Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A day in Ghent

Summer of 2016

Ghent is an easy-peasy day trip from Brussels. So after seeing a little more of Brussels, I hopped on a train to Ghent. In Germany, I am used to people not understanding me, which is not the case here since most people speak good English. To show a round-trip ticket, I motioned with my hand to show going-coming, and made the mistake of pointing two fingers to signify the two legs of the trip. He gave me two round trip tickets for two people! 

This, I did not realize until I boarded the train and looked at my ticket. Being a Christian holiday, the train fares were half-price, which is great (10€ round trip/person). When I showed it to the person checking tickets on the train and explained what happened, she gave me a refund stub that I could show at the Ghent station and get my 10 € back.. The amicable, well-dressed and quite good-looking lady clearly showed her disapproval at being issued two tickets. 

"What was he? Drunk? Who does that?"

"It must have been a misunderstanding. I showed him two fingers." I said.

"That's not done. Anyway, I am really happy you are going to Ghent. Everyone goes to Bruges. Ghent is relatively lesser known. Actually I am from Ghent."

That explained why she got so upset that I was charged twice. I did not tell her that I am going to Bruges the next day.

I got off at Ghent, got my refund, got hold of a city map, took the tram number 1, and ended up at the Historic Central. The area was extremely crowded for a city this small. The touristy area is a little far from the train station (about 4-5 kms), and needs a tram ride (3€). The trams are quite frequent though. 

So I spent the next few hours walking around, going atop the belfry to get panoramic views of the city (8 €), and soaking in some sun myself before taking a train back to the Gare Centrale in Brussels and another metro back to my hostel. 

There are plenty of good things about Brussels and Ghent. Everyone understands English, which is a huge relief. I do not end up exhausted trying to ask for something as simple as directions. English, and then, food. This place perpetually smells of waffles and frites all the time. There is something very nice about watching people sit outside in promenades and enjoying their food and drinks. Summer in Europe is a lovely place that reminds me that there is more to life than work and more to one's wardrobe than jeans. Everyone is so well dressed here all the time. 

These cities are also very well-connected. Brussels alone has three train stations (more than a thousand trains pass by these stations daily to other parts of Belgium and other countries like France, Netherlands, and the UK) and an intricate mesh of the metro (2.10 € for a single ride or about 7 € for a daily ticket). There is art, architecture, panoramic views, murals, churches, museums, and some very nice food. 

However, and this can be wrongly interpreted as travel-snobbery, I have gotten a little tired of pretty European cities. Traveling as frequently as I do, everything is slowly starting to look the same. A friend's mom who was visiting from India, on being shown the Grand Canyon from the different vista points, got bored soon and remarked, "सब गड्ढा ही है, अब वापस चलो" (It's all one big ditch, looks the same from everywhere. Let's go home.) As sacrilegious as this sounds, most European cities have started to look the same to me. Ornate buildings. Museums. Churches. Good food in nice restaurants. Good chocolate. Nice cafes. You know what I mean? 


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Sweet Therapy

I am having lunch with close friends, talking about a past traumatic experience when I get a text message from Gundamma (also known as G here).

Gundamma: "I got you shrink and ..."

Me: "What? How did you know...."

Gundamma: "No! Stupid auto correct. I got you shrikhand from the Indian store."

A therapeutic experience came only a few seconds from talking about trauma. That mango shrikhand was the last best thing I remember before leaving Seattle. 


Sunday, February 25, 2018

Week 3: Save actively, spend passively

Growing up, no one sat me down and explained how to take care of my financial health. Asking salaries or prices of expensive things were considered rude. I picked up bits and pieces of advice floating around- generic advice like don’t splurge, save for the rainy day, don’t get into debt, and so on. So even though I started earning from age eighteen by tutoring other students, I did not know how to negotiate for salary or manage my money until a long time.

It is only recently that I started watching videos on YouTube about money management and started to pick up useful tips. And the best tip I heard changed the way I look at money. Earlier, I used to spend what I needed and saved the rest. Here, they talk about saving what you need and spending the rest. It looks like a simple case of reversal. But at the core, it forced me to address a very important question- how much do I need or want to save?

By spending first and saving the rest later, spending continues to be the primary and variable factor. So long as I did not get into debt, I knew that I had a large pot of money to spend from. But when savings became the primary and constant factor, I had to account for what I was spending. So, I came up with a simple algorithm.

After every paycheck, I pay off all pending bills from the past cycle (credit card bills, rent, cell phone bill, etc.). Whatever remains, I put half of it in my savings account (I do not touch that money again). The other half, I keep for my expenses until I receive my next paycheck. When I get paid again, I simply add that to my current account, pay off all bills, save fifty percent of whatever remains, and repeat cycle.

Here is an example (all numbers are arbitrary)

First paycheck: $100

Pending bills (credit card bills, rent, cell phone bill, etc.): $40 (somewhat variable every cycle)

What goes in the savings account: Half of remaining: $30

What remains: $30

Expenses: $10

Remaining + Next paycheck: $(100+20): $120

Pending bills (credit card bills, rent, cell phone bill, etc.): $20 (somewhat variable every cycle)

Remaining: $(120-20): $100

What goes in my savings account: Half of remaining: $50

What remains: $50

Repeat cycle.

The basic idea is that every time I get paid, I clear all my pending bills and put half of the remaining money in my savings account (I never touch that account). The important thing is that the savings should be put in a separate account that becomes invisible money. This creates a visual illusion that I don’t have much. When you know your denominator (total available money) is small, you adjust your numerator accordingly.   

Doing this has helped me in many ways.
·       It has made me actively accountable for how much I am saving.
·       It has made me aware of when I am splurging.
·       If there is a large expense coming up, I delay it until I have enough money from the next pay cycle. Delaying things also prevent me from impulsive buying.
·       Rather than spending being an active process and saving being a passive process, saving has become active and spending, passive.

This is a saving algorithm that I have figured out for myself. You can create your own algorithm. If you have smart saving tactics, I would love to hear from you.


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Enlightenment amid pyramids

Pic: The Pyramid of the Moon (left) and the Pyramid of the Sun (right).

Waiting in a long line in front of the Teotihuacan pyramids in Mexico, 
I was faced with a mathematical problem of enormous proportions. If there are only finite (and definite) ways to climb a pyramid and there is a crowd of thousands waiting to do so, the wait only gets greater proportionally (assuming all other factors remain constant) as one climbs higher because a pyramid is essentially a triangle in 3D. I suspect that this profound realization struck me because I was waiting in line on a pyramid, which meant that instead of seeing the back of someone's head standing in front of me, I was standing on the lower step of an incline and staring at their ass. After such forced ass-staring for about 40 minutes, I was done. I realized that this mathematical problem could be solved using principles of human psychology.

I had aimed to climbed two pyramids- the Pyramid of the Sun (where one could go all the way to the top) and the Pyramid of the Moon (which you were only allowed to climb half-way). Since the second one could not be climbed all the way, far less people were attempting to climb it at all. "Go where life takes you without resisting it," the inner voice screamed aloud once again. I climbed down the sun and made my way to the moon just in time that it was 5 pm, time to drive the tourists away. Instead of hoping to get past the asses, I optimized my constraints of time and energy and ended up climbing half of both the pyramids. 

Mexico City is an amazing place. Despite warnings of being kidnapped, mugged, killed or encountering drug dealers, I am disappointed to report that no such thing happened. The people are nice and friendly, the weather warm, and the food amazing and amazingly cheap. Everything about this place feels like India. People bargain, openly (and loudly) whistle on the streets to signal one another, and heavily rely on what we know as "jugaad." I have never felt more at home.

Flirting is culturally acceptable. Men do not hesitate to compliment or openly (and harmlessly) flirt with stranger women. I met a very interesting 72-year old man, our tour guide, who ran up and down churches as if he was 35. He flirted with most women on the bus, but it did not look cheap or vulgar at all. When he said that I am beautiful, I sighed and told him, "You too, Juan? I wish people were not so obsessed with beauty and women got complimented for their brains too." To which, he brought his face really close to my ears and whispered, "That will never happen, señorita. Men are scared of intelligent women." The way he said it made it sound really profound and entertaining at the same time.

So I saw and climbed half of two pyramids, ate fried crickets, tried pulque (a local drink), visited Frida Kahlo's home (a museum now), and saw, touched, and learnt the many uses of a maguey (agave) plant.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Money matters

An acquaintance's daughter recently bought her own plane ticket for a holiday trip by paying 2/3rd of the plane fare from her own savings. She is 9 years old!

I felt so proud of her when I learnt this. As a child, although I was never asked to, I would save up all the 10 and 20 rupees I got as birthday gifts from relatives (this was the eighties, so 10 and 20 rupees mattered a lot). Once in a while, you'd see a 6-year old me squatting on the floor and fervently counting my money. Then, my maternal grandpa would visit us, top off my savings and round it off, and buy me savings certificates from the bank and the post office that would double or treble my money after a certain number of years.

Actually let me back up a little bit. I knew my money even before I had learnt my numbers. I was very little when my grandma once left a green 5 rupee note/bill in my hand as she was leaving. I was asleep, and in my sleepy state, I knew that there was money in my hand. Later, my mom took away that money, lest I lose it. When I woke up and asked for it, my mom, unmindful, tucked a red two rupee note in my hand. I threw a tantrum, saying, "I don't want red money, I want green money." This was even before I was number literate. 

When I started tutoring students in my late-teens, it became even easier to save money. My habit of buying savings certificates continued, and so did my habit of counting money. I did not need grandpa's help anymore. Once I was counting the notes when a storm appeared all of a sudden and blew away two 500 rupee notes from the top floor balcony. That was the closest I have come to having a heart attack (I ran downstairs in lightning speed and retrieved them in time though).

The excitement of counting money is gone now, simply because there is no money to see, smell, touch, and count. It is all invisible money that gets deposited in a bank. Even then, paydays are my favorite days, and I excitedly log in to my bank account to see my bank balance increase. As kids, we were never encouraged to save or earn money. Doing odd jobs for money was seen as time wasted, time that could be spent studying and improving grades. As a result, I can afford a dozen trips to Utah now, but will never know the excitement of saving and buying my own travel tickets as a nine year old. 


Monday, February 19, 2018

Simple love

Exactly three people wished me on Valentine's Day. And I was caught off-guard all three times. 

The cashier who swiped my credit card at Chipotle.

A homeless man who made way for me to walk on a bridge that was all covered in ice and slush.

The campus security guy who asked me to wrap up work and go home.

February 14 is not on my list of the top-20 or even top-50 days I celebrate, so it doesn't matter to me. What matters is the human connection. 

In other news, the best thing I saw is a picture of my friend's little son standing by a calf, pulling it's ears and smiling lovingly at the calf with a caption about love knowing no boundaries.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Week 2: Subscribe

Other than unsubscribing from a bunch of websites no longer useful to me (Week 1), I have actively subscribed to a number of websites and emails that are either useful or entertaining. The word "active" is the key here. I get daily or weekly updates from them and make sure that I read or watch the content regularly rather than pile them up and hoard them for future binge reading/watching. These are the resources that in Marie Kondo's language, "spark joy." Unlike the stuff I unsubscribed from, these are not deals or advertisements nudging me to buy things.

Professional Development: The National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity has a lot of good videos that train you to manage your time, resources and skills as a faculty. My institution pays for a membership, making it free for me. Every week, I try to watch at least one video and use the worksheets they provide. Academic Coaching & Writing is another website that is useful for me as a scholar.

Health: I have subscribed to daily emails from Livestrong that offers tips for a healthier life. I don’t take everything I read at face value, but they have nice, small articles, sometimes written as lists (for example, 10 daily habits to increase your productivity). I am a big fan of Rujuta Diwekar’s YouTube channel too, not because she has celebrity clients (although that is how I know of her), but because she offers simple, sustainable health solutions focusing on our cultural background rather than asking to drink juice for a detox diet or do a hundred burpees everyday. I especially love her "Fitness Project 2018" where she posts one health video per week.

Hobbies and Entertainment: I am subscribed to Bookbub’s daily update emails for Kindle books on sale, not because I buy them, but because I use the daily lists to get something that looks interesting from my library. Being a traveler and photographer, I often gawk at the amazing travel pictures hosted at Exposure. And my latest addiction is Grandpa Kitchen, a YouTube channel with millions of viewers and 1.35 million subscribers currently. I love that grandpa cooks and feeds others, cooking in the open where you could hear the birds chirping and cows walking around in the fields. I love his accent, and how sometimes, he will take a break when the food is cooking and start singing. And while you are at eat, check out grandma’s cooking too.

Other cool stuff I read include something called “Stat Newsletters.” They publish some thought-provoking articles on science and medicine. I also often check out the cool homes available for buying on Zillow, although that is a relatively newer and more time-consuming addiction. The rest of the resources take defined amounts of time to read or watch. Zillow is where I sometimes lose track of time and end up spending hours because it is so addictive. 

Between professional development videos and book deals, grandpa's cooking and Rujuta's health tips, I have managed to sign up for and only read/view content that speaks to me. It is like coming home to something waiting for you.

Do share any of your absolute favorite resources.


Also read: 52 small changes.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The curse of Ctrl-C-Ctrl-V

Student plagiarizes.

Student appeals to the committee on being reported, pleading "not guilty".

Student emails to tell me I have made a false accusation.

Student makes an appointment and calls my office.

Student starts the conversation by telling me that it is not plagiarism. 

Student tells me it was a formatting error.

Student tells me that other classmates read the paper and did not say that it is plagiarized, so it is not plagiarized.

Student tells me that English is not their mother tongue.

Student tells me that I should consider changing my opinion (It wasn't my "opinion," I had evidence of plagiarism that I submitted to the committee with my report).

Student tells me that they will see me at the hearing (like a court hearing in a university setting where people resolve their differences in front of a neutral committee).

If only the student had written in their own words instead of a blatant copy-paste, they'd have skipped all the drama and save me a bunch of time.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The art of saying “no”

I don't read through emails word-by-word, I skim through them unless they are really important or come from someone important. I get close to 150 emails a day from all kinds of people. Colleagues. University emails. Professional society emails. Urgent emails. Useless emails. Journal editors asking for reviews. Publishers trying to sell me their products that I will never buy. Survey requests. Scams. Phishing emails. Hapless students from abroad who tell me their GRE scores and ask where they should apply and whether they should study fisheries or pharmacokinetics (how am I supposed to know?). Random faculty from China self-inviting themselves as visiting scholars to my university and assuring me they would return the favor if I ever want to visit China. Unfortunate spouses who moved to the US allured by the promised greener pasture and after seeing only snowy pastures, email to ask me of their future prospects (Irony! Little do they know that I am still figuring out my future prospects in this country after all these years!). I skim emails because it is a necessary practice to save time. 

Acceptance emails/notifications are short and sweet. They start with the word, "Congratulations!" The message is delivered, loud and clear, without wasting my time. 

Rejection emails/notifications somehow become all about the person who rejected me. There are two paragraphs about how the selection process was daunting, challenging and how they had to skim through hundreds of great applications to select the best. The outcome is like a hidden gem, I am still on paragraph three and trying to understand what was the outcome of my application. Well, tell me you did not select me and move on. You do not have to make this email a sob saga about you. I have plenty of other things to do, other opportunities to apply for, and all I want to know is the outcome before I move on. I do not care how many applications you had to read. All I care about is I did not make the cut.

Effective communication is an art. Be objective, be succinct, and be precise. Tell me what you are trying to tell me in the first line. Don't make it about you. It is just an award, a paper, a grant, and not the end of the world.  


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Why I often think of Portugal, but not Paris

Paris, or any over-hyped tourist destination for that matter, is expensive, crowded, and has often left me wondering, “But what was so great about this place?” Portugal is different. Granted, Paris is a city and Portugal is a country, but that is not the point. Portugal, despite its breathtaking beauty, azure seas and quaint alleys, is strangely a less noisy tourist place. I see more people traveling France, Switzerland and Amsterdam than Portugal (I admit, I have a biased sample, consisting mostly of people of Indian origin whom I know).

So what reminded me of Portugal today? Well, the fact that North America is in the throes of winter right now, and I have missed the sun. Every day, I am at least 3 kilo heavier, winter coat, layers of warm clothing, snow boots and all.

I was floored when I first started researching about Portugal and saw the pictures. Its sheer beauty mesmerized me. Coastal Portugal has some amazing views of the Atlantic. With the little fishing villages, the churches, the bell towers, the castles, the palaces and the winding streets, Portugal has history written all over it. The view of the bay from Lisbon is amazing. Summer is super hot (I have never been there in the winter). And if you haven’t seen the westernmost point of continental Europe, you must, absolutely! It happens to be located in Portugal.

Despite its beauty, Portugal is quite inexpensive (like Croatia, Greece, and other southern European countries). I love the challenge of traveling on a shoestring budget, living in hostels, walking or taking the public transport, and finding cheap eating options. Penurious traveling is a skill I picked up due to many years of being a poor graduate student. I am less likely to be splurging at a fancy restaurant, a glass of wine in hand. What penurious travel does (other than save you money) is connect you to the backpacker crowd, people who take time off their work, short-term or long-term, and travel all over the world. Such people make the most interesting conversations.

In Portugal, you will find wholesome meals for a couple of Euros. Public transportation within the city and train networks between cities is excellent. Buying a multiple day city pass takes you further along in terms of getting around and seeing the places of interest. The Oriente train station in Lisbon is beautiful! Within-city commute is very well-planned and easy to figure out. The bus and metro services in Lisbon is great. I took a train to Sintra at 4:30 am, and it was right on time. The trains are clean, comfortable, and very reliable. The yellow trams in Lisbon take you around the city and cover most of the touristy places. And the one-day or multiple-day pass allows you to take the bus, tram, or metro. Do ride the tram # 28.

The best thing about Portugal was, I could just take a map and venture out on my own. Unless you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, there is nothing unsafe. As a woman on my own, not once did I feel uncomfortable. The metro and trains ply until late hours and the touristy places are crowded. In comparison, parts of Italy had felt somewhat unsafe. Most people understand functional English in Portugal, unlike Sicily where I got around using sign language most of the time. Portugal is not Switzerland, New York, or Paris, which makes it all the more endearing. You can safely skip the hyped-destination travel crowd. Yash Chopra movies might have popularized Switzerland for the Indians, and the same goes for Paris or New York City, but I would rather skip the crowd at the Niagara Falls or the long queues for the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Portugal felt more under-explored, local, and like home for me. Talking of elevators, do not miss the elevators, lifts, and funiculars that take you up and give you a panoramic view of Lisbon.

And if you are even remotely interested in photography, Portugal will never disappoint you. Portugal is vibrant, colorful, cosmopolitan, and yet rustic in a beautiful way. The banks of the Douro river in Porto is lined with colorful flags and quaint houses with balconies. You would see colorful clothes drying off in the sun, and winding streets with old houses lining the cityscape. You will love the orange-tiled rooftop houses, and the bright contrast it makes with the blueness of the oceans. You would love the bridges of Porto, the trams of Lisbon, the palaces of Sintra, and the colorful fisherman villages by the Atlantic. The city of Porto is a photographer’s delight, especially the part of the city by the riverfront, or the view of the city from the numerous bridges.

I write and take pictures to travel twice. Hopefully, Portugal will happen again.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

Week 1: Unsubscribe

Digital decluttering has been foremost on my mind. I don’t know how dozens of stray websites with daily offers of stuff I do not need find their way to my email. Some, I had subscribed to in my past life, in a not-so-deliberate act of my attachment to material therapy. But others, I do not even know about. This month, I have actively taken time out to unsubscribe myself from all the email lists that I am no longer interested in. I do not want to start my day virtually sweeping clean my mailbox.

I don’t remember the last time I bought a book from Barnes & Noble, but they kept sending me offers. Amazon is notorious in sending me follow-up emails if I even so much as look for a hairpin on their website. Hostelworld and easyJet still keep sending me deals for Europe travel, although I have left Europe long back. I once took a cruise ship from Germany to Norway, and they still keep sending me deals in German (which makes it harder to find their “unsubscribe” button). I will never figure out how I got to be on the email list for Baby Gap, of all things. I had once actively subscribed to Seth Godin’s blogs, but I have outgrown that content. In my previous life (meaning, many years ago), I was subscribed to Bath & Body Works, but it is cheaper to buy things at full price than get sucked into their bottomless abyss of “buy-3-get-3-free” offers. Now, if I need to buy one, I just buy one, and not six of the same kind. Seattle Public Library still keeps sending me emails, although I have been gone from Seattle for 8 years now (completely my fault, I admit).

And then, there are newsletters from photo websites, offers to send people flowers in India (why on earth?), and travel deals to places I am never likely to visit, like Bora Bora. 

It may sound like a petty thing, but I do not want to start my day reading and deleting pointless emails. I have actively started unsubscribing to declutter. I no longer provide my email id for future offers every time I buy something at Macy’s. Even after weeks of decluttering, a stray offer email, just like a stray mosquito, will buzz every now and then until I swat it away. But overall, I am done waking up to soul-inspiring emails of sales and deals about things I do not need.

Have you uncluttered your mailbox lately? And what are you changing in your life in week one?


Also read: 52 small changes

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Meeting Mr. Alejandro

"Mr. Alejandro? Where can I find you again Mr. Alejandro?"

The words reverberated in my head again and again as I was awash with a deep sense of sadness for not being able to say goodbye.

Mr. Alejandro is the tour guide I had met earlier that morning. I was on a day trip to Taxco, about 200 km away from Mexico City. I had just arrived for the first time in Mexico three days ago and learnt quickly that tipping your way around is not only recommended, but is also the right thing to do. That day, we had our driver, Marcus, and the person who had escorted us to Taxco, Hugo.

When we reached Taxco, Hugo placed our tour group in Mr. Alejandro's hands and disappeared.

Taxco is a silver mining city. They plan the trip so that tourists can have hours to shop for silver. I was a little interested in learning how silver is mined, but not interested in purchasing silver at all. I was done looking around in five minutes.

It had been more than 30 minutes and the fellow tourists were still inside the stores, happily buying away. Bored, I took my camera out and started walking around a block or two. That is when I saw Mr. Alejandro, an old and short man who could be easily passed off as being from India. He wore a brownish shirt tucked in his trousers. He had a lump in his back and walked with a leftward limp. Although not a native English speaker, he spoke English with authority. My grandfather had a close friend from Hazra who used to love visiting foreign countries, dabbing generous amount of Cuticura powder on his chest, and spoke like that.

He told me to check out the streets on the left, those that had a nicer view of the church. And thus, we started talking.

At first, Mr. Alejandro seemed just like any other guide, saying the best and claiming to show us the best. He told us a little bit about the city and promised to take us to a really nice restaurant with magnificent views. And he kept his promise. The food was average, but the views were great. Mexico is quite cheap and even if they took you to a restaurant that was a total rip-off, you would only end up paying maybe a few US dollars more. I was beginning to get an idea of how the tourism industry works here. It's just like in India, everyone has their "internal setting." Guides take you to a pre-decided restaurant they have some kind of a tie-up with. In return, the guides get free meals and drinks. The same way, they took you to certain pre-determined shops for retail therapy.

"This is the only road in the city made of marble," he showed us. "And the widest road in the city too," he added knowledgeably. He did take us to a few shops to look around. Tourists (both men and women) jumped into these shops like they had never gone shopping before. I have stopped buying things I cannot consume. Souvenir hunting was a waste of time for me. I was wondering how many shops he would take us to. I should have brought along a book to read.

I looked up the mountain and saw a statue of Christ, arms outstretched. It was a hot afternoon in December and we were on a pre-determined schedule of shopping and church-hopping. Hiking up the mountain to the Christ statue was not a part of the plan. But that is what I wanted to do.

"Mr. Alejandro, would it be possible to hike up the mountain all the way to Christ's statue?" I excitedly asked.

Mr. Alejandro didn't seem encouraging, and I knew why. It was not a part of the plan. He would rather the visitors shopped for silver and souvenirs and boosted the sales of these shops he had connections with. But he also knew that I was not interested in shopping. He had seen my bored face not too long ago.

"Do you really want to go? You'll have to stick to my plan. We will all walk up to the church. From there, I will try to find you a taxi driver I know personally. You pay him 200 pesos. He will take you up the mountain and wait for 20 minutes for you to look around. He will then bring you back to the main square by 4:30 pm so that you can get back to your group. Are you game?"

"Yes! Yes!" I said enthusiastically. Ideally, I would have wanted to hike up on foot, but we had to leave by 4:30 pm and there was no time. Taking one of those white, cute Volkswagen Beetles would have to do. I knew separating from the group had its risks. I spoke no Spanish and did not have a working phone. My return to Mexico City would be jeopardized if something went wrong. 200 pesos might be a lot, I have no idea, and I was in no position to bargain. Did Mr. Alejandro have a percentage share in that too? He said that he would get me a driver he personally knew. Was it for my safety or his profit too?

My brain chatter never ceased.

200 pesos is $10. Even if it turned out to be an utter waste of time and money and even if I was being ripped off, I was leaning towards climbing the mountain. I can't even buy a decent meal in the US for $10. How bad could it be?

When we got in front of the church, Mr. Alejandro said that he'd rather I go inside the church first since I was there anyway. There was a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe that I must see. Although I didn't care about churches, I did not want to say no. Inside, he gave us a background of the church. To me, it was the story of another rich man from Europe who had come to Mexico to kill and conquer and mark his territory through an ostentatious display of wealth. Sometimes, I can be quite apathetic to the things around me that other people find incredulous, bordering on being flippant.

True to his word, he escorted us out of the church, sent the other tourists on their way for more silver shopping, and started walking around the busy square looking for a taxi for me. Every taxi had a little ID number painted in red. He told me that it is very important both of us remember the number, in case it was past 4:30 pm and my group was not able to find me.

He flagged a few, but he did not know any of the drivers personally. I was beginning to get impatient and wondered again if this hunt for a known driver was solely for my safety, or for his percentage of tip too. I told him that he could just find me any taxi, that I would be fine. He seemed to consider it for a moment and that is what he did eventually. He flagged a taxi, gave the driver instructions in Spanish, and told me to be back by 4:30 pm, no matter what. He asked me to stay safe, helped open my door as I hopped in, and even closed it for me.

The fun started from there.

It was an amazing taxi ride. When I'd asked Mr. Alejandro why our big van cannot take me up, he told me that I will know soon. And I did. The narrow, serpentine roads that led up were heavily inclined. Roads out of a physics textbook, only these tiny Beetles could make it up there. For the next 20 minutes, I sat at a constant incline, my neck literally thrown backward, my hamstrings trying hard to balance. The roads were single-lane and every time cars came from the opposite direction, ours had to go on reverse gear to make space for them. It was one hell of a scary ride. And exciting too. Although I spoke no Spanish and the driver spoke no English, we chatted constantly. By the time I reached up the hill, I was dizzy with excitement. It was the best ride ever and I would have happily paid the 200 pesos just for the ride up.

The driver motioned that I spend 20 minutes after which, he would whistle loudly. That was my cue to come back. I was wondering if he would ask me for more money on my way back. I suddenly had this irrepressible urge to learn how to whistle back.

Like a child or a puppy without leash, I jumped out of the car and made my way to Christ's statue. The views from there were spectacular. The entire city I had walked around with Mr. Alejandro not too long ago was sprawled below me, nestled in the arms of the mountains that looked just like the Shenandoah mountains in Virginia. From the top, I could see the huge church (now a tiny figurine from the distance) and the square in front of it from which Mr. Alejandro got me the taxi. I took dozens of pictures from various angles, changing my lenses to take close ups and then distant shots. Mr. Alejandro would be thrilled to see these pictures. He told me that he grew up here, he must have visited this place many times. When I had asked him earlier to accompany me, Mr. Alejandro had politely declined, saying that he needed to stick around with the other tourists from our group. It was his job. The ride up was so thrilling and now, the views from the top were fantastic too. I am so glad I had broken off from the group, something I usually never do. I made it a point to give him a fat tip when I went back. Mr. Alejandro totally deserved it.

20 minutes later, my driver whistled loudly, a rather funny sight. I jumped up the stairs and hopped inside his taxi, but not before asking him to pose for a picture in front of his taxi, something he readily obliged. I think I liked my driver too despite my initial hesitation of being sent up a mountain with a stranger. He sported a mustache and for reasons not quite clear to me, I tend to trust men with mustaches more than men without one. Don't ask me why, biases and blind beliefs usually have no scientific, data-driven basis. My driver continued to talk on the way back too, stuff I understood nothing of. The ride downhill was even more scary and thrilling. He waved to a woman with a baby and later told me it was his wife and child. He asked me if I had babies. He motioned with his hand and told me he had four babies. "Cuatro," he said. Traveling up and down with a mustachioed man with four babies was probably not that unsafe after all. I might be all brave and adventurous, trying out new things in life, but it did cross my mind that the possibility of a man taking me hostage, forcing me inside a desolate building and tying me up was something that had a non-zero probability of occurring. So far, the driver hadn't shown any such signs. Excitedly, I continued to take more videos of my ride downhill, sitting once again slanted at a precarious angle and without a seat belt. Roller coasters are so passé, this was far more exciting.

When my mustachioed driver dropped me off, I was half-expecting him to demand more money. But he took his 200 pesos and drove off. I was a little surprised, I was expecting him to wait for Mr. Alejandro and give him his share. I was back at the main square where I started that morning. I could see Christ's statue when I craned my neck. I smiled at the statue, so glad for having made a trip all the way up there. I was dying to tell Mr. Alejandro all about it. And while I waited for the group, I took out 120 more pesos from my wallet and tucked it in my camera bag's pocket. This is the most I have considered tipping, but Mr. Alejandro totally deserves his tip.

The group was back within 10 minutes, happily holding bags of merchandise. Hugo had magically reappeared and was leading the group. I had not seen him since morning.

"Hugo! Where is Mr. Alejandro?" I asked excitedly. I had to quickly tell him about my trip up there, tip him and thank him before saying goodbye.

"Mr. Alejandro left," Hugo told me.


Mr. Alejandro said goodbye to the group in front of the church after which, Hugo took over. This means I was not seeing Mr. Alejandro anymore. This also means Mr. Alejandro knew that he will not see me again when he got me that taxi and waved me goodbye. Why didn't he tell me? Why didn't he ask for a tip?

I boarded the van feeling strangely empty, no longer enthusiastic. I had so much fun in that taxi ride, I wish I could share it all with the person who made it possible. He had magically transformed a boring shopping trip to one of the most exciting trips I will always remember. Why did he disappear from the church?

I rode back the 3+ hour long ride in silence, wishing that I had a chance to say goodbye. As we left the outskirts of the city, I kept glancing back, taking in the views for the last time, the spectacular white-painted colonial houses by the side of the mountain, the serpentine roads and the white Beetle taxis, and up above everything, the statue of Christ standing with its arms outstretched, offering fantastic views of where I now was from that vantage point.

Mr. Alejandro from Taxco, I don't have a picture of you, and I only remember how you look from my memory now. I don't know how you would ever get to read this post. Maybe you will never. If you do, remember that there is a girl eagerly waiting to tell you all about her trip and show you the pictures. She owes you your tip. And a huge thanks. For she could not have asked for a better trip. Thank you!