Mexico Pt. 1: The Yucatan

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I’m starting to get into my groove.

The first type of traveling I experienced (Scandinavia, Europe, Asia, U.S.), I had my savings from a career job, so, I just did what ever I wanted all the time and was totally free.  The second type of traveling (Central America), I was running low on cash, but tried to stretch my time by cutting back on luxuries.  This taught me a couple of things.  One: I can decide which level of comfort I want to live in.  Two: with a passport, a plane ticket, and thousand dollars for startup money, I can survive anywhere there are people.  Before, it was just theory, but I feel I’ve proved it.

The night I returned to Key West, I walked up to my brother’s place of work with $10.55 to my name.  This was extremely irresponsible and I normally would not have put myself in a position to mooch off of someone else.  Since he’d been living on my boat for the past 6 months, and he would only be supporting me temporarily, I felt it was fair.  Within a week, I had two jobs.  In a month, I was comfortably supporting myself and enjoying going to work.  It wasn’t always this simple and enjoyable, but this is how I am choosing to remember it.

On my third travel, I have limited spending power and time, but I am strangely okay with it.  The reason: comfort.  I had pancakes, eggs, coffee, orange juice, and a big bottle of water for breakfast.  My meals often cost twice as much as the people I am dining with.  I could save more and travel longer, but then I wouldn’t be doing what I want.  When it feels right, I will move to a place I really like, get a job I really enjoy, and live the way I want.  I’ve learned about myself that above seeing, knowing, and experiencing everything this world has to offer, my top priority is feeling good.  I want to feel good today.  I might not be here tomorrow.

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Cancun

This is a pretty cool town once you get away from the factory night clubs, self-contained resorts, and spring break mentality.  Don’t get me wrong, I fully support partying with thousands of young people and watching the sunrise on the beach.  I’ve done that a bunch in high school and college.  In my vegabonding snobbery and hipster studies, I’ve developed certain poison preferences and standards of what I think is impressive.  We went out one night to do the Cancun thing, but the sparkling, plastic chandeliers and hastily painted concrete columns aren’t as convincing as they used to be.  A $60 all-you-can-drink cover charge doesn’t seem like a good bargain when I can barely get down the cheap vodka used to refill the bottom-shelf Absolut bottles mixed with Tang.  These days, I’d rather sip on some Jameson, have a couple beers, and not have to drink off the feeling that someone is pulling imitation wool over my eyes.

The bus dropped us off in the industrial grid of the nearly touristless, thumping heart of downtown Cancun.  Armed with a vague idea of the hostel district, Julie and I begin searching for a place to stay.  The first hostel reeks of bed-bug spray, but it is night and luckily, it is Julie’s first hostel, so she thinks it’s normal.  Free breakfast is a plus and we check out, rested and in search of a nicer place.  Hostel Quetzal fits the fairytale I’ve been feeding her since I first began implanting the idea of travel back in Key West.  There is even dinner included, which brings all of the other travelers together.  Julie meets some cool British chicks and we now have a place to chill.

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Mexican Disposition

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Solid art culture and skills

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Playa del Carmen

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This beach town is good for two things: suave beaches and rowdy night life.  If I was looking to party hard and didn’t want to see other areas of Mexico, I would stay here longer.  Being the the city directly adjacent to Cozumel, cost of living is pretty steep compared with the less famous, more authentic, cultural electrodes I am hoping to find.  It still feels like a vacation destination.  I could have stayed in Key West for this experience.  Money is burning FAST.  After 5 days of talk and a day trip to Akumel, we take it on down the road.

Akumel

The sky wasn’t bluffing and the low layer of dust stirring under our flip flops quickly rose into splashes of beige mud from millions and then billions of falling droplets. Turgoise water glowing under grey, fills the right half of an uppercase “B” which shapes the two bays decorated by palms and sand of a true paradise.

72 pesos for a mask and snorkel rental.  Perfect temperature from the shoulders down as the cold rain sets mini-explosions along the sourface.  We stay in snorkel position as much as possible to stay warm.

It doesn’t take 5 minutes to find small fish which leads to a massive sea turtle.  On the bottom, the beanbag sized modern dinosaur rests everything except powerful jaws of which the munching of plants we can hear underwater.  After dinner, the giant glides away into the lack of distant visibility.

Many colorful fishes swim up and down the 5 foot high walls of various coral structures mesmerizing my goggled eyes before a bright orange kayak approaches on the surface.  I pop up and a lifeguard points back to shore.

Returning in the rain, Julie and I explore an overturned twin screw skiff until the sky asserts a rumbling warning.

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After a warm shower, we brave the natural air conditioning to leave the masses and hunt for reasonably priced food.  Two minutes later, we discover something of true value.  Extra large ceramic cup of cinnamon infused local coffee.  Our choice of six crock pots filled with various meats and veggies on a toasted hoagie bun.  After two of those (BBQ pork/chicken alfredo), a Tacon (large burrito with beans rice, veggies, and calamari), an oversized chocolate milk shake, and the coffee, we total at 130 pesos or about US$10.  At the beach it was 175 pesos for a burger.  Jack pot!  Meanwhile, we discuss Daft Punk with the chef of the far above average homestyle feast.  With subs inside and rain subsided, regressemos a Playa del Carmen.

With skyhigh spirits, Julie and I return to meet dissappointed fellow hostelers.  The funny thing is they to went to Akumel, but instead of swimming with seaturtles with wet smily faces, they sulked inside and watched the rain with little, dry frowny faces.

We sleep and catch a bus for the town of Piste.  Piste is not on most maps and only exists becasuse of a tourist magnet: Chichen Itza.  Our double queen beds, hot water and wifi hotel room sets us back $25, but good curtains mean no sunrise wakeup.  Even with a late start, we beat the artisans, tour buses, and heat for some awesome photographs.  This morning validated the purchase of my camera.  Part of the ruins is the deadly ball game court pictured in my 5th grade Social Studies book.  You know, the game where mesoamerican tribes face off and kick (actually side-hip-thrust) a ball into a small, vertical, stone hoop mounted 35′ off the round.  Loser loses his head.  I take my own version of the picture from that book shown to me 14 years ago.  This is cool.  I don’t remember anyone telling me I can go see it one day.

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Eric and the Cenote

The road from Piste to Merida is about 160km.  After 17km, we took our hotel manager’s advice and hopped off to find a less expensive, less touristy cenote.

On the bus, we start chatting with an ex-American.  It’s pretty obvious, right off the bat, because his American accent has been taken over by a Mexican one and his clothes and bicycle are too worn to be in his first year of backpacking.  He produces a corner-less, crease-holed, ancient, paper map and starts explaining the geology of the Yucatan Peninsula.  The land formation is the same as Florida, a sedimentary reef formed by wave deposits.  There is no bedrock.  It’s not a real landmass like Georgia or southern Mexico with rock and clay and topsoil.  It’s just limestone.  The northern Yucatan landscapes are very boring to Julie and I, because they look almost exactly like southern Florida.  Same mangroves, same trees, the birds and fish are even the same.  There seems to me to be a topographical reflection somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, as the landscape transition moving southwest through the Yucatan is remarkably close to that from Florida to Tennessee although the Sierras are slightly more pronounced than the lower Appalachians.

The big difference between Florida and the Yucatan is an asteroid struck just off the Mexican coast 65 million years ago, which coincided with the extinction of non-flying dinosaurs.  When the ground was struck, it shattered into a bunch of relatively small rocks.  Picture the structural foundation quality of Florida as a graham cracker and the Yucatan as a bowl of Coco Pebbles.  For this reason, no rivers or lakes or ponds can exist in this part of Mexico.  When it rains, all of the water goes straight down into the ground water system.  This is also why the rocks are ALL abrasive like broken concrete that hasn’t had time to erode.  At one time or another, there is a river everywhere, so stones are typically rounded and smooth.  There is circular outline of the massive, asteroid impact crater made of hundreds of cenotes.  A cenote is basically a sinkhole, most of which are 100ft or more deep, filled up to sea-level with fresh water.  These are the voids between broken rock.  Picture the bottom of a bucket covered with golf balls and then covered by a one inch layer of dirt.  The voids between adjacent golf balls represent the cenotes on a small scale.

After grilled chicken quarters, seasoned white rice, and half a football sized plate of roasted, juicy vegetables, Julie and I follow Eric to his hut down the road to check out the t-shirts he sells.  This is the trade he learned when he started touring with The Grateful Dead in Rochester, NY in 1980.  We ask him why he is in Mexico.  He says the last show was down here in 1995.  “These ******* cats are why I can’t leave!” he explains.  “Two showed up one day and now there’s 6!  I can’t leave for more than a couple weeks.  I have to check if they need to go to the hospital or something.”  He gives us the scoop on half of the country, which coming from someone who has bussed and bicycled from Cancun to the Texan border multiple times, everything he foretells proves accurate.  Never overbearing and extremely polite, the gaunt tradesman never asks us for anything and is careful not to keep us at his humble hut longer than we want.  He even avoids bringing up whether or not I paid for the shirt yet.

Fern gully.  We are looking forward to a fresh water swim at a local swimming hole.  We are not prepared for one of the coolest things either one of us have ever seen.  I make my entry from the 20m high platform where only a few people have jumped.  It doesn’t look that high compared to the bluffs we jumped off, on Watts Bar Lake in Tennessee.  After signing a waver and drawing all 5 of the staff maintaining the cenote, I begin to wonder if my eyes are deceiving me.  I move my arms in tight forward circles, in an attempt to fly, as I fall silently toward the center of the massive pool for a good 3 seconds.  It is higher than I thought.  Good thing I kept my shoes on and only landed slightly off vertical.

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Merida

Colonial city near the meteor that killed the dinosaurs.  Charming, relaxing, and stylish.  Amy is also heading to Palenque and joins our rambling.

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Palenque

Hippie retreat near famous ruins.  Site of 2012 Rainbow Gathering.  Julie gets dreads

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San Cristobal de Las Casas

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Hitch hiking is a sure thing with blond hair in a Latin country.  Amy has been all over the world and strongly agrees with the money saving strategy.  A mile of shoulder striding in the calf high weeds of the sun baked highway is nothing with tree-top spirits, fluffy cloud wallpaper skies, and energizing, green mountain scenery.  We are sure to score a seat on the canopy covered, twin wooden benches we keep getting passed by.  These modified mid-sized pick-ups are seen transporting locals between small towns where ever tires can roll.

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As usual, individual eyebrows raise as communication gaps are bridged by repeated Spanglish and skillful sharades are comprehended.  Luis, a man in his mid 30’s is assuring us that his wife and son would be pleased to give us a lift to San Cristobal, which lies in a much elevated valley in the heart of the State of Chiapas, two hours from our current position in Palenque.

Warnings and historic interpretations crawl through my skull as I dissect mannerisms of the seemingly nice driver.  Given the cast, I find it unlikely this will end up a horror film.  Little more than small talk is achieved because of the language barrier and required concentration to relax as we nearly fish-tail around gravel speckled, carving turns of the mountainous highway.  Being on flat ground since February, it takes time to acclimate my nerves like being in high seas for the first time.  Riding 6 deep in a narrow Nissan rental doesn’t help.

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We drop by Agua Azul and split the cost of dinner.  A brisk swim in the river and knowledge that the family didn’t take the opportunity to drive off with our bags help put us at ease.  We arrive in the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas around 11:00PM.  The hostel is great for us, but the family desires a bit more comfort.

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Normally the water is blue (azul), but it had just rained a lot.

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Luis, Patrice, and Luis-Daniel pick us up at 9:30AM.  Over an exquisite, robust Mexican breakfast buffet, we are invited to join them and stay at their hotel.  The cost difference is only a third more, but the quality triples.

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Our hotel courtyard

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The next day is spent visiting artisan markets where I get a tightly woven, pure Lana, Clint Eastwood style pancho.  The girls get some cool handmade winter jackets (it snows in these mountains) and we try addicting buttery hot sauced corn-on-the-cob and kiwi looking sliced fruit by the name of Tuna.  On the way home, we pick up jeans, fresh vegetables, and beef.  Patrice and Amy chop up and serve up spicy guacamole, refried onion beans, pot roast, and toasty flour tortillas.  Mind melting cream covered, fried platanos for desert.

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Sudden scents of delicious banana breakfast with bread and instant cappuccino (Nestle gets a gold star) creep into and fill our upstairs suite to motivate the start of an epic day.  Little do we know the magnitude of these canyons of which we’ve ne’er heard.  I’ve been to the Grand Canyon and rode train and boat through glacier carved fjords in Norway.  I’ll have to compare pictures to see which was more epic.

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Against our polite wishes to take the bus back, our newly found Mexican family insists on driving 2 hours back to the hotel to give us a formal goodbye.  I really hope to meet them in Mexico City.

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“Do we have time for another episode?” I ask, prodding and convincing Julie and Amy.  It’s only 9:07.  The bus doesn’t leave for Oaxaca until 10:45.  It’s still raining and everything around the bus terminal is already closed.  Besides we are extremely cozy and have to enjoy the feather-top mattress while we can.  “We can watch at least one more, maybe two,” Amy excitedly helps my cause.  The three of us pull the wool comforter up to our necks as I put on the 3rd episode of Flight of the Concords.

After the 4th, I close the windows on my MacBook and eject Amy’s external hard drive.  The clock reads 10:00.  We gotta book it.  Shuffling bags, frantic purse searches, shoes without socks, socks in flip-flops, pancho under my arm, I can’t fit through the fence door with my bulky backpack and duffle bag sprouting a guitar neck.  I squeeze through, banging the tuning pegs on the wooden gate and give a pathetic tooth whistle to a cab driving up the shiny asphalt street.  He stops.  We load up and head for the OCC terminal laughing about our irresponsible, yet sufficient travel methods.

Even in traveling, monotonous days dull the sense of adventure, which only excite us after the fact, slightly revised and re-emphasized reminiscences.  Tonight I feel the electrical anxiety of adventure behind my ears.  I just changed my flight from the 7th (a sound financial decision) to the 17th after hearing that the biggest party of the Mexican year falls on September 15th.  When I asked if it was bigger than Cinco de Mayo, our young hotel manager laughed.  The craziest place to be is downtown Mexico City, which is where I’m flying out of.  Hence the need for flight change.  Cost of changing flight: $1.58 U.S.  Cost of adding 10 days to my trip: $200 to $800.  With a bucket list party included, I’m sure it’s closer to the latter.  As much as I wanted to come back with good start-up money, the message of the poem below is echoing.  The veins of my comfort are pronounced after cinching down the survival budget.  This is fun.

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Moments

Nadine Stair


I’d dare to make more mistakes next time.
 I’d relax.  I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been this trip.
 I would take fewer things seriously.
 I would take more chances.
 I would take more trips.
 I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers. 
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.

I would perhaps have more actual troubles but I’d 
have fewer imaginary ones.

You see, I’m one of those people who live sensibly 
and sanely hour after hour, day after day.

Oh, I’ve had my moments and if I had it to do over 
again, I’d have more of them. In fact, 
I’d try to have nothing else. Just moments.

One after another, instead of living so many 
years ahead of each day.

I’ve been one of those people who never go anywhere 
without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat 
and a parachute.

If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot 
earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall.

If I had it to do again, I would travel lighter next time.
 I would go to more dances.
 I would ride more merry-go-rounds.
 I would pick more daisies.

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I would push more red buttons (Just kidding, I added that line)

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