbed that I actually had to check in at Club Med. I figured having checked in at Kennedy once would have been enough. They already had an impression of my credit card, why did they need it again? Then I had to go check out a beach towel, and leave a separate deposit. Most 7-day/6-night vacations, you arrive at the resort that first night after dark. Here I was on the beach before 11 am, but my luxury expectation was so rampant that smoke almost came out of my head when I was told by the lunch hostess I had to wear a shirt and at least sandals into the dining buffet.

Why was I so on edge? I think it came from guilt. Last summer, I hiked in the Andes at 15,000 feet, learning Quechuan myths and exploring Inca temples. This summer, I was going to lay beside a pool conducting experiments like seeing how much rum an orange slice can absorb and still float. No matter how wealthy I become, I will always believe I should spend my precious vacation making contact with some barely reachable indigenous tribe, improving myself by broadening my horizons. So I think I rationalized that Club Med was okay as long as it presented a sociological expedition, *luxurious extremis*--the opposite end of the spectrum from popping in to a South-of-Market leather club "just to see what it’s all about," but the same principle at work.

Club Med is luxurious only in the sense that luxury implies *waste*--everything’s prepaid, so you can grab conch fritters from the buffet but don’t have to eat them, or you can take a bucket of tennis balls out to the court and quit after only ten practice serves. You’re not constantly trying to get your money’s worth. The best way I can describe the accomodations is that they’re like ivy-league college dorms and cafeterias. They’re sufficient. A maid will clean the room and the air conditioning works and the beds aren’t lumpy. But there’s no room service. There’s no carpeting. There’s no televisions or telephones. Most of Club Med could be cleaned with a fire hose. The pool doesn’t have a little waterfall at one end or a jacuzzi at the other. There’s no cocktail waitresses walking around the pool taking drink orders. There’s not a little native man at the beach who offers you a towel when you come out of the ocean. And you can’t get watermelon agua fresca after 9:30 am.

Club Med wasn’t *luxurious extremis*, it was merely pleasant. The sky wasn’t even blisteringly blue, it alternated between hazy and cloudy. The staff didn’t annoyingly attempt to make sure at every minute I was having a good time, even when they found out I was writing about them. This was horrifying. It meant I was going to have to spend my week without my cloak of cynicism. It was going to be one of those weeks (and I would have to write one of those stories) where I would confront my own urbanized prejudices. Tomorrow morning was a mixed doubles ping pong tournament, and after that water aerobics, and then tryouts for the Copacabana musical. I felt more naked than if I’d dropped my shorts.

 

I don’t feel a need to intricately paint a picture of the Club Med compound, because it’s so easily imagined. Think fairly-uninhabited tropical beach, facing west for dramatic sunsets. Some palm trees, et cetera. The beach is about three miles long. Ten years ago Club Med was the only thing on the waterfront, but now there’s a small hotel and a few houses in sight. Some people judge beaches by their scenic beauty, but I judge them by the quality of the sand and the playability of the waves. At Turkoise there is a coral reef a half-mile out from shore which reduces the waves to about two feet--too small to bodysurf, but just big enough to constantly tease me into thinking how great it would be to bodysurf. The water temperature is not quite bathwater, a little too cool to fall asleep in. The sand is satiny. I found it interesting that it wasn’t too hot to walk upon. Several times I made a mental note to ponder the physics of why this might be so, but never did I actually get around to that pondering, and won’t now.

Just off the beach there’s a quarter mile strip of zig-zagged three-story dormitories, accomodating up to 600 guests, which is perhaps not as many as it may sound--within three days you can feel like the big man on campus. The activity centers are scattered around like croutons in a tossed salad. Over here are the tennis courts, surfaced with a porous astroturf that lets real blades of grass mingle with the plastic carpet. Over there is the circus center, with full trapeze, a trampoline, and tightrope. There’s a soccer field, a scuba shack, a waterski dock, a gazebo where classical music plays in the afternoon. The pool is just special enough that a postman from Brooklyn, on the last day of the week, took a roll of pictures of it, which he intends to show to all of the customers on his mail route. "We don’t have pools this big in Brooklyn. At home they won’t believe me unless I have evidence." Near the bar there’s a couple pool tables and four slot machines. I’m not sure if the slots pay out. A retired and widowed legal secretary, who felt somewhat out of place among all the young’uns, spent a lot of her time making friends with the quarter-ante slots. She stood four feet eight on her cork heels and her only exercise was the upper-body lunge for each inhale of her cigarette, which she never let get more than a few inches from the ashtray. It took her about four days to lose all her money.

All of the activities at Club Med are very low-committment efforts. They require no investment. The catamarans are pre-rigged. The snorkelling equipment is provided. In the crafts center, where you can paint patterns on silk banners, the paints and waxes are all pre-mixed. Participating is so much like watching television: though the daily schedule is organized in hour-long chunks, I often would windsurf for about twelve minutes, and then as soon as I felt a boredom coming on, swim ashore and join the stretch class by the weightroom. Twenty minutes later, boredom again nipping at the edges of my mind, I zapped stretch class in favor of water volleyball. Every night after dinner there was some form of stage entertainment in the open-air theater, and every night I sat down in one of the back rows, but except for the circus night the longest I remained sitting was for twenty minutes.

I watched the circus intently because I spent an hour each morning on the trampoline and tightrope and spent several afternoons on the trapeze. I would like to offer some Marin-County-guru explanation for why the circus training was a compelling experience, such as flipping & bouncing reinvigorated my childlike desire to play, but I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s fun in the way that people who enjoyed school relate to: it’s fun because it’s hard.

Because the circus is the only activity at Club Med where it’s possible to break your neck, the circus instructors take themselves very seriously and expected me to do the same. It was the only time during the week that I was trying to impress an instructor, the only time I feared like I would let someone down, the only time I wanted to avoid the embarassment of making a mistake. The circus instructors expected me to pay attention. They expected me to watch while other guests were going through the routines I would soon repeat. To make sure they could be heard, they spoke in a sharp bark that seemed to promise, by its very inflection, a swift caning for disobeyance. On the backswing of the trapeze, I was supposed to bring my feet up to my hands in an upside-down crouch and then hang by my knees. This requires a flexibility that is not anatomically possible for me, but unless I learned the maneuver I could not get into the next stage of the routine, where I fly from my bar into the hands of another. All of this created a committment and a goal. As I fell asleep at night, I found my mind rehearsing the motions, breaking it into steps. It had never been so important to me to be able to get into a tight crouch.

This was in stark contrast to the windsurfing lesson, in which our instructor, who barely spoke English, sorta pointed to the water and the wind and said, "go to it." Windsurfing is probably just as difficult as trapeze, but the sport was regarded so casually that I didn’t get into the challenges which make it interesting.

There is nothing inherently "fun" about a tight crouch. If you drop down into a tight crouch at a party, you will impress no one. So why was I so satisfied when I managed it? This goes to the very nature of Club Med: its low-committment strategy inherently leads to a channel-hopping malaise. I think I avoided that malaise partly because I knew I was going to write an article about Club Med and paid attention. I had a committment to the experience, and because I invested my energy into it I enjoyed the week more than I might have had I just shown up like any other guest.

 

You can skip the tennis tourney and you can stay clear of the disco scene and you can ignore the nightly lip-synced Broadway musicals, but at Club Med it’s pretty hard to completely avoid people if you want to eat. For meals, we grab from the buffet and are seated on a first-come, first-serve basis at round tables for eight. At first it’s intimidating--every meal, new strangers to befriend. You poke at your food, sip your wine, hoping someone will strike up a conversation with you so you won’t have to make the first move. It’s a sort of "just-add-water" instant company, a notch up from people who turn the television on just to have another voice in the house. A lot of tentative recounting of that day’s activities, a lot of repeating that I’m from San Francisco and have lived there ten years but grew up in Seattle, and that yes, it really does rain there all the time, but no, that’s not why I left. But good nuggets get through. Club Med is expensive enough (about $999 a week, plus airfare) that most who can afford it have a relatively interesting job. Since I’ve come back I’ve described Club Med to many friends, and this is the one point that raises their eyebrows and makes them scoff. Club Med has never shaken it’s swingin’ ‘70s image; it still conjures topless orange-passing games. What kind of lame person would go? The only accurate generalization is: guests first come to Club Med because they didn’t have time to plan a vacation. They’re likely to be workplace overachievers. If you were ever going to suffer a broken bone in some foreign country, you’d want to do it at Club Med, because at any moment there’s a half dozen young doctors within shouting range.

Any time I take a beach vacation, my greatest fear is of going brain dead. Living in a big city I’m so accustomed to stimulation and intelligent response. That’s one of the reasons I hate being hungover--not because my body seems unable to handle the normal amount of gravity, but because to myself I seem quite stupid. I consider any beach vacation a success if my brain isn’t socked in by a numbing fog. By this measure, Club Med was a week with Noam Chomsky. The guests are no less stimulating than your college classmates at a ten year reunion. Among the conversations I had: how violence among British soccer fans isn’t an expression of working-class frustration; how to layer watercolor pigment when working on canvas; ways an author can manipulate bookstores to reorder; failed expeditions on the north face of Mount Everest; why professional hockey is popular in Italy; why Microsoft bought WebTV; how Haitians arriving at Miami international airport for the first time think the automatically-flushing urinals are possessed with voodoo; whether Queens has been taken over by Korean immigrants; that French for "window shopping" literally translates as "licking the windows"; are labor laws in Spain unfair; and tips for maintaining a long distance love relationship.

I think Club Med would be particularly good for couples who, at home, sustain conversation by discussing their work or the news; if they had to sit alone three meals a day here they’d bore each other into marital restlessness.

Yet one more way that Club Med is just like television is the way you can follow other people’s dramas like Love Boat plots. A mother and her 20-something daughter arrived from Jersey, hoping to break out of their mother-daughter roles and bond as friends. They were both good looking enough to play themselves in the movie-of-the-week version of their own lives--the older a sandy blonde, the younger a glossy brunette. Their first night, the mother couldn’t find her daughter for an hour, panicked, and made the Club Med security comb the perimeter and the coastline, looking for a raped or washed up body. Then the daughter appeared, walking hand in hand with a guy who is a professional hockey player in Europe. (Probably, in the movie version, this wouldn’t be the first night. A night where they seem to be getting along spendidly would be inserted.) For the next two days, mother and daughter sat at different dining tables. (In the movie version, you would be getting out your hanky about now).

 

Club Med is a French-owned company, and at Turkoise about half of the staff and a quarter of the guests are foreigners. Most of the entertainment is repeated in both English and French. This put me in a culturally-receptive mood that defused my hairtrigger skepticism. I didn’t want to make a faux pas and come across as an insensitive American. So I openly accepted a lot of campy Club Med customs under the small possibility that they were French decorum. The simplest example was the custom of saying hello when I passed by a staffperson on the walkways. All the staffpeople say hello, and of course I said hi in return. But there’s a lot of staff; Club Med Turkoise can house 600 guests, which are served by 300 staff. My week there were only 400 guests. So every other person was staff, and many of them in bathing suits without their badges. I didn’t want to accidentally offend a staffperson by *not* saying hello, so I made it an easy rule to say hello to absolutely everybody. Within 36 hours of our arrival, everyone is saying hello to everyone, and this forced friendliness becomes self-fulfilling. Tony Robbins, the guru of positive thinking, is on to something. I felt an honest friendliness towards everyone. I was experiencing a chumminess that we in heterogenous America have lost. Maybe they’ve lost it in other cultures too, but it’s been regained at Club Med. Scuba diving with the sea turtles and the afternoon thundershower during the volleyball game and the beef wellington for dinner become our shared experience. It’s like summer camp, but we’re not plagued by teenage shyness.

The flip side of this multiculturalism-within-the-compound is the way Club Med often cloisters its guests from the poverty-stricken natives living just beyond the bougainveilla-covered fences. But that’s really not an issue in Turks & Caicos. Our island is entirely limestone and sand, covered in scrub. The highest elevation is about 28 feet above sea level. It’s a tax-free haven, so the island has offices from all the big six accounting firms, one KFC, an IGA grocery store, and some liquor stores. There are no indigenous craft trinkets to take home and hang in your living room to remind you that you’re a worldy person. There just isn’t much native culture to ignore. The music blasting from local cars is a reggae rhythm under a pop-synthesizer melody. Being a soccer fiend, I can usually use my soccer skills in foreign countries to befriend locals, and did so here. I had the occasion to referee a grudge match between the Club Med staff (with so many foreigners, they fielded a respectable eleven) and the native all-stars, who spoke combinations of French, tony-British-english, and pidgin squawk. Despite every advantage I could give the Club Med squad, they were wallopped by the much faster locals, six-nil. After the game, I got several invitations from the locals to stay an extra week and live with them, in their two-bedroom apartments, scuba-diving every morning. Locals showed up for the daily 5:30 basketball game as well, would-be Michael Jordans of every height, all wearing some newfangled Nike hightop that cost at least $150.

This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t plenty of jobless locals living in cement block huts. Just that as a guest at Club Med Turkoise, you don’t have to shield your eyes and hum loudly to block out sights that remind you that you’re a fat-rich-lazy American. As seems a recurring theme at Club Med, it’s a relatively guilt-free trip.

 

At 12:30 every day the staff leads everyone near the pool in a sun dance, which is a dorky quasi-aerobics routine mangling the charleston, the twist, the hustle, and a sort of Saturday Night Fever body-origami. It goes on for several interminable minutes. The first day, I chose then to use the toilet. The second day, I was in the pool playing water polo when it started, and I couldn’t escape. It’s the sort of silliness that if you did with your friends during the seventh-inning stretch at a baseball game would be campy-fun, but when you do it with complete strangers makes you think "thank god my friends aren’t witnessing this." I’m amazed so many people willingly participate, and at the lunch that follows afterwards, I say so.

"Lay off, Mr.-Cool-Police," says a systems engineer from Manhattan. "I don’t get to be silly back home."

There are a few more moments of this forced cheeriness--we’re expected to applaud when the snorkeling boat driver introduces his lifeguards--but they’re less frequent than I anticipated. Mostly, the staff are kind, encouraging, and attentive. By Club Med custom, they are called "G.O.s", which is French for *gracious organizers*, and the guests are called "G.M.s", *gracious members.* For about an hour, this terminology seems hokey. But soon it’s good they’ve coined alliterative terms, because no other word quite conjures the casual distinction between guests and staff. They are not quite formal employees; they’re more like guests who have just been here a long time and know the ropes. They are paid about $450 a month, plus room and board and some drink tickets. At that low pay, it’s not a career--they’re here to spend a year or two slacking in the sun. Every six months, they are transferred to a different Club Med. On average, they are a bit younger than the guests. They dress like guests, bikinis and cutoffs. They are seated at meals with guests, in the same first-come manner. Many of the workers from the kitchen played in the afternoon soccer game with guests. I didn’t feel waited upon by the staff, which for me is great, because when I stay at a hotel I’m always uncomfortable with having a porter carry my bag or a bellhop open the door. Once again: no guilt. The G.O.s drink in the bar with guests and they dance in the disco with guests and when they’re in the mood, they sleep with guests.

It would have been irresponsible for me as a journalist not to pay attention to the singles scene. Most nights I was in bed by 10, exhausted from the sports and sunshine, but one night I hung upside down with the nocturnals. We were at the bar until 11:30, the disco until 1, the beach bar until 3, and skinny-dipping until 4:30 am. Over the night I received completely contradictory reports. One woman reported that it was an obscene meat market, with men requesting, after only five minutes of small talk, to retire to her room. If she refused, they wrote her off and moved on. Another woman insisted the men here must be blind not to pick up her comely posture’s implication. "Do I look like I have herpes or something?" she asked.

I met a couple of guys from Minnesota, professionals in their 30s. "At Martinique, it’s 95% singles, but I’m too old for them." He points to his hairline. "I tried Cancun, but the male staff there are Adonisses, and, towards the female guests are, how should I say, *predatory*--I had no chance against them." He delivers his analysis in the same authoritative-yet-patient tone that he might present a client with a marketing plan. "The men here don’t make me feel like Pee Wee Herman. I met this woman last night, she was telling me that one of the staff dropped his shorts in the middle of their conversation. How childish, she thought, and walked away. She’s looking for someone more mature. I think I’ve got a chance."

It’s very easy to meet people, easy to start a conversation--"Hey, I saw you on the trapeze"--and pretty safe to assume anyone hanging out past midnight is willing if the chemistry’s right. Some people lowered their standards for the week. Others, fearing the loss of self-respect from lowering their standards, actually raised them and then complained at the lack of six-figure-income cardiologists with Herculean pecs.

Over the week the following romantic activity occured: one couple came for a parting fling and ended up engaged; one couple came to get married and did; two men met women and fell in love; and I would estimate that about one-third of the single people got laid, which is exactly the percentage that gave getting laid any effort at all, even just a coy wink during the karaoke or a faked stumble at the bar into the arms of the executive from Sweden.

 

After my night with the nocturnals I spend my last full day failing to nap in a lawn chair at the edge of the bay. My verbal clumsiness with polite conversation incited a self disgust and despair that the sunshine did not calm out of me. In the afternoon, someone shrieked--a fin in the water! It’s not a shark though, it’s JoJo the dolphin. He’s wild but swims without companions, and every few days he will follow a fishing boat in through the reef. I jumped up and tried to run into the water, but my legs collapsed under me and I tumbled in the sand. I got up but fell down in another two steps. What the hell was going on?

I grabbed my legs but couldn’t feel their grip, and I realized that my legs had fallen asleep. One of the G.O.s jumped on a catamaran. I got up once more and this time I stumbled into the water, where my arms took over, freestyling at full strength. I caught up to the catamaran and grabbed hold of a support beam and let it drag me to JoJo. We slapped the water to call him near, the same way you call a dog by slapping your thighs. The G.O. pointed, "Here he comes." I ducked my head and opened my eyes under water. All those years of watching *Jaws* had given me a fear of this moment, a big gray beast approaching, my legs dangling, human sushi. I slowed my breathing to relax. JoJo eased by, a few feet under me.

He’s about eight feet long and barrel thick, with tiny black eyes and a white stub snout. All those years of watching Flipper kicked in, and I was completely trusting. I let go of the catamaran and stroked along above JoJo. The sunlight shimmered on his gray skin. The catamaran tacked back and forth, and we followed. The G.O.s had officially warned us not to touch JoJo, suggesting it endangers his skin to infection, but I’d also been whispered that a lawyer once sued the club claiming JoJo bit him. (I’ve also heard JoJo can get "excited", and the dolphin-equivalent of humping your leg is to bump in to you.) I played by the rules. For three minutes, JoJo swam with me gently, circling underneath me, then rising to the surface for air with enough grace to take the cynic out of anybody. He made no noise, but I kept squealing his name. The salt water made my mouth feel like rubber. JoJo was fuzzier now, which meant my contact lenses had popped out. When a bigger sailboat motored by, JoJo zipped away. Every few minutes he needed something new with which to play. I understood.

The next morning I packed my bags. At breakfast I was hit by a twinge of sadness that would be the last stake of pancakes I would ever share with these people. I had to evaluate the kinship I had felt for other guests and offer a degree of willingness for future contact: I swapped phone numbers with three, told about a dozen to look me up if they ever made it to San Francisco, and said with all earnestness to about thirty others, "If our paths ever cross again, I will remember you." Feeling generous, I gave my extra drink tickets to my favorite circus instructor. Then I made sure I got the recipe for white chocolate bread. I was suffering the inverse of that first day’s trauma: though it had felt forced to sit down with seven strangers for dinner, it now felt just as unnatural to rupture the small telepathies that had evolved. I had drifted through the week, unaware how attached I was becoming to the ritual.

Then we climbed onto an old school bus for the short ride to the airport. The entire Club Med staff stood on the terrace to wave goodbye. I sat beside my friends, asking about their life history with a vigorous curiousity they deserved from me days earlier. The bus doors closed and we pulled forward, rounding the cul-de-sac. Then we paused to let a caravan of arriving minivans pull into the space we had just left. It was the next week’s load of guests, checking in not ten seconds after we departed. What we saw as genuine waves of goodbye from the staff, the newcomers interpreted as waves of welcome.

"I feel like meat," said a friend.

But that’s not how I felt. I felt fine about it. It’s like this: when I watched the Mary Tyler Moore show as a kid, my cognitive awareness that Mary was just an actress playing to millions of viewers didn’t shatter my magical illusion that Mary Richards and I shared a mutual, private sympathy. And just as it was possible to feel "understood" by a fictional character in a mass medium, I could feel singular, even oddly genuine, about my week.