Thursday, March 29, 2012

Spring Break. Mexican Stylee

March 2012

Spring Break is a rite of passage for an American college kid. The only week off for the Spring semester (so generous with holidays those administrators…), in which a lot of people go back home to relax, and everyone else goes elsewhere for a week with their friends, most commonly towards the much warmer weather of the South. 

Being an exchange student and only having one Spring Break ever in my life, I wanted to get the full, stereotypical American experience. So that obviously meant a week of partying in Cancun, Mexico (or Mehiho as I annoyed everyone by calling it all week!). Well, of course! Eight of us Internationals (well, whilst we were in the US that is – I guess everyone’s an international in Mexico!) – three Aussies; Dani, Jordan and Sophie, three Brits; Ben , Luke and myself, an Irish; Aidan, and a Kiwi; Nathan -paid a large amount of money to spend the week at Oasis Resort in Cancun, staying Saturday to Saturday (well slightly less by the time we arrived and the time we had to leave!). The journey to Mexico I took with 5 of the others (Jordan and Nathan  went different routes to the rest) was a long old one, leaving Chapel Hill at 3am, cabbing it to Durham to get a bus to Charlotte to fly to Houston then to Cancun. We didn’t arrive at the resort until 10.30/11ish at night, and I wasn’t checked into the room until midnight because they couldn’t find my reservation. Bloody Mexicans…

The weary travelers. On the way to holiday!

The resort itself was amazing – absolutely huge with large pools, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and bars everywhere, including in the pools themselves! I think there was around 1000 rooms in the resort (at least in the Spring Break part of it – there was another part of the resort which was much more fancy and posh that us college kids were encouraged to stay away from), which meant a hell of a lot of people around. And wow, were there some characters! From the stereotypical All-American big boy with HUGE arms and chests but tiny, tiny legs to gorgeous girls running around with not much on at all to Jersey shore look a-likes to lots of rather normal-looking-in-comparison-non-Americans (such as us!). There were also a number of UNC people there, many of which were decked out in the good old Carolina Blue, leading to shouts of “U.N.C! Go Heels Go!” and regular intervals of the day. We linked up with a couple of other UNC exchanges while there as well: Amy, Sheridan, Amelia, Claudia and Chelsea (who’s not actually an exchange I hasten to add!), along with meeting plenty of other Aussies, Europeans and British people just wondering around the resort. Its almost like International students clump together or something…

The beach. Weather wasn't great all week.

Wooo! Spring Break!
Getting into the swing of Spring Break, days were spent sleeping in, going to the beach or pool and drinking an excessive amount of the all-inclusive alcohol. Can’t complain with that! These day sessions produced some hilarious situations including Aidan jumping into the pool fully clothed, Luke and Ben having naked wrestling matches and Ben being convinced after quite a hard days drinking that it was actually 7am not 4pm despite all the evidence in the world produced to try and prove him otherwise (after a small sleep he realised the error of his ways!). The biggest and most frustrating part of the all inclusiveness of the resort was how long it took to get a drink. The bar staff really couldn’t take any longer to pour drinks if they tried, coupled with the huge numbers of people at the bars and policy of two drinks per person meant you could spend upwards of 40mins queuing for a drink. Unless you had some dollars in your hand in which case you were served so quickly you probably didn’t realise what had just happened. All inclusive, yet money is still needed… This basically summed up the resort, despite being one price all inclusive (apparently), on arrival you were required to pay an extra $30 “insurance fee”, and it was roughly $25 to replace a bit of plastic that got you a towel. Absolutely ridiculous if you ask me! It was really interesting that everywhere accepted American Dollars too and not Mexican. I guess it’s a by-product of Cancun being an American Playground and the huge numbers of Yanks there, especially in the Spring Break season.

Lots of partying...

The girls dancing on the bar. As you do!

We spent a couple of nights out on the Cancun strip, where all the bars and clubs were located. This was where you could tell how much money was made of the American tourist. Huge superclubs lined up next to each other competing for trade, packing people into the places waaaaay beyond capacity so you literally couldn’t move anywhere. Most places had $50 covers (yes you read that right) which was meant to include an open bar, but in reality you didn’t really get your moneys worth of alcohol unless you spent the whole time going on an endless loop to the bar, for the same reasons of numbers of people and slow bar staff. However, I have to say that one thing Mexico (and America) has over the UK is the generosity of spirit sizes in drinks. Where as in the UK spirits are measured exactly, there and here they simply pour in the spirit until it looks about right/the level they want depending on how nice or good looking you are, and mix in a tiny amount of mixer on top. THAT is how drinks should be served!

The Strip



The Girls on the bar. Again!
The usual spring break antics were in full swing throughout the week, including wet-tshirt competitions (I obviously won one of those…), lap dancing competitions and others probably not a good idea to mention on here. Sophie being Sophie wanted to enter one of the competitions in a club one night but got rejected for having boobs too small - how harsh is that?! There was a small army of security at the resort and by god did they need it – the number of heavily intoxicated people at like 2 in the afternoon was ridiculous, especially when stupid antics such as running into glass windows were occurring (as one incredibly dumb Brit tried to do and promptly broke his nose. Never been more simultaneously embarrassed and in stitches in my life!) and people having to be wheel chaired (yes, you read right) back to their rooms due to being so drunk they couldn’t walk. The other group of exchanges came home one evening to find a guy passed out on their bed, with absolutely no idea how he got their as the door and windows were locked shut. My guess was that the resorts pixies let him in. That view didn’t go down too well naturally…

Let's swiftly move on from this picture...
I hasten to add that I didn’t just spend the week sitting in the resort abusing my liver. I spent one morning in the local market with Dani, Sophie and Amy which was a very good shout on whoever it was that suggested it’s behalf as although Cancun isn’t strictly ‘real’ Mexico it was nice to see a bit of non-resort life in the local area. I say Cancun isn’t really Mexico as it was built and developed for the American tourist, and its very obvious to see when it gets pointed out to you. For one, there is no central square or church and town hall, which is typical in nearly all Mexican towns and cities. And two its full of Americans. The latter being a bit more obvious that the former of course! The market itself was a bus ride away, and was, in my opinion, very touristy anyway with lots of little knickknacks that don’t really serve any purpose. However, we did have one of the best Mexican meals ever there in one of the small cafes in the centre, with Mexican musicians going around serenading anyone with money out in view. Mexican selling is completely different to that in the USA or the UK. To some extent it’s similar to that of Europe, such as Greece, but in my opinion much more aggressive. They just don’t leave you alone! And then when you say you’re either not interested or haven’t got enough cash on you they take it like a personal insult. Needless to say I found it very off putting to buy anything at the market, but I did enjoy wandering around soaking up the atmosphere and being somewhere a bit different than at a bar laughing at drunk people being stupid!

Down in the Market
Nathan, Amy and I also took a day trip to the Mayan ruins and Chichen Itza (jokingly referred to as ‘Chicken Pizza’), which is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. I have to say it was money VERY well spent! An all-inclusive package tour which normally would have cost $80-90 each we managed to get for $60 by no mean feat of negotiation on Amy and Nathan’s behalf! The day started at the rather horrific time 7.30am after a night out, involving the loss of Amy whose alarm didn’t go off and so very luckily managed to join us at a secondary pick up stop. After an hour of two drive full of good natured banter with the tour guide and some rather interesting historical background on the Mayans, we stopped at our first stop which was a sink hole with healing properties (or so our guide said!) I have to say it was a phenomenal place – a huge underground cavern with incredibly clear blue water. You could just about see all the way down to the bottom – about 180ft deep – with fish swimming all around. We were allowed to jump in and have a swim (obviously not turning down that opportunity!) and it was freezing cold – as expected- but amazing nevertheless. It did however feel very weird to swim out to the middle and look down and see fish everywhere! The next stop was at a rather tourist restaurant where they served ‘traditional’ Mexican and Mayan food. It was nice enough but I wasn’t a big fan of the huge tourist influence on the place with a incredibly large gift shop through which you had to enter and leave by and had far too many people trying to sell all sorts of manners of souvenirs to whoever. Lunch did provide an opportunity to chat to others on the package day with us, including some NC State alumni, which wasn’t ideal but then it was better to chat to them and share jokes about the louder and brasher northerners in our group. But I still managed to get in some choice statements about UNC being better – such college pride I know…

The sink hole

Having a dip

Being all cultural

The main event of the day was going to Chichen Itza, the Mayan ruins. Without a shadow of a doubt these ruins were amazing. Simply amazing. The architecture, the thinking of these ancient people and development of writing and culture than stemmed from them was fascinating. Out tour guide was fantastic too and really knew his stuff – a helpful thing indeed! We spent a good few hours at the site, wondering around and having a look at the different ruins of different buildings. There were also many many stalls of Mayan and Mexican items for sale with the usual Mexican tactic of if you offer them enough stuff aggressively enough they’re bound to buy something. A tactic that must obviously work seeing as so many people flocked to these stalls to part with extortionate amounts of money for pure crap. Not…  Another tactic they used was to call out “one dollar one dollar” as if the item they were offering cost only one US dollar. Don’t be fooled! In reality they were offering it of one Mayan dollar (which doesn’t exist) which by their exchange rate is approx 20 US dollars or whatever they think they can get you for, or else its one dollar off the original high price. Crafty Mexicans indeed!

The three Muska-tourists

We left the resort on the Saturday, enduring another incredibly long journey back to Chapel Hill. The flight from Mexico to Houston went fine, however with being International students, we were first held up at Immigration and then Customs, where Dani’s bag got pulled over to be searched (this also happened on the way out – she’s a dodgy looking girl that’s for sure!), meaning we well and truly missed our flight to Charlotte. After half an hour of searching for seats the incredibly helpful lady at the desk managed to get us on a flight much later, although Luke had to be standby whilst the rest of us had guaranteed seats. Drama indeed... Couple this with the bad weather in Houston, meaning flights were being delayed and cancelled left right and centre, alongside being one of the busiest travelling weekend of the year (in the middle of two Spring Break weeks) meant that there were hundreds of stranded passengers all trying to get on whatever flights they could. Some of them were being told that they couldn’t get on a flight until the Monday. Ouch… Anyways, we managed to all get on the flight to Charlotte, thankfully, after some tense moments at the gate waiting to see of a seat became available (Luke having to fight of other people trying to get on the flight!), only for the plane to be delayed even further for a large party to get on the plane. By this point we had well and truly missed our coach from Charlotte to Durham, so I spent a lot of time on the phone to various people trying to sort out somewhere to stay and getting booked onto the next coach. Many MANY thanks to Lillie and her family in their very kind offers of help, and Connor and Lindsay for spending time on the internet looking stuff up for me! We decided in the end to just sleep at Charlotte airport for simplicities sake, with the hope of getting into the military lounge at Charlotte. That didn’t happen as it was closed – typical – so the floor put us up. How nice of it! The coach back at 8am was very quick considering I slept for all of it, only to then be charge $60 for the taxi back to Chapel Hill. By this point I didn’t care. I just wanted to get into my room, have a shower and chill the fuck out!

Spring Break was an amazing experience, and one I glad I did – despite the vast cost of it! It was great fun being with the group I was with, all of them massive characters and a good laugh. It was also interesting to see the comparisons between the UK stereotype of Spring Break and how it actually was. Sorry to you Yanks, but the stereotypes were in full force and rather accurate. However, there were many similarities with the UK abroad hotspots such as Mali, Zante or ’Shag-alouf’ and had that “schools out” feel to it. Cancun gave me a feel for Mexico as a mental but fantastic place, and I am now keen to go back and see the ‘real’ “Mehico”, not the “American-tourists-are-here-lets-rip-them-off-to-the-moon-and-back-ico” that Cancun was. It’s also made me want to go and have a poke around South America. Looks like the travelling fever has well and truly taken a hold of me!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Lake of Jordan

February 2012

Lindsay (one of the girls who lives on my hall) and I took an incredibly spontaneous trip to Jordan Lake the other day. When I saw spontaneous, I mean like ½ hour before sundown… yeah spontaneous! Lindsay mentioned she wanted to go see the sunset so always being up for doing things I jumped at the chance to go with her. And I'm so glad I did!

Jordan Lake

Jordan Lake is a rather large lake roughly 20mins drive from the UNC campus. Driving at almost breakneck speed (well, my neck nearly broke from trying to see everything whizzing past us!) we parked up next to the road and walked through the woods to the edge of the lake. It was absolutely beautiful with the sunlight and sun setting over the lake. And deathly silent, apart from the few cars going past on the road behind us. And the occasional fish splashing about, making both of us jump. With the standard conversation involving sea monsters and the Loch Ness Monster following… just to freak us out even more!

Is it obvious where I've come from?

Lindsay not sure what a tree is...

Anyways, it was beautiful. And I would highly recommend going. Except maybe in the summer when there’s more on the trees…

Jordan Lake Sunset