Saturday, April 17, 2010

3 months in, the sequel

Where to begin? The last few weeks have been action-packed. I think it’s safe to say that the “travel” part of our journey has really begun. We’ve been on the move a lot since leaving Bucerias. We’ve been paring down the backpacks to lighten our loads as the heat gets hotter, and I’m getting more accustomed to carrying around the weight on my back. I have come to realize that (as usual) Sam was right – no gym necessary to be fit and strong when living this lifestyle!

We caught an overnight bus out of Puerto Vallarta on March 26, arriving in San Luis Potosi at about 4:30am. We found a hotel near the centro, and the nice man behind the counter broke company policy, giving us a room without paying for an extra night, even though it was not yet 7:00am. We enjoyed a few hours of sleep and then got up to explore San Luis Potosi.

SLP is a large city, the capital of the state of the same name. We stayed in the centro, which was enough to roam around in an afternoon. There are a few beautiful cathedrals and several plazas, all beautifully maintained.

I find the plazas in Mexico a feature that should be built into every city everywhere. If I were an urban planner in Canada, I would really consider this approach. Typically, there is one main plaza or zocalo outside a main cathedral and surrounded by government administration buildings. The plazas themselves have benches and trees, sometimes fountains or small gardens, monuments, etc, and are used as gathering places for the populace. There are frequently vendors about, selling a variety of things that always seem so out of keeping with the beauty of the plaza – inflatable Disney characters and such things.

The cathedrals are also beautiful sights to behold. There was a time when I was quite put off by what I thought was an overdone, gross expenditure of money in a place of worship – perhaps due in part to my modest Protestant upbringing! When I walked into the biggest cathedral in SLP, though, I had a totally different perspective. Mexico, being a predominantly (80% or so I think) Catholic country, does not seem to have any qualms about publicly celebrating their faith. There are altars everywhere – bus stations, restaurants, front yards, etc – and bus and taxi drivers frequently have rosaries and crosses hanging from their rearview mirrors (which, frankly, I think are nicer than foam dice, but what do I know?). The cathedrals, like the altars everywhere, are a tribute to their faith in God. Unlike the modest Protestants, Catholics (at least in Mexico) seem very comfortable joyously and exuberantly displaying their faith and the cathedrals are a bold, even lavish, physical manifestation of that exuberance.

In many ways, I think the cathedrals are a reflection of the nature of the people themselves. My experience with Mexican people – not to over-generalize but I will anyway – is that they are full of joie de vivre in a way Canadians are not. They are happy, they enjoy life, they sing, they dance, they work hard in a way that makes it look like they are not working at all. They are not shy or modest or apologetic for being friendly, in that way that Canadians mistake for politeness (seriously, people, we don’t have to apologize for everything. It’s ridiculous.) The cathedrals are also not shy or modest or apologetic. The people build their churches to proclaim, loudly and proudly and with every possible fancy feature, that they love God and will put that love on display for the world to see.

Anyway, enough about that. We left SLP on Sunday, March 28 and headed to Real de Catorce, a touristy mining town up in the mountains. It was the beginning of Semana Santa, so very busy. It’s a pretty little town with very interesting history that we did not explore at all. Instead, after having a pretty decent CafĂ© Americano, we caught a jeep down the mountain to Estacion Catorce. The jeep ride was an adventure all in itself. Unlike in Canada, Latin America does not have a paranoid fear for everyone’s safety. Everyone rides around in the back of pick-up trucks, children ride on their parents’ laps in the front seats of cars, etc. This particular jeep had a couple of benches inside the back and a roof rack, which held the spare tire, sometimes luggage, and sometimes people. This time, it held people. Sam and I, along with four others, got the birds-eye view of the trip down the mountain from the top of the old, rickety jeep. I, of course, was clinging to the rails for dear life, but actually, I found that I enjoyed the trip immensely. There’s no way I would have seen so much from inside.

When we climbed off the jeep in Estacion Catorce, our backpacks sitting on the sidewalk beside us, a young guy in a pick-up pulled up beside us and asked if we wanted a ride out to the desert. (Apparently, it is quite common for backpackers to show up there looking for assistance in getting out to the desert. It’s where the peyote grows.) We hadn’t actually figured out what we were going to do, so being the spontaneous types that we are, we took him up on the offer. After a whirlwind stop for supplies, we were speeding along the highway, and 20 minutes later, we were standing under a tree (one of the few) in the desert.

Camping in the desert was fun, but very physically taxing. Because we packed our own water in, we were careful to ration it, which meant being at least slightly dehydrated from the heat most of the time. The sun is very hot and although Sam did find us a lovely camping spot with trees and some shade, it was still challenging to keep out of the sun. We did a lot of sitting still during the day, and saved the moving around for early morning and after sunset. Despite the physical demands, though, it was an incredible experience. We were there during full moon, and because there are few obstructions to the view, we were able to watch the sunset and the moon rise almost simultaneously. If you ever have the chance to experience sunset, sunrise, and full moon in the desert, take it! It’s not to be missed.

We left the desert after 3 nights. We headed from there to a small town called Cedral (Cedar), where we spent 2 nights, recuperating from the desert trip. We got clean, rehydrated, and rested, before moving on again. Cedral is small but such a friendly place. We ate most of our meals at the same restaurant, Almeita, which was owned by possibly the nicest man in all of Mexico. It was a modest place, with absolutely delicious food for incredibly low prices. We would have paid a lot more, though, just because of how lovely the man and his family were. Each time we walked in, I felt as though I were being greeted by a beloved grandfather. He clearly works hard – the restaurant was open even on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, from early in the morning till late evening – but he just as clearly loves his life and doesn’t resent working.

This is another difference I notice among much of the Mexican populace. Unlike in Canada, where it seems to me that we all work hard but wish we didn’t have to (I know I’m not alone!), people in Mexico seem perfectly happy doing what they do. That said, I haven’t really figured out the work ethic. On the one hand, I think about the restaurant owner at Almeita in Cedral, or Lolo, a ranchero who comes up to Tulan, clearing land with a machete for 8 hours every day and then walking back down the mountain to the village where he lives. They work very hard, seem perfectly content and don’t seem to question or resent how life is. On the other hand, I also see lots of folks sitting around the plaza drinking beer all day, and wonder if they work at all. Either way, everyone seems happy.

Yet another digression… anyway, we left Cedral and headed back to San Luis Potosi for a night, spending Easter Sunday there. We thought it would be much crazier, but it seems that Good Friday is when all the action is. Being good kids, we got up for church on Sunday and attended (part of) Mass at the big cathedral. Then we hit the bus terminal and went to Mexico City, D.F.

What can I say about Mexico City? It’s huge. Really, really huge. And city-like. Coming into the city, there are what looks like millions of houses lining the hills. The sight of these homes is, I think, part of why Mexico is considered a “developing” country. The homes, by Canadian standards, look like shacks and to a person who makes snap judgements without having any knowledge or information (not that I know anything about that myself), it would seem that they live in extreme poverty. However, entering the city, it is hard to understand how anyone can consider Mexico “developing.” It looks pretty well-developed to me. The city is clean, well-maintained, and every bit as modern as any other city I’ve been to. It’s got a population the size of (or exceeding) Canada’s and the Metro makes the sorry state of Vancouver’s public transit look like even more of a joke.

We stayed at a hotel called Hotel Mallorca, which Sam has stayed at a number of times. It’s reasonably priced, has the best shower we’ve had in three months, nice people, and walking distance to la Zona Rosa, which is a tourist zone with familiar fast food joints, good food and good coffee.

Our bus from SLP got a flat tire part way, so we arrived in the city much later than expected. We rested well and were up early in the morning to catch the subway to the Zocalo, which in that city is absolutely huge. We wanted to arrive before the crowds became unmanageable. I think we were sitting down to breakfast by about 7:00 or 7:30. We spent a few hours walking around and then headed back to the hotel. The next day, we took a trip to Teotihuacan, an Aztec archaeological site. It’s the site of several temples and pyramids. Beautiful and fascinating. We spent another night at our hotel, and the next day we caught a bus to Tepoztlan.

Tepotztlan is a beautiful community of hippies, spiritual folk, artisans, and local indigenous people, all blending harmoniously into a place in which I could easily spend months. There is a pyramid on a mountain (we didn’t do the hike), a temple site for the indigenous population that first built the city in the valley hundreds of years ago. We spent a couple days in Tepoztlan, resting and wandering, and then were on our way. Our plan was to head toward Palenque, a site of ancient Mayan ruins, in stages. We spent one night in Puebla, a large and lovely city (at least the centro). Our taxi driver very generously told us about and took us to a hotel that, according to the cards he had, was in our price range. Of course, it was quite a lot more expensive than we’d expected and the taxi driver got a commission for bringing us there. But it was a very pretty room, comfortable, close to the zocalo, and we didn’t really feel like trekking around looking for something that would save us $10.

The next day, we were back on a bus, this time heading to Veracruz on the Caribbean coast. It’s a port city, very different from the places we visited on the Pacific coast. Being a working port, more than a tourist destination, it had the feel of a much more blue-collar town than somewhere like Puerto Vallarta. It wasn’t exactly pretty, but we were both happy to be close to the sea for a night. Also, Veracruz provided us our long-sought dinner of pollo asado entero – a whole roasted chicken dinner, with tortillas and salsa and guacamole. Pollo asado can be found almost everywhere in Mexico, and yet since Sam first mentioned having a craving almost two months ago, this is the first time we’ve actually been able to make it happen. It seems that everywhere we’ve been, the pollo asado establishments are always closed when we look for them. A small thing, but we enjoyed it.

The next day was Sunday, and we headed to the bus terminal at noon with the plan of catching a 1:00 bus to Villahermosa. Of course, we hadn’t remembered it was Sunday, since we rarely know what day it is, and the bus was sold out. We had the choice of a 4:45 bus, arriving at 1:10am in Villahermosa, or a 6:00 bus arriving at midnight, which we took. We found a hotel across the street from the bus station when we arrived, watched a terrible Chuck Norris movie on TV (English with subtitles) and fell asleep. The next morning we were up and on a bus to Palenque.

Palenque is a post all unto itself, and this is already getting ridiculously long, so I’ll leave it here for now. We are heading out of Flores in the morning, catching a bus to Antigua, but we do hope to land in one spot for a chunk of time, which will give me more time to do this blog justice – and to (finally!) take Spanish classes, since I haven’t made anywhere near the progress I feel I should have by now.

Stay tuned for updates on Palenque and Tikal!

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