Coba

Coba is a ruined Mayan city set in the middle of the jungle. And as is typical of Mexico, there are no safety precautions whatsoever. A phenomenally fun time, in a sort of running with scissors kind of way!

We rolled into Coba on our way back from our Jeep side excursion to Chitzen Itza. Coba is another ancient Mayan city abandoned after the fall of that civilization. It stood directly on a trading route stretching from Chitzen Itza to Tulum. I remember there being several lakes in the region that supported the city. What is important here are not the lakes but the alligators in them. You can walk right up to the alligators. In fact, when we drove in, I saw a young mother and her toddler walking out to a pier on one of those lakes….. perhaps to feed the alligators? No idea.

After paying a fee, we were allowed into the park. The park is a massive network of dirt paths with tons of ruins interspersing them. Even with the minimal amount of archaeology training I have I could tell that the paths were bulldozed to make it easy for tourists to walk from one ‘big ruin’ to the other. The idea here, as it is in much of Mexico, wasn’t to preserve, understand, or learn from the past as it is to make a tourist buck. And that’s a shame. This by no means is limited to only Mexico. Most of the world does this. Remember, you vote with your dollars. Contribute to a dig site and you’ll get science. Visit these tourist traps and you’ll get more tourist traps. I’m pretty guilty of voting the wrong way here myself.

The Coba park is massive and winding. Bikes are offered for rent but we didn’t lease any. We should have as we spent way too much time walking around with sunset coming in.

There are a bunch of great sites in Coba. Basically, this is a collection of massive mound builders. Giant, multi-story towers dot the landscape and you’re allowed to crawl all over them. It’s fantastic! Couple chipped limestone with dense jungle growth and you’ve got scenes from Tomb Raider! It’s hard not to envision yourself being Indiana while climbing up these behemoths or running through the ‘death handball’ courts of the Maya. Remember, this is Mexico! Nothing is off limits!

The best part of Coba is the BIG, BIG, @#$ing BIG mound at the end. You can see some of the pictures I attached. It looks big from the ground but looks can be deceptive. It’s !@#$ing massive!!! You can climb up the temple, but don’t get too close to the sides! There are no guide rails and you will fall hundreds of feet to your doom.

Craziness!

Tulum

Some times I talk about building a resume for life. In short, that means having a bunch of experiences that shape your personality to a calibration that make you a unique and totally ‘you’ you. The set of event that you participate in, when described or set to paper, identify your soul the way a fingerprint marks you to the scene of a crime. This excursion, while short and sweet, was one of those for me.

I can now turn to my family and say ‘Remember that time we went for a swim below the castles and cliffs of the Maya at Tulum on Christmas Day?’ That was pretty awesome.

We took the Adventura Spa Palace tour bus from the hotel in the early morning and set out south. The ruins are not the best preserved in the world – after my training digging in Israel I could tell that some portions were patched up and moved around for tourist convenience. Still, Tulum was one of the first port cities that Spanish travelers (conquistadors, missionaries, explorers – call them what you will) saw of Mayan culture (you know, before they destroyed it). And it is exciting to try to replicate what they saw, and in turn what the Maya saw, hundreds of years ago in your mind’s eye.

The real highlight of Tulum wasn’t so much the ruins but the chance to walk down to the dramatic coastline and swim in the ocean with my family. Beautiful warm water + stunning scenery == good times that I’ll never forget.

After swimming we returned to the bus and were herded like animals to the slaughter to a crafts shop. That’s why I prefer going on my own rather than buses. You control your adventure. Not guides receiving craft shop sale kickbacks.

Xpu-Ha

This is a continuation of my 2008 Mexico Christmas Adventure. You can find a bunch of the other posts in this series in the links below this article.

Palace Resorts has many hotels. The Adventura Spa Palace, where I stayed in 2008, and where my wedding will be in 2010 is but one. It is an adults-only resort; nice for when you want to be away from the little screaming ones.

Xpu-Ha Palace is another Palace resort. It has a jungle theme that you can see in the pictures below. Complete with a full !@#$ing zoo. I mean, where else can you look at a monkey on your right, an alligator on your left, and then go snorkeling in an estuary 20 yards away?

Oh, and everything is of course free with your Bracelet of Power.

Where James Bond Would Vacation

“This is where James Bond would vacation.”

That was my impression of Adventura Spa Palace my first morning there. The sun had just rise. Dawn comes at an earlier time in the Mayan Riviera than it does on the American East Coast. Lucky for me, that meant an hour or two of solitude before my fiance or most other patrons awoke. I made my way from my room (anywhere else it would be called a suite) to the rocky Caribbean shore to collect my thoughts and welcome the morning.

After snapping a few pictures of sunrises in between palm trees in my iPhone and reading a chapter or two I headed for breakfast. The morning meal was a complete extravagance. You walk up to the hostess, show your wristband of power, and are seated in a gracious setting. A waiter comes to take your order, another pulls out your chair, another lays a napkin on your lap, while another asks you if you would like a coffee, some juices, or perhaps a mimosa or a screwdriver or a bloody Mary. Yes! Yes I believe I will have all of these things! It is, after all, just past 8am and I’ve yet to have any kind of alcohol… at least since 5 hours before, that is. My vodka to blood ratio must be getting low.

This is the place James Bond would vacation.

At about this time a waiter informs you about the various cooks they have positioned on the perimeter of the restaurant. Dutiful sentinels looking out, marking that line to ensure you have quite the satisfying breakfast. They can make just about anything you wish. The waiter also mentions the various buffets… as if you hadn’t noticed the glistening tables piled high with all sorts of manner of things the wealthy must eat for breakfast. Fucking phenomenal. And it’s all paid for, courtesy of the Bracelet of Power.

As I finish a breakfast over a few more chapters of my book, my fiance arrives for her breakfast. Can I believe how awesome this place is? Yes, yes I can. Will I stay with her while she eats? Yes, yes I will. And while I’m at it, the hobbit in me demands I have a second breakfast (and then a third when the rest of my family arrives.) Damn, it’s hard work rocking a power bracelet.

This is Cancun

Day 1 Cancun

The flight to Cancun was nothing special. The same kind of boarding you expect from USAir. Just throw in some passport shenanigans for fun-ski. Total travel time is nothing at all. 3 hours for us. Write some notes, read some books, do a crossword puzzle and you’re there. The waiting room for Paradise, though we didn’t know it yet.

We had a layover day in Cancun because the cost of a hotel + a Friday morning flight was significantly less expensive than the Saturday morning version. Ho, Hum, burn another vacation day en Mexico. Que dolor!

Customs was a cinch, much more relaxed than getting back into the States. Negotiating a taxi to the hotel was a supreme pain in the ass but we managed to do it. Next stop, the Mecca of Spring Break – minus the Spring Breakers, of course. A short ride later and we’re at the hotel. It’s nice. The other guests are boorish to put it politely. Drunken mid westerners, Texas bodybuilding lesbians, and all sorts of chatty Mexicans on holiday from the capital of Mexico city. Man this would be a nice place if they all would just shut up and stop acting drunk! Ah well, at least the sun is warm (hey, there’s a snow for the record books back in the U.S. at this point) and we did prove that their drinks do have alcohol in them. The Caribbean sea is an amazing blue – or is that azul? And the sand feels wonderful between my white pasty toes. I’m a million miles away from my job. So what there were no raises this year? I have a job and I’m in Mexico while unemployment is climbing past 10% So far, so good.

It’s time for dinner once the sun sets and we stupidly opt for the buffet. We choose poorly. The buffet sucks. The dinner entertainment is billed as ‘authentic Mexi-Caribbean dance.’ Fuck. If any of these costumes were worn back in the day by real Mayans, then I’m a virginal sacrifice. Can you say ‘exploited indigenous peoples?’ This hotel sure could. While tight, tanned and toned bodies writhe and sway to the syncopated beats echoing from the ‘authentic Mayan synthesizer’ other hotel staff set up a gauntlet of mass-produced (can I say ‘authentic’ again?) tourist souvenir trinkets. Watching a gaggle of 50 and over Ohio-ans stare at the dancer’s hips, I start to get the feeling that everything is for sale here. Did I just sign up for a week of this shit? Still, it’s better than a snowstorm, and I’m lucky to be here.

What I didn’t know at the time was how amazing the next few days were about to become.

We wake up early the next day and catch a taxi back to the airport to meet my brother and his girlfriend. They just took a red eye from Los Angeles to a Mexico City layover to here. And their flight was delayed a few hours. Recounting sitting in a stinking Air Mexico flight on the tarmac in what these world travelers regard as the foulest smelling city in the whole world (yes, that beat out Staten Island by their count), they are in no mood to play. Luckily, Paradise Resorts has arranged for a free, private taxi to take the 4 of us the 90 mins south to Adventura.

Our taxista is a genial older gentleman who lets us practice our Spanish with him. He’s delighted we know so much. Actually, he’s delighted that my brother is damn near fluent in Mexican. Of the 8 or so languages his girlfriend speaks, Spanish in not one of them (so she claims). My fiance and I get along OK with our preschool-level of conversation. For the first time I feel like we are in a different culture, a different country. After getting a refresher course on the language talking about weather, time, and the location of things, the conversation really picks up. For 90 minutes we talk about how life is here, what he does, and where he has lived, and what life is like here.

Driving south away from Cancun and all of it’s Spring Break-iness, the road starts to surprise me. Our iPhone / Google maps show our road in the thickness of an Interstate. The further we get from the smell of late night hook ups, and ‘what happens in Cancun, stays in Cancun’ the more the sites begin to change. There are shops all along the side of the road. Towards the coast you can see some hotels and some, for lack of a better word, I’ll call them villages. On the Western side, you see jungle. Real !@#$ing jungle. And there are people living in it. Crazy.

Once again distance does it’s trick. I’m now a million miles away from ‘authentic Mayan’ dancers and drunk mid westerners (does that mean I’m now 2 million away from work?) and I am loving it. All of our dispositions are greatly enhanced when he tells us we are traveling to paradise in hotel form. By the time we get there it seems all possibilities are open. And indeed, they are, for as we surrender our luggage to the hotel’s foot soldiers, the concierge directs us to check in. We are about to receive the Bracelets of power and all the privileges that come with it. Life is good.

Pre-Flight Beer

Always good to calm your nerves before flying with a pre-flight beer. Unless you’re the pilot, of course.

So, on a beautiful 85 degree day after work I am drinking Spaten, a brew from Munich in anticipation of my September 16 day Germany trip. I’ll be spending over half of that time in Oktoberfest so I thought it appropriate.

Also appropriate would be uploading my photos of some other incredible journeys I have taken. I am starting with my 2008 Israel trip. And, if all goes well, you should see the beer that I drank in the Charlotte airport outside the Delta gate in gallery mode below. If it goes really, really well, you should start to see several posts and galleries on my 2008 Israel trip.

If not, well, at least I still have my Spaten!
Pre Flight Beer

How to Swim One Mile Nonstop

On the flight back from Tel Aviv in the spring of 2008 I decided that for my next adventure I was going to swim 5.25 miles in the ocean. I had no idea how but I knew there were people I could count on to help me through. My own ego and force of will featured prominently in this decision, too. Now April, I had 14 weeks to learn to swim 5.25 miles non-stop in the ocean by mid-July. In pool terms, that is 324 25-meter-pool-lengths or 162 laps. When I made the decision I could do only one without stopping.

One Down, 161 left to Go.
The stroke of choice for long distance swimmers is American Freestyle. In New York where I grew up learning the stroke, it is referred to as ‘crawl.’ For the sake of this blog assume that these terms are interchangeable.

Crawl is difficult. Disconcerting for beginners, your head is in the water so that your face is down. You breathe by rotating on your body axis trying not to get a mouthful of water. This is very difficult if you aren’t what I call ‘swim flexible.’ Also complicating matters is the fact that you can’t really see straight ahead to where you are going – in the pool you must rely on bottom markers to know how close to the wall you are. Finally, crawl is very easy to do if you are efficient and have excellent form. It is exhausting if you are not. The more tired you get, the worse your form providing an asymptotic decline in performance.

Breathing
The first thing I needed to work on was my breathing. After 1 lap of crawl I was panting for air. A decade of bench presses left me muscle bound – not muscular but literally inflexible to stretch well enough to rotate and breath. I practiced stretching constantly. In the pool, out of the pool, morning, noon, and night.

In the ocean I assumed that I would need the ability to breath as well on my right side as well as my left so I would alternate lengths of the pool breathing on my right side with a length breathing on my left. This also forced my to work both my right and left shoulders evenly further helping me strengthen the muscles around the previously torn rotator cuff.

Endurance
5.25 miles is a long, long way. Especially in water when you can do only 1/162 of the distance without stopping. I created an incremental improvement program to get better.

Basic Program
I knew that a mile was 64 lengths of the pool. I was determined that no workout would ever be less than one whole mile. My first sets of workouts were dividing that into 7 sets like I would in the gym. My first 6 sets would be 10 lengths of the pool. Not much but better than 2. At the end of that, I would rest for a bit. The rules were simple, do 10 laps, of any stroke, kick board or not without stopping. I think my first workout took my entire night.

Basic Plus
Once my body adjusted to swimming for a mile a night, every other night, I stepped up the intensity. Breaststroke has always been very easy for me as is sidestroke. I would swim one set with only crawl and breast stroke and the next set after a short rest with the kick board and sidestroke. The focus was on getting as many laps of crawl in as possible.

The Breakthrough
After I knew that I could swim a mile without issue, albeit very slowly, I eliminated all rests between the sets. Now I was doing 64 straight lengths with no stopping. My next step was to eliminate the sidestroke and kick board laps making the entire workout only breaststroke and crawl.

At this point I would alternate every length or every lap of crawl with breaststroke. Eventually I was able to be more consistent with my freestyle numbers. I would swim 1 lap of crawl for every 1 lap of breast, then 2 laps of crawl for every one of breast. I had worked up to 5 crawl laps to every one breast when I decided to go for broke and do 8 laps of crawl – the equivalent of a quarter mile without stopping. I was overjoyed when I realized that I could! I remember the rest of my workout being an absolute joy I was so proud of myself!

After that progress came quickly. A quarter mile of crawl became a half mile of crawl. I would alternate a ‘fast quarter mile’ with a long, slow quarter mile. The night I did a full mile of freestyle without stopping I was criminally insane from the effort and oxygen deprivation but I grinned ear-to-ear! I think I told everyone about my accomplishment that I could reach via cell phone. I slept the sleep of the dead that night.

Back in Black in Blacksburg

Everyone has a place their soul calls home. For some it’s mom’s kitchen with that favorite childhood dish on the stove. Some poor bastards find it in a life’s work. Others find home at a bar, on the links, or in their baby girl’s eyes. Me? My home is nestled a hundred miles away from anything in the Blue Ridge mountains, out where the buses, planes and trains don’t run and I’m on my way. You guessed it, I’m going home to Virginia Tech.

You don’t come to Virginia Tech by accident. It’s 4-plus hours from DC, at least 2 from Charlotte and unless you have a private plane, the closest flight goes out of that massive aerodrome known as Roanoke Regional. Sports commentators have bitched about it for years. No, you have to plan to get to Blacksburg. And a plan I have.

If Blacksburg is a home, the bars and eateries are the individual rooms. And each place has an iconic dish, drink, or atmosphere.

Our first stop is Mike’s. Good old beautiful Mikes. Where the multiple Sam Adams pitchers, cheeseburgers and fries are quick, delicious and cheap. Ahhh… tastes like home! Mikes was decorated once in 1950. And the orange plastic seating, walls resplendent with faded Acropolis prints on the wall. The question is asked ‘Didn’t they used to have a deer’s head in here?’

Food in belly, we head to El Rodeo for their version of liquid evil affectionately known as the Texas Jumbo Margarita. Stating that we had a Texas Jumbo is a lot like the phrase ‘Ms. Peacock in the Lounge with the Revolver.’ I could tell you about the faux-Tex Mex orange/yellow decor or I could just give you the recipe

Texas Jumbo Margarita – Evil Style

  • One huge goblet.
  • One ice cube.
  • 4 ounces Tequilla
  • 1 ounce triple sec
  • 1 ounce mixer.

A trip to Top of the Stairs for a Rail – an unholy combination of cheap, plentiful, and diverse liquors that tastes just awful confirms our collective reservations on this roller coaster of an evening. On to Champs for beer and pool, and Underground for pitchers of Harp and fooseball then end the night with a stromboli from Alpha’s.

Heaven.