A Travellerspoint blog

Back to School

15 °C

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Much to my surprise I arrived in Oaxaca without trauma; no road blocks, no men with guns peeking out of their bomber jackets, no emergency loo stops . Truth be told, the journey was very pleasant. For the full 5 hours of steep ascents and corkscrew bends the minivan was accompanied by cyclists, boys and men, about five hundred of them, all heading in the same direction. Thankfully lycra was nowhere to be seen. Rather unusually, the accessory of choice for most cyclists was either a religious statue or a framed religious picture tied to their back. And I'm not talking pocket sized here, think of 2 foot high Virgin Marys and 2 foot wide Scared Heart of Jesus's. It was quite a sight. Obviously I had no idea what was going on in fact I still don´t, but it was a sign of some of the religious devotion, Mexican style, I was to enjoy in the lead up to Christmas in Oaxaca.

I was very pleased when I hopped off the van. I had broken the curse of the disastrous arrivals of the previous ten days. With me I had the address of a family I would be staying with for the following 2 weeks. This was part of the language school set up, they called it linguistic and cultural immersion, which sounded good. Practically it means you have a room in the family house and share mealtimes with them.

However each taxi I flagged down refused to pick me up. Instead they all keep shoo-ing me further down the road. About half an hour of dragging myself further and further down the never ending road I was picked up by a taxi driver, driven about 2 metres and then deposited on the side walk, the driver gesturing with hand movements that I had to go down the street. I had no idea why he couldn´t drop me at the house, but having no Spanish I had no choice but to follow his directions. The street signs didn´t match with the address I had and after ten minutes of walking round aimlessly I approached a shopkeeper and asked for help. They didn´t know what was going on (as far as I could ascertain). I then approached a friendly looking couple waiting on a bus. No joy. My next strategy was to phone the house but the person who answered couldn´t speak english and I couldn´t speak Spanish. You get the story. Just as I began to loose it my saviours arrived. The lovely couple I had approached earlier had returned, this time with two uniformed municipal police officers at their side. Somehow I managed to convey the situation to them and after a quick phonecall they indicated I should follow them. And so it was that I was paraded through the busy streets of Oaxaca city, flanked by 2 men in black. These officers were different to the Arnold Swarchenegger variety of Mexico City. There wasn't a gun in sight, instead agreasy brown paper bag containing a cooked chicken. Cruelly I had interrupted their walk to the station for their dinner break. Ten minutes later and nowhere near where the taxi driver dropped me, I was standing at the front door of my new home. Hugely relieved.

As the door began to open I imagined how my new Mexican mother might pull me into her arms and give me a big reassuring hug. That would be so nice, and so needed. But there in front of me was a tiny old woman, maybe four and a half feet tall, with long long grey hair and a sour face. She reminded me of a water sprite. For those of you not in the know, water sprites are one of the not so nice fairy folks. Trying to hide my disappointment I grabbed her hands and greeted her, Ola Eunice. She shook her head. She wasn´t Eunice. I wanted to cry. Had I the wrong address? What the hell was going on? Conversations between the water sprite and the men in black lead to the water sprite indicating I should move inside. I wanted to go with the lovely police men and their roasted chicken, but it was not to be. I was shown to a bare room with a comfy bed and left there. Abandoned. I wanted to go home. Eventually a lovely girl in her twenties arrived with a piece of paper on which she had written a speech. She had used Google translate to make it. She was the daughter of the house. The police had called her and told her to come to the square to pick me up. When she got there I was nowhere in sight. This left the granny, Carmela, to do the meet and greet at the front door. In my assessment Carmela´s talents lay more in general intimidation then in meet and greet, but that is only my opinion. More importantly the mama of the house was out at a meeting but would be back in a few hours. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and then, room key in hand, fled the house. I was sure Carmela was planning to hide in the cupboards and jump out on me.

When I hit the streets I was surprised to find them at a standstill; jam packed with huge trucks adorned with mega sized holy pictures, statues, flowers arrangements and fancy ribbons, all blasting their fog horns in merriment . The crowds lead me to one of the many Catholic churches in the City, the Basicila de La Solledad. The place was jumping. First their were multiple groups of women dancers in traditional dress with baskets on their heads, filled either with fruit, flowers, or religious statues, all swirling in a synchronised way to numerous crazy brass bands. Then 2 large paper mache figures, probably about 15 feet high with a person inside, basically swirling around and around and knocking people sideways. They had another loud and crazy band to swirl to. Add to this very very loud firecrackers being lobbed in to the crowd and more formal spinning fireworks on wooden or metal structures, well you can only imagine. It was total chaos, total craziness and totally fantastic. It was pure exhiliration to be there. And what I didn´t know at the time was that this was only wee buns, the tip of the iceberg, I had arrived in Oaxaca at party season.

I was never able to make a video of all the night time madness. The daytime one below will therefore have to do. Most days it was a regular event to stumble across one of these joyous ocassions. Although all different, the core elements are usually similiar; the skirt swirling ladies with baskets on their heads, the twirling paper mache giants, a man with a representation of a bull on his head and lots of musicans trying to drown each other out! Enjoy

At nine the next morning I was at my new School. The first activity was a test to assess my level of Spanish. I could answer the first question. That was it.

I have always wanted to learn Spanish. But despite attending night classes and buying expensive CDs which promise that even a hamster can become fluent in 5 days, I have failed miserably. Added to my struggles with French at school and my various failed attempts at learning Irish at night classes, I hold a strong but foolish belief that I am incapable of learning a language. It was time to knock that on the head. And so my daily three hour Spanish lesson began.

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My classmates were Brooke and later Joyce, both from North America, both in their late sixties and both very determined and motivated learners (I was not in that category). Our teacher was Juan. He had a lot of patience and very large biceps. At the end of the three hours I was in a terrible state, my body was just one huge knot of tension. I had to resort to lots of deep breathing just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and walk out the door. It was that bad. I went for a hot chocolate (a Oaxacen speciality) with Brooke. He was in a not too dissimilar state, which was very reassuring. Day two was not much better. Day three, not quite as bad. But it was both shocking and delightful to realise that despite my utter relief when each class was over, I was learning things, I was managing the class, for fecks sake, I was learning bloody Spanish!

Life with the Cortes family was another challenge. As part of the deal I had breakfast and lunch with them, all 5 of them. They were a lovely warm sociable bunch, but I think they had no idea how little Spanish I had. For the first few days I was bombarded with questions which of course I had no understanding of. I engaged in a lot of smiling, sign language and then staring into the distance to try and avoid a new conversation beginning. Eunice in particular was ever so keen to engage me in speaking Spanish, I thus became especially talented at trying to avoid eye contact with her. I began to be able to time my watch to the regular pre-lunch dread and post-lunch relief. After which I went for a long siesta. But the reality was that I got a huge amount from being with the family. Firstly I got to sample proper home cooked Mexican food and drink in all its varieties. The water sprite turned out to be a great cook and I had many culinary treats, especially at breakfast time. But first and foremost I lost my fear of trying to speak Spanish. When you have an hour long mealtime experience and only 15 words, you sure as hell make use them. Making a fool of yourself is of no significance when survival is at stake! In the 12 weeks of travelling which followed, I am ashamed to say that my Spanish skill improved by about 3 percent, I made so little effort to build on what I had learnt. I remain however fearless in my use of those 15 words.

Posted by noratheexplorer 12:28 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Bus Travel in the dark

Is not to be recommended

Yes, I know I have already said that bus travel in Mexico is sooper-dooper. It is, the only issue is that you shouldn't travel after dark. The statistics on hold ups and the like rise exponentially after 6pm, especially on certain infamous stretches of road. So before this story begins I need to tell you that, outside Europe, Mexico has probably been the easiest, most hassle free country I have ever travelled in. This leads to Nora feeling confident about her meanderings there. So when a 5 hour journey from Taxco to Acapulco lay ahead, Nora hobbled around Taxco till late morning with her inflated ankle, rather than getting a nice early morning bus. When she arrived at the bus station she found there wasn't another bus till 5 that evening, meaning travelling and arriving in the dark. That would never do. So, she jumped on a battered aul local bus which took her rather too slowly to the next biggest town. She found the first class bus station, that is the posh one, and went to book her ticket to Acupulco. The next few buses were booked up, the next available one leaving a few hours later. That would mean arriving in the dark, at about seven, but that would have to do. To cut a long story short, the bus departed two hours late, stopped along the side of the road for an hour and didn't manage to roll into Acapulcco till 10.30pm.

During its heyday Acapulco, dubbed the pearl of the Pacific, was the playground of the rich and famous. Nowadays its reputation is for violence. Although I knew much of this violence was related to the ongoing drug wars and hence unlikely to happen to me, I nonetheless was feeling pretty nervous. And did I say I had no accommodation booked for the night? I thought not. Hence feeling tired and jaded, with an ankle the size of a grapefruit I jumped into a taxi and pointed to the driver at a place in the guidebook. Take me there Senor. A few minutes later the driver told me the hotel had closed down but that, if I would like, he could take me to an economical room. Now I have experienced this trick in a number of countries. The driver pretends to be your friend. He suggests he brings you to his cousin's place which is clean and cheap. Generally it will be a flea pit with a huge price tag, but the driver gets commission for bringing you there. What I normally do is loose my rag and demand they take me to the original place. Nine times out of ten, the hotel is in fact still open. But I didn't know what to make of this guy at all, generally Mexicans are ever so helpful and accommodating. And I was exhausted and a bag of nerves. I calmly asked him why he hadn't told me the information before I got in the taxi but with head bowed, I told him to take me to the 'habitation economical' he had suggested.

We turned off the flyover, drove down a dark alley way, then a darker one . I almost made a sign of the cross as I was surely being driven to my death. Then we pulled up outside Hotel Paradiso. Paradise it was not. For thirty quid I got a clean room with a lock on the door, but no hot water or towels (or prostitutes thank God). But I was really thankful for having a place to lay my head.

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Next I had to find sustenance. I asked the girl on reception if their was any food locally. She said no. I would have to go to bed hungry. Feck that. Two dark alleys and a flyover or not, I needed grub. Like a petrified wee thing I tiptoed down the alley and the other one, there was a couple snogging at the next corner, that was a good sign, so I went left there. Joy of joys, a few metres away were a variety of simple late night eateries bubbling away with people and music. Ten minutes later I had a beer in my hand and fish tacos on my plate. After my second beer I thought I might get up to dance to the Madonna track they were playing. Then I thought better of it. Thank God.

Next day I had an eight hour bus journey to Puerto Escondido, a relaxed beach town and port on the Pacific Coast. Having learnt my lesson from the day before, I was at the bus station at 7am and booked on the first bus at 7.45. That meant I would be there roughly at four, leaving me time to check into my upmarket BnB and have a swim and a beer before sundown. Perfecto. All was going well until the bus ground to a halt behind a queue of other vehicles and didn't move for at least an hour. That was at 1pm. At 3pm we still hadn't moved and I had no idea why. At the front of the bus were a couple of Americans, both in their seventies. I approached them and was duly informed that the road had been blocked as part of a protest and would not be unblocked until 7pm. I nearly lost my life. I tell you, it was a long wait, but at least I had the reassurance of a lovely room to go to at the end of it all.

At 7.15pm the road was opened, we trundled off and reached the next bus station within twenty minutes. And then we didn't move again for another hour. Then we were told the bus had broken down and that we would need to transfer to another bus. As we were leaving the bus the elderly American gentleman was robbed by one of the passengers. Stupidly he had all his cards and his passport in his wallet. God love him. It was nearly nine when we hit the road again. This time I was at the back of the bus, very close to the by now smelly loo, sitting next to a little spindly guy who coughed and spat like he had consumption. Behind me was a girl who was listening to her MP3 player and singing very loudly. The final member of the trio was on my left, he was sitting in a very unusual manner indeed, with a very wide uncomfortable pose. A pose which suggested to me that he might have a sub machine gun hiding in his bomber jacket. Oh the joys of tiredness and paranoid thinking. And Yes, I was very able to laugh at the situation and at myself, but I was goddamn fed up. When was this feckin journey going to end.

It was twenty past twelve when we pulled into Puerto Escondido, a mere eight hours late. But as I said before, at least I had the reassurance of a lovely place to go for the evening. So as I crawled into the taxi I knew the end was nigh. First of all the driver couldn't find the place and then when he eventually did, no one answered the bell. I rang it some more and then some more. I called the phone. No one answered. After twenty minutes and with a huge wail of frustration I gave up. I asked the taxi driver to take me to a 'habitacion economical', had my cold shower and collapsed. My ankle was now larger than my head. Sorry, that's an exaggeration. I am just looking for the sympathy vote.

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I was spitting tacks the next morning, but within twenty minutes of arriving in my upmarket room I was cured. My room was lovely, the owners were helpful but low key and it was only a few minutes walk to the beautiful golden sands of the Pacific beach. This was going to be good. Sadly the idyll was quickly shattered by my first dose of the Dehli Belly. Because I needed a toilet at very close range, the longest I could safely stay on the beach was an hour. As Dick Dastardly would say, Drat and double drat. Three days later their was no improvement, I remained a prisoner to the toilet. But it was time for me to head up into the mountains, to Oaxaca City, as I had booked myself into Spanish school for a fortnight. I had a choice; a 13 coach ride (which obviously, based on recent experience, could morph into a much longer one) on a coach with a loo, or a 5 hour minivan adventure, where my bowel evacuations would have to take place on the side of a road. I decided to walk on the wild side; I opted for the minivan, pumped myself full of nasty bowel blockers and sat with my legs crossed at all times. The end point of my last two journeys had been stressful and I was determined to arrive in Oaxaca with the minimum of drama and annoyance.

Posted by noratheexplorer 10:12 Archived in Mexico Comments (1)

Towns beginning with a T

The bus out of Mexico City was spacious and comfortable. I don't think I have ever travelled in a country where the buses could be called anything resembling either of those two words, and that includes Britain and Ireland. The only hint that I was travelling in Mexico was the usual metal detector search on entering the bus and a new to me safety precaution, taking an individual picture of all the passengers. I can only assume that if one of the passengers were to decide to hold up the bus, just for the craic you understand, we would be able to identify the bandido, muy rapido. Maybe not. Answers on a postcard please.

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My first stop was Tepoztlan, a small town surrounded by soaring jagged cliffs, just 80 kilometres south of the Capital. It's a fab spot with an ancient pyramid built in honour of an Actez God, a cracking Saturday market and a squad of New Agers who are apparently drawn to the energy of the area. I bagged myself a beautiful room in a family compound, whose wooden shutters opened out to give me a beautiful view of the mountains. In the heat of the afternoon I would lay on the bed and just ponder the scene, before dozing off for a few hours. In case you are feeling jealous I should add that the bed was harder than nails, that only one of the light bulbs worked, the shower only had cold water and the toilet flushed roughly every third time. That should make you feel a bit better. The guy who ran the place had worked in Ireland during the boom. He told me he worked in the service industry. All his coworkers were foreign and he rarely met an Irish person. Sad, but not surprising. Minutes after I arrived he came to my door with a Dahlia in a earthenware vase. What a dote.

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The popular Saturday morning pursuit in Tepotzlan is to walk to the Piramide de Tepozteco. Its about 5 kilometres and while the last hour is a really stiff hike, the first section out of the town is a joy. The streets are lined with stalls selling junk, crafts, food and all sorts of exotic things to drink. Like many things in Mexico, there was a real atmosphere of fun, but of the gentle sort; people going about their day and enjoying themselves and making the most of what is going on. As the well healed of Mexico often descend on Tepotzlan for the weekend, the town posses a number of nice coffee shops, replete with cakes and buns and all sorts of nice things. I thought I'd stop at one of them for my breakfast before heading to the pyramid. Instead I got lured into one of the little hole in the wall spots, I'm not sure what they are called. I´m not sure if it was the blaring music, the bright colours of the vinyl table clothes or the tissue paper Christmas decorations hanging from the walls, but I needed to be in there. I pointed at one of the various tortilla based items on the hot plate, prayed that it wasn't made of offal and sat down. Whatever they served me up was delicious and was accompanied by coffee Mexico style, boiled and brewed with a hint of cinnamon and served in an earthenware cup. The light, the music, the colour, the stodgy food; Mexico sure was working it's magic on me.

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And then it was time for Taxco. Taxco is a really pretty town; full of preserved colonial architecture, scattered down a precipitous hillside and yet again surrounded by dramatic mountains and cliffs. For most if it's existence, Taxco's fame and wealth has relied on it's silver mines. The boom of many years has now turned to bust and I think tourism is the main draw now. Although it is rather gorgeous, my main memory of Taxco is of falling down a step and spraining my ankle, while in full few of what seemed like a million people. Oh, and of sleeping on a rock hard bed in a room positioned between a major road and an all night disco. Enough said. Time for me to get out of town.

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Posted by noratheexplorer 09:59 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Mexico City

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For those of you who dont know me, Nora is a well seasoned traveller. Outside Europe, she has at least 30 countries under her belt, spanning Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East. Despite the above, Nora was pretty scared at the prospect of spending time in Mexico City, home to a mere 20 million people. As they say, 'the fear of God' had been put into me. Any books I read, even the most moderate and non conservative of the travel guides, gave serious warnings about safety in Mexico City. Although the situation had improved considerably in recent years, in 2010 the crime statistic was 48 muggings, 2 homicides and 5 taxi hold up per day. Flippin hell. Given the above concerns, a 29 hour journey and an arrival time of 5am (in my mind, a time when all the baddies are out at play) I decided to play it safe and book myself a budget busting but cosy BnB in the Centro Historico. I reckoned I could barricade myself in the room until I felt able to go out and face the world. I remember arriving in Jordan, my first time in the Middle East. After a big sleep I spent a good few hours peeking out the window, taking in the view of a street full of women completely robed in black. After a while, courage started to pump through my veins, eventually moving to my head and feet. Then and only then was it time to hit the streets.

At 7am I arrived at my home for the week, eager to crawl into bed and sleep myself into oblivion. That was the plan. Unfortunately I got my dates wrong and screwed up the reservation. I wasn't booked in until later that day. So at 7.15am, dazed and confused, I was walking the mean streets of Mexico City. It was cold and foggy, not what I was expecting from tropical Mexico. Mexico doesn't really get going till after 9, so my gracious host David suggested I go for brekkie to the Padoga, a 24 hour diner. Although the Chinese community originally came to Mexico to build the roads, one of the gifts they left behind is the 24 hour diner. The Padoga was full on 1950's style, replete with waitresses in shapeless peach crimpolene uniforms, hairnets and flat white shoes. The outfit would look bad on 99.5% of the population. However these waitresses were something else. They seemed to have been recruited from an agency specialising in people gifted with unfortunate looks. Hmmmm, a Chinese run American diner, staffed by the aesthetically challenged in crimpolene. Not quite what I was expecting as my first cultural insight into Mexico. Oh how travel broadens the mind. Breakfast was duly consumed and it was time to get my arse into gear. Mexico city awaited me.

After a gloomy half hour people started to arrive on the streets, the sun came out, the fog evaporated leaving only the smog and a huge energy started to infect me. On every single street stood an amazing building, a food vendor cooking up a storm, a museum, a market. Something didn't seem right, I was supposed to be scared but instead I was buzzing with excited feelings. By 10.45 I was on my second meal of the day, this time at a makeshift street stall. I still don't know the name of what I ate. It was a big thick dough-ey tortilla thing, fried, with cheese on top, then a fried egg, then more what they call queso fresca and a sprinkiling of herbs. I sat on the kerb with 20 others, music blasting from the stall, drinking a bottle of coke and feeling wonderful. At that moment I knew I was going to love Mexico. As an aside, many travellers would never ever eat from a street stall. I think thay are just awesome. Despite having suffered from both dysentery (twice) and giardia, I remain an inteprid explorer of all things culinary. Other people might call me a gorb. You'll have to look in a Northern Irish dictionary for the meaning of that one.

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What surprised me most about the city was the genuine loveliness of the people. I was greeted by constant smiles, big smiles. Sure, many of then were in response to my own big smile, but many were not. And they came from all sorts of people, wealthy and poor, dark and light skinned, people who work with tourists, people who did not. You just don't get that friendliness in cities, not even in Ireland. I was offered so much kindness. An old man who crossed the restaurant to offer me a tissue when I had a sneezing fit, a young boy who took the rucsac from my back to put into the hold of the bus, the policeman who approached me when I was lost and asked if he could help. It was strange to feel so welcome and safe, yet to know that bad things happen, all the time. The most constant reminder of danger were the police, thousands of them, everywhere. I thought the huge numbers were in response to some impending protest, but no, I was told this was a normal everyday presence. They looked like something from a futuristic action movie, clad in full body bullet proof gear, space age helmets and imposing machine guns. If Arnold Swartzanegar had come crashing down the street, I wouldn't have been surprised. Further evidence of the reality of everyday violence showed itself when I travelled to the famous pyramids at Teotihuacan, 50 km outside the city. A body search and metal detector scan was used before we even got on the bus and during the journey the police stopped and entered the bus on 3 occasions. I think the route had become infamous for armed robberies, the preferred technique being a passenger boarding the bus with a hidden gun and using it mid journey to hold up their fellow passengers. When I was reading about this in Ireland I was reasonably freaked, but somehow it felt ok now that I was in Mexico. I just carried very small amounts of money and no cash card, so if I was involved in a hold up the loss would be minimal.

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Mexico City felt totally alive, like anything was possible. I think people talk about New York in the same way. I haven't been in New York since I was twenty, so I can't comment. Alive in the sense of people everywhere, walking, dancing, eating, shopping. Alive in the sense their was just so much to do and see and experience. Take my evening activity as an example. The evening after I arrived I went to see Lucha Libre. Lucha Libre is Mexican wrestling, a national obsession. For me, a novice in the wrestling world, it seems just like WWF, except it is acknowledged that the wrestling is choreographed. There are 6 fighters in the ring at the same time, all with pre-identified characters, ridiculous names and outrageous outfits. They all wear masks. Three of the 'Lucadores' are the goodies. They are called Technicos and play by the rules. The other three, called Rudos, break all the rules in the book. As a girl reporting on the experience I would describe the whole occasion as men in silly outfits fighting with each other until one of the teams wins, while an adoring audience works themselves up into a frenzy. Like a game show, key words or catch phrases of affectionate abuse are shouted out by the braying crowd. I cant remember the words in Spanish, in English they are motherfucker and gay, no creativity there eh? In between bouts, girls wearing very little clothes parade around the ring. Luca Libre is huge in Mexico, the venue I attended seats 17,000 and the Luchadoros are hero worshiped. I got to meet (at a price) Niebla Roja, in English Red Mist. What a shame I was taller than him.

The next night I decided to go more high brow. I attended a folk ballet in the most beautiful Art Deco theatre, the Palcio des Belles Artes. The building was phenomenal, again I felt like I was in some iconic building in New York, I don't know why. The ballet was a representation of a host of regional folk dances. It was spectacular; an utter utter feast for the eyes and ears, one of the most amazing shows I have ever seen. So yes, Mexico city is full of diverse things to do; but the joy of being there was just as much, if not more, about wandering the streets and taking it all in, shoulder to shoulder with the rest of its inhabitants. I have never ever been in a more crowded city. Even walking in the park means you are literally shoulder to shoulder with people. I now have a full understanding of what it might feel like to be a sardine who lives in a can. A polluted can I might add. Despite the smog, the crowds and the background threat of something bad happening, I was really sad to leave Mexico City. The place is such a contradiction. I was constantly aware of feeling happy and safe there, but needed to tell myself to watch out, be careful. As each day passed in a happy fashion I would wonder if anything might happen to burst the bubble of my romantic feelings about the place. It didn't.

My final destination in the city was the Terminal Sur long distance bus station. In my experience of travelling, the highest concentration of misery and threat in any place, small or large, is around the bus and train station. Maybe it was at Terminal Sur that my bubble about Mexico City would finally be burst. To my surprise I found it spacious and relaxed, the staff at the ticket counter were kind and courteous and went out of their way to help me. I sat outside for a bit, waiting for the departure time of my bus. Two dodgy looking characters sat down beside me. Aha I thought, maybe now is the time. After a minute or so we got talking. They were Mexicans, returning home by bus after 15 years of life in America. They told me they hadn't a clue about how things worked in Mexico anymore. I joked they could borrow my guidebook. We laughed together. We chatted some more and as I was leaving they wished me a wonderful journey, please have fun Senora they said, please make sure to have fun. My potential muggers were sweethearts. That says it all really

Posted by noratheexplorer 09:47 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Anchors away

Next stop was a 6 day sailing course, based in Gibraltar. I have always, always wanted to be able to sail. In May 2011 I bit the bullet and signed up for a dinghy sailing course in the Wilds of County Mayo. I emerged from the experience a traumatized woman. I spent most of the time in the water (remember this is the Atlantic Ocean in May): my main activity was endlessly capsizing my boat and being unable to haul myself back in without assistance. Once I was helped back in the boat, the damn thing would take off again, like a horse bolting from the stable with me desperately trying to hold onto the reins. Two minutes later I would be back in the water. Although I knew Mayo in May was never going to be San Tropez, my experience on the 'base' was equally cold and joyless. When the day's sailing was over and I had been refreshed by a cold shower (the hot water had broken down) I would climb into my sleeping bag for the rest of the evening in an attempt to keep warm and avoid having to mix with the few oddballs who were doing other courses. I constantly felt full of anxiety and dread. I called my sister at the end of the fourth day and was surprised when I started to ball my eyes out. It was time to leave. And so I returned home a day early with badly swollen knees and ankles, a body purple with bruises, a chipped tooth and a terrible fear of the water, a fear I never had before. For 3 days afterwards I lay in bed with the curtains drawn. Looking back, it probably was the most challenging thing I have done in my adult life; raw fear, physical exhaustion and a sense of feeling totally incompetent is a potent mixture. The only way to cope with fear is to face it, so when I eventually opened my bedroom curtains I knew with certainty I had to get back in a boat as soon as possible. Which of course I didn't, I avoided it. And as we all know, avoidance is most powerful soil in which to grow further fear. It got to a point where I couldn't look at a boat on Carlingford Lough without feeling anxious. I was sure that if I stepped on board a boat again, the boat would surely sink. It was that bad. But now was the time to change that.

Within an hour of leaving Conil, the Rock of Gibraltar could be seen on the horizon and neck and back were tense with nerves. All I could think about was getting a stiff drink. I don´t think Ive taken a drink to calm my nerves since I was in my twenties. The beauty of the physicality of the Rock of Gibraltar surprised me, but within minutes of experiencing hoardes of young British blokes and pubs offering a staple diet of pie and chips I took a dislike to the place.

I made my way to the Marina and hooked up with my shipmates for the week. There was four others, three of whom, reassuringly, had never been on a boat before. The only one with sailing experience was Dutch; he was calm and reasoned but gave nothing away about himself. Then we had a couple, he originally from Belfast and she from the Philippines. She was a gag altogether. Whilst she didn´t know how to ride a bike or drive a car, she was expert in looking glamorous on board and smoking what she called cigarillos in a very elegant manner. I liked her a lot. Then the dark horse. On the surface Kamal looked every inch an extremely posh British public school boy. Underneath the surface he was a good guy who spent most of his life in Ghana, spoke Arabic and had an extensive prescription drug habit. Oh, as well as being an out and out chancer. Kamal was pretty clueless about sailing and like me, failed regularly to learn from his mistakes. Our instructor was a bit of an ass and while I was excused for being rubbish, Kamal was given a really hard time. Kamal managed this by taking a variety of chemical stimulants to help his focus, marijuana to keep his nerves steady and at times of high stress, a valium or two. He was a walking pharmacy. Together we were an odd bunch. I was going to say God only knows what they thought of me, although thinking back, one of the guys did share his thoughts. He said I was the female incarnation of the Murdock from the A team. For those of you who were never A team viewers, he was the crazy dude. I didn't know whether to be extremely flattered or insulted.

As expected, I was a nervous wreck, especially for the first few days. I really struggle with being incompetent and with constantly making the same mistakes. I should have taken one of Karim's valium. Stress levels weren't helped by the attitude of the instructor Mike. He regularly lost his cool and we were shouted out and made to feel foolish on a regular basis, an interesting approach to take on a course for beginners. Taken with his picking on Karim, the atmosphere on the boat was often very bad. Given that I absorb bad vibes like a sponge absorbs water, the only way to cope with this was to self medicate with alcohol every evening. This was problematic for me for two reasons. Reason number one is that I am just not that into alcohol anymore, 2 beers is more than enough. Reason number 2 is that booze makes me need to pee on a number of occasions through the night. That is fine when I am at home and near a loo. On this boat I needed to either clamber over the 2 boys sleeping in the cabin and use the pump toilet which would wake the living dead, Or, get off the boat and walk to the loo facilities. Neither of the two were options for me. And so I developed an unexpected skill. Namely the ability to wake at 2 a.m with a bladder full to bursting and ignore it. And to do the same at 4 and 6 am. Then at around 8.30, to delicately slip off the boat and run at top speed to powder my nose. And so each evening

For those of you not accustomed to sailing lingo I was learning on a cruiser or yacht. This was very different to my time in Mayo. There I was learning in a wee tiny boat called a dinghy which I had to sail myself, namely manage the steering and the sails all on my own (and at the same time!). Yacht are bigger and I had been told, rarely ever sank. Even better, I was learning to be a crew member; that is helping out with the boat, rather than being responsible for anything important like navigation, pointing it in the right direction and doing the sails proper. I was there to learn to take directions from the captain. Phew, that sounded so much better. Responsibility and me do not go together. So after a day on practicing in the bay we set off to Cueta, a Spanish enclave in Morocco. This surely was an interesting part of the world; we departed from a British enclave in Spain and arrived in a Spanish enclave in Morocco. The highlight of the journey (other than the boat not sinking) was being accompanied by dolphins for at least half an hour. The low point was being seasick and then vomiting up my lunch of meatballs and spaghetti all over the deck. I kissed the ground when I eventually clambered off the boat and then made the dash to the closest bar for the first of my medicinal drinks of the evening. The next day we sailed to Morocco proper and spend a very bizzare evening (as they often are in Morocco) in a posh looking Marina in which none of the fancy looking restaurants had any food. My attempts to escape from the Marina was unsuccessful as I was followed everywhere by a myriad of security guards. Karim of course had scored a bag of hash within 5 seconds of stepping off the boat. The evenings generally involved our little crew sitting in the cabin playing cards and drinking whatever we could get our hands on. It was nice. Like a week in a caravan with your mates when you are 22. I liked it. But when I crawled into my cabin to go to sleep, listening to the straining of the ropes, those old anxieties would re-emerge. I have a friend who is a sailor. Listening to the ropes straining at night is a sound of great reassurance to him, it tells him the boat is secure. For me the noise brings up something entirely different. It says, "Jane, that those knots you made when tying the boat up were really rubbish. They have loosened and the boat is about to drift off to sea. We are going to be in trouble and, it's all your fault". I tell you, dealing with those thoughts and a very full bladder was hard work. Given my absolute draw to being on boats and my raw anxiety when on them, I have come to the conclusion that in a previous life I was responsible for a maritime disaster.

Two more days and we were back in Gibraltar. I was hugely relieved and only had a 6 day hangover to content with. I am now the proud owner of a 'Competent Crew' certificate. Wheyheeeeyyyyyyyy.

Posted by noratheexplorer 12:04 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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