Barry and Tara: the Latest Zoological Exhibit

22 09 2010

I had a long wait till my bus in the evening so I checked out and paid for a luggage storage locker (quite why some hostels insist on charging for such a basic service defeats my idea of fair pricing) and then went to one of the many “temples” (it’s just a church) of San Cristóbal with Maddy, Sandra and Tara. Whilst we were waiting for everyone to get ready, Maddy and I decided to play fusball at the hostel. Unfortunately there were no balls so we resorted to picking up limes off the floor and playing with them. Unfortunately none of them came out when they went in the goal. I wouldn’t like to be the person that finally opens up the table only to discover that its riddled with a festering pile of limes.

The church was up a hill overlooking the town; although the views were often obstructed by trees so it wasn’t the most amazing viewpoint. Nor was the church itself that interesting; although it did have an outside gym that looked more like a children’s playground. Something that I’ve never seen within the grounds of a church before; nor ever expect to see again.


Maddy working out at the "gym"


We walked back into town and Tara suggested grabbing a beer and a taco at one of the cafes. Since she’d managed to name all my favourite food groups in one go, I could hardly refuse such a proposition. Maddy wanted to meet up with a local guy who promised to introduce her to some local weavers which is a big passion of hers; so she left us at this point. We were sitting on the side of Guadalupe supping our beers when a big procession suddenly came past. The locals were dressed in crazy costumes (huge florid dresses with big bustles and hideous masks) and various bands and floats added to the entertainment. It seems to me that Mexico always has some occasion deserving of a celebration. We did ask someone what it was in aid of but I’ve forgotten already.


The parade that we encountered


The locals seemed to love my hat and kept diving out of the procession; taking it off my head and wearing it. And they loved Tara, of course, with her blonde hair and continually tried to get her to dance. She refused all such attempts although I did get up and dance with a few of the “ladies” myself.



Me with one of the revellers


After the parade petered out we decided to head to the market. Tara said that there were some good cheap places to eat there but we couldn’t find any that offered both beer and tacos. The weather by this point had taken a turn for the worse and was coming down in torrents. Fortunately most of the market is undercover – or at least had plastic sheets covering the open spaces – so we were able to escape the worst of it. There was a slight pause in the deluge which Sandra used to head back to the hostel; I very much doubt that she made it back before the next downpour came. Tara and I, though, were now on a mission and walked down the back streets looking for anywhere they might give us the magic combination of beer and tacos.


Beans at the market


The quaint colonial side of the town soon gave way to her hidden underbelly. We were in local territory: far from the tourist hubbub. Finally we saw a beer sign and entered the crude building. Inside were only men; drinking the afternoon away. Had it not been for the constant rat-a-tat-tat of rain on the roof and the awful music playing in the bar we would probably have heard the scrape of chairs as they craned their necks to look at the gringo in the cowboy hat and his beautiful guera (a Mexican term for blonde) friend. The waiter came over to take our order but was interrupted by a local guy who instantly launched himself at our table with the cunning chat-up line of “Do you like beer?” “I like beer too,” he continued when we answered in the affirmative. “Do you like music?” “I like music too”. It was clear that with so many interests in common that I should leave him and Tara to it but he staggered off, leaving their burgeoning love forever unrequited.

To complete the charade, amidst the goggle-eyed clientèle, our waiter returned; this time accompanied by another colleague. I’m sure that it really needed two of them to take our order and that they weren’t just coming over to see the guera. Fortuitously, the absence of any tacos on the menu meant that we had a ready excuse to leave the bar; ne’er to return. I felt like an animal that had just escaped the zoo: although the most exotic creatures seemed to be the ones doing the viewing.

We walked a bit further down the street, and were about to give up (we were, after all, getting soaked to the skin) when we found a cheap taco cafe. The bad news was that they didn’t sell beer. There was, however, a shop just around the corner so we checked whether you could buy some beers and drink them there. We could! Our mission was complete.

Initially, we were the only ones in the restaurant but after a while a drunk, local man came over and started talking to us. I could understand very little of what he said. I looked to Tara for help; although she’d spent less time in Latin America than me her Spanish is exceptionally good; but she was also struggling with his slurred speech and the way that his conversation would jump tangentially between topics. I tried to humour him where possible but I was pleased when his food turned up and we could ignore him properly.

We tried to wait the rain out but it showed no sign of ever stopping. The road outside looked like an angry river and was rushing down the hill in a foaming flurry; I wondered whether San Cristóbal’s drains would even accommodate this much water. Even though it wasn’t that far we decided to hail a taxi and get back to the hostel that way. This too proved to be a bit of a mission: we were hardly on a main thoroughfare; but eventually we found one and got back to the hostel.

After a bit of a pause to dry off I suggested to Tara that we head back into town to get a coffee. The rain by this point had finally decided to stop. San Cristóbal has lots of freshly-ground coffee places but it actually proved to be harder than I expected finding an affordable one with a terrace. On the street I once again ran into Richard and Sandie and we chatted to them for a while. Then it was back to the hostel. Maddy went off to yoga once again and Tara went to bed exceptionally early so I just passed time on the Internet and chatting to Chris and Mila before it was time for me to head off to the bus station for my bus to Oaxaca (pronounced Wahaca)

Of Mice and Mexican Men

21 09 2010

Today’s excursion involved a river trip through the Cañón del Sumidero: the canyon towers above the boat on both sides; although I’m not sure I was always able to follow the guide’s Spanish commentary. At one point I’m positive he said it was 1km high and it looked far less; also later research showed that the whole canyon is maximum 900-metres above sea level! Harm, a Dutch guy that I’d been chatting to back at the hostel, also came along and I met Tom and Sara (English) on the bus there. It was well into the evening before I realised that this was the same Tom and Sara that Nikki and the Irish guys had been chatting about in Lanquin. Brooke was also on the trip, I’d met her in Mérida on Mexican Independence day.


Cañón del Sumidero


Our guide was a bit of a chancer and hadn’t bought enough entrance armbands to cover everyone in the bus; those of us without bands were then made complicit in his crime by being told not to raise our arms when we went past the checkpoint in our boat so that they didn’t realise our wrists were unadorned. I certainly wasn’t going to pay the fine if we got caught but we seemed to pass by without any mishap.

Most of the river trip was enjoyable but there were places where the river was absolutely filthy and filled with rubbish. That detracted from the experience somewhat. Still, there were some great sights: a tiny, inaccessible shrine in Christ’s Cave (La Cueva de Cristo) and the amazing Christmas tree waterfalls (El Arból de Navidad).

Christmas tree waterfalls

Even though I’ve seen lots of crocodiles on my travels; it was also fun was seeing them basking on the banks of the river.


Croc on the banks of the Grijalva River


After the boat trip they dropped us in a local town for some lunch. I didn’t actually see the point, it was only a short way back to San Cristóbal, and it was quite a soulless town whose only function seemed to be to flog cheap crap to tourists who had just been on the canyon tour. We had some cheap tacos there but then had a shock when we saw how much they’d charged us for the soft-drinks. Worse still I managed to stub my toe on the uneven pavement and bled copiously for the next few hours. My big toes have often fallen victim to my apparent inability to navigate Latin American pavements in flip-flops but they’d finally healed up and I’d really hoped that I’d make it to the end of my trip without further injury. That was obviously not to be.

As we got off the bus in the centre we ran into an Australian couple, Richard and Sandie, who were looking for some accommodation and we told them of a few hostels in the area. Our advice might have been more convincing had we been walking in the right direction but we were apparently disorientated after being dropped off and walked them south instead of north. After the trip I stayed around the hostel writing my blog (I sometimes wonder how much more of the world I might see if I hadn’t created the chore of documenting it!). There was a big kerfuffle behind me: one of the hostel dogs maimed a mouse to such a degree that it was no longer able to move. The dog kept going up to it and playing with it. Since no one else seemed to be moving to do so, I picked up a slab of wood from the unused bonfire and smashed it over the head to put it out of its misery. My mercy-blow was made all the more painful by the fact that my first shot only splintered the plank and probably just gave the mouse a headache to match the agony in its limbs before I actually delivered the killer blow. I also had to keep pleading with the mouse not to look at me.

In the evening I joined Harm and a German friend of his for dinner. They were going to go to Domino’s pizza because they had a special 2-for-1 offer on Tuesdays but, much to my relief, that still proved to be expensive so we had some cheap tacos at a local restaurant. After dinner the guys joined me for a beer at Revolución (where I once again saw Richard and Sandie) but they weren’t up for a big night so I headed over to Tom and Sara’s hostel, Casa de Iguana. This is a really new hostel and the price for a dorm was great value (70 pesos). The small social area was also very popular and a far cry from the quiet back at our hostel. We had a few drinks there and then some of the guys started showing pictures of their exes on Facebook: this soon became a game where the netbook was passed around the table and everyone showed a picture of an ex. When it got to me, I was able to drop the bombshell that she wasn’t quite my ex; we were still technically married which provoked gasps around the table and then meant that I had to reveal my age: another shock to the youthful crowd gathered there.

Eventually, we headed back out into town and went to Revolución again. Outside the bar I got talking to some Dutch people who were shocked that they’d run into a Mexican who could speak Dutch. I know that I was wearing a cowboy hat and had picked up a bit of a tan on my travels but I think they must have been quite drunk to have taken me for a Mexican! Inside the bar I met Sandra (French) and Tara (English) from my hostel. I’d observed Tara earlier in the day having an emotional telephone call about an ex. Although I felt a bit guilty for my unintentional eavesdropping it did make for a good conversation.

Tara felt tired so I walked her back to the hostel, since it was her first day she wasn’t quite sure where it was, and then rejoined the others for a few more drinks. In the course of my 5 minute absence my fresh beer went missing; much to my vexation. I’m convinced it was the bar staff who took it too. We stayed in the bar until closing, although our departure was made a bit more awkward by the fact that we initially forgot to pay our bar tab upstairs. After a slow amble down the road that so often characterises walking in large groups, Sandra and I said goodbye to the others and walked back to our hostel.

Incense, Pine-Needles and Fireworks

20 09 2010

Maddy and I decided to go to the nearby town of San Juan Chamula that day for a taste of the real Mexico. We could have got a tour there but, in order to save some money and not become part of a tedious tourist cavalcade, we took a collectivo bus from near the market. Chamula didn’t disappoint. The local men wandered around in cowboy hats; boots; and white or black furry, woollen shawls: the women maintained the furry motif with black, woollen dresses. All around us you’d hear snatches of Tzotzil which was much more prevalent than Spanish in these parts.

There seemed to be some kind of festival going on in the main square. I have no idea what they were celebrating but every so often the air would resound with the detonations of fireworks and some of the locals ran around in bull costumes festooned with fireworks throughout the frame. Little kids would run around in front of the bulls with hideous, aged masks on and floral jumpsuits that looked like they’d been made from hideously chintzy old curtains.


Celebrations in Chamula


One of the main draws of Chamula is the central church of San Juan which blazes with innumerable thin candles and the heavy miasma of incense. There are no official priests and it is open 24-hours a day for worship. Nor were there any pews; people knelt on the pine-needle covered floor. The most striking images I remember from my time there was a big queue to the fount as people lined up to have their babies christened and a man nonchalantly spitting into the pine needles. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to witness any live chicken sacrifices which sometimes happen.  Unfortunately I couldn’t take any pictures inside the church: it is strictly forbidden and likely to see you evicted from the town. Eventually, we left the church: I was getting very hot in there from all the heat of the candles.


The church of San Juan


We wandered around the town for a while; savouring the sights of the markets and making a few purchases: I decided to get a cowboy hat and Maddy bought herself a new bag. After stopping for a drink on the main square we decided to take the “easy 7km walk to the nearby town of Zincantán” that was mentioned in her Rough Guide. No one seemed to be able to give us a good idea of where we should start on this walk (including the tourist office) and, after wandering aimlessly around the hills for a while with no idea which direction the town was in, we gave up and got a collectivo back to San Cristóbal.


Chillies on the market


For lunch I had huarache; a cornmeal dough base covered in meat and vegetables, and then in the evening I rejoined Maddy for some dinner on Guadalupe. We ran into an Aussie there, Karen, who I recognised from our hostel. She joined us for a bit and then Maddy went off to yoga. I decided to head back to the hostel with a few beers but it was once again exceptionally quiet. I spent most of my time chatting to Meredith and José but no one else was really around.

Djunk on Micheladas

19 09 2010

I swapped hostels in the morning and went to the Rossco Backpackers. This was a few dollars more than what I was paying before but promised to actually have people in it and be a bit more lively. It should still have been more sociable and lost out big time to the sister hostel that I’d stayed in up in Mérida: the social spaces here were often empty and the fire pit which should have been a draw was never lit. At the hostel I briefly met a lovely red-headed, Northern lass, Maddy: she could be quite timid and I found it difficult to gauge her age; she was bit older than some of the 20-somethings I’d been travelling with but when she talked about her passion for design and visiting the local weavers she did it with such unbounded enthusiasm and exuberance that it knocked 5 years off her age.

I arranged to meet Yamit for lunch. Most of the other Israelis were on a trip to Cañón del Sumidero: they had invited me to join them too but, given our late finish the night before and the fact that I wanted to move hostels, I decided to do it on a later date. I joked to Yamit that I didn’t know of any kosher places to eat at; but she knew of a hummus place that was very popular with Israelis. So there I was, in the heartland of México, eating the local cuisine of falafel and hummus. It has to be said though that it was exceptionally good – and I did localise it a little bit by adding a few jalapeños on top of my pita sandwich.

After lunch I said my last goodbyes to Yamit and headed back to the hostel. In the early evening I went out for a few drinks with Maddy. We were sitting outside a bar on Guadalupe when Tal and Yaniv walked past. We said we’d probably meet them at the “brewery” pub from the previous night but when Maddy and I got there it was completely deserted. Still, at least we got a free tequila to go with our beers. Eventually we gave up; the bar staff looked bored out of their tree and were playing around the music so we went to the more lively looking Revolución on the main drag.




There was a live band on in there and Maddy and I spent a lot of time going through the cocktail list with disappointing results. I decided to order a michelada for the first time: this is beer mixed with Worcester sauce, salt, lime and God only knows what else. It is about as palatable as unanaesthetised root-canal treatment. The locals were laughing at me as I struggled to force the evil brew down my gullet. Maddy fared equally badly with her first cocktail: it turned out to be little more than a tequila shot glass with something else in it as well as tequila. I decided to return to beers but Maddy was undaunted and chose another cocktail on name alone: a vampiro. This turned out to be the same evil concoction as the michelada but without the beer (most likely they added tequila). At least this time it was a full-sized glass.


Maddy and I feeling a bit djunk


Eventually, Maddy complained that she was feeling quite “djunk” so we staggered back to the hostel. There were a few people up around the kitchen area and I had a beer or two with them. Maddy said she’d join us but she instead passed out on her bed never to be seen again. I sat around for a while chatting to a South African couple, Chris and Mila, and an American couple, Meredith and José before also calling it a night.

Pigs with my Blankets

18 09 2010

It was mid-morning when I arrived in San Cristóbal de las Casas. It’s a cute colonial city in the highlands of Chiapas and, at an elevation of 2100m, it was a lot colder than anywhere I’d been recently. I said goodbye to my neighbour from the bus, Juan: I figured I’d probably see him again; it was a small city after all, but our paths never crossed again. Then I trudged into the town under the unbalanced weight of my backpack; looking for my home for the night, Posada Ganesha. It was a nice enough hostel; but seemed very quiet. They ran daily yoga classes there and I was even contemplating trying one based on my travel philosophy of trying anything once but they didn’t do it on weekends so the world was saved my Downward Facing Dog.

I wandered around the town for a bit; looking for a newsagent or small supermarket where I could get myself a Fresca – I seemed to have developed a strange addiction to the Lilt-like grapefruit drink since Panama – but I struggled to find anywhere that wasn’t selling tourist crap or expensive restaurants and cafes. It was a cute town though.

I went to lunch with Samuel, a Québécois who spoke very little English and even less Spanish; to say that the conversation was stilted would be a crass understatement. I even told a small white lie and said that his English was really rather good. Someone had told him of a good restaurant off one of the side streets by the market but he didn’t know where exactly it was; what it was called or what type of food they did. I took him to a cheap, local restaurant (more like a spit and sawdust bar that did some food really). I was used to such common fare but I think on his two-week long vacation he was probably looking for something a bit more special. Still, at least the huge beers were on special.



The Cathedral of Santa Domingo


It started to rain during lunch and continued for the rest of the afternoon. The altitude made this a cold autumnal rain and I didn’t really want to wander around in it much so I headed back to the hostel. Eventually, either my poor sleep during the bus journey or the beer with my lunch caught up on me and I decided to have a disco nap. When I awoke it was as late as 9:30pm. Samuel was nowhere in sight and there was no one else in the dorm so I sprung out of bed and wandered into town on my own. It was a Saturday night: I had to do something. I walked past the bars wondering which one I should try where I might actually meet some people to hang out with.

As I walked down one of the streets I suddenly heard someone call my name. I turned around and there was Yamit who I knew from Playa del Carmen! She was having dinner with Yaniv, Tal and Asaf. I went back to their hotel with them; met up with Naava, Gilat and Zehava too and then we went down the road to a big pool hall. My pool playing had begun to improve at the early stages of my trip but has generally got progressively worse since Perú. I just about managed to hold my own and won a few games with Yamit and then with Zehava but my inconsistent play often let us down.

Afterwards, we went to a bar on one of the main streets, Guadalupe. According to the guys it was supposed to be a brewery too but they didn’t seem to have any of their own beers so I settled for a Dos Equis or two. In the back there was a broken fusball table and some of the guys went over and played on that for a bit. They met some English guys, Eugene and Charlie, whilst they were playing. I went over to chat to the English after their game but I think they must have thought I was a bit strange when one of the first things I asked them was “What hostel are you staying at?” I was desperate to get some new tips: my current accommodation was way too quiet.


Drinks with Tal, Yamit, Asaf,and Gilat’s arm (photo courtesy of Naava)

We stayed in the bar until closing time and then I headed back to my hostel where I discovered that there were two new people in my room and that both sets of blankets had been stolen off my bed by the new occupants. I can’t say I blamed them too much: it’s cold in San Cristóbal of an evening and there were not enough blankets to go around (and for some reason the hostel locked away the ones that there were). Even so, I wasn’t happy that I had to lie there shivering away under my thin coat whilst everyone else in the dorm was snug and warm. Fortunately, Samuel left at some ungodly hour in the morning so I nicked the blankets off his bed and was able to sleep properly after that.


Another Rainy Day

17 09 2010

It’s scarcely even worth me creating a blog entry for today. I did nothing all day except hang out on my computer; cursing the crummy weather (what is the point in being in a hostel with an eye-infecting pool if the weather doesn’t even allow you to use it?) and waiting until 9:30pm for my bus out of town. Carline, Josephine and Nicolas had left before I’d even got to breakfast so I never got a chance to say goodbye to them. Frances left in the early afternoon (she was heading home a few days before her brother) and I said goodbye to Alec as I walked off to the bus station.

The overnight bus journey to San Cristóbal passed pretty much without incident. I spent a lot of it watching Entourage on my laptop and occasionally chatting to my neighbour, Juan, from Spain. But otherwise nothing to report whatsoever.