On Capitals and Eating: A short trip report from Ottawa

There are great cities that happen to be national capitals. Cities like London and Paris are such places. Great food, great culture, great sites – a good time is had by all. Then there are national capitals that want to be great cities. Washington and Ottawa happen to fall into this category. Neither has the vibe/density/scene that London and Paris have, but they are trying. (And this is where my mother-in-law would add the phrase, “bless their hearts.”)

I happen to be in Ottawa a few weeks back and had some kick ass meals. First up, Murray Street – a charcuterie and wine bar. They bring much respect to meats – all of them. Anywhere that has an offal of the day as well as a whole pig head on the menu gets my vote any day of the week. It is a small place with a great feel. Highly recommend.

Next up – The Whalesbone Oyster House. Go. There. Now. Imagine a tiny restaurant embedded into an old bike shop. Forget open kitchen, the hot stations are actually in the seating area and the night we were there the a/c wasn’t working – forcing the staff into tank tops and shorts. Whalesbone is, as the name implies, an oyster and fish joint and it takes its ingredients seriously. If the amazing fish, oysters, and drinks doesn’t do it for you, then try this – when was the last time you went to a bar or restaurant where the music was provided by records? Two huge stacks of records behind the bar, from which Ray Charles, Abba, and Sam & Dave were pulled when we were there. The staff has been friends since high school and you can feel their love for the place in everything they do. Again – go there now!

Ottawa may be a somewhat sleepy capital but there are definitely some pockets of serious yum and fun to be had – I’ll be waiting until the spring to head back for oysters and offal.

Our travel luck has run out

My wife and I just got back from a long weekend trip with friends.  We’ve been to the greater Playa del Carmen area of Mexico a bunch of times. We figured that this would be an easy trip.  And for the most part it was.

Hotel Basico, as always, was awesome. The rooftop bar and pool is great. The food is amazing. I’m not sure how they do it, but the fried fish nuggets are amazing. 

Playa, sadly, is slowly being turned into a more rustic Cancun.  It became noticeable last time we went and this time it was all too obvious. More stumbling drunk idiots and more chain stores. This is not a good trend.

For a change of pace, we headed down to Tulum to check things out there. Overall, we liked the area. There is, however, a fundamental problem with area’s value proposition. Most of the hotels are on the water and are rustic.  We had some very serene moments just watching the waves roll in.  But that being said, the price per night for one of these hotels seems to average about $170. That just is too high a shower whose pressure resembles a Windex bottle and a room that lacks A/C.  At $100 or less, the value prop works, but I just have a hard time paying for what I know to be a glorified back packer flophouse. (And in case you think I am being a snob, I have spent many a night in low budget hotels around the world and loved them. Much love to Archie’s House.)

So our travel luck…

On any trip there will be some hiccup along the way, but nothing that cannot be accomodated. On this trip there were three.  First up, Sunday was Day Light Savings in Mexico. Who knew? Clearly we didn’t but, apparently, the hotel staff did but neglected to mention it. A bit of frantic pre-coffee thrashing about but I’ve done worse. We had planned on leaving an hour earlier than usual to grab some breakfast back in Playa so the time change didn’t throw us off too badly.

Second up – on the way to the highway and north to Playa, the check engine light goes on in our rental. Thinking that it is just a gas cap related, and frankly having no other options, we pushed on. Then the engine light started blinking. The car started to shake when I gave it the slightest amount of gas. And then it died at a stop light.

Plane leaves in 3.5 hours. We are 1.5 hours away. Car, though not smoking, was not in a good way. Clock’s ticking.

There’s a Hertz kilometer so behind us and so we coax and cajole the car back there. Sunday morning at 7:30, I am not expected anyone to be there.

But there was! And at this point I must credit my friend L. She is a fluent Spanish speaker. But how many non-native speakers are familiar with automotive vocabulary? So L conveys the situation. The staff were amazingly helpful. Within twenty minutes we were rolling again.

Thus far we have dodged about as much trouble as one would expect to encounter on a trip. But you know me better than that. The next thing we had to deal with was bigger than the first two combined.

North of Playa, we get pulled over by the Municipal Police. Again, L to the rescue. But how many non-native speakers know how to talk their way out of a speeding ticket? According to the slightly pudgy cop (or at least the guy in the cop uniform) I was speeding. And according to him there are two things by which the police cannot abide: speeding and drinking (I think he meant drunk driving). He referred to me as “Speedy Gonzalez.”  He might as well been reading from the “Guide to fleecing tourist” handbook.

Did he mention how fast I was going? No.

Did he point out the speed limit? No.

But did he know enough American culture to refer to me as Speedy Gonzalez. Of course he did.

And what happened next was he said that my driver’s licenses, and me, had to go a half an hour away to be processed. (Keep in mind that downtown Playa del Carmen was, at most, 15 minutes away.) This option didn’t see so appealing.

L, smartly, asked if there was another way to deal with the fine for speeding. Our friendly overfed constabulary said there was. We could pay the fee right there by the roadside. The only problem was that he didn’t have a receipt to give us, but if we didn’t mind we could jsut pay him anyway. Sure, whatever. Amazingly enough, Mexico fines speeders in US dollars… $200 to be exact.

$200. Think of your last speeding ticket. If you got hit for $200, you were likely doing over 80 with up to, but not exceeding, 2 pedestrians squished on your hood.  $200 for doing, at most 10 km/k over the limit in a 100 km/h zone, seemed a tad excessive.

We didn’t have $200 on hand and weren’t really in the mood to part with that much scratch, L pressed on and asked what the fine would be pesos.  You know pesos – the currency of the country in which we were currently pulled over by Officer Hada Couple O’Churros. And so he starts to write on his hand and comes up with a figure 2000 pesos.  The exchange rate was in our favor but 2000 was way more than we had.

How about 1200 pesos?

Ok. Let’s just keep this between us.

Sure officer. Have a nice day.

And just like that we had just negotiated our “speeding ticket” down to $75. We even paid him. Now I asked you, how many non-native speakers know how to bribe pay a speeding ticket to the police officer by the side of the road? This is not a set of phrases they teach you in your high school Spanish textbook.

(BTW, I’ve heard from a reliable source that you offer 100 pesos and go up from there. Live and learn.)

So this threesome of troubles combined with the far larger Thailand affair has got me thinking that our travel luck has run out. For nearly 10 years we have had flawless travel luck. Best room in all of San Sebastian, for free – sure. First hand account of the brutality the Khmer, told quietly, honestly while sitting in traffic in Siem Reap – a treasured memory. An unplanned side trip to a family olive farm – a lovely surprise. I’ll be the first to admit that we’ve had more than our share of lucky breaks on the road. I’ve got to face it – we used up our good travel karma and now have to pay back the debt.

Not that that is going to keep us from traveling. I mean what’s the worst thing that could happen to us when we hike the Inca Trail this summer… on second thought, don’t answer that.

How we got out of Thailand

As some of you know, my wife and I were recently in Thailand.  We were, in fact, there while People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) closed down the airports in Bangkok.  Once that happen, we (a long with 349,998 people) were pretty screwed getting back home.  The following is a rough account of what we went through to get home.  It is a bit long, but enjoy it anyway.

By way of an introduction, the following is a map of roughly where we were and where we went.

Tuesday, November 25th – The Fun Begins

PAD takes over the main airport in Bangkok, Suvarnabhumi, as well the older Don Meung airport.  They have a bit of a throw-down with the cabbies at the airport.  This involves golf clubs, sticks, and whatever else everyone get their hands on.  They demand to know when the Prime Minister is returning to Thailand, which turns out to be Wednesday.  I figure that the PM will come back to Thailand and work things out with PAD.  Oh so wrong was I.

I cannot begin to imagine what it was like for the people at the airport waiting to fly out.  Truly terrifying.  But then again, PAD people were dressed rather festively and they did set up a bunch of food stalls.  It might have been fun… for about 5 seconds.

Wednesday, November 26th – What, me worry?

So the Thai Prime Minister returns to Thailand, but instead of flying back to Bangkok where the welcome committee was stationed, he flew to an air force base near Chiang Mai.  We had seen this base a week prior.  The PM states he will not dissolve the government and he called on PAD to leave the airports.  Stop or I’ll say stop again!

Hoping that this would resolve itself, we did nothing to prepare for what was coming.

Continue reading How we got out of Thailand

Notes from Thailand

I’ll wait to write a longer trip report until I get back to the states. We are currently on the island of Lanta and having a great time, all things considered. We were supposed to leave for home tonight, but Bangkok’s airport has not reopened and there are no signs it will do so for a while.

We are going to make our way to Singapore by way of Langkawi and then KL. Hopefully, we’ll he home by the 1st.

Safe, sound and a little stressed are we. United hasn’t been the best travel partner for us this trip, but the hotel, Layana, has been a second home.

Finally, to those of you with family in Bangkok or Mumbai I hope they are safe and out if harms way.

I have a lot to be thankful for today as I am sure you have as well.