Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2



After crossing the border I headed up to Tulum, site of some more Mayan ruins, this time in a nice seaside location. Although quite pleasant the scale and age of the site was not so impressive as some of the other sites I have seen, being quite late (fifteenth century) and not particularly grand. Also in Tulum I decided to do some Cenote diving. This involves scuba diving in freshwater caves with absolutely crystal clear water and nice stalactite and stalagmite formations. It was the first time I had dived in freshwater or in a proper long cave. The one I was in, Gran Cenote, has about twenty kilometres of interconnecting underwater tunnels. Needless to say I didn't see anything like that much. The diving was interesting, for the cave formations and the fact that the visibility was so perfect. The water was so clear that one had over a hundred metres visibility which is as much as could be needed. There were very few fish and Jorge (the DiveMaster) and I were the only ones in the cenote for most of the time. One of the best things about freshwater diving though is the fact that one doesn't have to wash all the gear thoroughly after each dive.

Straight after my diving and a bit of lunch I got a bus to Piste, a village just down the road from Chichen Itza, a particularly famous Mayan site. The evening of my arrival was also a party night in Piste as the locals celebrated the saints day for the village, although when I asked nobody knew who the saint was. The concert in the main square was delayed two hours because of some light rain (sounds like the cricket "rain stops play") and when it did finally get underway the band were pretty crap anyway. John and I who were trying to make the best of the situation but were constantly accosted by Edwin, Una Pregunta and Reaction Man. These were Piste's equivalent of the three stooges, only with less style. These guys were all drunk to various degrees and each had an imitable style of their own. Edwin who clung to John and I like a particularly sticky limpet would exclaim from time to time with one of two phrases, either "Shit!" or "Fucking Shit!" usually pointing at some thing that apparently warranted this remark. Most often it was the bad and he was right they were "fucking shit!" Una Pregunta had a completely different way of absorbing our attention. He would constantly accost me saying "Una Pregunta . . ." ("One question . . .") then ask some of the strangest things I expected from a drunk Mexican. The topics would range from what I thought happened to the England world cup hopes and what I thought they would be in 2006, to the economic situation in Argentina, with theological questions, who was the German guy who looks a bit like Ben (another Brit who joined us) and other completely random questions. His quizzing abilities reminded me of Magnus Magnusson except that it was in Spanish, without any style, didn't involve a black leather chair or any kind of logic whatsoever. Even more annoying was the fact that he made me ask Ben the questions on his behalf and I had to act as translator between the two and neither Ben or I wanted to talk to him in the first place. From time to time these happy proceedings were interrupted by Reaction Man. This was a little Mexican who was so drunk he made Edwin look sober. He did try to say some things but everyone including Mexicans found him impossible to understand, mostly he would just react. This involved him assuming a particularly melodramatic pose usually with arms outstretched and a look of anguish on his face. Nobody knew quite what he was doing but it was generally harmless. He did fall over a couple of times, once was a perfect comic fall as he dropped backwards not once bending or bracing himself as he dropped. Edwin in his typically charitable manner decided to give him some incentive to get up by kicking him repeatedly until Reaction Man finally made it to his feet again. It might seem like we were only busy fending off these friendly locals, but John and I did try and make a go of it with a some of the local ladies but with our entourage refusing to leave us alone and Edwin's regular battle cry we didn't impress them much.

The following morning we went to Chichen Itza, a Mayan site in the Puuc style with some nice structures although when one considers that these were mostly built in the fourteenth century it makes them appear less impressive. They are one of the best restored Mayan sites in the area and their proximity to Cancun, Playa del Carmen and a lot of other popular tourist hotspots on the Yucatan peninsula make them a favourite place for tourist groups to visit, either from cruise ships or beach resorts.

From Chichen Itza we headed on to the capital of Yucatan State, Merida. Merida has some nice colonial architecture and is a moderately attractive town with a reasonably laid back feel. On the evening of our arrival there was a show put on in the main square simply entitled Sunday night in Merida. This had performances of dance groups showing the different styles of the region. At one point the Mexican stereotype was properly fulfilled for me when the guys came on dressed in the black Mariachi outfits with silver embroidery and massive sombreros and proceeded to dance to a tune who's name I don't know but I think everyone probably knows and associates with Mexico. This dancing was followed by an orchestra playing Christmas carols and a bit of rain.

From Merida I decided to go and see Uxmal, a Mayan Puuc site that reached its apogee in the eighth century. The woman at the bus terminal in Merida did not seem to appreciate that I wanted to go that day, she told me the town had been cancelled as there had been a problem with a bus. I told her I had to go that day as I had a bus that evening to Palenque. She basically told me to go stick it where the sun doesn't shine as I wasn't going that day. Despite the advice of this helpful woman I decided I was going to Uxmal and with a combination of transportation I finally got there.

The site is a particularly interesting one as it is dominated by a unique elliptical pyramid one hundred and twenty feet high with two main tiers. The carvings and designs around the site are also very interesting with countless representations of Chaac the rain god with a big nose. There were very few tourists at the site, despite it having according to some scholars the most important Mayan structures in Meso-America. It is in many ways more interesting than many of the sites I visited, because it has many more patterns and pictures on the buildings. At other sites these have largely been lost as they were only done with a bit of paint and stucco, at Uxmal the designs are in integral part of the stonework.

That evening I took an overnight bus to Palenque another Mayan site. Founded in the fourth century it reached its apogee in the seventh or eighth century when it became the centre of a powerful Mayan empire. The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque is rated as one of the forgotten wonders of the world and the site is in a particularly scenic jungle setting, with waterfalls and forest just past the temples and other structures.
After a full day looking around the site I used the shower at the hotel of a Dutch couple I met whilst wandering about had a bit to eat and boarded another overnight bus, this time to Mexico city. On arrival in Mexico City the following morning, I went straight across town on the metro and got on another bus to Uruapan. In Uruapan I finally had a bed to sleep in and no bus to catch.

The reason I was in Uruapan was to see Paricutin Volcano, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. On the 20th February 1943 a farmer was ploughing his field when he felt a violent rumbling beneath his feet. He ran away and behind him, up popped Paricutin Volcano, changing the landscape forever and burying the villages of Paricutin and San Juan. To get there I took a short bus to the village of Angahuan and then went on horse back across the ash and volcanic rock to the foot of the volcano. This would not have  been too bad if it were not for the wooden saddle I had to sit on for hours. By the time Julian (my twelve year old guide) and I got to the base of the volcano I was happy to dismount. Then when I climbed the few hundred metres up the broken lava I began to appreciate that we had climbed quite high and how sharp the volcanic rock is. The cinder cone is only four hundred and ten metres high but the climb is not easy as the rock is very loose and sharp. After half an hour I got to the summit and although not the most dramatic volcano I have been on, there were nice views of the surrounding area. Julian and I returned to Angahuan via the ruined church of San Juan which is all that remains of the village. By the end I was delighted to be off that saddle and in Angahuan got to see some festivities celebrating the day of the Virgin of Guadelupe, the national saint of Mexico. All over the country and in ex-patriot Mexican communities around the world people were celebrating this auspicious day, unfortunately in Uruapan they weren't. There was a church service and a couple of drunks, but not the party that I was hoping ad expecting. So, next day I got on a bus to Mexico City, my last lengthy bus ride on this trip.

From Mexico City I went on a couple of excursions to some more archaeological sites, the first was to Teotihuacan which reached its peak between the fourth and seventh centuries and whose influence can be seen throughout Meso-America. The site is set in the valley of Mexico with massive structures set along the Avenue of the Dead, with the Citadel and the ornate Temple of Quetzalcoatl (an extremely important Mayan deity, represented as a feathered serpent) at one end and the Temple of the Moon at the other. The remains of the Temple of the Moon are just a large Pyramid, likewise with the Temple of the Sun. The Pyramid of the Temple of the sun has a similar sized base to the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza, Egypt, although a little shorter. From the top of either of the large pyramids one can get a good view of the site and a sense of a city that would have existed there. In places there are still intact colourful murals and some interesting petroglyphs.

The other Mayan site I went to visit was Tula, another short bus journey from the capital. The site there is much smaller with its main attraction being the large monolithic statues atop a temple structure.

This was the last of the Mayan sites I was to visit as I had already been to the Templo Mayor in Mexico City itself. This was the central temple of Tenochitlan, the Mayan city that was where Mexico city now stands. Hernan Cortes decided to knock down the temple to build his house on top of it. As a result one can see a cross section of time through the temple and see how every fifty-two years a new temple was built atop the previous one.  There is also an informative museum there.

This temple is in the corner of the Zocolo, the main square of the city, with an attractive Cathedral (the oldest in the Americas) on one side and the National Palace along another side. In the square there were concerts and plays being performed much of the time and a large open air market and general festive feeling. In the National Palace which was the residence of the Presidents there are some excellent murals by the legendary Muralist Diego Rivera. Murals have been said to be Mexico main contribution to the world of art. The murals that can be found around the city, in the metro, government buildings and museums certainly reinforce this idea. Diego Rivera and David Alfonso Siquieras being the most eminent muralists painted some fantastic pieces in the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), putting the exhibits to shame, although the Socialist overtones are at times a little overwhelming. The Diego Rivera museum was essentially built to house a mural by the man himself.

On my final day in Mexico I went to visit the excellent Museum of Anthropology, where lots of pieces from archaeological sites around the country have been relocated and put in context. Some of the exhibits are truly exceptional and it is all well presented. Unfortunately some of the halls were not open as they were being refurbished, still there was plenty to see. Outside one could see a demonstration of the pole flyers. Guys who attach themselves to a very high pole by a rope to their feet and spin round it slowly coming down to earth. All the time accompanied by a man atop the pole playing his instrument to give them some rhythm.

Now I am leaving the Americas again and ending this trip, who knows how long before I head off again. In the meantime you have some respite from newsletters at least.


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