Wednesday, September 03, 2014


  Still drowsy from the nightbus, I have a pleasant surprise, the  station serves black tea...a rarity..I am picked up by my host  Alejandro and his friend Wil, who inspite of his name does  not speak a word of English. It is funny, I can tell within five  minutes Alex is an interesting guy and we will get on. This is  about how long it normally takes to figure out the click is  there or not. They are both Zapotecs, another people that  dates back from pre-Hispanic times. They do not speak the  language however. The reason why I came today is because  I did not want to miss the Guelagetza, an annual indigenous event in which all the seven provinces of Oaxaca are represented in folkloristic dances and clothing. It has become a tourist attraction, but it is mainly the locals that love it and people stand hours and hours in line in order to get in. First we drive quite a while to get to Alex´s house. Well, ´house´might not be entirely the right word...We climb a few steps to get to a terrace with several rooms adjacent to it. Families and couples live in them: a mattrass, a plastic table with clothes piled up on it. Water needs to be hoisted up from a well, which can then be used in the little bathroom to wash or to flush the toilet. I am awake again after a quick cold wash. Where we will be staying is a few steps higher in a tree. Yes, it is a room in a tree. Couchsurfing: you never know what you are going to get...
Wil takes me to the Guelaguetza where I snap away, enjoying the colours and the Mexican ´hoompa hoompa´ music (as we call it in Dutch). In order for me to enjoy it more, people decide I need to go to the front, after first having had a taste of mezcal, the local alcoholic drink, which you will know from your margarita. It is not the first time that I notice I am treated slightly better in a subtle way. Being white and foreign I get the benefit of the doubt, whether it is when I do not have enough change or want to use the bathroom in an expensive restaurant. I can sense colonial thinking still plays a role here. Guerita (blond girl, but they call me that as well) means better education, more money and having something ´more´. Television here shows people that look more like me than the actual population.

That night I sleep like a log on the floor, in spite of the endless barking of dogs all around and am woken by the sun shining through the curtainless window. That day I want to take off to do some writing and work, but Wil reacts heavily disappointed as he has to go away for a few days and is really keen on showing me around. I give in and we go to a few villages around Oaxaca where they make all types of artisinal decorative products. Fun, but it is clear they purely live off tourism and is created for that (which right now is quiet), as an actual long lived tradition of this does not exist. I see a few women at work, they all work without a design and paint the little wooden fantasy animals in all kind of detailed patterns and just paint over it when they don´t like it. 
The next day is my day off I decide. We visit a friend of Alex who is building a beautiful restaurant and we go foodshopping. Finally! I get to cook something myself. Food is part of travelling, but it is the one experience I choose to miss out on. I am a vegetarian and do not like spicy. This leaves me with quesedillas. I cannot eat any more of those. Just when I smell tortillas on the street, which is pretty much everywhere, I want to walk away from it as fast as I can.. Anyone seems to be able to put up a stove, tables and chairs and sell food- so far almost all my guest eat out (keeping in mind that several do not have a kitchen). They are proud of their Mexican cuisine, but I have seen very little homecooked meals. The menu seems pretty much unchanged since pre-Hispanic times, as they already ate tortillas and adored corn as a divine entity.
I have so far resisted the chapulines, fried locust.

In the evening we go to the feria de mezcal, a festival to celebrate this drink. Bands play and there are innumerous stands that let us taste their drink, so my mood turns happier and happier.

Alex offers to go together to the Pueblos Mancumunados, in the mountains. We pack a tent and off we go. It is nice to get out of town and the air is so much fresher. The night in the tent is really cold, but it is bearable with all my clothes on, a borrowed winterjacket and three thick blankets. I would like to walk more, but Alex really wants to see Lila Downs, a famous singer, perform in town. I decide to leave his place, as  sleeping on the floor has become quite uncomfortable and I don´t want to outstay my welcome. (and perhaps not the worst decision, as Alex posts a video 'never fall in love with a girl who travels' after I leave). I go to my new host, who lives centrally. For a moment I think I am at the wrong address, as it takes a while before he opens the door, he then disappears to finish his shower, but I think he forgets about me, as I call him after an hour of waiting. He has a nice room, but to my not so pleasant surprise he is offering to sleep in his double bed. I am less than thrilled, but realise he is quite young and I can handle him. Besides, I have just spent several night sleeping next to someone else and indeed it turns out to be fine, he respects my space. We go off to find Alex in the queue which is at least half a mile long. It is clear they won't get in. The two of us go up to the other side, to see if we can catch anything from outside. We find an open gate at the top and get in. Downs is definitely an interesting performer. She uses indigenous influences, sings very old known songs (well,  not to me) and her own material. Cannot quite hear the lyrics well, but there is clearly more to her than just love songs. She is dressed traditionally and has dancers from the Guelaguetza join her. It is a very entertaining experience being in this big open air stadium.

All I am left with is a visit with Wil to Monte Alban, another pre-Hispanic site, Zapotec this time and a visit to an interesting museum which gives an overview of how Mexico has become what it is now. Monte Alban is the one site that cannot enthuse me, I have seen too many pre-Hispanic sites by now, and even though they are of a different people, the architecture, religious beliefs and habits seem similar. Languages would differ, but also within the groups that spoke the same language, there were local variations and they did not operate as one group.

I go on one more day long organised excursion which takes us to the biggest tree in the world, or at least that is what they claim, in Tule, a mezcal factory, another pre-Hispanic site (this one is pretty cool actually, as it has some decorative parts) and a tapestry weaver (not that I have seen any tapestry in any of the houses, just another tourist point). I meet a friendly couple from Puebla and bump into some Americans I had met on a previous excursion.

Not much of a beach bum, I still decide that I have enough time to go visit the coast here, as I have seen the Carribean one, I now need to see the Pacific one... A very uncomfortable nightbus with loud music takes me to Puerto Escondido. I arrive at six, so will have some waiting to do and head to the beach. An hour later the beach starts to fill up with fishermen returning from their 24 hours of fishing. I watch with fascination how they sell their fresh fish right from the boat; women, from restaurants probably, fill buckets with fish and weigh it on a hook attached to a portable scale. One of the fisherman tells me what a hard life it is and that they cannot even sell it for the price they want, as people just simply pay what they want to pay. Outside tourist season there is not much to sell.
I make my way to my next host, with difficulty, everytime I get a little lost when I try to find my way back. My host cannot be there himself, but I am welcomed by a Brazilian-Russian couple who stay here. It is a hostel in the making and I get to sleep on a bed with a mosquito net in the garden. It is hot. Very hot. Without moving, sweat drips down my back.The beach here is for surfers, as there are lots of waves, which makes swimming a little dangerous. I make beach walks, talk to people, read my book, go for a swim, but essentially feel bored, as the people here are actually not very interesting if you don´t spend your time talking about surfing. I decide that this is ideal to do some work and don´t leave in a hurry, but then the internet is down in the whole village and beyond, so I feel stuck. I read about four books in three days. Against my own better judgment, I decide to take a beginner´s class surfing. The teacher is not very good, as he spends most of his time yelling ´arriba, arriba´ at me and I am not warned about chaving, my whole stomach is red and burns by the end of it. Anyway, always good to have confirmed for certain what you are NOT supposed to be doing. The one excursion here is the phosphorescent lagoon. A type of microorganism lives in the water and its luminescence is activated by the movement of the water, which could be humans, fish or rain.

Back to Oaxaca to catch a bus to Puebla. Puebla is a small town with colonial buildings and has a pleasant atmosphere. Volkswagen has a major factory here. Elias takes me to his place in the centre, a large studioflat which looks like it could have been restored about 60 years ago. He wants to go to a party, but I have very little energy and only stick it out for an hour so I take a cab back. I hardly see Elias over the next days, due to a family emergency. We have one long conversation about the state of the country and the treatment of minorities. He is an anarchists, cannot stand Americans (gringos) and is part of the Zappatista movement. I explore the city on my own and on one of my wanderings I find myself on a square which houses several mariachi bands. I spend some time with them, it is basically a song-drive in. People drive by and request songs and pay accordingly.

I also meet up for dinner with the couple met at the excursion. I also invite a couchsurfer who I know will be going to the same rafting event as me. The couple is impressed with all the stories of meeting strangers and having a good time together.

I then visit Cholula, attached to Puebla. It used to be an important place in the old days. It used to have a pyramid which is considered the largest in the world. In 1519 in order to scare the Aztecs, Hernan Cortes, the main Spanish conquistador, massacred a great part of the population. To show the power of the Spanish crown and the Catholic church, he built a big church on top of the pyramid.There is little left of the pyramid, it is pretty much a big hill.

 . He then continued to build about 50 more churches in Cholula. There is defintely no lack of churches in Mexico, in any remote corner you will find one. People are very devout; most people have a cross or pictures of Jesus in their house and the same can be found in public places such as busses. The conquistadores (Spanish colonisers) might not always be looked on favourably, but there is no negativity towards the Spanish, the religion and language are too strongly adopted and most people are probabaly mestiza (a mix of indigenous and Spanish). In order to make Catholicism more acceptable, the crucifixion of Jesus was emphasised (compared to human sacrifices that existed in the aborigen culture). Within indigenous groups there is still a lot of influence of original traditions mixed up with the Catholic one. For example in the north the Tarahumara wear traditional clothes and masks and dance all night during Semana Santa (Easter), where they put the emphasis on 'evil' (faces painted white, like the Spanish) and 'good'.
      In Cholula I meet up with an American couchsurfer for lunch, who works for the peace corps, an American organisation that gives help to developing countries and in this way promoting the US (an open propaganda agenda). She takes me to a small bakery where I meet Kate, an English woman, married to a Mexican. I tell her that I have so far been relieved that Mexicans have not bothered me, as sometimes my experience with Latinos has been different. She says there is a strong Catholic ethic, where men are supposed to take out women for a long while before sex is an option. Result is however that they often will tell a girl fairly fast that they are boyfriend and girlfriend to move things on, even though they don´t mean it. Perhaps I have not felt the machismo in the streets, there does seem to be a much higher percentage of cheating and mistreating women (and women putting up with it, as they don't have the education, financial means and there are simply more men). Kate says that the men are very attached to their mothers, so every time she wants something from her husband, to avoid arguments, she asks her mother-in-law to make the request. A shortcut to get things done. 

Next stop: The capital...  

Sunday, August 03, 2014


The nightbus takes me to Palenque, in the south of Mexico- in the morning the army checked us on weapons and drugs. 
I am pretty adament on sleeping on my own, but that night a scorpion wants to share my bed with me in the youth hostel. As much of a vegetarian I am, I cannot say I shed a tear when the receptionist killed it (and yes I did sleep in that same bed). 
The two days excursion I take, turns out to be an excellent choice. It is shared with two Mexican couples, who cannot quite get my name, so Rosita it is. Most parts I am going to now are mostly visited by Mexican tourists, generally from the capital or the north (visibly a bit more affluent).
It is quite a drive to Bonampak where we are soon put on a small boat, going over a river, on which one side lies Guatemala, the other Mexico. We are let off at the Maya ruins of Yaxchilan. Yet another archeological site, yet again a new surprise, as found in the middle of the jungle with hardly any other people around. I thoroughly enjoy this visit. Our next visit is to the ruins of Bonampak, where we take a guide, which sheds some (but not a full) light on my curiosity. There are many many Maya sites, as it was a people that consisted of many different groups, that each had their own settlements-villages with their own leaders and typical hierarchy. Regularly they would fight with other Mayan groups. It was more about power than anything else, as their religion and language were often the same. However within that there were variations. Their religion was a combination of beliefs in nature and in a number of gods and included human sacrifice. 
The next day we go on a long walk in the jungle (Selva Lacandonia), finding a  deserted Maya ruin, as there are many more. Unfortunately animalwise not much more than insects and lizards, as the monkeys are too shy.
The night we stay in a cabana at a river in which we swim, which is lovely. The tours are run by the local indigenous people that live there and I am trying hard to understand how they live. The kids will join us at the table, taking breaks from their jobs as vendors of all kinds of bracelets, necklaces, drinks and food. Their Spanish was not always great, but they also do not seem too keen to answer too many questions and what I find odd is that they seem to lack the one quality I so appreciate in children: curiosity. Just get on with life without any questions. I lend them my pen and notebook to draw in, which they eagerly do, and when I ask they tell me they do not have pens at home. They live of agriculture for own consumption and the children are involved in work. Most of them seem to go to a bilingual (Maya and Spanish) school, but education has no priority. The government does seem to come up with projects, but not much is actually put into practise. Obviously the ones living in tourist areas are better off. In town I see small kids selling articles everywhere, I do not like buying from them, but sometimes I give them food - to which one lady remarks; "the government gives indigenous families money for each kid," to which I reply that it is obvious that this child is hungry. Apparently there is an alcohol problem within this culture as well. It is hard to get the right information without actually doing proper research or/and living with them. Those children are part of the streetview and actually easy to ignore as they don't seem to be suffering terribly and don't seem to have criminal tendencies. I prefer not to however.

The night I come back I decide to stay in la Panchan, a 'bohemian' part in the jungle of Palenque with restaurants and places to stay. I stay in a cheap but awful place, old mattrass, many people in one room, all concrete, incredibly loud music...No idea how, but I am so exhausted and I sleep like a log..

Time to do my own thing, I decide the next day. I hitchhike to the waterfalls of Misol-ha and Agua Azul, both very different and stunning, I slip at one point and fall straight forward with my massive backpack on (who would've thought it can be slippery with all that water...). One guy who has taken me on is a soldier, stationed in Michoacan, where currently there is a serious battle going on between drugdealers and the army. He shows me pictures of his weapons and him in a massive field of marihuana. I had already crossed this city off my list of visits...

In the city of San Cristobal I am shocked by the sudden drop of temperature; I find myself at about 2000 meters into the mountains and am not prepared for this. I am sharing a cold house with a Spanish brother and sister who I hang out with for a bit, but in some way are even less social than couples and I get fed up at just tagging along, rather than being part of the company. As I just chat away with anyone I meet, I soon make a friend on a local bus, who decides to spend the rest of an afternoon showing me around town; there are more churches than schools here. She is a lawyer and tells me they are just reforming the law, now people can testify orally in court. Mexicans work six days a week. A five day workweek is called ´semana Inglesa´ funnily enough.
Outside San Cristobal I visit the Canon del Sumidero, a breathtaking boattrip in between rockwalls, encountering crocodiles on the way (and yes they do eat humans). The trip that impresses me most, is the visit to San Juan de Chamula. At first nothing special, lots of little tourist shops, to finally reach a square with a church. The churches here are less decorated than the Italian ones. This one has a lot of life size dolls in glass cabinets, which represent the saints. On the floor there is hay and candles. People are sitting on the floor, praying out loud (not in Spanish) in an almost meditative state, sticking candles to the floor, subsequently holding and waving a chicken over it and then killing it with their hands. They have several plastic bottles around them and drink alcohol from them and some Coca Cola (the smallest, most remote village will have Coca Cola here). It is an odd and somewhat distressing sight. I know the bible often talks of animal sacrifice, but I have never seen it in modern times. It is however more likely to be a Mayan ritual mixed into Catholicism, than biblical.

I have been on the road non-stop and want to take a break, but suddenly realise that I have little time to lose, as I want to go to a folkloristic festival in Oaxaca, so I quickly sign up for the next tour: lakes near the border of Guatemala, before yet again traveling on another nightbus...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


We tend to romaticise travelling, but the truth is: my feet hurt as one blister is replaced by another, I am sweating bucketloads because of the humid heat, which also ensures I look like I just rolled out of bed on a constant bad hairday, the mosquitos have found their way to my body, my backpack is far too heavy, I have a cold thanks to the constant moving between sun and ventilated rooms and I am tired... The pay off is however worth it: I am meeting lovely people, my Spanish is improving every day, I see unique historical sites and landscapes. A good week in and I feel I have been here ages, as visited Cancun, Isla Mujeres, Playa, Tulum, Valladolid, Merida and now I am in the jungle, in Palenque. I have visited four Maya sites, which in all honesty has not given me more insight in the Mayan culture. Each site has been similar, yet different, as some places were bigger or had more bas-relief carvings or you could climb the temples and the location would make a difference too. In short: impressive. The people in the province of Yucatan still call themselves Maya and speak Maya, even though the younger generation less so. Besides language and looks, there is not much left of the Mayan culture; it has been completely replaced by Catholicism.
Another typical phenomena here are the cenotes, sinkholes that have developed due to the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath.The water is crystal clear and often they can be found in cavernes, as some are completely underground, some semi-underground and some above ground (like a lake). I have swam in three of them and besides refreshing, stunning. One was in an actual cave, and we were surrounded by stalagmites, stalagtites and bats.

I have not had to spend any time alone, as I am staying with locals; either in a hammock or on a mattrass on the floor and listening to their (life)stories. One of my favourite results of travelling, or even life, is collecting stories. I meet other lost travelling souls during the day at various sites. I also met up with an adorable couple and their three years old (I somehow seem to spend a lot of time with three years old during this trip) who I had met seven years ago on a bus in France. I have hung out with a few Dutch I have met at the temples (seperately) and two days with an American guy (as asked him how a hat looked on me and we went from there), who even offered to stay in a hotel (work was paying), a nice luxury! The Mexicans so far have been generous and there seem to be no interest in ripping tourists off, even the taxis are honest. What I noticed here is that most people seem to be overweight. A lot of the food is fried I guess, but I also realised the amounts people eat, as one mother of a host offered me breakfast at eight in the morning and it consisted of a huge piece of beef and rice. I said an apple would do the trick for me..
The coast was very touristy, even though it is low season- except for the the resorts (sun, sea & sex), but now I have moved away from the coast .  I has a bit of a different feel to it, Merida felt like a real city, while the other cities felt like there was one big road and everything built around it. Merida has a lovely, clean colonial centre, although houses look less taken care of when you move away from it, but it did not feel dangerous anywhere.
I better try to get a night´s sleep, as I need to be ready at six for my two day excursion near the Guatemalan border ..

Wednesday, July 09, 2014


Barely at day three and I have left my normal life completely behind. 

The plane was filled with young women with too much make up and tattooed men, looking forward to two weeks of getting plastered and the night clubs where Mexicans are not welcome. 
I was lucky to be picked up at the bus station of Cancun by Pintero, an amateur hip hopper, who showed me the parts of the city that could not have been further removed from the luxury resorts, His place consisted of one room, a few mattresses and a table, attached to it a tiny shabby bathroom. He said it was better not to hang around outside his flat in the evening. He was in the lucky position to make better money (350 vs average of 200 pounds a month) than most, thanks to his good command of English.
After a quick meal, that taught me I will be eating a lot of guacamole and corn based products with vegetables in the coming two months, he dropped me off at the harbour, where I took a boat to Isla Mujeres. This island is like many small islands I have visited: palm trees, the main street filled with souvenir shops and restaurants and beautiful, busy beaches with diving and snorkling day trips. Jacobo had waited for me. He introduced me to his girlfriend (20) and her three years old daughter (father no interest), took me out for dinner, shared his life story and then insisted I downed a few tequilla´s, while convincing the barman to play salsasongs, so we could dance to a few good tunes. This left me with some nasty blisters and still has me limping. 
His room was not much different from P´s, no kitchen, a small bathroom and no furniture. I made myself comfortable in the hammock, but J¨s drunk snoring and my excitement left me with little sleep. In the morning we visited the beach and in the afternoon his girlfriend had arranged for a scooter and showed me the island, which was highly enjoyable. In the evening I was beyond tired, but the couple convinced me to come out to a fun open air bar. I could barely stand on my feet, even though I enjoyed a few moves on the dancefloor (cumbia, salsa, raggaetonbachata is pretty much the standard music here, so that works fine for me!). Eventually they decided to put me in a taxi, one of their friends volunteering to accompany me- which was a good thing, with the stray dogs barking and the decaying houses being similar. He however, decided to stay and chat for another two hours, hoping for more, and eventually left when he finally got the message that ´no´ actually meant no. The rest stumbled in at five; yet again a night of two hours sleep, as I got up early to join a snorkling trip to a reef and an underwater museum (statues placed under water). After these days of acclimatisation I have left the island and am now ready for the real work to start exploring Mexico´s rich history...