Sunday, 15 July 2012

Making Memories in Mehico (home of Bumblebee man and Apocolypto)

Place:

Grand Riviera Princess All Suites Resort & Spa – Riviera Maya – Playa del Carmen - Mexico

Duration:

14 days

Day One:

There is something about travelling that makes me feel like a child. In fact, I think it’s one of the best ways of connecting with your inner child there is. You’re seeing everything afresh for the first time with new eyes. You don’t understand a thing. In many ways you’re excluded by barriers of language, custom and culture. Instead you sink into your surroundings with your senses; you taste food, you smell the air, you exchange a smile with a local. You rely a lot more on intuition, instinct, and animalism. You’re the stranger, the wanderer in a land that’s already established itself and knows what it’s doing. There’s something equally terrifying and exhilarating about that.

The journey to Mexico enlivens and invigorates me. I feel gratitude and appreciation (two emotions I don’t think I feel enough of...) flood through me as I sit beside my mum, nearby people that I love on the plane and we discuss a myriad of issues and subjects with a glass of complimentary champagne. I feel that familiar feeling, that delightful lift as the aeroplane takes off. It’s a feeling I’ve loved since I was a child. It’s the physical pull of being dragged away from one place to another. There’s a little resistance, but overall you’re ready, and you can’t resist it.

We arrive in a thunderstorm which is unexpected but atmospheric. G feels unwell for much of the journey, we are all exhausted and the coach leaks on us, but when we arrive at the hotel, it’s a palace. I immediately feel welcomed and enveloped by its palatial halls and the gentle sway of palm trees in the hostile rain. It’s the perfect mix of nature and civilisation. If you’ve ever seen ‘Queen of the Damned’ it reminded me of the kind of grounds that Akasha and Lestat vacate too. There’s something mesmerising and magical about it – it’s Mexico!

The grounds are abundant with beautiful statues and gardens flourishing with beauty and wildness. A day of travel sucks the life out of you. We all fall asleep quite soon. PS our room is upgraded and we have our own Jacuzzi! (I only end up using it once the whole time by the way...)

Day 2:

I awake to the best breakfast I’ve ever eaten. You’re probably familiar with a quotation accredited to Adelle Davis which goes as follows:

‘Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.’

For the first time in my life I did just that (except the lunch and dinner were eaten as though my reign was still continuing...)

I had three plates of fruits, eggs, tacos, bacon, sausages and pasta (pretty much all at the same time). I had my 5 a day by breakfast. Never have I seen such variety. Give a person a choice and they might make the right one. My stomach wrestled between whether to feed me light fruit or stodgy pastries, so of course I placated myself by eating both.

The food consumed was swam off (probably) in one of the many phenomenal pools. This is the pool where all the activities take place. The entertainment crew, a gaggle of gorgeous girls and boys, arrange competitive challenges, Spanish lessons, dance classes, pool aerobics and volleyball games, amongst an assortment of other activities. But if you’d rather not participate in all of the excessive sport and exercise, you can swim or saunter over to the pool bar and drink yourself into oblivion with a very sugary cocktail.

The sea is the beautiful turquoise you’d expect of the Caribbean, a light frothy magical blue-green and so shallow all the way through. Powder white sands guide you down although one part of the sea was full of sea weed thanks to the stormy weather. The sea is one of the few places on earth where I feel the closest thing to contentment. I like the way you float and bob along, the way the water guides you and you can also guide it. I like the way you can slice through it like butter, or just float on it like a butterfly pinned by blue. I like the way you can genuinely let go of everything in the sea as you stare out to the water or back to the mainland or up at the sky...or down at the sea floor. I like the way you can lose time and feel like a mermaid. I just don’t like when I get salt overload in my eyes or knocked silly by a wave...

Naturally I was exhausted by all this investigating (...) so I had to have 4 plates at lunch to tide me over. I had a nap before dinner...(all this sleeping and eating is making me sound like a toddler rather than the 23 year old I am).

The people are beautiful. The women are tigers. The men...gods. Dinner...sleep...happiness...

Day 3:

Dad wakes up at 3am and me with him. After that my sleep is ‘in and out’. I can’t keep in it. So I get out of it. I sit out on the balcony and start my diary. I like the world in the early morning. It’s peaceful, calm and quiet. It’s nice to think of other people sleeping before there day starts. It’s nice to think of the potential and opportunity of each day. I listen to and photograph the birds. That’s another thing that makes me feel really happy, as in ‘heart might burst happy’ – seeing animals.

Each day they know what their doing, and even if it’s the same thing, they’re always happy doing it.

We go swimming after breakfast (I have 4 plates) and I meet a woman from Kentucky at the pool bar. We get to talking, and she introduces me to her husband. Americans are instantly friendly. There are a lot of negative stereotypes levelled at Americans – ignorant, obese, stupid. I didn’t find any of these to be true. Yes, a few were big, but no bigger than you’d find back home, and if I lived off of an American diet from the start of life I would probably be the size of a house too. Overall, I find them to be a welcoming and hospitable people. We get burgers and nachos from the beach...they also do hot dogs and paella.

This is a great option for all the sun worshippers and sea surfers. You can go up as many times as you want. Luckily for my waistline, I only went up once this time. Coatis and their babies gather by the grill. If you’ve never heard of a Coati before, it’s a small mammal that looks like a cross between an aardvark and a raccoon. They look like little Disney cartoons come to life. Despite being wild animals with human feeding prohibited, many holiday makers enjoyed chucking pieces of meat, bread and cheese meaning that the hungry animals made a habit of gathering around any human they saw with a handful of food. Some might find them annoying, but I find them adorable and unobtrusive. I felt a bit like a Pocahontas with animals flocking left, right and centre.

Back at the pool it was the US of A versus the Mexicans in a series of poolside challenges. The USA girls are all peachy skin, pearly white teeth gleaming, blonde hair and effervescent competitive spirit. The Mexicans are lean and lithe, tanned and taut with features like feral cats. The Americans put up a good fight but thanks to an injury and a girl who couldn’t sit on a balloon to save her life, the entertainers win.

Later that day we book a helluva lot of trips. We meet a couple straight out of a storybook. They become special friends to us later in the trip.

Breakfast (2 plates – getting less). I literally jump out of bed for breakfast here. I live like an animal. I’m only concerned with food and sleep and the in between is spent thinking about food and sleep.

Today is a beach day. 3 swims in the beautiful sea feeling free. I’ve started a book called ‘Spilled Blood’ which I’ll review later. Me and my dad both have a penchant for psychological thrillers. We are all given a free five minute massage – three big Mexican ladies coax a lot of the tension out of my shoulders. I can feel I’m tense because the massage is that kind of exquisitely painful – it’s good but if it lasted a second longer you might have to ask them to stop. We decide not to treat ourselves to proper, paid massages. We’re investing all our money in the trips. Besides I did treat myself twice in Thailand and they were considerably cheaper there.

Me and G bought matching white hats – Audrey Hepburn style- to wear during our first trip. We went to a different pool today. We passed our time under the bridge in the shade. I spent my time swimming widths and doing handstands. I feel energised and alive using my body (which was surely appreciative). It’s amazing what a difference movement makes. I spend so much of my time at home chained to my desk, that when I’m on holiday, I feel so much more energized just from a walk! Life in England is so ‘rooted’ – you really have to go out of your way to lead an active lifestyle.

I get a little bit ‘deep thinking’.  I realise what makes me happy about travel and holidays (one of the things) is that back home I feel a bit of a spiritual and cultural void. When I’m around nature, animals and people who participate in a culture (even if I don’t fit it) I usually feel that everything makes sense and contentment follows. The culture back home is more binge drinking and ‘The Only Way is Essex’. Hopefully I’ll take a little bit of the Mexican way of life home with me.

One thing I really hope to incorporate is the attitude of letting things go. Here, everything is ‘de nada’ (‘it’s nothing’). In Thailand, it’s ‘Mai pen rai’ (‘it’s nothing’). I’m not the type who easily lets go, so I love the flippancy and detachment of these sayings.

Day 4:

CAMEL RIDING DAY!

Most people will know (those who know we well) that I a massive animal person. I volunteered recently in Thailand with wildlife (the blog is yet to be written) and so I like to think I’m clued in as to the treatment of animals and the tourism industry. Unfortunately, I may have made an error here. We looked into the camel riding day as much as we possibly good and decided between ourselves that it seemed ethical and the animals appeared well treated. I always have massive internal debates with myself whenever animals are involved because I dislike them being used for entertainment/human purposes (however I am somewhat of a hypocrite as I’m not exactly a vegan activist myself).

The lovely couple we met whilst booking the trips are in our car (they’re going parasailing). I felt a little apprehensive this morning so I had a small breakfast. We arrive to the sounds of Mexican men strumming guitars and singing. One thing I should mention: the tips culture is VERY much alive here. You’re expected to tip people for EVERYTHING as this is where they make the bulk of their earnings. As such, everyone’s trying to impress you, clamour for your attention and put their best foot forward. Although it probably is, this never feels insincere.

We are briefed on how to approach and ride our camels: we always approach from the left, never the front or right, we sit on the back and lean back holding tightly as the camel lurches forwards and up. We can stroke the camels but not startle them. I was hoping to get Tara, the lead camel and by far the friendliest, gentlest and happiest. Instead I get a moody camel (let’s hope we weren’t matched by personality) that didn’t want to get up and had to be muzzled. When I query this later, I’m told that my camel can essentially be a bit of a jerk.

My ‘inner activist’ kicks in. I start to feel guilty that my camel doesn’t really want to take me anywhere and that if it wasn’t muzzled it would probably bite me to shreds and then not even bother to eat my remains. It’s quite exhilarating going up. You know you’re always told it’s not the amount of breaths you take, but the amount of moments that take your breath away? This was one of those moments. It’s the ‘plane takeoff’ feeling again – there’s a little tummy lurch and then you’re up and gone, a level higher than you were before, and camels are pretty high up. We could also have taken this trip on horseback, but camels felt like a more unusual and unique experience.

The rhythm of a camel is slow paced and relaxing. It’s not constant and stable like a horse trot. There’s a lot of ‘up/down’ and mild side to side lurching. Once you lean into it, it’s really quite nice. We followed a jungle path and stopped at the beach to give the camels a rest. This was where the already testy bond between myself and my camel reached a new low.

Before I get on, I stroke my muzzled camel with as much affection and love as I can muster. They are goofy pretty, with big, cow like brown eyes and long eye lashes, and silly faces that look a little cynical and murderous. My camel nestles into me and rests on my shoulder. Just as I open my mouth to say ‘awww’ (in fact I’m halfway through saying it), my camel takes a bipolar turn and sharply buts me in the shoulder. I feel a crash of pain, a splintering feeling, and fall back but not over. The pain shot right through me and I immediately felt sick and faint. I feel that sick that I can’t even speak. Instead, on autopilot, I get onto my camel and just as we set off, I feel I might pass out and fall off (I’m sure my camel would promptly trample me to death just to finish me off). Luckily my brother is not up on his psycho camel yet (it lurches up as soon as he puts one leg over) so he can rush over to me with water which seems to make a world of difference. We move on but the rest of the journey is grudgingly accepted for me because I LOATHE my camel and my camel loathes me, but he HAS to ferry me around and I HAVE to sit on him. Despite this I really enjoyed the experience and the privilege of being carried through a jungle walkway on a camel’s back. We eat a lunch at the beach and return to our hotel where we all have a long nap. I told you we were children.

Me and dad go for a walk and a swim whilst the others are still sleeping. I decided to go to the gym for a bit after the camels, which was a bad idea. My shoulder cained and I felt a little dizzier than before. The gym is small but it has everything you need. There’s a spa as well for pampering if all the exertion gets too much.

To summarise, Brendan Fraser never got butted by his camel in 'The Mummy'....

Day 6:

Today we see one of the 7 wonders of the world: Chichen Itza (I pronounced it ‘Chicken Itza’ at work). I wake up smothered in mosquito bites. I never can seem to vanquish the b******’s. My blood must be laced with heroin. I’m itchy as all hell in a straightjacket.

I pack my things; sun tan lotion (factor 50), camera, sunglasses, shoes, iPod. The car journey will be three hours and we have a breakfast box prepared for us by the concierge at the hotel.

We meet our couple friends in the lobby but unfortunately they aren’t in our car. Our journey is 3 hours in a small van of all Americans. Our guide is Sergio, a French Mexican who informs us that 20% of Mexicans are white European and he is one of them.

Chichen Itza was like being in the movie ‘Apocolypto’. It’s a fascinating, ethereal place with both an advanced and a primitive past. It’s fascinating to walk in a place where so much happened, both exalted and barbaric. I take so many pictures hoping to capture the eerie, hypnotic feel of the place, but I just can’t. If you clap three times, the clap echoes back to you from far away. The Mayans designed this place to be a place of astrology, science and precision. Everything is designed and accentuated for a purpose. This is of course the place where the prophecy that the world will end in 2012 was formed. I feel quite humbled to be in this magnificent place, both sinister and noble.

But the real highlight for me is swimming in the cenote – an underground water formation. We descend into a dark cave. The only light creeps in through a hole in the ceiling where a great trees detached roots dangled down. The cenote is lit from the inside by many lights that change colour. The water is chilly but makes you feel alive. This and Chichen Itza are two other moments that take my breath away. My body adjusts to the icy water and I swim as far as possible. I swim to the roots of the tree and around the cenote which is filled with fish. The cave is swirling with bats. I feel very peaceful and ‘Zen’ here, but then I do love water. Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that our bodies are primarily water, but when I’m in liquid, I feel healed and regenerated. If I could recommend one thing to do in Mexico, it would be to swim in a cenote.

Day 7:

I can’t divulge everything on a blog but one thing I’ve realised through my travels this year is the qualities that attract me in a man.

Obviously this isn’t set in stone. I’m not into macho, alpha male, materialism, not the contrived manly man that likes football, drinks beer and calls women ‘birds’. What I like is raw natural animalism. Are you into astrology? If you are, this man would have a Scorpio moon or be a Virgo, or something subtle and intense like that. Masculinity, like femininity, when real and unforced, is so powerful and seductive. You can tell a man playing at being a man a mile away. Likewise, you will meet a lot of little boys who think they are men. You’ll also meet a lot of men who are definitely men for sure, but don’t quite have the backbone or the intensity that you’d like. I quite admire and respect this type of man I’m noticing. It’s a hard thing to describe, but you know when you’ve met one because you feel it. Likewise I’m sure men feel the same when they meet a ‘true’ woman. But then again, this all depends on type. I’m liking the strong, silent, brooding type, but not in the ‘emo’ sense of the word. Maybe I need to get me a Native American Chief or something similar. I like these men that are ‘in tune’. They seem to understand what matters, like they’ve got their finger on the pulse of life.

Yesterday, we saw painted men re-enact a hunt and it was sexy as hell. These men were tall, muscled with amazing faces and a pure kind of confidence and purpose. They moved and looked like animals. Everyone sat watching them enchanted. I felt a little sad that something very animal has died in a lot of people. I don’t mean s****** on the carpet or sniffing someone’s butt, but something that’s really very simple, very sweet and very attractive in a person, but these guys had it, they’d held onto it (whatever ‘it’ is).

Today we spend the day at the beach where time stands still and thoughts lull in and out of your head. We re-meet the couple. We seem to find them everywhere. We exchange emails so that we can keep in touch. They’ve invited us to their home in Seattle and we’ve said they can stay with us in London.

Day 8:

Beach day! I swam 100 widths of the pool urged by D. We had a little discussion today over whether we could swim to what we thought was a distant island, but which was actually something like Cuba. He said no. But I said if I had a life jacket and was swimming for my life, I think I could. After those 100 widths I’m not so sure.

Day 9:

Today we were ‘trainers for a day’ working and interacting with dolphins, manatees, sting rays, sharks and sea lions. We looked into this thoroughly before parting with our money. The animals are very well treated and the company is rated as the best in the world for its treatment and care of the animals. The day started very interactively as our guide informed us about the park and set and concerns aside.

This was a really incredible experience for me again because it was in water and involved animals. The animals showed real personality and tenderness. We performed a kiss, cuddle, hand shake, foot press (naturally my pants fell down and I flashed everyone including my parents) and many other activities. Yes they are overpriced, but i bought all the pictures. We then saw more of the miracle of Mother Nature when an iguana ate a bird in front of us.

I think it’s important to look into things like this before doing them. Where animals are concerned it’s a sensitive issue, because you can’t always be sure if any exploitation is taking place. In this instance, we felt placated that things were fine, but if anyone knows any differently, please leave a comment on the blog. At the hotel, there were numerous picture opportunities with monkeys and birds, some of which were chained. Please refuse these offers whenever possible.

I’m starting to plan next year. A year that will make me feel alive. Get out of the rat race and the 9-5. Maybe less money but maximised happiness?

Day 10:

Every guest at the hotel is entitled to a free pendant from Lapis jewellery shop. The pendant is your name written in the Mayan alphabet. You must use between 4 and 7 characters, but my name is 8, so I used my middle name, Layla, for the pendant.

Naturally, once we were inside the shop, we were assigned a lady named Monica, who urged us to look around the shop to see if we were interested in making any purchases. At first, stoic and tenacious, I told myself I would resist buying any jewellery.

1)      I’m trying to save

2)      I have a free pendant

We left the store with some beautiful pieces. It was all on a very kind and generous dad. Our purchases were so extravagant that the manager slashed our spending by half. My favourite of my purchases, which included 2 pairs of earrings and a changeable, three stone ring was a fire opal bracelet. Just the words ‘fire opal’ made me have to own it. I felt like a phoenix or a human flame thrower or something. It’s a beautiful, subtle bracelet of orange, yellow and green that really pops and crackles on a tanned arm (hoping it will still look as good when the tan fades).

The two extra links of the bracelet where cut off and made into earrings. Monica lamented how small my hands and wrists were so we had to wait a while for pieces to be ‘scaled down’ for me. The Turkish attendee Baba took a shine to me shall we say...he could be found playing with my hair.

Day 11:

Today we rise early and head to Koba (pronounced Kobe-haa). Koba is the last of the pyramids that you can climb and you won’t be able to climb it at all next year. This is something that me and my dad really wanted to experience. We really wanted to be able to say ‘we’ve climbed a pyramid!’ It seemed like such an Indiana Jones thing to do.

We had a brief talk from our guide Daniel and then walked the 2km path to the Koba pyramid. We were told it would take about twenty minutes to climb up and another twenty to climb down. In blazing heat, this did not appeal.

Me, D and dad began to climb. The steps are an odd assortment; some narrow, some broad, and there is one rope running alongside the centre to keep climbers stable. The three of us managed it very quickly. I climbed at a crawl, gripping the rope. The view at the top was a lush canopy of jungle as far as I could see – just a great stretch of emerald green. I experienced a little vertigo, probably a mixture of heat, exertion and another moment and sight that just took my breath away. My legs shook like jelly but I made it back down on my butt. I felt I’d really accomplished something by doing this. We were driven back down the path which was another exhilarating little thrill.

Day 12:

Today we set sail with J and E (my cousin and his girlfriend) to try to find and swim with some whale sharks. There are only two places in the world where you can locate whale sharks – this park of Mexico and Australia. I was quite apprehensive about this one. Of all the things we’d done this was the one that filled me with quiet dread.

I wasn’t even scared about the whale sharks. They are very docile and placid (if very large). But I was scared of jumping off the boat and being junked up with a snorkel, goggles and flippers. I get ever so slightly claustrophobic all bound up like that.

Our journey on the boat was fun as we hit the waves and listened to music. It wasn’t long before we found where all the other boats had gathered. Whale sharks were circulating nearby...loads of them. Apparently they like the interaction with humans. You keep a distance and you never touch them or they shrink away. The sharks swim near you curiously but keep a safe distance too. The others went in first and G’s bravery pushed me to do it too. I felt sick as I sat on the sight of the boat but in we jumped. Seeing the whale sharks up close was very memorable and I’m glad I chose to do it. They are neither whales nor sharks, despite the name – instead they are really just oversized fish.

It was interesting to see their big gaping mouths coming towards us. Despite my fear, I am so proud and happy that I swam with the sharks. We then set sail to the ‘Isle of Women’ or ‘Women Island’ – a beautiful island boasting crystal clear waters – the most beautiful I’ve seen and pure white sand. We ate shrimp from plastic cups and drank coronas in the sea whilst tiny fish nibbled E. I bought an ‘I swam with whale sharks’ top. I can officially say I have now! All proceeds go to the conservation of the species.

Back at the hotel me and mum had hotdogs and I couldn’t resist feeding one of the baby coatis who bounded towards me like a bright eyed bushy tailed Disney character.

Later that day in the shower, I have a moment of pure contentment as the warm water hits me. I feel lucky, happy and grateful. I have water to drink, food to eat, a roof over my head and a holiday full of memories.

Day 13:

I’ve started a book called ‘Me and my Sisters’ (review to follow) which tells the tale of three sisters and what it means to be a modern day woman. This is a topic I find interesting seeing as there is no typical man or woman anymore. We all find our own way in life now which can be wildly disorienting or chaotically fun. I’ve mentioned before that currently I don’t want to be a wife or mother and I have certain opinions on relationships and marriage etc right now that are probably not typically traditional. I guess I’m learning what all this means to me. Right now I want adventures and experiences and I’m figuring a lot of things out about what makes me happy and gives my life meaning. I’m already learning what doesn’t make me happy and that’s 9-5 office life and it’s also not London (at the moment anyway).

This book was just what I needed right now. It’s helping to put into perspective that there is no right way to live a life. However you live your life, someone will criticise and judge, so it really is of paramount importance that you live a life that you can respect and enjoy. There is only ever a series of different roads that you can choose to go down or ignore. Only you know if the road you walk is worth it, or if you’re curious to take a walk down another.

What to study? Where to go? Who to give your heart to? Babies or no babies? If so, when? What job will fulfil you? Where should you live?

We have so many choices that these questions have gone from simple to impossible. Some people are born knowing. Some are clueless. Most of us are figuring it out.

I’m realising if I follow my heart and instincts, I can’t regret too much. The times when I’ve followed these senses have brought me the most happiness AND the most pain (aka LIVING!). I guess I’m quite excited to see where life will take me and all of my friends if we’re brave enough to just go with the flow. Where will we all end up?

We met a bouncy American girl selling tickets to Coco Bongo. She reflected this whole idea perfectly. Her parents were horrified that she was essentially selling tickets on a beach but she was loving it. She was living. She was happy. So is happiness really money? Is it really success? Is it just the tiniest, littlest place where you find bliss?

Me and mum sit and talk for ages about life and love looking out over the water at night. We walk to the beach and stumble across a wedding celebration. Singing, wild dancing and the beautiful wilderness of a dark beach.

Day 14:

What’s weird about diaries is that you’re always writing them a day after. This is D day. We’re off home. I’ve really loved this experience. It’s a beautiful, welcoming and hospitable place where you can chill out and relax or immerse yourself in Mexican living. I’m sad to go home. I can already feel the malaise of England, but for now it’s inspired me to make this year and next, bigger, better and happier.

Quick tips for travellers:

  • Mexico is renowned as a dangerous country. The Maya Riviera is a very safe and secure area filled with resorts. We encountered no troubles here

  • The resorts are primarily popular with American and Canadian travellers

  • Please investigate and research any activities/days out involving animals as there is always a risk of exploitation, even if you are coerced into feeling that your money is benefitting the animals. Please do not allow yourself to be pictured with any wild animals

  • You are expected to tip!

  • There are several trips you can go on from visiting Chichen Itza, climbing Koba (if you have a real interest in doing this, do it before the year is out!), swimming in cenotes, zipwiring and much more

  • If possible, make time to visit a Mayan village

  • Be prepared for mosquitoes – lots of them!

  • Embrace the Mexican way of life – ‘de nada!’