w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
We suspected that after our stop in LA, it would be hard to leave behind the familiarity of America, the beauty of California and most of all, friends and family. It didn't help that the only flights we could find using our frequent flyer miles required a 3:30 A.M. wake up call. Oona cried and cried as we carried her to the car, saying she didn't care about traveling or Mexico and just wanted to go back to bed, wake up at a reasonable hour and then spend the day at the beach with Helen, Kyung, Elaine, Mike and their dog Barbie. As far as she was concerned we were ruining her life by taking her on this stupid trip that she never wanted to go on in the first place. Isoo put it more succinctly. "This sucks. Why can't you guys ever shell out for better departure times?"
To entice the kids back on the road, we made our first stop Club Med Cancun. This meant nothing to them as neither they (nor Chris and I for that matter) had ever been to an all-inclusive resort. It was not the kind of travel we had ever done before as I never saw the point of going to another country only to stay somewhere that protects you from actually experiencing it. But after 8 months on the road, we needed a little break from the daily planning, the constant searching out of the next meal, the getting lost on public transport, the pantomiming that passed for communication. So when we found a last minute deal, we hopped on it, arriving just in time for the water aerobics class, the only pool like a giant pot brimming with white people dancing awkwardly to Katy Perry tunes. Isoo and I passed sideways glances, already hating place. Oona loved it immediately and for the next five days, she happily danced to Jimmy Buffet covers on the beach, rode the mechanical bull, and raided the dessert bar at breakfast (who knew we needed dessert after breakfast????). She sailed, kayaked, danced in the talent show, and swung on the trapeze. Eventually, even Isoo came around, playing bocce, soccer and pool basketball with a bunch of French boys. By day 3 they each had a new best friend and the much needed freedom to come and go as they pleased. Walking into the snack bar, I found Isoo sitting at a table for one, having ordered himself a quesadilla. Oona flagged down a golf cart to run back to her room for sneakers. Chris trotted out his rusty backhand to volley with the resident tennis pro. And I passed more than one afternoon perched on a lounge chair talking to my new friend, Kelly. We never once left the resort. Margaritas and chimichangas passed for culture. And aside from the occasional "hola" and "gracias", no espanol was necessary. It was exactly what we needed and didn't know it.
Isoo is my shy kid. This means it takes about a dozen French boys to urge him onto the soccer field. Between games, they competed in an elaborate made-up relay race that involved doing laps, pool basketball, racing on the beach, chugging water and then diving back into the pool. He slept well at day's end.
Our room with a view. Hard to get any sleep when you know this is waiting.
Swinging on a trapeze is apparently not good enough. Must also hang upside and do the splits. Where does she get this stuff?
Chris gave it a go as well. Not as fancy as Oona, but teacher Aki was proud!
Lora and Jorja are old friends, but only 5 minutes after our arrival, they generously made room for Oona. After that, the girls were inseparable. We were sad to see Lora leave early, but I suspect it won't be the last time we see the girls. Here they are with the awesome, Aki.
Lora's mom, Mariko, modestly claimed to be a proprietor of a wedding dress shop in Japan. Turns out it's a chain of 75 shops. Kelly, Jorja's mom, said she was a Wellness Director in a little town in Canada who had been rerouted on her way back from another vacation. That other vacation? A trip to summit Everest. She was in Nepal the day the earthquake hit. Old friends, the two spontaneously convened in Cancun to decompress and count their blessings. Both wonderful, fascinating women whom I was lucky to befriend.
Our other new friend, Popeye. The girls loved to torture him by hanging on him in the pool.
My snorkeling partner.
Oona performing in the talent show. She was the cat's meow.
Oona and Jorja, hanging out.
When Isoo and his buddy Xavier weren't playing ping pong, they were jumping waves and playing catch.
Isoo had lots of questions for Kelly regarding the earthquake. While it was an emotional, heartbreaking subject for Kelly, she spoke openly about her experience and the devastation she witnessed. Among the stories the one that shook me most: before any talk of a death toll, Kelly knew things were really horrible when she looked into the horizon and saw that there were no trees left. They had been cut down to use as firewood in accordance with the Nepalese Buddhist tradition of cremating the dead. Isoo was riveted and met her candor with the proclamation, "Kelly, I think you are the most interesting person I have ever met."
Fast friends, Jorga and Oona.
If Club Med Cancun is the fantasy Mexico imagined by wealthy foreign tourists, then Merida is the drowsy daydream of bygone days. Chris had been dying to visit Merida and at one point, it was put on the official itinerary only to be taken off after consulting the weather. But it seemed wrong to go all the way to Cancun and not make the short drive, so despite the 105 degree temps, we slathered on another layer of deodorant, loaded up the Nissan and, with the AC blasting, headed into the heart of the Yucatan.
Chris had snagged us a fantastic deal on a chic, five bedroom house in the middle of town. Think Mexican tile, traditional artwork, and hand crocheted linens meets modern furniture, poured concrete chef’s kitchen and a sleek courtyard with a private swimming pool. The house had been featured in Elle Décor and the NYT, but what the articles had failed to mention was the lack of air conditioning (you know it's super hot when the kids ask to go sit in the car). The house was also filthy with several outstanding maintenance issues. We packed it in and ended up at Rosas y Xocholate, a tiny, boutique hotel down the street. While we had a lovely stay, we were heartbroken not to be able to stay in the house. If it were ready for us, I'm sure it would have been a favorite of the trip.
As for Merida, we strolled down Paseo de Montejo to watch families ride bikes past the once regal 1900’s mansions owned by the henquen plantation owners. It was Sunday, Mother’s Day, and both the colorful Igelsia de Santa Ana and the plain Jane, Merida Cathedral hummed with prayer. After service the sidewalk cafes filled with families celebrating together, several generations seated at a table eating poc chuch (sliced grilled pork in adobo sauce) and cochinita (marinated pork wrapped in banana leaves and roasted under ground). We took cover from the enthusiastic street hawkers to browse the artwork in Pasaje de la Revolucion. We had planned to return to Plaza Grande that evening to listen to a band play mambos, rumbas, and cha-chas while dancers filled the streets, but after a long day in the heat, followed by a heavy Mother’s Day supper and an all too delicious mezcal tasting (accompanied by orange slices, flavored salt and crispy roasted grasshoppers), we ended up calling it a night.
We woke early the next morning to drive back in time to see the ancient Mayan pyramids of Chichen Itza. We baked in the heat as we counted the tiers of El Castillo and walked the magnificent ball court wondering how pok ta pok players could possibly shoot a rubber ball through a concrete hoop with just their elbows, knees and hips. Afterwards we cooled our sweaty asses by jumping into the icy waters of Ik Kil Cenote, an ancient swimming hole 130 feet deep. Chris and Isoo did tandem dives while Oona and I floated in the water amid black catfish and dripping vines. Even the throng of chanting Spanish tourists couldn’t squelch the experience.
The crumbling mansions of Paseo de Montejo, a street devised to mirror Paris' Champs-Elysees. On Sunday mornings, the street is closed to traffic and locals rent funny clamped-together bikes to enjoy a family ride around the city.
Andres Quintana Roo (Mexican liberal politician, lawyer and author) stands proud in Santa Ana Park.
The vivid Igelsia de Santa Ana.
The perfect place for a Mother's Day photo: Parque de la Maternidad .
The austere simplicity of Merida Cathedral. Any ornamentation was long ago looted during the Mexican Revolution.
Flying high at Plaza Grande.
Browsing the street stalls of Plaza Grande. Isoo settles for a kiss instead of a toy.
The fantastical sculptures of Pasaje de la Revolucion.
Cooling off at the pink and brown themed Rosas y Xocholate Hotel.
Merida is equal parts crumbly, sticky, gentile, romantic. I loved it.
When the Spanish colonized Merida, they named the streets numerically, however, the mostly illiterate Mayan population found the system confusing. So they added red plaques with images and names evocative of the street's significance. The older population still refer to the streets by those names.
Chichen Itza's El Castillo and its slithering snakes (not that Isoo noticed).
The Great Ball Court of Chichen Itza is indeed great. The largest in Mesoamerica, it hosted Pok ta Pok matches - an ancient Mayan game that comprised of two teams whose goal was to launch a small rubber ball through the rings on either side of the court using only knees, hips and elbows with the ball moving only in the direction of the rotating sun. Sounds easy, right? For sure. The reward for the winning team's Captain? He would present his own head to the losing Captain, who would then decapitate him, fast tracking him past the 13 steps that Mayan's believed took to reach heaven.
The ring. Quidditch, anyone?
The scenic Cenote Ik Kil. We swam in the chilly waters surrounded by dappled sunlight, dripping vines, black catfish and fluttering turquoise-browed motmots.
Chris and I tend to agree on locations. We loved Rome and Tokyo, were intrigued by Beijing, bored in Bali and Sydney. But with Mexico City, we couldn't be further apart. Chris was "surprised and delighted" to find that Mexico City was "complex, savvy, hip and modern" and ranked it among the top three places that we visited. While I enjoyed the Frida Kahlo Museum and the cool Museo de Templo Mayor, I found Mexico City to be far from the land of splendor of which he raved. Honestly, for me, the city still feels very rough around the edges, and not in a charming way. There are trendy neighborhoods for sure, but the roads are pocked with holes, the trains congested and dirty, the water undrinkable, lusty teenagers make out on street corners, and there's a general sense of unpredictability that left me ill at ease. While I've never felt a tinge of danger on this trip previously, Oona turned to me one night in Mexico City after narrowly sidestepping a drunken brawl and clenching my hand tightly said, "I think it's good for a parent to hold their child's hand here, don't you?" Don't get me wrong, Mexico City is not bad, (and it's anticipated that in the coming years, it will get much, much better; in fact, by 2050 Mexico is expected to be the world's fifth largest economy), but for me, it wasn't all that great either. During dinner at Limosneros, our waiter Luis confessed that at the age of 12, he had crossed to the U.S., not once, but twice to spend 10 years in California and Texas. When Chris generously prophesied that the fence would soon act to keep Americans out of Mexico rather than the other way around, Luis shook his head and said, "No. I miss America every day. I would not have come back to Mexico City if I didn't have to care for my father."
I'm not sure what any of this means. But I know if given the option, I'd take a few extra days in sleepy Merida any day.
Our room with a view. Overlooking Alameda Central and the orange dome of the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
Man, Controller of the Universe by Diego Rivera.
Imagine that you are an electrical worker sent to repair underground cables when suddenly, you hit a huge pre-Hispanic stone disk over 10 feet wide and etched with the tale of a mythical moon goddess. Imagine you keep digging and discover a gigantic underground Aztec city made up of two giant temples, numerous smaller temples, ceramic urns, sculptures, ancient tools, and countless animal and human skeletons. Then imagine you find this smack dab in the middle of Mexico City. Welcome to Museo de Templo Mayor, ancient Tenochtitlan.
Templo Mayor was constructed to reflect the Mayan belief that there are 13 levels of heaven and 9 levels of the underworld. With every new leader, the complex was to be expanded, but first, human sacrifices must be offered at the temples of Huitzilopochtli, god of war, and Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture. The Aztec warriors would go to battle for the sole purpose of capturing would-be sacrificial victims. The still beating hearts of the captured would be placed in the stone bowl of a chacmool (reclining stone figure) and offered to the gods for a blessed construction. The sprawling complex is testament to the victorious fighting power of the Aztecs.
After the capture of Aztec ruler, Moctezuma II, Spaniard Hernan Cortes, asked for his ransom - a room filled with gold. After receiving his request, he killed Moctezuma anyway and took Tenochtitlan, looting it for treasures and then destroying the temples before constructing a Catholic cross on the remains. (Thus the origin of Montezuma's Revenge.) The ruins of Templo Mayor with Catedral Metropolitana in the distance.
Palacio de Correos de Mexico is truly a postal palace. I've never felt so under-dressed to mail a post card.
The sculpture garden of the (missable) Museo de Arte Moderno.
Chapultepec Castle as seen from Bosque de Chapultepec.
We spent an entire day learning about Mexican mythology at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. On the very crowded subway home Chris pulled me close and whispered, "Look." A woman with crazy piercings and extreme make-up had a hive of tiny winged bugs crawling all over her head. We were horrified and riveted at the same time. That night we all had weird dreams about human sacrifices, winged insects, blue pebbles in the mouths of the dead, plumed snakes and a man with painted eyes and the beak of a bird.
But my hands down favorite was the Frida Kahlo Museum.
Frida's studio though she mostly painted in her day time bedroom, a skinny room with doors that opened to a beautiful courtyard and garden. Her day time bed was a canopied contraption, with a mirror on the ceiling so she could paint her self-portraits while lying in bed. Also on view, an extensive doll collection featuring little figurines made in her likeness - a substitute for the children she would never bear.
Frida and Diego.
After dinner in the historic center, we thought it would be fun to stroll to Plaza Garibaldi and listen to the mariachi bands. It was only 9:30 P.M. and Mexico City was thumping with club music, the streets overflowing with drunken young people, roving mariachis grabbing dinner at the street carts, and stray cats weaving through our legs. Oona was so overwhelmed by the scene that she said she would never go to a bar or night club. Mark her words!
For $100 a mariachi band will serenade you a song of your choice. We were too cheap to shell out the dough, but lucky us, we got a show anyway.