Friday, August 15, 2014

Cruise with Toulouse: Riding Harleys in Cozumel

Carnival Dream docked in Cozumel
“Get up, you lazy bones! Time to go onshore!” In her exuberance, Nina grabbed me by the tail (she isn’t always considerate when she’s excited) and cheerfully shoved me into her daypack. “We’ve landed in Cozumel!”

‘Docked!’ I corrected her from inside the pack, as she blithely rushed out of our stateroom and rode the glass elevator twelve stories down to where we would disembark. The word is docked!  Good thing I’m her editor, is all I can say.

As we got off the ship, Nina gave me a glimpse of the huge pier. Our first stop on the Carnival Dream cruise was Cozumel, an island in the Caribbean Sea off the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Cozumel means Island of the Swallows in Mayan and it’s the largest Atlantic island of Mexico with a low, flat and densely vegetated topography, based on limestone. The limestone has created some cool karst formations. For instance, Cenotes are deep water filled sinkholes formed by water percolating through the soft limestone over thousands of years; if you’re a qualified cave diver – and foolishly adventurous – you can get permission to explore Cozumel’s Cenotes. About twenty years ago some of those foolish adventurers discovered what is now recognized as the 5th largest underwater cave in the world. 

Toulouse checks his Harley
The Maya first settled Cozumel in the early part of the 1st millennium AD. It was a place of pilgrimage and considered sacred to Ix Chel, the Maya Moon Goddess. In 1518 Hernán Cortés and his fleet swept in like a dark storm, destroying a bazilion temples and eventually wiping out the locals with smallpox. Those were tough times for the Mayans. According to some researchers, by 1570 only a meager 30 people survived from the original 40,000 Mayan population. Those were the dark years, when the deserted Cozumel became a hideout for pirates and refuges and other interesting eccentrics. Did you know that Abraham Lincoln almost bought the island as a place to send the freed slaves of the United States? But the drawn-out war in the Yucatan changed his mind.  Cozumel finally entered its golden years when Jacques Cousteau “blessed it” by discovering and popularizing its spectacular scuba diving in Cozumel’s coral reefs at Palancar. Even the destruction by Hurricane Wilma hasn’t slowed down Cozumel, which remains a popular tourist destination and currently boasts over 90 restaurants. The locals, a wonderful mixture of Mayan and Spanish descent, are friendly, optimistic and cheerful people with a great sense of humor and healthy outlook. Nina tells me they remind her of the cheerfully adaptive Thai people of Phuket, who after the devastation of the recent tsunami, just picked up the pieces and built it all up again within a short few years. 

Cozumel is a popular charter fishing destination and offers some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling for our “Joe Tourist”. But Nina and I aren’t “Joe Tourist”… Besides, you may recall from my last post that I’m not particularly fond of water (I am a cat, after all, free to exercise the inalienable rights of my species). We did something far more exciting – and exotic:  we toured the island on Harleys! We saw the “wild side” of Cozumel.

Toulouse chills with Willy and Carlos
On the pier we met our guides, Willy and Carlos, two regular guys in black leather jackets and tattoos. Smiling like pirates, they led us to a lonely back parking lot, where we found our bikes. Nina chose a red 1200cc Sportster and I chose a blue one. What? You don’t believe I rode one all by myself? Take a look at the picture of me on the bike at Punta Sur, one of our stops!
The tour was an exhilarating fur-raising ride along Cozumel’s cracked and warped roads with a view of its scenic shoreline. We took off from Sunset Beach and headed south through the ancient Mayan town of Cedral then continued south, salt air whipping through my fur, to Punta Celerain and the historic lighthouse at Punta Sur Ecological Park. Nina panted and huffed after me as I scampered up the 100-some steps to the top for a breathtaking view of the island’s surf and vast beach. I don’t know what her problem was: the stairs weren’t nearly as narrow, crooked, and worn as the crumbling Tower of Pisa (but that’s another story…). It was in the park that I met Charlie, the resident crocodile. Charlie’s presence in Cozumel, let alone North America, is an oddity. If you know anything about natural science, you know that crocs are normally restricted to the “old continents” of Africa and Asia. North America and South America support alligators. The way I remember it is: “Nile” rhymes with crocodile and “Amazon” starts with an “a” like “alligator”.

It must have been the fresh sea air, because my stomach started to growl. Nina’s followed soon after and Willy got the message. We quickly mounted up and he navigated us along a windy back road to the main highway and the “wild side” of the island to “Coconuts Restaurant and Bar”. We dined on authentic Mexican cuisine at this funky seaside eatery and watched the locals cavorting and laughing. The open-air restaurant resembled something from an old James Bond movie, thatched palm-leaf roofs decorated with t-shirts from across the world and support poles tattooed with business cards. Fearing the retarded dog that decided to park itself near us, I wandered off to the beach below, lured by deep sea-green surf, lava-shaped rocks and the sweet aroma of local herbs. Of course, no one told me that the beaches here allow partial nudity! Bonus for me. Nina was “put out” though; she’d panicked when she couldn’t find me.

After she found me on the beach, she shoved me back into her backpack where I stayed as we continued the last leg of the tour through Mezcalitos, and west toward the main town of San Miguel, where Willy showed us—well, Nina (I was still socked in the backpack)— where he lives. We then rode through San Miguel’s bustling downtown and finally returned to the pier’s back parking lot.
Nina relented (she can never stay mad at me for long) and let me out of the pack when Willy produced two bottles of Corona Beer to celebrate our cool 5-hour tour. It was a blast!

You can book your Harley Davidson Tour with Willy and Carlos through Sand Dollar Sports. From Canada call: 972-966-0616; from USA call: 1-888-737-6399; from Cozumel call: 987-872-0793 or 987-872-1884; fax: 987-872-6158.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Cruise with Toulouse: Climbing a Mayan Temple

Mayan Temple of Chacchoben Mayan site
There’s nothing like the end of the world to motivate your holiday plans.

So, when Nina roused me out of bed aboard the cruise ship Carnival Dream for a shore excursion to the Chacchoben Mayan Ruins of Costa Maya, I thought, "why not?"

I always wanted to get a closer look at the place where those nasty "end of the world" rumours began...

Costa Maya is located on the Yukatan Peninsula, a limestone tableland of forests and mountains in southern Mexico, where the Mayan civilization colonized some 3000 years ago. The Mayans built incredible cities, particularly between 250 and 900 AD, when they advanced astronomy, math, and calendar-making equal to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. They were doing all they, I might add, at the time when Europeans were struggling in the pre-chivalry stage of the Dark Ages. Serfdom and Feudalism reigned at the expense of creativity, learning and innovation. And let's not forget that back then the Iron Maiden wasn't the name of a rock band and dudes made a legitimate living in the torture business. There's a reason it was called the Dark Ages. In the meantime, the Mayans were cutting out the hearts of children to sacrifice to Quetzalcoatle (Kukulcan), a bird-snake god, or Chac, the rain god.

Ships Alley, Costa Maya
OK. Here's the cool bit: the Mayan Long Count Calendar provides a set period of cycles encompassing a 5,125-year era from the Gregorian date of August 11, 3114 BC. The winter solstice of 2012 marks the end of an era (paralleling the Greek's cycle of catastrophe, the End of the Age or Suntelia Aion) when the "wrathful father Sun will eclipse the dark rift at the centre of the Galaxy." Okay... this is cool too: the mythical serpent of light resides in the heavens (the Milky Way) and viewed at the galactic central point (near Sagittarius) the serpent eats its own tail (the Ouroboros). In the mythical cycle of catastrophic change, the Suntelia Aion occurs when the sun rises out of the mouth of the Ouroboros, predicted to occur on the winter solstice of 2012. The movie "2012" capitalized on the hysteria that solar, seismic, volcanic electromagnetic and/or military activity will spark a physical catastrophe and destroy our world. Others believe that this "end of an era" symbolizes the ushering in of a new era of global consciousness and new respect for the planet. 

Giant Kapok buttresses embrace ancient ruins
Nina and I joined a bus tour to the Mayan ruins of Chacchoben, which means "place of red corn". Once the tour group disembarked, we sidled away (sly grin) in search of adventure in the sultry jungle of Quintana Roo. Nina and I wandered among the huge buttressed kapoks, acacias and palms, inhaling the pungent aromas of epiphytic orchids, hanging moss and other exotic plants. The jungle yielded her secrets grudgingly, I thought, as we picked our way through the chaos of tree trunks and roots--locked in  a twisted embrace around stone stairs and other ancient remnants. The ground was littered with kapok seed pods. They reminded me of something else; this is jaguar country... Nina (in her Goggle-wisdom) informed me that the finer inside is used as an alternative to down as filling in mattresses, pillows, upholstery, and stuffed toys. I know what you're thinking; don't even go there... 

The jungle yielded three temple pyramids, all perfectly aligned. The main temple stood on the grassy terrace of El Gran Basemento, at the top of a huge stone staircase. I glimpsed no eerie serpent statues or bas-reliefs of jaguar god-men. But I experienced something far more dangerous...

Mayan Temple
I was climbing the steep pyramid face of the third temple to catch a glimpse of the top, which was used to track the sun's path. Then I froze. A bright red snake slithered out from a dark crack in one of the stairs just inches in front of me. Luckily, he didn't feel like snacking--most snakes this size typically eat small reptiles, lizards, frogs and mammals (that's me!). Instead, he wandered up the stairway, perhaps looking for a quiet place to sunbathe.

Nina gasped. She snatched me and stuffed me in her bag.

"No more adventures for you!"

When we rejoined the tour, Nina described the snake to our guide. He also gasped and informed her that she'd come within inches of Costa Maya's most deadly snake, the Coral Snake. 

As Nina returned to the bus, jostling me in her backpack, I pointed out the haunting "meowing" notes of the Quetzal bird. Nut Nina was mumbling something to herself about knapsacks and didn't hear. 

By the way, the Quetzal bird was prized by the Maya for its feathers and it symbolizes freedom (Nina isn't the only one who uses Google).

Toulouse escapes deadly snake!
Well, I'd done a little reading myself and I blithely informed Nina that while I had been in mortal danger of getting eaten, she hadn’t been in any danger at all; the snake I almost bumped into didn’t have the distinct bands of the venomous Coral Snake (they are known for their colorful red, yellow and black bands). With the exception of no obvious black “collar” neck and dull yellow/orange face, the colorations of our snake resembled Yukatan’s Red Coffee snake, often mistaken for the coral snake but perfectly harmless—unless you’re a small mammal (like me), that is.  I suggested that my little snake “friend” might also have been a non-venomous Red Coachwhip snake, which also has a reddish braided body and tapered whip-like tail. In any case, all this is truly moot to me: any of them would have been happy to eat me, if they were feeling at all peckish. I am, after all, very good looking.

Nina then pithily informed me that not all coral snakes show banding. And it was the right size (typically 20-30 inches long).

As we made our way back to the boat, I recalled something Drunvalo Melchizekek, Mayan spokesman, said in a presentation about 2012: “…The world you know, that you live in, is not what you think it is. We modern people think the world is solid and real, and that nothing can change it…The Maya wish to inform you this is not true. The world is really images that can be controlled by consciousness, especially consciousness that is connected directly in the human heart.”

I guess that's why I didn't get eaten by the snake... "You don't want to eat me..."

I'm the cool travel cat...

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Cruise with Toulouse: Cave Tubing in Belize

“Belize has some of the best cave tubing in the world!” Nina said gleefully to me in our stateroom aboard the Carnival Dream. That was supposed to make me feel better? Can you visualize me—the cool travel cat—roaring down some underground river, getting soaking wet, fur a tangle and not even seeing where we’re going? I gave her my best scowl but she wasn’t looking; she’d dropped her gaze to study her papers.

There was no way out of it. I knew. She’d booked us on what’s become the “most popular shore excursion in Belize” and the ship had just anchored off the port of Belize City.

“Come on!” she said. “You don’t want to miss the adventure of a lifetime!” That’s what I was worried about. I wasn’t ready for my life to be over just yet. Nina seized me by the tail, like she always does when she’s excited, and stuffed me into her day pack. Maybe she’d have the compassion to leave me inside the backpack that would be left behind in the bus. That was wishful thinking.

We left our sanctuary behind and met our bus near the pier at Belize City. Our tour guide was a native Rastafarian, who looked far too cheerful and whose first words were, “Are we flexible?” My little pile stomach turned. This wasn’t going to be my day, I thought.

As the bus wove through the milling traffic of Belize City, Jack cheerfully described the rather turbulent history of this major port and financial and industrial hub of Belize. Belize City was once a small Maya town called Holzuz. Because of its location by the sea and because the Belize River empties there, the British found Belize City ideal for shipping logwood and mahogany.  The city was real popular with hurricanes too, it seems. One came through in 1931 and more recently Hurricane Hattie swept through the city in 1961, destroying huge portions. “Are we flexible?”

The bus parked at the Caves Branch Archeological Reserve. Grinning like a fool, Nina pulled me out of her pack and stuffed me into her pocket. I had one last longing look at her blue backpack before she leapt out of the bus to join the others.

After we received our giant orange tube (of death) Nina joined the rest of our party on a hike through Belize jungle in the Reserve. I didn’t see any naughty monkeys, poisonous snakes, or jaguars thankfully. That didn’t mean they weren’t there. We climbed stone staircases that wound into deep caves, known to house hundreds—if not thousands—of bats. I didn’t look up.

That was bad enough… then Nina decided to check out the acoustics inside the cave with her signature Olympic Elk call. No one should be subjected to that kind of torture, especially a poor cat about to get drenched. A few blazing stares from fellow adventurers soon quieted her down.
When I saw my first glimpse of the Sibun Caves Branch River, my tiny heart went pitter patter. I knew it was even worse when I caught sight of a rope tautly stretched across the river at human hip level. “No problem, Toulouse!” Nina assured me as she plunged into the river and waded across, tube slung over her left shoulder and rope clutched in her right hand. My heart raced like a Ferrari at an Indi race when she slipped on a slippery rock and wavered. But she recovered with a giddy laugh and patted me on the head. “Are we flexible?”

We wove around tangles of buttressed roots and vines, rich with the pungent scents of exotic flowers, to our final destination: a quiescent bend in the river before it narrowed and churned toward the yawning mouth of a cave. The cave entrance dripped with Spanish moss and epiphytes harboring snakes and heaven knows what else. My little heart beat like a tiny drum. If stuffed cats could scream this was the time to do it.

Nina grinned down at me and jammed me further into her pocket. Once she’d determined that I was safely tucked inside, she slapped her tube into the water and waded in, poised over it. Then, in a rather ungraceful halting move she let herself “fall” into the tube with a bounce and we were launched. Hulario, our guide got a dozen of us to link together, intertwining feet and elbows, into a long snake that would meander down the river through the inky blackness of these sodden caverns. Everyone wore a little headlight on their head. It’s not what you think. The light they give off in the black cavern is too miniscule to make a difference to the bearer, Hulario informed us. The purpose of the light was so he could see us (in case one of us got separated from the human “snake”. Sweet, as Nina would say (it’s all in the tone of voice).

Toulouse dries off...
Then, we were off, careering down the river, the spray of turbid grey-green water splashing my lovely fur coat, and Nina hollering with glee (I hate it when she gets like that). The first cave yawned ahead like giant jaws of Hell as the tube pitched over foot-high standing waves toward it. In no time we were sucked into the cave; we’d entered the bowels of hell. I noticed that the lights made absolutely no difference to our ability to see. The cave was pitch dark and the currents pulled us here and there on a whim.

Hulario's voice echoed in the watery cave: he told us that these spectacular cave systems were regarded by the ancient Mayans as a sacred underworld and home to many powerful gods. I sighed as we emerged into the daylight toward the last leg of our tubing adventure.

"Butts UP!" shouted Hulario, as we glided over the shallows. Several tubes shoaled up on gravel shallows and one of the human snakes broke up.

A few renegade tubers, who'd broken off from the human snake, found themselves flying into the fast part of the river (Nina called it the "thalweg" of the river--smart aleck limnologist!) where the current pulled them effortlessly into the thorny bushes. I heard a POP! One young "genius" seized an overhanging thorny branch to slow him down and cut his hand: "OW!" Followed by a POP! It was a Three Stooges show for the rest of us as we glided by the mayhem of wet sods as they negotiated the river's challenging shoreline, carrying their deflated tubes and egos.

Our tubing adventure was over at last. Back onboard the Carnival Dream, Nina dried me off with her hair dryer then consoled me with several French martinis.

Ah, the life of a COOL travel cat...