Trust

“I may not make it out of this.” I think to myself.

I’m hurtling down a dry, broken road in back of an SUV, an hour outside of Mexico City with two Mexican men that I met one hour previously.  My traveling partner and I are in back, and we have no idea where we are or where we are going.  Also, I have no way of contacting anyone since my phone does not work in Mexico and I don’t know where I am anyway.  It suddenly occurs to me that I might not make it out of this alive.

Let me back up: my travel partner and I planned a day to see Teotihuacan ruins.  Let’s call her The Linguist, since even though she is powerfully young she is already fluent in German, Spanish and English, as well as knowing some Polish and who-knows-what-else.  Ling has been invaluable in this trip through the heart of Mexico.  My contribution to the team is pretty much just being gringo baggage and a false sense of security from not traveling alone.

Ling met one of these guys (let’s call him Chef) last time she was in Playa Del Carmen, a year ago.  The other guy (we’ll call him Rusk) neither of us had met before, but he was friends with Chef and was a large, gregarious local who “worked for the government”.  Not sure what that means…

So, we met these guys at the ruins, and instead of going back to Mexico City with the family we were staying with, Ling said “hey, these guys wanna go get something to eat, wanna go with them?”.  Seemed like a good idea at the time.

So we piled into their SUV.  However, instead of food they bought us each a large (liter?) serving of a local alcoholic beverage.  The conversation leading to that was basically: “oh, you’ve never tried Pulque?  It is nectar of the gods, lets go get you some.”  (Side note: while the Pozol drink didn’t turn out so good, pulque turned out to be quite decent.  Kind of like a stronger (and fruitier) version of Kombucha.)  However, they didn’t buy any for themselves.  Hmmm.

Now the plan seemed to be “Let’s show you a really neat local church”.  The original plan of “let’s go get something to eat” seemed to be fading into the distance.

I think I’m a pretty laid-back person.  I can roll with the changes and usually just enjoy whatever comes next.  However, the plans seemed to be evolving rapidly as the SUV hurtled on through an area one hour outside of Mexico City called Texcoco.

Now the plan evolved again: “Let’s get some beers.  And maybe some tequila”.

And that’s when I first realized I might not make it out of this.

To be fair, Chef and Rusk were super friendly; they didn’t *seem* like bad news, but I also think I’m pretty terrible at reading people and my default position on meeting new people is “everyone is awesome, can’t wait to get to know you and your specific awesomeness.”  This makes for a good approach usually, but in a foreign country where one doesn’t speak the language and has no means of contacting the outside world, it suddenly seemed more than foolish, it seemed downright dangerous.

Ling finished her Pulque and the three of them lit up cigarettes.  I looked out at the foreign landscape around us and wondered what I could do to improve out situation.  I couldn’t just blurt out my fears to Ling, the guys knew English and could hear.  I couldn’t text her because my phone didn’t work.  I couldn’t contact anyone to let them know where I was.

Worst case scenarios started to play out in my head.  Trapped in an abandoned church.  At gunpoint.  Bad things would happen to me.  Worse things to Ling.  The more I thought of it, the less chance for a happy outcome I could see.  Why were these guys driving us all over town, buying us drinks, using up all their gas and their time?  What was their motivation?

Further note: most of Mexico is desperately poor.  I have no idea if these guys are in similar straights and just make their living by finding dumb tourists and taking what they want.  The worst case scenarios start playing more rapidly.  “Work for the government”?  What does that really mean?

Reality check: Ling knew Chef from last year when she want to Playa.  Okay, sure, but how well could she get to know him?   She was in school and he worked locally and I have to assume she got to know just as many people in her short time as I have during my time here.  Which is to say: A LOT.  So perhaps Chef was a best an acquaintance.  So does she really know him?  Unlikely.

More worst case scenarios.  Held for ransom.  Blackmail.  Disappeared and put into some kind of slave labor.

As I was thinking all this through, we pulled into a side street and Suddenly Chef was introducing us to his father.  We went inside a lovely house that was immaculately clean and decorated on the inside.  We met his mother.  They were both effusively welcoming.  Pleasantries were exchanged, then after less than 10 minutes we hit the road again.  Chef’s parents made it clear that if we should ever come back we need dto treat their house as our house and stay there.  Now two new feelings washed over me: relief, and shame at my suspicious thoughts against these guys who just wanted to hang out with us and have a good time.

You would think I would have learned my lesson back in Medford.  Perhaps I’m not nearly as open and easy going as I thought.  These guys turned out to be just fantastic.  We had lunch at a local restaurant called “House of the Crazy Uncle” (pictured below). We had an amazing array of different quesadillas (two kinds of mushrooms, potato and cheese, some kind of chorizo, some other stuff I can’t remember).   Chef and I split the remains of a bottle of tequila he took from his parent’s house, with me using a glass and Chef just pouring it straight back into his open mouth, true Mexican style.

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Crazy Uncle indeed.
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Tasty. Another recommended tequila

Oh, and we did finally make the trip to the church. Rusk explained this was the 2nd oldest church on the continent. It had 500 year-old olive trees, and more religious symbolism than he could explain. Sadly it wasn’t open, he explained the interior contained many references and symbolism to things like the Knights Templar and even potentially the Illuminati. Fun.

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Another amazing building. Mexico has many of these.
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Has stood the test of time well.
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Olive trees. Not native to Mexico.
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Drink up, Ling. It’s better than Pozol.

In the end, they drove us all the way back to Mexico City, braving horrible traffic and asking around 5 times or directions because we had no idea how to describe how to find out house.  Also, I didn’t mention but earlier I began to feel that my luck with Mexican food was at and end.  I had contracted the Mexican Bowel Shaker.  Montezuma’s Revenge.  The Colon Blow (okay, enough, you get the point).  After the first hour of traffic and with my insides churning so much I was basically a time bomb waiting to go off, they found a Starbucks for me where my insides did things I’m not proud of and will never speak of again.  Chef waiting for me in the store to ensure I was okay and could find my way back to the car.

Like I said: these guys are fantastic.  And pretty much everyone I have met in Mexico is similarly fantastic.  I’ll have to write up my experience with the host family in Mexico City as further proof.

All this leads me to this: traveling is trust.  You have to exercise the skill of giving up control, giving up certainty, and trusting people.  This comes in small ways such as trusting a taxi driver will get you through a city you don’t know.  It comes in major ways such as trusting yourself to people you don’t know.  It comes in the form of traveling to a new city to stay with people you’ve never met.  Every time I have opened myself up to trust, I have been rewarded by amazing examples of selflessness and beautiful humanity.

Traveling is not just a diversion or a distraction.  Traveling is building the skill of trusting and letting go of control.  This is a necessary and valuable part of being human.  I can’t recommend this enough.  Go trust someone you have no reason to trust today and see what you get back.

San Christobal, Chiapa De Corzo, and the Sumidero Canyon

“Yeah man, but it’s a DRY heat!” – Private William Hudson

Actually, its anything but a dry heat. Many towns in Mexico (most that I’ve seen) have a very run-down feel to them. There’s a lack of care and maintenance to houses, streets, and yards. If something doesn’t HAVE to be done, it doesn’t get done. I’m pretty sure I know the reason for this.

It’s the heat.

After living for more than a month in the heat and humidity, I’m keenly aware that it saps your motivation and basically leaves you strung out in a chair with a fan relentlessly yet futilely blowing more warm air over you, a drink clenched in your hand that moments ago was ice cold but now has reached “tepid” on it’s way rapidly to “room temperature” (see: “boiling”). The plans formed in the morning will be all but forgotten since your brain is now moving about as fast as soup. Ever seen soup be productive? I rest my case.

However, San Christobal is very different. This is a town in the hills, 2200 meters above see level. The trees are pine, the temperature actually changes from day to night, and there is even regular misty rain here.  I’m able to finally sleep with a blanket over me, instead of sweating on top of the bedsheets.  There are nearly 200,000 people here, with a lively tourist business as well as good businesses in textiles and Amber.  As a result, the town is ridiculously quaint and beautiful.

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The town is filled with beautiful buildings like this one
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This is city hall, for example. What does your city hall look like?
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Their city hall has purple trees. Does yours? Didn’t think so.
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A winding staircase to a church on the hill
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The church. Legs = angry with me.
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Behind the church. Looks like we missed the fiesta.
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View from the top, looking down into town.
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Hey look! Another church! And massive flight of stairs! Why not?
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Get ready quads…
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Hmm, halfway up. Maybe pause for a picture to hide the fact that my legs are rebelling against me.
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The top! What a beautiful church! Except…
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The interior has a multi-colored neon sign at the front? First Church of Vegas, perhaps?
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Still pretty from outside though.
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And the view is rather fabulous
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Since the church is the top of the hill, the view around back is splendid as well.
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The other side of San Christobal
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The long walk back to the hostel.
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Even graffiti is uplifting. Translation: look at the sky and don’t ask why.
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They even try to use their trash. To build a… trash house?

So, San Christobal is fabulous.  The buildings are “Spanish Colonial” which means red-brick roofs and fabulous facades.  Streets are narrow and cobbled instead of paved, many of them near the center are pedestrian-only.  You could spend days walking around, admiring buildings, meandering the cobblestone streets, taking in the views, and probably a month alone just sampling the restaurants.

But instead we decided to jump on boat and tour the Sumidero Canyon.

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Located near the center. In that blue line thingy. River. Yeah, that thing.

So, we hop on the boat, and head up river. My camera was not up to the task of capturing all the wildlife, but we saw crocs, lemur-type things, spider monkeys, and too many types of birds to count.

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A bridge. Not too exciting. Not much of a canyon yet either.
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Ah, now we are getting some canyon awesomeness.
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Epic entry. This view is the centerpiece of much of the travel advertisements for this area.
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Cliffs that reach 1000 meters are their highest point.
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Starkly beautiful.
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This odd formation is “Arbol Navidad” or “Christmas Tree”. During the rainy season the water cascades off this to make a shape like a tree.
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Would love to see this in the rainy season.
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But I probably wouldn’t get this close.
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Freaky weird shapes for this thing!
Sorry, just can’t get enough of this bizarre formation.
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Not a great picture, but for some reason they set up a statue of “The Virgin of Guadalupe” in a cave here.
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Bird. Chillin’ under the Arbol Navidad.
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More birds. In Spanish: “aves”. Now you know.

Not pictured because the pictures sucked: monkeys in the trees, crocodiles hanging out looking like logs, and a large man-made dam that generates enough hydro-electric power to provide 25% of the state’s needs. Good stuff.

After the boat tour, we got to explore the little town of Chiapa De Corzo. Now, this is down out of the mountains, so once again we were subjected to sweat-inducing heat and humidity. The driver advised we should try a local drink: Pozol. “Es my refrescante!” he enthused. Refreshing? I’m sweating out all liquid from my body, refreshing is just what I need.

For those of you who haven’t tried Pozol, I will attempt to describe: take powered chocolate milk mix, and instead of mixing with milk, just add water so you get a nice, bland, watery flavor. Next, grind in some corn. That’s right; corn. Chunks and grainy grit from corn. After that, scoop up whatever is laying around on the kitchen floor. Little black peppercorns or indeterminate bits of shmutz should be just fine. Put all this in a pot along with large blocks of ice to keep cool. When unsuspecting tourists purchase this, serve it in a plastic bag with a straw.

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Can you see the texture? It clogs the straw so you have to blow it out every few sips.
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Let’s pose like good tourists with our Pozol. Pretend you like it!
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That’s a lovely buildin- oh, god, what am I drinking? And why?

The rest of the town is quite quaint, but not on the same level as San Cristobal. So just a few pictures to give you a taste.

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Street of vendors
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Beautiful church
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Bonus: also beautiful on the inside. One up on San Christobal.
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A place where you can buy organ meats hanging from metal poles. Awesome.
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Pretty. Definitely the main tourist path.

  Whew.  So there you have it.  Quick summary:

  • Visit San Christobal.  It is fantastic, beautiful, quaint, and welcoming.
  • Do some stair exercises.  It’s good for you.  Stop whining.
  • If you take the canyon tour, bring sunscreen.
  • Try the pozol.  Let me know if I was right or not.  This stuff is everywhere, it can’t really be that bad, right?

Next up: Mexico City.  Then back to Playa Del Carmen for my final week of Spanish classes before heading to Spain.

Chasing waterfalls

The shortest line between two points is always a straight (boring) line.

From Palenque, the next destination is San Christobal, high in the mountains of Mexico (yes Mexico has mountains, who knew?).  Now, you’ve got options: get on a bus that takes you up the winding path directly to the destination, or opt for the slower route with several stops, seeing some spectacular things along the way.

Not a shocking guess which option we chose.

In this case, the spectacular things took the form of waterfalls.  The first was a 150 meter tall cascade called “Misol Ha”.

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Rather Pretty
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Stalactite action! Forming before your eyes! Just, very slowly.
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Water carves straight through the rock.
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Hm…. Tall….
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Ooo, you can walk behind it!
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Strangely looks tiny from behind. Trick of the light?

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Tree roots. Just, you know, hangin’.
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This is my MIGHTY pose.
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The water comes straight through the rock. Neat.

However, the water was a bit… murky. We didn’t feel like diving in, and we actually didn’t have that much time there before we saddled up in the bus and continued on.

Next stop: Cascade Aqua Azul. It’s name implied that the water might be a little less murky. A little more hospitable. A little more, well, BLUE. Turns out it didn’t lie. The bus let’s you off near a ramshackle little restaurant (which, really, I’ve come to expect that most things in Mexico are ramshackle). The parking lot gives way to a larger parking lot, beyond which the first traces of water begin:

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Main swimming area
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Bottom of the falls. Pictures don’t do the water justice, here.
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What the falls lack in height, they make up for in quantity.
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My god, the water. Did I mention it is beautiful?
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View from near the top.
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‘sup?
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Cup of mango. This is an excellent idea that needs to catch on world-wide.
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Swimming hole. Awesome.

The water was shockingly cold, but the day was also blisteringly hot, so it worked out fine. Diving into the water to jolt your body into full wakefulness, then sunning yourself on a rock for a few minutes, then repeating the process proved to be an excellent way to spend an hour or so.

Eventually we had to bid farewell to Aqua Azul as well:

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After which the bus dropped us on the side of the road where we would wait to get picked up by another bus. Strange how one comes to just accept on faith that you aren’t being dropped on the side of the Mexico wilderness and you’ll never see civilization again. Sure enough, the bus came along in about 10 minutes to whisk us off to San Cristobal.

And that deserves it’s own write-up. But it is worth mentioning: San Cristobal is in the hills, high enough for a large temperature drop. After weeks of complaining about the heat, I’m now sleeping with a blanket over me at night. Such luxury. I’m pretty durn happy with this turn of events, even if it means I have no beach for the moment.

Next: San Cristobal and the Sumidero Canyon (sounds like an awesome 80’s adventure flick, no?)

Palenque

It all starts with a bus.

12 hours on a bus.

However, for you folks in the States, you might be picturing a nasty, dank, Greyhound bus. Filled with disreputable characters and the stench of failure in the air. If there’s one thing that Mexico does better than the US (other than Tequila, of course) it’s bus transportation.

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Big bus is… well, big.

Since we knew it would be a long ride, we wisely opted to begin the trip to Palenque, one of the more famous Mayan ruins in Mexico, at 10pm on Sunday. This would allow us to sleep the whole night through, then arrive fresh and ready to start the day in the morning. Genius, no?

Boarding the bus, my expectations were confirmed: comfy seats that recline to nearly flat. Leg room. Air conditioning. That last points makes this bus ride more opulent than my room in Playa by a mile. However, there were a few things I didn’t count on. For example: the Spanish-dubbed version of Pirates of the Caribbean number One-Too-Many playing full blast over my seat with no way to turn it down. No matter, a simple matter of waiting it out. It was already half over judging by the plight of Jack Sparrow and some mermaid lass. I even attempted to understand some of the lines, hoping my Spanish classes could come in use. I was able to pick out such crucial dialog as “Siempre!” and “Nunca!”. I’m totally almost a native.

During this time, I spread out luxuriously on seats (I found a row with no occupants), and got comfortable. It was at this point that it became clear to me that the AC was, shall we say, aggressive. I noticed that other travelers had received a memo on this fact as they pulled out all manner of blankets, shawls, jackets, sweaters, basically everything short of a full on parka or hazmat suit. I, however, had in my possession several t-shirts, several shorts, and a travel towel. After fiddling with the vents for a bit, I resigned myself to the fact that it would just be a tad chilly. But that’s fine, especially after all the grousing I’ve done about the heat and humidity, this would be a welcome change, no?

Jack Sparrow and his lot finished their antics, and I settled in for a good sleep. I noticed that the bathroom behind me (12 hour bus rides necessitate proper facilities) gave off intermittent sighs for some reason. Hopefully this would not be an issue. As I was pondering this, movie #2 started up. John Carter (Juan Carrrterrr, for those of you who roll your “r’s” properly), Warrrrlorrrrrd of Marrrrrs. At 11:30 at night, I’m less than excited at this news. The bathroom behind me sighed dejectedly.

No matter. I had been sleep deprived for weeks due to humidity, I am determined to make the most of my time with proper temperature and dry air (even if the proper temperature has rapidly headed southwards of “proper”). I get comfortable and begin a series of plunges in and out of shallow sleep, being roused by particularly active and noisy spots of the movie, only to return to blissful slumber during the more calm and meditative moments. I have a few odd dreams involving the few stand0ut words I can pick out from the movie subconsciously (oddly, “Tars Tarkas” proves to be the most prominent).

At some point past midnight, the driver kills the movie midstream, much to my inner rejoicing and toilet’s jubilant sighing. The rest of the trip passes uneventfully, only interrupted by stops to pick up or drop off passengers at various cities, and by the errant sigh from the latrine area. I wonder if the bathroom is just lonely?

We arrive in Palenque as planned at 9:30am. We are both rested and quickly pick out a hotel.  The hotel is on the expensive side, so we opt to share a room.  And the room has my new favorite word in it: AC.  Joy!

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Not too shabby.

So, first order of the day: see the town and get some grub. Both of these would prove to be quite easy because first off: Palenque does not have many people in it, and secondly because our hotel is right in the center where there are many dining options. Despite its proximity to the Palenque ruins, Palenque seems like a relatively small, honest Mexican town.

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Standard Mexican Street

While walking around, we also encountered what I can only assume is a baker of some sort. Not sure if he is supposed to bring people in, or frighten away small children, leaving them scarred until their early 20’s, fighting to hold it together.

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Non-standard Mexican mascot

Anyway, we had enough of that, it was time to get to the Palenque ruins. A quick colectivo ride and we were there. You pay 20 pesos for the ride, then 27 to get into the park, then another 57 to get access to the ruins. Seems like a lot of paying. But hey, you’re in Mexico, just roll with it.

First off, they have some amazing examples of flora here. Heavy, colorful flowers that are so dense they drag the plant downwards.

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oooooo, pretty.

Moving past all the beauty, we enter the park proper.

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Welcome to the jungle.

complete with the requisite shops to sell you touristy trinkets.

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Shocking truths revealed: a tourist spot has shops that will sell you junk!

Very quickly, you come upon ruins that put to shame anything I have seen before (Coba, Tulum, etc).

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They ain’t messin’ around here.

And while you can go up these ruins (like Coba), it turns out that here you can even go into the interior. I’ve never gotten to do this before! Wheee!

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O! O! I wanna go inside!
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You might be eaten by a Grue
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Cheery habitations, no?
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Tis a bit cramped.
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We out, yo.

The interior is basically an entombment chamber.  There were a couple rooms that held rectangular coffins, and some stairs that you aren’t allowed up.  After that, we ran around the rest of the ruins. Well, okay, maybe “run” is the wrong word. It was more like a hot, sweaty, meander punctuated by frequent stops in the shade.  But man, what a place!  If you are ever anywhere even close to Palenque, this is worth your time.

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View from the shade
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Early Coffee Table
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Climb! Do it!
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These ruins are really amazing to walk around in. You get a feel for a full civilization.
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Hey, let’s climb that thing!
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Work those quads.
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After many stairs, this is an excellent peak to resume sweating at.
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View from the top.
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View from, well, also the top.
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Um, yeah, more view. What can I say? I was spectacular!
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I mean, really spectacular.
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If you look very closely, you’ll see a monkey.
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They built aqueducts. Take that, romans!
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Answer my questions 3.

Here begins an un-ordered photo dump. Proceed at your own risk.

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And there you have it: the ruins of Palenque. Worth the bus trip over.

Next up: San Christobal and waterfalls!

The Garden of Eden

Genesis 2:15, … The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of
Eden to work it and take care of it.

The day is beautiful; blue skies, slight breeze, cloudless, sunny and warm.  Every day is like this.  It’s easy to take it for granted.

I walk to school every day at 8am. Even though it’s only a 15 minute walk, and I meander, taking my time, I am sweating badly by the time I arrive. Today is no exception, with temperatures around 83 and humidity between 80% and 85%, my super-power of sweating is in full force.

Today we are learning indirect pronouns. And I’m not doing well with them. I am supposed to be able to generate phrases like this:

“yo se lo voy a dar”

But my brain seizes up on trying to form what literally translates to “I him it am going to give”. So I sit in my chair, trying to wrap my feeble mind around how to form these sentences, each time thinking I’ve got it only to get tangled in this mess of translation. So now I’m sweating literally and figuratively.

The day wears on, and at 2pm we are finished. The discussion among students turns to what we will do with the rest of the afternoon. The answers come in a round:

“Beach”

“Yeah, probably the beach”

“Si, voy ir a la playa”

“I’m thinking cenote”

Wait, what now? Cenote? I wanted to go to a cenote last time I was in Mexico, and never got around to it. And still haven’t this time. So, I’m sweating, it’s a little late in the day to start out and we’ll have to take a Colectivo (packed with humanity, no doubt), and most cenotes close at 5…. oh hell why am I even thinking about this; I’m in.

A quick discussion about options narrows the top candidates (Dos Ojos, Grande, Jarden de Eden, Azul) to just one: Jarden de Eden.

A quick walk to the Colectivo, a quick ride where we are dropped off on the side of the road unceremoniously, and we are there. The Garden of Eden.

Frankly, it’s a bit underwhelming.  Sure, it’s a lovely little road, but still: it’s just a road.

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The road to Eden is dusty

You walk up this road for 5 minutes or so, and you reach an old metal gate complete with a dour, somewhat forbidding squat building, in which resides a dour, somewhat forbidding, squat little man. He will take some money from you, then open the gate and tell you to keep walking.

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The gateway to Eden is… disappointing. Neither snake or apple in sight.

So, you go through the gate, and resume walking.

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More dusty road. No wonder Adam and Eve dropped this place.

After about 10 minutes of walking on a perfectly lovely road, getting roasted by the high afternoon sun with all your sweat glands firing from the stifling humidity, you arrive at a small parking lot. Past that parking lot is what you came for:

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Ooooo, so that’s what they mean by Eden.

A quick tour around the cenote shows that this is, indeed, rather spectacular:

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Yeah, that’ll do.
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Yes, please.

On this particular day, there were a trio of three divers, presumably just practicing their diving techniques because this cenote is at most 25 feet deep. Not a great challenge for the experienced diver.

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divers ahead, proceed at your own risk

In fact, we took turns with a single pair of goggles, diving down to the bottom to oogle the fishes that flit around the rocks at the cenote floor.  A few notes about the water:

– It’s far colder than the ocean, but with such a hot day was absolutely PERFECT.

– It’s fresh water (in Spanish: “Agua Dulce”, or “Sweet Water”).

– It’s perfectly clear and amazing.

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Swimming is pretty much the order of the day.

So, yes, much swimming.  However, the real fun comes from jumping in.

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An excellent jumping off point

And while much fun was had from jumping off the side of the stone walls, the real fun came from that tree you can see to the left of this picture.

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Jump in again? Porque no?

Once we found that we could scale the tree and jump off from higher up and further out, any lesser jump became pretty much useless.

A short video of jumping from the tree can be found here.

Time passed quickly and soon it was nearly 5pm and time to go.  The dusty road back was less onerous after we were well cooled by the water.  And now I’ve learned that the reason that Colectivos drop people off and pick people up from seemingly random places is because they ARE random places.  We simply stepped onto the side of the freeway and in less than 2 minutes a Colectivo flashed it’s lights at us, picked us up, and we were on our way.  Brilliant.

So: Jardin de Eden is well worth a visit.  I have a feeling most Cenotes are well worth it.  Jardin de Eden is not, despite what the bible quote at the start of this mentions, a place where man is working. No, man is relaxing, swimming, and pretty much just enjoying.

Now, back work.  I’ve got homework: write 10 sentences using indirect pronounces.  I he it swim the cenote?  Probably not proper.  Wish me luck.

A day in ruins

The plan: visit the Mayan ruins of Coba.
The method: roughin’ it. Meaning, don’t do a tour or anything like that, just go.

First off: the pronunciation is “co-BA”, accent on the end, which helps you keep things straight when you talk about Cuba and Coba in the same sentence using your heavy American accent.

Three of us students met up in the morning and boarded the Colectivo. I’ve seen this word written on vans and buses of all shapes and sizes roaming around town, but until today didn’t know how it worked. Apparently it’s as easy as making sure you know the final destination you are aiming for, then you just get on and pay when you get off. We wanted to go to Coba, but were informed the Colectivo would only take us to Tulum.  However, we were advised we should be able to pick up another one in Tulum that would take us to Coba. Fair enough.

The van is not large, and people will pack in much like they might on a Tokyo subway. At least there is air conditioning.

Colectivo 1:

  • type: large van, probably holds 9 comfortably. We fit 12 by my count.
  • Soundtrack: American top-40 interspersed with a few Spanish songs that I assume are the local addition to the pop genre.
  • Added bonus: An air freshener wedged into the vent on the dash spewing sickly-sweet odors that did nothing to cover up the rest of the humanity in the van.

The Colectivos careen down the freeway with a casual disregard for trivial matters like speed limits or lanes.  They stop frequently to drop people off and pick up more people. Some stops are marked, some seem just arbitrarily made up on the side of the road. Regardless, it seems to work just fine. We did stop for gas on the way, which I can’t remember ever doing in public transportation back in the states. But it must happen: cars need gas, right?

Interesting note about gas stations in Mexico: no prices posted. I think this is because the government controls the gas, so you will pay whatever they set as the price and be happy with it.

After 45 minutes we arrived in Tulum. Pretty quickly we were able to pick up another ride. This, however, required a bit of negotiating as the driver wanted more than 3 people in the car if he was to go all the way to Coba. We agreed to pay a bit more instead of waiting around hoping others would show up, but then we acquired around 6-8 more passengers on the way, so we ended up paying the base rate.

Colectivo 2:

  • type: large van.
  • Soundtrack: Driver frequently noisily clearing phlegm from his throat and expectorating out the window.
  • Added bonus: No AC?  Windows down the whole way.

After another 30 minutes or so, we arrived at Coba:

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Nothing to see here.
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Where do we get in?
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Ah, now we are on our way

So, a few things to know about Coba. It is the ruins of an ancient Mayan civilization that experts believe once had over 50,000 inhabitants. They built networks of roads to connect everything. Coba at its heyday covered over 80 square kilometers, and most of the buildings haven’t been found and are still buried in the dense jungle or lost to time. The ruins you get to visit are just a small part (but a very central part) of what Coba used to be.

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The first ruins! I must do my tourist duty!
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This seems like it was a lot of work, carting around heavy stones. And in this heat!

After the first group of ruins, you come to find out there is much more in store for you, and you’ve got the option to stroll leisurely over the 6 kilometers, or rent bikes. We opted for bikes. Now, I’m quite a bit taller than your average Mexican, so even though I tried to find the largest bike available, it was still a bit of a mismatch.

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Objects in picture are smaller than they appear.

I decided to call my bike Charlie. Charlie has seen better days. He passed middle age long ago; his tires are poorly inflated, his paint is peeling, and he squeaks when he runs. He and I were a poor fit to begin with, but over time Charlie exhibited several more behaviors such as an occasional rattle from some indeterminate location that made me wonder if I would break down on the road. However, for all his flaws, he was a faithful and diligent steed.

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Check the sweet rides, yo.

Now we were off proper to explore Coba!

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The map of Coba. This didn’t help us at all.

While biking around Coba, you will frequently park your bike on the road, then walk around the various ruins.

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Exploring. There are many rocks. Stacked on top of each other.
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The smooth sides mean this must have been where they rolled stones down on people who ran through. An early game show.
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I really REALLY wanted to go inside. I think that’s frowned upon, what with the giant stone slab keeping you from going in and all.
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Not a real skull. In case you were concerned.

Sometimes you aren’t sure that you’d seen everything, and you can end up going on some odd little side-paths. For example, we took one such path that quickly diminished to just wilderness:

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Secret jungle path! Turns out it lead to a lake.

This ended at a lake, which was cool to see, but since it’s basically in the middle of the jungle none of us were terribly interested in finding out what was IN the lake.  No swimming, moving on.

Eventually you come to the main event: the big pyramid called “Nohoc Mul”. Unlike the more famous pyramid Chichen Itza, you can actually climb up this one, which is one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Coba instead of Chichen.

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Time to climb
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Action shot.
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The view from the top. Rather spectacular
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Going down. Slower than going up. The Mayas like steep things, apparently.

After the big pyramid, the other places pale in comparison, so I’d recommend seeing all those things first. However, even if they aren’t so grand and impressive, there’s still just a lot of really beautiful places to explore.

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Some very beautiful and tranquil places in Coba

I’ve included a mess more pictures below if you are still interested in seeing more, but that’s the main parts for me. We returned out bikes, walked out of the ruins area, explored the little shops they have set up outside to sell you all the some tourist crap that you’ve seen everywhere else in Mexico, then reversed our travel back to PDC:

Colectivo 3:

  • type: Just a car.  Fit three of us plus driver just fine.
  • Soundtrack: mostly static, interspersed with Spanish guitar.
  • Added bonus: no other passengers joined us.

Colectivo 4:

  • type: large van, again we overstuffed the recommended passenger count.
  • Soundtrack: 80’s butt rock.  Some specific selections: Jump (Van Halen), Made for loving you (Kiss), Can’t live without you (Scorpions), We’re not gonna take it (Twisted Sister), and Whip It (Devo).  How is this a radio station in Mexico?
  • Added bonus: nothing can top the soundtrack.

So, there you have it.  If you are going to Coba, I recommend you ride the colectivo.  It’s cheap, quick, and interesting.  Below are more pictures than you could possibly be interested in.

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Finances and footwear

Often heard: Man I wish I could just quit my job and travel.

I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do this vacation / trip / sabbatical / Walkabout (shall we just call it a “sabbabout”?).  I’m constantly aware of this and thankful.

However, when I talk to people who want to do this about what is in their way, the first reason is usually money.  That’s a fine reason.  However, the surprising thing is that you do not need a lot of money to do this.  The good folks over at GoCurryCracker.com are spending a lot of time in Mexico, and they are doing all the work to detail their expenses every month so you can see what it actually costs.  Go check out their expenses page if you want some details.

My example: PDC is much more expensive than the inland Mexico, and even here I can live very well on less than $1k per month.  For example you can rent a furnished room in a house within a 10 minute walk to the beach for ~$500 per month, which includes everything (water, electricity, internet, etc).  If you are willing to be further from the beach it can be even cheaper, and if you really just want your own place, I’ve seen apartments advertised for around $400.  You can cook food at your place very cheaply, or eat out every day for between $2-$10 per person per meal.

Granted I’m missing out on things like Air Conditioning (and oh my; this is a rather important thing, it’s the one luxury that I’m considering adding back in somehow if I find myself in this country again), but still; I eat well, I’ve got a nice place, and I can be on the beach daily.

However, there have been some unforeseen expenses.  Let’s start with shoes.

I came to Mexico with three pairs:

  • My “every day walking shoes” which are some old cross trainers I’ve had for 5 years or so.
  • My “zero drop” running shoes (tiny and light, so they pack well in the Backpack of Doom).
  • Sandals.

Now, in PDC it turns out that the only reason to put on shoes is if you are going for a bit of a run.  The every day footwear is sandals.  I was quite happy with my sandals, until one night out on the town they suffered Structural Incoherence:

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Walking home barefoot at 3am is a delicate thing

Much sadness.  They were good sandals.  So I attempted to replace them with the closest replica I could find.  These worked just fine for a couple days, when (again, one night out on the town), the left one began to suffer the same fate as their brethren.

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Note to self: sandals and dancing don’t mix

So it was that I found myself shopping for footwear again.  This is more shoe shopping than I’ve done in the past 5 years, I think.  My keen mind quickly deduced that the common structural failure for these failed footwear products was that toe-thingy.  Get rid of that, no problem, right?

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Structural issues resolved. I’m a genius

However, these are causing a horrible chaffing on one side of my foot.  I’ve tried putting band-aids over the chaffing spot, but it’s so hot out that the band-aid falls off within minutes (note: my super power is the ability to sweat profusely, apparently even on the side of my foot), so I’ll need to purchase yet ANOTHER pair.

So, yeah, this is the sinister hidden costs of life in Mexico.  I’ve been instructed to buy some name-brand sandals next.  I won’t mention the name until I try them out and can vouch for them.

And that’s more than I ever thought I would write on the topic of sandals.

PDC Security, and more about towels

PDC is a generally happy, content kind of place.  However, you will also often see trucks of “Policia Nationalidad” patrolling the streets, especially the tourist areas, with full automatic weapons and body armor.  It’s a little disconcerting.

Also, while the people are very open and inviting, and the town feels very safe and friendly, if you look close you’ll see that there are interesting security measures being taken.  For example, there are lots of metal gates on doors and windows.

Also, you’ll occasionally find a business or two that protects themselves with barbed wire. You won’t see this in the tourist area because, well, it just looks less than inviting:

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Prison? Nope. Just your average office building.

And for those houses that feel like they would like an extra layer of security, there’s this:

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A wall around a house. Doesn’t seem to fearsome.

“But wait” you may say, “what is that, just a wall with some junk on it? Nay, fair traveler. This is broken glass cemented onto the top of the wall.

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We would very much appreciate you not climbing on our wall. Thanks.

So, yeah, there are some exceptions to the “pretty safe, open, and friendly” vibe.

In completely other news, when I posted about my towel situation, the world rallied to support me in my hour of need. Well, by “world” I mean two people, and by “need”, I mean they are interested in keeping me out of Mexican jails under indecent exposure charges.

The Bloke sent me a travel towel all the way from China:

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And The Fashion Athlete sent me not just one travel towel, but also two small pucks that, when wetted, expand to become washcloths.  Awesome.

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towel carrying back and washcloth puck.
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Washcloth enlarged to show texture

When they mailed these we discovered a couple things:

  1. mail, apparently, travels via burro in Mexico. Delivery times were quoted as being up to 3 weeks to deliver.
  2. China can, evidently, ship things here faster than Seattle. Interesting. I have no theories on that.

Sian Ka’an

The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions.

The road to Sian Ka’an, is paved with rocks, dust, potholes and pain. 

The plan was made after class on Friday.  There were to be six of us:

  • Red, the organizer (Germany)
  • Fran, Red’s friend from PDC last year (San Francisco)
  • Mars (Brazil)
  • Paparazzi (Holland)
  • Holly (Holland)
  • Me (USA)

Red knew a tour guide.  We met up with him at a cacao shop on the corner of Constituentes and 5th.  Money was exchanged.  A time was set: 7am on Sunday, meet by the school.  Visions of Sian Ka’an danced in our heads: a protected biosphere over 5000 square kilometers.  If you do the conversion from kilometers to miles, it equals “quite large, indeed”.  Promises of turtles (tortugas) dolphins (delphines), birds (aves) and manatees (er… manatees) danced in our heads.

The first wrinkle came on Saturday night.  A message from Red reminded everyone to set their clocks forward that night as Mexico’s Daylight Saving Time is April 7th.  One less hour of sleep with a terribly early wake up call was not welcome news.

Personally, I wasn’t sure if my phone (which is also my alarm clock) would automatically adjust to the time or not.  So doing the math backwards: be at school at 7, so wake up at 6, but in case my phone doesn’t actually set itself back automatically, be up at 5.  Since my brain likes to stress about things like this, I found myself awake at 4:30.  I checked my watch, checked my phone, and cursed the fact that all the electronics worked fine and set themselves correctly, yet now I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep.

I arrived at the school just as Paparazzi and Mars were arriving, 7am on the nose.  Soon after, Holly arrived, and this was the first sign of trouble because she lived in the same house as Red, yet Red was nowhere to be seen.  She explained she had knocked on Red’s door, but since she didn’t answer, she assumed Red was already here.  Also: no tour guide, and no Fran.

So: we waited:

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International students, will work for verbs.

Discussed during our wait:

  1. Jokes about “Mexican Time”.  We were all punctual, but our teachers had warned us that “Mexican Time” means a very flexible definition of start times.
  2. Concerns about Red and Fran.  Perhaps they were both out together on Saturday night, got quite lit up and were passed out at Fran’s house, and nobody knew where that was.
  3. Concerns about the fact that Red would not answer her phone, either.

Eventually Holly and Paparazzi decided to walk back to her host family’s house to check on Red again, perhaps ask the host parents if they had seen her come in last night.  Mars and I held on to the curb.  You know, to make sure it didn’t get away.  While they were gone, our tour guide showed up.  He explained something about having some trouble with the van or driver or something.  Translation; either overslept, didn’t set the clock, or just “Mexican Time”.

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Our chariot awaits.

Holly and Paparazzi returned, still missing Red, and no good leads on Fran.  Of note at this point: Red arranged this trip, it was all her doing.  She had planned on doing this trip last year when she was here, but she had a terrible car accident and was hospitalized for weeks, thus had to cancel it.  There’s no way she would miss it this time.  Concern mounted.  Several more attempts were made to her phone, with no luck.

The fact that both Red and Fran were missing at this point was cause for ever escalating concern.  However, there we were with a tour guide, a driver, and no leads on what to do next.  So we had the driver go back to the house one more time, then circle back to the school in the dwindling hope that the two had arrived VERY late, but both to no avail.  What else was to be done?  At over an hour later than scheduled, we departed on the planned adventure with a gloomy cloud of dread hanging over.

The first stop was Tulum, about 45 minutes south of PDC.  This is a ridiculously quaint little town, much like what I expect PDC was 15 years ago.  You can already see that it is starting to bulge and swell from touristing.  In 10 years it will likely be a vacation mecca much like PDC, with it’s own version of 5th avenue, it’s own party crossroads, etc.  Right now, however, it is still pretty quiet and quaint.  Get here while its still relatively unspoiled.

We stopped for “breakfast” at the local OXXO.  For those of you who don’t know what this is, it’s basically 7-11, and there is one on every corner.  I hear they start as crabgrass in the cracks of the pavement, then one day spring up into fully air-conditioned stores selling coke, cookies, and cigarettes.  This particular one was offering a unique Mexican delicacy right by the hot dog roller machine and the nacho cheese dispenser: tamales.  Steamed and wrapped in green leaves and everything.  This HAD to be better than a hot dog from the roller machine, right?

Note: convenience stores sprinkle a special seasoning on any food they sell.  It’s called “despair”.  This tamale was no exception.

We piled back into the van, ready to embark on the real voyage to Sian Ka’an; a road which had been described as “bumpy”.  Just as we were girding ourselves for the voyage, a rapid-fire discussion with the tour guide over the phone revealed that Red was, indeed, still alive.  Hurrah!  The Cloud of Dread was lifted!  Only it was immediately replaced by it’s sister cloud, known as the Cloud of WTF?  Red promised to explain, but asked us if we would wait for her if she leapt into a taxi and rocketed down the freeway to meet us.  We were all so relieved she wasn’t dead in a ditch somewhere we eagerly agreed.

And so it was that an hour later, a profusely apologetic Red joined us in the van, explaining the she didn’t hear her phone’s alarm, she didn’t hear the phone calls, she didn’t hear the knocking, and no, she had NOT been out last night on a bender.  She also assumed Fran was with us, but nobody had heard from Fran, and now it was over 2 hours late, so we took off anyway.

Finally we were underway.

Now, the road (as I have hinted at) is a bit bumpy.  As it turns out, this description is precisely accurate in the same way as saying either the sun is rather warm or Jersey Shore is a tad vapid.

Luckily, our driver was familiar with the road and knew exactly how to swerve aggressively across the road to ensure we got the most out of every rock and pothole.  Also, while many cars would take this road at a sedate pace in order to avoid structural damage, our driver was also training for the World Rally Championships, and thus spared no throttle as he careened our van down this dusty landscape.

Now, this road is along the Caribbean Ocean, and as such it is quite beautiful.  I attempted to capture this beauty, but the afore-mentioned ragged pot-hole infested road and the drivers antics frustrated any attempt to do so.  I only include these images as illustrations of the kind of jostling we experienced.

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Warp speed, Mr. Sulu.
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I believe we ran over a wombat right as I snapped this picture.
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Bonus: the smearing makes the road look flat. If only this would apply to physics as well.

This road lasts quite a while.  Well, that’s a lie: it lasts forever.  You will come upon wide vistas showing the open ocean and promising beaches and think “oh my, we must be almost there”.  Seconds later another mighty crater will swallow half your vehicle, and your driver will expertly heave out the side of it, sending you airborn and weightless for a brief second before crashing back down onto the seat.  This will repeat many times.  You will probably go through at least one, if not two birthdays while on this road.  I would recommend you bring cake, but it would not survive the first pothole.

We did eventually stop at a beautiful spot which our guide explained was called “Bocapila”, where “Boca” means “Mouth” and “Pila” means (here he made many gestures to indicate where you would put water and boil it).  So, I think he meant “the mouth of the pot”, but I can’t find any good fit for “pila” in translation software, so I may have misheard him.  Or maybe my brain was just suffering from the concussions.  Anything is possible.  Regardless, this was a lovely spot, and a welcome respite from the road.

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Pretty. Lots of fish in there. Theoretically crocodiles as well.
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Connects directly to the ocean
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Mexico’s version of “Bridge to nowhere”
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Grateful tourists doing what tourists do.

After five minutes of this, we were back in the van.  Remember what I said about the road, above?  Yeah, that happened a lot more.  I developed a deep respect for our driver’s ability to really deliver the most from every bump.  Or maybe that was a deep bruise. I often confuse the two.

At noon: we finally reached the promised land, Punta Allen:

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This one view made it all worth it.
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Yep, places like this actually exist.

It was here at Punta Allen that we learned a few things:

  1. Holly uttered the memorable phrase “if this place was a boy, I would be in love”
  2. We got the first taste of how well equipped Paparazzi was: a camera phone, a digital camera with telephone lens, and a GoPro.
  3. We had a lunch served buffet style by a local that blew away any and all expectations.  It was simply fish, chicken fajitas, veggies, rice, and some other stuff, but it was amazing.  Everyone put away at least 2 plates of food.

After lunch, we boarded a boat to see the best that Sian Ka’an had to offer.

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Really? A thatch hut at the end of a pier? How quaint can one place get???
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Everyone hum the tune from Gilligan’s Island!

As mentioned before, Sian Ka’an is big.  Really big.  And the water is that amazing blue-green clear water that pictures just won’t do justice to.  After a while, I stopped trying with my camera phone and hoped I could steal pictures from Paparazzi.  As of this writing, I still have not done this.  So, you get verbal descriptions.  Lucky you.  One shot of the sea as the boat was taking us out:

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Now, we were promised wildlife.  Our tour guide delivered.  He stood at the stern of the speedboat, rope in one hand, yelling out directions to the driver.  He steered us to a spot where we played tag with a giant manatee in shallow waters.  If you haven’t seen one of these in real life, they are huge.  Several times this one surfaced to look at us, seeming to say “look, I’m not sure what you are or what you are doing, but I’m pretty sure you are following me and it’s kind of creeping me out”.  We eventually let her go on her way.

Next he steered us to a couple sea turtles.  These guys are much faster in the water than on land.  Again, the water is so clear here that you can see them even when they are well underneath the surface.  They weren’t quite as accommodating of our viewing as Madame Manatee was, but it was cool seeing them move around with all the grace that they lack on land.

Next, and most importantly for me, we pulled along side a couple of dolphins that were out for a leisurely swim.  They would frequently pop up above the water, giving great photo ops for our eager cameras.  I manned Paparazzi’s telephoto camera while he dangled his GoPro over the side in the water to capture video.  Hopefully I’ll get my hands on some of the footage in the next few days.

After all that excitement, our tour guide took us to a bird sanctuary in the mangrove forests.  These forests grow in salt water, and birds roost in the tops.  Mangroves are pretty fascinating on their own, but I won’t bore you with the details, I’m sure you know how to use Wikipedia.

Now, while I thought the dolphins were the highlight for me, it turns out I was mistaken.  We also did some snorkeling for about 1/2 hour over some fantastic brain coral and swam through several schools of varying colored fish, and then our tour guide promised to take us to “una alberca natural”, basically a natural swimming pool.

I have never seen anything like this.  The boat dropped us off in crystal green water that for about a square half mile was between 1 and 4 feet deep.  This was pristine, unmolested water, sand and coastline.  The water was the perfect temperature, and we could look around and pretend that this enormous pool was made just for us.  It was far too perfect to just exist naturally.

We attempted a group picture to prove we were there.  The tour guide counted to 3 and said “jump”.  Me being as good at directions as always, it appears I managed to raise my hands, and that’s about it.  This results in a great photo where I am the shortest person around.  New perspectives!

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After this, we finally headed back home.  I should mention here that this means we got to re-do the excitement of the Road of Doom, but it wasn’t quite as bad when you knew what to expect.  And thus my message to you: if you end up going to Sian Ka’an: go in with both eyes wide open: the road is long, it is bumpy, and the wonders you will see make it totally worth it.

Oh, and Fran?  Turns out she overslept her alarm as well.  So, maybe don’t plan a major all-day trip early in the morning after Daylight Saving Time.  Worth considering.

Living in PDC – random facts

A few assorted things I’ve gathered while living in PDC:

Water

First, let’s address the water situation.  It’s pretty much common accepted fact that NOBODY DRINKS TAP WATER IN MEXICO.  Accepted wisdom goes that if you happen to get a bit of the tap water in your body, you will be reenacting scenes from the exorcist within moments.

What I’ve gleaned while living here:

  • According to the head of the Spanish school, the reason not to drink the water here is because of the heavy minerals in the water that over time (6+ months) will severely tax your kidneys.  He asserts it has nothing to do with unsafe bacteria or parasites, and taking an occasional drink from the tap won’t harm you.  Mexico has earned a bad rap for water and will never live it down, though.
  • All locals drink bottled water.  They purchase water in giant refillable bottles that can be bought from guys that cart them up and down the streets in carts attached to their bikes.  You can hear them coming as they yell “AAAAAAGGGUUUAAAAAA”.  It’s like the ice cream man coming, but a little less festive.
  • I’ve brushed my teeth with tap water every day.  No sickness yet.  Your mileage may vary.
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Giant Water Tank of Doom. And this is the small size.

Laundry

So, I have attempted to make my clothes last as long as possible.  Being a bachelor, I’m already well used to picking a shirt off the floor, giving a quick sniff test, and if I don’t pass out then on it goes and I’m out the door.   However, over time, and after gallons of sweat, eventually one needs clean clothes.  turns out this is super simple:

  • Locate your local Lavenderia.  It won’t be hard, there’s nearly as many here as Starbucks in Seattle.
  • Plop your clothes in the scale as you will be charged by the Kilo.
  • Return the next day to pick up your packet of cleaned, dried, folded, and neatly-packaged clothes.

Cost for 6 t-shirts, 4 shorts, swim trunks, 4 button-up shirts, assorted underwear, socks and one Meebus: 37 pesos.  About 3 bucks.  Question: would you ever own a washer and dryer again?  Oh I’m being silly, of course you wouldn’t.

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Meebus is no longer a dirty, dirty monkey

Food

Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that eventually you got tired of tacos.  No no, stay with me here, I realize this is about as silly as the above rhetorical question, but just IMAGINE.  Do you have other options?

Turns out: yes.

If you ever get to PDC and are looking for an amazing breakfast, I can’t assert heavily enough that you must go to Cuava Del Chango (translation: Monkey Cave, Meebus was pleased with this).  For example: crepes stuffed with chaya and panela cheese with a green poblano chili sauce smothering them, a pot of black beans on the side, and some ridiculous locally made breads to sop it all up with.

In addition, the restaurant is basically like eating in the middle of a jungle. Here’s a picture of the Elder looking less than pleased because is not stuffing his face with the above breakfast at that very moment.

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WHY IS MY FACE NOT FULL OF CREPES???

Their lunch and dinner is pretty good too, but that breakfast pretty much ruined me for other dishes for quite a while.  There are many other restaurants to recommend, but for the moment let me just leave it at that one, as I think it’s deserves it’s own little place.

But wait!  What if I’m watching my girlish figure?  Well, as luck would have it, there are several good options.  There is a natural foods store that sells organic and unprocessed foods.  I picked up a dozen eggs and some yogurt for breakfasts (’cause I can’t do Chango every darn day).  Also, there’s a great made-to-order salad stand right by my school:

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Chicken, your choice of veggies and dressing, all for 50 pesos

Dogs

On a more random note, this is not the first time I’ve seen this, but its the first time I documented it. Dogs seem to frequently hang out on 2nd story places, arms over the side, watching the teeming masses go by.

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If one of you drops a taco I’ll be down there so fast your head will spin

I occurs to me that this is one of my favorite past times as well. If I could find a dog like this, the two of us could share a beer each afternoon out on the deck, judging people harshly as they pass beneath us. I’m not sure I could want much more out of life.

The moral of the story: drink lots of water, keep your clothes clean, eat well, and find a friend to hang out with.