Run the equator: April 2007

Monday, April 30, 2007

Wildlife photographer for a day

Flamingos
In-flight snapshot
Click on picture to view slide show

We're in Campeche now and finally got again a place to upload the pictures of the last few days (and enough time, hopefully)

Celestun is a fishing village at the end of the galaxy. It has very little infrastructure, no ATM, no bank, and the gas station frequently runs out of juice. But it has one of the best beaches I have ever seen and it is the gateway to a lagoon teeming with life. The lagoon has become famous mainly for its pink flamingos and was recently declared a world heritage site. Nevertheless the area remains underdeveloped and it is probably better this way. Our guide told us the story that a few years back the whole strip of land between the lagoon and the sea was bought by a businessman who was planning to make a second Cancun out of it, but shortly afterwards the area was declared protected and the guy is still sitting on his money with no chance to recoup the investment. Or at least that is what I understood, with my limited Spanish…

We stopped first at the tourist center where most lagoon tours started but we quickly realized that was not for us. The price was quite high and there was nobody to share a boat with, so we would have had to pay for the whole 6 seats. We drove on to the main village beach and picked up a tour there, together with 4 other people, so we ended up paying 200 pesos (about $19) each. Our guide was speaking Spanish only but it didn’t seem to create too much of a language barrier – two of the outer visitors were Spanish and I realized I picked up enough to get the gist of the things he was saying.

The two-hour tour takes you out to the sea, with a stop at a petrified forest (some trees that have been standing there dry for a few hundreds of years), into the lagoon (passing by the tourist center again), and up the lagoon to see the flamingos, and into the mangrove forest where if you want you can swim in the sweet water pockets coming from the subterranean river that crosses the area. If you are lucky you can see crocodiles as well. We didn’t see any, but some other people from our hostel, who visited the area the next day, came back with a picture of one of those big lizards, sitting under the road bridge.

The guide was entertaining, throwing stories and anecdotes at us, and the Spanish couple helped sometimes with the translation. As with any trip, it’s worth taking in the morning - the sea very was calm when we left, so getting to the lagoon was a breeze, but it had become rougher on our return and we got quite a bumpy ride. There were tour groups leaving the beach when we returned and I didn’t want to be in their place…


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More pictures of Merida

Angela
Click in the picture to see slideshow.
We spent four days there, so I have a lot of pictures. Enjoy the set. Most of these are street scenes and (unfortunately blurry) pictures form the museum of anthropology.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

First impressions

We’ve been in Mexico for three days now and we still feel like vacationers… who just forgot to buy their return tickets. We are trying to grapple with the Mexican way of life; blending in is out of the question with Angela’s red hair and the huge Canon camera hanging on my neck, but we can at least try to understand the locals’ way of life and interact with them on a level a tad deeper than that of the average tourist.

Chichen Itza
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It’s only been a short time since we got here but we have learned a few things already. Follow the link below to find out what.

  • We overpacked! - No doubt, we took too much junk with us, especially clothes. I have four long-sleeve shirts. Really, what was I thinking... More about packing coming soon in a dedicated post.
  • It is very hot – that is of course a commonplace statement, but worth remembering. Although we have not had the best that the Yucatan sun can give, we have had more than enough sun to make yuppies from Seattle cringe in desperation and ask “why did I leave my nice shady, cloudy town?” I’m kidding of course, but nevertheless, we need to get used to the heat or else… Hats and sun block are a must at all times of the day.
  • Leave early in order to avoid the crowds at the ruins – Chichen Itza is the most famous Mayan ruin, with its ball court and the Kukulcan pyramid (which unfortunately cannot be climbed anymore) and it attracts the most tourists. They come in throngs by buses and most of them arrive around noon. We left early and got there before 10am and this got us two advantages – few other people were on the grounds and the heat was still bearable. By noon, as we got out, busload after busload of people was pouring in and the heat had become unpleasant.
  • Get a guide at the ruins – unless you are an expert in Mayan matters you are better off taking a guided tour. The guides are locals (well, Mayans) they speak good English (at least ours did) and they have enough knowledge of Mayan history to answer most of your questions. A multi-person tour costs 600 pesos (we split it 5-ways with 3 women from Utah) and then you have to tip the guide about 50 pesos per person at the end of the tour. At Ek’Balam, close to Valladolid, a smaller, less famous ruin, as no guided tours were available, we tagged for a while with a French group that had a very knowledgeable guide – at least she sounded convincing… It helps to know some foreign languages, no doubt.
  • People will try to scam you – remember the price listed for the entrée you ordered and verify your bill; check the change you get back at any counter before shoving it in your wallet. The guy at the Ek’Balam ticket booth tried to cheat us of a hundred pesos of our change money, and we caught a waiter that added 10 pesos to one of the items on the bill. His tip may have been bigger, had he not done that…
  • Use your common sense when a waiter says “we do not have this or that but I can get it for you” – they may charge you three times the price you would pay if they had it on the menu. We fell into the trap and got bottled water from a waiter at a stand in a food court when he offered to get it from somewhere else and we paid 15 pesos a bottle. They go for 4 to 5 at the grocery store and 7 to 10 in restaurants. So depending on how much you want that one thing…
  • The food is great – everywhere we’ve eaten so far we had nothing but the most delicious dishes. Whether it was a tiny taco stand on a village road or a well-established eatery we picked from a guide book, they offered mouth-watering traditional Mayan and Mexican cuisine. The best so far was the restaurant Las Mestizas, in Piste, just outside of the Chichen Itza archaeological zone - even the bones of that pollo pibil melted in my mouth and the poc-chuc (pork) mixed with the marinated onions and tomatoes is beyond any words of praise! However, I wouldn’t bother looking for European cuisine – the pizza and pasta at the fancy (and relatively pricy) Italian restaurant we visited tonight were sub-par. I wouldn’t mind eating just Mexican foods for two weeks but if you need variety and really miss the best America offers to the world, Merida has a few McDonald’s and Burger King.
  • Around here everybody loves the Nissan Tsuru - aka Nissan Sentra in other parts of the world!

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

On the Yucatan track!

Cenote Dzitnup - sunlight touching water
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Today was the first "full" day of our vacation. Why am I even calling it vacation? It's just life, the travelling kind. I need to shake off the vacationer mentality...

We saw the Mayan ruins at Ek'Balam, and dabbled our feet in the waters of the Cenote Dzitnup. ("cenotes" are small caves, close to the surface, with lakes at their bottom). We took many pictures, but this Internet-cafe is closing soon, so I will update the blog and leave; I have no time foir stories, and we have a few already... more updates soon!

Click on the picture for the slide-show and enjoy!

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Step one!

We made it to Mexico! No nasty surprises and no problems so far.

We left the airport for the car rental location immediately, got our car and went out of the path of the North-American tourist crowds as fast as we could.

The road from Cancun to Valladolid in central Yucatan is a hallucinating stretch of asphalt. It goes in a straight line for miles and miles, flanked by the green wall of the jungle in a repetitive pattern that could make one think they're drivig in circles, trapped on a foreign planet. Add to this the fact that there's almost no car on the toll road, no gas station or rest stop, nowhere to pull aside, and you'll become very grateful once you see the first human beings on th outskirts of town.

I won't say more about Valladolid now, because my eyes are closing as I type. Just that it's a nice sleepy town that looks unfinished in a certain way. Great tacos nonetheless. And everybody seems to drive a Nissan.

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The door

We are still here.

But not for long... Everything is finally packed. The candidates for the coveted places in the backpack have been selected after a tough competition. Many didn't make the cut and ended back in Lynnwood, and many more will not survive the journey all the way and will meet their demise in the garbage bins of shady hotel rooms.

We're cutting it close with the luggage weight limits. When in need, I will try the magic words: "we're travelling around the world..." Maybe this will soften a heart or two at the check in counter.

The plane leaves at 6am. It's 1:30 in the morning now. Do the math... I don't think we'll get to sleep at all tonight.

To be honest, we have no idea what we're getting ourselves into.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

The last piece of the puzzle

I got my visa for Bolivia today! Now the requirements for entering the whole chain of countries are met all the way to South Africa.

A while ago I spoke on the phone with the Bolivian honorary consul in Seattle and he told me the earliest time I could apply for the tourist visa was thirty days before the trip. He even seemed vexed when I asked if he could make an exception because of my peculiar situation, leaving the country soon, and so on: "If my government tells me 30 days, then it is 30 days..."

I decided to try my chances again this Wednesday and called again. Surprise, surprise, this time he had no problem giving me the visa in advance, and when I told him that I would be leaving on Monday he offered to get it for me by Thursday, since he didn't work on Fridays, if I would fax him the application and pay the $20 rush fee. Go figure... he must have had a bad hair day the other time.

Today I walked into his office in Tukwila (of all places to chose for a consulate...) and completed the process. He was very nice and gave me the address of a travel agency in La Paz run by somebody related to him. We had a short chat about our planned trip and when I told him we were planning to get from Bolivia to Buenos Aires by bus or train he told me "hmmm, you don't know what you're getting yourself into..."

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Homeless!

We finally got out of our apartment today: we gave our keys back, we received our deposit check and left the garage one last time using the "open" button instead of the buzzers. I think we can indeed be called vagabonds starting right now...

For the last five days we worked frantically. Last Sunday we moved (almost) everything to a storage unit. Many thanks to Lemo, Mihai, Bobo, Tudor, Adrian and Joe, who helped carry all our junk to the truck and then out of it. Just don't forget to mark your calendars a year from now for the reverse move ;-)

Cleaning up and taking out all the "small" stuff that remained in the apartment after the big move was no piece of cake; I feel like I carried hundreds of bags of trash to the garbage room, and thousands of small boxes to the car. It is painfully obvious to me that we have a billion various items that we count now as candidates for a place in our backpacks. Soon we will have to set up some sort of "Survivor" system, and vote things off the backpack.

Uhm, yeah, here's our new address:

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Trip training

Cable car terminal at Market & Powell
Click image to see the whole set.
As I was saying in my earlier post, I spent a few days in San Francisco. Consider this a sort of preliminary training for our big trip. I walked every day for hours, up and down the city hills, until it became clear that it was either me or my shoes to win this battle. I eventually stepped in a footwear store close to Union Square and bought a pair of ecco leather shoes and a pair of Timberland canvas shoes. Both of them are feather light and very comfortable, and will be coming with me on this trip.

I tried to take as many pictures as I could, but I didn't do that well. On top of my lack of eye for interesting sights I also had the small point-and-shoot Sony camera with me, which has a hard time focusing on most sunny days; it's has to do something with the contrast. So I tried to stick with street scenes. I'll do better next time, I promise...

I love San Francisco, it gets to you very easily. It has the air of a real town, a place where people live, they do not just work and sleep. Each time I return to Seattle after a few days spent in "The City" I feel like such a provincial...

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Under the Californian sun

This week I'm in San Francisco, while Angela is packing up the rest of her clothes and puts the last finishing touches on our Mexico trip. Yesterday and today I managed to get two more visas: India for myself and Angela, and Peru, only for myself - since she doesn't need one.

The process at the Indian consulate was very fast and painless, only that I expected to get a 5-year visa - the maximum for US permanent residents, according to their website, and a 10-year visa for Angela, as a US citizen. It turns out that the 5-year visa is not available anymore so they told me they would grant me a 6-month visa, which would have been quite useless since we would not get to India until January 2008. I explained the situation, how we are going to travel around the world, therefore we need the visa early, and the woman at the counter said, looking at my application, in a confused tone: "But... you're working for Microsoft..." It probably seemed a little odd to her that somebody would travel for so long while still employed. "Well, I'm going to quit." - "OK, we can give you a 1-year visa." Good enough, I thought, and it was also cheaper; good thing I had some cash with me, since I couldn't use the cashier's check that I had prepared for the 5-year visa.

Today it was Peru. I waited for a while in a small room with a bunch of other people. To my knowledge, I was the only person there who wasn't Peruvian. Everybody else was at the consulate either to renew their Peruvian passport or for some other legal documents concerning only Peruvians and their government. It was not unlike the atmosphere at the Romanian consulate which I visited a few weeks before. Confirming my suspicions caused by the couple of phone calls that I had with them, the ladies who were working there knew very little English, but nevertheless we managed to understand each other and she gave me a visa, valid (from what I understand) for one entry within 90 days from the date of issue, for a 30-day stay. That should cover our dates, June 20 to July 16.

But the best part of this trip is hanging out in San Francisco, spending some time with Steve, his fiancee and their friends, and wandering the streets of this beautiful city for hours. And of course, part of what makes the experience so easy and fulfilling is not having that repressed, unavowed thought that this is just a short vacation and on Monday it will all be drowned in the routine of regular life, metro-boulot-dodo - commute, job, sleep... This is just a beginning, and beginning are always fascinating.

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Leave it all behind

Today was my last day of work. I said my goodbyes and wrote the expected "so long and thanks for all the fish" mail to all the people in Exchange. I tried to break the usual pattern of "I'm leaving for this or that group, it was so great to work with you, thank you". It wasn't hard, since my departure isn't the average departure either.

Toward the late afternoon I started having that profound and gut-wrenching feeling of living the end of an era. I became painfully aware of something that I had already known, but whose inevitability had only then struck me: I would be no longer going to the Microsoft campus every day. This entrenched and natural activity that has been my daily routine for so long, that I came to identify with ("I work for Microsoft"), would not be part of my life anymore.

I started feeling sad and inadequate. The surroundings became strange and almost alien. I saw people talking about work on the hallways and I knew I could not be part of their conversations anymore. The spirit of the place had already rejected me although I still had a badge and knew my way around. It was the end.

I don't think I had such a clear-cut feeling of separation since I finished high-school. Then, as now, I was empty and lost for a while. But then, as now, the future looked full of possibilities and promises. Then, the future was called college. Now it's... the road.

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

Passport adventures

Recently, I have secured two more visas: South Africa and Egypt. The South African consulate took quite a bit to process my application (5 days) and on top of that, they sent the package back with FedEx "express", which took about 4 days to arrive... hence the quotes around "express". I have never had good experiences with FedEx when it came to residential deliveries that require signature. What working yuppie is at home on weekdays between 11am and 4pm?

The weirdest thing that FedEx does is, if your package arrives a day earlier than the estimated date, they put it on the delivery truck and drive it around all day, in sort of a "stand-by" mode, just in case they have some time left after all the deliveries scheduled for that day. Nothing wrong with that; but the annoyance comes from the fact that you can't tell them to hold the package at their location until they have tried to deliver at least once, so pretty much, you lose a day, since it's almost guaranteed they won't deliver it that day. I had to ask for a supervisor to add a "hold" note to the shipment in order to make sure that if I couldn't make it to their office that evening, the letter won't be on the truck the next day.

The Egyptian consulate was the fastest so far: they got my package in the mail on Friday morning and the next Monday, they had already mailed my passport back with the visa, via USPS this time, since I chose the carrier by sending them a prepaid envelope.

Really, is there any reason why granting or rejecting a tourist visa should take more than a few minutes? Long live bureaucracy!

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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Boxes, etc

Today I started packing up the house to prepare for the move into storage, which will happen in less than two weeks. I packed 15 boxes today and it looks like I've barely made any progress. The house is still full of stuff. Maybe the progress will be more visible after tomorrow; I hope I will be able to pack up another round of 10 to 12 boxes.

The sad part of this race against time is shown by the fact that I keep a list of things to do, and it grows longer every day. For each completed task, I add two that I haven't started yet. I'm beginning to get the feeling that we will be leaving before getting closure on at least a few important "to do" items. But that can't happen, can it? Everything must be in the right place for the Zen of traveling to be unleashed upon the Travelrats...

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