Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Little adventures

Today we went out with gifts we wanted to deliver to people who were especially nice to us last year. We tracked down our reservations agent at the Cancun Service Center, which provides reservation and telephone support to multiple unaffiliated hotels. It’s located in an old hacienda at the edge of a golf course, and the building still shows a lot of the charm of old Mexico.

Inside we found a little café, run by an employee of the service center. She built a little wooden stand on the edge of the lobby, serving mainly employees from within the building. She served us too, delicious mango-strawberry smoothies. She probably should have been back at her main job inside, but she stayed out at the stand to chat with us while her employee made our drinks. I really enjoy the friendly atmosphere we encounter throughout Cancun.

Our bigger adventure began after dinner tonight, when Alla noticed a Panamanian passport lying on the ground in the street. The passport was issued seven days ago to a 21-year-old guy, and we expect that he’ll miss it as soon as he thinks about going home to Panama. We tried to find him at the two hotels nearest to where we found the passport, but they didn’t know him. We did learn, however, that there’s a Panamanian Consulate in town, so we’ll call up tomorrow and let them know that we have it. We figure the passport’s owner will call the consulate as soon as he realizes he’s lost it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Fashionista once again

Now I know all about that mysterious tent they set up in front of the resort next door. It was for a fashion show called Cancun Moda Nextel 2011. I even found their press release where they talked about a special Russian supermodel whom they would not name and music by Carlos Vives, from Colombia.

It took several days to set up all the staging, which included a temporary floor atop the sand, a huge array of those motorized spotlights which dance around and change colors, and a couple of truly huge jumbotron LED displays. Since all this went up at the hotel next door to us, I wandered by from time to time to get a look at all the fancy gear. Whenever I went by, I spoke to the workmen, or at least waved at them. Yesterday morning, I stopped to talk with a bunch of guys sitting around waiting for their duties to start. I asked about when the show would begin, and they told me 7:30 that evening. I knew from the press release that guests were asked to wear white and orange, so I dressed up in a white guayabera shirt and white pants and walked over. No guests had arrived yet, so I walked around and took pictures of the setup. On my way back home, I saw the same guys from this morning and came over to find out what 7:30 was all about.

It turns out that my guys were part of the security crew, and they referred me to their boss nearby. He asked me if I were a guest, which sounded about right so I said yes. Then he asked me if I were a VIP, and I assured him that I’m just a regular guy. Once we sorted my status, I asked him about when the music would start. He didn’t have a clear timeline for the evening, but told me that he didn’t think it could possibly start before ten o’clock. Meanwhile, feeling pretty exposed standing around I the empty space with nothing to do, I decided to go back to my hotel for a while.

By this time, all the security guys had spread out over the perimeter of the show area. Apparently that’s what happened at 7:30. So I went from the security boss to the security guy closest to my hotel and told him I was stepping out but that I’d be back in about 45 minutes.

The show started much later than that. I could see people assembling at the next-door resort, eating and chatting before they finally filed down to the beach. I thought it would be very un-cool to arrive from the beach while everybody else arrived on the hotel staircase, so I waited. Then the tent filled up almost to capacity and I got engrossed in writing a letter in Russian, which takes me a long time. I missed the whole fashion show, but when that ended folks spread out enough that I felt OK about walking in.

My security guard was still there, and he let me in, teasing me a little bit about my long 45 minutes. Everybody milled about, so I walked around a bit myself and got into line at the bar, where I ordered a mineral water. I was relieved to see that the bartender didn’t ask for money, because I had none.

Later, after the music started and everybody had eaten something, I went and tried out some of the leftover food. I liked the desserts best, and by the time I went home I’d had four of them. I was surprised when I got home to learn that it was 2 a.m. and the band had been playing without any real break since 11 p.m. In fact, I continued to listen to the band through the walls and windows in the room, and I think they didn’t stop playing until 5 a.m. I guess it was a heck of a party, and in any event I didn’t sleep much. Both at the party and in my bed, I really enjoyed the music. The band played various styles, all with a Latin flavor. I particularly enjoyed the Latino rock, and I had a great time watching the beautifully-dressed people who came to the show.

From 2011-11 Cancun

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The sour cream bowl

[Today’s entry is a guest post by Alla’s daughter Nika]

Yesterday my mom and I headed out to La Fiesta Mexican Outlet about half a mile from our hotel. Neither of us really needed anything, and I didn’t even have any pesos in my wallet, for that matter, but I thought I’d keep her company, we’d have a nice walk, and it’d be fun to take another look at the ceramics, sarongs, and tourist knick-knacks we’ve both already seen. Leaving the hotel room, I asked, “So what are you shopping for, anyway?” and she said, “Nothing, I’m just coming to keep you company.” Funny, I thought I was going to keep her company.

We walked over to the Outlet, politely declining all the offers from solicitous vendors at the Mexican Flea Market on the way. We had a destination, and, what’s more, we had a coupon for the Outlet. Plus, the Outlet took US dollars! I had a twenty in my wallet and I was starting to think I might find something I “need” after all.

At the store, I methodically went up and down the aisles to see what they had – frosted glass margarita glasses, belts, ponchos, blankets, tooled leather of all quality and price ranges, rows of tequila and chocolate products, bathing suits, straw hats, traditional toys, Mexican-style cotton tops and dresses, and, most interesting to me, lots of square footage devoted to many types of colorful ceramics. I found two small lidded boxes with bird and fish motifs on bright backgrounds, glitzed up with a touch of sparkles under the glaze, put them in a shopping basket, and went to find my mother.

She was by one of the cheap souvenir stands, paying her respects on bended knee to a stack of ¼ pint bowls. She was holding a bright one with a picture of a toiling Mexican man in a verdant field, with an extravagant sunset behind him. “What do you think? I want something to take to Belarus to remind us of Mexico.” That was as good a pretext as any to launch into an intent debate on what functional or decorative purpose this tiny receptacle would serve in an apartment that I was pretty sure was already well-endowed with ceramics. I wasn’t sure about the Mexican, though – he was painted with very little detail, the place where his face would have been obscured in the picture by a load-carrying arm, presumably to keep the diagram simple, and the bowl an affordable $3. It seemed like too obvious a symbol of the faceless toilers by whom we’re surrounded here in Cancun, working tirelessly to make a living by making our stays comfortable.

I turned to the rack next to me, and picked up a slightly bigger bowl with a pretty pastel bird pattern on a chocolate background. “What about this one?” “No, that one is $5, and these are only $3.” Ah, so we were dealing with a classic case of “I want to buy something but I don’t need anything, so I should spend as little as possible.” I indulged my mother for a bit by discussing the relative merits of green, burgundy, and orange backgrounds and bird, fruit, or toiling Mexican motifs, and, seeing as the choice was overwhelming for the size of the task, helpfully suggested that perhaps one dish could be for serving sour cream and another might be placed in the bathroom to house rings when my mom takes them off to apply lotion. She liked the expanded shopping license and I waltzed off, thinking settling on two bowls ought to make it easier to decide. I did another turn or two around the outlet, and considered another souvenir for a friend. Fifteen minutes later, my mother was still at her post, the original selection widely expanded, no closer to a decision. “I really like this teal one with the fruit, what do you think? There are also these 3 other ones, with different fruit arrangements.” “If you already like one, why do you need to pull five others off the shelf to make it complicated? Just go with the one you want.” “Because it’s fun to look.” We went back and forth with this current selection, and at least I talked her out of having a faceless Mexican under her sour cream. I went for another lap, reminding her that we had a dinner reservation and should probably head back to the hotel soon.

Five minutes later, she was still crouching by the bowls. “Nika!,” she cried despondently when she saw me, “I have a crisis! I put the teal bowl back and went away for a second, and now it’s gone! Someone else has bought it!” “That’s God telling you not to buy it. But there is no one else shopping for these, I doubt someone else took it.” We looked for a minute among the myriad colors and painted papaya/banana/watermelon combinations for just that one. I was wondering why she had put it down if she had felt so strongly about it, or if she didn’t care that much, why we were still here. We found it after a few minutes, my mother rejoicing at the reunion and decisively heading to the cash register with me, finally. As my boxes were getting wrapped up, she held it up and asked, “Do I need this?” I was already invested in the deliberations and urged her to commit to her choice. The transaction finally complete and the darned bowl in my bag, we headed back to the hotel. “Save the receipt,”  she said as we walked out. “I might want to come back tomorrow and trade it for that pastel bird one.”

Isla Mujeres

Every time we’ve been in Cancun somebody has mentioned Isla Mujeres, always favorably. We always intended to go there, but somehow always got distracted by other activities until yesterday. Wow! Now I want to go back.

We took the 9 a.m. ferry and walked indirectly to the Hotel Avalon. We went there because the last person to recommend Isla Mujeres had worked at that hotel until recently and he told us that they have a nice beach beside a friendly bar, and if we order a drink or two they’ll let us hang out on their beach. And we walked indirectly because we got a little bit lost, but in a good way. We walked around the back side of the island and contrasted beautiful views of the craggy coral-encrusted coastline with the washed-out buildings not yet repaired after a hurricane from a few years ago.

At last we approached the bridge to Avalon by way of a beautiful strait dividing the tiny island of Avalon from Isla Mujeres. Once across the bridge, we found the hotel people just as friendly as promised. We bought some virgin piña coladas and settled in at their very quiet beach. After a while we got hungry, and went back to the hotel bar for lunch. They made us delicious fish tacos, and the waiter served us with food-delivery stunts and plenty of smiles.

After lunch, the waiter confided in us, suggesting that we should go through the hotel to a private tidal pool at the back, called the King’s Bath. He also gave us a few pieces of bread to feed the fish. The fish must have been hungry, because they swarmed us as we scattered crumbs on the water. We swam around in the pool and found a wider variety of fish and coral than we’d seen anywhere else in Cancun, all in microcosm.

We explored the villas near the pools, often remarking on the beautiful gardens and breathtaking views. Finally I went and asked at the front desk what it would cost to stay at this paradise. The villas, this season, sell for $110 (US) per night. Considering the view, the beauty of the place, and the delicious food, it sounds like an amazing bargain. I don’t know what the rooms look like inside, but I don’t care. I’m eager to add a couple of nights to our next trip and stay at the Hotel Avalon villas. And eat more fish tacos.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Mystery tent

Last night some members of our party noticed a bit of banging as workers drove giant stakes to support a huge tent. We walked by the tent this morning as we went to swim at a neighboring beach. Workers had apparently worked all night long, and were tightening down the last few guy wires as we walked by. Then they went away and left the tent empty. We saw huge tire tracks in the sand, but did not learn who might use the tent and for what purpose.

This evening another vehicle approached the tent. This time we saw a huge 18-wheeler creep ahead along the sand, assisted by a large crew of workers moving plywood sheets to create a track for the truck. Tomorrow, then, I expect at least to learn what was in the truck. Maybe I’ll even know what it’s for.
From 2011-11 Cancun

Monday, November 21, 2011

Alla wins the contest

At our resort’s welcome party last night, they sought out two men and two women for the last event on the program. As the master of ceremonies scanned the crowd looking for a female volunteer, I pointed at Alla, who cringed and tried to make herself too small to notice. This didn’t hide her, however, and since I wore a bright red shirt and unusually wild white hair, the guy called her to the stage. Then he explained the contest. While he described it as a dance contest, Alla observes that it was really more about seduction. They rounded up a male and female volunteer who sat in a chair, and then the dancers were supposed to dance across the room in an alluring way toward the seated target.

The male and female resort employees leading the show demonstrated first. Since they perform this act for a living, they’ve gotten quite good at it. The male dancer , for example, removed his belt and used it as a prop with lower-body movements borrowed from burlesque shows. Next they invited the guy in the Batman T-shirt to try out his version of the dance. He was great, and I thought he might win. A young female Latino guest danced second, attempting to copy the female performer’s sexy example. She danced hard, but without any particular success. The second man called himself Superman, and he out-did Batman, adding a few personal flourishes to the original choreography.

At last Alla danced. She ignored the choreography, cut the dance tempo in half, and approached her victim very slowly. As soon as the music started, she unclipped her hair, which fell in a lush curly mass. (Her hair gets lots of body in humid conditions.) She maintained hypnotic eye-contact with the poor guy, who was sweating profusely by the time she reached him. The professional and the first volunteer came and touched him. Alla didn’t think that would be appropriate for her, so she just came close and teased him with her hands near his face. Everybody loved Alla’s act, and the disk jockey wouldn’t turn off the music until she’d danced about twice as long as everybody else.

So, you can guess whom the audience chose as the winner. There never was a question. Alla took home a nice Mexican blanket as her prize.

No camera today

I didn’t take my camera with me today because I didn’t expect to see anything I hadn’t already photographed many times before. I guess I forgot that every day is different. I certainly could have taken some interesting photographs.

I don’t regret at all leaving the camera behind when we went out for our morning walk. We went to the northern end of our beach, where a man-made breakwater creates a pool of placid sea. We set our hats and sunglasses down on the sand and went out to float around in water Alla describes as being warm as fresh milk. Never having been that close to a cow, I’ll take her word for it. I don’t float well in fresh water, but I always enjoy floating around in a warm sea.

I did have a little trouble floating at one moment, which Alla found quite amusing. I had noticed a particularly alluring bathing suit. Or, to be more accurate, I noticed the owner of the bathing suit. Anyway, I was a little distracted until she got into the water.

On our way to lunch we met a guy who grew up around here and he gave us some useful advice about things to do. One of his suggestions related to a nearby restaurant, which we found soon after. It’s located beside a little public beach we’d never seen before because it’s on the other side of the breakwater. This beach attracted a different class of people than we see on the more private hotel beaches, and we enjoyed the colorful crowd.

We didn’t eat there, however, because I had in mind a less expensive restaurant our driver told me about on the way in from the airport. I’m not sure I found the place he told me about, but we liked it very well. It was a tiny place, without indoor seating. The owner and his cook took really good care of us, feeding us delicious Mexican food for not much money. I’m eager to go back.

We spent some time after our late lunch riding the bus downtown and buying groceries. Most tourists don’t go downtown, and it feels different there. I’m not sure I would have liked to take a lot of pictures, but we certainly enjoyed the vibrant and colorful atmosphere.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Two or more mistakes

I got sucked into the first mistake by an e-mail from Borders inviting me to buy a $25 restaurant coupon for $3. It sounded like a good deal at the time, so I bought a coupon while we were still in Belarus last June. All summer long, I was thinking, “I don’t want to forget to use that valuable restaurant coupon while I’m still in the USA.” (This may have been another mistake, but who’s counting?)

We made the next mistake a few nights ago when we decided to find a local restaurant where we could use our coupon. We knew some of the restaurants on the list, but decided to try a new one in the Italian part of town. When I opened the page where I could customize my $25 coupon to the restaurant we chose, I was a little concerned to read several paragraphs of fine print about when and how we could use the coupon. Unfortunately, it was late at night and I didn’t want to waste any more time re-thinking our choice of restaurants. That decision didn’t work out so well this time.

When we got to the restaurant, we had a wide choice of tables. That is to say, there was just one other couple in the entire place. We thought hard enough to recognize that this is generally a bad sign, but we had our stupid $25 coupon in our hands and decided to eat there anyway because the reviews said the food was better than the service, and we felt pretty confident we wouldn’t have any trouble getting the waitress’ attention when we wanted her.

I won’t count any more mistakes, but I’ve got to say that the food wasn’t all that great and the coupon didn’t make it any kind of a bargain. After applying the coupon, our bill came to $61 for simple bland food based on less than $20 worth of ingredients. Let’s just say that we learned a few things this evening.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Islamic art at the Met

Alla and I were eager to see the new Islamic art wing recently installed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. We tried to book a room but couldn’t find any good enough deals, so we decided to go down just for a day. This turned out to be a pretty good idea.

We started on the 6:30 a.m. Lucky Star bus, from Chinatown Boston to Chinatown New York. We caught up on our sleep during the first part of the ride, and then we enjoyed the fall colors as we rolled through Connecticut. It’s a beautiful time of year to pass through Connecticut, since the lawns still look juicy and green while the trees sport their red and yellow autumn leaves. Encountering no serious traffic, we reached New York in four hours and got to the Museum at 11:11 a.m. on 11/11/2011.

Off to an excellent start, we showed our MFA membership cards (from Boston's Museum of Fine Art) when we went to buy our tickets to the Met. I’m not sure if they were supposed to give us a 100% discount, but that’s what we got. Grateful, we splurged on a delicious lunch at one of the Met's fancier restaurants when we finally took a break. First, however, we hurried straight to the new wing.

The Islamic Art wing includes two special installations, a Moroccan courtyard and a sitting room after the Ottoman style from Damascus, Syria. I especially liked these two installations, and went back to them a couple of times after I’d seen everything else.

Alla and I also enjoyed seeing lots of other installations at the Met. While she isn’t terribly fond of modern art, I am. So we gave ourselves a block of time to explore independently, and then we came back to discover that we’d each seen great stuff, much of which did not overlap.

When we finally decided that we’d both seen enough, we went back to Chinatown. Conveniently, we got there just before the 7:00 bus left for Boston and we still had food with us that we had originally intended to eat as a picnic lunch. Instead we had a picnic dinner on the bus and got home at a very comfortable hour. The whole trip flowed so well that we’re eager to do it again and see other parts of that museum or visit other museums.

To see more of our pictures, click here.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Free money from Boston Gas

The State government has decided that gas meters in Boston are too dangerous to keep for a long time. As a result, every few years the gas company comes out and installs a replacement meter. As I understand it, they take the old meters back to their warehouse, wave their hands over them and declare them safe, then re-install them in somebody else’s house.

I’m not too excited about any of this stuff, but since they are excited, I accepted their proposal last week that they come over. They wouldn’t tell me exactly when they intended to come, but it would be sometime between noon and 6 p.m. and they’d call to confirm before coming over. Alla and I dutifully waited all afternoon on the appointed day but nothing happened.

At first we thought that since we don’t really care about the new meter, we’d just ignore their failure and go out of town. But then we thought about our poor house-sitter dealing with their annoying calls and I decided to see if I could make the gas company feel guilty enough to give us a specific appointment they would actually honor.

The gas company found itself unable to promise a more specific time, but they offered us a $50 credit for the inconvenience. OK. I’ll take it. Heck, at this rate they can stand me up as often as they want. I have plenty to do at home anyway.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Today one of the vendors at Haymarket had a big pile of red fuzzy-looking things a little smaller than a tennis ball. "What's that?" I asked.

He had a mouthful of something or another, so he simply pointed at his mouth and said something like "Mmurff." His assistant noted that the sign said "rambutan."

I'd heard of rambutan, but if I've ever eaten it I don't remember it, and at least I've never seen it fresh inside its husk. So I asked if it were good. The assistant didn't answer, possibly because he speaks limited English. The boss chewed. And chewed. He didn't hurry to swallow whatever filled his mouth, but finally found his voice and told me that they're good and that they're something like lychee. I stood around, hoping he'd offer me a sample, but he offered me nothing.

Meanwhile, couple from Southeast Asia came by, got very excited, and bought a big bag of them. They advised me to do the same, so I finally bought a pound. Peeling off the husk, I found a shiny white sphere inside. (It looked to me like an eyeball, a fact which I decided to ignore.) I gave Alla a bite and then I took the second half. It was delicious. I opened another one for Alla and another for myself. And another.

I turned around and returned to the stand, telling the head guy that I'd made a mistake. He looked suspicious. I elaborated that I'd only bought one pound of rambutan and should have bought two. He said, "I tried to tell you you'd like it." His assistant filled my bag generously. Alla and I munched rambutan most of the way back home. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Some of my foreign friends are curious about this peculiar American holiday, Halloween. Others, it seems, know quite a bit about it. I’ve seen photographs of Halloween parties in Belarus, and at least some folks have got the costume part down pretty well. But I think the Americans really excel at candy distribution.

It wasn’t always this way. My dad describes the Halloween of his boyhood as being mostly tricks. Kids would make noisemakers and try to scare their neighbors. The “trick or treat” business really lived up to the slogan. The tricksters engaged in petty extortion, hoping to get bribed out of pulling pranks.

By the time I came along, the adults had mostly given up and bought plenty of candy to give away. I remember when the Mars Company started marketing those tiny candy bars. It meant that I got a lot more Three Musketeers bars, my favorite, but they kept getting smaller and smaller.

When I moved to the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston I discovered adults in the neighborhood having as much fun with the holiday as the kids. Some folks dressed up in scary costumes and sat outdoors to greet the kids. Luci and I joined the trend, but we discovered that sometimes a costume can be too scary and the smallest kids are afraid to approach the candy dish. Still, having gotten all dressed up we’d take turns walking around the neighborhoods to see how everybody else got dressed up.

Because houses are very close to each other in our neighborhood and lots of people like to participate in the holiday, kids from other neighborhoods started coming over here to go trick-or-treating. Ultimately the crowds got so big that the Civic Association and the police department agreed to block off a few streets to protect the kids from moving vehicles. Our house is outside of the blocked-off area so we don’t get any kids here, but that means that we are completely free to dress up and walk around in the crowds. We love to do that.

This year we finally thought to mention to our friends Henry and Gabriela that their daughter and son might enjoy trick-or-treating here instead of close to their more suburban home. And we felt pretty confident that Henry and Gaby would arrive in style. Indeed, they all arrived in style, and we had a great time patrolling the streets. Amazingly, the kids didn’t eat a single piece of candy until after they had come back inside the house and eaten dinner. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I had three, and I wasn’t even collecting treats.

For more, see 2011-10 Halloween