Grant McWilliams

53 items tagged "Travel"

  • Carcasonne

    I knew I wasn't going to get a lot of site seeing in but I wanted to do two things while here - go to Carcasonne and see some prehistoric caves. Carcasonneis a small village about 40 minutes from Toulouse by train. It's also the home to the largest castle in all of Europe (maybe the world). It cost us55 Euros (roughly $80) by train which I thought was bit steep. On arriving we talked to the tourist information and they gave us a map. We were doing just fineuntil we were approached by this little old blond haired French lady who spoke a mile a minute and was all too enthusiastic to show us her town. She didn't speak a lick of English and was doing her best to help us get to the castle but she couldn't see well enough to read our map and we couldn't hear well enough to get what she was saying. She'd rattle off stories about the history followed by a quick "Do you understand?" at which point a drop of drool wouldfall from our lips and the blank look on our faces would resume. Between Natalya and I we were able to discern that she was 71 years old, had livedin Carcasonne her whole life and has a daughter in Washington but we don't know which one. Oh and the daughter watches kids. She then got out her keys and insisted on us getting in her car at which point my red flag started flapping and we declined. I'm sure she was just fine but up until this point this was going to be a great story to tell and I thought it best to keep it that way. Last think I want is a newspaper headline announcing the finding of a couple of American tourists in a canal somewhere. The one thing she did tell us though is to traverse the esplanade and take the small rue to the left. This we did which was a great tip because it led us across a foot bridge in plain view of the castle. Maybe she did have good intentions.

    Carcasonne itself is a fantasy castle built by the Cathars a long time ago. The Cathars were a group of people that thought Christianity shouldreturn to a simpler time. That and they believed in reincarnation - don't ask how that works...The Catholics declared the Cathars patrons of the Devil or something and decided to exterminate them and eventually succeeded. By the 1600s the castle had fallen into disrepair and the French border had moved south lessening the need for such a bastion. Later the village moved out of it and settled in the valley below. Now it's been restored and the village inside the walls is filled with restaurants and shops. It's actually quite nice and not crazy like Mount st. Michael. The sheer size of it is impressive. The Moors (Muslims) holed up in it when resisting against French troops which is a great story in the area. It's interesting to hear about the Muslims as being the good guys and the Christians as the aggressors. Quite the change of characters.

    We ate at the only open restaurant in the town (It was Sunday) and decided to try the other local specialty - Cassoulet. Cassoulet is a heavy white bean, sausage and duck parts dish cooked in a clay pot. I think it would grow on you but is definitely not something one would call fine food. Natalya was not impressed.

  • Adios Mexico, sad to see you go.

    Last night we left out a few small things from our luggage. We packed the chocolate around the pottery to make sure it didn't get broken. Jade, Natalya and I are all on Pepto to make the flight better. Natalya has a flu, Jade ate ice cubes and I've subjected my stomach to all the strange and wonderful aspects of foreign cuisine that I could find and will continue to do so until we hit US soil! Our coats are packed away because outside of a short ride to the airport we'll be inside until we get home and only when we get to Washington will we need our coats. We're in Mexico - it's always warm here, right?

    I asked for a taxi to pick us up at 4:00am because our flight for Guadalajara left at 6:30. I figured less than half an hour to the airport, an hour to get our boarding passes and get checked in and about 30 minutes to board the plane. That would leave us about 30 minutes extra for unforeseen circumstances and possibly finding breakfast.

    There's one thing that I have to say about Seattle before going on. It might be 48 degrees in the middle of the winter during the day but it's still 43 degrees at night thanks to our cloud blanket. Mexico is more like eastern Washington in that it's 70 degrees during the day and a full 30 degrees colder at night and Puebla is no different. There we stood shaking in our summer clothes with our coats safely tucked away in our bags. Natalya decided that she was going to be comfortable on the plane so she wore her pajamas – which I'm not sure were made to safeguard her against 40 degree weather. Our taxi showed up on time and much to our surprise it was a ratty Nissan Sentra! Who would have thought that a taxi driver in Mexico would be driving a ratty Nissan Sentra? :-) Just kidding, so far they've all been ratty Nissan Sentras. Our driver who loaded our bags in the trunk was a fairly young Mexican man with a pencil thin mustache and only said one word the entire trip – aeropuerto? To which I said “si” as if there's anywhere else to go in the middle of the night. He presented himself as a man of strong convictions but very few words. Maybe convictions isn't the right word considering my very American audience and the preconceived notions of Mexico and Mexicans.. The first thing he did when getting into the car was reach over, grab his seat belt and click it into place. Crap I thought, we're about to buy the farm. You see this is the first time I've seen ANYONE in Mexico use their seatbelt including the police so obviously he's planning on using it. As if that wasn't enough he crossed himself before starting the car. Good God we're all going to die I thought! I'm not sure what our drivers name was but we need to call him something so I've named him Jose Emilio Sergio Ulises Santiago - Jesus for short. For you northerners that's pronounced “hey zeus” just to let you know.

    Since I feel a bit silly calling anyone Jesus I'll refer to him as Jose which of course is pronounced “Hoe Zay” or if you're from Canada - “Hose eh?”. Considering the very un-Mexicanlike act of buckling his seatbelt and the additional fact that the sun had not yet risen I felt uncharacteristically patriotic and had a very strong desire to sing the Star Spangled banner. Or at least the part that says “Jose can you see, by the dawn's early light...”. Jose apparently could see and with a twist of the key and a belch from the tailpipe the tin can fired to life. This I felt was a very special Nissan in that the sound burbling from the tailpipe was different than the other Nissan taxis we'd taken. In a normal Nissan Sentra taxi you have the aforementioned tin can painted in maroon and gold sporting a very anemic four cylinder to which the only thing to say is “it gets great mileage” as saying anything more would just be depressing. The little maroon and gold Nissans don't have a lot of power but once you get them wound up you can cover some serious ground. This Nissan however didn't sound like it had the capability to be wound up as it was very clearly ¾ engine, ¼ air pump. The engine part coughed and sputtered and the air pump portion just wheezed. Jose however, seemingly undeterred put the shifter in gear, revved the engine, slipped the clutch and off we went into the night.

    At the first stoplight Jose pressed the brake pedal until we gently came to a complete stop. We stopped? At a stoplight? Are we still in Mexico? I was shocked and looked over the seat at Natalya to see if she was paying attention. We were sitting at a red light, at four o'clock in the morning, in a taxi, in Mexico and there was nobody coming. After being in Mexico for almost two weeks this act of sitting at a stoplight in the middle of the night with nobody coming seemed to be a very inefficient use of an empty roadway. For a moment out my passenger side window I thought I'd glanced a pig flying by (rotating on a tacos el pastor spit of course). Could it be the Spanish influence in Puebla? Maybe Puebla is leading the country into the modern age and its citizens obey the laws of the road. Just as I was about to conclude one thing or the other Jose hit the gas and off we went through the remaining one second of the red light. In looking at his side profile I saw there in the dark shadows of the car a slight resemblance to Montezuma II, or was it Quetzalcoatl? The thought that Quetzalcoatl had returned from the east to reclaim his kingdom on the backs of giant sea turtles only to settle on driving a taxi in Puebla brightened my thoughts. Humor - has a warming quality to it.

    We encountered 4 more red lights all of which were handled in the same manner – sitting until the last second and then prodding the hamster until he heaved himself up on his feet and started moving. The old hamster was getting a work out which is fine enough considering he's probably got a spare tire or two and asthma anyway. I can imagine him hunched over his wheel, respirator in hand putting one foot in front of the other to get the taxi moving. I've heard that in the coastal cities they use lemmings in lieu of hamsters which makes a lot of sense. It would also explain why after a long day at the beach the taxi ride back to the hotel always costs you double – lemmings run faster toward water and slower away thus costing more.

    As we were getting near the edge of town we pulled up to a stop light next to this hulking dump truck fully loaded with large chunks of concrete, re-bar and miscellaneous junk – all appearing to be massively heavy. The road merged ahead and it was very clear that the dump truck wanted in our lane. The tension rose as we waited for the last second of the red light and then Jose crossed himself, said a prayer and slammed his foot to the floor. The heaping metal dragon in the lane next to us clattered profusely and clouds of black soot bellowed out the sides. Jose jammed through the gears, slipping the clutch and revving the engine to within an rpm of it's life. Half mile or so later we'd gained a couple inches on the bellowing beast – enough so - that it's master ceded the victory to us and backed off. Meanwhile the other maroon and gold tin cans (with all of their cylinders working properly) continued to buzz around us disappearing down the road with their taillights burning brightly not unlike a bunch of fireflies. The momentary look of triumph in Jose's eyes was quickly replaced by seriousness and determination and he very clearly set his sights on the fireflies disappearing over the horizon.

    Our ratty tin can gained speed at a nearly imperceptible pace and let's be thankful that we weren't trying to stay ahead of any glaciers. The increase in speed was so slow that I had to use the frequency of the heavy vibration coming from passenger side front tire to gauge our speed. The road widened as we headed out of town. At that moment I realized that I hadn't shown Jose the name of the airport. What if Puebla had TWO airports and we were going to the wrong one? In a reversal of roles I asked “aeropuerto?” and he said “si” - so much for clarification. Normally airports in Latin American are dropped dead center into the middle of the cities. We were very clearly heading out of town and if the passing signs were accurate – toward Mexico City. Mexico City was only two hours away which got the old noggin wondering even more. Finally I saw a sign pass with “aeropuerto” on it. Then another sign with saying aeropuerto whizzed by followed by a third. The fact that anything can whizz by tells you that we'd built up a little speed and the tire immediately in front of me was bouncing more than rotating. Maybe his brakes no longer worked which is why we weren't turning off at any of the exits labeled aeropuerto. What do I know, I'm just a gringo that can't speak Spanish. Looming on the horizon are a horde of tiny red lights – the fireflies – and Jose had them in his sights!

     

    The vibrations increased both in frequency and intensity until the front end was shaking but we were slowly gaining on other cars! Had the turnoff came up I think Jose would have just kept his foot planted because it would be bad to spoil the hard work and determination needed to get us up to this speed... One by one we passed motorhomes, dump trucks and estate sedans full of families. In Mexico you flash to pass - meaning you put your emergency lights on to let the driver in front of you know that you're passing. If that doesn't work you also flash your brights at him. So there we go haphazardly flying down the road in our maroon and gold tin can, engine about to explode, streamers on the antennae, tires vibrating like a pogo stick and lit up like a Christmas tree in the passing lane the whole way because that's just what you do in Mexico. Knuckles white from strangling the door handle I was relieved when we start to slow and proceed to exit the freeway onto a small two lane road and everyone else starts breathing again. It's very dark and our maroon and gold tin can makes it's way down the paved road that looks way too small to be headed to an airport which makes one wonder about ones destiny especially when one is in Mexico. The fears are calmed as we turn into a parking lot in front of what appears to be the illegitimate child of a warehouse father and a shopping mall mother – it's the dreaded ware-mall.

    Being that Mexican Pesos are worthless at home we crafted a plan to get rid of them before we left the country. I guessed that the taxi ride would cost about 50 pesos which up until now has been the standard. I did not however, dream that the airport would be in the middle of Timbuktu so I asked the driver “cuanto cuesta?” to which he said “ciento treinta pesos” - $130which was more than I'd reserved. I left the kids and bags and went looking for an ATM which was just inside the door where I took out enough to pay the taxi driver. This also left us with even more pesos than we had before the ride. Starving I figured we'd get rid of them inside at a nice traditional Mexican eatery. It's still only 5:30 and there's no restaurants open so the signal my stomach is so impatiently forwarding to my brain has to be ignored for a little while longer.

    The airport “arrivals” area had enough room for a couple of ticket counters, 4 or 5 benches and a box of matches. Apparently there are only 3 airlines that fly to Puebla and nobody was at the Mexicana booth. Knowing not to assume anything I went to the Aeromexico booth and showed him my ticket to which he raised his shoulders, turned the palms of his hands up and said “diez minutos?”. He was saying he had no idea and I should just do the Mexican thing – just sit back and see what happens. Being a seasoned traveler the question I was really asking was “Am I in the right place to catch a flight by this airline?” which he unknowingly confirmed. No more than 10 minutes later a very attractive Mexican woman wearing her coat (I'll get back to that in a minute) showed up at the Mexicana gate along with baggage people. All bags were being hand searched and tagged. We find out later that our plane is too small for carry-on bags – an image of a reconditioned crop duster works it's way into my mind – with chickens – and old women carrying bags of onions. The very attractive (did I mention that yet?) ticket lady asked for our passports, gave us baggage claim forms, boarding passes and stapled our customs forms together for when we leave the country. The whole time she was wearing a heavy winter coat. So was the baggage search crew and the guy putting bags on the conveyor belt and the people waiting in line – as was everyone in the building because it was positively FREEZING! There we stood with our knees knocking, teeth chattering and hands regrettably reaching out toward our bags holding our coats as they wound their way down the conveyor belt and out of sight. Figuring it was only cold on the side of the airport with the door wide open we decided to go through security post-haste to the warm side where as we also found everyone wearing their winter coats. I then realized that the entire airport may not even have heating facilities considering it's the dead of winter and daytime temps are about 70 degrees.

    The airport had all of three gates and it looks like the nearly new building has room for about two more which were walled off because what airport could possibly need more than three gates? I don't however think they walled the rest off because they didn't want to heat the whole thing! There were no restaurants to be found but after about 30 minutes of us mimicking a bunch of epileptics in a timeout huddle a man opened a coffee stand which got stampeded immediately. I didn't want any coffee but we wanted to get some bottled water for the plane so I jumped in line behind about 8 other people none of which wanted a plain old coffee – they all wanted fancy coffee – cappuccinos and such. I thought that a bit odd since we're in Mexico until I noticed they were speaking English – Americans! In Puebla? We creeped one cappuccino at a time forward until I only had one American lady in front of me which of course ordered a couple cappuccinos, frappachinos, crappachinos, mochachinos and other random chinos. I felt like tapping her on the shoulder and asking her in my best Brooklyn accent “Yo lady, don't ferget to order a freakin' Al Pacino, it's not like nobody in this buildin's waitin' for a freakin' airplane or anything” . Some people only enforce the stereotype. As I stand in line waiting for Al Pacino to show up for the American broad I see Natalya stand up and move toward the gate which means I need to go.

    The very same attractive Mexican lady (I did mention that didn't I?) that took our bags and printed our tickets was also our gate agent. When they announced the flight to Guadalajara only four people walked to the gate – us. How big is this plane anyway if only four people are riding on it? Maybe we filled it up! Images of a cropduster once again formed in the thought bubble over my head. When the door opened for us to walk down the gangway to the airplane we realized we weren't looking down on the tarmac as we do at most airport gates but we were directly ON the tarmac! It was so dark outside that when looking at the terminal glass we only saw a bunch of Mexicans stuffed into winter coats, four shivering Americans plus one more holding 23 cups of foaming coffee waiting for Al Pacino.

    The very attractive (I'm sure I mentioned it by now) Mexican lady led the four of us out onto the tarmac and down a painted “sidewalk” thankfully past a couple of crop duster sized airplanes and then turned toward an business sized jet that held maybe 50 people. A small plane but huge for four people I thought. Once on the plane we realized that it already had people on it. I'm not sure where it could have come from that early in the morning but Puebla was not it's origins. It was warm though, that part I knew.

    We soaked up the warm air blowing from the vents as our plane lifted off and rose in the sky. The sun came up and bathed the ancient Mexican landscape in a glow of warm rays as it's been doing for millions of years. Mexico is a lot like life – there are difficulties and struggles, trials and tribulations, exciting human connections and depth all of which are dotted with memories of very warm people and a huge dose of humor. As the plane glided through the early morning sky I felt relieved in knowing the rest of the trip would be hassle free as I was going home and yet sad as I always am when leaving a foreign land. Sad because I've been touched deeply by this place and it's people. That affected portion of my being may remain dormant for years before I get back and get re-acquainted. One thing is certain - those are cherished memories that will be wrapped tightly and kept in a safe place so I can take them out whenever I want – whenever I need a smile and a laugh. Mexico - you're something else.

  • Airport security screeners miss 70% of fake bombs

    Just like I've been saying for years - the security at airports is to make us feel secure so we keep flying and the airline industry stays healthy. Whenever they pull anything out of my bag and deem it a security list I have to keep mum about the fact that I'd already gone through security at 7 airports previous to this one and they just found the offending item. I'm certain that anyone with a brain could carry enough parts on a plane and blow a hole in the side. The reality is there just isn't enough people wanting to do it. Terrorism isn't about keeping innocent people from doing things, it's about scaring them.

    According to a USA TODAY article the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) had agents in plain clothes carry phony bomb parts through security at LAX and Chicago O'Hare to see which would get spotted. Seventy-five percent of the parts taken into LAX got through without detection, and 60% at O'Hare. SFO (San Francisco/Oakland)  hires private companies to do the screening and only 20% of the parts went undetected.

    A test in 2002 showed they failed to find guns 24% of the time. In the late 90's they missed 40% of bombs, by 2002 they were missing 60%. In the next 5 years they might as well dissolve the TSA altogether for ineffectiveness.

    This basically means that if there's a terrorist on the plane you should probably go ahead and violate the FAA's regulations and call your loved ones on your cell phone in hopes that it will mess up the aircrafts navigation system (It won't).

    It seems their ability to detect completely assembled bombs has gone up though (as long as the word BOMB has been stenciled on the side in block letters using lead paint).

    Grant

  • Airport Security.

    Every time I go through security I feel this way. Credit to xkcd.com

  • Amtrak provides less Agony for half the cost of flying

    I've done articles before comparing the Seattle to Portland travel options of driving vs. flying vs. the train. Although my initial impression was that driving would win on cost and flying would win on speed I was wrong. All three methods take the same amount of time from downtown to downtown if being fair (ie. you need to put gas in the car, get through security, wait in line to board the train etc..). The train ended up being cheapest for up to 3 people and by far the most enjoyable. Flying lost every comparison. When you fly you have less usable time, more interruptions  (light rail, security gates, boarding, wireless disconnect, de-boarding, light rail) and more discomfort (small seat, TSA) so it lost in every aspect. The Amtrak Cascades won in most aspects outside of freedom once arriving at the destination and frequency.

    The reason I'm writing about this again is that Hipmunk a travel search engine has added Amtrak to it's search results. What's also interesting about Hipmunk is that it includes an Agony filter. You can sort by least Agonizing trip. I'm not sure what criteria Hipmunk uses but I'll show the results for Seattle to Portland trips. Also keep an eye on the prices for a round trip ticket. The trip with the least agony is also the cheapest.

     

  • Anthropology and our last day in Mexico City

    Today we go to Oaxaca but first... (as all great plans start). I've mentioned the National Museum of Anthropology several times and I'm going to say it again in case you haven't gotten the hint – this museum rocks! This is the Louvre (or the Smithsonian if you don't know what a good museum is) of meso-American civilization. I can't stress enough about how impressive this museum is. A couple of years ago I went to the Smithsonian and my summary went something like this – art museum is a joke, Air and Space museum was great, Holocaust museum one of the best in the world, Native American museum was an insult to Native Americans. The Smithsonian is a hit and miss experience but when you get to the four story Native American museum and realize that two stories are empty, one has half filled with a gift shop and one is full of pictures of artifacts you'll be wanting your money back (it's free). There is one small wall with Central American jewelery and such but it only makes you with you'd bought a different plane ticket – to Mexico.

     

     

     

    Anyway our bus was scheduled to leave at 1 pm and we needed to check our bags at 12:30 which didn't give us a lot of time with the museum opening at 10am. We also needed to be completely packed up by the time we left the hotel because we'd just come back to turn in the keys and catch a taxi to T.A.P.O. Station. In the process of packing our bags back up Piper's zipper totally split and not amount of jury rigging by me could get it to work again so all of her stuff needed to be unloaded and packed up in the free space of our bags. Yes, I said free space. I was going to take a picture of our “kit” because I've had so many requests but in all honesty I was so busy the night before we left I never went to bed so no pictures. My rule when leaving the house is that each person has one carry-on bag that's 2/3 full so we have room for souvenirs. All four of our bags have a total weight of 60lbs and last us for months at a time. This includes my Mobile Internet device, a laptop, enough clothes for 6 days, all toiletries, guidebooks, journals and any other miscellaneous items. Because this trip is only 10 days we actually left with less than that which meant that after buying souvenirs we were still able to get Piper's junk distributed between our bags. This also means though that we no longer had room for pottery from Oaxaca so we'll need to find another bag.

     

    Once the bags were packed we hit the street to the Metro station. Thirty minutes later we're exiting the Auditorio station and walking toward the museum. Starved we stopped at a street vendor and bought 4 carne tacos with cactus for a grand total of …. wait for it.... 20 pesos! That's $1.50 for four folks... The walk to the museum took 30 minutes and there was about 10 people in line when we got there. I could have gotten a discount for at least one of my ninos but I was in a hurry so I paid full price. Each two story building has a section of time and/or a certain civilization or group of civilizations. We went straight for the Teotihuacan building which also housed the Toltecs and a few others. We've been here before so we skimmed a lot. After that we saw the Olmecs, the Aztecs, The Maya and many other groups before deciding it was time to go. We had 15 minutes less time to get back than we took to arrive. As we were walking out the door we noticed the line had grown to about 100 people. Somewhere in the back of the mind I was reciting what EVERY guidebook says, show up when the doors open and you'll walk right in. Show up later and you'll be spending valuable vacation time standing in line. One hour made all the difference.

     

    We walked about a million miles per hour and hit the metro in full stride. We made our connection, got off a stop early to save time and just missed our taxi because we were 4 minutes late. Still not bad, we'd shaved 10 minutes off our time. The hotel called another taxi while everyone used the bathroom and we waited. An unmarked car showed up but I wasn't surprised because what happens is hotels pay family and friends of family to do taxi duties and since we'd stayed there before we knew the drill. The hotel said it would take 30 minutes in the taxi and we only had 40 so we didn't have a lot of time to spare. We'd done the same trip in 24 minutes on the metro so I was questioning my choice in taking a taxi. For the first 15 minutes we crawled along the street slower than walking speed and I was really starting to question the decision but once we got out of the historic center things sped up and we arrived at the bus station in 24 minutes – the same as the metro but we paid $9 more for the convenience. Running through the bus station we arrive at our gate 15 minutes after luggage check time but they took it anyway. Not having anything but one taco each we grabbed some junk (literally) from a stand next to our gate and boarded the bus. Since it was first class they gave us drinks when boarding and we had our junk food which got us through the trip.

     

    Part of the reason I rally for rail so much is right of way. Theoretically we could have right of way with buses but for some reason we don't. In Mexico City they have bus lanes where only buses are allowed which makes sense. On the freeway though they have no such thing and we sat in traffic for an hour just trying to get out of the city. They played a movie in Spanish that I now want to see. I have no idea what it's called but it takes place in San Francisco and India. The synopsis is that a call center worker in India gets a thing for a bank customer and calls him repeatedly until she decided to fly to meet him. It was hard to follow because of my lack of Spanish lingual skills but it seemed interesting. They also played Fire Proof which I've seen before and once was enough. The last movie was one with John Cusack in it and was painfully slow so I listened to podcasts.

     

    The area around Mexico City is dry and arid but there was a time when it wasn't. Apparently the natives that lived there over forested and stripped the land of trees. The Spanish later drained the giant lake Texcoco which made matters worse. However, once we got up into the mountains pine trees appeared and you could have imagined without too much trouble that you were in the Rocky mountains. I think imagining the Cascades would have been a stretch but the mountains were similar to the rockies. Later the pine trees turned to cactus forests and Itzy and Popo loomed in the background. Popo is a smoking active volcano and Itzy is a snow capped inactive volcano. I will have to look them up but I believe they're both between 18,000 ft and 19,000 ft. Both very tall. There's a story behind them but I don't have time to tell it now. Something about an Indian girl and her boyfriend falling in love and Itzy's father sending Popo off to war to become a man but then lying to Itzy about him dieing. Juliet of course, I mean Itzy dies of a broken heart and Popo follows soon after. Seems humans the world over have similar problems and come up with similar stories.

    The land eventually turns to cactus forests so dense they could be pine trees and then you come into Oaxaca state. It's interesting that crossing borders between Mexican states is about as much work as crossing into Canada with border police brandishing machine guns and body armor. We whizzed right on through since we're a bus but we had to do three state crossing en route so that slowed us down a bit. We finally pulled into Oaxaca city 40 minutes late. The hostel was about 1 mile from the station but we decided to take a taxi anyway. If you ever want a story to tell just take a taxi in a Latin American country. I'm going to skip it because I've told it before but I will say that it seemed like the taxi's ability to turn and stop were not equal to it's ability to go fast. Just so I didn't have to explain or the directions in Spanish or retrieve the address I told him the zocolo and thats where we went. Total cost was about $4.

     

    Being dropped in the zocolo at Christmas time is like joining the circus. Street performers, live bands and chicklet sellers swarmed but we were able to beat them off and proceed to our hostel. You might be wondering why a family would stay at a hostel instead of a hotel. The short answer is that Oaxaca has been overrun by tourism (I'll get to adding more about that later) and the entire city was booked. Hostels used to be just for people under 30 years of age and only dorms. There were no private rooms available so I rented 5 beds in one room so we wouldn't be sharing. All 5 rooms cost me $40 a night. I can handle that since it comes with free breakfast and Internet. The bathrooms are down the hall but we've had a lot worse...

    I'm going to plug the hostel for a second because I think it's worth it. It's the Paulina Hostel about 3 blocks from the zocolo and is so clean you could lick the floors. Any Mexican city is noisy but Paulina has an internal garden area where you can escape the chaos. It's also interesting to note that there are giant holes in the roof that lead to a pool of water on the first floor. This concept that you don't actually need a roof is a bit foreign to me since I live in a land where heat is necessary in the winter and shelter from the rain is useful. Here the hallways are open to the environment as is the aforementioned giant hole in the roof over the pool of water. It reminded me in a small part of being in the Amazon. Just for reference it's December and 81 degrees out. The temperature here only varies about 10 degrees a year. Also the dining area is open to the garden area so as I type this I'm sitting at a kitchen table outside. I wish I had a hammock is what I wish. I'd like that.

     

    The last thing I'll say today before singing off is that we ventured out and decided to celebrate our coming to Oaxaca by eating anything we wanted. That meant we went to a really fancy white table clothed restaurant with balconies overlooking the Zocolo and I ate my Mole Negro. It was excellent of course and Natalya had Mole Almendrado since she doesn't eat chocolate. This too was excellent. The waiter rushed over at one point and laid a cloth napkin on my lap and I looked down and realized I'd dropped mine. He whisked it away to the cleaner pronto. The food was expensive by Mexican standards but all four of us ate fine food for about $40 total.

     

    Upon finishing we were beat and returned to the hostel to hit the hay. Tomorrow is market day...

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Arrival...

    For our first dinner out we went to the Capitole square which has restaurants along one side. After perusing the menus (le carte) of each we decided to eat at Le Florida which had Foie Gras and Magret du Canard. The Foie Gras was excellent and the Canard OK. I'm afraid we've been spoiled by Duck Breast at Le Square Cafe in Paris. We returned to the Junior hotel and Natalya went straight to bed. I had to get ready for class and stayed up late to work on curriculum.


    At 3:30 am the electricity went off so I fumbled around until I found my way to bed. The next morning the wifi didn't work (nor did the hot water) but it was already checkout time so I paid for another night. Needing electricity (who would have thought that important?) and wifi we spent the day looking for another hotel. The Hotel Sernin around the corner (also over a restaurant and facing the Church) was very nice but because of a rugby match and a marathon they decided to bump their rates by 30% which
    didn't seem like a really good idea to me. We also went by Hotel des Artes which gets good reviews in Let's Go. They didn't have wifi nor could we see a room so we moved on. We landed at Albert 1er (pronounced Albert Premier) which turned out to be excellent for the same money as the Hotel Junior. However, their wifi was on the brink too. Since we had already paid we went back to Hotel Junior for the night and I prepared for work. For those who've never stayed in a French hotel
    they're something else. The process for making a French hotel goes something like this. You take the standard human and draw a line around them in both laying and standing positions. Now you place both drawings next to each other and draw a square around them. This is your hotel room. The person standing is the area given to the bathroom and the person laying is the area given to you when sleeping. If the architect is particularly generous he may allow the door to the room swing inward.

    My previous post was titled "And I thought I was going to France". I said this because this city is as if someone took France, Barcelona and a little of Mexico and blended it on high. The street signs are in Spanish (I think, it may be Catalan) and French. The recording on the Metro that announces the stations is in French and the second language as well. Not to mention these people can't dress themselves. Are we in France? I'm not sure.

  • Busses rule?

    So lets get this out of the way right now, I don't like buses. I don't like them in America, I don't like them in Croatia and I don't like them in Germany. I don't like them sam I am! The one exception to that is buses in Mexico which are quite nice if you get Deluxe class or Business class. I'd even rather ride a first class bus in Mexico over any other bus I've ridden. The classes go First, Deluxe and the nicest is Business just in case you don't know. So why am I posting about buses? Because in lieu of great train or airline service in the US new bus companies are popping up. It takes roughly 4 hrs to go from downtown NY to downtown DC on a bus. It takes about the same time or more to get to JFK, go through security, board a plane, fly, leave Washington Dulles and take a taxi to the city center of DC. Here's the kicker, the bus costs as low as $1! No matter what happens in the airline world there will never be a sustainable flight from NY to DC for $1.

    So I found two companies doing this - Boltbus and DC2NY. I checked prices and Boltbus came in at $10-$20 and DC2NY the "upscale" bus company came in at $28 one way. There was a slight discount for a return ticket ($50 both ways). Both companies offer free onboard wifi internet access. So not only do you not have to go through security, you don't have to stand in line to get on the plane, you don't have to take a taxi and you don't have to be bored for the 4 hours. I didn't think I'd ever say this but buses may be the best way to get between NY and DC.

    I just checked the Amtrak website and the train takes the same amount of time but costs $144 a person. Jet Blue charges $147 and with getting to the airport 30 minutes before flying and getting away would take almost exactly 4 hrs.

    To recap I used the same days and similar times for the two bus companies, Amtrak and Jet Blue.

    New York to DC, round trip

    Bolt Bus $20 4hr 30min wifi, power outlets, reserved seats
    DC2NY $46 4hr 30min wifi, no power outlets, no reserved seats
    Megabus $16 4hr 30min n/a
    TonyCoach $30 4hr 30min Uses gotobus.com for cart
    Todays $35 4hr 30min Uses gotobus.com for cart
    Eastern $36.75 4hr 30min Uses gotobus.com for cart, free wifi
    Amtrak Ascela $322 2hr 45min  
    Amtrak $144 3hr 20min  
    Greyhound $75 4hr 30min Found promotion for $40 though
    Jet Blue $147 1hr 20min Taxi/Train to and from airport and going through security - 4hr travel time
           
           

     

    Bolt bus seems to be the winner. They have power plugs (DC2NY doesn't) 3 extra inches of legroom, wifi and a loyalty program. After 4 trips you get the fifth free. This seem like an incredibly cheap way of going between these cities. Bolt Bus also has service to Boston and Philly now.

    It looks like the fastest way to get from downtown New York to downtown DC is by Amtrak Ascela which takes just under 3 hrs. Amazingly so that train can do 150 mph but is limited by the states it goes through it averages 75 mph. Go America... You can take the standard Amtrak train and it only takes 35 minutes longer and you saved yourself a couple hundred dollars. Add another hour to your journey and you saved another $100.

     

     

     

  • Cheap travel for Armed Forces personnel

    As many of you know one of the things I do is travel and when I'm not traveling I'm either planning to travel or helping others plan to travel. I just ran across this site that specializes in travel for US Armed Forces personnel. From their website:

    "Space-A rentals are AFVC’s “space availability” program, providing affordable condominium vacations at resorts around the world for only $329* USD per unit per week."

    Notice that this is per unit and not per person. If the unit holds 2 people you're looking at about $25/day per person which is amazing. You might be wondering what kind of shack they'll put you up in and you'd be surprised. A quick search of Hotels in France brought up a resort on the water in Languedoc (on the Mediterranean) with spa and everything. The price- $329 for two people for a week.
     
    See the site for photos - http://www.frenchwayoflife.net/int/host.php?ref=thalbanyul. Another quick search brought up an all inclusive resort in Puerto Vallarta Mexico that sleeps 6 for - wait for it.... $329/wk per unit or roughly $9/day per person for everything including food!
     


    For anyone that doesn't mind a resort this is an awesome deal. Granted this is on a Space Available condition but if you're flexible great deals can be had. Not everyone is eligible (I'm not) but a lot of the family would be. I'll just post the list here.

    * Member of the United States Uniformed Services (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy, NOAA, USPHS; active duty, and both active and inactive Reserve, Auxiliarist, and National Guard) or an adult dependent
    * Retired Member of the United States Uniformed Services (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy, NOAA, USPHS, Reserve, Auxiliarist and National Guard)
    * Spouse or child (21 or older) of an active or retired member of the United States Uniformed Services (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy, NOAA, USPHS, Reserve, Auxiliarist and National Guard) AND have a current DD Form 1173, United States Uniformed Services Identification and Privilege Card.
    * Civilian employee of the DoD or a United States Uniformed Service (appropriated, non-appropriated, or retired).
    * Foreign exchange service member on permanent duty with the DoD
    * American Red Cross personnel serving overseas with the U.S. military
    * DoD Dependent School teacher
    * Disabled American Veteran rated @ 100% with a valid United States Uniformed Services Identification Card.
    * Contractor working on a military installation and in possession of an ID card issued by the installation.

    If you're chomping at the bit here's the URL http://www.afvclub.com/index.html
  • Chip and Pin credit cards for American Travelers

    When I'm in France I can use my VISA card for purchases but the old style magnetic strip cards have been all but phased out over there and replaced with "chip and pin" cards that are a great deal safer. Anybody with $20 in their pocket can buy a machine to read the data off a magnetic strip card. Most establishments and all ATMs in France will still read the magnetic strip cards but as time goes on it gets more difficult to use them. On occasion they'll be refused and other times the cashier just doesn't know what to do with them. The last thing you want when you're in a country that doesn't speak your language is to have a cashier asking you questions while 20 angry customers wait for you to stammer. However, I've always been able to work around all of this by taking out enough cash for the day and using it as backup if my card doesn't work.

    However, there is one situation where cash and a magnetic strip card won't help - Velib. Velib is a very cool bicycle renting system in France. Every 300 ft or so there's a station with a ton of Velib rental bicycles. You rent the bike and ride it to your destination then turn it back in. The first 30 minutes is free so if you're just going from place to place you may never pay anything. Or you can just keep the bike and pay by the hour. However they only use Chip and Pin credit cards keeping me on my feet. That is until now.

    Travelex, the money changing people have introduced what they call the Chip and Pin Passport which is effectively a prepaid VISA card that has a chip in it just like the European ones.

    To purchase one you got to a Travelex store and load the Chip and Pin Passport Mastercard with the amount of Euros or Pounds Sterling that you need. After your trip if you want to reclaim any remaining money you return to the store and they'll give you cash back. I'm not sure where Travelex is making their money but considering their bussiness is buying and selling money I think they view this prepaid cash card the same way they view money exchange - you're buying foreign currency from them, they're just giving it to you on a card. I'm sure the cost is in that process and not the card itself.

    Visit the Travelex website for details.

  • Corail to Toulouse

    After a night in Paris we took the metro to Gare Austerlitz, and wandered through the station looking for the Grand Lignes as they call them. Anyone who's not been in a Paris train station probably doesn't know of this experience. So many people take trains in France that the train stations are the size of small airports and Paris has 6 of them. They combine regional trains (Corail), High Speed intercity (TGV), Suburban (RER) and Metro (subway) trains all in a dizzying array of floors, escalators and shopping malls. My first trip through Paris I came via the tunnel under the English Channel. The gentleman in London's Waterloo station told me to take the C1 RER from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon. I made it and to this day I have no idea how I pulled it off. I've retraced that path and it was sheer luck. I remember asking someone if they spoke English but they said no. Just getting from the TGV to the RER level through massive numbers of escalators, payment turnstiles, confusing signs etc. and then getting on the RER and getting back out of the RER system, to the right level in Gare de Lyon AND finding a booth to get my ticket was a miracle. We've traveled on many many trains, subways and suburban rail systems now and even with that knowledge I give myself ample time to transfer between transportation systems. It seems that when you exit the metro or RER you spend quite a lot of time walking down tunnels, up stairs, down stairs, through more tunnels and maybe get to ride an escalator or two and hopefully you don't tear your new cashmere sweater climbing under a barbed wire fence trying to save time. The Paris metro system is NOT handicap accessible (mental of physical)!

    So the metro ride to the train station was uneventful but the walking down tunnels, up stairs, down stairs, through more tunnels and maybe get to ride an escalator or two and climbing under barbed wire fences was a little irritating. Scratch the part about the barbed wire fence, that's a different story. By now our bags are chock full of crap we probably don't need and are getting quite heavy. In addition we're carrying my 9x7 carpet that I bought in Toulouse and Natalya has her daybag packed as well. We do find the Grande Lignes and thankfully we'd printed our ticket in Toulouse the night before.

    Not having had breakfast nor the time to find it we boarded our train. I stopped to ask twice about the ticket. In the French train system you have to validate your ticket by inserting them into little yellow boxes at the head of each platform which then stamps a time on them. It would seem that since most all tickets are only good for that one train ride that validating the ticket is a useless waste of human energy since after all you couldn't use the ticket twice. I've stopped questioning the wisdom of this since afterall it's a French thing and you just don't get anywhere by questioning the French. As much as I love the French there is the French way and then there's the logical way. Anyway our ticket was printed from the Internet and I could see myself folding it up and cramming it in the validation machine resulting in me removing the shreds with tweezers while the SNCF staff looks over my shoulder and complains in French. The alternative was to just board the train and pray to Napoleon that validation wasn't necessary. The fine for not validating your tickets is roughly $100 or in this case equal to the price of the tickets. After being on the train for a minute I exited and asked another conductor which said "It's not needed for this type of ticket". Still until the ticket man comes along and doesn't fine me I'm not off the hook.

    After the train started moving I figured it was time to engage in the time honored French tradition of finding Croissants and bitter orange juice. Trains are hilarious sometimes because depending on the rails and or the car itself you may have a smooth as glass ride (TGV at 200mph comes to mind) or be practicing your bull riding for the local rodeo back home. This was one of those cars where if you were drunk you could probably walk a straight line. It was nicely finished but after walking the length of it I realize that the bolsters on the headrests are not to keep your drooling sleepy head from falling into the aisle but for people in the search for croissants from landing in your lap. The advantage trains have over airplanes is that you can go for a walk in the middle of your journey. It's a great mix because not only do you have the very natural act of hunting for food but you get adventure (jumping between moving rail cars) and you get to practice your swagger (and your pardons and excuse mois if you never quite get the rhythm down). The bar car as they say was where it always is - on the exact opposite end of the train from where you are. I'm not sure how this works but the people immediately next to the bar car probably cannot see it due to a vortex in the time space continuum and are forced to also trek to the opposite end of the train as well only to find the engine and as a result have to call off the expedition and return to their own car only to find as if by magic -  the bar car. It makes for an interesting time because the view from your seat during the journey isn't that much different than attending a runway show at Galleries Lafayette. The difference being that the steady stream of people walking the aisles on a train appear drunk, disillusioned and starved and the models at Galleries Lafayette only possess two of these traits. Which two depends on the model.

    The French countryside is pretty but not amazingly so and resembles western Washington for the most part. What a lot of people don't realize is that most of France is made up of farms so about the time that you're completely engrossed in this idealist view of romantic French countryside full of vineyards and stone house you see a rusted tractor sitting in a field and a bunch of cows that don't look any different than what you'd see in America. France = farms.

    We arrived in Toulouse at 2 pm. The market at St Sernin winds down at two and it will take us about 30 minutes to get there but we're still waiting on word from Jim about a hotel room. We really wanted to hit that market again and it only happens on Sunday. Jim mentioned that he'd let us crash on his floor saving us another $150. We walk by the Internet cafe to check the email and find that Sebastien and Jim have booked a restaurant and are expecting us and that we have a free room. At this point it doesn't make sense to go back to the train station to catch the metro or walk to the next station to catch it because then we'd only go one stop and will have paid $4 for that privilege so we hoof it. By the time we arrive it's clear that we're not catching the St. Sernin market so we drop our bags and go to lunch at the restaurants in the floor above the market at Place Victor Hugo.

    The market at Place Victor Hugo is an interesting one because it's stalls of meat mongers with whole chickens, ducks, and other forms of animals along with ranges of produce and everything else you need to fashion a meal. To get upstairs you climb an unkept wooden stairway to the next level and as you open the door you realize you're onto something that the rest of the town already knows about as the entire floor full of various eating establishments are chock full of people eating. The food that you order here actually comes from down below. The duck probably had feathers on it a short time earlier. Even though we had reservations we end up waiting about 20 minutes. They're out of Magret de Canard so I take the menu.

    The menu for those who aren't versed in "la French" is not the physical folded piece of paper with items on it as that's the la carte. If you order a la carte you're ordering off what we'd call the menu or literally "from the card". If you order le menu you will be surprised to not get la carte but a predetermined list of starters, main plates and possibly a dessert for a set price based on an unknown formula. However, if you choose the formulae you will get a subset of la menu (list of items form la carte) made of up items from la carte (the menu). Still with me? To make matters worse if you order a la carte and only choose an Entrée your server will remain at your table pen in hand staring at you and you don't know why. In France the entrée is the starter and the plat is your main course. The plat translates to plate so you're starting with the Entrée and ending with the plate. Sounds logical, that's sort of how I determine to stop eating in America too - when you get to the hard thing you're done. My menu included a salad with Foie gras, a steak called the onglet that's roughly equivalent to the American hanger steak fries. Yes, the French eat French fries....

    The foie gras was average and the meat was tender but overall the meal was satisfying and definitely filling. Eating takes a long time in France and is followed up with a cafe (a cafe is not something made of wood and containing chairs and people waiting to take your order but in fact translates to coffee, how convenient you think that they'd serve coffee at a cafe), or dessert. With a meal you always get lengthy conversations about all things including the difference between shallots and onions which we never really resolve.

    We drag ourselves back to our hotel and Jim who never seems to adjust to the time change goes to sleep. Natalya and I have to prepare for our return trip home and doing so venture out to our local Tunisian sweet shop to buy nut based goodies. We take a walk and return later to pack everything up. I'm not sure how we're getting everything home but it appears the best strategy is to vacuum pack the dirty clothes and carry the carpet in the dirty clothes bag. This would also mean we have too many items for carry on and will have to check a bag. For those of you who don't know my travel style I never ever check bags. I and my three kids can travel for months on end and never have more than carry on bags. This is an art form I believe but it keeps things simple. I've only checked a bag one other time and it's because it was over the weight limit for Virgin Atlantic so I had no other choice.

    Nine-thirty pm brought a knock at the door which in turn brought Jim's smiling face. It's dinner time. If you're figuring out that the French spend a great deal of time eating you're right on the money. Natalya and I have chosen to return to a really great restaurant at Place St George near Place Wilson. The last time we ate there we had the most amazing mashed potatoes topped with caramelized shallots bathed in Sherry. This last item has haunted us since. We arrive in pouring rain and still sit outside. The French are amazing in this regard. They'll put up space heaters and whatever else just to sit outside. In Seattle if you put out a table on the sidewalk they turn their noses and and demand proper eating arrangements. I don't get it. Outside is less formal so you can show up wearing your pajamas and nobody will care. You can eat great food in your pajamas - what a concept! I tried ordering Squab (pigeon) again to no avail so I get the lamb shank. I'm told that there isn't any which my experience backs up. I've not seen one pigeon in all of Toulouse. Apparently they've "over fished" the proverbial pigeon waters.

    So we're outside in the pouring rain under a canopy eating our foie gras. We at some point start getting horizontal rain and retreat to the safety of stone and timber. Our food arrives and there's something wrong - the shallots are missing. I ask about it and he brings me a small glass full of caramelized onions. Onions? Are we confused? Am I as an American not supposed to be able to tell the difference? I show them a picture of my meal since I photograph everything I eat and come to find out that they've changed chefs since then. I in turn insist they get the old one back and pronto which I'm sure doesn't please the new chef. Twice on this trip we've ordered something that was out of this world only to get a replacement or nothing at all - once in Paris at Le Square Cafe and now in Toulouse. How can you recommend a place if they keep changing the menu?

    Having said all of that dinner was good as always and I'd be more than happy to have that exact same meal in Seattle even without the shallots. I do know however that I need to spend some time recreating the shallots. It's the only way. sigh..

     

     

     

     

  • Culture shock in Mexico City

    Describe Mexico City in two words? Sensory overload! I'm very careful about recommending Mexico City to travellers because of the intensity of it all. I usually ask people where else they've traveled and if they enjoyed it. If they say they just loved Aculpulco, Cancun or PV then I'll probably tell them to keep going to those places. If they say they were in Istanbul and got a kick out of the Grand Bazaar then I'll recommend Mexico City to them. Note that I wouldn't recommend against Mexico City for any of the reasons that people think – crime, pollution or danger in getting sick. I'd recommend against it because it's full force sensory overload and a very foreign place. People get a little miffed when I tell them that Europe is a lot like America. My first trip to England I thought it was some really foreign country and I couldn't believe how hard it was to get around. Now I smile when I think of that because to me England's primary worth is to change airports to catch a plane to a destination with more punch. England outside of an accent difference and not driving on the same side of the road is very much like America. They have most of the same companies, cars, types of foods etc... France is a bit more intense because of the depth of their culture but still if you took a French person and dropped him in the middle of a major US city you'd not be able to find him until he spoke. Mexico City though is a very different story.

     

    Where do I start with Mexico City? If it weren't for the basis in Catholicism and the Spanish colonial buildings we'd have no connection with this country and it's main city. For anyone who's been to the main four or five coastal resort towns I'm going to go out on a limb and say you've not seen anything of Mexico yet. I had a friend that said he really liked adventure so they went to PV (Puerto Vallarta) and one day they ventured outside their resorts gated area and into a “slum” and ate some tacos. If that's adventure I don't know what is! :-)

    You might be wondering what makes Mexico City so intense then and that's what I'm about to attempt to answer. I'd relate the experience of going to Mexico City as being more like Istanbul or maybe Morocco than anywhere in Europe, the States or the 5 Mexican resort towns. When flying into Mexico City (or Day Effay as the locals call it – District Federal) at night you're blown away by how far this city goes. It's very difficult to measure a city when it has as many people as this so I'll refrain from throwing around numbers but it's one of the largest in the world along with Tokyo. As a rough comparison you could put New York City, Los Angeles and possibly Chicago in it, so as you can imagine it's immense. It has many social problems which you will no doubt encounter while you're here. I'll talk about those in a minute but for now to give you an impression of Mexico City I'll tell you about our own arrival.

    Because of a massive ticket price reduction we flew from Portland Oregon to Atlanta Georgia and then to Mexico City. I love arriving in Mexico City after dark because it gives me a real sense of the size of the city by the lights. The MEX airport looks a lot like 70s concrete prison with wall to wall indoor/outdoor carpet and not much else. So we arrive not knowing if immigration will let us in because our passports are getting ready to expire. There are some countries that will turn you away if you have less than 6 months on them. When the immigration official scanned that first passport, stamped it and handed it back you could have seen all my muscles relax if you'd had your eyes trained on me for very long. He stamped the rest of them, took our immigration cards and welcomed us to Mexico. The next step was to pass through customs and play the “do you want customs officials to manually search your bags lottery” which is always fun. All bags go through giant scanners which to be honest probably aren't even turned on but they make the criminals a bit more nervous. Then after your bag is scanned you take it up to a stand an push a button – if the light turns green you go, if not you get searched. It's always fun and a bit nerve racking. No poker faces here, it's completely random.

    After customs you walk out into a series of grand hallways all leading to different places none of which you have any interest in. Your main mission at this point is to get pesos and get a registered taxi. To combat taxi fraud which is rampant you buy your taxi ticket to your destination at a taxi booth and then take the ticket to a taxi. That way no money changes hands between you and the taxi driver. If you think this is just a Mexican problem you'd be very wrong – I wish most of the major cities in Europe would adopt this because it's a major problem there as well. The Mayer of Prague put on a disguise and took three taxis to see how bad it was and he got ripped off twice and the third guy recognized him. This is a problem everywhere and Mexico has found a decent solution for now. Mexico also had a problem with taxi drivers taking you to your ATM and helping you decide how much money you need to take out as well but that's a different story.

    So we get our registered taxi which is a Chevy HHR – a definite improvement over last time which was a little rattle trap with a back door that wouldn't close all the way - I'm sure you can use your imagination. I have to take a break for a second just to mention that walking into Mexico City is like being drawn into a Roger Rabbit cartoon. Everything resembles reality but is just funnier than crap sometimes. I spend a lot of time smiling here and even writing this gives me chuckles. Back to the story. A couple of years ago we hired a driver to take us to Xochimilco – Fernando was his name. Fernando told us you needed two things in order to drive in Mexico City – first you needed a drivers license and second you needed to be crazy. I concur. Lanes are optional and traffic lights a mere suggestion. It's amazing that I've never seen a wreck in this city but I think they just get very good at defensive (and offensive) driving. My first point that lanes are optional is realized by the taxi only staying between the lines about 50% of the time. In Ecuador I'd say they're never between the lines so this is an improvement but a part of me says they're only between the lines when trying to avoid running into someone else who also happens to be between the lines in the next lane. As soon as that danger has passed they just drive wherever. The second point about traffic lights is true. Between the airport and our hotel near the Zocolo we ran EVERY red light! It wasn't like someone in America running a red light though by whizzing through it at the last moment but rather he'd slow down, look both ways and if there wasn't any traffic he'd just hit the gas again. This is not the only place in Mexico where I've seen this. I did however, see some cars sitting at red lights so I assume that not everyone runs them. If anyone has insight as to who gets to run the reds then I'm all ears. There's another thing I need to say about me not recommending people to come here – they don't speak English! We've encountered many people in shops and on the street and we've found two people that speak English, one at our hotel and a tourist guide at the Zocolo. We did encounter a kid that knew his numbers in English but that's it. If you need to be pampered and want someone to speak English to you then Italy or the resorts may be a better choice.

    Another thing that people dwell on about Mexico is they ask if it's dirty. Well, yes I suppose it is. But then I can show you some pretty nasty areas of London or Paris as well and there are parts of Los Angeles that are trash dumps. I think in any country where the average yearly wage is roughly what I make in 4 days things are going to be a bit rough. There just isn't a lot of money to repaint buildings, fix sidewalks or clean streets. I will say this though that if Mexico can ever get to a point where they're making enough money to fix the place up they are sitting on a gold mine! You heard it here first. I will probably be going more into detail in the coming week or so but I this city is packed with so many beautiful colonial Spanish buildings and ancient ruins and in combination with the awesome culture and food it's crazy that people don't come here.  Since I have international readers I should quantify that by saying I don't know why more Americans don't come here. If you see a white person in Mexico City he/she is probably from Europe and I'd put money on it that they're German. But then Germans are everywhere. You could climb to the top of Mount Everest and there'd be a young German couple in their tan backpacker pants and the girls blond hair pulled back into a ponytail... Seriously.

    Mexico in general is a gold mine. There are more ancient cities here than anywhere on earth including Greece, Italy and Egypt but there isn't enough money to excavate them or provide infrastructure. If they could uncover all the ruins and provide infrastructure these guys would be rolling in cash. National Geographic did an article on the Maya region and through satellite imaging they estimated there were about 250,000 covered cities in the Yukatan penninsula. This does not include the cities of the Aztecs, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Toltecs, Teotehaucanos and the many many other civilizations that have lived here. It's overwhelming to be honest. I have an Archaeological guide to Mexico and just when I get done reading about the history of some civilization I've heard of I get to the next chapter and they start talking about another one, and another one and another one. Mexico from 400 BC to 1500 AD wasn't that much different than Europe with many many different “countries” struggling for power and cultural dominance. The largest city on earth has been in the Valley of Mexico three times by three drastically different civilizations over the course of 1500 years. Tenochtitlan would have been the worlds greatest tourist attraction had the Spanish not been blinded by the hopes of finding gold so they razed the pyramids and palaces and filled in the canals in the lake that the city was built on. For those of you who don't know Tenochtitlan was practically a floating city with water for streets not unlike Venice Italy. The Spanish like most catholic countries wanted to assimilate the locals and steal their gold. Ancient temples and local culture had no value – idiots. What people will do in the name of religion.

    Anyway Mexico = Goldmine. I'm in amazement just walking around Mexico City looking up at the buildings... This could be Vienna or Madrid or Paris in a lot of areas. It needs Paris' yearly budget though and that's not going to happen.

    Just as a teaser I'm going to upload a few photos to get you by. Later I'll write about our first full day here.

  • Dinner party

    Two Americans, a Moroccan, one Ukrainian, a Korean, eight Frenchmen and three Indians and a Brit enter a bar.... Sounds like the beginning to a joke. The class is having dinner together tonight. I've been riding the metro to work but got a ride home. Including my walking time it takes me about 28 minutes to get to work. Driving it took 45. Something tells me that driving isn't the solution. Dinner was in a small hole in the wall and was a great deal of fun. The French do things differently because dinner took over 4 hrs. There was a lot of mixed language conversations with half taking place in French and the other half in English. One Frenchman decided to pretend he couldn't speak French to the waitress, another accidentally broke a wine glass and then while trying to show how he did it broke another two. The waitress was not impressed but the rest of us were rolling on the floor. The food was good and the company was great. We got to see the inner workings of how other cultures live. This I'm thankful for. I'll have a video up later. We drug ourselves back into the hotel at 1am. Unfortunately the Hotel Albert was booked so Natalya moved us to the hotel Capitole during the day. The Hotel Capitole isn't as nice as Albert but still head over heals nicer than Hotel Junior. Tomorrow is the last day of class. The Parisians decide to go to a bar after dinner. I never see them again.

  • Early morning flight

    The night before we left out a few small things from our luggage. We packed the chocolate around the pottery to make sure it didn't get broken. Jade, Natalya and I are all on Pepto to make the flight better. Natalya has a flu, Jade ate ice cubes and I've subjected my stomach to all the strange and wonderful aspects of foreign cuisine that I could find and will continue to do so until we hit US soil! Our coats are packed away because outside of a short ride to the airport we'll be inside until we get home and only when we get to Washington will we need our coats. We're in Mexico - it's always warm here, right?

    I asked for a taxi to pick us up at 4:00am because our flight for Guadalajara left at 6:30. I figured less than half an hour to the airport, an hour to get our boarding passes and get checked in and about 30 minutes to board the plane. That would leave us about 30 minutes extra for unforeseen circumstances and possibly finding breakfast.

    There's one thing that I have to say about Seattle before going on. It might be 48 degrees in the middle of the winter during the day but it's still 43 degrees at night thanks to our cloud blanket. Mexico is more like eastern Washington in that it's 70 degrees during the day and a full 30 degrees colder at night and Puebla is no different. There we stood shaking in our summer clothes with our coats safely tucked away in our bags. Natalya decided that she was going to be comfortable on the plane so she wore her pajamas – which I'm not sure were made to safeguard her against 40 degree weather. Our taxi showed up on time and much to our surprise it was a ratty Nissan Sentra! Who would have thought that a taxi driver in Mexico would be driving a ratty Nissan Sentra? :-) Just kidding, so far they've all been ratty Nissan Sentras. Our driver who loaded our bags in the trunk was a fairly young Mexican man with a pencil thin mustache and only said one word the entire trip – aeropuerto? To which I said “si” as if there's anywhere else to go in the middle of the night. He presented himself as a man of strong convictions but very few words. Maybe convictions isn't the right word considering my very American audience and the preconceived notions of Mexico and Mexicans.. The first thing he did when getting into the car was reach over, grab his seat belt and click it into place. Crap I thought, we're about to buy the farm. You see this is the first time I've seen ANYONE in Mexico use their seatbelt including the police so obviously he's planning on using it. As if that wasn't enough he crossed himself before starting the car. Good God we're all going to die I thought! I'm not sure what our drivers name was but we need to call him something so I've named him Jose Emilio Sergio Ulises Santiago - Jesus for short. For you northerners that's pronounced “hey zeus” just to let you know.

    Since I feel a bit silly calling anyone Jesus I'll refer to him as Jose which of course is pronounced “Hoe Zay” or if you're from Canada - “Hose eh?”. Considering the very un-Mexicanlike act of buckling his seatbelt and the additional fact that the sun had not yet risen I felt uncharacteristically patriotic and had a very strong desire to sing the Star Spangled banner. Or at least the part that says “Jose can you see, by the dawn's early light...”. Jose apparently could see and with a twist of the key and a belch from the tailpipe the tin can fired to life. This I felt was a very special Nissan in that the sound burbling from the tailpipe was different than the other Nissan taxis we'd taken. In a normal Nissan Sentra taxi you have the aforementioned tin can painted in maroon and gold sporting a very anemic four cylinder to which the only thing to say is “it gets great mileage” as saying anything more would just be depressing. The little maroon and gold Nissans don't have a lot of power but once you get them wound up you can cover some serious ground. This Nissan however didn't sound like it had the capability to be wound up as it was very clearly ¾ engine, ¼ air pump. The engine part coughed and sputtered and the air pump portion just wheezed. Jose however, seemingly undeterred put the shifter in gear, revved the engine, slipped the clutch and off we went into the night.

    At the first stoplight Jose pressed the brake pedal until we gently came to a complete stop. We stopped? At a stoplight? Are we still in Mexico? I was shocked and looked over the seat at Natalya to see if she was paying attention. We were sitting at a red light, at four o'clock in the morning, in a taxi, in Mexico and there was nobody coming. After being in Mexico for almost two weeks this act of sitting at a stoplight in the middle of the night with nobody coming seemed to be a very inefficient use of an empty roadway. For a moment out my passenger side window I thought I'd glanced a pig flying by (rotating on a tacos el pastor spit of course). Could it be the Spanish influence in Puebla? Maybe Puebla is leading the country into the modern age and its citizens obey the laws of the road. Just as I was about to conclude one thing or the other Jose hit the gas and off we went through the remaining one second of the red light. In looking at his side profile I saw there in the dark shadows of the car a slight resemblance to Montezuma II, or was it Quetzalcoatl? The thought that Quetzalcoatl had returned from the east to reclaim his kingdom on the backs of giant sea turtles only to settle on driving a taxi in Puebla brightened my thoughts. Humor - has a warming quality to it.

    We encountered 4 more red lights all of which were handled in the same manner – sitting until the last second and then prodding the hamster until he heaved himself up on his feet and started moving. The old hamster was getting a work out which is fine enough considering he's probably got a spare tire or two and asthma anyway. I can imagine him hunched over his wheel, respirator in hand putting one foot in front of the other to get the taxi moving. I've heard that in the coastal cities they use lemmings in lieu of hamsters which makes a lot of sense. It would also explain why after a long day at the beach the taxi ride back to the hotel always costs you double – lemmings run faster toward water and slower away thus costing more.

    As we were getting near the edge of town we pulled up to a stop light next to this hulking dump truck fully loaded with large chunks of concrete, re-bar and miscellaneous junk – all appearing to be massively heavy. The road merged ahead and it was very clear that the dump truck wanted in our lane. The tension rose as we waited for the last second of the red light and then Jose crossed himself, said a prayer and slammed his foot to the floor. The heaping metal dragon in the lane next to us clattered profusely and clouds of black soot bellowed out the sides. Jose jammed through the gears, slipping the clutch and revving the engine to within an rpm of it's life. Half mile or so later we'd gained a couple inches on the bellowing beast – enough so - that it's master ceded the victory to us and backed off. Meanwhile the other maroon and gold tin cans (with all of their cylinders working properly) continued to buzz around us disappearing down the road with their taillights burning brightly not unlike a bunch of fireflies. The momentary look of triumph in Jose's eyes was quickly replaced by seriousness and determination and he very clearly set his sights on the fireflies disappearing over the horizon.

    Our ratty tin can gained speed at a nearly imperceptible pace and let's be thankful that we weren't trying to stay ahead of any glaciers. The increase in speed was so slow that I had to use the frequency of the heavy vibration coming from passenger side front tire to gauge our speed. The road widened as we headed out of town. At that moment I realized that I hadn't shown Jose the name of the airport. What if Puebla had TWO airports and we were going to the wrong one? In a reversal of roles I asked “aeropuerto?” and he said “si” - so much for clarification. Normally airports in Latin American are dropped dead center into the middle of the cities. We were very clearly heading out of town and if the passing signs were accurate – toward Mexico City. Mexico City was only two hours away which got the old noggin wondering even more. Finally I saw a sign pass with “aeropuerto” on it. Then another sign with saying aeropuerto whizzed by followed by a third. The fact that anything can whizz by tells you that we'd built up a little speed and the tire immediately in front of me was bouncing more than rotating. Maybe his brakes no longer worked which is why we weren't turning off at any of the exits labeled aeropuerto. What do I know, I'm just a gringo that can't speak Spanish. Looming on the horizon are a horde of tiny red lights – the fireflies – and Jose had them in his sights!

    The vibrations increased both in frequency and intensity until the front end was shaking and we were slowly gaining on other cars! Had the turnoff came up I think Jose would have just kept his foot planted because it would be bad to spoil the hard work and determination needed to get us up to this speed... One by one we passed motorhomes, dump trucks and estate sedans full of families. In Mexico you flash to pass - meaning you put your emergency lights on to let the driver in front of you know that you're passing. If that doesn't work you also flash your brights at him. So there we go haphazardly flying down the road in our maroon and gold tin can, engine about to explode, streamers on the antennae, tires vibrating like a pogo stick and lit up like a Christmas tree in the passing lane the whole way because that's just what you do in Mexico. Knuckles white from strangling the door handle I was relieved when we start to slow and proceed to exit the freeway onto a small two lane road and everyone else starts breathing again. It's very dark and our maroon and gold tin can makes it's way down the paved road that looks way too small to be headed to an airport which makes one wonder about ones destiny especially when one is in Mexico. The fears are calmed as we turn into a parking lot in front of what appears to be the illegitimate child of a warehouse father and a shopping mall mother – it's the dreaded ware-mall.

    Being that Mexican Pesos are worthless at home we crafted a plan to get rid of them before we left the country. I guessed that the taxi ride would cost about 50 pesos which up until now has been the standard. I did not however, dream that the airport would be in the middle of Timbuktu so I asked the driver “cuanto cuesta?” to which he said “ciento treinta pesos” - $130which was more than I'd reserved. I left the kids and bags and went looking for an ATM which was just inside the door where I took out enough to pay the taxi driver. This also left us with even more pesos than we had before the ride. Starving I figured we'd get rid of them inside at a nice traditional Mexican eatery. It's still only 5:30 and there's no restaurants open so the signal my stomach is so impatiently forwarding to my brain has to be ignored for a little while longer.

    The airport “arrivals” area had enough room for a couple of ticket counters, 4 or 5 benches and a box of matches. Apparently there are only 3 airlines that fly to Puebla and nobody was at the Mexicana booth. Knowing not to assume anything I went to the Aeromexico booth and showed him my ticket to which he raised his shoulders, turned the palms of his hands up and said “diez minutos?”. He was saying he had no idea and I should just do the Mexican thing – just sit back and see what happens. Being a seasoned traveler the question I was really asking was “Am I in the right place to catch a flight by this airline?” which he unknowingly confirmed. No more than 10 minutes later a very attractive Mexican woman wearing her coat (I'll get back to that in a minute) showed up at the Mexicana gate along with baggage people. All bags were being hand searched and tagged. We find out later that our plane is too small for carry-on bags – an image of a reconditioned crop duster works it's way into my mind – with chickens – and old women carrying bags of onions. The very attractive (did I mention that yet?) ticket lady asked for our passports, gave us baggage claim forms, boarding passes and stapled our customs forms together for when we leave the country. The whole time she was wearing a heavy winter coat. So was the baggage search crew and the guy putting bags on the conveyor belt and the people waiting in line – as was everyone in the building because it was positively FREEZING! There we stood with our knees knocking, teeth chattering and hands regrettably reaching out toward our bags holding our coats as they wound their way down the conveyor belt and out of sight. Figuring it was only cold on the side of the airport with the door wide open we decided to go through security post-haste to the warm side where as we also found everyone wearing their winter coats. I then realized that the entire airport may not even have heating facilities considering it's the dead of winter and daytime temps are about 70 degrees.

    The airport had all of three gates and it looks like the nearly new building has room for about two more which were walled off because what airport could possibly need more than three gates? I don't however think they walled the rest off because they didn't want to heat the whole thing! There were no restaurants to be found but after about 30 minutes of us mimicking a bunch of epileptics in a timeout huddle a man opened a coffee stand which got stampeded immediately. I didn't want any coffee but we wanted to get some bottled water for the plane so I jumped in line behind about 8 other people none of which wanted a plain old coffee – they all wanted fancy coffee – cappuccinos and such. I thought that a bit odd since we're in Mexico until I noticed they were speaking English – Americans! In Puebla? We creeped one cappuccino at a time forward until I only had one American lady in front of me which of course ordered a couple cappuccinos, frappachinos, crappachinos, mochachinos and other random chinos. I felt like tapping her on the shoulder and asking her in my best Brooklyn accent “Yo lady, don't ferget to order a freakin' Al Pacino, it's not like nobody in this buildin's waitin' for a freakin' airplane or anything” . Some people only enforce the stereotype. As I stand in line waiting for Al Pacino to show up for the American broad I see Natalya stand up and move toward the gate which means I need to go.

    The very same attractive Mexican lady (I did mention that didn't I?) that took our bags and printed our tickets was also our gate agent. When they announced the flight to Guadalajara only four people walked to the gate – us. How big is this plane anyway if only four people are riding on it? Maybe we filled it up! Images of a cropduster once again formed in the thought bubble over my head. When the door opened for us to walk down the gangway to the airplane we realized we weren't looking down on the tarmac as we do at most airport gates but we were directly ON the tarmac! It was so dark outside that when looking at the terminal glass we only saw a bunch of Mexicans stuffed into winter coats, four shivering Americans plus one more holding 23 cups of foaming coffee waiting for Al Pacino.

    The very attractive (I'm sure I mentioned it by now) Mexican lady led the four of us out onto the tarmac and down a painted “sidewalk” thankfully past a couple of crop duster sized airplanes and then turned toward an business sized jet that held maybe 50 people. A small plane but huge for four people I thought. Once on the plane we realized that it already had people on it. I'm not sure where it could have come from that early in the morning but Puebla was not it's origins. It was warm though, that part I knew.

    We soaked up the warm air blowing from the vents as our plane lifted off and rose in the sky. The sun came up and bathed the ancient Mexican landscape in a glow of warm rays as it's been doing for millions of years. Mexico is a lot like life – there are difficulties and struggles, trials and tribulations, exciting human connections and depth all of which are dotted with memories of very warm people and a huge dose of humor. As the plane glided through the early morning sky I felt relieved in knowing the rest of the trip would be hassle free as I was going home and yet sad as I always am when leaving a foreign land. Sad because I've been touched deeply by this place and it's people. That effected portion of my being may remain dormant for years before I get back and get re-acquainted. One thing is certain - those are cherished memories that will be wrapped tightly and keep in a safe place so I can take them out whenever I want – whenever I need a smile and a laugh. Mexico - you're something else.

  • Getting to France

    Misc Photo Gallery

    When it came time to purchase plane tickets we went through the usual process – check every city pair we can think of between the Pacific Northwest and Europe such as Portland to London, Portland to Paris, Portland to Brussels, Seattle to London, Seattle to Paris and so on. I generally check Portland, Seattle and Vancouver BC for departing flights and London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, Milan, Frankfurt, Barcelona and many others for my destination. Skyscanner.net is a godsend for this task as you can leave the destination open or even narrow it to a country and it will show you the cheapest flights. You can even have it show you the cheapest flight in a month range. What we ended up with was Vancouver BC to Paris France for $716 round trip in the middle of peak travel season. That is the second cheapest flight to Europe that I've ever purchased. The cheapest flight from Seattle was $500 more. Unfortunately the Vancouver flight was on Airtransat which we flew last year to Amsterdam and vowed to never again fly them. It seems everyone can be bought and our price was $500.

    Naturally flying out of another city isn't free. We booked Amtrak Cascades train tickets from Seattle to Vancouver BC for $20 each way and we had to pay for the Vancouver Sky Train to get us to the airport so our total savings was $445 per person – still worth the trouble.

     

    I might want to add that my mother has never flown before and I convinced her to sit in one spot at 40,000 ft for 10 hrs the first time out. She was a trooper with the flight but took a bit longer to get used to airport security and even remarking at some point that it was amazing anyone flew.

     

    The arrival in Vancouver has gotten slower as they now de-board the train a couple of cars at a time to stand in line for immigration. The idea that there's a border between the US and Canada is insane to begin with but to take an hour to go through immigration shows how amateur we as a country is.

     

  • Goodbye Toulouse

    Class is done.... We pack up our bags and head for the train station for Paris. We're going to Paris because Toulouse just doesn't do it for us and we're meeting a FB friend there for dinner. We were supposed to ship a box home to lighten our load but never go to it. Our bags are the most stuffed they've ever been. In addition we have a dirty clothes bag that makes me feel a bit like Santa Claus when it's thrown over my shoulder. Santa Claus delivering dirty clothes... We bought our tickets online and arrive at the train station to find out that it's an online only ticket and we can't retrieve printed ones at the station. We're told that we need to print them which isn't possible considering that we don't have a printer. After a quick search we find an internet cafe with a printer and we print our train tickets. Our tickets cost 80 Euros rount trip for first class for an overnight train. Natalya and I both last about 30 minutes on the train before we fall asleep. My next memory is of the train sitting in Bordeaux for a while before resuming. I remember nothing else. Our plan for Paris is to see the Renoir exhibit at the Grande Palais and meet up with Amber and her boyfriend for dinner. We have no reservations but I'm not worried.

  • Hmong Lunar New Year - Seattle

    Ever since I've been reading about Asia I've been interested in visiting the Miao people (thank you Justine Shapiro). The Miao are also referred to as the Hmong people and are a minority race in SE Asia and China. I went to the Hmong Lunar New Year in Seattle today and took many pictures and videos. Unfortunately being the bone-head that I am I bumped my menu button and accidentally set the photo resolution to .3 MP instead of 10 MP so the photos are all really bad.

    Anyway my impression of these people is that they're very friendly and absolutely gorgeous. I couldn't stop staring at them and their costumes.

    I put up a small gallery of photos that I took there. Hmong Lunar New Year Gallery

  • Hump day

    Class went well but the wonderful smiles are now gone. I don't claim to possess to know enough about people to know why. I continue to struggle with not having enough equipment to actually teach a great class. A side note: they serve wine at the company cafeteria like it was punch. We returned to La Florida to eat Foie Gras since it's proven to be the best. Natalya's yes droop and her mouth rises when she has it. Most of my day is spent teaching, then most of my night is spent getting ready for class

  • I thought I was going to France until I arrived.

    My neighbor Achmed (yes that really is his name) drove us to the airport where we checked in at the Air France booth. Actually we checked in online but we needed to then take our passports to the counter to get our boarding passes which just made me wonder why we checked in online. Our flight was on an Airbus A340 which I've liked in the past. In typical Airbus fashion I had excellent legroom (something about the way the seats are formed) and we had in flight entertainment on tiny little screens. The system worked well and gave us Movies, TV, travel channels and music. There were games but I didn't feel the need to explore. Even though I was tired from getting up at 4 I couldn't sleep. I do however, want to mention that the food on the plane was top notch. All airplane food up until now has been barely edible. I've gotten in the habit of just going to Burger King in the airport and taking it on with me. You know how much I detest fast food but truth be told it's a step above airplane food - a big step. The bread we go was better than we can get in the store at home and my beef braised in a balsamic sauce actually tasted good. Keep in mind we're not talking about 3 Michelin stars here so let's keep things in context. Also we got fed more food than we could eat and what blew me away completely is they were serving Champagne, white wine, red whine and variuos liqueurs free of charge! I'm used to AA charging $7 for a tiny bottle of something. They just kept on bringing the wine around and yes there was cheese in our meal as well. Afterwords they bought tea and coffee and to top it off we had dishes. The silverware wasn't metal of course but they went through the trouble of procuring metal colored plastic...

    We arrived at what is possibly the worst run airport on the planet - CDG in Paris. I try to avoid CDG at all costs but when you're making a connection to another French city you don't have a lot o choice. I love France but sometimes you just have to shake your head. There's a train that connects the terminal buildings but for whatever reason we where shuttled from one section of the terminal 2 to another on a bus. I thought it was so we didn't have to go through immigration but the first thing we did on arriving the new section was exactly that. Then I thought it was to avoid having to exit the secure zone and re-enter but that was next. The security "pit" (for lack of a better word) looked a lot like a couple of rugby teams fighting over a twinky. Everyone thought they were going to miss their flight so they were waving their tickets in the air and shoving. Just about the time I've decided to forgive the Spanish for what they did to the American natives I end up in line next to them for something and my negativitiy grows. For a second I thought we were in China because I was going to have to fight to RETAIN my spot in line. They had no problem jumping from line to line in an attempt to get ahead of everyone else even to the point of walking past people who were going through the metal detectors. As you can imagine the security folks were not amused. Ironically we walked up to our gate about 1 minute after they got there and we maintained our dignity and probably avoided being made fun by bloggers.

    Our flight to Toulouse (pronounced toulouza by the locals) was quick and painless. The Toulouse airport is small and welcomingly so. A quick bus ride into the city got us to where we thought we wanted to be. Hotel reservations in a city you don't know can be a liability so we walked around to a few that I had in mind and looked at them. We chose the Junior hotel because it's over a restaurant (I love those sounds of people clinking their glasses and conversing while having a meal) and it's right next to a giant church and not far from the capital.  That and it has free wifi. For France it's cheap at 80 Euros a night but after exchange rate we still get beat up pretty bad.

    Toulouse is an odd one. This area was independent up until about 1300 when it was taken over by the French. Langedoc actually means The oc language which is the group that Catalan belongs to. Catalan is what people from Barcelona speak. Provencal also belongs to that group as well...

    More later.

     

  • I'd pay extra for choosing my seat

  • It's official

    So it's official, Natalya and I are heading across the pond for a short outing in France. It's not the Le Grande Vacance that we normally take but after a long summer sitting at home wondering how everyone else does this we're getting a break.

    It would be nice to take a week off before going on holiday just to get ready because there's a great deal of things to do. I always smile when people travel around the states and hire a travel agent to plan it becuase in the states if you have a map (or not) and a car you can just drive anywhere without a lot of thought. The culture doesn't change a whole lot, people still speak English and you can always pull over and ask for directions. If you're going to a foreign country you actually have to have some sort of idea how to do this. Say for instance if you leave the house without your passports you're going to pay a lot for your round trip plane tickets to nowhere. Thankfully the airport won't let you go very far without it anymore. Not that we'd ever leave the house without passports or in the process prove that you can drive from North Seattle to the airport, back to North Seattle to pick up said passports and then back to the airport in less than 90 minutes, I'm just saying that it could happen.

    It always amazes me the people who spend zero time trying to figure out the time zone change. A lot of people just get on the plane, sleep when they're tired and work it out when they get there. I know this because I see them all the time sleeping on the metro steps with their faces as plastered against their suitcases and if you can picture it - a small amount of drool coming from the corner of their mouth. It's either that or they're from Albania looking for money to help their handicapped-underprivilieged-bother-that-was-in-the-war-who-is-missing-both-arms-a-leg-one-eye-and-a-toenail and needs food or he'll die. I actually can't tell these folks apart until they wake up at which time the Albanian chases you down the street with the most innocent look on their face ( complete with left eyebrow scrunched and pleading eyes). The tourist on the other hand climbs to their feet and drags their oversized suitcase(s) to the nearest Starbuck where they pay 5x as much for coffee as they would if they went to any of the 20,000 cafes in Paris. They don't seem to mind because it's burnt just like at home.

    So to avoid jetlag you get a plane from the west coast at around noon which is about perfect. It's best if that plane touches down on the east coast somewhere too but it's not 100% necessary. Make sure you get up early - say at 4-5am, eat breakfast, pack you bags or repack them. Right before you leave the house (about 10am) eat lunch. When you get on the plane don't nap. You have to stay away for about the next 4.5 hrs so watch two movies, eat what they bring then cover your eyes with something, put in some noise canceling headphones and go to sleep. Because you got up a couple of hours before your norm and you've been up for 10 hrs you'll be tired. Sleep for as long as you possibly can and when you awake they'll give you breakfast. When the plan lands you walk out the door in sync with the local time and having virtually no jetlag. This works as I've done it many times.  If you fly out at night you're screwed because there's just no way to deal with the time zone change. No matter when you sleep (or not) it will be the wrong time. Coming back is harder but I have formulas for that as well.

     

     

     

  • Just quit your job and travel!


    Quitting your job and travelling might seem like a really irresponsible risky thing to do but many are doing it. I spend three months a year in other countries and I insist on it when I take jobs. As I travel I meet people all over the world that are doing year long trips and some of them aren't just out of college either if you know what I mean. I met a woman in Croatia that had never travelled before and decided it was time so she found a way and was spending one year gone. It's common place in South America to find one year travellers going around the world.

    The Washington Post wrote an article about this...

    Grant


  • Last day in Oaxaca

    This is our last day in Oaxaca. We'd thought about going to Coyotopec where the black pottery is made but it's starting to look like our active life is taking a draw on our resources so we slept in a bit and missed breakfast. I didn't want any more eggs anyway as too many eggs bother me in ways I'm not going to mention here.

     

    We had to still buy pottery which we could get in Oaxaca City and souvenirs for people. Since we'd missed a good dinner the night before because of the new years day celebration I decided to spend the previous days allotment of cash for a nice lunch on the zocolo followed by a nice dinner as well. We only have so many meals and it's just a shame to waste them in Oaxaca since the food is so good. We went to a restaurant on the Zocolo called Primevera which had a Mole Negro tamale which I ordered. Piper wanting something familiar ordered spaghetti. Natalya didn't know what she wanted so I ordered her a tortilla soup with two tamales – one sweet and the other savory. We waited and waited and waited. Each time the waiter came by he said it was one more minute. We were about to stand up to walk away when he rushed up with our food. Only when he put our plates down did he realize he was short one, Piper's. He said he didn't have the Spaghetti and offered to have something else brought out but the idea of waiting another hour wasn't very pleasant. One bite into my mole tamale and I about gagged. It was dry and tasteless. I would guess that it was last weeks tamale and he just warmed it up. Natalya didn't eat her soup because it was just mush and her tamales were just as bad or worse than mine. We were thankful that Piper didn't get her spaghetti because we got the heck out of there as fast as possible. I only mention restaurants names when something is wonderful or horrible and this was horrible. This wasn't just “less than” what the other restaurants had to offer it was practically inedible. The saddest part of this is that in that exact same spot on the Zocolo three years ago was a restaurant that served the very best Mole Negro in the entire zocolo. The fact that it's gone and replaced by this crap of an establishment is testament to what happens when businesses have a steady stream of customers no matter how good or bad the product is. I would rank the tastelessness of this meal to being equal to many I've had in Venice and I think for the exact same reason.

    Leaving the zocolo behind we went to find pottery to which Natalya bought a few nice pieces for about $10 each which is a steal. Piper bought 6 small pots about 3 inches high for her friends and paid about $8 total. We then ventured on to the Mayordomo chocolate cafe (I shouldn't call it a cafe since cafe means coffee but you get the point) and Piper, Jade and I had a classico cold chocolate drink which was by far the best chocolate drink I've every had. It inspired me so that I bought 8 lbs of chocolate to take home. Another person ordered a hot chocolate where the girl behind the counter heated some milk and broke up chunks of chocolate into a cup and mashed it with her magic wand then poured in the mild and frothed it until it was all light and foamy. She frothed ours as well and I almost bought one of the wooden chocolate frothers but I know I can get them at home so I held off. I don't know why this chocolate drink tasted so good but I bought 5lbs of exactly the same thing she used and I'm going to figure it out. I also bought 2lbs of “premium” chocolate which I tasted in the store and another pound of canela chocolate which I've used before. I wished I would have had more time in Oaxaca because part of the Mayordomo expansion has been to create a restaurant using their own products. I would have loved to try their mole because I've bought several jars of it and was never satisfied. If they can make it good with their jars then that gives me hope. I also wish I would have tried the drink earlier as I would have sneaked out every morning before my kids woke and had an early morning chocolate.. :-)

     

    We went down the street to a less busy Mayordomo and filmed them grinding the chocolate on the spot. That video will be up on Youtube later after I get home. They take cacao beans, almonds and sugar and grind them up in one grinder then transport the mixture to a second grinder which grinds it finer into a powder then bag it up and hand it to the customer. This once again parallels coffee shops these days. I don't know how may Mayordomo shops there are but I think I saw at least four plus the restaurant. They are not the only game in town either as there is another company across the street plus theres a chocolate restaurant that focuses on recipes with chocolate and chocolate cooking classes. Of course half the famous Mole sauces from Oaxaca also include chocolate. Oaxaca doesn't actually produce the most chocolate in Mexico, that award goes to Veracruz, they do however consume the most. 

     

    Since this was our very last meal in Oaxaca we wanted to eat a somewhere excellent so we decided to climb a small staircase to Casa Abuela which overlooks the Zocolo and comes highly recommended. The wait was 1 hr but it may be years before we come back so I put our name on the list and we left. We would have died had we waited the hour so we walked down the street to the Domino's (yes really) and ordered a chica pizza which wasn't that good but it was interesting to see what a Domino's would look like in another country. There was actually a dining room and the menu was designed for a Mexican audience with toppings more suited to tacos and tortas. It was interesting to see all of the product names in English but descriptions in Spanish. We eat Domino's in Paris and even though the pizza we had in Oaxaca wasn't that great it was better than what they sell in America. I don't know why a company like Domino's would offer 8 toppings in their home market and 20 in other markets. We headed back to Abuela and climbed the narrow stairs to their front door. We were still on the list and within 10 minutes were shown to our table. Piper had Mole Almendrado, Natalya had fish with garlic sauce, Jade had fish with green sauce and I had Mole Coloradito which was very good. I think the quality of food was higher overall here than any other place we've eaten if only by a small margin. I often wonder why some enterprising person couldn't transplant a restaurant like this into the States. It's inevitable that when a family moves from Mexico to start a restaurant they change the menu to rice and beans for the gringos. An odd group sat down at the next table and after some examination we decided they were on a tour because one person spoke Spanish and the rest were Brits. They were all eating various Moles but nobody was saying anything so I'm not sure they were impressed. Being British I don't think I'd want to eat there if they were. Having been to England many times I've had my taste of their food and I think the large Indian population is a good thing. Afterall Chicken Tikka Masala is the national dish, that should say something. We were fortunate enough to have a balcony table overlooking the church and the many kids throwing hot dog shaped balloons up into the air. This is an activity we partook in the last time we were here and is one of the only memories my kids retained after a few years. I knew once we were done eating we'd have to go buy some balloons.

     

    Predictably after dinner we bought hot dog shaped balloons and the kids threw them up in front of the church which resulted in great smiles on their faces. All the Mexican kids were doing the same with the same result. We bought extra balloons but I'm not sure where they'll use them at home, we just don't plan open spaces like that at home.

     

    Tired we returned to the hostel to make taxi arrangements, get more money to pay said taxi and pack up. Tomorrow we go to Puebla via bus.

     

     

  • Mexico City - Amazingly fabulous city or a great place to get stabbed?

    Mexico City – Summary

    Even though we've left Mexico City I wanted to summarize it for you. I've probably presented it several different ways and wanted to make sure that people who've never been there (and may never go) understand what this city is like.

    First of all there are the stereotypes of crime, pollution and filth. This is all true within a certain context. This is also true of Rome, parts of Paris, LA and NYC. One has to remember that Mexico City is in a third world country and that there is a lack of formal infrastructure that allows other cities to clean up. I can tell you that I'd rather be in Mexico City than Compton California because it's a much much safer place. I can also tell you that Mexico City doesn't smell worse than the train station area of Rome or Les Halles area of Paris.

    I'd also like to say that Mexico City is a city on the move. The first time I was here you couldn't see the mountains after 10 am due to pollution. This time I could see the mountains all day even if they were a bit hazy. The city officials have restricted the amount of days you can drive your car and as time goes on the old smoke belching cars of yesteryear are being replaced by newer ones making only a fraction of the pollution. You will find it hard to breath though because of the remaining pollution and the elevation. The entire time I'm in Mexico City I have a sore throat which goes away when I leave. Pollution is a very real problem but seems to be lessening as time goes on.

    In the Historic District you don't have to worry about crime because there's tourist police on every corner. Taxi cab corruption has been circumvented in a lot of ways by having taxi pay booths at all major airports and bus stations so the driver never touches the money. I usually judge the crime in an area by how the people treat me. If they look concerned with my presence than I should be concerned with theirs. In some cities like Guayaquil Ecuador there's so much tension in the air that you can cut it with a knife. Having a money belt there doesn't help because they'll just strangle you until you pass out and take your money. Only twice in Mexico City did have I had someone walking in front of me step aside to let me by. I had that happen in Munich more times every 15 minutes. Things are getting better in Mexico City in this regard although it's still an issue.

    The streets have gotten noticeably cleaner as well. Before there were street markets everywhere in the city. At 9 am they'd put their blankets out on the street or set up their booths and start selling their wares By noon the streets were littered with trash and they stayed that way until cleanup crews came in at 7pm. It was always amazing to me that the city put up with that since they were paying more to clean up the mess and weren't collecting taxes from the sellers. Apparently they did the numbers at some point as well because the markets are almost completely gone.

    Another trend seems to be starting – scrubbing the sidewalks. There were some streets (September 16tth) where if you were to walk down them early in the morning the business employees were out hand mopping the sidewalk in front of their stores. This is a nice thing to see and removes the smell of urine that is so common in cities like this. Paris employs a sidewalk sized street cleaner for the job and I think Mexico City should do the same. Making sidewalk scrubbing a daily routine would go a long way to cleaning up the city. The way old cities like Mexico City are built is with stone sidewalks and cobblestone streets. People will go out in the morning and sweep the streets but there's only so much you can do when the surface is not even. Can you imagine sweeping up a cobblestone street? They need to invent a vacuum not unlike the parking lot vacuum trucks we have here.

    So the reality is even though the amount of trash in the city has gone to nearly nil the streets and sidewalks still feel gritty because of the dust and grime accumulated. The buildings need to be cleaned regularly as well.

    I do have to say one thing though. This city is going to continue having some major problems. There are more really poor people in Mexico City than there are RESIDENTS in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Montana combined! Mexico City is made of miles upon miles of concrete block homes with little in the way of shelter or warmth. The average wage of a working adult in Mexico is about $10 a day and many in Mexico City would be happy to have that. Mexico City is also sitting on a giant aquifer that is slowly being drained by the 25 million people so the city is sinking at an alarming rate. It has a serious traffic problem which probably doesn't have a solution. The metro trains are already 9 cars long (very long platforms) and come every 60 seconds. Do you run them every 30 seconds if you want to carry more passengers? The metro is one of the top 5 busiest in the world and averages 5 million riders per day with 9 lines where the other top 5 do a similar volume with double the number of lines. This tells you how full the cars are.

    So if Mexico City still has problems why did I go there (three times!) and why am I dwelling on it. Because Mexico City is an amazing place and I think with vision and a little leadership (and a bunch of money) it will become one of the leading destinations in the world. Yes, a lot of work needs to be done but it has the potential. The city has over 2000 years of history, 500 years of Colonial European history, was the location for the largest city in the world 3 times by as many different civilizations, hosts the 3rd largest pyramid in the world (the largest is in Cholula Mexico and second is in Egypt) and has as many fabulous museums as the great capitals of Europe.. The people are a wonderful product of the Spanish and Indians and excellent to get to know. I don't know of any other people on the earth that are so unpretentious, laid back and fun loving than the Mexicans. They have a great feel for family and value the small things. They're larger than life in other ways and always make me smile. When you go to Europe everything is business, when you go to Mexico everything is a big cartoon. They do the funniest things and I guarantee they will keep you smiling if you can get past being out of you comfort zone.

    The flip side is the poor condition the people survive in. The Mexican people are incredibly entrepreneurial within the context in which they have to work. You can't just start up a multi-national corporation without working up to it and the Mexican economic environment doesn't allow that so they do the next best thing – they make stuff and they sell it. People who don't have this entrepreneurial spirit come to the US and work for $8 and hour or less (illegally) to send money home. If you've ever tried living on $8 an hour you'll have an idea how much money is going back to their family. Even if you don't go to Mexico (we're not talking Cancun here) I encourage you to stop and ask Mexican people where they're from and get to know them. I think if you have lunch once in a while at the taco trucks you'll see a little bit of Mexico with the families gathering together to have some traditional food. Don't be alarmed if they treat you with a bit of skepticism because they're not treated very well in the states by the majority. They warm up fast though..

    So in closing I think Mexico City is a gem waiting to be discovered. However, there's always a disclaimer and here it is. I don't think everyone should go to Mexico City. I've compiled a list of who shouldn't.

    1. People who stay in Holiday Inns wherever they go because it's consistent

    2. People who take cruises and enjoy them

    3. People who like resort hotels because they have everything they need

    4. People who are afraid of “germs”

    5. People who think sitting on a beach sipping a Margarita is a form of travel

    6. Conservatives

    I should probably explain the last one before I get jumped on by Rush Limbaugh. Without applying labels there are people who like change and there are people who like things being familiar. Those who like change enjoy the feeling of their mind expanding because they experienced something new that broadened their perspective. Those who don't like change either don't see a need for this or see things the way they are as being the way they should be. The latter group (conservatives) may not enjoy being dropped into a completely foreign environment like Mexico City. I could see this as the worst experienced they've every had. If this is the case then why go? If travel means going somewhere to experience what you have at home then Mexico City has nothing for you. This is not a put down, it's good advice. If you fit into this group and are responding in your head with “But I went to London and loved it” then you're really not understanding the difference here. London outside of the funky accent and driving on the other side of the road is very similar to the US. Mexico on the other hand has nothing in common with the US outside of Jesus. If you don't believe the level of difference between these two things then by all means buy yourself a plane ticket to Mexico City and we'll talk when you get back!

    I've taken a bunch of photos that I think may give you new insight into Mexico City which you can see in my other blog posts. You can also reference the photos from my previous trip to Mexico City in my Mexicy City Gallery. In time I'll have all of the photos from this trip too in a new gallery. Keep in mind that there are really bad parts too which I don't spend a lot of time photographing. I went to Lima Peru once and photographed all the amazing Colonial buildings and people told me they wanted to go because of how beautiful it was. I had to tell them that between all of those gorgeous buildings were burning heaps of garbage (really!). Maybe I'm doing a disservice by only photographing the good.... Maybe I only like the good so that's what I like looking at and I'm willing to work with the bad... But them maybe life itself is irrelevant so is this entire message. As always, you decide for yourself.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Monte Alban - the city in the clouds

    Not sure why this didn't get published. It's actually the second day in Oaxaca.

    I first discovered Oaxaca (like Christopher Columbus discovered America right?) when I was researching archaeological sites and saw this city on top of a mountain similar to Machu Picchu in Peru. It wasn't as pretty as Machu Picchu but possibly bigger and intriguing. It was in a state called Oaxaca which seemed to be very popular with backpackers. One thing led to another and in 2006 I traveled here with my kids. I guess I could credit the Zapotecs and their interest in building cities on mountain peaks that got me to Oaxaca in the first place. Now we're back and we want to go see Monte Alban again but this time do it our way. Last time we took a tour because we really didn't know how to get up there to the mountaintop and it was the fastest way to see the ruins. We got transportation and a guide but it the tour only left 15 minutes left to sit and contemplate so we missed a lot. This time we looked in the guidebook for the place to get a bus and went to that location. We saw no ticket booth but a man came along asking if we wanted a touristic bus so we followed him around the corner to the touristic bus store. There we paid for tickets and waited. The “buses” here are really heavy duty trucks with bus tops on them and they need to be. The roads are rough and I imagine a normal bus would wear out quickly. The ride up took about 30 minutes and gave us almost 5 hours to see the museum and the ruins. It's designed so you can hire a guide when you get there but we didn't since we've already gone through that. We ate in the restaurant and predictably got taken for about double then went through the museum before ascending the hill to the city. 

     

    Monte Alban was built by the Zapotecs which still make up the majority of the indigenous population in the area. The Monte Alban civilization is the longest continually running civilization in the Americas having been created in 500 BC and ending when the Spanish invaded in 1500 AD. During the course of their run they saw the Olmec (from which they came), Maya, Teotihaucanos, Toltecs and Aztecs come and go with only the last still existent when they were conquered. If you think about the time line had they been in Europe they would have seen the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Gauls and Franks come and go too. Two thousand years is a long time. So Monte Alban was their ceremonial center as well as other things. They had a ball court there similar to the Olmec ball courts and many temples. If Monte Alban were the center of a major city now the city square would be twice as big as the largest in the world (Red Square in Moscow). It doesn't look that huge in the photos until you zoom in and notice the people on the far side are very small. Just thinking that over 2000 years ago these people flattened what was once a pointed mountain peak 1000 ft above the valley floor to build a giant city is mind boggling. They also did a lot of other things including astronomy, math and medicine. They found carvings and skulls showing proof that they were doing research in medicine. In the Museum they show several skulls that had holes drilled in them and plugged. They also showed dentistry that had been done and there are carved stones showing anatomy. Very interesting people. According to scholars the Maya got their knowledge of astronomy and writing from them. They in turn got their writing system from the Olmecs which came up with it.

     

    Most of the day we spent laying under shade trees watching people come and go and the rest climbing the pyramids to get a better view. Some day I'd like to come here in the spring when everything is lush and green. I've included a link to a hires photo showing how small the people are on the other side.

     

    That evening after we got back to town we attempted to get something to eat only to find out that the entire city was reserved by the residents. I guess that's fair but there was a lot of tourists going without food. I thought that things might be different since it was new years eve but didn't expect everything to be reserved. We wandered the streets and only found on restaurant accepting patrons – for $40 a person. No thanks. We did find a bakery open so we got a bunch of baked goods thinking we were going to starve otherwise but within one block of the hostel found a rotisserie that would sell us a whole chicken for under $5 so that's what we did. I actually went back for a second chicken because we finished the first quite fast.

     

    To see the fireworks we went onto the hostel roof and overall I wasn't that impressed. I'm fairly certain that the people who live around our lake spend about 10x the money on fireworks than ALL of Oaxaca combined.

     

  • More work

    Albert 1er is definitely the nicest place we've stayed. The wifi started working and best off all it's just a hop, skip and a jump from the Capitole metro station that I use to get to work. The Metro proves to be an incredibly efficient way to get around. The class is coming around with my only female student providing enough wonderful smiles to go around. All of them are quite sharp and if we can get past the communication issues I think we'll do great.


    We tried a restaurant near Place Victor Hugo and the food was average but cost more than that. I wasn't impressed.

  • New Orleans - Day 6


    Ah, you know it's going to be a good day when you start with a good breakfast. After consulting Yelp yet again we hoofed it north to the Ruby Slipper for breakfast. I'm going to go ahead and give you the address because I enjoyed it so much - 2001 Burgundy street in Faubourg Marigny (Corner of Burgundy and Touro streets). The Ruby Slipper is housed in an old bank building and boy do they know how to do breakfast. I've been wanting to try the famed Cochon de lait (suckling pig) that I've heard so much about and they have an item called Eggs Cochon which is a pair of poached eggs over apple-braised pork debris and an open-faced buttermilk biscuit, finished with Hollandaise. Two biscuits come on a plate and my only complaints about the dish are that I probably only needed one and it was a bit pricey. However, don't let the latter steer you away because this breakfast may be the only good food you get so pony up, it's worth it. Kris had the Eggs Blackstone which is a pair of poached eggs over applewood-smoked bacon, grilled tomato and an open-faced buttermilk biscuit, finished with Hollandaise and served with fresh fruit. This was equally good and I highly recommend it. 

    The Faubourg Marigny was one of the first "suburbs" added to the city and today remains the district that's still largely colonial but not crazy like the French quarter. The houses are of a different style than the French quarter and include more of the "shotgun house" style aptly named because you could fire a shotgun from the front to the rear with out hitting anything. 

    Just north of Faubourg Marigny is the Tremé district made famous by the T.V. show by the same name. It's known for it's racial mix, housing projects and modern brass bands. Historically it was where the free people of color held their markets and dance lines. Specifically they did this at "Congo Square" named for the Congolese people who made up the most recent imports from Africa. The slave folks were in charge of buying the days goods for the plantations as well as selling goods. Quite often the square was used for African dancing as well. The percentage of free people of color reached 20% before New Orleans was purchased by the U.S. In Spanish Luisiana slaves were never barred from purchasing their own freedom if they had enough money on hand and many did. Sunday was a free day where slaves were allowed to partake in capitalism and they got to keep half the money. A lot of this exchange of money happened at Congo Square in the Tremé. 

    We started walking north on Esplanade Ave to see all the fabulous French houses on this grand boulevard when we decided to drop into a local convenience store for water. The Russian sounding man behind the counter asked us if we weren't from around there as if he already knew the answer. He then proceeded to tell us not to walk up Esplanade because it wasn't safe. He then told us not to walk east or west either and that we should go back the way we came for a few blocks then walk west. According to him people come in all the time crying because the got robbed. We followed directions and went back the way we came a couple of blocks then headed toward what used to be Congo Square. Along the way we wandered through yet another Saint Louis cemetery (#2) wondering out loud who it's residents were. In the way back we found the protestant section. This was a breakthrough in social integration because at this time it was common practice NOT to let protestants in the cemeteries at all. I suppose being at the back of the cemetery was better than not being allowed in at all.

    Congo Square no longer exists and it's last musical performances probably happened some time between the time the U.S. took over and the civil war. However, the area has been made into a park in honor of Louis Armstrong. Kris went there yesterday and wanted to take me back so we wandered the park, took photos and sat on a bench and watched a young black girl sing and dance for her friends. It took no stretch of imagination to close our eyes and picture that we were in another time.

    Louis Armstrong park was nice if underutilized, the projects ended up not being very scary at all and along the way toward Canal street we stopped and admired the line of statuary social liberators like Benito Jaurez and Simon Bolivar. Reaching Canal street we decided to go to the Cabildo which was the center of the Spanish Municipal Government. Now it's the Louisiana state history museum and one of the items on my "must see" list.

    Having just read The Accidental City and The World that Made New Orleans, two books with very different takes on New Orleans history I found very little in the Cabildo that was new to me. However, it was really nice reading summaries of historical events along with photos and/or items from that period inside the actual building that much of it happened in. I highly recommend the Cabildo if you're into history. That and it's a great place to be if it's raining outside.

    In one last ditch attempt to find good local cuisine (I know, beating a dead horse) I asked my fellow Facebookers what they recommended. Most pointed out the restaurant in the "Not New Orleans food but pretending to be" category like the Commanders Palace and Kpaul. One suggestion said that we just HAD to have boiled bay shrimp. So after wandering around a bit and looking at Yelp reviews and menus we settled on the Original Pierre Maspero's. It seems there's another Pierre Maspero's but this one's the REAL one or something. This is the historic home of the Original Pierre Maspero’s Slave Exchange. Yes they sold humans here and proudly so it appears. There are plaques on the wall announcing that it was a slave market, it's in the menu, on their website and just about everywhere else.  There's probably graffiti on the bathroom walls too but I didn't look. It felt just a tad odd that so much was made of a horrific past. 

    We ordered the very popular Shrimp Pistolettes which were bay shrimp in little boats smothered in cheese sauce. They were overly cheesy and not that appealing either. Kris ordered the Crab Cake Maspero and Bay Shrimp and Grits. The crab cakes were actually very nice, probably the best I've ever had anywhere. They were light and fluffy with just the right amount of crab flavor. The bay shrimp were OK. They were tender and tasted like shrimp. In a blind taste test nobody would know the difference between these and any other properly prepared shrimp so I wasn't exactly bowled over by them. The cheesy grits were about as good as they sound. Bland granules in a cheap cheese sauce. I ate part of them and left the rest.  NOW I think we're done with local food. I hope.

    We finished the evening with a very pleasant walk along the Mississippi river bank.

  • New passport readers have security issues

    Wired ran a story describing Lukas Grunwald's Defcon talk on an attack on airport passport readers. After extracting data from the (read-only) chip in a legitimate passport, he placed a version of the data with an altered passport photo (JPEG2000 is used in these chips) into a writable chip. The altered photo created a buffer overflow in two RFID readers he tested, causing both to crash. Grunwald suggests that vendors are typically using off-the-shelf JPEG2000 libraries, which would make the vulnerability common.

    Read the article at Wired.com

  • Nimes, France

    Full Nimes Photo Gallery

     

    Last year we spent a week in Provence because our Paris apartment wasn't available when we needed it. We got an adequate apartment in Avignon because it and Arles were the cities that Rick Steves told us to stay in. We chose Avignon because it was larger and less “gritty” according to him. My daughter's boss however said she liked Nimes best and we probably should have listened to her as we'd find out later it was our favorite.

     

    As a repeat from last year our Paris apartment wasn't ready again so we decided to introduce my mother to Europe with a week in Nimes in the Languedoc region. It feels like Provence though as it's right on the border and no more than a 30 minute train ride from the most popular Provencal cities. Since we'd spent a day there we familiar with the layout of the city and found a house fairly near the train station and the center of town.

     

    The house had two bedrooms, a large kitchen, a back yard with patio and bbq and a large front room. The most impressive characteristic though was the beautiful tiled floors that stayed cool all day long in the very hot summers of southern France. Coming from Seattle where the summer temps rarely break 25 degrees Celsius (77 F) we immediately had to acclimate to 34-37 degrees (93-99 F). Having a cold tiled floor helped out a lot as did brilliant metal shutters.

     

    Sometimes while traveling you see something and wonder why we don't have the same thing back home and metal shutters are one of those things. Metal shutters are a lot like having garage doors on your windows. Too much heat or light? Just flip the switch and down comes the shutters which have holes in them to let light in. At the very last minute they flip over and all light is gone. Not only do they keep out the heat but they'll make room pitch black in a hurry. In the morning we'd close the eastern shutters and in the evening the western shutters. At noon all windows were open to let the breeze flow through. They're brilliant to be honest. I'm not sure they offset not having screens on the windows as we would in the states. Screenless windows are a strange European oddity. We asked our French friend why they never have screens on the windows and he replied “Screens? What are screens?”. After explaining that they keep the bugs out he told us they just didn't open the windows. Problem solved. So they get awesome metal shutters and we get screens. I'd like to know why we can't have both.

     

  • Oaxaca to Puebla

    I've been a bit slow in getting this up because I wrote it once when I was in Puebla then accidentally overwrote it and I have a real issue with doing ANYTHING twice... Here goes anyway...

    Last night I told the gentleman at the front desk that we needed a taxi at 6:15am. He shook his head but after telling him three times and him shaking his head three times I figured he wasn't quite understanding me but that's all I could hope for considering the language barrier. I woke up at 5:45 and took a shower not wanting to stink up the whole bus, I'm sure my fellow bus patrons appreciated my thoughtfulness. We packed up last night so didn't really have a lot to do and the front desk guy was nowhere to be found. I started taking the bags down to the front desk and made no effort to be quite about the matter thinking that if he were close (which he probably was) he'd wonder who was making all the racket and come out to either call the police to escort us out of town or call a taxi to escort us out of town. Either would get the job done. At 6am he appeared and I used up one of my many (if you use both fingers and toes) Spanish sentences – “taxi?” to which he said taxi? And I said si! It's amazing how much communicating you can get done with three words and two are the same. Women take note.

    The kids came downstairs and instead of calling a taxi he said “uno momento” and went out on the street and waved one down. Well crap, had I known that's all he was going to do I would have done it myself. Riding in a taxi in Oaxaca early in the morning feels a lot like riding the back of a Bumblebee in a race for the last flower on earth (I assume). Our little mid 90s Nissan taxi that was missing it's muffler was buzzing down the street wandering from side to side until another little Nissan taxi started buzzing around us and at each intersection we'd swap places. Interestingly when the buzzing bees would come up on an intersection they'd flash their lights which in turn shined on the sides of the buildings to let anyone coming to the right or left know not to run the red. I'm telling you they have system down here and it works.

    We arrived at the First Class bus station which I think is all new from the last time we were here. The last time they only announced the buses over the speaker at a million miles per hour and I couldn't tell them apart so I turned on my traveler sense and took my ticket through the crowd and motioned to see everyone else's ticket. When I found someone that was riding my bus we just planted ourselves next to the young guy holding it and when he moved we moved. This method works really well for a lot of things that you don't want to miss - text rules when you don't know the language. Now we didn't need to do this because things have changed. We were riding ADO GL again and when I went to the ADO ticket counter to inquire about where to check my baggage they pointed me to my right. I saw another counter there so I went there and they too pointed me to a room to the right. I went to the room and a lady was guarding the door which asked to see my ticket and she motioned me inside. It was then I realized we were riding deluxe class and part of the perks was to have our own lounge where we didn't have to stand in line to check our bags. All of this for an extra $10... We checked our bags and bought a bunch of junk at the store to eat during our 4.5 hr bus ride to Puebla.

    Even though the ride is only 4.5 hrs and we probably only covered 250 miles it feels like I crossed the entire United States. We started out with deciduous forests with leaves that were slightly colored because it was winter, then went into dense pine forests which turned to cactus forests which turned into a white knuckle ride along a giant canyon which then turned to the badlands and then beautiful red clay hillsides then barren land with white chalky cliffs and finally a green fertile valley floor. We covered about 6 US states and went through a few areas that had no equivalent as well. According to my calculations (said in Jade's comical East Indian voice) we'd be in Puebla at 12:30 but we came into a flat valley floor at 11:30 and it fit the description and I really knew I had calculated wrong when I started seeing Puebla billboard signs. We pulled into the Puebla bus station which is the largest in all of Mexico. Mexico City has four large stations but Puebla a city of only 1.3 million people only has one and it's very busy. It's built like two large circles with gates inside and outside the circles all the way around. We parked in the inner circle and our primary concern was to find a bathroom. The bus had two (men's and women's) but since I've been in airplane bathrooms I had an idea what a bus toilet would look like and didn't seize the opportunity.

    Our first indication that Puebla was different was that we had to pay to use the bathroom – 3 pesos roughly 25 cents U.S. I knew the Puebla bus station was 5 km from our hotel so we took a taxi who's drive spoke English! Hoorah. He wanted to know where I was from to which I replied Seattle and he said “Oh really, I have family in Idaho Falls” as if those places were close. I guess it's the same thing as me saying I went to Oaxaca and someone saying “Oh I just love Cancun!” which is not at all the same experience. I tipped him for the conversation when he dropped us off. He seemed to have a bit of a problem knowing where our street was which I thought was odd since the street name was 4 and they come in order (as do most numerals). Later I learn that there are 4 streets named 4 and they all radiate out from the zocolo. There's also 4 streets named 6 and 8 and.... All street numbers decrease from every direction until finally you arrive at the Zocolo. It's important that you know the difference between 4 oriente (east) and 4 norte (north).

    The hotel was nowhere near as luxurious as the photos online or the description in the Let's Go guide. Before leaving home I went to the bookstore to see if there was a new Let's Go guide but there version looked identical to mine so I didn't buy it. Come to find out mine was printed in 2006 which is a long time in the travel world. Maybe something happened between 2006 and 2010 to this place because it was all a bit dingy. Having said that our room was large, we did get free breakfast in the morning, a free snack in the evening, free ping pong, free pool (I guess), cable tv channels and a host of other stuff. Maybe it was a luxury hotel at one point but just lost it's luster. Considering I was only paying $40 a night for all four of us I wasn't complaining too loud anyway. The check in lady didn't speak a word of English but she spoke really loud to me which seemed to make help out a lot. :-) My fine tuned ears can discern the words diez minutos (10 minutes) which means I should plant myself on the couch until something obvious happened which is what I did until the bellhop came (the obvious part) and took us to our room. I had no money on me so my next question to the desk lady was ATM (using up yet another word in my "Spanish" arsenal)? Which she responded "Zocolo" and pointed down the street. You have to love Mexico. You can check into a hotel, get the key and never give them any money. In the US you'd have to give them money or a credit card first before they let you do anything.

    So off to the Zocolo we went to find money and food.

    Let me take a break for a moment and tell you about Puebla. It has about 1.3 million people, sits at an elevation of 7000 ft (which we no longer noticed) is or is one of the most photographed cities in all of Mexico and the entire city is a UNESCO world heritage site. This should tell you something. I came here in the search for pretty buildings and great food and I was not disappointed in either endeavor.

    I've been amazed at how different each city in Mexico really is. I'm not talking about each city as in Cancun, Play del Carmen because all of those places are for the most part identical. I mean city as in real Mexican cities like Mexico City, Oaxaca and Puebla. These three cities all have their own style and feel. Puebla as it's been told to me was a social experiment by the Spanish to provide enlightenment via education and religion (yeah, that'll work). The city was founded in the early 1500s and was to be the crossroads of faith and education, with libraries, schools and administrative buildings designed to civilize and Christianize. Puebla to this day is a mix of 17th and 18th century European ideals and Mexican art. It has been said that Puebla's streets were laid by angels who streaked ribbons across the land, forming the grid that makes the city so simple to navigate. Puebla since it's inception has been stocked well with convents and nuns which to this day you see wandering the streets. These very same nuns invented two of Mexico's most famous dishes – Chiles en Nagoda and Mole Pablano – both of which I planned on sampling while I was there.

    Puebla has an interesting architectural style that you don't see anywhere else in Mexico. As it's been told to me the folks from Spain that settled here came from Talavera Spain just west of Madrid. In Talavera they use red brick and tiles for their buildings. When they moved to Puebla they continued this tradition and Puebla shows it with many streets lined with red brick buildings and tiled walls. Even the dome on the main cathedral in the Zocolo is tiled. My first impression of Puebla is WOW! What a pretty place. There's a reason it's one of the most photographed cities in Mexico. In the zocolo there was one side of the main square that serviced nothing but double decker buses full of tourists. Double decker tourist buses in a town that nobody's (most nobodies live in the States I think) ever heard of? Welcome to Mexico... It seemed the tourist line to get on the buses was chock full of Argentineans, Chileans and Mexicans with an occasional Gringo. Not a popular place for the white non-German speaking folk though. It's my prediction that within the next 5 years Puebla will suddenly pop onto the tourist map the way that Oaxaca has.

    Natalya who's been partially sick the with a cold the entire trip and who's stomach was becoming particularity sensitive to unknown foods wanted to just sit on a bench and watch the tourists go by which is what we did. About 15 minutes later we became of interest to some locals that came up to us and told us that they were curious about where we were from. The man who introduced himself as Sylvestre lived in the state of Puebla as a kid but now lives in Pasadena California. The woman Betty was family and still lived in Puebla. It was Sylvestres first trip back to the city of Puebla and was doing the tourist thing as we were. We talked for a bit and then I told them they were going to be famous because I was going to blog about them and needed a photo. They brought in more family and I took the photo. They were a delightful bunch and very inquisitive. They left only to return a few minutes later asking for the URL so they could look at my blog then they were off again.

    I'm going to take a break for a second to tell you what makes traveling special. You can watch travel videos or thumb through the World Book encyclopedia and never go anywhere if you wish. A building in person looks about the same as a building in a book. However, it's the people and the culture that you will never experience unless you actually go to those places. When we're in Croatia or Slovenia we stay with local families and it's wonderful. To come “home” to the Strnad family in Ljubljana and hear them singing after a day of seeing the sights is a joy to behold or to have breakfast with Andrea in Dubrovnik is a wonderful memory. I've always thought there's a market for people in countries to just do whatever it is they usually do but allow tourists to do it with them. This might seem completely ridiculous but I'm sure people would pay to hang out with the locals. If you go on tours it's always so sterile and cold with reciting stories and dates and when it's over everyone goes their separate ways. You learned something but you experienced nothing. My greatest memories are those where I forged a relationship with someone in a foreign land. I always like Mexico because the locals want to know about us. We're not quite as big a spectacle now that my kids are getting older so people only stare at us 50% of the time.

    Anyway meeting Sylvestre and Betty is a good memory and I hope we run into them again. They are delightful and full of energy as is the rest of the family.

    Natalya said that while I was talking to them and taking pictures the eyes of the entire line of tourists waiting for the double decker bus was on us but that just adds to it. Mexico is the most unpretentious place on earth. You can go there, wear crazy clothes or do about anything you want and you will only make people more curious. I've never seen a turned up nose in Mexico so the moral of the story is relax and enjoy yourself.

    Our stomachs started sending signals to our brains and Natalya wanted familiar food so we ate at an Italian place on the zocolo. I of course had Pollo en Mole because I'm not wasting one moment here eating food I can get at home. The Mole was so thick with chocolate that they might as well just melted it down, added chiles and put it on my enchiladas. A bit too thick in my opinion. The kids had pasta which they all enjoyed. After dinner we took more pictures and then Natalya had to return to the hotel with stomach issues.

    Not a bad first day in Puebla. Overall I'm VERY impressed with this city and know for sure that I have to return one day to spend a lot more time here. I'm going to give you one photo from Puebla for today (I'm trying to build suspense...).

     

     

     

     

     

  • Oaxaca! Maybe it's time for Mole...


    My favorite state in Mexico is definitely Oaxaca. Oaxaca is second most southern state in Mexico near the Guatemala border. It's roughly about as far south as Belize and has decent climate.  It has untouristed beaches facing south, excellent ancient ruins like Mitla and Mont Alban a ancient hilltop Zapotec village with planetarium, ball court and hospital. There is just enough tourism for services to be available but not enough to be really irritating like the entire east coast of the Yukatan Peninsula or the many west coast resort towns like Acapulco, Mazatlan, and Puerta Villarta. But the real reason I like Oaxaca is for the nice people and the wonderful food. Even among Mexicans the Oaxacans excel. Oaxaca is billed as the land of the 7 moles. If you haven't had mole you need to fly to Oaxaca. Don't go to your local Azteca for it because you'll decide that you don't like it. That's about the same as going to Olive Garden and having "Italian" food (pronounced with a long i!).  If you're wanting to know a bit more about mole visit the Wikipedia page on mole.

  • Oaxaca!!!

    Wow, Oaxaca has become mainstream! In case you've been hiding under a rock for the last few years there's this place called Oaxaca (wa-HA-ku) in southern Mexico about the same latitude as the country of Belize that has great food, great people and great ruins. It also seems to have been discovered. In the first 15 minutes of being in the zocolo I've seen more tourists than ALL of Mexico City. We came into Oaxaca llate last night, got signed into our Hostel and went out to eat. Credit cards are not used that much here and our hostel charged us 10% more to use my card so I chose to pay for one night and I'll go to the ATM to get cash to pay for the other nights. I've found this to be the case everywhere including restaurants. The money thing is a bit out of control because the exchange rate is 12.5 to one. That means I paid 2,500 pesos for a hostel for 4 nights. It's not hard to pay 2000 pesos for bus tickets or 600 pesos for dinner. Each peso is worth less than one dime so it's like you're paying for everything in dimes. What's more interesting is the lack of ability to make change for anything over a 20 peso bill. I remember the last time I was here I went into an ice cream shop and tried buying four ice cream cones with a 50 peso bill and they about fell over. Not understanding how cheap things were I though $5 USD would cover it. I ended up digging through my pockets for change 10 pesos in change. Another time I tried buying an antibiotic and band-aids from a pharmacy with a 500 ($40 USD) and the girls eyes about popped out of her head when she saw it. My daily budget for 4 people is roughly 1000 pesos or $80 for food and accommodations.

     

    So first day in Oaxaca and I've already seen changes since the last time I was here. Before it was more common to see tourists than Mexico City but not overwhelmingly so. This time every third person was a tourist from somewhere and there were plenty of Americans as well which you rarely ever see in Mexico City. I wish prosperity for the Oaxacenos but at the same time hope they don't turn into Cancun because a beautiful city will have been destroyed. It will be difficult for Oaxaca in the future to remember who they are so many tourists that it will be more profitable satisfying the demand for Nachos and Burritos. Italy has had so much tourism that it's all but been dissolved into Disneyland and I pray that Oaxaca doesn't suffer the same fate.

    Our plan for day one of Oaxaca was to get our bearings, wander the streets, eat good food and figure out how to get to Monte Alban. We've been to Monte Alban before but we took a tour which had an excellent guide but only left us 15 minutes of personal time. Monte Alban is a lot like Machu Picchu in that you're best memories may be just sitting under a tree imagining what this once great city may have been like. This is what we planned on doing and in order to do that we needed to just find transportation alone.

    Oaxaca is famous for several things - chocolate, cheese and black pottery. South of the zocolo a few blocks is "chocolate corner" where you can get a cup of chocolate caliente at every corner or there about. Mayordomo is becoming the Starbucks of Oaxaca in putting a chocolate cafe on every block. I've had hot chocolate before and I've had mexican chocolate before (Mayordomo) but I've not sat down and ordered a hot chocolate from a chocolate cafe so that's on the agenda. The cheese they sell in the markets in the form of giant balls that are wound of long flat "noodles" of cheese. I bought one kilo of cheese to eat as snacks while we walked around. It's good cheese that resembles a salty mozerella more than anything.  The last item is something special to this region. They hand make the pottery without the use of a pottery wheel, cut out designs in the sides then bury it underground cover it with green leaves and build a fire on top. The smoke impregnates the pottery making it a very deep charcoal black. The best part is they sell it for next to nothing. It really is beautiful and unlike anything you'll see anywhere else.

    The indoor market in Oaxaca City is possitively large and sells everything from handmade scarves to meat. I'd love to to have access to the mounds of chiles, chocolate and cheese not to mention the spices and other raw ingredients.

    We also planned on getting off the zocolo to eat some great food at cheaper prices than we enjoyed before. I believe I used the Moon guide on our first trip to Oaxaca and this time I brought the Let's Go which is great for budget travelers and not so good for those who want to spend their childrens inheritance on Oaxacano cuisine so we just had to wing it a bit.

    Before I go on I'll tell you a bit about Oaxaca the state and Oaxaca the city. Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HA-ku) the state is populated by many different indigenous groups which make up nearly half the populus. The most common is the Zapotecas followed by the Mixtecas. The former built Monte Alban, the latter build Mitla and eventually ruled Monte Alban. The difference between Oaxaca and the rest of Mexico is that the native people didn't mix with the Spanish so technically they live in Mexico but aren't Mexican. A lot of the people in the

    state don't speak Spanish either and stick to their original language. This brings a surprising diversity to the area and you'll notice that the people don't even look the same if you travel around the state. Oaxaca city has become very popular with tourists because it's a very pretty city with cobblestone streets and colonial Spanish architecture. The zocolo is one of the prettiest anywhere with gardens, an art nouveau gazebo, hundreds of planted poinsetias and two story Spanish colonades lining all four sides. Because I've never been to Spain it reminds me a great deal of Bologna Italy which has somewhere around 70 miles of porticos lining the street. The zocolo is in the same style. Two of the four corners are anchored by 450 year old churches and the area is mostly for pedestrian use only. The restaurants lining the zocolo on both first and second stories are mostly white table cloth fancy places with excellent traditional Oaxacano food. The exception to this being the one Basque restaurant which seemed to have gotten lost and ended up in southern Mexico. I'm not sure how that happened but a Spanish galleon and shackles may have been involved.

     

    I think I mentioned the hostel (Paulina Hostel) yesterday but I wanted to reiterate that this hostel is only about 3 blocks from the zocolo, is incredibly clean, is a Let's Go thumbs up and has a very tranquil inner courtyard with attached open eating area, free Internet and free breakfast. We rented all 5 beds in a 5 bed dormroom so we'd have a private room. There's wifi access just about everywhere except the room full of computers (ironically) so I can get on the Internet in our room. My only real complaint is the lack of power outlets in the rooms. I'm sure it's to discourage people from plugging in electric weed eaters or toasters but still I'd like to use my computer in my underwear which I currently can't do without shocking a bunch of German and Korean backpackers. I've only found four power outlets in all of the hostel – one I have to reach over a pool of water to access, the second has a christmas tree plugged into it, the third is in the dining room and the fourth the computer room. Each one of these places only has ONE outlet so I can't charge my laptop at the same time as my camera batteries. Today I'm going to go find a power strip of sorts.

     

    Before we left the hostel we handed over our clothes to be washed which cost us 75 pesos or about $6 which was fine. So in search of food we wandered the pedestrian street leading from the zocolo to the nearly 500 year old church of Santa Domingo

     

    We ran across the Catedral restaurant which had an inner courtyard. They had several mole entrees including Mole Almendrado (almond) which Natalya wanted. Overall the service was decent and the food average. The Mole Negro Tamale in banana leaf was the best thing there. Piper had squash flour soup with cubes of cheese and plantain molettas filled with meat neither of which she was impressed with because either the color or the texture was off. Jade had chicken breast with squash flower sauce which was decent. He didn't have any problem finishing it off. We were also reminded that if you can't speak the language and you didn't want something don't mention that you don't want it because they will only hear the part that they recognize (the item not wanted) and bring it to you. I ended up drinking both bottles of mineral water with gas. We made the mistake of saying no gas. No gas gets translated to gas which is what you get. We've learned this lesson before so we have no excuse. Sin gas is the secret password to water without bubbles or still water as the Brits say.

     

    During dinner we heard an American couple at the next table and before leaving I asked them where there where from to which they responded Boulder Colorado. Boulder? That was my response because usually the travelers I encounter are from California, Florida or New York. I bet their reverse culture shock after returning home is greater than ours. Anyway there names were Audry and Jeffery and seemed to be a very nice couple. She'd been to Oaxaca 30 years ago and I can only imagine how much it's changed in that amount of time. It's changed in the last 3 years so 30 years has to be a big jump. She asked me about San Miguel de Allende and Puebla too so apparently she'd either been to them or had been doing some reading. She was also aware of the hot springs, the big tree and Mitla. There's a slight chance we may run into them tomorrow since they too decided to go to Monte Alban via the bus. I hadn't researched how to do that yet but I know it's possible.

    Mexico does Christmas a lot different than the States. Since 97% of the population identifies themselves as Catholic they celebrate Christmas from December 25th to January 6th. Even now near the first the zocolo is going full swing with bands, decorations and many many people. Thankfully our hostel is a couple of blocks away so we can get some sleep.

  • On the road battery power

    I found this online today and think that it just might be what I’ve been looking for. It only weighs 4.4 ozs a

    nd stores 4400 mAh at 3.7volts. It also provides 6 volts and 8.4 volts as well for devices that need more voltage.

    It has about 30 tips to connect litererally hundreds of devices. I takes about 3hrs to charge from the wall socket or about 4hrs from USB. This is great for me because I could leave yet another wall wart at home and just plug in my laptop and charge it with that. Then when I’m out on a plane or train I could use it to power other things. I’m not sure it would help with my camera because my current one relies on batteries but in the future maybe.
  • Only if you have extra time before your next flight..

    I've always wanted to just mess with the TSA since they're completely asinine half the time but I'm always in a hurry it seems. This tote bag would be good fuel for the fire though. I'm sure they wouldn't think it's very funny and would insist on going through all of my bags just to express their opinion but I think I might try it anyway..

    Even funnier (and more disruptive to my travel plans) would be to tape on tin foil shaped scissors etc... I'm not sure what they'd look like in the X-ray machine but it might be fun to find out.

    TSA isn't that careful anyway so they might not notice. I did an article quite some time ago about a third party company testing airport security. On average they were able to get fake bomb parts through security 25% of the time. That means that every four terrorists through security could blow up a plane.

    There was a time where we had bottles of liquid in our bag and they pulled us aside and hand searched the bag. Once they found two they threw them away and sent us on our way. When we got to the hotel we opened our bag and took out the rest. Another time they swore they saw sissors in a friends bag so they took everything out until there was nothing left and still said they saw scissors but since they couldn't find them they let us through anyway. What if they saw a gun but couldn't find it, would they let us through?

  • Paris Mashup

    People can create usage specific websites by "mashing up" google maps with their own stuff. For example someone can create a site that shows all subway stops and schedules for NY. I just found this mashup of Points Of Interest for Paris France at tellmewhere.com .

  • Paris photos are done...

    IMG_8412I believe I have uploaded all the Paris photos that I'm going to. Some need to be rotated, some need to be deleted and some need to be loaded into the Gimp and worked on but none of that is getting done right now because it's taking me forever just to get them uploaded.

    I'm working on the Slovenia photos now. I'd like to have them and the Croatia photos uploaded by the end of the week.

    Western Europe 2007 photo gallery

  • Party train to Paris

    Ah, Paris..... How I've missed you.

    When I originally bought my tickets to Toulouse I figured I could go all the way to Toulouse then after I was done working I'd head to Paris and pick my plane up there. Air France on the other hand had other things on their mind. They said if I don't pick up my Toulouse leg I'd forfeit the entire flight and I'd have to buy another. This meant that if we were going to Paris it would have to be a round trip ticket. Natalya scoured the Internet looking for train tickets and like airplane tickets SNCF will raise and lower the prices throughout the day depending on availability. We got two tickets round trip to Paris in first class for 80 Euros which is half the cost of flying or driving either one. The ticket to Paris was on what I call the all night party train. This train officially called the idNight train is split up into thirds, one third is a lounge, the second is an area where DVD players and game machines are handed out and the third is called idZen which is for being quiet. Since it was an overnight train I figured being quiet was a good strategy and booked that ticket. I had every intention of checking out the rest of the train but fell asleep instead.

    We arrived in Paris at 6:45 am and decided to go for a hotel on the Ill de la cite which is the island in the middle of the seine river only steps away from Pont Neuf. On arriving we are told they're booked as is all the other hotels they work with. Natalya and I took our bags and headed toward the Latin Quarter where we knew of Internet cafes. I figure either we find something on the way, we find something on the Internet or we stay in the hostel on the other side of the internet cafe. It seemed like a pretty good strategy with a decent chance of success. On the way in one of the little midevil streets we find a decent hotel with wifi for 100 euros. It's more than we would have paid if we looked further but we both needed food and wanted to rid ourselves of our ballast.

    Our first order of business was to get on the Internet to see if Amber had left a message since we were going to meet her and Alex for dinner. She had so we set up a time and place (our favorite restaurant) and ventured out. Even though we've spent between 3 and 4 months in Paris there's many things we've never done like see the catacombs, Petite Palais, Grande Palais, Picasso Museum and many others. People who think they're going to "see" Paris in a 3 day stopover, or even a week or two or a month are all crazy. You don't realize until you get here that it would take you years to see Paris. There literally isn't any other place like it.

    So breakfast appeared in the form of two pan au chocolates, two apple pastries and juice. We then proceeded to walk to the Grande Palais to see the Renoir exhibit. Renoir doesn't seem to have his own museum, we've never seen the inside of the Grande Palais and he's my favorite so off we go.

    Paris is beautiful if you hadn't heard the news. I know there are places that aren't but for shear number of buildings, bridges and parks Paris can't be beat. I took pictures along the way. Upon arriving at the front door of the Grande Palais we find it closed and largely gutted. I then decide to do what I've felt like doing all morning - fall asleep on the marble stairs. Natalya after all has to deal with the stares not me since I'm asleep. She wore her fancy 1930s hat so I really think that's what people were staring at. Three ladies approached the door and gaggled back in forth in French and head off to another entrance. This Palace is huge so we think maybe they're on to something and head in the same direction. Actually scratch that, I woke up first and then headed in that direction. On the east entrance we find that not only is there a Renoir exhibit but an Istanbul/Byzantine empire exhibit so we go to both and both are decent. The photo to the right is the Petite Palais or the little one - it's petite, get it?. This gives you an idea how big the Grande Palais is. The fact that this is referred to as the small one gives you an idea of the scale of things in Paris.

    After getting our fill of women who all look the same we head for E. Dehilerin near Les Halles. This is my favorite cooking store and I'm curious about what more I can cram into my bag if I for some reason lose my ability to reason and judge capacity. Les Halles is quite a ways from the Champs Elysees and the tourists are starting to get to me so we take the back streets and arrive in time to price the Staub Dutch ovens (too pricey) and carbon steel pans before being shooed out the door. Stomachs growling we head for Le Escarogot which we find is only serving cheeseburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches. I won't even go into that. Tired of duck and knowing we're having it for dinner we eat at my favorite Indian restaurant near Pompidou Centre which has excellent Jalfrezy.

    Dinner didn't come that much later... We arrive at our favorite restaurant only to find they've removed all references to duck from the menu. These guys made duck that was better than anything we had in Lang doc which is famous for it. Saddened we look at the other restaurants in the area and choose one. This was our neighborhood one summer and Le Square Cafe has been calling us back each year since. So much for that. I'm not sure why a restaurant would remove the one dish that made them stand out from the rest. I just don't get it.

    Amber and Alex arrive and we head to the new restaurant. Amber's this cutesie looking girl that's sharp as a tack and a bit height challenged. I'd say that Alex probably has probably a foot on her in that department. I've not met Alex in person before but was impressed with him as he seems like a really decent guy and has a good sense of humor as well. Dinner was OK but a little disapointing because nobody had the Meg Ryan reaction to the food. sigh.

    We split off and went two directions - Amber and Alex proceeded down a dead end divider in the middle of the street and we toward the Eiffel tower. I hope they figured out that going that direction was about 24,000 miles longer than the other way. I also hope they survived the traffic circle - those can be a tad dangerous when you're running across them in flip flops.

    Our intentions with the Eiffel tower were to pick up more materials for Natalya to make earings out of. Unfortunately they only had the large keychains so we went home empty handed. We did pick up several flashing glass Eiffel towers though for gifts. A late metro ride returned us to the Latin Quarter were we preceded to speak Latin and get no response. I'm not sure the label is appropriate. It's Halloween (or alloweeen as the French say)  and the Latin Quarter is where the party people go so you can imagine the streets. I've never been more ashamed to be an American in my life. The streets were flooded by Americans being more obnoxious and rude then I thought possible. Thankfully we had triple pane windows so we slept immediately. Tomorrow we return to Toulouse.

  • Puebla es bonita..

    The end is near.. :-(

    Natalya's not feeling well so she's staying in today. I'm thinking she's getting dehydrated and her back is out plus she has a cold and her stomach is just about done with strange food. She's craving fruit so Piper and I head out to take more pictures, pick up some fruit and Gatorade. I also wrote down Pepto Bismol because I'm not sure what's going to happen to Jade. You see last night when I went out to get food Jade said he just wanted something known which is where most everyone but myself is standing. I'm still going full force wanting to experience all the culinary variation that the country has to offer but I'd be lying if I were to say that my body was handling it without complaint. One of two things is going to happen, either this food becomes normal or we go home and start eating something normal. Either way I'm OK with it. For now though, it's Mole Pablano and Chiles en Nagoda for me. So to satisfy the need for normal food Jade begged for a chicken sandwich at McDonald's (of all places). We enter McDonald's and look at the menu. Of course nobody can speak English but we know the drill - we look at a combo, say the number then say “no” to everything they ask until they ask the same thing more than once (meaning it wasn't a yes/no) question to which we say Sprite. This has done us fairly well in 30 countries. My kids always ask if they can have their sandwich without and I say no because in order to ask for them to hold something you actually have to be able to speak some of the language. I know how to say Lettuce, I don't know how to say Pickles so all sandwiches will have Pickles in Mexico. What we ended up with was a 10 piece chicken nuggets and a chicken sandwich. Both made into “Trio” meals which came with fries and a drink. McDonald's is just as bad in Mexico as it is at home unfortunately so don't get any ideas about the quality of the food being edible. Piper sat down to dinner and took a drink of her soda then asked the all important question “does this have ice?”. Crap, we'd been walking around getting my dinner and didn't notice if there were ice in the drinks. Jade was done with his soda and we popped the lid to peer in and sure enough there were shards of ice in there. I drank a few drinks but before the ice melted, Piper drank a few drinks after it was melted and Jade drank the whole thing thus the search for Gatorade and Pepto Bismol.

    Note that ice cubes won't get you 100% of the time but he had a cup full of the local water in the form of ice and he ate it which pretty much seals your fate. The front desk read my note listing Pepto Bismol and whipped out a first aid kit with the familiar pink bottle in it and made a motion for me to pour some in a cup and take it. I ran back to the hotel room and gave it to Natalya to calm down her stomach. She gagged on the Pepto because she'd never drank liquid chalk before. I remembered liking Pepto when I was a kid but haven't had any since. Finding out that Pepto Bismol was called Pepto Bismol here was encouraging. If Jade gets Montezuma's revenge he will need to be plugged up for the plane flight home so off to the Pharmacy we went. I mentioned Petpo Bismol to which she asked me a question and I just sat there and stared at her like an idiot which I've gotten very good at by the way then she disappeared into the back. She came out with Pepto tablets which was even better – we could take them on the plane. After handing over my $3 I took them back to the hotel for the little birds. Jade was feeling fine but decided to hang out with Natalya as Piper and I explored the city and explore is what we did.

    We needed breakfast and I wanted an apple filled pastry so we headed to the Zocolo and out the other side. We ran into a Churreria which seem to be very popular here. We bought a couple of Churros and headed down another street where we found a Tourist Information office. The man there spoke English unlike the TI on the Zocolo and gave me directions for the bakery. I took more photos then got shown up by a girl packing a DSLR with a giant lens. In a weird way I felt less manly for a second.

    As we were walking down the street toward our bakery a group of people ran across the street and up on to the sidewalk – it was our new friends Betty and Sylvestre! They were eating in a restaurant across the street and saw us walking but there were more of them this time. The hands came out and I went down the line asking each what there name was and shaking their hand. They were all as bubbly and friendly as Betty and Sylvestre are. I've tired my hardest to remember there names and I wish now that I'd taken another photo of all of them together. So from memory their names were Sylvestre and Betty (of course), Medium (spelling?), Ramone, Ramona (the grandma), Norma who was with them yesterday and Carmen. I think I'm missing someone but I can't think of who so I apologize if I have. I tried my best to roll my R's when saying their names and think I did OK for names starting with R but ones with it in the middle are very challenging. I think all of the kids range from maybe 12 years old to 18 or so. Carmen is a very pretty girl who's parents need to think about locking her in a closet until she's 18. If you're reading this get out the padlock now before the boys are knocking on the door! :-)

    I told them we were headed to the bakery and they asked if we wanted to just follow them which we did. Along the way we decided to exchange email addresses and Sylvestre offered to let me stay with him in Pasadena when I go down to work. I can't stress how friendly these folks are. Betty seemed disappointed when I told her that we'd be leaving tomorrow. Having seen Puebla and spent two days in it I am 100% sure that we will return and now that we have Betty's email address we can get together with her and her wonderful family when we go down next.

    They dropped us off at the bakery and once again the hands came out and I went down the line to shake them and to say goodbye. What a wonderful family and I'm glad we ran into them again. I've sent them emails so we can stay in contact.

    The bakery was a small version of the traditional Mexican bakery and had the same things. Mostly muffins and many types of croissants and breads. The one thing I enjoy about Mexican bakeries is the lack of sugar. For whatever reason Mexican baked goods are not very sweet which is great for me. After the bakery we continued up the street and decided to take a different route back to the hotel which took us past a VIPS http://www.vips.com.mx/ which is sort of a commercial Denny's/Olive Garden restaurant that for whatever reason seems to have gotten the coolest looking buildings in Puebla. This building was made of large stones almost in a castle style and in the middle was a long hallway in the Paris Gallery style with an open roof and slanted glass panes providing protection from the elements. Curious we entered and found the entire center of the building was uncovered and filled with more tent like glass coverings and small shops. Again you don't realize that there could be an permanent store without a building protecting it from the environment until you go to a place where the temperature rarely goes below 70. The entire central “courtyard” was filled with a sort of outdoor mall with real stores, food stands and a carousel in the middle complete with a train ride for small children and adults who feel like small children. If you're having a hard time imagining this just think of what would happen if you took your average American Mall and removed the roof over the hallways between the stores and replaced it with an open v-shaped piece of glass. The sun and fresh air would get in and technically the hallway would be “outside”. This is only possible in a place like Mexico and I don't think it would translate well to Seattle with 366 days of rain a year.

    Earlier in the trip we saw people walking along the street with a spiral shaped piece of food on a stick and in this “mall” we found a stand selling such a thing which turned out to be a potato that's cut in a spiral then deep fried. We also picked up another meal on a stick which we didn't really know the ingredients to until we bit into it. You have to laugh when you think of the dietary recommendations at home and what this thing is. It's a hot dog, dipped in batter, then wrapped in bacon and deep fried! Seriously, I'm not making this up. Of course we had to have a couple of those too so walking back to the hotel we looked like a couple of porcupines with eight spiny quills stick up in each direction – 4 with spirals and 4 with bacon wrapped hot dogs. Everyone like the fried potato but the deep fried hot dog wrapped in bacon got mixed reviews. Your system can only handle so much grease and it seems that threshold is met by this strange concoction.

    After lunch Piper and I hit the streets again to take more photos and find souvenirs then later Chiles en Nagoda the latter being the local specialty. Yesterday Jade and I left the zocolo the wrong way end ended up taking the long way home but I remembered seeing a souvenir shop so Piper and I retraced our steps and found a shop with a shot glass and key chains which is what Natalya asked for. They also had the famous Pablano Desserts which I of course purchased. These sweets look like gummy squares but when you bite into them they're so soft they almost all apart. It's quite a surprise but my kids did not find the strong flavor bite appealing. Once I translated the ingredients list I found alcohol in them. I've not had a problem walking the line after eating any so I'm thinking the amount of booze is quite small.

    After nearly two weeks of eating Mexican food (and drinking melted ice the night before) only my stomach is wanting normal but there was one dish left to try – Chiles en Nogada. I was told that they only eat it in August but I found on place on the zocolo that sold it year round. It has pomegranate seeds which I'm sure you can't get all the time but still, I've never seen it on a menu at home so I just have to try it here. Chiles en Nogada is a pablano chile stuffed with a casserole of ingredients including meat, nuts and fruit. It's then covered with either an almond or walnut cream sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and parsley. It's a gorgeous looking dish and wonderful tasting too. As you can imagine the pom seeds were not bright red and juicy since their not in season and they stuck them inside the pepper (for probably the same reason) but overall I was very impressed. This dish has potential. I'll have to come back in August to try it when it's in season.

    While we were standing in line for a table I got a phone call from Mother nature so we rushed back to the hotel. Undeterred we returned and sat in a couple of chairs with no table. A waiter came by and asked if we wanted a table (I guess that's what he said) and we said yes so off he went to get us a table. We just figured we'd sit while waiting instead of standing but in a minute he plopped down a table between our chairs and we were in business. I ordered the Chiles en Nogada of course and he said two numbers and a few other things which I figured out was a drink and soup which I took. He wanted to serve me a fruit drink but it has water in it so I skipped it and ordered agua purificado (purified water). Piper ordered a hamburger which turned out to be a HAM burger and she too got the meal with the soup and the drink. She wanted the fruit drink which I vetoed but then the waiter said agua purificado and I pointed to the fruit drink and he repeated agua purificado. I figured we're all probably getting sick form McDonald's anyway so what the heck. If we're not communicating right it's probably not going to make a difference anyway she got her strawberry drink.

    Here hamburger was just that – made from smashed together ham which was hilarious. My dinner was excellent as well. We got Jade more junk food for dinner and returned to the hotel to pack up. The taxi will take us to the airport at 4:30 am...

    On the architecture. I mentioned that there's a lot of red brick and tiles here in Puebla and the Spanish from Talevera have been credited for this. I can't say how different Puebla feels from other Mexican cities. To be fair, all Mexican Cities feel different from each other. Puebla however, feels like somewhere else. There was one time I was walking down one street and stopped and looked around because I felt like I was in Paris. Another time I felt like I was in Toulouse. There's such a mix here that I can't explain it. There are red brick and tile buildings everywhere and they really take you by surprise. It's as if there's a little of Morocco in Puebla.

     

    My impressions overall... I like visiting Mexico City but I'd not want to live there. I would buy a summer (or winter) home in Oaxaca but I could see myself actually living in Puebla. Puebla is a real city with industry, tourism and culture. Puebla doesn't smell at all and is gorgeous. I'm very impressed with Puebla and we will without a doubt be returning in the future. There is so many things to do in Puebla which we didn't have time for I didn't even crack open the guidebook after we arrived. There's an African Safari place close! Don't even ask why because this is Mexico and anything goes. Also the largest pyramid in the world (yes larger than Egypt) is not that far in Chalula. Mexico City is only two hours away so even if someone wanted to avoid the rat race they could use Puebla as a base and take tours to Teotihaucan, Xochimilco etc.. in Mexico City I'd bet. This may be the safest and most pleasant way of seeing Mexico City too.

    Puelba is so pretty that there's just no way I could have included enough photos in this blog post so I've added a bunch of photos to the end of it. The formatting will probably be all wrong but that's OK. Later I'll have all of the high res photos up in the Puebla trip gallery.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Saint Angels and Skinny Coyotes - part 1

    The sun came up and we didn't. We'd had a long day traveling and went out to the zocolo last night to get banana leaf tamales from a street vendor. He had a choice of rojo or verde so I used up all of my Spanish by saying dos dos which he understood as two of each. Most of the tamales I've had in the states have been dry corn mush with meat in the middle. I like them but you need something to drink with it. The one exception to that statement is the banana leaf pollo en mole negro tamale at La Carta de Oaxaca in Ballard. That's a nice moist tamale. These tamales were like La Carta de Oaxaca in that they were very moist and on first bite tasted of chilies but after further digging I did find chicken (with bones). All four of us at tamales for 60 pesos which is roughly $4. Maybe the moistness comes from the banana leaf.

    While I'm talking about food I might as well say you need to be careful in Mexico because you can get sick very easy if you don't know what you're doing. The problem is with the water.

    1. You should not in any case drink the water from the tap
    2. You should not get any in your mouth when showering
    3. You should not use it brush your teeth with.
    4. You should not have ice cubes in your drinks
    5. You should not eat lettuce.
    6. You should not eat any fruit unless you peeled it yourself.
    7. You should not eat anything else that doesn't look like it was cooked to temp.

    That might seem like a lot of things not to do but in reality it leaves a great deal of food open for tasting. A lot of people are so afraid of getting sick that they never venture beyond the gates of their resort. This I think is unfortunate because real Mexico has food you'll never seen in a Mexican restaurant in the states or anywhere else for that matter. This is my “should list”.

    1. You should eat any fruit if you've peeled it
    2. You should eat anything that has been cooked in boiled or filtered water (tamales)
    3. You should eat anything cooked to temperature
    4. You should drink as much bottled or filtered water as you like

    This is a shorter but all encompassing list. Think about how many things you eat everyday at home that fits into the second category and you'll realize that going to Mexico isn't as restricting as you thought. Notice that I've not singled out street food at all. When eating street food just follow the rules. The advantage to street food is you get to see it up close which is something you can't do in a restaurant until you've received it. If you think you're going to Mexico to eat hard shell tacos, burritos and fajitas you will be very surprised to find out that it's tough getting that food outside of the US. That food IS Mexican but not native to Mexico. I fear that as tourists “find” Mexico they may have to start serving it to satisfy the masses. I heard that you can now get nachos at movie theaters now. That I think is sad.

    After you're removed your fear of eating you will have the other very overwhelming aspects of Mexico City to deal with – namely crime, pollution, elevation and crazy traffic. The first one you don't have to worry too much about if you travel smart. I would honestly rather be in Mexico City than Los Angeles. Crime does exist here but just be smart. Don't carry a purse and don't flash money etc.. I carry a small notepad with pockets that I keep the days pesos in along with a debit card with only a couple hundred dollars on it and I carry it in a zippered pocket. My cameras are pocketable which I like. Although I still take precautions I never feel unsafe in Mexico. I never look over my shoulder or have to step aside to see if that guy following me has malicious intent. These are things I do have to do in other cities. As far as the pollution goes it has gotten better. You can smell something all the time like when your neighbors cook dinner and you can smell it through the walls but you can't make out what it is. That's the way the pollution is here. It used to be that by 10am you couldn't see the surrounding mountains but I found that you can now see them all day long. The sky is definitely more blue. However, having said that you will still probably get a sore throat and feel short of breath. The latter not helped by the fact that you're 3000 ft higher than Denver Colorado. Between the pollution and the altitude we've all felt winded and have had altitude headaches. At least for another day we'll be keeping the Tylenol coming.

    Since I didn't want to pay the hotel $4ea for breakfast in the hotel restaurant we hit the street about 11am to find food. I remembered a pastalaria (bakery) down the street but my memory was a bit vague about where and we never found it. Along the way we passed three tiny hole in the wall shops selling tortas so we stopped at one and bought their basic chorizo, beans and tomato torta at a cost of 19 pesos each or roughly $1.50. Natalya and I ate them down and Piper and Jade wouldn't touch them. They said they wanted to go to McDonald's but since we needed to find a place to sit anyway we went in that direction. I walked up to the counter in McDonald's and just couldn't do it. Why go to Mexico and eat McDonald's? We left and split the tortas between us.

    I've had a few loose plans for Mexico City and one of those was to take the metro to San Angel a suburb and walk to Coyoacan another suburb. I've heard it's a nice walk and although we'd been to Coyoacan before we didn't have enough time to spend there as we would have liked. So after the tortas were downed we headed toward the Zocolo metro stop and found literally thousands of people standing in line. We also saw bleachers and music playing so I assumed they were having some sort of concert but curiosity got the best of us and we headed for the middle of the crowd where we saw not a concert but a hill with snow on it! Those crazy Mexicans brought in a snow machine and that hour or more line was to go down the hill on an inner tube. They thought this was great fun and to me it does seem more appealing when you're sledding in 75 degree weather instead of freezing your patootie off. Next to the snow hill they built an ice skating rink and the bleachers were for people to sit and watch the skaters fall all over the ice. We watched for a minute and headed on down the road. If you missed my comment about visiting Mexico City being similar to being dropped into a Roger Rabbit comic I'll repeat it now. I spend a lot of time just shaking my head and smiling at these people. You've got to love them.

    The Mexico City metro is not fancy but it's fast and efficient. It only has 9 lines (half as many as Paris) but those 9 lines transport 5 million people a day around the city. The platforms are the longest that I'e ever seen and the trains hold 9 cars with room for 40 seated passengers and probably 100 standing passengers per car. Each train probably transports about 1200 people and they come every 60 seconds. Contrast that to our light rail which currently is carrying about 12 people per hour and you'll be amazed as I am. The stations are simple, the cars are simple and it's dirt cheap – about 15 cents to go anywhere in the city. After buying 8 tickets for a little over a dollar we walked the maze of tunnels to out train passing ancient Aztec ruins on the way that were dug up when the station was put in.

    Upon arrival at San Angel we saw a large pastalaria which looked enticing so we went in. I sadly didn't take pictures but I'd say the tarts we had were on par with what we eat in Paris. Piper and I shared an apple, kiwi and strawberry tart that had a layer of cream under the fruit and a swath of chocolate under that. Very very good...(and you don't hear me say that often)

    In comparison to the zoo that is Mexico City the suburbs of San Angel and Coyoacan are both very laid back and pleasant which was a nice change. I've never been to San Angel before so I was excited. After about a 20 minute walk we came upon a nice park with a monument to General Obregon one of Mexico's founding fathers. While staring up at this megalithic monument we read a bit of Mexico's history. It goes something like this..... Mexico unlike the US had several independence moments. The first couple ended in the rebels getting executed. Eventually after about 11 years they succeeded and set up a constitutional monarchy and crowned an emperor which I think is a contradiction of terms but hey, what do I know? The empire lasted a couple of years after which the rulership bounced between Santa Ana and a bunch of other people for about 3 decades. He was president 11 times so that makes him very successful. He was also thrown out 11 times which makes a complete failure. He's not exactly worshiped in Mexico these days because he lost California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to the US but secretly Mexico is getting those territories back. If you doubt me just go there and look around.. :-)

    Anyway the head spot in Mexico bounced back and forth between Santa Ana, Bonito Juarez (my hero) the French under Archduke Maximilien (as emperor) and lastly a dictator by the name of Diaz. To make a long story short this Obregon guy comes in a bit later after 30 years of living under Diaz came to an end. Of course whenever an iron fisted dictator is overthrown there's a whole lot of chaos for a long time until the citizens can find another iron fisted dictator to replace him. This “interview” process can take some time and many people get assassinated in the process. Zapata and Pancho Villa helped out in getting a guy by the name of Madero elected who in turn figured out that rebels like their job of being rebels and now he was the guy having to fight them. One of the rebels was named Huerta which the US embassy convinced to switch sides and arrested Madero and promptly shot him. Like all people we put in power he was as evil as the last guy which angered the aforementioned rebels Zapata and Pancho Villa and General Obergon. The US however did what it does best after putting someone in power and undermined the new presidents power by invading Mexico and occupying Veracruz. Huerta resigned and left a power vacuum which of course always sucks. The aforementioned rebels all had to fight each other since there wasn't anyone else left to fight and any chance of peace was nil because they'd only actually met once in their lives. A third rebel named Carranza gained power which prompted Villa to retaliate and being a little confused (or drunk) attacked New Mexico since it had Mexico in the name which in turn prompted the US to invade Mexico again only to insult the newly recognised government. Carranza in good “rebel turned president” form assassinated Zapata. Obregon then joined his former rebels and turned against Carranza since he was no longer a rebel and was the enemy. Carranza was accidentally assassinated by one of his own guards (who probably liked the feel of the presidential chair himself because lets be honest, you don't accidentally assassinate your boss). This put Obregon in the presidential seat and his political party ruled Mexico for the next 71 years. This period is often called the perfect dictatorship where there was really only one party but people could vote.

    That's pretty much how it went so after being harassed by a drunk bum with so many open sores we started wondering how he kept all his stuff inside we left to find San Angel which turned out to be about another 10 minutes away.

  • Saint Angels and Skinny Coyotes - part 2

    I split this journal entry into two parts because only after I started writing did I realize how much I had to say about San Angel. San Angel may very well be my new favorite place in Mexico City. It's this very cute little "town" that the City absorbed with cobblestone streets and Spanish colonial buildings. What's neater is the park in the middle hosts an art market on Saturday that reminds me a lot of the one on Montmartre in Paris short of the mime infestation of the latter.

    There were some very nice restaurants there with tables out on the sidewalk very European style with prices in the 130 peso range for really nice meals. This is roughly equal to about $10 in the states which is expensive here but the food is much better than we'd get at home.

    I like San Angel a lot, I think I mentioned that. It's important to note though that if you think Mexico City looks like the pictures I've added to this blog you'll be a little disappointed when you get here. Just 3 blocks down the hill is a bus station with garbage strewn all over and open air stalls selling knockoff Rolexes. This still IS Mexico City afterall but you might think of San Angel as an oasis in a desert of chaos. I think it's definitely worth a visit especially if you want to get away. I've been to Mexico City several times and it's the first time I've wandered out this way. The first time we went to Coyoacan but we'd hired a private driver and didn't have enough time to do the San Angel to Coyoacan walk.

     

     

     

    fLike I mentioned earlier on Saturday there's an artisanal market in the square of San Angel. For those of you who poo poo the idea of carrying a guidebook around I'll have you know that we would have missed one of the coolest parts of our trip had I not read ahead.  So we wandered the stalls looking at the original Mexican art and I can say that it's all very good and original. Mexico has some great artists.  We then ventured inside to the Bazar de Sabado which many more shops and is a permenent exhibition hall with prices to match in an old hacienda with a restaurant in the central courtyard (with a mile long line). As this building was built in the Spanish hacienda style there were rooms all around the courtyard and each room has been turned into a salesroom for different artists. In one room you might find pottery and in the next jewelry. It took quite some time to shuffle our way through the rooms as they were very very crowded and per the norm we ran into a few other Americans which did not fail to live up to the stereotype.

     

    Our stomachs were starting to complain so we decided to search out food. The way we budgeted this trip was to have two cheap meals (street food) and one fancy meal which took up the majority of our daily food budget. There were so many nice restaurants that we nearly had our big meal in San Angel. All the while we've been in Mexico City we've been passing Tacos el Pastor stands and we definately can't get decent Tacos el Pastor in the states so we took a vote and the majority decided to eat Tacos el Pastor on the square and save our large meal for later. There was a place that advertised Tacos el Pastor for 9 pesos which is roughly equivalent to pocket lint. We found out that they were not 9 pesos for the plate of four in the picture but 9 pesos each which for a meal is roughly equivalent to pocket lint from both front pockets, a ball point pen and a rubber band. We ordered 20 tacos el pastor. Tacos el pastor (you have to say that really fast or nobody here will understand you, go ahead and practice) are hard to find in the States. In Mexico they have a spit of pork mixed with onions and peppers rotating in a vertical position next to a heat source not unlike Greek gyro shops do it. This spit of meat sits there rotating all day and they just shave off meat when needed onto little corn tortillas about 2 inches across which you squeeze lime juice over. For reasons unknown to me you always get double tortillas. I'm not sure why that is and my Spanish is just good enough to find the toilet so I probably won't be solving that mystery any time soon.

     

     

    Piper of course had to buy a hand made indiginous doll to go with her collection so there was one lady making these gorgeous little Mexican dolls on the spot so Piper asked her Quanta Questa (phonetically, I don't write in Spanish) and she rattled off some prices which did us little good since we don't hear in Spanish either. My little notepad came to the rescue (today's travel tip, if you don't speak the language carry a notepad) and she outlined that the large dolls were $125 pesos ($10), medium $100 pesos ($8), smaller $60 pesos ($5) and smallest were $40 pesos ($3). Sometimes you feel bad about buying this stuff because it's so cheap. Those were the pre-bargain prices and we were supposed to talk her down but I just couldn't. Piper paid full price for a medium doll. Eight dollars for a very nice hand made doll with cloth body. Now that we'd taken a page from Cortes book and stolen from the natives we figured we'd head to Coyoacan - Cortes' home.

     

    The next leg of our day was spent walking to another suburban “town” named skinny coyote or coyoacan. Coyoacan is where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived as well as where Leon Trotsky spent his last days before being assassinated by one of his servants which just backs up the old saying that most "accidents" happen within 10 miles of your home, would could ask President Carranza to back me up on that one. Coyoacan however came into existence when Cortes decided not to live on the swampy rattlesnake infested island where Tenochtitlan was and built his house on the shore of the lake Texcoco. That house still stands today and is coming up on it's 500th birthday. I believe it's administrative offices now but mostly ends up being the backdrop for a bunch of tourist photos of friends and families. Mexico City is only allowed to have two Zocolos (main squares) and the one at Coyoacan is the second. I'm thinking that the link to Cortes probably helped. Coyoacan is probably the only other place besides San Angel where I'd actually live in Mexico City since it reminds me of Oaxaca so much. We watched a Quinceanera celebration in front of the church which got Natalya all excited because they had gorgeous dresses on. I do have to admit they looked very beautiful which brings me to another topic.

    Whatever stereotype about Mexicans you buy into it's probably wrong. Mexicans range from short to very tall and ugly as sin to absolutely gorgeous. They can be as white as I am - no make that as white as Natalya or very dark brown. There is a very large range of people who fall under the category of Mexican and this makes Mexico a very fun place to people watch. Actually they spend as much time watching us as we spend watching them. Mexico City doesn't get a lot of American tourists so we're a bit of a spectacle. As we walk down the street people will either pay us no mind whatsoever (the nananana response) or stare and smile – there's nothing in between. Every guy of all age looks Natalya up and down which she's getting used to slowly. It's very interesting.

    After taking the metro back we went to find the Pastalaria Ideal to get pastries but it was out of about everything so we went around the corner to the Churreria (24 hour Churro and Hot Chocolate shop, just imagine a donut shop that sells chocolate instaead of cofee) which had about 50 people waiting to get in so we skipped that as well. On our way back to the hotel we walked up a pedestrian only street and believe it or not ate at a Chinese restaurant. Yes, that's right we had Chinese. It was cheap and it was fast so it served nicely. When it came to pay though I was short a few pesos and they didn't take credit cards so I ran to the ATM which refused my card as did the next one. I returned to make a deal with the restaurant and we scraped up every penny we had and gave it to them which they accepted. You have to love Mexico... Especially when you don't have enough money to pay the bill. They're very laid back about everything.

    Upon getting to the hotel we all passed out from exhaustion. Tomorrow is unplanned so we don't know what we'll be doing. I'd like to make it to Tula but a private driver will cost $100 for all day. This includes a stop of at Tepozollan and Teotihuacan. I haven't decided if I want to spend the money since we could take a bus for a lot less...

     

     

     

     

     

  • Seattle Travel Events

  • Security Theater

  • Southwest free credits

    If you fly Southwest Air you can for a limited time sign up and get 4 credits. For those who don't know 16 credits gets you a free flight so getting 4 free is the same as getting 25% of a flight. I know it's not much but it will get you closer to a free flight on Southwest 25% faster than if you don't sign up.

    I figure I have miles with 12 airlines now in "loyalty" programs so I might as well add another. Besides if other promotions come out I may be able to work closer to a free flight without even spending a dime.

  • Templo Mayor, Baldaras Artisanal Market and potato quesadillas

    It's our third day here and I'm still taking Tylenol for my head. Many people don't realize that Mexico City is 3000 feet HIGHER than Denver Colorado. Maybe to Bolivians that's not such a big deal but for someone that lives one mile from the ocean it's been interesting. I remember that when I was in the Andes I had a headache at 10,000 ft and became winded anywhere above 12,500 ft. With this in mind I didn't really expect to have any elevation sickness this trip but I've had a headache for 3 days now and so have my kids. A couple Tylenol takes care of it though. The other issue with being this high is that breathing can be a problem if you're exercising. If we were just sitting in the hotel I doubt we'd feel the elevation but we're currently averaging about 7 miles a day of walking. Part of that time we're winded. The metro (subway to New Yorkers) has a lot of stairs and we're starting to dread them. To make matters worse the world famous Mexico City pollution does in fact exist. I've mentioned in previous posts that you know the smog is there by a faint smell that always seems to exist no matter where you are. It's like your neighbors cooking some food and a hint of the smell gets through the wall but not enough for you to identify what they've cooked. Everything smells a bit like smog. Thankfully there's enough bums and homeless people living in the street that the smell of urine overpowers the smell of smog making you look forward to the next moment in time where smog is dominant.

     

    Speaking of pollution and urine.... I was here three years ago and the smog was worse and the streets dirty. The former you forget about after a few days but unfortunately the sore throats from breathing pollution exists longer. Both of these problems have changed enough to be noticeable in the last three years. I'm honestly not sure what the solution is to the pollution problem but it's very much caused by transportation because early in the morning you can see the surrounding mountains and by 10 am their covered in a blanket of ick. One solution would be to replace all the cars with a Metro system that can carry five million people per day – oh wait, they already did that. Maybe they could prohibit cars from driving all 7 days depending on the ending number of their license plate like London. Drat, they did that too. I think they need to replace all their old smog belching cars with new ones but who's going to pay for 20,000,0000 new cars?

     

    The second problem (garbage in the streets) has gotten better because Mexico City has banned the miles and miles of street markets. They've never needed a mall because Mexico City IS a mall! I have fond memories of waking up in the morning hearing the street sellers announcing their prices in a very melodic manner. They're all gone now outside of a few places. I mentioned in the past that even though this means the streets are cleaner it also means a little of character in the process.

     

    In the National Museum of Anthropology I once saw a diorama of what the market at Tlatelolco was like during the reign of the Aztecs and it was impressive with 30,000 people buying and selling goods. Cortes was really impressed with the market system and their methods of keeping things fair. Walking down any random street a few years ago had people laying out blankets on the street and putting their wares on it. There was many voices calling out what they had to sell and the prices. If you took away the Spanish buildings it wouldn't be hard to imagine this as being Tlatelolco. It really was a strong observation to realize that these people still carry on their 600 year old traditions. They speak Spanish now instead of Nahuatl but everything else is the same. Now that most of the street markets have been driven off Mexico City seems to be calmer and more quiet although don't get any ideas about this being a solitary place because it's still a zoo. When the markets were going full steam the streets would be full of trash and then street cleaning crews would come out at 7pm and clean it all up only to have it return to the same mess the following day as it was impossible to keep it clean. It was amazing to watch. Now the streets stay cleaner and are easier to maintain. I took an early morning walk and saw people hosing down the sidewalks and scrubbing them with squeegees and you always see cleanup crews in the street picking up garbage. The new Mexico City has less pollution, less crime and is much cleaner.

     

    The job isn't over though as the city still smells and I believe better technology needs to be used. In Paris they have these little sidewalk wide “street cleaners” that remember a full size street cleaner but can fit on a sidewalk. Mexico City could use about 1000 of those. So in relation to other cities of the world I'd say Historic Mexico City is on par with the Termini area of Rome for cleanliness. Not perfect but doable. Anyone who comes here expecting Geneva will be shocked though. We need to keep this all in context - Mexico City is a city of 25 million really poor people in a country that doesn't have enough money to change that fact. The average full time worker in Mexico City makes $10US a day.

     

    I'm dwelling a bit on the Aztecs and history because I finally gave in and went to Templo Mayor, the remains of the city of Tenochtitlan. Tenochtitlan as you probably know was one of the largest cities in the world at about 1500 AD and was several times the size of London. It was built on an island and expanded using Chanampas – floating squares of dirt where they planted things who's roots grew until they anchored in the lake bottom. Each street through the Chanampas had a dirt path and a water way which was used for transporting goods. Tenochtitlan was an American Venice! Can you imagine the tourist opportunities of a city built in the middle of a giant lake? The Spanish couldn't so they razed it and took the stones to make Latin America's largest church in the early 1500s. People knew that the modern day zocolo is is paved over the  main center of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan but what do you do about it 500 years later? You can't tear down 500 year old buildings to find 550 year old buildings so Tenochtitlan remained buried. In the 70s a construction project unearthed a multi ton carved stone. Since they they've unearthed the main ceremonial pyramid of the Aztecs – Templo Mayor. I can see Templo Mayor from my terrace window as I could last time I came to this grand city and I walk past it every day to catch the metro but I've never gone in. The reason for this is from the street it looks like a bunch of rocks and I'd heard there was a museum but it didn't look like there was enough room for a real large one so I avoided Templo Mayor until now. The Let's Go guide gives it a thumbs up and they've treated me well but I'm not super interested in the Aztecs so I avoided going. Today I went and I'm blown away by how much better it was than I imagined.

     

    The ruins of Templo Mayor itself are really subtle. You don't realize until you're standing a foot away from a giant serpent carved in stone that this thing is big. Before it was torn down it was about 150 ft tall. Not much in comparison to the pyramids at Teotihaucan but still very impressive. You also learn that the temple the Spanish saw was the 7th temple and the other 6 still existed inside the 7th. Each time the Aztecs got a new emperor they built a new temple over top the old one making it larger. We could see the top of the original templ from the boardwalk the top. The people living in Montezuma's time didn't even know there were 7 levels let alone see them! Fortunately AND  unfortunately a city works project cut a 4 ft wide swath through the Templo Mayor and inserted a brick tunnel for water. This is something a scientist would never do but thanks to the short sightedness of the city officials they now have a cross section view of all 7 temples which we got to see. We also saw some other buildings that made up the ceremonial center, relief panels and the original paint on the stones. When we entered the complex I asked about the audio guide and she said we get it in the museum. My thought was I don't want it for some dinky little museum, I'd rather have it for the main show – the ruins. After following the boardwalk path through the ruins we end up at the museum and upon walking into it I realized they'd built a 7 story building to house over 1000 artifacts pulled from the Templo Mayor site. Over 1000 Aztecs artifacts! They built it in a very forward thinking "giant square ugly concrete block" style showing Mexico's leadership in architecture since it led a wave of apartments and condos being built all across America in the same style. A few colleges look like they were built in the same style but I won't mention which ones.  Also the Aztecs had two main Gods and two temples on the tip of their pyramid – one for agriculture and the other for war. The modern museum building was built into two sections, the right for the God of war and the left for the God of Agriculture (rain). I'd say we spent every bit as much time in the museum as we did in the ruins. Overall I too will throw in my bid and say that Templo Mayor should be on everyone's list of things to do.

    One thing worth mentioning is that you get to see how bad things have sunk over time. The Aztecs employed a very Venetian technique of sinking wood poles in the mud to make a foundation to build temples on. This worked sort of. Even during their time they were "repaving" the plazas with more layers of rock to make it level again. The Spanish copied that method and suffered the very same consequences. The Catedral Metropolitana is sinking at an alarming rate. Massive amounts of stones are really heavy and this was a marshy island in the middle of a lake.

    Interestingly enough we also entered the Catedral Metropolitana to day as well. The Catedral was built in part from the stones of the Aztec pyramid and palaces nearly 500 years ago and is Latin America's largest church. You can't say that it's the biggest church in all of America because about 30,000 nuts get together in a stadium and call it church somewhere. I'm not sure I'd put that in the same category as this. Inside this massive Gothic church is an equally massive pipe organ. Most churches like this have the organ take up the back wall but this organ occupies what looks like an entire 3 story building in the middle of the floor. It's positively massive. I'm not a big church fan so after taking some photos and a video we left.

     

    Starved we started walking toward a mythical indoor market to which no guidebook mentions. OK so mine mentioned it but I missed it. We found it the previous visit and inside this market was a quesadilla restaurant that made the best potato quesadillas I've ever had. I'm not sure why they're so good and I've tried to duplicate them at home with no luck. I wanted a second memory to go by but didn't remember exactly which market it was. My brain said Baldaras but the word Artisinal kept popping up in my head. So we walked to the Artisanal market listed in the guidebook only to find it's not the right one. Even more hungry Natalya and I decided that we could still make it to the Baldaras market and if that wasn't it we'd eat anywhere that had food. Another 15 minutes of low blood sugar walking (the kind where you walk like you're drunk) we made it and beelined for the Quesdilla restaurant I ordered papas and queso of course but nobody else remembered how good they were so they ordered other things. Jade wanted Tacos el Pastor but got rolled up fried tacos. I tried explaining to the waiter that I wanted the potato and onion quesadilla but didn't know the name for onion so he took me to the preparation area and had me point to the ingredients – there were no onions. I settled on papas and cheese because it was the closest. I remember onions and salt, I found out that the onions were in the potatoes and were green onions and the salt was in the cheese. They were as good as I remembered and now have a more fresh memory to go by. I also took pictures so keep your eyes peeled. Jade and Piper ordered papas fritas (fries) which turned out very good. Who would have thought that the Mexicans would be great at French Fries. Jade made the connection that the French ruled Mexico for 3 years so maybe that is why. :-) Kids are funny sometimes.

     

    For anyone interested in pre-hispanic mesoamerican civilization it's worth it to get on a plane and fly to the National Museum of Anthropology even if that means you'll get back on a plane and fly home when done – it's that good! It's the Louvre of mesoamerican civilizations. Our plan was to get there before it closed and spend an hour or so on the civilizations that I've been studying. Each building of the museum holds relics from each civilization like the Maya, Aztecs, Toltecs, Teotihaucanos, Zapotecs, Mixtecs and so on. We caught the metro but was shooed out of Chapultapec park because it was closing. Tomorrow we can't go because it's Monday and all museums are closed on Monday so our only other chance is Tuesday morning before we leave for Oaxaca. Tomorrow we plan on taking a bus to Tula to see the ancient Toltec city of Tollan. The Toltecs predated the Aztecs and were idealized by them as well. They wanted to go to the Toltecs schools and intermarry with them so they would have noble offspring. I've been wanting to see their city for a long time.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • The dollar surges

    Everything is encouraging us to spend our money but we just keep holding onto it making the situation worse. I'm not going to talk about the economy because everyone else is doing that just fine but I've been buying meats and produce at amazing prices lately. Maybe sales are off and they need to clear things out. Also right now is probably the best time in recent history to buy stock because everyone is trading really really low. Those who have money have the opportunity to make a lot of money. OK so there's some risk but if you wanted to avoid risk you'd go on vacation to Arizona right? I have a better idea...

    The U.S. Dollar was at a 5 year low last summer when I was in Paris and it hurt. Now even though the economy stinks and everyone is worried that we might be headed for a depression the dollar surges up and most other currencies lose value in comparison. Why has this happened? Who knows of such things. What I do know is that there hasn't been a better time to travel in many years.

    Currently the good deals are in the UK (yes you heard me), any country using the Euro, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Brazil and Russia. There are others but all of the above mentioned currencies are have lost to the dollar from 30% - 50%. This means that a 2 week trip to New Zealand will cost you 50% less than it would have a year ago. One U.S. Dollar used to buy you 10 pesos but not it get's you 15. That hotel in Cancun that was going to run you $100 will no only run you $66.

    A couple of years ago I was planning a trip to South Africa, total price was about $10,000 USD. Now the same trip would cost me less than $5000. The Rand was trading at 6 to 1 and now it's 13 to 1.

    Add to this the airlines are in a price war to Europe. US Airways was offering $288 round trip from NYC to anywhere in Europe they fly. I'm seeing round trip airfare to Beijing China from San Francisco including 5 nights of first class hotel stay for $588...

     

    Yes, it's time to get out of the house and go somewhere!

  • The trip home and afterthoughts

    I'm home and have been for a while now so I'm writing this as an after-thought. First the trip home.

    The trip home

    Because Air France wasn't willing to deal with us we needed to return to Toulouse from Paris to get our flight from Toulouse to Paris - crazy I know. My Lonely Planet said the taxi ride to the airport was going to be 25 Euro and I had 30 in my pocket. We asked the night desk to call a taxi for us and they asked for our room number. I wasn't sure what to say because of a clerical error we had a free room. I told them and they said my name was that of my colleague. That's good enough for me. I was half expected that they'd say that room isn't occupied then I'd be in trouble! The Taxi came at 5:30 and it took about 20 minutes to get to the airport. When we got in the car there was an 8 euro charge already on the meter. I've seen this "pick up" charge before. I watched the meter as we were driving and upon arrival it was at 28 Euro. As soon as we stopped he hit a button and it jumped to 33 Euro. A 5 Euro charge for dropping us off. I told him I had 30 and he said it was fine. Just about every city in Europe has a tourist tax for taxi drivers. Naturally I let him carry our bags and didn't give him a dime for a tip. Back at you buddy.

    Toulouse is a small airport which is refreshing after CDG. I wasn't looking forward to CDG since we only had 90 minutes between planes and 90 days is a better layover considering the mess there. Security stopped Natalya and wanted to molest her handbag which is about normal. They didn't find anything just like usual and let us go. Why stop us after screening and then let us go if they find nothing? This doesn't make a lot of sense. Either find something or leave us alone.

    The flight to Paris was uneventful and I slept for about an hour of it. My anti-jetlag strategy is a bit more complex when the flights leave so early. The best time to leave both continents is about noon-1pm if you want to avoid jet lag. We were leaving Toulouse at 7:40 am making it tough. The plan was to get up early (check), eat breakfast (sort of check), sleep on the first flight (check), sleep on the second flight for 6 hrs and then stay awake for all other flight legs. This is about as good as it's going to get since the flights are not ideal. If done right we'd get home at 8:30 pm local time and be tired enough to want to go to bed on time. Usually this is a lot easier with fewer flights. Landing on the east coast makes avoiding jetlag a piece of cake. Because of my needing work clothes, a huge work laptop a second laptop for Natalya and a couple pair of shoes our bags were crammed on arriving to France. Since then we'd bought more clothes, gifts and a 9 foot x 7 foot carpet. Clearly we were going to have to check a bag since we had too many to carry on. We put all the dirty clothes in vacuum pack bags, our "food products" and everything heavy in one checked bag and used the dirty clothes bag to hold the carpet. This is only the second time I've checked bags. Later I hear about the guy in Phoenix that stole over 1000 bags from the baggage carousel. This re-confirms my belief in the concept of keeping your luggage close to you.

    We bolted off the plane and straight into passport check and then walked for an eternity to get to our terminal where we had to go through security again. The plane was boarding already but it's an A340 so I figured it would take at least 30 minutes so we just found a nice place to sit while everyone else stood in line. Surprisingly the plane was boarding from two different doors which I've always wondered why they didn't do more of. The bottleneck seemed to be in the ticket check process and not the actual  seating of the passengers. The A340 is a wide body plane meaning it has two aisle ways and Natalya and I were sitting in the middle row of four seats. Next to Natalya were two love birds that couldn't keep their hands (and tongues) to themselves. I swear for the entire flight they were all tangled up and only got unwrapped to use the facilities or the access the self-help section of the plane. Speaking of which this is something new. The self-help section is one galley were you can just show up and get your own drinks or ice-cream. I took advantage of it several times.

    I was able to conk myself out and sleep as was Natalya. I changed my watch to home time to help with the convincing of my brain and slept until 7:30 am. Natalya woke up at about 9am local time. Dinner the "night before" was good as it has been on Air France and breakfast was OK. At least we got served Camembert instead of Tillamook Cheese. I'd take Camembert spread on a baguette over hard Tillamook on a roll any day. We arrived San Francisco at 1pm and once again bolted out of the aircraft and through passport control. We don't do this to get to the gate faster but to get through immigration faster. There will be 10 booths with zero people in line but as soon as an airplane with 350 passengers lets out there's a 30 minute wait. If you can buzz past those people lazily wandering to passport control you can walk right through with no delay. After passport control we pick up our bag to go through customs. We decided to take our bags to the Air France counter again and check two of them instead of standing in line to let them go through the big luggage screener.  We make it to our gate with 15 minutes to spare.

    Seattle again. We arrive in Seattle, pick up our bags and then try to figure out how to get the shuttle to the Light Rail. The reality of being back in a country that has no clue how to manage mass transit hits us square in the face. There are no signs anywhere and the information booth is closed. We ask everyone and nobody knows. We then decide to go to where the city buses park and we see a mention of the light rail shuttle. Fifteen minutes later we're on it headed to the International BLVD station. We meet a couple from Texas that's staying downtown. They ask where they should get off and 6 people answer. They're impressed how many people want to help and I explain that the mass transit is so poor that we feel we're all in it together. They continue to get advice, half of which is completely inaccurate. No, Everett is not 100 miles north of Seattle, not it's not right on the Canadian border. This from a very nice lady who obviously has never left the downtown area. In December the Light Rail will go all the way to the Airport. The station is "interesting" as well. You take an elevator up one floor than you have to transfer to an escalator to go up the second floor. Why? Did we have extra money left over after spending several billion on it and thought it would make sense to just buy a second people transport to get us to the right level. I swear the light rail is 100 feet off the ground. Apparently there was a sale on concrete.

    We get stuck in traffic on the light rail for 10 minutes. Should I even say anything? The Toulouse metro reliably crossed the city in 10 minutes. The Light Rail covers the same ground in 35 and gets stuck in traffic for 10 minutes. When in Toulouse I timed the doors and concluded that they're only open for 15 seconds. I time the light rail doors - 45 seconds. If you multiply the 30 second difference by the number of stations you find that they could cut 7 minutes of the time it takes to get downtown just by adjusting the amount of time they're sitting doing nothing. What the Toulouse metro showed me was that if someone is going to get on the train they'll be standing on the platform so why wait longer? Someone running for the train isn't going to get there in 30 seconds anyway.

    Once downtown the couple from Texas follows us out of the station. We point them to a door that will take them to the Weston and we proceed up through the Westlake mall. Upon exiting we realize our bus stop is across the street from the Weston and realize they could have just followed us all the way. We never see them again so they obviously never made it out of Westlake center. The 511 bus was packed and we stand for the duration of our 35 minute ride home. Once on a third bus we get to our street. Total time from Airport to home -  2hrs and 15 minutes. Total cost $4.50 for both of us. cheaper than the taxi ($70) but takes way longer.

    Piper had a party for us with gifts but I was only able to roll the carpet out and fall asleep for an hour. We manage to order pizza from Papa John's who then manages to screw it up and it finally shows up after an hour. The smell when the door opens was repulsive but my Mom who did not just spend the last 10 days eating food prepared by French gourmet chefs exclaimed "mmm smells good". This is the first step in my reverse culture shock.

     

    Reverse culture shock

    Every time I travel somewhere I walk into a foreign culture. You'd think there would be this huge culture shock and there is. I'm in a country full of strange customs and can't speak the language to ask for clarification. However, the culture shock of coming back to my own country is far more painful. I avoid grocery stores and transportation for as long as possible. Trying to get anywhere here is maddening and the amount of fuel and emissions we're emitting is pathetic. My first step into my local corporate grocery store is met with sadness and disappointment. I walked around Safeway for an hour the other night trying to find something quick to eat and finally left empty handed. The majority of everything sold in a grocery store is commercial processed shit. Excuse my French. If it's not prepared frozen food it's prepared boxed or canned food. There's a very small percentage of products in the grocery that are not processed or full of corn. The only meat available is the same boring chicken, pork and beef injected with growth hormones. If you want anything else you're out of luck outside of the rare ground lamb or turkey.

    The biggest pain I have is the realization that our lives are completely run by corporations and we're told what we should and shouldn't eat. We are spoon fed this idea that we don't need to know and that the cheaper the product the better deal. We're drones without taste buds and have a  mounting list of physical ailments. We as a nation are gastronomically ignorant and fat, no beyond fat, we're unnatural. The horrific creatures lumbering down the aisles in the electric wheelchairs because their legs aren't strong enough to carry their elephantine bodies shock me. How did we get here? Poor people in other countries eat better than we do. We're citizens of the richest country in the world and we eat the worst food and it's going to kill us. The French spend 20% of their income on food, we make more money than they do and we spend 6%. In the 60s we spent 13%. This is not a good trend. It's not that we can't afford better food, we choose not to spend the money. The days of the evening meal where a family and friends get together is long gone. The days where people actually knew what was in their food or where it comes from are gone. The days were people went to a butcher and bought meat from a person who knew the source is gone. The days in which we cared are gone. The photo to the right is one I took at the local Royal Fork. God help us all.

  • To rail or not to rail, that is the question.

    You don't realize how bad things are until you experience the opposite. Without darkness there is no light. I have mixed feelings about rail travel in the US. If it seems as though I'm bouncing around between topics bear with me, they'll come together in a moment. To give some background before I start I have to say that I've logged about 15,000 miles on Amtrak in the past and about another 5,000 to 10,000 miles on other train systems all over the world. In addition I've flown about a quarter of a million miles or enough to circumnavigate the earth 10 times. I took my first train ride in 1993 from Pasco WA to Las Vegas. For about the first day of the trip I felt a bit embarrassed because I always thought people who took mass transit were poor uneducated folks with little other choice. - a train was just a bigger Greyhound. If you were someone you drove of flew. How little did I understand trains. I started noticing business people taking the trains, grannies seeing family, workers commuting and more. I realized that normal people took the train.

     

    Back to the future... We started our most recent journey by taking a bus to downtown Seattle to the historic King Street Station. Seattle is like many cities in that we had competing rail companies who built competing passenger rail stations. The interesting part is they built them across the street from one another. Union Station got funding to renovate because it is used for the new Light Rail Station. King Street Station across the street is just starting the process of restoration and the Venetian Piazza St. Marks style clock tower definitely looks better as does the new roof tiles. It might be easy to say that Seattle really only needs one passenger rail station and we should combine our money but how do you decide which of the 100 year old stations to keep? The answer is you keep both as comical as that is.

    At some point during the last couple of decades some idiot decided to modernize the King Street station and put in lowered ceiling tiles covering up a truly amazing molded ceiling and a second story balcony. What's worse is they actually chipped molding from the walls so they could plaster over it to get a smooth surface. There used to be a beautiful wooden ticket booth which is no longer and a Lady's waiting room which doesn't get used. The stairway from the street is closed off and the street level parking lot is a hangout for bums and trash. However, funding is starting to tickle in and the clock tower is being cleaned, the clay roof tiles are being replaced and new lighting for the 15 ft clock is being fitted. Inside the station they have a media board showing the future plans which include tossing out the water stained roof tiles, restoration of some of the marble pillars, a new walkway up to street level and a restoration of the outside of the building which will open up space for businesses etc.. The old Lady's only waiting room may be made into a cafe or restaurant.

     

    So let's get to the meat of the question here. Why? Why bother with this old crap when we have at least three eligible airports that could service the area? OK, now the part about my mixed feelings with rail travel. I spend a lot of time in Europe and especially France where high speed rail has all but killed air travel and I have to say that I love trains. The idea of taking a taxi to some airport where I have to take my shoes off, scan my bags and then wait at a gate to be crammed into a tin can with a bunch of other half sick travelers coughing on me and babies screaming is very very unappealing. Because of the amount of time it takes to get to airports, get checked in and get your bags and get away makes any journey under 6 hrs subject for replacement by high speed rail. Longer journeys the planes speed overcomes it's inefficiencies. So is there any hope for Amtrak and why am I yammering about such things? I just spent 4 hrs on the Coast Starlight for the first leg of our journey so it's fresh in my mind.

     

    What Amtrak does wrong.... Let's start by the ridiculous and painful process of going from the idea of taking the train to actually walking on. I went online and bought my tickets with a promotion code (Never pay full price for Amtrak, there's always a promo code somewhere). I then had to go to a station to pick up the tickets where they made me sign each one to combat fraud as they said. Fraud? What, someone is going to masquerade as me on the train? If Safeway did this we'd have to sign each squash to keep someone else from cooking it. Anyway with tickets in hand we proceeded to the King Street Station two days later. My perception may be skewed a bit but in France I show up at the train station 15 minutes early (or whenever to be honest) and walk up to a kiosk to buy my ticket after which I walk onto a train. The whole process takes 15 minutes tops from the time I decide to take a train and get one one. With Amtrak having a ticket is only the beginning. You now have to stand in a long line to turn it into a boarding pass. Once you have your boarding pass you need to move to a new line which is waiting to get on the train. Why would there be a rush to get on the train? Because seat assignments are done at the train car door! Thats right, a person is standing there with a map and a market to scratch off where he wants you. A kiosk that can assign seats on purchase would replaced this entire thing. The one nice side effect of this process though is you don't have conductor coming through to punch your ticket. With Amtrak when you're on you're done. The other thing Amtrak does wrong and I'm not sure they can fix it is the train routes are generally slow and not very frequent. However there are 4 trains a day from Seattle south which isn't wonderful but it's good enough that you can choose a schedule.

     

    What they're doing right.... This is also from my experience today. The Coast Starlight is a double decker Superliner train similar to their flagship Empire Builder. I've always been a fan of the double decker trains. An Amtrak Superliner is a completely different product than say a French TGV. The TGV is an all business experience more like an airplane ride (but not so Walmart). TGVs have about as much room per passenger in economy as airplanes have in business class. There's very little difference between first class and second so unless the ticket prices are close we always ride second class. Unless you knew the specific differences you wouldn't be able to tell. The TGV experience is about getting to your destination as quick as possible with relative comfort. The Amtrak Superliner experience is drastically different. Immediately upon entering the train you will notice that you have an insane amount of room in your coach seat. I measured 5 softbound novels from my upright setback to the one in front of me. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that is a lot of room. I'd estimate roughly 45 inches between seats or roughly equal to a first class airplane ticket. The seat width is as wide as the first class airplane ticket as well. When you fold down your tray you have to then slide it toward you about 6 inches before you can put anything on it. The seat reclines about 2-3 times more than an economy airline seat and a second lever props up a leg support and a third pops up a bar for your feet. The overhead luggage compartment has enough room for a rugby team and if that's not enough there's more space at the car entrance. Because they're double decker the second level (the main level) doesn't have to deal with train wheels so there's 37 rows of seats in the car which is amazing considering the space between them. The lower level is for first class and sleepers in addition to the bathrooms which also will surprise you. A couple (that's right, a couple per car) are small like airplane bathrooms and then there's at least one large one where you can plug in all your electronic shavers, blow driers etc... The lower level also houses additional luggage storage although if I were you I'd lock my bags if I couldn't monitor them.

     

    Not only do you have way way more room than on an airplane the train gets going quickly because they can load all cars at the same time. I think we were off about 15 minutes after we started boarding. Each seat has power plugs which are a godsend and a quick stroll through the cars will show many people taking advantage of them with laptops and pods everywhere. Speaking of which if you get bored in your oversize seat you can take a walk. The Coast Starlight also has a bar/lounge car with observation deck which is where I love to just sit and read and watch the scenery pass by the wraparound glass windows. Downstairs from the observation car is the food counter where they have the usual cardboard pizzas and AMPM quality hamburgers. There is about 12 tables where you can sit an eat your food before returning to your seat. If you want more of a personal experience (and more costly) you can snag one of the attendants as they walk through the car and get a reservation to eat in the restaurant. The restaurant car is complete with white table cloths and nice food but you have to be fast because there's several seatings and if you don't get a reservation you're limited to the bar car or bringing your own. Speaking of which you can bring your own food and drinks (yes liquids!) avoiding the whole can of soda for two bucks situation completely. I remember times when I was passing through Portland and had a layover when we'd run down the street to the Burger King and buy a couple of $1.39 Whoppers and take them on the train. I'm sure there's probably limits to what you can take on board (like your weber smoky mountain smoker) but they're not real strict about it. The train ride goes by very casually and without disappointment. On the Amtrak you feel like you can take as much time as you want to get where you need to be and for good reason, you have to. The trip from Seattle to LA takes 40 hours. Amtrak is not crappy rail travel, let me just say that right now. However, they're rarely on time, they're not fast and they're not always cheaper than flying. My first Amtrak trip cost me $177 from Washington to Nevada round trip. That was cheaper than any plane ticket then. Now I can fly for less than that. The train would probably cost more.

     

    So back to my original quandary. Should we do something about rail in America or let Amtrak go the way of the dodo? I say do whatever to bring us up to the same level of Japan, China, France and Germany or leapfrog them. A modern train with right a way could do Canada to Mexico in 10 hours or less and would be full the whole way because unlike an airplane they pick up people on the way. Before people jump on me about taxes and subsidies let me say one thing, the TGV system in France makes money. That's right it makes money and is usually full. The TER (inter region) do not make money and need to be subsidized. So in this country where we're afraid to pay one cent in taxes unless it's put to good use bombing a small country to protect our civil liberties we should think about just using rail for these high profit lines. I would think that Vancouver BC to San Diego would be one such line as well as Boston to Miami and Chicago to NYC.

    On a less idealistic dreamy note Amtrak would do well with newer rails and more right of way. It took us 4 hrs to get from Seattle to Portland which isn't that much slower than driving and a heck of a lot more enjoyable. If the Superliner could get up to speed or stay at top speed longer it could equal driving and still be more comfortable. More trains, a bit more speed and keep them full so the ticket prices could be lower and I think we'd have a winner. It's no TGV but I think it could be profitable. Also there's the feel element. I just like riding trains. I like the rhythmic rocking motion and I like the fact that I can do other things on them. Buses are cheaper but I hate them. A good bus can't compete with a bad train in my book.

    On arriving to Portland we exited the always nice restored Union station. A short walk to the Chinatown station put us on the red line light rail. Thirty minutes later we're at the airport. I'm fairly impressed by how much light rail Portland has put in compared to Seattle. We've managed 1/5 the amount of mileage and only after two decades of talking about it and it still doesn't really go anywhere.

    Tomorrow we fly to Georgia. Yes you heard me Georgia then we turn and fly to Mexico City. It's the long way but I'll pick up some miles and I got the tickets for a song. The plane leaves at 6:30 and our Comfort Suites is going to start breakfast at 4 so off to count sheep I go.

  • Travel/Work Laptop comparison

    As any of my readers know I travel a lot. I also blog a lot, take photos a lot and research a lot. That’s a lot of lotting. Thus when I’m travelling I need a computer. I know people who rely completely on Internet Cafes but I really like editing photos using my own computer late at night in my apartment in Paris, or Venice or Budapest or anywhere else as opposed to paying by the hour to use some age old slow Windows machine. Not to mention I can upload all of my photos while I’m sleeping via secure copy instead of having to babysit it.I also like to travel light thus I’ve always leaned toward small lightweight laptops.

    My first travel laptop was a Sharp MM20 that I purchased in 2004 for my trip from London to Istanbul. This is probably my favorite still. However, it came to an untimely end in Krakow Poland when I left it running in our apartment while we went out to dinner. It was an unusually hot day and roof tiles peeled up on the roof followed by an equally unusual downpour. Our roof as you would expect only leaked in one spot - right over my Sharp MM20. The poor thing continued running under a direct stream of water for an hour. It took me a month to dry it out and then it continued to run for another year although in somewhat of a crippled state.If memory serves me the wifi card stopped working and it took several tries to get it to turn on. I still used it though until it finally gave up and died for good.

    The Sharp MM20

    The Sharp at .8 inches thick (at it’s thickest) and only 1.99 lbs was ultra-sexy. That 0.01 lbs was crucial in differentiating between sexy as opposed to ultra-sexy so I’ll emphasis it here - 1.99 lbs! It had 512 MB of ram which was a lot at the time and a minuscule 20 GB ipod sized hard drive. The battery as you can imagine was tiny and even if the Transmeta CPU was efficient I got about 2 hrs of life out of each charge. To solve this issue I bought the “9 hr battery” which lasted about 6 hrs. It added about half a pound to the size and protruded out the bottom like a large wart so I actually carried both batteries, one for transport and the other I’d swap in when I decided I wanted to work for a while. Not ideal but it did work. I also used a USB mouse and since the hard drive was so small I backed up all of my photos and videos on an external USB hard drive. The Sharp had no memory card reader so I had to use an external USB and it only had two USB ports so I had to carry a mini USB hub as well. The laptop, 9 hr battery, USB hub, USB memory card reader and external hard drive weighed 3 lbs, 5 oz. I paid $1850 for everything which at the time was a good deal. One year I took my USB DVD drive too and even a USB Dye Subliminal postcard printer. The latter was really fun since we could send out customized postcards with us in them but I couldn’t justify the extra more than once.

    Pluses for the Sharp MM20

    • Small and Beautiful
    • Decent screen and keybaord for the size
    • PCMCIA slot in a .5/.8 inch laptop!

    Minuses for the Sharp MM20

    • Poor battery life
    • Not enough USB ports
    • CPU not very fast
    • VGA port needed a dongle
    • Small slow hard drive

    The MSI Wind

    After the Sharp died a friend gave me an MSI Wind Netbook. Netbooks are wimpy little Notebook computers that go for a song - in this case free because my friend didn’t like the touchpad. It had a 160 GB hard drive, memory card reader and 3 USB ports so I didn’t really have to bring anything with me. Although the idea of having my photos in one spot still made me nervous so I carried the external USB drive anyway. Total cost was $0 but had I purchased it I would have paid about $299. Netbooks are an interesting breed. Technically speaking this thing had more CPU, more ram, way more hard drive and more expansion than my Sharp and cost ? as much. What 5 years makes in the IT industry. They are however built cheaply. It’s about twice as thick as the Sharp and all plastic. The Sharp feels like a really nice, well engineered product. The Netbook... not so much. Also battery life sucked and there’s not much I could do about it - 2.5 hrs tops. An added note is that the MSI screen was 10.1 inches. The Sharp screen was 10.4 inches but if you compare them side to side you’d think something is a little fishy. The Sharp’s screen was way more useful. With the MSI they went with the wide screen format and technically it is a 10.1 inch screen but vertically it’s nearly two inches shorter than the Sharp’s. The Sharp’s screen resolution was 1024x768 and the MSI 1024x600. That’s valuable screen real estate lost. A great example of why small 4:3 screens were better than small 16:9 screens.The netbook still works and still sucks the same. It’s slow, attracts fingerprints and the battery life is still poor. I might note too that the keyboard layout is less than desirable. I remember cursing the Sharp’s tiny keyboard but now in retrospect it was quite nice. Total weight 2 lbs 15 oz with the external hard drive.

    Pluses for the MSI Wind

    • Cheap
    • Reasonably small
    • Lots of hard drive space

    Minuses for the MSI Wind

    • Slow CPU
    • Poor keyboard layout
    • Cramped wide aspect screen
    • Maddening touch pad
    • Poor expansion - 3 USB ports, that’s it.

    The Toshiba r705

    Earlier this year  I decided that I needed to get some work done and it pained me to do it on the Netbook so I bought a Toshiba r705. This is the grown up successor to the Sharp MM20! It has a 3 inch larger screen (13.3) is still fairly slim in relation to it’s size and feels a lot like a bigger Sharp. It includes a memory card reader, 500 GB hd, 4 GB of ram, DVD writer (so I don’t have to carry an external USB drive now) and a 6 hr battery life. The Toshiba is all I need by itself and only weighs 3 lbs 3 oz. Travel weight was roughly equal to it’s 10” brethren but had a dual core 2.4 Ghz Intel i3, lots of ram, lots of hard drive and a writable DVD drive. I could actually WORK on it and it was light enough to travel with. It’s size is a bit of an issue because it’s quite a bit larger than the two smaller laptops but still manageable. With the Sharp I used to just slide it between my vacuum packed clothes because it was so slim. Neither the MSI or the Toshiba have this luxury as they’re a bit more than an inch thick.

    Pluses for the Toshiba r705

    • Great screen size - 13.3 is near ideal in my book
    • Great touch pad
    • Large hard drive
    • eSATA, VGA, USB, HDMI, Ethernet
    • Optical Drive
    • Excellent weight for this size of laptop

    Minuses for the Toshiba r705

    • Quite wide. Probably can’t get around that with a 13.3” wide aspect screen
    • Chicklet keyboard
    • Battery life could be better
    • Needed AES-NI (that’s the only reason I’m selling it)

    The Lenovo X220

    I mentioned I bought the Toshiba so I could work right? Now work required me to have a new thing in my CPU called AES-NI. This allows lightening fast hard drive decryption. Had I just paid another couple hundred dollars I could have gotten an r705 with it but at the time I didn’t know I was going to need it. By the time I knew the relevant Toshiba r705 wasn’t being sold anymore and it’s replacement was $1500. My search brought me to the Lenovo X220 - a mid 3lb laptop with AES-NI, lots of ram, decent hard drive, decent expansion and incredible battery life. I could have bought the lightweight 6 hr battery and my travel weight (and battery life) would have been identical to the Toshiba. However, there was the standard 9 hr battery or the extended 12 hr battery. Knowing that you never get as much as they say I bought the 12 hour battery which gets me 10 hrs. That’s still a LOT. It would allow me to use it on a trans-Atlantic flight or any cross country flight without plugging in! It also added about half a pound. Crap, I would work for an entire day just on the battery. This is the first practical laptop I’ve ever had in that regard.

    The Lenovo’s screen is 12.5 inches (smaller than the Toshiba, larger than the others), has 8 GB of ram (!), a 320 GB hard drive, PCI Express slot (which I filled with an eSATA card), three USB ports (one of them ultra-fast USB 3.0), HDMI, VGA, SDHC memory card slot, ethernet and headphones. Basically everything I need. It’s a bit of a brute and as ugly too. The Sharp and Toshiba’s are pretty laptops, the Lenovo - only a mother could love. It is however durable and the keyboard has the best feel of any of them. It will make a great work laptop and I think a decent travel laptop as soon as I get a chance to take it somewhere. It’s a tad shorter than the Toshiba and would have less depth to if I’d ordered the standard battery. It’s a tad thicker though. I think overall the size difference is a wash. I kind of wish Lenovo would look over the trade show booth at just about anyone’s products though because this thing looks like an IBM Thinkpad from 1992. It even has the red rubber eraser pointer tool in the keyboard which is a bit irritating as I keep bumping it. I think I saw in the BIOS that I can turn it off. It also has a very strange bumpy touchpad and strangely shaped mouse buttons between the space bar and the touch pad in addition to the touchpad acting as mouse buttons. If you took all the input methods by ALL the other manufacturers and crammed them into one Laptop you’d have the Lenovo. However, the feel of the keyboard is great (like an old fashioned non-Chiclets keyboard!), the cursor keys, home/end/PgUp/PgDn and function keys are placed well. The shift, delete, backspace and enter keys are very large as well which is a huge improvement over other laptops.

    Pluses for the Lenovo X220

    • Great screen size - 12.5 is near ideal
    • Battery life, battery life, battery life.
    • Even the light battery is great!
    • PC Expresscard slot, USB 3.0
    • Great keyboard feel
    • Decent sized hard drive
    • AES-NI - the reason I bought it
    • LOTS of ram - 8 GB. That’s more than my workstation or server
    • Great wifi reception

    Minuses for the Lenovo X220

    • Weird keyboard layout
    • Weird red eraser pointer
    • Funky touchpad
    • No eSATA
    • Heavy and a bit bulky too
    • Ugly as sin
    • Extended battery protrudes
    • No optical drive!

    Here are all four lined up in the following order (from left to right), Toshiba r705, Lenovo X220, Sharp MM20, MSI Wind. If you look closely at the screens on the Sharp and MSI you'll see that the Sharp looks to have a screen much larger than the MSI. This is what I was talking about earlier about wide aspect ration screens - you lose a lot. The Sharps 10.4" screen is as tall and nearly as usable as a wide screen 12.5. Also I think you can see from this photo how thin the Sharp is.

    My Dream Laptop

    If I could have anything I wanted I’d take an updated Sharp MM20. Stretch the screen a bit from 10.4 to 12.5. Expand the keyboard a tad, give it more oomph and increase the battery life. Yep, that’s what I’d order if I were Mayor for a day. Some people might think I just described the MacBook Air 13 and maybe they’re right so let’s look at that for a moment.

      Sharp MM20 MSI Wind Toshiba r705 Lenovo X220 MacBook Air 13
    Dimensions 9.9 x 8.1 x .8 10.3 x 7.1 x 1.1 12.4 x 8.9 x 1.0 12 x 8 x 1.4 12.8 x 9 x .7
    Weight 1.99 lbs/2.5 lbs with 9hr battery 2.8 lbs 3.2 lbs 3.8 lbs 2.9 lbs
    Screen 10.4 10.1 13.3 12.5 13.3
    CPU 1 Ghz Transmeta 1.6 Ghz Atom 2.4 Ghz Core i3 2.5 Ghz Core i5 2.13 Ghz Core 2 Duo
    Ram 512 MB 1 GB 4 GB 8 GB 4 GB
    Hard drive 20 GB 160 GB 500 GB 320 GB 256 GB
    Ethernet 10/100 10/100/1000 10/100/1000 10/100/1000 None
    Wifi 802.11 b/g 802.11 b/g/n 802.11 b/g/n + WiMax 802.11 b/g/n 802.11 b/g/n
    Battery Life 3/9 hrs rated
    2/6 hrs real
    with 9hr battery
    3 hrs rated
    2.5 hrs real
    8 hrs rated
    6 hrs real
    13 hrs rated
    10 hrs real
    7 hrs rated
    Expansion PCMCIA, 2 USB, VGA, Ethernet, headphone 3 USB, Ethernet, SD card, VGA, headphone, mic 3 USB, Ethernet, SD card, VGA, HDMI, eSATA, headphone, mic, bluetooth 3 USB, Ethernet, SD card, VGA, HDMI, Expresscard, headphone, bluetooth 2 USB, SD card, Displayport, headphone, bluetooth
    Price $1500 $299 $899 $1500 $1829

    It’s interesting to see how closely Toshiba tracks the MacBook Air. Toshiba seems to have taken a 90/10 plan in that they will provide 90% of the coolness for a fraction of the price. It’s almost as light and thin ( ¼ lb and ¼ inch) but has far greater expansion and included equipment. Battery life is arguably better, CPU is faster, storage is double, plus it has a great deal more expansion for... wait for it... half the price!

    How does my current choice stack up? It’s physically smaller in width and depth but twice as thick (thus half as sexy) and nearly a pound heavier. It’s clearly built for a different purpose. It has double the memory, more storage, double the battery life and double the expansion for …. wait for it... half the price!

    So in short the MacBook Air is a neat bit of kit but it’s got some shortcomings - namely expandability. The other issue (and it’s a big one) that I haven’t even touched yet is running Linux on it won’t be nearly as easy. Yes, I’d put Linux where the Oh So Fancy MacOS was but I’m sure I could coax Linux on the MacBook but my options are more limited.

    The other other really big issue is eSATA. I need eSATA for my current job and the Toshiba had it built in. The Lenovo has an Expresscard slot in which I placed a dual eSATA card. And the MacBook Air doesn’t have AES-NI in the CPU either which is the main reason I’m getting rid of the Toshiba. In short it wouldn’t work for my situation. However, for just a travel laptop it looks like a great deal if the price was significantly lower (or the Toshiba didn’t exist).

  • Trip Planning

    I've been spending virtually every summer in Europe for 11 years. When I started traveling we were four people - myself and my three young kids ages 7, 8 and 12. I've added a couple of people to my family with my significant other and her 14 year old daughter bringing us to six travelers. In the last couple of years two of my children have grown up and moved out with my oldest living in Paris full time which dropped us back to a family of four. The combination of having fewer travelers, an amazing exchange rate, and a killer deal on peak season plane tickets left us with a bit of room in our budget for someone else – my 75 year old mother.

     

    Now I should tell you that my mother hasn't traveled much unless you call a quick drive from Washington to Illinois traveling. I suppose we shouldn't forget that one trip to Las Vegas in the early 1960's either – still no major travels. Several years ago I took her across the border to Vancouver British Columbia and she loved it. Vancouver seemed so... foreign to her. There were French speaking people, the money looked different and the metric system.

     

    Last year we attempted to take my mother to Europe but she refused due to her age (75) and the fact that she's not as mobile as she once was. I think there were other factors too – you don't just go from wanting to travel your whole life to getting on an airplane for 10 hrs specially when you'd never flown before. That's right – NEVER. However, I bought her a non-refundable ticket this year and paid to get her passport application turned in. Once that was done I continued to update her on my progress in planning the trip and things started getting real.

     

    Plane tickets out of Seattle to anywhere in Europe were $1300 but we could leave Vancouver BC for $716. Multiply that by 5 and you have a month's rent in Paris paid for just by flying out of a different airport. This meant we'd have to take the Amtrak Cascades train to Canada and possibly stay the night on our return trip. It also meant we were leaving on June 23rd and not returning until August 28th – a 10 week adventure. This doesn't bother me much as I've only had one trip in which I wanted to come home. That trip ended with 4 cases of Montezuma's Revenge, a heart attack, three ambulances, one cardiologist, a hotel doctor, on case of fainting at the airport curb, two days holed up in a hotel trying to hold toast down, three blocked bank cards and an airline that told us to get a new passport at the embassy before they could allow us on the plane. THAT trip I wanted to come home from and in fact, we came home early which is the only time I've ever done that. My perfect trip is a one-way ticket so I was more than willing to book a 10 week vacation.

     

    My original master plan was to spend one month in Paris and a second month in Croatia with a few days in between to travel to where my mother's side of the family came from – Thornbury England. Whenever you travel you can save money by staying in one spot for a longer period of time. Usually you can get weekly or monthly rates on apartments that save a ton of money. However, due to the late acquisition of funding for the trip the apartment pickings were slim and the Paris apartment we wanted was only available for 3 weeks which meant we'd fly into Paris and have a week to blow before getting into our apartment. Our options were to rent another apartment for a week in Paris... or go somewhere else. One week rentals in Paris are more expensive then renting for a month so I had to budget $125 per day for accommodations for that week. For contrast we were paying about $85 per day for the other 3 weeks. As we dug through the remaining apartments in Paris that we could fit into our budget we came to the realization that we didn't like any of them so we considered our options. The previous year we stayed in Provence for a week and toured Avignon, Arles, Nimes and Orange. Out of those four cities Nimes was by far our favorite. A quick search for apartments there yielded a whole house for $68/night not far from the historic center! One week's rent in Nimes plus five return tickets on France's high speed train brought our daily cost to $120 which fit into our budget. Nimes is a town of about 150,000 people so it would be a more gentle introduction to Europe for my mother as well. Paris can be a bit overwhelming at times.

     

  • We will get out of here!

    Leading up to any of our trips there's always doubt. Doubt because my pay schedules aren't always reliable. Doubt because until I go looking for my money it doesn't show up. But doubt no more, we're leaving on Thursday.

    Something is happening in the Airline world with prices. The prices are climbing higher all the time and the nickel and diming model of making money seems to be getting more popular. This Week in Travel podcast just covered this topic recently. Are customers more satisfied if the ticket price is initially higher and they don't get nickel and dimed or do they like to see a low ticket price and then feel the sting when they get charged for not printing their ticket ahead of time (seriously!), for checking 1 bag, for a blanket and pillow, for soda etc... Is it better to have a $500 ticket and pay another $100 for your bags and printing your ticket? A part of me wants to say yes because I print my ticket ahead of time and I don't check bags. Let other people pay my way! However I don't like the nickel and dime method of making money. I don't like thinking I'm getting a ticket for $500 if when I click on "purchase" the number goes to $750. This irritates me and is one of the reasons I use Orbitz - they try to tally everything for you and show you that price. Another reason is if someone else buys a ticket on the same plane after I do and the price is lower they'll send me a check for the difference automatically. This I like.

    However, there's another something happening in the industry that I believe is connected with the first - airlines aren't making any money and they don't think they'll get bailouts. This has driven the ticket price skyward. Normally to fly to Mexico around Christmas time I pay about $300 per person. During the summer I pay about $500 per person. When I searched for tickets this time I was shocked to see $1100 per person! I've never seen the tickets that high to Mexico. We had initially planned on going to Thailand this holiday but instead of the normal $1300 ticket to Bangkok or Hoh Chi Minh City they were $2800. I think $1300 is doable but $2800 is not. I'm not paying $10,000 just for us to get on a plane. Clearly I'm going to work a lot harder for my tickets than usual.

    A third thing I'm seeing is that legacy domestic carriers are now treating round trip tickets as if they were two one way tickets ala Southwest, Jet Blue and Virgin America. I turned up my nose at first but now I've realized this gives me a great deal of flexibility that I didn't have before. It's much easier to book an open-jaw ticket now online.

    So I pulled out all the stops to get a better deal to Mexico.  If we'd come back on the 7th the tickets would be a lot lower but because I have class on the 5th we can't stay that long - bummer. There's a website in Europe that I use a lot called skyscanner.com. It's really nice because you can put in your current location and leave all other fields open and it will tell you the cheapest prices anywhere. It's great fun to just take the cheapest ticket and go explore wherever it sends you. We've gotten tickets from London to France for 1 Euro cent that way. We paid $6 to fly from Poland to the UK another time (the taxi to the airport was $12). Some times you just want to go somewhere and you don't care where. I wish the US ticket booking sites would let me do this as I would have put in my location and Mexico for a destination and it would have shown me ALL tickets to anywhere in Mexico. This would have saved me time.

    So tickets from SEA to MEX were over $1000 rt. Tickets from PDX to MEX were over $1100 rt. Tickets from YVR (Vancouver BC) to MEX were over $1000 rt. However a ticket from PDX to MEX one way was $172! What you say? It's true. Coming back would have cost a fortune though which is why the RT ticket was so much. However a Puebla to Las Vegas ticket was $159! Yep, I could get back to the states for $159 from Puebla. The same ticket from Guadalajara or Mexico City was $450. So now I'm back in the states and need to get home and Orbitz found me a ticket from LAS to SEA on JetBlue for $169 again. Total from PDX -> MEX - Puebla -> SEA using all one way tickets - about $500. We need to get to PDX so we booked tickets on Amtrak. Kids ride for half price and Natalya bought a Student Advantage card which shaved the ticket for four people to $133 from SEA to PDX for four people. Adding in the train tickets, all plane tickets and the hotel in Portland we saved $1300 over just buying the cheapest ticket on Orbitz or Expedia. I worked for it but it paid off. The money I saved paid for 10 days of Hotel, local transportation and food in Mexico. Basically what I saved paid for the rest of the trip.

     

     

  • Welcome!

    Welcome to my travel pages. We travel quite a bit and always have people back home who want to follow our journys around the world so I've put up photo galleries and journals about our trips. Usually I update them as we travel although sometimes I can get a few days behind if I don't have reliable internet access.

    So in this section you'll find

    1. Photos of our trips
    2. A blog about travel
    3. My travel journals

    You might be wondering what is the difference between the travel journals and the travel blog. Let me explain. For every trip we take I keep a daily journal of what we do and my thoughts. I also spend a good deal of my time throughout the year when I'm at home thinking about traveling. I've created the Travel Blog so I can put my thoughts down. I'll also post about really good deals that I'm aware of, tricks about getting frequent flyer miles etc...

  • Where do they have crazy fancy post offices and the best bus system in the world? Mexico of course!

    My plan for today was to take the metro to the Norte Bus station and catch a bus to Tula. Tula could possibly be the mythical Toltec city of Tollan. Nobody knows for sure but they do know that it was the capital of the Toltec empire. After Teotihaucan fell in about 800 AD there was a power gap in the Mexico Valley area that was eventually filled by the Toltecs. A lot of the religious beliefs of the Toltecs resembled those of the Teotihaucanos. Teotihaucan may have been sacked by the dreaded northerners (the Romans would have called them barbarians). Tula may have also been sacked by the Chichimecas from the north. Again nobody really knows but there's an interesting story involved. Quetzalcoatl the leader of the Toltecs was getting too powerful and the “senate” got him and his sister high, drunk or both and they did things brothers and sisters shouldn't do. Quetzalcoatl was so ashamed that he stepped down from power and headed east across the water on the backs of turtles or some such thing. Quetzalcoatl was also a God (things get a bit blurry here) and the prophesy mentioned of his return. Four hundred years later a floating mountain landed at Veracruz and bearded men with shiny suits came on land and Montezuma wasn't sure what to think since he was waiting for Quetzalcoatl to return from the east and the rest as they say is history.

     

    Anyway after Tula was sacked the prominent Toltecs moved the the Mexico City area which was then a giant lake surrounded with various cities. By the time the Aztecs came along the Toltecs were considered nobles so the Aztecs (who were barbarians from the north again) would try to intermarry with them to have kids with noble bloodlines. The Aztecs eventually became greater than those they admired and once again the rest is history.

     

    To make a long story short I was sitting at my computer writing my blog for the day and my kids were snoring away and I let them sleep. We've been pushing pretty hard and have walked about 25 miles at 8000 feet so I think they needed it. I'll go back to Tula at a later date.

     

    Since this is our last full day in Mexico City I decided to just go take some pictures, buy bus tickets and hang out. The first stop was the famous Mexico City Post Office built about 100 years ago. This thing is not a post office, it's a palace! I'm not sure how they paid for it but this is the most extravagant post office I've ever seen with marble EVERYWHERE and gold gilding everywhere else. The really interesting part is it's a working post office to this day. It would be easy to make the thing a museum but Mexico City already has 50 museums and the mail needs to get out so it's still in business. You can go up several flights of stairs that split off and then rejoin but after the second you're stopped by security. I'm not sure what's up there but they don't want you to see it. The roof of the post office is an oblong glass dome.

     

    Not having had enough over the top elegance went to the Palacio Belles Artes across the street. This opera house has a gorgeous art nouveau exterior of white marble with a multi colored domed rooftop. It was designed about the turn of the 20th century by an Italian artist but construction was interrupted by the Revolution. It was finished in 1934. I expected when entering the building to be greeted by an art nouveau interior with dainty ironwork railings and glasswork everywhere but what I saw was 100% art deco. Not expected that at all.... Considering when the opera house was completed it made sense but still there's quite a disconnect from the architecture of the outside and the design of the interior. Normally they do tours of the building but it's Monday and NOTHING is so no such luck. One day I'll go in and see the Folklorico performance by the Mexican Ballet and for two reasons – 1. I'd like to see the performance 2. I want to the Tiffany Glass curtain and seeing a show is the only way to see the glass curtain. They got a little crazy with this opera house and made the stage curtain out of Tiffany Glass which intrigues me. I also want to see the famous painting by Diego Rivera on the third floor. It was originally commissioned by John D. Rockefeller for Rockefeller Center but Rivera was fired when they discovered a soviet flag and Lenin in the painting. Rockefeller had the entire painting destroyed and the Mexican Government asked Rivera to recreate it for the Palacio Belles Artes so he did. He kept Lenin in the painting and also added a new character in the a painting – a degrading likeness of Rockefeller.

    We had checked the price of bus tickets earlier at the hotel travel agent and the total was $2200 pesos to Oaxaca. Knowing that everyone wants their cut I decided to go to the T.A.P.O. Bus station and check the price myself so we took the metro there. As we were transferring from one metro to another we were met by about 20 police with orange barricades. Not being one to cause trouble trying to push past an armed man with a barricade but also not willing to give up to get where we needed to go we crossed under the metro to the line going the opposite direction then crossed back under to get to our right side again all the while going around the guard with the firepower. It wasn't until we were standing on the platform did I understand what the hoopla was about. Another policeman with way too mu

    ch firepower noticed me standing there with three kids and said “blah blah blah Ninos blah blah blah” and pointed past the barricades. Ah! He was telling me that the first two cars were for women and children and since I had kids we were eligible so we went around the barricade and stood amongst about 50 women that came up to my elbow. I honestly felt like a giant. I think there was two women in our car that were taller than Jade (about 5 foot 3 inches) and the rest were smaller. Natalya had a whole head over them and most were about a foot an a half shorter than I. I felt like Gulliver. They were eying me too because this was their safe spot on the metro and here was this Giant man in their space. Nobody said anything, we all got to our destination and I managed not to harm any of the Lilliputians. I have to wonder how tall the people of this area where before the Spanish arrived because some of them even today are about 4 foot 6 inches and quite a lot under 5 foot.

     

    Buses in Mexico are not like buses in America. Mexico used to have a train system but it was deemed too old to save so outside of the train that goes through the copper canyon they're all gone and buses are relied on almost exclusively for interstate travel. Walking through a Mexico City bus station is more like walking through an airport than anything we have at home. Generally a Greyhound station is a small building with a waiting area. Mexico has 200 bus companies with 10,000 sanctioned bus routes! All routes have to be reported to the government and they can't change for 2 years so there's plenty of stability in the market. Knowing that you can probably start to get an idea of the size of the bus stations. Mexico City has four stations and each services a different area of Mexico. The stations have many companies and each have several gates they depart from as well as baggage windows, ticket windows and so on. We've ridden a bus out of the T.A.P.O station one other time so we knew our way around even if our memory was a bit foggy. We found the ADO GL ticket window and with my limited Spanish I was able to book four tickets to Oaxaca at the time we wanted on a first class bus and even got a discount for one of my kids because of age. Total price - $1700 pesos or a savin

    g of about 500 which is $40 USD. It pays to be outside your comfort zone every once in a while.

    I might explain more about the buses. There are second class buses that are roughly equivalent to Greyhound buses. Then there are first class buses that would be more like private chartered coaches with 5 overhead LCD screens for movies, individual headphone jacks that provide music or audio for the movie, individual men and womens bathrooms and refreshments handed out when boarding. Onboard there is a coffee maker if anyone feels the need. First class buses also have their own bus stations as well which don't service second class buses. I didn't count the number of seats on the bus but I'd guess it was in the 36 range since there was quite a bit more front to back room than what you'd usually expect and the seats reclined about twice as much as normal. Above the First class buses are the Deluxe class which only has 3 seats wide and a lot more room front to back. Deluxe class bus seats recline almost flat and have all the luxuries of First class with even more room and refreshments served on board by an attendant. At the end of the day it's still a bus and takes forever to get anywhere b

    ut they've made the best of what they have. If you envision chickens in cages on buses in Mexico you're way off the mark. Mexico has the best bus system in the world. Too bad they don't have the best train system in the world.

     

    Having purchased tickets we decided to eat at one of the many restaurants in the bus station but we all wanted different things so I went to order Tacos el Pastor for Natalya and I which left the kids having to fend for themselves. Piper who has no fe

    ar stood in line at Church's Chicken and ordered two Numero Ochos for her and Jade. She ended up with getting cans of apple juice in their meals instead of 7-up because she can't actually speak Spanish but she did good. We all ate that day thanks to her.

     

    While waiting a tall Mexican man struck up a conversation with us about where we were from and where we were going. He seemed very nice and remembered when the Space Needle was built and wished us a happy new year. I don't know what Mexicans think of new year because Christmas is still in full swing around here and doesn't get over until January 6th. Seems like any new year's celebration would get drowned out.

     

    Dinner was done, tickets were purchased and we needed to get packed up for the ride. I've still not gone to the National Museum of Anthropology and even though I've been there before it's a huge museum and I've learned a lot since the last time. I'd like to at least do a quick walk through and see some things that would mean more to me now than they did before. I've mentioned that mesoamerican history can be overwhelming because there were so many different civilizations and it's hard to keep them all separate. Not to mention all of the names for everything is in Nahuatl which isn't exactly user friendly to the English speakers in the crowd.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Work, work work

    Today I went to work.... Pretty boring eh? Actually not so much. After leaving Hotel Junior and walking to the metro station I realized that I don't have the actual company address. I tried connecting to multiple INTERNET access points to get it but failed. At some point I was out of time and just decided to find it based on memory of the email I received. I've still not heard back from them on what time the class starts. Actually I've never been gien a security badge either. What choice did I have but to just go to where I thought it was and look around? I took the metro which was awesome and only took 10 minutes to get across town. I exited the Metro station and instantly was dropped into Lebanon or so it seamed. My immediate thought was "where in the world have they put this training room?". The answer to that I didn't know....

    I remembered on Google maps a roundabout so I walked until I found one. I also remembered that the street was named after an American General. The roundabout listed an Avenue General Eisenhower so that was good enough for me. A ten minute walk later and I still can't find the company. I asked a security guard and he pointed down the street, said about 3 chapters worth of stuff in French (none of which I followed) and drew a square in the sky followed quickly by the company name. I figured he meant there was a sign so I took off walking. Another 10 minutes later I had reached my destination and without security clearance proceeded to the visitor lobby at which point I was met by the folks that had hired me.


    The classroom had no computers, no white board and only a small weak projector. Those of you who've been in my classes know I last about 10 minutes without my teaching aids. Apparently they were thinking that it was going to be 40 hrs of Power point presentations? We russeled up markers for the giant tablet on easel and started burning LiveCDs for the employees laptops. This whole thing was crazy but I'm good at rolling with the punches. The biggest hurdle was to enunciate in such a way that a native

    French speaker could understand me. This is difficult for someone who can't get native English speakers to understand me. By noon we had the students on Linux, I had markers and a pad and we had access to the Internet.

    During which time Natalya checked out of the old hotel and into Albert 1er. The wifi didn't work so she used their computer to let me know she had arrived safely. We went to eat at a new restaurant on Place St. George which is a very pretty small quiet square not far from the Capitole. The Foie Gras was decent on a spiced toast and the duck was really good. The star of the meal however was this mount of potatoes topped with caramelized shallots that were to be honest phenomenal. This is jump up and down and shout Hallelujah good. I'm going to experiment with that when I get back home.

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