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Merida (05/09/12)

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I’m sitting outside a fake Italian restaurant drinking my first glass of white wine in weeks. It’s 8:45pm and probably still 30 degrees. The heat is bruising but at least it’s drier – I was tired of being shiny all the time.

I’m so happy today – I hate how it always seems to take right until you’re about to leave a place to settle into it. I succeeded in trying on clothes, ordering this wine and buying a hat today. There’s a lot you can do with mime and apologies once you lose your sense of shame.

Today was magic. Possibly the best day of my life – or up there. We visited the cenotes, which are a system of freshwater sinkholes that run all over under Yucatan.

Getting there required an hour in a public van – after we’d waited almost an hour for it to fill up in stifling city heat. It was so hot and so full that the driver eventually opened the van door and left it open as we drove. A mother sat in the dickie seat by the wide-open door with her toddler crawling around her lap. The NZTA would lose their minds.

[Author’s note: in Playa I saw a lady with her baby lying in the footwell of her scooter, which beats even this.]

After the van, we (Ian didn’t come, of course. He was “exhausted. Simply exhausted. Oh, it was so hard!” from the jungle) climbed on the front of modified motorbikes – like front-facing motorised tuk-tuks. It would have been worth it for this ride alone – being tacked on the front on a bench made every pothole and speed bump an adventure.

The houses were a haphazard collection of tiny concrete bunkers and thatched cottages, all piled higgledy-piggeldy around the road. Every dog I saw looked dead, lying prone in any shade they could find.

When THIS ride stopped, we were at a tiny railway track, like the ones you see in kids’ playgrounds. It ran off into the jungle around us. We climbed on a little rail cart, and our driver hooked up a horse to it. The horse then pulled our cart along the rails at a gallop for a tooth-loosening 20 minutes, bursting through clouds of milling butterflies and startling iguanas. If we encountered a cart coming the other way, everyone piled out and derailed the cart. The horse would take a minute to snatch some grass, and the little biting yellow flies would take a minute to consume all our exposed flesh. The other cart would rumble past, and we’d lift ours back onto the tracks and our horse would resume its gallop.

The first cenote (we went to three) is the easiest to get to. We had no idea when we got there what we’d see. Ivan had just told us it was a pretty place for swimming, and it involved a cave somehow. In my head, I’d been picturing a hill (even though I knew the Yucatan is completely flat) with a rocky overhang and a little deep lake to swim in. Instead, we saw a signpost that seemed to lead nowhere.

When we got closer, we realized it was a staircase down into the earth. At the bottom of the stairs was a diving platform down into the bluest, deepest, most perfect pool I’ve ever seen. The sun streamed down the stairs, steaming all the water it touched. In the deep cave past it, little birds and little bats flew and rustled around in the ceiling, and tiny fish flittered around our hands and feet, so unafraid in their predatorless paradise that you could cup your hands around them and feel them flick.

It was magic. Magical. Just mind-blowingly amazing. And soon after we arrived the other couple of people there left, so the three of us had it to ourselves for a good half an hour. I floated around, watching the bats wriggle and the birds flit, and thought I’d never been anywhere better.

Eventually we got back in our cart, and thundered our way to the next sinkhole. This one was a tiny hole in the ground – so small that it was a squash to get down the ladder with my backpack on. The ladder seemed to wind down this tiny tunnel of limestone forever – I don’t love small spaces, so it was almost as hard as the tomb I crawled into in Oaxaca, but once we popped out the end, it was amazing. This one was bigger and deeper. The bats were more active, the dive in was higher, and the long, twisted roots of the trees above reached down for the water like long vines.

Periodically Brenda would ask me what I was doing, and I’d say “nothing”, because “pretending I’m doing synchronised swimming in a cave under Mexico” didn’t seem like a good reply.

At the third hole, the dive was even higher and the climb in and out was even harder, involving a knotted rope and more upper body strength than I’d usually use in a week. But this one had mini caves around the cavern, with little warm pools in them, and people had etched their initials and their who-loves-whos all over the walls.

The only bad bit: my bikini bottoms fell pretty much to my knees every time I dived. For the record, this didn’t stop me.

Eventually we clambered our way back to the surface and the horse and the bitey yellow flies, and then our friend with the motorbike and our other friend with the stinky, sweaty van. And then Brenda and I parked ourselves at a restaurant and ate EVERYTHING. Guac and chips, a mango daquiri, an enormous and supremely delicious plate of the incredible local pulled pork. When we couldn’t eat another bite, we declared this the best day ever, and retired to our rooms to wallow by the AC.

Note: There’s a breeze in the square I’m sitting in (and a kid screaming as his sister keeps knocking him over, but that’s another thing) and I have a second glass of averagely excellent white wine and some pasta on the way. Today is very good. I’m excited to get to Playa and the beach tomorrow, and hopefully be in enough of a tourist town that I can work out where to find eye makeup remover and shampoo and someone will be able to tell me in English what my shoe size is here. I’m excited to spend a few days lazing on white sand before I head to Japan to eat too much sushi and conquer Tokyo. This is all going much too fast. In three weeks I’ll well and truly be back home and at work. I both feel like I’ve been here forever and can’t believe it’s gone so fast.

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Writer of things. Annoyer of cats.

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