Saturday, 31 October 2009 10:00

Corail to Toulouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Published in Toulouse/Paris 2009
Saturday, 26 December 2009 20:18

Culture shock in Mexico City

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Mexico - 2009
Wednesday, 28 October 2009 10:00

Dinner party

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

Published in Toulouse/Paris 2009
Monday, 25 January 2010 00:08

Early morning flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Creative Writing
Thursday, 29 October 2009 10:00

Goodbye Toulouse

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

Published in Toulouse/Paris 2009
Saturday, 08 November 2008 17:54

Hmong Lunar New Year - Seattle

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

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

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

Published in Travel Blog
Tuesday, 27 October 2009 10:00

Hump day

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

Published in Toulouse/Paris 2009

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

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

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

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

More later.

 

Published in Toulouse/Paris 2009
Saturday, 17 October 2009 22:00

It's official

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Published in Toulouse/Paris 2009
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