Quintana Roo

20130324-DSC_9101T: My bus ride to Playa del Carmen was a riot. It was jam packed with Mexican vacationers headed for the beaches in celebration of Semana Semana (Holy week) which is a BIG deal here. The holiday lasts one week and every single beach town in Mexico is literally swarming with people. Time and time again, locals had warned us to make sure we were somewhere extremely out of the way during SS. I met some young guys on the bus trip and dazzled them with explanations of simple bartending tricks to impress the ladies at their festivities. Erik and I had originally wanted to be further south for this week, but we were accepted by a couch surfer in Playa, possible the busiest party destination in the entire country, and we thought it might be fun to partake in the mayhem for a night or two. Playa del Carmen was quite a departure from the Mexico we had seen so far. Full of tourists; the restaurants are fancy, the shops luxurious and following suit, prices are at least four times that of anywhere else in Mexico. It’s a tropical Rodeo Drive with Mexican employees who all speak perfect English. Everything is geared towards the white folk, gringo tax on everything and barely a Mexi-town or any indigenous people to speak of. We weren’t impressed – this was not the vacation we set out for- but Leslie seemed sweet and she did have a private room for us. On our first night she offered to take us to a sushi place she tod us was really good and we were ecstatic… until we arrived and saw the prices. The place was right on the main drag and was more expensive than at home, for a tiny portion of food. Thanks CS host Leslie for so thoughtfully looking after your backpacking guests. Sheesh. Erik was left starving and we’d spent our food budget for one day on one meal. We were seriously underwhelmed by this point but decided to venture into the streets for some Semana Santa party action, after all, the streets and bars were jam-packed, everyone drunk, dancing and having a festive time. And yeah, it was pretty fun. On another night out we caught Erik’s favourite Mexican band, Molotov, playing a concert on the beach. Molotov is a Mexico City band who sing and rap their lyrics in Spanglish over a heavy bassline. It is the kind of music that gets a young Latin American crowd extremely amped. We didn’t pay the cover charge to get inside the enclosure, instead rocking out beyond the fence as the only white faces amidst a crowd of rowdy, drunk locals throwing around handfuls of sand and beer cans in celebration. During their song “Frijolero” which contains the line: “Don’t call me Gringo, you Fucking Beaner,” we were celebrities, everyone pointing and having a laugh at our expense. We embraced the chaos and showed our appreciation for the music. For the two weeks of Semana Santa, anything goes;  children light off firecrackers, drinking hours never end and there are full blown parades down the main streets. Both frightening and fascinating to observe at close range.

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The beach in this area is, of course, picture perfect but much too busy for us. While hunting for a Mexican street market to pick up groceries (rather than spend our money at the large stores owned by the government or Wal-Mart) we discovered a stunning, quiet little beach with only a few Mexican families enjoying BBQ’s. We felt much more comfortable here. Anything to avoid the giant resorts and get back to feeling like we were still in the Mexico we had fallen in love with. It sure was easier sometimes that everyone spoke English but it certainly isn’t the kind of place to gain any culture, do volunteer work or have a profound spiritual experience. A ferry ride to the beautiful island of Cozumel was worthwhile. We rented a scooter and toured its many breathtaking, relatively unpopulated beaches in a single day. The snorkeling was gentle and soothing. The most exciting adventure in the Mayan Riviera was for Erik’s birthday, which we spent in Cancun. One day riding on the bike we stopped behind a bus which had a huge poster advertising an upcoming Snoop Dogg concert on the beach.  The date emblazoned at the bottom of the poster was auspiciously April 4th, Erik’s 36th. We both instantly knew how we’d be spending Erik’s birthday. Getting the tickets was another story. Turns out, our visas wouldn’t work on the website, so our host Leslie offered to put the tickets on her card and she’d pick them up after work the next day (2 days before the show). She forgot. So the night before the day of the show, we’re following Leslie to several (in the end seven) shops, pharmacies, grocery stores looking for one with a Ticketmaster printer so we can retrieve our tickets. Turns out, there is actually no outlet in Playa where you can pick up tickets. It would have been helpful if they mentioned this on the website. So we go to bed, praying we can get them in Cancun on the day of the show. Off to Cancun early, armed with Leslie’s visa, a personal note and her ID, we search for the store that’s supposed to contain this printer. Two hours later, a young woman at a bookstore finally reads our note, phones Leslie and confirms that the tickets are indeed, ours! With tickets finally in hand, we’re on our way to Wet N’ Wild, our first fun birthday stop. Living out our childhood days, we take the waterpark by storm. It’s Mexico, so of course the park is outfitted with several bars, unlimited drinks included in our entrance fee. Approaching sunset, the park is closing, but we are having way too much fun and go for another dip in the Lazy River, floating quite easily now from our stomachs full of beer. A number of lifeguards and employees kept calling to us to ‘get out of the pool’ but we needed just a few more minutes of splashing and tomfoolery. Of course, the lifeguards being Mexis, they’re not prepared to actually get wet or expend too much energy in retrieving us from the fake river so we merely let the artificial current push us around the entire park one more time before heading to the change rooms. We were pretty sauced and giddy from the sun and the beer and there was still the concert to look forward to.

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We made proper sushi at home one night.

We made proper sushi at home one night.

Our next stop was the tourist zone, where the show was being held. I’d been before on a family vacation when I was 15 but to Erik the hotel district in Cancun was an eye opener. Massive resort after massive resort for the entire length of the city, one small public beach and a whack of shops lining the street opposite the resorts. Cancun was worse than Playa. The resorts are bigger and there are even more of them. There are A LOT of police everywhere. I guess this is where they hang out waiting for the best chance at extorting the tourists. The white sand beach is one of the most beautiful on the planet, but unless your shelling out more than $100 a night to stay at a resort, you won’t even be able to see it. We’re half-cut so naturally poke around to find more booze. Armed with 2 mickey bottles of tequila, we grab some Cochinita Pibil tacos (delicious pulled pork cooked in banana leaves with fresh oranges, topped with pickled onions) and park under an umbrella while a flash rain passes. Sipping our tequila from coffee cups, we watch as different cliques cruise by en route to the show. On our way to the beach, I heard some guys talking about the concert so I butt into their conversation. Turns out they know the owner of this bar – one that happens to overlook the beach where the show is. You have to pay to get in, but it’s still a couple hours to the opening act, Cartel de Santa, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsTgGBagvnE so they invite us up for a drink. In the bar it was an all-inclusive thing. You pay 1000 pesos and you get a patio table to view the show and all your drinks for the night. Our new friends are very lovely and grab us some pineapple juice from the bar so we can make use of our tequila. Erik and I are hitting up all the tables, making all sorts of new amigos, telling stories and are apparently so entertaining that the owner insists we hang out for the show gratis. But we’ve still got these tickets. Having spent so much effort getting them we feel we can’t let them go to waste. Erik heads off back downstairs and tries to scalp them at the front of the venue. He works hard downstairs for a good 45 minutes but to his chagrin just can’t find a buyer for the tix. He hurries back upstairs and gets back into the bar in time to enjoy the show and many more free drinks.

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Snoop was a tad disappointing. Due to the extreme windstorm he only played seven songs before running for cover. The atmosphere in the bar made up for it though. People were pumped and were running around talking to one another like we were all best friends, girls were up dancing on tables and the wind just kept howling outside in the first stages of a tropical storm. By now I’m challenging the bartender/owner to a “margarita off.” I figure I can whip up a better one than he can. He invites me behind the bar and I’m serving up a few margs before I tire of “work” and hit the dance floor. After rocking out for a while, we figure it’s time to leave while we’re still coherent. I’m offered a bartending job on the way out. Feeling pretty high from such a great night, we pound the pavement looking for more amusement but run into a spot of trouble. As best as we can recall, we had to pee really bad. Everything is closed now so we find some spots between cars to do our business but it wasn’t as private as we thought. We were spotted… by the policia, no less. They are out in hordes in these touristy spots and we had not anticipated that public urination was such a severe crime here. Of course it isn’t but the police look for any reason to extort some pesos from the tourists. They manage to grab Erik. He throws me the backpack and yells “RUN,” which I do. By struggling, he frees himself quickly from the officers grasp and bolts to catch up. We’re sprinting down the road, jumping over gates, passing through courtyards. Erik leads us into a club to hide and I’m quite sure we have left the cops in our dust. From all the stories we have heard about tourists getting robbed or kidnapped by the cops, we felt ourselves extremely lucky to have gotten away.

Mexican souvies. Apparently it is illegal to mail 90% of these things out of the country.

Mexican souvies. Apparently it is illegal to mail 90% of these things out of the country.

20130331-IMG_4044After the excitement of Cancun and Playa, we took a short ride to Tulum, Erik arriving first and setting us up in a quaint hotel just off the main drag, much cheaper than any hotel in the 30 km long row spread out along the entire beach. Tulum, similar in some ways to Cancun and Playa, is a playground for tourists looking to kick it solely in their resort. Not our style, but yes, the beach was beautiful. I checked email upon my arrival and hopped in a cab to find the hotel, Erik having decided to go to the bus stop at the very same time. I described Erik to the elderly guard, told him the room number, flashed him a big smile and thankfully, he let me in. Eager to shower, I was nearly undressed when there was a knock at the door. The hotel owner was not happy about me being in a room with someone else’s stuff and fair enough, Erik, to get the cheapest rate, had failed to mention the addition of a girlfriend. We went back and forth and finally I showed them a photo of us to convince them that I really did know Erik. He still appeared to think I might be a crazy person, following Erik around, so out of courtesy, I sat on a chair out front and waited for Erik to return. This respect seemed to impress them as from then on out, after my identity was confirmed, they treated me like their own daughter. When I was to leave a couple days later, the old man who had let me into the room originally did some hard bargaining on my behalf with the taxi driver. For literally ten solid minutes I sat in the cab as the man ensured I was to pay the correct price for my fare back to the bus station. In a touristy place you would expect to pay twice as much as a local and the man knew we weren’t your average all-inclusive tourists. It was the sweetest gesture and I thanked him significantly kissed him on the cheek and left feeling humbled at the kindness of this lovely person. It’s these simple things when you travel, reminding you to keep faith in mankind; you can never anticipate the generosity demonstrated by strangers.

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Tulum is home to many natural ecotourism aquatic parks, and my parents had gifted us a day at Xel-Ha, the largest and most popular one, for Erik‘s birthday gift. We showed up at opening hour to enjoy a lavish desayuno (breakfast) spread, while the park came alive. It was a perfect day of snorkeling, tubing, eating, lounging and exploring the grounds. We spotted wild boars, manatees, sting-rays iguanas, birds, ant-mon-coons (Not sure what they are really called, but this is what we named them) and too many fish to count. A luxurious day, especially for budget backpackers, we left full of wonderful food, completely relaxed and extremely appreciative. For dinner we dined on the main street in Tulum at a hole-in-the-wall spot serving up massive eight peso empanadas and, for dessert, sucked back some Chaya juice (Chaya is a healthy spinach-like green used in many typical dishes and drinks in the Yucatan & Quintana Roo states). At the end of our meal we mounted the motorcycle parked on the main street but as soon as Erik pulled away from the curb, CRASH, the bike went down in a heap. We were both able to jump free of the bike as it went down on its side. Erik made sure that I was okay and then said that the handlebars had locked up and he was unable to turn. We succeed in avoiding injury but were now blocking a major vehicle route and a police officer rushed over. Some quick investigating led Erik to discover the ignition switch had dropped through the cylinder and was jamming the steering assembly. This isn’t a spontaneous failure, so Erik concluded someone had tried to steal the bike by accessing the ignition switch. (The same thing had happened in Erik’s underground parking in Vancouver a year earlier.) But this was the first attempt to appropriate the bike in Erik’s almost six months on the road. With the help of a passing truck driver and police officer, we pulled the bike upright out of the way and searched the pavement for the missing screws, to no avail. Erik eventually figured out a way to get us home and the next day went to sort out the issue. Miraculously, in this tiny town, he managed to find a taller de moto (bike mechanic) and even more unbelievably, the man had a box full of odd screws, finding, in minutes, ones to fix the problem perfectly.

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Ready for another new home, we made way to our last town in Mexico before crossing into Belize. Bacalar is a mysterious place, not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Bryce had been a month earlier and insisted it was a must-see, as did our host in Merida, Jorge, who had been having dreams of it since a childhood visit. A tiny paradise, Bacalar is set on a crystal clear, white sand lagoon that doesn’t exceed 20 feet in depth. The swimming is heavenly and the tone, magical. Inhabited by only teeny fish and empty snail shells, it makes for one unforgettable getaway. We splurged a bit ($30) on a lovely hotel complete with hammocks, a dreamy garden and dock into the lake. Without much to do in town, we really wanted to check out The Fort de San Felipe Bacalar, built in 1725 to help fend off raids by pillaging pirates and illegal wood dealers, but being its only attraction, the cost was too rich for our budget. No big deal; the turquoise waters of the lagoon soothed and renewed us throughout our few days here as we prepared to leave Mexico behind for a new culture and country. If you are in the state of Quintana Roo, it is highly advisable to take a few days to relax in this tranquil oasis, just don’t expect to find much else to do.

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Yucatan

In Merida we stayed with Jorge the architect. He is a single, middle-aged guy – extremely nice (like extremely). It was his first foray into Couchsurfing and he was a great host. He had a spare apartment in his house with a big clean bed. After days in the jungle in Chiapas with mosquito nets and staying in ramshackle hotels at seedy Gulf towns, we were overjoyed to have a clean space all to ourselves. When Jorge got off work which was usually pretty late, around 9 or 10pm, he would still muster up the energy to take us around the city. We fell in love with the colonial architecture and wide boulevards of Merida. The main avenida which runs north-south through the city has some phenomenal mansions with beautiful gardens running along it. Around the start of the 19th century, Merida was one of the world’s wealthiest cities due to the henequen plant, the fiber of which was used to make rope and clothing. We were really taken by Merida also for the amenities it has to offer. There are numerous restaurants (like trendy restaurants – not just street stalls with plastic chairs and tables). There are huge, richly decorated malls with fountains and stores selling things that first-worlders would actually want or need. There was a Costco just two blocks from Jorge’s casa. We went to see what they had but unfortunately couldn’t afford to shop there. The prices, as well as the merchandise, is almost identical to the stores in Canada. (That perfect Monsanto corn they sell freaks the crap outta me.)  Luckily we had Jorge as a guide and he took us to all the best places; the oldest ice cream parlour in town, the spot to play pool, and to some amazing traditional restaurants. I can say without prejudice that Jorge was one of our most thorough hosts in conveying the culture, cuisine and experiences of his region. We also we thrilled to have the opportunity to walk Jorge’s three adorable, if spirited, beagles while we stayed with him.

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Running north from Merida is the flattest, straightest, best maintained road in the entire country. A half hour driving brings you to a small seaside town called Progresso. Progresso is famous for having the longest pier in the country running 6.5 km from shore due to the shallow coast. It is a major seaport for all of southern Mexico and beyond, hence the pristine highway leading to it. Beyond the pier is a charming, throwback beach town with lots of character. There is a paved main road which runs parallel to the coast and the other roads are sand and gravel. There are some shops and quaint restaurants along the main drag and the rest of the town are humble concrete block homes. Even the homes along the ocean are owned by Mexican families. Many are rented to tourists during the winter months but the town is not at all overrun by tourists – neither Mexi’s nor gringos. The town is still exceptionally Mexican despite its coastal locale and scenic beauty. We discovered Progresso through trying to track down some volunteer work in the area. Similar to Chiapas, the vast majority of voluntario opportunities offered were by NGO’s who rely on volunteers who pay to play. I have never been interested in funding organizations monetarily if I am offering my time and skills to their cause. During our search we learned about a woman from Winnipeg that lives in Progresso and is involved in a multitude of projects for the community. It didn’t sound as if she ran her own NGO but rather that she just informally helped out in her community. She runs a food bank that regularly distributes food to needy families. She helps to run the seniors home by recruiting other ex-pats to volunteer and solicits donations to handle the facilities maintenance. Unfortunately, when I contacted her by e-mail she said she was just leaving to go back to Winnipeg for two months and wouldn’t be around while we were there. She did, however, let me know about a baseball program for the kids which she also helps with.

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We got all the information and drove up to Progresso from Merida super early on Saturday morning to meet up with John and Bonnie from Toronto who were running the program in the interim. They met us just outside town and took us to the field where a group of Mexican children varying in ages from 5 to 15, were warming up. They looked very sharp in their matching uniforms and when I looked closer, I saw that the front of the jerseys read, “High Park Little League.” This was my little league team when I was a kid in Toronto! How funny. John and Bonnie had solicited some old jerseys from the league for the kids in Mexico. I tried to decipher whether these might have been a jersey year that I would have worn. We helped the kids warm up. Tanya worked with some of the toddlers showing them how to catch and I hit some balls into the outfield. The game was pretty mishmash and I could see that many of these kids would be tough to coach when they started yelling and getting ornery when we tried to separate them into two teams. Some of the kids wanted to stay together and it turned into a bigger deal than such a minor imposition would have warranted back home. Obviously the behavior of poor Mexican youngsters with numerous siblings and few opportunities is going to be drastically different to kids from a middle class urban neighbourhood in Toronto. But when the game finally started, I was really impressed with the skills of the kids. They were certainly rough around the edges, considering baseball isn’t a super popular sport in Mexico, but they showed incredible athletic ability and instincts. I was coaching out near second base and watched as a kid about 8 or 9, although sloppy, managed to turn a double play. Everyone seemed to be having a really good time, but unfortunately, due to approaching midday sun, the kids started begging off after each side had been up to bat just once. I guess it is tough to motivate dedication in 40C heat. For me, being back on a baseball diamond, I was prepared to play all day if the kids wanted. After baseball, John and Bonnie invited us back to the beach front house that they rent for 6 months during the winter. We sat around the pool, took a dip in the ocean as the sun went down and then helped to prepare an amazing home cooked meal. John and Bonnie were great company. We also got to meet some of their friends at the local pub later in the night. All super down to earth folks some of whom had been coming to Progresso for 20 years or more. I felt like the ex-pats here had really cultivated a sense of community with the locals and were not just flying in for cheap drinks and a beach and then flying out again.

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We fell in love with this whole area and after having travelled through a good portion of the country, I could see us making this a regular vacation spot. Real estate in Progresso, even on the ocean is incredibly affordable. The town isn’t overrun by gringos yet like the other handsome beaches throughout the country and it is still definitely Mexico but without the trash and crumbling buildings of the busy, squalid Mexico tourist towns. The proximity to Merida is great for amenities, culture and for some excitement when life on the beach gets too boring. There are also tons of Mayan ruins nearby including Palenque and the magnificently preserved Chichen Itza just a 2 hour drive away.  Also throughout the Yucatan Peninsula are hundreds of geographic formations called cenotes. Cenotes are craters caused by a pre-historic meteor shower. Many have filled up with groundwater and make incredible subterranean swimming holes. It is also widely speculated that the gigantic meteor which caused the ice age hit somewhere close to Progresso. Apart from Jorge, John and Bonnie, we met some incredible people in this part of Mexico. I found people to be extremely helpful, friendly and educated. There is also a moratorium on violence here. According to Jorge, the Narcos have declared Merida and its surrounds as a no operating zone and many of the narcos have thusly moved their families here.

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On my ride from Merida to Chichen Itza, my bike inexplicably ran out of gas. I should have still had another 70 km worth of petrol in the tank but the bike just stopped dead. Maybe I hadn’t filled it right to the top at my last petrol stop. Anyway, I was panicking being on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere and unable to leave my bike because of my luggage strapped to it. I could see an overpass across the highway in the distance so I took off my helmet and jacket and started pushing my bike hoping to at least find some shade. You won’t even believe what happened. Within five minutes I saw a BMW 1200GS motorcycle shoot past me. The rider saw me in distress and immediately pulled over to the shoulder to wait for me to reach him. When I got to his bike, I explained that I’d somehow run out of gas. The man, who was from Merida said he was heading to Tulum for the weekend with his girlfriend who was riding pillion. He said the next gas station wasn’t for another 40km but he would run ahead, get gas and bring it back for me. I was gob smacked. What a generous, unselfish thing to do especially when you on your way for a romantic weekend away. I thanked the pair, who both spoke English, profusely and propped myself up on my backpack with a book in the shadow of the overpass to wait. In about an hour the pair returned with an old 4 liter coolant bottle of gas. I tried to offer the guy 200 pesos for the gas and his trouble but he wouldn’t hear it. He said, it was his pleasure and that he’d been there before too. Then he jotted down his e-mail address and said if I ever needed anything during my time in Mexico, I was welcome to phone him. What a standup guy. I hate to belabor the point, but seriously, what’s the likelihood of something like that happening in Canada – and within just five minutes of getting stranded. Chalk up another point for Mexico.

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Campeche

Stayed a couple nights in both Ciudad del Carmen and Campeche. Not a whole lot to report on either.  Geographically, Ciudad del Carmen is pretty interesting. It is essentially a little island with huge concrete bridges joining it to the mainland on the east and west sides. It used to be a sleepy fishing town up until the 1970’s when Pemex discovered massive oil reserves offshore. Now it serves as home for foreign and Mexican oil workers – many from Texas. High-end hotels and restaurants are plentiful here entwined with the humble shacks and modest old homes of the poor fishermen. Between the 16th and 18th century the island was inhabited by pirates who used to launch raids from here against the Spanish. Curious thing about this place is that it isn’t even mentioned in the Lonely Planet. We stayed at a rundown but character-filled hotel a block off the beach. The hotel looked like it was from a bygone era, the 50’s I’d guess, when the seaside strip was a popular vacation destination. Now most of the hotels along the Playa Norte are crumbling, mosquito-infested relics with inattentive workers and dirty sheets (in our case blood stained). Our hotel had an old school swimming pool and a room transformed into a refuge for parrots and ducks. The parrots would lob abuse at me as I went for my morning swims. The beach, a block away, was packed on the weekends. Not a single gringo anywhere to be seen, just heaps of Mexican families getting shitfaced under tents, palapas, tail-gating. Lots of ATVs and dirt bikes rolling up and down the beach. Garbage everywhere, of course. The funniest part is watching the Mexi’s swim in their clothes. Many of the men even had cowboy hats on, one of which did a backstroke right past us. Probably smart considering the scorching sun this far south. Definitely some of the hottest days I’ve experienced yet. As the expat gringos say, “Campeche is hotter than the hinges of hell.”

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This guy was awesome. Helped me replace my final drive sprocket.

This guy was awesome. Helped me replace my final drive sprocket.

While I was waiting for Tanya to show up in town, I found a boisterous vaquero bar a couple doors down from the hotel. It was Sunday afternoon  and all of the 50 some tables were full with half-cut vacationing Mexicans sipping micheladas and shooting tequila. There were minstrel mariachi singers in matching shirts going from table to table taking requests. This city really does appear to be for Mexican’s only because there were no other gringos anywhere and I actually felt a bit of a hush as I walked into the festive bar with all eyes falling upon me in stunned surprise. Finding a table was reminiscent of a prison dining room scene from a movie. Once I found a spare seat to slink into, I started to enjoy the jovial scene around me. This was a real traditional, old school Mexican bar. I hadn’t seen any place this lively since the night Sonia and Gerald took me to Hussongs in Ensenada. I started having a blast taking in the music and chatting with the other patrons. I knew I was going to be a bit ‘barach’ by the time Tanya got to town. I did learn a valuable lesson at this restaurant. I ordered an item on the menu called huevas expecting eggs. I realized that the menu said huevas and not huevos, but figured it was either a misprint or a local ambiguity. At no time did it occur to me that I would have a plate of really gross looking sausages filled with fish eggs put in front of me. Apparently, huevas translates to roe in Spanish. The senora sitting in front of the kitchen had a good laugh when I went up to explain my mistake and try to barter for some eggs.

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This is how they do safety at Mexican construction sites.

This is how they do safety at Mexican construction sites.

The reason for visiting Ciudad Del Carmen other than it looked real cool on the map, was that we would traverse through the Reserva de les Biosfera Pantanos de Centla which at 300K ha is the largest wetlands reserve in North America. I looked at staying within the reserve but the only lodging I could find online charged 2000 pesos per noche. No thanks. Just driving through on the main road provided a great look at the natural vegetation and birdlife within the reserve. It took nearly two hours to drive through the marshlands and we avoided the assured mosquito onslaught by not staying at a lodge. This region contains one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the country with numerous biotopes including dunes, marshes, estuaries, mangroves, and lakes containing both fresh and brackish river. There are also 569 different plant species as well as 39 species of fish, 50 amphibians and reptiles, 60 mammals and 125 of birds. Some of the fauna that call the reserve home are storks, mallard ducks, peregrine falcons, osprey, iguana, crocodiles, manatee, otters, deer, jaguar, ocelots and howler monkeys. As well as protecting the flora and fauna, the reserve is also home to 15,000 Mayan mestizos. They are allowed to stay and live off the land permitted they are not destructive to the ecology. Major threats to the area include: development of the oil industry, lack of security personnel, pollution, deforestation, cattle ranching, illegal fishing and poaching and fires.

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Tobasco

T: Erik and I have many creative ways of meeting up when we arrive in a new place after a travel day apart. Nine out of ten times Erik arrives first. The bus drivers in Mexico tend to be a tad optimistic with their estimated arrival times and most often I get to the station when the cheaper and much slower bus is departing. The buses that run the most frequently, stop at EVERY single town en route and take twice as long as a bus that is 3x more expensive but leaves maybe twice a day. However unlikely, somehow, we always manage to find each other without much struggle. Ideally, we’d have the address of a Couchsurfing host, friend or hotel. The more thrilling experiences, however, come when we plan to leave it up to chance. Erik would rip around town to find a hotel and I arrive hours later, at any number of bus stations, search for an internet café to check for his email, and then go hunt him down. Villahermosa was quite different from the laid-back vibe in Palenque which we’d just left. We figured it would be interesting since everyone whom we told we were headed there gave us a crumpled, disbelieving look. On first impression Villahermosa is not the beautiful city its name claims. It is a dirty, run-down, gritty place filled with prostitutes, tough-looking cowboys and the bars and brothels in which they patronize. I made my way out of the bus station, grabbed a tamale from a lady on the street and slipped into an internet cafe. I scribbled down the cross streets in Erik’s email and set out to find him before the sun faded. I showed my piece of paper to multiple oddballs on the street, none too eager to help me, which was a first in Mexico. Most of the time, everyone wants to help and would rather point you in any direction than admit they don‘t actually know where something is. I find it very endearing, but unfortunately not a quality that many Villahermosans possess. So I wander, ducking under clothing racks and weaving thru the plastic furniture surrounding tacos stand after taco stand. I’m exhausted. Finally I spot the Zocalo and eye up a free bench, but before I can reach it, Erik emerges from a grimy restaurant up ahead, patting his belly and smiling. These are the best times. Such relief, happiness, excitement! He relieves me of my pack and explains that he found us the best hotel in town. He searched all afternoon and it was not an easy feat in this crazy city.

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On our short jaunt to the hotel, we passed a number of flashy pink or red pay by-the-hour hotels and it became clear what he’d meant. At first glance our hotel seemed different. The lady inside the tinted glass box who checked Erik in had been kind enough to let him park his bike inside the tiny front lobby. Our room was located at the end of a winding hallway as far from the dusty street and other suites as possible. Our bed was a bit of a surprise; the mattress made of a plastic material and our sheets, sort of a silk nylon blend. Black and red… a bit different. We figured beer and tequila would be a good way to endure the seediness of this particular locale so we set out into the dark, rowdy streets to pick some up. We didn’t have to go far; there seemed to be a place to buy booze or women every few feet. Rather than get into trouble, we opt for spending the night with our drinks, lounging in comfy leather chairs in the hotel entrance right beside the bike. We’re shooting tequila and plowing thru beers having a riot, when a Mexican couple walks in. They are very bizarre-looking couple. A couple, we realize, not in the traditional sense. The man behind the glass discreetly sells them a room for one hour, hands them a key and they disappear down the hall carrying a plastic bag full of beer. Twenty minutes later, they’re done. The man walks briskly past us, putting his head down and peels out in a fancy car. The lady, a few minutes behind, flashes us a toothy grin as she steps foot into the street to find her next gig. We had been duped! But it was too late to change hotels and the tequila was begging us to sit tight and watch the show. We obeyed and wide-eyed, we observed a variety of pairs as they ducked into a room and popped back out, sometimes a quick ten minutes later, but always with a smug grin. So this is why, Erik confesses, the lady behind the glass was confused at his request to check in for the entire night. We’re about halfway into our bottle of tequila and coming up on a beer shortage when three fairly well dressed men show up looking for a room. Also, for the whole night! They’re mighty friendly and get a kick out of the fact we have taken over the entire lobby with our spread of booze and huge motorcycle, so we offer them each a beer. They accept and instantly we are shootin’ the shit with these Mexican guys who, as it turns out, are heading to work on the oil rigs in Poza Rica the following morning. One of them runs to the store and comes back with a bunch more beer, really getting the night underway as we exchange stories and snap photos. Erik states his extreme hunger pangs, which normally at this hour he’d have to suck up, but the guys feel for him and attempt to order us a pizza. When this finally fails, everyone fancies a ride in a taxi to the nearest Domino’s and we jet into the unwelcoming city night with three extremely baracho Mexican dudes whom we’ve just met. But the guys continued to be super hilarious, directing the cab driver to rip around to several closed pizza shops, finally getting us to a Dominos which is still open at 3am. They didn’t even flinch when the cabbie asked them for 150 pesos for the ride. Clearly they just wanted to enjoy their R&R. When we got back to the hotel, the party moved from the lobby to the large room the guys had rented. We were all having a time but then it was late so we called it a night eventually finding our room in the hallway maze. The Mexi-oil workers did not call it a night -they we‘re just getting started.

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Tossing and turning on our strange plastic bed, we were not quite to sleep when someone knocked on our door. Erik, always quick to his feet, cracked the door to find out what was up. It was one of our “buddies“, apparently very sad that we had gone to bed and even more upset that we had taken our last two beers with us. Erik tells them that we are sleeping and again bids them goodnight. A few minutes later, another, much louder pounding on the door and Erik is on his feet in an instant. He flings open the door to tells these guys to piss off. They are insistent on having our last two beers and start threatening violence. Erik, only wearing boxers, steps out to reason with these belligerent idiots. I always have faith in Erik’s ability to reason with others; he seems to effortlessly outsmart the other party without involving violence, but this was a tough scene. It’s 5am in dingy hotel in an even dingier city, going up against three wasted Mexican blue collar workers –it isn’t exactly the kind of situation you want to find yourself. Erik does not take the threats lightly. As I listen at the door, armed with a knife and bear spray once again, I hear the voices trail off. Erik, barefoot in boxers, marches out into the street to a police station, fortuitously right across the street from the hotel. One of the drunkards realizes what Erik is doing and follows him outside to try and mitigate the damage. Two greasy-looking, ‘bad lieutenant-type’ police officers are sitting on either side of the big overhead door leading into the station. They’re both smoking cigarettes and have sub-machineguns resting in their laps. Erik walks straight up to the menacing duo ready to complain about the trouble at the hotel, but their reaction stops him cold in his tracks. Despite Erik’s attire, the officers don’t seem concerned or phased in the least. They barely look up and when one of them glances in Erik’s direction, he merely offers a sadistic, taunting sneer. Realizing the officers may be more of a hindrance than help, Erik stands wordlessly in front of them assessing his options. The guy from the hotel, the one Erik is trying to escape from, passively edges up behind Erik and in a terrified voice whispers over Erik’s shoulder, “You be better off with us then with them, Cabron.” Erik quickly sees the truth in this remark and the two of them hurriedly cross back to the hotel to deal with the situation in-house. The other two troublemakers are hiding in the lobby peeking pensively through the windows and seem incredibly relieved that Erik hasn’t returned with the policia. They all assure Erik that it’s over, that they were just acting drunk and they’re happy to squash it. Erik gladly accepts the conditions of the truce and everyone returns to their rooms. We didn’t hear another peep from the guys and they were already gone when we woke up the next morning. This situation proved a good example of the helplessness of Mexican’s who are victimized and the only people who they can turn to for help are likely to victimize them even more.

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Chiapas

I looked up the definition of the word savage. It means cruel, crippled, regressed back to a primal state of being. One day, maybe, we’ll be back. For now, we live like savages… beautiful, savages.                               –Ophelia from the movie Savages

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The state of Chiapas has undoubtedly the most luxuriant natural beauty in Mexico. It is home to a large population of Mayans and nearly became a part of Guatemala before being wrested away by Mexico. Riding through the windy (as in twisty, not blustery… though both are apt) mountain roads enveloped by the misty jungle has been a highlight of this trip. The forest canopies are like no other I have seen. From a distance, the forests take on an ethereal look. There is an undeniable mysticism at play here, as if the mists carry ancient secrets shared amongst the trees.  I’ve been thinking a lot about days lately. About the occurrence of good days and bad days, why they fluctuate and what control I have over this. I remember lessons learnt from past trips that if I start my day positively and continue in this fashion; with no stress, concentrating on my breathing, smiling at people, being patient and generally cheerful, I am much more likely to have a good day. Of course this is not always the case. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you get bogged down with frustrations, concerns or mishaps and everything quickly turns to shit. I’ve been having multiple problems with my motorcycle since arriving in this region. I blew out the rear tire of my bike running over a nail in the middle of a main road of Pochutla, the main town where the bus stops outside Zipolite. Aldous Huxley described Pochutla in 1933 as “…dismal a village as I had ever seen. It lay there, ankle-deep in dust under the blazing sun, irrevocably lost. No, not even lost:  for there had obviously never been anything to lose. Just hopelessly not there – the half-dead, pre-natal ghost of a place.” A bit harsh, I suppose, but not altogether inaccurate. Still, an unlucky place to blow a tire. Luckily I was only three blocks from a Yamaha dealership and the pleasant 17-year old meccanico put in my spare tube in half an hour for just 70 pesos. But not four days later, coasting down the mountain from San Fernando on the way to see the Sima de las Cotorras, I ran over another nail punching two holes in the rear tube. What are the odds? No mechanical problems for four months and then two blow outs within four days. A bit spooky, right? Well that was three weeks ago and since then I’ve popped the seal on the rear mono-shock and shredded the teeth on the final drive sprocket. Pretty serious issues, especially in Mexico. I feel like this isn’t just wear and tear. The bike only has 20K kilometers on it. I’m convinced that fate is somehow playing a hand here.  It’s times like this when you realize how little control you have over the fates and resign yourself to just settling in for the ride. Mind you I feel that remaining positive and keeping your sense of humour when things keep going bad is extremely character building. This is one of the greatest lessons that travelling in the third world has taught me. I’m definitely prone to melt downs, and having pretty serious control issues, I guess it takes a harder toll on me when things go sideways. On a bright note, I am learning quite a lot about motorcycle repair.

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We spent a couple days in a busy town called Jucitan de Zaragosa. The manager of our hotel told us no one ever stays two nights. This is merely a stopover city;  a place to spend the night and rest during a long bus journey. The reason we stayed an extra day certainly wasn’t to take in the sights, but because I was suffering from my second bout of sunstroke. Not a couple days before, Tanya had fallen prey to the same affliction. We might just have to consider decreasing our tequila consumption and drinking more water. Predictably, I had fallen ill in probably the grimiest of cities we had come across and certainly the dingiest hotel room so far. The fan and shower barely worked, the water had a rusty tinge, the walls were streaked with dirt and whatever else – forget about a TV. Of course Tanya decided to get sunstroke in the luxury of our handsomely decorated beachfront hotel in Zipolite with a swimming pool right outside our door for her to lily dip and cool down before resuming her sleep nestled within the clean, comfortable lemon-scented bedspread. Fijase! The most noteworthy thing about Juchitan de Zaragosa was its zócalo. Like every town in Mexico, Juchitan was not without its main plaza complete with a traditional gazebo smack dab in the center. What makes the zócalo in Juchitan unique are the thousands of blackbirds that live in the trees throughout the square. When we first approached at dusk, we thought we were looking at a harried swarm of bats hovering above the tree line. But upon closer inspection we saw that they were in fact birds;  a dizzying, noisy assemblage of rather large blackbirds. Apparently they are here day and night and so, of course, they shit over everything. All the food stall ladies, the craft sellers and the shoe shiners have tarps over their areas and every inch of the tarps are liberally coated with bird shit. It is a disgusting yet thoroughly intriguing scene as the zócalo operates like any other. All the townspeople were out in force, as I’m sure they are every night;  families consuming their tomales and tortillas, lovers strolling hand in hand, old men sitting on the edges of the fountain having a chat. We couldn’t stop giggling with amazement and revulsion. We certainly did not dine here under the cover of the filthy tarpaulins stretched like a patchwork around a good percentage of the parque. Huxley also discusses the value of the zócalo in his book Beyond the Mexique Bay. His observations are so comical and spot-on that I would be remiss if I did not include the passage. I was even forced to type out the quote as the book is so obscure, I couldn’t find any part of a transcript online.

“Every Central American village has its bandstand – would consider itself disgraced if it hadn’t. Does the band ever play? Except in the largest towns, I’ve never heard one. Those bandstands, it is obvious, have a mainly symbolic value. They somehow stand for public spirit – are in some sort of equivalents, psychologically, of the absent hospital, the non-existent drainage system. The bandstand once built, a citizen feels, I suppose, that enough has been done pro bono publico, and that he may return with a good conscience to his own affairs. The poor may die miserably, like dogs in a ditch, the municipal water supply may be crawling with typhoid, the streets may be full of holes, and unlighted at night. But, if there were a band and if it did happen to know some music, it would be able to play to the assembled population from a handsome Moorish kiosk in the center of the plaza.”

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After finally leaving the distasteful Juchitan de Zaragosa and its unhygienic zócalo behind, we traveled to the large capital city of Chiapas, Tuxtla-Gutierrez. As usual, Tanya left by bus while I rode on my motorcycle. It is not lost on us that this is an unusual way for a couple to travel, but as this trip was in the making long before I met Tanya and as we cannot apparently bear to be apart, this is how it is. All in all, it has been working out fairly well. Tanya is gaining invaluable travel experience under fire while I get the immense freedom of the open road. As she is so independent, Tanya seems to enjoy the logistics and trials of sorting out travel plans on her own. It’s a bit like school. She gets geography class navigating around the different towns and cities to locate bus stations. Then she has her economics lesson ensuring that she doesn’t pay ‘impuesto blanco’ or more than the appropriate fare. And, more often than not, she makes friends on the buses to either practice her Spanish with or to share stories and learn more about the culture. The novelty of riding buses while travelling has long worn off for me. That is one of the main reasons why I wanted to make this trip by motorcycle. I love the freedom of going at my own speed, stopping to take pictures when I want, taking side roads to find a swimming place or a rarely-visited temple. I like to stop and eat at roadside food stalls and interact with the locals who probably aren’t accustomed to meeting tourists, least of all those who want to have a conversation with them. Barring breakdowns, I almost always arrive at our destination first. I will then sort out our accommodation. Sometimes we agree to meet at a certain hotel in advance or sometimes just meet by chance in the town center or along the main street. We both seem to enjoy letting providence govern and get a kick out of our coincidental meetings. There have, of course been a few times when either I or Tanya has been several hours late and the one left waiting freaks out a bit, but it is a good example of the trust we have in one another. We do always turn up eventually with some harrowing story or, in one case, Tans just fell asleep on the bus and missed her stop.

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Monica’s house is in San Fernando up a steep hill overlooking Tuxtla-Guiterrez. It is a quiet community with some nice houses hidden amongst the trees. Monica is an architect and has a big white concrete house where she lives with her son Alex, her brother, mother and father. She designed the house herself and has been working on the construction for 12 years now. This is sort of the way it goes in Mexico. When you have some money, you build a little bit more. It looked like they were getting close to finishing, although there was still an exposed beam running right along the living room ceiling with rebar dowels poking out. The whole family was great to us;  Mama made us lots of yummy food, we had fun playing with Alex and showing him funny Youtube videos and Monica invited some of her colleagues over for drinks one night, to chat construction with me. (It seems the trend in Mexico is that the Architect oversees the construction in addition to the design.) The one thing that really stood out about Monica’s, however, was the noise. There is no doubt that this is the loudest house I have ever been in in my life. We were sleeping on a mattress on the second floor mezzanine so there were no walls or doors to shield us from the blaring onslaught. At 6:00am every morning, the construction crews would start. They were knocking out a concrete wall directly below us with a sledge hammer. Shortly afterwards the household would wake and the clattering and clanging of breakfast noise was so loud it would compete with the racket from the demolition work. Then there were the regular daily noises; telephone calls, loud conversations, Mexican cowboy music, child screaming, mother screaming. It was intense. Of course we would be out for most of the day, but when we would return for bed, there was more loud conversation until quite late and every night the unemployed brother would stay up until about 4:00am watching a movie at full blast with surround sound. They were lovely people but just didn’t seem to be at all concerned about their house guests need for sleep in the open upstairs loft. We had a nice stay but were grateful to be on our way so we could catch up on three nights of missed sleep.

The domed ceiling over Monica's livingroom

The domed ceiling over Monica’s living room

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Our first outing in Tuxtla was quickly interrupted by a nail piercing my rear tire. I knew what happened instantaneously as the same thing had just happened four days earlier. The difference being, that this time I had Tanya on the back and we were careening down a steep hill from Monica’s neighbourhood in the clouds. I managed to keep the bike steady but had to pull over on the left side of the road on the meridian because the traffic was too heavy to get over on the shoulder. As soon as we stopped and had dismounted a guy pulled over next to us to find out what the problem was. He kindly told us that there was a vulcanizadora not even a block further up the street. We thanked the man cheerfully and looked at one another not believing our good luck. Blowing a tire is shitty but its way better when you can wheel the bike to a repair shop without breaking a sweat. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be all roses, as we were about to discover that this particular shop only worked on big rigs. I wheeled the bike through an auspiciously placed gap in the median with Tanya flagging the unending flow of cars encouraging them to slow the fuck down! The men from the shop saw us coming and immediately ran down to the end of their driveway to greet us and give a hand. They had been working on trying to get a 4 ft diameter wheel off the inside axle of a huge trailer. I spoke to them for a few minutes and explained the problem, which was sort of obvious, but in Mexico you can never assume anything is obvious. The three men, none of whom spoke a word of English, then began telling me that yes, no problem, I could leave the bike and they would fix it. I went into the tiny, filthy hut at the top of their lot which contained a sundry of grease covered tools laying all over the floor and small bench and asked to see the seal material they would use to fix the puncture. Yes, lo and behold, they did indeed have a patch kit! Okay, I thought, I’d give them a chance and see what they could do. They were delighted and all three of them, abandoning the job on the trailer, started running about preparing for this decidedly more exotic task. When one of the guys ran up with a big rock to jack up the rear wheel and another arrived with a pair of pliers to loosen the wheel lock, I was like, “There’s no way these guys are touching my bike.” I started waving my arms and telling them thanks so much but I would try to find a place that deals with motorcycles. When I was sure they understood and weren’t too put out, I grabbed Tanya’s hand and we walked down a few blocks to a petrol station.

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I started asking all the gas jockeys if there was a taller de moto nearby or even a vulcanizadora that works on vehicles under 25 ft long. The pump guys are usually great sources of information especially regarding meccanicos, but they all admitted there wasn’t anything around and pointed me back to the big rig guys. It seems that we were in a dead zone and just thinking about the cost and logistics of getting a flatbed to tow by bike was giving me a migraine. We went back to the first shop and dejectedly I said, “Okay guys… let’s give this a shot.” We found a wheel rim to use as a jack instead of the rock and one of the guys started trying out different sprocket heads. Between the four of us we got the wheel off without too much struggle. Of course, that’s the easy part. We all went back into the hut, where Tanya had been hiding from the sun laughing and taking photos the whole time. One of the guys pried the tire off with a crowbar and the older, heavy set man, who appeared to be the jefe, prepared the patch. We discovered that the nail had actually punched two holes in the tube;  an entrance and exit wound. The jefe was still confident and indicated that it was no problem – he could fix it. While we were waiting for the patch to set, a fourth man showed up and greeted us jauntily. He pulled out some strange looking fruits which we found out later were chirimoyas, an oval fruit with a tough green skin you can cut open to reveal the sweet white flesh. He then offered us each a glass of Coke which we gratefully accepted as we were baking inside the tin encased workshop. As we were finishing our fruit snack and chatting with the workers, the jefe came up with the sealed and re-inflated tube for my inspection. He gave me the same look which he had been giving me each time they passed a milestone. A proud expression suggesting, “See? No problem. We got this.” I looked at the tube and was happy with the workmanship. I still wasn’t going to trust a patched rear tire especially with my girl on the back, but it looked like it would at least get us to a proper repair shop. With the tube and tire back on the rim, we went outside once again braving the scorching midday sun. (Yes, we had left early in the morning and, yes, everything in Mexico takes an incredibly long time.) I watched as the guys jimmied the wheel into place and fiddled with the brake caliper. I could see that there was a potentially overwhelming amount of confusion at this stage, so I bent down to give a hand. I hadn’t wanted to be impolite as the group had seemed incredibly proud of their efforts up ‘til now, but as I knelt beside them and grabbed the tools they seemed grateful to be off the hook. I got the wheel back on and adjusted the slack on the chain. As long as the patch didn’t let go we should be alright. I surely didn’t want to risk carrying on with our day trip out to the Siem Catorra which was 60 km out of town and accepted that the rest of the day would be spent trying to find a proper sized tube and a shop to change it over. We paid the jefe and thanked the guys who were all still beaming from a job well done.

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On the main road leading into the city, we stopped at a stoplight and a big expensive-looking Yamaha motorcycle pulled up beside us. On a whim I raised my facemask and yelled over to the rider to ask if he knew the meccanico mejor in town. The rider lifted his facemask and to our surprise responded in perfect English. To our further disbelief he said that his friend ran the best shop in town and it was just 6 blocks further up the street. He offered to take us there and we accepted with gratitude. In less than 5 minutes we pulled up to the most well equipped, professional-looking motorcycle shop that I had seen anywhere in Mexico. There were also more than a dozen other bikes in the shop awaiting service. This was definitely a good sign. The jefe was a kindly looking man with eye glasses and a thick moustache. I held my breath as I asked after a tube for my rear tire which was an extremely rare size in Mexico. I couldn’t believe it when the guy pulled out an entire box of 130mm tubes. Yippee! They pulled my bike onto a hydraulic lift and knew exactly what they were doing. They even told me that the brake plates were worn a bit and had a replacement for those too. As I wandered around the shop, I noticed pictures on the walls of the jefe, in his younger days, with large groups of riders all decked out in expensive racing gear standing next to their bikes. Apparently the owner belongs to the Chiapas Motorcycle Club and has been a member for many years. This guy was the real deal. While there, I bought a spare rear tube and thankfully paid the 200 peso charge, about $15. Tuxtla is a gigantic city and the fact that we had found this place was completely dumb luck. The fates at work once again like mischievous angels keeping balance in the world.

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We eventually made it to the Sima de Catorras which means Sinkhole of Parrots. Monica had shown us a coffee table book of this magical place at her house and recommended we take a trip to see it. Within the El Ocote Biosphere Reserve, it is a giant 160ft diameter, 140ft deep cavity in the karst limestone. The crater is noted for the thousands of green parrots which live in the trees at its base and visitors can watch hundreds soar across the massive canyon together in unison. In the afternoon of the same day, we rode out to  El aquacero, an incredibly beautiful waterfall running into a steep river canyon. The climb into the canyon took about twenty minutes down a lingering wooden staircase – there are 1200 steps in all. Once at the river, we waded through the shallow warm water until we came upon the cascada. Called Cloudburst in English, it lives up to its name as the water plunges from high above, splintering as it falls upon a series of uneven rock sills. The base of the waterfall is limestone and not slippery at all. On the contrary, the light brown stone provide a good grip to walk along without fear of losing your footing. We had a fairly sensational afternoon bathing underneath the crashing water and floating along the meandering river. Infrequently visited by tourists, this out of the way natural attraction was one of our favourite spots in Mexico.

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T: The change in temperature from the pacific coast to the heart of Chiapas was intense. I usually wear a tank-top on the bus and keep a scarf or light sweater in my small carry-on bag, but neither would suffice for the 15 degree dip in Celsius. In only a couple hours, the sun disappeared completely unable to compete with the mountains, clouds and fire smoke. San Cristobal de las Casas is the most popular spot in Chiapas and it is easy to see why, as soon as you arrive. Despite the cold weather, the city itself keeps its charm. Ridiculously stunning, reminiscent still of the Spanish rule;  grand colonial style buildings and churches run alongside shops and houses painted with vibrant teals, pinks, reds, yellows.  Adorable cafes, restaurants and bars lining the main street, each one complete with welcoming happy hour specials and smiling doormen. Starving after a long journey, Erik and I happened upon the best restaurant in town, which we would come to visit many times over. La Casa del Pan is a vegetarian place using all local, fresh produce from both the high elevation farms nearby or its own roof-top garden.  In the early evening they employ a lovely local woman who sets up at the front door with a huge traditional grill, frying up veggie quesadillas with her handmade tortillas. In the back, they have set up a small movie theatre where they play weekly, educational films and documentaries. We caught one about the Zapatistas. Quite the space and to top it off, the staff were the most efficient we would find in all of Mexico. Even considering the temperature can drop to freezing in the evenings, the party scene in San Cris seems not to halt for anything.

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First night trying out my new toupée. Not sure how much longer I’m going to let Tanya cut my hair for.

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Our first few nights we stayed in a cozy little hostel with a diverse group of other travelers. We spent time exchanging stories with our fellow travelers, but as Friday night happened upon us, rather than take turns at the tiny fire again, we layered up and hit the bar scene – Erik and I leading the parade. San Cris is known for its young artist community as much as its beauty and we broke the ice with a live stage performance by a pair of wacky actors and plenty of booze to get the laughs going. Erik and I left our team at a table and went to work on the locals, meeting Javier, a Mexican who lived briefly in Canada and therefore spoke English fluently. Javier knew everyone in town, had a hot French girlfriend in tow and most importantly, gave us insight on the best parties that night. The evening took us to several small incognito bars, all with one main drink:  Mezcal. Rough crowds parted as we filled these little joints, Erik or I B-lining for the bar and ordering up ten shots before anyone could decline. For those who don’t know, Mezcal is fucking strong in both flavour and proof, helping us rapidly orchestrate a full-blown travelling fiesta. After about three shots, my throat started to ache as they slid down. At the next bar, I decided I needed to have a chaser for my shot so I asked the bartender. Of course, he breaks into laughter, giving me the “stupid Gringa” glare, as do all the hard-looking Mexicans around the bar and tries to tell me he’s flat out. Of all pop, juice, lime slices? I think he’s a liar and certainly will not acquiesce to these drunken goons. So I reach over, poking and prodding behind the bar, nearly jumping right over and discover there really is nothing back there – not so much as a splash of coke. I finally accept that he may actually be telling the truth and turn to leave. I turn around and there’s this leathery, pock-marked dude who hands me a bowl of little, um, things. Its dark and I can’t quite tell what it is but I’m thinking bar nuts?? Eat this, he says, it’s what Mexicans snack on after a shot of mezcal. All eyes are on me. I pretend to know exactly what is in the bowl and toss a hefty pinch into my mouth, thanking the man and smiling as I chew and swallow it down. Hiding my disgust, I walk away with my head high, to the chuckles and looks of shock. Despite the revolting taste in my mouth, I was happy that I stood my ground. I suddenly have a feeling I knew what I had just eaten and Javier’s wide grin confirmed it:  ‘grasshoppers‘. Dried and spiced;  a common snack found in the dingiest of bars. A couple more shots of mezcal would wash it away, I hoped, and I signaled Erik to round up the troops.

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Sometime restaurant bathrooms in Mexico have Jacuzzis !!!

Sometime restaurant bathrooms in Mexico have Jacuzzis !!!

For our next destination we were advised to stop at Revolution Bar, a live music bar somewhere in this neighbourhood. Lost, cold and getting a little frustrated we needed to figure it out quickly before we lost our gang. I jumped ahead of the group spotting a threesome of fun-looking drunks, singing as they skipped down the cobble stone street. Instinctively, I linked arms with one and joined their circus, asking “A donde vas?” Sure enough they were en route to the very bar we were looking for so I yelled out to my comrades to catch up quick;  I‘d found our next drink! The Revolution was a happenin’ place with a live band pumping out the perfect dance tunes. There was barely a spot to stand, let alone ten, but we managed to squeeze in and join the pandemonium. After numerous dances, jokes and even more shots, my three new friends pulled us back out into the street leading us to another few Mezcal haunts before the final stop: an underground dirty dancing club which was hardly visible from the street. By this time we had lost most of the people we’d started out with but had made a whack more friends with whom we began to bump and grind the night away. I was getting down on the dance floor with Erik keeping six nearby. When the fun bouncy tunes turned into some hardcore metal and a rowdy mosh-pit took over, we took it as our queue to leave. We escaped into the freezing night and headed home, all our hostel peeps had vanished and the sun would be up soon anyhow.

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After our stint in the hostel, we were finally accepted by a couch surfing host, Oscar. Oscar was a riot from the get-go and very much entertained us during our stay. Without a job, Oscar pretty much dedicated his days to bicycling around, watching soccer and hosting couch surfers. He had this routine down to a science. Not unusual in couch surfing, he had not added a description of the available sleeping quarters on his profile and it seemed we would be crashing on a couple of thin mattresses on his kitchen/living room/bedroom floor. His place was small. One room with an adjoining bathroom to be exact. Clearly, we needed to get drunk to withstand these new sleeping conditions – it wouldn’t exactly be comfortable (or private). Oscar had a bottle of tequila and a trivia game already waiting for us, so we got after it right away. Turns out this is Oscar’s shtick. We had planned to crash here a couple nights but the next evening, three young Belarussian girls knocked on the door. Oscar, looking a touch red, confessed to having accepted these ladies and realized he was now in a predicament. It was already dark and five of us certainly would not fit on the floor of this tiny apartment. Lucky for Oscar, his landlord had an empty suite which he paid to house the now very angry Belorussians for one night, out of his own pocket. This was a theme for Oscar, we learned, as we got to know him over the next week. We were forced to stay in San Cris for longer than expected due to some much needed motorcycle repairs, so we rented the suite across from Oscars place. Every night, he had a new couch surfer with whom he played the trivia game over a bottle of tequila and escorted them to the very same night club. And if they were female, he’d put his moves on them, screwing in his red light bulb for an extra romantic vibe.

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While Oscar was doing his best to swoon the ladies, Erik and I took to the many luxurious cafes, indulging in mochas and decadent little pastry treats. San Cris is also home to the most incredible market I found in Mexico. One of my favourite places to visit, I frequented the diverse stalls, searching and bargaining for the best fruits, vegetables and souvenirs they had to offer. Much of the art you find is mass-produced in Mexico City (or perhaps China), so you really have to pay attention to what is being sold and be careful not to make snap purchases if you want for something truly original. Every vendor in Mexico will answer “si, si” when you ask if they’ve made the crafts themselves, but then you look over a the souvenirs a couple stalls away and they are identical. One visit we found a young guy who handmade amazing snake skin cuffs. I had to buy one for Erik. Considering his deep-seeded fear of snakes, I reasoned that perhaps wearing a swath of their skin would act as a talisman and keep them away. The vendor was actually working on one when we stumbled upon his stand and he was clearly an exceptional artist – we’d seen nothing like it. We are always careful to give each person’s goods a look and buy only from friendly, hard-working locals who are happy to make a sale, rather than those only see us as dollar signs and scowl or curse at us if we don’t buy anything.  I hunted up and down many isles to find the best herbs, tomatoes, mangoes and raw chicken. Hopeful I’d made the right choice, I listened in on vendors selling to indigenous people to ensure I got a fair price. Most of the time, as long as I was alone (Erik looks rich to everyone so they always try to charge more if he is around) I get a good deal and avoid paying gringo tax, or impuesto blanco, as Erik calls it. Speaking a little Spanish and knowing the price to pay sure helps. I’d just hand them the money I knew it was worth, smile, thank them and walk away. I often bought so much food here it was a struggle to walk home, arms completely full, I once lost a dozen eggs to the pavement only a block from our place. Everything is so fresh it’s irresistible to someone who loves to cook! We felt it was important to support the local farmers; something the Zapatistas have always fought hard for which is a prevalent topic and source of pride throughout Chiapas. Even Erik loved the market, spending a lot of his time searching for pirated DVDs for a buck apiece, testing each one out for English, before purchasing.

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Leaving the market one afternoon, Erik spotted a modest hair salon and I jumped at the idea of getting my hair done. Claudia, my estilista, was absolutely adorable and looked like she ran a fairly clean, professional salon, but she didn’t speak a lick of English and I was struggling to recall the word for “hair”. I negotiated the price to a fair $20, settled in and waded through a pile of magazines to demonstrate the colour/cut I was aiming for. After nearly three hours in the chair, I was a brilliant rubio  and Claudia was delighted with her efforts. I’m pretty certain I was the first fair-skinned girl who’s hair she has dyed. She was so damn thrilled that she threw in a free makeup job to finish off my ‘look,’ before phoning her husband to come and check out her masterpiece. It took a few days for the dye to completely wash out (the bucket over my head tactic fell a little short on a complete rinse) but the joy and pride Claudia experienced was well worth it. That, and the delighted look on Erik’s face, ecstatic to have his blond babe girlfriend back. Overall, we loved our stay in San Cristobal but I should probably mention its one unapologetic, glaring trait:  the street vendors. Blanket ladies, shoe shine kids, old women with pens, children as young as four and five trying to peddle candies or small clay animal figures (which we got suckered into buying a couple of). Sadly, the job of many people in this area is to climb up and down the streets, day and night, looking to sell their wares or skills. San Cris is littered with these poor folk and, admittedly, it can be a pain in the ass. You can barely walk a minute or take a bite of your meal without being harassed by someone trying to sell you something and although it presents the massive problem of poverty in this area, it can be very frustrating. We fell for the trap once while downing beers on a patio, two little boys filled our table with their trinkets before we could blink and we just couldn’t say no. And well… my cowboy boots did really need a good polishing  and it was only 15 pesos. For the most part, a “no gracias” will remove them from your side, but some seem bored and try to annoy you as best they can. It can be tough to keep your wits but is always advisable to be polite.

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E: While staying in San Cris, Oscar, our CS host, showed us some incredible tourist videos of an area in the very south of Chiapas called Lagos de Montebello. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ror3hepR4HQ  Although this lake district was in the opposite direction to where we were going, we felt compelled to take a few days out to visit them. The trip was great. With no gear, except Tanya’s backpack strapped to the back of the bike, it felt like we were on a little mini-vacation. On the way, we hooked down a dirt road west to see La Casacas de El Chiflon or the Big Whistle Waterfalls. El Chiflon is made up of 5 falls with the most turquoise water, I’ve ever seen. The waterfall at the very top falls from a height of over 70ft. After about three hours climbing the waterfalls and swimming in the pools and rivers below, we retrieved our motorcycle helmets and backpack from the nice parking attendant, and carried on to the lagos.

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There is not much in this area of Mexico, just 10-15 km north of the Guatemalan border. As we approached the National Park, we began to see a smattering of cabins and a couple hotels. As there were still a few hours of daylight left we decided to cruise right in to see if we could find accommodations within the park. We came across some very simple cabanas, a brand new block just at the entrance and some very old, rustic cabins on the edge of one of the lakes. Both places were asking 200 ($15) pesos a night for these extremely sparten lodgings. I decided to ride back out onto the main highway to check out some of the nicer hotels there. There was one place that looked rather luxurious with a collection of ornamental, Bavarian style cottages hemmed in by a white, cattle guard fence. It was the type of place that we usually wouldn’t even consider because it would be prohibitively expensive – but being in an seldom-visited, desolate corner of Chiapas, I figured I’d have a run at it. The resort was completely uninhabited and while speaking to the kindly manager about a cabana, I managed to get the price down from the posted price of 700 pesos to 300 pesos. The cabana was lovely and clean and there was a cool bar and restaurant in the main house. Oscar had been nice enough to offer us his tent in case we wanted to save some money and camp in the park, but campsites being 100 pesos, I reasoned we might as well stay in the lap of luxury for just another 200 pesos more. There was a covered carport right next to the cabana to park the bike. We unpacked our one bag and wandered into the mainhouse in search of some grub. Dinner was fabulous with very attentive and friendly servers. We felt extremely spoiled especially considering we had the entire restaurant and all the employees to ourselves. After dinner, we decided that we couldn’t waste the opportunity to have a few drinks at the well-appointed bar, so we nestled into the stools for a few drinks. The young bar tender, Moises, who is born and raised just a few kilometers from the hotel was great company and a couple drinks turned into a few. At one point Tanya found herself behind the bar teaching young Moises how to make a proper Margarita, which of course is the national drink of Mexico. Moises was thrilled to learn some tips from a ‘professional bartender.’ Owing to their severe sugar dependency, Margaritas in Mexico are waaaay too sugary so Tanya is taking it upon herself to revise the recipe nationwide to suit her own tastes. Seriously though, this was just the first of many occasions that I was to watch Tans slyly get herself invited behind the bar to lead a Margarita tutorial.

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Eventually we retired to our cozy cabin eager to be accosted by the subconscious parody of our tequila-induced dreams We’d been in bed for less than half an hour when we heard a bunch of car engines coming down the long driveway. Our beautiful, peaceful vacation spot was ours no longer. Three cars and two van loads of Mexicans had descended upon us and were appropriating all the cabanas surrounding us. Despite it being after 11pm, in typical Mexican fashion, the new arrivals didn’t make much of an effort to limit their noise. Their entrance reminded me of an urban holiday procession:  load vehicle noises and doors slamming, children screaming excitedly, adults laughing and shouting to one another across the grounds, heavy footfalls on the pavement outside our door. Of course none of the cabanas are insulated so the sound wasn’t muffled even an iota. Then we started hearing the heavy wooden bedframes being dragged across the floors of the cabanas and any chance of drifting off to sleep was gone. I threw on shorts, t-shirt and my sandals and went off to find the manager. Some of the new arrivals were already in the bar having drinks. I walked past them and right into the kitchen where I found the manager directing the kitchen staff who had inevitably returned to their posts in haste and were busily making late night tortillas for the new guests. Using Spanish and with the help of some charades I described to the manager the intense noise which had fiercely pervaded our tranquil evening. He understood and I could gather from his demeanour that neither he nor the staff were particularly enthused by this inconsiderate and demanding group of rich Mexican tourists showing up at this hour. Without further discussion, the manager dutifully upgraded us to one of the gorgeous suites on the other side of the property, with a sitting room and a fireplace. It is not often that I have witnessed customer service to this degree in Mexico. Needless to say we were very happy with our stay in this hotel!

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On our way back to San Cris to return Oscar’s tent and reacquire the rest of our gear, we stopped at a small archaeological site called Chinkultic. An ancient Maya city, Chinkultic would have flourished between 200 and 800AD.  There was an incredible stepped pyramid which climbed up a hill and, from the top, it looked down onto a steep river gorge and the surrounding countryside beyond. We got in a bit of trouble from the security guard for jumping a rope so we could get right to the very top of the temple. We quickly eased the tension by explaining to the frazzled guard, “Mi Gusta Mayans!” This seemed to eradicate any memory of our wrongdoing, the guard asking us, “De donde eres?” and wished us, “Buen viaje” on the rest of our trip. When we emerged back onto the highway, we saw a small indigenous community across the road so we decided to explore. This neighborhood was a perfect grid of equal size blocks spanning maybe 20 in either direction with dirt roads running in between. Very few cars or trucks were on the streets or even parked outside the houses. Most of the yards around the houses had been cultivated to contain crops and many of the enclosed areas were home to small livestock or poultry. It was an absolutely charming community and the thing that really caught our attention was the fact that every single person we rode passed acknowledged us with either a beaming smile, excited wave or a “buenas tardes.” It was amazing. There was no sensed animosity for our invasion. There was no jealously for our nationality. None of the people even looked grumpy. We determined this is probably the barrio where our sweet bartender, Moises, is from. Our quick little detour turned into a complete exploration as we rode down street after street taking it all in, not wanting to tear ourselves away from this fascinatingly cheerful hamlet. We have no idea what the name of this tiny enclave is, but from the surface it has to be one of the happiest places I’ve ever visited. I imagine its location in the middle of  nowhere and the lack of gringos and gringo influence might have something to do with this.

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Tanya being Mayan

Tanya being Mayan

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This boy was diligently doing his homework on a dining room chair

20130307-IMG_3727Of course, Chiapas is home also to the infamous Zapatistas, a rebel movement fighting for the rights of the indigenous people of Mexico. The Zapatistas were originally created in 1910 to take part in the Mexican Revolution. The original Zapatistas quickly disbanded after their leader, Emil Zapata’s assassination in 1919. But on January 1st, 1994, a new movement identified as the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional or EZLN declared war on the government of Mexico. This date also marks the launch of the North American Free Trade Agreement. On this day an army of Mayan farmers invaded and captured a half dozen towns in Eastern Chiapas and freed all prisoners from the San Cristobal jail. The Zapatistas are led by Subcomandante Marcos, a Mestizo philosophy major from Mexico City who served with the Sandanistas in Nicaragua during the 1980’s. The movement is extremely popular throughout Chiapas with posters of Marcos in his black balaclava and signs everywhere showing support for the EZLN. Marcos has written more than 21 books expressing his political and philosophical views.

Naomi Klein writes of Marcos, “[He is the] quintessential anti-leader, insists that his black mask is a mirror, so that ‘Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10 p.m., a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains’. In other words, he is simply us: we are the leader we’ve been looking for.”

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The ideology of the Zapatista movement includes elements of libertarian socialism, anarchism, Marxism and indigenous Mayan values. The EZLN are strongly against globalization arguing that it “severely and negatively affects the peasant way of life and oppresses people worldwide.” They reference NAFTA as an example saying the trade agreement opens the Mexican market to cheap mass-produced agricultural products from the US and reduces the peasants reliance on their own crops. This has reduced farm subsidies, income and living standard of Mexican farmers who cannot compete with subsidized, artificially fertilized, mechanically harvested and genetically modified crops from the US. The Zapatistas also state that politics should be conducted from the bottom-up. They judge the current political system as ineffective and corrupt because the representatives are disconnected from the people and their needs. The EZLN feels that responsible governance should constantly refer to the people for major decisions and that the terms of public servants should be limited to brief periods in office. A Zapatista slogan is in harmony with the concept of mutual aid: “Para todos todo. Para nosotros nada” (For everyone, everything. For us, nothing). As Marcos has reiterated, “my real commander is the people”.

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About halfway between San Cristobal and Palenque, we stopped in the small, dirty, impoverished town of Ocosingo. As well as being home to Tonina, a Classic period Maya city, Ocosingo was one of the towns occupied during the Zapatista revolt. Most of the fighters retreated from the towns they were occupying when the Mexican government sent in the armed forces. The rebels attempted to make a stand in Ocosingo, but suffered heavy casualties after days of intense fighting. Many rebels, soldiers and civilians were killed in this battle. Now Ocosingo is home to an absolutely gigantic army barracks which we passed for several minutes on route to see the ruins. There are 3 mid-size apartment towers to accommodate the mass of soldiers that the government has moved into the area to dissuade further rebel action. The people in Ocosingo were lovely and we were treated to one of the nicest and cheapest hotel rooms we had found in Mexico. A spotless room with clean sheets, a plastic shower stall (with actual hot water) and a television with movie channels. We were both surprised to find such an exemplary hotel in such an unlikely place. The room ran us 100 pesos a night and to be honest, the condition of the hotel alone prompted us to stay another night. We enjoyed walking up and down the ‘calle del ropas,’ the high street in town which seemed to have just clothing and shoe stores. We also were treated to a few musical numbers by an noticeably uncomfortable guitar player in an empty pizza restaurant. We tried to make the performer feel more comfortable by having a dance on the balcony in support of his off-key and stuttered cumbia concerto.

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The ancient city of Palenque certainly lived up to its billing. Most of the temples and palaces were constructed during the 7th century under ruler Palak I. Archeologists believe Palenque fell around 1123 AD and like most Mayan site they are not sure why it was abandoned. It is estimated that less than 10% of the city has been excavated and there are still thousands of structures covered by the jungle. In 2010, researchers from Penn State located and identified an aqueduct fed form a well down an incline towards a restricted opening. This is believed to be the first pressurized plumbing system. Our visited to Palenque occurred on a particularly rainy day which didn’t faze us being from Vancouver, but the other visitors would scurry away for cover, meaning we had the whole city to ourselves.

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Oaxaca

-Oaxaca City/Puerto Escondido/Zipolite

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E:  Tanya arrived in Oaxaca City on February 7th. We were originally supposed to meet in Cancun at the beginning of February but I was enjoying Mexico so much that with a week to go I had made it only as far as Mexico City. I didn’t want to hightail it direct to Cancun and miss out on Oaxaca, Chiapas and the Yucatan so Tanya agreed to procure a connecting flight to Oaxaca City. I only had a few days and I was running around like mad doing the necessary errands in preparation for her arrival. I also searched all over the ciudad viaje trying to find a nice romantic hotel for our reunion. Oaxaca City is a noisy, dusty, chaotic place – I certainly wasn’t infatuated by it. The drivers here are the worst I’ve encountered yet – at least in the way they treated me. Impatient, ruthless, and damn near endangering;  I admit there was one altercation which concluded with a taxi driver losing his side mirror. It also takes forever to get around and get things done. People move extremely slowly in their interactions. The brother-in-law of my Couchsurfing host, Darcy, jested that if you can get more than one thing done in a day, it has been a very good day. I had my work cut out for me to get ready for Tanya’s coming. I just barely managed to get everything together in the nick of time. Even found some motorcycle brake fluid to fix the front and rear brakes which had both given out spontaneous during the high elevation ride through the Oaxaca Mountains from Veracruz – an exciting descent indeed.

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The hotel I had finally decided on was extremely lavish by my standards. After visiting around a dozen hotels, I chose the Hotel de Los Angeles because it was the only hotel in the city which was like a resort with a large pool and expansive manicured grounds. The room was plain but had the largest king sized bed, possibly in all of Mexico. I was super excited for Tanya to arrive now and for her to see how much I had splurged on our digs. After three months apart, we were both hanging to see one another. I arrived at the small one building airport maybe 30 minutes early to await her arrival. The security man wouldn’t let me wait with my bike in front of the terminal so I found a shady spot a couple dozen meters away and watched the front door intently.  After watching what seemed like every passenger on the plane file out of the terminal, she finally emerged  looking like a Charlie’s Angel in cowboy boots, reflective sunnys and carrying a new motorcycle helmet for yours truly. I had wanted to give her my James Dean ‘blue steel’ look but I was so excited that it was a struggle to offer anything but childlike toothy grin. This was the first time that I had ever planned on doing a long-term travel with a girlfriend and I admit the anxiety was lessened sufficiently by the fact that it was Tans. We had had such a blast in Jamaica and she had proved her street smarts in a few precarious situations that I was positive she would be a great travel partner. I was also eager to see if I could learn to be a team of two (Tanya’s expression) after so much time travelling solo. We strapped her backpack onto my bike and shot out of the airport into the warm, wild Mexican night fully psyched about the adventures awaiting us.

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T: Mexicola. It may sound strange but in all honesty, the first major thing I noticed when I arrived in Mexico, was Coca Cola. In Mexico, Coke is not only a refreshing beverage to the Mexican people, it seems to be a way of life. I’d never seen anything like it. Grown men on their lunch break, sharing liters of Coke. People of all shapes and sizes, everywhere, all the time, sipping cola. Even babies, most horrifyingly, drinking Coca Cola out of their sippy cups and crying out for more. It was unbelievable, especially having just hopped off a plane from a place where kale is a staple food and more than half my friends have cut sugar out of their diets all together. I went from watching the population of Vancouver ordering fresh juices from Capers to observing an entire race consume, in massive quantities, possibly the unhealthiest beverage on the planet. The smart people at Coca Cola have spent millions luring Mexicans to spend their pesos on this thick, sweet liquid and the people have suffered as a result. Recently crowned ‘Most Obese Country in the World’, surpassing the USA, the evidence isn’t hard to miss. What’s more is that nobody seems to question the dietary repercussions or care that their children will probably be looking at early onset diabetes and a laundry list of other ailments, dental issues, not to mention shortened life span. Cheap, refreshing and full of comforting sugary spoonfuls, Coca Cola has invaded Mexican culture so pervasively that one of our hosts just could not fathom eating his meals without one. “The food doesn’t taste the same,” he shrugged while rapidly draining his glass and ordering a second to wash down his food. Having a sweet tooth myself, I can completely understand the need for a tasty sugar treat after a savoury meal, but this obsession and dependence is extreme. So extreme, in fact, that at one market in the city, our hunt for a bottle of water took going to several food stands and tiendas as the only beverage in the fridges was Coke or Pepsi. Literally, it was the only liquid option. We probably went to over seven places, no water in sight, all customers gleefully enjoying a bottle of cola with their tacos and tortas. It’s disturbing. But who wouldn’t rally around a soft drink that keeps you cool for less than a dollar and is also the sponsor of your child’s soccer team, sends free signage to your tienda and supplies large tents to provide shade at public venues? It isn’t just the bottles that litter Mexico, it’s the advertising too. Signs, banners and trucks with the Coca Cola logo are everywhere you turn – there is no escape. It is treasured and celebrated and could be described as the national drink of this downtrodden country. As astonishing as this was to witness, I lay no blame to the people, as they did not ask to be inundated with one and only one affordable thirst-quenching option. After searching high and low, I did find one other beverage, but excite it did not. A Coca Cola owned “fresh” juice company, Valle, supplies Mexico with an alternative; a can of overly sweet juice from concentrate, spreading the joys and consequence of sugar all the same, but twice the price and disguised in a can with a fresh fruit façade. Outrageously this all occurs in one of the biggest fruit producing regions in the world, abundant with fresh orange, pineapple and other fruit farms that any right-minded person north of Idaho wishes they could pick from a branch and toss in their juicer. Growing up in a household with a “no pop” policy and therefore having no desire to drink it in adulthood,  I feel embarrassed to admit that I have fallen into the Coca Cola trap a time or two since I’ve been in Mexico. Often there simply is nothing else to swallow and in the heat, you need something to wet your whistle. Water, after all, can be hard to find and three to five times the price. The intelligent business and marketing acumen at play don’t serve the health and growth of these beautiful people, but exist only to take advantage of a poor economy as they ship inexpensive bottles of rot into thirsty mouths gaining buckets of cash in return. Throughout the entire country, they all choose Coke, and everyone is happy.

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T: My first full day in Mexico, we decided to take a tour and see all the popular sites of Oaxaca city in a day. Erik is strictly against package tours, of course he has his motorcycle to get around, so this would be a new experience for both of us. We set it up through a hotel down the street from where we were actually staying and were happy for this decision later on. On our first stop at some giant and totally un-exhilarating tree, we peered into another tour van and were greeted by my old friend Bryce from Vancouver. Awesome start to the day as we were planning on meeting up in Mexico eventually and it was just my first day. It turns out that this tour is pretty much the only thing to do in Oaxaca City. At our first stop it became clear that looking at ruins was not a great interest of mine, but nonetheless, I was interested in doing anything by Erik’s side after three long months apart.  An interesting stop at a weaving shop taught us how to use plants and natural items to dye fabric and was followed up by a more intriguing look into the making of Mescal, Oaxaca’s famous and oh-so-strong liquor made from agave. We were encouraged to  sample many teeny tiny shots of different flavours and ages – no extra charge. This followed with a much appreciated stop for lunch at a buffet restaurant. The hotel desk that we booked the tour through clearly assured us that everything would be included in the  price, however as I was quickly learning, in Mexico nothing costs what it’s supposed to. Dragging around pretty heavy hangovers from our reunion celebration the night before, we gorged ourselves filling several plates with delicious food and sweets from the buffet, washing it all down with several fresh juices as the sun was in full force that day. Everyone on our bus was doing the same, many of them tossing back a few cervezas to boot. Stuffed to the brim, we headed for the exit to pile back in the van, but we were stopped at the door. A waiter handed us a bill for just under 400 pesos. To put it in perspective, the cost of the tour itself was only 400 pesos and an average meal in Mexico costs maybe 30 pesos. Watching the way Erik’s face reacted, I knew this would get interesting. So there we are, Erik, myself, the waiter and doorman, eventually joined by the restaurant owner, our bus driver and soon, a crowd of people from our bus. A Mexican stand-off, if you will, without guns (visible), in the doorway of a restaurant. Breathing heavily but steadily, Erik gently reminded the guide that the tour was supposed to be all-inclusive and declared that we would not be paying more, we already paid for the tour. The men deny any dishonesty in the matter immediately and continue pointing to the bill, looking at us, at each other, and back to the bill again quizzically. People shrug. Nobody moves. Erik then begins inquiring about the final destination of our tour and would we need to pay an entrance fee for that too? We had already paid two unmentioned entrance fees and hadn’t put up a fuss… much. It was ALL supposed to be included and we were fed up. At this point, all the people from our bus start piping up, everyone calling the guide a robbero and a liar and quietly complaining because each of them had already sucked it up and paid to avoid causing a stink. But not Erik. He will not be taken for a ride nor let anyone take advantage of him just because he is white. He certainly does not bow down without putting up a fight;  they needed to be taught a lesson for gouging tourists in this manner. No more pesos would be leaving his pocket. So they stared at us. We stared back. The sun grew hotter. The guide, sweating and pacing,  whining that he will have to pay out of his own pocket if we don’t pay, blabs on in fast Spanish to his gang of scammers. After at least 45 minutes in the blazing heat, all the other poor tourists standing around waiting patiently, the guide tells us to get in the bus and we will sort it out at our hotel. They were indeed the ones to blame, he remarks.  So we are finally on our way to the last and most worthwhile destination, heads held high for not contributing to the tour scam.

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The bumpy, one hour ride into the mountains was well worth it. The view at Hievre al Agua was stunning and we relaxed on smooth limestone rock, dangling our feet in warm pools of teal water and gazing out at lush mountains. We were still snickering to one another about the idiots who tried to rob us and the thousands of tourists who would rather pay up than speak up. Lesson one:  Ask a lot of questions before giving over your money, get the product or the facts BEFORE you pay and stand firm if you have a hint of suspicion that you’re being taken advantage of, because you probably are. As I mentioned before, we never booked through the hotel we were actually staying at, so we were untraceable to the tour company and gleefully skipped down the street when the van dropped us off, leaving the guide to sort the matter out with the hotel himself. I have a feeling he covered his costs anyway.

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E: We really enjoyed Puerto Escondido on the Pacific Coast. Tanya was especially excited for some tropical beach time having recently left the Canadian winter behind. The hotel we found was the cheapest one listed on Booking.com. And upon arrival I was able to negotiate the cost down even a bit further. We wound up staying at the Yuri-mar Hotel for 150 pesos a night or around $11. Considering we were just a block off the beach and the room was super clean with a big overhead fan (which didn’t even screech) we had done very well. The best part about this place, however, were the other residents. The Yuri-mar is the regular vacation spot for a bunch of blue collar Canadian snowbirds who come down every summer for a few months. I don’t think any of them are actually retired, but the Yuri-mar is so inexpensive that these regulars are able to take the time off work to come to Mexico and simply hang out and live (and drink) without any stress. It is nice to see people able to live such a relaxed lifestyle without thinking they need to purchase a vacation property or fall into the timeshare trap. We spent many relaxing days on the beach, going for nice dinners and getting pissed on the roof top patio with our new friends. I can’t remember their names, but the leader of the group was named Jimmy the Tortuga and he was from Montreal. He warned us about a crocodrillo that lives in a tiny green swamp right on the beach. He also invited me out for a morning fishing trip for marlin and dorado. Tanya was super pissed when I told her that I accepted because she wanted to go too. I told her that they only had one seat left on the boat. I didn’t know how to explain that I had been chosen by the boys to go fishing (drinking) with them and it wasn’t appropriate to ask if you can bring your old lady! She got over it when we returned after four hours without so much as a bite between eight of us. A real shame. Especially since as a marlin virgin, I had been nominated to pull in the first marlin hooked. We did get to see literally like a hundred dolphins jumping through the water around us, some coming within a few feet of the boat. That definitely made the trip worthwhile (and the drinks).

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T: My first bus ride in Mexico from Oaxaca City to Puerto Escondido was a gorgeous ride through the mountains, passing little vibrant towns and winding rivers on our descent to the beach. I was very excited to hit the ocean but also a little nervous, unsure of how I would locate Erik and the hotel we had agreed to meet at. My Spanish was certainly not that good, although I did study my pocket phrasebook and did my best to converse with an adorable Mexican family and the driver on my bus ride. It didn’t look like much from the street but the hotel Erik had found online was perfect and luckily, my taxi driver knew exactly where it was. The hotel was situated on the side of the single lane, torn up ‘highway’ and its position was perfectly equal distance between what became our two favourite spots:  the beach and “Mexi-town,“ as w dubbed it. A 15 minute walk away is the tourist/surfer beach, Zicatela, which is populated with many expensive shops, restaurants and hotels. Although adorable and muy tranquillo, sadly this is the area most vacationers stay, not brave enough to venture out into Mexi-town where we spent many hours wandering the streets, chatting with locals and dining on much cheaper and far more daring cuisine. I certainly didn’t come to Mexico to eat pizza (although one spot in Mexi-town sure did make a good slice). We avoided the popular beach for the most part and while out adventuring on the bike one day discovered a true gem. The coast of Puerto is made up of a series of beaches. Zicatela is the longest, busiest and most surf-able. Bahia Principal houses all the fishing boats and has some nice beachside breakfast spots. The next beach serves a resort and then a few hard to reach little bays follow. Beyond this, we struck gold in no-man’s land. We had to do a little off-roading to reach it but after his experience riding thru sand on the Baja peninsula, I had complete faith in Erik’s ability to keep the bike steady (albeit the fish-tailing is a bit startling.) We ditched the bike and wandered over a dune on foot and, there before us, lay a completely deserted beach that stretched for miles. (Literally, it runs the length of the coast all the way up to Acapulco.) Nothing in site, not even a palm tree to shade us from the sun, which reached deep into the 30’s while we were there. Completely in heaven, we stripped down and ran into the waves, in hindsight, perhaps a little too quickly. Apparently the surf is pretty rough here and we soon realized the waves coming at us were massive;  around 10 to 12 feet high, with a powerful undertow. Although I fancy myself a strong swimmer, I am inexperienced in ocean swimming and waves are NOT my forte. Admittedly I was fucking scared. Erik did his best trying to coerce me in further but seemed to forget that at his height, the waves were a touch easier for him to navigate than for me. Panic-stricken, in the middle of a large wave with an even larger one approaching, I stupidly ignored Erik’s instructions and instead of swimming into the wave and duck diving, I ran back towards shore and got violently smashed, the washing machine crushing down and taking me for a not-so-thrilling ride along the ocean floor. Luckily, I emerged without physical injury with only my mane full of sand but my pride hasn’t quite been the same since.  After that, I merely bird-bathed in the inches of water at the close-out of each wave, watching Erik gleefully ride them all alone, scared shitless that I would have to go in and rescue him. Of course, he held his own.

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I faced my fear of the waves again the following night but it didn’t play out as the miraculous conquest adventure I had hoped for. First off, I was drunk. We had met up with Bryce and his friend Stephanie at their hotel across town early in the day and immediately began downing beers. Tipsy quite quickly, we trotted out to find food, which we did and paired our meal with a bottle of cheap tequila from the local tienda. The waiter, who was most definitely stoned, was even nice enough to bring us salt, limes and glasses even though we had not purchased the bottle from his bar. Yay Mexico!  We ate, drank and caught up eventually making our way down to Bryce’s local beach nook for sunset. The boys ran into the waves, which were slightly less offensive than the ones the day before at the secluded beach. So after diligently studying the rhythm for several minutes I decided to brave the ocean once again and prove to myself I could survive its roar. In all my glory, I did indeed survive and even managed to body-surf a few gentle waves, but sadly, one of the precious turquoise earrings that Erik had bought for me in Arizona did not. Mental note:  always take off important jewellery BEFORE swimming in the ocean. I still have one earring but only another bottle of tequila could comfort Erik. Apparently Bryce is not the drinker I had assumed him to be and a little ways into our second tequila bottle, he and his lady bowed out, leaving Erik and I to find our way back to the Yuri-Mar on our own. And which direction was that in? Abandoned by our friends, drunk and ravenous, we set out into the black night to find some tacos and our hotel. No street signs or people to guide us and alleyways full of howling, mangy, flee-ridden dog gangs, we were forced to walk side by side with the perilous ocean that had stolen my pride and nearly cost me my relationship, but it did indeed, lead us home.

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T: Hungover and exhausted we decided it was a great day to move to a new town, after a week spent in Puerto Escondido. I rushed to catch the only bus leaving that day for the remote beach town of Zipolite (zip-o-lee-tay) and when I hit the seat, fell asleep almost instantly. Rookie move on any bus in the developing world. There is no announcement telling you where you are when the bus stops. Most of the time people just bang on the roof, a signal to the driver to pull over, especially in scarcely populated areas with tiny towns scattered along the highway. There are rarely designated bus stops. The bus keeps going and it’s up to you to keep your head up, watch for signs and react quickly to catch your stop. Lucky for me, I woke up in the next proper sized town and instinctively knew I had gone too far. Trying to remain calm, I quickly found a bus passing the outskirts of my destination and with the addition of two wasted hours, found my way to the sleepy town of Zipolite. Fortunately, just as I arrived in town, I was alert enough to spot Erik’s bike parked in the parking area of a hotel Especially fortuitous seeing as how we had not selected a particular meeting spot and I was over two hours late. This miracle would be one of many in our separate travel days to come. We totally fell in love with Zipolite instantly. Erik, having been there a couple extra hours, found us the most economical hotel on the beach and we were the only tenants. The place was a little creepy but the view of the ocean eased our minds and led us to quite a relaxing state. We had chosen to come here because it was one of the only nude beaches in Mexico and we had heard it would be anything but boring. It certainly had some million dollar views. Every morning, directly out our window down on the sand, one odd fellow sunned his birthday suit while practicing yoga, often solely mountain pose (luckily facing the waves). Quite the sight. We watched and eventually joined the many fascinating couples who took their naked bodies to the sand each day, some flaunting and some just enjoying the anonymity. Not much to speak of as far as a town or market;  the main drag was home to quaint bars and taco stands and the place was littered with hippy types. It appeared as though the people who called Zipolite home were travelers who had washed up on the beach of death (what ‘Zipolite’ means in Spanish) having lost all their money and possessions. They nonetheless lived blissfully in the streets or on the beach – beading jewellery, tossing fire, doing magic tricks and looking for rouge pesos in the sand – often high on some sort of drug. It was quite entertaining to sip a cheap cocktail (this town is known for its 2 for 1 deals) and watch the bohemians drift by, either from one of many beach bars or while sitting at a table in the street. Erik was enamoured with one guy’s stick tossing performance and I fancied the one who came by with homemade chocolate hemp balls for five pesos apiece. Laidback most often, however, the party scene was fierce some nights and if you chose the right bar, you’d be in for a treat.

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One evening after a romantic dinner, oddly at a restaurant that did not serve alcohol, I was feeling for a drink. Erik, in a bizarre new personality twist, was not in the mood for drinking so I went to what appeared to be a quiet little reggae bar on the beach alone for a beer. Just one. While swinging in a hammock enjoying the sounds of the ocean, the owner of the bar, Armando, offers me a second. I had really only planned to have one and knew Erik would be expecting me home soon but something possessed me to say yes and indulge in another and I wasn’t even quite finished my first. Before I knew it, Armando and a couple of uber-stoned Mexican girls are serving up weed by the beach fire in the cutest little snake pipe that you ever did see. So we smoke and we drink and how it happened, I‘m not quite sure, but those two beers turned into several more. And so now there’s a few other people there, they keep appearing at the bar, hanging out for one quick drink, saying something hilarious and merrily skipping off down the beach to perhaps the next bar or who knows where. I’m now perched at this bar, Armando on the other side and we’re trading stories and you wouldn’t believe how well I am speaking Spanish – Armando and most of his guests only speaking bits of English, if any at all, so I have to keep up no matter how drunk I am at this point. Armando is entertaining me with stories of when he was a gang member in Mexico city, showing me his tattoos and telling me how he left the life of a cholo to make a clean living in this quiet town; surfing and supporting his two young kids who live in other countries with their mothers, both of whom he visits during rainy season. I start trying to tell Armando about my trip and Erik and Couchsurfing and decide he needs to check Couchsurfing out because he would be a good host so he gets this notebook out for me to write it all down in. Moments or hours later, I forget about Couchsurfing and see this notebook in front of me and I start doodling on a page. Armando doesn’t remember either he’s just cracking more beers for us and rolling more joints while I draw this really fascinating design on this page with this really cool pen.  All of a sudden, while watching me draw Armando gets this brilliant idea and he busts out some little papers and asks me to make a flyer for a party he is having tomorrow at his bar. So I do. I start to make this wicked poster and now remember I have a double sided sharpie in my bag and with this new sharpie all hell breaks loose and we start having “art offs” and drinking mojitos now. Armando draws something and then I draw something and we keep trying to ‘out doodle’ each other and it’s a fucking riot and all these characters keep popping into the bar and peeping our drawings and cheering us on as we try to fill the page with tiny doodles, one after the other. Oh and the Mescal is out too, did I mention that? Not just any mezcal but some seriously intense mezcal from the mountain people of Oaxaca, Armando says, in this giant unmarked bottle. I could very well be getting drugged, I think, but we’re all drinking it so whatever and the night keeps going and I feel pretty fucking fantastic and I sure do wish Erik was here. Our attention turns to this huge candle station which drips wax down the front of this piece of wood on his bar and I comment that the long drippings are gone and he is pissed and says the tourists come and break them off and he hates it because it’s like art to him. I KNOW! I tell him about my candle wall in my old studio and how brilliant it was and we’re the best of friends and I take my sharpie and make signs in Spanish and English warning people not to touch the candle wax and he’s so happy. And then this young wealthy looking Mexican couple come up and we put on Cat Stevens which is my favourite but is actually on Armando’s Ipod and I’m so excited and we all start dancing in the sand. Now the couple wants mojitos but Armando is too stoned and drunk and at some point awhile back he started doing cocaine and rendered himself totally useless so I jump behind the bar to bartend, making the mojitos for everyone and loving every second of it and Cat Stevens is still playing. Then Armando gets the brilliant idea to start another art project with the sharpie, which by now I have given him as a gift. He wants to draw a mural ON HIS OUTDOOR DEEPFREEZER which is behind his bar. Obviously I’m delighted. More art! So we do it and now Otis Redding comes on because, of course, he would have that on his Ipod too?! By the time we are done, the freezer is covered in some random art attack, I’ve drawn up posters for his party which he promises to photocopy and hand out for the party, tagged most of his notebook and made signs to protect his candle wax art. Oh yah and I managed to consume roughly 8 beers, 4 shots of mezcal, an unidentified amount of rum in the late night mojitos, 4 FAT joints and one round with the pipe. I decide it is time to go after adding this all up in my head, throw Armando some money, certainly not enough for what I had drank and SOMEHOW I walked back to our hotel and Erik was sitting up, terrified that I had been killed since we had parted ways at 8 and it was now past 4am. I was a bit sad when he didn’t want to hear all about my night but promised him I would take him there the following night so he could see my beautiful art projects and meet my new friend Armando and see the candle wax and do it all over again.

You wouldn’t think anything more exciting could happen for us in Zipo, but Mexico is full of surprises. We had been staying at Hotel Neptuno for 4 nights, but had only paid for the first night, which is pretty standard. Rule #1: Never give your money up front. After two nights without power ie. FAN, lights, computer and running water, we obviously didn’t think we should pay full price. Erik had initially negotiated a room rate with the maid as she was the only one around during our check-in, but over the last few days a sly, creepy looking man that appeared to be the owner, finally surfaced. We exchanged greetings a few times and did complain to him about the power failure but nothing came of it aside from a brief, insincere apology. So this afternoon, the one where I am nursing quite possibly the worst hangover of my life, as we are lounging in bed, there is a knock on our door. Erik, always quick to his feet, instantly jumps up and cracks it a smidge, only to find the hotel owner standing stiffly, very red in the face and extremely upset. Oh, and he is not alone. He came to demand that we pay for the past three nights immediately! He is yammering on in Spanglish saying that he knows we are not going to pay him so he has brought with him the policia. The policia that accompanied him was a plain-clothed man, in a Hawaiianish shirt and sandals, hiding around the corner. Erik, remaining characteristically calm, walks over to the “officer” and asks for identification, dutifully ignoring the aggravated owner. The man produces a photo ID which Erik brings into the room, takes several photos of and returns. The owner is so pissed off now, and the officer suggests that Erik come down to the police station with them and settle our bill. With every intention of paying a fair price for the service we received, Erik tells me to wait in the room, lock the door and everything will be fine. Of course, I plead with him not to go and try to convince him to settle it now so we can get the hell out of this place but Erik, as usual, won’t give in just because he’s being pressured or threatened and stands his ground. So he disappears with these two hot-headed idiots, I dig out my knife and bear spray and wait for his safe return. A solid half hour later, a sudden rapid banging on the door, I draw my knife and inch towards it. Erik finally realizes he is banging but hasn’t said anything so with an “it’s me!” I let him in. “Pack up, we have to go, NOW.” We shove everything into our bags and head down the three flights of stairs for the hippy hangout next door. Not an easy task as Erik has two large metal panniers, his motorcycle gear and another massive rucksack and I have two backpacks as well. We manage to get our gear out the back door unmolested and throw some bills at the maid as I dash off in a taxi and Erik peels out behind me on the bike. I look out the back window of the cab and see the policia enter the hotel. What happened at the Police station? Well, the previously English speaking asshole owner had all of a sudden forgotten how to speak English and demanded Erik speak Spanish; they knew he knew how. But he doesn’t really know how very well and they were frustrated that he wasn’t giving them the money so they pulled gun on him and tried to forcibly push him into a cell. Erik charges the men, who are half his size, knocks them over and flees out the front of this “Police Station,” which is actually just a random, unmarked building containing a single cell. There is still no real proof that this even was a police station. There were no uniforms, police cars, official looking files or anything else recognizable. But then, hey, it is Mexico. The only real indication that these were real cops was the laminated police ID card and, well, the gun of course. But that doesn’t necessarily scream law enforcement in these parts. Which brings us back to our frantic departure. So now we seem to have lost the ‘police’ or the armed men anyway who stormed the hotel. Maybe the maid told them that we had given her some cash – who cares really. We safely retreat to a new hotel at the other end of the beach where we are greeted by a kindly-looking elderly man, the owner, who seems really quite sweet. We pay him, one night upfront of course, and head straight for the ocean to wash away the days sweat and worry from our brush with the “law.”

Veracruz

Nations, like stars, are entitled to eclipse. All is well, provided the light returns and the eclipse does not become endless night. Dawn and resurrection are synonymous. The reappearance of the light is the same as the survival of the soul.  –Victor Hugo

The ride into the State of Veracruz was intense. I was feeling extremely ill from what may have been sunstroke after a day hiking around the ruins of Teotihuacan without a hat. In any event I was suffering. I hadn’t slept all night owing to a pounding headache (unusual for me), explosive guts, and a horde of stealth-like, uncatchable mosquitos buzzing around my head. It was a tortuous night but I really didn’t want to burn a day in Teotiuacan recovering, despite my host family being lovely, because there really wasn’t anything else to do here. Mounted my gear after ingesting a bean and tortilla breakfast, had one final washroom purge, gritted my teeth and headed off. Less than an hour into the ride, I was feeling so rough that I was forced to pull over for a break. I found a somewhat fancy seafood restaurant in some shitty little town which certainly wasn’t ideal but I figured it was probably the only place in town with air conditioning. I ordered a bowl of Sopa Azteca, but couldn’t get through more than a few spoonfuls. Exhausted and dazed I lay my head back against the wall behind my chair and closed my eyes. There was a group of businessmen at a table nearby that had already been eyeing me and my lavish riding gear. I knew that falling asleep at my table while sweating profusely was not the most suitable behavior for a cultured genteel such as myself, but in this condition I didn’t really give a damn. When I set off again, the weather changed quickly. My surroundings went from blistering and humid to cold, foggy and wet within a matter of a few kilometers. One of the reasons I decided to hook over to Veracruz (the first being, of course, to hit the Gulf) were the magnificent vistas from the elevated highway described in my Lonely Planet. The fog became so thick that before long I literally couldn’t see more than 15 feet in front of my windscreen. Thick fog when on a motorbike is especially problematic because your face mask keeps misting up and you have to wipe it with your glove every bloody minute. At least the rain was helping to cool me down.

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan

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The first couple nights I stayed in an oil town called Poza Rica on the Atlantic Coast. The city is about 60km from where Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and 80 revolutionary fighters departed on the Granma in 1956 to start the Cuban Revolt. The city proved to be super grimy, congested and overwhelming. There was a terrific amount of road construction through the city making traffic abysmal. Even with the ability to lane split it was taking forever to navigate through the rush hour-packed centro. My GPS was useless because every road it took me to was closed. I’m positive there was just a single path through town and the whole process was like being trapped in a haunted maze. Eventually I got to the road I was supposed to be on. In Mexico, streets are not always clearly marked, so in lieu of an address my host just sent me a photo of a traffic overpass and a sign reading Buen Viaje. I was thrilled and astonished when I found the sign as it had been a very trying ride. There was only one business near the overpass which was an internet café up a slight slope above the street. I sturdied up my bike and went to find, David, my host. Sure enough the young man sitting at the desk of the empty café was David. He greeted me with a smile and looked grateful that he had an excuse to close up the shop now. He took me up to his house which was further up the extremely steep embankment behind the café where he lives with his mother and father.

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David’s mother works as a tanker truck driver for Pemex, the national oil company, which directly or indirectly employs the majority of Poza Rica’s populous. His father, sadly, is confined to a wheel chair after a traffic accident several years earlier. The internet café exists so that David’s father can still contribute to the family economy by manning the store during the day. The fact that their property is so ridiculously steep is just a cruel coincidence that they have to deal with. The distance between the house and the road has been fitted with a narrow concrete driveway- although with a dizzying amount of switchbacks- which David’s father has become extremely adept at navigating. Both David’s parents were absolutely lovely to me during my stay. We had meals together and they did their best to dumb down their Spanish for me to understand. Although they don’t speak English in the home, I discovered that David is taking transitory English classes to get into a better university. One of the reasons he hosts Couchsurfers is to practice his English to help with this goal. It is this kind of culture exchange which makes me so proud to be a member of this community. Occasionally I get hosts who make me feel that they’re doing me a huge solid and that I should exude profuse gratitude for giving me a place to stay. This is not the purpose of being part of Couchsurfing and I sometimes resent such people for missing the point of the exercise. It isn’t about saving someone hotel costs, but about sharing with people from different cultures, backgrounds, credos;  learning about one another, creating commonality and hopefully a connection. It is about mutual acceptance and the idea that humanity as a whole is one entity indivisible by its parts. A buddy who has been on Coushsurfing even longer than me has written on his profile:  “First, I provide you with a space. From that simple space which you seek, a relationship ensues in which we share some of life’s stories and lessons as well as listen. I participate by opening my door to strangers in hopes that distrust, indifference and fear become less of an issue among people.” Love it!

I had a great time with David. A super sharp, ambitious and hilarious young man, he had me in stitches for most of my stay. He took me in his car to the ruins of El Tajin, one of the largest and most important cities from the Classic Mesoamerican era. El Tajin was the capital of the Totonac people who controlled much of modern-day Veracruz state. Archaeologists have found proof of activity at the site dating back to 5600BC. The peak period of El Tajin’s power and influence though was between 600 to 1200AD. It is believed that the city flourished until 1230AD when it succumbed to social collapse and was abandoned. One of the more well preserved sites that I had visited, I was especially impressed with the Pyramid of Nichos. The pyramid includes 365 niches representing the days in a solar year.

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We watched a Danza de los Voladores inside the ground;  an ancient ritual which David explained is like an early bungee jump. Five men in traditional dress climb up to the top of a 30 meter high pole. Four of the men tie a rope around their ankles or waist and launch themselves off the top of the pole. The fifth remains on the top playing a flute or drum. As the flyers rotate around the pole, the ropes slowly unwind lowering the men to the ground. The best part of the performance for me was as soon as they touched the ground, the voladores freed themselves instantly bolting towards any newcomers for a donation. I was truly amazed that while flying upside down through the air, they were still able to track the new people that arrived and then without any wobbling or dizziness managed to scamper across the terrain to their expected patrons. Luckily David had made a donation prior to their ascent so we were now free to lounge on the grass and look on with laughter.

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David told me as we were leaving that he had already taken six previous Couchsurfers to El Tajin. Considering this fact, I was very impressed at his enthusiasm during my tour as well as grateful for his company. What a guy to go out of his way to see some old ruins he’d already been to numerous times purely for the enjoyment of his guests. He also drove me out to the ocean at Tecolutla, a quiet Mexican vacation spot on the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the hotels and restaurants were extremely rundown. We found one tourist attraction, the city Aquario, behind a scummy, faded façade reminiscent of an old Granville Street, X-rated theatre. The bored looking girl lounging in the box office sold us two tickets for 20 pesos each and then had to run into the back to switch on the lights for us. Inside were a bunch of open aquariums and terrariums. There were some creepy lizard fish I’d never seen before, a small cracked aquarium housing a pissed off looking eel and in the outside loading area, there were two huge crocodiles laying upon a dirt floor behind a chain link enclosure. I remember the bar in St. Blas with the crocodile in the back room behind the 4 foot high fence. I guess it’s just a common thing in Mexico to keep crocodiles out back. We spent the rest of the day pounding caguamas on the beach and talking to the fisherman and local vacationers. It was cool to again be on the Atlantic Ocean just 3.5 months since my visit to Nova Scotia. I was pretty content at the thought of spending the next six months slaloming back and forth on my bike between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans on my way to Panama. Decidedly better than working for a living.

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My next host in Veracruz City was an entrepreneur in his early 30’s named Aaron. He had never hosted before and had signed up on Couchsurfing thanks to his sister’s positive testimonial. In fact it was his sister Erika who I had first applied to, but as she was already hosting at the time, she referred me to Aaron. And thankfully she did, because courtesy of Aaron and his friends I had just the best time in Veracruz. Unfortunately I had watched my Patriots get vanquished at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens a couple weeks earlier at a gringo bar in San Miguel de Allende. But it was Super Bowl weekend and I was stoked to have found myself in a fairly up-scale city by Mexico standards. Surely I would be able to find somewhere with a decend atmosphere to watch the game. Even in modern Guadalajara, the Primos and I had stalked from bar to bar only to find one venue playing the Patriots Divisional Round playoff game against the Texans… playing in Spanish and on one regular-sized TV. I was still keeping the faith that Veracruz would come through for the Superbowl. It was a good sign when one of Aaron’s co-workers, a Mexican guy named Maurizio, who had spent a lot of time in Texas, invited me to a Halcones Rojo’s game:  the state basketball team. At least I was in the company of sports fans. Aaron already had a date arranged for the evening and was very apologetic that he couldn’t hang out that night. The ball game had about 1,500 spectators and the players were made up mostly of black African Americans, ex-college players and probably only two Mexican or Latin American nationals per team. The quality of the competition was less than what you might see at a Canadian University match but that did not deter the fans. The noise inside the tiny stadium might have rivaled that produced at a Vancouver Grizzlies home game. The home team prevailed and the fans went nuts. I wanted to buy a jersey to add to my collection of international sports jerseys but they didn’t have any XL gear at the fan shop; amusing since this was a basketball game.

I was aware of Veracruz’s reputation as a very dangerous place before arriving. There had been an all-out Narco war here since 2010. I was told Gulf cities tended to have a problem with Narcos due to the proximity of the ports to Texas and Florida, used for smuggling drugs into the US. When Mauricio and I got back to Aaron’s place, Aaron was sitting on the couch and looking rather pale. We asked what was up and he told us that while he was at dinner a bunch of masked men charged into the restaurant, firing guns into the air and kidnapped one of the other diners who was sitting with his wife and children. We found out on the news the next day that the guy was a local politician who had evidently found himself on the wrong side of the drug mafia. Aaron said he and his date both hit the deck and laid under their table until it was all over. The next day, we inadvertently walked past the restaurant which was just down the street from his place. He showed me the table where he had been sitting, right next to the door. Freaky. Maybe not all the news reports about the drug war are as exaggerated as I thought.

After a day of wandering around a good portion of the city with Aaron in a futile effort to find vegetarian gorditas, we found a sports bar. Dawson’s is a mainstay next to the water on Blvd Avila Camacho. There were big professionally printed posters advertising burgers and tequila specials during the big game. I’d arrived. Aaron wasn’t so interested in American Football and was super busy with work but he contacted one of his co-workers, an ex-pat from the States, who said he would be at Dawson’s for the game with a few friends. Mauricio, probably from his time spent in Texas, was also keen to see the game. He picked me up at around 11am the next morning at took me to a really cool seafood restaurant on the ocean. We had pescado a la veracruzano, white fish with a spicy tomato sauce, and a couple pre-game beers. Also at the restaurant was the national baseball team of Guatemala. I had read in the newspaper that the Latino Americano World Series was being held in Veracruz this weekend. All the players looked pretty fit and well looked after. You could tell that this was a high level team and that baseball was a serious thing in this part of the world. As we left, I wished the men ‘Buen Provecho’ and told them good luck with the rest of the series. They were super friendly and most of them shouted back a thank you or salutation. As it turned out, the stadium was only three blocks from Aaron’s place and on my last night in town, Aaron and his girlfriend accompanied me to a world series game.

Latino Americano World Series Finals

Latino Americano World Series Finals

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When we got to Dawson’s the place was already packed. We had actually arrived a couple hours early because as usual, I’d miffed the start time. When it comes to sports start times either I mix up the time zone advertised on the website (not completely my fault) or I’m confused about the time zone in which I currently reside (wholly on me.) I found Aaron’s buddies pretty easily as they were the only gringos in the place and they were boisterously shouting at us from the second floor gallery when we walked in, obviously well on their way with the tequila. Just like my boys back home… already shitfaced two hours before kick-off. Saba’s Ravens had earned their place in the big game by beating my Patriots and their opponent were the San Francisco 49ers. I had expected, if anything, there would be a smattering of 9ers fans at the bar- maybe a jersey and a couple hats. In fact, the bar was packed with Ravens fans, complete with purple jerseys and supplementary accouterments. I remember thinking it was such an obscure city for Mexicans to be cheering for. I guess Ray Lewis really holds sway. Or perhaps it is because the QB, Joe Flacco’s last name is a Spanish word (it means skinny.) At least I was in good company since I would be supporting the Ravens;  obviously because they’re my best mate’s team but also because they bested my own team. There were also a good number of San Fran jerseys including the American guys that we were meeting up with. I could tell by the smell of their breath and their overall demeanor that there was going to be some muy intensio trash talking. The game was sensational. The owner, a tough-looking bear of a man from Chicago, came ’round a few times with courtesy shots of tequila for us. He was having a blast. Half in the can himself, as you would expect from any self-respecting gringo owning a bar in Mexico. The Ravens played superbly during the first half leading me to run around the bar rowdily slapping hands with the Ravens fans and making friends. The 45 minute power failure, when the stadium lights went down, caused a delay of game allowing time for three additional shots of El Jimador. I was wondering if this game might turn out similar to the year we watched Super Bowl 37 at the Lamplighter, where after 4 double ceasers before the game even started, none of us had a very clear recollection of the 4th quarter.

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Me and Maurizio

Me and Mauricio

The power failure must have allowed the trailing Niners to take stock of the situation because they came on strong towards the end. It made for a nerve wracking end to the game, but the Ravens held on for the win. I have to admit I was somewhat emotional by the final whistle. This was the first time that I had been even remotely homesick since I began my trip – thinking about my friends cavorting at some Vancouver bar as we did every year. I had made Tanya promise that she would attend a portion of the Superbowl party so that I was at least represented and to ensure I wasn’t forgotten. I went into the back DJ room after the game to shoot the shit with Dawson a bit more. He had been donning a San Fran jersey, so I thought he’d be feeling it considered their defeat and the fact that he was now likely as drunk as I was. I was indeed correct, he was in the back looking through his collection of LPs and licking his wounds. I started to ask him a bit about the bar and how long he’d been here. His response was a bit jarring. He said he had been here for 10 years but a couple years ago he had been approached by some of the racketeers demanding protection money. He tells them to go get fucked. Not so surprising for a guy who grew up in the city of Al Capone. Not long after, they allegedly came back in the middle of the night and burned his bar to the ground. Not to be deterred, he immediately set to rebuilding at a site a couple doors down. The charred remains of his first bar are still just down the street. I’m pretty sure the result of the game and the booze was making him a bit more loose-lipped than usual but he looked up at me forlornly and said, “I gotta get outta town pretty soon. These guys are killers”. I could not imagine living full time in a country where gangsters routinely kidnap and kill politicians, the police no better (and in many cases worse) than criminals and the citizenry are basically on their own to survive. Mexico is a beautiful country with some of the most hospitable people I have come across, but they certainly have some obstacles to surmount before they come anywhere close to being a country with liberty and security for all.

Mexico City, DF

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I enjoyed Mexico City immensely. Despite the warnings from people telling me to avoid the city at all cost- that people are unfriendly, the police will harass you, you’ll get robbed, you’ll get murdered- none of these things were true, of course, and I had a ball. My Couchsurfing host was a 25 year old girl who lives in a rough-looking sort of tenement complex with two other girls. Their place is very near the Zocalo, the traditional plaza marking the center of the city, which made it was super handy to get around. I think Gaby was a little apprehensive about giving her address to me over the internet as many people in the city do seem a bit gun shy and protective. I don’t feel that this is at all surprising or unwarranted if you’re sharing a city with 21.2 million other citizens. This agglomeration makes Mexico City, DF (Distrito Federal) the largest population center in the western hemisphere and the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world. Still, it was a bit frustrating not to have been given an address beforehand so I could at least find the area on Google Map, but like most things, it worked out in the end. I came in on Hwy 57D from the city of Querétaro to the north. Following the signs to the Centro, the highway began getting wider and wider as more lanes of aggressively-driven vehicles began coming together like tributaries joining a great river. After riding towards the heart of the city for over an hour, I pulled over at a phone booth to give Gaby a call and get better more specific instructions (more specific than “near the center.”) I got her at work using the left over credit on a calling card purchased in Guadalajara. I had real trouble understanding her due to her accent and the incessant moaning of the titanic city around me. It was rush hour and the noise from the surrounding streets as well as from the elevated highway was thunderous. She must have repeated the name of the street at least 20 times. Even when she spelled it out, I didn’t really get it. We were both getting frustrated and I was definitely thinking, “Well it’s your damn fault for not just sending me the address over e-mail!” Now I was on the side of some super frenzied street, the sun starting to fade with only a phonetic sound of a street name and the tiny 2” square city inset map from my AAA highway atlas. Just as I pull out the atlas and lay it out on the seat of my bike, a dingy-looking couple, who at first take seem drunk or stoned walk up to me. I immediately get my back up and do my best to appear relaxed and effectual. The man opens by complimenting my bike and asks how many cc’s. My eyes move to his leather accented jean jacket and black bandana around his neck; very good indications that he is a rider as well. “Seis cientos ciquenta”, I respond. He makes a whistling noise suggesting his excitement and mock surprise; the usual acknowledgment I receive here considering the vast majority of bikes are between 125-150cc’s. He gestures towards the map and asks where I’m going. I fully realize that I’m stuffed to find the address on my own, so I decide to trust this shady-looking duo and see if they can get me on the right track. I turn my back on the woman and shepherd the guy over to the map. I keep repeating the name of the street that Gaby had given me, “Fraser Vandey, Fraser Vando, something like that.” Miraculously he knows the street and says the street we’re on currently, Chapultepec, actually turns into ‘Fray Servando’ about 20-30 blocks further on. I’m stoked! I give my sincere thanks and nose my bike back into the perilous stream of angry commuter traffic. Sure enough I find the street within ten minutes exactly where the man had directed. I never fail to realize how bias collected from extraneous sources can affect a situation due to some assumed endangerment or prejudice. I was extremely grateful for the help I received without any obvious motive from these strangers other than to simply be of assistance. People talk a lot about how friendly and approachable folks are in Canada. It’s interesting to me why other places don’t get a similar reputation. I’ve travelled to numerous countries and 98% of the time when I ask for directions, the local people are always more than happy to assist. Hell, in Vancouver, when I try to ask someone for directions or for the time, more often or not I get ignored or people walk right past me using their I-pod earbuds as a communication shield. I think it comes down to a bias of fear. The types of people who warned me off of coming through the city are probably the type too timid to go up to someone who may not look overly friendly and ask them for directions. The local people in Mexico City certainly have hard faces and a purposeful way of walking, but so do the local residents of all major cities. I don’t know, maybe it is just my experience, but whenever I make the move to cross over –to ask someone here for help or even start up a conversation for the hell of it- people respond immediately. Their hard mouths become smiles and their faces become inquisitive as to what information I might require or how they can be of service. I know it goes against most opinions that you hear, but I’ve found Mexico and even Mexico City to be a much friendlier and sociable place than Vancouver or other parts of Canada. Perhaps the ubiquitous initiators of these judgments need to step out of their comfort zone more often and asses the preconceptions they have been led to fear.

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Multi-coloured cheezie poofs?!? What else did this amazing city have to offer?

Multi-coloured cheezie poofs?!? What else did this amazing city have to offer?

The neighbourhood where Gaby and the girls live is definitely not what you would call upscale. There is trash lining the streets, homeless people milling about at all hours, and countless dollar shops and street vendors. Although the safety of my bike continued to weigh on my mind, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in this ‘hood. I felt extremely open, amiable and balanced. I enjoyed wandering along the streets, eating at rundown diners, poking my head into the stalls and engaging with the local residents. I tried to walk down the street with my head high, shoulders back, heart full and with a self-assured swagger. Surprisingly I really didn’t feel much fear while I was here. Once I arrived, the actuality of the environment was nothing like what I had been led to conceptualize. I embraced what the city had to offer and I think owing to my acceptance of everything and the way I projected this acceptance, the city embraced me as well. I’ve spent enough time in rough barrios during my travels and growing up in the T-dot that I have an innate faith that I can handle situations as they arise. And they do to be sure. But for the most part, I have found Mexicans everywhere to be incredibly friendly, calm and helpful, but this is still a very poor country overall and disparity will always create anger, resentment, crime and violence. My knee is still pretty messed up from surgery a year ago (although getting better all the time through consistent yoga practice) which has slowed my roll considerably and necessitated a good deal of caution. Basically I’m not so quick about putting myself into dangerous circumstances where in the past I didn’t need to be so restrained. I’m forced to rely on other facets now beyond the physical. I finally feel like I’ve attained a pretty good balance of affability, quick-thinking and maybe a touch of intimidation enough to handle myself in big cities. Things move extremely quickly in the DF. There are swarms of people, fast-moving vehicles, frequent and sudden earsplitting noises, uneven pavement, open sewers…. and the whole society just seems to move at a more focused and deliberate clip then we do in Canada. Although I can be completely one with nature, my disposition also seems to allow me to thrive in dodgy, urban areas. All the same it was nice to have tour guides for some of the time as well. Every evening when they got home, the girls would take me out to experience what the city has to offer. Although, none of them were actually from the city- they had all moved from surrounding states to go to University or for work- they were still eager to show off its vibrancy. They took me out to some great shows, concerts, restaurants and parties during my time in the city. I met all manner of people, young and old, rich and poor and felt very welcome and safe. There is a huge amount of diversity in Mexico DF and there seems to be a good deal of opportunity and entertainment as well. Definitely a world class city… I will look forward to call on her again someday.

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By far, my favourite tourist attraction in Mexico was Templo Mayor. Think about it: the main temple of the Aztec capitol, originally constructed in 1325. It was destroyed when Cortes invaded and defeated Montezuma II in 1521. He then ordered a Spanish-style city built in its place. Over the centuries, the lake surrounding this legendary island capitol has been filled in and urban sprawl has created one of the largest metropolises the world has ever seen. In 1978, city electricians working underground accidentally stumbled across a 10ft diameter, 8.5 ton pre-Hispanic stone monolith. It was determined the monolith portrays Coyolxauhqui, the moon goddess, and dates back to the end of the 15th century. This discovery prompted a massive excavation of this upscale neighbourhood smack dab in the center of modern Mexico City. Thirteen buildings (four dating back to the 19th century) were demolished to allow the excavation to progress. What is uncovered is the main religious and administrative capital of the Aztec Empire; having been buried under the center of town for more than 450 years. What is even more impressive is that the Mexican government went ahead and started destroying the downtown core of their capitol city for the sake of gaining a better insight into the country’s ancestral identity. Kudos to them! As well as the remarkably well preserved structural ruins, the initial dig uncovered more than 7,000 items from the Aztec era. These items are on display at a beautifully-designed museum on site next to the ruins. The seventh stage of Templo Mayor itself had been dedicated, it’s believed, to two gods, Huitzilopochtli, god of war and Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture. Shrines to each god where found at the top of the temple with separate staircases leading up to each. Pyramids in Mexico were typically built upon one previous on the same size to increase their mass. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of seven stages within this temple and have dated the remains of each to correspond with its ruling emperor. According to a famous legend, the Templo Mayor was constructed on the spot where the god of war, Huitzilopochtli gave the Mexica people a sign that they had reached the promised land. It is here that the founders of the city saw the eagle sitting on a cactus with a snake in its mouth; still the official symbol of the country.

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Tlaloc, the Rain God

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Coyolxauhqui, the Moon Goddess dating from between 1440-1481

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San Miguel de Allende

A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world. –Oscar Wilde

San Miguel de Allende is popularly referred to in Mexico as Gringolandia. There are approximately 12,000 US and Canadian ex-pats that keep permanent residence in this small mountain town almost in the exact center of the country. There is no beach, no famous ancient temples or other grand attractions and I was curious to find out what draws so many foreigners to this unassuming hamlet. My Couchsurfer host, Donald, is a 72-year old retired lawyer from Boston (Harvard to be precise). I wasn’t especially taken by his CS profile at first because there really wasn’t much to go by and the single photo he’d posted looked like the mugshot of a toucher. Similarly I didn’t think much of his casa when I pulled up. From the facade it looked like any other modest row house in Mexico. But when he came to the door to greet me and ushered me into his domicile, both of these preconceptions were about to be shattered. I was led from the foyer down a set of stairs into a beautiful garden courtyard. On one side was a long L-shaped sitting area with brightly coloured throw pillows. On the other side was a stunning fountain (which looked even more striking lit up at night) gurgling away peacefully. There was an aviary where Donald kept a few pet birds. There were stone statues everywhere emerging from the vibrant greenery. I was enthralled. Coming in off the busy Mexican street outside to this lush sanctuary, I half expected to see Mr. Tumnus standing next to a lamppost. We were still just in the inner courtyard and had not yet made it to the main house. As Donald guided me up through the portico, I was roused by the tasteful architectural and elegant décor of the home. The architectural detailing was done to mimic a historical Spanish villa. Vines crawling up the salmon coloured walls around shallow cantilevered balconies and up towards the red clay roof tiles Medieval-looking iron lanterns accent the exterior of the main house while stylish oval clerestories have been cut in above the main living area. In a word, this manor was immaculate. The various pieces of artwork which littered the entire space and the furniture were all exquisite. I have never been inside a house that was more suited to my own tastes both architecturally and in its elegant decoration. Donald showed me to my own room down a set of curving slate stairs just beyond the library. He was very cordial and welcoming right from the start. He informed me that he had a neighbor over at the moment and I was welcome to join them on the terrace for some red wine once I was settled in. He also notified me that I was just in time for sunset. I felt like I had won the Couchsurfing lottery!

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I quickly unloaded my bike and ambled back through the estate to stow my gear. Joining Donald and his friend from next door, we launched into a rousing conversation about Couchsurfing, traveling, volunteerism, San Miguel de Allende and most pleasing to me: a brief account of my wonderful and eccentric host. From this first occasion and for many more to come, I absolutely loved conversing with Donald. He is brilliant, gregarious and a true gentleman. He shares my penchant for drinking: both French and Italian wines as well as Jack Daniels. He was also the creative force behind this beautiful residence, working closely with the architect during design and construction. He regaled me with incredible stories about his colourful life and I delighted when he would drop names of well-known personages he had come into contact with over the years. What I liked especially about Donald was his generosity and how well he looked after his Mexican workers. Notwithstanding his wealth and position, Donald is extremely giving and compassionate. He gives of his money, his drink, his time, his knowledge and companionship. Every single one of Donald’s friends and acquaintances seemed to adore him and several even said to me that he was one of the most incredible people they knew. They all loved that fact that Donald takes in Couchsurfers and thoroughly enjoyed meeting the multifarious young travelers that he regularly hosts (however, I found it funny that none of the rest of them, despite their praise and five bedroom homes had considered hosting themselves.) Donald also seemed to genuinely enjoy my company. He took me on walks around town noting items of historical significance. He listened intently to what I had to say – never interrupting – and always had some type of comment or anecdote consistent with the point I was trying to make. We also got pretty smashed a few nights and vigorously participated in the camaraderie that such a condition affords.

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Donald took me everywhere and introduced me to the high society of San Miguel de Allende. Amidst the gringos living here, there is plenty of prestige, power and wealth. I met numerous retired power brokers, attorneys, authors and artists. Donald took me to a dinner party at a beautiful house down the street from his where I was the only attendee under 50. I don’t know if it comes from living in Mexico or just that these were the type of people who made a choice to move here but everyone at the party was delightful; not at all what I would expect from this strata of society back home. Everyone I spoke with was very patient and very focused on the conversation. Despite my youth, I never felt slighted or condescended to. I found myself having really meaningful and extremely interesting dialogue. During my time in San Miguel, all the ex-pats I met raved about the place. They said they’d never been so happy since moving here. I heard story after story of people who had simply come for a visit and had bought property before leaving. At Donald’s local pub, La Sirena Gorda, I met a girl my age from Seattle. She moved here six years ago, runs a used English bookstore (to compliment the local library which boasts Mexico’s largest selection of English books) and teaches Spanish. She told me that she loves it here so much that whenever she returns to Seattle, she has nightmares that they won’t let her back into Mexico. I met a gay couple at another bar who told me they had lived together in New York, San Francisco, London and Paris and felt San Miguel de Allende was the best city in the world. They’ve been here for 12 years now and have no plans on leaving. Everywhere I went in town, it was so easy to make friends. People just seemed so relaxed and outgoing. Donald took me to an array of different restaurants and bars. There is a real varied collection of establishments to cater to the gringo population, quite a few run by gringos. This was a welcome change from the prevalent throng of taco stands throughout most small towns in Mexico. There is also a huge artist community here. Many residents have retired from their professions back home to follow their passion as musicians, painters, photographers, sculptors and writers. Donald himself had been working on a book and one of his neighbours, a retired editor for a major publisher in the states, had agreed to look over his manuscript and provide feedback. The sense of community here is unmistakable and it was easy to see why this is such an appealing place to live. I also found that the Mexicanos and the ex-pats seemed to meld very well together. There is no evidence of the animosity and discrimination that I had felt in other parts of the country. The ex-pats here have a lot more respect for the local culture and carry themselves more like guests rather than conquerors. Likewise there are many humanitarian organizations set up in and around San Miguel which provide a great benefit to the underprivileged sector of the local population.

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When I explained to Donald that I was interested in doing volunteer work and that my background was in construction, he put me in touch with a group called Casita Linda. This is an ex-pat run, donation-based organization which constructs houses for homeless families on the outskirts of town. The name translates to ‘pretty little house’. As well as being a great benefactor of the arts, Donald also gives generously to the charitable organizations here. It seemed somewhat fated when Donald told me he had donated the funds for Casita Linda’s next project. It would be the 54th house built by the outfit since 2000. Donald said I should mention that I was his houseguest in contacting them and that they would more than likely take me on as a volunteer. Sure enough the organizers responded to my e-mail immediately and first thing Monday morning I was up and off to build a house. One of the organizers offered to pick me up and take me out to the building site since the area was not an easy one to navigate – no street signs – just a maze of paths joining some houses, shanties and small factories. Many of the people in this area possessed land (which is dirt cheap in many rural parts of Mexico) but didn’t have the money to build proper houses. They slept outside in temporary shelters without security or warmth. Owing to San Miguel’s high elevation it is extremely cold at night; one night while I was there it dropped below 0 C. Living without a proper structure also affects people’s security as anything they possess can easily be thieved. The first house I worked on was for a single mother and her three children. The family had started constructing the humble 2 bedroom house 12 years earlier but when her husband abandoned them, the woman didn’t have the money to finish it. For twelve years the family had been living between unfinished concrete walls on a dirt floor with no roof, windows or doors. Casita Linda had agreed to come in and complete the construction for them. They were also building house #54 from the ground up in a similar area not far away. I helped to form and pour the foundations for the house. The construction techniques were grossly straightforward and there sure wasn’t the quality control or safety protocol that I was used to, but this is Mexico and I did my best to go with the flow keeping all body parts intact.

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The board consists of retired architects, construction managers and other technically-minded Americans and Canadians. The organization essentially does fundraising and when they have the required resources, they bring in their local Mexican crew to do the construction. The really incredible thing is that they have fine-tuned the process so that they can build a 2-3 bedroom house for $8,000 in about 6 weeks. The houses are simple concrete block and plaster walls with rolled steel roofs. A crew of four men does all the work including the plumbing, fixtures and electrical conduit and wiring. I loved being back on site hard at work. I was putting in 8 hour days along with the regular crew and didn’t mind the heat or the lack of bathroom facilities. It was just so fulfilling to be putting my energy into something that would truly benefit people; a project that would change lives and ease suffering for these families. This was definitely preferable to busting my ass for greedy condo developers and misguided government projects back in Vancouver. I was also excited by how easy a model this was to duplicate. Casita Linda existed in San Miguel because of a high concentration of gringos living here. But there was no reason a similar organization couldn’t be set up anywhere in the world. Create a simple house design utilizing readily available building materials and local labour. Keep the costs down to show donors how cheap it would be to house a family in the second or third world. The last project I managed in Vancouver was the construction of a homeless shelter for drug addicts. The 12 storey building provided 300 sq.ft rooms with a kitchenette and bath for 129 people. Considering both design and construction, the project costs were more than $25-million. That means to house one person, taxpayers were paying just under $200,000. If that money was available to Casita Linda or a similar organization, they could build actual detached houses for 3,125 families. I guess this demonstrates the power of non-governmental organizations in the absence of bureaucracy and political pretense (because
there is no way that materials and labour cost 700 times more in Canada.)

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My time in San Miguel was so worthwhile and enjoyable. I will treasure my time with Donald, meeting so many people euphoric about the ‘alternate-lifestyle’ they’ve created for themselves and witnessing the efficient execution of a benevolent organization such as Casita Linda. Once again I felt a real connection and kinship to this place and literally had to tear myself away to continue my trek. It is extremely probable that I will again someday land in this charming town devoid of the usual lures which attract outsiders; if for no other reason than to enjoy the marvelous sense of community everyone has created here for just a while longer. Before moving in, the new Casita Linda residents get to pick the paint colour that they would like for their new home. Most choose a bright colour that probably signifies their immense joy and newfound feeling of refuge. It also seems to make their new house shimmer a little bit in the radiant Mexican sun.

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Guanajuato

Guanajuato City is the capital of the state with the same name. The city has many affluent Spanish casas and public buildings attributed to the areas mining interests. The mines still account for a large percentage of the states GDP today with silver being the highest producing ore. Many of the mines are owned by Canadian companies and workers are none too happy about the way they have been treated. In 2010 there was a strike against Gammon Gold over unfair treatment of its workers. The company reacted by firing all of the 397 unionized workers. The union fought back by locking down the equipment preventing contract workers from being brought in. The strike lasted 9 months and in the end the company was ordered by the labour board to pay 100% of the striking workers salaries through this period as well as 90 days additional pay. This is a powerful statement attesting to how exploitive foreign companies treat second world workers. When Mexican companies ran the mines workers benefited along with owners through profit sharing. The Mexican owners also donated contributions and building materials to construct local schools and churches. Safety conditions also declined under the Canadian company with 10 deaths occurring over a 6 year period. This example shows the difficulties that unions face in dealing with foreign interests especially considering the Mexican government’s determination to cater to wealthy multi-nationals at all costs.

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The most unique aspect of the city are the network of underground tunnels running underneath the city. The city was originally constructed above an underground river. Tunnels were built to assist the flow of the river and prevent flooding. In the mid-twentieth century, engineers built a dam to redirect the water into caverns. The tunnels have since been lit and paved with cobblestones to accommodate automobile traffic. I spent approximately half my time in Guanajuato horribly lost in these tunnels praying that I would again see daylight.

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Guanajuato is also home to legendary Mexican painter Diego Rivera

Guanajuato is also home to legendary Mexican painter Diego Rivera

To the west of the city are ancient catacombs where bodies were interred vertically and, for some unknown reason, 1% have experienced natural mummification. Between 1865 and 1958 some of the bodies were exhumed when relatives could not pay a city instituted burial tax. The mummified bodies were placed on public display in a purpose built museum. Bodies are still added to the museum to this day. Two children who died in 1984 were recently added when their families could not pay the tax. Today the museum is called El Museo De Las Momias and the ticket revenues provide a big boost to city coffers. Super creepy (especially the baby mommies) but I couldn’t resist a look.

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Body of woman buried alive in 1922

Body of woman buried alive in 1922

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Mummy souvenir keychains at the gift shop

Mummy souvenir keychains at the gift shop