14 January 2009

Happy new year!!

Dear all:

In spite of the ongoing crisis, 2008 has been a great year. Yeah, I know I have lost 40% of my little savings that I decided to put in a mutual fund last May--which perhaps tells you, you should never come to me for financial advice--but that didn't deter me from accomplishing some of my personal goals and, of course, setting new ones. I want to take this opportunity to wish you all a happy new year and use this holiday as an excuse to share with all of you some of my most memorable experiences and the objectives I have fulfilled this year. I once had a discussion with a very dear old friend of mine about how random it is to celebrate the arrival of the new year and to make all these promises that, most often than not, are not kept. This is very true but I still think that it is great to have at least one opportunity every year to collectively cheer, scream, weep, and attempt to improve our lives and become better people through resolutions, however ephemeral or unfulfilled. In this virtual letter, I'll tell you about the major stories that filled my year and made me a better person. May this be my attempt to keep in touch with you, the people I love, and remind you how special you are. I will first give you a somewhat detailed synopsis of the most important events of the year and then at the very very end I will give you a brief recap in a TOP TEN EVENTS OF THE YEAR type of list (all the way at the bottom). So here we go...

For the last 10-12 years of my life, some of the biggest stories of the year for me have had to do with traveling. 2008 was of course no exception. I visited two of the countries in my top-5-countries-I'd-like-to-visit list, starting with India, the motherland of that little Desi in me. Pipi and I took a Finn Air flight to Delhi with a 5-day stopover in Helsinki. We had a fun week around the area, although we figured Finland is likely to never top anyone's top-5-countries-I'd like-to-visit list... OK, we are aware that perhaps winter is not the best time to stop by, but the place is way too expensive and there's not *that* much to do. If we had a bit more money (and time), we would've ventured north to see the aurora borealis and stay at Santa Claus's town but the 300-euro round-trip train ticket from Helsinki and the impossibly expensive lodging were a bit of an impediment. In any case, it was a fun trip, and if you ever go do not miss the town of Porvoo, about 50 kilometers north, and at least a one- or two-day trip to Tallinn, Estonia.

After Finland, we flew to Delhi, where we stayed with Rahul and his family and met my sister Daniela and my brother-in-law. The trip around the subcontinent for was absolutely fantastic. From the welcoming chaos and amazing food in Delhi's Muslim quarter to the cows, camels, pigs, sheep, dogs, elephants... crossing the roads (yes, the highways too!) at unwanted times to the camel rides across the Thar desert to the magic nights we spent at different palaces in Rajasthan to the superb hospitality of the people in Kerala to the beauty of the Mahabalipuram ruins near Chennai, right by the sea... India was truly inspiring. Yes, I did feel like going back home *immediately* a couple of times, like that time when we realized our hotel room in Madurai was infested with cockroaches and we found them all over our luggage and toiletteries! But it is especially those experiences that make for good stories...!

After this trip, the semester started. It was an intense semester because there were too many things going on in my life at the same time. During my trip to Delhi, I tried to talk to this person who's somehow linked with the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization to work in a research project that studies migration patterns, remittances, and the impact of remittances on labor markets in local communities in Mexico and some other 10 countries. Unfortunately, I was unable to meet with that person in India and it became difficult to coordinate all the details of the project over e-mail, so that fell through. In retrospect, that was probably a good thing because I had already too much on my plate. I made some progress on my thesis on the determinants of emerging market bond spreads... there's still much work to be done but at least during the spring semester I almost finished cleaning my database and got a much clearer idea of what I want to do with it. I also did some minor work on my paper on how cities with more educated residents grow faster and submitted it to some national research contest in Mexico. Fortunately, I was awarded first place and the article is now going to be published soon.

Then for spring break, Mytili, Pipi, Mayito, Yinna and I went to Chiapas for about 10 days. I had never been to Chiapas before and I fell in love with the place. The Indian villages, the colonial towns, the waterfalls, the pyramids in the middle of the Lacandon jungle, the lakes... everything is absolutely stunning! One down side to our trip was that both Mayito and I got *very* sick the very last day... but, overall, it was an incredible experience!

Another negative side to that trip was that Pane, my grandfather on my dad's side, passed away while I was in Chiapas. My sister called me on my cell when I was at the Sumidero canyon to deliver the bad news and it was a very frustrating experience. I was on a boat in the middle of the canyon and I felt like the kilometer-high sides of the mountain were going to fall on top of me and eat me alive. I wanted to be with my family, with my dad. We all knew that my grandpa had been sick for a while, so this didn't come exactly as a surprise... but I still felt that I failed to understand the sadness of losing a parent, so not being there with my dad and my other relatives made me feel miserable and helpless. In spite of all this, the boat ride ended up having a soothing effect in me. I somehow felt that my grandpa was in a better place and, when I talked to my dad a couple hours later, his calm voice revealed to me he felt this too. Still, this is one of those experiences that marked my year and made me question why I chose to study abroad and live far away from my family and my childhood friends. After much thought, I still don't have a definite answer.

Then, the summer came. My 2008 summer was one of the most exciting summers I've ever had. I had a 6-week appointment in Tokyo to teach a masters-level international monetary theory and policy course at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. It was my first time teaching at the masters level and as an instructor (as opposed to as a teaching assistant) and my students were great. They were from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Japan... truly from all over the place, and all very eager to learn. I had my own office where I worked on my thesis most of the time, and gave a seminar at Kobe University. I met my friend Katsu a few times and stayed at his house in Nara. He and his parents were amazing hosts and they taught me a lot about Japanese culture. Since I was working most of the time, I couldn't travel as extensively as I would have liked, but I still did some short trips here and there and it was fantastic. Japan was the other one of the two countries in my top-5-countries-that-I'd-like-to-visit list that I visited this year, and now I know why -- it's a beautiful country and with a mentality that's so much different from what I'm accustomed to. Definitely, a country I'd like to return to one day!!

After my 6-week stay in Tokyo, I traveled to Mexico City. I had another 6-week appointment to work in the Research Department at the Bank of Mexico. Here, I also worked mostly on my thesis, although I also helped a few of the economists there with small programming and data issues. It was a great experience because working for Mexico's central bank has been my life-long dream since I started studying economics about 13 years ago. I presented some of the work I've done for my thesis at their workshop and it was amazing, especially because for the first time I felt that almost everyone in the audience had a very good idea of what I was talking about... and because I delivered my presentation in Spanish. Also, I met very interesting people there and I got to hang out with Noel and Ivan, two of my best friends and with whom I hadn't hung out in a long time.

September came and, after three months working and traveling abroad, I was ready to go back to New Haven, see my friends, work in my office, sleep in my bed. Classes started and my academic life got a bit out of hand unexpectedly. I soon realized that the theoretical model I had been working all throughout the summer for my thesis -- and of which I was very proud -- would not be very useful. This made me very sad and it became a bit difficult to move on and either start all over again or focus on something else. Then, I started teaching this intermediate macroeconomics class with Prof. Bill Nordhaus, who is truly inspiring, both as a teacher and as a human being. It is one of the best classes I have ever taught and I really loved the professor and my students, most of which were very hardworking and eager to learn. However, I soon realized that my teaching duties were way more demanding than ever before -- in fact, I still don't know why this was so, as I felt I knew the material very well, which meant I didn't need that much time to prepare for class. I think most of my students liked my job and they sent me too many e-mails and I spent way too much time answering all of them and meeting with the students. In general, I like teaching very much but one thing I have learned this past year is that my main task as a PhD student is to write a thesis in order to graduate... which means I need to devote less time to my teaching and more time to my own research. One thing I know, though: it is much easier said than done, unfortunately... so that remains one of my goals for 2009.

Then in October, my uncle Beto died. This was a very hard blow, mainly because this was the second time in the same year when I felt that I should have been with my family and I wasn't. The calm I felt after my grandfather's death, I never felt after my uncle's passing... after all, he was relatively young (58, I believe?) and his death was most unexpected. In general, all these big family/friend events make me want to go back to Mexico very badly: weddings, newborn babies, big birthday celebrations and, especially, deaths... They make me wonder how much it is worth to leave it all behind in order to get what you believe is a better education... a better future. Is it really? Of course I am aware of the wonderful things I have done and seen and lived in the last 10 years I've been abroad... but one recurring question that pops up in my head is, what would I have done, seen, and lived had I stayed home? And even if these things weren't "better" than what I've done, seen, and lived while I've been away... has it all been worth it?

November was a big month: on the 1st, I turned 30. Unlike most of my friends, I didn't feel old or sad or depressed: I felt great. I really think 30 is a wonderful age. I feel both young and wise, a combination you could simply not have when you turn 20. I feel I've done, seen, and lived so many things in my life, and I'm thankful for all of that. Anyway, my birthday celebration was awesome. Unlike other years when I've had big surprise parties or piñata parties or big dinners or trips, this year it was nothing big. The day before my birthday, I went with a *very select* group of friends to see Cafe Tacuba, one of my favorite rock bands, live in New York. We had an absolutely fantastic night out and came back to New Haven as late as we could. Then on my birthday, I just went out to dinner with Tatiana, another very good friend of mine, whose birthday is also on the 1st. Neither of us felt like having a big birthday party, so we chilled and had a yummy dinner out just the two of us -- although my great friend Paul crashed the party in the middle of dinner, a very nice surprise, I must say.

Then, for Thanksgiving, I went to San Francisco. As is now an old tradition, my friend Agus and I spent the Thanksgiving holidays together. It was great because, even if I had to alienate myself from the group during the day to work, I got to see and hang out with some of my closest friends. We made this one-day road trip to Napa and had some great wine and food. If I ever had all the freedom in the world to choose where I'd like to retire, it *has to* be in a place like this, with this awesome scenery, wine, food, weather... maybe somewhere in the Toscana?

Upon my return to New Haven, things went by very fast and the year came to an abrupt end. I realized there were still too many things I wanted to finish at work but I realized it would be very hard to finish them all on time. The arrival of December implied classes were over and students would be frantically looking for me to ask questions before their final exam. I also had problem sets, papers, and exams to grade... plus all the other administrative duties for the class. Christmas shopping, planning the new year's eve celebrations, buying tickets to go back home... In the twinkling of an eye, I was on the plane back to Mexico. I made a quick weekend stopover in Mexico City to go to my friend Andrea's wedding, where I got to see most of my college friends from Penn... then I came back to Monterrey. A week later, I was already back in Mexico City celebrating the arrival of the new year with my girlfriend, my sister, my brother-in-law, my uncle Eduardo, my aunt Margarita, my cousins, and friends.

And where am I now? I am in Monterrey, still home. It had been a long time since I visited and stayed for more than just a weekend, so it's been great to see my parents, my siblings, my grandma... and hang out with my old friends.

And what's in store for the new year? Lots of exciting things, I'm sure... and I'm not telling you my resolutions -- I'll keep those to myself! But one thing I can tell you is that I'll do my best to finish my thesis before the year is over!! And I hope I write a similar e-mail next year to give you the good news.

In the meantime, I want to wish you all a very very happy new year full of blessings.


p.s. And now, the TOP-TEN-THAT-IS-NOT-EXACTLY-TEN-EVENTS-OF-THE-YEAR list. Note that these events relate more to random things I did or felt while at random places rather than to personal/intimate events that have to do with my friends and relatives. Anyway, for whatever's worth, here is my list in chronological order (I really tried but was unable to rank these according to their importance or significance in my life... sorry!):

Pipi, Daniela, Rafa and I joined this camel caravan across the Thar desert and rode our camels to these amazing sand dunes, only 40 kilometers away from the India-Pakistan border. It is hard to describe the beauty of the landscape and the feeling of being there, amidst the dunes, under the stars, by the fire...

This is a hotel that is built on a fake island in the middle of a lake in Udaipur, India. I believe it is not possible to visit this hotel unless you have a reservation -- but it's quite expensive and exclusive (Madonna stayed there only 3-4 days before we went!!) BUT thanks to our good Indian connections, we were able to make a lunch reservation there to celebrate Pipi's and Daniela's birthday. The food was SUPERB and the service was UNPARALLELLED!! And the view from the boat as we approached the hotel was fantastic... we really felt like we were in a movie or something (not a Bollywood one, though!! :)

Since I started planning my trip to India, one of my dreams was to be blessed by Ganesha, the elephant-god. In Madurai, not only did I get my blessing... I also got to ride the elephant, and it was so exciting... and scary!!

I swam in the Arabian Sea!! The beach was not particularly beautiful... but my interaction with some of the local bathers was awesome! There was this group of college students who greeted me and they all wanted to by my friends, take pictures with me, and invited me to come to their town with them on their bus. I really loved the sense of genuine hospitality of these people... and I was fascinated by the local food shops and ice cream parlors along the shore... no big resorts!! It was fantastic!

Every year, my friends and I go skiing to Killington, Vermont... but this year it was particularly special because (1) a lot of my friends were able to make it; (2) it was Efrén's last trip with us as he would then graduate from Yale that May; and (3) a BIG snowstorm hit the slopes the night we got there, so the next day the view of the snowcapped mountain was absolutely stunning!! And the feeling I got while coming down Bear Mountain by myself, with no one else in the tracks, and with that amazing landscape in front of me was simply priceless!

I have been to many ruins and archaeological sites before, but the ones in Chiapas were special. I felt this magic feeling that's hard to explain. Isidro, our 14-year old local guide, gave us a *special* tour through the Lacandon jungle, away from the main site... and after a 30-minute hike we discovered the so-called Lost Temple amidst the thick tree branches. A few days later we took this 40-minute boat ride to Yaxchilan, a site you can only access by boat or by helicopter, since it is right in the middle of the jungle and it's simply inaccessible by road. The views are splendid!! And I still wonder where the Mayans got all these stones from to build all those pyramids and temples!! It's amazing!

Early in March I went to Madison Square Garden and watched the Federer-Sampras exhibition live!! Then later in September, I went to the U.S. Open and saw Federer win his 13th Slam... again live! But between these two events, something unforgettable happened: the Federer vs. Nadal final at Wimbledon. If you are not a tennis fan, it may be hard to understand how special this was... but the significance of the venue, the records that would be broken by either player who won that match, the drama of Federer coming back to *almost* win the match after having lost the first two sets, the incredible 4th-set tiebreak where Federer saved the first of 4 match points, the fading lights and the feeling that the umpire may have called it quits and postponed the match until the next day because it was way too dark to play... all of these things blended to make for the best tennis match in history. Add to that the fact that I was alone in my room in Tokyo, watching the match online throughout the night and until 7am, while my internet connection was failing... Aaaaah!! It was sublime!!

If you ever go to Tokyo, you *have to* go to Shibuya. It's like being at Times Square, with all the tourists, with all the neon lights, with all the excitement... except 100 times better. Go to the second floor of the Starbucks right by the crossing and you will get a wonderful view of what happens when the traffic lights change colors: all cars stop and the pedestrians start crossing the streets from all directions... and after 60 seconds, the people stop crossing and the cars start moving again. It's a beautiful sight and it symbolizes the "orderly chaos" that describes most of Japan. I saw this repeatedly for over 2 hours while sipping a mochaccino and writing on my journal and taking pictures. What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon in Tokyo?

I love running when I travel abroad -- it's a great place to see the city. The best run of my life was the one I did in Tokyo this summer from the gardens of the Imperial Palace to Tokyo Tower and then to my guesthouse. I just ran freely without a map and I just kept going. I ran at twilight and passed by so many landmarks and parks and beautiful buildings. At some point, I was lost but I didn't care. Nobody knew where I was, not even I. I felt free. I was ecstatic.

After the 6-week course I taught in Tokyo this summer ended, my students invited me out for lunch. We went to this cheap Chinese restaurant behind Roppongi Hills and it was definitely not a special place but it was decidedly a very special occasion. Never have I felt my students to express their gratitude so genuinely and sincerely for my teachings. It was a wonderful gift of camaraderie, respect, generosity and so many other good feelings represented as a seemingly simple lunch. I am very thankful for that.

The offices of the Bank of Mexico are right downtown Mexico City and, as an intern I had no access to the Bank's cafeteria, every day I went out for lunch by myself. At lunchtime, the whole place is so animated and picturesque... kids running around playing, guys selling all sorts of weird useful and useless artifacts, men playing those pipe-jukeboxes, and every corner and every place bustling with people. If you are bored in the office, a walk outside WILL invariably do you good! Promise!

Celebrating my *big* birthday in New York was quite special for all the reasons I described above: going to the Cafe Tacuba concert with my friends and then finding the perfect place for drinks and sublime desserts. It was pure simple fun and I can't ask for anything else for my birthday!

I went to the Billy Elliot premiere on Broadway and it was one of the most special evenings out of my life! Nothing in particular... just everything, from the show to the weather to the drinks to the food to the ride there... everything was just too perfect...

And that's it!! Of course there are others... but I think 13 is a good number! Of course I'm not supersticious!


Love you all,

21 July 2008

The End of an Era

Monday, 21 July 2008

My last week was brutal. After my presentation, I was ready to unwind. In less than a week, I was in Kobe, Nara, Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo and Nikko. Nikko was a lot of walking in the drizzling rain, but it was worth it. The whole area is packed with temples all built in the middle of lakes and 40- and 50-meter tall trees, which makes for a very impressive landscape. Seems like this place is where that typical image of the three see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys was made famous. There’s also a lot of hiking trails that lead to more lakes and outstanding waterfalls, but this I didn’t do… first, because it was raining; second, because my crazy schedule and little sleep finally caught up with me and I started to get cramps in my calves just from walking; third, because when I got to the first waterfalls, the 100-m high Kegan falls, it was a bit late; and finally, because the map I had was all in Japanese and I really didn’t feel like getting lost.

In any case, I went back to Tokyo that evening and I got lost there for the first time. I first make a quick stop at Akihabara since I had heard so much about it and still hadn’t been. This place is also called “Electric Town,” so whose who know me can only imagine how much in heaven I felt. Every single electric and electronic gadget is found in one of those stores. Each building had storeys and storeys of anything from cell phones to electric screwdrivers to videocameras to kitchen appliances and video consoles. Inexplicably – maybe because I was so tired –, I felt overwhelmed after a couple hours, then headed back home.

I was too exhausted to cook anything at home, so I looked for a recommended place for dinner in my guidebook. I saw that this place, only about 3-4 metro stops before my destination sold the best codfish dinner in town (and Robert de Niro’s favorite), so I got off the train and started walking there. To make a long story short, I never found the place and started to feel very anxious because I had no idea where to go. I was lost and I couldn’t make any sense of any of the maps that are scattered all around Tokyo. When I thought I had finally found my way, a couple blocks later I realized that there was some train station or embassy or some massive structure that prevented me from following my desired path. It is true that it’s hard to get lost in Tokyo – after all, I could always hop on any train and get back home – but I knew I was not far from my neighborhood, so I kept walking, my feet now throbbing with pain at this point. Then after over an hour of wandering around aimlessly, I saw the Wendy’s by my metro stop and felt relieved.

The next day I wanted to go to Tsukiji, the fish market. I went there once but it was closed and my friends told me it is truly an amazing experience… but to get the most out of it you need to get to the tuna auction by 5 a.m. – which meant I only had 4 hours left for sleeping… so in the end I decided that that would be yet another thing I’ll have to do on my next trip to Tokyo, and slept in.

In the afternoon, I went to Ueno, another area that I hadn’t visited. This is where a lot of the major museums are. There’s also a very nice park, and a huge – huge – shopping area, more like a humongous flea market. I came here because this was my last full day in Tokyo and I had a lot of last-minute shopping to do (souvenirs and the like). Unfortunately, this wasn’t the place for that… lots of clothes, jewelry, beauty products, watches, and electric appliances… but no souvenirs.

Amazingly, I randomly met a colleague from work there, and I was surprised that even though I know less than 30 people in a city of 30 million, I still manage to randomly meet people on the street. Anyway, he suggested I go to Asakusa (where the Senso-ji temple and la Flamme d’Or building are), and so I went. Bought a few things, then had my last sushi dinner, and headed back home, where I was supposed to meet my friends for a last farewell hangout.

It was fun. We talked over drinks for hours then around 2 a.m. headed to Roppongi for some club. We had some kebabs, managed to avoid all the African pimps on the street, went into some place, had a drink, went to some other place, had another drink, then ended up dancing to some Latin beats with some Japanese girls, who then agreed to come with us to some other salsa club. My new friend, Hiromi, turned out to be a very good follower, so we danced the rest of the night. Around 6 a.m., I thought it would be wise to head back home, given that I hadn’t packed or cleaned my room, and the room inspector would come around 10 a.m. to check out my room and give me back my security deposit.

I had about 1 hour of sleep and, needless to say, things got crazier by the minute. Finally, at around 12.30 p.m., I left my house, got a taxi and went to my school. Even though I had no idea how long it’d take me to go to the airport and my flight left at 3.30 p.m., I still had to return a book to the library and pick up some books and my gym clothes from the school. I have always been a last-minute packer. Luckily, I’ve never missed a flight or faced any bad consequences from this indisputably bad habit. But this time, I was certain I was finally going to pay for my unpreparedness and lack of foresight. And as if I needed things to get worse, my taxi driver clearly wanted to “see me the face”, that is, cheat me and take advantage of my ignorance. After he took me to my school, I told him I had to take the Narita Express train to the airport, but I didn’t know what station I had to go to. And I clearly had a lot of trouble explaining myself because he look completely clueless. Then I think he understood but also realized I was a bit desperate. I asked him to take me to Tokyo station but he insisted that Shinagawa station was a better option. I said no because I knew Shinagawa was further, and I really didn’t feel like paying over 5,000 yen or 50 dollars for my cab ride (driving to the airport was not an option… this would’ve cost me about 20,000 yen)… and I also knew that from the Imperial Palace, Tokyo station is only a few blocks away; yet this asshole drove me for antoher 10 minutes until I finally yelled at him and he pretended he had no idea what I was barking about. Anyway, as soon as we got there, I ran with all and my 2 rolling suitcases and 2 backpacks… a true India María... and I just made it to the 1.33 p.m. train that took an hour to Narita… and, again, I just made it to the plane, about 5 minutes before they closed the gate.

And after this wild end to my stay in Tokyo, I still had to deal with incompetent Japanese Continental employees who told me that I couldn’t go back to the U.S. with my F-1 visa because “studying” wasn’t the purpose of my less-than-2-hour stay in Houston (I was only in transit to go to Mexico City)… I had to deal with Japanese kids playing videogames very excitedly during the whole flight, kicking the seat while I was trying to sleep… and when they finally stopped playing, they got sick and started throwing up all over the place… I had to deal with bad airplane food and a bad stomachache and a missing suitcase… but am now sitting at a cozy restaurant in Condesa in Mexico City, enjoying my huevitos with chile guajillo sauce and Mexican seasonal fruit juice. I am sad for having left Tokyo so soon, but it’s easy to erase this sadness with a sniff at the fresh tortillas on my table.

OK, I am transcribing this blog entry from my journal while having lunch at Primos, a restaurant in the Condesa neighborhood in Mexico City, and they are playing a very strange song on the radio.

Desde el cielo una hermosa mañana
Desde el cielo una hermosa mañana
La Guadalupana… La Guadalupana…
La Guadalupana bajó al Tepeyac.

Which is a religious song we sang in children’s mass when I was a kid… except this one is sung as a rap. My country is definitely a strange place.

18 July 2008

Thank you for smoking

Friday, 18 July 2008

I am now having a morning smoke at a café in Tokyo station as I wait for my train to Nikko. Now, I’m sure that if you know me, you’d be surprised I wrote that given how much I’ve hated cigarette smoke my entire life. Well, perhaps you’ll be even more surprised if I told you that this otherwise unthinkable event is taking place in the non-section area of the café, especially after I’ve written about Japanese infatuation with rules.

But before you spass me out, let me clarify things: the smoke is coming from the smoking section, which starts basically at the table next to me. The Japs are funny this way, they set ridiculous rules like this and for no reason would I be allowed to smoke where I’m sitting even though my smoking would only imply that the non-smoking section starts one table further.

Everybody smokes in Japan. For a country that seems to obsessed about its health and well-being, this is really surprising. Their diets are so well-balanced and includes so much fish and vegetables – but perhaps that’s only attributable to the country’s vast coastline and centuries-long habits, right? Well, yes, but they also always protect their skin from the sun… they even wear arm-length gloves when they drive even if it’s steaming hot outside. They walk around with these hospital masks to cover their mouths when they are sick to avoid infecting other people and to protect themselves from air pollution. They all eat a healthy and plentiful breakfast to start the day strong, and they seem to be all fit. So, why do they smoke?

17 July 2008

Starbucks God

Thursday, 17 July 2008

I am sitting by the window on the 2nd floor of the Starbucks at Shibuya crossing. I think I wrote about this crazy crossing before, in my first few days in Tokyo: people wait patiently until all cars stop at their red light and then start walking in all directions when they get the green light for pedestrians. What makes the whole thing special is that this is a huge intersection and seeing the 60-second marvel of people crossing is quite a sight. Right now there are no cars but people aren’t crossing: they wait. Three, two, one… north meets east, east meets west, west means north-south-east. A couple, holding hands, crosses slowly; they kiss suddenly as they continue walking. A man in a suit runs – is he late for a meeting – and a biker almost runs him over. A women dropped her cell phone and some random guy picks it up. They both bow, then go separate ways. A western-looking couple also holds hands as they cross, and she holds her camera high – probably taking a video of the whole spectacle.

And I, I see it all from the heights, like a see-it-all God who knows what you and you and you are up to.

This has to be the coolest Starbucks in the world – at least for people-watching!

I gave a seminar in Kobe University two days ago, and I had been locked up in my office and in my bedroom for too many days. I think the presentation went well and once I finished, I was finally able to relax. Takashi, a professor there, and his wife took me out for dinner to this very casual Japanese fusion place that served food that can be best described as Japanese tapas. We had so many of them, from octopus to crab to Kobe beef to vegetables of all sorts, plus some good hot sake, Japanese plum wine, and some other Jap-liqueur. The restaurant scene in Kobe is supposed to be one of the best in Japan. Their other characteristic feature beside its quality is that it reflects the international influence that the city has had for centuries. I confirmed this the next day as I walked around town and discovered even a traditional Turkish ice cream place – didn’t know that ice cream was a specialty in Turkey!

Although I only spent half a day exploring this city, that was enough to make me want to go back. The city was devastated after an earthquake hit it back in 1995, but numerous efforts to rebuild it paid off and now it looks fabulous – especially the harbour area. There’s a huge park by the oceanfront, with a beautiful hotel shaped like a pyramid, the massive white metal structure of the Maritime museum, which is supposed to symbolize the ocean waves crashing, the Kobe tower, some very nice statues, and an old carabela called “Santa María” – I wonder if that was Christopher Columbus’s… can’t be, right? And as I saw all this, I also saw some kids playing in the distance, I felt the wind blowing strong in my face, and I heard some happy-sounding Latin beat coming from a cruiseboat, and the loud voooom it made as it left the pier and all the passengers waved goodbye at their friends and relatives, who waved back. Combining all this with the fact that I had just finished my presentation the night before, that I was traveling (living!) solo in Japan, and that I had finally had a good night’s sleep, it occurred to me that I have perhaps never felt so free.

And after all this, I had my Kobe beef meal. Just perfect.

From here, I went to Kyoto to meet K as we had made an appointment several weeks ago to visit the Katsura imperial villa. This place is one of the most ridiculously well-taken-care-of gardens you will ever see in your life. It’s amazing how gardens are one of those few things that can actually be preserved for centuries (this one was built in the 17th century!) and still look like they were built last year.

Finally in the evening, I met my friend Claudia and we walked around the city and enjoyed the Gion Matsuri, one of the most famous festivals in Japan. It was beautiful. They close down the streets downtown to all non-pedestrian traffic and there are many “floats” all over the place, which are tall wooden structures decorated with tons of tapestries and Japanese lamps. On top of these structures, there are several men sitting by the edge, playing some music with bells, flutes, and drums. All along both sides of the street, hundreds of stalls sell anything from okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and hot dogs to cartoon masks, “peluches,” and kimonos. At dusk, all the streets are only lit by the lanterns on the floats and on the street, and it’s a beautiful sight. The downside? It’s insanely crowded!


16 July 2008

Culinary Japan

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

I dedicate this post to my my roommate who's constantly nagging me with questions about the stuff I eat everywhere I go.

Given that I just had one of the most perfect meals of my life and given that I have been living in a country that indisputably has one of the top cuisines of the world, with the most 5-star restaurants listed in the prestigious Michelin guides, it just seems fitting that I write something about my experience with food in Japan.

In earlier days I described how perfectly manicured gardens are in this country. Japanese dishes are just like little gardens on a plate. It seems as though one’s meal experience starts with the presentation and the whole visual aspect of the dish and, upon looking at it, you certainly feel like eating it with your eyes.

I also think that a very important concept in Japanese cuisine is balance. You rarely see a huge item on your plate outweighing all the other smaller vegetables or whatever they use as side dishes. Things are never too sweet or too salty – in fact, you seldom see salt and pepper shakers on the table. Of course there are “soupy” dishes, like the übertraditional miso soup, as well as udon and ramen – different types of noodles, but in general food items are never too wet or too dry. Also, I really like the balance of colours: in almost every meal you have a bowl of pristine-white rice; then you have some bright, lively colours like the pink of tuna fish and salmon or the orange of salmon roe; and finally you have your dose of vegetables: yellow squash, gray japanese potato, green peppers and cucumbers… just beautiful.

Today for lunch, I decided to treat myself since I have been working way too much and I had my presentation yesterday at Kobe U (thanks, PP, for the suggestion… I will charge you for half the price of my meal when I get back!). I asked some locals in Kobe where I could have the worldwide-famous local specialty, Kobe beef, and they told me to go to Mouriya. I can just say it was an excellent choice. They had beef lunch menus starting from 2,000 yen (about 20 dollars) but I decided to get their supreme tenderloin (10,000 yen! Ouch!) to truly taste a top-notch chunk of beef.

What was immediately apparent is that I was not paying only for my steak and all the sides… I was also paying for the ridiculously outstanding service. I had at least one waiter, who was kind of hiding a couple of metres behind me, at all times, and as soon as I finished my soup, he will come and take away my bowl – always asking very politely if I had finished. My water glass was full at all times and, when I ordered wine, it came in less than a minute. But more than that, I also had one of their chefs at my service. He cooked the entire meal in front of me: I saw how he meticulously prepared the vegetables (Japanese potatoes, green peppers, tomatoes, toasted garlic, ginger, zucchini... and some other pickled things) as I had my exquisite cold corn soup and a very tasty, fresh, and crisp small salad bowl. Then he started preparing the beef steak, which he cut in small pieces for me… but the amazing thing is that he didn’t cook it all at once. He would put them on this 24mm-thick metal plate for a few seconds, then he would put it back on a cutting board, while he did something else with the fat and meat juices that the beef had released. And he would put only one portion of the steak on the hot plate, then serve it on my plate, and then wait until I was almost finished to start preparing the next portion. That way the items on my plate were always hot and “just-made.”

And like this, I have had just too many good meals. I’m surprised that I’ve never been to Japanese restaurants in the U.S. that serve things other than sushi, sashimi, and your typical fish dishes – even those at very fancy places. What I mean is that there’s such abundance of different types of local dishes here, that I’m surprised I haven’t seen those elsewhere. For example, there’s this dish called kamameshi, which is a wooden/steel deep bowl covered with a wooden lid, with okoge or “burned” rice that sticks to the sides of the bowl, and a mixture of seafood things in the middle, which you mix with the rice little by little, but always trying to eat from the middle and moving things to the side of the bowl. So you help yourself and then cover the bowl again so that things keep cooking and the rice keeps “burning” while you are eating a small portion of it. It’s like a little paellita, and it is very tasty. Then they have the ubiquitous okonomiyaki. I first had that on my very first day when I visited K. Basically the tables at the restaurant all had a hot plate in the middle, and there they cook a mixture of some sort of dough and egg with a bunch of things inside, anything from vegetables to seafood (actually, the name literally means "cook anything you want" or something like that, isn't it awesome?). Then they fold it and you cut a piece and eat it while the rest keeps cooking. This is also very popular street food. Another street food item that I found all over the place and which K’s mom made for dessert or late-night snack is takoyaki. This is octopus inside a fried? dough ball, perhaps with other vegetables, and a creamy sauce on top. Quite tasty and they were selling them literally everywhere during the Gion Matsuri festival in Kyoto. Other delicious dishes I tried were sukiyaki, which is a mixture of vegetables and raw meat that you put in a pan for a few seconds, then dip in raw egg right before putting it in your mouth... and shabu-shabu, which is basically like a fondue bourgignonne or meat fondue, but instead of dipping the raw meat in boiling oil, you dip it in a boiling water-based soup with lots of vegetables, Japanese mushrooms, and tofu. Quite yummy.

By far my most memorable sushi meal ever I had at Fukuzushi, a sushi institution in Tokyo, just behind the Hard Rock Café in Roppongi. Alex and I went there for dinner and, even though it looked like a very popular place, we didn’t really go all out and decided to order carefully – not because we were afraid of the quality of the food, but because they didn’t provide a list of prices since prices were according to “today’s fish market value.” I must say that this was the best sushi I’ve had in my life: the freshest ingredients, the juiciest fish… even the ginger and the wasabi was noticeably far superior than what you have at your standard sushi place. And by the way, I should say that “fresh wasabi” is nothing like the wasabi we normally eat in the U.S. or even at your standard sushi stall in Japan. The popular version is spicier by means of some added chemicals or whatever… but fresh wasabi is such a delicacy, quite more subtle and sweeter than the regular kind. Anyway, as if the quality of the food was not enough, something that will make this dining out experience one for the ages is the hostess that greeted us as we walked into the restaurant and who later took our order. Whenever people arrived, she would sing to them in a very operistic fashion to welcome them and lead them to their table. Then she would sing to the kitchen staff or the other waiters to say that such and such table had been taken, etc. It was hilarious. And finally, something that will certainly make us remember this meal is the exorbitant price we paid: we ordered each about 7 sushi pieces and one drink, and paid over 70 dollars per person. Ouch. However, if you ever go to Tokyo, by all means go to this place – it’s worth it.

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14 July 2008

A few observations

I have been out of commission these past few days because I have a seminar in Kobe tomorrow and I have been working on my slides.

Anyway, I just came back from lunch. I taught this morning then internet in the office wasn't working so I left. I walked to Roppongi Hills where I looked for a place to eat and then I found this cheap Indian buffet, not bad at all (1,200 yen or $12 for all you can eat daal with corn, mixed vegetables in some creamy sauce, chicken tikka masala, and rogan josh... oh, and salad. For once, I wasn't hungry after my meal! :)

The funny thing is that I had been wondering why I hadn't seen that many Indians around... I mean, after all India is a huge country, with so many people, and they are relatively close geographically to this other Asian superpower, Japan... it only made sense that some Indians would come here to work or for holidays or something, no?

Well, I hadn't found them... until today! They are all here, in this Indian restaurant! All the not-eating-with-the-left-hand thing, all the using-your-naan-to-clean-off-all-the-sauce-on-your-plate thing, all the head-shaking-while-talking thing, and all the grunting-to-signal-approval thing... they were all happening here. It reminded me of my days in India a few months back... except these were all super fresa Indian ex-pats, the guys wearing suits and collar shirts and showy rings, the wives looking very western, weating dressy pants, heels, and regular tops... no saris.

Then I decided that it must be decidedly hard for Indians to integrate into Japanese society. I mean, Japan was a very isolated society for the longest time, then it opened up and it's definitely embraced western values... but I guess that western doesn't include Indian, even though India is somewhere to the west of Japan. Then there's the potential racism thing... I don't know if a regular Japanese person would easily become friends with a brown person. Plus, both societies remain relatively closed to the rest of the world... and I guess it even shows on the use of terms like gora in Hindi and gaijin in Japanese to single-out whites or foreigners.

Other than that I have another observation. A LOT of people in Japan are sambos! And I mean A LOT. I don't know how to say this in English, but we call sambos those people who walk with their feet pointing inwards... I think they are called pigeon-toeds in English, but I'm not sure. Anyway, in Mexico whenever that happens to you, your parents usually take you to the doctor and they put these corrective orthopedic treatment thingies that fix your feet/legs and then you walk normally for the rest of your life.

Do people do this also in other countries?
Please tell me!!

Because I haven't seen as many people with this problem in other parts of the world. Maybe there's a market opporunity here...!! I could become rich!! muaaaaahahahaha...

09 July 2008

deer town

Saturday, 5 July 2008

After a long day of sightseeing and walking for hours and hours in the sun, nothing makes me feel better than a large McDonald's coke. I've been doing this since my backpacking days in Europe 13 years ago, and I still enjoy it just as much. The only difference is that now there's coke zero! After all, one has to somehow watch all those calories after so many Oreos, no? :)

Nara is such a magical place -- even in the hot and humid summer. A lot of the main temples and major sights are downtown in the middle of a huge park, Nara Park. The place is full of deer that love to be fed, petted, and photographed... and they like to play with the little children. It's realy funny to see a bunch of them following someone who's bought some popular cookie-like thingies they sell around here and, if you don't feed them, they gently push you with their horns and nibble on your shirt!

The temples here are just fantastic. My favorite one is Todai-ji, which features an impressive 15-meter tall statue of a sitting Buddha inside a massive building. At the main gate, there are two equally massive statues of some guardians or protectors of the temple, and across the beautifully-manicured garden, you can see the temple. A really cool thing, which I only noticed on my way out upon looking at a postcard in the souvenir shop, is that there's a big window above that is (I think) only opened during some festival, when the whole Buddha sculpture is lit at night and a bunch of Japanese lanterns are set along the path that leads from the main gate to the temple. Thus, from the distance you can see the building and the illuminated head of the Buddha peeking through the window. I wish I could see this live.

03 July 2008

hungry in kyoto

thursday, 3 july 2008

I don't remember ever feeling in such a pissy mood for not having eaten. It must be the accumulation of things: not eating, twisting my ankle a couple of days ago and not being able to walk properly, the heat and humidity, not having someone to vent with, having such a stubborn host. For the past couple of days, I've been in Kansai prefecture, in the Osaka-Nara-Kyoto area. My friend K and his family have been just amazing to me. Two days ago, when I got off the metro, right before getting to K's house, I tripped and twisted my ankle. K's mom was extremely attentive, got me one of those icy hot patches, an ointment, and a gauze, and they made sure I was alright.

I was super tired and wanted to take a shower. K's mom had already prepared a hot bath and K showed me where my towel and other shower stuff were. Can I just say that I just love the whole private experience thing in Japan, from the toilets with various buttons to the hot baths to the incredible water pressure I've experienced in every shower I've taken in this country. Of course, this bath was no exception.

I got out and made sure that everything was spotless, as I found it. I emptied the tub, rinsed off the soap, and put shampoo, towel, and everything back in place. I rejoined K's family in the living room, and the mom gave me another icy hot patch, even though I was wearing the one I had put on 10 mins before showering... but she insisted I wore the new one. K asked,

Does your foot have fever?

and I had absolutely no idea what he meant. He tried to explain, and I thought he wanted to know if the ankle was swollen, but he didn't know what swollen meant, so I showed him. But then he asked me again if my foot had fever and my only response was, I'm afraid that we don't say that in English. If somebody has a better idea, please let me know.

A few minutes later he led me to his room, where I was going to sleep, and suddenly we heard K's mom yelling at him --- and cracking up uncontrollably at the same time, although not a crazy laugh but a very japanese one instead, if you know what i mean. Amidst giggles, she kept babbling something to K and then, unexpectedly, K started laughing too. Then he finally said to me,

- You abandoned the water!!

- Huh?!

- Why did you abandon the water? My parents were going to use it to take shower!

I didn't know what to say. My natural answer would've been, That's digusting, but I think that would've been a bit too rude. Plus, at this point, I was more shocked than anything else. This made me think, however, that perhaps in the Americas we're a little bit too obsessed with our own notion of hygiene or cleanliness. I mean, I would always think, no matter what, that what my Franco-Belgian host brothers did -- using the same water to take a bath, one after another after another (since there were 3 of them), after not having taken one in more than a week -- is beyond nasty... and the brown water left in the tub was the best witness of this. But, hey, at least it's environmentally friendly in so many ways, from the water saved to the energy not wasted in heating that much water!

Anyway, I digress. As I said, K has been extremely attentive... but, like most Japs, he can also be so squared-minded and... set in his own ways. People must sit a certain way in the train and not cross their legs, otherwise "they are stupid." There's also a correct way to dress, talk, and eat. Even I "will follow" his advice on what to see in Kyoto because, whatever my guidebook says, even if he hasn't even read it, he knows better.

I'm now at this noodle place taking a break and recharging batteries. I just finished my noodles and, unsurprisingly, I'm still hungry. Time to go for a snack. Who said Oreo McFlurry?

29 June 2008

c is for cookie 2

AND i just finished my 4th 10-cookie oreo tube in this past fortnight... maybe that's why i'm tall!

n.b. no, replying to this message saying things like "no, maybe that's why you are fat" is not exactly a witty (or true) remark.

ok, i was curious again

i googled up the world's average height and this link says it's 5'9 or 1m75 for males and 5'4 or 1m62 for females.

wikipedia says the national average in japan is 1m72 for men and 1m59 for women...

i am a giant indeed...

by the way, men are 1m85 tall on average in the netherlands!!!!!! WOW!

goliath meets the japanese

friday, 28 june 2008

according to the last measurement taken by my doctor, i'm 1m83, which doesn't make me a giant by any means but i definitely feel like one in this country. in some ways, it's a good thing. for example, whenever i'm standing in line or in a very crowded place, i have a very good view of everything that happens around me, and i don't feel like i'm suffocating. i've been looking for some pijama shorts lately and, following alex's recommendation, i went to uniqlo (which mexicans in japan find really amusing because it sounds like "one ass only" when pronounced in japanese) and it was nice to realize i'm an XL-size in this country, which makes it easy to find pretty much anything, even those items on sale which are usually sold out on every other size but XL and above (by the way, i'm an M in the US!).

in some other ways, however, it's not that great. for instance, doorways are often too low and i've hit my head more than once. lamps in restaurants also hang too low so i always have to be very careful. worse than that is the effect that small japan has on food. i am never full after eating at a japanese restaurant. it's amazing because it does seem like a lot of food when they bring that many dishes that compose a whole meal -- miso soup, rice, seaweed salad, some beans or vegetables or some sort, fish... all in small plates. but it sucks because it's not that cheap and i always need to stop by mcdonald's or eat my tube of oreos when i get back home.

coffee places are funny (and by the way, it's funny how japanese keep interchanging fs and hs... not everywhere but i think before vowels like i or e... coffee in japanese is ko-hee). they have these small-size cups which, if used in america, people would think they are a joke. even at starbucks, they have the traditional tall, grande, and venti sizes, but they also have a small size, which most people order by the way!

i'm now at this seattle's best coffee branch in shinjuku and it's been a crazy day. i haven't done much but walk around this area -- very slowly. it's hard to walk any faster given how crowded everything is. shinjuku station is one of the biggest train stations in the world and it's amazing to experience the chaos, both underground and outside in the surrounding streets. inside the station, there are kilometers-long hallways packed with all sorts of stores, and outside is not much different. what amazes me is the number of high-end stores in the city. how many bottega venetas have i seen? how many louis vuitton? and how many starbucks? seriously, if i was told that there are more starbucks in tokyo than in, say, new york, i wouldn't be surprised at all!!

anyway, i have to go now because i want to walk all the way to shibuya and harajuku... but i'll write later about the party we had at my place last night (this morning?).

*** ok, i was curious and looked it up. shinjuku station is the second largest station in the world after nagoya station, but it's the busiest of the world, having handled an average of 3.6 million passengers per day in 2007!!!

image: wikipedia.

25 June 2008

my top 10 things that have impressed me most in tokyo

i was planning on presenting a list in reverse order, from 10 to 1... but then i decided it's really hard to decide which item is 5th and which item is 6th, etc. so here they are in no particular order...

1. japanese are extremely polite and very orderly. arigatogozaimasu or thank you must be the most commonly said word in the world, not only because there are 130 million japanese people in the world but because they say the word at least 50 times a day.

2. my taka-taka friends are also extremely respectful of the law. i am amazed at how pedestrians stop at traffic lights and wait until they see the green man-light to cross the road. it doesn't matter if there are no cars in sight, they won't cross!

3. safety. for being the biggest city in the world, it's crazy how safe this place is. in all of my travels, i've never felt safer before. people go into stores and leave their dogs tied to poles, with nothing but their leash. they use their laptops and cell phones and ipods and other crazy gadgets in the subway, in the park, just sitting on the sidewalk. somebody told me that you could leave your wallet on a table at a mall, come back 2 hours later, and your wallet would still be sitting there.

oh, but if they do steal it, blame the chinese (or the koreans). it's all their fault...

4. and i mean all. japanese people can be very racist. i still haven't had experienced any racism but i've heard that they don't like black, they don't like brown... and of course, they don't like chinese and korean. but, although i haven't heard anyone express unfounded disgust directly towards any member of these human races, i have indeed heard things like koreans are all ugly (in a conversation that had to do with how to distinguish a japanese from a korean person) or chinese people are very dirty. i guess stories like that of the famous chinese dust effect don't help at all. the japs blame it all on our friends from the continent.

5. how clean the whole city is, especially because tokyo is the largest city in the world! and even despite the fact that it is hard to find garbage cans. i always want to throw away used napkins, chewing gum, a foam cup... and i always have to put it in my bag because i can't find any trash cans.

and here, i must tell a little story that has to do with both the clean and orderly habits of japanese. there are tons of maps all around the city, you know, those standing displays that show the typical "you are here" red dot in a big map of the area. about 3 days ago i noticed some graffiti on one of these maps near my house. the graffiti said you are here in very big, purple letters with a big happy face. it was kind of shocking since it was very big and i hadn't seen any graffiti anywhere around the city.

and then i learned why.

today, only a couple of days after the incident, the graffiti was gone. somebody had cleaned it and i was most impressed they noticed it and cleaned it this quickly.

6. how friendly people are. i think that we have this stereotype in the west that people in japan are very conservative and shy. even this american guy who's been living in japan for the last 20 years told me that japanese people don't usually talk to foreigners. well, i don't know if i've just been lucky or if things are changing, but a lot of people have talked to me just randomly.

i went to this yakitori place for dinner in shinjuku. i ordered 5 chicken skewers, the chef's selection, just to avoid having to choose between heart, tripe, and kidney, etc. i was reading my tokyo guide while eating and all of a sudden this guy taps on my shoulder. i turned around, and it was this 50 year old guy who didn't speak any english. he asked me things like:


which i later understood to be country, so he wanted to know where i came from.


said i, proud of at least knowing how to say the name of my country in japanese. he offered me some of his top shelf hot sake, and i accepted gladly. and for the next 30 minutes we communicated, sometimes in broken japanese and english... but mostly with pictures and hand gestures. it was great.

he wanted to drink more sake with me but i thought his wife was a bit impatient and i also didn't want him to order another bottle just to drink it with me, so i refused. as soon as they left, another couple sitting next to me turned around and started to talk to me. this time, the guy (atsushi) spoke english because he had lived in texas during his years in elementary school before coming back to tokyo with his family. the guy did all the talking, but i also communicated with his girlfriend, and she told me about miyazaki, nikko, hakone, and all these places i must visit before leaving japan. we exchanged cards and promised to go out for a drink in a couple of weeks.

finally, one other day i was looking at a map on the street, trying to figure out if i could get home taking a different road than the one i usually take. a girl stopped by and asked if she could help me. i tried to explain what i was trying to do and she told me where that road went, but i didn't know if that's where i wanted to go. in the end, she was not very helpful but as i thanked her very heartily for stopping by, she waved at me, bowed, and told me "thanks for speaking with me, i'm studying english and i like to talk in english." i thanked her back and then, when she was gone, i thought i was a fool and i should've asked if she wanted to go for a drink. she was cute too. damn it.

7. how care-free people are... to dress, to act, to do whatever they want. i would think that people here don't ever make fun of their friends, at least not the way we do in mexico or the u.s. yes, perhaps kids call each other "fat" or something like that when they are in school... but i don't think a friend would ever tell another friend how ugly her dress is or how poorly matched her whole outfit is. and i'm saying this precisely because people hang out dressed in the most varied outfits, with both the craziest and the most conservative hair-dos, with the most classy suit or the most unfitting combination of colors: white socks with black shoes and purple pants and red shirts.

the queer eye for the straight guy crew or the people at e! extreme makeover would have a wonderful time here in tokyo!

8. how expensive fruit is! $50 watermelons? $70 grapes? $40 crate of clementines? no... really!!

and 9. and 10. i will write later because i did have another couple of things, but i'm forgetting now...

20 June 2008

c is for cookie...

there's only so much noodle soup, sushi, and japanese desserts a western man can handle.

today i had this crazy craving for a chocolate mud cake. i guess i could've gone to tgi friday's or outback steakhouse and i would've got it there.

instead, i bought a 10-pack of oreos. as i had my first bite, i was instantly transported to heaven.

i ate the whole tube in less than 5 minutes on my way home.

lack of communication skills

friday, 20 june 2008

yesterday, i went for lunch to this "cuban" restaurant which served jambalaya and burritos -- you can imagine how cuban the whole experience was. i went with a colleague from work, a u.s. professor who's been in japan for a while now. talking with him revealed me much about this so poorly understood culture. i learned, for example, about how the compensation system in companies and universities works in japan. from my conversations with my japanese friends and my little research on japanese workers' productivity and their satisfaction at work, i have learned that there's very little variance in the salary of workers within the same tenure-skill category.

the amazing thing is that workers seem unable to negotiate their salaries and one very important reason for this seems to be that they simply don't talk about it. the topic is so not discussed that, after my colleague's friends advised him against raising the issue with his supervisors-to-be when he got the job here, he then realized that his pay would be extremely low compared to his former job and in spite of what the prevailing "market" wage was for people in similar positions. only six months later, when he was about to quit, did he receive a letter stating that he had been "promoted" and would receive a huge pay increase retroactive to his first day on the job!!

how did that happen? well, apparently -- and even more bizarrely --, wages at public universities are set by the ministry of education for every single worker... but then they are regulated by the school, so they can change this salary to whatever they want later on. that's all very weird but the strangest thing is that the school never even told him this would happen so the poor guy must have been depressed for half a year thinking he had made the worst career move ever.

now, it seems as though this sort of miscommunication is very common. foreigners are often confused because they don't know exactly what a japanese person implies by something she did or said... and japanese people who have lived abroad say that even they don't know what their countrymen (and women) mean in many occasions... and i guess locals who've never been abroad would think the same if they only knew any better!

i can perfectly kimagine now a wife who leaves her husbane, maybe because she had to be single to apply for a job, or claim an inheritance, or something... only to tell him six months later, oh, nevermind, it's ok; i just did it for the job, but now i got it with the nice compensation package and all, and now we can get back together and make it up for all the sex and good memories we missed in the meantime.

now i think i begin to understand the whole suicide thing!

walking around asakusa and ginza

thursday, 19 june 2008

this city has kept me awestruck 24/7. it's hard to put in words the "good vibe" you get from it, just from walking around, interacting with the people. everybody is happy and helpful and they bow like a million times when you ask for directions, when you get into a store, when you say hello, when you say goodbye... they are so polite and they look so happy. i wonder how is it that their suicide rates are so high...

the city is amazingly full of contrasts. first, there's all the starbucks and mcdonald's i mentioned earlier but still it's like these people don't buy into the whole western thing. sure, they love their louis vuitton bags and armani jeans, yet they look so detached from what happens in the west. it's just unreal.

on saturday, when i went to the flamme d'or building, i first visited some of the temples in the asakusa district. it was a very strange experience. when you get to the main shrine, you see a lot of people who just stay outside by this huge square pool. as they approach the pool -- but before they even get there -- they throw some coins at it, then stop by it and pray and bow for a few minutes. then, a lot of them go to one of these structures on both sides of the pool, which look like big chests with drawers. they get a long cylindrical metal can, put some coins inside, and shake it violently, then open one of the drawers and take a piece of paper from there, read it, and then either laugh or just make a quick comment to their friends and leave. only very few of them actually go inside, into an area that seemed to be off-limits to tourists.

once i had my religious quota of the day, i went to ginza. this area is just ridiculously rich and fancy: there's ginza street, a strip packed with the most exclusive boutiques and designer stores, and then a bunch of streets around it that look just as fresa. the stores all look incredibly trendy and swanky -- and, yes, they are all full with customers. everything's just like the more famound 5th avenue in new york -- only like 10,000 cleaner and cooler! seriously, ny's 5th is nothing in comparison!

one of the stores which grabeed my attention was, of course, the sony building: six stories (+2 others with cafés and restaurants) of the latest computers, cameras, stereos, tvs, videogame consoles, and some other products like sony's life planner or something like that. this is basically a computer that calculates how much you need to save, spend, etc. in order to achieve your financial goals at every stage of your life, and it does all the research for you. say for example you tell the computer you want to buy a house in southern france, because you'd like to retire there when you are 65. the computer just happens to know how much your house is expected to cost and takes into account a bunch of other things that you most probably wouldn't even consider -- everything from your wife's age to whether your kids will be done with college or whether you'll need to make a few trips a year back home to see your parents if they are still alive -- all probabilities of death, etc. included. just ridiculous.

anyway, the coolest thing were the showrooms, where you could just walk into a living room, for example, and watch a movie on the best equipment -- tv, blu-ray, sound system... you name it.

my dream store.

on sunday, i met alejandro, a mexican guy who's working at the embassy and we hung out around otome-sando and the shibuya district. again, this area reminded me so much of ny and times square with all the huge screens, the neon ads, and every street packed with people... but everything like 100 times better! jaja for some strange reason, even in the midst of all the chaos, one of tokyo's busiest areas still looks very orderly: the streets are spotless and all traffic signs and pedestrian crossings impeccably painted. there's no honking, no ugly yellow cabs driving like maniacs. people wait to cross the wide streets and it's an amazing sight to stand at the main crossroads when all cars stop at the red light and 2 seconds later thousands of people just flock onto the roads and cross the streets in all directions. i love it.

and, of course, there's louis vuitton and armani and everything you can imagine, here also.

on my first day in tokyo, as we walked around roppongi looking for a place to eat, katsu said to me:

anything you want to buy, you will find it here.

only now do i believe this statement was 100% true.

14 June 2008

on top of the world

saturday, 14 june 2008

i'm now having a café au lait in the sky room on the 22nd floor of world-famous architect philippe starck's building "la flamme d'or". the room's very cool, a bar-type sitting arrangement along the wall -- the wall being a massive window that provides spectacular views of the city. too bad i'm here by myslef. this is exactly the kind of place you want to share with a travel companion: after a long day of sightseeing, you take a coffee/beer (if they had a large mcdonald's coke here, i'd get that), you sit here, enjoy the vistas and try to identify the landmarks in the horizon. on the upside, being by myself gives me a chance to catch up with my writing -- especially since i'm away from my computer.

back to the day of my arrival: having dropped off my bags in my room, katsu and i went to get something for dinner. we ended up in this ramen place, very local, which i liked. i was supposed to accompany him to meet a couple of his friends but, being all tired and jet-lagged, i decided against it. i said goodbye, then walked around the neighborhood before heading home. although roppongi seems to be the ex-pat hangout borough, i couldn't help but be surprised by the number of mcdonald's and starbucks around there. even more surprising, though, is the presence of so many local places free of gaijin or foreigners... and the fact that even in the american chains few people speak english. it seems that, although tokyo's been unafraid to embrace the american capitalistic values, it's still reluctant to yield to the anglicization (is that even a word?) typical of the most fashionable tourist destinations (do you hear me, cancún and bali?). good for them.

the next day i woke up and walked to grips, where i'll be teaching. the school is only a 20-minute walk away from my place and, even in spite of the rain, it was a very enjoyable walk. i met prof. koichi hamada (yale professor who hooked me up with this tokyo teaching gig) and my 10 students. just like my roommates, they are also from all over the place, mainly countries in south/southeast asia and africa, and a couple from japan. i tried to be very nice and asked them to send me an e-mail telling me about their interests and the reasons why they're taking this course. given that the class is so small, i think i could tailor the material to suit their interests, which would make it much more appealing and enjoyable for them. i already got a couple of their e-mails and it's funny they address me as de la garza sensei... and it's particularly funny because most of them have worked for policy institutions or government offices like the ministry of finance of their own countries, and they must be at least around my age. but even professors here address other professors as sensei, so i wonder if they'd feel awkward if i asked them to just call me adrián.

later that day, i got to meet a lot of the staff and walk around campus. koichi introduced me to otsuka-san, the director of the program, and sonnobe-san, who got his phd from yale about 15 years ago. then sonnobe-san introduced me to a lot of other profs, all of whom are impossibly nice. i also met the administrative assistants and they are all extremely helpful and seem to go out of their way to make sure i don't need anything. i have my own office and there's a fitness center in the building, so it seems like i'm all set to spend the next 6 weeks here. there's even a community center in the building and, for a fee of only 1,000 yen/month, you can get all-you-eat/drink snacks, coffee, and tea!

and speaking of coffee, i'm done with mine, so i'm off to ginza now for some window-shopping! :)

watashi wa adrian desu

saturday, 14 june 2008

i just had a delicious bowl of pasta with shrimp and tons of salsa cholula (God bless the mexican exporting companies)... in tokyo's asakusa neighborhood, one of the oldest parts of the city. it doesn't sound traditional but that's just tokyo today: unconventional.

i arrived three days ago, on wednesday, and katsu picked me up at narita airport. as soon as i got here, i got a glimpse of that avant-garde, techy, über-modern japan everybody in the west imagines. we took the subway and katsu didn't have to buy a ticket: he just quickly passed his cell phone through a scanner and the right amount gets charged to his cell phone bill. then we caught a taxi and as i approached the car and reached for the door, it opened automatically and then closed after i got in.

i went to the sakura house main office, the company from which i rented my room during my 6-week stay in tokyo. i felt weird as i went over the lease agreement and signed... who would've thought i'd ever get my own place in tokyo, even if for a short period?

my room is no fancy place, but at 98,000 yen/month, it's a bargain. it's about 25 m2, which is way bigger than all those 6-8 m2 places i saw online for $1,800/mo. the best thing? it's located in the heart of roppongi, the equivalent of times square in ny, dupont circle in dc, or polanco in df. the guesthouse has about 15 rooms, and there's definitely a strong "auberge espagnole" feeling to it. every day, i wake up and i see a new housemate getting out of the shower or having coffee in the common area. last night i came back home, and a bunch of them were hanging out in the kitchen: gustav from sweden/turkey, justin from canada, michael from germany, simon from australia, another guy from france and another couple of swiss blokes. a lot of them have been in japan for a while now -- gustav, for example, has ben around for about 5-6 years; this other guy from ohio, andrew, has been living in the house for like 3 years. and all of them seem to speak japanese fluently or are taking japanese classes. it's funny how my friends and relatives at home think i'm this super world traveler... then i look at these other people, and i realize i'm such a novice...

i don't think i've ever felt so lost in any of my previous trips. in most of the other countries i've been to, i 've always been able to communicate somehow. even in china, at least i had taken about 4 months of mandarin classes, which was enough to get by. here, i've been only in some very touristy places of tokyo, japan's capital and main city... still, sometimes i've been hungry and i've had to postpone my meal just because i had no idea of what the things on the menu were -- even with pictures. and, normally, i wouldn't mind trying things out, but i've realized these people eat every single limb and organ or every single living being on this planet... and at 3,000 yen ($30) per dish, i don't really feel very adventurous just to be (potentially) grossed out.

anyway, so far, so good... but the food in general is expensive. i don't think i'll try any of the restaurants in my time out guide, since the average meal at those places is at least 2,500 yen. other than mcdonald's and the ramen (noodles) places, it seems hard to find anything below 1,000 yen.

30 April 2008

of grand thefts

if you like videogame consoles, i'm sure you must have heard of the latest release of grand theft auto IV. and even if you don't, you should at least know that gta is a game that has shaped the videogame industry -- you can use this knowledge in one of those conversations in which people are very passionately talking about some random topic, and you pretend you also know about that topic.

anyway, the game was released this week and it's expected to generate between $400 and $550m in revenue just in the first week! now, that's some hype!

i've always been surprised about the things people do to get a copy of a videogame or a movie before everybody else... but i think this latest story takes the cake!

due to its popularity, gta has produced much controversy since its very first version. as you can infer from its name, this videogame is about drugs, killings, and yes, stealing cars. people have claimed that this videogame may cause crime and violent behavior... and there have been stories like this published in major newspapers.

and now there is proof that this game causes crime -- although maybe not the type we imagined. three ups drivers were fired because they stole copies of gta IV from boxes that were being delivered to retailers. apparently, the copies they stole were for personal use... but why would you do this? why would you risk your job just to play a stupid videogame before everybody else? things like this lie beyond my understanding...

01 March 2008

meet spiderman

alain robert, a.k.a. spiderman, was arrested today in sao paulo when he was on his way down from the top of the italia tower, a 150m-high skyscraper in downtown s.p. the man had been arrested a few days earlier when he was on his way to the top of the tower, and now has been asked to leave the country within the next 8 days before he is deported.

robert has become the best solo climber in the world. using nothing but his bare hands, he's climbed the eiffel tower, the petrona towers in kuala lumpur, the sears tower, the empire state, the golden gate... and by climbing i mean reaching the peak and then coming all the way down. this is absurd!!

for more amazing pictures, i urge you to check out his website: http://www.alainrobert.com/en/photo.htm

26 January 2008

chennai airport (tamil nadu), wednesday 23 january

i'm ready to go back home. i'm now at chennai airport waiting to board my flight to delhi. pipi's relatives here in chennai were incredibly sweet and i'm really thankful to them for trying to make me feel at home... but home is home, there's no equal to sleeping in your own bed and using your own bathroom (at some point, i gotta write about bathrooms in india... that was a whoooole experience! maybe dana would like to write about them! :)

i'm sad to leave, i feel that i've learned so much about this culture and about life in general, and i feel that there's still so much to learn. however, i also feel that there's much more time for that and, after a whole month in this country, enough is enough.

chennai seems like a much more civilized place than the other big cities we visited, like delhi or mumbai. yes, people still honk but not as much and there's some respect for other people's lanes on the road. also, poverty is not as in-your-face as it is in those other cities. something that has caught my attention during my stay in the south is the number of christian churches and images of jesus i've seen all over. i knew the portuguese had been around for a while but i ignored they had such a profound long-lasting impact. also, people here seem to speak way more english than in the north, and there are a lot of billboards, signs, and names and descriptions of stores (like vijay plumbing) in english.

the conclusion to our trip was very chill. we arrived yesterday at 6am, pipi's uncle picked us up and took us to his aunt's place. there, we just relaxed and had a delicious breakfast prepared by vanitha, pipi's cousin, south indian style. around 10am, we left for mahabalipuram, literally the great sacrifice village. this is a beautiful archaeological (also a unesco world heritage site, like suomenlinna in finland and the red fort in delhi, etc.) site located by the sea. the temples, many of them in ruins, are about 1300 yeras old, and must huge carvings made out of one single piece of stone, stunning! the main temple, however, which by some divine miracle survived intact the effects of the 2005 tsunami, was built with the same stone they used to construct angkor wat in cambodia, very beautiful.

it was very hot, maybe around 33-34 degrees (celsius), and the heat made us very tired, so we left after 2-3 hours. on the way back, we stopped by a crocodile park and it was cool to see all the crocs just chiling in the sun. then, true to my fresa roots, we had lunch by the beach at fisherman's cove, the taj hotel in chennai. it's really crazy that for $25 you can eat at a place like this---including drinks! but when remember that i've had entire meals for less than $1, then i realize how wide the income gap is in this country.

anyway, the best part of our stop in chennai was undoubtedly getting to know pipi's relatives. in general, people in india are very welcoming and generous and these relatives were a super-augmented version of the average indian possessor of these virtues.