Grant McWilliams

Travel Trip Journals

Journals

Trip journals are trip specific blogs. That is a blog about a specific trip that I've taken. I have them ordered first item first which is backward from a typical blog because it makes it easier to read about the trip from start to finish. Granted that also makes it more difficult to read the latest news when I'm on vacation because the most recent entry (the last one) will be last. But, since most people don't actually get around to reading the Trip Journal until after I'm back I think that will be ok.

Also there's a ton of them missing, this article will explain why.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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...

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

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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..

 

 

 

 

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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.

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