the Long's Strange Trip

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~  Wanderings Through Mexico ~
February 7 through February 29, 2000
$1 U.S. = 9.40 pesos
(Remember to click on the thumbnails for enlargements of the photos)

Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
February 7 through 11

(ccl)  Looking back on it now, it's hard to believe that we're actually on this trip.  The last week before we left was probably the most hectic of either of our lives.  Between my leaving my job, moving out of the house, and arranging for Wiley's father to take care of the many loose ends we left dangling, we nearly killed ourselves.  I remember reading other people's accounts of their last days at home before they left on their world trips, and thinking, "Man, we are so much more organized than they are.  We will have plenty of time to relax and enjoy our last few days with friends and family.".  Ha!  Once we were actually in Mexico, we remarked several times at how brilliant we were to have started in a country that we know pretty well, so that traveling would relieve some of the stress of those last days at home.

We flew out on Monday, February 7, for Cancun, with a stop and a plane change in Miami.  Very few people can leave on a two-week vacation and have everything go perfectly, so you would expect that quite a few things might not go our way when on the road for over a year.  Our first "issue" occurred when we sauntered up to the Iberia counter in the Miami airport to get out boarding passes for the Miami-Cancun leg of the flight.  We were told that the flight was oversold, and since we had not arrived at the gate the requisite 90 minutes prior to flight time, we had been bumped.  Luckily for us, there was a Mexicana flight leaving only 45 minutes later, and the Iberia folks got us on that flight.  Later, once in Cancun, we discovered that they got ONLY us on the flight - not our luggage.  Oh well.  We found our shuttle driver at the Cancun airport.  He was to take us to our hotel in Playa del Carmen, a nice little beach town about 40 miles south of Cancun.  He explained to us in halting English that his van was broken down.  We proceeded to wait an hour on the steps of the Cancun airport while he attempted to jump off the Suburban about three times.  I kept trying to tell him that it was the alternator, not the battery, but he didn't seem to understand.  This is where the duty-free rum we had purchased in the Miami airport came in handy.  The shuttle guys bought us cokes and dinner, and we were able to enjoy the situation despite the fact that it was getting late and we had no luggage.

Wiley checks under the hood  We got into Playa del Carmen around 8:00 P.M., and checked into the Hotel Copa Cabana (Barry Manilow played in my head the entire time we were there), an nice hotel with a very authentic feel on the quieter end of the main drag in Playa, 5th Avenida.  The realization that had dawned on us as we made the trip from the airport was that we had American Express baggage protection, which meant that each of us had $500 to spend on new clothes, toiletries, etc., if our luggage was more than 3 hours late.  Now, imagine the situation: someone's just given you $1000 to spend on new clothes.  You're in a town with great shopping, yet you've got 2 completely crammed full backpacks on their way to you sometime in the near future.  Shopper's hell??  Perhaps.  We bought some clothes and a couple of bathing suits.  Our luggage arrived late the next afternoon.

Gourmet breakfast in PlayaIf you have been to Cancun and found that it too closely resembled Miami Beach for your taste, you must visit Playa del Carmen.  It's a real live Mexican beach town that's been attracting Europeans for years, and is finally catching the eye of the American tourist looking for a more authentic experience.  Although it had nearly doubled in size since our last visit two years ago, we still love going there.  There are many value-priced hotels just a couple of blocks off the beach, great restaurants, and all the partying anyone could want.  We spent four days enjoying the sun and the beautiful turquoise water.  Wiley on the beach

Sun and sand are great for relaxing, and we managed to do quite a bit of that, but our stay in Playa del Carmen was not without stress.  Two things have caused us stress during this trip:  the availability of money, and our computer.  You probably already know that the hard drive on our laptop crashed about a week before we left on our trip.  When it became obvious that Sony was not going to get it repaired in time to send it to us in Atlanta before we left, I made arrangements for them to send it to me at the Copa Cabana in Playa.  So as each day passed, we waited for the computer to arrive.  We even stayed a day longer than we had planned, just so that we could pick up the computer.  Unbeknownst to us, Sony had mistakenly sent the computer to my office in Atlanta.  More to follow on this later...

The other problem we were facing was, as I mentioned, the availability of our money.  We had enough in our checking account to get by for a while, but ultimately we were attempting to transfer mutual funds to our American Express Brokerage account, and liquidate those.  We started that process in January, and as I write this in early March, we still don't have access to those funds.  Needless to say, we don't have alot of good things to say about AMEX Brokerage.  You may remember reading elsewhere on this page that we also have American Express Online Banking.  We discovered in Playa del Carmen that you can't use your ATM card outside of the United States with AMEX banking.  What's their slogan again?  "Don't leave home without it"???  Well, you may want to take it with you, but don't forget your VISA card for cash advances.  But, I digress. 

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico
February 12 through 18

Ultimately, we had to leave Playa del Carmen without the computer.  I had been attempting to communicate with Sony via phone from Mexico, but you can imagine how expensive that was.  We figured that it was on its way and would surely arrive in Playa soon, so we made plans to come back to Playa after we had attended the Entheobotanical Conference in Palenque. 

We took an overnight bus from Playa del Carmen to Palenque.  If you've never done this, it's quite an experience.  Mexican buses are very comfortable, but Mexican roads aren't.  We were able to sleep some, but I was awakened every 15 minutes or so by the bus driver's attempt to hit every pot hole in the road.  One really great thing about the trip is that they showed 2 or 3 movies during the ride.  Apparently, really bad American movies that never make it to the theater OR video are dubbed in Spanish and sent to Mexico for use on Mexican buses.  There was some pretty awful stuff being shown.

Bananas at Hotel Chan-KahWe arrived in Palenque at about 6:00 Saturday morning, with our friend Jane from New York, whom we had met at the Playa del Carmen bus station.  We got a cab to the hotel where the conference was being held, the Hotel Chan-Kah.  The hotel was so beautiful - everyone had there own little cabin made out of stone, each with a front porch and its own unique view of the surrounding jungle.  The pool is incredible, made entirely out of stone and surrounded by lush tropical rain forest.  It was a marvelous setting for this conference on how plants are used to heal and provide insight.  

The thing I enjoyed most about the conference was meeting so many nice people from so many different parts of the world.  Wiley has been to the conference before and has made contact with alot of interesting people who are into all kinds of alternative healing procedures, development of new nutritional supplements, massage therapy, etc. 

Just a short distance from our hotel were the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque.  It is an incredibly beautiful and tranquil place, discovered in the jungle early in the 20th century.  The ruins of many beautiful temples stand amidst the jungle foliage, and while we were there, two howler monkeys starting going at it over position in a tree.  It was very surreal and prehistoric.  A local Mayan tribe, the Lacondons, was positioned outside the gates to the ruins, selling arrows that they make and use to hunt.  The Lacondons consider themselves to be the true descendents of the Mayans, and to show that they are still in the "old ways", the men don't cut their hair.   One of the speakers at the conference, Christian Rausch, spent 3 years living in the rainforest with the Lacondons, and wrote his doctoral thesis on the preparation and use of an alcoholic beverage they brew called balche.  Temple of the Sun

While we were at the conference in Palenque, our good friend in Atlanta, Cristin Zegers, was hot on the trail of our laptop.  She discovered that it had been sent to the Informix office in Atlanta, so we made arrangements to have it sent to the Informix office in Mexico City.  We had to be in Mexico City to fly to Peru anyways, so we figured we could cancel our 2 day layover in Panama, and stay in Mexico City until Wednesday, in order to get the computer.  With this plan in place, we headed for a weekend in San Cristobal de las Casas.

It's worth adding a comment here about travel in the third world.  Originally, when we thought we had to go back to Playa del Carmen to get the computer, we bought plane tickets from Cancun to Mexico City, figuring we would spend the weekend in Playa.  When we discovered we would be getting the computer in Mexico City, we decided to go to San Cristobal, so we went back to the travel agency to change the plane ticket to a flight from Tuxla-Guitterez (the closest city to San Cristobal and the capital of Chiapas) to Mexico City.  Travel is a lesson in patience.  When was the last time you bought a plane ticket from someone who didn't have a computer?  In an office where the highest-tech piece of equipment was a calculator?  It took about 45 minutes to buy the original ticket, and about an hour and half to change it.  We are used to executing business transactions on an almost instantaneous basis in the United States.  The rest of the world, for the most part, doesn't work at that speed.  The only thing to do in these situations is to relax and enjoy the ride.

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
February 19 through 21

Maria y Marta en el mercardI had heard and read some about San Cristobal de las Casas in the guidebooks, and we were intrigued.  The bus ride from Palenque took about 4 hours, but the moon was completely full and the mountains were beautiful.  This bus ride had no movies, thankfully.  We arrived around midnight, and headed to a hotel recommended by the man who booked our plane tickets (see above).  It was $15 per night, and just off the main zocalo.

On Saturday morning we woke up and headed out for breakfast just down the street at the Gordo Gato (Fat Cat), and had a delicious meal for about U.S. $2 each.  We then spent the day wandering through the town.  It's a beautiful little town, with a feel of old Mexico.  Families stroll the streets hand in hand, and native Indians sell their wares from the sidewalk.  We visited the local craft market and bought a few things.  Everything is so inexpensive and we want to buy so much, but we realize that we'll have to ship this stuff home, so we try to be reasonable.  Market wares for sale

In the afternoon we followed our map to the mercado, the main market in town where the locals shop.  There were stalls there with people selling everything from socks to eggs.  San Cristobal is famous for its calla lilies, and these gorgeous flowers where everywhere.  People sell watermelon and pineapple slices in an extremely unusual way: after peeling off all of the rind, they slice the fruit to make big round slices, then sell those for about $0.10 each. 

We had lunch at a restaurant we happened upon close to the mercado.  Wiley and I have a way of looking for a restaurant while we're traveling until we're about to pass out from hunger.  We'll stop, look at one menu, decide to go across the street to look at another place, and we'll keep this up for a good hour.  I don't know what brought us into this place, except that maybe we were really hungry.  It turned out that we were the only tourists in the place, and I was the only woman.  Well, maybe there was one  other woman, but she was cooking.  Anyways, it was kind of bizarre.  All of these men who looked like truck drivers, eating lunch and drinking out of quart beer bottles.  Then this guy got up and played pop tunes on an electric piano, accompanied by a drum machine.  Surreal...

In case I haven't mentioned it, our budget for the trip is $100 per day.  San Cristobal is a town where you can definitely live right for that amount of money.  Beers are less than $1, and a great meal can be had for under $5.  

Sunday morning we attempted to go to church.  One of the things we want to do on this trip is see how other people worship and celebrate.  We got to church too late, but it inspired us to try again on another Sunday.  After breakfast, we spent most of the afternoon hanging out in the zocalo, reading and soaking up the sunshine.  Children are everywhere in San Cristobal, and some of them are begging.  I had just bought one of my favorite foods from Mexico, a fresh mango, peeled and cut into sections and placed on a stick.  They squirt fresh lime juice on them, and then sprinkle them with salt and fresh ground chili pepper.  It is an incredible taste sensation.  I was enjoying my mango when a little boy, no more than 4 or 5, came up to me and signaled that he wanted the pit when I was through.  I felt so sorry for him, that he would be satisfied with eating my leftovers, that I went back and bought him one of his own.  His face lit up when he saw it, and he ran away to share it with his sisters.  We take so much for granted.

Mayan clock at Na Balom  Sunday afternoon we visitied Na Balom, literally, "House of the Jaguar".  This house was owned by Franz and Trudi Blom, a couple who dedicated their lives to preserving the ways of the Lacondon Indians (see above).  Franz was an archeologist, and Trudi a journalist and photographer.  Their house has become a haven for artists, Lacondons, and those hoping to better understand the ways of the rainforest's indigenous peoples.  Trudi devoted the last years of her life to planting more than 100,000 trees in de-forested areas around San Cristobal.  It was a very inspirational tour, and a place we will not soon forget.  Mayan crosses at Na Balom

Sunday night we had dinner and drinks at a local restaurant that featured live local music.  The band had a sound somewhat like Santana, with bongos and guitar.  The bass player played bass and drums AT THE SAME TIME!  A great time.  Multi-tasking musician at Margarita Bar

On Monday, we left from San Cristobal at noon on the bus for Tuxla-Guitterez, where we were to catch our flight to Mexico City.  What a ride!  We got the seats right behind the driver, and we quickly understood why those seats we're taken when we made our reservations.  The road from San Cristobal to Tuxla winds through the mountains the entire way, and there are cars and buses passing each other with little leeway on either side.  We plugged into the mini-disc player and tried not to think about it.  Tuxla is a pretty grimy place, and is pretty much a stopover for most travelers.  We didn't spend much time there, just enough time to get some lunch and head to the airport.  

Mexico City, Mexico
February 21 through March 1

When I look back on the Mexico City experience, it almost seems unreal to me.  We were supposed to be there a little more than 2 days, just long enough to get the computer and catch a plane to Peru.  If travel teaches you anything, it's that your expectations and your realities don't always meet...

We got into Mexico (as the Mexicans call it; confusing, I call it) on Monday night around 7:00.  If you've ever flown into Mexico City, you know that there's hardly a more depressing-looking place from the air.   It's a huge, sprawling metropolis, with almost no trees, and a brown haze over everything, especially in the late afternoon.  I had flown in and out of there once, and never thought I wanted to spend any time there.

But, like alot of things, Mexico isn't so bad close up.  We went to a hotel that was recommended by one of our guide books.  It turned out to be a nice place in a great neighborhood, right down the street from the British and U.S. Embassies (if you've traveled much, you know that the embassies are usually in the best neighborhoods) for $45 per night.  We settled in, had some dinner, and went to bed, with thoughts of getting the computer tomorrow morning in my head.

Turquoise Skull  Tuesday came and went, with no computer.  Sylvia at Informix de Mexico explained that it would be coming to the office on Wednesday.  No real problem.  We were due in Peru on the following Monday for our Spanish class, so we just changed our flight out from Wednesday to Friday, still giving us plenty of time to get to Peru and get ready for class.  On Wednesday morning we visited the National Museum of Anthropology.  It's truly a fantastic museum, with artifacts from the Maya, Inca, and Zapotec cultures, to name just a few.  A highlight was seeing Moctezuma's headress, which was given as a gift to Cortez.  Little did Moctezuma know that Cortez was planning to plunder his entire kingdom...   Inca Calendar

On Wednesday afternoon we headed to the Informix office.  Once there, we began to learn the awful truth that our computer would probably never make it into Mexico.  It seems that according to Mexican customs laws, it's very difficult to import a used  computer into the country.  It's no problemo if the computer is new, but since mine was not, there would be a lengthy (possibly 30 days) approval process, which might not even result in approval.  The advice of the Informix folks, who deal with Mexican customs regularly, was to send the computer back to Atlanta, and get it there. 

You have to understand that contemplating a return home after a big send off, complete with bon voyage party, saying goodbye to friends and family, quitting the job, selling the house, etc., was nearly impossible to do.  By this time, we had both pretty much "checked out", and neither one of us was too excited about going back.  But it seemed like the only way to get the computer, and we realized the farther we got away from the States, the tougher it would probably be to get the computer sent to us.  So we decided that I would go back and get it. 

I returned to Atlanta, and thanks to our good friends Harry and Cristin Zegers and Mac and Betsy Orr, had a great weekend seeing friends and getting some stuff done, like calling American Express to find out where our money was.  (It was no where close to being in our hands, as I found out.)  On Monday I purchased a new computer, as ours was still in Mexico customs, and is probably sitting in the living room of the director of customs as I write this.  I returned to Mexico on Monday night, February 28.  On Tuesday afternoon, we flew to Panama City, then on to Lima, where we spent the night.

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