Sunday, 17 June 2007, Piste, Yucatán
Until now we were thinking that there are roughly four classes in Mexico. The most obvious is a fast growing middle class, which is evident in the great number of rather newish cars clogging the roads, and sparkling new US-style shopping centres springing up on the outskirts of cities. Then there are the few rich, who drive the poshest European cars and send their kids to universities in the US or Europe. These are mostly owners of prosperous businesses or, as an unfortunate aftermath of Spanish colonisation, owners of large farmland holdings. At the bottom of the scale are the obvious poor: mostly farmers who own too little land to produce enough to live on, or the unfortunate, mostly indigenous, people begging in the streets of cities (although, to be fair, there aren't many more than you would find in almost any European city), or the ones risking their lives on the US border trying to illegally reach the golden lands of consumerism.
Then there's a huge working class, who don't get paid much by western standards - around US$50 per week seems to be an average wage (e.g. a construction worker earns around 50-60 Pesos/day). We talked to taxi driver in Campeche, who had just finished his studies as an electronics engineer, and he thought starting wages of 500 Pesos/week were too low to leave his hometown. Yet almost all of the working class seems to make enough to live on. Some with the help of working spouses and the pension of their parents (parents tend to live in the same household, and lately the state is actually paying a small pension to over 64s) are well enough off to afford a few of the desirable goods of the middle class, but they wouldn't be able to pay prices we have found: hotel rooms for 450 to well over 1000 Pesos for one night, a better dinner at a restaurant can cost 250-400 Pesos for 2 people including drinks, etc. These are the discrepancies one can't understand.
Now, since arriving on the Yucatán peninsular, we have discovered that there seems to be a fifth class: the ones who have been spoilt by the money-throwing tourists from large cruise ships. Prices here are a lot higher than we are used to from the rest of Mexico. Even the entry to ruin sites costs twice as much, and guides here are asking 450-600 Pesos for an hour long tour - elsewhere the going rate was between 200 and 250 Pesos. Not that we've ever used a guide in ruins, because we find they move around the sites too quickly, to the point of information over-load (we listen in from time to time)... Some days ago a guide took us through the Loltun caves (it is not permitted to go through them on your own). His English was rather poor, but he explained that he was a volunteer and needed to be tipped for the hour long tour (we had already paid 108 Pesos for entry). When we gave him 50 Pesos (remember: somebody at a construction site has to work a full day for this much) he looked rather disapproving, since he had already explained that people pay several hundred Pesos...
But I'm getting ahead of things; let's start from the end of our last update.
Tuesday, 19 June 2007, Xpu-Ha, Quintana Roo
We arrived at the turquoise water and fine, white sand of the Caribbean yesterday, after leaving Chichen Itza feeling completely "ruined". Since leaving Palenque around 10 days ago we have visited 5 ruin sites in various stages of restoration; at least 3 towns with pyramids, churches built on pyramids or other evidence of the prehispanic civilisation; and 2 museums displaying Mayan antiquities. I don't want to give the wrong idea - we are very impressed by all we see, but sometimes it gets a bit overwhelming, so we need a break before exploring another pile of rocks!
The trip to Campeche was longer than we had expected because we hadn't checked our maps and other information properly. There were also 3 checkpoints where soldiers or quarantine officials entered the camper, to check for whatever it is they check for, and a couple more that we were waved through after answering a few questions. This is the most we have seen since being in Mexico and the only ones where we have been checked in any way - except the one the day before in Bonampak. We reached the coast on the Gulf of Mexico again at a small town called Champoton and got out to look at the ocean. It was so hot (around 40°C) you could hardly breathe. The beach wasn't inviting and, although the town looked rather nice, there was nothing really encouraging us to linger, so we climbed back in the truck and drove the rest of the way to Campeche.
Campeche is a very attractive and laid-back city. It is situated along the ocean which is kept back by a sea wall (there is no beach) which supports a bicycle/walking track, that was being well used at 6.00 in the evening. There were also many youths utilising a concrete area as a skate park. We found it quite hot there but the locals out exercising seemed to be oblivious. The trailer park, in a suburb called Samula, is really the front garden of a home. The Mexican woman who owns it is a very friendly and has a good grasp of English. It was also at least 5 degrees cooler there than at the ocean-side in the centre - must be a result of the lack of concrete and the many trees. It felt like an oasis.
We only stayed 2 nights because it was really too hot to be out exploring the town. Campeche was originally a walled city (to keep out English pirates who raided regularly on this coast) and there is still quite a lot of it to be seen. We spent a few hours wandering in the morning. We returned to the camper and its air-conditioning to spend the heat of the afternoon before going back into the city for the evening. We ate a mediocre meal in a guide book recommended restaurant and then wandered the city a bit in the relatively cooler evening. It's a nice enough city - not too big and busy, and full of beautiful buildings - and I'm sure that it would be a lovely place to visit earlier or later in the year, during a cooler season. Before leaving Campeche the next day we went to the San Miguel fort which houses the city's Mayan museum. The fort is quite an impressive structure and was part of the defence system used to keep the pirates at bay. There were some interesting artefacts in the museum from various ruin sites in the state of Campeche.
Our next destination was the ruin site of Uxmal, around 170 kilometres from Campeche along the route we took, which went through many small villages. In these villages we began to see a lot of the traditional houses of the Mayan people. They are oval in shape and have palm frond roofs. They are traditionally made from vertical sticks, which may or may not be covered with mud and then painted white. They are a single room used for living and sleeping (hammocks are slung at night). Behind the main building there is usually another kitchen hut. More and more we are noticing that the original style is being embellished with the addition of block walls or extensions. Quite often you will see a traditional house with a block house in front or behind it.
On the way to Uxmal we happened upon a small ruin site called Tohcok, which is right beside the road. We stopped and went in to be greeted by the enthusiastic caretaker who insisted on showing us around. He had limited Spanglish, but he tried very hard to make us understand. This is really a large site, but only a small amount has been excavated. He takes great care of it, sweeping daily around the buildings and keeping everything clean and organised. One of the most interesting parts was the Chultun - the first we had come across. The Yucatán peninsular has no fresh surface water - no rivers or lakes - and so the people have always relied on the rain season for their water supply. A chultun is an underground tank that the indigenous people built for collecting and storing rainwater. This was a most worthwhile stop and the caretaker is a very helpful and friendly fellow.
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