Banditos!

Sunday 16 October

Another drive day to push through but I feel strangely awake and energised. We need to reach within striking distance of the border so we get underway.  We plan on stopping by the largest tree in the world and a beautiful waterfall, however we miss the exit for the tree, and the waterfall doesn’t have any water.  I also step into a puddle of disgusting stagnant brine, and fall backwards over a cactus, somehow capturing both on film.  It looks like its going to be a great day.

As night drifts in, I start to feel a little uneasy.  We cross a number of checkpoints, and the roads become increasingly in a state of disrepair.  I also spot a large fire burning in the distance and judging by how the day began, I’m not feeling particularly relaxed.

I’m grateful when we pull into the little seaside town of Puerto Arista.  We stumble around looking for suitable beds for the night, and eventually find a spot which allows us to park the ambulances securely off the road.  When the guys turn in, I sit outside tapping away on my laptop.  After an hour or so of working, I hear the chug, chug, chug of a vehicle.  As the pimped pick up rolls past, I was thankful to be behind a fence.  I make eye contact with one of the three men sitting in the open back.  As they drive on, I slip up the side steps of reception, and watch as they 3 point turn and crawl to a stop, exactly opposite where I was sitting.

My heart is beating through my chest and I wonder if they’ve got some secret deal with the guys at the hotel.  Some gringos have turned up in two ambulances and we’ve got them locked in here.  I Breathe a sigh of relief as they pull away, but in no doubt they were looking for me.  After the biggest toad I’ve ever seen starts leaping up the steps to greet me, I decide its best to call it a day.

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Ruined

Saturday 15 October

We’re out for 1pm and an exciting day is planned as we head to the Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban. The stones have been here for thousands of years, cut out of the top of a mountain.  I have been looking forward to seeing these sights since leaving home.  Winding up the dusty road, I gain a sense that the rally has just begun and the trip really starts here.

The ruins are simply stunning.  You cannot imagine how these people, by all accounts very small in stature, managed to crack open this mountain like an egg and build the structures before me with the rock.  It’s enormous.  Its grandeur and power you can almost taste on the air, blustering around the vast open green spaces and the massive stone steps, leading to remnants of temples.  It is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen, and this is only the beginning.

It is quite an effort to climb the towering stone blocks which have become the signature of such archeological sites.  You can’t help but wonder how such little people managed it.  The views at the top are well worth the climb, and it feels like you can literally touch the sky if you just reach up high enough.  The shutter button on my camera never stops clicking, but I make sure I spend time quietly contemplating just about everything.  Standing among these stones, it makes you numb with awe and wonder, and although they are silent, you become lost in the vastness of life.

I am disappointed to see the guide finally tell myself and Murray that our time is up and the site is closing for the day.  I could quite happily spend the evening here, capturing as much as possible as the light changes.  I wish I could see it at sunrise or sunset.  Perhaps I’ll save that for another day.

The team heads back into Oaxaca to see the city.  There is a European feel to the centre, with its many churches, colourful stone buildings with balconies, and a beautiful leafy square in the middle.  We are lucky enough to see a Mexican wedding in the cathedral, and spend some time drinking coffee in the open air; among street vendors, balloons, fireworks and Spanish guitars.

Some bad news awaits us as we return to camp.  Peter’s father had just passed away.  It is really upsetting to hear, but we are thankful that he managed to get home to be with his family.  I send my condolences and support, but regardless of my own experience with my dad, there really is little you can say.  The team raises a glass at the end of the day.

We are due to be up early in the morning, but as ever the promise of a party with a load of Australians I don’t know is too much temptation to turn down.  Everyone decides to call it a night and stay in the hostel, but I hit the town and find some wonderful bars and clubs.  The evening does not disappoint.

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Mexico City

Friday 14 October

I feel oddly refreshed as we rise and pile into the transport. We thank our hosts for their hospitality, and get underway. It’s yet another behemoth drive as we head to Oaxaca, and a pre booked hostel. What starts off as me feeling ok from the night before quickly gives way to the realisation I was still drunk, and I sleep for a number of hours in the back of the ambulance.

My hung over slumber is disturbed by Murray as he calls from the driver’s seat. We’re coming into Mexico city. Now this wasn’t our original plan, but unfortunately Peter has decided he can no longer continue on the trip as he is missing important classes. He has booked a flight home and we need to drop him somewhere with access to the airport.  Thus begins our nightmarish attempt to drive in Mexico city

I wanted to stop here, but we really don’t have the time and it is a pretty dangerous place.  Apparently kidnapping is big business, so it’s best not to dawdle. Our more immediate danger is the traffic. Nobody has a clue. The bus drivers are drunk, or they appear to be, and no lanes, wild overtaking, cutting in and breaking hard ensures total chaos.

Once we (somehow) manage to navigate safely through the madness, we come to understand just why this is the biggest city in the world. As far as the eye can see, in every direction, lining the hillsides, is the urban sprawl. It’s a tumbledown, dirty, crumbling assortment of shacks, breeze block structures, huts and washing lines. Winding down the window is not recommended. It feels unclean, it feels dangerous, it smacks of 3rd world poverty. There are no government regulations to build housing, so anything goes, and earthquakes claim many lives as a result. It doesn’t seem to end and in spite of it being hideously ugly, it still manages to take my breath away.

After what seems like forever, we reach city limits and power on towards our next destination. The road snakes up into mountains as it’s getting dark, and it is somewhat unfortunate as we can just pick out what appears to be beautiful views and scenery in the blackness. It’s probably the longest drive to date, but that still doesn’t stop us going out on the town when we finally reach Oaxaca. I opt for the kilt, it feels like a party town and it doesn’t disappoint.  I find myself dancing with two Mexican girls, while the clubs male population stare daggers at the kilted gringo.  One of whom is particularly interested in me, yet she doesn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Spanish.  We attempt the tried and tested method of talking at each other, but it’s to no avail.  She follows me around the club, and in spite of pressure from the rest of the team I’m just not interested.  Sometimes knowing you can get it is as good as getting it.

What the hell am I talking about?  I should have just kissed the girl!  Curses!  It’s 6am when my lonely youth hostel key turns in the lock.

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Pig

Thursday 13 October

Slightly uncomfortable night on the sofa which was a little too small, however the lie in compensates and we rise late to wander the city.  Morelia has that old town atmosphere, as it was one of the first to be colonised by Spain. We stroll through busy streets, filled with the hustle and bustle of market traders, street theatre and ambling public.  The market is an interesting experience, and I am slightly appalled at the apparent lack of hygiene at the many butchers stalls.  Every kind of meat you can ask for lies open, uncovered and at the mercy of insects on tiled stone slabs.  Pigs heads hanging from their own entrails.  Cow heads stacked in rows.  I even spot a horse, or what was left of it.  The fact that you ate cooked food not too far from such displays was enough to keep a starving man hungry.

I’m getting a hang of the food here. I don’t even attempt to pronounce it, type it or read it off menus, but it is growing on me a little.  I say a little; after I leave I’m never eating Mexican food again.

We spend the day lazily seeing what the town has to offer with its buildings, churches and squares.  In the evening we plan on heading out to party.  The city is apparently famed for its rooftop bars, but as it starts to lash down with rain, we opt to stay in. And it was well worth it.  We have a wonderful evening playing cards and drinking games with our hosts, long into the night.  The only problem is yet another early start and heavy drive await us tomorrow.  I’m going to be in a foul mood.

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Storm chasers

Wednesday 12 October

After the disappointment of not witnessing my first hurricane; again, we had to hole up in a coffee shop as the storm was ahead of us. This wasn’t an unpleasant experience as I managed to catch up on a few entries in the blog, and mess around on the internet stalking people.

A long day on the road loomed, and we were already behind.  We were making for the town of Morelia, as Oda had arranged a couch surfing stay there.  The going was slow, as we caught up with the tail end of the hurricane, with some driving rain and high winds hampering our progress.

It wasn’t until nightfall that we pulled into the town, and started to feel the real Mexico.  Colonial stone buildings and long, narrow, lamp lit streets greeted us, and I was aware for the first time of a sense of history.  We found our host, Andres, in the centre of the town, in a large, student flat.  The welcome was warm, as was the much needed sleep.

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Hurricane!

Tuesday 11 October

Got underway on the early side again and headed West.  Our plan is to cover some more ground today and see some sights later tonight and tomorrow.  The landscape has changed.  Gone the desert, here the trees.  It’s hotter, more humid, and very green.  And probably full of crawling things.  Apart from the long tarmac snaking its way through rolling hills and fields full of fruit crops, the highlight of the drive is Peter finding his soul mate at a banana stand by the roadside.

We arrive in the coastal resort town of Puerto Vallarta.  It is only meant to be a comfort stop, but here I experience my first, real, Pacific coast sunset.  It looks like any other sunset, we take some nice photos as the light fades.  And then it explodes.  A glorious painting of reds, yellows, oranges and pinks.  It was as if a sky firework had been lit.  I had my eye through the viewfinder of my camera, and then I just felt this wash of colour.  I lowered the lense, and couldn’t speak for several minutes.  My pictures simply don’t do it justice.

Then a slightly alarming and exciting realisation dawns on us.  That and someone tells us the reason it’s so beautiful is because there is a hurricane coming.  Hurricane Jova is about to hit us head on.  We decide to bed down for the night, in the hotel right on the seafront.  They are very courteous in giving us a hurricane discount.

“Hurricane Jova making way over the coast.  Peurto Vallerta likely to be directly impacted.  Heavy rain and flash flooding likely.  Stay away from the coast.”  So was the advice of the weather websites we poured over.  So we were right in the path.  Right in the path, and staying at a hotel on the beachfront.  A slight sense of panicked excitement sets in as we spot all the boarded up shops and buildings, with strong tape on many windows.  Still we head out for drinks in a deserted town.

Needless to say it doesn’t hit and the most we get is a little bit of rain.  That is two hurricane’s I have been promised, and they both have failed to materialise.  I am very disappointed.

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