Tuesday, March 31, 2009

There is no internet in the jungle.

Today was the first day we were winging it with our accommodations. We were headed to Palenque, a good-sized city in the middle of the Chiapas jungle, without a reservation. This is a big thing for me. I have previously admitted before that I like to plan. But I also hate stepping off a long bus ride with heavy packs, running the gauntlet of touts and taxi drivers trying to sell you a mouldy room at an inflated price. Thanks to the wonders of the internet we’ve avoided much of that. But heading to Palenque our virtual luck ran out. Supposedly the place to stay in the city is actually outside of the city. It's called El Panchan. It’s not a hostel, rather it’s a grouping of cabanas in the jungle by the ruins. They even have a website but no way to make reservations. All you’re supposed to do is show up and hope they have space for you. And that’s what we did.

Stepping off the air conditioned early morning bus in the tiny station, we were hit with a wall of humidity and heat. And dressed in our long pants and sweatshirts to keep warm on the bus we were soon drenched with sweat. Rather than try to carry our packs to the collectivos we quickly jumped in a taxi. The driver asked El Panchan before we did so off we went.

The one thing the guidebooks, websites and bulletin boards don’t mention is that El Panchan is rabbit warren of cabanas in the jungle, of varying quality, all owned by different people, off different paths (picture above). So you sorta need to know which cabana you want to stay at – kinda hard if you can’t contact anyone to ask about them. As the driver called out the names of the different cabanas asking us which one, I repeated the only one I could remember, Margarita and Ed’s. Luckily they had one room left and it was a good one, clean spacious and free swan towels. When it came time to negotiate the price, the woman, Margarita perhaps, kept asking me one night or two, even when I said three. After three times, she understood and booked us in.

A shower got rid of the bus grime and jungle sweat, until we were human enough to explore El Panchan. It felt a bit like camp with the various cabanas scattered around like competing groups. But this place was a camp run by hippies who sold handmade friendship bracelets, beaded necklaces, books, tattoos and body piercings to pay their rent. Dogs and cats roamed freely. And oddly enough, there were travel agency booths around every turn all offering the same 4 tours. At the centre of El Panchan was Don Mucho’s – the restaurant where live music was played nightly and, as Mika had already let us know, served the best wood oven pizza. It had everything but wifi. The blog was about to officially turn into the blob.

We had a snack at Don Mucho’s where thankfully the hippie influence meant the prices were reasonable despite being the only game in town. It gave us a good chance to people watch and that’s when I noticed that there was a lot of grey in some of the beards and dreadlocks. One guys even got around on a medical scooter. And of course everyone knew everyone. So it was like Cheers but instead of Sam, Cliff and Norm there was Rainbow, Moonbeam and Jose. But there were just as many gap years, flashpackers and even families with young kids.

However, there wasn’t much else to see. So we stopped by one of the travel agency booths. It was a bit confusing there were two waterfall packages both for the same price one with a trip to the ruins and one without. Other than that they were exactly the same. We would have comparison shopped with the other booths but there was no need. Every booth was owned by the same company. Seems like a no-brainer. So we booked the tour that was twice as long.

We walked around the woods, erm jungle a bit then ended up back at Don Mucho’s. Tour groups began pulling up and the place was full. After weeks of Mexican food, perhaps they too wanted something different. It was pizzas all around and it was pretty darn tasty. So tasty that the mooching dogs and cats got nothing from anyone. Soon the band came on and we tried to keep our eyes open but it was a lost cause. The heat, humidity and all early bus had claimed us.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Making peace with my Spanish

There are many things to do in San Cristobal. Lake tours. Horseback riding. Water falls, actually, anything to do with water. But since I still had Mika’s postcards, we opted for some casual exploring in town instead. Well, first we lounged around the hostel as many of the other guests who’d been up late at the bonfire the night before. The Mexican guy (I really wish I’d gotten his name) summed it up best – it was cheap and nice at the hostel so you don’t feel bad just sitting around doing nothing. Sophie was there too, still struggling to shake off a parasite she’d picked up in Guatemala. While she napped, he flipped through the channels, Adrian played his PSP and I blogged for a bit. Then we chatted about books and gave him my copy of Do Travel Writer’s Go to Hell which Adrian had just finished.

About 4 hours later it was time to head out to find that post office. On the hostel map it was located near the Zocalo, but that mapped had proved unreliable in the past so we headed in that direction with trepidation. We found a Scotiabank on our way there which meant we once again had cash. However, the post office was more elusive. Adrian suggested I ask someone for directions but my shyness about my spoken Spanish and stubbornness stopped me. Instead I pulled out the Lonely Planet map which had saved us before. It had the post office located on the other side of town (the town isn’t that big) so we walked the 20 minutes over to the LP location, Adrian once again suggesting on a couple of occasions that I ask someone for directions.

We finally arrived on the dot on the map and there was no post office nor was there any evidence that a post office had ever existed in that location. Oh well, can't win them all. So I caved and mustered up the courage to ask someone where the post office is. And I even understood the response. Bad news, it was back around the corner from the bank. Argh. Back we went.

I almost walked past the post office. It was barely marked and seemed frozen in time from the last century. There was actually a manual typewriter on a desk behind the counter. And I’m surprised that the man helping me wasn’t wearing one of those green visors that you see in movies (oh wait that’s bankers isn’t it). Thankfully my luck with Spanish seemed to be lasting and I successfully purchased 8 stamps to Australia. Getting them on the postcards however, required a bit of tetris skill. The stamps were huge and luckily Mika had been forewarned and had left plenty of space for them so only 2 words were sacrificed on 1 post card to make room for the stamps. Must remember this, if I ever get around to mailing my own postcards.

Since we’d been walking all over town, Adrian and I decided to continue the trek down to the bus station on the southern edge of the city and pick up our tickets for tomorrow’s early departure to Palenque. That taken care of, we headed back to Backpacker’s for the last of our pasta. Sophie was there packing up her stuff for the night bus to Oaxaca. We said goodbye and then went to bed, hoping this time, that the rooster next door would wake us up. However, remembering Murphy’s law I set an alarm too.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cock a doodle boo hoo

When we first checked into our room, the first thing I noticed was the giant skylight above the bed. Sounds great unless you’re a vampire sleeper like me – vampire in that if there’s light I’m awake. But it wasn’t the sun that woke me up because it wasn’t up yet when the rooster next door started. It was 3am so that whole thing about rooster’s announcing dawn is a lie, either that or this rooster had a defective internal clock. Somehow we managed to get back to sleep and dreamt of roast rooster until the sun came streaming through the skylight at about 6am.

Having done no sightseeing in Oaxaca, we were determined to make up for it here. Plus I still had to find the post office. First stop, for the second time, was the Mayan Medicine Museum. We retraced our steps past the blockaded land, this time going the two extra blocks that took us to the entrance. Being in the dodgy part of town, my expectations were low for this place despite everyone’s recos. And on first glimpse, it appeared that my expectations were appropriate. The Museum was more of a compound with a handful of small buildings scattered behind a wall (the photo above). But once inside I realized that this was more of a living cultural centre than a museum.

The first building was museum like with well-done displays on various aspects of Mayan Medical procedures still practiced today. It was then that the Mayan women I’d seen around town weren’t wearing the furry skirts and embroidered clothes for the tourists; that’s what they wore everyday and that’s what they’ve been wearing for centuries. Also learned about Mayan religion, an interesting combination of Mayan traditions and Catholic practices. But the most popular (or at least the most talked about) display was the one on Mayan childbirth – complete with a video shot and dubbed into English by anthropologists. What makes the procedure unique is the participation of the father. The woman kneels in front of him and he hugs her to support her as she pushes out the baby into the midwife’s arms. He has to go through the whole thing with her and if he’s not available to help out, it’s a big deal. There were some odd things that happen afterwards like the use of a live rooster to bless the baby. Apparently roosters are sacred animals to Mayans which may explain why the time-challenged one next door to the hostel was allowed to live despite his nighttime cockadoodledoos. And then there was the Coca-Cola ritual, wherein Coke is swallowed and then purged (either literally or occassionally just spit out) as a way of get rid of evil spirits in a person. Some of the folks from the hostel were going to see this ritual performed in a neighbouring town. I wanted to go, but something about intruding on a ritual seemed a little circus-like especially since the Mayans don’t even like to have their picture taken.

After the museum building, there was a well-labelled pharmaceutical garden and pharmacy where you could by traditional cures for everything from baldness to gout. Adrian of course wanted to buy the baldness cream and then every other remedy as he began reading the list of curable symptoms. He soon convinced himself that he had rheumetism and anemia. But thankfully there was no cashier on duty so I was able to drag him and his money away from the complex.

We headed back across the stinky river of sewage to the old part of town, past the market, through the touristy cobblestone area to a much quieter and hillier part of town where there were far fewer tourists. I thought we were going to have to scale a mountain, I mean, hill but our next destination, the Na Bolom House, was located at the foot of it. Na Bolom is a combination hotel and archeology museum located in an beautiful old colonial house that was once home to a Danish couple. Almost 100 years ago, they settled in the area to search for Mayan temples and ended up dedicating their lives and their fortune to the preservation of the Lacondian Mayan tribes. Mr. Blom explored, kinda like a real Indian Jones, and Mrs. Blom documented it in photos.

The house itself was beautiful and would have been a great place to stay if we weren’t on a backpackers budget. It was run more like a home with guests eating dinner at a communal table and staff living on the grounds with their families. But it was also the home of the Na Bolom Foundation so there were extensive displays on the Lacondian Mayan whose way of life is quickly eroding now that foresters have cut down most of the forest they inhabit. You could even sign up to volunteer (Andrea, I was thinking of you) if you had the time. And in one of the many peaceful gardens they had partially recreated a traditional Lacondian village complete with women making and selling textiles and crafts for sale. One of the women tried to coax me to buy her necklaces.

“Me gustan mucho pero no tengo dinero” I replied with a shrug of my shoulders.
"¿Donde vive?" She then asked
"If you have no money how did you get here?" she replied in a way that made me laugh.
Touche, lady. Like anyone selling anything in Mexico, it really was hassle-free. When you said “no gracias” the left you alone, with the exception of the old man in the Mexico city Cathedral of course. Other countries should take note (India I’m looking at you).

Pulling ourselves away from Na Bolom, we headed over to one of the two hill-top churches that overlook the city, the one Lonely Planet said that actually had a view of the city. It was a steep but relatively short climb to the top where the unimpressive church (unimpressive compared to the others in San Cristobal) sat. But the view was good with an almost 360 degree view of the city down below. We could see the amber museum was fairly close so we headed down to it before it closed and before it got dark – not because of any dangerous people but because the sidewalks in Mexico are narrow and pretty difficult to manage even in the daytime. And we didn't want to risk our ankles on them in the dark.

We made it to the Museo de Ambar without tripping and breaking anything. After buying our tickets, the attendant started our visit with a quick lecture on four ways to identify real amber from fake amber: temperature (real amber is cool), UV light (real amber glows), bug size (real amber only has tiny bugs), and burning (real amber doesn’t melt). Then sent us on our way with a handy booklet of English translations. I hadn’t realized that amber was mined in a just handful of regions around the world; Chiapas being one of the main ones. So many local craftsmen/artists/jewelry designers had some amazing pieces on display. One looked exactly like my $8 chunky plastic ring that I picked up at the Vancouver Art Gallery however the price had a couple more zeros. This time Adrian dragged me away from the little shop before I could open my wallet. So we headed back to the hostel chasing the sun and after dinner it was to bed hoping that the rooster developed laryngitis. It might be sacred in these parts but my sleep is sacred too.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

You can’t get there from here

Woke up for the first time in days not to roosters or birds but to the sound of a toilet flushing. Non-stop. The auto flush on the men’s toilet wouldn’t stop which was a vast improvement ton the woman’s toilet (yes the ejectivo couch had two different washrooms) which didn’t flush at all. It was now daylight and pulling back the curtains to a totally different view full of lakes and rivers and forests. This was Chiapas State. If that name sounds familiar but you don’t know why, let me refresh. Zapatista. EZLN. Gunmen. Ten years ago the Zapatistas launched an aggressive (i.e. violent) campaign for land claims. Nowadays, their techniques are decidedly more urbane. You can take tours of their villages, attend reading or buy books that they sell in town. Kinda like the Hari Krishna’s but with guns.

Don’t let that alarm you (particularly you Mom). Everyone has guns in Mexico. That probably sound alarming too but wait. It’s not unusual to see armed personel carriers with cops in full combat gear just doing their patrol. But the gear is to scare people or rather assure them rather than to actually use it. Despite this I will admit it was kinda scary at first especially when combined with all the “Death to Capitalism. Viva EZLN graffiti” we were seeing on every government roadside sign.

Arriving in San Cristobal all that apprehension disappeared. It’s as close to stereotypically looking Mexican village as you can get. It reminded me of Cusco, Peru. And where we were staying was backpacker central. It was 7am and normally too early to check in but our room was being cleaned when we arrived and while we waited the manager, David invited us to have join in the free breakfast of fresh fruit and coffee. All this for only $20 a night. You’re probably thinking the room or shower or security is crap. Nope. Great room. Lots of hot water and great security.

As we sat there many of the other guests trickled out and we got a chance to talk to many of them over breakfast. Sophie from Holland (hi Sophie) was headed north through Central America and had lots of great tips. In San Cristobal she recommended we check out the Mayan Medicine Centre.

Unpacked and showered we went wandering around the town. It was quite cute and touristy but not in a Disney land way but in the fact that all the businesses were either bars, internet cafes offering skype service or cafés offering hamburgers/pizza/banana pancakes. But it was also amazingly pretty. The first place we stumbled upon in the Igles de Domingo(the picture above) a beautiful ornately decorated church. Outside was a craft market where women in traditional Mayan dress sold all sorts of trinkets and trash and men sold Zapatista manifestos and pirated CDs and DVDs.

We decided to head to Mayan Medicine Museum following the directions David from the hostal had given us but found ourselves at a bridge blocked off and barricaded by some unsmiling men. Before getting too close to find out if we could pass we decided to walk a different way. It gave us an opportunity to see a different part of San Cristobal. Just past a busy main market a bridge took us a smelly creek that was full of more trash than water to the dusty part of town that was the exact opposite of the postcard views we had seen. Looking to our left we saw more barricades and sings that I think read “Autonomous indigenous zone. No entry” which wasn’t the most welcoming feeling. Thinking we weren’t going to get to the Medicine Centre today we turned back and crossed back over to the postcard part of town.

Passing the church again, we thought we’d grab a snack. There were a few stands selling grilled corn, I approached the nearest one being manned by two kids and asked the price.
“Cinco pesos” the girl responded.
“Dos, por favor,” I said and handed her 10 pesos.
Just then her brother lept up, elbowing his sister and said “Siete! Siete!”
Cheeky bugger was trying to charge us more. Two-tiered pricing. We were definitely in a tourist town. But I stood my ground and the girl knew she’d already told me the regular price. In the end they actually won, because the corn was hard and dry. Unsatisfied we walked over to the big market and grab some fruit but were equally shocked by the prices 40 pesos ($4) for four apples. No gracias. So now it was time to find a supermarket.

Once again we attempted to follow the direction David from the hostel had given us. But like the Mayan Medicine Museum it wasn’t where he said it was, nor the Scotia Bank nor the supermarket. We cracked open our 5 year old Lonely Planet and gave their map a shot. And it worked. We found a tiny supermarket just behind the cathedral and zocalo. We decided to make use of the hostel kitchen and load up. But food was surprisingly limited. No fresh meat. No spaghetti sauce. No fresh vegetables. But lots of pasta. And apples and lots of other backpackers. Picking up what we could for a pasta dinner we headed back to the hostel to make dinner.

Dinner wasn’t bad thanks to the bulb of garlic I added. Despite reeking of garlic we still met lots of other people. So many that we didn’t get names. One of them was a guy from Mexico City who explained the blocked road to the Mayan Medicine Museum. Apparently it’s been there for years and it’s part of an ongoing land claim by a local indigenous group. He marked out another route for us which was the same as the alternate one we had taken except we hadn’t gone far enough.

It was starting to get cold (like 10 degrees cold) and a bonfire was started. But we headed to the cosy comforts of our room. Told you we were old farts.

Friday, March 27, 2009

I left more than my heart in Oaxaca. Almost.

Originally our plan for today was to head into town with Ana and Simon and actually explore it. However, my burn was still smarting and walking around in the sun didn’t seem like a good idea. But it also meant that enjoying the pool at La Villada wasn’t an option for me either. So I thought I’d spend the day catching up on the blog which was quickly becoming a blob. Of course, that soon changed. At breakfast we met some new guests, Jackie and Dean, an American couple just finishing up their own RTW adventure and Mika, a solo Aussie who’d been backpacking around the Caribbean and Central America for the last five weeks and was just about to relocate to London (hi Mika). This meant a lot of chatting. So the blog remained the blob and socializing took over. Well Mika and I socialized. Adrian spent another day in the pool and the Americans spent half the day hunched over the computer looking up the cheapest deals on their next five destinations and the other half drinking both of which made talking difficult. Mika and I swapped stories and tips about various destinations, and about escaping similar jobs and relocating to London. Photos, facebook info and emails were exchanged with a promise of a reunion drink in London on the other side of our trip.

Mika was off that night to Mexico City and then headed to the airport so she asked me if I could mail her postcards for her. Not a problem, we’ll do it from San Cristobal. I stuck them in my diary and the money in my purse. And said goodbye. I finally coaxed Adrian out of the pool and had just enough cash to settle our bill (thanks to Mika’s postage money). Then it was our turn to catch a bus. But where was Adrian? Playing pool with the Americans. Once again I dragged him away to our beeping waiting taxi hugging the staff goodbye and promising to visit again when we were next in the area.

We got to the bus station early so I could pick up the tickets I had booked online. Adrian went to find a bank machine and I tried to check the bags but we were too early and there was nobody there to collect them. At that moment I realized that I didn’t have my diary or Mika’s postcards, oops. I had minor freak but was snapped out of it by Adrian who told me I had enough time to get them before the bus arrived. So I hailed a cab back to La Villada where they were waiting for me. “Told you I’d be back.” I said. They had my book waiting for me. Phew, I felt much better now. So I rushed back to the bus station and still had enough time to grab dinner across the street – all that worry for nothing. And on the comfy overnight executive bus I had plenty of time to exhale.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wha-Hey, Wha-Haca

Learning how to pronounce Oaxaca was such hard work that we decided to take a real day off. No blogging. No reading. No thinking. Although Chay and Xavier (wait, that’s probably Javier) tried to tempt us with tours, we decided to take full advantage of the surroundings with a day of complete and utter sloth by the pool. Just soaking up the sun. Oh oh, I can hear your worry from here. Liz and the sun do not mix. And I will admit I had a minor sunscreen malfunction. Apparently my 2 for $5 SPF 30 from Walgreen’s wasn’t all that SPF 30 despite repeated applications. And after a full day in the sun all I needed was an apple in my mouth because I was done. As a survivor of many a burn I knew I wasn’t in blister territory but I was going to be in a bit of pain for the next day which meant no exploring the city for me. And no more time lazing by the pool either. So over another delicious meal, Adrian and I gave in and booked a tour for the next day to some neighbouring towns.

I replaced my sunscreen with some cream to halt the burn. The family offered to cut down some aloe vera from the garden for me (see I told you they were awesome) but the cream I had was working well and when I woke up the next morning I was a light pink rather than a bright red.

Joining us on the tour was another couple, Mexican Ana and Norwegian Simon (hi Ana, hi Simon). They met while she was couchsurfing in Norway and highly recommend we use it. If I had met Adrian couchsurfing I’d think it was an awesome way to travel too. Ah, long distance love. I remember those days. Although Norway and Mexico is a lot further than Canada and the UK. I hope there story has a happy ending too.

Eventually the van arrived and we jumped into the van which then drove off to pick up other folks in town until it was full, then we were on our way. Our first stop was the little town of Tule, famous for a tree. But not just any tree – the oldest and biggest tree in the world. I expected it to be in the middle of a grand forest. Instead it stood in front of the church in the town square, where it had for the last 3000 years. And it was big – I hope the scale comes across in the pictures. It was also full of birds so many that it was really loud. Thankfully they had good bathroom habits and nobody got hit with any debris. But the town was the tree, the church and the town hall so in 15 minutes everyone was back in the van and off again to the next stop which was a bit further off. This gave us time to get to know some other people in the van, particularly Mark an older gentleman from Minnesota. He was very talkative in fact he waxed lyrical about the tastiness of Mexican popsicles non-stop for most of the journey.

It was only an hour until our next stop, Teotitlan de Valle, the home of Zapoteca weaving. We got a lesson in how the rugs are made from the collecting and grading of the wool, to the natural dye process and finally the weaving before they started with the sell. Good thing we’d seen this technique before in Tunisia and managed to avoid any of the hard sell, escaping back to the van with Simon and Ana with our cash still in our wallet. Mark wasn’t as lucky. He came out with... actually I’m not sure what to call what he bought but I’m sure his grandkids will love it.

Driving to the next stop of Mitla, the driver played Mexican music. At first I thought he was playing a cd for the tourists but when the Mexican’s in the van started singing along and I saw it was the radio station, I realized that this is what everyone listens to. Well, at least one thing on the journey wasn’t totally made up for us tourists.

Mitla was another small town, but rather than a tree, this town was built around Zapoteca ruins and in particular the church was actually built on the old temple. The site was small and unimpressive, but the site guide quickly changed our impressions. He was really knowledgeable and taught us how to appreciate the ruins. He showed us how the intricate designed was actually some pretty fancy brickwork – each brick was custom cut and laid without mortar to create the designs and had that this design was the reason the buildings were still standing after the areas regular earthquakes and tremors – which we were lucky enough to miss.

The guide gave us plenty of time to take in the sun-baked and cactus-riddled scenery (from the shade) of Oaxaca before we were stuffed back into the van and taken to the highlight of the tour – Hierve El Agua or Petrified Falls. Located high up in the Sierra Madres, they aren’t falls so much as a rock formation caused by the water coming up through the limestone mountains and dripping off the edge of a cliff. The Zapotec Indians had used the site to irrigate the dry mountains and now you could go swimming in the pools on the cliff.

Before we could get there, the van pulled into an isolated buffet restaurant and the driver announced “Now we eat, Only 120 pesos. Very good” Of course being isolated on a highway far away from any sign of civilization we had no choice but to eat there. Ana and Simon were as annoyed as us at being trapped here. Of course the food was mediocre, however my opinion may have been tainted by past experiences with the Tourist Salmonella buffet in Tunisia and Gambia. Adrian seemed happy enough but Ana was perhaps the most annoyed but grudgingly remarked “I guess today I’m a tourist so I’ll pay tourist prices”.

Of course arriving at the Hierve el Agua didn’t help when we saw a row of stands selling better meals for a fraction of the price – the tour was obviously a bit of a cash grab but without it I’m not sure we could have gotten to the Falls. It was an hour up a narrow mountain road – mostly unpaved, and then a trek to the cliff. And when we got there, all our money worries melted away (and not just because it was so hot). The view was truly priceless. Mark immediately stripped down to his shorts and jumped into one of the old irrigation pools. Adrian and I hadn’t brought suits so we just took in the view. We stood as close to the edge as we dared and took photos of each other and gazed out over the “falls” now in the shade thanks to the late afternoon sun.

Soon it was time to get back in the van for the silent ride to our last destination – even Mark stopped talking about popsicles. I guess the sun had gotten the best of us. Until we found out the final destination was a Mescal tasting. We got another lecture about the harvesting of agave, then the making and distilling of it into mescal but thankfully it was brief and we were soon taken to the bar. We were given ten tastes of ten different mescals. I have to say it still tastes like Tequilla no matter how long it's aged – as in it tastes bad. But thankfully, the last half of tastes were flavoured and easy to swallow. And it was free! Finally, something on the tour left a good taste in my mouth, pun (unfortunately intended). Everyone got into the van the last time, happier than any other leg. Back in Oaxaca everyone was dropped off at their hotels, and Ana and Simon decided to stay in town to explore but Adrian and I, being the old farts that we are, decided to go back to La Villada to enjoy an equally nice view but without the high price tag of the rest of the day.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bye-bye Mexico. Hello Oaxaca.

I wish I could tell you what the roads, scenery, or landscape were like for the 6 and a half hour bus ride but we slept for most of the trip. I did wake up when we passed over some speed bumps and was face to face with a sign of a man in uniform with his hand held out in gimme mode. It wasn’t a demand for a bribe. Well, not quite anyway, it was the sign for toll booth and the sign over head announced we were now entering Oaxaca the state. The scenery immediately seemed more lush and the soil more red but it was all in my head. Because pulling into Oaxaca, the city, seemed like more of the same.

It was bigger than I expected which did not bode well for my mood. After claiming our luggage, I looked up the number for the hostal which promised free pick up from the bus station. But how to make a phone call? The pay phone didn’t take coins and I didn’t know how to buy one of the cards it wanted. I approached the tourist desk and pulled out my emergency trump card.

“¿Habla ingles? “
The two people behind the desk looked at each other and then looked at me shaking their heads. Perhaps I’d ask differently.
“¿Un poco ingles?
Nope. Just more shaking. Foiled. Time to muster up all my learning.
“um, Necesitio llamar mi hotel. Pero, ah, como llamar?
I held out a handful of coins, mimed a telephone with my hand and shrugged like they had.
It worked. The girl understood and replied in lightening fast Spanish which I am learning is the only speed that Spanish come in. She pointed across the street. Thankfully, I recognized the picture of the phone on the storefront.
“Gracias” I replied dragging mono-lingual Adrian in the direction she had pointed.

The store was a I repeated my Spanish request to the guy sitting in the store this time holding up the telephone number and the change. He pointed at phone booth number and patched me through.

The phone rang a couple of times and was picked up by a female. Having exhausted my daily Spanish allowance (it gets worse as the day goes on), I once again tried my emergency trump card.

“¿Habla ingles?”
“Un momentito”
A male voice came on the line and with a Mexican-American accent answered.
Success! Relieved, I spoke in what was probably a run-on sentence.
“Hi It’s Elizabeth. I have a reservation. We’re at the ADO bus station in Oaxaca can you come pick us up?” I realized I wasn’t even sure I had the right number.
“Oh ya Elizabeth. No problem. I’ll be there in a couple of minutes like 10 or 15. Bye

And indeed he was. He was Chay (rhymes with thigh), Oaxacan born but American educated baseball player who along with his brother Xavier, parents and young kids ran La Villada Inn where we were booked for the next three nights. Set up in the hills on the outskirts of the city, the view was as amazing, the family was amazing, and the place was, wait for it, amazing (have I used that word enough). They upgraded us to a room with a private bath, a king size bed and a view over the city. See? I told you it was amazing.

We immediately down graded the accommodations by doing laundry in the sink (bar of laundry soap – another great piece of gear I recommend) and hanging it out to dry on our porch. Then we jumped into the pool. Yup, this hostal had a pool. And when it got too chilly with the setting sun we feasted on homemade quesadillas and helped ourselves to beer from the fridge (they worked on the honour system). Ah yes good food, good setting and good drinks - there's no need to translate any of that. Oaxaca I think I’m gonna like you after all.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Doing nothing is hard work

Since I have no photos from this lazy day please enjoy this pic of a typical front page of a Mexican newspaper. As you can tell, Adrian enjoyed it.

Just as we promised ourselves, we spent the day in the hostal doing nothing, well nothing that involved leaving the hostal. Instead, Adrian caught up on his favourite tv programs and I spent the entire day uploading photos and a little bit of time updating the blog. Sure there’s wireless everywhere but it’s slow especially when there are ten people with laptops using it. Yup, that’s the new backpacker fully equipped with laptop, digital camera, psp, skype headgear spending more time looped in with people back home than the person next to them at the hostal. And we're just as guilty although trying not to be.

But all the peace and quiet meant we could make plans for the next leg of our journey to Oaxaca about 6 hours south east of Mexico City. Good thing because checking the bus company websites revealed a limited number of buses contrary to everything we’d read. Panicked I reached out to the Lonely Planet Bulletin Board where a couple of fellow travelers told me the websites were on the fritz. We could indeed show up the next morning without a ticket and get on the next bus.

After a cheap dinner around the corner from the hotel, we repacked our bags a feat that is still just as hard as when we did it back and Toronto and went to sleep. Well I tried to get to sleep. An hour later I woke up scratching furiously at my arm. I turned on the light to discover it covered in welts, some two inches across. I immediately assumed the worst. Bedbugs! But no when I heard buzzing and saw something flying through the air, I was actually relieved to discover it was a mosquito or three that had been feasting on the one part of my body not under the covers while Adrian slept shirtless, snoring and untouched right next to me. My pasty glow-in-the-dark skin was irresistible to not just the sun but all bloodsuckers too.

I went back to bed pulling the sheets around everything but my nose, half expecting to wake up with 50 bites on the tip of it. But alas, at 7am it was only the usual sirens, horns and car alarms that woke us up. The noise is one thing we were definitely not going to miss. Loaded up we headed into the Metro for the last time getting off at TAPO – the eastern bust station which was tiny compared to the Terminal Norte and got on the next bus to Oaxaca.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


According to Adrian, one of Mexico’s greatest exports is Salma Hayek. So it was easy to convince him to watch Frida when he discovered she was in it. It was even easier to keep him watching it when he discovered she was in it naked. But after watching the movie, he had a new interest in Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and some of the Mexico City locations featured in movie. And that’s what we decided to do this day.

After another breakfast at ViPS (a local chain where Adrian was able to get a proper breakfast), we headed out to the San Angel area of the city to visit the conjoined homes of Rivera and Kahlo that is now home to a museum. Getting there was another easy trip on the Metro (our feet were thankful) and once we were out of the station, we felt like we were in a completely different city. It was greener, cleaner and decidedly richer. Most of the streets were cobblestoned and lined with ivy covered walls behind which old colonial mansions stood. There were crafts markets and it being a weekend there were lots of people about but still without the frenetic pace of downtown.

As we explored the streets, our pyramid climbing muscles began to express their displeasure with us. But we ignored them and soon got to the conjoined houses. Why conjoined houses? Well, Frida and Diego each wanted their own space after they got married. This of course gave both of them many opportunities to cheat on each other leading to their divorce. But they remarried however, Frida never moved back into the conjoined houses, instead continuing to live in the her childhood home over in the next neighbourhood of Coyoacan.

It didn’t look too far on the map so we walked over to Frida’s house to check out the Museo de Frida Kahlo. Our legs were really not happy with this decision but it gave us the opportunity to take in Coyoacan. While slightly less polished than San Angel, it is another shady peaceful neighbourhood that used to be a satellite town outside of Mexico City until urban sprawl swallowed it up.

Unlike the Museo Diego Rivera, the Museo Frida Kahlo wasn’t free on Sunday (most museums in Mexico City are free on Sunday). But it was definitely more extensive, covering both her and Diego’s influences and containing many of their sketches and works, including some of the numerous body casts Frida had to wear and that she painted. Having just seen the movie it was great to see so many things with context. It made another day at the museums not just tolerable but enjoyable.

Finally, Mexico City had grown on us. But rather than push our luck we decided to take a break from sightseeing to counter some of the tourism fatigue we were feeling. It also meant we could catch up on all things blog (ed: hah, I’m still a week behind) and make plans for the next leg of our trip.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

When the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with mars

March 21st. The first day of spring and time for new beginnings. So when we woke up, there was no more crankiness about Mexico City because we weren’t spending the day in the city. Instead we were joining what Lonely Planey calls the throngs of new-age hippie types at Teotihuacan for the celebration of the vernal equinox. Today was a big thing at Teotihuacan almost as big as the site itself. Its 83 square kilometers where once home to over 100,000 Aztecs over 2,000 years ago.

But to get there we first had to navigate the gigantic Terminal Norte Bus Terminal. And when I say gigantic it was easily the size of any airport terminal if not bigger. With the help of a friendly counterperson we finally found the tiny Teotihuacan Bus Line and purchased our tickets ($3.30 each) for the hour long bus ride. I entertained myself by playing that international game peek-a-boo with a young girl in an adjacent seat while Adrian snored away beside me.

Traffic was stop and go with the bus occasionally going rather than stopping. Eventually it stopped going completely and I noticed many people getting off. I asked the mother of the young girl if this was Los Piramides and she replied yes and told me that they were to the right and then straight ahead. But her instructions weren’t needed as once we got off of the bus we were swallowed up by a sea of people and pulled in that direction along the highway. Both sides were lined with vendors selling everything from whistles to batteries to hubcabs to all sorts of food. And of course, water. We’d brought our own tap water filtered using our handy UV steri-pen (another awesome purchase that will help us cut down on the number of water bottles we're using in our travels) but ice cold water sure was tempting as we walked 1 kilometre down the scorching tarmac to the ticket booth.

The long walk gave me time to check out the crowd. I’d expected a bunch of international dreadlocked Burning Man escapees and while there were one or two of those, the crowd was mostly locals dressed almost exclusively in white with red sashes. Some were wearing ankle booties covered in shells that jingled when they walked and a few others had feathered headdresses. It felt more like a traditional gathering than a new-age hippie thing. In fact I’ve seen more dreadlocks in Trinty Bellwoods than I did this day.

By the time we reached the entrance, we had already been walking for an hour and both needed to pee and eat – not at the same time of course. I joined the queue at the ladies’ while Adrian unsympathetically declared his gratitude at being a male. But I got my revenge when he couldn’t find the men’s until we walked another 500 metres. Evacuation complete, we began to take in the sites.

While we couldn’t see the pyramids yet we did see a giant stripped tree trunk with 6 guys at the top hanging on to it for dear life. Wait, that would have been me. These 5 guys were hanging off of it nonchalantly before leaning back and allowing themselves to be suspended by rope tied around their ankles. While the man in the middle played a tune on a whistle and stamped the bells on his feet, the others swung around recreating the old Aztec activity that I’d seen painted on museum murals in Mexico City. It was pretty darn cool.

Just beyond that was a giant sunken square called The Citadel. Down below traditional dances were being done in large circles. The first was the largest and also the least formal – any one could join and many did, seeming to know all the steps. But beyond them were a bunch of smaller more formal circles. Everyone in these was fully decked out and performing salutations to the four directions and then finally the sun. Around the perimeter, spectators kept a respectful distance but likewise raised their arms in each direction. And when each group was done a new troupe? tribe? replaced them and started the ritual all over again.

It was now time to make our way down the Avenue of the Dead to the Temple of the Sun. But when we saw the 2 kilometre stretch in front of us we made a small detour into the overpriced restaurant back at the gates. The menu was… interesting – pasta with ant eggs, fried grasshoppers, and corn fungus. Having skipped breakfast our stomachs weren’t up for the challenge so we stuck with the tourist menu of soup, chicken and cake. A wise decision I think.

Now fuelled we began the long trek to the Temple of the Sun. It’s the biggest of the two temples at Teotihuacan, in fact it’s the third largest temple in the world, standing a whopping 250 feet tall and just about as wide. And all of it seemed covered with people. Not only were there they looped all the way up temple but it also looped around three sides of the base. And the line wasn’t moving. A quick guesstimation was that it would be at least 2 hours to get to the top, 2 hours of standing in the blazing sun. “Sod that” was Adrian’s response.

Instead we continued walking to the Temple of the Moon. It’s smaller but there were no line ups. Good thing because climbing that sucker was scary. Each step, (actually they were more like ledges because they were at least two steps tall) was an effort and the incline was incredibly steep. But we made it to the top which oddly was the one place we hadn’t encountered any water sellers, but the place we needed them the most. We snapped a few picks, took in the amazing view and then began the more treacherous trip down. Thankfully, there was a plastic-covered cable to hold on to. I lined up behind a white haired lady which I thought would give me a good excuse for going slow. No dice, as she was one of the fastest ones going down, leaving most of us in her dust. And I think the climb down was worse than the climb up – or at least that’s what the muscles in my thighs told me.

It was now 4pm and to beat the crowds vying for the last buses we decided to head back into the city. Rather than retrace our steps we took a different exit and walked down a road that skirted the outside of the park. It was actually shorter and had a bit of shade and used by as many horses as people. But it was also lined with folks selling delicious ice cold water (no water was ever more delicious), but also more of those stupid whistles (no sound was ever more annoying). Note to self: never ever buy a child a whistle. Ever.

Exhausted we easily found and caught the bus back to the city. Once at the hostal we collapsed on the bed and treated to ourselves to a traditional Aztec meal, that’s right McDonalds. Then watched Frida on the computer before falling into our deepest sleep to date.

(p.s. sorry for the back log in these posts - the slow internet connection meant uploading photos was taking forever. I'm trying to catch up now. Also I noticed that google reader just dumped the last 8 updates on there so cross your fingers that the rss feed is working now.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

I’m, cough, cough ,through, achoo, with you.

There’s a group of squeegie men outside of our hotel. They’re not like the squeegie guys we’ve come to know in Toronto, they’re true professionals with amazing technique. Within in three flicks of their wrist they can scrub down and dry a window in about 10 seconds flat. What is equally amazing is that they’re not considered nuisances here. People encourage them to wipe the grime off their windows - daily. That's when you realize just how crappy the air is in this city. Then you wish they could work the same magic on your lungs.

It was our fourth day in Mexico City and by now our throats were burning, our noses perpetually running and mouths perpetually dry. All thanks to the smog. And thanks to our crappy transportation experience the day before our mental state kinda matched our physical state. We weren’t completely run down but we were a little annoyed. So we thought we’d take it easy and explore a couple of neighbourhoods close to our hotel. And when I say close, I mean we didn’t need to take another crappy bus.

The first stop was a Scotiabank so that we could replenish our wallets. Then breakfast. Then to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a beautiful art nouveau building that was a bit confusing. Despite it’s exterior inside was an art deco explosion complete with more awesome murals by Diego Rivera, including a copy of the Crossroads of Man that he painted when Rockefeller destroyed the original. It would appear that the capitalist Rockefeller wasn’t happy with the anti-capitalist themes of the mural (the portraits of Lenin and Marx may have been the last straw). But the other confusing thing about this art gallery was that it wasn’t an art gallery. So after checking out the rest of the murals we left.

Thwarted by our attempt at culture, we sat outside and did some people watching. There was an interesting mixture of organ grinders, punk kids, tourists, and shoe shine men. Adrian decided to get his sneakers cleaned and thankfully the one nearest to us spoke English so Adrian could do his own negotiating.

“How much?”
“For you, 15 just like the Mexicans.”
“Yes, 15.”
“Sure go ahead”

Notice the repetition of the number 15 – it’s the equivalent of $1.50. Seems like a reasonable price for the 5-10 minutes it took him to finish the job. And when he finished that’s when the trouble started.

“Finished. 50 pesos”
“50?!? You said 15”
“No, I said 50 – it’s normally 60 pesos for Mexicans.”
“No you said 15”
“50 pesos”

We knew he was lying and getting ripped off was not helping with our mental state but arguing with him would have made us even more cranky so we paid him the 50 pesos and considered the $3.50 an investment in our mood. I do have to give the rip off artist props for knowing that fifteen would get us to agree but sounded enough like fifty to pull off a bait and switch. Lesson learned– always say the prices in Spanish or write them down.

We walked across a big crazy park to a shady sunken square between two churches. One of the churches was leaning scarily to the left. While the other one was now a small museum. Noticing the two current exhibits Barbie and Italian design, I convinced Adrian to go check them out. The museum was home to a bunch of old furniture and other household goods as well as some 200+ year old paintings by artists from around the Spanish world. Just as Adrian was yawning, we found the Barbie exhibit full of screaming and giggling little girls. I have to admit it was more entertaining than the old household stuff. They had 500 Barbie dolls from over the last 50 years, including a bunch dressed as representatives of various countries. You’ll be pleased to know that Canada was included but not so impressed when I tell you she was dressed as a Mountie. In contrast the UK Barbie was dressed in a custom-made designer Burberry outfit. Doesn’t quite seem fair does it.

Now to find the Italian Design retrospective. We wandered through the entire museum multiple times but finally I had to ask in my atrocious spoken Spanish (yes, my lessons were great for reading but when it comes to speaking I suck) only to be told that it wasn’t open yet. Hmm… you’d think they’d tell you that before you paid admission. Or at the very least adjust the sign out front that claims it opened two days earlier. Time to move on.

We walked over to the Plaza de la Revolucion which was being restored, past a deserted art deco arena called the Fronton Mexico (picture above) where jai alai was played (you know, that sport that they showed at the beginning of Miami Vice involving men dressed like jockeys and whipping balls at a wall with a scoop). We were close to a restaurant mentioned by Lonely Planet that is owned by an ex Lucha Libre wrestler and known for it’s giant tortas – the delicious Mexico City sloppy joes we discovered on our first day. And decided the combination of kitch and yum would be perfect. However after walking over there, we discovered that it was shuttered tight with giant public health violation notices pasted up on the windows. Yet another thing that didn’t go as planned. But better than actually eating there and getting sick I suppose.

We tried to make up for the day by going back to our old torta stand but even those didn’t taste as good as they had the first day. The shine was beginning to wear off of Mexico City just like it had on the old Fronton building so the next day we decided to get out of the city.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Saved by the bus. Or not.

The only thing I really wanted to do in Mexico City was visit the Isla de las Muñecas. You won’t find it on the official tourist map. It’s a small island in the canals of Xochimilco – the old Aztec floating gardens now home to a Unesco biosphere protected area and favourite weekend destination for the locals. In this idyllic little place there’s one thing that’s a little off. And that’s the Isla de las Muñecas.

Years ago, a young girl drowned in one of the canals. Locals said that her spirit was haunting the area so to appease her, they threw dolls into the water. But that didn’t work so a man named Don Julian created a permanent memorial. He fished the dolls and toys out of the water and strung them up over his small plot. Some of these dolls had been in the water for years and now exposed to the elements they were in various states of decay. The result is a perfect photographic subject for photography. And thanks to an episode of Lonely Planet/Pilot Guides/Globetrekker though, it’s now easy to get there, supposedly.

And indeed getting there was easy. We took the subway, found the correct microbus and walked past the sewage treatment facility to the embarcadero where we saw lots of boats but no skippers. Eventually a teenage boy approached us and we began the negotiating. He named his first price 200 pesos/hour for the four hour trip. Ouch, that’s $80 and considering our daily budget is only $100 that was way over. But he easily accepted my counter offer of 150/hour or $60 total, perhaps too easily. Despite the price being super expensive it was the one must do for me in Mexico City so I was willing to splurge (I don’t think Adrian was thrilled with this decision). I assumed this guy was just the salesman for his dad so when he returned with the pole to power the gondola I was a little surprised. How was this skinny little guy going to punt the 40 foot, 16 seat gondola around the canals for four hours? My concern and interest disappeared when I remembered the money we paid him.

But he earned his money as he took us through the canals, past tiny islands each home to one farmers livelihood. We saw numerous big white cranes, cows grazing, altars to the virgin mary and fishermen hauling in their catch - although I’d be scared to eat anything that swam in those water (perhaps that’s why they put the altars up). However after an hour of this slow boat I was beginning to get, dare I say, a little bored. Thankfully, just about then I saw the creepy island up ahead.

It didn’t look as ominous in the bright sun as I thought it would, but with thousands of dolls hanging from every branch and every object it was still plenty creepy. We disembarked and were greeted by an old man, not Don Julian who died about 5 years ago, but a "friend" of his who was continuing to keep up the Isla de las Muñecas, in other words now making a buck off of it by charging admission – only 20 pesos including us of the baños. He attempted to give us a history of the island – in Spanish – but when he asked me if I understood mas o menos I eventually had to let him know more menos than mas. He set us free and let us roam around the island.

We spent about 30 minutes taking snaps of the decaying dolls, including our own version of American Gothic. Adrian got right into it, finally forgetting about the high cost of getting here. However, I think the highlight of the trip for him were the outhouses which oddly enough had no dolls. But they did have crude instructions on how to make your specific deposit drawn on the walls with a sharpie.

Happy to have seen something truly unique, we enjoyed the long ride back being serenaded by the panting of our out-of-breath gondalier as he piloted with the boat. I realized that the trip had not actually been 4 hours but only 3 but Adrian refused to let me get our money back - he must have been happy with the trip.

But now it was time for the trip back. We retraced our steps to the collection of bus stops. Not wanting to get the wrong one, I asked a man which one went to Periferico. He let me know that they all did but not before sticking his hand out and asking for a donation for the information. Thankfully, a bus pulled up and saved us from the awkward situation. Or so I thought.

Remember that hour that was missing from the boat trip? Well, it was added to what was supposed to be our ten minute bus ride to the train station.

I had to tell the driver our destination when we got on so he could tell us the fare so I thought he knew where we wanted to go. But when it came time to get off at what looked like our stop, I asked him to confirm if this was Periferico. In lightening fast Spanish, he replied and pointed to the road ahead away from what look at the station. The only words I caught were turn and road. So I thought he was telling us no the station was after the turn in the road. We sat back down and after another 15 minutes of driving I knew that that was the wrong decision. Nothing looked familiar. After 30 minutes, I pulled out the compass to see if we were at least heading towards the town and Adrian attempted to ask the driver for the Metro Station. After 2 minutes of Adrian repetedly asking “Metro? Metro?”, the driver finally acknowledged him by once again pointing ahead. No one else on the packed bus offered any insight and I could swear they were laughing at us so we sat down in our seats watching the sun set and the rain begin as the bus continued to travel along the expressway.

After an hour, we went from annoyed to panic to resigned to angry to frightened. And considered getting off and hiring a taxi but not only did the neighbourhood look a little sketchy but we had about 20 pesos on us, more than enough for the subway but hardly enough to get us downtown. Plus, getting off the bus would require us to communicate with the bus driver who didn’t want to communicate with us.

Finally, 90 minutes later, we pulled into a parking lot full of buses and the driver kicked everyone off. I was convinced we were now miles from downtown, perhaps in another city so we merely followed the crowd hoping they would lead us somewhere. At that moment, a kind gentleman motioned for us to follow him. I pulled out my Metro map and asked him to show me which Metro. I expected him to point to a stop way on the edge of the map. Instead, he pointed to a stop only 6 away from ours (that’s when I realized just how big the city is). He then led us through the crowded stalls to the unmarked entrance to the Metro stop. We thanked him profusely and parted ways.

While the bus had saved our feet from another day of walking, it was the old man who saved us from being hopelessly lost.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

These shoes aren’t made for walking

Since giving up our mattress almost a month ago, I’ve not been having the best of luck with sleep. Combined with the time difference in Mexico City, I woke up just after 5am local time. I took advantage of the quiet to try and figure out computer and internet stuff – the key word being tried. Looks like I’ve forgotten a camera cable (just means an extra annoying step in uploading photos) and google reader isn’t updating the rss feed. I’ll try to clear up the rss feed issue but until then may I suggest the email subscription which is working just fine.

Adrian eventually woke and dragged me downstairs for breakfast which was being served in the hotel. It wasn’t bacon and eggs or cereal or even coffee and a donut. Instead it was plate of fruit, a toasted bun topped with refried beans, cheese and salsa and huge sugar cookie shortbread thing that we saved for later. I had to tell Adrian that it was merely beans on toast but he wasn’t totally sold until he realized it was quite tasty.

After breakfast, I tried again to upload photos and frustrated by flickr I gave up and we headed out to really explore the city. The first thing we noticed was that sidewalks don’t appear to be for walking, instead they are chockablock with stalls where you can buy anything. The second thing was that each street appeared to sell one type of thing. So we walked down Musical Instrument Boulevard to Hardware Street and then took a right onto Optician Avenue to get back to the City Museum which was free today. It was small and had a handful of exhibits – one full of maps of the city, another on some architect and finally one with award-winning photojournalism which much like the local papers featured a lot of dead people (oh yeah, in Mexico, the front page of most newspapers make Faces of Death look like Disney. I’ll try to get some photos to show you).

So we left and headed towards the Zocalo via Nail File Street. That’s when we made observation number three about street life in Mexico City: the traffic lights are merely a suggestion. Pedestrians have the right of way on green but that doesn’t stop drivers from running reds.

We arrived at the Palacio Nacional, the home of the Mexican president and government ready to check out the huge grounds. But compared to getting into the Palacio, traffic was a piece of cake. Unfortunately, you need picture ID to go in through the metal detectors and dutiful tourists that we are, we had left it all locked up in the hotel. So Adrian tried the time tested method, he pouted and whined to the security guard. And it worked.

The first thing we saw inside were the Diego Rivera murals that covered the walls and the history of Mexico from the Aztecs to Cortez to Trotsky. Our personal favourite was the Cortez mural, in which Rivera painted him as the love child of Shrek and Sloth from the Goonies: sloping forehead, green skin, bad teeth, bulbous knees and cross-eyed – be still my beating heart.

The rest of the complex contained the original legislature, a museum dedicated to beloved president Benito Juarez, a garden full of indigenous plants and just all around pretty stuff that kept us occupied for at least an hour. And that’s when I realized that my new sandals, really sucked – the sweaty plastic soles had created the perfect environment for blisters. But I limped on as we explored the area northeast of the Zocalo, stopping for lunch in the Teatro Pueblo, before continuing on to see the home of the Spanish Inquisition (now home to the museum of medicine) and even more churches which Adrian and I stopped looking at after number 50. But we did go into one which had barely survived the 1985 earthquake. It was now the leaning church of Mexico City and walking through it was like that funhouse at the CNE where you can’t keep your balance. Sadly the inside was in poor shape thanks to looters. But that kinda made it interesting, or at least photogenic.

As we turned the corner we were back at the Catedral where we saw yesterday’s cranky man standing at the door. I had to stop Adrian from giving him two fingers. So I distracted him with the Templo Mayor – the ruins of the original site of the Aztec Temple which marked the centre of the universe. It was truly amazing – and not just because so much of the ruins involved skulls, human sacrifice and other fun stuff (although that’s really cool). You see, every new ruler had to outdo the last one. So he would build up the existing temple until it was huge. Which meant more walking with sore feet.

By the time we got to the Temple Museum we were running out of time, but stupidly rented audio guides (that cost more than our admission). Unfortunately, we had to run through the three floors of stuff they dug up when they discovered the ruins 30 years ago. Although Adrian made me stop and take a picture of him in front of the model because it reminded him of Raiders of the Lost Ark. How my poor feet managed to get through that all I’m not sure. But it was almost like they held on until we were done before throwing up the white flag. And once we were done so were they, I sat down and took off the offending sandals to give my feet a break. It was then that I noticed that despite the overcast skies and cooler (21ºC) temp that Adrian were both a little sunkissed. Well, Adrian was kissed. The sun had definitely gotten to second base with me. Yes, blisters and a sun burn. I was feeling as good looking as Cortez.

Soon Adrian’s stomach dictated when I had to put the evil sandals back on to hobble through the streets in search of dinner. This time we went to a sit down café and paid considerably more than our street food the night before. Oh well, lesson learned. Tomorrow is another day. And thankfully for my feet, that day won’t involve the evil sandals.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Getting the hell out of dodge x2

It was still dark when we got up and left for the airport, once again made much easier by the awesome Sarah who drove us there. Check in was easy but finding a bank machine to get some breakfast proved impossible. So we spent our last few Canadian dollars on Tim Hortons coffee and bagels. I’d like to think it was a final homage to the home country before we took off and not desperation.

Thanks to the wonders of Air Canada’s upgraded entertainment system there was no fighting over the remotes as Adrian watched Max Payne and I watched Defiance. And 5 hours, 2 breakfast sandwiches, and 4 coffees later, we felt the plane begin to make its descent.

Looking out the window I could see the dusty mountains that surround the city, before the plane went low, really, low over the city. Since I couldn’t see the airport, I did panic just a little bit and with the addition of some turbulence, the woman behind me made use of 2 vomit bags. Didn't help calm my nerves. You see, in Toronto, the airport is way out in the middle of almost nowhere, surrounded by acres of fields, highway and other buffer. But here the airport was looked like it was in the middle of a bustling neighbourhood. And being so low and bumpy made us – okay, just me – sweat a tiny bit. Or maybe it was the lack of sleep.

But that was nothing compared to the next leg of our our journey. After finding a Scotiabank machine in the terminal (yay, no service charges), we decided to skip a $20 taxi ride in favour of a 20¢ subway ride. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Little did we know that there are no escalators in the metro stations but there are a lot of stairs, even more when you take the wrong train and have to double back. Not a welcome site with 40 lb packs on your back. Oh well, it was all part of the adventure. And it did save us a whack of cash.

We arrived at Hotel Virreyes and had to wait 20 minutes while they finished cleaning our room. The hotel is a relic from the 40s and 50s but the bathrooms are immaculate and the bed is comfy so we’re happy.

Once unpacked, we headed out to explore the Centro Historico area our hotel is located in. We saw a dog walker struggling with at least 6 big dogs and cats walking outside windows 6 floors up but that was less stressful than navigating the sidewalks (uneven and dangerous) and street crossings (chaotic and deadly). But within 10 minutes we arrived at the Zocalo, the big square that’s synonymous with Mexico City. And it’s as big as it looks in photos. And the flag flying in the middle is even bigger. It was memorizing to watch it flapping in the wind.

We snapped out of it and headed into the Catedral Metropolitan to sit down for a moment and read our map (there’s no place to sit in the Zocalo). According to wiki, it’s the largest cathedral in the American continent. Designed by Claudio de Arcinieaga, construction started in 1573 and lasted for more than 300 years (sounds like they needed a producer and a better workback). Just as we were about to take a quick look around, an old man approached me.

He asked in Spanish if we wanted a tour.
I replied with a smile, "No gracias"
And then he got snarky and in English asked.
“Did you say no because you didn’t understand or because you don’t want one?”
“I understood. But we’re coming back tomorrow.” I still said with a smile.
That angered him further.
“Tomorrow!?! Sure you are. Why don’t you just say no if you don’t want it? Tomorrow! Maybe I won’t be here tomorrow maybe you won’t be here tomorrow!!!”

Wow, I think someone needs to make a confession because that was definitely wrath we experienced. And thanks to him, we decided not to go back to the church again. So for the second time that day, we got the hell out of dodge.

But when we stepped outside, we were surrounded by truckloads of soldiers. For a moment I wondered if we were about to witness a riot but when the soldiers pulled out musical instruments instead of guns (although I saw some of those too) I figured we were safe.

We’d stumbled upon the daily flag ceremony. So we stuck around to watch the marching band and the 12 soldiers required to gather up the flag and take it in for the night.

We walked back to the hotel now starving and exhausted thanks to the early morning and time difference, stopping for tortas (buns, filled with delicious yummy meat, cilantro, tomatoes and onions) at a street vendor. With full tummies we collapsed in bed this time escaping sore feet, and exhaustion.


p.s. let me know if the rss feed is working for you - it's not working for me and I don't know how to fix it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Repeat after me: Bah nedity, Diple bah nedity.

Two weeks of unemployment and I’m burnt out. (Yes, I can hear your tiny violins playing from here.) Thanks to a week of non-stop goodbye dinners, lunches, drinks and brunches, we’re exhausted. Good thing we have the next year to recover.

But first a special shout out. Thank you Sarah, for not only putting a roof over our head for the last week but offering to get up a 5am to drive us to the airport. Someone buy this girl a drink for us. She is awesome.

Yes, it’s true we moved even further east for the last week. We had no choice; Sarah insisted and when Sarah insists you can’t say no. On the day we check out of our hotel, we were woken by the sound of jackhammers, so we were thankful that she insisted. In the words of Adrian, “we love you Sarah!”

So east we went but east we didn’t stay there all the time – after all as I said before, it’s hard to break a lifetime of living on the west side. Well, that and we still had lots of shopping and general housekeeping to do west of Yonge Street. We went to Bank A, Bank B, storage locker, Bank C, back to Bank A, MEC, storage locker, computer store, and finally, back to our storage locker one last time to drop off our winter coats.

And in between all the errands we managed to squeeze in a couple, actually five more going away events Now, before I continue, a warning. You may want to undo the top button before reading the rest of us this.

First was dinner and drinks with Loryl. And more attempts to convince her to join us somewhere before Russia (Phase 2). If you’re anywhere near her give her a little nudge for us.

There was Victoria and Jamie’s for mac ‘n’ cheese and board games. Thanks for dinner and letting us each win a game. And your gift will be much appreciated on many a airplane/bus/train/camel/boat/donkey ride.

Then Sonali and David’s for curry and drinks on the town for the boys and drinks in the house for the girls. Thanks to Sonali for the full tummy and leftovers. Thanks to Justine and Jack for the gift. And thanks to the lads for returning Adrian in one piece.

Oh and of course my family wanted an opportunity to stuff us as well – multiple times – and even more opportunities to express their apprehension over our trip. Please stop worrying; if you need to pay ransom, bail or hospital bills, Andrea has access to our banking. I’M JUST KIDDING, MOM. Honest, we’ll be fine and if we’re not we won’t tell you.

And finally there was a stop to see Liz and Graeme and little Leon. Not only did we get fed yet again but we received a very inspiration speech courtesy of Leon. His memorable words were: “gat bough irries... Da bah nedity… Diple bah nedity”. And let me tell you, wiser words have never been spoken. For those of you not fluent in the language of 2 year olds , Leon was quoting his current hero, Balu, of the Jungle Book who said “Forget about your worries. The bear necessities, the simple bear necessities.” And we’ve now adopted it as our mantra.

Especially as we began packing our bags. Soon they were as stuffed as we were after all those dinners and we weren’t even half done. Leon’s words were coming back to haunt us and not because it was the only thing he said to us all evening. So we slowly removed things from our pack, stripping everything down to just the bear, I mean, bare necessities. Finally, at 9pm the night before we left, the zippers on our bags closed. With that out of the way, we are finally able to forget about our worries and it’s all thanks to the diple bah nedity.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Tonight we're going to party like it's 1999

Yeah, they say two thousand zero zero party over
Oops out of time
So tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999. Yeah

Remember New Year's Eve 1999? Prince summed it up pretty good. Everyone raised a glass because who knew if the Millenium Bug was going to bring a party to and end at strike at the stroke of midnight. Well, that happy melancholy sums up our going-away shindig perfectly.

Over 50 of our closest friends turned up at the Cadillac Lounge to raise a glass (erm many glasses) to our departure. But just as many wondered when we'll be back and if we'll make it (just kidding, Mom). 

Seeing so many people there from so many places was truly overwhelming. Who knew so many people would miss us? And who knew there were so many people for us to miss? 

Liz and Adrian, this is your life. And here's to the rest of your life. 

To see the rest of the pictures, check out this link