Maya Calle – Where the Sky was Born

Never before have I considered using an iguana´s perspective to view life, but today I did.  Staring off the top of a rock at the waves crushing in on the shoreline, and at the crystal blue sea beyond, this iguana´s view would be a king´s envy.  The ruins of Tulum — an ancient Mayan city on the sea — lay to the east.  Below them lay a beach as smooth as confectioner´s sugar, and just as white.  The wild palms and crags of cacti grew to the west.  The sea lay before him, and the warm morning sun shone down upon him.  For a moment, all was right in that iguana´s world.

The ruins of Tulum were on my Must See list because they were on the cover of The Lonely Planet which I´ve been using.  Furthermore, they were recommended by that great sum of recommenders, whose names need to be mentioned here.  Many thanks go out to Enrique Castillo-Sosa for the long, detailed, and informative emails; to Monica Flores for her recommendations about Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Merida, Campeche, and Cancun; to Parley Valdez and to Brenda Bernaldez for making the connections with Monica and Enrique; to Jose Villafuerte for his comments on places to go, things to see; to Valeria Bove for her sound advice; and to my brother, Paul, for his medical advice about traveling.

Sian Ka´an (pronounced Seen Kahn) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site about 15 kilometers away from the Tulum ruins, and its name in Mayan means, Where the sky was born. It is a biosphere with a great lagoon stretched through its midst, inhabited by all manner of flora and fauna: cormorants, pelicans, roseate spoonbills, ibises, crocodiles, mangroves, great blue herons, egrets, red winged blackbirds, jaguars, needlenose fish, sawgrass, manatees, and many more.  For people from Louisiana and Florida, many of these names will register as common to those regions too.

The guide was a Mexican from the city of Puerto Morelos, in the state of Quintana Roo, in his mid-forties, with a salt and pepper goatee, black hair, dancing eyes, and a personality that was quick to laughter.  He was also incredibly competent.  In addition to knowing every single bird by sight, he also knew their Latin names and classification, “There´s the turkey vulture, family Cathartidae!”  Indeed.  He guided myself and an English couple, George and Katy, through the mangroves of the place where the sky was born.  The water, he explained, is brackish, and the salty water from the Gulf is funneled through undersea channels beneath the peninsula where it mixes with the fresh water of the lagoon.

The mangroves, Luis said, serve as a retaining wall and barrier against the hurricanes.  And they serve as the focal point for life in the marsh.  Each of the mangrove stands has taken roughly 400 years to develop into its current shape and size.   The termite mounds that you see — he pointed out the enormous black mounds amidst the branches of the mangrove — are critical in the cycle of life because they chew up the dead mangrove branches and facilitate decomposition.  The black lines that you see, Luis mentioned, on the mangrove branches are in fact tunnels for those termites to move through the branches, like blood running through veins.  Very impressive fellow, this Luis.

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Maya Calle – Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Tulum

All the outlandish photos from Playa del Carmen were thrown together in the previous post to make up a spicy cultural jumbalaya.  The final morning on Cozumel, the afternoon in Playa del Carmen, and the bike ride from Playa del Carmen to Tulum were, in fact, more germane.  Two people should go on record: Pedro and Marta.

Pedro and I met on Cozumel, where he was a worker in the tourist industry for 6 years, until 2002.  After the 9-11 attack happened, the tourist industry, Pedro said, declined dramatically.  He had worked in Cozumel for 6 years until 2002, and 7 July 2012 was his first day back on the island in 10 years.  I asked him if it had changed a great deal.  “Oh yes,” and he pointed to an grimy, weatherworn, derelict building, 10 stories tall and inhabited by pigeons, seagulls, and crows.   “I used to live there.”  Pedro had brought his family with him: a wife and three small children, one of whom was Pedro Jr., who was deeply interested in the iguanas — as I also was.  Returning to an earlier insight, Pedro spoke excellent English, almost fluently, and — although he had never had formal schooling in English — apologized for his skills.  I said his English was excellent, and that there was no need to apologize, and I asked him where he had learned to speak so well.  He said he had learned the language through talking with tourists, and that was the extent of his education.  Very impressive.

The second person, Marta, is the lady who managed and owned the hotel where I stayed on Playa del Carmen.  She is a tiny little lady, about five feet tall, wiry, dark-haired, and about 50 years of age.  She is one of those ladies who speaks Spanish at you with the rapidity of an auctioneer, who is a barrel of energy, yet who is warm enough to make you smile.  She knew exactly what she wanted: practical, level-headed, she instructed me to turn off the lights and ceiling fan when I left the room, “These other people never turn them off! And my bill goes zooop!” and gestured that the bill goes right through the ceiling.  A very sweet lady, she was one of those people who had me nodding acquiescence with everything she said, and I was near to taking out the trash and sweeping the floor, if only she had asked.

This morning was the ride to Tulum, a pueblo which boasts one of the most gorgeous beaches in the world and famous Mayan architecture.  After the ride, your faithrul corresp. ate a lunch of pork, beef, rice, beans, guacamole, and tortillas, polishing it off with a diet coke with ice — and followed that with a 3 hour nap.

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Maya Playa del Carmen

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In Playa del Carmen, you can not behold the actual Mayan man, his classical personage being rather extinct, but you can see everything else.  Leopards, lions, iguanas, flame throwers, aging hipsters flashing the peace sign, Johnny Depp look-alikes throwing the horns, toucans, macaws, street artists, and — of course — la playa.  Throw into that a tattoo parlor with a bar (sounds like a good way to wake up with a lifelong regret), live music, and top it with Haagen Dazs ice cream, and you have La Quinta Avenida.

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Maya Calle — The Burger Bar

Up early and out the door on Friday, 6 July, with a 70 kilometer bicycle ride to Playa del Carmen awaiting me, and the knowledge that the furthest in my life that I have ever ridden is 40 kilometers.   The tunnels are the worst.  Trucks roar by like jet planes, and the shoulder of the road disappears.  Once free of the two short tunnels, the ride is merely a matter of: pedal, pedal, pedal and don´t stop, never ever stop.  There´s quite a bit of traffic, which is to be expected, but I have water enough.  I left before breakfast, so about 55 kilometers into the ride, I was starving, and there were no places to eat along the way.  And then, just then, there was a Mexican miracle: The Burger Bar. 

It was deus ex machina.  The Burger Bar appeared as if it came out of a dream and, at the same time that I stopped on the far side of the highway, a car pulled into The BB´s parking lot, and two beautiful women — one even dressed in the classical red dress of passion — stepped out of the car and entered The Burger Bar.  It may have been my imagination, but it appeared that the lady in the red dress stepped out of the car with a leg that was six feet long.  We enter, nearly at the same time, and I smile at them.  They look back at me with a look of distaste.  When I take a moment to review the self´s figure, there is no denying that I am dripping sweat and covered in dirt, so it is the briefest of decisions — and one which any man with a shred of decency would make — to sit on the porch of the restaurant, and let the ladies and other diners consume without the displeasure of viewing me. 

It just so happens that the manager of the Burger Bar, Isaac, is a bicyclist, and he comes out to speak.  Very considerate fellow.  And in compensation for the friendly manager, timely location, and delicious food, I recommend the hearty 150 gram burger with fries, followed by a dessert of banana bread, pan de platana. 

I realized when I arrived in Mexico that people wanted to practice their English on me, and that I would have to force myself to speak Spanish, if I am to learn properly.  Many conversations consist of a Mexican speaking English to me, while I try to reply to the speaker in Spanish.  Aprendiendo Espanol lentamente, I say, meaning that I am slowly learning Spanish.  En espanol, por favor.  The most surprising thing is that so many Mexicans speak English really well — almost fluently.  “I work with tourists,” said Eduardo, the driver who took me to the hotel in Cancun yesterday.  “Many of my friends who also work with tourists don´t speak English, and I ask them `Why?  Why don´t you learn English?´”  It seems accepted here that anyone who works with tourists must speak English — one Mexican who worked on the ferry was even providing car rental insurance information in English while on the ferry.  Very impressive.

La Isla de Cozumel, where I am typing from now, is a beautiful island.  Its beaches are of white sand or rock — smooth stone floors — and it is a hub for cruise ships, whose passengers come for the snorkling, diving, and day trips.  The cruise ships seem to be a source of consternation to the islanders.  A lady named Susan, a Mexican who studied in London and who lived in Copenhagen for eight years, griped that the cruise ships have caused the decline of the island. “The passengers never stay,” she said sourly.  “They are gone by 5 o´clock.  They take, and then they go.”  She was, for the record, equally critical about the local Mexicans — her own people, “Cozumel is the safest place in Mexico.  But be careful, or your bike will disappear.”  

But the island is awesome.  It is beautiful, and most of the people are laid-back, relaxed, and they seem to know that a life is to be enjoyed.  They take delight in their days.  It  is a friendly people, the Mexican people, and they seem full of love and laughter.  Ah, wonderful.

Also, the old Volkswagon Bugs are ubiquitous here, which makes sense.  Their small size makes them easy to park, and their underpowered engines will never be strained on the flat island roads.  The VW Bugs come with license plates in the front that depict a sailfish and say the name of the state, Quintana Roo.  Most also have a sticker or two — a Superman sticker, perhaps, or Bienviendos — stuck on the inside of the windshield.  They are brightly colored, and remind me of pictures that I´ve seen of Havana, Cuba — another island city that contains older cars.     

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Maya Calle: Cancun — Yo ho ho!

Tengo una secreta: there are no secrets.  It could be a line from one of Jorge Luis Borges´labyrinthine short stories.  An enigma bound by itself — much like Cancun.  There exists, of course, the wildly accurate lore of sexo, drogas, y fiestas of Cancun, yet despite the gaudy, skyscraping apartment buildings — and in addition to the flesh traffic — is a remnant of that ancient biosphere which still contains yellow tanager-like birds, lizards galore, subtropical mangrove swamps, shoaling and jumping fish, human males bathing stone-age nude in the Carib., crabs, pelicans, and what appeared to be skinks.  The commericialism and ecosystem coexist.   

The bike and I arrived, and I put it back together.  All went well at that stage, but otherwise, it had been a day of unusual occurences: in the airport, a tall lean man with a beard and thick black cotton socks was cursing volubly to himself.  Filthy, noisy curses as he scrolled through his iPad.  He then sat directly behind me on the flight from Tallahassee to Atlanta.  The curser was polite during the flight, on which he ordered two bloody marys that seemed to soothe him, and to make this nosy correspondent wonder about the condition of the curser´s liver. 
On the flight from Atlanta to Cancun, the flight attendant was playing with dry ice, because “There´s no movies for us to watch on this flight.”  Indeed we all need entertainment. 
And the hotel in Cancun had separate signs in Spanish and English that advised guests to respect opossums, describing them as “Mexico´s only marsupial” and continuing on to say that a marsupial was “an animal that carried its young in a pouch like a kangaroo.”  It´s a wild world. 

No clubbing, a dinner of lime-soaked cerviche and a beer, bed at 9:30 after continued reading of Ty´s book, Aku-Aku: The Mysteries of Easter Island, which is enthralling, and an early start at 6:00. 

Many thanks to my mom and dad for their help in making this adventure a reality!  Thanks!

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Happy 4th of July!

Happy 4th of July!  It’s America’s independence day today, which commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  Today I am in a small town, Bainbridge, in southwestern Georgia celebrating the holiday with my parents and watching the fireworks from a grassy field between a gas station and a grain silo.  In 2011, I was in the national capitol, Washington DC, with my fiance.  Tomorrow, I will be at the first stage of a jaunt across the Yucatan.

Happy 4th of July to you all, and I hope that you each have a safe, fun, and memorable holiday.  Enjoy!  🙂

 

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Maya Calle – Packing

Bicycling across the Yucatan is not a big expedition, but it seems that way.  Keeping in mind such famous explorers as Thor Heyerdahl — who crossed the Pacific to Easter Island in a Greenland trawler with 130 tons of oil, 50 tons of water, and 3 archaeologists on a stretch of ocean more desolate than any other in the world — a jaunt across the Yucatan is a mean feat.  And think of Roald Amundsen, the famous Antarctic explorer, who not only wintered through the bitter Antarctic July with 5 other Polar Party members, but also raced (and won) to the South Pole more than a hundred years ago in 1911, passing, as he sledded, chasms so deep and black that they appeared bottomless, and crossing through such areas as the Devil’s Ballroom.

No, biking across the Yucatan is a drop in the ocean compared to such magnificent explorations.  Still, as the packing list grows longer, and the planning becomes more nuanced, the number of questions tends to mount rather than diminish.  Furthermore, these questions seem to become ever more knotty and the answers more difficult to reach.  To ship the bike across the Gulf, for instance, you must use a bike box.  Well and good.  But how to ship the bike home?  Where to get a bike box, because if the bike shop in Cancun doesn’t have one, where can one be procured?  Can one leave a bike box with the accommodations for a 3 week duration and, if so, what happens if it is accidentally thrown away or destroyed?  How will the bike come home again?  What if passport theft occurs?  What if an injury occurs?  Disease?

Preparation, preparation, preparation — toilet paper, tools, and photocopies of the passport go a long ways, but not all the way, and in the end one must wave goodbye with a cheery smile and begin the journey knowing that not all contingencies can ever be fully accounted for.  Yet while there are circumstances which are as yet unforeseen, I am excited to move from the tedious planning stage, in which I was impatient, and onward to the ride itself.  I wonder if the Yucatan will have, for instance, that same subtropical sickly sweet scent as is found in The Philippines and Malaysia.  Or if the Yucatan is so thoroughly Americanized and Europeanized as to have lost its rough flavor.  It’s nothing special, I suppose.  It’s a stage that we all pass through, that is, moving from here to there.  Moving from security to insecurity.  Stepping knowingly, willfully, off the front porch and into the rain.

They say that the road makes a man wicked
That the wanderer warms his hands by hellfire
That his pockets are full of galleons and gold
But his heart with nought but desire.

They say that the road makes a man lonely
That is one whom the whores cannot sate
That such men cannot live on but bread alone
That he will starve on the meat on his plate.

But there’s a light in every horizon
That shines always anew from the east
And with every new day that comes dawning
The wanderer takes from the highway his feast.

I’ll hit the road with my feet a-moving
And scars on my elbow and shins
And leave to the God of this people so odd
The task of sorting my virtues and sins.

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