----------------------------------------------- Google Site Map ----------------------------------------------- Cindy in ...: September 2009

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mexico: San Cristobal de Las Casas, Cool Weather At Last

What a difference altitude can make. In Palenque, every move I made left me drenched in sweat. In San Cristobal I slept under two heavy, thick wool blankets. At nearly 7000 feet (2200 meters), the nights are cool even in the hottest months of the year. During the day, I felt a bit cold in the shade, and a bit warm in the sun. Sun was in short supply, so I wore long sleeves over short sleeved tops, and stuck my collapsible umbrella in my bag for the duration.

San Cristobal wasn't what I expected at all. It's in Chiapas, and the city and the villages around it were the center of of Zapatista rebellion. Now the Zapatistas run a restaurant in town, and sell Zapatista dolls, postcards, and keychains!

The center is geared around tourism, in a much more modern and upscale way than Merida. The two intersecting pedestrian-only streets and sidewalks are paved with flagstone. The sidewalks are wide and open, without the shop overflow that makes walking in some Mexican cities so hazardous. Even outside the tourist area, I was rarely forced to step into the street in order to get by.

All this talk about temperature might seem excessive, but in San Cristobal the problem was the opposite of that in Paleque and Merida. Again, all the restaurants were totally open across the front, and there was no attempt to change the inside temperature. In the evening they were just as cold as the outdoors. There are few coats hanging on the backs of chairs, because taking off your coat really isn't comfortable.

Restaurants were more sophisticated, too. One of my favorites was a Lebanese restaurant across the street from my hotel and another was the Italian restaurant right in my hotel.  I had a favorite table, near the pizza oven, because it was warm.

Yes, I said hotel. I needed a break from hostels and got a private room with share bath for about what I paid for a hostel bed on Isla Mujeres. Because of a low demand for the cheap rooms, I usually had the bathroom to myself.

Add a good English-language used book store, lots of activity in the parks and in the square in front of the cathedral, interesting indigeous villages to visit, and a sprinkling of museums, and I had a great town to pass a few weeks.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Mexico: Palenque Ruins

In all the heat, I trudged out to the main road and I tried to get the bus out to the ruins.  I was in the right place, but no mini-buses appeared.  I lasted five minutes in the sun.  Taxi!  There is no point in arriving alreay wrung out from the heat, I told myself.  The ruins, higher and more open, would not be quite so hot.  Or so I'd been told.

The Palenque ruins are not a place for people who can't climb.  You need to be a little bit fit, so you can climb and worse, descend, those high pyramid steps.  You need to be able to climb old, high, and uneven steps up into to the jungle if you want to see all of the site.  Between my arthritis and my weight, I can do neither.  So I didn't see the buildings inside the walled enclosures that top the large flat-topped structures.  I missed the homes in the jungle.  I stuck to the flat stuff.

The flat stuff was enough, as it turned out.  The site is not very large, yet it is still easy to find an area that very few of the visitors bother with, to sit and think about what life must have been like, to try and imagine buildings under construction, people shopping, messengers running back and forth, and craftsmen making tools.

I got there fairly early, and by noon I was ready to leave.  While I had been wandering, vendors had arrived, along with the tour buses, and suddenly the area in front of the Palacio was not an open park but a store.  I wasn't too wiped out, so I left for the shops outside the entrance.  Some corn-on-a-stick and even more Gatorade refreshed me, and I looked for the mini-bus.  It was much easier to find at this end.

The bus took me down the hill to the museum, where the finer artifacts are housed (in blessed air-conditioning).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mexico: Palenque Heat

Palenque is a place of Mayan ruins and incredible heat.  Even with my conditioning from being in Merida and rarely having air-conditioning, Palenque was hard to take.  I had a bed in an air-conditioned dormitory, and still the main thing I remember is the heat.  I actually take heat pretty well. One guidebook describes Granada, Nicaragua in May as hell on earth, and I handled it.  But this was smothering, heat to take my breath away.  High humidity, high temperatures, and absolutely no air movement of any kind combined to make me feel I was being steamed alive, a lobster person.

Typically for Mexico, I couldn't find an air-conditioned restaurant in any reasonable proximity to my hostel.  I entered one, in a hotel, and aked it they had air-condtioning in the restaurant.  I walked in and sat down, then instantly realized that having air-conditioning and running air-conditioning are two different things.  The doors were open to the patio.  The customary ceiling fans were missing, because after all, why would one need ceiling fans for a restaurant in a western chain hotel that has air-conditioning?

Electricity in Mexico is really expensive, about three times the rates I used to pay in Florida.  But surely restaurants would get more customers if they actually used the air-conditioning?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mexico: Art in Merida

This is a food court in a small shopping arcade off the main square. walk in from the street, and there they are, surprise murals. Art is everywhere in Merida.

Earlier I mentioned the arts festival that is held every February in Merida. For three weeks there are multiple free concerts every night. There are plays and dance performances. Ethnic dance groups from other parts of Mexico and other countries perform in the streets in addition to the standard Yucatecan dances.

The rest of the winter was rich in art, too. While I was there I saw an exhibit of Picasso drawings, a display of Faberge eggs and other artifacts from the time of the Russian czars, and several local art exhibits. The Russian exhibit was staged in the Governor's Palace, in rooms dedicated to murals by the Yucatecan artist Fernando Castro Pacheco. There's art on the street, too, along the Paseo de Montero.

The cost of all this was - zero. You can pay a few dollars, too, to visit the anthropology museum or the cultural museum. Even the hostel contributed by providing a local musician in the common areas four nights a week, after the free salsa lessons.

There are lots of reasons to love Merida, and art is one of them.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Mexico: Izamal, the Yellow City of the Yucatan

In the center of Izamal, all the buildings are painted yellow.  I'm not sure how this started, but the result is charming.  I'm not sure why this is so.  Having all the buildings in a town painted the same color should be boring and dull, but it isn't.  Even the Convent of San Antonio de Padua is the same dark yellow.

The convent is the main tourist attraction in Izamal.  The front side of the arched porticos that surround the outer courtyard form one side of the main square, or zocolo.  I enjoyed prowling the interior, climbing to rooftop terraces, and trying to imagine life there in 1549, the year it was founded.  From this convent Frey Diego de la Landa ordered the complete destruction of all Mayan artifacts and writings, in spite of his interest in Mayan culture.  Later, stricken by remorse at what he had destroyed, he recorded everything he had learned of the Maya, maybe as a sort of penance for what he had done.

There are three Mayan ruins in town.  I walked to two of them, which were unremarkable hills to an amateur eye.  I was more interested in the street that was being paved.   I had to negotiate a rather twisted path through the roadworks.  The final layer was being put down, a reddish topcoat that was stamped with a stonework pattern so it looked more like old brickwork than a new road.

I finished my day with tortas from a street stand, spicy ground pork on baguettes, freshly cooked, cheap, and delicious, then a quick walk to the bus station to catch the last bus back to Merida.

Note:  I'm writing this after returning to the US, and I am not currently in Merida.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

USA: The Proportions of Money

The proportions of money, or rather the things it buys, get all out of sync when you are living or traveling in another country.

Normally, accommodation is the biggest daily expense, whether we pay on a mortgage, rent an apartment, or stay in a hotel or motel. In Thailand, my food and snacks are by far my biggest expense. So, if I have really cheap street food, and pay 20 baht for pad thai, and 10 baht for a bottle of water, I have spent one-fifth of a night's accommodation costs. If I have pasta (100 baht) and a Diet Coke (20 baht), I have spent nearly four/fifths of the cost of a room for the night. A beer or a glass of wine instead of the Diet Coke, and now I've eaten a night's expenses.

I've had to adjust. I try to measure things in terms of food, rather than in terms or room costs. Looked at this way, my room in Chiang Mai cost me five street-food meals or one pasta meal with wine. A tuktuk ride cost 50 baht, or three store-bought Diet Cokes and a really cheap ice cream bar.

Working put another spin on it. I get paid 400 baht for two hours in the classroom. Subtract the 100 baht I spent round-trip, and I made 150 baht an hour. Now, suddenly, I'm working an hour to pay for my room, and worse, I'm working an hour to pay for a pasta dish and a glass of wine.

Travel on to another country, and the proportions change again.  In Mexico, long distance bus fares are more of a factor.  While the buses are great, they are so relatively expensive that for really long trips it can be cheaper to fly.  The bus fare for a five hour ride costs as much as two nights in a dorm on Isla Mujeres.  The bus fare for a five hour ride in Ecuador costs less than one night in a dorm in Quito. 

As a child, I measured money in popsicles. A comic book cost two popsicles.  A paperback book cost fiive.  Even those proportions have changed.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Nicaragua: Reflections on Nicaragua and the Cuisine That Isn't

Someone at the next table said, "There are forty restaurants on Omotepe, and they all have the same menu."
Worse, that menu isn't much different from a tipica menu in the rest of Nicaragua, or in Costa Rica, or in Panama. Honduras and Guatemala?

However, in Nicaragua it's more of a problem for me, because there is very little else. In other places you might find an Italian restaurant or two, maybe a Greek place. But in Nicaragua, it's tipica. It's actually bland tipica, with fewer spices, a limited variety of vegetables, and little variation in preparation.

When you consider the discovery of a hot dog place a major event, you are in trouble gastronomically. When you are served gallo pinto (rice and beans) with pancakes, you are doomed.

So one of the things I enjoyed most about Panama City is the variety of food available. OK, there are tipica restaurants, and they have the standard menu. But on my first day, I saw a lunch place offering bratwurst, then an Italian restaurant, followed by a Chinese place, and a Greek taverna.

Variety isn't necessarily extremely expensive, either. There's a Sushi Express at the food court in the mall. The bratwurst was being served at a small coffee shop.
No wonder I hung out there for months.

Note:  I found this post floating around my documents file, along with a couple of others.  I'm not currently in Nicaragua.