Saturday, June 30, 2012


We spent last week in one of my favorite places in the world: the state of Chiapas, Mexico. Why is it my favorite? At the risk of sounding like an eight-year-old, there are a lot of animals, trees, flowers, rivers, old buildings, and it is warm. There are also a lot of different ear-pleasing Mayan languages to hear, colorful traditional outfits to observe, and inspiring locals and foreigners with whom to converse. It’s also a budget-friendly destination.

For the aforementioned reasons, last week was one of the best weeks out of the ten we have spent in Mexico. If you have not visited Chiapas, I highly recommend moving it to a higher position on your travel list. I had visited Chiapas ten years ago as a student at the Tecnologico de Monterrey campus in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. Revisiting mostly the same sites, now with Harold, was not only a lot of fun and adventure, but highlighted some changes in those places, as well as in my perspective as a traveler.

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that an extremely generous couple we met at a funeral in Juchitan, Oaxaca, had given us a ride to the capital of Chiapas: the steamy, busy Tuxtla Gutierrez. They fed us several meals, took us to another funeral, for someone they knew (a nice way to celebrate our first wedding anniversary….?), and offered us a room in their house for the night. We were overwhelmed by their hospitality. Yet, having seen most of what Tuxtla had to offer (which included a terrifying drunk girl who repeatedly accused us of being vampires and stole our tequila), early the next morning we headed to Chiapa de Corzo, a picturesque world heritage site of a town about a half hour away. Once there, we signed up for a boat ride down the stunning Canon del Sumidero, which I had not previously visited. Rumor has it that some of the locals, preferring death over submission to the Spanish Conquistadors, threw themselves into the canyon during the Conquest.

On the boat ride, we met some friendly, fun Finnish guys and ended up traveling with them to San Cristobal de las Casas, about an hour southeast of Tuxtla. We took the colectivo, which cost less than a dollar, but we had failed to protect our backpacks (strapped to the top of the crowded van) from the afternoon rain, and fresh our things were not when we arrived in San Cristobal. For some reason, we decided to walk in the pouring rain to the hostel, rather than take a taxi. I think our travel austerity measures just kicked into high gear for a moment.

As we had risen to about 6000 feet above sea level (1900 meters), it was only about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and I immediately broke out my fleece and rain jacket, and promptly developed a stuffy nose. What a change from the previously balmy weather! We were lucky enough to get a room at the beautiful hostel (with excellent feng-shui!) that the Finnish guys had reserved, and promptly tossed our moist clothing all over the room in an attempt to dry it out.

We hung out in San Cristobal de las Casas for a couple of days, strolling the streets and eating and drinking in the hostel kitchen and having some seriously fun and stimulating conversations with other travelers. The young Spaniards who were working in Mexico in order to gain experience to help them obtain a job in the brutally tight Spanish economy. The Spanish guy who lost his job, sold his house, and started traveling, as it was cheaper than living unemployed in Spain. The professional Irish couple going through the Australian immigration process. The young Welsch woman with a history degree who was considering studying nursing. The Finnish animator for the Angry Birds app. The Japanese guy who was taking a year off from his MBA at a top Japanese university to study photography in Seattle. The spirited South African couple who were traveling by land to Brazil.

From San Cristobal, we hopped on a bus to Palenque, an eight-hour ride away, to visit the jungle and the large Mayan ruins site. It was a fascinating journey through the highlands of Chiapas, where many signs were in Mayan languages, and daily life could be observed while passing on the road, as children dressed in traditional clothing walked home from school, women returned from the market, carrying babies and purchases in rebozos, or large scarves worn in sash-like fashion, and men plowed the steep cornfields with horses. After arriving at the jungle cabin recommended by the hostel manager in San Cristobal, we met up with our friend, Hiroki, who had come in on an earlier bus.

We had little time to soak in the sights and sounds of the jungle before hearing from our friends at the Canadian embassy, necessitating a trip back to Oaxaca City, and then on to Mexico City. Oh, well, we shall return, and next time venture on to the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan, as well as the countries of Belize and Guatemala, all short bus rides from Palenque. Or better yet, plan a trip to southern Mexico and come and explore with us!

There are so many pictures of Chiapas that I will just provide you with the link to our online album. Click through them one by one in order to read the captions. Enjoy!

Chiapas album

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Consult Lady Diana for 30 pesos!

Seriously. $2 for a medical exam from a competent physician at the pharmacy down the street!  Harold's  three days of waxing and waning fevers, headache and severe fatigue = probable dengue ("breakbone fever").  Fun times.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Bathroom of the week!

 “Bathroom of the week” was one of the first feature ideas I had for this blog.  What does that say about me?  Don’t answer that, please.  I find bathrooms fascinating in their diversity of structure, design, and contents, and relevant in every regard, particularly while traveling.  I had an epidemiology professor at Oregon Health and Science University, named Maria Sistrom, who said: “the way we think about diarrhea is a reflection of our culture”. 

I think this concept could be extended to bathrooms in general.  While their presence unifies humankind, their differences illustrate cultural, social, economic, and even religious dissimilarities between peoples.  The bathroom is also a place in which many travelers spend a lot of time.  I expect this topic to become ever more captivating as we progress with our travels.  According to a Current TV documentary, “The World’s Toilet Crisis”, a quarter of the world’s population does not have access to a toilet, and thus employs alternative environments to serve as restrooms.  This practice, while necessary for many, is a major contributor to the spread of disease, particularly in the tropics, and thus, should be curtailed by increased quantity and quality of bathrooms.  Viewed in this light, we should think of each bathroom we enter as an effort to improve the health of humanity, and thus, a blessing.

This week’s featured bathroom is that of the Hostal El Abuelito in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.  It is the most beautiful, soothing, and pleasant hostel bathroom I have ever encountered.  I found it to contain all of the essentials: cleanliness, toilet paper, a waste basket for the used toilet paper (most Mexican plumbing is not equipped to handle toilet paper flushed down the toilet), soap, and a sink, as well as a few luxuries: a toilet seat, water in the bowl, a shower with both hot and cold water and firm water pressure, and a humorous note.  You’ll find Harold and our new friend Hiroki pictured below, enjoying the use of the sink.  The fresh flowers are a true rarity in the world of bathrooms.  I would give this bathroom a five-star rating (out of five).

She's a grand ol' flag....

Flap, flap, flies the flag against the cool Xalapa, Veracruz, breeze.  I snapped this photo a few weeks ago while strolling around this pleasant hilly city, having encountered a police awards ceremony in the square.  

The image in the white part of the flag has an interesting story behind it.  According to Aztec legend, the Mexica tribe left its mythical place of origin, known as Aztlan, in the north of Mexico.  After roaming the desert for about 200 years, the Mexicas (who later became known as the Aztecs) looked out over lake Texcoco, in central Mexico.  On an island in the middle of the lake, they spied an eagle, holding a snake, perched on top of a nopal cactus.  They took this to be the sign from the god Huitzilopochtli that they were seeking in order to found the city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City).  

Established in about 1325, it was known as the "place of the nopal fruits", and despite its humble-sounding name, became a large, politically complex city that rivaled others around the world during that time period.  Centered in Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs conquered surrounding tribes and exacted tributes in the form of money, food, political prisoners, and the like.  In 1519, Hernan Cortes, mistaken for a manifestation of the revered Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, arrived from Spain and took advantage of some of the smaller tribes' discontentment with Aztec rule.  Forming strategic alliances, he conquered Tenochtitlan in 1521.  Many, many things happened over the next couple hundred years and the country obtained independence from the Spanish in 1810.

Elections are coming up on July 1.  There are three main political parties in Mexico: the PRI, PAN, and PRD, with the Nueva Alianza slowly gaining influence as well.  The PRI ruled the country for 71 years until 2000 when Vicente Fox (of the PAN) was elected for a six-year term, followed by the current president, Felipe Calderon in 2006, also of the PAN.  Mexican presidents serve only one term, after which they receive a lifetime monthly pension of roughly US $19,000 per month.  Hot election topics include the six-year-long war against the drug cartels along the northern border with the US, and the states of Guerrero and Michoacan, and Veracruz, as well as the widespread poverty and lack of infrastructure throughout much of the country, despite Mexico's high per-capita domestic product.  Environmental degradation and systemic problems in health care and education also concern the populace as it enters the voting booths in a few days.  There have been many efforts to combat pervasive political corruption in recent years, and as the candidates close their campaigns and the "ley seca" (no alcohol sold within three days of the election) approaches, locals worry about election fraud and possible political unrest as the results are made public.  We shall see...

Monday, June 18, 2012

Celebrating our one-year anniversary at Burger King in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, Mexico.... How romantic!

We were unable to find a wifi connection elsewhere in the city, hence our unglamorous location. 

Demonstrating the general hospitality and helpfulness typical of those we have encountered on our trip so far,  a 60-something couple offered us a ride to their hometown (which happened to be our next destination), a home-cooked meal, and a place to spend the night.  No, we didn't hitchhike: we're not that crazy;-)   We were just in the right place (if a sad one...) at the right time.

We attended a traditional Zapotec all-weekend mourning ceremony for a family friend in Juchitan, Oaxaca, and struck up a conversation with one of the deceased's brothers and his wife, which brought us to our current location.

The emotions of the weekend are somewhat soothed by the fresh, pine-scented mountain air, brilliant greenery, and the sighting of a jaguar by the side of the road!  Walking around downtown, we hear more indigenous Maya languages than Spanish, admire the jewelry vendors' amber and jade wares, and observe a relatively thriving tourism industry, with Chiapas still welcoming plentiful Canadian and European tourists. 

More photos and observations coming soon!

Friday, June 15, 2012

On the Road Again- Almost.....

Before we take off on yet another adventure, I will start catching y'all up on some topics I've left lying around in my brain, and photos lying around in our computers.  We are lying low at the moment, listening to the rain (yes, these long-time northwesterners do, in fact, miss the rain :) ).  You may wonder if we are getting sick of running around Mexico.  The answer would be a resounding "NO"!  Mexico is the ultimate playground in every sense of the word, not just in terms of "sun n' surf".  It really has much to offer anyone, no matter what your travel style or interests.  I understand that those who drop a lot of cash on hotels and fine dining are not often disappointed.  And I can tell you first-hand that those who take the "ordinario" bus and eat at the taco stands are also not often disappointed.  I am one of those people who likes to return to countries and locations I've previously visited, allowing my accumulated life experience to influence my travel perspective.

Traveling around Mexico as a 30-year-old, rather than a 20-year-old, is indeed different, although less so than I had expected.  First of all, there are the economic changes a developing country usually experiences in a ten-year span, such as much-increased cell-phone and internet use, and profoundly uneven distribution of wealth between regions, families, and individuals, resulting in significant cultural differences.  Oaxaca and Veracruz, geographic neighbors, illustrate the extremes of the Mexican wealth spectrum.  In short, Veracruz is uber-industrialized, the culture more consumption-based, and the population's purchasing power collectively higher.  Oaxaca, on the other hand, is an agriculture and tourism-based state that generates far less income for the country and seeks to maintain its cultural roots.  Thus, many other Mexicans perceive it to be overly traditional, and even backward, as they say Oaxacans are not a progressive people. 

From a foreigners' perspective, it is simply a different kind of economic development that is happening in Oaxaca.  It is slow, careful, and small-scale.  Repressed by the government, and placing little faith in the 90s concept of heading north to find work, intellectual youth are forming cooperatives to support each other, learning to grow their own food and establish local sustainable businesses, all the while running their own radio stations, news websites, workshops and national conventions to stay informed in the face of extreme political corruption on many fronts.  

As a 30-year-old woman traveling in Mexico, I expected folks would constantly ask me when I wanted to have kids, and all the details about our family planning.  I expected to be perceived as a borderline senior citizen!  I was profoundly mistaken.  There has been a huge cultural shift here in the last decade, resulting in many educated or professional people our age having fewer or no kids, or just beginning to think about expanding their families.  Not only have we been referred to as "muchachos" or "jovenes" on a regular basis, people aren't that surprised that we don't have kids yet.  Many are surprised we bothered to get married!  (Also a cultural practice on the decline.)  There are the usual American stereotypes for me to fight against, but being perceived as "old" has been happily erased from my list of concerns here in Mexico.

I should note that we are approaching our one-year anniversary on Monday, June 18.  Yay for us!  We will celebrate in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, a place I visited ten years ago and have been dying to re-experience.  At this point, I feel well on my way to developing the relationships, experience and knowledge I will draw upon in future years as I become more and more connected to this incredible country and people.  I will now share some of my favorite unpublished photos from our two-month stay in Mexico.

Not having seen each other for thirteen years, Harold and his father compare the structure of their feet.

In a photo that is both cute and morbid, a dead pig head is perfectly framed by other cuts of pork in the market.  Oaxaca City, Oaxaca.

Dressed in a traditional huipil, or embroidered tunic, Harold's mom, Lupita, leans against a cathedral pillar in Suchilquitongo, Oaxaca.  Traditional garb is frequently donned in these parts, often in combination with such modern trends as skinny jeans and wedge heels.  Makes an awesome postmodern look!

A few days after our April 12 arrival in Oaxaca, Harold, cousin Carlos and I met up with our friend Brayand's brother, Milton, and his wife, Raquel, for a lovely afternoon exploring a fancy suburb of Oaxaca City, called San Agustin.

A street scene in the historical neighborhood in downtown Oaxaca City.

I enjoy a coffee at Chocolate Mayordomo, a Oaxacan company famous for its personalized chocolate and mole, as I plan some sightseeing for our second week here in Oaxaca.  Note the contrast between my tanned hands and ghostly, SPF 50-slathered face.

Raw cacao beans.  I have yet to visit a coffee plantation, something I have been eager to do on this trip to Mexico.

The photography museum, complete with a reflecting pool!  I admit I don't really understand reflecting pools, but I know they look pretty fancy.

Depictions of the Last Supper hang in many a Mexican kitchen.  This one, involving some politicians and a representative of the Mexican telephone monopoly, Telmex, was plastered on the side of a building in downtown Oaxaca City.

Harold tries on a dreadlock wig on the patio at his mother's house.

Another street scene of buildings primarily housing cafes, crafts stores and hostels.

A succulent leaf.

Harold drinking a "vampiro" juice, which I ordered, consisting of celery, pineapple, beet, carrot, orange and apple juice.  I swear I don't hate myself... it's really tasty, and makes me feel so healthy!!!

The Palacio del Gobierno of Oaxaca City.  Quite elegant.  Latin American colonial architecture rarely fails to impress.

I am getting a little tired, so I am going to watch a couple of episodes of "Two Broke Girls" online before presenting you with more photos and commentary.  Our departure to Juchitan, Oaxaca, tonight has been postponed to 4am, due to heavy rains and dangerous driving.....

Monday, June 11, 2012

Sunday's afterparty! A roast chicken fest with live music!  Pics of Saturday's festivities coming soon.

Me with a complementary calendar from the embassy!  Y'all know I dig stuff of the complementary persuasion....

The Canadian Embassy: A Place for Friends and Fun

Wow, are we worn out! Thanks a lot, Justin Bieber.... The Biebs threw a kink in our plans today as our bus pulled in to Mexico City today at 8 a.m.  On the radio was essentially a pep rally for his concert this evening at 8:30, consisting of only six songs! Contributing to the world-class Mexico City traffic were all of the Beliebers pulling into town to get ready for the short, but oh-so-sweet (???) show.

We caught the 2a.m. bus from Veracruz after Saturday night's twelve straight hours of partying at a quinceanos (15 th b-day), and Sunday's follow up afternoon party with loads of family friends. What a great group of folks to celebrate life with!  (Even met my first fellow nurse in Mexico!)  But oh, Lordy, they wore us out!  One guy who had recently returned from a 15- year stay in the U.S. complained that the Veracruzanos "partied too much" and he just felt like getting up early and going to work.  All the partying must energize people, though, because there they are, up and at 'em at 6 a.m., heading to work at a variety of companies in the relatively healthy Veracruz economy.

We pulled into the bus station in Mexico City, in which we had been warned to "be very careful", advice which we have heeded, judging by past experiences.  But seriously, Mexico City these days seems like a Pleasantville of 20 million people, with quite a few denizens more than willing to provide directions, create space on the bus or metro, or wish us a "buen viaje" upon viewing our large backpacks.   A far cry from the 90s, indeed.

So what were we doing here? Making an urgent visit to the Canadian embassy, of course!  Having stressed out all weekend about a cryptic email we had received on Thursday requesting additional translations of documents we had already submitted, we hopped on the bus, eager to arrive and beg for the documents to be returned so they could be translated.

We arrived at the bus station an hour late, only to find one of our metro lines apparently closed, yet we weren't sure which stops were affected.  It took a combination of two metro lines, three shuttles and about an hour of walking with our packs to arrive at the embassy after the three hour journey from the bus station.  It was 1 pm, and we hadn't eaten since 7 the night before.  Tummy not happy.

Now seriously, could Canadians ( or Canadian embassy employees) be any nicer? Last time we were there, a guy who was completely disorganized with his application received a lot more assistance than he probably deserved, and an unaccompanied 90-something woman received several patient reminders about how the number-taking system worked.  Today, although the coffee machine was broken (noooooo!!!), we enjoyed a lovely chat with a fellow Skilled Workers Program applicant before we were called to the desk by one of the many friendly trilingual employees. 

After a mini conference among several of them, it was decided that the cryptic email was incorrect, and that we did not need the dreaded translations (which are a major run-around).  They even put the email in our file with a note that we had been told we didn't need to submit them.  Relief! Time to chow down on a torta gigante and a Squirt.

With no immediate need to stay in this delightful city, we await our bus to our home base of Oaxaca, leaving.... right about when our source of today's positive Canadian energy, J. Biebs, wraps up his mini concert.  On second thought, thanks for the good vibes, Justin, from a future fellow Canadian (hopefully).

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Xalapa: The Portland of Veracruz

You Portlanders know what I'm talking about: those cities that exhibit that P-town vibe, like Austin, Texas or Bloomington, Indiana.  Anyway, Xalapa is the capital of Veracruz state and we are in love with it! Yesterday we received a much-needed respite from the uber-heat in the Port of Veracruz with a two-hour bus ride to this green university town of about one million. 

We headed straight for the Parque Ecologico Macuiltepetl, or "the hill", a forested nature park housing a lookout tower with a bunch of trails leading up to it. At a mile high, walking the steep terrain was a workout, but in the cool breeze and shade, our neurons began to wake up from their heat-induced slumber, and we both felt more alert than we have in weeks.  Today I was even able to come up with a new way to combine my limited travel garments, for the first time breaking that "leggings as pants" barrier, as women are wont to do here.....

Anyway, the dirt was a brilliant rusty red color and I realized how much I had missed the tall trees and shade of my homeland. There was a really (unintentionally) disturbing fauna museum at the top of the hill, which we marveled at and then headed up to the lookout tower.  We were unfortunately unable to see Mexico's highest mountain, Pico de Orizaba, due to the haze.  The 40-something guy that operated the tower cafe had sung in a blues band in none other than our (hopefully) future hometown of Vancouver, B.C., Canada!  He was super cute and trapped us there for half an hour practicing his English and playing the harmonica for us. Might as well have been in Louisiana!

On the way down, we were disappointed to find that the anthropology museum (Mexico's second largest) was closed for the day, so after grabbing lunch, we headed downtown past numerous truckloads of the ubiquitous Mexican Marines (looking for drug trafficking activity) to stumble across yet another mini-political rally for the upcoming July 1 elections (for my least favorite of the three leading candidates). 

The downtown's tasteful, manicured cathedral was decked out with 12 flat screen TVs to enhance the Mass experience.  Overlooking much of the city was the most beautiful zocalo, or town square, I have ever seen.  Light filtered through the clouds into rays that struck the distant hills and volcanoes.  The official Veracruz government band provided the soundtrack to a flag-salute ceremony, where a hundred state police were lined up.  Teenagers in sophisticated school uniforms made out on the benches and a guy was selling balloons. A company was offering free internet in a little kiosk, where people sat peacefully awaiting their turn to check El Face, as Facebook is referred to in Mexico.

 Descending the steps toward a nearby cafe to sample some of the local coffee in this zona cafetalera, a sense of well-being came over me.  So much so that not even the terrible taste of the coffee we were served, or our discovery that we forgot to do two pieces of Canada paperwork, could completely defeat my blissful state.  The day having passed like lightning, we hopped on the "ordinario" bus back to Veracruz, grinding to a halt every few minutes as people flagged down the vehicle by the side of the road.  Arriving at uncle Victor's house at 11pm, the engineers busted out the brewskies and one of those late-night philosophical discussions ensued.

 The bright red earth contrasts nicely with Harold's blue ombre travel shorts!  The perfect color for a house.....
 A walk in the woods.

 One of many stunning flowers in the tropical dry-forest environment.

 Map of the park.

 Notable facts: The park is situated over an ancient volcano, which erupted 30,000 years ago, and it was established in 1978 as Veracruz's first state park.

A jade statue typical of the area pre-Conquest, at the entrance to the park.

 "Come!  That mysterious, calm forest is going to whisper it's secrets to you."

 A solar clock that we couldn't use to tell the time because it was cloudy.

The library.  Somebody needs to put a little funding into that thing...

 Continuing with the funding theme....  This poor snake needs a better home!

 Like I said, the Fauna Museum was most.....impressive.

 Most impressive indeed.

 Somebody thought these pictures of Finnish forests fit nicely into the exhibit about local animals in Xalapa.

 This unfortunate tethered bird looks quizzically at me.

 Smokey bear has a forest message.

 Tip for walkers:  make sure to enjoy your walk.  Cute sentiment!

 The hazy view of steamy lowlands from the top of the observation tower.  On a clear day, several volcanoes are visible.

 A monarch butterfly!

Another pretty forest flower.

 Love these!


"The forest is water, and water is life".  So true, especially in a country that is starting to experience a water crisis in some areas, including Oaxaca, as rainfall decreases and population growth puts pressure on already limited water distribution systems.

 The only sloped cathedral I've ever seen.  Love the espresso, red and gold color scheme!

 Me and the hubs, with Xalapa in the background.

 Gorgeous rays of light filtered down as the sun began to set.

Friday, June 8, 2012

American Cultural Invasion: Veracruz Edition

Like I said before, we were shocked at the high level of industrialization and diverse economic development here in the Puerto de Veracruz.  The city also exhibits some distinctly American consumption patterns amidst its myriad cultural influences, which is charming, amusing, fascinating (and occasionally irritating) for American travelers (me) and gringified Mexican travelers (Harold).  The following things strike us as particularly "American" about the lifestyle here:
baby showers
coffee to go
big pickup trucks (not for work!)  that get like ten miles per gallon
payment plans (for everything from polo shirts to laptops)
payday loans
credit cards
choosing between paper and plastic grocery bags
gift registration for weddings, 15th birthdays, etc
DVD rental kiosks (but you have to provide two character references, a deposit, and two forms of ID to join!!)
child safety tethers (aka kids on a leash)
wedge heels (ubiquitous in a heels-wearing culture such as this: they qualify as heels but are easier to walk in!)
Chinese buffets that look run-down
brownies (for sale for 12 pesos at uncle Victor's neighbor's house)
So we Americans are not to despair! We shall not be homesick here in Veracruz....

The three random photos show a KFC "Chickylandia" playground, a child on a leash at the mall in front of Sears, and a laptop in a coffee shop in the air-conditioned mall.