Friday, November 30, 2012

Yucatan rhymes with fun!

The morning after Palenque was pretty much straight driving, about ten solid hours of decent highway and flat lands with dense vegetation. Just the night before, RG and I had decided to add an extra passenger, Manuel, an Iberian masseur with the excitement of a fifteen-year-old and the grand politeness of a Spanish hidalgo. I had seen him for a short time at the Oaxaca Children Center, but our encounters in San Cristobal had proven that he was good people, and a lot of fun to be around. He had a friend in Merida, and was utterly ecstatic about the thought of diving in the crystalline coasts of Quintana Roo.

Delightful hostel in the eco-touristic area of Palenque, Chiapas.

Manuel rode in the front with me, and little RG, given her stature, stretched comfortably in the imperial bed I had set up in the back. However, despite all this pampered luxury, our journey was obscured by close to six stops by the military and the police, who seized the opportunity to ask all kinds of silly, unprofessional questions about my unusual choice of vehicle, and shower our lady passenger with more than a heated compliment. We were not happy with the authorities, especially with the local police at the border between Tabasco and Campeche. Shortly after being gestured to pull to the side of the road, a sweaty mustached officer –two gold teeth, to top that– approached my window…

“Speak Spanish? License and documents, sir”, he asked. He checked all my paperwork and pointed an accusing finger at RG in the back. “Do you have a seatbelt?”. I looked back and realized that my “modification” of the cargo area had left the seatbelt straps dangling from the pillars of the car. What followed became a game of patience.

“She is not wearing her seatbelt. According to the book, it’s a $1500 peso fine”. Thinking of the many people I had seen crammed in the back of pickup trucks, I retorted, much to his surprise: “Interesting. The military did not say anything two hundred kilometers ago”. “The military is the military, we are the police”, he replied firmly. “That’s alright with me. Show me the way to the police station and I will gladly pay it in cash”. The officer’s eyebrows raised as he managed to put his words together: “The police station… it’s closed. They close at 1pm”. He really made the situation seem like the fine could only be paid then, and there. This really had potential to ruin our day.

Still playing my cool cowboy learnings, I offered to wait until the next day. Unfortunately, Manuel, feeling guilty for being our third passenger, offered to pay for displacing RG to the back. “There has to be an alternative way!”, he said nervously. And yes, $600 pesos later, we were let go... Manuel had saved us from quite a tedious battle. A few miles later, we pulled into a nearby gas station and unsheathed my knife. I opened the rear doors with a hint of fury and cut off the dang seatbelts out. “As far as I am concerned, this car is more than thirty years old and was never, never equipped with rear seatbelts. I am a mechanic, you know? I know these cars well!”, I said with a crooked smile and a wink.

First time Livingstone sees the ocean. Right next to it, the best seafood soup I've had in a while!

The 30-year-old car trick worked well, yet the officers in the following stops still tried to look for even more potential reasons to get bribed. “Your license is expired, sir!”. By now, this had become a joke. “You don’t say, officer! You must have gotten the numbers wrong! Just look in the little column in the back of the license and check for the little letters. Field 4a is the expiration date, valid until 2017”. The policeman pressed his lips and pointed at my documents. “This registration… it looks like it is valid until 2010!”. I resisted laughter and pretended to be surprised: “Wow, that is quite news to me! It was given to me on August 20th this year, and if I am not mistaken, it’s decorated with the numbers 1910 and 2010 as the centennial of the Mexican revolution!”. He gave up on his tricks and we moved on to talking about the gas mileage of the car. Boy, how many miles of this will we have to endure?

We arrived to Merida after sunset. Merida is quite a creepy, dilapidated town at night; there wasn’t a single soul in the street, and many of the beautiful historicist buildings showed obvious signs of neglect. The three of us had a few local specialties for dinner, seasoned by tunes of a nearby Spanish –yes, from Spain– music festival, and then split to our respective accommodations to meet back the following day.

I stayed for the next two days with Rafa, a hostel owner who destined a comfortable sofa for the couchsurfing crowd. His little piece of paradise is a tiny building decorated in the most eclectic, cosmopolitan mix of world flavors his visitors could bring. I myself gave him an old US license plate for his collection, the one I had registered my previous wagon with. If you stop by the Hostel "La Casa del Tío Rafa", look for the California plate… that’s mine!

Look at these crazy three!
From what I could gather in the space of a day, Mérida is closer to the style of the Caribbean than the rest of Mexico. The architecture, music, food, way of dressing and overall attitude towards life is far closer to that of Cuba than those of the mainland. Still, it seems that Merida had seen better days: you will see many buildings empty, or faded by the years. Downtown is a maelstrom of moving bodies and turn-of-the-century architecture, seasoned by automotive fumes in a very 1930’s fashion. Still, many a indigenous girl can be seen selling souvenirs amongst these promises of modernity.

Shabby buildings, bright colors: smells like Caribbean here!
A lil' rationalism, a lil' colonialism... add a dash of CO2 and you're set!
Manuel the Spaniard made a little mistake with his buzzer, so he resorted to some enthusiastic professional.
 On our way to Cancun and Playa del Carmen we could not miss out on the Mayan ruins of Chichen-Itza, an impressive complex if you can get past the hoards of shrimp red, sandaled tourists. Pictures speak louder than words and this article is getting kind of long, so I will let the photographs do the talking. Right on the way is the town of Valladolid, with ample colonial avenues and a beautiful food court downtown where locals, as well as some sparse foreigners, can enjoy all kinds of grilled meats and flavored waters for very little money. The next day we visited the scenic ruins of Tulum, right by the ocean, and waved RG goodbye on her way back to the US. The following day I would do the same, but with a very different destination and purpose: to find a lost treasure in Cuba.

The majestic ruins of Chichen-Itza. Currently, the top of the main pyramid is not open to the public.
Wooden souvenirs –a reminiscence from the Day of the Dead. Leftovers, perhaps?
The observatory at the complex. I was tempted to film a "Sound of Music" parody right there on the grass.
After much fiddling with my camera, I shot this close-up shot of a fence post.
Valladolid food court, with an assortment of flavored waters and juices beyond your wildest dreams!
Paradise of what? Right in the heart of the Tulum ruins.
Aaargh! The Spanish are coming! The Spanish are coming!
Three good friends, united by an automobile and the quest for sights!
Finally in Cancún... notice the "Dracula has AIDS" poster to the left.
...and in it goes. See you in two weeks!

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Wonders of Chiapas

At 7am the streets of Oaxaca are still asleep. A stoic clatter floats past the aged stone and crumbling facades weathered by the years, and finally settles next to an indistinct building, finally choking amongst the faint chant of a few local birds. A dark woman steps out of the threshold of the house with a heavy rucksack, her eyes bright with excitement. Our story stretches back to the Children Center where we worked, our friendship growing little by little, every 15-minute break before each of my students’ lesson. "RG", as we shall call her, is the co-founder of an Asian NGO dedicated to the education of children, very similar to the one we were volunteering at.  She now stood ready for what would become a twelve-hour drive across 360 miles of mountain roads, sleepy villages, military outposts and speed bumps, across a half-moon shape that would barely touch the Pacific Ocean before bumping back North to our final destination, San Cristobal de las Casas, in the world-famous state of Chiapas.

Spent the previous day installing these bad boys on the 300TD... with a skid plate, and for $200, well worth it!
We start off the day very well, getting half lost on a winding mountain road...
...and finally got on track! Phew! Note the nightmarish passing maneuver.
What can I say about all this driving? The car was up to the challenge and performed flawlessly, we had a bag full of traditional corn tostadas, a full tank of fuel and loads of non-sequitur conversation. The landscapes ranged from lush mountains to blood-spiking cliffs with falling rocks and no guardrails. We witnessed some of the most dangerous, plain stupidest passing maneuvers to ever take place on a road, some of them with two rows of cars and eighteen-wheelers, some of them around curves with no visibility.

Landscapes began becoming more and more beautiful by the mile...
At this point I began realizing that I might need a fan clutch, but nothing to worry about.
Locals do not treat their land too well... notice the huge amount of trash on the shoulder.
That jackass! You got to be frikkin' kidding me!
We are happy to report that Mexico is investing heavily in renewable energy!
Stunning sunset at the Chiapas border... still a couple hours to our destination.
The very commercial town on Tuxtla Gutierrez! Not half as pretty as San Cristobal...
As soon as we arrived to San Cristobal de las Casas, we headed for some dinner. We decided to first pay a visit to our Couchsurfing host, Erika, who worked in a café downtown. A hefty ham sandwich later, we got talking about some local history, and the reason there were so many foreigners in town. Back in 1994, the local peasants revolted against the exploitative land practices by the local caciques; the Zapatistas occupied several towns, including San Cristobal, without any opposition by the fearful Mexican government. The rebellion became famous around the world, and many foreign activists came to settle or witness the new order in what is derogatorily known as “zapaturismo”. Only in San Cristobal you will be able to be given directions in fluent English, smell true Belgian chocolate, taste Ukrainian pastries and haggle with Italians in the same day.

Darn cold morning, but what views! What deliciously dry air, compared to the coast!
San Cristobal's beautifully renovated buildings, a stunning contrast to Oaxaca's flavorful texture.
Beautiful "zocalo", or main square. To your left is the "Real de Guadalupe" street.
The following morning I woke up to find out I was breathing steam out of my mouth. According to Erika, in the last few years climate change has been cooling down the town’s temperature, so very few homes are actually equipped with heaters. The sun rose, and we got out to do some errands and take a look at the historic center. Erika and I, by some miracle of a Higher Force, came across the only leather jacket in the world that could possibly look good on me –an instant purchase at $22. Following that we got into the convent of Santo Domingo, a gorgeous baroque church. As we walked through the museum, I quietly started making passive-aggressive comments on the botched restorations done on many of the paintings in the museum. Many of the colors had been flattened by what seemed to be a mix of 19th Century impressionism and toddler book-coloring technique. Given our indignation, we called the attention of one of the guides, who said our complaints were not the first ones to reach the museum. Eventually we reached a painting of Christ with two cherubs that rivaled the Borja paintings in their ape-ness. We instantly exploded in a loud laughter that echoed throughout the museum, and fled upstairs into the impressive textiles section.

Real de Guadalupe, the main commercial artery in town. Lots of foreigners!
Much unlike San Miguel de Allende, the town has not lost its flavor to its visitors.
Juaguars are a sacred animal to most pre-Hispanic civilizations, you will see them everywhere!
Local textiles of the finest craftsmanship, all made by hand in the nearby villages, and sold by the main church.
Beautifully preserved Mayan bas-relief. Brace yourselves for the paintings in the gallery...
Look at those cherubs, then look at Christ. Did someone botch up something?
We really had to get out due to all the laughter...
...and I found the shield of my province in Spain, Castilla y León!
Gorgeous, hand-knitted dressed in the textiles section upstairs.
For being such a small, remote corner of the Earth, the variety of patters and fabrics in Chiapas is astounding!
The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to picture-snapping and food. The next day, however, would consist on nearly five hours of jungle and winding mountain roads. RG stepped up to the game, and very kindly reserved us a hostel in Palenque. On the way there we got the car registered twice by the Mexican military, probably more out of curiosity than out of concern. I do not blame them: how often do you see a thirty-year-old Mercedes wagon in the jungle?

...the obvious drawbacks on driving an interesting vehicle.
The ruins of Palenque were utterly breathtaking. The main religious complex featured a full patio, a tower several stories high, and an interesting network of vaults worthy of any Indiana Jones film. However, it was the most conspicuous, emptiest, most run down temple that struck my fancy. I climbed the winding staircase, and sat down at the edge of the top to listen to the jaguars roar. Or so I thought: many local monkeys imitate jaguars to keep predators away. Back on the top of the temple, I felt immensely comfortable, as if there was a force keeping me there, overlooking the lush trees. I do not recall how much time I spent up there, but I do recall I was stripped of all my strength and morale on my way down. Not even the sugariest ice cream could raise my spirits, and RG definitely felt it –judging from her increased concern and tender hugging.

Howdy pardner! You like stone? BOOM, HERE'S SOME STONE.
Reconstructed tower in the main religious complex.
No rolling boulders, mine carts or secret arrow shootings, promise!
Silly picture, but I couldn't but notice this bright red moss growing in every temple!
The visit eventually takes you to the very inside of the jungle. Imagine the howling monkeys above you...
Stunning lighting conditions from the energy-stealing structure.
"Foreigner tree: it becomes red and peels in the summer, and it's bright white in the winter"
That very night we decided to add a new passenger to our group: Manuel, a fellow Spaniard trained in therapeutic massage, a friendly fellow with a broad smile and youthful spirit. The next day we would drive to Mérida, on the Yucatán peninsula, where many, many adventures –and awkward situations– would await us.

Dear mom: yes, I am taking care of myself. I am eating well and sleeping well as you can see.
Special thanks to RG for her pictures from the roads to all these destinations. Many a time I did not feel it was safe to multitask, regardless of how interesting any situation at the wheel could get. Thanks for reading and subscribe to my facebook page for frequent updates!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Dia de Muertos

The 31st of October was a day off the usual course of events. For one, the town's historical core was almost deserted. For the other, our hostel was getting ready for an avalanche of tourists from all over the world, who had booked every single bed in the building. That morning I taught no classes, so I hailed a taxi at the Zócalo and instructed the driver to take me to the College Campus area. The rattly Tsuru II (a modernized 90's Nissan Sentra) drove in shark-like zigzags across the cobblestone streets on to the main Periférico city ring, passing heavy trucks and jaywalkers dressed in native colors. Ten minutes later I found myself under the shadow of a tree-pointed star: I had arrived to the Mercedes truck service center. A week earlier I had arranged for their mechanics to swap the coil springs with taller ones, as well as machining the brake rotors, installing new pads and changing the oil. With a lot of delay but efficient skill, the job was superb: the car now stood high off the ground and right at level. As a freebie, they reinsulated a few wires and fixed an annoying transmission leak from one of the cooler lines. The car was jacked up high in the alignment lift, proudly displaying the classic of the marque to all customers. A turn of the key, and the car purred like a kitten all the way home.

Clean as a whistle and ready for many more miles of trouble-free motoring!
The rest of the day was spent at the reception desk, welcoming our new customers to their accommodations. They came from all over the world, from Australia and Japan to Argentina and Canada, all pumped up to see the celebrations of the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos). My boss called me to congratulate me on the entire setup of the online reservation system; without it we would have hosted only two walk-in customers! Everybody was thrilled about the next two days.

At 7pm, my friends stopped by the hostel to go to the nighttime celebrations together. Amongst them was Syama, a Colombian masseur follower of Hinduism; and Devorah and Noam, a couple from the United States in search of the true taste of Oaxaca. However, that late in the evening, the true taste of the Day of the Dead was not to be found in Oaxaca, but in the little town of Xoxocotlán, just twenty minutes away in my trusty iron steed.

The first thing we did was to head on to the local cemetery, guided by the crowd and smells of food and flowers laid on the tombstones. There was a surprising amount of English speakers, and the atmosphere was casual and relaxed. Decorations were bright and happy, and, in contrast to our way of honoring the dead, many smiles shone amongst the flickering candlelight.

Sometimes an unsteady hand can give way to many photographic surprises!
Past the graveyard gates the air filled with the scent of freshly-cut carnations of all possible colors. The place was pitch dark, with some clouds in the sky; the Moon was not in sight. As I walked past the granite monuments, listening to the whispers of visitors and the quiet shuffling of mud, I discerned the bulky silhouette of a building right in the middle of the yard. It was surrounded by police tape, and I adventured to use my camera flash to reveal its purpose...

A dilapidated Spanish church right in the middle of the Panteón (cemetery).
I felt comfortable in that cemetery. The vibe was inviting and restful –forgive the pun–, discharged of all the heaviness that these environments usually carry with them. There was no grief, no tension; just the humble joy of sharing with those who are still loved, a joy that transcends communication through the stages of life and death. I got to understand this deep love without grief, and thought that grief, as I have known it all my life, may as well be a slightly selfish way of wanting someone to be with us and never leave, a way of denying the natural course of things.

We moved across the narrow street, were a good amount of typical "Sand Carpets" were laid out for the crowd to admire. Many of these consist on traditional Christian symbols, although there were a few that dealt with more folkloric skeleton themes.

A very unique sight in Xoxocotlán: the so-called "Tapetes de Arena", or "Sand Carpets"
The craftsmanship and conveyance of feelings in some of these "tapetes" is spectacular.

From these our group moved on to a much larger, general graveyard. Little kids, dressed in spooky rubber masks alla Halloween, were asking for money or tamales at the door, jumping like little demons in this magical night. In the distance, we heard the cluttered sound of a marching band in one of the paths of the cemetery, cheering the bypasses with some songs of the land.

The many flowers decorating the tombs. Can you imagine the smell?
Guess who wore a poncho and an Indiana Jones hat to fend off the rain...
As I was photographing this, a big marching band cheered a relative of the family next to me!
In all degrees of decoration and cost, everybody participates!

Before leaving, we all gathered next to a solemn group of mariachis and a whole family singing to a loved one. I took off my hat, put it on my chest and wondered at the beautiful, nostalgic tunes coming from the depths of their strings, their trumpets, their voices. It was a theatrical situation, just like a New Orleans funeral, mixing the distant sadness of someone long-lost, and the acceptance hidden in the flashy attires and bright faces of those attending the ceremony. That song conveyed the general feel of the family, missing their relative as one misses a distant land left behind long ago, or a ship that was inevitably sunk in the storm of circumstances.

Next was the food and the music. We toiled our way out of the muddy grounds, on to the main gravel path. As we got out of the Panteón, we happened to bump into Kate Moss. What a surprise!

Eight foot tall, dancing work of art!

Next to the cemetery the streets were lines with tiny, make-shift huts stands with delicious Oaxacan specialties, including tlayudas, enmoladas, roasted meat, fried bananas, and a full assortment of candies, including tiny marzipan skulls and "bread of the dead" (Pan de Muerto).

Delicious sugar and almond skulls... macabre candy! I had one and wish I had taken a few with me.

On our way back we noticed that a symphonic orchestra was just about to start playing in a big pavilion. The program started with a native Mexican composition orchestrated with folkloric instruments, followed by the Hebrides Overture. Unfortunately, due to safety and weather concerns, the orchestra's harp was not brought in that night, so, unfortunately, that left Danse Macabre out. I want to think it was discarded so we wouldn't have skeletons dancing all over.

Back in the hostel, I am slowly preparing myself for resuming the trip. I shall bypass Veracruz all together and invest the money in my stay in Cuba, as I hunt down the lost Gullwing for two weeks. Livinsgtone will soon get a handy accesory that will make it look ten times cooler, so stay tuned on the next update. In the meanwhile, please like my Facebook page (click here) for many untold anecdotes, including people bumping into Livingstone or unexpected kisses on the neck by some guests who may have found their receptionist... rather sexy.