Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Merry Christmas from Mexico City!

I've been here only a week yet already it seems like I've been here for much longer. After what seemed like days (or maybe I'm just getting too old to sleep in airports!) we arrived in Cancun and as soon as we got off the plane and the heat hit us it was obvious this was going to be a very different to Canada. We managed to find the bus into town (after some drama with a lost bus ticket!) and found the hostel fairly easily. I was a little disappointed to find it was a HI hostel because I usually try to avoid them (usually too many beds, no good common area to sit and chat & extra charges for things) but I couldn't fault the location and actually the lovely people there made up for the towel charges and lack of water at certain times of the day.


One thing that became obvious fairly quickly when we started to explore Cancun was that the people responsible for building the town forgot to consider pedestrians when they were making their plans. Virtually no pavements make walking anywhere an extreme sport - dodging cars and trying to work out where the hell the traffic is coming from means you constantly have to have your wits about you. Much to the amusement of the guy who sold us a snorkeling trip, we decided to walk to the hotel strip to find out where the meeting place was for the following morning and he was right, it was a long way. I like to walk though, it gives me a much better feel for a place than just sitting on a bus and we wouldn't have had the opportunity to meet so many iguanas had we been on wheels.


Cancun is a tourist town though, based around a hotel strip, each with its own beach. Downtown is a bit quieter and there are some nice little places to eat very well. It's easy to find a good dinner for less than £1.50 including a drink. Tacos, empanadas, quesadillas and nachos followed by churros for desert all washed down with fizzy pop or sweetened ice tea seem to be the order of things here. It really is diabetes waiting to happen with an abundance of fat and sugar...but it tastes SO good!


Figuring that we might as well make the most of the fact that Cancun is close to so many historical sites, we filled our days there to the brim. With 30 degree heat we decided swimming was a good option to start with so we took a catamaran trip out to go snorkelling on a reef off Isla Mujeres. The water was warm, the fish were beautiful and the food and drinks were all inclusive which made for a wonderfully relaxing day. Unfortunately the wind was too strong for us to be able to dive at the underwater art museum, but it's somewhere I'd happily go back to another time.


We also decided to go to Chichen Itza and settled for an organised tour as it was cheaper and more convenient than trying to get there ourselves. I'm not a fan of organised cattle truck type tours, but this was ok as far as they go. Our Mayan guide, Antonio, was very good and told us a lot about the area as well as about where we were going. It's interesting that there's no real hard sell here. Right from talking to the various tour people on the Main Street, it's all very friendly and easy to beat the price down with a bit of banter. On the snorkeling trip we talked to other people on the boat and it seems we paid at least 20USD less than most others people, in some cases 40USD and for Chichen Itza we got an even better discount. The guy who sold us the latter even bumped into us in the street the following night, recognised us and bought us beers! I guess the majority of people probably book these tours through their hotels and the premium they pay allows for the discount got those savvy enough to shop around.

Chichen Itza was incredible but spoiled slightly by the sheer numbers of visitors and continuous stream of coaches. There were also dozens of traders selling tourist tat right by the pyramid and temples which surprised me a bit given that it is a sacred Mayan site and it did ruin what would otherwise have been quite a special atmosphere.


As the only cheap flight we could find to Mexico City left at 3am on Christmas Eve and we had to be out of the hostel by 11am, we decided to spend the day visiting Tulum, the site of some Mayan ruins on a beach a couple of hours drive south of Cancun. Instead of paying out for a more expensive tour we used the 'collectivo' buses first to Playa del Carmen and then onwards to Tulum. Uncomfortable, cramped and hot, but cheap enough to more than make it worthwhile. Tulum was beautiful, the temples more spread out and far fewer people, which was a nice change from the chaos of Chichen Itza. Public transport here is pretty good - buses are on time and the drivers are fast! Public toilets on the other hand leave a little to be desired - one we found in Playa del Carmen didn't even have a door and it seems to be a theme that only one water tap in each place works...you just have to find it!


That night Sharen continued her tradition of losing whatever is in her hand two minutes beforehand by managing a record of losing her bus ticket (again!) less than a minute after she'd showed it to a security guy to ask the gate number! Ticket found, we headed for the airport only to find that sleeping in airports isn't really done in Mexico. No seats or benches, just cold, hard floor, but we managed to find an electric socket and spent the next few hours camped out there.

All the sucking of breath through teeth and worried expressions that seemed to be generated every time we mentioned we were going to Mexico City so far seem to be unfounded. Thus far all we've found is good food and friendly, welcoming people who will go out of their way to include you in their family life and help you in any way they can. That's not to say that there aren't areas where we'd probably see a very different side of the city, but the trepidation with which people view a visit to the city I think is largely unfounded. My wonderful friend Maria collected us from the airport and cooked an amazing Christmas dinner that we shared with several of her sisters and their families last night. Much tequila was drunk and we finally crawled into bed at 2.30am. For someone who doesn't like Christmas much, I have to admit this one rates fairly highly. Here the real meaning of Christmas is still prevalent...time spent with loved ones, talking and sharing, not a money spending competition that is forced upon you as soon as bonfire night is out of the way. It makes a refreshing change.



Now I'm sitting here watching the Aristocats in Spanish, drinking poncha navideno and life is pretty good. Tomorrow we'll visit the city proper and in the few days following we'll see some other local sites before moving on to San Miguel de Allende for the new year celebrations and to El Rosario to visit the monarch butterfly reserve. After that a road trip back east to Chetumal and then a ferry to Belize. Leaving Canada was hard and it holds a special place in my heart for lots of reasons, but this country is beautiful too and I can't wait to experience more of it.

Hope you've all had a great Christmas wherever you are and who knows, maybe I'll be able to catch up with at least a few of you on my travels in the new year.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Canada, see you later

As I sit here now in Cleveland airport with an 8 hour wait ahead of me, I figured it'd be a good time to write and recap on my last few days in Canada. Sorry, limited pictures this time...too much effort via the free airport wifi.

I finally left Big Bay early on Monday morning and not without many tears. Leaving was just as hard as I expected it would be and for most of Monday I moped about. Then Monday night I had dinner with my lovely friend Amberley and I started to feel a little better. I'm sure the few glasses of wine helped too.

It's funny though, many things have struck me over the last few days. I expected that I would hate being back in the city, but I actually didn't feel like that at all, quite the opposite. I decided that rather than stay with friends I'd head back to the hostel I began my adventure at. Partly for the convenience of not having to wait around anywhere for hours with my backpack and partly because I was in need of some conversations with random travellers to try and reignite my enthusiasm for moving on. I also needed a little time on my own to think about some things without feeling an obligation to be sociable. It was there that I realised how perfectly orchestrated the end to my time in Canada has eventually turned out.

Last night I went to see Amberley's school classes' christmas concert. It was cold, snowing big flakes, every bit Canadian wintertime, and it made me think back to when I arrived and the change in the seasons I've seen here - torrential rain, followed by extreme heat, followed by fall and now winter. After the concert we stopped in for a quick drink at The Communist's Daughter, a bar I've many times meant to visit but that every time I've been in the area has been packed to overflowing. Not last night. So we stopped for quick beer and then headed on to Java cafe to meet Lisa for some food before moving on to see some bands at the Horseshoe, most of them bands I'd seen at some other time during my stay here. Highlight for me was probably Hollerado playing a cover of Holland, 1945...seemed so fitting after being at The Communist's Daughter earlier and it made me smile.

















As I was standing waiting for the Spadina streetcar just after midnight with the snowflakes still falling, I realised that my time in Toronto had come full circle. I spent my last couple of days in the city just as I had spent my first...same places, same TTC rides, same lovely people to share that time with...and it made me smile. At that point  it felt right somehow that I should be leaving.

















Today I woke up feeling far more positive about things. I disposed of my unneeded things...boots and some jumpers to the hostels free clothing shelf...and set off somewhat lighter in every sense. I'm still sad to be leaving...I'll miss pancakes, bacon and maple syrup, supermarket shopping trolleys with fixed back wheels, butter tarts and being able to turn right on a red light. There are more than a few people that I'll miss a hundred times more. But I know I'll be back. I was only mildly irritated on the subway this morning looking at the people on there with an envy that they'd still be in this beautiful country tomorrow while I wouldn't be, rather than outright hating them for it.


And so now I lay here on my bench at Cleveland airport contemplating life and listening to looped Christmas music. Alongside me Sharen is busy writing to a friend about the amazing hand driers in the restrooms and tapping her feet in time to the music. We finally managed to navigate the chaos that is Pearson airport...2 full hours required to get through security and US immigration once we'd found the right terminal....and then less than an hour after take off we arrived in Cleveland. It immediately became clear this was going to be a quiet night, with only a half a dozen or so people staying overnight it seems. A conversation with a very friendly and helpful Peruvian airport cleaner called Fidel resulted in us finding a great place to sleep...comfy benches, tv and all night dunkin donuts nearby. He also gave us a full history of what Cleveland is famous for, something we'd just been contemplating a few minutes before and drawing a blank. In fact as I was writing this he came back to find us at the end of his shift to give us some factor 50 sun cream, because 'we'd need it in Mexico' and to wish us well on our adventures. It's encounters like this that I travel for, what makes things more than just a trip from A to B.


As I started to write this I was reminded for some reason of something a wonderful hostel owner, Jasmin, in Sarajevo once told me. He said that he often received postcards from people who had stayed at his home and that he held a special affection for one particular guest who had come for a few days and ended up staying for a few months and had become almost one of the family. When this guy left, he wrote Jasmin a note thanking him for his hospitality and he ended it with 'see you later' rather than 'goodbye'. His reason, he said, was that 'goodbye' was too final and implied that he wouldn't return, whereas 'see you later' showed his absence would be temporary and that he'd soon be back.

Canada, see you later x

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Digging dahlias in the dark

I’ll apologise in advance if anyone reading this is expecting it to be full of tales of adventures, because you’ll be disappointed. It already feels like years, rather than a little less than six months ago, that I was waiting at Gatwick airport for my flight to Toronto, full of anticipation mixed with intrepidation at the unknown and maybe a little bit of anxiety thrown in for good measure. I was however fairly confident that I knew pretty much how my summer in Canada would pan out. How wrong I was.

In a couple of weeks time I have to leave here and to be honest I’m not really looking forward to it at all. Not because I’m not excited to move on to new adventures, but because I hate saying goodbye to people and there are a few people here that I will find it very hard to leave behind. I guess that’s one of the downsides to travelling that the guidebooks don't warn you about.

Since mid October I've been back in Georgian Bluffs, enjoying the pace of life typical of rural Ontario and loving it. With most of the summer cottage dwellers now back at home, it’s an even quieter place...hard to imagine when the population here is so tiny to start with. Still obvious though is the wonderful community spirit that I loved so much the first time I was here. It’s a very different place in the fall to how it was in the summer, but still a place I love very much and I don’t want to leave, so you’re going to have to put up with my slightly irritable mood for the time being.

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With the onset of wintery weather and the nights drawing in there has been less time spent out in the garden, but nonetheless there has still been plenty to do outside...tidying up for the winter, packing away furniture and pots and trying to squeeze hundreds of plants into greenhouse and outbuildings. There has even been time for a few new projects such as building an old ruin-style wall and planting bulbs. Days when the weather hasn’t been so good have been put to good use working on new information boards for the nature trail and evenings spent at the homes of friends who are braving the bleakness of winter up here. There have also been enough nice days to allow for trips out up the peninsula....a few weeks ago a beautiful sunny Sunday spent walking on the beach at Singing Sands and Dorcas Bay, and another day a trip out to the grotto at Cyprus Lake – all on my favourite stretch of lakeshore.

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Now the snow has arrived too, only about a foot so far, but enough to warrant the daily shovelling of paths and to be wearing an extra couple of layers of clothes and warm boots. With the temperature during the last week or two well into minus figures, it has felt decidedly wintery. Last weekend was the laziest one I’ve spent so far in Canada – on Saturday I spent the day with a friend sat in front of the wood stove watching The Wire and drinking tea, and on Sunday some neighbours visited in the morning and then I went with Susan to a very festive concert by a local choir at the church in Wiarton. I never thought I’d say it, but I could get used to this way of life.

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On the whole though it’s been quiet and I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking. I’ve realised a lot of things in the last few weeks as a result of conversations I’ve had with people I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time with, things that have given some clarity to how I’ve been feeling about this trip, what I should do next and various other things that have been on my mind. As cliched as it sounds, I’ve come to realise a few things about myself too, which is good because I think learning has probably always been my underlying motive.

I found a poem today by Sylvia Forges-Ryan, the prologue in a haiku book I got in a thrift store, that sums up all of this quite well and most importantly has reminded me not to look for too much meaning in things or to over-analyse; that sometimes it’s better just to let things be...something that's not a strong point of mine:
We try to believe
the wide shawl
of the black
night sky
is stitched
with infinite
care and design.

We want to feel
in a garden of ten
thousand flowers
one life
means something
or anything
at all.

Some have found joy
in visions grand
as a celestial rose
or humble as heaven
in the palm of a hand.

But why this need
to elaborate
the mystery
of all that is?

Is it not enough
and more
to leave it all
unmetaphored?
To simply name
and let it
be.

As here
in this patch
of violets, in this stone
and in the encompassing
silence. 

So, I finally bit the bullet the other day and booked a new flight to Mexico; I leave Canada on 18th December headed for Cancun as my visa runs out on Christmas Eve and the cost of flights after the 18th rises steeply. My kiwi friend, Sharen, is coming with me and we’re going to go on an adventure that hopefully will also take in Belize, Cuba and Hawaii, so I’m trying to be positive and look forward to what awaits rather than count down the days until I have to say goodbye to this beautiful country and my friends here. I was hoping that I’d be more accepting of the thought of leaving by now but if anything I want to leave even less. I still have a couple of weeks to get my head round the idea and to sum up some enthusiasm for new adventures, but I have a feeling I’ll be back here before too long.

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