Tag Archives: Merida

My island home

I spent the next day traveling from Merida to Cancun.

I spent a few hours there, shopping for supplies I thought might be harder to come by, or more expensive on the island.
So if you recall, my experience of Downtown Cancun when i first came to Isla – was that it was just awful. The Hotel Zone in Cancun is also awful. It’s just shiny awful.
Anyone that knows me, knows I’m not good in shopping malls at the best of times. All that fluro lighting, bad music, all those people (don’t get me wrong: I like people. Just not too many of them in the one place at the same time.)

I was very happy to return to Isla Mujeres. There are no shopping malls on the island. No Macdonalds. No Starbucks. Yes there are tourist shops, but they’re confined to a couple of small Avenidas. It’s a small place. Everyone knows everyone. Case in point: Despite numerous attempts,  I hadn’t managed to get a phone number out of Gladys, my contact for the house I was renting, which was very annoying. She’d asked me to send her an email when I got on the boat and she would meet me at the house. Which I did. She didn’t respond. I also couldn’t remember exactly where the house was, having only been there once.

So I went to a cafe and started fretting about how to get on touch with this lady so I could get the key. It was getting on in the day. When along came the owner of the cafe – Gloria, a rubenesque Italian with a warm demeanor, and asked “you have problema, señorita?” Un poco, I replied. I told her my tale and she threw up her hands, and smiled, proclaiming that Gladys was her friend and she could call her. Fixed.

I was met by Teresa, a tiny Mayan lady who worked for Gladys. She took me up to my casita, introduced me to Jorge – a big black gentle giant with a 1000 wattage smile, who seemed to be the manager of the building. We took care of business and I started nesting.

My new little pad was cuter than I had remembered. (Skip 4 paragraphs if  the details of these sorts of things, don’t interest you)

The room featured sandy-yellow walls with a quaint hand-painted mural of a sun setting over a coconut tree, by the bed which was on a raised platform. There was also a painted bedhead on the wall, which was on theme.

At the foot of the bed, there was a leaf-green colored enclave which housed a small bathroom (toilet paper goes in a wastepaper basket in Mexico – the plumbing just can’t handle it). And also a little open wardrobe for my expansive collection of couture).

Next to the bed, there was a space to hang a hammock, and by the window overlooking the busyish street – a small red plastic Coca Cola table with 3 white plastic chairs, all sporting different beer and soft drink brand stickers. This would serve as the location for my classes.

I had a little fridge and a 20L water bottle with a makeshift pump for my drinking water. A little bookshelf for my pantry, with a color TV on top of it, and a 2 burner gas cooker in my kitchenette. I was fortunate to have both wireless and AC. Very simple. Very sweet. A 5 min walk to the Centro. A 10 min walk to the best beach on the island. I knew I was going to be very happy here.

The next morning, I went for a swim in that perfect aqua blue water and wondered why it was so blue. I later did a bit of googling, and there’s a bunch of theories ranging from the cleanliness and temperature of the water (26-28 degrees), the quality of the sunlight and sand, the number of microscopic organisms that live in the water … then i started reading a scientific article about color vibrations and bent water molecules and my head started hurting so I thought better of questioning why and decided it was much easier to swim in ignorant bliss.

I spoke to Coleena my teacher. Turns out she was moving into my apartment block that week, which would be most convenient. We started lessons the next day. 3 hours a day, 5 days a week.

On Tuesday i went snorkeling with Fausto the Fisherman. We met up early and it was just the two of us out there. Soooo many fishes!

It’s a rule that visitors must always wear a life jacket in the Garrafon National Marine Park (clearly the locals are conscious that the loss of a tourist’s life would put an end to a good portion of the island’s livelihood.) But I found it quite limiting and frustrating. I am quite experienced in and on the ocean (for those who don’t know me- I participate in distance ocean swims; I love a body surf; am an experienced diver, etc) So I’m comfortable in the water. Fausto sensed this and let me take off my vest so I could do a bit of skin diving with him. Much better!

We saw reef sharks and trumpet fish and barracuda and groupers and starfish and nudibranchs and a ray and a lion fish. The reef was just so incredibly rich.

Two days later, on the Thursday I went out diving. I did my first wreck dive – the Cañonero C58 C55 (Depth: 33 meters), which was just wicked. It’s a big old WW2 Navy boat about 180 foot long with at least 2 floors and was just thriving with schools of various types of fish. We went through some of the rooms of the ship including what would have been the engine room and the captain’s cabin. The 2nd dive was a drift dive along a reef called Las Pietras Negras, which was a much more shallow and cruisier dive. Apparently this is a great place to spot turtles, but we didn’t see any.

I met two very interesting well travelled sisters, fresh out of college; and their dad on the boat. Dad was doing his Advanced Open Water ticket. The girls had just completed their Dive Masters’ courses in Honduras in a 6 week period because it worked out cheaper than to go diving every day for a couple of weeks. Crazy, huh? One of then had lived there for a while, opening up her own restaurant; while the other had just finished a two year stint in the Peace Corps. At the risk of sounding like the little old lady who lived in a shoe, I find these sorts of young people so inspirational. When I was 23, I was just pissing all my money up against a wall. Imagine what these girls are going to have accomplished by the time they’re 40!

I was absolutely knackered when it came to my lesson. Note to self: No more dives before class. As relaxing as they are, they can also take it out of you. My classes are 1 on 1, so there’s nowhere to hide. It’s been almost 10 years since I studied, so it’s kinda hard work plus the 3pm starts are right about the time my brain stops functioning and I just want to siesta. I know, I know: Cry me a fucking river.

Fri 8 July

Believe it or not

(OK. I really do apologize for the song title for this post, but it’s a great story today, so push on.)

I arrived in Mérida about the time the sun was setting.

I had caught the bus in from Playa. First Class & Even More Premium Than First Class! buses in Mexico give you more legroom than Business Class on your average plane. Seriously. Why don’t they put these things in the sky. They’re modern, clean, spacious vehicles with AC, TV and toilets. On some, apparently you can get snacks. And they’re stupidly cheap per kilometer.

Anyways, I had stuffed a wadful of pesos in my pocket, as I’d started dozing, and thought the money would be safer on my person than in my bag in the open overhead compartment.

When I got to the hostel, I realized I’d lost the money. All 1200 pesos of it.

Now this currently exchanges to AUD$95, so it’s by no means, the worst thing that can happen. However in Mérida, its possible to get a bed, meals, and a beer for 250 pesos, so 1200 pesos could in theory, stretch out to just under a week.

Also, 1200 pesos comes in at just under the minimum monthly wage in Mexico. For a bus driver, it’s roughly a weekly wage. Folks live very simply here. So, it’s a lot of money in this context. I spent the rest of the evening kicking myself for my carelessness.

As I laid down that night, I had the recollection of a blonde lady walking down the aisle to talk to the driver, mid trip. As ours was a direct, no stops route – this led me to conclude that she had little reason to speak to the driver (for example, to ask how long til the next stop). Maybe she’d found my money and handed it in. Maybe.

I went back to the bus terminal the next day and was sent to a different terminal… It was more like a depot. I spoke to a guy through a tiny security grille, who had little English and even less interest in my story. But he went and got another bloke who had perfect English (despite him telling me he only spoke a little… They all do that over here. Un poco, pequeña Engles. And then they’re practically fluent.) Joel was also a good listener.

I told him what had happened, what I thought the blonde lady had done, and that maybe the driver had my money, and if so, maybe he would give it back… I asked if there was any way we could call the driver to ask.

My reasoning was: if you were given a bunch of money and didn’t know who it was – you’d might just think it was your lucky day. If you did know who it was, then you’d give it back, right?

I was told the driver had continued on, on a long distance journey and would be back 9am Friday. Come back then.

It continued raining quite heavily on and off for the next few days, so I didn’t see as much of Merida as I would have liked – but I did wander the streets quite a bit. It’s a simple city with a slower rhythm, a pretty enough Zocalo, and a great marketplace.

The food in Merida is just delicious. More Mayan influence, and so a lot more interesting spices and flavors. The Chaya drink is a must try. (Maria from Guadllarhara, who i lunched with, told me you have to talk to the leaf, but i was a bit skeptical.) And Merida has been to date, the only time I haven’t completely suffered through frijoles (beans). In fact, I quite liked them.

I took a bus out to Chichen Itza (which I want to call Chicken Bitsa) and I gotta say, these ruins shat all over the one I saw on Cozumel. It’s the real deal here. A big fuck-off Mayan temple with lots of other surrounding buildings, including the largest and best preserved ball court in the world. One of the things I found interesting were the jaguars guarding it; they reminded me of the Chinese lions. Anyways, it’s a must see if you’re in the area. Go early to avoid the busloads coming in from Cancun. Expect 100s of vendors all hawking the same souvenirs. And all for just 100 pesos, would you believe it.

So, back to the story of the lost money. By the time Friday morning had come around, I had almost forgotten about the money until Maria greeted me with a cheery, “I think today is going to be your day, Michelle.” So off I trotted to the bus depot to meet my helpful man, and hopefully the bus driver. When I got to the security gate, Joel was there to greet me with a big firm handshake. He promptly went and got the bus driver. The driver and he had a very animated conversation in rapido Spanish, none of which I took in. Joel explained to me that the woman had found the money and had waited around the terminal for a while, for someone to claim it. I assumed that meant that she had taken it. Fair play to her.

That was that, then.

Then all of a sudden, the driver pulls out 1200 peso from his wallet and handed it to me. I just looked at him. Literally gobsmacked. I couldn’t speak. I just started spluttering out chopped up versions of what, why, how. None of which would be particularly meaningful to someone who could understand English, let alone someone who didn’t. I just couldn’t believe it.

Tears started welling up, and it wasn’t at all about the money by now, but about the ridiculously incredible thing that had just happened. Everyone who’d I spoken to about losing the money told me to forget about it. Including the dude at the hostel desk when I left for the terminal, just 30mins earlier. When I did the conversion, I really didn’t know why I was bothering.

But there was just something compelling me to go back to see this driver.

And he had come good for me. Not on the money. But on my, sometimes wavering but mostly solid, belief that people are good.

There had been 3 people who had made this beautiful little story possible. The unidentified blonde lady who found the money and handed it in. Joel Novelo, my helpful man and the driver, German Palma Montero. How incredibly fucking cool is that.

I naturally immediately gave a good portion of the money back to the driver. And tried to give some to Joel, who just flat out refused. I gave him a big hug instead which is probably going against all sorts of Mexican customs, but i don’t care. I’ve undertaken to give 1/2 of the money remaining to someone who really needs it, when I happen upon them. A pay it forward kind of thing. I also intend to write a letter – en Español – to the CEO of the ADO bus company to let him know how fortunate he is to have two such incredibly decent people working for him. I don’t know if that will make a speck of difference to anyone, but if nothing else, it’ll be a good exercise for me.

So many of the guidebooks will tell you Mexico’s a dangerous place with a very high crime rate, blah blah blah. And look, I’m sure it can be, and there is. But I sure as hell ain’t seen any of that in the month I’ve been here.

What i have seen, is a country that is so geographically diverse and so incredibly beautiful. The people here have the biggest smiles and hearts to match. They are genuinely interested to get to know you. I’ve had so many Mexicans give me their phone number, telling me if i needed anything, i could call; stopping to help me (even when I didn’t ask for it); and waiting patiently while i try and splutter out a sentence like a complete retard in my terrible Spanish.

And then this happens. I feel incredibly lucky to have this tale to tell, and intend to tell as many people as I can. Feel free to do the same, by hitting the share button below.

2 July

PS Hostel I stayed in (Nomadas) was one of the best so far: hammocks, a pool, relaxed vibe… the girls in my room reinstalled my faith in my ability to do dorms; plus there were free salsa lessons with a hot instructor. Perfecto!

Caribbean Queen

(be forewarned, I think the song titles are only going to degenerate from herein)

I left Mexico City to do a reccy around the Caribbean coastline at Claire’s suggestion… To find a place I could call home for a month while I take Spanish lessons. My wish list consisted of 3 S’: small, simple and seaside.

Cancun. Otherwise known as Miami in Mexico.

I had booked my one night there too hastily, as I was determined just to transit through. After all I had heard about the place – I knew it wasn’t going to be for me. Note to self: Must read reviews BEFORE booking rooms. (Also must contribute to traveler review sites more often.)

It was, in a word, a shithole. No toilet seat. Holes in the wall – probably where perverts were looking at me get undressed. Musty mattress, barely clean linen. Ants. Flying things. And other unidentified bugs in the bed. Not bed bugs, thank goodness. (I am absolutely paranoid about these since Angie told me horror stories about people having to trash all their stuff, and move out of their house when they were plagued by them.)

Hard to believe only 10 days prior I was in a 4 star hotel. One of the few downsides to traveling solo is that often hostels will charge you for 2 people if you want a private room. A hotel can end up costing roughly the same, but be a bit a lot nicer. Downsides to a hotel is you don’t get the social aspect of meeting people in a hotel. Maybe I need to rethink my attitude to dorms. Ergh.

I dumped my bag in the shithole and went downtown. But not before asking if they could kindly arrange a toilet seat for me, por favor.

Finding a decent looking place to eat proved tricky, so I opted for what was easy. A restaurant / bar with a thatched roof sounds nice, but this was, I realized too late, anything but a nice place. I had already ordered, when a fat old drunk started trying to pick me up from his neighboring table. When that didn’t work, he started whistling at me like I was a dog. It reminded me of the boys in Campbelltown who’s charms extended to hanging their heads out of the windows of their Toranas, and asking,
‘Ya wannna rooyt?’

Geez, how did you know. Okay. Let’s go, then.
I mean, really. Really?

I scoffed down the awful meal, the quickest Corona, and scurried back home. To the shithole.

I stopped to talk to a few people who were hanging around in hammocks by a mosquito pool back at the hostel, but wasn’t really feeling the vibe, so i just made a beeline for my shithole.

The young bloke from reception knocked on my door, and promptly installed a toilet seat for me. Gracias.

I showered. With thongs on. And got into the nasty bed. The only saving graces were that I had A/C, the Family Guy was on, dubbed in Spanish. I retired early, so I could get out of there as quickly as possible the next morning.

Isla Mujeres

Arriving in Isla Mujeres (the “island of women”) was like arriving in paradise. Sure there was a lot of road works and still the ubiquitous tourist shops, but the Caribbean was a sparkling aqua blue that was almost luminescent. White linen covered cabañas and white sunlounges dotted a white, white beach. It was like a perfect postcard, but real life.

I hadn’t organized a room as yet, so I needed somewhere to stow my pack. There was no left luggage at the ferry terminal, but I was lucky to meet Fausto, a happy fisherman, who was half Mayan and had lived his whole life on the island. I could tell by his eyes he was a good man. He locked up my pack in a tiny storeroom filled with fishing lines, while I scoped downtown for a room. I decided on an immaculate hotel with a pool. To make up for the shithole. I am past the days of suffering unnecessarily for an extra day of travel. Ironically it cost me only a few more dollars than the shithole. I went back to pick up my bag and promised to buy Fausto a beer for his trouble.

I immediately went for a swim in that perfect sea. My first in the Caribbean. I could hardly stop myself from jumping up and down, splashing around like a kid, and smiling like a idiot savant. Such a lucky girl.
So many times in the last 6 weeks have I pinched myself and wondered out aloud,
Why me. In the best of ways.

While I have by no means have had the hardest of lives, it hasn’t always been an easy road. There were some truly trying times, growing up. I’ve also learnt a lot of lessons the hard or the long way. I gave up a true love, in the belief that something that was a better fit, would come along. It hasn’t. There was a decent career which proved less than satisfactory. No children. Yet. Less importantly, no white picket fence. One day, I might bore those of you who don’t know my stories, with the details. But for the moment, let’s just say I have spent a lot of time lately, wondering out aloud,
Why me. But in the best of ways.

I don’t know if this trip will be some life altering experience; or if it will simply be a six month holiday. Whereupon I return to my old life. And whether that will be happily or otherwise. I secretly hope that love might be a by-product of this trip. I want to learn to speak some Spanish. I want to write. Above all else, i want to truly live in the moment. At least, this much I can control.

So there I was swimming in the bluest of sea on my own, squealing with joy from the inside, out. Lunatic.

I spent the next two days cruising about the island, getting to know some of the locals, enquiring about casitas to rent, and looking for Laura – a lady who I hoped might become my teacher.

Isla Mujeres is a very small island – only 8km long by less than 1km wide. You could, in theory, walk it but it’s so damned hot and humid in the day- you’re better off getting a cheap as chips taxi or hiring a moped or golf cart. I kept to the norte part of the island for the time I was there, but on my last day, a real estate agent, Edwin took me to the other end, the Punta Sur to see a house that was on the precipice overlooking wilder seas. The place would have provided solace i was looking for, but it was a bit far removed for my liking. I wanted something that would give me easy access to the beach, shops, the locals, and bars- should I want to socialize.

On my last day, I also met with Gladys to see a place which she had personally rented for 3 years. It was light and airy and clean. She had painted the walls with a simple mural. There was a basic kitchenette. And AC. There was a shared terrace upstairs that had water glimpses. It was just moments away from downtown. And the beach. And it was $250 cheaper a month than the other two places I was considering. And about 1/3 of what i was paying for my Bondi apartment. I fell in love with it immediately.

I received reply back from Laura indicating she could do the job, but she was in Merida and had to take an exam for a job and couldn’t start til the following week. No problem, I decided i should take a quick look at Tulum, Playa de Carmen and Cozumel before laying down my swag.

Tulum

Tulum is divided into two parts: the pueblo (town) and the beach. Naturally I gravitated towards the 7km long beach with the jungle right at it’s back… The power grid stops just off the main highway and so you only have generator electricity for a limited number of hours during the day.

There were just three huts in the ‘resort’ i had made a reservation for, and no Reception that I could see. A young man appeared from nowhere to greet me, show me my gorgeous thatched roof house nestled between the jungle and the beach and wave me in the direction of the ocean, which was just steps away. My big beautiful 4 poster bed swathed in a mosquito net was the centerpiece of the cosy room. The bathroom was all water smoothed stones and mosaic mirrors, and organic soaps and fluffy white towels. I noticed not one, but 3 fans (the reason became quite evident as I tried to sleep later that night).

It was nice to duck dive and do some body surfing, as it was the first time I’d seen any waves since leaving home. I had the ocean all to myself bar a few lovers strolling along the shoreline. I showered outdoors, and walked a few meters down the road before happening upon a buzzing little outdoor restaurant, Hartwood.

I sat at the bar, and ordered cerveza. I then introduced myself to the friendly looking local bartender and the handsome young man sitting next to me. Eric and his pretty pregnant wife, Maya were the owners, having moved from New York just 6 months earlier. The menu was really exciting. I started with a crab dip and a Caesar salad done with the fish of the day. I had a few drinks including an amazing Habanero Grapefruit Margarita (!!!) and got to know the lovely young couple bit more, as well as their staff. Valentine looked a bit like a Mexican Merve Hughes and was just larger than life. He had me in stitches. An extraordinarily charismatic man. Maya said they kept him around for “buena energía” – I could completely see why.

Cozumel

Next day I headed to Playa Del Carmen, essentially just to catch the ferry across to the island of Cozumel. I ended up spending 3 nights there. I stayed in the literally named Hotel Dulce. This is where I saw my first swan towel. The housemaids on the coast have a thing for creative towel folding. Think origami in terry toweling. I’ve seen a lot of swans since, and I have to say they’re right up there with tyre swans for me. Love!

So, Cozumel is a large island that’s on the cruise ship route. When you arrive you are confronted by a melee of tourist shops selling t-shirts, jewelry, shot glasses, Mexican souvenirs, blah blah blah. Shop after shop after shop of the shit. and not much else.

Turns out, everything that’s good about the island is on the other side. You can’t get to the other side by collectivo. You need a bike or a car. I enquired about a cab and was told it would cost $50USD to get there, and back. WTF. He also wanted to take me to a very American-looking full service day resort. All I saw was overpriced pre-made drinks, and organized activities. All he saw was a commission.

I decided I’d hire my own vehicle. I initially wanted to get a moped, but after all the haggling and paperwork were done, I had a change of heart. Whilst on the island of Paros in Greece in 1998, i had an accident on a moped, where I broke my right foot. My friend Janine had to help the doctor cast my foot on a bloodied bed (there’d been a shooting just moments before). I’m fine to ride pillion with an experienced driver, but I just didn’t have the nerve to do it on my own. So I ended up going with a jeep instead.

It was pretty on the other side. Lots of lovely little beaches to stop at for swims and drinks. I had the best fish tacos yet at a place called the Orange Iguana, overlooking the sea. I didn’t get around to going in the National Park because it was near closing time and you really need a whole day there. The diving is supposed to be something else. Jaques Cousteau was responsible for bringing this place to the world’s attention many years ago.

It started raining heavily, and the jeep was leaking through the roof, so I decided to call it a day, and take a siesta before dinner.

The next morning, I drove to San Gervasio, which is one of the oldest Mayan archeological sites. It is dedicated to the goddess Ixchel (“She of the Rainbows”) – deity of midwifery, fertility, medicine and weaving. Many women from the Mayan settlements all around Mexico and beyond, made a pilgrimage here to her shrine at some point in their lifetime.

You can read more about Ixchel’s fascinating story here.

I was told that this, was by no means the most oppressive of Mayan ruins I would see, but it was certainly a significant one.

It started bucketing down that afternoon, and basically didn’t stop for the rest of the week. I decided I would see out the rain in

Playa Del Carmen

Playa, is also quite touristy (meh, we’re on what’s called the Mexican Riveria. It’s all touristy) but it has a very international, more grown up feel about it. A lot of Italian restaurants, expensive jewelry shops, designer bikinis and a lot more choice for decent espresso. Fuck, I miss well-made coffee.

There’s a reputable Spanish school, and the beaches are, well, just typically gorgeous… I knew I could be happy enough there but it just didn’t feel like Mexico. There’s very likely a whole other side to it that I didn’t see because of the torrential downpours… I spent most of my time in my hotel, reading, writing, catching up with friends, and sleeping; or in restaurants and bars, eating and drinking. It wasn’t all bad.

This is where I met the surfer boy from El Salvador (see previous post) and also a handsome Italian local man by the name of Luca… He and I shared a bottle of red and some good conversation, under the balcony of the cafe he owned, while it rained and rained, and rained. Swoon…I got the distinct feeling I would rarely be lonely in a place like this, but it wasn’t what I came to Mexico for…

Laura, in the meantime, had fallen through… I had told 2 out of the 3 landlords I was dealing with, I wouldn’t be needing their rooms…I still had one sort of on hold. I commenced a new mission to find another teacher on Isla Mujeres.

I also started considering other options for places to study such as Guatemala. I decided to go to Merida, as i could either head around to Guatemala via Palenque and San Cristobal, or come back down to Isla should I be able to pull it off. It was all starting to feel a bit hard.

Monday 27 July