European Travel

Way back in 1999 (before good photography) we visited friends who moved to The Netherlands for work, so we have fond memories of that, our first overseas trip (N & K have since moved back to California, visited us when we were in Scotland, and have then moved on to Portland, where we visited them a few years back). Being new at the whole international travel thing, we (ridiculously) also scheduled an additional visit with a friend in Germany … all this, in the course of a single week. That meant that we really didn’t get to see much (although N did indeed try to show us all of the things). While we know we enjoyed ourselves, some of that trip is… really, a blur.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Well, 18 years and a whole lot of travel later, we’re thinking that it is past time to revisit The Netherlands and actually take some time with it, rather than trying to cram it all into 4 days plus jetlag. We had planned to return to Scotland (of course), but our timing isn’t great, as most of our closest Scottish friends are going to be out of the country! There are also OTHER PLACES to see in Europe, and fortuitously, we have friends who, a year ago, moved to Southern Holland after a brief stint in Iceland, so it’ll be fun to see how they’re settling in. Our hope now is that, maybe if we ask nicely, we can entice a few other friends of ours in Europe to meet us “in the middle” as it were (we’re looking at you, Pille). Of those we’ve asked so far, several indicated willingness! So, now to find a place to rent for a few weeks in and around Amsterdam. Hurray!

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So, while it may not be as comfy as having friends over for a Spring/Easter feast in a flat of our own, we are looking forward to hanging out with faraway friends, and a whole new neighborhood. It’ll still be something to celebrate.

-D & T

All Over The Place

Things have been a bit quiet, here at Hobbits. T. has been writing, D. has been continuing his various wee contracts … and also looking for something a bit more than just wee contracts. After much casting about, many false starts (we’re looking at you, Washington State), and lots of places that just weren’t right for whatever reason, D. has taken a position with Revance Therapeutics as “Senior Technical Lead, Enterprise Applications” to start the end of this month.

Which means, The Hobbits are leaving Hobbiton and moving to … well, somewhere not that far outside of The Shire, and not anyplace truly distant, but it’s far enough that we thought Rivendell would be an appropriate name for it. IRL, we’re moving to Newark (no – not New jersey – there’s one right near Silicon Valley). D. will have a 2-minute commute, unless he decides to walk, in which case he might have a 15-minute walk to work – we’ll see whether there’s proper pedestrian access along the way, or if he’ll need to cycle instead.

So, next week, the movers come, and we’re off on another sort-of-adventure!

While things have been quiet here, though, they haven’t been idle

Fresh Turmeric

We ran across some fresh turmeric in the grocery store and thought, “hey, we made a South-Asian kind of Sauerkraut once – let’s use this for it!” So, we duly shredded all the things (cabbage, carrots, turmeric) and added all the spices and salt, packed it into the fermentation crock, and waited a few weeks. Then we found out we were moving, so decided to pull it out to taste, and maybe to give away … and, wow, fresh turmeric Takes Over ALL the things. We ended up throwing the whole batch out, it’s so incredibly not-tasty. All we can conclude is that we used about 10 times too much fresh turmeric, and that you don’t really get a feeling for how it penetrates just by tasting it fresh and raw – turmeric was all we could taste, other than maybe a hint of pickle and some salt. Boo.

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We also made up a nice wee spice blend, using spices from our local bulk herb company plus some orange peels we’d harvested and dried (peel your orange with a vegetable peeler before peeling it to eat & let the peels dry somewhere). Truly yummy spice blend, though we’ll add a bit more black pepper next time, so our spiced tea (aka chai) is a bit spicier. It’s a great all-purpose blend that we end up mixing into banana bread or zucchini bread – very yummy, and handy to have.

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In the past few weeks we had company, so of course broke out the touristy trips. Among other places, we dropped by the Cornerstone Garden Center on our way to visit Sonoma itself – it’s often overlooked (we overlooked it for years) but it’s definitely worth visiting along the way, if only for a wee break. Try it in early spring when everything is gray – even then, beauty. Some imaginative sculpture, a few restaurants, ponds, and of course places to sell you expensive things that you don’t need and would hate yourself for buying (we saw a distressed lawn chair for $450 – not kidding, and that wasn’t a typo, that was four hundred and fifty United States Dollars for a broken-down-looking wooden chair). Aside from the things to trick tourists out of their money, it’s a great place to spend a half hour or so.

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We also made a pilgrimage out to Santa Rosa, to the Charles M. Schulz Museum (a.k.a. the Snoopy Museum). It’s on the smaller size, for museums, but also has a bunch of comics for those who are fans of Snoopy. Definitely worth spending an hour or so, seeing some of the history behind the comics and behind Schulz himself. He was a local resident, there in Santa Rosa, and there’s a fair bit about his life as part of the community. The Empire Ice Arena is across the way with its own mini-museum (Schultz was an avid ice hockey player, and played there for years), and a fab way to pass a sticky summer afternoon is pretending you can figure skate.

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Finally, we visited Vallejo’s Petaluma Adobe. For those who don’t know, Vallejo was an early governor of California, when California was still part of Mexico. We’d driven past Petaluma Adobe literally hundreds of times – every time we came from Santa Rosa to the East Bay area, we drove past it. We’d never stopped in, though, and since we were in the area and had read it was a primo state park and once the home of General Vallejo, we figured we should check it out.

The Adobe itself is basically a mud-brick building in the shape of a squared C, with the only doors being on the inside of the C. The entire structure, on the ground floor, is an extended series of workshops, with looms, a saddlery, food storage and preparation, etc. The structure, on the second floor, is a series of living and sleeping quarters. This is basically an outpost, where people would come for a particular purpose (cattle slaughter, meat and hide preparation) for part of the year only. This is the early-California version of a meat-packing plant / factory except that it operated for months at a time and nobody could leave. What must it have smelled like? The park ranger said that the packed dirt floors were described as being “spotless,” so there were a lot of hands making the place work.

Petaluma Adobe is a California State Park and is in need of visitors. If any of you out there are teachers, they also do an overnight environmental living program for fourth-graders.

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And now, we must be off to take care of the irritating things like electronics recycling, which have been put off for too long.

-D & T

Santa Barbara

Well, folks, we’re heading down to Santa Barbara this afternoon, as D has an interview there on Monday. We’ll also hopefully take more pictures of the actual city of Santa Barbara, as, looking back, we only really have good pictures of the Mission, but not of Santa Barbara itself. So.

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-D & T

Thanks, TSA!

Thanks, TSA

Every time we fly we get one of these notices, but only in the bag with the laptop. The other bag never gets one. They leave this in disappointment, apparently, because the laptop is a piece of junk we take with us when we travel. Maybe they open the bag because of the novelty of seeing a laptop so old? Maybe it’s just that people have learned not to trust them with their electronics? We don’t know the real reason. But, if you want someone from TSA to go through your things, it seems an old laptop is something they find irresistible.

Helpful tech hint: when next you find yourself with an aging laptop on your hands, think about where it could still be useful. You could load Ubuntu Linux (or some other flavor, if you prefer – Ubuntu is easy to use for Windows or Mac people) and a few necessary programs and have something that’s quite useful for travel. Or you could strip everything off of the laptop that you don’t need and sanitize the disk (have a look at using sdelete, from Microsoft to do this). Either way, having something to take along that you wouldn’t mind losing means that you can pack the thing in hold luggage rather than schlepping it in carryon, and you can worry less about it in the hotel as well.

An added bonus is getting little love notes from TSA, expressing their disappointment that they didn’t find anything worth stealing in your luggage.


Tower Blocks We Have Known

It never ceases to amaze, how apparently the same five architects have been all over the world, building the same kind of tower block apartment buildings.

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From Mexico City, to Tallinn, Estonia, to Reykjavik, Iceland, to Glasgow, Scotland.

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These, to the right, are a few of the tower blocks in Glasgow. Somewhere in amidst the rest of our photos are better pictures of these, or ones like them, we’re sure – and in there somewhere is a bunch of them which closely resemble those we found in Mexico City. It’s a wee bit hard to find them at the moment, though, and there are better things to do on New Year’s Day (i.e., read books) than to hunt for pictures of tower block apartments. Glasgow was quite full of tower block apartments, although they’re mostly coming down now, as the days of trying to move the poor out of the city and into isolated and isolating towers is apparently at an end. We wonder about Mexico: are these the beginnings of a similar kind of thing there, or are these going to be more like those in Tallinn and Reykjavik, where they’re more of a long-lasting feature than a short-lived effort to shift the poor elsewhere? They unfortunately look more like Glaswegian tower blocks than they ought, if they’re going to last awhile. I guess we’ll have to ask about and see what role these are expected to play.

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The smaller tower block, here, with the elevator scaffolding in place was home for a very short 6 months, with us leaving because of the elevator scaffolding (which ran up and down outside our windows, with an awful buzzing noise, multiple times per day) and also because of the fact that the entire building pretty much fell into shadow after about 1:00 in the afternoon, all Winter long. This was our first flat in Glasgow – the elevator scaffolding is stopped right in front of our living room windows.

Now we’re back from Mexico City, we’re spending quite a lot of time sleeping, trying to recover from being tourists and from a nasty bug we picked up somewhere before we’d even left and which plagued us during the entire trip. Sometime tomorrow we’ll settle back into the idea that we have work to do, and lives to live here. Until tomorrow, though, we’re going to take it easy and ignore the world for a bit more.

Grasshopper Castle

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One of the more amusing-yet-annoying aspects of travel is the difference between what Google Maps tells you and what the locals tell you about how to get somewhere, and how long of a walk it is. We had a pre-open hours tour of Chapultepec Castle and needed to get there quickly. (In the panorama below, to the left you can see the first gates to the park; to the far right, somewhere behind the trees, is our hotel.)

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“It’s a little walk, five minutes,” the front desk concierge told us. “20 Minutes,” Google maps sternly advised (and Google also had us going through all sorts of back roads, which … nope.). Well, they were both wrong; we ended up walking for ten minutes to the gates – not five – and a half hour’s walk took us across the park, through the maze of food sellers and people hawking popcorn and cotton candy, agua fresca, emoji pillows and lucha libre masks, to finally – finally – the next set of gates at the bottom of the hill to the castle… which took another ten minutes to climb, to the next set of gates. Moral of the story: give yourself an hour more than you think you’ll need, if you’re trying to meet a guide. Unfortunately, not everyone got that memo, so we ended up waiting for an additional half hour, and our tour, which was meant to be no more than eight people, before the castle opened… swelled to forty-some people, as a retiree group from Florida showed up.

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Obviously, by the time we got situated and counted and recounted and organized by our guide, we were past the “pre-opening hours” time by a great deal.

We do NOT like to travel in large groups with a guide; especially when led by a guide who is more like the more annoying Kindergarten teachers you had than not. Because the castle museum guides are written in Spanish, one can purchase a listening guide in English, but the guide decided to translate… everything. And she was offended if this vast group moved ahead of her. The little “Yoo hoooo!” which echoed through the vast hallways probably had Maximilian and Carlota (and whichever other second wives and mistresses the man had) spinning in their graves…

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Fortunately in the castle park there weren’t as aggressive salespersons as they were in smaller villages we’ve visited, but with 30+ people strolling about, we definitely attracted more notice than we wanted…

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Additionally, it’s problematic to travel as a group of Americans all together, as lately the discourse deteriorates inevitably toward a political discussion. Somewhere we need to resurrect that rule about not talking politics or religion with strangers. The Floridians were curious about us, the biracial couple, and tentative “where did you meet? where are you from?” questions gave way to broad assumptions about… many things. T. gave a lot of vague smiles and eventually ghosted poor D, who ended up with Mr. Manhattan Playwright, who had to give his increasingly offensive opinions of a.) Mexican Nationals, b.) work ethic, c.) Mexican food, d.) things Ms. Rodham did wrong in her campaign, e.) the idiocy of certain classes of voters, f.) etc. etc. etc. f.) ad nauseum g.) ad infinitum. Fortunately, not all of our fellow travelers were like Mr. Manhattan; we met a couple who had lived in San Francisco in the seventies, and now that they’ve retired to Florida are always pleased to see folks from “home;” a solo engineer from Tucson, originally from Wisconsin, asked us for places to see in NorCal, and made a pleasantly amusing companion over lunch. It was a mixed bag, as people always are, and eventually we drifted off on our own, as one can only take the Kindergarten leadership so long…

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You might have gotten the idea that there was a lot of walking going on during this tour, and you’d be right. We walked for six hours – first from the hotel to the park, then through the park to the hill, then up the hill and through the castle, then through the National History Museum, then we stopped for lunch, and then went through the Museo de Antropologia – and then back through the park, and through the city to the hotel. After walking so much the night before, we were completely gutted, and gratefully found lunch at the tapas restaurant at the hotel, where the staff fell over themselves to find something for the lone vegetarianos to eat. After a lovely leek soup and some toast, we retired to our room for the evening… and then T helpfully spiked a fever and went to bed with chills and stomach upset. It was a rather inglorious ending to the day, but fortunately, we’d planned a whole lot of “in bed with books” for Christmas Eve and Christmas. Hotel room service, here we come.

-D & T

De Colores

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We people watch a great deal, on the way to and from wherever we’re going in this city. It amazes us that there are almost 9 million people in this city alone – and it’s so densely populated that people are living cheerfully cheek-by-jowl. It’s … a lot sometimes, so we’re grateful for the little pauses where we can look around.

One of the things which intrigues are the barrio murals. There’s graffiti all over the city, but quite a lot of it isn’t mere tagging, but actual muralist artwork. There’s a strong muralist tradition here, of course, dating back to Diego Rivera, and the city seems to be pretty ambivalent about artists taking to the streets, as long as the work is good and it’s not invasive or on statuary or whatnot. Those rules are clearly adhered to – there’s ONLY tagging on walls along freeways – so, so dangerous, with the way people drive here! – along sidewalks and streets and on the side of buildings. Even temporary walls put up along construction corridors don’t escape the paint.

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A lot of the art is religious iconography – the Virgin de Guadalupe is everywhere – but there’s also Banksy style stuff, stuff with a more political bent, protest artwork, and more. If you can handle the dust in the air from all the sweepers (there are leagues of twig-broom wielding sweepers all over the city) there are a lot of interesting places to walk and see the public art.

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-D & T

Taking on Teotihuacan

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We had a gradual beginning to our next outing, and were glad to meet our driver in late afternoon for a night outing. What would have been a forty minute drive outside of the city was at least an hour, due to the usual snarl of traffic, but we eventually saw a massive pyramid thrusting up against house-laden hills. As we got closer, we could see that there were people on top… which our driver said was all very well, except that myriad people climb the hundreds of stairs each year to the pyramid tops… and then get sick and dizzy, and fall. He advised us, if we had any altitude sickness, to stay on the ground, and we didn’t need to be told twice.

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Before we got to the pyramid, we stopped at a tiny workshop where a man in a respirator mask was carving obsidian. We were met by a guide who explained how maguey – or agave – was central to the life of the pre-Mayan people; from using the thorns on the tips of the plant as needles, to using its fibers for thread, to using its peeled skin as soap. We were especially intrigued by the fact that this village weaves maguey fiber and cotton to make gorgeous tablecloths, etc. It apparently can be washed and dyed just like cotton.

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The guide introduced us to pulque, the fermented sap of the agave, and as we looked into the middle of the plant, indeed we saw a stretchy sap with little bugs in it… Mesoamericans drank pulque as part of sacred ceremonies. It looks like milk, and they mixed some with coconut milk for us, to help it be less slimy and yeast-flavored. Still not something we wanted, so we politely wet our lips and left it.

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You’d think that, being in Mexico, we’d have chips and salsa every day… and you’d be wrong, because that’s Mexican American food. You (omnivores) can get a taco anywhere, but definitely burritos are nonexistent, and beans aren’t as prevalent as meat and vegetables. So, we were excited to see a molcajete bowl on the menu for supper. A molcajete is the lovely volcanic rock bowl in which one makes guacamole. So, we were serenaded – loudly! – and enjoyed our first guacamole in a week. It was one of the best meals we’ve had here, and there have been some great meals.

And finally – after waiting about twenty minutes for it to be dark enough, we went to the night tour of the Teotihuacan pyramids.

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We imagine it must have been pretty dire to be on your way up one of the pyramids as an unwilling sacrifice… first, the stairs are so steep that T thought seriously about crawling down them backwards. Next, Teotihuacan is still an active archaeological site — so there are piles of rubble off to the side, and though there’s a path that has been there since 100 BC approximately, it’s not exactly smooth, and a moonless night means that you may stub your toe and trip. The guides – and the guards – all carry flashlights or wear them, but it’s still deliciously dark and slightly spooky – or at least it clearly was to some people. We found ourselves smiling a great deal.

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We walked a long way – all the way up the Avenida de los Muertos – Avenue of the Dead to La Pyramid of the Moon and then came back to the Plaza del Sol to sit – fortunately with cushions – on these high stairs in front of the Pyramid of the Sun. It’s dark, and you’re sitting with strangers in the cool darkness, huddling together… and then the light show, projected onto the pyramid, begins. It was the history of the 125,000 person city that in 300 BC was the center of civilization in Mesoamerican times. It was… dramatic and cheesy, in spots, and we rolled our eyes over the mystic blether. But it was still just amazing – and amazing to be there. This valley is very hot during the day, and there are no trees – at all – and just these rocks and and pyramids on the plains. We chose the night tour for just that reason, and it was really magical.

-D & T

Cuernavaca and Taxco

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One of the temptations of any traveler, aside from overindulging in the name of “But, we’re on vacation!” is to assume one knows a people or a culture because one has spent time in a country before. Both D and T have been to Mexico repeatedly, but… can honestly say that they still don’t really know it.

For D, the reasons have involved being at a remove from most people. Staying in hotels with mainly Europeans and Americans, the traveler rarely goes outside of their comfort zone; staying at a university, one only interacts with students and faculty. For T, one of the reasons is that previous trips have involved a mission focus. Being taken to a country solely to “help” its inhabitants can have a limiting and narrowing effect on one’s view of that people. The things one is told, in an earnest effort to be helpful, can come from a racist and classist place, she is realizing. This remains a real problem with the cultural leaching that religion as an institution can do; in an effort to instill a particular set of values, it’s all too easy to erase everything in one’s path… but to get on with the day:

Yesterday was mucho cathedrals, which isn’t difficult when touring small villages established by taken over by the Franciscans. It was about a two hour drive out of the city into increasingly pastoral areas – we saw all the roosters and burros and horses and fields our little hearts desired (also: hand-cleared roadsides, with guys swinging actual sickles, and hand-stacked hay!). It was a relief to get out of the chaotic traffic and enjoy the relatively clear highways, made so by the holiday and people being elsewhere. The roads – toll roads, constructed by the government (and, apparently, with much in the way of scandal, kickbacks, bribes, etc.) – were in very good repair for being so far from the capitol.

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We visited Cuernavaca, the capital of the state of Morelos, which is just a couple hours inland and south of Mexico City. The lower elevation allowed us to leisurely explore the tiny village and its beautiful walled monastery, with well kept grounds and gardens, and an outdoor chapel where today kids still learn their catechism. This church has been in continuous use since its inception in the 1500’s, which is kind of astounding.

We visted a faux silver mine in the state of Guerrero, in the village of Taxco, to the Southwest of Mexico City. It was a wild drive up into the mountains, and the village is embedded into the mountainside all the way to its very tip-top. We climbed many hills but still didn’t get anywhere near all the way up there. There are about four thousand Volkswagen Beetles used to get around the steeply mountainous, narrow roads, which were originally made for travel by burro. There was an overwhelming amount of silver goods for sale, and we were grateful that we hadn’t gone into a real silver mine – they’re still in use, it’s dirty and dangerous, and it was SO unexpectedly warm. We brought jackets and hats, and finally abandoned them in the van. We might have wished for shorts and sandals, but the cobblestone road made for chancy footing, and amusingly, this was “mild” weather to everyone else. 80°F is “mild.” Well, all righty, then.

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Despite the piñatas hanging from every doorway and the cheery bunting hanging above the street, it was easy to forget in Cuernavaca that it was anywhere near Christmas, but the carols being blared from the loudspeaker in the center of town in Taxco definitely helped us remember… there’s nothing like hearing Burl Ives soaring over the imploring of small children trying to sell you chiclet, women and men hawking hats, Aztec calendar plates, placemats, huaraches, hammocks, jewelry and more. Oy.

We had lunch included in our jaunt and went to a family restaurant which had the requisite murals all around. We ran out of time to do the wall murals any justice – the historical one began with Adam and Eve (and a very bizarre serpent which had a human head and torso and body as tail), moved directly to the Aztecs, the Conquistadors held pride of place on the next wall, and then Mexico’s independence wars. The ceiling murals… were a bit more whimsical, depicting angels bringing food. Topless angels, for some reason. You cannot make this stuff up.

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D had a nice time chatting with our fellow tourists, a family from Costa Rica who told us we ought to come and visit their country next time. They tried out their English on T, and she …smiled a lot. It was amusing that the most attention paid to her on this trip so far was in the silver shops, as people assume the woman is the main buyer for all jewelry. Earnest gentlemen following her and actually speaking English to her was unnerving… but for the most part, she only has to say the odd “Que tal?” or “Buen dia” to get by – even though she can eavesdrop on conversations and pick up quite a bit more than she can speak. D, meanwhile, had a long conversation with the tour guide on linguistics, while T got treated to his bad “Spanglish” joke, told in a broad American Midwestern accent: My wife’s name is Conchita, we live in a casita…” ::sigh::

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It was a long day, with variable temperatures and a long drive home through burning sugarcane fields, only to be stopped by horrendous traffic getting back into the city. We didn’t get to the hotel until nearly 8, well after our promised return, but we survived, and since we’re two hours ahead here, weren’t even too starved fro dinner quite yet. Today’s adventures promise to have shorter times on the freeway – and we’re looking forward to the Mayans, Aztecs and all the mystical junk some tour guide is going to tell us about the pyramids. We have a special tour with an archaeologist to offset the nonsense, which will be helpful. ☺

-D & T

P.S. If you want to get an idea what it’s like to look through one of these cathedrals, have a look at this 360° photo sphere.

A Change of Latitude

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Two weeks ago, we hadn’t any real intention of dashing off on an actual vacation… but it seems like a good time to go, as D’s contract in Vacaville is 98% over, and new directions seem to be pointing north… so this will be our last change to go South for a while.

While Mexico City is only four hours away by air, it is a world away in culture. A lively city with a chaotic traffic experience of humans-vs-cars, it provides a colorful backdrop to an immense artistic sensibility. Whether the decorations are murals or spray painted greetings, tiles or wrought iron, there’s never a dull or boring spot on which to rest the eye. A big city isn’t exactly a restful spot for a vacation, but D has wanted T to experience the trip, as he spent a few days in the city when he was a tween, and remembered its frenetic pace and unique sights.

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Today’s fun discovery was an old vegetarian restaurant called Yug which opened in 1965. Delicious and cheap, and you can order anything on the menu, even “carnitas,” which contain no actual carne. Another new thing we learned about Ciudad de Mexico? It’s at a higher altitude than the Bay Area. Predictably, T. is having bouts of nausea, and we’re taking it slooooowly as we’re a bit headachey and out of breath, but fortunately nobody minds the slow walkers here.

We have tours booked for the next 4 days, visiting Cuernavaca, Taxco, Teotihuacan (for an evening light show), Chapultepec (for a before-opening tour), the National Muesum of Anthropology, Coyoacán, the Frida Kahlo Museum, Xochimilco (by boat!), and the National University. All that, in the next 4 days. After that we’ll have to see how we feel, and maybe consider whether we want to do more touristy things or to do some shorter things on our own.

-D & T

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