Thursday, January 27, 2005

Mexico City: Huge but Invisible

I am in Mexico City, the biggest city on Earth by some measures, with more than 20 million inhabitants. Outside my hostel is a street market. This market seems to stretch indefinitely along the road. You can walk for 2 hours along the street and the market never ceases.

Yet the city is partly invisible. This is because the air is heavily polluted. The city lies on a high plateau surrounded by mountains and volcanoes that trap the emissions of the traffic of this mega-city, ensuring that the size of the city is obscured. The Mexicans claim that the mountains are there but I can't see them, only a cloudy, smoggy horizon.

I am staying two minutes walk from the "Zocalo" or main plaza, which is one of the largest city squares in the world. There is always something interesting and noisy going on in the Zocalo. There are people dressed in Aztec garb dancing in a circle to thumping drums. There are people protesting against various federal and regional governments. There are the ubiquitous Mexican street markets, tourists ogling the sights, students loitering, and once a day the flag changing ceremony. Passing through the Zocalo is always an adventure, dodging the traffic that runs around the outside of the Zocalo, refusing the pleas of the stall owners, and being confronted with legless beggars. There is Mexican music, Mexican smells, and Mexican sights.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Mexico: Hat Hair and Witch Doctors in the Mexican Mountains

I am suffering from hat hair at the moment, that hairstyle you get when you spend most of the day wearing a woollen hat because of the cold weather. I'm used to hat hair but I didn't expect to suffer from it in Mexico. A major motivation for being in Mexico at this time is so that I would avoid the European winter.

On entering Mexico we at first stuck to the Caribbean coast, enjoying the sun, sea and sand. We went to Tulum, a small town with a backpacker-driver economy, which has a long stretch of postcard perfect beach with wooden cabins tastefully placed along the beach and beach-side bars every kilometre or so. Even better than the beach were some Mayan ruins, also called Tulum, which are perched on a clifftop right on the edge of the sea. The combination of old stone temples and houses adjacent to the bright blue Caribbean waters is not bad at all.

From Tulum we made a brief foray inland to Chichen Itza, more Mayan ruins in the jungle. The centrepiece of Chichen Itza is a stepped-sided pyramid with a hole in the top through which the sun shines twice a year and making a shadow that looks just like a 50 metre serpent that slithers over the pyramid as the sun rises. Or so they say. It happens in March and September so I couldn't see first-hand proof. In the Mayan heyday it was a place of regular human sacrifice, as were all old Mayan centre. One particular Mayan method of sacrifice, which I called the Temple of Doom method, was for four priests to bend a victim's back over a stone altar while the high priest pulled out the living victim's heart. Apparently it helped the priest to communicate with the gods. A brochure claimed that the temples at Chichen Itza have engravings showing this happening but I couldn't find them.

Now completely full of Mayan ruins, I vowed to avoid them for the rest of my trip. We visited Merida and Campeche, a couple of towns where real modern-day Mexican life takes place, rather than just catering for tourists. We weren't really keenly interested in visiting these towns, we were simply postponing a 12 hour overnight bus journey into the mountains.

Having finally made the bus trip, I am in San Cristobal de las Casas. This is a beautiful old Spanish colonial town, 2100 metres above sea level. It is supposed to be warmish in the day and cold at night. Unfortunately we caught a cold snap, so it is cold in the day and freezing in the night. So cold that we had to visit the local market to buy scarves and gloves. It seems almost every gringo here has been caught unaware by the cold, because they are all wearing the Mayan woollen hat with bright patterns and earflaps, available in bulk at the local market.

Yesterday I made a daytrip to a nearby village called San Juan Chemula. This village has a bizarre church. From the outside the church looks like a typical colonial style Catholic church. But the priest was kicked out of the town 35 years ago and the church was taken over by the religious practices of the indigenous people. Instead of seats the inside of the church is covered with pine needles, thousands of burning candles and bright ribbons. The interior walls of the church are lined with various totems to represent traditional Mayan beliefs, with "positive energy" symbols on the north wall and "negative energy" symbols on the south wall. Doors, altars and windows are aligned to welcome the rising sun (the sign of life) and shut out the setting sun (the sign of death).

Local witch doctors sit on the floor and perform ceremonies to heal sick people using dying chickens and soft drinks, particularly Coca-Cola, Fanta, and Sprite. Apparently the burping caused by soft drinks helps expel sickness or evil. I watched a witch doctor coat a man with some combination of greasy, slimy ingredients.

I was fortunate enough to visit San Juan Chemula during a week long ceremony to honour Saint something-or-other, who is nominally the patron saint of the church, but has been reinterpreted to represent a Mayan god. Streams of people dressed in white and black sheepskin coats marched into the church accompanied by Mariachi musicians. They all carried large bunches of flowers and incense, sang and bowed their heads, and listen while the Mariachis blasted their off-key trumpets and strummed their guitars for 30 seconds at a time.

Tonight I am catching another overnight bus, this time hopefully to a place where hat hair is only a distant memory.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Guatemala: Country of the Small

On New Year's Day I travelled to Antigua, Guatemala. This is a small and beautiful city. Damn beautiful. Every building in the city are old Spanish colonial-style buildings and it is ringed with extinct, perfectly cone-shaped volcanoes. However after admiring the beauty there wasn't actually much to do there, so I soon continued on to Panajachel.

Panajachel is a small village on a lake in the mountains, again ringed with volcanoes. Like Antigua it is beautiful. Damn beautiful. Like Antigua there wasn't actually much to do except admire the beauty. A large group of aging Americans hippies live here, still with long hair and beards and tie-dyed t-shirts, although the long hair and beards are very grey and the t-shirts cover big paunches.

Both Antigua and Panajachel are populated with midgets. Little people. Adults who are easily mistaken for children. I had to kneel down to talk with the hotel staff. They are Mayans, people who already populated that part of the world long before Christopher Columbus and his colonising cronies came sailing in. I guess they must all start smoking really young and it stunts their growth. The women wear bright, multicoloured, woven clothing, just like you would see in a National Geographic magazine. But they don't wear this for the tourists - it actually is how they dress every day.

Next stop was a town called Flores, which is on a small island in a lake, connected to the land by a causeway. The lake is surrounded by jungle, and there was no need to use an alarm clock in the morning. The combined squawking and chattering of a plethora of jungle birds and animals denied anyone the possibility of sleep. I think it is the first time I have enjoyed having my morning sleep disturbed since Saturday morning cartoons as a kid.

Unlike Antigua and Panajachel there definitely was something to do in Flores. Nearby are the ruins of the Mayan city of Tikal, which consists of a number of temples, pyramids, and other structures in the middle of the rainforest. Monkeys swing between the trees, iguanas scurry across the paths, and toucans sit around with their brightly-coloured beaks, doing toucan things and thinking toucan thoughts. You can climb up the tallest temple, which I did. I sat on the top of the pyramid, which took me above the rainforest canopy. The canopy is punctuated by other temples and is a serene view.

Belize: Swimming with Sharks in the Caribbean

Yesterday I did one of the most frightening things I have done in my life. I'll get to that in a moment...

After Guatemala, I made a brief visit to Belize, a small country nestled between Mexico, Guatemala, and the Caribbean with only 250,000 inhabitants. Whereas its neighbours speak Spanish, Belize is officially English-speaking, although most people speak Creole, which is only sort of like the English I know. "Hello" is "Aye Mon", God is "Jah", and "He owns the boat" is "him is wid de boat". In a cafe I talked to a local guy for half an hour, but I barely understood a word. I think he said something about music being good for the soul, and other profound things.

I spent all my time in Belize on Caye Caulker, a sandy island a few kilometres long and only 500 metres across. This is a super-relaxed place. Going without shoes is the norm, the floors in the restaurants are sand, and nobody goes anywhere fast. I don't think anybody could die on this island from a heart attack. It is what your favourite holiday island would be like if it was run by Jamaicans. I stayed in a cabin on the beach, with a perfect sunrise each morning over the sea outside my bedroom window. The only noises at night were from the waves and the wind, which I think is the best way to sleep soundly.

On the last day in Belize I went on a snorkelling trip from Caye Caulker. We were promised that we would see sharks and sting rays. After we snorkelled a bit the boat took us to another location called "Shark-Ray Alley". Here the guide threw some fish overboard, and suddenly sharks were swarming around the boat. The guide assured us that it was safe to go in the water, that these sharks were of a type that wouldn't attack a human, and that the sting rays in the water would only sting if we stepped on them. I knew that if I tried to think rationally about it, I would never get in the water, so remembering that the people in Venezuela had called me "very dangerous", I jumped straight in. Maybe 8 sharks and 3 sting rays were only metres away, and I was both terrified and exhilarated at the same time. I didn't completely throw caution to the wind, because I made sure that at least one other swimmer was always closer to the sharks than me. Try as I could, I couldn't concentrate on details, because I was always on the edge of fear. After we got out of the water people were asking each other, "did you see the eyes on the rays? Did you see the teeth on the shark", and I hadn't noticed any such things. I guess my travel insurance policy wouldn't have covered mutilation after intentionally diving into a pack of sharks.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Caracas, Venezuela: A Dangerous New Year's Eve

The best thing about Caracas is leaving. Sounds trite, but it is only by taking a bus somewhere else that you find yourself high on the mountains surrounding Caracas and able to get a view of the spectacular natural location of the city. It is in a long valley in steep jungle-covered mountains, but it is so built up with skyscrapers that you get no sense of this from the streets of Caracas.

I stayed in the heart of the historic part of Caracas, overlooking the central Plaza Bolivar. Unfortunately the historic centre consisted of 6 or so historic buildings and lots of tall and modern buildings that are completely unnoteworthy. Every now and then you get a glimpse through the buildings of the mountains and realise the grand location of the city.

I was in Caracas for New Year and expected the streets to be filled with Latin revellers, especially in Plaza Bolivar. But Caracas has a reputation amongst its citizens as very dangerous, and so nobody goes out at night. I was repeatedly getting warned by locals in the street, on the metro, and around that it was "muy peligroso" or very dangerous.

My girlfriend and I ventured out on the street at 11pm, hoping to find at least some place interesting to see in the New Year. Every bar and restaurant was shut - and had been since 6pm - and only a few people were on the street, who continued to warn us that it was "muy peligroso".

The only life we found was from a group of security guards on our street who I guess had to work that night and had brought their families with them so that they could celebrate together. They eagerly invited us to join them, gave us some drinks, then attempted to get us to dance with them. They laughed a lot watching these clumsy gringos dance, but it was good natured. When midnight came, they all gave us a hug and a kiss, then warned us again that it was "muy peligroso" as we went back to our hotel for the night,

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Egypt: The Pyramids

It seems that almost everyone who goes to visit the pyramids finds themselves stung by a scam of some sort. For example:
  • Two Danish guys told me how they intended to take a bus to the pyramids, but on walking outside of their hotel were greeted by a Egyptian who offered them a taxi ride to the pyramids for a pittance, so they took the offer. From that point on they lost control of their itinerary, ending up at a camel stables in the desert far from the pyramids, where the taxi driver dropped them off and refused to let them back in the car. Instead they had to pay exorbitant prices for a camel ride to the pyramids.
  • Two Australians were offered the chance by their taxi driver to see the "Papyrus Musuem", something they "shouldn't miss" in Egypt. Of course it was no museum but a crappy souvenir shop where they found themselves buying coloured perfumed oils that they didn't want, and which after struggling to carry with them around Egpyt for a week realised were worthless junk and finally threw them away.

Amazingly I got there unscammed, although that could be because I went there with someone who was making a second visit. Equally amazingly, the taxi driver who took us there didn't seem to know where or what the pyramids were, even when we pointed to a picture of them on the front of my guidebook. These are ancient, enormous, world-famous things on the edge of his city, something every tourist to Egypt comes to see, and he needed to ask an English-speaking policemen where the pyramids were.

When I first saw the pyramids they seemed quite small and I was unimpressed. I found that was because I was much further away from them than I realised - in the desert there is nothing to gain a sense of perspective against. They are actually enormous and imposing when seen up close. The sides are not sloped as they appear, but are actually made up of lots of enormous recangular stones, each almost person-height. It is possible to go through tunnels made for dwarves inside one of the pyramids too.

James, the guy I went there with, wanted to climb one of the pyramids, which these days is illegal. But the guards get paid a pittance, so they are always open to bribes to look the other way. Naturally it would be wrong to bribe someone and I would never normally do that, but it was the peer pressure thing again. I swear that in Egypt if someone said to me, "Hey Steve, have a cigarette - it will make you look really cool", I would have started smoking.

James found the right guy to handle the bribes, and we found that the further up you wanted to go, the more you had to pay, because more guards could see and would need to be paid off. They negotiated a price of 30 Egyptian pounds (4 euros, AUD$6). I said I wouldn't go up, and so the bribe-taker said it would only be 20 pounds for me. James had already paid 30 pounds and wasn't pleased with this. The bribe-taker explained by saying about me, "he is very poor. I can see it in his face." A bargain like that couldn't be given up, so up the pyramid I went.

Egypt: Mt Sinai

I heard that climbing up Mt Sinai to watch sunrise was pretty good. But then I heard the bad parts: walking up a mountain in the dark, really cold at the top, and super-religious Nigerian pilgrims screaming crazily at dawn. I came to Egypt to escape cold, so I went up in the daytime to watch sunset instead.

The trip started like all good Egyptian travel stories - with the tourists getting fleeced. The day before I had booked a seat on a bus to Mt Sinai, to leave at 8am sharp, I was told. "Sharp" in Egypt usually means within a couple of hours, but I took the command at face value, and at 8am I was sitting on the mini-bus with 3 other Australians waiting to go. At 8:30am the driver came back and announced that there was a "little problem". That problem was that he wouldn't take us unless we paid double what we had agreed on. With a bit of haggling we barely made a dent in his demands, but we all wanted to go and had planned to leave the general region the next morning so we went ahead. I fumed on the hour-long bus ride as we passed through numerous military checkpoints, including a dreary United Nations peacekeeping outpost in the desert.

At Mt Sinai we had two choices for climbing: up the easy low-gradient path used by camels and most tourists, or up the 3750 Steps of Repentance, carved out by a monk as a life-long obsession. I didn't want to go this way, it seemed unnecessarily hard but the other three Aussies were gung-ho and so I bowed in to the peer pressure to go up that way. The steps were like the mountain crossing in Lord of the Rings, minus the blizzard, and were a tough climb.

Mt Sinai is where Moses is supposed to have received the 10 commandments. Halfway up one of the guys told us that actually no-one knows where THE Mt Sinai is, and that a monk decided that this was the right mountain, some 2000 years after the days of Moses. So as a tourist and religious destination it is a total fraud, but the scenery still made the climb worthwhile.

We arrived at the top two hours before sunset and so had to wait in ice-cold winds. We were joined at various times by some Dutch guys, a French family, and a retired Canadian couple heading to Namibia where they were going to spend six months huntin' and fishin'. Eventually all gave up waiting because of the cold, and only another Aussie and myself waited long enough to get the sunset photos.