Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Postcard from the road

My brother, Greg, was in Italy for a conference last week, and he was able to take a side trip to Zermatt, Switzerland. There he saw the Matterhorn, above.

I love how dreamy this photo looks, both from the angle and the haze, and the chalet reminds me of pictures in my first German text book, Unsere Freunde.

Thanks, Greg! Here's an open invitation to my readers to send me pictures from your recent travels. I'll post my favorites here with your permission. You can send them to my new email address: gonnamakeachange@gmail.com.

Adventure philanthropy

It's been a very busy few days, so I am still not finished with my final Mexico entry. Rest assured, I will post it this week, and it will include my very own "how-to" section, so you find out some of my best travel tips.

In the meantime, let me tell you about my evening. Tonight, I went to a cocktail party fundraiser organized by Roadmonkey. What I was calling voluntourism, Paul von Zielbauer, a journalist for the New York Times, calls adventure philanthropy.

He is organizing a bicycle expedition in Vietnam that will include a volunteer project where participants build a playground for HIV-positive orphans.

This trip sounds awesome! I wish I could go, but I just won't have the vacation days. I was in Vietnam in 2001, and it was a beautiful and fascinating destination. I'm sure it would be an even better trip with something good to do like this.

So check it out! Here's another opportunity to travel AND make a difference.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Details in Mexico

I'm going to be wrapping up my coverage of my trip to Mexico on Monday. Before I do, I want to give you all a little bit more of what caught my eye while I was down there. Here are some my favorite pictures that I have not yet posted.

Statue of Pope John Paul II outside the very popular parochial church in Tlaquepaque

Outdoor seating at an El Parian restaurant in Tlaquepaque.

The outside wall of an artisan's workshop in Tlaquepaque

One of the amazing carved doors in Tlaquepaque

Part of a tile mural on Avenida Juarez in Tlaquepaque

Bilingual sign at the Liberty Market in Guadalajara

A very colorful restaurant and shop in Ajijic

Visitors on the shore in the town of Chapala

Thursday, July 24, 2008

And the winner is....

Clara, the folk art chicken is now yours!

I don't know if I have your new mailing address. Can you email it to me?

Thank you to all who participated! There will be more giveaways to come!

Tempting your tastebuds before dinner

First of all, thanks for the entries in my first giveaway! I will be announcing the winner of the folk art chicken later tonight! As for the other Mexican treasures, I have decided to wait a bit longer - once more people are back from vacations - to tell you about the items and have the drawings. So stay tuned!

There are so many things I haven't documented about my trip to Mexico yet, and one of which is the food! Here are some favorites:

This was my first meal of the trip, at El Patio in Tlaquepaque. I had squash blossom soup to start out, and it was divine. The waitstaff brought a host of items to the table before I even got that: greasy (but delicious) tortilla chips, various salsas, bread and butter, and a plate of cucumber, mango, and lime slices. I had fresh-squeezed lemonade to drink.

This place was good, and it featured performances by female mariachis. However, they didn't give me my bill after I asked for it several times over the course of 45 minutes!

Wednesday's breakfast at Casa de las Flores was Eggs Florentine. The eggs themselves were just gorgeous! Stan showed us how to poach them in plastic wrap.

After our aborted trip to Tequila, at least my new friends and I were able to have a great lunch. This is the table at Casa Fuerte in Tlaquepaque. I loved the elaborate guacamole display. And check out the pats of butter in the upper left corner wrapped tamale-like in corn husks!

This was one of my most favorite meals, at the Secret Garden cafe in Ajijic. French toast stuffed with cream cheese and pecans and the most divine fruit salad: succulently ripe mangoes, papaya, and red grapes.

Mmmm...it was a delicious trip. An interesting thing about Mexico is that, like in Spain, they eat their main meal at lunch, between 2 - 4pm. I got used to that, and with the bountiful breakfast in the morning and the dessert in the evening at Casa de las Flores, lunch was the only meal I purchased each day!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

GIVEAWAY!!! Treasures from my Mexico trip

It's finally time for the first Gonna Make a Change giveaway! I got the idea for this from my dear blogger friend, Tricia at Sisterly Shenanigans, who does fabulous giveaways for her readers every once in a while.

I have some small treasures I purchased on my trip to Mexico that I will be giving away to a few lucky Gonna Make a Change blog readers. All you have to do to enter the drawing is leave me a comment on this entry or tomorrow's! On Thursday evening, I will pick the winners at random and will post the results here.

So without any further ado, here is the first giveaway item: a folk art chicken handmade by the famous Ortega family!

The chicken is about four inches tall and is signed.

I visited the Ortegas' workshop in Tonala and took these pictures.

Shaping the clay and sanding fired pieces.

Their kilns.

Pieces drying in the sun.

Chickens waiting to be painted.

Hard at work with their pet, the dog and their muse, the duck.

The magnificently colorful painting area.

I will mail the winner of the drawing this beautiful, miniature piece of Mexican folk art. But you have to write a comment in order to have a chance at winning!

Stay tuned for tomorrow, when I will unveil another giveaway item from Mexico!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Project Amigo update

As I blogged earlier this month, before I went to Mexico, I emailed Stan, my host at Casa de las Flores, if I could bring down any donations for local charities. (This is something I didn't even know was possible until our trip to Guatemala this year. From now on, I will be finding out about what donations are needed and how to give them whenever I travel to a developing country.)

Stan directed me to Project Amigo. So, in my suitcase I packed a backpack and some children's clothes that my mom and I purchased over 4th of July weekend. These I gave Stan before I left. Now, I just got an email from Susan and Ted, who run Project Amigo.

We got a call from La Casa de Las Flores on Friday advising us that a visitor had left behind a mochila and clothing for Project Amigo. We picked them up Saturday afternoon, and are back at our computers today to say thank you.

It’s a great quality pack that we think we’ll give to our high school senior who is intent on going to medical school when he finishes high school next summer. (Eight of our high school scholarship recipients are finishing up a month in Utah – they’ve gotten to ice skate, play in the snow, camp in Yellowstone, visit canyons, caves and lakes, do a “ropes course” at Utah State, and so much more. And our future medical school student is part of this group. He’s having the time of his life...)

The clothing in the pack will go to littler kids. We have a project at a migrant labor camp in the town of Queseria where the families of sugar cane cutters live – some permanently, and some come and go with the cutting season. The workers there know the story you experienced on your way to Tequila all-too-well – the strike at the mill. There’s a sugar mill in the town of Queseria, and the workers are brought in to cut the cane in late November (when the rainy season stops). Last November there was a strike at the mill, the workers had been brought in, but there was no mill to take the cane to – therefore no cutting of cane, and no wages. No wages meant no food. (Visit: http://www.projectamigo.org/VOL.htm and click on December 2007 work week.)

When you next visit Mexico, we hope you’ll add Colima and Project Amigo to your list.

Thank you, again, for the day-pack and the clothing, and for the goodwill you put forth in our world.

Best wishes,
Susan and Ted

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Casa de las Flores

Although I am very happy to be home with my husband, I greatly miss Casa de las Flores! This B&B truly is something very special. Since I didn't get a chance to post an entry just on my accommodations earlier, here is a more detailed account.

Here is my room. It had an extremely comfortable bed and a small sitting area.

There was folk art in the room, including these great pieces over my closet.

My room looked out on the lovely gardens.

Walking from my room, I went to the patio.

This was the site of breakfasts and evening desserts. Pictured below is Friday's breakfast: Chile Relleno - a chile pepper stuffed with three kinds of cheeses and bathed in tomato sauce.

Our host and chef for the breakfasts and desserts was the wonderful Stan. Here, he is showing us a special way to poach an egg.

Every other day, Stan would make a gourmet hot breakfast. The other days, we had a delicious selection of cereal, scrumptious yogurt with toasted pecans, breakfast empanadas, fresh fruit, and juice. Over breakfast was how I met Glenn and Sally last Sunday.

The best part about Casa de las Flores was the people I met, both the hosts, Stan and Jose, and all the wonderfully warm, interesting, and well-traveled guests.

One evening was quite chilly, and a bunch of us sat around the fireplace in the reception/sitting area. Everywhere you look there are different kinds of art.

I definitely hope to return, and I would love to keep in touch with the new friends I made. Here are Barry and Bill from Arizona, after we had dinner at El Nahual my last night.

My room cost about $111 USD total per night, and that included breakfast and dessert, as well as coffee, tea, and purified water available all day, use of a communal laptop or free wireless, and lots of great travel advice and personal assistance from the hosts and staff. The connections I made and the conversations I had, of course, were priceless. I know you can definitely find less expensive places in Mexico, but given everything Casa de las Flores offers, I think it's a heck of deal!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Back home in Jersey City

I left Tlaquepaque early this morning and got back to New Jersey, where my wonderful husband greeted me at the airport.

I was amazed to find out that last Saturday, when I first got to Mexico, Michael had a horrific sailing accident. While pulling some lines and sails, the tips of left hand pinky and ring finger got sliced off completely!

Thankfully, help came very quickly, his crewmates found the fingertips, and a plastic surgeon was able to sew them back on.

Despite all the trauma, my Sweetie did not want me to find out about it until I got home. He said there was nothing I could do about it; it wasn't life-threatening, and he didn't want to ruin my vacation.

I can't believe how selfless he is. I feel so bad for him that this happened. At the very least, he tells me, this has given him "street cred" with the other sailors. I will have to be extra good to him, now that I am home!

Anyway, I will be posting more updates on Mexico and "how-to's," so you can plan a trip like this of your own. For now, let me spend some quality time with my hubby!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Ajijic - at the other end of the backpacker spectrum

I just got back from a day trip to Lake Chapala, where I visited the towns of Chapala and Ajijic (ah-HEE-heek). The lake is about 45 minutes away from Tlaquepaque, so it made a very nice trip.

First Luis, who was our driver for the trips earlier in the week, took me to Chapala. This town of about 10,000 inhabitants is the more Mexican of the two. On the shore of the lake, I watched as people set up food and souvenir stalls. Mexican tourists walked down the pier to wait for boat rides.

Then Luis took me to some of the neighborhoods in Chula Vista, between Chapala and Ajijic, where a number of Americans and Canadians have retired. I was amazed by the grandeur of a these villas and their fabulous views.

Finally, we went to Ajijic, a town of about 5,000 residents, where I was able to have a bite and walk around. This place is so relaxing! Imagine the conveniences of a backpacker town in Latin America (cafes and small restaurants with international menus and ambience geared toward Americans and Canadians), but yet more upscale because the clientele are retirees with money. Ajijic is artsy and whimsical and colorful.

The residents take pride in keeping it clean, as you can see signs all over town reminding people not to litter.

By the lakeside, there are an array of tables and grills for picnickers.

It was great to just relax on the pier, where there was a donkey at the bar for some reason!

There were some more fabulous villas right in town.

I stopped briefly at the Lake Chapala Society´s beautiful gardens.

I only had a few minutes before Luis was going to pick me up, but I did get to speak to a very friendly woman there. She had been a business owner in Granada, Nicaragua (a place I visited in 2005) for four years, but now she is in the process of moving here. She told me how much friendlier the people are in this area. And the society is a great community center. Apparently, there are up to 100 people meeting and visiting in the garden on any given morning. It certainly was a lovely place.

Finally, Luis returned me to Casa de las Flores. I got to meet his wife and four children.

It´s hard to believe that my vacation is coming to an end. There have been so many wonderful things I´ve seen and done here. But I will be VERY happy to see my husband soon!

Once I get home, I will post some more detailed information about my trip, so you can plan one of your own, should I have whetted your appetite for Mexico! I will also be posting more pictures, and of course, I will have my giveaway drawing! I hope to hear from you soon!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Casa de las Flores in Tlaquepaque

I´ve got time today for a bonus entry! I´m continuing to enjoy staying at Casa de las Flores, an outstanding B&B in Tlaquepaque, just outside of Guadalajara, Mexico. Last night, I met some great new people: Barry and Bill from Arizona and Penny and Susan all the way from Alaska. Unfortunately, Penny and Susan are already gone, but some new guests have arrived, and I hope to talk to them tonight.

Here are some photos of Casa de las Flores.

The indoor living room, complete with super-tall fireplace.

The path to my room.

A gathering nook.

View from my room.

Mad shopping in Tonala

I just got back from my shopping adventure on market day in Tonala.

Tonala is a town of artisans located about 5 miles away from Tlaquepaque. Every Sunday and Thursday, hundreds and hundreds of stalls open up along the main road (which is already lined with tons of stores).

I could not take too many pictures because people are very sensitive about having their photos taken, and usually, I only feel comfortable asking after I have bought something from them. I found this out the first time I went to Mexico (Oaxaca in 2003).

But I did get a few shots of some of the hustle and bustle.

Tonala is like shopping on crack! I seriously have never found a place anywhere in my travels that even holds a candle to the kind of shopping you can do here.

What makes it different is 1) the diversity of the handicrafts - you will find all manner of ceramics and pottery, wood crafts, furniture, metal work, glass, and more, and 2) much of the items for sale here were actually made in the area and are made or finished by hand. Of course there is the third part: it is so reasonably priced!

I bought some miniature pottery vessels from this mother and daughter. Guide books say you should bargain, as that is the culture in Mexico. But I just didn´t have the heart to negotiate most of the asking prices! I got a bag full of small pottery dishes and molcajetes for $2.50.

What was so great to see was the family atmosphere, both behind the stalls and in the streets. Now that it is school vacation time, there were even more families than usual out and shopping together. It really is so nice! I was thinking how you don´t find this in a lot of places in the world. In certain cultures, men and women do things separately; and in the US, you see people segregated more by age.

I felt very safe. Even though I kept an eye on my belongings, I never felt like I might be the victim of a thief. Pickpocketing just didn´t seem to fit with the vibe of this area. Also, I didn´t feel like anyone was trying to rip me off. People here seem hardworking and honest.

I went back to the ceramics factory I went to at the end of the artist studio tour on Monday. Did I mention how I found these fabulous duck napkin rings last time? I realized I needed a few more, so I found my way back to the factory store. There I picked up a few more things, including a piece that will be a Gonna Make a Change giveaway! (Stay tuned.)

I also got to see some of the work in action.

Here is a man sanding the bottoms of the ceramic figures. They were so cute, I had to grab a few more!

After that, I ventured back into the labyrinth of stalls and decided to try some food. I saw a stall that had tacos with mushrooms and cheese, among other things, and I decided to try! Again, it was a family group, I believe. The mother and daughter were cooking the tacos and gorditas, and the father was selling beverages. There were tables and small plastic chairs, so I sat and ate. One thing that´s interesting is that food vendors will put plastic bags over plates, so they can serve the food on the plastic and then throw only the bag away after the customer is done. That´s a lot better than styrofoam.

I have to admit that I like more Americanized versions of Mexican food. I just don´t have the taste for authentic corn tortillas. Flour tortillas are where it´s at for me. Unfortunately, you don´t find those in Mexico - or at least, I haven´t yet. My favorite Mexican restaurant is still Charrito´s in New Jersey, and I love me a Qdoba burrito. For all the Charrito´s fans among my readership, if you want to get the same look for yourself that you find in their restaurants, just come on down to Tonala! You´ll be able to find the same glasses, plates, and decorations here. They are truly authentic.

Anyway, after several hours of shopping, I was getting tired. Of course, there was still so much to see...but I had to finish sometime. Before I left, I found a stall where a family was making paper calla lilies.

The had a bouquet of orange ones, and those looked pretty close to my wedding flowers. So I bought those, as well.

I´m not sure how I´m going to fit everything into my suitcase...and I really have held myself back. I could´ve bought a lot more!

This has been a lot of fun, and I would totally recommend it to anyone who even marginally likes shopping.