Three ways to visit Tulum

I kept driving down the narrow road through the Sian Ka’an Ecological Preserve of the Yucatan Peninsula looking for a break in the jungle. I knew the Caribbean Sea was on my left. I could see glimpses of the water every now and then through the trees. After an eternity I came upon a sandy spot where the road widened slightly. There was a car parked half on the road, half in the brush. There was just enough room behind the car for me to park.

I got my beach towel and climbed a small dune. Ahead of me the turquoise water sparkled brilliantly in the afternoon sunshine. The small waves crashed into the shore onto smooth sand. To either side, the strand stretched as far as the eye could see. Not a person in sight, I was like Robinson Crusoe discovering a beach paradise.

Tulum beach
A beach paradise south of Tulum, Mexico.

Until the sound of hip hop assaulted my ears from a boom box twenty yards away. A guy was lounging in the shade of an impromptu lean-to made out of sticks and fabric. He had a cooler of beer, snacks, a Speedo, and a little black Dachshund that followed him out to the water and yipped when the guy went under the surf.

Still, I was almost alone on an incredibly beautiful beach on the Riviera Maya. It was warm and the sun was shining. It was a good day to be alive.

Caribbean Sea
The turquoise sea…. Natural… nobody cleans up the seaweed.

My first stop that day in Tulum was at the famous archeological ruins. The pre-Colombian Maya built a major port city on the site in the 13th through 15th centuries. The city, with 1,000 to 5,000 inhabitants, was situated on top of 40 foot high cliffs above the beach. Tulum appears to have been an important site for the worship of a “Diving” or “Descending” god. The people were probably wiped out by smallpox brought by the Spanish conquistadors.

As I walked around the site in an hour, I kept thinking of the movie called Apocolypto. Luckily, while I was there nobody got sacrificed or had their heart ripped out.

Mayan ruins
Some of the Mayan ruins at Tulum.

Next, I went into the nearby pueblo (town) for lunch at a traditional local restaurant. As I sat on a plastic chair on the sidewalk, munching excellent taco chips and salsa, a smooth jazz trio played a tight groove behind me. It was a good change from the mariachi bands prevalent in the tourist areas. I was the only outsider in the place.

Fortified with a burrito and a local beer called Sol, I went in search of a Mexican beach to call my own. I drove down a road called Highway 109, which quickly degenerated into a narrow path into the hotel zone south of Tulum. The Tulum hotel zone is quite different than Cancun’s abomination of a hotel zone. Places to stay on this part of the coast are small boutique hotels, beachfront cabanas, and eco-camping spots. The place had a hippie vibe to it. It was the kind of place to hide away from the world for a while. Just turn off the cell phone, have a margarita and relax.

Tulum ice cream truck.
The Tulum ice cream man.

Unfortunately I wasn’t staying at any of those retro chic resorts. The properties were enclosed by fences, there was no parking, and no obvious public access to the beach. So I kept driving south farther into the preserve, hoping for a break in the fencing.

I drove until I finally discovered the only car parked along the Preserve road, and saw the path to the beach. It was worth the drive.

Tulum beach
A hidden beach below the Tulum ruins.

Millions vacation every year at the mega-resorts in the Cancun hotel zone. If you like a swim-up bar, noisy pool volleyball, multi-level marketing bonus groups from Sheboygan, and kids kicking sand in your direction, please stay there.

For peace and relaxation, and maybe a little isolation, head south of Tulum until you can find your spot in the sun.

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Rising U.S. Dollar Turns Your Euro Trip Into Reality

Nice signs
Which way should I go?

Plan ahead and spend your spring and summer vacations in Europe as the strong dollar veers tourists away from the United States, giving them more incentive to travel to culturally rich destinations such as France, Spain and Greece. The value of the dollar hasn’t been this high since 2003 ($1.10 for one euro as of today). It’s no secret that the euro value is diminishing, among other currencies, which makes 2015 the perfect time to visit the notoriously expensive continent.

Europe has transformed into a buyer’s market especially for American travelers. Research shows that the number of bookings to Europe was high even before the dollar’s value spike. The strengthening dollar with the increased rate of advanced ticket bookings is indicative of “an explosive year for Europe.” Some speculate that European tourism won’t bloom until 2016 since the dramatic value rises in currencies tend to have a delayed effect on the travel industry.

Vienna scene
To Vienna we ride!

A report from Expedia reveals that it’s best to book international flight 171 days, or just under six months, prior to the date of travel. Typically, Americans book their tickets around 31 to 90 days before they travel to Europe. With dwindling prices of oil, and competition between budget and larger airlines in terms of “unbundling” amenities, flights to Europe are going to be more economical than ever. Thus, planning for summer, and even winter getaways, are crucial at this point of time.

In comparison to the euro, the dollar isn’t as strong against the pound. However, exchange rates are more favorable than they have been for quite some time, so traveling to the UK could still fit right within your budget. London has two of the busiest airports in Europe, Heathrow being the top and Gatwick listed as the tenth according to Parking4Less, and with dream vacations in Europe looking more affordable, passenger traffic at these airports is likely to increase.

Athena temple
The ruins of the Temple of Athena, Lindos, Greece.

Although exchange rates will work in your favor, the travel industry is always going to look for ways so that tourists don’t have access to too many cheap deals. One of the worst places, if not the worst, to exchange currencies is at an airport, yet because of its convenient location, tourists continue to lose valuable bucks instead of making the most out of their budget. Some suggestions from travel guidebook writer Pauline Frommer include using your credit card to get to your accommodations from the airport, or only exchanging a small amount before traveling. The rest can be exchanged at a local bank.

If you’ve been wanting to go to Europe for awhile, now is the time to go. Be prepared, however, to see many American tourists there with you…

sign of Europa cafe
To Europe and beyond
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The Mexican Police Holdup

The man and woman got into their rental car on a lazy Sunday morning in the hotel zone of Cancun, Mexico. A drive down the coast of the Mayan Riviera was ahead of them. Sunshine, blue sky, warm sand, taco chips and salsa.

Cancun beach from hotel
Cancun beach view.

Boulevard Kukulkan was nearly empty of cars. Most tourists were sleeping off their margarita induced comas. Hotel vans and taxis sped by the rental car, maximizing their potential of tips by rapidly getting their passengers where they needed to go. The man, however, drove slowly, sticking to the posted 70 kilometers per hour speed limit. He had read about how corrupt the Mexican police were and wanted to obey the law.

After slowing down to take a sharp turn, the man accelerated back up to the speed limit. As he was daydreaming about which beach to go to, the siren came to life and the flashing lights came on. It was the Mexican police.

Tulum ruins beach
The beach below the ruins at Tulum.

Obediently, he pulled over and stopped. The police car stopped close by, blocking his potential escape. The policeman in the passenger seat got out of the car, leaving his partner behind the wheel. Inexplicably, another police officer sat in the back seat. This police officer smiled at the man, like it was his fourth birthday, or maybe he had found a winning lottery ticket.

The policeman rattled off a stream of Spanish at the man, who stared blankly back.
“No hablo español,” said the man. “Inglés por favor.”

Tulum beach view
Deserted beach south of Tulum.

“You’ve been speeding,” said the policeman.
“I don’t think I was. I see that the posted speed is 70 km/h on this road. I was sticking to the speed limit. I even slowed down to take that turn,” said the man.
“The speed limit in this stretch is 40 km/h. You were going faster than that. I am going to have to give you a ticket,” said the policeman in heavily accented English.
“I never saw a sign for 40 km/h.”

The policeman ignored this remark and started writing the ticket.

skeleton
What you might look like after visiting a Mexican jail.

“Why are the taxis and hotel vans going twice as fast as me, but I am the one being pulled over?” asked the man. This comment was also ignored.

“You will have to go into the city tomorrow and pay this ticket. On the other hand, I can save you the trouble if you pay the fine to me right now,” said the policeman.

“How much is the fine?”
“$150 US dollars.”
“Why isn’t the fine in Mexican pesos?” asked the man.
“Never mind that. Give me $150 US dollars, or I will take your driver’s license. Then you can go to the police station in Cancun tomorrow, pay the fine, and get your license back.” The other two police officers in the car were smirking at the man.

“OK, I’m staying in the area. I’ll go tomorrow to pay the fine,” replied the man.
“If you pay cash to me today, I can reduce the fine a little bit,” said the policeman.
“I’ll give you $40 US dollars.”
“I don’t think that is enough. The fine is $150. I might be able take $125.”
“I only have $40. That’s all I can do right now,” said the man, as he took two twenty dollar bills out of his pocket.

The policeman grabbed the money, and got back into the police car.

“Cheap bastard!” grunted the policeman as the car took off, looking for the next gringo victim.

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Walking the Streets of Munich Again

After spending six months living as an expat in Munich in 2013 I had come to know and love the city. It’s a great place to visit, but an even better place to live (except for the weather….).

leaves on building in Munich
Fall in Munich.

On my first afternoon back in town I wandered the streets of the Haidhausen district. The day was brisk but with a sturdy leather jacket on I was warm enough as I window-shopped. I stopped for a latté (yes, I drink coffee now, blame it on the last Christmas present I gave to my wife – an espresso machine) and sat outside to watch the Saturday shoppers get their purchases in before the stores closed on Sunday.

“You know, I don’t believe I want to live in a country where you have to stay open on Sunday to do business. You shouldn’t have to work on Sunday.” (See That Thing You Do, you’ll be glad you did).

The Germans keep the tradition of Sunday closures going. I think it’s a good thing.

Haidhausen cafe
A cafe in Haidhausen.

Despite it being November, the sun peaked out from the clouds for an extended stretch of time. Between the sunshine and the coffee I got so warm I had to take my jacket off. Everyone else walked by bundled up in boots, heavy coats, scarves and hats. Bavarians seem to do that whenever the temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit or the calendar says it’s no longer summer.

Sufficiently jazzed on caffeine, I walked over to the Ostbahnhof (east train station) and caught the U-bahn (subway) to the city center. On the way I dutifully stopped and waited (as I learned to do in Berlin) at all of the “don’t walk” pedestrian lights, even if there were no cars in sight. Because that’s also what you do when you’re in Munich.

Munich street scene.
A typical Munich street scene.

At Marienplatz (the main square in Munich), I spied the glockenspiel on the Rathaus (city hall), but the figurines were still and silent at this time of day. Since Oktoberfest was over, there were very few tourists in the square. Instead, local residents were crowding into the smaller shops and big department stores to start their Christmas shopping. Unfortunately, the big, outdoor Christmas Market (Christkindlmarkt) was not yet open. The Christkindlmarkt is a big street market associated with the four weeks of Advent. It started in Munich in 1310. I’m sure they sold different stuff back then. Or maybe not…

Munich store
Christmas decorations on a department store

I missed my chance to drink glühwein again (first tasted in Seefeld, Austria, but that’s ok. Drinking hot wine while outside in winter in a cold climate is not my favorite pastime anyway.

Seeking some fortification after surviving on airplane food for the previous day, I went into the Augustiner Restaurant, a Munich landmark that is the prototype of the Bavarian beer garden. The monks started brewing beer here as early as 1328. I ordered a half liter of hefeweizen (wheat beer) and peered at the menu, trying to decide which kind of sausage I should have.

Deciding I had had enough sausage during my expat stay, I opted for the weinerschnitzel instead.  You can’t go wrong when ordering a good schnitzel when in Bavaria.

Aaahhhh… Schnitzel, hot fries, and a wheat beer in a Bavarian beer hall.  Seeing the men in their beer-drinking outfits of lederhosen (leather pants) and feathered caps, the women in their dirndls (dresses) with low cut blouses, and waitresses carrying giant pretzels in one hand while hoisting multiple one liter beer steins (“ein mass”) in the other, brings on a warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia in me. And I’m not even German.

I think I need to return to Munich once a year for the rest of my life.

toilet sign
German humor! Extremely long compound words!
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Where is Kosovo?

“Do you want to go to Kosovo?” asked my wife.

Kosovo, hhmmm, where is that?  I vaguely recall some trouble there back in the 1990s. Something to do with the break up and civil wars in Yugoslavia. I think it’s in the Balkans. I’ve never been to the Balkans before. Sounds interesting; let’s do it.

Pristina view
A view across the city of Pristina, Kosovo.

Our purpose in going to Kosovo was to help lead a week long English-language camp for university students. On our way to and from the camp, which was to be held in Kosovo’s Rugova Mountains, we were going to stay in the small capital city of Pristina (only 200,000 residents) for a few days.

After arriving at the new international airport (funded by the EU), we hopped into a taxi for the ten mile ride into the Pristina city center. One thing was clear right away. Most Kosovars love Americans! (This was refreshing to me, after having spent some time in France earlier this summer). The taxi driver was friendly, even though he didn’t speak much English. As we drove into the capital city of Kosovar, we saw Bill Clinton Boulevard and a large mural of Bubba himself.

Pristina view
Another view of Pristina.

Kosovars love Americans because the US (along with NATO) helped them in response to Serbian aggression during the Kosovo War of 1999. Kosovo had been a semi-autonomous region of Serbia after the break-up of Yugoslavia. Serbia’s people are ethnically Serbs and primarily Eastern Orthodox in religion (~85%), and Kosovo’s people are primarily ethnic Albanian and Muslim, (although they are considered to practice Islam to a low standard, with not many regularly attending a mosque). This ethnic and religious tension boiled over in the post-communist, formerly Yugoslav world.

Pristina street scene
I’m not sure what that mobile phone shop is selling…

The Serbs, under President Slobodan Milosevic, revoked Kosovo’s autonomy and a harshly repressive Serbian-led regime was installed.  Albanians were largely purged from state industries and institutions.

Kosovars wanted for independence and in response Milosevic sent in secret police, army and paramilitary troops in March, 1999 to crush any dissent.

Widespread violence broke out in Pristina. Serbian and Yugoslav forces shelled several districts and, in conjunction with the paramilitaries, conducted large-scale expulsions of ethnic Albanians accompanied by widespread looting and destruction of Albanian properties. Many of those expelled were put onto trains apparently brought to Pristina’s main station for the express purpose of deporting them to the border of Macedonia, where they were forced into exile. The majority of the Albanian population fled Pristina to escape to persecution.

NATO attacked the Serbs in a bombing campaign approved by Clinton. NATO troops entered Pristina in early June 1999 to bring peace. The UN set up a provisional administration to help the Kosovars rebuild their country. The 45,000 ethnic Serbs in Kosovo left to go to Serbia. Kosovo’s parliament declared independence in 2008, although even today some countries do not recognize this claim.

Milosevic was subsequently indicted on the war crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity.  The trial, which started in 2001, dragged on for five years but Milosevic died of a heart attack while in prison.

Kosovo sign
An independent nation.
Martin's Pristina house
Some friendly Kosovars.

Today Pristina, although struggling economically, is on the upswing. The small city center is lively and full of cafes and restaurants. There aren’t many tourist attractions.  A popular thing to do is to meet with friends and drink coffee.

While in Pristina we had the opportunity to stay at the home of a man I’ll call George. He quickly became my friend and I enjoyed talking with him about Kosovo’s history. During the 1990s, George worked as a translator for Kosovar leaders. On several occasions he was in meetings with Milosevic and other Serbs while working for Kosovo.

 

Mother Teresa photo
Mother Teresa.

 

 

George also knew Mother Teresa (born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in 1910, in Skopje in neighboring Macedonia, she died in 1997).  Mother Teresa was an ethnic Albanian who left home at age 18 to become a Catholic nun and missionary. Mother Teresa was quoted as saying: “By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.”

On a visit to Pristina in the 1990s, Mother Teresa stayed at George’s home. Regardless of who the guest is, George is a gracious and thoughtful host.

It was amazing to me that George knew both Mother Teresa and Slobodan Milosevic. I can hardly image two people who were farther apart on the spectrum of human life.

As I walked around Pristina, I realized that the future is wide open for the city and for Kosovo. Most of the UN reconstruction and influence from the past 15 years is gone. The conflicts of the 1990s are a generation in the past. The Kosovars, and especially the young people, are taking control of building their own future.

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