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A Thousand Questions in Mexico

As a hobby I had for the last couple of years been dabbling in learning Spanish and through the odd language course had reached a fairly good level. Glancing along the shelves in the travel agency on a cold, gloomy English day I saw a reasonably priced flight advertised to Mexico. Deciding to give up the chance of the stereotype student job I had lined up over Christmas I decided to go for an exotic holiday. I knew little about Mexico but had read much on the Mayan civilizations there. Within the next two hours I had booked a flight and bought a guide book to provide some background.

Before I left plenty of people tried to scare me with horror stories – about buses being stormed by highway robbers – and returning with a tapeworm as a souvenir – but thankfully these stories proved to be way off the mark. In hindsight visiting Mexico was one of the best decisions I have ever made. For once in my life I decided to do something spontaneous.

Being asked questions about England would be my endearing memory of my trip to Mexico. Travelling on the local buses I ended up talking to every person I met. The people were so friendly and welcoming that even when I was bit tired I felt I had to satisfy their curiosity. Name a subject and they would ask about it. However, by the end of my visit I had formulated a few set responses to the most popular questions: about the Royal family, the English football team and English food! I returned from Mexico thinking that England did after all have a bit of mystique about it!

My first destination was Cancun on the Yucatán Peninsula in the east of Mexico. As soon as I got off the plane the heat was in complete contrast to the freezing weather back home. I was fairly clueless about how to get into town and walked up to the first taxi I saw. As we drove into town, my image of an exotic location clashed dramatically with the reality of high rise hotels and fancy restaurants. I had arrived in the most touristy area of the city. The prices of many of these hotels are exorbitant and are full of tourists who wander no further than the beach. Half of them are probably unaware or do not care that they are less than a few hours from some of the most magnificent ruins in Mexico.

What I had learned from my guidebook was that it was possible to get a cheaper room in the old part of town. Using my clumsy Spanish I managed to convey to the taxi driver that I had no wish to stay in the expensive part of town. When he found out I was not American he seemed more than happy to find me somewhere reasonable. For the price of a generous tip I got myself a decent room in the centre of the old town. The room was cheap but there were no signs of cockroaches or weird insects. Knowing that I would be free of their company gave me the incentive to catch up on some sleep.

The next day, at reception I got talking to the owner who seemed fascinated that I came from England but could speak some Spanish. He asked me several questions about England and I struggled to give interesting answers. However, I did manage to tell him that England was not ‘next to Canada’ as he had first thought and that there was a little bit of sea to cross to get there. Not bad going for my first serious attempt at conversation in Spanish.

I was very keen to see some ruins but as an inexperienced tourist decided to take a tour. Fortunately, there were several locally run tours – but in Spanish. This sounded like an interesting option so I decided to go for it – aside from the fact that the English tour was more expensive.

Our first destination was Chichén Itzá. This is the most well preserved and most famous of the Mayan sites on the Yucatán Peninsula and to say it is impressive is an understatement. For a start it was much more vast than I had thought and seeing the ruins of the old observatory, the temples and the pyramid was enough to bring out the Indiana Jones in anyone. The guide we had was excellent. I don’t know what the guides on the English-speaking tour were like, but my guide was a real Mayan and very knowledgeable. He liked to speak and was not short of opinions. Fortunately, when Spanish gets very technical the vocabulary seems similar to English. I had little problem in following what he was saying even if I didn’t understand every word.

Over the next four hours I learned the history of the site from a truly Mayan perspective. Over the centuries the Maya have been mistreated by invaders and even today you gain the impression that they are misrepresented in Mexico. Many people seem to marvel at the ancient Maya, who were technologically advanced, yet look down on the present day locals of the region. Tourists puzzle over what happened to this great ancient civilization, but as my guide, Juan, liked to point out ‘The Maya didn’t go away. They are still here. We are the Maya.” At times he sounded like a spokesman for Mayan politics and some of his stories sounded exaggerated, but there was no getting away from the fact that the beauty of this region hid a great sadness.

One of the major sites was the principal Ball Court, the largest one in Mexico, but one of eight in Chichén Itzá. Here the ancients played a ritual game throwing the ball through stone rings high on the sides of the walls. It is said that the losers were decapitated, but Juan disputed this and said that the reliefs of beheaded people on the walls were merely ‘symbolic’. I felt that perhaps Juan was straying into propaganda and not fact by trying to over emphasise that the Maya were not a violent race. Perhaps I was wrong, but scenes depicting decapitation would not have been carved for simply art’s sake?

The other remarkable thing about the principal Ball Court is its acoustics. If you stand at one end of the court and whisper, you can be heard at the other end of the court. Clapping your hands, emitted a high pitched echo in the court. Simply amazing! Juan speculated that this had been used to call people to prayer and that this could have been from several miles away. He strongly believed that all the religious sites in Mexico were linked and that people did travel hundreds of miles as part of a pilgrimage.

Juan showed us around the rest of the site, taking us up and down a giant pyramid, to an observatory and several temple-like structures. I could detail the architectural wonder of several of these structures, but what was more fascinating were Juan’s theories. Wandering around the site on my own, I would have probably missed out on many details, but Juan was prepared to stop at even the tiniest stone to illustrate examples of how accurate the Maya were in their calculations to construct buildings. I doubt for example I would have even noticed how precisely the stones fitted together in the temples if he had not shown me.

He seemed to disagree with many of the stories I had heard about the Maya. He disputed many historical ‘facts’, including the date of the site, and provided many examples of how technologically advanced they were. Juan even claimed that Chinese tourists had found words in common between their language and Mayan, backing a story that many centuries ago there had been a mass migration of people from Asia over the Bering Straits and down through North America giving rise to the Mayan race. I was in no position to judge whether he was right or wrong, but I really came back from Chichén Itzá with immense respect for these people.

Besides the historical knowledge I gained, I had ample opportunity to practice my Spanish as the other visitors could not understand why I was not on the English-speaking tour. I almost felt like a celebrity as they asked me questions on every aspect of life in England. After a time the nature of the questions became almost surreal. At one point a man asked me ‘What is Nigel Mansell doing now?’ That one really threw me!

Over the next few days I explored other smaller ruins in the area such as the ones at Tulum. Just one look at the ruins of this ancient city situated next to a sea consisting of different shades of blue told you that these people had had good taste. It was a dream location to live in. In spite of this, my guide told me that the city had ended in mysterious and sad circumstances. Again through local guides I picked up more alternative theories about the Maya which I was determined to check out in history books when I got back home.

The Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque On my next major trip, to see the ruins of Palenque in the jungle, I ended up sitting next to the hyperactive ‘Jorge Ignacio’ on the bus. ‘Jorge Ignacio’ claimed to be a professor of history at the local university but he seemed more suited to presenting gameshows as he did not stop asking questions for the whole of my journey to Palenque! As he did so he waved his arms all over the place making it difficult to ignore him. I’m sure the rest of the bus were listening to our conversation. He seemed to laugh a lot so I must have been giving him some interesting answers as I struggled with my vocabulary.

By the end of my journey to Palenque, he must have known more about England than me. Out of the few moments when I was able to get a word in edge ways, I did learn that Jorge Ignacio was married and that recently his wife had had a son. He was immensely happy about this and proudly told me how he changed the boy’s nappies. Did men do that in England? he asked. I assured him that many men did as he turned the conversation about nappies to a more descriptive level…

The day I arrived at Palenque the weather was very hot. As I trudged through the jungle the humidity was almost unbearable. Local people had warned me to take lots of water to drink and I was glad to have followed their advice! When you finally emerge into the clearing and the ruins of Palenque appear the scenery is breathtaking. You can almost imagine how the archaeologists who rediscovered the site must have felt when they finally reached there after a month of trekking through the jungle.

The highpoint of Palenque for me was the Temple of Inscriptions. After you scale the 69 steep steps to the top you get a tremendous view of the whole area. As well as the magnificent architecture of the ruins, the other impression I had was amazement as to why these people had decided to live so deep in the jungle. After seeing the ruins of Tulum, by the sea, Palenque seemed almost inhospitable by comparison. Inside the Temple of Inscriptions a set of slippery stairs lead down to the tomb of Pakal, the famous club-footed king of Palenque who lived to nearly a hundred years old. The carved stone slab protecting the sarcophagus is decorated with serpents and mythical creatures. The picture of Pakal seems bizarre, showing him connected to a ventilation tube. One explanation is that it depicts him connected to the land of the living. However, in line with some of the more unusual archaeological theories, you can almost believe that it represents an extra terrestrial being using some sort of breathing apparatus.

From Palenque, I worked my way westwards towards Mexico City from where I would fly back to England. Many of the sites I stopped at on the way were related more to modern day Mexico or the time of the Conquistadors. Fascinating though they were, nothing could compare to the ruins of the great Mayan cities.

On the journey to Mexico City I was once again faced with a barrage of questions by people I met on the buses. I have to admit I loved every minute of talking to these people. I learned so much about the different regions of Mexico and gained an insight into the country that I could never have obtained from books. Various people made me promise that I would send them a postcard when I got back to England and I must have sent at least fifty typically touristy cards of Big Ben! At the end of each of these bus journeys I actually looked forward to getting on to my next bus just to see whom I would meet. I can honestly say that I only met wonderful people all the way to Mexico City.

Back in London, Mexico seemed like a distant dream. In true surreal fashion though I was reminded of my trip when five months later a Mexican family I had met turned up on my doorstep! They had come on a tour of Europe and had decided to start in ‘exotic’ England. As I told them later, they could have at least answered my postcard to say they were coming. On the other hand they said it was worth it just for the look of shock on my face when they turned up!

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