Thursday, February 24, 2005

Where I Went On Holiday - Playa Del Carmen, Part 10

[Originally posted on]

Day Sump-teen

I'm settling in. When I pick up the Miami Herald (or "a Miami" as the girl at the Stop and Go calls it) I no longer recognize what they're talking about. Bush, what's this about a bush? Pope? I dunno. Canada? Never heard of it. Buncha guys in suits shaking hands, I don't understand at all. Hockey season cancelled? There's a hockey season? I'm starting to get interested in the Copa Libertadores, and I don't even know what that IS.

We got tired of walking miles up the beach to get to a restaurant, so we rented a car at Ana y Jose. Cute little "Chevy" 1.6; not a Chevrolet, a Chevy -- I couldn't find the word Chevrolet anywhere on it. I was hoping for an Atos, which is signed "by Dodge" here but is made by Hyundai. They look like they could drive through your average doorway into your house, they're so small. And cute. Even Nancy agrees, THESE little cars can be cute. Someday maybe they'll be legal in the States. The Smart Car (saw just one of these in Playa) has passed the emissions and crash test in the US and starting to become available (actually outperformed a lot of huge cars and trucks in the crash test).

But the Chevy is cool enough, and lo and behold I DO remember how to drive a manual. And Nancy is actually IMPRESSED. My chest is puffed out so far I'm practically honking the horn here. Hmm, better pay attention to the feet, the pedals are so close together my sandal is getting hooked under the brake. Not good. Yes, there was a little swearing, but all in all we're traveling.

First destination: supermarket. We always check out the foreign supermarkets. A couple of strange things we notice: all the coffee is instant, and all the milk is, well, actually there doesn't appear to be any milk. Wait, here's some little cans. And, hey, that's a lot of different kinds of detergent, isn't it? And over here, the beer. And the Cuban rum, mmm. I've never been one for tequila, personally; don't much care for the taste, and to be perfectly honest every time I drink it I end up setting something on fire. Remember, Nancy's impressed because you can drive a stick, now don't blow it!

Next stop: downtown Tulum. Tulum is, frankly, a bit of a shithole. Kind of a truck stop, a wide place in the road. But they've fancied up the main street, with a clever kind of main strip for the highway with a parking and lurking roadway on either side. We came armed with the knowledge that if you really want to see Mexico you have to get away from the tourists on the beach, at least as far as Vallodolid, preferably Merida, but we're not going to get that far this trip. Tulum it is. I bought a hammock. We ate a nice lunch in a divey spot -- again the "crummier the restaurant the better the food" rule.

I wouldn't want to stay at the Weary Traveler hostel, but it's a great place for information. You can book Sian Ka'an tours there, which we did, and check your email for almost nothing (the linux machines are only 5 pesos per hour), or sit around and watch the hippies watch action flicks on HBO. Excellent English is spoken and everyone is very friendly. While Nancy is checking her email, I amuse myself by reading a guidebook for Playa from 1989 -- Tulum isn't even mentioned (aside from the ruins) and Playa is a sleepy little town with only the *BANNED* [the name of this establishment was redacted by staff; I can't remember what it was, possibly Blue Parrot] recognizable amongst the establishments. No Senor Frogs! No Senor Frogs Official Stores! ¿Cómo vivieron?

Tulum is quite a bit hotter than the beach zone, due to the lack of breeze, and everyone in town is moving very slowly. We immediately recognize the wisdom of Mitch's advice -- don't walk on the sunny side of the street! If it's midday and both sides are sunny, find a hamaca and doze a while, or sit inside and watch Benicio Del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones cut each other up with machetes. Or something.

We had a panic attack in Tulum one evening. We had eaten a pizza in town, and walked around, and came back out to our car -- and someone was parked behind us! Two tiny little cars in a space for one, and we're totally boxed in! There's another car idling behind that, and a bunch of what Joe Pesci calls "yoots" hanging around looking suspicious, but no drivers to be seen. Nancy is plainly a little terrified, but, I, being the fearless male of the species, am putting up an utterly transparently bogus front of unconcern. Well, we'll just have to drive up over the curb, I say, as a guy comes over and panhandles us: "pesos, comidas" is all I can make out but it's enough. He's not happy with the few pesos I hand over, but that's all I got, man. I bend down to see just how badly driving over the curb is going to destroy this Chevy -- initial estimates say "completely" -- when a giggling girl comes skipping over and laughs and says a bunch of things in melodious Spanish and backs out of my way. Total elapsed time of crisis: twelve minutes. As we drive back to the hotel strip, it occurs to me: I love Mexico!

The next day, I think it is, we drive out to the ruins at Coba. This is a bit different, as the highway isn't a federal one but a state, which means no shoulder, and frequently no lane markings. The huge trucks and buses are just as plentiful, though, which makes passing even more of an adventure. After a while, I don't even notice the sound of the rapid intake of air coming from the passenger seat anymore. I'm a pro; I'm whizzing in and out, left turn signal blazing, fingertip control, I'm in total -- GAAAAAHH. OK, both hands. Yes, dear, you're right. Could you wipe my brow, please?

On the road to Coba you pass over 2,183 topes in the two small towns along the way, plus Coba itself. The campaign banners are flying -- this is hard-core PDR country; The PRI won the recent elections in the state but out here in the sticks the poor people vote left. "Felix" banners are scarce, while "Chacho" (I think that's his name) is everywhere.

At Coba, we hire a guide -- no organized trip this time -- who turns out to be very good. The place is absolutely mobbed, though; we got there right after five huge buses of Italians. Now, I'm a proud and fervent internationalist, and I think Italy is terrific -- but you talk about your ugly Americans, these Italians, especially the old ladies. Oh my lord. They talk continuously, at the top of their lungs. They even carry on conversations with people who have climbed to the top of the big pyramid, Nohoch Mul (the largest in Mexico, and the second-highest Maya structure anywhere). From the bottom, shouting, waving. It's unbelievable.

And then they're gone. We left our guide, and spent the rest of the day just wandering the site. Once the buses left, we practically had the place to ourselves, it was wonderful. Coba is much larger than Tulum, and was a huge thriving city, not just a little temple zone. There are amazing stelae and two awesome ball courts and traces of sac-be, and the lagoons. Wonderful. We had been warned about bugs but didn't really get any. And then I ate the best thing I ate in Mexico, the pok chuk at the joint with the red chairs. Tourist trap, but what the heck, the achiote spice is fantastic.

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