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Hamish McKenzie - in need of a shower, Merida

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Notes on Mexico

I've been here two weeks, on the fast track round southern Mexico, and I feel as though I've seen so much. Here's a synopsis of the things that have impressed me the most.

Food

I don't know what you've heard or tasted, but I came to Mexico expecting sumptuous delights: tacos, quesidillas, burritos, chillies. Well, they have all those things over here in abundance. Too much abundance. Usually accompanied by an abundance of oil, an abundance of sauces, and an abundance of bread with sugar on it. Apart from a good serving of fresh vegetables, what I miss the most is a nice loaf of multigrain bread. I wouldn't even mind if it was Pam's. Mind you, I can't complain too much -- the prawns and fresh fried fish that I ate on a sunny beach on the Pacific Coast sure beat any falafel patties I've tasted recently.

Traffic

The roads in Mexico are a lot more fun than New Zealand. Here they drive with vigour -- especially the bus drivers. Mexico City in particular is a ball. Sometimes you find yourself on a major avenue with four or five cars across, but no discernable lanes. Traffic lights are used only when considered convenient, and I can't be sure I've yet seen someone use an indicator. Our hosts in Mexico City insisted there is a speed limit -- they just couldn't tell us what it was. Licences are easily acquired: you just fork out some pesos and you've got it for life. No need for any pesky tests. Of course, common courtesy on the roads still applies -- for instance, if one car wants to cut in front of another one must simply toot the horn. The philosophy of driving in Mexico City? "You just close your eyes and say 'eeeeejh!'".

Shopping

The best thing about shopping Mexico is that you don't have to move. Just sit on a park bench for more than a minute and you'll have several vendors by your side trying to ply you with useful items such as painted feathers, those friendship bracelets you made as a kid, dried banana, purses, or "genuine" Aztec artifacts. If you want the really good stuff, however, you may have to take a stroll round the block. On the edges of the town centre you can invariably find t-shirts, pens, batteries, tacos, ice creams, and a whole lot of other food that will give you the shits. My one purchase so far has been a rather dashing pair of sunglasses. I got a real bargain: two brands for $5. The rims are Oakely, and the lens are Dickies. Beat that.

Toiletry matters

Bus stations and restaurants usually have toilets, but you often have to pay for them. Luckily this guarantees quality -- sometimes they'll even flush. I can't remember the last time I saw a toilet with an actual seat on it, but seats are overrated. Men in Mexico seem to have much better shot. You know that's true because everytime you go to use a public sanitorio you can see the yellowy evidence from the previous visitor lurking in the bowl. If you need to dispatch of a number greater than one (but fewer than three) you have to dispose of your papers in an accompanying bin. From what I've been told, that's a much preferable scenario to what can happen if the paper-stuffed bogs flood.

The sights

Much of what I've seen already is similar to New Zealand, but dirtier and on a grander scale. The forest-lined bays on Oaxaca's Pacific Coast reminded me of the Abel Tasman, but without so much green. The impressive Sumidero Canyon, which stretches up to a kilometre high, is much like Skippers Canyon but huger and perhaps not quite as dramatic. The beautiful waterfalls at Agua Azul and Misol-Ha were kind of like those on the Milford track, but with smooth rounded rocks instead of jagged moss-covered ones.

The great Aztec and Mayan ruins, however, are unparalleled. So far I've only seen two sites: Monte Alban in Oaxaca, and Palenque in Chiapas. Each is imbued with a magnificent sense of history, each remaining stone a testament to what were once very strong and intelligent civilisations. The ruins at Palenque were astonishing; an oasis springing from the jungle, with beautiful and complex pyramid structures. In the background you could constantly hear the jungle's Howler Monkeys, which sound like Chewbacca on speed.

The towns, too, are pretty, especially San Cristobal de las Casas. Narrow cobbled streets and colonial buildings built around well-kept town squares with trees and birds, juxtaposed with rectangular blocks of buildings that look like overblown garages or garden sheds, selling anything from clothes to kitchen fridges. You don't have to walk far to find piles of rubbish, beggars, or cheap eateries.

People

At turns delightful and frustrating. Many will think nothing of pushing in front of gringo in a queue, and some afford us travellers with unbecoming glares. Many though -- so many -- have been unneccesarily friendly. Everyone is willing to help you with directions, even if they don't know them themselves. In that case they just point you somewhere and make something up. You get lost a few times, but at least you get to talk to nice smiley locals.

They have a fondness for drinking much like New Zealanders. Except over here it's tequila and mezcal, which can come very cheap or very good. The best stuff will set you back about $40. The worst? About $1. Corona here is like Speight's or Lion Red is to us. Run of the mill. At a cafe you wouldn't pay more than $1.50 for it, and you get a bottle for 50 cents in the supermarket. It's surprising how when Mexicans are drunk they sound just like Kiwis, even though they're speaking Spanish.

And two nice guys on the street have even offered me weed. Apparently it's very good and very cheap. Apparently.