Books Worth a Look

  • Little Bee by Chris Cleave - This book is a must read. Better than anything else I've read, it takes you vividly into the life of a person in the 3rd world who has no choice but to escape. It is brilliantly written & works well as an audio book. Often I've sent info about the wonderful refugees I've met in Europe. We know only so much of their plight as it is painful for them to recall much less live through again by recounting it. But over time it is clear what they've lived through. This book is excellent as you discover the horrors of their world. Somewhat how to me, it is like being in Europe near a Concentration Camp. One has an obligation to visit it. 'Never to Forget.' In this case, to have our eyes opened.
  • Garbage King by Eliz Laird - The book is set on the streets on Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia and here lives Mamo and his sister Tiggist. When Mamo's "uncle" offers a job, he soon sets out on a bus to work. Little does he know that he is actually being sold into slavery...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

People You Meet

Marta - Mexican heritage & U.S. citizen -

Marta is a delightful lady trying to eek out a living while taking care of her mother. When mom was in the hospital there were no gauze nor needles etc. to clean and renew fluids to her mom. They had to go out & buy them. But for the rich & foreigners - yes they´re available!

Marta asks why Americans are so afraid to come to Mexico. Drug shootings are not here, rather in border towns. Business is way off; Canadians are the big group here.

Mar from Ronda in southern Spain -

Mar is a lovely young lady studying in Seattle and here for a break. She is complimentary about my Spanish as we converse first in Spanish and then English. I´m beginning to think that Spanish speaking people are not used to English speaking people attemtping to speak Spanish - the compliments are frequent. Exaggerated to be sure!

Tony from Ottawa -

Tony, a BIG man, is about my age & on his own here. Like me he is very close to his daughter. Unlike me! He's been married four times. He has difficulty walking but does it several times a day for exercise. It's been fun having him in the hostel as we can appreciate many experiences from a similar perspective. One thing he just can't get is why Amricans are so scared of universal health care. Says Canada has had it a long time & it's great.

Yelapa, People You Meet and Am I in San Francisco?


Taking a water taxi turned out to be quite different than the water taxi in the Inner Harbor! You climb aboard a medium size fishing boat, climb over padded benches. Then the fun begins. Fishing boat it may appear, but the outboard motor is akin to a speed boat. A young guy stands in front holding onto a rope for the 45 minute trip.

The front of the boat is aloft & you can only see the boat & the young man standing mit rope. The ride is rugged but not bad. If you can manage, you maneuver around on the bench so you can see the shoreline.

Reaching Yelapa, one discovers that it is a beach landing. (Had I known I would have brought a towel!) Take off your shoes & socks. And yes, the wave will get your shorts wet - don't sweat it! The town is small & somewhat primitive, no cars. A favorite trek is to the waterfalls nearby.

Getting back? Go to the pier at 4 or 4:45. At 4, a boat arrives telling me it's not going now as no one else is ready to go! Shortly thereafter another comes & I board using a ladder strapped to the pier!

The ride back is pleasant as I converse with a Jewish couple from Colorado. The woman tells me she feels freer here in Vallarta, a Catholic land, than she does in Colorado Springs! They gave me great advise about visiting Israel.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Puerto Vallarta - beach city on the Pacific

The Beach - actually too many to name!

At the hostel I met a young lady from Holland who told me the beach was nice but the water is like bath water. The hostel/hotel owner asked: "You did not see any Mexicans in the water, did you? It's too cold." The next day, yesterday, I went to the beach. Several things are different from home. The sun is very bright, not a surprise. The beach is 1 1/2 short blocks from my hostel. If you turn right, it's Olas Altas Beach - high waves beach & I'm told can be rough. If you go right, it's more calm.

The sand is clean and hot like home. The water is cool to cold depending on your experience. But it takes almost no time to adjust to it. Very pleasant & indeed only 'gringos were in the ocean!'

At home I am used to people selling pictures, sodas etc. Here due to two factors:

  1. the extreme poverty
  2. the wealth of most gringos here
there is an almost non-stop stream of Mexican men & women who sell everything from sunglasses, jewelry, kits, little toys and on. It occurred to me yesterday that if each of us with far more money than these people bought 2 or 3 of the things an outing, the difference we could make in their lives. You could do this for about 4-6 dollars total - not a tough deal.

Added to that desperately needed income is the fact that the person would experience a little less disappointment in a daily grind that ranges 10-12 hours of non-stop walking on a hot beach or in the streets.

Andales Hot Spot - (and foreigners living on Mexico)

The largest group of foreigners in P Vallarta is Canadians, by far. You meet Americans but not lots. In the afternoon or evening, in a bar around the corner from my hostel, Andales, you can find 'gringos' having a drink or coffee. Many are great; some quite self impressed and/or absorbed.

Only one of the persons I've met makes an effort to speak or learn Spanish. but they can be more than happy to live here on the cheap, enjoying terrific climate, good food, and service of maids & other people who earn roughly 20 - 70 peso a day. That's about $ 1.60 - $ 5.59 A DAY.
Hopefully you can understand my use of on Mexico rather than in Mexico.

Gratefully there are those who do what they can to tip well and be respectful. You can have a 1 bedroom apartment, including bottled water, electric & furnished for $ 400 a month.

Stop Signs - What are they? !

Both in Tlaquepaque and here in Vallarta, there are some but few stop signs. As my teacher said to me in English: Run for your life when crossing the street! That is literally true. Pedestrians seem invisible to drivers who do not slow down!

Today it's Yelapa. Nex visit a zip line tour.

Check out the video on the Canopy Tours on this page.

Yelapa (Yeh - La -Pa) was probably first populated by a some Native Americans of the tribe that originated in the ancient circular town of Tenacatitlan, 100 miles north, as they migrated south to eventually form Mexico City and become the Aztec empire. The word means 'gathering place' or 'meeting place' and, although it lies on the same latitude as Hawaii, has been likened to Tahiti.

The road south of Puerto Vallarta does not go all the way around the bay but cuts inland at Boca de Tomatlan. To get to Yelapa you must take a boat from Boca de Tomatlan , Los Muertos beach or the beach just south of the Rosita Hotel. Yelapa can also be reached by mountain bike or hiking down from El Tuito, high in the mountains behind the village. There is a daily cruise boat that drops tourists off for about two hours.

Best Way to get there. Take the Boca/Mismaloya bus from the South Bus Terminal (see Map) 7 pesos, when you get off the bus walk down to the beach (use insect repellent on your legs, lots of noseeum's on this beach), there you will find people waiting for a water taxi and a gentleman selling tickets, better to pay on the boat, to Yelapa 60 pesos.. From Boca de Tomatlan, the water taxi leaves about every 1 hour see Schedule
The Los Muertos water taxi leaves from the pier about every 2 hours from 9:30 AM till 6:00pm, 7 days a week. During high season, there maybe less in Low Season. 120 pesos one way.
Be aware that the last water taxi back to Puerto Vallarta leaves around 5:00 PM (to Boca) - miss it and you stay the night!
Tip: If you want to spend all day and avoid the crowds of tourist who arrive on the large boat aroun noon, leave boca early, 9 AM, and around 11:30 AM - or wait till you see the tour boats coming - hike up the river where there's a nice waterfall and swimming pool, all the tourists will go to the little one behind the village. Time your return to 2:30 PM and the boats will have left.

Yelapa is truly unique. A small village of about 1,500 native residents, now with electricity that arrives by wire and not by solar cell. There used to be only five phones - one is in the hotel but more are arriving; no roads - no vehicles; 300 resident/semi-resident Gringos; no police force - say no more! Well. that's changed, there's now a local police force.

Many years ago a few gringos discovered Yelapa and found it to their liking and moved in. In those days there were no brick or cement houses only Palapas, palm frond roofs on four or more posts with maybe some bamboo walls for privacy and a sleeping loft. If you were lucky you had bottled gas, shipped in by panga from Boca de Tomatlan, or just wood to cook on.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Puerto Vallarta

Arrived in Pacific Ocean city of Puerto Vallarta today after a 5 1/2 hour bus ride from Tlaquepaque. Hopefully some of the following will be of interest. :-)

Taking local buses.

Whether in Mexico or Costa Rica, the peoples' transportation is both a sight & an experience. It's as if any hope of suspension was ripped out of these buses either by intent or the difficult roads. Today I had the fun of sitting in the very back of a local bus. 4 pesos, about 55 cents, earns a ride more active than many an amusement park experience!

Contrast between 1st & 3rd world.

I've only seen a small slice of PV, but the contrast is sharp. As I walked around on the normal search for my accomodations, I saw a very busy tourist scene. Pricey shops, restaurants, tourist abound. The climate is warm, the sun bright. No doubt the beach will be nice tomorrow. PV gets 300 days of sunshine a year. (This is wild as I type I'm watching on my mini laptop the health care vote in the House - technology is amazing. Bill just passed!)

After settling into a 4 month old hostel (Vallarta Sun), I walked east only 3 blocks and I was back in Mexico! Locals sat on the corners, seemingly unaware of the wealth nearby, a poor couple sat across the street on a concrete block as their young children entertained themselves pulling each other on a well worn piece of cloth. Men bent under hoods of old American cars, worked to extend the old vehicles' lives. You see so many American cars from the 70's & 80's or earlier on the streets. Not uncommon is the sight of old VWs, some looking like they are truly on their last legs or is that axles!

Minimum wage for employees serving the tourists is 20 pesos a day, $ 1.59 US dollars. No wonder I feel a tad out of place among the well heeled. The more time I've lived among those who have little, the more not only how well off we are, but in many ways, how spoiled.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Definitely a Better Week !

A Wrestling Match in Guadalajara

No your eyes are not deceiving you! The Director of the school, a unique individual to be sure, invited the Spanish students to go to a very interesting cultural experience. Several of us including a young teacher and two former students piled into his car and off we went to Guadalajara.

A Show from beginning to end.

Though I'm only guessing, I suspect the wrestling matches in the U.S. are quite similar. I decided early on that the wrestlers were 2nd tier gymnasts capable of some tricky jumps including over the ropes and into the crowd!

The fans yell what were foul epithets in Spanish. Each wrestler wore a colorful mask. The young teacher bought one prior to the event and wore it often during the matches. I decided to forgo the purchase!

It was fun, curious, long, and stupid - in equal mixes! My companions were in great spirits & got caught up in the game - all quite fake. My analytic mind was of course at work. I know it's time to relax & I did, but I mean. Here we have 100's of people getting all involved as if mattered in what is totally fake!

In between matches, scantily clad ladies introduced the next wrestlers who paraded onto the stage in flamborant cloaks etc.

We posed for some pictures after. One I should be able to share soon is the teacher mit mask standing on the edge of the ring leering down at me in a menacing fashion. Except for its length, it was fun to be with everyone at a very nutty event.

The fun wasn't over! The Director took us to an outdoor taco market around 11 p.m. It is open every day from 9 p.m to about 6 a.m. Wow, were the tacos excellent. We stood, ate, laughed, shared reactions, and talked with others in both English & Spanish. NOT BAD for an evening of fun - all covered in the tuition - about $ 4-7 a day more than other schools offering private classes without any of the extras!

Incredible Classes:

Of the 3 schools I've attended in Latin America, this is by far the best

Out in the streets using Spanish.

Imagine having your own teacher take you into the streets to shop for needed items, stop for an milk based ice treat, coffee & desert. I have been out now on seven ventures in 16 classes. Rather than beinng stuck behind a desk non-stop, I get to try out my Spanish, ask questions, have a private tour by my teacher - all the while taking notes as I want.

Trips have included:
  • several tours of historic building & churches in Gaudalajara & Zapopan.
  • a trip to the barshop for a much needed haircut. My Spanish worked well enough to entertain the waiting customers. When I made am mistake or got stuck my teacher was at the ready.
  • Shopping for a money belt - one that flips out & in easily - without having to partially undress!
  • Spending a 1/2 over outside the ice cream shop talking & listening in Spanish to an older & very educated Mexican gentleman.
  • Enjoying cake & coffee at a local coffee bar. (BTW all of this is paid for by the school.)
  • A trip to a local seminary with a tour by an Italian seminarian. Julio had been my teacher's student in Spanish for 4 months. The Provincial for the Order's Latin region entertained us with great stories. He is fluent in Italian, English, Spanish, and his local Italian dialect. I've been invited to Julio's ordination in Rome in 3 years. I'm going out to dinner with the Provincial after my 4 day trip to Puerto Vallarta.

Still this week - a trip tomorrow to Tonala - market day for crafts.

A trip Friday to local churches known for their art.

I even spend some time in the classroom!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Victim of pickpockets!

Lessons learned! I was in Gaudalajara yesterday morning touring sites with my teacher when at the bus stop someone bumped into me hard. Turned out to be a planned distraction. His partner I guess retrieved my wallet from my front pocket & made off with about $65 and my credit, debit, health cards, license etc.

20 minutes later when I got off the bus to go to the school to go online to begin reports, I discovered an alert from Mastercard. Seems the guys had gone into HSBC - British bank here - and attempted twice to retrieve 3,000 pesos = $237. Fortunately the bank blocked it. I never get cash advances, so the system probably has a flag for that.

At that point about 11:40 a.m. began an odyssey that is still running its course. The following is shared not to ask for sympathy but to alert you, esp. if you are traveling internationally as to the problems. Believe me it has been a very painful & frustrating 30 hours.

The first thing you'll want to know is that you are stuck. It is impossible to get new cards. In Latin America, the mail will likely take weeks or more, sometimes months! Europe isn't much more help, at least a week - assuming they would even send them. Nope, no overnights to here! That means then almost everything from hereon out is cash. Wonderful!

Debit card with Bank of America.

Simple right, just call 'em. HAH! First of all, you have to be able to call. Lady in whose house I'm staying has no idea how to reach an international operator, assuming there is a collect call feature which B of Am says it has. (It's not the Mexicans alone. In Norway, there are NO telephone operators! I discovered that myself.) Oh, apparently no one in Visa checked to see if the feature works here. It doesn't!!

Ok, assume you can get through. Well, calling cards in Mexico are expensive, given minutes. Remember all those #'s you have to punch & wait time? It can easily take 6 or more minutes to get to a person. Running out of money yet? Oh that's right they took it all - except for some change.
  • Lesson 1 - obviously, do not carry much, and keep cards & $ separate.

Need emergency cash Sir? No problem. Well, think again! Of course you have to have cash in the bank - goes without saying! BUT, you may have to fax a copy of your passport & other information. This means you have to track down a fax place, make a copy, and arrange it to be sent. Not major, but time consuming.

Woo. Don't think you're ok. To get that info I had to be on the phone a lot. So great, B of A will send fax to Visa who will process wire & call you. THAT's what you think! They do not call you. Will call in an hour, will call in 15 minutes - NOPE! Nunca! Jamais! So you are back to calling. Each call takes about 45-60 minutes. Security check, hold on, please, transfering you to, oh we need this info - except previous 5 people from previous calls earlier today and yesterday did not say they needed that...

Today after faxing at 9 a.m., expecting a confirmation call at the school in 1 hour, 3 hours later, nada. I go home & call again. Ah, sorry sir. Fax did not come! Are you sure? I'm about to go out and fax again when he says after looking more. Oh, here it is! ARGH!!! You did not include needed info on fax. I included exactly what you all told me 3 times before. Oh, sorry sir, but...

So finally, right my money is on it's way. Indeed, but there are more hoops. First of all, they do not use Western Union even though previous 15 people did not tell me that! So let's see Walmart. Oh but sir, it's closed! At 3 p.m.? We use Moneygram & as a courtesy it costs you nothing - DON'T BET ON IT! Turns out currency now is 12.65 pesos to the dollar. Not at the Bank! It's 12.20. So you lose about $30.

Sir, you can go to Banorte near you. Take passport, # I'll give you and be sure to tell us now exactly how your name is spelled on the passport - exactly - otherwise, they will not cash moneygram - fraud security.

Ok, I say & off I go. You do not think it's going to be that easy, do you? I get to the Bank. Sorry sir, we are unable to cash it here. You have to go to our branch in the main plaza.

Looks like I'm not going to get to the orphanage for volunteering today. Off I go. At the 2nd branch, Ah sir, we need your address here? News to me, I only know street, but here's complete school address. Hmm, not sure that's ok. Calls Supervisor. I convince Supervisor to take it.

Ah sir, another problem. AND this is a big one. Seems Visa, even after repeating spelling of first, middle, and last name - DID NOT spell out middle name, just the initial. Calls Supervisor again.

Now I know this is not good, but I convince her that the initial obviously stand for the full name. Well, ok. PHEW!

Think it's over? Nope! Teller miscounts a little, plus it's not easy counting 17,340.13 pesos. Oh and by the way, it's not 17,643 like I figured. Bank does not pay full exchange rate.

So this part of the saga comes to an end with me carrying 3 stacks of money in different pockets to my house. Was I on the lookout!

Saga 2 - Mastercard Credit card. No! I'm not going into all of it. Just keep in mind it required MANY, long calls. BUT, here's the kicker! Good thing Laura is on my account - did that so she could make wedding purchases without hassle, esp. when I was in Europe. IF she had not been on the account, I could use no credit until I got home to call validation #. She can, then she's got to get info to me so I can make final payment for schooling & housing. That will hopefully happen tomorrow.

Es la vida! I tried to rememeber my asylum friends who had to go to a foreign country not speaking the language, knowing no one & having no access to any money, food, a roof etc. Perspective.

So hang in. Hopefully after tomorrow I can stop calling & thinking about cards etc. If you read of a gringo acting very strangely in Mexico, it's probably me - stealthily moving about trying to not get robbed any more! Cheers or is it Buen Dia!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Cultur Lingua Jalisco

Hola! Que tal?

Off to an excellent start. Unlike my previous experiences, the teachers in this school plan mini trips in Tlaquepaque, to Guadalajara and Tonalo to tour a museum, historic site or other points of interest.

In my first class today, after tranlating an introduction to a legend, earning a 10+ :-)
we went into the streets of Tlaquepaque. There is a large mural by Diego Rivera on a wall of a building in Calle Juarez which is a fascinating illustration of the Mexico's Revolution with Spain. My teacher, Raul, took me to it and explained it at length. Then we went to several upscale shops - all the while speaking in Spanish.

Carmer my 2nd teacher of the day, took me by car to Guadalajara. We spent 75 minutes in a museum. She explained at length the various panels by Jose Clemente Orozco which illustrates the history of the treatment of indigenous people by the Conquistadores and then later initial Presidents (corrupt) of Mexico. A totally fascinating experience & to my delight I could understand about 85% of what she said without having to ask her to repeat or explain.

For my friends who come to Latin Ameirca to study Spanish, I recommend esta escuela.

Now I'm off to volunteer at the orphanage. Tomorrow morning I take a local bus into Guadalajara to meet my Raul for more sites & conversation!

Hasta luego!

Monday, March 8, 2010


Cultur Lingua -

First day of classes went well. One teacher for 2 hours, a 1/2 hour break and then a second teacher for 2 hours. All lessons are private. The teachers tell me I'm advanced but you could fool me! It is not easy to understand Spanish spoken rapido on the streets. But then it takes years to learn one's native language so I guess I should not be surprised that progress is slow.

Tomorrow in my 2nd class, we are going out into the streets to tour & speak Spanish. Thursday, my teacher is taking me to Tonala, known as the land of artesans. Wednesday, my 1st teacher is taking me to downtown Guadalajara. I love the idea that we aren't behind a desk every day.

Tomorrow after la comida at 2:15, I return to the school to volunteer at a local orphanage. Next week I'm adding a water color class - that should be interesting!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Querétaro y Guadalajara

Queretaro - A lovely historic city about 3 hours by bus from Mexico City.

First stop was this attractive, safe, and sunny city. 3 hours by bus from the MX City Airport, the streets are flat and wide enough for a line of parked cars on one side & a single lane of traffic. Buildings are 3 stories high, colorful, and mostly unadorned - except for historic sites. There is something appealing about walking down a street and not being acosted by sign after sign.

The hostel, Casa San Gallito, was probably one of the best I've stayed in. Two young men own and operate it. Small but bright, clean and pleasant. I met a 31 year old from Japan who has been cycling for about 4 years - across Asia and Europe, North Africa and North America. He will cycle through Mexico, Central America, and eventually to Argentina. Then Souith Africa and points north.

The only problem he has encountered is a case of malaria that he contracted in Mali.

Tlaquepaque - a suburb of Guadalajara

Sunday in the town square is incredibly packed with people, performers, venders... The Cathedral is about 750 feet from, another church, San Pedro. There are Masses every hour beginning at 7 a.m. & going into the evening - each Mass is full!

One is advised to never eat food in Mexico from street venders which is tough here as there is so much and it looks so good! Tlaquepaque is said to be the home of the mariachi. Young people dressed for it entertained in the town gazebo. There is entertainment ALL day.

Tlaquepaque is considered a terrific place to shop for artisans' work. It is said people come from all over the world come here to shop! The main street is closed to all vehicles and the shops & restaurants rival many seen in New York and Boston.

The homestay is very nice. Four homes in an enclosed courtyard. Clean, bright and friendly are ready characteristics of the homestays. Wifi is available & meals are tasty in moderate portions - a definite move in the right direction for me!

Everywhere are shoe shine stands - 20 pesos which is about $ 1.50. I recently dug out an old pair of shoes which are great for walking but look awful. Not anymore. The man worked on them for over 1/2 hour. I lost count of the different treatments he gave them - from a wash, to coloring, to clear wax, to polish, to special treatment for tough spots. Clearly one has to give more than 20 pesos.

Tlaquepaque is flat and safe. I think ala Amsterdam, I'm going to rent a bike for a week & do a lot of touring. Well that is after my 4 hours of class each day!

Well, it's off to class tomorrow. The school provides one on one instruction for everyone. I will have to pay attention!

Take care all!


Thoughts on the amazing people I get to meet.

Rich, my 19 year old friend, soon to be Franciscan and recent community member at Haley House in Boston. An article he wrote.