Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mexico and California


After so many good memories in Guatemala, it was hard saying good bye. The leave was eased by a relatively painless trip through Mexico. The first of two 12 hour bus rides started in the morning in Xela and ended in San Cristobal in southern Mexico. Despite being longer than expected due to the radiator overheating (I think) in some no-name village, inspection by the Mexican police, and wasted time at the border, the trip was actually a lot of fun and low stress for two mains reasons: 1) I had not booked an onward ticket so I didn't have to worry about missing my connection and 2) a friend and apparently good conversation partner from Xela was on the same bus. Having someone to dream-out-loud about solving the worlds problems and share funny dating stories with always makes the time fly. 

When we arrived in San Cristobal I threw on my backpack and set off in search of the bus station so I could buy a ticket for the overnight bus to Mexico City. Once found and purchased I learned I had  3 hour wait which was just enough time to grab some diner and send an email or two. I slept well on the night bus – maybe 6 good hours – and awoke just a few hours outside of Mexico City. Once again, this was a low stress trip because I hadn't yet booked my flight from Mexico City to Tijuana. 

Side note: My original plan was to bus from Guatemala to California and avoid a flying completely, because I find buses more interesting and possibly better for the environment. But as I learned more about how much time I would need to get Russian and Chinese visas and the cost of flying vs busing (about equal) I decided busing half and flying half would be a good compromise and still give me time to get everything done. Unlike the rest of the trip, I had already booked my flight from CA to Japan so I had a strict deadline for having my passport returned. 

Bus ride in Mexico

The Mexico City bus terminal is designed like an airport – circular access, various terminals/gates, information booths, loads of taxis, and, most importantly for me, integration with the public buses and subway. It was a fast and easy subway-city bus ride from the giant Pullman bus station to the airport. When I got to the airport I bought a ticket and walked onto the plane with minutes to spare. 

The whole process from the bust station to sitting in my plane seat was unbelievably efficient which was a welcome departure from my expectations, but the pace meant I didn't have a chance to buy water or food. I had only had a liter of water and some snacks since San Cristobal, so when we landed in Tijuana 3 hours later, the first order of business was to find water and something to eat. Despite having been effectively stationary for 17 hours I had still worked up quite a bit of appetite and thirst. Lesson learned – I now start such trips with 2 liters of water and excess trail mix (or the local equivalent)

From the Tijuana airport it was a short shuttle ride to the border, a short walk through immigration, and then I was back on US soil for the first time in almost 3 months.


Sunset about sunset cliffs.
Once I had found a hostel and a little bit of food in San Diego, I was able to relax, breath, and enjoy the mild “reverse culture shock.” The first things I noticed were how clean and well maintained the streets and public transport were by comparison. No pot holes, cobble stones, or random pieces of jagged metal protruding from the sidewalks ready to attack your sandal-clad toes. I could fully understand all of the signs and instructions on the city buses (including, surprisingly, the parts written in Spanish). Traffic obeyed traffic laws. No one laid on their car horns for minutes at a time while someone tried to parallel park. So many things we take for granted seemed so novel to me in the moment. 

After the streets and traffic, the parts that caught my attention were the food, water, and sanitation. All of the food and water were safe to consume without even thinking twice about. My plastic straws and spoons came individually packaged from a sterile factory where as down south they would have been simply washed, with or without soap, after the last user. And the quality and number of choices of food was a bit of a shock – so many really great options all within walking distance. And giant portions, too. Of course, with all of these “luxuries” came a very significant increase in price. I could pay $1.50 for some pizza as a treat to myself in Guatemala. The equivalent cost me $5 on the street in San Diego, and was considered a typical snack.

I could go on and on about cultural differences, but I'll limit myself to one more. I arrived in downtown San Diego (Gaslamp District) on a Friday night, and that meant the (refreshingly large) sidewalks were packed with people dressed up and ready for a night out on the town. So many things from the way people dressed, talked, and moved to the types cars they drove and bars the visited screamed “Gringo” in my head. Everyone looked and dressed like movie stars. Their shoes were probably worth more than many Guatemalan cars, and the amount of money they would spend on a drink could feed a family for a week if not a month where I had just left. The skirts were short, heels tall, and collars popped. Make no mistake, this would have also been an assault on my senses had I just arrived from the Ozarks or Alaska, but the contrast with the Guatemalan Highlands was intensely culturally enlightening.

[Side Note: I feel the need to include here a preemptive defense to my anthropologically minded friends – skip ahead if you're not interested. I know that my observations regarding the cultural differences are biased, skewed by my Western way of thinking, and very probably politically incorrect in some of my generalizations, and I am unapologetic for those things. These are the reactions I had and this is the best way I have to share them with my friends and family. Nevertheless, I encourage you to comment and skewer me as appropriate. Everyone loves a little bit of controversy :) ]

Video - animals at the San Diego Zoo

In California I spent 2 nights at the hostel, 3 nights on Anna's couch, 2 nights on Ryan's guest bed, 1 night in Couchsurfer Mac's amazing tent-room, and 4 nights on Karon's guest bed. It was a lot of moving around, but it allowed me to visit lots of different people, see some sights, and work on some of the logistics for my trip. 

CouchSurfer Mac's amazing Tent Room

It might sound like logistics are a never ending task for me – that's because they are. I'm not complaining; I kind of like logistics, and I feel like I'm getting pretty good at them. But they do take a lot of time. 
  • Figuring out which visas are needed and where to get them.
  • Getting passport photos taken in the right size and shape.
  • In person delivery of visa application.
  • Trying to get my debit card mailed to the right address and then activated (over 4 month process).
  • Planing flights, trains, buses, where to sleep, and when friends are available to visit or host me.
  • Reading background info, and travel guides and trying to memorized small parts of phrase books for a different country every week.
  • Backing up my photos in case I loose my laptop. 
  • And, of course, keeping all of you updated in the process. 

It's not all hard work. Here are some of the main sights I saw in CA (check the photo album for more)

  • Sailing in San Diego bay with Ryan
  • Sunset bike ride on Sunset Cliffs
  • San Diego Zoo (free pass thanks to Janessa!)
  • Encinitas / San Marcos
  • Massive indoor rock climbing gym
  • University of California - San Diego Campus
  • Glider port / Blacks Beach
UC San Diego engineering building 
Glider port near campus (thanks to Jed and others for the recommendation!)

One interesting experience I had in CA was meeting for lunch with Tom Murphy, a UCSD physics professor and the author of this blog: Do the Math. I've been an avid reader of his blog since last August when my cousin Eric sent me a link to it, so I thought it would be fun to talk wit the author. My email asking him if he had time for lunch was admittedly a strange request since we had never previously corresponded, but I guess my resume and expressed interest were enough to convince him that I wasn't nutty nor stalker, so he agreed. We had a great conversation about limits to growth of energy consumption, steady state economics, and how to minimize personal contributions to such problems yet continue to participate in society in such a way as to not be labeled eccentric. 

I'm stuck with an interesting dilemma.  I'm motivated to live my life as an example of what “sustainable” could look like, but I know that doing so would probably make me an outcast, thus my message would fall on deaf ears. (I do appreciate the contradiction of writing this from the middle of an around the world trip).  The pace and mechanics of social change can be frustrating. Some people have given up hope of effecting the changes necessary to prevent the problems prior to some kind of severe resource scarcity, and instead are positioning and preparing to solve the social and infrastructure problems that will arise afterward. This seems defeatist to me, but at the same time I am not aware of any elegant solutions. Check out Dr. Murphy's blog if you're interested. Or corner me for a conversation sometime (it won't be difficult – I really enjoy this topic). As I said, it's a fascinating problem, and if there's one thing I always enjoy it's a good  problem. 

This is a topic I've been reading a lot about lately (when I have time). I'm collecting links and resources in the tab at the top labeled "Exponential Growth." Let me know if you have any to contribute.

My extended-extended family. It was good seeing them again!
As seems to be typical with every stop I make, the last few days in CA were rushed and busy with packing, preparing, laundry, and those last minute dinner invitations. I was lucky to be staying at my aunt's house. It really feels like a second home for me, so I was able to focus on my to do list without feeling too guilty about not socializing. I wish I would have had time to visit with her, my other family, and extended family there. Seeing an old family friend, Humberto, and his family was special. And it was a good chance to practice my new Spanish skills, since they are all native speakers. It also made me realize how quickly I'm going to forget things if I don't practice regularly. 

Ok, that's all for now. Stay tuned for a post about Japan.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. you should read a book called "the Weather Makers"

    john o

    love the comments about san diego gas lamp....compared to 3rd world. amazing isn't it.....