Thursday, July 9, 2015

Yucatán - Dec. 2008

[I'm gonna start and publish my edited group emails from my first trip to Mexico, back in 2008-9. It's been pretty interesting to read them from my current perspective, 6.5 years later and again in Mexico for a few months. Some things haven't changed, some things read as extremely naive, some are just interesting in the light of so much more knowledge I have today. Anyway, while reading, you can keep in mind that this was written by a past version of me. Or not, whatever strikes your fancy.]

Right from the start I felt that my Central American trip would be very different from my South American one. Initially, the main difference was sand vs ice. Where the first trip started out with snow-capped mountains, glaciers, whitewater rivers, waterfalls and multi-day treks, the second one was beach, beach, sun & beach.

I flew from NYC to Cancun a few days before Christmas. Taking off in freezing temperatures and landing in a Caribbean beach will almost always be a change for the better, and one that tens of thousands (at least...) around the world can attest to. As advised by everybody who's anybody in the backpacking world, I left Cancun immediately. The destination: Isla Mujeres, a small island 15 minutes away by ferry. It's relatively unspoiled, but that's not hard when comparing to the resortorama that is Cancun. Fun fact: the population of Cancun in 1970 was either 3 or 120, depending on what you would've considered as Cancun back then. Today it's closing in on 3/4 of a million, and that's without including visitors.

But we were speaking about Isla Mujeres. The island felt like one big market to me, with the few streets lined with souvenir shops, restaurants, diving shops and, oddly enough, golf carts. I stayed in a pretty cool hostel called the Poc Na, that had a nice atmosphere, loads of hammocks and beach chairs, and the beach as its back yard. The yard's and the outside bar's floor was beach sand, and the decoration consisted mainly of coconut-heavy palm trees. So naturally most of what I did was go to the beach, sleep and doze on the hammocks, and drink bad Mexican beer (more on that later). 

The color of the sea water in that stretch of beach is just beautiful- alternating patches of strong turquoise and deep blue, with white, very fine sand with tiny pink and red grains in it. And the beaches are full of all manner of palm trees. That's the case not only in Isla Mujeres and Cancun, but seemingly all down the Mexican Caribbean coast, which they call the Riviera Maya. I found a relatively empty beach on the east side of the island, on the open sea side. On that side you can't see Cancun's hotels, the currents are worse and the strong waves make it unfriendly and possibly dangerous. In other words: perfect! There were some small rock enclosed bays, with very calm waters and a couple of tide-created pools, which provided a place to immerse myself in, if not swim, and there were few people around. That was my go-to spot for my stay on the island. 

Besides being a beach bum, I ate a lot of mexican food and some seafood. They have a great sauce made of lime and habanero peppers, and if you like spicy food you really can't go wrong there. Oh, and I found out that it's a complete disgrace that they call those cheap imitations in the US tacos- the ones they sold there, even from a cart on the street, were great! I found the local market and ate there often, instead of in the double-priced tourist restaurants, with the exception of a restaurant next to the pier that served ceviche in the abovementioned lime/habanero sauce. [In retrospect, I'm sure that those tacos that impressed me way back then were hugely overpriced, even if it was at the local market. I only started seeing "real" Mexican prices once I got out of the Riviera Maya]. I went exploring the island (in a rented golf cart, naturally) with two German girls, and we found a small deserted beach on the southern, less developed side, put up my hammock, and spent a calm, quiet day.

Besides the two German girls, I also met a lot of other people. It's quite amazing how easily you switch back into 'trip mode' and begin speaking to strangers every chance you get. Among others there was an Argentinian school teacher, a doctor from LA, two Australians named Freya, a chemist from Montreal and an animation producer from Toronto. And of course, bunches of Israelis.

But after four days it got a bit boring, as I'm not really made for the beach bum life. I felt it was time to move on, and I chose Tulum as my next destination. It's a smallish town about an hour and a half south of Cancun, and its main attractions are the Mayan ruins and the beach, which go hand in hand, since the ruins are on a cliff overlooking the beach. I learned a little bit about Mayan gods and architecture, and I broke my jaw several times trying to pronounce the many X-s, Ch-s and Tz-s. Later I went to another famous ruins spot (there are tons of them all over the Yucatan peninsula, and all over most of Mexico) called Coba, where we climbed a couple of 30-40m stone truncated pyramids (many people call the structures in many Mexican archaeological sites 'pyramids', but I've been corrected on it - there isn't a single pyramid in all of Mexico, and maybe in all of Latin America. They're truncated pyramids, since their sides don't converge on a single point- every single pyramid in Mexico has a flat top) checked out some stone carvings and Maya writing. We debated different explanations for the use of buildings, the meaning of the carved drawings and the small stone altars, etc. I came out with the feeling that I should try and do at least one Mayan ruins tour guided- visiting an archaeological site by yourself, especially one without good explanation signs, can be mind boggling and underwhelming at the same time. I felt better context and reference were needed. I thirsted for more knowledge, and my interest was most definitely piqued.

From what I understood, Tulum used to be a quiet, semi-hippy town with empty and calm beaches and good people and good vibes as little as 3 years ago, but apparently the tourist wave (which I am part of, of course) is sweeping south. After Cancun, we took over Playa Del Carmen, and now Tulum... the only question is, what will be the next town that those who are trying to avoid the hordes turn into the new horde spot. It's sad to think about, but I think that most residents here don't complain- with the hordes comes the money, after all. [Now, in 2015, speaking to people about Tulum I get the feeling that it's been completely overrun and that I wouldn't like it as much as I did back then.]

After a few days in Tulum I continued to Merida, the capital of Yucatan, and the biggest city in the Yucatan Peninsula. It's a colonial city, and was one of the first to be built by the invading Europeans on the American continent. The main cathedral is the first church in continental America (whether you see that as a good or bad thing is up to you), and you can see Pre-Hispanic symbols on some of its building stones, attesting to the fact that previous structures were torn down and their bricks reused to build it. The city is picturesque, with the historical center and Montejo boulevard (the one where all the rich people used to live) the most interesting architecturally. Most of the city is built up of low houses; you rarely see a house more than two stories high. Someone told me that it's because of the type of earth here and all the underground rivers.

In Merida I stayed with Mario, a local I met through Couchsurfing, and spent most of the time with him and his girlfriend, their families and a couple more guests they had. It was great! He introduced me to loads of typical food, among it some Mexicanised Lebanese food- tacos al pastor, which are shawarma tacos, and kibis, which are kubes filled with cabbage instead of meat (the Lebanese community in Mexico, consisting of Catholic refugees from several civil wars and their descendants, is big and influential, and mostly quite rich). I ate spicy and highly condimented food like crazy, and although my taste buds were happy, my stomach wasn't. But I survived. I was introduced to many fruits I'd never heard of before, and even the ones I did knew I ate in strange ways. Green mangos with salt and chili comes to mind... it's really tasty. The food was a very large part of my stay, and a recurring topic of conversation, too. At one point we had a 45-minute discussion about spiciness and chilis, and we kept going back to the subject throughout. Mario was the first to tell me about the Scoville scale of spiciness. It's a point of pride in Yucatan that the local habaneros are the spiciest chilis in the world.
[Sidetrack here: the habanero did in fact hold that title for a few years, per Guinness, but it has lost it quite a while ago. Today's hottest pepper in the world is 4-10 times as hot, at 2 million Scoville units. If you have some free time, and enjoy watching human suffering, go to Youtube and watch people eating extremely hot peppers - there are tons of videos of it. Here's one to whet your appetite:]

I did more than just eat, though. I learnt a lot about the old and modern Maya culture, and even learnt some Maya language. Mario and his girlfriend taught me a couple of expressions, some colors, hi and bye, and some other things. I had fun with it at first, until I found out that currently there are more than 30 dialects of Maya in Mexico and Guatemala, and I was learning only Yucatec Maya. In a lot of the villages in Yucatan people still speak Mayan as their mother tongue, but write in Latin letters. The Mayan alphabet is now a subject for archaeologists and academics only. It's a really complex set of hieroglyphs that for years was thought to have image meaning only, until in the 50s or so the "code" was finally broken, and it was discovered that every symbol represents a syllable as well. You see them on stellas in many of the different ruin sites.

There are plenty of sites all around Merida, so we went ruin-hopping. We went to Uxmal and the Puuc route- Labnah, Chacmultun, Kabah, and Sayil. Some of them are really impressive and reconstructed, while others are very close to the state in which they were found: mounds of grass around rocks, with trees and vines growing out of what used to be a temple, etc. I somehow managed to not go to the most famous one, in Chichen Itza, but was told Uxmal is just as big. [To this day, at least 20 Mesoamerican archaeological sites later, I still consider Uxmal as one of the most impressive I've seen, if not the most]. Getting to know a bit about the history and Mayan religion made me think a lot about the past, and the way we perceive it. How much can we actually know about these cultures, so different from our own, from nothing more than their ruined temples and writing? It seems to me that a lot of what we "know" is just conjecture, good guesses or truths filtered through our own belief system, and there's a big bias towards knowledge that is based on constructions built in stone and findings made of materials that last longer. What is left in no doubt is that they were a very advanced society. Some of the decoration and the stone carvings are incredibly beautiful and intricate.

Another fact I learnt about historical perception is that Maya is not the way they called themselves. I was told that Ma Ya (or something similar) means "not for everybody" or "not for you". Some believe that that's what they told the Spanish when they first arrived, pointing towards their temples, since only the clerics could climb up. I couldn't corroborate that in any way, and there are other theories, but it's clear that the Mayans not only did not call themselves that, they didn't even see themselves as one civilization. That's a perception based on later understanding of many groups' linguistic and cultural similarities. It's something that comes up again and again, people around the world being classified and called by the wrong names by the people that conquered them, and that wrong name sticking until descendants use it to self-identify.

Yucatan was a separate state for a while in the 19th century, the same time that Texas seceded from Mexico and of the US-Mexican war. At the time, there was a revolt of the Mayan population against the European-descended and mestizo (people of mixed European and native blood) plantation and land owners, which lasted more than 50 years. Today almost everybody in the area is of mixed blood, and a lot of the slang and food, even of the city dwellers, is mixed in with Mayan words.

Another thing that Yucatan is famous for is the cenotes and grutas. The first ones are huge caves filled with fresh water, some connected to underground rivers, and some just on their own. The water in the ones I saw was nice and clean, beautifully colored, and often very deep (as much as 25m deep). If I understood correctly, the longest underground rivers in the world are in the Yucatan Peninsula, so much so that I heard that if you had enough air and were so inclined you could scuba dive from somewhere in the vicinity of Mexico city all the way to the Caribbean Sea.

We went to visit the cenotes in Cuzama, where the whole village seems to work in the cenote-tourism business. They built a rail on which small horse carriages take tourists to the caves. There were so many people there, since it was new year's vacation, that there was a 2-hour wait, so we ended up walking the 9km instead of taking the carriages (called the truk, pronounced trook, and supposedly coming from the English word truck). The grutas are basically the same thing as the cenotes, but dry. We went to Lol Tun (flower stone) gruta, a series of huge caves many kilometers long, with stalactytes and stalagmytes, evidence of people living in them and worshiping in them in the past, and many-colored rocks. There are also some pretty basic carvings and statues in the caves. 

The explanation for the creation of the cenotes is also quite interesting. Apparently, there was a huge meteorite that fell in Yucatan, which created the cenotes, caves and underground rivers, elevated all of the peninsula above sea level, and is supposedly the one that killed the dinosaurs ~65 million years ago. There's evidence of a huge crater, called the Chicxulub crater, that covers an area of ~180km in diameter. Roughly half of the crater is on land, and the other half under the sea just north of the peninsula. The cenotes from a half-ring, and are concentrated just outside the crater's "rim". In other words: cool. [I love reading my extremely naive, if well-intentioned, statements about geology from my past travels, back before I studied it in uni. It's also cool to see that the interest was there all the time.]

We celebrated the new year with Mario's family, which was a lot of fun. The most memorable part was what they call burning the old year, which is pretty cool and kinda disturbing at the same time. They fill up a man-sized doll dressed like an old man with firecrackers and fireworks, hang it on a tree and light it. They told me that the previous year, one of the neighbors made his doll to look like the president... At midnight, the whole town was filled with the sound, light and smoke of the fireworks for about an hour. It felt like a war zone, but a happy war. Then the whole family, from 9-year old kid to 89-year old grandma, proceeded to get drunk, sing karaoke, and eat. It was a great experience.

Yucatan is the most hammock-friendly place I've ever seen. Actually, hammock-friendly is probably not the right way to put it - hammocks are deeply embedded in Yucatec culture and lifestyle. Most houses have hooks on the walls, called hamaqueros, and it seemed to me like you're more likely to find a house without beds than one without hammocks. In the room I slept in in Merida, there were two people on hammocks sleeping above the bed. Mario told me that with some thought out layering you could fit 15 people in a cabin meant for 6, something he and his friends often do when they rent a room together at the beach. I took "sleeping in hammocks" classes (hint: belly up is not the best position), and after some initial misgivings ("doesn't it hurt your back?") I can proudly say that I slept in a hammock for 6 nights, or at least parts of 6 nights. I never managed to go the whole night without waking up a few times. But it's a skill worth learning. Since I have my own hammock (one of my best purchases), going into a hostel and asking if you can hang your hammock in their yard and sleep in it can be a very cheap option - usually 2US$ a night or less.

I haven't written anything about food in a while, so let's go back to that. There are several restaurants in Merida that have the tradition of giving "botanas"- you order a beer (for 30 pesos instead of the usual 20) and get a small plate of food with it, usually some local dish. If you go with some friends, you each get a plate and can taste lots of things while sitting and chatting over a beer. It's a really good deal for everybody except your digestive system, which doesn't necessarily agree with all that spice and condiment (and alcohol!). The food was very good. I especially liked the mole, which is a kind of paste with many condiments in it. I tasted it for the first time in a botanero in Merida, and it seems like it was black mole since it had chocolate in it. The paste is used in many dishes, including to fill tamales. Oh, and it isn't pronounced like the burrowing animal. I also enjoyed the enchiladas and the tacos con relleno negro (black stuffing), which are tacos with some unknown black stuff in them. Plus, they have very loud live music (salsa and cumbia and other - to me - bad and boring latin music) and sometimes a bad comedy show.

I have always been a big fan of local markets, especially for the food. But walking around and checking out what special non-edible things they have for sale usually makes for an interesting activity. In Merida, among all the hammocks, traditional shirts and random stuff, there are a couple of places that sell makech. They're scarab-lookalike, wood-eating insects that are decorated with encrusted stones, put on a chain and used as jewelry- alive. It's really cool to see, and you might even find somebody who wears it, although it didn't seem to be very common. I somehow managed to not take a picture of them climbing over each other in their little box, but if you google makech you'll find some pictures and videos. I will not comment on whether the insects enjoy their life as living jewelry or not.

Speaking of the market, I think that if I had to live in Merida, with my skin color and general appearance, I would start asking everybody in the city center "Hamacas? Artesanias?" as soon as I saw them. That way they wouldn't be able to do it to me. You can't move 100m without somebody hassling you with some local product for sale. Of course this is quite common in many places, but there I felt exceptionally popular.

I'll finish with some random stuff:

There's something called a Michelada in Mexico, which is a recipe to spice up a beer, with lime, salt, chili (chili!) and other ingredients (I could swear I tasted tomato), and it makes the bad Mexican beer much more interesting. Not necessarily good, but at least it has flavor. There's variants too: chelada, michelada, clamato...

The area has no burritos whatsoever, it seems it's only a north Mexico and US thing. 

The Hindus are not alone: among many other Mayan symbols, they also use a six-pointed star that looks exactly like a magen david.

When I was there an election was coming up (whether it was national, state, or city election, I'm not sure), and there were many cars with smiling pictures of the candidates and megaphoned pop/ranchero songs and ads driving around town. It's funny and sad at the same time. [I've since experienced that again - some things never change...]

Mexico's official named is The United States of Mexico, so when I say Estadounidenses (United States-ians, in Spanish), it could theoretically mean Mexicans.

I've never seen quite so many VW Beetles as in Mexico. Apparently it's the last country on Earth where they were manufactured, years after all other VW factories stopped making them.

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