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January 8, 2006

La Travesía

I just got back from a cruise with my immediate family to the Mexican Riviera, a much needed escape from work and blustery Chicago weather. One week sun kissed and a few pounds heavier, I'll recount a bit of the trip. We arrived in L.A. and set sail on New Years Eve towards the western coast of Mexico. We sailed for two days, most of my time spent reading, watching dolphins and whales swim by, and catching some of the live evening entertainment on the ship. I've never felt smaller or more insignificant than I do when I look off the ship into nothing but ocean on all sides, and the feeling never seems to lessen. It's a good reality check, not to mention gorgeous when the sun is setting.

On Tuesday, we stopped at our first port of call. Puerto Vallarta, now mostly recognized as a popular tourist destination, was first a traditional Mexican village. The original reason for the port was to enable the shipment of silver from nearby mines. I guess Predator was also filmed there, but despite being a closet Arnold action movie fan, I've never really liked that movie. We took a taxi to the main shopping plaza and after wasting time bargaining with merchants there, went to a small museum deeper into the city that had a few exhibits on the history of the city. I tried to read most of the exhibit signs in Spanish, but after a mostly pathetic effort just ended up resorting to the English translations.

The next day we stopped in Mazatlán, or "place of the deer" as named by the Chibcha Indians. At one time, herds of deer wandered throughout the area. In their memory, there is this huge statue of a deer on the waterfront and the deer is also part of the city's coat of arms. Mazatlán is another port famous for its gold and silver trade. Pirates who preyed on treasure-rich ships, including the famous Sir Francis Drake, frequented this region. There are rumors that treasure is still buried here, alas, I didn't come across anything while kicking in the sand. We visited the Plaza Revolución, the city's main square, and went to the Basílica del la Inmaculada Concepción, this pretty little cathedral on the outer part of the city. We spent some time at the beach and waterfront, where they had quite a few interesting bronze sculptures of what looked to me like a cross between baby druids and teletubbies.

Our last port was Cabo San Lucas, the tip of the Baja peninsula. For centuries the Baja peninsula was an isolated area inhabited by the Cochima Indians. In the 16th century, lured by rumors of gold, Hernan Cortez sent ships to explore the area. In the 17th century, the Jesuits arrived and founded a bunch of religious missions in Cabo and the surrounding area. By the 1850's, however, disease depopulated the whole peninsula, and everything went abandoned. In 1834, President Polk sided with Texans who were tired of paying taxes to the Mexicans and conceded that the U.S. didn't need any more desert land, so we left Baja to Mexico. Today, Cabo is mostly known as another popular tourist destination. My brothers and I went kayaking across the Sea of Cortez towards Playa del Amor (Lover's Beach), a small beach where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean. We saw some pelicans and sea lions on the way and managed to not fall into the water while doing so. We then went snorkling near the coast of Playa del Amor and saw some gorgeous underwater fish and flora. The beach was perfect, completely untouched (by law) from tourist traps and other commercial facilities. I was dissapointed I didn't bring my camera, but I later saw the beach as a scenic backdrop to two different commercial ads in the Hemispheres magazine United Airlines provides in airplane seat pockets, so I guess I should have no problem tracking down a picture if I ever did want to find one.

After visiting all of the ports, I've come to the conclusion that all jewelry shopping at these cruise stops is a huge tourist trap, and no ship shopping guide should be trusted. Yes, all tourist trinkets are essentially over-priced and poor quality, but there is a big difference between purchasing a $3 shot glass or cheap t-shirt and a $10,000 necklace. The people on our ship told all of us vacationers to shop at these International jewelry stores to get great deals unlike anything they have in the states, but it's all a huge rip off. Pure gold was selling globally at around $545 for an ounce (or $17ish for a gram) before I left on vacation. Most jewelers sell 14 karat gold (which is only 60% pure gold) jewelry in their stores. Now, I would expect to pay around the market price ($17ish for a gram) for gold in these stores. If we consider selling 14 karat gold at the market value of pure gold, we have a 40% markup for craftsmenship, service, store costs, etc., which seems more than reasonable to me. These stores were selling 14 karat gold "factory made" chains at around $50 a gram and the cruise ship guides were condoning this as a "great deal". That's criminal! Luckily, I'm too cheap to want gold, silver, or anything real in the first place, but it's still ridiculous.

We had one more day sailing on the Pacific and then flew back to Chicago, where I'm now sitting and trying to catch up on what I missed. School starts next week, I have to finish up a research paper, start programming, get on top of ACM stuff, and finish being lazy for awhile. Oh, and I should start hearing back from graduate schools about PhD applications in a few weeks, so that should be fun... or not.





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