Learning About Germany in Mexico
Travel is not only about the places you go to, it’s the people that you meet there that make the experience memorable. When I decided to travel Mexico I didn’t know I’d learn so much about Germany.
Yesterday I was about to leave Haina Hostel at the required noon checkout time when
my dorm mate from Germany, Tine, invited me to walk around and explore with her. My bus didn’t leave until 5:45, and I had been dreading waiting the next five hours out in the heat with everything I had sitting on my back, so of course I said yes. I left my backpack in the room with hers and off we went. We cut through a park full of palm trees and benches behind the hostel then entered an open plaza where an acrobatic dance practice was being held. There were colorful carts lined up all around the square, all closed, to our disappointment. We peeked in at a church service under a bamboo ceiling, then decided we should find someplace to eat.
We chose a small open air place with one woman taking orders and one cooking. Meals were a mystery as neither of us could fully comprehend the menu, so we took a guess. Our drinks came in plastic liter bottles so tall the straws fell inside the opening; she tried my horchata and I took a sip of sweet Jamiaca tea. The food was good, if somewhat of a surprise. My “pollo y verduras” was a leg and thigh in a broth, so I don’t know what happened to the vegetables I thought I was getting.
Warming up, we compared lives. Tine had just arrived in Mexico for the first time last night, but she had been to Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama on a previous backpacking trip, always by herself, “but I don’t travel alone. You meet people on the road and they are going the same way, so you go together.” I found this comforting as I was on my first solo trip.
Back in Germany she had been the equivalent of a kindergarten teacher, but she had always dreamed of travel, so a week ago she broke her lease and left. She would be backpacking around Mexico and Central America for the next 3 months-no wonder her pack was so much bigger than mine!
“So you have no home to go back to?” I asked, thinking of how homesick I had been since I arrived.
“No. Well, my parent’s house.” She said and laughed. It wasn’t scary or a big deal to stop her life and “take a sabbatical” for her, although she agreed with me that many people say “I could never do that-I can’t afford it/can’t take time off/etc.” We both agreed that if you want to travel, you find a way, but it seems there are excuses in any culture.
Tine speaks Spanish (as well as English and German) and I found myself relying on her when we needed to communicate, a bad habit that I’ll have to break. She said she was “thinking in Spanish now, so it becomes hard for me to talk to you in English, or even to speak German.” I find this loss of one language in favor of another facinating, but I have felt it myself. When Jason floated away once while scuba diving I wanted to yell “Donde esta mi esposo?” and was first frustrated that we were underwater, then elated that I thought of it in Spanish before I did in English. It is becoming clear to me more and more that if I really want to get along in Mexico I need to speak the language and know what’s going on. There do not seem to be many people in downtown Cancun that speak English, which is fine-it just means I’ll have to work harder.
I told her about my travel plans for the next few weeks, and mentioned that I was worried about having no air conditioning in Palenque. It’s been cool, mostly in the 70s all summer in Iowa so I haven’t gotten used to the heat. Tine said it had been cool in Germany that summer as well, but that most people don’t use air conditioning there, that many offices don’t have it and it’s not a big deal to do without. I told her how American offices are kept so cold that people bring blankets and have space heaters under their desks. Why is that anyway?
As we wandered along the sidewalk we looked into shops full of things we had no room to carry. Tine mentioned the beach a few times but I didn’t realize she meant for us to walk to it until we were too far gone. She seemed to think that it was “right over there” but I knew we were in for a hike. The main “downtown” of Cancun and the Hotel Zone are worlds apart. I bought some sunscreen and applied it, hoping to head off a bad burn on my first day out.
After about an hour and a half walking down the bike path in the sun we finally arrived on Playa las Perlas, one of the few public beaches in the Hotel Zone. Neither of us had brought our swimsuits, so we just waded in the disappointingly warm water. It wasn’t very refreshing, and there was a lot of seaweed and silt, but it was still nice to sit in the sand for a while and smell the salty air. The water was beautiful to look at, greens and blues and dark patches of reef that made me long for my snorkel and mask. I watched the pelicans, seagulls and batman-shaped frigate birds as they swooped overhead, trying to snap pictures for June, my little birdwatcher. We laughed at the para-gliders far above the water, and Tine said she had done it once years ago and had fun “sometimes.”
It was Sunday, so the locals were out at the beach and we speculated on whether they could swim or not. I stopped and thought about this, then told her that my kids all knew how to swim because we paid for lessons every summer. Could families in Mexico afford the luxury of swim lessons? Tine explained that in Germany swimming is taught to all children in school, that everyone learns how to swim so they are safe around water. I found this amazingly smart of them.
The wind cooled and clouds were piling up so we headed back before it could rain on us. To get back to the hostel we decided to skip the hike and take the local bus, which cost 9.5 pesos (less than a dollar.) The distance that had taken so long to walk zoomed past with stops so brief they were more like pauses. I realized we didn’t know where this bus might take us in “el Centro,” and we’d already passed the areas we’d become familiar with. Tine was frowning as well, and we decided we’d better get off before we got too far away. She had brought some maps copied from guidebooks but they weren’t much help. Twice we were given directions by kind strangers but still weren’t sure where we were for about half an hour. What is it with me and getting lost the first time I venture out? It was the first time I had seen Tine look a little nervous, but I wasn’t all that worried since being lost had become something of a habit for me. I told Tine that I always lose weight when I travel and all this extra wandering in circles must be why!
When we found our way back I snuck a quick shower in the hostel even though I was no longer technically a resident. My travel clothes were sweaty and sandy and would have to be stuffed in a bag to wash later, but I didn’t want to get on a bus and stink. Fernando, the manager who had checked me into Haina last night, found me in the kitchen using the wifi to say a quick hello to Jason and the girls on Skype. When he pointed out the missed check-out time I explained that I wasn’t staying, I was just waiting for the 5:45 bus. Feeling guilty I offered to pay for another night, but he kindly said as long as I didn’t mess up the bed I wasn’t causing him any trouble. I finished my last updates, shut down my computer and said goodbye to Tine.
Hopefully she’ll read this and let me know how her travels are going. Having someone to walk around with made me realize that the best way to overcome homesickness is to get out and about in the place you are at, stop missing the people at home long enough to learn about the ones in front of you. Thanks for a great afternoon, Amiga!