About eighteen months ago Vonda and I decided that we were going to take early retirement and see the world, one country (or area) at a time, one year at a time. We calculated that if we sold our house in Texas and downsized everything else to the point that we wouldn’t be burdened by having to store or transport too many belongings we could make this dream work. We had to pay off our debts, figure out ways to mobilize everything else and determine exactly what was essential, what would be nice to have and what we could do without.
Without much hesitation we put our plan into action. The next year and a half became a controlled frenzy of implementation. We cut back on frills and started eliminating debt. If we saw something we wanted but didn’t see it in our plan we didn’t get it. We became ruthless sorting out, selling, donating, giving away or otherwise disposing of almost everything we owned. It was hard at first but the further we got into it the more liberating it became. Once we got past our attachment to objects the easier it got. The goal was to get everything we owned into a single vehicle; and we got pretty close.
We had arrived at our decision to do it soon after a trip we made to a small fishing village on the far southeast corner of Mexico called Xcalak. From the moment we laid eyes on the place we fell in love. Life here was simpler, closer to the bone; more authentic. The rampant consumerism that we had tired of back home didn’t exist here. We found people who were not shielded from their community or their surroundings; they were a part of it. Also, for two beach loving SCUBA divers, crystal clear water, white sand beaches and a protected coral reef just off shore didn’t hurt either.
Concurrent with all of this we were slowly revealing to our family and friends what our plans were. Although many were supportive, when others found out that Mexico was our first stop the naysaying and cynicism began. “You guys are crazy.” “I saw on cable news how dangerous it is down there?” When we added that we were going drive to our new home, the rhetoric got even more animated. “My friend visited the border once and told me everything there is in anarchy.” “How can you drive there? My uncle says the roads are nothing but rutted smugglers trails.” OK, I exaggerate a little, but there were people – people we barely knew – people anchored eternally in the United States, that [generously] wanted to give their strongly held [yet remotely formed] opinions of our new home.
We had done the work of downsizing but still it was not easy squeezing, maneuvering and crushing everything we deemed essential into and onto one small “Voodoo Blue” Toyota FJ Cruiser. When you consider we still had to also add Vonda, me and three exotic pet birds it got a little harder and a little more crowded. In the back of our minds we were also carrying the words of our critics and naysayers but we had done our own research, looked at the statistics, weighed the pros and the cons and knew one thing we were not going to carry – regret.
Thursday, June 30, 2011 – We arrived promptly at 7 AM and queued at the “Gateway to the Americas Bridge Number One” in Laredo. We got into the “Carril para declarer” line. At about 7:20, the line started moving. We crossed the river into Mexico. Well, sort of. Actually, we had crossed the Rio Grande, but were promptly directed into a mammoth parking area for inspection. A perky Mexican Customs agent greeted us, and asked us to remove everything from the car. You have to understand, we had a lot of stuff, and the last thing we wanted to do was to unpack EVERYTHING!
I explained to her in my terrible Spanish that everything in the car was for personal use and we were only in the “Carril para declarer” line because of the birds, which had previously gone unnoticed. We had all the documentation that we needed, but apparently it is not every day that Americans are importing pet cockatiels into Mexico. Finding sympathy on us, she said don’t unpack and wait while they figure out what to do. Slowly we began to attract more officials. Everyone was helpful and kind, but it was clear that our situation had created a bit of a head scratcher bureaucratically. So we waited. Poorly and in two languages we talked about the weather. Where to get cell phone service. What music they were listening to on their iPhone 4s. Life in Nuevo Laredo. I shifted my weight back and forth from leg to leg. We looked at darkening skies and waited.
Between the many awkward pauses in our challenging conversation, I noticed something very interesting: there were a lot of Americans there, with vehicles packed similarly to ours. Many had roof racks full of stuff. Others were laden with bike racks. Some even had trailers loaded with what appeared to be camping gear and sporting equipment. There were families with laughing children. Elderly couples in motor homes. Wasn’t this supposed to be the “scary border”? Are these people crazy or did they look at the statistics as we did?
We waited a little more and finally someone came and got Vonda and the birds. OK, we are moving now, they got Vonda and the birds. Wait. Someone has Vonda and the birds, I don’t know where they are going and I am in Mexico, kind of, without my companions. So nervously I waited. The agents and I talked some more. One asked if I had any knives and I showed her my Swiss Army deluxe. She asked if I had any electronics and I showed her my iPhone 3G (which now that I was 100 yards across the border didn’t work). She looked at her watch, I looked at my old inferior iPhone which now was little more than a clock, and we waited. Finally a smiling, official-looking guy from the “Servicio Nacional de Sanidad” (SNS) brought Vonda and the birds back! He explained that we were going to have to follow him in his truck with our vehicle to the SNS office in town. The birds got the rides of their lives in the bed of that truck. Their travel cages became zero gravity roller coaster rides as we followed on the back roads of Nuevo Laredo. I had to run every stop sign just to keep up.
We arrived at the SNS office and after a bit of handwringing and standing around it was finally determined that we had to get a “Certificado Zoosanitario Para Importación” for these three little birds. It took a while and a pretty hefty fee ($140 US), payable via bank certificate, but we had what we needed; the birds were legal! But were we? We didn’t have our visas. The truck hadn’t been certificated. Vonda and I were free but not exactly free to go in Nuevo Laredo. What to do?
We decided to drive back to the border to get what we needed paperwork wise. It really wasn’t an issue. We found the “Banco Nacional del Ejercito” office (for car permits) and immigration right next to each other in the same building. We waited in line, and it took about an hour to get our visas and a window sticker and certificate to temporarily import the car. There was a little food court, so we picked up some food and drink for the road.
Not knowing exactly where to exit parking, I headed toward a little guard shack at the far end of the lot. Confused, the attendant looked at me and asked if I really wanted to surrender the vehicle importation permit I had just waited in line for. Sheepishly I acknowledged that I was in the wrong line. I thanked her for not checking us out of the country after getting in the wrong line. She just smiled, raised the barrier and with a smart wave motioned us through. Bureaucracy is always frustrating but looking back at it, it could have been worse, much worse. We have heard of many more difficult stories, on both sides of the border.
OK, we were in. Really in. It was after lunch instead of after breakfast, but we were legal and everything! I turned on the GPS and remarkably found that we were already on the right road to begin our trek: Highway 85, southbound to Monterrey. It was kind of barren. Good road, but all in all unremarkable. Flat dry, unremarkable. We looked for signs of banditos, but only saw what would pretty much pass for ordinary traffic in the states; albeit, mixed with many of the same heavily-laden, southbound, US-plated vehicles that we had seen at the border.
As luck would have it, we crossed the border southbound right as tropical storm Arlene was crossing the eastern border westbound; in other words, right across our path. We endured a mixture of everything from torrential rains and moderate winds to breaks in the overcast with little shafts of sunshine and even rainbows. It was obvious that the area needed rain, like most of the middle of North America in the summer of 2011. Many places had been charcoaled by recent fires. We were making pretty good time, but it was becoming more and more obvious that we were not going to make our first night’s destination, San Miguel Allende.
Figuring we would just “wing it” and hopefully stumble upon some place to stay, we decided just to press on and see where the road took us. By the time we circumnavigated around the west side of Monterrey, the weather was deteriorating. There were low wispy clouds and the rain intensity was anywhere between drizzle and downpour. Visibility fell to just a mile or two and we were both struck by the eeriness of the landscape. The charred mountains were blanketed with factories, all billowing smoke into a fog being whipped by the tropical storm.
We joined Highway 40 toward the historic town of Saltillo then turned southbound on highway 57, missing what I am sure is a fascinating and charming city; at least the guidebooks made it sound that way. We were tired. The day’s activities were starting to catch up with us. We were stiff, thirsty and a little grumpy. Unthinkingly, we got gas, soft drinks and stretched our legs at the Pemex in Providencia. Then we continued south on 57.
It was starting to get dark as we approached the outwardly non-descript town of Matehuala and pulled into the Las Plamas Inn. The inn had clean rooms, covered parking and a restaurant AAA described as “relaxing” with a menu that “centers on Continental Fare”. It has been a few years since I have been on “the continent” but I found the food more vaguely IHOPish than “continental”. All in all I found the Las Palmas complex to be overpriced, underwhelming and adequate. There were many more hotel choices nearby but we were too tired to investigate. We certainly will next time.
Friday, July 1, 2011 – 6AM came early. Well, OK, it came at the same time it always does, but it seemed early. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say that we really weren’t looking for another day of driving, but here it was. We had been on the road for about 30 days straight –Texas to California and back, then moving out of our home, and now on our way to Xcalak. We wanted to be on the road at first light, not an hour before first light. But here we were, back on Highway 57 southbound. In the dark. And, then there was the weather…
Tropical Storm Arlene was still there, dumping much needed rainfall on Mexico. She was also causing quite a few traffic accidents. A huge three trailer semi-truck had jack-knifed in the early morning gloom, and we barely inched down the road as the sun came up. I was struck by how much in stride people seemed to take such an event. I saw none of the, “I’m not waiting like you suckers, I’m taking the shoulder” attitude. There was no honking, no apparent aggressive jockeying for position, just a resigned, slow moving procession of people waiting their turn to get by the accident and on their way.
Vonda and I were both feeling caffeine deprived, so instead of taking the bypass at San Luis Potosí, we decided to go straight through town and find some coffee. Not a good idea. San Luis Potosí had been deluged by the storm. Roadways had become rivers, traffic lights were out and the water had caused some cars to flood, creating roadblocks. As if that were not frustration enough, we couldn’t find coffee. Even the Burger King wasn’t open for breakfast. What, these people don’t drink coffee?
We made it through town and as luck would have it, just where the bypass joins up with the road we were on, we found an “Italian Coffee Company” franchise, co-located with a Pemex station. Yes…a Mexican company, that calls itself Italian, and spells its name in English. Good coffee.
Car and bodies fueled, and a little more awake, we were back on the road. The landscape north of Mexico City is a beautiful mixture of mountains, farmland and small villages. Stand after roadside stand offered “tunas” (prickly pear fruit) and frescas con crema (strawberries and cream), right next to a highway screaming with traffic. We couldn’t resist what sounded like a wonderful treat, so we pulled as far off the shoulder as we could and tried some. Fantastic! Admittedly it was a little worrisome being parked just a few feet clear of 100 kilometer per hour triple trailer semi-trucks, but it was worth the risk. We stood on the edge of the highway savoring delicious strawberries and cream, enjoying the cool air and looking forward to being past Mexico City.
Vonda was sleeping and I guess I wasn’t paying too much attention when I missed the road that would let us bypass Mexico City. The result was a plunge right into the heart of one of the world’s largest and most crowded cities. Traffic was a nightmare. Road construction and detours abounded. It was obvious that the stop and go conditions were well known because, right there on the freeway, in traffic that was barely moving, vendors had set up shop. They would dodge between cars and cross up to eight lanes of traffic just to sell practically everything: fresh fruit, Bimbo bread, soft drinks, Telcel prepaid phones, jewelry and all manner of snack foods, even chargers for your portable electronics. There really was no reason to go to the store because everything you might possibly need was available right there on the freeway. I was watching a freeway carnival of commerce, a motorway madness of merchandising, a roadway retail rodeo; then I saw something weird. Right there in Mexico City traffic, on a major freeway, mixed in with the guys selling Frito Lay chips and air fresheners, was a guy with two puppies under each arm, weaving in and out of traffic trying to convince people that they needed a pet to take home to the kids. This was despicable parking lot puppy mill vending on a whole new level.
My little non-detour had slowed us down, but we were not deterred. We joined Highway 150 and headed in the direction of Puebla. The city was ringed by volcanic mountains and fields of flowers. Puebla looked like an industrial town yet, at least from the car, it still retained some of its charm. Reputation has it that Puebla is a world-class foodie town and I hope someday to return so we can see for ourselves.
Beyond Puebla we practically fell off of the high plateau into the enchanting town of Orizaba. Highway 150 suddenly ceased being highway and transformed into a kind of fantasyland of cloud-shrouded forests, waterfalls, hairpin turns and switchbacks. Looking hundreds of meters below, somewhere lost in the mist, we could catch glimpses of rocky streams, small neat houses with their fireplaces going in July and the smell of pine. At the bottom, the road opened up and Orizaba revealed itself to be a fetching town with what appeared to be a thriving adventure sports scene. OK, put that on our list too.
It was getting late in the afternoon, but we decided to press on. For some reason, at this point I felt it was important to “make time”, deluding myself into believing that being on some arbitrary schedule was more essential than living in the moment. I was positive that there would be a place not too far away so we just kept driving. We were now driving in the lowlands. Everything was a sea of grass with the occasional river flowing through. It was kilometer after kilometer of low green jungle and marsh. In some areas there appeared to be sugar cane or some other warm weather crop growing, but for the most part it was lush, monotonous green. Towering cumulus clouds were building and occasionally dumped rain as daylight began to fade. We should have stopped, but we didn’t. Why didn’t we stop near Puebla and bask in the light of its gastronomic fame? Why didn’t we stop back in the gorgeous mountains near Cordoba? For some reason, we kept driving. Driving and looking for a place to stop and not finding anything.
Finally, about dusk, some hope on the horizon: a small lonely billboard advertising the Royal Hotel in Carlos A. Carrillo, just 30 kilometers away. We arrived after dark. The town itself was having a festival of some sort around a charming central square. Bands were playing, everyone was dressed festively, and people were having a good time hanging out, dancing and gossiping. The architecture appeared to be colonial but it didn’t matter, we just didn’t have the strength to check it out. We wanted to find a bed and go to sleep.
We circled around a bit and found “The Royal”. It was a hotel totally devoid of charm. I had to wrest the clerk from her Facebook page just to get her to give me a key, which came with a fob so large it barely fit in my pocket. From the fluorescently lit concrete bunkeresque lobby to the roach body littered stairwell to the dark bare bulb barely lit corridors it was dreadful. The room smelled of bleach and insecticide. The pillows were so thin I had to triple fold them just so I could get enough purchase to rest my head. The walls were totally bare and the fan wobbled so much I feared it crashing down upon us. I wanted to fold the pancake thin mattress to get some support but besides being impractical, I REALLY didn’t want to see what was underneath. The concrete floors, walls and even the ceilings were peeling paint and stained. The “Royal” hotel was maybe not the worst but definitely among the worst places I have ever stayed – and I was grateful to have a room. I slept like a corpse.
In the morning there was a nattily dressed guy passed out, legs in the street, using the curb as a pillow. He looked so uncomfortable I was reminded that last night could have been worse and in some ways we were lucky to have found “The Royal”. I think I need to plan a little more and check out some alternatives. We certainly will next time. (That sounds familiar.)
Saturday, July 2, 2011 – We were driving again. Back on the road for the last day. We traveled mechanically through towns with curious names like Acayucan, Minatitlan and Coatzacoalcos. The landscape was still flat and tropical, sometimes pleasantly interrupted by rolling hills or even what appeared to be a few mountains as we skirted Chiapas. Just outside Cardenas, I unwittingly discovered that yes; a fully laden Toyota FJ Cruiser with rooftop carrier and bicycles on the back will go airborne if given sufficient velocity while passing over a “tope”. A tope is a speed bump of indeterminate size that many towns use for traffic control. Fail to see the warning signs for these at your own peril.
After shaking off that almost mishap, gassing up and buying a few groceries in Villahermosa we continued on. We were now in Mayan country. We passed just outside of Palenque and entered another area of long empty spaces punctuated by an occasional small town or a Mayan ruin. Just before Chetumal we turned on Highway 307 and we were almost there. At dusk we turned off on the highway to Xcalak. It had been a long day but tonight we were going to sleep at home! It was a home we had never slept in before, and only visited once, but it was home in a place we loved.
About the Author: Jonathan Look and his wife Vonda took early retirement in 2011 so they could see the world. Their plan is to travel for ten years and live in ten areas, one year at a time. Jonathan has positioned himself so he can pursue his passion for travel, photography and writing full time. He is especially interested in using his photography to help impoverished peoples, endangered cultures and ecosystems. Artist Vonda Look is a contemporary abstract artist working in multiple media being inspired by nature, people and animal – especially birds. They are available for assignment work and can be contacted through the website www.lifepart2.com.