By ANNA CHARLOTTE WILSON
Wednesday, October 10, 2018
I arrived in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic hopelessly unprepared for what awaited me.
A van had transported me through potholelined streets with houses surrounded by castiron fences. It stopped next to a giant palapa structure. Under it were a handful of smiling, clapping, gorgeous young people holding colourful cocktails.
They greeted me as though I was the Chosen One, when really I was just the next to join them. I was newly hired to join the entertainment team at an allinclusive resort.
The interview process when I joined Club Med in 1998 was almost comical. There were hundreds of young hopefuls in a hotel conference room in downtown Montreal. We were all vying for a chance to land an interview with a recruiter, which was a chance to escape the Canadian winter and live and work in paradise.
My name was called, and I walked - more likely pranced - over to the panel for my big break.
"Would you mind standing on this chair," one of them said without looking up from my headshot that I'd mailed in, "then sing Happy Birthday, followed by a cartwheel, please?" Up I went, and in my most breathy MarilynMonroe voice, I half-sang and halfwhispered the tune, followed by a high-heeled quasi-cartwheel, which ended in a triumphant flourish with my arms extended high over my head like an Olympian.
"Good," another one said. "Now, is your passport in order? And would you be prepared to leave your home with about two days' notice for an undetermined amount of time to live in an undisclosed location with a bunch of strangers?
You'll need to entertain in the nightly shows and be 'on' just about 24 hours a day, seven days a week and for about $500 per month?" That was the gist of it, anyway.
"I do!" I exclaimed, then corrected myself. "I mean, yes, I am prepared."
And that was it, I was the newest recruit for Club Med. The resort still had a reputation back in the 1990s (though tamer than its heyday in the 1970s and 80s) as being a wild party place. I jumped into the fray without a full understanding what I was in for and was soon cavorting with the best of them.
My first resort in Punta Cana was also my first time in the Caribbean and I was more afraid of tarantulas than energized about the opportunity. But the bustling group around me, cheering my arrival with manufactured joy, made me more at ease.
I had imagined that while working for an all-inclusive resort I might also have time to bronze myself in the sun for hours, sip cocktails by the pool and explore the local area. But no, it was hard work. I had to learn choreography for our nightly shows, take my meals with the guests (who inevitably would ask what it was like being on holiday as a job) and lead guests to the drunken hilarity of our most wicked excursions - including the booze cruise. A few hours after those cruises had docked, I was expected to perform my regular duties bright and early, which included selling, guiding and managing tours in the excursion department.
Sometimes, the work amounted to about 18 hours a day - but I was hooked. This was the greatest adventure of a lifetime. Toga parties and underwear parties were a regular theme, I fashioned my bed sheets in ways I never saw them fit before, jumped around in a disco filled with soapy bubbles in my knickers (sorry, Mum) and danced in shows as a cowgirl one week, as a Parisian showgirl the next or a toothless lumberjack in yet another. It was all part of the package in a Singles Village: I was there to entertain, and entertain I most certainly did, although never against my will or moral boundaries.
My first two resort jobs were cut short by hurricanes - I soon earned the nickname Hurricane Anna - but I continued on, almost addicted to the variability of my days, the constant shuffle of the unknown in my life. I'd leave for the next adventure to Mexico, Turks and Caicos, Martinique - wherever they deemed best for me. The thrill of discovery, and of being placed in both family-themed and adults-only locations, was part of the great mystery that I was enjoying.
My favourite was a remote location on the west coast of Mexico. Playa Blanca was my tucked away paradise.
As an adults-only resort, we were expected to entertain, be out and about at the bar and disco, put on shows and perform our regular duties. We were paid little, but had few expenses of our own, room and board were included; employees only paid for personal travel and entertainment outside the resort.
My one day off a week was mostly spent wandering off the resort aboard the guagua (small public bus) or motoconcho (the back of a motorcycle... again, sorry, Mum). I was able to throw myself into the local culture and enjoyed the street food, customs and art, all before preparing for another wild week of Jagerbombs, underwear parties, theatre shows and unusually animated cheering for each new guest arriving.
In 2004, I had to come back to reality for an emergency surgery. Back in Canada, I longed to settle into some kind of office job, anything that would be the polar opposite of my resort experiences, and I did.
Doors opened for me uniquely because of my worldliness. The time spent in Club Med and travelling the world gave me a more adventurous mindset and a more extroverted approach to life. I happily embarked on a number of careers - none of which could compare to those wild exploits of a younger me.
I write this while pregnant with my third child, my mind a million years away from those halcyon days of the past. As a mother with two daughters, I'm often asked if I would permit them to work in an environment of debauchery, excess, incredible beauty and unforgettable adventure. Why, absolutely. In fact, I would say that everyone should try to work at a Club Med or another all-inclusive, at least once in their life; travel is the best education there is.
Occasionally, I still don my unicorn costume in all its fluffy rainbow glory and sashay along to local festivals and parades to relive the resort days. I'm not sure whether they can truly ever be left behind - nor would I want them to be.
Anna Charlotte Wilson lives in Ottawa.
ILLUSTRATION BY CHELSEA O'BYRNE