Sunday, June 29, 2008

Mexico: A postscript

Finally finished a slide show of photos from the trip. It's about seven minutes long, but the music is lovely! (Also, it was taking way too long to photoshop them out, so please just disregard the sunscreen-induced oil slicks on my face.)

Cancun 2008 from Amy on Vimeo.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mexico, part 4: El fin de la semana

Good lord, is that the sun out there?! (What, someone having a little fun with a freshly-plucked Mayan heart?)

DAY 5:
After a morning spent in lounge chairs under a palapa on our private beach (read, doze, swim, doze, read, swim, doze ... bliss) we head out for a taste of this famed Cancun nightlife we keep hearing about. Only when we get to the club zone, we find that all of the really famous places require some sort of outrageous cover charge, some of which include an "open bar." But having been around this block a time or two (god, it's good to be in your 30s) we know those places will be filled with long lines of obnoxious kids and shitty booze. So we opt for a place called Terraza, an open-air cantina with good music and top-notch people-watching.

After an hour or so, this short, fat white dude comes up to us with a plastic bottle of red liquid. He is wearing a sombrero and a very large, very fake moustache, and he looks like he really hates his job. He grumpily offers to pour us a shot, which we decline. Half-hour later, a perky little senorita comes up with her red bottle. (This time, I notice "sex on the beach" written in sharpie on the masking tape around the bottle. Classy!) We say no again, but she is darned convincing. And by that I mean she poured a shot, tilted Sal's head back, and forced it down his throat. And then a second shot. Cackling wildly, she puts the glass down, places her hands on Sal's head and wobbles it around, and then she grabs his chest. And before I know it, she's attacking me! One shot, two shot, head shake, BOOBS! Both of her hands, grabbin' BOTH my boobs, and giving them a nice, firm jiggle! I do not stop giggling for a full 30 minutes.

Then it was onto Margaritaville for food, drink, and dancing to country music and rock 'n' roll. We stay out VERY LATE. Like, after midnight even.

DAY 6:
Those moonshi-- er, I mean "sex on the beach" shots might not have been the wisest call the night before our sea adventure. But hangovers are nothing a little salsa verde and omelets can't cure. (I mean, this is practically WHY Mexican food was invented!)

Today's tour consists of a half-hour journey to a sweet snorkeling spot, an hour in the water, then a half-hour back, and every couple gets their own little speedboat to drive. Let me assure you that driving a speedboat is petrifying. OK, so are you good at those race-car arcade games? Because I suck at them. I'm that driver who makes her way around the track (one whole time, if I'm lucky) by crashing into one rail, overcorrecting and crashing into the other, overcorrecting again and ... you see what I mean. Well, that's kind of what driving this boat is like, only a jumpy touch with the wheel is actually how you stay alive. Even if you keep the wheel straight as can be, the water is constantly wobbling you, so you have to be vigilant about balance and speed, which frankly are not my top talents, you know?

I never quite relax my white-knuckled grip on the wheel, but I do eventually get the hang of it. We careen through the big lagoon and tall tangles of mangroves, and we even spent a few minutes on the wide-open ocean. When we get to the snorkeling area, we tumble out of the boats and float around with about two bazillion fish. Plus brain coral and crabs and tall furry purple tentacles sticking up from the reef, like underwater cattails. It almost feels like flying, because you can see all the way to the ground and rock formations down there, and you just float right over them!

We complete this home run of a vacation day with dinner at the Ritz-Carlton's Club Grill. Now, as an aspiring foodie, I've had plenty of fine-dining experiences and more than my fair share of top-notch service. But this place, it blows the mind. They sprinkle rose petals on our table. Place my purse atop a tiny stool at my feet. Ten seconds after I part the curtain shears with my hand to see the view, our waiter is there tying them back so we could see everything. He even apologized that there wasn't a full ocean view. Yeah, dude! Like, why does your place suck so much?!

I don't even know what to say about the food, except that it was so wonderful we could barely speak. If you are a food dork like me and you read menus and cookbooks like they are actual literature, you will dig this:
  • We like to begin grand meals like this with champagne, and to our delight the chef also sends an amuse bouche of tuna carpaccio with capers and caviar.
  • Appetizer of foie gras and caramelized apple on toasted brioche, drizzled in Mexican chocolate oil.
  • Next Sal has the lobster soup with cream sauce, and I enjoy a mesclun salad with three pear textures (I believe they were caramelized, poached, and pureed in the dressing) with a lump of creamy goat cheese.
  • With this course we are also presented with a selection of warmed bread on a silver tray, and we tried three: apricot, rosemary-garlic and potato. Goat cheese butter and blue cheese butter are options, in addition to the regular stuff.
  • For his entree, Sal chose roasted duck with tequila honey sauce. There are four tender medallions placed atop sweet potato puree, plus a little drumstick planted into a tangle of caramelized onions. For me, roasted Chilean sea bass on a bed of paella, next to shrimps topped with garlic foam.
  • Grand Marnier souffle for dessert, with french press coffee and tiny fresh biscotti.
Friends, it was a meal for the ages. As we leave, our waiter presses into my hand a tiny blue box containing a housemade truffle, and then I seriously hug him. Hard.

DAY 7:
There's one final item on my wish list, and that is to eat someplace truly authentic. Someplace locals go. Deep in our tour guide, there are two lines devoted to a little place "off the beaten path," and if you want to go there, tell the bus driver and he'll drop you off near a "sandy path" that will take you to the restaurant. But we don't need a bus, right, because on the map, this place is next to a bridge that is just like two inches from our hotel! Imagine the luck!

But two inches = two miles, and the walk is grueling, in searing midday heat with no shade. Our clothes are drenched and stuck to our bodies as we plod along silently (OK, one of us was silent; sorry, hon!) for a good 45 minutes. The bottoms of my shoes grow smooshy because of the hot pavement. But finally after walking past lots of little guys like this...

... we get to the sandy path! Which leads to a short, nameless road, and after passing this sign...

... and crossing this bridge...

... we arrive at this secret jungle oasis!

There under the trees is a rustic little beachside restaurant, with a few plastic tables beneath some palapas. It's a bit shabby, with cases of empty beer bottles stacked under the counter and up against the walls of the tiny kitchen shack, but there's a cool breeze, lively music and great views of the mangroves and water. Tied to a pier are small blue rowboats they use to catch fish every morning, and we devour the fruits of those labors with fish tacos and shrimp quesadillas while we watch Mexican kids splashing around in the water. A perfect lunch that isn't even ruined by the scary bathroom with no toilet paper and seven or eight wasp nests affixed to the ceiling.

For our last evening in Cancun, we head back to the nightclub zone, buy some souvenirs, then settle in for drinks and dinner at the very cool (though poorly named) outdoor cantina Mextreme. Here we realize we can't be losers who went to Mexico and never once did a shot of tequila. Our amigo behind the bar helped us out with that. And we proved without a shred of doubt that drinking top-shelf tequila actually IMPROVES your Spanish language skills.

And now, friends, I've turned the last page of scribbles and lists in my travel journal, so we must be at the end. If you read all of this, and especially if you enjoyed it, someday you and I will do a nice shot of tequila, too.

Mexico, part 3: The deep end

Now comes the part where not only are there beers at breakfast, lunch and dinner -- now we're actually drinking them IN A MOVING VEHICLE!

DAY 4:
Who doesn't love a nice Mayan ruin? We sign up for a daylong excursion to Chichén Itzá, a large pre-Columbian archaeological site a couple hours from Cancun. The concierge tells us the trip includes lunch, plus "a sticky bun" for breakfast on the bus drive there. Because it wasn't even 10 a.m. when we left, we are surprised when this sticky bun is accompanied by cold Corona, poured into plastic cups and refilled with a smile as often as you please.

The drive to the site is fascinating. Always something to look at out the windows. Beautiful old thatch huts sit strangely alone in the middle of nowhere. Dark smoke rises from a couple of fires burning on the side of the road. We see log lean-tos, burned-out cars, women scrubbing laundry in buckets, stern-looking federales with machine guns, pigs and cows, and lots and lots of crosses and colorful virgin statues. My favorite part was an neat old village called Valladolid, which seemed like our most authentic glimpse of Mexico. I took these pictures from my seat on the bus:

Before we arrive at the ruins, we stop to visit a cenote, a natural underground pool. Much is made of Yucatán cenotes in brochures and tourist guides, but to me they seem a bit gross. In photos the water looks thick and green, almost putrid. Our concierge had suggested that we wear bathing suits in case we wanted to swim in the cenote, but I had pretty much decided that was not going to happen.

But when we arrive at the Ik Kil Eco-archaeological Park, I'm surprised that the cenote looks much prettier in real life. Very deep blue, and so clear you could see hundreds of fish darting around in the water. There's a big hole in the ceiling, so sunlight pours into the cave, and waterfalls stream down into the pool.

Turns out most folks are like me and have no intention of leaping into this thing. A tightly packed crowd of tourists watches from the ledge above while just a handful of people splash around in the water. But a very unusual thing happens as I stare down at the pool: I begin to feel a tiny bit brave. I wonder, just how cool WOULD it be if I could say I actually did this? Like, a little bit cool? Perhaps even a whole lot cool? And before I know it, I'm shucking off my clothes, shakily handing Sal my backpack, and then I'm standing on the ledge with all these jostling, noisy tourists and clicking cameras behind me. My heart is pounding.

The most difficult part is that there's no wading into a cenote. Can't even dip a toe, because the ledge is a good 6 or 8 feet above the water. The pool is 130 feet deep, so there's no easing your way in, no putting your feet down if you get tired. Basically, it's ALL the deep end.

So I push out of my mind thoughts of all those wiggly fish, and of how I will most definitely die today. And I leap. I close my eyes, pinch my nose, and cannonball myself down into the water. Don't know how deep I sink, but it's far enough that I'm in total darkness. As I kick my legs a faint cloud of light begins to appear above me, and it grows bigger and bigger, and then I'm at the surface. My pulse races as I float on my back and see the blue sky, and the vines coming down from the hole in the ceiling. I watch those tourists up on the ledge snap pictures, and water from the ceiling rains down on my face. It was THE BEST.

For about 90 seconds. Because then I paddle myself over to the rickety old wooden ladder and climb out. I jump in one more time, for good measure, and then I head for the showers and lunch, where we toast my bad-assness with mas cervezas.

Next it was on to the ruins, where we hear about Mayan human-sacrifice rituals. For instance, to please the sun god, the victim is laid atop a pyramid, arms and legs held down, while an executioner carves out the living heart and raises it to the sky. Then the corpse is rolled down the steps flayed, its bloody skin worn by a dancing priest. Gah!

The most impressive structure is El Castillo, a step pyramid with 91 steps on four sides. They don't let you climb it anymore because a few years ago someone fell off and died. But it's easier to marvel at the structure and imagine 11th-century living without a bunch of dumb sweaty tourists climbing all over it. The park also contains many beautiful carved stones and columns, temples, a ball court and another cenote. Only this one is where they used to dump chopped-off Mayan heads and stuff. We skip the swimming.

Time to go home, so we return to the bus and cool off with chilled wet washcloths and an open bar. "The Bucket List" plays on the TV while we try not to doze off.

The happy adventurers:

Monday, June 23, 2008

Mexico, part 2: Warming up

So having cracked open a fresh bottle of Sol (purchased last night at Mexican grocery store down the street) at 1 p.m. on a weekday afternoon, I now feel equipped to begin recapping the best of seven days and nights in lovely Mexico.

Gloomy, overcast weather welcomes us to Cancun. We also find out our hotel room doesn't have a balcony, and even more unthinkable, it has two double beds instead of a king. So we make arrangements to move into the Royal Beach Club, the VIP wing of the resort, where for the mere price of $60 more per day, we can enjoy a lavish daily breakfast buffet and happy hour with hors d'oeuvres. Oh, and a balcony, ocean view, king-sized bed, free gym access, and a private beach and pool area. We spend the next six days patting ourselves on the back.

Wanting to start out with something "easy," we board one of the teeth-rattling buses that zoom through the hotel zone and head downtown, where locals hang. Bus stops aren't marked, though, so naturally we get off too soon and must set off on foot toward the flea market. We survive three blocks of blistering heat before seeking shade at a dilapidated open-air restaurant with plastic tables and a Mexican soap opera blaring on the TV. But my lord, a cold beer never tasted so good. The bottles dripped chilly water all over our legs, and it wasn't the last time I'd appreciate this heat relief.

We head out again in search of food, ending up at a nice little cantina for more beers, steak tacos with housemade guacamole, and papas bravas drenched in a spicy red sauce. After lunch, I have my first (but, sadly, not last) unfortunate encounter with Mexican bathrooms.

First of all, many toilets here don't have seats. You must teeter on the thin porcelain rim, which seems super-icky if you are a girl, you know? So I decide to create a seat cover using toilet paper. I successfully place one strip. But while I'm straightening the second strip, the first one blows into the water. I lunge to grab it, and the second strip blows in, too. That's when I notice an oscillating fan mounted on the ceiling. Eff! So I start over with two new strips, only, a-ha! This time I'll outsmart the fan by holding the strips down with my hand until it goes the other direction, and then I'll whip around and sit down. Except while I wait, I am so still that a motion-sensor shuts off the lights. I panic. Bang the hell out of my shoulder trying to scramble out of the stall with, yes, my shorts around my ankles. Lights come back on. All right, screw the strips. I'll hover. So I assume the position, but fearing that my stillness will turn the lights off again, I begin waving my arms wildly above my head, an exercise I continued for the full three minutes it took for my poor freaked-out bladder to empty. After I tiredly stand up and drop the last wad of toilet paper into the water, I notice a sign that pleads "ABSOLUTELY NO PAPER IN THE TOILET!" I am deeply sorry, Mexico, for dropping like half a roll into that commode. And also for forgetting this rule 7 or 8 million more times.

We finally make it to the Mercado 28 flea market, and were entirely turned off by the high-pressure vendors. They all but drag you into their stores by the ear, and they yell at you if you walk away. Only high point is Sal negotiating a good price on a handsome Panama hat.

We take a ferry to Isla Mujeres, an easygoing little island full of colorful streets and friendly locals. It's easily our favorite part of Mexico. We spend most of the afternoon Miguel's Moonlite Bar, a shabby but comfortable tavern where VH1 Classic is playing on two TVs. We are served by Miguel himself, a delightful fellow who helps us practice our Spanish and supplies us with a dish of spicy red peanuts. And let me just say, four hours of laughing and drinking beers with my husband in Mexico, while speakers blare "Raspberry Beret," "Maneater" and "Red, Red Wine," is pretty much my definition of heaven.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Mexico, part 1: "Dos Soles, por favor"

While my last post indicated that our summer vacation would look like white sands and blue waters, the truth is, it looked much more like this:

Not that I'm complaining. Gulping down copious amounts of icy Mexican beer is basically the only way to survive that kind of suffocating heat and humidity. And even if you down six bottles in one sitting? You sweat so much you won't get even a tiny buzz. TRUST ME, I TRIED. So I can only imagine that the muchas cervezas were replenishing much-needed bodily fluids, like a bubbly IV drip in a pretty glass bottle. So thank you, Sol beverage manufacturers, for saving my life in Mexico like 30 or 40 times.

So you'll recall that this is the trip I accidentally bought in March 2007. And I'm relieved to report it was worth every cent. It was the kind of vacation that had all the exact right amounts of adventure and terror, of luxury and relaxation.

But you have to get out of the hotel area. Aside from the beach -- which is of course big and breathtaking and everywhere you look -- the long strip of hotels is entirely disenchanting. For the first day and a half, I was like "Really? This is it?!" Our resort was definitely nice, but unlike the strip in Vegas, there's no real incentive (or even a sidewalk, for that matter) to hotel-hop if you want a change of scenery. Once you have visited your hotel's lobby bar, its restaurant, its beachside bar and again the lobby bar, you're kinda over it. So it wasn't until deep into Day 2 when we finally left the hotel zone that we really began to discover Mexico.

Before I get into all that, though, I need to tell you about the food. OK, I am not even making this up, over seven days and 21 meals, there wasn't a single disappointment to be found in the lot. Not one! I mean, you can't even leave town for a WEEKEND in the United States without at least one stinker of a restaurant experience. But on our trip, the worst thing I could complain about was the crab-mushroom dip at Margaritaville that ONLY didn't knock our socks off. It was merely fine. Everything else? Astounding.

I found that the Yucatán's most delicious foods are also the simplest. For instance, have you ever tasted a banana that was so mouthwatering, you actually closed your eyes while savoring it? We discovered these at our hotel's breakfast buffet. They were ugly on the outside, but the flesh was velvety and golden, like tropical candy. And evidently frijoles refritos taste a bit better than the cylindrical brown blob that slides out of a Rosarita Fat-Free Refried Beans can -- I have never had such thrilling beans in my life! Quesadillas on housemade tortillas ooze Mexican cheese and seasoned steak. Guacamole and avocados are so bright green it borders on absurd. Tacos overflow with chunks of fresh white fish, under a squirt of lime and a sprinkling of diced purple onion WHICH I ATE, PEOPLE. (Those who know me well understand that this is monumental, akin to asking a spider if he could please tickle me under the chin.)

The customer service was also astonishing. It didn't matter if you visited the grittiest hole-in-the-wall on the block (we did) or a five-star restaurant (did that, too), the service was the same: courteous, respectful and heartfelt. Servers, bartenders, hotel staff, they all want to know how they can help, how you're doing. And they seem genuinely thrilled when you tell them you're great. They clear dishes immediately, refill waters, bring beers and napkins and snacks, all with a smile. It's not just restaurants, either. Bus drivers pull over to pick you up, even if you're not at an official stop. In flea markets and other commercial areas, vendors sit in sweltering heat until you enter their store, at which point they race around turning on fans. Walk out, and the fans go off. Now, obviously tourism is the biggest thing going in a place like Cancun, so I know these people are just doing their jobs. But so's that gum-smacking broad in the Macy's shoe department, and when was the last time SHE was that helpful or kind?!

Coming next: A day-by-day rundown that will feature yours truly plunging into an underground lake, piloting a speedboat, and getting my boobs grabbed by a Mexican waitress!

Monday, June 9, 2008


So, if anybody needs me, I'll be here:

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Unemployment: So far, so good

Boy, you would think that with ALLLLL this time on my hands, I would have had more time for blogging. But evidently if you take away my desk and my chair and my shackles with chains attached to cannonballs, the last thing I want to do is sit down at the computer. So here I am, with a sincere apology that I made you look at that dumb chihuahua movie trailer for so long. 

So I went to Bakersfield this week to see some girlfriends, one of three trips planned for my big month off. There are a lot of people who think Bakersfield is a worthless armpit of a cowtown, but those people can suck it. I lived there for three years, and in addition to having my very dear friends there, they also have a freaking Sonic, so like, who lives in the armpit now, huh? HUH? They also have my favorite pizza in the whole world, and also? At my favorite restaurant? The walls are covered in framed newspaper stories written by famous and talented journalists, and I HAVE A STORY HANGING ON THAT WALL. A story about the USA rugby team playing an exhibition against England at UCLA. If you ever go look at it, though, you don't really need to read the story too closely. I mean, you could just admire the byline. For instance.

Now I'm back, and I have been to a funeral, attended a meeting at my new school, and half-cleaned my house three times. I have also slept a lot, because not having a job is exhausting. Oh, and I gotta share this ... So, the whole TB thing. I will get into all that more later, because I have a strict rule that tuberculosis talk can wait just a goddamn minute while I go to Cancun. But this is funny. So, after they told me the test result, the helpful folks at the county health clinic thrust a bunch of papers into my hand and sent me on my way. I was sitting alone in my car when I first saw this cheerful diagram, which sent me into hysterics. I shoved it into the pocket of my car door and didn't find it again till just now. I think you will all agree with me when I say, WHAT THE FUCK.