Thursday, April 29, 2010

Life lessons

Things I have learned since leaving on my travels (in no particular order):

1. Being a social justice activist, feminist and social democrat has not automatically made me open-minded. On the contrary, I have (albeit unintentionally) used my political and social values as a justification for being extremely judgmental – without ever realizing that I was judging. (Note: I do not for a moment suggest this is the case for other folks with similar values. That’s for those people to determine on their own).

2. I am not a good listener. I have always known that I’m almost stupefyingly (how’s that for a word??) unobservant, but I failed to admit to myself that I also don’t listen. Apparently, however, what I lack in seeing and hearing, I make up for in talking. I am concerned that this is not a good thing.

3. Whether your personal spiritual or life philosophy tends toward the Golden Rule (do unto others, etc), karmic law (what goes around comes around), or Newton’s 3rd law of motion (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction), my experience is telling me that these are a) all the same thing, and b) true. What you put out into the ether – call it positive energy, good vibrations, intention, whatever – will manifest. In a nutshell, you get what you deserve. Unlike observation number 3, this actually is a good thing.

4. Despite my best effort to tell new stories about myself, I am frequently reminded that I have to come to terms with the old stories first. Once again – you can’t run away from yourself.

5. It’s true. I really am the world’s biggest complainer. I’m sorry. I’m working on it.

6. My friends and family are always with me, no matter how far away I am geographically, and have never failed to come to my aid when I send out psychic cries for help. Thank you. I love you.

7. I have a lot of friends and family and loved ones out there thinking of me. It’s amazing. I am so grateful.

8. Money does not make people happier. People in so-called developing nations (seem to) have a joie de vivre lacking in our so-called developed nations in North America and Europe. Hey people – stop working so hard and start enjoying life.

9. I have a lot to learn re: number 8.

10. There is beauty in everything, even things that appear at first to be ugly or scary.

11. There are always things to be grateful for, and often the greatest challenges provide the deepest opportunities for gratitude (even if it’s after the fact).

12. A really cold beer on a really hot day is a joy not to be underestimated.

13. My life seems to revolve around eating. While this can be very pleasurable, I am not convinced it’s actually healthy – emotionally or physically. Hey, self: try looking for other things to enjoy once in awhile.

14. I’ll probably never be a vegetarian.

15. I have a capacity greater than anyone I’ve ever met for creating obstacles in the path of my own enjoyment of life. See number 5. And number 13. Friends and family have tried to point this out to me on several occasions, but… see number 2.

16. I take myself too seriously.

17. When bugs bite, it’s much, much better not to scratch the bites. They go away faster.

18. Bargaining with locals when buying goods can be a fun game, if you both understand what the game is. Haggling over what amounts to an extra $2 or $3 or even $5 - an insignificant amount for most North American travellers – can be petty and pointless, when it has a significant impact on the lives of the local population.

19. It’s ok to tip more than the suggested or customary amount.

20. Communication is not about language. Communication is about heart and spirit.

21. I am afraid a lot.

22. I have to remind myself every day that it’s ok to be happy.

23. I use the words “hard”, “too hard”, “should”, and “I don’t know” more than I’d like to. (I had to stop myself from saying “should”).

24. Despite all these shortcomings, I still think I’m pretty neat. I am not even embarrassed about using the word “neat.” And despite all these shortcomings… see numbers 6 and 7.

25. Life is beautiful.


P.S. 1 - Snorkelling is really fun. I even managed to dive under and blow the water out of the snorkel when I came back up, though I think that I probably looked totally graceless and also I don't think you're supposed to have to come all the out of the water to do it. Still, it's a start.

P.S. 2 - the bruises on my legs are REALLY ugly. Note to self: learn to dive.

The Mayan Tour... and beyond

Palenque is both the name of a town in Chiapas and the name of the Mayan archaeological site nearby. Being a major tourist destination, Palenque offers many options for accommodation, in every price range. We chose to stay at Mayabell, which is in the bioreserve and just a short walk (maybe a kilometre and a bit) to the archaeological site. Mayabell is beautiful, offering palapas for hanging hammocks as well as cabanas. There’s a swimming pool and a restaurant with very good food for low prices. We splurged and spent our three nights there in a cabana, which was much more expensive than anywhere else we’ve stayed, but very comfortable and dry – there was a huge thunder and lightning storm one night.

Sam has been to Palenque many times, so he entertained himself while I explored the archaeological site on my own. It’s an incredible place, well worth visiting (and I recommend Mayabell for its convenience and comfort too!). It’s set in the jungle, and although the actual uncovered site isn’t huge, the original Mayan city site, almost entirely still buried, is larger than modern-day Paris. A large part of what has been uncovered and is available to view is pyramid temples, which are absolutely incredible.

The Mayan civilization was very advanced and is fascinating to learn about (but too involved for me to get into here, so you’ll have to do your own research!). Although many people blamed the Spanish conquerors for the destruction of the Mayan empire, it’s actually believed by archaeologists that deforestation was the cause of its ultimate demise. The Mayans loved and were inspired by nature, but apparently cut down so many trees that they affected their natural environment, causing food and water shortages, intense social unrest, and the eventual end of the empire. There are still Mayan people living throughout the original empire, however, from Mexico down to Honduras.

My favourite part of Palenque was actually a giant ceiba tree, which the Mayans considered the tree of life, or at least a living symbol of the tree of life. I spent a few hours just sitting at the tree, which is enormous and incredibly beautiful. Also the Queen’s Bath, pools of water in a beautiful river (large stream, maybe) with a waterfall. Unfortunately, the river is now closed for swimming but apparently it used to be open to the public.

Sam and I also took a hike through the jungle in Palenque. I am clearly not the outdoorsy person I have pretended to be, but I sure learned a lot about walking through the wild on that hike. For example, when stung by a swarm of invisible beings, don’t stand still gaping at the part that hurts – get the hell out of there before they attack again. Sam is full of useful tips like that, which is lucky for me, since I seem to have lived far too long in the city and have lost all common sense. Apparently, Katie, you can not only take the girl out of Fernie but in fact, you can also take the Fernie out of the girl. Now we know.

After we left Palenque we headed to Flores, Guatemala, the lovely but touristy town near Tikal, another archaeological site. I really enjoyed Flores. It’s an interesting town to wander around in, with all the tourist amenities but also a lot of character.

Tikal, like Palenque, is an incredible site to visit. The archaeological site is larger than Palenque, since more has been uncovered. Some of the temples are just huge and climbing to the top made me dizzy. Tikal also is the home of a lot of birds and animals. Apparently the spider monkeys like to defecate and throw their feces on the heads of unsuspecting passers-by. I’m thankful that I was not given the opportunity to experience that.

One of the interesting features of the pyramids at both Palenque and Tikal – aside from the carvings of glyphs, which are fascinating – is that if you look closely you can see faces made from the stones. They’re different from the glyphs and not at all obvious to most people. You have to open yourself to receiving what the temples want to show you. If you just go to look at a pile of rocks, that’s all you’ll see. If you open up to seeing the spirit of the place, you’ll see a whole lot more.

One of my challenges in writing this blog is finding the words to describe what I have seen and experienced. It seems to me that places like Palenque and Tikal have to be experienced to be truly understood. You could google them and learn all about the archaeological and anthropological history in far more detail and with more accuracy than I could ever provide here, but you have to stand in those temples yourself to really appreciate the spirit of the places. It is truly remarkable to stand on stones laid centuries ago and sense the vibrant civilization that exists in another time, another reality.

To continue this tour of Mayan civilization, let us now proceed with the next leg of our journey… we left Flores and took a Pullman bus (more expensive but more comfortable than the Latin American chicken buses) to Guatemala City. It was a long ride, 9 hours or so, and by the time we got there, we were tired enough to crash for the night. Guatemala City is not a place I have much interest in spending time. It is hectic and felt a lot less safe than other places we’ve been. We stayed in a sketchy, not-quite-clean but very cheap motel and hit the road first thing in the morning, arriving in Antigua about 45 minutes later.

Antigua is beautiful. It’s another tourist destination, so lots of foreigners, and a great market where all the artisans sell their wares. Sam assured me that it was more expensive than the really big (but apparently crazy) market in Chichicastenango (just break it down syllable by syllable, it’s exactly as it appears) so we didn’t do any shopping. I did, however, by a wooden flute, hand-carved, from a street vendor. I am not yet performance-ready but I can make sounds. They’re not beautiful sounds, but they are sounds. I’m sure by the time I get home, orchestras will be beating down my door.

While in Antigua, we found a little pub with a pool table and a dart board, and it was during a game of darts (round-the-world) that I finally learned (at the ripe old age of 35) the meaning of the adage, “it’s not if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” I know this is something that every 5-year-old is taught, but I don’t think I ever understood it until that dart game. We had just been playing without scoring, throwing the darts at the board to practice technique, etc, and then Sam suggested we play round-the-world. This game involves throwing the darts at each number on the board, which go from 1 to 20. You have to hit the one before moving to the two, etc. Sam was on number 4 and I had yet to hit the one, and needless to say, I was getting a little irritated (despite my attempts at denial over the years, I really AM as competitive as the rest of my family). It was then that Sam told me that people who are good at games or who consistently win high-stakes bets are those who focus not on winning, but on achieving their goal, whatever that goal may be. A subtle distinction, perhaps, but oh-so-important! And a distinction that had never occurred to me before. With that advice, I stopped worrying about where Sam was on the board, and put all my focus on achieving my own target – and success! My game improved dramatically.

We never actually finished the game, because we were interrupted by a nice young woman who wanted to practice speaking English, so I can’t tell you who won. But still, I feel like I learned an important lesson, and if it is somewhat late in life, better than never, etc etc. I also think that (note to all you parents out there) adages like that are so often-repeated that not a lot of thought is put into the meaning of them – it’s assumed that, being oft-repeated adages, the meaning is obvious and understood. And maybe for 99% of people that’s true, but I am a bit thick-headed at times. It seems to me that it would be better for the children to whom such adages are told to also receive a real explanation so that they can learn the lesson at 5 instead of 35, thus saving them a few decades of frustration. Just a thought.

Where was I? Oh yes, Antigua. We just spent the one night in Antigua and then headed up to San Pedro La Laguna on Lago Atitlan (lago means lake). We took a shuttle to Panajachel and then a water taxi across the lake. We stayed in a lovely, family-run hotel that Sam had stayed in before, the name of which I never really knew. I signed up for 12 hours of Spanish lessons, which I enjoyed thoroughly. I emerged from those lessons with lists of verbs, manna for my grammar-loving spirit, which I fully intend to study. Really. Honestly, I don’t know how much I can say I really remember from those lessons off the top of my head (some, for sure, but not everything) but I came out with a big confidence boost, which is really what I needed. I also met some other travellers, which was fun. One woman, just a couple years younger than I am, had been struggling with the decision of whether or not to sell her house and go travel for a year. I believe since our conversations, she has decided to sell. I’m not sure her mother will approve, but I think she knew she wanted to do that and I was able to provide a positive affirmation that it really is a good thing to do!

San Pedro is a pretty popular destination in Guatemala. It’s in the Central Highlands, high up in the mountains, on a beautiful lake which is a giant crater, and surrounded by three volcanoes. The local population is indigenous Mayan, speaking both Spanish and Tzutujil. The women wear traditional dress and there are lots of traditional clothes and jewelry for sale.

I loved the people there. They are, for the most part, soft-spoken and gentle, and I found it far easier to understand their Spanish than people anywhere else we’ve been. I’m not sure if it’s just their way of speaking or if it’s because San Pedro has about a million language schools and they’re so used to non-Spanish speakers trying to muddle their way through conversation, but either way, I sure appreciated it. I was able to have actual conversations.
My teacher at the school was (is) a 25 years old Mayan woman, professionally trained as a school teacher for children. She has very little English, which was perfect, because it meant that all our conversations had to be in Spanish. She’s an excellent teacher, in my opinion. She spoke clearly and slowly, was very patient, and taught me a lot in just a few days. She also taught me how to say “thank you” in Tzutujil so that I could thank our landlady from the hotel when we left. I was thrilled to be able to do that.

We spent 4 nights in San Pedro and then headed out. We caught a bus to Antigua, which took the mountain road, instead of crossing the lake and taking a bus out of Panajachel. This bus trip taught me more important life lessons. Being of slightly less than superhuman intelligence at times, I had myself a lovely, large Café Americano an hour or so before we left. Of course, it was just about the time that we got on the bus and departed that the coffee made its way to that place of “uh oh”, and it was, by then, too late for me to jump out to find a bathroom. Since it wasn’t yet too urgent, and because who hasn’t had to hold their pee from time to time, I figured I could suck it up until the bus stopped. Well, the universe must have been trying to teach me these lessons, because I have never experienced such intense bladder discomfort in my entire life and hope never to again! The mountain pass is steep, windy, and very slow going. There is no place to stop, which means that when you have to go, you can’t, plain and simple. Not fully realizing what the road was like and how long it would be before we could stop, I asked the people in front of me (after reaching a point of total desperation), to please pass up the line to ask the driver to stop when he had an opportunity. It was possibly an hour later (or maybe 15 minutes, but it felt like eternity and I don’t have a watch so who knows) that we finally did stop and I was finally able to relieve myself – a phrase that I understand better than ever.

I learned a couple of valuable lessons from that experience: one, the slightly more profound lesson – sometimes when you reach out for help in a time of need, it creates a bond, a unity in the human experience. Rather than being annoyed with me for needing to stop the bus on an already-delayed trip, the other passengers on the shuttle were sympathetic, even empathetic, because everyone could relate. I suddenly felt a wonderful sense of unity and it’s comforting to know that at very basic levels, all humans can relate to one another, no matter what language or culture or background they come from. The second, rather more practical lesson: don’t drink large cups of coffee before getting on a bus, dumbass.

We reached Antigua approximately 5 minutes before our connecting bus to Copan, Honduras was due to depart. The shuttle out of San Pedro took nearly 2 hours longer than it should have, due to construction, a giant rock needing to be moved off the road, a parade, (ahem) bathroom breaks, and such things. We got dropped off at the bus company office, which was closed, and waited…and waited… and saw our bus drive by without stopping (though we weren’t entirely sure it was our bus). About a half-hour after we were supposed to be picked up, a woman returned to the office, seemed confused about why we were there, and explained that the bus had already left. But after a phone call or two, we were told the bus would be coming back for us, which it did – fortunately with enough time to spare for a trip to the bank machine (and the bathroom, natch). I felt a little badly for the other passengers on the shuttle, but since it wasn’t our fault that we had been overlooked, I didn’t waste too much time feeling guilty.

A word or two about buses – most people have heard the stories of the Central American chicken buses – crowded old school buses (they seem to buy Canadian Blue Bird school buses that have reached their 80,000 km limit for use by public schools) filled with people, their assorted bundles, and their chickens. These buses are cheap, but not comfortable. Although we are travelling on a budget, we’re not completely poor, and so have opted for slightly more up-scale bus travel. When I refer to the shuttles, I mean 12-passenger mini-vans with no air conditioning and no leg room. Also no chickens, so are slightly more comfortable (probably a lot more, actually) and with a lot less character.

Anyway, we headed out of Antigua aboard our mini-van, luggage safely stowed on the roof rack, and spent I-don’t-know-how-long sitting in inhuman traffic in Guatemala City. It was stifling. Since we were the last people aboard the bus, we got the bench with the window taped up with black plastic – so no air flow and no view. Eventually, we stopped for a quick break and the driver kindly closed up the windows and turned on the air conditioner for most of the rest of the trip. A great relief for all, I can tell you.

We arrived at the Honduran border after dark. One of our fellow travellers held things up by arguing vociferously with the immigration officer about whether or not he was, in fact, required to pay $3 USD to enter the country. There was a sign that plainly said there was a fee for foreigners, but apparently there’s some law or other that says once you pay it in one Central American country, you don’t have to pay it again. He was trying to argue the point, but needless to say, he lost. I figure for $3, who the heck cares? Not worth the argument, especially after a 6 hour bus ride in the hot, hot heat.

After he ceased arguing, everyone else lined up to pay their fee, get their passports stamped, and we carried on the last 10 kms to Copan. We checked into a hotel and found the restaurant/bar that is home to all the backpackers, where we enjoyed bacon cheeseburgers and cold beer. The next morning, we were up early and at the archaeological site of Copan by 7:10am. It opened at 8am, but we did the nature walk while we waited for it to open, which was lovely. I got bitten by an ant on my big toe and thought that my foot would fall off. So much for being an outdoorsy person. My self-illusions are crumbling rapidly. Sam got stung by a who-knows-what in the ocean the other day and barely blinked an eye.

Copan, in addition to being a site of Mayan ruins, is the home to a large number of Macau parrots. They are big, red and beautiful! They are also not at all shy. While the other forest creatures and birds take off at the sight or sound of humans, the Macaus just fly right around people’s heads. They’re quite a sight.

Copan concluded our tour of ancient Mayan civilization. We caught a first-class bus (oh, the luxury!) out that afternoon and headed to La Ceiba, on the coast. (Not to dwell on buses, but seriously, this bus was great! It was like being on an airplane, but with more leg room! There were even attendants!)

We spent one night in La Ceiba and then caught a ferry to Utila in the morning. Utila is one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, and is a popular destination for scuba divers. It’s a lovely, small town filled with foreigners here to dive. The local population is very different from other parts of Latin America we’ve been to. We’re now on the Afro-Caribbean coast, so the locals are a mix of Afro- and Hispanic peoples, speaking Spanish, English, and Patois (Patwa). Not the best environment for my Spanish practice, but it’s a lovely spot with friendly people.

We are staying in a hotel right on the water, with a dock to swim from. We spent part of yesterday diving off the dock – or I should say, Sam was diving, and I was attempting to dive. The bruises on my thighs would indicate some lack of success, though I seem pretty good at flopping. The only thing for it is to keep practicing… or to return to my previous method of jumping in feet first. On the bright side, I at least (mostly) overcame my fear of diving in head first from a height greater than 5 centimetres.

The plan today is to track down snorkelling gear so I can continue my fascinated gazing at all the sea life here. I’ve never snorkelled before, but Sam assures me it’s not that difficult. I have a glorious gift of turning simple things into major obstacles, but I really want to get a better view! We also hope to travel over to Roatan, a larger island nearby, on a sailboat, possibly tomorrow, so I need to go look into that too.

Which means, dear friends, that it’s time for me to call this an update and get moving. You’re now thoroughly up-to-date on my doings and happenings, so until next time… adios!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

3 months in, the sequel

Where to begin? The last few weeks have been action-packed. I think it’s safe to say that the “travel” part of our journey has really begun. We’ve been on the move a lot since leaving Bucerias. We’ve been paring down the backpacks to lighten our loads as the heat gets hotter, and I’m getting more accustomed to carrying around the weight on my back. I have come to realize that (as usual) Sam was right – no gym necessary to be fit and strong when living this lifestyle!

We caught an overnight bus out of Puerto Vallarta on March 26, arriving in San Luis Potosi at about 4:30am. We found a hotel near the centro, and the nice man behind the counter broke company policy, giving us a room without paying for an extra night, even though it was not yet 7:00am. We enjoyed a few hours of sleep and then got up to explore San Luis Potosi.

SLP is a large city, the capital of the state of the same name. We stayed in the centro, which was enough to roam around in an afternoon. There are a few beautiful cathedrals and several plazas, all beautifully maintained.

I find the plazas in Mexico a feature that should be built into every city everywhere. If I were an urban planner in Canada, I would really consider this approach. Typically, there is one main plaza or zocalo outside a main cathedral and surrounded by government administration buildings. The plazas themselves have benches and trees, sometimes fountains or small gardens, monuments, etc, and are used as gathering places for the populace. There are frequently vendors about, selling a variety of things that always seem so out of keeping with the beauty of the plaza – inflatable Disney characters and such things.

The cathedrals are also beautiful sights to behold. There was a time when I was quite put off by what I thought was an overdone, gross expenditure of money in a place of worship – perhaps due in part to my modest Protestant upbringing! When I walked into the biggest cathedral in SLP, though, I had a totally different perspective. Mexico, being a predominantly (80% or so I think) Catholic country, does not seem to have any qualms about publicly celebrating their faith. There are altars everywhere – bus stations, restaurants, front yards, etc – and bus and taxi drivers frequently have rosaries and crosses hanging from their rearview mirrors (which, frankly, I think are nicer than foam dice, but what do I know?). The cathedrals, like the altars everywhere, are a tribute to their faith in God. Unlike the modest Protestants, Catholics (at least in Mexico) seem very comfortable joyously and exuberantly displaying their faith and the cathedrals are a bold, even lavish, physical manifestation of that exuberance.

In many ways, I think the cathedrals are a reflection of the nature of the people themselves. My experience with Mexican people – not to over-generalize but I will anyway – is that they are full of joie de vivre in a way Canadians are not. They are happy, they enjoy life, they sing, they dance, they work hard in a way that makes it look like they are not working at all. They are not shy or modest or apologetic for being friendly, in that way that Canadians mistake for politeness (seriously, people, we don’t have to apologize for everything. It’s ridiculous.) The cathedrals are also not shy or modest or apologetic. The people build their churches to proclaim, loudly and proudly and with every possible fancy feature, that they love God and will put that love on display for the world to see.

Anyway, enough about that. We left SLP on Sunday, March 28 and headed to Real de Catorce, a touristy mining town up in the mountains. It was the beginning of Semana Santa, so very busy. It’s a pretty little town with very interesting history that we did not explore at all. Instead, after having a pretty decent Café Americano, we caught a jeep down the mountain to Estacion Catorce. The jeep ride was an adventure all in itself. Unlike in Canada, Latin America does not have a paranoid fear for everyone’s safety. Everyone rides around in the back of pick-up trucks, children ride on their parents’ laps in the front seats of cars, etc. This particular jeep had a couple of benches inside the back and a roof rack, which held the spare tire, sometimes luggage, and sometimes people. This time, it held people. Sam and I, along with four others, got the birds-eye view of the trip down the mountain from the top of the old, rickety jeep. I, of course, was clinging to the rails for dear life, but actually, I found that I enjoyed the trip immensely. There’s no way I would have seen so much from inside.

When we climbed off the jeep in Estacion Catorce, our backpacks sitting on the sidewalk beside us, a young guy in a pick-up pulled up beside us and asked if we wanted a ride out to the desert. (Apparently, it is quite common for backpackers to show up there looking for assistance in getting out to the desert. It’s where the peyote grows.) We hadn’t actually figured out what we were going to do, so being the spontaneous types that we are, we took him up on the offer. After a whirlwind stop for supplies, we were speeding along the highway, and 20 minutes later, we were standing under a tree (one of the few) in the desert.

Camping in the desert was fun, but very physically taxing. Because we packed our own water in, we were careful to ration it, which meant being at least slightly dehydrated from the heat most of the time. The sun is very hot and although Sam did find us a lovely camping spot with trees and some shade, it was still challenging to keep out of the sun. We did a lot of sitting still during the day, and saved the moving around for early morning and after sunset. Despite the physical demands, though, it was an incredible experience. We were there during full moon, and because there are few obstructions to the view, we were able to watch the sunset and the moon rise almost simultaneously. If you ever have the chance to experience sunset, sunrise, and full moon in the desert, take it! It’s not to be missed.

We left the desert after 3 nights. We headed from there to a small town called Cedral (Cedar), where we spent 2 nights, recuperating from the desert trip. We got clean, rehydrated, and rested, before moving on again. Cedral is small but such a friendly place. We ate most of our meals at the same restaurant, Almeita, which was owned by possibly the nicest man in all of Mexico. It was a modest place, with absolutely delicious food for incredibly low prices. We would have paid a lot more, though, just because of how lovely the man and his family were. Each time we walked in, I felt as though I were being greeted by a beloved grandfather. He clearly works hard – the restaurant was open even on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, from early in the morning till late evening – but he just as clearly loves his life and doesn’t resent working.

This is another difference I notice among much of the Mexican populace. Unlike in Canada, where it seems to me that we all work hard but wish we didn’t have to (I know I’m not alone!), people in Mexico seem perfectly happy doing what they do. That said, I haven’t really figured out the work ethic. On the one hand, I think about the restaurant owner at Almeita in Cedral, or Lolo, a ranchero who comes up to Tulan, clearing land with a machete for 8 hours every day and then walking back down the mountain to the village where he lives. They work very hard, seem perfectly content and don’t seem to question or resent how life is. On the other hand, I also see lots of folks sitting around the plaza drinking beer all day, and wonder if they work at all. Either way, everyone seems happy.

Yet another digression… anyway, we left Cedral and headed back to San Luis Potosi for a night, spending Easter Sunday there. We thought it would be much crazier, but it seems that Good Friday is when all the action is. Being good kids, we got up for church on Sunday and attended (part of) Mass at the big cathedral. Then we hit the bus terminal and went to Mexico City, D.F.

What can I say about Mexico City? It’s huge. Really, really huge. And city-like. Coming into the city, there are what looks like millions of houses lining the hills. The sight of these homes is, I think, part of why Mexico is considered a “developing” country. The homes, by Canadian standards, look like shacks and to a person who makes snap judgements without having any knowledge or information (not that I know anything about that myself), it would seem that they live in extreme poverty. However, entering the city, it is hard to understand how anyone can consider Mexico “developing.” It looks pretty well-developed to me. The city is clean, well-maintained, and every bit as modern as any other city I’ve been to. It’s got a population the size of (or exceeding) Canada’s and the Metro makes the sorry state of Vancouver’s public transit look like even more of a joke.

We stayed at a hotel called Hotel Mallorca, which Sam has stayed at a number of times. It’s reasonably priced, has the best shower we’ve had in three months, nice people, and walking distance to la Zona Rosa, which is a tourist zone with familiar fast food joints, good food and good coffee.

Our bus from SLP got a flat tire part way, so we arrived in the city much later than expected. We rested well and were up early in the morning to catch the subway to the Zocalo, which in that city is absolutely huge. We wanted to arrive before the crowds became unmanageable. I think we were sitting down to breakfast by about 7:00 or 7:30. We spent a few hours walking around and then headed back to the hotel. The next day, we took a trip to Teotihuacan, an Aztec archaeological site. It’s the site of several temples and pyramids. Beautiful and fascinating. We spent another night at our hotel, and the next day we caught a bus to Tepoztlan.

Tepotztlan is a beautiful community of hippies, spiritual folk, artisans, and local indigenous people, all blending harmoniously into a place in which I could easily spend months. There is a pyramid on a mountain (we didn’t do the hike), a temple site for the indigenous population that first built the city in the valley hundreds of years ago. We spent a couple days in Tepoztlan, resting and wandering, and then were on our way. Our plan was to head toward Palenque, a site of ancient Mayan ruins, in stages. We spent one night in Puebla, a large and lovely city (at least the centro). Our taxi driver very generously told us about and took us to a hotel that, according to the cards he had, was in our price range. Of course, it was quite a lot more expensive than we’d expected and the taxi driver got a commission for bringing us there. But it was a very pretty room, comfortable, close to the zocalo, and we didn’t really feel like trekking around looking for something that would save us $10.

The next day, we were back on a bus, this time heading to Veracruz on the Caribbean coast. It’s a port city, very different from the places we visited on the Pacific coast. Being a working port, more than a tourist destination, it had the feel of a much more blue-collar town than somewhere like Puerto Vallarta. It wasn’t exactly pretty, but we were both happy to be close to the sea for a night. Also, Veracruz provided us our long-sought dinner of pollo asado entero – a whole roasted chicken dinner, with tortillas and salsa and guacamole. Pollo asado can be found almost everywhere in Mexico, and yet since Sam first mentioned having a craving almost two months ago, this is the first time we’ve actually been able to make it happen. It seems that everywhere we’ve been, the pollo asado establishments are always closed when we look for them. A small thing, but we enjoyed it.

The next day was Sunday, and we headed to the bus terminal at noon with the plan of catching a 1:00 bus to Villahermosa. Of course, we hadn’t remembered it was Sunday, since we rarely know what day it is, and the bus was sold out. We had the choice of a 4:45 bus, arriving at 1:10am in Villahermosa, or a 6:00 bus arriving at midnight, which we took. We found a hotel across the street from the bus station when we arrived, watched a terrible Chuck Norris movie on TV (English with subtitles) and fell asleep. The next morning we were up and on a bus to Palenque.

Palenque is a post all unto itself, and this is already getting ridiculously long, so I’ll leave it here for now. We are heading out of Flores in the morning, catching a bus to Antigua, but we do hope to land in one spot for a chunk of time, which will give me more time to do this blog justice – and to (finally!) take Spanish classes, since I haven’t made anywhere near the progress I feel I should have by now.

Stay tuned for updates on Palenque and Tikal!

Friday, April 16, 2010

3 months in...

Ok, it's been ages since the last update, and due to low battery power (the computer's and mine), this will be short - but I promise to do a good update on the last 3 weeks soon.

We arrived in Flores, Guatemala yesterday at about sunset. After 3 months in Mexico, we're setting out in new territory (for me, that is, not Sam). I was warned that it would just get hotter as we went south, and it's true - and it's still early spring!

In brief, here's what we've been up to lately:

We left Bucerias and the Pacific Coast on March 26. We went to San Luis Potosi, camped in the desert, spent a few days in Mexico City, Tepoztlan, and Palenque, and now we're in Guatemala. It's been fascinating, as always, and with many learning experiences along the way.

As usual, I'm not sure what's next... but I have no doubt it'll be just as interesting. I promise to fill you in soon on the latest adventures... in the meantime, this brief note lets you know I'm alive and well until the juicy details get written.