Oooooxmal and Kabbahhhhh

Took our first tour today. Well worth the money (500 pesos each – about £25), we were picked up from our hotel and driven about an hour and a half to Uxmal.. the guide talking about Ruins and Mayan life along the way.

Uxmal is impressive. And beautiful.

Get ready for some facts.

The awesome size and adornment of the buildings with carving and sculpture is remarkable. The Puuc style seems to be large, sturdy foundations and beautifully rich decoration towards the top of the buildings.

 

Uxmal Nunnery

Uxmal Nunnery

 (Mum, you can click these pics to see full size detail…. 😉 )

Lovely Uxmal Decoration

Lovely Uxmal Decoration

 

Uxmal Governor's Palace

Uxmal Governor’s Palace… where’s Wally?

You find yourself trying to imagine what life there was like, and comparing it to what was going on in Europe at the same time to give a baseline reference point. We were medieval, building churches and suffering the black death. The Mayans were building amazing temples and cities from stone without steel tools or the wheel. The Mayans also built temple upon (literally) temple – the name Uxmal refers to being thrice built – so the sheer effort involved in the endeavour defies comprehension. To top it off, Uxmal is also not in proximity to any fresh water source, the Mayans created “Chultuns”, underground water reserves to collect rainwater, in the shape of a water bottle to minimise evaporation. Impressive.

The similarity in both cultures would seem to be the worshipping of deities in order to cope with and attempt to influence the limited natural resources on which the harshness of life was predicated. Europeans spent time and energy on religious buildings religious art and ceremonies. Mayans too. The Rain God Cha’ac dominates much of the rich decorations at Uxmal, alongside the Sun God (represented as a macau). They also had a thing for serpents and jaguar. I suppose these days we worship technology and that’s where our human endeavour to control, harness or mitigate our reliance on nature is focused.

Cha'ac

Cha’ac (Rain God)

Our Mayan guide was clearly very proud of his culture and achievements. En route he explained the importance of chaya maya, a plant that they drink the juice of mixed with other fruits for its medicinal properties. He told us that the habernero is important; 0 chillies for breakfast, 2 for lunch and 1 in the evening. Apparently the mayan languages were once banned from schools, but these days they are trying to encourage the speaking in schools in order to preserve it. Mayans live(d) in thatched huts in family enclosures, the married sons returning with wives and children to live with parents.

Also according to our guide, Uxmal is the most beautiful of all the ruins in Mexico…. and, based on a sample of 3, I can see what he means.

The other astounding thing is the amount of the city that still remains as rubble in the jungle. Its a jigsaw to find and fit back together, and it seems the government invests on a piecemeal basis over decades to restore it in installments. They use the original stones but with modern cement. Mayans used a sort of glue they made from honey, resin from the trees, egg shells, water etc – and small bits of stone wedged in to maintain position.

So, the tour took us around all the buildings, from the Magician’s Pyramid with its amazing sonic effect (you clap, it squeaks back at you) and on to the Nunnery, then the ball court (looks like quidditch would go down well), the House of Doves (my 2nd fav, it features a series of windows that create a serpent on the lawn before it at winter solstice), the main Pyramid (which we climbed!) and the Governer’s House (I think, which is my favourite – imposing, ornate).

Up and Up

Up and Up

Atop the Pyramid

Atop the Pyramid

Conquered!

Conquered!

Climbing a pyramid seems like a massive privilege after visiting other sites. They stop people climbing the Magician’s pyramid, and at all other Mayan sites, because it is either too dangerous (our guide saw a girl bounce down the steps to her death) or it degrades the site. But we were allowed up. Going up 65 steps wasn’t bad, easy actually. Coming down wasn’t quite so easy – the vertiginous effect makes you doubt your ability to balance, but after a slow start and learning to walk diagonally it was OK. Plus they say only the top 2 tiers of 5 is now visible above ground, so let’s give thanks for that!

Bouncy bouncy down the steps

Bouncy bouncy down the steps

We also visited the nearby site of Kabbah. Much smaller but another set of fine buildings, one of which would have had 240 Cha’ac images adorning its facade (sadly only about 20 have been restored). There was a straight road between Uxmal and Kabbah, a remaining arch is located nearby indicating the start of it – they think Uxmal controlled a number of satellites like it).

Cha'ac Sculptures

Cha’ac Sculptures

Final stop was for lunch. Number 1 Sopa de Lima!! Also had pollo pibil which is the chicken version of the traditional cochinita pibil – pork cooked underground in a recado of sour organges and achiote. Its the region’s most famous dish and pork is the main source of protein for Yucatecans. In Maya, pib means a hole in the ground, and cooking al pibil is a technique that has been in use for centuries in the region, to cook all kinds of meat underground, wrapped in banana leaves.

 

Daze of the Dead

Jim woke up a new man following our Day of the Dead celebrations. Hair. Gone. It seems he’d managed to stay up until 1 or 2 am and shave it all off.

I was having an almost literal Day of the Dead, reading and snoozing most of the day away. Lazy bones.

Daze of the Dead

Good day to research next steps and make some bookings.

Ventured out in the evening to eat at El Trapiche. I’m still on my ‘Sopa de Lima’ Tour of México, so that did me with some Panuchos. Jim had a burrito. £15 with 3 beers. Not toooooo bad. Sopa de Lima rating = 3 out of 5. Not as good as La Chaya Maya.

We walked out to Paseo de Monteja for a look. Took a while to find it, you’d think technology would help rather than hinder but Jim’s google maps download was upside down and had no street numbers. Gah! Regardless, obviously a lovely big boulevard with incredible huge mansions in various states of repair. Most beautiful was Museo Regional de Antropología. Extremely quiet on the road, just a few traffic wardens and couple of tourists.
Paseo de Monteja Building

Home on Paseo de Monteja
Sunday we wandered to Zocalo to see the market that pops up. Various stalls selling Mayan stuff, hats, jewellery, etc. Particularly enjoyed the single guy with amp and mike in the centre of the square, giving us a rendition of.. something. “Mex Factor”.
Jim bought me a cow horn ring for 20 pesos (about a quid, and the asking price) and then felt terribly guilty about how much work had gone into it and that a pound couldn’t nearly be enough.
We laughed at a paint shop blaring out dance tracks. There’s an interesting marketing technique in Mexico where any and all shops place a massive speaker right in the doorway, facing out to the street, and play their music as loud as possible. Waldos on Calle 61 is a clear winner in the volume stakes. Jim joked about the paint shop being

…the new purple turtle, but now available in a rainbow of colours

 

We sat a while in la Plaza Grande and were approached by some teenagers who wanted to practice their english. They filmed us as they each took turns to stand in front of us and ask questions like ‘How long are you in Mexico?’, ‘What do you think of our city and culture?’, ‘Where do you live?’, ‘What is your culture?’ etc. We finished by waving into the camera and saying hi to their teacher Jessica. We wandered off and they came and found us again for a group photo. Aw, cute. Imagine we’ll be having to do that when we do our Spanish course in Guatemala!

By the way, what is our culture? We both described the melting pot of other cultures in London as a response to this. Cop out?

Returned later that night and found a large group dancing to traditional music, mostly the older crowd. Promptly finished at 8 and they started to disperse and wander home.

Looks like night of the living dead….

Still no public drinking or smoking, just traditional music and good, honest fun. Very endearing.

 

El Dia de los Muertos in Mérida

First off, let’s just appreciate how amazing it is to go down to your hotel reception and say “Can we keep the room for an extra night?”. We’re taking our time. Ain’t life grand.

Popped to Zocalo Tourist Office to get a free walking tour of the square at 09.30.

Plaza Grande is an interesting place. Even when there is no event hosted, the park is full of people parambulating, sitting, talking with friends. It makes Mérida feel small and personal, if centred there, with a sense of heart and community – even though Mérida is large and sprawling. Mérida’s oldest buildings surround the square so its a great free tour to hear the history and look around inside.

Very interesting, Spanish dismantled 4 great pyramids and used their stone to create the typical Colonial city (Cathedral, Squares, Casas etc). 3 Spanish dudes (Father, Son and Nephew)  from the de Montejo family took control over much of Yucatan. A section of the very ornate Casa de Montejo faces the Zocalo.

What made this auspicious timing for a tour were the altars set up for each region of Yucatan (and some regional businesses too!) on the Plaza Grande. Our Mayan guide (Pool Schmool was his name, as far as we could make out. “Poo like poo”, he says.) explained that each altar is for a particular person and features all the things they loved, including vices like smoking. There were a lot of traditional foods (pibil, pork or chicken baked in banana leaf underground with herbs/spices; mayan drink made from honey, tortillas etc), ladies making tortillas, toys and sweets for the children (the 31st is the Day of Angels – the children) and lots of orange marigolds and incense. Everyone was heartbreakingly proud of their altar and happy to explain and demonstrate.

2014-10-31 16.16.14

IMG_20141031_161747

Altar 3 Merida

The altars continue all the way along Calle 64 to La Ermita Plaza.

We created our own altar that evening, with everything we love. #proud.

Altar 4 Merida - Jim's

A lot of the ladies wear traditional Mayan “huipil” dress, a white cotton dress adorned with bright, flowery embroidery – even on non-festival days.

Huipil and Tortilla

We watched some traditional dancing (the ladies resplendent in said dress) at La Ermita Plaza in the evening as part of the el Dia de los Muertos festivities.

Day of the Dead Dancers

They danced with bottles balanced on their heads, and then entire trays with 2 candles and whiskey glasses (as well as said bottle).

We wandered back to the centre of town expecting debauchery but the streets were surprisingly quiet in the centre. The festival, and Mexicans generally, seem to be extremely respectful. No drinking or smoking (at least not on the street), just enjoying simple entertainment and taking pride in their local culture. I imagine its the visitors that party hard.

 

Favourite moments of the day:

Lunch. We tried Cocina Economica Lucy for el menu del dia (fried chicken, rice and salad.. with amazing habanero sauce). Love the idea, they are like your local cafe – home-cooked cheap food, usually by a couple of women, open during the day (lunchtime) using whatever is fresh that day to create a few different dishes. I’ve seen others go in a fill up tupperware, maybe to feed the family at home.
At the festival, I needed the loo (we’d drunk lots of beers before venturing out). Jim – not knowing the spanish for ‘toilet’ – went to talk to some dude in a doorway, at some length, before the guy pointed in the direction of ‘banos’.
Jim recounted that this took so long he had very nearly resorted to the international sign language for “shit”. I’ll let you ponder that. Had me laughing.

 

 

Mack, Sack and Craic

Managed to catch the right bus, this time, to the town of Merida. Absolutely pouring, good day for bus journey. REALLY boring though, long motorway flanked either side by dense green vegetation.

Went straight in for some Yucatecan specialities… Sopa de Lima (Lime soup) at La Chaya Maya is an immediate fav. Lovely restaurant; there are two, we were in the new one set around a central courtyard.

Next day we woke up to this.. view from Hotel Dolores Alba in Merida at dawn.

2014-10-30 12.24.22

Also the dawn of this blog. Yessss… it HAS taken a while since to actually start blogging. Our wi-fi issues increased when our hotel started to fill up as we neared el Dia de los Muertos, and we have (unsuccessfully) been trying to think of a good domain name.

Initially I chose jimily.org, but once committed we realised it was a bit twee. My parents house is called ‘Linzel’, which I always thought must have been a naff portmanteau of Lin and Hazel, or Linzi and Manuel, or something. And here I am creating a blog called ‘Jimily’. But its endearing to be given a collective noun by your mates, so why not?

Other non-starters were:

  •  macksackandcraic (but too Jim oriented)
  • Iquit.job
  • masmasmas
  • ojorojo
  • alpackinglight
  • ancientruins
  • gringostars
  • etc

…. there’s a pun somewhere.

Pretty chilled the rest of the day. Wandered out along Merida’s cracked and crumbling streets for a nose around after breakfast. Very near Zocalo main square, with its cute little love seats (see us show you how it’s done below), groups of men were setting up thatched stalls for el Dia de los Muertos, massive queues for the bank, lots of people milling around busying themselves or chilling in the shade.

2014-11-02 17.34.57

Had a hang around the pool, then went to Lucas de Galbez market to find some lunch. I guess you’d describe it as a ‘people run’ – massive, undercover, with narrow walkways…you get picked up by the crowd shuffling through and deposited the other side. Found a decent street taco stall, two each with a large bottle of coke for 40 pesos (about £2). Loving the habanero sauce, lime and radish accompaniment. Watched everyone buzzing around – cooking, walking, running, carrying, talking. Lots of flies buzzing around too on the sweets and treats being sold. People, signs, stalls, wares, cars, police, whistles, smells of damp or sewers or sweets or perfumes.. or all of them together! Pretty damn hectic.

Bought some snacks and traditional “el pan de muerto cake to bring back. Cake smelt like cheese so we didn’t eat that. Think its actually egg.

During the afternoon we discovered, in the course of doing some spanish learning, that Jim has an amazing French vocabulary he didn’t realise he was harbouring all these years; “merci”, “pourquois”, “a quelle heure” etc are all making a comeback. We’re also a bit unsure of the usage of ‘seniorita’ as opposed to ‘señora’… so we imagine Jim is calling everyone ‘gal’… “alright gal”, “thanks gal”, “very good gal”. The first cockney Espanol.

Walked out again in the evening and found Los Trompos (on street where photo below was taken), sort of fast-food but cheap. Each time we buy dinner its getting roughly 20% cheaper as we work out how to stick to a backpacker budget. Checked out a Mayan pub afterwards, nice garden where locals were drinking.
.. street at night.

.. street at night.

On the Blog

Le blog has arrived! We’re a bit late, we’ve been quite busy.
We only decided 5 weeks ago to come travelling. And over that five weeks we have discovered:

  1. 5 weeks isn’t enough unless one of you is not working
  2. Google becomes your closest confidante and advisor, it (well a cacophony of travel bloggers) can tell you what the best sleeping bag liners are, what visas you need, what to do about bed bugs, that thrush cream should be purchased “just in case”, typical itineraries.. or simply mire you in confusion about whether you’ll need a sleeping bag, trainers vs hiking boots for Machu Picchu, how important malaria tablets are, whether you need a mosquito net…  the tributary comments roar in a torrent of debate for a while then meander through estuaries and out into the big blue sea of no resolution. To be honest, I’m looking forward to actually talking to people, or simply finding out, whilst on the move… rather than begin a new job as an internet researcher trying to understand the big blue.
  3. You’ll spend approximately 5x your boyf’s budget on gear
  4. You’ll be totes emosh saying “goodbye” to family (along with your sentimental trinkets) and friends
  5. The closer leaving gets, the more vivid & strange your dreams will be – and yet frankly dull at the same time (“that backpacker nicked my sarong!”, “My storage doesn’t let me store frozen goods?! Are you kidding?” etc)
  6. You basically have no idea what you’re doing.

And look, this blog is probably not going to conjure up any inspiration to travel in whoever reads it, it won’t contain any insights that haven’t been documented by thousands of internet voices before us, but that’s not the point of the journey or the blog. Although, in an effort to afford trite nonsense I have ordered Jim to serve up one funny morcel each day. Its one man’s quest against the banal.

So, on our first day travelling, I had two immediate and stark reminders of why this is important to me and what I’m hoping to gain from this experience.

The first reminder was a massive attachment to my stuff in storage. Well, not exactly to my stuff – I woke up at 4.30am in a panic about what I’d left in my boxes that might explode (pressurised gas canisters etc) – but not because it might ruin my things, rather it might ruin others’ belongings and my insurance would be invalidated, plunging me into massive personal liability debt. I could not detach from my contrivance. Thankfully a flight to another country gives you some perspective i.e. you stop thinking about it. Que sera.

And therein lies the first point, perspective. Living life from just what’s on your back, I expect, is quite liberating in terms of properly assigning importance to things.

Me and the Pack

Me and the Pack

And when we arrived into Cancun it was total amateur night.

  • Missed the bus we booked a ticket for because we couldn’t find the departure platform >>
  • Got soaked in a massive downpour >>
  • Paid a taxi to go about 50 meters >>
  • Asked hotel (Hotel el Rey del Caribe) for a food recommendation (OK, it was nice but far too expensive for backpackers)>>
  • Succumbed to a mariachi band (“Mexicanismo 2000”, no less) >>
.. with no espanol (yet) its basically confusing and bewildering. And so to the second point… isn’t that amazing? The not knowing if you’re in the right place, on the right bus, walking in the right direction, tipping the waiter the right money, massively insulting people… how can that not make you less insular, more open, more free to take a chance and “see what happens” (a philosophy that’s anathema to my product manager self in London)?

We’ll see.