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Sunday, December 07, 2003

A quick update on my travels, if you're interested. Only one robbery to report this time, sorry to disappoint.

Since my last missive I've taken another two weeks of Spanish lessons and my mastery of the language continued apace. I would now classify my knowledge as 'pidgin', but has yet to reach the dizzy heights of 'stuttering'. This done I left the sophistication of Oaxaca City for the surf slacker lifestyle of Peurto Escondido beach, collecting Nick Smith on the way.

The big event in Oaxaca took place a couple of weeks ago, something I hoped would prove to be the highlight of my stay: the Oaxaca City to Monte Alban 12k road race. My Mexican host family supplied me with an entry form, on which I noticed the not inconsiderable prize money, especially by Mexican standards, and the relatively pedestrian previous winning times. I train with renewed vigour, ideas of a little local press coverage and minor celebrity status in Oaxacan sporting circles filling my imagination. I would donate my inevitable winnings to some local worthy cause, making my host family proud and forging a new respect for foreigners in the region.

I got stuffed. The race finishes in the hilltop setting of the Monte Alban ruins, 400 metres above the start, and what you gain in terms of picturesque location of the finish you pay for in suffering getting there. As soon as we hit the hill the leading Mexican runners waved goodbye to the one conspicuously blond Englishman in the race and it was all over for me, eventually tailing in 7th. The Monte Alban site hosts an ancient ball game pitch, and there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that members of the losing team in such games used to be sacrificed. Fortunately this practise has been suspended or my lamentable performance would otherwise see me first up to the plinth.

On to Escondido. The beach has been known to surfers for years for serving up 'the Mexican Pipeline', a renowned left-to-right beach break, or something. Amongst such incomprehensible surfing gobbledygook a laid back resort has grown up that still remains of manageable size and in good taste.

In between tucking into the excellent seafood Nick and I took a surf lesson. Smithy's previous experience shone through as he demonstrated a neat trick in which he seamlessly pirouetted and planted his face on the beach shore. For some reason this resulted in a sore back and winding leaving him currently hors du combat. My own efforts where less dramatic, being spectacular only in their predicable mediocrity.

Predicable too were the events that unfolded simultaneously on the shore. I left my trainers under the watchful eye of a friend, but he left to go surfing before we returned. Someone duly helped themselves to the trainers and the watch that I'd generously placed inside. The trainers need replacing anyway, and I didn't care much for the cheap watch, but also taken were my orthotics, uniquely molded inserts that I use whenever I run. I've been using them for around 10 years and seriously doubt I can avoid foot and knee injuries without them. Looks like I'm going to have to learn to live without though since they are now, worthlessly, in someone else's hands.

Tomorrow we set off, valuables in hand, on a journey that should hopefully get us to Southern Mexico.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Just about to leave San Christobal de Las Casas and head for Palenque having spent a couple of nights here. Become quite fond of the place, it's a great city for just wandering around. A little bit strange though, it seems to be set up to cater for far more people that are actually here, we've regularly found ourselves eating in empty restaurants and have only found a single bar that gathers a crowd in the evening.

You can tell that we've entered Maya country. The people look different and the food has changed from Oaxaca (not as good to be honest). Everything here is done out in very vivid colours, from the old colonial buildings that line the narrow streets to the fabrics that the locals sell in the markets. Today we toured the local countryside on mountain bike, passing through a couple of villages. You can certainly see evidence of this being the poorest part of Mexico, the villagers live a very basic existance. We didn't see any grown men around, some work in the city but many have gone to the US to earn a better wage.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Done the full tourist thing for a couple of days. Went to some very impressive waterfalls called Agua Azul for a day, stunning stuff. Then continued the theme of running to Mexican ruins with a five mile trot to Palenque. Not a race this time but a jog with Smithy, I was just about able to keep up. The Palenque Mayan ruins are pretty spectacular, firstly because they're so substancial, but also because of the jungle setting which makes for a really atmospheric backdrop.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

In Valladolid, Yacatan, Mexico. Came to here hoping to cycle to Cenote Dzitnup, an underground limestone cavern filled with rainwater. The pictures look stunning and you can swim in the water. Unfortunately some sort of fracas has broken out in the area, locals are fighting each other with machetes over the election of some leader and police are preventing anyone from entering. Instead we might hire a motorbike to head out to some ruins; my concern being that riding pillion to Smithy will be far riskier that paying the warring tribes a visit.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Now in Playa Carmen, a beach resort just south of Cancun. Quite a culture shock compared to where we've been up to now. From feeling like the only tourists in town at our last port of call, Valadolid, we're now up to our neck in them. The fact that you're in Mexico here is academic, you can speak English and pay in dollars. There is much to do though, Nick and I have booked up for a couple of SCUBA dives and there are various other attractions close by.

Unfortunately I'm a bit under the weather. Best case I've just caught the sun and will be fine by tomorrow, worse case I've got maleria and will be dead by Christmas.

Survived the bike ride in Valadolid, though it ranks as the second most uncomfortable ride of my life, beaten only by a train journey across France in my youth. Ruins at Chichen Itza very impressive, but Palanque's superiour location means it stays top of my list.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

A good night's sleep seems to have cured the maleria.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Not too much to report as I've been laid low by the continuing effects of the bug I picked up. Will spare you the details but abstaining from food for 36 hours seems to have done the trick. Unfortunately it meant that I missed out on the Scuba diving that Smithy has been doing the last couple of days.

It has allowed me to work out my future travel plans in a bit more detail. This will only make sense if you have a working knowledge of Central American geography or a map handy. Rough plan, if it is of interest, is as follows:

Fly from Cancun to Guatamala City on Dec 23rd.

Spend Christmas in Antigua, then head for the Western Highlands of Guatamala for a few days, probably returning to Antigua for the new year.

Assuming buses have resumed by then, on Jan 2nd start a journey towards San Jose in Costa Rica that will pass through El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. Planning to stop off at places that sound interesting on the way and make it to San Jose by Jan 11th.

Possibly spend a week learning Spanish in the Costa Rican highlands, before spending another 5 days or so in the country.

Fly from San Jose to LA on 21st, then hopping over to see friends Dave and Sarah in Seattle. Leave LA Jan 26th, arriving the other side of the dateline in New Zealand Jan 28th.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Smithy has been dispatched to the airport and all being well should be carousing around Miami South Beach by now. Final scores:
- Smithy finished 1 dollar up in Backgammon, not a bad effort on my part as I didn't know the rules until he explained them. One evening in Playa del Carman our game was interupted by a drunk American claiming to be an international standard player, a boast he appeared to back up by talking some lingo, giving us some tips and beating Smithy.
- I took the table tennis tournament 2-0, though the windy conditions and random bounce of the table made this something of a lottery.
- I forget the Rummy and Whist final scores, but they were close fought affairs.
- Smithy took the blue ribboned event of chess, 6-4. I'm already plotting my opening moves for next time.

We spent our last couple of days in Cancun, a new town created about 30 years ago with the sole intention of taking money off Americans. It's quite a strange place, a resort that stretches along the Carribean cost and around a lagoon along a single road, with hotels and restaurants strung out for around 15 miles. For the most part it appeared as if numbers were down, the usual flood of tourists only amounting to a trickle. In places it reminded me of Douglas in the Isle of Man, a fading seaside resort that had lost it reason for being once the crowd had left, an impression given weight by the generally poor weather. Elsewhere it was busy though, and some of the hotels made for an impressive site, rather like I imagine they might look like in Las Vagas.

We had a fun last day. Took ourselves to the Isla Mujeres, or Island of Women, something two single guys were never going to resist. In fact the name thought to originate from carvings of Mayan goddesses that the Spaniards found. We toured the whole island on mopeds, found a couple of beaches and did a bit of off-road scrambling. Here's a handy travel tip. If you don't carry any money with you can't spend it (those that know Smithy will recognise this behaviour). A slight miscalculation meant that we had enough money to hire a couple of mopeds, after some haggling, but nothing else. Kept the costs right down, and we didn't even have to pay for the damage to one of the bikes after I had a little mishap as we couldn't afford the repairs.

Today the new post-Smithy regime has begun to take shape. On our final night we went for a big of a blow out meal, eating three courses in a fancyish hotel restaurant, washing down a fine meal with a rather good Chilean Merlot. It set us back around 30 pounds each. Today, after running twice for the first time in months, I fed myself at a little tortilla place for a smidgeon over two quid. However I fly to Guatemala tomorrow, where it is supposed to be cheaper.

Friday, December 26, 2003

Not an average Christmas. Spent the last three days in Antigua Guatemala. It's an old colonial town that is heaving with tourists, many here to attend one of the innumerable language schools.

On Christmas Eve I went up Volcan Pecaya, and active volcano an hour and half's drive from here. It erupted as recently as three years ago and the final climb to the top is through the remaining volcanic ash. There's an impressive sight from the smoldering crater at the top.

Back in the city things were wild in the evening. Christmas Eve is celebrated in style with a number of processions leading up to the celebration of mass. I watched one rather bizarre dance of oversized figures, including representations of kings, queens, snakes, bulls and, most strangely, a man in a black sombero clutching a ukulele. Then there were the fireworks. Rather than an organized display the local kids would light and throw them at each other. The central plaza resembled gulf war footage as different groups of local youths vied for space. A couple of stray fireworks whizzed alarmingly past our heads as we watched. My evening continued in a restaurant with some American companions from the volcano climb, eventually emerging from a lock-in at two thirty in the morning.

All of which made Christmas Day a bit more interesting. A inactive volcano, Volcan Agua, towers over the town. I had rashly decided to cycle up to the nearest village and climb it. The cycle was probably the hardest part, ascending 500 metres in the heat, somewhat the worse for wear after the previous night's beers. Then I set about the climb 1000 metre climb which had been quoted as taking 4 to 6 hours. Knocked it off in two and three quarter hours but I had to work for it. Unfortunately the summit isn't quite the place of isolated tranquillity it could be due to the large number of antenna, other equipment and a little shop up there. The shop keeper has quite a commute. I was glad of his presence though as I sat with him for a cup of soup before beginning my descent. The coast down on the cycle was a joy and I was quite weary on my return, but it was good to be able to stare up at the volcano from the town knowing I had conquered it all under my own steam. Still goes down in the training diary as a big fat zero though, no time for a run.

Tomorrow I head for Lake Atitlan.

Monday, December 29, 2003

In Panajachel, a village on Lake Atitlan, waiting to get a bus to Quetzaltenango.

The lake is beautiful, a natural crator surrounded by a string of volcanos. Haven't done a huge amount over my two days here, was exhausted after the physical exersions in Antigua and was happy to spend time recuperating and reading Far from the Madding Crowd. Favourite line so far: "There is no certain line for falling out of love as there is for falling in love; many try marriage but even this has been known to fail." However it should be noted that Hardy married on the book's publication.

Slightly strange string of events yesterday. There was a presidential election here yesterday, and in common with other Latin American countries the sale of alcohol is banned during voting. Not sure if this is to encourage clear thinking in the ballot box or to lower the chances of any violence, I suspect the latter. Anyway, during the day of the voting there was a helicoter crash into the lake. All very mysterious, all the passengers were said to be seen evacuting the helicopter and were rescued by a boat, but they then disappeared. Since the place I was staying housed a dive school the police came looking for help and a set of the instructors headed off to take a look, though they couldn't find anything at the depth to which they were able to descend. Much later in the evening the police returned, this time to confront the owner about the beer they saw been consumed on election day. Big discussion followed, the bar was closed and the thread of removing the hostel's license was imposed. All seems to have been sorted out this morning; whether a bribe was involved I'm not sure but I expect so.

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