With his galleons and guns
Looking for the new world
In that palace in the sun....
Man am I getting lazy in my old age. It again has been about a month since I last checked in here. Amazing how much ground I can cover in a month and how many things can happen, all when I am trying my damnedest to do nothing. Well not completely nothing but not a whole lot of anything either.
My trip back from Easter Island to Mexico City was a marathon, and not a fun one either, not like "wow that was fun can't wait to do that again!". It is a 5 hour flight from the island to Lima, where I had to go through all the fun and excitement of Immigration and Customs and Baggage Claim (mine was the last bag to come through and many, many people on my flight were not as lucky!), just to be able to collect my bag and exit in order to turn around and check-in for my Aeromexico flight. Now I've done a lot of traveling, especially in the last four years, and I have never ever experienced anything as horrible as Aeromexico. The line to check-in for my flight that night was well over 2 hours long (you would think with the money they charge they could hire one or two more employees to help facilitate the process?) and I almost missed my 2 AM flight to Mexico City. After another 6 hours in the air I again had the joy of Immigration and Customs and Baggage Claim (seems a lot of drugs come out of Peru so each and every bag is slobbered, sniffed and walked over by a canine before they allow it on the carousel).
I finally collected my now somewhat dirty and slimy backpack and went in search of transportation to the city. At this point, and the universe always provides if I am awake enough to notice, I stopped at Starbucks (yes a real delicious cup of coffee and a bagel) and wound up in a conversation with a couple of other travelers who had also had the pleasure of the Aeromexico flight from Lima. They are boyfriend and girlfriend who are from Spain and had been traveling for a year around the world and were about a week away from the end of their journey. We had the most incredible chat and gabbed away for so long that none of us noticed we had been sitting in the airport for well over 2 hours. What a joy! People are so amazing.
Anyway, I finally pulled myself away and let them go explore Mexico City for the day (they had a 10 hour, now 8 hour, layover) and I made my way to my hotel. Presidente Intercontinental here I come! Big fluffy beds with feather comforters and feather pillows, big powerful shower with endless hot water, beautiful park views and a spa. Nothing soothes the soul better then a long sleep, a scalding shower, and a 90 minute massage. Aeromexico? What Aeromexico?
Refreshed and re-energized, I put on my best clothes (jeans and a t-shirt - but at least they were clean and didn't have holes in them!) and went to meet life long friends of our family for dinner. Carlos and Leticia took me to a fantastic Japanese restaurant not far from my hotel and we spent hours talking about the past, present and future of our lives and families. What incredible hosts and friends. They are also the kind souls that allowed me to park my car (LC) at their home for the 5 weeks I was gone gallivanting around South America. So, the following day, I went out to retrieve LC. I spent a few more days in Mexico City getting sorted, re-packing LC, doing a little sight seeing, and sneaking in another massage, then it was time to hit the road.
I'm not too sure the road didn't hit me though, it was a comedy of errors from the get go. I had not gone more then a few kilometers and was jammed up in midday traffic when I pushed my drivers side mirror by hand (the electric motor not working) and CRACKED the entire thing. So now every time I looked to change lanes I had an incredible feeling of vertigo and wasn't sure if I was about to run into something or not. Well that set the tone for the journey, LC slowly falling apart and me not sure of much of anything.
My goal when I set out driving was to take it slow (didn't want the back acting up from too many hours behind the wheel) and to stop a few places along the way, with my final destination being Playa del Carmen on the Yucatan Peninsula about 1000 or so miles away from Mexico City. That first day found me driving for about 6 hours (not too bad?) to Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico. After fighting the Mexico City traffic and grumbling to myself about the price of the Toll Roads (no joke, you have to be rich or at least well off to drive in Mexico, the tolls are every 100 kilometers or so and can cost as much as $20/USD per Toll - outrageous!) I settled in for the long haul. Somewhere in between the mountains and the coast (I think it was all downhill and we went through a bunch of tunnels) I spent a good hour and a half in the thickest Fog I have ever been in. I would have pulled over if there had been a place to pull over, but no, instead I spent the entire time glued to the windshield staring into the endless whiteness praying that the truck that would eventually and inevitably be right in front of me had working break lights!
I made it to Veracruz (much later then planned) in the dark and with the wind blowing like a hurricane. I found a hotel (they gave me a huge suite?) and crawled into bed. In the morning I awoke to much calmer weather, it was still grey and looked like rain but not hurricane weather. I had another long day of driving planned and figured that before I set out I would hunt down the most famous cafe in the area. After parking and feeding the meter I went to Gran Cafe De La Parroquia. This cafe has been around for a couple hundred years and serves up to 4000 customers a day. What they are most famous for is the drink of the house - Lechero - which is served to you in a tall glass as a very strong shot of espresso and then you tap your spoon on the side of the glass and a waiter appears and pours (with much skill) hot milk up to the brim. The place was packed and bustling with locals doing what locals do to start their day. I sat and enjoyed the atmosphere while devouring a plate of hot cakes and not one but two Lechero's. I even grabbed one to go for the long drive I had ahead of me.
Then Murphy joined me as an uninvited passenger. While I was enjoying my breakfast LC was getting busted, arrested, locked up! I got back to the car to find a "Boot" (a nasty little locking device that renders the vehicle undriveable) on the front wheel of LC. Turns out that the Parking Meter is for 2 spaces - space numero uno and space numero dos - and of course I had no idea about this and therefore payed to keep someone else's car parked and safe. Me, I now had to figure out how to spring LC. Thank god for window washers. One of the local entrepreneurs, who spoke a tiny bit of English, helped me find the City Office's and pay my fine. I then had to hoof it back to LC and wait for the local constable to unlock the "Boot". So, after the original pesos I fed the meter, the fine, and the generous tip I gave the local entrepreneur, it turned out to be a very very expensive breakfast! Numero dos indeed!
Oh well, off I went, now in the pouring rain, for the next segment of my drive. My destination, Villahermosa. Because of the rain and a few speed bumps and a few police check points and a few toll booths along the way the 6 hour drive only took me about 8 hours. Sweet. LC also struggled a bit more along this stretch of road. First off I seem to be misplacing oil? I keep checking under the car for drops or spills but nothing. Instead every couple of hundred miles or so I check the oil levels and I am low? So I dump in a another quart or so and off I go. Now I have no problem keeping LC fed but this is not a good sign and one more thing to add to the list of "things to have fixed at Toyota". To make matters worse I realized at some point that I was wet? Really wet. Upon further investigation I discovered that the sunroof was leaking and of course it was leaking directly over the drivers seat! You gotta love that Murphy. Where's that list of mine?
A really crazy sight along the way, at least from my perspective, was the selling of puppies. Yes, that's right I said puppies! Now it is a big country and there really are a lot of entrepreneurial people in Mexico and along the vast stretches of highway, especially after the vehicles are forced to slow down (like at toll booths or police stops), there are little shops/shacks and people selling all things consumable - juice, water, fruit, fried pig skin, cigarettes, etc... So here I come up to the toll booth, pay the extraordinarily high fee, and as I am starting to accelerate and merge back onto the main highway there are none of the normal sales-people but instead a half dozen or so puppy-sales-people! Yes, puppies. Puppies of all shapes and sizes and of all different breeds. It was like the Westminster Dog Show on the side of the highway. Most disturbing to me is I am still not sure if they were meant as pets or consumables? Hey, once you've been to Vietnam....
I eventually pulled into Villahermosa in the late afternoon gloom of more rain. The hotel I had booked advertised "Parking", so up I pulled only to find out it was Valet Only Parking. But the attendant was nowhere to be found? I parked in the "No Parking" zone and set the car alarm and trudged into the lobby asking questions in my non-existent Spanish. They answered in their non-existent English and we all kind of stared at each other with dumb looks on our faces. Eventually a guy showed up who I think was the Valet attendant but I will never really know. We went back out to LC for me to unload and him to drive LC away to.... well who knows where too? Guess who was waiting at the vehicle for me? Murphy that's who. Hard dude to shake. I pushed the remote key fob to open the door locks and shut off the car alarm and all hell broke lose. The car alarm, which had given me some trouble all the way back in Mazatlan, decide to malfunction and this time very loudly. There I was helpless and wet as the car alarm BEEP, BEEP, BEEPED itself silly. Nothing like trying to slide into a place and not attract too much attention as the gringo with the overloaded car. After a bit of cursing, some door slamming and the sudden disappearance of Murphy the alarm stopped beeping. Whew!
Now there I was trying to communicate to the guy I was hoping was the Valet Attendant (and not just another Mexican Entrepreneur) that I wanted to go with him and park the car so I could deal with the alarm if it malfunctioned again. My fear was that if I just gave him the keys and off he went and then the alarm malfunctioned again that he or someone nearby would just take a sledgehammer to it or abandon it completely, unlocked and unsecured in the bowels of the city. So it went kind of something like this: Me: "I go park with you", Him: "Si, mi estacionamiento", Me: "I Go Park With You", Him: "Si, mi estacionamiento", ME: "I GO PARK WITH YOU!" Him: "Si, mi estacionamiento". Meanwhile the only thing I was accomplishing was getting wetter in the rain. I eventually lured the guy into my passenger seat and with hand signals and smiles he directed me to the hotel lot. Well that was easy. Who's idea was it to drive from San Diego? All good though, I checked into my room, took a shower, had dinner, climbed into bed, and the band started. Directly under my window! No big deal though, they only played until 2 in the morning.
So, up I sprang, well rested and ready for another day on the road. That days goal being the longest drive - 9 hours (I did it in 11) - to Merida, the main city on the Yucatan Peninsula. The good news is it rained all day, the sunroof continued to leak and I was only pulled over at the police check points 3 times. Two of them within walking distance of each other! At the first one on the way into some town they pulled me over and wanted to see ALL of my paperwork for LC. It was a bit confusing and was looking like I was missing some piece of paperwork that I know I wasn't missing, when one of the cops from the other side of the road calls out "Steven". The cops working me over, searching the vehicle, studying my papers, going through my luggage, all started laughing and joking around? It wasn't long until I caught on (and totally played into it), that it was a flashback to the Philippines, they thought I looked like Steven Seagal! Before I knew it, there I was on the side of the highway, with heavily armed men in uniform, having my picture taken with their smart phones and that was that. I mean who is going to give a Steven Seagal lookalike a problem? They promptly stopped the search, gave me back all of my documents and waved me on with big smiles and more cameras flashing away.
Well that was easy? I made it to the other side of town, maybe a whole 2 kilometers, before I was stopped again. This time no "Steven", instead when it started getting to look like I wasn't going anywhere without a lawyer or at the very least a very good translator or maybe having to pay a "Fine", I noticed the policeman eyeing my case of water in good old LC. So, like any semi-desperate, unable to communicate in the local language, reasonable person would do, I offered him a bottle of Agua. He graciously took me up on my offer and then started saying something repetitively that for the life of me I couldn't understand, until he reached in and took a second bottle of water for his partner and that was that. They smiled, gave me back all of my paperwork, and off I went. A two bottle of water bribe? An agua shake down? Whatever.
The third and final police stop of the day had me pulled over on the side of the road with 2 not so very friendly fellows and my old friend Murphy. This time Murphy, in a very strange way, was my savior. After the usual shuffling of all of my paperwork (which by the way is actually in order and 100% legal) and then the strange insistence that I am missing something, they started with the search of LC. Now it is raining, not very hard but not light either, and not real nice outside. I am pulled over in a giant mud-puddle and they are having me roll down my windows and unlock my doors and they are starting to go through the ton of crap I have in the back of LC. Some of it I don't even know what it is as it is still untouched from way back when my friend Tim originally packed the car back in San Diego! They make it around to the passenger side and the rear window jumps its track and gets stuck crooked about three-quarters of the way down. (Another thing for the Toyota repair list!) But the good news is that now the two cops want nothing to do with the broken window so they both just step away from the vehicle and start harassing someone else, every once in a while giving me sideways glances as I splash around in the mud-puddle trying desperately to pull the window back up. After several unsuccessful attempts and actually managing to get my own arm stuck in the window a few times (damn electronic advancements - what was wrong with having to roll your window up in the first place?), I yanked and pulled and cursed and POP the window was back on track. I quickly sealed it shut and very nonchalantly made my way back to the drivers seat and started the engine, no one blocking my way? off I went. Well that was easy.
I rolled into Merida well after dark and found my way to my hotel. A true oasis in the old part of the city just a few blocks from the main square, with secure parking, a large clean room and all mod cons. I love it when a plan comes together! The rain had stopped and I spent the evening wandering the streets of the area and munching on some local delights I came across along the way. Amazing how quickly I can forget the trials and tribulations of the day. I found myself chatting with some travelers and telling them in great detail how much fun it is to be driving across Mexico. I must be getting Alzheimer's or something? Definitely a bad case of CRS!
The following day I awoke to sunshine and blue skies. I set out to take in a little Mayan culture and hoped to finish up the day at my final destination for now - Playa del Carmen. I drove a few hours to Chichen Itza, one of the most famous Mayan Sites on the Yucatan Peninsula. I did have to giggle to myself that I went all the way to Peru for the end of the world and the real party was right here in Mexico all within easy (?) reaching distance. But it was probably less crowded on the day I was there and even then there were way too many people. It was packed. Still impressive though. I wandered around for hours but was most drawn to and most impressed by the centerpiece of the city, El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulcan), a huge pyramid that is actually a massive Maya calendar. Very cool. Another of my favorites was the Plataforma de los Craneos (Platform of Skulls) that back in the day used to hold the heads of the sacrificial victims as a friendly reminder to the general public to behave themselves. Again, very cool. The Maya believed many things and were extremely advanced in many aspects and who knows they may have been on to something with their belief that human sacrifices kept the Sun alive! Global warming anyone?? SPF 45?
I cruised the rest of the way into Playa del Carmen with ease. Which is where I am as I type this. The Maya Riviera. Beautiful. I've been kicking around here for the last 2 plus weeks. My goal and I have been successful, was to take some Cave Diving courses. I don't know what it is about me but there is something most definitely wrong. Maybe I hit my head way too much as a child? Maybe I played with the dry cleaner bags and suffered from lack of oxygen at a young age? I don't know, but whatever it is, it seems that as soon as I read a book about how dangerous something is that is exactly what I want to go do! Way back when, I read a book called Diving Into Darkness, which is a true story of a scuba diver who winds up dying when he does a really deep dive. As soon as I put the book down I wanted to do my Trimix training. Which inevitably led me to 100 meters (330 feet) below the ocean surface. Then recently I bought and read a book called Caverns Measureless to Man which is an account of one of cave divings greatest - Sheck Exley - and his endless pursuit of cave exploration. Lots of people die in his book too and eventually Sheck himself passed on somewhere around 900 feet below the surface on a world record deep dive attempt. I finish the book and can't wait to go cave diving. Yea I know, not quite right!
I hooked up with a highly recommended and well respected dive shop - Protec. I spent 5 days doing my Intro to Cave course, with my Instructor Tristan, and in many ways it felt like my first time in the water. The training is intense and they want you to do everything perfectly for if not and they certify you and you go cave diving and screw up, you die! It is a completely different environment from open water diving, in the cave there is no immediate surface, you are in an overhead environment. If you screw up in open water, even in decompression diving, you can surface and risk the bends and get to a chamber or breathe 100% oxygen and decompress yourself, etc... In a cave no such luck, your margin for error is drastically reduced. The training is pretty cool though and besides learning and practicing basic skills (gear, buoyancy, trim, position, finning techniques, reel use and line setting) we simulate all of the emergency scenarios that can occur. Out-of-gas, which has you share gas with your team member. Touch Contact, which has you in a no visibility situation communicating through touch and feel with your team member(s), following the line and "reading" it with your hands in order to find the exit. Out-of -gas and Touch Contact, yea sharing gas in no visibility and blindly exiting the cave. Loss of diver, which requires you to look for your team member and make some hard choices (let your imagination run wild). Lost line, No visibility, now stop, drop, tie off and hope you have read the cave correctly and find the line on your first shot! If not, try, try again. Never give up, don't stop and write "Goodbye notes", try, try again.
Each day we set out and dove a different Cenote (the Spanish word, derived from Mayan for the cavern/cave entrance). The Cenote are beautiful and each one has its own personality above and below the surface. At most of them you can snorkel, do cavern dives, and the reason we were there, do cave dives. We went to Chikin Ha, Cenote Cristalino, Ponderosa's Jardin Del Eden, Chac-Mool, and Tajma Ha. Wow! Now if only I hadn't been totally consumed with information overload and the constant nagging fear that I might screw up and kill myself and my trainer (well simulated death but death none the same) I might have actually been able to enjoy some of this. But nooooo.... not only did I not enjoy it, I also payed for it. Like I said, not quite right. As a matter of fact for the most part the training is like volunteering for torture. I spent most of time underwater, blindfolded and attempting to find my way out of the cave! Somehow I only managed to kill my Instructor and myself twice (and on the same dive) and of course I lost him once too. Oh well, live and learn.
I managed to pass the Intro to Cave course and be passed on to another Instructor - Nando - who was going to bring me up to speed on Complex Navigation and hopefully certify me as a Full Cave Diver. There was one other student in the class - Mette - a girl from Denmark. Between the two of us, over the course of 2 days and 3 dives, we managed to lose our Instructor in the cave only once (once is usually enough though). And the two of us managed to somehow lose gas and complete visibility on every dive and had to share gas and do touch contact in order to exit any cave we went into! Fun? Hmmmm? Mette wound up with an ear infection and I went on alone to complete my last day of training and attempt to accomplish a Circuit (a full loop in a cave starting and ending in the same spot). Well I completed the day of training but didn't come even close to doing a circuit. So now I am a certified Cave Diver! Woo hoo! I think? I have a lot, a whole lot, of work to do and need lots of practice before I will really be a Cave Diver. But I'm on my way.
So, what's a guy supposed to do now that class is dismissed? You got it - go cave diving! My plan over the next few weeks is to dive, often, and practice what I've learned. I have plans to cave dive around Playa, then to take a break and hop over to Cozumel and do some "Fun Diving" in the open ocean, I'll then return to the mainland and head down to Tulum to do some more cave diving. Practice makes perfect (in my case maybe not perfect but at least safe and adequate). Imagine if you can, a beautiful Cenote with crystal clear blue water, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, the palm trees are blowing in the breeze, and then you stick a regulator in your mouth and descend, at first there is daylight shining from the surface, making spectacular light beams dance across your field of vision and then it slowly gets darker until the only light is artificial and is strapped to your hand with a battery pack strapped to your waist, and you swim - in - away from the only source of light, away from the only exit to the surface - you swim. Along the way there are incredible sights - rocks, boulders, formations, stalactites, stalagmites, columns, reflection pools and your light beam and darkness, complete darkness - and you swim. Along the way you might encounter a restriction(s) (a tight space that is only passable by one diver at a time), have some complex navigation to follow (lines, jumps, T's, arrows and cookies), and all of this far from daylight or the exit (up to this point, the farthest into a cave system I have been is 35 minutes of swimming from the entrance). At some point you reach your turn time or your turn pressure and you signal to your team that it is time to turn the dive and make your way out of the cave. And you turn and swim - into the darkness. Imagine if you will.
All my love.