July 2009

My Stories

Mother of all Road Trips-1

Mother of all Road Trips-2

Mother of all Road Trips-3

Mother of all Road Trips-4

Containing Jim in Paris

Ranging the Yellowstone

Lisbon Portugal- Part 1

Lisbon and Sintra- Part 2

Evora Portugal- Part 3

Coimbra Portugal- Part 4

Porto Portugal- Part 5

At the Mammogram Office

Carmel Art Gallery

Venice- Part I

Veneto- Part II

Ravenna- Part III

Cinque Terre- Part IV

Vernazza Bonus- Part V


Crunch Time

Putting on the Ritz

Granada and Sevilla


Tuscany and Umbria - 1

Tuscany and Umbria - 2

Driving in England

Dwelling in England

A Dozens Reasons

In the Hamam

Istanbul Greece Diary

Pearl Harbor Team

Old Girl



Grandpa's Cabin

Pay-It-Forward Latte

England and France

N. Italy - 1

N. Italy - 2

N. Italy - 3

N. Italy - 4

Lessons from 4 Corners


Going to the Dogs

Don't Embarrass Me!

Letter from Siena

Arrivederci Roma

Joining the Matriarchs

Living History

Newlywed Game

Chaos Theory

Zach on the Road

Huckleberry Season

Stanley & the Sunbeam

I Dare Say


Middle School Relay

Grad Party


Moving On

Radio Shack

Newlywed Couches


Old Faithful Inn


Sweet Potato

Mother Bear

Two Blondes in Iberia

Revisiting Spain

Four Seasons Camping

Curly's Truck.

Disaster Restorations

Bobbie the Wonder Dog

Ducks and Beavers

Wearing Red

Photo Boxes

Las Vegas Soufflé

40th Birthday Party

The Heart Tickler

Wonderful Little Things

Heritage Tour

Erickson Era

Old Buildings


Split Seams

All Nighter

Talent Show

A Look Back

July 2009


“You’re going to Mexico City?  What about the Swine Flu?  What about the drug violence?”  Dennis from across the street promised to pool our neighbors’ resources for ransom payments if we got kidnapped.  Jim stopped telling his dental staff about Mexico—he didn’t want them worrying he’d bring home the Swine Flu.  

Then there was Mexico City itself.  “Why are you going there?  It’s such a big, dirty, crowded, polluted, dangerous city.”  Gulp.

We hesitated, I’ll admit that, but we’d bought non-refundable tickets months before the outbreaks of sickness and violence in Mexico.  We watched closely as airlines extended cancellation offers to July 1st.  Our flight was July 9th. 


Then again, those who’d actually seen Mexico City loved it.  And our Annie spent last summer in Morelia, Mexico for her nutrition internship, regularly traveling alone without problem.  Our trip was on. 

Besides, how could we turn down the chance to do another host family follow-up?  Our return visits to Annie’s Costa Rican and Spanish host families rank among our richest travel experiences.  Normally you don’t get invited into locals’ homes and get them to show you around—a rare treat. 

Already a maze of paperwork, Mexico City’s airport added a new station for Swine Flu screening.  We surveyed the Spanish survey.  Did we suffer coughs, fevers, aches, or other words I never learned in Spanish class?   We knew enough Spanish to mark NO, NO, NO!  We walked through heat sensors for fever detection.  Jim and I scanned white, but Annie’s airport anxiety pumped her yellow..  Fortunately nobody stopped her.  Who knows where they would have taken Annie, or what they would have done with her?   We were happy not to learn.   

We picked the Four Seasons to counteract all the scary Mexico City anecdotes.  The driver whisked us to our safe luxury cocoon in the big bad city.  Another driver confided that the hotel suffered only 10-15% normal occupancy, and during the peak of Swine Flu, they sold two rooms.  We got a great deal on our room, probably a Swine Flu special, but they didn’t call it that for some reason.  

The next morning we walked to Chapultepec Park and toured the Archaeology Museum which Obama visited one week before the Swine outbreak.  We unearthed more funky surprises in nearby Chapultepec Castle.  Once upon a time, Mexico flirted with royalty, acquiring their very own Habsburg emperor named Maximilian.  Max lived in European luxury in this castle, complete with Cinderella golden carriage…until his execution by firing squad in 1867. 

We discovered scary Mexican clowns in the park, too.  With painted faces, they entertain mobs of Mexicans by mocking passing Americans.  “Where are you from?” they call sweetly in English to unsuspecting Gringos.  “Come join me up front,” they urge, employing their entire English vocabulary.  Victim in place, they flip to Spanish and the ridicule begins.  The crowd goes feral.  Mexico City gets few Americans on a good non-Swine Flu day, so we were rare clown-prey.  Fortunately we spoke enough Spanish to dodge their shtick.  Jim can crack me up with his Mexican clown imitation, but I understand clown-fear now.

On a related note, Annie and Jim discovered a sure-fire Mexican ice-breaker.  She would explain that yes, she spoke Spanish, but her Daddy understood almost nothing.  We never got why, but that drew laughter every time. 


We hired Edmundo from the hotel to take us to the Teotihuacan pyramids north of the city.  Edmundo apparently fancied himself a teacher of history.  He drove and lectured simultaneously, using animated hand gestures.  His distracted driving might have concerned us more if he hadn’t moved so ridiculously slow.  The Four Seasons probably wouldn’t have approved of Edmundo’s detour to the Aztec trinket shop either, where he surely got some type of kick-back.  “I’m taking you there because they have a nice ladies’ room,” he claimed. 

Finally at the pyramids, Edmundo delivered more lessons.  He downplayed Aztec sacrifice, instead focusing on Indian numerology.  Edmundo explained the mysterious power of the number four in Aztec culture.  We learned equations like the square root of the sun divided by the full moon multiplied by four-year calendars subtracted by spendy trinket shops… always results in the magical number four!   Four!  Four!  Four!  Time after time, Edmundo held up four fingers in illustration, just like Sesame Street.  Afterwards, FOUR became our quiet mantra and universal response.   

We loved the pyramids.  We tromped up and down those historical treasures.  The steps are shallow and steep, with few railings or landings.  Edmundo instructed us to walk with our feet at diagonals, or outward like a duck.  On our way down, Jim and I held hands and took careful steps in unison.  At the bottom of the huge Sun pyramid, an ancient first aid station awaited those not so cautious.  We heard that officials once attempted to close the pyramids to climbers, but relented after public outcry.  Why more people don’t know about these fantastic pyramids, we don’t know. They alone are worth the journey to Mexico City.

On our return from the pyramids, we stopped at the Basilica of the Virgen de Guadalupe to see the famous shroud.  Edmundo explained the story of how the image miraculously appeared on a village boy’s cloak in 1531, but I already knew the tale.  I’d read it during my St. Joseph grade school days, and understood its role in converting native Mexicans from indigenous faith to Catholicism. 

The ancient Basilica had visibly tilted, sinking on Mexico City’s soft, water-depleted soil. In 1976, the Virgin moved to a new Basilica which resembles a massive evangelical church, its shell-shaped interior displaying the shroud front and center.  Pilgrims filled the pews, in no rush to leave.  A motorized path carries the faithful back and forth for a close-up view of the shroud.  We rode twice, but I sensed Edmundo would have gone all day. 

Back at the hotel, we stopped for guacamole and something cool and slushy.  Not that we needed it; Mexico City had ideal weather, and we found delicious, cheap and safe food everywhere.  We felt great.  But on our way to our room that Saturday afternoon, newspaper headlines screamed of violence in nearby Morelia.  We’d planned to leave for Morelia on Monday morning. 

Mexico’s President Calderon, who hails from Morelia, has taken on his country’s drug cartels.  Calderon has rooted out corrupt police and politicians in cahoots with Mexico’s main drug lords, called “La Familia,” or “The Family.”  Not surprisingly, La Familia doesn’t like Calderon, and last fall they sent him a message via his home town of Morelia. 

Last September Annie returned home from Morelia just one week before terrorists threw two grenades into the town’s Independence Day crowds, killing seven and injuring 108.

Morelia had been quiet since those bombings…until 48 hours before our scheduled visit.  Early Saturday morning, police captured the number two guy of Mexico’s “La Familia” in Morelia.  Minutes later, members of “The Family” bombed Morelia’s jail in a failed attempt to free him.  They killed several police.  “La Familia” also bombed nearby police stations and a hotel thought to house federal agents.  Calderon transported the drug lord to a more secure location in Mexico City.

Annie phoned her old language teacher and friend in Morelia, who advised us to stay away.  Annie’s host mother cried, “I don’t know what’s happening here!”  An American and Canadian friend both shrugged off the violence, but we decided it was wiser to listen to locals.  If Mexicans were in Salem, they’d be smarter to listen to us than foreigners, we figured, and we should do the same.  Though sorely disappointed, Annie agreed we should skip Morelia.

A bit shaken, we continued with our plans to see Mexico City’s central square, the main Cathedral, and the Aztec ruins discovered in 1978.  Given the political violence, we decided to avoid the federal government’s National Palace.  We asked our driver to drop us at the Cathedral, but he stopped at the front gates of the National Palace instead.   Security, police and automatic rifles flashed everywhere.  Jim whispered, “This is the worst place possible,” as we scurried away. 

I experienced my only real culture shock at that crowded main square, called the Zocolo.  In photos, I’m the out-of-place pale Amazon in a confusion of dark-haired masses during a season of political turmoil.  When Jim nudged me from behind, I flinched.  We didn’t stick around long. 

Instead we took a leisurely three-mile stroll along the lovely Paseo de la Reforma.  Emperor Maximilian planned Reforma to rival the great boulevards of Europe.  Or maybe he needed a worthy route for his Cinderella carriage.  Along the way, we stopped at Starbucks to rest.  We’d always thought Starbucks had standardized service, but learned otherwise.  Jim ordered an iced Frappuccino.  They asked how many shots of milk he wanted instead of how many shots of coffee.  They held up one to four fingers.  Starbucks waited for a response until I jutted out two fingers.  When Jim opened the lid to see what two fingers bought, he spilled lukewarm coffee all over his shirt, and he laughed.  We realized our error; we should have requested four shots.  FOUR!  FOUR!  FOUR!

Continuing down Reforma, high in the middle of a round-about, I spotted the towering Angel monument.  I remembered the Angel from my first Spanish textbook back in Señora Bota’s class at Judson Junior High.   For some reason, the Angel intrigued me and I always hoped to set eyes on her someday.  The Angel completed our Mexico City experience—a place crazier, cleaner, and cozier than we’d pictured.  It was time to move on, just not to Morelia. 


Now if drug lords happen to implode your travel plans, surely there are worse outcomes than extending a beach vacation.  Thanks to Skype and our FOUR Seasons concierge, we flew to Zihuatanejo early.  Zihuatanejo is a charming fishing village in south-central Mexico, bordering the infamous Ixtapa.  (Zihautanejo was the final destination for the main characters in “The Shawshank Redemption.”  I hunted for Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman on the beach without success.)

Zihautanejo is charming but I could see why we got such great hotel rates after stepping from the plane into the hot, humid weather.  We’ve lived in both Phoenix and Virginia; if you take heat from one and humidity from the other, you get July in Zihuatanejo. 

Fortunately our hotel room had powerful air-conditioning plus a hot-tub, or rather a cold-tub in our case.  We found the place crunchy but immaculate, the locals hospitable and laid-back.  We adapted quickly, lounging and eating incredible jumbo shrimp, fresh tropical fruit, and piles of guacamole.  It was too hot to do much more.  Yet Jim jogged through town each day, apparently making a name for himself--we can only guess what that was. His ordering of four-fingered hot coffee after a sweaty jog likely added to his fame.

Besides our hotel room and the airport, everything was outdoors.  The heat and stickiness caused Annie and me to forego make-up and hairstyling.  We didn’t look so cute, but we didn’t care.

Like Mexico City, restaurant food was fabulous and cheap, and it never made us sick.  (We avoided street food.)  Annie and Jim got a little tummy upset after swimming in the ocean.--you can’t help but swallow small amounts of sea-water, Annie explains.

Instead of ocean swimming, I checked out the hotel’s spa and discovered that a favorable exchange rate meant $26 hour-long massages.  I was in.  A sweet young Mexican gal named Nayeli gave me as good a massage as anywhere, albeit slightly more naked, and with none of those pesky health-history questions beforehand.   Again, I didn’t care.  I decided to try my first body exfoliation, going big with the seaweed wrap.  Alas, no seaweed was available, so I settled for a lotion bath exfoliation. 

Nayeli lead me to the therapy room where another Mexicana awaited, apparently to learn the exfoliation ropes over the body of a clueless middle-aged Americana.  The two whispered while scrubbing my bug-bitten legs.  I heard Nayeli point out my “bocados” (bites) to her companion.  Fully scoured and face-down, (or “mouth-down” in Spanish) Nayeli offered lotion choices.  Through my face cradle, I sniffed fruit potions before settling on chocolate.  They painted me brown and covered their work with plastic sheeting, piece by piece.  I visualized myself a chocolate-covered banana; I had a tough time suppressing laughter. 

That evening, Annie called Taylor and told him how Mom had gotten painted in chocolate and covered in Saran Wrap.  Taylor hesitated, his brain developing a disturbing image.  “Stop!” he cried.  “Just, NO!”  Some things a boy simply doesn’t want to think about.

Jim and Annie resolved to swim with the dolphins in Ixtapa, a town filled mainly with vacationing Mexican families.  School had just released; Swine Flu closures had postponed summer vacation three weeks.  We experienced our worst price-gouging at the dolphin pool.  First, they post no pricing.  They quote Americans FOUR times the cost in dollars to obscure their peso rate for Mexicans.  When we asked for peso pricing, they stopped to think--it takes a minute to convert those inflated dollar amounts.  They prohibit personal photography, charging $8 per photo and $80 per video.  I obeyed the rules, but most Mexicans ignored them, even with their discounted rates.  Jim and Annie loved the dolphins, but we left without a single photo.  We gladly returned to Zihuatanejo that evening.


During our time at the beach, we didn’t hear much about drug violence.  Actually, we didn’t hear much about anything, given our sketchy internet and vacation-addled brains.  But on our way to the airport, we encountered a military checkpoint.  Turns out we’d done well to bypass Morelia, where the drug battle still raged.

At the airport, we encountered a closed US Airways counter.  They’d cut 75% of flights—including ours--because of Swine Flu, but nobody ever told us.  Fortunately an official booked us on the Alaskan flight to Los Angeles, and then a US Airways flight from L.A. to Portland.  Or so we thought.

In Los Angeles, US Airways had no record of us whatsoever.  Our flight was full, so they stuck us on stand-by.  First disappearing flights, then disappearing bookings.  Jim took his calm, polite, but I-am-unhappy voice to customer service; and returned with first class upgrades.  Later, I searched for any notice of flight cancellation, but found nothing.  So it turns out we could have cancelled our Mexico trip at any time, because they’d already cancelled us first!  Like Dorothy and her ruby slippers, we’d held the free exit ticket all along, but just didn’t know it. 

Funny, how nobody ever questioned our decision to go to Italy last fall… Yes, Mexico was a whole different story.  But if vacations are about making memories, attempting foreign languages, hanging out with family (just not “La Familia,”) facing challenges, learning to fear clowns and counting to FOUR, it all added up to success.  We made our own magical Aztec equation, only with fewer personal sacrifices.  We’re glad we went.