Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Torture in Travel

Many years ago, we used this phrase to describe moving yourself by U-Haul.  I’ve decided that it applies equally well, if not more so, to 21st Century air travel.

Exhibit one: our return from Mexico.  It started in Oaxaca when the ticket agent wouldn’t let us take our carry-on bags loaded the way they were.  I will admit, they were a bit heavy, but anyway, we had to re-pack.  Fortunately, I’d brought my small duffel bag with me so in a few minutes we had unloaded enough to fill the duffel bag and pass inspection at the ticket counter.

They there was the usual security check.  This wasn't any worse than normal, and I didn't have to remove my boots or my belt.  Oaxaca is a small but very clean airport and ours was the only flight leaving at the time, so it was quiet too.  We even got to go outside and climb those old-fashioned stairs to the plane.  Just the way air travel used to be.

When we landed in Mexico City, our plane didn't go to a gate, but parked off to the side so we were ferried to the terminal by bus, only a couple of minutes, where we all joined a line to go through security again.  Don’t the security people at MEX trust the security people at OAX?

Then it was off to our departure gate where we had to get boarding passes, because they couldn't be provided at Oaxaca.  Not sure why, but there was a long lineup and it was taking a very long time to come up with passes for everyone.

Arriving at Salt Lake City, we, of course, had to go through Customs and Immigration.  It wasn't a problem other than there were 3 inspectors to process a plane load of people.  We had a short visit with the guy, joked about the roasted grasshoppers we were bringing back with us, collected our checked bag which joined us there, dropped it off in the belt to the cargo hold, and proceeded on to….yes… security once again.  This time I had to remove my boots and belt.  I do wonder what they think I might have picked up during the day, being airside in 2 other terminals, having passed through security twice already….  Maybe there is a competition to see if they can find something that the others missed.  I remain mystified about that one.

Fortunately, our flight plan allowed for enough time to do all this and find some food to eat.  Water from a drinking fountain that one could trust…. The usual amenities that one appreciates after a sojourn into the less over-developed regions of the world.

So, here we are, less than half an hour remaining in our flight to Spokane from SLC.  We’re back in the land of cool air.  It was refreshing to feel the lowered temperature as we exited our plane at SLC.  I understand it is just below freezing in Spokane.  That will be a mild shock.  So glad not to be returning to Saskatchewan where it has been in a polar vortex, from what I can gather.

But I still think this air travel thing has become a bit ridiculous.  My belt and my boots?  After being on a plane and going through security all day?  Seriously?  And what did their metal detector find?  One Canadian 25 cent piece.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Oaxaca - The 3-Week Perspective

As we close in on the end of our stay in Oaxaca, it's interesting to look back at some of the highlights and lowlights of our stay.

Oaxacans seem to spend an inordinate amount of time outside.  Even parts of their homes are outside with large, interior courtyards.  Then there are the parks, markets, the streets.  Everywhere you go, people are outside, walking, sitting, visiting street-side food stands, running in the parks, shopping in the markets.  And those are just the people who aren't working.  Working people are on the go from early light to well after dark.  There are people running small food stands on street corners.  Others ride or push bicycle-powered water delivery businesses.  A mechanic just down the street works on cars basically on the sidewalk.  His various repair projects sit, jacked up, at the side of the street.  Late in the evening, we hear a food vendor pass up our street using his loudspeaker to announce his presence.

There are dogs.  Everywhere.  Especially at night.  Like dogs elsewhere, they seem to sleep all day and then get on to their versions of canine Skype all night.  Eventually, you start to tune them out.

Vehicle traffic in Oaxaca is bad, especially in the old part of the city, the Centro area.  I can't understand why anyone would even think about driving.  There are so many streets at so many times of the day that are nearly at a standstill.  Horns beeping, as if that will change anything.  Walking has been fine.  We walk kilometers every day.  In Oaxaca "Centro", the old city center, all the streets are one way, so watching for traffic - cars, motorcycles and the large city buses - is easy.  You only need to look one way.  Cross anywhere.  Cars don't generally stop for pedestrians, although some will, but all you need to do is wait for a slight break and make your move.  It seems unlikely anyone will run you down, although I would NOT want to take a chance with those city buses.

Oaxacans seems to have a particular affection for fireworks.  Although it seems to have tapered off recently, when we first arrived, there were bangs and pops at any hour of the day or night.  It seemed more like the city was under shelling attack from mountain tribesmen.  As I write this, a loud bang goes off a few blocks to the south.  Looks like the tribesmen have renewed the offensive.

It's often cool in the morning.  Nice weather for Canadians, but cool.  Once the sun gets up, it warms quickly, but usually not to any extreme of temperature.  Just pleasant.  However, with the sun, it seems HOT.  You soon learn to move to the shady side of the street with everyone else.  It's possible that only "gringos" walk on the sunny side.

Oaxacans use their parks.  In the city center square, the "zocalo", there are numerous tents and stands.  This is an occupation of some sort.  A dispute over something we only vaguely understand - teachers?  some people who disappeared?  As they say in Spanish: es complicado.  It's been occupied since last July.  Another park has martial art lessons in the mornings, dance lessons and demonstrations, boys and girls from the local militia doing their exercises, a band or two, a market every Friday, runners and walkers going around and around the park block, shoeshine stalls going up every morning, couples spending some quiet time together.

Juice and drink vendors are everywhere, in parks, on street corners, in the markets.  Some drinks are from fresh fruit (oranges, mandarins, mangos) and others are from a most unusual collection of sources.  Jamaica (pronounced ha-my-i-ca) is a deep purple drink made from soaking hibiscus flowers in water.  Another drink, which is white in color, is made from rice, almonds and cinnamon.  Everything seems fresh and cold.

It seems obvious, perhaps, but we hear very little English being spoken.  In fact, almost all the interactions we've had with other people have been in Spanish.  Either they couldn't or wouldn't speak English.  Good if you're trying to learn the language, as we are.  There are some tourists, some gringos, but not all that many.

It's an interesting place.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Cultural Experiences

Being in a place where your own language is mostly useless is a cultural experience, but that's the daily routine around Oaxaca.

Last evening, however, we had an interesting cultural experience.  There was a free concert at the Teatro Macedonio Alcala, featuring a musical group called De Estudiantinas, who play traditional Mexican instruments and sing classical Mexican songs.

First, we sat through almost 2 hours of program of which we understood only a very few words.  The music was fun to listen to.  I even recognized a few tunes, including "Spanish Eyes" which I had only ever heard sung in English.

At the end, though, after singing their "last" song, they did another, apparently a crowd favourite, because everyone stood up.  I'm pretty sure it wasn't the national anthem of Mexico, but we stood too, just not really  too sure why.

A fun evening listening to mandolins, guitars and good vocalists.

This afternoon, I was sitting in the main Oaxaca Cathedral, hiding from the sun while waiting for Catherine, when a wedding started.  The most interesting part of this event was basically a mariachi band that was handling the music.  They'd play a bit, the priest would talk a bit, they'd play a bit more.

The other afternoon, while walking down a popular street, we could hear a band playing somewhere, but where was it?  We soon discovered a school band playing in the "street".  They were actually quite good and the audience appreciative.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

You Can Find Anything You Want....

Oaxacan markets, or Mercados, are, quite literally, everywhere.  There are permanent markets, temporary markets, specialty markets, large markets, small markets, but, taking them all into consideration, there is likely nothing that you can't find at one of the markets.

One of our favourites was the Friday market at Llano Park.  It was relatively small by market standards around here, but we also found it a great place to eat, trying out Arrechera (beef) and Chorizo (pork sausage) tacos on two different occasions as well as "chorros", basically a donut but extruded into a long, fluted length of fried dough with sugar.  A great dessert.

One, the Mercado Abasto, was huge.  I went to find it, but gave up trying to walk through it much.  Just far too big.  And busy.

A small one near our apartment handled mostly food items and was small enough to be quite manageable, even for a quick visit before supper to pick up some veggies and some meat.  

Two others, the Mercado Benito Juarez and the Mercado 20 Noviembre, were close to the city center and I visited them several times, just to wander through looking at all the "stuff" available: everything from clothes, meat, bread, fish, places to eat, chapulines (grasshoppers)... the list is endless.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Mexican Food Experience III

Today, for a bit of a break from nachos, tacos, tostados, tlayduas and the like, we opted for Chinese Food.  Yes, Oaxaca has a small Chinese community and at least one Chinese "restaurant".  For essentially 70 pesos total, each of us had a plate piled high with rice and one choice from a buffet-style display.  It was actually quite good.  Not, perhaps, the best Chinese food I've had, but quite acceptable and a nice change from more traditional local fare.

Our mejor intersante comida de Mexicano was what we made at cooking class.  For a few hours on one Sunday, we joined with 5 others and our host, Oscar, the owner of Casa Crespo, to have an introduction to more traditional Mexican food.

First, we discussed the menu items.  Then, our host took us to a local market where he purchased the items we would need.  Then it was back to the kitchen where we all participated in preparing the meal.  Once finished, we were sent to the roof-top patio where we all had a drink and then invited back down to the dining room for our meal.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Mexican Food Experience II

One of our favourite food was tacos.  They were a bit different compared to the kind we make at home, but were basically meat wrapped in 2 small flour tortillas.  We liked arrachera (beef) and chorizo (pork sausage) the best.  Plus lots of tomato and onion salsa on top with as much hot sauce as you could tolerate.  We would buy these at the markets, the best being the Friday market at Llano Park, not far from our school.  For under $1 CDN, you could have five tacos which was about all one needed.

I tried another street vendor food, the torta.  A Torta is essentially a sandwich, made in a bun.  Many options for the contents of the sandwich - chicken, chorizo, ham....  Usually grilled and best eaten warm.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Mexican Food Experience 1

My current strategy in my leaning Spanish plan was put into play today. 

First, I spend 3 hours in class.  This finishes at noon. 

Then, I walk to one of the several markets near the city center.  I pick a food I haven't tried yet and I use my Spanish to order it, find out what's in it and then pay for it.

We had been given the impression that many people would be speaking English here.  Such is not the case.  Most people I've needed to talk to have spoken none at all.  This is good because it removes the easy option when asking for anything.

So, today, I decided to try a "tlayuda" for lunch.  I found a shop in the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, had a short discussion with the woman in charge about the contents and placed my order.

A tlayuda is a large tortilla covered with a sauce (bean based I think), topped with lettuce, avocado, meat of various kinds, cheese, and cooked on the grill.  Messy to eat.

I also had a juice kind of drink.  It contained a sugar syrup and the juice from some flowers.  Name unknown to me.  [Update: Jamaica - pronounced ha-my-i-ca - a juice made from soaking dried hibiscus flowers in water and adding sugar syrup]

Following lunch, I wandered, making notes on items for sale and the language on the various signs.  It seems to be one way to pick up the Spanish idiom.  More tomorrow.