Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cops, soldiers and guns

I don’t like to take pictures of people with guns. I guess I’m always worried that they might shoot back, but as a result I don’t have any pictures to go with today’s blog entry. Take it from me, however, there are lots of guns around here. Today, for example, we saw two naval warships right off the coast, a busload of cops across the street from our hotel and numerous cop cars whizzing up and down the avenue. All of these entities were heavily armed and armored. I don’t know who holds the bullet-proof-vest contract for the Cancun district, but I suspect they are making a lot of money keeping the cops safe.

Yesterday we saw military helicopters touring up and down the coast. Apparently Cancun would be a bad place to dabble in crime, since there would be lots of people trying to catch you. The other night, for example, we were in a taxi that got pulled over by the cops for a random inspection. As the inspector waved us through without looking anywhere, the driver asked me, “Are you carrying?”

No, I was not carrying and I don’t do drugs. But I guess one reason for all the police presence is to keep some sort of a lid on drug trade. The other reason is the big climate summit going on right now in Cancun. Apparently the area is full of world leaders and the authorities want to make sure they all get home safely.

The most interesting cop sighting was in the mall across the street from our hotel. There’s a fancy department store inside, and the store has guards at all of the doors. I assume that these guys are not real cops, and as a result they have only small side arms rather than automatic weapons. They do have nice white uniforms, right down to special all-white nightsticks. If you’re going to get beaten up by a guard with a nightstick, I think the white stick would be a good choice since it probably shows blood more quickly than a black nightstick. But once again, I really don’t want to get whacked and I imagine you don’t either.

Fortunately the cops around here tend to be friendly. Last Thursday we walked out of our way as we headed to dinner in order to avoid walking among cops milling about with machine guns. By today we were used to them and we walked up to one of the guys stationed in the street in front of our hotel. I’m happy to report that he was open to our approach and knew where we’d find a bus stop and how to get to our restaurant. Still, it’s really hard for me to get used to all the automatic weapons kicking around here. If all the guns are intended to make me feel safe, then they are not working!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Utopian community

Today we took an excursion to Tulum and Xel-Ha. Tulum is a small Mayan archaeological park, and I would describe Xel-Ha as a Mayan natural-aquatic theme park. The two are near each other and combine to make a well-balanced day. In the morning you get a small dose of ancient Mayan culture, some great photo opportunities, and even time to go swimming at a nice little beach behind a spectacular temple where Maya once performed human sacrifices and threw the bodies down toward the sea. (There’s more to this story, but it’s too disturbing for this particular piece.)

Today’s Tulum trip follows yesterday’s trip to Chichen Itza, one of the Seven Wonders of the World as redefined recently by some accredited standards body. Frankly, I don’t remember who comprised this standards body, but Chichen Itza certainly is big and impressive. Alla and I had been on both of these trips previously, but Nika wanted to see Chichen Itza and we felt that we’d enjoy the trips ourselves so we went with her on both of them. It was Alla and my third trip to Chichen Itza, and our first after visiting another archaeological site with a real archaeologist. We noticed yesterday that our guide was grossly less informed than the archaeologist, but of course we enjoyed being at the site anyway.

Today’s guide didn’t appear to be any more thoroughly educated than yesterday’s, but to his credit he did offer us some very interesting tidbits. We didn’t mind any lack of depth anyway because we weren’t in the archaeological area long enough to learn a whole lot anyway, and the place was just plain beautiful. And we got to go swimming even before moving on to the Mayan natural-aquatic theme park.

The latter offers a wide range of services, including snorkeling gear, rafts, life jackets, towels, beach chairs, zip-lines, bicycles, unlimited food and drink, showers, hammocks, and what-have-you. This is the place that struck Nika as utopian after we’d been there a while and hopped from one set of beach chairs to another to take advantage of the changing position of the sun. It’s utopian in a very modern way: The institution shares all manner of good stuff with the clients, but the clients aren’t obligated to give anything to anybody. Except money, of course.

I thought it was sort of utopian traveling with Nika anyway, because she likes to challenge herself physically, as do I. I got to swim longer and harder than I would have without her encouragement. (Or was it instigation?) And even though she’s a faster swimmer than I am, she hung back as necessary so we could swim the length of the park more or less together. And of course I’m grateful to Alla for her willingness to entertain herself with other activities while Nika and I introduced ourselves to as many fish as possible. Everybody reports having enjoyed the day.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Moving day

Today was our last day at the new Tres Rios resort and our first day at the newly-somewhat-renovated Royal Sunset. We stayed at the Royal Sunset last year and had a really great time. Today, however, the place is, umm…, imperfect. They didn’t finish their renovation on time, and in fact the most seriously-renovated rooms aren’t generally open yet. Our room is in good shape, though the post-construction dust hasn’t all settled and it needs another thorough cleaning. The staff is looking pretty exhausted, and we’re grateful that they were able to set us up reasonably well, especially considering the stories we’ve heard from other guests.

It was hard to leave Tres Rios, but at least we went out with a wonderful flourish.

We woke up to early sunlight, followed by smoothies delivered punctually at 7:15. Alla had already packed her bags yesterday, but I spent the first hour or so gathering and packing my stuff. Then we ate a delicious breakfast and checked out, leaving our bags with the staff. They welcomed us to stay and use the facilities all day if we wanted, and we managed to go snorkeling in a cenote, paddle a kayak down the river and back, swim some more, lift weights, shower, eat grilled chicken and shrimp sheesh-kebabs, and look at the photos the staff made of us when we were in the cenote.

I tried to buy the photographs from them. Their price list, as I mentioned previously, started at US $15 for a single file. I thought I had a clever idea, and I combined all the photos they took all week long into a single zip file and told them I’d like to buy that one file. They were not amused. Unable to come to terms on any price accommodation, we left without buying photos.

We got off to a bad start at the Royal Sunset, but Alla finally succeeded in talking them into giving us a room we liked, and at this time we even have toilet paper, shampoo, napkins, and all the essentials we’ve thought of. Most importantly, Alla’s daughter Nika is also with us, arriving conveniently at the moment we had finally gotten moved into the room we liked. Tomorrow’s biggest adventure: Taking the bus to town and buying groceries. I really like the grocery stores in Cancun, and I’ll be sure to take pictures.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Sensory Adventure

One of the offerings here at Tres Rios Resort is called a sensory adventure. We were too busy to try it for the first few days, but decided to give it a go yesterday. This turned out for us to be one of the best things we’ve done here.

The tour started right outside the front door, on an unnoticed trail at the edge of the jungle. Our guide took us into the jungle and gave us eyeshades to remind us to keep our eyes closed. He encouraged us not to try to figure out what is going on around us, but just to experience it wordlessly. Promising our safety, he said that we needed only to trust him and his two assistants.

I won’t try to describe this adventure in detail because I’d rather not dilute the discovery should any of my readers have an opportunity to take the tour. I’ll just say that it involved herbs, spices, rocks, shells, music, a tiny planetarium where we were invited to lift our eyeshades, music, dancing, scented candles, water, and lots of lentils. Some of the water was not scripted, as we experienced a passing rain shower, but I think they would have gotten us wet anyway. I suspect that they wouldn’t have gotten every guest wet but since we were already wet and obviously didn’t mind, after pouring water onto my hands they ran the stream right up my arms.

My favorite part was the lentils. I saw the lentil area as we left, and there were enough seeds there to fill a child-size sandbox. They seated us on the floor and poured them onto our hands, arms, torsos, over our heads, everywhere. By the time they guided me to stand up, I was sitting in several inches of the stuff, still puzzled about what it was but confident I’d be able to find out because I had them in my hair and underwear.

At the conclusion they seated us once again and told us that we were facing a mirror and that we should look at ourselves with new eyes. Then we removed our eyeshades and discovered that we were looking at a little pool of water (or cenote) with jungle behind. We found it completely delightful.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Free vs. not free

I went for a bike ride today, on one of the options our resort offers in their “all-inclusive” program. They have a fleet of poorly-maintained mountain bikes in sizes ranging from really-small to medium. I need a really-big one and the bike they gave me kept my buns far closer to my heels than might have been advisable. Fortunately, they made up for this by giving me a huge helmet that bobbled about on my head like a spaghetti pan.

On the ride I got a real-life demonstration about the way Mexican chivalry works. Our guide was an attractive young woman. I am putty in the hands of attractive young women, so I wasn’t even slightly suspicious when she told me that she’d like to switch bicycles with me at the next stop. I figured she thought her bike might fit me better or something. In fact, however, she had a different reason for proposing this trade. Noticing that I am a strong cyclist and that my bike’s gear shifters worked, she wanted to ride my bike and give me the bike stuck in high gear. This was fine anyway because it still didn’t make the ride in any way challenging, but I found the enforced chivalry certainly amusing.

During this free bike ride, a photographer kept passing us at the rest stops and then taking pictures as we rode past him. He really did get some good photos of me, and I wanted to put one or two of them up on my web site or in this story. Unfortunately, that proved to be out of reach. When I went to the studio to see the photos I learned that the price of putting all photos onto a CD was US$ 220 and the price of buying a single photo would be $15. Apparently some people actually pay these prices, but I’m not one of them.

The other place I ran into not-free this morning was in the little store at our resort. This resort is in the jungle and it’s really difficult to get off of the property. The nearest town is about 15 minutes away by car, and we don’t have one of those. Rather than spend half a day taking a shuttle bus to Playa del Carmen and back, I went to the resort’s store and bought a little tube of sunscreen without bothering to understand how the price converted from pesos to dollars. I was in big trouble when I returned to the room, however, and Alla calculated that I had just paid US$ 23 for it. She took it away from me and exchanged it for another brand that cost a little less. Free is good. Not-free here, however, is really scary.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Our timeshare in Cancun

A couple of years ago we got talked into buying a timeshare in Mexico. What this means in our case is that we are members of a club that gives us cut-rate access to fancy vacations we wouldn’t otherwise take. We had buyers’ remorse soon after purchasing our membership, but our remorse was based more on fear than on any real factor. In truth, the resort people have been extremely nice to us.

This year they sent us an e-mail inviting us to take an extra week at one of their resorts for “free.” I put the word free in quotes, because it certainly is not free. We are paying an all-inclusive fee for our food, drink, bicycle rentals, kayak usage and so-on. The fee is quite reasonable considering the quality of the food here, but I’m sure there’s enough left over for the resort operators to feel OK about having us as their guests.

We traveled today and arrived this afternoon. The resort staff occupied us for an hour or so after we arrived, telling us about the various restaurants on the property, taking some key meal reservations, and introducing us to their diverse menu of services. Finally we had time to take pictures of our room, have a snack or two, and walk around the pool and on the beach. On the beach we met a really nice couple from Oklahoma and we decided to have dinner together.

After dinner a group of musicians came into the restaurant to sing songs at each table. The jovial musicians offered hugs all around the table for a group of six or eight women who turned 40 this year. Our male dinner companion and I also joined the hugging festivities before tucking into our desserts. I ordered the most amazing dessert, a sweet stuffed pepper. I have no idea what kind of pepper this was, but it was so delicious I took a picture of the last two bites.

Click on the picture for more pictures from Mexico. And come back to the photo album again in a day or two, because I will probably upload more photos before I have anything more to write about.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

We already ordered Christmas cards

We'll be sending these out by the first of December so people will know where to write to us. You can see it first, with a little tweak for our own privacy.

There is a typographical error below. We spent the first half of 2010 in Belarus, not last year!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Desert of Forbidden Art

About three weeks ago Alla and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see a movie called Desert of Forbidden Art. It’s about an amazing collection assembled during the Soviet era by a fearless curator in the far reaches of Uzbekistan. This fellow built the museum with party funds, though certainly without much party scrutiny. The art he collected includes styles not approved or accepted by the party, and sometimes imagery not in keeping with Soviet ideals.

Yes, of course we enjoyed the story of the museum’s creation. We were inspired by the courage and independence of the curator and the many artists whose work he collected. Even more, however, we enjoyed the art itself. The movie took us through a museum we would love to see, but which I’m not sure we’ll be able to visit.

I visited the U.S. Department of State’s travel advisory web site and looked up Uzbekistan. They offered many warnings about travel in that country, but of course they also caution American citizens about travel in Mexico, and we go there anyway. In the case of Mexico, however, I feel that we’re going to a specific area we know reasonably well, and we do not plan to go far beyond areas we feel to be reasonably secure. By contrast, getting to the museum we saw in the movie can easily involve about a day of travel through Uzbekistan. The probably-safer alternative is a flight on a TU-154 jet from Tashkent straight to Nukus, but I still want to know more before I begin planning any trips.

I’ll continue to gather information. I might continue to share information too, since I think I’d feel safer with a few companions. Is anybody out there up for joining us?