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Cancun – a postscript for Sarah….

22 Sep

A postscript on Cancun….

While I enjoyed my time there, largely due to the company of the lovely Sarah, and the sense of fun of a day trip to Isla de Mujeres, there was something profoundly sterile about the Zona Hotelera, and the independent and monolithic hotels there – although there was a little bit of fun around places like Senor Frog’s and Coco Bongo, it all felt as if the real action was happening somewhere else.  So, I set out in search of something tonight – and found out where Cancun’s townfolk were having fun.

Anyway, I wasn’t going to eat at McDonalds on my last night in Mexico.  Past the bus station, I found a few more restaurants and shops – and down a side road, a few more lights.  The road opened out into a lovely little plaza: coffee shops, bars, restaurants – children were driving their battery powered cars around, Mexican cheerleading teams were practising their moves – and a food court served all sorts of Mexican fast food, from tacos to quesadillas, from gorditas to chillis relenos.  I had the biggest bottle of Corona I could imagine, and then a few tacos – and an entire bag of churros.  And I think I spent about £4 (we’re not 100% certain about the exact exchange rate, but it’s close enough for rock and roll).

So I just sat and watched a Mexican Tuesday night unfold around me – the courting couples, the families, the friends – and somehow I felt very very much at home.

Hotels and islands – leavings and endings

21 Sep

And then there were two.  Ellie having scooted off back to Scotland, and Jess off back in the general direction of Australia, the original Three Musketeers were down to one, plus yours truly as D’Artagnan.  Without the silly hair.

And we were bored with Playa.  So we hopped on another collectivo and made our way to Cancun.  We’d written the address of the new hostel on a piece of paper, but neither of us had enough brain cells to write the name of the hostel down (or at least remember it) so when the collectivo dumped us on a four carriageway road that we expected to be the Cancun High St, we were a bit confused… and so was the poor cab driver we roped in to help.  Who knows what would have happened if Sarah hadn’t been fluent in Spanish.

(A word on collectivos – a bit like a shared taxi, a bit like a bus, these minibuses wait until they are full enough before departing to a fixed route and picking up people on the way.  Collectivos are cheap, social, and very annoying if you’re in a hurry – you’ve got to wait until the driver’s ready, and if he wants to stop for cigarettes and a Coke on the way.. So be it.)  I liked this sign on one of them though…

Anyway, finally delivered to our hostel (around 200 m from where we hailed the cab) we were confronted with a lovely little place with a pool, hammocks, chill zone, birds and geckos – even if it did seem to be in an industrial park. A rather hot and restless night followed…

And then off to Cancun beach.  Cancun has a Zona Hotelera, where the hotels have been built on the beach, reminding me of Dubai, somehow.

We walked along the beach and realised that we were bored… so we decided to walk to the ferry to Isla de Mujeres ( a trip interrupted by the need for a mocha frappucino, a T-shirt and tat shopping trip.. and another downpour.  It was, I have to say, a bit further than we expected – but turning up at the last minute we hopped on a ferry for the 30 minute trip to the island.  At which point we spotted what has to be the biggest flag in the world.

Looks like PhotoShop or an optical illusion – but it really IS a building sized flag.

Isla de Mujeres wasn’t quite what we’d expected from the guide book – but still a pretty town of (more) souvenir shops and silversmiths.  We decided that as we only had two hours, we’d do what everyone else does – rent a golf cart.

Not being a golfer, I have never driven one of these before… and was too busy looking at the scenery to notice all the speed bumps.  Sorry, Sarah.  So, we charged off to the other end of the island, where we found the Tortugranja or Turtle Farm.  Sounds awful – but they rescue the eggs from the beaches the turtles lay them on, rebury them in sand and wait for them to hatch.. And when they are big enough to stand a good chance of survival, put them back in the sea.  Which means big pools of baby turtles, tiny turtles and medium sized turtles.

And I still swear that they are sitting there looking very very wise…. And maybe the one I sat and ‘talked’ to for a while really did want to say “Good afternoon. We’re gonna have a great jump today. Okay, first crank a hard cutback as you hit the wall. There’s a screaming bottom curve, so watch out. Remember: rip it, roll it, and punch it. “ (Crush, from Finding Nemo)I’d like to think so.

Time for a brief dip in the sea, and a brief moment of regret that we hadn’t stayed the night out there… before heading back to the mainland an dropping Sarah back off on the bus.

And then…. There was one.  D’Artagnan back on his own ready for the final leg of his journey before returning to the UK for a lightning visit.  Watch this space, thrill seekers..

Cenotes and train tracks… serious thrill issues resurface..

17 Sep

And on into Merida – a 9 hour non stop coach journey with little to recommend it : more dubbed movies, and a time to catch up on some homework…. Still very beautiful countryside, and even a brief spell on the coast.

And then into Merida and the Independence Day celebrations.  Everyone was up at the park for the main event, although there were some festivities and a protest in the Zocalo, too.  I missed most of it due to a failed conference call.. Grrr!

A bit of a struggle in the morning getting coffee – most of the town was closed off for the parades – the schools led marching bands, the riot police wore their ceremonial gear (no, really) and the motorcycle police demonstrated how to ride REALLY slowly.  And one poor soldier had full jungle camouflage on (basically, he was dressed as a tree).  Now HE was feeling a little warm – and got a round of applause.

We spent today out jumping into Mayan cenotes or sinkholes – we visited the Cenotes de Cuzama although there are thousands of these across Yucatan.  These supply the water to the villages, but also were used for ceremonial purposes by the Maya.

We started off with a charming if bumpy ride on a horse drawn carriage on the old railway used to carry the sisal harvest on the old hacienda.  It’s a single lane track, so when two carriages meet, one of them has to be lifted off the track and then back on.  Fabulous fun though!  The horses seemed a little scrawny but otherwise well cared for – and can set a cracking pace pulling the carriage.  The rails aren’t QUITE as straight as they used to be, all of which added to the fun.

And that led to three sinkholes – huge underground caverns in the limestone that are full of fresh water.  Each of them is reached by often precarious ladders and steps down into the cavern, and lit only by light from holes in the roof.

The Mayans used to use these in their ceremonies – it was a way to contact the gods of the underworld, and the people would descend into the sinkhole in mimicry of death, only to arise reborn from the water.  The water is an incredibly beautiful blue-green and quite warm (or, rather, relatively warm)… and deep enough to dive into safely from the platforms way above – a thrill I haven’t had for years.  Mind you, you have to contend with the fish, and the bats… and the hordes of Mexican children on holiday!

Beautiful experience, though.. And I felt reborn, refreshed, reenergized and renewed  too.

And then just to add to the water theme of the day… the Mexican heavens opened again, dumping several inches of rain on an increasingly waterlogged group.  So the only real choice seemed to be ice cream and coffee on the square, and a reflective couple of hours before the 4am start tomorrow….

From a funky hippy town somewhere in Mexico….

14 Sep

San Cristobal… a little bit higher in elevation.  A little bit more multicultural.  A little bit easier to get lost in.  Still rains in the afternoon.  Still full of VW beetles.  Still full of churches.

I love this town.  There’s a nice energy around, and everything’s chilled and relaxed – and some of it is really quite odd.

First night out was Gaynor’s birthday – and a Saturday –  so we hit the salsa bar… now, I can’t dance salsa, but everyone I danced with seemed happy enough (although I think it was a bit of a struggle with our Cuban tour guide and salsa dancer.. Really nice evening out with the locals, although nothing gets started until 10:30.

We spent the next day touring a Mayan community… Ifell in love with one of their rugs, which depicts the Mayan world.  The town is in celebration most of the time, it seems, with a crazy market covering the square, the streets, and anywhere else you can fit a stall selling corn, bananas, shoes, spanners and anything else you can think of (and some more that you never even thought would be important)

They let fireworks off in the daytime here.. Holding the rockets in their hands.  First time it happened we thought the revolution had started.  Although we got treated to our own beautiful rainbow round the sun.

The church (no photos allowed) is a crazy mix of Mayan and Roman Catholic… the floor covered with grass and candles.  The shaman takes the supplicants pulse and then advises how many candles and how many chickens are needed for a cure.  The offering is always accompanied by Coca Cola (the drink of the dead).

The church is full of saints – four of them are in disgrace, having been rescued by a nearby church which suffered a fire and an earthquake – having failed to protect the church, they are second class citizens in their new home.  Mind you, all of them look somewhat surprised to be there.

I spent the afternoon doing some shopping, drinking coffee and eating at Emiliano’s Moustache (I saw the sign and had to eat there, a reference to Emiliano Zapata’s famous moustache)… and making some decisions about who I am and what I am doing with my life.  Tomorrow’s going to start tonight…..

But you know what… I reallydo love this town – another place I could choose to live.

Just how DO you pronounce Oaxaca?

11 Sep

And then on to Oaxaca.  Another bus, taking us past the mountains of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, rising dramatically above the town.

We see condors wheeling in a pillar, using the thermals to rise.  We see beautiful lush green landscapes, where quarries cut out of the mountain give it a strange beauty.  The hills become covered with cacti, different shapes peppering the hills. Little villages rush by, each with its own huge, beautifully painted church painted in ochres and reds

Oaxaca is a lovely town, full of bustling markets, We stop to sample grasshoppers sold by one little old lady.  W rush past the smell of the meat stall.  Each of the roads seems to specialise in one particular product – the street of sweets, the street of shoes, the street of oddly painted souvenirs… but where is the street of hats when you need it.

We take a tour out f town, visiting the historic site of Mitlan – beautifully crafted buildings, with tiny tombs too short to stand up in – bending the head, the knees, everything…

We listen to how they make mezcal from the agave cactus… and it would be rude not to sample it, even if we have to contend with eating the mezcal worm (can a vegetarian drink mezcal?)  Yours truly had to try….

The streets are full of tuk tuks, making it look like Thailand but with larger moustaches.  Chilli goes on everything, adding a zing… mango & chilli, potato crisps and chilli, grasshoppers and chilli….I like this town!

We visit the ancient tree in Tula, the oldest living tree.  We learn how to make rugs using natural dye in traditional Zapotec style – and just HOW difficult it is to make a Picasso copy in rug form.

We stop off at the stamp museum (largely because our best spanish speaker (and she’s good) didn’t know what filatelia meant but the museum was free… but a huge laugh (although we can’t remember WHY now…)

Sarah looking gorgeous (well, they said philately would get me everywhere)

The Friday market has mad queues of people for food, for pirate DVDs.. crazy wild – although the army is out in force incase the legendary Zapotec unrest kicks off again…

And then the night bus… twelve hours on yet another bus, on the way to San Cristobal..

I’m gonna break out of the city…..

10 Sep

…Leave the people here behind
Searching for adventure
It’s the kind of life to find
(Eddie and the Hot Rods)

And so a few days in Mexico City. When I’ve told people I’m travelling there, they’ve gone pale an asked if I was going to be safe. I suspect that provided I don’t run for public office or get involved in a major court case then I should be fine.

And Mexico City seems safer than perhaps it is… but it is safer than everyone thinks. Provided we take care, then we’ll probably be OK. After all, says the tour guide, she’s only been robbed twice. Hmmm.

On a weekday, Mexico is crazy busy – a mad mix of business people in sharp suitsand well polished shoes, street people and poorly dressed work force…

I’ve eaten some crazy (an really nice) Mexican food and braved the street food (better than the restaurants, I think). And coffee. And churros. Lots of churros.

Visited the anthropological musemum, with lots of Mayan and other indiginous art… including this little chap….

and this huge pillar in the centre supporting the roof – they don’t bother draining the water, just let it fall to the ground..

We took the metro to the bus station.. 16 people with rucksacks in a Mexican rush hour. Now THAT’s taking a risk. And a quick 2 hour bus to Puebla.. Perhaps a little safer, perhaps a little more beautiful. I like the place – the decorations are up ready for Mexican independence day (the bicentennial – should be one hell of a party). The hotel’s not as great (but kinda cute, my bed slopes and the pillow is distinctly lumpy..

They’re getting ready for the bicentennial of independence in Mexico – so all the zocalos (local squares) are decorated in tinsel . . . because the national colours are red and green, it feels like Christmas

Jess & Sarah

So we’ve wandered the streets a lot – wandered into lots of churches, which always leave me vaguely creeped out by the relics and statuary. In one, the bishops were on the high altar… while Jesus was stuck in a corner. Something seems wrong, somehow… and yet He seemed more comfortable sat around with the congregation

Did kinda like this juxtaposition of the Sol truck and the church though . .

And on the last night, the heavens opened, throwing huge amounts of water into the streets, and lighting up the sky with an electrical storm, bathing the cathedral in a beautiful and ethereal light. How do I know this.. Because I’m a Scorpio, and water is my element… I just threw my coat on and walked the deserted streets – just a few courting couples huddled in doorways, the street vendors shutting up shop for the night, and the street people, wrapped up against the damp and the cold. And somehow, my heart went out to them all….

On for tequila and tacos . . .

6 Sep

And so on to the next step on my trip…. Although I caught the bus into town, it was still a tough walk fully laden with backpack and supplies for the trip.  And back onto good old Greyhound.  First stop was the charming bus stop in Barstow, made up of gaily decorated boxcars and carriages….but, sadly, that would be the last charming bus stop I encountered.  The Greyhound drivers can be quite amusing from time to time though.

And so into Phoenix… a moment when I thought they’d lost my bag, despite the fact that I watched them put it on the bus.  Yet another Greyhound bus terminal, differentiated only by the fact that the food was getting cheaper and the signs were increasingly in Spanish.  Perhaps things look different in the day, but at 2am, everything seems grim.

So, perhaps it was the lateness of the hour, or perhaps the fact that Phoenix had the standard PA system installed, the one that distorts the sound so you can’t actually understand a word the announcer was saying.  Maybe they design them that way.

A brief stop next for a pickup – not even time to grab coffee, and on into Texas.  Time whirls by in a blur of sleeping and waking, listening to music and feeling the effect of not bringing a travel pillow.  The landscape rolls by, a mixture of starlingly beautiful mountains and depressing car dealerships and strip malls.

El Paso.  Last stop in the USA.  Same terminal, same announcement system.  Different town.  Another missed bus… but this time, it’s a Mexican bus.  Leg room.  Comfy seats.  Movies.  Cupholders (ok, cupholders aren’t that great but after 24 hours on a bus, EVERYTHING is great)

The bus pulls in at the border… a tidy hall, a queue of one (me) but in my just roused state it takes a couple of attempts to get it right.  And on into Mexico.

Within a few miles, the poverty becomes more apparent.  And the landscape seems softer, somehow.. It may be the rain falling gently, or the clouds that hug the hills and mountains.  Maybe life has become more personal, simpler – villages of identical design, tiny houses fiercely individual in their decoration.  An open wagon goes past filled with butcher’s scraps.  Life seems closer to reality, somehow.

Through Chihuahua and on into the night again – the clouds giving the mountain a strage ethereal beauty.  And the joy of sleeping on reclining seats!  Mexican buses are a legend in the US – although Greyhound are getting there, they are not getting there fast enough!

Past San Diego, and into the hills, the grass becoming greener – if you close your eyes and squint it could almost be England.  Until the trees resolve into palm trees, and the occasional cactus becomes apparent.

And finally (finally) after two days the bus rolls into Mexico City.  My diet of pizza and breakfast bars is nearly over.  The city is crazy – huge, busy, and yet everyone seems happy, at peace.  Maybe it’s just an impression, but life feels good here….

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