(Mexico: Nuevo Laredo – Mexico City – San Cristobal de las Casas – Playa del Carmen – Tulum)
What was I saying? French with a Spanish accent? For the record, no, this does not work. Thanks for nothing, whoever gave me that advice. (And whilst we’re on the subject, from what deep and distant recess of my brain have all of these Italian words suddenly surfaced to confuse matters even further?). I have also discovered the fib in the assertion that anyone who lives anywhere near the border with the USA will speak English. Though the nagging cynic in me suggests that my taxi driver’s English might only just have escaped him when I started negotiating the fare into Mexico.
In any case, nearly three weeks later I am now equipped with a small smattering of the language – and at last count, no less than six apps/downloads on my iPhone designed to infuriate me daily with their reminders that I’ve been neglecting my homework… My personal favourite so far is Coffee Break Spanish – a podcast hosted by Mark from Glasgow which will ensure, if nothing else, that I come away speaking pigeon Spanish with a broad Scottish accent, even if I have spent most of the past 20 years defending myself against the allegation that I don’t speak English with one.
Where the language barrier was the first challenge to my trip through Mexico, the long and winding roads have been the second. Despite the advice from numerous guidebooks, I am determinedly sticking to my no-fly rule. Which has so far involved three 15-20 hour bus journeys across the country, all of them through the night – again flying in the face of most of the advice I was given before setting out. At this point I should thank (a) my parents for my early endurance-travel training (36 hour bus rides to the Alps in the days before cheap charter flights…); and (b) War Child for my hostile environment training. As I boarded my first bus in Nuevo Laredo on the border, I tried to recall a few important precautionary and defensive actions that I’d learnt in the classroom over the years. How to recognise an IED. How to act at a hostile militia checkpoint. How to land when throwing your body away from a live grenade.
In the end, I fastened my seatbelt. And then smiled apologetically during the one gentle police checkpoint we went through. “Lo siento – hablas ingles?”
And with no further dramas, I arrived in Mexico City – into the complete cacophony of noise that greets travellers to any of the world’s capital cities. Sadly not quite the bagpipes of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. But instead three different mariachi bands of varying talent competing against each other in the main square with all the sounds of a Latin American football match; wind up harmonicas out of tune (and for that matter, out of time) with themselves; and street hawkers selling all sorts from tourist tat to pillow cases before being moved on by the police. Mexico City is also a town full of history, colour, and flavour. I wish I’d found a few more vegetables – but instead I made do, on my first day, with deep fried crickets (crunchy… better with a squeeze of lime!) and a strange tequila-based drink called pulque. I went for the oatmeal flavour. Come to think of it, there may have been no bagpipes, but what with deep fried snacks and alcoholic porridge, I may as well have been back in Edinburgh.
That night I managed to keep myself awake during a performance of the National Folk Ballet in the main concert hall – an impressive array of enormous doily dresses and AK47s (surely an occupational hazard?), with lots of “Viva Mexico, Viva La Revolucion!”. The dancing was good, but the most breath-taking performance of the evening came from the two harp players in their own Mexican-harp version of a rap battle. Simply brilliant. I went back to my hostel humbled but happy!
Over the next couple of days I probably avoided all of the cultural sites you’re meant to visit in Mexico City (sorry) – but I did at least visit the cathedral and witnessed a little drama as a couple of policewomen rushed in a few moments after a clearly guilty teenager had taken refuge in Mass. However, I also made a point of visiting both Frida Khalo’s “blue house” and the Diego Rivera murals in the National Palace. For anyone who has ever read The Laguna (Barbara Kingsolver – highly recommended, though the Poisonwood Bible still beats it hands down), visiting these places felt like reaching out and touching the ghosts of history.
Rivera’s murals are a huge colourful jumble of Mexico’s long and convoluted story– from the Mayans to Karl Marx. And in the Casa Azul (which is really, incredibly, very very blue!) I wandered into the room in which Trotsky slept in the years before his assassination at the hands of Stalin’s henchmen, and then tied my hair up in Frida Khalo’s bedroom mirror. I noticed a little too late that her ashes were sitting in an urn on the dressing table in front of me… A slightly spooky feeling of being watched (!)
Having also subjected myself to the metro at rush hour though, I realised it was definitely time to wave goodbye to the capital – and so to the next looooong bus journey to San Cristobal de las Casas, a beautiful old colonial town in the highlands towards Guatemala. Narrow cobbled streets, colourful two-storey buildings, old VW minis competing with their more modern upstart versions, friendly locals, fresh fruit and veg, afternoon snacks of fried banana covered with condensed milk (feel all of that camping diet goodness seeping away…) and a plate of tacos for 9 pesos. The annual music festival was also ongoing when I visited – so we had the fun of dodging fireworks in the street (though I can’t help feeling that setting them off in broad daylight may have been a bit of a waste of a good ooooo-aaahhh moment), and the dubious pleasure of a free evening “rock” concert in the main square from the local celebrity band. As for the lead singer, picture a cross between Slash and Johnny Depp, in a questionable spangly T shirt, after a few too many pies. We didn’t stay long.
The highlight of my trip to Chiapas province was a visit to the church in San Juan Chamula, a small village up in the hills above San Cristo, 45 minutes ride in the local chicken bus (due warning – no chickens harmed, or indeed present, on the journey – but stop reading now if poultry-cide might cause you any upset or alarm…).
The church in Chamula is fairly unassuming from outside. White washed walls with colourful reliefs around the doorway. But walking through the door was like walking into another world. No photos are allowed inside the church, so you’ll just have to make do with the (abridged!) description from my journal instead.
“Smell of pine needles across the floor, completely carpeted; thousands of flickering candles, some in glasses on tables around the walls, lighting up cabinets of wax effigies of multiple saints, all the way up to high altar. Lighting the dark church with a warm glow. Jesus a side show against San Juan Baptisa. Huddled groups – children playing (some sliding on the pine needle carpet), women using their scarves to shield thin candles stuck to the floor from draught, wax pooling on tiles, caretakers scraping it away. One group – two women muttering prayers on floor, young man looking awkward on chair, two sacrificed chickens – and a Coke bottle. Another group now in process of sacrificing chicken. Held over flames, squawking, clearly knows his time has come. Neck quietly broken. Guy (with Bluetooth phone headset!) now holding chicken upside down going through death throes. Young kid inspecting chicken’s head. Very weird Catholic-Pagan strangeness…”
And with that, it was probably time to leave! Astonishing experience though it was, I decided I preferred doing battle with the live chickens slung from the arms of the local women in the markets with their amazing black hairy skirts. (On that note, I searched in vain for the yaks, or at the very least black Highland cow equivalents, as I travelled outside San Cristo – but I am afraid that I am still none the wiser as to what these skirts are made from. If I’d had space in my backpack though, I’d have bought one.)
Finally leaving the relative cool of the highlands, I made my way down to the hot and humid coast of the Yucutan peninsula, my $4 Canadian pillow proving itself one of the best purchases of my trip yet again. No particular dramas, though we did have to travel in convoy with another coach from 11pm – 3am after hearing reports of another hold-up by local armed groups near Palenque.
Where Mexico City is a noisy, dirty capital, and San Cristobal is a charming colonial hill town, Playa del Carmen is on its way to becoming Mexico’s answer to Tenerife. Having said that, given the difficulties I had finding a bar showing the rugby World Cup final, I am pleased to report that it probably still has some way to go until it reaches the “Brits-Abroad” zenith. I even managed to find relatively quiet stretches of beach for some quality time with my Kindle. But there was a limit to how long I could endure the inflated prices and the mozzies from hell.
So I spent my last couple of days in Mexico being eaten by monster bugs – and, as it happens, teeny tiny fish. Some people spend a fortune on dangling their feet into fish tanks for novel pedicures. I just went swimming in a beautiful turquoise blue limestone sink hole near Tulum. The fish found my feet all of their own accord. A slightly tickly though not unpleasant sensation… But frankly I drew the line when one of the wee critters went for my bottom. Seriously?
Next stop, Belize! (Proud members of the Commonwealth – I am hoping the fish will be politer there).