Friday, March 20, 2015

Travel Diary: If You're Wondering How My Contiki Mexico Trip Went…



It's warmer than I expected up here. And calmer. The sun is strong on my arm through the slit of my window seat, magnified as it rises high over the Earth I'm not touching. Just two hours ago, I was freezing, my pores raised high on my even skin and my hairs standing straight. One degree outside, I believed, but I came outside dressed for 65 so that when 77 hit me in the face, it'd be a smoother transition. There's no one sitting in between me and Ms. Matilda. Okay, I'm more than positive that isn't this older woman's name, but her stature is sweet and her nature warm, like a Matilda. When I first climbed into 18A and she in seat C, she turned to me with a smile (and I returned a half one as I was greedily slurping meh-seasoned chicken soup from a plastic spoon), saying, "Now, is that as delicious as it looks and smells?" "Not really," I replied with a laugh, before she insisted it must be better than the hardboiled egg she had for breakfast. Such a Matilda. Anyway, we're sharing the middle tray tabs in our row to house our juice, tea and coffee. My belly is unexpectedly full. I forgot that some airlines still serve "complimentary" meals for long, international flights, so it feels like AeroMexico is spoiling me a little bit. As an added bonus to the birthday treats. You know, in addition to just up and buying a solo ticket to Mexico to hopefully make friends with a scattered origin tour group. Some people are coming on this trip from Korea, Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the U.S., and the nerves aren't quite hitting me now, but I'm sure once I touch down, the mariposas will begin.

Ah well, I've got some hours. In the meanwhile, the white down blanket of clouds is soothing me, soft, straight and constant as if they go on to infinity. Forever and ever and…

Hold on just a damn minute. We're about an hour outside of landing when the concession stand rolls by with peanuts and beverages. "White wine?" Hell yes I will have a free glass of white wine (and a cup of water)! Matilda, pleasantly surprised herself, glances over at me with a smirk one might find in Sin City and holds out her hand to receive her glass of wine. "When in Mexico…," she begins before raising her glass over the seat to cheers with her engaged daughter in the row behind us. Yes, cheers to Mexico, I toast in my head before taking a sip. AeroMexico has won my heart. 



--

I've spend less that 24 hours with these strangers and I already know I need to do another Contiki before the year's over. Especially solo. After taking in the sights on my taxi ride to the Zona Rosa Hotel, I learned that I'm the only American out of 20-something travelers besides my LA roommate, Suzanne. What are the odds that she'd be in my room? And she's a Pisces at that. (Cancun is going to be a movie due to all the Pisces on the trip celebrating birthdays). Other than that, this luxury tour bus is full of Aussies and Kiwis. There are a couple from Tasmania, one from Korea and one Canadian, who has her professional camera out and about like me. I don't know more than 10 peoples' names so far, but it's easy to feel like friends here. They nearly convinced me to boss up and eat a grilled cricket, but as soon as it hit my tongue I freaked out and spit it out. I'm proud of myself for getting that far. Ish, our tour guide, held out a bag full of them in my face and I swear I nearly screamed. Good times. I'm starting to feel the local Mexican coffee hit me now. It was super strong but so good. Brewed with sugar and cinnamon? America, get on it. And the chocolate filled churro I had? Heaven. Anyway, we're driving to the pyramids of Teotihuacan right now, passing through the parched grass of what looks like the country side. Lots of torched earth and space on one side, rubbly short houses on the other.


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"New York?" I looked around pointlessly before faux-sheepishly heading to the front of the bus. "Hi, guys," I said before being greeted AA style. "My name is Stacy-Ann or Stacy, whatever you want. My birthday was yesterday, I love tequila and I don't have any terribly embarrassing stories…yet." The rest of the group calls me my actual name, but for the tour guide, "New York" will do. Or "Brown Sugar," by the locals. Or Rastafarian, as one Mexican obsidian craftsman called me while professing his love and massaging my back with a smooth stone from his glittery gift shop. Most of my "mates" were persuaded enough by his straight-from-the-plant tequila shots to buy his pricey trinkets. Looking was cool for me. I'm trying this thing where I don't spend extra money on things I don't need. I know I'm on vacation, but a crystal mask just isn't ideal to be dragging around from city to city. 



By now, a number of my tour members have had a bit of sickness, from food poisoning to heavy corn intake to liquor over indulgence. I pray I'm not next, but in honestly these are experienced travelers who are on anywhere from month two to month seven of traveling a long way from home. Do Americans really not travel at all? Our way of life is so different. For some of my friends, trekking to Vegas, Miami or Puerto Rico is a big deal. That's a mess. No passports necessary. Bit I think these are baby steps. My tired limbs tell me that there's so much more exploring I need to do until I feel like a real world citizen instead of just a proud New York placeholder. 

--

My body temperature has finally reached a normal level. When the plane left Mexico City and landed in the flatland of Merida, the humidity hit me smack in the face. The thin material of my thrifted shirt is clinging to the small of my back and I'm scanning the floor so as not to trip over my maxi skirt. Our coach this time is a bit less luxurious, but somehow I know this small colonial city is about to be a rich gem. Each block inching out from the small city square outside our hotel seems like it's singing to me. The busy back and forth of bodies loud and in the foreground, melodious in their continuous movement. The easygoing Sunday vibe softly hums its melody. 



Unlike our sandwiching cities on this trip, there's no touristy, youthful nightlife. No bumper to bumper traffic with cabs full of partiers like Mexico City. No lined up shots of Tequila like in Cancun. Just a refreshing ease of moments, unhurried and organic. Engaged sales versus hassling knickknack peddlers. Quality guacamole and satisfying tacos. Mexican patriotism surrounding the flag pole, with tiny tots holding their arms to their chests in the position of allegiance just like their parents. Market shops with pastries, white ensembles stitched with traditional embroidery. Street dancers with skill I've not even seen in New York City. Horse and carriage rides down ghostly empty streets that still seem safe and past mansions of the city's wealthy past. Bashful Mexican boys so enthralled with my twists that one came up to me asking for permission to feel a chunky strand. (I obliged). Innocent and curious. There's something extremely comforting about a stranger. There's always a fear, yes, but there's an honesty about them that's so beautiful. A helpfulness. Sometimes it's easier to confess your fears and the contents of your mind to a stranger. There are no regrets there. No time for it. Only discussions. Solutions. Stories. I think I need to meet more strangers… 

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Ever been able to pinpoint a moment your life changed? It might've been the point of impact when the water smacked hard against my skin before swallowing me whole. Dangling in darkness of 130 ft. before my life jacket hoisted me up to oxygen again. Eyes flooded, nose filled with fresh water, applause echoing off the stone walls all around me. Smiles, cheers, high fives and aqua hugs. Seconds prior, I was staring down the belly of the sinkhole from the edge of a mini cliff. Carolynne stood next to me ready to be my partner in jumping to ease my nerves, patiently waiting for me to tap into my moment of release (trust me, it took a minute). My 20-something tour mates treaded water below, heads all up to me, waiting for me to join them after a leap of faith. "Don't worry, you can do it Stacy! You've got this!" The support slowly started to iron out my jitters. I couldn't live with turning around and walking back down the stairs in shame. Embarrassment. Fear. Defeat. What ifs. Why nots. Contiki's whole shtick is "no regrets." "Jump!" I heard them call to me. So I did, suspended in time before joining the black catfish of Ik Kil below. I had no regrets at all.



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A trip isn't a trip without a few battle scars, right? That's the more optimistic approach to nursing the two bleeding spots on my left knee. I usually carry first aid gear in my purse just because, but today I left the bandaids in the side pocket of my suitcase. A stretched out chunk pulled from a giant cotton ball would have to do. I applied pressure on the are as I hobbled back to my corner spot of the catamaran. The waves rose and swelled around our tiny vessel filled with girls lathered in tanning oil that probably wasn't biodegradable, my two new friends hunched over fighting their sea sickness and losing, and the endless rounds of alcohol being circulated by the sail staff. Our physical ailments were the lesser of two evils, though. For me, at least. 

Rewind a few moments to when I had to act without thinking too long about it. I'd already paid the $75. I already signed the waiver. I already had the life jacket around my chest. The flippers were already tucked under one arm while the other shoved the goggles snuggly over my eyes. "Hurry! Come now! Jump off the boat now!" There was no easing into anything today. Of course I was supposed to be nervous, but I literally didn't have enough time to be. Plus, the denote revelation was the perfect primer. I didn't know if the water was cold beforehand, but before I could assess it or prep my skin, I was in it, silently yelping because I couldn't figure out how to stop breathing through my nose and only use the snorkel. I grabbed onto the rope extending from the boat and out into the sea with the rest of the snorkelers. I was panicking quietly, determined to man up and get my bearings together without causing a scene. Everyone else zipped away so easily, all expert swimmers because of growing up in cities on the sea. Me, not so much (and no, don't you dare count New York. Who actually swims in that?). I can swim in a pool, but up until that moment, I'd never touched open sea water. Deep water. 

As much as I was trying to calm myself and regulate my breathing, the captain, Victor, could sense my struggle. "Puedes nadar?" he called out to me. "Si, un poquito." "Come here!" he instructed, pointing to the floating life ring he was holding to personally guide the non Michael Phelps'. I hopped over the guide rope, not caring who I might have kicked with my flipper, and latched onto him. That was one less thing to focus on, so my body calmed a bit, allowing me to learn to breathe slowly into my mouth and ignore my nose. How much easier that was now! I dipped my face into the water slowly, hesitantly, not sure if I was doing it right, if I secured the mask tightly enough around my face. I did, and I saw about 20 fish flock to right beneath my bellow, nipping at the papery food Victor was releasing right beneath the life ring. Fear left me and I was filled with awe. It was so beautiful and peaceful beneath the surface. Fish dodged in and out around the coral affixed to the ocean floor. On the other side of my face, I could still hear the Latin music blasting from our boat, Saka Boy Too. For a moment, it felt like I was in two worlds. So amazing and non-terrifying (you know, after all the breathing hoopla). 



When it was time to leave Nemo and friends and return to Saka Boy, the boat's ladder was harder to grip than I thought. The wind had picked up a bit and the waves were strong. Gripping the ladder with one hand and removing my flippers while still in the water at the same time was one hell of a challenge. I kept falling off, and by then, Victor had already left me. I finally got my grip and pulled the flippers off, but as I hoisted my legs onto the ladder (note: I have zero upper body strength and this story serves as inspiration to put in that gym time), one strong wave knocked my balance and my thigh banged hard against the bottom of the ladder leg. I knew it was cut as I climbed up and felt the sting and watched the red run down my leg. It was all worth it though. I was all smiles for the rest of the day. When I laid out on the deck with my swimsuit like models on hip hop video yachts. When we stopped on Isla Mujeres and my two licensed friends voted me to break out of my shell and drive them around the four mile wise island in a golf cart alongside local traffic. When we took the catamaran to another island for lunch. When we braved the choppier afternoon water on the way back to kilometer 6 of the Cancun strip, being violently splashed (read: drenched) in sea water for the entire 30 minute commute. When we went out for our last night of fun before the rest of the group went on to Belize, and we partied until 3 in the morning with endless confetti showers, raining balloons, lip sync Broadway shows and dancing on top of the bar. When Latin dancing with a boy from Chile with so-so English and realizing that my Spanish is actually a lot better than what I thought it was. We were able to have a broken English, broken Spanish conversation and have a great time and talk.

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As I wait in the lobby of Cancun's Holiday Inn Arenas for my airport shuttle to arrive, I'm happy I can say I'm returning home a slightly different me. I truly do feel like a world citizen with friends in several different countries and continents and with plenty reasons to visit them all. 


I needed every second of this trip. The door is wide open for me. Now all I need to do is walk through it more often. 

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