Archive for January, 2013

3 undeniable reasons to explore Mexico

January 30th, 2013 by Mariah

(CNN) — During a recent visit to Mexico, a woman on a bus in Cancun expressed puzzlement to me about why anyone would choose to travel to her country right now.

After a lengthy description of the violence in her hometown of Veracruz, she left me with emphatic advice: “No confia en nadie,” meaning “trust no one.”

That advice seems extreme. With a well-developed tourism sector, there are legions of people whose livelihood depends on helping you have a good time, and beyond that, most locals are warm and friendly. The drug violence that grabs most of the headlines shouldn’t define a country so rich in world-class attractions.

Yet safety should always be taken into account. The U.S. State Department warns against travel to many Mexican states, mostly in the north and west. Though southern Mexico goes about business as usual (and the State Department does not warn against travel to the area), it’s important to exercise caution and remember that danger can arise anywhere.

I’ve visited Mexico three times and have got a lot more to see, but here are three undeniably good reasons I’ve discovered to visit Mexico:

Gastronomia: Fried grasshoppers, perhaps?

Mexican food as a category needs little introduction; it was even recognized by UNESCO as part of world heritage in 2010.

But regional specialties abound. Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico is famous for multiple moles, complex stewed sauces served over meats. The Oaxacan treatment of the tortilla is the tlayuda, an open, crispy tortilla slathered with a bean paste, topped with cheese, meat or other toppings.

More adventurous Oaxacan offerings are the famous chapulines, grasshoppers fried to a crunch and spiced with chile and lime. They are better than they might sound (unless you’re wise enough to realize that anything crunchy with chile and lime is going to be good).

Chocolate originated in Mexico, and they still make it best.

Oaxaca is ground zero for chocoholics, where chocolate shops show visitors the transformation from beans into bars in the store. Chocolate here is most popular as a hot drink with water served alongside a sweet roll, but you can get it with milk or in bar form.

Coastal cities such as Campeche or Cancun on the Gulf of Mexico have great seafood, notably ceviche. Mexican ceviche usually adds tomato to the citrus marinated fish and shrimp. Also often added is ketchup, though this usually is called coctel instead of ceviche. (The tomatoes are acceptable, the ketchup is an abomination).

The Yucatan has specialties ranging from cochinita pibil (citrus marinated roast pork) to pavo en salsa negra (turkey in black salsa, a seriously funky dish made with burned chilies).

You can get a pretty mean taco almost anywhere. Mexican tacos are usually soft corn tortillas, a small pile of meat and little pickled vegetable or onion. Salsa is around, but you have to add it yourself if you want it.

The ends of many worlds

Mexico’s many pre-Hispanic sites are among the country’s most interesting destinations.

They carried extra weight last year for eschatologists with 2012 being the end of a cycle in one of the Maya long-count calendars. The Mayas never said it was the “end of the world,” just the end of “a” world. So they will be there for you to enjoy in the new 14th baktun.

Archaeologists aren’t sure who built the massive pyramids at Teotihuacan, but the site was long abandoned by the time the Aztecs were dominant (they reckoned it was built by gods). It is easily reachable from Mexico City but as such can be crowded and is packed with vendors.

Near the city of Oaxaca, the hilltop ruins of Monte Alban were once home to the Zapotec.

Palenque, a Maya site in a lush jungle in Chiapas, is also extremely impressive and interesting, but it is in the interior of the country and not really easy to get to from anywhere. The site’s jungle seclusion gives a trip there a more adventurous feel.

Expect to pay extra at these sites if you want to shoot video or use a tripod. Fees are posted near the entrances. It will likely be hot (in the summer especially), but vendors inside and out of the parks offer drinks as well as a vast array of trinkets, ranging from respectable to ridiculous.

Mysterious swims

Mexico’s beaches are plentiful, varied and justifiably a major draw. This year, I went for the more sedate environs of Tulum, a nice uncrowded beach with perfect turquoise water (and a beachside Maya ruin). But the cenotes are much more unusual and interesting.

Cenotes are a geological occurrence that are found in the Yucatan and very few other places. Because most of the peninsula sits on a limestone shelf, there are no surface rivers, and rainwater quickly seeps underground where it gathers and forms subterranean bodies of water known as cenotes.

They are present throughout the Yucatan and some have been developed into near-theme parks, where you pay a substantial admission price and there are vehicles, boats, zip lines and more. Others are tiny sinkholes known mainly to locals and are free if you can find them.

Many fall somewhere in between with a small admission fee (equivalent of $5-$10), perhaps a changing area and maybe some lights or ropes. Other than that, it’s just a natural swimming hole. Some go underground for hundreds of meters or more, and they are a popular attraction for intermediate divers.

They’re also perfect for just plain swimming. The Yucatan is hot and sticky; the water in cenotes is fresh and ice cold since they are partially or completely underground. In some cases, sunlight shines through holes in the cavern ceiling, illuminating the beautifully clear, blue-tinted water giving it an otherworldly feel.

And many cenotes attract swallows, which you might — as I did — mistake for bats. They constantly fly in and out squeaking busily. Though the clear water might trick your brain into thinking you’re in a sterile pool, you are not. There is wildlife present, mostly in the form of little fish that will nibble at your feet if you are still, as well as the occasional turtle or snake.

Some recommended cenotes for swimming:

X’kek√©n near Valladolid is a beautiful underground spot. Cristalino off the main highway near Playa del Carmen is mostly exposed and has a fun cliff you can jump off (it’s only a 15 foot or so drop). Grand Cenote near Tulum has some exposed and some subterranean areas and lots of wildlife running or swimming around.

So whether you go to Mexico for cave swimming and ancient sites or for mole and margaritas, it’ll be worth it.

Confia en mi — trust me on that.

Toyota Recalls 1 Million Cars in US

January 30th, 2013 by Mariah

Fresh from reclaiming its crown as the world’s largest automaker, Toyota has been hit by another major recall.

The Japanese carmaker said Wednesday it was recalling more than 1 million vehicles sold in the United States over faulty airbags and windshield wipers.

The airbag control issue affects about 752,000 Corolla and Corolla Matrix cars sold in 2003 and 2004. And the windshield wiper issue affects some 270,000 Lexus IS models sold between 2006 and early 2012.

Toyota (TM)said there was the possibility that the Corolla airbags could deploy inadvertently, and the Lexus wipers may not operate if restricted by a heavy buildup of snow.

General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) is the leading automaker in the world’s two largest markets, China and the U.S. But Toyota is a clear leader in its home market of Japan, where non-Japanese automakers have had trouble competing due to limited dealerships.

Sales of Toyota vehicles totaled 9.75 million in 2012, beating GM’s 9.29 million and propelling the Japanese firm to top spot in the global car market.

In 2011, Toyota’s car sales were hurt by the earthquake and tsunami, and in 2009 and 2010 sales were hit by damaging recalls.

During those two years, more than 8 million Toyota vehicles were brought in for a potential problem involving sticky accelerator pedals.

Sales and production of eight models were suspended temporarily, and the company agreed to pay $1.1 billion to settle a related class-action suit by owners who claimed they suffered losses because of unintended acceleration.

The automaker also suffered two major recalls in 2012. In October, it recalled 7.4 million cars due to a power window problem that posed a fire risk. And a month later it recalled 2.8 million cars over problems with steering and hybrid systems.

Man kills Alabama bus driver, holds child hostage underground

January 30th, 2013 by Mariah

(CNN) — A gunman boarded a school bus in Alabama, killed the driver, took a 6-year-old boy hostage and hours later was still holding him in an underground bunker, police said.

The incident started Tuesday afternoon and continued Wednesday morning with authorities still desperately trying to free the young child.

Late in the evening Tuesday, the man had the child in some sort of underground bunker or storm shelter, and authorities were communicating with him through a PVC pipe, CNN affiliate WSFA reported.

“We will continue to work diligently through the night in an effort to bring closure to this incident as quickly as possible,” the Dale County Sheriff’s Department said late Tuesday.

Adding to the tension was the fact that the child needs medication that has to be taken daily, CNN affiliate WDHN reported.

Overnight, authorities were able to send the child’s medication down the pipe into the bunker and also determine that the boy had not been physically harmed, WDHN reported.

The incident started at about 3:40 p.m. (4:40 p.m. ET) near a church in Midland City, Alabama, in the southeastern corner of the state.

Michael Senn, a local pastor, told WSFA that he spoke to several students who had been on the bus.

He said a girl described the shooter getting aboard.

“He told most of them to get off the bus,” Senn related. “And then he grabbed a little boy and shot the bus driver four times.” The driver’s body was removed from the bus early Wednesday, WDHN reported.

Mike Creel, the suspect’s neighbor, said he also talked to some of the children who escaped the bus. It was a terrifying scene, Creel told the affiliate.

The suspect initially demanded two children, Creel told WSFA.

“The one child he got ahold of actually fainted,” said Creel. “That was the reason he was able to grab him. And now he is hidden in his homemade bomb shelter.”

Creel said the suspect had been living in the area for about two years and began building the shelter right when he moved in.

Authorities have not released the name of the suspected gunman.

Early in the morning, local authorities allowed the FBI to take the lead in the hostage situation, WDHN reported.

Harrowing stories emerge from nightclubs ashes

January 30th, 2013 by Mariah

Santa Maria, Brazil (CNN) — The teacher who lost four students. The mother whose son died, while another clings to life. The photographer who survived but is haunted by guilt.

As the southern Brazilian city of Santa Maria began to buzz again Tuesday with cars and people, a somber mood still ruled the streets, where a nightclub fire Sunday claimed 235 lives.

Just about at every corner you could hear angry voices raised in talk about who is to blame for the massive blaze at the Kiss nightclub. Protesters rallied, demanding justice for those killed and tighter enforcement of regulations.

In addition to the deaths, 74 people remain hospitalized in critical condition, Brazil’s health ministry said.

In Santa Maria alone, 100 of the dead were buried Monday in three different cemeteries.

That night, the streets were filled with thousands of mourners who marched to the burned-out club.

The shouts of grief and prayers were overtaken only by the wailing of mothers who stood before the building. One woman shouted: “My son, why did you have to die here?”

Police have questioned about two dozen people, including four individuals they arrested — the two owners of Kiss, a member of the band Gurizada Fandangueira and a promoter.

Police identified the club owners as Mauro Hoffman and Elissandro Spohr. Band vocalist Marcelo de Jesus dos Santos and show producer Luciano Bonilha were also in custody.

Kiss was filled well beyond its legal capacity, when a crowd of 2,000 people packed the club to hear the band play.

About 20 minutes into the concert, the musicians ended a song with pyrotechnic effects. The ceiling caught fire, state officials said. It spread fast.

The crowd panicked, breaking into a stampede, and it hit a bottleneck — the only exit was the front door, down a dark, narrow hallway.

It clogged quickly.

A firework set off in the club was not made for inside use and the band, which purchased it, knew that, said Marcelo Arigony, with the Santa Maria police. He accused the band of intentionally purchasing the firework made for use outdoors because it was cheaper.

He also said investigators have found evidence of faulty and fake fire extinguishers at the club, which had expired fire and municipal licenses. The club’s original license permitted just 691 people inside.

While the investigation centers on the pyrotechnics used, Gurizada Fandangueira’s guitarist told the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo that it was not clear yet what may have caused the fire.

“There were many wires on the ceiling, and there could have been a short circuit,” he said.

More stories emerge

For residents of Santa Maria like Vinicius Serafim, the tragedy that unfolded at the club was unthinkable, even as the first reports began to come in.

“Most of us were thinking, ‘OK, there is a fire, people got out and that was it,” he said. “In the morning, where they started saying 40 dead, 50 dead, then we started noticing and really knowing (what happened).”

Serafim, an English teacher, lost four students in the blaze, and others are in intensive care units.

“Everybody is completely destroyed because they were young people, people that we knew. We worked with them for at least one year,” he said.

One survivor, 24-year-old Mariana Magalhaes, told Brazil’s state-run Agencia Brasil news agency, that she witnessed the band’s singer unsuccessfully trying to put out the fire with an extinguisher.

She was working as a photographer at Kiss, and had already been to 15 funerals when she spoke to Agencia Brasil.

Magalhaes was one of the first to exit the building, and admits that she felt she was overreacting at first by screaming and running out. Only later did she realize her panic saved her life.

“No one could imagine the seriousness (of the fire),” she said. One danger was that the club’s sound insulation was made of styrofoam, which releases toxic fumes when burned.

“It was a very silent enemy,” she said. “People were exiting fine and walking, when from one moment to the next they started to fall, to have convulsions, to vomit.”

Magalhaes escaped with five friends, but in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy she was filled with guilt, too.

“You can count five people on one hand,” she said. “We don’t feel fortunate for surviving because there are mothers who won’t be able to hug their sons. My mom is hugging me, but at the same time I felt lucky and guilty.”

On a Brazilian television program, one mother lamented the death of her son and the injuries to a another son.

Elaine Goncalves was able to locate her injured son as he was being transferred to a hospital, but she could not accompany him because she had to go claim the body of her other son.

“It’s terrible, very sad,” she said. “My sons left the house looking nice, happy, playful, the two brothers together. My son left to go to a party and now he is here, inside a box. I demand justice.”

Brazil’s minister of health, Alexandre Padilha, said the most serious cases involve patients who require permanent dialysis, medications to maintain blood pressure, and assistance breathing.

Many of the injured were transferred to hospitals in bigger cities, while others were kept in Santa Maria.

“The transfer was for patients with serious burns because our specialized centers are in the city of Porto Alegre and also in order to free up beds in the intensive care unit here in Santa Maria,” Padilha said.

Some were in such critical condition that it was not believed they could survive the trip to another facility.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff honored the victims during a meeting with newly elected mayors on Monday.

“The pain which I witnessed is indescribable,” Rousseff said. “I speak of that pain to remind us all about our responsibility, the executive branch, with our population. In the face of this tragedy, we must make a commitment to ensure that it will never happen again.”