Letting Go

Letting Go.

As much fun as it is to study a map and come up with a plan, I find that travel requires much flexibility in order to realize the opportunities that await me on a journey.

It is great to have a general direction when you set out, but sometimes one destination offers more than you expected. Maybe you learn of something that requires a slight tangent from your course. Perhaps you make a friend and decide to create a new joint adventure together for a few days.

I intended to spend several days in Barcelona when I went there in 2010, but ended up ditching it for a week in Andorra. I was planning a trip along the typical tourist circuit in Morocco, before I met a Moroccan and spent a week visiting some smaller towns and places I would have never known about with the help of a guide and friend.

I was bound for Panama and the Darian gap back in 2007 before a hurricane derailed my plans and left me veering off into the jungles of Chiapas, Guatemala, and Belize. Even then, I was planning to visit the Yucatan after Belize, but ended up doubling back through Guatemala due to new friends there and information about additional things to see and do there.

We travel because we do not know. Our planning is through books and maps, yet we go knowing that we cannot experience a destination purely through reading a guidebook or studying Google Maps. The experience may be what we expect, but it will likely be different. So set out with some flexibility, not being so attached to a plan or a check list that you miss out on greater opportunities for personal growth and meaningful experiences.

Let go of the list. Let go of the expectations of those at home. Let go and experience what the world can teach you!

Freedom of the Seas: Falmouth, Jamaica

After Labadee, our next port of call was Falmouth, Jamaica. Much less touristic than the ports of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, this port had some promise ab intitio and it did not disappoint.

I watched our arrival from the breakfast buffet, making small talk with some of the other passengers that were drawn to my window to watch the same. The dock extended into the water in a V shape, with a place for two vessels to moor. Another Royal Caribbean vessel was already moored and we were backing up to take our place in the dock’s only other slot.

882914_10103248220032831_1918079175_o 885494_10103248220072751_2144885267_o

My two traveling companions were planning to take the Bob Marley excursion that would last the whole day and take them much deeper into Jamaica. I was planning to spend the day getting to know this little city on foot. Even from a distance, I was surveying the city and my attention kept getting drawn by a tall brick structure that I mistook for a minaret. Curiosity invoked, I decided to proceed towards that tower upon disembarkation.

Upon leaving their ships, cruise passengers are routed through a customs checkpoint where officers run bags through a metal detector. After I had cleared, I went into an office to the side and asked to have my passport stamped. I was told that I can only get a stamp if I fly in and the officers refused to stamp my passport.

After the customs house is a fairly developed cruise port which is largely identical to all of the other developed cruise ports in the Caribbean. The jewelry shops are all of the same chain and they sit amidst trinket dealers and duty free liquor and tobacco shops. At these places, the room card, which is good for all purchases made on the cashless ship, is generally accepted in all the shops along with US Dollars and Euros. I would come back here to wait for my crewmen friends later, but at that moment I bee-lined it straight to the gate and was soon out on the streets of Falmouth.

860555_10103248221789311_1188519922_o 882198_10103248221909071_1926345355_o 861122_10103248221834221_1803612138_o 856189_10103248220237421_1566255774_o

Vendors were waiting touting trinkets and tours to those passengers who were adventurous enough to venture out from the security of the port. There would be a few of us seeping out these gates, but the further one went, the fewer fellow passengers one could see unescorted. The transition between the cruise port and the city proper was stark. The aggressive selling and “come into my shop” requests were plentiful along that first street. One has to ignore these people past a point that an American would deem polite, but ignore them you must if you don’t want to be followed and pressed for more time and more examination of yet another fine Jamaican product. By no means do I intend to paint a negative picture here, it is just that if you are not looking to make purchases, it can be nothing short of work to walk 100 feet. The vendors became sparse and I found myself in a downtown square.

887179_10103248220217461_886557311_o

Mentally following landmarks towards that tower, I proceeded down the road and eventually came upon it. It was not a mosque, but rather a Catholic Church. This was actually a common stop for a lot of the tours and I found that some tour busses had arrived before me. With the tourists were the street vendors. Some of the street vendors noticed my uncommon approach and attempted to intercept me en route to sell me some jewelry and music CDs. I told them that I was not interested in buying and ended up walking straight past the church, only snapping a few pictures as I passed.

830498_10103248220352191_1075461754_o 856425_10103248220636621_1228677668_o 857075_10103248220601691_248752156_o 861458_10103248220471951_436383776_o 887364_10103248220606681_1130175075_o882912_10103248220501891_861964552_o861076_10103248221824241_58569766_o

I walked a few blocks and then took a right towards the shore again. This path took me past the jail and police station, which was by far the most modern building I saw. Across from the police station was a helipad. Seeing a helicopter out front bearing American numbers, I was tempted to go inside and see if someone there could stamp my passport, but walked on instead.

11585_10103248220716461_671111832_n 830403_10103248220691511_2043173712_o 856459_10103248220796301_1144716261_o 859792_10103248220886121_1275280096_o 885699_10103248220841211_1709309751_o

Turning left along the coastal road, I passed a rather large compound that was the hospital. To be honest, I was rather shocked to see the hospital as it looked anything but modern. I was expecting, being in the Commonwealth, for a much more modern facility, but instead saw rooms being aired out by open windows and gowns hanging up on clotheslines outside of the extremely run down building. While I have been known to obtain medical and dental care in other countries, I would not be tempted to do so at this facility.

857521_10103248221205481_186793723_o    858309_10103248220816261_1918840768_o885659_10103248221085721_707066218_o886669_10103248221275341_1604733921_o

I then went to the beach to put my hand in the water and snap a few pictures. When I did a man came out of the bushes and approached me. I could not discern a word that he was saying and cannot say if it was English or some other tongue. He exhibited signs of being under the influence of drugs as he just went on and on in his almost angry sounding monologue. I eventually walked on, and he continued to talk to himself apparently without noticing my departure. I walked along that road until the next major intersection and then worked my way back to the downtown area.

856518_10103248221310271_248677086_o857325_10103248221040811_1462929439_o857598_10103248220950991_98874181_o  858527_10103248221674541_1885946195_o 858544_10103248220362171_1727899425_o 823469_10103248221534821_1206275360_o860630_10103248221380131_1678767765_o 860778_10103248221464961_726435358_o 861141_10103248221589711_1268939226_o 885582_10103248221375141_1780253203_o  885922_10103248221594701_518205996_o

This time I poked my head into a few shops and generally killed some time before I was due to meet my friends at the port. While my other travel companions were hours out on their tour, my crewman friend and his fiancée were participating in mandatory drills onboard the Freedom. We had arranged to meet for lunch and they had promised to show me the best Jamaican patties as well as one of their favourite local eateries. I did not want to be late for lunch.

Our first stop, Tastee, was really close to the port. When leaving the gate, we turned left and pretty much followed the road around, hugging the left side. At the first junction, there was a grocery store-sized strip mall and Tastee was in the middle of it. Behind this building, I would later learn, was Falmouth’s open air market. Inside of Tastee there was a decent queue, of mostly locals and it took a few minutes to place our order. I ordered a cheeseburger patty and I believe a plain beef patty as well. Both were good, but the cheeseburger patty is the one that I’d go back for. There were other items being sold, but I focused on the patties on this visit.

Juici Beef, our second stop, was near the downtown square. This was a smaller shop, but packed nevertheless. Here we met a few of the Freedom’s crew seeking some patties as well. Considering the blend of locals and the ship’s company, I take it that this was a well known and well liked establishment. Here too I had a cheeseburger patty (as one must have a common reference point) and at least one other. It was also very good and I had no complaints.

856159_10103248221998891_1544218604_o830461_10103248222038811_2138783269_o

Our next stop was Jelly Man, a vegetarian and seafood restaurant. We had heard of this place well in advance as it invoked collective memories of a restaurant in Gainesville. This place was literally a shack. This place was a few blocks from the downtown plaza and was the epitome of hole-in-the-wall. I opted to go against the advice of my friend and I ordered a fish dish which was good, but looking at his vegetarian beef-tips, I do regret not going along with his advice and going vegetarian that day. Overall, I certainly think that this place was worth the visit and I do not believe that you can go wrong with anything you order.

885816_10103248222323241_1124965480_o

My friends, oblivious that their picture is part of a larger frame.

860105_10103248222143601_158028016_o 886576_10103248222278331_774438422_o 857896_10103248222233421_1130233946_o

After the Jelly Man, I escorted my friends back to the ship and went on my second solo excursion of the day. I began by going back to the first patty shop and exploring the road at its side. There were a lot of local people in this area, and I was notably the only foreigner. Along this road and peeking down a narrow intersecting dirt road, I saw an open aired market. Without the hint of another cruise passenger around and having no clue about the layout of the market before me, I absolutely had to venture in.

The market, at first glance, was not unlike so many others that I had been in Mexico or Guatemala. There were the standard fruits and vegetables, ready to eat foods, house wares, and tools. As I walked through the labyrinth, people started noticing me. This was to be expected as it was obviously an exclusively local clientele, and I, a white man, was obviously not from around there. This is when things got interesting. Every few minutes, a vendor would pull out a bag of some leafy green substance and would ask if that is what I am looking for.

856424_10103248222507871_429778732_o 885833_10103248222502881_1579157759_o 885629_10103248222662561_1056212963_o 856518_10103248222567751_411715572_o 860427_10103248222632621_1420736304_o

It is worth mentioning that, while Jamaica is often associated with marijuana, such product is not legal in all parts of Jamaica. I have heard that there are police checkpoints on the highways outside of its zones of legality in order to curb its movement in the stream of domestic commerce. For the record, in Falmouth it is not legal. Despite the illegality, I could smell it in the market from the moment I entered it and I could have easily purchased some there had I wanted to.

Towards the end of my market tour, a man approaches me and starts walking beside me. He asks what I am looking for and I tell him that I am merely visiting the market and was not searching for anything. He then asks me if I am looking for good marijuana and I responded in the negative. He then says, “ah ha! I know what you are looking for! Look behind you.” I turn to see three rather scary women walking about 3 or 4 feet behind us. “Have you ever been with a Jamaican woman?”

Simply saying “no” often times will not end the conversation in these sorts of situations. In this case it was actually pretty easy as I told him that I was a Muslim and that I do not drink, smoke, or “get to know the local women” and was not interested. I happened to be wearing a tee shirt of the Florida International University’s Muslim Student Association at the time. Of all things, we then engaged in a brief discussion on religion before he was distracted by another business opportunity. As I left the market, I turned around to take a picture of the entrance. The “Jamaican women” mentioned supra are in the centre, wearing yellow, white, and pink and speaking to the vendor under the rainbow umbrella.

823511_10103248222772341_1744758416_o 830476_10103248222802281_440689398_o

From the market, I walked back through the downtown plaza and on to a small courthouse near the waterfront. Being an attorney, I thought it would be interesting to poke my head in to see the courtroom. So I went in.

A gentleman greeted me at the door and I told him that I just wanted to see the courtroom. As he led me up to the courtroom, I told him that I am a lawyer in the United States. I entered the courtroom apparently minutes after some docket. There were still a few men in a cell in the back of the courtroom awaiting transport back to the jail. The man who took me up there took it upon himself to introduce me to the prosecutor who was packing her files. We spoke for a few minutes and then I walked out into the hall where that same man was waiting for me.

885495_10103248223036811_227353158_o 885979_10103248222991901_1867511479_o 857990_10103248222822241_2134969305_o 859569_10103248223016851_1598516972_o

The man then told me that he wanted me to meet someone else and I followed him downstairs to the mayor’s office. In shorts and a tea shirt and very sweaty, I was introduced to the mayor of Falmouth right in his office! He invited me to have a seat and then we proceeded to talk about local affairs, particularly his vision for tourism development in Falmouth. He wanted to bring more cruise passengers into the city from the cruise port, and was hoping to find a way to ease the contrast between port and city for the tourists. We spoke for a little bit and then I asked if he would be so kind as to take a picture with me.

885640_10103248223141601_844068502_o

After meeting the mayor in his office, I decided to return to the ship. While perhaps I could have milked another hour or so out of Falmouth, it had been an eventful day and I had Jacuzzi time and dinner on my mind. As the Freedom departed, I watched the sunset over the shrinking city of Falmouth in the same seat from which I watched our arrival that morning. We were off to the Cayman Islands.

858818_10103248223316251_1633342191_o

I really liked Falmouth. The city as a whole did not cater much to the tourists and I really liked that aspect of it. Walking around, one can get some sense of life in that small town by the sea. I had the opportunity to sample some local cuisine and was able to meaningfully interact with some of the locals. I would go back to Falmouth, but would like to explore a bit more of Jamaica rather than just staying in that one city. Even if I had to stay close, I am sure that I can find things to do and places to explore within walking distance from the cruise port and would go again in a heartbeat.

Freedom of the Seas: A Day in Labadee

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to take a cruise on the Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas. While I identify as an explorer under Cohen’s tourist classifications, I do believe that a cruise can be one of the best and most economical ways to island hop in the Caribbean.

For better or worse, a cruise ship is the quintessential mass-tourist vessel and many ports of call arrange themselves accordingly. Much to my chagrin, some of the most well established tourist towns that have often sold their cultural soul for the thousands of cruise passengers that visit. That being said, it is not necessary that I follow the masses while in these ports of call. This voyage was fantastic and I greatly enjoyed exploring the places I visited beyond the guided tours and trinket shops.

On this voyage, I had the opportunity to visit a few places that I had never been: Haiti, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, and Cozumel. Our first port of call: Labadee, Haiti.

Of course as I researched this place before the trip, I first read the reviews that past passengers had made. It seems that most people liked to emphasize how safe it was, how it was a resort compound and that all vendors are a licensed and select few, or that all of the food and water was imported from the ship. Of course those statements were not selling points for me.

All of the perspectives seemed to be coming from people talking about how outsiders could not get into the cruise line’s property and that we would have all the comforts of the ship while ashore. I set out to see the frontiers of this property and see if there was any way that I could obtain a more meaningful and authentic experience on Haitian soil. I came to learn that the fence worked both ways.

885653_10103248214074771_1194652357_o

At every port, I wake up early so that I can observe the approach.  The approach to Haiti was beautiful and I daresay that it was the most beautiful of all the approaches on that voyage.

823504_10103248214209501_1860932258_o861209_10103248214274371_121356905_o

I began my excursion along the coastline. There was a trail to the left immediately at the end of the pier that I followed along the rocky coastline. There were some gorgeous spots along this walk and it was an excellent way to avoid the largely beach going crowds.

This trail let out near a beach which was actually closed at the time that I passed. One lady was being informed of such closure by one of the locals who worked there. I am not sure if this beach actually opened later or if it was exclusively for sunbathing and volleyball. Overhead was the cables for the famous zip line that was being advertised as a highlight excursion on the Freedom. To get to the top of that mountain in order to travel down to the beach via the zip line, it appeared that the passengers were being taken by a truck outside of the compound and along a road that traced the property boundary. If this was the case, it was the only way that one could technically leave the property.

Up in this part was a roller coaster that weaved its way through the woods for a duration of about 5 minutes or so. I did have the pleasure of taking this ride later in the day and it was interesting as it provided some nice views and one could control their own car to speed up or slow down.

As one follows the perimeter of walkable area, one will come across some fence line protecting the employee housing on the property. This fence line lead to an opening where it looked like most, if not all, of the vehicular entries to the property took place.

858250_10103248214269381_1427633756_o

A preliminary fence of sorts which provides a buffer from the outside fence along the boundary.

If one crosses the threshold of the fence pictured above, one would see a guard shack and gate to the right and the employee housing to the left. It was well watched and I was not able to leave the property though this entrance.

A little further down the chain link exterior fence, I came upon another point of entry. Here there was a dock as well as a pedestrian entrance. Any crazy thought that I might have had to bribe a boat’s pilot for passage to the local village was dashed upon discovering that this point was also well patrolled by the well-armed Haitian National Police. The picture below is as close as they would let me get to the fence.

858482_10103248214553811_1936499412_o  857832_10103248214324271_389685900_o 885592_10103248214359201_1525713758_o

I came to learn here that the fence worked both ways. Haiti allows the cruise line to utilize its own property and to have guests visit, but such allowance does not constitute admission into the country. Meanwhile, the cruise line has an interest in keeping wandering passengers away from dangers both real and perceived. I suppose that not many people would want to visit Haiti as a port of call if they did not feel “protected” from the outside.

This being said, Royal Caribbean does a decent job making one feel like they are not fenced in. The boundaries are largely unnoticed by most passengers who are more interested in their recreational pursuits on the property. I am one of the minority who will discover the limitation.

As I walked back following the sidewalk along the beach, there came a fork in it. The right path going up through a “village” where licensed local merchants set up shops and stalls. This was well patrolled by security who seemed more interested that the vendors were obeying rules.

I ventured in and was immediately greeted on all sides by anxious and aggressive vendors insisting that I just look at their shops. While I looked, they would proceed to place jewelry on me and place things in my hand. I was truly the center of attention and it was work to escape each shop and to walk down that path. I will say that they were willing to negotiate a lot. They were very friendly and extremely helpful, if only I were looking for tourist goods…. One man did almost convince me to purchase a Cuban Cigar (for $7), but I returned to the ship via a different path and ended up not going back for it.

Lunch was served at a few venues on the property. While I adore the ship’s regular fare, I was really hoping for something Haitian. It turned out that we were served American style-barbecue foods made by the Freedom’s galley and served by her crew. After lunch, I transversed the property one last time before returning to the ship.

While it was nice to say that I was on Haitian soil, I did not really feel like it was Haiti. I did not get to make transactions with Haitian currency, try the food, or observe actual life in that country. I would say that Labadee is a great resort and a perfect place to hit the beach for the day. In fact, Labadee had probably the nicest and safest beach of the entire itinerary. As I am not a beach person, I would likely not rush off the ship if I am called to that port again- not for anything against the place itself, but because I have seen all there was to see there within a few hours and there is nothing left to do.

Nuevo Laredo and the Frontera: The Demonic

20130903_162517

This was inside a rather large chapel to the Santa Muerte along Mexico 85, just south of Nuevo Laredo.

Across all of Mexico, one can see small shrines, tattoos, jewelry, and small knick-knacks honouring this grim reaper figure known as the Santa Muerte. She is often venerated by the underworld and might be regarded as a patroness of drug cartels, hookers, and thieves. Despite this unsavoury following, there is a substantial and possibly growing number of devotees among Mexico’s otherwise law abiding citizens.

While in Nuevo Laredo during my several visits, I found a rather large and open following of the Santa Muerte.  While I never sought out these places, I came across them frequently on the roadsides, in businesses, and on the sides of peoples’ houses. One time, I saw a little shrine at the side of a residence. I asked the homeowner if I could take a picture and he invited me on his property to get a better picture. After I took a picture of the small figure, he showed me a shed beside his house which housed several large figures of the Santa Muerte.

While I consider myself a more intrepid traveler than most, I must admit that these places and that figure give me the creeps. Below are some pictures that I took at a chapel that I randomly happened across on the side of Mexico 85 as one leaves Nuevo Laredo. At this site, there were two buildings on a small property with a large statue of this figure between the two buildings.

20130903_162455 20130903_162444   20130903_16250420130903_162540

20130903_162528

Devotees to this figure leave candles, write prayers, and leave offerings of cash, cigarettes, and liquor. It is interesting to note that, while churches are closed during the day, these shrines are wide open to anyone at apparently any time.

While I did go into the larger of the two buildings, I did not feel safe enough in that place to take more pictures of the exterior of it or the interior of the other building (which had only one entrance and exit). One must be smart and calculate risks, and I am always mindful of possible escapes when I wander into places that I am not expected to be poking around.

The pictures below are from the shrine located within the Zona Rosa.

77058_10103031027707991_1295846192_n576418_10103031027847711_1918438607_n540275_10103031028606191_56798599_n156220_10103031027977451_1917872695_nIMG_20121222_110348IMG_20121222_110322

At the risk of sounding closed-minded, I have to say that my general impression of this figure and these places is that they are idolatry at its most open and blatant form. The fruits of this devotion are far from enviable and I am weary of anyone who wears this figure on themselves or sets up altars to the same.

While I cannot easily describe the feeling that I got in these places, I can say that it was not a pleasant one. I came, I saw, and I have no desire to go back.

Letters from the Last Frontier

In 2007 and 2008, I did some seasonal work in Alaska. Below are some of the letters that I wrote to people who were following me back in the Lower 48 back in 2008:

 

LETTER 1

Greetings from beautiful overcast Alaska!

I am pleased to announce that I survived the journey to Alaska. Except for TSA taking my toothpaste in ATL, I had a very pleasant flight and coach ride to Trapper Creek. It is the coldest summer on record here in the Last Frontier. The lows have been in the upper 40s and the highs have not been reaching 70 for the most part. I am not complaining at all as I do not care for heat too much and it is a welcomed change from the upper 90s. This time, I am living in more rustic accommodations. I still live in company housing, but this time it is in a travco trailer with 8 other people and a laundry room. My room is about 10 X 10 (13X10 if you count our toilet and shower). I have one room mate and we have 2 beds, a desk, a closet, and not a ton of room for luggage.  In my travels, the only luxury that I cannot do without is hot water and I have that. It seems to be looking good here for the next two months. As a front desk agent and night auditor, I will be doing at least 48 hours per week and more as people start leaving over the next few weeks. We are under a new general manager this year as well as a new CEO, and it seems that even here we are bracing for an economic slow down. Princess too has a hiring freeze now on full time positions and has restrictions on overtime for many departments. I hope all is well back home, I hope to report back a few times before my Trans-Canadian Journey. (Of course that $15/night cruise deal may cause me to change my Greyhound plans….)

Derrick Feinman,

Denali State Park, AK

 

Letter 2

Greetings from the top of the world!

Since the last time that I e-mailed, I have been working many hours in Night Audit and Front Desk here at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. Just today, I was given permission to work a shift or 2 a week with housekeeping which will put me at about 60 hrs per week. I live in an area of Denali State Park that is just south of the Kasugi Ridge. This area has the highest concentration of black bear of any place in the US. That being said, I finally have a bear story to share. The other day, I was taking a walk down a trail to the bank of the Chulitna River when my friend and I heard the bellowing of bear cubs. Though I could not place them at first, I discovered two cubs had ascended a tree and were signalling their mother. We stood still for a few seconds and placed the mother down on a slope trying to get a better look at us. After deciding that we were not a threat, she wandered back down to the creek for some fishing/foraging as her cubs remained in the tree. We were in a safe spot on a bridge from which we could watch for about 10 minutes as they all went about their daily life. It was an amazing experience. The few times that I have seen bears in the lower 48, they tend to be rather skiddish and never there long enough to grab a camera. After 10 minutes, the mother gave up on catching the fish and called her cubs out of the tree. One came down pretty quickly clawing his way down the whole way. The other one took about 5 minutes and a lot of urging from his mother to come down (It appeared that he was a very confident climber.) My friend took pictures, and I will get some copies to send when I can. Overall, this was an amazing experience- only to be had in Alaska.Nature is not always so friendly. As you might see on the news (or not as Alaska is often forgotten about), we have a little Volcano problem at the moment. Anchorage Airport (that never closes all winter) is closed for the next 3 days due to ash. This will be seriously affecting my mail delivery….. Other than that, I am back in the swing of things here at MPL…. I have made some good friends already, including a girl from Bartow, FL and a guy I knew at Durant High School. The food is better than I remember it with chopped eggs on the salad bar daily! Hope all is well down there (or as the Anchorage Daily News calls it “The Bottom of the Country” [am I the only one that finds that slightly offensive?]).

Have a great day!

Derrick Feinman

Denali State Park, AK

 

Letter 3

Hello,

First off, I am sad to say that the McKinley Princess community lost its 5th person this year. Our lodge and transportation division has over 300 employees and we form a community here in the Alaskan wilderness. Though I did not know this person much at all, a death always be felt throughout a community of this size. That being said, lets move onto living here in Alaska…. I live in Trapper Creek, AK which is between Fairbanks and Anchorage on the Parks Highway (AK 3). To give you the scale, if Anchorage were Tampa, Fairbanks would be Atlanta, and I would be in Lake City. The Parks Highway is the only road that directly connects Fairbanks and Anchorage and for the most part, is an undivided 2 lane road. Just a few days ago, a truck overturned on the Parks Highway and made quite a mess with the liquid methane that it was carrying. The Parks Highway was closed for nearly 20 hours! The fumes were so bad, that the Alaskan Railroad (2 miles away at that point) was shut down for a few hours. We could not ship our north bound guests out that day and had to recheck them all into their old rooms (most had to be comped significantly). This was on a ship day, so we had a load of cruise passengers (500+) to then reassign to different rooms when they arrived. Of course, the cruise passengers arrive en masse all at one time so this was utter chaos. I was never happier to be on the overnight shift…. Despite the annoyance at work, this whole situation hurt a lot of businesses and vacations from Anchorage to Fairbanks. One truck and one road closure. This is about the same as the Overseas Highway closing and disconnecting the Florida Keys to the mainland. It is almost scary how quickly I can be disconnected from the road system. If this had happened to the south of us, the nearest hospital would be 4 hours away and the nearest ambulance would be dispatched from the borough (county) 1 hour north of us. I deal with a lot of medical emergencies here so I am a bit mindful of these things. I am often asked about cost of living up here. For informational purposes, I have decided to list the prices of various items that I purchase frequently in the lower 48. These prices all reflect the cost at the general stores and other businesses in the villages of Y and Talkeetna:

Can of Tuna: 2.96 Cake Mix: 3.25 Gal of Milk: 5.89 Soy Milk: 4.89 Pound of Spaghetti: 1.99 Can of Diced Tomatoes: 2.59 Can of Green Beans: 1.59 Box of Cereal (off brand): 3.59 Gallon of Petrol: 4.36 Pint of Beer: 4.50 Cheese Pizza: 12.75 USA Today: 2.00 Of course, things are far cheaper in Anchorage, but still slightly higher than in the Southeast. Well, my return is a little over 1 month away. I should be back in Georgia about mid day on the 24th.

Have a great day,

Derrick Feinman

Denali State Park, AK

 

Letter 4

Greetings from Alaska!

Only 24 more days until I return to Atlanta and only 12 more scheduled work days here at Princess. I head to Fairbanks, Whitehorse, Skagway, and all points further south in 18 days. A few days ago, a few friends and I took the flag stop train to the bustling metropolis of Hurricane, AK. This is a train that Alaskans use to get to cabins, villages, and trail heads in South Central Alaska. We passed plenty of these places and dropped off several locals during this trip. In the case of Curry, Chulitna, Sherman, and Gold Creek, the Alaska Railroad is the only connection to Talkeetna, Anchorage, and the rest of the world. These are people completely disconnected from the road system and fully dependent on the Alaska Railroad’s 3 day a week service during the summer and 1day a week service during the winter. As remote as the ARR is and the cabins along it are, there are still more cabins and villages that are accessed by unmarked trails going off into the woods. We dropped off a few people going to these places. Sometimes these people had an ATV waiting for them, other times they donned a backpack and disappeared into the bush. Two of these villages have active pebble or gold mines. In fact one of the gold mines is leased and operated by a couple and 3 of their daughters. The conductor was trying to hook me up with the oldest one (age 20 who has been living out there since she was 13), but somehow I did not think that relationship would be very convenient. I found it odd that in Gold Creek, I saw a mini bus parked not far from the ARR. It almost seems pointless to have a motor vehicle like that when you cannot even drive to a store. Actually Curry- about 30 miles north of Talkeetna was once a major stop along the ARR. There was a 5 star hotel, golf course, and ski trails. The train switched from steam power a while back and begun passing Curry. Finally in the 1950s, the hotel burned down and the village just declined in importance. It is now a major pebble mine operated by the ARR, but the weather beaten tennis court and basketball hoops are a reminder of what used to be there. I could mention Hurricane Gulch, where we turned about, but suffice it to say that it was a big hole in the ground that I have seen before from the highway. Hurricane itself was a transient village with 3 permanent structures and a ton of RVs and tents. Hurricane, AK is a summer camp of railroad workers and not much more. It was here were I saw the Parks Highway at MM 171 and thought, “This would be a great place to open a sandwich shop.” The nearest restaurants are at MM 135 (down the street from me) and MM 230 (at Denali National Park Village). There is nothing more than a few bars between the two. I hope that this has been an educational e-mail…. all of a sudden living in Helen without a car does not seem too extreme at all….

Have a Denali Day,

Derrick

Nuevo Laredo and the Frontera: La Zona de Tolerencia (Boys Town)

Look up other accounts of Nuevo Laredo visitors and you will surely find reference to the Zona de Tolerencia, or as it is known in English: Boys’ Town. La Zona is one of Mexico’s red light districts which spot the border. Being one of the known places of Nuevo Laredo, I decided to go and see what it was all about.

In its glory days, La Zona was a place of bars, brothels, casinos, restaurants, hotels, and just about anything else you could want for a care-free night out. It is most literally a walled town within a town, complete with infrastructure for its residents and visitors. Only ten years ago, rides were readily available to take willing tourists directly from the border to La Zona. Upon arrival, visitors would be searched at a security booth at the compound’s only entrance. To the right, there was a fully functioning police station and clinic. Here is an old map of what used to be in La Zona:

Laredozonamap

While many of the places listed are no longer in use, the above map does show the overall layout of La Zona.

Entering La Zona, one passes by a lone guard shack in the centre of a dirt road.

IMG_20121224_152645

No one mans neither this post nor the adjacent police station which looks long abandoned with broken windows and broken furniture inside.

540350_10103031027483441_942855930_n

.2013-03-14_10-49-01_567

2013-03-14_10-48-28_650

2013-03-14_10-48-47_249

 After checking out the former police station at the entrance, I proceeded down the road in front of me. I was attracted to the other side of the Zona by what looked like a shrine on the outside wall facing the entrance.

IMG_20121224_152640

As I neared, I found my suspicions were correct and it was indeed a shrine prominent on La Zona’s main street.

IMG_20121222_105931

This altar was not only prominently seen, but it looked down La Zona’s main street for all to see. Here is a view of the entrance from it:

393001_10103031028795811_325884310_n

This part of La Zona is where some of the only remaining bars and strip clubs are. If one proceeds to the left at the black building, there is a road with ruins of clubs, hotels, and brothels. There were also a few rather unsavory characters loitering down there, which is the main reason I took no pictures.

I proceeded to the right, where again my attention was drawn to another slightly bigger shrine.

77058_10103031027707991_1295846192_n

576418_10103031027847711_1918438607_n

La Santa Muerte is a religious figure venerated by people across Mexico. Devotion to this figure is condemned by the Catholic Church, yet many either incorporate her into their faith against the ecclesiastical magesterium or proceed to worship her completely divorced from Catholic teachings and practices.

While regular people will visit her altars and petition her in prayer, she infamously has a reputation as the patroness of the cartels, prisoners, prostitutes, and other underworld figures.

IMG_20121222_110322

540275_10103031028606191_56798599_n

IMG_20121222_110348

Next to this shrine was the transvestite strip club and bar. While I was walking past, one of the “girls” called out to me. “Hey you, come here!” I smiled and shook my head.

Walking onward from the Santa Muerte shrine along the perimeter road, I walked by some of the open prostitution cribs where independent working ladies live and work.

At this early hour most of the doors were closed, however there were a few enterprising women who started work early. Some women were simply engaged in cleaning their cribs, ignoring me as I walked by. Some were laying on their beds in costume, apparently hoping that a client would be lured in while they were watching television.  Some of the women were a little more active: standing by their door and greeting passers by. This was rather difficult for me as I had to walk the fine line of being polite and returning greetings while trying to appear completely disinterested. I was not sure what the etiquette is in this situation, so I just returned the greetings and passed by as fast as I could.

I was not at La Zona to purchase any services and I can honestly say that none of these women could have tempted me- even if they offered their services for free. For those who are interested, I later came to learn that the more attractive and younger prostitutes were more close to the center of La Zona or worked the bars.

At that corner, there was a bar playing loud music that seemed to have attracted a share of locals. Beside that bar was another row of cribs that were all shut or having their floors scrubbed. Interestingly, amid these cribs was another altar to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

2013-03-14_10-56-11_706

In the above picture you can see the front door of one of the cribs to the right and this was in the center of a row of about 7 or 8 total. Amazingly, everyone passing this altar crossed themselves before walking on. It is so odd to me to see the symbols of faith and reminders of God within the Zona, especially so prominently displayed.

Walking past the entrance again, I took the opportunity to check out some of the echos of La Zona’s glory days.

148604_10103031026914581_2013296290_n

71724_10103031027333741_939663259_n

163326_10103031026744921_24380320_n

383635_10103031027194021_1098955725_n

While I did climb through some of the ruins, I wanted to be a little more on guard and decided against taking pictures. The bar pictured above was pretty small and intimate with most of its space devoted to the brothel that it ran back stage. The brothel rooms were small and simple and the bed frames were often still inside of them.

I also found the building which used to house Nuevo Laredo’s infamous Donkey Show. While some bloggers have written about it I am happy to report that, as of the end of 2012, the Donkey is Dead. Of course I am sure there was more than one donkey, but I mean to say that the Donkey Show is no longer and the facility is now being used as an ordinary bar.

Donkey-bar

Before

After (circa December 2012)

After (circa December 2012)

Other ruins and closed shops included some restaurants, a notary office, a barber shop, and some hotels. Some of the buildings show signs of squatters within. While I was exploring the center steets, there were a few men who would approach me and welcome me to Boy’s Town. They would address me in English, refuse to switch to Spanish, and offer to escort me to where the “nice girls” were. One of the men was rather persistent and while he was following me, as if on cue, rather attractive women would approach and start talking to him in Spanish. He would relay prices to me and when I kept walking, he attempted to negotiate a lower price. After a few attempts, he gave up on me and went into one of the bars.

While I was poking around near the front, I attracted the attention of two younger prostitutes. They were done with their work for the day, so they were not too interested in soliciting my business. I ended up having a conversation with them which skirted around the nature of their work.

In the end, I learned that they were going to another part of town and I offered them a ride [which I feel obligated to say had no strings attached]. I learned that these women were 24 and were from the State of Puebla about an hour or so to the south of Mexico City. They seemed intrigued that I came to Nuevo Laredo to spend a week. We had a lovely chat for about 10 minutes until I dropped them off and parted ways.

So, this is the story of my visit to La Zona / Boys’ Town. It was an interesting experience and fascinating place, even at 9:00 AM.

UPDATE: For recommendations of food and other activities in Nuevo Laredo, check out my Things to do in Nuevo Laredo post.

Nuevo Laredo and the Frontera: Inspiration and Arrival

Don’t go there! I hear it from both my fellow Americans as well as Mexicans. The Border is a dangerous place, and Nuevo Laredo is the worst of them all! Everyone merely passes through Nuevo Laredo, and these days they try to do so in broad daylight and as quickly as possible.

The border region has a bad reputation and ongoing bad press. Of course the press goes out of its way to find threats and incite fear sometimes, so I decided to ignore the hearsay and see for myself what the situation is. Bottom line: people live their lives, work, marry, have families, and spend their entire lives in some of these border towns, and I wanted to see who they were and what life was like. So I decided to spend the Christmas holiday with a family in the border town of Nuevo Laredo to see and experience life in a place of such infamous reputation.

Laredo1

This Christmas trip was to be my fifth time in Nuevo Laredo. I first visited Nuevo Laredo in 2005. On an adventurous whim, I decided to venture into Mexico for a short visit to Monterrey- just three hours south of the border and just far enough in to consider myself fully within Mexico. Nuevo Laredo was, as it was several times after, merely a wayside stop on a bigger journey.

Since 2005, there has been a marked change in the tone of things. In 2011 I rode through to find that soldiers have wholly replaced the local police force. These soldiers took positions at the border, in the city, and along the highway. They were not just standing there with weapons strapped to their shoulders and keeping up appearances: these soldiers were poised and ready for something. One could tell that there was some threat out there which they were taking very seriously.

I arrived via I-35 and crossed at International Bridge #2. The sun had already set and I was rather nervous to be crossing in the dark. Despite my sense of adventure to go in the first place, I kept remembering my friends from Monterrey who had pushed hard to clear Nuevo Laredo before sunset for fear of their lives. The final 3 miles of US Interstate was packed and chaotic as everyone was searching for a place to rest for the night on the “safe” side of the border. Once I cleared this chaos, the bridge had very light traffic which flowed through very quickly after I paid the $3 toll (please note that, unless otherwise indicated, all further references will be in Pesos and not Dollars). On the Mexican side I had to drive through some speed bumps and around barriers, but was ultimately waved through without even the most perfunctory glance at my passport. Before I knew it, I was in Mexico and driving the streets of Nuevo Laredo.