Friday, May 04, 2007

My love-hate relationship with the Yucatan.

We recently returned from eight days in Mexico. Although it turns out that I am not supposed to call it Mexico, since people who live where we went seem to think of Mexico as a distinct place. We ran the gamut on this trip: lost bags and hacienda plantations and getting lost on rural roads and spectacular Mayan ruins and sopa de lima and colonial cities and beach towns and cooking classes and food poisoning. Um, I didn't mean to implicate any cause-effect relationship between those last two items.

To begin: Man oh man how I detest Alaska Airlines. With special reference to the baggage handlers in Los Angeles. In related news, spending a couple of days in the Yucatan without deodorant is not a vanguard travel experience that I would recommend. See also: having frustrating customer service conversations in Spanish when you're only a so-so speaker of Spanish on a good day. See also: having fifty of these conversations in one day. On the bright side, by the end of day five -- since that is how long it took for Chris's bag to arrive at last (mine showed up on day three) -- the staff of Air Mexicana in the Merida airport felt like close personal friends of ours. When we checked in for our flight home, the woman who checked us in for our flight told us that she felt like crying when his bag finally showed up. Then she marked our luggage priority for the trip home and checked us in without looking at our ID. In general, bad guys seem like they'd have a pretty easy time of things in the Merida airport, as long as they're not trying to retrieve lost luggage.

The trip home wasn't much better, including as it did a mile sprint through LAX with bags that we were afraid to check back into customs because we were sure that the bags would miss our tight connecting flight. And to the lady who felt like it was fine to cut in front of the entire immigration line in LAX, I hope that your every flight in the future lands twelve hours late. I wish that I could have planted some contraband fruits and vegetables on you such that you had been detained. In summary, I do not wish you well.

But I am jumping ahead. The night we landed in Merida with no luggage and mediocre Spanish language skills was chock-full of other travel-related delights. It is election season coming up in the Yucatan, and Yucatan residents, I have a recommendation. PRI, PAN, whatever you like; the important thing is that you stand up at the polls in favor of some freakin road signs. Seriously, people. The road signs that you have now are filled with helpful messages like: Drive with caution! And: Keep Yucatan clean! And, I kid you not: Do not vandalize the road signs! They are not so big on the actual giving of direction or labels of places. After a fifteen-hour day of planes and airports and lost bags, it was a delight to drive around a series of increasingly remote roads in the dark with a quarter-tank of gas. For three hours! Okay, so we bought gas, which is how we were fueled for three hours. But speaking of that, what car rental company rents a car with a quarter tank of gas? I tell you, Yucatan voters, demand some accountability from your politicians. Though in fairness, I did not see a single vandalized road sign our entire trip.

The hotel where we stayed for the first five days, once we succeeded in finding it, was awesome in some ways and not so awesome in others. The Hacienda Temozon is one of several hotels that have been restored on the grounds of former hacienda plantations. The grounds are exquisite, a perfect mix of decrepit and restored, the villages around the hotel were really interesting to see. They would have been even more interesting if they hadn't been kind of overrun with feral dogs. The reception area at the hotel had pictures up from a visit that Bill Clinton made during his presidency. Apparently Bush has been there even more recently, but there are no pictures up from that. Do your own math.

We used the hotel as a jumping off point for seeing a bunch of things in the area: the ruins of Uxmal and Chichen Itza, the beach town of Progreso (sort of like the Jersey shore for people who live in Merida, I think), Cenote Dzitnup, Valladolid, Izamal, and some other stuff in between. Hands down favorite for me was Izamal. One of the very cool things about the whole region is the continuity in city life; many modern cities developed over time from the Mayan cities that were located there hundreds of years ago. Izamal is a wonderful example of this, with many modern buildings actually the same exact buildings that existed in the original Mayan cities, and many more ruins interspersed throughout the town. No matter how you look at it, that's just cool. Cathedrals in particular are frequently old Mayan pyramids with the tops hacked off and the stones reconfigured a little bit, all across the region. The architectural continuity is fascinating.

After the initial five days we spent three days in the city of Merida. There is a lot to like about Merida, but I feel no special need to return. There are certainly some beautiful buildings, but I didn't love the city. One thing I did love is the cooking class that we took at Los Dos, which I would highly recommend if you're visiting the region. We began with an hour lecture on Mayan history and anthropology with a focus on food culture, which was great all on its own. We then went for a market tour, where we not only saw the market but also picked up ingredients for the cooking we would do in the afternoon. We made a number of Yucatecan specialties and just generally had a great time. And the food was awesome. I definitely came away from this trip with a much clearer sense of Yucatecan cuisine and the ways in which it is regionally special.

I will save the smart-ass comment about traveler's diarrhea for later.

Okay, no I won't.

Sometime in Merida we picked up this horrible bug. We haven't been able to pinpoint where or when, though we have some theories. It completely sidelined us the last 24 hours of our trip and made the travel home a bit of an ordeal. It is, in its own mysterious way, connected to why I currently have 720 pesos in my wallet. I will choose to leave it mysterious.

So in all: I'm glad we went to the region and I have recommendations for anyone else who might be going there. Though it is beautiful, though the ruins were awesome, and though the people we met were truly generous and kind and we really enjoyed dusting off our Spanish skills and successfully communicating with people, I feel no great desire to return. In fact, you might even say that I would go out of my way not to return. Maybe the food poisoning is too recent and I'll feel differently in a few months.