Saturday, February 21, 2009

Back in Mexico

Ik-Kil Mexico—Friday, February 20, 2009

We had a great time doing unusual stuff today. We earned this pleasure by a bit of work getting here yesterday. We flew to Cancun, rented a car, and drove to Ik-Kil. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. The map we received from Avis was one notch better than useless, and the Avis lady’s description of how to get onto our toll road left out an important detail that led us to drive all over creation before we finally got under way. We created some problems of our own too, primarily because we shot through the airport without getting any Mexican money. I really should have gone back inside when we circled back after figuring out where we really wanted to drive. I won’t tell you about all the troubles this caused, so you’ll just have to imagine.

Our difficulties were exacerbated by the fact that most of my Spanish language skills fled since I started studying Russian. I expect my vocabulary to come back any minute now, but it definitely hasn’t happened yet.

We did arrive successfully at Ik-Kil before the manager went home for the night, and he sent us to a huge and sparkling cabin with a thatched roof and colorful garden. It’s got a “king sized” bed, but the royalty here must be a little shorter than up north. Alla compensated by building an extension on my side of the bed with a luggage table and a pillow. We both slept very well and woke up only when the birds started singing in the morning.

Today made up for all of yesterday’s travail. We drove down to an archaeological site called Ek-Balam and bought a couple of admission tickets. As we turned to walk into the site, a guy behind a desk deep in the office asked us in perfect English if we’d like an expert tour of the site. He said that he was a leader of the archaeological team since 1994 or 1998 and he offered to show us around for a little more than $20 U.S. We’re really glad we said yes.

His name is Juan Canul. Juan warned us that some guests find him a little long-winded and he wanted to know how much time we had. Alla offered him as much time as he wished to offer. So he said to stop him if he talked too much. He did talk a lot, and I worried at the beginning that we’d be bored too. But Alla got right into it and started asking him questions, memorizing statistics, and egging him on. Our tour lasted two and a half hours. I gave him a 33% tip but I still feel a little sheepish about getting such a bargain. The reason he’s leading tours is that the government only funds archaeological work about ten weeks each year. He continues to supervise three guards and oversee the site and its maintenance, but he is seriously under-employed.

He read the hieroglyphics to us, corrected the misinformation we’d received in last year’s tour at Chichen-Itza, and regaled us with stories of which archaeologist made what discovery and when. (The Chichen-Itza misinformation relied on early archaeological theories, discredited by more recent research.)

On our way back from Ek-Balam we drove through a little town where we thought we might be able to buy lunch. A local police officer sent us to a restaurant we didn’t find appealing so we headed out and figured we might just buy some fruit to tide us over until we could get to a bigger town. Fortunately, Alla noticed a clothing store she wanted to visit, and when we turned around we found ourselves facing a tortilla factory. This place ground its own corn and cranked out tortillas. I bought a stack about an inch high for three pesos; less than 25 cents.

The still-warm tortillas tasted great and we were filling our faces with them as we walked toward the clothing store. We saw a meat market and looked in. Not realizing that they had cooked meat, we turned to leave. The owner called us back and said that some smoked pork would be really great with our tortillas and he cut us a sample. Wow, was he right. So we bought a hunk of meat and the owner took us back to see the huge smoke oven where he was cooking another batch of food. We sat on a bridge and ate our food with great pleasure. I think the whole lunch cost about a dollar and a half. It made our breakfast seem particularly ridiculous.

Our last adventure took place when we bought gas. The guy at the station engaged me in conversation and assured himself that I was a tourist. Then he pulled a little trick. I gave him 200 pesos for gas and then fished a coin out of my pocket because the total bill was 210. He pointed out that I’d only given him a five-peso coin instead of ten, so I fished out another five-peso coin. Then he pointed out that I’d only given him a 20-peso note instead of a 200-peso note. This was surprising because I organize my money by size in my wallet and I gave him the note at the very back of my wallet, knowing that I’d just gotten a bunch of 200’s at the ATM.

I drove away sure that I’d just let myself be cheated. Alla made me stop the car and re-count the money in my wallet. Since I’d been broke shortly before and had then gone to the ATM, I knew that either the ATM gave me a 20-peso note instead of a 200 or he had pulled a switch. Alla wanted me to go back, but I despaired because my Spanish is so weak. Still, she was firm and I complied. I asked the guy to re-count his money. He said simply that my 200-peso bill had fallen. I started to argue and then realized that I was happy to pretend to agree to his claim. So I held out my hand and he gave me a 200-peso note. It seems I made 20 pesos on the deal.