December 31st 1981

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Our New Years Eve party in the Zocalo

“Six swans a-swimming”  A thoroughly lazy last day of the year.  To begin with, a late start.  Then we decided to stroll around the town a little, + do some shopping.  This proved to be a mistake – the sun was so fierce + hot that we both managed to obtain pounding headaches, + consequently, become rather ratty with each other.  Most of the time, we do manage to get on fine, tho’ living with each other, on each other, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (etc), does lead to the disquieting situation that we don’t have anything to say to each other.  At which point we’re either just stonily silent, or become very childish, or we bitch.  Anyway, on this occasion I left Val to sit in some shade while I looked for some leather thread – the stuff we’d been searching for.  However, despite trying a shoemaker, I was unsuccessful, so had to return with a couple of Cokes instead.  In Merida they’re relatively cheap – the price really varies across Mexico – so it was a small price to pay for Val’s eternal gratitude.  Later, we treated ourselves to another fruity milk-shake, then took off back to the hotel for siesta…

Later that same day, I emerged from our bed (leaving a sleeping Valerie) + collected our film – which miraculously had been developed on time, + bought Val a bottle of Kahlua for the evening festivities.  She’d awoken to find me missing, so had come out in search of me – successfully.  We bought a bit more shopping, then went back to the hotel to look at the photos. – they were OK, proving that there’s life in our camera yet.  We then showered + went out on the town.  Unsurprisingly, we found nothing going on.  Sat in the Zocalo for a while, drinking brown cows – that Kahlua + milk – + playing the penny whistle.  We then wandered to another square – got someone to take our picture – then returned to the Zocalo + joined a group of gringos there.  Slowly our numbers swelled – Kiwis, Israelis, Germans, a Dane, Americans, Dutch, Canadian, even 2 other Englishers.  Val had recently been lamenting the lack of English company, but these made her change her mind.

There is a fairly extensive history recorded here of us managing to irritate each other, but, as on today’s occasion, we generally managed to get back on track.  I suppose that should be always, since, somewhat miraculously, we are still together.

Another reference to drinking coke – we must have been keeping the company afloat.  But this was before the ready availability of bottled water – except for very expensive, imported French stuff, and the other alternative was to use the disgusting water purification tablets that all travellers carried at that time.

And so to New Years Eve, our first abroad.  And lots of travellers, all cast adrift, coming together for company.  It was, as the photo shows, a relatively sedate affair, but so much better than just being on our own.

December 30th 1981

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“Five go-old rings”  We were really very fortunate.  The train arrived on time, + it seemed at first to be very crowded.  However, we kept on walking thro’ to the very last carriage, + that was much less full – we were able to get a double seat, with a man sleeping on the one opposite.  But then he got out at the very first station, so we were able to stretch out + really sleep relatively well.  We arrived at Merida at about 1, + then set off to check out one of the hotels mentioned in our guide.  When we got there, we found 3 of the people we’d met in Palenque station, plus another guy, all sitting in the lobby – the hotel was full.  So 2 of them deputed themselves to go out + search for another, while the rest of us just sat + sipped Coke. Eventually they returned, to lead us all to Promised Land aka the Hotel Latino.  There we were able to get a room for the 6 of us, at $99 cada uno.  We were: Val + I, an American guy, a Brazilian guy + 2 Dutch girls.  Val + I laid down for a while, + then went out on a shopping spree – well, a small one – especially when we found a Western style supermarket.  Of course, a lot of the shelves were filled up with junk, presumably because they didn’t have a large enough selection of goods to do otherwise – but there was still enough to satisfy us.  Then we returned to the hotel + lazed around.

We ate a light supper – oh, I nearly forgot the highlight of the day, real fruit milkshakes! – then read.  I found an old edition of Time – dedicated to the Royal Wedding!  – so, hungry for news, even old news, I read that.

Now, with a little space at hand, with apologies to Robert Browning, not to mention Clifford T Ward, some Home Thoughts From Abroad.  Really am looking forward to getting home.  Partly because of the excitement of arrival home, even tho’ I recognise that will soon pass – more because of an antipathy to Mexico.  I have to confess I hate the place, as a place.  The people are so rude, so sullen.  Finally, I’ve become very depressed about having to count every penny – not being able to buy a beer, or even a coke, whenever you want – it’s a downer.

We tried to organise things so that we could travel at night, and not have to pay for accommodation, and sometimes, like today, we got lucky, and were able to manage a reasonable night’s sleep.  On other occasions…

One of the advantages of travelling on an established route, and meeting other travellers, is that we were able to share the burden of finding somewhere to eat, stay, whatever.  And our friend Sue (someone we were to meet later in our travels) tells us that her husband was equally avid for any sort of news when away, spending a lot of time and energy tracking down newspapers.  What either of us would have made of today’s permanent connectivity… well, we’d have loved it.  When I travel now, I have access to a daily newspaper, to the BBC.  But there was something a little magical about being totally cut off, and then grabbing a bite of some news story.

And I need to address the Home Thoughts bit (the reference, by the way, is to an old Robert Browning poem, the title then borrowed by a 70s pop singer – just in case you were wondering.)  It is clear that I was feeling the strain of travel, which inevitably lead to thoughts of when it might end.  We have never been back to Mexico, and so I feel it deserves another chance, one in which we have enough money to live and eat rather better.  But then Mexico seems to be a more dangerous place now, and that was one aspect we never encountered (though you only need to do it once.)

December 29th 1981

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The modern statue near Palenque

“Four colley birds”  A great big nothing of a day – but still, we were both in better spirits than recently.  Chiefly, I think, because of the prospect of moving on.  We have both really had our fill of Mexico – +, more particularly, at the latin temperament, the sullenness + general bloody-mindedness.  On, we hope, to other, different places.  Tho’, to be fair, there’s a little more of Mexico yet… on to the Yucatan!

Up very early this morning, not that we knew it till we were up, such being the peril of being watchless.  Passed the morning lazily – coffeeing, showering, slowly getting ourselves together.  It was just too hot to move fast.  When the time came to go into town, we stood by the gate, + were lucky enough to get a ride into Palenque.  We took a picture of a really good statue there, spent 30 mins changing a travellers’ cheque, + then came the low part of the day, when we tried to find a cheap lunch.  Other people tell us all about the glories of the Mexican comida corrida, but we haven’t been able to find it.  However, after much messing around, we finally found a cheapish place to eat – a real pain it was.

Some of the afternoon we spent sitting in the Zocalo, taking it in turns to just sit + recover while the other went off shopping.  Eventually tho’, we raised ourselves from our torpor,and set off to find the bus to take us to the station.  The station turned out to be the dingiest, dirtiest, + really most depressing one we’d yet encountered.  That at least was the first impression.  As time went on, I got more used to the place, + a lot of interesting people turned up, so we were able to pass the time quite pleasantly, talking, + ploughing relentlessly thro’ our books.  We’ve definitely – pretty definitely – made up our minds to go on to Guatemala.  It sounds, from all we hear, friendlier, more interesting, + cheaper.

Apologies, for anyone who loves Mexico, for our somewhat sour response.  A combination of things, I think.  Lack of money played a big part, alongside the disappointment, having anticipated a rasther better life-style.  We just happened to be there when the peso was particularly strong; good for the Mexicans, not so much for us.  And, always looking for the cheapest, we tended to run up against sullen antagonism.

Still without a watch, it seems; I guess the opportunity to get something cheap had not popped up, and, to some extent, we quite enjoyed being free from the constraints of time… except when we had to catch a bus.

But, as you can see, our minds were set on further adventure, and, we hoped, a cheaper way of life.

December 28th 1981

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“Three French hens”  Much surprised, when we arrived at the camp restaurant to take our morning coffee, to learn that it was already nearly 11 o’clock – we had evidently slept better than we’d thought.  Still, it really didn’t matter very much, since we were in no hurry.  The chief result to our disadvantage was that the heat of the day was already upon us, + this made both our walk up the hill to the ruins, + our subsequent viewing of them, a very tiresome business, physically.  Our immediate action, once we’d struggled up there, was to find some shade, + then sit + recover.  Roland + Lisabeth passed by as we were sat there, tho’ they had been virtuous, had started early, + had finished their tour, while we had barely begun.  The ruins were certainly very impressive, in their completeness the best we have yet seen.  It was especially interesting to climb down some wet, slippery steps, to view the tomb of an Indian prince down there.  Fun too, to explore the labyrinthine palace, with its tall central tower (modern?) + underground corridors.  However, the ruins had to compete with the fact that they were the fifth we had seen.  And so, like with mountains, lakes + cities, ruins tend to be just another set of ruins after a time. 

We spent a couple of hours there, + then returned to see if we could fix some food.  We had much more time + light, but still weren’t very successful – it was just so difficult to find any quantity of dry wood.  We were never able to get our fire to flame without fanning it, but still we were able to cook our meal – potatoes + carrots in Oxo gravy, + then coffee – on the smoking embers.  Which made it very annoying when a Dutch guy turned up, cooked an elaborate meal in no time at all on a little portable petrol stove.  By this time, it was dark, + finding that the café was shut, we went to bed, + read for a while by the light of a torch.

Not too much to comment upon.  We had had a sufficiency of ruins by now, but our sense of duty, in completing our self-appointed task to the best of our ability, meant that we diligently walked around each one.


December 27th 1981

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Val at Agua Azul

“Two turtle doves”  We decided to attempt the cooking of our own breakfast this morning, + I walked up to R + L’s cabin to alert them of this fact.  I needn’t have bothered for some considerable time tho’, since our fire-making was not a conspicuous success.  The wood was a little wet, it is true, but even when we managed to acquire some dry, we weren’t able to induce anything even vaguely approaching a blaze.  Roland also succeeded in making himself a pain in the neck.  It does not help, when someone is doing something wrong, to tell them so – they are usually only too well aware of that fact.  And any helpful advice which one is fortunate enough to be able to give should be given with the utmost of tact, otherwise they are likely to serve the very opposite of purposes to that which is intended.  Be that as it may, we did manage both coffee + toast – eventually – so ultimately all was not lost. 

One thing that was lost was the bottom half of Val’s bikini.  Some miscreant, animal or human, had purloined it.    This was a pain, but we still both went in swimming – there was a beautiful spot for diving from there (tho’ I lost my bathing trunks – almost – both times I used it.  Then a period of sunning, then more swimming, + then sitting + sipping a coke while we waited for the bus to Palenque.

Palenque itself seemed rather a nasty, smelly little town, so we weren’t sorry to leave it as soon as possible, pausing only to purchase some groceries for dinner.  We bade farewell to  R + L, then started to walk out towards the ruins, since we’d heard there was a camp-site out there.  The light was beginning to fade as we walked, but fortunately we got a ride, and so weren’t forced to pitch tent in complete darkness.  It was rather too late to find wood tho’ – so for the second time we tried to make a fire, and this time weren’t even a partial success.  Eventually, rather fed up, we gave up, but we were able to cook sardines + then coffee on someone else’s fire.

Cooking over a fire can be a joy; when it works well, and the weather is good, nothing could be finer, for it provides both the means of cooking and a focal point later.  But having to make a fire in order to eat some breakfast is another matter entirely.  Not entirely sure how Val managed without her bikini bottoms; swam in her knickers, I suppose.

December 26th 1981

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Our tent at Agua Azul

“A partridge in a pear tree.”  We’d discovered the day before that the bus left at 8, so Roland volunteered to go down to the station a little early to buy the tickets + try to reserve some seats.  We lesser mortals got ourselves together a little later, + arrived to find rather an annoyed Roland – tho’ why he should be annoyed when we’d only done what we’d said we’d do – saying the bus was full, + he could only save 2 seats.  That was fine tho’ – it wasn’t much more than an hour when some people got out + there was room for all.  I was annoyed with myself a little that I’d left my book in our bag, now safely – we hoped – stowed on top of the bus.  I’m really enjoying “Phineas Finn” – it’s like an escape into an otherworld, infinitely more sane + civilised than the one we’re in.

We got off the bus at the crossroad for Agua Azul, found some shade, + made ourselves a picnic, mostly with the remnants of our Christmas dinner – bread, sausage, biscuits, fruit.  Then the walk to Agua Azul.  It was hot certainly, but only 4 kms, + all downhill, so it really wasn’t too bad.  We were a little disappointed that the place was much more crowded than we’d thought – it was quite the resort.  It cost us 10 pesos to get in, + it was another 35 to camp, tho’ we deferred paying that until we’d seen it better. And it has to be admitted that the place was very beautiful – waterfalls, cascades, pools, with beautiful blue/green water… hence the name.  First off, a couple of cokes, + then we had to check out accommodation.  Val + I pitched our tent, while R + L were able to book themselves a cabin.  To be honest, we weren’t sorry to be separated from them for a while, since there were the beginnings of a personality clash.  A swim came next – the water was beautifully sharp, giving you a sharp rush as you dived in.  But still, just a few minutes was enough, for me at any rate.

In the evening, we found a cheap restaurant – there are only 2, so it didn’t take long – where we ate eggs, beans, + rice, + then played cards.  That was fun – R + L didn’t play cards much, but they were quick to learn.  And then, of course, the usual campers’ early night.

A relatively painless transfer to another place… which was by no means usual.  And I don’t really remember why we decided to stop off at Agua Azul, as it was far more a tourist destination – and not an especially wonderful one – than our usual destination.  Pleasant enough, however, and one can’t spend all one’s time looking for high culture and low prices.  Interesting that we should encounter personality clashes with our fellow travellers, but then, becoming soul-mates with strangers is not very likely.

December 25th 1981

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Christmas dinner!

“On Christmas Day in the morning…”  So this was it, the big one, the day we’d been looking forward to for so long, yet telling ourselves not to look forward to it, since it would be bound to prove a disappointment.  My first event of the day was Val waking me up to wish me Merry Christmas… + then dragging me out of bed.  The hotel had said they would put a call thro’ between 8 + 9, so that was where we trotted.  On the way, Val was telling me about how depressed she was feeling.  She was already missing home for Christmas, + to make things worse, she’d had all sorts of dreams last night in which she’d been rejected.  And then the hotel phone wasn’t working, so she felt even worse by the time we got back, tho’ she cheered a little when I gave her her Christmas sock, with a few little presents.

We went back to bed for a couple of hours, + then all 4 went out to seek breakfast.  We returned to La Olla Podrida, the restaurant we’d had such poor service at before, + tho’ the food was good + cheap, the service was no better.  Afterwards, Val + I returned to the hotel to see about the phone call, but still no luck – their phone still wasn’t working.  Val bought me my Christmas present on the way back – a large machete in a leather sheath.  Unfortunately, it was a little too large, + wouldn’t even fit in our bag, but still…

In the afternoon, we walked around town, taking a couple of pictures, then decided to try to phone one last time.  And this time, we got thro’!  It was a pretty poor line, + we said next to nothing, but still.  The funny thing was, that when making the call, Val said to her mum, “Must go, this is very expensive.”  Then, when we rang off + asked how much it cost, the hotel charged us $20 – we had made a reverse charge call!

So, back to the Casa Margarita, happier + not much poorer.  Following our example, Roland too bought a machete, tho’ of a much more sensible size.  Seeing it, we regretted having rashly purchased one so unwieldy, so we went out + managed to exchange ours for one similar.  We lost money on the deal, but were far happier about it.  Had quite a good Christmas Dinner – bread + sardines, then fresh fruit salad.  That, with cider, beer, + tequila, made for as good a feast as we could expect.

Not the usual family affair, then, but a relatively dismal trek back and forth to the hotel.  And though we did get through – Val would have been even more cast down if we had failed entirely, it was all pretty unsatisfactory, as such rushed calls used to be.

Not sure it would be quite so easy to buy a machete nowadays, but then maybe not.  For all its faults, we always felt safe in Mexico, but that is far from the case nowadays, from what one reads.

This year -2021 – we are not eating sardines for Christmas dinner, however appropriate that might be as a gesture.

December 24th 1981

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San Cristobal market

Such a wonderful bed – I slept like an over-exhausted log.  So that by the time we all emerged – I’ll confess, I was the last – + then found somewhere for coffee, it was already quite late.  We then made some enquiries as to where it might be possible to phone from, + after quite a lot of effort, eventually discovered the Dulceria Santo Domingo, a very strange place. Which as well as serving as long-distance phone centre, also sold clothes, pastries, shoes + Indian crafts.  I couldn’t get thro’ to Mum – there was no reply in England – but Lisabeth rang Switzerland.  It cost $1500 – a severe shock.  It seemed as tho’ Val would be out of luck with her only chance to call home – the only time everyone would be phonable would be Christmas Day, + the shop was shut then.

We all moved on to the market, + had fun wandering round buying goodies for tomorrow, mostly fruit, + then back to the Casa for an hour or two’s rest.  At about 4 or so, out once more.  While the others did some shopping somewhere, I called again, to Bob this time.  Just about took enough time to wish everyone Merry Christmas + find out that Mum had gone to a hotel… + it still cost $700.  Ah well.  Comes but once a year, they say.

The next task was to find a restaurant, + this proved no easy matter since most were shut.  However, eventually found a hotel restaurant which was open, + they seemed to be able to offer a good menu.  In fact, it was pretty good – a Margarita, followed by soup, then salad, then meat, , with a glass of wine, plus a sort of fish salad, then dessert + coffee.  Unfortunately, there was some confusion about whose meal was whose, + what it was, that spoiled things a little.  However, we discovered that Val would be able to phone from there tomorrow.

Then we went to look for the evening’s entertainment.  The only trouble is, there didn’t seem to be any, apart from kids throwing fireworks, + we walked around for ages.  Eventually, we heard the festivities would start later, so Val + I took a nap, and then went out at 11… still nothing.  So we strolled back, + collapsed.  Christmas in Mexico not all it might be.

And so we come to another huge change between those times and now, with the difficulty of making a phone call.  Taken for granted nowadays, of course, though actually the thing a phone seems least valuable for nowadays is as a phone.  Anyway, neither of us had phoned home at all since we had left.  And in Val’s case, the problem was made all the more acute for her family home not having a line.  The only opportunity wold be Christmas Day itself, when all the family would be congregating at her Aunty Mary’s house.  And even then, this had to be sorted in advance, via a hotel or the like.

And Christmas itself was proving extraordinarily dull.  We had envisaged life, colour, energy… but that just reflected our misplaced assumptions about latin culture.  In fact, they seemed to celebrate the same way we did, in our homes, with our families.  Which left itinerants like us out in the cold.

December 23rd 1981

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Dancing folklorico

Thankfully, I was so exhausted that the worst mattress I have ever encountered did not prevent me from getting a good night’s sleep.  Val was less fortunate – she is still ill, + to add injury to injury was plagued by mosquitoes.  However, strolled straight round to the First Class bus terminal, and tho’ it’s true we didn’t get seats for the very first bus which left town, we were able to reserve seats – reserve seats! – on the second, at 11.30.  In the meantime, we passed a civilised morning in a nearby Chemists(?), drinking coffee.  Rather later than I should have done, I trotted off to the bank to change some more money, + because of the slowness of such places – Mexican banks seem to require 3 people to look at a travellers’ cheque before they’ll give you any money, + as for queues… well, I made it back for the bus.

An amazingly comfortable bus it was too – I was almost disappointed the ride wasn’t to be for longer.  Strangely tho’, Val, who is not a good coach traveller at the best of times, felt worse on this bus than she had on far less luxurious ones – she says she felt claustrophobic.

Arrived in San Cristobal at about 1.30, + fortunately met a guy who could give us a recommendation + directions to Casa Margarita, a casa de huespuedes we’d heard of before.  Not too long a walk from the bus station, + then fortunately there was a room for us in the casa.  It was very cheap too – only 70 pesos per person.  First we took advantage of their wonderful hot showers, then the washing was done – 2 especially important jobs for us in particular, having been on the beach for a week.  Later, we went to stroll around a little, + then to eat.  However, because of a monumental cock-up at the restaurant, we didn’t receive our food in time, for at 8 we were going to see some folk dancing.  That was magnificent – such colour, such energy.  A really wonderful show.

Val is still the one who attracts all the mosquitoes – and most other insects actually – which makes her a valuable companion. And she continued to find luxurious buses much worse than cheap ones; somethig to do with the high-backed seats which seem to hem her in. And we finished the day with some culture. Our suspicion is that it was more tourist fodder than authentic folk dancing, but clearly we enjoyed it.

December 22nd 1981

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Something of a random photo, but did (according to the scribble on the back) take place in San Cristobal. Can’t have been the happiest of lions.

Awoke to find the eyes of all upon us – it was only a small station, + they didn’t seem very used to the sight of a couple of gringos bedding down on the floor.  Still, all in all it was a reasonably comfortable night.  And that was just about where our problems began.  We were able to discover that the bus for San Cristobal left at 11.30, but they wouldn’t sell us a ticket and worse the guy there seemed to make no effort  to try to help me understand why not, and it is extremely dispiriting to be sitting in a strange place, + having no idea about what is going on.  Val went out to buy some bread, and she spotted the second-class terminal, so we decided to take a cheap bus to Tehuantepec, + then hopefully find a bus from there.  On the bus we met a couple of exceptionally tall but fairly prattish Germans, heading in the same direction, so it was pleasant to leave asking of questions etc to them, even when, as it turned out, they were about as unsuccessful as we had been.  Eventually, after much sitting around, they went off to find the first class terminal, + returned with the information that there was a bus at 12.30 – the one we’d given up on in Salina Cruz.  Nonetheless, both feeling fairly fed up, we agreed to take it, so wandered over there, for more sitting around + reading.  When  it finally arrived, it was almost full, just room for our German friends… but not for us.  So back to the 2nd class, + more waiting.  My arse was getting extremely sore, + by now I was on to my 3rd book of the day.  I’d finished “The Plumed Serpent”, read “Mother Night” by Kurt Vonnegut, + started “Phineas Finn” by Trollope.

However, the bus rolled in, not too late, + much to our amazement, we got ourselves a double seat.  Very fortunate, since at the next stop the bus absolutely filled up.  Made the acquaintance of a couple of Swiss – Roland + Lisabeth – + settled down for a fairly uncomfortable, tho’ apart from a puncture uneventful, journey.  The bus deposited us in Tuxtla Gutierrez, a town a couple of hours from San Cristobal, + we had to find ourselves a hotel – the bus station was closed, + Val was still ill.  Found a remarkably grotty but thankfully cheap one, so took that.

The usual sort of problem, that will affect all travellers – all budget travellers anyway – when the combination of poor information and bureaucratic nonsense makes it very difficult to get anywhere, though eventually something will resolve itself.  At least, that’s the way it was back then.  I guess mobile phones and all its assorted technology is still going to run up against local circumstances and intransigence from time to time, but at least now you presumably always have something to try.