This just happened. That’s my pug, Wallace. This photo earned me a once in a lifetime trip to South Korea. But today…today I won the internet! I mean, maybe it would be better if it were a version with my name attached, but still. I won!

that time George Takei shared my photo

But yeah. It does suck that this photo is STILL making the rounds, and it’s always the version without my name, lifted from the T&L website. The internet giveth, and taketh away.

I Want to be a Photographer - but Where do I Start?

I want to tell you all how to be successful in photography: you need to start at the beginning, and practice. When I started shooting film seriously, things were not so simple. I had a composition notebook I carried, I had to neurotically jot down the settings of every frame I took; my f-stop, my shutter speed, the time of day, was my subject backlit? Then I would process my own film, create a contact sheet, and eventually my own prints, and I would make copious notes about my negatives in comparison to my settings, all in the pursuit of learning.

Now of course we have the luxury (and those who can recall the smell of chemicals know what I mean) of digital processing. Why is this a luxury? It’s simple: instant gratification. You know the moment you press your shutter if you have what you need. You can review your display, your histogram, your computer monitor, and know immediately that you’ve gotten what you wanted. If it’s not, you can make on-the-fly adjustments and try again, within seconds.

When you’re starting out with any sort of photography, the best thing you can do for yourself is practice. You cannot compare your work to the work of others – photography is a personal journey. You can only compare your work to the work you did yesterday, or last month, or two years ago. (I suppose this is also a bit of a life lesson, too.)

Do not be afraid to experiment; digital memory is cheap now, unlike “wasting film,” and you can delete and throw away anything that’s not good. Once I’ve gone through my photos and flagged the ones I’m keeping, it feels pretty gratifying to dump everything else into the trash and forget about it. No one cares about your blurry photos, your underexposed images, and chances are you will never get around to “fixing” them in post-processing. Keep the good stuff, and move on. (There are caveats to this rule in photographing people or events, as sometimes the moment is more important than getting the shot 100% spot on...but that's advanced stuff.)

How do you find the good stuff? Trial and error, of course. Experiment with your settings, your light sources. You’re going to see changes from frame to frame with every adjustment you make. Inanimate objects make great subjects to practice with: they don't blink, they don't complain about second chins, and they don't whine if you take a long time.

Do not get hung up on advanced processing techniques such as combining images, or having the “best” lens or the “best” camera body – find out first how to maximize what you’re working with, and then decide later if you want to add to your gear, or even continue photography at all. True professional photography is a serious investment; you don’t want to dive head-first into what can be an expensive hobby only to be frustrated by the complicated settings you don’t understand.

What is your goal? Are you going to make money out of this venture, or is this for your personal enjoyment? What sort of subjects really inspire you? Do you love landscapes? People? Animals? Architecture? Studio work? Weddings? Babies?

No one becomes a great photographer purely by accident! (Some people have an innate eye for art and composition and light and color, but…)

Take whatever camera it is you’re using, and learn to use it the best way you can. If you’re comparing your point and shoot results with the photos I (or the professional of your choice) post, you’re going to be disappointed. Don’t give up. What you need to do first is make accurate images using the tools at your disposal. The only way to do this is to repeatedly try new settings, lights, angles, until you find one that works for you. It may not be what works for anyone else – but if you can achieve consistent results with relative ease, you’re on your way.

Once you’ve nailed your chosen subject see if you can replicate those results with a different subject. Each subject you try to photograph is going to present new challenges. But if you have a basic understanding of your equipment, if you have mastered the settings on your camera, if you have taken the time to learn the basics of photography, it will be increasingly easier to make the required adjustments for shoot.

What’s fun about digital photography is how quickly you can move from crawling to jogging; you don’t have to wait to process film, you merely have to look at your files. And if it’s wrong, keep trying until it looks right. Don’t know how to make it look right? Learn what your settings are. Learn how to adjust your white balance. Learn photography 101, because you can’t start in the middle of something.

Learn to get it right in the camera - Photoshop should enhance your photos, not make them.

If you really want the truth: you can't polish a turd. A bad photo will always be a bad photo and Photoshop will never, ever save it.

There are many excellent resources available online when you’re learning photography of any sort, and many are free. There are the blogs of AdoramaPix, there are tutorials on every camera you could imagine on YouTube, there are groups dedicated to specific cameras and lenses and interests on photo sharing sites like Flickr.

There are probably photography meet ups or clubs in your area, where nerds like me love to talk about gear and technique. Chances are there’s a geek like me at your local camera shop (bonus points if they sell old film cameras), and if you catch them on a not-so-busy day they can show you, hands-on, how to use the settings on your camera.

I’d love to tell you to take X number of steps, set up A camera, and B lens, and use C and D lights/flashes/reflectors, to achieve results E-H...but photography is a little more involved. But don’t be put off by the challenge, as photography should be fun. And don’t be defeatist because we all start somewhere. I suggest the beginning.

cheezing it up while loaded down with gear in Korea

vacaciones en México, el fin

Early Thursday morning we pulled ourselves from our beds, away from our air conditioning and creature comforts, and packed back into our rented Aveo for a two hour drive back across the crazy highway so we could visit Ek’Balam. We had had our spirits dampened by the dreadful experience the day before at Chichen Itza, and were determined to see something really cool – Ek’Balam did not disappoint. The drive there was quiet, we all munched on snacks and sipped cold drinks and contemplated both the early hour and our time in Mexico, which was running short. We did perk up upon our arrival at Ek’Balam and seeing we were the first car there, aside from the employees.

While there were certainly spaces for vendors to set up, their tables were covered with sheets in the early hour and the number was drastically lower than at Chichen Itza. We meandered down a path through the woods, past one little sign, a “map” of the site.

the “map” of Ek’Balam – very helpful…

We were greeted almost immediately not by actors dressed in traditional Mayan clothes and make up, not by guides trying to price-gouge us for a tour, not by people attempting to sell knick-knacks, but by a small pack of stray dogs. Tiny in stature, with giant ears, nearly all were black, one sandy colored one lay on the ruins in the shade. The tiniest pup had a white spot on her chest. Upon greeting her she promptly fell to the ground, exposing her tiny pink belly and protruding ribs, and shook her leg in incredible delight as I gave her belly scratches. She was perfect – with her oversize ears and giant goofy feet and smile, and she became my shadow at Ek’Balam.

After meeting the strays, again so heart-breakingly familiar in Mexico, we came to the first part of the site. What you need to understand about Ek’Balam is that although it may have been documented both in the 1800s by and in the early 1900s by explorers, it was essentially lost to the jungle until excavations truly began in 1998. What has been uncovered is one of the most impressive Mayan sites on the Peninsula – a city that was most active in the late 700s and early 800s CE. (It’s astounding to contemplate such a structure so old.) The first part of the site you come to, after the doggie greeting committee, is an arched building where two “sacbes” meet. Sacbe being an ancient road. The building, with its arches, isn’t massive or imposing, but to think of people walking through those arches (which the Mayans were famous for building) over 1200 years ago is pretty exciting to a history nerd and romantic like myself.

while stepping in for a photo, a very large wasp nest was spotted

the puppy I fell in love with lounging, and us posing for a shot at the gate to the city

Once we were through the arches and over the sacbe we were entering the city. We strolled through the ball court, ever important in a Mayan city, and yet much smaller than the court at Chichen Itza. We wandered up steps of old buildings, and marveled at the giant rock piles still in the jungle around us, all hiding rubble and buildings as yet to be uncovered. There were still buildings you could enter, small rooms, carvings everywhere. And not another tourist in sight. Ek’Balam is still an active archaeological site, and it’s not fully unearthed yet, and this September archaeologists will return with the (relatively) cooler temperatures.

climbing one of “the twins” – matching buildings side by side on the property

The most striking part of the site is called The Acropolis; and it defies description, but I will try. It is 500 feet long, and 200 feet deep, which officially makes it much larger than a football field (a paltry 360 feet by 160 feet), and standing at about 100 feet high at the top of the temple it is the same height of the largest pyramid at Chichen Itza. It should have been a warning, but vultures were literally circling the massive building looming ahead of us. What makes this site particularly exciting is that much of the stucco work and most friezes at the site are still intact. There are even paintings left on the walls the site was so well preserved. When you climb the steps of the Acropolis, about halfway up you come to the entry of the tomb, a giant mouth, likely a jaguar, where the king had been entombed. Because the jungle had so thoroughly obliterated the buildings for so many centuries, this site escaped the looting and destruction from men common at other locales.

not even video would have captured the sheer size of this imposing fortress – the sides stretch far out of the frame of the photo – The Acropolis of Ek’Balam – vultures and a quetzal bird are also in the frame

The Acropolis does have thatched roofs to protect the stucco and carvings and sculptures and paintings, and surrounding the ancient tomb there are ropes – you can’t just waltz in – but you can get incredibly, excitingly close – even close enough to see the paintings on the doorways.

an example of the sorts of details that remain here centuries later

We started the march up the steps, where they have found evidence of blood letting ceremonies, to go see the tomb and the paintings and the view. It was oppressively hot, even in the early morning, with humidity you could taste. There was no escaping the constant wet feeling, the sun beating down, the sound of the vultures overhead, the incredible silence of being in the middle of the jungle, most of the animals sleeping through the searing daytime temperatures. The first 50 feet were, all things considered, a breeze – though we were thoroughly soaked with sweat by the time we reached the shady covered area of the tomb entrance.

the mouth of the tomb – see the large teeth?

some of the astounding detail that remains at Ek’Balam

a painting on the doorway – the colors still remain, one of the figures even has a blue jewel on its chest

It should be noted here, if I haven’t mentioned it before, that I am terrified of heights. I spent my first few years in the pacific northwest hunting off-trail waterfalls, often decked out in Gore-Tex, with rubberized gloves for grip, and lengths of climbing rope. I learned a lot about my limits in those years of hiking, climbing, scrambling, and occasionally dropping into ravines that seemed unapproachable to others. I learned that going up is always easier than going down, I learned to go slowly and plan my route, I learned to always pay attention to both feet and both hands, and any weight on my back (such as camera gear) so as not to lose my balance. I also learned just how far I can push myself before I panic. I once found myself on a precarious outcropping of rock, clinging to an old piece of metal, a river and waterfall raging below me. Three men had to rescue me – I became so paralyzed with fear I couldn’t let go of the metal – they had to come out to get me. I never again pushed myself – even once getting within ten feet of my destination, and forgoing that last ten feet because the assessed risk was not worth it to me or my mental fortitude.

But I was on vacation – from my real life, my sanity, far from home, and apparently I let myself get carried away. The top of the temple didn’t seem that far away, and when else was I going to have the opportunity to climb such a pristine piece of archaeological importance? When was I going to be in Mexico again, would the site still be open to people like me? Would visitors still be allowed to climb the ancient stairs (which are not ADA or OSHA compliant, I’ll tell you), would visitors still be able to get so close to the paintings they could see them? Could we still enter the rooms? I didn’t know – and I am not one to let a potentially once in a lifetime opportunity to pass me by. I shook off a momentary hesitation, and started the climb to the top of the Acropolis.

happier times halfway up the temple, the jungle stretching behind us, the tomb to the right of the photo – where the trees are taller to the left? They’re growing on a mountain of rubble from another, as yet uncovered, building on the site

The climb, for the record, is grueling. The heat is awful, the steps are slick with sand and grit, they are steep, they are narrow – it is much like climbing a ladder to the third story of a building. (It appears I was wearing inappropriate footwear in the photo – but I assure you the were walking sandals, fitted very well, very snug yet comfortable, with rubber hiking soles – I wore them every day in Mexico and can’t say enough about them! I always pack sensible shoes for vacation.) We scrambled up the temple, hand over hand, foot by foot, one step at a time, without pausing to look back the way we came. We reached the penultimate level of the temple – just a few more feet and we’d have a commanding view of jungle as far as the eye could see in every direction. The last few feet were a narrow wooden walkway, with what looked like a questionable railing, and I needed a break from the climb. I was at a relatively safe spot, plenty of room to sit with my gear and catch my breath.

I turned around and sat down on a wide, deep, step, far from the edge of the staircase, and realized what I had done.

I was nearly 100 feet in the air, with nothing but a steep and dangerous stone ladder between me and my death at the bottom if I fell. There were no handrails. There were no ropes. There was no one there to rescue me – this was not an amusement park. This wasn’t even a National Park where a helicopter could come and save my ass and transport me to an emergency room if everything went wrong. This was the real world, and I was on top of it, and I was terrified. I proceeded to sink into the depths of a full blown panic attack. I quickly told my boyfriend what was happening, and to make sure I didn’t tumble down the temple becoming a modern day sacrifice. I leaned back against the stones, held on tightly, planted my feet firmly, and closed my eyes. The dizziness came, the mouth watering came, the stomach started rumbling. Star-bursts were exploding in my brain, I could see them through my clenched eyelids. I was growing lightheaded, I was gasping for breath, my heart was pounding, I was projectile sweating, it was as bad as it could get. I tried, briefly, to put my head between my knees to stave off fainting, and only scared myself more as I leaned forward, closer to tumbling.

I quickly (as I dared) leaned back again, head against a very painful rock, willing myself to melt into the rocks themselves. I kept my eye closed, I tasted the bile, I started belching. I was still sweating. And I was trying my damnedest to remember calm breathing from my years of yoga and Tai Chi. I was forcing myself to practice my inner smile. I was willing myself to breathe in calmly through my nose, and exhale all the fear, all the while reminding myself I was safe, I could take as long as I wished to climb down, I wasn’t dead yet and likely wouldn’t die unless I couldn’t get my act together. Nearly 20 minutes passed at the top of the Acropolis before I gave a weak thumbs-up to my boyfriend and our friends. They made the last ten feet to the roof of the pyramid, took some photos, met a vulture perched on the railing, and then joined me again.

After I'd given the thumbs-up, they knew I would survive, and so did I. I wasn’t going home with a photo of me on top of an archaeological site, covered in my own vomit. I had pushed myself too far, but I had won.

for scale, here’s a shot of us on the Acropolis, a red circle shows where we were sitting (roughly)

I finally had enough of my wits regathered about me to start making my way down the pyramid. I slowly bumped down the stairs, one step at a time, leaving a trail of sweat behind me on the hot rocks. Left foot, right foot, hands planted firmly behind me, bumped my ass down one step, moved my hands down another step, move the next foot, and repeat. The closer I got to the ground, the better I felt. As I was nearing the halfway mark, another family arrived, and the two kids ran up the stairs like billy goats, leaving me scared for them and slightly envious of their lack of a sense of mortality. They were truly the first people we’d seen in our two-plus hours at the site. When I was maybe 20 feet from the bottom I was finally recovered enough, and close enough to the ground, I stood up and took the stairs like an adult – or like the children who had just run past me.

my little doggie I wanted to rescue – see how sweaty and gross I am?!

I said my farewells to my favorite dog in Mexico – and still today contemplate the many ways I may try to get her here to the states and treat her like a real dog, with a dog bed and food and a safe yard and baths and flea meds…I’m seriously contemplating a fundraiser to get her home. I’m such a softy for dogs – and can’t help but feel she doesn’t have much of a chance, there in the jungle, subsisting on whatever scraps she can from tourists, and hopefully kindly archaeologists next month.

We drove back to Puerto Morelos, and returned our rental car. After packing our belongings, in anticipation of leaving the next morning, we strolled into the town for one last dinner. We sat in a restaurant with a patio on the beach. The service was excellent, and a storm was blowing in. They thought we were crazy, but even when warm, fat, raindrops started to fall on us we stayed out on the patio, watching the clouds, enjoying our cocktails and cake and other local treats.

Friday morning we all took one last stroll on our beach, piled into a cab, and made our way back to the airport for our flights home. Interesting note, the food in the airport was the most expensive meal any of us ate the whole week, even for cheap terrfible food. We brought home some unpleasant souvenirs – The Boy got sick with Montezuma’s Revenge (we suspect the ceviche he ate our last night) and spent an afternoon in the Urgent Care receiving fluids and antibiotics. He also managed to develop a nasty rash, itchy and painful, thanks to larval jellyfish. Look up “jellyfish larvae rash” on google if you dare. It’s not pretty. One friend was sick to their stomach, the other also got the rash. I came home unscathed – and we’re still not sure how as I tend to attract disasters wherever I go.

We’ve already talked about a return trip to Mexico, with definite stops in Puerto Morelos, a follow up visit to Ek’Balam, and more time in Valladolid. It’s hard to believe such magical places exist so close to home (seriously – Mexico! It’s RIGHT THERE!). We’ve been telling people all about our great time, the wonderful food, the friendly people in the towns, swimming in the cave with bats overhead, seeing amazing ruins, laughing about Titi pooping on my boyfriend. Again, I am reminded how lucky I am to live this crazy life of mine. I didn’t really need to spend a birthday in Mexico with friends and loved ones to put it in perspective, but it sure doesn’t hurt. And maybe sometime soon I’ll figure out just how to adopt a dog from an ancient Mayan city…

Puerto Morelos, part Dos

We still had more to do with a Tuesday in Mexico with a rental car! After returning the family to the resort, we took our friends from Portland and set off to find a cenote for swimming. Most of the cenotes are on private land, you follow a road sign, you bump down a barely passable jungle trail, and you find a hole in the ground. You pay a nice family some pesos, and you swim. We went to Cenote Kin Ha, got there late in the afternoon. Only one other couple was at the swimming hole, the owners were drinking and celebrating a birthday so they let us in, told us to be careful, and then disappeared to their own party. This cenote is underground – there are two ways to enter – a wooden ladder down to a platform, or a hole in the roof. The cenote is incredibly deep and stunningly clear. It’s in a limestone cave, full of stalactites, two have a hammock strung between them. There are surfboards, some other floaties, and a zip line from the platform. All the while, bats and tropical birds circle the cave. Our friends were brave enough to jump in from the hole – I skipped that particular route.

just chilling on a hammock in a cenote, no biggie

The water is incredibly clear – like looking through glass. I made my way down the ladder into the cave, and found a wooden platform with a zip line. I would be the only one to NOT use the zipline into the water, as I was wearing contact lenses and didn’t want to lose one in the pool. I scrambled down another ladder to a lower platform, sitting at the water line. Bats circled the cave, as did quetzal birds with their brilliant colors.

this is as good as you get with an iphone in a cave

For the next hour or so we laughed and played, on surfboards, the zip line, our friends jumped into the cave from the hole above. Let me be honest here for a minute – it, like other things I’ve done, was a pretty special and unique experience. It was also, like other things I’ve done, totally terrifying in the same breath. You can see stalactites reaching far below the surface, but you can’t see the bottom, which is so deep you can’t touch it without scuba diving. I’m not a great or confident swimmer, but I love the water and can swim well enough to keep my head up. I sink like a stone though, and with no effort can even lay on the bottom of a pool, and I’m aware that if I stop moving I start sinking. With that knowledge I was incredibly frightened the whole time I was in the water! I only swam from the platform to a stalactite, or from the platform to the hammock, or to a surfboard to cling to. It was incredibly unnerving to be in a hole that deep and know if I didn’t pay attention there would be no way to save my ass. I also had an irrational fear the whole time that something was going to grab me from beneath. Let’s just say I spent more time sitting on the platform with my feet in the water than actually swimming – but I’m still glad I went.

By the time we climbed topside the site was deserted, but for the family who lives there. Their children had a small spider monkey tied to a tree, and were playing with it. Now, I know in my heart of hearts, that this monkey was likely kidnapped from the jungle surrounding us, and that it was probably an unhappy monkey, tied to a tree, and that it really shouldn’t be a pet, but I also knew in my heart that I wasn’t going to have a lot of chances in my life to meet a tiny creature who could tear off my eyelids or bite through my hands without warning. I was enthralled. I approached the monkey, named Titi, and he jumped onto me and hung out. He was curious, smelled vaguely of jungle and urine, but was quite calm and happy to chill on my shoulder. I was in smitten. He next jumped to my friend Paige’s shoulder, gave her a once over, got some affection, and then he returned to his tree.

terrible posture, but an awesome moment

My other half realized he may never have an opportunity to play with a monkey again, so he reluctantly stepped to the tree to meet Titi. Titi was thrilled to have such a big, tall guy to climb on, and was totally excited, running from his hands and arms to his shoulders, scurrying from one shoulder to the other, back into his arms. Titi seemed quite taken with my boyfriend. He climbed back onto his shoulder and I went to take video of the cuteness- and The Boy said, “Titi smells bad,” and I assumed he meant like urine. Until Titi deposited a pile of soft poo on my boyfriend’s shoulder (monkeys eat a lot of fruit). I started filming, screaming with laughter, and Titi dropped another poo for the camera. The Boy was not amused, but I couldn’t stop laughing to help him. (Video is here.) The universe smiled upon me that afternoon in the jungle and gave me the finest gift a woman could ask for on her last day of being 34.

We bumped back down the road toward Puerto Morelos, knowing cold cervezas, local dinner, and showers awaited us all, and that we were going to have a long and adventurous Wednesday, my 35th birthday.

Wednesday morning I woke up a year older, and we got up early and drove the toll road across the peninsula. The toll roads are expensive – but when you pay the toll and keep your receipt in Mexico you are buying insurance to drive on that road. The toll roads are also beautifully maintained, and nearly empty, thanks to the exorbitant cost of traveling them. They’re also “safe” in comparison to some of the other roads in the country, so we were happy to hand over 600+ pesos for the privilege of driving. I don’t know much about butterflies, but there were tens of thousands of them during our two hour drive across the jungle. All pastels, yellow mostly, with blues and whites sometimes. Just thousands of them fluttering around. It was like driving through a pale yellow blizzard – incredibly beautiful and a bit sad, seeing the dead ones strewn about the highway.

We arrived at our first destination – Chichen Itza. I should have known by the hawkers tapping our windows with coupons for local restaurants. I should have seen the tour buses as a warning. The Disney-esque queue to get in, the locals dressed in Mayan war paint and head dresses, yelling to have their photo taken with you. The lack of guidebooks and maps, meaning you had to pay a guide, should have been the last red flag, but still we paid our admission fee to see one of the most famous sites in Mexico.

our first view of the pyramid at Chichen Itza Flea Market

And I will always wish I hadn’t bothered. A great archaeological site, a feat of an ancient civilization, a place I’ve always wanted to see, a place my other half studied in college textbooks, has been turned into a flea market. Truly. Thousands of people are standing around, clapping (there’s a cool echo from the top of the main temple when you clap), and the temple is behind ropes – you can’t get anywhere near or any of the ruins on site (which is a blessing as it helps preserve the site but also sad that you can’t really experience the site, either).

But all around you are hundreds upon hundreds of flea market tables, covered in tchotchkes, miniature temples, pipes carved from rock, masks, clay whistles that roar like Jaguars – and the sellers are muy aggressive. You are yelled at constantly from the moment you walk in – “cheaper in the shade!” and “ONE DOLLAR!” and “Do you speak English?” or how about, “Buy this as a present for Obama!” (that really happened) and “best prices here!” Every person is desperate to sell you a decoration, or strike a bargain with you. I was miserable.

a brief moment when there weren’t a thousand other tourists in front – they must have been shopping

I find it pretty appalling that a UNESCO World Heritage Site could be turned into a cheap carnival midway (okay, okay, the Statue of Liberty is on the list too, but still). It totally destroys the experience – it cheapens it. You aren’t there to see the ruins, you’re there to shop and buy souvenirs for your friends. I really, really hated my time there.

“I went to Chichen Itza once. It was awful.” – Grumpy Tree, at Chichen Itza

By the time we left Chichen Itza, we were all overheated, cranky, hungry, miserable, and ready for something that wasn’t so busy. Not too far away was another cenote I’d wanted to visit, Ik Kil. It would prove to be another tourist trap. You shower at the top of a flight of stone steps. There are lifeguards. There are viewing platforms carved into the walls of the cave. They’ve put in a stone floor, and a stone staircase you can jump off of into the pool. It was full of screaming children, tourists right off their buses from the resorts, and even managed to smell of chlorine. But I was determined, on my birthday, to have a moment for myself.

Ik Kil means “tourist who swims with urine” I believe

I sat on the edge of the cenote, with my feet in the greenish water. Water trickles from overhead, vines and roots hang down from the trees above. The sound of running water and the damp were calming, just like being at a waterfall in the Pacific Northwest, or Jeju-do, or Utah, or anywhere else I’ve had the pleasure of taking a moment to enjoy the water. Tiny black carp swam in circles, and the water from above created a wonderful mist in the cave. Birds were flitting about. I sat for a good five minutes, cooling off, tuning out the whoops of tourists, and just smelling the green. It would prove to be the highlight of my 35th birthday, that five minutes of sitting poolside, ignoring the world.

I snapped back to reality and the need for food and cool beverages, much to the relief of my companions. We made our way into the colonial city of Valladolid for lunch.

this is pretty much the only photo I snapped in Valladolid – el caballo con el sombrero pequeno

I wish I had cared more to photograph Valladolid – it’s incredibly beautiful and charming, with wonderful colors, great architecture, a vibrant town square. But I was so spent from our time at Chichen Itza I couldn’t be bothered to do much more than drink a cold soda in the market we picked for lunch. I picked at some fried plantains (which I typically love) but the heat had just ruined the day for me. There were no cooling ocean breezes there in the hot jungle and open spaces of the city. I vow to return some day, and actually explore the beautiful town. Just probably not in July.

After my restless and equally cranky, overheated travel companions had filled their tummies, and after we’d purchased more drinks and snacks for the road, we made our way to the last stop of the day. We had read all about Ek’Balam, another Mayan ruin, and were excited to go see it, as it was supposedly a little more subdued and less touristy than Chichen Itza. We couldn’t believe our luck as we pulled in, that it was so empty.

We walked into the gate area, and were told they’d just closed. The guidebooks that said it was open until 6 didn’t take into account the usefulness of a piece of duct tape on the sign in the entryway – with a handwritten "4:15" closing time. We used the bathrooms, debated paying someone to let us in anyway, and vowed to return early on Thursday morning, when they opened, before we had to return the rental car.

I spent the night of my 35th birthday in the air conditioned condo, I refused to even venture back into the heat and mosquitoes to get dinner with my boyfriend and our friends, instead opting to drink a beer and eat some crackers by myself while I read my birthday wishes on facebook. It wasn’t the best or the worst birthday I’ve ever had, just another day in my life I suppose. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t any less lucky to have spent it in another country with good friends and the love of my life.

I’ve decided to blog about my last days in Mexico as a third entry – as it really deserves its own post. So sometime in the next week I’ll tell you all about the time I climbed the largest Mayan temple on the peninsula.