Uber: A three city review

Uber car service in Mexico City.
Uber car service in Mexico City.

I heard about the car service Uber when it launched in New York in 2011; friends and acquaintances who were early adopters described the service as addictive, and I could see why–the appeal of having your own non-surly driver who wouldn’t bitch or sigh or raise an eyebrow if asked to chauffeur you across the Queensboro Bridge, for starters. A company rep had given me a promo code at a trade show and I downloaded the app, but didn’t even make a trip. Uber’s rates didn’t seem competitive compared to taxis, which I avoided anyway, preferring the subway, Citi Bike, or my own two feet to get around the city.

Fast-forward to last month, when I was chatting with my friend Cristina about my upcoming trip to Mexico City. Did I know Uber had launched in the capital last year and that it was fabulous? No, I had missed the news and I remained dubious, despite her enthusiastic endorsement. Still, I downloaded the app again (since I’d deleted it, having decided I’d never use it) and found myself curious enough to try it out when I landed at the airport a couple weeks ago.

I jumped on the airport’s WiFi network (Infinitum has a growing number of WiFi hotspots around the capital and you can “prueba el servicio–“try the service”– for free once a day.) and hailed my Uber car. It arrived in about two minutes, as the app informed me it would, and I knew the driver’s name, what he would look like, the make and model of his car, and his license plate number… all before he pulled up. Already, I was impressed; one of the persistent problems (and some would say, dangers) of taking a taxi in Mexico City is knowing whether a driver and his or her car are legit, much less knowing who he/she is. Uber eliminated that problem entirely, and right away, I could see the numerous advantages that presented to both the passenger and the driver.

Before we pulled away from the terminal, the driver asked me if I wanted a bottle of water and whether I needed to charge my phone. I said “yes” to both, and he produced one of several chargers, including one that fit my iPhone. He pointed out the newspapers in the seat pocket in front of me, noting that they were mine to enjoy, should I want them… and I did.

He asked where I was going and I told him; he punched the destination into an iPhone and away we went. This was novel for Mexico City, too; being such a gigantic metropolis, it’s very common for drivers to get lost or to ask the passenger for directions or–this has happened to me several times in Mexico City–to simply give up after trying to find a destination, depositing the passenger at a curb with a mumbled apology and a “Suerte!”

The car was gleaming, inside and out, and still had that new car smell, and the driver was spiffy, too, dressed in a suit. No 5-o’clock shadow on his face, his hair slicked back… what WAS this? It was different and, frankly, I liked it.

I explained to the driver that I’m a writer and asked if I could interview him about his experience with Uber. He was obliging and I turned on my recorder, letting him chat away about how much he loves driving for Uber. A former taxi driver, he feels more professional and more safe: “We never have to exchange cash,” he says, “and you know that here, someone will kill a taxi driver for a hundred pesos” [about $7.50 at the current exchange rate]. Uber stores the passenger’s credit or debit card information and calculates the charge at the end of every trip. The charge automatically processes by the card company and Uber emails the passenger a receipt. Two more problems eliminated: that of making change (Mexican taxi drivers rarely have the change to break bills, even ones that a visitor might consider small, like 100 pesos) and that of getting a receipt (drivers of street hail taxis in Mexico City rarely have receipts).

I used Uber at least six more times during my four days in Mexico City and every trip was exceptional. The drivers were professional, the cars were in perfect condition, and the trips went off without a hitch. The rates were generally competitive with taxi fares, and for what I was getting, I didn’t mind when they exceeded what a typical trip might cost (during times of high demand, rates are adjusted–upward, of course–for service).

Did I miss the street hail taxis of yore? Of course, I did… but only in the way that your dad misses the days of walking uphill to school in the snow, both ways. Which is to say that I missed the idea and the image of the street hail taxi–especially the green and white Beetle taxis that hurtled down the streets when I lived in Mexico City–but I didn’t actually miss the experience of the street hail taxi.

New York
Fresh from my fantastic experiences with Uber in Mexico City, I returned to New York, more eager to test the service here. I still expected the rates to be somewhat higher than taxis, so when I landed at JFK, I requested an Uber and selected the option to calculate the projected trip cost. The price was competitive and so I confirmed my request… but the car was at least 16 minutes away. Grr. The taxi line was long, but I’d wait it out. Why taxi drivers are complaining about Uber when there still seem to be incredibly long lines at both area airports is beyond me.

A couple days later, headed back to the airport again–LGA, this time–I requested Uber again. A female driver pulled up and my family and I tumbled into the back seat. The level of professionalism and polish I’d enjoyed in Mexico City just wasn’t there. The front passenger seat was filled with kid detritus; she had obviously just dropped her kid off at school. There was no bottled water, no phone chargers, none of the extras that made the value of the trip in Mexico City worth every peso.

Eager to convince my skeptical husband that Uber really was worth the money, I requested another Uber at the airport in Miami. This driver arrived with a towel stretched across the back seat. “Um, I feel pretty uncomfortable,” Francisco whispered to me, pointing out that while I felt my experience in Mexico City had been highly professional, in the U.S., our experiences so far had felt like we were being picked up by a friend of a friend: someone who was pleasant enough, but who wasn’t really making a tremendous effort to provide an experience worth paying for.

Because I needed to pay with a credit card and because I needed receipts for work, I continued using Uber during our Miami trip, making at least eight trips over the course of two days. None was exceptional and two drivers declined to give me a ride once they showed up, citing that since I have children, they would need car seats. One driver called en route to say that traffic was so slow he suggested I just cancel my car request and walk back to my hotel, which I did (and was charged a $5 cancellation fee). The cars in the Miami pool were of varying quality. One Crown Vic looked like it just rolled off the back lot of a police precinct. On more than one occasion drivers, though equipped with iPhones just as in Mexico City, didn’t come to the correct pick-up point or seemed confused about the correct drop-off point, even though I’d entered both accurately into the app. It was a good thing the driver who thought I was going to Fort Lauderdale double checked with me verbally before he actually drove there.

The Take-away
So will I use Uber again? If I’m in Mexico City, absolutely. In New York City? Only when I’m in a pinch that a taxi can’t get me out of. In Miami? Next time, I’ll rent my own car.

Have you tried Uber? Where was it and how was your experience?

Recommended: Myanmar (Burma) Photography Trip with SOU Workshops

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Selu Vega

One of the scenes you might see in Myanmar
One of the scenes you might see in Myanmar.

One of the many perks of my job as a freelance writer is that I’ve been able to travel all around the world and meet some really interesting people, many of whom have become friends. One of these people is Selu Vega, a photographer from Isla de La Palma, one of the Canary Islands. From the moment I met Selu, I knew we’d be pals. He’s a friendly, happy, funny guy, the kind of person you just feel better being around.

Selu is teaming up with another photographer, Arturo Rodriguez, a documentary photographer and winner of World Press Photo, to lead a photography trip to Myanmar (aka Burma) this December. The 11-day trip promises to be incredible in every way; Selu and Arturo have thought through every logistical detail and will be facilitating the on-the-ground workshop in English and Spanish.

All of the details about the trip, along with registration information, can be found on this page.

How to Do Arches National Park with Young Kids in the Summer

Text & Instagram Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
A very pregnant mom, a dad carrying three cameras and a tripod, a 4.5 year old who has a love (“Oooh! I see a monarch butterfly near the cottonwood tree!”)-hate (“Heeelllppp! I see ants! Aaahhh! They’re going to bite me!”) relationship with nature, and a very heavy 10-month old, plus two grandparents (probably the fittest among us) and their 10-year old grandson who is in that phase where he is embarrassed by everyone and everything, get together to hike in Utah’s Arches National Park… in June.

The trailhead for Landscape Arches.
The trailhead for Landscape Arch.

It all sounds like the makings of a good joke or a disastrous vacation, but fortunately, it was neither. In fact, we had a perfectly pleasant visit, one that struck that rare family travel note of satisfying everyone simultaneously.

Here are a few tips for visiting Arches National Park with kids during the summer:

1. Start early, leave early, and come back late.
Everyone tells you this, but when the alarm goes off at 5:30 or 6:00, it’s understandably tempting to hit “Snooze,” especially since you’re on vacation. But trust me when I tell you that you will avoid literal and metaphorical meltdowns by getting an early start; even 20 minutes can make a big difference with respect to temperature in the southwest. Groan your way through the wake-up call if you must, but roll out early.

We were at the park by 7:00 AM and it was cool and overcast– perfect for hiking, especially for families, who are inevitably carrying more than they need. The other benefit of hitting the trails early was avoiding the crowds. By the time we had reached our destination and taken all the photos we wanted, we were on our way back down the trail and headed to lunch just as other families and hikers were starting out under a sky that had cleared and was now blazing with the noon-day sun.

While they sweated their way up the trail and back, we headed back to our hotel for lunch, a nap, and a swim in the pool. When our batteries were recharged, we headed back up to the park to enjoy the light and colors of what photographers refer to as “golden hour,” which is particularly spectacular in red rock desert.

2. Pack light, but pack smart.
Since temperatures on the days preceding our visit had been in the high-90s, I dressed the kids and myself in what I often refer to as “aspirational” clothing (as in: I’m aspiring to comfortable weather that doesn’t involve me wearing or carrying multiple layers of clothes for multiple people). It was cool as we set off on the trail, too cool for 10-month old Orion, really, especially when we were caught in a brief rain shower.

Fortunately, the more experienced hikers and outdoorsfolk among us (the grandparents) were prepared with a lightweight space blanket, which my dad wrapped around Orion as we waited out the drizzle under a tree. We had apples, a granola bar, and water, and charged up what remained of the trail.

Pack canteens of water, of course, and those snacks, but otherwise, travel light. If you take one of the trails recommended below, you won’t even really need to take sunscreen or bug repellent (as long as you apply both before you set off on your hike).

3. Take a kid-friendly trail.
Though the 10-year old would have appreciated something more challenging (he was in Utah, in part, to take a rock climbing class, which he aced), a hike categorized as “easy” was more reasonable for myself and the younger kids. Too many families make the mistake of pushing themselves to achieve something they’re not physically prepared for, and national parks are rarely the best place to do a test run of physical endurance or familial patience.

Mariel at the base of Landscape Arch.
Mariel at the base of Landscape Arch.

In Arches, the trail to Landscape Arch is family-friendly, and what waits at the end is no less impressive than the rewards of more strenuous hikes; in fact, the park believes that this arch is the longest natural sandstone arch in the world. The Landscape Arch trail is gravel most of the way, with a shorter section consisting of red sand. You’ll need to leave strollers in the car and don a baby backpack or do as we did and press a grandparent into shoulder-carrying service.

Grandpa takes a much-deserved break after carrying 20+ lb. Orion.
Grandpa takes a much-deserved break after carrying 20+ lb. Orion.

If this trail hike proves too much, take to the car and enjoy some of the scenic overlooks. One of the best is Balanced Rock, which is impressive from the car or looking up at it from the parking lot (it also has a loop trail around the base). If your kids are interested in pioneer history, then stop by the extremely humble cabin of settler John Wesley Wolfe, which is accessible by a very short trail. You can read more about the history of the Wolfe family and the cabin on the NPS

Balanced Rock.
Balanced Rock.

4. Apply bug repellent and sunscreen before heading out.
Most summer days at Arches would be unbearable without bug repellent; there are mosquitoes and pesky no-see-ums. I swear by Badger Balm’s Anti-Bug Balm to ward off both pests. The same company also makes baby and kid-friendly sunscreen. Whatever brand you choose, bug repellent and sunscreen are musts if you’re in Arches during the summer.

5. Process what you’ve seen.
We always talk about what we’ve seen, compare it to other places we’ve been, and make a list of questions that we each have about the animals, geology, and other features we’ve seen. We get those questions answered by talking with rangers or other locals, checking our field guides, or getting online in our hotel room and searching for the answers. What was that flower we saw at the trailhead? What kinds of animals live in Arches? Did dinosaurs live in the area?

One of our questions from the Landscape Arch hike: "What is this flower?" (Photo by Francisco Collazo).
One of our questions from the Landscape Arch hike: “What is this flower?” (Photo by Francisco Collazo).

We also encourage our oldest to record her experiences by drawing in her journal. It’s interesting for us to see how she interprets what she has seen and her explanations give us a chance to ask her questions about her experience of our visit.

Have you been to Arches? Do you have any advice? Feel free to share it in the comments.

What We Feed Our Kids When We Travel

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
One of the fastest ways travel can wear our family down is in the area of food. We eat well at home, by which I mean fresh and homemade, and while we always want to try the local specialties, the fact of the matter is, in America, there’s a lot of garbage on the menu.

This is especially true if you’re on a budget.

For adults, there’s no shortage of fried food, pathetic iceberg salads, and overcooked or undercooked veggies, typically of the frozen or canned variety. For kids, the menu is even more limited, rarely ranging beyond a stock rotation of PB&J, hamburgers, chicken fingers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, and spaghetti. And let’s not even talk at length about flights, where options include overpriced boxes of poorly curated snacks and tiny foil packets of peanuts and pretzels and packages of cookies (though Delta’s Biscoff cookies do get our family’s seal of approval).

Ooh... a corn dog and breaded ravioli!
Ooh… a corn dog and breaded ravioli!

All of this is to say that we take an unusual amount of care planning what we’re going to eat on our trips, especially for long flights and the first full day of travel. That planning can be stressful–especially because it often involves increasing the amount of stuff we’re carrying (and you know how I feel about that), but the rewards of eating well offset the hour or two of annoyance endured while hauling everything through TSA and into overhead bins or under seats in front of us on the plane.

Here’s our strategy for the first two days of travel:

1. The day before departure, review what we have on hand at home– especially in the fridge.
If you follow my work on The Latin Kitchen, then you know that I really hate food waste. There’s little reason for it, other than poor planning, and there’s really nothing I find more depressing in the kitchen than coming home after a fantastic trip, only to open the fridge and find half a dozen science experiments in progress.

My pre-trip job, then, is to assess what ingredients we have on hand and make suggestions to Francisco about what we can do with them. I typically help prep and store items we won’t use on the trip and that won’t keep until we come home, turning greens, herbs, and vegetables into the fixings for stock or pesto. He takes the rest–cheeses, meats, fruits, and other vegetables–into snacks and small meals. Veggies, meats, and cheeses may get turned into pasta or grain salads (couscous, quinoa, barley, and orzo are all delicious and filling, and they pack and hold up well). Vegetables also get turned into raw finger-food munchables, and if there are only small bits of certain items, such as peppers and onion, they’ll likely get mixed up with some tuna for a salad, which will either be served on bread that will be hard by the time we get home or lettuce or greens that will be wilted and brown if left to fend for themselves until vacation’s end.

Lunch our first full travel day in Utah: tuna fish, corn for Orion, bananas, and a salad-- everything was prepped at home during our pre-trip fridge cull. We also had  ears of corn we'd roasted at home. Grounds courtesy of the Utah State Capitol. :)
Lunch our first full travel day in Utah– everything was prepped at home during our pre-trip fridge cull. We also had ears of corn we’d roasted at home. Grounds courtesy of the Utah State Capitol. :)

2. The day before departure, we assess what kids’ snacks we need to replenish.
We have a 4.5 year old and a 10 month old, and each has particular snacks that are always in our backpacks, even for daily outdoor jaunts around our NYC home-base. The older one can always be sated and placated with 365 brand cereal bars from Whole Foods, while the younger one is calmed down with Mum-Mums, quick-dissolving rice rusks. Cups of applesauce are packable (we always have a fork-knife-spoon in our packs), as are Choopoons labneh, which come in some novel flavors (sour cherry, sweet carrot) and are so thick and creamy that they serve as a full meal for the 10 month old and a snack that fills the 4.5 year old enough to ward off a full-scale meltdown when we know it will be at least another hour until dinner.

Choopoons labneh is a filling, easily packed go-to snack for families on the go.
Choopoons labneh is a filling, easily packed go-to snack for families on the go.

3. Once we’ve assessed everything we have, we pack cold items in an insulated bag and non-perishables in our carry-ons.
If two parents are traveling with their kids, then divide and conquer is the operative rule; if you’re a single parent or you’re just traveling solo with one or more of your kids (I do this a lot), you can still give the kids some of the responsibility of shouldering the load. While you may resist the idea of carrying an insulated bag, it can really come in handy throughout the trip as you replenish your snack supply. Having snacks like cheese, yogurt, and other items that need to be kept cool breaks the monotony of not-so-healthy vending machine or gas station snacks. If our accommodations have a fridge with a freezer, we put the ice packs and the bag itself in the freezer overnight; if there’s no freezer, then we get a hotel garbage bag, fill it with ice, and put it in the insulated bag before we leave for the day.

4. Eat in order of perishability.
True, tuna fish salad is probably not the best lunch to pack for a trip… unless you keep track of your food inventory and eat in order of perishability. The tuna fish salad we packed for this trip (the obvious choice for using up a few small pieces of onion and pepper and celery) had to be kept cold and it had to be eaten within 24 hours; otherwise, to the garbage it would go… and then, the whole point of avoiding food waste, eating well, and saving money would be lost.

5. Refill strategically.
When you’ve brought plastic containers from home, you can refill them strategically throughout your trip. Dry cereals, fresh fruit, and instant oatmeal from the hotel breakfast bar are all fair game.

How–and what–do you feed your kids when you travel? Share your tips in the comments.

When Family Travel Doesn’t Live up to Your Expectations

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
If you follow me on social mediaInstagram and Facebook, especially–you might think that my life is one long string of happy moments.

Happy times.
Happy times.

For the most part, you wouldn’t be wrong. I wouldn’t mind a bigger apartment, a more adequate cushion between financial stability and financial ruin, and fewer incidents of my youngest pooping or spitting up right.after.his.bath, but all things considered, these are trivial wants. I’ve got pretty much everything that counts in life: good health; interesting and meaningful work; stellar, supportive friends; a partner who really does love me unconditionally (even when he probably shouldn’t– but we’ll get to that shortly); and children who are as smart, funny, kind, and good as they are cute. In short, what you see of my life online is pretty much an uncut version of my “real life.”

What you see of my life online is pretty much what my "real" life is like. Most of the time.
What you see of my life online is pretty much what my “real” life is like. Most of the time.

Most of the time, anyway.

Recently, we took a family road trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York State. It was, as most of our travels are, a jaunt I proposed and planned. I’d been to the Seneca and Keuka Lakes area while working on the New York State guidebook last summer, but that particular visit was a solo trip, and I’d been eager to return with family in tow because the Finger Lakes are just such an incredible destination for parents traveling with their kids. Francisco was enthusiastic about the idea, so we started finalizing all the details for a long weekend. We’d rent the farmhouse I stayed in last year, go for a walk in Watkins Glen State Park, take Mariel to a kids’ glassmaking class at the Corning Museum of Glass, and maybe see whether Francisco could get in on a glider ride at Harris Hill Soaring Center. I wouldn’t be doing any wine tasting, but he could, and we’d let the kids burn off their energy crawling and running around the grounds of picturesque vineyards overlooking Seneca Lake. Sitting at my desk in New York City, booking the rental car and rolling our pennies for the farmhouse rental, I could just picture it: the perfect road trip, the perfect family weekend getaway.

But this is my problem, you see: expectations. My active imagination can conjure up the most beautiful scene of natural and familial bliss, the very picture of perfection. But nothing in life is perfect, even my just-short-of-perfect family, and it seems that no matter how many opportunities life hands me to learn the lesson that I really (no, really) should just let go of expectations and roll with it, I never quite get it.

In some ways, I can be a very slow learner.

By the time we got to the farmhouse on Saturday night, we were all tired. The drive from the city to Dundee, New York is about five hours, and on the last of several potty, leg-stretch, and gas fill-up breaks we’d pulled into a town that had a disturbing number of Confederate flags and people who looked none too welcoming. Mariel had been chattering non-stop for nearly six hours and we were all hungry for dinner, already burned out on road trip snacks.

At home, I’d pictured our arrival at the farmhouse. Everyone would be thrilled: Francisco would love the spacious kitchen and Mariel would maybe try sleeping in her own bed. Everyone would love the view, especially as we sat on the front porch in the morning, having our breakfast. Because we’re an emotive bunch, their respective pleasures would be expressed verbally, and we’d fully inhabit the house for the two short days we’d have it.

Only it wasn’t exactly like that. We dropped our bags, everyone gave a cursory look around– no verbal feedback!–and after grumbling about being hungry, we decided we’d skip cooking (which we’d fully planned to do– it was one of the reasons we’d chosen the farmhouse to begin with) and go have an overpriced, mediocre meal at a restaurant where I’d had a much better dinner the summer before. The only one of us who seemed thoroughly content was Orion, who claimed the kitchen floor as his own and made music out of egg whisks and wooden spoons. “Oh well,” I thought to myself. Surely after a good night’s rest everyone would come around and see the charms of the Finger Lakes.

One happy customer.
One happy customer.

Except no one slept very well, so we started day 2 on a low note. Despite beautiful weather and occasional picturesque moments, we were mostly warding off frustration and fatigue. We’re not a fighting family, though, so we all just wallowed in our own sad state. I really wanted everyone to pull it together, though. We’d spent time and money on this trip, dammit, and it was supposed to be fun, and no one was really playing along.

By late afternoon, when Francisco finally cracked a bit and said he’d just as soon blow off the half round of mini-golf Mariel had left and go take a nap rather than let her finish the second part of the course (the one that, in my opinion, looked the most fun), I’d kind of had it. While waiting for overly large servings of what were supposed to be small portions of ice cream, Mariel was playing around on the uneven wooden floor and fell down, skinning her knee and howling as if an entire pack of banshees had inhabited her body. Taking a cue from her, I took the ice cream and put it on the table with a melodramatically annoyed flourish, and disgruntled sighs emitted all around. Once again, only Orion was non-plussed.

This was not the way things were supposed to be, I thought to myself, my inner five-year old having her hissy fit. I left my family at the table to eat their ice cream while I went to get the car because that was it. We were done with the day and going back to the farmhouse and as far I was concerned, everyone could eat a bowl of cereal and just go to bed. I’d think twice before planning another family trip, oh yes, I would. If they couldn’t get with the program, then we’d just stay home from now on.

I don’t think you’ll be surprised to learn that I didn’t really sit back and take stock until we were back in our tiny apartment in New York City. Once you’ve decided to see things a certain way, you tend to not want to see them any other way, even when doing so would actually be of tremendous benefit to you (not to mention to the people around you).

Why did I need my family to have a good time? Sure, I wanted them to, but maybe Francisco just needed to spend those two days at the farmhouse in the Finger Lakes laying around on the couch or a hammock with a beer in hand, with nothing firm on the itinerary I’d carefully (over)planned. Maybe Mariel was just fine cosleeping with us in the same bedroom, even though there were three other bedrooms where she could spread out and have her own space. And maybe we didn’t need to play the full round of mini-golf. Maybe, instead, what we all needed was to just be where we were: I in my state of Finger Lakes wonder, Francisco in his legitimate “I need some sleep, stat” space, and Mariel not strapped in a booster seat, being whisked off to do the next thing, but to just be let loose in the yard to pick dandelions for as long as she wanted to do so.

Those lessons– just letting everyone be where they need to be, realizing that every state of emotion is temporary, and accepting that our happiness enriches but does not depend upon one another, and that it flourishes when we just go with the flow– are things I know, and yet struggle, over and over again, to keep in practice. Family provides plenty (continuous, actually) opportunities to practice, and family travel–especially when it doesn’t live up to our expectations–can help us get realigned with our inner compass.

Maybe it wasn’t the weekend I envisioned, but it ended up being meaningful after all.