I CHOSE THE quiet colonial town of Mérida as my last stop specifically to avoid the festive season. I despise Christmas, I really do. Some folk say it's the one time of year family can get together and enjoy each other's company. But can't a family do that anytime? Mine certainly do. Besides, I'm an atheist; I didn't believe in him first time around, so a second coming would leave me nonplussed. I am the bastard son of Scrooge (he was doing well until the end) and the Grinch. That will all change when you have children, I hear you say? Like that's going to happen anytime soon? Besides…my kids would likely be sat on top of an Indonesian volcano over Christmas, or swimming in a Philippine lake...not stuffing their faces with turkey and moaning that they didn't get the Playstation game they wanted. Anyway, you get the idea: I'm not a fan.
Mérida wasn't quite the escape from festivity I wanted. Quiet enough indeed, but it never fails to amuse me to see people of different cultures having a red-clad, white-bearded Santa Claus in their shop windows, fake snow sprayed all around the corners. Most of them have surely never seen snow? Thankfully the music wasn't the same as ours: the Salsa cover versions of our carols was bad enough, but if someone had played Slade's offering, I'd have been contacting my nearest cartel member for the loan of an AK-47, likely opening fire just as Noddy screams "It's Chriiiistmaas…"
Miserable in Mérida? Not quite; it could have been worse, but there was no way I was going to spend a night in Cancún…it was enough to fly in and out of there. And to be honest it was tickling me to wander the streets of town watching Mexicans carting home Xmas trees over their shoulders while pulling their kids behind them on sledges with tiny wheels instead of blades. All this in 30º heat. I didn't see any plastic snowballs on sale between the be-baubled palm trees, so that could be my next business idea right there? I could be worth a million pesos by the time you read this.
I had a couple of days before flying, and wasn't as short of time as I'd initially feared. Having pictured myself sprinting across tramac after a taxiing British Airways flight, it was nice to have the time to relax and reflect. I found a very good bookshop close to my hostel and added several titles to my growing collection: the Three Book Rule (for weight) I have whilst on the road can be broken on the way back to the airport. Old t-shirts were ditched to make room in the pack.
Wandering the back streets away from the other tourists thronging the town, I tried to absorb as much Méxican atmósfera as I could before leaving. The potholed roads and broken pavements; faded pastel-painted houses with patches of crumbled plaster exposing wooden ribs; crimson bougainvillea spilling from wrought-iron railings embracing small balconies; blindingly white, freshly-laundered sheets suspended on lines across the streets, snapping in the wind; the red dust blowing across my path as another Beetle sputters and coughs by me; raucous whoops and cries from the darkened interior of shady cantinas; a proud old man in a worn yet immaculate suit; laughing children running by on their way home from school, all billowing white shirts and red kneckerchiefs.
I feel a real affinity with this country and its people. I've been welcomed with open arms. And in some cases with beer and mescal. The people I've met, native and ex-pat, have conspired to hold me back…clinging to me and preventing my return to England. México makes sense to me, and four months hasn't been anywhere near enough. Guatemala was stunning to look at, with its lakes, rivers and cobbled-street towns; El Salvador was a real latin whirlwind experience like no other; Honduras wanted to kill me; the other countries I skipped through without really feeling them. Having started my trip a year ago on the Yucatán and skirting the country to Belize, I knew I'd seen nothing of the real México. Like-minded travellers I met on the road in Central America had all said to me with a knowing smile "just wait til you get back up to México". They were right: this country has a hold on me like no other: it folded its arms around me and has refused to let go. I could have spent the whole year here and not seen enough, my experience was so rich. I made fast friends in DF, and some random ones on the street; I found a brother in Colima; a family living on the beaches of Michoacán showed me real Méxican warmth and spirit; the people of Mazunte and Zipolite welcomed me with smiles and generosity. There really is nowhere quite like México. Every corner different: a wildly varied land of jungle, desert, lakes, canyons, colonial towns, huge cities, raw beaches and mountains. I feel I've barely scratched the surface, and its inexorable lure will draw me back sooner rather than later. The warmth of the people; the riotous colour; the simple vibrant joy in being alive…queiro más, por favor.
And so to another bus station; sat atop my dusty pack, killing time with a battered paperback and watching the world go by. I like to people-watch as a town wakes up, but I was exhausted. I'd had my last prolonged Spanish conversation with an affable taxi driver in the early hours, and tipped the cheery chap well to get his day off to a good start; he'd wished me luck. With ten minutes to spare I was slinging the bag into the hold of a jalopy and climbing aboard. We picked our way through traffic, the outskirts of town giving way to flat landscapes and the fast roads to Cancún. As we headed to our transfer point, the tiny station in the Quintana Roo, I got a glimpse of the horror I'd thankfully avoided. Cancún is a town devoid of spirit, vitality and joy. It's ugly pyramidal hotels line the strip of beach in the far distance as you gratefully hit the road to the airport, soulless concrete monuments to excess. I'd sooner walk the backstreets of an Acapulco slum than spend time on these Margarita-soaked beaches amongst oiled people beached on their sun-loungers, waited on hand-and-foot by some poor Mexican who wouldn't be allowed to set foot in the complex were he or she not working there. Not my cup of darjeeling at all.
Despite my reluctance to leave, I couldn't wait to get on the plane once inside the terminal. Harangued in the shops by calculator-wielding shop assistants braying about tax-free and precios bajos, I was suffering sensory overload. For the two-week holiday maker, this may be fine, as there hasn't been much of a transition between western life and the other way. But I'd been peacefully eating fish tacos and relaxing in the Oaxacan sun barely a week ago…this was all too much. And the prices for food were obviously set for those who didn't know any better; a meal and a drink at an awful fast food chain was almost $20. I gravitated to a small kiosk and chatted in Spanish with the Mexican lady, buying a couple of sesame seed bars to keep me going until the plastic airline food was served later on. She asked me where I'd been, and said that she was pleased I'd enjoyed her country. After I complained about the extortionate food prices in the airport, she heaved a sigh, smiled and paid me a back-handed compliment: "Very expensive. It's for the gringos, no?"