Oh Mexico!

In sharp contrast to my idle days in Oaxaca, in Mexico City I have been sightseeing with a vengance. The guidebook never leaves my side and I plan my days with military precision; two main attractions per day, separated by lunch at a Rough Guides approved establishment.

I am having a lot of fun (planning is a hobby of mine), and am just a little exhausted.

So, four days in the capital. I went to see the zoo (fantastic!),

The National Museum of Anthropology (huge!),

Frida Kahlo’s famous Casa Azul,…and Diego Rivera’s mural of Mexican life.

My final day was devoted to the pyramids at Teotihuacan. I’ve been around ruins with a guide, with a group and I have to say, going on my own is one of my absolute favourite things.

Teotihuacan was very beautiful, and the blue sky and green grass (as well as relatively few crowds) makes me feel incredibly peaceful.

Note: if anyone is planning on going to these pyramids, don’t get a tour. It’s easy to go by public transport and a whole lot cheaper.

Mexico City is not as overwhelming as it is often portrayed. The metro is efficient (although confusing), there are good street signs everywhere, and for entertainment you need only step onto the street.

That being said, it’s definitely not pretty. And there are throngs of people, some of the pushiest and rudest I’ve come across. I remain unconvinced by the food.

I would like to come back to Mexico and explore a bit more…see the beaches and get out into a non-urban area.

Wandering in Oaxaca

After the struggle to get here, relaxing in Oaxaca (Pronounced Wah-HAH-kah) was definitely worth it. The streets are bright and colourful (take this ridiculous clock tower).

Wonderful churches are abundant and the produce on display in the markets makes me want to go home and make endless salads.

The graffitti here is incredible, and art seems to be entrenched in the city. There’s a multitude of cool bars and coffee shops in which to enjoy some of the Oaxacan highlights – ice cream, hot chocolate and coffee.

Apart from a cycling tour (which was amazing, although very hard work – 28 miles. I’ll just repeat that: 28 miles!! around the Oaxacan valley, through little villages and the ruins of Monte Alban) I did very little in the way of traditional sightseeing. Instead, I walked and walked, making Oaxaca the place I feel I know the best, even though I’ve stayed longer elsewhere. Up and down every street, I discovered a really relaxing place to stay. I would definitely come back.

The one low point of Oaxaca was the food. It’s meant to be the culinary capital of Mexico, and while I didn’t have high expectations (my food tastes rarely overlap with those considered culinary delights), I spent a good deal of time here hungry. The food is just downright strange, and while in other countries there was always a plainer option I could hide behind, in Oaxaca it was all in or nothing. To add to the confusion, names of many meats and dishes are different in Mexico, meaning I could hardly decipher the menu. Maybe I picked bad restaurants, but it was all quite disheartening, in small portions.

The ice cream was an exception – I had heard there were all sorts of exciting flavours available, and exotic ice cream is a holiday favourite of mine. Indeed, they sold tuna, cheese and burnt milk, as well as a number of traditional and more-than-traditional flavours. I tried Pina Colada (which when made well is practically a dessert anyway) and a coke float with lime ice cream. I wanted to taste orange with chili, but they were out of orange and I can’t face chili on it’s own!

Month three: the halfway point

I am officially halfway through, and about to say goodbye to Central America – a hotter, noisier, more playful kind of place than I ever imagined. I’m going to miss crazy travelling salesmen on buses, drivers honking hello at their friends, colourful markets and the patience of locals with my Spanish.

Places visited: Costa Rica (Cahuita, La Fortuna, Monteverde), Nicaragua (Isla Ometepe, Granada, Lagoa Ayopa, Leon), El Salvador, Honduras (Copan Ruinas, La Florida), Guatemala (Chiqimula, Flores, Tikal, Lanquin, Antigua, San Marcos la Laguna, Xela)

Currencies: Dollars, Cordobas, Lempiras, Quetzales

Time differences: -7 GMT all the way

Modes of transport: Taxi, tuk-tuk, car, shuttle bus, ferry, bicycle, jeep, chicken bus

Favourite things: Chicken buses! Travelling with Emily, the sloth sanctuary, rappelling down a waterfall, getting my hair cut, Leon, Antigua (a prettier, wider, easier Cusco), the lagoon inside La Fortuna volcano, Tikal ruins (very, very impressive), bat caves at Lanquin.

Worst things: Nicaraguan street harassment, Copan Ruinas town (spent the vast majority of my two days there crying), thinking I would have to spend an entire seven-plus hour bus journey stood up (a kind man gave me his seat after a few hours), Zephyr Lodge (abysmally run hostel in Lanquin, Guatemala).

That sounds like a lot on reflection, but I have really enjoyed my time here. It´s ridiculously beautiful, for one thing, and I´ve met some really nice people along the way. And it´s all a learning curve for future travels.

What I should have brought: Needle and thread, although patching can only go so far.

Items bought: T-shirt, earrings, foldable toothbrush, bag (to replace broken backpack), book

Items lost: Ipod. Although it was actually stolen, by another traveller.

Illness and injury: loss of appetite, bruised/broken (?) toe, scratches, mosquito bites, peeling skin, sunburn.

Books read: The Speed of Dark, The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, On the Road to Rouen, The Devil Wears Prada, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Oryx and Crake.

Strange/ Interesting food: Chicken, rice and tortillas on the back of a very crowded, sweaty bus, or the same meal served in someone´s kitchen, by candlelight (no electricity), both eaten with my hands.

Best food: Rosemary chicken in Antigua, pancakes in Grenada at Kathy´s Waffle House. I did develop quite a taste for tortillas as well. Slightly concerned that I might be becoming addicted to Coca Cola.

Best hostels: Costa Rica Backpackers, Tortuga Balooda (Leon, Nicaragua)

Coming up in month four: I have ten days in Mexico before I fly into California. I am so excited and unexpectedly nervous. It´s going to be different.

A Mexican border story

I’ve had a pretty strange day. From Xela, Guatemala, I took a taxi, chicken bus, shuttle and tuktuk to the border, where I remembered to change my currency and got my stamp with minimal trouble (trying to decipher the meaning of four different people speaking in very rapid Spanish, haggling over the tuktuk, and answering a well-meaning but very annoying tourism official’s questions).

I was feeling positive as I approached the Mexican side, but had to get directions from at least three people to actually find immigration. It’s in a huge, sprawling building, and so different from Central American systems that I was utterly confused.

First, there was a man who asked if I had any food, flowers or plants with me. In the name of full disclosure I showed him my  half-eaten bag of crisps, and told him I had some water. He gave the Lays a perfunctory glance and then proceeded to feel up my bag.

Next, inside, for the actual entry into the country. It was just me, so again a bit tricky to work out where to queue (so much easier to follow people!). The guard appeared to be first day on the job, and kept asking questions which were answered by my entry form. But I got the second stamp and was directed on my way.

When I got outside I turned to walk away, when another guard asked me where I’d come from and where I was going. I said from Guatemala and he pointed in the opposite direction. I looked over my shoulder, confused. He was pointing back towards Guatemala. I said as much, pointing myself and looking increasingly stupid. He then elaborated on the directions, showing that I needed to go back and to the left.

From there, I passed another room with someone inside who beckoned me in. This time it was a security scanner, which I dutifully put my bags through. When nothing beeped, I put my bags back on and made to leave, but the guard said something to me I didn’t understand, gesturing towards a desk with papers on. Did I need another form? Nope, as she came over and showed me there was a button to open the automatic doors. Feeling foolish, I continued through the warren of immigration, until, abruptly, open air and a sign towards Tapachula. But no people, and no buses.

Bienvenidos a Mexico.

Mexican fun

I’ve been reading Historias de Mexico (Stories from Mexico) for a while now. It’s split up into 16 short stories, with Spanish on one side and the English translation on the other. It’s the perfect set-up for learning, as you can read as much as possible in Spanish before checking your understanding.

The stories themselves are also really funny. They’re traditional legends, so there’s a lot of Gods and Goddesses, talking animals, and magic. I’m certainly learning some interesting vocab – I can say ‘dwarf’ and ‘witch’ and even ‘torture’, but not how to get my tenses right, or ask someone for help.

I was speaking to a friend recently in Spanish (She’s much, much better than me!) and she mentioned someone’s boyfriend. Novio. I jumped up, recognising the word. “Sweetheart!” I cried, triumphant. Well, yes, she said. Or just ‘boyfriend’ if you’re living in 2014. I’d read a story from the book a few nights before about two young people who are nicknamed los novios – sweethearts. In the story, after they die (nothing if not cheery), a God turns them into volcanoes so they can be together forever.

There’s some other highlights; another princess is lying on the beach when a group of soldiers walks by. She sees the most handsome one, promptly falls in love, and then faints. They don’t waste time in Mexico.

It’s also really interesting to see how these legends compare to other myths from around the world. There’s one which is basically the story behind Chinese New Year, and another which is a form of Sleeping Beauty.

If anyone is trying to learn Spanish, or any other language, try and find some bilingual stories to read. The shorter and weirder, the better.