WHERE I WENT & HOW I GOT THERE

And Sometimes Why. A Traveler's How-To and Log.


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The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: A Traveler’s Review

Friends often ask me what credit cards I carry for airline mile accumulation and use abroad.  I got tired of answering their questions individually, so here it all is in a wordy blog post/credit card review:

My primary credit card for airline mile accumulation and easy use while traveling abroad (as of March 2014) is the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.

If you’re shopping around for a single credit card that gives you good functionality/flexibility for travel, this card should be on your short list.  It’s not perfect, but it’s better than most.

sapphire_preferred_card

This is the point where some people might post a photo of their pretty new credit card, which was one of the stupidest trends ever seen on Twitter and Instagram.  I am not that dude.

Also, please note that the Chase Sapphire Preferred card is different from the Chase Sapphire card (the latter offers a lower 10,000 point bonus, but carries no annual fee.  But still not necessarily a bad choice!).

WHY I SIGNED UP FOR THE CHASE SAPPHIRE PREFERRED CARD

THIS CARD CARRIES A FAIRLY HIGH SIGNING BONUS:  40,000 POINTS.

Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers a 40,000 point bonus to cardholders that spend $5,000 (US) in the first three months of membership.  I found that this was an easy total expenditure amount to hit.

Personally, I won’t consider an airline miles credit card unless it offers at least 40,000 points/miles as a signing bonus.  I’d prefer to get a 50-60k initial bonus with each card, really (and these offers do show up from time to time).

NO FOREIGN FEES.  NONE!

When I use my Chase Sapphire Preferred card abroad, I don’t get hit with any sort of per-transaction nor percentage-based fees by Chase.  It’s just like using the card domestically, at home in the USA.  No surprises.

GOOD EXCHANGE RATES ABROAD.

I recently traveled/worked in the Peruvian Amazon, and found that using my Chase Sapphire Preferred card got me better exchange rates than I received when exchanging physical currency.

Here’s how it went down:

  • When exchanging US currency for Peruvian Soles (cash for cash) in Lima and Iquitos in late 2013, I got a rate of 2.76-2.77 Soles to the dollar.
  • When I used my Chase Sapphire Preferred card for purchases, I got a rate of 2.80-2.81 Soles to the dollar.  When you consider that I wasn’t charged any sort of transaction fees or foreign fees by Chase, this is a slight advantage over using cash.  Cool, right?

I can’t speak to the exchange rates in other countries – it might be worth calling Chase before your trip to check exchange rates on the card, and/or doing a small sample purchase in whatever country you’re in to make sure transactions process at expected rates.

(By the way, NEVER exchange your money in Lima’s airport – it may be the worst rate you’ll get in all of Peru!)

1:1 POINT TRANSFERS TO MULTIPLE TRAVEL VENDORS.

No, this card doesn’t offer 1:1 transfer to all airlines – which may be a dealbreaker for persons living in major hub cities for certain airlines (for example, if I lived in Atlanta, I’d want 1:1 transfer to Delta).  But the Chase Sapphire Preferred card does offer 1:1 transfer to more than just one airline, which is useful to me.

The 1:1 transfer list, current in March of 2014:  British Airways Executive Club, Korean Air SKYPASS, Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards®, United MileagePlus®, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, Amtrak Guest Rewards®, Hyatt Gold Passport®, Priority Club® Rewards, Marriott Rewards® and The Ritz-Carlton Rewards®.

I fly United and Southwest fairly frequently so this works well for me.

QUICK ACCESS TO GOOD CUSTOMER SERVICE BY TELEPHONE.

In two years of card membership, I don’t think I’ve ever waited more than ten minutes to talk to a human when calling Chase’s customer service line for this card, and I’ve never felt like I’m navigating an endless maze of automated menus.  Let’s hope this doesn’t change.

END OF YEAR 7% POINT DIVIDEND.

This isn’t a lot to crow about in my opinion, but it’s kind of nice that Chase kicks you an extra bonus of 7% of all your points accumulated in the calendar year.

THE POINTS I EARN DON’T EXPIRE.

Self explanatory.

THINGS ABOUT THIS CREDIT CARD THAT I COULD TAKE OR LEAVE

FIRST YEAR IS FREE – BUT IT COSTS $95/YEAR FOR SUBSEQUENT YEARS.

Almost every premium credit card available gives you a free first year, then charges you annual fees.  This card is the same – $0 for your first year, and $95 for each subsequent year you hold the card.

I know some people think it’s ridiculous to pay money to use a credit card, and they’re mostly right.  But I gain ground against this $95/year when I use the card abroad (and thus receive good exchange rates / no foreign fees), and through accelerated point accumulation/retention.  For my intended usage, it balances out.

Also – I have seen conflicting pages on Chase’s website that offer the card for $95 OR $125 annually (as of March 2014).  Make sure you get the $95/year rate if you sign up!

So is it $95/year or $125/year?  (see right side of screenshot)

So is it $95/year or $125/year? (see right side of screenshot, from Chase’s website)

This screenshot that shows a $95 annual fee was taken on the same day as the above - March 23, 2014.  Confusing, no?

This screenshot from Chase’s website that shows a $95 annual fee was taken on the same day as the above – March 23, 2014. Confusing, no?

THIS IS A “CHIP AND SIGNATURE” CARD – BUT NOT A “CHIP AND PIN” (AKA “EMV”) CARD.

“Smart Chip” technology is offered on the current iteration of the Chase Sapphire Card, which means you can insert your electronically-chipped card at points of sale, then sign your name on the receipt to finalize payment.

This is different than the commonly accepted “Chip-and-PIN” method of credit card authorization in Europe – in which one inserts their electronically chipped card into a reader and enter a secret PIN number (as in, no signature).

In my opinion, this “Smart Chip” technology is only HALFWAY THERE in its functionality for travelers.  I assume that this method of authorization will be rejected by many vendors in Europe (especially automated points of sale) where a PIN is required, and signing at the end of your transaction is not possible.

Why it’s important to have a Chip-and-PIN enabled card when traveling:  some travelers have reported that their magnetic-strip-only cards have been rejected at points of sale in parts of Europe.  I definitely got some sideways looks in Finland in 2012 when I needed to swipe my magnetic strip card to issue payment at restaurants and grocery stores.  With a Chip-and-PIN credit card, I wouldn’t have had any issues.

So, this “Chip and Signature” technology is kind of a wash.  The chip makes the card look up to date, but it’s still not utilizing the system that Europe has embraced.  I wouldn’t say this is a win, but it’s better than nothing, I guess.  I’ll have to try this chip/signature system out next time I’m in Europe.

Are electronically chipped cards more secure than swipe-and-sign?  Well, yes and no.  Signatures can be forged, whereas a secret PIN can only be guessed.  But this shift isn’t necessarily all about security:  consider that the adoption of Chip and PIN technology by banks and vendors may be more about a liability shift from the credit card companies to the vendor, and in the end, to the consumer.  No free lunch here.

And to be fair:  Chase is not the only bank adopting electronically chipped cards – talk to your bank to see if your current credit card offers this security function.  I won’t travel abroad without at least one chipped card at this point!

Chase’s FAQ on Chip and PIN technology on their cards is here.

SUPPOSEDLY-DISCOUNTED TRAVEL BOOKINGS THROUGH CHASE’S WEBSITE.

Chase claims that travel bookings paid in points through its website are discounted by 20% – but I never pay retail rack rates for airfare or hotel anyway and always do exhaustive searches for the lowest rates online before booking anything.

I imagine this works in the card holder’s favor from time to time, but I’d rather just transfer my points directly into a given frequent flier or hotel program and book directly.

HOW I USE MY CHASE SAPPHIRE PREFERRED CARD:

ALL CREDIT CARD PURCHASES ABROAD.

All of ‘em.  No foreign fees and good exchange rates, remember?

AUTOMATIC PAYMENTS FOR MONTHLY UTILITIES AND SUBSCRIPTIONS.

My monthly gas, electric and internet bills, my professional subscriptions, and any other rolling charges get applied on my Chase card to help bolster airline mile accumulation.  This is quite helpful for pushing through the first $5,000 one needs to spend to get the initial 40,000 point bonus, too.

2x POINTS ON DINING/RESTAURANTS.

Chase gives you 2x points on dining – so I’m always ready to put a split lunch bill on my card when friends want to pay their portion with cash.  Sneaky!

dining on pulpo a la gallega in Nigran, Galicia, España.

dining on pulpo a la gallega in Nigran, Galicia, España.

2x POINTS ON TRAVEL EXPENDITURES.

Travel expenditures means:  airfare, cruises, hotels, taxis, train tickets, rental cars, etc.

Again, if you live in a hub city for an airline not represented in Chase’s 1:1 point transfer list, you might consider an airline-specific card for American, Delta, Lufthansa, etc.  This way you can better accumulate airline-specific points that will transfer at more significant ratios.

RENTAL CARS.

Like many other cards, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers physical damage coverage on rental cars – so you can decline the CDW (collision damage waiver) insurance at the time of rental.  CDW usually costs $25/day or more, so this is a nice little savings.

Btw, I wrote a fairly huge post about what to consider when renting a car.  Read it here.

SHOPPING THROUGH CHASE’S “ULTIMATE REWARDS” SITE TO MULTIPLY POINT ACCUMULATION.

Certain online vendors offer point multipliers of x1 to x20 when you click through Chase’s “Ultimate Rewards” site after logging into your account.  I usually experience x1-x5 points whenever I make purchases after clicking through Chase’s site.

A few of the vendors I click through to via Chase’s Ultimate Rewards (not a complete list, nope!), thus multiplying my points:

  • 123inkjets.com
  • 1-800-Contacts
  • Apple Store
  • Backcountry.com
  • BestBuy.com
  • Best Western
  • Campmor
  • Crutchfield
  • eBags.com
  • Expedia.com
  • Grainger
  • Holiday Inn
  • Holiday Inn Express
  • Intercontinental Hotels Group
  • iTunes.com
  • L.L. Bean
  • Marriott
  • Musicians Friend
  • Newegg.com
  • OfficeDepot.com
  • OfficeMax.com
  • Orbitz
  • Overstock.com
  • REI.com
  • Sierra Trading Post
  • Staples.com
  • Target.com
  • The Walking Company
  • Thrifty Car Rental
  • Tire Rack
  • Travelocity.com

I wish that B&H Photo, Adorama Photo and Amazon were represented with point multipliers, but alas, they are not.  Camera gear-sluts, take note.

IN CONCLUSION

The Chase Sapphire Preferred card has become my primary card for not only travel expenditures and usage, but also day to day purchases and online shopping.

In two years of personal use, I’ve racked up enough points/miles to fly myself to Southeast Asia (and back) a couple of times.  I’ve used it abroad at good exchange rates, and without international fees and without issue.  It’s been pretty useful/fruitful!  Customer service has been good as well.

I really don’t feel that there’s another travel credit card that’s quite as well-rounded as this one at this point and highly recommend this card to anyone that’s looking to stack points to pay for flights and avoid foreign fees.

I wouldn't mind getting back to Southeast Asia either.  Inle Lake, Myanmar (2011).

I wouldn’t mind getting back to Southeast Asia, either. Inle Lake, Myanmar (2011).

THE CHASE SAPPHIRE PREFERRED CARD IS A GREAT PRIMARY CREDIT CARD FOR YOU IF:

  • You travel by a wide variety of air carriers (as opposed to just one or two) and want to earn miles that transfer into multiple frequent flier and hotel programs.
  • You spent a reasonable chunk of your time outside of the country and need a credit card that will work well abroad with no international fees.
  • You want to take advantage of point multipliers available by shopping online through Chase’s website (Chase “Ultimate Rewards“).
  • You’re at peace with paying an annual fee of $95 (first year is free).

YOU MIGHT WANT TO CONSIDER OTHER CARDS IF:

  • You travel almost exclusively on one air carrier and would prefer to earn/spend points on only that carrier (consider proprietary credit cards from your preferred airline).
  • You want a free checked bag on each flight booked through your travel credit card (again, consider proprietary credit cards from your preferred airline).
  • You want access to airport lounges via your travel credit card (offered through some proprietary airline credit cards and pricey credit cards like the $495/year Visa BLACK card)
  • You can’t facilitate spending $5,000 on a card in the first 3 months of card membership (in order to get the 40,000 point signing bonus).

Thanks for reading!

No, I’m not paid by Chase nor any of the other vendors listed in this post (and none of my click-through links on this page put any money in my pockets either), but I am HIGHLY CORRUPTIBLE and LIKE MONEY if anyone’s listening.  I blow in the breeze like a tiny, impressionable sailboat.  Pay me.  Please.  Or don’t, and I’ll still probably end up writing 2000+ words about a CREDIT CARD (So this is my hobby?  Questionable…).


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Matt’s MASTER PACKING LIST for Flexible International Travel

I don’t pack “light”. I gave up on that a long time ago. I now pack for the greatest amount of flexibility and enjoyment possible while traveling internationally.

After ten years of independent, self-guided and self-executed travel, I have a fairly clear idea of what I need to cram in my backpack and day bag for a healthy mix of photography, blogging, hiking, beach-bumming, public-transit-riding, outright wandering/adventuring and sometimes even things like scuba diving and winter sports. It’s possible to pack for pretty much all of these things, all at once. Yep.

I built a packing list – nay – a packing INVENTORY of what I lug along for most trips these days, which you’ll find below.

My style of travel dictates my packing list. Accordingly, I keep a few key things in mind when filling my backpack:

  • I pack in order to be flexible/versatile on the road, but not so much as to encumber myself unnecessarily – thus, I must fit every bit of my travel kit into (1) full-size internal frame backpack and (1) day bag. I will only allow myself one checked bag per flight, and will keep the weight of my backpack and day bag to levels that I feel comfortable carrying each day without discomfort nor pain.
Sunset @ EWR

This flight was headed from Newark to Narita, with me on it.

  • I am a BUDGET traveler, seeking the best value and most enjoyment for my money. Accordingly, I will need to be somewhat self-reliant.
  • One should pack more or less the same for a ten-day trip as one does for a three-month trip.
  • My travels will take me to both major cities and rural places of natural beauty; subtropical regions and locales with temperatures that fall below freezing. I may find myself spending time with urbane, well-dressed people, but also on dusty roadsides in poor communities. I should pack clothing and footwear that keeps these dualities in mind.
Descending Mt. Giewont (1,895m) in the High Tatras of Southern Poland in August of 2012.

Descending Mt. Giewont (1,895m) in the High Tatras of Southern Poland in August of 2012.

A commuter train passes through the world's largest slum.  Mumbai, Maharashtra, India.

A commuter train passes through the world’s largest slum. Mumbai, Maharashtra, India.

  • I will find myself transported by airplane, train, metro, boat, taxi, autorickshaw, sometimes camel.
me, in an open boat on Rio Yarapa, in the Peruvian Amazon jungle.

me, in an open boat on Rio Yarapa, in the Peruvian Amazon jungle.

  • I will rent a room/bed at each destination (in other words, my list does NOT fully cover you for camping/trekking, much less mountaineering). Sometimes these rented rooms/beds will be in shared rooms in guesthouses and hostels.
  • I will not be doing heavy amounts of computer-based work on the road, but need to shoot high quality pictures and write/post blog entries.
  • Technology and photography items may be difficult to replace in many countries, so one should be careful to pack (and not lose) all necessary cabling, adapters and other accessories for one’s camera, phone and computer.
  • I don’t plan on carrying home a bunch of souvenirs. If I buy stuff, I’ll ship it home.

Note: I am not paid by any of the companies I reference below nor by link-throughs to merchandisers’ web pages. These are simply the products I use and enjoy, and the places from which I purchase said products.

PRIMARY BAG: INTERNAL-FRAME BACKPACK

I carry an internal frame backpack for hauling most of my luggage for my travels.

My primary backpack as of 2013/2014 is the Osprey Atmos 65 (my preview to the bag is here). This one’s a solid performer for sure – but manufacturers like Gregory, REI, Kelty and others also make great bags that are worth your consideration.

the Osprey Atmos 65 internal frame backpack.

the Osprey Atmos 65 internal frame backpack.

I use the following to keep my backpack organized:

the LL Bean Personal Organizer Toiletry Bag (medium).

the LL Bean Personal Organizer Toiletry Bag (medium).

And I always put two colorful luggage tags on the outside of my bag for easy reference by baggage handlers. If one falls off, one still remains.

DAY BAG

My day bag almost never leaves my side on my travels (I often can be found clutching it on trains and in hostel dorm beds), and I’m in and out of it hundreds-to-thousands of times per trip, so it’s gotta be the RIGHT bag for the trip and for what it will contain. Nothing is more irritating than carrying a bag that just doesn’t work for you.

On any given day, my day bag will contain a DSLR camera with 2-3 lenses, a water bottle, sunglasses, travel guidebook, maybe a rain jacket, and often snacks to get me through periods of transit or boredom. This usually weighs in at about 10-12 lbs (around 5 kg) which often feels like 100 lbs by the end of a long day.

I prefer that my day bag be somewhat inconspicuous (e.g. NOT something that immediately looks like a camera bag), low profile enough to allow me to ride crowded mass transit without too much trouble spatially or from potential thieves, allow for fairly quick access to my camera and lenses, and be at least somewhat weather resistant in case of rain.

After what felt like an ENDLESS search online and at camera shops, I have arrived at two favorite day bags for travel. I carry one or the other on each international trip:

I find that either works for a full-frame DSLR, 2-3 lenses and my miscellaneous travel supply needs.

the Lowepro Versapack 200 AW.

the Lowepro Versapack 200 AW.

the Domke J-803 digital satchel.

the Domke J-803 digital satchel.

I’ll write proper reviews of these bags at some point, but for now, we’ll leave it at that.

CRITICAL STUFF: I.D., BANK CARDS, CREDIT CARDS

  • IDENTIFICATION

    • Passport (current, with at least two blank/available visa pages and at least six months validity remaining)
    • An additional form of picture ID (Drivers License, etc)
    • Printed travel insurance card
    • Health insurance card from home country
    • Auto insurance card from home country
    • Immunization records (talk to your doctor or travel health clinic prior to departure – you may need to get vaccinated for things like Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Yellow Fever, etc. Further, the Yellow Fever vaccine is required for entry into certain countries – check the CDC’s website for destination-specific information.)
    • SCUBA diving certification card (PADI in my case, perhaps SSI or others in yours)
    • (10) passport-sized photos in case foreign visas must be issued during travel
    • (10) black/white photocopies of passport picture page in case foreign visas must be issued during travel, or hotel front desks require photocopy of passport
    • (1) black/white photocopy of all credit cards and ID, hidden in backpack.
    • (1) USB flash drive containing scans of passport, credit cards, other documents (carry USB drive on keychain)
  • BANK CARDS, CREDIT CARDS

    • (2) ATM cards linked to different banks (if one card is damaged or lost, I can still access cash)
    • (2) major credit cards linked to different banks. Preferred card types: Visa or Mastercard (American Express and Discover don’t work all that well outside the US) credit cards with Chip and PIN technology – Chip and PIN cards are reportedly more secure than regular magnetic strip cards and are preferred by vendors in many European countries. For accumulation of airline miles, I currently carry a Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa, and a Citi Platinum Select / AAdvantage World Mastercard. More on that in a subsequent post.
  • FOR CARRIAGE OF CASH, IDENTIFICATION

    • Standard wallet for most purposes, carried in my front pocket for most periods of travel so as to avoid pickpocketing. Knock on wood, I have not yet had my wallet stolen on a trip.
    • Concealable money belt for carriage of cash/ID during transit periods.
  • CASH

    • I generally carry around $100-200 cash in US Dollars or Euros to start my trip. I hide $50.00 of this somewhere in my journal or toiletry bag as an emergency cash reserve.
  • NOTABLE OMISSIONS

    • Travelers checks are useless in this day and age. Don’t bother with them anymore.

TOILETRIES / HEALTH ITEMS

  • EYEWEAR

    • Contact Lenses + cleaning case (bring more than you think you’ll need – it can be difficult to replace these on the road)
    • Prescription eyeglasses + case (if you wear glasses daily, bring a backup pair for a total of two pairs of glasses)
    • Sunglasses + case

    My Beat-Up Ray-Bans.  Nose pads stained from Holi Festival 2012 in India.

    My Beat-Up Ray-Bans. Nose pads stained from Holi Festival 2012 in India.

  • TOILETRIES – LIQUIDS

    • Shampoo (2 ounces)
    • Small bottle hand/face lotion (1-2 ounces)
    • Toothpaste (2-3 ounces)
    • Small tube of sunscreen (1-2 ounces)
    • Small bottle of heavy-duty insect repellent (2-4 ounces, usually 30% DEET, even though we can all agree that DEET is gross)
    • Small bottle of hand sanitizer (2 ounces)
    • Small bottle of concentrated laundry detergent (2 ounces) – for washing your nasty dirty clothes in the sink.
  • TOILETRIES – NON-LIQUID

    • Microfiber pack towel – large or XL size (Towels are not provided at many budget lodgings.  Also, these dry more quickly and pack smaller than conventional towels.).
    • Bar of soap (carry in a basic soap case like this one)
    • Toothbrush
    • Dental floss
    • Condoms / birth control as applicable
    • A couple of cigarette lighters. BIC brand preferred – they just work better than all the others!
    • Gold Bond (or equivalent) medicated powder
    • Lip balm / Chapstick
    • Comb or hair brush
    • Rechargeable electric razor + wall charger (almost all are dual-voltage, so no voltage adaptor is required). Alternatively: disposable razors – no power required at all!
    • Tweezers
    • Fingernail clippers
    • Earplugs (for airplanes or particularly noisy sleeping arrangements)
    • Small sewing kit for reattaching buttons, etc.
  • MEDICATION/FIRST AID

    • Small tube of Neosporin ointment (or similar)
    • A few assorted self-adhesive bandages
    • Ibuprofen
    • Melatonin tablets (non-prescription sleep aid)
    • Antacid pills / chewables
    • Nyquil / Dayquil caplets (or generic equivalent)
    • Anti-diarrhea pills (generic over-the-counter variety is fine)
    • Azithromycin or Cipro – for more serious diarrhea problems. These require a prescription – talk to your doctor or travel health clinic.
  • OPTIONAL ADDITIONAL TOILETRIES / MEDICATION

    • Specific additional medications like malaria prophylaxis (prevention) medication. Talk to your doctor or a travel medicine clinic like the Visiting Nurse Association and discuss the countries you’ll be visiting prior to departure.
    • Hair conditioner
    • Feminine hygiene products

FOOTWEAR

  • WHAT I ALWAYS BRING

    • (1 pair) high quality walking/hiking shoes. Preferred: Ecco brand. Double preferred: Gore-Tex / Waterproof.
    • (1 pair) hiking sandals. Preferred: Chacos Hipthong.

    Chacos Hipthong Two.

    Chacos Hipthong Two.

  • OPTIONAL

    • IF REGULAR EXERCISE IS EXPECTED DURING TRAVEL – add (1 pair) lightweight running or training shoes.
    • IF HEAVY HIKING / COLD WEATHER EXPECTED – trade above walking/hiking shoes for Gore Tex hiking boots.
  • NOTABLE OMISSIONS

    • I don’t carry shower sandals – I use my hiking sandals for this instead, so I’m not doubling up.
    • I almost never bring any sort of dress-up shoes unless I know I’m attending a formal event while traveling. You can always borrow or buy formal clothing on the road if formal events pop up – no reason to carry it for an entire journey if you don’t anticipate you’ll need it.

CLOTHING

  • WARM WEATHER TRAVEL

    • (3) button down shirts – light fabrics in colors/patterns that don’t easily show dirt
    • (3) t-shirts
    • (1) tank top
    • (1) high quality wool sweater (100% Merino wool preferred)
    • (1 pair) swimsuit or board shorts
    • (2 pair) shorts
    • (2 pair) long pants. I try to avoid packing two pairs of jeans – they’re heavy and they don’t dry easily in humid climates.
    • (2 pairs) standard length Merino wool socks (brands: Smartwool, REI, etc)
    • (3-4 pairs) ankle socks (Merino wool preferred, cotton if Merino wool is not available)
    • (3-4 pairs) underwear
    • (1) pair lightweight gloves or glove liners
    • (1) lightweight waterproof rain shell (can be turned into a warm/waterproof setup with the sweater layered underneath)
    • (1) lightweight hat for shade from sun (these can almost always be bought cheap on the road if you forget)
  • FOR COLD WEATHER TRAVEL, ADD THE FOLLOWING TO THE WARM WEATHER LIST

    • (1) waterproof hard shell winter jacket w/ zip-out liner (carry this instead of lightweight hardshell listed above)
    • (1) winter hat (carry this instead of above sun-shade hat)
    • (1) scarf or neck gaiter
    • (1 pair) long underwear bottoms
    • (1 pair) long underwear top
    • (1 pair) cold weather gloves (waterproof if bad weather or winter sports are expected)
  • OPTIONAL ADDITIONS FOR EXERCISE

    • (1 pair) lightweight athletic shorts
    • (1) lightweight synthetic athletic tank/shirt

MISC TRAVEL/SURVIVAL SUPPLIES

  • STANDARD MISCELLANY THAT I CARRY ON EACH TRIP:

    • Waterproof backpack cover for primary backpack (trash bag can serve as a substitute in a pinch)
    • Compass – key chain size. Great for orienting yourself to new cities when you first get off the bus/train (however, not recommended for wilderness orienteering).
    REI mini compass.

    REI mini compass.

    • An LED headlamp.
    • Flashlight – key chain size. If it’s on your key chain, you’ll always have it, and believe me, you’ll need it for dark paths/streets and late arrival at lodgings with shared rooms. For this purpose, I use/recommend the Fenix E01, which is only 2.8 inches long and lasts over 20 hours on a single AAA battery (plus, it’s under $20). If you need something bigger/brighter for a specific purpose, buy it while you’re out.
    the Fenix E01 flashlight.

    the Fenix E01 flashlight.

    • Travel-size power outlet, with 3-4 outlets. This means you can simultaneously charge multiple items in areas where outlets can sometimes be exceedingly scarce – like airports and hostel dorm rooms.
    my usual travel power strip these days.

    my usual travel power strip these days.

    • A basic rotary combination lock with metal hasp. Use this for lockers in your hostel.
    • Retractable cable lock (thin steel retractable cable for chaining your backpack up on overnight buses/trains.)
    OnGuard Terrier Lock w/ retractable cable.

    OnGuard Terrier Lock w/ retractable cable.

    • Pen knife (no need for anything larger than a 1.5″ long blade, generally)
    • A silk sleep sheet. I carry the Cocoon brand silk sleep sheet, though I rarely need to use it.
    • 20-30 ft. of nylon utility cord for use as a clothesline
    • Dry bag (super lightweight, ultra-sil dry bag – I prefer something around a 4-8 liter size. This can be used for quickly waterproofing electronics in rain or on boats).
    Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil dry sacks (various sizes pictured).

    Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil dry sacks (various sizes pictured).

    • Zip-loc plastic bags of various sizes (sandwich, quart, gallon, two-gallon. Very, very useful for a wide array of purposes).
    • A few binder clips and/or clothespins, a few zip-ties, a few rubber bands, scotch tape, maybe a bit of gaffer’s tape – all for miscellaneous use.
    • Universal electrical plug adaptor like the Universal plug adaptor (by Kikkerland), or just a simple set of plug adapters from REI. My experience is that simple plug adapters are better than complicated bulky ones that look like Swiss Army knives of plug types – the big ones tend to fall out of outlets due to their weight, and are often, accordingly, completely useless. Note that the Kikkerland adapter will NOT work for travel in England.
    REI Universal Adapter Plug Kit.

    REI Universal Adapter Plug Kit.

    • A few decent pens.
    • A couple of black permanent markers – Sharpie or equivalent.
  • OPTIONAL

    • Re-usable water bottle. For domestic travel in the USA or travel in any country where I know I can safely drink the tap water, I always carry a refillable water bottle. If the tap is no good where I’m going, I’ll leave the bottle at home and just buy water along the way.
    • Digital luggage scale. If you’re regularly pushing it on airline baggage weight restrictions, you should definitely bring one of these.
    • Laundry bag. Carry one of these if you want, but I just use plastic shopping bags acquired along the way. Works fine.
    • Personal scuba diving mask (and possibly a personal snorkel). I’ve found that rental gear from diving outfitters can really vary in quality, so carrying a personal mask from home can be a boon to your comfort, visibility and overall enjoyment when underwater.
  • NOTABLE OMISSIONS

    • Sleeping bag, sleeping pads, pillow. If you’re going to be doing a lot of camping/trekking, you might consider bringing these. If camping/trekking are only a part of your trip, you might consider buying or renting them along the way.
    • Electrical voltage adaptor. These things are heavy, and most applications don’t require them. If you want to use a hair dryer in the country you’re visiting, just buy a hair dryer when you get there – that way it’s automatically paired with the electric current standards of said country.

BOOKS

  • TRAVEL GUIDEBOOK: Rough Guide or Lonely Planet guidebook as applicable (sometimes I buy one that covers a region, sometimes I buy country-specific – it depends on the nature of the trip).
Often, guidebooks are massive and include a lot of information about places you have no plans to visit.  Solution?  Cut them up and rebind them with only the amount of information you need, so you're not carrying unnecessary bulk and weight.  Pictured:  my home surgery on Lonely Planet's India guidebook.

Often, guidebooks are massive and include a lot of information about places you have no plans to visit. Solution? Cut them up and rebind them with only the amount of information you need, so you’re not carrying unnecessary bulk and weight. Pictured: my home surgery job on Lonely Planet’s India guidebook.

  • E-BOOK: Kindle + USB-to-micro USB cable for charging (or equivalent like the Nook, iPad mini, etc). Sometimes I carry a paperback as well, but more often than not I read for pleasure on my Kindle nowadays.
  • NOTEBOOK: Small paper notebook / notepad for misc notes or journaling.
  • DIVING LOG BOOK for SCUBA diving (if diving is expected on trip. Hopefully yes!)

PHONE / MUSIC

  • WiFi-capable smartphone, unlocked for international usage (as of January 2014, I use an unlocked iPhone 4 for this purpose)
  • Two charging adapters & cables for above smartphone (one is a backup)
  • External USB-Rechargeable battery for recharging smartphone (comes in handy on long flights. Example: Anker Astro Mini 3000mAh Ultra-Compact Portable Charger
  • Earbuds. I bring two pairs because I misplace or lose them frequently.
  • Rechargeable USB speaker (preferably a small, light, inexpensive one like the iHome iHM60)
the iHome iHM60.  This thing gets used CONSTANTLY on my trips.  It's an inexpensive way to hear your music out loud, and the sound is fantastic considering its size and weight.  There's no real reason to carry anything bigger or heavier in my opinion.

the iHome iHM60. This thing gets used CONSTANTLY on my trips. It’s an inexpensive way to hear your music out loud, and the sound is fantastic considering its size and weight. There’s no real reason to carry anything bigger or heavier in my opinion.

CAMERA

This section is very me-specific and only really illustrates my style of packing for a balance of shooting photos at the quality and resolution I want during my adventures. You may not carry a camera with interchangeable lenses and accordingly almost none of this will apply to you. And whereas you might be jealous of my photos, believe me, I’m super jealous of how light your bag is in comparison to mine.

Below camera body, lenses and varying amount of accessories will all be carried in my day bag, pretty much every day. I have thoughts/dreams of building a more compact camera kit based on a Fuji or Olympus mirrorless camera system, but for now, I’m lugging the full frame Nikon without shame nor apology.

COMPUTER

Note: not everyone needs to carry a computer for their for-pleasure travel. Shared computers at guesthouses, internet cafes and hostels are sufficient resources for most. If you’re not shooting a ton of pictures or trying to keep up with a blog or work on the fly, then there’s really no reason to carry an additional piece of gear that could easily be stolen or broken. Carrying more possessions – especially expensive ones – just means more worry, liability and baggage management.

However, if you have specific needs like heavy blogging/journaling, backing up a ton of photos or video, or keeping up with work e-mails while out and about, you might be a candidate for bringing a computer on the road.

My first travel computer was a cheap MS Windows-based netbook ($300 purchase price in 2011), but I came to hate its buggy operating system and its crippled abilities that I eventually purchased a MacBook Air 11″, which does almost everything I could ask for while traveling – all in a thin and lightweight package that I don’t mind carrying along.

The MacBook Air 11″ (2013 model)’s size and weight:

    • Height: 0.11-0.68 inch (0.3-1.7 cm)
    • Width: 11.8 inches (30 cm)
    • Depth: 7.56 inches (19.2 cm)
    • Weight: 2.38 pounds (1.08 kg)

I work from the Apple platform at home, so use of a MacBook Air on the road means I can load my licenses of Microsoft Office, Adobe Lightroom & Creative Suite, and other critical pieces of software without having to repurchase them for another operating system. It’s pretty great, and helps me rationalize the additional cost of owning a MacBook Air vs. a cheaper netbook PC.

Could I carry just an iPad or equivalent tablet instead of a MacBook Air? For my purposes, no. If I’m writing on the road, I need a proper keyboard and touchpad, and for photo management, I want more onboard storage space as well as the connectivity of an actual computer (USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, etc). There are workarounds for this on the iPad, but they’re still.. just.. workarounds.

So, here’s what I carry, computer-wise, as of 2014:

  • SMALL LIGHTWEIGHT LAPTOP: Apple MacBook Air 11″ (2013 model, 256gb SSD, 4GB RAM in my case) + power adaptor.
  • ETHERNET ADAPTER FOR MACBOOK AIR: Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter – because reliable Wi-Fi isn’t guaranteed on the road, and sometimes a hardwired connection is your best bet.
  • EXTERNAL HARD DRIVE: USB 3.0-capable, bus powered (no additional power cable) hard drive. 500GB to 1TB in size, usually.
  • CARD READER: small USB 3.0 card reader
  • USB HUB: small USB 3.0 hub (the MacBook Air only has two USB ports – I regularly need more than this)
  • a couple of additional USB flash drives for sharing pictures with friends on the road, file transfers, etc.

Thanks for reading/referencing! Considering my luck, I imagine that half the hyperlinks on this page will be dead within six months – feel free to notify me if one is down, or if you have any questions about my experiences with certain products.


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TRAVEL PREP: Should I get immunized for typhoid fever via booster shot or capsules?

This week, it was time to update my travel vaccinations, including immunization for typhoid fever, so I made an appointment with my local Visiting Nurse Association (VNA), where I get all of my travel vaccinations.

How can a traveler acquire typhoid fever?  Just ask Typhoid Mary – travelers generally get typhoid fever from the food they consume.

Used by permission of the Otis Historical Archives Nat'l Museum of Health & Medicine.  Click through for original file.

Used by permission of the Otis Historical Archives Nat’l Museum of Health & Medicine. Click through for original file.

To best protect one’s self from typhoid fever in the day-to-day of international travel, abide by the following rules:

  1. Avoid tap water, and avoid ice in your drinks – unless you can confirm that it’s made from purified bottled water.
  2. Eat foods that have been thoroughly cooked (as in, not raw).
  3. Avoid raw fruits and vegetables that cannot be peeled.  Examples of things that cannot be peeled:  lettuce, grapes.  Things that can be peeled:  apples, oranges, potatoes, etc.
  4. And the hardest one for me:  the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website recommends that travelers AVOID STREET FOOD, as sanitation, handling and refrigeration methods aren’t as (potentially) stringent on the street as they are in a brick-and-mortar restaurant.  Food prep methods may be equally unsavory at your all-inclusive resort or cruise ship (especially those!) though, so don’t count on avoidance of street food as a magic bullet against potential food-borne illness.
Street food in Bangkok's Chinatown.

Street food in Bangkok’s Chinatown.

I’m not a particularly conscientious traveler in regards to the above rules – here’s what I do in response to each, with a couple of quick stories:

  1. After endless “don’t drink the water” notes from friends that have never left the country, and after two months in India, I began drinking the water that was provided to me at the table in small Indian restaurants – almost just to see what would happen to my health (though I expected that all water given to us was purified anyway).  Result:  nothing happened.  Could it have?  Maybe.  But it didn’t.  Would I drink tap water in most countries?  Oh god no – bottled and purified only.
  2. Raw foods?  This one doesn’t pose too much of a problem.  Steak tartare and sushi don’t exactly appeal to me when traveling in developing nations (although, ceviche always does… but technically that’s been cooked via the lime juice, right?  I hope so…).
  3. Well, this is a good rule to follow, period.  The primary, major reason why I end up on the toilet is eating fruit that hasn’t been peeled.  I made this mistake in Mexico in 2008 and haven’t since.
  4. I cannot abide by rule #4, no sir.  Street food is one of my favorite things about travel – for the adventure, the taste, and the price.  I will continue to eat street food, health be damned.
The best restaurant name in all of India?

The best restaurant name in all of India? Havelock Island, Andaman Islands, India.

The most confusing restaurant name anywhere?  Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India.

The most confusing restaurant name anywhere? Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India.

Ok, so I clearly fail the CDC’s test for how to avoid typhoid fever.  That means I need to be IMMUNIZED against it.  These days, there are competing ideas floating around about whether or not to get vaccinated or not.  My take on things? I get vaccinated for any , because getting sick sucks, and it especially sucks in a foreign country when you’re traveling alone.  I’ve been sick abroad (though nowhere near as badly as some of my friends and colleagues) and I want to avoid it because it’s a painful, miserable, expensive WASTE OF MY TRAVEL TIME.  So I get vaccinated against any disease I believe to be a threat, period.

I’m quite up to date on my recommended travel vaccinations, but I stop short of ordering every vaccination on the menu when I stop in to the Visiting Nurse Association.  Examples:  Japanese encephalitis and rabies immunizations are prohibitively expensive, and I doubt I’ll never need to be covered against them.  In my experience, I find that some medical providers may offer more fear-based, ass-covering immunization tactics than proper advice, and can inadvertently bully junior travelers into shelling out considerable amounts of cash for expensive and (usually) unnecessary rabies immunizations (for example).  Think things through on your own and talk to other travelers if you feel your medical provider is pushing you towards excessive, needless vaccinations.

Also, don’t take my bloggy-little word as law on anything related to medicine and health care – I don’t have a degree remotely related to this topic – I’m simply an end user of travel immunizations with an according love of storytelling.

There are two methods by which to be immunized for typhoid:

  • TYPHOID BOOSTER SHOT:  One-time shot in the arm.  Lasts for two years.  $90.00.
  • TYPHOID CAPSULES:  Four pills to take over the course of seven days, with a few caveats.  Lasts five years.  $80.00.

Seems like an obvious choice, no?  Well, not for me.

Two years ago (2011), before travel in Southeast Asia, I took the easy route and got the booster shot.  One and done (allowing for two weeks before international travel, so the vaccine takes effect).  Now, as I plan travel in Central and South America, I’m trying to play a little longer game with my vaccinations – so I went for the pills.

FOR WHICH COUNTRIES DOES ONE NEED TO BE VACCINATED FOR TYPHOID FEVER?  THE CDC WEBSITE KNOWS:

Typhoid fever is common in most parts of the world except in industrialized regions such as the United States, Canada, western Europe, Australia, and Japan. Therefore, if you are traveling to the developing world, you should consider taking precautions. Over the past 10 years, travelers from the United States to Asia, Africa, and Latin America have been especially at risk.

I got the pills from the VNA – specific type is noted as VIVOTIF TYPHOID VACCINE LIVE ORAL Ty21a.  What you get is four pills that must be taken orally every other day, at least 1-2 weeks prior to travel.  The rules of engagement are as follows:

  • The pills have to be refrigerated at all times, between temperatures of 35.6-46.4 F (2-8 C).
  • Capsules must be taken one hour before eating or two hours after eating, with a full glass of water
  • After taking a capsule, one must wait at least two hours before eating or drinking any milk, protein or alcohol products.
  • Don’t take your typhoid capsules with oral antibiotics.

I really thought the pills were going to be easy, but in fact they haven’t been for me.  Any woman on birth control is probably scoffing at this already – so maybe this is more of a tale of empathy (and potential failure) than a how-to.

PILL #1 of 4

The first day was easy.  I popped pill #1 long after dinner on the day I picked them up from the VNA, with a room temperature glass of water.  Look at me, I’m such a responsible adult!

PILL #2 of 4

Pill two of four gave me a little more trouble.  At the time of taking pill #1, I had been visiting my parents in another part of town (30 miles from my apartment) and when I left their place, I left my typhoid vaccination pills behind in their refrigerator – because really, who could have expected me to look in the refrigerator on the way out the door?  I returned to my apartment in the city, pill-free.  This resulted in an unintended 60-mile round-trip drive the following day in order to retrieve my sensitive little pills.  Oy.

If you need to remember to bring something with you that’s in the fridge, leave your car keys in the fridge with the item.  That way it’s impossible to leave without said refrigerated item.  This tip, courtesy of film sound mixers that have to unplug refrigerators/compressors on location film shoots and remember to plug them back in after camera wrap.

I picked the capsules up, crammed them into a small cooler with half-moon-shaped ice cubes from my parents freezer, and returned to the city once more.  Back on track?  Almost, but NO.

The day I was due for my second pill, I wound up going out for a single beer with a buddy, which turned into cocktails, which somehow built into an extended insane night of watching people curse at each other over a foosball table, and awkwardly dancing to a horrible corn-fed cover band playing impassioned covers of “classics” like Alice In Chains’ “Man in the Box” at one of the grimier bars across the river from St Louis (Missouri), in East St Louis (Illinois), where drinking pretty much goes on as long as you want it to (as opposed to the 3:00 AM stoppage of all alcohol sales on the Missouri side).

We left said bar – Pop’s Annex – where prior I’ve seen GWAR play Halloween shows (and I think some of their “blood” is still on the floor – everything just feels sticky here), at about 6:00 AM.  The glaring, shameful sun illuminated the unpaved parking lots of Sauget, Illinois as we climbed back into the car, groaning.  At our low for the night, we listened to A Tribe Called Quest’s 1992 classic album The Low End Theory on the way home.

So when the hell was I going to take this stupid pill?  At 6:30 AM.  AND I REMEMBERED TO DO SO.  But I had been drinking that night, right?  So did pill two even TAKE?  I have NO IDEA!

After taking pill two that morning, I got forgetful, and left my typhoid capsules on the kitchen counter, UNREFRIGERATED, for about half an hour.  Awesome.  Great job everybody.  Awesome.  Idiot.

Give yourself a drunken round of applause, moron!  Me, drunk in LA, in 2007, with a dog named Peck.  Photo courtesy of Angela -  click through for her Flickr photostream.

Give yourself a drunken round of applause, moron! Me, drunk and brain dead in LA, in 2007, with a dog named Peck. Photo courtesy of Angela – click through for her Flickr photostream.

PILL #3 of 4

Weekends only last so long, so pill three on Sunday night was a lot easier.  Plus, I was feeling shamed about pill two, so I did the right thing for pill three.  Proper timing with food, glass of water, blah blah.

PILL #4 of 4

I haven’t taken this one yet – that’s tomorrow.  And pill four will be more interesting than three.  I’m going to see the band Chairlift that night and will probably have another couple-few drinks.  At this point, I’m probably screwed anyway thanks to my poor performance on pill #2, so I might as well just do whatever I feel.  HOW BAD CAN TYPHOID FEVER BE ANYWAY?  Take it away, CDC website!

Persons with typhoid fever usually have a sustained fever as high as 103° to 104° F (39° to 40° C). They may also feel weak, or have stomach pains, headache, or loss of appetite. In some cases, patients have a rash of flat, rose-colored spots. The only way to know for sure if an illness is typhoid fever is to have samples of stool or blood tested for the presence of Salmonella Typhi.

Sounds awesome, can’t wait!

SO SHOULD I IMMUNIZE AGAINST TYPHOID WITH THE BOOSTER SHOT, OR THE CAPSULES, MATT?

  • If you are a forgetful, beer-swilling freelancer between gigs with a weird sleep schedule (and possibly no refrigerator) and no penchant for taking regularly scheduled medication, you should consider getting vaccinated for typhoid fever by booster shot.  It’s just easier and you won’t screw it up.
  • If you are a lactose-intolerant, teetotalling clock-winder (or just a normal person that can stick to a schedule and can put a little brain space aside for regularly scheduled medication), do the pills.  They’re cheaper from the get-go and immunization lasts 2.5x as long as the shot.  It’s really the way to go if you have a modicum of self-discipline.

Thanks for reading!


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MEXICO CITY 2012, Parte Tres: Touristing HARD in El Centro Historico

Sometimes playing “TOURIST” with a capital T can be a taxing exercise for those that think of prefer to think of themselves (ourselves?) more as “travelers”, and accordingly, a full day of gritting one’s teeth and patronizing the obvious major touristic points of interest in a major city can be like taking unwanted, bad tasting medicine.

I like to take my medicine first and relax on the subsequent days of my trip.  So I set out for the Mexico City’s Centro Historico to cover the places that absolutely everybody visits.  Strap on your fanny packs, things are about to get touristy.

I’ll refer to Mexico City as “DF” for the remainder of the post, which stands for “Distrito Federal” and is pronounced in (American English) phonetics as “day-effay”.

Good news:  a day spent in the Centro Historico is a good day.  Sites are in easy proximity of one another but wildly varied, and feature as much art or history as you want to focus on.  Here, the city reflects as much of its Aztec/Spanish/MEXICAN past (and present) as it does anywhere else, and you can see and feel it.  Outside the sites, the streets are lively and food is available at whatever budget you’re on.  In other words, it’s not a complete tourist Disneyland like Manhattan’s Times Square, and it isn’t a corporate trap.  No sir/ma’am.  And gracias a dios for that.

Seeking out the top-listed sites of any popular city can require a deep breath, especially with a few prior negative experiences under your belt.  In my case, these come to mind:

The Uffizi Gallery in Firenze, Italy is an AMAZING showcase of artwork, but the crowds can be unbelievably annoying/distracting. I visited in 2006 and recall more the feeling of irritation at the massive Japanese tour groups than enlightenment from Renaissance masters. Sigh.

The Uffizi Gallery in Firenze, Italy is an AMAZING showcase of artwork, but the crowds can be unbelievably annoying/distracting. I visited in 2006 and recall more the feeling of irritation at the massive Japanese tour groups (namely the click-clack of Japanese women’s heels on the marble floors – who travels in stilettos?) than enlightenment from Renaissance masters. Sigh.

Visiting the city of Agra (the home of the Taj Mahal) is an exercise in patience and frustration.  I've been there twice and still hate it, largely due to the willingness of many local vendors (especially transport operators) to cheat ignorant fly-by-night travelers, who are quickly parted with their money.  This kind of "tourist price" economy is most evident at the Taj itself, where foreign tourist admission runs 750 Rupees vs. the 20 that Indian nationals pay. That's a factor of 37.5x.  This kind of markup is offensive - even IF 750 Rupees is only about $12.50 US.  This kind of pricing goes on all over India, but in Agra it's the rule rather than the exception.

So you say you want to see the Taj Mahal? Well, even though the iridescent white marble of the tomb is quite attractive, the town it’s in isn’t. The city of Agra can be an exercise in patience and frustration, even in India where inconvenience is often the norm. I’ve been there twice and still hate it, largely due to the willingness of many local vendors (especially transport operators) to cheat ignorant fly-by-night travelers, who are quickly parted with their money. This kind of “tourist price” economy is most evident at the Taj itself, where foreign tourist admission runs 750 Rupees vs. the 20 that Indian nationals pay. That’s a factor of 37.5x. This kind of markup is offensive – even IF 750 Rupees is only about $12.50 US.

For posts on my visits to Agra, click here for the first attempt, here for the second.

The below was my route, and I believe this to be a REALISTIC itinerary for a relatively long day in the city center.  From the time of arrival in the Centro to the time of departure, I spent approximately eleven hours on the below itinerary – and this included a lot of photography, which tends to slow me down a bit.

  • Begin at the massive central square of DF – the Zócalo.
  • Explore the ancient pre-Columbian high temple of the Aztecs, the Templo Mayor, and save some time for the well-designed and very interesting Museo del Templo Mayor.
  • Make a stop into Mexico City’s Cathedral, bordering the Zocalo to the immediate north.  For an additional fee, climb to the roof for an overhead view of the square.
  • View Diego Rivera’s massive murals depicting Mexican history, and take in a free art exhibition at the Palacio Nacional
  • Time allowing, take a short metro ride from the Zócalo to Palacio de Bellas Artes to binge even harder on fine art.
  • End the day at Plaza Garibaldi, the lively beating heart of mariachi music in DF.
  • Oh, and eat something and give yourself requisite breaks.  A schedule like this requires a lot of time on one’s feet!

After breakfast at my hostel, I hopped the metro from my the Patriotismo metro station in La Condesa (the subject of the previous post) and set coordinates for the Zócalo metro stop, situated on the blue line.  This required only one change.

mexico-city-metro-subway-map

FIRST STOP:  El Zócalo.

Zócalo, translated from Spanish to English, means “base”, which refers to a never-completed monument to Mexican independence that was to be erected on the square.  Only the base was ever built, which has long since been removed.   The name Zócalo lives on in common usage (and on metro signage) regardless of the official name of the space, Plaza de la Constitución.

MXF_5451-WIWblog

The Zócalo was covered in white tents at the time of visiting, which housed a book fair of sorts. Friends related that these temporary structures were put in place primarily in an effort to displace public protests. Public protest still went on, though – just around the streets of the square instead of in its center.

This massive public gathering space, at 240m x 240m, has been the center of DF since its Mexica/Aztec beginnings when the city went by another name – Tenochtitlan.

Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan Cortés, captured Tenochtitlan in 1521 and razed the Aztec temple and structures surrounding the Zócalo to the ground, re-purposing the stones to pave the square and build the massive Cathedral.  If you look closely at the buildings surrounding the Zócalo, you’ll find that certain cornerstones of colonial buildings still contain Aztec carvings.

MXF_5084-WIWblog

Mexico City Cathedral

The conquistadors did a fairly good job of trying to destroy and erase the unfamiliar culture they encountered – such a good job, in fact, that the location of the high temple of Tenochtitlan, or Templo Mayor, was unknown until the early 20th century – even though the temple lay to the immediate northeast of the square, almost begging to be unearthed and explored.

Even after early archeological finds in the 1920s and 1930s, concentrated excavation/conservation efforts weren’t made until decades later.  In 1978, Mexico City’s electric company was digging in on the temple grounds and made a major find that would inspire renewed public interest in the temple.

Proper, concentrated excavation and conservation efforts of the area didn’t begin until 1978 when the electric company was excavating through the area.  Their first major find:

Here's what they found:  a 3.2m diameter relief of Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess, dating to the end of the 15th century.

3.25m diameter relief of Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess, dating to the end of the 15th century.  It’s amazing that something like this could lay undiscovered for so long!

For the next four years, serious archeological activity went on at the site, uncovering the temple grounds themselves, measured at around 4,000 square meters and centered on the high temple itself with a platform size of 80m x 100m.  Thousands of artifacts were also found and are now housed in the Templo Mayor museum, located on the temple grounds.  Conservation and excavation activity is ongoing.

SECOND STOP:  Templo Mayor.

Admission to Templo Mayor grounds and museum (inclusive) was 57 Pesos in October 2012, not including the optional audio guide.  Admission is free to students, teachers, children under 13, senior citizens, and is free to all on Sundays.

MXF_5469-WIWblog

Pardon the slightly confusing image – this was the the best I could do at the time for an overhead view of Templo Mayor (middle left, with select bits under large green awnings).

The exterior of the temple is interesting (but quite difficult to photograph in an interesting way, especially in harsh midday sun), but the museum itself is fantastic.  The space is well organized for the visitor, and the exhibits artfully lit, making for a really enjoyable experience.  Don’t skip the museum, it’s a highlight.

MXF_5192-WIWblog

MXF_5168-WIWblog

relief of Tlaltecuhtli, deity of the EarthMXF_5154-WIWblog

If you get the feeling that Aztec art is a bit death-obsessed, your feeling is correct.  Before settling in cities like Tenochtitlan, the Mexica/Aztec were nomadic warriors, and strong themes of this warlike culture comes through in their art.  Comparatively, Mayan art appears a bit more mystical, more complex in themes.

On the square between Templo Mayor and the Zócalo, you’ll find street performers engaging in what are purported to be “ancient Aztec rituals” involving dance, music and blessings with herbs and incense.  Rumor has it that these performances have little if any basis in real Aztec traditions.  Probably about as authentic as the unlicensed (and now, WANTED) Spidermen on Hollywood Boulevard.

After Templo Mayor, I still had much touristing to do, so I ate lunch quickly, on the street.  About 30 Pesos got me three tacos and a Coca-Cola (made with cane sugar instead of the requisite corn syrup in the American version, yay!), and kept moving.

THIRD STOP:  Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral.

Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María is free to enter, and it’s massive (110m x 54.5m), quite old (construction began in 1573), important (it’s the home of the Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico) and ornate.  But I didn’t and don’t really care about such things – the most interesting things about Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María to me, are:

  • The fact that this gargantuan Catholic edifice was built from the stones of an Aztec high temple (as previously stated).  With such a mixed past, it feels a bit like the Hagia Sofia of Mexico, no?  No?  Maybe it’s just me.
  • The strange idea that this huge, heavy building, like many others in DF, is in danger of sinking into the spongy, unreliable soil of Mexico City.  Structural reinforcement took place in the 1990s and the building was removed from the “endangered building” list in the year 2000.  Knowing this gives the place a sense of urgency, in my opinion, as it may not last forever!

MXF_5079-WIWblog

Related relics, patron saints, religious services – I’ll leave those to someone else to admire/discuss.  The reason I entered this church was for the view of the Zócalo from above.  Short guided tours, conducted in Spanish, take you to the roof and bell towers of the Cathedral.  Note:  A considerably higher viewpoint of DF can be had from Torre Latinoamericana‘s 44th floor observation deck for a fee of something like 60 Pesos.

I was the only non-Spanish speaker on my tour, but the guide was kind enough to whisper bits of broken English information about the bells and related towers between her bigger job of educating the Mexican majority.  Bullet points:  there are 25 bells in the cathedral’s towers, the largest weighing in at 13,000 kg.

Couples on the tour spent most of their time kissing on the roofs of the buildings instead of marveling at bells.  There’s a lot of this type of unabashed P.D.A. going on throughout Mexico City, and I’m all for it.  Have fun and enjoy one another, people!

kissin' on top of the church (sung in my head in Brandy's voice as "sittin' on top of the world".  Dated enough reference for you?  WHO CARES.)

kissin’ on top of the church (sung in my head in Brandy’s voice as “sittin’ on top of the world“. Dated enough reference for you? WHO CARES.)

FOURTH STOP:  Palacio Nacional.

The front of the Palacio Nacional is over 200m long, and covers the entire east side of the Zócalo.  Can’t miss it – though the tourist entrance almost looks like a place you’re not supposed to enter.  There were no inviting directional signs, and two guards standing out front – kind of a weird setup.  After failed attempts to enter the grounds from the north and south (I walked around the entirety of the building like an idiot, to be honest), I finally approached from the Zócalo side and was admitted (free).  Sheesh.

MXF_5826-WIWblog

the front of Palacio Nacional by night.

Today, the Palacio Nacional is the seat of Mexican federal power, currently housing working offices of the Federal Treasury, Finance Ministry and National Archives.  The fountains and arcaded courtyards are distinctly of Spanish style, but like the Cathedral, these buildings are built of Aztec stones from what was Aztec ruler Moctezuma II’s palace complex.  Mixed history, mixed media.

MXF_5244-WIWblog

The central fountain of the main patio in Palacio Nacional.

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The view from inside a sculpture on Palacio Nacional’s grounds.

The primary reason tourists visit the Palacio Nacional is to see Diego Rivera’s massive mural “The Epic of the Mexican People” which depicts Mexican history from 1521 to 1930.  Eleven additional Rivera murals can be seen on the middle floor of the main patio.

Diego Rivera mural depicting Mexican history from 1521 to 1930.

the Rivera mural you seek.

A highlight of my visit: a free public art gallery can be accessed on the middle floor, near Rivera’s mural.  I found the collection here quite well curated with a playful balance of media, subject and color and ended up staying longer than I would have expected.  Only paintings are shown below, but interesting and pleasing sculpture was also featured in the exhibit.

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El Arbol de los Insectos by Sergio Hernandez. (no rights claimed whatsoever on this or any pictured artwork – just expressing appreciation!)

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Bestseller (The Beast Must Die) by Miguel Calderon.

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Lobos by Fernanda Brunet.

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Retrato de Boda by Nahum B. Zenil.

 FIFTH ATTEMPTED STOP (thwarted):  Palacio de Bellas Artes.

From the Palacio Nacional, I walked westward, to the Palacio de Bellas Artes for more art, but it had closed by the time I arrived.  The blue line of the metro would have been a better option for transit from the Zócalo to Bellas Artes in retrospect.  But with an affinity for street photography and the sun coming in at a nice angle, I ended up making a go at making my own art instead.  Just as well – there’s a definite threshold for how many galleries and/or museums one can take in in a single day.  A bit of street photo on from my walk:

Dual squint'n'sneer.  Mexico City.

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Bellas Artes to the right, Palacio de Correos de Mexico (“Postal Palace”) on left, Torre Latinoamerica deep left.

FIFTH STOP (actual):  Plaza Garibaldi.

About six blocks north of Bellas Artes is a not-to-be-missed living cultural institution of Mexico DF – Plaza Garibaldi, where mariachi, norteños and jarocho gather every day to play, and where, for negotiable prices, you can solicit a band of minstrels to play your favorite romantic or tragic song, or maybe even one that’s both romantic and tragic (how can you really have one without the other anyway?  I haven’t figured that out just yet.).  Garibaldi is quite a scene on weekends and weekdays alike – a random Tuesday or Thursday still yields a good turnout, though weekends are even busier.

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Norteños assembling at Garibaldi early in the evening.

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Some of the larger mariachi bands had around eight to ten members.

A loquacious band leader approached me and offered to gather his guys to play me a song, and I couldn’t turn him down.  They played me something that was “very romantic” according to him, though I couldn’t have told you – my Spanish is still elementary enough that he could have been scatting about something else entirely, like how Spaghettios are far and away the worst “food” on the planet, which they are.  Have you tasted that horrible nightmare shit lately?  Don’t.  And don’t get lazy and feed it to your kids either, it should be considered a low-level form of abuse.

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quite the showman.

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and happily so.

Garibaldi isn’t quite an all-ages destination just yet – the square has a rough image and a history of public drunkenness, fighting and robbery.  Mexico City police have a heavy presence on Garibaldi proper to mitigate nasty behavior, but it’s still a place known as much for its bad reputation as for its music.  Exercise caution here – avoid flashing cash or valuables, and know your onward transit method for when you decide to leave (and what time the metro stops running if that’s part of your escape plan).  The areas surrounding Garibaldi aren’t great places to get lost in on a few shots of mezcal.

DINNER TIME:  Hosteria de Santo Domingo.

I closed my day out Hostería de Santo Domingo, which my Lonely Planet Mexico guide noted as “the oldest restaurant in Mexico City.”  I ordered one of the specials of the house – chile en nogada, and despite being incredibly hungry from the long day, still barely finished the monstrous calorie-ridden dish.

Chile en nogada, a dish from the nearby city of Puebla, consists of a poblano chile stuffed with shredded meat, covered in a walnut-based cream sauce and topped with pomegranate seeds and a sprig of parsley – this gives all the colors of the Mexican flag (white, red and green).

I honestly never need to see nor eat this food item again, but if you must, I recommend splitting one with a friend instead of toughing it out the way I did.  Splitting food is one of the best things about traveling with a buddy, anyway!

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chile en nogada.

The service at Hostería de Santo Domingo was pleasant and professional, and dinner entertainment was provided by a man on a slightly out-of-tune piano and a woman singing along.  This place has character.  Prices are a little higher than I experienced at other eateries in DF, but costs weren’t runaways either.

A noisy DIY construction project changed the atmosphere from goofily pleasant and relaxed to confusingly caustic.  For some reason, workers decided to begin BREAKING CONCRETE a stone’s throw away from the dining room during business hours.  The service staff still wanted to maintain a professional appearance regardless, so they held a white tablecloth taut in front of the workers to block the visual.  The jarring ring of hammer on concrete didn’t respect its cloth barricade.  Logic had died for the night.

Time to go home.  I walked back to the Zócalo on quiet night streets (keeping to well lit areas) and headed for the metro for return transit to my lodgings in the La Condesa neighborhood.  Sleeeeeeep.

descent into the Zocalo metro station at 10:31 PM.

Whew!  The next day in DF would prove equally eventful:

  • A meeting via Couchsurfing with my first local DF friend, Fernando
  • A visit to Mexico City’s massive public park, Bosque de Chapultepec, and the interesting Museo de Anthropologia
  • Lucha Libre!  (masked Mexican wrestling with all the melodrama and theatrics you’d expect!)
  • Another night’s end at Plaza Garibaldi, complete with drowned scorpions in my mezcal.

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MEXICO CITY 2012, Parte Dos: Condesa & Couchsurfing

I arrived in Mexico City in the afternoon of October 24th, 2̶0̶1̶3̶ 2012 and proceeded to my hostel for the duration of my stay:  Hostal La Buena Vida, in the hip neighborhood of La Condesa, about 4-5 km southeast of the main tourist district of Mexico City (the Centro Historico).

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Mexico City map courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  This thing makes Mexico City almost look small.  Hah!

I always pre-book my first 2-3 nights of lodgings on a trip, just so I have somewhere to go and drop my backpack upon arrival, and so I don’t have to move said backpack for the first couple of nights.  This is most important when jet lag is an issue and you need a bit of time to acclimate (not applicable in this case).

My primary criteria for picking a place to stay in a city I’ve never been to nor seen:

I don’t want to stay in a party hostel ever again if I can help it.  I’m not an old fuddy-duddy, but beer bongs and pub crawls with vapid, horny 20-year-olds make me want to puke in more ways than alcohol ever could.  I’d prefer to meet travelers a little closer to my age range and experience level, then get drunk with them and act like a 20-year-old.  See the difference?  Disclosure:  the author is 32 years old.

Yeeeeah bro.  Tallinn, Estonia.

Yeeeeah bro. A rough night at a party hostel in Tallinn, Estonia in August, 2012.

I want to be close to the action, but I don’t want to stay directly IN it (unless we’re talking about a big festival atmosphere like Carnevale, Dia de los Muertos, or Holi, of course!) unless my time is severely limited in that city.  Multiple reasons for this:

1.  For some inexplicable reason, the food is always both the worst and most expensive in the tourist area in almost every city on planet earth.

2.  In the tourist district, service personnel and locals are tired of dealing with an ever-rotating impermanent flock of tourists, so you’ll almost never connect on a meaningful level.  Why would anyone extend their hand in friendship or camaraderie?  You’ll just leave them like the rest did, boo hoo!

3.  Tourist zones are often noisy places, which can affect your quality of sleep.  Then again, lodgings in any part of a busy city might have thin walls or windows that don’t close.  Read reviews before you book – most negative reviews will mention noise level if it’s a problem.  Oh, and bring earplugs along for any trip!

4.  Pickpockets, touts and scammers target tourists, and tourists stay in the tourist zone, so the jerks do too.

5.  Sometimes staying a little ways outside of the center means a better nightly rate, better value, or both.  Not always, but often.  Depends on the country you’re in.

Here’s how I pick my first place to stay, in research and execution:

1.  Buy a guidebook for the country/city you’re visiting, and review the map for lodgings as they relate to the activities you’d like to pursue.  Most big cities have multiple districts that you can stay in, each with their own benefits and drawbacks, from price to accessibility.  Pick an AREA that would serve your needs best, so you can start narrowing your search.  My guidebook in this case was Lonely Planet Mexico, which did a nice job of delineating the different neighborhoods in Mexico City where a traveler might want to stay.  My top contenders were:  Centro Historico, Colonia Roma, Zona Rosa, La Condesa.

2.  Investigate possible lodging options in the area you’ve selected.  If a particular property looks good, note it, and double check current reviews on sites like the following:  Tripadvisor.com, Hostelbookers.com, Hostels.com.  Sometimes the guidebook’s writeup and the online reviews conflict; sometimes the negative online reviews are worth taking with a grain of salt.  Then again, sometimes you find an immediate winner.  Cross-referencing can take a bit of time.

3.  If you fall in love with a particular place to stay, e-mail them straightaway and ask about availability – most places listed in the guidebook or on the internet will have a command of English (and often additional languages) and will be able to tell you what you need to know.  There’s no harm in getting this done early on, but be mindful of stringent cancellation policies if you have to put a credit card down.  Also, I prefer to only book 2-3 nights just in case my travel plans change or the property is considerably worse than expected.

4.  If NOTHING looks good or if everything is unavailable, start over with a different property or a area of town in mind and repeat.  If you come up completely dry on all your picks, start lowering your expectations or raising your budget.  And at some point, be willing to just pull the trigger on whatever’s available… or be willing to fly by the seat of your pants upon arrival and investigate lodgings in person upon arrival.  Don’t discount the latter option – it’s my usual way of booking rooms while I travel and generally works pretty well, provided that you’re willing to haul your heavy pack around while you get repeatedly turned away from lodgings like a modern Mary and/or Joseph.

Hostal la Buena Vida was spotless and well thought out – head and shoulders above the quality/value of a lot of hostels at which I’ve stayed.  Prices at in October 2012 were a little over $20/night for an 8-bed dormitory.  The staff was FRIENDLY, the internet WORKED, the hot water was HOT, self-service laundry was (is) available, the hostel is situated close to the metro and plenty of food options, the breakfast was pretty good for a free hostel breakfast, etc etc.  And more:  they change the sheets for you (daily, I believe), and the beds even have their own throw pillow – both hostel firsts for me.  Things don’t always work out quite this well.

"La Flaca" dorm room at Hostal La Buena Vida.

“La Flaca” dorm room at Hostal La Buena Vida.  Good setup.

La Condesa is a cool neighborhood, too – I can see why people would want to live here.  Mixed residential/commercial with wide walking paths under tall shade trees, lots of taquerias for a quick and cheap bite, inviting unique open air bars and cafes, boutiques and shops of curiosities, cool art deco architecture and a nice urban park, and relatively young, somewhat arty residents (mostly affluent, I’m guessing).  Gentrified?  Maybe a bit.  But not in a terribly ugly way.

I spent the remainder of my evening walking through my new neighborhood with no destination in mind.

A dog should be so lucky.  Nieves (ices) and helado (ice cream) in La Condesa.

A dog should be so lucky. Nieves (ices) and helado (ice cream) in La Condesa.

Choices like these = multiple visits required.  15 Pesos = about $1.25 US.

Choices like these = multiple visits required. 15 Pesos = about $1.25 US.

art deco sign in La Condesa.

Art deco sign in La Condesa. No relation to the neveria above to my knowledge.

I had dinner at the taqueria that claims invention of tacos al pastor (“Shepherd’s” tacos) washed them down with an horchata (sweet rice-based drink) and wandered the neighborhood a bit, landing at Parque Mexico, where space was shared between practicing skateboarders, jugglers, packs of runners and happy dogs off their leashes.  Parque Mexico was originally designed as the horse racing track of La Condesa de Miravalle (The Countess of Miravalle), herself the namesake of La Condesa.

El Tizoncito, the (claimed and advertised) originator of tacos al pastor.  There are multiple locations in La Condesa.

El Tizoncito, the (claimed and advertised) originator of tacos al pastor. There are multiple locations in La Condesa.

Pork roasting on a spit for tacos al pastor, as well as huaraches al pastor and a host of other menu items.  There's a reason this looks like doner kebap meat - it's likely that Lebanese immigrants brought this style of cooking to Mexico.

Pork roasting on a spit for tacos al pastor, as well as huaraches al pastor and a host of other menu items. There’s a reason this looks like doner kebap meat – it’s likely that Lebanese immigrants brought this style of cooking to Mexico.

blurry tacos al pastor.  whoops.

blurry tacos al pastor. whoops.

pickup game in Parque Mexico.

pickup game in Parque Mexico.

5-0 grind.  Parque Mexico.

5-0 grind. Parque Mexico.

practicing in public.  Parque Mexico.

practicing in public. Parque Mexico.

I retired to Hostal La Buena Vida after dark to find my eight bed dorm completely empty aside from myself.  A private room might seem like a blessing, but when you’re traveling solo, it’s nice to meet others with which to interact, share food, see the city.

Well, at least they were showing the original Karate Kid in the hostel lobby.  It's a start.

Well, at least they were showing the original Karate Kid in the hostel lobby. It’s a start.

I was a little lonely, so I did what so many of us do in such a situation – I logged on to the internet.

THUS BEGINS THE TALE OF MY FIRST TRUE “COUCHSURFING” EXPERIENCES.

“What is this ‘Couchsurfing?’” you might ask (I’ve found that many of my friends aren’t aware of this phenomenon).  And I’d reply, “Couchsurfing is a social website by which you can host/lodge travelers that are passing through your town, or by which you can request a (free) place to stay with hosts in other cities/towns.”  Then, I’d pause thoughtfully and add “It’s a great way to connect in a meaningful with people that you otherwise may never meet.”

Click through to Couchsurfing.org.

Click through to Couchsurfing.org.

“Why would I want to invite a stranger into my home?” you might ask.  Or conversely, “Why on earth would I put myself at risk by staying with a complete stranger?”  And yeah, these are valid questions – there are a lot of unknowns associated with offering quarter to someone you’ve never met, or asking for a place to stay in the same manner.  By hosting or by surfing, both host and surfer take a certain leap of faith.  Each is taking a risk.

Do bad things happen via Couchsurfing?  Occasionally, yesSome, far worse than others.  But most of the time, no.  I’ve never met a traveler that’s had a wholly negative experience.  Inconvenient?  Sure.  But I’ve never overheard stories of physical or sexual assault, robbery, etc – and backpackers talk their asses off in the common room of the hostel.

At its best, Couchsurfing yields new friendships, new connections new shared experiences.  It’s less about finding a free place to stay and more about people connecting.  It can be a really amazing thing to get this kind of access to new people outside of your usual social circle.

A successful surfing/hosting experience requires a balance, of course:

As a surfer, you need to be flexible – a host’s house is NOT a hotel, and accordingly your experience of surfing at their place may require a little patience or understanding.  For example:  maybe your host further out of town than you calculated.  Maybe their lifestyle is significantly different than yours.  Maybe they want to spend every second with you, or maybe they have absolutely no time to show you around and were just nice enough to put you up for a night.  OR, maybe they have the poshest pad in town.  Who knows, everybody’s different!  Your touristic plans will also need to be flexible – if your host is throwing a barbeque, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea for you to shelve your museum visit for another day and hang out (I know what I’d rather do anyway).  Et cetera.  You get the idea.

As a host, you need to make your guest feel welcome.  Sometimes just a couch is enough, but sometimes it’s nice to show your surfer around your city all day!  You never know what kind of friendships can emerge from the simple generous act of giving a person a place to crash for a night or two.  And it doesn’t cost you anything, either!  The cool takeaway from this is that you may end up with a friend worth visiting in another part of the world that owes you a couch and some merriment.  Pretty good trade.

I didn’t need a place to stay in Mexico City – I was happy in my hostel, and I can afford $15-20/night (to be clear, some backpackers’ budgets don’t allow for this) in order to have secure lodgings from which I can come and go as I please.  Saving a few dollars wasn’t why I tapped into the Couchsurfing network – what I wanted was to meet some new people, especially Mexico D.F. locals, and engage in some activities that weren’t wholly on the tourist trail.

I logged onto Couchsurfing.org on my MacBook Air (yeah, I know this is a little bourgeois for a backpacker, but it’s a blogging and photo processing tool!) and started mining through the profiles of the Couchsurfing denizens of Mexico City the same way I dug for my hostel.  I picked four profiles based on the following criteria:

  • High rate of response to messages
  • Plenty of positive reactions from previous interactions with other Couchsurfers
  • Moderate to expert level of English (because my Spanish is poor)
  • Shared interests of some sort – or completely different interests, why not?

Then, I sent each of them a variation of a message that looked something like this:

“Hello!  I’m 32, from the US and am in Mexico City until Sunday.

I’m traveling solo and have a place to stay in Condesa, but have found the hostel that I’m staying in is completely, completely empty – so I thought it was probably a good time to reach out through CouchSurfing and find the quality of person I was looking for anyway!

I’m not so much looking for an insane party while I’m here as I am good people to meet up with and have dinner, drinks, walk around town, whatever.

I’m a good traveler, but have found that the amount of value that I can get from traipsing around by myself in a city of this size is fairly limited. I need help and insight! I’m very interested in what makes places like this tick, the socioeconomic/geographic dividing lines, stuff like that – ideas that bring a place to life.

I also like live music, dive bars, new people, all that as well – and this town seems to have no short supply of it.

I work in film at home – mostly commercial production work – and travel when I’m not working. This year it’s been 3 months in India, 1 month in Finland, 1 month in Poland/Baltics, and now two weeks in Mexico. It’s been a cool year.

Anyway, you sound like a good person to know – give me a shout if you’ve got some free time over the next few days! If you respond, I’ll try to get back with you Thursday evening when I have internet access again.  Thanks and hope to hear from you!”

I didn’t expect much – maybe an email back a week later to the tune of “lo siento guey, I was out of town”.  But miraculously, all four of the Couchsurfers I messaged replied within 24 hours and were interested in hanging out.  Wow!

I know what some of you are thinking:  “So you’re just going to go meet up with people you don’t know, alone, in a foreign city in which you just arrived?”  And, uh, the answer is yes.

In the days that followed, I would spend time with three of the four I messaged plus another unrelated Couchsurfer via these three interactions.  And yes, it was eventful, and I’ll tell you all about it IN OUR NEXT INSTALLMENT (or maybe the one after that – Mexico City apparently needs LOTS OF WORDS).

I shut the laptop and the light and set my alarm for a reasonable hour.  In the morning of DAY 2, I would set out for the obvious touristic destinations of Mexico City (I like to get this stuff out of the way early), starting at the Zocalo and working my way through the Centro Historico.

Previous Mexico City posts:
No Reason To Go To Mexico
MEXICO CITY 2012: Parte Uno – Seven Days in the Megalopolis


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MEXICO CITY 2012: Parte Uno – Seven Days in the Megalopolis

I arrived in Mexico City on October 24th of 2012 and proceeded to spend an entire week there, even though I expected to get out after 3-4 days.  The city was just that good, that interesting, that varied.  I was hooked.

It’s not just a big, congested, polluted city (although it’s that too!) – Mexico City is a place of tremendous energy, ancient history with bloodlines to the present, fantastic food, travel available on all budget levels, nice people and plenty of transit connections to get to you wherever you’re going next.

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A few facts to get things started:

  • Population:  around 21 million (metro area)
  • Elevation:  7,940′ (2,420 m)
  • What Americans call it:  Mexico City
  • What Mexicans call it:  D.F. (pronounced in Spanish, “day-effay”, referring to “Distrito Federal”).  The city is also known simply as “Mexico”.
  • What an inhabitant of the city might call themself:  “Chilango”, though you probably shouldn’t use the term.  It’s kind of deprecating when a non-Chilango uses the term.  Avoid this.

And a little history:  in 1325, the Aztecs (or, more appropriately, the Mexica people, pronounced “Meh-shee-ka”) founded Mexico City as Tenochtitlan in the Mexico Valley, which was largely under the waters of Lake Texcoco at the time.  Why there, on a small island the middle of a marshy lake?  Because prophecy fortold (it’s impossible to type “prophecy foretold” without sounding like a creepy mystic, btw) that when the wandering tribes of the Mexica witnessed an eagle eating a snake while perched atop a nopal cactus, that would be where their new home and capital would be.  Enter eagle, snake and cactus, on a small island in the middle of the lake.

The eagle/snake/cactus motif on the flag of Mexico makes a lot more sense now, doesn't it?

The eagle/snake/cactus motif on the flag of Mexico makes a lot more sense now, doesn’t it?

As the city grew, the lake was drained, leaving a basin in which Tenochtitlan grew into city of 200,000 inhabitants by 1519 – one of the largest cities in the world at the time.   Then, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his men arrived and started ruining everything for the Aztecs – colonizing the area, destroying its temples, spreading disease, etc.  Great guys.

Building a city on a spongy lake bed isn't architecturally advisable.  When earthquakes hit here, the entire valley jiggles like a bowl of jelly, amplifying damage and death figures.  This picture is from the 1985 magnitude 8.1 earthquake that caused the deaths of 10,000 people.  Soil conditions for Mexico City are so bad that even distant earthquakes can set buildings swaying, as they did on March 26, 2013 when a magnitude 5.5 earthquake occurred 227 miles from the city.  Yikes and double yikes.

Building a city on a spongy lake bed isn’t architecturally advisable, but I doubt the Aztecs had a city of 21 million in mind when they saw the eagle/snake/cactus combo. When earthquakes occur in or near the Valley of Mexico, the entire area jiggles like a bowl of jelly, amplifying damage and death figures. This picture is from the 1985 magnitude 8.1 earthquake that caused the deaths of 10,000 people. Worse still:  soil conditions for Mexico City are so unfortunate that even distant earthquakes can set buildings swaying, as they did on March 26, 2013 when a magnitude 5.5 earthquake occurred 227 miles from the city. Yikes and double yikes.

But that’s not even the whole story – there were ancients BEFORE the ancients:  around 100 BC (long before the Aztecs rose to prominence), a large and impressive pre-Aztec city was established about 48 km northeast of modern day Mexico City.  The Aztecs discovered this site long after its fall and abandonment ( around 7th / 8th century AD) and were so impressed that they called the place Teotihuacan, or the “City of the Gods”.  The Aztecs came to believe that the sun, the moon and the universe were all founded at Teotihuacan, and accordingly adopted many of the site’s symbols and motifs.  Today, the Teotihuacan archeological site is still the home to the third largest pyramids in the world (and yes, you can climb this one).

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan.

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan.

Modern Mexico City is the home of lucha libre masked wrestling, the music of the mariachi, the art of Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo, and prominent film directors like Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón (and I’d mention him, but Guillermo del Toro is technically from Guadalajara).  Same sex marriage has been legal here since 2009, and civil unions since 2006.  Small amounts of drug possession for “personal use” has been decriminalized since of 2009.

I spent seven days (out of my 15 days in Mexico) in the D.F., which isn’t my usual plan for capital cities.  By past experience, many capitals have required/deserved only a few days of a travel itinerary.  For example, a selection of capital cities that you can cover in a bit less time:

  • Vientiane, Laos – worth one day, no more.  There’s nothing here and plenty to see in surrounding areas.  Don’t linger.
  • Delhi, India – 2 days.  This huge sprawling place is a mess (even for India) and lacks charm.
  • Helsinki, Finland – 2-3 days.  Really very nice, but compact enough to cover quickly.  Oh, and it’s quite expensive to be here.
  • Tallinn, Estonia – 2 days.  The old city is nice, but Europe has plenty of nice old walled cities.  You’ll find plenty of Finns that escaped previously mentioned Helsinki to come here for lower prices on booze.
  • Warsaw, Poland – 2 days.  I like Warsaw, but it’s difficult to get around and just not all that attractive.
  • Madrid, Spain – 4-5 days.  I enjoyed Madrid quite a bit, but I don’t think a week is necessary here.

Wonderful exceptions:

  • Bangkok, Thailand – Ah, Bangkok.  My friends told me it was a big dirty mess.  It is, but it’s a fantastic mess, and I love it in similar ways to the way I love Mexico City.  Great food, easy transit, nice people, etc.
  • Washington DC – spend a week here if you’re a freak for museums.  On second thought, full week of museums sounds like a daunting proposition.
  • Berlin, Germany – I could move to Berlin today.  There’s so much to do there – arts, music, a great international community, everything.  Winner.
having fun in Berlin.

crazy fun in Berlin.

Upon arrival, Mexico City seems like an inconceivably massive tangle of 21 million people.  But it’s not that bad, really – it’s a city where budget travelers have options, and things aren’t altogether inconvenient.  Here’s what makes it quite workable:

THE AIRPORT IS PRETTY MUCH INSIDE THE CITY, WHICH MAKES ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE FAIRLY PAINLESS.  The metro system conveniently connects to the airport and gets you into the city quick.  I didn’t find Mexico City’s airport to be too much of a pain in the ass (unlike flying in/out of big American airports like LAX, Chicago O’Hare or JFK).

THE METRO SYSTEM IS HUGE, CRAZY CHEAP AND CAN TAKE YOU ALMOST EVERYWHERE YOU’LL WANT TO GO.  Mexico City’s metro fares are heavily subsidized and accordingly make for one of the cheapest forms of mass transit on the planet – a ticket costs an unbelievably low three pesos ($0.25 US), and you can go from one side of the city to the other, with transfers, on one ticket.  WOW.  If you’ve traveled in cities like London, this should make your jaw drop.

three pesos from anywhere to anywhere.  awesome.

three pesos from anywhere to anywhere. awesome.

YOUR BUDGET IS SAFE HERE.  Hostels are affordable (think $10-20 US per night for a dorm bed) and plentiful – there are options throughout the various parts of the city, from the Centro Historico to Colonia Roma to Condesa, etc (check Tripadvisor for current reviews).  Cheap street food options dot the city, and there are plenty of informal cafes and restaurants that won’t break the bank, either.  If you want to go bigger, that’s doable too.

OMG MEXICAN FOOD.  I don’t need to explain this.  Also of note:  vegetarians shouldn’t have too many problems here.  The city’s fairly liberal and there are options (though being an omnivore here is great).

I DON’T SPEAK SPANISH PARTICULARLY WELL AT ALL AND I HAD NO PROBLEMS GETTING BY.  Friends often ask me if the language barrier is a problem in whatever country I’m visiting at the time.  The answer is always no, because one really only needs a few things to get by in a foreign land:

  • Food
  • Lodgings
  • Transit
  • Something to do or look at
  • Sometimes you get sick and need some medicine, but hopefully not
  • I think I need some more food?

It’s not astrophysics, it’s just getting by, which, provided a bit of patience and goodwill, anyone can do.  Also, Mexico City has plenty of English speakers wandering around.  You’ll be fine.  Note:  I still plan to spend 4-6 weeks in immersion Spanish language courses in South America this year, because I said I would (so I guess I will!).

I NEVER FELT UNSAFE IN MEXICO CITY.  Americans, especially, have been served an unbalanced view of Mexico thanks to a sensationalist media following the what-bleeds-leads method of journalism, so naturally the primary advice I received from friends and acquaintances was “Don’t get kidnapped!”  Was I supposed to laugh?  Or do I have to come to Mexico’s defense and talk about how much I like it?  Mexico City is like any other huge crazy city – it has crime, it has problems, but it has so many things to offer!  A little salt makes the sugar that much sweeter.

Plus, what am I supposed to do, stay home where it’s SAFE?  I’m from St Louis, Missouri, where things like this, and this happen, and where many murders never even get reported by the local media which is too scared to head into North City (see a St Louis murder map from 2005-2012 here) because people’s skin is just a little too dark to make the kind of national headlines a blonde volleyball player’s murder can generate (for example).  I don’t mean to trash my hometown, but how safe am I at home, really?  Keep your kidnapping comments to yourself, experts.  Or better yet, go travel in Mexico!

tiny tourists under the St Louis Arch.

tiny tourists, foggy day, St Louis Arch.

That said – Mexico City, like any big city, should be treated like a beautiful but poisonous flower.  Don’t wander through unfamiliar dark alleys, don’t show off your expensive jewelery or camera equipment in the wrong places, don’t accept drinks from strangers, blah blah blah.  Same advice you should follow when you’re traveling ANYWHERE, or even just staying home.  Exercise common sense.

One notable potential risk that travelers in the D.F. should mind:  Mexico City taxi cabs.  Unlicensed, unmarked taxis are the source of a disproportionate amount of theft and violence here and are probably the biggest point of exposure that any tourist or traveler will have during their time in Mexico City – but with a little knowledge, you shouldn’t run into any problems.  Before a trip to Mexico City, I highly suggest you read this list of tips on cabbing it in Mexico’s capital.  To summarize a few key points:

  • Avoid hailing cabs on the street at night.
  • Avoid taking cabs alone.
  • Familiarity with Mexico City, and a working knowledge of Spanish are really useful first lines of defense against potential problems.
  • If you don’t speak Spanish and don’t know the city, have your restaurant or hotel call a radio taxi for you.  They cost a bit more than street cabs, but they’re no runaway.
  • Properly licensed drivers must have a picture ID and proper license plates (see here for exact details/checklist).  Don’t be bashful about asking for ID and making sure things check out before getting in the cab.

In an effort to avoid writing a “War and Peace” sized blog post, the events of my week in Mexico City will be in the next entry.

A few highlights:  my first real Couchsurfing experience, climbing ancient pyramids, being serenaded by mariachi, too much Polish vodka and just enough mezcal, eating grasshoppers, and making new friends that I’ll keep for as long as they’ll have me.  In other words, nothing happened.  Thanks for reading!


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PHOTO: Why I’ve Quit Using UV Filters

I bought my first DSLR in 2008.  It was the Nikon D80, and I bought it with the Nikkor 18-135mm AF-S DX kit lens.  Why?  Because my brother in law had the same gear, and when I got drunk on Christmas Eve and decided I should have a camera too.  Real talk.

Any camera salesman knows that if you have no business buying a camera, then you’ll obviously have no idea about filtration either.  That’s how I ended up with the cheapest Sunpak UV filter Best Buy had to offer.  “It will protect your lens” he said.  “OK I’ll take it” I replied.

The Sunpak filter cost under $10 and performed like it.  It was a cheap, optically flawed piece of glass, and a dust magnet to boot.

I had next to no idea how to properly use my D80, so I also had no idea that my cheap UV filter wasn’t helping the situation.  Historically, it’s a bit of a wash.  If your photographic technique is bad, you’ll never be able to understand the real capabilities and limitations of your equipment.  That’s where I was.  So I guess the Sunpak was a fine filter for me at the time!

In 2009, when Barcelona metro pickpockets lifted my D80 with the 18-135mm attached, the Sunpak filter went with it.  My travel insurance covered about half of the loss at the maximum payout of $600 for theft (which I now think of as “serendipitously/unexpectedly finding a buyer”), and I shot the rest of the month long trip on a Holga and a Canon point-and-shoot.  I wasn’t really even capable of dealing with the resolution and image quality that the D80 presented anyway, so I guess this wasn’t the blow that I thought it was at the time.  I admit it!

Sevilla's empty bull ring on Holga.

Sevilla’s empty bull ring on Holga.

I picked up a Nikon D7000 body in 2010 and accordingly moved a step up with my filters as well.  After reading a lot of online reviews, I settled on a kind of generally accepted budget-meets-quality line of filters, the Hoya HMC UV(C) multicoated UV filters.  I expected this to be a fine choice, but they caused a lot more problems over the next couple of years than I could have ever expected.  My tortured Hoya history:

#1.  In 2011, I found myself shooting in Southeast Asian markets rife with exposed compact fluorescent tubes and bulbs.  The filters ghosted HARD when pointed in the general direction of any CFL.  I unscrewed them and left them in the bag for the remainder of the trip and was much happier as a result.

MPW_7120-WIWblog

An unedited, poorly framed photo from Chiang Mai’s night market – posted only to show the horrid ghosting of the Hoya filters I once used.  See those awful, unintentional green spots?

#2.  About six weeks into a three month trip through India, one of my Hoya HMC filters had finally taken enough abuse.  It quietly shattered in my camera bag while attached to my Nikkor 35mm f/2D.  The jagged filter shards impacted the front element of the lens and added several tiny scratches.  Bear in mind that the whole reason I bought the filter in the first place was to PROTECT THE LENS.  Bitten by my own snake!  I’m guessing the front element of the lens was and is still significantly tougher than the UV filter – so I should have just gone without the filter in the first place!

The two white dots on the front element just inside the "AF Nikkor" text?  Scratches.  The other crap?  Dust.  And probably more scratches.  Maybe this veteran is due for replacement with something like a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM.

The two white dots on the front element just inside the “AF Nikkor” text? Scratches. The other crap? A bit of dust from a hasty prep for this photo. Oh, and probably more scratches. Maybe this veteran is due for replacement with something like a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM.

#3.  In autumn of 2012, I purchased a barely-used Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 from a friendly middle aged guy off Craigslist.  Having sworn off Hoya filters by this point, I didn’t even want the one that he included with the lens, but I’m also not going to turn down free gear.  This filter lasted approximately two months, at which point the edge of the filter was impacted – and not with significant force – adding a scallop-shaped point of glass breakage along the edge of the filter.  Not OK for an ultra-wide angle.  I threw it away and sighed my last Hoya sigh.

Three strikes for Hoya.  But I hadn’t entirely written-off screw-on UV filters just yet – there was still another, higher tier to experiment with.

I bought a couple of much-heralded B+W brand UV filters in 2012  (specifically, the B+W 010 UV – Haze 1x MRC) and have had no real significant problems with them since.  They’re much more solidly constructed than the Hoyas, are “optically neutral” (according to marketing, anyway).  I’ve experienced lower incidence of ghosting, too.

But am I satisfied?  Nah.  And not because of the product itself – simply because of the conundrum that the expensive UV filter presents me with.It’s a catch 22:  by the time you are willing to spend $50+ on UV filters, you’re probably also willing to spend enough money to put fairly serious glass on your camera – and what the hell is the point of slapping a $60 piece of glass on a $1000-2500 lens?  You bought the lens for its image quality, but now you’re willing to degrade it a hair, and spend more money to do so?  This doesn’t add up to me.

Truth be told, putting ANY sort of filter on the front of your camera will slightly degrade image quality.  If it didn’t, then why didn’t the lens manufacturer design the lens with a removable/replaceable front element, a la a removable screw-on filter (Hey, there’s an idea that’ll never catch on!)?  Also, UV filters were designed for shooting film – UV rays have negligible effects on DSLR imaging.  UV filters should just be called “protection” filters in relation to DSLR-related photography, because that’s really the bulk of what they do – just physically protect your front element (unless, of course, they shatter and SCRATCH YOUR FRONT ELEMENT like they did to me!).

In short, I don’t think using UV filters make sense on DSLRs.  Think about it this way:

If you’re shooting on an inexpensive kit lens like a Nikkor 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 VR DX, your lens costs $200.  If you buy an expensive filter, you’ll be shelling out 1/4 – 1/3 the cost of the lens, which is a pretty expensive (and faulty) insurance policy for any lens.  But if you buy a cheap UV filter, you’re spending a little less money (albeit still spending money), but degrading your image even more.  Neither of these scenarios makes sense – you’d be better going without a filter.

On the other hand, if you’re employing a pricier piece of glass like, for example, the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II, and you put a cheapie UV filter up front, you need to rethink what got you into photography in the first place.  If you put an expensive UV filter on there, you still run the risk of degrading your image – and I’m sure you bought the lens for the image quality.  The implications of this get even more serious if you’re shooting on resolution monsters like the D800E.

Not everyone feels this way though – plenty of photographers happily still use UV filters.  Search forums on Dpreview or Flickr if you want to see people flame/troll one another endlessly on the topic.  (Man, photographers spend a lot of time online being cruel to one another.)

Caveat:  What about shooting on the beach, or in the desert?  Yeah, sand and airborne dust is just about the worst enemy a camera has (aside from submersion in water, of course), so maybe it’d be worth taking the B+W protective filters along for serious work in these types of places.  But then again, I’ve never really had a problem with sand damage on my front element – moreso in the focus ring.  Just ask my crunchy Nikkors that had to be sent in for repairs last year to the tune of a few hundred dollars!  I guess the solution is still to buy lenses and camera bodies with better weather sealing.  Serious work requires well-built tools, right?  Sometimes there’s a reason for a premium price on premium gear (not that it’ll make you a better photographer, though!).

Some additional reading to do on UV filters from smarter people than me:

DPreview:  The UV Filter

Photographyblogger:  What You Need to Know about UV Filters

Photo.net:  FIlters – UV or not UV?

G Dan Mitchell Photography:  UV Filter or Lens Cap and Hood?

Thanks for reading.  Until next time!

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