Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Cruising the Caribbean Coast

quintana-roo

In the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, I took a night bus from hell from Mérida to Chiquila, on which I couldn’t sleep because of the sub-zero conditions normally incompatible with human life and the racket everyone would make getting on and off the bus whenever it stopped. Despite my hoodie and warm socks which normally suffice, my nose, fingers and toes felt like they were going to fall off, and I spent the night huddled in a ball shivering, nose running, barely sleeping a wink. I arrived at Chiquila around 5.30am, and waited with several other fatigued looking travellers for the boat across to Isla Holbox (pronounced Hol-bosh), a small island off the northern tip of the Yucatan peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo.

The boat only took about half an hour, but when we arrived on the island at 7, it was still sleeping. Our hostel reception didn’t open til 9… we went down to the beach and tried to nap but got eaten by mozzies, so decided to move into the yard at Hostel Tribu which was filled with hammocks… Much better! So we napped there until reception opened, checked in and went for some breakfast at the bakery around the corner. Tribu was an awesome hostel- the owner John told me his inspiration was a hostel in Katherine Australia of all places!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I spent the first day lazing on the beautiful beach, doing a photo shoot with some pelicans and having a little bit of a wander in town. There isn’t actually a whole lot to do in Holbox… The island is pretty small. You can cover the whole town comfortably by foot, and if you want to go anywhere further, there’s golf buggies. There are no cars on the island!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The main draw for Holbox is the whale sharks. It is peak whale shark season in July, so I had come in prime time to tick ‘swim with whale shark’ off my bucket list. The trip left at 7am- there were 8 of us on the boat, 4 other travellers, myself and a dad with his two young sons from Holland. The ride out to the site was long and rough, it took about 2 and a half hours of gripping the seat as we flew off the tops of the waves before we got there. We did get to see some dolphins frolicking alongside us though!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

By the time we arrived both of the little boys were seasick and crying, but there were whale sharks EVERYWHERE. I could believe the numbers of them. They are filter feeders and eat plankton which are right at the surface here in nice weather. We were only allowed to get in the water 2 at a time with the sharks and our guide Carlos, but all of us got to swim twice. They are huge, but swim super quickly! It was an incredible experience, not quite the same as seeing a random one out of the blue on a dive or something (still on my list!) but still amazing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The little boys both had a swim and were thankfully looking much more cheerful afterwards! We had a little snorkel over a small reef on our way back which wasn’t super spectacular, but just as I was about to go back to the boat I saw a sea turtle swim by which was awesome! I’ve never seen one in the wild before.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

By then it had started to rain, but we kept on to our next stop where we were fed some delicious fresh ceviche (Carlos had literally just caught the fish off the back of the boat with his hands!) and saw a whole lot of pelicans roosting. It poured with rain while we were there, but we all enjoyed sitting in the warm water and watching the storm.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Unfortunately we caught the full brunt of the storm- it was intense! Carlos had doled out lifejackets just before we hit it to help keep us warm then we all squished ourselves in a huddle on the floor of the boat with a sarong around the back of us to protect us from the spiky rain! Carlos had put his wetsuit back on and our captain had taken off his shirt to keep it dry, so topless battled us through the tempest back into the sunshine! It was quite an experience!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After, we stopped off to see the resident flamingos then headed back home. After all the rain, most of the islands roads had flooded, so much so that you basically had to take off your shoes to walk through the giant puddles that covered the entire street! My last day on the island was taken up much like the first with lazing on the beach and wandering about town.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My next stop after Holbox was a small town down the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo called Tulum. I had to take the ferry back to Chiquila, get a bus to Cancun, then transfer buses there for Tulum. I had a pretty swift transfer so only saw Cancun’s bus station! But from what I’ve heard, despite the nice beaches it’s a pretty overcrowded and expensive place, so I wasn’t too worried. In Tulum I stayed in a little B&B kinda place called ‘Calm Cabins’. I was the only one in the dorm and there was only one other girl staying in a private room, so calm it was! The owner Dora was lovely, very friendly and helpful, and lived there with her 6 (!) cats. She cooked a different breakfast each day and served it to you in the garden. The only bad bit was the mozzies!

IMG_3428

For my first full day in Tulum I’d organised a cenote dive trip at a site called Dos Ojos (it means ‘Two Eyes’ in Spanish). In case you don’t remember, cenotes are natural sinkholes formed in limestone that are filled with fresh water. Dos Ojos, as its name suggests, has two caverns, both from the one entrance point and we dived both. Diving Dos Ojos was pretty exciting, as I have never done any diving in an overheard environment before (meaning you don’t have direct access to the surface). Cavern diving is different from cave diving in that you can always see a source of natural light- it gets reasonably dark in places, so you do have a torch, but it is never pitch black. It was pretty weird jumping in a truck from the dive shop instead of a boat! We drove a little way out through the jungle to get to the site. Once we’d had our briefing and geared up, in we went. The water was SO clear, they say 100m visibility down there! There wasn’t a heap of marine life to see, the cenote dives are more about the incredible rock formations and the colours created by the filtered light from the surface.  On our second dive, we surfaced at one point in Bat Cave, which obviously had some bats, but was also highly decorated and really cool to see before we descended again and headed out.

1.-CenotesDosOjos

As these dives were shallow, I’d taken my camera down, but sadly after the first dive to 8m, it crapped out and came up completely flooded 😦 sad times… Luckily one of the other guys from my dive Brian kindly donated me his pics. He also gave me desiccant sachets to hopefully dry out the camera, but even after I’d left it in a bowl of rice overnight it didn’t come back to life. My luck with cameras has not yet changed it seems…

IMG_0040 2.Formations@Batcave

The next day, I met up with Brian again and we went to see Tulum’s Mayan ruins. It was so beautifully located, perched on a cliff top overlooking the superbly blue Caribbean Sea. Tulum is a very small site, so shortly after we had arrived and the tour groups came in, it seemed very crowded! It’s buildings aren’t as spectacular as some of the bigger sites, but I still really enjoyed it. I just couldn’t get over the setting and the amazing colour of the sea!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  IMG_3522

From the ruins it was a short walk to the main beach, which was stunning! We went for a dip, and then got some sun lounges (which came with 2 free cocktails and an umbrella) just in time for happy hour at midday! We enjoyed some cocktails and lazed about til happy hour ended at 3pm then enjoyed  a late lunch of delicious shrimp ceviche. I could get used to this kinda life!

IMG_3538 IMG_3467

That night I met up with some friends from earlier in the trip- Lisanna and Aida who I’d met on a tour in Oaxaca as well as Mike and Sebastian who I’d hiked with in Oaxaca were all in town. Brian and I caught dinner at a local street stall (and of course had some beers) with the German boys, and later I met the girls at their hostel for yet more drinks. It ended up being quite a late night!

1069214_10201670145695209_429269490_n

The next day I managed to get up in time for my 8am bus and was feeling ok, then slept the entire 4 hours to Chetumal where unfortunately the hangover caught up with me. Here I said goodbye to my breakfast, and then said goodbye to Mexico after a great 2 and a half months, and jumped on a boat to Belize.

belizemapgood

I actually did ok on the boat, again sleeping most of the way to San Pedro where we went through immigration- a little wooden booth on a pier staffed by the most softly spoken man in the world. I had to fully lean my head in his window to hear him. I got some new stamps and from there it was another short boat ride over to Caye Caulker.

Belize felt a world apart from Mexico. For starters, the official language is English (though many people also speak Spanish) and the culture is completely different. It is garifuna, very Caribbean and they also speak a Creole version of English (like Jamaica, man).

Caye Caulker is a very touristy but very chilled island just off the coast of Belize. A caye is technically ‘small, low-elevation, sandy island formed on the surface of a coral reef’ (thanks wiki). The place reminded me a bit of Holbox in the way that there was actually not a heap to do on the island itself so it was super laid back, and there were also only golf carts to kick around in, no cars. Caye Caulker is sheltered by the Mesoamerican barrier reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world (to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia). It runs over 1000km, all the way from the tip of the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico down to Honduras. Unlike the Great Barrier Reef however which is slowly dying, this reef is still growing. The Great Blue Hole (a huge ocean sinkhole) is also off the coast of Belize, so hearing about the great diving and snorkelling here resulted in me adding Caye Caulker to my itinerary.

I had a pretty lazy first day on the island, wandering around town with Karin, a lovely Dutch girl I met on the boat over. We thought about going canoeing in one of the boats that were free at our hostel, but it was really hot, so we went up to ‘The Split’ at the top of the island for a swim (a hurricane years ago tore through and left a channel of water down the middle of the caye). Caye Caulker doesn’t have any actual beaches, so you just swim off the piers and docks. The Split is also home to the Lazy Lizard bar so is always packed with people fighting for a piece of prime pier real estate.

IMG_3570 IMG_3571

Needless to say, we got stuck there til sunset! No canoeing for us… That afternoon, someone had brought in some little fish and people were throwing them up in the air to feed the frigate birds which hovered above the pier. It was a very cool sight to see- they almost look like they are hanging ornaments magically suspended in the air; they barely need to move their wings!

CIMG0124 IMG_3569

In the evening I was feeling up to experiencing Caye Caulker’s night life, so we had dinner at Enjoy Bar (which offered the cheapest lobster on the island – a whole one plus a whole plate of sides for US$10!) then hit up the Reggae Bar. After that closed at midnight, followed the crowd to Oceanside, a nightclub which also had karaoke! It was super hot inside with only fans to help quell the tropical humidity and hoards of people, but the karaoke was surprisingly good and didn’t make me want to run outside and jump off the pier so we danced up a storm anyway- it was lots of fun.

The next day Karin and I went on a snorkelling trip on a sailboat and ended up on a boat with two other girls we’d come across from Chetumal with, Greta and Cari. Our boat was called ‘Raggagal’ and our captain was Ramsey, with Sherwin as his second.

CIMG0133 CIMG0134

We sailed a little way north and Ramsey had soon spotted a manatee. You could just see its little nose poking out of the water when it came up to breathe! We quickly got our gear and hopped in, and then noticed there was a pair of manatees. Apparently it was mating season so they were often hanging out in twos. They were so cute, one looked like it was kissing the other, butting its nose on the other’s face! They hung around for ages and we were the only group there, so we just watched them til Ramsey ushered us back to the boat. It was AMAZING! I was so shattered I didn’t have my camera, but again got donated some pics from a friend taken at the same sites which I’ll use to show you here…

IMG_4769

Our next stop was Shark and Ray Alley which was a bit crazy and hectic as there were quite a few boats there and lots of snorkelers. There were HEAPS of nurse sharks and rays, and people were throwing food off the boats to them so they were going nuts. It was cool to see, but felt a bit like a zoo, so I didn’t really enjoy it as much. The best thing i saw was a stingray trying to eat a giant conch shell!

CIMG0138 IMG_4750

Our last stop was the reef, where we swum all the way out over some beautiful coral, saw lots of gorgeous fish and also the resident green moray (they are so creepy looking…). There was a small swim through down at about 5-6m which I did, but was worrying so much about whether I’d be able to hold my breath all that way that I didn’t probably appreciate what I was seeing so much!

IMG_4657 IMG_4678

At this site we also saw 3 sea turtles swimming around munching on sea grass. The vis was a lot better than when I saw the one off Holbox, so I could appreciate the amazing patterns on their bodies and shells a lot more- just gorgeous.

IMG_4638 IMG_4644

On the sail back, the crew pumped up the reggae and we were fed shrimp ceviche, thousands of corn tortilla chips and gallons of rum punch (very dangerous, as it tastes just like juice!) as the sun sank in the sky. It was a really awesome day!

CIMG0132 CIMG0147

My last full day on the Caye was an early one- I had booked a dive trip to the Great Blue Hole. I had to go to the dive shop at 5.30am where luckily we were dosed up on fresh coffee and sweet breads (I definitely need some caffeine on board if I have to associate with anyone at that time of the morning!). There were about 13 divers and 3 staff on the small boat. The ride out to the blue hole was around 2 hours, and rough for much of the way like in Holbox, but this time with a couple of gentle breaks over the reefs. We got to the blue hole before 9- you can’t fully appreciate it from the surface, but you could see the azure colour of the Caribbean change to a deep blue as we cruised into it.

The aerial shots of the hole are unbeliezable (had to be said at least once!)- it is about 300m across and 120m deep. So the dive itself is really short because it is relatively deep- if you had your advanced certification you could go to 40m. We only spent 25 minutes under all together- a quick freefall to 40m, then just 8 minutes bottom time before spending the last 15 minutes or so ascending slowly. Before I went, some people had told me they were disappointed and didn’t think the dive was that great but I loved it and was so glad to have done it. From a marine life point of view you’re not going to see millions of fish and coral, but it’s a site unlike any I’ve ever seen. As we were dropping into the dark blue abyss, we were lucky enough to see a couple of grey reef sharks lurking around but they soon swam off into the blue. But then the rocky formations appear- giant stalactites above and a rocky ledge below at 50 metres drops straight down into the hole. It was incredible- makes you feel so tiny!

We had two more dives for the day, both gradually a little shallower. The first was called Half Moon Wall which was an amazing coral wall which seemed to go on forever- we dove to 18m, but the reef kept going deeper. There were some very curious reef sharks who came right up to us, and we also saw another sea turtle. We stopped at the gorgeous and quiet Half Moon Caye for lunch and spent our surface interval wandering around the white sand beaches and checked out the red footed booby (a rare type of bird) nesting area.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The last dive was at the aptly named site, The Aquarium. It looked like an underwater forest with massive gorgonian fans and tree-like whip corals, and was teeming with tropical fish. I also saw a green moray actually swimming which was a first- he was so huge and fat! I’ve only ever seen them poking their heads out of small crevasses in the past. Of course on our boat back, we were given surprise rum punch, as well as corn chips, salsa and cookies as we looked over beautiful Turniffe Atoll… (wouldn’t mind a private island round here!)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That evening I had a delightful feast at the hostel with Marijke and Pieter (from Belgium) and Josh (originally from Trinidad and Tobago but has lived in Australia for several years). As a side note, Josh is in the midst of sailing from Florida down the Caribbean Coast and eventually on to Australia– he has a great blog about his adventures at www.sailsandsandals.com. Josh had been spear fishing that day and caught 2 big snapper which we fired up on the grill with some veggies- it was lovely to do some cooking and dining on some delicious, fresh seafood was a perfect way to finish my island time before heading back inland!

IMG_3618 IMG_3614

2 Comments »

Mayan Meanderings…

My first stop in the land of the mighty Maya was San Cristóbal de las Casas in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Chiapas is in the southeast of Mexico and borders with Guatemala. San Cristóbal is a favourite hangout of many travellers, a beautiful colonial town set in the midst of mountainous terrain, and a cultural capital for the state.

chiapas map_chiapas

The state is famous for its locally grown coffee and also traditional weaving. In Chiapas the weaving is done by the women usually using the backstrap loom (in contrast to Oaxaca where the men are the weavers and typically use a standing loom). Chiapas is Mexico’s poorest state and has one of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico, most of whom are descended from the Maya.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So who are the Maya? Well, they were one of the largest ancient civilisations of Mesoamerica, known for their written language, art, architecture, and astronomy. Have you seen Apocalypto? That’s them… Their domain stretched all the way from south-eastern México, through Belize and Guatemala, even to Honduras and El Salvador. They were also into human sacrifice like the Aztecs…

Anyway, in this part of the world, there are plenty of Maya archaeological sites, museums and the like and I was very keen to learn more. While in San Cristóbal, I decided to visit the Mayan Medicine Museum – all about the traditional remedies and healing methods practiced (and still in practice) by the Mayan people. To get there, you have to walk up the main street past the market, and keep walking. When you start to get out of the city centre into dusty streets and run down barrios, and think you’ve walked too far- then you are almost there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The museum was very interesting, but to someone trained in western evidence-based medicine many of the rituals and healing methods seem quite bizarre! The Midwife is one of the specialised Mayan practitioners who deals with child and maternal health and the actual birthing process. For a quick birth, a machete is waved over the mother’s stomach 3 times and soft drinks and live chickens are used in the ritual to pray for the baby’s soul. When the baby is born it is washed in egg to prevent bad health, and if it is a boy, the mother is not allowed to eat avocado or onions for 3 months, as this will apparently inflame the baby’s penis. The placenta is later buried under the house- face down if the parents want their next baby to be a boy, and face down for a girl.  The Bone-healer was another practitioner who had some interesting methods- they use whistling to frighten away bad spirits and ‘blowing’ to send the bad spirit away.

Interestingly, the reason soft drinks are used in the rituals now is mostly a matter of availability- traditionally healers spat a liquor called pox (pronounced ‘posh’) all over an unwell patient to ‘scare away bad spirits and bad winds and purify the person’, but now they use soft drinks as they are easier to obtain. The gas is also supposed to ‘help release evil by inducing belching’ (though how it induces belching when it is spat on you, I’m not so sure!).

There is of course a herbalist in Mayan medicine too, who knows all about the healing properties of various plants and where to find them. There is a big garden at the museum with examples of many of these. I guess with plant-based natural remedies which anecdotally work wonders, some probably do have a genuine effect but again there’s not the scientific evidence to support it. The list of conditions that were able to be treated was quite extensive however, ranging from diabetes, parasites and amoebas to hypertension, high cholesterol and ‘weakness’!

One guy I met in there actually bought the treatment for ‘Weakness’, admitting he was expecting an Incredible Hulk kind of effect, but was instead told to take 10 drops of ‘with exercise and a lot of fruit and vegetables’. Sound advice, though probably effective even without the mystery herbal liquid! If it does work though, he’ll have no idea what did the trick, as the label just lists ‘varias plantas’ (‘various plants’) as the ingredients!

Another interesting museum in San Cristóbal was Na Bolom, an indigenous culture museum that was the home of archaeologist Franz Blom and his wife Gertrude Duby, who was a photo journalist. Both were heavily involved with the indigenous population in Chiapas, seeking to preserve their history and traditional culture. Na Bolom is now a non-profit organisation which continues to run environmental and cultural projects with volunteers, despite Franz and Trudy both passing on. In this museum I learned that the boys in the rainforest learn to make their own (giant!) cigars and smoke tobacco from a super young age (like 5 or so)! Apparently it protects them from snakebites…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In San Cristóbal, I also discovered I was wrong about Mexico City having the most slippery footpaths in the world… San Cristóbal definitely takes the cake! Cobbled streets with stones so worn they are shiny like marble mean even when it is dry, you can slip and then trip all in one highly ungraceful, arm-flailing moment. Despite this fact, the city was lovely to walk around, with its beautiful buildings, pedestrianised streets and café culture- the Chiapan coffee was the best yet of my whole time in Mexico!  You could also take a bit of a climb up to two churches perched on the top of two hills on the outskirts of town- Iglesia Guadalupe and Iglesia San Cristóbal- and enjoy the views over the top of the city and out to the mountains.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Other highlights in San Cristóbal included finding the biggest bag of Cheetos I’ve ever seen, seeing the biggest waterfall I’ve ever seen at El Chiflon, checking out the beautiful Lagos de Montebello on a day trip, getting into the Santo Domingo museum for free on Sunday (the nice lady just telling me to write that I was Mexican in the log book… ‘Amanda Hill, Mexicana’ is not obvious is it?!), and visiting Las Grutas (some nearby caves) with Rich and Carla, a lovely couple from the US, and their grandson Zane.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My next stop in Chiapas was Palenque, a town named after the nearby Mayan ruins. The 6 hour ride from San Cristóbal was a bit of an adventure- the road the whole way was so windy you’d get thrown from side to side and then every couple of minutes hit a speed hump and be jerked up and down. I have never been to a place with so many speed bumps! The road is dotted with signs warning ‘Tope’ (‘Bump’), but there is really nothing you can do to lessen the impact. These bumps are pretty intense, not the kind of soft, wide rise and fall we are used to in Australia, but more like a 20cm bar built straight up in the middle of the road!

Anyway, I eventually arrived in Palenque town, feeling as though I’d been thoroughly shaken. There is not much in the town itself, so I stayed in a spot in the jungle between there and the ruins called El Panchan. My cabaña was in a little joint called Jungle Palace. Palace probably gives you the wrong idea entirely, but it was fine for a few nights!

I had read mixed reviews for the place, most using the words ‘basic’, ‘rudimentary’ or ‘rustic’, but others complaining of their room flooding when the river rose with the rains, or their roof leaking in heavy rain… on inspection the palapa roof looked pretty thick and the flywire didn’t have any gaping holes, so I decided to take a chance as the only place that had unfailingly good reviews was out of my price range. At 100 pesos for my own room, Jungle Palace was a steal! It was nice to be by the bubbling brook in amongst the trees. I did take the precautions of keeping all of my things off the floor in case of flooding though…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On my first full day, I had booked a tour out to Bonampak and Yaxchilan, two Mayan archaeological sites out towards the Guatemalan border. Yaxchilan actually looks like it should be in Guatemala, but the river claims it as Mexican… It was a few hours by minibus to Yaxchilan, with a stop on the way for breakfast at a mad little buffet restaurant packed with tourists from a stack of minibuses out front. On the bus I met Juan from Barcelona who was my buddy for the day. We were dropped at a dock next, as Yaxchilan is only accessible by boat. It was a nice cool half hour ride up river surrounded by dense jungle.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Yaxchilan is buried amongst greenery on the riverside and was a beautiful site to visit. You wound through small trails to get to the buildings and there weren’t too many people there. The first building we came to was aptly named ‘The Labrinth’- you had to find your way through dark tunnels to the other side. Luckily I had brought my head torch (thanks for the tip Lonely Planet!) so we could have a bit more of a poke around in the tunnels. There were mostly dead ends, but we did see some bats and a huge spider. I have no idea what the function of a building like that would have been!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Out on the other side you could see more residential area of the site around the square. Weirdly, the whole area smelled like chicken soup to me! Like the fake kind, the flavouring you’d get in your maggi noodles… I came to the conclusion it was a funny Mayan plant or I was hallucinating, but Juan smelled it to, so I’m going with plant!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From the Gran Plaza we climbed the big acropolis which was incredible, and on our way out tackled the small acropolis, which turned out to be up a not-so-small hill! But both were worth the climb and had great views as they were so high up.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Later we arrived at Bonampak, a much smaller site, but famous for its Templo de las Pinturas (Temple of the Paintings)- a small building with three rooms, each with its interior covered in frescoes. The paintings are still in remarkable condition considering their age, and you can still make out the scenes depicted (including a war scene, torture of prisoners by removing their fingernails, ritual bloodletting by tongue piercing and other interesting snippets of Mayan history).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was amazing, and well worth the trip. There I ran into Rich, Carla and Zane again from San Cristobal and we decided to meet up for dinner. Rich and Carla treated me to some tasty wood-fired pizza and we enjoyed some live music and after our long day. After dinner we had to say our goodbyes, but I’m hoping to go and visit them one day and see the beautiful properties they’ve built up in Washington state! They run a B&B up there, so if anyone is headed that direction in future, definitely take a look: http://www.wessonbarnloft.com/ or http://www.wessonbunkhouse.com/ 🙂

Whilst in Palenque, it’s often recommended to visit the nearby waterfalls, Agua Azul and Misol Ha, so I obliged. Our bus ride was accompanied by a Spanglish version of ‘Stand By Me’, that is, until it broke down… After the sound of something falling off the bus, the driver pulled over, had a walk around the van and told us the bus was broken and we had to wait for another one to come from Palenque. We surprisingly didn’t have to wait too long, and soon were off again to Misol Ha. We had a short stop there, just to have a walk around, but it was really cool. You can walk behind the waterfall which tumbles over a tall cliff into a deep pool below. This means you get really drenched, but probably worth it…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was a short drive from there to Agua Azul, where we had a couple of hours to play. Agua Azul means ‘blue water’, a reference to the blue-tinged pools. You can wander up alongside the stream to see a series of pools and falls as you go up. It’s really pretty. I jumped in for a quick dip in the cold water up the top, as the clouds were gathering, the thunder rumbling, and the local vendors packing up their wares which were all ominous signs! And sure enough, it started bucketing down, so I spent the last hour of my time there chatting in a café with two Danish girls.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I was slightly nervous to see what awaited me in my cabaña after the torrential downpour, but was relieved to find it non-flooded! My bed could’ve had a few drops of water sneak through the palapa on it, but I couldn’t really tell since everything felt slightly damp from the thick humidity anyway! I classified this as a success. Not so successful was retrieving my backpack from the lockers and discovering some sneaky little critter had eaten right through the pack to get my snacks! It was picky however, as it only ate the apple and cinnamon bar- the entire thing was gone from its packet, with not a crumb left, while the strawberry and pineapple bars and a bag of raisins were left untouched in the same bag! Random…

IMG_3357 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That night Juan got back from the Lancandon Jungle so we met up and watched a Mayan fire dance at one of the bars, accompanied by a Maya band. Not sure how traditional it was, but the music was really cool (I actually bought their CD) and the dancing with all the costumes and fire was great to watch. Afterwards they did some sort of Maya blessing to whoever wanted it so I went up and got copal scented smoke blown and wafted over my whole body (well I think it was a blessing…).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On my last day in Palenque, I finally went to see the ruins that give the town its name. After sharing a bottle of wine the night before, Juan and I didn’t get started quite as early as we should have, so by the time we’d walked the few kilometres to the park entrance, we were bang on time to coincide with the hundreds of tour buses that flood the site with tourists. We had to wait in line at the entrance, and battle the hoardes when we first entered which was giving me some angst, but by the time we went up to explore El Palacio (The Palace), people had spread out and I relaxed and started to appreciate it more.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Palenque is a huge site, but has some really beautiful buildings. The palace was incredible to poke around and the Grupo de las Cruces (Group of the Crosses) was great- a little cluster of temples built up on hills facing each other. There were great views from the tops.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Some of the other residential groups tucked away in the jungle a bit further from the centre were also lovely- you had to walk down some small trails, cross the river and pass some pretty waterfalls to get to them. These were the areas that you could see how the jungle claims back the buildings with huge trees growing out of the stonework- really beautiful to see. In these parts the chicken soup smell was around too, strengthening my theory that it is from a plant!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We spent several hours roaming around, and finally got to the museum which was a great accompaniment to the site visit. Here you can enter a replica of Pakal’s tomb- one of the most prominent kings of Palenque who was responsible for constructing many of the grand buildings. His sarcophagus is probably one of the most famous images in Chipas- an incredibly detailed representation of Pakal as the God of Maize, in the foetal position above a monster of the underworld (symbolising rebirth) supporting the sacred tree and surrounded by cosmological signs. A highlight was seeing the reconstruction of Pakal’s death mask, which is meant to be a very accurate representation of the king, delicately mosaicked in jade.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On our walk back to El Panchan, we narrowly avoided being killed by a falling coconut (those things pack some serious force when they fall!) and heard the call of howler monkeys- they sound like a jaguar or a dinosaur or some other vicious beast, but are actually quite cute little black monkeys! Back at Jungle Palace, we changed and grabbed some food before heading to town on a packed-to-the-rafters collectivo (I couldn’t even move enough to get my wallet from my bag so had to borrow money from Juan for my fare!). Juan had a bus to Mexico City, and I had about 4 hours to kill before my night bus to Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatán.

yucatan map_yucatanstate

Mérida was to be my base for exploring the nearby wonder of the world, Chichen Itza. I arrived there at about 5am, and successfully navigated my way from the bus station to my hostel on the Zócalo (main plaza). It helps that Mérida’s streets are logically numbered, with odd numbers running east-west and even numbers running north-south, those clever Spaniards!

I had a small siesta before heading out to see some of the city. Mérida is quite big, not as easy to traverse in entirety on foot as in San Cristobal but still nice to walk around. As it was Sunday, the Zócalo was buzzing, full of market stalls and locals walking, chatting and eating. There are also many smaller plazas dotted around the city, each with an associated church which were also very pretty, and again popular hangouts for the locals.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mérida has lots of free museums, so first I went to the city museum, about the pre-hispanic and then colonial eras of Mérida’s history, the Contemporary Art Museum, which had lots of great pieces from local artists, and the Anthropology Museum, which unfortunately was smaller and less exciting than I’d expected (and was the only place I had to pay to enter!). They had an exhibit on Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, as well as a really nice piece on traditional dances from all over Mexico represented by elaborate dolls. But that was pretty much it…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The highlight of my day was visiting the Palacio del Gobierno (Governor’s Palace) which features many amazing murals by the local artist, Fernando Castro Pacheco. Most of these depict important historic events or people in the Caste War- the revolt of the Maya against the Spanish, and their subsequent half-century of struggle in the 1800s.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next day, I took a day tour to Chichen Itza. Unfortunately I was not feeling on top of the world- I think the salbutes I’d eaten the night before on the Zócalo weren’t quite right. The bus to Chichen Itza was entirely Spanish speaking, but to my relief, our driver spoke a lovely clear Spanish, and I was able to understand pretty much everything he told us on the way. We arrived at the site after a couple of hours, along with what seemed like half of Mexico and representatives from each country across the globe- the entrance hall was PACKED with people!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our guide asked me if I wanted an English tour, and I said I’d prefer this if possible, as I’d probably get a bit more out of it (and wouldn’t have to concentrate so much considering I wasn’t feeling very well…) My Spanish vocab doesn’t quite stretch to much about ancient civilisations… So I joined a tour with his buddy Hugo and a bunch of other white tourists and was told where to meet the others later.

First up was the most famous image of Chichen Itza- the huge El Castillo (The Castle), a pyramidal temple dedicated to Kukulkan (the feathered serpent- called Kukulkan by the Mayans, but the Aztecs called it Quetzalcoatl). If you face any side of the pyramid front on and clap, it returns a sound like the call of a quetzal- a bird worshipped by the Maya as a god of the air, and a symbol of goodness. It’s bright green feathers were highly valued and used to adorn the headdresses of Maya nobility. Anyway, the sound thing is pretty amazing, but because everyone knows about it and is intrigued by it, your visit to Chichen Itza is inevitably accompanied by incessant clapping!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Other cool buildings on the gran plaza were the Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors), which has rows of columns decorated with carvings of important warriors, the Grupo de las Mil Columnas (Group of a Thousand Columns), thought to be a place of trade back in the day and the Plataforma de los Cráneos (Platform of the Skulls), decorated with many skull carvings and the place where skulls of enemies and sacrificed prisoners were displayed to frighten potential rebels.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Chichen Itza also has a Gran Juego de Pelota (Great Ball Court), the largest court of any site in Mesoamerica which was really impressive. Unfortunately, it was around this point on the tour that I felt like I was about to faint and I realised it was pretty hot and I hadn’t eaten or drank much at all for the day. I had to excuse myself- poor Hugo was like, ‘But I’m almost finished!’ and I had to explain- it’s not that I’m over the tour, I am just going to pass out if I continue! So I proceeded to sit on the ground, force down two cookies and sip at my water until I stopped seeing stars.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Feeling a little better, I walked out to a side group of buildings with what is thought to have been an observatory, named El Caracol (The Snail) after the spiral stairs inside the round building, and other buildings dubbed Las Monjas (The Nunnery) and La Iglesia (The Church) by the Spanish because of their structures and elaborate decoration- they weren’t actually used for this purpose. I was glad I made it there to have a look- the buildings were beautiful, but sadly I don’t think I was able to fully appreciate Chichen Itza as much as some other sites I’ve visited because much of my attention was focussed on staying upright and not being sick in public! I didn’t get time to go out to the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote), but apparently it is covered in algae and not very picturesque these days.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I guess I should explain what a cenote is (pronounced sen-o-tee) at this point… Cenotes are basically are sinkholes in limestone which are filled with fresh water- the name comes from the Mayan word for ‘well’. They can be incredibly deep, and there are over 2000 in the Yucatan Peninsula! They are unique to this area because it is a limestone plain, so caves and caverns form where the water collects and creates these holes which either fill with rain water or expose the water table to the surface if deep enough. The Maya believed cenotes were the gateway to the underworld, and in some of them, sacrificial items/ people/ animals have been found.

After Chichen Itza, we visited a nearby cenote called Ik Kil which was incredible. Such a beautiful little place. The stone walls rise vertically from the crystal clear blue water which is apparently ~50m deep! I decided to go for a swim, and I think the water must have healing properties because I felt infinitely better! I even had enough energy to go for a couple of jumps of the tall ledges surrounding the cenote!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So cured of my ailments by Mayan magic, I was ready to continue my adventures. From Mérida, it was off to the coast to rack up a bit more beach time… but there will surely be more Mayan meanderings to come as I visit other regions of their vast empire!

Leave a comment »

A Week in Oaxaca

I arrived in Oaxaca (pronounced ‘Wa-ha-ka’) after pretty much a full day of travelling. From Zacapoaxtla I had to go back to Puebla and had a little wait there (which I didn’t mind as it gave me the opportunity to grab a taco arabe which I hadn’t managed to try during my initial visit- and it was delish!) and then I got on another bus to Oaxaca.

oaxaca_map

Oaxaca is south-west of Mexico City and again the state and it’s capital have the same name. Like Puebla, it is a state also renowned for its food. Except here they have 7 main types of traditional moles (sauces)! They have the mole negro (black sauce, which I think was actually poached from Puebla), but they also have a mole verde (green), rojo (red), amarillo (yellow), and ones called coloradito (coloured), manchamanteles (tablecloth stainer) and chichilo (named after the chile used to make it). But there are hundreds more! Cacao is grown in Oaxaca and they make a distinctive spiced hot chocolate, and also have a unique stringy cheese (kinda like mozzarella) which is delicious!

IMG_3322 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s poorest states, though it isn’t immediately apparent in the city which is beautiful. The state has one of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico. Many of these communities live outside of the capital in the valleys and mountains, and the isolation has allowed them to retain more of their traditional way of life, but at the same time has also restricted economic development. Agriculture is the primary industry in Oaxaca- corn is grown on just about every surface imaginable! Oaxaca is also famous for its textiles and pottery, with many of these indigenous families still practicing weaving and traditional methods of pottery making.

On my first evening I got straight into the food. I met Judo from Australia in reception of our hostel asking where to find some good local food and off we went for a wander. We ended up at a street stall selling tlayudas, sometimes called ‘The Oaxacan Pizza’. They are basically a big tortilla made crispy on the grill topped with beans, avocado, cheese, salsa and a meat of your choice. We chose chicken, which we were surprised to see came in drumstick form- a little tricky to eat! But amazing, and SO filling! I had been eyeing off a michoacana (ice-cream shop) on the corner, but there was no hope after that tlayuda!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Later we met another Aussie called Peter who was rounding up a crew to go and see a jazz trio at a little bar nearby. Seven of us went and got to the bar around the time the music was meant to start, but of course they hadn’t even started setting up yet! It was about an hour before the music began. We then went to check out some other places since it was a Saturday, apparently the only night of the week that was really happening in Oaxaca. Café Central was charging us 50 pesos entry so we all decided not to go in, and instead ended up at Fandango, a grungy little bar where the beers were cheap but the toilets were definitely the mankiest I have seen in all of Mexico! Mystery liquid on the floor and missing a few desirables such as: a toilet seat, a flusher, toilet paper, soap, running water from the tap and paper towel…

The following day Judo and I and an Irishman whose name escapes me (terrible I know!) went to explore the city a bit. We first went to the biggest and most impressive church, Santo Domingo. In the plaza there were a bunch of election festivities taking place in lieu of the next week’s election. Marching bands, jumping castles, food stalls, it was all happening.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We checked out the museum next door, which had an awesome display of some of the treasures found in one of the tombs at the nearby Zapotec archaeological site, Monte Alban- jewellery of gold and all kinds of precious stones.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They had an array of other displays, pre-hispanic relics and also colonial pieces, the most memorable of which was this statue of Mary seemingly flipping the bird…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We hit up the local food market for lunch, Mercado 20 de Noviembre, first walking through the smoke-filled meat corridor where all kinds of meats were hanging about and being grilled on the spot. It probably would have been super tasty, but we didn’t think we could handle sitting in the smoke for an extended period of time and instead settled for a little comedor (food vendor) in the market itself where we tried the mole coloradito- tasty!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the afternoon I went to the textile museum, which housed a number of classic Oaxacan pieces of weaving, as well as a very interesting exhibition called ‘The Decent Women of 58th Street’, which was on the prostitutes of Merida in Yucatan, Mexico. A social anthropologist called Christian Rasmussen had interviewed many of these women about their lives and experiences and written a book. He had also taken photos of each of them but had promised not to publish them, so got an illustrator to draw them and then another artist to embroider them in fabric. These pieces were all on display and were great. The book looked super interesting too, but was in Spanish, so I only read about one lady or I would have been there for days!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next day I went on a day tour to a few villages and sights outside of Oaxaca city. There were two Dutch girls, Lisanna and Aida, on the tour who together with me were the only non-Spanish speakers on the bus! Our guide Jorge translated everything for us which was good, as occasionally I miss things in the Spanish spiels. It was good to practice listening to the Spanish and then hearing the English translations to confirm if I’d interpreted things correctly though! Our first stop was Santa Maria del Tule to see El Arból de Tule (The Tree of Tule). This tree is meant to be the largest in the world by trunk width- apparently it is 14m at its widest point! It was quite impressive, but was fenced off, so I couldn’t get the tree hugging picture I’d been hoping for!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We then went to a weaving village called Teotitlán del Valle, where we visited one family’s weaving business. In Oaxaca, the weaving is done by the men, while the women make and dye the threads using all natural colours, like cochineal from the bugs on the nopal cactus. The guys make weaving look easy, moving threads to and fro rapidly, but its amazingly intricate work, especially when making detailed designs like ‘The Tree of Life’. One small rug like this takes over a month to make.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We got to have a go using the standing loom which was pretty tricky. You stand on these pedals and when you shift your weight from left to right the base strings alternate. You pass the coloured thread through these strings, switch pedals, loosen the thread and then push it down into the weave.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our next stop was a Mezcal factory. Mezcal is big here in Oaxaca, as a large variety of agave is grown here. Here we got to see all the steps in the process of making the liquor, from obtaining the fresh ‘pine cone’ from the centre of the agave plant, cooking it, pressing it, fermenting it then distilling it. I tried an 8 year old mezcal, which I could actually stand, as it lost a lot of the burn reminiscent of cheap tequila, and was much smoother, though still retained a mild tequila-ey taste…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After trying a large assortment of Mezcals, we went to an archaeological site called Mitla. It was built by the Zapotecs but also has Mixtec influences, most likely from inter-marriage between the two cultures. The site was really different architecturally from any the Aztec sites I’d visited. Much smaller, but really beautiful. Mitla is extremely well preserved considering the seismically active region in which it was built. This is thought to be due to the design of the buildings which are built like inverse trapezoids. Something like 80% of the buildings on site are original with only a small proportion requiring restoration. The palace facades and inner walls still retain their original intricate mosaicked stone decorations which was amazing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our last stop for the afternoon was Hierve del Agua (‘boiling water’), which was the one we’d been waiting for- it is actually a fossilised waterfall. I had no idea that was even possible, but apparently it is! The site still has a mineral spring which now feeds amazing blue pools of water perched up on a mountaintop. This spring is where the place gets its name, but though the spring bubbles like it’s ‘boiling’, the water is actually cold. This place was absolutely stunning and well worth the wait. Across on a nearby mountain was another fossilised waterfall, and the views across the valley were incredible.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Despite visiting many ruins already, I decided I should also make a stop at Oaxaca’s premier archaeological site, Monte Alban during my visit. It is a large Zapotec city built on the top of a mountain about 20 minutes outside of Oaxaca. I had the same guide, Jorge, who had taken us out on the tour the previous day. Again I was in the minority- there were only 2 English speakers on the bus today! Monte Alban, unlike Mitla, had mostly been destroyed by earthquakes and the majority of what you can see now is restored. The site has a huge gran plaza (great square) surrounded by pyramidal style buildings, several tombs which unfortunately I didn’t get to visit as well as a small juego de pelota (ball court). Unlike the Aztecs and Maya, the Zapotecs didn’t practice human sacrifice in association with the ball game. There is no evidence at the site of human sacrifice at all, just some animal skeletons were found there. The views from the north and south platforms over the site and surrounding valleys were amazing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the evening I checked out a free dancing performance at the cultural centre. It was done by local kids but was really good, and the costumes were fantastic. The town is getting all excited for the annual Guelaguetza festival at the end of July, and it was good to get a little taste of the festivities even though I will be gone by then!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Something else I felt obliged to do whilst in Oaxaca was a cooking course. A cooking course had been on my list of things to do in Mexico since I arrived, and Oaxaca seemed like an ideal place to do it! I booked with La Cocina Oaxaqueña and was lucky to be in a small group with just two others, Lisa and Hosana from NZ. Our chef, Jerado, was lovely. He picked us up (ON TIME!) in his car and took as to a local market outside of the city centre. Here we bought the ingredients we needed for the day and Jerry introduced us to various fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices used in Oaxacan cooking. Once the shopping was done we headed back to the kitchen, which was at Jerry’s mother’s house. It was a beautiful place, set up with a spacious kitchen and dining table in the covered courtyard.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We started with dessert (as you do) and we made a guava pudding. This basically consisted of cooking the de-seeded guavas in butter and sugar then blending that amazing mixture with cream, pouring it into bowls and whacking it in the fridge! Awesome. Next was stuffed zucchini flowers- in Melbourne, these tend to be more of a gourmet ingredient, but here in Oaxaca they are used pretty commonly, usually being thrown in the standard quesadilla. We stuffed the flowers with a ricotta-style cheese mixed with honey and pepper and onion, then they were fried (it’s the Mexican way).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We also made a mole with almonds, a ‘simple’ one according to Jerry, as it didn’t have too many ingredients and steps. But still, you had to blanche the almonds, toast some sesame seeds then grind them together with some chicken stock in a mortar and pestle to a smooth paste. Separately, you grilled tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and parsley before blending those and then mixing the two pastes together. This might give an idea of the complexity of other moles which have more than 20 ingredients and who knows how many steps! Our last dish was tortilla soup, which is a tomato soup, but contains little squares of chewy Oaxacan cheese, tortilla chips and pieces of avocado. Que rico!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Once all the cooking was complete, with rumbling tummies we sat down to our feast. It was amazing. And to top it all off, Jerry let us eat 2 desserts each! It was a fantastic course, and I’d absolutely recommend any foodies who are in Oaxaca in future to visit La Cocina Oaxaqueña- definitely a highlight for me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Since I practically had to roll home after the cooking course, it was a good thing I had booked myself in for a 3 day hike for the remainder of my time in Oaxaca! The hike was around an area called Los Pueblos Mancomunados (the commonwealth villages) in the Sierra Norte, which is to the north of Oaxaca. The region is very mountainous, and the villages are small and remote, with mostly indigenous populations.

I was lucky for this hike to have company- I was joined by two very friendly and stereotypically beer-adoring German guys, Mike and Sebastian. We had to leave the hostel in the dark (a bit after 6am) in order to walk to the second-class bus station to catch a 7am bus to a village called Cuajimoloyas. On arrival, after walking all the way though the quiet station to gate 37 where we’d been directed by the tour company to purchase our ticket to Cuaji, we were told by the dude at the desk that there were no more tickets. We asked when the next bus was, and he said 2pm! Not helpful considering we had to meet our guide at 9…

After a little while we discovered that we could still get on the 7am bus, but would have to stand. For this we didn’t need to buy tickets through the legit vendor, we just payed the driver.  And saved 10 pesos, woo! Unfortunately it was a 2 hour journey, and we’d all been hoping to sleep a bit. Lucky me scored a seat as there was one empty right next to where I was standing- I asked around, and no-one volunteered, so I jumped in- no use leaving it empty and giving up the beautiful views! The guy whose seat it was did jump on at a later stop, but told me to keep it. Ahhh, chivalry!

IMG_3338

We made it to Cuaji just before 9 and waited outside in the brisk mountain air for the office to open. When it did, we met our guide, Ivan (who was dressed in baggy jeans, skate shoes and a hoodie), and got given little picnic lunches to take with us. Cuajimoloyas sits at 3100m and has a population of 740. It didn’t take us long to leave the little throng of houses behind once we started moving towards the next village, Latuvi, 16km away. The sky was grey and cloudy and the air had a slight chill to it, pretty much a perfect temperature for hiking. On the way we practiced our Spanish quizzing Ivan about his village and family, and listened as he told us about the plants and the local area (all the guides only spoke Spanish).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We began on wide open tracks through pine forest, but gradually climbed our way up to steeper single track into cloud forest. This part of the hike was probably one of the most beautiful of the whole 3 days. Trees and ferns emerged out of the mist as we progressed, bromeliads clung to high branches and gorgeous little orchids and wildflowers lined the trail.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After a few hours of walking, we reached el mirador, the lookout, and halfway point for that day’s walk. There we met a most beautiful, but very malnourished dog. No-one knew whose it was or where it had come from- we were >2500m high and 8km from any village! I know you’re not meant to go round touching random animals in developing countries, but he was so sweet and placid I had to pat him, and even shared my muesli bar with him.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We ate our picnic there- a delicious torta (roll) and a juice box as big as my head!- while enjoying the view and waiting for our next guide to meet us. Each of the villages has their own guides, so the work is shared between them. After leaving us, Ivan would walk the 8km back to Cuaji, while our next guide, Ismael, had left at the same time as us from Latuvi that morning to meet us at el mirador.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ismael didn’t speak quite as slowly or clearly as Ivan, but was super informative and kept giving us long-winded spiels about things we passed. The guys and I between us usually managed to get the main gist though! From el mirador, the walking was almost completely downhill (Latuvi sits at 2200m, 900m below Cuaji), with very few breaks for our poor knees! The views were a nice distraction- once the clouds had cleared we were treated to sweeping vistas over the mountains and valleys.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We arrived in Latuvi ahead of schedule (the guides and the boys went a pretty cracking pace!), but were shown straight to our luxurious cabaña (cabin), which had a bathroom with hot water (YES!) and towels, full beds with mattresses, pillows and blankets and hammocks out the front. We also got fed hot meals AND hot chocolates at a little comedor across the road… De-LUXE! I could get used to this kinda hiking…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Latuvi was the largest of the villages we would visit, with a population of 1150 people. After lunch, I walked with the boys to find a store, where they bought some beer (of course!). I went for a little siesta, and when I awoke, they had already been back to the store and were on their fourth beer each, both a little giggly, but insisting, ‘It’s the altitude!’ Despite us all laughing earlier at the 9.30pm bed time which was scheduled on our itineraries, we were all thoroughly exhausted and it ended up being pretty accurate!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After 10 hours of sleep (!) we woke up for a breakfast of chicken and potato soup and hit the trail by 9. Ismael was our guide again. On the way out of town we passed his house, where his parents had left his backpack hanging on a tree and his bike lying by the path for him. He walked the bike along with us to use on his return journey (he would walk the entire 11km to La Neveria with us, then go all the way back to Latuvi that day!)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We knew we would be doing a bit of climbing that day- we had to gain 400-500m of elevation to reach La Neveria at 2650m-  but Ismael said it was only ‘un poco subir’ (‘a little uphill’), so we thought at least it’d be gradual. The first few k’s were pretty easy going. We were feeling good so took a side walk to a waterfall which was really nice, but pretty steep both to get down then back up. Not long after that that however, the trail started to ascend, and it was a steady climb, up and up and up! We decided that ‘un poco’ when asking Mexican tour guides about climbing is like ‘un poco’ when asking Mexican chefs about spiciness- a gross understatement! Regular people need to multiply this by a factor of at least 10! It was a tough walk, as the pace was again pretty solid. But Ismael didn’t drink a drop of water the entire way! I hope his kidneys don’t pack up on him.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After arriving in the tiny village of La Neveria (population 200), we said goodbye to Ismael, settled into our cabaña, had some lunch and then a siesta. It’s a tough life this hiking… I had set my alarm so I could go and test out the zipline they had up on the hill, but shortly after that went off (before I’d even moved in fact) it started pouring with rain. So I stayed put. It rained all afternoon, so we were trapped in our room- Sebastian fast asleep, Mike listening to music and me writing my journal. We had a rowdy Friday night, going for dinner and a drink then hitting the hay before 9.30 again!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For our last day, we again had a new guide, Edgar. We thought it would be a relatively easy walk, just 8km, and with Benito Juarez sitting at 2800m, we only had to gain about 150m of elevation from La Neveria. Edgar also said we only had ‘un poco subir’ – we should have known! We ended up hiking all the way down into the valley to a waterfall (which was lovely) but then we obviously had to climb all the way out again! We were going up for what seemed like forever, one of those times where each turn in the path looks like the ‘top’, but all your hopes and dreams are dashed each time you round a corner!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Edgar trekked all the way up in his jacket (though at least he drank a few sips of water occasionally), while I was overheating in my singlet, sweating and panting the whole way. He would stop to gather hongos (wild mushrooms) now and then, clean them up, place them in his little bag then run up the hill to catch up with us like it was a stroll in the park!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We eventually reached the main road which wound and ascended more gently into Benito Juarez, and were told the kids in this area will walk an hour each way in the hills to and from school! When we arrived, we walked by a store and before I’d barely even entered; I heard the familiar order of ‘Dos Coronas por favor!’ (‘Two Coronas please!’). I went hardcore and got a coke. The shop owner let us sit out the back, which was basically her house and yard, beautifully decorated with flowers everywhere.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Later at lunch, I chatted to a friendly guy from Oaxaca who was up in the village to do some walking with his wife/lady friend. Once we’d eaten, we said goodbye to him, and thought we’d get a head start walking the 4km back to the carretera (highway) to hopefully catch an earlier collectivo back to Oaxaca. We had been told this road was ‘plano’ (flat), but surprise, surprise; we were walking gradually uphill for most of the way!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We reached the carretera around 2.30, relieved that we hadn’t walked all that way in the wrong direction, and sat by the roadside to wait for the collectivo. Two hours later, we were still waiting, and I had started throwing rocks at inanimate objects like the boys…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A bit after 4.30, the friendly guy from lunch drove by. Surprised to see us, he asked if we had seen a collectivo- we had only seen one going the opposite direction the whole time! He told us to jump in and we heartily accepted. He was going to visit another town outside the city, but dropped us off much closer to town where we could get a taxi. The taxi driver said we had to wait for 2 more people as the taxi only goes when it’s full. This was a tiny sedan mind you- so the standard was 3 squished in the front and 3 in the back! We didn’t hesitate in telling him we’d pay the fare for 5 people if he’d please take us right away!

Finally we were back in Oaxaca, and exchanging photos and contact details. It was a great to get out of the city and see some of the stunning landscape and small communities nearby. And of course make some new friends along the way! We said our goodbyes, then off I walked to the station (my poor legs!) for my night bus to San Cristóbal in the neighbouring state of Chiapas.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

4 Comments »

The Village People

After squashing myself and my pack onto a metro that was packed to the rafters at the random hour of midday, I got on a bus from Mexico City to Puebla and arrived in the midst of a torrential downpour. Apparently there was a hurricane or something off the coast of Veracruz which had brought some crazy weather! I forked out the 60 pesos (~$5) for a cab to town, and fortunately me and my things arrived mostly dry.

IMG_3179

Puebla is the name of both the state and it’s capital, situated to the east of Mexico City, D.F. Puebla means ‘village’ in Spanish, but these days Puebla town is definitely a city!

pueblaenglish

My hostel, Santo Domingo, was nice, but pretty much empty. Once the rain had eased somewhat, I ducked out to see a bit of the town. Puebla is really, really pretty, even in the rain- the historic centre of the city is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site. And the rain doesn’t seem to bother the Poblanos, who were out in their masses, with entire families roaming around the wet streets.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Poblanos seem very proud of their city. It was founded in 1531, as a ‘perfect’ city- built to accommodate only Spaniards. It was also the site of the famous 5 de Mayo (5th of May) battle where the Mexican Army defeated the French invaders. This date is now an annual public holiday and of course a cause for massive celebration in Mexico. No one seems to mention the fact that the following year, the French actually came back and took the city, occupying it for the next 5 years!

Puebla is famous for its ceramics, which decorate many of the city’s buildings, and its food (which of course was a key reason I felt the need to visit…). Mole Poblano (or Mole Negro– ‘black sauce’), a complex sauce made of chilli and chocolate amongst a myriad of other ingredients is probably the most renowned dish from the region. It takes 3 days to make! There are also chalupas (little tortillas topped with salsa and shredded meat), cemitas (bap rolls, crispy on the outside and soft inside with any variety of fillings), tacos arabe (doner kebab style meat served in a Turkish flat bread, but still with the typical Mexican condiments of lime and spicy salsa) and chiles en nogada (green chillies stuffed with a blend of minced meat, dried fruit, nuts and spices, battered and fried, then topped with walnut cream, fresh parsley and pomegranate seeds- WOW).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA IMG_3297

IMG_3198 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Anyway, on my first afternoon in town, I checked out the Santo Domingo church, which has an elaborately decorated Rosary Chapel covered in gold leaf. They call it ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World’ here (hmmm… probably not quite Puebla) but it is very nice. I also went to visit the Zócalo (main square) where a band was playing in a marquee and I saw signs that it was apparently the International Day of Music. I did not know that even existed, but I was glad to discover it does…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Zócalo is very picturesque and like the rest of town, was full of people. The huge cathedral on the south side of the square is also a source of Poblano pride as it apparently has the tallest towers of any church on the continent. I then made my way down to the Mercado de Sabores (Market of Flavours) where I tried the Mole Poblano with chicken. It didn’t disappoint and was delicious.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Back at the hostel I was lucky to meet two really friendly travellers, Sharni from Australia and Justin from the US, who I’d inadvertently crossed paths with when they asked how much we paid for tickets to the Lucha Libre in Mexico City! We spent the rest of the evening in the Barrio del Artistas which was a beautiful part of town by night. We managed to stumble across a bar which had a live band playing and also had 2-for-1 cocktails ALL NIGHT! Naturally, we proceeded to down a number of sangrias and kalimochos (red wine and cola), while Sharni and I amused Justin with the range of words Australians shorten and add ‘o’ to the end of (servo, doco, convo, etc…)

IMG_3185 IMG_3188

The next day Sharni and Justin left for Oaxaca, so me and my mild hangover went to explore a bit more on our own. Museo Amparo, a must-see according to the Lonely Planet, was my first stop. It was meant to house a massive collection of pre-hispanic artefacts, but unfortunately was under renovation and only one gallery was open, with a display of colonial art and furnishings. It was nice, but I was more interested in the pre-hispanic stuff- sadly, I didn’t get to see any except for a couple of token pieces in the ultra-modern new foyer. They did have a nice rooftop terrace though, so finished my brief visit with some nice views over the city streets.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The highlight of my day was the San Pedro Museo de Arte, which had a whole lot of traditional Poblano folk art. There was an impressive display of ceramic works, as well as a really cool exhibition on puppet theatre where the puppets were on display together with explanations of the historic events or stories represented. On my way home for a siesta, I visited the ex-Santa Rosa Convent where you could see the big traditional cocina (kitchen) in which Mole Poblano apparently originated. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures in either, so you’re just going to have to believe me that it was cool…

That evening, the extreme foodie in me came out when I paid the equivalent of my night’s accommodation just to try chiles en nogada! As it is a seasonal dish, it’s not usually made until later in July/August. Asking at my hostel, I was told it wasn’t even available at this time of year, so when I was strolling by the Zócalo around dinnertime (which is amazing all lit up by the way) and I saw a restaurant advertising the famous dish, in I went! I had just enough cash in my wallet to pay for it and decided I would probably have to live off fruit for a couple of days to make up for my extravagance. When the meal came though, it was amazing, so I had no regrets forking out to try it at all! Too bad it’s only available in Puebla for a few months of the year… I would love to eat it again…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The following day I was off to a village a couple of hours north of Puebla called Zacapoaxtla. One of Kirsty’s friends Ana in Ensenada had put me in touch with her cousin Noel who lives there and has a kindergarten where they said they’d love to have me come and help out. I was only able to spend a week, but was looking forward to going somewhere different.

mapa_zacapoaxtla

On the way out of town, a German guy and I had quite the adventure getting to the bus station. We walked from the hostel to the highway, then based on the old Mexico City principle of ‘need directions? Ask a cop…’ we thought we’d double check which side of the road to catch the collectivo. I thought it would be over the road (the road signs toward CAPU- the name of the bus station- were pointing that way) but the cop told us to catch it this side. As these collectivos sometimes follow strange routes, we listened to the cop. The collectivo we got on said CAPU on its windscreen, and when I boarded I asked the driver ‘How much to CAPU?’ (6 pesos) so on our way we went.

We didn’t turn around anywhere like I’d thought we would though, and we kept going and going and going straight down the road and quite clearly out of town. We thought we’d just have to ride til the end of the route, then turn around and go back. However when we were on a small road lined with houses and fields behind and were the only people remaining on the bus, the driver kicked us off! We said, ‘But we wanted to go to CAPU!’ and he said we had to catch another bus from here, which felt like the middle of rural Puebla.

IMG_3193 IMG_3194

Luckily another collectivo came pretty much right away, so we got on, clearly asked if he was going to CAPU at least twice, to which he said ‘Sí, Sí’, so we payed again and sat on the infinitely more uncomfortable plastic seats with the door hanging open the whole way to go aaaaall the way back down the same route, back past the election rallies and the cop with the bad directions, back into civilisation and finally made it to CAPU about 2 hours later!

IMG_3195 IMG_3196

It was another 2 hours on the bus to Zacapoaxtla, but the scenery was beautiful. When I arrived, I couldn’t see anyone resembling Noel at the bus station. Luckily there was a sign saying ‘Telefono Publico’ across the road (meaning the guy in the shop let me use his landline, then I payed him). I managed to meet the family shortly after: Noel, his wife Iris, and daughters, 17-year-old Joyce and 7-year-old Rebecca, and their friend Melissa who lives with them.

IMG_3199 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Zacapoaxtla is beautiful, a little village with steep and narrow streets up in the mountains. Noel took me to see the town square then it was back to the house. Lots of the family were over- aunties, uncles, cousins, and we then had a Q&A session, with the family firing questions at me in Spanish and Joyce helping to translate! I always get stumped with questions about what the typical food in Australia is. Meat pies? BBQ? And it’s at this point that I usually disclose that, ‘Actually, we sometimes eat kangaroo…’ Which always is met with a shocked reaction, like ‘No way! But they’re so cute!’. So this started the family joking about making Canguro con mole (kangaroo in the traditional Poblano black sauce) and calling me ‘Mandy Cangura’!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Later in the afternoon, I went with the girls to pick avocadoes in a nearby field. The trees were really tall, so rather than ‘picking’ they had brought a broom to hit them out of the tree. This was working ok until the avocadoes were higher up and Melissa decided to throw the broom at them which then got stuck in the tree! What followed would have made quite an amusing montage… Me, launching myself off the higher ground at the base of the tree trying to grab a low hanging branch to shake it down, Rebecca up on Melissa’s shoulders to try and reach it, then me up on Melissa’s shoulders to try and get it, and eventually me hurling large sticks at the branch and finally knocking the broom down. It’s always simpler in hindsight!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Monday was my first day at kinder. When we arrived, I thought ‘Woah, these kids are tiny! Maybe kinder means something different in Mexico?’, but a little later I was told we were at the guardería that the family also run (which is like a crèche or childcare kind of thing). A bit before 9, we drove down to the actual kinder. Half of the kinder kids get dropped earlier at the guardería, and then are carted to the kinder too in the back of the family’s camioneta (van).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA IMG_3216

In Mexico, the kids do 3 years of kinder, starting when they are 3 years old. In Australia, I guess this equates to an extra year, because the 4 and 5 year old classes are kind of like our kinder and prep I guess. After that they go to elementary school. I had arrived during an exciting week, as on Friday there would be a graduation ceremony for the 5-year-olds before they went off to school. On Monday morning I was asked to teach the 3- and 4-year-old classes a goodbye song in English so they could sing it to the 5-year-olds at their graduation. Pretty much right now. So I had to hit YouTube in a hurry, as the only thing I could think of was ‘So Long, Farewell’ from the Sound of Music, which was probably a little too complex!

Luckily I found a song, and decided to stick with just a verse of it which was mostly pretty simple. It went:

‘So long now (so long now)

Bye bye (Bye!)

See you later alligator

In a while crocodile

Good day!’

The recording was a bit fast, and I thought I could just sing it to them slower, but the teachers advised me it was better for them to listen to it with music a few times, so I just had to play the YouTube version off my phone which only lasted about 15 seconds over and over! But repetition was the key.

First I had to teach the 3-year-olds  who were pretty well behaved that day, aside from Madeline and Jason (often the naughty two!) who wouldn’t stop climbing all over me and hugging me. Jason was a pretty fast mover, declaring ‘Te quiero mucho!’ (‘I love you!’), planting a big kiss on my cheek and trying to hold my hand. Such a cutie, but of course a troublemaker!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA 1madeline

The 4-year-olds were a little more distracted, swamping me when I entered. They innocently asked me ‘Por qué hablas Inglés?’ (‘Why do you speak English?’) and after I’d managed to squeeze in a reply of ‘Porque todos habla Inglés en Australia!’ (‘Because everyone speaks English in Australia!’), they all started yelling out, ‘Como se dice… Raton? Rana? Ballena? … en Inglés?’ (‘How do you say… rat/ frog/ whale (and many other words) in English?’). So cute, but quite overwhelming! Eventually with Joyce’s help I translated a few words for them then got them to sit back down and sing the song!

1brenda&paula OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After day 1, the alligator and crocodile lines were proving at bit tricky but the rest were already pretty much down pat. With the 4-year-olds I was able to tell them what each bit of the song meant in Spanish. One little boy Alberto, once finding out that ‘crocodile’ meant ‘cocodrilo’, just got excited as soon as the ‘see you later’ part came along and would shout ‘CROCODILE!’ with a great big smile and start doing crocodile arms. Seems he is a bit of a croc fan- it was quite hilarious!

That night I got technical and downloaded a program called ‘Audacity’. With the assistance of several Help files and good old Google, I managed to record the part of the song we were using, slow it down and repeat it 5 times in one track so the kids could listen to it slower. The sound quality was not as good as the original, but for a non-tech savvy girl, I was pretty happy with what came out!

Most mornings followed this same outline- go to the guardería, then go to the kinder and spend 15-20 minutes with each class going over the song with varying levels of mayhem each time. The teachers would often do something else while I was in the classroom, and it was a little difficult to discipline the kids with my limited Spanish! I did learn to shout ‘Niños!’ (‘Children!’) with some conviction, and added to my vocabulary things like, ‘Sentarse’ (Sit down), ‘Venga aqui’ (‘Come here’), ‘Cuidado!’ (‘Careful!’) and ‘Ahora, escuchamos’ (now, we listen’). At times I did have to call the teachers for help, like one day when all the 3-year-olds were a nightmare, running all over the place, spilling drinks, going to their bags and eating their snacks in the middle of the song, fighting with each other and not listening to me at all!

1kevin 1amired

After teaching the song, I’d sometimes do a few odd things here and there, like drawing borders on the graduation certificates, and when I didn’t have much to do I decided to draw some Aussie animals for the classrooms (of course featuring a crocodile for Alberto’s room). At the end of each day (around lunchtime) the kids would all practice their dances for the graduation ceremony and we’d run through the song all together. In Mexican style, all through the week new things would get added to the ceremony, right up until the day before!

IMG_3280 IMG_3283

On Tuesday we had an exciting afternoon preparing for a desfile (parade) to celebrate the anniversary of the kinder. After kinder we went back to the guardería where a room full of balloons awaited. Joyce and I set about making strings of different coloured balloons to decorate the cars for the parade.

IMG_3234 IMG_3233

Then we had to help get the kids dressed- everyone had a costume, even the 1- and 2-year-olds from the guardería! After that, while Melissa busily did the girls’ hair into fancy up-dos, I was asked to paint the kids’ faces. Yep, even the 1- and 2-year-olds! Even little 2-year-old Max dressed as Superman. I didn’t think Superman needed a painted face, but Mexicans don’t do things by halves. It was all out for these kiddies!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was a little tricky painting such young ’uns, especially since they didn’t really get what was going on and kept wiggling around and touching their face. It was a bit more fun to paint the slightly older kids, who could tell you what they want and then hold still for a couple of minutes while you did it! Or on the other hand tell you if they don’t want it at all!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But anyway, all of them looked adorable, and when they were ready, we loaded them up onto the bonnets of cars (yes, actually) and into the trailers of pick-up trucks decorated with balloons and sent them off behind the bomberos (firemen) who cleared the way through town with their truck, lights flashing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The whole town must have heard about it and people lined the streets to wait for the parade to come past. I was utterly freaked out to see a baby dressed as Winnie the Pooh riding on the roof of a car until I realised that someone was holding it up there through the sun roof! But thankfully no-one was injured falling off any moving vehicle and the kids all looked like they enjoyed it, grinning and waving at the crowds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That night, we had to go and sleep in the guardería. I didn’t really know what was going on, I was just told ‘Vamos! We’re going to the guardería to sleep!’ and I was like ‘Whaaaa?’ but packed my things and went. I must’ve tuned out in the car when everyone was speaking Spanish (at the end of a long day my concentration wanes… It takes a lot of brainpower for me to listen to and interpret a conversation at this stage!). Later I found out Wednesday is a market day in town and there is no parking in the morning, so the whole family drive down the night before and sleep in the guardería so they can get a park! There are a couple of rooms with beds there, but everything else needed to be packed up and relocated for the night- bedding, toiletries, change of clothes, the girls even brought a TV! And this happens every week… definitely an interesting experience!

On Wednesday afternoon I helped look after the kids during a church service that was held for the parents. Making paper planes and boats and various animals out of play-doh helped transcend the language barrier! Fun fact of the day for the Mexicans was learning I only had one last name! In Mexico, the children take the last name of both their mother and their father.

On the Thursday afternoon, I went with Joyce and her friends Mardennis and Brandon to a pueblo mágico (magic village) nearby called Cuetzalan. It is a beautiful little town, we got some lunch at a street vendor, I tried a local specialty called a tayoyo (kind of a pastry filled with a mix of green stuff- avocado, chili, herbs- I never found out what exactly!).

The highlight of the afternoon was seeing the voladores. It’s a traditional spectacle particular to Cuetzalan. In the main square in front of the cathedral is a massive tall pole. The 5 voladores start dancing around it, a couple playing a flute and a drum, and then they climb to the top of the pole.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At the top is a very small platform where they all sit for a long time (enough time for me to walk all the way through the market to a café, buy a coffee and come back!), and then eventually, they attach themselves to ropes and volar (fly) back down in sweeping circles towards land, the ropes lengthening little by little. It is incredible to see, and worth the wait!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On arriving back at the kinder, I was put to work decorating the stage for graduation. Naturally this was all being done the night before… (Mexico runs Mandy-style, where last minute is the typical way!) I drew and cut out fabric stars and letters for the background, staple-gunned them to the wall, and helped string up the grand finale- a piece of fabric with a slit down the middle taped together overhanging the stage and filled with balloons. Balloons are all the rage for these celebrations. There were hundreds of them!

IMG_3292 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On the morning of the ceremony, after doing my usual run through of the song with the kids, my handwriting was again called upon for drawing letters to spell ‘BYE!’ for the kids to wear and writing names for the seats, intermittently being called out when they were up to rehearsing the goodbye song again. But everything got done!

IMG_3282 IMG_3285

On the night itself, I was asked to do a short speech to the kids and parents, in English, with Joyce translating, about why it is important for the children to learn English. Last minute of course, but talking is not something I usually have a problem with so I managed to pull a few lines together! Iris is very passionate about the children learning English and would love to have more native English speakers come to work with the children for longer in future (if you or anyone you know would be interested, email me!).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The ceremony was adorable- the 3 and 4 year olds were costumed up as mice and birds for their respective dances, and the graduating class of 5-year olds were more dressed up than I was for my valedictory! The girls were in floor length gowns and curls, and the boys in little shirts, vests and slacks! And despite all the running amok during rehearsals, they all pulled together on the night and did really well in their performances!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was a really nice end to my time in Zacapoaxtla. I really wish I could have stayed longer, but there was still so much more I wanted to see and do in my time in the area, so felt I needed to keep moving. Admittedly, it was challenging at times, mostly due to the language barrier, but I think it was really good for me to be surrounded by Spanish and I was whole-heartedly welcomed by the Aldama family and the community which made it all worthwhile.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

2 Comments »

Aztec Adventures

Mexico City. Ciudad de Mexico or El Distrito Federal to the locals… A sprawling metropolis with a population of around 21 million… Yes, you read correctly- there are almost as many people living in this capital than there are in the whole of Australia!

DF

This is just one of the things I learned which I had no idea about before I visited Mexico City… I didn’t know the city sat at an altitude of 2,240 metres. But I sure noticed when climbing up the five flights stairs to the rooftop of my hostel for breakfast on my first day! I also didn’t know the city was initially built on an island surrounded by lakes. The legend goes that the gods told the Aztecs they were to build their new city at the site where they found the sign of an eagle perched on a nopal cactus with a snake in its beak. When they came to this island on Lake Texcoco, they saw this sign and it was here that the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was built in the 1300s (and the eagle, snake and cactus is now the symbol which decorates Mexico’s flag). When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, Tenochtitlan was destroyed and the colonial capital which is now Mexico City was built over the top of it. As a consequence of the city expanding over the soft ground which was once underwater, there are far more leaning towers here than in Pisa!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Despite what I’d heard, Mexico City appeared far more clean and felt a lot more safe than the reputation which proceeded it. Although its population is enormous, while I was there the city streets never seemed to be overly crowded or bunged up with traffic or full of exhaust fumes- but maybe I was hanging in quieter parts of town. Mexico City is the home of more old skool VW beetles (aka. Punch Buggies) than I’ve seen in a long time, but also has electric taxis, electric buses (they operate just like trams from an overhead cable) and they have a free bike hire scheme as well as several bike routes too.

The city is also pictureque, with wide, tree-lined streets and beautiful colonial buildings, though for some reason all the streets seem to be made of the slipperiest stones known to man, which makes wandering around  in thongs particularly hazardous (especially after the rain!). You will also never be without a toilet here- every street has numerous sanitarios, obvious by their giant ‘WC’ signs out front. I have never seen such a concentration of public loos! It seems to be quite the business here… Often you pay a few pesos to use them but the standard is leaps and bounds above the average Asian public toilet. Mexico City is not only memorable for its quality public amenities, but it is also a haven for museums, galleries and cultural activities. You could probably visit a different museum every week of the year, there are that many around- it seems like there’s one every block! There is art everywhere, not just in galleries but in the streets and underground in the metro stations, pretty much any surface that can be painted on…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The fact that Mexico City has a vast and super-efficient metro system is something else I didn’t know before I arrived. It is SO cheap to get around at 3 pesos per trip (~25c!). You can change lines as many times as you want and cross the entire city for that price! Which is great because with the city being so big, it isn’t really easy to travel between boroughs by foot.

Taking the metro is an experience in itself. It’s here that you tend to notice the crowds more- being so cheap, it really is accessible to everyone and is well utilised. No matter if the carriage is bursting at the seams, there are always vendors selling all kinds of things on board. They really are talented, somehow managing to get on during the generous 10 second window that the doors are open (with hoards of people pushing in opposite directions), then they somehow shuffle their way through the packed carriage spruiking their wares in a sing-song voice. They sell anything from gardening gloves, to razors, to pocket mirrors, to chewing gum or candy, or my favourites, the compilation CDs. These vendors come in wearing a backpack decked out with a speaker attached to a discman (remember those?!) playing a snippet of each song on their CD full bawl. Depending on the day, a segment of your trip could be accompanied by traditional mariachi music, electro beats or English pop tunes from a range of eras sung in Spanish. And all could be yours for the bargain price of 10 pesos or less (<$1)! There were people selling stuff everywhere in the metro, even setting up on the stairs from the street down to the trains, or on the 10cm wide bit of railing between the stairs and escalators!

I stayed in a hostel in the Centro Historico just a couple of blocks from the Zócalo (Main Square), which is encircled by several impressive buildings including the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace and the City Hall.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The cathedral is apparently the oldest and largest Roman Catholic cathedral in the Americas. On my first day, I roamed around inside, which is lovely, and also climbed up the bell tower (unfortunately on a Spanish speaking tour, so I understood little more than random words here and there!) but the view from the cathedral rooftop was well worth it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We also went to visit the Templo Mayor, which was the main temple of Aztec Tenochtitlan, part of which has been excavated just beside the cathedral.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sadly, the National Palace, formerly the presidential residence, but now a government building, was closed for renovations the whole time I was there. There are some Diego Rivera murals depicting significant scenes from Mexico’s history which I really wanted to see, but not to be.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next day however, a group of us- Joe, Sarah and I from Oz and Matt from England, went to the Ministry of Education building (which we later discovered was actually the building adjoined to our hostel!) which Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint in the 20s. He spent 6 years (1923-1929) painting murals around the walls of 3 levels of this huge building, which gave us plenty to see for free! He painted a range of images, depicting various types of labour carried out in Mexico, different Mexican celebrations, intellectual sciences, and the most impressive for me- a large series of images about the people’s struggles during the revolution, which quite clearly expressed his socialist and anti-capitalist point of view.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We were very excited to find this place, as our day though turning out well, had started a little disappointingly. We were all waiting in the foyer of the hostel for a free market tour, when the guide (who had been at the hostel just ½ an hour earlier) called to say he had a family emergency and couldn’t make it. So we decided to conduct our own self-guided market tour. We jumped on the metro out to Mercado Jamaica, which had a bit of everything- food, produce, and finally came to the section they were famous for- the flowers. And they were amazing! I was kind of expecting some nice big bunches, but they had crazy elaborate arrangements shaped like Elmo, the Cookie Monster, frogs or lions, holding hearts saying ‘I Love You’. Insane.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After Matt had bought some crickets and I’d tried and not enjoyed the second cricket of my lifetime, we trekked along to find Mercado Sonora, which was known as a market for ‘witchcraft’. They had a whole bunch of stalls with freaky looking dried snakes and other creatures, as well as an assortment of herbs, incense and candles, so I guess this was the part that got it the reputation. We also found a guy selling peyote under the table, though didn’t buy any! The rest of the market was a close knit maze of knick-knacks- toys, costumes, handicrafts. The find of the day was the Luche Libre wrestling masks for a fraction of the price of what we’d been told they were at the arena, so I bought up in preparation for the following evening!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The rest of our afternoon was spent eating a ridiculously large but super cheap meal at Mercado Merced and later wandering to several museums and galleries in town which were all shut because apparently Monday is Mexico City’s day off for museums. When asking directions for one, we were told to ask the police, which we thought was a bit funny, but turned out to be a good tip as they actually did seem to know more than the average local! Mexico City has a lot of green space too, so despite not getting into any of the buildings we wanted to, we were able to wander through Almeda Central, a massive park with many water features, and also checked out Plaza Garibaldi, known for its many Mariachi bands, but it was a little early for much action (clearly it does get some action though, judging from the sign we saw below…)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We then ended up walking through a part of town that appeared to be dedicated to fiestas,  but predominantly Quinceaños, which is the 15th birthday and ‘coming of age’ for a Mexican girl. There were stores overflowing with full-length puffy princess dresses, in all colours with frills, sparkles, diamantes, you name it! And stores filled with fancy invitations saying ‘15’ on metallic paper with ribbons and more sparkles… It would have been pretty cool to attend one of these parties, as it seems like they are a big deal! Each area in Mexico City seems to have a theme- there’s the shoe street, the jewellers street, and the floral leggings street (seriously, you would not believe what a popular fashion item this is here)… you really need to know where to go for what you want as you can’t just hope to stumble upon it in the sprawling expanse of Mexico City!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We spent the evening at the hostel, where the Aussies were delighted to meet a French guy who looked exactly like Guy Sebastian (and introduce everyone else who was not acquainted with Guy Sebastian to both his picture and his music- the classic ‘Angels Brought Me Here’ Aus Idol era of course). It was uncanny. But then I got ‘Angels Brought Me Here’ stuck in my head for days…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next day was a revisit to the Diego Rivera Mural Museum, which was now open and definitely worth going back for- there was an amazing photo exhibition by a guy called Leo Matiz featuring musicians from all over Latin America and of course the feature piece, Rivera’s Sueño de la tarde de un domingo en la Alameda Central (Dreaming in the afternoon on a Sunday in Alameda Central). It’s a massive piece featuring lots of famous faces of Mexico’s present (as per the 70s) and past. There is so much going on you can look at it for ages.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Later we took the metro out to Coyoacán (‘Place of the Coyotes’), the town of Frida Kahlo. Well, it used to be a town, but has now been swallowed by Mexico City and is more of a suburb… It still retains somewhat of a village feel however, and was very pleasant to walk around. The main attraction here is Frida’s Casa Azul (Blue House) where she was born, spent much of her life and also died. Unfortunately, you couldn’t take any pictures in the house, but there was a great exhibition of her clothing which had just recently been discovered locked away in a bathroom in the house, and you could also see her studio and bedroom (with the mirror above her bed) and all her things still in there. Personally, I found learning about Frida fascinating. I didn’t know much about her prior to coming to Mexico City, other than she was an artist from Mexico who painted a lot of self-portraits. However, after being here, seeing her and her art everywhere, reading a bit more about her and visiting her house, I’ve found her quite an intriguing character.

For those of you who aren’t interested or who are already Frida buffs, forgive me, but I will tell a little about her here from what I’ve heard and read for those who don’t know… She was born in 1907 in Coyoacán to a Hungarian father and Mexican mother. She had polio when she was 6 which left her with a deformed left leg which was shorter than her right leg. She originally wanted to be a doctor, but when she was 18, she was in a tramcar accident where she was pretty much impaled on a metal pole. It sounded horrific, and it’s actually amazing that she survived it at that time, but it did her a lot of internal damage, leaving her unable to bear children and also needing to wear external braces to supprt her pelvis and spine. Her trademark outfits were therefore chosen specifically to hide her physical defects. She wore long skirts, elaborate headdresses and detailed blouses to draw attention upwards. She started painting while she was recovering in the hospital from her accident. A lot of her paintings depict her physical and emotional pain. Later, she married the famous painter Diego Rivera, but it seems they had quite a tumultuous relationship, both having numerous affairs. Diego’s affair with Frida’s younger sister caused them to get a divorce, although they then remarried a year later! It sounds like their second marriage they lived in separate homes and were happier that way. She still had a lot of trouble with her health throughout her life and had something like 22 operations, including the amputation of one of her feet, and sadly died quite young, at the age of 47. So quite an interesting and also a tragic life, I thought!

The rest of our afternoon in Coyoacán was spent lazing around the main square which was full of couples and ice-cream shops. Here in Mexico the PDA is rife, seeing people making out is commonplace in any area with a bench, tree or even a wall to lean on. Though I guess for a country where people you’ve just met greet you with a kiss on the cheek this is somewhat understandable…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That evening a group of us from the hostel headed out to the Lucha Libre- Mexican wrestling! We picked up an additional Aussie couple on the metro so ended with a crew of 11 people. Arena México is pretty big, but wasn’t full, I guess because it was a Tuesday night, which probably isn’t as popular as the Friday night matches. Dressed in our masks we took to our seats and ordered massive paper cups of beer (2 bottles in one cup) and as the action started, we picked random wrestlers to cheer for. The first fight was probably more amateur, as you could see a lot of the moves coming a mile off, and often it looked a bit fake; but as the night went on, the tricks got more and more impressive. It was really entertaining, watching El Felino play dirty and rub his armpits in his opponents’ faces, seeing massive dudes flying off the top of the ropes and flipping opponents using their legs, finding out the bitch slap is employed regularly as a legitimate move in this sport and also seeing an ex-Aussie Gladiator take to the ring (so that’s where they end up…).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The boys really got into it, and for the rest of the night, the masks were never far away, with Joe and Martin street-fighting, bar-fighting and Joe just generally enjoying his beer more with his mask on…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After quite a late but fun-filled night, Sarah and I dragged ourselves out to the tour bus the next morning to visit Teotihuacan. First we stopped at an Aztec site called Tlatelolco, still in Mexico City, where we saw the ruins of temples and human remains, as well as the colonial church, Templo de Santiago, and the Plaza de Tres Culturas (Plaza of Three Cultures). The three cultures referred to are the indigenous, Spanish and Mestizo (mixed European and American Indian), represented by the buildings from different eras around the square. This site is infamous for a massacre which occurred in 1968, where hundreds of student demonstrators were sadly killed by the Mexican government.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We then visited the Guadalupe Shrine, a few kilometres outside Mexico City, to see the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The legend goes that in 1531, the Virgin appeared to a peasant named Juan Diego, and asked him to tell the bishop to build her a church. So he went and asked, but the bishop didn’t believe him and wanted proof. When Juan Diego was returning home, the Virgin appeared again, and gave him some roses to take to the bishop as proof. He gathered them and put them in his blanket, and when he went back to the bishop and opened it, the roses fell out the famous image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was inside. So then the bishop believed him a built a church. There are two churches at this site now, the original colonial one and a new modern one where the image is currently housed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There were soooo many people in there! It looked like Christmas Eve mass or something, not a random Wednesday morning in June… Anyway, they had thought up this neat system where the image was placed so that it could be seen by the whole congregation, but behind the pulpit was a little escalator which went past the image so all the tourists could get up close to it and take their pictures.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From there, we had a little nap on the bus before arriving to a mezcal factory just outside Teotihuacan. Here we got to try several liquors made from the maguey (agave) plant including pulque (a nice sweet syrupy one) and mezcal (the close cousin of tequila, and a real difficult tasting to do the morning after!). The difference between mezcal and tequila is that tequila is made by steaming the agave and mezcal is made by roasting it, so mezcal tastes more smokey. Tequila is technically a type of mezcal I think. We were also shown several other things that the maguey is traditionally used for- the outer part of the leaf can be peeled off to make paper, the liquid that is on the surface of the leaf after the outside is peeled can be used as soap or shampoo, and lastly, the spiky tip of the leaf can be pulled out with the strong fibres from the centre of the leaf attached- an ancient needle and thread! They often make clothes and bags with this thread, though these days it is often combined with another textile such as cotton to make the end product softer. A pretty impressive plant!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And then, we got to the main event- Teotihuacan. It is actually a huge site, quite a lot bigger than I expected. We were shown around one of the palaces by our guide and then had a couple of hours to wander on our own. First, we climbed the Pyramide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon), the second biggest structure on the site. You can only climb part of the way up but you still get a great view down the main avenue. We climbed some little side pyramids too, which seemed like a good photo op as no-one else was doing it (and you were allowed to, don’t worry, we weren’t being crazy rebels).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From there we wandered down the avenue, where many, many people shouted at us to buy things for 10 pesos. But apparently, it’s not like on the metro where everything is actually 10 pesos… one of the guys at our hostel discovered this call is just a hook to get you in! He thought, ‘10 pesos? Sure, I’ll get one!’ Then went up to the dude who said ‘40 pesos’, which resulted in no sale for him…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of the most annoying things they sold there were these little jaguar noise makers that you blow into and they make an artificial sounding roar. On top of all the people selling them and kindly demonstrating what they do, it seemed like every kid in the joint had gotten a hold of one and was consistently blowing into it, so our climb up the Pyramide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) was somewhat less tranquil accompanied by incessant grainy roaring… The Pyramide del Sol was really awesome though, unlike the Pyramide de la Luna, you had 360 degree views and could look over the whole site and the surrounding valleys.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After that we tried to go and see a temple in the citadel which was meant to have some great paintings in really good condition. After walking for what seemed like kilometres we finally made it to the citadel but there were no real signs to direct us, just random ones in Spanish about topics such as ‘What did the people of Teotihuacan eat?’. We wandered around and climbed up a platform in the centre of the plaza to see if that was it, but no dice. There was only one other platform that was covered in scaffolding and looked fenced off, so we  gave up and headed back.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On the way, one of the sellers who had spoken to us on the way past came up to us again and offered me some gemstones for free. I was a bit wary but he came up and put them in my hand. Then he proceeded to give each of us a little massage with a spherical polished stone while he chanted something. Felt good on the back, but then he did your stomach too which was not as pleasant! We wandered if he was casting a spell on us to buy stuff, but we managed to leave with nothing but my free gemstones- seems like he was just a friendly guy who liked to massage foreigners with stones. We trekked all the way back to the Pyramide del Sol, whizzed through the museum, then met our group again. When our guide asked if we’d seen the paintings and we said we couldn’t find it, he said it was in the platform with the scaffolding- apparently it was still accessible! Boo!

On my last day in Mexico City, Sarah and I decided to tackle the giant Anthropology Museum. It had been raining a lot, so wasn’t a bad day to hole ourselves up inside learning about the ancient civilisations of Mexico. It was a really interesting museum, but intense as there was so much stuff! I spent 5 hours there and only made it around the ground floor and there was a whole second level! Epic.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There were some really awesome displays and I also learned some fun facts like:

-The ball game played by the Aztecs was actually of religious significance, representing the cycle of life and death and movement of the cosmos. If a team made a play in opposing direction to the movement of the sun/ moon or other relevant celestial body, they were sacrificed (either by decapitation or the cutting-out-their-still-beating-heart technique of ‘Apocalypto’ fame).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

-3 months of the 18-month Aztec calendar (each 20 days long) were dedicated to worshipping maize. And the sacred foods for all the other months were always made of maize… It was believed that corn was a gift from the gods themselves to man, and that the first humans were made of corn dough. It’s still a Mexican staple.

-The famous image of the Aztec Stone of the Sun (commonly called the ‘Aztec Calendar’, which everyone thought foretold the end of the world last year…) is not actually a calendar! It does contain symbols depicting the names of days and cosmogonic suns which is probably where this thought came from, but the stone was actually a large sacrificial altar… the central image is of one of the gods holding two human hearts with his tongue represented by a sacrificial knife…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Anyway, after a long day in the museum, and a chance meeting with a Kenyan marathon runner in town for the Mexico City Marathon that weekend (Hillary Kipchirchir Kimaiyo- really friendly guy!) on the way back, Sarah and I went to the opera. The performance was at the Bellas Artes, Mexico City’s stunning opera house.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In this area of town, they randomly have traffic police at intersections with working traffic lights who direct traffic in opposition to what the lights say! Crazy! Crossing the road there is always fun… Anyway, I digress… Sarah and I decided we’d check it out the opera as we’d never been before and could get some cheap tickets (~AU$15) to test the waters and see if we liked it. Also we got the see inside the theatre… 🙂

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The show we went to was called El Trovadore (or Il Trovatore in its original Italian). It was performed in Italian, but had subtitles projected in Spanish. My Spanish was enough that together with the acting I had an idea of the major events going on, but consequently missed a lot of the finer details in the convoluted plot! I really enjoyed it despite being a little confused at the end, but got home and Wikipedia shed light on everything for me… ‘Ohhhhh she wasn’t really betraying him, she was trying to save him!’ and ‘Ohhhh, so she didn’t just drop dead randomly… she drank poison beforehand!’ So, in closing, I would go to the opera again one day, but it might help me to buy a program in English… shame it’s so expensive in Australia though!

It was a bit sad saying bye to everyone when I left the next day- I met some amazing people in Mexico City and had some great times. But for now it was adios big city, I was off to test out the village life in Puebla!

Leave a comment »

Surfing the couch in Baja California Sur

So here I am in Baja California Sur, the southern part of the western peninsula in Mexico.

bajacaliforniasurenglish

What I discovered when doing my research in Ensenada is that the Baja peninsula is not really a solo traveller’s friend. It is much more geared towards road tripping, hence transport is crazy expensive (a 12hr bus ride halfway down cost about US$100!) and the only cheap accom is in RV parks (if you have a tent or caravan) with hotels starting at ~US$40/night… That kinda price probably sounds cheap to some, but really doesn’t fit in with my backpacker’s budget which needs to get me through 6 more months on the road! Where are all the hostels?! Even one would do. The thought of paying that much per night when I could get away with AU$7-10/night in a dorm Asia made me want to cry. So then I thought, ‘Maybe I could buy a tent…?’ but that was soon followed by, ‘Hmmm, that would mean all of my worldly possessions would be left in a piece of fabric with a zip… Out in the open… In the middle of the Mexican desert…’ and I decided against that idea.

Then I though of couchsurfing! Most people have heard of it these days, but it’s a great concept- basically a reciprocal system based on people’s goodwill. There are members from all over the world offering up free hospitality and in exchange learning people’s stories, making new friends and guaranteeing themselves a couch to stay on when they next travel! Couchsurfing made my visit to Baja California Sur (BCS) possible, and all the more memorable.

First up was Carlos in La Paz (the one in Mexico, not the one in Bolivia). He is a doctor by day and couchsurfing host extraordinaire on the side.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA IMG_3152

I ended up flying in from Tijuana- due to the aforementioned crazy expensive buses; this actually cost less and saved me 22 hours in travel time! From the moment I first arrived Carlos was the host with the most, picking me up from the airport on his motorbike, carefully balancing my small pack in front of him whilst I clung on the back loaded up with my big pack. What a way to get introduced to the vast desert landscape of BCS! It is stunning with the dusty plains, trademark cacti and rocky mountains stretching off to the horizon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Carlos invited me not only into his home, but right into his room- he and his awesome roomie Miguel actually donated me one of their mattresses for the duration of my stay (sometimes also utilised by Olga the dog). On my arrival, Miguel was busy preparing ceviche– I watched on as he marinated some raw fish in lime with diced onion, coriander and tomato which he then served up on tostadas with a selection of chili sauces. So I was welcomed with fresh and delicious food (sure-fire way to a dietitian’s heart), friendly smiles and a lot of quickly spoken Spanish that I couldn’t quite keep up with! Carlos also speaks perfect English so was able to help translate bits and pieces to me which was great. Afterwards I brought out one of my giant family size blocks of Cadbury Marvellous Creations to share (thanks nan!) which was a massive hit. Ahhh Cadbury, transcending language barriers all over the world… :-p

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  IMG_3039

That evening once the sun was going down, and the severe heat of the day was starting to dissipate, we all went down to the Malecón, which is the long waterfront esplanade. It was beautiful, looking out onto the bay with the sun setting. Naturally, this occasion called for ice-cream, which we duly purchased and enjoyed as we wandered around until dark.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The following morning Carlos took me out to Ballandra, one of the iconic beaches in La Paz, home of La Piedra de la Bahía Balandra (‘The Rock of Balandra Bay’). This rock, which looks kind of like a mushroom, is featured on every postcard, fridge magnet, poster and brochure you can find in La Paz. The people love it so much, that when it fell down (I heard a wide variety of stories as to how this happened, ranging from someone climbing on it, to a boat crashing into it, to simple erosion) but however it happened, the rock was rebuilt and reinforced with metal and concrete!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We lazed the morning away in Ballandra, seeing only one other person on our stretch of beach the whole time we were there. It was so serene, with the white sand, crystal clear, cool blue water and birds flying overhead. Eventually we had to make a move, as Carlos usually works from 2pm til 8pm, and we were getting roasted by the desert sun! On the way back, we were stopped by the feds who asked Carlos a few questions. One of them was ‘Is your wife pregnant?’, to which Carlos answered ‘She’s not my wife and no, she’s not pregnant!’ Kind of understandable, as I was sitting on the back of the bike in a purple dress with a purple bag on my lap, so I picked up the bag and showed them it was not a pregnant belly, and we were sent on our way!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next day I went to the natural history museum in town. I only had a 200 peso note when I arrived, and the lady didn’t have change so let me in for free! The first level was sculptures of scenes from pre-Hispanic times and the second some paintings and artefacts, but neither had any signs so I thought, maybe I won’t be here for long anyway… But the third level had a lot of signage, only in Spanish, so I stood up there forever deciphering a few to practice!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The rest of the afternoon I wandered around the historic centre of La Paz, seeing sites like the cathedral, theatre, cultural centre, and town hall, and looked at a lot of art and photography.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of my favourites was an art exhibition by an illustrator who depicted many traditional Mexican games which was really interesting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the evening I hit the supermarket as I was going to cook dinner for the house- pad thai- and I managed to find most of the ingredients, except strangely enough, the noodles! I had thought they would be easier to find, but no, I got rice wine vinegar and fish sauce, but had to settle with ‘rice vermicelli pasta’ instead of stick noodles. The resulting dish was unfortunately more like a mush as the pasta was too soft to stir-fry, but it still tasted nice!

IMG_3048

In the morning I took a day trip to the nearby town of Todos Santos, a pueblo mágico (magic village), which is a designation given to lots of small historic towns in Mexico. It was very quiet (aside from numerous couples making out on benches, there didn’t seem to be many people around); but the locals were so lovely and friendly that in every shop or gallery I went into, the vendor would want to chat. The town was full of beautiful buildings, so was lovely to walk around.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The highlight of my day was meeting a painter called Luis Angel, who goes by ‘Angelito’. I was speaking to a lady at an opal shop for ages and then noticed these cool painted spoons and shells out front. I’d asked if the artist had a website or something as I was impressed by his work and the lady was devastated because he was usually there but had gone home for a bit. She insisted, ‘You have to see him paint! It’s an amazing experience! Do you have time?’ So she rang him and in a few minutes he was at the shop. He painted a tiny painting with oils, just using his finger and one tiny brush in front of me as we chatted, and got such detail in, it really was incredible to see. He ended up giving me the gorgeous little painting to remember the day.

IMG_3058 IMG_3069

I went for dinner across the road at a place called ‘Bob Marlin’, a bar/restaurant which served tacos and of course played Bob Marley all day. I ordered a pork taco and a shrimp taco, but later was told there was no pork, is fish ok instead? And I said yes. Later out came two fish tacos. Then the owner of the bar René came and apologised to me as they had also run out of shrimp and said the tacos were on the house! Another guy Pablo who worked there also bought me a beer, so I had a very cheap night out, and was again amazed by the friendliness of everyone… Despite the crowd at Bob Marlin’s encouraging me to stay longer in Todos, I eventually had to leave to catch my bus. I thought I’d booked for 8pm but when I got to the station and looked at my ticket, I realised I’d booked for 11pm and my seat number was 8! The next bus was at 8.15, and the lady said I’d just need to ask the driver if I could use that ticket for it. All was fine when the bus arrived and thankfully I didn’t have to wait 3 more hours to get back to La Paz. The day in Todos Santos did feel magical in a way, luck was really on my side the whole time!

IMG_3084 IMG_3085

The following evening I went out in town with Carlos. I tried a Mexican hot dog, where the sausage is wrapped in bacon (!), then topped with fried onions and smothered in salsa, mustard and mayo. It was AMAZING! We then went to a little hole-in-the-wall bar that used to be a corner store, where I tried a ballena loco (crazy whale), which is a giant bottle of beer (the ballena– almost a litre!) which you drink a bit out of and then you take back to the bar where the bar dude mixes some stuff into it (you don’t know what exactly, cos he does it under the bar!) but it includes clamato juice, and then the bottle is rimmed with chilli powder and topped with a salted apricot. After that one huge drink I already felt a bit tipsy! We then went to an Americano place for buffalo wings and cheese sticks, and later met up with Miguel and his friends for more beers, which ended up being a bit of a late night.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On my last day in La Paz, armed with a powerade; I set out on a snorkelling tour to the nearby island of Espíritu Santo (Holy Spirit). I had been waiting all week to see if there would be a kayaking tour, but as it was so quiet, none were going (they need a minimum of 4 people) so I settled for snorkelling. On the way we saw heaps of dolphins who frolicked all around the boat before we approached the island to admire the impressive rock formations and caves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our first stop was at the Los Islotes sea lion colony, where we got to have a snorkel with the sea lions. That was amazing, as they swim quite close to you. We had lunch of sandwiches and ceviche at a small beach and had a second snorkel along the rocks there before heading back. On the return trip, a little girl from the US told me I had a nice accent- first time I’ve ever heard that!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That evening my next host, Ryan from Los Barilles was in La Paz to do some errands and was able to pick me up which was awesome. I said a fond goodbye to Carlos and Miguel- such awesome guys, I will never forget! Ryan and I went for dinner in La Paz, and tried the local almejas chocolata (clams). They were so fresh they still moved when you put the lime on them! That creeped me out quite a bit at first, but after a long while psyching myself up to eat one, I discovered they were delicious and got over it! We then visited a little boutique beer place called ‘The Beer Box’ which could easily have been a bar in Melbourne. It featured brews from all over Mexico and the world. We had a guava-infused beer from near Mexico City before hitting the road to Los Barilles.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ryan had recently bought an old van in the states, and is in the process of fitting it out. It’s a pretty pimpin’ old thing, and tough enough to withstand the bumpy desert roads. It was dark on the way, so I couldn’t see too much of the mountains and desert landscape, but the stars were out in force. And we did see some wildlife (a poor little bat which flew into the windscreen:-/…)! I was in awe when we arrived at the house. It turned out Ryan’s parents, Ben and Harriet, have retired to Los Barilles from Oregon, and have built a beautiful house there with ocean views. I had a plush room all to myself which was very luxurious! Ryan lives and works from there in online marketing- pretty sweet! :-p

IMG_3098  IMG_3105

Los Barilles held lots of new adventures. The first was driving out to a canyon where we walked out to some waterfalls and rockpools in the desert sun. The water was deliciously cold, but the sun was pretty fierce and I burnt my feet on the thousand degree rocks trying to work up the courage to jump into this deep pool!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We finished the afternoon at the beautiful hot springs at Santa Rita with a couple of cold beers. It was so quiet and peaceful and the landscape was amazing. On the way home we stopped for dinner at Hotel Palomar in the small town of Santiago. We had some beautiful fish in garlic and a shrimp quesadilla. Mmm!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One day I went out fishing with Ben and a family friend Janet. I have never really been fishing before unless you count fish farms as a kid… So this was a whole new ball game- sport fishing, out on the sea in a boat, trawling through the waves with 3 lines dangling out behind us. We passed the time watching manta rays splashing and flipping out of the water and admiring dolphins frolicking in front of the boat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Whilst Janet and I were up on the bow admiring said dolphins, Ben, who was driving the boat at the time, yelled ‘FISH ON!’, so we scrambled back to the rods. I jumped in the chair and was given the catch and a 10 second run-down on how to reel it in. I started reeling away while the others brought in the other lines, and after what seemed like a while finally had the fish alongside the boat (quite a decent workout for arms which have done nothing in months!)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We had caught a big dorado, which in the water was a vibrant yellow-green colour. It was strong and fighting hard. Ben had to hook it and bring it into the boat- it was pretty heavy, I could barely pick it up with two hands! It was a bit sad to kill it, as soon as it came out of the water its colour started to fade. But later that morning after we got back, Ben sliced it up, some was vacuum packed and frozen, and much was taken down to a local restaurant which cooks your catch for you in several different ways.

IMG_0728  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dinner that night was an absolute feast- the usual corn chips and salsa for starters, then 4 courses of fish! We had ceviche (my favourite course, mixed with apple on little tortilla chips), sashimi with soy and sesame, a crumbed fillet served with potato, veggies and frijoles (the Mexican touch) and lastly, Veracruz style- in a tomato sauce with capsicums and onions. It was all amazing and I was so full at the end of it. So at least our fishy went to good use, none was wasted!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On my last day surfing with Ryan, he drove me out to Cabo Pulmo, a little town only accessible by car on dirt roads- no buses go down this way. The main draw here is the National Marine Park- the only living reef in the Sea of Cortez, which around here is often referred to as ‘The World’s Aquarium’.  I wanted to dive there, and without Ryan’s generous lift, I wouldn’t really have been able to make it there on my own! The diving was good, very different from any of my previous dives. For starters, all the measures were imperial instead of metric, so worked in feet and PSI instead of metres and Bar… It was also much, much colder than anywhere I have dived before ~19 degrees down at about 15-20m compared to the usual 30 degrees in Thailand and Malaysia! I had a full 5.4mm wetsuit (vs just a rashie in Asia!) and was frozen after our first dive, even though we were only down for 35 minutes! There was some intense current too which I hadn’t been warned about – our briefing was very, well… brief. ‘We’re going to go down all together and swim to the end of the reef. Let me know when you have 700PSI and we all go up. Listos? (Ready?)’ Got some good impromptu drifting practice in!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We saw some pretty reef and beautiful fish plus big moray eels and groupers on our first dive. The second dive it was even more freezing than the first when we initially descended and one of the girls in our group actually had to go back up. We had to wait in the current for the instructor to come back down after taking her back to the boat, and it was like being in one of those tiny swimming pools with the current, where you swim on the spot! We just had to face into the current and keep kicking otherwise be whizzed away in the drift. Thankfully we managed to keep our position and the instructor found us again. When he came back we ascended a little and it was significantly warmer and the current was a lot less noticeable. We swam with a giant school of big eye jacks for ages which was pretty amazing- there were so many of them all around you, and they didn’t seem to mind that there were some strange big fish who had joined their posse!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My final destination in Baja was Cabo San Lucas, at the very bottom of the peninsula. It’s a pretty touristy town, mostly families and groups on package holidays from the States, so is more expensive too. It is known as a party town mostly, but I thought I’d check it out for a few days. Here I couchsurfed with Hagai, a diving instructor who is managing a dive shop. His work kept him pretty busy while I was there, but he was incredibly accommodating, and again I lucked out and got my own room at his place!

After walking all the way across town from the bus stop to Hagai’s dive shop at the marina, I dumped my bags and headed out to explore. I first of all ended up in a bazaar, and the vendors at each stall asked ‘Hablas Español? (Do you speak Spanish?), then when I replied ‘Un poco’ (A little), they would respond ‘Mas barato para ti!’ (More cheap for you!). When they asked where I was from, the reply of ‘Australia’ was mostly greeted with surprise, and exclamations of ‘Ohhh Australia? Muy lejos!’ (Very far!). People were very friendly, happy just to chat if I didn’t want to buy anything. I actually got asked by one of the vendors if we have cactus in Australia, and it struck me that I wasn’t sure! Google fixed that, and I discovered that yes, Australia does have native cacti. In fact, Australia also has its very own Cactus and Succulent Society. True story, you can google it yourself…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Anyhoo, Cabo is a nice town. It still has a historic centre with beautiful buildings and a leafy main square by the museum, but together with cute little shops, cafes and boutiques, has a whole lot of franchises, souvenir shop after souvenir shop selling piles of all the same stuff and a giant mall and marina which could be anywhere in the world. The highlight of my day was whiling away the afternoon at the Baja Brewing Co on the rooftop at one of the swanky villas. I watched over all the watersports and craziness happening on Medano Beach with a cold raspberry infused beer, mmm!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One day I decided to take a trip out to San Jose del Cabo, the mature and artsy older sister of Cabo San Lucas who lives half an hour up the road (though longer if you take the bus…). I started the day by catching a collectivo (small bus) from near Hagai’s place into Cabo. The bus stop was a little rotunda thing which appeared to be draped with pieces of old sheets, just beside my favourite landmark, the roundabout decked out with a huge tinsel Christmas tree.

Luckily I asked a guy where to catch the bus to el centro, otherwise I would’ve instinctively gone to wait on the wrong side of the road (the collectivo takes a long random way through the estate to town instead going directly). Anyway, made it to town and then got on another bus to San Jose. This one I managed to get off just before it left town to go to the airport! These buses kind of operate on a system where if you are waiting by the roadside anywhere on the route, they will stop to pick you up. And if you stand up or yell out while on the bus, they will stop and drop you wherever. It was lucky I spotted a sign to the zona historico and quickly got up!

San Jose is a beautiful old town filled with galleries and handicraft shops, but still has its share of souvenir outlets too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My first stop was the municipal market where I had my first try of nopal (a type of cactus) and when I walked out noticed a minimart called Mandy two doors down from a salon called Laura. BFFs Mandaura reunited in Mexico! That put a smile on my face.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Again I found the people to be super friendly, one guy called Jose from a glass shop kept calling me ‘my beautiful friend from Australia’ at the end of every sentence. In the evening they had the weekly Art Walk where the galleries stay open late, some have artists in residence there to chat to, and some offer free drinks- wine tastings or free mini margaritas. The main square fills up with artists selling their works on every surface, so it was a really nice day to visit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My last full day in Cabo was spent out at the beach. I took a glass-bottomed boat to Playa del Amor (Lover’s Beach) where we cruised out from the marina, got to view the famous arch (like the mushroom rock in La Paz, the arch is on all the postcards and tacky souvenirs in Cabo), checked out the pacific side of the beach, named Playa del Divorcio (Divorce beach) and then got dropped on Playa del Amor to stay til we told the boat to come back and get us.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After walking out to the arch, I divided my time between snorkelling around ‘Pelican Rock’ and defrosting on the beach. It was beautiful snorkelling with some colourful corals and a lot of cool fish, but it was soooooo cold! So when I was kind of a bluey colour and covered in goosebumps, I’d have to relent and go back to the baking sand. There was no happy medium- it was either burning hot, or really cold!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That evening Hagai and I went out for lobster and shrimp, and I was told to try the ‘Bulldog’- a combo of tequila, lemonade and beer… Sounds weird, but went down pretty easily! They also made both of us do a shot of tequila and lemonade which was something new… they covered the top of the shot with a serviette, banged it on the table 3 times so it fizzed up and then you took it. Much nicer than straight tequila, I’m bringin’ this method home!

IMG_3127 IMG_3123

Unfortunately this was the evening I also discovered I had made quite the boo-boo when booking my flight to Mexico City the next day… Instead of booking from San Jose del Cabo in Mexico, I had booked from San Jose in COSTA RICA! Ahhhh! So silly. I called the airline and because it was an international fare, they couldn’t change it to a domestic one. However, for US$25, I could change the date and also change it to any other international route, so I managed to save it and use the flight to get back to the states later on. As for getting to Mexico City, I had to buy a whole new flight. And guess who tried to put it through on PayPal? Yep…

So just as I was breathing a sigh of relief to have everything sorted, I got an email from PayPal saying since the flight I’d booked leaves within 72 hours, PayPal was not accepted and the transaction had been cancelled! So I jumped back online and booked the flight for the THIRD TIME (noticing this time the bold red print saying you can’t pay with PayPal within 72 hours of flying…) and finally had a confirmed booking- the last available seat on the flight!! Phew!

So after a day of doing laundry, a 2 hour bus trip to the airport, curing a burger craving with a ‘Whopper Furioso’ at the airport Burger King and a middle of the night stopover in Tijuana, I was finally off to Mexico City for a bright and early 5.30am arrival!

IMG_3136

4 Comments »

Ensenada, Enchilada, Empanada…

Three great Mexican things that begin with ‘E’ and end in ‘ada’. Two of them are of course delicious foods, and the third, a town in the peninsular state of Baja California on the north-western coast of Mexico, not far from the US border at San Diego.

Map_of_Territorio_de_Baja_California bajacaliforniasurenglish

This is where my cousin Kirsty has lived and worked for the past 5 or so years with her husband Oscar and now her 2-year-old son Samuel. They work for an organisation called Youth with a Mission, which has bases all over the world. They do some amazing stuff here; Oscar mostly works with a program called ‘Homes of Hope’, building houses for many of the poor families in the area who cannot not afford proper shelter. Kirsty works with a children’s ministry called Circulo Andante (Walking Circle), where children in one of the communities where Homes of Hope are built meet weekly to participate in fun activities based around maths, reading and bible stories. The program hopes to teach children the value and importance of education and help motivate them to keep going to school. Their website is here if anyone is interested in more info on what YWAM is about: http://www.ywamsandiegobaja.org/

IMG_2767 IMG_2890

When I arrived in Ensenada, Kirsty had arranged a room for me on the base with the lovely Kayla who was looking after hospitality. For a nominal fee I got my own room and 3 meals a day with all the staff and students living there. The base is about a 30 minute walk from the centre of Ensenada and overlooks the beach on the opposite side of the street. From the outset, everyone was warm and friendly and I felt very welcomed.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA IMG_2536

My first few days in Ensenada were spent catching up on sleep and trying to find the Baja California Language College, where I’d hoped to do a couple of weeks of Spanish classes to help me get around a bit easier in Mexico and Central America. I phoned them and it turned out their building was not useable at present so they were running classes at the arts centre. After going there trying to find the school, it turned out there wasn’t an actual school there, they just ran lessons at the tables in the foyer! But the college had good reviews and you didn’t have to buy any books, so I put my name down for the following week.

IMG_2710 IMG_2540

I ended up doing 2 weeks of classes, but got one-on-one tuition with my maestra (teacher) Lupita as there were no other students at the same level. It was quite intense, like real school! I was doing 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, and always had homework as well. During my lunch breaks or after I finished class at 2.30pm, I would usually try to find something new to eat. There were tacos de pescado y camarón (fish and shrimp tacos) on the waterfront boulevard- they usually batter the seafood and serve them in a small flour tortilla and you then add salsa, mayonnaise, cabbage, tomato and coriander. I had tostadas de ceviche from a stand tucked on a back street behind the arts centre- raw fish or seafood with lime, cucumber, tomato onion and coriander on a crunchy fried tortilla (like a hard shell taco, but flat). Again you add your salsas, pineapple, lime, and the seafood is usually piled high so that you eat some off the top with dry biscuits down to a level where you can safely pick up the tostada to bite it! I found tacos de carnitas at a little stall just up the road, which are shredded pork tacos, and empanadas around the corner- deep fried pastries filled with sweet or savoury goodies. Everything was delicious!

IMG_2591 IMG_2623

Some days Lupita and I did excursions for the last hour or so of class, to museums, where I got to practice my reading and expand my vocab as all the signs were in Spanish, or supermarkets, where I got to practice numbers and names of food items, tick off a bit Lupita’s shopping for household cleaning products, ogle at how many varieties of beans and chillies were available, see the cheapest vanilla essence ever at 32 pesos (<$3) for a litre, and inevitably leave with half of the panaderia (bakery) in tow…

IMG_2653 IMG_2655

The panaderia is one of my biggest weaknesses. I cannot walk past without buying at least one, but usually several breads, pastries, or sweets. I got Sammy’s tick of approval though (maybe not his mum’s!); but he would shout ‘Pastel!’ (cake) upon seeing my purchases (an essential word in any two-year-old’s vocabulary) and was pretty happy to share! And boy did it need to be shared, the slices are enormous! They sure know how to make an extravagant cake here…

IMG_2651 IMG_2676

On the few days where I couldn’t get picked up from school, I walked home, occasionally being approached by randoms. One of these was a guy who would sit on the pavement and follow the same spiel in both Spanish and English each time: “Tengo dinero? Do you have any money”, to which I’d reply “No, lo siento” (No, sorry) and then he’d yell out “Muy bonita senorita! You’re very beautiful!” as I went by. Sorry, still no! Another time I met a guy I called ‘Lupe el borracho’ (Lupe the drunk) as he smelled quite strongly of booze. He popped out from a side street and asked for money because he was hungry (even though he was strangely holding a bag of tortillas at the time) and I said I could buy him food but I wouldn’t give him money. He agreed to this deal (despite his load of tortillas) and we went into the nearest restaurant. Lupe at first wanted to order 20 buffalo wings (which I thought was a little excessive, not to mention more expensive than I was anticipating!) so he decided he would have fries and coke. I probably should have got him something more nutritious but oh well… I did get some good repetition in practicing my Spanish, because we went through introductions 3 times in the 15 minutes or so I was with him! After, he offered to walk me home, but even though he seemed harmless, I thought it wiser to politely decline than let a drunk follow me back to the base! He didn’t seem to mind too much, thanked me for the food, went his separate way, and I didn’t see him again.

Outside of school I managed to keep pretty busy too (surprise!). On my first weekend, Kirsty, Oscar, another YWAMer Brandon, Sammy and I went for a drive out on the ‘Ruta del vino’ (Wine Route) in the Valle de Guadalupe, a major wine producing region in Mexico. We first visited L.A. Cetto where we went on a tour of the wine making facilities (with Kirsty whispering translations to me as we went) and then got to try some wines.

IMG_2518 IMG_2476

They have this new rule that no-one under the age of 18 is allowed in the bar area so we had to tag team, with Brandon and Oscar keeping Sammy company outside while Kirsty and I went in first. When we came out, Sammy had taken off all of his clothes and was prancing around in his nappy! Classy boy :-p  Kirsty just shook her head and said ‘I don’t know why all the other kids can keep their gear on but my son can’t…’ (Some days, she will get him all dressed and then go to get herself ready, but by the time she’s done, Sammy has pulled off all his clothes and thrown them on the floor! Really not a fan of clothing…) We then went to another winery (Sammy still refusing to don any outerwear) where we indulged in an antipasto platter and a woodfired pizza for lunch. It was a lovely day in all.

IMG_2495 IMG_2504

On the Sunday that weekend there was an inaugural International Food Festival on in the main plaza which we were pretty excited to check out. They had the flags of all the different countries up as we approached (including Australia, Canada and Switzerland who all had representatives in our party) but when we actually looked at the stalls, it turned out ‘international’ only really encompassed Mexican, Spanish and Italian food here. The Mexicans thought it was overpriced and weren’t overly impressed, so we walked up to the old faithful ‘Corner of Goodness’ at the corner of Castillo and Juarez St where we ate amazing tortas, Mexico’s answer to the kebab- flat rolls filled with meat, cheese and salad. This corner also has awesome fish tacos and aguas frescas– soft drinks like fresh limonada (lemonade), agua jamaica (‘hibiscus water’, a sweet Ribena looking and tasting drink made from hibiscus petals) and horchata (my fave, a milky, cinnamony rice-based drink). After the tortas, we went back to the festival for dessert (some pretty tasty gelati) so were all well and truly stuffed!

IMG_2525 IMG_2531

It was decided that the YWAMers would have to get involved and expand the cultural diversity of the festival next year. Kirsty has started forming grand plans for her Australiana stall, with an Aussie style sausage sizzle, home-made lamingtons and perhaps imported meat pies… Rheanne needs to figure out how to do poutine in Mexico and Mirjam can bring some Swiss delights too 🙂

The YWAMers are all a social bunch, so there were plenty of other events to keep me occupied during the week too. We had a birthday dinner at one of the couples Tammy and Eddie’s house, with home-made tacos de carne asada (roasted meat). The night ended with Mexicanos vs The rest of the world in bilingual Cranium, with the middle of the table becoming la fronterra (the border)! Another couple, Danny and Danae also had their housewarming, which featured a delightful sangria. There was also a very competitive group Pictionary round robin on night, we learned how to make tortillas with Oscar’s mum, another evening went to a free salsa class in town (run in Spanish by an Argentinian lady who spoke 90 miles an hour!), and also a fun day at a nearby water park where aside from the giant wedgies, we enjoyed the straightforwardly named waterslide, Tobogan (Slide).

IMG_2690 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And how could I forget the soccer! It’s quite the event going to watch the YWAM soccer team play (starring Oscar). One of Oscar’s friends Walter has two gorgeous dogs, Bella and Maverick, who he took along to watch also. Pretty much as soon as we arrived I was given dog sitting duty as the guys had to go play. At first Bella and Maverick were super excited and I thought it was going to be the longest game ever. In addition, Bella is a big shepherd and looks intimidating, even though she’s the sweetest thing ever, but everyone was freaking out walking by her, and I felt like everyone was looking at me like ‘Why would you even bring the dogs to a soccer match?!’ (which I was kinda starting to wonder myself!) Anyway, they soon settled and were fine and then at the end of the match got loaded back into the 11 person van… along with 19 people squished on top of each other in seats and in the boot! So it was a cosy and fragrant ride home…

Driving in Ensenada (even when not in a van full of pets and sweaty men) is another fun experience. The roads are a bit bumpy and haphazard due to being close to a fault line and the earth constantly shifting, so I learned to drink most of my coffee before riding to school otherwise half of it ended up on my jeans. Another feature of Baja California driving which warrants a mention is the crazy ‘4 Altos’ (4 stops)- a four way intersection where every car has a stop sign. WHAT?! When I asked ‘Who has right of way at these intersections?’, I was given the obvious answer… ‘Whoever gets there first.’ Sounds simple enough, but if two cars arrive at a similar time, there is almost always uncertainty and one just waves the other on. Excepting a case involving a red-headed Mexicana (who shall remain anonymous) who demonstrated the finer manoeuvre of just barrelling through and cutting off whatever other vehicles are at the intersection (which may or may not be police cars…)

On our way to San Diego one weekend, said red-headed Mexicana was somewhat vocal in the lines of traffic at the US border, finding it infuriating that people did not follow a logical pattern of ‘give and take’ merging- one from one line, one from the other. There are perhaps some latent road rage issues which have to be dealt with after 5 years in Mexico… 😉

IMG_2777

Up in San Diego, Kirsty and I received a big package mostly full of chocolate from our wonderful nan, and then were excited to go to San Diego Zoo, which had an Australian Outback section opening in Spring 2013- since it was the 19th of May, we assumed it would have opened recently. But we were out of luck, as it didn’t open until May 24… 1 week prior to the end of Spring. Grrr!

IMG_2897 IMG_2829

There was an Australian café, ‘Sydney’s Grill’ open however, and we were excited to see sausage sandwich on the menu. Kirsty was going to cry if it came with a frankfurt/hot dog style sausage but it was a legit meat sausage thank goodness. Unfortunately the rest of the sandwich was rather ordinary… oh well! Smother it in tomato sauce (not ketchup) and it’s all good 😉

IMG_2824 IMG_2825

The San Diego Zoo is huge and very well kept. Anchorman was not lying when making a big deal out the panda exhibit… it is by far the most popular animal there! The line was ridiculous, and we decided not to waste our entire afternoon queuing so unfortunately did not get to see what was so amazing about these famous pandas… But I saw a red panda instead. As well as some polar bears, the hippo’s butt and one of my faves the sunbear.

IMG_2845 IMG_2853

We also went on the ‘Skyfari’, a chair lift across the zoo grounds which was pretty impressive, and Sammy got to play in the kids’ section (as soon as he saw a playground, he would charge towards it shouting ‘Playyyyy!’). He went up and down the slide countless times, each time looking as excited as the last. Until the time came to leave and the tanty would look like it was about to start… Kirsty bargained with him that he could have one more slide, but wasn’t allowed to cry afterwards. So he climbed back to the top and then just sat there, looking like he was thinking, ‘well, if I wait here, then I’m still having my last slide and I won’t have to go yet…’ but eventually coming down and keeping his end of the bargain! So despite not being able to visit the outback, we had a great day out.

IMG_2819 IMG_2832

One great bit of hanging out in Ensenada so long was getting to spend time with Sammy too. He is such a gorgeous kid and at such an exciting age where he’s starting to talk and his personality is coming out. He just graduated into his ‘big boy bed’ while I was there, which he was pretty stoked about as he was free to come and go and didn’t wake up upset that he was trapped in his cage (crib). He is really into trains at the moment, especially Thomas the Tank. I left Ensenada knowing all the words to the theme song… That and the Veggie Tales song. Which is when Kirsty said, ‘Mandy… I think its time for you to get outta here!’

IMG_2440 IMG_2757

Sammy speaks a good amount of Spanglish, though he does have a few characteristic words of his own! Sammy is ‘Nammy’, Mandy is ‘Manny’, Mickey is ‘Kikky’, his Mickey shoes are ‘Kikky sheeoos’, his chair is ‘chayarrr’ (my favourite one!), and popcorn is ‘co-co-co-corn’. He had Kirsty and Oscar in fits saying popcorn over and over again! Another funny thing he did was when he was running around in his superman outfit and people would ask, ‘oh! Are you superman?’, he would reply ‘No. Super Nammyyyyy!’

IMG_3008 IMG_2977

In terms of his diet, he is pretty much a carnivore, eating 3 serves of meat off his taco before he’ll even think about eating the tortilla (and only after Oscar says ‘No mas carne!’). Veggies are not his favourite- he will pull a mushroom out of his mouth if it sneaks in with the meat in his lasagne! And sometimes you also have to remind him to take bites, as you’ll catch him trying to stuff an entire quarter of a sandwich into his little mouth- he’s definitely a boy! He’s a big fan of desserts like his Aunty Mandy, thoroughly enjoying pastel and crepas! He also loves fruit, though he is fussy about its appearance… One day I was cutting a mango and Sammy could barely wait for me to get it out of the skin, but when he came across a piece which wasn’t shaped like a square (like one of the slivers off the seed) he would throw it back at me with disdain! Ooook, uniformly shaped mango only in this house, thank you very much…

IMG_2743 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One big highlight of my visit was my birthday weekend, where I got to go out with Kirsty, Oscar and a team from Texas to help on a Homes of Hope build. Last time I was in Ensenada I was lucky enough to get to participate in some builds, but this was the first time I helped from start to finish and it was an awesome experience. Everyone works hard as part of the team, nailing up the frame, the walls, the roof; or trimming the windows and interior walls; and even a lot of the local kids got involved with the painting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On Saturday, Kirsty got a cake brought down to the site, as it was my birthday, Marina’s birthday (one of the girls from the kid’s club Kirsty helps run who had decided she wanted to come and help on the build too) as well as one of the guys from the team Jackson’s birthday in 3 days. Luckily we escaped the Mexican ‘mordida’ tradition where you take a bite of the cake with no hands and your face is pushed into it, as I hear Oscar is somewhat intense when it comes to mordida!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On Saturday night I did manage to get out for a celebratory beer with Ricky and Miriam (when Ricky managed to pour it in the glass anyways… :-p ) Afterwards we randomly ran into Kayla, DJ and Natalie in the carpark whilst buying a late night snack of elotes (corn) in a cup, and were lucky enough to score a lift home in the back of their pick-up! A memorable birthday all round 🙂

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On Sunday morning, it was back to the build site. After a solid few hours’ work, the family cooked us all a delicious lunch of tacos de carne asada with fresh tortillas before we again went back to put the finishing touches on their house.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This team had also chosen to furnish the house, and it had a double bunk bed, complete with bedding, curtains on the windows, lampshades on the lights, an oven and gas bottle in the kitchen, a dining table as well as cutlery and crockery. It was all colour co-ordinated and looked fantastic! Some of the team also went shopping and bought a whole lot of household goods and groceries for the family too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was truly incredible to see that from a concrete slab and many piles of wood on Saturday morning, grew a complete two room, fully painted, wired up, and furnished house for a family up in the colonias by Sunday afternoon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The best bit of the day was the key ceremony, where the keys are handed around to everyone involved in the build. When the keys come to you, you can share your experience and give your well wishes to the family. The gorgeous 6 year old Carly had quote of the day, saying ‘I had so many parties I was meant to go to this weekend at home, but I had even more fun here than I would’ve had at any of them!’ When the keys finally get around to the family, they get to open the door and go inside to look around. They shut the door, and after a minute, we all knock and they invite us in to be the first guests in their new home. Inside the home is blessed and we say goodbye. It’s a perfect culmination of all the weekend’s work.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If anyone is interested in looking at a slideshow of the weekend made for the team: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKBbyXb56pY

Or at the full collection of photos to see just how much work went in from everybody to bring it all together, you can find it here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ywamsdbaja/sets/72157633792538249/

I finished my YWAM visit up in Tijuana, where the YWAM conference on the theme of community development was running. It felt like going on a little holiday, as I’d been in Ensenada a while and the base in TJ is pretty swanky!

IMG_2994

I got to enjoy the first 2 days of the conference, but then the time came to say goodbye to Kirsty, Oscar and Sammy and my newfound friends 😦 I left to fly down south of the Baja Peninsula for some new experiences with couchsurfing!

IMG_2818

Leave a comment »