Reconnected

 

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Beauty shot of the Parroquia. No real relation to anything in the post, just gorgeous.

San Miguel de Allende, MX, July 23, 2014: In 1989 we went on a thirty-day honeymoon through Europe, armed only with a hotel to start at, a hotel to end at, $3000 in American Express travelers checks (it was a long time ago, kids, before you could walk up to any ATM in any country and have it spit money at you) and two Eurail passes.  In 2000 we went on a year-long trip around the world, having only plane tickets connecting each of eleven countries.  Now we’re gone for a year, staying mostly in one place but living full-time and fully-committed in a foreign land.

Certainly the world has changed plenty in the last twenty-five years.  The bombings of 9/11/01 happened roughly six months after we returned from our big trip, and no doubt they changed travel forever.  Yes, we’ve been pulled aside for questioning at Heathrow airport because Wiley had grown a pretty decent and apparently identity-altering beard since his passport picture was taken.  Yes, we’ve had Scotland Yard summoned to politely question us in Edinburgh because we arrived without a reservation and paid cash for a hotel room.  And yes, we’ve bribed a Peruvian border guard to let us into Bolivia twenty-four hours after our visas had expired.  In today’s environment I’m not sure how any of those situations would have played out positively for us.

Probably more importantly to the individual traveler, communications have changed dramatically over this time.  In 1989 there was no Internet, and no email, and no cell phones that anybody could actually carry anywhere for any period of time.  We left home with plans to check in with the American Express offices in Rome and London knowing that they held messages for card holders.  You’d think it would be easy to find the American Express office, but Rome is a big place, and I remember spending an entire day trying to find it.  Ironically, once we got home all of our loved ones confessed that they had forgotten that part of the plan anyways.

We left on our “big trip” armed with the first incarnation of the Sony VAIO, by far the smallest and lightest laptop produced at that point in time.  We had Microsoft FrontPage, a full-on old school web site, written in HTML and maintained by me, and a digital camera.  There was no Wi-Fi in 2000, so every time the web site got updated, it was via dial-up connection.  We accomplished this by stealing long distance phone time.  There’s really nothing else to call it, and I probably had a hand in MCI Corporation going down.

Don’t remember long-distance kids?  Ask your parents about it, and about how phones that were once bolted to the wall.  MCI was a large phone company that used to issue long-distance cards to all of its employees, which allowed them to call anywhere in the world for no money, presumably for business  reasons but I think they generally allowed them to be used for personal calls as well.  I suspect they didn’t really care one way or the other, and apparently, long-distance minutes didn’t cost them much of anything.  So when a friend of ours left MCI shortly before we left for our trip, he handed over his card to us, and no one at MCI bothered cancelling the card.  We used this card to update our site on approximately a monthly basis from all over the world, checking into a hotel room nice enough to have a phone in the room, and connecting the computer for hours while our stories and pictures crawled over the phone lines to a server in Atlanta, Georgia, from points such as Kathmandu and various islands in Greece.

While I’m glad we have a written record of that time in our lives, I’ll not deny that the web site was a source of constant, low-level stress.  It became our only link to home, and the only way my mother maintained sanity for a year.  I felt like I had to keep our loved ones at home updated on our whereabouts and condition, and if I didn’t, they were worrying, and I was failing.  We checked into Internet cafes regularly and answered emails, but the web site was a way to keep hundreds of people apprised of our situation at once.

Fast-forward to 2014, where we have a myriad of communications options open to us.  This blog, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are all open to anyone who knows how to type and has an email address.  And these days no self-respecting vacation home owner would leave out Wi-Fi in the list of included amenities, so we’ve been connected to the Internet pretty much since we walked in the door.

Actual mail, printed on actual paper in an actual envelope that made it first through the U.S. Postal Service and then through the Mexican Postal Service to our door.

Actual mail, printed on actual paper in an actual envelope that made it first through the U.S. Postal Service and then through the Mexican Postal Service to our door.

It’s been the more traditional communications, phone and mail delivery, that have taken some more rigorous efforts on our part.  The house gets mail delivery, and as evidenced by the picture someone has found us down here.  But we’re a little hesitant to place our faith completely in the hands of Mexican Customs authorities, having had a laptop replaced with a phone book once when we were here and attempting to get a replacement shipped to us.  As is typically the case in places frequented by tourists, businesses that cater to them spring up.  In San Miguel there’s a place call La Conexion, which provides you with an address in Laredo, TX, and transportation of your mail and packages from there to a mailbox here in San Miguel.  As far as I know there are no drug kingpins involved, but I didn’t read the fine print in the contract.  You pay a flat fee for this service, around $250 per year, and then there’s a small charge per piece of mail and a per pound charge for packages.  Best of all, when you order something, say from Amazon.com, you email La Conexion the packing list (which includes the value of the contents) and they wade through the morass of Mexican customs requirements for you.  We’ve already had a shipment of Wiley’s contacts turned back because, due to the large amount of contacts in the box (he wears the daily variety), the government believed that we were surely importing contacts for sale.  So we’re happy to have professional smugglers mail technicians handling things for us now.

Since Wiley is still hard at work running his business reliable phone service was probably the most important item on our list.  The house has a local phone, plus a “Magic Jack” voice-over-IP line, which lets us make long distance calls over the Internet for practically nothing.  It works, but it’s a little sketchy at times, and we’ve been experimenting with other technology such as Google Hangouts and Skype.  Once or twice a week it sounds like there’s a preteen party going on in Wiley IV’s room, while he chats with his buds back in Fort Collins.

And we’re finally nearly back on line with cell service.  A couple of weeks back we stopped in at a phone store in the mall to talk with them about phone service.  She didn’t speak English, so in halting Spanglish we told her that we wanted to use our existing cell phones with Mexican service.  She barked “San Francisco, numero cuarenta!”, and went back to her vigorous texting.  Luckily I remembered that there’s a street named San Francisco, so somehow we inferred from her I’m-all-done-with-you attitude that she meant for us to leave here and go to San Francisco, number 40.

San Francisco number 40 turned out to be an unmarked store front that contained a cell phone office.  Once again we gamely tried to communicate with the girl behind the counter, but luckily a man came in who worked there AND spoke English.  He explained the slightly scary-sounding process of unlocking the phone, putting in a new sim card, and getting a Mexican number with a Mexican cell company.  For Wiley’s phone the unlocking would be done by some dudes in Mexico City and would take a week to ten days.  For mine, Miguel kept my phone for four slightly anxious days during which I received several updates letting me know that my phone was very difficult.  Ultimately, I got it back a couple of days ago, wiped clean of all my data and apps.  Miguel did tell me that was going to happen.  The data was backed up, so that was OK, but I did have to spend some time downloading apps again.  The end result was the unlocking, the new sim card, a year’s worth of service with 1000 minutes of calls, 100 texts, and 1 GB of data per month, for about $160.  Let’s just hope it all works.  So far, so good.

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The boys being totally available…for their lunch.

So once Wiley’s phone is converted over we’re completely back on the grid.  There’s something to be said for being disconnected, as it seems to happen so rarely in today’s world.  When I worked I went into full blown panic mode if I discovered that I did not have my phone with me, imagining all sorts of veterinary-related disasters at my office and my colleagues lodging formal complaints against me due to my lack of availability.  There’s a peace that comes with not being quite so… available.

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It’s Getting Better All the Time

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX: Pulling out the Beatles’ quote as my title for a couple of reasons.  First, little Wiley is obsessed.  He’s discovered the Beatles, and he’s WAY into them.  Like, walks around singing “Penny Lane”, and “Strawberry Fields” obsessed.  Hours in his bedroom watching Youtube videos of the Beatles obsessed.  Tonight I’m at home alone, as he and his dad have gone to watch a Beatles’ tribute act that is playing at one of the local theaters.  Early on I averred myself to be strongly “Rolling Stones”, in the great “Rolling Stones vs. Beatles” debate, and so when we became aware of this event, it defined itself as their night together.

The second reason is because it is.  Getting better all the time.  With every passing day, it becomes easier, feels more like home, and we start to fit in.  Or at least feel more at home.  While I assert that this blog is not a virtual diary of every passing day of our lives, as I hope for it to be more, I will give you a run-down on the latest.

Last week I visited the Sociedad Protectora de Animales, or SPA, as its commonly called.  I contacted them many months back and told them we were moving here for a year and I’d love to help out.  I was pleasantly surprised at the cleanliness of the facility.  I met the director, as well as the veterinarian on staff.  They have cats as well as dogs, and call themselves a “no-kill” shelter, although there is no generally accepted definition of this term in the world of animal rescue.  It turns out to be what each facility can do, and in the case of SPA they keep animals as long as they can make them comfortable without excessive intervention or medical care, and adopt out as many as they can.  For example, a diabetic animal would likely be euthanized upon diagnosis, as they just can’t afford to take care of it.  I recently completed three and a half years on the board of directors for the Fort Collins Cat Rescue and Spay/Neuter Clinic, and assuredly, their definition of “no-kill” is quite different.  From my visit on Tuesday I learned that the budget of the SPA is around $200,000 USD per year.  I suspect they are doing amazing things with the resources that they have.  We agreed that I would come every Tuesday and help out as I can.

Wiley IV attended an art camp last week, and hopefully you saw the amazing masterpiece that was his final project: a portrait of our dog Gizmo.  The woman who ran the camp is a native of Vietnam, who emigrated to Canada as a young girl, and eventually moved to Mexico.  She uses this camp as a means to fund outreach activities to local villages, to teach the children there how to express themselves through art.  It’s always so very cool to meet people who are making a difference in some small way.

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New friends eating Brazilian food

Out of the blue, Hannah (Wiley’s art teacher) invited us to attend the grand opening of a Brazilian restaurant in San Miguel.  We weren’t sure what to expect, but since our social calendar was pretty dang open, we accepted.  We dressed up, and took a cab to the restaurant.  We found Hannah and her group of friends inside, and were quickly made to feel at home, although we later found out that our group was larger than the restaurant had expected.  No one seemed to mind, and the food and drink came freely.  And Hannah’s friends, Bob and Mary Beth (from the U.S.), Guillermo and Silvia (from Mexico City), and Winifred and Sirina (he a German diplomat stationed in Havana, and she from Thailand) welcomed us with open arms.  Really, an amazing group of people, several of whom rearranged their seats so that they could sit and talk to us and get to know us.  They extended an invitation to us to watch the World Cup finals the next day with them, and Winifred being German, it was clear that it was a pretty big day.

And let me just go ahead and admit: we are completely CLUELESS about soccer, or “football”, as they call it outside of America.  I kept asking stupid questions, like “why are they letting that guy kick the ball out of the corner of the field?” and “what happens if NOBODY SCORES A GOAL???”.  Ultimately, as we all know by now, it didn’t matter, as Alemania got the win.

Let me take a moment to shout out the awesomeness that is Google Translate, the fantastic application which just told me how to say “Germany” in Spanish.  Do you know this capability?  Have you needed to speak with someone who doesn’t speak English, because let me tell you, it is beyond amazing.  Our housekeeper Sandra stayed with Wiley last night while we had Date Night, and I don’t know how we would have had a meaningful conversation without it.

Date Night.  Do you do this, if you’re married with children?  Because I highly recommend it.  Hell, I recommend it even if you’re not married, or if you are and you don’t have children.  It’s a chance to go out and be adults, and talk about what’s important between the two of you.  And let’s be honest: until they substantially lower the drinking age, kids will continue to get bored in bars.

Wiley and I went out last night in search of fun and did indeed find it.  We visited an excellent mezcalaria, which we have been eyeing since arriving but didn’t really feel comfortable taking the Little Man to.  What’s a “mezcalaria”, you ask?  Really, they don’t have these in your neighborhood?  It’s a bar that specializes in that uniquely Mexican liquor, mezcal, which is somehow related to tequila, only it’s not, and I’m certainly not the person to tell you why.  It gained notoriety at some point as the liquor that had the worm in the bottle, but it has grown in prominence and sophistication as of late.  I had an incredibly delicious mezcal margarita made with ginger and mint that was TO DIE FOR.

We then headed out for parts unknown, wavering on the boundary of is-it-too-early-for-dinner-or-should-we-have-one-more-drink.  You’ve all been there.  That’s what I love about Date Night: you never know what’s going to happen.

In the quest for a bar I had seen the week before, we found ourselves in another place, the lobby of the Sierra Nevada hotel.  The expensive-hotel-drinking siren in my head went off, and I was just about to suggest an exit when the very hospitable staff swarmed us and bade us sit, relax, have some peanuts.  So we did, and ordered margaritas, using that married people telepathy that we have developed after nearly twenty-five years of sharing toothpaste to telegraph OK, one drink here and then we’re OUT.  I had no sooner visited the lovely bathroom with the tiny individual linen hand towels when the lights went out and a ridiculous gutter-choking thunderstorm hit.  We were handcuffed in velvet ropes at the Sierra Nevada, serenaded by the guitar and violin combo (who gamely continued to rearrange themselves to avoid the leaks that continued to sprout from the ceiling) and lulled by the sounds of thunder and pounding rain on the rooftop.  We ultimately ordered an excellent dinner and wine and spent less than $100, taking a taxi home five blocks because of the continued downpour.

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A ridiculously extensive selection of candies available at the Tuesday market

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This lady is selling the freshest, most delicious strawberries you can imagine. One kilo (2 pounds) for $2.

One other event of note to mention was our visit to the Tuesday market.  C’mon, guess when it happens!!!  Tuesday, that’s right!  This place is enormous; estimates of its size put it at three football fields.  We had read about it in the guide books, and I’ve certainly been to many local markets around the world, but holy cow, this was something to see.  Beverages, snacks, vegetables, fruits, tires, batteries, remote controls, calculators, lady’s underwear, nuts, meats, fish, flowers, machetes, car parts – I can go on and on.  If they don’t have it, you don’t need it.  Walmart on steroids, without the rednecks in stretch pants.  It’s on like Donkey Kong, for us, every Tuesday.

I’ll close by telling you that it’s starting to seem like home, although things like church bells and fireworks at 6 AM (no, I’m not kidding) continue to remind us that we’re in a foreign land.  Thanks for your lovely comments, and for sharing our adventures with your friends and loved ones.  We miss you all, but it’s getting better.  All the time.

 

 

The Hills Are Alive (But They Are Possibly Killing Me)

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This is looking uphill from halfway down our street, Calle Montes de Oca. We are at the very, very top, on the left.

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, July 16, 2014: I have a recurring dream.  OK, let’s call it a nightmare, because that’s really what it is, although sometimes it ends more horrifically than other times.  It involves me being driven – I’m always the passenger in the vehicle; whether or not that matters, I’m not sure– up a street that becomes impossibly steep.  No one in the vehicle realizes it at first, but ultimately it’s too late, and the vehicle either begins to lose traction and falters, rolling backwards faster and faster downhill, or, in the more harrowing version of the dream, I’m in a convertible and it flips back over onto itself, throwing passengers out or landing on top of them.

I’m now living on that street.

The picture at the beginning of the post was taken from about half-way up our street.  It starts out steep at the bottom, but halfway up it becomes really, really steep.  Like, steeper than it should be possible to build a road that cars travel over.  I’m going to need one of my civil engineer friends to come down and take some measurements, because I’m fairly confident I’ve never been on a publically-maintained road in the U.S. that’s this steep.  I’m estimating the incline at forty degrees, although Wiley tells me that’s impossible.  If I had only had room to pack my astrolabe…but then, where would be have put the vitamins?

San Miguel is built on a hill.  From the very “bottom” of town, where Wiley’s school and our gym are, it’s a gradual climb up to our house, which is still not at the very top of town.  The Plaza Principal, which is the center of town and where the beautiful cathedral, the Parroquia, is located (you’ve likely seen the spires of this amazing structure in pictures taken from our house), is about halfway up the hill. 

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Brunch on the rooftop. Killer view. Parroquia is nearly out of frame on the right.

There are definite advantages to the layout.  At six-thousand feet the air is crystal clear, and on most days you can see well off in the distance, possibly as much as a hundred miles, from our roof.  We have an amazing view of the entire town and all of its beautiful architecture.  

OK, I’m pretty much done with the upside.  The downside is that when you want to go out, you have to eventually come up.  Pretty much everything we need is down, so that means the “up” trip can and often does involve carrying things back up the hill.  Oh sure, we could drive, but have I explained about our garage?

The list of things I have not done since arriving here a little over two weeks ago includes watching television and driving. You don’t really need to drive here, because most everything is within walking distance, but you also don’t really WANT to drive, either.  The streets are impossibly narrow, and many are one-way with street signage of variable quality.  The oldest streets (including ours) are cobblestone, and the others are flat slate-like paving stones.  Both are noisy, murder on your suspension, and slippery when wet.  Which they are a lot lately, because it’s the rainy season, and it rains pretty much every day.

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View from the top. That’s our open garage door on the right.

Which is, in fact, what it was doing when we arrived in town.  A light mist, to be sure, but rain nonetheless, which made the cobblestones on our street slippery.  When driving, you have to approach our house from the top of the street, because our half of it is one-way in the downward direction.  The street itself is approximately the width of one and a half small cars, and all of the houses are right next to each other, forming a continuous wall and giving new meaning to the term “zero lot line”.  As you teeter over the brink of the crest of our street and start your freefall down, immediately on your right you’ll encounter our front door and then our garage door, which is a ninety-degree turn from the street.  It’s so sharp it’s impossible to execute with one turn, and the extremely steep “lip” that carries you up from the street to the garage floor threatens to crush your front end, especially if the car you’re driving is laden with a year’s worth of stuff (mostly vitamins, ha-ha), three bicycles, two Chihuahuas, a stressed father, a panicked child, and an overloaded Thule box. 

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The car, snug and safe in its garage.

But Wiley did successfully get the car into the garage, although our child was permanently traumatized and immediately began planning how, when we leave next year, we will park the car at the bottom of the hill and carry all of our belongings down to it, instead of trying to get it fully-loaded out of the garage.  And that is where it has been, quietly sleeping off its sixteen-hundred mile journey, since we arrived.

So we walk, a lot.  There has been talk of buying a scooter, although at the moment it’s just talk.  Most days I make the trip up the hill three to four times, between shopping, walking the dogs, and delivering Wiley IV to his appointments.  I keep score, and make it a point to report nightly on my trips to gain sympathy, which rarely works.   Ultimately my calves will no longer fit in my jeans, and I’ll have that, at least.

Just returned from taking the dogs to the park, upon which I witnessed a woman running over someone’s stoop on Huertas, the next block over from us, then proceeding to tear off her driver’s side mirror on a house when backing up.  The car emitted a nasty hissing noise with steam, as if a fatal injury occurred somewhere under the hood.  Definitely, she should have walked.

Outlander

2014-07-02 15.17.53San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, July 10, 2014 – I am a huge fan of the Outlander series of books, written by Diana Gabaldon.  I devoured the initial seven books in the series late last summer (all of them are big enough and heavy enough as hardbacks to be used as paving stones, if necessary), and finished the eighth book in the series a couple of weeks ago at the beach in four days.  The highly anticipated series based on the books starts in August on the STARZ network, which sadly I will not see as it is not being shown in Mexico.  Netflix and I have a date when I get home.

The heroine of the book, Claire Randall, a British nurse, goes on a second honeymoon in the Scottish highlands with her husband once they are reunited at the end of World War II.  While visiting an ancient stone circle she gets transported back in time to Scotland of the 1740’s, just prior to the Jacobite uprising.

Stay with me, I promise I have a point.

Claire is smart, and when she’s rescued by a band of Highlanders from a blood-thirsty redcoat, her first instinct is not to panic, but to try to Act Natural.  Fit In.  Nothing to See Here, Move Along.  Because of course what she wants to do is scream “WTF, is this some kind of crazy way-too-realistic historical re-enactment or something???  Because all of you people smell, and I.  DO.  NOT.  BELONG.  HERE.  WITH YOU.”.  To make things worse, everyone speaks Gaelic.  She’s called an “outlander”, which means stranger, or you-ain’t-from-around-here-are-you?.

I’ve been feeling a little like Claire since arriving here, but I’m starting to get the hang of this.  I live here now, and the last couple of weeks have been devoted to making a life for my family and me.  I’m not working, so while Wiley went back to work as soon as he got his computer set up, most of my energy has been devoted to getting our daily routine established.  Our kitchen is very well-equipped, and there is a whole-house water filtration system, so we can use the water from the taps without worrying about getting sick.   I’ve checked out all of the grocery stores and markets and have found sources for most of the foods we like to eat.  We avoid wheat and most other grains, so I was resigned to the fact that we would likely do without a lot of the things we like while here.  But I’ve been pleasantly surprised and even found a grocery store that sells almond flour and red curry paste a host of other items that I like to keep on hand.

Not to be outdone in the way of rigorous dietary demands, our dogs eat prescription dog food.  We brought down a bag of kibble (they actually rode all the way on top of it, unbeknownst to them) but being peculiar little creatures they eat poorly when they are fed only kibble.  Gizmo carries it, piece-by-piece, into an adjoining room, where he plays with it, or fondles it with his mouth, before deciding he will eat it.  I have seen people get through four pounds of unshelled crawfish faster than he can eat a half cup of kibble.  The dogs desire a spoonful of canned food carefully mixed in, and without this they were both clearly losing weight.  Not a bad thing for Pancake, who was slightly thick around the middle, but Gizmo’s hip bones were starting to protrude.

I thought that I had communicated sufficiently with the receptionist at a vet clinic in town such that she was ordering me a case of canned food.  We looked it up in the book, she told me it would be there Thursday afternoon, and to come back then.  Thursday afternoon she was not there, and the guy who was there said to come back “maῆana”.  Maῆana came and I was back, but she wasn’t.  Somehow I managed to understand, through a combination of hand gestures and poorly understood Spanish prepositional phrases, that I was to visit the vet clinic behind the MEGA (the enormous chain supermarket on the edge of town) next to the gym, where they had the food.  I jumped into a cab and told the driver to take me to the MEGA, hoping I could figure it out from there.  Sure enough, behind the MEGA there was a gym, and behind the gym was a large veterinary hospital.  I went in and got so far as asking for “pato y patata” and was struggling with how to let him know I wanted canned food when he said something like, “Hey, why don’t we speak English?,” with no trace of an accent.  Turns out he was the veterinarian, and he was born in Boston.  We had a nice chat and I’m invited back the next time his two children, who are both vets, are in town.  No duck and potato distributed in Mexico by Royal Canin, but they do have Hill’s z/d, which the dogs love and are they are both cleaning their bowls right away.

If you typically work out, you need to join a gym when you move, as this puts a familiar routine back into your day.  For me, it makes me feel less like an outlander.  Since I’ll be walking Wiley 4 to school and back every day, it made sense to join the gym just down the block from his school.  It’s a no-frills gym, with mostly dudes working out and keeping to themselves.  You walk in and pay your monthly fee (about $30) in cash, and an old guy painstakingly writes your receipt.  When you come in you sign the book, and it’s his job to make sure you’re paid up for the month.  No waivers to sign, no tour, no Crossfit or Pilates, and no sports drinks for sale.

It became obvious after the first couple of days that without the neighborhood kids knocking on the door round the clock for him, or the neighborhood pool to go to, or any of his typical activities, Wiley 4 needed something to do other than watch YouTube videos and play Mindcraft.  I signed him up for art classes, which he’s been going to every day this week.  I also found an adventure camp that I can hopefully talk him into going to, or if all else fails I play the parent card and force him. We visited his school and met with the headmaster and I think we are all feeling very comfortable with what that will be like, but we’ve got five more weeks of summer to get through before school.  Right now I am his best friend and playmate, and we have been exploring town together most afternoons.  He has achieved Olympic-level wheedling skills for ice cream or whatever delicious-looking thing he’s currently wanting on these excursions, and I’ll admit that I’ve considered leaving him outside on the sidewalk while I go into a bar and throw back a cold one (not seriously…mostly) but it’s good time together, and he keeps me laughing with his non-stop questions and wacky ideas.

So I’m getting there.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve had a couple of break downs.  I was buying some flowers in the market the other day and the girl selling them to me seemed really mean, and I’d swear she was talking bad about me in Spanish to her friend.  Paranoid, much?  After that I got home, which involves walking up no less than five hills (more to come on THAT subject), and my son began detailing all of the things that were wrong with the batch of granola I had just made, as if I had somehow landed on an episode of “Chopped”, and he was a high-end restaurateur.  I mean, come on, I’ve been in Mexico ten days and I’m making GRAIN-FREE GRANOLA people.  Give me a break already.

I didn’t burst into tears until after I had singed the hairs off my forearms by lighting the oven.  It’s propane, and I guess I turned the gas on and walked away, thinking that I had turned on the oven.  But of course, no, I hadn’t, because you actually have to stick your head AND an open flame INTO the oven and actually light it.  So once I remembered that there was a fair bit of gas just hanging out in the oven, which I somehow did not notice despite the distinct smell of – guess what?  GAS!!!  – , and once I snapped the lighter on I got a giant WHOOSH of flame.  Startling, made me cry, but no eyebrow or eyelash loss, thank god.  

Pancho and Lefty Cross the Border

When we last talked we were two-thirds of the way through an epic three-day, sixteen-hundred mile journey by car from Colorado to San Miguel de Allende, our new home in Mexico. We had arrived at the border town of Laredo, Texas, and checked into a La Quinta for the night. We had tentatively picked out a few restaurants on TripAdvisor on the way into town that sounded good, and serendipitously two of them were located across the parking lot from our hotel.
Over an excellent dinner we discussed our plans for the next day. We knew it would take ten hours, approximately, to get from the border crossing to San Miguel. We felt pretty certain that for the most part, the roads were good quality. There are toll roads and there are regular roads, and the advice we got suggested we stick to the toll roads, because they tend to be four lanes and well-maintained. We planned as little stopping as possible, but knew we’d have to walk the dogs and get food and gas. The big unknown was what the border crossing itself would be like, and how long it would take.
You’d have to be living in a closet under the stairs a-la Harry Potter with no access to news to not have heard about what a mess the American-Mexican border is. An off-duty American Marine apparently recently accidentally crossed into Mexico with guns in his car, and is being detained by the Mexican authorities for this, since there is no second amendment in Mexico. American border police shot several Mexicans who were throwing rocks at them near the border. You hear routinely of drug cartel violence as well. The cop in the lobby of the hotel who engaged me in conversation acted like we were attempting to cross the Gaza Strip when I told him our plans, and wanted to show me some videos he had on his phone of what the border was like.
We set out for the border, which is pretty hard to miss, as the interstate basically only goes there, and once you get in the border zone, it’s all concrete barricades like the world’s biggest bank drive-thru, and you are forced to stay in your lane as you go over the bridge into Mexico. I’m still not sure how that Marine “accidentally” ended up in Mexico, since there are VERY LARGE SIGNS everywhere that you are LEAVING AMERICA and GOING INTO MEXICO.
Before we crossed over the Rio Grande we saw a couple of large flashes go off, I’m assuming taking pictures of us as well as the license plates on the car. Then we were traveling over the bridge and into Mexico. No one stopped us, although one man in street clothes shouted something to us in Spanish and motioned to us how to get out to the highway (or so we thought at the time). We saw a couple of very old women begging for money, but no drug lords, no Palestinians, and no undead, hungering for our brains. We were on the highway out of Nuevo Laredo and headed south into Mexico, and no one had even looked at our passports.
In hindsight, where everything is crystal clear, it was a rookie mistake. I’ve crossed many, many borders during my travels, and somebody usually at least wants you to fill out a form and stamp your passport. We rolled on down the highway, talking about how easy that was, as no one even looked twice at us, much less inspected our beautifully –completed canine health certificates, or admired our dogs’ sparkling teeth and recent professional grooming. But we drove for twenty miles or so, thinking that this Mexican border-crossing thing was way easier than we had been led to believe.
Then, the highway ended, along with our illusions. We came upon a large building that spanned all lanes of the highway, and were motioned over to the side by a man who asked for our passports. OK, we thought, here we go, this is where we get checked out. Where were our tourist cards? Our vehicle certificate?, he asked in English. Flustered, Wiley turned to me and said, “He wants our tourist cards!”, to which I crossly replied that I had heard him, and that we had no tourist cards. The man stepped aside and motioned for us to turn around, and said we would have to go back to Nuevo Laredo and get those as well as a vehicle certificate if we wanted to continue on into Mexico.So around we turned, and started back north, bewildered as to how we had made it that far and had somehow missed what surely must have been a pretty obvious step in the process.

Do you remember the recent story that was all over the internet about the actor Bill Murray crashing some guy’s bachelor party and dispensing advice on marriage? The basic gist of it was this: if you meet a girl you like, and you think you might want to spend the rest of your life with her, get on a plane and take her on a trip around the world. If, after traveling together to that extent, you still think you are in love with her, marry her when you land at JFK Airport.
I don’t know Bill Murray’s personal marital history, but he’s spot on with this guidance. If you can make it on the road together, you can make it. There are things we are still figuring out about marriage, even after twenty-five years, but this we know. We could have started arguing, and blamed each other for the mistake. And while I’m not going to lie and tell you that things weren’t a little intense, we re-grouped and made our way back into Nuevo Laredo in search of tourist cards and vehicle certificates. As we were sitting at a traffic light in the middle of town I looked at Wiley and said, “You know, this is EXACTLY what we wanted to avoid. We are in what has been purported to be one of the most dangerous places in Mexico, with not a clue as to where we are, or where we are supposed to be,”. We laughed uneasily at the irony, and pulled into a hotel to see if someone spoke English and could tell us where to go.
Folks, if Kevlar®, armored vehicles, and Federales with automatic weapons increase your comfort level, Nuevo Laredo is your town. The place is crawling with Mexican border patrol cops, each of them armed to the teeth and doing his best to look vigilant. Exactly how effective they are at what they do is up for debate, but they look the part. The hotel staff was able to draw us a map to the customs office, and although it wasn’t the right place, a very nice gentleman there who did not speak English actually got in his car and led us to the right place. The kindness of strangers.
Two hours of wading through the bureaucratic quagmire of immigration and customs, and we were back on the road, fully certificated. The trip south to San Miguel was by comparison uneventful. Once we stopped to fill up with gas (in Mexico all stations are full service, meaning an attendant fills up your car for you) and realized that the more rural stations were not equipped to take credit cards, but miraculously Wiley produced a 500 peso note (about $40 currently) from the recesses of his wallet, and later we were able to stop in a town and get money from an ATM. We rolled into San Miguel just before dark.

Fear and Loathing in Central Texas

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX – Nah, no ether in the air-conditioning vents or LSD trips in Vegas casinos. I was just looking for a cool road-trip movie to title this post after.

We’ve been here almost 48 hours, and I’m finally starting to come down from the adrenaline-loaded high that has been the last month of my life. There is undeniably something about this place that forces you to go slower. Perhaps it’s only that you’re so frequently scaling a thirty degree incline at 6000 feet of elevation, but whatever.
We left Fort Collins on Saturday, driving hell-for-leather for eight to ten hour days through Colorado, the corner of New Mexico, and all the way across Texas to end up at the border in Laredo on Sunday evening. Our car, a 2003 Audi A4, was loaded to the gills. We worked hard to keep the inside of the car fairly clutter-free, but basically living inside your vehicle for that amount of time will cause some accumulation of detritus. Both rear floorboard spaces were occupied, which resulted in my son sleeping or reclining on the dogs’ bed for a good portion of the trip (they are small and more than willing to share space). He was also nursing an ear infection that he acquired on our trip to our family beach house in Orange Beach, Alabama the previous week. Wiley (my husband) had found a particularly ingenious spot for my brief case in a crevice between the passenger front seat and the side of the car. We sported a large rooftop box on top, the trunk was loaded to capacity, and three bicycles adorned the rear. We must have been a sight, hauling ass across the heat-scorched plains of central Texas.
We never really considered flying to Mexico, since we’d have all of our stuff with us plus the dogs. One day I’ll write a blog post about what we brought with us, once I’m sure Wiley won’t stop speaking to me when I publicize his vitamin addiction. We thought about buying a bigger car, but talking to a few folks we discovered that recent Audi and Volkswagen engines are virtually identical, and since there are a lot of Volkswagens on the roads in Mexico we figured that most mechanics would know what to do should be have trouble, so we decided to drive the Audi. We bought a Thule rooftop carrier, and I’m sure we went WAY over its recommended 160 pound load limit. Not going to pretend the car didn’t drive a little “heavy”, and yes, if you put it on a lift you’d be likely to see some battle scars on the power train (thank you, aggressively large Mexican speed bumps), but we made it in one piece. More about the car’s near-death experience while trying to maneuver it into its 150 year-old garage at a later time.
Our progress was fairly rapid, but you’re not going to cover sixteen-hundred miles and change in a short period of time. The worst slowdown occurred just north of Colorado Springs, where we encountered traffic that could only be attributed to the annual Renaissance Festival taking place. Our goal for the first day was Amarillo, Texas. When we were about two hours out of Amarillo, Wiley started calling hotels. Sold out. No rooms. Again and again. And again. Turns out there was a big rodeo in town, and there were no hotel rooms in a city of 200,000 people. Luckily the Comfort Inn in the town of Dumas, Texas, about 45 minutes east of Amarillo welcomed us with open arms (although they sold out sometime later that evening; must have been quite a rodeo). We celebrated by drinking a bottle of excellent French wine that Wiley had expertly wedged somewhere in the car when packing out of plastic hotel glasses.
We were on the road just after sunrise the next morning, after a particularly forgettable free breakfast. It’s funny: looking at Google Maps the route from Fort Collins to Laredo looks very direct. But in reality, we spent the day wandering Blair Witch Project-style through south central Texas, turning off of one nowhere four-lane onto another. After ten hours of mind-numbing windmills, oil fields, and dead armadillos, we could have kissed the ground when we arrived in Laredo, were it not a lip-blistering 105 degrees at 8 PM.
More to come later in the week. Lots to tell, still, of the border crossing and the trip through Mexico to San Miguel and moving into our house. And I promise I am reading a book on WordPress and will soon have this place looking a lot more interesting.