Ruinas and Rediscovery I

 

20160706_162838
The ruins of King Pakal’s palace in Palenque, Mexico

Most people who think they know me will dismiss me as a realistic, unimaginative person for whom the only vacation spot is a museum or an urban monument. I hardly come across as a hopeless romantic who gets lost in nature and believes in mysticism and destiny. But my best friends know I am exactly the kind of person who will fall in love with a person who doesn’t exist, a country I have never been to and ideas that have no place in our society. My own parents don’t know that side of me. Honestly, this is all on me. I am quite the bipolar person. One week I will be focusing on becoming the most powerful woman in the global pharmaceutical scene,working crazy late hours and walking like I always have somewhere to be at. Next week, I’ll be floating around, meditating to Tibetan chants and declaring that I am quitting my PhD to go live in the mountains to channel the vibrations of the cosmos through own subconscious. Honestly, I do not know which side of me is the real me. Traveling, they say, helps you rediscover yourself. Spending time away from the routine lets you seek answers to the questions you did not know you had.

When my parents said they were visiting me for two weeks in summer, I immediately got to looking for places to visit with them. I was aiming for a week-long vacation because if the Gosavi family is left to its own devices for anything longer than fifteen minutes, disputes are sure to ensue. I did not want to travel in the US because one, it’s too expensive, two, I cannot drive and most importantly, the place isn’t romantic enough for me. Canada was my top choice amongst lands undiscovered. I would have loved to get lost in the forests of British Columbia and the shores of Vancouver, but the Canadian Government gave me a foot-long visa form to fill. So unromantic Canada! I turned to another of US’s neighbors. Mexico beckoned me like a temptress with its azure beaches, dense forests and crumbling ruins. As an Indian with limited history and geography knowledge, I did not know there was a Mexico beyond Cancun, Cabo and feuding drug cartels. My parents showed lukewarm interest in going to this country that was so new for us. I took that as a yes and began planning.

My bipolar nature came up again when I did not want to visit the conventional touristy places and yet wanted to online-plan every step of our vacation. Thankfully, I got really cheap flight tickets on a Mexico tourism website. The website looked official enough but the prices were too good to be true. As a rule of thumb, I tend to suspect anything that has improper grammar, be it a website, a restaurant menu or a research paper. I took a leap of faith and booked these really inexpensive flights to the state of Chiapas in the heart of Mexico. None of my friends had ever heard of it, let alone visited it. They all asked me the same question, “How far is it from Cancun?” Chiapas is one of the most economically strained states in Mexico with tourism being its major source of income. The main attraction here are the ruins of Mayan temples hidden in forests. The place is literally packed to the rafters with these damn ruins. My mom, another hopeless romantic, is crazy about the Mayan civilization and has read a lot of books about it. Dad, being immensely proud to finally have a daughter who’s willing to take responsibility, said he’d come anywhere I’d take him. That just looked like more pressure on me. I started learning Spanish using an app. I had learnt the basic language ages ago, but the app was just a formality. Everyone everywhere spoke English anyway, I thought vainly. Life was silently laughing at me, plotting a cruel plan to bring the jarring reality upon me!

20160706_004544
The glittery jewel that is Mexico City at 3 am

After my romantic side had picked the place and booked the impulse flights, my obsessively planning side took over. I made excel sheets of budget, travel times, possible hotels and places to visit. My advisor would be quite mad if he found out I used the time I was supposed to research catalysts to research vacation destinations! I should have known that Chiapas wasn’t the best idea when I couldn’t find hotel and bus websites in English. When I called the hotels up, all I could say was “No hablo Español, Ingles por favor?” with arrogance that the British left behind in India. Thankfully they could always find someone to help me out. When we finally set off to Villahermosa from Chicago, we were the only non-Hispanic people on the flight. Even the flight announcements were in Spanish. It was too late to go back now. An overwhelming sense of panic came over me. I was leading my parents to a vacation in a place where we couldn’t even understand or speak the language. Fortunately, my parents had let go of all their worries and said that we can spend the entire vacation in the hotel if need be.

Our journey was a teardrop shaped one. From Chicago, we flew to Villahermosa via Mexico City. From there to Palenque was ninety-minute long cab journey. Spending three nights in Palenque, we would go to San Cristobal de las Casas for two nights. Driving down to Tuxtla Gutierrez, we were flying back to Chicago via Mexico City. Mexico City looks like a giant glittery colony of a million fireflies even at 3 am. It looked larger than even Mumbai. At the airport, after receiving our Mexican visa, dad and I began what promised to be a week-long power struggle. He wanted to be the team leader for the trip like he had always been before for the last twenty-four years. I had spent months planning this trip and was the only person who could speak Spanish, it made perfect sense for me to lead the vacation. Mom was totally chill with us wanting to lead and did not care as long as she was getting all her meals without moving a hair! We mutually agreed that I would assume the leadership position. At the Mexico City Airport, during flight transfers, my dad held a mini coup and went rogue. He went with all our luggage to a gate where he thought we could check in to our next flight and ended up in the wrong place. That gaffe helped me established my regime even better.

20160706_072443
The beautiful Mexico City Airport with a great view of the city. You could see lovely purple mountains!

The flight to Villahermosa was short and the aircraft was the tiniest, cutest one I’d ever been in. Getting off at the airport, we got an airport cab to Palenque which was about an hour and a half away. The driver spoke no English and he knew we spoke no Spanish, we both kept yapping to each other anyway. The first seventy-five minutes of the journey were smooth on a major state highway between the states of Tabasco and Chiapas. There were beautiful fields on either side of the roads and vendors selling earthenware and plantains. It was uncannily like India, but without the incessant honking. We passed a military check-post at the state boundary and I dramatically hid my purse in case it was the 70s in a drug-cartel TV show again. The armed men did not even give us a glance. In another twenty minutes I’d be sipping piña-coladas by the pool. If only this were ideal life!! We suddenly hit what looked like a mile-long traffic jam with big trucks and busses immobile and all their occupants patiently waiting on the side of the road. I pushed the panic button again when there was no way I could find out what was going wrong. The driver said there was something to do with ‘maestro’ and ‘bloqueo’. ‘What? The drug cartel masters were blocking the roads?’ The paranoid psychotic in me was alive again!

Thankfully the driver did not lose his head like I did and turned the car before we were caught in the jam. He asked around a bit and said he knew another road. This other ‘road’ turned out to be an obscure dirt path between fields and ranches. Five minutes on the road and there was only one more car with us. Just outside a ranch, a group of locals blocked our path with a rope. They demanded a fee to let us pass. I knew this was it. I brought my parents all the way to Mexico to be looted if not killed within two hours of being in the country. We could have gone to Niagara Falls or Washington DC like normal Indian people. But no, I had to be oversmart and now I must pay the price! Our driver gave these people twenty pesos and they let us pass having a good laugh at everyone who was forced to pay this illicit “toll”. The dirt road was endless and I soon lost internet connectivity. Our resort was still two hours away. My piña-colada by the pool were surely warm and watery by now. With dramatic dust clouds rising up from the road, the only live creatures we saw for miles were cows grazing on the ranches. I thought I should pray to these cows as a Hindu to keep us safe and ensure we didn’t die in this journey. But I knew the cows would moo smartly right at me to remind me of all the chili fries and spaghetti Bolognese I ate. My best bet was to try to fall asleep and hope I’ll be alive when I woke up. Dad and mom were much more relaxed about it. They took the whole “karma” stand on the situation and how we are just being “tested”. Hilarious now, the idea appealed a lot me in that stressful condition! After I had finished planning my survival in the ranches of Chiapas, we finally saw our dearest, long-lost state highway. We reached our resort in three pieces, one per person, albeit spiritually stronger. The resort was every bit as exotic as the website had claimed. We got to our cottage, dumped our luggage and headed straight to the pool for piña-coladas!!

But wait, this is just a sixteen hundred-word description of two flights and a drive! Where’s the actual vacation, you ask? Well that’s for another time. Watch this space for more! (I always wanted to say that!)

20160708_153701
A sneak-peak into the actual vacation that was filled to the brim with adventure, breath-taking views and hilarious events.