Sunday, January 30, 2011

To the Yucatan

Another happy night in Mexico City. The kids spent the bus ride in the last row while Wil and I watched the steep road unwind in front of us. Much of the drive from Puebla to Mexico City is downhill, through tall pine forest. Every few kilometres, a crimson line appears on the road to guide brakeless vehicles into a short lane full of deep gravel off the right hand lane. About half way down is a long string of miradors on either side of the highway, fancy and primitive shacks selling food of all varieties and views of the valley below. Many truckers use the opportunity to stop and cool off their ageing and overheating engines.

On the subway ride to our hotel, we were accosted by a man asking us where we were from. We chatted with him until it was his time to get off. He said goodbye by saying how he hoped that we liked his city as much as he did. When it was our stop, a man who was standing near enough to eavesdrop wished us "Bon Voyage" as we got off. What a town.

We went back to Posada Viena and got a different, but equally cool room just two minutes from the Cuauhtémoc metro station. We decided to try out a restaurant in the Condesa neighbourhood, a little further south than the Zona Rosa. We'd heard from so many people to never, ever flag a cab in Mexico City —that it was essentially an invitation to be robbed — but as we stood out on Chapultepec watching cab after cab drive by, full of passengers coming home from work or shopping it occurred to us that this might be yet another bit of fear-mongering. I stuck out my hand and a minute later we were happily talking with our amiable driver. We got out a few minutes later and wandered along Michoacan Street, looking for Fonda Garufa, an Argentinian grill. The Condesa neighbourhood is lovely — full of trees, cafés, restaurants and parks. As we meandered along, I felt like we'd found OUR neighbourhood in Mexico City. A few minutes later, we were seated at a table, drinking nice wine and people watching. Everything that came to the table was simply delicious. We had another pleasant cab ride on the way home with an older driver. A block away from our hotel we got pulled over by some plainclothes policemen on the way home. The driver patiently handed over his paperwork and then got out to talk. We figured it was about the two sets of red lights he just drove through. A policewoman came over to apologize for the delay. When the driver got back in he explained that the cops were chastising him for having a sun screen in the back window, something that has been recently outlawed to prevent robberies.

In the morning we headed out to the airport by metro (again, only 3 pesos a person) and got on our midday flight to Cancún. On the plane I chatted with a young guy sitting beside me, a native of Cancún who'd been holidaying in Veracruz for a week. He bemoaned the overdevelopment of his city, complaining about the traffic and the congestion and the tourists. I didn't have the heart to tell him that we were going to skip Cancún altogether, jumping on a bus heading south as soon as we arrived. We stepped out on to the tarmac less than two hours later. There's nothing quite like walking down the steps of a plane and being hit with that first wave of humidity and hot wind to make you feel like your holiday has really begun. We asked around about a coléctivo going down the coast but a patronizing airport employee explained that cheap busses just don't exist in the Yucatan. We didn't have the heart to argue with the guy so we got into the van he directed us to and hit the road for Puerto Morelos.

Puerto Morelos wasn't what we expected. We couldn't quite get over the volume of tourists in the diminutive town. Most of the people were white and most of the signs were in English. I had imagined it more like Troncones where the rhythm of life is more like the rest of Mexico, interrupted by the occasional white couple walking along the road looking for a meal. The beach part of Puerto Morelos has no market, no street food, no vendors, just a lot of guys in white tank tops asking you in English about snorkelling and boat tours. We checked in to a little posada on the strip, stupidly ignoring the bar a few feet from our room, and then went for a walk on the beach. Golden sand, turquoise water, white waves breaking on a distant reef undoubtedly teeming with colourful fish, lazy, gentle, warm surf. It is pretty easy to see why this has become such a popular town. We wondered how we were going to find our friend Steve as we walked up the beach. We stopped for margaritas (the worst ever) at a beachside shack, the only one offering any kind of shade and saw a poster pitching yoga classes. We asked about the woman who gave the classes and whether she had a friend named Steve. "El flaco?" (the skinny guy?). Bingo. We had a phone number. A couple of tequilas helped temper our misgivings about the town. The Yucatan is definitely in a different price bracket than the rest of the country. Everything from bottled water & beer to hotels & meals averages double the price. We walked back along the road, looking for places we might come back to in a week's time with Wil's sister, Nicky and her husband, Gus. Steve came into town to meet us. He patiently sat with us while we ate supper (on day ten of his fast). While we finished up, the kids went to play in the zocalo, a pastel concrete construction which houses a decent playground in pretty good repair. Alice was feeling crappy so she and I hung out in the hotel as the others snacked on some great pizza across the road. The night was a nightmare for me, listening to people at the bar getting more and more drunk, laughing louder and louder at less and less.

In the morning we moved down the road into a hostel run by a couple in their fifties. Then Steve brought us up to Corinne's house to see the construction they've been working on. Hidden in the dense jungle, a lovely, cool house, a peaceful yoga palapa and much more on the way. Very cool. On the way there, we drove through the real Puerto Morelos on the other side of the highway, known as La Colonia (the neighbourhood) and found some of the things we'd been hoping to see, fruit stands, bakery, seafood, taco shacks. We picked up some fruit and bread, some unbelievably sweet fresh squeezed orange juice in litre bottles in a cooler. Wil spotted two guys outside a seafood place stocked with masses of ketchup. To Wil, the volume of ketchup meant high production of shrimp cocktail, ergo high turnover and fresh seafood.

Our night at the hostel was rough. The enclosed courtyard was very quiet but I kept waking and feeling like I was choking on the dank, heavy air. We went for a little walk in the early morning sun and watched the town come to life — fishermen pushing their boats out, grandfathers on bicycles, little ones in their school uniforms perched on the handlebars getting a lift to school. We decided to see a doctor about Alice's fever, thinking it better to sort out an ear infection before our prime snorkelling time kicked in. It turns out the hostel was just a block away from the walk-in clinic. We sat in the waiting room listening to the women around us chat about local politics. Each woman in turn would take one look at Alice and put their hand on her forehead, clucking about her high temperature and glassy eyes. The colectivo kept stopping outside to let people off, the ladies informed me that the lineups were shorter in the beach part of the Pueblo. The prices were posted on the wall, 35 pesos for a consultation, 40 pesos for medication. After a quick triage with the nurse and a little more waiting we talked to a sweet young doctor in four-inch heels. We left with a handful of prescriptions. Later that day, we ran into one of the local women from the clinic and she asked after Alice.

In the afternoon we made a date to meet Steve back at the beach shack, asking him to first drop by the seafood place in La Colonia for some ceviche. He turned up with a bag of totopos (fried tortilla chips), saladitas (saltines) and a half litre each of shrimp and octopus ceviche, the best we've ever had. We sat in the breezy shade, the sun blazing on the white sand and the pale water and devoured every last, delicious drop. The kids were happily building sand castles a little ways down the beach. When we went to collect them on the way home we found them with Cathy, a 70-year-old sculptor who kindly shared her sandcastle-building knowhow and tools with the kids. She was perfecting what looked like a modern take on an adobe home. Frances declared on the walk back that she wished she had three grandmothers.

Our friends, Mike and Véro, who spend their summers tending their vines in Farnham and the winter just down the coast in Paa Mul, nicely offered to come pick us up in the morning. They had persuaded one of their neighbours to let us stay in her palapa for a few days. We have such great friends! It took us no time at all to settle in to their easy, comfortable life here. We hung out in their palapa, catching up and taking it easy as the kids played.
The next day Véro put a picnic together and we rode bikes up to a little beach called Yanten with their daughter Soline and a few other kids from the campground. Véro and I built a little fire in the sand and cooked up some fajitas while Wil, Henri and Mike snorkelled out to the nearby reef. The other kids played in a fort and amused themselves painting their hands and feet black with coals, running back and forth into the crystalline water to wash off. In the late afternoon sun, I rode back to camp on a Wizard of Oz bike, doubling long-legged Frances, who hung on to my hips and chatted as I pedalled along a sandy track through mangrove by the most beautiful coast, I had one of those moments of unadulterated happiness.

In the evening we drove into Playa del Carmen to see Mike play with his band at a bar called Bad Boys. We walked along the Quinta, an endless, gawdy stretch of pedestrian mall, full of wandering tourists being hard-sold every imaginable tacky memento of Mexico. We turned down to the beach, which Véro explained was a lot bigger this year thanks to the truckloads of sand that had been pumped across the channel from nearby Cozumel. Bad Boys is a classic beach resort bar with sand floors and a lot of pink, drunk couples in their late fifties in tie-dye dresses and Hawaiian shirts. The kids played in the sand and wandered in and out of the bar as we sipped tequila and beer. Henri came to find me to tell me about a woman, "a grandmother!!!" who kept asking him to dance. "What did you tell her?" "I said no... I think she's drunk." Sure enough, when I got in front of the stage, a pretty, white-haired woman came to talk to me about her "little buddy", Henri. She talked at him over my shoulder as he squirmed uncomfortably, his good manners the only thing keeping him from running far, far away. Mike and his band rocked the house with a great (too short) set of classic rock tunes from the fifties and sixties and we headed back to Paa Mul for a delicious meal and some very yummy bubbly from Les Pervenches.

Next stop, Tulum to meet up with Nicky and Gus.

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