Thursday, December 29, 2005

Get Those Two Cents Stamps Out

I missed it when it came out, but postage rates are incresing Jan 8 from 37 cents to 39 cents. I remember when they were a dime, but I bet a lot of people out there can remember when it was even lower than that.

What to Do in Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa

I'll do a similar ratings as Forbes does for restaurants for what to do if you care considering a trip down to Zihuat:

  • Margaritas on the Beach, Pina Coladas by the pool, Beer on the Patio - That's why you go, after all. Plus, it's not like you are driving anywhere. All transportation is by foot or taxi.

  • Jet Ski - Independent operators are by all the resorts, renting by the half hour or hour. Be sure to negotiate down from the opening offer.

  • Villa de la Selva - This restaurant is the converted villa of a former Mexican president. I can't find out which one, but a taxi driver said it was a corrupt Mexican politician Alvarex from 1970 or so. Whoever it was had a good sense of where to put a place for a view, and the food is spectacular. Watch out for the pricing, though: this place charges American prices rather than Mexican prices.

  • Red Snapper - Tasty and generally cheap (see exception below), this is typically broiled and served as an entire fish. I could eat one of these every day.
  • Shop - This is mandatory as an American tourist in Mexico. We picked up silver, ceramics, painted wooden bowls, t-shirts, and other clothing. If you do shop, make sure you go to "Centro" (central Zihuatanejo) rather than the bazaars near the resorts. Downtown has better selections and pricing.
  • Ixtapa Island - This is where you go for snorkeling, as the island has a large coral reef. There is nothing wrong with the snorkeling - the only problem is that the island is a tourist trap: pricing for all food and drink is 2-3 times what you will find elsewhere in the area. I suppose there should be some premium for ferrying items to an island, but this seemed excessive. I paid about twice what I should have for a red snapper, although it was pretty good. The locals know better: they all brought picnic lunches instead of buying items locally.
  • Parasailing - Like the jet-ski operators, they are by all the resorts. My only issue with them is Mexico is the Land that OSHA Forgot: there are no safety inspections or standards, and if something goes wrong, the guy will just go back to his village. So it's not like the operators are afraid of lawsuits. I opted not to do it, but they ran a steady business, so there were plenty of tourists who didn't worry about it.
  • Playa Larga - The "Long Beach" of Zihautanejo, this is away from the resorts and more of a local hangout, so it is empty (the picture was taken at peak beach hour - there was hardly anyone there). We stopped by here on a local tour a taxi driver was giving us, so it was only a short stop for us. This is more my sort of area to hang out in, but Mrs. Director said she prefers the more crowded beaches with all the services. So whether this is a place to go or not just depends on your individual taste.

  • Coco Loco - This is a local drink where they take a coconut, carve out the middle, and put in a combination of white liquors, mostly rum. It hardly has any taste, so you could drink it like water, which is probably the point. I personally didn't care for them, and stuck to pina coloadas, margaritas, a few daiquiris - and after the sweet stuff got old - Mexican beer.

  • Solodad - The one place we went wrong was an "archeological site" that Mrs. Director read about on a tourist site. This sounded like an interesting way to spend a day that was overcast and cloudy away from the beach. HUGE mistake. The place is some 45 minutes away on a dirt road, the actual dig site is on a hill and impossible to get to, so what there is to see are some pieces that are in an old house that was converted into something of a museum. The pieces were interesting, but not worth the trip. The only thing positive I can say about the excursion is that we got to see what a poor Mexican town out in the middle of nowhere is really like, so the "archeological" experience means I can now relate to my gardener a little better.
So all said and done, you go for the eating, drinking, beaches and shopping. The next post I'll talk specifically about our resort, which is a good choice if you plan to take kids on the trip.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Back from Vacation

ANDY: Tell you where I'd go. Zihuatanejo.
RED: Zihuatanejo?
ANDY: Mexico. Little place right on the Pacific. You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific? They say it has no memory. That's where I'd like to finish out my life, Red. A warm place with no memory. Open a little hotel right on the beach.

- The Shawshank Redemption

Mrs. Director, Little Miss Director and I spent a week in "Zihuat" - as we Californians call it - for a week of R&R. While I get out of the country plenty, the Mrs. doesn't get out enough, so this seemed like a good idea. Besides, the beaches in SoCal are a little chilly for swimming this time of year (or all year, really).

So we found this little hotel right on the beach. Guy running it was this quiet, introspective American. He did something before he ran a little hotel, but I couldn't get much out of him since he wouldn't talk about his past. He had this old black guy working with him, takes guests fishing out on some fixed-up, worthless old boat...

Okay, I made that up. I couldn't find Andy and Red's place. Instead we stayed at a multi-million dollar, all-inclusive beach resort that was 10 stories tall, had three pools and was right on the beach. I ate and drank tons, but actually kept up an exercise regimen to make sure I didn't get too far behind the calorie count as I gulped down dozens of pina coladas (that's what's in the smiling pineapple).

Over the next few days I'll blog various thoughts and observations of my experiences there along with some pics, but I promise it won't be as boring as your Uncle Marty's slide show of his RV trip to Duluth last summer.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

A Different Thought on Christmas

Most blogs have a Christmas greeting, a Season's Greeting, a quote from the Bible, or maybe some thoughts on Christmases past. I thought I would take a different approach and look at Christmas from an intellectual perspective.

So put aside the scripture and spirituality, and consider what Christmas represents from a religious studies perspective: God entering His own creation as one of His creations (for the sake of simplicity I am unifying the Trinity).

In various other religions God comes down as some sort of super being or other supernatural manifestation, or if He wants to simply communicate sends a messenger of some sort like an angel or prophet. In Christmas we have God entering the world as a baby. He then grows up and lives decades in the world He created not as God, but as a man, experiencing the human condition.

So if the Christian God does this, the next question is why. I leave that as a mental exercise to the reader.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Christmas Card Musings

As a kid I remember my parents doing Christmas cards. I think they traded off each year since I remember one parent or the other sitting down to the big pile of cards and a long list of people, but never together. I would wander over to whatever parent was doing them and look over their shoulder and ask "Who's that?" on a name I didn't recognize. I would get "That's someone I used to work with." "When was the last time you spoke to them?" "About 20 years ago" would come the response.

I thought that was sort of strange, sending a Christmas card to someone you hadn't spoken to in years, but now as I reach the end of my 30s, I find that I have people on my list that I haven't spoken to in nearly a decade - and they're all relatives. Cousins mostly.

My wife and I have a system: she does "her" friends and family, I do "mine". My list is a lot shorter than hers, so this is okay by me. And every year I try to cut mine a little shorter ("Do I really need to send one to my cousin in San Antonio? Nah."), but of course I end up getting a card from her, so I have to rush a card out to her before Christmas day hits, and remember not to try to cut her again next year.

The other thing that is changing is the personal note. I used to put something personal on each card I sent out, letting the receiver know that I actually thought of them when I sent the card. But as each year passes the time available for doing cards gets shorter, as do the notes. Sadly, I sent out a few cards this year that had just my signature, something I tried long to avoid.

One thing I have never done - and don't plan to do - is the yearly message/family newsletter. Long time friend Jim does this, and as he points out, it is somewhat analogous to blogging. I hadn't thought of if that way.

The last thought is that I try to send out Christmas cards, not "holiday" cards. If the card we pick out has a holiday greeting, I usually write Merry Christmas on it, even to my Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist friends. No one seems to mind - I certainly don't when I get a Hanukkah card, which I do every so often.

Where's This Flight Going?!?

Maybe this is where you join the Mile High Club?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Other Side of Asia

I'm BACK in Asia? Wasn't" I here just a few days ago? Except on this side there are no yamulkas, but plenty of Christmas trees.

On my way here it occurred to me that I do business in three potential war zones:

1. Taiwan-China - China considers this place a break-away province and doesn't mince words about taking it back by force if necessary. I'll probably do more business on the Mainland this year, although any war would be waged all on the island.

2. South Korea - The two sides never signed a peace treaty and are technically still at war. I have actually been to the DMZ, which is the longest fortified border in the world.

3. Israel - No explanation needed here.

Think I can ask my company for hazard pay?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Overseas Tipping

There are easy ways to spot Americans overseas: the overhanging gut, the baseball cap, and throwing tips around everywhere.

As OTB points out, there are some doubts on who and what to tip in the U.S., but in most overseas countries it is pretty easy: it generally isn't done. Hotels, restaurant and service establishments in Asia add a 20% service fee to the bill - in addition to taxes - to take care of what would be considered tipping here. And taxis, doormen and the like don't expect tips - except maybe when Americans show up. I have had Japanese bellhops hang out in my room wondering if the American knows whether or not to tip. I simply smile, bob my head and say arigato, letting them know that this gaijin knows what he is doing.

But I have been around Americans who don't know what they are doing - and not used to NOT tipping - in a non-tipping country. While in Israel, one of my colleagues was told by a local point blank: Do NOT tip the taxi drivers. It is not done here. I watched over the next three days as this guy kept digging into his pocket for extra shekels for taxi drivers. I kept reminding him and he kept doing it. When I asked him why, he mumbled something about feeling guilty about not doing it. He was trained that way.

I don't have that problem, which is one reason I also don't have a problem not tipping in places in the U.S. when it is inappropriate, like at Starbucks, when I get take-out, or when I get crappy service (but will give out over 20% for stellar service). I just don't have a guilt complex when it comes to giving out my hard earned dough and believe tips should reflect the service given, not something that is done automatically.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Touring Jerusalem

The business week in Israel over, my company thoughtfully provided me with a tour guide to take me around the area over the weekend. The first day would be a tour of the Old City. The second day would be a desert tour that would include Masada and a dip in the Dead Sea.

Day 1 - The Old City - I met my tour guide, Abi, in the hotel lobby. I was late since I was up partying the night before in the bars of Jerusalem, which I won't go into here. Like they say: what happens in Jerusalem STAYS in Jerusalem.

Abi has a BA in history and comparative religion and is a walking encyclopedia of the region. He knows more about Christianity than I do, and he's Jewish. After introductions I followed him outside to what I thought would be a car, but he turned his head over his shoulder and told me in his heavily accented English, "Is short distance. We walk!"

For such a heavily built man he kept a brisk pace and I had to practically jog to keep up. As I caught up to him he asked me, "What religion are you? Tour is little different for each religion."

"Uh, Catholic, but I was raised..."

"Okay. I make sure we go to Church of Ascension."

"What if I were Jewish?"

"Then we skip church."

"I see. What religion are you, Abi?"

He glanced at the smart-ass American without answering. Instead he waved a thick, calloused hand at the old walls that were coming into view. "The foundation of these city walls are over three thousand years old." And that started seven hours of walking, talking, and answering questions as we wandered through the old city. He was incredibly patient in explaining the incredibly complex history of the place and the nervous peace that exists in a city that is holy to three of the world's major religions.

Two Holy Places: Muslim Dome of the Rock on top, Jewish Wailing Wall below

For me, I found the Christian holy places of the city disappointing. Part of the problem is the natural comparison to the other major place of Catholic pilgrimage - the Vatican - which is totally awe-inspiring. The second was the commercial feel of the place. The Church of the Ascension was filled with Japanese tourists snapping photos and large non-religious tour groups chatting away - not exactly things to make one feel especially reverent, and crap that isn't put up with at the Jewish or Muslim holy sites. The Christian places here are also overshadowed by the Jewish and Muslim holy areas and just plain living (the Seventh Station of the Cross is right in front of a falafel joint). So I personally found the place more interesting as an archeological and historical landmark than a place that holds importance in my own religion. There was a moment the next day, however, that changed that a bit.
Day 2 - The Desert - Before we got out of Jerusalem we stopped at the Hill of Olives, where, according to Abi, all three religions believe will be the place God will come to judge Mankind. The only question is who will be with Him: Christ, the unnamed Messiah, or Muhammad. I know where I am placing my bet.

This place has a great view of the Old City and surrounding walls, and from here Abi went into detail of Christ's last days, pointing out each place and tracing His movements from His entry into Jerusalem, to the Last Supper, to the Crucifixion. At that moment the place became more than just an archeological site.
From there we hopped in a van and headed towards the desert, driving through the West Bank. During this time we discussed the Israeli wars and the changing shape of Israeli territory. Abi was very optimistic about a peace settlement and thought the death of Arafat now made a compromise possible.
Our first stop in the desert was the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, which included the excavated monastic settlement that wrote them. From there we went on to Masada, and being pretty beat from the day before - and being a total American - I asked to take the cable car up instead of walking. Also being the total American, I was already familiar with the place from the mini-series that was released some years before, so it was pretty interesting to see the real place.
From there we went to a resort on the Dead Sea where I took a "swim". Of course you don't really swim in the Dead Sea - because of the salinity you can't sink or go under water. When you get to a point where you can't touch the bottom, you bob around like a cork without moving a muscle. It is a pretty interesting experience. The locals believe its good for your health to be bobbing around in what is basically a chemical bath, which is why there are various spas dotting the area.

The Dead Sea gets its name because nothing can live there, but it also was a good description of what I felt like afterwards. Two days of heavy touring and walking followed by a dip in the Dead Sea, a stop in the spa's steam bath, and then sauna, and I felt pretty dead myself. As I headed back to Jerusalem for my symbolic resurrection, I couldn't help thinking that the experience over the past few days was an extension of my work. This was a business trip.

Friday, December 02, 2005

There Goes the Neighborhood

Intel to Build $3.5B fab in Israel.

As noted before, pretty much every major U.S. tech company has at least an R&D center here, and many have production facilities. My own company notes that experienced engineers cost about half the cost of one in Silicon Valley on a fully loaded basis (i.e. including benefits, etc.), and was one of the reasons they bought a company here. Marketing and sales people are also cheaper, but apparently just not as good as the ones like me from the U.S. - at least that is what my company tells me today.