The Mexico City Subway Sucks

Back in 1993 I was studying abroad in Cuernavaca, Mexico and living with the Jaime and Margarita Garcia family.  We would travel to Mexico City every week or two to visit their friends and relatives.  On this particular trip, it was a Sunday and Margarita, her daughters Mabel and Zaira, and I had driven to the city, parked, and were taking the subway into the city center.  Looking back at the day, knowing what I know now about traveling, blending in, and never wearing shorts outside the USA, I want to kick my 19 year old self.  There I am, walking onto the subway in Mexico City, rocking a pair of white Guess jean shorts and a red, off the shoulder body suit (ah, the 90’s!).  If you are picturing this outfit, picture it on an Amazon American girl—I had fully embraced not the Freshman Fifteen, but rather the Freshman Thirty.  Pair that with my stature of 5 foot 10, and while you are imagining this look, add some permed, big hair to my head.  Maybe I was also wearing a fanny pack.  Can’t be sure though.

Anyways, I get on the subway in this ensemble and it is crowded so there are only seats for Margarita and the girls so I stand.  As I am in the aisle holding onto the overhead handle I am pressed tightly against several other passengers.  And then I feel it.  My shoulder is getting wet.  It was July and rainy season so I dismissed it as water dripping into the subway car from a passing shower.  So initially I ignored it until I happened to turn my head and see a Mexican man who is sucking on my shoulder!  Horrified I pulled my shoulder away, out of his mouth.  Now because of the crush of humanity in the aisle I could not exactly escape.  Luckily, the subway made a stop just then and as people moved, I pushed through toward Margarita (who saw none of this scene) and took Mabel’s seat and put her on my lap.

While I sat there in shock, I could feel the “shoulder-sucker” staring at me.  I couldn’t wait for him to leave and hoped he would get off before we did as I did not want to walk past him.  No luck.  A few stops later Margarita nodded that we would be stopping here.  As we pushed through to the door I was further traumatized when I felt a pair of hands groping my beloved white Guess shorts (“guess” who?).  Finally we emerged from the car onto the platform. Margarita and the girls were behind me and I turned to speak with them just as the subway doors were closing.  There, pressed against the doors was my admirer, staring at me through the glass.  As a sign of farewell he took his tongue and traced it around the perimeter of his mouth.  Classy.

It took me over 10 years to share that story with my parents although I did tell it to my husband when we were dating and in the past 20 years he rarely passes up an opportunity when there is glass between us, whether it be a window or the freezer door in the supermarket, to mimic that subway goodbye gesture.  Thanks for your sensitivity, Russell.

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High in La Paz, Bolivia

When people fantasize about South American travel, they think of Machu Picchu, Buenos Aires, the Galapagos Islands, Rio.  The city of La Paz rarely comes to mind.  However, if you find yourself in the highest altitude world capital, here are some things you should know.  First of all, if you fly into El Alto (disclaimer—all of my “high” comments have to do with elevation, not the other thing!) airport you will notice many weary travelers.  It’s not jet lag, it’s altitude sickness.  You are over 13,600 feet above sea level.  Now you could seek out an oxygen tank somewhere, but the best bet is to do what the locals do:  find coca.  Whether it is sipping coca tea or even putting some of the leaves in your cheek or gum, tobacco-style, do it!  A word about coca leaves—as everyone in the Andes says, “Coca is NOT a drug!”  102_0428Cocaine is a drug and yes, there are coca leaves in it, but they are not the dangerous ingredient.  Coca is not illegal and drinking coca tea here is as common as the consumption of coffee in America. For centuries the people of the Andes have taken advantage of its curative properties, including the relief of altitude sickness.

As you leave the airport and come into the city of La Paz you will take in the crater shape as you descend into the city center.  Arriving at the cathedral, take a moment to just stand and watch traffic.  It is very entertaining to watch the combi vans pass, with the guy who hangs out of each van as it passes shouting out all the destinations of their van.  Then head up the hill behind the cathedral, taking time to appreciate the fine electrical work of the city.  102_0479Resist the urge to touch any of the many low hanging overhead wires.  I know you want to, but remember—there is less oxygen going to your brain right now—this is not the time to act on impulse!  If you get hungry on your way up the hill, look around, there might be a trunk full of bakery to tide you over. 102_0482 About halfway up the hill you can either turn left to go to the Coca Museum (free samples!) www.cocamuseum.com which was closed the day I was there, or to the right for my favorite spot in the city—the Witches Market (El Mercado de Hechiceria).  I was here in the afternoon, but you may want to visit at dusk when the incense adds an otherworldly feeling to the street. 102_0476

So what’s at the Witches Market?  A better question—what isn’t?  Here are a few of my favorite things…(hope you’re humming that to this list):  Dried llama fetus and potions for romance, Incan god statues and mystical incense, stuffed armadillos and dried frogs on strings, these are a few of my favorite things!

102_0473Moving on, sorry I got that tune stuck in your head.  If you are staying the night in the center of La Paz, there are many great bars and restaurants in a walkable area—just use caution when out at night.  The best place we went to was a Lebanese place near the Witches Market.   That’s right, Lebanese food in Bolivia—who knew?  I had a sampler platter with excellent baba ghanoush at Restaurant Jalal.  Of course there are many great options for Andean cuisine like sancocho, quinoa dishes, and even cuy (guinea pig) throughout the city.  Just wander around and look for places that are full of locals.  If that doesn’t work for you, just wander the downtown and look for an open trunk, you never know what culinary treat is inside! 

A final note about a common sight in La Paz—do not think you are being approached by a terrorist.  102_0496These guys are in the shoe shine business and apparently just trying not to contaminate the already small amount of oxygen they are breathing in.  What’s protecting YOUR lungs during the shoe shine?  Hmmm……. Good luck.

“Memorable” Massage on Isla Mujeres, Mexico

My original plan with this blog was to work my way back through my most interesting trips, but now I have decided to skip around instead as I recall things so that brings me to one of the several times I’ve visited Isla Mujeres—a small, wonderful island off the coast of Cancún.  100_0054On this particular trip it was just my husband and me and I decided to set up massages for us at Na Balam www.nabalam.com , a hotel on North Beach.  I had read some online reviews about how great “Maria’s” (name changed for liability!) massages were so I booked her for my husband, Russell.  I didn’t care who did my massage as I don’t have the chronic back pain he does. 

isla7We showed up that morning at Na Balam and Maria came out—all sinewy 95 pounds of her!  She took one look at me and then Russell and bluntly stated, “He’s too big.  I’ve done too many massages this week.”  And so she took me and said to Russell over her shoulder, “You go with her,” nodding in the direction of a stocky Mayan woman.  I felt terrible after I had bragged her up so much to him, the one who really needed a good massage.

We said our goodbyes, me leaving with the tiny massage ninja and he following the Rigoberta Menchu stunt double.  Maria and I entered a small hut near the swimming pool.  After she closed the door, she laid out her protocol, starting with the declarations: “I don’t use a sheet” and “You can take off all your clothes”.  Shocked, I thought to myself, “Jodi, don’t be such a prude!  Go with it.”  But in the end, I left on my bikini bottom.  Thank God.

I lay on the massage table face down and before she began, she proceeded to tell me how man’s two basic instincts were to cry out and to suckle.  I was like—WHAT????? I also thought, “Thank God Russell is not in here with her.”  Once again I decided I might be acting uptight so I went with it.  As she started the massage at certain points she would command me to either cry out or “suckle” (I was to mimic this action in order to relax my jaw), which I did somewhere between crying, laughing, and wetting m pants, or rather my bikini bottom.

I won’t lie, as far as massages go, it was the best ever in regard to muscle stretching but some of the methods were…….different.  Like when I was lying face down, focusing on my crying out and suckling and I realized she was up on the massage table, straddling me and sliding her elbows and forearms up the sides of my spine.  Now remember back to her proclamations about her not using a sheet and me not needing clothes?  Yeah.  Nice.  Thank you, bikini bottom. 

Next I was asked to turn over, “sunny side up”, if you will.  She took my legs, one at a time and raised them past a 90 degree angle and then pushed them across the table (again thank you, bikini bottom).  Odd, yet effective positions continued, accompanied by the crying out and suckling.  When I was completely immersed into my wet-noodle-massage-aura, she put a cloth over my eyes and the smell of something sweet burning filled the hut.  The last thing I remember was her blowing this smoke in my face.

I woke up, not sure how long I was out.  I was alone in the hut, sunny side up on the table.  All I could hear was a Mayan man mowing the grass near the pool (Yikes! Could he see inside the hut during my massage?  He did look like he loved his job….).

I got off the table with a feeling of confusion (and shame?), put the money on the table, dressed and left the hut.  As I walked the path back to the reception area I saw Russell waiting and felt my face turn red as he looked at me.  I wondered how long he had been waiting.  What should I tell him?  I asked how his massage was and he replied with an unenthusiastic “good” and I responded to his same question with “different” and no more. 

100_0039For the rest of the day as we lay on the beach, I slowly revealed to him what went on in that hut—a massage confessional of sorts.  My shame lifted along with his eyebrows, but in the end we were able to laugh about it.  People ask me if I would ever go back to Maria.  You bet!  Who would miss out on a story like that!  

“Doggie-Moon” on Mackinac Island, Michigan

Our first trip to Mackinac Island, Michigan is what I am calling a “doggie-moon”.  With all of the traveling we do throughout the year, we decided to plan a trip where we could take our dachshund, Jorge.  P1050045After much internet research on pet friendly Midwest destinations, we settled on Mackinac Island.  Never having been there before, I was hesitant that it might be a tourist trap, but thankfully I was wrong.  The island experience is what you make it and if you only day trip over and spend a few hours on Main Street, you will really miss out on the magic of the place.

We stayed for two nights at Park Place Suites www.miparkplacesuites.com which is perfectly located on Market Street right across from the post office.  Our suite, the Honeymoon Suite (renamed the Doggiemoon Suite) was perfect and Jorge settled in immediately.  The room was immaculate and smelled clean and fresh.  We spent an afternoon after a long bike ride sitting on the white picket fence-lined yard and patio area people watching and sipping Cabernet.  Complete relaxation.  Not wanting to interrupt this feeling, we decided that instead of heading to some of the pet friendly restaurants for dinner, we would order out and dine on our patio.

I headed one block over to the Yankee Rebel Tavern where they have great food with the option of take out.  Twenty minutes and one tasty Bloody Mary later (you work up a thirst waiting for your order!) I returned to my husband and Jorge on the patio with two orders of Shrimp and Mussels Diablo P1050037over angel hair pasta.  We enjoyed our dinners, continued our people watching, and sipped our wine while Jorge napped in his bed on the lawn.  An after dinner stroll and, of course, a little fudge for dessert followed and as we settled into bed, exhausted from biking, walking, and eating, we heard the sound of taps being played at 10 pm at nearby Fort Mackinac.  The perfect ending to a perfect day!

Both days on the island were spent doing a great deal of biking.  Thanks to Foster and Smith’s bicycle basket made just for small dogs, Jorge was able to tour the island as well.  He loved the wind blowing his ears and all of the comments made by those we passed by.  The first day we biked the trail that circles the island and the second day we biked trails on the interior, passing through the lush green forests of the island and past the beautiful “cottages”.  Be ready for some hills on the interior trails!

The dining scene on the island had a lot of variety from hot dogs to gourmet food.  The key for us was to find the best food we could at restaurants that offered pet friendly patios.  The first restaurant we visited was Bistro on the Greens www.missionpoint.com/restaurants/bistro  located along the bike trail at the Mission Point Resort.  This place had a stunning location overlooking the putting greens and beautiful landscaping as well as the Straits of Mackinac and Round Island lighthouse. This is where we had the absolute best service of any restaurant.  Our server, Rhoan, led us to a great table on the patio near a landscaped pond, and quickly brought Jorge a bowl of water.  Soon three other tables filled around us and each group had a least one dog.  These dogs were great!  All dogs on the patio sat nicely by their owners (Jorge preferred to sprawl out and sunbathe) P1050014and were on their very best behavior, unlike some of the children dining on the terrace above!  Ha, ha, ha….  We had a delicious lunch of hummus with veggie chips, crab and heirloom tomato terrine with lemon vinaigrette and avocado cream, and a beef and bleu salad with espresso seared beef tenderloin, baby greens, blue cheese, roasted tomatoes, and balsamic vinaigrette.  I didn’t want to leave, but the fudge shops of Main Street were calling us.

The other two restaurants we visited were both places operated by Grand Hotel—the Fort Mackinac Tea Room and The Jockey Club at the Grand Stand.  At the Tea Room, we were led to a table located on a narrow porch clinging to the side of the hill overlooking the town and the marina.  In my opinion, the best view on the island.  Here we had a nice lunch of hummus and pitas followed by roast beef sandwiches with sweet peppers and horseradish mayo on rosemary focaccia.  While we ate, Jorge napped on the porch to save up energy for our after lunch tour of the fort.  P1050068The pet friendly Fort Mackinac has several buildings with exhibits and also live performances by the staff clad in period military clothing demonstrating the firing of the cannon and rifles.  The fort is also a great vantage point to watch the freighters go by if your timing is right.

Our final dinner was at The Jockey Club overlooking both The Jewel golf course and Grand Hotel.  We had a table on the patio which allowed for great people watching as well.  As this was our “fanciest” restaurant of the trip and it was cooling down at nightP1050069, Jorge donned his preppy sweater for the event.  Here we enjoyed delectable entrees—for me, citrus dill crusted sea bass with beurre blanc over bamboo rice and roasted root vegetables—for my husband, P1050071a blackened New York strip with blue cheese sauce and crispy shallots over roasted baby potatoes and vegetables. As always our dinner was followed by a stroll and more fudge appreciation.

All in all I would give Mackinac Island a 10 as a pet friendly destination.  Jorge received loads of attention everywhere we went because “everyone loves a wiener dog!”  His favorite things were running through Marquette Park, going on bike rides, and basically joining us everywhere we went.  Some tips for bringing your dog on vacation—do plenty of research ahead of time to find inns, restaurants, and attractions that are pet friendly.  Also, be a responsible owner by bringing along plastic bags for picking up after your dog and keep him on a short leash, being respectful of those who may not be dog lovers.  Also, if your dog is not well behaved at home, taking them on a vacation with you may not be the best choice.  That said, every dog I saw on the island was very well behaved!

A big thanks to the dog friendly spots I mentioned earlier and also to the Budget Host Inn, Shepler’s Ferry, and The Gangplank restaurant in St. Ignace, MI where Jorge received very warm welcomes!

The Catalan Experience in Barcelona, Spain

p1030656_0087A two week trip through northeastern Spain with three other couples     began in the city of Gaudi, Barcelona.  While we spent a great deal of our trip in this city, a lifetime would not be enough to see and experience all it has to offer.  I am sure all visitors to the city take in the sweeping Mediterranean views from Parc Güell, have a come to Jesus moment upon entering the Sagrada Familia, and lose themselves, if not their wallet, strolling the Ramblas.  But the key to this city is just to get lost, whether it be in the narrow alleys of the Gothic Quarter, past the seafood restaurants near Barceloneta beach, or among the aisles at the Boqueria market.  This is where you really get a feel for the place.

We stayed at the Hotel Atlantis, one block from Plaza de Catalunya and the Ramblas.  Perfect location—quiet, yet in the thick of it all.  Be sure to explore the Ramblas north of the Plaza de Catalunya—less crowded with amazing tapas bars.  I came to the conclusion that the challenge was not to find good food, it was to find bad food.  Pressed for time? Grab something from one of the Boqueria market’s  restaurants.  For a slower dining experience, head anyplace there is a view, a sidewalk terrace, or a bar full of people.  You really can’t go wrong.  Eat as much seafood as you can here—the mussels were outstanding as was the baby squid in its ink.p1030672_0101

A highlight of the time here was spending an evening at Montjuic enjoying the nightly p1030571_0028show where they illuminate the fountains to a soundtrack of classical music while you stand high above the city.  A breathtaking end to a day.   Also, an unexpected treat as we were leaving Sunday high mass at the cathedral was coming upon a competition of human towers.  Amazing feats of strength, balance, and courage with participants of all ages.p1030681_0108

A word to the wise on Barcelona—read your guide books before you leave to get the gist of the city, but once you get there leave them be and just make your own experiences.  In this city, you never know what is happening just around the corner.p1030610_0056

Ceviche, Sinuses, and CPR on Caye Caulker, Belize

p1030211_0050In the spring of 2013 we landed on the tiny island of Caye Caulker, Belize.  Caye Caulker is the lesser known, less visited southern neighbor of Ambergris Caye. It is reached either by water taxi from Belize City or by small airplanes holding anywhere from 2-10 passengers–a mini van in the sky! p1030365_0149We stayed at Seaside Cabanas, a great spot right on the beach, if you can call it that–it is really more of a sand road, as are all the roads on the island. There are about two cars on the whole island, one being an A-Team van that serves as the island’s fire truck. The rest of the folks there get around on bikes, golf carts, or foot.
The whole point of coming here was to dive. When we both came down with sinus infections the day before leaving, we should have known things might go downhill…………..
But I will get to that shortly! First, the food. To say that we had the best ceviche ever on this island is an understatement. And it didn’t matter where. My top choice would be the ceviche made by our guides on a Raggamuffin Tours sailboat on our way home from snorkeling with loggerhead turtles. Other great choices on the cheap were lunches at Chan’s Takeout and dinner at Terry’s Grill. p1030275_0095Two real holes that I would NEVER eat at in the USA, but when in the Caribbean, my germaphobe tendencies lessen with each mojito. A big thanks to Terry who runs his grill beneath his home on stilts overlooking the sea–although we came there on Good Friday when no alcohol can be sold on the island, he offered me some of his personal stash with a smile and wink. Gracias!  p1030332_0125What’s good to order on this island?  Fresh snapper, shrimp, and of course, ceviche were daily splurges with my hat off to Habanero’s on the main drag of town for a nice night out.
Another food highlight was listening for the Cake Man to come by the hotel. This big guy wheeled his treats around daily, announcing his arrival with shouts of “Talk to me now!”p1030315_0112
Due to not being able to dive, most days were spent poolside in front of our cabana and nights were spent strolling the town, eating, and drinking. As you stroll, you cannot help but notice the “Go Slow” motto of the island everywhere. It’s now time to share where things got ugly.
About halfway into the trip, we were really wiped out after a day spent “hydrating” by the pool, so I am ashamed to say we were in bed by 8 pm. At Seaside there are a few regular hotel rooms with 5 cabanas surrounding the pool. We were sleeping peacefully in cabana 3 when I was awakened by screams coming from adjacent cabana 1: “Help! Help! Does anyone know CPR?” I hesitated for a moment recalling that I did indeed have the training, but I had done some serious damage to the Annie mannequin during the class. After a minute, my husband and I headed outside to find several of the hotel guests surrounding the pool and cabana 1. We quickly learned that it was the young couple in the cabana that we had visited with that afternoon. According to the wife, he was drinking, got a migraine, took his prescription, and stopped breathing. She kept repeating this story throughout the ordeal, adding toward the end how he had also been smoking pot, so who knows what really happened. Luckily a doctor vacationing on the island had come upon hearing the screams and he was performing CPR to no avail. The wife was in an understandable panic. On an island with no hospital and no time to spare, it was not looking good. She was begging for a helicopter or a boat to the mainland, but we all knew he did not have time for that. That’s when I saw “Go Slow” in action.
A golf cart that I can only assume was carrying one of the island paramedics crawled to a stop on the sand road/beach. A large local woman sauntered out and with what wasn’t even fast enough to be considered a stroll, delivered the island’s defibulator to the doctor. Unfortunately after 3 tries, they proclaimed time of death. All we could think about was his poor wife and what she would be going through. She was not able to leave the island until the police were finished investigating.
Needless to say, the rest of the week was low key around our hotel. Hard to be in the Caribbean vibe after the buzzkill of a death next door.  Not to be insensitive at all–just saying!  In closing, I would offer that Caye Caulker is a great island to spend a week on. Just make sure you’re REALLY healthy.

Holy Mole! Cooking in Puebla, Mexico

P1040876 In my efforts to share my travel experiences, I will start with my most recent trip to Puebla, Mexico.  My friend and I traveled there in June 2014. This was my 15th trip to Mexico, but first to Puebla. Before getting into the details of the hotel, a word about Puebla. This is by far the SAFEST city I have ever been in in ANY country. The amazing architecture makes it the most Spanish of the Mexican cities. It is a must-see for anyone interested in experiencing the real culture of Mexico.P1040882
We stayed 6 nights at the Meson Sacristia de La Compania as part of the Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz cooking school package. http://www.mesones-sacristia.com/espanol/english/paquetes5.php
The five days of very personalized cooking instruction by Lizbet and Eloy (we were the only 2 in the class!) was one of the best culinary experiences I have ever had. P1040595The food we prepared was just excellent. And the recipe binder we received made the dishes easy to prepare at home–I have made several recipes since my return home. I really cannot say enough about how much we enjoyed the class. Lizbet & Eloy–we miss you!P1040815
The room we had at the hotel was gorgeous. It was like stepping back in time to the days of the Spanish colonial times. Everyone at the hotel was so friendly to us and we felt like family by the end of a week. The location is perfect on a quaint street a couple blocks from the Zocalo. The meals we had at the hotel were wonderful. This cooking package is a steal! We had a delicious breakfast off the menu each morning, for lunch we dined on the culinary marvels we created in class, and for dinner we explored some of the many fine restaurants in the historic center. The package included one dinner at the Sacristia’s restaurant–whatever you wanted to order!–and it was terrific. In addition, the package included a two hour personal guided tour of historic Puebla, admission to the Amparo museum, and a Talavera plate filled with local sweets—all for about $600 USD per person, depending on exchange rate.
I have recommended this experience to everyone I know and I truly cannot say enough positive things about this place and Puebla in general.P1040839
A side trip to Cholula is a great experience as well–it seems there is a festival going on there almost every day!  Other must sees in Puebla are the Chapel of the Rosary and the rooftop terrace at the Amparo Museum.  This is a city of church towers and you can see a new one at every intersection.  We also had the amazing experience of watching Mexico play Brazil in the World Cup while we were there–so exciting!  Watching the match at a cafe on the Zocalo with a few micheladas–bliss!  Another thing I loved about Puebla were all of the families and couples out in the streets & the Zocalo (plaza).  I never saw so many PDA’s, but they were sweet, not gross.  It is a romantic place–I will bring my husband next time.  And maybe my dachshund, Jorge, too as the dogs in this city are very pampered, as is evident by the number of shops selling dog clothing!  Most dogs being walked had some sort of outfit on–including the cocker spaniel wearing a dress at the artisan market.  Needless to say, I bought Jorge a Mexico soccer jersey!  (And team Mexico fans–you’re welcome!  After I put his jersey on during the match with Croatia, Mexico scored 2 goals!  Coincidence?  I think not!)

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Anyways, get to Puebla now!  It is one of the safest areas of the country and the people who live and visit there experience Mexico at its best!