Category Archives: Travel

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.

Mexico Part 4: Street Scenes and Architecture

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

This post is going to be more a photolog than a narrative, and I apologize in advance for it being a bit disjointed.

I’ve already touched on these themes a bit in the other post, but now it’s time to focus on them. Immediately after leaving the airport, it’s quite clear that things are a little different. Trees are square. People ride around in the backs of pickups — sometimes on top of piles of debris. Left turns are made in front of other lanes of traffic going the same way. But those are just the things obvious from the road. It’s a lot of fun to enjoy the differences. First, the ubiquitous square trees.

They look pretty, and are found all over. I also found carefully-manicured trees in cone shapes, more cylindrical shapes, etc. It seems that tree care is taken seriously in Mexico. It was also not uncommon to see the bottom few feet of a tree painted white. A park in Guanajuato had a whole bunch of trees carefully trimmed.

And from up on the mountain, it still looked impressive (the green area behind the dome).

Driving in Mexico was interesting for a lot of reasons. The highways there aren’t quite as limited access as the freeways in the USA. It was quite common to see bicyclists, walkers, a mule, or some cattle ambling along the side of the road. Roadside taco stands don’t require taking an exit. You just pull off the road because it’s right there.

Some sights were a bit surprising. Cattle in a pickup, with rope, for instance.

Or cattle crossing the highway on the overpass.

Street vendors were everywhere. Stop at a red light and someone might spring from the side of the road and suddenly start washing your windshield (expecting a tip); try to sell you flowers, juice, or bug zappers; or even throw business card-sized advertisements for adult websites into any open windows they can find. One night we saw an incredible fire juggler. I would have tipped him well but he was too far away to do so before the light turned green.

Mexico’s history stretches back into prehistoric times, and we saw the Teuchitlan ruins at Guachimontones one day. It was truly a remarkable feeling to be able to walk down the middle of the ancient ball court, or to climb up one pyramid and see the other from it.

It’s not exactly architecture, but Jacob and Oliver sure enjoyed visiting the hot springs at Bosque de la Primavera. Jacob still remembers that “where the steam is, the water is 200 degrees, and we CAN’T TOUCH IT THERE!”

Back in Guadalajara, here’s a photo from the inside of the grand old cathedral.

Compared to the cathedrals we saw in Europe, this was of a similar general size and design, and perhaps only slightly newer. But one big difference: worshipers outnumbered tourists at every Mexican cathedral I saw, whether in the center of Guadalajara or at a rainy intersection in Guanajuato or a plaza in Tlaquepaque. It made them feel more alive, and perhaps more sacred as well.

One surprise was seeing people sitting on the steps of the cathedral in downtown Guadalajara selling trinkets such as beads. I think the only other place I had seen something like that was in New Orleans.

All of Guadalajara’s Centro was beautiful. Much of it survives from colonial days; I think a person could spend days exploring its museums and buildings. Way too many of my 900 photos were taken in Centro to post on the blog, but just for flavor, here’s one of the less than historic scenes.

Yes, that is a bus shaped like a tequila bottle.

Fountains were beautiful and common across Mexico. A few of them were easily reachable by boys, and ours sure loved those.

There was a lot of public art, including this interesting chair/skeleton/I’m not sure what it is:

And, just for good measure while walking around Centro, they tossed in an apparent Redundant Array of Inexpensive Typewriters.

I don’t know what they were doing, but there were about a dozen guys sitting out in the sun typing on their manual typewriters on their identical tables.

And who can leave Guadalajara without seeing one of North America’s most impressive traffic circles. I’ve got to hand it to the Mexicans for making something that is normally really boring into an interesting work of art.

Over in Guanajuato, a lot of driving takes place in the city’s vast underground tunnel system. Here’s a scene emerging from one of them.

Guanajuato was already getting decorated for Mexican independence day festivities (Sept. 15-16) while we were there.

Here’s a typical Guanajuato street scene.

Many of the streets were closed to traffic — and perhaps not wide enough to handle vehicles anyway. Those streets had a wonderful peaceful and slow feel to them.

I feel that I’ve barely done the trip justice with this post. The feelings of walking down a beautiful Guanajuato street, or stepping into a Spanish cathedral, or even seeing a bunch of guys with typewriters, just can’t be replicated. It’s brimming with history and character, and shouldn’t be missed.

Face to Face With Destruction

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Seeing these church bells in Lübeck wasn’t easy for me. They melted and fell to the ground after an air raid in 1942, and have been left exactly as they fell.

I wasn’t alive in 1942, and even my parents hadn’t yet been born. My grandfather was relocated by the American government because he refused to fight in the military for religious reasons.

And yet, I still felt a sense of embarrassment, being an American standing there in Germany next to those bells. My country* did things like this. Why? Even if there’s a war on, and whatever the other side may be doing, do we really have to bomb all their churches?

Then, we went to the Dom (cathedral). It has a small gallery of photos of the destruction in 1942, and how it took 40 years to restore (though some original works are simply irreplaceable.)

Burning Lübeck Cathedral after an air raid in 1942

I had just been walking through the beautiful Dom, and then saw pictures like that. It was very sad. I imagined the people in 1942, seeing the smoking remains of so many buildings that had been important to the town for centuries. Places where, no doubt, some of them worshiped, and their parents and grandparents had too. I imagined my sadness if a country bombed one of the churches that my ancestors helped start or build. I felt ashamed of what the democracy in which I live (and its allies) did to the Dom, to Marienkirche, and to the other churches and civilians there.

Then, a few days ago, Wikileaks posted a video from an American helicopter in which our soldiers begged “Come on, let us shoot!” at people, most or all of which were completely unarmed. They killed a bunch of people. Then a van came to try to get the wounded to the hospital. Then the soldiers in helicopter killed those people, and wounded some children. Even if they thought their lives were in danger, I’d expect to hear some quiet sadness at what they thought was a regrettable need to use force. Instead, you’d hear them cheering whenever they killed someone, as if they had just won a round on some video game. They killed civilians, and considered it a fun experience and a mission accomplished. There was no sadness for knocking a man to the ground, leaving him writhing. Just jokes. There was no more care for human life here than there was 60 years ago.

It saddens me that every year we celebrate our military on independence day — celebrating its ability to kill, not its ability to feed. I wish that we could rather celebrate the times Americans have saved lives, whether in Berlin or in Port-au-Prince, or helped to topple dictatorships. Military power shouldn’t be our first choice so often.

Lübeck wasn’t attacked for any strategic purpose; the British did it to destroy the “morale of the enemy civil population”, as the Americans did in Dresden or the Germans in London. In other words, those bells fell to the ground for no reason other than that they were German. People lost their lives for the same reason — in Germany and in London. The British had no reason to believe that those civilians meant them any harm, that they were anything but caught between two strong powers. And the same held true in Iraq.

When we went to Berlin, we walked through the replica of Checkpoint Charlie, with the big sign announcing that “you are leaving the American sector.” There is little positive to be said about the Cold War, but there is something the British and American military did of which I am not the least ashamed: the Berlin Airlift. Although I didn’t see it, I feel a sense of the USA having been a force for good when I read about the Berlin Airlift Monument at Tempelhof, which has the names of the 70 British and American men that lost their lives in the airlift (due to accidents), above the inscription “They gave their lives for the freedom of Berlin.” That’s the spirit I wish we’d see more often in the world today: people giving their lives not just for their own security, but for strangers in need on a different continent.

We Americans have been, compared to many countries in Europe, relatively sheltered from the ravages of war in our own midst. I wish that more of us would have the opportunity to gaze at fallen church bells, to wonder through a magnificent old church and then to see photos of it on fire, or to see a monument to our soldiers in a far away land. Perhaps then we could better learn from history, and see firsthand that some of our most positive contributions to the world have come in the form of coal and candy bars instead of incendiary devices.

A small post script

Many historic buildings or locations we saw in Germany had plaques on their exterior with a brief history, often in German and in English. I was interested to note that some (though not all) of these plaques had language such as “destroyed by fire in 1942”, with no mention that the cause of the fire was a bombing. I was even more interested to note that same sort of description at several sites in Prague Castle, mentioning that the original building was lost in the fire of 1142. It was only on the third or fourth building in the Castle that we learned that the fire of 1142 was caused by a military siege of Prague Castle.

* I know it was the British at Lübeck, but the Americans did similar things elsewhere.

I also acknowledge that, at a macro level at least, the Berlin Airlift wasn’t purely an altruistic act, as there were geopolitical factors in play. But I am speaking of the actions of the airmen here, who took on considerable risk to help others.

Review: Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

Rick Steves is known for writing books, and producing public TV shows, about travel to Europe. He encourages people to get out of their comfort zone, advocates staying in homes instead of hotels, and giving yourself permission to struggle to communicate in a land of unfamiliar language. That way, you get to experience not just the landmarks, but the culture and history. That was the approach we favored in our recent trip to Europe, and after being there (and seeing tour groups), I think Rick Steves is right on.

On the plane to Europe, I read his Travel as a Political Act. This is not a guidebook, but more a book about the philosophy of travel. As usual with my book reviews, unless indicated otherwise, all quotes here come from the book. He starts out with this statement:

I’ve taught people how to travel. I focus mostly on the logistics: finding the right hotel, avoiding long lines… But that’s not why we travel. We travel to have enlightening experiences, to meet inspirational people, to be stimulated, to learn, and to grow. Travel has taught me the fun in having my cultural furniture rearranged and my ethnocentric self-assuredness walloped.

I read this book mostly on the plane to Hamburg, or the week prior to leaving. I can credit Rick Steves directly for encouraging me to strike up a conversation with a random German on the bus from Hamburg to Lübeck, which I’ll discuss here in a couple of days. Probably the biggest lament from Rick Steves is that the people that really ought to travel — the ones that are so sure that their ways are correct and best — are least likely to do so.

Make a decision that on any trip you take, you’ll make a point to be open to new experiences, seek options that get you out of your comfort zone, and be a cultural chameleon–trying on new ways of looking at things and striving to become a “temporary local.” … My best vacations have been both fun and intensely educational … Travel challenges truths that we were raised thinking were self-evident and God-given. Leaving home, we learn that other people find different truths to be self-evident. We realize that it just makes sense to give everyone a little wiggle room.

The book is set with an introductory encouragement to travel, followed by seven vignettes of different countries he’s visited, and descriptions of how it’s impacted him. He gave a lesson of the opening of the German Reichstag (parliament building), which he was present for in 1999. He was surrounded by teary-eyed Germans — and a few tourists “so preoccupied with trivialities — forgotten camera batteries, needing a Coke, the lack of air-conditioning — that they were missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate a great moment with the German people.”

He comments that we can learn from other countries — that no one country has a monopoly on good ideas, and it is plenty patriotic to insist what we adopt good ideas (such as drug policy) from other countries and adopt them for our own.

Particularly touching to me was the description and photo of a memorial in El Salvador, very much looking like the American Vietnam memorial — except that one remembering loved ones lost fighting the United States. How many Americans even know that we were involved in a damaging war in El Salvador?

A large part of his book was, for me, “preaching to the choir,” as this comment illustrated:

In the European view, America is trapped in an inescapable cycle to feed its military-industrial complex: As we bulk up our military, we look for opportunities to make use of it. (When your only tool is a hammer, you treat every problem like a nail.) And then, when we employ our military unwisely, we create more enemies…which makes us feel the need to grow our military even more. If an American diplomat complained to his European counterpart, “America is doing all the heavly lifting when it comes to military,” the European might respond, “Well, you seem to be enjoying it. We’re building roads and bridges instead.”

That’s a sentiment I’ve agreed with for quite some time already, and as such, some parts of the book moved slowly for me — though I imagine his target audience included people that had never seriously considered these arguments before. Then there were surprising facts:

by the end of World War I, an estimated half of all the men in France between the ages of 15 and 30 were casualties. When some Americans, frustrated at France’s reluctance to follow us into a war, call the French “surrender monkeys,” I believe it shows their ignorance of history.

And again, I’d agree with him on that point.

The vignette on Iran was particularly interesting, as he described his experiences in person, they sounded far different than the picture we often get in the media.

I have realized, incidentally, that I am terrible at writing book reviews. So rather than inflict more paragraphs upon you with this one, I’ll summarize by saying that this is a touching, informative, and motivational book, which I highly recommend. I’ll leave you with this quote:

Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” These wise words can be a reallying cry for all travelers once comfortably back home. When courageous leaders in our community combat small-mindedness and ignorance… travelers can stand with them in solidarity.

I didn’t travel to make some sort of statement or as a “political act.” But I was enriched in many ways by travel — of course the obvious ones of contemplating the history of a 900-year-old beautiful church, but also in seeing the different character of different cities, being with two families for a couple of days, and seeing different approaches to common problems. I am very glad I wasn’t shut off from this behind a tinted window in a tour bus.

Trip part 1: Kansas to Indiana

Note: This post was written March 12, and posting was delayed until our return home.

This is the first part of our trip: driving from Kansas to Indiana with Jacob and Oliver. From Indiana, we’ll be flying to Germany while the boys stay with their grandparents.

We normally don’t like long road trips. Our preferred way to travel is by train. By air is second, and car is last. But this time, driving was all that made sense. We planned to make the 11-hour drive in two days to give the boys more of a chance to get out of the car and run around.

It’s always a bit demoralizing heading east from our place. You drive at highway speeds for an hour and are barely one county over.

We left at about noon and made it as far as Kansas City before our first stop — much to our surprise. We ate at a Cracker Barrel there. Afterwords, Jacob loved running in front of the restaurant.

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Meanwhile, Oliver chilled on a wooden bench.

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Jacob was excited to find this chair. He said “Here is a chair just the size of me!”

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We spent the night in a hotel on the eastern edge of the metro area. Then Thursday hit the road again. We stopped for a mid-morning snack, then ate lunch at Pizza Hut. Jacob ran around in the grass outside again.

Jacob invented a new game with me. He’d ask, “How will we get there?” I was supposed to guess. “With a pickup?” “No…” “With a boat?” “No…” Eventually he’d come up with a silly answer: “We’ll ride a pile of bricks there!” or “We’ll ride on top of a stop sign!” Then he’d sit there laughing for a little bit. Pretty soon: “Hey dad. How will we get there?”

We had a few toy-throwing episodes, but overall Jacob did very well. Oliver did even better. He slept a good part of the way, and happily watched Jacob for most of the rest. The car trip went well.

This morning, it’s time to get ready to head to the airport, and to break the news to Jacob that we’ll be gone for a few days. We’ve learned that he worries a lot about change if he knows about it too much in advance, finding it hard to process and understand, so we’ll tell him after he wakes up this morning. Then off to the airport for our flight to Newark. Then we get to sit around in New Jersey for a few hours before our 7.5-hour flight to Hamburg.

And we’re off…

We’re off on another Amtrak trip, this one to New Orleans by way of Chicago and Washington, D.C. Our train leaves at 3AM.

Some have asked us why we are passing through Washington on our way to New Orleans. That’s because the point of the trip is not really its destination, but the travel. We’ll get to see parts of the country we’ve never seen before, and with the best possible view, too.

This circuitous route will take a few days to get us to New Orleans, but that’s fine. I find that somehow I always over-pack things to do while onboard the train. I usually get less reading done on the train that I do in a much shorter plane trip. Perhaps it’s because there’s more to do on the train than eat peanuts and stare out the plane window at nothing. On the train, we can meet interesting people, watch scenery close enough to actually observe — and from much closer than is possible on an interstate or a plane. It’s a great way to travel.

I’ve written blog posts in advance and scheduled them to automatically appear periodically while we’re gone. I just hope the blog spammers stay away for awhile.