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

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truth

And if sun comes

How shall we greet him?

Shall we not dread him,

Shall we not fear him

After so lengthy a

Session with shade?

Though we have wept for him,

Though we have prayed

All through the night-years—

What if we wake one shimmering morning to

Hear the fierce hammering

Of his firm knuckles

Hard on the door?

Shall we not shudder?—

Shall we not flee

Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter

Of the familiar

Propitious haze?

Sweet is it, sweet is it

To sleep in the coolness

Of snug unawareness.

The dark hangs heavily

Over the eyes.

      – gwendolyn brooks

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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.

-D

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Sweet Potato Snaps

You know what’s problematic? Vegan cookie dough.

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In the fourth grade, T went to play at a friend’s house, and while the mother was diligently ironing, she was watching Days of our Lives, and eating, with a small spoon, from a bowl. Curious (nosy) T was offered some. And she was horrified. It was chocolate chip cookie dough – with raw eggs in it.

Being that awful know-it-all child, T gasped that raw eggs were BAD for you, and didn’t indulge. But, vegan cookie dough on a rainy afternoon… is another problem altogether. What’s worse? Is sweet potato cookie dough. If you already like sweet potatoes, baker, you may be doomed…

*cough*

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We have used surplus root veg to make cookies and muffins before, and it can be a great idea. Lots of vitamins and high fiber, and with minimal sweetener – honey or molasses – it’s a good way to use farm box veggies. This recipe uses sweet potato puree, so if you have a couple of baked yams sitting around, it’s a great way to use leftovers.

We revised a traditional Southern cooking show recipe and doubled everything but the sugar, and we still think it could maybe be cut a little, but your mileage may vary. Your baking time may also vary; we had to shorter ours quite a bit, or have black-bottomed cookies, which aren’t that tasty.

Sweet Potato Snaps

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) salted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar 2 Tbsp. molasses
  • 1 egg, room temperature 1 Tbsp ground flax seed
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup sweet potato puree
  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F 350°F.
  2. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, and salt.
  3. Cream butter and sugar.
  4. Add sweet potato and mix until incorporated.
  5. Mix in dry ingredients and vanilla.
  6. Drop by heaping tablespoons onto the prepared cookie sheets, leaving about 2 inches of space between each cookie.
  7. Bake 18 minutes.Bake 10-12 minutes unless you’d like to eat cinders.

These actually taste – in dough form – like a cross between pumpkin pie and gingerbread – but once baked up, the spices create a subtler seasoning, and the sweet potato flavor really shines out. Be sure to let the cookies sit a bit after baking – not only are these little nuclear furnaces to bite into, the starches need to settle in order to give them that chewy gingersnap texture. Five-to-seven minutes should do the trick, and yes, you can wait that long.

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As you can see, we used a scoop to make these cookies the same uniform size (until some of us got bored with that *ahem*) but if you have a cookie press, the cookie dough is a great consistency for that.

Originally, the cookies were meant to be finished with an orange glaze, but we really feel like a.) there’s already quite enough sugar going on there, and b.) the orange might be better added as extract, just before baking. If you were making these for a party, and not just for at-home snacking, by all means, use a powdered sugar and orange juice glaze and a zest an orange to give it a bit of color, but the sweet potato flavor really doesn’t need the extra help, and if you use too much sugar, you really run the risk of losing the subtle play of flavor. Definitely use more orange than sugar here!

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Enjoy – and enjoy these rainy, hazy, crazy days of winter.

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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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Iceland 2016 05
Around Glasgow 571
Around Glasgow 060
Cranston Street 25

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.

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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

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De Colores


Tenochtitlan 02

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

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Taking on Teotihuacan


Tenochtitlan 07

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.

Tenochtitlan 09

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.

Tenochtitlan 15

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

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Cuernavaca and Taxco

Cuernavaca 05

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.

Taxco 08

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.

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A Change of Latitude


Mexico City 008

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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