Sunday, June 21, 2015

Ensenada Mexico

A little under twenty (!!!) years ago, the division of the company I was working for was sold and part of the deal required that I move down to Mexico to help lead the transition. At the time, I didn't know anything about Mexico other than what you see on television in the United States, which is basically how dangerous it is and how you shouldn't go. I didn't really want to go but, as they say, they made me a deal I couldn't refuse.

The big day came and I boarded a plane at LAX and for the next six months I lived in Merida, which is opposite Cancun in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. Considering how I felt about going, the experience was probably the single biggest influence on who I am and definitely the biggest impact on my love of travel and desire to experience new cultures. The fact that this blog exists is in part due to my time in Mexico.

After my six months came to an end, the plan was to move back to Oceanside and start working for my old company again. They were in the process of starting a new facility in Mexico and asked me if I was interested in going to manage operations there. What? Of course I'd go!!! So, two days after arriving back in San Diego, I loaded up my car and moved to Ensenada, Mexico, which is about a one-and-a-half-hour drive south of the border with Tijuana.

One of my goals on this trip back to California was to go down to Ensenada for a visit. For a variety of reasons I hadn't been there in over a dozen years. Plus, my friend Eduardo, with whom I worked in Ensenada, has a growing family I had never met. So, Diana and I headed south of the border for a couple of days...

And, yes, the U.S. border entry into with Mexico at Tijuana looks somewhat like you're entering (or, maybe, escaping from???) a prison!

Eduardo was nice enough to take the time to come pick us up on the Mexican side of the border. I hadn't seen him other than on Facebook in I don't know how long. Fun fact, both Eduardo and I owned MINIs for a time.

Me and Diana with Eduardo and his wife Natalia at their lovely house:

While Eduardo and Natalia were busy during the afternoon, Diana and I set about exploring (and rediscovering) Ensenada. I have fond memories of my year-and-a-half I spent there and it's very much how I remember it.

Ensenada's a smallish city that is surprisingly safe and quiet, which, really, is how ninety-five-percent-plus of Mexico is. The crap you hear about in the U.S. represents maybe 1% of what the country's about. It's funny but living in Europe, the image we get over here of the U.S. is almost identical to that which the U.S. gets about Mexico. Drugs, guns, murders, corruption, and so on is daily fare.

Diana making new friends on the touristy Lopez Mateo street in downtown Ensenada:

Ensenada's a port city so there's really no beaches until you go out of the center. We walked along the water's edge checking out the cruise ships, local fishing boats, and small shops. One of the things that I missed having in Barcelona was a lifeguard hat. I hate sunblock so, when I lived in California, I always wore one and there are absolutely none of them in Spain that I've found.

In the shop where I bought the one below, the woman wouldn't negotiate at all, which was a surprise. I even left at one point to see if she would chase after me. But, no go. So, I walked back in and paid the full price of FIVE dollars! I remember when I lived in Mexico that you had to negotiate for everything down to buying cut-up fruit in the street. My, how things have changed.

Here I am super happy with the best purchase of the trip:

Along the main drag is a large plaza where there's never anyone. On one side are three giant golden heads of historically-important figures. There's nothing else. Just concrete and heads.

The half-way point of our quick tour around town was at the Riviera hotel also located along the main drag. It's a scenic, old-fashioned hotel where locals sometimes hold weddings and local businesses meetings. The bar below, like probably 50 other places in Mexico, is said to be where the margarita was invented. I'm not too sure about that one but it is exceptionally beautiful and a nice place to take a break.

On our way back to meet up with Eduardo, we walked along the main local's shopping street, which gives you a much better feel for "real life". Diana, of course, couldn't resist feeding her addiction by eating the local-delicacy, an elote (corn on the cob) with cheese, mayonnaise (yes, mayo!), and spices. Yummy!

Back when I worked with Eduardo, we worked crazy hours. It wasn't unusual for us to work from nine in the morning until like 1 am, go home, and do it again the next day. Oh, and the place we worked was 7x24 so we'd be there on Saturdays and Sundays too. It wasn't all work though. We'd sometimes slip out during the day to go mountain biking in the hills behind work. Other times, we'd go for a late dinner in town at some place that only Eduardo knew. But, what was probably the most memorable for me was the times we'd go to his parents' house, hang out, and sample local wines in his dad's wine cellar. I can, with 100% certainty, "blame" Eduardo for introducing me to wine drinking. Thanks Eduardo. No, seriously, thank you very much for teaching me and enabling me to enjoy wine!

Later on during the day, Eduardo and Natalia took us to Ensenada's nearby Guadalupe valley to visit a couple of wineries. We stopped at two places. The first is the well-known Santa Tomas winery, which is well respected, and the wine and snacks were excellent. (For those who are familiar with the wineries around Catalunya, the scenery looks pretty familiar, doesn't it?)

Our second stop was at Liceaga, which is a little bit farther up the road. Diana and I enjoyed both places and it was a great opportunity for us to catch up with Eduardo and Natalia.

It's funny but I've known Eduardo for a long time and I consider him one of my close friends even though we don't see each other much. We spent a LOT of time together back in the day and I learned a lot from him. I remember the night when he had to leave work at the "early hour" of around 8 pm to go to a party up in Tijuana. The next day, he told me about a girl he met while at the party. It turned out to be Natalia. Kids grow up so quickly, don't they?

Dinner that night was at a local food-truck-style place. We enjoyed great food, maybe a bit of wine, and fun conversation before heading home to crash into bed.

The next morning, we woke early, ate breakfast, kissed everyone goodbye, and Eduardo kindly drove us to the border. But, before we left Ensenada, we stopped on a hillside and took photos looking out towards the ocean and famous Todos Santos in the distance. If you know surfing at all, you'll know Todos Santos as one of the world's big-wave surf spots. When the swell is right, surges enter the area between two islands and form giant waves. From where we were, though, it just looked so peaceful.

As anyone who's crossed the border from Tijuana into San Diego knows, the fun doesn't stop until you're happily through the immigration check point, whether in car or on foot. I can remember spending up to THREE hours in my car waiting to cross on some days.

When we got to the line, it was, as usual, very long. Nearby, some guy came up to us and offered us a trip in his bus, which he said would get us through quicker as he got to use the carpool lane. What the heck, I figured. It was cheap and I had never done it. Diana and I paid the guy, got in with about ten others, and off we went right up to the front of the line. The trip took all of 30 seconds but probably saved us 30 minutes of waiting in line. What a hoot!

Diana selfie just after exiting the van and before going into the immigration building:

Part of why I write this blog is so I have time to reflect on the things I do so I can remember them. Thinking back while writing this story, I'm reminded about how great the time I spent in Mexico was and how formative it was for who I am today.

A giant abrazo to Eduardo, Natalia, and familia for welcoming us into your home and sharing some time with us. We had a great trip "back" to Ensenada. Hopefully we'll see you soon in Barcelona to return the favor!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Back In Southern California! - Part 1

Finally! Back in southern California!

It's been about four years, believe it or not. Basically since right before the wedding. I couldn't wait to go 'home' again. Even if the concept of where home is is complicated.

I had hoped to go in March of 2014 but we got sidetracked with a surprise trip to San Francisco, which delayed us by a year. The 'official' purpose of our trip was to clean out the small storage unit I've been paying for since December 2009. Back when I first left on my world voyage, I put my MINI and enough stuff away for my return in "six months or so" (which kinda' ended up being Gilligan's Island time - three-hour tour!). The idea was that I could pick up where I left off quickly and easily. I guess life got in the way...fortunately.

We flew from Barcelona to London and then onto Los Angeles and made an immediate beeline down to San Diego to stay with my good friend Dave. We were pretty beat our first evening so he cooked us up a nice dinner and we all hung out, played with his dog Miles, and caught up on a few years of life.

The next morning it was off to breakfast (if you know me, a verrrry important thing) at a local hot spot then we took a nice long walk along the beach. It was so nice to be back in sunny, warm, and very not humid California!

On Monday morning, it was off to meet up with an old workmate Bruce. Of course I had to give him a box of maple-glazed doughnuts for old-times' sake. I also met some randoms to sell off a bunch of the items I had in the storage unit. Actually, meeting people in parking lots to sell them stuff was a recurring theme during the trip. The parking-lot thing is like selling on eBay except with none of the convenience.

After our work for the day was done, Diana and I went over to nearby La Jolla, which is arguably one of the most beautiful places on earth. The view near La Jolla cove:

And no trip to La Jolla would be complete without a big-ole-Mexi lunch (with margaritas!!!) at Jose's Court Room. Paradise!

Dinner that night was with Ruma and her daughter Nicole who had visited us a year or so ago in Barcelona. Actually, visiting, eating, and catching up with friends was maybe tied for first with parking-lot rendezvous. Dinner with Jim and Maria was another night but I can't remember which. Can I say how much I missed all my friends!

Another reason for the trip was to renew my driver's license. We rented a car at LAX but could only keep it for part of the time as my old license had an expiration date in the middle of the trip. Because of this, we had to go back up to LAX and trade the car for another. This ten-minute transaction required almost 200 miles of driving!

Because of the work-like nature of  lot of the trip, I made sure we did something fun and/or touristy every day. The day we had to change cars, we went to Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles. This short street, which looks like something out of Mexico, is where L.A. supposedly started.

And, the fun didn't end here. The next morning we woke up and headed down to Ensenada, Mexico, where I lived for about 18 months back in the late 90s, to visit my good friend Eduardo and his family. To be continued...

Monday, June 8, 2015

Slàinte Dublin

I'm still catching up on stories and am now only three months behind!

Anyway, I made a lot of trips to Dublin over the last year-plus. This story's about my last weekend there when Diana came with me to play tourist.

Our first stop was at the Kilmainham Gaol, which is infamous for holding all sorts of political prisoners over the years.

The old prison is located a handful of tram stops away from central Dublin. It's made up of stone buildings that are startlingly cold and damp. I can imagine it wasn't pleasant (for a variety of reasons) as we had trouble staying warm during our brief visit even on a rare spring-like day.

Having spent a bunch of time in Dublin, I became familiar with many of the street and place names although it wasn't until going to Kilmainham that I was able to attach a story to those names. Like Independence Hall and areas around Philadelphia with the American revolution, the stories provide a who's who of the (modern) Irish independence movement.

The guided tour lasts about 45 minutes and takes you through various buildings although the highlight of the tour (I'm told), the Victorian-styled wing, was closed for renovations.

The view through a guard's peep hole into a cell, which the guide say could hold (at least?) four prisoners.

It was an effective tour. I learned a lot of Irish history AND was reminded to stay out of prison!

Diana and I in the front courtyard of Kilmainham. (By the way, our smiles are not meant to be disrespectful and I recognize that it isn't a very happy place for many.)

Our next stop was Trinity College, which I had been past probably 100 times but never went in. We took a guided tour that was led by a former student who did an awesome job telling us about the history of the school, showing us around, and sharing what life's like living in the middle of a tourist attraction (like we don't already know!).

The highlight of the tour is a visit to Trinity College's library to see the book of Kells and walk around the "Long Room", which looks a lot like something you'd see in a Harry Potter movie. It helped that our guide wore some kind of strange jacket that made him look right out of the movie.

There were two different things at the library that caught my attention. The first was in a display that held like three or four open books. One was a book of Hawaiian myths and legends intended for kids. It was written by an Irishman at the request of the Hawaiian legislature. How random to find a book about Hawaii at Dublin's Trinity College library?

The other thing that surprised me was coming across the Brian Boru harp. The harp dates from the 15th century and is the inspiration for the symbol widely used today to represent Ireland. Familiar with the Guinness logo? Yep. How about Ryanair? That one too. Or perhaps a one-euro coin from Ireland? Ahh, yep, that too and more. By the way, like 95% of the folks I saw didn't even notice it!

Our last day playing tourist took us to nearby Malahide, which is a village located along the coast about 30 minutes via metro north of the city center. Other than being kinda' artsy, it's probably best known for the Malahide Castle.

Random thought, if you're going to build a custom home, you really should consider putting turrets at the corners. You never know who might attack.

Again, we opted for the guided tour of the ~900 year-old estate and ~800 year-old castle. Like the Kilmainham Gaol, there's a ton of history and the guide mentioned a whole bunch of other folks whose names you can find on street signs and squares throughout the area.

The tour was very good but probably the thing I'll most remember is how our guide systematically touched pretty much every single item on display!

So ended my extended time in Dublin. I met and got to know a bunch of great folks and had fun being a part-time resident. Thanks Ireland for the adventure and all those yummy meals! See you soon and a big ole' slàinte to everyone!

Diana and I in front of the Liffy not too far from the convention center and Samuel Beckett bridge (hey, there's that harp shape again!).

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Barcelona Three Kings 2015

I've written about Spain's Three Kings Day before so I'll skip most of the details. Basically, the holiday celebrates the Epiphany, which is when the three wise men visited the baby Jesus. Three Kings' day is to Spanish kids what Christmas morning is to kids in the United States. The most fun (for me) is that they celebrate with a large parade the night before that's part Cirque du Soleil part Macy's Thanksgiving Day.

This year's parade fell on a Monday night and the city offered a chance to see the floats close-up during the weekend before. The preview was held at the Fira Barcelona, which is the convention center where the annual Mobile World Congress takes place.

On display are many (if not all) of the floats and some of the characters/performers. We even got to see some of them practicing.

I mentioned the Cirque du Soleil feeling to the parade. The mysticism-meets-Steampunk would be right at home on a stage in Las Vegas.

Here's the same float during the parade. You can see the team pulling out front and one person riding up top.

These guys were practicing a couple of songs while we were there. The crew was very accommodating and happy to be in everyone's photos.

And again, the same folks the next night performing during the parade on Via Laietana in the center of Barcelona.

In true Barcelona fashion, this small group (representing only five countries), had a fun evening watching and enjoying this year's Three Kings Day parade.