A Gaijin in Tokyo

Recently I had the opportunity (requirement) to travel to three countries in five days for work. Seoul, then Shanghai, then Tokyo were our stops. It was a bit rushed. However, after we were done with business meetings in Tokyo, I had one full day to wander the city.

Here’s what happens when you let a forty-something gaijin dude loose in Tokyo.

After a ridiculous run at the massive hotel buffet (don’t eat like this at home, kids), I wanted to walk around Harajuku. This district is famous for being a place where young kids get dressed up in crazy costumes and just… hang out. Go there to be seen in their awesome outfits. Especially at Yoyogi park (which is just fun to say, even without crazy people dressed up).

To give you another example of why Harajuku might be a fun place to go, you find things like this on the street:

IMG_0865
Harajuku. Where you can pet 11 captive very hairy cats.

So, I took the subway from my hotel in Ebisu out to Harajuku. On exiting the subway station, I was impressed by a couple things:
1.) the sheer number of people streaming out of the sub station.
2.) there were a bunch of people with signs near the exit.

 

IMG_0850
Undecipherable signs.

My initial thought was that, like you often see at airports, they are waiting here to pick people up who might need a friend to be their local guide. How nice, I thought. The fact that anyone savvy enough to get themselves there by subway probably doesn’t need a guide, much less this veritable plethora, didn’t occur to me. Because my brain sometimes doesn’t like common sense.

IMG_0853
Waiting for Godot?

I also noticed that several of the signs said “Kat-tun” above the indecipherable gibberish that followed. I made a mental note to ask my travel partner who was fluent in Japanese if “Kat-tun” translated to something like “Hello, I’m here to pick up a friend, if you see them, please direct them to me.”

But as I continued on, making for the walking overpass that led to an interesting building I could only see the roof of, it dawned on me that everyone around me was female.

IMG_0849
It’s… all girls? Women? What’s the proper designation here?

I puzzled at this as I walked, feeling a little more out of place with each step. Does Harajuku only allow females? Do guys just not like this kind of place? Have I made the first of many catastrophic errors as a big dumb foreigner? My god, what other faux pas am I committing without realizing it?

At the top of the overpass I was finally clued in to what was happening. I was greeted with the following sight, and the fact that there was a large sign in the middle advertising “Kat-tun”, I came to realize I was in the midst of the gathering for a Japanese boy-band concert (see their pictures on the side of the truck?).

IMG_0847
Progesterone overload.

If you ever want to feel like a total creeper, I highly recommend this as a near-perfect situation. Surrounded by girls / women on the verge of screaming and loosing their collective minds over the prospect of the boy-band goodness they were about to partake in, and being the only male in the surrounding two-mile radius is a good start. Add to this the fact that I stand head and shoulders above everyone there only heightened the sense that I was vastly out of place.

So I bailed out of there rapidly. Back over the walkway, back towards the park opening. I figured some seclusion in the natural beauty of the park would do me well.

I had forgotten that the park was also the site of the Meiji Shrine. My fortunes improved rapidly.

IMG_0857
Natural beauty amidst the Metropolis.
IMG_0868
Peace and tranquility. Literally a two minute walk from the subway. And three minutes from boy band madness.
IMG_0856
Serenity now!
IMG_0866
I actually took even more pictures. But you get the idea.

Along the way to the Shrine, you come across two large displays, one of wine and one of sake.  Supposedly these are donated to the shrine, and are blessed here as well.  I think these are now just empty representations of the historic practice, but I like to think that these are here in case you get parched in your walk along the glorious path to the shrine.  Do you prefer wine or sake? There’s not really a wrong answer here folks.

IMG_0858
Wine that has been blessed.
IMG_0867
Barrels of blessed Sake.

Eventually the path leads you to your destination.

IMG_0875
We approacheth the temple proper

Outside of the temple, there is a station where you are to perform a cleansing ritual where you take a quaint wooden dipper, pour water first on one hand, then the next, then sip a bit and spit it out, thus cleaning your hands and mouth before you enter the temple.

IMG_0876
Ceremony. Even before you enter.

I watched several people do it first as I wanted to get it right.

I’m pretty sure I still messed it up, I’m just not sure how.

Ignorance is bliss, so we move on.

IMG_0873
We stand on the threshold.
IMG_0874
Not a bad crib you got, Mr. Meiji.
IMG_0872
How do you sculpt a tree to be this perfectly round?

As luck would have it, this was a perfect Saturday afternoon, and as such several wedding parties were parading through the temple. I attempted to be polite and let them have their ceremony unmolested by cameras. However, when all the rest of the crazy people around whipped out their cameras and started snapping away like madmen, I went with the crowd.

IMG_0871
If you wish to be married, first you must prove you can walk a straight line and NOT SMILE.
IMG_0870
Alright everyone, back the other way now.

After having my fill of nature and beauty, tranquility and tradition, etc, I figured it best to head back into the city proper and get my fill of the bustle and madness of Tokyo on a saturday.  I was not disappointed.  There are so many shops, interesting buildings, and cool little stands and restaurants to stop in that it would be hard to get bored.  I eventually found a fifth-floor rooftop deck with a beer garden and was able to take a bit on an arial view.  In the distance the slopped roof of the boy-band venue taunted me from afar.

IMG_0863

The rest of the day was spent roving through many little shops filled with many strange things that make you shake your head and go “oh Japan, will you never cease to be delightfully odd and bizarre?”.  Sadly I didn’t capture pictures of these strange things.  One example: a store entirely devoted to stickers with bizarre sayings overlaid on emoji and cartoons saying things like “beware drunkards, don’t give them any piss.” and “listen, I will not, my mind set!”  I was tempted to buy one of each of the 40 thousand stickers, then decorate a building in downtown Portland with them.  Sadly, I acted all responsible and grown-up like and didn’t do this.

One last word about Japan: the food is pretty special.  Even in the grocery stores.  For example, you will never see fruit treated with such care and reverence as you will in Japan.  Example below: every single grape is PERFECT.  And each stalk has been groomed to act as a handle while you pluck each pleasingly rounded globe of perfection and deposit it in your mouth to experience exactly the right crisp and crunch along with a flood of juicy sweetness.

IMG_0861
Fruits never had it so good.

However, some care should be taken on who you let pick the restaurant. My boss, who happens to have lived in Japan for eleven years as a younger man, took us to a delightful little hole in the wall (actually hole in the floor as you go down from ground level to get in it). The menu was a fabulous experience, but required us to put us in his hands for ordering:

IMG_0844
Dead Sea Scroll or dinner menu?

My first warning sign should have been the decoration they chose to hang above our table. I’m not sure who’s mind thought “this is just the thing to accompany guests as they dine on strange and highly speculative foods”

IMG_0845
Not very appetizing, Japan. Not at all.

To be fair, the food was quite good. Except for the “rare chicken”. That was a bit sketchy. I’m a firm believer that chicken needs to be cooked within an inch of becoming charcoal. There’s no telling what’s in a bit of chicken. Nuke it from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure.

In closing, Tokyo is always delightful, with a fantastic blend of new and ancient, tradition and bizarreness. Someone chose to interpret John F. Kennedy’s statement about Berlin as a statement about Tokyo, and I thought it summed it up nicely:

IMG_0862
Eddie Izzard may have been misquoted, but the point remains.

The Scarface connection

Last weekend the Elder came to visit, and to celebrate this fact, Fruit Cup joined us for a run around Portland multiple nights in a row.  Friday saw us out until the wee hours with the Navy Gang from Seattle.  Saturday we met up with Microbe and Vegas.

While imbibing of a cocktail at the Low Brow Lounge, I decided to order a pretzel.  In my defense, it was advertised as “The Crack Pretzel” and the waiter advised us that I’d know what that meant when I was on the third one and craving a fourth.  See, it was warm, soft, and stuffed with jalapeno cheese!  How could I resist?

However, the experience took a turn for the strange: the side of my face, along my jaw and under my ear, swelled up rapidly upon eating this supposed culinary delight.  It felt like a small mouse had been stuffed under my skin right at the joint of my jaw.  It was tight to the touch and the others around the table nodded their observations that, yes indeed, that does look swollen.

A subdued panic ensued.  The Elder inquired as to the exact ingredients of the pretzel (it’s, like, pretzel and like, fake cheese, man.  With bits of jalapeno…), but this is not a help as I’m not allergic to anything.  So we continued to sip our drinks and agree with each other that this was a rather strange event.

Within fifteen minutes the swelling had gone down.  We continued on to our next haunt, again ordering a round of tasty libations, with some snacks for good measure.  Again that mouse was inserted into my jaw.  This time sans pretzel.  And the drink was something entirely different.

Puzzlement all around.

A quick web search on symptoms pointed to the likely diagnosis of a Sialolith.basically a stone in the saliva duct.

What?  This is a thing?  This happens?  I’ve already got one bizarre malady that crept up as age sets in, now I get another?  Getting old is not fun, people.  Anyone who tells you different is deluding themselves and trying to drag you in with ’em.

So Monday I make an appointment with a doctor.  Tuesday I’m admitted.  I describe the symptoms and he stops me before I’m even close to finished and says “yeah, got it, totally a salivary blockage”.

He proceeds to prod and probe my cheek and jaw with all the tenderness of a meat tenderizer, while telling me how “Scarface” Al Capone relates to this; how it was a common punishment to slice down someone’s face, severing the salivary duct so that every time this unfortunate person eats, drinks, or even THINKS about doing such will have swelling and pain at the least, and at the worst: oozing puss dripping down his cheek and inside his mouth.

Ladies and gentlemen: we have a bedside manner WINNER.

However, the good side of this is that his prescription is to put a hot compress on the outside of my face a couple times a day, and eat lemon drops constantly.  This later order is in the hopes that the constant salivation will flush out whatever material is blocking my duct. My dentist might be at odds with that recommendation, but I’m not about to look a medically-prescribed horse in the mouth.

Especially not if it’s got a severed salivary duct.  Ew.

Zagreb. Or: driving in foriegn countries blows.

  1. Zagreb, unlike Rijeka, is a real city. Meaning: it’s big, its confusing, it’s busy, and bad things can happen if you don’t watch yourself.

I drove my rental car from Rijeka to Zagreb. For reference, that looks like this:

Zagreb_drive

Well, the map isn’t really to scale and it’s actually filled with beautiful rolling hills and a lot of tunnels, but the idea is: there’s a fair distance to travel.

I originally wanted to go see Plitvice lakes region on the way (note: not really on the way), but became very concerned with my habit of getting good and lost and wanted to have a little time left in the day to see Zagreb, so I ultimately just went right through. I had my little map on my Surface to guide me in, how hard could it be?

Remember the street name problem from when I landed in Rijeka? Yeah. Try remembering “turn right onto Ulica Braća Cvijića, if you reach Davorina Bazjanca you’ve gone too far” while navigating busy city streets, looking for hidden street signs on the sides of buildings.  My poor brain still get’s stuck on how to pronounce “ić” and then dumps all remaining memory.

So, through many poor decisions and false turns, I somehow found myself driving on rails, surrounded on all sides, front and back, by nothing but trams in the middle of the city.  On the one hand I felt panicked, mortified, and in danger of being squashed.  On the other, one must find humor in these moments, so I documented it with a quick picture:

WP_20130903_002
I’m not supposed to be here.

Yep. So, somehow I made it out of that without damage, arrest, or even public mockery. Though I’m pretty sure many a Croatian returned to their home that day, exclaiming to their significant other “guess what I saw today?  That’s right, some American wanker driving on the tram tracks.  I know!  More fish?  Hvala.”

After finding a way to get onto a side street, I immediately parked and walked around trying to find wifi. Once wifi was acquired, finding my hostel was short work, at which point I returned to my car to get my large bag and prepare to return the car to the rental agency.

Two problems:

  1. I now had a parking ticket (2nd one in five days.  Doh).
  2. The rental agency didn’t come up on any maps.

Okay, fine, let’s not panic here.  I did have a sheaf of paperwork from them, so all I had to do was plug in the “Downtown Zagreb” address for CityRent into my handy wifi-enabled device and see where that took me.

This took me 14 miles outside of the city, on a dirt road, with dilapidated houses, some farms, and one conspicuous building that looked like a rather modern-ish 2-story office building with a printed banner proclaiming “EuroVent” among other non-car related businesses.

So, I don’t speak the language, this really CAN’T be the rental agency, things have obviously gotten borked somewhere along the way.  Besides, if this WAS the return agency, how would I get back?  I’m up for a good hike, but 14 miles seems a bit extreme.  And there are no taxis out here in the country.

So I make my way back to town, park illegally (putting my parking ticket under the wiper as a superstitious ward against more ill happenings, and enlist the help of the nice girl behind the desk at the hostel.  She calls the guys, converses for a while in Croatian, then hangs up.

She explains that the building I saw actually was their office.  Stupid American.

She also explains they will come here and pick the car up.  So that’s nice.

After waiting around another hour, they come and take the car from me, explain the parking tickets will be taken out of my initial deposit, and just like that I’m a backpacker again.  And that’s a very good thing.

So: Zagreb.  Lots of cool art on the walls here!

WP_20130903_012

WP_20130903_013

WP_20130903_016

Also, while they have their share of awesome historic buildings, they’ve also got some modern construction as well:

WP_20130903_014

There are many statues. I liked this guy ’cause he looked like I felt at this point.

WP_20130903_017

Lots a great meandering is available in the town.

WP_20130903_019

Now, a note about Croatian culture: they don’t really eat Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. No, they basically drink, have a large meal sometime around midday, then drink some more. If you are hungry and walking past some lovely outdoor seating thinking “gosh, it would be lovely to have a sandwich or some soup here in the sun and watch the world go by”, well guess what: you are outta luck. Those chairs are all for drinking. They’ll serve you an espresso, or some water, or a beer, sometimes even a cocktail. Food? Geddouddaheah.

WP_20130903_020
All these chairs? Yep, just people drinking. No food. Move along.

So: take your drink and be happy.  Then wander around and see more cool buildings.

WP_20130903_018

I ended up walking up in the hills to the north for a few hours. Found some really nice parks and obviously high-end homes of the well-to-do, but no stunning views of the city that I was after.

WP_20130903_023

WP_20130903_021

By the time I came down from the hills, it was night. The temperature was perfect, and the city is still very lively at night, even on a Tuesday.

WP_20130903_027
A nighttime view of the infamous “trapped by trams” incident.

WP_20130903_026

WP_20130903_025

Amsterdam is ontzagwekkende

After taking it easy in London, hobbling around as best I could, my foot is potentially well enough to embark on travel again (although still strapped into a moonboot).  Holland is a quick flight and is reportedly very easy to get around in, so it makes for a good test bed before I try to venture further.

Taking a train in to Gatwick airport is pretty easy, presuming you pay attention and don’t miss your stop.  Galloping between trains with a moonboot, trying to catch a return train back in time to not miss your flight is fun.  During this run, something started shaking around in my travelpack, like someone had deposited 100 pebbles in it.  I had no time to investigate, but arriving at the security checkpoint, I pulled my laptop out to discover it was covered in a fine, white powder.  Interesting.

You see, as part of ensuring my foot heals properly I’m taking vitamin D and calcium pills.  The calcium pills upended in my speed-hobble and bounced happily around in the pack.  Calcium pills are a chalky white consistency, so my laptop was nicely powdered on removal.

Needless to say the bomb scanners were less than amused.  The laptop got a thorough scrubbing over with those little sheets that try to determine if a substance is… I don’t know, exploding?  Drugs?  just generally indicative of a bad person, I guess.  Eventually they let me proceed, but not without a stiff British glower.  Moments later I would use the restroom, check in the mirror and find that I had also rubbed my nose at some point after removing the laptop from my bag, leaving a nice dusting of powder on my nose as well.

I am a classy traveler.

The flight into Amsterdam: totally uneventful.  Catching a train from the airport into the center: perfectly easy except for the fact that most card-operated machines in Europe expect your card to have a security chip.  We in the US of A apparently don’t really care for this layer of protection, so it’s a bit of a search to find an ATM that will give you actual cash so you can buy a train ticket from an actual person.

Special note on the Amsterdam airport: it has not one, but two fully functioning florists.  This bodes well, I think.  It also bodes well when a train trip from the airport is as lovely and picturesque as many tours in other countries.  Plus: the train is fast, silent, on-time, spacious, and comfortable.  Can’t ask for a better start.

Hey Seattle, Portland: you think you are bike-friendly and have a lot of bikers?  Yeah, you’re gonna have to step to the side and shut the hell up.  Amsterdam is where all good bikes go as their eternal reward.

WP_20130630_003
3 story bike park. Packed to overflowing
WP_20130630_002
Literally thousands of bikes, packed in tight against each other on this structure.
WP_20130630_001
Overflow bike parking = streets, curbs, sidewalks, etc.
WP_20130701_001
You cannot go anywhere without being overrun by bikes.

Now, my approach to traveling to a new city is basically:

  • Search on hostels.com for an 80+ rated hostel, under 30 euros, as close to city center as possible.
  • Book the room, book the flight.  go.

I don’t complicate things, you see.  This has worked out amazingly well for me so far.  This time however, my procedure lands me right in the center of Pot Central and the Red Light District.  So, walking the streets becomes not just interesting, but downright fascinating.

Let’s cover the sex stuff first:

There are shops on every block trying to sell you sex accoutrements.   These range from standard (movies, magazines, etc) to slightly more surprising.  For example, there’s some high end stores trying to make the everyday device be a thing of beauty and elegance:

WP_20130702_002
Elegant! Champagne + sex toy, how can you go wrong?

Then there’s the occasional shop that seems to just be throwing things out there to see what sticks.

WP_20130701_002
Less than elegant.

I’m not sure at what point someone goes: “Hey honey, we should get a gag / toilet paper holder device.  For, you know, occasions.”, and if there is an explanation for this, I’m not sure I want to know it.

However, even the more commonplace items, such as a condom, go to extreme lengths (ahem) here:

WP_20130701_017
One size does not fit all.
WP_20130701_016
You can be like the batman of sex with a fully-equipped utility belt.
(Ignore the pointing finger that leapt into my shot at the last second.)

In addition, there’s the red light district. I’m supplying no pictures for this for a couple reasons:

  1. I’m much too classy to post images of nearly-naked sultry women trying to tempt you into their dens of ill-repute.
  2. They will take your camera away if you try to take any pictures.

Suffice to say, you might be walking down an alley, enjoying a lovely stroll in the cool night air, when suddenly you are beset from all sides by women at full-length glass doors wearing garments made from strings and gland covers.  Wakes one up, that does.

I’ve been trying to decide how I feel about the whole legal prostitution thing.  On the one hand, it must make it safer for everyone, removes the whole horrible idea of pimps, and gives the country some ability to set controls, standards, protections, and taxes on the whole affair.  On the other hand, it’s still a profession that most fathers would very much not wish on their daughters.  All in all, if you accept that prostitution happens whether it is legal or not, it’s hard to argue that legalizing it so you can regulate it is better for everyone.

Now, as for pot: I was informed from both websites and people that Amsterdam is “cracking down” or limiting the pot business.  If this is true, my feeble mind is unable to guess at what it used to be.  Did they previously issue joints when you get off the plane?  Was it pumped into the water supply?

The stuff is everywhere, and as you walk the streets you might find your thoughts evolving from amusement the first night “Haha, funny, you could get a contact high just walking the streets” to wonder: “wow, are there any smoke-free zones here?” and by the third day finally to dismay: “you cannot get away from the smell!  I’ll have to wash everything I own and burn my backpacks!”

The way this works is you have stores that are called “coffeeshops” (not to be confused with a café, or Starbucks) which do not sell any coffee near as I can tell.  These shops have a front part for selling, and a separate part (back, upstairs, etc) for smoking.  But people seem to just wander the streets smoking away, so I’m not sure how much those areas are used.

Now the district is very much aware of it’s patrons needs.  More than just serving the pot, they know what happens soon after, and have evolved shops appropriately:

WP_20130701_003
Shops conveniently positioned next to “coffeeshops”
WP_20130702_001
Hot dogs covered in madness. Pizzas. They know their audience.

Speaking of food, I’ve found some of the portions to be out of whack:

WP_20130701_005
“Small fries, please”
WP_20130701_009
Water. Might need a case.

However, since Amsterdam is reportedly the most diverse city in the world (178 nationalities in 2010) you are not lacking for any nationality you might want. Sure, you have Thai, Chinese, and Indian foods. You have places advertising “English Breakfast” and “Authentic Irish food”. You have the fast food Americanisms (the busiest Burger King in the world is advertised as the one in the Amsterdam airport), but you also have things like Tibetan cuisine. Which, if you get a chance to have, I highly recommend. Watch the spices.

However, the thing that stands out the most for me so far, is the language. Now, pretty much everyone here speaks excellent English, enough for one to feel terribly inadequate and lame for not speaking a lick of Dutch in return. But the flip side is that the Dutch language is downright frightening.

For example, directions from my hostel to a museum consist of heading down Schoutensteeg toward Oudezijds Voorburgwal, turning onto Grimburgwal (which changes to Langebrugsteeg), making a right on Olieslagerssteeg… I’ll stop here, you get the idea.

Basically the language is a playground for flagrant abuse of vowel combinations and consists of a blatant disregard for whether or not any word is even pronounceable. The constant oral gymnastics required make Dutch lovers the best in the world (I might have made this up).  Rumor has it that a Dutch scrabble board is a 128 x 128 grid and you get bonus points for finding the rare word that doesn’t have inexplicable and gratuitous combinations of vowels. (also might have just started that rumor, not sure, didn’t do a search to check its validity)

Some examples. Even the Heineken brewery gets into the act, if only slightly.

WP_20130702_005 (1)
Minor infraction.
WP_20130702_004
Standard street name. Not nearly the worst offender.
WP_20130702_009
Foreigners attempt pronunciation at their own risk.

Given these aggressively concocted words, its no wonder that occasionally a translation yields some unintentionally fun results. For example, at a lovely, fancy, white-table-cloth type of establishment, I appreciated the honest description of the Dutch option for steak.

WP_20130702_007
Holandes Gaucho tells it like it is.

And given my heightened awareness of all words, I digressed into pretty much the lowest forms of humor.

WP_20130702_008
So, where do you want to do it?
note: this joke works best if you read this aloud with a strong accent.
Also: if your sense of humor never progressed past 3rd grade.

So, let me cap off my Amsterdam explorations thus far by asserting that the hostel here has an addition in the toilet that should be installed everywhere in the world. If you’ve ever had to sit down at a public toilet where men have used it before, you will likely agree with me.

WP_20130701_018
This is an invention that should be required world-wide.

London, the daily life

Since I’m still instructed to keep my foot elevated whenever possible, and when elevated to keep it 30 degrees above my heart, and even when it isn’t elevated to keep my bloody weight off of it, I find that I’m doing very little rambling around London.

No, mostly I’m spending my time writing new chapters and revising old ones.  Which is good, ’cause I intended to do a lot of writing on this trip, but previously was too busy being a tourist to focus on the writing.

Still, I’ve learned a few things in my last week as a temporary house-bound London citizen.

First:the weather.  While it lulled me in with false promises of summer when I got here, it has rapidly resorted to it’s classic and legendary state.  For example, here’s today’s sunny, summery outlook.

weather
Note: the image lies. There are no pretty flowers.

The reality obscured by this lovely image is that the days are gray, cold, windy, and pretty much reminiscent of Seattle.  I’ve mentioned that Seattle weather is stalking me, so perhaps I’m to blame since the weather was stunning when I got here.

Now, even though I am supposed to be sitting around with my leg in the air all day, I enact a small bit of rebellion every day and hobble around the triangle of streets near my home base.  This allows me to sample the local food for lunch, and have a chance to interact with locals.  From this I have made the following observations:

Shopping carts are superior in London in a few ways:

  1. In order to use a cart, you must put a deposit in.  This confounded me at first; there was a full row of carts, all neatly waiting for someone to adopt one, but on selecting one I discovered they were all locked, one chained to the next.  Attempting to remove this chain were unsuccessful, until I noticed the chain from the next cart locked into a small device on my chosen cart.  This device had a small slot just large enough for a 1 pound coin.  Luckily I had a coin, put it in, and was rewarded with a liberated cart.  “But wait” you decry, “I don’t want to pay one pound just to use a cart to shop with!”  Fear not: when you return the cart, you insert the chain back into the lock device and that pushes your pound coin right back out.  Simple and easy, and probably leads to number 2 (below).  Why is this an advantage, you ask?  Well simply put, people put the carts back where they belong, and you don’t find them strewn all over the place, running into cars, and stuck in the walkways of random buildings 4 blocks away.
  2. The wheels work.  I have yet to encounter a cart with the classic “bum leg” syndrome that all carts in the US seem to experience, leaving you fighting against a cart that dearly wishes to steer sideways, or dealing with pushing a cart that announces loudly either through a rhythmic “thump thump thump” or piercing squeal, exactly where in the store you are and how fast you might be going.

As for the food, I’ve sampled a few restaurants here so far.  I’ve tried fish and chips twice, and on both occasions have been surprised that instead of getting 2-3 pieces of cod with some tartar sauce and chips, I am delivered what appears to be one giant slab of whale, deep fried, on a plate, accompanied by chips of course, but also a cup of pasty green… something?  At first I thought they had sent me a year’s supply of wasabi.  Upon further inspection, this turns out to be mashed peas.  It’s not an option, this is compulsory with your order.  Myself: not a fan.

Also, a place called The Sparrowhawk makes one of the best burgers I’ve had in a long time, surprisingly.  They’ll charge you your first-born child for it, but it’s quite tasty (the burger, not the child).  You ask for it “medium rare” and you’ll get a burger that’s charred on the outside, pink on the inside, and just pretty much perfect.

Also, accents here are a source of never-ending joy.  As mentioned in my last post, I get to learn new phrases like “I won’t keep you a minute, luv”, which is at face value an absolute lie, but delivered with such a charming lilt I hardly mind.  The extreme side of this is a man who wanted to make conversation with me while I was waiting for my taxi, leg up, holding my crutches.  His lead off line was something like:

“Eh, y’ga’ a bi’ kickn yer hup eh?”

To which my brain ran through all it’s filters: was that English?  Doesn’t seem to be.  How about Spanish?  Nope.  French?  German?  Something else?  Nope to all. Okay, maybe it was actually English and I didn’t understand.  So:

“I’m sorry?”

“Ah, y’ stump dere, y’ga a bi’ kickn yer up, hey?  lie a bi’ no aie, eh?”

At this he made kicking motions with his leg.  So, I was left to guess this was probably his way of asking what I did to my leg, and whether I got it… kicking something?  Maybe playing a sport?

“Ah, no, not a good story, just twisted my ankle and came up with a broken foot.”

“Oh, aye, ye gaen gone wit stuffed bane an’ no go’ a fur bin some time, eh?”

Me: nodding, smiling.  Hoping I haven’t just accidentally agreed to something nefarious.  After a few more statements back and forth I was able to somewhat acclimate to his accent, and perhaps he to mine, and we ended up talking about Spain and how hot it was when he visited it 20 years ago.

“Ah, t’was nigh abot furty aight ina shade, so ‘twould be ’bout, oh, ‘bot mayb won twenty, aye?”

“wow, that’s too hot”

“ye be tellin’ me! No, was ’bout roasted in bot din fen wit’ de falsen bat, no?”

“er… aye?”

“oh, aye, aye.”

So, conversations can be a constant source of fun.

One last observation: tea isn’t a “sometimes” thing.  Tea is all the time, any place, for any reason.  And normally you don’t have a follow-up question of “what kind of tea?”, no; there’s just TEA.  Brown, hot, with a bit of milk in it.  Given the weather, this is a very good thing.

Dangerous Madrid

Madrid has many dangers.

For example, it’s a terrible place to be a pig. One of the main chain restaurants in town is called “Museo de Jamon” (museum of ham), Where cuts of pork hang from the ceiling and are served in all kinds of different configurations.

WP_000778
The walmart of pork

You might think this looks like a supermarket, but it’s actually a restaurant; the people on the right are dining on a large island at the center of the store.  This chain is about as prevalent here as Starbucks is in Seattle; seems to be on every corner. Even at other restaurants, most things you order have bacon or ham thrown in regardless of whether you want it or not. I haven’t even asked for water at a restaurant yet because I’m relatively certain it will show up with a pigs foot in it. For, you know… stirring your water? I don’t know.

What I’m trying to say is: if you are a pig, you might want to look at traveling somewhere else.  Maybe India.  Also, why are you reading a blog?

However, even if you are a human, still the dangers abound!  You may have heard that Madrid is a stylish city.  Well, if you happen to fancy a bit of shopping, the area “Puerta Del Sol” is your mecca.  Even for me, living out of a backpack without space to add a wafer thin mint, I found myself sucked into trying on some AWESOME shoes.  Luckily they don’t make shoes in “super-size American” here.  If I had found some that fit I’d have had some tough decisions to make: throw out my clothes in favor of shoes?  I fear I would not have made wise decisions and would have found myself a month down the road with only 1 shirt, one pair of shorts, and an array of fabulous footwear.

While you are walking around, enjoying the amazing sights, the fantastic shopping, and the perfect May weather, you will likely get the urge to eat something from time to time.

Madrid makes this far too easy.  In the words of Louis C.K. – “the eating doesn’t stop when I’m full, it doesn’t end until I HATE myself”

Take, for example, this store window:

WP_000719
Rotating wheel of diabetes

This is just the store front. Inside the store, it is stocked from floor to ceiling with stacks and stacks of pastries. People buy in bulk here, hauling away boxes of this stuff.

You may have heard of tapas?  Yeah, you could go to a restaurant and get some tapas.  Or you could go to Mercado de Miquel and get ALL THE TAPAS.

WP_000771
You can eat your way through here all day, every day.
WP_000733
It’s basically isles and isles of awesome.
WP_000737
whaddya want? Sweet? Savory? Cheesy? All this can be yours.
WP_000736
Grilled red pepper, brie, and ham. I might need 9 more of these.
WP_000773
What’s that? You are on a bread-free diet? They got yet back.
WP_000735
Little tiny burgers with pickles! Squeee!

Basically there are about 20 or so different stores in the Mercado, each one specializing in their own kind of tapas (or deserts, or beer and wine, etc).  Most items cost 1-2 euros, and you can graze through picking and choosing as you go.  Perfect.  Very easy to quickly spend 15-20 euros thinking each bite-size morsel is just an appetizer.  Like I said: dangerous.

So, eventually, night will set in and you might find yourself in the mood for a drink.  Madrid also has you covered there with (rumor has it) more bars per capita than anywhere else in Europe.  I haven’t been anywhere else in Europe, so I can neither confirm nor deny this yet, but I can confirm that there are a LOT of bars here.  On a weekend the place just lights up with them, and everyone is out on the patios eating and drinking until the wee hours.

A note about that: People here usually have a big meal around 2 – 4pm, then go out for dinner around 10pm.  They won’t actually start hitting real night-life until midnight at the earliest.  Clubs open either at midnight or 12:30.  The scene doesn’t really get going until after 1:30.  Plan accordingly.  However, if you are into the club scene, there’s a club here (Kapital) that is 7 stories, with different music playing as you ascent the floors.  Very cool, very expensive: (12 euro cocktails, about 17 bucks per drink).  Yow.  But worth doing once.

At the end of the night (or, more accurately: morning), you may find your stomach is admonishing you for only giving it liquids for the past many hours.  You can easily correct this by partaking in the legendary Donor Kebab, choice of drunk people throughout Europe.  For those who don’t know, this is meat shaved off a standing rotisserie, crammed into grilled flatbread, stuffed with onions, lettuce and tomato, then topped off with a ladle of white sauce and a ladle of red sauce.

WP_000727
The infamous Donor Kebab

Your mouth will thank you. Your stomach will agree. At least it will until 2 hours later.

And that, you can see, proves that Madrid is rife with dangers. Proceed at your own risk, you have been warned.

Espana!

Wine gives great pleasure; and every pleasure is of itself a good.  It is a good, unless counterbalanced by evil.   
– Samuel Johnson

Madrid.

Many, many years ago, the Elder Wanker regaled me with tales of Spain. From this I developed a mental image of a beautiful country, filled with beautiful people who take their time with most things, but especially meals. The vision of sitting at an outdoor café, enjoying red wine and some tapas in the warm night air, music wafting gently, people chatting happily in Spanish as the night ages into the wee hours of the morning, with the thick smell of an historic city around me, has lingered as one of my dreams for traveling for over a decade.

So it was that I landed in Madrid with lofty expectations. From the plane the countryside is picturesque; rolling hills with winding roads connecting tiny hamlets with red-tile roofs. As Madrid comes into view, I notice a sprawling city with 4 impressive skyscrapers jutting to the sky. To view all this, it seems my dreams are not far from reality.

Once out of the airplane, a little reality creeps in: I’m on my own, with a tenuous grasp of Spanish, in Spain where I hear people speak so rapidly that even fluent Mexicans have trouble understanding sometimes. I have only an address to go by, and it’s another of those strange ones that I’m not sure how to parse:

Calle amour de dios n8 2

The first part (street name) is clear, and the “n8” is likely the apartment number, but what is this extra “2” there? Hopefully it all makes sense to the cab driver.

Once I tell the driver “calle amour de dios” he has enough information, and we take off through the city. The streets we travel are wide, clean and busy. The buildings are a mix of old and newer with some that stately declare their age to be more than 2 centuries old simply by the ornateness of their roofs, windows, doors and walls. Eventually we thread our way through a tiny cobbled street with multi-floor buildings close-in on both sides, barely enough room for a compact car to get through. We come to a large green door with the number “8” on it, and the driver lets me out.

WP_000670
A lovely building! Now how to get in?

I figure this is building 8, and the “2” in the address is for apartment 2. There is a call button array by the door, so I pay the driver and am ready to meet my new landlord.

Unfortunately, there are a lot more buttons than anticipated. For the number 2, there are actually 4 buttons, each with some words that I have no idea how to interpret (izda, dcha, ctro).

WP_000669
Izda? Dcha? Are these new elements for the periodic table?

So, nothing for it but to try all of them, which I do. This yields me one reply from a somewhat terse sounding woman, whom I shakily squeak out “Perdon, eres Antonio?” thinking perhaps I misunderstood the name I got from airbnb and it was actually Antionia, instead of Antonio. No such luck; she mutters something that I can only interpret as negative and I’m left again on the street. Luckily, there is an internet café right next door, so I get a station, log onto mail, and see if Antonio has replied to my mail from yesterday asking for more specific directions. He has not. I also find they have public phones at this tiny café, so I try the phone number provided. No answer.

Hmm.

It is, however, a beautiful day. The weather is perfect: about 22 (71F) degrees with light clouds and mostly blue sky. I decide to lug my 400 lbs of backpack around the town to take in the sights while I wait for either inspiration or Antonio to strike.

Now, picture an old European town.  Cobbled, winding streets, old, stately houses and buildings, pedestrian-friendly with quaint shops and little cafe’s punctuating every block.  Now picture what happens if a city with over 3 million people (more than 6 if you count the surrounding areas) grows up.  Potential disaster, no?  No.  Madrid has weathered the growth amazingly well.  The city still feels small and welcoming, even though it spreads in all directions for miles.  The streets are just as described above.  I find myself lost amid the architecture and winding streets, but once I mark a couple main streets in my memory I feel confident to wander ever wider.

After some hours of this, I check in with the internet café again.  Nothing.  As I leave again somewhat deflated, I realize that now is the time to get a phone.  I’ve heard that phones in Europe are very cheap and you can easily live on a pre-paid plan, no contract required.  This is so foreign to my American sensibilities that I distrust it.  However, it turns out to be exactly true.  For 27 euros and 5 minutes of time I have a phone with it’s own number and 5 euros credit on it to get me started.  Fabulous.  So now I try Antonio from MY phone.

Success!  He answers and I try to explain in my stumbling Spang-lish who I am and where I am.  He tells me to meet him at the house in 5 minutes.  He turns out to be a man with a broad and quick smile, probably in his early 30’s, and in possession of much better English than my Spanish.  he sets me up with a room, keys and internet.  all is good with the world again.

Once in my bedroom I realize I’ve been awake for around 24 hours, so I am unable to refuse the call of the bed.  However, at 10 I wake, walk to a local tapas restaurant I saw earlier, and my dream from so many years ago is realized:

WP_000667
Tosta with egg, potato and Iberian ham. Oh, and wine. Of course the wine.

Trust

“I may not make it out of this.” I think to myself.

I’m hurtling down a dry, broken road in back of an SUV, an hour outside of Mexico City with two Mexican men that I met one hour previously.  My traveling partner and I are in back, and we have no idea where we are or where we are going.  Also, I have no way of contacting anyone since my phone does not work in Mexico and I don’t know where I am anyway.  It suddenly occurs to me that I might not make it out of this alive.

Let me back up: my travel partner and I planned a day to see Teotihuacan ruins.  Let’s call her The Linguist, since even though she is powerfully young she is already fluent in German, Spanish and English, as well as knowing some Polish and who-knows-what-else.  Ling has been invaluable in this trip through the heart of Mexico.  My contribution to the team is pretty much just being gringo baggage and a false sense of security from not traveling alone.

Ling met one of these guys (let’s call him Chef) last time she was in Playa Del Carmen, a year ago.  The other guy (we’ll call him Rusk) neither of us had met before, but he was friends with Chef and was a large, gregarious local who “worked for the government”.  Not sure what that means…

So, we met these guys at the ruins, and instead of going back to Mexico City with the family we were staying with, Ling said “hey, these guys wanna go get something to eat, wanna go with them?”.  Seemed like a good idea at the time.

So we piled into their SUV.  However, instead of food they bought us each a large (liter?) serving of a local alcoholic beverage.  The conversation leading to that was basically: “oh, you’ve never tried Pulque?  It is nectar of the gods, lets go get you some.”  (Side note: while the Pozol drink didn’t turn out so good, pulque turned out to be quite decent.  Kind of like a stronger (and fruitier) version of Kombucha.)  However, they didn’t buy any for themselves.  Hmmm.

Now the plan seemed to be “Let’s show you a really neat local church”.  The original plan of “let’s go get something to eat” seemed to be fading into the distance.

I think I’m a pretty laid-back person.  I can roll with the changes and usually just enjoy whatever comes next.  However, the plans seemed to be evolving rapidly as the SUV hurtled on through an area one hour outside of Mexico City called Texcoco.

Now the plan evolved again: “Let’s get some beers.  And maybe some tequila”.

And that’s when I first realized I might not make it out of this.

To be fair, Chef and Rusk were super friendly; they didn’t *seem* like bad news, but I also think I’m pretty terrible at reading people and my default position on meeting new people is “everyone is awesome, can’t wait to get to know you and your specific awesomeness.”  This makes for a good approach usually, but in a foreign country where one doesn’t speak the language and has no means of contacting the outside world, it suddenly seemed more than foolish, it seemed downright dangerous.

Ling finished her Pulque and the three of them lit up cigarettes.  I looked out at the foreign landscape around us and wondered what I could do to improve out situation.  I couldn’t just blurt out my fears to Ling, the guys knew English and could hear.  I couldn’t text her because my phone didn’t work.  I couldn’t contact anyone to let them know where I was.

Worst case scenarios started to play out in my head.  Trapped in an abandoned church.  At gunpoint.  Bad things would happen to me.  Worse things to Ling.  The more I thought of it, the less chance for a happy outcome I could see.  Why were these guys driving us all over town, buying us drinks, using up all their gas and their time?  What was their motivation?

Further note: most of Mexico is desperately poor.  I have no idea if these guys are in similar straights and just make their living by finding dumb tourists and taking what they want.  The worst case scenarios start playing more rapidly.  “Work for the government”?  What does that really mean?

Reality check: Ling knew Chef from last year when she want to Playa.  Okay, sure, but how well could she get to know him?   She was in school and he worked locally and I have to assume she got to know just as many people in her short time as I have during my time here.  Which is to say: A LOT.  So perhaps Chef was a best an acquaintance.  So does she really know him?  Unlikely.

More worst case scenarios.  Held for ransom.  Blackmail.  Disappeared and put into some kind of slave labor.

As I was thinking all this through, we pulled into a side street and Suddenly Chef was introducing us to his father.  We went inside a lovely house that was immaculately clean and decorated on the inside.  We met his mother.  They were both effusively welcoming.  Pleasantries were exchanged, then after less than 10 minutes we hit the road again.  Chef’s parents made it clear that if we should ever come back we need dto treat their house as our house and stay there.  Now two new feelings washed over me: relief, and shame at my suspicious thoughts against these guys who just wanted to hang out with us and have a good time.

You would think I would have learned my lesson back in Medford.  Perhaps I’m not nearly as open and easy going as I thought.  These guys turned out to be just fantastic.  We had lunch at a local restaurant called “House of the Crazy Uncle” (pictured below). We had an amazing array of different quesadillas (two kinds of mushrooms, potato and cheese, some kind of chorizo, some other stuff I can’t remember).   Chef and I split the remains of a bottle of tequila he took from his parent’s house, with me using a glass and Chef just pouring it straight back into his open mouth, true Mexican style.

WP_000605
Crazy Uncle indeed.
WP_000604
Tasty. Another recommended tequila

Oh, and we did finally make the trip to the church. Rusk explained this was the 2nd oldest church on the continent. It had 500 year-old olive trees, and more religious symbolism than he could explain. Sadly it wasn’t open, he explained the interior contained many references and symbolism to things like the Knights Templar and even potentially the Illuminati. Fun.

WP_000600
Another amazing building. Mexico has many of these.
WP_000602
Has stood the test of time well.
WP_000601
Olive trees. Not native to Mexico.
WP_000597
Drink up, Ling. It’s better than Pozol.

In the end, they drove us all the way back to Mexico City, braving horrible traffic and asking around 5 times or directions because we had no idea how to describe how to find out house.  Also, I didn’t mention but earlier I began to feel that my luck with Mexican food was at and end.  I had contracted the Mexican Bowel Shaker.  Montezuma’s Revenge.  The Colon Blow (okay, enough, you get the point).  After the first hour of traffic and with my insides churning so much I was basically a time bomb waiting to go off, they found a Starbucks for me where my insides did things I’m not proud of and will never speak of again.  Chef waiting for me in the store to ensure I was okay and could find my way back to the car.

Like I said: these guys are fantastic.  And pretty much everyone I have met in Mexico is similarly fantastic.  I’ll have to write up my experience with the host family in Mexico City as further proof.

All this leads me to this: traveling is trust.  You have to exercise the skill of giving up control, giving up certainty, and trusting people.  This comes in small ways such as trusting a taxi driver will get you through a city you don’t know.  It comes in major ways such as trusting yourself to people you don’t know.  It comes in the form of traveling to a new city to stay with people you’ve never met.  Every time I have opened myself up to trust, I have been rewarded by amazing examples of selflessness and beautiful humanity.

Traveling is not just a diversion or a distraction.  Traveling is building the skill of trusting and letting go of control.  This is a necessary and valuable part of being human.  I can’t recommend this enough.  Go trust someone you have no reason to trust today and see what you get back.

Living in PDC – random facts

A few assorted things I’ve gathered while living in PDC:

Water

First, let’s address the water situation.  It’s pretty much common accepted fact that NOBODY DRINKS TAP WATER IN MEXICO.  Accepted wisdom goes that if you happen to get a bit of the tap water in your body, you will be reenacting scenes from the exorcist within moments.

What I’ve gleaned while living here:

  • According to the head of the Spanish school, the reason not to drink the water here is because of the heavy minerals in the water that over time (6+ months) will severely tax your kidneys.  He asserts it has nothing to do with unsafe bacteria or parasites, and taking an occasional drink from the tap won’t harm you.  Mexico has earned a bad rap for water and will never live it down, though.
  • All locals drink bottled water.  They purchase water in giant refillable bottles that can be bought from guys that cart them up and down the streets in carts attached to their bikes.  You can hear them coming as they yell “AAAAAAGGGUUUAAAAAA”.  It’s like the ice cream man coming, but a little less festive.
  • I’ve brushed my teeth with tap water every day.  No sickness yet.  Your mileage may vary.
WP_000186
Giant Water Tank of Doom. And this is the small size.

Laundry

So, I have attempted to make my clothes last as long as possible.  Being a bachelor, I’m already well used to picking a shirt off the floor, giving a quick sniff test, and if I don’t pass out then on it goes and I’m out the door.   However, over time, and after gallons of sweat, eventually one needs clean clothes.  turns out this is super simple:

  • Locate your local Lavenderia.  It won’t be hard, there’s nearly as many here as Starbucks in Seattle.
  • Plop your clothes in the scale as you will be charged by the Kilo.
  • Return the next day to pick up your packet of cleaned, dried, folded, and neatly-packaged clothes.

Cost for 6 t-shirts, 4 shorts, swim trunks, 4 button-up shirts, assorted underwear, socks and one Meebus: 37 pesos.  About 3 bucks.  Question: would you ever own a washer and dryer again?  Oh I’m being silly, of course you wouldn’t.

WP_000127
Meebus is no longer a dirty, dirty monkey

Food

Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that eventually you got tired of tacos.  No no, stay with me here, I realize this is about as silly as the above rhetorical question, but just IMAGINE.  Do you have other options?

Turns out: yes.

If you ever get to PDC and are looking for an amazing breakfast, I can’t assert heavily enough that you must go to Cuava Del Chango (translation: Monkey Cave, Meebus was pleased with this).  For example: crepes stuffed with chaya and panela cheese with a green poblano chili sauce smothering them, a pot of black beans on the side, and some ridiculous locally made breads to sop it all up with.

In addition, the restaurant is basically like eating in the middle of a jungle. Here’s a picture of the Elder looking less than pleased because is not stuffing his face with the above breakfast at that very moment.

WP_000032
WHY IS MY FACE NOT FULL OF CREPES???

Their lunch and dinner is pretty good too, but that breakfast pretty much ruined me for other dishes for quite a while.  There are many other restaurants to recommend, but for the moment let me just leave it at that one, as I think it’s deserves it’s own little place.

But wait!  What if I’m watching my girlish figure?  Well, as luck would have it, there are several good options.  There is a natural foods store that sells organic and unprocessed foods.  I picked up a dozen eggs and some yogurt for breakfasts (’cause I can’t do Chango every darn day).  Also, there’s a great made-to-order salad stand right by my school:

WP_000123
Chicken, your choice of veggies and dressing, all for 50 pesos

Dogs

On a more random note, this is not the first time I’ve seen this, but its the first time I documented it. Dogs seem to frequently hang out on 2nd story places, arms over the side, watching the teeming masses go by.

WP_000171
If one of you drops a taco I’ll be down there so fast your head will spin

I occurs to me that this is one of my favorite past times as well. If I could find a dog like this, the two of us could share a beer each afternoon out on the deck, judging people harshly as they pass beneath us. I’m not sure I could want much more out of life.

The moral of the story: drink lots of water, keep your clothes clean, eat well, and find a friend to hang out with.

Real Life in PDC (or at least: Life west of 5th avenue)

If you wish to take a vacation to a place like PDC, your todo list is pretty easy:

  1. Pick a hotel
  2. Pack a swimsuit and sunscreen
  3. Enjoy

However, my intent is to live here for a while (1-2 months), learn Spanish, and get to know the culture.  So I’m living with a Mexican family, walking to school every day, and trying things that are not so touristy.  A few things of note:

PDC is beautiful, to be sure.  However, most of the town seems to be in various states of disrepair.  Example, as soon as you set foot off of 5th avenue, venturing into the great unknown, you encounter a spaces like these:

ImageWP_000142

And even the nicer places have a bit of decay to the streets, buildings, or sidewalks.

Image

This seeming disrepair, however, doesn’t make it seem run down or crumbling, strangely enough.  Instead, it just make the town feel “real” in a way that 5th avenue feels fake, like a polished stage.  Some assorted photos taken on my walk to and from school each day:

Early morning, normally much busier than this:

WP_000140

Normal little apartment block.

WP_000144

 WP_000145

Again, early-ish, it’s not actually a ghost town:

WP_000143

Some observations from walking around town for a couple weeks:

The people are genuinely happy, relaxed and friendly.  Back home you would not blink at seeing a snippy interaction between someone getting their coffee, or someone getting cut off crossing the street, or some parent berating their child or vice-versa.  Here there just isn’t the overall sense of pressure and hurry that a place like Seattle has.  People do their work, but they seem pretty content to do so instead of under pressure, deadlines, or other stresses.

They do love their futbal.  When a game is on you will hear it in every restaurant, shop, and taco stand you pass.

They also do love themselves some pizza.  There’s nearly as many pizza stands as taco stands.  And Hamburger carts are a pretty common thing too.  Not fancy street food like Portland, just basic bun/meat type of offerings.

There are no walk signals.  You are left to fend for yourself trying to get across busy streets.  If you can’t figure out the lights for traffic, well, perhaps this is a good place for natural selection to take effect.  Then again, most of those people stay on 5th avenue, so they are safe (cars are not allowed there).

This is the perfect place for bikes: it’s basically flat and you’ll never need any gear (I have yet to see a helmet).  However, in the same way that they have no walk signals, there’s little affordance given for bikes as well.  So, you gotta wing it.  I intend to acquire a bike soon and will let you know how that goes.  Hopefully better then when I tried to figure out the male / female locker situation.

Pollution from cars seems significant in busy intersections unfortunately.  I think emissions restrictions must be a little more lax than in the states.  Like, along the lines of “yep, you’ve got emissions.  So?”.

It’s super easy to navigate around.  It’s basically a grid of Avenues (Avenidas) that increment by 5’s, and Streets (Calles) that increment by even numbers on the north side and odd numbers on the south side of the main drag.  So if someone says the place you are looking for is on 24th and 30th, you know pretty much exactly where it is and where to go (24th street, so it’s north, 30th ave so it’s about 6 blocks up from the beach).

So, once I got over the mindset of being a “foreigner on vacation” and tried to treat this as a town I live in, I needed to do some common every day things.  Like shopping.  As mentioned in the towel post, one thing I needed to get was a towel.  Now markets here come in three varieties:

Minisuper – this is a convenience store.  Basically 7-11 and their ilk.

Super – your basic supermarket.  Food, housewares, etc.

Mega:

WP_000146

Yep.  It’s basically Mexican Wall-mart.  And in case you don’t like that, there’s an actual Wall-mart right down the block.  Oh goody.  Being a local, now, I opted for the Mega.

This is very much like any big-box store you’d find in the states: isle upon isle of all the things you never knew you needed.

WP_000130

Checking through the store to see what every-day family culture might be like, I find it is quite similar to being back home.  For example, Miley Cyrus is still on the cover of some magazine, sharing her words of wisdom for tweens everywhere, just doing it in a different language (wow, do her talents never end?):

WP_000129

There’s an impressive produce section, with much the same stuff we have back in the states, it’s just that the priorities are a bit different.  For example, the giant mountain in the front is all jicama.  Also, insane piles of avocados are everywhere and they are about 75 cents each!  That translates to breakfast, lunch and dinner for me for about 3 bucks (2 for dinner, natch).

WP_000131

Also, if you are not sure what you are looking for, but you are pretty sure you are hungry, you can just opt for “food”.  Of course, they spell it a bit differently here:

WP_000133

Also, should you have the craving for pork rinds, this is the country for you.  Never have I seen bulk pork rinds, but I believe that’s what this display is.  I should have gotten someone in the frame to show size, because this container is my size, and one of these sheets of bubbly pig flesh is the size of a small child.  Only crunchier.

WP_000132

So there you have it: life in Playa is much like life back in the states.  Only pedestrians have to be aware of their surroundings, people are actually pretty happy, and your secret pork rind fixation can be solved in a way you never dreamed possible.