Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I'm Ruined Part 1-Road trip to Chichen Itza

When one is on the Yucatan Peninsula, there’s two things they must do—go to the beach and the ruins. Chichen Itza is the granddaddy of all the Mayan ruins and about an hour down the road from Merida. There are various ways of getting there and I decided to rent a car. After the 4 hr journey from Cancun, I wasn’t in the mood to hop on another bus. Plus I like the freedom a car brings. Online I found a really cheap rate but after the insurance and taxes, it wasn’t that cheap. Oh the price of freedom huh? Better pay more than sit in a Mexican jail.
I wanted to get the car early so I could get to Chichen Itza before the heat of the day. Of course being Mexico that wasn’t going to happen. Instead of an 8:00 start, it was more like 9:00. The Hertz girl was late, so I went to eat breakfast, we had to wait for the car to arrive from another location, and so on. I kept my inner Brooklyn at bay and repeated the “This is Mexico, go with it” mantra and was just fine. Worse comes to worse I just add more sunscreen and drink more water. So by 9:00 I was on my way to the famed ruins of Chichen Itza.
Speeding down the highway to the C.I. turnoff, there’s not much really to see. The drive is through flat, drab scrub land. Occasionally there’d be a fire for the locals like to burn plots of land for some reason. Maybe for farming or to promote new growth. Besides being nothing interesting to see, there’s no roadside stops or gas stations either. As the gas tank edged closer to empty, I hoped there was a gas station near Chichen Itza or I’d be walking home. Fortunately in the town of Pisto near the ruins I was able to fill er up.
I had a bit of trepidation going to ancient ruins after my four-day trip to Angkor Wat so fresh in my mind. Would they all blend together like an ancient civilization milkshake in my mind? Would I be underwhelmed by Chichen Itza? There was only one way to find out. I pulled into the parking lot and made my way through the tour buses and crowds to the ticket booth. The entrance to Chcihen Itza is like a circus; groups of tourists waiting, Mayans protesting the exploitation of their ancestral home, a big souvenir market. I ignored it all and just walked up to the ticket booth, got my ticket and went inside. No need to be with a tour guide, I have an aversion to them since my Russia days. If I needed information, I’d buy a guide book inside (which I did).
Part of getting in to the place is wearing a day-glo wrist band that says “Chichen Itza” on it. Branded like a calf with my temporary accessory, in I went to view the ruins. There it was smack in my face upon entry, the famed pyramid that is familiar the world over. I expected it to be bigger but still was impressed by its construction and the fact that it’s still standing strong after all these centuries. Bummer that you can no longer climb to the top of it. A rather daunting task, given the tiny steps and the steep grade. I’m sure many a tourist has fallen from those stairs. Groups of tourists from Cancun were all there for the day, each nationality easily spotted—the Brits, the Germans, the French, the Italians, the Americans (always the fattest). Moving about in clumps with their guides, I would sometimes sidle up to listen for a bit before moving on. Chichen Itza is very impressive. As I walked through all the ruins, one thought kept going through my head: “The Spanish really fucked things up”. Well they did. If there weren’t so narrow minded and embraced this pretty advanced culture, things would have turned out so much better for the Mayans and their culture would probably have still been around prominently today. Instead they had to destroy their buildings, books and force the locals to convert to Catholocism. Well, there’s no way to turn back time now. I was impressed with how advanced the Mayans were. The had an observatory to study the stars, a school of philosophy, written books, a code of hieroglyphics and an interesting outlook on life. If they could’ve just given up the more barbaric things like human sacrifices and beheadings, I’m sure they get along just fine with the Spanish.
At the pyramid and the ball court (my favorite spot) the guides tell people that if they clap, it will echo 7 times. So as you walk around the ruins, you a trailed by a cacophony of clapping, so much of it that you never do hear an echo. Rather funny. Chichen Itza is more than just that big pyramid—a sprawling complex of interesting buildings and temples. I toured all of them until the mid-day sun zapped me of all energy and interest in Mayan ruins. So after a cool drink in the shade and a walk through of the souvenir market, I hopped back in my car and headed back to Merida via Izamal, a small colonial era town known for its convent and yellow colour.
I always believe in taking a different road home so instead of getting back on the toll highway, I took the backroads which proved to be more interesting. Sleepy little towns with brightly coloured houses, gardens, palapas (Mayan houses of wood and thatched roofs), people lazing about in hammocks, children riding bicycles waving at me as I passed. For the most part, there wasn’t much life going on in many of the villages. Being mid-day, everyone was inside out of the heavy rays of an unforgiving sun. I’m sure closer to evening the little villages come alive again but I was not going to see that today.
Izamal didn’t underwhlem me in the least. A gorgeous little town of yellow ocher buildings surrounding a big convent/cathedral on a hill in the center of town. I don’t know whose idea it was to paint the town yellow but it works. It’s especially impressive with a blue sky as a backdrop. Izamal too was rather quiet, with a few clumps of tourists to be seen walking around the convent. To my dismay, my camera batteries died in Izamal so I wasn’t able to snap away as I would have liked. Still I got osome pictures of the church and yellow buildings around it. After my little tour, I sat down to lunch in the marketplace across the street from the convent in a little café Los Portales for a carne asada lunch and a grand view of the square. The lunch was very good, I loved the homemade hot sauce of habaneros and sour oranges—two local staples in a lot of the cooking here. As the sun began its descent toward the west, I followed it through more quiet towns on country roads back to Merida.
After leaving Brooks all day to work inside, we decided to take advantage of the car and drive to Progreso, a town on the coast 30 mins away from Merida for a swim and dinner. When in the Yucatan, apparently, one must go to Progreso for fried fish. So after a swim in the warm Gulf of Mexico, we dined on whole fried fish, washed back with cold Victoria beer at Flamingos (one of Brooks’ Progreso eateries). We strolled along the promenade post dinner among all the locals who were hanging out as we were doing, past the marquesita and elote sellers, past the carnival with the Ferris Wheel all aglow, past the excited children with their parents. We drove home around 10, back to a Merida just coming alive with activity. A long day indeed for me but oh so enjoyable.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Getting in the Yucatecan groove

I don’t think I’ve ever wrote this on my blog but it is one of my traveler truisms: The more I see the world, the more I realize that the world is normal and the US is not. While we in the US speed up with advanced gadgets and technology, we seem to have forgotten the simple things in life. The rest of the world moves at a more normal human pace, yet we speed along and expect everyone else to follow along with us. And when they don’t, we yell and scream, beating our chests with superiority, looking down our noses in contempt. This is not the way to go about the world, no we need to let go of our Americaness and embrace wherever we are. Such is the case with Mexico. I feel sorry that such a warm, vibrant culture is getting so misaligned in the US press causing fear and trepidation about travel to our neighbor to the south.
Well all of that was far from my mind as I explored the sites of Merida and beyond. The sun’s heat begins early this time of year in Merida so people are up early getting as much done before the full intensity of the sun hits mid-day. The bustling pace quiets a bit until about 3 then picks up again until late into the evening. Merida is a cultural gem and there’s so much to see. I didn’t rush to see everything for I wanted to save some things for future visits. Brooks and I spent our first morning shopping at the market, a huge complex of stalls seeling everything you need: fresh fruits and vegetables, spices, shoes,
meat, seafood, chickens, backpacks, souvenirs and so on. This is where the everyday bustle of life goes on and where to see the locals in action. Afterwards I went to the city museum to get some “kul-chah” while Brooks went home to work. I meandered through the museum and then on through the small calles to the Zocalo, snapping pictures along the way, stopping in to see the main cathedral (built by the Spanish on the spot of an ancient Mayan pyramid, built with the stones from this pyramid—talk about recycling) and giant murals in the municipal building. The intense heat kept us inside after lunch, so I siestaed in my cool room in Brooks’ beautiful colonial casa. Brooks has a great little house in the center of town designed around a central courtyard, streaming in light yet keeping out most of the heat. Its best feature is the old floor tiles, done in an Art Nouveau/Deco style. Geometric patterns framed by a repeat of a poppy, a floral design in browns and blues. Tiled versions of oriental rugs. Many of the older places still have these floors—probably a selling point to the many Americans looking at property down here.
Brooks, being the food lover like me, had a list of Yucatecan dishes to try and where to sample them. As the intense sun made its way into sunset, we made our way out into town to try some of the local fare. I grew up on Mexican food and here on the peninsula the food has a different flavor. Habaneros are used a lot but also sour oranges and limes to flavor the food. Being close to the water, seafood is eaten a lot. Turkey is too. Poc Chuc, Relleno Negro, Panuchos and Sabultes, Pibil, Sopa de Lima, Papadzules—so many new things to try, and so many good restaurants to try them in. What I like about Merida is that you can try these dishes in little cafes or fancy restaurants and either way they’re both great. Washed down with a local beer and you’re good to go. Even the street food is good—Elotes (corn with cheese, cream and a spicy lime sauce) and Marquesitas-crepes with cheese or Nutella. It’s all good and safe to eat.
After our dinner we headed to Santa Lucia square for the Serenade, a Thursday night free concert. Instead of being couped up at home watching TV, the locals come out to hear music from local musicians and singers and see dancing groups as well. It’s a wonderful night of culture that’s been going on for over 30 years. The square was full of both young and old, foreigner and local, everyone there to enjoy a night of music and dance. I was most impressed by the women’s costumes of the Yucatecan Ballet Folklorico. White wipas embroidered with colorful flowers and their hair all in a bun and abloom with more flowers and bows. An inspiration for collage, I went back stage after the show to snap a few of the girls dresses and heads. Fortunately they didn’t seem to mind and posed happily.
As the streets quieted, we walked home, stopping at the Café Impala for a late night mango frappe. A perfect end to a perfect first day. Tomorrow is an early day for me as I decided to rent a car for a few days and tool around looking at the ancient Mayan cities. Next stop-Chichen Itza!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Viva Merida!

After almost 3 months of being cooped up in NYC, it was time to make a break. Eventhough finances are a little shaky, I need to get on a plane for my mental sanity. My friends Brooks has been at his winter home in Merida on the Yucatan peninsula and beckoned me down. Well the beckoning has been going on for awhile and finding a direct flight for $97 each ay, I was basically forced to go.
Left a cold, rainy JFK last Wednesday on a JetBlue flight to Cancun, full of people eager for some beach and sun. Merida is a 4 hr bus ride from Cancun so my journey was not over after a 4 hr flight from New York. I raced past all the British tourists at passport control to get through and to the bus station in time for the 3:30 bus, only to find I had to wait for the shuttle (a shared cab with 3 other people). Of course I was the last person to be dropped off after doing a giant loop of all the hellish hotel/resorts. My inner-NYC was getting all twisted up in a big knot of frenzy and anxiety yet somewhere along the route I reminded myself that this is Mexico and let go of the big knot and relaxed. This wasn’t the only bus to Merida, they run all the time, so I’ll catch the next one. Step one in being on vacation. Instead of fighting and rushing, relax and embrace the slower pace of Mexico. As we drove past row upon row of beach resorts (the Cancun version of hell in my book), I was thankful I wasn’t going to be holed up in one of thoese monstrosities. My version of a cruise ship on land.
The driver finally dropped me off at the bus station and I made my way inside to get a ticket. A small, clean, bustling station with excellent people watching possibilities. I love bus stations in other countries, watching people come and go, being greeted or kissed and hugged goodbye. Mexico is one of those places where the bus station is crowded not so much with travelers but more so in families and friends escorting or seeing off someone. Munching on a ham and cheese croissant and drinking a coffee I watched the scenes before me, little moments of life, as I waited for my bus to Merida.
4 hours later, our bus pulled into the colonial capital of the Yucatan—Merida. Brooks met me at the bus station and whisked me off to my first of many great meals at Pancho’s, a flashy local restaurant. After my flight and bus ride, was I ready for a few margaritas and a nice meal, and so it was. We made a circle around the Zocalo and through the old streets of town back to Brooks’ house. The air was hot and heavy, the old cathedral lit up, cafes and restaurants hopping and the streets full of people. Here was a new part of Mexico for me. I grew up with Baja and now I finally get down to the Yucatan. Merida is a charming colonial town surrounded by ancient Mayan history. I was enamored at the first moment I arrived.