After a 19-hour flight inclusive of a layover of 7 hours, followed by another 2-hour flight, I finally arrived at my destination in the middle of the night. Unable to spot my driver when I exited the baggage claim, I panicked a little, then felt annoyed, when I saw him standing behind three rows of drivers. Why couldn’t he wait for me at the first row? I was tired and he made me pull my big suitcase 50 steps more.
Where am I? Mexico — that really far, ‘dangerous’ and hot place that doesn’t sound the least bit glamourous. The country dominated by ruins and Mayan history, which most famous character is possibly a mouse that goes by the name Speedy Gonzales. I haven’t a clue (then) if my mobile communications would continue in Mexico, this is a huge insecurity for me in unfamiliar territory. And truth be told, I’m no fan of Mexican food; I had spent four futile months trying to wiggle out of this trip.
If I said I didn’t have any more First-World woes, I’d be lying! The driver parked 5 minutes’ away from the hotel and didn’t help me with my bags. He sent me to the wrong hotel. There are flies everywhere; no one told me that there would be commando-trained mosquitos. The hot water tap (surprise surprise) didn’t work properly. There are no handrails on the Pyramids, what if I had slipped? Why would people want to swim in the cenotes… the water is dirty! And the list of grouses kept growing.
Yet, Mexico never stopped welcoming us. Well, at least, the Yucatán Peninsula.
One of the earliest realisations to strike me was, Cancun and the Mayan Riviera had transformed into an attractive beach destination. Think Bali and Ibiza, both of which I had coincidentally visited around the same timeframe as the Yucatán trip. The nightlife is really amazing here. The shopping streets of Playa del Carmen are a lot cleaner and neater than those in Ibiza. The water is clear and sand, white and smooth.
Cenotes, or sinkholes with a water body, were a topic that came up more often than I’d expected. There are over 2,000 official cenotes in the Yucatán — most are public and can be swum in, while some are privately owned and managed.
The first cenote we visited was open-air and on a private property. Lunch came first — a beautiful table was set up and we were attended to by a wonderfully attentive server. An elderly lady made fresh tortilla for us and an old gentleman brought us our first authentic Mexican dish, cochinita pibil or pork baked in the earth. When it was time for a swim, the fatherly figure took time to clear away the fallen leaves and other debris in the water to create a clean space for us to jump into. Staring at the water, I struggled — part of me wanted to remain in my comfort zone (I didn’t relish the thought of frolicking in the water) yet I didn’t want to waste his effort. I was actually glad that an ant — the half inch-long Joch (pronounced “hoch”) — stung Hui-Juan as she was walking into the water. Well, let’s just say it was so painful that swimming was the last thing on her mind. No pain, no gain, indeed!
Another cenote we visited on our trip was at Hacienda Sotuta de Peón. Somehow it looked magical and the clear water gleamed. For a brief moment, I regretted not bringing along my swimwear as I saw enthusiastic French and Italian couples, the more endowed halves clad in their bikinis, preparing to jump into the water.
Apart from the cenote, the hacienda is a lovely archive of how people in the past lived and an open-air museum detailing the heyday of sisal or henequén industry. The Yucatáns were the world’s largest exporter of sisal or henequén, used mostly for ropes especially for sailing ships. However, with the introduction of new materials, reduced usage of sail boats and new producers of the henequén plant, Yucatán lost out on the market share.
We first sat in an interesting horse-drawn rail cart, along an actual train track. The 10-minute journey took us through a cultivated henequén plantation, stopping at a little hut. A friendly 80-year-old Mayan man named Antonio greeted us at the entrance. This is his home and the plantation that we rode through were his efforts. As a child, Antonio, and many Mayans since the Spanish conquest, were slaves to Spanish masters. He was given a vision to set up this museum from the rich owner of the land before he passed away. A smile flashed on Antonio’s face when we said “yumbotic”, which means “thank you” in Mayan; we had learnt this before our visit.
Our meeting with Antonio was truly inspiring, as the story unfolded of how he restored the plantation over a period of 16 years, as well as embraced change and modern life. As we were leaving he declared, “Now I will be world famous when all of you post your pictures of me on the Internet”, before thanking everyone for their visit in 10 languages.
Unavoidable, in any trip to the Yucatán, is exploring Mayan ruins and there are many sites between Cancun and Merida. We decided to visit Ek Balam, Chichén Itzá and Uxmal; each had their beauty. We could climb up the steps of most of the pyramids to get a view of the structures and the surrounding pristine forests. The steps at the pyramids are generally high, and narrower than what I was comfortable with. My first attempt to climb the less touristy Ek Balam had me crawling on all fours while other two-legged folks, including seniors and young children, zipped past me. I crumbled under the fear of falling backwards and gave up halfway.
A caring, passionate people
The locals were a lot easier to get used to. Our private driver Jose took very good care of us and makes us feel safe. Whenever we returned to the car after some sightseeing or an activity, he would be there waiting with a smile, dispensing cold towels and drinks that were most refreshing and comforting after all that time under the sun.
Our knowledgeable Mayan culture-certified guide entertained us with insightful discourses on his country and his people’s history and culture. He spoke with great pride and love for all things Mexican. At the same time, he was highly sensitive to his foreign guests and tailored his conversations to suit our moods and energy levels.
Did I mention we got to watch World Cup matches in the correct time zone?! Watching Mexico play Cameroon in the group stage was absolutely enjoyable, not so much the fact we were sipping Corona beer but because all the waiters and patrons would excitedly cheer at every single attempt at goal. Amazingly, we had great food and service in the midst of football frenzy. I might have mentioned in other articles that I am not adventurous when it comes to food but I was pleasantly surprised at the cuisine we tasted. (I will let the images in the picture gallery above speak for themselves.)
The locals also taught me a precious lesson about reserving judgement, or more appropriately, complaints. After paying more than US$200 for a spa session at a luxury hotel that I felt was not worth the price, I’d made my displeasure known to the manager. Instead of making an effort to justify the value of the treatment, the manager had a genuine look of sadness on his face that made me regret my frankness almost immediately. The pampered First-World traveller in me had neglected to appreciate a dedicated therapist who spent her free time making and embroidering handkerchiefs for her clients, choosing then to only wallow in self-pity for a massage that did not live up to expectations.
And so, finally after six days, the Third-World antidote began to work in this stressed-out soul that craves everything to function like clockwork; I began to see and feel the place as it is, not by what it isn’t. By First-World standards, houses and streets in the Yucatán look old, dirty and untidy. A curious peek into a house and subsequent houses revealed another world — interiors are so clean, neat and modern, they make some Singapore homes look like a junkyard. Despite the sand, dust and humidity, the Yucatáns always look so clean and Zen-like in their white clothes.
The Yucatán, and Mexico, is not a place for everyone, but it has a place for everyone. For now, I say “Ándale! Ándale! Arriba! Arriba!” to our next Mexican getaway.