Monday, September 29, 2014

Down to the DF – A Mexican Excursion

Random and Bizarre. 

And awesome. 

Those are all words that characterize my recent six-day trip to Mexico City. 

What led to this trip?

After my 3-month training program in the ER ended, I made a goal to go on one trip per month.  Why?  Because I can.  That’s the beauty of working in the ER.  While there is no paid time off, there is substantial schedule flexibility.  I can take a week off no problem, as long as I plan ahead two months or more. 

So along with my other recent trips (Atlanta, Carson City, Denver) and an upcoming one to Knoxville, I planned one to Mexico City.  Why Mexico City?  Because I love traveling in Latin America and speaking Spanish, because I’ve only been to Mexico once before (a non-touristy part in the Northwest), because Mexico isn’t that far away, because I like Mexican food, and because the airfare is relatively cheap (compared to other countries and compared to other parts of Mexico).  Also because a random Irish guy I sat next to on my last flight to Guatemala said it’s a really nice place to visit.  Additionally, why not? 

Eating tacos with Sandra (left) and Ninely
I prefer to travel places where I know someone, for the many obvious advantages (or have work pay for the trip, as was the case with Carson City).  The problem was, I didn’t really know anyone in Mexico City.  But I kinda sorta did.  A little tiny bit.  You see, there were a couple people whom I had randomly connected with on Facebook a few months earlier, but never met in person.  One of those was Ninely Contreras, with whom I had exchanged a few messages beginning in March.  I told her of my upcoming trip, and she said I could stay at her house if I didn’t mind sleeping on the couch.  I called her a couple days before the trip to touch base and go over the details (and to feel out if she seemed like a murderous criminal or not :) ), during which conversation she suggested a friend of hers might be better suited to host me as she lives closer to downtown, and has more free time because she’s not currently working. 

That friend, Sandra, who had never met me or ever talked to me before, not only hosted me at her apartment, but took time out of her schedule to meet me at the airport so she could accompany me on the Subway back to her home.  And from that moment on she acted like we were longtime friends, and was extremely helpful with anything I needed during my stay. 

I stayed at Sandra’s apartment every night except one (on the weekend when I stayed at Ninely’s house
because she was accompanying me to visit some of the more peripheral locations).  Sandra and Ninely were both exceptionally generous, kind, and helpful, and I had a great time hanging out with them and learning from them.  Really, that was the most remarkable thing about the trip—how far out of their way two strangers went to make sure my experience in Mexico City went smoothly.  Well, as smoothly as you can expect anything to go in Mexico City.
:)  Ninely said she’s traveled around Mexico a lot and been helped by other strangers, so she likes to pay it forward.  Sandra just said “I’m awesome, so I do stuff like that.”  She didn’t really say that, but it would be true if she did. :)

Other observations and experiences from the trip, in no particular order:

  • My favorite place in Mexico City was Plaza Garibaldi, a big park where a bunch of Mariachi bands (and some not-quite-as-Mariachi bands) congregate every evening to play songs for visitors.  I went there three times because I loved it!  The only song I requested (and paid for) was “Bésame Mucho”, just because it’s hilarious.  The singer was ridiculously off-key….but most of the groups sounded better than that.    
  • Somehow, some way, I didn’t get sick on this trip, despite trying all sorts of different foods.  That makes four consecutive foreign trips with no sickness.  I hope I’m not jinxing myself.  My secret?  I always carry hand sanitizer and a bottle of clean water.  But mostly I’ve just been lucky.  
  • I love speaking Spanish, and this was a great opportunity to practice and learn (or relearn) new words.  It was also a reminder that as good as one may be speaking a second language, discussing complex topics or communicating subtleties is an ongoing challenge, but also part of the fun.  It was likewise instructive about how much practice and repetition is required to master any language, something we likely take for granted in our native tongues.  
  • I learned how to find my way around alone on the Mexican subway, which was satisfying.  
  • Traveling on that same subway during rush hour can be intense.  One of the nights I was packed hilariously tightly with all the other people heading home from work.  I wasn’t holding onto anything but there was no way I could have fallen down.  And at each stop more people would cram in, packing more and more tightly.  I chuckled intermittently at the hilarity of the scene, and got some funny looks from the Mexican passengers.    
  • Thanks to busses, subways, and guidance from friends, I didn’t use a single taxi during the whole trip!
  • My three primary goals for the trip were to 1) Don't get killed, 2) Don't get kidnapped, and 3) Don't get mugged.  Success!
  • As an adult, I’ve developed allergies that plague me in certain places, which unfortunately include Central America, and now Mexico.  Ugh.  
  • The electric company randomly came and disconnected Sandra’s power my last night in Mexico, so we got to bust out lots of candles, and I couldn’t charge my phone or check email.  Last I checked she is still without power.  Something to do with an illegal connection that was placed by
    Panuchos - yum!
    a former landlord.
  • The food was great!  I didn’t see a single burrito or nacho while I was there (apparently those are more common in Northern Mexico), but plenty of tacos, quesadillas, and some new (to me) stuff like panuchos, sopes, and huaraches.  Which are all sort of similar but it still presented a learning curve.  And we ate lots of cacti (napales)…
  • There are a lot of museums in Mexico City!  In case you were wondering.  
  • Yogurtland in downtown was a great place to study food vocab, cuz all the 50 or so toppings were labeled with placards.  
  • The correct way to refer to Mexico City in Spanish is “el DF”, which is short for the Federal District (much like DC).

Some of the places I visited:

Heart and Soul in the rain
  • Teotihuacan – the apparently-not-Aztec pyramids 30km Northeast of the city.  Great views, lots of stairs!
  • Xochimilco – in the Southern part of the city there are several canals, and colorful boats you can ride on in said canals.  
  • El Zócalo – The central plaza of the city which is surrounded by government buildings and the main Cathedral, and connected to a touristy walkable street that is much like Calle Conde in Santo Domingo, DR, or the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas.    
  • Chapultepec – an urban park and “forest” intermingled with various museums and at least one body of water.  Also where I found a random outdoor piano which I played for about two hours (in two sittings) to the delight (or horror?) of passers-by, got one offer to join a band, and taught two people how to play heart and soul.  

And others.  Don’t those places have awesome names that are easy to memorize?  :)

What a great trip.  And it didn’t even cost that much (less than $1,000 total for everything).  The best thing about it was the people I met (especially Sandra and Ninely, but also a lot of friendly strangers on the streets or elsewhere), followed closely by the music, food, language, and incredible sights.  It left me with great memories and good feelings, and I hope to go back soon!  

Palacio de Bellas Artes


 More pictures from the trip can be seen here

Sunday, February 23, 2014

My experience wandering through the Dominican Republic

Parque Colón and the West's first cathedral
I just got back from a wild nine days in the Dominican Republic.  It was my first time going there.  I had time to go on my second international trip in three months because I still hadn’t started working yet.  But this trip was unique, as I'd never set out on a similar venture by myself.  I ended up in Nicaragua by myself after my friend Brit got injured in Costa Rica back in 2012, but I didn’t plan it that way.  And last December I traveled to Guatemala and Nicaragua alone…but then I spent the whole time visiting friends, so that was completely different.  
In planning this trip, I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country that wasn’t too far away (not South America or Spain) and that I hadn’t been to before.  It seemed too soon to go back to Central America, so that left the DR and parts of Mexico.  I started looking at fares, and then it just kind of happened.  My goals for the trip were to get to know the culture a little bit, including the food and language, as well as visit some of the historical sites.  I also wanted to relax and enjoy my last little bit of vacation before starting work. 

I did all of those things, but certainly couldn’t have anticipated all the little twists and turns that happen over a week of wandering alone in a country like that, flying by some combination of the seat of my shorts (it was too hot for pants) and advice from locals (which fluctuates wildly), with the occasional contribution from Google.

Here are several things I learned or experienced, in an order that’s not all that particular:

  • They do speak Spanish down there, but it’s very different from Mexican or Central American Spanish.  Some of the Dominicans speak clearly enough, others speak way too fast and don’t enunciate at all (and I mean AT ALL), and others don’t really even speak Spanish, because they’re from Haiti, or severely lacking in education, or due to another mysterious cause or combination of causes.  And things get particularly unintelligible when they’re arguing around a dominos table in the park!
    the guy in purple was my teammate
  • Speaking of dominos, it’s a national craze!  People will gather daily around official tables in the park, or on a street corner.  They play, they argue, they get very animated, speaking very rapidly using lots of slang.  It’s basically impossible to understand them.  I played a few games with one group in Parque Colón (Columbus Park), and the opposing team became more and more incensed as a rather outspoken character sitting next to me shared his approval or disapproval each time I grabbed a piece to play. They thought he was cheating because he could also see one of their team member’s pieces, and that player started laying his down flat and peering underneath so no one else could see.  My team won three games in a row with some beginner’s luck (and maybe a little cheating) before I gave up my seat.  I saw the same group playing every day in the same place until I left the area, only skipping Sunday.  
  • Locals repeatedly asked me where I was from (a few of them postulated Argentina, Spain, or Germany), and they almost always acted surprised when I said the U.S., subsequently asking how I could speak Spanish so well.  This happened over and over again, several times per day, becoming a running joke (that only I was aware of).  I told a handful of people I was from Argentina or Spain just see if they would believe me, and they generally seemed to, at least at first.  
Faro a Colón
  • I spent the first five days or so in Santo Domingo, the capital, which is on the southern coast.  There is a ton of history there, much more than I realized, dating back to Columbus.  They have the first cathedral, first fortress, and ruins of the first hospital in the Western Hemisphere, all within easy walking distance of my dominos-playing friends.  They also claim to have Columbus’s remains in a big lighthouse (that doesn’t look like a lighthouse).  Spain also claims to have his remains. 
  • Parque Colon is a fun little hot spot, right next to that “first cathedral”, with a big statue of Columbus in the middle.  It also has a ton of birds, which flock to all the people who are paying a tuppence for a bag to feed them.  I walked right through veritable flocks as they barely even got out of the way.  
  • One night in the middle of Parque Colón I borrowed a kid’s guitar, we shared a few songs with each other, and then he wanted to improv a duet, which we did.   
  • The last night in Santo Domingo I stayed in a crappy local hotel, a little out of the touristy area, to save some cash.  It was ridiculous—sink faucet didn’t work, no light bulb in the bathroom, no toilet seat—but still fine, really.  And cheap as all get-out. 
random bball game in Sosua
  • I didn’t see anyone playing Soccer the whole time I was there.  Apparently they’re way more into baseball, which makes sense since a bunch of Major Leaguers have come from there.  They also claim that volleyball (which I saw people playing) and basketball (which I never saw anyone playing) are popular.    
  • I took buses from Santo Domingo up to Puerto Plata, on the northern coast.  Some locals I spoke with at the penultimate bus stop said they’d help me find the easiest way to my destination, Sosua (a nearby beach town) without getting ripped off (lots of locals liked to warn me about foreigners getting overcharged, which I was well aware of by this point).  Once we got to Puerto Plata, they flagged down a motorcycle, whom I thought they were just asking for information.  Then they said he would take me to the car stop (like a bus stop, but with cars), and I was like, “what about this luggage”?  He grabbed my suitcase and laid it in front of him on the motorcycle, after which I hopped up behind him with my backpack and murse.  We proceeded to weave through traffic as I was mildly scared for my life.  At one point my hat flew off and got run over by another motorcycle before I picked it up.  He left me at the car stop, where I got in the back seat of a small car before three more people piled into the same back seat, and we headed off to Sosua.  
Sosua beach
  • Once in Sosua, the moto-taxis were everywhere, in bunches, and I couldn’t walk by without a few propositions.  I utilized them a few more times when I got tired enough of walking, always thinking how dangerous it was (nobody wears helmets) and that I should never do it again.  Until I got tired enough of walking again, that is.    
  • A few people I talked to seemed to end every sentence with “comprende?” or “entiende?”, which got annoying really fast.  I talked to a girl who said it in a drawn out, mostly rhetorical way at the end of every sentence.  Even after I made fun of her repeatedly she still couldn’t stop herself from doing it.     
  • I never saw any normal, everyday, fried plantains.  I only saw the dry, boring kind called “tostones”, and a mashed plantain dish, which I just learned is called “mofongo”.  I tried that once and didn’t like it, but I’ll have to give it another chance since it was at a dinky fast food place.  Overall I would rate the plantain usage in the DR as: disappointing.  
  • My last night in Sosua, the doorknob to my hotel room stopped working.  The desk clerk proceeded to dismantle it and force the door open with a hammer and screwdriver.  I slept that night without a doorknob. 

I could go on, but this is probably excessive already.  I had a lot of fun, learned a lot, and found that going to a country like that without knowing anyone (or staying in all-inclusive resorts as many visitors do) makes for a non-stop adventure.  Every day is full of surprises and memorable anecdotes.  I’d do it again, I just wouldn’t stay in the first hostel where my tablet and cash got stolen (oh did I forget to mention that?  Fun times indeed.).  Though that did lead to a couple of scary-but-fun rides on the back on a police motorcycle...

 More pictures from my trip can be found here and here