A Momentous Occasion

*NOTE:  Delayed post due to very limited internet access.

When we crossed into the Yucatan, I didn’t expect it to feel like the momentous occasion that it did. It felt like we had accomplished something cool, to have driven this far. Our goal was to be in the Yucatan by Jorge’s birthday. We arrived the night before.

Jorge celebrating his 47th birthday in Progresso.

For people visiting my site for the first time, this blog is about taking a year off from work to travel overland from California, through Mexico and Central America, to Panama. We have been gone almost six months now. Our goal is to spend Christmas in Panama, and spend New Years in Costa Rica with our friends Sonja and Rose. They are flying from Los Angeles to join us for several days.

Sonja and I go way back. We met in Los Angeles 23 years ago, when we were both 25 years old. We were on a very similar "life path" at the time, as we happen to be again 23 years later. In 1993 we lived in Hollywood, and eventually got apartments in the same building, next to the Chinese Theatre and the Roosevelt Hotel. We’ve had so many great times together, living in the same city and traveling together.  I am really looking forward to seeing her, and her daughter Rose in a couple months.

We decided to rent a house on this leg of the trip, after finding out that an RV park was more expensive. So we found a small beachfront house, with enough room to park our trailer. I was really excited, because I always wanted to live right on the beach. I thought it would be so great to get in the ocean anytime I wanted to, and have my kayak ready, just a few feet from the water. Photos of the house's patio and beach below.

The house was simple and cute, and was in a tiny beach community call Chelem. There weren’t any tourists to be seen, but there were Americans who owned homes along the beach. From what I understand, you could get a small, modest house right on the sand for about 130K. We rented the house from two American guys from New Orleans, who are now living in Chelem.

The guys didn’t give us an address, just directions with landmarks. They were going to meet us at the house and give us the keys. We arrived before they did. We parked our truck and trailer on the road, and Jorge and PJ went to see what the beach looked like. PJ took the opportunity to relieve himself. A local guy approached Jorge and said, "You have to clean up after your dog." Jorge replied, "I did." He had bags with him and had immediately picked up after PJ, and then kicked some sand over the spot. The man said, "No you didn’t, I saw you kick sand over it." Jorge answered, "No I picked it up." He showed the man the bag. The man still didn’t get it, and said, "I am not going to do it, it’s your dog." Jorge said again, "I picked it up, this is the bag." Then the man said, "You need to clean up after your dog." He walked away with an angry look. Very weird.  Jorge came back to the truck and told me about the incident. Great, I thought, we are already having issues with the neighbors.

We walked over to the front door of our rental house. There was a small casita in front of the house, and again, there is the same local man. Great, he lives right in front of our house. He was short, in good shape, probably mid 40's, with bloodshot eyes. Right away I realized he was drunk.  I was surprised Jorge didn't notice.  He looked at Jorge, and asked if we were renting the place. When Jorge answered yes, he completely changed his tune. He shook Jorge’s hand, and made a couple slurred jokes. Turns out he is the caretaker of some of the properties on the beach. He said his name was Antonio. Later, when we were alone, Jorge and I nicknamed him "Banderas", just for fun.

The owners of the house arrived and showed us around. Jorge asked if he could trim a palm tree next to the driveway, so we could move our trailer in. They said no problem. Things were good with Banderas for about fifteen minutes, until he saw Jorge take out his saw and begin to trim the tree. "No, no, no, no, BIG PROBLEM!" he said. Jorge told him the owner said it was okay. "No, it’s a problem. I take care of this yard. It’s a problem." Jorge walked over to the owner’s truck and let them know that Banderas wasn’t happy, so they politely told Banderas it wasn’t a problem. He wasn’t a happy drunk and he seemed pretty pissed when he walked into his casita and slammed the door. That was the beginning of our beautiful friendship with him.

Over the course of the month we were in the Yucatan, we noticed some distinctive differences in this region. For one, there were more police check points. One Saturday night there was a check point before the entrance to the highway. Instead of checking your car and giving you the once over, they had a device that everyone passing through had to breath into, to check for alcohol in your system. When we got up to the officer, he put the device up to Jorge’s mouth. Jorge thought it would be funny to sing into it, as if it was a microphone. Luckily, the officer thought it was funny. You never know how it will go with Jorge’s jokes, sometimes it's awkward.

Other miscellaneous differences include restaurants serving lemon juice with habanero peppers and salt, to season the food with (love that!). It’s hard to find salsa or pico de gallo. The current music in the area is 80’s pop. Even small kids know the lyrics to most Michael Jackson songs. Their plazas and churches are smaller and simpler. The Maya people in this region have some distinctive features.  Many people are smaller in stature, stalky, have darker skin, and larger heads.  All these differences made the Yucatan seem different and special.

Banderas was such a sweet and thoughtful guy when he was sober. He racked our beach every morning. He also knew some fisherman who he sent over to the house so we could purchase some fish. He offered to have his wife cook it for us. He was afraid of dogs, and freaked out by PJ. Jorge told him to just say "good boy" to him, and then he would be friendlier. So Banderas renamed him "Good Boy, Good Boy", but kept a safe distance. He also started calling Jorge "jeffe" (boss), or Don Jorge (a respectful way to call a man). Banderas was always around with a smile, and offering to help if we needed anything.

I really loved the beach house. We paddled almost every morning. We would get up early, when the Gulf of Mexico is calm and flat along the shoreline, and most people are still sleeping. On the return PJ usually jumped into the water, swam to shore, and would run back on the beach. 

Chelem was also a nice place to cycle because the land is flat. There are sandy roads parallel to the beach that go for miles, and we would hook up PJ’s trailer and go on long rides with him. He ran most of the way, but we would put him in the trailer when we thought he needed a break.

The kids along the sandy roads would go crazy when they would see us pulling him. They loved it. They would chase us, and as we went along more kids would join in the chase. It was just like the first Rocky movie… when the kids were running behind Rocky as he ran through the streets of Philadelphia.  When Rocky finally got to the steps he had a big crowd with him.  It was just like that! The kids we have seen and met on this trip have been such a highlight!  They are so curious and interested.

We went to see the ruins at Chichen Itza, which was just a couple hours from Chelem. It was worth the trip. In addition to the ruins, the overall landscape was really pretty. Lots of trees and shady paths. As we left Chichen Itza, I couldn’t help but realize the drastic difference in design and workmanship between then and now. Why have we gone backwards? In many towns in Mexico you see the simplest concrete houses, and in America you see builders rushing to create track homes, and slapping them together as fast as they can. Structures today aren’t necessarily built to last the test of time. 

I finally saw a cenote, the sinkholes that are so popular in the Yucatan. Although I have been to the Yucatan before, I have never been to one. So I climbed into the earth for the first time and went swimming in a fresh water pool that was at the bottom. Most of the cenote pools sparkled from the sun beaming in from above.  

We drove and hour and a half to get to the town of Cuzama to see a cenote for the first time. From Cuzama we hired a guide to take us on a railroad cart, pulled by a horse to three different cenotes. The first was an unexpectedly small hole in the ground, which may make some people a little hesitant. There was a slippery ladder in the hole that disappeared into the darkness. At the bottom they had a light bulb hanging so you could see the water. We jumped in and the water was cool and refreshing. Photos below. 

The second two cenotes were larger and more magnificent.  We were able to dive in from some high rocks, and the guide let us take our time. 

We went on several long motorcycle rides along the coast, checking out the different communities and beaches. On one of our rides we saw several cabanas along the beach that were closed in with a fence. We stopped to ask about it, and met an older man with dyed jet black hair and who was wearing crocs (plastic shoes). He told us the place was some sort of scientific center, where they study something I can’t remember now. Finding this out, I automatically assumed the man was a scientist. That could be the only explanation for a grown man wearing crocs.  We asked him if he could recommend a place to eat close by, and he paused momentarily and replied very seriously, "If you want to eat like a fucking king go to the restaurant up the street by the marina." We smiled at his remark, while the serious look on his face remained.

On another motorcycle ride we discovered a cenote that was located deep within a mangrove forest. To get there you paddle down a narrow water trail through the mangroves. Eventually you arrive at the cenote, which was at ground level. The locals added a surrounding patio and palapa roof, and a couple ladders for people who wanted to get in and swim. There were large fish in the cenote, making it a nice place to snorkel.

We met an interesting couple there, the woman was from Chile, and the man from France. They currently live in Chile and were traveling for a few months. They had been to Moscow first, and then to Mexico. They said they were headed to Cancun soon, where they would catch a plane to Cuba. They said the roundtrip flight to Cuba was about $80 US dollars. Wow, what a deal!

The capital of Yucatan is a town called Merida. Merida was just an hour from Chelem. We went there a couple times, and it didn’t do anything for me. Merida has a long history, and many old buildings, but there was also a modern side. We saw the modern side when we went at night to see a movie. I was struck by the modern mall and obviously much wealthier people. The people walking around the mall didn’t live in the modest concrete houses of Chelem. And they drove new cars, carried cell phones and wore expensive clothes. Apparently in Merida time didn’t stand still. I guess we hadn’t been in a modern town for some time, because the differences caught me off guard.

I was sad to leave the Yucatan when it was time to go. I thought a year of traveling would seem long, now I realize I need much more time. Unfortunately in April our time will be up, and it will be time to go back to work.

I am writing this blog from and internet cafe Panajachel, Guatemala. Panajachel is one of the villages surrounding Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalan Highlands.  We arrived here on October 21st and rented a house in the village of San Antonio.  There is very limited internet access here, so I've been behind.  There will be lots to write about in my next post - the border crossing and what I've seen in Guatemala. 

On November 9th we will drive through Honduras to Nicaragua, where we will stay for three weeks.  Stayed tuned!!!