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Intrepid Journeys

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Mexico: Donald Sunderland


Day One - Cancun
Cancun with its artificial beaches, Mc Donald's, Park Royal and Hilton. America has influenced this little fishing village - once160 residents now a resort overflowing with silicon and the social insecurities of those who can afford to sun themselves here.
The heat of humidity is a killer.

Day Two - Cancun to Chichen Itza
On the road, the immense creeping foliage makes me realize how hard it would have been to tame this land. Three hours brings me to Chichen Itza, the soul of the Mayan world. Buses spill over-weight tourists out their doors, inappropriately dressed to bear the heat, their bodies ruined due to excess junk food. It was Equinox, a significant event in the Mayan Calendar. The main pyramid was unable to be climbed - disappointing. I am impressed by the temple of A Thousand Columns and the face-like carvings. The Equinox became a non-event as the sun disappeared, to see the serpent's shadow at sunset requires a cloudless sky. A spiritual experience - NO!

Day Three - Merida
This is a town with spirit. The patterned buildings, the broken cement facades and narrow paved streets. The town was rocking with lights strung down the streets and bands playing. I met a very soulful lady of 70 who was out for a good time. Dressed in green velvet, her body pulsated to the street music - a born performer. We were definitely kindred spirits. As we danced, a crowd gathered, the music played and played and played. It was the longest piece of music I had danced to for a long time. It finally finished and we ended on a Torval and Dean pose - with the crowd cheering "Bravo Bravo". This is what Mexico is about.

Day Four - Merida and Uxmal
Witnessed a full patriotic flag-raising with the Army - drums rolling, flag unfurled with arms held horizontal to their chests. A serious ceremony but difficult to take it too seriously. My introduction to local cuisine is with a stall seller and his cornflour encrusted chicken wrapped in banana leaf. Dubious, I ate a corner - all pastry as I dared not try the chicken. It was quite bland and not the most pleasant of tastes. New foods are always an adventure - next stop a fruit, pink and spiky when cut with white flesh and black seeds, that tasted similar to kiwifruit. The meat market was a slippery, slimy affair. The ceramic tiles on the benches were a formula for bacterial growth! Out to the Uxmal Ruins. The Pyramid of the Magician was awe inspiring. The ruins just seem to get better. My goal when I left NZ was to climb to the top of it - unfortunately my vertigo didn't get a chance to be squashed as climbing the pyramid is now prohibited.

Day Five - Palenque
On the road, I can't help but notice the lack of farming compared to NZ. Palenque was not the prettiest of towns however, I am not staying here but in the depths of the nearby jungle.  The evening's entertainment was women dancing with pois which were on fire.  Interestingly enough, the entertainers appeared to be American drop-outs seeking a different lifestyle.

Day Six - San Cristobel
Early start to get to the ruins before the crowds. The solitude of so few people let one's imagination conjure up images of what this civilization was like. The majority of the ruins were able to climbed. For me, the steepness of the steps became the challenge - mainly to the thighs since my vertigo seemed to disappear. It was here I realised the full potential of the Mayan culture. At the highest point, one can look out and imagine the whole city like a colony of ants all working for a queen. On the road again& potholed roads with villages, Coca Cola signs and general poverty passing by. Dogs hungry in the streets and ramshackle gates, fences and facades line the narrow tracks. The architecture of San Cristobel is beautiful in its own naive way - the pastel coloured facades, the wooden paneled doors and wrought iron of many varying designs.  Narrow cobbled streets with side-walks barely wide enough to take a person. The Cathedral and square were beautiful with areas of greenery, arched palisades and a rotunda café in the centre.

Day Seven - San Cristobel and villages
Dropped off at a narrow country lane, I walked through a village growing vegetables I was familiar with - cabbage, bean, corn (of course) and fruits a plenty. Goats are regarded as sacred so only the wool gets used and each goat here was named after a day of the week. The villagers practice the Mayan religion, a cross between Pagan and Christian. The town cathedral was adorned with flags. Inside there were no pews, but the walls lined with 'Saint' mannequins in glass cases. Traditional healers were treating children and adults with their pagan rituals - sacrificing chickens and drinking Coca Cola (used because it is black and makes one burp out bad spirits) to dispel evil. Very voodoo and very scary to think modern medicines would easily cure the children.

Day Eight - Guatemala
At the bus station, while waiting to board, I picked up a café con leche (white coffee) and a tempting sugared loaf. Pleased with my purchase, I took a big bite - IT WAS VILE. A combination of dry bread soaked in a rancid fat. Not a great start. The Guatemalan border was very loose, as people, money changers and peddlers tried to fleece the last pesos out of everyone. My bus is laden with local produce - a real bone shaker. I struck up a friendship with a Mexican family. It was certainly entertaining crossing the language boundary. As the bus progressed through the foot hills heading up to the highlands, more and more and more locals got on with all their wares. Two-seater seats became seats for three or four. Over high precipices, looking down into gorges marked with white crosses where buses had plummeted into the churning waters below. After hours and hours of tight corners, scary passing and all manner of close shaves&. finally&. Panajachel. The walk to my hotel meant my bones could relocate themselves. 

Day Nine - Panajachel
A boat ride across the lake means I get to soak in the hot, bubbly waters of this volcanic lake. A great way to relax and admire the majesty of the volcanic peaks and the blues of the lake. The coolness of the air is a welcome relief from the heat of Mexico. In the villages on the hills, I was pounced on by hawkers, buying a scarf at great cost. The colour of the fabrics here is too much. I realised these would not be suitable once home amongst our more subdued colour schemes - I have more than enough in the throw rug department. I am interested in the "Cleansing Ceremony of Saint Maximon" which the guide book talks about. Two boys showed me the way, up narrow streets and muddy steep paths to a stucco house, the door shrouded with a blue and white blanket. It was not what I was expecting. The chapel of the saint of alcohol, drugs and smoking, was very much a humble abode. A glass coffin was to one side, with a replica of some Saint lying in it. A woman sat in a wooden throne like chair, covered in cloth, woven in reds and threads of gold. A priest dressed in white and blue striped shorts and grubby shirt was performing the ancient Mayan cleansing ritual upon her. The priest had a glass of alcohol and took some into his mouth then spat it on her face, hair, hands and feet. She was now cleansed. Then it was my turn. It took a lot of effort to keep my composure. When it was all over, the nerve-wracking cleansing completed, I didn't feel cleansed - cynical, maybe.

Day Ten - Antigua
Onwards to Chichicastenango, and since it is Sunday, it's craft market day. One stall after the other, all with the same products - garish woven fabric and rugs. The inspiration to buy was sadly absent. I sat on the steps of the cathedral and a merchant sold me a bag of fried beans - I was warned about street food but they were tasty.  Arriving in Antigua, more cobbled streets, historical houses, wrought iron work over shuttered windows and giant wooden doors decorated with large iron medallions, doorhandles and knockers. It reminded me of an opera set, that went on and on, it was certainly beautiful. The cathedral here stands like a giant piece of yellow and cream Wedgewood. Then, those beans from earlier in the day, or perhaps Saint Maximon, took effect. I felt nauseous, and my guts just exploded. This continued all night, explosion after explosion. Those beans kept on reoccurring in my taste buds and mind.  I slept for 24 hours with the exception of getting myself to the internet to be in touch with Kathy for homely comfort.

Day Eleven - Antigua
There's a skip back in my step. I got a taxi up the hill that looks over the city and was rewarded with a splendid view of Antigua. Antigua is perhaps my most favourite city so far. It oozes charm, history and life. Having discovered a fine restaurant set behind large wooden doors earlier, I booked the "Honeymoon Spot" for dinner - a cave created by the Spanish 300 years ago and once used as a wine cellar. Lit with dozens of fairy lights and candles, there were rose petals scattered upon the floor - pure romance and no one to share it with. The menu was excellent (by Guatemelan standards anyway) so I ordered pork chops with peanut sauce. Unfortunately, I still wasn't up to much eating but it was wonderful all the same.

Day Twelve  - Flores and Tikal
Early start - 3:30am. A charter airplane is taking me to Flores. Humourously, in the waiting area the Discovery Channel played a documentary on how a meteor shot through an airliner killing all on board. I make it to Flores - no meteors today. Next stop, Guatemala's Tikal Ruins. The stillness was almost eerie, it was late afternoon and the place was devoid of tourists. Some of the ruins were climbable and they rose to a great height - skyscrapers. I will never forget the feeling of walking around a ledge with a death defying drop below. A hard climb and extreme heat made for a sweaty Donald.

Day Thirteen - Tikal & San Ignacio
A relaxing morning then away to Belize. I was sad to leave Guatemala - I enjoyed the people and the heritage cities. At the Belize border the atmosphere changed.  The English dominance overrides the Spanish influence. The people are more Caribbean than Mayan. There was a definite cultural separation between Guatemala and Belize.   San Ignacio is a strange town. It wasn't what I was expecting - it was almost slummish.  The houses are very Caribbean, built on poles and small hut like arrangements scattered themselves amongst the farm-like paddocks.

Day Fourteen - San Ignacio & San Antonio
The town is somewhat seedy with a presence of world drop outs, South African, American and English all with their own hard luck story of how they ended up here - mostly marriage break ups and sob "give-up" stories. A bus from a few centuries ago took me up to the village of San Antonio. The tiny village is home to a medicine man renowned for his healing but he was no where to be found - must have found a new career. It was too hot to walk far but I stopped at a school and chatted with the Headmaster. I pointed out on a map painted on the school wall where New Zealand was.

Day Fifteen - Caye Caulker
I realize that what I love about traveling is not the standing still but the continuous moving from one town to the next to have peek views of little villages, their daily life, the simple things like the chasing of chickens, the washing of clothes in lakes, the slothful lying about waiting for the heat to ease. The glory of nature and the scavenging dogs. The thought of returning back home and to the pace of my business is something I'm trying not to think about. A boat delivers me to Caye Caulker - a little island off the coast - it has the flattest golf course in the world. There's not much to it - just blue, blue ocean and white sand. Walking around,  I met a small group of Rastafarians. I clicked with them and before long we were talking politics of the world and religion. They invited me to dinner and I took up their offer of fish Creole-style - a kind of Caribbean casserole. A great way to finish this trip. Tomorrow I start the 38 hour journey home. 
I have to say the influence of larger powers like America in the world is scary. The greed of the US and their so-called morals will only inhibit the functioning of the world in a natural fashion. We have to be careful in NZ that we preserve our culture and our natural resources. As once it is gone it is lost forever. I have missed my family but the power of e-mail meant I was in touch everyday. It's funny, I traveled the world 25 years ago and my eyes were opened. Over time my eyes have closed and it is this trip has awakened me again. Can I now make a difference? I think everyone can and I intend to. The power of travel, particularly travel on the authentic highways and byways the local people use, opens the world of understanding.


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