Sunday, March 09, 2008

Back Where Winter is Cold

Early yesterday morning we flew into Chicago, where the temperature was 14 degrees and a drizzle of snow fell from the sky. The mostly Mexican passengers gasped when the pilot announced the temperature, which is negative in Celsius.

Our taxi driver was an African, from Ghana I’d guess. But he’d become a U.S. citizen and was an impressive political analyst.

“History is not on Obama’s side,” he said. He spoke of how the states where Obama is doing well are states that will go to the Republicans in the general election, how it’s not the number of delegates that count but the ability of a candidate to win a general election, how the swing states of Ohio, Tennessee, Florida, Texas and Arkansas are the ones critical to winning an election and it is Clinton who is doing well in those states.

“If you are going to hire someone to do something in your house, a nice appearance and sales pitch isn’t enough,” he said. “You want to know their record, see what they’ve done before. I like Obama, but he’s not experienced and we don’t want a President learning on the job.” He proposed that Obama be Clinton’s VP candidate, allowing him the opportunity to train.

“Clinton is a known quantity,” he said. “I know what I’m getting.”

River and I are now in central Illinois, visiting with family. It’s great for him to see his relatives. I’m enjoying it as well. But every time I come here I’m surprised again how difficult it is to find healthy food – ie. things without a lot of chemicals or preservatives, food that uses whole grains, etc.

There isn’t a coffee shop near where we’re staying, but there is a McDonalds with wifi. So I went there. I couldn’t remember the last time I was at a McDonalds. They have added some more nutritious items to the menu – fruit and walnuts, yogurt, milk – but most of the staff carried some extra fat and I watched customers down breakfasts laden with fat and carbohydrates. The nearby grocery store is cheap, but the quality very poor. Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few overweight people in the area.

It feels strange to be home (in the country, in the region I’m from) but not actually be home. Mark has returned home, but River and I will stay with family for another week and a half. It feels as though life is somewhat on hold during the month we’ve been traveling, that we’ve fallen out of the routines that make up our normal existence. However, since we unexpectedly lost our nanny during our vacation, there really is no hurry to go back.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Walking in a Cloud of Butterflies

Today we made it to the El Rosario sanctuary at the Monarch Butterfly preserve. We took an excellent tour that took us by bus three hours from Morelia, then up to 10,700 feet to see a colony of butterflies. Because it was a warm and clear day, many of the butterflies were flying, looking for water to drink and checking out the mating potential.

It was amazing to look up into the fir trees and see boughs so full of butterflies they seemed like termite mounds. The flying butterflies glided among us, their orange and black wings fluttering in the wind. I loved looking up into the clear slate of the blue sky to watch butterflies fly across my range of vision.

The science of the migration is yet unknown, however the butterflies somehow transmit the information to migrate back to this small region in Mexico through several generations.
The reserve was more touristed than I expected. Even on a Friday we trudged uphill behind groups of schoolchildren and families.

Despite the crowds, the experience of watching a random butterfly turn into more and more and more until the air and ground were ablaze with them, much as the locust storms must have been in the past, was a memorable experience.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Traffic and Tlaquepaque

Today was our day to look around the city of Guadalajara, including the artisan suburb of Tlaquepaque. Trying to distill a metropolis of over four million people into one day’s worth of sights and experience isn’t possible. But we did our best to try to get a general sense of the sights and atmosphere.

The tour we planned to take didn’t depart because we were the only customers. So we found ourselves instead on the tacky red double-decker buses. We couldn’t have been more obvious tourists if we’d stuck signs onto ourselves. But the upper deck did provide a good view over the city, and especially of the traffic that we seemed to be continually stuck in.

We drove along the bus route, taking in the monuments, the fountains, the old Gothic churches and buildings, the parks where young couples made out and older people strolled, the businesses and the long rows of bright, noisy cars.

We sat in the direct, blazing sun, the force of the heat burning us to a crisp. We covered River with a blanket, as if he wore a burqa to protect his young skin.

We spent most of our time strolling the streets of Tlaquepaque. Compared to the hustle and bustle of Guadalajara, it is peaceful, tranquil, quiet, flowered, marked by artisan shops, beauty salons and fruit stands. We enjoyed an excellent meal of fish stuffed with shrimp and shrimps grilled with garlic and chili peppers, as well as the first margarita we’d had that didn’t skimp on the tequila.

Back in Guadalajara, we made a quick stop at the Cabanas. Our final meal in Guadalajara was an ice cream sundae at a local café. Then it was a long trip back across town to the bus station, back onto a comfortable ETN bus to spend one last day in the Morelia area. Tomorrow is the day I’ve been looking forward to most during this trip – a visit to the monarch butterfly sanctuary.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Viva Tequila

Tequila, the birthplace of Mexico’s national drink, is located only 38 miles from Guadalajara.

Upon leaving the city, the land became dry and golden, dotted with squat trees and occasional mountains. Our entry into agave land became clear with the first rows of the blue green plant. They grew in rows in the valley, surrounded by low mountains and extinct volcanoes.

We stopped at a roadside stand, where Tres Mujeres (3 Women) tequila was sold. We were able to walk through the fields, touching the sharp thorns on the spindly leaves. We learned how the plants are planted as babies, cut off from the mother plants and sowed elsewhere. They mature for seven to ten years. Then all the spindly leaves are cut of with a coa and the heart of the plant (called a head or pina, pineapple) is dug up. This weighs between 35 and 150 kilos.

The owners gave us pieces of fiber, what’s left after the juices and sugars are pressed out, to try. It was stringy and looked like beef jerky, but tasted like yam. We also sampled the tequila, made from 100% agave. It was very smooth and while it had the typical afterburn of straight tequila, it was good.

From there we continued on to the town of Tequila, population 35,000. On the way, we passed several distilleries, small and larger. We were going to visit the factory that produces Jose Cuervo tequila, called La Rojena. It is said to be the first tequila distillery and is the most touristed in the area.

There we learned more about the tequila production process and got to see it in action. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed. It was really cool. The giant heads rolled out of trucks and onto the ground, where they were loaded into ovens. Steam hissed out from the oven doors and the smell of agave hearts steaming in hot ovens was overpowering. The building, an original from 1795, had the spirit of colonialism, with the arches and columns at the unloading area, the maize color and the wrought-iron lanterns. We saw the fiber being loaded into a truck like so much hay, on its way to be used for furniture, paper, animal feed and fertilizer. We saw the white oak barrels the tequila ages it, stacked up to the ceiling. And we were allowed to sample each stage of the process – the fiber, the mosto juice, tequila after distilling, white tequila, aged tequila, and at the end, a Jose Cuervo margarita (though with very minimal alcohol content).

I learned about the different types of tequila. And during a visit to the Tequila Museum, also in town, I learned about the cultural relevance of tequila in local life.

We topped off the day with a mariachi concert in a central square, under the backdrop of the illuminated 17th century cathedral. It was great to see so many people out in the center of town on a Wednesday evening – families, couples, friends, al having a nice time.

Then we went to check out a restaurant we’d passed earlier that day, La Chata (Av. Ramon Corona No 126; near Juarez; Tel: 3613-1315 and 3613-0588 and Av. Terranova No. 405; Fracc. Providencia; Tel: 3641-3489) While passing by, I noticed the line of patrons that extended out to the street, and the eight short women, dressed in white, who molded and pressed fresh tortillas, fried meat, and scooped beans, rice and guacamole onto plates. We also stood in line, behind a single woman who like us, was attracted to the hubbub. The people in line appeared upper middle class, well dressed, confident, professional.

The line moved quickly, despite the small size of the restaurant, and we had a table within 30 minutes. The servers and bussers, all men, shook off yellow tablecloths, lay down new ones, took orders and brought food efficiently prepared by the upper middle aged women in white within a matter of minutes. I copied the people around me and ordered a white fruit drink, the water from aquachata (I can’t figure out what this is, if anyone knows, please fill me in). The meal was greasy, but tasty. Most fun of all was the atmosphere, watching how an operation could be so fast-paced, so efficient, and generate such enthusiasm.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

On to Guadalajara

After spending a day in Morelia working, an interesting chance to see the professional life in the city, early this morning we moved on to Guadalajara. We traveled on the ETN luxury bus line, a route suggested by a colleague of mine. I was very impressed when she sent me a link to their site and I saw I could purchase tickets in advance with a credit card, and even select the seats. The wide seats reclined fully and had a sizeable foot and leg rest. Both shades and curtains covered the windows, helping us to get some sleep after the 6:30 a.m. departure. The staff provided each passenger with a soda, a sandwich and headphones with which to listen to the on-board movies. The driver drove safely and in a little under four hours, we had arrived in the second largest Mexican city.

Approaching Guadalajara, I looked out onto lots of empty land, a sight that always amazes me. There were arid, golden plains filled with short, stubby trees, some bare with twisted branches, others baring green leaves. Hills were striped yellow, brown and rust, like layered cakes. The city appeared suddenly – a gas station, a small enclave of pastel gated residences, and then a vast metropolis.

Guadalajara has a population of 1.6 million in the city and 4.1 million in the metropolitan area. In what I’d read about it before coming, it was said to be the business and technological capital of Mexico, the Mexican Silicon Valley. I read it had many of the positive aspects of Mexico City – the culture, the urbanity, the industry – without the drawbacks of pollution and high crime. In addition, it carried the distinction of being the home of mariachis and tequilas – two things I looked forward to experiencing.

We decided to try to get to our hotel by bus – a decision taken lightly while River was sleeping quietly in his carseat, a decision we later regretted as he began to scream on the crowded bus. During our long ride across the city, I noted the pickup truck with an electric saddle seat in back, a Walmart, a Pizza Hut, a Seven Eleven, narrow, two story houses, usually painted in pastels, with black gates and frequently graffiti sprayed on the walls. I noticed the heavy traffic, the high quality cars and the fact that most people carried their babies and their children simply in their arms, even if they had to lug a backpack and suitcase as well. People were friendly, with both the bus driver and the passengers ensuring that got off at the right place and headed in the right direction for the second bus.

Since River was upset by that point, we took a taxi the remaining distance. Guadalajara is located at 5200 feet, 1300 feet below Morelia. While Morelia is cool in the evenings and warm in the day, Guadalajara is warm in the evenings and hot during the day.

We’d had some trouble finding a hotel at the last minute. We were willing to splurge for our two nights here because we’ve mostly stayed in motels and private homes during this trip and because we were celebrating our anniversary. But all the hotels we called yesterday were booked, apparently due to an expo taking place. We chose a place we found on the internet (Posada San Miguel (Av. Hidalgo 1082; Col. Ladron de Guevara, 2 cuadras de enrique Diaz; tels: 3827-13-27 and 3827-13-17). It’s well located, but seems to have seen better days. While called a bed and breakfast, it doesn’t serve breakfast, the service is unimpressive and the room musty. For $75 it’s overpriced. But the location is good, the beds comfortable, and the cheap chandelier and cherubs painted on the high ceiling are at least amusing.

Everyone was tired from our 5 a.m. wake-up so we took it easy today. Our sole excursion was to visit the Casa Bariachi, a restaurant that hosts regular performances of ballet folklorico and mariachis. I called ahead and was told there would be performances at 3:30 and 4:30. We arrived at four, in time to catch the tail end of the dancers. I wondered who would be there on a weekday afternoon. Then I remembered my colleagues telling me that the Mexicans eat lunch between two and four. Still, there were only four other customers when we arrived, though more had come by the time we left.

The restaurant had a vast seating capacity and I imagined it gets packed on evenings and weekends. The performances were excellent. A twelve member mariachi band came out in purple suits, carrying a collection of instruments. The singers had rich, romantic voices and the musicians played upbeat tunes. Mark and I ordered margaritas, beef stewed in a spicy sauce, and shrimp in a mango sauce. It was our celebratory meal of our one year anniversary. Best of all though, was when the mariachis began to play Time to Say Goodbye by Andrea Bocelli. It was the Mexican version, with a mariachi twang. But the singer delivered the full power and passion of the song. And I was blown away by the coincidence. That was the song we’d walked down the aisle to exactly one year earlier. Our initial wedding plans (which didn’t happen), involved hiring mariachi singers in Nicaragua. So on our anniversary celebration in Mexico, to merge the planned mariachis with the actual opera song we’d chosen was a wonderful celebratory tribute.

We walked back to our hotel, taking a look at the neighborhood on the way. It appeared to be an upscale neighborhood, with offices of integrated psychology, many banks, and a Berlitz language school on the way. Most prominent of all however were the wedding shops. We must have passed at least ten bridal shops within several blocks. Many of them were housed in ornate buildings, painted pink, gold or white, with arches and elaborate rooftop balconies. Large plated glass windows showcased the stylish dresses – white bridal dresses and colored ballgowns. There were also photographer’s, floral shops and fine fabric stores. We seemed to have stumbled upon wedding central.

Life here seems to be quite modern, well developed, and rather expensive. Our meal was almost $50. Mark was thrilled to find his favorite diapers, Pampers Snugglers. A series of brightly lit convenience stores, filled with colored packaged products, Oxxo, appear every couple of blocks. The foreign presence is substantial. As my colleagues yesterday told me, here it is no big deal for a young person to be offered a job with a foreign institution. There are so many of them that it lacks the prestige it carries in other developing countries.

Of course, what is nice about it is seeing that the quality of life for the locals seems pretty high. “It’s great not having to see really depressing destitution all around you,” my colleague Annika said, who has spent years in Central America. “And unlike a place like Nicaragua, where people will always be poor, here you can see people are given a chance, that they can move up.”

I’m really enjoying being back in the mystery and excitement of a different country, and of course, having the opportunity to speak Spanish. I’m also glad for River to be exposed to Spanish, even if he can’t distinguish languages yet. We have two more days in Guadalajara. Having checked out the mariachis, tomorrow we’ll focus on tequila, taking a tour to the town of Tequila, where the beloved beverage is produced. On Thursday we’ll tour Guadalajara itself and try to get a grasp on this large metropolis.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Morelia, Mexico

Last night we took a direct flight from San Francisco to Morelia, Mexico. Morelia is the most expensive city to fly into Mexico to and our flight on Mexicana Air was only about 1/3 full. The 3.5 hour flight was pleasant though. The flight attendants were courteous, we each had our own row of seats, and we were provided with pillows, blankets, a meal and legroom. Nonetheless, because the flight was in the middle of the night, we arrived at 5 a.m. local time pretty exhausted.

I was impressed at the airport with the modern, clean bathrooms and the presence of a changing table. We made it through immigration and customs with no real hassles, then took a taxi to the homestay where we’d be spending the next two nights. It was a 30-45 minute ride to the city, so I chatted with our driver, Jesus. He was very friendly and polite, framing all of his questions with, “If it’s not an indiscretion,” “If I may ask,” etc. He told us the city is safe and one doesn’t need to fear assaults here. He offered us information on what to see, welcomed us to his city, and told us he’d be happy for us to stay here. I was surprised and pleased to see that he drove carefully and slowly, a sharp contrast from the taxis I’ve taken recently in Central and South America.

We arrived at our host, Renata’s, house, just as the dark sky was lightening. She undid the chains on the three doors leading into her house and welcomed us in. We were given a small but comfortable room with two twin beds and access to a modern bathroom. We slept for several hours, went down for a tasty breakfast, then slept some more.

Renata works at an adult school, which covers post high school material. She doesn’t receive tourists so often, but when she does they come from the U.S. and Canada. She said she usually receives older tourists and young people. She’d never hosted a baby until River showed up though and she really fell for him, even offering to babysit when we went out later in the day.

When we finally got going, around 1 p.m., we walked out to the local bus stop and hopped onto the orange combi (minibus) that would take us into town. We both got seats and it was a pretty easy and comfortable ride. Again, our driver was surprisingly patient and cautious.

As we neared the city center, the streets narrowed and the sounds became more vibrant. Being Sunday, many of the local businesses were shuttered, but many families had still come out for the afternoon.

We arrived at the central square, marked by the city landmark, a cathedral built in 1744. Both the cathedral and the surrounding buildings were built of rose-colored stone, giving it a colonial and Spanish appearance. We walked a few blocks looking for a place to change money. We noted the popularity of ice cream and fruit drinks, with many people either licking a cone or sucking on a straw.

A series of cars drove by with a racket. The occupants waved and shouted out the windows. They held signs that said things like “Live to love,” “treasure the family,” and “Be happy.” We thought it was something political, or maybe a wedding. But when I asked a bystander what was going on, she said they were celebrating The Day of the Family, which is today. I was impressed that among all the activities they could have chosen to do on a Sunday afternoon, they went out to promote love, happiness and family unity.

We took a one hour tour by trolley car of the city, which gave us a nice introduction to the city layout and the truly vast nature of the colonial architecture. After seeing the long stone aqueduct with cupolas that we drove alongside, the numerous fountains, and the stone buildings and churches, many built in the 1500s to 1700s, I understood why Morelia was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.

After the tour, we spent the remainder of our afternoon in the Garden of the Roses, a small park with a fountain and stone benches, as well as three cafes with outdoor tables. Enjoying grilled trout and apple crepes, we spent a few hours there, warmed by the nice breeze, enjoying the sound of the tinkling fountain, the low chatter, and the passing guitarists.

The cost of living here seems to be less than in the U.S., but substantially more than in the other countries I’ve worked in recently. Our lunch cost $30 for the two of us and since we barely saw any gringos, the prices seem to be set for locals rather than tourists. We also saw a large selection of consumer goods available, everything from Xboxes to Californian children’s clothing to Allbran cereal bars.

I liked seeing how the families gathered in the parks and squares, especially in the early evening. There, a large crowd surrounded a pair of performing clowns, concerts were underway, and children nudged their parents to buy brightly colored balloons and cotton candy. I had the impression that, in general, people seemed to be content. I certainly enjoyed my first day in central Mexico.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Two Days in San Francisco

On our first day in San Francisco, I took River out for the morning. We walked from our hotel (La Luna Inn, a comfortable and good value place, with easy access to public transport) about a mile down Lombard street, to the cable car stop.

On the way we had lunch at an organic café called Lettus. I overheard one patron say that people come from all over to eat at this café. I thought it was amazing, both healthy and delicious. As I enjoyed my grilled chicken sandwich on a wheat bun, mixed greens with champagne vinaigrette and a mango smoothie, I wished I had more time in San Francisco so that I could sample more of the wide culinary smorgasbord.

While eating, I struck up a conversation with the man next to me. Originally from Germany, he’d owned a bicycle shop in the neighborhood in the 1970’s. He now lives across the bay, where he says it is warmer and a bit cheaper. It surprised me how easy it was to converse with a stranger over lunch and I wished that happened more often out east. I enjoyed listening to his take on life in San Francisco.

After lunch, River and I continued on toward the cable car. A stroller is a handy thing, I learned, when there are two adults available to help out, but it is not an easy thing to handle alone. On the way, River became hungry and upset. I didn’t see any cafes in the area, so I stopped in a hotel lobby to feed him and luckily, no one kicked us out. When he finished, we continued on, and we walked up a very steep hill for about three blocks. It was so steep I feared letting go of the stroller. If I did, it would roll at high speed back down the hill and zip into oncoming traffic. So I held on tight and walked slowly. We reached the top, at the intersection of Hyde and Lombard streets. There began what is called the world’s crookedest street,” a downhill street that curves back and forth without any clear reason. From such a high vantage point there were beautiful views of the bay, of the city, and of the streetcars puffing up the hill.

Our plan was to catch the streetcar and travel on it across town, then continue on to the café where I planned to meet a friend. Only upon seeing several full streetcars approach and leave did I realize it was very unlikely that I’d be able to lift River, the stroller, my backpack, and the carrier onto the streetcar, find a seat and be able to buy a ticket, especially since one had to ascend steps to get on. I was going to try until River started crying again. Then I knew it was impossible. I’d become what I’d swore I’d never be – the person who carries too much baby junk around. I had so much it made me immobile and I learned my lesson.

Unable to get on the cable car, we headed back down hill to go to the nearest bus stop. This hill was equally steep, at least a 60 degree angle. But this time it was downhill, which was even harder. Should the weight of the stroller pull me forward too fall, I could lose my grip and the stroller would roll. I could see the busy street a few blocks down where the runaway stroller would crash into oncoming traffic. I wasn’t reassured to see a sign for parked cars that read “Prevent Runaways.” It told drivers to turn their wheels in and use the emergency brake.

I hung on for life and moved with baby steps, my quads bent and flexed as though I was skiing. We made it safely to the bottom and I managed to lift the stroller onto the bus.

“You have to take the stroller apart,” the driver told me when I boarded.

“OK,” I said. “I’ll do it as soon as I sit down.”

I plopped down somewhere near the front, next to a woman with silver hair. She was intrigued by the little hands she could see moving under the sunshade and began to ask about River. When I started to take the stroller apart, she told me not to.

“You’ll have two things to carry then,” she said.

“But the bus driver doesn’t like it.”

“Don’t worry about that,” she said. “There is a lot of tension right now between the drivers and the public. There have been a lot of complaints about poor customer services. There are even videos of drivers closing doors on people and racking up all kinds of violations. But because they have a very strong union, they haven’t been able to get rid of anyone yet. But now, with all the pressure, the drivers are on edge. So just tell him you are doing your best,” she said.

I appreciated her friendliness and her support. She went on to tell me about her life in San Francisco. That was the second stranger to have an extended conversation with me in just the few hours I’d been out in the city. I liked the openness and friendliness very much. However, for us at least, it seems more like a nice place to visit than a place to consider living, due to the high cost of real estate and what people said were not very good public schools.

After meeting a friend for coffee, where we learned more about the local lifestyle, we had dinner at a fancy restaurant on the Fisherman’s Wharf, where we had tender sea bass fresh from the ocean.

On our second day, I decided to take a walking tour of Chinatown. My tour guide lived in Chinatown for 22 years, so she was able to offer a personal perspective that helped convey what the local life and culture were like. With River strapped to my chest, I walked through alleyways, into shops and temples and down streets packed with Chinese immigrants, a small little world onto itself.