Posted by: lianadevine | 28 August 2008

O is for “Opportunity”

Five months ago we arrived in Oaxaca, capital of the state of the same name.  We decided after a few weeks to stay awhile and take advantage of the opportunities presented here.  We had been given contact information by our friends and former residents Dawn and Noe, there is a Canadian Consulate here, as well as a Mexican Immigration office.  Much in the city satisfied the subjective criteria we’d been looking for in a new home town, so we began the tramite of converting our tourist visas to immigrant visas.

Through Dawn’s former neighbour Andrea, I was hired at the local Berlitz Language Centre as an English teacher.  My new employer facilitated the paperwork for my visa, as well as translating and certifying the necessary documents.

We're Oaxaquenos!

We're Oaxaquenos!

Once we had FM3 visas, I was able to apply to various Mexican government agencies like Social Services, and the Mexican equivalent of Revenue Canada.  Yep, paying taxes here now…  We are still jumping through hoops to get our Mexican Healthcare lined up and renewing our vehicle insurance with a local carrier, but all seems to be going well, just plodding along on Mexican time.

Our official address is the Oaxaca Trailer Park, and here we have stayed, through many passing travellers, watching the progress of the new building and becoming friends with the caretaker Eucario.  I often take him baked treats, when I have leftovers from  entertaining or class desserts.  Or if Calvin, now a proficient bus-husband, makes a big batch of say, frijoles, or chili, or more recently, sausage, he’ll pack up a meal to take over to Eucario.

Internet in the trees

Internet in the trees

We signed up for cable, and enjoy internet and 60+ TV channels from the street to a tree to our bus.  We even bought our first cellphone!

Spike has taken over the park and really enjoys the grass here which is lush, long and green with the summer rains.  He goes with me to the laundry area and stalks birds or munches grass while I hang out the clothes.

We’ve met many wonderful fellow travellers from near and far, as they pass through the park.  Calvin especially enjoys this contact with the outside world; I get my fix interacting with staff and students at Berlitz.

Berlitz Bus party

Berlitz Bus party

We recently blended our two spheres when we hosted a Berlitz staff party in our yard and invited the neighbouring family from Germany.  Dinner was barely over when Nina started coaching Tilman in math in German; Brits John and Theresa stayed to the bitter end, bus dancing with Inmaculada and Adriana.

We’ve attended a variety of cultural events, something Oaxaca proudly provides in abundance.  THE place to go is the Guelaguetza Auditorium, an amphitheatre cut into a hillside that offers a commanding view of the city in addition to excellent acoustics and the most amazing fireworks directly overhead, so close that stains from fallen ash identify the spectators on their way home.  Many of these cultural experiences seem to drop into our laps, to our great surprise and delight.  We’ve written about a few of them to our families, and I am starting a new blog page about “Life in Oaxaca” where I’ll post them for all to peruse.

So, while we are no longer as mobile as we once were – this time by choice – we are open to the opportunities around us, and enjoying all Oaxaca has to offer.

Posted by: lianadevine | 28 August 2008

The Big O

We never really realized how much we missed the beach until we had left it. But the beach at Huatulco was literally and figuratively a long way from Xcalacoco and we found out you can never really go back. We treasured our days at the beach, but it was time to turn inland in search of more temperate climate. With spring approaching, it would only get hotter in the south of Mexico.

Oaxaca was planned to be the first stop on a route that would take us back into central, colonial Mexico. Though it’s only a few hundred kilometers on the map, experience told us it would be a long hard drive through the mountains, slow going because of traffic and the need to keep our engine cool. We’d heard the most direct route was also very sinuous, so chose to double back to Tehuantepec, then take the road more travelled to Oaxaca.

We set out early the Saturday before Palm Sunday so we would be safely to our destination before the start of the Semana Santa traffic. But the 38C+ heat proved to be too much, for us, for Spike and for our bus. We stopped many times along the side of the road, waiting for the temperature gauge to drop to a safe level, showering Spike with cool water to quench the heat. As a last resort, after crawling uphill in first gear, we unhooked the Thing and I drove separately for about 50 km.

By mid-afternoon, we decided we couldn’t continue to drive the steep inclines in the heat, so we parked on the side of the road at Totolapan, across from an all-night military checkpoint and their favourite diner.

At least he's on the right side of the road

At least he's on the right side of the road

It was a steady stream of soldiers, semis, buses and burros that night, so 6AM came early. A short 80 km drive brought us into Oaxaca, seesawing up the last 2000 ft, watching the sun rise over the hills we approached. We actually climbed up to 6600 feet, and dropped down into the Oaxaca valley, blanketed in agave cactus. Stands and shops selling mezcal made from the blue agave clustered along the highway from Matatan on, while the entrance into the city was lined with jacaranda trees cloaked in purple blossoms.

The Oaxaca Trailer Park had been rumoured not to exist anymore, but we found it where the guidebook led us. It was about half its former size, a newly-opened office building taking up one corner with another building going up beside it. We had been here eight years ago and had a few haunts in the city we wanted to check out. We also got some advice from our friends Dawn and Noe, who had lived here after we last visited and have now moved on. So we set about to rediscover Oaxaca, and have not been disappointed.

Through Dawn and Noe, we met Andrea and her family and Shoshana and Alejandro, who have been kind enough to show us around, and with whom we have shared several pleasant mealtimes. We renewed our acquaintance with Cafe de Olla, still an excellent restaurant near the Santo Domingo Church and museum. We dutifully discovered Itanoni, as recommended by Dawn and Noe, enjoying a typical Oaxaqueno brunch, and a dinner at La Biznaga was a frugal gourmet delight. We’ve been to Nueva Babel to hear Alejandro’s band play, and one morning went with Shoshana to nearby Santiaguito to see their property and meet some neighbours, Tom and Elaine. It’s as though we have inherited a circle of friends, through Dawn and Noe but in their absence.

We’ve also met a wide variety of travellers in the RV park. We’ve seen many Europeans, mostly from

If ours is a bus, theirs is a...?

If ours is a bus, theirs is a...?

Germany, with a variety of mobile living quarters, some Americans and a few more Canadians. At times we’ve had a regular United Nations here: France, Austria, US, western Canada, England, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, eastern Canada. English seems to be the universal language of travel, and even if someone’s Spanish is limited, we can usually share our experiences in English. Calvin enjoys meeting “new neighbours” as they pull in and we’ve become a fountain of tourist information regarding routes and potential campsites along the way.

Since Oaxaca is not on the regular tourist track (read:beach) it is often bypassed by northamericans on their way somewhere else. Oaxaca sits at the crossroads between east and west, north and south, so it is a stopping-off place, a spend-the-night-and-move-on place, not a destination in itself. This is a shortsighted misconception: Oaxaca and area offer endless possibilities.

The city sprawls along the Atoyac River and has crept up the hillsides ringing the valley.

Leanne takes a breather

Leanne takes a breather

To the southwest, at Monte Alban, three such valleys meet, their confluence crowned by Monte Alban’s commanding temples. We visited Monte Alban on Good Friday, which was also the Spring Equinox this year. Though I climbed to the top of the tallest pyramid, I can’t say I felt the mystic vibe of the ancients.

Each of the three valleys contains a number of small villages, whose residents have perfected a local craft: San Bartolo makes unique unglazed black pottery, Santa Maria Atzompa specializes in green-glazed pottery, you’ll go to Teotitlan to find woven wool rugs, and artisans in Xochimilco produce tinwork of all descriptions. The fanciful animals from Arrazola, carved from wood and brightly painted, defy description. All of these towns have their special market day, so you could easily spend a week or two visiting each town in turn. Or do as we did, and find them all under one huge roof at the Central market in Oaxaca.

View from Cerro Fortin

View from Cerro Fortin

Before the summer rains, the hills are dry and dusty; low scrub and cactus, along with feathery pines, make up the majority of the visible vegetation. But the city itself is fertile and green, fed by the waters of the river, and the numerous dams located in the hills beyond. There are the ubiquitous laurel trees that indicate onsite water, palms and rubber trees, citrus and tropical fruit trees, bugambilla and plumeria and other flowering trees I don’t even know the names of. I can only imagine it becoming more lush and green with daily summer showers. Our spring days are warming up, but the evenings bring a slight breeze and cooler temperatures, so it is more comfortable to sleep.

We wake to the sound of birdsong in the park, then at 6:30, when the bells of a nearby church ring, Spike can finally have his breakfast. Tuesdays, there’s a street market set up just outside our park walls, so it’s handy to pick up fresh fruit and vegetables, even shoes, clothing, cosmetics and audio- and visual entertainment. We enjoy the outing as an excuse to eat pork tacos freshly made “on the street.”

There are many museums, art galleries and cultural events to enjoy in Oaxaca – we’ve only just begun to explore. Stay tuned for part 2.

PS this post was originally written in March

Posted by: lianadevine | 18 March 2008

A Week in Huatulco

Once we discovered we were camped a stone’s throw from Mark’s resort, we planned to sit on the boulevard, cervezas in hand, to wait and watch their airport shuttle go by.  But I mis-remembered their arrival time, so instead, we pulled up in the Thing moments after they arrived in the lobby.  After the initial hugs and greetings, Calvin and I sat on the lobby’s comfy couch to wait while they went through registration.  By then, they had their welcome drinks in hand, so we toasted our reunion.  Within the first ten minutes Mark’s wife Lee had pulled out a digital brag book to show us photos of their new grandson, while Mark kept exclaiming, “I can’t believe you’re so brown”.  Lee’s sister Brenda was practicing her “hola” to anyone who walked by as her husband Todd roughhoused with Calvin. Here comes trouble! The spectacle had begun.

We left them with a walkie talkie and directions for how to get to our camp, then let them get settled in.  They showed up a few hours later and Calvin visited with them under our awning while I rudely stayed inside watching my telenovela.  But I was there to catch the action when Calvin lit up one of his big-ass bottle rockets as a welcome.What goes up… Before they left, we made plans for a beach day the next day.

Saturday morning I did laundry in the great outdoors, birdwatching between wash and rinse cycles. Birdwatching in the Laundry room In the afternoon, we wandered up the beach and squatted just outside the hotel property, we poor cousins bringing our own refreshments while the paying customers ordered theirs delivered beachside.  The guys decided to swim to a nearby island, where Mark climbed almost to the top but did not capture the flag because he went back to help Todd climb up.  Calvin returned wounded, throwing rocks into the water as he has done since childhood.  We girls sat on the beach and discussed what to do with the insurance money if they did not get back safely.

A little later, Mark and Lee joined Calvin and I on a short excursion into nearby La Crucecita.  Not really intending to eat, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try some fresh tamales, sold right on the street corner.  We parked our butts right there,Street tamales taste great! and the señora was happy to oblige with styrofoam plates, napkins and plastic forks.  In fact, while we enjoyed her tamales, she left us with her belongings to run down the street to the market to pick up more forks.

All six of us went to town late Sunday for a little shopping, sightseeing and dinner.  On the way in, we visited the local bomberos so Todd could talk shop with some fellow firefighters.  We learned that their station is poorly funded by the government and relies heavily on equipment donated from firehalls in the US and Canada.  Brenda was taken by the four-day old Dalmatian pups, closely guarded by their mama when our bombero tourguide Jorge was not in sight.  Todd left several T-shirts from his local firehall for the guys, and will look into donating equipment to them on his return home.

We had a great authentic Mexican meal, complete with mariachis, at a restaurant on the zocalo.  Afterward, we were entertained with some traditional dancing at the bandstand in the middle of the square.

Monday we had a shopping day in both nearby towns, Santa Cruz de Huatulco and La Crucecita.  While shopping around the zocalo in Santa Cruz, I saw a woman with a haircut I liked, so I asked her where she got it done.  At an artesan market in Santa Cruz, Calvin bought a little wobble-head turtle, to mount on the dash of the Thing.  I immediately christened him “Bob”.  Brenda and Lee soon finished their tour of the shops at Santa Cruz, and we drove back to La Crucecita.  While the girls continued shopping in La Crucecita I went with the guys for a beer and lunch.  We met the girls later at another restaurant on the square, having a nacho snack.  Then we scouted out the estetica I’d heard about and I explained to Emma what I wanted.  As she started with the clippers, I told her not to be afraid to go short: “When you’re done, I want my hair to stand up.” Leanne’s new Hedgehog Haircut She did a great job, for only 40 pesos, and earned herself a ten peso tip.  She’d had to put up with Lee and Brenda’s heckling as she worked.

On the drive back to the resort, we noticed Bob was missing from his perch on the dash.  We all suspected he’d been stolen, but started looking around.  Brenda speculated he had run away because he didn’t want to travel with us, and Lee eulogized what a good turtle he had been in his short life with us.  As we pulled up to the front door, we all got out and tore everything out of the Thing, until finally Todd came up with Bob, gave him CPR and some water. What a relief!  Now our little mascot is safely glued in place.

Later in the day, Mark and Todd radioed to ask if Calvin wanted to go sailing with them.  It seems none of the three guys knows that much about sailing, though Mark was dubbed El Capitan. I’m not privy to all the adventure, but I can report that all returned safely, a good time was had by all, and Mark was demoted to “jib”.

Tuesday was a beach day for the family. They had brought us mail from home, which included the last receipts and statements I needed to complete our income taxes.  So while I worked on that, CalvinAnother Thing in Calvin’s Outdoor Shop did a tune up, rebuilt the carb and distributor and set the timing on the grey Thing parked a few spots down from ours.  Jorge was thrilled with how his car drove after that and promised Calvin a nice fish in exchange.  That night, the crew of drunken sailors turned up on our doorstep after dark, rousing us from bed, to tell some seafaring tales and drink a shot or two.

Mornings, we enjoyed birdwatching from our bedroom window.  Spike Spike birdwatches…was particularly entertained by the birds and squirrels who came to nibble the opened coconut we set up on the awning post.  Several times he launched at the screen, trying to get at an unsuspecting bird, but always in vain.  My little hunter.

Wednesday we started out in the Thing, headed for the seven nearby beaches that are accessible by car.  But the navigator had planned a different roadtrip, and did not tell the driver to turn at the farthest beach exit.  We ended up at Puerto Angel, Beaching in Puerto Angeland found a lovely patch of beach catered by Roberto, who later served up a tasty seafood lunch.  We drove across the highway to nearby Pochutla and visited a Mexican small town.  Calvin and I thought our family would get a better appreciation for the real Mexico if they got away from the fabricated resort area of Huatulco and La Crucecita.  In Pochutla, tourists are rare and there’s no English spoken.  Shops don’t carry souvenirs and payment is in pesos.  But the people are friendly and genuine, and the town is real, not real prettied up.Mark, Lee, Todd and Brenda enjoy a taste of the Real Mexico This was a different side of Mexico, apart from the excesses and extravagance of the all-inclusives.  I think our four visitors  realized and appreciated that, and enjoyed the excursion to “the other side”.

However, Thursday was a day of excesses, as they enjoyed another beach day.  When we joined them later that afternoon, there were no more barriers for the poor cousins, and we were right in the thick of the plush chaise lounges and served drinks.  Of course, Calvin and I had brought our own cooler, which was quickly depleted, and the party went on until we were the last ones on the beach.  Sorry, I did not bring back any souvenirs nor photos of this event; as Brenda said, “What happens in Mexico stays in Mexico.”  ‘Nuff said!

Before eight in the morning on Friday, three buses arrived, full of school kids armed with plastic garbage bags.  Within an hour, the entire camp, including beachfront, was stripped bare of litter in advance of Semana Santa, the leadup to Easter.
It’s a major Mexican holiday that begins Palm Sunday, and everyone heads to the beach.  We had experienced Semana Santa at the beach in Loreto ten years ago, and though we were up for the party, we wanted to be at our next destination, Oaxaca, before traffic picked up.  So Friday was spent preparing to leave – last laundry, cleaning and packing.  Mark came by in the afternoon and we drove into La Crucecita to order three pollos asados for our despedida supper.

Calvin was just returning from picking up the BBQ chicken when Mark, Lee, Brenda and Todd walked up the path from the beach.   We all enjoyed the chicken, frijoles charros, rice and tortillas, then the pastel frio I’d made for dessert.  Jorge returned from a beach day and stopped by for a chat and dessert.  The family helped Calvin put away some of our gear and then we said our goodbyes.  They would continue their luxury vacation for another week while we moved on with our adventure, through the mountains to the capital of Oaxaca.

Posted by: lianadevine | 13 March 2008

From Atlantic to Pacific

After Merida we had about ten days to get to Huatulco on Mexico’s southwest coast, to meet Calvin’s brother Mark and family. Our first day was not a long trip, an easy drive to Campeche, the capital city of the state with the same name. But knowing we would soon be in the mountains of Chiapas, we started the day in a tire shop, having our front tires replaced. It gave us peace of mind to know we would not have to worry about a blowout in our aging tires on the narrow switchbacks ahead. Shortly after, on the dead flat Yucatan peninsula, Calvin was just commenting on the improved ride of the new tires when, to my astonishment, I saw a ridge of hills in the distance. Soon we were winding through these Campeche hills, and on arrival in the city of Campeche, noted that the city was built up into the hills, an absolute rarity in my experience. Already, I was captivated by Campeche.

We parked the bus along the malecon and went to reconnoiter possible campsites in the Thing. In the end, we parked for the night in the parking lot of the tourist information building, after the dayshift had left. But there was no hookup, so we depended on the fresh ocean breeze to break the heat. It was really hot and humid at the coast, so we gave Spike the first of several showers to cool him down. He never complains because he knows how good it feels.

Just before dusk, we walked around the old town, bounded by remnants of the stone fortress that had protected Campeche from pirates in the late 1600s. Each of the seven bastions houses a museum, so we explored the first and oldest one, the Museum of the City. We had the place to ourselves and took photos of the city skyline, the view from the turrets,View from the turret and my favourite (look in the flickr photos) of Calvin addressing his peons, with the little trough pointing down at them so he could “pee on” them.

Old Campeche, within the fortress walls, retains the landmarks of a Spanish colonial city, with the typical zocalo. Along the cobblestoned streets are city-block-sized buildings, subdivided into shops and homes, each distinguished by their chunk of colour, ranging from pastelsColourful Campeche street to more vivid tones.

The malecon was quiet all day, but came alive at night with strollers, skateboarders and couples parked on benches. During the night, a storm blew in and continued the next day, so we revised our beach destination of Isla Aguada and headed south toward Palenque. This completed our Yucatan loop, since we had stayed in Palenque in December on our way to Bacalar. However, the weather was still rainy, it was still early in the day, so we carried on to Misol-Ha, a waterfall just south of Palenque.

We’d made a short pit-stop in Palenque, where I walked through the rain to find a bank machine while Calvin changed a fuel filter on the bus. We got rained on more getting parked and settled in the lot at Misol-Ha, so we just decided to go see the falls as is, thinking we were already wet and it wouldn’t matter if we got wetter in the rain. Again, we had the place to ourselves, no doubt due to the poor weather, and the falls were swollen with rain and runoff, so quite impressive. Getting wet at Misol-Ha We followed a trail behind the falls, which was near the bottom of their 30 meter drop. Torrents of water came crashing down inches in front of us, the wind whipping the water into our faces. It was as if someone had thrown a bucket of water on us, we couldn’t see or talk for the sheer volume of water coming at us. Fun, funny, cool, cold, wet and wild…and for me, a little scary. But we were laughing as we came out, and ran into a couple from Winnipeg, dressed in rain gear. They looked at us like we were crazy people.

Soaked to the bone, we changed into long pants and sweatshirts for the first time in months, and Calvin made us some of Doña Mari’s hot chocolate while I put our soaked clothing in the spin-dryer then hung it up to finish drying. We were heading into the mountains of Chiapas – the altitude was already 1000 feet – and the temperatures at night would drop as we gained altitude.

Soon after we left Misol-Ha the next morning, getting deeper into Chiapas, we passed a sign informing us we were in Zapatista territory. Further along the way, we saw more signs and muralsWelcome to Zapatista Country of Zapatista activity, but to be fair, we also saw the usual Mexican campaign posters. The going was slow through the mountains, but the roads, though winding and steep, were in great shape. We eventually reached pine tree altitude, where Ponderosa pines predominated the formerly-tropical jungle. People in the towns we passed were wearing sweaters and jackets in the chill air, and more and more, we saw colourful traditional garments worn. Near Ocosingo we stopped at the La Cañada market, newly built and nicely laid out, that offered a wide variety of products made locally. Not only were there the richly hand-embroidered blouses and flavoured tequilas we bought, but products made from honey, cocoa, coffee and macadamia nuts all grown in the area as well as jewellery and carvings made from amber and jade found in Chiapas. We spent an enjoyable time chatting with the vendors, learning about the area’s resources and were proud to support “the sustainable improvement of indigenous communities of Chiapas” with our purchases. Indeed, we saw lots of new construction and efforts to spruce up houses and yards.

Our altimeter got a workout as it registered the ups and downs through the mountains – up to 8400 feet at times, then dropping into valley towns – but the bus did us proud and though feeling the altitude, could still pull 4th gear when we needed it, and the jake brakes held well on the downhills. We cruised into San Cristobal de las Casas about 2:30 that afternoon.
We had emailed our friends Graham and Luisa in advance of our arrival, and they stopped by our campground on one of their trips to town. We followed them out to their ranch in the hills above San Cristobal, where we had a tour of the grounds, herded their sheep then had a simple and delicious lunch of beef tacos. Lunch at the Ranch Luisa sent me home with the leftovers, in exchange for the muffins I’d given them earlier. Yes, it was cool enough in San Cristobal to bake in the bus – we appreciated having the extra heat of the oven.

Another day we explored San Cristobal, looking for the alternate RV park Graham had mentioned. We got lost, but in trying to get our bearings, discovered we were at the Museum of Mayan Medicine we had visited and enjoyed eight years before. We stopped in, not to tour it again, but to see if they had any traditional remedy for my bochornos. The men at the ticket counter and in the farmacia did not know what that was, but when I explained my hot-flash symptoms, the pharmacist sold me some drops and the ticket agent had me write it all out in Spanish and English so they could update their bilingual ailments and remedies sign.

Making our way back to the zocalo, we walked through the handicraft market spread out over the steps and grounds of the city’s main church. Indigenous women, in the traditional dress that indicates the area they were from, sat among their wares, quietly embroidering while tourists looked over the finished products for sale. We approached Andrea, a petite woman with a pretty smile, who politely and proudly informed us about the Marco doll we bought from her. Andrea and her Marco doll I had asked if it were bad luck to have such a doll in the house, a miniature of Commander Marco of the Zapatistas. She patiently explained that he was the hero of the indigenous people, fighting for their rights as equals, encouraging women to vote and children to become educated. She pointed out that the market itself was a protest of the government-sponsored craft cooperative housed in the back of the church, because of the unfair profit margin exploiting the women’s handiwork. I was impressed with this well-spoken young lady, and happy to support her and her family in this small way. And we couldn’t help but notice how the entire inside of the church was gilded while right outside, poor barefoot Indian women sold their creative efforts for pennies.
The Tourist Strip in San Cristobal is a far cry from the 5th Avenue of Playa del Carmen, an indication of the kind of tourist that makes their way to the cultural rather than capital-based areas of Mexico. But one young enterprising fellow we met was Armando, who sat with his bathroom scale on one of San Cristobal’s side streets. For a peso (about 10 cents CDN), Calvin stepped up to get weighed. Armando offered to hold Calvin’s sunglasses, but did not lighten my load when I stepped on the scale. As I got off, I noticed the scale zeroed at 40 kg, but I do believe I was weighed accurately. Instead of Calvin’s sunglasses and watch, which Armando clearly coveted, we tipped him an extra peso, and took a picture of him for posterity.Cool Dude

As we made preparations to leave San Cristobal we were charmed by a little cutie who had been running amok in the campground in the last few days, entertaining himself and his little brother while their parents tended to daily chores. One morning Calvin found him on top of his family’s minivan, tying his feet to the luggage rack.Finn will not be left behind! Finn was curious about Spike, but quite shy, declining my offer to take Spike for a walk with a dimple-filled smile. We invited this friendly German family over to see the bus, then Finn proudly showed us his home-on-wheels. He was quite concerned that we had forgotten to take the Thing with us as the bus pulled away, until he saw we were only moving over to the sewer dump. Then he cheerily waved goodbye once we had hooked up, calling out “Adios” in a perfect Spanish accent.

The drive to Chiapa de CorzoOur drive that day to Chiapa de Corzo was only about 70 km on the map but took longer than the expected hour because of the highs and lows through the mountains. This route was the most scenic, from 8500 feet down to 2500 feet, and so convoluted that the kitchen furniture soon lost its footing and slid around the floor, giving Spike a start.The kitchen has moved… At the lower altitude, we were back in the tropics, but the vegetation was desert rather than jungle. And it was hot, man.

Friendly cabbies gave us a city map and suggested it would be safe enough to leave our bus parked at the side of the road near the 24 hour Pemex gas station. We showered Spike and left him to guard the bus while we scouted out a possible campsite. We found the zocalo, crowned with a beautiful brick fountainThe fountain in Chiapa de Corzo, a clean, airy market, and the boat launches for the tours of the Sumidero Canyon. But no campground, so we moved the bus to a shady spot along the main road for the night.

We decided to tour the Sumidero Canyon early the next morning, but it wasn’t until a full load showed up that we left. Along our three-hour tour were wonderful vistas of steep canyon walls, up to 1000 meters high, and the Grijalva River was calm and peaceful as we whizzed along. At the far end, we saw the dam that controls waterflow through the canyon, and stopped for a short break at a restaurant in the town that was built along the new lake’s shore. I got to flyLeanne “flies” the Rio Grijalva on the way home – a shorter trip because we did not stop to see the sights of interest again.

We took the Thing to nearby Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, to scout out the campground there, but found it was too small for our bus to enter or park. Further along the highway was the little town of Berriozábal, where we got out to explore on foot. In the market there, we bought a sisu, an unfamiliar vegetable that looked like a corncob with coarse brown hair. The vendor was peeling the hair off them to sell, and assured us they tasted wonderful when sliced and fried with some tomato and onion in a little oil. We decided it must be an acquired taste.

Returning to Chiapa de Corzo, we drove some backstreets in this hilly town and encountered a parade of sorts: some clowns, people carrying flower arrangements and piñatas, musicians and children.Follow the parade That reminded Calvin that he wanted to find out where to get the fireworks we’d heard through the nights here, so we asked at a store near where the bus was parked. The fellow told us to go to a house a few blocks away, and when we arrived, there was a party going on in the street. Clowns, people with flower arrangements, musicians and lots of kids. After a few inquiries, Freddy and his wife Margarita climbed into the back of the Thing and directed us to another house. For 75 pesos, we got a dozen huge bottle rockets, and Calvin was so ecstatic, he had to set one off as soon as night fell. Spike was not impressed. The party? Celebrating San Gregorio It was to celebrate San Gregorio, as we later saw the partygoers parading to the church carrying an image of San Gregorio along with the flowers and piñatas.

Tuxtla no longer being an option, we moved further down the road to Ocozocoautla and set up at the orphanage where we had flown and donated our kite eight years before. There had been some nice changes at Hogar Infantil in the meantime, including four new cement pads with full hookup. I was excited about the possibility of doing laundry until we realized there was no water available, their pila had not been filled in the dry season. So we relaxed and looked at maps to plan our route after Huatulco, then took a drive to town to reconnoiter and find Internet. We were quite disappointed not to find any internet access, and a few people actually directed us out of town to find any. This turned out to be a wild goose chase, because after about 10 km without seeing a town of any size, then taking a side road to a waterfall we never reached, we turned back and raced the fading daylight back to camp. Ocozocoautla’s internet cafes and El Aguacero waterfall will remain mysteries.

With two days until Mark’s arrival in Huatulco, we opted to move on to Tehuantepec, and leave the last big drive through mountains for the morning. The drive to Tehuantepec was mostly downhill, though slow and winding, allowing me the opportunity to examine the mango trees we passed. The fruit looked ripe and ready, dangling on its stems out of reach, like a carrot on a stick. I looked forward to parking under the mango trees at Santa Teresa, as we had seen mangoes since Chiapa de Corzo.

When passing through the narrowest part of Mexico, where the wind blows fiercely from Atlantic to Pacific, we noticed a wind farmWind farm near La Ventosa had been built near La Ventosa. A little further along, by the junction with the highway that crosses the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, we saw evidence of the wind’s activity: all the garbage in the world had collected on the fences and trees along the road.

Soon after, we were set up under the mango trees, but I was disappointed that the fruit was not ripe here. I took Spike out for a walkSpike checks out the mangoes around the grounds and saw the campground owner’s little son coming over for a visit, with a bag of 6 ripe mangoes for me. So I was happy again, parked under the mango trees, enjoying a diet Coke and a doradita. We reconnoitered in town, finding lots of internet here, and the vegetation and weather definitely more tropical. Later, we watched a caravan roll into the park, the same group that had been in Merida. We recognized our friends who had catsat for Spike, so had a nice catch-up visit with the Ritchie family while the no-see’ums chewed us to bits. That evening, the caravaners enjoyed a catered meal; we went to bed early to the sounds of their live marimba music.

Our wakeup call was not so pleasant: the RV genset next door roused us into action and we were on the road just after 6AM. But the cooler early morning air was just what we needed: past Salina Cruz we saw the Pacific Ocean, The road to Huatulcobut soon left the coast again, turning inland, winding and climbing through the mountains. We remembered driving this stretch eight years ago, in the dark, over potholes and past wandering donkeys. Now the road is repaved and in good shape, with a few nice views of the ocean, but mostly of dry hills and valleys.

To our surprise and good fortune, our RV park in Huatulco was only 600 meters from the resort that Mark and family are staying in. We reconnoitered the nearby town, La Crucecita, stocked up on beer, and prepared to greet the family when they arrived later that afternoon.

Posted by: lianadevine | 1 March 2008

On the Road Again

Donna and Rob arrived in Playa del Carmen on Wednesday, with our replacement bearings, and we had been negotiating how to connect with them. Since we love Merida and it is a big city with lots to do, we thought we would host them for a weekend, if only they would make a five hour bus trip…Our emails and instant messages to them consistently repeated the invitiation, and then Thursday, I suddenly had a brainwave: Why didn’t I get on the bus in Merida and go get the parts? After all, they were doing us a favour by bringing them, and we shouldn’t expect to put them out.

Meantime, Donna told us that she had sat next to a fellow on the plane and in casually chatting about her vacation in Playa, he suddenly pointed at her and exclaimed, “You’re the bearing people!” He turned out to be Dave, of Dave and Annamarie, other friends of ours from home who also have a bus. We had let Dave know about our continuing transmission problem, knowing he would empathize, but not expecting he could help out. When we knew the two couples had connected, coincidentally, we figured a road trip was in order. But what to do with Spike?

My first rash thought that he could come with us was soon nixed by Calvin. So we needed a catsitter. But Carolyn had gone to Bacalar; we didn’t really know anyone else in Merida. We had met a young couple from Victoria BC who were tenting, and we had told them about the nice campground near Progreso we had found. On a hunch, we made a quick trip that Thursday to Chelem to try to find Colin and Alanna, thinking that they might enjoy a pre-paid weekend in our RV park in exchange for looking after our cat. We missed them there, but some fellow campers had seen them at a hostel in Merida, so back we came to town and tracked them down at the Nomads Hostel. They had decided to move on, so we had to resort to at least Plan C: our friendly Canadian family who were in the latest RV caravan in our park. Of course, they were happy to do it, so we quickly gave Allan and Morgan a tour of the bus, left food, dishes and contact info on the kitchen counter, packed our tent, sleep pads and a few clothes into the Thing, and with the usual instructions to Spike about “don’t barf on the carpie or the ‘puter”, we headed off into the night.

Under Mother Moon’s bright full light we drove east toward Cancun. The toll road to from Merida to Cancun is very flat, pretty straight and almost empty. We flew along this Mexican autobahn as fast as the pesos flew out of my pocket: it’s your time or your money. Four hours later, we arrived at Xcalacoco,Tenting in Xcalacoco and quietly set up our tent. We enjoyed a quick midnight rinse in our beach baño, then caught some sleep.

Bob was surprised and pleased to see us, then he surprised us with the news that had we arrived a week later, Xcalacoco would be no more. The big hotels and condo complexes had finally squeezed Juan and Luzi out, giving them just a week to find other accommodations. This made our return to Xcalacoco that much more special, and the sand and shell-framed photos Bob, Joaquin and Juan with a recuerdo of Xcalacocowe had given our beach friends that much more significant.

We connected with Donna first by internet, then came by their resort on the south side of Playa to pick them up for the day. Since Donna and Rob had not been to the Riviera Maya, we started with the Tourist Strip in Playa del Carmen, yes, yet again for us! But we detoured to Casamara and introduced them to Sandra while we made arrangements to stay there that night. We had a filling and inexpensive lunch just off the Strip, then we hit the beach,Donna and Rob relax at “Our Resort” our beach, which they had already read about on our blog but wanted to see for themselves. We relaxed in the sun, drank cervezas under the palapa, ate mangoes in the ocean and walked in the soft white sand. It wasn’t the best day for beaching, but it was to be our last at Xcalacoco – I felt a sense of closure having returned, and left behind the shells I had collected there before.

After we dropped Donna and Rob off at their resort, we Arriving at Casamarachecked into the studio at Casamara. Immediately we felt at home in this cozy little apartment. I hung up the awaiting hammock and lounged in it Hanging out at Casamarato watch my telenovela. As it ended, Sandra arrived with Dave and Annamarie in tow and I continued to swing comfortably as we all chatted awhile. Eventually, Dave and Annamarie took us to Billy the Kid Taqueria, the taco restaurant Donna had tried to find for us earlier in the day. We had a great late dinner there, then had our first nighttime stroll of the Strip on the way back to Casamara.   Despite being so close to the busy  Strip, we found our studio a quiet haven in the middle of Tourist Mecca.

Nighttime on the Strip

Relaxing in our studio that evening, we tuned in to cable TV and found our old familiar programsLife IS a Seinfeld Episode. In the morning we enjoyed a long hot shower – we had not had such luxuries in awhile so savoured the decadence of it all.  As we left, we asked Sandra for her input on places of interest to visit in the Playa area. She recommended the cenotes at Kantunchi, a short drive south of Playa. With hugs of gratitude and friendship, we said hasta luego to Sandra, knowing our paths will cross again.

We picked up our tour group of Donna, Rob and their friends Bets and Layton at their resort and headed out to the highway, stacked three-deep in the Thing. They had all worn their swimsuits and brought snorkel gear, and looked forward to trying it out in the cenotes. Kantunchi is an eco-park across from the very resort that Bets and Layton stayed at last year, but as Bets said,”They didn’t even tell us about it”, so it is not in the resort tour packages. We had our choice of a guided tour that included multiple caves and cenotes that you could swim, snorkel or kayak, or a self-guided tour of four cenotes. We decided we’d have more freedom with our own tour, so map in hand, we hiked into the forest along well-marked paths.

The Yucatan peninsula is made of porous limestone, and much like a sponge, the holes on the surface are often connected below to other holes. It is this land formation that can make scubadiving in a cenote treacherous, when underwater currents carry unsupervised and unknowing swimmers away. As a non-swimmer, I am particularly nervous about this, so while the others snorkeled to their hearts’ content, I stayed on terra firma with the camera.

The water-babies in the crowd gingerly approached the stone steps into the first cenote, Snorkelling at Kantunchiawaiting that crotch-level chill that makes you wonder if it’s worth going in all the way. But the heat of the day convinced them it was cooler in than out; the chill soon seemed refreshing, making the walk to the next stop less oppressive in the humid jungle. There were fish to look at in the clear, slightly-saline water, which ranged from 4 to 21+ feet deep. Most of the cenotes had cave-like entrances, and obviously had channels or tunnels leading to other caves, but one spotCenote in the jungle had a typical open-air water surface, very pretty with lush jungle vegetation surrounding it.

At the last cenote, all but Calvin and Donna had had their fill of swimming and snorkelling, so headed back along the path to the cervezas that waited at the park entrance. Donna, just learning to snorkel, was anxious about swimming through the small submerged spaces until Calvin went ahead and showed her where they ended up, often in a larger cavern. While they explored below, I tracked their voices from above, as there were several natural skylights into their swimming hole. Donna was so proud of herself for swimming out of her comfort zone and enjoyed this part of the tour immensely.

The six of us piled back into the Thing for the trip back to the resort. Back Safe and SoundWe were tired and hungry and in need of freshening up. But Calvin and I declined an offer of lunch at the resort, and went to see if we could connect with Dave and Annamarie in town.

They were not at their apartment, but the tenant we met there said they had gone to the nearby WalMart. As we drove there hoping to find them, we tried to reason what they would be looking for if they were just moving into their apartment, so figured on looking for them in the linens or toilet paper aisle. We split up but Calvin found them first, choosing a mattress pad. I think he said Annamarie’s reaction on seeing him was “Oh good, somebody with a car”, meaning they could buy more than they could carry themselves. We laughed about that, all of us feeling relieved we had found each other without benefit of a telephone. We detoured to the food section, loaded the Thing with their supplies and drove back to the apartment. While the tenants continued to move out, we set up on the poolside table and and proceeded with a “grab and grunt”Grab and Grunt of handstuffed chicken tacos washed down with cerveza. We were all famished and manners were not an issue here: we were definitely among friends. Dave’s Swiss army knife was all that stood between the pollo asado and the tortillas.

It was almost dark when we said our goodbyes and hit the road back to Merida. Travelling at night on the autopista is safe enough and much cooler than in the day. Merida 305 km…I started a chorus of “99 bottles of beer on the wall” substituting the kilometers, and when Calvin suggested I sing slower to make each verse last a kilometer, I switched to Spanish, and Damn if it didn’t come out in just the right time!

So passed the four hour return trip, one of those giddy punchy evenings where silly things like stealing roadsigns can happen. Well, we did stop to look at the stars, out in the middle of nowhere, where the sky was clear and not light-polluted. I was surprised to hear voices, but the sound from the loudspeakers at an event in a distant town travelled across the flat terrain easily.

Spike was well and happy to see us and we had a nice note from the family who had looked after him.

The sound test for the Flag Day ceremony roused us early Sunday, and while I watched the spectacleFebruary 24 Flag Day, Calvin put the bus back together. Really. It was that easy. Or at least, he made it seem easy. Judging by the lack of swearing heard, I knew it went well.The bearings go back in

We spent time packing up and preparing to leave, and I spent way too much time in the sun waiting to get just the right shot of our bus and Thing parked below the huge Mexican flag, now proudly flying from the huge flagpole at the shopping mall next to us. Have a look at our map in the sidebar to the right and see if it isn’t a good photo (Click on the arrow above the map to enlarge it and see the list of places).

So, we’re on the road again, thanks to our Home Team (Tom, Guy, Zach and Melissa), the Away Team (Donna and Rob) and the Road Crew (Allan, Charlene, Morgan, Elise, Mason, Sandra, Bets, Layton, Dave and Annamarie). It was a group effort that made a potential disaster a wonderful experience.

Posted by: lianadevine | 1 March 2008

Marking time in Merida

Besides the fact that Harry and Maryann are looking out for our best interests back home while we take Mexico by storm, besides the fact that as our bus guests not a feather was ruffled in our schedule nor our space, and especially since Harry and Calvin had worked together so long that they are almost psychic in knowing what’s up with the other…I, Leanne, was grateful for their visit. Because while we were enroute to Merida, it was Harry’s calming effect and mechanical help that kept Calvin’s latest bus troubles at bay. However, the bus troubles kept us in Merida longer than we planned. But even that sorted itself out in the best possible way.

While driving to Piste, Calvin had noticed that the speedometer fluctuated, something that had happened before all the trouble with the other tranny.  He also felt that same familiar twinge in the rear end of the bus, the business end, where motor, differential and transmission lay. Dreading more transmission troubles, he tried to stay calm for the sake of keeping our visitors entertained, but did confess his concerns to Harry. On the rainy afternoon when we didn’t go swimming after a hot morning of touring Chichen Itza, Calvin and Harry had a look at the magnet Harry and Calvin check the tranny in the transmission and hey, it didn’t look too bad. So we went on to Merida and finished our tour with them.

But still something felt wrong, so Calvin went ahead and took out the drive shaft and found the big nut that held it all together was loose. After removing the bearings from the final drive of the transmission and inspecting all the pieces he concluded that the shop in Arizona did not get the correct torque on the big nut. The bearing inspection showed some wear and pitting, although if we had to they would probably make it awhile longer. We carted the bearings around Merida getting opinions and finding out that no replacements for such specialized parts were available. Our best option was to have replacements brought from our spare transmission back home, and it would take some teamwork.

A flurry of emails connected Tom, Guy, Harry’s children and Donna and Rob, and the Home Team swung into action. Since Harry and Maryann were not yet home from their Mexican vacation, Zachary and Melissa had to let Tom in to our storage container to get at our spare transmission. Tom pulled the parts we needed, cleaned and inspected them, then got them to Guy, who delivered them to Donna and Rob, friends who would be coming to Mexico that week. It was like clockwork and all fell into place perfectly, except, how would we get the parts from Donna and Rob in Playa del Carmen, on the other side of the Yucatan Peninsula? While we worked on that problem, we carried on with Life in the Big City.

Our Bacalar friend, Carolyn, was in Merida at this same time, so we contacted her and met her and some friends downtown for Noche Mexicana. On Saturday nights, one end of Paseo Montejo closes to traffic, and artisan booths and food vendors spring up along the street. Live music, singers and dancers perform onstage in a free concert. After enjoying this entertainment, we walked to the main square, stopping along the way for drinks at one of the many outdoor restaurants with live music on the closed streets. Here an impromptu salsa band had set up and local couples from the audience provided the show. At the zocalo, we chatted with Carolyn and her Canadian friends Bob and Mitch, then parted company for the night.

We went over to Carolyn’s house a few days later, and found her in midst of renovations. Calvin looks at Carolyn’s roof I was glad I had brought muffins, because Carolyn did not yet have a functioning kitchen, so this was breakfast.  Calvin, Mitch, Carolyn and I discussed the renovation plans, and Calvin went with Carolyn to pick up some plumbing supplies.  Eventually, we walked to a nearby internet cafe, then had a delicious lunch at a restaurant recommended by a local grocer.  Walking back, we were all in tune with house possibilities, so were looking at neighbourhood homes with an eye to their potential.   Merida has a style all its own, down to the decorative floor tile patterns, that could easily be incorporated elsewhere.

The RV park we stayed in was next to a huge shopping mall, so new the white lines in the parking lot were still fresh.  A blast of frigid air greets you as you walk through the automatic doors, not just from the air conditioning, but from the full-sized skating rink in the middle of the mall.  People lined the boards at both ice level and from the floor above, watching the skaters with interest.  Ice skating is a novelty here, so not everyone was an expert skater, but even more of a novelty was the Zamboni, which generated at least as much interest.  We walked past and entered the Cine Hollywood, which promised VIP seating.  For 80 pesos each, we sat in big, over-stuffed,comfy electric leather recliners and had our orders for movie treats taken and delivered to our seats.  We saw an excellent movie, The Atonement, in English with Spanish subtitles.  Good Spanish practice.

At the RV park, we endured the invasion of the caravans.  A few days after Harry and Maryann left, in rolled about 15 big rigs and proceeded to cluster around our campsite, despite there being about 75 spaces in the city-block sized park.  Calvin convinced the caravan leader that the electrical power was not concentrated where we were parked, so they eventually dispersed a bit.  Although we tried to be friendly, it was not until their final potluck dinner on the patio next to our space when Calvin played some Spanish guitar dinner music from our CD collection that they were finally won over.  And then they left the next morning.  We had the park to ourselves for about three hours before the next caravan arrived, with much the same behaviour. Invasion of the RV Caravan Once they had parked and plugged in, they immediately sucked the power from 138v down to 96v trying to run air conditioners that 15 amp service was not intended to handle.  This group clustered very closely – some could not even put out their awnings –  but seemed more friendly.  In fact, one Canadian family stopped by to visit some fellow Canadians (us) as they were feeling outnumbered by the Americans in the group.  We gave them some tourist information we had come across, and let them know about the fun stuff in the mall for their three teenagers.

When it became apparent that we were staying a few more days than originally planned, I hauled out my sewing machine and started a quilting project.  Calvin tinkered with the bus and the Thing.  We got to know the caretakers, the lizards and the dogs at the boxer training school onsite. We watched the lunar eclipse with some folks from British Columbia, one from our home town.

Thursday February 21, we were awakened about 7 AM by a loudspeaker sound check.  Understanding the welcoming speech that soon followed, I looked up the date and found that February 24th is Flag Day in Mexico.  I rushed out of the bus, camera in hand, to see what was up in the mall parking lot where the loudspeakers were set up beneath a huge flagpole.  It turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the Flag Day ceremonies, with kids in school uniforms carrying mock flags practicing their best marching.  Not much happened that morning, but it was advance notice for me that there would soon be a huge Mexican flag proudly flying next to us.  The rest of the day – and it was a long one – made me wonder if I would be there to see it.

Posted by: lianadevine | 25 February 2008

The No-Tell Motel

According to our Mexican campground bible, aptly written by a couple by the name of Church, Merida has only one campground, the Rainbow RV park.  Their latest edition of “Traveler’s Guide to Mexican Camping” speculates that it too will be swallowed up by land developers; a grandiose modern shopping mall has opened up literally next door.  So we were intrigued and hopeful to see “Trailer Park” emblazoned on the huge orange wall of a building alongside the highway at the eastern approach to Merida.  Maybe its nightly rate would be a little more reasonable than the 250 pesos the Rainbow charged.  Or maybe this is just Sour Grapes after our 80 pesos-a-night beachcamp.

Calvin and I drove through Merida on dimly-remembered routes to find our way from the bus depot, where we’d just left Harry and Maryann, to the Periférico ringing the eastern edge where it is intersected by the highway toward Cancun.  Not far from the outskirts of Merida, actually in one of its suburbs, we saw our big orange building and followed the arrow painted alongside the words “trailer park” to the rear door.  We explained to the man at the door what we were after, and he said the entrance was around the corner at the front of the building.

The entrada was curiously obscured by bushes and brickwork.  Like entering a maze, we wove the Thing between parallel walls, angled to prevent a car parked at the security gate from being seen from the street.  While Calvin was stopped at the gate, I walked over to the office to ask about the rates and availability at this trailer park.  But already I could see it was like no other.

Several employees in the office passed me over to a fellow who could answer my questions about the trailer park.   I explained that we had a 35 foot bus, a casa rodante that we live in, and wanted to park in their trailer park.  He led me out of the office, past the rows of cabanas where Calvin had been directed, through a courtyard that was grassed and had a nice-looking pool as well as a kids’ play area.  Behind all this were more, larger cabanas, then a big concrete parking lot, and my hopes faded as I realized that we were now behind that door where the “trailer park” arrow pointed.  Calvin had followed us in the Thing, and parked in the lot and came over to hear what the man had to say.

In Spanish, he told us that they would charge us 300 pesos to leave our bus on their lot for a night, but that we couldn’t stay in it since we were really paying for the use of a cabana and the facilities.  I clarified that we didn’t need a hookup for power or water, he said none was available anyway.  Then, this man of about 30, began explaining subtly that the trailers  that parked in this area belonged to men…who brought….their…ummm…. He was quite embarassed at this point, so I finished the explanation for him: their girlfriends, for just a few hours.

Now out in the open, I said we knew about these “no-tell motels”, but wasn’t it like false advertising that the sign boasted a “trailer park”?  I suggested that many travellers like us would make this same assumption and come asking, and couldn’t they rent us the space for less than the room rate or at least change the signage?  We got into a conversation about the nature of this business in this area of the ‘burbs of Merida, about the owner’s nearby nightclubs, about the hourly room rates and the amenities of the higher-priced rooms.  At some point we switched to English and Javier told us he was studying for his TOEFL exam.  He asked us about Canada and said he would like to go there someday.   He ended up giving us his contact information in case we needed anything while we were in Merida, another of those “mi casa es su casa” relationships we have been fortunate enough to happen upon on in our travels.  We said our goodbyes and were let out the back “trailer park” door.

While Javier holds a respectable job as a computer geek in a respectable Mexican hotel, the service provided is regarded as less than respectable by foreigners unfamiliar with Mexican culture. In fact, our Sanborn’s guide from our first Mexican trip ten years ago warns travellers in Mexico that “this is not for you”.   But we have seen these “no-tell motels” all across Mexico, on the outskirts of almost every city of any size.   Though we have not personally had opportunity to seek lodging in one, we’ve heard that they do provide the road-weary traveller with a clean bed and a shower for those who want to get a few hours’ rest.  Just don’t think too much about who and what came before.

Posted by: lianadevine | 25 February 2008

The Poor Man’s Pyramids and Playa Tour

Early Sunday morning, February 10, we packed up our beachcamp at Xcalacoco, said Adios amigos to Bob, Joaquin and Juan, and hit the road for Tulum, our first stop on Harry and Maryann’s tour of the Yucatan.  We intended to arrive when the gates opened at 8 AM, to avoid the deluge of tourists who woáuld arrive later that morning.  Calvin and I had both seen Tulum several times, the latest only a few weeks before with Doug and Lisa, so I walked Harry and Maryann to the  entrance, then set them free to explore.  Back at the bus, Calvin was finishing the little details of packing and sorting that had gone by the wayside in the rush to leave.  Two hours later, they returned, remarking that indeed the park had filled up “I told you so!”  Off we went, inland toward Cobá,  stopping at the side of the road to eat a picnic lunch of our ever improving frijoles charros.

The Mayan ruins at Cobá are expansive and largely undeveloped.  The tourist parking lot at Cobá is expensive and equally undeveloped.  On our Poor Man’s Tour, we declined guide services, and depended on the minimal signage to guide us through the forest to various groups of ruins.  We speculated on the nature of the game played at the Ball Court, surmised that the Mayans must have invented golf according to carvings we interpreted ourselves, and watched Harry climb the tallest pyramid onsite in his flip-flops.Harry, it’s not that steep! He refused to go back to take a photo from the top.

Our first night’s camp was in the grassed yard of Hacienda Ticuch restaurant, just outside of Valladolid.  Live music was playing as we arrived, the pool was full of sparkling clear water and we thought we were in poor man’s paradise, until we saw the baños.  We took the Thing into Valladolid in search of internet and a camote (sweet potato) for supper.  While Calvin and I checked our email, Harry and Maryann walked around the zocalo in the centre of town.  It was dusk and the birds were gathering in the trees; as we returned to the car, I felt something wet hit my shoulder.  Though it was only water, my reaction of looking up before looking at my shoulder struck the funny bone of a woman sitting on a park bench, a visual that transcends any language barrier.

We toured the dark streets of Valladolid for some time, looking for a supermarket where I could buy a camote.  After I called over to a fellow stopped alongside us at a red light, and he gave us directions, we found a store easily enough.  But he kindly escorted us there, then drove away with a smile and a wave as he saw us pulling into the store’s parking lot.
Our Comida Mexicana that evening was chuletas ahumadas, nopales with tomato and onion, and camote in an adobo sauce we had made from scratch ourselves.

The roar of traffic on the adjacent highway that night was not as soothing as the constant waves and wind we were accustomed to from our month on the beach.  All too early the next day, we had to rouse the restaurant staff to unlock the gate so we could get underway to Chichen Itza.  Our plan was to set up camp in the town of Piste, then visit the nearby ruins before the crowds and the heat got too bad.  On arrival in Piste, we saw the telltale signs of an RV caravan.  I investigated, and found they were in the process of leaving, so in the time it took us to turn around for better access to the yard, they were gone.  This was in a grassed lot alongside the Stardust Hotel, which offered us a beautiful pool as well.  We promised ourselves it would feel great to have a swim after a hot morning of touring Chichen Itza.

Recently acclaimed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza Pyramid at Chichen Itzahas risen to its world-class status.  The entrance is as impressive as any modern tourist destination; it reminded me of the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller Alberta.  The entrance fee had also risen to world-class levels, matched by the price of the guide who toured our little group around the site.  However, the narrative provided so much information I felt it was worth the splurge to finally get the explanation of what the Ball Court was about, Believe It or Not.

We got rained on a little at the ruins, and the swim we had hoped for was also ruined by the rain.  So we walked around Piste, a nice friendly town, and put in our order for a pollo asado for supper.  When I picked up the barbecued chicken, it came with so much rice, beans, salsa and tortillas, we were able to eat like kings for two days.

Our Merida destination allowed us a relaxed Tuesday morning, so Calvin and I baked eggs in beans for breakfast, a new Mexican dish we’d liked from the cookbook our friends Dawn and Noé had given us.   In Merida , we settled the bus in the RV park on the north end of town, then loaded into the Thing for the ride along the impressive Paseo Montejo into downtown.  Signs of the continuing wealth of this capital city of 400,000 appear on both sides of this wide boulevard: high end car dealerships, large bank branches, lavish homes.  El Centro is more modest and typical of all Mexican zocalos, bordered by the church, the state government building, the municipal building and Casa Montejo, home of the founder of Merida, Francisco Montejo.  Our walkabout downtown led us to a museum of the City of Merida, then further to the mercado where the locals shop.  Here we bought some tropical fruits and treats unknown in Canada, so Harry and Maryann could try them.  We had a wonderful demonstration of hammock use and care by Francisco, and I bought a small one for siestas, knowing that Merida is THE place in Mexico to get hammocks.

By dinnertime, we wandered up to La Parilla, which had been recommended by our friend Carolyn, who lives in both Bacalar and the house she is renovating in downtown Merida.  It was an excellent meal of grilled meats, enjoyed in excess by us all.  A long walk afterward, looking for the park where live music played nightly, helped digest the meal.

We had planned a beach day for Wednesday, so packed the Thing for a reconnoiter north to Progreso.  I wanted to check out two other potential campsites in nearby beach towns; the one at Chelem was beautiful, clean and inexpensive, but the one further west at Chuburna seemed not to exist anymore.  We returned to Progreso and had a beach picnic lunch Beaching in Progresoof fruit, crackers, and jicama and pepino (cucumber)in lime and chile, a favourite Mexican hot-weather snack.  We watched a group of little girls walk the make-believe runway along the malecon, strutting and pirouetting with style.  We politely declined sales and demos by beach vendors.  We watched birds on the beach and traffic on the four-mile long pier that stretches out into the shallow Gulf waters that only Calvin and Harry tested.

Back in Merida, Harry and Maryann gathered their belongings and bought their bus ticket back to Cancun.  We had some time to kill before their late-afternoon bus, so we went to a restaurant-bar across the street from the bus station.  Both the rowdy live music and the employees were entertaining, in a queer way, but the beer was cold and the snacks tasty, which pleasantly surprised us, given our surroundings.

With hugs all around, we said goodbye to Harry and Maryann before they boarded the bus.  We’d had fun with them during their long-anticipated visit, we were delighted with the mail and goodies from home they brought us, and we appreciated how game they were to experience the real Mexico with us.  It was the end of the Poor Man’s Pyramids and Playa tour, but the fun was not yet over.  While Harry and Maryann rode the Mexican ADO bus for 5 hours back to their hotel in Cancun, Calvin and I decided to reconnoiter the trailer park we’d spotted on the way into Merida. THAT’S a story in itself.

Posted by: lianadevine | 16 February 2008

Nothing Ever Happens

Days at the beach pass pretty much the same…getting up before it gets too hot, showering in the beach baño while looking out at palm trees and azaleas under a clear blue sky, drinking morning coffee on the beach. Noon comes before you know it, and now it’s a beer under the palapa, watching people and parasailers go by. By dusk, we’ve had a light meal and watch a little telenovela, conserving sunjuice by going to bed before we have to turn on any lights. Tomorrow will be another identical day.

On one of our trips to check email, we read that Walter and Gill are headed our way. The timing is almost perfect and coincided with our plans to connect with Harry and Maryann. Walter also makes an astute observation, on reading our blog, that life at the beach is like a Seinfeld episode, where nothing ever really happens. No wonder he’s anxious to come and find out for himself.

While waiting for these latest flexible plans to come together, we passed a couple more weeks of such idyllic-yet-Seinfeld “nothing” that included:

They Paved Paradise to Put in a Parking Lot: The early morning quiet was broken by the sound of a chainsaw from the beach next to our camp. We watched in horror as a fine old pine tree was cut down and bucked up. As I ran out to take some photos, The Big Pine comes downI called out to Bob, “How do you like them paving paradise to put in a parking lot?” He replied,”I hate it”. It is rumoured the restaurant and shops of a ritzy condo complex will be built on this lot, effectively eliminating local access to the beach.

Photo Shoot at the Beach: On a couple of sultry afternoons, as Calvin and Bob were people-watching and I was on the beach with Spike, there were two models doing their cat-walk in the palapa next door. Their skimpy white outfits Beach Babesshowed a lot of tan skin; nice contrast, according to the guys on my side of the fence who like to gawk and talk.

Topless Soccer: Another day, Calvin had to fix Bob’s binocs in time to observe the co-ed game of soccer between shirts and skins that took place on the beach just out of bifocal range. Hmmm….no photo available.

Living in a Bus on the Beach: With few expenses and no income, but plenty of time on our hands, we turned to projects and crafts to fill our days. Together we decorated some photo frames with sand and shells to give to our friends at the beach on our departure. I worked on a photo album while Calvin built a cathair brush, Calvin’s Cathair brushawning puller and footstool and fixed Bob’s gas line and CD player, which hadn’t worked in over two years, having been damaged in the hurricanes. Was it any wonder that the first tunes out of Bob’s door was Jimmy Buffet?

Cyberspace now farther than ever: Our “local” internet shop closed for renovations, forcing us to trek into Playa del Carmen each day to check email. Physically, this wasn’t far, but because of the traffic on narrow congested streets that have not been improved to handle the explosion of people and vehicles over the past 5 years, it became a half hour journey in and out, and hours driving around in circles on one-way streets, looking for parking. In Calvin’s opinion, Playa is the worst Mexican city for traffic he’s experienced to date (and we’ve driven in 29 of the 32 Mexican states).

Green Tortoise Encounter: We expected Shaunna and Lyle’s return from their Green Tortoise “Pyramids and Playas” tour to Belize and back, so we packed a little cooler with refreshments and waited for almost two hours at the highway intersection near our camp. We were just about to give up when we both spotted their big green bus at the same time. I leapt out to flag them down as they slowed for the tope while Calvin drove the Thing to the side of the highway ahead. Lyle saw the crazy woman jumping and waving, and pulled over beside the Thing. We had a quick hugOne More Hug on the road, and though we tried to organize a get together either in Cancun or Playa, the fates were against us.

There Was a Reason Why: The next day, while I cooked lunch on the outdoor stove and Calvin was working at the table alongside the bus, a white van pulled into the beachcamp, turned toward us to back in and park, but stalled, spewing smoke inches from where we stood. It was Sandra and her family, on their way to find some good ceviche at the beach. Calvin came to the rescue, diagnosing their failed waterpump and, after filling with well-water, advised them to head straight to the highway and call a tow-truck. We told Sandra we’d drop in and see them the next week when we came to Playa.

Good Karma, Bad Karma: The next Tuesday, we gave a lift to a man carrying a heavy box full of carpentry tools. As we dropped him off in downtown Playa, I gave him some money to buy food, in case he didn’t find the work he was after. We decided to look SandraSandra at Casamara up, at the hotel she owns just off the Strip in Playa, Casamara. After a tour of this oasis in the middle of Tourist Mecca, she invited us to stay for lunch, which we gratefully enjoyed with her, her dad and step-mom. On leaving Sandra’s, we found a traffic cop just writing up a 600 peso ticket for parking illegally. “No offense meant”, but he would go away for 200 pesos, so Calvin decided that was the best way to handle it. Later that week, the lavanderia beside the former internet cafe turned all my whites yellow, and in bleaching them back to white, ruined a new blouse and shortened the life of the elastic in our underwear. But two days later, when we gave a lift to another man carrying about a dozen grocery bags back from the bus stop on the highway, he gave us his blessing, so I guess our karma is back on the good side.

Free Food and Beer: Luzi loves to cook, and since the beachfront restaurant she and Juan owned was destroyed by the hurricanes two years ago, she has had little chance to feed people, other than Bob and the construction crews from nearby condo complexes. So she started a little spree of sending food our way with Joaquin, who delivers Bob’s lunch every day. We had some delicious ceviche, Snacking on Cevichecoconut milk still in the coconuts, spaghetti with albondigas (Mexican meatballs), various caldos and sopas. I had to tell Luzi to stop or we would get fat, but we did arrange to have her prepare a meal for our last night in camp. Calvin had done several fixes around the camp, and we are sure this was Juan and Luzi’s way of repaying us.

Suppose They Gave a Party and Nobody Came?: We invited our beachcamp friends to a Canadian dinner, planned for the night after the state elections. Since liquor cannot be sold around an election day, Juan’s bar would remain closed over the weekend, and they planned to go to Cozumel. Luzi asked us to change to the Tuesday, when they would be home from the island. Sure, no problem, we’re nothing if not flexible, right? But they didn’t go to Cozumel after all, and on the Tuesday, had an emergency in Valladolid where their older son is going to university. So our dinner of spinach salad, real USD barbecued beef, wild rice, broccoli casserole and sandia (watermelon) mousse for dessert, waited an hour before Bob, Joaquin, Calvin and I went ahead and ate. We got the message later that they were staying the night in Valladolid, so we replayed the leftoversJuan and Luzi at their private diner for Juan and Luzi the next evening.

Significant Spanish Smalltalk: Away from the Tourist Mecca Resorts, we conversed with the locals exclusively in Spanish, a great opportunity to improve. We learned about the hurricane damage and cleanup, how much construction tradeworkers make, and about the mysterious sirenas just offshore who have the tail of a fish but the hair and chichis of a woman. I just about busted out laughing – pun intended – as my tipsy weekend fisherman friend told me about this.

The Despedida: Saturday February 9, a month after leaving Bacalar, we set out for Puerto Morelos to pick up Walter and Gill at their all-inclusive resort. We brought them back to our humble beach paradise and soaked up some sunLeanne and Gill enjoy fresh Coconut milk and cerveza in the morning. Around noon, we fed them the batch of Frijoles Charros we had prepared the day before – like chili con carne, frijoles are better after their flavours blend. We tidied up the dishes while they siestaed on the beach, then it was off to Playa del Carmen to pick up Harry and Maryann, who had bussed in from Cancun. We anticipated it was a long hot, dusty trip, so welcomed our latest visitors with refreshments in the parking lot.Mexican Welcoming Party Down the Strip we went…how many times now for Calvin and I?? Back at our beachcamp, we introduced Harry and Maryann to the locals and our amenities, then enjoyed Luzi’s now-famous ceviche followed by a typical Yucatecan meal of salbutes and panuchos, both delicious variations on the theme: what can I pile onto a tortilla without it falling off? The Dessert Queen provided the evening’s finale with a no-bake Pastel Frio, a layered cake of lemon cookies sandwiched with sweetened condensed milk thickened with lime juice. We said our goodbyes to Walter and Gill and packed them off in a cab back to their resort, then settled Harry and Maryann into our bus-house for the night. Our poor-man’s version of the Pyramids and Playa tour would begin early the next day.

With the beach lifestyle we’ve been living, where it’s “nothing to do and all day to do it” I’m sure I’ve forgotten some event or detail. But such were the days of our lives…

Posted by: lianadevine | 16 February 2008

All the World’s a Sandbox to a Beach cat

One morning I went with Mama even before brekkie to look at the crabs on the beach. There were a few holes to sniff, Spike waitsbut I didn’t see any crabs, so I still don’t know what we were looking for. I don’t mind walking on the beach in the morning, except when it is windy, and then I don’t like walking anywhere. I don’t like windy. It makes my tailfeathers fly straight back.

One morning Mama showed me a lizard that lives in a log behind Mr. Bus. I had to sneak up on the couch to peek out the window because he’s scared of me. When Mama showed me a cucaracha, it was so teeny I didn’t even give it a sniff. But I saw a gecko and chased him up the wall until he ran behind the fridge. Then Daddy spooked him so he went in the blinds. Mama let me jump up on the table to see him, while she chased him out of the blinds. Now he’s hiding somewhere in Mr. Bus, I don’t know where and I can’t smell him yet. But they said I will when he dies… One night, Daddy showed me a walking seashell, Spike is boredbut he was boring. I liked the gecko better because he was fast and fun to chase. I sure wish he’d come out again.

I like to look out and watch the birdies in the trap Daddy makes. Spike watchesHe puts some old tortillas out and those damn grackles will come and take them everytime so I can watch. When I get tired of that I go for a nap, but it gets so hot in Mr. Bus. Then I like to go out and sleep under in the shade. I can even sniff noses with Max now but he wants to play and I don’t. That’s dogs for you.

Sometimes we go to the beach in the afternoons. Mama likes to walk really slow by the water with her head looking down and pick up stuff. That’s too slow for me, because I want to walk where the grass is. I wondered where all the grass was when we were at the beach. There was some in the yard behind Uncle Bob’s house but it’s like Stickerville there. After I walk in the stickers Mama makes me spread my toes so she can get them out. If she misses one, I have to bite my fur until it comes off and then I spit it out. Daddy and I like to sit in the palapa in the shade and watch Mama walk slow. And we watch other ladies walk by too.

When I walk on the beach lots of people look at me and ask Mama what kind of cat I am. Can’t they see I’m a Mexican beachcat now? Well, I like to dig in the sand and I have the big feets to do it.Spike digs Mama says it’s not polite to sit where I dig – the people at the fancy yard next door will be mad if they see me do that. But it’s natural to do it, and sometimes I just dig to find cooler sand to lie on, I promise. Daddy made me a beach house so I could peek out when I go downstairs to my bus sandbox, though.

In the afternoons when it is windy, that noisy boat is out with the big kite above it, and that’s too scary for me. I go right back to Mr. Bus where it is safe. I give Mama a loSpike is safeok if I hear that noisy boat when she says “Let’s go to the beach”, and if she makes me go, I put my ears back and walk like a Mexican burro.

When it was full moon time, we went to the beach at night. It was dark out but I could see with my beachcat eyes. I was looking all around but I didn’t see the water until it came and got my feets wet. Then I had to run! Spike runs Nobody told me the water would chase me like that.

Well, the beach is nice to live at, and it’s nice to look at, but there’s not enough grass there for me, so I’ll be ready to check out the next place we go.

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