May 26, 2008

Mexico City, Mexico
La Calzada de los Muertos

Stopped at the newsstand in SeaTac airport. A prayer, once more, to my benevolent corporate masters (now with new flavors) for safe passage on this, my final journey.

Danced at the Zocalo in Mexico City. Nice turnout. Lots of students and young families.

Also, a German.

The Zocalo is the third largest city square in the world. The other two are Red Square and Tiananmen Square. It actually feels a lot like those places. The Marxist vibe is a bit out of place.

Some folks suggested dancing with the traditional Aztec street performers just outside the square. They wear elaborate headgear with massive plumage. Forgot to take a picture, so I'm stealing one.

410184_mexico_dancing1

Dancing with them turned out to be tricky. Their dance is sacred and they are very sensitive about being mocked or exploited. I had a half dozen locals lobbying on my behalf, which was enough to get them in for one take, but when they saw the way we danced, it made their "blood boil."

At first there was speculation that they wanted more money. That proved false. It really was about respect and consideration.

They asked that we not use the footage. I apologized and told them I understood their point of view. We worked for a while to smooth things over.

They invited us to learn their dance. We did. They explained its history and meaning. We listened. They gave us permission to join them in a circle dance. It felt good to make amends, and it was one of those daunting and nervy experiences that this project delivers on a regular basis. But alas, circle dancing isn't all that conducive to what I'm doing. I got a very proper and respectful clip of our backsides.

After the dance, I was planning to go up north to Teotihuacán. I mentioned this to a few of the participants and they offered to take me, so I made a day of it with David, Matus, Gabrielle, Antonio, and Diana.

David almost missed a turn on the way up. Matus shouted, "Izuierda! Izquierda! Izquierda!"

"Man, you guys really need a shorter word for 'left'."

I visited Teotihuacán once when I was thirteen on a class trip. All I remember are the cruel steps leading up the sun pyramid. I don't hear about the place very often, so I'd kind of relegated it in my mind as a fairly middling site that's notable mainly for its proximity to Mexico City.

That was a false impression. The sun pyramid in particular is pretty damn spectacular. Granted, there have been some changes.

It's the third largest pyramid in the world (another third largest). The second is only a couple hours away by car, but it's buried under a mountain of dirt. The biggest, in Giza, is of course nothing to scoff at, but you can't climb to the top of it unless you're also willing to spend some time in an Egyptian jail cell. I have a harder time enjoying things that I can't climb on top of.

Apparently new agey people really dig Teotihuacán. There was a circle of them up top with us reciting prayers they'd written about peace, love, and understanding. I'm inclined to poke fun, but whatever. I don't see any harm in it.

I find it harder to restrain myself with the Mormons.

The main drag is called the Avenue of the Dead, which is a great name for any street.

One rather amazing and unanticipated consequence of making the dancing videos is that I have friends in just about every country.

Pic_002_2

David asked me, "What stereotypes do Americans have about Mexicans?"
"Hmm?"
"You know," Matus added, "what kinds of jokes do people make about Mexicans?"
"Uhh...well. Uh."
"It's okay. We've heard them all."
"Um. How about you go first?"
"Well, there's the one with an American, a Japanese, and a Mexican, and a genie grants each of them one wish. The American says 'I want all the money in the world.' The Japanese says 'I want all the rice in the world.' And the Mexican says 'I want these other two guys to fuck off so I can take all their stuff.'"
"Haha. Yeah..."

Oh, man. I know what this is. This is a Curb Your Enthusiasm moment. I don't know what's going to come out of my mouth next, but it's sure to be way worse than what he just said. This is bad bad bad.

...Okay, they seem to have shifted focus. Just stay quiet. Wait for them to forget about it. Move on to a different subject.

Phshhheeew!

Went out to an early dinner on the way back. The restaurant had pictures of movie stars on the wall. This guy is the Mexican John Wayne.

I think he kinda looks like the Mexican Earl.

Mynameisearl_main_2

Matus and Gabrielle took me back to my hotel just in time to catch the lowering of the absurdly giganormous flag in the Zocalo.

They march several hundred soldiers out to perform the ritual.

"Are you sure Mexico isn't communist?"
"We are a democracy."
"Are you absolutely positive? Cause that looks pretty darn communist to me right there."
"Trust me. If I lived in a communist country, I would know about it."
"Yeah. I suppose you would."

October 22, 2003

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
There's Someone Standing Outside My Door

Four miles. That’s how far it is to the border. I’m four miles from El Paso, Texas. Four miles from Los Estados Unidos. I’m reminding myself of that because it makes me feel safer. I’m reminding myself, because I’m in a somewhat alarming situation right now.

Like most of the world, Mexico turned out to be a lot less dangerous than the brochure makes it seem. In three weeks I’ve had no hassles of any kind – not even the slightest evidence of criminal activity. Sure it’s there. Crime is everywhere except for Sweden and Canada. I just haven’t had any of it happen to me…yet.

See the thing is, Ciudad Juarez is a border town. It’s one of the three big border towns Mexico has with the United States. Wanna guess what the three highest crime rates in Mexico are?

It’s a universal law. It’s thermodynamics. You’ve got your hot regions and you’ve got your cold regions, and then you’ve got your tiny little spaces where the air passes freely through. Those are border towns. And when there’s a sufficient disparity between temperatures, you get a lot of activity. You get a lot of sleaze.

I’ve spent the last three days traveling by bus from San Miguel. I know, I know. Why am I taking the bus? Why am I not just flying? It’s not all that much more expensive, all things considered. There’s less risk involved. And it’s a lot quicker. But it’s just something I wanted to do, okay? I like having a map and a finish line and just working my way up one leg at a time. Maybe the idea is better in theory than in practice, but I wanted to do it.

I’m in that kind of mood.

Img_2932

This was printed on the side of most buses. I'm pretty sure I know what those first five mean and they all sound good. That last one, not so much.

San Miguel to Guanajuato was easy. I did it in the morning and spent the afternoon checking out the town. Through most of October, they have a big annual arts festival devoted to Cervantes and all things related to his novel, “Don Quixote,” and it sounded interesting.

Img_2953

The town itself is beautiful. But it’s certainly on the map as one of the main tourist traps in Mexico, and I was there at peak time, so that was kind of a drag. Cool art on display, great street performers and musicians, nifty old streets, but massive crowds making it not so much fun – especially being on my own.

What really interested me about Guanajuato was its origins as a Spanish silver mining town. For a period during the 16th and 17th centuries, the region provided about 40% of the world’s supply. They were pulling it out by the ton, melting it down, and shipping it back to the Old World in the form of doubloons, pieces of eight, and all that.

In other words, they were creating a big juicy reason d’etre for my most favorite thing in the whole world: PIRACY! It was what kept the whole operation going. As long as there were Spaniards literally making a mint, there were English and French and Dutch and Americans and whoever else trying to take it from them by any means necessary. Conquering the wealth-bearing land itself wouldn’t just have been a massive endeavor, it would’ve been an all-out act of war. It also, in my opinion, would’ve spoiled the fun. But ships carrying the riches back home were fair game.

Anyway, that’s what I liked most about Guanajuato – just thinking about that stuff. And I liked walking through the huge network of tunnels running underneath it. They used to be mine shafts. Now they’re roads.

Img_2960

I didn’t want to deal with having to find a hotel in town during the festival, and I wanted to make more headway, so I caught an evening bus to Zacateca.

I haven’t got much to say about Zacateca. It looked pretty boring. It might not have been – I don’t know. The guidebook went with Naomi and I was too much of a cheapskate to buy my own. I took a walk from the bus station, found a vacant spot on a hilltop overlooking the town, and read for a little while before moving on.

I took a picture of the town, but it was the most boring thing ever. I decided to make it even more boring by sticking my head in the middle and taking an auto-snapshot.

Img_2963

Buying a guidebook would’ve easily paid for itself in the money I would’ve saved on hotels these last few nights. Not having one, and not wanting to deal with the trouble of asking around, and not wanting to stray far from the bus stop, and being worn out from hours spent on buses, I’ve been flopping into the hotels positioned right next door. These are always around 400 pesos, or $40, which is twice what I’d be paying if I knew where to go.

After Zacateca I picked a town called Torreon. It looked sufficiently small – I’m trying to stay away from the big cities – and I figured from there I could make it to the border in one trip on the following day.

Nothing to say about Torreon. Let’s move on.

On the twelve hour bus ride to Ciudad Juarez, I discovered something that made me kind of sad: the food gets a lot better up north. Instead of the little tiny tacos in the mushy corn tortillas I was getting in San Miguel, people started coming onto the bus selling big burritos filled with meat and beans and potatoes in delicious flour tortillas. The food was much closer to what we get when we eat Mexico in the states, and it was wholly more satisfying. I’d have been a lot happier eating that for the last week.

For the most part, the view out the window looked like this.

Img_2965

Sometimes it looked like this.

Img_2967

It was really cool for about five minutes. I’d have liked to have been able to pull over and run around out there, but I couldn’t. I could just look. And it got boring.

It was nice listening to Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson while I stared out at it, though. That’s certainly the right soundtrack.

The sunset that came later was beautiful. It was that thing where you get the amber glow creeping from behind the dark, crested hilltops, making them look like they’re on fire. I’m not so good at that description stuff. I think it’s generally a wank. But I wish I was better so I could descrive this sunset. It was something.

As we entered Ciudad Juarez, my cell phone came alive with noises. After three weeks of starvation, it was suddenly reconnected with its lifeline and purring like a kitten. It gave me addresses and subject headers for about a dozen new emails. One of them is from someone at the India Times and it’s titled “Looked at your site.” Now I’m all stressed-out and feeling guilty about my criticisms of India. I was pretty harsh.

My worst fear – and it seriously haunts me – is saying negative things on my site about people or places and being totally wrong. It haunts me because I know I’ve done it a lot. It’s not like I do all that much research before drawing my conclusions, and I frequently veer towards frustrated intolerance.

As a minor example, I’m reading a book about Captain Cook now, having known next to nothing about him beforehand. I made fun of his ridiculous names for things a long time ago, and even though it was obviously in jest and half the joke was I didn’t know what I was talking about, I still want to go back and insert an impassioned diatribe against my many glib inaccuracies to the interest and elucidation of no one at all.

So in summary, I’m sorry fella from the India Times. I haven’t read the actual body or your email yet, so I’m not even sure you’re mad at me, but I’m sorry about anything I might have said that was arrogant, condescending, juvenile, hurtful, or just plain wrong. That goes for every other person and country I’ve criticized.

I’m not sorry about the stuff I said that was right, though. All of that is fine.

You may, by this point, be curious about the situation I alluded to at the beginning of this entry. You may, I can safely imagine, have wanted me to get to it a long time ago. Okay. Here it is.

So I got into Ciudad Juarez around midnight and, with my phone working, I woke up some family members to let them know I’m alive and safe. My next goal was to find a hotel, leave my bags there, and go find an ATM. I always try to calculate it so that I don’t have much currency left over when I cross a border, and I always miss my target, so the final days are usually a big pain.

There was no ATM at the bus station and as I said, it was after midnight, so my options for getting cash were limited. Having indulged in one too many burritos on the bus, I didn’t even have change for a cab. I had to walk.

I’d had enough of the 400 peso hotels and decided to go a little bit further to find the second tier. That plan was actually solid. That worked fine. What I didn’t anticipate was what the second tier in Ciudad Juarez entails.

This is, after all, a border town.

I found the Motel Monte Carlo, which has single rooms for 200 pesos a night. What it also has is a nightclub attached. And you can tell by the front, it’s not a “Hi, my name is Kathy, I work in customer relations at an investment firm and drink martinis,” kind of nightclub. It’s that other kind. The kind you find in border towns. The kind with cheap adjacent motels.

But I’m tired, and it’s in my price range, and I’m here, so I leave my bags with the clerk and get directions to the nearest ATM. Also, I have to confess, I smell a good anecdote brewing.

It turns out the clerk had no idea where the nearest ATM was. I surveyed the area and it was all locked doors. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t going to take a credit card, and he wasn’t going to let me pay in the morning. I could hit the road with my bags, or continue looking for an ATM.

Tired. Price range. Already here. Anecdote.

So I walk in the other direction, which is the same direction as the broth – ahem – nightclub, and the guy out front comes up and stops me. At this point, all I can do is try to act like I’m NOT the biggest, dopiest mark in the world.

Surprisingly, even this close to Texas and in his line of work, the guy still doesn’t speak much English. But he’s seen me milling around and he knows I’ve got a problem and he seems like a fairly innocuous guy and I certainly need some help, so I let him in on my troubles.

I say, “Uh, tu sabe…de donde es un…uh…banco? Ah – Tey – Emay?”
“Machina cardo?” he says.
“Si.”
“Hable ingles?”
“Si.”
“There is a bank. One kilometer down. My friend will take you in his car.”

Oh shit.

His friend Carlos comes over. The situation is explained and Carlos agrees to take me. I try to look at it from their perspective to determine my level of safety: They want my money. That much is certain. They know I haven’t got any right now and I need help getting it. Also, maybe not Carlos but this first guy is affiliated with the motel/nightclub, so if he shakes me down I’ve at least got an address to tell the police – for whatever good that’ll do.

On another level, this guy is trying to help me out. Every time anyone has offered me assistance in this country, it’s turned out to be genuine. The people I’ve encountered have been mostly friendly, and my instincts tell me that despite his job, this guy is of that ilk.

So I get in the car with Carlos. I get in the backseat, cause in front is his girlfriend, or wife, or…whatever. She about twenty years younger than him and she’s dressed like she just got off work.

He takes me to the bank. I get the money, no problem. I get back in the car.

“Tu va El Paso ahora?”
Huh? No, I’m not going to the border. “Voy en la manana. Ahora voy a…motel…por favor.”
“Ah. Tu quires mujer?”
“Que?”
“You want baby for the night? 50 bucks!”
“No. Lo ciento. Gracias.”
“You give me 20 bucks.” He points to his eye. “Change. 10 bucks.”

I don’t know what he’s talking about and I don’t want to.

I give him my best approximation of, “No. Sorry. Not tonight. I want to sleep.”
“Si. Quire dormir con mujer?”
“No. Solo con mio.”

Carlos laughs and gives up for the moment. This is a refined transcript from many failed attempts at communicating and he needs a break. He lets the guy back at the nightclub take over.

“You want girl?”
“No. I want sleep.”
“Okay. You give my friend something now, and you give me something too.”

I was prepared for that. I get change from the motel clerk and hand them both 20 pesos with many many thanks. The nightclub guy is okay with it, but Carlos wants 50 pesos for his trouble. I say a cab wouldn’t have cost more than 30, and I hand him another 10 pesos. He decides it’s enough. I’m off the hook.

And that leads me to here and now. When I walked back to my room, I noticed the clerk was no longer at his desk. There aren’t any other cars in the motel lot. When I started writing this, the music from the club was thumping against the wall. Now it’s stopped. About ten minutes ago, the shadow of a guy’s head moved across my window curtain. Right after that, the light stopped shining through the crease under my door. It stayed like that for a few seconds, then opened up again. I sat here frozen for ten solid minutes, staring at the crease until I could swear I saw it shrinking slowly. That was a few paragraphs back.

Should I jump around, turn the light on, make noise? Is it better to just stay quiet and keep a lookout? I don’t know, but either way, I’m not going to be falling asleep for a while.

Before I got in bed, I took 400 pesos and put it on the nightstand as easy pickin’ don’t-hurt-me cash. My wallet and other things I don’t want stolen went under the mattress. I don’t know if that’s a particularly smart strategy. I just made it up.

Staying here was dumb. Not worth the anecdote. I should’ve picked up and gone to a first tier hotel.

Of course, maybe I’m acting silly and should just go to sleep. Maybe that guy was out smoking a cigarette, or maybe he was the clerk touring the grounds. Even if he was a thief, he evidently went away. He’s not still on the other side of the door, waiting for me to look away from the crease.

And then there’s the likelihood that even if I do get robbed, the most I’ll lose is a few hundred pesos and maybe some of my stuff. There’d be no reason to attack me.

Plus I’m only four miles from the border. Four miles from my own country, which is as safe as a baby’s crib and once I’m there I’ll never ever have to worry about anything like this because people don’t steal from each other in the United States.

It’s 4:30 now. I think I’m in the clear. This is one of the advantages of having batshit waking hours.

When I wake up, I’ll cross the border and catch a bus to Phoenix, then on to Los Angeles. I’m planning to visit some old friends, overdose on garlic at the Stinking Rose, try to catch up on movies, maybe stop by my favorite comic shop. After that I make my way to Seattle, which will be the end of this whole long trip around the world and the beginning of…whatever comes next.

October 04, 2003

Oaxaca, Mexico
Forging New Universes...in Long Island

So I’m in Mexico. Kind of a spontaneous thing.

I spent two months at my mom's house in Westport, shuttling back and forth from the city a couple times each week. I enjoyed seeing people. I loved spending time in New York. But I wasn't holding together very well.

There's a clock in my mom's house that chimes off the hour. I don't wear a watch and never think about it otherwise. My only reminder that it's passing is that hourly clanging. It strikes once, twice, three times, and that sounds about right. Then it strikes again and I'm thinking, "Four o'clock? How did that happen?" A fifth strike, a sixth, a seventh. I realize it's seven o'clock. The day is over. I've done little more than roll out of bed.

This is what I looked like most of the time.

Img_2795

That was most of the last two months for me. And every day I'd get flashes of swimming through the holds of the Fujikawa Maru -- exploring hallways teeming with coral and fish, watching beams of sunlight dance across the stairwells, finding that octopus on the bow -- it's like the desktop wallpaper in my brain. I had to get moving again. I'm not done traveling.

I did do a few interesting things while I was home. Right after the blackout, I went along with my dad to the Brookhaven Laboratories in Long Island. See, my dad's a big physics nut, and they've got this particle accellerator there that is currently the most powerful in the world. It's not the largest, but it's the first to use superconducting magnets to pull particles around the loop and that puts it in a whole new league.

...hmm, okay. The basics. A particle accellerator is a big, huge, giganormous loop with tons of powerful magnets all around it. They stick protons in the loop and pull them around and around by turning on the magnets then turning them off one at a time. It's sort of like how those fake rabbits work at dog tracks, except it's magnets instead of rabbits, and they don't move, and there's lots of them instead of just one...nevermind. Point is, they get the protons going really really fast -- I mean like speed of light fast. As one of the Brookhaven physicists explained it, "It's pretty much the speed of light. It's incredibly close. It's 99.999% of the speed of light. Of course, getting it up to the actual speed of light would be impossible, cause the particles would then have an infinite weight, but it's as close to the speed of light as you can possibly get. That's basically what it is. For all intents and purposes, you can think of it as the speed of light. There wouldn't be any point in getting any closer..."

They're physicists, not public speakers. You get the idea.

They have two separate tracks in the loop and they get two batches going in opposite directions. Then, once they get these protons going at what is pretty much basically the speed of light, they make the tracks cross and smash the protons into each other. Here's a better analogy than the dog track: it's like one of those Hot Wheels smash-up race sets. It's what every eight-year-old boy does with his toys, except it costs billions of dollars and you could probably argue that what the eight year old is doing has more useful applications to the outside world.

Why do they smash protons into each other at the speed of light? To see what happens. They take all sorts of measurements and it somehow tells physicists what the universe is made of.

So what's so special about the Brookhaven? Well, because it's so damn powerful, they're able to use stuff a lot heavier than itty bitty protons. A few months ago they started spinning ionized gold atoms that weigh two hundred times more. This means much bigger explosions, and it means that last year they viewed for the first time something called quark-gluon plasma. Don't ask me to explain what quark-gluon plasma is. I'm told it's as important as it sounds.

Getting back to the story, the Brookhaven announced they were opening their lab up to the general public for one day only. My dad was giddy with excitement, and it was an infectious kind of giddiness that makes you want to tag along.

Another reason for the trip was that the facility is only minutes away from the Hamptons. For those who don't know, the Hamptons are where the richest and most famous people in the world go to play. It's a modest little suburb packed with the sprawling estates of Hiltons, Vanderbilts, Spielberg, Seinfeld, and everyone else with disposable income in the ten digit realm. So that was interesting.

We didn't end up seeing much in the Hamptons, because the favorite competition of all its residents is growing the tallest possible hedges around their property. The coastal roads are like giant paved hedge mazes. They're generally about twenty feet high.

I did see more Ferraris in one day than I've ever seen in my life, and other instances of conspiciuous wealth were all around. That was even more of a brainsmack to me -- still only weeks removed from some of the poorest places in the world -- than I imagine it'd be to the average gawker. To compare the main street of Southhampton with the slums of Calcutta, it's hard to fathom that they're on the same planet. Clearly something is broken in the machine. Clearly it's not functioning properly.

We checked into a hotel and the next morning headed over to Brookhaven. The rest of the crowd was a lot of amateur physics geeks like my father, and a few moms who read about it in the paper and thought it might be interesting for their kids. We put on nametags, got split up into groups, then led onto buses. They showed us the underground tunnel that houses the loop.

Img_2665

Next they carted us over to the stations along the loop where the collisions occur.

Img_2720

I was entirely satisfied with the volume of tubes, wires, and doo-dads that go into the process.

One of the physicists explained that what they are doing with this accellerator is recreating the conditions of the big bang and spawning miniature universes. This prompted me to raise my hand. I asked what the actual difference was between the real big bang that made life, the universe, and everything, and the fake big bangs they were throwing together for shits and giggles. He answered that they both yielded this quark-gluon plasma, and except for the number of particles involved, there really wasn't much difference at all. I found that answer extremely alarming. I asked what happens to the universes after they're born, hoping he would say that they fold back up and disappear instantly. He said the particles decay, but I didn't get a clear answer on what ultimately happens to them.

I know I'm a long way from grasping the concepts, and mine is but a simple caveman brain, but it seems awfully irresponsible to just keep on bringing baby universes into the world like that. For one thing, where do these universes go if ours is already here? And for another...no wait, I'm stuck on that first one. Where are all these baby universes?

The observation equipment had been temporarily pulled out for maintenance, but here is the space where earlier this year, new universes were made for probably the first time since time started happening.

Img_2722

It was later explained to me that they can only recreate the events of the big bang from 10 to the -23 seconds after it occured and onward. Anywhere closer to the actual moment -- meaning anywhere between 0 and 0.00000000000000000000001 on the clock -- and the laws of the natural world break down such that time itself can't really be measured. I want you to stick corks in both ears, plug your nostrils, and let that thought rattle around in your brain for a while.

Here is the other collision point on a different part of the track. That narrow cylinder right in the center -- that's where it happens.

Img_2729

By my calculations, a precise hit from a proton torpedo will start a chain reaction that should destroy the entire station.

I went to the gym a lot while I was home. That was one nice thing. I stayed pretty healthy and managed to fend off any serious weight gain for the time being.

Toward the end of my stay, I got an opportunity to see Chuck Paluhniak speak. He's the guy who wrote Fight Club and a string of other interesting books in recent years. He was at Barnes and Nobles in the city reading a short story he'd written called 'Guts'. I went with my sister, and the funny thing is that until I got there, I completely forgot that I'd read all about this book tour he's on and the story he reads. The rumor circulating on the net was that it's really really gross -- so gross, in fact, that audience members were passing out from shock. When I read that a few nights earlier, it sounded like ridiculous hype. I imagined puritanical soccer moms who'd stumbled into the wrong section, fanning themselves theatrically as if their plantations were burning down. I dismissed the whole thing.

So I show up and I find a place to stand and he comes out and I start listening. Ten minutes later I'm in a cold sweat. I'm staring at the floor, breathing deeply, feeling weak and queasy. The story has me struggling to stay conscious.

I'd separated from Kristin, but I later found out she'd taken the escalator downstairs and was covering her ears, waiting for the story to end.

I'm not going to explain what the story was about except to say it was way grosser than you're imagining right now and there are indeed things you can hear that will make your brain try to shut down. I don't care if you're a surgeon, an embalmer, a coroner, whatever. This story was in a whole different league of awful.

I had a small birthday party at Kristin's apartment in the city. I forgot to take pictures. It was a few of my friends from high school sitting around talking. Fun but subdued.

I really like my friends from high school. Part of me wishes I could've stayed there and put a life together. But I knew it wasn't going to happen and I had to get moving again. I wasn’t done traveling.

My friend Naomi from Australia just spent a month in Mexico City on a litigation case and when she finished, she took a week off. I booked a ticket and flew down two days later.

I spent the weekend with her at the Four Seasons while she finished up, basking in pampered, fully expensed luxury. It's one of the finest hotels in Mexico and a personal record in my own freeloadsmanship.

I'll spare the details so Nae doesn't yell at me.

She was living and working in the hotel non-stop since she'd arrived. The hotel was like a walled compound, and she could count the number of times she'd left on one hand. Last night, she took me up to the off-limits rooftop. We climbed a ladder to a small platform at the very top where we could look out in all directions at the sprawling city -- the largest in the world. The lights went off into the horizon in all directions, and I'm sure well beyond. It was beautiful and awful at the same time.

This morning, we went to the city square and looked around. We saw Diego Rivera's huge mural depicting the history of Mexico. We didn't have time to look at the Aztec ruins from when Montezuma ruled and Cortez sacked the place. We had to get going.

The car rental was a bit scary. We got a Nissan Tsuru with bare bones insurance. The scary part was when he had me sign a blank credit card slip with no amount filled in -- "because we don't know what the charge will be yet." I generally try to avoid signing credit card charges when I don't know how much I'm paying, but there was no way he'd let me take the car otherwise. If it hadn't been a big name car rental company, I'd have walked away. Hopefully I made the right decision.

The road out of Mexico City was a nightmare. They've stopped paying attention to things like streetlights here and people just go whenever they want. We got lucky and found an attendant at the rental place who needed a ride home and was going our way, so he rode shotgun and gave directions in Spanish -- which was a little tricky, but we used the guidebook glossary and managed to translate the essentials. We beat the odds and got out of there in one piece, but I dread having to drive back in there to drop the car off.

After that it was open road to Oaxaca. We took the cuartos, which is their word for toll highways. See, the government roads in Mexico aren't so good, so corporations have come in and built their own modern ones, but they charge outrageous tolls to let people use them. The five hour drive from Mexico City cost us around $40. The alternative is libres, which are free but much much slower, and after dark, I'm told, you run the serious risk of getting forcibly pulled over and robbed by banditos. We'd like to avoid that.

I'm practicing Spanish numbers in my head while I type this. Veintiuno, veintidos, veintitres...

I'll cover Oaxaca in my next entry. Right now I'm going to bed. Veinticuatro, veinticinco, veintiseis...

And I must be transmitting my thoughts too loud. Veintisiete, veintiocho, veintinueve, trienta...

Cause as I count in my head, Nae is right next to me and she shouts out in her sleep:

"Thirty-one!"