Anyone who’s been to Mexico -- free of bans on HIVers -- has a horror story about how a glass of tainted water kept them in the bathroom for an entire day. But it’s fairly easy to avoid getting traveler’s diarrhea: Wash your hands with soap and water before eating; avoid street food unless you plan to boil, cook or peel it; and avoid dairy products unless you know they’ve been pasteurized.
And don’t drink the water! Stick to bottled water (with the seal intact) or carbonated drinks -- and don’t have ice that’s made from tap water. Use tap water only with a filter (look for “absolute 1-micron or less” on the label) or iodine tablets -- ideally use both. They are available at camping or outdoor supply stores.
Emergency codes vary by city and state, so check locally. Certain rural areas in Mexico are malaria zones, so take anti-malaria precautions if you’re heading to Campeche, Chiapas, Guerrero, Michoacán, Nayarit, Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, Sinaloa or Tabasco. The CDC does not recommend malaria drugs for the major tourist resorts on the Pacific and Gulf coasts. They have kinder, gentler mosquitoes.
Two summers ago, I took my first vacation to the interior of Mexico. Being of Mexican descent, I had always wanted to make this trip, but my visits had been limited to a couple of border towns. I decided to go to the Mexican Caribbean. Although heavily touristed, it is a gateway to Mexico’s fabled interior. My traveling companion was a longtime friend who I knew could handle things should I encounter any problems, health or otherwise. We flew into Cancún without a hitch. I was a little concerned about possibly having to explain all the drugs in my bag, but no one searched them; had they done so, I was instructed to simply say that they were for “a medical condition.”
We had decided to keep brief our visit to the “spring break” capital of the world. We stayed in downtown Cancún on the mainland, and ventured only once to the Hotel Zone, the 14-mile barrier island where most tourists stay. Not unlike back home in New York City, the only other Mexicans I saw in the Zone were people employed by the service industry. After checking in to our air-conditioned hotel, our first destination was the supermarket to purchase the gallons of bottled water I would need for my Crixivan dosing. Using two different guidebooks back at home, I had already mapped out the places we would eat, sticking mostly to places where I knew I could get vegetarian meals and/or seafood, although we occasionally strayed from the list to try a restaurant with an enticing menu. Most of the time we ate at a health food chain called 100% Natural, where the patrons were mostly Mexican, usually a sign that the food was good. I wanted to try a batido, smoothies made with soy milk, fresh fruit and ice, but my paranoia about water got the better of me. When at our second meal I saw someone hauling in large bags of ice from a truck with the words agua purificada on it, I decided it was safe.
But another tempation came at night, when local women would set up elaborate food carts with different meats and every taco filling you could imagine. A multitude of people would gather, eating and socializing. My mouth watered watching the scene. But I resisted because meat left out for long periods of time can be like a sponge to bacteria. Ultimately, I didn’t encounter any digestive problems, apart from a two-day bout of diarrhea. It probably helped that I was downing yogurt several times a day.
The night before we left Cancún to venture into the interior, we visited two of the gay bars listed in the Spartacus guide, Caramba and Picante Hot Bar (don’t laugh, New York City’s Splash and Barracuda aren’t any more cleverly named). Unlike other nightspots, the clientele was almost exclusively Mexican, perhaps because Cancún hasn’t quite attracted the gay jet set that, say, Acapulco has. Refreshingly, the beer was cheap and the attitude almost non-existent -- but so were the condoms, safe-sex posters or any other signs of the AIDS-related outreach common in many U.S. gay bars.
I had gone to Mexico, in a way, to reconnect with my roots. But I felt a strange disconnect. Most people I spoke to in Spanish responded to me in English, shattering any notion of ethnic camaraderie between us. A feeling of being disposessed overcame me. I had always considered myself Mexican. But it was clear to the Mexicans I encountered that I was an American tourist with U.S. dollars. Perhaps it was naïve to think I would be taken into the fold. But I felt like a man without a country.
If I couldn’t bond with the people, I have many great memories of getting to know the land. At Xel-Ha, a national park with lagoons, we rented snorkeling gear and spent the day swimming with giant sea turtles and a rainbow assortment of fish. We also splashed around in the icy water of Grand Cenote, one of the sinkholes found throughout the region, most interconnected by underwater caves. We roamed the ruins of Tulum, the last known Mayan stronghold and the only one built on the coast. And I climbed the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan at the Mayan ruins of Coba -- then spent the next hour panic-stricken about how I was going to get back down. I finally descended backward, clutching a rope. Even though the water in my bottle warmed to the temperature of hot tea within an hour, it tasted great under an unmercifully blazing sun.
I had once felt that I had all the time in the world to take this trip. But about a year before I finally decided to go, I found myself in the hospital, my wrists strapped to the bed rails to keep me from pulling the respirator out of my mouth. The highlight of my day was being unbound and rolled onto what looked like an oversized produce scale, while morphine provided a much-needed escape.
I bounced back rather quickly after beginning combination therapy, and so here I was at our hotel, on a quiet stretch of Caribbean oceanfront, where hours went by without my seeing another soul. There wasn’t much to do but swim and lay on a hammock to read or nap. After midnight, a few giant turtles would emerge from the ocean and slowly make their way onto the dry sandy beach to dig a hole for depositing their eggs. It was a great setting in which to begin the second half of my life.