Category Archives: General

Cancún – Day Six – Tolum

It's a Tilley.

It’s a Tilley.

Today was effectively our last day in Mexico.  Tomorrow we’re up before 5:00AM to catch the shuttle for our flight home.

This morning’s trip to Tolum wasn’t particularly early, so we had the opportunity to grab breakfast before we left.  It’s a pity they don’t serve the spaghetti with meat sauce for breakfast. Our plan meant we’d miss lunch at the hotel and we had dinner reservations at the steakhouse.  The time for spaghetti had passed.

Tolum was about 2 hours away by bus.  This tour promised to be sans the multiple hard-sell tourism stops.  We bus up, 1 hour guided tour, 1 hour free time, we bus back:  That’s how I like it.

The weather so far, apart from the rainy day, has been quite nice. It’s warm, but, I’m used to that, and there’s a constant sea breeze cooling things down here in the hotel zone.  As we departed on the bus, the tour guide let us know it was 98ºF at Tolum today.  That surprised me because, unlike Chichén Itzá, Tolum is on the coast.  98º is tolerable, assuming it isn’t humid, which, of course, it is.

As we approached Tolum, the sales pitch began:  “We’ll be stopping outside the park, where there will be some vendors.  Normally using the bathrooms cost money, but I will give you a ticket, so your first trip is free.  As long as you have your bus sticker, they’ll let you back in later without paying.  We will also stop so you can try some local tequila, absolutely free.  It is made here in the region.  Also, while everyone is using the bathrooms and tasting the tequila, you might wish to buy some souvenirs to take home with you.  If you do, please consider purchasing souvenirs made here in the Yucatan, by the local Mayan people…” and it went on describing exactly the same things we’d been encouraged to buy on the Chichén Itzá tour.

There’s a brand of hat, known as a Tilley Endurable.  It’s a hat famed (at least in their own marketing campaigns) as being virtually indestructible.  I remember quite vividly from my childhood seeing their ads in my dad’s camping magazines and camp directories. The ad retold the story of a man whose Tilley was plucked off his head and eaten by an elephant.  Next day, he retrieved it from the dung pile, washed it and still had the hat many years later.  Apparently, that happened more than once.

I bought my Tilley in California, immediately after my disastrous battle with the Gorn (read: heat exhaustion) at the Vasquez Rocks.  I felt I had reached an age where a floppy, sun-protecting hat was in order as I never wanted to experience that again and you never know when you might need to distract a hungry elephant.

Tilley’s more modern ad campaigns focus on the community of Tilley people meeting around the world and knowing that, “that person must be alright, he/she’s wearing a Tilley.”

It was with that in mind that I happened to spy an elderly gentleman in the front of the bus wearing a Tilley.  I had a brief laugh to myself about perhaps introducing myself, but then quickly reminded myself that I’m basically anti-social and will never approach or talk to a stranger without extreme provocation.

We arrived at the Tolum drop off point, which is essentially a market for souvenirs. (I’m shocked!)  As we queued for the bathroom, someone came up to me from behind and said, “I see you have a Tilley.  Are you from Canada?”  (Tilleys are made in Canada, hence the confusion.)

Yes, it was the old man from the bus.  Apparently he reads the ad copy, too.  Now I too can say that, thousands of miles from home in a far and foreign land, I have experienced the camaraderie and fellowship of world-travelling Tilley wearers.  How odd!

IMG_4099Chichén Itzá is impressive and, particularly around the military parade grounds, the overgrowth of trees in what was once an empty field, has made a beautiful space, but Tolum is on a different order altogether.  It was a walled city, surrounded on three sides with a stone wall and the fourth sits on a cliff facing the sea.  Although the buildings are not as large or elaborate as Chichén Itzá, it is a much more elegant and beautiful location.

The one hour guided tour became a 45 minute stand in one spot and listen, and while we stood there listening, something unpleasant happened.  I started to pass out from the heat and humidity (despite wearing my Tilley!)  At first, I had to crouch down in the shade to make it through the talk, and when it was over, I tried to stand – very unsuccessfully.  I had to find a place in the shade and lie down for a half an hour, drinking almost all the family’s water supply while I recovered.  An embarrassing development, to be sure.

IMG_4050Finally it passed and I was able to get up and gingerly continue our tour of the city, but I wasn’t unhappy when we finally got back to the shops and I bought a Dr Pepper (despite the fact that it was in a can and i’d been warned not to drink from cans unless using a straw) and then got back on the bus to sleep most of the return trip.

We got back to the hotel with just enough time to spend one last afternoon on the beach before we had to get ready for dinner at the hotel steakhouse.  Before dinner, I took James to the buffet so he could get one last plate of spaghetti with meat sauce.  (I had one, too.)

The steak dinner wasn’t bad and for entertainment, they had a mechanical bull from which we periodically got to see people thrown off.

The trip is done.  Tomorrow will be entirely traveling away from Mexico returning home in the early afternoon.

IMG_4065I shall miss this place, but I’m glad most days we got to go out and do things because sitting around the resort all day would have driven me crazy.

One last thought as I go to bed – no one had any tummy trouble this whole trip – until now.  I think I shouldn’t have drank from the Dr. Pepper can without a straw.

Cancún – Day Five – All Inclusive

BeachWe had some decisions to make for Days Five and Six, and we really needed to make them before it got late on Day Four, which we didn’t, so we were stuck with the results of our procrastination.

I wanted to go see both Tolum and Coba.  Tulum being the beautiful Mayan city by the sea. Coba being a less developed site, having not only the tallest remaining pyramid, but also one of the very last you can still climb.

Coba had to be disqualified because it’s almost as long a trip as Chichén Itzá.  Tolum is much closer.

The decision at hand was, what would we do on Days Five and Six, with the knowledge that we had to catch the shuttle to our plan at 5:00AM on Day Seven.  That meant that an exhausting Day Six could be problematic and we decided a day of rest at the hotel enjoying the “all inclusive” amenities might be best.  At the same time, we felt we must go to Tolum before we left and it was too late to schedule it for Day Five.

We opted for the rest on Day Five and Tolum on Day Six.

Our first order of business this morning was to arrange the Tolum trip – hopefully one that wasn’t an all-day dog and pony show like the Chichén Itzá trip was.  We were in luck, the travel agent in the resort had an “express” tour to Tolum that drove directly to Tolum, spent two hours on site – one hour as a guided tour, the other as free time to roam around.  No meals, no stops, no high pressure souvenir sales and back no later than 3:00PM – perfect.

Amazingly, James ran into a friend from school at breakfast.  The friend was going to be in the Kids Club all day and wanted James to join him.  On reflection, perhaps we should have put the kids in the club all day, but instead we held off until after lunch.  Later, dragging them out was difficult, even though the club was closing down.

Instead we waited until after lunch to send them to the club and in the interim we did what anybody would do on a beautiful sunny day at a resort with a beautiful white sand beach on the Caribbean – we sat in our room reading books.  That we might be the most boring people on earth is not without some substantiating evidence.

After lunch and with kids safely in the kids club, Chuwan and I decided to head to the nearby shopping mall.  With the layout of the hotel zone of Cancún, (there is only the one road) it’s almost impossible to get lost, as long as you know north and south, so bus travel is an easy and efficient means of transport.  I packed up my computer and we caught the bus.

Starbucks for wifiSoon, we had found the nearest (only) Starbucks and having ordered some tea I was now in possession of the magic wifi password.  The reason it was important to have wifi is that I wanted to backup all the pictures I had taken on the trip so far.

I spent 45 minutes fighting with a wifi connection so ghastly slow that it couldn’t finish loading the page that you needed to logon to.  Eventually, we gave up.

We were running low on pesos, so we decided to exchange more US currency at proper exchange rates rather than suffer the criminal exchange rates at the stores.  It turns out you have to be carrying your US passports to exchange money, which, of course, were safely locked away in the hotel safe.  It was a lesson learned, but it was too late to go back to the hotel and return to exchange the money.  Similarly, we could have withdrawn money from a bank ATM using our debit cards and gotten the official exchange rate, but Chuwan refused to pay the off-bank service fee, so we went without much money.

We did stop at an OXXO market and grabbed some snacks for tomorrow’s trip to Tolum.

At the beachWe grabbed the kids at afternoon closing time at the kids club and took them to the beach to play in the waves.  I discovered that the water at the beach was so shallow, I would walk out, on sand, over 40 meters and still only be chest high in the water.  Even Michelle could go out that far and keep her feet on the ground and head above water. We played in the water until the life guards ran everyone out at dusk.

Tonight’s fine dining experience was at the French restaurant, which does not allow children.  There was a kids club for the evening, but tonight’s activity was karaoke, and Michelle refused to go just in case they played music by One Direction.

I took the kids for an early dinner and grabbed a plate of spaghetti and meat sauce for myself (I’m getting rather fond of their spaghetti and meat sauce.) just in case I wasn’t impressed with the French food on offer tonight.  After dinner, the kids stayed in the room reading their kindles while Chuwan and I had our date.  The food was fine and the company of my lovely wife was, as always, the highlight of my day.

Surprisingly long update for a day on which we did nothing.

Cancún – Day Four – The Day of the Dolphin

Wifi access here is awful!

The hotel charges outrageous rates for it, and, although AT&T includes free wifi access at AT&T hotspots around the world when one has international data roaming on their phone (which I do, or I’d be completely cut off) there are no such hotspots anywhere to be found in the hotel zone of Cancún.  Also, I have an app called Wifinder, which has a user-populated database of free and pay wifi access points around the world, but that also reveals no free wifi in the area.  There is a Starbucks a few kilometers down the road, perhaps later we can get there, buy an iced tea and use theirs.

That said, today was not about wifi, it was about dolphins.

James had his ninth birthday last week and, since he was very, very little, he has been obsessed with sea life, and particularly dolphins.  Some nights, out of the blue it seems, he’ll ask me, “Can we go swimming with dolphins?”  That’s a tough ask when you live in the desert.

We didn’t originally plan this vacation around dolphins, we planned it around a series of coincidences that made this the moment to go:  Chuwan and the kids both had Spring Break on the same week, which rarely happens and Costco had a deal on an all-inclusive resort that covers children under 12 free.  Michelle turns 12 in June, it was now or never.

When I learned that there were several dolphin encounter places in and around Cancún, the idea that this could be James’ (admittedly expensive) birthday present seemed too perfect to pass up.  After looking at several of the (confusing) web pages for the various dolphin places, we opted for Dolphin Discovery on La Isla Mujeres, a small island off Cancún.

You are ferried onto the island at 9:30AM, have an appointed dolphin encounter time during the day, and then return by ferry at either 3:30 or 5:30PM.  In the interim, they have a food buffet, lockers and use of the facilities, including the pools and beach, plus you can go explore the island on foot or by taxi.

We choose at 10:30 time for the dolphins and opted for one of the lesser packages.  Each package contains certain dolphin activities.  All include a hug and a kiss from a dolphin, but there are other things like belly rides, fin tugs and foot pushes included.  We didn’t pick the top package because I was concerned that, at nine years old, it might not be safe for James to have dolphins come up under his feet and push him out of the water.

At least this morning we had time for breakfast before heading out to the dock.  This time, we took the city bus and that worked fairly well.  Not only do most of the people in Cancún speak passable English, but my several years of Spanish study was beginning to come back to me.

I decided, since we were going to be stuck on an island all day, going in and out of the water, that there was no point in bringing my iPhone with me and only brought my GoPro, even though using your own camera with the dolphins is strictly prohibited.  That decision would come back to mock me later in the day.

When we checked in, they try hard to up-sell you to a different package than the one you already have. The information on their signs in the office is also a lot more concise than their website.  It was much more obvious that the Royal Swim package would be longer, and have more actual human with dolphin interaction. With that package it included the foot push.  So we asked if that was appropriate for a 9-year old.  Of course it was, said they!  (I wonder if it really was?  They’d have said anything for the upsale.) so we decided to upgrade.

What we didn’t count on was that our dolphin time got pushed back to 1:30PM.  Instead of an hour to get situated, changed and ready, we had 4 hours to kill.

On the ferry over to the island, we encountered some prodigious drinkers – four young men, two from Belgium, one from France and one from Australia. They set up a table on the ferry and were competing by downing beers as fast as they could.  I saw them drink at least four each on the 30 minute ride (at 9:30 in the morning.)

When we got in we discovered that, apart from drinking and hanging out at the pool, there wasn’t much to do at Dolphin Discovery while we waited, except use the free wifi! (!!!!!!!!!)  They provided us ample locker space so I could have easily brought my phone and done some picture uploads, but instead we just hung out at the pool.

The kids loved this, and for the first hour, I napped on a deck chair in the shade.  Later I tried the net hammocks.  That was a disaster!  I didn’t fall out (Chuwan did, though) but I can’t see how people can sleep in hammocks and after 45 uncomfortable minutes trying to figure out if there actually was a comfortable position, I gave up and went back to the lawn chairs waiting for the lunch buffet to open at noon.

During this entire time, those four young men had also parked themselves by the pool and were now conducting their drinking game on serious terms, having upped their game to using two hands, one beer in each.  I counted that they each drank at least another 10 beers, before one of them said, “Let’s hold up a bit, I don’t want to be too drunk when we do the dolphins.”

Now, these were somewhere between 8 and 16 ounce plastic cups and quite possible watered-down, but it seemed an impressive amount to me.  I could only imagine that the dolphins would get drunk just breathing in their breath when they kissed them.

The lunch buffet finally opened and we had something to do to kill time.  Yes, it’s official.  I cannot just sit and relax.

James and a Dolphin

Finally, dolphin time arrived and rather than be super excited, James was scared, but he bravely soldiered on.

You’re put into a small group.  In our case, it was just the four of us and two guys from Birmingham (UK)

The dolphin encounter is conducted in a large, fenced off area of the ocean, surrounded by a pier.  You walk down off the pier onto an underwater catwalk attached to the pier.  It was about 3 feet below sea level.  James was mostly submerged walking on it, I was mostly not.

The trainer would, in turn for each person, give us instructions on what the dolphins, America and Athena, would expect from us and how they would react.

Chuwan and a Dolphin

We started with simple activities, where we remained on the catwalk, such as petting, hugging and hissing the dolphins.  At each step of the way, we were instructed to look at the camera that was snapping photos.  Although I was enjoying myself, the photographer had an uncanny ability to catch my facial expression looking unhappy.

After the easy activities,  we began the ones that required a bit of swimming.  Despite a life jacket, the current was strong and you had to fight to stay on-station.

Michelle surfs on DolphinsEveryone enjoyed it, especially James, but I couldn’t help feeling it was a little too assembly-line, running us mechanically from one photo op to the next.

And then there were the dolphins…  I couldn’t help wondering if, when the sun rose each morning, they though to themselves, “Here we go, another day whoring ourselves with the exact same routine for an endless, faceless line of people.”  Much like, I imagine everyone in the tourist industry in Cancún says to themselves each morning.

Eugene and the Dolphins

After the dolphin encounter, it’s pretty much obligatory that you go look at the pictures they took.  You have basically two options: Buy individual pictures for $38USD each (and they took at least eight photos of each person, one or more for each activity) or you can buy all the photos of each person for $58USD each.

There really wasn’t much choice, we bought them all for all four of us.

With the time in the water, getting changed and then purchasing the photos, we missed the 3:30 ferry and had to kill two more hours on the island.  What I wouldn’t have given to have brought my phone!

We grabbed a bit more food at the buffet, which closed at 4:00, and hung out at the pool again, which closed at 5:00 and finally caught the last boat out.

The trip over in the morning takes about 25-30 minutes.  The trip back took over an hour, partially because we had to go to the other side of the island and pick up people there, too.

Sunset on the Day of the DolphinJames cried all the way back.  He wants to go back and do the dolphins again tomorrow.

By the time we were back, the sun had set and there was nothing for us to do but catch the (overpacked) bus back to the resort.

This evening’s fine dining experience was the resort’s Mexican restaurant.  The food was remarkably unremarkable.

Surprisingly tired after a long day mostly spent lying next to the pool.

I’m tired of having to brush my teeth using bottled water!

They provide drinking cups next to the sink, surely that means the water is safe to drink, right?

Cancún – Day Three – Chichén Itzá

Me, in 1978, on some forlorn and forgotten shore of the Gulf of California

Me, in 1978, on some forlorn and forgotten shore of the Gulf of California

In 1978, my father and I took a road/camping excursion down the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. Apart from an earlier border excursion, this was my only trip into Mexico.

In those days, Cabo San Lucas as a tourist destination was still just a gleam in the eye of the Mexican Federal Government, and the whole peninsula was sparsely populated and untouched by much foreign influence. Because we drove down “the back road” by mistake, we went days without seeing another human being. We travelled over roads far too rough for our 4-wheel drive truck. At times, my dad made me get out of the truck and walk behind, just in case the truck tipped over a cliff.

Afterwards, he admitted the trip was a foolhardy adventure and that, had we broken down or had an accident things could have been very bad for us.

I mention it because, when we did encounter people, despite limited understanding (my father’s Spanish was better than mine) the people, as a whole, were kind, helpful and, while not living in the lap of luxury, seemed to be living full, contented lives.

Fast forward now to 2014.

Our tour, which I was increasingly afraid was going to be a miserable failure, was scheduled to pick us up at 7:00AM – the same time breakfast starts – which meant we could either have breakfast, or take the tour. There had been mention of a “continental breakfast” on the tour and, while a continental breakfast should not legally be allowed to be called “breakfast” we felt, with snacks, that it might hold us until lunch near Chichén Itzá, which was a buffet and included in the tour cost.

Tour companies came and went, calling out names and eventually thinning the ever-growing crowd of tourists waiting to be picked up for their tours of the various sights in the area, but ours steadfastly refused to arrive, and as time wore on, I began to check out more reviews, some of which involved people never being picked up (and then fighting futilely to get their money back) or people being put on the wrong bus and getting the wrong tour.

By the time I was done reading I was convinced they were never coming and when they did finally come, 30 minutes late, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go with them!

As with everything here, there seemed to be a lot of faffing about to get things done.  In this case we drove to the north end of the Cancun “7” to disembark, stand in line to check in, to then be put back on a different (nearly identical) bus and head back south.

As we headed southwest, it was evident there was to be no continental breakfast.

The Yucatan peninsula is the result of the dinosaur-killing asteroid strike. What was once ocean floor was lifted up out of the water to become dry land. Geographically, it’s flat and featureless limestone, covered in jungle vegetation. It isn’t what you’d call “scenic.”

It’s hard to say exactly how long the drive is to Chichén Itzá because we certainly didn’t take a direct route. We saw other “sights” along the way to make it interesting.

The first stop was at the border between the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan. This utterly featureless distinction between the states is marked by a gate, a toilet, a three-sided cement building with several men selling tours and police armed with AK-47s. I’m not sure if it was this later thing that was most remarkable or the strange group of men selling tours somewhere right between nowhere and nowhere.

On the trip, our tour guide gave us a lot of information about the Mayan people and the area we were traveling through, he also talked about complete bullshit, such as the obsidian energy stones the Mayan people use for massages. He talked about the Mayan calendar and their “alphabet” – which, if one didn’t think very critically about – could be forgiven for thinking was a one-to-one, letter-to-letter analog to the English alphabet.

The theme for the day was becoming evident: “You will meet many people selling things, but if you want real authentic souvenirs, buy something made by the Mayan people – a calendar, your name in Mayan letters on a silver necklace or these local energy stones.”

Rest Area

The strange little gift shop rest area we were imprisoned in for an hour.

Our second stop was a… I don’t know what to call it… rest area? store? prison? The tour bus was brought into the courtyard and the gate was closed behind us. The passengers were disembarked, then the bus was taken away, leaving us for “40-45 minutes” to look around at local crafts – not surprisingly, these were exactly the sort of thing that had been described to us on the bus as the “correct” type of souvenirs to take home.

We stood around (as there were no chairs) while 45 minutes stretched to almost an hour as they tried to extract every possible bit of cash from the passengers. In the end, it felt like an unsatisfying exchange for both sides. The bus passengers felt we’d wasted a lot of our time and it seemed the local Mayan artisans felt we didn’t buy enough.

And so we went on to Chichén Itzá!

No, no we didn’t.

Next we went to lunch, which was included, except for drinks. Our drinks (3 sodas and bottle of water) were 235 pesos – thats $17!

There’s a game they like to play here, where they try to make you think the price is effectively 100-1, so the unsuspecting tourist might think they’re paying $1.30 USD for a bag of nacho Cheese Doritos when the posted price in pesos is 130. That’s totally wrong, but their pricing of items encourages that misconception.

Many places, however, will take US Dollars without having to exchange them, but most places outside the hotels exchange at rate of 10-1 because it’s “easier” and they do have some expense getting the money changed.  Tourists do find this easier because a 13-1 exchange rate is harder to do on the fly in your head.  If those Doritos are marked in both pesos and dollars, it will usually be like this $130/$13US.  Of course, you should pay in pesos because that’s really only about $9.83US

The rate is really about 13-1, and if you exchange money at a proper money exchanger, or use your credit card, you’ll get the fair daily exchange rate.

It’s still an outrageous price, but you can be prepared by knowing what to expect and by developing a strategy in your head to convert prices.  I found 13-1 to be difficult to do when discussing prices, so I worked out a simple two-step process that approximated the price closely enough that I could grasp the price quickly.  Take any peso price, crop the decimal, then knock a quick 25% off that figure.  That is 100 peso => $10US => $7.50US (Today’s exchange rate says it’s exactly $7.56US)  Remember that rates change and they may not be the same when you’re reading this.

The Ku'ku'ul-ka'an Restaurant

The Ku’ku’ul-ka’an Restaurant, a sad sort of place, waiting desperately for tourists

Lunch was a sad experience. It’s not that the food wasn’t good – it was, especially a local pork dish called cochinita pibil, but the problem was the hollow, soulless desperation that permeated the air. The restaurant was large – bg enough to handle perhaps 200 people, but it was completely empty, waiting for the tour busses.

When we pulled in, they sprang into action, preparing the buffet and cooking the tortillas. We were served by waiters who reminded us, directly, that tips were how they were paid and then we were entertained by some of the saddest, most bored looking dancers ever. Their sole purpose was just to dance with beer bottles on their heads for tips when the busses arrive.

Like most restrooms in Mexico, the toilets also had an attendant. Tipping is expected – a holdover from the ancient times when men’s room attendants handed out clean towels to the guests. Now, they just stand next to the air driers or paper towel dispensers and expect a tip.

Perhaps they understood that the times and technology had passed them by.  The attendant made sure I knew I was to tip him by working the paper towel dispenser while I was washing my hands and then brought me the paper, weighing it down with the tip plate, just to make sure I knew.

The whole little town that the restaurant was in just looked crushingly poor.  This was the face of real life in Mexico away from the resorts.  It was nothing like the small fishing communities I had seen in 1978.

Jumping Girl

I don’t know who this youg lady is, but she happened to be jumping up and down having her picture taken, so I thought, “What the hell, welcome to the Internet!”

Finally on to Chichén Itzá.

In 2007, Chichén Itzá was voted as part of the New7Wonders of the World and it’s a deserving of it’s place on the list. Built somewhere around 750 BCE, this large, ornate city is all sorts of awesome. Alternatively majestic, advanced, unfair and brutal, the mystery of the abandonment of this and some 8,000 other Mayan cities by the 16th century is compounded by the outrageous destruction of all the written Mayan books by the Catholics. The language and culture remain largely lost to us.

El Castillo

The main pyramid known as El Castillo

The Mayan people existed in a class system that divided the rulers from the working people, who were not educated, while the royals, the priests and the astronomers were well-educated. The descendants of the workers still exist as the Mayan people today, but the other classes disappeared with their knowledge.

At least the tour guide didn’t suggest that aliens had taken them back to the stars.

He did spin some mighty tenuous connections with other things, though. Our guide had a tendency to place two or more ideas back to back, such as “This lunar cycle is 10 26 day periods long. 10*26=260.” “In Mayan culture, there are 2 cycles, the sun and the moon.” “There are two types of people, men and women.” “You know what else is 260 days long? That’s the length of a human pregnancy.”

He’d then finish that with, “Do you follow me?”

Yes, I follow you.  You’re horseshitting us.

Head thingI have no doubt that the guide was knowledgeable on the subject, but by using this rhetorical technique to make things more “amazing” than reality warranted, it diminished the experience for me. Perhaps I was the only one that there that really cared about the scholarship. It did make for a great story and since you pay the tour guide in tips afterwards, he has plenty of reason to embellish to entertain the masses.

The snake head

This is the head of the equinox snake. The shadow, which you can see in the lower right undulates up the pyramid on the equinox completing the snake.

There were hundreds of people at the site, but we planned our trip to be today because it wasn’t Thursday. Thursday is the Spring Equinox and the Mayan astronomers and engineers apparently (it’s not documented, just observed) built the pyramid known as El Castillo in such a way that, on the equinoxes, the sun and shadows form the body of a snake slithering down the pyramid. We missed that, of course, by coming today instead of Thursday (or is it Friday?) when we’d get to enjoy that experience with an estimated 35,000 other people there for moment. I can pass on that.

(I say Thursday or Friday because, astronomically, the equinox is on Thursday, but apparently the shadow event happens on Friday. Could it be the Mayan engineers goofed?)

My dad’s and my trip into Mexico in 1978 was a test run for his desire to get down to see the Mayan ruins the next year. That second trip never happened because of how slow and difficult our first trip was, but after I’d moved away from home, sometime in the 1990s, my dad managed to take a driving trip to see Chichén Itzá and the other major sites such as Tolum. Back then, he got the opportunity to climb El Castillo.

In 2004, the Mexican government blocked access to the buildings because people were climbing up to the top, marking graffiti on the walls and shitting in the temple.

What the FUCK people?!

It’s really, really hard for me to have a positive attitude towards humans. I try, I really do, but things like this bugger belief.

After 2-3 hours, we left Chichén Itzá to return to Cancún. Along the way, we stopped at a cenote.

As I mentioned, the Yucatan Peninsula is all flat and monotonous limestone, covered in jungle. Limestone is easily dissolved by water and forms caves, these caves riddle the peninsula and as the roofs collapse in (think sinkhole) they formed what the locals call cenotes. These cenotes are the key to Mayan civilization, for they were filled with fresh water. Like a desert oasis, the cities formed near the cenotes.

The Mayans used them for many things, water, religion and even human sacrifice. Now, tour groups visit them and go swimming in them, which was kind of cool.

We finally got back after 8:30PM, too late for our dinner reservation at the Mexican restaurant, but with enough time to get some dinner at the buffet.  The buffet is limited, but occasionally has good grilled beef or pork and they always seem to have fresh spaghetti in meat sauce.  I’m liking the spaghetti in meat sauce.

Tomorrow we go to swim with the dolphins. I fully expect James to practically poo his pants in excitement but, honestly, I’m not really all that jazzed on the idea. Perhaps as a native desert-dweller I shall never really appreciate water activities.

Still no wifi.  I can’t post these daily blog entries nor upload any substantial pictures from the cameras (other than my iPhone.)

Cancún – Day Two

I need wonder no more, the day played out in… unsatisfactory terms.

I did some research (too little, too late) about the timeshare that we got roped into viewing – having said that, it was too late to back out, but now I knew it was going to be the highest pressure type sales pitch.

Many years ago, Chuwan and I did a timeshare presentation and, although I hated the experience, and didn’t want to spend money on a timeshare, we got some vacation stuff at good prices – you just have to endure the high pressure sales and consider that part of the price.

I rather swore I’d never do it again, but, here we were hurtling down the Mayan Riveria in a taxi that consistently ran 120kph in a 70kph zone. With the jungle on all sides, high humidity smell in the air and the rundown cement dwellings with roller-front facades, you could be completely forgiven for thinking you were in the south of Taiwan. Just to cement that Taiwan feeling, the taxi tried to pass a double-long gas truck that had been clearly signaling that we has moving left and we came within an inch of being run off the road or crushed under the truck. By way of apology, the driver spoke, with an embarrassed laugh, what I’d guess were the only words of English he spoke: “Big truck.”

An iguana running wile at the El Cid resortAt the El Cid, the disappointments began. The first was breakfast. We got picked up before our hotel started serving breakfast. We’d been promised what sounded like we’d be eating at the same buffet as the El Cid’s all-inclusive guests were eating, but we were not. We put in a room with a very limited buffet and got to enjoy breakfast with our salesman eating at the table with us. He made small talk and tried to extract info he could use later from us. He was actually comically bad at it, because by the end of the day he was trying to use that info as part of the pitch and he kept getting it completely wrong. Things like thinking Chuwan was from Korea, or that I sold insurance for a living, for example.

I won’t bore you with the high pressure techniques, but they were exactly like the last timeshare presentation we attended, right down to putting the chair against the table to signal when we’d finished discussing things privately, and the top killer salesman coming out after we’d declined and asking a couple “survey” questions, before attempting to sell us a one-time vacation. After more like 2 hours, we were free to enjoy our perks.

The two perks were purchased at significantly reduced prices were:

  1. What I wanted – the tour to Chichén Itzá
  2. what the kids wanted (only after they heard about it) – spending the day as an all-inclusive guest at the El Cid, which includes the eating, the spa, the kids pool and a trip snorkeling in the shallower reef areas south of Cancún.

I’m not keen on snorkeling, but if I’m going to do it – life vest or not – it’s damn well going to be in shallow water.

The first disappointment, the storm coming in had whiped the ocean into “no swimming” anywhere, and the snorkeling had to be cancelled and we did get our refund, but that also eliminated any use of the El Cid facilities – no food, no pool, no spa – nothing. We got shuttled back to our hotel having had little or no breakfast, no lunch, no swimming, snorkeling or relaxing in the spa – and as we arrived back at the hotel, the storm hit. Chuwan took the kids to the play area where you can check your kids in and abandon them for the day, while I decided to sleep the rainy afternoon away.

A massive clap of thunder outside the window brought me starkly awake. Outside, not a soul could be seen.

Crown Paradise ClubChuwan returned with the kids and we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening watching TV and finally heading to the Italian restaurant for our late supper reservation. It was OK.

The “all-inclusive” resort means that your meals are included as part of the price. There’s a snack bar open from 10PM to 6:00AM, breakfast buffet from 7:30-10:30AM, Lunch buffet from 12:30-4:00PM and dinner buffet open from 7:30PM to 10:00PM, in the interim times there are various places that will make you hamburgers and hot dogs. They also have “fancier” restaurants that are included in the price, but you have to make reservations, at the start of your vacation, to get slots for those.

The Italian option at the Crown Paradise ClubIt was an oddly formal affair, rather like eating in a restaurant 40 years ago, with the curious ceremonies of swapping out the silverware several times during the meal and having various plate swaps during the course of the meal. It very much reminded me of my trip to Mexico back in 1978, where even the most humble of restaurants made a formal production out of the meal.

Into the oddly formal situation, add a table full of drunk college students sitting behind us.

So far, apart from the college kids on the plane, we’ve not really had much encounter with drunken students. There are a few at the resort, but most are apparently elsewhere, and they haven’t been too drunkenly obnoxious. (Really the most obnoxious thing about them so far is that many of them seem to be pushing the boundaries of being pretentious wankers by smoking cigars all around the place. Why hasn’t this disgusting habit died out yet?)

However, this evening was a bit different. About halfway through our meal, about 10 kids were seated at the table behind us. Some of them were a few sheets to the wind. One of them, a young lady, made some comment about some behavior they were doing (I didn’t catch what it was) and they started to call her, “mom” jokingly – mostly. When she walked away to the salad bar, one of them started shouting across the restaurant at her, “Shit! What the fuck, mom! I mean, “What. The. Fuck!”

At least a couple of the other kids at the table tried to shut the asshole up, with a “Shut up! There are little kids at the next table! Are you trying to get us kicked out?”

The way that was phrased, I couldn’t quite tell if they were concerned for the purity of my children’s ears or just worried their own sorry asses might be put outside.

Tuseday, we head to Chichún Itzá – probably. By now I am getting worried. The “tickets” we’ve been given from El Cid, didn’t even have the tour company name on them and a check online revealed more unsatisfied and nasty reviews than nice for El Cid’s choice of tour providers. (Running 6 to 1 against.) I haven’t sleep well worrying that my one chance to get to Chichén Itzá was similarly going to get screwed up.

Cancún – Day One

We started our trip at 6:00AM, for our direct flight to Cancun at 8:30AM.

Even though ASU just ended their Spring Break, there were still obvious college kids on their way to get drunk. Although they only represented about 20 people on the entire flight, somehow we managed to sit amongst them. At first, they were all guys, but just before the doors closed, two college women boarded the plane. You could quite literally feel the excitement in the air from the guys as they boarded. Through chance, it was Michelle and I that sat in the same aisle as them.

None of them were too rowdy during the flight, although several had several little bottles of liquor that they were putting in their cranberry juice. Towards the end of the flight, it was beginning to show, although, I think they held back as the turbulence was rather constant and strong the entire flight.

On the ground in Mexico, we learned our first lesson. We got hijacked by people holding up signs (as we expected) for the charter bus we were expecting. When we inquired, we were taken to the first available agent working an official looking area in the airport, and identified himself as a representative of Mexico tourism… or did he?

At first, he gave us a lot of useful information about exchange rates, where to change currency and where not to, the best use of credit card exchange, how to navigate the bus system and the taxis, who to haggle with and not and then came the info on how to avoid our hotel selling us a timeshare.

The long and short of it is that we’d been caught up in a elaborate come-on for a timeshare sales pitch. There is no way in hell that were going to buy, but, Monday, in exchange for some significant perks, we’re going to a timeshare presentation. Out of the deal, we’re getting a very good rate on a day tour of Chichén Itzá and an afternoon snorkeling in the reef. The reef between Cancún and the Honduras being the second largest in the world.

I’ve yet to decide how I’m going to play them. Straight and honest: “No” or string them (and us) along for a bit just to make it look good, ultimately with a “sorry, but no.”

Afterwards, we went straight to the hotel. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s a lovely hotel. The room is comfortable and adequate. There is one minor thing, though… the rooms are all advertised as having an ocean view. (For those not familiar with the hotel district in Cancun, it’s sometimes called “The seven” because it exists on a narrow band of ground shaped like the number 7, with the ocean to the north and east and a lake on the southwest.) This hotel has been built so that all the rooms face the ocean, but the whole thing becomes a giant wind funnel, channeling all the ocean wind against the curved shaped of the building focusing them with what appears to be near-hurricane force through a small section of the lobby.

Our door to the ocean won’t quite seal, and the wind squeals constantly through it. On the first night, we just left it open – there’s less noise that way.

By the time we got to the hotel, it was quite late in the day,and we hadn’t eaten. We hit the included lunch buffet with less than an hour to spare and it was… filling, if not anything like amazing.

We went to the hotel beach (although, unless things have changed since the last time I was in Mexico, all beaches are actually owned by the government) and the kids played in the waves, despite the red, no swim, flag – I’m unclear, does that mean stay of of the water completely? It wasn’t stopping anyone else as far as I could tell.

James giving a kung-fu kick to the waves of CancúnThe waves were bashing us about like crazy. I’m convinced James will never come in out of the ocean voluntarily, though. He’s constantly going further out, trying to get bigger and bigger waves. Gotta keep a close eye on that boy.

The dinner buffet was better, although basically the same. This time we weren’t rushed, everything was running full swing, and we managed to get some of the freshly cooked beef, pork and pasta. It makes a big difference.

As I write this, at around 4:00AM on Monday morning, it appears the weather forecasts are right. It looked like a storm was coming in last night, and it sounds even more so like it now. The sky is rough and the waves are even bigger. I wonder how this will play out for our timeshare/snorkeling trip tomorrow?

Comfort in Geocaching

A while back I posted my video about my dad’s final request – to have his ashes scattered at one of his favorite viewpoints in the mountains.

My dad was never interested in geocaching, but my wife, kids and I are and we placed a new geocache – the only one we’ve ever placed – in the same general location as where we scattered his ashes. (Back a bit from the cliff edge, though.)

As the “owner” of the cache, I get updates every time someone finds it and I see their comments. They trickle in slowly, like unexpected presents.

So far, all have been appreciative of the view. Somehow it makes me feel good that my dad’s love of that view is being spread to others.

It feels as if he’s still making a positive difference on the living.

Encounter in the Wild (Windows 8)

Even long-term readers of my blog may not be familiar with my background in computers.

I got my first “micro-computer” in 1978 – a TRS-80 at the age of 13. Just like my modern day counterparts, I was obsessive about the computer. I taught myself to program it, taught myself the hardware and spent my time trying to make it do increasingly complex and interesting things.

I sold my first program that same year. It was nothing complex, just a simple stock portfolio tracker, but it was the start of my career.

I had three fields of interest when it came time to go to college. (There was never any doubt I would go to college and even to this day, kids who don’t want to go mystify me.) Ultimately for reasons I won’t expound upon here, I chose computer engineering over paleontology or forestry.

In 1983, while attending Arizona State University, I used a sizable chunk of trust fund to purchase an original IBM PC, with 2 floppy disk drives running IBM DOS 2.0.

It is not an exaggeration to say that I’ve worked with PCs every day of my adult life and while I don’t normally get down to the hardware level anymore, I am a long-time professional.

If you’ve not been living under a rock, you probably know that Microsoft Windows 8 came out recently and it hasn’t met with the greatest of reviews. This isn’t uncommon and you have to take these things with a grain of salt. Yes, I admit, my computer nerdy friends and I have looked at the asinine touch-screen laptops running Windows 8 at Best Buy and Costco and laughed at the once-mighty Windows, but the fact is, I’d not had a chance to actually use Windows 8 until yesterday.

All I had to do was setup a wireless network and a couple wireless printers, but I’ll say that Windows 8 seems to be the most illogical, counter-intuitive bag of hurt I’ve encountered in a long, long time.

Yes, I know that unfamiliarity makes things more obscure, but this isn’t entirely that. How many different places does one operating system need to call “devices” when none seem to contain any devices? (You know, like printers or something) Or how many places can you find that say “settings” or “change my PC’s settings” and still not find things like network settings?

While its certainly within Microsoft’s purview to change the names of things and make them less specific and confusing, I would argue it’s not a good idea to do so.

Did I find what I was looking for? Yes. But I had to force the machine into “Classic” Windows 7 mode where it was easily found on the task bar at the bottom of the screen.

And what’s up with the damned trackpad? I’d be using it to navigate and suddenly it was like a poltergeist was in the machine. I might be scroll right to left and suddenly screens would change or it was hop backwards a page. Irrelevant screens just kept popping up on the screen unbidden.

On another occasion, I popped a CD into the drive and a dialog popped up in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. First time it happened, I looked at it, started to read it and it went away. I could not find a way to get it back without ejecting the disk and putting it back in.

The second time I moved the mouse to the dialog, but it disappeared as my mouse crossed into the dialog box. I managed to click the box on the third try but it went away anyway. It’s completely unclear to me if it was just evil or there’s some trick that the trackpad holds and was playing wonky with me. Fourth time was the charm, but why it didn’t do the same on the third, I haven’t a clue.

Windows has, in general, be getting better over the years – with that minor detour for Windows Vista – but this was like a trip to bizarro world. What the hell are they thinking? Any IT manager would be a fool to implement this on their users, the costs in training and lost productivity would just be wasted money.

Roll on Windows 9.

Foolish Promises

It’s only taken 24 hours and I’ve already realized that my promise to write a blog post every day was a foolish, empty promise at best.

I cannot help but self-censor myself a bit. If I have nothing burning to say, why force myself to say it? Too many people have to speak out just to hear themselves speak. Perhaps it drowns out the sound of the rushing of wind between the ears?

Let’s then explore a related topic: What is the urge that makes me want to promise to write something every day? I have, I feel at times, a compulsive urge to create things.

Not things like new Ikea furniture or a tray of shortbread, but the desire to make things wrought entirely from my own mind. It’s a strange compulsion, seldom accompanied by an actual idea, but with a rather helpless sense of longing. It often strikes me while driving on my way home from work.

I used to get that sense of creation from coding computer programs, although nowadays modern programming languages are more about cobbling together blocks than raw creativity – it rather feels like the Ikea of programming. Perhaps I’m just burned out on it. In my teens and 20s, like so many others, I could spend 20 hours a day fueled by Cheetos and Dr Pepper whilst spewing stream of consciousness programming onto the screen.

Now I feel like I should be doing proper writing. Have I got the great American novel in me? I don’t feel that I do. My taste runs towards rather old-school science fiction. Perhaps if this were the classic days of pulp science fiction, I’d be right at home in good company – cranking out straightforward but ridiculous stories of life on Venus and, with a little luck, turning my ability to produce bullshit into a world-wide, tax-avoiding religion.

Ah, but I can dare to dream!

No. The plots, when they do come to mind, get quickly rejected by being scientifically impossible. It seems entertaining science fiction is dead because of the reality check. Damn you physicists and your “speed of light is inviolable” and “the electronic transmission of matter over a beam is impossible”!

You can only write old-style science fiction nonsense if you’re being quirky and ironic.

But wait! I am quirky and ironic!

There might be some hope yet.

Episode 1215 – Excuses

It’s been long enough, I suppose.

The last post on this blog was over a year ago, concerning the death of my father, and it might appear that I stopped blogging in the wake of that. it just isn’t true. My posting prior to that have become infrequent, at best.

Twitter was killing it. My random thoughts, gripes and moments of my life were being siphoned away into little 140 character nuggets. By the time I felt like writing about something, I felt it was “old news” over on Twitter. If nothing else than an exercise for myself, I am going to force myself to blog something every day for a while. I have lost the art of writing “long form” I think.

I’ll start with a brief summary of what happened in the last year.

My dad is still dead – no surprises there. The rest of us are doing fine, although we’re all coming off some seasonal illness that is either 4 different illnesses or a single illness that manifested itself in four different sets of symptoms. I’m hoping for the latter, otherwise each of us has the likelihood of catching the other three illnesses in the household.

Speaking of dad, it took several months, but we finally honored his final request and scattered his ashes where he wanted. I made a video out of it, which might sound a bit ghoulish, but I found it cathartic.

The kids are doing well in school and are still maintaining straight A’s. Michelle has recently taken up violin, which she begged us for. Practice time is a bit of a chore – more for me than her, though.

You can listen here, if you dare: Violin Lessons, early days

In July we vacationed in California. First for a little while around Los Angeles, then up into the nearby mountains and the town of Wrightwood.

Wrightwood itself wasn’t the object of our trip. Michelle went to her first week-long summer camp at Camp Quest West. Chu-Wan also spent a week at camp as a counselor. I might have done the same, but James was one year too young to attend. Instead, he and I went father-son camping. Much like I used to do with my dad.

Michelle and Chu-Wan had a great time at Camp Quest and we’ll be discussing that more on the blog later.

James and my adventure was very different. We were not at all familiar with the area around the camp, so I relied on the Internet to identify potential campgrounds in the area of the camp. There were four forest service campgrounds, only one of which accepted reservations. I loathe making campground reservations, but because we had to camp in the area, I chose to play it safe.

The one campground that accepted reservations had over 100 sites available – only 2 were unreserved several months early. Apparently the proximity to Los Angeles makes this a popular campground. While the summer camp was in the 6,000ft altitude range, the campground was over 8,000ft. Again, with no experience in the area, I could only guess what July temperatures might be.

On the first day, before I dropped off Chu-Wan and Michelle at camp, we all arrived at the campground. As we pulled up to the reserved spot and got out of the car, I knew why this spot was the last puppy in the shop. It was awful! It had no trees. It was slanted at a 25º angle. The ground was tufty grass with abundant rodent holes in it. The metal table sat in the glaring sun and the whole site was 20 feet downwind of one of the smelliest pit toilets I’ve ever had the misfortune to experience. It was going to be a bad week.

My opinion of the suitability of the spot was confirmed when, as we surveyed the disaster that was the site, the campground hosts pulled up in their truck and said, “You’re not liking your spot very well, are you?”

Chu-Wan escaped sleeping in the tent as she had to be dropped off at camp the night before the session began. Michelle, James and I spent the night listening to the sound of unidentified rodents scurrying under the floor of the tent.

Michelle got dropped off the next day, leaving James and I alone in a packed campground… but not for long.

The campground hosts told me that, come Sunday afternoon, the campground would empty out completely and I was free to move my tent wherever I wanted. True to their word, by the time we returned from dropping off Michelle the campground was a ghost town.

I looked around and considered what a hassle it would be to collapse the tent and re-build it. I decided to limit my move to the nearest suitable site that I could pick up the standing tent and move it to. This was across the road and up a hill. It was a beautiful site, heavily wooded and flat, with hard-packed ground that had seen many a tent. At the back site of the site, you could see west into the valley and in the evening it had beautiful sunsets and twinkling lights from the small towns below. It also had intermittent cell phone coverage, which made it better than the other spot, which was a complete dead zone.

I told the campground hosts where I’d moved to. One of them said, “That’s fine. It’s a lovely spot. A bit windy, though.”

The other said, “Oh, well, it’s not as windy as the ones down on the lower loop.”

“That’s true,” said the first, “those get really windy!”

They had put their finger on the problem: That beautiful view down into the hot desert valley below meant that each night a prevailing wind blew up the canyons all night long. On the first night, the tent was at time whipped around like we were in a storm. I was kept awake most of the night by it and James clung to me in terror.

In the morning, while James was still asleep, I trekked down to the nearest restroom. I also had to trek around the campground a bit because the wind during the night had blown most everything in our camp a hundred yards away. Even the camp chairs had been picked up and sent flying.

While I was out of site of the campsite, I pondered how utterly alone we were. How my only family was at the summer camp, and they also had no cell phone signal. How anyone I knew was 7 hours or more away and no one really knew where we were. I realized how often my dad and I had been in such a similar situation. With my mother and grandparents dead, we camped all over Arizona, alone, without anyone knowing where we were. If something had happened to my dad, I would have been in serious trouble, but that had never occurred to me. I was actually scared. What would James do if I got hurt?

And at that moment, a dense, spiky pine cone, weighing a couple pounds at least, about the size of my head fell out of a tree and missed beaning me on the head by about 4 inches. It put my position clearly in perspective and after James woke up, we spent a good deal of time talking about what to do in the case of emergency. It didn’t change things, of course, but at least I felt like he stood a chance if something happened.

The next night was even worse! I was awoken at about midnight by what I could only assume was a bear trying to rip the tent apart. The whole tent was shaking and the flexible tent poles were being halfway to the ground. Then the rain fly ripped loose and blew off, expose the top of the tent to the night sky. Now the wind was blowing straight into the tent and puffing it out from the inside. One side broke away from the ground and started lifting up. I was only the weight of me on the air mattress that held it on the ground.

When it calmed down a bit, I got out, found the rainfly and put it back in place. The ropes had been torn off and I had to improvise a way to secure it. I figured I’d fix it in the morning.

That was not to be. surveying the damage to the tent revealed that it hadn’t caused the ropes to come loose, the canvas of the tent that secured them was ripped off. The tent stakes hadn’t come out of the group. The web stake loops had been ripped free of the tent.

I made an executive decision: The tent was deposited in the garbage at the campsite and James and I found our way back to greater Los Angeles to stay in a hotel. My first and so far only father-son camping trip had ended in defeat.

The rest of the year has been mostly routine save for one thing: Camp Quest Arizona.

In 2011, several of us came together to form Camp Quest Arizona, a summer camp for the children of atheists like us.

Summer camp with the Boy Scouts was the highlight of my year when I was young, but I have become increasingly disgusted with what they’ve become.

While the Boy Scouts have increasingly come under fire for their exclusion of gays, they discriminate against atheists as well. Atheists and even Scouts who speak out against their exclusionary policies are actively kicked out of the Scouts now.

Today as I write this, the Boy Scouts are expected to reverse their ban on gays due to public outrage. There has been no public outrage of their intolerance towards atheists and no repeal of that ban is forthcoming.

Camp Quest was formed years ago to provide an alternative to scout camps and bible camps, the two prevalent types of “camp by the lake” summer camps in the US. It is open to all children and is not intended to foster atheism, but is instead a place for kids to have fun at camp just like everyone else and to have a place to be with others with similar world views. Camp Quest teaches tolerance of different religious views and provides positive atheist role models for kids who live a world surrounded by people who too often claim that without religion there can be no morality. The weight of history proves that to be nonsense, but it doesn’t stop the people shouting it to the sky.

Currently, I have the privilege to serve as chairman of the board Camp Quest Arizona, the local chapter of Camp Quest. We’re in the thick of preparing for the 2013 camp session this June and it is a massively time-consuming, but rewarding task.

I shall save that for another day, though.