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April 24, 2006 | by  | in Opinion |
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Mexico Pt. 2: Einstein, Whales and Tanning Advice

This was not the idyllic getaway I had envisaged. We had been on the road for five hours already (leering round a route so nauseating as to put the Rimutakas to shame), when we were stopped by a kid who kindly informed us the road was being rebuilt and we would have to wait. For an hour. In 33 degree heat. This after having to wait for 30 minutes while a group of men in cowboy hats used their bare hands to re-secure a hillside after three mini avalanches. The adventures never stop in Mexico, it must be said.

Here we were in the second half of our road trip, heading South for the tranquil pleasures of Mazunte on the Oaxacan coast. We had just spent a very pleasant three days in the charming principality of Oaxaca, the highlight of which included the arrival of a team of bilingual German boy scouts at our hostel (complete with in-time marching and knee length shorts). Bless. An outing to another pre-Hispanic ruin site was another highlight – Monte Alban is considered to be the greatest of the Zapotec cities, built in 500BC on a mountain 400m above the Oaxacan valley. Just as breathtaking as Teotihuacan, if not more so, thanks to the conspicuous absence of any ‘certified’ Zapotec craft hawkers. The silence was suitably eerie.

And then it was time to vamos a la playa, which is how we found ourselves suffocating as we sat in Arturo’s car perched on a road at 900m above sea level, waiting for the road to be built. Of course my body then decided this would be an excellent time to inform me that toilet facilities would soon be required. Damn my incessant water drinking! Damn the oppressive tropical heat! Thus Sara and I traipsed up past an ever-growing line of cars to find the privacy required for a surreptitious bush pee. This was all going swimmingly until we ventured back onto the road and found it strangely empty, the roadworks having taken shorter than expected. We ran. Oh, how we ran. Past a group of leering men staring unconcernedly at our chests, past the tropical flora and with a flying leap we landed in the Arturo’s car parked illegally and conspicuously alone.

A defining moment: arrival at Carlos Einstein’s hostel in the beach village of Mazunte, Oaxaca. Hippies: 200. Mexicans: 60. Crazed megalomaniacs: 1. I will never trust the Lonely Planet again. Ever. Heralded by a massive sign full of praise for the establishment, including the ‘reliable’ verdict of the Lonely Planet, we stepped in through the door of what was to become known as The House of Hell. Even in my darkest days of European budget travel, I had never come across such a disgusting, rathole-excuse for lodging like we endured here. Assuming that everyone would be too drunk/stoned/sunburnt to notice, our erstwhile host neglected to install any real plumbing system, and happily filled the tanks with polluted seawater. Venturing out to the toilets was inadvisable; in a hostel with about 60 guests *coughprisonerscough* there was one outdoor toilet that drained, but only with the aid of a bucket of water and a plunger. No fun when half the users are suffering from ‘tourista’.

A typical morning at Einstein’s – I wake up, wonder if it was a good idea to do so, and see the clock. Six am. From the recesses of El host’s bedroom come the strains of what sounds like the deaf children’s orchestra playing ‘Stampede of the Uruk-Hai’. The strains become deafening. We all go mad. Believe me, Eli Roth’s latest gorefest ain’t got nuthin on this horror story. It soon becomes clear why so many visitors find consolation in tequila. Some take this too far and find themselves having to sing bad, bad hippie music about Shiva on the bongos, having exhausted all other means of paying for their flea-infested bed. Those desperate tunes will haunt me till the day I die.

Mazunte was kind of the anti-Cancun. There was plenty of illicit drinking by underage Americans and golden beaches, obviously, but a general feeling of pot-infused tranquillity pervaded. The hippy tourists came; they swum, drunk, ate, subsequently got sick and left. Life went on. The same combination of bastardised Euro-Mexican cuisine was served under the thatched roofs of the restaurants that lined the shore, where diners ate with their feet in the sand. The hammock vendors continued their unimpeded walk up and down the beach, and the decrepit homeless dogs snoozed in the shade. All in all, it was a pretty sweet, sun-kissed getaway.

As I had been advised by my trusty Dorling Kindersley guidebook (very pretty but rather useless when it came to survival tips) Southern Mexico was populated by a wide array of Indian cultures, all with completely different languages and types of cuisine. This also explained why it was one of the poorer areas in the country, although no less beautiful for it. Through a rudimentary sign language and spanglish conversation with Arturo’s father, I had gathered that racial equality was still a wee way off i.e. the darker your skin, the lesser your chances of making it to the higher echelons of society. There is still deep prejudice against ‘mestizos’, although technically almost all Mexicans are a mixture of Spanish and indigenous Mexican heritage. Obviously it’s all there to keep the excessively rich secure and the poor sufficiently downtrodden, but I felt like I’d found the ‘real’ Mexico in the South more than anywhere else I visited.

In accordance with the general budget-travel feel of the place, our foray into the nautical offerings of Mazunte was suitably shady. We were approached by a sleaze we would later come to know as Juan as we walked back to our hostel one night. I swear it looked like a covert drug deal from a distance. He smoothed back his ponytail, reached into his inner jacket pocket and pulled out . . . photos of snorkellers holding turtles. “You like go swim with dolphins, yes?” Despite my apprehension at accepting anything from a man who thought personal hygiene was an STI he hadn’t yet caught, it sounded like a sweet deal. We met at 9 am the next day, full of anticipation and no small amount of trepidation. Eventually making it out to sea we were rewarded by the sight of a sperm whale doing a colossal leap 10m away, being able to hold a sea turtle and following a pod of dolphins for 50 metres. Not bad for $20!

We played football very badly, saw a proper Mexican sunset, and sang drunken odes to the sea underneath the stars. We drank straight from freshly cut coconuts and were perpetually wet, sandy, or asleep. But by the time a week was over I was ready to return to some semblance of civilisation. As absurd as it may sound, there is only so much lounging on a beach watching tanned, half-naked hippies play beach volleyball that one can take. That and the strange green strings hanging from the showerhead were starting to get to me.

It was time to head back to the chaotic metropolis of Ciudad de Mexico and savour our last days of this most excellent of holidays. I was also looking forward to returning to the restaurant in Oaxaca where ‘tagiatelle al burro – spaghetti to the donkey’ and ‘hand grenade fragmentation surprise’ were on the menu. We had hardly scratched the surface of what the country had to offer (or used up our catchy tourist phrases) but I feel that I got a sense of the diversity of Mexican culture. It’s a complicated beast, but I can say that it definitely does not involve the everyday wearing of sombreros or the use of the word ‘Ole!’ whatsoever.

How not to get a tan

  1. Do not under any circumstances start using people around you as a guide for what is achievable in a week of sun exposure. They were either born that way, or have forfeited their chance of reaching 60 by selling their soul to the demon of baby oil.
  2. Sunscreen, as that little lobster on TV once told us, is your friend. Unfortunately, that slip-slop-slap message doesn’t sound quite as catchy in Spanish, so sunscreen is hard to come by. Do not underestimate how absent it is.
  3. Yes, it is winter. Yes, it is 9 am. No, this does not mean you will not fry like a pat of butter in hell. I learnt the hard way that sun equals pain. Pain, people!
  4. Do not attempt to fast track the bronzing process by exposing yourself sans sunblock for 20 minutes at peak burn time. You will then sulk inside for the rest of the day licking your wounds while the We’re-So-Bronze Brigade frolic in the water. Bastards.
  5. Finally, you can always guarantee a brief respite from the pain by laughing heartily at the mean Mexican friend who sadly tried to sunblock his back himself and was temporarily branded with slap mark-sunburn. Screw karma, sometimes it just feels right.
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