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Holiday time! Well, mostly a holiday, as the destination was chosen to coincide with the 2019 World Curling Federation’s annual congress, which was held in Cancun, Mexico from 4th to 6th September. So we constructed a 2 week expedition which would allow us to take in the congress and also allow us to relax, and take in some places of interest.

The itinerary was carefully planned so as to maximise our time in North America. It’s a long way from KSA to Mexico, so in a 2-week window, every day was weighted to gain the best balance of relaxation, interest and business. So, we booked 3 nights in Mexico City, 8 in Cancun and 3 in New York City, which although not in Mexico was an ideal staging point for the journey back to Saudi.

I flew from Riyadh to Frankfurt, (meeting Elaine there who had come from Scotland, having spent some weeks at home) and then onwards by connecting Lufthansa flight to Mexico City. Here we had booked an hotel overlooking the central square, the Cathedral, President’s Palace and the city government offices. Before we went, all sorts of people expressed doubt and concern for our welfare, as Mexico seems to have a reputation for being dangerous, and we were warned of every possible danger from pickpocketing to kidnap and murder. I’m very pleased to report that none of these fates befell us, and should we wish to place our lives in such peril, I am sure there are also areas in the UK or even Saudi where we could go to risk such experiences. But, to be as safe as possible, we did heed the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s advice for travelling to Mexico, which broadly said that official tourist areas are safe, but we should still be sensible about what we do.

On our days in Mexico City we certainly were tourists, and we even went on one of the official tourist sightseeing buses around the city. What we saw of it were of course the best bits, and we saw many places of interest and learned about the history of the city, from the original Aztec culture through the Spanish invasion, the Mexican Revolution to the present day. The city itself is quite remarkable, it is located inside a ring of volcanoes which include the still active Popacatepetl (latest eruption July 2019, none of the nay-sayers mentioned that!). Like everywhere where there is any volcanic activity, the locals are always discussing the possibility of the “big one”, an eruption which could engulf the area with boiling suplhuric ash and other nasties, and wipe out all life in the area. With 9 million inhabitants in the City, let alone the other 13 million in the wider urban area, that would be catastrophic in the extreme. The City, by the way has the highest population of any in the western hemisphere.


View from our hotel's restaurant overlooking Plaza de la Constitucion with city buildings lit up in the national colours of red, white and green. The tents in the square were housing a cultural exhibtion featuring food, drink and crafts. The mountain chain in the distance includes Popocatepetl on the skyline on the left, with a little smoke cloud visible.

Mexico City is also a paradise for historians and archaeologists, with Aztec and other sites being found and explored a cross the city. One that we visited was the Templo Mayor (Big Temple) right off the main square, 5 minutes walk from our hotel, and this comprised of excavated temples and accommodation, and a nearby museum which housed all the treasures found so far. The entry price was a pittance, reflecting the spending power of the average Mexican, and was worth every peso, and more. 


Detail from the excavated Templo Mayor

Next door to the temple was the equally fascinating Spanish-built Cathedral which was grand in every respect, and well worth a visit. There were beggars almost everywhere we went, and my principle is to give something to an organised charity rather than individuals, but I did fork out a few coins for one bloke who said he was walking from Guatemala to California! We took the metro from the city centre to the Chapultapec Park to enjoy a quiet urban park stroll (we had seen it from the tourist bus and decided it was worth visiting), and we had a pleasant couple of hours there. Having walked through the park, we went into the metro again, and found that Auditorio station was sponsored by the British Council and completely decorated in posters, pictures and ephemera exhorting Mexicans to visit or invest in Britain. Incongrous! And no, by the way we didn’t see anything encouraging Mexicans to visit their neighbour to the north. 


Section of a mural at Auditorio metro station

The city had several features that seemed strange to me as a European. One in particular caught my interest, in the city centre and tourist areas there was a small army of organ-grinders who churned out tinny muzak from original German made barrel organs. This seemed to be the sound of the city, never anywhere else have I seeen more than one of these, and definitely not one on most street corners. The organists seemed to wear a uniform of light khaki trousers and shirt, and matching cap. One or two also had stuffed toy monkeys sitting atop the organ. If anyone knows why these are so popular in Mexico City, I'd be interested to hear. Another feature was the fascination of the latin american culture of the "Day of the Dead" Everywhere were reminders of that facet of the life cycle, from murals to shop window displays to souvenirs to street entertainment. 


Mexico City barrel-organiste 

After an internal flight by Aeromexico (efficient and modern although the departure was delayed by birds on the runway), we arrived in Cancun. This is a tourist area in the quaintly named Quintana Roo district on the Yucatan Peninsula some 1,250 km from Mexico City, and is closer to Cuba and Belize than anywhere else of note. We stayed 8 nights at a large 5-star hotel-resort near to Playa del Carmen, and apart from the 3 WCF congress days, we had a nice relaxing time. Whilst it wasn’t the sort of place Elaine and I would normally have chosen, it was an interesting experience. The resort had all the things one would expect, pools, restaurants, entertainment etc, but also had a turtle hatching area. This wasn’t exactly natural though, what appeared to happen was that the hotel ecologist watched for turtles laying eggs nearby, then later on, dug them up and re-buried them at a similar depth in an animal-proof pen in the hotel’s beach area. When the time comes for the eggs to hatch, the turtles emerge inside the pen, and then tourists who have paid for the privilege lift them out of the pen and shepherd them to the sea. Not quite what I imagined happening.

We had three excursions out from the hotel, the first (and best) one being a guided tour to Chichen Itza, the site of an abandoned and ruined Mayan temple complex in the rain forest about 2 hours drive inland. This was a fascinating site and the guides there really brought it to life. As in Mexico City, this is a live archaeological dig, and the forest is being gradually pushed back to reveal more history. 


Chichen Itza - just one of the many Mayan structures in the complex

The other two excursions were nearer to the resort, one to a live theatrical show displaying the history of Mexico through re-enactments on a huge stage in an indoor arena at a theme park called Xcaret. There was a cast of over 100, and horses, dogs and musicians. This was truly spectacular, however the food was a bit iffy. The last was an evening out to Xoximilco on a boat sailing around a large ‘cenote’ – a natural fresh water pool complex. This evening out started with the participants being invited to safeguard ourselves against the local mosquitos. Clearly they were a serious nuisance as the stuff we were given wasn’t the usual spray-on or even cream based repellant, this had the feel of axlegrease. What it lacked in subtlety was balanced by its effectiveness, and I’m glad to report I was little troubled by the mozzies that evening. The little barges were punted around the cenote, each boat hosting 20 delegates from the WCF congress. We sailed past bands of local musicians and tableaux of Mexican historical events. All the way along our boat host exhorted us to drink tequila. I ended up being paired off with a past Olympic champion and whatever she drank, so was I to. Oh dear, sore heads all round the next day.

After the conference, we had a few more days to properly unwind at the resort, then it was off to New York for three nights. Neither Elaine or I had been to the city before (we had previously been upstate on a foray across the border from Canada) so this was a new experience for us. We unashamedly spent our dollars as full-on tourists, visiting the Statute of Liberty and the nearby Ellis Island (trivia point – these are actually in New Jersey state, not New York), the roof of the Rockerfeller Center, Macy’s store, Times Square and some other icons. We hired bicycles and pedalled our way around Central Park, stopping at some of the well known sites, or places we recognised from film scenes. And, we took in a Broadway show, seeing ‘Chicago’ and we were very impressed just how well produced and executed it was. Not a single wrong note or word.

All these places and things we saw can be experienced on film or television, so what personal experiences did I take away? The first was the US customer-service culture. I was fully prepared to tip waiters, bell-boys, taxi drivers and the like for good service, but what surprised me was the level of expectation they have. To put it in perspective, as one of our daughters pointed out, they are paid minimum wages and depend on the tips to make it up to a living wage. But it was in-your-face expectation with no subtlety, as an example at our hotel we had booked and paid up front for inclusive breakfasts, but even so were served at the table with a bill for the service charge. The most memorable thing we saw was on our visit to the site of the World Trade Center – by chance on the 11th of September. The official commemorative events happen during the morning, and we stayed well clear of that area then. However, again by chance, we witnessed the evening gathering of retired and serving firefighters who congregated outside the fire house home to Ladder company 10 and Engine Company 10, adjacent to ‘Ground Zero’, who held their own unofficial ceremonies. 


The memorial to the FDNY personnel lost at the World Trade Center attack, 11/9/2019

As a former UK firefighter (8 years retained service in Kent Fire & Rescue Service) I felt a tremendous empathy and respect for a group of people who had gone to their work on just an ordinary day 18 years ago, and in doing their duty to save lives and property, 343 of them died directly or indirectly as a result of the terrorist attacks.

And so back to Riyadh after an eventful two weeks.

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