A Travellerspoint blog

Unbelizeablable weather

I woke each morning to dark skies, heavy rain and cool temperatures. I also woke to a sense of foreboding about the sailing trip I was waiting on. I am not a hardy individual and suffer terribly from the cold. It’s manageable when I am Ireland; I can buffer myself from the worst excesses of the climate with a wardrobe of fleeces, down jackets and waterproofs of all shapes and varieties. But on a backpacking trip in the tropics, well that’s a different story.

Two evenings before departure I decided I was going to pull out. The company were fine about it, but suggested I attend the trip briefing the following evening before making my final decision. On attending the meeting I was doubly certain that the trip was not for me. That was it, done and dusted. Sure, I had wasted 6 days on the island and sure I would loose a fair sized deposit, but hey ho. As we moved off I got speaking to a couple of the shipmates, Alissa and Jeanne from the States and English Matt, who began a charm offensive so slick and persuasive that after about two minutes I decided I was going to go after all. I didn’t let on though; I said I would think about it, wanting to maintain the myth that I am a hard nut to crack.

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To be fair, it wasn’t raining when we left the next morning. But it was pretty gloomy, not quite the picture postcard image conjured up when you talk about a sailing trip in the Caribbean. Most of my 20 or so shipmates were bundled up as warmly as was possible and I was relieved to observe that the sisters from Holland looked a thousand times more miserable than I was feeling. About two hours later we dropped anchor for the first of the days’ snorkelling adventures. The eager half of the posse stripped off immediately, while the other half were divided amongst the ‘you got to be joking’ crew (thankfully, there was more than just me) and the hmmmers and haaaaers. There was no doubt that more fun was to be had in the water. As you would expect, people were raving about what they could see when snorkelling on the reef. Furthermore they and the crew members, armed with spear guns, went out fishing for dinner and came back with loads of goodies. Lobsters were caught having a dander along the ocean bed and they too were put aside for fresh ceviche that evening. My guilt about not snorkelling escalated with each stop, not just because I was missing out on all the wonderment. The fact I was paying a lot of money to do this also lay heavy on my frugal mind.

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Late afternoon we pulled into Rendevouz Caye, 1,400 square foot of fine white sand, and our home for the evening. I really couldn’t believe how magical it was, a tiny dot of white sand surrounded by ocean. And us. I was very happy I had decided to come on the trip. Running round the island in a fit of excitement took less than a minute. We took to putting up our tents while the crew got to work on making our dinner. The dark sky has remained with us all day and I was relieved we could pitch the tents under the Palapas, thus offering some sort of protection should it rain. Glow in the dark rum punch was consumed as we worked. Dinner for twenty was fantastic, especially since it was cooked on a 2 ring hob in the hull of the boat. Ceviche (raw fish marinated in lemon juice) of conch and lobster, followed by a whole range of dishes made with the fish caught that day. There was plenty of booze on the go too, large quantities of it being consumed by four fellow shipmates from the Emerald Isles. Two of them were brothers from Dublin. They were scrawny malnourished looking things with inner city accents so strong I rarely understood them first time around. They looked as if they’d never been outside the M50, so I was rather amazed they were on a tour of Central America and South America. I was also amazed at the speed at which they, and their more polished female companions, tore into the alcohol. And, remained dedicated to its consumption throughout the trip. I liked them though, especially the girls.

I headed to bed at the rock n roll hour of nine o’clock, in quiet dread of what might lie ahead. On the odd occasions I camp, the weather is rarely on my side and I have many a tale of woe to tell on my return. My fear of course was about the cold, especially as we had no sleeping bags. However I had managed to wrap up really well and although I wouldn’t have described myself as warm, I wasn’t cold either. Praise be and all that. The rain didn’t begin till around 5am, rain so heavy that the noise was absolutely deafening. I kept telling myself we were fine, protected by the Palapa not to be bothered by the noise. I told myself that for quite a number of hours, but as time progressed I could feel the edge of my sheets getting wetter and wetter, but at least it was only the edges. At about 8, my tent mate Jocelyn sat up. As she did so, water began dripping from her beautiful long hair. Then I noticed her back, her jacket was soaking wet, her shorts, soaking wet. For hours she had been lying on a sopping wet mattress and sheets. She was soaked to the skin. Compared to her I was a dry as a bone. I felt both elated (I’m only damp) and guilty (I’m only damp). It seemed that with the wind direction, most of the rain had come in to her side of the tent. Furthermore, I had been saved by my nearby shorts and day pac; they had managed to soak up a fair bit of the water near me. What a lucky escape. The Irish brigade appeared to survive the onslaught totally unscathed. After putting on an impromptu adaptation of Riverdance, they apparently went to bed at 4.30am and due to a state of severe inebriation, slept soundly not even noticing the wind or rain. After failing to get up well after at the arranged hour, the captain stood outside their tent blasting an air horn. Did it rouse them? You must be joking. They slept on like babies

The big problem for most people was that they came, as instructed, with only one set of clothes. I remember the breakfast scene vividly; cold, subdued folk in damp clothes sheltering from the wind and rain under the Palapa, wondering what the day might had in store for us. Due to the rough conditions our departure was delayed for a few hours and even Kevin, the effervescent Captain looked glum and dejected. However when we eventually set sail, the gloom lifted and although the weather wasn’t too good, it wasn’t too bad either. After the lucky escape in the tent, Nora decided to buck up her attitude, so when the boat put down anchor for the first snorkel stop of the day, she was up front, flippered and goggled. The water wasn’t so cold and the snorkelling was fantastic. To add to the golden gold, we were told that our destination for the evening, Tobacco Caye, had wooden cabins. Because the mattresses and sheets were still wet from the night before, there was a strong possibility we would be allowed to stay in the rooms. Wooooooo hoooooooo.

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Tobacco Quay, perched almost on top of the barrier reef, was a delight. Scattered with palm trees, brightly painted wooden cabins, a few locals and a few tourists, it was just what the Doctor ordered. Even better, it had a Palapa covered bar, meaning that I no longer had to drink the glow in the dark/radioactive Rum punch in order to get squiffy. I could return to my beloved Belkin beer. After a snorkel we were shown to a glorious cabin, replete with bunk beds, shower and a flushable toilet. I was ecstatic; there are no other words for it. Later that night the crew cooked up a feast of barbequed lobster and fish kebabs and I grew very drunk on good food, happiness and only a few Belkins. Despite some pretty gloomy moments, the trip had been great and it was lovely for me to be with people. This was the first time in ten weeks that I had spent more than a cursory hour or two with someone. When you are on your own, you have to actively work on making things happen. When you are with a group of people, nice people, life just flows along. It was great just to be in the flow of things.

After a further night of torrential rain, we were greeted by a bright blue sky. And, rather unbelievably, after what had gone before, a day of glorious sailing in perfect Caribbean conditions. I still smirk when I look at the photograph below, taken by a fellow shipmate. It really is us. It really is perfect. Jeanne, Alissa and Matt, thank you for persuading me to go.

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Posted by noratheexplorer 08:13 Archived in Belize Tagged belize caye caye_caulker rendezvous_ tobacco_caye Comments (0)

A breath of fresh air in Belize

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I left Mexico by hydrofoil and spent a nauseous two hours travelling to one of the tiny islands or Cayes (pronounced Keys) which are scattered close to the Belizean coast. While the journey might only have been thirty miles, everything felt different and boy was I in need of something different. Customs in Ambergris Caye consisted of a small shed at the side of the rickety dock. The customs officer was a young Black woman dressed in casual clothes and gold teeth. Casual would also describe her approach to the task of detaining aliens and illegal goods. She lifted her head, nonchalantly stamped my passport and advised “enjoy” in her slow Caribbean drawl. Then I jumped into another boat; smaller, slower, uncovered and prone to breaking down every ten minutes. It was dark by this point and while the backpacking passengers, tried to not look anxious, the skimpily clad gold toothed local women, dissed the driver and the boat, sucked their teeth and flicked their wrists in a dismissive way. It was like being back in Hackney.

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I finally disembarked in Caye Caulker, an island with the motto ‘Go Slow’. I was amused to see golf buggies waiting to pick up passengers, only later learning they were the fastest transport on the island. Given the island only has 3 streets running parallel to each other, I thought I’d walk. Rather predictably, my notoriously terrible sense of direction lead me everywhere except to where I wanted to go. Despite this, I was besides myself with excitement; no cars, no noise, no street lights, just white sandy/gravely streets with occasional wooden houses and the light of the moon to guide me. A number of very courteous men managed to direct me back to the main drag and when I eventually found somewhere to rest my head, albeit grim, I was in cracking form.

And then it was time for serious chow down. After 2 months in meat obsessed Mexico I was hallucinating about fish and vegetables, well hallucinating about anything that wasn’t a greasy piece of chicken or wrapped in a tortilla. While wandering around earlier I had stumbled upon a divine smell of barbequed fish, so I followed by nose and headed out for a date with delicious. I found the restaurant and ordered a modest fish kebab and a bottle of beer. Berkin is the national beer of Belize and it is delicious. I felt quite emotional about the beer and the culinary delights to come. My kebab came; beautiful, tender, succulent Red snapper with chargrilled red and green peppers. I felt a tear coming to my eye. Then the sides came. A delicious rice dish made with Creole spices and steamed cauliflower, broccoli and green beans with a light coconut dressing on the side. I cannot describe what utter utter pleasure I had in eating that meal, every mouthful lead me further to heaven. I felt I was the luckiest girl alive. Simple pleasures are always the best.

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Next day I moved accommodation and went to book a sailing trip I’d read about, in fact it was the main reason I came to Caye Caulker in the first place. The next trip was fully booked and the following one wasn’t departing for another six days. I did a fair bit of hmming and haaaing about whether I wanted to wait, eventually giving in to the ‘go slow’ vibe. Spending 6 days hanging out on a dazzling white Caye in the Carribean sea sounds very, well, desirable, indeed I can visualise it might be marketed in a glossy. But the reality was that one couldn’t swim because the water surrounding the island is clogged with sea grass and one couldn’t offer oneself up to the Sun Gods as there weren’t any beaches or grassy areas for prostration. And there wasn’t even any sun! For the previous ten day a cold front had been sitting on the entire region and the weather was dull, nippy enough. That was before the 4 days of solid rain. But I will moan about that later. The only thing to do was to go snorkelling. Caye Caulker is really close to the Meso American Barrier Reef, a coral reef which that stretches the whole way down the Caribbean coast, from Mexico to Nicaragua. And while about 99.9% of all tourists on the island go snorkelling, Nora didn’t. I am a total woosy when it comes to getting cold and I really couldn’t face it. Shame on me.

So, other than avoiding Roger (I will explain later), there was nothing for me to do but eat and drink myself senseless. For a few days I stayed in a shabby but gorgeous room with a little fridge and my very own hammock on a big veranda. It became the setting for almost non stop piggery; lots of lobster, lots of fish, creole currys, coconut cake, banana ice cream, buns, all washed down with lashings of cold beer and cheap Belizean rum. When in Rome they say, I had never drunk rum before, nor have I afterwards. When I was eventually able to extricate myself from the hammock each evening, the bed was only a few inches away and so I would drift off to sleep, rubbing my swollen belly and swearing to go easy the next time. But how could I stop myself? With a lobster burger costing about a pound, I felt it was my duty to consume, as much as regularly and as possible.

Culturally, Caye Caulker felt like a million miles away from Mexico. Most people on the island are Black and of Caribbean descent. Belize was a British Colony (British Honduras) until 1964, so English is the first language. That enabled me to communicate and relate so much more and I guess, to appreciate the nuances of the humour there. And boy was there humour. There are a lot of men on Caye Caulker; a lot of men trying to earn a few quid from tourism, a lot of men with nothing to do. The sport is therefore to lounge about the three streets, observe life, make wisecracks and maybe, if they’re lucky, bag themselves a foreign wife. If you (man or woman) didn’t have a reasonably thick skin, you may have found this a tad intimidating. I was highly amused. The morning after my arrival I had already been nicknamed the long glass of water (in your head say ‘a long glass of water’ in a Caribbean accent, really drawing out the last bit, waaaaaaa taaaaaaa). I would be greeted by this wherever I went. It made me laugh. Every twenty metes you’d be stopped with a “ Hello baby, where have you been all my life”. In the main, it was all done with a grin, humour and what we Irish would call devilment.

Roger was my biggest fan on the island. At 6 foot five Roger was rather unfortunate looking with a striking resemblance to Goofy, of Walt Disney fame. Roger was also the island drunk and had a talent for magically turning up at every corner I turned. Yes every corner, every single time. “I’m just looking a hug” he would say. “Do I have to?” I would reply. And so it would go on. And on and on. However the hugging story which bests sums up the island vibe does not involve Roger and his smelly alcohol breath. It happened on my second night, when I was just settling into how things are done on Caye Caulker. I had gone searching for a wee shack/cabana that I heard did the best seafood on the island. It had taken me fifteen or twenty minutes of walking down tiny, dark little sandy lanes, guided in the main by children. I found the place; it was ram shackled, dark and seemingly closed for the evening. No one was around. A few seconds later a bare chested man tumbled out of the darkness. “ I need a hug baby” he said. My normal response would be to take to my heels and flee. But this was Caye Caulker, a different world altogether. So I thought, maybe he has a knife and wants to kill me, but maybe he just wants a hug. So I gave him a hug and he gave me a hug back and we went our merry ways. Going slow, as they would say on the Island.

Posted by noratheexplorer 06:10 Archived in Belize Tagged belize caye_caulker Comments (0)

Mexican Colours

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Posted by noratheexplorer 15:19 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Yawn

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Leaving Oaxaca on December 27th marked the end of my first month in Mexico. I'd had a great time and was charmed by my experience of the country and especially its people. However things began a slow slide downhill after that. It was not because of any bad people, places or experiences, rather I failed to be excited or inspired by anything that happened. Sure I visited a ton of places, Mexico is teeming to the brim with things to do, but it felt a bit like I was on a treadmill. Monday it's a colonial town, Tuesday a Mayan ruin, Wednesday another colonial town and so on and so forth. I visited the sights, ate the local delicacies, sat in the Zocalos to soak up the vibe; but it had very little impact on me, I remained a passive observer for most of it. Any regular readers of this blog will know it is mainly stories of my experience of places, so be warned that was follows is a tad dull and lacking in energy.

First stop was San Cristobal de las Casas, a colonial city of cobbled streets and crumbling architecture set high in the mountains of Chiapas. People love San Cristobal. I was not one of them. It was the period between Christmas and New Year and the place was heaving with tourists, 99% percent of which were Mexican. It was freezing cold and wet and much to my horror, was completely over run with scrawny, dreadlocked New Age Travellers. Many thousands of them flock to the nearby ancient Mayan site of Palenque for the Winter Solstice on December 21st. But this year there was a lot of extra bang for the buck. According to the Mayan calendar, December 21st 2012 marked the end of what is known as the 'Long Count' ( or the 13th age). My understanding is that while few in modern day Mexico were in the least interested in the Long Count, us Westerners had really gone to town on it. It had become imbued with all manners of hocus pocus. Those of an apocalyptic bent had predicted the end of the world, whilst tree hugging varieties viewed the date as heralding a positive new era of human consciousness. On the ground it meant a lot of people were in town, a lot of people whose prize possession was a bongo drum. For some reason unknown to me I have a terrible terrible dislike ( I am trying to be mild in my use of language) of New age travellers, Rainbow people, Crustys, whatever you want to call them. It is a completely irrational bigotry and I have no idea of what it is about.

For a number of days I walked the streets of San Cristobal muttering to myself and looking like an Eskimo swathed in layers of thermal tops, fleeces and a puffa jacket while the dreadlocked ones sauntered casually in bare feet, cotton harem pants and tiny little waistcoats covering bare tanned chests. To add to my misery, a second dose of Dehli belly put pay to me gorging myself in the bountiful eateries of San Cristobal. And so it was that asides from doing a few tours (which I can’t be bothered to talk about) I wandered the wet streets like a lost soul.

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New Year's Eve found me in El Panchan, a raggle taggle collection of huts and rooms set in a patch of dense rainforest close to Palenque. Described in the guidebooks as a legendary travellers' hangout and the epicentre of Palenque's alternative scene, I thought it might be a good place for Nora to be for New Years. However as I stepped off the bus to the sounds of bongos I knew I had made a terrible mistake. El Panchan was dreadlocks central; every size, shape and nationality of dreadlock were there to taunt me, playing their bongos or diggerydoos, twirling fire sticks or just trying to look cool and interesting. I booked myself into the most upmarket accommodation I could find, had a shower and went to dinner. Amongst the partying throngs I sat on my own and tried to look like I didn't care. Despite my still dodgy stomach, I gorged myself with cheese laden pizza and numerous beers before rolling off to bed at the ripe old time of 8.30 pm My alarm woke me at 11.55, giving me five minutes to prepare for the New year. So I had a pee, a slug of Mescal , saluted the new year and went back to sleep. Rock n roll or what? At 6 the next morning I was at the entrance to the Palenque's ruins, a Mayan site first settled around 100BC and at the height of it's majesty around 615AD. Although surrounded by jungle the ruins themselves where more manicured than I expected, but it was lovely to be out in nature at that hour of the morning, never mind New Year’s morning, climbing over the ruins while the mist evaporated off the vegetation.

And then I was on the Yucatan peninsula. No more mountains and cool temperatures. Instead heat, humidity, beaches and bus loads of tourists. I was quite excited by this change in temperature and terrain and in the potentially different culture that I might find there, although in truth what I came across was more colonial cities and more Mayan ruins. The most significance difference from what had gone before was in the amount of sweating to be done whilst being a dutiful tourist. Oh and the price hikes in food and accommodation. And the lack of guns! The security checks and body frisks before boarding buses had long gone and there was a general sense that the bandidos were far away.

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First up was Campeche, a small city painstakingly restored since it achieved World Heritage site status in 2000. The cobblestone streets were perfect, the buildings in all shades of pastels were perfect, it even was reasonably traffic free and quiet (that doesn't happen very often in Mexico). But it was all a bit too Disneyland-ish, it didn't feel real. I had a similar reaction when I visited the old town of Dubrovnic, it was just so perfect and clean and sparkling that I felt I was in a movie set rather than a real place.

The humidity in Campeche was stifling, my hotel room was stuffy and a bit smelly and I felt pretty shitty. I sought refuge in a nice airy restaurant and ordered one of the local Yucatan specialities, Papadzules. This Yucatan delight is dried hardboiled eggs wrapped in tortillas and then covered in a squash sauce and then a tomato one. To some it may sound revolting, but after 6 weeks of carnivore crazed dinning I was fantasising about anything that wasn’t flesh, fried or smothered in cheese. On only 2 occasions since my arrival in Mexico had I been able to commandeer some vegetables, some sliced carrots and wait for it…. tinned mushrooms . Not so good when you have been a vegetarian for 29 years. Often when I'm feeling poorly a good feeding session is enough to sort me out. No so in Campeche. I had been lying on my rock hard bed for no more than 3 minutes when the heaving began and for the next few hours, engaged in a vomiting spree which was so regular and violent that it deserved to be televised as an Olympic sport. And then I was better and back at the restaurant, sure I was hungry.

Next came Merida, another...you've guessed it, colonial city. I just wasn't into it. Then Valladolid, which was a bit more my scene. It was smaller, less noisy and polluted, more easy going, more spacious. The houses on the streets had ram shackled gardens littered with junk and the odd goat or pig. You could get a bit of a sense of how people lived their lives there. I had the pleasure of hiring a bicycle and getting to go out and explore some of the countryside near the town. In Mexico it was just so difficult to get away from the cities and towns, from the cars and fumes and noise. Travelling in other countries, one of my main pleasures is finding a little village and just hanging out there; taking a walk, going out on a bike, not doing much. It was pretty difficult to find these opportunities in Mexico, you had to really work hard to seek it out. My mistake was that I didn’t put in the effort. It was a big mistake.

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From Valladolid I visited.... you've guessed it, two more Mayan sites. Chicen Itza is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. It is really well restored and really really crowded. Like Newgrange in County Louth, the sun puts on a pretty nifty show at certain times of the year. While Newgrange is aligned to the sun on Winter Solstice, Chichen Itza shows off during the spring and autumn equinoxes. Apparently the sun produces a light and shadow illusion of a serpent ascending and then descending the main staircase of the largest pyramid. Sure it was nice, but I was beginning to be ruin-ed out. The second site, Ek Balam was much wilder; less restoration, more vegetation. But I swore enough was enough. No more ruins. Well, at least till Guatemala.

Then it was time for the beach. Yipeeeeeeeee. But I need to have a moan before that. Probably most of you have heard of Cancun, even if you know nothing else about Mexico. The government in 1967, recognizing the importance of tourism to the country’s economic future, scoured the country to find the best place to develop an international resort. Cancun was the choice. It now has 4 million visitors a year. Now I had no intention of going anywhere near Cancun, but my sense is that almost the entire coast of Yucatan has become just another Cancun, albeit smaller versions of the original. Like Cancun, few have any real identity or existence, other than servicing hordes of Westerners like me looking for sun, fun and property. Although I avoided the worst and brashest of the resorts, I sometimes felt I was travelling in 51st state of the USA, with foreigners walking round like they owned the place. But then I guess they did. I was outraged by billboards for the American real estate agency Remax, ‘buy your own slice of Mayan paradise’ they purred . One thing was for certain, it wasn't the Mexicans selling and it wasn't the Mexicans buying. I felt very uncomfortable with the whole scenario. And yes, I know it is no different to the entire Spanish Costas being sliced up and developed as mini Britains, Irelands or Germanys. The same with Tuscany or Provence of the Turkish coast, the list is endless. But somehow it got to me and got in the way of me enjoying being there.

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Finally, the beach! I was heading to Tulum, where I had heard the beach was white, the sea jade green and the prices, just about tolerable. Arriving late I checked into a small characterless motel in the town, which is a couple of kilometres from the beach. Next morning I hired a ridiculously overpriced bicycle and cycled out to find somewhere to rest my weary head for a few days. Prices were utterly outrageous; the cheapest digs I could find after a two hour search was a rundown beach hut with electricity from 6.30 to 9 in the evening and access to a toilet and shower block a 5 minute stumble away. They were looking 70 pounds a night for it. And so my little motel became my home for the next five days. It lack of character was soon irrelevant as I came to enjoy the pleasures of air conditioning, a shower with warm water and best of all, a bedside lamp. I think it was my first of the trip and oh how I enjoyed switching it on and off.

Each morning I had a luscious breakfast in one of the many cafes in the backpacker town before cycling off to the beach for a bit of barbequing (of myself).The beach really was gorgeous, the water really was jade green and a bottle of pop cost the price of a small red sports car. I had a lovely few days in Tulum but I knew I’d had enough of Mexico. It was time to depart. But somehow I kept putting it off. Reflecting on it now I think I was nervous about leaving, after two months in the same country you feel comfortable and secure there and I no doubt was anxious of the prospect of travelling through 6 countries in the 2 months to follow. I could kick myself now because what lay ahead was really great.

Posted by noratheexplorer 10:51 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico valladolid tulum san_cristobal_de_las_casas campeche merida el_panchan Comments (0)

I Love Oaxaca

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Firstly Let me describe the setting. Oaxaca , pronounced Wha Ha Ka, is a city of 260,000 people. It is set at the nexus of three valleys flanked by high mountains. When you are in the core of the city, its wide streets lined with colonial buildings and you look in any direction, you can see the mountains, mountains and blue sky. Oaxaca is 1550 metres above sea level which creates bright, clear light and a climate of cool crisp mornings dissolving into scorching hot afternoons and cool evenings. A perfect temperature for Nora. I loved walking to school each morning as the chill was departing for the day, so full of purpose and so delighted that I had chosen Oaxaca as my home for a few weeks. Even better was emerging from school at noon, into the dry heat of the day knowing the hard work was done. Even better, that if I avoided doing homework on my Spanish, that a day of exploration of the delights of Oaxaca lay ahead.

One of Oaxaca's many claims to fame are its culinary delights. Its signature drink is Mescal, which like Tequila is is made from algave that grow in the region. There were a number of cool Mescal bars in town specialising in top notch hooch. Brooke and I had an evening in a brilliant wee bar that had a taster menu of some the different flavours of Mescal. It attracted a diverse clientele, my favourite being a rather eccentric and drunk young man who cut off a large wack of his hair and offered it to the barman (also eccentric) as payment. It was accepted of course, with great grace, as is the Mexican way.

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Foodwise, Oaxaca is most famous its Moles, sauces which would be described in fancy cook books as being' complex' and served over a cut of meat or poultry. The most complex Mole Negro is made of a trillion ingredients, one of which is chocolate. Oaxaca has many shop in which Cocoa is ground, mixed with almonds, cinnamon and sugar and made into chocolate for sauces, hot chocolate and so on.

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But this is beginning to read like a 'I went there and did this and saw that' blog. So I will stop. Sorry.

One of the nicest things to do in Oaxaca was to hang out in the Zocalo, the central square. Right beside the city's main Cathedral, the Zocalo is surrounded by elegant colonial arcades housing cafes and restaurants. The place bustles with life by day and night. When I first arrived I was drawn in by the big players: the brass bands, the Marimba ensembles or by the wandering Mariachi troops in their tight trousers and big hats singing ballads of love, betrayal, death and politics . But after a while you get lured by the gentleness of all the other activities; old men reading their newspapers or getting their shoes polished, the grannies eating their ice creams, young couples snogging, young families from the countryside with their picnics, street sellers, backpackers with dodgy shoes. And many many people on their laptops. Could you imagine that in Dublin? I think not. People lived out their lives in the Zocalo and it felt like a real privilege to sitting there with them. It was all so gentle. I think in all my time in Oaxaca I met one person who was drunk. That was a big challenge to my pre existing stereotype of Mexico. I thought that with all the partying going on, a fair size of the population would either be drunk on their way to being drunk, thats what happens in my own country. But no, not here. Another reason to be really impressed by Mexico.

What I was most surprised about was a really vibrant arts and cultural scene. For being a small city, the centre had a number of beautiful art spaces, mainly old buildings; colonial churches and houses which had been converted with a twist of modern architecture into fabulous venues. Almost every night there was some sort of gathering open to plebs like myself; a classical music concert concert, a piece of theatre, an opening of an exhibition. There was a ton of smaller galleries showing really great contemporary art. I went to the opening of a arty farty photography exhibition. The people were as hip and cool as anything you might see in East London. Once a month Opera from the Met in New York is beamed live to the local theatre (art decco of course!). One Saturday morning I went to see Aida with my classmate Brooke. When it finished after three hours I was surprised at how painless the whole experience had been (I certainly wouldn't be a huge fan of Opera). It was only afterwards in the foyer, while in conversation with a Woody Allen lookalike from New York, that we realised it was only half time. Did we go back in for more? Certainly not.

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Oaxaca also has a big coffee scene and the town is dotted with cool cafes selling local organic coffee and tasty treats. They were lovely spaces to just hang out, read your guide and look at trendily dressed Mexican teenagers making out. Free WiFi is everywhere in Mexico and Central America, and ninety percent of other people were on their laptops or smart phones. My twenty euro Nokia mobile was never removed from my daypac. My favourite was cafe Bruhila. The clientele were a mixture of mainly locals, a handful of expats (nearly all retired Americans and Canadians who stay over the winter), a dollop of longer staying language students and a sprinkling of tourists . I so enjoyed my time there.

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I guess that as a result of my experiences in Mexico City and Oaxaca, my whole notion of Mexico had been turned on its head. Far from being a developing nation which I had aligned with the poverty and chaos of Central America , I learnt that while of course Mexico has poverty it also has a robust economy, a thorough and efficient public transport system far excelling that of Ireland and a vibrant contemporary arts and music scene that could knock the socks off anywhere in mainland Europe. It was only when I relooked at my map of the world I realised that Mexico is actually physically part of the North American continent. Travel really does open your eyes.

But uber cool Oaxaca is just one of its many faces. What I loved most about being there was the almost continual cycle of gentle if not chaotic celebration and enjoyment. In the 18 days in which I had the privilege of being there, almost every single night and day) there was some form of celebration erupting and evolving on the street or in one of the squares.

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I'll give you a few tasters, but it is hard not to descend into a tedious recount of what I did and saw. The kids above were snapped after school one afternoon as I came across a huge gathering, a couple of thousand people, around one of the churches, again somehow connected to the lead up to Christmas. Part of the fun of the day is the kids being dressed up, either as figures from Mexican history or in the traditional clothing of their parents' tribal background . My God, I could have eaten them up.

The next picture and video are from a wedding celebration. The happy couple emerged from the church as I was walking past, next thing a crazy parade is swirling past me. The rest are from another parade which I just happened upon dandering home from school one afternoon. I hope by now you are getting the picture; gentle but joyous celebration at every corner.

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Something which is really famous and really well published is el Noche de los Rabanos, the night of the Radishes! On the evening of December 23rd thousands of people arrive to view displays of intricate sculptures made out of, you've guessed it, radishes (with the odd head of brocolli thrown in). I'm sure you are laughing, as was I until I witnessed the whole thing. It was phenomenal, such artistry and humour. For those of you not in the know, the really intricate carving in the big picture below is of the Virgen de Guadalupe, Mexico's most iconic and popular image.

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Posted by noratheexplorer 11:53 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

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