Friday, December 28, 2007

wheelchairs, religion and the gospel according to eagle creek ...

The wheelchair access policy (above) at Morelia Cathedral more than hinted at a strong local belief in the healing powers of worship.

At this time of year many people turn their thoughts to matters of religious contemplation, but about the closest I get to evangelism is singing the praises of my Eagle Creek Pack Cubes to anyone who'll listen - over the past eight months they have proved themselves the single most useful item of my travel kit.

Anyone who's lived out of a rucksack will be familiar with the hassle of unpacking every time fresh clothes are needed, keeping laundry separate in plastic bags and of course the potential chaos of a bag search at the airport. Using the cubes with their clever floating panel which separates clean clothes and laundry, your clothes stay flat and folded at all times. It all makes for the easiest and quickest packing and unpacking imaginable

After carrying my rather large 65 litre pack around all year one of my objectives in LA was to reduce the size of my luggage - by swapping a couple of items for more packable alternatives I'd hoped to take my pack size down by 10 litres or so. So, you can only imagine than my delight at discovering the Eagle Creek ORV Gear Bag - a work of unparalleled genius, specifically designed around the Pack Cube system.

Not only have I been able to reduce my pack size by almost a third to a mere 47 litres, but my new bag is so well designed that I also added a super-warm down jacket in anticipation of some cold Andean nights over the coming months. Here it is all packed up alongside with a bottle of Sam Adams (purely for scale of course).

After testing it out on the road for the past three weeks, my enthusiasm for the Eagle Creek pack system has galvanised into a near religious fervour. As we head into the New Year and the final months of our journey I have ambitious plans spread the gospel far and wide ...

And no, I'm not on commission.

At least not yet anyway.

Our last few days in Mexico uncovered another strong contender for the Beer League - Noche Buena.

Only available at Christmas it is the final batch of the year before the brewery closes down for it's annual cleaning of the tanks. At 5.9% the translation of it's name into English couldn't be more appropriate - simply, Good Night

Finally I've decided the New Year deserves a new colour scheme - do let me know what you think ...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

lingo for gringos ...

We arrived in the beautiful city of Morelia late on Sunday evening fully expecting the worst from the student apartment we'd arranged for the week.

Our expectations of a cramped single room studio, furnished with little more than a stained mattress on the floor couldn't have been further from the truth. Instead we unexpectedly found ourselves with a recently renovated apartment in a beautiful historic building, complete with a stylish fitted kitchen, flat screen TV, queen sized bed, and even our own private courtyard. A definite candidate for nicest lodgings of the trip, and a total bargain at a tenner a night.

In order to maximise our time at the Baden Powell Institute (above) we've opted for separate one-on-one tuition for the week, with Mel taking the academic approach (conjugating verbs, lots of homework) whilst I'm taking the conversational learning, no homework approach. Some things never change. Our days now consist of back to back 50 minute lessons with a conveyor belt of frustrated tutors as we flail around with various aspects of the Spanish language.

It seems I spoke far too soon on the merits of Mexican food. Just a couple of hours after publishing my last post I found myself "talking on the great white telephone" in our bathroom with great enthusiasm - an act I would repeat with alarming regularity over the next few hours.

An expression they use in Mexico when foreigners get food poisoning is "la venganza de Montezuma" which translates to "Montezumas Revenge", or in other words payback for invading their lands. Descendants of European colonial types take note, I have settled your ancestral debt in full.

The timing was pretty lousy as not only did I have to skip school the following day (again, some things never change) but we were also expecting our first house guests, Ed & Fi, who are travelling around the world without flying (read Ed's blog here). While my amigos enjoyed chilled bottles of Tecate served with fresh lime, I found myself reduced to the pitiful state of sipping the otherwise excellent Fresca (a little like lemonade) as my stomach accompanied their conversation by simulating the sounds of a distant thunderstorm.

In the run up to Christmas we've been subjected to everything from Hawaiian versions of all the traditional carols (on Ukelele and slack key guitar) to the rampant consumerism of Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills. But as far as taking things seriously go, our amigos the Mexicans just can't be beaten - as this life-size nativity scene outside Guadalajara Cathedral should confirm.

I'll be taking a brief break from the blog over the Christmas period, but I'll be back in the New Year to let you know what we got up to. For those of you not already pickled to the eyeballs in festive mirth may I take this opportunity to wish you all a Feliz Navidad!

Or Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 14, 2007

swimming with lions and dining with donkeys ...

It seems like we've been so busy over the last week - three new cities explore, as well as trying (spectacularly unsuccessfully) to form some sort of plan for our next few months in Latin America.

Crossing the border into Mexico was a rather unusual experience. One that involved us watching a hispanic soap opera at maximum volume, on a portable TV with the cleaning lady, while we waited for the immigation official to return from the sandwich shop.

As the worlds most visited border town, Tijuana is the place where Americans come for cheap drugs (prescription and otherwise), while the Mexicans line up by the riverbank at night to play their own version of British Bulldogs with the US border patrols.

I didn't feel the need to take any photos in Tijuana. The only spectacle truly of note was the opportunity to have your photo taken with a Zebra for a couple of US dollars. Closer inspection revealed that some enterprising local had taken a few tins of spray paint to a regular a Donkey to create this tourist attraction. Not exactly RSPCA approved.

Not really having a plan didn't stop us jumping on a plane the very next morning to the laid back city of La Paz (we'd heard it is nice - so why not?) in Southern Baja California.

At the risk of appearing a little obsessed after my last post, beside an inexplicable statue on the Malecon (above) the absolute highlight of La Paz was a boat trip to a Sea Lion colony where we had the opportunity to swim alongside them - a much more authentic experience than the zoo, and one I´ll always remember. As much for the palpable sense of relief at not being bitten by one as anything else.

After La Paz we took a flight to Mexico's second city Guadalajara for the weekend. Incredible old stone colonial era architecture sits alongside some genuinely gritty neighbourhoods providing the starkest of contrasts. Most notably the town of Tequila lies just outside Guadalajara and while we didn't have time to make it out that far, it would have been incredibly rude to pass up the opportunity to sample a few glasses on home territory.

Let's just say I now recall all too well why I don't drink Tequila at home anymore.

I have to say that our first week in Mexico has been hard work covering so much ground, but absolutely brilliant. After spending the last couple of months in the English speaking world it's great to immerse ourselves in a completely different culture again. The food here is quite different to Mexcian food at home, offering a greater diversity of flavours and at prices that are very complimentary to our ever diminishing budget. Even the restaurant signs are a continual source of amusement as they play on the dual meaning of the word Burro (Donkey/Burrito).

One week into struggling along with my very rudimentary grasp of some basic Spanish phrases and we've decided it's time to go "back to school" as we catch the bus to our next destination, the city of Morelia for some intensive tuition.

Somehow my Tequila hangover isn't filling me with enthusiasm for our entry examination for the Baden-Powell Institute at 8.30am tomorrow morning ...

The other notable thing about Mexico is the remarkable ease with which they seem to have stormed my beer league, including
a brand new No.1!

After a long reign at the top, Japan's Yebisu has finally yielded to Modelo Especial, and there are several other very respectably placed Mexican beers.

Of course it still remains to be seen what we´ll be drinking this Christmas so keep posted ...

Sunday, December 09, 2007

santa's secret ...

After LA we began our journey south with a weekend in San Diego.

We couldn't really pass up the chance to see their world famous zoo, which provided the opportunity to see gorillas and lots of other unusual animals close up. While the hairy apes are definitely the most impressive exhibit, the prize for most entertaining must surely go to the Sea Lion show. Here's a brief video from the performance.

Being our fifth animal park of the trip we found ourselves in the position of having recently seen most of the animals - so I think we'll probably skip the next one. It is possible to have too much of a good thing.

In the evening we turned to entertainment of a different kind as we said farewell to our host and chauffeur for the week Sean with a great Saturday night out in San Diego's party central, the gaslamp district.

There's plenty to keep the tourist entertained here, but you won't find our most enduring memory listed in your guidebook.

Usually when a hotel advertises itself as unique I take it with a pinch of salt, but somehow our B&B in San Diego managed to live up to the hype with a toilet seat of true distinction.

I'm almost ashamed I ever doubted.

Santa really is watching you kids. Wherever you are this Christmas.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

getting to grips with cockney rhyming beer slang ...

The moment we walked through the door of Sean's apartment in LA he swung his refrigerator door open to reveal his preparation for our visit. On view was an extensive selection of American beers, and with a grin he said "Right then, let's get some of these on that beer league of yours ..."

There are almost as many varieties of beer here as there are choices of fast food outlet. The tricky part is finding the good ones in a sea of mediocrity. Although, with a bar down the road boasting an incredible 133 beers on tap I feel I will be happy conducting my research here for a while.

Of course just because there are lots of beers available, doesn't necessarily make them easy to get hold of. Not only do you regularly have to present ID in bars (even if you're an octogenarian), but somehow an English accent can be very difficult for bar staff to understand.

First, when asking for a pen (to log the different beers - I learnt early on how easy it can be to forget most of a solid evening's research) we managed to recieve a pint of Old Speckled Hen. In another bar a straightforward request for a beer called Great White led to a suspiciously long delay before our waiter returned with cocktails called a Greyhound (vodka and grapefruit juice apparently).

We have decided to name this phenomenon cockney ryhming beer slang.

We've been spending our days in LA checking out sights like the Getty, Venice Beach and the Hollywood sign - all things you'll have seen a hundred times before on TV (so don't need to hear about here).

Sitting down to our first beer of the evening after a long day marching around the Getty Centre (above) we noticed the piano. Yet strangely none of us felt inclined to risk asking for the pianist ...

The moustache has finally gone - and thankfully no tell-tale white patch (due in no small part to 3 days of constant rain before we left Kaua'i). Last minute sponsors please see the post below this for details of how to add your support for the Prostate Cancer Charity.