Category Archives: Travel

Mud, Airplanes, Arduino, and Fun

The last few weeks have been pretty hectic in their way, but I’ve also had the chance to take some time off work to spend with family, which has been nice.

Memorial Day: breakfast and mud

For Memorial Day, I decided it would be nice to have a cookout for breakfast rather than for dinner. So we all went out to the fire ring. Jacob and Oliver helped gather kindling for the fire, while Laura chopped up some vegetables. Once we got a good fire going, I cooked some scrambled eggs in a cast iron skillet, mixed with meat and veggies. Mmm, that was tasty.

Then we all just lingered outside. Jacob and Oliver enjoyed playing with the cats, and the swingset, and then…. water. They put the hose over the slide and made a “water slide” (more mud slide maybe).

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Then we got out the water balloon fillers they had gotten recently, and they loved filling up water balloons. All in all, we all just enjoyed the outdoors for hours.

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Flying to Petit Jean, Arkansas

Somehow, neither Laura nor I have ever really been to Arkansas. We figured it was about time. I had heard wonderful things about Petit Jean State Park from other pilots: it’s rather unique in that it has a small airport right in the park, a feature left over from when Winthrop Rockefeller owned much of the mountain.

And what a beautiful place it was! Dense forests with wonderful hiking trails, dotted with small streams, bubbling springs, and waterfalls all over; a nice lake, and a beautiful lodge to boot. Here was our view down into the valley at breakfast in the lodge one morning:

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And here’s a view of one of the trails:

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The sunset views were pretty nice, too:

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And finally, the plane we flew out in, parked all by itself on the ramp:

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It was truly a relaxing, peaceful, re-invigorating place.

Flying to Atchison

Last weekend, Laura and I decided to fly to Atchison, KS. Atchison is one of the oldest cities in Kansas, and has quite a bit of history to show off. It was fun landing at the Amelia Earhart Memorial Airport in a little Cessna, and then going to three museums and finding lunch too.

Of course, there is the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, which is a beautifully-maintained old house along the banks of the Missouri River.

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I was amused to find this hanging in the county historical society museum:

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One fascinating find is a Regina Music Box, popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It operates under the same principles as those that you might see that are cylindrical. But I am particular impressed with the effort that would go into developing these discs in the pre-computer era, as of course the holes at the outer edge of the disc move faster than the inner ones. It would certainly take a lot of careful calculation to produce one of these. I found this one in the Cray House Museum:

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An Arduino Project with Jacob

One day, Jacob and I got going with an Arduino project. He wanted flashing blue lights for his “police station”, so we disassembled our previous Arduino project, put a few things on the breadboard, I wrote some code, and there we go. Then he noticed an LCD in my Arduino kit. I hadn’t ever gotten around to using it yet, and of course he wanted it immediately. So I looked up how to connect it, found an API reference, and dusted off my C skills (that was fun!) to program a scrolling message on it. Here is Jacob showing it off:

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Free cars, sunsets, and Kansas

“Will you have a car I can borrow?” I asked.

“Sure. No charge. There’s a sign telling you where to find the key.”

It is pretty common for small airports to have a car for a pilot to borrow when flying in. This lets a person go into town for lunch, or visit friends. And it’s usually free, with a can to donate a few bucks or a polite request to fill up the tank when you’re done.

Still, when I had called ahead to ask about flying into the airport in a small town in north-central Kansas, I hadn’t expected to be told to just waltz into the place and take the key. But they had no staff at the airport most of the time. So, to me — another person from a small town — it made perfect sense. Somehow, because of that phone call, this town I had visited once, maybe 25 years ago, seemed instantly familiar.

My mom grew up in a small town near there. She wanted me to see where she grew up, to meet some people that meant a lot to her. As it’s quite a distance from home, I offered to fly her there. So, Laura, mom, and I climbed into a Cessna one morning for the flight northwest. We touched down at the airport, and I pulled the plane up to the little terminal building.

Smith Center, KS airport terminal

After I took care of parking the plane, I went to find the car. Except the car was missing. Some other pilot had flown in the same day and was using it, according to the logbook on the desk. I called the number on a sign — which rang to the sheriff’s office — and they confirmed it. According to the logbook, this was only the third time that car had been driven since Thanksgiving. Were we stuck at the airport a few miles out of down?

Nope. Mom called the people we were going to meet, a wonderful couple in their upper 80s. They drove out to pick us up. I’m rather glad the car was gone, because I had such a great time visiting with them. Norris told me about the days when the state highways were gravel — how they’d have to re-blade them every few days due to all the traffic. I heard about what happened when the people in that community heard of some folks in Africa in need of car equipment — they modified a tractor to fit in a shipping container and shipped it to Africa, along with a lot of books, blankets, supplies, and anything else needed to fill up a huge shipping container. Sounds like something people around here would do.

We drove around a couple of the small towns. The town my mom grew up in has seen better days. Its schools closed years ago, the old hotel whose owner gave her piano lessons is condemned, and many houses have been lost. But the town lives on. A new community center was built a few years ago. The grain elevator is expanding. Every time a business on Main Street closes, the grocery store expands a little bit: it’s now a grocery store with a little hardware store and a little restaurant mixed in. “The mall”, as the locals jokingly call it. And, of course, two beautiful small churches still meet every Sunday. Here’s the one my mom attended as a child.

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We drove past the marker at the geographic center of the contiguous United States. Norris saw some other visitors, rolled down his windows, and treated them — and us — to an unexpected story of the time thousands of people banded together to completely build a house in a single day, just down the road. Smiles all around.

So here I was, nearly 200 miles from home, in an unfamiliar town – but one where I could just feel the goodness. After spending a few hours with these people, I felt like they were old friends.

As I flew us home, I spotted one of my favorite Kansas sights: a beautiful sunset. From the plane, it almost looks like the land at the horizon turns blue like the ocean, and above it the last hint of sun paints the canvas-sky.

In this week of controversy, politics, and reports of violence, it reminds me that we all get the privilege of sharing this beautiful Earth. I didn’t ask anybody on that trip about their politics, religion, or opinions on any of the divisive issues of the day. Whether they agree with me on those things or not is irrelevant. I got to spend a day with good-hearted and delightful people, so I flew back with a smile.

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The Train to Galesburg

Sometimes, children are so excited you just can’t resist. Jacob and Oliver have been begging for a train trip for awhile now, so Laura and I took advantage of a day off school to take them to the little town of Galesburg, IL for a couple days.

Galesburg is a special memory for me; nearly 5 years ago, it was the first time Jacob and I took an Amtrak trip somewhere, just the two of us. And, separately, Laura’s first-ever train trip had been to Galesburg to visit friends.

There was excitement in the air. I was asked to supply a bedtime story about trains — I did. On the way to the train station — in the middle of the night — there was excited jabbering about trains. Even when I woke them up, they lept out of bed and raced downstairs, saying, “Dad, why aren’t you ready yet?”

As the train was passing through here at around 4:45AM, and we left home with some time to spare, we did our usual train trip thing of stopping at the one place open at such a time: Druber’s Donuts.

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Much as Laura and I might have enjoyed some sleep once we got on the train, Jacob and Oliver weren’t having it. Way too much excitement was in the air. Jacob had his face pressed against the window much of the time, while Oliver was busy making “snake trains” from colored clay — complete with eyes.

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The boys were dressed up in their train hats and engineer overalls, and Jacob kept musing about what would happen if somebody got confused and thought that he was the real engineer. When an Amtrak employee played along with that later, he was quite thrilled!

We were late enough into Galesburg that we ate lunch in the dining car. A second meal there — what fun! Here they are anxiously awaiting the announcement that the noon reservations could make their way to the dining car. Oh, and jockeying for position to see who would be first and get to do the all-important job of pushing the button to open the doors between train cars.

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Even waiting for your food can be fun.

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Upon arriving, we certainly couldn’t leave the train station until our train did, even though it was raining.

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Right next to the train station is the Discovery Depot Children’s Museum. It was a perfect way to spend a few hours. Jacob really enjoyed the building wall, where you can assemble systems that use gravity (really a kinetic/potential energy experiment wall) to funnel rubber balls all over the place. He sticks out his tongue when he’s really thinking. Fun to watch.

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Meanwhile, Oliver had a great time with the air-powered tube system, complete with several valves that can launch things through a complicated maze of transparent tubes.

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They both enjoyed pretending I was injured and giving me rides in the ambulance. I was diagnosed with all sorts of maladies — a broken leg, broken nose. One time Jacob held up the pretend stethoscope to me, and I said “ribbit.” He said, “Dad, you’ve got a bad case of frog! You will be in the hospital 190 days!” Later I would make up things like “I think my gezotnix is all froibled” and I was ordered to never leave the ambulance again. He told the story of this several times.

After the museum closed, we ate supper. Keep in mind the boys had been up since the middle of the night without sleeping and were still doing quite well! They did start to look a bit drowsy — I thought Oliver was about to fall asleep, but then their food came. And at the hotel, they were perfectly happy to invent games involving jumping off the bed.

Saturday, we rode over to Peck Park. We had heard about this park from members of our church in Kansas, but oddly even the taxi drivers hadn’t ever heard of it. It’s well known as a good place to watch trains, as it has two active lines that cross each other at a rail bridge. And sure enough, in only a little while, we took in several trains.

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The rest of that morning, we explored Galesburg. We visited an antique mall and museum, saw the square downtown, and checked out a few of the shops — my favorite was the Stray Cat, featuring sort of a storefront version of Etsy with people selling art from recycled objects. But that wasn’t really the boys’ thing, so we drifted out of there on our way to lunch at Baked, where we had some delicious deep-dish pizza.

After that, we still had some time to kill before getting back on the train. We discussed our options. And what do you know — we ended up back at the children’s museum. We stopped at a bakery to get the fixins for a light supper on the train, and ate a nice meal in the dining car once we got on. Then, this time, they actually slept.

Before long, it was 3AM again and time to get back off the train. Oliver was zonked out sleepy. Somehow I managed to get his coat and backpack on him despite him being totally limp, and carried him downstairs to get off the train. Pretty soon we walked to our car and drove home.

We tucked them in, and then finally tucked ourselves in. Sometimes being really tired is well worth it.

The Time Machine of Durango

“The airplane may be the closest thing we have to a time machine.”

– Brian J. Terwilliger

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There is something about that moment. Hiking in the mountains near Durango, Colorado, with Laura and the boys, we found a beautiful spot with a view of the valley. We paused to admire, and then –

The sound of a steam locomotive whistle from down below, sounding loud all the way up there, then echoing back and forth through the valley. Then the quieter, seemingly more distant sound of the steam engine heading across the valley, chugging and clacking as it goes. More whistles, the sight of smoke and then of the train full of people, looking like a beautiful model train from our vantage point.

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I’ve heard that sound on a few rare recordings, but never experienced it. I’ve been on steam trains a few times, but never spent time in a town where they still run all day, every day. It is a different sort of feeling to spend a week in a place where Jacob and Oliver would jump up several times a day and rush to the nearest window in an attempt to catch sight of the train.

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Airplanes really can be a time machine in a sense — what a wondrous time to be alive, when things so ancient are within the reach of so many. I have been transported to Lübeck and felt the uneven 700-year-old stones of the Marienkirche underneath my feet, feeling a connection to the people that walked those floors for centuries. I felt the same in Prague, in St. George’s Basilica, built in 1142, and at the Acropolis of Lindos, with its ancient Greek temple ruins. In Kansas, I feel that when in the middle of the Flint Hills — rolling green hills underneath the pure blue sky with billowing white clouds, the sounds of crickets, frogs, and cicadas in my ears; the sights and sounds are pretty much as they’ve been for tens of thousands of years. And, of course, in Durango, arriving on a plane but seeing the steam train a few minutes later.

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It was fitting that we were in Durango with Laura’s parents to celebrate their 50th anniversary. As we looked forward to riding the train, we heard their stories of visits to Durango years ago, of their memories of days when steam trains were common. We enjoyed thinking about what our lives would be like should we live long enough to celebrate 50 years of marriage. Perhaps we would still be in good enough health to be able to ride a steam train in Durango, telling about that time when we rode the train, which by then will have been pretty much the same for 183 years. Or perhaps we would take them to our creek, enjoying a meal at the campfire like I’ve done since I was a child.

Each time has its unique character. I am grateful for the cameras and airplanes and air conditioning we have today. But I am also thankful for those things that connect us with each other trough time, those rocks that are the same every year, those places that remind us how close we really are to those that came before.

Suggestions for visiting the UK?

My wife and I have been thinking of visiting the UK for awhile, and we’re finally starting to make some plans. I would be grateful to anyone reading this that might have some time to make suggestions on places to go, things to do, etc.

Here’s a bit of background, if it helps.

We have both traveled internationally before; this would actually be the first time either of us has visited another English-speaking country. We are content, and in fact would prefer, to venture outside the most popular touristy areas (though that doesn’t mean we’d want to miss something awesome just because it’s popular.)

We will have a little less than a week, most likely. That means staying on one area, or two at the most. Some other tidbits:

  • I particularly enjoy old buildings: churches, castles, cathedrals. A 400-year-old country church off a dusty road would be as interesting to me as Westminster Abbey — I’d consider both awesome to see. Castles that are in a good state of repair would also be great. I’d enjoy getting in the countryside as well.
  • My wife would enjoy literary connections: anything related to Dickens, A. A. Milne, Jane Austen, C. S. Lewis, etc.
  • Although I know London is full of amazing sights, and that is certainly one destination we’re considering, I am also fine with things like Roman ruines in Wales, A. A. Milne’s estate, country churches, sites in Scotland, etc.
  • Ireland / Northern Ireland might be a possibility, but we are mainly focused on Great Britain so far.
  • Would we be able to accomplish this without a car? I understand it is rather difficult for Americans to have to drive in the UK.
  • Are there non-conventional lodging options such as bed and breakfasts that might let us get to know our hosts a little better?
  • If it helps understand me better, some highlights from my past trips included the amazing feeling of stepping back in time at Marienkirche in Lübeck or the Museum in der Runden Ecke (a former Stasi building in Leipzig), exploring the old city of Rhodes, or becoming friends with a shop owner in Greece and attending an amateur radio club meeting with him.

Finally, we would probably not be able to go until September. Is that a reasonable time? Is part of September maybe less busy but still decent weather?

Thanks for any advice!

Faces

A couple of weeks ago, I walked in to a nice, sit-down restaurant, with a smile on my face. It’s the kind of restaurant with folded cloth napkins on the tables. “Table for three, please” – as Jacob and Oliver were with me.

This much isn’t unusual. I have periodically taken them out to eat for quite some time, and they enjoy it.

But there were a few unusual things about this particular day. I suppose the main one is that they had just been doing this.

Yes, painting your own face can be a lot of fun. And also serious business.

The boys and I were in Santa Fe, NM on a train trip. It had been a year since their last train trip, and that’s longer than they are typically used to. I’d taken Jacob on a train trip with just the two of us before, but this was the first trip with just the two boys and me.

And one of the places we visited was the excellent Santa Fe Children’s Museum. It may be the best children’s museum I’ve ever seen. Not the largest, or the flashiest, but that’s part of the reason I say “best”. They had chimes (and many other percussive “instruments” to produce different pitches, including mounted hubcaps and varying length wooden planks). They had a great magnets table with washers and nuts, so children can build their own bridges, stairs, etc. using magnetism. A giant bubble table, tunnels to crawl in outside, etc. A great place.

And, apparently, the thing they were really known for — I did not know this in advance — is the paint your own face station. Jacob and Oliver really got into it. Oliver informed me he was a lion and I heard “ROAR! ROAR!” periodically all afternoon. Jacob asked me to help paint a J, and the spirals, on his cheeks. After some careful thought, he informed me that he was “spiral man”.

Next to the paint your own face area was a clean your own face area. Most kids were being helped to clean their own face by their parents on their way out. Jacob and Oliver protested that plan, so I figured, if they want to enjoy painted faces all day, why not?

And this, of course, led into lunch with self-painted faces. Nobody at the restaurant commented, but the owner had a huge grin when he saw them. (It was a Mediterranean place, and I’m sure the owner would have commented had there not been a language barrier.) Incidentally, the boys became quite the fans of souvlaki.

Later, as we walked around Santa Fe Plaza and another museum, they drew smiles all over the place. Several kind people asked them, “Did you enjoy the children’s museum?” Yes, everyone in Santa Fe seemed to know precisely where kids with painted faces had been that day.

Santa Fe is an amazing and beautiful city. It was warm and friendly, and the architecture and layout was fun to see – and pedestrian-friendly. We walked past the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi several times, and went in once. For some reason I could never fully explain, I could often smell their incense even a block or two away. It added to the crisp wintry feel of the plaza.

The point of the trip wasn’t Santa Fe, though. It was Jacob and Oliver on Amtrak, which is the thing they were really most excited about – of course. They were excited as usual, and despite the fact that the train comes through this area only at around 3AM, were plenty excited to be on the train. And, in fact, didn’t fall asleep again until about 5 due to the excitement (though they did an excellent job of being quiet). Of course, 6AM was “morning” so they were wide awake by then.

Jacob had been planning what he’d eat on the train for days already, and had announced he would be having French toast for breakfast and pizza at lunch. He was a bit disappointed to see that French toast wasn’t on the menu this time, but pancakes saved the day.

While waiting for the dining car to open at 6:30, we went to the lounge car for awhile. I had brought along various things for them to do on the train, of course, and among them was a notebook and some markers. Jacob loved drawing suns and stars, and sometimes writing short notes. He gave notes to several friendly people that happened to be visiting with us on the train. Oliver enjoyed it too, but he was more intrigued by the cheap set of multi-colored post-it notes.

There were two happy, and somewhat tired, boys getting off that train in the middle of the night when we returned.

Greece part 5: Friends and Radios

See also parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

This is the biggest highlight of our trip to Greece for me. I enjoy having the chance to meet people, visit for awhile, and make new friends — and that certainly happened in Greece.

In one of the shops we happened to step into, I noticed a radio behind the counter. That’s not unusual itself; radios often catch my eye these days. But this radio was tuned to 21.070, an amateur radio frequency. So I asked the shop owner if he happened to be a ham. And indeed he was. He was Lakis (SV5KKU), and Terah and I had a great time visiting with him. Terah took some photos of us, and then we made our purchases and headed out.

I had brought my HT (handheld radio, weighs a few ounces and is powered by batteries) with me, and Lakis told me about the repeaters in the area. I had known about some of that since I had emailed Panos of the amatuer radio club in Rhodes before leaving home (I found his name via Google).

A couple of days later, on Tuesday, we found ourselves back in Lindos. It was mid-afternoon, so the shops were quiet. After a late lunch, I thought it would be nice to drop in on Lakis one more time, since we were scheduled to fly back the following morning. I’m not sure how long we stayed — it must have been at least an hour — and enjoyed the fresh orange juice he prepared.

After we got back to our hotel Tuesday, I learned that our flights on Wednesday were canceled due to a nationwide air traffic controller strike in Greece. After 3 hours on the phone with Delta (more on that experience later), we got rescheduled to fly back Friday.

On Wednesday morning, I remembered that the Rhodes amateur radio club meets every Wednesday evening, and now I would be able to go! I knew how to contact Lakis by email and on the radio, and he kindly offered to pick me up and take me there.

So that evening, I got a tour of his impressive mountaintop installation, and then it was on to the club – the Radio Amateur Association of the Dodecanese (SZ5RDS). There I met Panos, whom I had emailed earlier (and I think surprised him a bit). It was a friendly group, and they translated into English for me every so often so I knew what was being discussed.

When I was about to leave, they gave me this:

The translation, partly from my memory and partly with the help of Google Translate, is:

Radio Amateur Association of the Dodecanese, SZ5RDS

Our friend and radio colleague KR0L JOHN GOERZEN, who visited the island, has our recognition as an HONORARY CLUB MEMBER.

PRESIDENT KAVALAKIS PANAGIOTIS SV5AZK (Panos)

SECRETARY PAPADIMITRIOU CHRISTOS SV5DDT

RHODES – Oct. 5, 2011

(I hope that any Greeks reading this will send me corrections.)

I truly appreciated that gesture – and meeting all the people in the club.

On the way back to the hotel, Lakis and I stopped by a restaurant, which I believe had the best souvlaki I’ve ever tasted — thanks! We brought some back for Terah. She had chosen to stay at the hotel that evening and had a small hotel meal earlier, but enjoyed the souvlaki and pita. Terah had explained to the maître d’ that I wasn’t along that evening because I had gone to an amateur radio club meeting. Judging by the surprised reaction, this was probably the first time they had heard that particular comment!

Experiences like this make travel fun and worthwhile. Thank you very much, Lakis and everyone in the club — I hope to have a chance to visit again.

Greece part 3: Water

See also parts 1 and 2.

That’s a photo of Vlicha Beach, near our hotel. But before I talk about the Greek beaches, I need to explain something about living in Kansas.

Kansas is in the middle of the United States. The nearest ocean is the Gulf of Mexico, which is 700 miles (1100km) away. That’s roughly the same as the distance between Berlin and Minsk, or New York and Chicago. And I believe it’s farther away from a saltwater body than all (or almost all) of Europe. So we’re not just going to the beach every weekend or something.

Vlicha Beach was all those incredible things you ever hear about beaches. The water was so clear that I could easily see my feat while wading in it. That, and the fish swimming around them. It was peaceful, relaxing, and picturesque. Between the deep blue of the sea and the same in the sky, I suppose it is no wonder that blue is often associated with Greece.

We weren’t exactly the only ones there.

Though I think we were the only ones there with Kindles, which seemed to be much more popular in the USA than in Europe. We got several interested people carrying paper books asking what they were.

Towards dusk, the mist would become more pronounced and the mountains off in the distance started to fade:

The evening before we were set to fly home, we spent some time sitting on our balcony watching dusk set in. One last gaze out over the beautiful Aegean, the misty mountains, and the boats in the distance.

Mexico Part 6: Conclusion

The sixth in a series; see also parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

It’s been about two weeks now since we got back home. Every few days, our boys still talk about Mexico. Jacob talks about what he will want to do “when we go back” and how he’d like to see Jonathan over there again. Jacob, Oliver, and I look at photos from our trip a few times a week. This is all a sure sign that our boys loved the trip. And I keep trying to find Mexican food that tastes as good as the real thing (and, so far, failing). Another sign of a good trip!

I think it is possible to have fun, relax, and enjoy new experiences all at the same time. We did that in Mexico. We had a lazy afternoon or two with the boys taking naps or playing with other children at the house we stayed at. And we stayed in a beautiful hotel without air conditioning, explored old downtown areas and ancient ruins, and bought things from crowded markets and people selling things from a table along a road.

To anyone thinking about visiting: Go. Enjoy it, bring back memories, and live a little more serendipitously than usual. That’s what I hope to do when we visit Greece before too long.

Finally, here’s a photo of the painting I bought from a roadside vendor for $17. Make sure to view it full screen. I think it says more about Mexico than 6 blog posts do.

Mexico Part 5: Food, Restaurants, and Dueling Karaoke Guys

The fifth in a series; see also parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

One piece of advice we got in Mexico went like this: the nicer a place looks, the worse the food and prices will be. Roadside taco stands will be great, and nice-looking restaurants not so much. That seemed to be accurate. We only tried one real nice-looking restaurant and it was very good (though pricy), but it may have been sort of an exception.

But perhaps the most interesting bit about eating in Mexico wasn’t the food. It’s the adventure.

We ate one day at Guadalajara’s San Juan de Dios market. In that huge labyrinth somewhere was a set of restaurants. They’d tend to have a small cooking area, usually just open, and a few tables. We chose one.

And at this point, I have to take brief detour and explain something. There are a lot of people in Mexico that do things for tips, and quite often without being asked. Some other examples might be washing a car’s windshield at a stoplight.

So anyhow, we had ordered our food, and before long, a guy wanders down the aisle and plonks down a boombox. And turns it on. And then he pulled out a microphone, which we quite soon realized was connected to the boombox. (I guess making it more of a karaoke box.) Anyhow, he started singing a song — decently — and seemed to be enjoying it. About 45 seconds into it, a competing boombox man plonked down a competing boombox 25 feet away, turned it on, and — yes, you guessed it — pulled out a microphone and started singing a different song. Worse than the first person but louder.

Eventually the boombox people left and our lunchtime conversation could resume. But pretty soon a drum guy showed up. He had a bunch of drums on a strap so he could just walk around and play them. He apparently decided that an excellent place to play them would be directly behind my head. I did not entirely agree with his decision, but hey, it beat the competing karaoke guys.

Eventually the drum guy left, and somehow between the time I looked down to get out money to pay our bill and the time I had it counted out, a clown had shown up and made several balloon animals for our boys. I tipped him, we paid, and then headed on.

You might think from this story that this would be an annoying series of events. And honestly, if it had happened in a big mall in the USA, it would probably have been both annoying and creepy. But really I enjoyed it. The fact that dueling karaoke happened, despite sounding really awful, was pretty funny and really seeing this whole parade of people was interesting too. It made American restaurants seem a little boring. You always know what’s going to happen here (and if something surprising does happen, the place probably gets a bad review on Yelp.) Interesting things sometimes happen at mealtimes in Mexico and I like it that way.

I had a torta ahogada (drowned sandwich) at that restaurant. And at this point, another brief aside.

I’m the kind of person that can go to an average American restaurant, see items on the menu helpfully indicated as spicy, order one, and genuinely wonder if other people would find them spicy, because I either don’t notice spiciness at all, or maybe notice a tiny bit if I concentrate really hard. Others, meanwhile, might take a bite and lunge for the water. Having said that, I know people that lived in Thailand for awhile and I have nowhere near their tolerance for spiciness.

So, having been in Mexico a whole 24 hours or so, I decided not to follow Jonathan’s wise lead in ordering a torta with the spicy sauce on the side. I figured I hadn’t had anything spicy yet, so maybe this was would be nice and mild for me. Via Jonathan’s translation, I ordered it with the spicy sauce. I believe the phrase I heard him use was “con chile“. The waitress looked at me, gave me an amused “the American is ordering it con chile? Hahaha….” sort of smile, and went off.

Pretty soon our food arrived. (The food always seems to arrive pretty soon in Mexico, by the way.) Oliver was having a bit of a culture shock that day, and mostly refusing to eat (once hunger got the best of him later, he really enjoyed Mexican food.) But the rest of us dug in, including me.

I enjoyed my torta. It was spicy, but not too bad. I took some big bites (it was, after all, a thick sandwich) and was really enjoying it. For about a minute. Slowest-acting spiciness I’ve had in awhile.

Then it hit me. Spiciness, and lots of it. I took a big gulp of my horchata (a creamy sweet rice drink that I found at many restaurants). That helped. A little. I really liked the torta and ate it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the waitress noticed how extremely quickly a drank my horchata…

Another interesting experience was in Guanajuato. It was raining as we walked towards the Guanajuato market. Their market was large and similar in concept to the Guadalajara one, though a lot smaller. The restaurants were all in a row, in a side of the building that was open to the outside. Most were on the ground level but it looked like a restaurant or two were upstairs.

As we approached, all of a sudden people were yelling at us. First it was a guy on the second story, then pretty soon people at the restaurants on the first floor did so as well. They were yelling rapidly in Spanish, waving their menus around in the air. I’m imagining they were naming foods they sold or reasons to eat there, but I don’t know enough Spanish to know. As we walked down the long row of restaurants, the ones we left behind would quiet down in disgust and other hopeful restaurant owners would take up the yelling and waving cause. I imagine if we did some time-lapse videography and walked up and down that row, we could produce an effect not unlike the sound of a dot-matrix printer going back and forth on the page.

Anyhow, we selected one of the quieter restaurants pretty much random. The others then quieted down until another person chanced to walk past — at which point it would get loud again. The lunch there was good but I think I mainly will remember it for the selection process!

On our way into Guanajuato, we stopped at a wonderful roadside taco place. In typical fashion, they had a large vertical pork thing (I don’t know the proper word for it) from which they would carve off meat on the spot anytime someone ordered something with pastor. We found a table. And we ordered a few tacos and such. They were usually a few pesos each (working out to less than a dollar), small round things on a soft tortilla, with meat, cilantro, and onion on top. And typically delicious. They had very little in common with an American “taco”.

We’d often order a few, and if we wanted more, just order more. They were made quickly enough for that. Tacos were very similar from one restaurant to the next. My favorite flavors were pastor (pork), chorizo (sausage), and bistec (beef steak).

A restaurant in Guadalajara — sadly I’ve forgotten its name, since we kept calling it “the potato place” — had what I might call a Mexican version of the loaded baked potato, with a meat, queso (cheese), a delicious sauce with a flavor unlike anything I’d had before, and some garnish. But really my favorite thing from that restaurant was their amazing juices. I am not much of a juice drinker normally, but in Mexico I went for them whenever they were offered. What passes as fruit juice in the USA has about as much resemblance to a real Mexican fruit juice as Taco Bell has to a real Mexican taco stand. (Very little, in case that wasn’t crystal clear.)

That particular restaurant offered three types of juices, which were, if I’m remembering right, aguas, frescas, and jugos. I has a jugo verde (green juice) on the first visit there. It was good, but the one I can still remember was called, I think, the fresa fresca (fresh strawberry juice). And it was incredible. I’m not sure how to describe it, other than real.

One observation before I end. It seemed a common thread at some Mexican roadside taco stands to not have soap in their restrooms. Instead there would be a plastic cup holding — I kid you not — powder-form Tide laundry detergent. It was amusing anyhow. My hands left those places extremely soft and smelling like laundry.

One of the last restaurants we visited on our trip was in Ajijic, near the Chapala lake. It was actually right on the lake and served seafood. This was the only restaurant with prices as high as I’d be used to in the United States. I ordered a stew served in a stone bowl. It came out sizzling, and since the very thick stone bowl retains heat well, it kept sizzling the entire time I was eating. It was excellent as usual.

Coming up in part 6: some thoughts on returning to the United States, our decision to visit, communication, and tips for anyone else considering a first visit to Mexico.