I don’t usually buy much on my trips, because the stuff I really want — hand-made crafty items — are usually too expensive. But that wasn’t the case in my recent trip to the Yucatan. While good quality, hand-made items aren’t exactly cheap, they were well within my price range. Plus you can bargain for a lot of things. I’m not a good haggler, but I still don’t feel like I overpaid. I came away with a real swag bag of stuff. Such as…
- A hand-embroidered bag made in Chiapas for about $30. I loved the colors and pattern. I got it in a craft store in Valladolid, where you can’t really haggle.
- A cedar mask from a vendor in the archaeological site of Chichen Itza, for about $30, but I may have overpaid. These vendors are everywhere in Chichen Itza. You can often see them working right next to their tables. It’s kind of annoying to have the vendors calling out to you while you’re looking at some of the most famous examples of Mayan architecture, but there’s no getting around it.
- A jaguar whistle, also from Chichen Itza. I got it for about $5, but I may have underpaid. When you blow into it and move your hand over the hole on the bottom, it makes a sound like a jaguar roaring. But I can’t do it nearly as well as the vendors did. You hear them making this sound constantly in Chichen Itza.
- Maya chocolate. Cost about 100 pesos from a store in Valladolid. The Maya basically invented chocolate, so I wanted to try this more “authentic” version. It’s pretty good — a little chalkier than I’m used to, but good. Comes in many different flavors.
- Shells. Okay, so I didn’t buy these, but I thought I may as well include them. I found them on a deserted beach in Cozumel, which is a shell-collector’s paradise. I brought home a small conch, a light pink cowrie shell, and some other beauties.
Have you ever bought anything in the Yucatan?
My traveling companion and I rented a motorbike in Koh Phangan, a beautiful island in the Gulf of Thailand. I mean that he rented the motorbike – I just held on for dear life. I got used to it after a while, and it was a good way to see the island, but what I really liked about it were the passengers it attracted. These were cute, friendly island dogs, and it looked like they were well taken care of. But the best thing about them is that they are scooter-trained. Yes, you read that right. It happened twice that, while our bike was stopped, a random dog would get on the platform and stand there, waiting for us to take him or her . . . somewhere. They know exactly where to stand for balance and are expert hitchhikers.
The first time was this dog, a beautiful white one. Since we were caught off guard, we eventually forced her to get off – but not before posing for a few pictures.
We thought it was a fluke, but later that day another dog got on our motorbike and did the same thing. This one was also much more stubborn, and we couldn’t have gotten her off without really pushing. So we started driving – very slowly – with her on it. She was really good about it too, staying completely still, tongue flapping in the breeze. Every once in a while we would stop and make it clear to her that she could get off. At one point we stopped next to another stray dog, thinking she would like company, but they started growling at each other so we hightailed it out of there. She got off to stretch her legs when my companion stopped to look at something, but hopped right back on when he mounted the bike. She finally left us for good when we got to the major town of Thongsala, where there was a pack of stray dogs to welcome her. We guess this is a normal way for them to get around the island – hitching a ride with humans!
There are lots of other friendly animals in Koh Phangan. Take, for example, the cat who joined us for dinner at our hotel.
And this lovely lizard.
And don’t forget the elephants!
No, this elephant does not have a disfigured trunk, it just looks that way.
I read The Beach by Alex Garland recently, since it’s about finding an island paradise close to Koh Phangan in Thailand, where I went last month. I thought these three quotes about travel were pretty brilliant.
“I don’t like dealing with money transactions in poor countries. I get confused between feeling that I shouldn’t haggle with poverty and hating getting ripped off.”
A tenement in Bangkok
“On that trip I learned something very important. Escape through travel works. Almost from the moment I boarded my flight, life in England became meaningless. Seat belt signs lit up, problems switched off. Broken armrests took precedence over broken hearts. By the time the plane was airborne I’d forgotten England ever existed.”
Ready to escape!
“Collecting memories, or experiences, was my primary goal when I first started traveling. I went about it in the same way as a stamp collector goes about collecting stamps, carrying around with me a mental list of all the things I had yet to see or do. Most of the list was pretty banal. I wanted to see the Taj Mahal, Borobudur, the Rice Terraces in Banave, Angkor Wat. Less banal, or maybe more so, was that I wanted to witness extreme poverty. I saw it as a necessary experience for anyone who wanted to appear worldly or interesting. Of course witnessing poverty was the first to be ticked off the list.”
My travel checklist
Do you have any favorite travel quotes?
Call me morbid, but I love old cemeteries. They’re so peaceful, so spiritual, so, well, otherworldly. I can spend hours looking at tombstones and reading the inscriptions, thinking about how the people lived.
My all-time favorite cemetery is the one I came across unexpectedly at Montmajour Abbey, a huge medieval monastery outside of Arles in France. There aren’t any bodies there now – they were removed long ago. When I first saw the large holes cut into the rocky outcrop outside the abbey, I didn’t know what they were. Then I realized the holes were vaguely human-shaped, with angular cuts for the shoulders and head. My thoughts went something like this:
“Oh my God, those are tombs cut into the rock.”
“Wow, they are hundreds of years old.”
“It’s strange that there’s nothing covering them.”
“Since there’s nothing covering them, I should probably get inside one right now!”
And that’s just what I did. It’s not every day you get to lie inside someone’s tomb. It wasn’t too comfy, but it was an otherworldly experience.
Playing dead in Montmajour Abbey necropolis
Montmajour Abbey necropolis
More tombs in Montmajour Abbey
A view of all the tombs from the abbey’s tower.