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Friday, Sept 13, 2013 — Leaving the Americas

It’s a good thing my flight doesn’t leave until tomorrow. I’m sure flying on Friday the 13th would be a bad idea.

Approximately 1 am, I’ll be boarding a flight here in Mexico City, bound for Montreal. I’ll spend roughly 12 hours on the ground there, then fly to Paris, where I’ll be meeting up with a friend of mine for a 3-week whirlwind tour of France, Germany, Belgium, and England. October 4, my friend will return to Kansas, and I will stay in Europe a while longer, and hopefully take some French and/or Portuguese classes.

I’m both excited and nervous about this. It feels like the first time I’ll be venturing into a country where I don’t speak the language. But really, I did the same thing–and in a much scarier way–about 3 years ago, when I moved to Mexico. At the time, I spoke a token amount of Spanish. But the main thing is that now I speak (more or less) fluent Spanish, which paints my memory of early Mexican travel with a rose-colored light.

This last week I have really been enjoying Mexico City. I have a friend here with a nearly-complete apartment she’s not yet using, so I’ve been staying there, and riding my bicycle to area cafes to work. Then every night, around 9-10pm, when she gets off work, we’ve been going to dinner at other various local restaurants.

A favorite was the 50′s themed diner, which served baked potatoes named after Hollywood stars, alcoholic cocktails, the likes of which I had never seen before (I drank one with cucumber, cai seeds and, I think, vodka), and milk shakes.

I also enjoyed a Cuban restaurant, where I got to drink a Cuban beer for the first time (since Cuban-imported products are illegal in the U.S.).

And it probably goes without saying, the food is one thing I’m very eager to experience in Europe, too. I’ve been promised some home-cooked Belgian food by a coworker who lives there. And a good friend from high school will be introducing us to some German places and food. And of course, the cheese and wine in France are high on my list of things to try–if only I can figure out how to pronounce their names!

Day 31 – August 12, 2013: How many Mexican highway workers does it take to change a light bulb?

About a week and a half ago, I was driving near Querétaro, when the answer to this riddle became quite apparent:

Q: How many Mexican highway workers does it take to change a light bulb?

A: 50. One to change the light bulb, and 49 to redirect traffic.

Driving along the highway, I saw some orange cones, and a lone man in an orange vest, directing traffic to merge from the left lane into the right. This was followed by hundreds of traffic cones, but no sign of work whatsoever. After a mile or so, I saw another worker, waving traffic away from the left lane (never mind that nobody was in the left lane, thanks to the cones, and the previous redirection a mile earlier).

From this point, every hundred feet or so, I saw another man in an orange vest waving a flag, instructing me to continue not to merge back into the quarantined left lane. This went on for another mile or two.

Eventually, after about 3-4 miles of these cones and people waving at me, I saw, on the shoulder, a cherry-picker, holding a man high into the air, to change the light bulb on a street light.

Cute.

Mexican traffic often makes me chuckle. Which brings me to another encounter I had this morning.

Over the weekend in Guadalajara, we had a very severe thunder storm, complete with flooding (photos later), power outages, and many downed trees. This morning as I was driving to an appointment to replace my brake pads along Mariano Otero, one of the major roads through Guadalajara, the traffic lights were out, and there was a tree blocking a major portion of the road. So a traffic cop was at the intersection, directing traffic.

Until he saw me.

Or more precisely, until he saw my car.

He had me stop in the middle of the hectic intersection, to ask me about my car, and how much I would sell it for!!

I do get offers for my car all the time, as diesel Jettas are rare here… (this was at least my second one this week), but I’ve never had a traffic-directing police man hold up 6 lanes of traffic to ask me if I would sell it!

Day 26 – August 7, 2013

I don’t have much to write today. But I have a free moment, so I’ll write something.

I just walked back from the market, where I bought a liter of fresh carrot and orange juice for MXN$25 (US$1.97), and a mango to put on my steel-cut oats.

I’m in Guadalajara this week, staying with some friends, and venturing into the city to visit friends in the evenings after work. Last night I went to the home of the pastor of English Fellowship–the church I attended when I lived here. Tonight I’ll go salsa dancing.

My life as of late consists of working, and visiting friends. Much like when I was in Wichita, only these friends I haven’t seen for a while.

Next weekend I intend to go to Puerto Vallarta for a couple days.

Day 14 – July 26, 2013: Immigration office

Today I took my second trip to the Mexican Immigration office in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. Also my third, fourth, and fifth.

In stark contrast to the good experience I had with the Mexican bureaucracy on Day 3, this experience left much to be desired.

I showed up about 9:30am yesterday, and was told of the requirements to finish my visa application:

  • 3 passport-sized photos
  • Wire a payment of $3,130 pesos at the bank
  • Photo copies of my passport
  • Fill out a simple paper form
  • Fill out an online form

Seems simple enough. It took a while to complete all these tasks, eat lunch, and return to the office. I returned at 12:55pm; five minutes before closing time (yes, they close at 1:00pm… huh?)

I had everything in order, except that I had filled out the online form incorrectly (with the wrong “reason”).

I was told to do it again, and return the next day. *sigh* Oh well.

9:15am I arrived with the new form today. I was told I had made an error. I failed to include my middle name this time, so the form did not match my passport exactly.

I walked across the street to a cyber cafe. For 3 pesos, I was able to fill out and print the form.

10:00am The new form had another error. I had entered the incorrect expiration date for my passport.

Back across the street. Fill out the form again.

10:30am Double-checking my form this time, I notice I had typoed my own middle name.

Back across the street. Fill out the form again.

11:00am Finally. Everything in order. My forms are accepted. I sign a few places.

Now I have an appointment for next Friday to return, when I believe I will be given my final Visa card, which allows me access into and out of Mexico as a temporary resident. Woot!

I am at a loss as to why they don’t just fill out the electronic form for you there at the office. It’s a half-page at best. Name, place of birth, nationality, passport number, and current (Mexican) address. It seems it would save everyone, including the staff at the immigration office, time to do it this way.

Day 6 – July 18, 2013: If you’re holding a beer, it doesn’t count as dancing

Last night I was invited to the Far West Rodeo club in Monterrey, Mexico for some live music. The MXN$150 (~US$12) cover included free drinks, so I had some cheap beer and come cheap pineapple juice with rum.

The music varied a little, including some Salsa and Cumbia, but mostly Tejano. As wikipedia points out, Tejano music is kind of a broad term for music which formed out of the combination of northern Mexican and southern U.S. influences. This was especially clear to me while listening to the band play a partly-Spanish, partly-English rendition of the Johnny Cash song Ring of Fire.

This was my first attempt to dance to the Tejano rythm, but I guess I did alright. It’s pretty simple. Too simple, really, for my taste. But I enjoyed watching others dance to the Tejano music, and to the Tejano-Cumbia rythms. I know a little Cumbia, but not enough to really hold my own yet. And watching the other couples dance last night, while entertaining, wasn’t especially educationally, as the vast majority were dancing holding beers or cigarettes. And in my opinion, you can’t really dance without both hands free.

I think we’ll hit up a salsa club here in Monterrey later this week. I’m hoping!

Day 5 – July 17, 2013: Train-dodging in Monterrey

Yesterday I drove from Reynosa to Monterrey. It would have been about a 2-hour drive, but without a GPS, and Mexico’s lacking road signs, I got lost in Reynosa, and again in Monterrey. But this is part of the adventure, right?

Today on my way from the hotel to where I would be working, I saw something new for me. A train engine. Coming straight at me down the road.

It wasn’t going fast, but it took me completely off guard. I wish I could have taken a photo, but I had the choice between rummaging for a camera, or having the chance to tell you this story.

I suppose to the locals it’s a normal thing to have a railroad track run neither parallel nor perpendicular to, but rather directly down the center of the road, and in opposition to traffic, for a full city block.

Day 3 – July 15, 2013

Today was a bad day. I went to Telcel to buy a new SIM card to use while in Mexico, as I had lost my old one. That went fine, but when I rebooted my Android phone after installing the new SIM, the top half of my touch-screen didn’t work. It looks like I’ll need to do a screen replacement, which will cost roughly $95 plus international shipping.

Fortunately, I have a second phone, with two SIM card slots, so I am now on the Mexican phone network again, albeit with a phone that doesn’t even support T9.

Aside from my frustrating day of telephony, the most interesting thing I observed was that the majority of the employees at the Telcel store looked visibly depressed, angry, or otherwise like they would have rather been anywhere else at all. I found this to be an ironic contrast to my experience the day before at the Mexican immigration office, where I got my personal entry permit and my vehicle permit.

At the first booth at the immigration office, the gentleman gave me my personal permit, and informed me I had to proceed to the next window for the vehicle permit, but that I would only pay for the vehicle, not for the entry permit, as I normally do, because my temporary residency entry was a special case.

However, at the second window, they charged me anyway. When I asked about it, they said it was correct, and I believed them. But then the first guy I spoke with wandered by, and asked if I paid. When I said yes, he protested, and he and the other clerk had a brief conversation about it. I didn’t think a lot of it.

But as I was leaving–I was already in my car, backing out of my parking space–another clerk came running out to me, and told me that her coworker was consulting with her boss about the charge, and that I should go back in to see if I was due a refund.

The short version of the story is I didn’t get a refund, but had I entered by air or bus, I would not have paid the fee. But I was quite surprised by the extra effort these Mexican government employees went to, hoping to return a charge of about US$20 to me. There were 5 employees involved. This goes against practically every other experience I’ve had of government employees in any country, and doubly so in Mexico.

I was impressed.

Day 2 – July 14, 2013

I’ve never been good at “blogging”, or writing regularly about anything. But I know there are folks who want to read about what I’m doing. So I’m going to try. I have no idea how long this effort will last. But with this post, I’m 2 for 2.

I just entered Mexico, and am writing from my hotel in Reynosa. I’ll probably spend a couple days here. Tomorrow I’ll go to the TelCel customer service center to (hopefully) buy a SIM card to replace the one I lost, and keep my old number.

This morning I went to church with my friend Dave from Couch Surfing, and was exposed to my first “southern” worship service, complete with a banjo and fiddle. Although I am a life-long loather of country-western style music, it was interesting to hear that style of worship. And the music really wasn’t bad. I wouldn’t choose it every week, but it is nice to have variety every now and then.

I was really struck by the view from the front door of the church. I tried to capture it on film, but was in a rush, and am afraid I didn’t do it justice. But this is what I did capture:

Day 1 – July 13, 2013

Today I started my journey.

I’ve been thinking about this two to three years. And today I began.

37 months ago I moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, for what was to be a 1-year stay, for the purpose of learning Spanish and a cultural exchange. My 1-year stay, which lasted 19 months, made the world seem so much smaller, and more within reach than ever before. It left me with the desire to see more cultures, visit more places, and meet new people.

I returned home to care for my house. I now have that home empty, and for sale. I have sold nearly everything I own. A few things remain in storage. What is left is in my car, in the parking garage, 13 floors down from my friend Dave’s aparment, where I’m staying tonight in Houston. Clothes, a bicycle, a few dishes, and a laptop so I can work as I travel.

Tomorrow I will arrive at the Mexican border. Once I arrive, I have no specific plan.

Today a friend told me “You are free!”

I don’t know what will happen in the coming months, or what I will see or do. I am sure it will be interesting.

Windows 7 + TrueCrypt 7.1a and Debian wheezy + encryption dual-boot with GRUB2

Getting Windows 7 (or Windows 8 or Windows Vista) with TrueCrypt to play nicely with GRUB2 is quite a chore. Although, after 2 days of fighting, I finally found a simple solution, thanks to the README file that comes with grub2tc. Unfortunately, grub2tc didn’t actually work for me, but their docs did!

Here’s the step-by-step to make it all work:

  1. Install Windows. In my case, this meant running the restore CD that came with my computer.
  2. Install TrueCrypt, and encrypt your system drive. Be sure to encrypt only the System drive not the entire disk!

    Be sure to copy the TrueCrypt Rescue CD image somewhere handy. I used a USB stick, but you could burn it to an actual CD just as well. But you will need this later for this procedure.

  3. Install Linux. I choose Debian, but these instructions ought to work fine with Ubuntu, or practically any other variation of Linux. If you’re doing disk encryption (and I’m sure you are if you’re reading this), be sure to create a small (~500mb should be fine) /boot partition that is not encrypted. Then configure the rest of your disk with encryption, LVM, whatever. When I had finished this step, my disk layout looked like this (from the Linux standpoint):
    • /dev/sda1 – Windows 7 Boot partition
    • /dev/sda2 – Windows 7
    • /dev/sda3 – Linux /boot
    • /dev/sda4 – Encrypted Linux volume, mapped to /dev/dm-0
    • /dev/dm-0 – LVM Physical volume
    • /dev/mapper/vg0-root – Linux / partition
    • /dev/mapper/vg0-swap – Linux swap space

    Note that it is important that your swap space is encrypted. Otherwise an attacker may be able to read passwords or other private info from the swap partition–especially if they gain access to your system while it is hybernated (suspended to disk).

    When you install Linux, be sure to install GRUB2, and install it to the MBR. Many tutorials for getting GRUB2 to work with TrueCrypt say not to do this, and instead to install to your boot partition (/dev/sda3 in this case). I had absolutely no luck with these tutorials. If one of them works for you, great. But then you wouldn’t be reading this. So, go ahead and install to the MBR for now. This wll overwrite the TrueCrypt boot loader, but we’ll remedy that shortly.

  4. Configure GRUB2 to boot TrueCrypt. This is the magic you came for. The procedure, which I borrowed pretty much exactly from the grub2tc README is to:

    1. Install syslinux
      For Debian/Ubuntu:

      aptitude install syslinux

    2. Copy ‘memdisk’ file into place for use by GRUB2
      Again, for Debian/Ubuntu. For other distributions, the installed location of the ‘memdisk’ file may be different. (Hint: use ‘find’ or ‘locate’ to find it):

      cp /usr/lib/syslinux/memdisk /boot/

    3. Copy TrueCrypt rescue ISO into place
      If you saved the TrueCrypt Rescue ISO to a USB stick, you just need to copy the file (called TrueCrypt Rescue Disk.iso by default) to /boot/truecrypt-rescue-disk.iso. For example (as root):

      mount /dev/sdb1 /mnt
      cp /mnt/TrueCrypt\ Rescue\ Disk.iso /boot/truecrypt-rescue-disk.iso

      Or if you burned the image straight to a CD, you can accomplish the same thing with dd (again as root, with the CD in the drive):

      dd if=/dev/cdrom of=/boot/truecrypt-rescue-disk.iso

    4. Determine the UUID of your boot partition
      You can read this from /etc/fstab, or with the following command (substitute the proper device name for your boot partition):

      blkid /dev/sda3

      The output should look something like this:

      /dev/sda3: UUID="12345678-1234-1234-1234567890"

      Use that UUID in the next step.

    5. Configure GRUB2 to load TrueCrypt using Syslinux
      For Debian/Ubuntu, the easiest way is to edit the /etc/grub.d/40_custom file. The exact file you edit may vary for other distributions. Add this to the end:

      menuentry "TrueCrypt ISO boot" {
         insmod part_msdos
         insmod fat
         insmod ext2
         insmod search_fs_uuid
         search --fs-uuid --no-floppy --set=boot [UUID without quotes]
         linux16 ($boot)/memdisk iso raw
         initrd16 ($boot)/truecrypt-rescue-disk.iso
      }

    6. Tell GRUB2 to use the new configuration
      Without this step, the configuration that GRUB2 actually reads is never updated, so your changes won’t take effect. On Debian/Ubuntu, simply run the following command:

      update-grub

      It will give a short summary of output. If there are no errors, you should be set to go!

  5. Test it
    Reboot the system. Your GRUB2 menu should now have a new “TrueCrypt ISO boot” option. If you select this option, you will see the TrueCrypt Rescue CD prompt, asking for a password. Enter the password and hit ENTER, and you should be booted into your Windows environment.

The only drawback I’m aware of for this boot method is that you see the TrueCrypt Rescue menu every time you boot into Windows. It might be slightly nicer to see the standard TrueCrypt menu (the one that doesn’t show the option to press [F8] for rescue options). But that doesn’t really bother me in the least. Plus, it might come in handy some day if I need to decrypt my Windows partition, and don’t have my rescue disk handy.

If you come across any problems with this procedure, please feel free to contact me. I can’t promise to help, but I am more than happy to update my documentation to help future visitors.