Sunday, April 29, 2012

R&R, Part 3: Life in the Big Easy

Back in my college days, back when I barely had two pennies to call my own that I didn't have to account for with my parents, I somehow managed to sneak away not once, but twice to New Orleans. One of those trips involved a stuck bathroom door, a miscommunication on both sides, and a trip to the emergency room that I will never forget. Ah, college.

As for TJ, he had his own pre-Aaron adventures there. He performed with his high school band at the Superdome. He celebrated his 21st birthday there during Mardi Gras following a break-up with his first boyfriend. Good place and time to do it, eh?

In March 2004, for my 24th birthday, TJ and I chose New Orleans for one of our first vacations together. We saw Ryan Cabrera and the Wallflowers at the House of Blues. We ate at, what was for us at the time, a fancy restaurant (which basically meant that they had white tablecloths). We walked along the riverfront. We enjoyed beignets at Café du Monde. And we partied on Bourbon Street.

When deciding upon a travel itinerary for R&R, New Orleans was the first and only true consideration for our post-cruise enjoyment. It's a city we love, and one that we had not visited in over eight years. It was high time for a return visit.

All memories of our 2004 trip are kept in our heads. If there are pictures, they are likely contained on an as-yet undeveloped roll of film that has travelled cross-country and internationally without fulfilling its destiny. But we're all digital now, baby.

We spent April 14th-21st roaming the streets of The Big Easy, and there are plenty of pictures to help tell the tale.

St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square

There were no concerts at the House of Blues this time around (believe me, we checked), but we did find ourselves visiting the city during the French Quarter Festival. Festival workers took over Jackson Square and the area surrounding St. Louis Cathedral and set up booths selling foods from participating restaurants. We sat on the lawn and listened to live music while gorging on a feast of crawfish.

Hmm, now that's a good ol' Southern time.

We returned to that fancy restaurant of yore, where we enjoyed Oysters on the Half Shell. The food was still good, the ambiance nice. But one look at the reasonable menu prices helped us appreciate just how far we've come since our days of working at Target and Universal Studios. That restaurant isDickie Brennan's Bourbon House, by the way, and I'd still recommend it for dinner seating to anyone visiting the city. Acme Oyster House is also a must. Lunch lines can be 10-20 minutes long, but oh so worth it. Don't even try going after sunset, when lines will stretch down the block. Their Fried Peacemaker Po-Boy and Craw Puppies might just be worth the wait, though.

We once again walked along the riverfront. Only this time, we were in town for Navy Fleet Week, commemorating the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner. Ships from various countries were available for public tours, and merchandise, beer, and native foods were available for purchase.

This ship had a line. We visited the Ecuadorians instead.

As always, we visited the famous Café du Monde (now celebrating 150 years of business!), where we breakfasted on chicory coffee and beignets. We brought some of each back, and shared this special treat with our co-workers this past Friday.

And, of course, we did plenty of partying on Bourbon Street. I won't bore you (or embarrass myself) with those details.

Taken on our last night in NOLA.
Seven nights on Bourbon Street, and alive to tell the tale.

Our second trip definitely contained aspects of our first trip together, but we managed to squeeze in a bunch of new experiences, too.

Like our visit to the Audubon Nature Institute, which includes the Aquarium, Zoo, and Insectarium. It was quite an adventure.

I met a nice penguin...

..the experience of which was quite ruined
once I was attacked by these savage birds.

...and then we both got eaten by a ghost shark while posing for a picture!
I'll spare you the details of our escape. But it involved a goat.
...and a wardrobe change.

While driving around in the beautiful and historic Garden District and creepily taking pictures of other people's houses, we happened upon a Reform Synagogue and decided to attend their Friday night Shabbat service. Despite having recently found a Reform congregation here in Guadalajara, we both hungered for a normal, American experience. Kinda like how we had been chowing down on Popeyes chicken, Krystal burgers, and Sonic cherry limeades for the past week. Anyway, the synagogue was beautiful, the members were friendly, and the service was downright peculiar.
The cantor sounded like an opera singer and was accompanied by a choir. The whole thing had a "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" vibe to it that just shouldn't be found in a synagogue. There was a guest speaker that night, and I take it a lot of outsiders were invited to attend, because as we hastened for the exit, a sweet old woman stopped us and asked if we were from the church. She had not seen us before, but noticed that we were singing along to most of the songs. It took immense willpower not to say "No, but I think everyone else is." Let's just spare everyone the embarrassment of name-dropping the place, and instead look at a pretty picture from the aforementioned Garden District.

As our week in New Orleans wound down, we found ourselves very sad. Not because vacation was over. Not because we would be returning to Mexico. Not even because we were leaving New Orleans. Simply because we were leaving the US. On our prior trip, we found ourselves trapped in the Disney and Universal cocoon. Plus, we were with a friend.

My trip to San Diego saw me visiting friends and trapped in a similar bubble. And when I went home for my mom's procedure...well, that was hardly a pleasure trip.

This was the first time we had found ourselves together in the US with nothing to do but relax. And it was nice. It was comforting. It was familiar. The food was great and we spent way too much time shopping at Target.

As much as we love much as we cherish the time we have had much as we will enjoy the time we have much as we adore our friend and will miss them when we leave...well...

...I think we're both somewhat looking forward to nine months of Arabic training.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

R&R, Part 2: Chichen Itza

On April 11th, the Carnival Triumph docked in Progreso, Mexico, and TJ was able to fulfill his lifelong dream of seeing the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. Well, I guess we both fulfilled that dream. Can any of you honestly recall studying history in middle school (or watching Nickelodeon's The Mysterious Cities of Gold) and NOT wanting to visit the ruins of Mexico's ancient civilizations?

Plus, having visited the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan (and what little we could see ofTenochtitlan) last May, it only seemed fitting that we bookend that adventure by making time for the Mayans as well.

Chichen Itza is about two hours south of Progreso by bus, and if you ever find yourself on a cruise with a Port of Call here (and, really, there's no other reason to find yourself in Progreso...most of our local friends have never even heard of the place) I would highly recommend booking an excursion to the ruins, which are categorized both as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1988) and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World (2007).

Chichen Itza (or "Chicken Pizza," if you speak to any number of drunk 20-somethings we encountered on the boat) was one of the largest Mayan cities and enjoyed status as an economic power by way of its control of water-borne trade routes.

The tour got off to a good start, with a charismatic and engaging tour guide discussing some of the city's history during our bus ride. The tour included a box lunch that consisted of a sandwich, banana, and chips. Right before arriving at the archaeological site, we stopped at a rest area where TJ and I were able to watch our fellow travelers get suckered into buying overpriced souvenirs. One benefit of living in Mexico is that you quickly develop the ability to distinguish between quality goods and a pile of crap. You also know how much that stuff would cost outside of the tourist bubble. Poor saps.

When we arrived at the site, we were promised a one hour guided tour followed by one hour of free exploration before we needed to return to the bus. That's when the tour headed south.

We followed our guide around for an hour and fifteen minutes as he droned on and on, pointing at interesting things but never getting quite close enough to them for our group to take good photos. What this means is that, naturally, I wandered out of earshot to take those good photos and didn't hear much of what was said. That's what Wikipedia's for, anyway, right?

Highlights of that first hour and fifteen minutes include:

El Castillo (Temple of Kukulcán), the dominant structure in the northern sector of this ancient city. During the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, the position of the sun causes a series of shadows on the north side of the pyramid that take on the appearance of a snake slithering down the staircase. Clapping your hands at the base of the pyramid results in an echo that mimics the call of the Quetzl bird, a sacred animal in Mayan culture. Were these things deliberate, or mere coincidence?

Temple de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors), named for the rows of pillars displaying relief-carvings of Mayan warriors. Murals reflecting scenes of both war and daily life adorn the walls. Altar-tables and benches in this temple may have served as thrones for dignitaries.

El Gran Juego de Pelota (The Great Ball Court), the largest ball court in Mesoamerica, is formed by a long wall on each side, embedded with rings/hoops and carved images of plumed serpents. The walls are decorated with scenes of the sacrifice of ball players. That's right, folks. This game was a deathmatch.

We were standing at the far end of The Great Ball Court, when our guide suddenly pointed at a structure identified as The Temple of the Bearded Man. He explained that when archaeologists found this temple, they found a carving of a bearded man on the back wall. He presented this as evidence that the Mayans knew of, and worshipped, Jesus Christ. I couldn't tell you how long into the second hour the guided tour continued, because that was the point where I walked away. TJ and about 1/4 of the tour followed suit. Turned out to be a good choice. A) The Mayans worshipped a pantheon of deities. They did not subscribe to a monotheistic, let alone Christian, faith. B) No Google search on my part can find any evidence of this radical statement anywhere beyond what is said on certain Christian websites. C) By breaking away from the group and walking at a brisk pace, we were able to take in a 45 minute viewing of an entire side of the site that our peers missed out on.

El Caracol (The Observatory) got its English name thanks to its shape and some possible astral associations: Astronomical events concerning Venus and the setting of the sun during the equinoxes have been related to the three windows in the upper section. It's Spanish name translates into "conch" in English, and was derived from the spiral stairs that lead to the upper part of the building.

All in all, it was a good day. The guide on our bus was very entertaining. Although the guide at the ruins could have been more informative/engaging and less willing to share his kooky theories on Mayan religion, I wouldn't say that he necessarily detracted from our experience.

Booking this excursion required a strict six hour time commitment, and with a four hour round trip bus ride, this only allowed for two hours of enjoyment on-site. By comparison, our trip to Teotihuacan was free of such restrictions, mainly because we didn't have to worry about catching a boat. But that freedom did make for a more enjoyable day, even if the ruins of Chichen Itza are by far more interesting to look at.

My recommendation to would-be travelers is this: If you find yourself in a situation in which you have flexibility, rent a car or book your own bus ride so that you can enjoy the site at your leisure. If you find yourself needing to catch boat and only have two hours to see it all, book the excursion but ditch the tour guide.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

R&R, Part 1: Family Bonding aboard the Carnival Triumph

One benefit of Foreign Service life is that, depending on where you live, you may be entitled to a complimentary R&R (Rest & Recuperation) plane ticket for you and any Eligible Family Members that have accompanied you to post. It’s unpaid time for which you must use your personally accrued vacation allowance, but the plane ticket is free. And coming out of Guadalajara, that’s a sweet deal in and of itself.

When we started planning home leave several months ago, we found ourselves facing a dilemma: Should we go our separate ways to visit our individual families, whom we have not seen in over a year (planning began prior to mom's little medical scare), or just blow them off entirely and take a fun trip together?

We ultimately decided to do both, and planned a two-week vacation that would find us spending a week with my family and a second week adventuring by ourselves. We decided to save TJ’s family for Home Leave, the mandatory one month leave of absence that immediately follows our departure from Guadalajara in late 2012.

For the family portion of the trip, it was absolutely essential that we come up with a solution that allowed us to spend quality time with my parents without having to be in Texas. No offense to my many Texas friends. It's just not my bag, baby.

Having spoken to dad about our cruise in November, it had become clear that he would love to partake in such an adventure one day. The sticking point was my mom, who has an irrational fear of most modes of transportation. This has unfortunately resulted in them not being able to visit us in DC or Guadalajara, both of which are too far to consider driving to. Well, Mexico also has that whole drug violence thing going for it that they can't seem to get past.

Still, it was important for me that my parents visit us in Mexico in some capacity. I also wanted my dad to have his chance to go on a cruise. With these things in mind, TJ and I concocted a tiny white lie in which we told my parents that we had already booked a 5-day Western Caribbean cruise to Progreso and Cozumel for the four of us. After doing the requisite research to determine that we would, in fact, be unable to cancel our phony cruise, mom decided to simply bite her tongue and look forward to it...leaving us free to actually book the cruise.

And, man oh man, am I glad we did.

Mom, despite her fears, arrived in a Dramamine stupor ready to give it her best effort. Dad, the only one of the bunch that can't swim, and therefore the one that should have been afraid, was raring to go. Apparently, it was all he could talk about in the weeks leading up to departure. And TJ and I were just praying for no family squabbles.

They weren't up for excursions, and I can't say as I blame them. We didn't book any for our first cruise, either. And for folks that don't normally take big vacations, getting on a boat in one country and finding yourself in another a couple of days later is adventure enough.

TJ and I had planned a trip to Chichen Itza for our day in Progreso (next time...on Adventures by Aaron!), but the rest of the time was intended for simple, relaxing, family time.

Let me tell you, I am SO proud of my parents. They really let loose and stepped out of their comfort zones on this one.

They became good friends with the casino (not surprising, as they are prone to the occasional weekend gambling getaway), and mom even walked away $1300 richer. But that's not all they did.

They read by the pool. They people watched on deck. They went to the evening shows. They tried new foods, things they never thought they would like, and went back for seconds. They set foot on foreign soil and went shopping like it was no big deal (tip for you hodophobics out there's really not a big deal). They enjoyed themselves so much they said they might even do it again some day.

But most important of all...they got a little tipsy (ok, plastered) and had a real, meaningful conversation with their son and his partner.

Now don't get me wrong, they've known TJ for years. And everyone has always managed to carry on polite conversation. But it felt forced. Perfunctory. And if we're being honest, it's possible that all parties were to blame, myself included.

But sitting there, drinking Greyhounds and Blue Margaritas, listening to a Korean man awkwardly croon out old country-western felt like everything finally clicked.

I was no longer the son that came out of the closet and turned their world upside down.

They were no longer the parents that I resented for letting the world turn upside down.

TJ was no longer the painful reminder that there would be no daughter-in-law.

We were I talked about how happy I was to finally be in a position to pay them back, in some small way, for all they had done for me over the years. TJ over-bragged about my contributions at work. Dad told me that he is proud of me. Mom even talked about wanting us to give them grandchildren.

Everyone boarded the boat on April 9th worried about one thing or another, but left the boat five days later looking forward to the next family vacation.

That just goes to show...we all need to get a little liquored up with family every now and again.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

San Juan de los Lagos

We found ourselves back in the Vallartas (as in Puerto and Nuevo) for a coworker’s wedding over a long Mexican holiday weekend (Happy Birthday, Benito Juárez!) on March 17-19. It’s not something I blogged about because A) I’m sure you’re tired of hearing about the Vallartas, and B) I want to respect my coworkers’ privacy, and you know I wouldn’t be able to blog about a wedding without plastering photos all over the place. I mean, look to your left. I can't even blog about not blogging about it without a face-blurred-out-for-privacy photo! Congrats, Craig & Jo!

What’s important to note is that the night after the wedding we found ourselves in a PV nightclub, where we made a new friend.

Johnny, like us, was only visiting for the weekend. But, as luck would have it, he lives in a city called San Juan de los Lagos which is located a mere 142km northeast of Guadalajara. And, like us, he identifies as a Reform Jew. Coincidentally, Johnny found himself in Guadalajara visiting family last week, and we were able to spend some time hanging out.

On Friday night, Johnny did something for us that we have thus far been unable to do for ourselves. He introduced us to his friend, Badiel, who is a member of a Reform Jewish congregation here in Guadalajara. It’s a small congregation, but it’s here, and we did not even know that it existed. The pair joined us for the first Shabbat dinner we’ve had in quite a while, and we’ve been invited to a Passover seder this coming Friday as a result of that meeting. We will investigate membership in the synagogue upon returning from our upcoming vacation. Between this and learning of our next foreign assignment, last week was quite important in establishing stronger ties to Judaism.

Johnny was to return home the following day, and it was decided that we would accompany him. After a night on the town in Guadalajara, of course.

The short road trip included a quick stop in Tepatitlán, where we were introduced to another FOJ (friend of Johnny), Ernesto. Ernesto is a chemical engineer who works at Industrializadora de Agave San Isidro, a tequila distillery located in Tepa. Ernesto provided us with a complimentary private tour of the facility. As it was conducted in Spanish, I’ll just take TJ’s word for it when he says it was the most thorough explanation of tequila production we’ve ever heard. What I can tell you is that private tours definitely let you wander all over the place and get up close and personal with the production process. Also, when Jose Cuervo tells you that you can’t take pictures because you’re in a highly flammable area, they’re probably just trying to protect proprietary information. Or maybe Ernesto just has a death wish.

Either way, we got free samples...

Our next stop was Johnny’s house in San Juan de los Lagos. St. John of the Lakes. And yet there are no lakes. The mysteries of Mexico know no end.

Johnny lives with and cares for his 82 year old grandmother. When we arrived, she was cooking.When we left, she was cooking. We were told that she cooks all day, and will invite anyone from the neighborhood in for a bite to eat. She served up grilled steak, fresh tortillas, and refried beans. Yum-yum!

Johnny’s abuelita has lived in this house, where she raised nine children, for over 40 years. It started out as a one bedroom house, but over time she expanded and added on, making room for everyone. Johnny’s room is practically a penthouse suite: it’s a private room built on the roof of the house, and affords him a great view of the city.

While Johnny and his grandma are the only permanent inhabitants, the house was filled with relatives: aunts, siblings, nieces and nephews. Evidence that this is a house filled with love...somewhere you don't stray too far from. On the return drive to Guadalajara, TJ and I talked about this. If we are ever lucky enough to have children, we must manipulate them into loving/needing us too much to ever stray too far. Unless, you know, they are utter disappointments. I kid! I kid!

After a power nap, we headed into the city to explore the Basilica of San Juan de los Lagos, the church museum, and the numerous surrounding markets, where I found an awesome Star of David. See? Look at all that Judaism! Much like the Reform congregation, I would not have found this necklace without Johnny; the shopkeeper is an FOJ that he stopped by to say hello to.

The church itself is one of the most beautiful (and most visited) I have seen in Mexico. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. But the cluttered one that looks like that old man’s lab in Fraggle Rock? That is the Hall of Miracles, and contains alleged evidence of all the miracles, big and small, that have happened in San Juan.

On the way into town, we passed a shop in which one of Johnny’s cousins was lazily working a cash register. On the drive back home, we passed another cousin walking across a bridge.

Our next stop was Johnny’s sister’s house, where she and her husband would be hosting us for the night. A friendly family, they allowed us 30 minutes or so to rest before whipping out the tequila. Not long after, Ernesto showed up with his own bottle. After a couple (few?) social drinks, we headed out on the town to explore the San Juan nightlife. We were met by four other FOJ’s, all of whom have known him for about as long as we have, and all of whom interact like the best of friends. Not surprising; he’s got one of those charming insta-friend personalities.

The next morning we headed back to Johnny’s house. No surprise, grandma was cooking. But so was the rest of the family. All of the usual suspects from yesterday were here. So were about twice as many other family members. On Sundays they set up a grill outside the house and sell gorditas and quesadillas to passersby. As guests, we ate for free. Or we stole. Or TJ paid when I wasn't looking. I’m not sure which, but nobody made a fuss either way. [EDIT: TJ says he paid when I wasn't looking, and you needed to know that.]

We then headed back into town where, thanks to Johnny playing the “My-Uncle-was-a-Bishop” card (true story), we were granted access to the basilica’s bell tower. Here are a few photos of the view.

...And here’s a photo of when we descended the stairs and found that we had been locked in.

We had just enough time for a few Quasimodo jokes before the Emergency Response Team (i.e. janitor) arrived to let us out.

On our way back to his house, we stopped by a candy shop, operated by another cousin, where I picked up some treats for my parents, who we’ll be seeing next week. But not before passing yet another store manned by yet another FOJ.

The weekend ended with an afternoon drink with our hosts from the evening before...and then we reluctantly said our goodbyes and returned to Guadalajara.

San Juan de los Lagos has a population of just over 55,000. It seemed like Johnny was related to half of them, and good friends with the other half. I’m not sure if that’s a compliment to him or to the city itself…but the overall effect was completely charming. I’m going back. And not soon enough.

At the wedding, I was talking to Anne, one of the newer officers at post. We were discussing our old life in Orlando, and how through that life we were able to meet so many people that have amazing jobs, do incredible things, and live in wonderful places. People that have been so nice and so hospitable to us over the years. Anne marveled at the connections we’ve built in our personal lives, and the advantages and joys they have lent us in our travels.

Well, Anne, here’s another story for ya.