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Thursday, 10 December 2009 04:05

Southwest free credits

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

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

Published in Travel Blog

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in Mexico - 2009
Wednesday, 04 March 2009 15:31

The dollar surges

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Published in Travel Blog
Sunday, 08 November 2009 02:39

The trip home and afterthoughts

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

The trip home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reverse culture shock

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

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

Published in Toulouse/Paris 2009
Thursday, 24 December 2009 06:24

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Published in Mexico - 2009
Friday, 01 July 2011 20:17

Travel/Work Laptop comparison

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

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

The Sharp MM20

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

Pluses for the Sharp MM20

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

Minuses for the Sharp MM20

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

The MSI Wind

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

Pluses for the MSI Wind

  • Cheap
  • Reasonably small
  • Lots of hard drive space

Minuses for the MSI Wind

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

The Toshiba r705

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

Pluses for the Toshiba r705

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

Minuses for the Toshiba r705

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

The Lenovo X220

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

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

Pluses for the Lenovo X220

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

Minuses for the Lenovo X220

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

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

My Dream Laptop

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Gadget Blog
Monday, 21 December 2009 20:42

We will get out of here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Published in Mexico - 2009
Sunday, 03 September 2006 18:00

Welcome!

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

So in this section you'll find

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

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

Published in Travel Docs

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in Mexico - 2009
Monday, 26 October 2009 10:00

Work, work work

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

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


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

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

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

Published in Toulouse/Paris 2009
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