Real Life in PDC (or at least: Life west of 5th avenue)

If you wish to take a vacation to a place like PDC, your todo list is pretty easy:

  1. Pick a hotel
  2. Pack a swimsuit and sunscreen
  3. Enjoy

However, my intent is to live here for a while (1-2 months), learn Spanish, and get to know the culture.  So I’m living with a Mexican family, walking to school every day, and trying things that are not so touristy.  A few things of note:

PDC is beautiful, to be sure.  However, most of the town seems to be in various states of disrepair.  Example, as soon as you set foot off of 5th avenue, venturing into the great unknown, you encounter a spaces like these:

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And even the nicer places have a bit of decay to the streets, buildings, or sidewalks.

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This seeming disrepair, however, doesn’t make it seem run down or crumbling, strangely enough.  Instead, it just make the town feel “real” in a way that 5th avenue feels fake, like a polished stage.  Some assorted photos taken on my walk to and from school each day:

Early morning, normally much busier than this:

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Normal little apartment block.

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Again, early-ish, it’s not actually a ghost town:

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Some observations from walking around town for a couple weeks:

The people are genuinely happy, relaxed and friendly.  Back home you would not blink at seeing a snippy interaction between someone getting their coffee, or someone getting cut off crossing the street, or some parent berating their child or vice-versa.  Here there just isn’t the overall sense of pressure and hurry that a place like Seattle has.  People do their work, but they seem pretty content to do so instead of under pressure, deadlines, or other stresses.

They do love their futbal.  When a game is on you will hear it in every restaurant, shop, and taco stand you pass.

They also do love themselves some pizza.  There’s nearly as many pizza stands as taco stands.  And Hamburger carts are a pretty common thing too.  Not fancy street food like Portland, just basic bun/meat type of offerings.

There are no walk signals.  You are left to fend for yourself trying to get across busy streets.  If you can’t figure out the lights for traffic, well, perhaps this is a good place for natural selection to take effect.  Then again, most of those people stay on 5th avenue, so they are safe (cars are not allowed there).

This is the perfect place for bikes: it’s basically flat and you’ll never need any gear (I have yet to see a helmet).  However, in the same way that they have no walk signals, there’s little affordance given for bikes as well.  So, you gotta wing it.  I intend to acquire a bike soon and will let you know how that goes.  Hopefully better then when I tried to figure out the male / female locker situation.

Pollution from cars seems significant in busy intersections unfortunately.  I think emissions restrictions must be a little more lax than in the states.  Like, along the lines of “yep, you’ve got emissions.  So?”.

It’s super easy to navigate around.  It’s basically a grid of Avenues (Avenidas) that increment by 5’s, and Streets (Calles) that increment by even numbers on the north side and odd numbers on the south side of the main drag.  So if someone says the place you are looking for is on 24th and 30th, you know pretty much exactly where it is and where to go (24th street, so it’s north, 30th ave so it’s about 6 blocks up from the beach).

So, once I got over the mindset of being a “foreigner on vacation” and tried to treat this as a town I live in, I needed to do some common every day things.  Like shopping.  As mentioned in the towel post, one thing I needed to get was a towel.  Now markets here come in three varieties:

Minisuper – this is a convenience store.  Basically 7-11 and their ilk.

Super – your basic supermarket.  Food, housewares, etc.

Mega:

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Yep.  It’s basically Mexican Wall-mart.  And in case you don’t like that, there’s an actual Wall-mart right down the block.  Oh goody.  Being a local, now, I opted for the Mega.

This is very much like any big-box store you’d find in the states: isle upon isle of all the things you never knew you needed.

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Checking through the store to see what every-day family culture might be like, I find it is quite similar to being back home.  For example, Miley Cyrus is still on the cover of some magazine, sharing her words of wisdom for tweens everywhere, just doing it in a different language (wow, do her talents never end?):

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There’s an impressive produce section, with much the same stuff we have back in the states, it’s just that the priorities are a bit different.  For example, the giant mountain in the front is all jicama.  Also, insane piles of avocados are everywhere and they are about 75 cents each!  That translates to breakfast, lunch and dinner for me for about 3 bucks (2 for dinner, natch).

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Also, if you are not sure what you are looking for, but you are pretty sure you are hungry, you can just opt for “food”.  Of course, they spell it a bit differently here:

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Also, should you have the craving for pork rinds, this is the country for you.  Never have I seen bulk pork rinds, but I believe that’s what this display is.  I should have gotten someone in the frame to show size, because this container is my size, and one of these sheets of bubbly pig flesh is the size of a small child.  Only crunchier.

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So there you have it: life in Playa is much like life back in the states.  Only pedestrians have to be aware of their surroundings, people are actually pretty happy, and your secret pork rind fixation can be solved in a way you never dreamed possible.

Throwing in the towel

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.

– Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Despite packing everything I thought I might need for 6 months into the pack that makes me look like an oversize snail carrying his Red-ish house on its back, I did not pack a towel.  Upon realizing this I kinda wanted to hand in my geek card.  However, here I was, in PDC, towel-less.  I don’t have enough room in the pack to add a wafer-thin mint, so what was I to do?

I had assumed I would be able to borrow a towel from wherever I was staying.  However, upon arriving at the home I’d be renting a room in while going to Spanish class, I discovered that there was but one towel provided for 3 students.  A fourth student was added this week.  I didn’t like those odds.

So, I had to buy a towel.  Prior to this however, I wisely enlisted in a membership at the local gym.  Here, surely, they would provide towels for when you shower?  Nay, fair traveler.  You must bring your own.  They provide a small square of fabric to mop the sweat from your brow, but not a full-fledged towel.  That would be crazy talk.

So it was that I found myself at the gym, post-workout, sweaty, and in need of a shower.  This was mid-day, so I knew once I hit the humidity outside I would be sweaty pretty soon again, but the levels of moisture I had already generated were too much for me to take, I needed to be clean, even if just for a moment.

A key point in this meandering story: this gym is fairly sizeable.  Not anything compared to the death-star of gyms that is the Redmond Pro Club, but fair sized.  Since it’s the middle of the day, there were about 2 women and 5 guys at the place total.  Pretty empty.  Trust me, this nonsequitur comes around.

So I take a shower, knowing I have but a tiny cloth to dry myself.  And this shower is GLORIOUS.  You see, the shower at the house is tiny, cramped, and has a water-saving head on it that yields an output of 2 tablespoons per minute.  This shower head is a massive disc of nozzles that spews perfectly warmed water down on you like rain from heaven while you gallivant in your spacious walk-in fully slate-tile shower room.  It’s probably the size of my bedroom at the house.  So I stay in as long as possible.

Eventually, I’m forced to admit that it’s time to get out, and I attempt to cover myself with the small square of towel they have given me, which could probably wrap around my wrist, but no more.  I wonder if I can explain why I’m drying myself with a tiny square of fabric to anyone coming in?  Probably not worth it.  Anyway; it does an admirable job of soaking up the water from my hair, face, and neck, then the rest of me is greeted with a rag that contains an equal amount of water as my skin’s surface, so the net effect is just pushing water around.  Fine, I air-dry for a bit, then put clothes on over a mostly damp body.

Note, I’ve spent probably more than 1/2 hour in the locker room by this point.

Cut to today: I return to the club around 5pm, this time with my very own towel in hand, purchased from the local “Mega” (further post on living in PDC away from 5th avenue to explain that).  I hand the counter girl my membership card, take my complimentary sweat-rag from her, get my lock and key for the lockers and go to put my day pack in the locker room.  The place is much busier now, there are people in the entry way, coming in, going out, etc.

There are three women in my locker room in various states of undress.

I hastily beat a retreat while my addled brain pieces the parts of the puzzle together:

  • I was not in the men’s room that first day.
  • I spent over a half hour happily showering, drying and dressing myself in the ladies room.
  • I had nothing but a small square of cloth to cover me in case someone came in.
  • My pitiful toe-hold on the Spanish language would probably not have been enough to keep me from some kind of charges, had someone come in.
  • Somebody, somewhere, is very merciful with the dice rolls of my fate.

So, now I own a towel AND I know the correct room to go to at the gym.  My travel skills are coming along nicely, I feel.

Fun fact about the towel, purchased for “as cheap as possible” at the local Mega: it has some unexpected properties.  For example: it is water repellent.  True fact.  Note to self: buying the cheapest option usually gets you what you paid for.

The Playa at Playa

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Playa Del Carmen?  I’ve made no mention of the “Playa” portion of this.

Needless to say, Carmen’s Playa is quite nice.  It is worth coming for, worth staying for, and worth hanging out all day at. The beach itself is largely punctuated by two ferry docks. One is at about the center of the main beach area, and about 1/2 mile further south is the main ferry terminal to Cozumel.

A few notes about the beach:

  • The waves are medium sized: fun to play in, but not large enough to surf on (or drown in).  The temperature is wonderfully about 75-80 degrees.
  • It will be hot.  Wonderfully so.  That chill in the marrow of your bones will finally bake away and be replaced with a soft, melty goo that just feels like contentment.
  • It won’t be TOO hot, because there will always be a breeze the passes by every few moments to cool you off *just* a little, but not enough to keep that contentment in your bones from making the rest of your body mostly dissolve into the sand.
  • The sand.  Ah yes, the sand.  On many beaches you will eagerly step out only to leap into the air screaming obscenities as you grasp your feet which are now spurting flames and turning black from the volcanic heat coming off the sand.  Not so in Playa; the sand just feels… nice.  Soft.  Cool.  I asked around why this is and I’m told its because the sand is not ground up rocks but ground up coral.  Sorry coral, I know you are an endangered species but you sure are easy on the feet.

So, depending on your time of day, you will experience different things:

Early in the morning:

it is like you see above.  Tranquil.  Open, expansive, beautiful, warm.  You can wake up, mosey down to the beach, plop your towel down, and get steadily warmed by the sun as it begins its trek across the sky.

Midday (really anything after 10am)

By midday it’s packed.  Every day.  Constantly.  If you want a good spot, get there early.

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As you walk along the beach, you will be frequently asked whether you would like a massage, or if you want a cerveza, or if you’d like to have a seat in one of the oh-so-conveniently provided chairs / lounges / beds / etc they are providing at the beach.

Now, some people go to the beach for a relaxing time. There are places on the beach for that. However, these places are not near Mamitas.

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Mamitas, and the resorts neighboring it, will basically build through the day into a full-on beach party (basically a night club, but on the beach, during the day, with marginally less clothing, and you have to buy a designated seat).

Music is loud, drinks are ordered, and if you really wanna roll large, you get yourself one of these covered bed type thingies.

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However, if the idea of paying for a seat at the beach makes you itch, you can just plop your towel down as well and enjoy the scene.  So, yeah: there’s always a party somewhere in Playa Del Carmen. Depends on your stamina.

If, however, you just want to get some mates together and hit a ball around, the number of volleyball games is pretty impressive.

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Also: Bocce. On the beach. I mean, why not?

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Night time

Lastly, you should really come back at night.  Especially with a full moon.  The beach will have a few couples taking in a languorous stroll, but will be otherwise deserted.  Most of the busy beach-front shops will be closed down, so it will be peaceful and quiet.  Even the waves will slowly and calmly roll in, making slow, calm noises.  You can see the lights from Cozumel across the ocean, and the moonlight will paint everything blue and purple.  It doesn’t get much more peaceful than this.

For those folks still laboring under 40 degree weather: I’m terribly sorry to remind you that every day, every hour, this beach exists.  As you are waking up, blearily pouring your first cup of coffee, it’s right here.  It’s warm.  As you are driving to work, it is here, heating up, the beach clubs setting our their chairs, people setting out their towels.  As you are taking your lunch break, on the beach there’s music blaring, people dancing on the sand and ordering more drinks, and kids playing in the water.  As your are heading home, exhausted after work, it’s still here, with gentle waves covering tranquil sands like a blanket for the night.  Every day, every night, all the time, it’s right here.

Perhaps you should take a quick break.  ’tis but a 7 hour flight.  See you beach-side.

Spanish Class – Week 2

So, as previously mentioned, at five hours a day, plus living with a Mexican family, I should be fluent in no time, yes?

Oh reality, you are a harsh mistress.

My initial thoughts were: sure, I’ll have some problems at the start, but they’ll be easily overcome with the help of my teachers (Maestros).  Problems like “oh dear me, I said ‘le’ instead of ‘la’.  Ha ha, yes, that’s a silly mistake” <clink of glasses as we jest in Español>.

This is week 2. Reality has set in.  This is a lot of work.

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Verbos Infinitivos.  Reflexivos.  Palabras Interrogativas. If you put a gun to my head and demanded that I conjugate the verb “to go” (Ir), I’m pretty sure you’d end up calling for a clean-up on isle 12.

However, there are some bright spots:

  • I can order food at local restaurants with a minimum amount of confusion and wild gesticulating involved.
  • I can understand about 12% of what my teachers are saying during class, and my questions have dropped from 1 per second to about 1 per 4 minutes.  Much to the relief of the Maestros.
  • The scowl of concentration for 5 hours per day has left some lovely deep furrows on my brow.  I think it makes me more distinguished.

Meanwhile, living with a family has yielded some unexpected opportunities for practicing Spanish.  For example, once a week the mother comes in and cleans rooms while the students are away.  This happened the other day, and when I came back from class I was unable to find Meebus.

Imagine trying to construct a well formed sentence that runs a balance between thanking someone for cleaning your room without you even asking, while also politely inquiring if they happen to have found a stuffed monkey and perhaps, maybe, assumed it belonged to one of the kids in the family, thus it ended up in an upstairs toybox?  Perhaps?  Maybe?

The best I came up with is: “gracias por limpiar mi habitación. ¿Por casualidad para descubrir un chango de juguete mientras se limpia?”  For someone who can only really retain a single verb at a time, this proved to be too much to hold stable in my head.  So I shortened it to:

“Gracias por la limpieza”

followed by

“¿Encontraste un chango de juguete?”

Both of these might be possible to contain in my head for the trip upstairs, so I recited them over and over on my way up.  Before I knocked on the door though, I panicked.  What if I’m accidentally being very rude?  Maybe I should wait until breakfast when the other students who’s Spanish is FAR superior to mine can help straighten out any faux pas I make?  Maybe it’s best just to let Meebus live his new life?  Maybe he’s happier here.  What kind of future does he have to look forward to with me after all, dangling by a clip from my backpack, being posed for inane pictures, packed into pockets, forced to beg for space change when the money runs out?

I went back to my room, defeated.  Before going to bed I looked through a few pictures of Meebus, remembering the good times.

Then, when packing up my clothes to take to the laundy, I found Meebus squatting in the bottom of my backpack.  My bad.  Glad that I chickened out at the door, no idea HOW I would have explained that I was sorry for falsely accusing anyone of stealing my toy monkey, and it was in fact my fault the entire time.

Meebus: I blame you.  Stay put, you wayward Monkey.

Playa Del Carmen + Vegas, part 2

A night out in Playa Del Carmen

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So, I covered a bit about what 5th ave is like, but things change when the sun goes down.  You go from this:

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To this:

Crossroads (quick video I took early in the night)

or this (walkaround from someone, posted about a year ago)

a few notes before we dive in:

  • drinking age is 18.  There will be youngsters afoot.
  • Drinks are as expensive in the tourist part as anywhere else in the world I’ve been.  Prepare your wallet accordingly
  • The clubs (discos, en espanol.  Just don’t go expecting Abba) stay open until 4 or later.  Rest up.

So, if you are in PDC and looking for nightlife, regardless of how you START the night, you WILL end up at the crossroads below 5th and 12th.  With that as a truism, let’s start your night out on a nice, relaxed note with a few drinks at some nice places with cool, chill atmospheres, then steadily ramp up into a train wreck that stops short of being thrown in a Mexican jail.

Fusion

Start your night right on the beach.  Recommended drink: Cuba Libre.  Fusion has a fire show at 10, which is followed up by a Cuban band doing some mean salsa.  There’s a wooden plank dance floor right on the sand in front of the band for dancing.  The beach, lighting, open air, and music make this pretty much the pinnacle of romance.  If, you know, you are into that sorta thing.

FAH

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More live music!  How can you go wrong?  Righ on 5th, Fah is a good place to have a seat right on the strip and have a beer while listening to whatever cover band they have that night.

Food here is pretty weak compared to all your other options, so I’d recommend just getting a cerveza.  The bands range from “do they know what a key is?” to “Why are these guys not touring?”.  Your mileage may vary. However, I haven’t seen a night yet without a band, so you’ll always get something.

Ula Gula

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Next, try out Ula Gula, just up the block. You must get the Caipirinha. Best I’ve had anywhere. Sour like lemonade but a touch of sweet and completely refreshing on a warm night (which is every night in PDC). They always have a DJ here playing House music (anywhere from progressive to tech for you electro-heads out there). Great place to watch everyone walk on by as they head out to the crossroads for the night.

Deseo

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After your tasty, tasty Caipirinha, head to Deseo. It’s right off 5th up some mayan-esque stairs, so many people miss it. Easily, hands-down my favorite vibe anywhere in PDC. House music is much more towards the Eurotrance style, so it’s very chill, relaxed, yet still energizing. Sit back with your drink by the rooftop pool and enjoy the projection on the wall of whatever b-grade black and white movie they are showing. My favorite so far was Santo en el Tesoro de Dracula. Wow.  So. Awesome.

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Diablita

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Okay, so now the night begins to slide downhill.  Literally.  You descend into the madness at the crossroads.  Diablita is a great place right on the corner where you can watch the fray ensue.  The bartenders are great, and if you catch them at a slow point you can ask them to make you whatever drink they think is good with <fill in liquor>.  The Elder did this with rum and I wish I would have gotten pictures of it.  It took 4 separate glasses, a plate, a muddle, 2 minutes steeping time for various ingredients, and ended in a goblet glass with cinnamon on top.  Impressive.

Kartabar (sorry no image, my phone’s camera didn’t do well in the dark)

If, however, you feel a bit munchy, you can to next door to Kartabar and get some pretty decent falafel and hummus.  The seats (couches) here are way too comfy, you might just finish the night here if you settle in.  Again, you have a front-row view of the madness of the crossroads.

By now it’s probably very late if you are still out, so it’s time to just dive into pure silliness.  You have 5 choices for how to finish the night:

Mandala:

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This is the first mega-club you will run into on entering the crossroads, and will stay the most packed throughout the night.  By the end of the night, it will be standing room only across the three floors they have.  You will have to pay 100 pesos cover, unless it’s early and you are an attractive woman.

Coco Maya:

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Usually free cover, 2 big dance floors with separate types of DJ (top 40 and whatever the guest DJ that night is doing at the back bar), plus an upstairs that will open if the place fills up which is unlikely because it’s huge.  Sand separates the two floors, and the back bar is open to the beach so you get a fantastic breeze coming in as the night winds on.  Pretty hard to beat in my opini0n.  Also, if it’s early and you are an attractive woman, they may give you an “open bar” wristband letting you drink for free all night.  Danger.

Blue Parrot:

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You WILL be pestered by hawkers on the street trying to sell you an armband to give you “open bar” at the Parrot.  They are there to funnel people into the Parrot, and it’s worked wonders for them for years.  The Parrot is on my list as most disappointing because 3 years ago when I was here it was all sand and open to the beach and they had fire dancers throughout the night.  Now the sand is gone, there are no fire dancers, and I have completely outgrown the crowd.  Music is all top-40 like you’d find in any club in the states.  They have themes every day (Disco, carnival, foam party, etc) but it all feels rather cheesy.  Still: they prepare quite a mountain of foam:

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Vaquita:

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just opened.  They chose their party theme to be… cows.  Yep, nothing says a rockin’ good time like a cow flying overhead.

Palazzo:
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this is a nightclub that is NOT on the crossroads.  I know!  Madness!  How will they survive?  Apparently pretty well.  They are only open Thursday – Sunday, but when they are open they get packed out pretty well.  Lots of large parties go here and everything focuses around one central dance floor.

Depending on your tastes, I would recommend any of these.

Not recommended: Coco Bongo.  (click on link only if you like obnoxiousness)

Unless you are 22, have never seen a Cirque show before (this tries to come close but ultimately fails) and have too much money making your pants just not fit well anymore.  In which case, well, youth is for making mistakes!

After your night’s exertions, you will end up eating square pieces of pizza at 4am.  It’s unavoidable, and the darn stands are near ubiquitous here.  You have been warned.
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As for the Mexican Jail: you will see LOTS of federal police patrolling.  It can be somewhat disconcerting at first, until you realize that tourism is basically the entire industry for the area from Cancun down to Tulum.  They patrol mostly to make their presence known.  I have yet to see anyone have any altercation with them whatsoever.  So, just treat them as part of the show.

Now go get some sleep.  You’ll need it.

Livin’ la vida Mexicano

Part of my planning for living abroad yet being frugal was to rent a room with locals. This, I figured, would be perfect: I get to save money, and improve my Spanish by speaking with the people I live with on a regular basis. So, through my school I arranged to be hosted by a local Mexican family, and breakfast would be included each day. I could stay as long or as short as I like because I’ll be paying by the week. Also, unlike staying at a hotel which can be around $150 – $200 or more per day, this would be $200 per WEEK, with breakfast! Sounds perfect, no?

So, let’s check in with reality, shall we?

First off, my concerns before arriving were principally:

  • Will the home have WiFi?

Upon leaving the comfortable and excellent hotel, I realized I had another problem:

  • Most buildings here don’t have addresses.

To get around in Mexico, you get an address like the following: “calle 34 entre ave 25 y 30”.  This translates roughly to: “on 34th street, between 25th ave and 30th ave”.  That’s how my school was noted, and I had no problems finding it, because it has a huge bloody sign out and looks like a vacation in the middle of the city.  How will I find the house I’m to stay at?

Well, luckily, this house seems to have modernized: they have a “casa 6” added to their address, so all I have to do is get between ave 25 and 30, and find a house with a 6 on it.  Simple.  Also: the avenues increment by 5’s here, so it’s just one block between 25 and 30.

So, I leave school, pick up my luggage from the hotel, and begin my trek from 6th street to 34th street.  It’s about 2pm, and the sun is in full force, as is the humidity.  I have wisely chosen to pack my backpack with everything I could ever need for Mexico, Spain, Germany, England, Ireland, Scotland, and Norway.  So it weighs, roughly, 400 pounds.

Do you remember those tourist stores I lambasted when I discussed 5th ave?  Turns out they have AC on full blast.  Each store along the way was visited by a large foreigner, sweating so profusely that his pores were basically spraying sweat at strangers, who stood for several minutes under the blasting AC and sweat egregiously at their clientele.  Thank you trinket shops, I will never speak ill of you again.

Long story short: I found the house, dropped my back and knocked on the door, practicing in my head: “Hola, me llamo Korey” and “Encantada”, which I’m told is roughly “my name is Korey” and “Pleased to meet you”, but could actually mean “My dog’s name is Korey” and “A Jihad on your family!”.  So I’m a bit nervous, and I’m quite aware that since it looks like I took a swim fully clothed while carrying a backpack, I’m not the most presentable of guests.

no answer.

I knocked again, trying to knock “politely”, wondering what to say if the person who answers just glares at me and says “que pasa?”.  I sure don’t have the words for “Hi, I’m going to stay at your house and you’ll make be breakfast” yet.

Still no answer.

Panic rising, realizing I have no place to stay, and nobody really to ask if I’ve been given wrong directions, I knock again, a little more forcefully.  Still nothing.

So I give up and go across the street to get some water to replace the 40% body mass I have exuded through my pores.  Looking back across the street, I see two young foreigners walking toward the house.  I track them, and sure enough, they head to the very door I was knocking on.  I’m saved!

After intercepting them, they handle everything, showing me that I should have gone up the stairs to knock (I had no idea that was the same place), and they introduce me to my host, Alma, and they all have some laugh in Spanish about the sweaty doofus with the giant backpack.

So, fast forward a bit: the last couple days have been quite a change from staying at the hotel, laying on the beach, and consuming everything 5th ave has to offer with the Elder.  Now I wake every morning in a panic about how to say basic things:

“May I fill my water bottle?” (Puedo servirme agua?)

“Thank you for breakfast, the food was great” (estuvo muy rica el desayuno, muchas gracias)

“I think I may have left a lake of sweat back in my room, do you have a mop?” (su aplicación de traducción es inútil en esta situación)

So, I’m forced to actually use what little Spanish I have, which is good.  Alma and her family are super friendly and patient, which is quite a relief as well.  I constantly wonder what social faux pas I’m enacting every day, but I’ll learn over time I guess.

A quick tour of my new place.  Very different from the Hotel.  This is the street entrance.  You can see the stairs on the left that lead to the family’s area.  The lit doorway leads to the student rooms:

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This hallway leads past the room where the other students (Michael and Sabrina) stay, to my room:
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And here’s my room:
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Modest, but complete, and I have my own key so I can come and go as I please without disturbing anyone. Plus: I have WiFi.
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The only thing I’m missing now is AC. Notice that the bed has no blanket?  That’s because only a suicidal person would try to put something over themselves here.  I might just trade my leg for a bit of AC. Maybe I can sleep in one of the tourist shops?

Spanish lessons

I’ve been to Mexico before.  I loved it.  That’s probably not a big surprise, ’cause here I am starting my adventure in Mexico.  So, let’s move on.

The main thing I wanted to do on coming here was to learn Spanish.  Well, okay, I also really wanted to just bake myself on the beach in perfect, warm, sunny weather.  And, sure, I was really craving going to many different taco joints to sample the pastor, the chorizo, the pescado.  Oh, and to have guacamole with every meal.  And sure, there was the excellent night life here, which I haven’t gotten around to posting about.  Except about tequila.

But I’m getting off track!  So -ONE- of the things I really wanted to do, was learn Spanish.  I always hated feeling like an ignorant American, too arrogant to bother learning the language of the country I’m visiting.  Also, I’ve always wanted to be at least bi-lingual; you have so much more capability to talk to people all over the world.  I took some French in high school, but never got serious enough to actually retain anything useful.

So: here’s my opportunity I thought.  I will LIVE in the country for an extended period.  I will take an immersion class as my primary job while there.  5 hours a day, 5 days a week.  I’ll be fluent in no time!  Then I’ll make fast friends with the locals, write a novel en Española, and become an international sensation.  Perfecto!  And on my second month I’ll be all ready for Spain.

So, I’m a few days in already.  Let’s recap reality, shall we?

First off, the school I’m attending is called Solexico and it is pretty awesome.  Not your normal school.  For example, this is my classroom where four of us plus the teacher sit and talk:

outside:
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inside:
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And here are the common grounds where “students” walk between “classrooms”.  I put these terms in quotes, because I’m used to both being associated with far more dour surroundings.
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And here is where they park their “transportation”:
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So, yeah; not your common, everyday school environment.  It’s pretty much as they advertise: “Learn Spanish in paradise.”  In breaks between lessons you hang out in hammocks, play a little volleyball, or get a freshly made quesadilla from the open-air “cafeteria”.  Fluorescent lighting?  Rigid teachers?  Drab hallways?  Torturous desk-chair thingies to sit in while you get lectured at?  Not here!  This is how learning should always be.

However!  There is trouble in Paradise.  Here’s how it works: you pay for school on a weekly basis and go for as many weeks as you’d like.  When you start, they will give you a test (both written and spoken) which determines what level of class you go to.  For me, this was my first lesson in humility.

The written test basically looked like someone had thrown a bunch of characters on sheets with words that all ended in “o” or “a”, and sentences that had upside-down question marks at the beginnings.  I filled in a few answers: “le”, “los”, “las”, and “je ne sais pas” and then gave up.  I basically could have gotten a better score by writing “Ich no hable ton moon-language” on the papers and then folded it into a paper airplane and shot it at the garbage (basura).

The spoken exam was a lesson in real-time humiliation.  I’m transcribing from memory here, and I may have gotten some of the spelling wrong:

Teacher (Maestro, en espanol): “Buenos dias, come esta?”

Me (confidently): “Bien, muy bien”

Maestro: “garble frob bamble stoop?”

Me (a bit shaken): “Er… no comprendo?”

Maestro: “garble frob bamble EL stoop?”

Me (sweat glands engaged): “Er… si?”

Maestro: “Oh, si, tu garble frob bamble zoop moodle twasten sow!”

Me (panic sets in: what have I done?  This must be a class for natives!) “er…”

Maestro: “tu moobleso bando doa bleangliano?”

At this point I decide silence is the best course of action and simply smile and shake my head, trying to convey how sorry I was for wasting his time.  In the back of my mind I wonder how I can communicate my request for a refund.  El refundo?  Por favor?

He lets me off the hook and explains in perfect English that I’ll be starting with “Lesson one” and shows me to my class.  I am relieved and settle into the warm little hut and await the rest of my classmates.

Long story short: there were three people who started the same day as me, but those two proved to be some kind of prodigies and were placed in higher classes.  So I’m in the beginner class, but the 3 others folks in it with me have already had one week under their belt.  If there would have been more beginners like me, they would probably have spun up another intro class, but with just one of me, they deemed it wise to put me in the already-running class, assuming I could catch up on one week.  What’s 25 hours of instruction between friends?

Come to find out, quite a lot.  One of the first words I learn is “escuchar” which roughly translates to “shut your foreigner mouth and just listen for once while the people who already know a thing or two talk.  You will absorb our intelligence via osmosis through your ears.  Trust me.”

I may have taken liberties with that definition.

So, it’s been a few days of me doing some intensive “escuchar-ing” and attempting to read up on things I’m missing when I can.  I haven’t taken this many notes by hand since I was in… well, no; I was going to say high school, but I was a terrible student then.  So, we’ll just say “never”.

To be perfectly fair: my teachers (Maestros) are wonderful.  The morning teacher, Monica, speaks in only Spanish.  She will not use any English to help you along, so you are forced to think and struggle and guess and be wrong and eventually learn.  The afternoon teacher, Leon, teaches us conversational Spanish and intersperses his discussions with details about culture, etiquette and more.  The other students, while all powerfully younger than I, are quite willing to take the old man under their wing and give him a bit of help.

I can’t recommend this enough: if you ever want to learn a language, put yourself in a situation where you have no choice. My head is swimming each day, and as I review what I’ve written each day, I’m surprised that I can start forming useful sentences already.  Soon I get out of the hotel that the Elder and I are staying at, and will go live with a Mexican family where I will have absolutely no lifeline for English.  Wish me luck.

PDC with a Vegas spin

As promised, a bit of a tour of PDC in it’s most touristy and Vegas-inspired form: 5th ave.

So, as my wise Elder sibling (Elder Wanker) has become fond of saying, this is where the Tourons go.  For those of you not familiar with the word “Tourons”, that’s because he made it up by combining “Tourists” with “Morons”, and as you walk the street, you will see some fine examples of this species.  Sadly, he and I have had to count ourselves among them from time to time.

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5th ave is a straight strip with palm trees and lovely little shops selling food or local handicrafts.  The street is bright, beautiful, and welcoming.  As any good tourist place should be.

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Except over the last couple years this has become more overrun with shiny upscale stores, or stores that sell meaningless trinkets:

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Also, the street vendors have gotten more aggressive:

“Hey amigo, you want to buy a hat?”

“No?  Cuban cigars?”

“How about some weed.  You wanna get high?  Some nose candy?  How about my belt?  A dead rhino?  Some dirt?  You wanna buy a mayan temple?  Maybe my shoe?  How about this tree?  Come on, gringo, something.  SOMETHING.”

However, know that all it not lost: 5th ave has some excellent places in eat, drink, and listen to live music.  Grabbing a seat and a drink to watch the people walk by can be an entertaining way to pass the time.  There are a lot of them:

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Truthfully, the Elder and I spent several days entertaining ourselves on Fifth. It’s a great walk from one end to the other, lots to see, and lots of options for mass consumption. If you are up for nightlife, you won’t get better here than the intersection of 5th and 12th. That’s probably a post on it’s own.

Just know this: if you stay on 5th, you are paying gringo prices. If you go even one block inland, the price of a taco (this is my Standard Mexico Unit of Measurement) goes from 250 – 300 pesos to around 100. That’s, like, 80 cents. And the quality inland goes up, too. So, yeah, take that under advisement.

A note about tequila

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So, I’m working on a summary of my first few days in PDC.  However, I have certainly chosen to sample two things that Mexico is famous for: tacos and tequila.

Tacos are pretty much universally held as “awesome”.  Seriously, find me someone who hates tacos, and I’ll show you someone that tastes only bitterness where others taste joy.  However; tequila, I feel, has gotten a bad rap.  When most people think of tequila, they think of it akin to pouring a burning porcupine down your throat which will then do horrible and unmentionable things to your insides and cause you do things you will likely regret but not remember.

This is not an undeserved reputation.

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However!  It doesn’t need to be this way.  A few things to know about tequila:

  • If you are slamming a shot down in-between licking some salt and biting a lime, you are either drinking VERY bad tequila (I’m looking at you, Jose), or just doing it wrong.
  • If you are drinking your tequila in one big gulp, you are missing out on some great flavors.
  • There is a way to drink tequila and actually enjoy the taste instead of trying to kill the burn you experience.

So, next time you find yourself with friends and someone starts yelling “woooooo tequila shots woooooo”, sit your friend down (might be difficult, he sounds excitable), explain to him that if you are going to do tequila you are going to do it like you are NOT in your first year of college (even if you are).  Then you take these steps:

  1. Order a good tequila.  There are all kinds of “premium” tequilas, and expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better.  A good one to get started with is Don Julio Silver (Blanco).
  2. Do not take lime and salt, simply pick up your tequila and drink it (I sip, but you might want to just have the whole thing).  However, this next step is the crucial part:
  3. Once you drink, do not open your mouth.  Instead: swallow, breath in through your nose, then out through your mouth.  You will feel all the “burn” go out through your mouth and you’ll be left with a pleasantly rich flavor from the tequila, and not the eye-watering 3rd degree burn down the throat experience.
  4. Take a moment to weep for all the wasted times in your misspent youth that you did this wrong.  Forgive your youthful self, the young are often foolish.  Realize that it’s a whole new world now.  Rejoice.

Once you try this and find that you actually CAN enjoy tequila, then you can branch out to all kinds of other tequilas.  There’s a lot of difference between blanco, reposado and anejo, so you’ve got a whole bunch of exploring to do.

Don Julio

Enjoy.

Meebus the travel monkey

If you have never been to Playa Del Carmen (PDC), then there are couple things you should know:

  1. You really should fix that problem.  It’s freaking paradise.  And-
  2. There are two PDC’s.  The Las Vegas-ified area on Calle 5 (5th street), and the rest of it.

I figure to do proper justice to PDC, I should fully explore both sides.  So I will sample everything Playa Del Vegas has to offer on weekends, and explore the “real” PDC the rest of the week.  Fair?  I thought so.

First, however, I must introduce you to my traveling companion: Meebus.

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Meebus wasn’t always a travel monkey.  No, he started his career as a beer monkey.  Last summer, my friend BC arranged for a bunch of us to pile into a van and hit up every Seattle brewery we could in one day.  Meebus joined us and quickly became the group mascot.

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However, he has given up his beery ways and opted for a life of travel.  So you’ll be seeing him from time to time.  It’s a good life, Meebus.  Enjoy it.

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Quick recommendation if you do come to PDC and wish to be close to all the action: The Hotel Illusion is a cool little boutique place with the absolute friendliest people ever.  It’s right off of 5th, super close to the beach, and small enough that within a day everyone knows you by name.  Plus, they make you towel elephants:

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Caveat: I added the hat. I’m artistic like that.

More to come, but right now I need to insert tacos into my mouth.