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Friday, December 18, 2015

Out Yonder in the Yucatan

From our riverside spa campsite, we arose, freshly cleaned in turquoise waters and satiated light tequila hangovers and dried our sleeping gear out in the pleasant morning sunshine. These Memories from the past few days flashed through our brains like sweet sun rays on a lazy afternoon in the park on a Sunday after you had a few too many IPAs but you don't regret a single one of them and you love every sun beam on your skin and you soak in the revelry and the memory that was the past few days.







James Basking in the Morning Glory :)

Onward towards Vera Cruz, we still had no idea if we were going to stay there or meet Alfredo's family after broken cell service in the Mexican Highlands. We gathered a message that said we should check out a beach town for camping which we headed towards and were put off by the touristy venue. Looking towards the edge of town we searched for suitable camping and decided that it would be possible but not ideal. Chachalacas was not our style. A bit disappointed, we finally got ahold of Juan, Alfredo's older brother and he said we should meet him in the central square. After the boys skeptically scanned the square as I sauntered about the center of the square in soccer shorts and a rainbow colored tie dye shirt and a Northwest Berry Packing Baseball cap. Out of the corner I spotted a portly man with slicked back hair and a jovial smile trotting across the square towards us,

"Eres Elliott?" He called out.

"Si, y eres el hermano de alfredo?" I replied.

"Si, si." He affirmed.

We proceeded to discuss what our plans were and we talked about how we were not super stoked on the beach and staying there. At that point he suggested that we at least stay in Vera Cruz for the night as it was Carnival and his dad could take us around as he had a few days off. We Nodded excitedly when I explained the situation to the group- We really had just wanted to stay with the family in the first place but it was amazing to be invited in with open arms and hands full of food.

My gosh, the food situation was ridiculous. We engulfed plateful after plateful of Mexican traditional dishes, from Chicharron and boiled pig skin, to barbacoa, to fish stew, and everything in between :) The Diaz family were a true treat and blessing to us.

In addition to feeding us to the brim, the family also introduced us to the second largest Carnival celebration on earth. The Vera Cruz Carnival draws acts from around the world and the festivities start and the parade stretches as far as the eye can see with the stands rocking with the music, faces lit up with the flashing and strobing lights of the dazzling floats, grandmothers and grandfathers dance with granddaughters and grandsons while teenage family members gyrate with teenage desire all while mom and dad cuddle with cold beer in hand. A true multi-generational, multi-age, multicultural, dancing, merry, festive, beautiful expression of dancing form and the human spirit. We joined in the dancing in the stands and had our fair share of tasty cold ones, the photos and speak more than the fairly mundane expressions that I have tried to convey, so check those out below!!!

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From the carnival parade, Alfredo whisked us back to the homestead where mama had fish taquitos waiting for us with tasty leftovers. Thankful for the chance to refill we passed out after some drunken confrontation and woke up to a breakfast of fresh tortillas, fried eggs, beans, three types of salsa and lemonade. Hard life. We did laundry and then headed out on an archaeological adventure, visiting one of the largest early pyramid structures and the first major settlement that the Spanish conquered and in fact convinced to join them in their quest against the Mexican empire as the coastal folks had no love for Tenochtitlan,. Thus they ended  up with Antigua and the house of Hernan Cortes and thus a place in western and colonial history, infamy, and lived experiences.

 


Thus we visited each site, marveling at the ancient limed in river stones and the markedly different architecture due to the different available resources. The brain corals in the hundreds in the walls of Cortes's mansion, offering a cooled and comfortable atmosphere at jarring odds with the oppressive tropical heat that breeds nasty sancudos (mosquitoes), productive sugarcane, and sweet citrus. After a dinner of boiled pork skin in tortillas and chicharron we retired to an evening of tossing around the football and working out. Paradise in Vera Cruz, the stars seemed clearer there. Maybe it was just the warm hearts keeping us healthy...

We knew we had to leave eventually but none of us wanted to. The following day we headed out to a coconut grove and harvested coconuts for an hour and a half and learned about how they are cultivated. Alfredo Sr. showed us his research fields and explained his sugarcane compost experiments that he was running on oranges and limes. So interesting.
 


We headed back to the house and made our way to the coast to find the beach that they were trying to get us to stay at, it happened to be one of Alfredo Sr.'s best friends and cousin, who owned a property on the beachfront which he had camping established in and he was in the process of restoring mangroves on the property. He also raised corn and fed the excess to his hogs which he served at his seafood restaurant.
 

A great guy who also loved the diversity of animals that made their homes on his lands, from the iguanas in the branches of the trees to the dogs who followed him loyally. After a couple seafood salads and beers we headed out on the dunes in his tiny Ford Ranger and he led us up and down extremely perilous grades, sliding down sand dunes and stalling out on the tops of certain slopes. we eventually made it to the top of a main dune and stopped to admire the view and jump down some of the slopes.
 
Loading back into the bed of the pickup we once again careened down steep slopes and we all had to check our shorts for accidents when we were back on horizontal ground.


 
 


That afternoon we met the neighbors who had us over for seafood soup and we listened to the wild stories of a man who had spent a good deal of time in North Carolina throughout his life as an immigrant who had entered the country illegally. He was back in Mexico but loved his time in the U.S. but had moistly spent lots of money, worked a lot of construction, and found himself in altercations over race.

We had barbacoa for desert and prepared to head south the the next day, car stuffed with gifts, from honey, to molasses, to bread, to sloppy Joe mix we had more that we knew what to do with. Saying our sad goodbyes to Olga, Alfredo, Jenni, and Aladin was tough but we will see them again.

 The road stretched out and before we knew it we were lost and turned around, eventually we escaped Vera Veracruz and headed towards the south towards the Salto de Egipantla, a highly recommended site by Alfredo Sr. We were stoked to head out along the sand dunes. Brian salivated over the waves, while I sat in the window seat salivating over the bags of fresh shrimp being sold to passersby. The Rain came down in hurtling waves, pounding the car and jarring me awake. We swiped through the rain to glance at signs and make our way to the waterfall celebrating when we made it to the parking lot. After a short hike and small entrance fee we were treated to a massive gushing waterfall.



Most happily we were treated to a special moment that I caught on camera. A true look into the relationship of James and Josh.
 
Upon leaving the waterfall Josh bartered for some cigars that were hand-rolled and famous of the region which apparently grew lots of tobacco. As we left the parking lot, we lit up our cigars, rolled down the windows, and turned up the Snoop Dogg, blasting tunes as we headed down the road laughing and crying. A beautiful day. That night brought us to a small road that wound through sugar cane fields and led to Cerro Negro outside of Tamulipas. This small neighborhood that we stumbled into after asking if there was any free grass to sleep on, whereupon a man told us to ask the mayor, the mayor happened to be out in the fields to we stopped at his sisters house and her husband Felix invited us to camp in their front yard and then to sleep in their front room. We shared some of our soup with them while they fed us freshly made hand pounded tortillas.

They asked us to stay with them in the morning and learn how to make empanadas, after a brief discussion we decided that we should not pass up the opportunity to learn how to make tamales. Thus we met Felix early in the morning and started to saw down the banana leaves which we cured in the smoke and them separated into the proper sections.



The chicken was boiled with peas and carrots and chicken stock and cilantro, the salsa made by frying the onions and jalapenos combined with a fire roasted poblano all mixed with cilantro and garlic.

Mmmmm Tasty! This went with the chicken tamales. In the the black bean tamales, we prepared a sweeter dough with a bit more lard and chopped up ojas de something that tasted very much like black licorice. Tasty. Into a giant pot with a steamer on it and they cooked for an hour and after cooling, were tastier than heck, we packed in a peck and hit the road blessing and thanking Felix and his wife for their kindness.


Amazing people. Amazing Times.

We finally made it past the knee and started heading up the Yucatan and into the swampy oil fields, spending a night camping in the center of a pad that a family offered to us. We shared stories and margaritas and beer with an uncle who loved to hunt alce (elk) and cierva (deer) and who told us tobacco smoke scares off vipers, a relevant fact and good thing for us to know.


We saved a stogie for this possibility. In the morning we jumped off to Ciudad del Carmen and up towards Campeche. The road hugged white sand beaches and marshes, smelt laid in massive piles drying on black tarps. Pelicans soared over piers and dove into schools of unsuspecting fish.

Our tire exploded on the rough road, tearing into a few pieces, luckily Josh calmly slowed down and pulled to the side where we were able to pull the tire off with the help of some local men on their Sunday afternoon lunch break, aka the day they often drink heavily, the property owners were very helpful but a couple of the fellows were aggressive and chose to mess a bit with Josh, (never a good idea as those of us who know josh know).

Alas, we made it out of there with a new tire and no physical altercations. Mostly the Mexican dudes wanted Josh to beat up this really drunk fellow and Josh really did not want to, but the dude was amazingly obnoxious, making it tough.

We heard the call of the ocean and posted up in A_____ a beach town and looked for seafood. They brought out a massive selection of fresh fish and we ordered our separate orders.

 Fresh seafood appeared along with cold beers and that led to a halcyon food bliss with empanadas and rice doused in savory sauce filled hungry mouths. As we tried to leave town, I realized that my water bottle was still in the restaurant so we turned around and as I retrieved my bottle, Brian managed to get pulled over by the cops for turning the wrong way on a one way street (with no sign and no cars on in or parked in the street mind you). Alas I walked up to Josh and Brian offering the officers the equivalent of ten dollars to let us off as we needed to find a camping spot and we had little to no daylight left. Luckily we made a deal and headed down the coast pulling into a secluded beach where we swam with lighting eels and washed the days troubles off with cooling briny water.

In the morning our cooler was gone, our first robbery, alas, we did not care about the cooler but rather about the honey and molasses as those were things we used every day! Alas, we made some fishermen happy people and they probably needed it more than we did.

 Into Campeche we stopped at a massive fort above the city and proceeded to realize we were in the land of the iguana as they scurried forth from every corner. We walked around the central square in downtown admiring the flawless colonial architecture and the picturesque church.







On the North hill another forth overlooked the city and housed a small museum that we cruised through, mostly laughing about the cute ladies that were walking about. There we got intel that Uxmal was a worthwhile stop and we made it our goal to get there by early afternoon. After seeing the classic murals and statues in the city we hit the road through the thorn forest. Mostly flat with occasional limestone outcroppings, the landscape is dotted with karst topography and with deep cenotes and subsurface caves and lakes.


At Uxmal we received our first dose of true Mayan heritage and sites. Wowza. Renowned for the incredible artistry of the pyramids and all the other surrounding buildings, Uxmal set a high bar for Mayan temples. The Temple of the Magician stunned. The ball court left us wondering. The government apartments and aviary's intricate stonework flabbergasted.










We left the site giddy and having read every sign and informational pamphlet. Wow. Into the scrub we grabbed some food and some gnarly sausages along with 6-packs for each of us and we headed out on a deserted road with overhanging branches and set up camp. A night of tasty food (unfortunately questionable sausages left some of us on the toilet the next day) and debaucherous drinking left all the six packs gone and the camp divided into two distinct camps, skiers and snowboarders with Brian and Josh holding up the torch for the snowboarders and James and myself extolling the virtues of skiing and the comparative advantages of skiing. After a few hours we retired to our tarp and fell soundly asleep. In the midst of our heavy slumber, we eventually groggily awoke to ants crawling everywhere, and biting everywhere, and jumping from the sky! Exactly, Ants everywhere! We shook our sleeping bags free, and all jumped in the car, with James claiming the roof. for the next three hours we all tried to rest fitfully in uncomfortable positions in a sweaty car filled with steamy men.
 
Uhg. In the morning we gladly left our ant infested camp and watched as Josh nursed a nasty rash of bites, we each scratched our legs with red welts, and we watched in amazement as thousands of ants tore chunks from our kitchen rag which they had already decimated into a rag barely resembling its past form, Just see the video below:






We headed into Merida determined to sell our destroyed tire to lighten the load and to check out the central markets of Merida and possibly try some of the famed relleno negro, a specialty of the Yucatan that was served ubiquitously in the market and area. Pepper pastes, fresh veggies, and the stench of sewage assailed our senses as we entered the market splitting into groups as we explored the most interesting stretches. Eventually we made our way to a stand that promised a variety of relleno negro options and we ordered four along with drinks and the chicken special, all for a couple dollars a piece. Such is life in Mexico.

From the market we headed to Chichen Itza our eyes wide and in wonder over Mayan sites and lore. We decided to enter the park despite having an hour and a half to explore the grounds. I ran about snapping photos and reading the signs. What a collection of massive history. Looking back on our trip we had a truly lucky lineup that allowed us to see a diversity of Mayan history and witness the culture at multiple stages from its early rise to its historic dominance and then its fall and crumble back into the jungle. But commentary aside, just know that the way these sites unfold hold significance and offer a good teaching and possible route for others.

Chichen Itza rose to prominence later than Uxmal and they were the titans of the salt trade. They mastered the production process and used the wealth to create massive pyramids and exert influence throughout the Yucatan. Eventually the empire would collapse but the ruins inspired wonder as the massive pyramid erupted like a volcano in the center of the site and the domed observatory and hall of governors and the jaguar ball courts and the skull decorations and the intricate patterns truly astounded us.









We left the site enthralled and upon the recommendations of a Mayan couple who told us we should camp at the police station, we instead found an abandoned field, made dinner, and contemplated the heavens, wondering what the Mayans were thinking as they looked up at the same stars. Generational connections lie in the skies.

We woke in the morning to a few folks gathered on some rocks in the corner of the field. We slowly rose and proceeded about our morning, eventually a larger group massed, speaking Mayan, they sharpened their machetes and oiled weed whackers. We realized they were about to clear the field that we were camping in. As we tried to quickly clean our dishes the boys started mowing down the weeds right next to us, one fellow came over and said that his friend was just a "crazy Mexican" and that we should take our time and not worry. We were falling over in stitches taking photos simultaneously folding up tarps and stuffing in sleeping bags. Our camp was cleaned up in record time and we had a hilarious story and they had a hilarious story to tell their families about. In Valladolid Josh worked on applications while Brian and James and I headed into the cenotes or underground caves with water. Our morning consisted of swimming in clean fresh water and cleaning our water and our clothes. Fresh and clean we joined Josh and headed out of town to the coast for a day at the beach.


We failed to find camping in the ridiculously developed coastline, (for others, go to Tulum! and then find free camping there, do not try to go North or South of Tulum as you will find nothing). More on the nothing. That's where we ended up, on a cul-de-sac with mansions lining the drive. We hunkered down explaining our situation to the security dudes who took our names and said no worries just no fireworks and no loud music. We said OK and proceeded to make a massive dinner and drink rum on a dock overlooking a resort community. General hilarity. Cheering on older couples. Good times.


Then in the morning the snorkeling was unbelievable with a massive diversity of deep water species and a multitude of corals and fish, especially prominent were the fan corals and whew. We headed to the city for the morning and after dropping Josh off to work on his applications, Brian headed to the beach and James and I headed into Tulum, another Mayan site. We may have skirted a couple cliffs and jumped a small fence to enter a pathway but that was the way we were advised to go by Argentinians locals who said it was really the only way to go.




After enjoying the beach and the gorgeous waters and locals, we headed to Brian. I jumped in the water eager to snorkel deep out at the reef about a 1/4 mile out. I paddled out and sat fascinated, exploring the branching corals and the vibrant fish and jelly anemones, and the plume worms. Such diversity. Such color. Such life. Eventually I headed back to shore, my tired legs and arms struggling to carry my body against the current and back to land. Eventually I met James and Brian with a multitude of girls in tow, Brian and James had met Stepahnia and I had me two french folks and one Canadian all whom needed rides back into Tulum. We loaded up the top of the car and the seats and picked up a surprised josh who was in his element.

We dropped off the passengers, all except stephania who begged us to stay and dance the night away at a cool bar where she liked the DJ. After months out in the wild we thought a night of dancing in the city would do us well. Grabbing a few six packs at the market and a couple liters of tequila we enjoyed a cold one in the parking lot and proceeded downtown to make chicken noodle soup and imbibe. A few hours later in a hazy collective memory we had accomplished a few things.

1. We had cooked extremely salty soup, salty to the point of curling your tounge
2. We had consumed all our alcohol.
3. We swamg mexican school kids around in the street.
4. Stephanie drank us all under the table.
5. Elliott nearly got the crew arrested.
6. Money was exchanged.
7. James was kicked out of a bar.
8. We ended up sleeping on a beach and running out of town at dawn the next morning.






 
 
 And thus we entered Belize in sweltering heat, with smashing hangovers, and nursing nauseous bellies. The border crossing was easily one of the most unpleasant of the trip and we had to unpack the entire car to show that we did not have any illegal items, luckily they did not make us trek 300 yards with all our gear, just to have us pack it up a minute later. Thank you to the one reasonable border guard there. Finally we trekked into the land of chilled out rasta vibing, a totally different feel from the hustle and movement of Mexico. A new chapter in the story began. The Belizian adventure starts now.