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.

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