Saturday, October 16, 2010

Exploring ancient civilizations in Mexico

It was with more than a little trepidation that I flew in to Mexico City. Many travellers had warned me of the dangers of this massive city, and to be careful as a girl on my own. But, as usual, the travellers cautions were overzealous and my experience of this city was a great one. My hostel had told me not to pay more than 127 pesos for a cab from the airport (about ten bucks), so I approached a registered taxi and asked the price: 200 pesos. I don't think so. I persuaded him down to 120, being the savvy and stingy backpacker I was and we were off. The driver was a happy little man who spoke no English and whose mouth looked like someone had grabbed a handful of teeth and just stuck them in his mouth wherever they wanted. My hostel was amazing and new, not the dive that I had been anticipating and the people really friendly. I was sharing a room with a Mexican lady who gave me her email when I left so that I could stay with her next time I was in Mexico. So where were all these lowly bag snatchers, kidnappers and drug dealers I had been led to believe were waiting to get me on every corner?

I went for a walk and went past what I thought was a church. I took a few photos before the security guard let me in to see it was a library. A really cool library. Every inch of the place was painted with brightly coloured murals and a spiral staircase led up to a cool view. I was getting a bit uncomfortable being alone in a deserted library with an old security guard who spoke no English so I thanked him and he tried to kiss me as I left. I sort of backed away and said "No." and he said "No?" "No." I'm pretty sure that translates in any language. Nice try buddy. I got outta there quick sticks and walked down to the main plaza where it must have been family day, because everyone was out with their kids flying these inflatable crayon shaped balloons and there were some guys playing mariachi music on guitars and a cute little market. There were guys with feather headresses burning incense and calling themselves shamans and one guy with dreads stopped me to talk about surfing in Australia. I was loving Mexico City. My first day certainly put my mind at ease.

So I wandered around the city the next day, taking in the sights. I caught the metro which is obviously not the done thing with tourists (well, the little tourists that are there... they must have been scaremongered off) as people were staring openly at me. Every now and then someone would hop onto the train to sell anything from CDs to chocolate to leather wallets. The CD guys were the funniest because they walk around with a big speaker on their backs. I went to the Anthropological Museum which is probably one of the best museums I have been to on my whole trip, as it went through human civilization from monkeys through to the Mayans and the Aztecs. Then I hit a few artisan markets which were in the dodgy areas, but found some pretty cool stuff. All in all, I found Mexico City to be very friendly and efficient; people were always ready to help me with translating Spanish or to find where I was going. Although, every day on the front page of the newspapers these guys were selling at the metro stations, there would be an extremely graphic picture of a dead bloody body lying in some street. So I guess there are dangerous things going on somewhere in that big city.

My last night I went to Garibaldi Plaza where all these old guys dress up in their mariachi costumes complete with boots and hat and play music for anyone who gives them a bit of money. You can request whatever song you want... a lot of couples would go here to be serenaded. It's kinda cute... these guys all walk around like celebrities with their greased back hair and cowboy-like outfits with big double basses or mini guitars strapped to their backs.. "Mariachi?" they ask you with a big grin. It was a great way to finish my time in the city. I then caught the bus to Palenque in the south, for what I thought would be a 13 hour journey. It ended up taking 22 hours because of all the flooding happening around the Gulf of Mexico. Needless to say, we were all pretty relieved to get off the bus at 2pm the next day and me and a couple from Australia and NZ booked into a beautiful hostel in a shady jungle area. I had a much needed shower, then we had a few beers, some ping pong and ended up hanging out with the owner of the hostel all night in the terrace restaurant.

The next day we explored the ancient Mayan ruins down the road, which were amazing. Being the off season we almost had the whole place to ourselves and we were able to wander through the temples and pyramids at our leisure. Amazing to think all these stone buildings had been there since about 100 AD. The place was so peaceful and tranquil with butterflies and dragonflies fluttering around our heads, until the silence was broken by some howler monkeys. I don't know if you've ever heard these things, but they are LOUD... they sound like dinosaurs, I felt like I had stepped into Jurassic Park. So we walked through the jungle to some nice waterfalls and had some sandwiches for lunch before hailing a bus back to town.

The busride from Palenque to San Cristobal de las Casas was really cool, although windy. We drove past a lot of cute little villages that didn't even look like they had electricity as we climbed higher and higher in the mountains and ladies with plaited hair walked around in traditional shirts and skirts. When we got to San Cristobal I suddenly found where all the tourists were. This place was crawling with gringoes and pushy ladies trying to sell blankets, shirts, necklaces, anything. They were also wearing traditional clothes. It was a cute little town though, with really brightly coloured buildings, but temperatures were freezing at night.

On the 18 hour bus back to Mexico City where I would be getting my flight to Peru we got stopped so many times by officials looking for anything from drugs to passports; one even woke me up at about 1am to check my passport, but didn't check anyone else on the bus. And one time we all had to actually get off the bus as they took out our bags and got a sniffer dog to go through them all. There were three nuns on our bus who looked slightly bemused by the whole situation. The guys in army gear tried their hardest to find something, but they didn't. And so we were off again through cactus studded landscapes with a snow capped mountain in the distance. I had my first successful conversation in Spanish (well, close enough to a conversation) with the taxi driver who took me to the airport. So I said adios to Mexico, one week wasn't long enough, but I had to catch my plane to Peru.

Hasta luego, amigos,

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of...

But before I get onto that, I nearly didn't make it out of Europe. Due to some "Shengan Agreement" or something, you're only supposed to spend a maximum of three months in pretty much the whole of Western Europe. As if three months is enough for the whole of Western Europe! So anyway, because I was there for about six, I was actually an illegal alien, which the really cute guy at Amsterdam customs was quick to point out. What I don't get is that I have had my passport stamped several times travelling within Europe and nobody picked up on this fact until I'm about to leave the continent? So anyway, he was quite nice about it but I had to go to the cold, grey back room and fill out a form like a criminal and he said he was 99% sure they would let me off, but if they don't I can't go back to Europe for five years!

But another day, another continent and I couldn't mull over my illegal status for long as I was flying to New York, New Yoooooooooork. What a buzz. Even the fact that British Airways lost my luggage couldn't get me down, especially since the nice guy on the desk chuckled at my lame jokes and gave me a free toilet bag. I was so excited as we touched down on the tarmac of the city I had seen in so many movies and TV shows; seeing New York is like meeting a famous actor in real life that you have seen in heaps of movies. I was staying in a hostel in Brooklyn, but it was like the trendy part of Brooklyn and reminded me a lot of Fitzroy in Melbourne with lots of vintage stores and cute little cafes. I was pretty spent after my big flight, so I didn't see much on my first day, but I was asked to go in a photo shoot. Yeah, well you know, I always knew I would get discovered in New York. It was just a publicity shoot for the hostel, but I got $60 cash in hand and free red wine all night, easiest money ever!

The next day the sun was shining bright and everything was dandy, so I caught the subway into Times Square and walked around central Manhattan. I smashed all the big sites; Times Square, Central Park, Madison Avenue, 5th Avenue, Broadway, Central Station, Chrysler building, walking past addresses that I had heard muttered to cab drivers in a million movies... "45th and Broadway please". I ran around like a little kid in a huge Lego store full of massive dragons and things made out of Lego, then did... The Empire State Building. I got to the top just as dusk was approaching and despite the paparazzi spectacular, the view was amazing. On the way home I found... Pop Tarts World. Yes, they have a whole store devoted to Pop Tarts! I bought two tasty frosted varieties, then caught the subway home with a big smile on my face. At midnight I went with another Aussie guy to the only Australian pub in New York, and paid $10 for the privilege of watching two football teams end up back where they started, albeit a little more tired. I felt like I was in Australia again for the whole 3 hours. Then I hailed my first cab on the New York sidewalk, with what has to be a record of like 30 seconds. My fame must have been getting around after my photo shoot.

The next night I caught up with a guy Alex who I had met in Croatia previously in my trip. He was out with some friends after a wedding and generously offered to take me along for the ride. The whole night I felt like I was in Sex and the City. We started at a busy little bar near Central Park where they have those hostesses who decide whether or not you can come in and all the guys are wearing suits. Then we caught a cab to an exclusive nightclub where Alex had booked out a private table on the rooftop terrace which had the most AMAZING view of the New York skyline. Mind you, it cost $120 per person for the privelege! A lot of dancing, a lot of drinking followed by a scrumptious slice of New York pizza ended a fantastic night. And the next morning... bagels! Delivered straight to the door of your apartment!

I slept in too late to go to a Gospel church that morning, but it didn't matter, because this is New York and of course they have an afternoon service! Now that's my kinda church. So armed with a really crappy map I jumped aboard a random bus heading towards the part of Brooklyn the church was in. A guy who had lived in New York for 42 years chatted to me on the bus and told me how the place had changed. When I got off, he told me to be careful cos of the neighbourhood and all. It turns out I was the only white person in a black neighbourhood. I had heard there were "black" neighbourhoods in New York but nothing prepared me for how extremely segregated it really was. I was getting stared at like I had just stepped out into a remote village in Africa and there were some pretty mean looking guys walking around. I honestly felt so uncomfortable I hopped on another bus so I didn't have to walk. There were some lovely old ladies dressed in their Sunday best, and they directed me to the Brooklyn Tabernacle.

This place was pumping! They had a choir of at least 150 people, minimal instruments and some fantastic solo singers. In the church body alone there would have been about 1000 people and the music was so moving, I actually had a bit of a tear. I didn't realise how much I missed church until I was in the midst of such an energetic one. The preacher was really good too, wish I could remember his name, but he preached about God commanding us not to worry and to rejoice in him always, even if not in our own circumstances. It was a great experience and even though the place was so big they needed ushers, I felt at home straight away.

There is so much to see in New York it becomes a little overwhelming. The weather turned bad, but this would not stop me from sightseeing! I walked out of my hostel one morning to drizzle, only for it to turn into a veritable deluge just as I was stepping out of the subway to line up in an outdoor queue for Broadway tickets. My ineffective travel umbrella turned inside out, so I was soaked from head to toe, but I got my tickets to Westside Story. One night I was walking through Times Square and there was a Wagner opera showing on the big screens and people were sitting in the rain watching. It was actually really good, I might have to go see an opera one day. That was the idea of course, advertising. I went into Toys R Us, a toystore so big it had its own ferris wheel, life size dinosaur and giant Barbie dollhouse. I also got to saunter into Tiffany's on Fifth Avenue and spend a bit of cash on mum's behalf... I know what Holly Golightly meant when she said in Breakfast at Tiffany's, "It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits..." How could you be sad in Tiffany's with all those sparkly things and the Australian dollar as strong as it is?

On my last day I stupidly rocked up to the ferry port to go see the Statue of Liberty four hours before I had to be on my flight only to find the queue miles long. So I took the cheats way and caught the Staton Island ferry instead... free, no queue and a great view of the lady herself. The only thing was, it took longer than I expected. So I was rushing to the airport for my domestic flight to Miami, got there 45 minutes before the flight only to be told the flight was closed. About five minutes ago. To make matters worse, the staff were unnecessarily rude, and the next flight they put me on was delayed by one and a half hours. So yes, I will name the dodgy airline here for all to see: American Airlines. So that is flight number two I have missed. Well, two out of twelve ain't bad. Actually, that's shocking isn't it?

So I had about three days to spend in Miami. I was staying at a hostel that was party 24/7, house music thumping like a nightclub at all hours and the common room dimly lit like a strippers. But they provided three meals a day for free and one night we even had a free keg. I just spent my time lazing on the beach which was huge and really nice, although you have to ignore the constant hum of planes flying over your head advertising anything from Miami nightclubs to lyposuction clinics. One afternoon I went for a jog along South Beach only to jog past the one and only The Fonz. He was a little more old and grey than last time I saw him on Happy Days, but I am pretty sure it was him. I was sharing a room with two crazy Romanian girls and together we had a few big nights out in Miami, more girls in underwear dancing on poles (not us!), exhorbitant drink prices and thumping house music. All in all, a good time was had by all, but I was ready to move on to my next destination after three nights... Mexico!

xo Meg

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Dortmans take over Oktoberfest!

Beer. That's mainly what this blog is going to be about; German beer and lots of it. But before we get to that, I better talk about Berlin, as that is where I first flew into. Berlin is a strange city and Berliners are even stranger. But I guess that's not such a surprise when you look at the history of the city. It has an alternative/artsy feel about it, everywhere you turn there is technicolour graffiti adorning the grey Soviet-style buildings or some sort of art installation. The first day I got there the sun was disarmingly shining (this tricked me into thinking the weather was always going to be like this...) so I went for a stroll down to the East Side Gallery, which is part of the old Berlin wall and has some of the best "graffiti" in the town, getting political, hippie and abstract all over the place. I also checked out Checkpoint Charlie, which had an exhibition on the history of the Berlin wall. A lot of it was news to me, considering I was 4 years old when the Berlin wall came down. You hear a lot about WWII when you're growing up, but not so much about the aftermath and what happened to Germany and the rest of Europe as a result of everything that went down. I learned even more about this history in the Topography of Terror, an exhibition about how Hitler came to power.

My last few days in Berlin were rainy and grey, and all the depressing history was kinda getting to me, so I caught a bus to rainy Prague instead and spent a few days kicking around this beautiful old city. I met a funny group of Aussie guys and a couple of girls, and we all decided to hit the town and see what Prague nightlife had to offer. The hostel took us to a weird club which was full of weird robotic lights and everything was decorated with scrap metal. It looked kinda cool, but the music was reggae/dub which is okay for a few songs, then it just gets a bit boring. So we legged it to another club called Mecca. This place had girls in leopard skin underwear dancing on podiums and crappy trance music, so us girls went downstairs to where they were playing 80s and 90s music and we totally got the dancefloor going. Then we went back to the hostel and played Uno for a while before sleep got the better of us. The next day the sun finally decided to make an appearance and we went for an adventure to the Prague Castle, which was basically a huge fortress... we were wandering around asking "Where is the castle?" only to be told "Uh, you're in it". Oh. Fantastic views were our reward as we reclined on a grassy patch in a vineyard and took in our bearings. That night Olivia and I went to see Norwegian singer Hanne Hukkelberg, which was a really cool experience, as I have missed seeing good live music. It was one of those surreal experiences where you walk outside after the 2 hour show and go "Oh, I'm in Prague... I kinda forgot for a while there."

So after Prague I caught a bus and train to Munich to meet up with the Dortmans crew for an epic Oktoberfest. Nothing can describe my excitement at arriving at the camping grounds to be greeted by Dan, Kate, Ana, Laura and Kate's friend Coxy. It was great to see some familiar faces again. So in true Dortmans style we had a few beers, which were needed to help us sleep in the arctic overnight temperatures in Munich. I didn't even have a proper sleeping bag, so I curled up in a little ball in layers of thermals, pants and jumpers and had a pretty unrestful night's sleep actually. But it didn't matter. Next morning we all got up at some ungodly hour, had breakfast and put on our most German drindles (actually Sam tells me they are called dirndls... we were calling them drindles the whole time!) and lederhosen for the opening day of the 200th Oktoberfest 2010.

Queues for the showers were phenomonal, so most of us decided to keep our shower tokens (yes, you had to pay one euro for the privelege of 5 minutes of hot water) and go dirty. Then Ana and Kate unveiled a surprise for us all... some yellow and green plastic kazoos. I repeat, some yellow and green plastic kazoos. These were to be our pride and joy for the rest of Oktoberfest, as we played "Guess the tune" and pretty much annoyed anyone else that didn't have a kazoo. After a few steins, we even resorted to communicating only via kazoo ("Uh, sorry Megan could you please kazoo that again, I didn't quite understand..." from Ana).

So we got a shuttle bus into the fest, to be greeted by a fairground complete with ferris wheel and 14 MASSIVE tents. Calling these thing tents is like calling Uluru a pebble. We picked a table outside the biggest tent, the Hofbrau and then waited until midday for the opening of the festival and the tapping of the kegs. We entertained ourselves in true Dortmans style by buying HUGE pretzels (everything is oversized at Oktoberfest) and playing "How many things can you do with a pretzel?" We were getting very creative and cracking ourselves up, and this was before even having any beers. Then at midday a procession of floats holding kegs and lots of people in traditional dress came through the crowd, even little kids were being weened early on as they hung off the floats with fake steins of beer. Parades of brass bands came through playing German songs and some of those German boys looked very cute in their lederhosen. Finally the kegs were ushered into their tents and the man kicked off the festival by tapping the keg, and fountains of golden beer poured into the steins. Beer wenches crowded around the kegs to fill up the dozen steins they held in their Herculean hands (I still have no idea how they hold so many of these... each stein holds one litre of beer!). And the race was on... each table tried to get the attention of any beer wench that came through the door, and I have never seen anyone get so excited over the arrival of beer. The energy was contagious. Many shenanigans ensued until... the big toilet disaster. Unfortunately, the downside of drinking so many beers is that you and every other beer drinker need to go to the toilet a lot. So, silly me, I left it quite late and got to the toilets only to find they were CLOSED. So Ana and I hurried to another tent where the line was majorly long. I viewed the situation and estimated roughly a 30 minute wait... I knew I didn't have that long, I needed to go NOW. So I farewelled Ana who again laughed at my misfortune (she got her comeuppance when she had to squat under a truck later on...mwa haha) and I ran across the road to where I found a Chinese restaurant. These wily entrepeneurs were charging one euro for the use of their toilets, but I swear it was the best euro I ever spent. No line, clean toilet, plenty of toilet paper. Ahhh. You can sometimes take these necessities of life for granted. I heard later there were many girls squatting under trucks and in parks because the toilet situation was so dire, and a few boys at our table even filled a few steins... eeeewwwWWWW!

Day two of Oktoberfest, we were up at 8am ready to do it all again. This time we scored a table inside at the Lowenbrau tent with a couple of other people we met. Our beer wench was a character, always pushing us to buy more beer and showing us how to eat a German sausage. We were seated next to a table of Marios and Luigis with cool handlebar moustaches. This time the drinks started flowing from 10am onwards, and the first one went down like nails. We ordered a German platter to accompany our beer, and this ended up being much more entertaining than it was delicious. Apart from ham, we weren't able to identify anything on the platter, so it became a fun game of "Guess what we're putting in your mouth?" There were some things that resembled dog food (I'm pretty sure they were) some black sausages and other weird looking things. The looks on their faces say it all.

Soon enough, everyone was dancing on tables, shouting "Prost!" and singing along to the German songs, despite not knowing a word of German (cheers being the exception). Beer was everywhere and things were gettin' loose (as Dan would say). Laura was falling asleep on her beer stein, Ana was falling asleep between a guy's crotch and I was ready to never drink another drop of beer in my life. It seems after seven litres in the one weekend I had reached my beer threshold. So we retired after another day of hard work. We had to get some sleep before the DORTMANS ROAD TRIP OF 2010.

We had a bit of trouble with car hire, but after some negotiation, we got two little cars for quite a good price. These were the honourable vestibules which would be carrying us forth to visit more Dortmanses in Holland. For some of us, this was the last stop in a Euro trip of a lifetime. So we piled into the cars and hit the Autobahn, Dan getting our little Ford Focus up to a cool 190 km/h. We made a pitstop where Laura found some fascinating self-cleaning toilets, which she claims were the highlight of her whole trip. Our fantastic navigation skills got us to Dinther in one piece (who needs GPS?) only my navigational skills were pretty dodgy, as I directed us to the wrong house. And Dan only drove on the wrong side of the road once, which is pretty good.

We were greeted by that famous Dortmans hospitality to a fantastic 3 course meal of soup, meat and veg and custard. We were beaming afterwards, after living on a diet of pretzels, beer and German sausages for two days. For once we went to bed without having any beer. We had a great night's sleep before sightseeing around Dinther and Den Bosch the next day. The Dortmans girls, Ilse, Noreen (sorry if I spelt it totally wrong!) and Marlies fed us some Dutch delicacies and then we ran around town before going back to the house for delcious pancakes and a party full of Dortmans. Which meant more beer. The next day Laura and I stuck around to catch up with some rellies on Oma's side. To our amusement, we found one of them riding a bike along the main street of Dinther. His name was Fritz and he was 84. After door knocking all around Dinther to try and find out where he lived, watching him cruise past on a bicycle was the highlight of my day. He had a cheeky grin and gave us a wave while doing a u-turn and nearly getting hit by a car in the process. He looked exactly like Oma and just as healthy.

We also met Oma's younger brother Wim, all of them lived within 5 minutes walking distance in the same town. We probably could have knocked on any door in the cute little town and they could tell us where they lived. Which is pretty much what we did!
Phew! What a long blog. I will have to tell you about New York and Central America another time. Hey, guess what? I will be home in about 5 weeks! Can't wait chicas!
xxoo Megan