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Saturday, 24 October 2009 10:00

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.

Published in Toulouse/Paris 2009
Monday, 25 January 2010 00:10

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” - $130 which 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.

Published in Mexico - 2009

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

Published in Travel Blog
Monday, 30 November 2009 06:58

Airport Security.

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

Published in Travel Blog

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.

 

Published in Travel Blog
Thursday, 31 December 2009 09:37

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...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in Mexico - 2009
Friday, 23 October 2009 10:00

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.

Published in Toulouse/Paris 2009
Monday, 29 September 2008 18:00

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.

 

 

 

Published in Travel Blog
Saturday, 11 July 2009 20:09

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
Published in Travel Blog

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.

Published in Travel Blog
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