Into Palenque

*This is part 1 of a 13-part series.*

The antiquated bus putters to a halt a few meters from the rusty bridge.

“This is the end of Belize — you need to walk over to Mexico.”

There is a popular illusion that countries are separated by squiggly black lines, but I have yet to encounter one. Often what separates one country from another is a bridge – architectural forms that, ironically enough, are meant to connect two places.

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Nothing says ‘welcome’ more than metal-bar cages and stony-faced military, I think to myself while crossing over the murky waters that reek of dead fish. But borders are places where jokes get arrested, so I stand up straight and smooth my beard.

Chetumal is a gaudy rectangle of cinder-block buildings, shrieking billboards and wide streets. As the evening downpour begins, my travel partner S and I scour the downtown core for a budget hotel. We happen upon an inn with the coziness of an insane asylum and the stench of a moldy submarine. The squealing ceiling fan appears to be one rotation away from taking flight and so we put our confidence in the staunch oscillating fan that twirls dutifully for two hours but cannot combat the stifling heat of a Yucatec night.

Morning crawls in like a cranky baby as I open my eyes and sniff my armpits. Yikes. With a ripe a mango from the mercado and stale bread from the panaderia, we concoct a backpacker’s feast by slathering peanut butter all over the place. Provecho!

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With puffy legs and bloated stomachs we meander toward the ADO bus station for  one-way tickets to Palenque. After paying $100 USD for an eight-hour ride, we realize that it will eat through our budget faster than hungry maggots on dead meat. Hitch hiking??

The sun is still lolly-gaggin near the horizon and with our bus departing at 10 PM, we have a lot of time to kill. A sprawling plaza massacres our romantic notions of intrepid travel, but satiates our desires for ice-cream, fries, and internet. Across the mammoth parking lot stands a titanic department store, the Mexican equivalent of Wal-Mart. For two hours we wander aimlessly, laughing at strange wares like nipples brushes for toddlers.

Nibbling on Bob Esponja Oreos and flipping through Spanish National Geographics, we dither on the curb until the sun collapses into the west and we depart for the station.

The bus is so heavily air-conditioned that S begins to experience polar vortex flashbacks. I bundle up beneath sweaters and blankets and tune out for the next eight hours. Suddenly it’s 6 AM and the driver is shouting, “Palenque!”

“Already?” I yawn

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It’s a sidewalk breakfast of tortillas and avocado before we hire a colectivo and set off to see the ruins of Palenque. Crumbling doorways lead to hollow rooms over 1,000 years old. Charred walls mix with the rusty lichens to create a juxtaposition of the reawakened old and the withering new; it sparks my inner romantic. Water droplets digest rock formations in serpentine patterns that slither down the ancient wall.

My drenched back becomes like that ancient wall, uncomfortably soaked with sweat as I trudge upstairs towards the scenic apex of the Temple of the Cross.

S and I ramble about social media and the inability of people to truly “feel” a place while a stylish woman in red heels crests the pyramid, snaps a selfie, and descends once more. Eventually, we stroll back through the market paths between the Mayan temples and catch a colectivo to just beyond the park’s edge.

Next to a green sign for Ocosingo we lift our nervous thumbs and await our fate.

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