Friday, April 27, 2012

The Yucatan Resorts...

The Lonely Planet explains that the town of Tulum is split into three distinct areas: The Archaeological Zone (home of the Tulum Mayan ruins), the busy center of town (home to such places as the bus stop, lots of souvenir shops, and the government offices), and Zona Hoteliera along the beach, where the resorts are. The guidebook is correct on all counts, but if that's the case with the small town of Tulum, what is there to be said about Cancun? Well, take those distinctions and just enhance them to the Nth degree - and voila, you get Cancun!

There really is no Archaeological Zone here - there's a small and fairly forgettable ruin 'El Rey' at the end of Zona Hoteliera. It would be utterly forgettable, if it wasn't for members of a very extended iguana family sunning themselves on top of the remains of the Mayan structures. The downtown is quite expansive - Cancun is a big city after all - and is also home to Walmart, Sam's Club, and Applebee's. With a pleasant sampling of street taco and quesadilla stands mixed in. The Zona Hoteliera is, well... kind of amazing, in its own way. My first impression was the Las Vegas Strip having been airlifted right from the middle of the Nevada dessert and plopped down on the Gulf Coast. There's lots of huge, high rise hotels; there are bars where American sports are always on TV; chain restaurants abound, and the all-inclusive resorts appear to be filled with tourists who are here for the express purpose of drinking cheap beer and visiting a few night clubs. And also hanging out by the hotel pool - the actual beach is much too far away... In a word, after seeing Cancun, I was rather underwhelmed by the Mexican resort scene. The beach was admittedly lovely however, so it had all started off well:

I did have to work rather hard to not get any high-rise hotels, bars, or crowds of tourists into the shot

But then again, I knew all of that - Cancun is very much the spring break destination for the East Coast and [especially] the South. Even when it's not actually spring break, the tourists here are still on spring break. Well, what of the visitors who are not here for Spring Break? Mexico does welcome all kinds, and apparently, the West Coast are very much accepted down here as well - they just have to drive a couple hundred kilometers South to the town of Tulum. Admittedly, the Lonely Planet description of Tulum's Zona Hoteliera did not instill a whole lot more confidence in me than what I had gotten out of Cancun. But I chose to go visit nonetheless... and upon arrival, my first thought was... I must have missed it? I mean, there were no huge concrete buildings. There were no American restaurant chains. All I could really see was actually just jungle, with the beach and water peaking through from a distance. I pressed on. The resorts were, in fact here - hidden away in the jungle underbrush, small, tastefully decorated buildings and cabanas dotting the shoreline. The crowds were markedly absent. The advertisements talked of eco-resorts, organic food at the restaurants, and yoga and massage classes on premises. They even seem to provide bicycles for the visitors to ride and stray away from the resort! It was distinctly un-Vegas like. And don't get me wrong, I enjoy Las Vegas very much, but it has its own place in the world, and that place happens to be in the middle of a barren and unforgiving Nevada dessert, non on Mexico's Riviera Maya!

Some backstory is in order - Erica is coming down to meet me down here for a few days in the middle of May. We'll be staying at the Playa Azul resort, in Tulum's Zona Hoteliera - I went to check it out; I am quite pleased with our selection! I cannot believe that had Natalya not recommended Playa Azul to us, we, not knowing any better, may have actually stayed on the beach right in Cancun... This is, in fact, my hope for the throngs of tourists who do stay there - I like to think that they just don't know better and have no clue what they are missing! I'm probably wrong, and the guy wearing the Keystone Light (do they even still make that!?) on my flight down has no interest whatsoever in even setting foot in one of them hippie Eco-Resorts down in Tulum, but I'm going to feel better in believing that he's wholly ignorant of Tulum's sheer existence! As for that existence... I took some pictures:

Cabana #2, which Erica and I will soon be occupying

View from the cabana onto the beach and the ocean

The beach at and around Playa Azul

Yup, I'm probably turning into a Seattle hippie snob at this point - I think I'm going to be ok with that! And hey, Cancun does have some redeeming characteristics to it as well:

Mercado 28 is a huge market, trading in anything and everything you could possibly need. Including Black Magic, if you trust the guidebook...

And Parque de Palapas is a cute little park just in the middle of town.

Well, that was about it though, really...

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Keep Cancun Weird!

Cancun's not actually weird at all. Most of the tourist zone looks a good bit like cookie cutter corporate construction, and I don't get the feeling most of the tourists even leave the Zona Hoteliera, but we'll get to that later. Mean time, when you do venture past the friendly confines of your all-inclusive resort (or if you just stay at a hostel in the center of town), here's the occasional weirdness that you may be excited to see - I surely was:

Corona would like to welcome you to the Cancun International Airport! I would like to thank Corona, and drink a Negra Modelo!

This vendor at Parque las Palapas will be very cross with you if you don't buy his wares!

Sad Clown!

Cancun even has a tiny little Mayan archaeological site... which is [quite deservedly] best known for the iguanas that like to work on their tans there. I named this one Geoffrey - we think it's a boy-iguana.

Mercado 28 in Cancun had been expecting me. Amigos, I gotta tell you, I am a big fan of the tacos and the tortas! And the ceviche, and the quesadillas, and did I mention the Negra Modelo?

All that being said... the beaches in Cancun are pretty gorgeous though!

And then, it was time to leave Cancun behind! I don't think I'll miss it all that much really!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The South... It Shall rise again!

So, I came down South... for perfectly logical reasons too - Atlanta's on the way to Cancun from Boston; I've friends to visit down here; and the contract I was finishing up at work was for a company in Atlanta - meeting them face to face seemed like a good idea. So, first off, hooray for seeing Duke friends whom I haven't seen in a while:

Irina and Michael, at their house in Atlanta. Last time I'd seen them was in Seattle, and they were still proud residents of Boston, Massachussets!

The family Maggee: Matt and Kristin, along with Julie and baby Kyle. We have seen each other merely a year ago, but they have added a new member of the family since then!

So, hanging out with friends was goal #1 in Atlanta. Finishing up work was goal #2, but that's hardly worthy of any photographs, or much of a blog mention. Goal #3 was to explore Atlanta a little bit, and so, on Saturday, we all set off for Stone Mountain. Which was a fascinating place... A bit of a history revuw: see, here I was thinking that back in the 1860's, we had us a bit of a Civil War - there was a number of reasons for it, the South fought bravely, but eventually the North won, and, though it took a while, the South has generally embraced this. Save for an occasional Dukes of Hazzard fan with a Confederate flag in his garage and a 'The South shall rise again!' on his mind. Well... it turns out that this notion may be a little more wide spread than just your deranged Daisy Duke fan in his garage, as Atlanta has constructed a beautiful called Stone Mountain. (Which happens to be one of the most visited tourist sites in all of the South.) And it's apparently a very tastefully done monument to the Confederacy:

The Confederate leaders: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson

Now, personally, I'm a little torn on this. On one hand, it is all a part of history, and should by all means be remembered and properly appreciated. On the other hand, the South lost, and shouldn't we be moving on by now? It just seems a little odd that this isn't a private display, but (I presume) a state-sponsored one. But hey, that's where I get to "it's the South! And it wouldn't be the South if it wasn't just a little weird! Or if it made sense! I mean, grits!? Really?"

Fortunately, Stone Mountain isn't just a perplexing monument celebrating the losing side in a war 150 years ago. It's also an 825-foot tall rock that you can hike up, which we promptly did. Both kids in tow! And a local Christian group doing the hike at the same time as us... And also this guy. But we made it to the top in fairly short order and were treated to a spectacular view of our surroundings:

I had no idea the city Of Atlanta was in the middle of so much forest!

Don't want to walk? Just ride the Sky Lift!

So... that was Atlanta. And the South. Fascinating... interesting... a little weird! Apparently still more than a little put out about a certain General Sherman burning most of the state of Georgia to the ground...

Monday, April 23, 2012

Hello Blogosphere!

Have you missed me, blogosphere? I've rather missed you... It's hard to believe that my last post was almost a year ago! Lest you be afraid, I have not run out of exciting and exotic places to visit... I've just been short on time to report on said visits. But, at this particular moment in time, I'm back on the road! (for a mere month) - which ironically enough gives me more time to blog than being back home in Seattle. I suppose not having a job helps. Today's trip brings us to the Lands of the Maya - Central America, but we'll get to that soon enough, the starting point was in Boston - to watch the Boston Marathon:

First come the super elite women

Followed by some slightly less super elite runners, who are actually willing to acknowledge the crowd

And then the super elite men show up

And eventually you start to realize that there is a LOT of people running this marathon! And qualifying is a pretty high bar...

Now, when I say super elite, these guys finish the marathon (26.2 miles) in just over two hours. This year's temperatures were quite high for the marathon - peaking at 88 degrees(!), so they didn't quite set any records... yet the winning time was 2:12:40 for the men and 2:31:50 for the women... which I would term fairly ridiculous. But then again, I don't like running all that much, especially not for 26.2 miles! But, we weren't just here to watch the insane Kenyan runners (and the insane ones did still have some trouble with the heat - apparently several of the top runners had had to drop out because of leg cramps due to the higher than normal temperatures). We were specifically here this year because, Kelly, a friend from Seattle, had qualified for the Boston marathon last summer and was running this year, so Erica and I were there to cheer her on:

Kelly and Lora celebrating at the finish line - we did a lot of cheering for no leg cramps... And just the general having of a good time - Very good, very good, yay!

Now rewinding a bit from the finish line, the Boston Marathon hits Wellesley College at just about its halfway point, and Erica, a Wellesley alum herself, had been telling me all about the spectacle that is the Marathon running through campus. So we promptly headed off out there to watch most of the Marathon. And the Wellesley ladies did put on quite a show for the runners

The main road through Wellesley, lined with Wellesley students cheering the runners on... hunting to collect a few kisses

Largely by utilizing some hilariously creative signs - Erica and I may have stolen this one for ourselves; it just seemed so utterly appropriate.

Erica also has a lot of friends in and around Boston (who were kind enough to let us stay with them!) - Karla came out to watch the marathon with us and brought along the runners' #1 fan: her cute 15 month old daughter Vivian. Seen here doing her best to urge the runners on through the heat!

Marathon day was actually fairly exhausting - from being up at 8 to make it to Wellesley ahead of the runners, to fighting our way through the crowds to make it to the finish line, to the 88 degree weather, it was a little tiring. You know, not exactly 'I just ran 26 miles' exhausting, but a little tiring. Fortunately, after meeting and congratulating Kelly at the finish line, our plans for the rest of the day called for a perfectly relaxing barbecue with some of Erica's old Boston co-workers. So, sightseeing and such had to be saved for another day... and, in fact, we had saved it for the day before (look at us be all prepared!), when we headed off to have a look at the Wellesley campus (yes, we saw the marathon from Wellesley as well, but there wasn't much sight seeing involved at that point).

Erica, seen her full of glee to be back on campus (and to play tour guide)

After a little while, I started to realize that Wellesley actually reminded me quite a bit of the Duke Campus - lots of Gothic architecture; a tall phallic symbol sort of thing towering in the middle of it all; the entire campus essentially being surrounded by a forest... and then!

Naaaaaaaaan! Nannerl Keohane was the Duke president when I was there (and we didn't much like her), and where did Nannerl come from!? Well, apparently, she'd been president of Wellesley College just before making her way down South to Duke. And Wellesley hangs portraits of all the former presidents, seemingly just to drive the point home for me (they also have fun stories about how the one and only time they had a male [interim] president, the campus had been struck by lightning... twice! So, there's that.)

There were, admittedly, a number of pretty stark differences from Duke too - for one thing Wellesley is a women's college (Erica frowns upon my referring to it as "an all-girls' school"), so all the students we saw on campus were women... which after a while started feeling a little weird. Especially, since none of them were having pillow fights. Wellesley is also quite a bit smaller than Duke, so it really seemed like a miniature version of the Duke campus - the chapel is smaller, you can get across campus faster... the lake is, well, the lake's actually bigger. But the campus as a whole was smaller!

All in all, Boston was a lot of fun, and a nice way to ease back into a month of traveling - seeing a bunch of friends, getting chance to visit Wellesley, and watching a world-class athletic event. And at that point, it was time to head South! Aiming for Cancun and Central America eventually, but with a layover in Atlanta for a few days to see more friends and finish up some work... More to come!