Friday, September 18, 2020

Arriving in Mexico During Covid-19

Even though I grew up 8 miles north of the Mexican border, and I've traveled extensively throughout the country, I still find new surprises every time. Add to that, the special circumstances of traveling in the time of Covid, and it becomes even more of an "aventura."

I had invited a Mexican friend of mine who lives both in Tijuana and Chula Vista to accompany me to the small village of El Limón, Jalisco where I had spent a delicious month from mid-June to mid-July, swimming every day in a spring-fed public pool, hiking, avoiding Covid (there were zero official cases in El Limón at that time) and working on video and photo projects. Cecilia and I go back 24 years, to the time when she helped me look for a baby to adopt in Tijuana. Several years ago I invited Cecilia to join me and a tall German friend named Tanja to travel 3-weeks on the Copper Canyon train and visiting friends in Chihuahua, Durango, Zacatecas, Nayarit and Jalisco. As expected, Cecilia was excited to join me on another adventure in Mexico.

However, about 10 days ago, Cecilia told me she wasn't feeling good. At the time, I just said, I hope you get better in time for our flight. However, a few days ago, it was clear that she and her teenage granddaughter have all the symptoms of Covid-19 and are isolating from the rest of their family. I dropped some food off for them (from a safe distance), and Cecilia looked miserable, even though her fever was gone. She couldn't describe the pain, but something like the skin on her face was burning. She had a dry scratchy cough, loss of taste, nausea, trouble sleeping. Needless to say, we decided it best I go alone this time.

I have never used the $16 Cross Border Express (CBX) before. A taxi from San Ysidro is only $10 (if you speak Spanish and can bargain), and especially if you are traveling with several people it's much cheaper. But since I wanted to get to the airport by 7:00 a.m., and with the possibility of Covid restrictions for entering Mexico, and because I usually stay with Cecilia's family in Tijuana but that option was out, I decided to try CBX.

The bridge was pretty empty, so it was easy to avoid contact with other people and get through the process quickly. You need to fill out a health form which basically asks if you've had any symptoms of covid or exposure to anyone with covid. There's an immigration form and you pay $28 for a 180-day single-entry tourist card, even if you're Mexican-born but traveling with a US passport. And they take your temperature before entering the airport to be sure you don't have a fever.

Within an hour I was all checked in and at my boarding gate. My Volaris flight from Tijuana to Guadalajara was super smooth and lasted just 2 hours and 20 minutes. Everyone onboard was required to wear a "mascarilla." Many opted to use face shields as well. Hand sanitizer, called "gel" in Spanish, was available throughout the airports, as well as public service announcements educating the passengers about covid protection. "Use it," says the mask. Many seats have stickers that say, "Do not utilize. Maintain a safe distance."

My friend Manny had already arranged a ride from the airport, directly to where I'm staying in El Limón for 400 pesos (less than $20). If I'd gone by bus I would have to change 3x and pay basically the same price. The only downside was I had to wait five hours in the airport (an hour and a half longer than I'd been told), before my ride showed up. May (pronounced Mai and short for Ismael) sent me this "scary" photo of himself so I would recognize him when he showed up. Manny gave me the info on May's car: a wine-colored Nissan Tiida.

Finally, around 7:30 p.m. (my flight had arrived at 2:35 p.m.), I got a text from May saying he would arrive in 10 minutes to drop off a passenger and pick me up. Sure enough, in 10 minutes a wine-colored Nissan Tiida pulled up right in front of the OXXO convenience store where I told him I'd be waiting. Luckily I realized it wasn't my ride before I hopped in. A few minutes later, I heard someone calling my name. It was May, in a WHITE Nissan Tiida. The car was as nice as an Uber. May and many others like him run unofficial shuttles between their village and the airport. Google maps says 3-1/2 hours, but somehow May made it in 2-1/2 hours, including a taco stop. I felt very safe with him since he claimed never to have a speeding ticket or an accident.

May's favorite taco stand wasn't open, so we stopped a bit earlier than planned (great, because I was starving) in the town of Cocula, "Cuna Mundial del Mariachi," which literally means "World Cradle of the Mariachi."

I saw another statue, of a mother and two children, in front of the health center. Probably inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this little baby is holding up his fist, as if to say, "Babies' Lives Matter."

Luckily, when we arrived and ordered, the place was not this busy. I asked what their vegetarian options were. All of the employees looked puzzled. Finally one guy said they could make me a quesadilla (which they deep fry -- yuck). I spotted a picture of a torta on the wall and asked if they could make one without meat. The guy grilled the bread with mayonnaise and cheese, then I filled it up with toppings.

Not too bad for improvising. I stuffed the grilled cheese bread with nopales (cactus), frijoles (beans), cilantro, and salsa fresca.

Another first for me, a restroom with separate men's and women's stalls. Notice the men's stall on the far end, with a customer inside and the door ajar.

Even though it was only 8:30 p.m. (California time) when we arrived at 10:30, I curled up in the dorm bunk and fell right asleep...until Gabriel, Manny's brother, came in and turned on the light. It was midnight in El Limón, but we stayed awake a few hours catching up on everything. I love El Limón. I call it "Me Time" because I have no obligations other than achieving the same two goals as last time: get in shape, and work on my YouTube videos. In the morning I was woken up by my favorite roommate -- Baui.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Davao City, Mindanao, the Philippines

Davao City is the third largest city in the Philippines, following Manila and Quezon City, with a population of approximately 1.7 million. It is located on the southern-most island of Mindanao, which most travel advisories warn you not to visit. So of course I had to go and had a great time.

"The Mindanao island group is home to majority of the Filipino Muslims in the Philippines. It is where 93% of the entire Islamic population resides. Of Mindanao's 24,135,775 population, Muslims make up about 23.39% of the island's entire population."

It is also home to current president Rodrigo Duterte, who was long-term mayor. According to him, Davao became one of the safest cities in the world due to his strict Law & Order policies.

Some of the local delicacies of Davao City. While pork is one of the most popular foods in the Philippines, you won't find much in Mindanao because of the high percentage of Muslims. Compared to the other cuisines of the Philippines which are more Spanish influenced, the food in Mindanao is more Malaysian.

Getting around the city is easy by Jeepney. These vehicles were left behind after WWII and converted to city buses.

I just said that Mindanao doesn't serve much pork, but Lechon, roast pig, is probably the biggest delicacy in the Philippines overall. Even Anthony Bourdain declared the lechon in Cebu "the best pig ever!"

According to the website BeepBeep website, "Gas Ni Juan" is the best gas station in Davao.

Obviously, this tricycle driver is a Beatles fan, and will take you "Across the Universe."

I stayed at the Hotel Galleria on Governor Duterte Street in Davao (Duterte is now president of the Philippines), conveniently located within walking distance of many attractions. It doesn't receive a very high rating online, but I thought it was a great value for the money.

Hair rebonding is very popular in the Philippines, but I never heard of it in the US. They use a chemical treatment to permanently straighten your hair. However, the chemicals can damage your hair, and it will need touch-ups as your hair grows. Notice the models do not look Filipina.

"People's Park" was the name chosen among 918 entries of the "Name the Park" contest organized by the city government. The winning name was by Romeo Sardon, a retired engineer and seaman. In December 2007, the project was 90 percent complete, with the other 10 percent to be implemented by early 2008.

More characters in People's Park.

An outdoor gym. Boxing is very popular in the Philippines, partly due to the fame of boxing champion and now Senator Manny "PacMan" Pacquiao, who is from General Santos ("GenSan") in southern Mindanao.

I love People's Park in Davao City (very kitschy).

There are 11 tribes from the Davao area, 6 Lumad and 5 Muslim, featured at the annual Tribal Games Festival.

I'm not a fan of fried food, but these battered and deep-fried plantain bananas, dipped in sugar, are a guilty pleasure for sure.

Why would anyone want a hotel room for just 3 hours? 150 pesos is about $3 US. Hmmmm, I'm wondering.

The island of Mindanao has an amazing variety and quantity of fruits and vegetables. We bought a whole bag of papaya for less than $1. And the mangos and pineapples are amazing too.

By night time, the street food vendors are still going strong. These are barbecued hotdogs on skewers. For some reason, hotdogs in the Philippines are usually red, due to food coloring. Many kinds of meat, even chicken intestines, are barbecued on sticks.

Inside the Hotel Galleria was nice enough, but the view from my room (below) left a little to be desired. 

Getting around by motorcycle is the fastest mode of transportation, and economical.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Spending an afternoon in prison, with the world-famous Dancing Inmates, Cebu, the Philippines

Ever since I first saw the viral YouTube video of the Dancing Inmates of Cebu Prison performing Thriller (presently more than 56 million views), it's been on my bucket list. By luck, I was in Cebu City the last Saturday of the month which is when the prison is opened up to the public for the free performance. Unfortunately, figuring out what time it starts is not so easy. Every website stated a different time, so I called the Tourism Office who said 12:30, and recommended arriving two hours early to get in line. (This was incorrect information, so don't write it down)
The best way to go to the hilltop Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, a maximum security prison in Cebu, is by motorcycle taxi (habal habal) from either the Capitol or Sudlon. Car taxis claim they can't make the trip because of the gasoline involved going up the hills. My Filipino friend Debrah and I paid 100 pesos each ($2) for the 10-minute up the windy and narrow steep road. When we arrived at the prison, Debrah inquired and found out that the show actually starts at 2:00. Registration begins an hour before.

At that hour only the most devoted wives and girlfriends had showed up, each schlepping food for their boyfriends and husbands inside the prison. We were the first tourists, followed by two Japanese girls who are studying English in Cebu because it's so much cheaper than in the U.S. or Australia.

Many of the prison wives came with young babies. Debrah found out that they are allowed to spend the night with their husbands in prison. This little girl first visited her daddy when she was 4 days old.
With a couple of hours to wait, we decided to "kill" time by walking around the neighborhood. Across from the prison is the Cebu City Jail Male Dorm. Dozens of inmates were looking down from their cells, probably searching for visitors.

In California, this would be a rich neighborhood. We Americans love a nice view. However, in the Philippines the hilltop prison and jails overlook ghetto homes.

Around the back of the men's and women's jails is one for minors, ages 15-17. It's called "Cebu City Operation Second Chance Center." I found out that 185 boys and 20 girls were currently locked up. Children younger than age 15 are sent to Department of Social Work and Development instead of jail.

To register for a free visitor's pass you write down your gender and nationality. I'm not sure what's the maximum number of passes for each performance, but on this day it definitely wasn't necessary to line up two hours early.
Even a group of nuns came to see the show. Last year when Pope Frances visited the Philippines, the Dancing Inmates did a special performance in his honor, even though Cebu wasn't on the Pope's itinerary. This year in January one of his cardinals did attend and expressed his love and encouragement for the Dancing Inmates.
Other tourists also took selfies in front of the jail and the prison gates.

As a joke, I played dumb and asked this motorcycle driver what type of plant he had on his cap. He took it off and looked at it, shaking his head. He seriously didn't know. So I told him it was marijuana, which seemed to amuse him. I think he likes it because the green matches his t-shirt.

Waiting in line to visit their husbands and boyfriends. The family members definitely outnumbered the tourists.

Of course, I had to get a t-shirt, even though 350 pesos ($7) is much more expensive than most souvenir t-shirts in the Philippines.

While we entered the prison, the inmates were milling around, visiting with family members and kids, and shooting baskets. I noticed that these guys were in better shape than the average Filipino man. I'm guessing it's a combination of dance rehearsals (no longer mandatory), basketball, and limited diet. Or are crimes committed more often by athletic men?

More tourist selfies. Most of the tourists were from Japan and Korea, but some Americans and Europeans too.

Several of the men had their arms around each other as they walked around the prison yard. Again, I'm guessing, but I assume it's a sign of camaraderie, rather than gay relationships. Or I could be wrong.
These Danish students are doing an internship on public health in the Philippines for 6 months.

This inmate has watched the Dancing Inmates once a month for 6 years, so maybe 72 times. I didn't ask about her crime, and she has no idea when she'll get out. She said she doesn't participate in the dancing because of high blood pressure. The other women were her guests, who said they were staying the weekend.

The woman in the green t-shirt is the prisoner. The others are her visitors.
The seats in this pop out were reserved for VIPs, but a few of us foreigners sat on the platform to get better photos.

The Philippines is proud to be the only Christian country in Asia. 86% of Filipinos are Roman Catholics, so they begin with a prayer. All shopping malls offer mass on Sundays too.

The Philippines National Anthem is played after the prayer.

The inmates with yellow t-shirts have been selected to be the featured dancers, based on skill and enthusiasm.

Although this looks like a religious cult, it's just part of the choreography. Birhen Sa Fatima is Cebuana language (also called Bisaya) for Virgin of Fatima.

As a big fan of the Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, I was especially interested in the female inmates. The ones in white shirts are the best dancers.

The warden who came up with the idea of teaching the inmates to dance  is a big Michael Jackson fan. Within 24 hours of Michael's passing, the Dancing Inmates organized a memorial performance in his honor. Here they're forming a huge peace sign to "They Don't Care About Us," a very powerful Michael Jackson song originally filmed in a prison and also in Rio and Bahia, Brazil.
I couldn't stand up in the middle without blocking other people's view, so I couldn't get this angle. However, I screen shot it from "They Don't Care About Us," when Michael Jackson's choreographer and two of his dancers traveled to Cebu to film this for Sony's "This Is It."

The female inmates joined in on several numbers.

Biggest hits by the Dancing Inmates include Gangnam Style, Dangerous, Jump, Twerk It Like Miley, Thriller, They Don't Care About Us, and anything by Queen.

This talented young man flipped numerous times across the concrete.

They invited the tourists to join in on the last dance.
Making a fool of myself. But the prisoners don't even notice. They do this every month. I also heard that they know that if they even touch one of the visitors they'll be in big trouble.

Few people took photos of the female inmates, but being a big fan of Orange is the New Black, I couldn't resist.

I'm just average height in the U.S. but I feel like a giant in the Philippines.

Time to leave the prison. Three separate prison guards checked our wrists to be sure we had the hand stamp that they gave us on the way in.

Even with the crowd there were plenty of habal habal drivers waiting to give us a ride back down the hill.