Sunday, July 26, 2009

Escaping to different worlds

I am in Albuquerque, New Mexico, attending the annual meetings of the System Dynamics Society. More about the meetings, perhaps, later. But now I want to write about the area where I am staying. The Hotel Albuquerque, adjacent to ‘Old Town,’ is the conference venue. ‘Conference Hotels’ are among my least favorite places to stay. By the nature of the captive audiences they serve, they tend to be low on quality and high on price. Hotel Albuquerque fits that model. If one rates the Marriott where I stayed in Salt Lake city as ‘9’ on a scale of 10 (see an earlier positing) , Hotel Albuquerque would rate a 5, or charitably, a 6. Conference hotels are like that.

To escape the exorbitant breakfast prices, I took an early morning walk about the neighborhood looking for a small grocery store where I could buy some juice and yogurt, my usual breakfast fare. I soon found everything I would need over a five-day-stay for less than the price of a single breakfast at the hotel. My walk brought home vividly the stark contrast between two worlds, that of the hotel residents and that of their neighbors in the nearby community.

The ‘Old Town Shopping Center,’ about a fifteen minute walk from the hotel, had all the markers of poverty. Two national chain fast food outlets had ‘CLOSED’ signs prominently displayed. Store windows and doors were barred. Among the places of business were storefronts advertising ‘Check Cashing’, ‘Quick Loans’, and ‘Cash for Gold.’ There was, however, a Chinese Restaurant across the street that I took note of. Its home had once been a Pizza Hut. I know Mexican food, an Albuquerque staple, and I am not fond of it. Last evening a friend and I had an adequate, overpriced Mexican dinner in picturesque Mexican restaurant with atrocious service. I knew I would want something different.

This evening, after a very full day of conferencing, I was ready for some quiet down-time. With my current book in hand, I struck out for the ‘other side of the tracks’ and a Chinese dinner. Off the-beaten-track restaurants can be a find, a great disappointment, or something in between. Despite a very modest ambience this was a find. I learned that the owners were immigrants from China’s Guandong province. Their son, a senior biology major at the University of New Mexico, home on vacation, was the waiter. The menu was extensive and I intend to explore it more fully over the next several days. Tonight's dinner was excellent.

The only other customers were a couple, dressed as if they had completed a hard day’s work in difficult circumstances. In a fragment of conversation I overheard, the woman was explaining to her companion that she had no electricity in her home, however this was not a problem. She did not mind bathing in cold water, and her television was battery powered. This is, as I said earlier, not an opulent area.

After finishing dinner, I decided I would return to the hotel through ‘Old Town’. As I walked down a narrow street, lined with one story Pueblo-style buildings, the sound of tango music attracted me. A crowd had gathered in a small square, graced in its center graced by a large gazebo that could be bandstand or dance floor. Tonight it was a dance floor - the music, all Tangos, was from DVDs.

This was clearly both a participant and a spectator sport, for couples of all ages, but experienced dancers. Women wore very high heels and men, too, seem to have special dancing shoes. I watched one couple, apparently, arriving from work sit down and change their footwear before moving to the dance floor. After each number, those us who were not dancing applauded. There was an ambience of community and easy congeniality in which strangers seemed welcome. An attractive woman in her mid forties sat down next to me in a mostly vacant row of chairs. We did not speak, but I think she may have targeted me as a prospective dancing partner. After all, it does take two to Tango. She would have been very disappointed. I was sorry I could not accommodate her (if that was what she had in mind) and even began to consider the possibility of taking Tango lessons with my wife or, if she was not interested, finding a dancing school Tango partner. It is not very likely I will pursue this leaning, however.

Walking back to the sterile overpriced conference hotel, I was glad I had ventured into two very different communities and become part of them, if only for a few minutes. Academic conferences can be fun and they are important, professionally. I am enjoying this one, seeing old friends and learning new things. But one needs to avoid becoming captive to the artificial world that conference hotels seek to impose. Wherever one travels, there are different worlds outside the gates.


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