Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sand, Sun, and Tikal

Tulum, Mexico 
I lugged my ever heavier backpack from the airport out in to Cancun, Mexico. The airport was comfortably air conditioned and as soon as I stumbled into the untreated outside air I was pummelled with a thick curtain of humidity and heat. Instantly my skin was moist and sweat began to drip uncontrollably. I was fresh off a plane from Peru where it had been cold and the air had been earth cracking dry. Now I was worried I might float away the air was so wet. Luckily, I had 20kg of luggage to keep me grounded. Still, I found the sudden change in climate overpowering. A man with perfect English (people that speak English!!) helped me into a minivan taxi and we drove off towards Cancun.

Cancun has two parts: the hotel zone (or the 'ho zone' as we backpackers jokingly call it) and downtown. The hotel zone has the beach and all the fancy resorts. Then there's the 'real' Cancun, or downtown where the actual Mexicans live. Because I could afford it downtown, that's where I stayed, but just because it's real shouldn't imply that it's better. It's not. Downtown Cancun is basically a mini-America of concrete and fast food restaurants and a few more Mexicans about than in the US. . . Maybe. Worst of all the beach is a 30 minute drive away, which pretty much leaves nothing to do other than eat McDonalds while perusing Walmart.

Too many tourists, ruins of Tulum, Mexico
My minivan took me through the hotel zone on the way to my hostel. I gaped at the mega-resorts we entered as we dropped my fellow passengers off for their luxury holiday. Far beyond the ho zone, I was the last to be dropped off, and I made friends with Carlos my English speaking minivan driver. We pulled up to a squat concrete hostel with enough barbed wire fencing to keep a small army from entering. SIGH. Occasionally reality sucks. I tipped Carlos (the only one in my van to do so, I might just add), rang the bell and was buzzed through the gate.

I approached the front desk: "hola or, uh, buenos notches. Umm, reservation Jordan Wagner. . .Umm una female dorm. . .or damas dorm I think. . .por favour," I attempted.
"hi Jordan - yes we have you here," he answered in perfect English (clearly I wasn't in South America anymore), "but we don't have a female only dorm, it's mixed."
I sighed, irritated. The advertisement on the Internet had specified a female-only dorm and I had sent an e-mail confirming that I would, in fact, be put in that dorm. That - along with the $10/night price tag - was the only reason I chose this hostel. Apparently they are bunch of liars around here! Let me explain, I'm not so prudish that I think males and females shouldn't bunk together, I have done so often. However, experience has taught me that I prefer a female-only dorm for 3 reasons. First of all, I am an extremely light sleeper and statistically females are less likely to snore. If there is snoring, they at least tend to do it quieter. Secondly, dorms often have mixed toilets and there is a reason why in almost every other situation bathroom activities of males and females are separated. I don't want to know what goes on in there, it's awkward, and the last thing I want is to stumble in to a toilet with the seat left up and piss dribbling down the side. Yuck. Finally, most of the boys in dorms are perfectly pleasant, but occasionally I've been stuck with some creepy asshole, and I like to avoid this inconvenient situation, if possible. It appeared in this hostel, however, I wasn't going to have a choice.

My very nice hotel in Playa del Carmen
I woke up the the next morning latish, and pushed through the heat and humidity to find some breakfast. After eating and wandering through Walmart I came back to my dorm to to grab my camera and some other stuff. It was almost 2:00pm, but there was still a man sleeping in there. He must have had a big night, I thought, as I made my way to my locker to retrieve my things, he was even sleeping through the cleaning lady busily making the beds. As I moved across the room something else came into sight: in a flaccid, wrinkled heap on the bed spread, all of this man's junk was spilling out of his boxer shorts. I clamped my eyes shut, horrified, but the damage was done. I turned to the cleaning lady with a sort of terror never before experienced, but she simply shrugged and went about her business. Poor woman, she must see this sort of thing all the time. I fought down vomit as I raged: this was EXACTLY the situation I had hoped to avoid with a female only dorm! I bet this asshole pissed on the toilet seat and snores too! I quickly retrieved my things and left the room, purposefully slamming the door as loud as I could. I left Cancun the next day.

Next I went to Playa del Carmen. It was, admittedly, a nice beach. It was also a busy beach with a mega-resort feel, which is not really my thing (somewhat ironically since I live in a mega ski resort, but it's just different when it comes to beaches, I want them to be pristine and empty!). I took the public bus out to the ruins of Tulum, the only Mayan site right on the ocean. I was quite possibly the hottest I've ever been as I walked the road to the park entrance. It was so roasting the heat waves had heat waves, and I picked 1:00pm to be out and about. I arrived at the ruins and discovered it wasn't only me that had braved the heat, there were hundreds and hundreds of tourists in a park not that big. A dark-clouded thunder storm was rolling in and the light and setting were amazing. Now, if only I could get a photo of the ruins without 5 dozen Americans posing in front of them. It was nearly impossible, but I managed to snap a few.

Local chilling, Caye Caulker
In all of Central America the activity that I most wanted to do was scuba dive the Blue Hole in Belize. For those of you who don't know, the Blue Hole is a large underwater sink hole surrounded by reef. I was on Caye Caulker, an island off the coast of mainland Belize, and it was close enough to run daily dive trips to the Blue Hole. Unfortunately, I happened to be there during hurricane/monsoon season, and although there were no imminent hurricanes or monsoons, the ocean was rough enough to warrant cancelling the trip, day after day after day. I tried to amuse myself on the island, which, by the way, is awesome. It's a tiny, sand covered speck in the Caribbean - the opposite of the mega-resort. Nothing much goes on there except the palms swaying in the breeze, and I'll endorse anywhere where it's socially acceptable to do anything and everything in bare feet. While on the island I also developed an expensive addiction to shrimp. For those of you aware of my usual avoidance of seafood (yuck), I understand this may be shocking. I plan on kicking the habit when I get home though - nothing will be as good as the stuff they have here anyway.

View just before I hopped in the water, snorkelling, Belize
Antsy to get in the water, I signed up for a sail/snorkel trip on the reefs near Caye Caulker. On my first jump into the sea I got to swim with a dugong, a large vegetarian mammal, a bit like a seal but more docile. I followed it out into the murky depths and watched as it slowly eased into the blue abyss beyond my vision. We also snorkelled with nurse sharks, sting rays, sea turtles, and all sorts of fish, but let's be honest, snorkelling is the dweeby little brother of scuba diving, and the Blue Hole was right there! After waiting days, however, it seemed the diving trip was pretty much suspended for the rest of the off season. In one of the biggest disappointments of my entire trip, I had to move on before scuba diving the Blue Hole.

Me at Tikal, Guatemala
I had to follow up the Blue Hole disappointment with something good. Tikal in Guatemala seemed about right. Tikal is an ancient kingdom that was completely overgrown with rainforest after it's abandonment by the Mayans in the late 900AD. The locals around always knew it was hiding there, but it was officially excavated in the 1950s and has since become a tourist attraction. The Mayans, of course, are most famously known for their rapidly approaching dooms day on December 21, 2012. After visiting several ruins, however, and talking to the guides about this supposed day of destruction, I'm not entirely convinced. First of all, the Mayans weren't as smart as they are often made out to be. Yeah, they knew a lot about astrology for their time but they also thought the earth was flat, the sun and moon were gods, and that the sky was held up by giants. Clearly, they were off on a few things. Also, in Western documentaries they often fail to mention that the Mayans didn't even believe in the end of time. To the Mayans, time wasn't a linear, straight thing that had a beginning and an end. Their calendar was circular, in other words, when an era of time ends, another era simply starts again. One of my guides laughed at what Hollywood has done with the apparent end of the Mayan Calendar. He agreed that the the last date on the Mayan calendar is December 21,2012, but when I asked him if he thought something bad was going to happen on that day he just laughed, "it's just when the calendar ends," he said, "like at the end of this year the 2011 calendar will finish, but right away 2012 will start. Nothing really changes in the world, except that it is a new year. It is the same for the Mayans. A Mayan era is coming to an end, but another one will start right away, and on the day this happens there won't be any real change in the world. I don't think anything bad will happen, that wasn't the message they intended to give us."

Tikal, Guatemala
So what happened to the Mayans? No they didn't mysteriously disappear into oblivion. Their societies began to fall apart after their greedy, corrupt kings began taking too much from an already impoverished people, creating civil unrest and war. Over population was a problem and there was a general strain on natural resources of the area. People were struggling for food and water. When a period of drought came to Central America much of the population did not survive, and the Mayan societies began to permanently fall apart. By the time the Spanish showed up there wasn't much left, but they did their best to destroy it anyway. Today there are still Mayans about, or aboriginals as they are now referred, but most are some combo of Spanish-Mayan mix. And there you have it, the moral of the story being we should stop shitting over December 21, 2012 and start fearing the degradation of our natural resources. That is what kills socieities, and now that we are globalised, that will probably be what kills most of us one day.

Tikal was cool, but at the risk of sounding like a total travel snob, I thought Ankor Wat in Cambodia was a titch better. What Tikal has that Ankor Wat does not is silence. There are no 8 year olds pursuing you ruthlessly to buy their post cards then giving you the finger when you don't (yes, I witnessed this at Ankor Wat). No one much is at Tikal, you can wander through the jungle in peace, then BAM you walk into an 1100 year old ruin. Pretty awesome. It was, however, the hottest day of all time on the day I was there, so after a few hours in the mind burning heat I was ready to hurl myself off of one of the pyramids. I am generally quite heat tolerant, in fact I like the heat, but there is no way around discomfort at 98% humidity and 38 degrees Celsius. BLEH.

I'm still sweating it out in Central America, but today is rainy. I have less than 2 weeks to go until my journey is at it's end. I will try to get one more blog post in before then.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Last of South America

Well, I'm going solo again. After battling through the strikes along the border to get into Bolivia, I now had to get myself back into Peru. I took a 12 hour overnight bus back to La Paz and then got stuck. The buses were all on strike, no one was going anywhere. Great. A day later I was able to get on a bus that was going to Peru. It was supposed to take 12 hours to get to Arequipa, my desired destination, but it instead took 18. Our bus was stopped on the highway by a mob of protesters that had filled the street. They had thrown a blockade of dirt and rock across the highway and no one was moving. So we sat and waited . . . And waited . . .And waited. Finally we began to creep forward, as the protesters raged, ¨No gringos! No gringos!¨
Wait a minute, I'm a gringo! What did I do to deserve this! Last time I checked I didn't have much to do with mining in Peru . . . except maybe my enjoyment of their silver jewellery? Not reason enough for this! The locals on the bus advised us to duck into the aisle, and all the bus curtains were drawn closed as we inched through the strike line. I cringed, half expecting rocks and random farm implements to begin hurling through the windows. With two giant heaves our bus cleared the blockade, already mashed down by other vehicles. No foreign objects had been thrown at the bus. Freedom!
Back at the bus terminal in Puno more drama unfolded. It seemed the road between Puno and Cusco (a very popular route) had been completely closed by strikers. Everyone going to Cusco now had to go via Arequipa, a solid 20 hour detour. Sucks to be them. Chaos ensued as everyone scrambled for a place on the bus to Arequipa. I sat in my seat clutching my pre-booked ticket, listening to the distraught tourists wine. We finally rolled into Arequipa after midnight. 

Plaza de Armas, Arequipa
Arequipa is a cute little colonial town with abundant churches, museums, and monasteries. Unfortunately my eyes tend to mist over at the thought of spending several days exploring these things. Booorrr-ing. I promptly booked an overnight tour of Calca Canyon. As I handed over my soles to the tour operator and signed my name on the dotted line, I was pleased to see 13 other travellers registered as well. Unfortunately, my joy was premature. I was lumped in with 6 middle aged French people (no English), 2 retired Brazilians (no English), and a Peruvian family with 3 kids under the age of 12 (annoying and no English). Now, I think I'm being generous when I say the French aren't exactly known for their friendliness, and they made little attempt to communicate with me. The kids brought a wrestling match to our minivan that included elbowing me in the head and kicking the back of my seat repetitively, and not appearing to notice or care. They only stopped the once their parents bought them noisemakers. Oh yes. Bird chirping ones. If you blew into them really hard they would screech. The kids preferred the screeching. Did I mention how much I love kids? No? That's because I don't.        

Calca Canyon
I'd confirmed that the Calca guide could speak English before I registered for the tour. With the rest of the group oblivious to the English language, however, the guide focused his efforts. He babbled on for hours in Spanish and got around to translating about 1/20th of his descriptions. The first day it didn't bother me much, I wandered around at the stops alone, learning nothing but blissfully free to explore where I liked. From the tips of the mountain tops to the bottom of the valley Calca Canyon is supposed to be the deepest in the world. However, it's not really as dramatic as other canyons, with a wide, open valley. Except for the two month rainy season, it is also extremely dry, so everything is brownish. Still, the meandering river and pre-Inca terraces are nice to look at. My enjoyment factor might have been a tad bit higher had I not been openly ignored by everyone. Midway through the first day we arrived in Chivay and were shuttled off to lunch. I was interested to see that guinea pig stew was on offer. Here's my chance to try the traditional Peruvian dish I'd heard so much about! I stirred the spoon around in search of a good piece of meat. As it turns out, guinea pig is mostly skin, cartilage, and bone. Yum. I managed to tear a small scrap off and .  . .it tasted like chicken. The brown meat, but definitely chicken. Hmm. The stew was all right, but next time I want chicken, I'll just eat chicken!

Funky looking cactus, Calca Canyon
It seemed my budget price got me a far shittier hostel than everyone else on the tour. We dropped them all off first, so I got to see what I missing, and then promptly drove to the ghetto beyond the paved road where my hostel was located. The van could barely make it. There was a metal scrap yard across the way and the neighbourhood looked like it was about to crumble to the ground. Nice view. I was shown to my room, which actually didn't look so bad, maybe I'd even take a nap. I slid back the covers and several discarded hairs were still mashed to the pillow. Right. Doubting the bed's cleanliness I pulled out my sleeping bag and placed it on top of the covers. Maybe I'd skip the nap. I was shuttled to dinner that night with my group where I was sat with the French crew. They all talked happily in French and I stared at the ground. There was Peruvian music and traditional dance performances, which I almost enjoyed until the tip hat was shoved in my face, of course. I grumpily put in a few soles.

Flight of the Condor
The next morning we were off early for more sight seeing. After a freezing night alone and not even a 'hi' from the group as I hopped into the van, I was not as perky this day. I'd come to the conclusion that everyone on my tour was an asshole. Yes, even the children. Actually, especially the children! I missed my comrades. This would be so much better if Hayley and Jess were here. Then we could ignore everyone too, and at least enjoy each other. Travelling alone can, on occasion, suck. This was one of those times. By the time we got to the flight of the condors viewing, I was irritable. I was ready to get back to Arequipa and to some friends I'd made there. I was not excited for the condors. The guide had actually got around to mentioning to me that condors have the largest wing span of any land bird in the Western hemisphere. What that basically boils down to is there are many birds the world over that are bigger than they are. They are not all that impressive. And they eat dead stuff? That's gross. I crowded with the swarm of other tourists gathered on the platform as the birds began their flight. They weren't that big, as I'd suspected, but they were flying close and fast. I began to take pictures, and I always get more cheerful when I have something fun and challenging to take pictures of. Before long I found myself running along the mountainside trying to get the perfect shot. Yep, it was official, I was having fun. 

I arrived back in Arequipa in time to get on a bus to Lima, where I would catch my flight to Mexico. I was looking forward to the 16 hour ride in the same way I look forward to dental work. The drive straddled the ocean most of the way and got my heart rate up as the bulky bus spead full speed around sharp corners perched atop cliffs that tumbled several hundred feet directly into a violent and rocky surf. I now understand why most buses run over night, they don't want their passengers to know how close they are to a painful and soggy death. Despite my terror, I was able to evaluate the South Peruvian coastline, and I can tell you it looks frighteningly post apocalyptic. The steep chunk of land that shoulders the sea is totally barren, nothing exists there except rock and sand and rubble. There isn't a even a speck of green, no sign of a living thing. I feared an unannounced nuclear disaster had taken place as we blasted past dusty and seemingly deserted villages. Only the odd string of laundry, fluttering alone in the wind, told me that people had been there recently.                                                                                                    

Ten hours into the journey the bus was boarded by a group of cheerful American teens and their chaperones. We got to chatting and it turned out they were headed to Lima to catch the exact same flight as I was. When they discovered I planned to sleep at the airport - and take a notoriously sketchy Liman taxi to the airport alone - they were appalled. Why don't I just come and stay with them at their church, they asked, the more the merrier. I began to salivate over the prospect of a warm bed, the company of a warm tribe of comrades, and the safety of a prearranged bus. Wait a minute though . . .Church? I tensed and feared the worst. Was I about to be asked if I'd thought about my relationship with Jesus lately? I began to ponder the real cost of this 'free' bed. I inquired politely as possible what church, exactly, they were staying at. They were, in fact, missionaries, but of the Catholic sort, and not seeming at all fanatical. Well ok, I can be comfortable with that. I'm pretty sure whatever religion I am is pretty much the same thing. . .Right? I kept my religious ignorance to myself - I'm hopelessly uninformed as to who believes what these days - the point was I'd happily sit through a few prayers in return for a free bed. I'll thank the Lord for that any day! Just when I was beginning to count my lucky stars the mean pastor stepped in an vetoed the whole thing. They couldn't just invite some random girl to the church, apparently. I guess I do look pretty sketchy, and there were impressionable young minds at stake, but I thought God was accepting of everyone? These missionaries were horrible at selling their faith, I felt rejected. I was fed to a Liman taxi after all that. Luckily I have more street credentials than I'm given credit for. I picked a good taxi and arrived safely at the airport shortly after midnight. I spent the night on the hard floor under fluorescent lighting, but I wasn't the only one huddled there. I may have even gotten 4 hours of sleep before the hordes of morning travellers began stomping through my bedroom.

Girl selling alpaca wool (with her baby alpaca in tow)
How do I sum up South America? I really can't, but I can try to summarize my thoughts on Peru and Bolivia. Peruvians will probably be nice to you, Bolivians may or may not. Don't expect people from either country to speak English. Most people don't, even in travellers hostels and restaurants. I could have saved myself the culture shock and learned a little Spanish before I went, but I did not, and I regretted it. At first I was hopelessly reliant on Hayley to do most the talking, and then I had to swallow my dignity and attempt to speak for myself, at which I often failed miserably. I did eventually find I didn't need much to get by. I quickly learned proper pronunciation and grammar were not important, but getting my point across was. A few key words, numbers, and some creative sign language usually did the trick. Almost all people appreciate it if you try and they will not laugh at you if you crucify their language and fail horribly to communicate, which I did often. Although it will help if you can laugh at yourself. Believe me, it's way better to be the amusing and ignorant tourist than the frustrated and ignorant tourist.

Peru and Bolivia range from entirely traditional (and perhaps old fashioned) to verging on modern but not quite there yet. Bolivia is lagging behind Peru, and the cities are always more 'advanced' than small towns. Even so, after perusing the local markets in La Paz I came to the conclusion that everything the Western World didn't use in the 80's and 90's has now been shipped to Bolivia. Clothes, cell phones, home d├ęcor, cars, computers, you name it and it's at least ten years behind there. It is mildly amusing, except when trying to produce an online blog (or stream the NHL play-offs, in Hayley's case). Then the expired technology just becomes extremely annoying.

Me amigas, Cusco
Generally I liked both countries. Specifically, I would put Cusco, the Salkantay trek (ending with Machu Picchu), and the Salt Flats tour as my top highlights. Go there, do these things! Bring your friends, it's much more fun that way.  I've proven to myself I can embark on an extended journey alone - and I wouldn't be afraid to do it again - but what Peru and Bolivia have brought to my attention is that it's a lot more fun to travel with your friends! Plus you can combine talents, share expenses, and walk together down that sketchy road to the hostel at 3am. Way better! So if you are looking for an adventure and want to go somewhere with a unique culture, a fascinating history, regular fiestas, and outdoor activities abound, go to Peru and Bolivia! If you are reasonably intelligent (I take no responsibility for idiots), alert, and good humoured I can confidently say you will survive South America, and I bet you'll even like it too!

I am now in Central America blasting quickly through 6 countries on the last leg of my journey. My next blog will be from somewhere here.