Up all Night, Sleep all Day—Playa del Carmen

As far as beaches go, those of the Riviera Maya are hard to beat, but as an anti-all-inclusive gal, I pushed for Russell and I and our friends Coco and Tricia to stay right in the city of Playa del Carmen as opposed to the mega resorts that line the beaches to the north and south.  After weeks of research on Trip Advisor, we set our destination for El Taj Hotel www.eltaj.com, right on the beach and right in town.  I was so excited at the prospect of having the best of all worlds without depending on taxis or buses.  The “condotel” itself was a dream—excellent pools, restaurant (loved the sushi!), condos, drinks, and service.  Also great amenities like gym membership looked like all the makings of a perfect week.  There is nothing like a morning spinning class to erase all guilt about the previous evening’s mojitos and fajitas!

Over the week we had some great daytrips—the first arranged with Alltournative tours www.alltournative.com.   A typical tourist excursion of ziplining and cenote swimming,Cenote Jodi but loads of fun all the same.  I’ve only ever ziplined in Latin America and I like to avoid thinking of the safety of the activity considering being in the land of non-regulation and that just makes it all that much more fun. (Remember I said that when a cable breaks sometime) zip line Russell Another daytrip was down to the beachside village of Akumal—the place of the turtle.  Russell and I made arrangements to dive there, but after the rushed morning dive and bad wave conditions, nausea filled our entire day and the afternoon was spent on dry land trying to recover.  We didn’t even have the will to join our friend Coco doing offshore snorkeling with the sea turtles the area is famous for.  Probably for the best as when Coco sees signs that say things like “Absolutely do not touch the turtles”, he does not think they mean him so he was getting chewed out quite a bit and it was more entertaining to observe this from my beach lounger.

If it were just for our swanky hotel, great days on the beach, Playa 8and fun daytrips, it would have been a trip without event.  However, the problem came at night.  Remember, El Taj is right in town and every evening we walked to Avenida Cinco for dinner, drinks, and shopping/people watching.  Playa 7-2That part was great, however sanitized from real Mexican culture it really is.  What became an issue was the period between midnight and 5 a.m. when the clubs came alive.  These clubs lined the area about 2-3 blocks from our hotel and many of them were open air.  That said, we were rocked to sleep nightly by the lullaby of bass—boom, boom, boom, boom…

Sleep was not an option.  One morning on the balcony outside our room door, a bag mysteriously appeared.  It contained cold beer and three bottles of chilled booze—all still cold!  We never did find out the story behind this abandoned bag, but we did a great job taking care of the contents.  Perhaps a token of apology from one of the DJs?

On the last morning—Easter Sunday, as we were getting ready to leave for the airport it was 8 a.m. and the club music down the street was still pounding.  Surely the club had to be empty, we thought.  Why don’t they shut the “music” (boom, boom, boom…) down?  And so we sent Coco down to check out if anyone was in the club.

It was packed. At 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning.  Easter Sunday morning.  That was our sign to head home.

A new meaning for the phrase: Location, location, location…

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Finding Yourself in Lake Atitlán

During my grad class in Antigua, Guatemala, we headed out on a weekend trip to Lake Atitlán.  This sacred lake of the Mayans is the deepest in Central America at over 1,000 feet and is surrounded by volcanoes.  The only word as you first see it, descending the hill to the town of Panajachel, is breathtaking.  100_0425We settled into cabanas for a night in this hippie town on the shore of the lake before our real destination—San Pedro—the next day.  I was not a huge fan of Panajachel as I felt it was a little “touristy”.  Don’t confuse this to mean Cancún or anything!  I just mean that there were too many English signs for my liking and too many American twenty-somethings sitting on sidewalks “finding themselves” and letting their dreadlocks blow in the wind off the lake.  An enjoyable night was spent walking the town and finding a spot lakeside to sip Gallo, my Guatemalan beer of choice, and watch the sun go down.

Bright and early the next morning our group of Spanish teachers headed down to the pier to jump on a boat that carried us across Lake Atitlán, bound for San Pedro La Laguna.  Just before boarding, I was able to take a couple great shots of the volcanoes across the lake.  It is such a talent of mine to time the clouds just right so it appears that I am experiencing a volcanic eruption.

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Upon arrival to San Pedro, we hiked up the road to where our coordinator had booked our rooms for the night.  After staying in the adorable cabanas in Panajachel, we figured we would have more of the same in San Pedro.  Not quite.  We came upon a rundown place a few blocks up the hill and all looked at each other when the coordinator said this was it.  As my friends and I went into our room, we were in disbelief.  It was by far the worst room I had ever been in—dark, a non-secure door, and the bathroom was the worst with no toilet seat and no door!  I tried to compose myself by thinking, “calm down—this is an adventure and only one night,” but after congregating with the other teachers over lunch in the same rundown area, we started to get leery of San Pedro and decided to return to the hotel and revolt against our excursion coordinator.

Luckily for us, the revolt was a success and we threw our luggage into the back of a pickup truck and all piled in and we were off to another section of San Pedro, which despite its roughness, 100_0467became known as “the nice part of San Pedro”.  There our coordinator found us rooms at a lovely little inn for $15 a night, making me wonder what the other rooms had cost.

Once we got the room situation under control, we continued on with our plan, which was to walk to a neighboring village and visit a cooperative of women weavers. 100_0459 These women were amazing and showed us how they made all their own dyes from plants and were responsible for making and selling all of their work, enabling the women to support themselves.  It was a fantastic idea and we all left with many purchases.  I still use my cloth napkins made by Nacha (on the right).

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I really don’t know how it happened, but as we were leaving the weavers, a pickup truck appeared and we were told it was going to drive us back to San Pedro.  We were having the real Latin American experience!  Standing in the back of a pickup truck TWICE in one day!  All I needed was a machine gun and I could have been mistaken for a local.  My favorite part of that ride, not counting the curves and hard braking, was when our driver made a turn instead of following the way we had walked from our hotel.  All I can say is What a bunch of teachers!  We started banging on the roof to get his attention—yes, that’s right, we teachers who had been in San Pedro all of three hours were telling this man who lived there how to get back to town.  Nice.  Luckily for us, he did not kick us all out of the truck, but rather yelled out that this was a different way back.  Satisfied, we shut up for the rest of the ride and enjoyed our trip through the side roads. 100_0452

That night we went out to dinner and more Gallos in the nice part of San Pedro.  After dinner and using the worst bathroom I’ve seen in all my travels, we joined up with some younger teachers from our group that had befriended some locals and some hippies at the bar next door.  I began to suspect their new friends had had more than Gallos judging from the herbal scent of them so it was easy to decline the offer when they started talking about some festival in the next village that we would get to by boat.  No gracias.  I was too old for that kind of adventure and I only wanted to make my way back to my luxury $15 room.

If you ever decide to go off and “find yourself”, Lake Atitlán seems like the place to do it.  And if you get lost on the way to yourself, maybe some teachers will tell you where to go.

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Just Looking for Trouble in Chicago

What could be more fun than a girls shopping trip to Chicago?  Turns out, almost anything else! Chicago 2

We had been so excited about the trip, not just for the shopping, but hanging out on Michigan Avenue, going to swanky bars, and getting our city-look on.  Being from a town of 2,000 doesn’t make my friends and me immune to fashion but we decided to really step it up and even went shopping before the shopping trip for our “Chicago outfits”.  Oh, we were something else, all put together when we walked out of the Omni Hotel where we were staying.  Maybe you are thinking it was all in our minds, but I’ll have you know that the homeless man near the door agreed as he said to us, in his deepest Louis Armstrong voice, “You girls are finer than Charlie’s Angels!”  And so began our trip…..Chicago 3

The glam continued as we wandered through the shops of the Magnificent Mile leaving credit card debt in our wake.  After we had exhausted our shopping the first day, we ended with cocktails at the lounge of the Peninsula Hotel.  A girl has no choice but to act classy sipping her $14 drink.  Oh yes, Chicago, here we are.  I was so classy I put the coaster in my purse for a souvenir. Chicago 4

The next day one of my friends had her heart set on going to Pottery Barn Kids, which was not on Michigan Ave so we took a short cab ride to North Avenue.  After PBK, we perused the surrounding stores of Crate & Barrel and then Banana Republic.  I just love Banana Republic and their clothes and as wrapped up in the Chicago feeling as I was, became smitten with a pair of $89 jeans.  At the time, they were the most expensive pair of jeans I had bought and I hemmed and hawed over them until I was finally talked into it by my friends.  I mean, really—wouldn’t those jeans be great with the rest of my “Chicago outfits”?  And so I strutted out of that store proudly toting my BR bag with trophy jeans in one hand and a Crate & Barrel bag with placemats in the other.  Look at me now!

And then things got ugly.

I don’t know whose idea it was, but someone said while we were on North Avenue, “Hey look, there is the John Hancock Building.  We aren’t far from Michigan Avenue.  Let’s just start walking that way and get a cab in awhile.”  And so we strolled ahead, shopping bags in hand, down Clybourn Avenue.  As we walked further down the street, we noticed fewer and fewer cars going by and began to comment that getting a cab was harder than we thought.  With dusk now beginning to settle in, we were starting to regret not taking a cab back on North Ave.  And then my friend Tricia said, “I think those buildings are the projects.”  WHAT???  I looked to my right and had to agree with her.  At the door of one of the buildings was a sea of young men in puffy coats.

I gulped, thinking what we must look like, three women in their “Chicago outfits” toting shopping bags strolling through the projects.  I noticed one of the puffy jackets coming toward us.   I began to panic, comforting myself with the idea that I only had to outrun my two friends and I’d be safe.  About a block ahead was an intersection where I saw the first sign of traffic so we all broke into a jog toward the corner when we saw a taxi coming.  The jog became a run and with arms waving and bags ripping we hailed a cab.  “Hurry up, get in”, the driver shouted as we piled in and he took off.  While we were freaking out in the backseat, he asked, “Why were you girls walking in this neighborhood?”  I told him we didn’t even know where we were and shocked, he looked at me in the rearview mirror and said, “You just walked through Cabrini Green.”

I remembered hearing of this neighborhood years earlier and knowing it was associated with crime, murder, and other awful things, never thinking it would affect my sweet, little life.  I thought wrong.  We were so relieved to be back on Michigan Avenue and after dropping our bags at the hotel, we went to Sak’s Fifth Avenue and just stood in the middle of the store, giving thanks for making it back to the “Fabulous (Tourists’) Chicago”.  Chicago 1

We made a vow to not tell our husbands what happened, but within eight hours, we all broke and confessed to them.  Let’s just say I have been back to Chicago since, but not without Russell.