Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Why pesos don't grow on trees: tips for traveling on a budget in Mexico

Bear with me for a minute as I return to my trip to Mexico City again. (Hey, it's the first real trip I've taken in over three years! You'd better believe I'm going to milk it for all it's worth.) I was scanning my bank account online the other day and decided to add up all the ATM withdrawals I made while in Mexico. I paid in cash for everything once I was there, and I knew it was going to be a relatively cheap trip, but paying in pesos, I had no real concept of exactly how much I had spent. And so, armed with my bank statement written in real American dollars, I added it up. And Internet, even I, perpetual money-worrier and penny-pincher extraordinaire, was pleasantly surprised by the results. For a five-day, four-night trip to Mexico City, the sum total cost of everything, and I mean everything (except for airfare) came to: $342.72. Yup, that's right. $342.72. This includes lodging, meals, regular ice cream snacks, and umpteen bottles of water. It includes taxis to and from the airport, metro and bus fare, and a full-day excursion to the pyramids. It includes museum entrance fees, souvenirs, and ATM fees. Everything. If you, like me, are wondering how this is even possible, let me break it down a bit for you below.

I mentioned that Molly and I had decided to save money on our accommodations by staying in a hostel. (One with private rooms and bathrooms, because while we are still young and adventurous, we are no longer the level of young and adventurous that sleeping in dorms and sharing bathrooms requires.) The cost of one of these rooms, including breakfast, came out to approximately $15 per person per night. Not bad! Of course, there are tradeoffs when choosing a hostel over a hotel room, namely, daily struggles over water pressure and temperature (or any water at all, as, instead of simply turning cold, when the hot water ran out it would simply...stop, usually mere seconds after I had achieved a full and satisfying lather, of course), and a bit of a spartan decor. And by spartan I mean, well...

This picture makes me laugh, looking, as it does, like I am either in prison or slowly expiring in a convalescent home somewhere. But actually, we felt like we had lucked out. We ended up in a room with three beds, the third in a loft space from which Molly was able to take this picture. Here is another view of it from a picture on the hostel's website:

So, we each had a bed to sleep in, plus an extra bed we could use solely for lounging and storage, and on which we spread jackets, sunglasses, guidebooks, and other assorted paraphernalia, seeing as how there was not a single, blessed bit of other furniture on which to set anything. I found myself wishing at various points for a table, just a little bedside table to hold my nighttime bottle of water and my phone (which I used to check my e-mail), but alas, I merely scattered my possessions on the floor in a ring around my bed like talismans, or some kind of primitive burglar alarm.

All the white and beige and lack of flat surfaces aside, it was quite clean, and they even came in and made the beds and cleaned the bathroom every day. And though the rooms were plain, the common areas were actually quite attractive and inviting. (Photos from the hostel website, except for the last one.)

Plus, no megaphones! And thank goodness, because if there's anything I won't stand for while on vacation, it's people shouting into megaphones.

Overall, shower issues aside, we had a fairly pleasant experience at the hostel, and we were quite happy to sacrifice a little in exchange for the money we saved, which meant that we could splurge a bit on other things, like...  

Except, this post is already running longer than I had thought, and once I talk about what we ate I think I will have exceeded the attention span of even my most avid readers (y'all are avid, right? Right???), so I think I will cut it off here and pick up again tomorrow (or...after tomorrow, who am I kidding).

Tune in here for more tips for traveling in Mexico on a budget, the food edition!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Why I'm waiting for the poof

The other day at work my (consistently unreliable, unprofessional, untrustworthy, immature--oh yeah, lots of love there) coworker did something and acted towards me in such a way that left me absolutely livid--adrenaline racing, flames on the side of my face, the whole shebang. (All safely contained under a veneer of cool, calm professionalism, of course, unlike some people.) Mind you, my reaction was completely justified. "You are completely entitled to be annoyed," my boss told me. Which, yes, I was. But after it was all over and done and the rage monster safely back in his cave, I was still thinking about it. I remained irked; the annoyance still rankled inside me. On the one hand, I knew I was perfectly justified in feeling that way. But on the other hand, I knew that I didn't have to feel that way, or at least that I didn't have to continue feeling that way. While I can't control other people's behavior, how I react to their behavior is completely up to me. This is a pretty revolutionary shift in thinking for me, and something that I've slowly been coming around to over the last few years. If you had told me ten years ago, or even five years ago, that feelings were something you could control, I probably would have laughed in your face, or started speaking to you in robotic voice, "Robots no feel feelings, beep beep boop." And maybe you would have gotten mad, because you were trying to tell me something real and serious and true and I mocked you for it, or maybe you would have shrugged it off, because you would have known, being a sane, rational human being, that how you react to someone else's idiotic behavior is, of course, completely under your control.

This has been a difficult concept for me to internalize, going as I am on a three decades old belief that your feelings are your feelings and there is nothing you can do about it. If I am mad I am mad, if I am hurt I am hurt, if I am heartbroken I am heartbroken, and all I can do is hope that eventually, with enough time, these feelings, or at least the intensity of the emotions, will dissipate a bit. And sometimes, it takes a really long time. I have long suspected, without actually being able to prove it (I can't exactly take a survey), that I might feel things more deeply than other people, and take longer to get over things. But if I did, I told myself that it was just part of my makeup, like how I was also taller than some people, and better at languages than some people and worse at math and sports. I thought it was luck of the draw. I knew I could control my behavior, but my emotions were a free for all. 

It was reading about Buddhism that really turned me around. Or at least opened me up to the possibility that there is an alternative to being ruled by your emotions. I became open to the fact that, at the very least, it was possible for other people (i.e. Buddhist monks), though I remained unconvinced that it was a reachable goal for me, personally. The process of non-attachment, even for brief periods of time, seemed too hard, too monumental. It still does. But even the fact that the possibility of it exists makes everything feel different than before. 

And I tried yesterday, really I did. Whenever I felt the annoyance rise back up inside me I thought, "Just let it go." But I couldn't. A few seconds, or a few minutes later, and there it was again. -Knock knock. -Who's there? -Your anger. -Go away. -Ok...[ten seconds later] Knock knock. -Go away! -No! Knock knock! -Gah! -No, not gah...guess again! It was like having an internal dialogue with the world's most annoying three-year-old.  

Later that day at yoga, the teacher asked us to evaluate if we were still carrying anything from our day, and hey, guess what, I was. I know because I was thinking about the work episode at the exact second that she said that. She suggested that if we were still carrying something in our heads, to just let it go, "poof." This resonated eerily with something my therapist has said; that in talking about things that bother you (in a therapeutic setting in which you are charged by the hour, of course), sometimes those things will just disappear...poof. She accompanied this with a hand gesture indicating, perhaps, a wisp of smoke, or a bird flying away. Let's just say that thus far I remain deeply skeptical of the "poof."

Home from yoga and still--still!--annoyed, I contemplated my inability to let things go, decided I was an abject failure as a human being, and started my period. Oh. So I cut myself some slack, ate a bunch of chocolate biscotti, and actually started feeling a lot better about things.

How do you deal with anger/annoyance/negative emotions? Are you able to just let them go--poof? Or do you struggle with them like me? How do you get past them?  

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Why you don't want to take the Mexico City metro at rush hour, and other helpful tips

I didn't know much about Mexico City before I went there. I knew it was one of the largest cities in the world. And I knew that it Mexico. That's pretty much it. What I didn't know about Mexico City could fill a book (or at least a medium-length blog post). After spending four days there I'm happy to report that, while I'm still no expert, I have gleaned certain key tidbits that I will now pass on to you, all filtered through my own highly subjective experience, of course, and thus subject to interpretation.  So, in no particular order, here are:

5 Things I Learned About Mexico City
  1. There is mucho making out. You thought Paris was the city of lovers? Au contraire, mes chers; it's Mexico City.
  2. It is not a city of morning people. Do not try to go to the coffee place at 8 a.m., because it will be closed, and you will be sorely disappointed. Take your time, sleep in. There's no rush here.
  3. I had heard vague reports of the crime in Mexico City, and so we took the main precautions (holding onto our purses, not hailing cabs on the street). But I was surprised by just how much of a police presence there was everywhere. I never felt unsafe, because on every corner you could find not one, but five or more police officers, all decked out in their riot gear--plastic leg and body armor, helmets, even holding those giant plastic shields. Unsettling, perhaps, but better than the alternative, I suppose.     
  4. Every American visiting Mexico knows not to drink the water. Easy enough, right? But no! Not when this seemingly simple rule leads to a murky gray area of ever more mystifying questions, like, well, what about margaritas? My guidebook touted a number of restaurants and cantinas known for their margaritas, without mentioning the fact that typically, margaritas are served So, are you supposed to order your margarita...without ice? What about coffee? Yet another beverage described in loving detail by ye olde guidebook. Brewed with, what else, water,'s hot, right? So that's ok? But not necessarily boiling hot, so here we are back at square uno. And what about...soup? If boiled es bueno, but what if it's just warm? Some quick googling revealed that, purportedly, anyway, most establishments used to dealing with tourists use purified water in their coffee, etc. We agreed that we would be careful without going overboard; we would brush our teeth with bottled water but drink the damn coffee. All of which backfired in a major way on our last full day in town. Exhausted, parched, and in need of a sweet treat and a sit-down, we went to our favorite ice cream chain (yes, we had a favorite). Rather than a scoop I ordered a frappe, not knowing whether I had ordered a milkshake or something different. It arrived as a frozen coffee drink with mounds of yummy whipped cream (think Starbucks frappaccino), which was fine with me. It wasn't until I was slurping up the last dregs that I thought, Hey, you know what this is made with? Ice. It would have been relatively ok had I been within stumbling distance of our hostel, but as it was, there were about two hours of bus-to-metro-to-metro travel separating us. That was...not fun.
  5. Many metro lines have women and children only cars at the front of the train. This is useful to know if you are a woman, for obvious reasons. Plus these cars are generally less crowded, which makes for a more relaxing experience. Also, it was fairly hilarious to see that at least one in three women present were studiously applying their makeup with the aid of hand mirrors--bumps, rattles, and lurches notwithstanding. However, not every line has these cars, and not every metro experience was as peaceful and relaxing as the one I described. In fact, there was one time when Molly and I almost died. Our stop arrived, the doors opened, and Molly, being the only Spanish speaker of our duo, started tapping on shoulders and politely murmuring, "con permiso." It quickly became evident that this was an under-reaction of the grandest degree, as a literal wave of Mexicans pushed their way onto the metro car, with us caught in the middle. Politeness quickly turned to mute terror as flesh pressed us roughly from all sides, and I thought to myself, This is how people suffocate in crowds. This is how people DIE. We attempted to push our way out, as the hoard of, well, mostly five foot tall little old Mexican ladies outside even more determinedly fought their way in. I stood head and shoulders above the rest, but my lungs, my vital organs, remained firmly in the danger zone, pushed and pulled and punched on all sides by this fierce cadre of abuelitas. I made eye contact with one of the hoard, my panic and terror clearly showing on my face, and I swear she shrugged. One final, fraught effort and finally, miraculously, we were deposited out the doors of the cursed metro with all the force of a cresting wave spitting a drowning person onto shore. Gasping, rattled, we looked at each other in disbelief. "People be crazy," I summarized, and we continued on our way.  

Monday, January 21, 2013

Why I spent four days in Mexico City and all I got you was this lousy blog post

It turns out that four days is not nearly enough time to see everything there is to see in Mexico City. Case in point, Things We Did Not Get To Do in Mexico City, Though Not For Lack of Wanting:
  • See the floating gardens of Xochimilco; take mariachi band-accompanied gondola ride on the canal (these pictures are giving me major regret pangs)
  • Enter either the renowned Museo Nacional de Antropologia or the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes
  • Visit any of the hip neighborhoods of Zona Rosa, Condesa, or Roma
Fortunately for us, the list of things we did get to do is much longer:
  • Wear a path in the streets around the Zocalo

  • Tour the bell towers and walk on the vaulted rooftop of the Catedral Metropolitana at sunset

  • See the murals painted by Diego Rivera inside the Palacio Nacional

  • Walk around Chapultepec park and castle

  • Eat an enormous cornsicle outside the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (corn on a stick slathered in mayonnaise, cheese, chili powder and lime)

  • Visit the Aztec ruins at Tlatelolco; also the Basilica of Guadalupe; taste tequila; climb the pyramids at Teotihuacan; develop mild sunburn (this was all in the same day, whew)

  • Sit in Mexico City traffic for three bumper-to-bumper hours after the above; grow increasingly cranky; ponder probability of spending the rest of my life in this fucking van
  • Finally exit van; kiss ground (not pictured)
  • Tour the Casa Azul and Frida Kahlo museum 

  • Visit the craft markets of Coyoacan and San Angel; accidentally drink a frappe blended with ice (ICE!); experience intestinal regret as a consequence of my poor choices
  • Walk around Aztec ruins of Templo Mayor

  •  See murals of Orozco in the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria

Though four days is not enough time to see and do even just the highlights of Mexico City, it turns out that four days is also exactly the right amount of time to visit Mexico City. Molly and I both came to this very same conclusion somewhere around day three-and-a-half, when we finally admitted that we were, frankly, exhausted. Of the aching feet and joints and complete bodily fatigue variety of exhaustion. You see, we walked everywhere, for miles and miles a day, not to mention climbing up and down pyramids. And this wasn't like a beach vacation where we could recharge in a hotel or by a pool somewhere. We chose to save money by staying in a hostel with private rooms (no more dorms for us, thanks), and while the price was right, the spartan accommodations meant that there was absolutely no reason to hang around after sleeping and (mostly cold, pressure-less) showering were done. One more day, and the 'What are we going to do today, and how are we going to get there?' routine would have started to feel a lot more like work than vacation. 

Mexico City, we both agreed, is best approached in small chunks. The next time we go, we decided, we will avoid the Centro Historico altogether, being the one area we really got our fill of, and stay in one of the more residential neighborhoods of Zona Rosa, Roma, or Condesa. Next time, we will visit Xochimilco; next time we will spend more time in Coyoacan. Next time, we will go to museums. La proxima vez.

Until next time, Mexico City!

And a special shout-out to Molly for being an awesome friend and travel partner! Muchas gracias, chica. A la proxima vez.    

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Why I've got the travel bug (also the flu bug, which can kindly eff off)

I've been feeling the itch lately. No, put away your ointment, not that kind of itch--the travel itch. I mean feeling it. The last time this happened I was living in Boston, and I reacted by moving to France for nine months. But ever since I moved back stateside in 2009, travel opportunities have been extremely limited. I'm talking a couple quick trips to Philly, a few days in New York, a few days in Boston, and a weekend at the beach. Seriously, that is it. In three years. Considering that in a prior life I once romped all around France as a tour guide, and then darted on over to Spain to hang with my friend Molly in Madrid, and later vacationed in Valencia and Barcelona with my friend Canaan, well, things have felt a bit tedious lately.

I was lamenting my fate to my friend Molly when she said, "I'm off until the 24th. Want to go to--"

"Yes!" I said. 

Ok, that's not entirely true. "What? When?" I asked.

"Next week?" she said.

"Molly, I...I can't go next week!" This was right after I had taken two days off from work for the New Year, and two days off the week before that for Christmas. There was no way I could take more days off that soon.

"Two weeks from now?" Molly said. 

"Well, maybe..." I said.

Less than 24 hours later I sent Molly an e-mail. "I found a plane ticket and a hostel with private rooms. Let's go!" 

"Oh wow, so we're really doing this?" she replied.

It looks like we are. (If I ever get over this plague that is currently felling me, that is.) 

Where are we going? It's somewhere I've been wanting to go for three years, at least. In 2009 I blogged the following conversation:   
"You should visit Mexico," Leonardo told me during dinner, nodding solemnly to accentuate his point. 
"I really should," I replied, considering it. "And you know...I think I will."
Here's to wishes coming true when you least expect. Mexico City, here Molly and I come!!! 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Why is every Audrey Hepburn movie basically the same?

The other night I settled happily on my couch with an Audrey Hepburn movie. You know the one--a wide-eyed, innocent young Audrey Hepburn falls for a wildly inappropriate, much older man who doesn't seem to know she's alive, until suddenly, he does. Romance ensues.

Oh, wait.
Love in the Afternoon
Funny  Face
My Fair Lady
That's right. That's the plot line of every Audrey Hepburn movie. I came to this realization when I felt myself becoming inexplicably annoyed while watching Love in the Afternoon. I went in expecting to love this movie, because Audrey! and Paris! and romance, oh my! Instead I just found myself saying 'ugh' a lot. 

Synopsis: innocent, young, cello-playing Ariane falls (inexplicably, frustratingly) in love with wrinkled old skin bag and notorious playboy, Frank Flannagan. They spend one passionately chaste afternoon together, she pines, and then when they run into each other again one year later, he doesn't even remember her. Romantic! She then beats him at his own game, inventing and casually name dropping a string of ex-suitors, including alpine guides, bull fighters, and professional ice hockey players. Hey, guess what--now he's interested! Predictability ensues.

And just look at how happy they are together:  
Must be love! Or gastrointestinal distress.
Then I started thinking about other, equally loathsome Audrey Hepburn movie plot lines.

Funny Face: It's Fred Astaire, so the man can dance, but let's face it, he's not much of a looker. Also, thirty years older than her. Bookish, young salesgirl-turned-reluctant model falls in love with her photographer. Basic stuff here.    

Sabrina: At least the leading man is handsome. Nope, I've got no problems with Bogey, at least from an aesthetic point of view. But it does fit the AH film equation that goes: man + 30 years too old + virginal young girl x [doesn't know she's alive] x [something happens] / [she becomes desirable] = LOVE² 

My Fair Lady: Admittedly, I am all about My Fair Lady. The singing! The fancy dresses! The misogyny! Oh wait, right. In this movie we have Rex Harrison as the smug, dubiously heterosexual old windbag, Professor Higgins. (Why can't a woman be more like a man? Oh just get it on with Colonel Pickering, already, Higgins; we know you want to.) The ending of this movie is not satisfying. 

"Eliza, bring me my slippers." (Seriously, that's the last line of the movie. Romantic!)
Breakfast at Tiffany's: The love interest in this movie is a cat, and even he's all wrong for her. Probably about 60 years old in people years, definitely un-neuteured, and he leaves her in the end.  

Charade: Ding ding ding! We have a winner! No longer able to play a virginal young teen/twenty-something, Audrey now plays a mature widow in her thirties. Cary Grant is his usual Cary Grant-ish self. There's a plot twist every thirty seconds. This movie is just about perfect.  

Even the coats are perfect.
What's your favorite, totally predictable Audrey Hepburn movie?