Jun 01, 2008

Cenotes Near Mérida


This is why people should buy underwater cameras.  Above, Tom shot by his friend Jeff or maybe the other way around.  We were swimming at one of the cenotes near Mérida*.  Note the stalactites below the water.**

The Yucatan peninsula has several thousand cenotes -- freshwater sinkholes that are just awesome for swimming.  So perfect, it's almost a moral obligation to do it skinny style.

The one pictured here is ~80 ft. across and ~30 ft. deep, with the water surface ~30 ft. below ground level. Here's a shot of Tom (or maybe Jeff) leaping in:



*We were on a tour run by Sr. Raul Espejo, an excellent tour guide and even more excellent gentleman.  Raul's tour company works closely with the folks at Hostel Nómadas (which is run by a different Raul, just so you don't get confused.) 

**Tom (or maybe Jeff) has a nice mnemonic for remembering the orientation of stalactites and stalagmites. The stalacTites hang down from the ceiling, like a capital "T".  The stalagMites grow up from the ground, the like the humps of an "M".  This is much better than the mnemonic I'd been using since I was little: stalaCtites have a "C" as in "Ceiling".

12:33 AM in Mexico, Traveling | Permalink | Comments (6)

May 31, 2008

Mirko and Katy -- Global Travelers

Here are Katy and Miroslav -- the two most amazing people I met during my travels in Mexico and Cuba:


Mirko (age 35) grew up in the Czech Republic, and Katy (30) grew up in Slovenia.  They met seven years ago while traveling in India, and they've been together ever since -- earning their living by making jewelry and selling on the streets.

Here's a 3GPP video of Mirko describing the necklace I bought for my pal K back in NC

Mirko and I had a nice chat about things, and I was just so pleased to meet two people who had such a sense of freedom and peace.  Here are some of his unedited comments, which I was scribbling in the margins of a newspaper while we talked:

[On being a beggar for a year in Japan] Begging is an excellent school.  You have a lot of time to observe the world.  It can teach you to trust.  But you have to be a person to learn.  Many beggars are stuck.  It should be a station to move from.

Fear is a powerful thing.  If you give up, it will completely consume you.  But if you trust...  If you give yourself to Nature, which is like our mother...  Even if I didn't have food for 2 days, I take it as a fast.

We trust.  We wish to go somewhere so we believe and then it will come.  We don't lose the trust.

Japan was nice.  We go to the convenience stores to use the toilet - no charge.  They have hot water that people use for ramen - no charge.  They don't mind.  It's not just that they don't complain. I think it their pleasure to give you the hot water (Katy: I never had the feeling they were unhappy for us to be there (but were quiet to be polite).  But they do have signs: "do not sleep" in stores.  The workers are exhausted.

In communist time in Czechoslovakia it was illegal to have no work or accommodation.

In Isla Holbox [Mexico] we sold for several days.  The police did not mind.  But one day the police said, "excuse us -- we don't mind, but some of the other stores here are complaining that you are taking their business, so we need to ask you to quit selling in the park."  But then another artist -- an artisan with a store, said, "you can use the sidewalk in front of our place to sell."

I cannot visit the US because the US requires a Visa.  And I haven't been documented for years.

[talking about Spartans and the way they raised kids through violent training that was sometimes fatal].  You know, the Spartans and the Mayans and some other people -- they were just making sure that the bodies were strong enough to live a tough life.  If they weren't, then it was OK for them to die.  Maybe they'd get better bodies the next time.

Katy and Mirko have slept with a monkey.

01:38 AM in Mexico, Traveling | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 23, 2008

Fernando Plays Accordion -- We Need More Busking


This is Fernando Gonzales de Jesus, playing near the Plaza Grande in Mérida, MX.  He and his daughter Marisol are from Oaxaca (about two days' distance) but they came here in search of economic opportunity.  Same story the world over, I guess.

Fernando has a cool busking technique.  He'll play a few bars in the normal way (left hand for chords and rhythm, right hand for melody), then he'll stick his right hand out for donations while the left hand keeps chugging along. Download a 3GPP clip of Fernando here.

After a while, I felt badly for yapping with Fernando while he was trying to earn some money, so I went to a nearby cafe to buy dinner for him and his girl (hamburgers, horchata, and a jamaica agua fresca).  After I returned with the food, Fernando asked if I wanted to play, and I took a five-minute shift on the squeezebox.

Apparently the people of Mérida prefer his Oaxacan music to my waltzes, tangos, and randomalia.  I didn't make one frickin' peso.  (Though my cultural theory gets busted when I remember my German sax player friend who did alright about two blocks away.)

Back here in Durham: I'd love to see some more any busking.  But as Barry R says at the Dependable Erection, Durham isn't the most busking-friendly place. The folks at Southpoint seem to have juggled around on this one.  Artsplosure is also working out the details for their one weekend a year.  Sigh.

01:15 AM in Mexico, Traveling | Permalink | Comments (2)

May 22, 2008

Vampiro at El Trapiche - Fun With Beets and Celery


I've already pointed to this pic at Emaya's blog, but I wanted to share it again for a different reason: the vampiro, shown above (the drink in the glass, not the woman at the table) at El Trapiche in Mérida, MX.

At El Trapiche, the vampiro is a straight-up juice made from freshly pressed oranges, carrots, beets, and celery. No sugar, ice, or alcohol -- just health and yumminess.  Drink one and you won't need your daily vitamin.

I'm not sure what proportions go into the mix.  On its best days (for me) the beetiness was noticeable but not dominant (i.e., you got the flavor but not the mouthfeel) and there was just enough celery to add some green sharpness, spiciness and "breadth" to the flavor.* 

As served, the vampiro was always too rich for me, so I'd order a bottle of sparkling mineral water and a glass for cutting each vampiro in two, which is why the bit of vampiro pictured above is a bright red instead of its naturally deep blood red.**

A few more things about El Trapiche.  First: the staff are nice and will take you dancing.  Second: do you notice how the chair in the foreground is opened out from the table just a little?  That's a nice touch at many Mexican restaurants: the chairs are all angled out as if to say, "please, have a seat."  Lastly: you can see the street view over here at Flickr.  The two women pictured are standing on the sidewalk just outside where Emaya was sitting. 


*OK, so you describe what celery tastes like.  I dare you.  I love celery in almost anything but I can't stand celery soda.

**blood red.  Thus the name "vampiro."  I didn't catch on until I'd had two or three.  As much as I like words and languages, I'm slow at noticing some things.  Didn't realize until reading Xta's blog four years ago that "Colorado" was named after "colored" in Spanish.  Didn't realize until my dad mentioned it that "Sanka" was derived from the French "sans caféine".  Didn't notice that the Singapore/Malaysian restaurant wasn't pronounced "MARE-lee-on" but was rather "Mer-lion" as in "sea lion" as in the mascot of Singapore.  Of course I sometimes go the other way.  At a steakhouse in ~1981, I thought "Dieter's delight" was some German dish, probably with bratwurst, instead of the low-calorie cottage cheese and lettuce thing that ended up on my plate.

12:14 AM in Food, Mexico, Recipes, Traveling | Permalink | Comments (6)

Apr 21, 2008

How to Get There from Here


People have wondered.

It's easier than many think.

Here's an FAQ from me to you.

10:41 PM in Mexico, Traveling | Permalink

Apr 10, 2008

Taqueria El Paraiso (Durham)


Yesterday's lunch.  In the foreground: a pair of gorditas.  Farther back: an "open-face burrito".

By accident this week, I'm continuing a tour of restaurants mentioned in Gourmet Magazine's "Carolina Cocina" article.*  Years ago, I used to eat frequently at this Alston Ave. -- before it was named El Paraiso, I think.  In any case, I'm happy to have returned.

Four random notes on the restaurant and food:

El Paraiso's salsa verde is reason enough to go there.  It's served in a squirt bottle, and here are the essential ingredients, as told to me (in no particular order) by the cocinera:

  • avocado
  • garlic
  • onion
  • cilantro
  • tomatillo
  • jalapeño
  • salt

The salsa roja is also plenty yummy:

Gorditas have been described as "the pita bread of Mexico".  But yummier.  Made like a very thick, moderately greasy tortilla, the outside has a little crunch, and the inside is soft.  Most often, the gordita is split open from one side, stuffed with something yummy, then topped with a bit of lettuce and tomato, a splash of media crema, and a sprinkling of what I'm guessing is grated queso fresco.  El Paraiso's variation is to pile everything on top of the gordita instead of inside.  The nice thing about this method is that you know from the beginning that you can use a fork.**

Gringos are Welcome at El Paraiso.  At 12:30 this afternoon, there were three parties in the restaurant.  One pair of white businessmen with a laptop out.  One big table of white young professionals (or maybe grad students) in their late twenties.  And me plus my (white -- you guessed it) client.  I'm used to being the only non-white person in a place.  But not in East Durham. This was a happy moment.***

El Paraiso is on Alston Ave. between E. Main St. and Angier Ave.  This is an interesting and appealing neighborhood that has been written about several times at Endangered Durham.  I can't decide which of Endangered Durham's blogs to send you to, so I'll pick two: Alston Avenue Update (a pause on the road widening) and Commonwealth/Asbury/United Methodist Church

The folks at Uplift East Durham also write about this neighborhood that they live and work in.  I enjoyed my frequent drives through here back in 2005 when I was taking care of a friend who lived out on East Angier.  It's easy to imagine the area's healthier past, and a hoped-for good future.

ALSO: Chowhound's co-founder Jim Leff has many praising words and pictures of El Paraiso in this blog: North America Dispatch #18: Great 'Cue with Bob Garner, Two Pillars of Mexican Cooking, and a Deafening Honduran Pool Hall.


**Click for a scan of the Carolina Cocina article (.pdf 2MB)

**I had my first great gorditas in Mérida, Mexico.  After I apologized for using so many napkins, the cook said, "Yucatecan food is messy."  El Paraiso is run by folks from Oaxaca, where my gringo lunchmate has traveled.  His Spanish is better than mine.  While asking for the salsa recipes, I kept trying to verify the absence of some expected ingredients, "...y no vinagre? no limón?"  He said that better choices would be "nada de vinagre? nada de limón?" or even "...sin vinagre? sin limón?"  I will try to remember for next time.

***Back in 2001, my Rhode Island friend Sheila accepted an senior executive job at Duke, and I took her to dinner here on one of her first nights in Durham.  As we seated ourselves, she said, "my colleagues are taking me to dinner tomorrow and they asked where we'd be going tonight -- just to make sure they didn't pick the same restaurant.  I don't think they needed to worry."

12:35 AM in Food, Mexico, Recipes, Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

Apr 06, 2008

Crab Enchiladas at Fiesta Grill (Carrboro) of the Gourmet Magazine Mention


Today's special at the Fiesta Grill -- crab enchiladas.  A generous portion for only $10.95.  Not pictured, the also-generous tostada de ceviche for $2.95 (available Saturdays and Sundays).

As you may know, the Baja-rooted Fiesta Grill was one of six local Latino restaurants featured in Gourmet Magazine's "Carolina Cocina" article last September*. 

I've always been happy to go there for the rich and freshly made everything.  To be honest, I've never been blown away by the food -- but I've almost always been pleased. Perhaps as importantly, they have the longest menu I've seen of any local Latino restaurant**, so I never get bored with the choices.

They also have the friendliest staff ever.  Need something to tweak your meal?  They're quick to provide extra cilantro, their alternate salsa (rich flavor without much extra heat), more limes, or a bottle of hot sauce.***

Come warm weather, treat yourself to country drive with lunch or dinner at the Fiesta Grill in west-of-Carrboro followed by dessert at Maple View Farm.  If you don't mind a messy meal, you can even take your to-go order for eating at the Maple View Farm picnic tables.



*Click for a scan of the Carolina Cocina article (.pdf 2MB)

**including eight vegetarian choices. Want proof?

***Fiesta Grill uses the well-known Tapatio sauce from Guadalajara. Did you know that Northgate Mall in Durham used to have a store that just sold hot sauces and related products?  That was ~1993.  Sadly, it didn't last long.

The fellow whom I think is the owner: his jawline and voice remind me of Marlon Brandon as the Godfather -- but in a nice, friendly way.

Essential ingredient atop the enchiladas: the half-cream aka media crema. Cans of the Nestle brand should be available almost anywhere with Latino groceries.


01:27 AM in Food, Mexico, Reviews, Triangulations | Permalink | Comments (2)

Mar 31, 2008

Shrimp on a Stick, Peeled or Not, and Maybe in a Biscuit?

I love shrimp on a stick.

Below, two ways I've seen it as of late:


The first (above) at Carnaval in Mérida MX.  15 pesos (~$1.40) for a long stick of medium shrimp, shell on, basted in a chili dressing, and topped with salt and a squirt of lime.  You can eat the semi-crunchy shell, or you can peel it off.  I eat it for the texture and the flavor.  Makes me happy.  15 pesos was sort of pricey for the product in Mexico, but not when you consider that you're buying it in the middle of Carnival where the prices are inflated for the event.  Beer on the street was 20 pesos.  Walking down the street drinking beer and eating shrimp on a stick on a warm February night, to the sound of a dozen salsa bands: priceless.  Vocab for those interested: camarones a la parrilla ("shrimp on the grill") or brochetas de camarón ("shrimp skewers").


This second set of shrimp is available at A Southern Season for $18/lb.  Much prettier, for sure, with the big peeled shrimp nicely yin-yanged on the skewer.  I didn't try them, but I enjoyed snapping the pic.  On a later visit, the kitchen folks had fanned out ~40 skewers in a lovely pattern that looked like an upside down palm leaf hat. <-click it, it's pretty!  Of course one challenge of pretty food displays is designing them so they'll continue to look good as the supply diminishes.  I didn't hang around to watch.

Most importantly: you might notice the one dark biscuit that looks like it has a fossilized shrimp at top (imagine that the tail is at ~11 o'clock, and the body curls around clockwise.)  I know now that I was just seeing things, but Ho-lee-crap -- what an idea!  Shrimp dropped onto biscuit dough before it goes into the oven?  A most nouvelle Southern canape, don't you think?  I'll have to try this.  The shrimp might need a little cooking before it goes onto the batter, etc. etc.  Must do lots of testing, etc. etc.

05:24 PM in Food, Mexico | Permalink | Comments (1)

Mar 24, 2008

Which Came First, the Chicken or its Eggs?


For those of you who farm, forgive me my ignorance.*  For decades I've been amazed that a little chicken could produce, from scratch,** a whole egg every day.  But finally, last month at the Parque Santiago market in Mérida, the butchers explained it to me. 

See those orange things?  Those are eggs on the make.  They start small and get big.  And then eventually they foomp out.  I'll be goddamned.

Garrison Keillor has a fine story about slaughtering some (free range) chickens in his book Leaving Home.  I haven't yet found a good site to describe the egg development process, but here are a couple:  How a Hen Lays Her Egg (which has a photo) and Chicken Egg Development, which explains that "The eggshell is deposited around the egg in the lower part of the oviduct of the hen, just before it is laid. The shell is made of calcite, a crystalline form of calcium carbonate."

Archer Pelican oldie (with a photo of chickens that are still alive): Chickenbutt!! That's What!


*And for those of you who don't farm, forgive me posting the maybe-gross-you-out photo without warning.

**no pun intended, I swear. 

12:18 AM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (5)

Mar 12, 2008

Like Water for Broccoli


Back in the US as of noon-ish today.  And among the first two USA thrills: (1) drinking from a water fountain* and (2) raw green vegetables (broccoli, spinach, spring mix and sprouts) at a Jason's Deli salad bar.


*what do you call these things: water fountain? drinking fountain? bubbler?  And were your grade school and high school fountains like mine -- some with a trickle that made you suck off the metal as if you were a gerbil, and others that blasted your face, hair, shirt, and the hallway if you didn't treat the knob like a caffeinated rattlesnake?

Photo: plumbingworld.com

12:38 AM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (2)

Mar 11, 2008

Armando sings Trova

My flight leaves in six hours.  There are many things I'll miss in Mérida, not the least of which are the Trova performances of my new friend Armando.  Fortunately, I pestered him into recording an album before I left.  Here's a track which I hope you'll enjoy:

Armando canta Arturo Castro's De Llorar por Dentro (3.6MB).

p.s. I hope that the 3.56 MB file has uploaded correctly.  If not, I'll fix when I get home.  Technology.  Hooray.

DOUBLE P.S.  Flight is delayed two hours -- now 8 a.m. instead of 6 a.m. and you know I would have loved those two hours of sleep.  But in any case -- here is your first (half) post on sentimentality and parting of ways.  No, not Christine Lavin's "Getting Used to Leaving", but another Armando track: Bésame Mucho, with its classic line, como si fuera esta noche la ultima vez -- as if this night were the last. Download Bésame Mucho (5MB)


Addendum, 30 Dec 2008: here are the lyrics to De Llorar por Dentro:

Que debo hacer
Para que tú sepas que aún
Te sigo amando

Que puedo hacer
Para que tú sepas que jamás
Yo te olvidado

Si ya no puedo tenerte
Si ya no puedo besarte
Si sé que hasta tus lindos ojos
Que desamorosamente con frialdad me ven

Debes saber
Que no volveré a amar jamás
Como a ti te amado

Debes saber
Que el final de nuestro amor es fin
De un sueño adorado

Que debo hacer vida mía
No hay solución no la encuentro
Solo me queda un consuelo
De llorar por dentro

Debes saber
Que no volveré a amar jamás
Como a ti te amado

Debes saber
Que el final de nuestro amor es fin
De un sueño adorado

Que debo hacer vida mía
No hay solución no la encuentro
Solo me queda un consuelo
De llorar por dentro

De llorar por dentro

Nine months later, I'm surprised by how much this music touches me.

02:37 AM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (0)

Mar 10, 2008

George Will Loitering Way Off Base


George Will is editorializing on the Emerald City, and I think he's got some things seriously wrong.  Click to read George Will Loitering Way Off Base.

03:19 AM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (0)

Mar 06, 2008

Because Too Much Is Illegal in a Totalitarian State


Continue reading this Emerald City post at --> Because Too Much is Illegal...

10:36 PM in Mexico | Permalink

After Dark


In the interest of making this trip (and my name attached to it) at little less Googleable by the Man, I'll be posting Emerald City blogs at Live Journal.  Click here for After Dark.

10:27 AM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (0)

Feb 21, 2008

Club KY (next to Azul Picante), 2 in the Frickin' a.m. on a Wednesday Night


Restaurant folks can be so nice.  If they notice you eating at their place quite often alone, they'll adopt you.  Tonight I had dinner with Fernando and his family at their house (with a great view of the lunar eclipse).

Later I went out with Alondra (from another excellent Mérida eatery) and her friends*.  We tried a few cafes but they were all closed, so we ended up at Club KY (the smaller DJ'd dance floor and bar adjacent to sister club Azul Picante).  Lucky for me, I don't have anything scheduled today until 12:30 p.m.  Alondra goes to school at 6 a.m.  "Red Bull", she says.


*otherwise known as "everybody in the whole town, if not the whole state of Yucatan."

04:13 AM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (2)

Feb 19, 2008

Fidel, Such Timing!

Fidelcastro From the AP:

HAVANA - An ailing, 81-year-old Fidel Castro resigned as Cuba's president Tuesday after nearly a half-century in power, saying he will not accept a new term when parliament meets Sunday.

Ah, for the love of Pete -- I'm going to Cuba on Sunday and he frickin' resigns just before I get there.  It looks like I won't be able to say I visited Cuba under Fidel.  Technically, anyway.  Dang. 

Full Castro article here at Yahoo.

Photo yoinked from The Onion with a clickworthy caption.

09:35 AM in Mexico, Misc.Blog 2007, News | Permalink | Comments (2)

Old People Dancing


Sunday nights at the Salon de Baile "Ortiz", Calle 61, two or three blocks from the Plaza Grande.

The Ortiz Dance Hall is a couple of short blocks from my apartment.  What a sight... dozens of old couples dancing, swaying, grooving by themselves.  Almost always slowly.  With very little ornamentation or style.  Sometimes with very little rhythm.  You know those Latin American countries where everybody dances like a pro from age 12?  Mexico is not one of them.  But you know those countries where nearly everybody dances and everybody is very happy about it?  Mexico may be one of them.

Around the corner from this crowd, a loud 5-man band played on a stage constructed from planks and saw-horses.  Not much jumping around.*

I'm not sure what the admission fee is for Sunday night dancing.  The guys at the door let me in for a look after I asked their permission to take a photo (before saying "yes", they asked me what it would be for.  I think that's what they asked, anyway.  I said, "para mis amigos en los Estados Unidos".  That seemed to be acceptable.). 

Beyond the dance floor, I could see that there were some people selling food, and I was surely interested.  But I was also terrified that one of the old ladies would ask me to dance.  Every now and then one would start walking my way, and I'd hold my breath until she did something harmless like picking up an empty chair, or grabbing her purse.  I scooted out of there pretty quick.  And not necessarily on the beat.


*compare that to the two young guys who did the wandering minstrel thing in the outdoor plaza where I had dinner tonight.  Guitar dude jumped around like a two-legged pogo stick while his "drummer" pal knocked out a beat on the fat end of an empty water carboy.  They were pretty good.

02:25 AM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (2)

Feb 14, 2008

Hagar the Horrible, en Español

I asked you for a husband and you sent me one.  I thank you for that.  And now I ask... Do you accept returns?

09:37 PM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (1)

Feb 13, 2008

Symbiosis, or Just an Undefended Border?*

Thank you to the folks who have been reading my posts from Mexico.  You may have been wondering, "when is Phil going to post about things related to Mexico, instead of things related to travel?"  Bueno.  Here is a post about something common in Mexico that I'm not used to seeing in the US: the informal sharing of commercial space.

First example: On the 90-minute bus ride from Progreso to Mérida, one of my fellow passengers asked the driver if he could play a few songs for tips.  The driver nodded his head, we got a half-dozen songs, and the performer passed his hat for a few dollars.  In this photo**, he's one song away from a canción about getting a letter from his mother.  Being too poor to own a pen, he writes back using his blood for ink.


On another morning on the city bus from Mérida to Cholul (30 minutes on a good day, arriving maybe on time for my Spanish lessons), a man hopped on and asked the driver if he could do a quick solicitation.  The driver agreed, and the bus got a 3-minute fundraising pitch for "El Taller del Maestro." ("The Master's Workshop"), a Christian drug rehab program.  Note the disclaimer at bottomThis association is not responsible for the crime of fraud or robbery or of the illegal use [of its name] conducted by lucradores [panhandlers?] soliciting donations without a valid ID.  Please to confirm.  Now they tell me.  In any case, I wonder if my friends at UMD might try this on the Durham Area Transit Authority buses?***


In town, one of my regular restaurant stops is El Trapiche, a Yucatecan place whose dining room opens to the sidewalk near Mérida's main plaza.  Street vendors wander in and out of the restaurant as they please, approaching diners, showing off their fans, pecking chicken toys, necklaces, whatever.  Beggars stop at the doorway and lean in with their hands out.

At other restaurants with sidewalk seating, the vendors are even more numerous.  Little kids, grownups, and old ladies will walk around the tables, selling anything from gum to hammocks to shoeshines.  One night at dinner, a beggar woman holding her baby came by my table to ask for a contribution.  My friend Marie didn't want to give her anything until she realized that the woman wasn't a beggar: she was soliciting tips for the flute player who had just finished a few songs.  So Marie gave her a few pesos.  But not me.  I don't like the flute.

Last night I bought a small woven bracelet from these cute girls. 


10 pesos (~90 cents) for the bracelet (you can see a bunch hanging off the right wrist of the girl in the green sweater), plus another 10 pesos to ask if I could take their photo.  They tied my bracelet on for me.  I think it stayed on for about 18 hours before I probably caught it on my belt or bag or who-knows-what and lost it.  Anyway -- I hope someone else found it and is enjoying it.

So: what's interesting to me is that these vendors don't seem to pay anything to the storekeepers (or bus drivers) for the pleasure of soliciting their customers in the storekeepers' space.  I had a brief debate with a young Australian woman about this.  As some of my readers know, I have decidedly mixed feelings about property rights and private property.  It's nice to be a visitor where I can observe without needing to have an opinion.


*A joke for you -- Question: How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris? Answer [in dorky French accent]: Nobody knows! hohn hohn hohn hohn hohn.

**Gringo in Mexico moment: as the guitarist started to play, I used a few hand gestures to ask if I could take a photo.  He nodded (lots of nodding here), I shot, and after the song, I handed him a 10 peso coin.  Before he stuck it in his pocket, he looked at it.  Why would he look at it?  Did it seem like a surprisingly large tip?  Or was he worried it was only a 5 peso or 1 peso contribution? (FYI: the 10 peso coin is significantly larger than the 5 peso coin, which is a tiny bit larger than the 1 peso coin.  You'd think that a guitarist would have sensitive fingers.).  His face didn't reveal his sentiment.  Later, when he passed the hat at the end of his performance, I think he got ~40 pesos total from five or six riders.

***I doubt this would play well. Barry R. at Dependable Erection has some read-worthy posts (make sure to check the comments) on panhandling laws in Durham.  Here's the Google path to Barry's multiple entries.  (No pun intended.  Really.)

10:17 PM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (2)

Feb 12, 2008

New Apartment

Welcome to my new apartment, twice the rent of the old, but three times larger and five times nicer.  The old place was great for a couple of weeks, but it had some challenges for work: lots of noise from the street and driveway, and not much of an internet connection.  And it was too close to the hostel (with its daylong temptations for socializing and for living in English instead of Spanish).  So, here:

Part of the living room, looking into the mini-kitchen.  The laundry room is at the far corner, with a sink for handwashing and a clothesline.  The red you see at rear is a brick-lattice wall for ventilation.

Third floor walkway, looking north (my door is the first one at left).  The clothesline you see at right is perfect for the morning sun.  Lots of green plants line the wall of the truck repair place next door.  Through most of the working day, I leave my front door open for a very nice breeze that enters through the doorway and exits through the laundry room.  Humidity is generally perfect.

View from the rooftop (one level up from my apartment), looking due west, 6 blocks to the Catedral de San Idelfonso on Mérida's Plaza de Independencia. The tower you see toward the left is the biggest and ugliest in town.  There are two or three other big ones, but not as big as this.  Still, if they're giving me my internet signal, I'm happy.

12:18 AM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (3)

Feb 10, 2008

Will Tomorrow Be a Better Day? Once More on Optimism vs. Hope

One lucky piece of my life: I've always lived in cities (and usually in a country) that believed "next year will be better than this year."  Asheville, Durham, Providence (and a few months in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and even Raleigh): all these places, whenever I was there, had reason to believe that their circumstances -- on the whole -- were on an upward trend.

Traveling elsewhere and among travelers, I don't always see this.  Two weeks ago I was talking with some Italians who were thoroughly despondent about their country's situation.  The Prodi government was disintegrating.  And in the opinion of my new friends, all options for the future were as bad or worse.  ("All the lawmakers are old and stuck!  But not old enough to die.  And until they die, there will be none of the changes that our country needs.") 

Here in Mérida, Mexico, one of my local friends spent an hour telling me about Mexican and local politics.  In particular, he told me about the southern part of town -- which he warned me not to visit under any circumstance.  Crime.  Poverty.  No opportunity.  Ugly like a scene from Escape From New York.

I asked about the kids who lived there,  "Do they have schools? Do they have a chance at a different future?"  "Only with a miracle," he said.

So.  Hope, then.  Not optimism, at least not as defined by the Rev. Peter Gomes.  Here is a Gomes quote (that I just rediscovered in one my comments on a related blog quoting Cornel West):

"So, the struggle is very real, which means that patience is the most important witness -- which is the third thing. Patience is the most important witness. How does the old hymn go?

Not to the strong goes the battle,
Nor to the swift goes the race;
But to the true and the faithful,
Victory is promised through grace."

Does that mean that I'm optimistic? No. I am not optimistic; and no Presbyterian I know is ever optimistic. We live in a fallen world ruled by totally depraved people who do not understand the sovereignty of God.

I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful. What is the difference? Optimism cannot stand the bright heat of the noonday reality: mere optimism wilts and has no inner resources with which to combat the seeming hosts of evil all around it. Optimism fades very quickly; but the hopeful are the ones who, in spite of the circumstances, in spite of apparent reality, in spite of the moment, understand that hope endures all things and ultimately carries all before it in God's time. When we had Nelson Mandela at Harvard last fall, somebody asked him whether in prison he had been optimistic that this day would ever come. He said, "I never was optimistic, but I never lost hope."

Unfortunately I cannot find the original source for this quote.  If you happen to know it, please let me know.

07:56 PM in Mexico, Quotables | Permalink | Comments (3)

Celestún and National Personalities in Jokeland

Flamingos at Celestún.  Photo by Emaya.

Do you know what flamingos sound like?  No, not like the theme to Miami Vice.  More like Canadian geese.

Yesterday was birding mania at Reserva de la Biosfera Celestún -- flamingos, cormorants, sea ducks, pelicans, Mexican eagles, and many more I don't know.  Too bad I didn't have Stew the birder* along for the three-hour boat tour of the coastline and estuary. 


But I still managed to enjoy myself -->


Fellow tourists: a family from St. Paul, MN; Katya and Jacek from Poland (but currently living in Hamburg) and Rocio from D.F. (aka "Mexico City").  Wilberth, our Yucatecan captain and guide, spoke no English.  So Rocio and I did most of the interpreting while Wilberth told us about area's biology and geography.  Rocio had the Spanish and a good bit of English.  I had some Spanish, all the English, and some biology and earth science -- useful for discssions about saltwater invasion, mineral uptake, water coloring from mangroves, etc.

Now, for more jokes about national personalities:

Heaven and Hell

In Heaven: the Italians greet you, the French feed you, the policemen are British, and the Germans run the trains.  In Hell: the French greet you, the British feed you, the policemen are German, and the Italians run the trains.**

Speakers of the World

What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
   -- Trilingual
What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
   -- Bilingual
What do you call a person who speaks one language?
   -- [see footnote***]


*who might have visited here in the 90s.

**Suzanne Gilman -- one of my typesetting teammates at the Brown Daily Herald -- told me this joke in 1987 when I didn't know enough to get it.  I had to write it down so I could remember.  No longer.

*** American.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • When I rushed into the bus station at 8:03 a.m., the ticket agent said I had just missed the 8 a.m. to Celestún.  I was so sad to have missed joining Jacek, Katya, and Rocio for our planned outing. But when I walked into the waiting area -- miracle of wonders -- Jacek was waving at me from the gate.  "Hurry!".  Man, his face was a beautiful sight.
  • How would you feel about assembling a semi-random group of strangers to attempt negotiating our prices with a wide variety of boatmen?  When you don't know everybody's price and time sensitivities?  When you hadn't much sleep the night before?  Rocio rocks.  She did all this for us.  And we had a really good time.
  • BTW -- if you are not the Negotiator, life is easier if you can let go of your desires for any specific outcome.  Just let her do her job, and everybody has fun, and nobody gets shot.  Although I wasn't our negotiator, I did get to play Treasurer.  That job usually means that I end up paying extra to cover world's shortchangers of the world.  But on this rare occasion, everybody handed me more money than they were supposed to.  Yay for Wilberth who got a good tip.  Even after our early disagreements in which money was handed from us to him, then back to us after a second disagreement on price, then back to him after Rocio made the peace at $90 for the whole boat for 3 hours.
  • I love all boats.  Even boats without lifejackets.
  • After the tour -- marinated salad of mixed seafood.  Very happy mouth. 

04:01 PM in Mexico, Quotables | Permalink | Comments (5)

Feb 08, 2008

"Aw, man. You got no class."

Cheech_and_chong_yellow_2 So to continue the theme of Mexicans and Chinese: Does anyone remember the Cheech & Chong quote (maybe from the Yellow Album?) where one of them (Cheech, I think) is talking about the philosophy of marijuana while Chong is smoking a joint?  The gist of Cheech's speech is, "The nice thing about weed is that everybody shares." But after Chong finishes off the joint all by himself, Cheech says sadly, "Aw, man. You got no class."

I mention this because somebody in my open-windows apartment complex has been smoking la cucaracha on and off for the last two hours.  But has anyone been knocking on doors with an offer to share?  Somebody around here is like school in the summertime: no class :-)

Also coming in through the windows: the yowls of multiple cats in heat. We don't hear that much in the US suburbs, where most all the cats are spayed.  It's a wild sound -- something new to me.  In fact, I wouldn't have even recognized it if K hadn't told me when she heard it over the phone.  (I had been assuming it was an exorcism.)  Hey waitaminnit -- do you think it's the cats who are smoking the weed?

Aki600 Oh and speaking of cats: last night, some new friends and I were talking with Aki*, Japanese guy who's lived his last 20 years in the US.  He adopted a neighbor's outdoor cat and built it a home to stay warm in the Arizona mountain winters.  Aki told us "I really enjoyed building the cat house."  Then we had to explain why we were snickering. 

Twenty years in the US and he hadn't heard that word before?  But I'm not too surprised. Aki is a clean living sort except for his cigarette habit.  "You know why I smoke?  I don't drink, I don't do drugs, I don't eat meat.  I don't watch TV.  I don't have a girlfriend.  If I didn't smoke, my life would really suck!"  Every day, Aki walks 15 to 20 miles.  He's built long and thin.  Kind of like a cigarette.


*yes, same name as the Mexican grocery store.

02:25 AM in Mexico, Quotables | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The very rich are enormously resentful of bad weather"

Waiting out a rainstorm at the Super Aki grocery store ("¡Cuesta poco!") in my new neighborhood near Parque Santiago, Mérida.

The folks here seemed pretty patient -- even the hot dog guy whose cart you can see in the distance.  Still, I had to think of a favorite passage from The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, by Roald Dahl:

Henry_sugar One summer weekend, Henry drove down from London to Guildford to stay with Sir William Wyndham.  The house was magnificent, and so were the grounds, but when Henry arrived that Saturday afternoon, it was already pelting with rain.  Tennis was out, croquet was out.  So was swimming in Sir William's outdoor pool.  The host and his guests sat glumly in the drawing room, staring at the rain splashing against the windows.  The very rich are enormously resentful of bad weather.  It is the one discomfort that their money cannot do anything about.

As the story continues, Henry finds himself stuck in Sir William's library where he finds a slim book that teaches him how to develop the extrasensory powers of a yogi. 

I love this story along with five of the six* that appear as a collection in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar -- And Six More.  I think you might enjoy reading it.  You might even develop the extrasensory powers of a yogi.


*The sixth is much too sad and violent for me.

01:24 AM in Mexico, Quotables, Reviews | Permalink | Comments (3)

Feb 04, 2008

Dos Pies y Dos Hamacas

Two feet and two hammocks. 

I notice that it's 68 and partly sunny in NC today.  So don't be a hater.


Photo from the "Hamacas Lounge" at the Hostel Nómadas where I spend social evenings, and where I sometimes take an afternoon nap.  There is a nicer hammock about ten feet away from this pair, but the tree it's under has all sorts of pods that do a "Divine Wind" attack any time there's a breeze.  So I avoid that one.  It's hard to relax when you know you're going to get popped on the noggin at any moment.

Last week I was napping in yet a different hammock (near the mixed dorm rooms) when I heard an urgent whisper from ~15 feet away.  "Magda[!]" "Magda[!]".  I woke myself up and turned to see a woman's wet head poking out from a shower closet.  "Can I help you?" I asked.  "Yes[!]  I forgot my towel in the dorm and my friend Magda seems to have gone away.  Could I ask you to...?"

So of course I did.  And let this be a lesson to us all: it's good to speak four languages.  (Not me, silly, the shower girl: an Israeli named Nirit.)  Nirit speaks Hebrew, French, English, and Spanish.  So even if I were some traveler from Haiti or Panama, she had a decent chance of getting dry without getting a reputation.

04:59 PM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (5)

Martina's Moods in Mexico

Someone at the hostel asked me, "Do you know where Martina is from?"


So of course all things are relative, but let me tell you, Martina can be dour.  She's from Germany, about which she has mixed feelings.  When she's home she spends a lot Cuban and Dominican men who she can dance with.

Yesterday we were walking past some bands at Carnaval (which she constantly mocked throughout the two-hour parade we had just watched), "Well, four more weeks of this.  Then back to Germany.  No more happiness.  No more smiling."

Smiling?  That expression on her face has been "smiling"?!  Dang, I'd hate to wonder what she's like at home.

But in any case, she was talking with one of our Mexican friends who wants to move to the US because there are more opportunities.  Said Martina,

"Don't be like everybody in America and Germany and other places like that -- all confused.  They have too many choices and they don't know what the f*** to do.  Here, people are HAPPY."

The grass is always greener...

12:26 PM in Mexico, Quotables | Permalink | Comments (2)

Jan 31, 2008

Five-Dollar Words and the Foreign Currency Exchange

Pleasant surprise: all my big words are once again useful.

On the advice of some good teachers, I've spent the last decade trying to use smaller words instead of bigger ones.  Anglo-Saxon instead of Latinate.

The results have been good, I think.  I don't get lost as much as I used to.  Nor do the people I'm talking with.  And fewer people notice when I'm being a snobby ass.

That said, my time in Mexico -- learning to speak Spanish, or speaking in English with people whose native language is Spanish, Italian or French -- has been a great chance to bring back the Latinate.

After talking with dozens of travelers, I've come to realize that a Romance-language speaker with limited English can understand me more quickly when I say say "accelerate" or "melancholy" instead of "speed up" or "sad". 

And if I have to guess what the Spanish word is for "light," I do well when I go long and guess "iluminación".  Looking for someone's "home"?  Get it right with "residencia".  Same for "snobby" when I try "pretencioso".  See how easy it is? :-)

Just don't try it with the Germans, Austrians, and Swiss.  Ist nicht gut, this metodología.


As for the Australians and the English, skip the words and give them a beer.

12:49 AM in Mexico, Words | Permalink | Comments (5)

Jan 30, 2008

Lonely Planet -- A Different Kind of Bible

Lonely_planet_mexicoDefinition: A hostel is a place where people gather to read their copies of Lonely Planet.

The Lonely Planet - Mexico is by far the most popular guidebook on the Yucatán hostel circuit.  I think I've seen ~12 copies of the Lonely Planet guide (in English, German, and Spanish), one copy of another, German-published guide (sorry I can't remember the name), and to my surprise ZERO copies of the Rough Guide - Mexico or the Rough Guide- Yucatán.  (And zero copies of the Lonely Planet - Yucatán.)

It's fair to say that the hostel set treats the Lonely Planet as their Bible.  "Yeah, we [stayed at, ate lunch at, went hiking to...] such-and-such-place -- the Lonely Planet said it was a good [hostel, restaurant, archaeological site, etc.]"  World travelers may want to think they're different from their neighbors-who-stay-at-home, but when it comes to travel guides, they seem to be a very orthodox bunch. 

Mind you, it's an intelligent orthodoxy -- the Lonely Planet writers really know what they're talking about.  But for me and a few others, it's become a point of pride to do at least some things that the Lonely Planet didn't tell us were a good idea. 

Call us stupid.  Call us stubborn.  Just don't call us obedient when we walk ten extra blocks to use a different ATM than the one that Lonely Planet pointed out was right next to our hostel.  You know -- the one we're staying at because the Lonely Planet said it was great.

In any case, let me quote another definition, whose source I cannot remember:  "A tourist is a traveler who doesn't look like he's traveled very much."  And to quote Ron White once again, "I told you that joke so I could tell you this one."

A tourist reads Frommer's
A traveler reads Lonely Planet
A sophisticated traveler reads Lonely Planet, but only by flashlight, under his blanket.


*Book whore that I am, I've read or owned all four of the Lonely and Rough books for the Yucatán and Mexico but for whatever reason I'm only traveling with the Yucatán pages of my Lonely Planet - Mexico on this trip.  Lonely Planet make some very sturdy books.  I cut the Yucatán section out with a very good bread knife, and the half-book I've been traveling with is holding together very well.  A lot of other paperbacks would fall apart if they didn't have their complete spine and jacket.  Kudos to the Lonely Planet folks for their bookbinding skills.  Word to the wise from my Australian pal Kristina: Lonely Planet pages do not make good rolling paper for the ganja.  Too thick.  Too sturdy.

02:06 AM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (7)

Campeche Parque Principal -- from the Monkey Hostel


In search of cleaner air and some trees, I spent the weekend in Campeche on the Gulf Coast -- 2-1/2 hrs by bus from Mérida. As the Lonely Planet guidebook says, "Campeche is just so... pretty."  They're right.

I stayed at the Monkey Hostel* whose porch and rooftop views are ridiculously sweet.  The hostel also made me think of my Durham pal Jenny C., whose Most Important Question to new friends goes more or less like this:

"Moral and financial considerations aside,** if you could have an equally trained monkey or robot as your servant, which would you choose?  And why?"

I asked some of hostel friends. 

"Monkey!" said Helga (from Bologna).  "I hate robots.  They freak me out."

"It depends," said Mirko (from the Czech Republic***), "I think monkey because you could be friends.  But only if he wanted to work for you and if you could give him a better home than he would have if you didn't give him a job.  Otherwise, it's better to let him be free."

"I think monkey," said Mirko's girlfriend, Katy (from Slovenia).  "But monkeys can be hard.  When we were in Indonesia, we met a very sweet young monkey that lived at the hostel.  The little monkey sat by Mirko's shoulder while Mirko was reading late at night.  And when Mirko got tired and his head bent down, the monkey was also tired and leaned his head onto Mirko.  And when we went to bed, the little monkey slept in between us, just like a baby.  It was very very sweet.  But in the morning?  Oh, man, the monkey got up early and he was just crazy.  He wanted to play with everything.  He was grabbing things out of our luggage and all around the room and was throwing it everywhere.  We had to throw him out.  Crazy monkey."


*Click for the Monkey Hostel reviewed in Czech HostelWorld.com, in honor of Miroslav.

**See first comment for important correction/comment from Jenny.  Apparently I am so moral that I couldn't help but include the qualification.  But I'll do better in the future :-)

***Mirko noted, "Hey -- 'robot' was invented by a Czech!" My NCSSM friends who remember programming "Karel the Robot" might remember the origin, too: http://www.robotics.utexas.edu/rrg/learn_more/history/. 


01:13 AM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (3)

Jan 28, 2008


Last night I was out with my new Austrian friend V__.  We were walking down Calle 60 when one of the street vendors called out, "Hola!"  He was a 60-something Mexican in a white guyabara, with two boxes of fake Cuban cigars tucked under his arm for sale to gullible tourists. 

To my surprise, V__ ran over to greet him with a hug and two kisses (one on each cheek).  She apologized in her broken Spanish for not seeing him the day earlier when they had made plans to meet.  I can't remember what excuse she gave him, but here is the real story which she told me as we walked away:

"Do you know the word, what is it in English, 'shaman'?", she asked.

     "'Shaman?' Like 'witch doctor'?"

"Ja, that is it.  Well some days ago, I saw this man on the street and he started to talk with me.  He told me he was a shaman, which I thought was interesting so we talked for a while.  He asked me if I would like to see the town with him on Saturday and I said 'Yes'."

"After some time, he put his hand here my upper arm.  I was wearing a shirt with no sleeves and so he could feel my skin.  He said, 'You are 33 years old.  You are doctor.  And you are from Europe.'"

     "My God..."

"Ja.  Mein Gott is right.  How would he know?  Everyone here thinks I look 25.  No one knows what I do for work.  How would he know?  The whole thing was so weird...  I didn't want to be around him again, so I didn't show up for our appointment on Saturday."

I wondered how a person with such magical skills would be poor enough to need to make his living by huckstering idiot tourists.  But doesn't it seem like all the seers and healers of lore are poor?  V__ says that the shaman makes a little bit of living from telling futures for housewives and other people.  But not much.  The rest, I suspect, comes from the tourists.


If you read a lot of older literature (think of Victor Hugo), you are familiar with the practice of referring to people by "Mme. D_____" or "Count _______ from a certain area in Germany." 

The custom, I gather, was intended to preserve people's privacy by not writing their entire name.  I promised this same practice to V___, who still has a medical practice in a certain large European town, and who has some credibility to maintain.  Like me, she believes that the supernatural ought certainly exist, but that it would be nice if it kept its distance.

10:07 PM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (3)

An Accumulation of Generosities

For the most part (but not always), travelers are people out of their regular element.  Away from their regular pile of resources.  And regularly in need of some small thing that would make their lives easier.

In the two weeks I've been traveling, here are some of the things I've seen given, often by strangers:

  • hugs to the stressed
  • 2-1/2 hours of internet credits at a hostel
  • a pair of contact lenses with a close-enough prescription (with reciprocal thanks via a plate of pasta carbonara)
  • written advice on travel to Cuba ("The airlines require that you know in advance where you are staying.  If you buy your ticket at the airport but don't have a hotel already booked, they will force you to book a room at someplace expensive.  If you use a travel agent, they will give you a fake listing for the airline.  Then you can just find a cheap place when you get to Havana.")
  • an offer to mail you a camera from the US where they're cheaper
  • a walk home at night
  • an invitation to a solo diner to join the dinner party at a nearby table
  • a late night beer; and a banana and some orange in the morning
  • interpreter services for an apartment-hunter who speaks poor Spanish
  • coins to a beggar*
  • a lesson or two (or three) on how to negotiate the bus system
  • instead of directions, a car ride to where you're trying to go (when you've failed to negotiate the bus system, despite the lessons)
  • the home phone number of the guy who sold you a mobile wireless card ("because everybody needs a friend in town.")

The list will grow. 


*a traveler also, I have to think.

09:29 PM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (0)

Jan 25, 2008

Los Guanacos -- Cocina Economica, Mérida


Lunch at the cocina economica* "Los Guanacos".  Owner Fernando is at center.  The other two caballeros are guys who I happened to share a table with.  Don't ask me how it happened, but we had a little music session while they were waiting for their food.  The guy in the plaid shirt was absentmindedly plinking out a beat on the tab of his Coke can and I reflexively started blowing across the top of my bottle of Diet Coke.  When I  started blowing the rhythm of "Oye Como Va", the guy on the right exclaimed "bosso nova!" and joined in with a spoon on the salsa bowl. 

We had an OK trio for a moment or two.  Their food came right around the time the guy in plaid lost the beat.  "Sin metrico," was the comment from the guy on the right, I think.  Anyway, Mérida is a friendly town.  And I like the food and company at Los Guanacos enough to have eaten there three times in four days.  These guys are having the grilled chicken with vegetables, rice, and some kickass black bean soup for ~$2.15 US.  Fernando says "tomorrow there will be fish."


*Cocinas economicas are "hole in the wall" restaurants that usually seat from four to ten people.  Most offer two or three set lunches that change daily. Los Guanacos is a little bigger than most: they also offer a few regular sandwiches.  Want to come?  Los Guanacos is on Calle 47 between Calles 60 and 62.  Open for breakfast and lunch five days a week.

Last weekend, Hostelman David and I had lunch at an eight-seater that offered just one choice on a slow weekend day: fried chicken, rice, and some beans.  While we were eating (and for a while after), the owner leaned across the counter and told us a long story about her family.  I didn't understand a word, but she addressed herself to me just as much as she did to David.  (Apparently you can't tell that other people can't understand you if you never stop for a breath.)  Eventually, David made an excuse that I needed to get to an appointment.  I guess the story was even less interesting if you understood it.  But the chicken was great, as was the homemade salsa.

01:39 AM in Mexico, Reviews | Permalink | Comments (6)

Jan 24, 2008

Egalitarianism and the Eagle

Gettn I may have mentioned elsewhere that despite our many faults, Americans should be praised for at least attempting to be a non-racist society.  "Educated" society (and government officials) in many other supposedly civilized countries are perfectly happy to express a blanket hatred of whole populations, whether they be Kurds, Turks, Kenyans, or Belizians.

My Mérida pal David has spent many years in the US, and he told me tonight, "One thing that place taught me is that everybody deserves respect.  No one's better than anyone else just because of the color of their skin."

Race portrayals in Mérida aren't politically correct, by 2008 US standards.  Arabs and Dark-skinned Africans are portrayed in caricatures like we might have seen in the US some 40 or 60 years ago.  Mind you, the US doesn't treat all groups equally.  I haven't seen the South of the Border billboards in a while, but I know it wasn't long ago that they were still riffing on the "Pedro says" grinning Mexican.  (Anybody remember the Frito Bandito?).  Today I saw a billboard that reminded me of Pedro.  The ad was for a Chinese market and had a big painting of a grinning Chinaman (slits for eyes, of course).  In quotations at the bottom,


The joke, for those who don't speak Spanish, is that the words are supposed to be "Productos Chinos.  Precios Bajos" [Chinese products.  Low prices.].  In any case, I'm proud that my Spanish is good enough that I got the joke.  Which reminds me, seeing how this is basketball season: my friend Amandeep SWEARS TO GOD that when he was at the Duke-UNLV game in some early 90s NCAA tournament, an Asian UNLV fan was chanting, "LE-bers! LE-bers".  He swears.  To God.


Photo yoinked from Bathwater Productions, San Francisco.  Remind me to tell you sometime about the book Marya.

01:07 AM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (3)

Jan 22, 2008

Scandinavia -- Siblings, Rivals, and Foes


When I was planning my trip to Mexico, I thought I'd avoid staying in hostels because there would be too many excuses to speak English, which would shortchange my "being in Mexico" experience.  But I've since realized that a great richness hostel life is meeting cool people from all over the world.*

Yesterday I hung out with Annalee and Andreas, two very nice folks from Sweden, and we talked about Scandinavian relations.  According to Annalee, the Swedes and Norwegians are much like siblings when it comes to national pride and identity.  In sports, Swedes will cheer for any Swedish team against any Norwegian team.  But in international competition not including a Swede, they'll cheer for a Norwegian team over anybody else.  But screw the Finns.  And the Danes? Meh. "They are more Continental, anyway."

My cousin Bent is Danish and when I visited him in Copenhagen some years ago, his national pride was easy to notice.  Give him half a chance to point out a famous Dane and he'd do it.  "Do you Karen Blixen, who was also known as Isak Dinesen?  She was born near here.  She's Danish, of course."  "And do you know your American olympic team's men's soccer coach?  He's Danish."  "Oh, the inventor of [some important gizmo]?  Everyone thinks it was a Swede, but that guy stole the technology from the true inventor [Mr. So and So] and he's from Denmark."

I once read in a travel guide that there were three steps to making friends with a Dane.

"What are they?", Bent asked.

"Step 1.  Buy him a beer.", I said.


"Step 2.  Make fun of the Swedes."


"Step 3.  Buy him another beer!"

"Yea, that's true!  That will work!"

Annalee and Andreas agreed. "Yeah, those Danes -- they like their beer."

Pamela from Saskatchewan asked if Annalee and Andreas knew the show A Prairie Home Companion which features a lot of Minnesotans with Norwegian blood. They didn't know Garrison Keillor's show, but they loved the hell out of Fargo.  "And you know the actor Peter Stormare? [the guy who shoves Steve Buscemi into the stump grinder]  He's from Sweden!"

In this moment, I wondered if Pamela and I were being too quick to buy the idea of Swedish and Norwegian solidarity, so I told this story:

Some time ago I worked with a Minnesotan named Ron Berglund.  Thinking of a Prairie Home Companion, I wondered if his family heritage might be Norwegian.  But not knowing how Swedes or Norwegians get along, I treaded lightly.  "Say, Ron -- where's the name 'Berglund' from?"

"We're Swedish," he said.  Vociferously.

"So... I was wondering... how do the Swedes and Norwegians regard each other?"

"Do you know what we do with retarded people in Sweden?"


"We send them to Norway." [pause] "Where they go to work as TEACHERS".

So.  Somehow, I wonder if the rivalry is stronger in Minnesota than it is in Scandinavia?  Perhaps in America, the Swedes and Norwegians have to do everything they can to not get lumped together by the rest of us who can't tell a Lundberg from a Lindqvist.

A related last story from Scandinavia:  In the mid-80s, my Indonesian grandmother died while visiting my cousins in Copenhagen.  According to my cousins, the Indonesian ambassador was just horrible when they asked for help in processing the paperwork to get my grandmother's remains back home.  The ambassodor seemed to make every possible effort to distance herself from any Indonesian in Denmark.  Why? I'm guessing that the ambassador was doing what far too many representatives of a lower-status group do when they enter the circles of a higher-status group: they start looking down on the folks they came from.

A few years later, our family and the by-then-former ambassador ended up on a long vacation together in the Ujung Kulon Indonesian wildlife preserve.  My Danish cousins and the ambassador managed to avoid each other in even the smallest spaces -- like the tiny boat that took us to and from the camp.

All of the above stories, by the way, are just a preface** to something Valerie made me think of just now.  This year in basketball, I'm cheering for NC State over both UNC and Duke.  And UNC over Duke.  And any of them over anyone else in the tourneys except for whatever Ivy team gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.  And Davidson, which seems to show up year after year.


*Every one of whom wants George W. Bush out of the White House.  Now!

**As Ron White once said on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour:  "I told you that joke so I could tell you this one."

Map courtesy of freeworldmaps.net

09:39 PM in Mexico, Misc.Blog 2007 | Permalink | Comments (6)

Servicio y Ducha


Bathroom and shower.  They don't call these apartments "efficiencies" for nothing.

For science geeks: this place would be great for studying the distribution of flies near a wet area.  Shower drain at the corner of your x, y and z axes.  Black flies.  White tiles in a grid.  Easy to count!  Easy to remember that d = sqrt (x^2 + y^2 + z^2)!

08:27 PM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (1)

Jan 21, 2008

"Departamentos Amueblados" ["Furnished Apartments"]


Welcome to my home for the next few weeks!  Small and dingy but more than serviceable, with ~180 square feet of bed, desk, cooking space (that's a two-burner gas stove at the far corner), and a combination bathroom/shower.  $170 for one month, including utilities and "cleaning". 

I'm very lucky to have found this place, which is only six doors down from  the Hostel Nómadas where I've enjoyed the last week.  I think I have the best of both worlds, now: a quiet and cheap place to work and sleep, with a great social life just steps away.*

While inquiring, I asked the owner if I could have guests over.  She said, "Bueno. Pero, NO MUJERES!"  ["Sure, but no women!"]

"Let me tell you why," she continued:

Here is the story as interpreted by my new friend David, the hostel manager who was kind enough to help me find this place:

"A couple of years ago, a young lawyer was renting one of my apartments.  One afternoon he brought his girlfriend over.  And then her husband showed up.  With a pistol.  He didn't know which apartment they were in so he came looking for me at the office. 

The first door {like a screen door, but with iron bars for security} was locked, so he couldn't come in.  So he just yelled at me, demanding to know which apartment his wife was in with the [expletive-deleted] lawyer who he was going to kill.  I told him, 'no way, I'm telling you.'

All the while, he was yanking at the door with his left hand while threatening me with the pistol in his right hand.  He had shoved it through the gate so he could wave it around at me with more vigor.  But I am brave. 

I walked closer while we argued and then I struck him in the arm so hard that he dropped the gun onto my living room floor.  After that, he wasn't so tough.  We exchanged a few more words and then he left.  And that's why NO WOMEN."

The owner is a former schoolteacher who retired after working for 70 years.  As the Blues Brothers and now this cuckold know, you don't mess with old schoolteachers.  Still, my heart kind of goes out to the guy.  First, his wife cheats on him.  Then he gets disarmed by a 90-year-old.  That's gotta hurt.


*I found this place after apartment-hunting for four hours all over town with my new friend David, the Hostel Nómadas manager.  The first place we visited was a very pretty little apartment about a half-mile from the town center.  I loved it but wanted to see other places before deciding (you know, there's always something better somewhere else...)  After visiting a few others, it was clear that the first place was the best, so we trotted on back just in time to meet the new people who had snagged it while I was out being fickle. 

Still, I'm glad we saw them all.  I wouldn't appreciate this apartment as much if I hadn't seen how much the other ones cost, or what they were like, or how lonely I'd have likely felt staying in those places that didn't have a great social life on the same block.


09:43 PM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (2)

Jan 20, 2008

Mirrors -- Hostel Nómadas, Mérida, MX


Above, a photo from my first night at Hostel Nómadas, with an overcast sky which I am told is infrequent.  The sky is colored by the lights of a large radio tower two blocks to the north.

Details to note: (1) the round window at right goes to the room I stayed in from Tuesday through today.  (2) At lower left, you're not looking through an arch at more sky, but instead at the top of a large mirror -- the kind you might see in a ballet studio. I think that the hostel's owner (Don Raul, from Venezuela) installed it for their regular salsa lessons. 

Que dice? Salsa lessons at a hostel?  For sure, Hostel Nómadas has a reputation for being more fun and more communal than any other hostel in Mexico. But despite the salsa lessons (and live trova music), the place is far from fancy.  I suspect that the mirror was one of Don Raul's momentarily quirky decisions, rather than one part of an effort to make his a hostel luxe.  In any case, it is a unique attraction.*

I mention this mirror for other reasons, too.  In Blue Highways, William Least Heat Moon reports on a lesson he learned several months into his trip around the country's back roads.  I don't have the exact quote** but the essence is this: he never felt so low as when he realized that in all the time he thought he'd been seeing new things, he was only seeing himself reflected in different surfaces.

Today at breakfast I sat with two other 40-somethings: Olivier (from near Fontanbleu) and Josefine (from Hamburg).   Josefine works with foster children in Germany.  Olivier does... something else, we don't know what.  Earlier in the morning, Olivier had walked by several beggars without stopping, but one last pair of beggars somehow struck him so forcefully that he had to give.  He tried to tell us about them but had to stop because he was starting to cry.  He paused for a moment to recover his composure, and then he added, "...and everything is perfect." 

"Olivier, you are Buddhist", I said. 

"Yes," he replied.  "Or, well, something very much like that."

"What the hell are you talking about?" asked Josefine, and so began a long conversation about Buddhists, Quakers, poverty,  Samaritans, work and money.  And vengeance if someone should kill or hurt one of your family.  Olivier and Josefine talked and argued for at least a half hour. 

Josefine didn't want to hear Olivier's point of view (except she did).  And she didn't want to share her point of view (except she did).  Josefine accused Olivier of having philosophical contradictions.  Fortunately, she also recognized that she has behavioral contradictions.  I mostly listened and tried to absorb their viewpoints instead of comparing them to my own. 

Question: Can we ever see things for what they are instead of for how we react to them?  I once talked with a travel-writer friend about how people talk about their trips to new places, and how we wished that they (and we) would try to talk about about places for what they are, instead of how they compare/contrast with other places we (or our audiences) already know.

This is not easy, of course.  When I see small towns in Mexico, my mind quickly frames its impressions with what I've seen in the Philippines or Indonesia, ("Oh, this is like the town Mom is from, except for in Tarlac they tend to use cinderblocks instead of poured concrete for the small houses."). When I walk around Denver, it's hard not compare/contrast its proportions and neighborhoods with the ones I walk in San Francisco, the only other big American city where I've spent a lot of time on foot.

Olivier said something like, "the things you see on TV aren't real.  When the news shows package the images, the timing, the music, the emotion -- that's a made up thing.  That's not a fact.  I want to get my news of the world by seeing it in people, one by one, face to face."  Somehow I think this is relevant.  To what?  I'm not sure.  Maybe it's relevant to this first week's installment of what may end up as a "travel blog" (whatever that is).  I'll try not to "package" it too much.  Olivier might be right.  And he might be reading.

Hasta pronto.


*I fully recommend the Hostel Nómadas for your next stay in Mérida. Some of the other hostels have more amenities or are in more elegant buildings (Hostel Hobo is almost stunning -- it made me think of the place where the English Patient finally died, with Juliette Binoche's character swinging through the air on rope held by her dearest Kip). But from my brief visits, they don't seem nearly as amicable.  FYI: the swimming pool is currently offline but is supposed to be ready by March.

**For his vade mecums, William Least Heat Moon chose Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Neihardt's Black Elk SpeaksEn este momento I wish I had brought Blue Highways with me -- not only for the reading, but also so I could have given you an exact quote.  Instead, my carry-withs are travel guides and Spanish language textbooks, including the almost perfect*** Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish by Joseph Keenan.**** Those, and an issue of Friends Journal on Quakers and Money.

***It lacks an index.  But I'm writing one into my copy.

****Of note (at least to myself) in these two choices -- by "coincidence", I wrote about them in some of my earliest blogs at the Archer Pelican, way back in the winter of 2003/2004.  And look, here they are, together again.  William Bridges wrote (in Transitions -- Making Sense of Life's Changes), "Rule number one: When you're in transition, you find yourself coming back in new ways to old activities."

11:19 PM in Mexico, Reviews | Permalink | Comments (4)

Jan 18, 2008

Saludos de Mérida


Greetings from Mérida, MX.

I don't mean to turn the Archer Pelican into a travel blog for the next two months, but I will say this: I am experiencing the expected travails of travel.  I'm only glad that I have two months to enjoy getting to know the Yucatan.  I'd like this to be a trip, not just a visit.


  • It's hot here.  And muggy.  And sometimes breezy.  Kind of like being at the NC beach in summer, with a lot more diesel exhaust.
  • I'm fighting the urge to eat seven meals a day -- there's so much good food.  Yesterday I had a variety of seafood tacos in a small, folding-chair and plastic napkin-holder place that once hosted Pope John Paul II.  The wall art includes at least one photo of the Pope's visit, several pictures of the owner in his younger, body-building days, and at least one large print that looks like an old movie-still with a semi-nude teenage girl.  Go figure.
  • Today I got a local phone and mobile internet service (see photo above) for, in theory, best as I could understand, 2 months.  It only took 5 hours and $250.  Does that sound like a lot of money?  Yes it does.  And a lot of time?  That, too.  But I wasn't in a hurry and everybody was nice.  It's good to not be in a hurry.  And hell, the service is called "BAM".  That ought to be worth at least $50.
  • Spanish lessons start tomorrow.  2 or 3 hours a day at $11 an hour with experienced teachers.  I'm looking forward to recovering what I lost and gaining something new.  One good thing is that most folks in this town don't speak English.  I'll practice lots.

Hugs to anyone reading this, and even to some who aren't.

12:28 AM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (9)

Dec 12, 2007

Mérida Mexico - January 8 to March 11

Today I bought my plane tix to Mérida -- $580 on Continental to get me to and from 9 weeks in the Yucatan.

I'm hoping for a good trip, of course -- language classes, Yucatecan food, warmth, travel in Mexico and Central America, goofing around in Mérida (and on the beach at Progreso) with locals, ex-pats, and visitors...  The biggest thing, though, will be figuring out whether I can keep my business running via telephone and internet.  I've been making some changes to my business model during Fall 2007.  This trip will force me to make all the changes I need to.  And if it works, I may end up traveling the remainder of 2008.  We'll see...  Wish me luck.


map: travelyucatan.com

11:09 PM in Mexico | Permalink | Comments (6)