Mexico City (11/1/07 – 14/1/07)

Mexico city was, for a while, the world’s most populated city. It is still among the top 5, although its precise ranking is often disputed. It was originally a large island with canals for roads with large pyramids in the centre which housed sacred temples. A Spanish fellow named Cortez came along and ruined all that, there was a bit of a fight and eventually the Spanish knocked down most of the original city, filled in the canals and built what is now Mexico City on top. Luckily now, for us, the Mexican authorities place a high priority on preserving their archaological sites and large portions of the original city are currently being excavated. We visited a museum dedicated to the old city and its temples.

In the centre of the city square there is a very very very very large mexican flag.

A model of the original city.

The archaeologist in me couldn’t resist the urge to take many many photos of the pottery which was on display in the museum.

We later met up with some family friends of Nick and toured the city with some ‘local knowledge’. We began with lunch at a beautiful old colonial building in which all the walls were tiled with glazed ceramic tiles. There was, incidentally, a lovely restaurant inside this building where we ate our lunch.

Mexico doesn’t suffer the political apathy which Australia unfortunately does. This is probably because the stakes are much higher in a country like Mexico where people really do struggle to survive. Struggle as in “oh my god, I haven’t got any money” as opposed to the common Australian ailment of “oh my god, this dole cheque is hardly enough to live off”.

In the streets surrounding the Zocolo (city centre), there were many street markets. In fact, one can obtain almost anything at a street market and it is the preferred method of obtaining things in Mexico. Supermarkets are relatively scarce. The observant reader will notice a local sporting a backpack on her front. When Nick tried this, he brought more attention to himself than he already had (no mean feat) due to his height. He has already been accosted by several random strangers, including a gaggle of school girls on an excursion, to have their photo taken with them.

A view from above of another old colonial-period bulding – the theatre.

It is difficult to get a sense of the scale of Mexico City without being there. We journeyed to the top floor of a lookout tower to have a look… out…. anyway, the city stretched as far as the eye could see (which, despite the fog, was a fairly long way). Mexico city is bordered by mountains which must be pretty darn high considering that the city is already over 2000m above sea level. If it wasn’t for the city, this would be a pretty darn good site for a radio telescope array (because of the altitude and because the surrounding mountains would block out interference)

This is Nick prior to boarding the 5-hour bus trip which would take us to Guanajuato, the location of our Spanish course. The trip was very pleasant with nice scenery, a nice air conditioned bus which had toilet facilities a hot water urn and even TV screens on which b-grade hollywood films would be screened. They even supplied us with a snack to eat on the way.

Guanajuato (14/1/07 – 11/2/07)

My first morning in Guanajuato, this is what the place looks like at about 7am. The photo seemed to capture more light than my eyes as it certainly seemed much darker than the photo makes it out to be. We are staying with a family whose house is situated about three quarters of the way up a mighty flight of stairs which really takes your breath away (no, literally! we’re still 2000+ metres above sea-level remember).

A group of language students (we’re all studying Spanish) milling around outside the language school during a break between classes.

Guanajuato is a very beautiful city. Most of the streets look like this and the atmosphere is very friendly. The hospitality of people here is also extraordinary with people quite willing to go completely out of their way to help you out (even if you don’t speak Spanish and they don’t speak English, not that I would know of course). The host family we’re staying with are only obligated to supply us with breakfast but (and we have been told that most people here are like this) simply cannot resist giving us lots of food all the time.

Living in Guanajuato, at least for us, has been quite a test of fitness. Not only are we at altitude, but we also live up a mighty flight of stairs. I resumed ‘training’ today by lightly jogging up and down these stairs about three times. By the end of it, I was quite out of breath and looked like I had just run a marathon…

After our first day of class, we had a welcome dinner at a nice restaurant in the centre of Guanajuato city. Mexican food is an acquired taste and one which is most easily acquired. The soup you see here was delicious as was the “Agua de melon” – literally: water of melon. I am slowly getting used to the spicyness of the food here, but I still require a number of napkins at the ready to wipe the sweat off my brow.

This is the Mercado Hidalgo, a large market named after of the leaders of Mexican independence. One can buy all manner of things here from watches to bags to pastry.

In the good old days Guanajuato was built on top of a river (why?) so the early settlers built a network of tunnels beneath the city for the river to run through. After a few hundred years, the eventually diverted the river because the city kept flooding when there was heavy rain. Now the tunnels are used to ease the traffic that passes through the central part of the city.

There is a distictly international flavour to our little posse. Here we have an Australian, a Swede, a German, a Norwegian and a Dutch person. The rest of the group also includes Americans, of course.

Here’s the group of us walking through the main pedestrian zone in the city centre.

The classes are lots of fun and very interactive. The class sizes are also very small. My class is probably the biggest one here and there are only 8 people in it.

A picture of my textbook and pen.

A panoramic shot of the view from the roof of the place I am staying at (click to view full-size).

A dish known as ‘mole’ (pronounced mow-lay) An interesting blend of cheese, chilli and chocolate (I’m not making this up). Nick found it especially amusing that the menu said “not sweet or spicy” when the overwhelming taste sensation was exactly that.

A heated game of tabletop f00sball (sp?) at our favourite night time dig – bar fly (hahaha geddit?). This picture is also included for the benefit of those who have complained that there are no photos of me on this travel diary.

Up close and personal with the action.

Over the weekend, we made a day-trip to the nearby city of Leon because there was a fair. It is very much like the royal melbourne show or sydney’s royal easter show. There were many stalls, many strange things to eat and a huge agriculture convention of sorts. Here we observe the rather underwhelming ‘Rodeo’ where a small and weak horse is lassooed to the ground by some dude with the assistance of his mates on horseback.

After getting bored with the fair, we journeyed into the city of Leon. This is the gate… there is a lion.

A typical street in Leon looks very different from Guanajuato. Nick said that it reminded him of Adelaide and I thought it reminded me a little of Munich. In reality, it is nothing like either of these cities in any aspect other than initial appearence.

The main square of Leon with its lovely hedges.

Another view of Guanajuato from above. The universidad can be seen towards the right of the shot.

A statue of some guy.

And to prove that I was actually there, another poto of me, this time in front of Guanajuato. This photo was taken not long after the “Chili Incident” and, although you can’t see it, my lower lip is peeling and bleeding. I’ll know to avoid those green chilis in the future.

A long-exposure shot of one of the group taken during dinner (Luisa’s going to kill me for this). There is nothing particularly special about this photo with regard to telling the story of my travels, but I was particularly pleased with the way it turned out so thought I should include it for fellow photography enthusiasts.

My sense of humour never changes. This is a Swedish-Spanish dictionary. I’ve been here for over two weeks now and I still have a bit of a giggle at it every morning – yes, I’m mature.

Guanajuato isn’t as backwards as you think… but then again, donkey is still a common way of transporting goods.

A photo taken through a glass of beer to simulate the beer-googles effect. Notice how everyone looks better? From left to right, Nick, Luri, Meg and Olle.

On our second weekend here, we played soccer with some of the staff at our language school. Due to the fact that the majority of students are from the US and wouldn’t know a soccer ball if it hit them in the head, and also because Saturday morning follows from Friday night, the turnout student-wise wasn’t great. Combine that with the altitude and we pretty much got smoked up by the locals who, to be fair, took the game far too seriously.

On Sunday of the same weekend, me and Nick attempted to climb a nearby mountain. “The way is easy” we were told, “you don’t need a map” we were told. After countless accidental incursions onto private property we finally ascended what looked to be the right mountain. Once clear of the trees, we looked around to find that we were about three mountains off. Oops. On the way down, we found ourselves, once again, on someone’s property and despite our explaining that we were sorry and didn’t see any signs and had gone up an alternate route, the owner of this property unleashed four ferocious dogs on us and we had to make tracks rather quickly. Here we see something that is actually taller than Nick. Phallic symbol or desert plant? You decide.

And for those who are wondering exactly how high we really are…

On Thursday 1st of Feb, we had a little party to celebrate the large group of American’s leaving (that came out all wrong… actually, no it didn’t). Luckily, it was at our (me and Nick’s) residence so we didn’t have to travel far. Much food was consumed as well as a fair bit of alcohol. Here a group of us can be seen readying for an interesting party game where everyone has a balloon tied to their leg and the aim of the game is to be the last person with an unpopped balloon. Unfortunately, I wasn’t present for the first of these games as I was sitting on the roof DJing on my laptop, but I did manage to make it down for the second game, which I won. My prize – a large shot glass of tequila! The Dutch girl Lisette can be seen in the foreground of this shot sitting on the concrete bench with a pink balloon. Later that night she would be sitting on that same concrete bench while throwing her stomach into reverse gear as a result of too much tequila… tut tut.

Interestingly, the Americans all left quite early (who can blame them, it was their party…) but the group of us did manage to get a shot with their lovely program coordinator who was actually from Yorkshire, in England (she’s the blonde one in the middle).

On the following Friday, we (actually had another party to celebrate the departure of the americans, and then we) took a bus for a weekend trip to the nearby (10 hours) coastal city of Puerto Vallarta. The buses are actually very comfortable and VERY air-conditioned. Still… 10 hours is a long time. We arrived at about 9am just in time to waltz down to our hotel, check in, and begin sunbaking.

We immediately made for the beach, after all, it was the whole point of our little weekend excursion. It was alright, the water was quite warm, but I couldn’t help feeling that it seemed silly to come to the beach in Mexico when most of the beaches in Australia are actually much better. Nevertheless, the Europeans in our group had a great time while the rest of us felt a little sorry for them for being so excited to be at such an underwhelming beach.

Of course, Puerto Vallarta is also much warmer than Guanajuato, which meant that it was the season for throwing people into the pool. I was actually the first to go in… unfortunately my camera was in my pocket at the time. Luckily, although the battery shorted and died, the camera actually still works although the lens is a little dirty (on the inside, where it is somewhat difficult to clean). This is why there are very few photos after this point. In fact this and the next photo were taken with someone else’s camera (thanks Luisa).

Puerto Vallarta, being a costal town, is also known for good seafood. We were not disappointed. Here, our group can be seen eating at a Cuban restaurant (you can’t really hear the music, but it’s there). I ate some lovely fresh prawns mmmMMMMmmmm prawns. From bottom-left, clockwise – Luri (Brazil), Lisette (Holland), Roman (Switzerland), Olle (Sweden), Robert (Holland), Mel (Australia), Nick (Australia), Brittny (Jamaica), Meg (USA), Emma (USA), Me (Australia), Luisa (Brazil), Kyla (USA). The next night we got to watch the superbowl (whoop-de-doo, do I sound sarcastic?) but we spent most of that night trying to avoid obnoxious americans (difficult at the best of times). We managed to find a Hägen Daz ice cream cafe and hung out there and ate lots of lovely German ice cream (yay, globalization). On the Monday, which was a public holiday, we took a boat out to some random island in the bay to do some snorkeling, which was a little bit of a let down given that I’ve been snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. We also got to see some humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins up close. During the long transit times, I was also able to dazzle bored onlookers with my ability with the Rubik’s cube.

To illustrate the problems I’m currently having with my lens, here is a photo of Nick wearing his favourite shirt. The effect is quite nice, perhaps I should get a job taking photos of couples at weddings or something. However, until I get my lens cleaned, there will be less photos… (the following two are from Nick’s camera)

Sitting around on the terrace of the Don Quijote school trying desperately to warm up in the sun. The building itself was always quite cold on the inside so during the break we had between classes, we would rush to the terrace and try to warm ourselves up. Occasionally we would also talk to each other in German…

On completing our time at the Spanish language school, we recieved certificates indicating how many hours we had spent in class and the level which we reached. We also had to give a speech in Spanish. Mine was interesting… perhaps I will post it on this website… here it is.

On the weekend we made our second attempt at climbing the Bufa. This time we were successful in finding the right mountain path and we weren’t chased by dogs. It was a very pleasant walk up and when we reached the top I ate some breakfast and we took some photos. The view was really spectacular but we felt that a photograph wouldn’t do justice to the depth of our field of view. So, instead, here is a photo of me and Nick…

Mexico City (redux) (11/2/07 – 16/2/07)

After a month in Guanajuato, we returned to Mexico City to have a quick look around before continuing on our travels through Mexico. On our first day there, we planned to visit the Museum of Anthropology, but it was Monday and the museum was closed. This gave us the chance to do some errands including a trip to the doctor for some eye-drops for Nick and some pills for my cough. On Tuesday, we met up, once again, with the Crossley’s, family friends of Nicks, and they kindly showed us around a bit more. We travelled to the top of a pyramid atop a small hill which was fairly centrally located in the city’s south west. The view from the top was spectacular as we had an uninterrupted 360 degree view of an extremely large and very very vast city.

On Wednesday, we made a day trip to the famous pyramid complex at Teotihuacán. The bus trip was a short 1 hour and when we got off I was pretty happy so I bought a hat so I wouldn’t get sunburnt (best investment of the trip) and went about picking up bits of pottery… its the archaeologist in me.

OOOoooohhhhh!!! More pottery! Being careful not to get too excited, we made our way through a small museum they had which displayed information and artifacts about the city of Teotihuacán.

Nick walks in front of the Pyramid of the Sun, the world’s 3rd largest pyramid. It’s pretty impressive, especially since the folks who built it didn’t have things that we, today, take for granted. Things like cranes, fork-lifts, big brother and the wheel.

Nick: “hey Daniel, are you SURE that this is the right pyramid? That one over there looks pretty big”, Daniel: “Don’t worry Nick, the other one always looks bigger until you’re up close… oh, PYRAMIDS!… yes yes, of course… yeah… ummm…. this one’s bigger, er… thicker at the base, I mean, its just so nice to sit on… mutter mutter mutter…”

If you thought getting UP was tricky… getting DOWN was even trickier. Those steps were very very steep.

The view from the top of the pyramid of the moon of the whole complex. The pyramid of the sun (the bigger one) can be seen to the left. From the start of the “Avenue of the Dead” to this pyramid, it was almost two miles… so it took us just under 8 minutes to cover the distance *cough*….

Believe it or not… this is a restaurant. Yes. It is in a cave. Apparently it used to be a granary. The food was very nice and the colourful chairs reminded us of pick-up-sticks.

Nick was attacked by a plant after lunch. Luckily a friend of mine who works in the CIA knew someone from the MIB who knew some aliens who were then able to contact their friend and tell him to let go.

Fancy a game of scrabble? Nick won this one comprehensively, although I did make “JUEZ” which was worth 40 points. We didn’t even use a dictionary…

The Metro in Mexico City is quite impressive. Frequent, fast, reliable and very very cheap. Two pesos per trip, regardless of distance or duration. (2 pesos is approximately 20 Australian cents)

We finally got around to visiting the Museo de Anthropologica – THE museum of Mexico… and it certainly was very very big. Here is Nick wandering around the beginning section, dealing with the origins of man. Unfortunately, the Mexican anthropological community doesn’t go for the flying spaghetti monster theory… but we’ll just let this one slide.

Serpent heads, often found at the base of pyramids, especially at the bottom of stairs.

Stone carvings of Mayan origin. For a long time the Mayan writing was thought to be merely decorative fluff on these carvings. However, after a while, someone figured out that it was actually writing, although deciphering it is still very much a work in progress.

Obviously, I couldn’t not include some pictures of pottery. Be thankful, I took over 400 photos at this museum… you’re being spared from my overwhelming compulsion to post lots of pictures of pottery.

Among the many artifacts on display is a book written by the indigenous people in the Spanish language telling the story of their conquest from their point of view. (or maybe I’m remembering it wrong, and this was just a children’s story book)

For lunch, I went for a walk and I stumbled upon a part of town where all the foreign embassies were. In this part of town, there were many very nice restaurants. I ate my lunch in one such restaurant. MMMmmmmm camarones… (prawns)

A gold vessel from the height of the Achemenid empire. It is especially significant because of the way it is formed. Gold, you see, like many metals becomes brittle when you work it. So… to get that level of detail, it would have been necessary to constantly heat it up, otherwise it would’ve just snapped. Gold, of course, is even trickier because if you heat it up a little too much, it just melts. This vessel is, therefore, a pretty good indication that the artisans of the day really knew what they were doing.

This was a metal plate on which can be found the writing of the ancient ancient persians. It was probably descended from Babylonian or Assyrian language and writing. I really should know more about this stuff because I studied the Achemenid empire from Cyrus the great all the way to Alexander the Great… but I wasn’t really into the writing. I was too busy looking at pottery…

These Mexican museums really know what they’re doing. These display cases were very well-lit and informative. There was even text in english…

There was a display which explained the formation of different types of Arabic caligraphy. All four screens above actually show the same thing. I can even read the top-left screen. I can’t tell you what it says though…

A very old edition of the Q’uaran, the Islamic holy text. Although I did a little bit of Arabic, I can’t read a word of this because it is all written in caligraphy, which is tricky to read.

More golden artifacts from the Persian exhibition. The displays were first-rate and some included magnifying glasses so you could see the details up close.

Oaxaca (16/2/07-18/2/07)

First stop after Mexico City – Oaxaca. Second-highest warning level on the australian government’s travel advisory website.

For those of you at home who are concerned that we may not be eating well while we’re here. Most of our dinners, apart from those in Guanajuato, have been a creative mix of canned vegetables, rice and canned tuna or salmon. Sometimes we are really adventurous and get some beans… but generally not while we’re sharing a room with lots of other people.

My first meal in Oaxaca… Mexican alphabet soup. I wonder if I can find the ” Ñ”.

On arriving in Oaxaca we decided to take a bus to go look at a tree (really, we weren’t bored… this tree was meant to be really big). Anyway, we couldn’t find the right bus in the end and, on our way back to the hostel, we got a little lost and ended up in a market.

Here we observe a “pelota” court. Pelota is a game played with two teams and a ball in which each side tries to put a ball through a hoop. There is a catch – you must use your hips to propel the ball.

A view of most of the complex at Monte Alban. Lets play a game. It is very similar to “where’s Wally” except that, in place of Wally, we have Nick.

Another picutre which tries to capture the steepness of the steps… and with limited success. You’ll just have to take my word for it – the steps were very steep.

Palenque (19/2/07)

This is the bus that took us from Oaxaca to Palenque. The trip was a very long one. We left Oaxaca at 5pm and arrived at 8am the next day. In addition, the road out of Oaxaca was particularly windy and made me feel quite ill. No small miracle that the sleep deprivation combined with the windy mountainous roads didn’t make me vomit. After a few stops, the bus was almost empty and we were able to stretch out over several seats at once to sleep. This was especially good for Nick who was having issues with leg room.

Aahh… finally – the ancient Mayan city of Palenque. Apart from the curiously well-manicured lawns, this place has a very “lost city” feel to it. We had had very little sleep the night before (as most of it was spent on a bus) but we soldiered on and what we saw here really woke us up.

The forest seems to have won this battle. The overgrown look of the ruins give this Mayan city a very eerie feel. Apart from the very well manicured lawns surrounding the pyramids, one can easily be forgiven for thinking that one has stumbled upon a hitherto undiscovered city in the middle of the jungle when one walks around here.

The ruins at Palenque are spread out over an expansive area in the jungle. The site is made up of large pyramid structures as well as smaller buildings which were probably used as dwellings or burial sites.

Nick: my maths olympics training starts here!

If I had a dollar for every picture I took of a pyramid…

The supermarkets in Mexico are interesting. For a start, there aren’t many of them, most Mexicans preferring to buy their produce at the markets instead. Here we have some interesting oddities (well, interesting to gringos like me). Corona in a can, strange sweet cakes called “submarines”, box drinks that go “boing” and… the supermarket in Palenque was named after… well… you figure it out.

Our 8 hour bus ride from Palenque to Merida was a breeze after the mammoth journey from Oaxaca to Palenque. It was, however, quite eventful as we were stopped and searched for drugs. Nick felt quite left out because they didn’t bother searching his bag. They only searched the top compartment of mine, and they weren’t particularly thorough either. I guess I don’t really fit the stereotype of the latin american drug mule.

Merida (20/2/07 – 24/2/07)

We ended up in Merida on the last day of their carnival… Nick doesn’t stand out at all… Interestingly, when people saw him, apart from gawking, their first instinct was to look at his feet to check that he wasn’t wearing stilts.

Our last Archeological stop was, of course, Chichen Itza, the famous Mayan complex with its observatorio. The name itself actually refers to the mouth of a well which held some sacred meaning for the ancient Maya. Lacking the necessary photographic equipment to take a proper panoramic shot to capture the entirety of the well, I have stitched three photos together to get a similar effect.

Surrounding the main pyramids were various buildings which probably held some ceremonial significance. Here we have a shot of the “hall of a thousand pillars”. I’m not sure if there were actually a thousand pillars in all, but there were an awful lot. On each pillar was carved an intricate… carving depicting an aspect of the Mayan cosmology. In fact, the entire complex is basically a very large (and very accurate) stone calendar.

During their spare moments, the Maya played noughts and crosses. Here we observe a game where O clearly won against the X.

This pyramid was especially impressive. Firstly, one is taken by the beauty of the serpent carving which occurs on either side of the steps. If one were to wait around until either equinoxes (March 21st or September 21st) the sun falls on these stairs in such a way as to illuminate only the head of the serpents – now THAT is impressive. (Imagine stuffing it up… come March 15th or something and the guy carving the stone realises that he got the date wrong).

Especially impressive was the “observatory”. It looks like an observatory doesn’t it? Circular buildings are not very common in ancient Mayan architecture and neither are (almost) domes.

And, finally, the “tourist pamphlet” shot – the large pyramid at the centre of the complex. Until very recently, vistors were allowed to climb to the top of this pyramid.

Cancun (24/2/07 – 25/2/07)

After Merida, we made our way to Cancun, from which we would catch the plane to Havana, Cuba.

A parting shot… our Cuban visas. Obtained in Merida in a matter of hours requiring only photocopies of our passports…

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