Cancun is, in some ways, a funny place to have an international conference on climate change. It’s beautiful, yes. It’s quite green (lots of stands of trees—palms, mangroves, and others—are visible as you land at the airport and as you move around the environs). There’s evidence of the effects of global warming in a series of recent, intense hurricanes, and beaches receding from erosion; overdevelopment has played its part, too. And yet, Cancun is also a vacationers’ paradise, and that makes for some funny juxtapositions. On my flight here from New York, I’d put the ratio of vacationers to conference goers at 50 to 1. In the airport, we were outnumbered by the happy vacationers, most clad in shorts and nearly all speaking English. We only saw the welcome table for the COP 16 conference (duly welcoming and multilingual) after clearing customs.
And, many of us attending the UN climate summit are staying in beachfront hotels. The rates are good, the views are great, and the food and drinks are all included (even room service). But because these resorts can be huge, with 300 or even 500 rooms, not every one is occupied by someone preoccupied by cambio climatico, or, of course, attending the conference (or “the congress” in local parlance). You can tell the vacationers: they wear bathing suits and shorts, they’re tanned or ruddy from the sun, they carry drinks with them in the hotel lobby, and they’re kind of loud.
Not only on their own, mind you. There’s a lot of entertainment laid on for them: bands galore; several restaurants, some with themes (fisherman’s wharf, pub cuisine, but nothing that’s vegetarian-themed or even rebranded for these two weeks as “climate-friendly cuisine”); poolside games; even a wan old donkey with a sombrero on at night, there to be snapped for a picture with vacationing families. The band-leader with him, also wearing a sombrero, assured me that the donkey, who barely moves, had been “trained” and enjoyed his work. “He jumps into the pick-up truck to come to the hotel,” he said. In the day, both are on a small farm nearby. To hear the older man tell it, the donkey is almost a Cancun vacationer himself. When he’s not posing for photos, “he sleeps; he eats,” he said.
The conference-goers are, both populations would agree, different. We wear cotton blouses or dresses in tasteful, international prints; we stare at computers; we’re not in the pool (at least not yet); and we’re pretty quiet—still figuring out where all the conference sites are and how to get there. I’d venture to say we probably don’t eat or drink as much as the vacationers. They tell us we’re lucky to be able to work in Cancun; but we see that there’s a bit of regret on their faces: Can’t they just relax and have a good time, like us? We tell them, Yes, it’s a lovely place, Cancun, and that we hope we’ll get to the beach at least once before we leave. We hear the waves at night, we assure them. But, and we don’t say this for fear of ruining the mood, work is our first priority. Probably if we did, they’d understand and say, Good for you on their way to the breakfast buffet, the pool, or the disco, which it should be noted, opens from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., and is right next door to the “hoy” (today in Spanish) theater, which was full of people last night.