Posts Tagged ‘vacation’

An American tourist’s reaction to visiting Mexico City, Toluca, and Metepec

March 31st, 2011

This is part of a series about my trip to Mexico City and the surrounding area. Also see part 1, part 2 and part 3.

There’s cultural differences between Mexico and the United States that surprised me during my recent visit. There were pleasant surprises, and not-so pleasant surprises. Let’s explore them all.

Latino Americana tower from the Palacio de Bellas Artes

The good stuff
Mexico City is in many ways a world-class major city. Good restaurants, hotels, street food, and the entire place is huge and packed with people and businesses. They have easily the best public transit I’ve ever seen, with a Metro where trains are spaced less than two minutes apart, bus rapid transit, electric trolleys, as well as traditional buses. (Traditional buses in Mexico are independently operated, sort of like shared taxis with pre-planned routes.) I never got to try the bicycle sharing program, but it looked like something to try.

It’s also a beautiful city with art everywhere. They’re big on statues. Certain parts of the city are very walkable, with pedestrian streets.

I’m told safety is an issue, but I never really saw any crime; of course, I was traveling with Mexicans who knew the country much better than I did and were aware of which areas to steer clear from. The police in Mexico City often have automatic weapons. They seem to mainly patrol tourist areas, which is nice if you’re a tourist but I’m sure is infuriating if you’re a local.

Some of the things surprised me not so much as an American, but as a San Franciscan. Sidewalk vendors seem to have free reign in terms of the space they take up and what they do. Street food was everywhere and often delicious. I can safely say I had better Mexican food in a Toluca parking lot than anywhere else, ever. One guy was selling homemade sorbet right outside of an elementary school, a concept that would make American parents’ jaws drop.

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Now all this said, there’s a few big issues that Mexico needs to address, the sooner the better.

Lack of trust
We take it for granted in the US that we can walk into almost any store without surrendering our bags to the front desk. In Mexico, this is unheard of. In most stores, everything is either sold from behind the counter, or you have to check your bags before they let you go in. (Why I’m supposed to trust someone who makes $3 a day with a $500 camera was never explained to me.) There were exceptions to this, but they were mostly convenience stores or stores swarming with security guards. One store even had security guards standing on stools to watch over everyone. Another store insisted on putting cable ties on the zippers on my backpack so it couldn’t be opened.

But the lack of trust extends much further than shopping. Most homes in and around Mexico City are small buildings made from cinder blocks. They line the edges of the roofs and balconies with broken glass, sort of a cheap alternative to barbed wire. The outside of these homes is almost never painted, because to paint your home would suggest that you have money, which would be like putting up a “Please rob my house” sign.

It’s hard to imagine why everyone is treated like a criminal. I’m sure there’s a good reason for it (i.e. lots of crime) but unless you’re used to this sort of treatment, it’s damn insulting.

Poor sewers
It’s funny, but I thought the worst plumbing I’d ever have to deal with was in my trip to Greece. There, toilets simply couldn’t handle toilet paper. I was told many toilets in Mexico had the same problem. But in my entire visit to Mexico, I never had a problem with flushing TP.

But there was a different problem — stinky sewers. I don’t know know a lot about plumbing, but whatever they’ve done in Mexico can’t be right. All three hotels we visited had major odor problems in the bathrooms, especially at night. Street sewers often smelled terrible, even worse than our stinky street sewers in San Francisco (exception: foul street sewers on 19th Ave outside of SFSU which could probably kill a person.)

Someone from the Mexican tourism bureau needs to get a team of plumbers together and go around fixing this ASAP.

Another issue which may or may not be related is the foul-smelling rivers! This was especially noticeable in Toluca, where a river a couple blocks away from our hotel smelled so bad that I was able to smell it inside hotel, even in spite of having a stuffy nose due to my cold.

Lack of customer service
I think part of this is related to the lack of trust (described above) but there’s also an issue of just not caring or trying very hard. It’s not like Greece, where everybody moved too slow. This was something much worse about Mexican customer service that was hard to pin down.

Some examples:

  • On many occasions, when asking for help finding something at a store, they were simply unwilling to help. I found this not only to be bad service, but also generally rude.
  • The aforementioned bag-check at many stores as not only an insult, it was a hassle as well.
  • Larger stores tended to have long, slow moving lines. There wasn’t any rush to get people through the checkout.
  • We went to extend our stay at the first hotel we were at, but they insisted we had to pay 700 pesos ($70 USD) per night instead of the 350 pesos ($35 USD) we had bought the original two nights for via Kayak.com. They said it was fine though if we wanted to order online to get the discount. So we did that, and then they told us we’d need to print out the e-mail confirmation, and “no you can’t use our printer.” Would it have been that hard for them to explain that we would need to print the e-mail BEFORE we placed the order? It would have saved about 20 minutes, and wouldn’t have been hard to explain in the first place.
  • One more example: a cashier at a drink stand refused my 100 peso ($10 USD) note for a bottle of water that cost 10 pesos ($1 USD). She claimed she didn’t have change. I didn’t buy anything there, including the cashier’s lame excuse for laziness.

Granted, this wasn’t true everywhere. But for the most part, I really got the impression that everyone who worked for someone else was doing the bare minimum necessary to keep their jobs. Were it not for the fact that I was visiting my girlfriend’s family — who were all very nice to me — I would have been under the impression that most Mexicans were lazy, self-centered assholes.

Cerveza

Conclusion
Overall, I’m a little torn on whether I’d go back to Mexico or not. On the one hand there’s still a lot more to see and do. I need to finish climbing the pyramids! But on the other hand, between the problematic customer service, the stench, and the way everyone is treated like a criminal, it’s a bit hard to justify returning.

I hate to say this, but perhaps the deciding factor is the price; Mexico is a cheap place to go, and it’s close enough to the United States that traveling there is inexpensive as well. Round trip airfare was less than $200 (USD) per person even after taxes and fees, rides on the Mexico City Metro were 3 pesos ($0.30 USD!!), and there’s excellent food for mere dollars.

So yeah, I’ll be back in Mexico someday. But it’s not at the top of my list.

Trip to Mexico: part 3 (Toluca)

March 12th, 2011

This is part of a series about my trip to Mexico City and the surrounding area. Also see part 1, part 2, and part 4.

We spent four days in Toluca, and unfortunately I was ill the entire time. Since it was kind of a blur for me I’m cramming the entire four days into a single entry.

Toluca is largely an industrial town, with production outposts for Nestle, Coca-Cola, Chrysler, and Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma (the brewery that makes Tecate, Sol, Indio, and Dos Equis.) Due to the manufacturing, there’s also a lot of hotels, restaurants, strip clubs, etc.

Day 1

We hitched a ride on a taxi, then took a bus, where we met up with Alexia’s cousin in Toluca. We spent the evening checking out Metepec, an old town nearby which houses several old churches and a district of local artists.

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Later in the night we joined up with the rest of the crew and went to the KISS Lounge. It’s a basement bar that doubles as a shrine to the band KISS. The decorations are all merchandise and albums from the band. Most of the bar’s walls were stuffed with KISS memorabilia behind glass; perhaps most shockingly, their collection included two separate matryoshka sets painted to look like members of KISS. As if one set was not more than enough?

Late into the night, a live band showed up to play various hard rock covers. By “late” I mean really late; the bar closes at 5am.

KISS Lounge KISS matroshka dolls The crew KISS 8-track KISS memorabilia KISS makeup set

Day 2

The second day was pretty mellow, we hit up a “VIP” movie theater to see Black Swan. If you weren’t aware, a VIP movie theater has reclining Lazy-Boy style seats, tables, and waiters who will bring alcoholic drinks to your seat. This begs the question: why don’t we have this in San Francisco? I’d be there every week.

Anyway, the mall with the VIP theater had some unusual stores; a Hewlett Packard store, an “iShop” Apple Store knockoff, and they had an Imaginarium! This was the toy store I grew up with, and just like I remember, they had regular doorway next to a child-sized doorway. Granted, it wasn’t nearly as large or fancy as the one we used to have at the Stanford Shopping Center, but it was still a shock to me personally. I had no idea Imaginarium still existed.

HP Experience store iShop Imaginarium

Later that night we had one of Pizza Hut’s bizarre pizzas delivered to the hotel, and watched some Mexican TV. You know you’re watching Mexican TV when a guy in a clown suit is being interviewed by a woman sitting on a banana-shaped sofa which is in front of a wall that has bananas hanging from it.

Some kind of pizza from Pizza Hut delivered to our hotel Mexican television

Day 3
We headed back to Metepec to check out the local shops, then hitched a bus back to downtown Toluca. On the way, a band jumped on the bus to play some heavily-accented Doors covers.

Back in Toluca, we went to the MUMCI, a museum dedicated to beer brewing sponsored by Modelo. For homebrewers it’s quite interesting, and fortunately it’s in both English and Spanish. They cover everything from growing crops to brewing to bottling and packaging. They even have information on building your own industrial-grade brewery, which seems a bit odd as they’re explaining how you can compete with them. It even includes a Star Tours-esque ride about the bottling process.

Barley Falling mist Fermentation Pasteurization Bottling machine Old Corona bottles

Day 4

In downtown Toluca, I found that this vacation had something in common with my trip to Greece: the Acropolis. But unlike the Greek version, Toluca’s doesn’t cost 12 Euros, and it’s a mall.

We headed to the Cosmovitral, a plant conservatory in a green house that’s covered in an absurd amount of stained glass. In fact, it was worth the entry fee alone just to look at the stained glass, let alone the plants.

At the end of the day we retired to our hotel room with a box of mixed Modelo cervezas and a Skyy Blue cocktail (made with real Skyy vodka, unlike its American counterpart) from the local convenience store.

"Plaza Acropolis" sign IMG_4484 IMG_4512 IMG_4531 IMG_4514 IMG_4515 IMG_4538 Cerveza

Day 5

The final day before my departure, we met Alexia’s family’s sheep. Their job is to mow the grass at the family’s parking lot.

Sheep! Eric and the sheep

We drove around to see some of Toluca’s factories, then to the official Cervefrio (or “beer store”) of Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma where I bought a official Sol beer mug.

Nestle plant in Toluca Graffiti Indio Beer at Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma company store Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma company store

Just before my flight, I got a horrible stomach ache because of my cold. Alexia’s aunt gave me a glass of some kind of incredibly foul tasting home remedy which worked surprisingly well. Whatever it was, it made me well enough to get on the airplane. Well, almost… as it turns out when your sinuses are completely clogged you should not under any circumstance get on a airplane. That’s something I learned the hard way.

Trip to Mexico: part 2 (Mexico City)

March 10th, 2011

This is part of a series about my trip to Mexico City and the surrounding area. Also see part 1, part 3, and part 4.

Day 3

We met up with more of Alexia’s family and we headed down to a massive bus terminal to for a ride to the pyramids of Teotihuacan! On the way I was introduced to the concept of legal graffiti. Bands often pay to have legal graffiti billboards of sorts painted on public walls to advertise their shows.

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The Teotihuacan pyramids were overrun by “gypsy” style merchants of sorts selling whistles, hats, jewelry, etc. We headed down to the first and smallest pyramid, then quickly realized we needed a guide. We found a guy who spoke a bit of English (this was for my benefit only.) Before showing us the pyramids, he pointed out a group of four traditional Voladores de Papantla, or acrobats who were swinging in a circle off ropes on a 16 meter tall poll on ropes tied to their ankles. He claimed that traditionally, the poles were 40 meters high. Not for those of us with a fear of heights.

The tour guide (guy in the black baseball cap in the photo) showed us some traditional dyes made from insect eggs, paper, thread and needles made from cactus, and most surprisingly, the way the old city of Teotihuacan had been built.

According to our guide, every 52 years the citizens created a new city on top of the old city. So far archaeologists have only dared to go one level deep, where they found an earlier foundation for the buildings in exactly the same place, but with different decorations. There’s only one visible spot where it’s been dug up, and it’s pretty incredible. So far nobody knows if there’s another level deeper. Mysterious!

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After an hour or so, our tour guide left and wished us well, and we decided to go up the Pyramid of the Sun, which is the largest pyramid at the site. Here, I have to admit that I didn’t make it even halfway up, perhaps because of the already high elevation, or perhaps because I was coming down with a really bad cold that would haunt the rest of the trip. I hate to admit that I was defeated by this pyramid — especially because it was one of the main reasons I came to Mexico in the first place. The one saving grace was that the view from partway up was incredible. You could see the entire ruins of Teotihuacan from there.

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While everyone else finished scaling the pyramid, Alexia and I headed across the way to a small strip with some restaurants. Upon entering the street, we were assaulted by six young men carrying menus, each insisting we eat at the restaurant they represented. All of the restaurants essentially had the tourist-esque “please everyone” massive menus, so we decided on the restaurant we’d been recommended earlier. Eventually we were joined by our companions.

We ordered micheladas. If you’re not familiar with a michelada, it’s a Mexican beer (in this case, Indio) mixed with lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, and Clamato in a glass lined with salt and chile pequin. It’s one of my favorite cocktails, basically a Mexican version of a bloody mary. If you haven’t tried it you’re missing out.

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Day 4

On the fourth day we took the Metro to Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the world’s most visited Catholic shrine. It’s a lot like Disneyland except there’s no rides and you have to pay to use the bathroom.

The main cathedral on the site was built in the mid 1970′s. It contains an incredibly large church, a place to put flowers, a series of conveyor belts you can stand on while looking at a painting of the Virgin Mary, and (of course) a gift shop. From the outside, the building looks suspiciously like Space Mountain, but the closest thing to a roller coaster is the Virgin Mary’s conveyor belt.

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The grounds of the basilica contain several smaller chapels, Pope John Paul’s Popemobile(TM) and the old basilica, which is now fenced off due to problems with its structural integrity. The gardens have a bit of a mini-golf vibe, with a number of uncharacteristically painted statues here and there, and a few fountains. In the back there’s a cafeteria area with tortas, soda, etc. And (of course) more gift shops.

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The area around the church seemed a bit sketchy… definitely not the kind of place you’d want to be at night. And perhaps even dangerous during the day, as Alexia almost stepped on a snake.

Trip to Mexico: part 1 (Mexico City)

March 8th, 2011

Hey everyone, gather ’round the living room and take a nap while I subject you to my vacation slides from February 2011, when Alexia Anthem and I went to visit Mexico.

The trip to Mexico series will be divided into four parts on my blog:

  1. Mexico City part 1 (this post)
  2. Mexico City part 2
  3. Toluca
  4. Rants about Mexico

This is part 1.

Day One
In spite of taking a redeye flight and essentially not sleeping at all, Alexia and I somehow found the energy to not flop down on the comfortable hotel bed and sleep.

Instead, we walked from our hotel to the park and the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Unfortunately the Bellas Artes was closed, so we headed to the nearby LatinoAmericana tower to check out the view and generally be good tourists.

After coming down from the tower, we headed down the street to the Zócalo, a plaza with a bunch of government buildings, a cathedral, and a surprisingly large flag.

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Somehow we stumbled our way to a Metro stop. The Mexico City Metro is a rubber-tire train system that’s dirt cheap (tickets are 30 cents USD) and trains come every two minutes. It’s very impressive compared to what we have in San Francisco. Plus they have food stands in the stations, including Domino’s. How cool is that?

A few hundred staircases later we ended up walking down an alley filled with little shops and restaurants and on the way to Paseo de la Reforma, the main drag in Mexico City. Along La Reforma, there’s dozens of bike racks used as part of a bike-sharing program.

Soon we found our way to El Ángel, the iconic golden angel statue seen on Mexico City memorabilia everywhere. The statue is in the middle of a traffic circle. If you weren’t aware of this, jaywalking is somewhat of a national pastime in Mexico. So they didn’t bother with crosswalks to get to the angel, despite it being a national monument. You pretty much have to close your eyes, cross your fingers, and run through traffic to get to it. There’s a bunch of statues at the base of the angel, and a little door with some tombs inside. Protip: if you plan your vacation better than we did, there are days than you can go up inside pillar that holds the angel to an observation deck above.

IMG_1813 IMG_3864 Angel At the angel

Day Two
We were joined by Alexia Anthem’s cousin, and finally got to go inside Bellas Artes. The place is free, unless you have a camera, in which case they charge a camera fee. Yeah, I know. Lame. Anyway the place is filled with fantastic murals, including some of Diego Rivera’s best. A strange thing about Bellas Artes is that the outside has a typical Roman look, but the inside is art deco. The contrast between old and new is sort of like a grandfather who snowboards and plays video games.

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We took a walk down to the tequila museum, which unfortunately wasn’t open! I suspect it was because they had an infestation of mariachi on the patio outside and were waiting for an exterminator. On the way there, I spotted a fake cable car, which begs the question: is there a way to take it all the way from Mexico City to Fisherman’s Wharf?

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Trip to Greece: part 4

September 1st, 2010

This is the final installment of my 4 part series about my trip to Greece. See parts one, two and three.

I saved the best for last. Here I’m going to talk about my reactions to some of the differences between California and Greece.

The weather
In Greece, more often than not, I found myself covered in sweat. With the 100+ degree heat and the occasional humidity spell, this is understandable. But the amazing thing is how rapidly I was sweating.

I’m not saying my deodorant was failing. No, this was an all-over kind of sweat, where you need to take a shower. I’d shower the sweat off, but by the time I was done toweling myself off I was already covered in sweat again. Cleaning yourself becomes a lost cause.

I never thought I’d miss the cold, foggy weather in San Francisco. But I did.

Municipal animals
Hotel catStray animals in the US are either adopted, or put down by the authorities. But do we really need to?

In Greece, stray dogs and cats are given shots by the government, but they’re not incarcerated in a shelter. Instead, they’re allowed to roam freely with government vets giving them shots now and then.

I semi-jokingly call these wild domestic pets “municipal animals” since they’re like pets for everyone to use.

Anywhere outdoors that you might find people, you would also find municipal animals begging for food and attention. Most Greek restaurants and bars are outdoors, and while eating you would often be visited by feline beggars. On the one hand, that might seem unclean. But on the other, cats keep away the rats and birds. Also, they’re adorable.

Serious problems
One restaurant owner in a small town said to us, when told him where we lived: “Arnold Schwarzenegger!” He then said, somewhat vaguely, “I hear California has problems.” Marc came back with “I hear GREECE has problems.” It’s funny because it’s true; both California and Greece are in bad shape financially, and both have an immediate and dire employment crisis.

But the differences are striking as well. During our time in Greece, we hit a snag with gasoline availability. Due to legal changes that will make retirement a challenge for them, tanker truck drivers went on strike.

Imagine if you couldn’t get gas. Now I know, most San Franciscans wouldn’t care, they’d just walk and bike… right? WRONG. Gas doesn’t just affect your commute, it also affects the food supply, emergency services… without gasoline we’re basically all screwed.

Greece’s gas crisis went on for 4-5 days. Thankfully, there were a few stations here and there that remained open. All of those stations had lines, and it wasn’t uncommon to see people pushing their cars to the tanks.

Basically we got lucky with this one; we never got stranded. We spent a lot of time worrying about the issue, and went to the trouble of calculating the mileage of our Hyndai Accident Accent and how much the tank could hold. Based on that, we could figure out how far we could get at any given time. It’s not particularly difficult to do but it’s also not something you ever want to have to do.

Plumbing
Typical Greek toiletWhen you travel to Europe, you don’t think plumbing is going to be a problem. It’s not like you’re going to a tiny village somewhere in Asia where you have to shit in a hole.

But while Greece does have flush toilets, said toilets do not take paper products. Those go in a little trash can next to the toilet. As you can imagine, this trash can smells awful. Especially in the 100 degree weather.

Greek showers tend to be the “hose” variety. Expect a small shower stall or bathtub with a shower head on a hose. Fortunately the water pressure tends to be very high, so this isn’t as bad as it sounds. Water pressure trumps shower design any day.

And yes, you can drink the tap water. Sometimes. On the islands, I’m told it’s not necessarily safe to drink the water, or even get it in your mouth while brushing your teeth. But the price of bottled water is regulated by the government so this was never an economic concern.

Service expectations
In the US, if you ask for your check at a restaurant, you can expect it in what, five minutes? Maybe 10, tops?

In Greece, it often took more than half an hour. Some restaurants would bring a free desert, and not come back with the check until after you finished. Free desert is always good, but when you ask for a check you expect to get it. This wasn’t the only part of the restaurant service that seemed to be operating on a different time scale than the rest of the world, it was just the most noticeable.

Sure, it’s good to relax, and it’s not good to always be in a rush. But let’s be realistic: taking too long is just bad service. Promptness is appreciated in every culture, so it’s not a cultural difference in that sense. And in fact, the cooked food always came to the table promptly. The difference is priorities; the Greeks don’t prioritize timeliness in the same way we do in America, so people can get away with taking their time. If service was faster, I don’t think anyone would feel rushed or as though they were being kicked out of the place. But those people in a hurry would be grateful.

What do others think?
We kept meeting service industry workers who were from other places; Australia, Texas, and — get this — Oakland. None of them seem to have adapted to the Greek culture.

When asked, the conversation would go something like this:
Me: “Have you gotten used to the Greek concept of timeliness?”
Them: “NO!!! That and other things…”

It’s good to know you’re not alone.

Conclusion
Should you go to Greece? Hey, I’d say as long as you don’t go during the hottest part of summer, yes. The food is great, the beaches are really nice, and there’s a lot of historical sites to visit. Hell, in terms of history and beaches, you really can’t beat Greece.

That said, I hope this guide helps manage your expectations. And if you do go, I hope you have better luck with the strikes than we did.

Trip to Greece: part 3

August 19th, 2010

This is part 3 of 4 of my series about my trip to Greece. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

Days 11-12 Mykonos

The Ferry to Mykonos IMG_0525 Hotel cat Beach Tiny church Restaurant pelican IMG_0515 Nutella

We got on another ferry and headed south to Mykonos, which as anyone who’s skimmed a Greece travel book at Borders for 3 minutes can tell you is the “gay” island. Not to be confused with Lesbos (the lesbian island, obviously) Mykonos has a fair share of gay bars and clubs that would fit right in with the Castro. Hell, there’s even a gay bar called Kastro.

But it’s not all just drunk gay people trying to dance; there’s also some of the nicest beaches in Greece. And our hotel was associated with a surprisingly excellent beachfront restaurant. (A good restaurant — that’s something you won’t find in the Castro! PWND.) If you wanted, you could sit on the beach under an umbrella and order food and drinks… assuming they ever served you (more on this later.)

The old port of Mykonos boasts nightlife and excitement. It’s a town with extremely narrow streets and plenty of shops, bars, and restaurants. We ate a place there that would have been forgettable except we were visited first by a hungry calico cat, and then by a rather large pelican. I really wish I’d gotten a better picture of that pelican.

Mykonos is not a cheap place by any standard. They cater to tourists and will gouge you every way they can. I paid 14 Euros for a bloody mary that may have well been a virgin bloody mary. I’m not joking here — 14 Euros is like $18 USD — and there was less alcohol in it than in a can of PBR.

In spite of the prices, many underage British girls were getting drunk, then puking and passing out. Given how narrow and crowded the streets are, you have to wonder how they would get an ambulance to take care of the wealthy children ODing on booze.

All that said, Mykonos is very laid back and if you’re looking to spend some time hanging out at a warm beach, you couldn’t do better.

Days 13-15: Santorini

IMG_0740 Eric Greek walking Banksy t-shirt Wires Sunset-watching tourists Coca-Cola The Gang Captain Ilias and crew Sleepy cat

Santorini is allegedly the site of Atlantis, before a volcano blew up the island sometime around 1600 BC. Or something like that… unfortunately their museum had some structural problems and closed up (OMG CONSPIRACY) so I didn’t get to see any evidence of this firsthand.

Every tourist on Santorini is basically required to visit the quaint little town of Oia, where you can see a picture-perfect sunset against the water while hanging out on the little blue and white stucco buildings.

The highlight of this island was a yacht cruise around the island. For some reason, the crew let Ilias be captain on the way back. Considering he was significantly more sober than the real captain, this may have been a good choice.

The final day on Santorini, we spent some time at Fira, the old port town. People still ride donkeys here, a good idea since there’s no room for cars, and it’s more than 500 stairs between the port and the city. You’d better believe those donkeys have some buff legs.

Day 16: Monastiraki

OBEY Faert The church Lucifair

No vacation is complete without buying touristy junk for your friends and family. Thankfully, Athens has a “flea market” area just for this: Monastiraki. Overpriced t-shirts with embarrassing slogans, bead stores, kitschy decor, it’s all here! You can also find pretty much any olive-related product ever made. And there was a store called “Faert” which was unfortunately closed at the time.

You don’t have to be a linguistic genius to figure out that “monastiraki” might have something to do with a monastery. And yes, this mecca of shopping happens to have a small church in the middle. And right next to the church was a store called “Lucifair.” Seems appropriate. That reminds me, I’m looking for investors in my plan to build a pork butcher, alcohol, and pornography store next to a mosque. Let me know if you’re interested.

Trip to Greece: part 2

August 17th, 2010

This is part 2 of 4 of my series about my trip to Greece. Part 1 is here.

Days 6-7: Corfu

Awesome shower/jacuzi Sidari sunset Hotel patioGreek walking Yee-haw! IMG_0267

We drove our car onto a boat and went to the island of Corfu. Ilias had booked us an incredibly nice hotel; great beach, lovely balcony… actually who cares about any of that? The jacuzzi bathtub was all I needed to see to fall in love with the place. I could have lived in that bathtub.

This was the island where I started to notice a phenomenon I’ve nicknamed “Greek walking.” Basically you get two people, sometimes more, onto a little Italian motor scooter and zip around the tiny streets at ridiculous speeds. Safety equipment? Leave it at home, pussy.

Even though it’s a beautiful island, Corfu is touristy as hell. In particular it seems to be a place for British tourists to go, as evidenced by the drunk 13 year old British teens singing along to celebrity impersonator Amy Housewine at a bar down the street from the hotel. But the most touristy part is Sidari, which you should avoid at all costs. It’s like Fisherman’s Wharf, except in Greece. It’s really almost exactly the same.

On the other side of the island, Corfu has an old-school port town with narrow streets, deafeningly loud cicadas, and more Vespas per square inch than I’ve ever seen in my life. I was really glad not to be behind the wheel here; Vespas were zipping around our car on both sides! Chaos on the street.

Day 8: The Cabin in Matsouki

Tunnel FISHIES Boats

After ferrying out of Corfu, we took a long road trip through some more tunnels — did I mention the tunnels yet? No? Well, major roads in Greece tend to fall into one of two categories: 1. Goat paths and 2. Freeway tunnels. Until recently, there weren’t many freeways in Greece it seems. Now they’re building like crazy, replacing their old barely-paved roads with heavy-duty freeways that tunnel right through hills and under bodies of water. It’s like 19th century meets 21st century, and not much in between.

Anyway, we hit up a little town on the way to Ilias’ father’s cabin and had some fresh fish for dinner, then we completely neglected to get gas. Oops. That evening we contemplated siphoning gas from other cars, but ultimately were saved when the bread man came by (you know, like a milkman, but for bread) and told Ilias that a nearby gas station was rumored to have gas. This turned out to be true and saved our asses in a major way, and if I ever run into the bread man I’ll give him a big juicy and total non-homoerotic kiss.

Day 9: Mycenae

IMG_0365 Dogs at Mycenae "Treasury" Switchboard

More old rocks? Yes, but you’ll recognize the Lion’s Gate of Mycenae from your middle school history textbook. Still, not much is left of the place, and crappy archeological work didn’t help preserve what little still stands.

Unlike other historical sites, this was more of a dog place than a cat place. The dogs were running around like crazy and begging for food. Marc fed one of the dogs some chips and made a friend for life.

After a brief visit to the museum and a stop for pizza, we headed down for a traditional Greek play, which the non-Greeks among us could only understand thanks to Wikipedia on Marc’s iPhone. Seeing a play in a traditional stone amphitheater was a refreshingly new and different experience, but my ass still prefers the comfortably padded seats at the IMAX.

That night we stayed at hotel with some strange fire safety rules and an antique phone system that they stole from Lily Tomlin.

Day 10: Acropolis

Greek metro IMG_2433 Acropolis Niki, Eric, Ilias in and the Caryatids Peroni Niki, Marc, Ilias, Yanni Greek Salad

Back in Athens, the four of us took public transit to Greece’s best known historical site, the Acropolis. Before we get into that, their public transit is actually quite nice. Athens is a county about the size of the entire SF peninsula, maybe a bit larger. They have a brand-new Metro system and large buses, all of which you can ride for 1 Euro per 90-minute transfer.

The Acropolis is a beautiful old temple. Currently it’s being restored; the restoration has been underway for 20 years or so and it looks like things are nearing completion.

Down the hill, there’s a new and impressive museum about the history of the Acropolis which I highly recommend. It’s built on top of a bunch of ruins, so they have a glass floor where you can see what’s underneath. A lot of the statues, etc. that were once in the Acropolis are in the museum, and those that aren’t are handily labeled so you can see who stole them: the British Museum and the Vatican are the top two offenders. What a surprise!

After the museum, but unfortunately before having a chance to bathe the sweat off, we headed to an Italian joint and met up with one of Ilias’ friends, Yanni, for the evening.

Oh and in case you were wondering, yes even the Italian places serve Greek salads.

Trip to Greece: part 1

August 17th, 2010

This begins a 4 part series about my trip to Greece; the first two parts will be about the road trip, the third will be on the islands of Mykonos and Santorini, and the final installment will be a wrap-up of thoughts and conclusions about the trip.

Why write about it? It’s a lot easier than answering questions about what I did and saying the same thing each time. Instead I can just say “go look at my blog” and then go hide in a cave where I don’t have to deal with you people.

Day 1: Arrival in Athens

After 14 hours of plane flights/baby screaming sessions, Niki and I met up with Ilias at the airport, picked up our car, and got dinner. Every meal in Greece must have at least one Greek salad, which is basically bell peppers, tomatoes, olives, and feta. I think it’s a law.

This was also the day that we discovered the horrors of Greek plumbing. Their sewage system isn’t capable of handling toilet paper, so every bathroom has a foul-smelling little garbage can next to the toilet. You do NOT want to forget to take this out every night. Feces in a bucket + 100 degree weather don’t mix.

Day 2: Temple of Poseidon

IMG_0035 IMG_1649

Marc flew in from Spain, and our gang of four drove up some crazy highways to the Temple of Poseidon… or what’s left of it. Scumbag vandals like Lord Byron have left the place in poor shape.

Day 3: Delphi

Tuba music upsets the mighty Apollo! Temple of Apollo Apollo's cat

ROAD TRIP! We set out in our Hyundai Accident Accent on the open road for the driving portion of our trip. First stop: Delphi.

The once great city of Delphi is now a mess of rocks overrun by tourists and cats. The stadium and the theater are still pretty much intact, but as luck would have it you’re not allowed to go into either.

The Delphi museum may have had the weirdest photography policy I’ve ever heard: no flash, and no people. That’s right: you can take photos of everything in the museum, but you can’t take a picture of your friends standing next to a statue. Why? The folks who worked there didn’t explain.

It was also on the third day that we started to get worried about the gas crisis. You see, the truck drivers have a program quite similar to the SF taxi medallion program, and the Greek government wanted to float many, many more medallions to help with their budget deficit. This would pretty much wipe out the truck drivers’ retirement, so almost every gas truck driver went on an indefinite strike. We were afraid of getting stranded, but without gas there’s serious consequences to emergency services, medicine, and even food. A bad situation for everyone.

Day 4: Mt. Olympus

Mount Olympus Graffiti IMG_0094 Outlet at our four star hotel

The hike up Mt. Olympus is a grueling all-day hike with steep trails. It’s not for amateurs, which is why we decided not to do it. Instead we just took a hike around the side to a nearby waterfall, which is where the town’s water supply came from. In fact it wasn’t a trail we were walking on so much as an aqueduct.

Our hotel was pretty proud of the fact that they had FOUR STARS. Apparently though, having wiring that’s up to code does not factor into whatever equation gave them FOUR STARS. Luckily, no one suffered electrical burns.

Day 5: Agios Stefanos

Monastery sign Monastery Meowers Garden gate Monastery Restaurant Meteora

The surprising thing about this cliff-side monastery is how peaceful and serene it is, despite being a tourist magnet. The nuns feed the cats who live there and maintain the garden.

The view from the monastery is beautiful, and the little town below is actually kind of charming. We went to a restaurant there where in lieu of a menu, they took us to the kitchen and shows us what was available. I wish more restaurants would do this, it’s adorable. And the food was great.

This was also the worst day of the gas crisis. We had to take time to calculate the gas mileage we got in our Hyundai Accident Accent so far, and confirm that we would be able to make the next day’s drive without filling up the tank. It was a close call. This is also why you should always travel with nerds.

Gasoline shortage in Greece

July 27th, 2010

Here in Greece there’s a severe shortage of gasoline due to a delivery driver’s strike.

In this photo I took two days ago in Athens, the traffic to the left is moving. To the right, cars are lined up for almost three blocks waiting to pull into a gas station.

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Another common site is closed gas stations. Here’s a BP that’s closing up shop.

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This isn’t limited just to major areas; small towns are having the same problem. Not a good time to go for a long drive since there’s no guarantee you won’t run out of fuel in the middle of nowhere.

Hopefully the strike will end soon. But in the meantime there’s still plenty of tasty Mythos beer to drink while we’re stuck in Kalambaka.