Mexico Road trip from Mexico City to Oaxaca

What is the best way to travel with a baby? Should comfort and convenience take priority? We considered this and envisioned ourselves in a tropical location, on a beach in an expensive resort. In this imaginary trip, I saw Ella, my six-month-old baby freaking out and saw our stressed out faces lacking a tan. She could only tolerate a specific location for minutes at a time and I predicted the futility of pleading with my infant daughter by asking her to feel fortunate for her slice of paradise.

So we decided to visit a destination that we had been drooling over for quite some time and planned a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. We thought this activity filled obstacle course through the markets, streets and sites would keep Mom, Dad and Baby happy. To add to the fun, we planned a road trip from Mexico City, as a car was a sleep haven for our little one and it would increase our options on the trip.

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Pujol is a staple in the Mexico City dining scene. We were lucky to grab a 3:00pm reservation the day we landed.

We first flew to Mexico City. We rented our car, threw our luggage in the trunk and readied to drive to the Hyatt in the Polanco district. There was one problem. I did not have a map, GPS, compass or any idea which direction to head. This would not have been so bad, except, we had a pending dinner reservation and no air conditioning in the car. With some controlled arguing and tactful driving, we eventually figured out how to get to the city center and located our hotel after asking for directions.

This allowed for the narrowest window of time to check in, drop off our bags, slide some deodorant and rush over with the stroller to honor our coveted reservation at Pujol. Holy crap, what an amazing seven course culinary intro to Mexican cuisine. My favorite was the baby corn smoked in corn leaves sprinkled with ant exoskeleton.

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Getting ready to tour the capital city in style.

We started off the next day with a long walk through Chapultapec park and La Condesa, before heading in the car out of the city to Puebla.

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This is a chalupa. Not whatever is served at Taco Bell.

Puebla is an old Spanish colonial city located in the valley of active volcanoes. The exterior of the city was a crowded, industrial urban sprawl that is uninspiring until you reach the historical center that was a yolk of romantic cobblestone streets, four hundred year old cathedrals and stall after stall of out of this world street food.

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Street food in Puebla is serious. Here we see our fresh made quesadilla from fresh ground corn meal.
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Did you know the largest pyramid in the world is in Mexico? The Great Pyramid of Cholula, also known as Tlachihualtepetl is right outside Puebla. It looks like a normal sized hill with a church on top, but that hill is really an unexcavated massive pyramid complex that you see Missy struggling up the steps.
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Holy Mole
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Pick your own ingredients and then have another dude grill it for you. This was an awesome eating experience.

After two days of touring some of the sites, we then head out of the city, drove passed the distant Pico de Olizaba volcano, the tallest summit in Mexico, and through the Sierra Mixteca desert of Oaxaca state. A pleasant five hour ride lead us to Oaxaca City, the land where the agave nectar flows like a mountain stream before distillation into mescal. A home to traditional Zapotec identity that breathes flavor into the ubiquitous mole. Chocolate, cheese, and chapulinas are all readily available throughout the safe, clean and colorful streets.   IMG_7578

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The narrow, expansive Benito Juarez market.

The market at Oaxaca was the paradise we sought. We picked out our fresh veggies and meat for a smoky barbecue that stimulated our nostrils. The vendors were chill, low pressure and provided fare prices to take away the obnoxious game of barter. Political protesters reminded about the fight for indigenous rights, while the Mexican moms fixated on Ella with smiles.

At first is was funny to see how people flocked to Ella. We were at first okay with the oohs and aaahs and then concerned but tolerant that many held thin boundaries when it came to touching and holding babies. The final straw came when a group of locals produced a same aged male baby suitor and they tried to get the two face to face for a candid kiss. Missy wanted nothing to do with this and promptly extracted our daughter from this too close for comfort courtship.

One day we head by car outside the city to the surrounding valley to check out neighboring villages and landscapes in search for crafts, food and mescal. We made our culinary pilgrimage to Tlamanalli for ancestral Zapotec food and then searched for the smallest mescal distillery we could find. This popped up after we passed a courtyard with a mule hanging out in front. I slammed on the breaks cut the wheel and pulled up into a little compound that couldn’t be larger than a basketball court. A single family ran a small batch mescal operation and they showed us the production process that starts with a fire pit to cook their shipment of agave, this is carried over to the mule powered mortar that breaks the fruit into a pulp to allow for the fermentation in an open vat that bubbled like a witches cauldron and then finally this was distilled in a copper kettle. I sat down to sample the smoothest mescal that I came across and bought a healthy sized liter bottle for the price of two Starbucks lattes.

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Visiting a roadside mescal distillery which lacked electricity and running water.
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Enjoying the mescalarias.

2015-04-06 11.32.37I don’t know any mass produced mescal. I was only familiar with the drink from the contrived bottles with scorpions at the base and thought of mescal as tequila’s dirty cousin. It was easy in Oaxaca to enjoy the refined nature of the spirit. It comes from the maguey plant, a type of agave grown in the region and the flavor variability comes from the different lands that it is harvested from. The valley grown Cuishe maguey was harsher than the smooth Tobala maguey that grew in the mountains. Rather than a dominant brand, most restaurants, bars and hotels carried “house mescal” as they contracted with the legions of small batch distillers to serve their own bottles of goodness. Mescal was not a commodity to be branded and mass produced but a drink to be loved and used to relax the rational function of the brain to allow appreciation for the beauty that exists everywhere.

My mescal moments occurred in the afternoon and ended early when Ella became tired of dancing on bar tables. This allowed for a hangover-free early wake up so we can focus on the Oaxacan sites like the Monte Alba archaeological ruins and the collection of Spanish cathedrals.

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The Zapotec ruins of Monte Alba right outside Oaxaca.

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After a couple of days in the city, we drove back towards Mexico City and visited the Teotihuacan ruins. Then we returned back to the city to finish our first family trip.

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Posing on top of the sun pyramid in Teotihuacan.

In the end, we realized the perfect setting for travel with a baby. Each day offered fresh and new experiences. We toured an area that was impeccably safe and friendly, despite the mistaken association that Mexico equals narcotrafficking. Ella did have meltdowns, but they were expected and handled just like we were home.

Where we stayed:

Mexico City- Hyatt Regency. This was a stiff business centered hub that met all of our expectations.

Puebla – Hotel Andante. This was a kichy, classical music inspired botique hotel that may be a little dated in concept but provided a convenient and comfortable clean room for the stay.

Oaxaca- Hotel Blue Oaxaca. This was nice. It had a modern open compound design with a kick ass breakfast. We liked it.

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Honduras Smiles

All in all my first surgical mission with Operation Smile to Tegucigalpa, Honduras was an amazing success. I was apart of such a well organized team and we were able to impact 144 lives and families providing free surgeries over 4 1/2 days. This was a site record. Best of all, Op Smile provides speech therapy, follow up care and many other social and medical services to patients.

It was a mind opening experience. I was able to practice medicine the way it should be practiced…caring only about patient needs without the bureaucratic baggage that is a hallmark of US medicine. It was a thrill to provide high quality anesthesia care while working with talented plastic surgeons from South Africa, New Jersey, Brazil and Italy given the conditions.

2015-02-23 17.25.04I worked in the center operating room table in one room that had three total OR beds and was truly unprepared for such an undertaking. The team does not use a ventilator, morphine and most of the modern comforts of anesthesia care that I am accustomed to at the University of Pennsylvania. Initially it felt like a challenge of providing care while standing on one leg with one arm tied behind my back. To add to this difficulty level, we were working with children- and lest you be mistaken, children are not little adults. I fully attribute my safe delivery of anesthesia to my teammates who helped me overcome the incredibly steep learning curve in a short period of time.

The real heroes of the trip are the families that care so much for their sons and daughters that they are willing to go through incredible lengths to find care for cleft lip, cleft palate and other developmental abnormalities and trust the lives of their precious kids to unknown medical volunteers.

I was touched by 5 year old Carlos who helped soothe deathly frightened children waiting for their surgery in the preop child play area by handing out stickers and hugs.

Everyone was inspired by the Alvarez family who live in a remote village and sold the family cow so they can afford the two day trip by horse, canoe and bus to seek care for the overgrown frenulum, the tissue under the tongue that was inhibiting breast feeding efforts for their four month old.

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There was also Alexandra who had been denied care for the past three years due to excessive demand. Fearing another heartbreak, her mom still returned to the mission site anyway. It was so inspiring to see her reaction when we announced that we would repair her daughter’s cleft palate.2015-02-20 12.09.48

I still can’t believe an organization like this exists in the world. Our team worked tirelessly and I drew energy from volunteers who dedicate their lives to this type of service.

A mission like this costs an estimated $250,000. It is not a small price tag but the result of our work lasts through the lives of these children. If you feel the compulsion to give to a cause that will absolutely make a difference, please donate on my fundraising page. Click here,

The Water that Binds us (Panama Trip Overview)

The theme of the trip came ringing to my ears during my first moments in Panama City. While Missy and I wove through the streets of the Casco Antiguo district of Panama City, bells from Church towers rang and clanged, echoing off the alleys and plazas. “For Whom the Bell tolls,” sang as the noise reverberated in my head, “for whom the bell tolls,” which are the final lines of the 17th century poem by John Donne.

Interestingly, his famous work starts:

For whom the bell tollsNo man is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

Man is not isolated but part of a greater whole, effecting others like an organic syncytium. Pondering about this poem brought about some discordance since, unlike his message, our trip would bring us island hopping in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro. Islands that were remote, off the grid and seemingly disconnected.

Eagle eye viewBefore heading out of the city, we remained on the mainland to check out the Panama canal, the man made waterway that splits up the continent and bridges two major oceans- Atlantic and Pacific. It became clear that the canal was a national symbol representing a connection between traditional and modern, East and West, developed and developing worlds. Entering Panama City is like entering a very familiar city, on the surface. Traffic and sky scrapers make with the blink of an eye one feel like they are in Miami. Yet, lightly scratching the surface reveals a wonderful historical yolk that has not quite caught up to speed.

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When Missy and I planned the trip, we chose to spend most of our time in Bocas del Toro with the intended goal of seeking maritime relaxation on the sand because we were traveling from Wisconsin a day after I was to complete an Ironman triathalon. We thought that this would be a passive, low activity getaway to recover from a grueling race, but this turned out not be the case.

I was right about the debilitating nature of the race. I had pain all over my body including areas that were new to the pain process for me. It was a burden to walk, carry bags, sit, stand and lay in most positions. After the first two days, I loosened up and could start feeling myself. It was not too long before we discarded our plan for calm and we dove right into exploring the rich treasures of Bocas.

IMG_7428We spent the week living and learning about the Ngobe (na-vay) and Naso Indian communities while removed from common tourist and other modern comforts like air conditioning and IPA beers. Days were spent exploring beaches instead of resting on them. We spent little time shopping and much effort climbing up steep muddy slope sides leading to villages without roads.

Even though I was amazed by the diversity in culture, geology and animal life that existed between the closely spaced islands, I kept on thinking about that John Donne poem, “No man is an island.” The Ngobe and Naso in one sense could argue in favor of this sentiment by the monumental importance placed on family, community and tradition. Yet, survival was not solely predicated on the strength of these bonds but required an extreme sense of self-reliance in these sometimes harsh, remote conditions.

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I came to appreciate that Carl Rogers, the influential humanist psychologist shed great wisdom on these musings. He wrote, “Each person is an island unto himself, in a very real sense; and he can only build bridges to other islands if he is first of all willing to be himself.”

Panama had its share of bridges, but it was the canals and other waterways that impressed upon me the fluidity of connection. Travel brings out this important message. In order to follow that audacious road to new cities and communities, success depends on how deeply one has traveled in Self. When one learns to boldly walk through the sand in their own island, they can better swim in the currents to Other. It is the water that binds us and enriches our uniqueness.

Places we visited:

Panama City

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Bocas del Toros

-Dolphin Bay with the Ngobe tribe

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-Soposo tours to stay with the Naso tribe

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Panama 2013 Trip Report

 

 

Patagonia Adventure

After an extensive series of plane rides, Missy and I touched down in the deserted land of Patagonia on December 21st. Patagonia, I discovered comes from the Greek route word “Patyon” (ΠΑΤΑΥΟΝ) which is translated to ¨the gnashing of teeth,¨ an image later adopted by the Christian tradition to describe suffering in the infernos of hell. Now, I would not say Patagonia was akin to hell– it was rather chilly and windy but the landscape had the feeling of eternity. A rugged drawn out eternity spread out upon an dusty desolate landscape. For every live tree there was one deceased one laying in the ground- creating a a type of beauty suggestive of persistence after lifelessness.

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The next day we took a 5am bus to Torres del Paine, a five hour ride to Chile. The border crossing was quite an asinine practice in bureaucracy. We had to get a passport stamped in Argentina and then return to to the bus to drive literally 15 feet to go over the border crossing to Chilean customs. No one is allowed to walk between this precious piece of land or the ubiquitous drug sniffing dogs would attack.

patagonia_2009-2010 001Finally we arrived in the park and viewed upon the towering spires of mountains that make up the Torres (Towers) del Paine imposing over a minty colored lake- a site wholly wonderful and unique. We discovered that the park was not an extension of the Andean mountain range but its own geological phenomenon formed by the uprising of a volcano. After the bus ride tour, we began our hike of what intended to be a four day three night adventure through the “W” where I would carry close to 50 pounds on my back and Missy would carry the equal weight of “moral support.”

We arreat our campsite at 9:45pm on what was supposed to be the easiest day, battling 45mph winds and some steep climbs, I quickly realized that this would not be as easy as the Inca trail the previous year. The next day reconfirmed this notion quite quickly. Early in the morning we intended to take a quick 4 mile hike, leaving our bag in the tent, to get a close view of the Towers, considered a highlight of the W. The rain began quickly into the walk and later the wind picked up. This was all tolerable under the coverage of the trees, but when we reached the final stretch, a perilous four limb climb up unstable rocks to reach the vista point, Missy reached a breaking point. Fearing for her life and exacerbated by the wet and cold, she began a spirited, snot dripping from her nose protest. As I pushed her up the trail, the uncontrollable fearful shaking in her arms made me think, “if Fred and Carol had a crystal ball and could peer into what I was subjecting their daughter to, I think their opinion of me might dwindle.” Nevertheless, we made it to the top and with the rain, we could not see anything. Defeated, we waddled back down the trail and eventually to our tent to find our sleeping bags soaking wet. I looked at Missy and it became quickly apparent that our trip was over. Our misery was not finished yet, as the retracing of yesterday’s steps in a bag made heavier by wet items, in the cold and wind with Missy slipping and tweaking her knee and the wind threatening to topple us over seemed like it would never end. But it did. The last 3 miles we were able to hitch hike in the back of a truck to the bus stop to luckily meet the last bus heading to El Calafate (the next bus, four hours later would take us to Puerto Navales, Chile here we would need to find a hostel and take a long bus ride back to Argentina the next day).

This mishap we later found would be a blessing rather than a curse. We were able to calmly see the touristic marvel of the Perrito Moreno glacier (simply outstanding), celebrate Navidad in the hostel America del Sur with great people and then change our flight to Buenos Aires two days earlier.

Tips

-Stay at the Hostel America del Sur!!! It they are super nice there, it is cozy, and there is just simply great energy there. We stayed there only one night and after our excursion it was fully booked. We stayed in a terrible hotel town the road but the people at America del Sur invited us over to hang out whenever we wanted- adn we did.

-El Calafate is a jumping point to the Patagonia adventures. It is touristy and expensive so try to stay here as little time as possible.

-Dress for the weather in the Torres Del Paine. It is rainy and windy and if you do not have a water-proof tent and appropriate weatherized clothing you will be in for disaster.

-Do not try to carry fruit (let alone drugs) over the border into Chile. There are extensive border checks.