Saturday 10 March 2012

Don't drink and drive

I knew we were in trouble as soon as I was handed a neon pink sticker to put on my t-shirt, branding myself as part of a dreaded tour group. As I general rule, I avoid tours like I avoid canned fish. Sure, there are some guides – usually those who only work with small groups - who are brilliant (see previous post) – but usually I find making my own way around a country, chatting to locals and taking local transport, is much more rewarding.

But here we were, me and English Tristan, 9am on a Sunday morning, both horribly hungover, being handed stickers. Dan was in bed with food poisoning (no, no, not a worse hangover – actual food poisoning.) He was gutted. He shouldn’t have been. We’d signed up for this trip thinking it was just a minibus transporting us between a few sights in the Valles Centrales around Oaxaca, where public transport can be difficult. The hostel recommended it. But somehow, from the minivan, we were transferred into a bus with a bunch of middle-aged Mexican holiday-makers, and an enthusiastic guide at the helm with a microphone. Hell on earth.

We were too worse-for-wear to protest. The first stop was Teotitlan de Valle, a weaving village, which I’m sure was quite picturesque, but I wouldn’t know, as we were transported straight to a weaving factory. “I thought we were going to a waterfall?” said Tristan, looking alarmingly green, as he made straight for the toilets. I was left pretending to be as interested as the rest of the group in the endless balls of wool, dyed in various colours, handed around for us to feel and smell. I’m from New Zealand – I know what wool feels like. Meanwhile Tristan, not wanting to admit he was hungover, spun an increasingly elaborate yarn in Spanish to the concerned tour guide about how he had food poisoning but was ok to go on.

The rest of the group emerged, shopping bags in hand. The tour bus hell continued. Admittedly, the retired teacher from Mexico City sitting next to me was a great chat. But I had to stop talking and shut my eyes as the straight road turned into endless curves and the Saturday night tequila shots shouted from the pit of my stomach once again.

Finally, we reached Hierve El Agua, the place we’d been hanging out for. High in the mountains, with panoramic views of brush-clad peaks, and fields of cactuses below, were a series of bathing pools. Over time, water dripping over the cliff edge had calcified, creating frozen waterfalls that cascaded down the valley in ribbons of grey, white and green. It was spectacular:  worth every cent of the overpriced tour, every throb of my pounding head.  “Be back on the bus in 45 minutes,” the guide said. No chance. There were 3 more stops on the tour: a big tree, some ruins and a Mexcal factory. We ditched the bus, and stayed.

We spent hours soaking in the baths, taking in the view, and then somehow we were back drinking again, as a Mexican guy and some young American exchange students handed round a bottle of Mexcal. Better than any factory, I’m sure. And then we did what we should have done in the first place – we caught a cheap local pickup truck back over the winding hills, where, with the wind in my hair, a bunch of locals laughing opposite me, and a picturesque landscape whizzing by, I felt like a real traveller again.  Tristan summed it up perfectly.  “I feel like I’ve got my soul back,” he said.

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