Life Keeps Rolling

by DeLora Frederickson
Austin Tx to San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX

No matter, what life keeps rolling.  After being down here for a week I knew it was time to go get my Mom and bring her to her new home.  She was excited and ready to make the move but I knew how much work I still had to do to get her down here.  Although we had already cleared out her one bedroom apartment this teeny tiny 84 year lady still had plenty of stuff that wouldn’t be making the trip south of the border.

I booked a flight for a 4 day stay in Austin. My anxiety was front and center and I was worrying about so many details of the journey:

  • Who would get us to the airport with her 2 big suitcases, wheelchair and walker?
  • Where would I stay in Austin and how would I get around?
  • I had to sort her stuff and then take trips to goodwill and to get her paperwork shredded
  • Be sure to make the trip out to the VA to pick up her last batch of pills
  • Pack all her stuff into 2 big suitcases
  • Manage two suitcases, wheelchair with her in it, walker and my carry on through the airports
  • Get her on off the planes – especially in Mexico where they have stairs to deboard (which she can no longer negotiate)
  • Maneuvering immigration and customs with the bags, her in the wheelchair and my not knowing
  • Getting her on and off the van in Mexico (she can’t hoist herself up that high)

I was doing yogic breathing, mantra (focused prayers) and drinking lots of water.  It was overwhelming!!

Here is a little back story. Many months ago my Mom had dug her heels in and decided she wasn’t going with us.  She wanted to move to Iowa to a nursing home up there. She reasoned that was where she grew up and made her best friends and memories so it would be where she would be the happiest now.  I knew this was NOT happening. First off, if you haven’t cared for anyone in the “system” in the US yet let me tell you one thing for sure – you have to be on top of EVERYTHING for your loved one.  Any facility she was in (and she has been in ALOT of them) I would visit at least once a day if not twice. Iowa was too far to manage her health care. Secondly, all those friends she reminisces about are in the same shape as her or dead.  In fact one of them called me because she wanted ME to tell my Mom she couldn’t come up there and expect her to do anything to take care of her, like I needed her friend to tell me this! We went round and round about this. I wasn’t sure how I would get a stubborn little woman down there but I knew it was happening. I saw xanax in my future – I will leave you wondering if it was for her or me or both of us.

Months passed (it was just over a year from when we decided to come to when we got here) and one day suddenly she was excited to go and on board with the change.  I don’t know what it was but I was so grateful for the shift. I guess I will chalk it up to the meningiomas (5 last time we had a mri. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meningioma).

meningioma – Mom has 5 of these pressing into her brain

 

Getting ourselves and the cats and the stuff down here was a big enough effort but I knew I couldn’t really relax til I got Mom down here too.  So off I went leaving my Beloved and our two precious furry ones to await my return.

The trip to Austin was smooth and easy.  And thanks to C & J for the comfy place to stay and use of the truck for the errands and all in Austin.  It was doable with minimal stress.

 

Shirley (my Mom) was cooperative about getting rid of the last non essentials. I took care of all my tasks and even got a haircut!

Of course throughout the time in Austin I was still playing out the details of actually getting her down here.

One by one the worries melted as everything went effortlessly on the adventure of a lifetime.

  • Elmcroft – her assisted living facility – drove us to the airport in a wheelchair accessible van…ahhhhhh
  • First stop to check in – a great United airline employee assisted me and moved our seats so we sat together on all three flights…ahhhhh
  • Mom dragged the wheeled carry on alongside of the wheelchair and then carried it in her lap during our walks from gate to gate…ahhhhh
  • A nice flight attendant ordered an aisle chair for my mom for when we arrived in Queretaro, MX (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quer%C3%A9taro_City). Shirley wanted to make sure they were good looking guys when the flight attendant told us the aisle chair had been ordered. An aisle chair is a tiny version of a wheelchair which fits down the airplane aisle.  My Mom can walk with assistance so hadn’t needed it to get to her seats BUT in Queretaro we had to walk down stairs to get off the plane. So, she was strapped down into the aisle chair and carried down the stairs by 2 guys.  It took about 30 seconds. All that worrying – for 30 seconds of nothing! …ahhhh
  • After getting her into her wheelchair in Mexico a helpful flight attendant pushed her all the way through the process of immigration and customs as I handled the documents and then picked up the bags and we went through customs.  Done in 5 min’s…..ahhhhh
  • The van driver was out front with a sign with a list of names.  We waited for 3 other riders, he wheeled the bags out, I rolled Mom out.  She stepped up into the van with our assistance and off we went into the night…ahhhhh

The last obstacle was a giant accident on the main road back to San Miguel de Allende.  It was so bad I had seen it from the plane and it completely closed the road. The driver was on top of it, turned around and took us a different direction.  However, an hour drive turned into a 3 hr drive. We arrived at Casa Cienguita (http://casacieneguita-assisted-living.com/our-home/)  at 11:30 pm.  The owner/director, the dr, the nurses, the office manager ALL were waiting for us.  They welcomed us with smiling faces and so much warmth. They had made food for my Mom – which she gobbled right down. I stayed overnight with her in her room and planned to unpacked her the next morning.

We woke to the sounds and smells of breakfast being made down the hall. We had a breakfast of papaya and coffee and headed back to her beautiful brand new room.  I began unpacking her clothes and stuff. The staff was so helpful. I speak pretty good spanish and some of them speak a little english so we were able to communicate just fine. We were both so exhausted I headed home to nap and Mom was asleep on her bed before I walked out of the door.

And I was down right after eating upon returniing to our awesome apt in San Miguel de Allende

 

Viernes de Dolores

by Cat Calhoun
San Miguel de Allende, Gto., México

Mexico No Filters - Dolores

Yesterday I was in artistic creation mode, so I forgot that we are about to kick off Semana Santa (or Holy Week) here in San Miguel de Allende. DeLora has been gone all week, back in Texas to retrieve her mom. I came out of my artistic trance about 3:30 and realized that I needed to run to get some groceries so she could eat well when she got back.

I got dressed in something suitable for public consumption, grabbed my walking stick and set off down the dusty streets in our barrio of Santa Julia toward downtown. I saw some beautiful decorations, heavily featuring the color purple and remembered it was Viernes de Dolores, literally, the Friday of Pain or Sorrows.

It is the Virgin Mary who is celebrated this day, honoring her sorrow over the death of her son.  House after house was decorated heavily with purple and white ribbons and paper cutouts and fresh flowers (the colors of funeral flowers), bitter oranges (representing her tears and sorrows), and candles. But alongside the sorrows and suffering, there was freshly sprouted wheat grass, and the fragrant smells of chamomile, mint, and fennel, representing rebirth and the new life of Spring.

Families that participate often clear out their whole living room, continuing the theme and remembrances into their homes, for a time transforming their dwellings into living shrines. I saw some truly beautiful altars and a couple of families even extended their tradition of handing out sweet treats to me, a foreigner.

Some of you will wonder why I’m not sharing more pictures if the visuals were so spectacular, but some things aren’t meant to be photographed by gringos. The moments are too sweet and too personal. I did take one for you though, at the request of the woman who created it.

Mexico No Filters - Viernes de Dolores
Viernes de Dolores – Friday of Sorrows

Regardless of whether you are a practicing Catholic or a heathen like myself, happy Spring. May your tears water the soil of your life and bring you renewed joy and life this Semana Santa.

 

¡Buen Provecho!

by Cat Calhoun
San Miguel de Allende, GTO, México

Each morning I wake to the sound of bells ringing next door at Casa Hogar, a girl’s home run by the Hermanas Dominicas de María order of nuns. A moment or two after waking and stumbling to the kitchen to open the windows, I smell delicious aromas – onions and garlic frying with eggs and various “carnes” – and am reminded of how different food is here as compared to the United States.

Food shopping

Americans, at least in my experience, largely shop in supermarkets or grocery stores. My family shopped at HEB (because Texas, that’s why) and, when I was very little, Piggly Wiggly. That’s definitely not how most people shop in San Miguel de Allende, nor in most of Mexico from what I can gather. Don’t get me wrong: there are definitely a few supermarkets here. Mega and Soriana Súper come to mind. There are even a few HEBs in big cities, but not where I live.

(Fill-in-the-blank)-arias, tiendas, and mercados

So how do you shop? Generally speaking, if you want to buy food here you go to a smaller store (a tienda) that specializes in what you want to buy. Need fruit or produce? Go to the verduraria. Bread? Go to the panaderia. Fish? Pescaderia. Beef or chicken? Carniceria.

If you happen to need meats, produce, beans, and bread all at the same time, then you hop on the bus for 7 pesos (about 37 cents) and go to the mercado. Mercados are big warehouse looking places with a ton of little specialized tiendas in them – bread, dried goods, produce, meats of all kinds. The San Juan de Dios market here in San Miguel is my favorite so far. Not only can you find food to cook, you can also find food stalls with people making fresh pozole, sopas/soups, tortas/sandwiches, tacos, and sweet treats.

Mexico No Filters - San Juan de Dios mercado

As an added bonus, you can get all the plastic crap ever made in all of China such as laundry baskets, strainers, cups and glasses, fly swatters, and stuff I cannot yet identify. In San Juan de Dios you can get costumes, clothing, shoes, boots, hats, sporting equipment, and tons more. You can even buy minutes for your cell phone here. (But if you’re looking for all the cool ceramic Mexican dishes, rugs, or other traditional items, you have to go to the artisan’s market. The mercado is mostly about daily life.)

There are also small local corner stores where you can pick up Mexican Coke (like they’d carry any other kind!). I’m not normally a Coca-Cola fan, but we had urban hiked a lot one day last week and had run out of water in our bottles, so we snagged one from the tienda at the corner. Now I understand all the hoopla about Mexican coke! Damn, that stuff is good. 2.5 liters for 22 pesos (about a dollar). If the bottle is labeled “Retorno” they’ll give you 10 pesos back when you drop off the empties. Haven’t seen that since I was a wee little tyke.

Mexico No Filters - Local tienda/produce shop

Sorry. I got lost there – all caught up in the Mexican coke revelry. The little corner tienas also sell cookies, bandaids, aspirin, a little this and that, and they often have good-sized produce sections. You know where all the candy, chips, and processed foods are in a 7-11? Take that out and replace it with produce and you have an approximation of a local tienda.

Can you buy pre-cooked food like you do in the HEB deli? Yes, you can. These are also in specialized shops. There are tortillerias every few blocks – a small shop with a tortilla press and a couple of women making homemade corn tortillas they sell buy the kilo. How many tortillas is that? More than you can eat in a week by yourself. I fry them up with a little coconut oil and they are divine. You want flour tortillas? Well, too bad, gringo. I haven’t found those in San Miguel de Allende yet.

Mexico No Filters - Tortilleria Ramirez

Yesterday I had hiked up a huge hill and stopped for a rest in front of a rosticeria (a chicken roaster) offering roasted chicken with corn tortillas and peppers – $45Mxn for half of a chicken or $85Mxn for a whole chicken. As I watched she pulled a whole chicken off of the roaster and cut it up with shears I swear could cut through bricks, packaged it with the peppers and tortillas in less than 30 seconds. Impressive.


While this is representative of how rosticerias work, this is not the one I was resting in front of. 

How much food to buy

When I lived in Austin I had a big pantry and a little pickup truck that could hold enough groceries to feed a small village for a week. A very small village, but you know what I mean. I could and often did stock my pantry until the whole closet was full. We do have a car here in Mexico and I could drive down to Soriana Súper and fill it up, but both driving and parking here are challenging to say the least. Even if I did feel like driving (and no thank you), I have nowhere to put massive amounts of food.

That means I shop like most families do here. You get what you need for a few days and limit yourself to one or two shopping bags full per individual, knowing that you’re going to have to take a taxi (two shopping bags per person) or a bus (one shopping bag per person) to get back home. Buses are often crowded and but are about 6 times less expensive than taking a taxi, so guess which one I pick! Bingo. Bus it is.

The fun part – food eating! 

In the United States I relied way too heavily on processed food. My household is vegan, but I won’t lie – I still miss meat in a big way even when I get plenty of protein from other sources. To quell my cravings, I fell back on Gardein’s faux meats. And while I was buying those I would stroll down the center aisles at our local food co-op or at Whole Foods and pick up vegan snacks like bagged popcorn and cookies. Whole Foods has delicious sweet/salty kettle corn, those bastards! I gained 10 lbs eating it and it made me swell up like I was on steroids. But I ate it anyway. Rarely did I eat fresh produce or fruits. As it turns out, it’s way too easy to eat junk in America and still be considered vegan or vegetarian. (Did you know Oreos and Fritos are actually vegan? True story.)

Those processed vegan crutches just aren’t available here and I’m actually relieved about that because I have no willpower. I’ve probably eaten better since I’ve been in Mexico than I have in the last 30 years of my existence. Because there is a decided lack of vegan prefab, I find myself defaulting to fresh fruits and veggies and to cooking for myself instead of eating out. I had pineapple dressed with fresh peach juice and coconut this morning for breakfast. Lunch was an egg dish (yes, I know that’s not vegan, but I splurged at the local organic market and bought a couple of fresh eggs). Tonight I dine on Spanish rice and beans that I cooked myself, coupled with corn tortillas I purchased from the local mamacitas at the tortilleria.

(Click on the rice and beans links above for the Instant Pot recipes.)

Dining Out

There are a million restaurants in San Miguel and I doubt I’ll ever darken the door of most of them. Why? Most of them don’t offer much in the way of vegetarian or vegan fare and my cooking is better anyhow.

There are a few exceptions to the “Sorry, it’s all meat all the time here” rule. Last Saturday our downstairs neighbor Amy helped us get to the Saturday organic market. Amy has lived here for five years and showed us where to catch the bus and the best place to flag down a taxi. Once we got to the market we found a vegan tamale stand where we got a couple of tamales, beans and a salad. I think the total bill was less than $10, which sounds hella cheap, but those are gringo prices because the whole market caters to the local ex-pat and Mexican tourist population. I confess I’m not generally a salad eater, but this was delicious! It was garnished with dried and candied Jamaica flowers (pronounced ha-MY-kah), which you probably know as hibiscus flowers. Amazing. And the tamales? Moist and fresh. Totally worth the price, actually. Might have to go again this weekend.

For now however, the sun is setting, I hear the dinner bells ringing next door at Casa Hogar and I can’t quit thinking about the rice and beans I promised myself for the evening repast. I’m going to go cook myself some dinner.

Please feel free to peruse some of my most recent photographs if you’ve already eaten. And if you haven’t, go eat!

¡Buen Provecho!

Mexico No Filters - Iron work at the Taller Madera SMA
Like this? Click on it to see more on my Flickr site!

Big Bang Theories

by Cat Calhoun
San Miguel de Allende, GTO, México

San Miguel de Allende is deep in the throes of a three-day holiday weekend. How do I know this? Did I read it on a flyer? Find out from a neighbor? No. I woke at 5:30am from a frustratingly real nightmare to the sound of six immensely loud thundering noises in a row. In my half-asleep state I first thought it was a neighbor in the compound banging on the front gate after having forgotten keys or a drunken tryst looking for a booty call. Next I thought maybe it was a metal door being dragged across San Miguel’s cobblestone streets. Then I remembered David, our next door neighbor, saying I might wake to the sound of explosions occasionally and not to worry, just fireworks.

I got out of bed and trekked to the kitchen to peer out across the city. It’s handy having an apartment way up on a hill. For a moment I saw nothing, then white sparks shone in the sky followed by the booms a second later. I watch for a while as smoke filled the valley below then went back to bed. The booming went on for a couple of more hours, but I somehow fell asleep in the midst of it only waking with the sun streaming through the windows of my partially glass house, the thundering noises still echoing through town.

Mexico No Filters - Fireworks San Miguel de Allende

Amy, the downstairs neighbor, mentioned yesterday that it might be a good idea to get anything we need in town and then hole up because this is a 3 day weekend. I didn’t really pay attention at the time, but the fireworks drove the point home and made it worth investigating. Turns out this is the alignment of three notable holidays.

Oil Expropriation Day

We probably all know about Hernando Cortez and his merry band of slaughtering Spanish conquistadors and how they helped Spain gobble up all the wealth and life they could squeeze out of Mexico’s indigenous population. Mexicans struggled angrily and desperately for independence in the 19th century, working hard not just to fight off Spanish, but also French, and American oppression. In 1938 they took back what had been stolen from them and nationalized all of their own oilfields, pushing more modern-day foreign marauders away from the wealth they knew they would need to thrive.

Then in 2013 the Mexican government opened up the same oil fields that had been so difficult to nationalize less than 100 years earlier to foreign investment. Last year when we were here for a visit there were riots in the streets in Mexico City when the Mexican government further broke the monopoly of the national oil company (which kept prices suppressed on gasoline), allegedly seeking more green solutions. . . but really it looks like they want foreign corporations to help them go after deeper oil. Someone’s pockets are getting lined and it’s not the Mexican people’s. We were staying in Guanajuato when all this happened, but ironically visiting San Miguel de Allende the day the riots began. We were blissfully unaware of them, but we did see a number of armored personnel carriers on the streets that day filled with people in military gear and armed with assault rifles.

I digress.

Benito Juárez Day

The guy was a very popular president, one of Mexico’s best actually, evidenced by the fact that there are monuments to him spanning from Chicago to Mexico. He was and is he only indigenous president of Mexico (Zapotec, specifically) and was committed to restoring rights to the indigenous peoples. He was also the guy who finally ended the serial dictatorships of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

Mexico No Filters - Presidente Benito Juárez
Pres. Juárez is often called the Lincoln of Mexico – hence the pose. Interestingly, they were contemporaries.

This was no small feat: Santa Anna was dictator, overthrown and then dictator again eleven different times in the 1800’s. Benito Juárez got rid of him for good, which ended Santa Anna’s serious drain on Mexico’s wealth. Fun fact: there is a monument to Santa Anna, despite his thieving ways, of him on a horse with one hand reaching back toward Mexico City. I’ve heard Mexicans joke that his hand points to the national treasury, hoping to dip back in for one more hand full of gold.

I digress again. Benito Juárez was born on March 21, so it’s not actually his birthday yet, but who doesn’t love a long weekend? And an excuse to set off fireworks for 2 hours on a Sunday morning? Heck yeah.

So not only is it Oil Expropriation Day (which is ironically named in light of current circumstances), but also Benito Juárez Memorial Day. But that’s not all….

Spring Equinox

It’s that too. Though Mexico is majorly Catholic, the old ways are still buried deep within its’ Catholicism. This is a huge day. I hope to get to Chichen Itza for sunrise on spring equinox some day. I’m told by people who have seen it that on this day in particular you can see the shadow of what looks like a huge snake slither down the pyramid as the sun moves.

If you don’t like snakes, I hear you. I feel the same way about big spiders. But this snake is Quetzalcoatl (kayt-zuhl-KWAH-tuhl), the feathered serpent, who will some day bring salvation and peace to Mexico. The shadow on the pyramid at Chichen Itza represents the return of freedom and prosperity, the breaking of the yoke of oppression, and deliverance for Mexico’s people.

Mexico No Filters - Chichen Itza at Spring Equinox

I’ve had a special affinity or Quetzalcoatl and the old deities of Mexico since I took Professor Don Chipman’s History of Mexico class at the University of North Texas. Professor Chipman had a way of bringing historical stories to life and watered the tiny seeds of my love for Mexican history until it was a beautiful flowering tree. Mexico No Filters - Jesus in a TortilaHe also contended that proof of the existence of god can be found in a flour tortilla. I never quite understood that, but when I bite into a fresh made, light and fluffy flour tortilla, I am inclined to think he might be right.

I digress yet again. (Sorry. Bad habit.)

Snakes in most cultures represent the old ways when we were more connected to the earth, in partnership with it rather than chewing it all the way down to the bone like Spain did with Mexico. Snakes represent that primal connection we know we have, deep down inside ourselves past the cultural and religious conditioning, to this earth and this universe. Snakes are life, fertility, and healing. They recall the energy of the divine snaking its’ way up from our earthly origins and connecting us to the heavens, allowing us to meld with the light, and to embrace the Kundalini energy within each of us. They remind us to channel that divine energy and work with it in a powerful partnership that can help us gracefully find our way in this world without damaging it.

Time and time again, organized religion has worked overtime to crush our own knowledge of our connection to All That Is. We are easier to control that way, you see. That’s why all the imagery about crushing snakes under the heels of Christians exists. It’s why St. George slew the dragon, another ‘face’ for snakes. It’s why St. Patrick allegedly drove the snakes out of Ireland.

Disconnecting from our own divinity and from our connection and partnership with this earth has had dire consequences. If we still saw her as our mother and our partner, we wouldn’t rip it apart and pollute it like we have. Would you do that to your own mom? No. You are part of her and she is part of you. When one is damaged, the other is too.

So bring on the fireworks, Mexico. Quetzalcoatl’s return can’t be that far off….can it?

Mexico No Filters - Quetzalcoatl, original art by Cat Calhoun

Starting Here by DeLora

This move has been the hardest thing I have done in my entire life – other than being born, maybe, though I don’t remember that!  From selling the house on a market that softened right before we listed to letting go of my stuff to venturing away from a successful and profitable career.  I already tend toward anxiety so this whole effort kicked that into overdrive. There have been tears and fears, there have been doubts, and then there has been the pure excitement of getting out of the rat race, trusting the Universe, and stepping of a cliff with the dearest, most amazing woman I know.

 

Cat as we walked down to the Guadalupe neighborhood

 

Getting out of our house felt like it would take forever (it took 6 months), then getting out of Austin felt like it would take forever (it took 7 weeks and 2 other houses), getting across Mexico felt like it took forever (a semi wreck held up traffic for three hours as we crawled along at 0 kph (that’s right kilometers per hour).  But we got here and it is even better than I thought.

 

We live in a compound with 5 other apts, all inhabited by americans.  The compound was called ‘artsy’ when I rented it through craigslist. I saw it and fell in love with the idea of an instant community.  I chatted on email with the owner and then sent her $600 through paypal. I kept thinking – I hope this place really exists (Hi, I live in Africa and need your help…).  

She is attached to a tree and made completely of rusty nails – artsy compound

The neighborhood is a mexican family neighborhood with lots of tienditas (little stores) and we live next to an orphanage and across from a school so are surrounded by the sounds of girls playing and living their lives.  (https://www.santajulia.org/).

 

Looking out our kitchen window into the courtyard of Casa Hogar – the orphanage next door run by the Religious Sisters of Mary

 

Our neighborhood is quiet and up the hill from Centro, the main part of town.  We have ventured down to eat at a little organic restaurant and store (overpriced because it is frequented by non mexicans), and to go to the mercado.  I have very fond memories of the mercado in Juarez when I grew up in El Paso. So, I was looking forward to our jaunt down there. Unfortunately, times have changed.  True enough we bought quite a bit of food for very little money but I was hoping for artisan crafts.

Food at the mercado

What we found instead was a bunch of plastic crap made in China. I did enjoy the numerous shrines to Mary.

 

 

After 4 days here I have already made plans to return to Austin to pick up my mom and bring her down to her assisted living center.  We visited Casa Cieneguita yesterday and it is beautiful with great care for an affordable price. When I think about all the places she has had to endure in the states because of her health conditions I am grateful I can get her here and surround her with such amazing beauty and such loving care.

 

Shirley

 

We have a found a holistic vet who makes food for cats – since we have a cat who tends toward diabetes this is so fantastic.  I anticipate we will find everything we need here and more. Our spanish is improving daily and everyone is kind as I learn new words and stumble through the colloquialisms.  

 

The city is full of people living their lives and as Pema Chodron says ‘just like me they want love, just like me they are doing their best, just like me they want the best for their families’.  Please don’t ask me if it safe down here. When you find that on the tip of your tongue ask yourself is it safe where I live? Then take a good realistic view of your environment.

San Miguel de Allende at long last!

by Cat Calhoun
San Miguel de Allende, GTO, México

It was supposed to be a blissfully short drive today. Then again, yesterday was supposed to be six hours, but with road delays it became closer to nine, so why should today be any different? After a lovely light breakfast of toast with marmalade and coffee at Las Palmas, we packed everyone back in the car and headed out toward San Miguel de Allende. The cats were not delighted to be back in the car after such a long day yesterday so they told us about their displeasure for a while. We shared the sentiment, but expressed our tiredness with the whole thing in occasional curse words instead of meows.

I won’t bore you with the details, but here are the highlights of yet another six hour stretch in the USS Hermione.

San Luis Potosi
The city, not the state. Way bigger than I remembered and looks like a pretty cool place….unless you’re looking at the almost never-ending industrial area. That just looks like an industrial area. You can’t quite tell how huge it is, but this is a mammoth monument to Benito Juarez. What an awesome thing to do in one of those weird in-between-highway-overpasses area that is usually wasted space. Nice work, SLP.

Mexico No Filters - Benito Juarez monument in San Luis Potosi, SLP, México

Joshua Trees for days!
First, they are mammoth. Second, they literally go on for days. We started seeing forests of them yesterday. This trend did not cease today. They stretched as far as we could see on both sides of the highway.

Mexico No Filters - Joshua Trees in San Luis Potosi state

Traffic delays
We added at least 2 hours to our drive just sitting in standstill traffic. I thought Austin Texas was the capitol of highway construction. I was wrong. It’s Mexico. It went on for hours at a stretch. Massive, melodramatic wrecks also cause long traffic backups. I’m not talking about fender benders, but semi trucks hitting something (or perhaps each other) so severely that they seemed to disintegrate on the road.

Guanajuato State!
Finally! We’ve been trying to get back here for more than a year. And of course, we did it in yet another traffic delay.

Mexico No Filters - Traffic delays due to construction entering Guanajuato State from San Luis Potosi

We rolled into San Miguel de Allende just before sunset (yes, this is a trend with us) in time to unpack the car and collapse. Our flat is located in an artists’ compound filled with painters. There place is lovely and is located at the end of a dead-end street next to a home for little kids who have nowhere to go, a midwife school, and a church. It’s a great location and the apartment is beautiful.

For now, enjoy a few more photographs of our place and of San Miguel and I’ll write/photograph more when I recover more fully from that drive!


Mexico No Filters - our flat in San Miguel de Allende
Our flat is upstairs. Yes, all of it. Be jealous. It’s cool.

Mexico No Filters - stained glass windows in our flat in San Miguel de Allende
From my terrace looking into the stained glass windows at night.
Mexico No Filters - traditional domed brick ceiling
This is our ceiling, a traditional domed ceiling. Ain’t it cool?
Mexico No Filters - our kitchen
Our kitchen at night. It has a view of the city. Fun to watch the lights twinkle as we cook dinner at night.

Mountains and Matehuala

by Cat Calhoun
Matehuala, San Luis Potosi, México

After the sadness of the coyote and the horses we settled into a kind of sad numbness that comes with flat terrain, scrubby brush, and a harsh climate that is constantly breaking down anything built by human hands. Time and time again we saw horses and cows tethered in the median between north and southbound lanes of Autopista 85D. Occasionally we would see a flock of goats or sheep with a shepherd in the median. At first it’s a little shocking to fly down a toll road at 110 km/h (roughly 65mph) and pass livestock less than a meter (roughly 3 feet) away, but even this begins to seem normal after a while and the boredom of flat terrain takes over again.

When the outline of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range appeared on the horizon north of Monterrey, they were a welcome sight and supplied consistent beauty filled with craggy peaks and huge rolling green foothills. Caracaras, ravens, and the occasional golden eagle roamed the skies above the mountains and my spirits lifted.

Mexico No Filters - Sierra Madre range north of Monterrey

I don’t like driving at night and I’ve been told it’s not wise to travel the roads in Mexico after sunset, so I was grateful to arrive at our overnight stop, Matehuala, just at sunset. We checked into Las Palmas, a nice place that looks like it was transported right off of Route 66 and right out of the 1950s. It was clean and comfortable and the management was happy to accommodate both us and our cats. The cats settled in quickly and were chowing dinner when we decided to follow suit.

Mexico No Filters - Las Palmas in Matehuala, San Luis Potosi, México

We went to the restaurant where a very professional gentleman by the name of Lorenzo completely took care of us. We feasted on guacamole, beans, a delicious rice dish with poblano peppers, vegetables, and amazing salsa. We chased it all with two drinks each then we wandered happily back to our room and fell into a restful deep sleep, hoping for a short drive to finish the trip in the morning.

Mexico No Filters - Las Palmas Restaurant in Matehuala, San Luis Potosi, México


While we are sleeping please take a moment to enjoy some of the cool things we passed on our way today.

Mexico No Filters - So many trucks
It’s intimidating to be a relatively tiny passenger vehicle among giants! But this is a major shipping route from the United States to Mexico City, so it was truck city in many places.
Mexico No Filters - Organpipe cactus fence
We saw many livestock fences made from mammoth stands of prickly pear, joshua trees, and organpipe cactus (like this one).
Mexico No Filters - Roadside shrine
There are many roadside shrines in Mexico. This one is my favorite so far. It’s so geologically interesting I would have done likewise.
Mexico No Filters - Bienvenidos a San Luis Potosi
San Luis Potosi is one of the states in Mexico and is where Matehuala is located.

Goodnight everyone.

Laredo vs. the Columbia crossing

by Cat Calhoun
Matehuala, San Luis Potosi, México

Laredo

There are three international border bridge crossings in the city of Laredo. These bridges have a lot of traffic flowing in both directions and are a massive tangle of frenetic activity. If you are simply planning to shop or dine or booze it up, then there is no problem. Take your passport (yes, you really do need it since 9/11), walk or drive across, stay within 20-26 km (12-16 miles or so), and limit your stay to less than 72 hours. Super easy.

I’ve crossed the border a number of times from Texas into Mexico. To date, I’ve driven to Laredo and parked in the lot the City of Laredo operates (and doesn’t advertise online worth a damn, by the way) across from a park called Los Dos Laredos. I’ve included an aerial photo below in case you’d like to use this lot someday. The lot is outlined in red. You can see the main crossing on the right.

Mexico No Filters - Laredo city parking lot for border crossings
Wanna walk across? Drive down and park your car here. Click for a bigger view.

The lot is awesome. It’s well lit, surrounded by chain-link fence and razor wire, monitored via camera, and there is always an attendant on duty. It costs $10/day to leave a car there, and it’s totally worth it. Until now I would park, roll my bag across the border, get my tourist card, then take a taxi to the bus station and or the Nuevo Laredo airport to travel into the interior. This time, however, we were planning to drive into central Mexico and I’ll admit I was nervous about it.

If you are planning to drive further in or are staying longer than 72 hours like we are, however, you need to do things differently. You are going to need an FMM, the equivalent of a tourist visa. This allows you to stay in the country for 180 days before you have to leave and do it all over again. All you need is a current passport and somewhere in the neighborhood of $40USD. This number changes because it is based on the peso, not the dollar. Last year it cost us $36. This year it was $44. This is payable only in pesos, but those are easy to acquire at the border crossings, so no big. If you are flying in from the US into Mexico, it’s even easier because your fee for the FMM is built into the cost of your international plane ticket. Flight attendants will help you fill out the form on the plane and you barely even notice the process.

If you are driving in, both you and your car will need a permit. The permit for your car is called a TIP (temporary import permit) and it takes a little more work than the FMM. Because I’m a classic over-prepper, I’d read all kinds of posts, travel logs, first-hand experiences, and governmental sources to get an idea on what we would need to get the TIP and drive legally in the interior. Many sources recommended taking both originals and copies of drivers licenses, passports, Mexican car insurance (yes, in addition to your US insurance), registration, title, marriage certificate (if your spouse will also drive and isn’t on the paperwork), and even birth certificates. Remember one of the previous posts where I was freaking out about all the details? Yeah. This is part of the reason why. I got all of this stuff together except for the title, which probably won’t even arrive for another two weeks.

Already nervous about the “will we get over without the title or won’t we” question, the thought of crossing in Laredo made me want to reach for Xanax. And possibly tequila. Though it’s insanely busy at the Laredo crossings, the FMM card is actually pretty easy, though weird, to get. This process goes like this:

1) walk across
2) go to the INM (immigration) office and fill out a form
3) go next door to the Banjercito office (Mexico’s official government bank entity) to pay the fee
4) find out Banjercito only takes pesos
5) go across the street to a casa de cambio (literally “house of change”) to trade dollars for pesos
6) get accosted by a variety of what I could generously call “sales representatives” asking if you need a pharmacy or dentist
7) go back to Banjercito to pay your FMM fee
8) return to the INM office next door to get your FMM/tourist card and get your passport stamped
9) go wherever you need to go to get to the interior*

Mexico No Filters - The FMM form

Does that sound a little intimidating? Well, the TIP is worse in Nuevo Laredo. After you finally score the FMM (and/or go to the dentist or pharmacy), you have to drive several blocks into Nuevo Laredo, negotiate confusing directions through a ton of drivers who always seem angry in traffic that treats signs and lights as loose suggestions rather than laws. You are negotiating all of this down streets that are all one way and all flowing the opposite direction of where you want to go. The probability of getting into a traffic accident is high. The probability of angry outbursts and strings of curse words is higher.

Columbia

Ready to give up before you even start? Never fear: I present to you the Columbia crossing. We read about it online and decided to try it. This international bridge across the Rio Grande is northwest of Laredo, takes around 45 minutes to get to, and is absolutely worth the drive.

Mexico No Filters - Columbia crossing map

Everyone who has done it recommended we cross the border early – like 8am. But we are rebels, so we left the hotel late, skating out seconds before the checkout time of 11am. When we rolled across the Laredo Columbia Solidarity International Bridge (that’s the whole name in case you want to Google it), there was only one other car ahead of us. No crowds, no frenzy. We parked in the nearly empty parking lot next to a large building next to a number of empty lanes allowing entry into Mexico. A tiny woman bedecked in a shocking array of military paraphernalia walked over to meet us and asked us if we had tools, electronics, or guns. We replied in Spanish that we only had personal effects and two cats. That was good enough for her. She smiled and waved us into the building to get our FMM (for us) and the TIP (for the car).

Mexico No Filters - TIP sticker for the car
Temporary Import Permit – TIP

The INM (immigration) office was about 20 steps from the Banjercito. We filled out the card and discovered Banjercito (at this location at least) now takes Visa, MasterCard, or American Express for most of the fees. This is good because the TIP for the car will set you back $44 (today’s peso to USD rate anyway), plus the current $400 USD deposit for a 2007 or newer passenger car.

If that made your eyes pop open, it should! This hefty deposit discourages you from selling your car south of the border. The good news is you get your money back if you bring it back across to the US within 180 days. It’s time of day sensitive too. If the TIP is issued at 9:30 in the morning, you better have that car with the TIP still attached to the windshield back across the border by day 180 at 9:30 in the morning if you want to see that deposit back in your account. If you want a more complete scoop on the TIP scene, click here.**

Did we need all the paperwork I frantically ran around generating? Mostly no. Mexico didn’t care about much of anything except for passports, the payment, and the current registration. That said, we’ve already established that government officials in Mexico have a very broad leeway when it comes to enforcing the rules, so again, please don’t use the information in this post as gospel truth.

Watch for the next post to hear all about the exciting, weird, beautiful, and sad drive from the border to Matehuala, our 1st overnight stop in Mexico before we get to our destination.


*Pro Tip:
For heaven’s sake, don’t lose that FMM. Keep it with your passport. As a matter of fact, make a couple of copies of both the FMM and the first page of your passport. I generally stash my passport someplace safe, stash one set of copies in another place, and carry a set with me. If you are stopped for any reason, if your stuff and passport are stolen or damaged, you are going to need this information. In some countries and locations the hotel you stay in wants to keep your passport for the duration of your stay. Weird, but true. Again, the copies come in handy.

**Pro Tip #2:
Don’t lose the TIP either. Or the paperwork that came with it. If you have to replace your windshield while in Mexico (hey, it happens), have them cut the TIP out, put it into a ziplock baggie and keep it on your dash board. You must have it when you drive back across or you could lose your deposit.

Onward: Mexico, Google Maps, and Sadness

by Cat Calhoun
Matehuala, San Luis Potosi, México

If you’ve never crossed the US/Mexico border, you may not know this, but the moment you cross the international line your cell phone service (unless you’ve made other arrangements) will cease to function. I’ve got a T-Mobile plan that does cover both countries but since T-Mobile doesn’t have a direct presence south of the border, that means I’m using services from Mexico with slower data speeds, but speeds that are roughly adequate for groovy things like Google Maps.

Mexico No Filters - Bienvenidos a México

This is a Very Good Thing, because driving in Mexico can be challenging. Exits aren’t clearly marked or may not be marked at all. You can stop and ask directions if your Spanish skills are up to speed, but the answer (should you understand it), may or may not be accurate. If you really think ahead, you can get something called a Guia Roji, the Mother of All Mexico Maps. You can get these at most south of the border Walmarts and in some Pemex stations, but the wondrous Columbia crossing had none of these things anywhere nearby. If you’ve been reading along, you’ll know there’s no way in hell I was about to drive back to Nuevo Laredo to find a Walmart and score a Guia Roja, so Google Maps was the solution of choice. Without it I would still be driving around the northern Mexico desert, probably bumping over cactus and rapidly dying of thirst.

Carr. Fed. Núm. 2, as it is listed on Google Maps, goes through a weird no-man’s-border land. I might be projecting, but the whole area seems tired and wary, like it’s barely hanging on, just struggling to get from one day to the next. At some point down the nearly unmarked and frequently patched roads that skirt Nuevo Laredo, I saw something in the road that I thought was a dead dog. It wasn’t. It was a huge coyote. It was alive, but clearly suffering and dying as it lay in the left lane, facing oncoming traffic. As I approached it, it lifted its head and made eye contact with me. And my heart broke.

Mexico No Filters - Coyote MedicineCoyotes have been traipsing through my life as long as I’ve been alive. I’ve always loved them. I used to sit on my screened in porch in Floresville, Texas on warm nights when I couldn’t sleep and listen to them sing and yip in the moonlight. When I lived in Dripping Springs I would wake early in the morning and through the big picture window in the living room I would see them (or maybe the same one over and over) loping or trotting down the trail near the creek behind my house. More than once I saw one stop, turn directly toward me, and not continue onward until I waved. On a particularly memorable kayak trip a coyote walked beside me as I floated down a river. Additionally, Coyote has appeared in many card readings, dreams, and in many shamanic journeys. But I could not think shamanic or spiritual thoughts in the face of this coyote, nor could I stop to render aid to a wild animal. I could only cry and drive. I wept for miles. I doubt the sight will ever leave me.

Not even 20 miles later I saw two horses running down the middle of the highway in the northbound lane as semi-trucks barreled past them. It feels like, in light of our journey to a new life, all of this means something. But I cannot yet even ponder what it might be.

Bonus material: Traveling with cats

by Cat Calhoun
Matehuala, San Luis Potosi, México

Prior to this trip, my experience traveling with cats has been limited to trips to/from the vet and the horrible experiences we had when we had to vacate the house we sold for open house weekends. We crated both cats for those trips and, oh my god what a horrible experience! They cried. They screamed. Merry Margaret stress vomited and pooped. Pie shed like she’s trying to make a new pillow for the couch. We knew this would never work for a 14+ hour drive and we had to do something different.

Possible solution #1: Cat-in-a-bag.
This is a sack with a hole for the head that you can tighten so they can’t get their paws and their body out. Works ok. It’s actually way easier to transport a cat to and from the car or hotel or where ever. They can see, you can sling it over your shoulder for easier carry, you can pull a paw through a special spot so you can trim their nails without major damage to your body. It’s also pretty hilarious when they think they can walk away and then fall over and look at you like perhaps you should go directly to hell and stay there. Good stuff, but for 14 hours? I don’t think so. I kept it for transport purposes, but needed something else.

Possible solution #2: The allegedly escape proof harness.
Harness train them, a friend of mine said (hello Lisa!). She did it for her cats and it worked. I ordered this contraption from Amazon that looked like a combination of a tank top and a turtle neck. We put it on Merry Margaret, she took 2 steps, fell over and refused to get up. Again, a good hilarious factor, but not workable. Sent it back to Amazon.com.

Possible solution #3: Standard small dog type harness.
I got back on Amazon, found one that came with a leash, used their size chart to order one for each cat and they came in too small. We were running out of time at that point, so sent it back, gave up on Amazon, and went to Petsmart.

The right solution: A standard very small dog harness I found at Petsmart that came with a leash.
Success! I put it on Merry Margaret first and she started doing what my dear friend Lisa calls “the commando crawl,” but kitty was moving on her own and wasn’t complaining. Soon she was walking normally so we snapped the leash on and went for a walk in the grass. Worked pretty well, but I don’t think at this point I could really guide either cat anywhere. I basically just followed them around and let them explore a little, but that’s ok, because I ended up using it as a little kitty restraining handle when we had to stop or roll down the window for some reason.

As you can see from other posts, we packed the car in a way that left a kind of “kitty deck” with space for their favorite blankets stretched over stuff we didn’t necessarily want them to puke or poop on. That was a good call because by the time we got to San Marcos, Merry Margaret did both! But because she wasn’t confined to a crate that was the only time she did it. Once they got used to being in the car they were total champs. They got quiet just past San Antonio and were chill by the time we got to the hotel.

I know there are people out there who feel it is irresponsible not to travel with their animals crated, but I seriously can’t care what those people think. Having my cats so stressed that they stroke out seems like a bigger danger than wrecking and them getting thrown around. I’m really glad we did it this way.

Mexico No Filters - Merry Margaret on the Kitty Deck
Merry Margaret site seeing on the Kitty Deck in the aforementioned harness. Photo by DeLora.

PS: weirdly enough, they both like to hang out in their crates when the doors are off and they aren’t in the car. Go figure.