I am cycling to raise money for the fantastic UK based chaity Macmillan Cancer Support. Big thanks to everyone who has sponsored me so far! Justgiving is a quick, easy and secure way to donate online. See my other fundraising page, specific to the Macmillan organized part of the trip

Sunday, 17 October 2010

7th border crossing: Mexico, the Final Countdown

So I´ve crossed my final border into Mexico... happily back to being immersed in the Spanish language, 7th border, 8th country, 8th currency this time the Mexican peso or dollar, 12 to 1 US roughly. I´ve been told the new 500 bills have images of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, two Mexican artists I really love, but am yet to see one.

Cycling wise these have been longish days, pushing out the k´s to make sure I get up to the airport in time, but since the exhilarating hummocks of the Hummingbird highway back in Belize (downs good enough to pull you all or almost-all up the ups) it has been flat flat flat. And since crossing the border it has been an arrow straight line, good asphalt, speedy (for me, which is not -so-speedy-really!) going except when I´ve had strong headwinds, which thankfully have never been all day. Downside is that there is very little to see, very few settlements on the side of the roads, mainly trees trees and the odd entrance to a huge resort. I´ve taken to playing Spanish alphabet-base-word-games with myself as well as my random singing and hand-swap-riding to entertain me.. oh dear... also you know its repetitive scenery when almost all your road photos are roadkill.. I counted I think 12 or so different types of roadkill, right now the ones I can remember are: dragonfly, big colourful grasshoppper-ish creatures (a lot of a sudden after the border, peculiar!), butterflies, spiders (tarantula-esque), frog, bat, big rat like creature, skunk, long tailed monkey-esque creature (not sure about this one, went whizzing past so not sure really what it was but it had a big long tail), snake, little field mouse type rodent, and the shelled creature you see below. Poor wee blighters!

My first night in Mexico I camped at the beach next to the Tortuga restaraunt where I´d stopped for a coffee and where all the staff were really kind, Alberto gave me a resaraunt t-shirt to take home... that´s some long distance advertising and Carlos insisted I didn´t leave until he got to work the next morning so he could check out the weather reports to see if it was safe to travel, because there were rumours of a hurricane hitting the coast. As it turned out it headed towards Cuba, lucky for me but I hope the Cubans coped ok. So after a beautiful sunrise and a refreshing early morning swim in the virtually still water I was back on the road (and back to my morbid photography!)

More water edged camping... after stopping at the Cenote Azul next to the town of Bacalar for an afternoon swim I decided the resort filled town didn´t feel right (resort land feels fake and I just don´t feel comfortable somehow) so I pushed on, making it up to the tip of the Laguna Azul and a quiet cabaña spot run by German Frederico (much more comfortable with a patch of earth under a palapa - thatched wall-less shelter - directly on the edge of the lake). Met a young lad called Jesus on the last part of the highway, he showed me where the hostel was (not really necessary but sweet) and helped me put up the tent so I shared my lazy-out-the-tin effort at dinner with him and we chatted about illegal immingration. At 23 years he´s already been to the US working and been deported. He openly told me his story, of paying $3000 US, meeting with a group of other Mexicans, getting to the border where they walked 9 hours through the night to cross the frontier, getting to a safe house on the other side and heading north towards family and friends. He was driving without a lisence for work and got caught one year, for fear of deportation he didn´t pay the fine which accumulated for a year and half until he was caught again, found to be illegal, put in prison for a month waiting deportation, then flown handcuffed to northern Mexico, with 30 pesos in his pocket (less than $3 US) and the set of clothes he was walking in. Family moneygrammed him the cash to come back down south, where he works now on road construction and has no immediate plans to head back north. Tough.. I asked was he afraid at any point but he said no, he never felt in danger, perhaps he was lucky, perhaps because he crossed at the easternmost point of the border.

Later in the week a couple of older Mexicans at Tulum, Sergio and hammock maker Theo, shared their opinion about immigration. They feel that folk who follow the quick buck US dream are just wasting money that would be better invested in establishing a small business here at home, where life is cheaper and there is potential for growth and a good life. They both seem very content with their lot at the stunning coastal spot, where the sand is silky (though you can make sculptures out of it as I learnt when I came across a competition of turtle sand sculptures going on) and so white golden the sunreflecting off is very-squint-making without sunglasses (of which I´m now on my 5th pair of the trip after the losing and breaking efforts that I´ve managed!) and there is a lively night life up in the town. German Sebastian and I headed out for food and beers last night, learning in one sitting about all the different types of tortilla based foods that make up Mexican cuisine... like a wine tasting only of tortilla based foods, empanadas, tacos, panuchos, salchichos etc etc, it made me think of a Ready Steady Cook episode based on tortilla, cheese, meat, avocado and chili!

After having been travelling in and around the Mayan world for months, since my arrival in Guatemala, but somehow skirting the real heart of it, I feel like I have finally learned a little about the culture after visiting the Museum of Mayan Culture in Chetumal the afternoon of crossing the border, and then visiting the beautiful coastal ruins site at Tulum yesterday evening.

One of the facts I was particulrly interested in was the ritual body decoration that the Mayans went in for. Always one for body art, I was fascinated to see these images depicting facial scarification, and to read that as well as tattoing the Mayans pierced their bodies (the females usually the earlobes and tongues and the men their penises) using manta ray spines or bones of special animals, such as the jaguar. The blood fell on ritual fires so was lifted to the gods in the smoke. Slightly more cringe-inducing was the common practise of head-deformation, where the parents would squash a baby´s cranium using wooden planks so that as the bones hardened with ageing the child was left with an elongated head, either sideways or backwards. Apparently it left no lasting damage on the child. Ew..Another fact I enjoyed was to learn that the Mayans were big into muralism, reflecting the colour of creation in the world around them on the walls of their buildings depicting scenes comemorating preists and gods. They also had diferent forms of recording information: wood or stone lintels and stellae were carved with scenes of important historic events in the lives of the rulers, accompanied by glyphic texts (700 distinct glyphs are known, syllabic-fonetic symbols and ideographic and pictographic elements ); stone altars were carved representing the different levels of the world and offerings were made to the gods on them, they were usually circular though sometimes in the shape of mythical animals; books of painted texts also existed recording information about science, medicine, mathematics and astrology, such as the page in the photo below which comes from the `Madrid Codex´ and which depicts a ceremonila scene of a shaman smoking tobacco, whilst taking mushrooms (seen as sacred), an hallucinogenic mixture used ceremonilally rather than recreationally to communicate with the gods and ancestors.

Astrology was very important for a culture which believed man was influenced by the movement of the starts (hence my two different Mayan star sign personality predictions, the one from Jaime in Xela and the other from Verena in Lanquin) and who worshipped natural phenomenon such as the snake, water, Venus, the sun, the moon, the cardinal points (each asociated with a colour), death, blood, the ancestors of rulers, sacred time and the ceiba. The Ceiba is a cotton producing tree and it communicates the structure of the three level universe as the Mayans percieved it: the roots penetrate to the underworld where the nine lords of the night reign; the central level is the human world, divided in four directions, white (north) red (east) yellow (south) adn black (west), with green being the centre; the braches extend to the upper world of the 13 heavens.
It´s really feeling like the final countdown now, with only a couple of days til my flight and the excitment about seeing family and friends really kicking in, and overriding the nostalgia of the journey coming to an end (and my worries about heading from the sun into the impending winter shortening of days and from the calm tranquility of the latin world to the speedy shock of London). It´s been a literal countdown on the highway too, with plenty of place and distance signs all the way since Chetumal and every kilometere marked by a black and white post, (also get rubbish bin signs followed by rubbish bins in the flesh (or metal as it may be) ... I was impresed at the effort to keep the country clean, as one feature of Central America has been folk throwing all rubbish out the window, but I have yet to see someone slow down fom highway-speed to put anything in one... at the same time I haven´t seen too much rubbish at the side of the road so it must be working. Anyhows, in a happy coincidence as I was going up and down the streets (and even into the forest) of Fellipe Carrillio Puerto looking for a cheap place to stay one evening (never materialised, found a 250 peso room in the end which made my scottish tacaño - tight - bones quiver) I came across an enthusiatiastically waving couple who turned out to be Canadian cycle tourers Yves and Katja and just heading out at the start of their trip. It felt like a happy circular ending to my journey to be able to pass on a some tips, recommendations and a map and their excitement got me dreaming about where I´d want to go next, something I´ve been thinking about a lot recently. I love the idea of Alaska to Patagonia, though I reckon I´d want to travel with a companion/s to give me the motivation to move at a fast enough pace to get me through Canada ahead of ´the bad weather´and the States within the alloted visa time.. a fair challenge if you consider the pace I´ve set here in CA!

Another day has passed and so tonight is my final final night. Talking of Scottish tightness, I´ve gone for a luxury final night by checking into a 300pesos room at the Posada del Amor ($25 us, haha not so expensive sounding when you put it that way, but consider most of my trip I´ve been on anywhere between a $10 to $25 a day budget depending on the country, and you can see why I´ve shocked myself!) I actually really wanted to camp on the beach front for my last night in Mexico, in this beautiful part of the world, to open my tent door in the morning and see the Carribean sea, but after an enjoyable afternoon sharing some beers and fresh fish with a group hanging out there I decided there´s too much drinking traffic to be really secure, and opted for the towels-in-the-shape-of-a-swan hotel instead, which actually I´m secretly chuffed with, especially since it strated chucking down with rain an hour ago... and I´ll aim to get up early early to watch the sunrise knowing that I can nip back to bed afterwards if I like!

Mexico has really been filled with watery days for me. After the beach lazing at Tulum I was able to break my ride from there to Playa del Carmen yesterday by stopping off at one of the nature parks off the highway, and swam in three of their four cenotes, the fourth had an uninviting scum on the to, probably a form of algae rather than dirt, since it was in the shade of the rocks. Cenotes are natural pools scattering this part of Mexico, and which form when the limestone land dissolves into underground rivers. Then today I went snorkelling over the reef off the coast here at Peurto Morelos, something I´d been itching to do since seeing all the snorkel signs along the highway, and it was well worth it, a real highlight of the trip (and also how I managed to end up hanging out on the pier in the afternoon!). The colours of both the scenery down there and the fish were just stunning, greens, yellows, browns, purples, reds, blues, turquoise. It is other-worldly, and really it is another world. It is funny to see the blue surface of the water and these bums, snorkels and life jackets bobbing slowly along, until you become a bum snorkel and life jacket and sticj your head under the surface... up opens a wealth of beauty and calm. My favorite plants were these purple crochet leaves, looking like flat trees waving in the current, in which shoals of fish also wave, bob and weave, and rock coating green labyrinthine moss-like formations, also semi-transclucent halloween fake-finger-textue-looking tentacle-esque wavy clumps nestled in crooks, with creamy bodies and coloured tips, orange or purple.. and so many other fascinating plants. We saw conches and a sea cucumber, baracudas (that respond to a dropped snorkel by coming to have a look at it again and again), long bodied and long nosed trumpet fish and endless other fish I wouldn´t know what to call, but of a variety of colours and patterns that had me thinking of a fashion-designers mood-boards... my favourite were the tiny electric blue mites, and medium-sized turquoisy individulas who mozied around solo, and the black-with-electric-purple-spot chuckadees who nipped to and fro. Honestly an indescribably beautiful eye-full of an experience.

So tomorrow for the cardboard box hunting and the plane, how strange..... looking forward to seeing all you lovely folks back home, big big love from Mexico!


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