It's lonely being the only Australians in Cancun.
Hello friends and fellow travellers
Go Aussie!!! What an exciting result in the world cup for Australia! Shelly and I got up early to watch the Australia v Japan game here in Playa del Carmen on the Maya Riviera. It seems we may be the only Aussie’s here as we were the only non-Mexicans in the sports bar-restaurant-cafe. There are a lot of Americans and Scandinavians here. The game was televised on ESPN, an American sports channel, so we were forced to listen to American commentary. When they weren’t crapping on about the American team and how they were gonna whip ass, they were pretty much writing off the Aussies - "Oh Shep," real name "the Ossies don’t seem to be showing any inspiration in this game." "That’s right Glen, their midfield has been feeble and seem to be just going through the motions. Unless the Ossies can perform some kinda miracle here it looks like it’s Japan’s game." You can understand our delight (and relief) when the Socceroos pulled out those three magnificent goals in the last ten minutes. Strangely the commentators went all quiet about that time (Í was also secretly and smugly delighted when the US was trounced by the Czechs).
Cancun - Americans don’t dance
Well, last time we left you we were in Guatemala and heading into the deepest darkest jungles of Honduras to visit the lost Mayan city of Copan for Shelly’s birthday. Actually, we didn’t really go to Honduras. After many tears (on my part) we opted to go to Cancun in Mexico. For those of you who don’t know, Cancun is situated on the far north east tip of the Yucatan peninsula, directly south of Florida in the USA. It is well into the tropics and has year round summer sunshine, beautiful whiter than white sand beaches and the most incredibly aquamarine blue water (sorry fellow West Australians, although we have beautiful sandy beaches at home they just don’t compare to Cancun). Because of its location Cancun is EXTREMELY popular with US holiday makers who go there in their thousands. We stepped off our tiny plane from Guatemala City (number of passengers = 26) into a veritable tidal wave of American tourists, all talking loudly and dragging ten thousand pieces of luggage with them (my god, some people had 3 of those huge wheelie suitcases EACH. How many outfits do you need for a 7 day package holiday???????). We opted to stay away from the beach resorts and the Americans, opting for the cheaper, more Mexican alternative of downtown. It was only a short bus right (5 minutes @ 0.30c) to the hotel zone and beaches.
Cancun was badly smashed up by the hurricane that destroyed New Orleans. More than half the hotels and resorts have been completely destroyed. It was amazing to see these places fenced off and in ruins. The beaches however have been restored (apparently most of Cancun’s sand was swept down the coast to Playa del Carmen where it created sand banks some three metres high. At cost of many millions of dollars the sand was removed from Playa and returned to Cancun.
Cancun is rightly famous as a party town. It is EXTREMELY popular with American college students who come here in their millions to enjoy underage drinking, sand, sun and sex, so we were expecting to see a good deal of nightlife, even though it was low season. The first night we did a bit of a bar crawl through the hotel zone. Apart from a few girls happy to flash their boobs on request and a lot of tequila being drunk, it was mostly a pretty quiet night. The second night, Shelly’s birthday, we intended to hit the clubs. After scouting the scene we settled on Dady-O´s, apparently a legendary place in Cancun (but don’t all these sort of places claim to be legendary?). We settled into the upstairs bar to watch the action on the dance floor. Most of the night the music was US hip hop kinda stuff, i.e., Nelly, 50 Cent, etc; nothing particularly original or exciting there. The first thing we noticed was the number of girls from the audience ¨performing¨ on the podiums around the dance floor. Pole dancing moves seem to be very popular and the girls were quite explicit and quickly surrounded by young men who gathered around them to stare, occasionally trying to pull the girls down to the dance floor. Most of the girls though were not interested in the boys’ advances but seemed to simply relish the attention their ¨dancing¨ drew. The club’s approach to the girls seemed odd, they periodically gave bottles of champagne to the most outrageous, but just as often the bouncers were telling the same girls to get off the podium.
On the dance floor there was no less interesting action. Soon after we settled in we noticed a couple of girls bent over the tables and seats that surrounded the dance floor. Young guys were rubbing up behind them in a very explicit imitation of another activity altogether. At first I thought this was simply a couple of overt exhibitionists, but as we continued to observe the dance floor it became apparent that this is the latest style of dancing for the American college set. The dance goes something like this - groups of boys dance together (i.e., doing the shambolic shuffle) and groups of girls dance together (i.e., energetic shaking of the booty). Boy grabs girl and spins her around so she is facing away from him, girl backs into boy and shakes ass like a ho in a 50 Cent video, boy grips girl’s hips and pulls her to his groin. Boy and girl do this until conclusion of the song and then separate back to their groups. There are a few variations on this theme - multiple girls can all back into each other to form a chain; if a girl is really energetic she can bend right over and put her hands on her knees and shake her ass; if she is really, really energetic she can bend right over nearby furniture or even place her hands on the ground; if she is really, really, really energetic and wants to put on a real show she can lie the boy on the ground and then mount him on the floor. There is NO face to face dancing.
Now you might think I am kind of exaggerating a bit about this, as I am often prone to do. But honestly, these kids seemed not to recognise face to face dancing. On the couple of times Shelly and I ventured onto the dance floor (it was a risky business I can assure you) we danced properly and face to face and Shelly was alarmed and surprised to find herself being grabbed from behind. Each of the young guys who did seemed genuinely shocked that Shelly was already dancing and partnered (either that or my dance moves were simply so awful they thought Shelly needed to be rescued!).
Now there is nothing wrong with getting jiggy wid it on da dance floor. I am partial to a bit of dirty dancing myself, as we all are, but to us there seemed to be something of a darker undercurrent to all this overt sexualised ¨dancing¨. Be it from the way the boys sexualised the girls, who did all the movement while all the boys had to do was hold on; some held them by the hips, but there was also the around the throat hold that I found particularly offensive. Then there was the group mentality; one guy dancing overtly with a girl while his posse all stood round and stared; if a girl needed help bending right over you could always call on the posse to help hold her down. Given the endemic levels of sexual violence, abuse and rape that occurs in the US college system, seeing it imitated here was rather disturbing. This is not to say that the boys drove all those bizarre behaviour, in some respects they were passive to the actions of the girls (but they certainly had expectations that the girls MUST do certain things). The way the girls strove furiously to out compete each other for sluttiness was also a little worrying. I think now I understand a lot more about hip hop music and the anti-songs, like Pink’s Stupid Girl.
Merida - Where you from my friend?
Two days in Cancun was about enough for us so we caught a bus to Merida on the west coast of the Yucatan peninsula. Merida is the state capital of Yucatan and a much older city than the newly created Cancun. There were few American tourists here, although lots of Scandinavians and other Europeans. We stayed at this very 1950´s style hotel on the outskirts of the centro historico. It was cheap and rather cool, although none of the staff could speak any English. Merida was very pleasant and charming and we stayed 3 days, which is a lot for us. Oddly Merida was the only place we encountered annoying touts who would come up to you in the centre square or on the streets. They always tried to engage you in an innocuous conversation before trying to lead you to their cousins shop (is Maya market today, only once a month is open and is closing in 15 minutes. Come with me I show you). Last time we had heard those time honoured tout lines was in Egypt. Their presence was annoying as they grabbed you whenever you were trying to relax or take a photo or otherwise just enjoy yourself.
From Merida we did a couple of day trips, first to the Mayan city of Uxmal (pronounced ooshmal). Although only an hour out of Merida the place was almost empty, except for a smattering of Scandinavian tourists - all young girls surprisingly - a couple of loud Americans, and about a millions iguanas. We saw the first iguana scampering into the ruins shortly after we entered the park. It was only a little one, about 30 centimetres, so we pursued it and took about half a dozen photos. No sooner had we taken two steps than there was a second, bigger one, then another, then another, then another, each bigger than the others. The largest were about a metre in length (or would have been had their tails been intact - seems tail cannibalism is fairly popular amongst the iguana population). Uxmal, although a famous and important ruin, seems to get so few visitors that there is a large wild animal population. The air buzzed with insects - beetles, multi-coloured butterflies and, more disturbingly, mosquitos. Feeding on them were thousands and thousands of birds. I found all this wildness added to the atmosphere of the place, but Shelly felt creeped out, especially by the iguanas.
The next day we took an organised tour to Celestun, a tiny fishing village by a mangrove swamp. Sounds appealing right? It was. The town was as exciting as it sounds, but then that’s not why people come here. The mangroves are home to a massive flamingo colony and Shelly was hanging out to see the flamingos. The flamingos, when we finally saw them, presented an impressive sight. They are just so impossibly pink. They are also very, very noisy and argumentative, fighting with each other constantly. Apart from the flamingos the tour had only one other incident worthy of note, which we call the “Nipple Incident.”
There were only 9 people on the tour, mostly young (like ourselves!) except for an older Belgian couple that were quite frankly weird. They were about 50ish and the woman looked like an old hippy and she was prone to making quite strange statements. After the flamingos we went deeper into the mangrove to a freshwater spring where you can go swimming. The fresh water created this rather attractive blue pool, which looked very attractive but no one decided to go in, except the Belgian lady. So we all waited and waited while she swam and soon the whole group was back waiting at the dock. The tour guide called VAMOS and it was time to move. The lady climbed up the ladder to the dock and oops, well, her nipple was poking out of her top. Everybody on the boat saw it and we all kind of embarrassedly looked the other way and chatted amongst ourselves. But that didn’t stop her. She came over to us (we were unfortunately standing near her bag) and she told us the water was really nice – nipple still out. Doody doody doo, we all go, yes that’s great. So she towels herself off and, well, now her boob was pretty much all hanging out. Doody doody do, we all go, hmmm, let’s look over here at this interesting thing at the other side of the dock. So her husband goes over to speak to her and we’re all thinking he’s gotta say something, I mean, her boob is hanging right out, he can’t miss it! They stand there chatting away in Belgian for a few minutes and he says nothing. Then captain says get in the boat and we all hurry past her thinking, she’ll realise in a second. But NO! Three minutes later she walks down the dock and climbs into the boat with the boob still hanging out, and we’re all going doody doody doo, hmm, look at that interesting thing over there and trying to look the other way. The boat ride back to Celestun was about 15 minutes and I swear no one dared look around at her until we all got off. Thankfully by then she had put her T-shirt on.
Down and Out
Early the next morning we bought a ticket to Chitchen Itza, the premier archaeological attraction of the Yucatan. This amazing Mayan city ruin boasts the largest ball court in Mesoamerica and an astonishing amount of sculpture in situ. Every culture in history has developed its own particular sports, but there really has been no game like the Mesoamerican ball game. It was played in an “I” shaped court with high sloping walls that the ball could be bounced against. Scoring was by getting the rubber ball (about as big as a soccer ball) through a small stone hoop mounted high up on the side of the wall or by landing the ball on a stone circle in the centre of the court (rules appear to have differed in different places). Teams of 6 or 7 players used their elbows, knees and hips to move the ball. Every city had many courts and at least one ceremonial court. The most interesting thing about the game is that it involved human sacrifice. No red cards in this game, players were decapitated at the end of the game. But which players?? Unfortunately no one knows. Some reasoned that it was the captain of the winning team who was sacrificed, or perhaps the whole team; others reasoned the losing team; still others believe the score determined the number of predetermined sacrificial victims to be killed. All along the sides of the court at Chitchen Itza are sculpted friezes showing the game being played, the teams in ceremonial gear, and the decapitation of players, including blood squirting from the players severed neck (in the form of snakes). It is quite grotesque.
Chitchen Itza was fairly magnificent, but it was also an abject lessen in what happens when a popular archaeological site it situated close to a very popular tourist resort. The city, although huge, was filled with many hundreds of tourists and hawkers. Also, because of the numbers of tourists all the monuments were fenced off and you could not climb the temples or pyramids. This was especially disappointing because the best sculptures are usually placed at the tops of the temples. It was also a stinking hot day and there was no shade, despite the jungle and, frankly after all the jungle ruins we had seen on this trip we were all ‘ruined’ out.
We travelled that afternoon to Campeche - the pirate city at the bottom of the Yucatan. Actually pirate city is not the right term as the city was not founded by pirates but burnt to the ground by pirates on three separate occasions. The Spanish eventually enclosed the city in an enormous fortification and this is what makes the town so interesting today. We arrived at dusk after a four hour bus ride and took a quick walk around to see the sunset. The town had a lovely relaxed ¨seaside town¨ atmosphere that was very different to anything else in Mexico. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to stay very long as there was only one departure a day for our next destination - Chetumel - but Campeche was small enough to see in one very busy day.
Belize - the dark 'art o da Caribbean
It was another six hour bus ride to Chetumel across a fairly tedious landscape (low secondary jungle, dead flat). Chetumel was not our destination though as Chetumel can be fairly described as a shithole. There is nothing to see or do there (maybe I’m being a little harsh). The original city was completely destroyed by a hurricane in the 1960´s and was replaced with a non-descript, centre-less suburban sprawl. Our real destination was Belize - an English speaking commonwealth country in the heart of the Spanish speaking Central America. Unfortunately, we arrived an hour after the last bus to Belize had left so we were stuck for the night. Luckily we got ourselves a room with cable TV as there was nothing happening in the ¨city¨ (very strange room with the TV enclosed behind an iron cage - obviously a few previous guests stole more than just the towels).
Belize truly was a pirate nation. The area was originally settled by English and French buccaneers who hid amongst the cayes, reefs and sandbanks of the Belize coasts waiting to prey upon the silver laden Spanish galleons that departed from nearby Panama City. It then became the crown colony of British Honduras before gaining independence in the 1960´s and changing its name. Belize is very popular with backpacker set looking for the laidback Caribbean experience.
It’s also, as we found, a bit of a dive. The first sentence of the official Belize City tourism website says something like ¨Please don’t believe all the terrible things you may have heard about Belize City. It isn’t that bad really.¨ We certainly didn’t stick around to find out. It was a desolate run down place of dirt roads and wooden houses. We caught a taxi from the bus station to the ferry terminal. It was only a couple of blocks but apparently even that short distance isn’t safe to walk. A quick word about the bus trip. For those of you who saw the picture of the chicken bus in Guatemala, well, in Belize this is called an international luxury coach. From what we can tell, all the buses are old US school buses (some still in their original paint job). These were sold to Mexico in the 1960s, who then sold them to Guatemala in the 1980s, who then sold them to Belize who knows when. The four hour ride from Chetumel to Belize City was certainly an experience.
We had to wait at the ferry terminal for an hour for the next water taxi to the islands. I thought I might step outside of the terminal for a moment to see what I could see. I was immediately grabbed by a Rasta who offered to sell me some ganja so I could have a good time on the island. I thanked him and said no, he then asked me for money. When I said I didn’t have any Belize dollars on me he told me he would take me to a shop where they could change whatever I had into Belize dollars so I could give them to him. As attractive as this offer was I had to say no and he got really shitty tellin´me I was a real harsh white man. Yeah, you get that.
Caye Caulker was a thin strip of sand no more than about 100 metres wide at its narrowest point. It is the place all the backpackers go and where you can do lots of snorkelling and diving trips. It was quite badly damaged by the hurricane that took out New Orleans (plus many earlier ones too) but even so it appeared fairly run down. The accommodation was quite basic; a lot like the wood and asbestos shacks that people built in Mandurah and Moore River in the late 1960s. There were no cars on the island, which was good; everybody walked or drove golf buggies. Most disappointingly there was no beach on the island. What little beach there had been had been washed away. That kind of decided us - why stay on a Caribbean island with no beach? We would leave the next day and go to Playa where we know there are great beaches. That night we went to the only real bar in town and drank beer and rum with the tourists and locals. It was karaoke night and there were some good singers. I wanted to sing ¨Somewhere, across the sea.¨ but the dude didn’t know that song ¨You have to do bettar dan dat man!¨ Oh well. You may be interested to know also that Belize men, although black, do not seem to have been excessively blessed with rhythm. They did the shambolic shuffle just like the best white dudes. Must have been something to do with the English.
So it was a travelling day, one hour on the boat, four hours on the school bus from Belize City to Chetumel and then another four hours to Playa. Playa is heavenly. Great beaches, great shops (better than Cancun), great nightlife. We’ve been here three nights now but we’re unable to sit still. Tomorrow (14 June) we’re off to Cuba, and then we’ll be flying back to Cancun and on to New York. Sadly, it looks like it’s almost over now. It has been a great trip though. We’ve seen and done a lot.
See you all very soon - quite literally.
Shelly and Paul