Thursday, January 3, 2008

Unbelievable Mexico

I got to share this story, as it is unbelievable! For Christmas vacation my wife and I went down to Riviera Maya, Mexico. We stayed in a hotel in Cancun, but rented a car to be able to go to the Maya archaeological sites and the not so commercial Caribbean beaches.

Rental car turned out to be very expensive in Mexico, I payed $400 for 7 days for a basic car rented from Hertz. The car was small, yellow and only had air condition as "extra". Not even radio. Luckily, my wife volunteered to sing from time to time, especially when she felt the danger that I might get asleep at the wheel.

On one of the days we went down to Xcaret (, which is a Maya civilization archaeological site and an ecological park at the same time. It is huge, with lots of activities and programs, it's at least a one day program. We parked the car in the morning in the parking lot and entered the park. We fed birds, talked to iguanas, watched all sort of maya rituals, but around 5 pm I realized, I do not have the car keys, I lost them somewhere in the park. My wife run back to the places where we sat down previously, I run to the lost and found, but no luck. As the evening program was just about to start, we decided to stay in the park and watch it, and think what to do afterward. At around 8.30 pm, when the program was over, I was preparing to call Hertz to see what can be done with the car. On the way out from the park I stopped once again at the lost and found, I did not have any hopes, but just in case. And guess what, the car keys were there! They even found the car in the parking lot and placed a note to the windshield saying that they found the keys and those are in the office. Can you believe this? Someone finds the keys, the car, and instead of going with the car for a ride or at least take the things out of it, as in most places would happen, they put a note and hand down the keys to the office. Wow ... I did not expect this to happen in Mexico! But our adventure was not over yet, read below for more.

Two days later, we planned to go on a trip to Coba and Chichen Itza. Coba is a village in the middle of the jungle, next to an archaeological site with ancient Maya pyramids and other staff, while Chichen Itza is one of the new 7 wonders. The plan was to go first to Coba, and then to Chichen Itza (~600km all together) and I took the highway ('autopista'). When I saw no cars on the highway and no exit for about 100km, I started worrying, but then sudddenly we arrived to some toll gates, where I had to pay $20. I asked the people there how do I get to Coba, and to my biggest surprise they sad there is no exit for about 60 more km, I need to exit there and then come back on the village roads!!! That sounded unfeasible, so I changed plans and we took the highway all the way to Chichen Itza first, and then go to Coba. That worked, but I am still wondering why would Mexican people put a tollgate in a place on the highway where there is no exit! Especially as at the first exit was another tollgate.
We spent about 3.5 hours in Chichen Itza wondering around the ruins, then left to go on the village roads to Coba (~100km). I drove on that road once 7 years ago, and at that time it was full with holes and speedbumps. The bumps were there, but the holes were filled up, so it was much easier to drive. Road signs were still missing, especially a warning that there is a speedbump ahead. They only have roadsigns indicating that a speedbump is right there, so you better goggle your eyes to see it in time ...
Anyway, around 3 pm we arrived to Coba, parked the car, bought the entrance tickets, rented two bicycles and pedaled to Yukatan's tallest pyramid. My wife climbed to the top of it (I did it already 7 years ago, it was enough, it's kinda steep, look at the view from the top of it), I made a few pictures, then we went on to the other ruins. At 5 pm the site closes, so we were invited to leave. Went back to the car, but I couldn't find the keys (those keys again!). I could not believe I lost them again. I almost went back to the jungle to search for it, but when I peeped in the car through the window, I saw the keys inside. I couldn't decide what was better: to loose the keys or to lock them inside the car. It was getting dark, we were in the middle of the jungle with only a few people around, and I felt my mind is going to blow up in seconds. I quickly realized that I first need to find someone who speaks enough English to understand what the problem is, and then try to get some help from some handy local folks. The risk involved was high, as once I show them the car and explain the problem, they could say sorry, pretend to leave, wait for us to go somewhere to rest, then come back, break into the car and take it to have some fun. There was no trace of police, and even if there was, would they care? But I had to take the risk. I quickly found a guy who spoke English, understood the problem and went on to speak with some local people. I was sweating. 10 min later he returned with one local guy, who offered to help but charge for his service. He asked $40, but I successfully negotiated it down to $25. Then he disappeared to bring his tools. I was still sweating, as at that point still anything could have happened. But he quickly returned with two other guys and some basic tools (screwdriver, steel wire) and started the work. After 15 min of struggle, I realized that the methods they use are not going to work and I did not know if they do that on purpose or not. In the meantime, the news that some foreigners got in trouble spread quickly and more and more locals from the neighboring village showed up, including lots of kids. It didn't take long until another local with more professional 'tools' came by and in 10 min opened the door. I exploded in happiness, I could not believe that our stupidity got solved so quickly and cheaply, again. It was not simply getting lucky, but having around lots of unknown people who become your friends when you get in trouble, and help you with any means. Usually it is the other way around in life: you have friends, but those disappear when you get in trouble. Well, not in Mexico.

I personally liked Playa del Carmen much better than Cancun. The nicest beach I've ever been to is down there.

The center of Playa del Carmen is called 5th Avenue, it is pretty commercial, built for the tourists and good for those of you who do not like to get closer to the local people but still feel the Mexican atmosphere. Only one block away from this commercial street is the real Mexico, which is a different experience, maybe more enjoyable. We had a lot of fun. If you are looking for mariachi (street band), then go to 5th Ave. They are amazing!

All in all, I would say we had a very nice experience in Mexico, much better than I have ever expected. People are laid-back, honest, fun, we really enjoyed our time there!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Closer to the sky

I very often travel to standards meeting. A usual standards week consists of mainly long meetings followed by dinner in a pub or restaurant, where we try to compromise on what we could not agree in the meeting room.

Sometimes the day before or after the meeting I have some time to look around the area where the meeting is. A visit to the old town, a museum, a national park can break the monotony of arguing about standards and protocols all week long.

The meeting in September 2007 was very special. It was on the Big Island of Hawaii, just one hour drive from the Mauna Kea summit, where the worlds biggest telescopes are installed. We even got the chance to go inside the W.M. Keck observatory (

The feeling to be so close to the sky was very special for me. It was not only because of the altitude (13790 feet, ~4203 meter), but the rare oxigen, clear sky without pollutions and artificial light, magnified the feeling. And watching the top of the clouds from above was also a rare experience.

Do you see the other summit in the background? That is the Haleakala summit on the island of Maui, 38 miles away.

This is after sunset, the place where I took the photo was 5 min walk from the conference facility. I forgot to take my tripod, so I could not take pictures with myself in the foreground. Maybe it was better that way :)

self photo