Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A wake of gold dust

What do they say about the best laid plans...? My journey here in México is a lesson in patience and roll-with-the-punches good humor.

Eva and I planned to depart at 8 AM for San Juan Mixtepec. She needs to head to her bank first, she informs me as we meet outside my house. Oh, and her bank doesn't open until 9. Ok. We trek up to her house for a breakfast of black bean soup with nopales (cactus), and warmed tortillas. After schlepping it to her bank eventually, we head to the San Juan Mixtepec transport pick-up location. We're now heading out at 9:30 AM.

Turns out it doesn't matter when we left. Eva uses the hour-long ride to chat up her seat neighbor; and thus, she realizes where my tortillera lives. When we hop out at the neighborhood of Independencia, nestles in the hillside just above SJM, we encounter the sister of my interview subject. The tortillera is gone. It's her turn this week to stand guard over the town's forrest. It's her tequio service. She won't return until nightfall. Or I should say, . It's one of my new vocabulary words!

We take the opportunity, then, to talk to the sister about her craft, barro rojo (pottery). She shows us to her small workshop--clay bowls, pots and pitchers sit stacked against the wall inside the cool, brick room. Freshly-made pottery, still slick with moisture, golden powder mixed into the mud, sunbathe outside the door to the shop. She shows us the red-gold dust, gathered from nearby hills, that she churns with black clay to make just-the-right combo for her pieces. We see the fire ring where she "cooks" each pot and jar; soaking in a bowl of milky water are the tools of her trade: jicama husk, elote core. Each is used to shape and meld mud into form.

She sits down, and in a matter of minutes makes this clay jara (pitcher). My camera can barely keep up with the speed of her fingers. "I can't help but get dirty," she tells us. It's the consequence of her craft--hands dried with yellow-red earth, the mud slipping into cracks and wrinkles, under nail beds, between fingers. You can look at her fingers and see she's productive, prolific, even. (I look down at my hands, unsure that there are any mar
ks from my craft. Is there such thing as a radio callus?)

Before we depart she offers me a jara to take with me as a gift, and a quick bowl of cool guyaba juice (freshly squeezed from their tree out front).

I leave word that I will return Friday to visit her sister in the Plaza where she sells tacos. I leave behind a print of a picture I snapped of her over a month ago.

Eva and I climb down the ridge to the town center in search of Anderson Bautista. It's a bit of a hike--but I welcome it after our bumpy ride from Tlaxiaco. I interviewed Anderson and his father over a month ago when they were guests at the station one afternoon. I need to ask a few quick questions before I can complete their story. Unfortunately, Anderson is gone and won't return until Friday afternoon. His dad is shy, and prefers to be interviewed later when Anderson is present. So instead we chat, we nibble on oranges from the Bautista Family's trees, and then head the Municipal Building further into town. Eva needs to snag an interview before we return.

When we finally depart San Juan Mixtepec it is around 5. What we both though would be a quick trip has taken all day. I have no tape to show for it. Boo.

I get home and shuck off my shoes, smothered in dust. Once my head hits down, I know I don't have enough energy to carry myself to the center of town for dinner, or even to shuffle a few blocks down to use the internet. It's only 8:30, but I decide to read a bit and sleep. God, I'm an old lady now! I must rise early to depart for San Andres Chicahuaxtla tomorrow. Hopefully, I'll have more luck recording there. Thus, early slumber will do me good. G'night!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Journaling from the seat of clouds

-Get on the 7AM bus for Tlaxiaco. It's an uneventful trip. I'm so familiar witht he raod up that I can drift off to sleep, drooling on my neighbor's jacket, and wake up with clarity as to where we are, and how much longer we have until our arrival.
-I arrive at XETLA. Catching up on the news take a while, since I haven't been up to the station in the last month. Everyone here seems to have four jobs. I hear from Doña Vicki, who is the longest standing member of the station staff, that when she departs in the afternoon from the station, she makes comida for her family, then heads to their shoe repair store in the afternoon until 9 PM that night. Talk about a long day! But the hard work has afforded her kids (3 of them) college tuition, plus room and board in México City.

-I chat with Araceli, after participating in the most awkward hug ever witnessed, I'm sure. (They don't kiss on the cheek in the pueblos; they shake hands. And sometimes, they shakes hands, hug (but they veer right in the embrace here--not left, like in the States.), and then shake hands again to close the gesture.) I go for a traditional kiss on the cheek--Araceli leans away, I laugh nervously, and we collide into a haphazard hug. Yuck, weirdness.

-Araceli shows me two projects that the station's producers worked on this past year. The first is a documentary film about the station, and its anniversary celebration each year. An opportunity to exhibit the film in Switzerland may be on the horizon for her next year. I've promised to help her translate the film's script into English so she can add subtitles.

The second project is a radio play that six of the country's indigenous stations created. The radio soap opera was popular and common even up until six years ago. But since then it has disappeared. Thus, the stations got together to revive this old practice, and to brainstorm thematic ideas relevant to their respective communities. They then wrote the script, and recorded the play with sound effects--all in nine days! It's theme? Migration, of course! What's great is that it's truly a reflection of what's happening in people's lives here; they've amped up the drama, clearly. So, it's complete with love triangles, family squabbles, violence and drunkenness--like any good soap opera. But it's not a soap opera about the lives of the rich and beautiful. It's about these communities.

-Eva agrees to go with me to San Juan Mixtepec the following day. I've got to find my tortillera. I interviewed her at the village festival over a month ago. All I've got is a part of her name and a picture. Hopefully it will be enough to track down her house.

-I spend the remainder of the day collecting tape from the archive. I need tape of old shows, station IDs and music. It's a jumble of cardboard boxes, stacks of cassettes and reels. I wind my way through the media maze; some stacks sit, waiting to be digitalized, as part of the station's newest initiative. Others gather dust--waiting for the day when the new building is ready--and they get to see the light of day again. I'm sifting through old radio plays, when I ask, "Where do you keep the tapes of the two current on-air shows that use the station's satellite to connect to the U.S.?" They don't. "You don't keep recordings of those shows? But, but, I've seen you insert a minidisc to record the show." They only do that to send a copy to the México City office of the CDI; then they erase the minidisc to record over later. Shit. Well, there goes a portion of my project. I can't track where calls with greetings originate from and where they are sending saludos without that archive. Such is life.

-I hop a taxi with Eva to town center. I've been away from Tlaxiaco for a month now. And even though I pay for the whole month of rent on a room in town, I'm a bit afraid the family will have taken my month-long absence as an opportunity to move someone else in. And sure enough, there's luggage in my room and the bed is a mess when I walk in. I should have called in advance, clearly. The daughter apologizes and explains that her brother was occupying the room. She take out his bag--but doesn't change the sheets, or make the bed--leaving me to discover her bro's boxers tangled in the cartoon linens. Thumbs down.

-I shuffle myself to a restaurant for dinner. I take the downtime to plan for tomorrow's interviews, as well as study a bit of Spanish vocab. Did you know that "farándula" is "the private lives of the famous." Look at us learning!

-When I return "home" the three layers of wool blankets await me. It's cold here in Tlaxiaco. I pop in my earplugs (thanks, Holly!). Try to wake me up now, pinche gallo.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A few quick pictures

A college friend of my brother Alejandro, invited the Cordero's and me out to her home, north of the city in a small town called (rancho) called La Punta, just south of Guelatao. We sandwiched into the Cordero's mini-Cooper and headed the hour's trek north. Fatima, the friend, married a man from this tiny hamlet where the molinos used to froth and stir hot chocolate are crafted. Fatima's husband, Rolando, kindly gave us a demonstration of the artesanía that was handed down to him from his grandfather. Here he is whirling out a molino from a thick log, grinding out the moving pieces of the tool, burning into the wood the deep brown design--all in less than 30 minutes. Incredible.

Later, our pack traversed the hills west of the family's land. Fatima picked up a machete and said it was necessary "just in case." Just in case what...? So with a bit of trepidation we embarked. Here are some of the things we were looking at...

All those tiny dots are insects.

I've changed a lot since I've moved to México. My hair's a bit longer. My skin's a bit tanner. And now I have a mustache.

Doesn't Fatima's daughter look like she's lived through a world of experiences already at such a young age? Look at the sadness in those little baby eyes?

Fatima's suegra made us a delicious trout soup, fresh from the river snaking through these hills. And once we were fed and rested, we headed back to the city.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Kitchen Casualties

One of the many benefits of managing your own time is that you can spend umpteen hours on any given activity your deem worthy of attention. For me, in the last few days, that activity has been cooking. I'm no master in the kitchen. But man-oh-man can I take a really long time to prepare a meal without flinching; and I can also dirty a few thousand dishes. Now, I don't own that many dishes any more. So I had to stop before I reached 1,000. It would have been close, though.

Today I constructed a very willy-nilly meal; it didn't quite coordinate, with the tang of this side dish, accompanying the salty verve of that entrée. It was, however, yummy--to use a really technical culinary word. And I took my sweet time making it. The Slow Food Movement would be proud.

Today's delight included molcajete-ground guacamole, with homemade corn tortilla chips, rosemary-roasted potatoes, and squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese in a burnt tomato sauce. I'm really excited about the meal because, not only was it fun to make, and fun-ner to eat, most of the ingredients came from within the region where I live. Avocados from the Mixteca Baja region, chilies from the valley, corn tortillas from my local tortillera (the corn from the valley), squash blossom from the Mixteca Alta, goat cheese from the local farmer's market (can't remember the name of the small Oaxacan pueblo where the goats are kept), and tomatoes from the coast!

There was, however, a casualty from the the weekend's earlier culinary activity; my thumb. I cut it pretty deeply when I was making bruschetta for my friends the Cordero's. It's on the winning end of healing right now. But there's a small bit of the tip of my thumb missing, now. I wonder if it will grow back. I tried to take a picture of it to show you--but I'm not sure if you can tell. My camera doesn't take great micro-shots. I assure you, though, if you could really get up close you would see that the top curve of my left thumb stops, and then dips in, before it continues the long stretch down the left side, heading for the webbing between it and the index finger. If the tip doesn't fill in by the end of next week, I'm throwing a memorial service for the piece that was lost. I hope you all can attend.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Things to report

Since my return to Oaxaca, not much of import has happened--hence, the lack of blog posts. It seemed to be enough work just to post from my week-long vacation. If you're wondering what I'm up to--I'm taking most of the remainder of January to load and edit tape I've been collecting in Tlaxiaco and its environs these past months. I need to create the model for the series I'm making for the station there. Hopefully, by the time I return to Tlaxiaco at the close of the month, I will have a few episodes to deposit in the lap of the director.

Thus, the only picture I can provide is of my morning tea, squatting on the desk; his pal, the spoon, leaning nearby.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Where's My Sombrero-Wearing Donkey? (a guest blog by Sarah)

In a way, I'm glad. I'm glad the weather sucked.

I'm glad that the ferry to Cozumel rolled and pitched and that I was nearly splattered by the elderly lady-behind-me's seasickness. I'm glad that the 20 mph winds and menacing surf kept us off the small, rocky "beach" at "Playa Azul". I'm glad the gloomy skies and intermittent rain kept us from strolling down the streets of San Miguel and considering a drink at Señor Frogs. Because stripped of tranquil waters and sparkling skies, we could see the island for what it was: an outpost for 1st world partiers attended to by gloomy, underpaid locals.

I had imagined that its separation from the mainland would cut it off from the gaggles of tourists looking for painted donkeys and tequila shots, but there they were, disembarking alongside us, puking and panicking as the gang plank swung violently to and fro.

(And what was giving me this air of superiority? Was I any different? Sure, the words "all inclusive" made me shudder, but wasn't I too just looking for a stretch of white sand under an umbrella with a piña colada in my hand?)

The ominous clouds and relentless wind brought out the spookier side of Cozumel. The abandoned hotel next to ours seemed to serve as a looming reminder that all these concrete structures were on the brink of ruin if nature willed it, no matter how many stars appeared on their signs.

In fairer weather, our expansive suite and balcony would have seemed delightfully roomy, but the howling wind outside made me yearn for a small, cozy nook in which to wait out the storm. And downstairs in the restaurant, why was our waiter so forlorn? Was he bummed by the weather, too? Or was he done with this business - these gringos with their silly sun hats and unfortunate 'r's?

Had there been an expanse of soft waters to wallow in, we might not have thought of our waiter's sad eyes, or the gray, rotting shell of a hotel down the coast. If there had been soft sun on our shoulders, we might have strolled into town and not noticed how garish the overpriced restaurants and souvenir shops looked in contrast to the crumbling concrete and rusted metal part of town where our waiter most likely lived.

But there wasn't and we did see it: a bleak sadness that had settled over this island that trafficked in sunlight. It reminded me of Cambodia selling their jungle and being left with dry dirt. Of course the winds would settle and the sun reemerge, but until then all those sprawling concrete resorts and the towering cruise ships moving in slow motion looked like monsters who had eaten the heart and soul of the place until it was left with only painted donkeys wearing mini-sombreros.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Haggle, Hunt, Sun, Sleep

We head out of Valladolid in the morning. Wandering over to the corner where collectivos taxis make their way for Cancún, we spot a group of taxistas popping a squat nearby. All six of them approach us about a ride. According to Sarah's guidebook the collectivo ride should cost us around 60 pesos apiece. They want to charge us 500. Yikes! We haggle a bit, but in the end only get them down to 450, with the promise to leave right away, and not pick up any other passengers.

I chat with our driver for a lot of the ride since I'm up front. He teaches me a bit of Mayan; I teach him the basic Triqui I know. We talk about the effects of hurricane Wilma on Valladolid and the surrounding areas. For several days there were no vehicles coming or going; all roads were flooded badly. The only way to receive food and potable water was through airdrops from helicopters. The driver then launches into a discussion on marriage--and why I am not married. LOVE this topic! I'm prepared, though, because almost everyone in México asks me this. It's quite a change though, since I just moved from NYC, where being single in your late 20s is utterly un-newsworthy.

As we depart the collectivo, I end up feeling a bit conned by our driver, who seemed very nice, but ultimately would not drive us directly into city center. Apparently there are zones in Cancún, and a taxi from one zone CANNOT enter another. I find that hard to believe. Though, perhaps it is a manner in which the city can employ more drivers, and bleed more money out of tourists. Who knows? So we cross a four-lane highway and flag down another taxi. Another thing we all notice is that it's much harder to haggle with people here. There is such an enormous demand (meaning, tourists with money and no judgement to ask for a lower price), that no driver need capitulate to a bunch of backpackers. He'll just driver four more blocks and pick up someone else from out of town more than happy to be overcharged.

Since my plane departs very early the following morning, I made arrangements from Cozumel to stay at a hotel in Cancún's downtown, with easy access to the airport. Sarah and Aaron jumped into the collectivo this morning with no plans, but an idea to stay in a resorty-type hotel in the Zona Hotelera, the thin strip of bright white sand that juts out from the coast. The major tourist season has just peaked. So we're banking that some rooms will have emptied up. My hotel, El Rey del Caribe, is cute and small ecological hotel. With solar-powered hot water, and electricity from wind power, it still manages to be the most comfortable bed I've slept in in months (including the one in my apartment in Oaxaca). Rooms ring the central fountains and pool that sit in the courtyards down below. The rooms are etched in Mayan on each door. So I learn the number 12 really fast out of necessity. I drop my bags in my room, change into beachwear, and follow Sarah and Aaron out the door.

We do a fairly quick hotel search on the strip. In the end, the pair decide on Hotel Lagunas Reina. Or was it Hotel Lagunas del Playa? No. It was Hotel Reina del Mar de Lagunas. Or something. I'm not sure we ever all knew the name of it. Aaron and Sarah rush to their room to drop their things and change clothes. Their hotel is on the lagoon side of the strip. Thus, we need to take a quick bus to a sister hotel that has ocean-side beach to get in some surf and sun.

I should also mention that our trip from Valladolid (2 hours), or trek to my hotel and our hunt for a hotel for Sarah and Aaron is all done on an empty stomach. So eating must be attended to first before any rolling-in-the-waves can happen. We eat from the all-inclusive resort's shitty buffet and then take the sands! So though the trek was long and somewhat-arduous we make it! Look crystal blue waters...!

...and my hair's wet from...SWIMMING!!!

And even though the sun was fading fast, I did get in a little of this...

So what's the verdict? 1) Playing in the surf is fun, even when the undertow is so severe that your suit gets ripped off sideways several times. 2) The drinks at an all-inclusive resort are not that watered down. 3) While many visitors go and return to Cancún and Cozumel...I don't think it's for me (or for Sarah and Aaron, I imagine). There's not much bang for your buck here. And the bang, frankly, isn't that interesting.

I say goodbye to my traveling mates, and leave them in their luxury hotel; you know how I know it was a luxury hotel? It had fancy wrapping on its toilets:

I hop a public bus for 6 pesos to my downtown pad. Crossing the street, I purchase my bus ticket to the airport; I've got to leave at 5:30a, so I purchase in advance in order to rise just a bit later tomorrow morning. I find my hotel all hushed up and quiet--just the trickle of a couple courtyard fountains, and the hum of distant traffic break the warm night air. I take a quick dip in the hotel pool. No on else is out, so I've got it all to myself. The inky blue pool glows from underwater lights, holding my floating self in the shadows. As I stare up at the night sky, I imagine from up above it must look like a human silhouette was cut out of the pool. It's unheated, so I have to break my float time to do some laps, and keep the circulation going. When I get out, my muscles are tired, my eyes still sting a bit from the ocean's salt. Time for a shower; gotta use that solar-powered hot water!

Tomorrow I will rise and board a plane for México City, and then on to Oaxaca. I'll fly in over Monte Albán, the late morning sun slanting over fields of corn. I'll be home. Oaxaca will feel like home; returning can transform a thing to become more familiar. Isn't that strange? It will feel good to be home.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

A day of sun, at last!

We forgo breakfast in Valladolid to get a move on for Ek' Balam, a newly discovered Mayan ruin a half hour outside of town. A collectivo taxi takes us into the small town, also called Ek' Balam, to an ecological hotel at which we originally tried to stay in the earlier incarnations of our trip. In search of healthy, and possibly-vegetarian food, we hunt down the hotel which is open for breakfast and lunch. The space is a peaceful oasis of small winding paths that lead to individual huts, all huddled around a central pool--it appears to be more of a natural watering hole, than a lap tank. While the owner makes us oatmeal banana smoothies and fresh scrambled eggs with chaya herb, I use the juicer on the buffet table to squeeze out a couple of glasses. A couple nestles on a love seat nearby; hammocks swing in the breeze. Once sated, we eventually hop a ride towards the archaeological site with the lounging couple, Canadians from Victoria visiting the peninsula for three weeks.

Ek' Balam, simply put, is beautiful. Unlike many other archaeological ruins in México, they have not cleared the forest surrounding the site. Thus, the remnants of stone structures, pyramids and palaces sit nestled amongst trees and brush. It gives you more of a sense of what it might have looked like in the 9th century. Twin pyramids sit next to large ceremonial tombs. You can climb almost all of the structures, which is great fun, of course. The best part is that Ek' Balam is little-known, and thus, little-visited. Unlike the nearby Chichen Itza, which turns into Disneyland past late morning, Ek' Balam seemed to be our own little playground.

Sarah and Aaron hike to the top of the Acropolís, while I discover a path that winds behind the structure into the woods. It is so quiet in the deep of the trees that I start to imagine that I am being followed by a jaguar. I mean, they carve enough masks and statues of jaguars in Mayan art, is it so far off to think that some still lurk in the brush around these sites...? Later, Aaron informs me that there is no real way to survive a jaguar attack. Unlike with bears, where you're told to stay still, or sharks, where you punch their nose--jaguars will eat you either way, if you run, or huddle into a ball playing dead. So the best course of action is to attempt to kill it with your bare hands. Right.

I climb the Acropolís myself. Halfway up the steep ascent there's a kind of reward in the El Trono (throne), a huge jaguar mouth entrance, with teeth the size of over sized raccoons. It looks quite impressive; though, I overhear from the conversation of another group that there is some criticism of this restoration, and its validity.

The view from the top of the Acropolís is breathtaking. The Yucatán is as flat as Illinois. But replace cornfields with an ocean of low-growing green trees. In contrast with the brilliant blue of the sky (our first day of real sun, yahoo!), the trees and the cream stone pyramids almost sparkle; my camera just can't seem to capture it right.

Eventually, we three find the Juego de Pelota court; this is an ancient Mesoamerican ballgame played to the death. So we take this rare opportunity to have ourselves a quick round. It's a fierce game. Who would be the most agile, with hips and elbows, to resolve him/herself to win in the end?

In the final chapter, Sarah prevails.
But fate would have it that the community decides to sacrifice both victor and vanquished.

After Sarah and I rise from the dead, we realize we are really and truly sweating. Hooray! (This means a lot for a trio of pals who have been vacationing in the Yucatán without sun) So we exit out of the archaeological site and head "next door" to the entrance of Cenote X'Canché.

Roughly 65 million years ago a meteor crushed into the Yucatán Peninsula, leaving a huge vast impression in the stone on the surface. Jump to present times and tiny cracks have formed in the stone crater that allow rain water to filter through, filling the holes that the meteor created. The roofs and walls of these holes have deteriorated over time, leaving exposed an underground system of caves and sinkholes (cenotes). The one we're about to venture into is a 1.5 km hike, or bike ride, from the entrance where we purchase tickets. We've bought the "whole package" which includes bikes to make the trek to the cenote (tho, we forgo these to walk instead), a go at the zip line that straddles the top of the cenote, and a chance to repel down into the water. Um, can you say "awesome?!"

A guide meets us as we wander into the cenote site. His name is Ramón or Román, Sarah and I can't remember later. He shows us where to change, where to pee and eventually, where to get strapped into harnesses to take on the zip line and to repel. Can I just say, what is better than an outdoor, natural playground, complete with "rides" and swimming, kayaks, and flippers, and (did I mention?) a rope swing that catapults you into the green, foggy water??? What is better than that, my friends? Nothing.
Sarah getting her harness attached for the zip line.

We spend hours frolicking, sharing the pool with, at most, 6 other people. This is what we imagined our whole week would be full of. This is what we'd been anxiously waiting for. Cenote X'Canché did not disappoint. (Side note: several area families opened this site only a few years ago--the repel and zip lines are only 6 months running. So please, tell your friends. Go yourself. They could use your business. And it's fantastic!)

Aaron and Me playing on the rope swing. Sadly I'm hard to detect because my skin is the same color as the pale stone walls. :( Boo, no sun tan.

When our teeth finally start to chatter, and our fingers prune, we hop out and head up to change into clothes. It's easy to find a collectivo at the entrance of the site to take us back to Valladolid. I hop out at our hotel to shower, and then sit by the pool with a good book and a piña colada. Sarah takes Aaron to the Ex-Convento to take a peek. We reunite for a bite of dinner and then head up to bed. Tomorrow we strike out for Cancún to chase the elusive sun and sand.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Ex-Cozumel, aka Valladolid

The colonial city of Valladolid. It sits just 2 1/2 hours from Cancún. However, since we took the "scenic" 2nd class bus, it took us 4 hours from Playa de Carmen. The bus fills up at each spot: Tulum, Cobá, and Chemax (which to me sounds like some kind of Discount Warehouse, rather than a city name). When every seat is occupied the aisle, then, fills with passengers and their equipaje. I am relieved that some dude decides to give up his seat to the lady standing, holding a newborn. I didn't really want to spend the remaining 2 hours of the bus ride standing in the aisle--but also don't think I could have watched her hug her baby to her chest at every twist, turn and tope the bus overtook. What work it is to think about being a Good Samaritan without actually doing it! :)

We arrive, slug our bags onto our backs and hike the three blocks to the town Plaza, off of which squats our hotel, Mesón de Marqués. Two main courtyards circle a pool and a small restaurant, respectively. The lobby is a flurry of action, so we dump our bags behind the counter and hunker in for some lunch in what we've heard is "the best restaurant in town."

A small stone fountain overlooks as we munch on guacamole and totopos (chips); we're awaiting the main course--which takes quite a while to prepare, we discover. Aaron eats light, protecting his still somewhat-fragile tummy; Sarah has a chicken dish; and me, well, I decide to tackle one of my greatest fears. Maybe it's the afternoon sun dipping in through the skylight. Maybe it's the trickle trickle of the fountain. I'm not sure. But when I order the Pey de Cazón (shark pie), I have to practice Lamaze breathing techniques to prepare myself for the sure-to-be strenuous battle. As some of you might know, I have a very vivid and very irrational fear of sharks. So all three of us really felt that eating this shark pie was the first of many steps I could take to battle my phobia.
After comida, we pass to the inner courtyard complete with tall, lofty green trees and a cold, but beautiful pool. Sarah and I are anxious to see a bit of the city before the sun sets. We leave Aaron to the calm of the room for a nap and make our way across the town Plaza to get a look at the Cathedral. (Cathedral, check) Sarah surveys her guide book and reads that the oldest Christian structure in the Yucatán is just a quick 1km walk away from the Plaza. We cut across town and make for the prettiest, little diagonal street around (picture at top of page). The cobblestone street stretches long and straight, each small, one-story home flush to the road (like Park Avenue!); each painted a different Easter-egg pastel. We stop in at a perfume shop, sniffing glass bottles of lime & mint, or mandarin & cedar. The shop keeper shows us the back garden where one can receive an outdoor massage, the sounds of birds wafting through the air. Side bar: there is an incredible amount of bird life in Valladolid. Just the sound from the ones huddled in treetops off the Plaza are somewhat deafening. When I told a friend from NY that I'd traveled to Valladolid, the first thing he asked me was if I'd noticed the bird song in the Plaza.

Sarah and I come upon the Ex-Convent (which we both agree is a great name. Like, "Hello. Nice to meet you. I'm Megan, ex-virgin." Naming something by what it is not is hilarious!). A man greets us at the door of the Museum/Ex-convent to charge us 10 pesos for our entry. We're not entirely sure he really works there, but he lets us snap a photo of his frat boy-esque t-shirt--so it's worth the $1. The museum turns out to be just a series of photos and explanations of rifles and artifacts that the town has pulled out of a nearby cenote. We quickly discover that "nearby" means right out back. A large, crumpled, stone cupola sits there. We wind up its circular stairs to the entry of the cenote (sinkhole). A miniature bird escapes from the hole and darts around the dome ceiling and then back inside. We realize its no bird, it's a bat. And as we inch closer to the mouth of the hole, more bats missile in and out of the cave, their little den.

The day is almost entirely gone. So this whole experience is cast in the whisper of sunlight that still hovers--the sky strewn with purples and pinks. We slide in through the back entrance to the Ex-convent and discover the creepiest dark stairway, complete with horror film lamp, twittering on and off sporadically. I snap this one from the second floor, where we have to skirt about, sometimes using hands to feel our way around bends in the passageways.

When the Ex-Convent grows dull, we make our way back into the center of town. A late night dessert of Mayan Fantasy and Flan awaits us. Here's my conversation with the waiter:

Me: What is a Mayan Fantasy?
Him: Well, it's kind of like a pancake, or this kind of crepe, not really, a kind's hard to explain what the outside is...
Me: Okay. So what's inside the crepe?
Him: It's not a crepe. It's not really a crepe.
Me. Right. So what's inside this crepe-like thing?
Him: It's not a crepe.
**Neither of us can come up with the word in Spanish for pastry bread.**
Me: Yea, I got it.
**Awkward silence.**
Me: Um, bring me one of those.

By the way, Mayan Fantasy = Deliciuos

We head to bed because the next morning we must rise early for Ek' Balam!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Cozumel, in all her glory

We left in the thick of the madrugada (daybreak). A bit tired and wiped out, but ready for sunshine and crashing blue waves.

I snapped this one from my view behind the wing. It's a volcano just outside of México City. Look at that smoke!

While Aaron was a bit under the weather, that didn't stop him maintaining his high level of travel fashion. You should have seen the crowd of slobbering women that surrounded him at the Cancún airport when they saw him in this outfit. It was all we could do to pack our things onto a bus leaving for Playa de Carmen, the port of exit to the island of Cozumel.

Ah Cozumel, island of sunshine and crystalline waters. Island of world-class snorkeling and diving. Island of...honestly, horrid wind, gray skies and really bad food. I should start by saying, it's not Cozumel's fault. It's not. It's not her fault that the worst weather of the year fell on the week that we would be there. It's not her fault that Hurricane Wilma virtually decimated the island in 2005, leaving in its wake a ruin of former luxury hotels and beaches strewn with sea refuse and tubing. It's not her fault that the high winds forced the harbor master to close down all boats leaving Cozumel, making snorkeling, swimming, or even just sitting out in what should have been sun, impossible. All boats were anchored; all boats were anchored, that is except for the island's ferry, shuttling people back and forth from the mainland daily.

Sarah, none to happy about the weather

This ferry deserves its own paragraph. Heck, it deserves its own novel, too--but I've got work to do; so the novel will have to wait. I've never, never been afraid of a boat before. In fact, I would venture to say that I've gone out of my way to ride ferries where available. Case in point, after 9/11 a ferry service opened between my distant Brooklyn neighborhood and the tip of Manhattan. It took me the same amount of time to get to work on the ferry as it did on the subway. I also added to that commute a brisk, and cold morning walk to the ferry slip. But I LOVED it. To ride above ground, dancing on the waves, watching the skyscrapers close in as the boat coasted north. It was grand! However, after 45 minutes on the ferry twixt Playa de Carmen and Cozumel, in 20 mph winds, I have to say I will take pause the next time a boat option is available for travel.

It's not that they preemptively pass out small, purple, barf bags at the start of the journey; it's not that the boat pitched on its side so severely that we appeared to be almost-capsized numerous times; it's not even that people are tossing their cookies all around you as you fiercely try to listen to your iPod, with eyes closed, thinking of the better times. It's that somewhere between the narrow gang plank we are forced to cross, set atop wheels, stretching and rolling between boat and dock, and the panicky guy yelling "GET US OUT OF HERE," that I felt my love for ferries change. Aaron, Sarah and I turn to each other, bags hoisted on our shoulders, a mother carrying her newborn baby across the narrow bridge, Aaron mumbling, "So first things first, when we get off this boat, let's look into flights directly off the island."

Once we realize that the weather is not bound to change, that there is little hope of swimming in aqua glass, our fingers flitting amongst the colorful fish and coral, a tan finally touching our pale skin--once we part from this fantasy, we decide to make arrangements to depart the island early, and whilst still there, to see a bit of the ruins that sit more inland.

Hopping into a beat-up Jeep Wrangler, we swerve and jut our way to the center of the island to a Mayan ruin called San Gervasio. Escaping the stuffy room, and the mediocre restaurant of our hotel, the moist air and wind revive our spirits. We trek down white Mayan roads, under crumbling arches, down into ancient wells where tree roots dip into the still present water source. We climb atop temples, we ponder on the mysteries of ancient rulers with names like Pakiloob Soorsoob (Aaron's favorite).

Once our tour of San Gervasio is complete, we pile pack into the Wrangler and take a spin around the island. The east side of the island is a long stretch of white beaches. It's open to the Caribbean Sea and its whims, so the waves tower above the heads of the few brave enough to stroll along the beach or its dark black coral. Periodically rain starts up, slowing our pace to a crawl. When we round the south end of the island, around Punta Celarain, each curve in the road opens to a private drive, leading to what we guess are various luxury, all-inclusive resorts where people need not leave the confines of their hotel for want of anything at all.

We discover a shuffle board-like game on the second floor of our hotel. Surrendering to our indoor fate, we play this and a myriad of card and dice games that Aaron has invented as a diversion. And on the morning of Day 3, we pack up our things and high-tail it to catch the tortuous ferry back to the mainland. Our next destination...Valladolid!