And crashed into our cars
I started my last blog entry by mentioning that New Orleans was a breath of fresh air, figuratively speaking; I cannot say the same about Mexico - literally! The air is evil over here, and for the first couple of weeks we were breathless and wheezy every time we stepped outside.
Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world, and has a population of over 8 million people. It is also one of the most polluted cities in the world, partly because of its location: it lies in a valley surrounded by mountains, which traps the smog. This causes all sorts of health problems for the locals, including reduced life expectancy.
The pollution is so bad in Mexico City that car rental agencies in other states will not allow their vehicles to be driven into the capital, and instead force you switch cars for one with M.C. plates. We found this out the hard way, of course. Pete was keen to get out of the big cities and see a bit more of rural Mexico, and to this end suggested another road trip. This sounded good to me, and we made plans to do a circuit from Mexico City to Monterrey and back again.
The guy at the car rental agency freaked me out within ten minutes of entering the place. As well as warning us against mad local drivers and listing the dangerous roads we should try to avoid, he hit my major phobia button.
“They sell snakes by the side of the road in the north,” he said, conversationally. “They kill them, take off the skin, then sell the meat for food and the skins for belts.”
I immediately think of the snakes I encountered in Louisiana and Texas, reminding myself of my pledge to go home if I have to get up close and personal with another one. Add to this the fact that we had had two close encounters of the not very pleasant kind already this trip - a hotel fire and getting stuck in a lift - and the fact that bad things tend to come in threes, I was feeling kind of antsy.
Me: Change of plans! I wanna go south now!
Me: Well, where exactly are these snake people? Could we just drive through that area very quickly?
Pete: They’re where we’ll be stopping tonight.
Me: *hides in corner and whimpers quietly*
As it turned out, we didn’t see the snake vendors until several days later, and although I was alarmed by how many of them there were (and, by association, how many big snakes there must be in the area), it wasn’t so bad ‘cos all you could see were the skins hanging out to dry in the sun.
I wish the snakes had been my Bad Thing #3; instead the universe decided it would be fun to involve us in a car crash. Two, actually. I dunno what we’ve done to upset Fate, but he/she/it appears to have it in for us. (Cue Kenneth Williams in Carry On Cleo.)
The first crash was ridiculous. We were on the motorway, and had just spotted our hotel on the other side of the road so needed to find somewhere to turn round. We drove over a bridge and see a car parked in the fast lane. Pete slammed on the brakes (which were rubbish - no ABS), but didn’t have time to stop before ploughing into the back of the moron. He was moron, too. He hadn’t broken down or anything; he’d simply stopped because he was low on petrol and decided he’d like to fill a canister in the garage over the road.
The whole thing was quite a shock. Happily no one was hurt, but I didn't handle it well. I was the first one out of the car, got straight in the idiot's face and told him what I thought of him in no uncertain terms. No matter that I don’t speak Spanish and he couldn’t speak a word of English, he knew what I was saying all right! (I think I used every insult I knew, and then made up a few more for good measure. It wasn’t pretty.)
I didn’t stop there either, ‘cos I proceeded to have a go at a policeman who came over to see if I was okay. (Note to self: yelling at people with guns is really not a smart move. Don’t do it again.) Luckily the copper took one look at me, decided he didn't want to deal with a hysterical foreigner, and made himself scarce.
So, yeah, not my finest moment in hindsight. If I’d been more composed I’d have given myself a slap.
Like I say, no one was hurt, but the hire car was a mess. It took hours to sort out with the police and insurance people. Señor Moron kept changing his story, and we had to rely on a translator to argue with him. The authorities were initially going to hit us with several fines, but the Chief of Police finally decided to waive all charges, having decided that good tourist relations was more important at that point in time. (I was happy to hear that they were going to charge Señor Moron, too. I dunno if he managed to talk his way out of it or not, but I bet he’ll check his petrol gauge more carefully in future.)
The second accident was as daft as the first. Again we had almost made it to our hotel. Pete braked to let a bus in, and *crunch*... not again! The twit who was tail-gating us parked in our rear end. (At least there was no way we could be held responsible for this one.) Thing is, Mr Tailgate didn’t want to be held responsible either, and kept pushing for a deal that didn’t involve the insurance companies. We couldn’t agree to that, ours being a rental car and all, but Mr. T. really did not want to swap details. I’d stayed in the car during all this (having decided not to yell at anyone this time), but eventually I got bored with the pointless, circular conversation going on outside. I stuck my head out the window and called the guy over.
Me: Senor? Do you have insurance?
Mr. T: Insurance? Yes.
Me: Good. Let us see your papers. At the moment you are wasting our time.
Mr. T: *trots off and fetches his papers from his van, no argument*
I dunno why he responded to me and not Pete, but I have several theories:
1. He has a really bossy mother and/or wife, and is used to taking orders from women.
2. Word spread about the last driver I screeched at, and Mexican people are now wary of all English gringas.
3. I looked like an escaped lunatic.
I’m going with option 3, personally. We’d been driving for hours, and were lost, tired, hungry and completely fed up with Mexican traffic. Add the fact that I had a killer migraine, PMT and sleep deprivation from being in a horribly noisy hotel the night before, I was not a pretty sight.
Anyway, whatever the reason, he coughed up his papers and swapped details with us. To be quite honest, we were both glad to see the back of hire cars. Between crashes and corrupt traffic cops, driving in Mexico has been a royal pain in the backside. From now on we refuse to drive in countries where they clip their driver's licences from the back of cereal packets!
So, enough whinging. Mexico wasn’t all bad; we had a great time when we were off the roads.
We started off in Mexico City, which is enormous, busy, bustling and an all-out assault on the senses. It’s a bizarre mixture of modern, ancient and everything else in-between. One minute you’re wandering past skyscrapers, the next you’re looking at a 16th century cathedral, and then you unexpectedly come across a Mayan relic where you least expect it. Which brings me to the reason I wanted to visit Mexico:
No, wait, that can’t be right! I meant ‘temples’, not ‘tacos’, honest. Or maybe I meant both ‘temples’ and ‘tacos’... Anyway, no matter, ‘cos we’ve been indulging in both.
Mexico is full of ancient temples and pyramids, and has a fascinating history. We knew very little about these cultures, so we decided to do a bit of research before visiting the relics. To this end, we spent a day at the National Museum of Anthropology, which turned out to be one of the most impressive museums I have ever seen. The place is huge: it has 23 permanent exhibition halls, and contains the largest collection of ancient Mexican artefacts in the world.
The exhibits are arranged in a time-line from prehistoric man to modern Mexican populations, and you’d need a couple of days to examine them all in detail. We only had an afternoon so had to cherry pick, but the highlights included:
- A display dedicated to the archaeological site at Teotihuacán, including a replica of Quetzalcoatl’s temple. Quetzalcoatl was a feathered serpent deity who was worshiped throughout Mesoamerica.
- The Aztec Calendar Stone. Many believe that this calendar is due to expire in 2012, heralding the end of the world. I’m not holding my breath; I still haven’t gotten over the letdown of the non-event of the millennium. All that fuss and bother about Y2K for nothing!
- A replica of Aztec ruler Moctezuma's feather headdress.
After seeing the anthropology museum we just had to go and see Teotihuacán for ourselves. The site is about 30 miles outside Mexico City, so we decided a bus tour was the best way to get there. Of course, in typical tour guide style, they don’t just take you to the main attraction. First we we went to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (a popular Catholic pilgrimage site), followed by a Blatant Shopping Opportunity at a place where they carve stuff out of basalt (though they did give us free tequila and alcoholic cactus liquor there, so it wasn’t a total waste of time).
Anyway, Teotihuacán, when we finally arrived, was amazing. It is a huge complex, so we didn’t have time to see all of it, but most people gravitate towards the Avenue of the Dead, the Pyramid of the Sun, and the Pyramid of the Moon.
Me and the Pyramid of the Sun. No one is sure who built Teotihuacán, but the city is thought to have been a centre of industry in its heyday, with many tradesmen and craftsmen. Teotihuacán collapsed sometime in the 7th or 8th centuries, and again no one is sure why. Experts originally thought that invaders raided and burned the city, but others have contested this, hypothesising that the burning occurred during an internal uprising. No one knows for sure, so its destruction remains as controversial as its creation!
Of course, looking at the pretty pyramids is one thing, but it’s quite another to climb ‘em. “What a good idea!” we said, watching other tourists going up and down. “Let’s do that.” And which pyramid shall we climb? Why, the big one, of course! It's only 248 steps - how hard can it possibly be?
We never learn. This is Pete at the top:
That wasn’t the end of our pyramid adventures, though, ‘cos we spent Christmas in the Yucatan. After several days sitting around in our resort, overeating and drinking too many cocktails, guilt got the better of us, and we decided we really ought to go out and do something. There wasn’t much of discussion about where to go: we were in the area, so we just had to see Chichen Itza.
This tour also had an extra side-trip: we got to go swimming in an underground sinkhole:
Chichen Itza is a huge ancient Mayan site with many beautifully preserved buildings. Because of its size, it is worth while taking an official tour to make sure you don’t miss anything. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable, and we felt that we got a lot more out of the tour by being part of a group.
Mayans were a bloodthirsty lot, and we heard some gruesome stories that day. The most memorable for me was about the popular sport of the time, a game which involved putting a heavy ball through a stone hoop. Use of the hands was forbidden, so the players used their hips, or sometimes bats and rackets, to manipulate the ball. Matches were between two individuals from two teams of players. The captain of the winning team was sacrificed – willingly, I might add.
The Mayans were talented astronomers, and relied on star charts heavily to help them make day-to-day decisions. Male athletes were chosen according to the zodiac: babies born between certain dates were taken from their parents and raised to play sports. They were indoctrinated to believe that being sacrificed was a great honour. (Heh, and I thought my P.E. teachers were sadists. Suddenly double hockey first thing on a Monday morning doesn’t seem so bad.) They did a similar thing with girl children, who they sacrificed to ensure the rain would fall.
The observatory (a.k.a. ‘the snail’, due to the spiral staircase inside the building). The observatory’s design was condemned by Mayan expert J. Eric Thompson; he described it as "hideous... a two-decker wedding cake on the square carton in which it came." Everyone’s a critic, eh?
The main attraction of Chichen Itza is El Castillo, a huge step pyramid dedicated to the god El Kukulkan, which, sadly, we weren’t allowed to climb. Our guide told us that too many little yobs had been going up there with cans of spray paint (what is the matter with people, honestly?), plus in 2006 an 80 year old woman fell from the staircase and died.
There is so much more to both Chichen Itza and Teotihuacán I can’t describe it all here. We enjoyed both trips immensely, and if you ever get the chance, we recommend that you go and see them for yourselves.
I think this entry is longer than usual, so I’ll stop now. But before I go, I just wanted to say that we didn’t actually see any Mexicans dancing on their hats... but we did see some dancing with beer bottles on their heads.