Eight is Enough

There are eight of us here tonight. Across the narrow channel in Cancun thousands of package tourists flock to noisy, contrived beach parties, but over here, under a bright full moon and warm sea breeze, we are just eight travelers sipping frozen drinks under a palapa only steps from the water's edge.

Isla Mujeres is perched at the end of the so-called Riviera Maya, the sliver of white sand and turquoise water that sports 100 nearly uninterrupted kilometers of name-recognized resorts like Cozumel and Playa del Carmen. Tourists come to the Riviera Maya looking for days of relaxation and nights of partying, but somewhere between the shopping malls and Ruby Tuesday's they end up finding things not much different than what they left at home. What is forgotten is that Mexico is still there, still a gem, still waiting to be discovered just beyond the urban sprawl.

That the eight of us have gathered here at all is a bit of an oddity. We were not in search of the Riviera Maya or its trappings; we came looking for the ruins and cenotes that get overlooked by the tourists, and brought our hopes that in 2004 we could still find pure Mexican seashore, nothing but water and sand and sun. We've found it on Isla Mujeres.

Separated from the other beaches by barely four miles of water but isolated by a chasm of differing ideologies, there are no chain restaurants on the island, no high-rise hotels and not a single nightclub. There are plenty of corner taquerías, dozens of small hotels, and restaurants that hum with music played by musicians working just for tips. This is a beach in the old-style, right down to the three-for-ten-dollar t-shirts. While seafronts on the mainland look more and more American, between the mariachis and the ceviche stands this island is still decidedly Mexican.

Tonight we've made it as far as the thatch-roofed bar outside the Poc-Na hostel, the current island cheapie whose courtyard opens directly onto the beach. We'll drink a few margaritas, sing along with the guitarista for a bit longer, maybe take in a midnight walk on an abondoned, moonlit beach. Tomorrow is another long day of sun worshipping, and we're already making plans for tomorrow night's party—bonfire, moonlight, and eight travelers that have become friends in the most unlikely of places.

15th August 2004

After nearly a week of waiting on my silly bank card, I decided that the cash in my pocket would allow me to wait no longer. So I left. The American Express people were nice enough to give me just a bit more money, and I headed south to Tulum.

More Ruins
Tulum stands out from the rest of the Yucatan Mayan sites for several reasons. It is a very late site, founded and developed in the waning years of the Mayan empire, and after the decline of other better-known sites like Chichen Itza. The structures are less massive, but certainly appear more like places that people could live, i.e., they have rooms and roofs and such.

Archaeologists have their doubts about the exact origins and significance of Tulum, a place that differs so much from so many other Mayan sites. I think its importance is obvious: clearly Tulum was the first resort along what would later become the Riviera Maya, an seaside retreat center where chiefs would gather to enjoy the white sand beaches and discuss how to better whup up on their neighbors the Aztecs. I can close my eyes and envision priests making the annual journey to soak in the warm Caribbean waters and share notes on the newest trends in the ripping out of still-beating hearts. As a conference center, the site must have been splendid, with tropical breezes rustling the palm trees as vistas of turquoise waters from atop the sea cliffs. Toss in a few virgins lusting to be sacrificed at the solstice and it's easy to understand why the site flourished.

Or maybe not, it's just a theory.

Kate is a bit more photogenic than I am, so I'll use her picture
I was still traveling with Kate from the sailboat at this point. We convinced each other to go diving in the cenotes, a network of flooded caves that underlay the Yucatan Peninsula (you may recall from primary school that the whole bit is made of limestone, and that limestone + water = caves). Numerous ojos, or eyes, scattered through the jungle lead into various parts of the system. In places the cenotes are much like other caves, with formations and passages that are not completely submerged. But through most of the system—connections have been found between many of the ojos—the passageway is not passable without getting your hair wet.

But geez, Tim, diving underwater seems dangerous enough, is it really safe to do it underground and in the dark? No. People are killed this way all the time. Come on, if it was safe, do you really think I'd pay seventy of my dwindling American dollars to go do it? Of course not!

There is a good set-up though, and the dive operators there have gone to great lengths to make the whole thing as idiot proof as possible. Groups are very small. The tour circuits are kept very simple and are very well marked with guide lines. There isn't really any place along the forty minute tour that you're more than a breath or two away from a place you can come up for air. The shop that we dove (dived…divé…diveth? Anyone care??) with was featured in an IMAX film about caving produced a few years back. And we told them that if we did not come back alive, we would expect a full refund. That sure scared'em.

It was a beautiful tour, although more that just a little cold. The deepest we went was about 13 meters, where the fresh surface water meets salty ocean water at a level called the halocline. Light passing through the halocline is refracted strangely, causing a Scooby-Doo style scene change and a feeling of disorientation. I'm told that it's like being very drunk. Of course I would have no basis for comparison.

From Tulum we boarded the overnight bus to the southern state of Chiapas on the west coast bordering Guatemala, headed for another big set of ruins known as Palenque. You may remember from way back in Chapter 7 that I said Tikal is one of three Mayan sites of major importance in Central America; Palenque is one of the other two (the third is Copán in Honduras, but I didn't get there).

While not nearly as large a site as Tikal, Palenque is significant because of the remarkable state of the ruins and the intactness of the tombs found there. Palenque was also a fairly late site. The major tomb there, the tomb of King Pakal, was found completely intact, and so offers great insight into the burial practices of the not-so-ancient ones.

Another feature much more visible at Palenque is the use of cross symbols in temple architecture. Remember that all of these sites are pre-Colombian, and therefore from a religious standpoint are essentially pre-Christian. So why the cross? The Mayan religions were based around symbols important to their culture…the corn that was the basis of their civilization and the sacred ceiba tree. The tree looks much like a cross from the side, and it's not hard to imagine a corn stalk in this shape either.

The lid of the sarcophagus in King Pakal's tomb has an interesting carving. You can see H.R.H. riding what looks like a flaming trumpet. He sits astride the beast facing what look like a control panel and operating levers, and fire emitting from the bell propels him to the afterlife. Perhaps related to el astronauto in Peru? Can someone get Mulder on the line?

San Cristóbal de Las Casas
Saint Francis of Assisi, the namesake
of Mexico's largest grocery chain.
Notice where the accent is, it's not pronounced like Christopher. Another lovely Spanish colonial town high in the mountains, very relaxing, a bit chilly at night, and packed with tourists, many consider this to be the most beautiful town in all of Mexico. I wouldn't necessarily disagree. I intended to only spend one day there but wound up staying for three. It's a lot like Antigua, just bigger, maybe like Granada but with decent weather. Nothing of any particular interest happened during my stay, so I'll move right along.

La Ciudad de México
So many superlatives can be listed for Mexico City. The world's largest population center. The western hemisphere's highest city. The world's cheapest subway ride (twenty cents a pop, and it goes everywhere). The only cathedral on this whole trip that particularly stands out in my memory.

There is so much to see and do there, in the three days I had I just barely scratched the surface. Templo Mayor, a site that flourished up through the arrival of the Spaniards, is in the center of the city, only rediscovered in the last few decades. The Anthropology Museum is HUGE (think Smithsonian or British Museum). A large house that overlooks the city has served as the Presidential Palace, an observatory, the war college, and is now a museum and special events center. There are a lot of helicopters there. The smog really is as bad as you've heard. For the first time on this entire adventure my trip through Mexico was on a schedule, and had to move on after just three days.

La Barranca de Cobre
The bus ride from Mexico City to Chihuahua is listed as being 23 hours. Somehow it turned into something more like 27. Funny how these things happen.

The Copper Canyon extends from the highlands in western Chihuahua west to the Pacific coast. It encompasses 4 times the land area of Grand Canyon and is nearly 1,000 feet deeper. But few people have ever heard of it, which is both a shame and a blessing.

Going into one of the 96 tunnels. This
tunnel is under 'the loop,' where the tracks
pass under themselves in a big loop.
There are not nearly as many conveniently reached vistas as at Grand Canyon. There are no two-lane paved roads along the rim for most for most of it's length, no federally maintained networks of trails. There is a narrow road—or wide path, depending on your viewpoint—that runs the entire length, but it is days in the passing and is often impassable due to rain and washouts.

What Copper Canyon does have is a railroad. The train starts out from Chihuahua every morning, crosses the continental divide three times, crosses over dozens of majestic bridges and passes through 90 tunnels—including one horseshoe shaped tunnel and another nearly a mile and a half long—before reaching the Pacific coast twelve hours later. Or so they advertise. Any local can tell you the trains always, very predictably, arrive 4 hours late. Why don't they just re-make the timetable for the times the train actually arrives? Your guess is as good as mine.

Shortly after leaving Creel, where I boarded, the train climbs toward its second crossing of the continental divide. On the way it must climb so steeply in such a tight canyon that the builders had to make a large loop of track where the train crosses under its own path. At Divisadero there is a 15-minute stop for an overlook into the best view of the canyon. A large electrical storm was brewing on the other side, dozens of miles away, but even still the thunder was deafening.

As the track descends toward the coast, it gradually gets hotter and hotter. You are free to stand in the vestibules between the air conditioned cars for a better view, but toward the end of the ride, even though the sights are just as spectacular, few riders venture into the blow-dryer like atmosphere.

Getting Done
Those of you that have been tracking my progress with pins and string may have noticed that the end of this venture put me very close to the US border. An overnight bus ride put me even closer to the border, close enough to walk, in fact, and I did. By that evening I had made it to Phoenix.

The one-on-one Spanish lesson
If I had my choice, it wouldn't have ended so soon. I would love to have gone back to Guatemala to study for a few more weeks. There is more I would have liked to see. But I think that I look back on good times that will never be the same as the memory, nights out and weekend adventures with friends that have long since moved on. It felt in many ways like being in college again, or maybe it felt more like those times I regretted not having college because I wasn't in the right place just then. I will probably go back again this fall, just for a month to study a bit more. But it will have to be its own trip, it can't ever again be what was before.

But who is to say that it's really over? I'm back in a country that I have called home, but just passing though on my way to another country I've also called home. And right now, neither of them really are. I remain homeless, jobless, and carless. How can I say when I've returned home and ended the trip when I really have no definite idea of where home is?

But for the time being, this is the last of the stories. The next few months will see me in West Virginia and at my cottage in Ontario, living a life more stationary and perhaps a bit more relaxing for a while. I've got a lot of reading to catch up on, books I couldn't find down there. And a lot of dreaming of the next trip.

So as one last special feature I'm going to respond to a few of the questions that have come up in e-mails from some of you, mostly from our dear old friend Myrtle Knudsegarden:

How can you afford to go on vacation for so long?
First, this was no holiday. It was never intended as such, and had it turned out so I would have been very disappointed. There were short interludes of vacation, I did spend a little time at a couple of beaches and touristy joints, probably much less than I would have done similar things at home.

When I was studying it involved four or five hours a day of one-on-one instruction, plus homework. There's no chance to daydream during a lesson when you're the only one in the class, and hours of face-to-face conversation and having to think fast is exhausting. After class, after the homework, there sometimes were activities, but more often than not I spent the remains of the day taking care of necessities—shopping for food and cooking, cleaning, doing laundry. Same as at home.

Then there were the weeks I was volunteering. Hours of lugging around blocks and wet cement are certainly no holiday.

After all that, I did travel for three months. Sometimes this is easy; certainly it was easier when I was with other people. But still, having to formulate a plan, figure out meals and travel arrangements and figure out how things work in each new place is not easy. It was nice to find places and settle for a while.

So the question, then. I live cheap. I lived cheap in my last year in DC, saving away a lot of money in anticipation of this trip. But you just don't spend much. Aside from what I paid for Spanish lessons, I averaged something like us$13 a day. But that is pretty skewed by the proportionally much more expensive last few weeks. Most days were much less.

They don't like North Americans
Of course they do, in so far as they even have an opinion on the subject. It is true that the United States government has done many bad things in Central America, but this does not translate into a grudge against American-looking-people as individuals. The people of this region are incredibly friendly and hospitable, happy to sit and have a lazy chat with anyone that wanders by. I got more than a few free meals this way. They are always eager to hear about the lands we come from and the places we call home.

They're not like us
Of course they're not. They speak a different language, eat foods that look a little bit like things we've eaten at Taco Bell, and what's the deal with their last names? But they also take care of their kids and have dinner with their parents, are devoutly religious, and worry about what tomorrow will bring. They work hard. They make every centavo count. Sound familiar?

one more: It's Dangerous There!
Just a second…I'm too busy laughing to write now…ok, all better.

No. You go the wrong places, and you might get robbed. You stand too close to the edge of the cliff that hasn't been fouled by a handrail, and you might fall in. People will try to scam you. But it is certainly no worse than any other place I have lived, and on the whole it is probably not even that bad. Certainly it was safer than walking around parts of DC at night, and I used to do that all the time. What little violent crime there is there is not as a rule directed toward foreigners. And I like that there is no obsession with silly rules and ugly barrier fences to protect people from themselves. Call it unimpeded natural selection.

Final Thoughts
I had dinner the other night with some friends at a mom and pop Mexican joint. The waiter was Guatemalan. Didn't speak much English. We had a nice chat. He kept coming back to talk more about his country.

A woman kept calling the office where I've been doing a bit of work, asking a lot of questions in Spanish.

We had a dinner the other night for a Mexican friend of someone in town, speaking only Spanish.

This is exactly why I went.

I still haven't completely readjusted to how easy things are here. Not having to plan my days around when there will be hot water--or any water--for a shower is nice. I don't like how expensive food is. It frustrates me that it can be so hard to get around. But it's nice that there aren't so many barking dogs and honking horns.

So this is how it ends, then, much in the same way as it began—a bit hurried, a bit sooner than I was really ready for, and not at all the way I had expected. A long bus ride, a few surprises, and great friends made along the way. And little idea where the next step will take me. There's more on the horizon. My desk is littered with guidebooks as I look for the next big trip.

Until next time—

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