Friday, December 30, 2011

Guatemalan Postal Service and International Customer Service Win!!!!

Just before Thanksgiving we experienced our first, and hopefully last, equipment failure. Our SteriPEN, which is a device used to purify tap water with UV light, began giving us an error message meaning that the light bulb had failed. This bulb is supposed to be good for thousands of liters of water and we had only purified about 150. After some troubleshooting and email correspondence with the manufacturer, we determined that either the lamp had broken due to external shock, or some sort of microscopic manufacturing defect. The folks at SteriPEN arranged to mail us a new one, however given the somewhat inconsistent delivery schedules of the postal services in this part of the world, we decided to wait until we had enrolled in our Spanish school since we would have a permanent address for a few weeks. According to the tracking number that we received, it was sent from the US on December 13th. It entered the country of Guatemala about a week later on the 19th. We got it today, the 30th, perfect timing since we are leaving tomorrow! That said, now we can purify our own tap water and not have to pollute the world with tons of plastic water bottles.

In other news, we are planning to take an early morning hike tomorrow, Cerra Quemada. This area is known for occasionally being the place of armed robberies, so we wont be carrying anything of value. After our hike, we are hoping to catch a bus up to Lago Atitlan, an off-itinerary adventure, for a big New Year's party. As usual, we have no idea what we will do for accommodations, or how long we will stay, but hopefully we can find a bar showing the 49ers game on New Year's Day.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Guatemalan Christmas: A Nation Addicted to Fireworks and Rightly So

Last night was one of the most spectacular Christmas Eve's I have ever experienced!

We had previously been told that most people would go to church around 6-8 pm and that family dinner would be at midnight, along with opening of presents.  We should have expected fireworks, since kids light them in the street every night. In reality, Christmas here is like the 4th of July at Disneyland.

We spent the late morning in an Internet cafe, studying some Spanish, facebooking and enjoying some coffee.  Lunch was a little later and a little lighter than usual, and our Foster Mother, Paula, told us dinner would be at 9, then they would go to the park for fireworks, then presents at midnight.  I suppose they went to church around 6, but I wouldn't know, since I took a 4-hour nap to be able to stay awake until midnight.  I woke up around 7, and Matt and I headed to the Parque Central with Derek, another student living at the same house as us.  We had some Ponche de Leche, a warm milk drink with cinnamon, and Matt decided to buy some fireworks for later.  We wanted to light some sparklers in the park, but the wind kept blowing out our matches before they would light.  Luckily, there were some local kids, the experts, who were happy to help in exchange for a sparkler for themselves.  Not a bad deal for about 2 cents a pop (a pack of 10 cost 1.5 Q, each being 15 centavos or about 2 cents). 

Back at home, before dinner, we decided to light the Hanukah candles and also some fireworks with Paula, Byron (her husband), and Estafanie (her 11-year-old daughter).  The Cono is a cone that shoots sparklers up from the top.  There were also some that shot loud whistle-rockets and some traditional fireworks.  Of course, there were sparklers aplenty.  We used a candle to light everything since the wind prevented the matches from lighting.

Dinner was quite large and delicious.  There was chicken, Soufle de Arroz - a mashed rice and vegetable dish, cooked vegetable salad, a hot Ponche de Pina drink (sort of cider), coca cola, bread and tortillas, and Christmas cookies.  

After dinner, we had about an hour and a half to kill before presents, so we decided to head back to the Parque with Estefanie and Mio, the 4 th student living with us.  Mio is Japanese, but here in Guatemala, the locals think all Asians are Chinese (like Mexicans in LA?), so we call her la Chinita Japonesa (the little Chinese Japanese girl).  While it is usually okay with a large group, Paula was a little worried for Estefanie's safety and charged me with holding her hand to make sure nobody got away with her baby!  I guuess all mothers can be protective!  

We bought some more fireworks, including a Tank with wheels that moved when you lit it and helicopters that whizzed into the air.  We also bought something called "the machine gun" which sounds like the name as a string of crackers go off.  Our first Cono was a dud and we were very disappointed until another local park-kid asked if he could help.  He pulled a wick out of one of the machine gun packages and stuck it into the Cono and it went off!  He and his little sister, Juana, were happy to help us with the rest of our fireworks, enjoying our sparklers and all the fun.  Juana is 5 and her brother looked about 7.  At one point, one firecracker made a loud sound and Jauna sort of grabbed onto me for protection.  Being a little paranoid, I was afraid she was using it as an excuse to rifle my pockets.  But I quickly realized two things: 1) I was wearing my skirt, so my steelable things were higher on my body than where she was, 2) the things that I had in my pocket weren't of value (expired id, business cards), so I stopped worrying and we had a great time.  We headed back home for presents at midnight.  The family bought me a pencil bag made with indigenous weaving and Matt got a bracelet.  We bought the family a thermos for hot water, since their last teapot/hot water container broke and gave Estefanie a little Teddy bear mug filled with candy and a scarf.  

At midnight, the fireworks  really went off.  The whole town, nay the whole country, was lighting off all the good ones!  For a sold 20 minutes, there were huge displays in all directions from all over the city.  Just when we thought the last might be going off, a whole new batch would start up.  Some were very large, but being set off from the neighbors' back yards.  There was smoke in the air and the sounds of firecrackers, large and small, echoed off the walls for the better part of an hour.  Even after we had gone to bed, we heard the sounds of a few more fireworks being lit some where in the city.  I can only imagine this is what the 4th of July would be like if all sorts of fireworks were legal in Los Angeles.  It was just unbelievable - everyone in The city celebrating this holiday together.  It was truly unlike anything I'd experienced before.

Today, at noon, people set off more noisemakers, to celebrated Jesus's half day of life I suppose, and the celebrations continue.  Most of the city is pretty quiet and shut down, but luckily, the local Internet cafe and bar, el Cuartito is open as is a restaurant at the Shalom Hotel.  (no, it's not run by Jews - there are many businesses here with Hebrew names like "tienda el shadday" and "shalom hotel". The guatemalans are really into Hebrew, being good Catholics.  Israeli tourism has also had a noticeable impact here.  Many people have asked me if I am Israeli, when they discover I am Jewish, as they have never met a non-Israeli Jew!)

Well, Merry Christmas to all from Xela and happy 6th night of Hannukah!  

Saturday, December 24, 2011

¡Feliz Navidad!

¡Feliz Navidad! In case you are living in a cave, tonight is Christmas eve. As is tradition, we are going to eat a late lunch and then it looks like our host family is going to church until midnight when we will eat dinner and open presents. This morning we were accosted by a group of kids give out abrazos gratis, or free hugs, alhough aside from that it seems that half the city has closed down. Supposedly tomorrow the city will be completely empty, hopefully we will be able to find a Chinese restaurant to partake in the generations old Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas. For the moment Sarah and I are reading some Spanish literature to improve our grammar and general sentence structure. Sarah is reading Charlie y la Fabrica de Chocolate. I am reading El Paraíso Peridido. Although we have both learned a lot, it's pretty evident through reading that there's still a lot to be learned. Anyways, merry Christmas, happy chanukah, and we will see you next week on ShapiroAdventures!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Cuartito

The coffee shop and hot chocolating continues. Although Sarah has decided to drink tea today at El Cuartito here in Xela, the hot chocolate is good too. On Tuesday afternoon we went to a local village, Salcaja. They are known for having the oldest church in all of Central America. We also went to an artisanal distillery of Caldo de Frutas, an alcoholic fruit drink. They also infuse some of the local fruits with the alcohol which is very strong. We bought a bottle of the Caldo, which came in a re-purposed Johnny Walker bottle, for the BBQ our school is having on Friday. We visited a textile loom where women will work the loom for six weeks or so to make the skirts the indigenous women wear. Yesterday night we met up with a friend who we had met in San Cristobal. She is flying to Ecuador today, and will eventually head back to New Zealand down the road. Anyways, time to get back to the studying, Sarah is probably catching up to me by now.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Should You Find Yourself Lost in Quetzaltenango

On a rainy day, I would recommend the hot chocolate, or Chocolate Puro, at La Luna. This is quite possibly the best hot chocolate I have ever tasted. Back to the studying...

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Las Fuentes Georginas & Further Musings

Yesterday we spent the day at Las Fuentes Georginas. The Fuentes are water pools heated by the volcano near Zunil. After about 45 minutes in our Microbus Privado, we arrived at the Fuentes. There are two pools about 200 meters below the entrance that are very secluded and there was nobody there for the four hours or so that we were. We went with some of the other students from our Spanish school as well as one of the Guatemalan families who had cousins visiting from the capital. The water was very fresh and minerally. It was very soothing for the body and mind to sit in the hot water and relax. Apparently, the city girls weren't used to the altitude as one of the girls got a little sick after climbing back up from the lower Fuentes. We grabbed a quick lunch at the restaurant near the upper Fuentes and relaxed there for another few hours. One of those pools was really too hot to sit in. The water also had sort of an acidy/citrusy/sulfuric taste to it, not too surprising as it passed through a volcano on it's way to the Fuentes, which is why the water is hot. (the nearby towns have no problems with hot showers!) There are also some cabins near the Fuentes that you can rent out for about 160 quetzals/day per person and then have access to the pools at night. Coming home was quite an adventure as well, after coming down the mountain, we got hit by a big truck in an intersection in Zunil. Everyone was fine, and the damage was cosmetic, but auto insurance isn't exactly the norm in these parts. The driver ended up arguing with the other driver for about forty five minutes while we clogged up the only major intersection in town, and a crowd of about thirty people formed. After a while, the other driver seemed to give in, since he had backed into us, and we went on our way. We got home and were very tired, had some dinner and went to sleep. So here we are, refreshed, hanging out at a coffee shop with live music, studying Spanish for our upcoming week of classes.

On our way home from the Fuentes, a few of us had an interesting conversation. Here in Quetzaltenango, it seems the norm for middle class families to have a helper/maid/cook five or six days a week, yet that comes before other conveniences of daily life. For example, it's common to have a maid, cable, wireless internet, and hot water. However, despite the near freezing temperatures at night, the homes have no heat. It's interesting that here, having a maid five or six days a week is very affordable, the equivalent of a few dollars a day, yet the gas for central heat is much too expensive. It is almost the opposite in America where any home in a region that gets cold would have heat long before wireless internet, not to mention the daily help of a maid. Looks like we will be staying here in Quetzaltenango until new years, and then maybe hike to Lago Atitlan, so if you're interested, book your flight now!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Soft Drinks

Here you have it folks, a 3.3 liter bottle of Mega Big Cola, only ten quetzales, or about $1.30. This would be a Central American response to Coca Cola, much cheaper and reasonably tasty. Last night was a very busy night for the Quetzaltecos. It was a night of celebration for the Virgen de Guadalupe, which we learned is actually a celebration of a Mexican finding an image of Guadalupe in the mountains near his village 500 years ago. There was a procession through the Parque Central and enough fireworks to deafen the generation. The interesting thing about fireworks in Guatemala is that they are shot off from the middle of the street while everyone is standing on the sidewalk ten feet away. It seemed as if the trees were all going to catch on fire, yet the fire brigade was nowhere to be found. Luckily there were no mishaps and Sarah was very excited to be so close to the action. Before the fireworks we had taken a field trip to a very small village which is famous for its church "de colores." It is very brightly colored, and is the only catholic church decorated in this manner. Up the hill a little bit there is another church, but of the local indigenous faith, and it is decorated very similarly. After dinner and doing some homework we went to a local bar, Pool Y Beer, because a friend was heading back to Ireland.

This afternoon we got to teach English to a handful of children being raised by single mothers. It was difficult since they were all at different levels as well as different ages. I found it interesting that some of them were able to write but couldn't yet read. Regardless, we taught them numbers and a few key phrases, next week we might play bingo. Now it's time to get to my homework. ¡Hasta luego!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Room with a View

This is the view from our room in Xela. We are in Zona Uno, which is the good part of town, although Xela is generally a safe city. It is the second largest city in the country with about 150,000 residents. The family we are staying with just recently moved in, so they haven't yet set up cable or internet access, but it seems to be in the works. In the meantime we are doing some homework in a coffee shop next to Parque Central. The coffee is from local growers and is delicious. Last night we had a potluck with the other students and some of the teachers. Somehow we managed to bring plenty of (adult) beverages, and yet the only food was guacamole and popcorn. Eventually we wandered to a local bar and ordered some solid food to accompany our beverages. Sarah is studying irregular verbs in the preterite as well as learning some local slang like 'facebookear' while I am reviewing the difference between por and para as well as going over verbos reflexivos y cuasireflexivos.

It is a very interesting way of life here. For example, we are living with a middle class family, in a nice place in the good part of town, yet there is no heat in the house. Additionally, instead of using a water heater for showers or cooking, there is an electrical mechanism attached to the shower head that heats the water as it comes out. We had fun figuring out how to get it to work, but basically if you want cooler water you turn the pressure up and if you want warmer water you turn the pressure down. It is a much more economical lifestyle, and it appears to be more environmentally friendly. In the super market yesterday, there was cereal, but only the imported American cereals come in boxes, the local cereals come in the plastic bag that would otherwise be inside the box. Generally speaking there was much less packaging and things like mayonnaise came in bags that appear to be recyclable (though Sarah has some doubts of the air-tightness of this packaging that is not being refrigerated!). They are also a bit more relaxed about selling alcohol. For example, the last two days, after class, we have bought a hot drink on the way home, a ponche de leche. This is something like steamed milk with cinnamon, except made in a giant pot and sold in the street. Yesterday the lady asked what type of tequila we wanted in our ponche de leche; looks like liquor licenses aren't really an issue here.

Generally speaking it seems like the locals are used to having tourists and language learners here which makes sense since there are over 50 Spanish language schools. Everyone is very helpful with directions and will speak more slowly when asked (except for Estefani, the 11-year old daughter of the family we live with and who tells us to learn to listen quickly). The locals are also very helpful with advice about security and so forth, although I get the feeling that you'd basically have to be really drunk and simultaneously unlucky to have anything happen to you. Anyways, I should get back to my verbs. ¡Hasta Pronto!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

In School in Xela

Life is a learning experience. We have had our first day of school, and I definitely feel out of practice. It has been quite some time since I was in school and today started off with something of a test to determine our level of Spanish knowledge. Then we launched right into it. Sarah has apparently created an agreement with her teacher where if her Spanish improves to the point where it is better than mine, she is going to bake him cookies. Needless to say, her competitive spirit lives on. It is very intense learning a language in a one on one setting for five hours a day, but it seems to be very effective as well. I guess we will see in a week or so. The school also has activities in the afternoon, today Sarah and I took a salsa class. Sarah thinks I did an excellent job salsa dancing.

We are living in the home of one of the women who started the school. Her husband and 11 year old daughter live there, as well as another student. It provides a good environment to be immersed, and her daughter speaks even faster than Sarah speaks in English, something that was prior thought to be impossible. We have our own room with a door to the roof so we could get a tan if we really wanted to. However, Xela is more of a mountain town. We are about 2300 meters above sea level, so it gets into the sixties during the day and gets close to freezing, if not below, during the night. We would put up a picture or two, but it seems we have lost the attachment to load pictures. If we can find one, we will put them online soon. ¡Hasta luego!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Relaxing in Guatemala

Here we are in Quetzaltenango. Yesterday we checked into our hostel, the Black Cat hostel. We had a few drinks last night and talked to some other travellers. We decided to come here before going to Antigua because Antigua is farther south. This morning we had a very hearty breakfast and went to a variety of different language schools. After "interviewing" several of them we think we have decided on a school called El Portal, it is run by two single moms and is a non-profit. They also have an associated organization where we can help local kids, etc. In addition, we stopped by an English school where we may try to teach some English during our time here. All the language schools have afternoon and weekend activities, so it looks like we will be doing some salsa dancing, cooking, weaving, going to markets, and visiting sihts with local guides. It also seems like some of them have weekend excursions to other cities so we may not necessarily stay in other towns after Quetzaltenango and just go for a weekend here and there. We will also get to stay with a local family near the school which should be a learning experience in itself. We also just bought a local SIM card for our phone and received calls are free for us, let us know if you want the number.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Mexico by the Numbers

Well folks, tonight is our last night in Mexico. We have booked our shuttle to Quetzaltenango for tomorrow morning, already changed some Pesos into Quetzales, and will be saying "adios" to San Cristobal at 6:30 A.M. tomorrow. I figured it would be a good time to give a quick budget update. We left on October 26 from Los Angeles, and will be leaving Mexico tomorrow, December 5, so it will have been a total of 41 days. During this time we withdrew $2118 from our bank account. Our initial bus ticket from Los Angeles to Chihuahua cost $194, and we ended up using $68 to exchange at the border. This gives us a grand total of $2380. This figure, however, is a little misleading because it includes the cost of transportation from here to the border as well as onward transportation after we cross, but for means of simplicity I have included it as a cost for Mexico. In addition we have about 1000 pesos left, some of which has been exchanged already. Using a fair exchange rate of about 13.5 pesos to 1 USD, it means we spent about $2306 or $56 per day.

What does all this really mean? Our biggest expenses were by far transportation and then lodging. For example, our two tickets on El Chepe were nearly $150 US each! Hotels ranged from 145-300 pesos each night, with about 225 being the average. We primarily ate light breakfasts, and tried to avoid the super touristy, and thus overpriced, restaurants for lunch and dinner. That said, we ate plenty, and had quite a variety of foods. We used public transportation frequently and took night buses for the longer trips both for safety reasons and to skip a night's lodging cost. The real key though, is negotiating. In general we got anywhere from a 20%-60% discount on lodging by negotiating. Negotiation is also a must for cab rides, as well as with merchants. Had we really wanted to we probably could have kept our costs below $35/day, however we have come to enjoy things like hot water, air conditioning in hot areas, internet, etc. Anyway, I've had a touch of mezcal with my hot chocolate tonight, so if someone could check my math, that would be fantastic. See you in Guatemala!!!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Oaxaca and San Cristobal

Our last full day in Oaxaca, we went to the Museum of Oaxacan culture which is a former convent that has been repurposed.  The museum covered the many different indigenous groups that live/lived in the area going as far back as the 2nd century BC, including the Zapotecs who built the structures on Monte Alban.  There are still many mysteries about these peoples, such as why, in the height of their kingdoms glory, the great cities were abandoned and the culture suddenly disappeared.  I wasn't feeling that great, something I ate just didn't settle right, so we took it easy and walked around the Zocalo in the evening, enjoying the performance of some clowns.  On Thursday, we checked out of our hostel and headed towards the bus station, but since our bus was not until the evening, we stopped at the Textile Museum on the way, which exhibited hand-made clothing made by local people's from the 18th century though today.  The looms they use are very similar to the ones used by some indigenous tribes in Thailand!  I thought it an amazing coincidence.  We spent some time in a beautiful park in the north of the city then caught our bus.  You can read about the Mis-adventures on the bus in Matt's previous post.  The one advantage to the whole situation, to me, is that for the first time, we sat with and talked with several other backpackers from all over the world.  There's a bunch of Aussie's and folks from New Zealand, here on their summer break or doing a semester abroad and travelling at the end.  Also, some Russians who spoke little Spanish and little anything else!  Everyone was very friendly, trading stories - it was real fun, despite the huge delays and spending an extra 13 hours in transit.

Before the specifics of our day, I'd like to share my impressions of San Cristobal de las Casas, which are good.  The city is just quaint - in many ways, it makes me think of a small village in the Alps!  There was bakeries and coffee shops everywhere, as wells as wineries and restaurants, and many of the streets around the town square are pedestrian only.  The city is very international feeling, as there are Lebanese and middle Eastern restaurants, Italian, as well as traditional Mexican, all side by side, and many tourists from both inside and outside the country.  Mixed in are the indigenous people, speaking mixture of Spanish and their native language, Tzetzil, wearing handmade woolen skirts and wide belts around their waists.  The colors of the hand made crafts are bright and beautiful.  Even with all this, the town doesn't feel like a tourist trap.  Though there are signs in Spanish, English, French, and Tzetzil, everyone mostly speaks Spanish and prices, especially in the market, are some of the lowest we've seen yet.  Of course, there are some touristy restaurants that are more expensive and the tchatchkis for sale are set at prices for "rich" tourists, it still feels like a small village that we, and a couple other hundred (or thousand?) tourists popped into to, unnoticed.  Onto the details...

It's amazing how a good nights sleep can totally reinvigorate you!  This morning we woke up bright an early, and well rested, and headed to the Cafe Museo Cafe - the Coffee Museum and Cafe.  Where else can you sip your Cafe Chiapaneco (Chiapan style coffe with cinnamon syrup) as you stroll through the exhibits?  The museum is owned by a small coffee collective and it was very informative on how Europeans brought coffee to central America and how it re-shaped the indigenous life, unfortunately not always for better, from the 18th century all the way through today.  There was also a very interesting photo exhibit of workers on coffee farms - striking photos of the people and their lives.  The floor was covered with fresh pine needles, so the room smelt like Christmas!  It went perfectly with the coffee - you can see me enjoying it in the picture.

Next, we wandered north towards the central market which was amazing.  There are tons of fresh produce as well as plenty of LIVE chickens and turkeys which small indigenous women carry around for sale.  Unfortunately, not too many pictures of this area since many of the indigenous people do not want their picture taken and of course, we want to be respectful.  We ate lunch at a small stall in the market - we are at altitude here (2200 m/7200 ft) and while the sun is out and shining, it's still very crisp and chilly with mountain breezes, so we both got soup.  Matt has meatballs and I had chicken.  Even though this is not my Bubi's chicken soup (certainly no matzah balls), there is something so wholly satisfying about hot chicken soup on a cool day.  The fresh carrots, potatoes, and squash inside didn't hurt, either!  We also snacked on some fresh Macadamias and some other nut or seed tossed with chili powder and some coconut milk in a bag (Coco b'sakeet?) - all delish!

We continued north to the Mayan Medicine Museum.  It was a bit off the tourist path, but when we got there, it seemed a French couple and a large Israeli tour group were there also.  The museum is organized by a group who are trying to preserve their local traditions in healing in modern times.  We read about various animals and plants and candles that are used for their healing properties,including a garden that showed which plants were useful for what, as well as a video featuring a Tzetzil midwife discussing how she cares for a mother and baby before, during, and after the delivery.  There is some footage of her prepping the mother and cleaning the baby, but nothing too graphic.  Interestingly enough, the Tzetzil women (a direct line from the Mayan people) deliver babies standing on their knees with the father or a close family member supporting from the front and the midwife in the back, praying, using incense and heated rocks, pushing on the mothers stomach - a very different image of western hospital births - and very interesting to see.  Apparently, a breast-feeding mother should not eat avocado or onions for 3 months, according to the midwife in the documentary, as it will cause a baby's penis to swell (the video was about a boy baby).  Also, the father had to bury the placenta - face up if he wanted the next child to be a boy, face down for a girl.  

We headed next to the Mayan herbologist, to see what sort of curatives she had.  There was a local gentleman there and the two spoke in a mixture of Spanish and Tzetzil, which reminded me of Yiddish.  The Tzetzil language almost sounds like Russian to my ears!  I asked if there were any creams for scars (I am still very aware of the scare on my neck from my Mediastynoscopy in 2008), which of course there was and it is also good for burns, she said.  For less than $2 a got a small jar.  Matt asked what sort of remedy she may have for allergies.  She needed to know if it was skin or respiratory.  As Matt's allergies are respiratory, mostly, she gave him a cream also, to be rubbed on his chest or in his nose twice a day, also less than $2.  I think we're more worried that it WILL work, because if it does, we'll need to keep coming back to San Cristobal for more!  Matt then asked what kind of foods I should eat if I want to have twins, or triplets, or even quadruplets!  She thought this was very funny as did the other locals in the shop.  Though rosemary is often good for infertility, her recommendation for twins was to eat fruits that were also twins - the kind that looked like two but were stuck together - or an egg with two yolks.  When Matt pressed about quadruplets, she told him to make sure to stop at 8!! 

With our herbal remedies in tow, we headed down past the market and the zocalo to a church on the south west part of the Centro.  There were many stairs to climb up, which we took slowly, since we are at altitude, but the beautiful panoramic view from the top was well worth the hike.  (pictures on Facebook, soon!).  The churches in this area are not to be photographed, as many of the indigenous people still believe the camera may steal your soul.  It seems the locals practice a combination of their original belief mixed with Catholicism.  

We are now relaxing, taking a little siesta, but there is a Festival de Queso y Vino going on in the zocalo tonight, so we're definitely going to hit that up!  Tomorrow is market day in a nearby Tzetzil town, so that is the plan and on Monday - we cross into Guatemala!  Mexico is a very large country with so many different landscapes and peoples.  We've had a great time journeying through, and excellent first month of our adventure.  I can only wait to see what the coming months and countries will bring.  I believe we'll post some musings soon.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Finally in San Cristobal de las Casas

We have finally arrived - more than 12 hours later than expected. I am too tired to tell you about how we spent the last few days in Oaxaca, but a brief update before we go to sleep. Last night we took the nine p.m, bus from Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas, an approximately 10 hour trip. We had anticipated arriving here this morning and having a great time as they are having their wine and cheese festival this weekend. However, at about 3:00 A.M. Or bus lurched to a stop suddenly. I thought it was due to livestock in the road, which has happened before, but it turned out there was a bloqueo going on. Apparently a number of locals had rolled tires onto the road, and were sitting on them to block traffic. They were protesting some sort of grievance between Oaxaca and Chiapas. After waiting 8 hours for them to be done, we ended up getting off the bus, walking around them and getting on a different bus that was on the other side. It turned around and went to a small city in Chiapas called Arriaga. We were assured by the driver that we would be reimbursed for his fare by our original bus line(more on that later). When we arrived in Arriaga we had a few quick tacos and then waited for about an hour and a half for another bus to Tuxtla Gutierrez. Another hour layover or so and we finally caught another bus to San Cristobal. We are now experts in local geography, and needless to say we were never reimbursed for the trip to Arriaga, but our original bus line did cover our "transbordando" tickets to finally get us here. We will have to read the paper tomorrow to figure out what the bloqueo was all about.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Today we took a colectivo, a type of shared taxi, to one of Oaxaca's suburbs, Malatlan. Although this is a small town, it is literally covered with mezcal distilleries and little shops called expendios. We got dropped off on the highway and went to the first distillery we saw. There we tasted about five different varieties of Mezcal, and bought a small bottle. We decided that we probably should eat something before continuing to imbibe, so we walked into the downtown area and had some empanadas, Sarah had one with pumpkin flowers, and mine was filled with chicken in an orange sauce. The owner of the food stand that we ate at recommended another mezcal distillery about fifteen minutes up the road. We walked over a river and down the highway to arrive at El Rey Zapotec where we got quite an education. Aside from the regional differences, tequila is made from blue agave, whereas mezcal is made from green agave. The plants have to grow for about twelve yars before they are harvested. Then the bottom portion is cooked for four days over hot coals while covered in dirt. Then it is ground up using a horse-drawn cement wheel as it has been done for centuries. The ground up agave is then mixed with water and allowed to ferment. Eventually it is distilled twice, and viola, mezcal!

There are quite a few varieties of mezcal, young and old, aged in different types of barrels, etc. Some of the more interesting varieties we found were pechuga, which entails having a turkey breast in the distiller, tobala, which is made using wild agave instead of farm grown agave, and maracuya, which is passionfruit flavored. There are also a variety of flavored mezcals and cream mezcals such as coffee, cappuccino, mocha, almond, peanut, blackberry, strawberry, and many more (you can see them in the picture). We did end up buying a bottle from El Rey Zapotec, and also continued up the highway to another distillery where we tested their products and picked up a bottle. Needless to say there were many free samples at all the distilleries. (Sarah may have been a little slober.)

Coming home was quite interesting, we basically started walking back towards Oaxaca on the highway and after a couple minutes a colectivo drove by and picked us up. It was a small Nissan Tsuru (think Honda civic) and even though there was only one open seat, the driver beckoned to us to get in. He managed to squeeze two people in the front seat and we continued down the highway quite a ways. At some point the woman in the back seat next to us got out and a young man named Efrain got in. He was also heading to Oaxaca for school, studying computer engineering and also taking a class in English. Turns out he eventually wants to move to the USA and live in San Francisco and work for there, he said he was specifically studying networking and software. Finally we reached Oaxaca and the driver let us out about ten or twelve blocks from where we needed to go, for some reason there was an immense amount of traffic and we were able to walk much faster than he could have driven us. It was an interesting walk too, we picked up a sliced grapefruit that the vendor poured some chili sauce and chili pepper on, quite delicious!

So here we are, planning to go get some dinner and maybe some of the hot chocolate that Oaxaca is famous for, then drink some of that mezcal we bought!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Don't Puke on the Bus!

We are now in Oaxaca. First, let me tell you how we got here. We took a bus from Zihuatanejo to Acapulco, first class all the way. We had a couple hours to kill in Acapulco and the bus station isn't really in any particularly special place, but it was night time and we couldn't hit up the beach, so we wandered around and found a taco place. We had five tacos each (they were very small) and shared a refresco. To our surprise they were running some sort of promotion so our dinner was only 32 pesos, less than $2.50, and quite tasty. We then took the semi-directo overnight bus to Puerto Escondido where we caught a "suburban" which was basically a big 15 person van for the seven hour trek through the mountains to Oaxaca. This was an EXTREMELY windy road. I don't really suffer from motion sickness, but there were times when the repeated warning signs of curva peligrosa and camino sinuoso made me less than thrilled. Not to mention the fact that two locals, who got on the bus halfway up the mountain, and who are somewhat frequent travelers of this route, vomited for about two hours while we were driving. Luckily they came prepared with their own barf bags as the suburban did not provide them. The driver's reaction was exceptional, as he heard them, he would look back, roll down the window, and not even think about slowing down. The local sitting behind me really got a kick out of the suffering of our fellow riders. I gave them what was left in my water bottle when they got off in Miahuatlan. Luckily, we made it to Oaxaca without incident. (Sarah got the coveted front seat next to the driver with fresh air in her face - or she may not have survived!)

Yesterday, we arrived and hunted around for hotels for a little while. We decided on hotel Maria Teresa which seemed to be a good value, however we encountered three minor issues. The first was that the Internet didn't work, the second was quantity of cucarachas living with us, but what was really problematic was the bell that went off every time someone came or left the hotel. This woke us up repeatedly last night. We decided to move elsewhere this morning. After we checked in last night we wandered to the zocalo where there were two separate concerts going on as well as what was called a puppet show, but seemed to be acted by people. Possibly I misunderstood the puppet part. We had dinner which a light dinner, which consisted of guacamole and chapulines. Chapulines are grasshoppers. Yes, we ate a bowl of grasshoppers with peppers and onions. They were quite tasty.

This morning, after we found a new hostel, which so far seems fine, we had a quick breakfast of champurrada (a hot chocolate drink) and a tamale in a bolillo, sort of a tamale torta. We then embarked on a guided tour of some local sights. We went to Monte Alban, a series of pyramids, tombs, and a place where they played ball which was sort of a sunken soccer field with stone bleachers and goals. These were constructed about 2500 to 1900 years ago by Zapotecs. We then went to an Alebrijes woodshop. Alebrijes are a local type of carving with very bright colors painted on them. Some were fairly simple, skulls, small guitars, etc. Some were very intricate, two headed dragons with lizards climbing up their necks, really anything the artist can imagine. After that we went to a church without a roof, basically abandoned during construction because the church in Oaxaca proper was more popular. We had a buffet lunch where we had all seven different types of Oaxacan mole, a mezcal mousse, some more chapulines, and a variety of other local foods. Last we went to alfareria doña rosa where they make pots out of black clay, but it looks so smooth it could almost be polished metal. They also make a variety of different animal shapes, geometric shapes, and other clay trinkets. Here we are, back at our hostel, relaxing after a busy day, ready to drink some mezcal tomorrow!

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Clean Plate Club

Sarah's Thanksgiving dinner used to be on this plate. We had a very unique Thanksgiving dinner- the turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes were delicious; the cranberry sauce was straight from a can (a la Bart, for those Simpsons fans out there) which is how I like it (Sarah expects more for $12 a plate!). The pumpkin pie was definitely different, it tasted like the Mexican chef had probably never actually eaten American pumpkin pie (or made it) in her life. Regardless, it was a delicious meal and we celebrated all the things we are thankful for.

Meanwhile, earlier that day we had decided to take a jaunt over to Ixtapa, a much more touristy, resort area. As soon as we get off the bus, José flags us down and offers us a free bottle of tequila for sitting through a timeshare presentation. Our first instinct is of course to say no and keep walking, however, who can resist a free bottle of tequila? Not to mention the fact that it was well over 90 degrees out, and when I asked if they had air conditioning, I got a resounding, "¡sí!". A nondescript white van came and picked us up to take us to the hotel. The shpiel actually sounded pretty appealing if we weren't a month into our yearlong voyage, and it was air conditioned while we drank a few free piña coladas. After we said no, we took our free bottle of tequila and went to the beach. The beach in Ixtapa is very nice, much better for swimming than playa madera or principal here in Zihuatanejo. We eventually found our way back to the bus, headed home, and got cleaned up for Thanksgiving dinner. However, we managed to pick up a few aguas frescas on the way to mix in the tequila.

Today we decided to go to playa las gatas. We took a very seaworthy-looking lancha (small boat) and headed over. This beach is protected by a large barrier of rocks and coral and has excellent snorkeling. We rented some snorkels and fins and saw many fish, crabs, urchins, tigers sharks, etc. Eventually we caught another lancha back to civilization and had a delicious dinner; I had a seafood soup, Sarah had cecina de res (see the Facebook pictures on what cecina de Res is). Tomorrow we leave Zihuatanejo and head for Oaxaca which may be a lengthy journey as it looks like we have to head south for a while and then cross over the mountains. In the meantime, check Facebook for some more photos.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving from Zihuatanejo!

Here are some fresh chickens, waiting to be purchased from the market here in Zihuatanejo. We arrived very early this morning and managed to wander to the beach in time for sunrise. We walked around in the Centro for a while talking to different people in hotels trying to get a decent room at an affordable price. We settled on a place about a block from the mercado and fifteen minutes from the beach walking. After settling in and take a brief siesta, we started to explore. Zihuatanejo really has four major beaches, two of which are within easy walking distance of our hotel. We went to these two beaches after some delicious tacos and a bottle of a soda I had never heard of before called Yoli. It looks like the other two beaches are nicer, but require either about an hour and half walk out to the freeway and back around, or using a bus. Another option may be to hire a boat to take us out there(and hopefully remember to retrieve us at the end of the day). We will be exploring those beaches on Friday most likely. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and as of yet we have not seen any signs of anything happening in Zihuatanejo in that regard. There doesn't appear to be a large expat community here. However, tomorrow we are going to venture to nearby Ixtapa, which has more of a touristy feel, and perhaps we can find some turkey dinner. If not, we will just eat some of the chickens pictured above. Happy Thanksgiving all!!

We are very thankful to be on our adventure and for all our friends and family who are supporting us throughout. If you want to see more, be sure to check out our Facebook page which has many more photographs.

Monday, November 21, 2011


All of the posts we've written until now have been descriptive - where we are, what we did, what we ate! But along the way, we have been talking and thinking a lot about Mexico, people here, life in general and other musings. What I write is all my opinion, so Matt may have other views, and of course, I invite you all, my friends, family, readers, to share your thoughts and opinions here, too. I hope to have a chance to write about these and other thoughts along the way.

Poverty, Charity, and Begging

In some ways, the poor we have encountered in Mexico have seemed more poor than those in the states, and in other ways, less. Overall, we have seen very little homelessness here, that is to say: we don't see people sleeping in the streets or carrying their every possession in a shopping cart or even reeking of bodily fluids. It would seem that everyone has some place to call home and tried their best, despite lack of funds, to look their best. But what some of those people call home would certainly be considered sub-par in the states. Our neighbors here in Melaque have 4 walls and a ceiling, but they don't all connect - I can see into the front room through the gap between the wall and ceiling. The house is essentially made of cement bricks and not really finished, nor are their doors. There are several blankets laid on the floor and I'm not sure if it is used as a play/living room or bedroom or both or neither. So, on one hand it's better than sleeping on the streets but certainly not the finest living conditions. While on the train from Chihuahua to Los Mochis, we saw several such "huts" that seemed to be one room made of cement and a sort of adobe, perhaps some aluminum siding, tree branches often for a wall or two - very makeshift. It reminded me of what homes may have looked like on the American frontier 100-200 years ago. Except these houses had TV satellites (which in Mexico can cost as little as $10 a month). So, it's a very confusing question of: are these people poor? There's electricity, there's water (sometimes hot), there's TV! A better question may be, are these people happy? The only interaction we've had with someone who lived in this condition was a man in Creel who walked with us a bit up the highway after our hike. He was of the native Indian tribe, Tarahumara, likely a farmer who after a ten minute conversation asked for a peso which Matt gave. Did he ask for it because he needed or because he thought us "wealthy" tourists could spare it? He seemed happy, proud of his heritage, well-nourished.
Creel over all had the most beggars, mostly children, which raised even more complicated feelings for me. A 5-year old girl or boy, who looks a little dusty (everything is dusty in Creel), looks at you with sad eyes and asked for some money. Then the internal battle begins: most tourist guides in the region discourage travelers from giving money to beggars because it just results in more begging. (why work when nice tourists will give you money for free?). They recommend giving to charities instead. There's also the "teach a man to fish" story, but what could I teach in just a moment as I pass through? Not much, I should think. At the same time, I dont want to be a cold-hearted tourist who turns a blind eye to poor children. Of course, we can't give all our money away, either. Etc etc etc, the battle rages. In every city, there are also many impoverished people selling "hand-made" trinkets of the area, some of which may be hand-made, some may be store bought, either way, they are the type of trinkets we certainly don't need. Once again, I feel I'd like to help out, but should I spend my money on some tchatchki I don't need? Is our money at the hotels and hostels and restaurants and tourists sites enough of a transfusion to local businesses? These are all questions that I ask myself. In the meantime, I have not yet bought anything, except a hat, which I really do need.
Overall, cost of living here is very low and it doesn't take much to get by, but where is the line between getting by and living well?


I just finished reading my first book of the trip, "Les Misérables" by Victor Hugo, translated (to English from French) and abridged. Normally, I wouldn't buy an abridged version, but I got this one from a Barnes and Noble closing sale, it was very inexpensive, and even abridged, is nearly 1,000 pages. It's big, it's heavy, and part of me is very happy that I've finished and is ready to trade it a book-swap for something a little more backpacker friendly. On the other hand, at home, books are among my most prized possessions and the idea of leaving a book behind makes me a little sad. It makes me more sad that this is a B&N edition, which I may not be able to get another of in the future. I'm not sure why I have such an attachment to Physical books, especially since there are very few that I've read twice, but I cannot remember ever giving or throwing away books. Perhaps one day, I will buy another copy of Les Mis, just to have it!

I enjoyed reading the novel which the famous broadway musical is based upon and found interesting the differences is plot and emphasis between the two. For instance, Javert's suicide is a very short, non-dramatic moment - no soliloquy, no huge argument with God. As I bid 'adieu' to this cumbersome book, I'd like to share a quote that caught my attention. Hugo was a huge supporter of public education for all and uses lots of moments to give a moral lesson.

Part 3, Book 7, Chapter 2:
"Humanity is identity. All men are the same clay. No difference, here below at least, in predestination. The same darkness before, the same flesh during, the same ashes after life. But ignorance, mixed with the human composition, blackens it. This incurable ignorance possesses the heart of man, and there becomes Evil."

Matt also finished his first book, "The Innocent Man" by John Grisham. He said it was interesting as it is Grisham's first work of Non-Fiction.

Ex-Patriots in Mexico

There are many Americans, and surprisingly (to me) Canadians living in Mexico, either full-time or for the winter. Most are older, 60+, and there is definitely a stereotype starting to form in my mind. In some ways, it's a little bit like the wild west down here and those types who are attracted to it are a little rough around the edges. A little coarse, load-spoken, independent, and firm in their mind sets. If I met a person like this in the states, they would not be the person I would imagine expatriating becuase they are SO american, but the Canadians are this way, too!
My former image of an ex-pat, based of course on the artists who left the states after WW1 and WW2, was someone cultured and artistic, who left the states because they were disillusioned with the American dream/society - think Ernest Hrmmingway and Gertrude Stein in Paris or Jack Kerouac in Mexico. How amazing were they? But the people we've encountered thus far seem more the type who may have retired to Florida, but Mexico is cheaper and who cares if anyone visits you anyway, and they sure do have some tasty tacos down here! I'm surprised by how few of them speak Spanish with any competency.
While the beautiful landscape and low prices certainly are appealing, I find myself wondering who I would socialize with if I lived here. Locals my age, in the coastal towns, are mostly not college educated and agriculture and tourism are the two biggest industries. Would I have enough to build a long-lasting, meaningful relationship with them? I don't think I'd really fit into this ex-pat community - too young and too liberal! And as for Jews - most Mexican Jews live in Mexico City (no, thanks), while there is a small community in Guadalajara (hours from the coast) and a smaller community of American Jews living in a lake town that's mostly retired folks. As much as the idea of a vacation home in Melaque is very appealing, I don't think I could live here full time.

Those are the things I've been thinking of lately - would love some feedback and other thoughts!

Saturday, November 19, 2011


Still here in Melaque. Today we took a walk down the beach to a neighboring small town, Barra de Navidad. Although Barra looked like a cute little town, I think we like Melaque more. Melaque is a bit larger, with about 12,000 residents, and for some reason many of the beachfront buildings in Barra seemed to have recently fallen apart, either due to a tsunami or some sort of strange weather. It is odd that this doesn't seem to be happening in Melaque since it was only a few mile walk down the beach. Anyway, we wandered around Barra for a little bit, had some lunch, then caught the bus back to Melaque. On the way home, we decided we deserved some ice cream after our strenuous walk, which we enjoyed on our balcony overlooking the ocean. Now's the time to come visit us here, we head to Zihuatanejo on Tuesday! The picture is of the local candy shop here in Melaque, around the corner from our bungalow.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sarah in the Kitchen

After an overnight bus ride to Puerto Vallarta and catching another bus to Melaque we have arrived. If the Chepe is thunder mountain railroad, the bus from Puerto Vallarta to Melaque is like Indiana Jones falling into the jungle cruise in a bus going twice as fast. Luckily we made it here and after scoping out a dozen different hotels, we found one right on the beach! In addition it has a kitchen so we will be eating tostadas and drinking shots of tequila tonight! We are now in Jalisco state, the same state as Tequila, and oddly enouh the supermarkets seem to have hundreds of brands of tequila we have never heard of. We are going to head downstairs to the beach in a little bit, but first, a well deserved siesta.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Raining in Mazatlán

We picked a good day to leave Mazatlán. As we were walking to the mercado this morning it started raining. After picking up some supplies and eating delicious marlin we headed home and the rain was really coming down. Since we last wrote, we saw the Venados game. We left during the seventh inning and the Venados were winning 11-3. Sarah was given a foul ball! A word on taxis in Mexico, the taxi drivers basically make up the prices as they go along, simply saying, "my, that's expensive" in Spanish knocked 20% off the price before we even started to negotiate our fare home. Two days ago we returned to our cabeza taco stand for some more delicious cabeza tacos at a very affordable 45¢ each or so. We saw they were making what appeared to be baked potatos, and asked what they were. Turned out they were delicious potatoes that they grill in aluminum, then blend up the potato meat with some butter or cream, then put in some carne asada, many cheeses, onions, pico de gallo, and some frijoles. Probably the best stuffed baked potato ever. In case you ever come to Mazatlán, it's a little stand on Miguel Aleman street about one kilometer from the malecon. Yeterday we went to a seafood place for an early dinner and had some crab Ceviche and camarones a la diabla. Now we have a few hours to kill until our bus leaves around 11:00 tonight, then we have another bus to catch in Puerto Vallarta which will take us to Melaque. If anyone wants to visit, it's a short ride from the airport in Manzanillo!

Friday, November 11, 2011

More Mazatlán

So, it turns out the Zona Dorada wasn't that exciting. Lots of overpriced hotels and tourists staying there. We were both surprised by the number of Canadians. Apparently a lot of Canadians spend their winters in Mazatlán to escape the cold. Two days ago we went on a long walk around the city. There is a park in Mazatlán which has some jaguars and deer(in cages). Mazatlán is named after its deer. We also discovered the beisbol stadium where the Mazatlán Venados (Deer) play ball. We are going to see them play this afternoon. We escaped the heat for a little bit in the local McDonald's, easily the nicest McDonald's we have ever been to. Yesterday we took it easy on the beach, and I caught a fish! Too bad our hotel room doesn't have a kitchen, otherwise we would have had a fresh dinner, instead I threw it back into the ocean. We just booked our bus tickets for the next leg of our journey, we leave for Melaque on Monday night, going by way of Puerto Vallarta. Hopefully the first bus is on time as we only have a 16 minute window to get to the next bus, otherwise we will be spending some time in Puerto Vallarta. Hopefully we will be able to snag a bungalow on the cheap in Melaque and sit on the beach eating burritos all day. The adventure continues!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Mochis to Mazatlán

Our last day in Los Mochis we took a leisurely walk back to the Parque Sinaloa and played with the iguanas and turtles again. We had a delicious roasted chicken for dinner after visiting the Plazuela 21 de Septiembre. Sunday we took the bus to Mazatlán. It seems that in Sinaloa, the bus-merchants have a different style. Kids will hop in the bus walk down the aisle handing out candy and then walk back up the aisle collecting pesos. We just gave back the candy as we are on very strict diets. After a few brief stops in Culiacan and elsewhere, we arrived in Mazatlán. Seems like the bus line we took didn't go to the central bus station, but luckily there was a small army of taxis and pulmonias waiting to take us to our destination. A pulmonia is a golf cart that has a little more power. We decided to take a taxi to our hotel, Hotel Milan. Turns out the hotel is no longer in business! We wandered around old Mazatlán's downtown for a little while, but the hotels seemed a little overpriced for what we would be getting. We spoke to some friendly Canadians (eh?) who recommended we head to the malecon (boardwalk) and see what we could find there. We found Hotel Belmar, on the beach, with negotiable prices - we ended up paying the same to stay here, across from the beach, as we may have down in the old sector in a much crummier place. 
The Hotel Belmar, according to some locals, once housed some very spectacular guests, such as John Wayne and Frank Sinatra.  The place definitely looks like it used to be a glamourous place, but now it is pretty rundown - definitely needs some TLC, but according to what we've read, Mazatlan is not what it used to be as a vacation destination.  Since the 80s, the "high season" is lower and lower and the bartender (see below) said he didn't know if there would even be one this year.   After getting a small room for a negotiated lower price, we got 'upgraded' because the air conditioner didn't work.  As we were moving our stuff, a cockroach jumped out from under the bed.  EW!  Luckily, no more bug sightings in the newer room.
We walked up and down the boardwalk a bit, had dinner at a seafood place next to our hotel and then found a bar called "The Time Machine." The owner of the bar is from Alabama and he married a mazatleca about 27 years ago. In addition they were playing the steelers game on tv and the beers were ten pesos each. We met a few other interesting expats who all seem to be in love with this city. 
This morning we went to the mercado central in old Mazatlán to get supplies for the day. After re-energizing ourselves with an Agua fresca de nanchi which is a small yellow berry, we got some tamales, some pan dulces, and a piece of pumpkin cooked in honey. We took our supplies to the beach, still largely deserted since it's a Monday during the low season, and ate our supplies over the next several hours. Anyway, here we are, the hotel has wifi in the lobby so check Facebook for pictures. We are about to go back to the mercado to retrieve supplies for a beach side dinner. Tomorrow we might head to the Zona Dorada where the big spenders stay. 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Los Mochis

After our adventure in Creel, we got back on the train with some pan dulces in hand and half a box of hojuelas de maiz (corn flakes). The train is like a real life thunder mountain railroad, turbulence, ups and downs, and the beautiful copper canyon. We arrived in Los Mochis around 8:30 at night and grabbed a colectivo to get to the city. The train station is a bit out of town and we could have taken a taxi, but a colectivo, or shared taxi, is more cost effective and much more authentic. There was also an elderly couple, and another guy in the colectivo with us. We were the last stop and it turned out that the driver had lived in the bay area, good to meet a fellow 49er fan. We are staying at Hotel del Valle, no internet but it has hot water, A/C, and a much more comfortable bed. It feels a bit more safe since there is normally a man watching the front door, locking it at night, etc. Yesterday we wandered around the city, got an agua fresca de piña colada in the morning, and went to the Parque Sinaloa and the Jardin Botanico. This was originally the very large private garden of an American who started the sugar mill here. It has a broad collection of trees and plants from all around the world. Additionally there is a fountain area with a large pool around it and a few small islands. There were literally hundreds of turtles hanging out on the islands along with a few very large iguanas. We took some pictures of the king iguana, and will post them later when we arrive somewhere with wi-fi. Also it is a bird sanctuary and we saw many geese, ducks, and other birds including one that tried to eat my toe. We decided to visit the statue of Don Quijote and on our way we stopped at a Chinese restaurant, one of many in Los Mochis. The food was quite tasty, very similar to American chinese food in the Cantonese style. When we arrived at the statue, we were somewhat underwhelmed and took a few minutes to drink some water in the shade of the VW dealership. We walked around some more, took a quick siesta, and the city was pretty alive at night, not too surprising since it is so hot at night. We had a snack, an "elote en vaso" or corn in a cup. It comes with all sorts of sauces and whatnot that you can have put in it, however we had ours with only cheese, chili sauce and lime. ¡Muy sabroso! To really top it off, the gentleman running the elote stand was wearing a 49er hat, we like this town already!

This morning we made the bus trip to Topolobampo. Topolobampo is a local port on the coast about 20 minutes from Los Mochis. We thought that this bus would take us to a beach, but upon our arrival, we spoke with a few locals and learned that Topolobampo is really a port town, you can get on boats to look at dolphins and go fishing, but no beach. Perhaps that explains all the odd looks at our swimsuits. Luckily there is a beach nearby, El Maviri. We took a taxi there and Sarah determined that El Maviri is currently the #1 contender for the future home of Casa Shapiro, Bed & Breakfast. The beach is pretty secluded, and right now, since it´s the low season, the beach was completely empty when we arrived. We walked through a few restaurants and there was nobody there. We sat down at a table underneath a palapa (thatched roof umbrella) and after an hour or so a waiter came by and started setting things up. We ordered a few beers, played in the water, which was nice and warm, and generally hung out for a while. Around one or two in the afternoon we decided to do some exploring, this is shapiroadventures after all, and wandered farther down the beach. We came across another restaurant and ordered ceviche de pescado and a limonada. We asked if the ceviche was for one person or two and it sounded like an order was only enough for one person, but based on prior experience so far, we got one order for the two of us. Turned out it was more than enough and the ceviche was delicious. The waitress said that the fish was locally caught and it was probably alive a few hours before we ate it. I would tell you the name of the restaurant, but I´m not sure it has one, but its trees are painted yellow and green and there were a few old guys sleeping in the hammocks around the tables. We caught the bus back to Los Mochis, took a quick siesta, and here we are. Looks like we will probably spend another day here tomorrow, hang out in the park, maybe go to some plazas here in the city. I want to see the iguanas and turtles again. Then it´s off to Mazatlan on Sunday.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Trick or treaters in Creel

After our strenuous day of hiking yesterday, we are going to take it easy today. Sarah may have pulled a few muscles yesterday, luckily I practiced walking long distances before we left. Here's some trick or treaters from last night.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween in Creel

Halloween is upon us. It's very interesting, here in Creel, instead of saying "trick or treat," or the Spanish equivalent, the kids say "Halloween." Also, it looks like they primarily go into stores and restaurants instead of people's homes. Anyway, today was a very busy day for us. Being the adventurers that we are we decided to go out on our own in the valleys around Creel. There are some magnificent rock formations in these valleys, the valley of the frogs, valley of the mushrooms and valley of the monks. Our map was somewhat less than completely accurate and we got off track a few miles in. Luckily we found some locals who showed us where we could cut across a farm. Here we saw some cows going out to pasture and got barked at by some very aggressive dogs. We basically asked for directions from every local we came across, which was very helpful as there were no other tourists doing the walk and no signs. In addition to seeing the valleys, we visited Mission San Ignacio, built over 300 years ago. This area is inhabited by an indigenous group, the Tarahumara, also known as pies ligeros(light feet) because they run long distances. Speaking of going long distances, we walked about twelve miles and finally arrived at Lake Arereco. The lake was practically empty, it's the low season for tourism and the scene was very picturesque. After resting for a bit, we decided to walk up the highway to get back to the city. We didn't realize how tired we were and after a mile or two we flagged down some locals and hopped into the back of their pickup truck. They were heading into the city to get gas so we thanked them and I gave the driver ten pesos, for which he seemed really surprised. We came back to our hotel for a quick siesta and then went into the downtown area for a burrito and a quesadilla along with two "Esprites." The city is overrun with kids out trick or treating, can't wait to see what tomorrow is like for Día de Los Muertos.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


Greetings from Creel! After writing our last blog post Sarah and I decided to spend some time at the local bar. It's amazing how friendly and interested the locals are. It doesn't hurt that Sarah is a pretty girl with a bald head :-). We had another lost in translation type moment where I interpreted the bartender as saying they were out of beer and then watching him give beer to everybody else. I figured out my mistake pretty quickly. We had un Indio, which comes in a 40 ozs style bottle. We met many people, a girl named Carla who had actually lived in Denver for a few years, and a young man named Huberto who said to let him know if anybody gave us trouble, yet he assured me we were not in a "barrio peligroso." The man sitting next to me, Alejandro, regaled me with the wonders of the landscapes that can be seen on El Chepe, the train that goes from Chihuahua city to Los Mochis on the coast of Sinaloa. We had originally planned to take a bus from Chihuahua to Mazatlán, but we decided based on his advice, that we should take the train instead. Sarah met a couple from Veracruz, they seemed to have an endless thirst for tequila...and were going to a "monster fiesta" later that night. Despite it being a monster party, we were tired and decided to call it a night.
The next morning we decided to go to Grutas de Nombre de Dios, or the Grottoes of the name of God. Getting there was quite an adventure. We took a bus, which we thought would take us there, but apparently the Grutas are in a neighborhood called Nombre de Dios which is quite large. After we had driven for a while, passing schools, and a lot of industry, I asked the student sitting in front of us where we should get off to go to the Grutas. He gave us a quizzical look and said that we could walk but it's very far east. So we yelled "baja" as is typical to make the bus stop and started heading east. After walking for about an hour and a half, asking several people for directions, and possibly going in a circle, we stopped at a local Inn and asked the concierge for help. Turns out the concierge used to work in Woodland Hills. He explained to us that we could walk to the Grutas, but it was at least 7 or 8 kilometers, so we took a quick taxi. The Grutas were really spectacular. Inside the caves it is very humid, and all the rock formations have funny names like Eagle, or Tyrannosaurus Rex. Originally they had found silver, but it turns out there wasn't very much. After exploring the caves and going up and down hill underground for a while, we decided it was time to relax, but it turns out that really the only way to get back to the downtown area of Chihuahua is by car. Our tour guide was nice enough to offer to take us back to town in his truck, and wouldn't accept any gas money. Very nice employees, and the tour of the Grutas is definitely worth it, just be sure to review some Spanish as the tour is not offered in English. We had a very economical lunch which consisted of a dozen tacos for about three dollars at Taqueria Anita, delicious! Also a guitarist came by and played Sarah's favorite mariachi song (using the word favorite rather lightly). We took a quick siesta at the hotel and then headed back to downtown to catch a ride on the Trolley Turistico.
Althouh the Trolley was 100 pesos per person, which seemed a little steep given our budget, it was a lot of fun. The driver/tour guide obviously had a lot of pride in Chihuahua, and was very knowledgeable. We got to see the house where Pancho Villa lived with his second of 25 wives, as well as many colonial, and 19th century buildings. In addition, they even had the car that Pancho Villa was assassinated in, a specially made Dodge from the early twentieth century. The tour guide also gave us some info about the train we took today, El Chepe.
El Chepe runs through the Sierras from Chihuahua to Los Mochis. The paisajes(landscapes) are really beautiful with the tres, mountains and the Copper Canyon, allegedly bigger than he Grand Canyon. El Chepe leaves at six every morning and so we got up early and grabbed a cab, in our haste I had forgotten to get small change from the hotel, and when we arrived at the train station, the cabbie was not pleased when I tried to give him 200 pesos for a 50 peso fare. Since it was Sunday, banks were closed, eventually we settled on ten American dollars, or roughly 125 pesos, so I guess he got a pretty good tip for my early morning forgetfulness. Finally we walk into the train station, only to find that the taquila(ticket window) is closed on Sunday! After speaking with the conductor, he said that we can buy tickets on board, but we must pay in cash. I explained our situation, how we had planned to pay with credit card, didn't have thousands of pesos in our pockets, he called over one of the military police and had him escort us into another locked building that had an ATM. Luckily we asked the soldier how much the fare was as he informed us that on Sundays only the primers class is available and it's twice as much as we had expected, oops. The ATM worked and we finally got on our way.
On the bus the conductor recommended that we stay at Plaza Margarita in Creel. We arrived to find that rooms there were about 700 pesos/Night. After some discussion they explained that there is another branch of the hotel with slightly less amenities and we were able to negotiate the price down to 200 pesos/night. On the bus we met a Frenchman, Bruno, doing a round the world tour. He said that he was in a few cities in the states, and has come to Mexico a few days ago and knew no English or Spanish before his trip. We tried to help him as he too was about to spent 700 pesos/night. So here we are, relaxing after a glorious train ride, it appears that the first class ride really caters to wealthy Mexicans, and there are many resturants here in Creel that do the same. We have been approached several times to go on tours and the prices seem a bit outrageous, so we will have to do some negotiating. Also, there is a holiday going on, a celebration for Cristo Rey, we will have to check out the festivities tonight. The internet is extremely slow here, so we may not be able to post pictures, but check Facebook just in case.

Friday, October 28, 2011


We arrived yesterday in Chihuahua, Chihuahua, Mexico. After a lengthy bus voyage we have both decided that bus travel was definitely the right choice. After a slight delay at the border due to a drug sniffing dog having a lot of fun with an orange t-shirt, we passed into the Estados Unidos de Mexico. Once in Mexico we were able to stop on the way to Chihuahua at Villa Ahumada, a small town famous for its cheese and rumored to be the birthplace of the burrito. Obviously we ate a burrito and a quesadilla, both of which were quite Delicioso. Also, in Mexico various vendors take the liberty of boarding the bus briefly to sell their items, we were offered a variety of things ranging from pumpkin candy to homemade potato chips, or papas caseras. We shared a large container of papas caseras con todo which came with a few sauces poured on, as well as a lime. Due to our delay at the border, we arrived at the bus station at about 5PM. While we were wandering around the bus station, which is quite a distance outside of the city, a friendly local saw our obvious confusion and offered some advice (which we ignored, but he was still helpful). There are numerous people in this area who have lived or worked in America due to its proximity and many people speak a little English, regardless, everyone we have asked for help has been very friendly. Back to our situation in the bus station, we decided to get on an urbano, or city bus, of which there are many that basically drive around in circles around the city. This one dropped us off at the Catedral de Chihuahua which is about five blocks from our hotel. Unfortunately my trusty compass failed me, and we walked five blocks in the wrong direction before asking a friendly young man carrying a machine gun (Policia) for directions, he told us that it was ten blocks in the other direction, so we got a nice tour of the town square on the way. We checked into our room at Hotel San Juan, for which we had no reservation, and the room, although basic, is much more than you could expect for about $12 US (150 pesos).

Our adventure really began after we checked in. We decided to walk around the town square and outside of the Catedral there was a military band playing, at this point we aren´t sure if that´s a nightly occurrence for lowering the flag, or if that was a one time thing. We wandered over to the local TelCel shop and purchased our SIM card, here called an AmigoChip. We also partook of some local fare, some gorditas de nata which were a sweet bread, but not too sugary. It looks like corn dogs are very popular, however we have not yet partaken. Getting the phone registered later last night was quite an ordeal, it would appear that Sra. Rodriguez left me woefully unprepared for actual communication in Spanish as after five or six frustrating minutes I asked to speak with someone in English. The only information they needed was my name, birthday, and where we lived in Chihuahua. Might have to brush up on our Spanish. We ended up watching some TV later that night, and went to sleep with the noise of a friendly soccer match in the background.

This morning, after our first good night´s sleep of our adventure, we decided to take a walking tour of the city. We originally were in search of a small coffee shop, but somehow the directions were lost in translation and we ended up about a mile out of the way and on the other side of a major freeway. We walked through many parks with trees, fountains, and statues. Notably we came across a statue of Anthony Quinn (prounced like Queen) and we asked someone who that was. Turns out the person we asked had lived in Minnesota for a time. We eventually found our way back to the downtown area and found a different coffee shop, Cafe Imperial, we each had a coffee as well as a rebana de pay de piña(think slice of pineapple pie). It tasted more like a danish and was very tasty. We continued our walking tour through the city, attempted to pay our immigration fee at a bank, but the line was too long, so we continued. For a late lunch we found ourselves at a small "hole in the wall" type of establishment. We each ordered a burrito, however burritos here are very different than the large Chipotle-sized burritos we are used to. It was essentially whatever meat we ordered wrapped in a tortilla. We decided to top it off with two tacos each and a soda. Total bill was 52 pesos, or about four US dollars. We headed over to the Plaza de Armas, and then went into the Casa Chihuahua. Casa Chihuahua was originally a Jesuit school, and over time was once a military hospital, a prison, the mint, offices for the federal government, and now a museum. It was the prison that housed Hidalgo. The museum had a lot of information about local art and history. It had large exhibits for each of the three major regions of Chihuahua state, llanura, sierra, and desierto (plains, mountains, and desert). In addition, there is one pilar that remains from the original Jesuit construction which was also Hidalgo´s cell. All in all, it was a very educational 2 hours, and all for 20 pesos each with student ID.

We have had a few "lost in translation" type of moments. When we were eating lunch, Sarah asked if there is anything special going on for Dia de los Muertos, and it was interpreted to mean that we were asking if the restaurant was doing anything special. At first we were both a little shocked to hear that nada happens on Dia de los Muertos. Upon further explication, we realized our misunderstanding. Also, many people have stared/commented on our shoes, they seem to be a hit with the locals! This is a place that likes the production of cowboy boots, I´m trying to convince Sarah that she needs a pair in purple.

At the moment, this hotel does not have wi-fi so this is being written on a computer someone threw away in 1994 so no pictures for now. Hopefully when we get to Mazatlan we will upload some. Tomorrow we are planning on taking a ride on the local Trolley Turistico, so check back for more!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Leaving Los Angeles

Here we are at the bus station. After many emotional goodbyes with family and friends, our bags are packed and our passports are ready. We barely got our visas for Brazil yesterday, talk about last minute. Now the real fun begins, I can practically taste the chile rellenos and aguas frescos. Here comes the Crucero bus now, see you in Chihuahua!!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Hair Cutting Video!

The video from our hair cutting! More videos are up on our youtube channel here!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

St. Baldricks Head Shave

Well, we did it! I (Sarah) raised over $1000 ($1468 to be exact) for St. Baldricks and tonight, I shaved my head as committed! Matt also shaved his head in solidarity. It was a lot of fun - we had friends over to help in the cutting, trimming, and shaving. Obviously, I will have to get used to the new 'do - but so far I am pretty pleased! Of course, it's never too late to donate at:!

There's a huge thanks to be given to everyone who donated and to everyone who came to support me in this crazy endeavor!

Friday, October 14, 2011


Last Thursday, we went in to Passport Health LA to get our shots to protect us as much as possible from health risks on our trip. Our nurse was very helpful and had compiled a booklet regarding health issues we may encounter for every country we are visiting and discussed our immunization history and reviewed all the recommended shots and medications. In the end, we both got the Typhoid and Yellow fever vaccines (one-time shot good for a few years, each) and Matt got a Tetanus booster (ten year) and I got my second Hep A shot (should have done it in 2004, after getting the first for China, but switching schools, it sort of got away from me!).

Matt took his shots like a champ - Tetanus first in the left upper arm muscle, yellow fever under the skin on the left arm, and Typhoid in the right upper arm. All three in about 2 minutes. Then it was my turn. The very first, Hep A, in my upper right arm made me feel a little woozy - I could feel it moving through my arm, then my fingers were tingly, then I felt a little lightheaded - so the nurse recommended I lie on the floor and brought me some grape juice. A week later, I still have a little bruise at the injection site and it was tender for a while, too. (I know, I am such a whiner, but wait, there's more!). I also received the yellow fever shot under the skin on my left arm and typhoid in my upper right. Both of us experienced pain for several days on the right arm due to the typhoid vaccine - it felt akin to the soreness felt after a heavy day weight lifting using the deltoid. Matt felt the usual stiffness and tenderness in his left arm from the Tetanus shot.

Here's the fun part: whereas after receiving the yellow fever shot, the injection site on Matt's arm did not even need a band-aid. My arm, however, was swollen for several days and extremely tender, then remained red and somewhat stiff, and now looks black and blue like a bruise, about the size of a quarter. Apparently, 10-30% of people who get the shot have a mild reaction of this nature and as long as there is no puss or fluid coming from it, I shouldn't worry. Good times.

We decided not to get rabies vaccines, both because they are extremely expensive ($260 per shot per person for three shots plus follow up visits) and because of our natural aversion to dogs and other animals due to Matt's allergies. However, we know that should we have an encounter with a wild animal that involves scratching or biting, we will need to get to a hospital ASAP for treatment.

Additionally, we discussed the importance of protecting ourselves from Mosquitos and other insects, because they are carriers of many diseases, aside from Malaria, that do not have vaccines, such as Dengue Fever and West Nile, etc. We had already purchased a spray for our clothing containing Permethrin and Deet lotions and sprays for our skin and are going to purchase a mosquito net for sleeping (hopefully that contains Permethrin) later today. I am not so keen on taking Malaria pills for a verity of reasons - one kind is not really viable as most strains are now immune to chloroquinine, one kind is not an option for me as it interferes with other medications, one kind causes deep nightmares/hallucinations (which I am not comfortable with) as well as increases light sensitivity, and the last kind is somewhat prohibitively expensive (though that may be different in other countries). I think having serious bug protection is the most important, and one again, if either of us experiences and symptoms (fever, rash, etc) we will seek medical attention immediately. If we are able to acquire the other medication for a reasonable price in a malaria area, we may choose to take it then.

Getting the shots last week definitely made the reality that we are leaving in just a few short days VERY real!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Final Preparations

As with any trip of this magnitude, we have many final preparations to go through. Double checking passport expiration dates, reacquainting ourselves with various local customs, etc etc. Luckily we were able to find someone to care for our awesome albino ball python, Zohan, while we are away. We are both very excited with just one month until our planned departure date. It has been difficult trying to schedule in time to see all the people we want to see before we depart, and many have told us they will come visit at different places along our journey. Sarah is already getting excited about celebrating Día de Los Muertos in Chihuahua and it's still over a month away! I have been doing some serious brushing up on my Spanish and have realized that I have quite a bit of ground to cover in these next few weeks. Luckily there is a light at the end of the tunnel and I'm certain that as soon as we are immersed the Spanish will quickly become second nature. we have nearly all of our supplies, so the gear list will most likely be updated in a day or two. We are still trying to figure out what sort of container to use to transport over a year's worth of Sarah's contact lenses safely. I have been looking at some small otterbox containers, but if anyone has any ideas, please let us know.

At this point we are still debating how to get to Chihuahua. There are a few different routes, and the main difference is the location of the border crossing. Some buses go to El Paso and then cross into Mexico at Ciudad Juarez, where some cross into Mexico from San Diego into Tijuana. I have been leaning towards crossing the border at Tijuana to spend more of our travel time across the border, although some concerns have arisen regarding safety in Northern Mexico. For our purposes, it seems these safety fears are largely negligible, and there isn't any price difference that I've found. If anybody has a good reason to go one way or the other, we would be interested in hearing your story. In the meantime Zohan is happy to know he will be well cared for.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Business Cards are here!

Pardon the lower quality picture, but here's a shot of our business cards. Let us know if you want some!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Business Cards!!

Our business cards just shipped from vistaprint. We should have them on Monday or Tuesday of next week. Please let us know if you want us to send you one through the mail so you can add us to your Rolodex, otherwise we will be passing them out on our journey.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Thursday, September 1, 2011

St. Baldricks

I was already planning on cutting off most of my hair to donate to "Locks of Love" for the 4th (!!) time before heading off to Central and South America for the next year and I had already been thinking about shaving my head to reduce my toiletries load when my friend, Inbal, told me about St. Baldrick's. So...I've answered the call to be a hero! I'm having my head shaved to stand in solidarity with kids fighting cancer, but more importantly, to raise money to find cures. The St. Baldrick's Foundation is a volunteer-driven charity that funds more in childhood cancer research grants than any organization except the U.S. government. Your gift will give hope to infants, children, teens and young adults fighting childhood cancers. So when I ask for your support, I'm really asking you to support these kids. Thank you!To donate, please visit: you for your support!

Sunday, August 28, 2011