the complexities of love and sacrifice revealed during a family vacation in Cancun

When my mom first told me that she planned a family vacation to Cancun, I was not thrilled; my impression was that Cancun was for brain-dead college students who just want cheap booze and a chance to let their brains atrophy. However, it turned out to be decently enjoyable. The beaches were indeed lovely – the water was SO warm and it was quite thrilling to see how far into the ocean I could go to play among the waves. As I felt them gush over my body, I looked up at the colorful, expansive sky and tried to absorb all the beauty around me.

However, traveling with my family (age range = 68 years) was really tough and made me think a lot about family dynamics and who has to put in what kind of labor to make everything work together well. One particular type of labor I thought about frequently is the emotional labor of planning a trip, which involves determining 1) the optimal time to do different activities and 2) which tickets, of all the ones that different salespeople were promoting, we should purchase.

How we got manipulated into attending a timeshare presentation

The most aggravating part of our trip was being talked at by salespeople who AGGRESSIVELY followed us and tried to shove different deals our way. Long story short, my family and our family friends met a travel agent at the airport who claimed to offer us the best deal because by purchasing them in a duty free zone, we could avoid additional fees loaded on by other middlemen and by the government. Our $10 deposit per person would be returned if we ultimately didn’t buy any tickets, so we thought there wasn’t any harm to the deal. 

After we agreed to buy tickets for Chichén Itzá and Xcaret, we realized that our itinerary posed a complication. Typically, a family purchases discounted tickets after the whole family attends a timeshare presentation by the hotel who offers the discounted tickets. However, because my dad had to leave Cancun early for a work emergency, we had to go on the different day trips back to back before he left, which meant that we couldn’t purchase tickets at a regular price and receive a $200 reimbursement after we attended the presentation. 

However, we then learned that because my dad would not be able to attend the presentation, my mom had to attend the presentation and lie that she is a single mother (among other lies). The travel agent claimed that he would get in trouble if he sold  discounted tickets to a family but the entire family did not attend the presentation, so he asked my mom all the questions that she would be asked at the presentation, and coached her into saying all the lies that would protect him from trouble.

Having to lie on behalf of the travel agent because he didn’t have the foresight to ask us about our itinerary was annoying, but the more we engaged with him, the more he disclosed details about our deal that didn’t make sense. For example, our family friend got incredible prices on tickets for different excursions, and when we pressed the travel agent to figure out why the rates our two families received were so different, he claimed that it was because he wasn’t allowed to offer great rates to 2 families at the same time (he would get in trouble with the timeshare program folks who employ him to sell these tickets to force people to go to their presentation). However, we suspected that it was because he perceived our family friends to be more likely to purchase timeshare than we were, since it’s easier for a family of 4 with kids ages 11 and 13 to travel, than a family of 6 with an age range of 70 years lol.

We visited Chichén Itzá and Xcaret before my dad had to leave for the States, and then planned to rest at the hotel on the day my dad leaves and to go on one more excursion the day after. That means we only had one free day, namely the second to last day of our trip, to attend the supposedly 1.5-hour long presentation. During the evening that we went to Xcaret, we asked the travel agent for the time of the presentation the next morning so we could get it over with, receive our reimbursement, and go on one more excursion the day after. However, he didn’t get back to us about the presentation, so we pretty much just hung around the hotel for the whole day. My mom suspected that he didn’t want to give us the money back and he knew we weren’t interested in the timeshare program anyways.

In a fit of annoyance, I texted him back, pretending we were super interested in the presentation and that we wanted tickets for another excursion. He texted us back immediately, apologizing for missing our message and telling us when he’d pick us up the next day to attend the presentation. After exchanging many messages to make sure we understood exactly how we would be reimbursed (you never know what loopholes exist unless you ask…), I felt really manipulated knowing that if we wanted to get our $200 back, we had to attend the presentation and thus forego the opportunity to experience a excursion on our last day (most of the excursions take the entire day, so we couldn’t attend the presentation and go on an excursion in the same day). My mom and I debated about whether or not attending the presentation for $200 would be worth not going on another excursion, and we decided that we were all pretty tired and probably wouldn’t enjoy another day-long excursion anyways, so we planned to attend the presentation during the last day of our trip.

Fighting with my mom 

That evening (which was the evening of our second to last day), my mom and I decided to make the most of the trip in other ways, so we left my brother, sister, and grandma in the hotel and boarded a bus to explore Parque de las Palapas. I was really glad that my mom had the energy and interest to explore this pretty downtown area, because I wanted to help her to enjoy at least an hour of not being ensnared by her younger daughter and her elderly mother.

As soon as we arrived at Parque de las Palapas, we were approached by a salesman offering a remarkably good excursion package to explore different Mayan ruins and cenotes for $40/person. We contemplated whether or not we wanted to go: we would forego the $200, we would have to ask my grandma to stay in the hotel (which would make her really, really angry, even though going would be strenuous for her and quite inconvenient for us), and my mom wasn’t that interested in seeing more Mayan ruins because she had difficulty understanding the tour guides. But…we hesitated to walk away because it was an amazing price for going out to see more of Mexico than just our hotel. As always, it quickly became wayy too exhausting to listen to the salesman throw more facts and brochures at us as we tried to process whether we wanted to go because we were truly interested in the excursion, or because we just wanted to feel like we got a good deal on an excursion after being manipulated by our travel agent. We told him that we’d call our family to figure out if they wanted to come, and finally ducked away from him.

We walked around the area and came across another booth that advertised a really cool excursion package with an ATV and cenotes and ziplining, which sounded more appealing to my mom than visiting historical sites. We asked the folks at the booth about the package, and apparently it was one with which they weren’t familiar, so they made some phone calls to determine the details of the excursion. Meanwhile, I swatted away a few mosquitos as my mom called my brother and sister to figure out if they were interested.

My mom realllyyyy wanted my sister to come with us, because my sister was really timid and refused to participate in different water activities at Xcaret. (Long story short, she threw a fit when we were swimming in a cenote with life vests on, so my dad had leave the cenote with her and couldn’t swim with us. This was really frustrating for everyone because my sister’s irrational refusal to be coaxed into doing an easy and fun activity that my parents had hoped would be a meaningful family memory forced my dad to miss out on a really unique activity when his Cancun experience was already cut short. Thus, my mom spent the next day playing with her in the hotel swimming pool for hours in hopes that she’d be willing to participate in future water-related activities.)

My sister said she was not interested, and my brother said he was happy to stay with her so that my mom and I can go on the excursion together. My mom then started hesitating, and said that she wouldn’t feel happy going if my sister was bored in the hotel and not experiencing as much of Mexico as possible. I was confused and frustrated because my brother FINALLY took one for the team to enable my mom to go out and do something FUN, but my mom couldn’t happily go if my sister didn’t go (even though dragging my sister out to doing something she doesn’t want to do is the best way to spoil everyone’s day).

My irritation compounded as mosquitos chewed up my leg while my mom stood there, unwilling to finally take the golden opportunity to do something that would be fun for herself. She then told me that she’s scared of ziplining (which is simply not true; I guess she could be having cold feet but my mom has always been very adventurous), and that the four of us (me, my brother, my sister, and herself) should go and that she and my sister would just watch me and my brother have fun. This made NO sense – (1) the whole point of my brother taking care of my sister was to enable my mom to finally enjoy the trip without having to worry about her elderly mother or younger daughter, and (2) furthermore, my brother and sister didn’t want to go on the trip anyways.

Then, my mom said that she’s scared of ziplining and won’t enjoy it, and that my brother and I should go, while she stays at the hotel with her mom and my sister. I was more confused than ever by her suggestion, so I teased her a bit to coax her into enjoying a precious day during which she would not have to cater to everyone’s needs but her own.

To my surprise, my mom becomes furious that I’m not listening to her plan, and I’m EVEN MORE furious that she’s not listening to my plan, so I said that it would be best if we just attended the presentation, got our reimbursement, and hung out at the hotel for the rest of the day. She called me unreasonable and stubborn for not wanting to go on the excursion with my brother, and at this point I was irritated to the point of tears and scratched my legs so aggressively that I didn’t even notice that I was bleeding quite profusely.

A series of complex emotions

I marched off to the bus as she ran to follow me, and we sat in silence for an hour. At first, I thought I was angry at her for being so irrational and unable to identify an opportunity to make a choice that maximized everyone’s happiness. Then, I realized that I wasn’t angry, but was deeply baffled – baffled that selflessness, which occurs when each person derives happiness from fulfilling others’ interests before one’s own interests, could make me feel so sad and helpless.  

But more than being sad and helpless, I was scared. Throughout the past eleven years, I’ve spent a lot of time taking care of my sister and have thought a lot about my parents’ decision to have my younger sister. As a result, their moment of freedom -– the day their children all leave for college – was extended for another TWELVE YEARS. Thus, time and time again, I’ve seen the ways in which they’ve had to start over, to experience the trying frustration of raising yet another child when they are in the early forties. Not only have my parents had to rethink several key practical decisions (such as retirement), but they have to start all over again when they have much less energy, and when all their friends are now free to do whatever the hell they want. On top of all of this, there’s an added worry that comes with having a child in your early forties: although my parents have much more cultural and social capital after being in the States for 18 years, even the most minor of my sister’s health problems worry my parents and make my mom consistently wonder if she has these health problems because my mom had her at a much older age. 

I was scared, because this trip not only showed me how much my mom’s life has changed, but how much her personality and preferences have changed. Like I said, my sister is very timid person, and my grandma is very needy and not cognizant of others’ needs. Throughout this trip, which was a microcosm of our family’s life, my parents took turns staying behind and missing out on moments they looked forward to en order to coax my sister or keep my grandma company. Like me, my mom was a headstrong, ambitious, and independent young woman, but had to make endless sacrifices for me and my siblings when we were younger and needed to be taken care of. BUT NOW, even when presented with a solution – my brother’s offer to take care of my sister and keep my grandma company – my mom did not let herself have fun and not “miss out” for once. I was sad, baffled, and scared to realize that even if we gave her the time and opportunity to enjoy a day off, she couldn’t enjoy it, because she wouldn’t be fully happy knowing that 1) someone is making the sacrifice for her and that 2) my sister wasn’t brave enough to make the most out of my mom’s ideal vision of the day. Furthermore, my mom spent much of the trip blaming herself for not planning it out better — “I should have revived her swim lessons before we went on the trip…I should have spent the first day of the trip playing with her in shallow water so she’d have the courage to go in deeper water,” etc. It’s noble, sacrificial, admirable…but to me – and she’ll likely disagree – it’s also sad that her happiness is tied up so much in our well-being, and that these new measures of happiness override her former ones. I have no right to claim which form of happiness is more “correct” – in fact, most parents might say that I disagree with my mom because I don’t understand how preferences mature when one has children and derives an unique happiness from seeing one’s children be happy, even at the “expense” of oneself. I couldn’t reconcile how 1) my mom would often tell me that she desires the freedom to travel, with the fact that 2) my siblings and I have seemed to make her  unable to enjoy opportunities for “happiness” when they are actually presented.

And I was scared of all of this, because I know I am very similar to my mom. She always tells me that at 21, she was as headstrong, ambitious, and independent as I am today, but that ever since my family immigrated to the USA, she has relinquished it all in order to raise us. I don’t know if I will as selflessly and happily give up my freedom in exchange for a more profound kind of happiness my mom seeks to experience – the happiness of seeing her kids have fun even if she must miss out. Has she consented to a voluntary shift in preference? Or has parenting us been a form of Stockholm syndrome that disables her from experiencing the kind of freedom she always pursued in her youth, a freedom that has been obscured by living the lifestyle of sacrifice that mothers must live?

This incident – which I guess I could characterize as an incident during which my mom and I fought because I didn’t want to recognize what my mom claimed made her truly happy – led me to experience the strangest kind of sadness that I’ve ever experienced. My mom wants us to all enjoy family time together, but I don’t know if there’s really any one activity that we can enjoy together, and furthermore, I don’t know if my mom will ever experience the freedom to travel that she’s dream to have, given her self-imposed obligations to her elderly mother and her younger daughter.

Last final/random comment: I’m sad we fought so much over the excursion ticket situation: whether or not we should believe the travel agent, whether or not getting the $200 reimbursement was worth it, etc. I recognize that I am so financially fortunate to be able to visit Cancun and argue that a $200 reimbursement was not worth the strife that it caused. But for anyone who finds themselves in a similar financial situation, maybe it would be worth it to think about the underlying causes of these disputes, and avoid the situation entirely by purchasing tickets from street vendors even though they may have been a tad more expensive.

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