Late Winter in Lansing

Old snow has been hanging around Lansing since December, but I had been waiting for a substantial amount of fresh snow so I could photograph a few locations around town before winter ends. I have been a complete lay about this winter, but in my defense the Midwest has seen the most extreme winter since 1977 this year. It snowed about six inches on Wednesday morning, so I headed out with a fixed lens, a camera and a tripod before the sun started to set.

Often when I go around town taking photos, people think I’m up to something sinister. I believe that if I had an iPhone in my hand instead a camera and a tripod, I would be largely ignored. While I was trying to photograph a mountain of snow in Frandor Shopping Center, a couple stopped their SUV, turned on the hazards and glared at me with furrowed brows. Shortly after I set everything up in front of small engine repair shop on Cedar Avenue, a woman came out of an adjacent tattoo shop to suck down a cigarette.

“Hi,” I said.

“May I ask what you are doing?” she asked with a moderate amount of authority in her voice.

“Sure,” I said. “I’m photographing this neon sign. See how the light from the sign reflects off of the snow?”

“Oh,” she said as she took another drag.

“I’m not crazy,” I assured her.

She watched me with a careful eye. I gave her a half smile through pursed lips and nodded my head slightly while I waited 15 seconds for the shutter to close. I told her to have a good night as I collapsed the legs on the tripod and made my way back to the truck. I think I successfully convinced her that I was harmless.

At the liquor store down the road, a man stood behind me with his arms folded across his chest. He wore a befuddled look on his face as I photographed a sign from the bed of my truck. Two guys coming from Famous Taco stopped and inquired about my motives in front of a nearby payday loan and check cashing operation.

Since I needed light coming from the east to shoot some piles of snow with shopping carts sticking out of them, I returned to Frandor Shopping Center Thursday morning. The bus stop behind me was filled with people who park at the plaza and ride the 1 route to Michigan State University. I turned to see bewildered faces peering at me from the bus stop shelter. I planned to tell anyone who asked that I worked for Kroger and that I was documenting the damage to several shopping carts caused by the company hired to plow the lot all winter. We were going to hold those bastards accountable, dammit! Have you checked the cost of shopping carts lately? Sadly, I never got the chance to try out my fabrication on any of the commuters. It must have been too cold for them to talk to strangers.

I understand that it is somewhat of an oddity to see someone with a camera that does not double as phone or a tablet. Nobody tried to stop me from taking photos or seize my equipment, but I am always dumbfounded by the “hey you can’t do that” attitude from people who assume I am a shady individual. I know my rights, man. I don’t need permission to photograph people or places that are visible from a public place. I’m covered by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.

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Mr. Turkey trailer behind the liquor store

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piles of snow in the Sears parking lot

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second view of snow piles in the Frandor Shopping Center

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a service department that is no longer in service

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Green Acres is the place to be.

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hot tub rental

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party store sign with icicles

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welding supply

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small engine repair

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filthy snow in front of a liquor store on Saginaw Highway

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T-Mobile store

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shopping carts in the morning sun

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Michigan Ice Storm

After a week, the ice is finally melting. When the ice storm hit on December 21,  ice encased everything the freezing rain touched. Tree branches fell, blocking roads, severing power lines, smashing cars and crashing into homes and all over mid-Michigan. When branches broke loose from trees and crashed to the ground, it sounded like shattering glass. Like major portions of Lansing, the next street over from us went dark while we retained power through some stroke of luck. People all over Michigan’s capitol city spent Christmas without heat and are still freezing in their homes a week after the storm. Some estimates were as high as 60,000 people lost power while the temperature outside was in the single digits. A limited number of crews are working on the massive power outage and Governor Snyder is on radio silence except for a short press release on December 26 where he claims that local authorities have not asked the state for help. I’m sure that many residents don’t care whose job it is to send in reinforcements. Somebody needs to show some leadership. Reports of vacant homes being burglarized are beginning to circulate and throughout this whole ordeal, I have not seen a single police officer anywhere in the greater Lansing area. I have no faith in the local or state authorities to be able to restore order in the event of a disaster of any size. However, I did take some photos, and now that I have Internet access again, I am able to post them.

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Xalapa car show

One of the great things about staying at the Hotel One in Xalapa is free breakfast. Another great thing is free laundry. Since the hotel only has one washer and one dryer for the entire building, you might run into some other guests while waiting for the washer to stop spinning. We met a man from Mexico City that was in town for a car show at the Universidad Anáhuac Xalapa. He seemed very excited about it and insisted that we attend.

We asked if the car show was in walking distance, and he said, “más o menos.” We had been walking long distances for a few months, so we felt confident that we could make it. According to the Google map, the university looked like it was just behind the mall. However, there was a neighborhood between the mall and the university whose residents weren’t too keen on people simply walking through their community. In order to avoid a hassle with some armed guards, we cut through the mall and walked all the way around the fancy gated community.

After 90 minutes of schlepping over mud-covered sidewalks, including about 20 minutes of walking in the wrong direction, we reached the university and trudged further across campus to the car show. I guess suburbs are the same no matter where you go. Pedestrians are an afterthought. As soon as we got to the car show, we slammed a well-deserved Coke and spent the afternoon listening to doo-wop and looking at Mustangs, Chevys, Volkswagens and Renaults. Here is some of what we saw.

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Xalapa

We stayed in the suburbs of Xalapa at a Hotel One, directly across from a gigantic mall complete with a Gap, a Sears and a Chili’s. Within an hour of arriving in Xalapa, we had a couple Old Timers with cheese in our hands and they were sub-par, just like in the United States. I should have known better, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to eat lunch at a chain restaurant after eating food that people actually made for three months.

In order to get to anything interesting, we had to take a taxi to the city center. Since this was the last leg of our trip, the money situation did not allow for any big nights on the town. Maybe next time. Even though our funds forced us to repeatedly eat at a restaurant with buy-one-get-one-free tacos al pastor, we did make our way to the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa. The main attraction is MAX’s collection of massive Olmec heads, but there is much more to see including the property itself. It’s difficult to take it all in and the photos do not convey how impressive the museum’s holdings and grounds actually are.

Since the coffee grown in the state of Veracruz is world-famous, we purchased a kilo of coffee from a local coffee roaster in Xalapa’a city center. Since being back in the U.S., we have been very stingy with the coffee. If you visit my home, it will not be readily offered to you.  I’m sorry, but you will have to go and get your own.

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view from the park in the center of Xalapa

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the Grim Reaper entertaining a young lady in front of the Catedral Metropolitana de la Immaculada Concepción de Xalapa

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a wall outside the market

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part of the campus at Universidad Veracruzana

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turtles in the pond at Universidad Veracruzana

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shopping cart outside the Chedraui near the hotel

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from the hotel window

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the suburbs

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the mall

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one of the many Olmec heads

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three more Olmec heads

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headless chacmool

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looking through the museum window

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Córdoba

When we bought the tickets at the ADO counter, I didn’t know why the 8:30 a.m. bus was 60 pesos less than the other buses to Córdoba. In the interest of saving about $10 USD, we bought the cheap tickets. I’m just speculating, but I think the cheap tickets were because the bus we rode was inferior. We sat in the two front seats in clear view of the dashboard. I was a mechanic for 10 years, so I really freaked myself out when I started looking around.

There was electrical tape covering a red light on the dash, but that’s not really that big of a deal. It could have simply been the light that tells the driver to buckle up. One of the only people I’ve ever seen wear a seatbelt in Mexico was me. As we got rolling, I noticed the brake light coming on every time the driver hit the brake pedal and a distinct metal-to-metal grinding sound coming from the left front wheel. The driver didn’t seem to notice these things, but he was complaining about the erratic buzz of an alarm in the dash and a two-inch red light that accompanied the alarm that read “STOP.” The fact that you are reading this post means that everything turned out fine and the bus didn’t tumble down the side of the mountain engulfed in flames. However, next time will demand that the bus pulls over, I will snatch my luggage from the belly of the bus and find alternate transportation.

The bus ride to Córdoba apparently goes past the snow-covered peak of Orizaba, the tallest mountain in Mexico. I wouldn’t know because the mountains were covered in layer of thick fog and I was too busy gripping the seat in terror as we flew around the blind corners of mountain roads. I was just glad to get to Córdoba.

The taxi driver that scooped us up from the bus station told us that they didn’t get many visitors in Córdoba. Unlike Oaxaca City, the only other gringo we saw was some guy staying at the same hotel we were. His t-shirt from Washington DC gave him away. Plus every time we saw him, he gave us the nod of recognition that I get from folks who live in the United States every time I visit Mexico.

We found the hot-pink Hotel Palacio online and it is quite a bargain. It is situated about a block from the zócalo and only cost us $40 USD a night. For years it was the tallest building in Córdoba and you can see Orizaba from the hotel. We stayed on a floor that looked like it hadn’t been remodeled since Manuel Ávila Camacho was president. I have not been in a hotel where the windows actually open for years, so I took advantage of this feature and took some photos of the city from the top floor.

Our first night in Córdoba we spent drinking coffee and eating French fries at one of the cafes on the zócalo. All of a sudden, the lights in the park went out, the instrumental version of La Bamba fired up and the lights in the Palacio Municipal flashed on and off to the music.

The following day was my birthday so we grabbed some ice and a few tall boys from the 7/24 market across the street, filled the sink with ice and streamed some music from the Internet.

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egg-shaped tunnel

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foggy mountain road

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partying out with the YouTube

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fancy purple fountain

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good cheap taco place

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our hotel bathroom

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The water pressure in this shower was fantastic!

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view from the top of the hotel

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It took me a while to figure out what this was.

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another view from the hotel

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The Hotel Palacio in the morning

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We finally saw Orizaba an hour before we town.

Oaxaca City

We had been in Oaxaca for almost three months and we were near the end of our third bottle of mosquito repellent. I added water to it hoping that we could keep those bloodsuckers off our skin for a few more days with the diluted solution. Saturday finally came and it was time to pack it up and get ready for the ride up into the mountains to Córdoba, Veracruz.

It was perfect day for the toilet to clog, and so it did. Remembering the word for plunger from my previous encounters with plumbing problems in Oaxaca City, I took off for the market in search of a bomba para el baño. The woman who watched over the property we were renting would be there in less than an hour to say goodbye to us. On the way there I threw the last of our household trash onto the garbage heap at the end of the road. There was only one dog rooting through the trash when I passed through, but was sure a few more would be along soon to help him out.

The plumbing was in working order, the trash was taken out and the suitcases were packed beyond capacity. The only thing left to do was order a taxi for 7 a.m. the next morning. The bus wasn’t supposed to leave until 8:30, but I always like to arrive way too early to bus stations, train depots and airports. Our unreliable, hard-partying, techno-loving Belgian neighbor offered to call and order a taxi for us since we were sans cellphone. He never did. We were not surprised. So on Sunday morning, we wheeled our luggage down to the corner while dodging dog shit and squeezing past a dump truck that was left on our dead-end road overnight.

On the corner, loaded down with backpacks and suitcases, we tried to hail a taxi. Around 7:30 a.m., we started to feel a bit nervous. There was not much traffic of any kind and there was no going back. The door was locked and the keys to the apartment were on the kitchen table. We didn’t have the time or the strength to haul our possessions across the city to the bus station. Two men were leaning against the wall, looking at us curiously. They told us we might have better luck if we trudged over to a busier road. All of us stepped into the road and peered past the parked cars. Salvation in the form of a taxi for hire came driving over the hill. The men helped us load our luggage and we tore off for the bus station. We got there just in time to eat the worst ham and cheese sandwich I’ve ever had in my life and try to board the wrong bus.

We eventually found the bus to Córboba, climbed aboard and rode out of the city along the base of the Cerro del Fortin. We both waved goodbye to the towering statue of Don Benito Juárez that overlooks the city on our way out of town. I’m sure we will see you again, Oaxaca. Until then, I feel at peace knowing that women will be hawking wooden bookmarks to tourists, the trash guys will continue to announce their arrival by ringing cowbells in the street, ear-piercing fireworks will boom at all hours of the day and night and that guy who really does not know how to play the accordion will still be making a racket in front of Santo Domingo.

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art museum in Oaxaca

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the patio wall at Nueva Babel

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Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México Rufino Tamayo

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hopefully there will be a photo of me taking a photo of the Google van in Oaxaca

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part of the Iglesia Soledad

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political ad for Paco Reyes

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ice cream shop at dusk

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map of the market by our apartment

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Teotitlán del Valle

My previous experiences visiting Teotitlán del Valle were always along the main highway with a tour company from Oaxaca City. The town is famous for wool rugs that come in an array of vibrant colors derived from natural sources like the cochineal bug and indigo. The largest rugs take months to make and designs vary from simple patterns to intricate scenes. Due to the time and skill involved in making the famous rugs, they can be very expensive.

On this trip we went past the rug places near the main highway and ventured into the center of town. Soon after we got out of the car, an elderly gentleman came up to us and told us about a comedor that his wife and daughter-in-law run. After cruising by the cathedral, we took his advice and headed for the comedor.

We sat in an open-air dining room with two tables that were surrounded by scads of rugs hanging from the ceiling and stacked in the corners. In the next room there was a small stove and we could see a few chickens hunting and pecking out back. The menu for the day was chocolate con agua to drink, tortillas, a soup that was the town specialty called sopa de guía and mole negro with chicken, of course. Sixty pesos gets you everything. Normally I don’t eat a freshly killed chicken swimming in mole for breakfast, but I do eat just about anything that is put in front of me. This was one of the best meals I have eaten in Mexico. If you ever find yourself in Teotitlán del Valle, make sure you stop in and eat at Comedor Jaguar on Avenida Juárez.

After breakfast, we waddled over to the Bug in the Rug to watch the standard rug-making demonstration that is offered at many places in Teotitlán. When you see how the rugs are made and how much work goes into each one, you will understand why they cost so much. There are room-sized rugs that cost upwards of 10,000 pesos, and smaller ones that cost a bit less. We could afford a small throw pillow cover for a few hundred pesos that has different tones of brilliant red thanks to the cochineal bug.

Everyone we met in town was extremely friendly and the majority of them had rugs for sale. Aside from the friendly people and beautiful rugs, Teotitlán also has and a large population of donkeys carrying bundles of sticks and hordes of dogs. If you’re lucky, the carnival will be in town. It’s worth it to go into the town and check it out rather than simply hopping out of a tour van at a rug place near the highway.

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