Travelin’

How to travel comfortably and in style.

How Mexico Changed Me

Mexican Flag

Mexican Flag

I admit it; I used to be a Gringo (don’t tell anyone else). A long time ago, the only thing I knew about Mexico was what the United States media pushed out to everyone. I thought of Mexico as a destitute place where everyone was trying to cross the border into the USA. I could not have been further from the truth.

I had just started a job at a gigantic international company and my boss informed me that I had to go down to Aguascalientes, Mexico to meet my North American team. I begrudgingly did so, anxious at what I would find. When I arrived, I was in utter shock at how wrong my preconceptions had been.

North American Team's Office

North American Team’s Office

Aguascalientes was a modern city with a thriving middle class. It looked like it was taken straight out of somewhere in the south east United States. Everyone I had met was proud to be Mexican and live in Mexico. They showed me around their city as well as bringing me into their homes and introducing me to their families. This had shaken me to the core; if I was so wrong about Mexico, what else was I wrong about? I then began my quest to open my mind and discover what I was missing on this great planet of ours.

What happened to my cultural perceptions paled in comparison to what happened to my culinary ones. I grew up thinking that I had liked Mexican food . . . Ha! I did not even know what Mexican food was!!! It turns out that most of the stuff (especially from the chain restaurants) is Tex-Mex, NOT actually what anyone would find anywhere in Mexico. The food I found in Mexico was fresh with complex flavors yet served simply. A real taco was not a hard shell jammed with as much things as one could fit, it was a soft corn tortilla, a well prepared meat and usually a lime on the side. If you wanted condiments, your choices were limited to the fresh salsas they had made right there or some hot local sauces . . . that’s it.

The only place where I saw massive accompaniments was at a restaurant that served Queso Fundido. If you haven’t tried this dish, which is similar to a Fondue, try it immediately! Here you get a boiling clay pot of melted cheese, plain or with your choice of an addition, soft corn tortillas and a tiered Lazy Susan of crazy condiments. This tray of splendor contained, the usual, guacamole, sour cream, etc., but it also contained grilled knob onions, mushrooms, chilis, and much more. Think of Queso Fundido as a Quesadilla on steroids. You could also order the melted cheese cooked with lovely things such as Chorizo sausage, mushrooms, onions, and/or so much more.

Whenever I went down there for business, I would usually go down early and leave late in order to take advantage of the weekends and visit some places, along with having some leisure time for myself to spend time with the team outside of work. During the work week, my friend Sergio asked if I wanted to go for a typical Sunday family breakfast at a restaurant the upcoming Sunday. There was no way I would ever pass up an opportunity like this, so I quickly agreed.

Sunday Breakfast with Sergio

Sunday Breakfast with Sergio

Sunday morning came and Sergio picked me up at the hotel I was staying in. Along the way, he told me that this particular restaurant had two restaurants side by side. One was open in the evenings for dinner, while the one he was taking me to was open only for breakfast. (What an odd use of space?!?) There, he introduced me to the most wondrous of all breakfast foods, chilaquiles. What are chilaquiles you ask? They are fried, crispy tortilla chips, cooked until ever so slightly softened with either red or green salsa and then topped with crema. From there you order it as is or with pulled chicken, egg, or whatever else they have on the menu. I know this sounds an awful lot like nachos, but believe me, they are so vastly different. Once you try them, you will want to start every morning with a plate of fresh chilaquiles. This is something I would have never thought I would love eating for breakfast.

One weekend, my buddy Fernando and his family took me up to the silver mining town of Zacatecas. On the way there, they stopped off in this small town to get, what Fernando and his wife said, were the best gorditas in Mexico. We pulled up to this hole-in-the-wall restaurant that was surprisingly clean, warm and friendly. Being the Gringo I was, I was surprised to see that they only served gorditas . . . no tacos, no tortas, no tamale, just gorditas. I quickly learned a valuable lesson. If you do one thing and do it extremely well, people will go out of their way to acquire what you are offering. That is a concept that is very foreign to people from the States.

Later on that evening, they took me to a restaurant dedicated to some famous general named Francisco Villa. The restaurant was decorated like a house/museum to this guy. Apparently, they thought very highly of the great achievements he did for Mexico. I sat there wondering why I had never heard of this general before. Then it dawned on me . . . I DID! Mexicans often have odd nicknames for their formal names. One nickname for Francisco is Paco. Another is Pancho. This was a restaurant in honor of Pancho Villa!!! Another life altering event happened at that moment. I suddenly realized that what we are taught in history class is completely subjective to where you live and who is teaching it. Villains could be heroes and heroes could be villains.

Pancho Villa's Restaurant

Pancho Villa’s Restaurant

The only downside to visiting Mexico was that I could not eat what restaurants were trying to pass as Mexican food for years after that first visit. Eventually, I came to grips with it by calling it Tex-Mex. Also, in recent years there have been a lot of authentic Mexican places popping up from full blown restaurants, to street carts, to hole in the walls.

Overall, Mexico changed the way I look at the world. It proved that all I thought was fact was merely an illusion which others proposed to me. I knew from then on, that if I was to truly understand the world and its myriad cultures, I would have to get out there and discover it myself. In essence, Mexico changed who I was at my core and what I believe in as a citizen of this great planet.

The Cheat Sheet:

  • Make your own judgments about locations and people.
  • Immerse yourself fully in other cultures.
  • Go outside of your comfort zone and try new things.
  • Discover local history through new eyes.
  • Shed your old beliefs, open your mind and discover the truth for yourself.

Author:                 Robert J. Gorman, Jr.
Date:                     7/20/2014

Advertisements
Categories: Travelin’ | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How Amsterdam Is Misunderstood

Amsterdam, the misunderstood …

I sit here in the business class lounge on yet another trip to my Amsterdam office. I hear the heated conversation of a fellow business man on the phone with his wife arguing vehemently about him having to go to Amsterdam for work. He wholeheartedly puts forth that he has no choice and if he does not go, he will be fired. He goes on to say that he is going there for work and not “for fun”. But his wife is having none of it. She would rather give up their financial stability than risk her husband partying and/or being unfaithful to her. I do not know their situation.   For all I know he could be a raging drug addict pervert who has hurt her many times before. That is not what this article is about. It is about the magnificent city that is Amsterdam. Everyone has preconceptions about this jewel of a city, but they are most likely vastly incomplete. Amsterdam is a treasure chest with no bottom!

While it is true that prostitution and mild drug use are legal, it does not mean that those activities are the only reason to go there. Smoking is legal in the United States, but I’m not going to start smoking because I am there. These very same vices are accessible in regions around the globe with varying degrees of legality/enforcement. If someone is going to partake in those activities, they probably already have elsewhere. Additionally, if you have jealousy or sobriety worries for your spouse going places, then you have bigger issues than the trip at hand to deal with.

Beautiful Canal

Beautiful Amsterdam Canal

Amsterdam is one of those picturesque places that is imagined but rarely exists for most of us. It is divided by manmade canals rather than just streets. These waterways are lined with tall, thin, beautifully architected buildings which used to be warehouses/houses for the traders from its shipping hay day. These houses now serve as residences and offices. The beauty is surreal and one can only imagine what it would be like living or working there. Allow me to brag a moment … it is truly breathtaking to be able to work from an office right on a canal. The fresh air gently blowing in while passenger boats float by with tourists or locals out for a day on the water … absolutely magical.

Office Canal

Canal view from office

I cannot stress this enough, Amsterdam is one of the best walking cities of the world! There is very little automobile traffic in the city center (Centrum). Commuters and locals take well thought out trolleys throughout the city, but they are not overwhelming. That leaves room for pedestrians and bicycles … oh there are bicycles … everywhere! (Note: Bicycles and cars/buses have right of way. So stay alert!) As one walks, there are major roadways and tiny alleyways each hosting unique treasures. These routes are lined with small and unique shops and businesses.   One can enjoyably get lost searching for what amazing thing lies around the next corner.

Hint: If you have a Smartphone, turn on your GPS and add your hotel or specific other destination to your favorites and NEVER get lost!!! Amsterdam is that small and easy to navigate.

 The Dutch people … what an amazing culture! Due to Amsterdam’s status as a premier tourist destination, everyone I met was friendly, warm and welcoming. As with most European metropolitan areas, the people speak many other languages besides their own … and well too. You will have little trouble speaking with the locals. As a matter of fact, you should engage them as much as possible. Everyone has an interesting story or viewpoint and they are eager to hear yours.

 So, what do you like to do? Arts and culture? Amsterdam has some of the finest and most unique museums. They have it all, from Van Gogh to Medieval Torture. Are you a foodie? Because the Dutch have a history of world exploration, they import everything and with that comes an eclectic mix of world cuisines. Fancy Tibetan? They got it. Argentinean steaks? Yup! American fast food? Unfortunately yes to that too. I had one of the best and most unique sandwiches from an Italian sandwich shop called Cora Broodjes (Cora Sandwiches – http://www.cora-broodjes.nl/) on Prinsengracht.

Cora Sandwiches

Cora Sandwiches

Do you like to party? Amsterdam’s got an amazing nightlife. And they really aren’t serving coffee as the top item in those coffee shops. Europeans are well aware of the lure of Amsterdam. Some fly in, party all night without sleep and then catch a flight back home the next day … yeah it’s that kind of city!

 Do you like the water? Rent a paddle boat (or bike boat) and cruise the canals at your own pace. Want a guided tour, get on a canal tour boat and navigate the waterways learning all about what made Amsterdam a jewel in Europe’s crown.

Paddle Bikes

Paddle Bikes

While the tourists are indulging themselves in anything they could imagine, the local population operates right along side as if the rest does not exist. Parents with front and rear bicycle baby seats peddle along cobblestone streets. Women with skirts and high heals peddle their bikes with a style and grace that they must be born with. Business people zipping along in trolley cars heading to their next appointment. Old and young couples strolling the canals hand in hand without a care in the world. Yeah, the locals know how good they’ve got it.

Is Amsterdam wooden clogs and tulips? Yes.
Is it tall thin row houses and canals? Yes.
Is it prostitutes and drugs? Yes.
Is it bicycles and boats? Yes.
Amsterdam is all of this and so much more!

It is a safe, friendly, beautiful, historic city that everyone should come, explore and discover what Amsterdam is to them.

Travel Note: If you want REALLY good beef ribs in an old world super friendly atmosphere, get yourself to Café de Klos (Kerkstraat 41-43). There is usually a long wait for the few tables that they have there, but no worries . . . they own the bar across the street and you can hang out over there for some drinks and appetizers while you wait. If you want to cut down the wait time, ask to sit at the bar instead of a table (for some reason, there is more bar space than table space). The staff is hysterical and will make fun of themselves and you in a heartbeat, so don’t go there if you are of the faint of heart. But if you play along, you will become a regular in their eyes and will have an awesome time. Need a menu, just call the bartender over . . . it’s on their shirts! If you go, ask for Marik (aka Mark – looks like Kiefer Sutherland) and tell him Superman sent you.

Cafe de Klos Menu

Cafe de Klos Menu

The Cheat Sheet:

  • Make your own judgments about Amsterdam.
  • Get around by walking or renting a bike.
  • Use the GPS/Maps feature on your Smartphone.
  • Talk with the locals.
  • Get outside of your comfort zone and try something new.

Author:                  Robert J. Gorman, Jr.
Date:                      8/12/2014

 

Categories: Travelin’ | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Travelers Guide To The Shaolin Temple

Sifu Pete Chema

Sifu Pete Chema

On this, which was my fourth trip to China, I had one new and specific goal and that was to make a martial arts pilgrimage to the Shaolin Temple to see for myself where it all began. You can read all about it on the Internet or in books, however, there is no substitute for personal experience. I have over 40 years experience in the martial arts and have trained with some of the best masters in the world. I continue to enjoy the styles of Gong Fu I already practice but I have an open mind as to what I might not have seen or learned. Some say the Shaolin Temple is utterly amazing and the only true place to study Gong Fu. Others say it is a tourist trap with unqualified teachers all too ready to take your money and then teach you something of little real value. I was expecting something in-between these two views, and I just had to see for myself!

I will try to provide information in the article that will enable you to take this unique trip yourself if your spirit of adventure compels you. Let me warn you though, traveling in China can be difficult and confusing but it is not impossible. I have a little advantage though because I can speak some Chinese and of course, this is very helpful. (TIP: For the bare essentials see the Understandin’ article: Top Ten Chinese (Mandarin) Phrases) However, even without Chinese language ability, you can take the trip and I assure you…it will be the adventure of a lifetime in more ways than one!

My journey to the Shaolin Temple from Beijing began with the purchase of my train ticket to Zhengzhou city, which is the provincial capital of Henan Province. There were two trains available from the Beijing West Railroad Station: one in the morning and one in the evening. There is actually a ticket window where English is spoken and this is the shortest line for tickets because practically no one speaks English! Be careful because there are several railroad stations in Beijing offering transportation to various parts of China. I decided to take the evening train 10:48 PM. Enjoying amenities, I opted for the sleeper car so I did not have to pay for a hotel that evening and when I awoke at about 6 AM, I would have already arrived in Zhengzhou. This sleeper car costs $264 Yuan or about $ 39 US dollars. Each sleeping compartment accommodates four people and you want to make sure you buy the ticket for one of the two bottom beds since there is a lot more room on the bottom than on the upper berths. The mattress is super firm almost like the cushion on a hard couch but it is not uncomfortable. Also a word of advice if you have never been to China: Always carry your own toilet tissue and be prepared for the type of toilets that are common in China and also on the train; that is, a hole in the floor…no toilet bowl. The hard economy class seat on the train is much cheaper but I was trying to rest and save my energy for the Temple.

I did not know what training and adventure would be in store for me. Zhengzhou City is very close to the smaller city of Dengfeng, which is located near the Shaolin Temple. Located at the foot of Taishi Mountain, Dengfeng would be my home base since the temple is only 15 minutes by bus or taxi.

There are many hotels in Dengfeng and one just needs to consult with a tour book for a recommendation on accommodations. I personally like the Lonely Planet Tour guidebook because in addition to the English, it includes the Chinese characters for the names of places, which are essential to show a cab driver where you want to go.

My first impression of the Shaolin temple was that it is more magnificent, beautiful and larger than I had imagined! There is a huge statue with hands in the traditional Shaolin salutation, which greets visitors as they file through the three spectacular arches of the entrance gate.

Traditional Shaolin Salutation

Traditional Shaolin Salutation

Entrance Gate

Entrance Gate

The first building that one sees on the right after entering the Temple grounds is the famous Shaolin Monastery Wushu Institute at Tagou.  This Institute is one of China’s largest Traditional Shaolin Kung Fu academies. Tagou is famous for its rigorous training and its students receive top-level training in open hand and weaponry. This Academy has trained some of China’s top martial arts experts and teachers. The admittance office is located through the open courtyard on the right, up a small hill. One needs to go to the second floor of the building to find the office. I was told that they accept students of all levels and are flexible to accommodate one’s schedule. Fortunately the Special Manager of Foreign Affairs there that day was a friendly young girl who speaks perfect English.

Needless to say what I saw was amazing! Thousands of students practicing at a time. Yes, literally thousands! Martial artists were everywhere! In the open fields, in the courtyards, in the Academy’s training halls and just about any other place you looked!

Shaolin Students Practicing

Shaolin Students Practicing

Coaches were teaching students of all ages. Children who look just old enough to walk were tumbling, training forms and displaying remarkable flexibility.

Coach & Student

Coach & Student

Martial artist were adroitly practicing weapons of all varieties with amazing precision.

Spear Practice

Spear Practice

The Shaolin Monastery Wushu Institute at Tagou’s website is www.shaolinkungfu.edu.cn. Henan Province is known as the “Cradle of Chinese Martial Arts” and it is easy to see why this academy is one of the most famous.

The Temple also has a large indoor theater, which regularly has orchestrated Gong Fu performance done in front of a Shaolin Temple backdrop. The demonstration is fast paced with a broad display of open-hand and weapon combat. It is a must see.

Gong Fu Performance 1

Gong Fu Performance 1

Gong Fu Performance 2

Gong Fu Performance 2

There are also many outdoor demonstrations, which take place at the main front gate where spectators can enjoy amazing displays of Gong Fu and Qi Gong.

In addition to the martial arts, the temple grounds have many famous attractions. First and the most famous of them all is known as the Gateway and is the chief entrance for the Permanent Residence Compound. It is made up of the front gate and two side gates; this Gateway is the building used as the backdrop for Gong-Fu movies and is the most recognizable structure when one pictures the Shaolin Temple. It is the red building that bears the inscription of the three Chinese characters for the “Shao Lin Temple” in gold characters on a black background. The carved dragons on the glazed tile roof embellish the spirit within. Seeing and entering this structure alone made my whole trip worthwhile. Entering the gateway was like a trip into the past, feeling the energy and essence of those who trained there, died, and were buried in the nearby Pagoda Forest Cemetery.  In front of the Gateway is an immense yard with two inscribed stone archways.

The Pagoda Forest is actually a cemetery and is located on a hill, just a short distance from the Permanent Residence Compound. It consists of unique stone pagodas of various heights and styles, and they are silhouetted against the tall trees in the forest hence the name Pagoda Forest. The bodies of many famous monks are buried here and the feeling one gets while walking there is indescribable. It is spectacular, serene and breathtaking.

The Pagoda Forest

The Pagoda Forest

Bodhidharma’s (Damo) Cave is located about 4000-meter hike from the Pagoda Forest. Legend has it that, Bodhidharma sat meditating so long that his shadow is embedded on the wall of the cave.

In addition to these attractions there are other interesting buildings, halls and Chapels too numerous to mention in this article. The Shaolin Temple is an amazing attraction for tourists as well as for those who make religious pilgrimages.  When your adventure comes to an end simply reverse your commute to return to Beijing as I did or continue on to another destination in China. You will be returning home with an unforgettable adventure under your belt! As a martial artist you will perhaps feel as I did: that you actually are now a part of a rich and compelling history and that you have experienced firsthand life at the Shaolin Temple! Good luck and as the Chinese say, Yi Lu Ping An….. Have a safe trip!

The Cheat Sheet:

  • Speaking Chinese in China is not required, but good to know some basic words and phrases.
  • When traveling by train in a sleeper car, purchase the bottom bunk(s) as they have more room.
  • Bring toilet paper and be prepared for Chinese toilets (only a hole in the floor).
  • When visiting the ShaolinTemple, stay in Dengfeng which is only 15 minutes away by taxi or bus.
  • Use the Lonely Planet Tour guidebook because at has English as well as the Chinese characters which you can then point out to people for destinations and items.
  • The Shaolin Monastery Wushu Institute at Tagou is the most famous and prestigious of the Gong Fu academies in the area.

For the full article and more on the Shaolin Temple, please Click Here.

Author:                  Pete Chema
Date:                      10/23/2013

Categories: Travelin’ | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.