Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Qro; The Good and the Bad

School is definitely getting harder. Our teacher, Lulu has been forcing us to speak in past tense. No biggie in English, but in Spanish you have about five or six different verb conjugations for past tense. And of course, the most commonly used words are the irregular ones. We have a few irregulars in English, like go and went, but dang-it, they’ve got a ton. Lulu speaks at a normal speed, which is really fast for us. This is a fairly educated city, and lots of people speak English. Fortunately, they prefer Spanish, so we can practice.

The director of our school invited us to go wine tasting with him and his girlfriend. That was an adventure. We drove through the open country past vast ranches and farms for a long time. Then we went through tiny villages, where they had so many things for sale in front of their tiendas, we could hardly get through the street.

The first winery was gorgeous, and almost empty. We couldn’t taste their wine because we didn’t have an appointment, but we ate there… one of the best hamburgers I’ve had. It’s called Vino del Cielo. It looks like one of those places you’d want for a wedding venue. They had an attached hotel and a nice swimming pool. Plus they had a big grassy area with a man-made lake and waterfall.

Freixenet was like going to an amusement park. It had families and couples everywhere. The huge motorcycle group we’d passed on our way to the Queretaro Wine Region was there with their black leathers on, sipping sparkling wine. Because of covid we couldn’t try their wine, but I could buy a glass of wine… I wasn’t impressed with this, but they certainly weren’t hurting for business. The reserve cabernet sauvignon was good, and I got the wine glass as a memento.

My favorite was Tierra de Alonso. It had a funky little shop up front, but then it opened up to a gorgeous garden with a little cage of rabbits for the children to feed. The sommelier came to our table and gave us tastings for three of their wines and I bought a bottle of a really unusual tasting wine they call Coupage. I can’t figure out what the varietal is. They even had cheese and wine ice cream. I have no idea if it was good.

The ride home took us past a giant rock named Peña de Bernal. It’s the third largest monolith in the world, surpassed only by the Rock of Gibraltar and Sugarloaf Mountain in Brasil. My photo from the car was terrible, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

Queretaro is a unique city. I can’t decide if I like it or not. It’s really pretty with its cathedrals and cobblestone streets. The shops and restaurants are good. I think the best part is the people. They are polite and helpful. Everyone goes out of their way to help. The huge cathedral near the end of the aqueduct, lets all the homeless sleep along the walls. At night piles of blankets cover them, but during the day there’s no sign of them near the church.

Pets are a big thing here. I’ve never seen so many pet grooming shops and veterinarians anywhere else. But, unlike the US, I haven’t seen very many dogs at restaurants or in stores. They even have professional dog-walkers here. The other day we walked past a guy leading eight dogs. I can’t figure out how he got them all to behave?

There’s a canal that runs through the city in front of the university. It has a bike trail and a walking trail. It’s really pretty with all of its little bridges crisscrossing over it. Our side is the colonial side, and the other side is a mix of old and new. There’s people there at all hours of the day and long into the night. When we come back from the city center at nine or ten at night, we’re going the opposite direction of the people flowing into el centro to get dinner. Mexicans eat late and stay out late, probably because it’s cooler.

People dress nice here… sometimes I feel like we’re in Barcelona. It’s nice enough, but for some reason it’s not for us. Part of the problem is the incredibly dry air and the minerals in the water. My feet look like I’m wearing alligator shoes! The dust is wreaking havoc on my sinuses. I’ve had a bloody nose every single day. And then there’s the altitude. We’re at 6,500 feet! Somehow, I didn’t know that ahead of time. It wasn’t until we finally admitted to each other that we were getting winded just climbing the stairs, that we suspected some dark force was against us. Now I don’t feel so old and feeble… it’s the altitude.

Another oddity is the number of people wandering around who are drunk (I see maybe two or three a day, sometimes more). The puking kind of drunk. I’ve never seen that many in a truly Mexican city. A tourist city like Cancun, maybe, but not Puebla, Oaxaca, or even Guanajuato. Maybe it’s a sign on the times? It reminds me of Antigua, Guatemala, where the drunks are protected by a spirit, unless a black dog licks them… then they’re doomed. So, no one messes with the drunks there, even if they’re laying on the sidewalk in front of your establishment.

Our house is interesting. It has two rooms and a bathroom with doors, but the rest is open-air with screens (mostly). Mosquitos don’t seem to be a problem here, but we’ve found two giant cockroaches in our place… dead, thankfully. Our Airbnb is extremely basic. Enough toilet paper and garbage bags for a few days. The sponge was ancient, so I bought some. She gave us four bath towels for two weeks and no change of sheets, so I have to do laundry—by hand in the kitchen sink, which only has cold water. The fridge is the size of a carry-on suitcase. We definitely won’t stay here again, though it is cute, cheap, and conveniently located by our school. Hopefully our next place will be a little better equipped.

Another interesting custom is the way the restaurants compete with each other. Normally they stand out front and try to talk you into coming into their place. Not here. It’s not unusual to have someone hold the menu for you to read, then when you decide to eat there, they lead you to a restaurant two doors down. Sometimes they stand next to each other and stick two or three different menus under your nose. A host or hostess dare not leave their post for a moment, or another restaurant host will stand at their entrance and entice the customers away. We found a really clean and modern looking place and stopped to look at the menu. The sweet young guy standing at the podium handed us the menu to peruse. It looked good, so we decided to eat there. Suddenly a girl came racing out of the restaurant and shooed him away and proceeded to hand us the correct menu. Fortunately for her their menu looked good also.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Queretaro; Settling In

The shower dilemma was solved by turning the hot water heater on an hour before shower-time. So Monday started off good. We made breakfast with the eggs we bought at the big market and headed off to our first day of school. That was also the first day Queretaro opened for business for both indoor and outdoor dining. I can’t imagine being here for three weeks with take-out food only. That would’ve completely undermined the whole process of learning the language and immersing ourselves in a culture.

When we arrived, on Sunday, it wasn’t possible to purchase alcohol, and all of the restaurants were closed for indoor dining. Joe was very disappointed, to say the least. When the school director asked on Sunday how we were settling in, I texted him, “We’re doing fine, but there’s no beer on Sunday in Mexico!” The first day in class on Monday, he came in with four beers for Joe. I thought Joe was going to kiss his feet with joy. The next day he brought three bottles of wine into the class to show me what the store below carried… and the store was having a two-for-one sale!

Our teacher, Lulu, is a sweet lady (Chantico Language School). She pushed our limits the first day and now we’ve settled into a curriculum. It was pretty comical when she tried to give us homework. We flat-out refused. I don’t think she quite knew what to do. We prefer to wander through the community and practice our new skills on the locals, like the owner of our favorite coffee shop, Laura, who doesn’t speak any English. But she has a son who is an intermediate English speaker. We set up our own inter-cambio date with him and today we went for a walk to go see the aqueduct, Los Arcos. For the first half-hour we spoke Spanish, the second half-hour we switched to English.

This is a really clean city. They pick up the household garbage every day, which is why we ran out of bags and had to go buy more… it’s an American thing. Used toilet paper in a can with no lid is no bueno. We probably take our garbage out faster than anyone else in town. The streets are constantly swept clean. They use brooms made out of twigs tied to a broomstick. All of the streets in this part of town are cobblestone and a lot of them are pedestrian only.

The food’s been okay. We went into a restaurant Monday night and I ordered a steak. The server said it was very flavorful and traditional. Joe got the chicken breast. Both had been beaten and pounded down to about a quarter of an inch thick. We could hardly cut through the meat, but it was kinda flavorful once we got past the scrawny cut of meat. Last night we went to a popular and noisy bar, we ordered nachos. That was good. The menu cracked me up… it was about six feet tall. The server came to our table and placed it right in front of us. I thought that was hilarious. Last night we finally ordered the item on the menu at every restaurant; enchiladas Queretanos. Talk about a disappointment! Two scrawny enchiladas with salad on top. Joe ordered Abondogas, meatballs. There was only one, so not sure why they called it abondogas? But it was big and extremely tasty. Today’s restaurant, The Blue Fish, wins the grand prize—fish and shrimp tacos. They were absolutely delicious, especially with the sundried jalapeño salsa.

Yesterday, Emiliano, our inter-cambio guy, told us a little more of the city history. We went to the hill of bad blood, Sangre Mal. A tiny church marked the spot of the final battle between the indigenous people and the Spaniards. A vision appeared in the sky of an angel mounted on a horse. It looked like a Spaniard, so they took it as a sign that the Spaniards should win the battle and have the land. A large replica of this event is on a monument near the church. That’s the reason for the city’s name; Santiago de Queretaro. I asked if the indigenous people also saw the angel. Emiliano just shrugged. As I said, he took us to where we could see a huge part of the aqueduct. It’s amazing. It was built in less than 20 years and is over five miles long and as tall as 75 feet at some points. Emiliano said the traditional story is; the man who planned for and paid for the aqueduct, did so as a gift to his girlfriend because the water in the city was polluted. At that time in the 1720’s, a lot of people were very rich, but this guy was even more wealthy than most. Probably a billionaire by our standards.

For the first time, we haven’t been able to find a place to have our laundry done. It’s a good thing I always bring laundry soap. As I type, our clothes are hanging all over the house. By the way, we rented this house (two bedroom and one bath) for only $21/night! Other than the nearby trains coming and going all night, the church bells that start ringing at dawn, the intermittent barking and meowing from the veterinary hospital next door, and the occasional celebratory M-80’s, it’s very peaceful.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Arrival in Queretaro


We’re off on a real adventure finally. Our last two vacations were pleasantly spent in Cabo San Lucas and on the island of Isla Murejes. This time we’re visiting a city I’d never heard of before a bartender in Houston told us how beautiful and clean it is. I did some research and decided it deserved a visit. Santiago de Queretaro is centrally located north of Mexico City. It’s set at the base of the Sierra Mountains. We’ve enrolled in Spanish language school again and this time we’ll be staying at an Airbnb, instead of a homestay. The closest family to the school is a five minute taxi ride… not close enough.

As I type this, we’re on the 747 Star Wars plane. It’s pretty cool looking. The airport staff was pretty excited. All the people down on the tarmac were snapping photos. A couple of flight attendants standing near us were chatting about how neither of them had ever even seen it. I was beginning to get excited about going on board. A quick web search said the safety would be done with Chubaca and Yoda. There would be themed music as we boarded. Not so much. The only thing inside is the red seats on one side and the blue on the other side.

QRO is a tiny little airport, and word to the wise, the bathrooms are after your baggage pick-up and immigration/customs… go on the plane before you land! We pre-arranged for a driver to pick us up because we weren’t familiar with this area and we came out of the airport at 11:30 pm. But honestly, now we know it would’ve been fine to use Uber ($12) or a taxi ($30). Raul, our driver took us by the famous aqueduct. I managed to snap a picture as we sped past it. We arrived at our house at midnight and as we stood at the door talking on the phone to the hostess and the door magically unlocked.

I did my usual—put several blankets under the bottom sheet to pad the bed, but we still had a rough night’s sleep. I finally was in a deep sleep at about 5:30 in the morning, when all of a sudden a really loud banging sound startled us awake. It sounded like someone was pounding on our metal front door! Joe and I leaped out of bed. He ran to the top of the staircase and listened as the banging continued. It stopped, but we were shaken. I went and stuck my head out the front window to see who it was, but the street below was deserted. With a shrug, we went back to bed. Immediately, it started again. This time I went straight to the window and looked down, but no one was there. We were baffled. Then it happened again and we realized someone was setting off fireworks… the big loud ones like M-80s. What is it with Mexicans and their explosives? We crawled back in bed and suddenly a train blew its horn. It sounded like it was on our street! This was followed by another volley of explosions. We started laughing. Even earplugs can’t solve this.

Joe got up early to have a pot of coffee waiting for me. When I came downstairs, he was cussing under his breath and wiping the flood of water and coffee grounds off the countertop. I guess the coffee maker doesn’t work. I turned on the kitchen faucet and waited for the water to heat up. Nope. I tried both nobs. I went upstairs to check the shower. As I let it warm up, which it didn’t, I went in to make our bed. I came back to a flood of cold water. The shower is not separate from the rest of the bathroom—no threshold. What I hadn’t noticed was the clear drain plug… sigh. I finally texted the owner and she said, “Turn the hot water heater on, and wait 20 minutes.” Okay, so Joe did that for me. We waited 20 minutes and I must tell you that a warm shower that turns cold after you have your hair lathered with shampoo, is quite exhilarating.

We decided to explore the town. We stopped at a couple of gorgeous cathedrals, and munched some street tacos. The city had street markets everywhere. But I’m really disappointed to see the food is take-out only. I’d researched it and it said they had outdoor dining. The weather here is perfect for outdoor dining (about 70 F). We are really going to have to change how we do Mexico. Normally we park ourselves at some café or pub and watch the world go by. We managed by sitting on the cement planter boxes in the park. The benches were taped off, so we all bunched together and ate next to the benches… not well thought out.

A trip to the market was a must. I thought it was going to be a grocery store, but it was a traditional indoor mercado. It was huge and had everything you could imagine, from pig’s feet to guava. It was packed full of people (wearing masks), but the parks are off limits. Yellow caution tape prevents children from running and playing in the open-air. So they play in compact groups on the sidewalk! Seriously?

The highlight, besides the churches, was a café where I got an espresso mixed with dark chocolate. It was heavenly. Valentines Day (Dia del amor y Amistad) is a love-fest all around. It’s not just for couples, but a day to celebrate everyone you love. Balloons, chocolate, flowers, gifts, and of course the mariachi bands. Dinner was hot dogs from a street vendor—almost as good as Isla Mujeres—followed by a scoop of ice cream… what? I’m on vacation.

It hasn’t even been 24 hours. I can only imagine what tomorrow will bring. We start Spanish language school at 9:30 in the morning. Super excited. Now if we can only sleep tonight! :/

Friday, November 20, 2020

Isla Mujeres; Last Day

We’re alone now. Not only has our group abandoned us, but so have most of the tourists. Playa Arena (our hotel) is almost empty… just a couple of us diehards. Today and tomorrow are expected to be stormy. 

Right now I’m sitting at our open-air restaurant enjoying the sounds of crashing surf and the scent of Fabuloso wafting from the cleaning crew. If you’ve ever traveled to Mexico, you know the distinctive smell of Fabuloso.

It’s hard to see the locals struggling to survive here. In first world countries like ours, people are terrified of catching covid and becoming ill and possibly dying. Elsewhere in the world they have more immediate concerns than a temporary illness—even if it leads to death. Right now they are just trying to feed their families. Maybe their acceptance of death is more pragmatic. All I know is that the USA shutting down again affects more than just Americans.

On a happier note, I’ve been having fun buying things I don’t need. I get to stand around and chat with locals without interruption. The porch of our room is completely tranquil without the usual loud-mouthed drunks wandering around trying to find their rooms. Last week we had a lady with a big group who really shouldn’t drink at all. One day when I was walking down main street, she latched onto my sister and me. That same evening we all went to a local restaurant and the manager asked if I was friends with Susie (alias). As soon as I figured out whom he meant, I wisely clarified that I didn’t know that woman. Smart move… her money is appreciated there, but her behavior—not so much.

We did get to the other end of the island while the gang was all here. Punta Sur is a nice little park. Bring pesos… it’s about half the price than paying dollars. The bar has a beautiful view, which was perfect for Joe to hang out at. We all made the trek around the point, down by the surf. It’s decayed much in the last couple of years. When we first started coming here a few years ago the park had at least ten metal sculptures from various Latin countries. We’ve watched those rust and finally, this time, they’ve vanished.

After leaving the park I highly recommend driving golf carts over to La Casa del Tikinxic five minutes away on the west side of the island. This is one of the few places you can get the traditional Isla Mujeres dish. There were 8 of us and we got two kilos, which was a decent sized whole fish. This includes rice, tortillas, and slaw. The waiter admitted that Mexicans usually can eat twice that size, so if you’re a big eater keep that in mind. We started with two bowls of guacamole prepared table-side. They have other menu items, but Tikinxic (tick-en-shik) is traditional.

Plus, you never know what you might see. For some reason a guy had created a wooden cage attached to the dock. In the cage he had a small shark. For a price you could get into this little trap and hold the friendly shark in your arms. Even more entertaining was the scantily clad woman who took a shot of tequila and got in. Her male friends were besides themselves with excitement. Naturally, I had to get a closer look, so Larry and I walked out to watch. I don’t know what was more interesting; the girl and the shark or the boyfriend who slipped and fell several times while trying to capture it on film. People really are very interesting… and you wonder where I get my characters from for my books and screenplays?

It’s our last day. Not sure how I feel about it. It’s a bit nostalgic because we likely won’t be back. This is our fourth time to this island and we want to explore other parts of the world. On the other hand, I’m looking forward to our own bed. The usual enjoyment of wandering around town in the evening is not possible this time. Joe can’t walk that far, so I sally forth every night to hunt us up a dinner. I cart it back to our room and lay it out on our little dresser-top. Then we watch yet another Lord of the Rings video. But it’s been fun in its own way. Last night we got a taxi to Momma Rossa’s for Italian food and a big glass of wine. Joe finally got to watch the pedestrian activity on main street. Tonight, I’ll get fish tacos from next door and we’ll watch the fourth video… so romantic.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Isla Mujeres; Arrival and Advice


We’re back on Isla Mujeres. A lot of reasons for that, the most important being that we’ve planned it for a couple of years. This is my first vacation with my sister. She’d never been out of the country (USA). It was pretty cool to help her plan for it—passports, swimsuits, packing lists, etc. Her husband, Herb, was equally excited, albeit not as obvious. Now we’re all here, along with our friends the Wards and the Mettlers.

I'd begun to get a little nervous about whether or not Deb would like this type of vacay. Isla is like a mixture of a weekend street market and a state fair. I finally asked her if she would be happy going to such a laid-back rustic place. She assured me she was a hillbilly and would be fine.

Our first hiccup was a change in flights. American Airlines gave us only 40 minutes layover in Dallas! The plane boards 30 minutes before its flight! Have you ever been to Dallas Airport? It’s huge. Add to that Joe’s back injury he got a week before our trip… he can barely walk, let alone walk fast. Anyway, we made it—last ones on the plane.

Cancun’s customs is a breeze. Masks are required, which is a bizarre experience. It was a strange experience to walk up to a customs officer with a mask on. After baggage claim there’s a contraption you have to walk through that mists you with some chemical to kill covid, and probably me.

We use AGI transportation, which I highly recommend. AGI will be waiting outside the airport doors to escort you to your van. They take you to the Ultramar Ferry dock and hand you your prepaid ferry tickets. If you have time, grab a beer or whatever from the bar located at the entrance for the ferry. You can carry it onboard the ferry. Head to the top deck if it’s not pouring, that way you can treat it like a 20 minute excursion. Once you get to the Isla Mujeres dock, head straight toward the street and look for your AGI rep (the van driver will give you his name). This is your prepaid taxi ride to the hotel. Don’t worry about whether or not your suitcases will fit in the compact taxi—they have lots of bungee cords. Now look around and relax for the few minutes it takes to get you to your destination. As an added bonus, AGI does offer a yacht ride over, if your group is big enough. I’m guessing the cost of the individual ferry tickets eventually equals the cost of a yacht. We had enough people for a yacht ride, but the weather didn’t cooperate.

A quick note about taxis… they are very cheap here. We took one to a nearby restaurant (maybe two miles away) and it was 60 pesos. At this time that equaled 3 dollars for four of us.

Once we arrived at the hotel and got settled my sister and hubby showed up at our doorstep super excited to be here. It was dusk and they couldn’t see the ocean but could hear it. I offered to guide them to the beach—forty feet away, but they didn’t know that. :) When they realized the hotel is literally on the beach, they skidded to a stop and Herb said, “What the…?” Deb threw her arms around me and said, “This is just like a movie!” Then she went right into the water.

The weather had been continuously overcast with sporadic downpours for the first couple of days. Lovely temperature. There was actually some good wave action to play in, but today dawned calm and flat. The yachts that hang out near the beach are back. Admittedly, I prefer them not to be here because of the blaring music (Cancun Sailing is the worst—foul language rap music), but I love the idea of it meaning the economy is attempting to make a come-back. Covid shut-downs here are life threatening—it’s not an economic hardship, it’s starvation. Everyone living and working on the island wears a mask to help visitors feel safe. It’s pretty laid back as to whether or not the tourist has to wear a mask. It seems to be up to the individual. If you are fearful of catching it, it’s perfectly okay to wear a mask. Some guests wear them continuously.

So, now I will write about something I rarely write about, but troubles happen to all travelers. Joe incurred an injury while running right before our trip. We made the decision to travel anyway. The pain would be the same anywhere in the world. Here are some tips for making it work: Take your time and go at your own pace. Request assistance—the locals are very accommodating. Get a wheelchair at the airport if needed. If at possible, make sure you have a way to email or private message your physician before you leave the US. It’s been very helpful for us to be able to chat with our doctor while here. There are several pharmacies here, and most prescriptions can be replicated here… usually considerably cheaper too. 

For meals take taxis to any of the many restaurants not located on the pedestrian street (Miguel Hidalgo). If you can walk 200-300 feet then get a taxi to the closest street corner to the restaurant on the pedestrian street. If you are wheelchair bound, inspect your hotel carefully. Not to be disrespectful, but the Mexican’s idea of disability compliant and yours are vastly different. A huge number of the restaurants have street level seating—some have covering to protect you from the frequent downpours. You will ride through puddles. Your seat cushion will get wet. Either protect it with a plastic covering or bring an extra cushion. (In case you are beginning to think Joe’s in a wheelchair—he’s not, but we’ll get one for the airport) I hope this answers some of your concerns. Feel free to ask questions in the comment section and I’ll answer to the best of my ability.

Random Art

Next mini disaster is I got food poisoning. I bring various medications with me, so I took an Imodium AD. I drank lots of water. I will admit it’s the sickest I’ve ever been, but I do look better in my bikini than I did, so there’s an upside. One thing I didn’t think of was bringing something bland to eat while my stomach was recovering. Fortunately I’d brought some granola bars because the airlines don’t feed their guests anymore… otherwise I’d have been in trouble.

As of writing this, half our group has returned home. We have Larry and Lisa all to ourselves for several more days, then we’ll be on our own. I’ll continue to go for my morning walks, hang out on the beach, and walk into town to get food to go. We’ve decided to make the best of dinner in the room by watching a DVD series we’ve never seen—Lord of the Rings. We’re on the third one now. All in all, it’s a different vacation from our usual adventures, but still an adventure. Never give up. Fight to keep the old man out, as Clint Eastwood says.

I’ll write again before we leave. Right now the crystal-clear turquoise ocean is calling.