Playa del Carmen:

Mexico is beautiful, Oswaldo (“Call me Waldo, like ‘Where’s Waldo’”) told us as we chatted on the dock at Playa del Carmen. But Poverty, he said, that is the problem in this country.

Waldo operated out of a booth on the pier owned by UltraMar, one of two competing government-owned ferry companies. We planned to take a ferry across the bay to Cozumel tomorrow, and Waldo had a Deal for us.

Everybody has a Deal in the Mayan Riviera. Everybody hustles. Everybody works hard to survive Poverty, from the hawker pulling tourists into a shop on Playa’s Fifth Avenue, to the clerk in the ticket booth at the Tulum ruins—who had just that morning issued us tickets marked “Student Discount: $0 received” when we paid him in pesos for two full-fare admissions.

Everybody here Plays the Game.

Thus declared garrulous, cheerful Waldo.

We took his Deal. We traded him twenty dollars for a receipt entitling us to a snorkeling trip on Cozumel. A deposit, toward the whole total: $60 US—“Pay anytime, with credit card, dollars or pesos; with us here in Playa, or pay in Cozumel,” he said.

He produced an 8×10 glossy: in a spacious boat with a glass bottom, happy passengers chat with a guy whose T-shirt reads “PADI Instructor.” We would get the boat, professional snorkeling gear, expert PADI instruction, plus free margaritas, beers, sodas and snacks, when we sailed with the company Pelusa del Mar.

**

The next morning, we set off early to get cash for the trip.

Playa del Carmen has ATMs on every corner, neon-lit and happy to dispense—for a fee—US or Mexican currency. We’re not stupid; we found a reputable glass-enclosed ScotiaBank ATM. I duly shielded my numbers, and Paul stood behind me in the booth.

We stepped out to see two men and a woman triangulating the ATM, thumb-typing rapidly on their cell phones. No-nonsense but furtive, they paid us no attention, Playing the Game even as both Paul and I snapped their photo.

**

Waldo was not at the UltraMar booth, but we had his receipt, so we bought a round-trip ticket to Cozumel.

We embarked, and I fired up my iPhone to write to TD Bank to tell them that my/their account might have been compromised.

The Free WiFi touted on signs all over the boat would not connect. It was locked. I asked an attendant for the password. “The WiFi kaput,” she said, and frowned.

My distraction made it hard to enjoy the duo who sang to a boombox orchestration of their own CD. Still, I gave them a tip when they asked for it.

We hit the pier running at San Miguel de Cozumel, dodging hustlers who offered Deals on boats, cars, scuba and snorkeling, and grabbed a seat at the first bar that had WiFi. I thumb-typed my concerns to TD Security about my ATM adventure.

Then, relieved, we set off for the elusive Pelusa del Mar.

The pier hustlers told us that Pelusa del Mar sailed from a small dock a half-mile away. It was sunny and breezy, a great day to walk, so we happily wandered the harbor.

There was no sign for Pelusa del Mar.

A store clerk pointed us to a small dock where a woman sat on a collapsible wooden bench.

Yes, the woman said, our boat would come at 1:30. We could pay her—pesos or dollars only—for the expense remainder. And if we showed the receipt to the clerk at the souvenir shop across the street, we would get a discount. “I will not lie; I get a small commission,” she said.

We paid and went to explore the town.

**

A tiny boat with a tattered awning and a huge outboard motor pulled up to the Pelusa del Mar dock at 1:30. Eleven of us passengers stepped into it. The kids crowded around the “glass bottom,” a wooden box the shape and size of a shoebox.

Manuel, our on-board leader, handed out snorkeling gear and told us we would have three dive sites. He introduced a surly young man named Eduardo, who would be our driver.

Surly Eduardo powered up the motor and cruised into the bay. The kids stared through the “glass bottom” box, marveling at wrecks and fish.

We were twenty minutes out, about to stop for our first dive, when Manuel got a call. He conferred with Surly Eduardo, and told us we had to go back for something.

Surly Eduardo opened the motor to its full impressive thrust. He flew across the bay, dodging larger tour boats, scattering clusters of happy snorkelers, drenching us passengers in a constant, frosty spray of water. Ten minutes later, we smashed into the little dock from which we’d launched.

Neither the boat nor the dock, thank Neptune, went down. Two more passengers climbed aboard. We were 13.

Now time was money.

Surly Eduardo powered across the bay, showering us without letup until he pulled up hard at our first snorkel spot.

I had never snorkeled; I have a suffocation phobia. One of my fellow passengers explained the finer points to me. I donned the mask and arranged my mouth around the snorkel mouthpiece, biting down on the disturbingly well-gnawed nibs, my heart beating a mad tattoo against my ribs. Manuel told us to stay together and “avoid the motor, or you will be chopped into hamburguesa”—our expert PADI instruction—and over the side I went.

I was panic-breathing, yanking the snorkel out of my mouth every time I surfaced, when the Picture Lady grabbed Paul and me. She gave Paul a bottle of fish food, motioned us close together, told him to hold the bottle low so fish would swim to us; she’d take our picture underwater.

I mouthed my snorkel and went down. Perhaps it was because she spoke Spanish, or perhaps because he didn’t grasp her intent, but Paul couldn’t get the bottle low enough to suit the Picture Lady. At last, she shoved his hand down, snapped her submersible camera, grabbed the bottle back and moved on. I surfaced. Paul was hacking and retching. “She kept pushing me down,” he gasped. “My snorkel filled up.”

With great trepidation, I re-donned my snorkel and mask.

I dunked my head. I saw fish, and I was captivated. My breathing slowed; my panic dissolved. The water, so cold when it sprayed over me, now felt delicious.

I could do this forever.

But alas: the Picture Lady finished her shooting; Surly Eduardo spun the boat with a mountainous, choking wake, and Manuel led us back up the ladder.

Surly Eduardo peeled away, drenching us all.

Shivering kids crowded the “glass-bottomed” shoebox, but they could see little because of the water in it. I glanced about; there were now, unaccountably, 18 of us.

**

Surly Eduardo sprayed to a stop. Manuel hustled us into the water.

This second dive was a deeper area, with little to see but a grey coral formation far below where two scuba divers hovered.

Ten indifferent minutes later, the boat returned for us. Or on us; had Paul not pitched an ear-rending whistle to catch Surly Eduardo’s attention, we would now be hamburguesa.

Somehow we made it back into the boat safely. All 20 of us.

How had we multiplied? Had other companies abandoned their customers to drown?

**

Vrrrrrrooooommm! Again the deluge, as Surly Eduardo cranked the motor, rocking bevies of happy snorkelers from other, bigger boats, filling their snorkels. I cowered next to poor, soaked Paul. The kids, teeth chattering, fought to see through the now-flooded “glass-bottomed” shoebox.

I was about to ask for my free Margarita when we bucked to a stop. Manuel motioned us overboard, and we went for our third dive—except for the kids, who clung together in protest in a hypothermic huddle inside the boat.

This time, a rainbow of fish zipped underneath me. I blissfully rode the swells kicked up by Surly Eduardo as he motored back and forth, around and through us, and forgot that I could drown or be chopped into hamburgesa. Schools of bright blue fish darted in formation along a reef; round silver fish sparkled like coins in the refracted sunlight.

It was stunning.

Manuel’s hand interrupted my view, signaling me back to the boat.

Sigh.

Manuel handed out Margaritas and tiny bottles of Corona, and we roared off. The Margaritas were weak to the point of virgin, but well-salted by the spray, as Surly Eduardo again played Ahab, monomaniacal slave to the leviathan Time.

We skidded into the dock, and Manuel passed a tip jar. “We depend on tips,” he said. “Tell others about Pelusa del Mar, and Manuel and Eduardo.”

Surly Eduardo scowled from the bow.

**

The Picture Lady stopped us on the dock. “You buy picture?” She showed us our shot—me, eyes bugged in terror behind my mask; Paul drowning; desperate, fat fish.

“No, gracias,” I said, and we pushed past.

We ate dinner and returned to the big main pier to catch the 8 pm ferry home. The lady at UltraMar said the next boat was at 9. The other government-owned competing ferry left at 8, but our return tickets were not transferrable.

It was 7:30. We sat, waiting, on the dock.

A man from a nearby booth struck up a conversation. He told us he represented a hotel in Playa del Carmen that would reimburse us for half our expenses for today. All we had to do was to go there, have a free brunch, and tour the place. He said he would pick us up. He said we didn’t have to buy anything. Everyone wins: he gets a commission, the hotel gets a potential future customer—but no pressure—and we get a lot of money.

We were all just working hard to survive; we just had to Play the Game. How could we pass up this Deal? he asked.

How indeed.