The swine flu

One thing I learned in Mexico City is that cab drivers are a really cool source of information.  So, if you need to check a pulse on the life in this grand metropolis, hop into a cab.  And here is why, my dear reader.  Tell me which of the 3 choices below seems like the most plausible cause of the Swine Flu in Mexico City? 

Swine Flu restaurant closure sign

Swine Flu restaurant closure sign

a. Mother Nature

b. President’s Obama visit

c. Mexican Government in a deal with the narcotraffickers

 

I agree with you that choice “a” appears the best explanation so far (given that we do not know much more), but not to the taxi drivers!  Both “b” and “c” were conveyed to me in confidence by my cabbies on two different occasions.  The one with the President Obama conspiracy theory, seeing that I was not smirking, retorted, “Ok, then, it must be the Electoral Commission since the elections are coming”. 

And now back to the flu.  It was an interesting experience.  It still is…but we want to believe the worst is over.   The news got to me in full force last Friday, April 24.  While we heard about flu deaths in Mexico City earlier in the week, none of us thought much of it – there are flu deaths around the world every year and it appears to be a seasonal event.  However, on Friday, everybody started running around.   I am not sure what the trigger was, but this when we started seeing people wearing face masks and looking scared.   The panic reached its peak on Sunday, April 26.  All you could read and hear about was the flu.  People’s lives were revolving around it, everybody tried to see if they knew someone who knew someone who had the flu.  Then the series of closures started – first the obviously public places, then everything else where there could be more than 2-3 people at once, like coffee shops and such.  My local Starbucks was open until the last minute and was my beacon of hope suggesting things were not that bad…and then one day even they posted a sign saying “closed until further notice”.  It was a low point for me – this is when I went to Costco to stock on food for 2 months.  (Some establishments tried to make their closure signs funny – see pic – it did not work, you know)

But everything looks better now.   The scientists have not given any signs that the epidemics has let up, but the politicians here in Mexico City are ready to roll.   And I am glad they are as it is quite impossible to live in all this suspense for so long – 10 days has drained us all and we look forward to getting back to normal.  And I can’t wait to go back to work tomorrow.

And the blogging is back!

Welcome a new day in Myanmar!

So, what do you think….I just went to WordPress.com tonight and it did not tell me that the site was blocked!  There are real changes in Burma now…or can I finally call it Myanmar, which is the appropriate name anyway?   When I came here in September, anything with the word “blog” in it would land you on a page saying it was “unavailable”.   How amazing that this is different now.  Another sign of progress I saw yesterday was a Mini Cooper….yes, among 40 something year old cars there it was, classy and daring….I wonder what kind of business the driver or his/her relatives are in to afford that here.   Anyway, this is just a short note to commemorate my “back to blogging” day.  Good night from Yangon!

Welcome to a new day here

Above the clouds in Cuetzalan

I would not have heard of this place if not for my Fodor’s guide – this location was marked with an orange star, i.e. a “must go”.  It is a 5 hour drive away from Mexico City in the state of Puebla.

From above the clouds

We passed the Popo and Itza volcanoes on the way and headed towards the Malinche volcano.  Soon the dry landscape gave way to lush forests.   As we climbed up the mountain roads, we entered ancient fern rain forests and with them the “niebla” (“fog”) wonderland.  At some point the visibility on the road was about 10 feet only.   The whole place appeared soaked and breathing, fogging the car mirrors.

The cabin we rented – Villas Cuetzalan – was literally above the clouds.  From the patio I could see the mountain ranges separated by groups of airy cotton.   There was also the sound of running water from somewhere below, beneath the clouds – a river.  I have been to a rain forest before, but this one was a cold rain forest filled with ferns and no obvious living creatures (during the whole trip I saw one bird and one butterfly).

Fog drops on a spiderweb

Next to Cuetzalan there are ruins of Yohualichan.  It does at times seem that there are ruins everywhere in Mexico.  However, these are unique in their own way, somehow cozy.    It is a very small site with distinct wall pattern.

The last adventure on this trip was the Sunday market in Cuetzalan.  I ate amazing fish and saw crabs being cooked.  Too bad I was too full to eat more.  The staples sold at this market are cinnamon and peppercorns.

Malysh was traveling with me this time – his first real road trip. Everything would have been great for him if not for the firecrackers that the local inhabitants shoot to celebrate Christmas (and most probably every other holiday).  My dog, which I regarded as brave until this past weekend, spent a whole day under the bed of the cabin shaking every time a new firecracker popped about 10 kilometers away.  I did convince him to go with us a on hike, during which I lost him once as he was hiding under a big fern when a whole grenade of firecrackers thundered near us.   Strangely for me, he was glad to return to noisy, congested, and overwhelming Mexico City.

Second trip to Chiapas

In February I went to Palenque, which is a must see in the state of Chiapas.  At that time I could not go too far south, so did not get to see San Cristobal, which also makes Chiapas famous.  So, this time around I went straight to San Cristobal de las Casas to see just that.

We flew into Tuxtla Gutierrez – the closest airport to San Cristobal – and then drove to our destination late at night.   The night drive was cool.  First we drove through some grass fields that towered above our car and then we drove on winding roads through the mountains.

Once in San Cristobal, we hired a cab to show us the way to the bed & breakfast which I reserved.  And this is when our adventures started.  We drove for about 15 minutes on narrow one-way cobbled streets, making 90 degrees turns here and there and then finally arrived at a house covered in graffiti – it had the street number of the B&B I reserved.  I rang the bell and a wild-looking man opened the door.

Dancing celebrating the Day of the Virgin de Guadalupe

He welcomed us inside of an unkempt patio and led us to our rooms.   The rooms had cement floors and lots of strange things hanging on the walls, including a picture of a naked man sleeping above the bed.  The bed was covered by a grey blanket with dark brown sheets, while an oldish TV was sporting a hot pink cover.  And it was freezing.  The room did have a small fireplace in the form of a sphere in the corner, but I did not venture to ask how to operate it.  Instead I asked the man where were the bathrooms, because those were missing from what the man was showing us.  To that, he responded that the bathroom was actually in the hallway and all guests would share it.  Very cool.  You know, if it were just me stuck in that place for the night, it would be one thing.

Streets of San Cristobal

But given that I made the reservation for three people, I felt more than horrible. Because it was late and dark and cold, all we could do was go to bed.  We froze mercilessly that night.  It was a night-long battle deciding whether I’d prefer to go to the bathroom and freeze or stay in somewhat warm bed but suffer. By the morning I had an escape plan.  My reservation was made for three nights, but there was no way any of us could stay there for any longer.  We packed our stuff and on my tip-toes I carried our suitcases out one by one to the car so nobody could see me. It was a smooth operation until I realized that nobody was watching me anyway as the guy left early in the morning.  He also left us a beautiful breakfast on the kitchen table with granola and yogurt served in half-cantaloupes.   And in the middle of eating breakfast I also discovered a card left in the center of the table written to us.  Yes, the man wrote of disappointment he noticed on our faces when we walked into the house.  He also wrote of the desire to see us happy and if it meant our leaving his place, he was totally fine with that.  He turned out to be a man with a big heart – I am sure some other people would have loved his place.

But we left.  And we left for a super nice place, rated #1 for the whole city in my guide book.  After the miserable night each of us wanted to enjoy something nice.  The new place was a beautiful colonial house, with real fireplaces in each room and in the beautifully decorated living room.  It was just like being home, with Amin making travel arrangementsfor us, Luzma cooking breakfast and Jesus arranging our rooms.  It was perfect.  To top it off, one of our rooms was on the rooftop of the building with the view of beautiful sunsets framed by flowering plants.

On the rooftop of Casa San Felipe

And 0ne of the coolest things I encountered at this place was the special kind of wood that the indigenous people use to light fires.  I lit the fireplace myself in 30 seconds using one of those sticks.  We speculated whether this wood was treated in some way to have that quality, but later were told it was special pine wood that was just grown that way.   I got some sticks with me now in Mexico City and will take them for Mom to see.

The next day we drove to San Juan Chamula – a village just outside of San Cristobal known for its strange form of Catholicism.  The main church is what we came for and it was the highlight of my trip.  The church is lit only by candles, the floors are covered by pine needles and the worshipers sit on the floor chanting in Chamula.  I saw at least one white chicken that was brought for a sacrifice ceremony.  I read the Chamulas also bring bones and other stuff – did not get to see that up close.  I also have no pictures of this cool place – the book just said “do not take pictures of the Chamula!” while one of the other guests at our bed & breakfast let us in on a story (or legend) that a German tourist was stoned to death after taking such pictures.  So we decided to not even take our cameras with us.

After the village, we went to the Canyon Sumidero.  I believe after the Grand Canyon every canyon is just a canyon.  But it was a worthy trip anyway – we got to relax on a boat surrounded by a beautiful scenery.   The guide’s idea to stop by a waterfront restaurant for 30 minutes did not excite me that much, but I wrote it off as part of being on a boat tour in Mexico.  To get back to San Cristobal we took a “libre” road that went through a dozen of mountain villages.

Canyon Sumidero

And the best adventures of all on that trip came as we drove into San Cristobal and our PT Cruiser decided to start coughing.   We let it cough for a while, but it decided to die on us anyway.  This is how I got to push a stalled car for the first time in Mexico.  Once we parked it on a somewhat quiet street, we let Hertz to deal with the rest.  I hate to think what this trip would have been like if the car decided to expire about 20 min earlier than it did.

The final point of interest was our trip to an iron-smith shop.  Our bed and breakfast had a beautiful metal cross above the mantel and I asked where it was from.  I was told this was a San Cristobal tradition to bless the houses with metal crosses, just like in Medieval Europe.  I was also told there was only probably one shop left creating such crosses.  We found the shop and I got a “cruce antigua” – it’s just beautiful.

Nica land

Just back from a 4-day trek to Nicaragua…the country which surprised me in a very nice way.   Before my trip I mentioned it to my German friend…she paused and said “the last thing I remember about Nicaragua is assembling care packages for Nicaraguan revolutionaries while I was growing up in East Germany”.   So, it made me think of my own words I had associated with that land – “Central America”, “volcanoes”, and “war”…

Concepcion showing off, stripped of clouds

Concepcion showing off, stripped of clouds

Managua: “Taxi, taxi!” – the airport was absolutely mad, but Ashley and I, always so intent on not being cheated, found a way to get a cheap taxi.  We crossed the highway and caught an unsuspecting cab.   Once settled in we realized that we had no idea of whether that kind of transportation was safe…especially after seeing that the driver was texting someone on his cell the whole time.  I totally thought he was arranging our kidnapping and started fidgeting…until Ashley noted “he has a Bible verse next to his seat”…we looked at each other and decided he was harmless.

Granada: After a bus ride from Managua in what seemed like 100 degrees heat, we arrived to Granada.  The backpacks were heavy, we were hot and we had to find the hotel where I made the reservation…but we did not make it there.  Instead, we just entered what seemed like heaven at that moment – a beautiful colonial building with A/C.  It turned out to be the Gran Francia hotel where we crashed.

Nicaraguan huge doll accompanied by drums

Nicaraguan huge doll accompanied by drums

Granada is beautiful.  To tell you the truth I did not see it right away.  But after I stopped being hot and could see, hear and smell the place, I was enchanted.  The sunsets are peaceful, the walls of the old building are colorful, and the drumming parties with scary looking huge dolls are just cool.  (I still need to read a story about their origin, but one friend says it represents a Spanish senora, tall and bossy.  The drums are awesome though.)

Ometepe: From Granada we took yet another bus ride to the “Nicaraguan crown jewel” as it was called in my travel guide – Ometepe.  Well, it was a bus and then a boat and then a car ride on a dirt road for 1.5 hours.  But we made it.   And it was beautiful.  We saw the monkeys right in the forest nearby – even a baby monkey clinging to her Mom!  We also kayaked and I should have realized that we were right by the equator and the sun would be merciless.  My 40 SPF sunscreen did not work for nothing and now I am happily burned and covered in aloe vera gel 24×7.  I also met a Russian man on the ferry who said he worked in Nicaragua on a de-mining project (I seem to meet Russians in EVERY place I visit).  The most memorable part of course was the volcanoes – they play the first parts on this island.  Actually, this is all that this island was – just 2 volcanoes born next to each other.

Little Nicaraguan with a big knife

Little Nicaraguan with a big knife

There is so much more to tell you, but I just can’t do it right…maybe later…One thing is for certain – it is a wonderful place despite the set images of Nicaragua we have in our minds.

In Buenos Aires

Here I am – in wintry Buenos Aires.  I flew in on Sunday night, came into my little hotel room and felt blah…Now I know I do not want to arrive at night anywhere anymore.   Everything just looks so dark and uninviting.   Even the airport appeard unfriendly to me – I asked an employee about an ATM and he just pointed me to the direction of an exit.  “I am definitely not in Mexico” was my first thought…a Mexican airport employee would drop everything to show me where every ATM at an aiport would be.

But on Monday morning things started looking much better and by the evening there was a siginificant improvement.   So, I was reminding myself that the way I see things depends in a big way the way I feel at that particular moment.

Everything is more expensive here than in Mexico City…and I start by comparing such things as ATM fees and taxi rides.  These two are at least double of the Mexico City rates.  Plus the exchange rate is a tricky thing here – the exact rate is 3.8 pesos for a dollar, but I, of course, divide everything by 4 for convenience and then get very surprised to see the final price in dollars on my credit card bill.  But these are just the details.

El Caminito

El Caminito

The whole time here I have been asking myself if I could live here.  And after 2 weeks of my stay I think I could but probably would not like to.   The city is livable and beautiful, but I feel very much like an outsider.   People walk on the streets with very serious faces and everybody seems to be in a big hurry to get somewhere…The cold does not help either…niether do the constant reminders from my colleagues of crime.

Here is an example of my Buenos Aires theater going experience.  First, it is important to note that the best theater here – Teatro Colon – is under restauration for an indefinite period of time.   Fine.  So I can go to another one.  For example, Teatro Liceo is one of the oldest and finest.  Plus they are showing a wonderful play – “Piaf”…and I just love Piaf.  So, I call last week to buy tickets.  They tell me – “all are sold out for the week”.   I say, “can I buy tickets for the next week then?”  “No, you need to call on Friday, this is when the tickets are “released” for the next week”.  Okay, so I patiently wait for Friday.  On Friday I call again “Can I have two tickets please?”, “Yes”…after about 20 questions, the operator asks me for my Visa card.  I say “I have  anAmerican Express and a MasterCard”, she says “No ticket for you then”.  But I am still hopeful…I run to my colleague who happens to have a Visa and call again.  After the same 20 questions, the operator asks me for my Visa…happily I read it out.   And then she says “but your visa is not Argentine…no ticket for you”.   But, I still did not give up!  Tonight I went to the theater ticket box…with cash!  And the young man in the booth told me “no ticket for you…all sold out”  I want to say this is unbelievable, but it kind of isn’t…

Sayulita beach

Perfect ocean view

Perfect ocean view

Expats here in Mexico seem to be always on a lookout for an unusual beach vacation.   Sayulita appears to be just that.   It is located 50 min drive north of Puerto Vallarta and it is a small town sprawled over hills surrounding a bay.  The biggest draw of this town are gorgeous houses for rent.  I recall seeing such beautiful homes in magazines only, but this time I had a chance to stay in one.    It had two pools (including an infinity one), palapa roofs, and all the modern amenities you can think of.   From every room in the house you could see the ocean.  

The unexpected part for me was the lack of paved roads in this town.  I packed some high heels, but they stayed in my suitcase for the whole trip.  The road to the house was a dust patch that was going high up and deep down the hill several times before reaching the house.

The town has everything one might need – we walked there for meals and for shopping.  Overall, a great vacation spot.  To plan a vacation, check http://www.sayulitalife.com/

Puebla Adventures

With Popo

With Popo

Puebla is an easy 1.5 hours drive away from Mexico City…that is if you do not get into an accident on the way.  This is what I did, so my trip took a bit longer.  Yep, two blocks away from my apartment I decided to run into a car in front of me and spent about an hour first arguing with the driver of that car and then waiting for my insurance agent.   The arguing with the Jeep Patriot driver went like this: she: “Why did you do this?”, me: “Do you really think I planned on this?”, she: “It is Saturday, we were going so slowly”, me: “Woman, let me first stop shaking and then I will explain to you exactly how I planned to ruin your Saturday”.  Then the insurance agent arrived – a decked up motorcyclist with the “AIG Mexico” lettering all over him.  He smiled the whole time he dealt with my case and flirted mad.  In about an hour, with my driver’s seat door jammed, I still decided to go to Puebla lest I sit at home and sulk the whole weekend.

Arriving into Puebla was adventurous.  One of the founders’ of the city had a brilliant idea to name the streets North, South, West and East, but then assign even and odd numbers to each street that would not follow each other and then make each street one way.   On top of it, the center of town has pedestrian streets and streets under construction, so the end result was that only one street could lead me to my hotel and to get to it I needed to get through the maze.   After about half hour of circling around the place I needed to get to and running into one-way streets every time, I decided to hail a cab that would lead me to the coveted place.  And do you think it was easy given I could not get out of my car because my door was jammed?  (I got into my car through the passenger door).  So I timed getting to a red light with a taxi stopping next to me so that I could get cabbie hear me through the window and lead me to the hotel.  It was soon accomplished and we arrived to the “Casa de la Palma”.

This hotel used to be a house of a bishop.  Our room was on the top floor – a former dancing room – so our room was huge (the biggest room I ever stayed in).  The room was full of antiques and the decoration was left from the 19th century.  http://www.casadelapalmapuebla.com/ – (check Porfiriana)

The coolest parts of Puebla for me were the Santo Domingo church where one section was completely covered in gold, and then the Secret ex-Convent of Santa Monica.  Here you can see the dried heart of the founder (!?!) and walk the rooms where the nuns used to live (including the tools they used for self-punishment). 

On the way from Puebla we headed to Cholula to see the Grand Temple and the Popo volcano.  That was grandiose – the volcano looked perfect and even spewed white smoke!  We also went inside the pyramid and I tested my claustrophobia.  The man at the front was insisting that I needed a guide, and this was the first time in my life when I was sorry I did not take one. The tunnels were 300 meters long and in the middle of them I realized that I had no idea of how to get back to the entrance when the arrows showing the evacuation route changed direction!  Later I realized that the route through the tunnel was one way only, but for several long minutes I did think I was stuck in the dark by myself.  And back to the volcano – the best view of it I caught when I was already leaving Cholula.  I was driving on the highway and Popo was shimmering in the sunlight, a side of it covered in shining ice against the backdrop of a perfect blue sky. 

And here I need to mention the worst ever speed bumps of Cholula – no matter how hard you try, you will get your car scratched. They are just half circles in the middle of the road – very annoying. 

The trip back to Mexico City was much shorter given that I had no interest of hitting anyone this time. Now I just need to find a mechanic to fix my door to get ready for the next trip.

Tepotzlan (not Tepotzotlan)

the-pyramid

The pyramid (used a lot of zoom!)

Yes, my journey began with trying to figure out which of these two towns I was actually going to.  It turned out, I was going to the shorter-named one.  The convenient thing was that one was situated north of Mexico City and another was straight south.  So south we went!

The town is known for its temple on top of the mountain.  My friend and I decided to climb it – it took us about an hour.  The hike was among the boulders and at the end the path turned into a narrow swithback.  The view from up there was nice, but the crowd we saw up there was even more fun to watch.  There were two Mexican yogis doing power breaths and standing on their heads on the side of the pyramid, there was an older American guy who we saw twice during our ascent because he climbs the mountain twice every morning (we barely made it once), and there was the ticket selling guy who proclaimed he had the best job in the world – he had to climb the mountain every morning to work at the entrance to the sacred place.  

Me at the pyramid

Me at the pyramid

Another beautiful place in Tepotzlan is the ex-convent.  The city is restoring it very nicely (while not charging anything to enter it).   The convent was apparently populated only by 2 or 3 monks at a time, but it is huge.  The highlight for me was seeing a stone sink which was delivering the used water out of the sink through the building walls and on to the gardens – I wish we were that thoughtful nowadays.  The views from the window of the convent were amazing – the monks actually built a viewing point to enjoy the stunning vistas of Tepotzlan.

Tasty Oaxaca

Chapulines

Chapulines - fried grasshoppers (a snack!)

So, here is my account of Oaxaca which I visited two weeks ago.  Because I was tied up at work upon my return, my story makes it to the blog just now. 

It was magical.  If I had to sum it up in 3 words I’d say “color, taste, music”.   The buildings, people’s clothing, food, and artisan art were all of very bright colors.  Probably the rugged landscape, lush vegetation and the sun did their part to color the place.  The food was simply amazing.  We, of course, tried all the moles we could, but beyond them we indulged in the culinary creativity of local chefs experimenting with non-traditional ingredients.  Several times I definitely felt like I was not even in Mexico – arugula with nuts and honey dressing salads and tuna tartar were a common offering on the menu in this place.  

Flower delivery

Flower delivery

And the music…there were sounds streaming from unexpected places.  A female singer with sad voice was singing a lone lover’s song one night, the other night a choir of school children was performing something very merry, and even the begging man’s accordion tune was touching.  

Oaxaca landscapes

Oaxaca landscapes

Beyond the city itself we went to see Hierve del Agua – a natural monument with a calcifed waterfall and sulfur springs.  We also saw the biggest and oldest tree in Mexico – Tule tree – that would require 47 people to be hugged.  And we also learned how the indigenous people create dies for their yarn – for example, the red color comes from tiny insects that are collected from the cactus plants. 

When we got back to the capital, people were asking us if we felt safe in Oaxaca given the recent uprisings.  Honestly, for the four days I was there I forgot the region was in turmoil.  Maybe it was because that week nothing was happening, or maybe it was really because I was in a happy tourist bliss.