Saturday 29 August 2009

Fascinating feeling

We intended to stay a week, we stayed two. Chiapas. One of the thirty-one states of Mexico (not counting Federal District, the capital), located in the South of the country, on the boarder with Guatemala and the Pacific Ocean. A place where one can find everything: sandy beaches, a jungle and its pyramids, azure lagoons, incredible waterfalls, colonial towns, Mayan communities living according to an ancient tradition, a canyon with walls towering over 800 metres high, poisonous spiders and snakes, corn fields stretching to the horizon, coffee plantations, tropical rain and tropical heat. I fell in love.

Our trip through Chiapas started in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the state. We got there late in the evening and were immediately struck by the noise and fuss of a Mexican city. Tuxtla is like all of Mexico City squeezed into a little box. Bjarni was at first eager to leave the very next day, I - to my own surprise - discovered that I liked the atmosphere here. I liked the mess on the streets, the loud music emanating from every single occupied spot, the buildings looking as if they are about to fall apart, the poorly maintained streets, millions of colectivos blocking traffic, vendors shouting at the top of their lungs, sounds of marimba in the distance, locals bustling about, the lack of tourists. Tuxtla became our home for the next four nights. We went to a zoo, a little jungle in this town, where during our two-and-a-half hour walk we admired animals coming solely from Chiapas: venomous spiders and snakes, crocodiles, monkeys, turtles, iguanas, tigers, bats, beavers, eagles, parrots - over 800 animals representing about 250 different species that live in the jungle of the region. We visited the Regional Museum with a collection of artifacts found in local ruins of ancient cities. We admired the Museum of Paleontology and the movie about amber we saw there - "Mexican amber" is amber excavated using primitive methods right here in Chiapas; on the jewellery market it can fetch prices twice as high as Baltic amber. We watched how a park can be changed into a ballroom: during the hot evenings young and old inhabitants of Tuxtla danced to the sounds of marimba played live by a local orchestra. The atmosphere of a neverending fiesta, accompanied by the view of children running around and smiling adults was really amazing. We also managed to visit Chiapa de Corzo, from where we road a motorboat all through the Sumidero Canyon. Local dramatic legend describes how natives from a village, who hearing of approaching conquistadors, decided to sacrifice their lives by jumping from one the canyon's walls, considering the death a more honourable solution than surrendering to the foreign army. Supposedly the Spaniards watched from the opposite side of the canyon, with terror and astonishment, as human silhouettes plummeted to the bottom.

Our next destination was San Cristóbal de Las Casas, a beautiful town from the XVIth century resting in a valley 2100 meters above sea level. Everything here was different from the rest of Mexico: a cold climate, orderly and colorful layout, people in traditional clothing. The town had everything that a spoilt European girl could ask for: small Italian resturants, young, handsome French men baking rolls in their own bakery, internet connections everywhere, English-, German-, French-, Spanish-language books in many bookstores. We managed to visit a few interesting places: The Center of Traditional Mayan Medicine, The Museum of Amber, The Museum of Regional Dresses, native communities of Tzotzil and Tzeltal in the small towns of Chamula, Zinacantán and Amatenango del Valle. I was especially impressed with a church in Chamula - built by Catholics, it has been a long time since it was affiliated with the Vatican, the local Mayan community seized it for its own needs. From San Cristóbal we went on a day-trip to the Lagoons of Montebello, stopping on the way at the El Chiflón waterfall where we slid along a cable suspended over humming waters. In San Cristóbal, instead of the planned two days, we stayed eight. I would have stayed longer if it wasn't for Bjarni who complained it was high time for us to move on. So we moved to Palenque.

Freezing in an air-conditioned bus, it was difficult to feel the change of climate - heat and humidity hit us with full strength as soon as we left the vehicle. Suddenly sweaty, we were happy we didn't have to go far to find our hotel. After a bit of unpacking and a cold shower we decided to explore our surroundings, but the climate was still unbearable even though it was already evening. The weather in the town was just a harbinger of what we would encounter the next day in the jungle: my face covered with sweat, clothes sticking annoyingly to my body - and only the view of incredible Mayan buildings let me forget that in these conditions one should just sit next to the fridge. Our guide, leading us further into the jungle to show us still unexcavated pyramids, stopped for a moment and looked around. "Do you smell the smell of fish?", he asked. Of course we did - an odd smell of fish in the middle of an area completely covered with trees. "It's a snake", he said after a while, "but you don't have to worry, it's not his time, he should be sleeping now". Moments later he pointed at yellow webs stretching from plant to plant, and followed their path. "It's a banana spider. The most dangerous in the jungle. It has to be here, somewhere". We saw it a few seconds later: it was calmly sitting on one of the webs it had spun. The guide took us out of the jungle and left us alone to sightsee the neighbouring area on our own. We climbed on top of one of the pyramids surrounded by trees, and it was then when it hit me: this noise, this sound like a saw cutting wood, this anxiety, this fear, this silence before the storm - all have roots in the jungle. This forest has a life of its own, it deliberately lets humans tame it, only to return twice as strong and assert its power. Those are not the trees I know, nor is this the forest I understand - the serenity is just a facade and it does not imply security.

A fascinating feeling in fascinating Chiapas.

Saturday 22 August 2009

Arriving in Campeche

By now, we are no longer lost when we arrive in a new place. We have a system!

We get off the air-conditioned bus and into what feels like a sauna, hot and humid. Ewelina enters the terminal with our carry-on bags, to find us seats. I claim our backpacks and follow her in and take a seat. She gets up and takes the camera to find and photograph timetables for busses out of here, and to find the bathrooms. I watch the bags until she returns, and then it is my turn to visit the bathrooms. In this town it is also my turn to find us a hotel, she found us a place in Palenque.

While my girl watches our stuff I step outside, hoping my phone's GPS will get a fix on our location while I visit all the hostels and hotels near the bus terminal to check prices.

It is hot and sunny, and I'm not wearing any sunscreen, so I stick to the shadows as much as I can. So hot, I miss the cool bus already.

Prices? 150 pesos for the filthy, run-down hostel, 450 for the B&B, 600 for the fancy hotel with the private parking and air-conditioned lobby. Nothing looks appealing, but at least we have an idea about what things cost in this town. Our goal is to find something nice for under 300.

I rejoin Ewelina and we step outside to get a cab to the city center. 30 pesos, and the cab is nice and cool. We ask the driver to take us downtown, but he wants more details. I ask if there is a park, he says yes and we ask to go there. He says something about hostels and hotels, but we don't understand, we just want to go to the park.

When we get there, I leave Ewelina and the bags under a tree and start walking around, checking more hotels and prices. If the price is right I ask to see the room. If the room is nice, I ask about internet access.

About half an hour later I have checked out all the places in our Lonely Planet guide and a bunch others as well. Ewelina and I discuss the options. None are perfect, but the Monkey Hostel right by the park has the right price, wifi, staff that can answer questions in English and a cute little balcony. The room is plain and we don't have our own bathroom - but at least it's possible to hang up the mosquito net.

So once again we have a new home, at least for the night.

Time to go exploring!

Friday 14 August 2009

On the way to Chiapas

We have 15 minutes to decide whether we want to catch this bus, buy the tickets, get to the terminal, find the bus and grab something to eat and drink on the way. Bjarni optimistically says it will be no problem; I am already picturing us sweaty, dolefully waving good-bye to a vehicle that is driving away. The vision disperses after about 13 minutes, when we by some miracle manage to take seats on our bus - we are sweaty but at least not doleful anymore. We are leaving Mexico City, our home for the last month. Our goal is Oaxaca. All we know about it is that it is 520 kilometres away from the capital (which means six hours by first-class bus) and it is on the way to Chiapas.

We reach the city in the evening, we find a hotel near the bus stop and we set out sightseeing the neighborhood. Oaxaca differs significantly from Mexico City. All of a sudden we are seeing tourists of all ages and there are more children and elderly walking between tables in restaurants selling things. We decide to stay here for another night, to see Monte Albán, the ancient cultural center of the Zapotecs, on top of one of the mountains surrounding the city. We admire the view on display from 2000 metres above sea-level and return to Oaxaca, where a kind shopkeeper recommends Puerto Escondido to us as the best beach in the region. Equipped with that knowledge, we decide to be there the very next day.

There is no problem buying the tickets, the price is good, the direct route from Oaxaca and Puerto Escondido looks on our map like about 2 to 3 hours of driving. So although it is not on our way to Chiapas, early in the morning we leave with our bags to find the beach. About half an hour later there is a horrible rumour circulating on the bus: the journey time is 12 hours, we are taking the 'scenic route'. Bjarni's GPS agrees. We change plans and after about seven hours we disembark in Salina Cruz, hoping we will be able to find a beach there as well. In contrast to Oaxaca, it is very hot in Salina Cruz and there are no tourists. On-line searching for information about beaches increases our frustration: there are beaches but we can't figure out how to get to any of them and don't know whether there are places to stay for the night. A local recommends a beach for tourists: La Ventosa. A taxi driver takes us there, points at two roadside hotels and then drives off into the distance. We can choose between a room with air-con, where the toilet is still stuffed with feces ("If you want to take it, we will clean it") and a room in the second hotel that Bjarni considers even worse. We accept the first option and burn in the sun while waiting for the room to be cleaned. The laundry drying on the ropes disappears, the toilet gets flushed and we are greeted by a strong smell of some kind of disinfectant when we enter 15 minutes later. Activating the air-con disturbs the lizard that apparently lives in it, and killing a little spider on the floor turns out to be an invitation to even smaller insects to come play with its dead body. We decide to leave the room and swim in the ocean. It soon becomes apparent that we are the only tourists in the area and among only a handful of people on the beach. We briefly enter the not very transparent water and drink a beer in the company of a rat. In an empty restaurant near our hotel we eat the best shrimp of my life and are happy.

The morning welcomes us with the sun burning through dirty windows. Resolving to say goodbye to the ocean, we reach the beach again, where we watch an incredible spectacle: local fishermen are heading out to sea. Little motorboats are being pushed into the water, observed by women and children. The men wave goodbye to us and sail towards the horizon. Except for the sound of waves crashing on the beach, it is silent. After some time we notice birds: a big group of them seem to hang in the air, far in the distance. Moments later we see the first motorboat, coming back to shore. The birds are circling over the heads of the fishermen, closer and closer. When the boat reaches land, the women and children rush to see today's catch. The birds sit on the surface of the water, never taking their eyes off the boat. A fisherman decides to play with them and throws a fish high in the sky. He doesn't throw it far enough for the birds though, they are not brave enough to come get it. More brave is a dog who runs to smell this new discovery. A woman passing by shows today's treasure: little sharks.

This image still in our minds, we catch our first colectivo: a taxi that one shares with others (a fixed fare and fixed route, like a bus). We don't have any other choice: we are about 15 kilometers away from the town and the last real taxi we saw was the one that brought us here. Bjarni takes a seat next to the driver while I sit in the back, next to the girl who is already there. Ten minutes later I can't stop smiling - an older woman stops our colectivo and takes a seat next to Bjarni, in the front passenger seat. Bjarni spends the rest of the ride trying not to get in way of the driver changing gears.

We get to the bus terminal and an hour later we are on our way to Chiapas. We cannot wait to see the place everyone here compliments so much.

Monday 3 August 2009

The musical backpack

One thing I had hoped would happen on this trip, was some nice nerdy inspiration for tech things to work on once the trip is over. I think it is working.

Finally getting a proper photo album written was definitely a step in the right direction; whether it becomes anything more than just a personal web-site doesn't really matter, it felt good to be writing code and doing things my way, for myself, again.

Another little bit of inspiration came from the people of Mexico City itself. One of the highlights of the subway system in Mexico is all the people selling things on the trains. Many of them have speakers sewn into backpacks and walk around loudly playing samples from the CDs or DVDs they have for sale.

I thought this was rather cool. I've always thought it would be nice to have a band following me around, playing a soundtrack for my life. This is admittedly unrealistic, but wearing a backpack with speakers playing my favorite tracks isn't a bad compromise.

I realised the other day that I had all the ingredients to make this happen: Our day-packs have little net pockets on the sides. I bought tiny little battery-powered speakers for the trip, which fit nicely in those pockets, and my Android does quite a good job as an mp3 player. A couple of pokes with my leatherman made holes so the cables could be invisible and voila! Musical backpack! I'm like a real Mexican now! If only I had pirated CDs to sell!

Of course, I'm still a bit too shy to use it in public. But I'm sure it'll come in handy on a picnic sometime or something. And in our hotel rooms or at impromptu parties or on busses...

Both Ewelina and Unnur had the same reaction to the musical backpack: they said I had obviously been in the city too long. Which is fine I guess, as I'm writing this on a bus to Oaxaca.

With the musical backpack on the floor by my feet! 8-)

Bye-bye Mexico City!

It's almost 10am and I'm just waiting for Ewelina to decide it is time to wake up. We have to be out of the room before noon... and then we are going somewhere else.

We're not quite sure where yet, but it will probably be Oaxaca city in the South. It depends a little on what tempts us at the bus terminal.

Unnur and Adrian and Cat visited us last night, Unnur made a very tasty Mexican lasagne and which we ate with beer and conversation. Before they left we gave them shots of Icelandic Opalskot and Ewelina's grandfather's vodka and bags of food and books and other things we aren't going to carry with us South. It was a nice little good-bye get-together.

But now it's time to wake Ewelina and ask her to translate this to Polish. And say good-bye to Mexico City.

The past!