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I woke up at 9. It was already hot and sunny — much hotter than Tlachichuca. I glanced outside the window to get an idea of what clothing to wear. Shorts and t-shirt it was. I took a cold water bath (the climate and cold water bath reminded of summer holidays in Madras), packed my backpack, grabbed a sandwich from a grocery store and hopped onto the next bus for Tulum.
Tulum is a small horizontal coastal town with thick green tree cover. It looked like a rain-forest, but it wasn’t one, I was told by a cab driver. It is a laid-back town, in contrast to Cancun, and a great getaway for those who don’t want to stay in first-world Mexico in Cancun. Tulum is popular among backpackers and hippies.
As soon as I walked out of the bus terminal, I saw a restaurant which boasted of some vegetarian dish. I didn’t want to take any chances going forward, so I had an early lunch. I asked the restaurant owner for places to see in Tulum. He recommended the Mayan ruins on the beach and the artisans’ market.
I hired a cab to take me to the Mayan ruins first. Mayan ruins are common in that part of Mexico, but the Mayans didn’t build many settlements on the beach. When I saw the ruins, I could see why. It was a stunning location! Recollect those ads of beaches with white sand, light blue water and clear sky. Those are very much real inTulum. If I were a Mayan, I’d give up fighting and settle down at the beach.
I went for a swim in the sea and spent a few hours at the beach. When it started to get dark, I headed to the artisans’ market. I reached the artisans’ market after 5 p.m. Most shops had shut down for the day. So I had an early dinner at a nearby restaurant and walked to to a taxi stand to take a cab to the bus terminal. It shouldn’t cost most than 30 pesos, I thought. The cab driver said 50, I was adamant at 30, we compromised at 40. His name was Carlos and he spoke surprisingly good English. We spoke, I asked him about his family and within a few minutes, here was another momentary relationship.
When we reached the bus station, he wanted 30 pesos but now I didn’t mind paying 50.
I reached the bus terminal at 6.28, just in time for the 6.30 p.m. bus back to Cancun. Or what I thought was just in time. The next bus wasn’t until 7. I walked around the bus station when a guy approached me with a pamphlet for a nearby lodge. I had just finished my short stay at Tulum and wasn’t looking for a place to stay.
The guy didn’t look like a local. He was not very tall, had a thick beard and curly hair, and was in worn out jeans and a faded tshirt. And he looked happy (I’ve learnt to identify this over the years and I’m not often wrong).
His story then unfolded: He made silver ornaments in Italy (he was Italian) and visited Tulum every year with the money he saved. He worked at a lodge in Tulum for which he was soliciting customers, mostly foreign tourists (the lodge had WiFi). He also played the trumpet at local joints with some other musicians. All to earn his living during his stay.
He had seen the flute when I was re-packing my bag because of the delayed bus, and asked if it was a Peruvian flute. I said it was an Indian flute. He said that he had heard plenty of Indian music, and really liked the sitar, tabla and flute. I asked him if he wanted to learn Indian classical music. Why wouldn’t he say yes!
In 15 minutes, I gave him an introduction to Hindustani classical music and explained 3 ragas. He had studied music using the Do Re Mi notation, so I translated Hindustani theory into that notation. I had a pen and spare paper on which I wrote notes for him. His face lit up at the sound of every new raga I played. It was as if he had heard them previously but this time he was getting what was going on and he could now go back and recreate it on his instruments.
I’m not a great player or musician, but I can explain well whatever little I know. I had just condensed Hindustani music into half a piece of paper — which would be blasphemy if it weren’t for the happiness he felt.
He picked it all up beautifully. At the end of the fifteenth minute, he played Hamsadhwani on the Indian flute. That was the best moment of my trip.
I wished I could join his group to play music, but he had to work late and I had to take the bus to Cancun. Bummer.
Before leaving, I asked him to send his address in Italy so I could mail him an Indian flute.
Weeks later in an e-mail reply, I learnt that his name was Guiseppe.
This was yet another incident which made me want to travel without money. No one could tell I was from the first-world if it weren’t for my gadgets — except the camera, everything else belongs to the company. I own none of it. I don’t even travel like a rich kid or a first-world traveller: I try to stay in hostels or dingy rooms, sleep at airports and travel in buses. Not to save money, but to try and stay close to the locals and the kind of people I travel to meet. In a way, I try to get the best of both worlds when I travel: Use some money to get to places where I then travel like a backpacker.
But traveling without money and earning a living is an experience world apart. I always knew that someday I had to travel by letting go of money, and I’ll owe it to people like Aleksander in Ladakh and Guiseppe when I finally take that route.
How, why, when: Inshahallah soon.
Looking back, all this took place just because I said Hi to Marco on the flight.
The next day was a tour to Chichen Itza. A minibus was to pick me up at 8. I was running out of fresh clothes to wear, so I woke up at 6, washed the used clothes, scattered them all over the room and left the rest to Cancun’s hot weather.
On the bus to Chichen Itza, the first stopover was at a sinkhole. Eastern Mexico has almost no lakes or rivers. The only sources of fresh water are sinkholes (think of them as huge, natural wells). After lunch on the way, we reached Chichen Itza. The group was split into English speakers and Espaniol speakers.
This was where the fun began. The guide for English speakers was an elderly man named Hugo. While we were walking towards Chitchen Itza from the main entrance, he gave us an introduction to the Mayan history. I wasn’t paying much attention, until I heard the words ‘and they also invented zero’ pass by.
As it turns out, we *think* Indians invented the zero. It was actually the Mayans. I was in half a mind to forward his contact to some of my favorite right-wing bloggers and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti. Edit: As it turns out, he was partially right.
At the next stop, he spoke about the social structure of Mayans.
‘Mayans had different social classes, such as elites, warriors, common people .. It was like a caste system,’ and pointing towards me, ‘just like it is in Hinduism.’
He had figured out I was Indian, he had figured out I was Hindu, he knew much about Hinduism and he was doing his bit to spread awareness about Hinduism. Nice guy.
Hugo was also a Mayan apologetic. The ‘English speakers’ group was code European and American tourists. They grossed out whenever Hugo mentioned Mayan rituals which would invariably reveal something gross the Mayans did, such as after games the losing captain would be sacrificed, kings would have their sons’ foreheads pressed by wooden planks to grow long foreheads, and so on. Each time a lady in the group cringed at something dickish the Mayans did, Hugo’s reply was, ‘But this used to happen in all ancient civilizations across the world’.
Chichen Itza has far too many hawkers. Keen to grab my attention, I heard some Namastes greet me. And among the stone artifacts being sold, I saw a dildo made of a special stone. Not exaggerating.
As for Chizhen Itza itself, it is a beautiful structure with superb acoustics. I’m not sure if those acoustic quirks were designed, but if they were: brilliant! Snakes and eagles were sacred to Mayans. Clapping at the base of the stairs causes an echo that sounds like an eagles call.
This was my last day at Cancun. I had an evening flight back to Mexico City so I had until afternoon to visit Isla Mujeres (pronounced Is-laa Moo-ghe-res). I woke up to yet another hot day, left my baggage at the hotel front desk and took directions to the ferry. A shared van (not unlike the six-seaters of Pune) dropped me at the ferry, and a boat took me to the island an hour later.
The ambience on the boat was calming. Light blue sky, dark blue water, light winds and live Spanish music.
Isla Mujeres is a small island 7 kms long and half a kilometer wide with a coastal road that circles the island. Tourists rent golf carts, cars or scooters by the hour or day to commute. I rented a Scooty-ish vehicle and discovered I hadn’t lost my touch at all. Touch for Punekars — as Pu La would’ve said — does not mean just being able to ride a two-wheeler. It means being able to speed and cut across other vehicles. It is an art, some say.
I stopped at a few attractions on my way: a sea-turle farm, a light house, some Mayan ruins and a beach. After I was done, I still had 2 hours before I had to leave. So I made another trip around the island. And another.
Back at Cancun, I picked up my luggage from the hotel and took the the next bus for the airport.
At boarding time when I was walking towards the flight, someone tapped my shoulder and said ‘Hey!!’.
I turned around to see a huge guy about my age. He was clearly happy to see me (judging by his face, nothing else). I was confused as I had never seen him before. I hadn’t even seen anyone close to him. Just when I was wondering if this was a con, another guy of the same size caught up with us, saw me and said ‘Hey!!!! It’s you again!’.
This couldn’t be a con. If it was one, it was be the stupidest con ever because I was around airport security.
I had an amused look for a couple of seconds. I said, ‘I’m very sorry but I don’t remember you. Do I know you by any chance?’
‘We’re the photograph guys!’
When I travel, I offer to take photographs whenever I see a member of a group taking a photograph of the rest of group. Think about it: Our most memorable photographs of any trip are of the entire group together.
Rewind to the Mayan ruins at Tulum. I happened to walk in on those two guys in their intimate moment. By intimate, I mean they were taking snaps of each other. I offered to take a photograph.
I ran into them again after 10 mins. They were doing the same thing again. I offered to take a photograph again.
That became our thing.
For the rest of the flight I had company.
I reached Mexico City late at night and my hotel at midnight. For the price I paid, I was expecting another dingy hotel like the one at Cancun. The hotel turned out to be a 4-star hotel at the financial center of Mexico City. The comfort of the hotel and continuous travelling made me want to stay in for the remaining two days and reconsider the rest of my plans.
But that wouldn’t be me.
Next part here.