Thursday, December 07, 2006

Book Review: Getting Stoned With Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu by bestselling author J. Maarten Troost
Review: **** (four out of five stars)

This excellent follow-up to "The Sex Lives of Cannibals" details Troost's decision to quit his high-powered and tedious job in Washington D.C. and take up life again in the Pacific....

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Beginning January 23, 2007, ALL persons, including U.S. citizens, traveling by air between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda will be required to present a valid passport, Air NEXUS card, or U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Mariner Document.

As early as January 1, 2008, ALL persons, including U.S. citizens, traveling between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda by land or sea (including ferries), may be required to present a valid passport or other documents as determined by the Department of Homeland Security. While recent legislative changes permit a later deadline, the Departments of State and Homeland Security are working to meet all requirements as soon as possible. Ample advance notice will be provided to enable the public to obtain passports or passport cards for land/sea entries.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Travel Series Review: "Long Way Round"
Starring: Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman
Appearing on Bravo (USA) and Sky One (UK)

While many celebrities book their tickets to visit Caribbean spas for facials and yoga retreats (not that there's anything wrong with a little R&R, mind you), Ewan Macgregor and best friend, fellow actor, Charley Boorman, set out on an adventure most people in their right mind would pay not to go on...Sponsored by BMW, they set out to cover roughly 20,000 miles around the world by motorbike, through largely rough and unpopulated areas. While supported at occasional border crossings, they were for the most part alone. Crossing Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia on outrageously slippery, flooded, and muddy roads and non-roads.
The first episode was slow in the beginning and in need of more hip editing cuts, but eventually the momentum of their journey carries you. Equally admirable is the fact that you rarely see Charlie or Ewan fight. They both have three characteristics which make for the perfect adventurers: a healthy sense of humor, a sense of wonder, and dogheaded persistence to finish what they set out to accomplish. Although the last episode seemed rather hurried, I found myself wanting more. And just like them, I found myself yearning the harder parts of the journey....the mosquitoes and swollen river crossings over the urban pavement...if at the very least to be reminded of the vigor that only a healthy adventure can bring to one's perspective of the world. I would heartily recommend this to any motorcycle enthusiasts, adventurers, and around-the-world travelers.
You can buy the series on or rent it on Netflix. Their homesite is:


  • This year, Charley set out to ride the 2006 Race to Dakar, arguably the world's harshest cross-country dirt bike race in which riders cross the Sahara Desert. You can access his team's home page at:
  • Tuesday, October 31, 2006

    "Bakespace Takes a Bite out of the Myspace Market"

    Myspace's overwhelming success has inspired countless spin-offs, some more successful than others. I've recently become a member of Bakespace, a website blending the concept of myspace networking with the passion of cooks and bakers, whether professional or amateur. With over 5300 members, you can create a page and profile of your own, sharing recipes from around the world for dishes like cashew crusted chicken, sauteed spinach with lemon, or unique twists on the simple classic, hot chocolate.
    Check it out at:


  • And since it is Halloween, I've included an excerpt from Babette's (founder of Bakespace) latest Bakespace newsletter detailing some of the diverse traditions for celebrating Halloween around the world.


    Halloween is one of the world's oldest holidays, dating back to pagan times. In many countries food plays a central role in how the holiday is celebrated. Here's a sample of how the world is celebrating tonight:

    * Ireland
    In Ireland, a traditional food eaten on Halloween is barnbrack, a kind of fruitcake. A muslin-wrapped treat is baked inside the cake that, it is said, can foretell the eater's future. If a ring is found, it means that the person will soon be wed; a piece of straw means that a prosperous year is on its way.

    * Austria
    In Austria, some people will leave bread, water and a lamp on the table before going to bed on Halloween night. It was once believed that these items would welcome the dead souls back to earth.

    * China
    In China, the Halloween festival is known as Teng Chieh. Food and water are placed in front of photographs of family members who have departed.

    * Mexico, Latin America and Spain
    Among Spanish-speaking nations, Halloween is known as "El Dia de los Muertos" -- the day of the dead – and is celebrated over a three-day period that begins the evening of October 31. A feast is held that includes loaves of bread called "Bread of the Dead." Inside the loaves are sugar skeletons or other items with a death motif. This gift is more prized if the skull or skeleton is embossed with one’s own name.

    Tuesday, October 17, 2006

    "Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all."
    Helen Keller

    I've become addicted to Youtube and, in an effort to keep up with the digital age, I've created a new podcast section for my writing and photography website. I've just posted a short slideshow of my adventures (with Mama Chihuahua) travelling through North Vietnam as well as a short music video of the rock n'roll band, "King Bee," that I play with. The Vietnam slideshow is one which I've presented at the "What Color Is Your Jockstrap?" travel anthology booksignings in California, Indiana, and Arizona over this past summer.

    If you view the "King Bee" video on Youtube, please take the time to rate it. The higher the rating we receive, the higher its status will be in the Youtube search engine. Check the videos out on my...

  • Podcast Page

  • I've also organized my travel blog links on this site so you can browse previous blogs by country instead of by date. You can find them alphabetically by country in the margin to the right.

    Thanks again and stay tuned for more website developments this month.

    Friday, August 04, 2006

    Haven't been posting much this summer through the whirlwind of traveling to Arizona, Indiana, and a recent sailing trip out to the Channel Islands for some R&R. The Vietnam Slideshow and "Jockstrap" Booksigning parties in Flagstaff, AZ and Santa Barbara, CA were a smashing success and I'm having lots of fun creating multi-media presentations with the added elegance of my new Epson multi-media projector.
    Mama Chihuahua and I are planning our next trip over the winter to either North India or Morocco. In the meantime, I'll be hunkered down working on several magazine stories of the culinary persuasion. I'll be updating here once a month this fall.
    Several of my Vietnam photos are posted now on my website's

  • Vietnam Page.
  • Tuesday, June 20, 2006

    Some great news this week. For the past five years, I've wanted to get a travel story into a Travelers Tales anthology (you can find a ton of them in the narrative travel section at local bookstores) and now, after opening my veins up at the keyboard, staying up late into the wee hours of the morning, and enduring years of writers' conferences, critiques, and revisions...the literary genie is delivering!

    The book is hot off the press... My story "Mama Chihuahua: World's Fiercest Travel Partner," is featured in the newest humor travel anthology "What Color Is Your Jockstrap?" along with stories by Susan Orlean (author of "The Orchid Thief") and Tim Cahill (award-winning travel writer and founding editor of "Outside Magazine"). This is an excellent and hilarious collection of stories by some heavy-hitters in American Travel writing....Rolf Potts, Elliott Hester, Doug Lansky, as well as several other literary wanderlusts.

    With eager anticipation, I have several booksigning events arranged over the summer:

    -Book signing on the 4th of July in Cataract Falls, Indiana. (Actually, this one will be small but mighty...a crew of my father and stepmother's friends will be gathering...)

    -Book signing and a slideshow (on North Vietnam) on Thursday, July 13th at Red's Cafe in Santa Barbara, CA from 7-11 p.m.

    -Book signing, party, and Vietnam slideshow with the Thurston Girls (Mama Chihuahua and yours truly) in Flagstaff, Arizona on July 22nd.

    -Book signing with Tim Cahill and editor Jen Leo at Book Passage Bookstore in Corte Madera, CA on August 16th.

    Lots of good stuff coming together this year!
    If you've read the book, please give us a good plug on Jen Leo, the folks at T Tales, myself, and all of the other contributors would love to see this book continue with great success. The other books in this series have all been best-sellers...keeping our fingers crossed with sweet anticipation!

    For more updates on other booksigning event and juicy info about the contributors, check out Jen Leo's sexy site:

  • What Color Is Your Jockstrap

  • Thanks always for all of your support!

    Monday, June 05, 2006

    Photos of North Vietnam and North Thailand will be posted here and on the photo page of my main site by July 1st.
    In the meantime, if you'd like to receive my occasional travel blog emails and literary updates, please click on

  • subscribe
  • .

    Wednesday, May 31, 2006

    Vietnam/Thailand Part IV: "The Fifteen Funniest Moments Traveling With Mama Chihuahua"
    June 1, 2006
    Bangkok, Thailand

    In an effort to condense the raucous and most unexpected moments of our trip, here's a list of our top fifteen funniest moments:
    *Warning: Obscenities, Catholic references, and sexual allusions are plentiful in the following text.

    1) Most back-handed compliment: Our Thai B&B hostess tells mother one afternoon, "My auntie wants to tell you that she thinks you must have been really beautiful...when you were young. And I told her that you probably look much better when you dress up."

    2) Most sacrilegious t-shirt on an Asian: A young Thai woman wearing a lime green t-shirt and a drawing of the Virgin Mary with a finger held to her lips as if to "Shhh." The text above her reads..."Mary Was Only A Virgin." The text below her..."If You Don't Count Anal." I don't think the woman had a clue what the English words meant.

    3) Most OCD moment for Rachel: Watching the gloveless Thai salon woman scraping under Mom's fingernails until they bled with metal instruments she had just used on a previous customer.

    4) Worst possible occupation: Women stand downstream of elephants bathing in the river and collect their warm, green dung in giant plastic baskets as it floats by. (I'll complain about a story deadline again. At least for a week or so.)

    5) Funniest use of English by an Asian: The young H'mong children in the mountains of Vietnam swarming me as they thrust tiny little hands filled with charms and embroidered cloths...."BUY ME! BUY ME! BUY ME!"

    6) Angriest Mama Chihuahua moment: Nice Vietnamese lady who shares tea with us along the lake in Hanoi transforms immediately into angry, Vietnamese Hulk Lady who gets in Mom's face (BIG MISTAKE), demands that Mama Chihuahua buy her postcards and her fans, and then says, "Me have NO MONEY! Must buy!" (BIGGEST MISTAKE.)
    I pull Mama Chihuahua away from the crazy (and stupid) woman before she lets loose. She's pissed about it for at least ten blocks. Meaningful Mother-Daughter Conversation follows:

    Mama: "You know what really pissed me off is when she said she doesn't have any money. I wanted to punch her."

    Rachel (as diplomatically as possible--even though I hated the lady, too): "Well, compared to us, she doesn't."

    Mama: "Well, too bad. She can't have mine."

    7) Dumbest Thurston Tourist Moment: When we arrive in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on a Saturday, we can't figure out why the Sunday Market has already started and we spend the rest of the night questioning every Thai person we meet about the logic of having a Sunday market start on a Saturday. We secretly make fun of them for the rest of the night...what kind of idiotic people have a Sunday Market on a Saturday night? It's 11:30 p.m. when we catch sight of a calendar and realize that it IS Sunday.

    8) Grossest Food Moment: Watching a man carry an upside down skinned carcass of a dog...deep-fried chicken feet...and gelatinized intestines.

    9) Greatest # of old, pot-bellied, balding, white guys seen with pubescent Thai girls in one night of walking through Chiang Rait: 18+.

    10) Most Naive Mama Chihuahua Moment: After passing the MILLIONTH! "LadyBoy" (the transvestites and transexual men who are cultural accepted and ubiquitous throughout the cities in Thailand) in a night market, Mom stops suddenly, pivots back towards an obvious example of a LadyBoy, her eyes the size of half dollars, and says with total shock: "Rachel, I think that WOMAN WAS A MAN. "
    No?! You don't say.

    11) Most Embarrassing Moment for Rachel: Discovering during dinner that my backside was completely slathered in baby elephant schmegma that had crusted over on all my black clothes...and it had been there for six hours of shopping, walking past temples, through stores, markets, and public transportation. I can only imagine what people thought it was.

    12) Most Egregious Fashion Faux Pas: On a rainy day in the mountains of North Vietnam, Mama Chihuahua struts through town wearing...old-school velcro purple teva sandals WITH green and grey striped wool socks PULLED UP to just below her blue crop pants, a lime green shirt tucked beneath a bright orange fleece (mine), a deep purple raincoat, a red bandana tied around her neck, and a hot pink umbrella to ward off the rain and stares.
    And no, this wasn't a dare.
    We went shopping together (to find her clothes that would match) shortly thereafter.

    13) Most dreaded Lonely Planet phrase read on trip (after returning from two-day trek through the mud and water buffalo sh%t wearing sandals): "Beware of hiking through rural areas and ALWAYS wear covered shoes. Rural Vietnam provides ample opportunities to contract hookworm and multiple parasites."

    14) Funniest linguistic faux pas: Vietnamese has six tones, which means that an incorrect pronunciation can shift the meaning of a word completely. After incorrectly calling our guide ("Khang") a "cave" instead of "prosperous" which is what his name really means when said properly, he spends an entire dinner trying to correct our mispronunciations to worse effect, this time, our pronunciation is more blunderous and we end the night calling him a "cavernous prostitute."
    He gives up shortly thereafter.

    15) Funniest Guided Tour: When guide picks us up at B&B to take us to elephant camp, the truck doesn't start so he has to jump start the truck. When we go to the gas station, he keeps the truck running while he fills up on gas. Mom and I hop out of back of truck and walk a hundred feet away while he fills up. During drive into mountains, we catch a glimpse of him reading the brochure directions to the elephant farm. On our return trip, it begins to rain and we find that all the windows in the back of the truck are broken so we ride with our umbrellas deployed INSIDE of the truck.
    Good deal.

    Here's hoping you all have adventures of your own!

    Rach and Mama Chihuahua

    Tuesday, May 30, 2006

    Vietnam/Thailand Part III: Mango Sticky Rice and Baby Elephant Slobber

    "Waking up as a "shopaholic" is much like it is for alcoholics and sexaholics, you don't really know the damage you've done until you check the bags at the foot of your bed...and your wallet."
    RST, the "Morning After" in Chiang Mai

    May 30, 2006
    Chiang Mai, Thailand
    10:00 p.m.

    A warm breeze drifts in carrying the sweet smell of rain....
    After doing lots of cultural shit the past couple of days and sweating like Ukrainians in the tropics, Mom and I spent this gloriously precious day in an air-conditioned mall shopping for clothes that I think will look better than the ones she brought, eating hot pretzels with fake cheese dip, and watching the X-Men III for two bucks.

    Thailand, I've decided, is like the Hawaii of Southeast Asia. It's hot, it's humid, it's comfortable, economically strong, and it's filled with all sorts of tropical fruits and prostitution. Okay then, it's mostly like Hawaii.

    For the first day or two, we stuffed ourselves with bowls of sticky rice, freshly cut ripe mango in coconut milk with toasted yellow rice, juicy chicken satay with peanut sauce, and pad thai made with flat rice noodles and sprinkled with chili pepper, lime juice, and crushed peanuts. On the street, each of these dishes costs around a buck.

    We've had absolutely no agenda here which is exactly why this part of our trip has been so good. I've taken a break from all the photos and the drive to see all the tourist sites. We're nearly over-shopped, over-"watted" ("wat" means "temple" in Thai) out, and over-saturated with cultural stuff. I've put my camera away for a day or two just to relax and enjoy each moment we have together before our trip comes to an end. Mom and I have come to amuse ourselves with the most urbane things...making fun of each other's fashion choices (mostly I make fun of hers) or of our tireless drive to buy every possible piece of silk in plain view (mostly, that would be me). We've even invented our own language and jokes. After all our travels together, it's scary how closely alike we think. Often, we only have to say a word to the other and we both start cracking up.

    Our newest game is to count the number of balding, pot-bellied, old white guys we see traipsing around town with their peri-pubescent Thai "girlfriends," a long-term version of prostitution. We lost count last night after the eighteenth "couple" we spotted before we realized we were walking through the Red Light District of Chiang Mai and past a bunch of prosititutes and "lady-boys."

    Aside from our intense cultural experience at the mall shopping this afternoon and all the meals of sticky rice and mangos, our most magical moment was visiting an elephant "camp" yesterday. We mostly expected it to be a circus-like event in which the elephants are living in these awful cramped quarters, being fed scraps, and paraded about in tutus (okay, really big tutus), and mocked in classic and bastardly anthropomorphic style
    We were shocked at what a lovely place it was...we stood just feet away from a rushing river where the elephants bathed themselves (the "mahouts" or trainer/drivers) scrubbing behind their ears) and watched a show in which the elephants played soccer (blocking the ball at the goal post from another elephant), threw darts at water balloons, played harmonicas, and most amazingly, PAINTED on easels. (and yes, this is "anthromorphizing" but the entire place and the tone were respectful, more so than any other I have experienced and sadly, this is a way that elephants can be "protected" as their natural habitat continues to be wiped out throughout Asia).

    The painting was fascinating. The "mahout" dipped the brush in different colors and the elephants began to paint, gingerly holding the paint brushes with their trunks and running the brush along the "canvas." We thought the art would just be scribble marks but were astounded when we saw one elephant painting a bonzai tree and another painting a vivid purple inflorescence of wisteria blooms perfectly proportioned and more graceful and evocative than anything I've painted in my life (not that I'm Georgia O'Keefe but you know what I mean).

    Afterwards, the elephants came up to us and "bowed" to us all. One young elephant wrapped its trunk around me like a giant, prickly-haired but affectionate boa constrictor. Another young elephant placed a hat on my head, took it off, and put it back on again with three taps.

    When the show was over, Mom and I walked freely through the camp past the village where the "mahouts" live with their families and on to a grassy field where the nursery resides. Aside from two young German girls, no other tourists had ventured this far and we had the place to ourselves.
    In the last enclosure (really only a wooden fence about four feet tall) was a mother elephant and a two-month old newborn elephant that stood only about 3.5 feet tall. We couldn't believe our luck.

    The baby elephant wandered about between its mother's legs and would then amble over to check us out...sniffing my toes and tickling them with its trunk. It was the most divine sensation to be rubbing the ears of this baby elephant as it tickled my feel its warmth and curiosity and to be so close! We couldn't believe our fortune. Mom and I had a very special moment with elephants in South Nepal many years ago and I continue to be amazed by their energy, intelligence, and sentience whenever I'm around them. When we left, I felt this ecstatic high and blissful happiness to have been around them...

    Last night as we ate chicken skewers with peanut sauce at the night market, Mom stopped eating and looked at me funny. "Don't get upset or anything but I think you should know..." she pointed to the back of my black shirt and skirt which had been crusted over in elephant slobber for the whole afternoon and evening. It looked as if I'd just rolled in a bunch of oatmeal and the clumps had dried and crusted over in big globs of spit and mucilaginous stuff.

    "That's so damn cool," I thought. "I'm covered in baby elephant slobber."

    I cleaned most of it off right away but, just for sentimental sake, I did leave a little bit of it on my backpack.

    Hope you're all living your to a Thai cooking course in the next day and then headed home this weekend...

    my love to you all-



    Friday, May 26, 2006

    Vietnam/Thailand Part II: "Wading Through Rice Paddies and Buffalo Sh%#"

    May 26th
    5:30 a.m.
    North Vietnam Two Day Mountain Trek

    Apparently, trekking during the beginning of the monsoons through rice paddies in North Nam is a slippery deal...

    The adventure aency guy was certain I'd fall at least "five times!"when we arrived on Tuesday morning wearing our teva sandals instead of proper hiking boots. "This is mountains! You will fall many times...must have better shoes!" He tried offering me some cheap sneakers to wear which were missing the toe section on the right foot and I declined his offer.

    "Don't worry," I told him with unflappable confidence, "I'm a guide in the U.S. I'll be fine."

    He didn't look convinced.

    "Oh well," he laughed. "Trekking more fun when you fall! Then it's really an adventure.

    "How bad can it be?" Mom and I laughed as we set off down the road with our guide, Binh.

    Apparently worse than we thought. It never stopped raining from the moment we began. We covered ourselves and our backpacks with giant, shapeless ponchos, rolled our pant legs up to our knees, and carried umbrellas. Any time we wanted to take a photo, I'd pull my Canon out from the humid depths of my poncho, tucked the handle of my umbrella under my chin, put the lens cap between my teeth, and took a photo as fast as possible with the least amount of rain damage possible.

    Surprisingly, the rain added a certain mystical quality to all of the photos and scenery. The mist moved across the mountains like wispy plumes of smoke, rising and falling, and twisting into new shapes and and beings. The drizzle gave a softness to the landscape of terraced rice fields and farming villages...great stands of wet bamboo thrust up through the ground, their slender leaves as green as scallion stalks. We weaved between rice paddy fields where the Black H'mong (named for how they use indigo plants to dye their clothes a deep blue black) were busy tending to their rice crops...the women wearing traditional dress and conical woven hats, pulling bunches of rice plants from the water...the men hand-packing the edges of each rice paddy along steep terraces and pulling simple wooden "rakes" to till new terraces and break up the soil.

    The terraces cascaded down the hillside for an infinity and disappeared into the great vast whiteness...where we could hear the roaring of a river coming down from the top of the mountains. The heavy rainfall has created numerous waterfalls along the mountain sides which tumble along textured granite and limestone faces.

    Young H'mong children sold bamboo walking sticks to trekkers passing through at the price of 50 cents each. I fell in love with a little black puppy at the first rest stop in a little farming house, jokingly calling the puppy, "Soup." I later asked Binh how the Vietnamese decided which dogs to keep as pets and which ones would be stir-fried.

    "In the countryside, we do not have pets." he told me with characteristic Vietnamese nonchalance.

    It turns out, the puppy would be someone's soup one day. I couldn't shake the thought that every adorable puppy that wagged its tail when we approached and played with a long cord I'd brought along was blissfully ignorant of its true destiny: the main centerpiece for dinner. The second day, we passed a guy carrying an upside down skinned carcas that looked peculiarly familiar. Binh confirmed by suspicions..."Yes, that is dog," he said, knowing fully that westerners have never warmed to the idea of "Stir Fry Benji."

    By lunch I had given up trying to avoid the mud and simply walked squished right through it....trying hard not to imagine millions of microscopic parasites wriggling their way into my skin between my toes. (It turns out that there's a whole section in the Lonely Planet guidebook to Vietnam about the numerous types of hookworm and parasites ever-present in farming communities and how trekkers should ALWAYS wear covered shoes....).

    For our "homestay" that night, we stayed with a Zay (pronounced "Zai") family after after spending thirty minutes of dumping water over our legs to wash off the mud and buffalo manure caked on our legs. From our porch that night, we watched a few trekkers wading through the mud past our house...amused ourselves watching a five-year old boy riding on the back of a water buffalo while he held a little blue umbrella. Men and women continued to work in the fields even through the rain...a few stray chickens harassed a water buffalo across the "road"...our family's small pack of puppies and dogs tumbled with one another playfully on the porch...and we spoke with two young Black H'mong girls who wandered on to the porch to practice their English with us.

    After about eight young boys, H'mong woman, and two young girls invaded the house to watch a horrible Chinese movie about a couple of fourteenth century guys with shellacked hair fighting over a Ziyi Zhang look-alike on one of the town's few t.v. sets...we sat down to a huge spread of food that Binh had made for us from a tiny kerosene-burning stove. Bowls of rice, seafood spring rolls, stir-fried tofu, ginger beef (he swore it wasn't dog), sprouts with tomatoes, and a traditional plate of fruit to finish the meal magically appeared from the humble kitchen.

    At dinner there were five of us, Binh (our guide), mom, me, Leung (a young Math teacher who lived there), and Lekh (a cousin or some relation to him who also lived there). We never did figure out their relation. After we stuffed ourselves, Leung said something to Binh in Vietnamese. Binh turned towards me and said, "He would like to invite you to have some rice wine with him."

    I gave him the thumbs up and shook my head eagerly. I have read about the peer pressure surrounding who can hold copious amounts of rice wine the best and I was certain it wouldn't be any problem to tell him that I'd only drink one shot, maybe two.

    I mean, how hard can it be to say 'no' to a Vietnamese math teacher with a teapot full of rice wine?

    After we all did a shot (I had already had two upon arrival in the afternoon and had convinced Mom that she do one, too), he poured another shot.

    By then, Binh had declared he wouldn't be drinking ANYMORE rice wine that night. Leung began to focus all his imbibing efforts on me...which I think was the original plan anyway.

    Not to offend, I did another shot swearing that it would be my last.

    Leung poured another one. After my second or third, the room still wasn't spinning but I did feel a pleasant warmth spreading from my throat down into my chest. Maybe I COULD take these skinny Vietnamese guys down. Maybe all these years of tequila adoration would be paying off for me out here in the mountains of North Nam.

    "Rice wine isn't really that strong, you know?" I said to Mom, feeling pretty damn good and proud of myself.

    "Yes!" Binh interrupted immediately, his head buried in the rice but paying attention to every one of our drinks, "Yes, IT IS."

    I waved off the third drink and we went back to our conversation about the local school where all the Zay and H'mong children attended. All the time, however, Leung kept an eye on the shot glasses which he had already armed again, ready for his next attack.

    Now, it was just him and I. When there was a lull in the conversation, Leung again said something to Binh in Vietnamese.

    Binh turned to me, "He would like to invite you to have some more rice wine with him."

    I looked over at my non-drinking Mamacita who was beginning to get that disturbed look that says, "What the hell kind of evil things are going to happen to my daughter if I leave her down her with three Vietnamese guys and a pot full of rice wine?"

    I patted my stomach and tried to explain that I couldn't drink anymore.

    Leung nodded with the immediate understanding that I obviously needed to have more "padding" in my stomach for the coming shots and started piling eggs and rice into my bowl, urging me to eat, if merely to ward off the effects of the liquor.

    "Do women in Viet Nam drink a lot?" I asked Binh, watching Leung's anxious advancements.

    All three of the guys immediately said, "No!" and started laughing. It was amusing to them to see how well, if at all, a gal could hold her liquor.

    Leung continued to pour drinks and I continued to first plead 'no,' and then to drink them. He'd fill my glass, I'd pour it back into his and then we'd compromise on sharing whatever amount he'd pour. At some point, Binh drank one of my shots in a heroic and gentlemanly gesture.

    After six or so shots, I got Leung to back down and we got caught up in a battle over the correct pronunciation of the Vietnamese word, "Ngon" which to us sounded like a completely meaningful conversation but, to mother, sounded as sophomoric as:

    "Ngon." I said.

    "NO!" they all laughed. "N-G-O-N!"


    "Ngon!" back and forth until we sounded like dying sparrows clucking away. I was convinced that MY pronunciation was just like theirs but they kept laughing until I conceded defeat and mom and I retreated to our lofts where we heard strange skittering about like the little feet of rodents or a stray chicken who had figured out a way through the roof.

    That night Mom and I slept in the loft beneath mosquito netting to the soft sound of rain hitting the roof. Late in the night, I awoke to her disturbed cries for help. She was convinced that there was a giant snake slithering beneath her mattress. I wasn't sure if it was a nightmare (it was) or it there was something beneath her so I crammed my earplugs in even deeper, pulled the sheet over my head and went back to sleep again, trying hard to ignore the sour smell of the damp polyester sheets I was sleeping on.

    The next morning it was raining even harder. We armed ourselves with wet ponchos, muddy sandals, and we sludged our way up and down miniature mudslides trying to brace ourselves against our bamboo poles as we slid down steep inclines. I've never been on a more slippery f&*^ing trail in my was like hiking on slopes of butter covered in buffalo sh%t. We saw trekkers covered in mud who had taken face plants in buffalo pies or who had merely opted to slide down on their butts instead of brave the steep, muddy trails anymore. I slipped into a rice paddy, covered up to my right knee in muck for a moment before Binh pulled me up again onto the six-inch narrow mud ridge separating the terraces.

    The last part of the trail was gloriously beautiful, straight out of a movie...through giant stands of glistening bamboo...thousands of giant pale orange butterflies flittered between us and the bamboo like bits of confetti raining down on us. The air smelled sweet like a mixture of crushed mint leaves, wet earth, and eucalyptus. Two H'mong girls carrying umbrellas walked with us patiently helping us down the slopes.

    When we made it into town later that afternoon, we ran into an Australian guy covered head to toe in caked, dried mud, his hair still wet from the rain. I teased him about having "rolled" through the stuff and he looked at me somberly in response.

    "No, I just tore my anterior cruciate ligament," he said before he limped out of the hotel with his friend and his guide towards a jeep ready to take him to the hospital.

    Looks like we were lucky. Just a few parasites and a bit of mud. That shower and a fresh change of clothes was the best thing I've experienced all week. A little soap and a dry change of clothes goes a long, long way. I think I'd go nuts if I lived in a place where it rained every single dang day.

    We're back in Hanoi...just off the night train and waiting for our room to take showers, do laundry, eat breakfast, and head out to explore our last days in Viet Nam before heading to Thailand.

    As much as I consider myself an aspiring Buddhist, I have to say I'm a really sucky one this week. Mom and I are taking such joy out of having daily showers, clean clothes, and spending our days shopping in the markets and eating yummy spring rolls at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant down the street.

    Vietnam has been incredible but has also made us appreciate the good fortune of all that the comforts we have in our lives...

    Hope you all are well and parasite-free...heading for North Thailand in twenty-four hours...

    Rachel and her beloved Mamacita

    Monday, May 22, 2006

    Vietnam/Thailand Part I: "Glowing Pineapples and Sea Urchins"

    "Life is funny...One year we're bombing them and the next we're fighting to buy their t-shirts."
    Carol Blacklaw, Canadian

    May 22, 2006
    North Vietnam

    Ambition goes out the window in the tropics...flying into Hanoi, the air is misty with humidity. We drive past glistening fields of rice and farmers biking along the highway and wearing pointed woven hats. Aside from the occasional hammer and sickle communist flags, Vietnam appears industrious and firmly rooted in a private market economy, despite its communist title. We spend the first day just trying to acclimate to the heat and shaking off the jet lag...stumbling from cafe to cafe, umbrellas in hand to ward off the unrelenting equatorial sun and chugging on several liters of water each. I'm determined to come to terms with the heat.

    Hanoi's streets bustle excitedly to the point of being overwhelming. We stay in the Old Quarter where Asian design meets French sensibility. Large shuttered windows and French doors with magnanimous balconies. Flourishes of ornate bannisters and hanging bird cages with singing canaries. Shops spill out into the street advertising their selections of unrivaled silks, lanterns, and smooth lacquerware. Women stoop on the sidewalks over charcoal fires stirring cauldrons of soups and stir-frying noodles, carrots, and greens. Barbers cut their clients' hair on chairs pulled out onto the sidewalks.

    The streets--too narrow for cars and too busy for pedestrians to cross safely--are clogged with a constant stream of motorcyles, scooters, and bicycles. Large families straddle tiny motorcyles, their babies propped against the handlebars, as they come inches from the bumpers of the occasional taxi and hoards of other motorcyles going in the opposite direction. Many intersections have no traffic lights whatsoever and the scooters flow into one another like waves, ebbing and flowing brushing against one another and miraculously missing collisions more often than not.

    We book a three day trip to Ha Long Bay with a reputable adventure company that's come highly recommended and buy two large loaves of fresh french bread and a large shiny apple from a street vendor. All for less than a dollar.
    "My brain has melted into the sea and it's just wonderful."
    Bobby Beal, Austin, Texas (Ha Long Bay)

    Ha Long Bay, a world heritage site, is located along the northeastern coast of Vietnam, several hours away from the bustle of Hanoi. Mom and I always wonder at the beginning of a trip who it is that we'll be meeting on our journey, knowing that several fellow travelers from past trips have become our lifelong friends...this trip is no different and the individuals in our group are an extraordinary and an unlikely mix. The Blacklaws are a Canadian family from Vancouver who are traveling through Latin America and Asia with their fifteen-year old daughter for five months. Their aunt, Bobbie, is from Austin and is one of the classiest, funniest, most charming, AND well-dressed women I've met in a long, long time. Sandy is an actor from New York now living and teaching in Korea and Ludovic is a young and easy-going Belgian guy embarking on his last vacation before his first real job as an adult begins in Brussels.

    We board our boat, which by American standards, is up to four-star standards...made of polished teakwood and hosting as many staff as there are guests in our group. The crisply-dressed staff meet us with trays of fresh orange juice and wet tea towels for washing our hands. Mom and I struggle with our ever present mammoth-size backpacks and nearly fall into the sea crossing the plank.

    There's nothing that can prepare you for Ha Long Bay....its muted colors, the phantasmagoric shapes of the islands, or the constant chirring of cicadas and the pirate-like look of the old junks sailing between the vertical limestone cliffs. I've never seen anything like it and the smell of the warm saltwater, the cool breezes that come across the water in the early evening, the burnt color of the sun as it melts into the horizon takes a hold of you like a magic spell.

    I'm convinced now that the only way that mom and I ever truly relax is to be taken away from the city either by trekking or on a boat. We were spoiled to death and will never fully recover from the luxuries of this trip.

    On our first evening, we jump from the top of the boat at sunset. The water just salty enough to make our skin tingle. Women from the fishing village row up to us trying to sell us boxes of Ritz crackers and Oreos. Dinner is a staggering orchestration of dishes...plates with giant prawns, grilled fish, steamed morning glory stems, stir-fried squid with onions and cabbage, heaping bowls of rice, omelettes, and a bowl of water with freshly cut limes for washing our fingers of all the juices.

    Suddenly the lights go out on the boat and from the kitchen emerges a glowing pineapple "floating" towards us. The wait staff has carved the inside of a pineapple and lit it from within by a candle. Circling the glowing pineapple are battered, deep-fried pork with sesame seeds. We eat by the glow of the pineapple until the candle flickers out and the staff turn the lights back on.

    The next day we kayak between several of the islands beneath archways which have eroded from the sea and changing tides. Although the islets are vertical and severe, thick patches of vegetation cling to the rock with admirable fecundity. We can't help but think of the latest "King Kong" movie and the lush mysteries held around each corner. In one lagoon, the water is so shallow we can see soft red coral beneath our boats, waving in the current like small arms. Schools of fish, black sea urchins, and sea anemone populate the water beneath us.

    We kayak through a floating fishing village of 1,000 people near Cat Ba Island where small families live in even smaller wooden homes perched on floating docks. Women crouch down breaking open mussels for meat, men clean nets, and dogs run along the floating platform barking protectively. Small boats bring home young children from their school on the islands. All of the people are either ambivalent or welcoming to our small group of kayaks passing just yards from their " front doors." Just a few short hours among the fishermen and women is enough to make me admire their tenacious work habits and graciousness and thank god that it's not the life I was born into. Especially since I hate eating fish. :)

    After a few days exploring Ha Long Bay, we return to Hanoi and take a night train to the inland mountains around Sapa (near the Chinese border). From here, we'll be doing a two-day trek through the hill tribe villages of the H'mong, Zay, and Red Zao people....

    Sapa, North Vietnam

    It's drizzling outside and the mountains are obscured in the mist. Dozens of H'mong women, tiny as dolls, are lined across the street with their woven clothes for sale, persistent in their aggressive sales to hapless trekkers who walk by. Mom thinks they have instant radar for "fresh meat" and they zero in on us as soon as we step outside.

    One thing is for sure, Vietnam is more than the sum of its wars. The "American War," as they call it, seems a distant memory here. Over the past thousand years, the Vietnamese have successfully fought off the Chinese, the French, and the Americans from claiming their land. It's a rich, diverse, and beautifully complicated country that has only heightened our curiosity and we can't wait to see more...


    Sunday, May 07, 2006

    Two HUGE pieces of exciting news:

    1) I'm officially launching my website TONITE at 10 p.m. Pacific Coast Time.... I've got tendonitis and have lost a few pounds from all the computer time I've put in over the past six months. This was like giving birth multiple times...and the baby will continue to grow and develop with time!
    Check it out at: (just click on the link bar to the right)
    (Don't forget the "s" in the middle)

    2) My Mamacita and I are headed to North Vietnam for trekking, exploration of the islands around Cat Ba, reveling in the French-influenced Vietnamese cuisine, and then a short foray to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. Stay tuned for our adventures later this month...

    Have a great'll hear from me next from Hanoi, Vietnam...

    (You can also access my latest L.A. Times Travel Article on the website)

    Tuesday, April 18, 2006

    Rachel's Croatia article and photography to appear in the Los Angeles Times Travel Section on 4/23/06

    I'm super stoked to announce that one of my stories about traveling to the Mediterranean-like island of Hvar in southern Croatia will be published in the travel section of the Los Angeles Times this coming Sunday, April 23rd.
    If you don't have a subscription, pick up a copy of the paper at your local bookstore—it's sure to be a collector's edition :)—or go to on Sunday to see an online version of the article.
    The great thing about getting a hardcopy of the article (nudge, nudge!) is that a few of my photos will be published along with the feature article.

    Thanks to twenty years of travel, five years of typing until my fingers bleed, three years of writers' conferences, two years of graduate school, and boundless persistence that runs like a blessed curse through my family, some of my hard work is starting to finally pay-off!

    Stay tuned for more exciting news: One of my humorous travel stories, "Mama Chihuahua: World's Fiercest Traveling Partner," will be featured in the May 2006 book, "What Color Is Your Jockstrap?" (writers...I know this should be italicized but I'm having formatting issues with blogger this morning) along with other short stories by Susan Orlean (author of "The Orchid Thief" and inspiration for the Nicolas Cage movie "Adaptation") and Tim Cahill ("Jaguars Ripped My Flesh").

    Other upcoming news: My official website will be officially launched on May 1, 2006.

    Tuesday, March 28, 2006

    "Twelve Things That Might Surprise You About Mexico..."

    Just in case you might be one of those gringos who thinks that all Mexicans bear bottles of Jose Cuervo, sing “La Cucaracha,” and wear giant sombreros, I’ve created a list of twelve things that might surprise you about our Latin neighbor to the South…

    1) The word, "Mexico," is Nahuatl (the ancient Aztec language) and means "the belt of the moon." It was originally pronounced as "Meshico" as the Nahuatl 'x' actually makes a 'sh' sound.

    2) Located along the eastern side of the world’s “Ring Of Fire,” Mexico isn’t just known for its fiery latin culture, its landscape is literally a hotbed of geologic activity. Mexico’s center is cut in half by a volcanic mountain chain, Cordillera Neovolcanica, which contains several active volcanoes and the country’s highest peaks. You can take advantage of this thermal activity by climbing one of the volcanoes or by visiting hot springs throughout central Mexico like we did in San Miguel de Allende or in other towns surrounding Mexico City.

    3) One of the largest countries in the world (the 14th to be exact), Mexico encompasses the extreme aridity of the Chihuahua Desert, two major mountain ranges, the rainforest of the Yucatan, and vast coastlines along the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez.

    4) Chili peppers, squash, beans, chocolate (which comes from the cacao bean), and corn (belonging to the grass family and originally only a couple of inches in length) all originated in this part of the world.The Aztecs once used chocolate and chili peppers to blend into a hot drink that was very unlike the Nestle hot chocolate—made with milk and copious quantities of sugar—that we drink today.

    While chocolate is indigenous to Mexico, it is used more often in cooking the traditional Oaxacan moles (a satisfying and labor-intensive sauce used on chicken made with cinnamon, chocolate, nuts, and raisins) and for preparing hot drinks than it is enjoyed in its American candy bar counterpart.

    5) Mexico City is the second largest city in the world and is home to the second largest public meeting place (Tianamen Square in Beijing is the largest), the zocalo, or central plaza. Sixty percent of Mexicans are mestizo, a mix of indigenous and European heritage, thirty percent are indigenous peoples (Mayan, Zapotec, Mixtec, etc.), and around ten percent are Caucasian of European descent.

    6) It is estimated that 25 million people inhabited the this region (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Mexico and the northern part of Central America) of the New World in 1519 when the Spanish conquistadores arrived. In less than a hundred years, this same population had fallen to one million people, the vast majority decimated by European diseases to which they had little resistance.

    7) We can’t forget about tequila, the most wonderful libation from the ancient gods. There are actually three drinks native to Mexico, all made from different agave plants: tequila (a liquor made from the blue agave), mescal (a smokey tequila-like liquor made from agave using traditional methods and generally produced on a smaller scale than tequila), and pulque (a milky, low-alcohol beverage made on a small, community-based scale from the maguey agave).

    The photo to the right shows me sucking the aguamiel (sweet inner liquid) from a maguey agave up through a hollowed-out gourd.Traditionally, people would then spit this liquid into barrels where the liquid would be fermented for several days to several weeks. From my experience, the low-alcohol content pulque has a sweet, fruity, and slightly fizzy flavor.

    A short history of pulque: Made as long ago as 200 B.C., pulque was used by Teotihuacan priests to put themselves into trances and to help anesthestize human victims of sacrifices. One little known fact is that for five days before a man was going to be sacrificed, he was given all the girls he could enjoy, pot he could smoke, and pulque he could imbibe. On the morning he was to be sacrificed, he was also given peyote to help with the pain (an obsidian knife was used to slit him open and to retrieve his still beating heart to be offered to the sun god) and to ease his transition to the afterlife.
    The clincher?
    Women who were to be sacrificed were given none of these drinks or drugs to take away the pain. That’s right ladies, the woman had no anesthesia when they were sacrificed. Hostal Moneda guided tour with birthday girl.

    FYI: The Teotihuacan people believed in an ancient Nirvana-like heaven in which men and women were assured of two absolutes: all the water they needed and all the pulque they could drink.

    8) The Mixteca and the Teotihuacan People believed that the gods of darkness and the sun were constantly at war, and that if they didn't 'feed' the god of the sun, that day would never come the next morning... they facilitated human sacrifices twice a day on giant slabs of stone in front of two pyramids dedicated to the sun and the moon. The man or woman's heart was cut out while it was still eaten and a part of their flesh was eaten and then offered.

    9) The city of Teotihuacan (east of Mexico City), meaning “The City of Gods” or “The Place Where Men Become Gods,” was built nearly two thousand years ago by a group of people pre-dating the Aztecs (to this day, their ethnic origin and languages are unknown). At the height of its power, Teotihuacan was the largest city in all of the New World (that includes all civilizations in both South and North America, folks) and it was the sixth largest city in the world (larger than any city in Europe) supporting a population of 125,000–200,000 people. (sources: and

    10) Teotihuacan’s Sun Pyramid is the third largest pyramid in the world.

    11) Several award-winning films have recently been filmed in Mexico: Frida (with Salma Hayek), Traffic (Steven Soderbergh’s film), Once Upon A Time In Mexico, Amores Perros, and El Mariachi (starring Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek and made by Robert Rodriguez in two weeks for just $7000). Lonely Planet: Mexico.

    12) Mexico City was built on a giant lake bed, which the Mixteca People (who later came to be known as the Aztecs) arranged into an extensive system of canals used for irrigation and transportation. Today, over 180 kilometers of these canals remain and visitors from around Mexico can hire boatmen to take them along the canals while feasting on pollo con mole negro, cold beers, and live music.

    Friday, March 17, 2006

    Mexico City...

    Cathy and I took a 3.5 hour bus ride to Mexico City, the second most populated city in the world, where I got in my first fight of the trip with a bastard of a bus station taxi worker. During our bus ride we had just read an ominous two-page crime section vehemently warning how many of the taxis in Mexico City are actually taxis stolen by criminals planning to victimize tourists and Mexicans alike. In 2003, the US State Department proclaimed that “Robbery assaults on passengers [in Mexico City taxis] are frequent and violent, with passengers subjected to beating, shootings and sexual assault.”

    The Lonely Planet: Mexico guide suggests that you demand to only take a taxi sitio with an orange stripe and an “S” at the beginning of the license plate instead of a taxi libre which is a little less secure and more likely to be stolen by bandits intent on robbing you. We paid our pesos to a secure taxi service and were taken outside by one of their workers. He took us to a taxi line and brusquely directed us to one of the taxis.

    We both looked at the license plate and the car. No orange stripe and no “S.” It was a taxi libre, a bit less secure than what we had paid for. I looked down the line where a Mexican gentleman was being directed to a taxi sitio with an orange stripe, the exact type of taxi we wanted.

    “We need another taxi.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “We want an ‘S’ taxi.”

    “Why” he started to yell at us, waving his arms at the long line of taxis behind us, “They’re all the same!”

    “We want an S taxi.” I told him again, beginning to feel like a high-maintenance American. I knew, however, that both of our mothers would want us being obstinate when it comes to our own safety. Better safe than sorry, especially after a two-page crime section on taxi hustling in Mexico City.

    The taxi driver had gotten out of the car and was watching the argument now.

    “Well, this isn’t an S taxi but it’s yours and you have to go in it anyway,” the worker told us.

    I tried to size the taxi driver up from ten feet away and I wondered if I could really tell if he was a thug intent on raping us just on looks and first instincts alone, but that’s probably not the best way to make safe decisions as a woman in the third world.

    “No, we don’t have to take this taxi,” I turned to face the irate taxi worker.

    “Yes, you do!” he said. “This one’s yours. There are many other people waiting. JUST GET IN THE CAR!”

    He obviously hadn’t dealt with a strong-headed Aries before and now the B**ch was coming out.

    “We’ll just wait here for another taxi then. Someone else can take this one.”

    “Listen,” he said yelling at me in Spanish and shaking his finger at me, “I’m not fucking around here, I have to work and make a living.”

    He stormed off, telling all of his friends what a pain in the ass we were being.

    Now most men, most honest men, even if they were right about what they were telling me (that there’s no difference between a taxi libre and a taxi sitio, which is a complete lie), would recognize the concern of two young American woman getting into an unknown taxi after reading about the crime among taxi drivers in Mexico City. But not this one, he was a supreme asshole.

    The pendejo tripped one of those rare wires in my genetic makeup and really started to piss me off. I wanted to punch him out.

    “We’re not fucking around either!” I yelled back at him in Spanish as he stood with a group of men badmouthing us. “We’re two women and we have to be careful when we’re traveling….and we’re not taking this taxi.”

    I led Cathy back inside to the kiosk to demand that someone else help us. My heart rate was racing. It’s rare that I get angry but I refuse to compromise when it comes to our safety.

    We were promptly taken by another man to another taxi, a sitio taxi driven by a nice man who took us directly to our hotel and not to an abandoned warehouse parking lot….

    All the way to our hotel, our hearts were racing with fear that we weren’t heading in the real direction of the city now. We were both so grateful to arrive at our exact location. We still don’t know what might have happened if we’d gone with the other driver.

    Alls well that ends at your hotel, I’d like to say about taxis in Mexico City.

    Our hostel (Hostel Moneda) was minimally decorated but its location and value were excellent. We only paid $30 a night ($15 each) for a private room and bathroom just a block off of the zocalo, or central plaza of historic downtown Mexico City (dorm beds only cost 10 bucks!). Along with our room’s price was included free internet use, free tours to the local museums, discounts on tours to the pyramids, AND, our favorite, FREE breakfasts and dinners (salty, starchy, but filling) on their rooftop terrace and bar overlooking the zocalo and Mexico City.

    Another enticing aspect to the splendid view of the cathedral and city lights was eating among some awfully damn fine looking backpackers from Israel, Europe, and America (Hirschegger, eat your heart out!). Unfortunately, Cathy and I both realized in the bright glare of the daylight, that most of the cute backpackers were young enough to be our nephews. One sweet Austrian guy developed a crush on Cathy and kept finding us to ask about visiting her in the states one day.

    Within hours of our arrival we decided to push our comfort zones a bit and ride the metro through the heart of Mexico City AT NIGHT. It was a rude awakening to ride the metro in Mexico City after walking among a sea of gringos in San Miguel de Allende. We bought our 50 cent tickets and became enveloped in a wave of Mexicans during the heart of rush hour traveling for hours to get back to their homes. Sweaty people pushed up against us and fought for space on the metro whenever the doors opened at each stop.

    It was incredibly humid and stuffy but didn’t feel terribly unsafe, just crowded and uncomfortable. We didn’t see any other foreigners among thousands of faces.

    During the day, the city took on an entirely different face. Mexico City, like Los Angeles but twice the size and population, is made up of dozens of different neighborhoods with their own distinct personalities. Our favorite area was Coyoacan, where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived, loved, painted, and entertained their friends. Their “Casa Azul” was an inspiring complex circling a courtyard and filled with their books and art collections that inspired their life’s work.

    Coyoacan’s streets were lined with giant trees and purple jacarandas in full bloom. The central plaza was filled with hip, alta cocina restaurants, bars, and cafes where an intellectual and artsy community of Mexicans gather to socialize.
    We ate exquisite meals….delicate pinwheels of chicken stuffed with squash flower blossoms and cheese in a white wine cream sauce with fresh herbs, churros and hot chocolate, chipotle fondue, and a banana, sweetened condensed milk and cinnamon crepe to celebrate my birthday later this month.

    In the afternoon (while Cathy worked at a copy shop on her imminent move to the East Coast), I strolled through the market looking at fresh fruit, vegetables, and papier mache flower garlands made to celebrate the coming spring.

    The streets in Mexico and throughout Latin America are lined with street vendors, a part of what’s referred to as the unregulated “informal economy.” This is what I love about Mexico. Buying hot churros off the street. Buying beaded necklaces handmade by a woman from Puebla for $4.

    I talked to a grandmother selling giant bags of nuts in every color, shape, and flavor which she had roasted and flavored herself and piled into a giant wheelbarrow cart: Salted peanuts, toffee peanuts, chile and lemon peanuts, pumpkin seeds, sweet pumpkin seeds, banana chips, chile banana chips, cashews, spicy cashews….

    I bought three bags filled with banana chips and sweet pumpkin seeds (my favorite!) for 45 pesos ($4.50). We shared all three bags with everyone on our tour group the next day.


    During the hottest day of the week we had the bright idea to go visit Teotihuacan, a famous ancient city containing the third largest pyramid in the world, and one of the largest and most impressive pre-hispanic civilizations in the New World.

    In a nutshell, Teotihuacan is an enigma to anthropologists and archaeologists alike. During the height of its power, Teotihuacan was the sixth largest city in the entire world and eclipsed the size and expansiveness of all other European cities at that time. It was home to anywhere from 125,000 to 200,000 people of which we know very little. During the eighth century, the city was burnt and destroyed and there’s little evidence why. Although we know much about the structures, archaeologists have no idea what language these people spoke and who they were the descendants of: they actually preceded the Aztecs, who later named the city, “City of the Gods” or “The Place Where Men Became Gods.”
    Like the Aztecs, the people of Teotihuacan believed in regular human sacrifices. The people of Teotihuacan believed that, unless they appeased the god of the sun, that the sun would not come the following morning. Cool idea to read about now but it sucked if you were a virgin maiden or prestigious warrior at the time. Priests conducted human sacrifices twice a day, once at sunset and once at sunrise. Some humans sacrificed were volunteers and others were chosen because of their prestige in the city or because they were being punished for having broken a law (like drinking the alcoholic beverage pulque, which was outlawed until you turned 52 years old).

    Those that volunteered to be sacrificed believed that their passage to heaven would be expedited. In the Teotihuacan version of heaven, two things were certain: they’d have all the water they needed and they’d have an infinite supply of pulque with which to intoxicate themselves.

    WARNING: the following paragraph is graphic:

    During the ritualized sacrifices, the priests would lay the man, woman, or child out on a slab and cut their stomach open with a long obsidian knife. They would then pull the victim’s heart out while it was still beating. I won’t get any more graphic than this but I’ll just say that, according to our guide, the Mexican dish posole was originally made with human flesh.

    Another mystery of Teotihuacan, besides their sudden downfall (hmm, how about a revolt by a bunch of woman saying, “what the f&*%? Why don’t we try a day without any human sacrifices and let’s see if the the sun still comes up tomorrow? Then we’ll know if you priests are all full of s**t.”) is that the pyramids contain a layer made from thick slabs of Brazilian mica which was brought from over 2,000 miles away. This would be inconceivable if not for the fact that the people of Teotihuacan didn’t use the wheel in any of their construction (They believed that using the image of their Sun God was sacreligious and would anger him).

    That night as we walked back to our hostel, we passed several groups of people reenacting the Aztecs’ (who lived and developed the valley which would become Mexico City) dances to live drumming. They wore seeds around their ankles and shins and waved sage smoke over their bodies much like the Native Americans do in the U.S.

    On our last day we took an afternoon boat ride along the canals of Xochimilco. Unbeknownst to many Americans, Mexico City was built by the Aztecs on a giant lake bed which they arranged into a network of canals and an extensive irrigation system. Today, over 180 kilometers of these canals remain and Mexicans from around the country descend on these lanchas to hire mariachi bands and boat guides to take them along the tree-lined canals past farms and small homes.

    Since there was no one else around at the time, Cathy and I hired a whole boat for ourselves for $30 (which could have accommodated twenty-five of our best friends and several bottles of tequila and a mariachi band) to linger for a while in the shade from the afternoon sun. We floated to a small farm where a man came on board and offered us lunch. We chose the best pollo con mole negro (made with chilies, cinnamon, nuts, raisins, and Mexican chocolate) that I’ve had this past year, a plate of hot corn tortillas, and frijoles.

    We bought roasted corn with chile and lime from a man selling straight from his canoe. Elote (the Mexican word for corn) is the one thing that ironically, I think really sucks in Mexico. It’s usually tough, tasteless, and smothered in mayonnaise. I don’t get it, especially since corn is indigenous to Mexico and you’d think they’d get it right.

    I wanted to like this old guy’s corn. He had his little wood stove and this giant heap of beautiful white corn lying perfectly lined up in a heap with a bowl of freshly cut limes. I’m a corn fed Hoosier girl so if there’s one thing I know, it’s a good piece of corn on the cob that pops in your mouth with its sweet crispness.

    And let me tell you, the corn on the cob in Mexico sucks. And so did his. But we ate it, wished him good luck for the afternoon in his business, and thanked him for the corn.

    On our last day in Mexico City, our taxi driver was late picking us up to take us to the bus station for our return to San Miguel de Allende.

    He explained that our timing to leave was bad because today was “street cleaning” day and that we’d have to walk two blocks to get to his taxi, since the authorities wouldn’t let him park on any of the nearby streets. We didn’t really get the origin of his annoyance until we turned a corner down one of the streets.
    There were dozens of men and women shouting, laughing, and brooming giant suds across the wet street. Cathy and I gingerly navigated our way in flip flops across the street which had momentarily become a river of suds and dirty water.

    A young guy in a muscle shirt rode on top of a giant truck gleefully aiming a firehose at anyone left out in the street. If someone escaped his aim and darted across the street, he’d changed positions and spray them down on the other side of the street before they could escape.

    It was a pretty fun scene until we realized that, like everyone else, we were trapped, too, and had nowhere to go to escape THE HOSE.

    I felt like I was trying to dodge deadly lazer blasts in War of the Worlds. I was carrying everything that means anything to me in my backpack (including my trip journal and my photo hard drive with 1500 photos from our trip in Mexico). To make matters worse, my precious Canon 20D digital camera was dangling around my neck, unprotected and exposed.

    We narrowly missed his spray, ducking into a courtyard just in time as the water pelted several young girls instead. As soon as the truck had passed, everyone moved out into the street again pushing the suds along with their brooms.

    A couple of guys shouted to us as we walked past. They were getting a kick out of watching two gringas trying to balance our backpacks as we slipped along in flip flops beneath our monstrous loads.

    “Guera! Guera! Mamacita! Come here and kiss me!” they called out to us.

    I was trying not to think about all the bodily fluids and junk that must be floating over my ankles when I heard a loud slap behind me. A spray of water hit my skirt and the back of my legs.

    One of the guys who had been running after us had slipped on the soap and fallen right on his back in two inches of water. His friends had forgotten about the two clumsy gringas and were laughing their butts off at him instead.

    I had to laugh at the guy, too. He looked like an upturned turtle.

    What I love about Mexico is that you never know what’s going to happen next. The best approach is to always have a healthy sense of humor.

    And really good flip flops.

    Con amor,


    Monday, March 13, 2006

    Buenas tardes from San Miguel de Allende,

    It's always difficult trying to figure out at what point to write one of my travel blogs but I realize that my Red Bull has almost run out and Mexico will soon be behind us. I'm also about to kill the American girl sitting at the computer beside me.

    "How do you change this to English?" she's yelling to the cafe staff, "I CAN'T READ SPANISH! I have to check my savings account and have more money wired out here. What you expect me to do, learn Spanish?!"

    I'm about to unleash the Custer (Mama Chihuahua's side of the family) fury on her. I'm ready to lean over and give her a good slap, "Wake up! You're in f-ing Mexico!"

    So, back to Mexico...

    For the first three days of our trip, the four of us (Cathy, Andrea, Brian, and I) explored the expatriate colonial Mexican pueblo of San Miguel de Allende. Robert Rodriguez shot his recent film "Once Upon A Time In Mexico" starring Antonio Banderas here. Situated in a desert valley surrounded by the mountains, this sixteenth century town is in the state of Guanajuato and is a photographer and artists' dream in its flourishment of color: cobblestone streets lined with high end art galleries, churches, plazas, and brightly-colored adobe buildings.

    San Miguel feels a bit like the gringo's revised and romantic notion of Mexico, its edges are much more polished, the streets are clean and safe, and although incredibly beautiful, it lacks the distinctly Mexican edge that the rest of the country has where gringos are in shorter supply. You get the sense here that the foreigners want to believe that this is "their" Mexico and that they have it all to themselves. It's a "safe" Mexico and not as rough or as real as other parts of the country. But the quality of the food, art, and music is noticeably high and I can easily see the allure for retirees, musicians, painters, and writers to come here to live out the rest of their years. It's also the perfect play to visit for a couple of days to unwind and gorge yourself on damn good food.

    The four of us had the unique opportunity to stay in a gorgeous condo that some friends of mine (Rob and Laura) from Santa Barbara own....a two story adobe structure with red-tiled roofs and artistic flourishes in each of the rooms: Chunky, hand-carved beds, colorful hand-woven rugs, and balconies off of each of the bedrooms overlooking the valley and the mountains. At sunset, the walls of the condo looked velvety and sumptuous....framed by trailing vines of fuschia bougainvillea, orange blossoms, and potted geraniums. I could easily go back to San Miguel just to write and take photos, never leaving their home. It's an incredibly romantic place to go in every sense of the word.

    We spent days feasting on "chilaquiles" (strips of tortilla strips fried with cheese, chicken, and red and green salsa),"huevos tirados" (scrambled eggs with chorizo, black beans, and cheese) and fresh corn tortillas, chicken with "mole negro" (a chocolate and nut-based sauce), green chili and chicken tamales, and chicken in an almond, white wine, and poblano chile sauce. To die for! Many of the hip restaurants also offer live music while you eat...flautists, guitar players, accordian players, and singers.

    We heard through the grapevine that the 'IT' spot to go for late night ambience is "San Agostin's," a cafe owned by a Mexican ex-porn star. The place is plastered with photos from her long career in Mexican film and in Playboy issues. The canary yellow cafe rings with laughter and intimate conversation as couples and families linger over cups of Mexican hot chocolate and "churros" (long deep-fried breadsticks rolled in cinnamon and sugar) served straight from the oven. I've never considered myself much of a sweet tooth...but I'm a churro-lover after this trip!

    On Saturday night we ran into Juan, the owner of a new Mexican Harley biker bar. He dragged us into the bar for the rest of the night. The underground bar was a cross between the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino movie "From Dust Til Dawn" and Cold Spring Tavern on a Sunday afternoon. I made the mistake of telling him that I'm a singer. Before I knew it, Juan had the whole bar full of Mexican bikers chanting "RAQUELRAQUELRAQUEL!!! Cante! Cante! CANTE!"

    The guitarist was a skinny guy who kept downing shots of tequila in between a halting mix of The Beatles, The Eagles, and Los Lobos. Before we started playing together, Juan brought out a giant bottle of tequila and poured several shots down my mouth and the guitarist's mouth. The guitarist spit a mouthful of tequila out onto a wall across the other side of the room like a Mexican firehose and was applauded by all the bikers as the greatest drinker and "sprayer" of the night.

    We decided to play Bonnie Raitt's "Someone To Love" because, although he'd never really heard of the song, it's a simple blues progression. Unfortunately, by the time I began singing, my head was spinning from the tequila and the guitarist had lost any rhythm which he still had. He decided to take a guitar solo in the middle of one of my verses. He sprawled out on his back and tried to play the guitar behind his head to even more applause from all the bikers.

    By midnight, I got all the women in the bar to come up and sing back-up to a song that none of us knew but all decided could be improved upon with some occasional "oooohs" and tequila-induced "howls." By the end of the song, we forget what we were singing cause the howling was much more fun and we didn't know the words anyway.

    Towards the end of the night, Andrea and I did our Salt n' Pep rap, which is somewhat of a tradition for me to sing on as many continents as possible. Hip Hop evidently isn't a favorite among Mexican bikers judging from the blank stares and the half-hearted applause. Fortunately however and judging from the attention they gave us, the bikers much preferred two cute gringas rapping a song they don't know to listening to a drunk, skinny Mexican guitarist singing the Eagles off-key.

    Needless to say, slipping out of the bar after midnight was the greatest challenge of the evening. The four of us had to half-heartedly promise that we'd be back the following night. (We weren't...we have to pace ourselves after all.)

    On the following afternoon, the four of us hired a taxi to take us out into the desert to recover from the night before and to visit some natural thermal pools for the afternoon. San Miguel, like much of Mexico, is geologically active and has an array of hot springs. We lied on the grass along a lake beneath eucalyptus trees with the warm smell of the desert wind brushing over us in between visits to the underground thermal pools.

    On day three, Andrea and Brian headed back to Los Angeles and Cathy and I continued on to Mexico City for Part II of our Mexican Adventure...

    stay tuned...

    con amor,
    Raquelita, the queen of Tequila

    Friday, February 03, 2006

    I'll be heading to San Miguel de Allende and then on to Mexico City for several days in March. A couple of friends will be joining me in lieu of Mama Chihuahua this time so it will be a different sort of trip...less shopping and more tequila.

    I've heard through the grapevine during this past year that Mexico City is becoming one of the hippest, most cosmopolitan new IT cities to visit these days. I'll be exploring the best taco stands in the city and searching for a fabulous plate of the national dish (and my very favorite comida), "Chile en Nogada," chile peppers stuffed with meat and fruit in a walnut nougat sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Because it's red, white, and green—the color of the Mexican Flag—it's been affectionately deemed their national dish.

    Stay tuned for more culinary, tequila, and trekking adventures.

    Monday, January 16, 2006

    "High Levels Of Lead found in Oaxacan Grasshoppers"

    Little did I know...and they were so tasty!
    For those of you who have read my latest blog "Ten Things to Do In Oaxaca," be aware that there was a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle cautioning the risk of lead poisoning found in Mexican foods like chilies, candies, and....grasshoppers. It's not yet known why the grasshoppers have been found with such high levels of lead but one theory suggests that Oaxaca's factories and chemical run-offs play a role. Thank you to my girlfriend and fellow writer Christy Harrington for the tip! Hopefully, I haven't had my IQ points drastically lowered from a few handfuls of the crunchy little guys...

    You can find the article on, written by Carolyn Jones on 1/15/06 for the San Francisco Chronicle.
    E-mail Carolyn Jones at with questions.

    Wednesday, January 11, 2006

    "The tiger of the mind is more fierce than the tiger of the jungle."

    Spanish saying