Trip Start Feb 11, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Mexico  , Central Mexico and Gulf Coast,
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hola everyone,

This update comes from Mexico home of tequila, sombreros and the 50c taco.

We spent two weeks in Mexico, flying from Havana, Cuba and touching down in Cancun after quite a hairy flight with Mexicana Airlines.

The minute we took off on February 1, we felt something wasn't quite right. The plane was shuddering quite violently (though we initially put this down to our positioning above the wing in cattle class) and the aircraft seemed to be flying slower and lower than usual.

We both began feeling uneasy. We glanced around. Nothing out of the ordinary. Then suddenly, a high-pitched whistling, as if a section of the plane had been ripped away and air was gushing into the cabin. One of the cabin crew briskly walked to the back of the plane and picked up the telephone, which was presumably linked to the cockpit. She said a few words, then took a seat.

We were both paralysed with fear. Not a word passed between us. Later, Caroline would recall how at that moment she felt that sometime, in the near future, she was going to die. That the plane was about to crash and there would come a time soon that she would need to stay calm while she came to terms with her impending death and say goodbye to Chris.

Despite fearing what we would see, we both snuck glances at the cabin crew seated at the rear of the plane. They were silent, but there was no indication of panic in their faces. We waited. Other passengers shifted uncomfortably in their seats. A baby started crying. The plane ascended, seemed to increase its speed, but the screeching sound continued. After what seemed like an eternity, the air hostesses unbuckled their seatbelts and began making preparations for the in-flight service. Perhaps we weren't going to crash after all.

Nevertheless, we spent the remainder of the hour-long flight seated silently in terror, neither of us daring to tempt fate by assuming we would land safely. We know it's impossible but it felt that when we finally touched down in Cancun, Mexico, we drew our first breath since that wretched sound began just after take-off.

So...obviously from the existence of this update the story had a happy ending, but we're not ashamed to admit the experience rattled us. Having taken 20 flights in the past 12 months, we'd never succumbed to a proper fear of flying past the usual uneasiness during particularly bad turbulence or a rough landing, but we've agreed that the next take-off - probably the one that takes us from Central America to our new temporary home in Canada - might have us on edge. We'll see how we go.

Anyway, onto more pleasant topics.

We had initially planned to stay in Cancun just the one night. Known for little more than its hideous overdeveloped 'Zona Hotelera' strip where mass gatherings of middle-aged Americans sleep, feed and bake, we were anxious to make the quickest transit possible to the beach town of Isla Mujeres just off the coast.

However, checking into the Quetzal Hostel, in Centro Cancun and far from the tacky tourist trappings, we felt like we had come home.

The minute we walked in the door, we hear a raucous cheer from the common room. We peeked in. Liverpool was playing Chelsea in the English Premier League. We dropped our packs and found a spot on one of the comfy couches. No one cared we hadn't checked in. For the next 90 minutes, it was all about football.

And Liverpool won in a crushing 2-0 victory. Of course.

That night, the Superbowl was on. Pittsburgh Steelers versus the Arizona Cardinals in the biggest event in America's sporting calendar. In celebration, the guys running the hostel put on the best BBQ we'd laid eyes on in almost a year. Mexican style with all the trimmings, plus a giant bottle of tequila and an esky of cold Pacifico beers. And it was free. We decided immediately we would stay - at least for another night.

During our time in Cancun, we ventured no further than the nearby Parque Las Palapas where we sat with locals and feasted on cheap tacos, quasedillas and burritos.

It's true what they say, that Mexican food in Mexico is different than what you get back home in Australia. For a start, there's no sour cream or cheese and tacos are dished up in small round soft flat bread, much like miniature Old El Paso fajita wraps. There's this thing called mole, a kind of thick brown paste made from chocolate that is usually served as a sauce for pollo (chicken), guacamole is really runny and everything is served with a wedge of lime.

And we should know. In those few days in Cancun we sampled nearly everything on the menu from the little stalls in Parque Las Palapas, enthused by the dirt-cheap prices and the wave of new flavour sensations.

On February 3 we farewelled Cancun and made our way south along the Caribbean coast to Isla Mujeres (literally 'Island of the Women'), a 12km long mass and long-time backpacker haunt.

We spent two nights here, drinking beers on the beach, watching awesome sunsets and stuffing our faces with pescadillas (fish tacos - sounds gross but totally delish).

We also discovered entire shops dedicated to selling some of the most awesome piñatas we've ever seen - everything from Batman and Spiderman to Barney and Bob the Builder.

On February 5, we continued our journey south to the beach town of Tulum. At any other time, this place would be paradise. Sand floor huts, long stretches of near-deserted white sand beaches and sparkling azure water - all of which just screamed tropical hideaway. 

Problem was, the Caribbean coast was temporarily under siege from unseasonable extreme winds. We'd encountered them in Isla Mujeres and now, in Tulum, they were almost threatening to swoop us up and hurl us across the Caribbean to Jamaica.

It was quite disappointing as we had heard about, and longed for, this tropical paradise for months. We'd envisaged wasting several weeks here, swinging in hammocks and doing nothing much at all.

Instead, we just stayed one night, spending a day wandering around, and picnicking in, the famous ruins. It was one of the last Mayan sites to be abandoned and you can see why the ancient people where reluctant to leave. Perched upon the surf-splashed cliffs, they occupied prime real estate and no doubt, when it wasn't as windy, many an alcoholic beverage was consumed and a chicken sacrificed in celebration of the superb vista.

And then, ever-so-slightly disheartened, we took an overnight bus south-west across Mexico to the jungle town of Palenque.

The town itself is nothing to write home about, but the drawcard is El Panchan, a little commune about 4km from the town centre. Set in the jungle, El Panchan is basically a whole heap of thatched-roof cabanas surrounding a big thatched-roof restaurant and bar called Don Mucho and several smaller bars. Right next door is the entrance to the famous Mayan ruins.

We spent six sweaty nights here in our own little cabana, being woken up at dawn by the deafening roar of howler monkeys (which sounds much like a jaguar or a cheetah or some other very, scary animal the first time you hear it in the dark).

We drank Pina Coladas, feasted on guacamole, briefly adopted a stray cat and caught collectivos (little shuttle buses mainly used by the locals) into town and back to buy fruit and vegetables from the local markets. 

We also discovered the joy of the enormous bakery sections in Mexcian supermarkets. Grab a huge silver tray and some tongs then simply browse, aisle after aisle of carb-loaded goodness.

We dedicated one day - in fact, the day of our one-year anniversary since leaving Sydney - to the ruins, first occupied in around 100 BC and reputedly one of the best Mayan sites in Central America.

We're not sure if it was the spectacular jungle setting, the constant growl of the howler monkeys and warble of native birds or the profound serenity, but this place was magic. Hallowed ground. Other-earthly. We spent the entire day relaxing in the soft grass under the shade of a tree, watching tourists clamber over the ruins. Those who weren't too concerned with exploring did as we did and frolicked in the grass. Yes, frolicked. We commented several times that we felt we had stumbled across the Garden of Eden.

Then before we knew it, six days had passed and it was time to move on. Our general plan was to head into Guatemala to visit Tikal (the granddaddy of Mayan sites) and enrol in Spanish school, though we decided to take a brief detour to San Cristobal de la Casas, a little colonial town five hours south of Palenque.

We had been unsure as to whether the detour was worth it, as we've seen so many colonial towns on this trip that we're quite immune to their charm, but Caroline was keen to check out a weird church she'd heard about in the nearby village of San Juan Chamula.

The bus trip from Palenque through the mountains to San Cristobal was a stomach-churning experience. Incredibly windy roads and a driver hell-bent on breaking all previous trip records (or our necks, whichever came first), meant we spent the entire five hours resiting the urge to vomit our breakfast tacos all over the Mexican family seated in front of us.

Even after we had arrived in San Cristobal (at 2100m above sea level it was much cooler than the stickiness of the jungle), it took us several hours before the feeling of nausea left completely.

To be honest, while the town was pretty, it was very similar to (though not quite as spectacular as) towns like Cuzco we had seen in South America - cobbled streets, café-lined plazas and cathedrals. 

In 1994, it was briefly occupied by the Zapatistas, a left-wing peasant group who fight for indigenous rights, particularly land rights, in Mexico's poorest states.

But we spent a couple of nice days there - strolling through the colourful markets, sampling the excellent coffee produced in the area and chowing down on hot corn coated in salt, cheese and chilli from street vendors.

We also celebrated Valentines Day with cocktails and delicious dinner at a restaurant that offered the odd combination of Middle Eastern, Thai and Indian cuisine - and taking a day trip to San Juan Chamula to see the church.

The tiny village is home to a community of Tzotzil people and on the day we visited they were all gathered in the main plaza peddling their wares in the weekly market. Farmers chatted in sheep fur vests, while the women wandered around in cute multicoloured tunics and thick black wool skirts. We shopped for fruit and vegetables and some home-made cheese, all purchased for a pittance.

We stopped by the church which, although Catholic, is unlike the regular varieties you see at home. From the outside it looks pretty standard, but as soon as you enter you realise there is something a bit different going on. 

The first thing you notice is the overwhelming smell of pine - the entire floor is covered with pine needles, the same as you would find shed from a Christmas tree. The next thing you notice is the candles - hundreds of thousands of them all around the church, on altars in front of statues of saints and lined up, quite dangerously, amid all the pine needles on the floor.

There are no pews or chairs - all the worshippers sit on the floor on the pine needles, lighting row after row of candles, while muttering inaudible incantations. Beside them are bottles of cola and lemonade (they believe sipping soda usurps evil spirits). Walking quietly though the church, we carefully stepped over candles and freshly sacrificed chickens and sat down amongst the pine needles and local families, to watch their strange rituals. 

And we observed in horror as a herd of rowdy American tourists blundered their way through the gathered worshippers, knocking over lit candles and leaving a trail of day-tripped destruction in their wake.  

At one point, there is a flurry in the corner, a still-live chicken squawking and flapping about as a woman waves it by the feet through the candles as the rest of her family chants. We decide it's time to leave. Just as we are about to walk out the door, we hear the chicken let out a final, throaty screech and we try not to imagine that we were witness to the fowl's death-throes.

On February 16, we made the hellish five-hour bus journey back through the mountains, where we spent one more night in a thatched-roof cabana in the jungle (having to shoo out a giant, spiky, poisonous-looking toad from the bathroom before we could go to bed) prior to an early morning border crossing into Guatemala.

That story up soon.

Until then,
Chris and Caroline

Julia and Kris and Ben and Sara: Congratulations on your wonderful baby news.

Leah and Jerry: We hope your Big Fat Greek Wedding was wonderful - can't wait to see the pictures, and

Richard and Mel: Congratulations on your recent nuptials.

Jack: Well done on getting into music academy. Don't forget your big sister when you're working on Beyonce's next album, ok.

Mum/Joyce, John/Dad, Auntie Ange and Ian: Thank you all again so much for taking care of the move for us. We don't know what we would have done without you. And also a big thank you to Jo for babysitting all our furniture while we're away, you are a lifesaver!

Hank and Natty: Well done on your massive achievement guys, we wish you all the very best.

Simon: Happy birthday for the other day, dude and

Pen: Happy 30th for next  week - you old thing, you.

Frolicking in the ruins in Palenque. Complete unadulterated bliss.

Sleeping in the jungle in our cabana in El Panchan - even with the howler monkeys, toads and chirping bats that lived in the thatched-roof.

The food, glorious, food. Burritos, quasedillas, chalupas and 50c tacos. Heaven.

Valentina spicy sauce - henceforth referred to as Chris' "other woman".

The amazing Superbowl BBQ and beers put on by the good boys at Quetzal Hostel in Cancun. We're still wondering if you're serious about Vegemite and beer as the new Mexican Flavour Sensation.

We're proud to be Australians. We haven't once felt homesick on this trip but reading all about the terrible fires in Victoria, our hearts really ached for home. Though we felt a strange feeling of detachment and helplessness, we were really stoked to hear about the mammoth fundraising event. Well done Aussies!

'Picante' really means picante (hot) in Mexico - finally a country that knows how to spice things up.

Mexicans don't wear sombreros. Tourists wear sombreros. But, generally, Mexicans do wear cowboy hats and boots and sport dirty sanchez moustaches.

Chihuahuas in Mexico are for some reason funnier than those anywhere else in the world. (sorry Tad!)

What is feels like to be truly free.

It has only been a hunch until now, but it seems disasters really following us around the world, with a swag of nasty incidents befalling places either just before we arrive or just after we leave. The terrorist bombings in Istanbul they day before we got into town, the floods in England and the plane crash in New York days after we left. More recently a horrible train crash in Cuba not long after we flew out. Thankfully though our passage has been a safe one.

We have both been suffering mild panic attacks as our finances start to dwindle and we realise that Normal Life must begin again soon. For more than 12 months we have lived a nomadic lifestyle and been free to go where we want and do whatever we want. Soon we must settle down again, and (gasp!) find work. Travelling has re-inspired us both and, while we have several possible plans in the pipeline, for now we have decided to experience life in Canada and will move there for at least six months in April (if we don't run out of money beforehand). After that, who knows?
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