Chapter 8 - Mexico

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Maluma -  Carnaval

07.04.15 - Valladolid, Mexico

I literally had to double check to make sure this really is 2015. Talk about feeling detached. 
          We are currently in Valladolid. Our fourth stop in Mexico. The first was Cancun, which was every bit as advertised; a touristy party town with great malls, expensive restaurants and the whitest, longest beaches on the planet. We lived in the local part though, and it took us half an hour to get to the beach every day. In each place we go, we fall into a certain routine to match that specific place. In Mexico our working hours are pretty much normal since US EST time is only one hour behind us. So in Cancun we'd be working in our cavelike Airbnb, positioned in the middle of nothing but dirty, local food shops (calling them restaurants would be insulting towards the service industry), all day. Then on the way out to catch a bus we'd check if the pastry guy next door was baking. I think he was distributing to restaurants and other businesses, but if you caught him in his baking hours you could get steaming fresh croissants. On the bus to the beach we'd listen to audio books - psychology themed on my part. Then we'd be on the beach, go pee in a mall and otherwise search for those infamous beach parties. With few exeptions there didn't seem to be much happening. Getting off of the beach was a huge hassle, as walking through the hotels to get back on the main road was impossible. When we tried, we didn't even make it halfway to the lobby before being politely escorted back to the beachside. At night, the party district lit up and it was easy to see where all the spring breakers spent their evenings. The extraordinary nightclub "CoCo Bongo", owned by Jim Carrey himself, had "The Mask" dressed street performers lining the streets, selling tickets and charging tourists for pictures. We never went to a club in the party district. We didn't even go to a restaurant. Actually, we stuck to the food shops back home throughout our stay. Especially since we'd been hugely overcharged by accident for our Airbnb, we didn't really feel like paying for western comfort and cheap bar food, served from expensive looking menus with an actual design. Ordering something written on a piece of cardboard with awkward capital letters tend to be 10% of the price. What else is there to say about Cancun... It wasn't a great first impression of Mexico, that's for sure. 

Second stop was Playa Del Carmen. This turned out to be where the real parties and vacation atmosphere was hiding. It seemed all the non-spring-breakers had decided to skip the anticipated chaos in Cancun and headed to this neighbouring resort town instead. Playa was very touristy too, but actually pretty comfortably so. It has that air of holiday spirit without too much of the commercialized bullshit. It was easily walkable, there was a Wallmart (it's always hard to find big grocery stores), we lived right next to the beach and it had three Starbucks to choose from to work in (no - we don't like Starbucks. But they tend to have wifi...). That's pretty much all a digital nomad needs in life. Now in Playa, our routine was as follows: Getting up from each our narrow, sterile hostel bed, we'd attempt not to wake up the only other guy in the 10 person dorm - a specimen looking somewhat like a caveman and somewhat like a serial killer, sleeping all day, every day, scowling whenever he was awake and hiding in a cave he had made out of bed linen around his bunk. It seemed he lived permanently in the hostel. In the kitchen - which had a bowl of cold water, house cleaning soap and a cloth instead of dish washing amenities - we'd make our toast with avocado and tomato + half a grapefruit. We'd work in Starbucks, go to the beach and then walk around, searching for one or another restaurant which we'd looked up on Yelp and wanted to go to. It was a pretty nice routine. With exception of the days when the wifi was crapping out everywhere and we had to work at home in the hostel, that is. See - this hostel had decided it was a good idea to keep roosters in the yard, right outside the dorms and next to the tables. Three roosters to be precise. Alex grew a tad more bit bitter for every time he'd been in a meeting or on call and people suddenly asked "is that... a rooster?". The roosters also seemed to have a very confused perception as to what's night and day, but then again roosters are still a model 1.0, designed to make loud noises at the sight of any light, as they were engineered before artificial light.

          It was Alex's birthday the weekend we arrived in Playa and we celebrated all weekend. First, we went to our very first cenote - an underground sinkhole of the kind that forms only in middle America. It was a really hardcore one, we learned later. With a guide and wearing wet suits we dived into the water of this unlit underground cenote, experiencing the wonders of this exceptional natural phenomena. Basically we were swimming around in bottomless clear water, looking up at the beautiful ceilings of the cave system. Our guide was an adventurous one and we were a tour-group of nothing but young people, so we got more than what we'd paid for...
         The guide placed (our) flash light on the cave-floor at the other side of an underwater tunnel and then resurfaced in the little cave we were all floating around in, carefully avoiding the long limestone formations hovering inches over our heads. Then he explained to us how all we needed to do was hold our breath, dive down towards the light and come back up when we were right above it. If we tried to resurface before making it all the way to the light we'd crash with the sharp formations in the roof of the tunnel... But the dive would lead us to a "secret" room with the a high ceiling and deep pits underneath. As Alex agreed to go first I felt a surge of fear. When the guide came back up after having pushed him into the underwater passage, I was eager to go next, feeling a sensation close to panic at the thought of Alex being on the other side of a dangerous, pointy cave wall. As I dived under, unable to see anything but a blinding light, I moved my legs frantically in an attempt to go straight through the short tunnel without hitting the sharp formations. Only when I was right above the flashlight I let myself float upwards, hoping our guide had put the flash light in the right spot. Breaking the water surface, everything was pitch black. The weak light underneath me was pointing the opposite direction, into the tunnel, and didn't provide much, if any, light to the giant black cave I found myself in. Calling out Alex's name, I could see his dark outline move somewhere, and swam to him as fast as I could. As he caught me I felt like someone had poured a bucket of hot water over my head and everything was OK again. Kissing his lips we both laughed out in relief. As I looked around me, I was about to ask Alex to turn on our flashlight when I realized we didn't have one. I couldn't see the ceiling, I couldn't see the bottom beneath us and I couldn't see any other walls than a slightly rounded one behind us. The low light from our emerging point only allowed us to see the contours of a few formations around us, everything else was bathed in impenetrable darkness.  

          "Just pretend it's just you an me on an adventure."
          I smiled into the ceiling at his words, and let myself float on top of the water, letting go of his arms. We listened to the unbroken silence and felt like we were alone in the world for a minute. As more of our tour group members broke the surface, lights started flashing over the walls, revealing just how gigantic of a cave we were in. And so beautiful. Underneath us, fish that were made for eternal darkness moved away from our moving feet and above us a flock of around 500 sleeping bats were starting to come alive at the sudden flashes of light and bursts of sound.
          We had ceviche for dinner, one of Alex's favorite dishes and a Peruvian one, possibly making up one of the only reasons I am sad to miss out on Peru. The next day we went scuba diving by the reef, accompanied by an elderly British couple and a very old but extremely sparkly French guide. He'd been diving those reefs long before they'd invented a divers vest, back when you had to carry your oxygen in a backpack. The water was clear and warm and the reef was beautiful. Only a sunnier day would've made the colors come a bit more to life. The only misfortune was, that somewhere along the way the little compass charm Alex's parents had given to me slipped away into the colorful underwater world. Maybe some day it will be someone's treasure.

On the day we left Playa del Carmen, Yucatan was seeing the first rain in months. The bright side was we'd made it to the bus station before the first drop fell. The not so bright one was that the storm peaked during our two-hour ride and our second-class bus driver must've been either really drunk or really determined to be ahead of time, because while other busses and cars were pulling to the side of the road, waiting for the worst of the storm to pass, our bus-driver rode so recklessly we were quite seriously considering which sitting position would be the best in case of a crash and where to hold on in case the bus suddenly tipped over.
          When the bus arrived in Tulum it literally took a turn around the entire city in order to hit the back-road leading into the station. This little detour around the whole city took two minutes. Following the instructions our Airbnb host, Nadia, had left us we made our way through the rain - me with my shirt in front of my body, protecting the daypack containing my computer, and Alex with a towel over his head. As we made it to the described house (black gate and jungly garden) we were greeted by a very Scottish guy with a full beard. This other airbnb guest was greeting us since Nadia was DJ'ing on the beach. His name was Colin and he'd grown up in a farmer's village in Scotland, smaller than Tulum. He completely lived up to the stereotype of friendly, smiley and fast-talking and he made our first impression of the house a million times better than it would've otherwise been, because the minute we stepped through the door we were immediately attacked by two very aggressive dogs. Colin managed to calm them down (he repeated this procedure every two minutes for an hour since the dogs kept re-attacking us) and told us they were very nervous, as they were rescue dogs. We would learn later that the two dogs, Max and Nena, were both rescued from an abusive household. Max was mostly the quieter one but had an aversion against tall guys, which didn't make our stay easy for Alex. Nena was so traumatized she never stopped twitching. Even in her sleep her head would bounce rhythmically up and down in a ducking movement while her tail would crunch in towards her stomach. They got used to us (for the most part) after a couple of days, but on that first rainy night, when Colin left and the electricity went out two minutes later, Alex and I quickly barricaded ourselves in our room, which was pretty nice and had a hammock by the way.

          Needless to say we got familiar with the single main street, cutting through the city, in a couple hours. We rented bikes for our stay, as the beach, ruins and cenotes were all bikeable. The ruins weren't too exciting, although closing our eyes and imagining the native Mayan life, which had once played out where we stood, did give us a kick. The beach sucked compared to the ones in Playa del Carmen and Cancun, supposedly due to the storm which had fled the white sand with rotten seaweed. The cenote was cool, open and blue and very, very overrun by tourists, and we quickly realized our first cenote had definitely been for the more daring souls. There was a moment, though, when I glanced down underneath the water surface though my goggles, expecting to see a wall and instead saw an endless deep stretching so far down an underwater hill beneath me that the sunlight couldn't reach the bottom. For a second I felt myself being sucked into it and had an ironic surge of a fear of heights. The extensiveness of the underwater cave was awe-inspiring.

          Tulum is in the middle of the jungle, and although the wifi speed was pretty good, the stability was absolute crap. Both in the local coffee shop and at home the wifi would simply switch off. Not just go on an off, no, it would turn off for hours at a time. Not great for digital nomads. In one very interesting instance, I was sitting in the living room around 10AM in the morning while Alex was working by the desk in our room when the wifi suddenly turned off with a message saying the latest bill had not been paid. In the very quiet house I could easily hear the sound of rapid movement as Alex got up from a chair in our room. A fraction of a second later, he entered the living room with the most ironic smile scattered across his face.
          "Do you know what's fun? It's fun when the FUCKING internet craps out in the middle of an important FUCKING phone call with my internship!" Knowing that Nadia was still asleep, I shushed him and slowly got up, holding my arms out in a calming gesture.
          "Goddamn it!" "FUCK" He hit his arm hard against the wall with a loud bang. Still shushing, I moved towards him, forcing him back into our room and begged him to calm down. Instead he turned towards the door and I only just caught it before he smacked it loudly behind us. I closed the door quietly and said, "Alex, stop screaming, Nadia will hear you"
          "I FUCKING want her to hear me! I could lose my internship because this BITCH didn't pay her FUCKING internet bill!"
          "Alex, she is NOT a bitch and will you please be quiet!"
          "I DON'T FUCKING CARE! I hope she hears me and learns to pay her FUCKING BILLS. She is responsible for us and she's just FUCKING us right in the butt. BITCH!"
          "We'll pack up and go to the coffee shop, all right, stop yelling, let's go". As Alex packed up his computer in the room I packed up mine in the living room as Nadia came out from her room, obviously having just been woken up, looking very confused.
          "What is going on out here?"
          "I think your wifi just dropped out"
          "Is that so bad that he has to run around the house screaming?"
          "I think he was in a very important phone call so he could loose his internship. It's just bad timing really..."
          Nadia went to the bathroom just as Alex came out from the room. I quickly dragged him out of the house, thankful he didn't run into Nadia on the way. Once he calmed down he agreed that calling Nadia a bitch was obviously wrong. He never ever got that angry, but this one time the wifi shutting down had been extremely inconvenient and it was only one event in a series of Mexican-shitty-wifi events. He had just taken it out on Nadia. To his defence she did admit to having paid her bill late. He apologized to her later.
          As if this one event didn't make us unpopular enough, we also managed to flood her toilet (she'd forgotten to tell us not to flush toilet paper), get two noise complaints from the neighbours (It seemed Colin had a habit of slamming doors but we got the blame) and making her deal with a frantic bike-shop owner coming to our house because he'd forgotten to tell us the day we were supposed to return the bikes was an Easter holiday and the shop would be closed. In the end it all worked out, but we were quite happy when we left Nadia's underequipped college-room like house and the small-town-with-more-tourists-than-locals city of Tulum on Good Friday.

At the first sight of Valladolid we were sold. So this was where the real Mexican feel was hiding. Free of tourists and with endless colorful streets and burning sun this is one of our favorite cities. On Saturday we took the ride to Chichen Itza, a Mayan city, which is now one of the 7 wonders of the world. The amount of advantage that was taken of the tourism on the venue almost made us puke, but the giant fortress was awe inspiring and so worth it. In the burning heat, the sound of hissing vendors selling "panther flutes" quickly got old though.

In the middle of the city is a huge cenote. It is open to the public at a very low charge, and entering through a restaurant, Alex and I accidentally got in for free. This one was just a huge open-air pool with lots of protrusions on the high walls, allowing people to jump into the water from great heights. While Alex was "digesting" the taco we'd just eaten, I went for the highest vantage point. It wasn't so much because I was extremely eager to face the 30 feet fall, but because Alex had looked at me with a spark in his eyes saying "do you dare?" As soon as those words were uttered, every trace of fear left my conscience as my brain went into brave-mode, and the fear resigned to the pit of my stomach where I let it simmer around with the taco as I walked determinately towards the point where a few locals took turn looking over the edge - someone occasionally leaping into the blue water after careful consideration and a heavy amount of group pressure.
          Reaching my destination I didn't even take time to look down. I felt the fear swimming around in my body, aching to have some influence on my legs that were rapidly carrying me towards the edge, but I didn't let it. I. Am. Brave. I need to be. Moreover, I need to believe I am. That's why I cannot let myself hesitate for a moment before leaping over the edge, riding the roller coaster, crashing with the waves or facing pain. If even for a second I let myself hesitate, I am afraid my fear will get a hold of me, leaving me to struggle with it for eternity and even keep me from doing certain things.
          It was a lot higher than you'd think from below, I thought to myself as my body fell towards the bluish green water. Usually, when you fall from a high place, you feel a surge in your stomach. But I had never before jumped so far the surge reached all the way up to my throat and then gave way to another surge before I hit the surface. Having jumped straight onto my feet I shot through the surface, feeling how the water slowed me down. By the time I had come to a halt in the water, it was completely dark around me. I started the upwards swim towards the surface. After a few moments I was wondering exactly how far down I had gone - why had I not yet reached the light? I remembered once reading a passage in a book about someone drowning. It said he simply couldn't tell which way was up and just swam around in blindness and panic. I hadn't understood at all, how can you not know which way is up? But for a fraction of a second I really was wondering if I was swimming upwards or not. If I wasn't, I'd run out of oxygen before reaching the surface, even if I turned around. Then the air exploded around me and I regained my hearing as I wiped drops of water out of my eyes, letting my jell-o legs take me towards the only exit from the big pool. From down there the cliff looked just as high as it had from up there.

29.04.15 - Isla de Cozumel, Mexico

God, I'm so hungry. I've begun a new interesting regimen, one of needing progress. Or something. I have been tracking every penny we've spent for this whole trip, and I've written a note for every single day (both on my phone and in a written notebook). These days I also keep track of what I eat, because I've decided I want to be healthy. I really mean it when I say it is because I want to be healthy - I can feel the urge to lose weight somewhere in my motivation, but it feels very much like a conscious decision, and my conscious brain just wants a healthy body.
          The past few weeks have been very very productive. Merida was a huge disappointment. We'd heard all sorts of good things about it, so we had booked accommodation there for two weeks, expecting something like Chiang Mai or Santiago - an active expat community and a lot going on. Instead it was an exhaustingly large version of Valladolid. Endless similar streets with pretty yet worn down buildings and absolutely nothing going on except in the tourist center, which we mostly stayed out of. We have developed this theory about Mexico - that Mexican culture is a sort of kliché culture in which everything is too bold and not very elegant. For example, French culture is very sophisticated with an experimental and balanced cuisine, a general open-mindedness, a productive population and a flawless sense of fashion. On the contrary, Mexico has a lazy government, zero sense of fashion (unless rainbow colors and glitter ever becomes fashionable), a cuisine based off of bread, pork and a lot of spices in different combinations and close to no initiative when it comes to business planning, transportation and general efficiency. The buildings and roads are deteriorating and tourists are taken advantage of to the point of harassment in a desperate attempt from the locals to keep money coming when the government seems to have forgotten how to do so.
          In the longer run this kind of culture is very frustrating to exist within. At least when you didn't grow up with it. In Merida we would walk the endless streets only to find a city square in which every single local is screaming at you in broken English in an attempt to squeeze every last penny out of the "gringos". In spite of this fact, we would walk the 30 minutes to city center only to at least see something, SOME change of scenery. Because little was going on 12 streets from center where we lived.
          In the end, what saved our stay in Merida was a vegan restaurant. This venue, situated in a beautiful courtyard full of palm trees and candles, had a new menu each night; always with a new theme and always vegan. Out of 13 nights in Merida we went there 5 times and each got a half-sized menu (with 4 courses and a drink included, half size was plenty for me) of their mediterranean, raw, indian, mexican and simply "green" themed delicious dishes. At 80-100 pesos (around 7 dollars) for the 4 courses plus drink, this place blew us away completely. If you ever go to Merida, seriously, visit "Lo Que Hay!" - don't let the fact that you have to ring a bell to enter scare you off - it just makes it more secret!

          The only other thing keeping us sane was our daytrips to surrounding cities. The yellow city of "Izamal" had Mayan ruins strewn all across it, and you were allowed to climb them unlike the popular ones in Tulum and Chichen Itza. Our stay there was a bit short though, as we had to give in to the heat and make our way back home to our air-conditioned room before we passed out. "Progresso" was an hour bus ride away with an extremely cheap local bus company and it had a beach. The beach was originally the only reason we went there for a daytrip, but when we arrived we realized we had landed in vacation heaven for Mexicans - this was the place where all the locals went on holiday. As a result it was an authentic feeling vacation city with a beautiful stretch of beach. What really made it awesome though, was the large amount of street stands selling alcoholic drinks like margaritas and Michaladas and the fact that it seemed to be legal to drink these beverages on the beach and in the streets. The day we got there was apparently the date for the "Corona Sunset Party" which meant you only had to buy 2 beers and then you'd gain access to a concert venue where DJ's played in the light of the sunset and people dressed from top to toe in Corona merchandise were advertising the beer brand on their very low cut t-shirts. It was the first real beach party we'd seen in Mexico.

          So, Merida was really where our "productive" regimen started. With too high temperatures and a city with nothing to do, we sought shelter in the local Starbucks (located an excruciating half hour walk away from our house) where I read psychology books and worked my translation job while Alex worked his online research job and his internship as a digital marketer. At the end of the two weeks Alex quit his research job as the remote digital marketing company hired him on, and I had started working on our website again, tracking my calories, reading as much as possible and meditating every day. As we made our way to the island of Cozumel, this routine would turn out to come with us.

12.05.15 - Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Cozumel was a more expensive, less fun and less populated version of playa del Carmen. We spent our week there killing ants with a febreeze spray in our room and looking for non-existing beaches. It was quite ironic how we were on an island with beautiful ocean all around but absolutely no spots for lying down next to it - unless you rented a car or a scooter to drive across the entire island. Well, we found ourselves a little local juice-place where a guy named nacho would fix up any healthy, unhealthy or spicy drink you'd like as long as it was alcohol free. We also stumbled upon the first decent bakery we've seen in Mexico, which is otherwise a country indulging in different versions of bread with sugar on it instead of advanced pastries. Guess they have enough in their spicy sweets and fatty meats. The overwhelming amount of obese people of all ages definitely suggest that they know how to indulge. It is interesting to be in a country where I am quite obviously one of the lightest and tallest females. Especially tall is something I've never been able to call myself before.
          Anyway, it was a relief taking the ferry back to Playa del Carmen to spend our last two weeks. Although we're usually not very into spending forever in the same place, we both agree that we could have easily spent all three of our last weeks in Mexico here. The hostel we're staying in is one of the best we've ever been in, with everything you need and a huge rooftop with a pool, lounging chairs and DJ's and open bar for ladies every night.

Last Sunday there was a huge party on the rooftop and we were really excited. I think I was maybe a bit more excited - although neither of us are really party people, I think Alex is a bit more cynical about this kind of party clientele than I am... Granted, they're not generally "our type of people" but I pride myself upon not judging the book by its cover and I am always open to the possibility of people surprising me and disproving my stereotype-based biases. I am not sure whether this openness is simply due to the fact that I don't have as much experience with people as Alex does. Anyhow he is very convinced about the accuracy of stereotypes and I am not. So I was excited to meet some people for once! Alex and I were having drinks while laughing at a little naked kid being thrown around by strangers in the pool while his dad was flirting with a mom whose daughter was also playing around. They probably would've made a perfect couple, because I think very few people would think to bring their little kids to a rooftop pool party involving heavy music, alcohol and occasional weed... Well, the kids seemed to enjoy themselves and the little girl was even on my team for a round of beer pong.