Fitness during extended travel

by Christina

Becoming a vagabond for a year and half means a major upset to my usual fitness regimen. Normally I run, attend a yoga class, and lift at the gym. Running and yoga are easy to take on the road, but barbell work? Not so much. All my lifting has to become body weight based. And since anything I bring with me has to be stuffed into my (currently very heavy) 65 liter backpack, I had to choose carefully.

Equipment I decided to bring with me:

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  • running shoes – for running/lifting/hiking
  • jump rope – for cardio/warm up
  • lacrosse ball – for rolling out tight and sore muscles
  • resistance band – haven’t used it yet, it may get the boot
  • yoga mat – for yoga/stretching
  • set of gymnastic rings and straps – for lifting/body weight exercises

See links below for my specific items.

I also set a goal for myself: be able to do a freestanding handstand by the end of the trip (January 2019). Handstands are also excellent exercise, and require no equipment. Both my goal and my more body weight workout have been heavily influenced by the Nerd Fitness Rings & Handstands Super Pack. It offers progressions for handstands and various ring exercises, such as muscle ups and L-sits. These workouts are excellent for travel, though the rings are admittedly on the heavier/bulkier side for backpack travel.

For my ring and body weight routine I try to find a park with a pull up bar or a tree branch where I can hang my rings, and I’m good to go. I do get a lot of people staring at me when I work out, but that’s just something I’ve got to get used to; I’m not going to have a private dedicated exercise space for a long time.

I’m still ironing out the wrinkles, but I am trying to do the following:

  • A short ~20 min morning yoga routine every day
  • An hour long yoga routine twice per week
  • A ring and body weight work out twice per week
  • Run once a week, either sprints or long run

So we’ll see how it goes! I’m sure it’s something that will evolve over the course of the trip.

Here are Amazon Associates links for the specific equipment I have shown above (or close approximations). What this means is if you buy one the items via the link here, we will get a small commission on the purchase.

  • running shoesASICS women’s Gel Fortius TR 2 training shoe
    I got these shoes for lifting because of their low profile, but discovered that I like them for running as well. As an added bonus the low profile makes them more compact. The model I have is old now, but this a newer model of what I have.
  • jump rope: Gold’s Gym 9′ speed jump rope
  • lacrosse ball: Champion Sports colored lacrosse balls
    My chiropractor gave me mine for free, and they seem to abound at CrossFit gyms, so you might be able to get one gratis if you look around.
  • resistance band: TheraBand Professional Latex Resistance Bands
    I got the blue/black set and brought only the black one with me.
  • yoga matGaiam no-slip yoga mat towel
    I’m really happy with this particular mat/towel, as I usually have trouble slipping on most mats, but I feel solid on this one. It is very thin though (I wanted it to be light and easily packable), so I have had to modify my practice to avoid things like pigeon pose which require more cushion.
  • set of gymnastic rings and straps: Titan Fitness Wood Gymnastics Rings
    Mine are PROCIRCLE wood gymnastic rings, but they don’t seem to be available on Amazon anymore, so I’ve substituted a similar pair above.

As of July 2017, these are my current routines:

Rings and body weight (~55 minutes):
Warm up: burpees alternating with jumping rope (4 rounds)
Physical therapy exercises for my tendinitis (in my butt, sad!)
Wrist stretches and handstand work
Circuit #1: Pulls ups alternating with body weight squats (4 rounds)
Circuit #2: Ring dips (supported), ring leg lifts, push ups (4 rounds)
Circuit #3: Jumping (for distance) alternating with ring incline pull ups (4 rounds)
Circuit #4: Ring incline push ups alternating with kick lunges (4 rounds)
Stretch

Short AM yoga routine (~60 minutes):
surya namaskar A – 5 repetitions
ragdoll and big toe fold – 2 repetitions

Flow sequence (both sides)
chair pose
twist in chair pose
hold twist and step back to revolved crescent
crescent
warrior 1
warrior 2
humble warrior
vinyasa
Sequence 2
wrist stretches
crow pose, vinyasa
side crow, vinyasa (both sides)
dolphin pose for 10 breaths
handstand (with wall, for now)
head stand
Final poses
happy baby
seated meditation

Long yoga routine (~60 minutes):
Surya Namaskar A – 5 repetitions

Sequence 1
rag doll
big toe fold
eagle pose
tree pose
king dancer pose
warrior 3
half moon
standing split
crescent
vinyasa
Sequence 2
three legged dog
crescent pose
side plank with extension
vinyasa
warrior 1
warrior 2
side angle
bind
bird of paradise
vinyasa
Sequence 3
wrist stretches
crow pose
vinyasa
side crow (both sides)
vinyasa
flying pigeon
child’s pose
Sequence 4
locust (x2)
bow (x2)
vinyasa
camel (x2)
vinyasa (or tripod headstand)
wheel (x2)
plow
deaf man’s pose
Sequence 5
handstand
child’s pose
forearm stand & scorpion stand
child’s pose
headstand
child’s pose
dolphin pose
child’s pose
Final poses
half-split
frog
happy baby
savanasa
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Mexico City, week 1: street food, pulque, and things to do for free

by Christina

When our bus rolled into Mexico City, early no less, we made our way down to Massiosare El Hostal, which is located at city center and situated among a bunch of shops selling various electronic elements, ranging from fiber optic cable to chandeliers. Massiosare turned out to be exactly what I think of when I imagine a hostel stay; very social with a lot of young travelers about, and we were almost immediately invited to a birthday BBQ that evening. My parents asked me if there were “any old people” staying at the hostel, to which I responded, yes, us.

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One of the first things we did was go out for street food. It is amazingly plentiful; tacos upon tacos, tortas, gorditas, huaraches, tamales, quesadillas, and it all smells delicious. You make your order, either to go or stay, then hang out while your food is prepped. Next top your food with any of a number of things the vendor might have, pickled jalapenos and onions, hot sauce, salsa, radishes, etc. In case you stay and decide to order more, you pay at the end once you’re done eating. Advice I’ve been given for those traveling from out of the country is to not dive into street food right away, but to wait a few days to acclimate (note: I am terrible at following this advice, I just travel with a course of Cipro and do what I want, your mileage may vary).

There are also tons of vendors selling other non-edible goods. Anything from cell phone covers and accessories, to business attire, purses, old coins, books, boxing gloves, cosmetics, jewelry, and yes, fidget spinners, that’s a thing here too. They’re not just set up on the sidewalks either. They are walking and carrying things, even on the metro.

We visited the Catedral Metropolitana de la Ciudad de Mexico, which is located right of the main city square Zócalo. Sadly the square is under renovation, but the cathedral is epic. Among my favorite features include a massive pipe organ (will probably attend a mass to hear it played), and the remains of one Italian martyr San Vital, who’s relics are arranged to make him look like an epic pirate. This is the patron saint of insomniacs and test takers, among others. Entrance to the cathedral is free, expect for the sacristy which is $10 MX, but we passed on that.

Right next to the cathedral is the archaeological site where the Templo Mayor was excavated after being partially dismantled, buried, and the location of it forgotten as the city was being built. You can pay to walk around inside it, but you can get a pretty good view from the periphery.

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Dan also discovered that Mexico City is home to a velodrome (track bike race course) that was built for the 1968 Olympics. It is also the site where Eddy Merckx made the world hour record in 1972, and later on Francesco Moserin in 1984. It gets confusing past that because of the changing technology of bicycles. There was a team out practicing, and we got to hang out and watch. Dan ended up talking to the coach who told him to come back on Friday and he could borrow a bike and ride a bit. Sadly, classes got canceled on Friday due to rain, so stay tuned on this one!

After the velodrome we headed over to the Cineteca Nacional, Mexico’s National movie theater, which has beautiful architecture, shops, bars, restaurants and art galleries as well as the theaters themselves. We went there for a language exchange that we found on couchsurfing, and we hung out drinking beer and chatting in English and Spanish for a few hours with some really nice folks.

Mid-week we moved out of the hostel to go stay with Hugo, who we found on couchsurfing. We walked a few kilometers west to his place in the Roma Norte neighborhood, and we all went out for tacos and drinks. He was gone for a film festival over the weekend, but we got to cook him dinner on Monday after he came back (we made spaetzle!). Hugo has some really cool plans to start traveling in November, and we look forward to hearing about his adventures. Thanks Hugo for hosting us!

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We have also been introduced to the magical beverage that is called “pulque”. This a beverage made from agave, just like mezcal and tequila, but it is an entirely different beast. It has a non-homogeneous viscous consistency and by itself (blanco) it doesn’t have much flavor, sort of a tart yogurt-y flavor, but when mixed with fruit juices (curado) such as passion fruit, guava, or melon, it takes on deliciousness of epic proportions. There are also peanut, oat and celery flavors, but if you can drink it with passion fruit, why would you bother?

So enamored are we with pulque that this past week we have managed to patronize a total of three different pulquerías (and expect more to come). The first was called Las Duelistas and was located very near to the hostel. It was packed with locals at 2 pm on Thursday. We loved the crowded festive atmosphere, the psychedelic art, and the pulque was both good and reasonably priced. Our next stop was Los Insurgentes as recommended to us by folks at our language exchange on Wednesday, but we were underwhelmed. It was a quietnand hip-chic with good pulque, but at a higher price and therefore a less favorable quality to cost ratio (free is infinite!). We still would have liked it if it was our first pulque stop, but it wasn’t as fun as Las Duelistas.

Then on Saturday night, we ended up at La Hija de Los Apaches. It so busy that there was a line to get in, and so we stood outside in the drizzle hoping it was worth it (no cover at least!). It was a much bigger space than the other pulquerías we had visited and it was paaaaaacked with early twenty somethings. It turned out that we showed up just in time to see a live ska band perform (Los Super Duppers or LSD) and they were freaking awesome. It was also the best pulque we have had so far; their passion fruit was amazing and they also had a strawberries and cream flavor which was little pricier, but super dupper delicious.

Another stop we made in city center was the Palacio Nacional. It has beautiful architecture and houses some excellent art and history exhibits, as well as some historic furnished living quarters. There’s a bit of rigamaroll getting in (wait in line, leave your ID, check your bag), but it’s free! There is also an impressive Diego Rivera mural depicting the history of Mexico.


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Over the weekend we spent some time running and sight seeing in the Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Forest), which houses a castle of the same name, and is adjacent to the Museo Nacional de Antropología (Anthropology Museum) another CDMX must-see. The park is extensive and has a lot of lovely monuments, including a lake you can paddle on. There was also a MexiJuku cosplay event going on at the Monumento a los Niños Héroes, which was a cosplay event named after Harajuku cosplay in Japan.


Which rounds out our first delightful week in Mexico City. Stay tuned for more adventures like Lucha Libre, the witch craft market, and the velodrome quest!

World Wide Medical Insurance

by Dan

Traveler’s Medical Insurance isn’t the most exciting topic. In fact, it took me months of procrastination to complete the task of buying medical insurance for our trip, then there was also a good deal of procrastination required to write this post. But I think it’s well worth cataloging my experience in case it can help someone else out.

First, a general note on travel insurance, because it comes in various flavors. Most of the plans that you find when you search ‘traveler’s insurance’ deal with trip cancellation, lost bags, theft, and things of that nature. Most of these issues were already covered by either our renter’s insurance policy that we kept for our storage unit or by the terms of our various credit cards (so long as we made flight purchases through them). And for our particular travels, we are generally flexible so delays aren’t so devastating compared to someone that is trying to catch a cruise line at a specific date.

Rather, what we really needed was traveler’s medical insurance. Primarily this is to cover catastrophic medical problems that we might encounter during the trip. That was the bare minimum. We also wanted something to cover more routine trips to the doctor in case we got sick, needed stitches, or anything like that. Now, I suspect that we may find getting medical care in the rest of the world is much easier and cheaper than in the US and therefore we may not need a comprehensive medical insurance plan.

〈rant〉

But we’ve been conditioned into thinking that we need to spend a ridiculous amount of money per month on health insurance to in order to still paying most but not all of an outrageously medical bill every time we go to the doctor. And then spend hours on the phone each month trying to explain why my bill shouldn’t be a randomly assigned decimal number. Go private healthcare system!!

〈/rant〉

Still if one of us has a kidney failure on the top of a mountain and we need to call in a medical evacuation, that’s going to cost more than we can afford no matter what the exchange rate is. Well some countries might help us out there, but that’s beside the point; we need medical insurance.

We looked at all of the commonly recommended travel insurance companies. The list was shortened because many of the suggestions only cover trips that are less than 6 months in duration. There are only a few companies out there that offer worldwide coverage for extended travels.

The first one that is commonly recommended is World Nomads. This covers all of the lost baggage/flight/theft/travel issues and also includes coverage for, as far a I can tell, only catastrophic medical issues. As two relatively young and healthy individuals, this is probably okay for our needs. The service certainly had great reviews, but the downside was the overall cost (high) and degree of coverage (low). Our quote for two individuals for one year was $2550 and I couldn’t find any info on basic medical coverage. Note that everyone else cites this insurance as a much cheaper option, usually by a factor of 2, but that’s what I got for a quote (and no the factor of two is not because there are two of us). Regardless of the cost, we are cautious people and wanted a more extensive plan and didn’t want to be paying for benefits that are already covered by our other sources of insurance.

On the other end of the insurance spectrum is the Blue Cross Blue Shield plan called GeoBlue Global Expat. This was previously called HTH (highway to health) if you are looking at older posts with recommendations on the topic. The biggest draw for selecting GeoBlue was the excellent reviews and that it is an established company. This plan provides really solid coverage. It seems like the sort of plan that you would buy for your family if you are working internationally. With the great coverage comes the most obvious drawback: price. The quote I received was $3400 for two people for a year. And that does not include coverage in the US. That’s not really a big deal for us, but it may be a point of interest for some people, because including US coverage upped the price by a factor of around 1.5-2. On top of that, the deductible was $2500 which, as a relatively healthy pair of individuals, means that we would be basically paying out of pocket for most medical procedures anyway.

A final consideration for GeoBlue is that though you need to go to in network providers to be considered for coverage. They have a concierge service to help find partnered hospitals but that still worried me for emergency medical situations. In other cases it could be a valuable service but it generally seems like a drawback. I would have been confident in the coverage provided by Blue Cross, but overall this was not the right plan for our journey.

So in the middle of the pack were the IMGlobal and Seven Corners plans. These seem to fit the bill for what we wanted. They are strictly medical insurance plans that cover major medical issues as well as less severe trips to the doctor. They are also the least expensive plans I could find; ranging from $1000-3000 for two individuals for a year depending on annual maximum and deductibles.

According to the plan brochures they look quite reasonable, but they have some really terrible reviews online. Like really terrible. Accusations that these companies will accept your monthly payment and then uniformly deny all claims. Granted the composite review score for these companies is high, but if you read through the positive reviews for any travel insurance you will see multitudes that say: ‘Didn’t have to use it, but it was worth it for the piece of mind.’ I consider that a bullshit review, because it’s basically saying that they paid someone money and received nothing. Which in the case of insurance, is good news for that person, but it’s not a helpful review! They essentially just reviewed the webform for inputting credit card information.

But if you sift through all of the reviews and look for instances where the insured tried to make a claim, you’ll see a much different picture for these two companies. The vast majority of these reviews tell very similar stories of submitting an insurance claim which usually include some combination of the following:

  • Blanket rejections due to ‘prior conditions’
  • Rejection of submitted documentation
  • Claims that documentation is insufficient
  • Insistence that communications were never received

Most of the stories tell of months of back and forth on the phone, sometimes with resolution, and sometimes not. I usually take one star reviews like these with a grain of salt. Whether they come from a genuine problem or a misunderstanding, they are often a bit exaggerated even if there is some truth in them. But in this case, the quantity of these negative reviews, the bimodal distribution of reviews, and the similarities between the negative reviews had me quite worried about these companies.

Still the companies had the best plans that fit with what we needed. The one glimmer of hope was that some of the reviews had followups from a company representative and there is evidence that, after a lot (like really a lot) of pushing, the insured is able to get reimbursed for medical claims. I was torn because I hate being on the phone with insurance companies and financial institutions (see rant). I find myself doing it far too much with our standard insurance companies. But still they were the only ones offering the type of plan that we wanted, so the final decision was between Seven Corners and IMG.

Of the two, we decided to go with Seven Corners. Specifically, we chose the Liaison Majestic Plan, which is for jobless, homeless, vagabonds like ourselves. The main reason we chose this plan over the IMG plan is that there were more responses made by company representatives to the online complaints and slightly more evidence that issues could eventually be resolved. On top of that, they had a slightly better rate and it covered few more extra things than IMG.

For example, they provided limited coverage in the US. Basically every month we earn 5 days of coverage for incidental trips to the US. While we don’t plan to be back in the US much, this will be nice for when Christina travels back for conferences, because she will retain coverage in the US. Also they had a lower coinsurance rate for US visits. That’s nice for quick trips home. And if one of us does have to return to the US for medical treatment, then that would be a pretty major deal since we wouldn’t be insured in the US otherwise. This plan also covers political evacuation, loss of baggage, and trip interruption. Those last two aren’t really necessary because of our other coverages, but the option is there.

Up until this point all of these decisions were made by looking over the plan brochures, so finally I took a look at the detailed plan coverage to make sure everything seemed square. There were plenty of conditions and stipulations that made a lot of the features less than useful. E.g., there is coverage for felonious assault (seems useful), but that just means they will increase the medical maximum allowed for death and dismemberment by what amounts to a few percent (exactly not useful).

Many of the other stipulations are very loosely worded, making them difficult to interpret. For example political evacuation doesn’t apply if there has been a travel warning issued in that country for the last six months. So does that mean if the State Department issues a warning about drug trafficking we will loose coverage for any type of political evacuation even if it’s not at all related to drug trafficking? Turns out the answer to that is yes 😦 With a list of questions like these I called up Seven Corners and was able to talk with a very friendly representative. She answered all my questions and acknowledged that the document was quite open to interpretation. The call didn’t allay my suspicions, but at least I was able to get a hold of a reasonable individual without difficulty.

So we decided that we would take our chances with Seven Corners and just expect to spend a lot of time on the phone in the event that something goes wrong.  The Seven Corners Liaison Majestic plan that we purchased for two individuals for one year came out to $1562. It could have been a bit cheaper but since it was already much less than we had budgeted for insurance, we opted to get the slightly better coverage. We got a $1M medical maximum because we think quite highly of ourselves, and a $1000 deductible, both of which were in the mid-range of the options available. If we knocked down the medical maximum and upped the deductible we could have gotten the plan under $1k for the year.

 

We elected to include the hazardous sports package for an extra ~$300. We got this, not because we plan to engage in any especially hazardous activities (skiing, biking, and surfing are all ‘regular’ sports as long as you aren’t racing or off trail), but rather because this package covered motorcycle and scooter riding as a driver or passenger. Knowing that scooter taxis in chaotic traffic systems are relatively common in certain parts of the world, and that two wheeled motorized vehicles are inherently extremely dangerous, it seemed worth the extra cost.

I’m still skeptical about whether Seven Corners will actually come through for us. So I plan to be extremely thorough with documentation in the event that anything does go wrong. I will certainly follow up with this post, for better or worse, if we do end up making any claims. But hopefully at the end of our travels I’ll be able to leave a pointless review expressing my relief for having spent $1.5k on peace of mind.

More Monterrey adventures: mountains, caves & city life

by Christina

After saying good bye to Camelina and Jesus, we went to stay with our very first couch surfing host, Veronica, who was very kind to host us for three days. She was super friendly, and we got to eat dinner with her and hang out in the evenings. One night we even cooked dinner together (pasta with veggies, potatoes, and garlic bread! Caaarbs). She works during the days, but her perrito Taquito kept us company during they day while we were at the apartment.

One night we went out to get a dish that’s super popular here in Monterrey, which is maybe called “marranitas”. This dish is composed of Tostitos, topped with several kinds of cheese, mayo, elote (corn), hot sauce, and various other toppings. It’s kind of like a Frito Pie (in New Mexico speak) or a Walking Taco (in Iowa speak). We ordered from the stand and went to eat in a nearby park. It was tasty, but I ate too much of the queso and gave myself a tummy ache. Oops O_O

While we were staying with Veronica we paid a visit to the Mexican History Museum, which has free entrance on Sundays and Tuesdays. We got to go see the very popular Miguel Ángel (Michelangelo) exhibit. Being the nerd that I am, one of my favorite parts of the exhibit was the explanation for how all the replicas were made using 3D printing and cutting techniques to layer a mix of acrylics over a high density foam.

We also took a stroll around the rest of the museum, and we really enjoyed the historieta exhibit, featuring various historic Mexican comics. Chanoc appears to prefer fighting sea creatures in the minimal to non-existent attire… fascinating. I should investigate this further… for science.

After our lovely stay with Veronica, we moved downtown to Barrio Antiguo to spend a few nights at La Casa del Barrio. It’s got an excellent location, a lovely patio area, and the staff were very friendly and helpful (including putting up with us staying in said patio for hours after we checked out, where I wrote a good chunk of this post).

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We’ve made a few interesting observations regarding kitchens now that we’ve been staying in a few different homes. It seems to be common practice to keep your kitchen sink sponge soaking in a small bowl of soapy water next to the sink, which prevents the sponge from drying out. Also, a plate cover for the microwave appears to be standard. There is also a device called a “comal” which is a rectangular metal plate, sometimes cast iron, that can either be seated on the stove or be built into the stove top, which is used for heating tortillas.

We paid a visit to Perla and Guillermo at the Universidad Autónoma Nuevo León where they were busily preparing for an outreach event on Friday in Parque Fundidora. Since they were busy we just popped by for a short visit and to take a look around campus, which was very pretty. We also got to sample the UANL Tostitos which are very popular, and served in the actual Tostitos bag (less waste! bonus!).

On Friday we set off from the hostel to climb Cerro de la Silla (Saddle Mountain), which is an iconic part of the Monterrey skyline. We got very lucky and the weather stayed cloudy for most of our hike. Half way up to the Antenna Peak (there are four peaks, and we picked the easiest one), the is a large platform with a great view of the city where we took a break and recharged.

After the platform the path got increasingly steep, and I ended needing to take breaks after every couple of switch backs. It was rough going towards the end. When we summited the peak itself was sunny, and we were situated above the clouds, which was really beautiful even though we couldn’t see the rest of the mountain. Coming down took almost as long as going up because of how tired we were, but round trip was about 5.5 hours. Not too shabby.

We also checked out this sweet cave on the way down the mountain. It wasn’t very extensive, but we there was a really cool part inside with a shaft of light shining down a vertical tunnel. Just as Dan was saying how much he would like to climb it, I noticed the grass growing on the wall moving erratically. Looking closer I realized that is wasn’t a patch a grass… but an enormous pile of spiders, hundreds, clustered together in a colony on the wall, waving their long terrifying legs at us. And then we realized there were multiple these colonies, all around us. While a taking a photo was tempting, we just got the heck out of there as fast as we could, discovering whole patches of wall also covered in spiders that we hadn’t looked at carefully on the way in. I’m getting goosebumps even as I write this days later. Euuggghhh. Nnnhhhh.

Once we got off the mountain and recovered from our brush with death in the Spider Cave of Doom, we stopped by P&G’s outreach event in Parque Fundidora. They had a bunch of optics, physics, astronomy and robotics demos out, and we got to take a look at the sun through a carefully filtered telescope. There was also a Rubik’s cube solving robot! I especially enjoyed the punny hashtag they had for the event #FísicaPato2 which translates to “Physics Duck 2” but when read quickly sounds like “Física pa’ todos” which is “Physics for Everyone”.

On Saturday we went to see the Grutas de Garcia, which are some epic caves located in the mountains about an hour drive from Monterrey. It was hard to find information online about where to go to catch a bus to the caves that wasn’t an exorbitant tour, but Perla said we should just go to Alameda Mariano Escobedo Park and ask. And as we were wandering around confused, wondering who to ask about tickets, someone approached us and among the various destinations they mentioned, Grutas de Garcia was one of them!

For anyone considering visiting, we found our bus on the south east corner of the park, and we ate before we went, which was good, because the Grutas are fairly isolated, and the food and drink there are commensurately expensive. The caves themselves were gorgeous, with a ~45 minute guided tour in Spanish. Our $MX210 each got us the round trip bus ride (1 hour each way) and the park entrance fee.

That evening we hung out watching the night life downtown and in Barrio Antiguo, which was very active. There was some great live music, lots of clubs pounding out popular songs, clowns in the Macroplaza, and for some reason fireworks? I got a hot dog from a street vendor which was prepared by slicing the dog open to insert a block of cheese before wrapping it in a slice of bacon and cooking it, then there were the usual condiments plus various liquid cheeses and jalapeños.

Aaaaaand we finally managed to get our cabritos (baby goat). We over did and went to El Rey de Cabrito, which is big fancy chain in Monterrey and it totally destroyed our budget, but it was very tasty stuff. We got tacos de cabrito and an order of pecho (chest) which was recommended as being a juicier cut (and I light painted the chandeliers, of course).

Sunday was our last day in Monterrey, an we went out with Perla and Guillermo for wings at Las Alitas, a popular wings chain. While it’s not traditional Mexican fare, it is one of their usual go to places to hang out, and the variety of hot sauces are pretty awesome.

Then P&G took us to see the Mirador del Obispado (Bishop Lookout), which is a beautiful 360 degree view of the city from a hill where there is usually an enormous Mexican flag flying (it was down due to light rain when we went). They told us that the Mexican flag is treated with a lot of gravity, more than we are used to coming from the US. For example, American flag bikinis or shirts in the US are commonplace, but these things would be totally taboo uses for the Mexican flag.

We bid farewell to Perla and Guillermo at the bus station (thank you guys so much for everything!) where we boarded overnight bus to Mexico City. We had purchased tickets on the Grupo Senda website, but our confirmation failed to give us the address for the station, which caused us some kerfuffle. We visited the central bus station the day before where we were informed our bus wold be departing from there and picked up our tickets. This bus absolutely kicked Greyhound’s butt, for realsies, and at a comparable price. It had large seats that nearly fully reclined, and touch screen TVs built into the backs of the seats. I didn’t have anything but bluetooth headphones, so I watched “Sex & The City” subtitled in Spanish, before brushing my teeth (there was not just one bathroom on the bus, but two!), and settling in for the night.

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The tour goes international: Welcome to Monterrey!

by Christina

The Greyhound bus from Austin to Monterrey turned out to be a little bit of a wild ride. Maybe Greyhound’s reputation is undeserved, I don’t know, but the last time I rode one, it hit a car on the way to Philadelphia… At any rate, when I went to print our tickets the kiosk barfed on me, and I mean barfed, it was spewing a reel of unintelligibly printed paper several meters long before someone came to stop it. As a result I didn’t get bag tags somehow, and in the ensuing flurry and confusion during boarding we were the last people onto the bus. When we had to disembark and reboard in Laredo, we finally got a seat together for the rest of the ride to Monterrey. We celebrated this with a selfie and you can tell, it was past our bedtime.

It was at the border, around 5 am, that things got more interesting. The bus driver from San Antonio onward had ceased giving any instructions in English, and while my Spanish is passable, mumblings on a bus PA system that was probably built when Lisa Frank was in vogue are hard to understand in English, let alone my second language. I was completely lost. A Mexican immigration official got on the bus and began asking people for their papers, and Dan and I dutifully got out our passports. He asked us if we had our “con permiso” and I said we did not, so he instructed us to get off the bus to get them. I thought this was a form and tried to just send Dan while my lazy butt stayed on the bus, but the official asked again if I had one, and I said no, and told me to get off the bus.

So I went and joined Dan in line outside in the small pool of light outside the immigration office, because, 5 AM! Another official came around asking for our passports, and took them from each of us in line, collecting them in a pile. I found this rather alarming since at some point in my life I was conditioned never to let myself be separated from my passport, but I didn’t know what else to do. Then our bus started to move, and I nearly had a brain aneurysm.

…pause for dramatic effect…

It’s okay. The bus was only moving a little to get out of the way of another bus. And we got our passports back along with our con permisos (visas?) after a quick trip into the office, then we were back on the bus. But for a moment there I was about to go apoplectic.

When we got into Monterrey, Perla and Guillermo were there waiting to pick us up. We were so happy to see them! Perla and Guillermo are graduate students at the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León who I know through our professional society SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics (so, more scientists who are going to scientist school!). They took us to get taco mañaneros (breakfast tacos) at Popo’s, which are very similar to the US concept of a breakfast burrito (eggs, meat, and other things in a tortilla).

We got to stay with Perla and her family for a few days, they were very kind and welcoming. We took a nap and settled in, and in the afternoon Perla’s grandma, Andrea, brought us over a dish of sliced mango, papaya, and melon with something magical: chilito en polvo. This is a seasoning for fruits that consists of chili pepper, critic acid (lime/lemon), and sugar, and it is fantastic, especially on mangoes.

In the evening we met Perla’s mom, who’s name is also Andrea, and we spent time hanging out in the living room and chatting about our trip, things to do in Monterrey, and just general goings on. Then Perla and Guillermo took us out for tacos (so many tacos, sooo happy) at Tacos Primo, a place famous for cabritos (baby goat), which is a Monterrey dish. Sadly though, they changed their menu and no more cabritos! So the quest continues to get some before we leave the city…

After sleeping in and recuperating some from the bus ride, the next day we made it out the door at 2 pm to go to the park. Yeah, Mexico at 2 pm in the summer is roasting! We did not come prepared with enough water, so by the time we were heading home we both chugged about 1.5 liters of fluid each at the convenience store in order to rehydrate ourselves.

But despite the heat we took a nice walk down Paseo Santa Lucia, which is a beautiful artificial river that runs from the Macroplaza, one of the world’s largest plazas, to Monterrey’s largest park, Parque Fundidora. The Macroplaza has many sections, with fountains, green areas, sculptures, and many museums bordering it. We even got a free visit to the Museo del Palacio, where a lot of young women were being photographed for their quinceañeras in the elegant atmosphere (we do sweet 16 in the US, they do 15 in Mexico). Also, maybe we found the White Tree of Gondor, and we’re actually in Minas Tirith. TBD.

And there was the Faro de Comercio in the Macroplaza, which got me really excited because it is, in and of itself a monument, but it also contains a laser that it uses to illuminate the nearby mountains at night. The plaque explaining it delighted me by giving trivia about the laser system (lasers being my particular area of specialty), including the fact that its cooled by a DI chiller. Love it!

After walking the length of the Paseo, we headed home to hang out with the family and have dinner with Perla and Guillermo, this time at Tacos Pilo, where we got campechanas, which are flour tacos with a mix of different meats, and very tasty. The next day we went to Parque Fundidora and went for a run before heading into the Horno 3 Museo de Acero (Oven 3 Steel Museum).

Monterrey is a very industrial city, and a big part of its history is the Fundidora, where steel (among other things) was made for many years. The Parque Fundidora is built on the grounds of the former foundry, and Horno 3 is one of the original steel ovens that was preserved when the park was built, and has been turned into a museum. We got a personalized tour of the museum from a guide named Victor. At first I thought was because we were clearly not Mexicans, but it turned out that everyone gets a guide!

We learned about the history of steel in Monterrey, and how steel is made. The oven itself has been outfitted to do a really impressive light show, and we got to peer inside of it, and look around at the city from the upper decks of the building as well. We did not partake in the terrifying looking zip lines, mostly because the weren’t open the day we went, but also expensive (for our budget, reasonable otherwise), and terrifying.

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On our last evening staying with Perla’s family, Perla and Guillermo took us out for ice cream at Helados Sultana a place every true Regiomontano (native Monterrey-an) has been. After debating long enough to exasperate the other customers in line behind us, Dan and I each got a scoop of the very Monterrey flavor of vanilla with cajeta (caramel made from goat’s milk, totally awesome) and nuéz (pecan). It was excellent!

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At the end of the week we relocated to stay with Camelina and Jesus, the parent’s of our friend Josue, who was the same year as me in scientist school in Florida. They were very kind to give us a place to stay for several nights, and it was great to get to hang out with them and get to know them better.

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We got to make our first trip to the grocery store that evening where we peered at the interesting baked goods and the candy aisle, and marveled at the cost of mangoes at ~20 pesos/kilo, or ~50 cents/lb. We picked up fixings for a salad, and ate on the patio which was lovely in the afternoon after the heat had gone.

Sunday we ventured out to see the Museo de Dulce, a suggestion from Perla, where we got to sample sweets, and learned about the history of various Mexican sweets and how they are made. It was a short thirty minute tour, but it was fully guided, and Alan was good about speaking a little slower for us so we could keep up. We made another trip to Helados Sultana, this time we got a double with a scoop of chamoy, which is chilitos en polvo flavored, and a scoop of mango. The chamoy was a little intense, but it paired really well with the mango. After that we took a rest in the Parque Fundidora, and that happily rounded out our first week in Mexico!

Many thanks to our generous hosts, who were so welcoming, and made our transition into Mexico so pleasant! Muchísimas gracias!

Adventure Time in Texas

by Christina

From New Orleans we kept moving west to Houston to catch up with our friends Frank and Louise. We know them from St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church back in Orlando, FL where I attended regularly, and where Dan and I were married. F&L left Florida to start seminary together in Austin around the same time we moved to DC. They just graduated and moved to Houston to start their tenure as curates at two different churches (a curate is like the post-doc of the divinity degree… I think?). They had been in their new digs for all of a week before we arrived, and we were super impressed at how totally ordered their home was (until we showed up, mua ha ha).

Our first day in Houston was a rest day. Dan and I stayed close to apartment while F&L ran errands. Dan is our craigslist guy, and was working on finding buyers for the car, while I worked on my NOLA post and various other writing projects. We got out to walk around the neighborhood and get a bite to eat, then hung out at the pool briefly before F&L got home, and we just relaxed in the apartment and watched Master of None.

The next day the four of us got out and about to see downtown Houston. Houston has a bike share service called B-Cycle, and we picked up some bikes near the house. We rode a bike path downtown to Frank’s Pizza, which is not owned by our Frank, but by Louise’s cousin, who is not named Frank. We got some tasty slices and enjoyed the draft beer selection, then took a walk around before hopping on some more B-Cycle bikes and heading home.

It was a very sunny and hot day, so we headed to the pool to cool off as soon as we got back. After the pool we headed to dinner at Onion Creek Cafe where we enjoyed the outdoor patio and some beers. Dan and I partook of the steak special and it was excellent. They were grilling the steaks outside in the parking lot and the whole patio area smelled delicious.

Then more pool, but of the billiard variety. Frank absolutely schooled us. Priests aren’t supposed to hustle people Frank! Jk jk. But it would be optimistic to say that Dan and I won maybe one game? After that we all turned in after our very activity filled day.

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On the way out of Houston the next day we met up with Devyn, a fellow nerd who I last saw on her visit to Washington, DC in February. We went out to Mod Pizza and had a salad of truly epic proportions and contents (oh, garlic? I know that’s for the pizza, but can I have that too? And there’s asparagus?! You’re out of brocolli? I can wait.). We hung out after lunch and grabbed a coffee (it turns out Devyn is very knowledgeable about the different methods of coffee making). Devyn is an actual published author (something yours truly aspires to), and we got to talking about our writing projects. We decided to trying being accountabilibuddies to help motivate each other in our writing (yay!).

When we got to Austin we went to stay with Jennifer, a friend we met through our running club, and we out for a run that she helped organize that evening. At Jennifer’s we actually managed to cook a proper meal at home. I think it was the first time we managed to cook dinner in a month. And yes, that is a grown man eating pasta with a spatula.

Friday was Harvey’s big day. Oh, have I mentioned that our white Volkswagen rabbit has a name, and it’s Harvey? He’s named after the movie Harvey (which is based on a play) where Jimmy Stewart has a friend that no one else can see, who happens to be a talking 6′ tall white rabbit named Harvey. And he doesn’t have the sense not to tell other people about it, so his family tries to get him committed, hi-jinks ensue, etc.

We bought Harvey shortly after we got married when my Honda Accord died (RIP Calcifer, you were taken from us too soon, but that’s a different story). Dan and I learned how to drive manual transmission with Harvey, and we brought him with us from FL to DC when we moved. So now you’ve met Harvey, and I’m going to break your heart by selling him before the end of this post. (And trust me, I’m a doctor. He’s real. Really.)

Dan had set up appointments with potential buyers for Harvey on Friday afternoon, so we got him all vacuumed, washed and gussied up before heading down to Zilker Park where we waited for folks. In total we showed the car to three potentials, one of which gave us an offer on the spot. We shook on it, making plans to sell the car to them first thing Monday morning because we had to go to the Tax Collector’s office to deal with registering a car with out of state plates.

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That night we went to hang out with Tyler, a dancing nerd that I got to do a lot of hustle and west coast swing with at CNF2016, and it was a blast, so we decided to do it again. There was live music at the Blind Pig Pub, and we rocked out on the dance floor until my feet were dead. I also got a Scooby Snack (which is a shot that tastes like candy and danger) at Buckshot before calling it a night.

The weekend involved a lot of errands and sifting, getting rid of the the last vestiges of stuff that Harvey had enabled us to haul around on our road trip, but that we really couldn’t fit in our backpacks. We met our buyer to get the car inspected, had to remove the tint on the front windows because it was too dark (boo) then went to help Tyler with a few rounds of his move (having other humans help you carry your sofa? bonus).

Sunday night we went to stay with Kat and Anthony, nerds who had offered us a place to stay sight unseen (very nice of them), and they were delightful company. We cooked dinner for them then hung out, including getting to chop water bottles in the backyard with a sword! Anthony does Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) and teaches at the Austin Historical Weapons Guild, and he showed us how to swing a sharp and pointy object! It turned out that Kat is also a scientist (yay science!), and can make some killer no-carb pancakes and brownies.

On Monday morning, first thing, it was time to say good-bye to Harvey. We met our buyers at the DMV, a very nice couple, T&K, who were buying Harvery for K’s son. He is going to get to learn to drive manual! He was very excited, and it’s great to know that Harvey is getting a happy home. We were in and out of the DMV by 8 am (shock!), and they dropped us off at Goodwill so we could make our last round of donations.

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With Harvey finally gone, and down to just our backpacks (okay, I have two backpacks and too much stuff, but that’s a story for later), it really made the trip sink in. Visiting places and people we (mostly) already knew in our car just felt like extended vacation. With the car gone, and all our belongings on our backs, there was a big sense of being anchorless which is a strange feeling.

We went to Wholefoods to get coffee and free wifi, and I stopped by Lush to pick up my last remaining travel item, a bar shampoo, which is a great product that can be purchased with a matching tin. Shout out to Abbey who was very helpful and tipped me off to the tablet-toothpaste that Lush makes!

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We hit up the public library for a bit, then did what years in Washington DC has trained us to do: we went looking for happy hour deals! The Easy Tiger had some great $3 deals on drafts and food, then we headed over to the Chupacabra Cantina where we got happy hour drinks ($2 Mexican cans, $5 margaritas) and feasted upon an Austin classic, loaded queso, in celebration of our last US meal for a while.

After that, it was the overnight greyhound from Austin, to Monterrey, MX… stay tuned!

The secret of Crystal & mayonnaise

by Dan

During my previous visit New Orleans I learned a profound life lesson, which I reaffirmed during this latest trip. This is the story of that lesson.

Before my previous visit, I did not care too much for Louisiana style hot sauce, i.e. Crystal, Tabasco, and the like. If this was the only hot sauce that was available, I would use it, but it was my last pick compared to other sauces. I thought it was too runny and had too little flavor. I also used to be ambivalent towards another Louisiana favorite, the po’boy. I used to order them in Florida when I was still veggie (but I had started eating seafood at this point), so a shrimp po’boy was sometimes the only thing that I would eat on a menu. During this time, my experience of po’boys was a whole lot of bread, then only a fraction of that volume of breaded shrimp and a scant bit of remoulade. I like saucy sandwiches so this was always a pretty disappointing experience. But eating po’boys in New Orleans changed my opinion of that forever.

In New Orleans, po’boys have vastly different proportions assigned to their components. Proportions that I appreciates about them. Compared to the volume of the bread, whatever fried seafood sits in the middle makes up a much more significant portion of the sandwich. And then the sauce! They really sauce their sandwiches in NOLA. It’s primarily a lot of mayonnaise, which may sound boring but it’s not and I’ll address that in a second. The final bit of the sandwich is the lettuce and tomato. My first thought about this was, ‘oh finally some vegetables/not-white-colored-food,’ but it’s so much more than that. It forms a lattice for the mayonnaise, giving structural integrity to the bite profile.

This is a well engineered sandwich. Still though, on paper, this doesn’t seem like my preferred way to dress a sandwich. I have recently come to a greater appreciation of mayonnaise in general, but I’m still usually skeptical of it as the only sauce on a dish. So this is where everything circles around, and the hot sauce comes back into play. Louisiana style hot sauce, especially Crystal imo, fixes wonderfully with the mayonnaise. And the lettuce/tomato lattice is there to entrap it despite how runny it is. That’s a lie though, because I pile on so much Crystal that it’s impossible to keep it from spilling out the sides. I just take this as a sign that I am eating something tasty. This is the duality of Louisiana hot sauce and po’ boys; the sauce makes the sandwich and the sandwich makes the sauce.

We had the opportunity to experience this most blessed union, this dream within a dream, while we were staying in New Orleans. It was mid afternoon, everyone was done with work and I wanted something regionally emblematic, so po’boys it was. The closest shop was closed when we started looking for lunch at 4:30, so we settled on the next closest place in Uptown, Domilise’s Po’ Boy and Bar. It was such a find. It was a small cozy little shop with wood panel walls.

 

The ladies working the kitchen and taking orders were absolutely sweet and helpful, and they punctuated every sentence with ‘baby,’ which turns out is a thing down here, but this was the first time I heard it. They reminded me of the super friendly and doting aunt or grandmother of a childhood friend. I don’t have personal experience to draw off of here, but I think I can picture a movie character like this. One of them was very intrigued by Rebecca’s sewing machine necklace and was super excited to talk crafts with her.

Between Christina, Rebecca, Berhane, and myself, we ordered a large fried catfish and a large fried oyster sandwich. Po’ boys always seem a bit expensive to me. They are usually over $15 for the seafood varieties, but seafood’s expensive all the time, and the large that was served here is definitely a double serving, even by my standards. They knew we were splitting so they offered to cut all the sandwiches up into four sections, which I really appreciated.

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We also ordered some fries. These weren’t just any fries. These were fries that came bundled with a great deal of enthusiasm from the ladies. They had a sign with a picture of the fries that they would pick up to show off their wonderful new side dish. They described how they shut down a couple years ago to renovate the place and install another fryer specifically for these fries. And they had a fry salesperson come by and show them all the different potato cuts. Throughout this conversation I realized that I like all types of fries in equal magnitude. (As an aside, I’m also very in love with the fries at Dat Dog, which is another local joint that reminds me of the hot dog version of Lazy Moon in Orlando). And there are a lot of cuts available for fries, think about it. They were pretty down on the julienned fries, but I think those also equally the best type of fried potato possible.

Ultimately they settled on this very unique curly steak fry combination. I think they made a wonderful choice. Overall, the food was everything I was hoping for. The perfect po’ boy with lettuce laced sauce dripping out the sides onto a paper plate to be scooped up with your fingers once you finish the sandwich. Oh and they had this delicious Cajun mustard. It was whole seed mustard, heavy on the vinegar, and something else that I couldn’t pin down. I would eat that with a spoon. Probably just one or two spoonfuls before I ended up with a tummy ache, but I would do it.

Then to complete our culinary tourism for the day we headed to a sno-ball place. A sno-ball is like a sno-cone or whatever regional variant used to describe ice soaked in syrup, but a sno-ball is just the most bestest version of this possible. To get our sno-balls, we walked from Domilise’s to Hansen’s Sno-bliz. My impression is that this is the funky old joint that is a local classic and subsequently quite popular as a tourist destination. And for good reason.

 

The line was out the door even though it was a grey day, and not particularly hot. The menu is strewn across multiple different changeable letter boards and posters and such. It’s a bit overwhelming to figure out what you can actually order and that’s part of the fun. But what makes a sno-ball special? The shavings of a sno-ball are much finer than a sno-cone, and more able to absorb the syrup they pile on top, resulting in super syrup concentration.

On this particular excursion, I actually ended up eating all the ice and being left with a puddle of syrup. Paradigm shift for my thoughts on shaved ice treats. But that’s not all, there are toppings! I can’t speak to anything else, but the sweetened condensed milk is delicious. I realize that sweetened condensed milk can’t go on everything and still be tasty, but the things that it does go well on (like spoons) become glorious when it’s added. I highly recommend this as an addition to a sno-ball.

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In terms of the base flavor, my favorite is egg custard… oh that makes the Chinese egg tart thing makes sense…. but they didn’t have that here. I opted for ice cream flavor. The confusing thing to me was that there were regular flavors, and then specialty flavors, which were the cream version of the regular flavor. This didn’t mean cream was added, because that was an all together different option for a topping. Presumably it was a different creamier syrup, but the one ‘cream of’ flavor that the group ordered didn’t seem that different and how is there a regular ice cream flavor and a cream of ice cream flavor? My mind was spinning in there and I’m still a bit confused, but in the end we all made wonderful flavor decisions. Flavors that the others selected were creme of peach, cucumber (I was surprised at how well this one worked), and lime/coconut/ginger. We all ordered the second smallest size because it came in a Jazz Solo cup. Good decisions.

All of these wonderfully unique New Orleans delicacies were digested while sitting on the levy watching fast moving clouds from the storm roll by, and I declared the trip a culinary success.

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