Thursday, November 30, 2006

Haircut Chronicle: #3 - San Jose, Costa Rica

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#3 - December 1, 2006, San Jose, Costa Rica. My last “Made in Mexico” haircut didn’t last very long... (Go figure!)...Roxana was not too sure about being in my photo, but she was ready and willing to give me a much needed haircut. Now that’s a “tropical trim”! Really short... and full of “goop”... I’m ready to head to the beach! Cost: 2,000 Colones ($4)

Logbook: Beach Bound

Beachbound1Tuesday morning back at the lovely La Condesa Resort in San Jose, I was up early enough to say good-bye to those in our travel group who were continuing on the trip extension. It was nice to be able to “close the loop” with them, yet familiar and comfortable to be back on my own. I spent the rest of Tuesday and all of Wednesday making use of an excellent wi-fi connection to update this website and do a ton of research and planning for the next legs of The Voyage. I was able to make some fabulous arrangements -- which I promise to share with you soon -- and I am very excited about what lies ahead. My friend Kay called yesterday morning to say that the weather in the US was terrible and that she would not be arriving in San Jose last night as planned but would arrive at noon today instead. Luckily, since all we had planned was to spend the night in San Jose and be beach bound mid-morning, picking her up at the airport and leaving two hours later wouldn’t be too bad in the scheme of things.

I had made arrangements for a van to drive us to the beach, and it showed up this morning right on time at ten o’clock. With some time to kill before Kay’s plane was due to arrive, the driver and I went to a shopping mall to get some provisions and have something to eat. On our way out of the supermarket, I saw a hair salon and told him I was going to get a haircut (My “Made in Mexico” haircut didn’t last very long and, yes, I’m chuckling just thinking about that). From there, we picked Kay up at the airport and made the two hour drive to the coast, stopping only once to see the famous crocodiles along the way. (See Photos!)

In Jaco, we found our hotel on the edge of “town”, checked in and went for a walk on the beach. The first thing I noticed, of course, was that the beach, terrain and ocean are really beautiful and it is no wonder this is such a popular vacation destination. The second thing I noticed was that it is hot -- really hot -- and unbelievably humid! I’m not complaining, but it is the kind of climate that leaves you drenched and exhausted. One highlight of our first beach walk was running into a pack of friendly dogs! They are former “street” dogs who have been adopted by a dog-loving woman who lives on the beach, and I had a nice time getting a long overdue “doggie fix” with them.

Beachbound2Another highlight was taking an “artsy” photo of a little fishing boat that was stranded on the beach after low tide, then finding myself helping its owner get it back into the water. The tide was way out and it was a bit of a slog, but we prevailed and he sped off into the surf with a simple wave of thanks. This evening, Kay and I went into “town” and had a decent dinner at a little Argentine restaurant. I tried to save a few left-overs for the dogs, but the waitress threw them out by mistake... Bummer! On first impression, Jaco is pretty much just a tourist beach town. High rise condos and rental properties are going up everywhere, and I think Americans may outnumber locals. Prices are really high and the tourist hype is almost oppressive. I’ll reserve final judgement until after I’ve been here a little longer and gotten a better sense of the place, but my initial impression is not so great. Stand by!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Logbook: Costa Rica 3

Costarica3After six days of pretty fast-paced travel, it was nice to be in one place for a long weekend. My folks and I made use of the beautiful -- but not particularly well run -- Casa Conde Mar’s facilities on Friday for a day of relaxation, hanging out and enjoying uninterrupted time together. Saturday was a different story, beginning with a “jungle canopy tour” which Mom and I did via a dozen “zip lines.” I’m sure you have all seen pictures of people zipping between tree stands hanging from wires, but I doubt you’ve seen anything like the Report of my mother doing it! Seeing the way she took to the process -- smiling like a fool the entire time -- is nothing short of astonishing. (If her friends thought she was crazy to go to Alaska in winter for the Iditarod, they will probably want to have her committed for doing this!)

In the afternoon we took a really nice sunset sailing cruise. Most of the dozen or so folks in our group gathered on the fore deck, but I found myself sitting aft and reminiscing about my yacht delivery last spring. I had talked to the captain about it just briefly when he said, “Great! Take the wheel while I go get a beer!” I guess I did okay, because he proceeded to sit and drink his beer without offering to retake the helm. (Thanks for the good training, Roy!) Anyway, it was such a clear, calm evening and the sunset was so spectacular that it was a perfect finish to our Costa Rican co-exploration.

Sunday was another day of rest and relaxation during which my folks and I reflected on our fine time together, made sure we were all caught up and considered some ideas for where we might co-explore next. This morning we all packed up, checked out and got back on the bus. After a very brief stop for last-minute shopping we arrived at the airport in Liberia and said good-bye to everyone who was heading home -- including my folks. As they headed into the terminal for their flight, I got back on the bus for the ride back to San Jose with those in the group who are going on a brief “extension” in the morning. I will be staying here in San Jose for a few days until my friend Kay arrives on Thursday to join The Voyage for a week of exploration on the beaches of the southern Costa Rican coast!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Logbook: Costa Rica 2

Costarica2Tuesday morning we had some time at the Eco-Resort on the Sarapiqui River to wander around and stretch our legs. I took the opportunity to cross a very, very long foot bridge over the river which -- in my vast experience of foot bridges world-wide -- I would give pretty strong marks. Our main activity of the day was a two-hour boat ride on the river to view wildlife. With the group of 36 aboard a bus-like water craft, we cruised around and were not disappointed. We saw a number of birds, iguana, sloth and howler monkeys, and you can see some of them on the Photos page. We got back to the Eco-Resort in time for lunch and a little break before riding the bus to our next hotel, arriving early enough for a proper cocktail hour and dinner.

Yesterday was “volcano day” and we really made the most of it. From early morning until will into the evening, we made stops at various vantage points to observe the famous Arenal volcano. We were fortunate to have a relatively clear day, and were able to see the classic conical shaped volcano exuding steam and hot gases by day and spewing red hot rocks by night. It was really interesting -- awesome, in fact -- and the Photos barely do it justice. In between volcano viewings, we had a pleasant 2 hour walk on the “hanging bridges” that weave throughout a typical Costa Rican jungle, a couple of hours of “free time” in the town of La Fortuna (which I would make my “home base” if I were traveling through here on my own) and a visit to a lovely hot springs facility. It was a long and tiring day, but it was very diverse and rewarding.

This morning we were up very early for a long travel day to the northwest pacific coastline. As we crossed the continental divide, we left the cloud cover and jungle to enter the coastal savannah. Along the way we had a mild two hour raft trip which offered more excellent viewing of wildlife. Just in time for cocktails and the sunset, we arrived here on the beach at the Casa Conde Resort which will be our home for four nights. We are looking forward to some rest and relaxation, but also have some adventure excursions coming up. Stay tuned for updates from The Voyage of Macgellan!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Logbook: Costa Rica 1

Costarica1I spent Friday pretty much just goofing around in San Jose. For one thing, there really isn’t much to it. People may fall in love with Costa Rica, but nobody falls in love with its capitol city. For another, I was looking forward to “exploring” Costa Rica with my folks and really didn’t want to do too much on my own and spoil the fun of “discovering it together.” Saturday morning, I packed up, checked out of my hotel and got a taxi to Heredia -- a “pseudo-suburb” of San Jose -- then checked into the La Condesa Hotel where I would begin the tour with my folks. After lunch, I spent a little time on-line and had a nice walk around the lovely grounds. In the evening I looked for the tour guide so I could bum a ride to the airport with him to meet my folks, but I found out he was already at the airport to meet the group which would be arriving en masse. So, I got a taxi to the airport and waited for my folks to emerge from the arrivals gate. Sure enough, more or less on time, my folks arrived and we met up with the rest of the group for our bus ride back to the hotel. It is a little odd for me to write that all I did in a day was basically “check out, taxi, check in, hang out, taxi, wait, bus...” but that is what some days are like on The Voyage! Anyway, it was pretty late by the time we all got settled in, so my folks and I had a night cap and called it a day.

Yesterday morning the group assembled for a day-long “city tour.” I’m not quite sure what the point of it was, but I do know that it gave everyone a chance deal with jet-lag -- something I am very glad not to have to do anymore! -- and allow a day for a few folks who missed their flights to catch up with us before we went too far afield. Nevertheless, our day included a series of stops at various points of interest: The National Theater, the gold museum, a botanical garden and a famous cathedral to name a few. By the time the day was done, everyone was ready to have dinner and sleep... Including me! I was not so much exhausted by the activities of the day as I was by suddenly being with so many people. Although the group is a really good mix of friendly, experienced travelers of all ages and backgrounds, it has been a long time since I have been with 36 people!

This morning we assembled early for a trip to the nearby Doka coffee plantation -- the oldest family owned “wet milling” establishment in Costa Rica. We had a very nice, informative tour which covered the entire process from growing the “cherries” through the picking, processing, drying and roasting which renders the world famous beans. The coffee in Costa Rica is very, very good and we all go out of our way to drink it! From there, we rode to the very active Poas volcano but were disappointed to find it completely clouded over and obscured. Our guide was quick to reassure us that we have more volcanos in our near future, so from there we rode to our hotel -- an Eco-Style Resort on the Sarpiqui River -- and have called it a day.

My first impression of Costa Rica is quite simple: It is a land of greatly varied terrain and vegetation. From high altitude peaks with chilly air and mature forests to hot and humid sea level jungles, it offers a very strong sense of the power and variety of nature. I am happy to be with my folks and enjoying our time together. It has been a very long time since we have all traveled together and I am delighted to share The Voyage of Macgellan with them!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Logbook: The John Galt Line - Phase Three

JglphasethreePhase Three of “The John Galt Line” through Central America started a little bit like “deja vu all over agin!” As usual, I got up, packed up and checked out, but then I woke up Parole who was sleeping in his cab in front of the hotel to be sure he got my business! With plenty of time to spare -- especially considering my experience of showing up at the TICA office only to wait for it to open -- I informed Parole of my need for coffee and we went to a local gas station for a cup. With that necessity handled, we drove the short distance to the TICA office and parted ways with Parole strongly encouraging me to return to Managua soon so that he can drive me all over the country on a grand tour. Um... Maybe. Anyway, in due course we loaded up the bus and did the first three hours to the border. On the Nicaraguan exit side, the scene was downright calm. There were a few money changers and peddlers, but the energy level was so low that it was really quite pleasant.

After the briefest of stops, we loaded up again and drove through a “delousing” building where the bus was sprayed with what I imagine is an insecticide. Don’t quote me on this, but I think the exercise is probably more symbolic than effective. Just a few hundred meters down the road, we got out and stood in line to be admitted into Costa Rica. My sense is that because Costa Rica is the “jewel” of Central America many citizens from nearby countries want to enter for work or whatever. Accordingly, the Costa Rican officials are quite adamant that people who enter must have a return or forward ticket of some kind. Several people in the line ahead of me were pretty well hassled and had to buy TICA tickets from the awaiting representative. Steeling myself in anticipation of trying to explain that I have no such return/forward ticket -- and why not! -- I stepped up to the counter and handed over my documents.

With nary a word, my passport was stamped and I was waved on my way. It became clear to me in that moment that I don’t exactly fit the profile of someone who is going to be a problem for Costa Rica and that they really don’t “care” about me at all. This insight was very useful a few minutes later when -- after dragging all of our gear off the bus -- people lined up and opened their bags for customs inspection. Noticing that there was not enough “room at the trough” for all of us to present our luggage, I hung back a little bit with a few of my fellow riders. When a gap opened up, I walked up to the “trough” in front of “The Man” and smiled. With not a second’s pause, he waved me on my way without so much as a glance at my bags. Sometimes it’s good not to be “cared about.”

With the entry formalities behind us, it was five more hours to San Jose where I got off the TICA Bus one last time, grabbed my gear and got a taxi to the hotel. Check in was smooth, my room has air conditioning and an occasionally stable internet connection. Color me happy! I had a light supper and hit the rack, quite satisfied with the week I have spent on “The John Galt Line!” This morning I sorted my gear, gathered up my laundry and headed out for “chore day.” I found a tidy little laundromat where I actually got to wash my own clothes and then picked up a few supplies.

My folks are due to arrive on Saturday for a week of co-exploration on an organized tour, so I am going to repack my gear such that I will be able to leave the “warehouse” behind and not lug it all over the country. In addition, I don’t know how good internet connections will be where we are going, so I am making sure everything is up to date. I had originally expected that “The John Galt Line” would render media suitable for a Report, but it just doesn’t look that way to me now. There is only so much you can do with photos of a bus and various checkpoints, and I think the Photos page and Logbook entries do a sufficient job of telling the story.

So, I will “sign off” for the moment and hope to provide updates over then next week or so as conditions permit. Today is “Day 100” on The Voyage and -- while I have thoroughly enjoyed and benefitted from everything that has happened so far -- I am looking forward to a bit of a “vacation” where somebody else handles all of the arrangements, logistics, etc. Nevertheless, stay tuned for more to come soon as The Voyage of Macgellan continues!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Logbook: The John Galt Line - Phase Two

JglphasetwoPhase Two of “The John Galt Line” through Central America began a lot like Phase One. This time, my “get up, get packed, check out and go to the TICA Bus” routine started on Sunday in San Salvador at 3am! Ugh! As usual, though I had been told to arrive at the TICA office at 4am -- which I did -- I found the place was still closed and shuttered. No matter, I had a nice “chat” with the shotgun armed security guard who was thrilled that I wanted to take his picture. Sure enough, the office opened by about 4:30 and people started to arrive. Shortly after 5am we were all loaded up and on our four hour leg toward the San Salvador - Honduras border.

I have been asked if I mind all the bus time, and my answer is “No, not at all.” For one thing, I am really enjoying the sense of time and space I have been getting from it and there never really is a dull moment. Between the antics of the people involved, the endless, subtle scenery changes and the vast quantities of media on my iPods, I have plenty to hold my attention and pass the time. Given the rigorous schedule, there’s always sleep to catch up on as well.

Anyway, the first border crossing was a complete no-brainer. We had been instructed to fill out a typical immigration form and give it to the “conductor” with our papers. At the actual border, “The Man” came on board, checked each of us out and sent us on our way. We never got off the bus and, because we did not make any stops in Honduras, we did not get off the bus until the Honduras-Nicaragua border. The way I would describe that crossing -- especially in comparison to the first two -- is downright enjoyable. There were the usual people, kids, dogs, etc., but everybody just kind of milled around and hung out. I changed a little money, bought a sandwich and a Coke then took in the sights and sounds. I wondered if maybe it all seemed so much more relaxed because I had just become accustomed to the routine, but several of the other passengers made observations similar to mine.

So, after a pleasant little break, we loaded up again and drove 4 more hours to Managua. At the bus station here, I grabbed my gear, made my reservation for the final leg to Costa Rica and got a cab to the hotel. Check in was easy and a few minutes later I was online. A delicious buffet dinner later, I crashed and had a really good sleep. It all sounds so familiar, doesn’t it? Yesterday I spent a lot of time on-line talking to friends all over the world. It’s funny, but when you are in a generic hotel room, connecting with others, it really doesn’t make much difference where you are. At moments, I had to remind myself that I am in Nicaragua!

Anyway, I walked across the street to the little shopping plaza and found the usual collection of stores: clothing, shoes, pharmacy and phones. After dinner I played cards for an hour in the silly little hotel casino amongst a mainly Chinese crowd. It appears that the Chinese are the “big money” around here, but I was unable to discern exactly what that is all about. What I can tell you is that they were all lousy blackjack players and I couldn’t even count the amount of money that was handed across the table.

This morning I arranged to get a “tour” from a taxi driver who is associated with the hotel. His name is “Parole” -- pronounced “Parolay” -- and his highly acclaimed English turned out to be little better than my Spanish. On top of which, he compensated by repeating the same things over and over in increasingly loud volume. All in all, though, we had a successful exploration and I can offer you this simple report: Managua is a mess. Having been destroyed so many times by a series of earthquakes and fires, it is nothing more than a random sprawl of one story buildings scattered among what appear to be garbage dumps. There are numerous public buildings and military installation -- remnants of the Sandinista mess -- interspersed with factories and pseudo-industrial complexes. Parole informed me that there are a few wealthy families, some more that are well to do, some more that are “so-so” and the vast majority that are poor, without jobs and hungry. The picture matches the story.

I have not been able to get a straight answer from anyone about whether or not the recent re-election of Ortega will be good for the country, but it doesn’t really seem to matter. The only thing that will really help is a massive investment of foreign industry and decades of socio-political reform and stability. I can’t recommend the former and I doubt the latter. So, I’d expect this to remain an area with problems for a long, long time. Nevertheless, the people are warm and friendly, the infrastructure seems to work and I have enjoyed my brief visit. Tomorrow morning I will repeat the early routine and be back at the TICA Bus by 6am. One more day on The John Galt Line and I will be in Costa Rica!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Logbook: The John Galt Line - Phase One

JglphaseonePhase One of “The John Galt Line” through Central America began at 5am on Thursday in Tapachula when I got up, got packed and checked out of the Loma Real that had been my home for a nice few days. Arriving at the local bus station at the appointed time of 6am -- for my 7am bus -- I was not terribly surprised to find the station empty except for an armed security guard. I have gotten accustomed to “things coming together in due course” so I just had a seat and waited. Sure enough, a few other people began to arrive and, promptly at ten minutes to seven, the TICA Bus pulled in and a company-uniformed young man waved us over and began to check our tickets and load us up. I was having some of the usual difficulty discussing the details of my itinerary with him when a white woman walked up and began complaining loudly at him in Spanish about having gotten the same lack of useful information and poor service that Paulina and I had gotten from the “bitch” ticket agent. After a few minutes of back and forth -- with her mostly yelling and him mostly nodding -- he asked her if she spoke English. With a stunned and combative look on her face, she replied in English, “My Spanish is perfectly good! Why do you want me to speak English?” I suppressed my laugh and said to her, “It’s not for him, Ma’am. It’s for me. I need help with Spanish.” It took a moment for her to switch gears, the she said to me, “Oh, what’s the problem?” Thus went my introduction to Claire, a Belgian woman who has been traveling in Central and South America for most of a year. After a few minutes of her helpful translation, all was in order and we began our bus ride.

After not quite an hour, the driver made an announcement that we were at the border with Guatemala and that we would have to get off the bus for immigration. I have read numerous blog accounts of the experience of border crossing in this region -- and I had readied myself to document it for you by holding my passport in one hand and my camera in the other before stepping off the bus -- but nothing could have prepared me for the chaotic melee into which I descended. Dozens -- perhaps a hundred -- locals were pressed up to the bus, yelling, waiving and pointing. Within seconds, several had grabbed for my passport, others had grabbed for my camera and one tried to pick my pocket. Those of you who know me know that I am generally pretty easy-going about things, but you also know I don’t take kindly to being hassled. I shoved my hands in my pockets, gave them all that “look” I have -- the one that seems to be pretty universally understood as “Back off or die!” -- and barged my way through. Sometimes, having grown up in New York, been in my share of hot-spots and being substantially larger in bulk that those around me has its advantages!

A few yards away I saw that Claire -- despite her own strong attitude and abilities -- was under fire and “stuck” in the mob. I pushed my way over to her, put my arm around her and moved us through to the immigration building. With just a look, she let me know that we were “even” in the “help your fellow traveler” category. Inside the immigration building, the situation was somewhat more orderly as we got our passports stamped out of Mexico. From there, it was a hundred yard walk across the actual border to the immigration building in Guatemala where we were stamped in and loaded back onto the awaiting TICA Bus. My immediate regret was that I had not taken any photos of the ordeal, but I gave myself a break due to conditions and settled in my seat.

After an uneventful three hour ride to Guatemala City, we arrived at the TICA Bus office and had about an hour before departure. I saw an ATM machine right outside of a Subway restaurant, so I did a one-stop-shop for a few Quetzales and a sandwich. The ride to the next border between Guatemala and El Salvador was another uneventful three hours and -- by comparison to the first one -- the crossing was mild bordering on pleasant. Our papers were checked by “The Man” who came on the bus, then we all got off to supervise the inspection of our luggage. Money changers were on hand and -- because El Salvador uses actual US dollars -- it was a good place to get rid of my few Quetzales and the Pesos I had left over from Mexico. So, using the ever-present calculator, I negotiated a pretty good rate and pocketed bucks. With the remaining time before our departure, I bought a bottle of water and some kind of cookies from a pleasant older woman then just enjoyed the scene: Officials doing their routine, people changing money, boys shining shoes, girls selling food, little children asking for coins and dogs begging for food. Perfect.

In due course, we loaded up and drove the remaining three hours to San Salvador, arriving at about 7pm. I reserved my seat for the next leg and got a cab to the Holiday Inn where I was greeted -- in English! -- and checked in. I had some dinner and felt pretty exhausted from the long and amazing day, so I crashed for solid eight hour sleep. Yesterday, I had a lengthy “other work” Skype call, did some website updates, treated myself to a massage and generally took it easy. Today I have been on-line talking with friends and family, sorting out my gear and preparing to move on in the morning. I realize that I haven’t done any “exploration” here, but I’m not bothered about it. My hotel is located pretty far from “downtown” and I’m not really motivated to make a “fly by.” I’m happy to have the chance to recharge my batteries -- figuratively and literally -- and get myself ready for Phase Two! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Logbook: The John Galt Line

JohngaltlineA few days ago, I had a delightful -- as always -- conversation with an old friend, client and Voyage sponsor. Among the many topics, we talked about how I was planning to get to San Jose, Costa Rica in time to meet my folks there on the 18th. I described for him an insight I have gained so far on the Voyage regarding the relationship between factors like speed, safety, stress and economy. It strikes me as a somewhat complicated algorithm, but it goes something like this: The faster and farther I move, the more I feel the need to make “arrangements” in advance. I’ll admit that I’m not yet completely comfortable riding all night on a bus, arriving in some strange city and just “looking around” for a place to stay. It would be stressful any time, but it is especially so when one reads about the potential dangers that lurk in one’s destination. In order to be “safe”, I find myself going to the website for the Holiday Inn and picking “good” hotels, any of which, of course, are not the most economical to stay in.

On my “run” to San Jose, the TICA Bus makes overnight stops at San Salvador and Managua -- even the bus doesn’t run at night in this territory. I have read blogs by folks who have done it in three consecutive days and simply “gotten a room” at one of the cheap, run down rooming houses in the neighborhood of the bus stations, but that seems to me to miss the opportunity to do any exploration at all in those cities. I don’t have to be in San Jose in three days, so why not take a couple of days in each city along the way. You probably see my dilemma by now. The longer I take in each city, the more chance I have to “check it out” -- and not totally wear myself out from three consecutive days on the bus! -- but staying in a Holiday Inn in each city for three nights is more expensive than I would normally want to finance on The Voyage. So, my friend and I talked at some length about the balance between going safe, stress-free and expensive or going cheap.

As is his nature, he ended the conversation by saying, “You’re smart. You’ll figure it out.” We said our good-byes and hung up. A few minutes later, while I was still pondering my options, I got an e-mail notification from PayPal that I had received funds. When I checked my account, I found that my friend had sent a rather large sponsorship with a note that simply read, “Go safe.” I was so touched -- and energized -- by his thoughtful support that I e-mailed him right away. I told him that in accord with the sponsorship guidelines of The Voyage his support deserved special recognition. I know him well enough to know that he always wants to remain “anonymous” so I asked if perhaps there was some way I could acknowledge his sponsorship without using his name. His reply: “You’re smart. You’ll figure it out.”

So, in honor of my good friend and excellent sponsor, I have named the run I will make at his expense through the “difficult” parts of Central America after one of our shared heroes: John Galt -- a central character in Ayn Rand’s fabulous book “Atlas Shrugged”. So there you have it. I’m off in the morning along the route you see in the map above. Twelve hours by bus from Tapachula through Guatemala to El Salvador with three nights and two days in the capitol city. Then twelve more hours to Managua, Nicaragua with three nights and two days there. Twelve more hours on the bus will put me in San Jose, Costa Rica on the 15th. I’ve got my ticket for the TICA Bus and I’ve got reservations at Holiday Inns for each stop. The trip will surely be physically demanding, but I will be safe and stress-free. Many, many thanks to my generous sponsor. I look forward to sharing my discoveries along “The John Galt Line” with all of you in the coming days.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Logbook: Tapachula

TapachulaTapachula was a very good choice as a place to spend a few days of “recovery” -- from my excellent but very difficult and exhausting time in Mexico City -- and “preparation” -- for my transit of Central America to Costa Rica. A city of about 300,000 people, it can best be described as a “cross-roads commercial city.” Depending on how you look at it, Tapachula is either the last substantial city as you head south out of Mexico or the first as you head north from Central American. Either way, it is a place where business people meet “in the middle” and tourists stop “along the way.” There is some opportunity for cultural exploration, but I honestly haven’t done much of it. For me, it has been a pleasant and serviceable little oasis.

Here is a brief recap of the past few days: After leaving Greg at the airport in Mexico City last Thursday, Miguel and I went to his favorite place for lunch then did a little more generic sightseeing. After that, he dropped me off at the bus station where I caught my ride south. The bus left promptly at 6pm and I spent the next 18 hours in relative comfort on the “executive” bus, watching video and listening to podcasts -- Have I told you how much I love my iPods! -- and getting a reasonable amount of sleep. After rolling into the Tapachula bus station at noon on Friday morning, I went to the ticket counter to reserve my place on the famous “TICA Bus” that will take me further south. After about 20 minutes of going back and forth with the woman at the counter -- including ample pointing to my map and calendar -- she handed me a clipboard with pages that vaguely resembled the seating chart for a bus and had me write my name in a box on a page marked with the date of my desired departure. She seemed rather unfriendly and disinclined to be helpful, so I figured that was as good as it was going to get. I grabbed a cab to the Hotel Loma Real -- a pleasant “resort” on a hill overlooking the city -- and checked in. A shower and lunch later, I took a little nap then went for a brief walk around the grounds. It was hot and muggy, but at least it wasn’t polluted! I went to bed early and slept like a log.

Saturday was a very leisurely day of on-line connection and general recovery. On Sunday I was a bit more productive, editing and posting a lot of website content. In two days, I never left the Loma Real compound. Yesterday was “chore day” and I went into town to drop off my laundry, get my hair cut and shop for supplies in a pretty good sized mall. Not feeling confident about my TICA Bus situation, I had arranged with Paulina -- a nice young woman who works at the Loma Real and has excellent English -- to meet me at the bus station and negotiate on my behalf. After about 10 minutes of rapid-fire Spanish and quite a bit of what seemed like heated debate, Paulina explained to me that I was “on the list” and could just show up the morning of my departure, pay my fare and get on the bus. As we walked out, I thanked her and told her that I had found the ticket woman to be rather difficult. Paulina’s response was classic: “She is -- how do you say it -- a bitch!” We both laughed then I treated her to dinner at a nice little restaurant before parting ways.

Today I have been doing some “other work” and generally preparing to head south. Tomorrow I will collect my laundry, pack up my gear and finish getting ready for the TICA bus run -- aka “The John Galt Line” -- through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to Costa Rica. I will also take time to tell you what that is all about! Stand by!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Haircut Chronicle: #2 - Tapachula, Mexico

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#2 - November 6, 2006, Tapachula, Mexico. It’s hot down here and I’m heading further south. Time for a trim! I have no idea what her name is -- and we had practically no ability to communicate -- but she was game to give it a try! Don’t be fooled by the look on her face. We were both pretty happy with the results. Cost: 80 Pesos ($8)

Musing: Sigma Iotia Mexico

Sigmaiotiamexico1One of my favorite episodes from the original Star Trek series is entitled “A Piece of the Action” which has a plot that goes something like this: Kirk and the crew beam down to the planet Sigma Iotia II and find themselves in an Earth-like 1920s era gangster culture. The people dress, talk and act like gangsters, but the crew finds that the food tastes wrong, the smells are off and the feel of things is inaccurate. They come to discover that a hundred years earlier a Federation vessel had accidentally left a book about gangsters behind on the planet, and the imaginative and intelligent inhabitants had built their culture around what they read and saw in the book. They got the sound and look right from the words and pictures, but they did not -- could not -- get the right taste, smell and feel from the book. This episode of Star Trek came to mind recently because it is an allegory of how I have come to view Mexico. Don’t get me wrong, I mean no disrespect. I have grown quite fond of Mexico, especially the warm, friendly, hard working and good natured people. The way things are, though, has an aspect of “looks right, works wrong.”

Sigmaiotiamexico2A few examples: In most of the hotels I have stayed in, there is a little receptacle by the door into which you put your card key when you enter the room. This activates the electricity, air, etc. The idea, of course, is that one should not waste energy when the room is empty. The problem is that ALL the electricity goes off, including the outlet into which the fancy clock radio is plugged. As a result, you have to reset the clock every time you re-enter the room. In two places so far, the outlet for the clock radio has been on the same circuit as the light switch, rendering it useless either as a clock at night or as an alarm in the morning. Unless, of course, you sleep with the lights on. Another example is that the ATM machines dispense very large bills, generally as large as possible to require the fewest bills to meet the amount of your withdrawal. The problem is that nobody -- including your hotel -- is readily willing or able to change them into smaller bills. As a result, you have to wait on a long line at the bank to change the big bills you just got from their ATM machine. The technology is in place and works as far as it goes, but the system breaks down in the context of the larger reality. My favorite example is in the Mexico City subway system where the hi-tech turnstiles accept little paper tickets with a magnetic stripe on them to speed you through and on your way. The problem is that the turnstiles accept only these paper tickets. You cannot use coins. Where do you get the paper tickets? Perhaps at an automated dispenser that accepts coins? No, because there are none. You have to wait in a line and buy the paper tickets from a person who tears them off a roll that is designed to be used in an automated dispenser!

Now, these kinds of things do not really annoy me. To the contrary, I find them rather endearing and a source of constant amusement. I would, however, offer an opinion and spotlight an opportunity: Mexico has the potential to be a world class country. It has natural resources, hard working people and a wonderful location. What it doesn’t seem to have is “the rest of the picture.” Like Sigma Iotia II from Star Trek, it has “some of it right” but not “all of it right.” The intelligent and imaginative people of Mexico have built aspects of their culture around what they have seen elsewhere in pictures, books and movies, but they have not -- can not -- get the whole thing right without complete, actual experience of how can be. The opportunity is simple: An enterprising individual could, I believe, make a pretty good living out of providing the exchange of experience by spending time in Mexico and pointing out the “disconnects” to those who stand to profit -- especially in the lucrative tourist market -- from improving the “look and feel.” Even better, I think there is a strong market opportunity for a business that would allow Mexicans to experience a “fully functioning environment.” If a “Kidzania” can give the children of Mexico an experience of proper commerce, why couldn’t a “Ritzania” give their working parents -- especially in the lucrative tourist industry -- an experience of proper accommodation. If they actually experience “all of it right” I believe they would “make it all right.” The potential benefits to them and their economy are enormous.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Logbook: Cinco Dias En Mexico

Cincodiasenmexico1I have a lot of great media of the five days “Los Viajeros” have spent in Mexico City which I will soon edit into a Report. Meanwhile, here is a recap: After getting a much needed good night’s sleep on Friday night -- in our cool, quiet, mosquito-free room at the fabulous Gran Hotel -- we decided to make Saturday an “overview” day. So, after breakfast and a brief walk around Zocalo we got on the “Turibus” -- the typical red, double-decker, open air bus that most major cities have for tourists -- and had a four hour tour around the major highlights of the city. The many famous buildings and monuments were interesting, of course, but what was most amazing is the city’s sheer mass of humanity... and traffic! With over 20 million people -- and a comparable number of vehicles -- Mexico City is the world’s second most populous city. One is constantly surrounded by people and suffocated by exhaust, smog and pollution. At one point, when we got off the bus to take a break, Greg had no problem doing his usual routine of getting his picture taken with local girls. With his disarming smile and infectious positive energy, he always seems to bring out the “fun” in people. My role as “straight man” involves saying, “Lo siento, mi tio es muy loco!” which always clinches the deal. The Mexican people are very warm, friendly and happy, which is somehow in stark contrast to the very difficult living conditions of the city.

After a little “recovery” time in our room, we had dinner and hit the rack. On Sunday morning we met with Miguel -- a professional tour guide with a wonderful sense of humor and excellent English -- for a full day of sightseeing. We drove south through the city, stopped at a number of interesting places where we enjoyed Miguel’s insightful “esplanations” and good humor, then went to a local professional soccer game. What an experience! The cheering, chanting and singing never stopped during the entire game, and by the time it was over we were fast friends with many of the fans. After the game we drove to the floating gardens for an enjoyable “barge ride.” This experience is impossible to describe, so you will have to wait to see it in the Report. The day pretty much wore us out, so we did our routine of rest, eat and sleep.

On Monday, I had an “inside day” to make some arrangements for the Voyage going forward and to do some “other work” which included several excellent telecons on my beloved Skype -- Have I mentioned it’s free! Greg headed out for a day of exploration, returning completely exhausted in the afternoon -- it is impossible to express how the oppressive conditions in this city will wear you out -- ready for a nap, dinner and sleep. Yesterday, we headed out together for a day of exploration that centered around experiencing the city’s subway system. We were very impressed with the Metro, and would recommend it to any visitor as a way to get around. The trains run frequently, swiftly and all over the city, carrying more than five million people a day. Greg had heard that “old” people get to ride for free, so he made a comedy routine out of getting the turnstile guards to let him through without paying. The video of this is priceless! At one point, we got off at a station where we were told there was a “Museum of Torture” -- something we just had to see -- and spent an hour trying to get directions from local folks. We finally gave up and returned to Zocalo, only to find out that the museum was within walking distance of our hotel! After touring the exhibit -- which was positively ghastly -- we returned to our hotel for -- you guessed it -- rest, dinner and sleep!

Cincodiasenmexico2This morning, we met up with Miguel and drove out of the city to see the famous pyramids at Teotehuican. We again had the benefit of Miguel’s vast knowledge, informative “esplain you everything” and wonderfully dry wit. Because we had both been feeling so badly as a result of Mexico City’s altitude, pollution, etc., we were initially unsure about our ability to climb the Sun Pyramid. Taking our time, however, we successfully scaled the structure and were rewarded with a wonderful vista. If you ever visit Mexico City, the pyramids are a “must.” Not only is it a very interesting archeological site, it is also a great escape from the oppressive conditions of the city. Upon our return to the hotel, we had a rest then went out to have our last dinner together and our last immersion into the insanity of Zocalo -- which was on overdrive due to “Day of the Dead” festivities!

Tomorrow we will pack up, check out and head our separate ways. Greg has an afternoon flight back to Seattle, and I will catch an overnight bus south to Tapachula where I will spend a few days in the state of Chiapas before embarking on my “Central America Sprints” through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua on my way to Costa Rica. In closing, I want to express my thanks to Greg for joining me on The Voyage this past week. I simply could not have had as good a time in Mexico City without him. The conditions here are so difficult that I might have left without experiencing all the good and interesting things that the city has to offer. We always have a good time together, but this time I was enriched and reinforced by his presence. Muchas gracias, Pumito!

(PS - Greg says to tell everyone what a great time he had as well. He also encourages everyone to join The Voyage of Macgellan somewhere. He says, “It’s great! Macgellan does all the scouting and logistics. All you have to do is catch a flight and be ready for spontaneous adventure! Don’t miss this once in a lifetime opportunity!”... Macgellan agrees! See you soon?)