Saturday, August 11, 2018


If you were hooked by the title and harbor certain expectations, you'll probably be disappointed. As you might have gathered from previous entries, I have a lot of time off during the summers and try to do something interesting each year. For summer 2018, having just paid off the last mortgage on my properties, I felt the need to do something both relaxing and relatively economical. Hence, a return for the first time in 30 years to away-from-the-border Mexico. For us San Diegans, trips to Tijuana don't really count as Mexico excursions, though I hadn't even been there since the late 1990's as far as I can recall. Though I'd lived in Peru for a time, trips to Guadalajara were the extent of my Mexico experience. I knew the route from Tijuana to Guadalajara pretty well, but virtually nothing about Baja or Sonora.

For about half a year in late 1987 and early 1988, I lived in Guadalajara. I'd just returned from my first job in Japan, and during that summer decided to take a 5-week Spanish course through the UdeG. While there, I was offered a job. The university was developing a new English language program for the general public to enroll in, and invited me to help develop it. The program was called PROULEX, and to my surprise during this most recent visit I found that it is not only still in existence but has grown into a prosperous enterprise, with several branch schools around the city.

A number of friends and colleagues--even ones with roots in Mexico--were somewhat apprehensive about my plans: to enter Mexico at the El Paso/Juarez crossing, then to proceed by bus to Chihuahua, where the CHEPE (Copper Canyon Train) originates. From there, I would figure out how long I wanted to spend along the route, and make my way to the terminus at Los Mochis. At that point, I would decide whether I wanted to continue southward to Guadalajara for a somewhat sentimental return, or whether I wanted to catch the ferry to La Paz in Baja California without the side trip. It all depended on whether or not I was having a good time. Everyone wished me well, but many were genuinely worried about the idea of me traveling alone in Mexico.

Being the sort of person who generally does exactly that of which he speaks, I ended up doing all of those things and having a pretty good time of it. I was away from home for exactly 6 weeks, aside from a 24 hour or so period back in San Diego to re-pack and catch a flight to Miami, where I'd stay three weeks before flying to El Paso. My niece got married in north San Diego County on June 9, and I decided to proceed from there directly the next morning on Highway 78 to Arizona for the usual inspection and maintenance on my properties in Prescott and Yuma.

On the way out, I got the idea of calling an old colleague who now lives near the airport in San Diego. Like myself, he was a white male in a field dominated by women and people-of-color, and early on we both figured out that we'd better take care of ourselves since no one else was going to take care of us, or even be particularly discreet about discriminating against us in the name of "diversity." We'd both invested in real estate and done fairly well, growing stronger--if more cynical-- from the challenges we often faced... in a way that makes us rather unsympathetic to whiny women and minorities.

At any rate, he'd never seen my San Diego condo before, and I suggested that he come by during the single day I'd be back in San Diego. He could see my place, and later drop me off at the airport. This worked out nicely, and I took care of business in Prescott and Yuma without a lot of memorable fanfare. I got back the evening of June 13, and spent a single night at my place before preparing to vacate until July 20. He came by in the late afternoon and visited awhile, then we went over to his place and hung out awhile with his wife, who had also been a teaching colleague at one time before she changed careers.

The flight to Miami was leaving at 7:00 in the morning, and around midnight he took me over to Harbor Island, across from the airport. I'd hung out in the lobby of the Sheraton before while waiting for an early flight, and figured I'd do it again. This time, however, I nodded out in a comfortable easy chair and began to snore loudly. Security came and woke me up, and I explained my situation. They said it was OK to hang out, but that I couldn't sleep there. Seeing that they were actually being pretty nice about it, I didn't argue. I stayed awake for a couple more hours, then walked over to the airport around 4:30. The flight to Miami via Houston was uneventful, though flying Spirit Airlines is the closest one can come to riding a city bus in the sky.

The three weeks at my Miami Beach condo passed quickly. Having just paid off my last mortgage the month before, and having just completed a successful academic year, I felt a sense of total freedom... and total collapse. I didn't HAVE to do diddly-squat. I'd taken care of all pressing business, and tied up all paperwork ends. I'd done maintenance on all of my rental properties in San Diego and Arizona. I'd given the San Diego condo a good cleaning just before leaving. All I really needed to do now was go online at several branches of the Miami-Dade Library system to try to figure out how in hell I was going to approach the Mexico part of the journey.

The Miami Beach condo complex has a pool, as well as a rather dirty branch of Indian Creek that makes it a waterfront property. Indian Creek Island, with its multi-million dollar homes, is less than a mile away on the very same water. The beach is three blocks away, at the north end of the Open Space Park. I spent a great deal of time submerged in either the pool or the Atlantic Ocean.

About a week in, the upstairs neighbors had a sink clog up. The Roto Rooter guy cleared it, and was about to call it a day when I got home and saw that everything had simply dropped down into my sink and backed it up. If I hadn't been there, the mess would have sat stagnant until my next visit, or until someone noticed the stink. After some consultation with the property manager over who'd pay, the drain line in the alley got rooted as well, which cleared my sink aside from the accumulated mess that I had to scoop up and dispose of, with some help from the neighbors.

Researching things at the library was frustrating, but as the time to head for Mexico neared I felt at least a little better informed than before. There was a lot of conflicting information about both the CHEPE train and the Baja ferries. After giving the condo a good scrubbing, and watching some Independence Day fireworks, I was up around 4:00 AM on July 5 for the long walk to the Arthur Godfrey Causeway where I'd catch the airport bus. I worked up a terrible sweat in doing so, and arrived at the well air conditioned terminal in wet clothing. The flight to El Paso via Dallas was as uneventful as the flight out from San Diego, aside from an exceptionally rough landing in a strong crosswind.

As with everything else on this trip, I was totally improvising without reservations or any deep knowledge of what I was doing. My only knowledge of El Paso came from a road map, and from the memory of our train stopping for several hours there for emergency repairs at the end of Easter Vacation (as it was called then) 1967. I was finishing up 6th grade, and dad took us all to San Antonio to visit his brother's family for a week. My uncle was still in the Air Force then; his younger son is the fellow I met up with in Austin during my cross-country motorcycle trip last year. On the way back to California, the train hit a cow and sustained some damage; the cow didn't do too hot either. We'd walked around town for a few hours to kill time, then were on our way. Other than that, I could claim no knowledge of El Paso.

Seeing a display of advertisements at the airport terminal for various hotels in town, I selected one that had a free airport shuttle and seemed to be centrally located. It was supposed to be one of the best in town, with a swimming pool several floors above the ground. A number of small things went wrong there, starting with me falling on my face as I stepped out of the shuttle because the "safety" step exactly matched the color of the pavement at the hotel entrance. The front desk people--to a person--had no idea where the bus station was; it turned out to be three blocks away. I found that there was Greyhound service to Juarez, so I got a ticket for the next morning, still not really confident in what I was doing.

I walked over to the visitor center, and asked if the train station was nearby. It was, and when I mentioned that we'd walked with several passengers to a small park in the middle of the city to wait out the repairs on the train to California 51 years ago, they told me immediately that it must have been Plaza San Jacinto. With nothing else to do on a late and very hot afternoon, I found my way over to it and recognized it right away. Had some delicious corn on the cob with cheese and salsa from the little concession there, then bought a couple of cans of beer from the CVS around the corner to consume in my refrigerator-less room... another small annoyance. You can read my review--where I forgot to mention the non-refrigerator, falling out of the shuttle, and getting charged for the much ballyhooed complimentary breakfast buffet--here:

Bright and early the next morning, my Mexico adventure began. Early on, I noticed that most people I met in Mexico had a hard time figuring out where I was from. I look like the classic Ugly American, but speak Spanish with only a light accent that's nonetheless heavy with peruanismos, or Peruvian Spanish vocabulary. The Greyhound bus, I'd learn as the trip got underway, would take us first to a border checkpoint where we'd get off and fill out paperwork. Then we'd all re-board and go on a few more miles to one of the several bus stations in Juiarez.

At this point, let's get out of the way my greatest pet-peeve about Latin America. It's the non-concept of public information. For everything you do, no one ever explains anything and no one ever announces anything. It just HAPPENS, usually several hours late. Signage--if there is any--is nearly always wrong. You can get on a bus plastered with signs indicating "Chihuahua," only to find that it's going to Mexicali. On top of this, the digital age has provided a whole new world of opportunities to spend virtually your entire time in Latin America utterly confused because information is almost always out of date. It's infuriating, and the only way to figure out what's going on is by asking fellow travelers and/or the person in charge... who eventually becomes cranky at having to explain the same thing over and over and over to the aimless mass of people.

I encountered this over and over when I lived in Peru, and everywhere I went in Mexico on this trip the phenomenon was worse, if anything. I'm convinced that this aspect of Latin American culture--more than any other--provides ample explanation for why so many things there seem chronically chaotic. Folks, if you're seeking a better life in a functional society, why don't you start by telling people things?!

As a nice welcome to this unique way of doing things, we stopped at the immigration checkpoint. I and the only other person who didn't look Mexican were immediately singled out and told to get into a line at a window with--you guessed it--no signage or instructions about what was going on or what we were to do. My fellow traveler commented that this seemed discriminatory, and I replied that though I agreed, this probably wouldn't be a great time to complain about it. We were hit up for a fee to enter the country as tourists, and after paying it asked what we were supposed to do next. There was a second window next to it, and the functionary pointed to it.

At the second window, there was some paper shuffling and our passports were returned to us wordlessly. Figuring this was the end of the process, we went back out to the bus where everyone else was waiting. As the bus prepared to pull out, another official ran out and stopped it. The two gringos had neglected to get their passports stamped! I went back inside, and someone actually directed me back to the first window, where I had to show all the paperwork from the second window. Then I got my stamp. Just to be sure, I asked if that were all. As no one answered, I presumed that was the case and got back on the bus.

At the bus station, the fellow gringo and I decided to hang together as far as Chihuahua. He was a public school teacher from New Mexico, and was trying to get his Spanish proficiency up because he was supposed to teach bilingual classes the following school year. This was surprising, as listening to his Spanish hurt my ears. I realized just how grating it must have been to listen to me when I first visited Guadalajara after high school graduation 45 years before. We rode along to Chihuahua, discussing our travel plans once there. At a rest stop, he got me a bottle of water as I hadn't changed any money for pesos yet. Once arrived in Chihuahua, we went our separate ways.

Here began my first of many not-bad experiences with taxi drivers. You tell them where you're going and perhaps ask if they know of a place to stay nearby. They give you a price, you haggle a bit if it's more than you've paid before for the same route, and you make sure the driver has change if you're carrying only large bills. In this first case, I had him take me by a currency exchange before going on to the hotel across from the train station that he'd recommended.

It was getting to be late afternoon on Friday when I checked into the small hotel, which as far as I could see had no other guests who were planning to catch the train. The lady at the front desk said the ticket office was certainly closed. I walked across to see for myself, and it was open as could be. Now was the moment of truth: Was it, or was it not, impossible to buy a ticket on such short notice? Online information was contradictory on the matter. Well, it turned out to be no problem at all, and easily handled by credit card payment. Before you knew it, I was set to leave at 6:00 the following morning, with a planned two-day stop in Creel before going on to Los Mochis. Not bad for someone who doesn't know WTF he's doing!

Now I was beginning to feel a bit more confident in myself, and in a country I'd once had a great deal of affection for but had come to be apprehensive of... not because of personal experience but because of what everyone else had been telling me. I had a nice relaxing meal of roasted chicken, and bought some beer and potable water at a convenience store. Every day for the rest of the trip, I felt peace of mind. Though I used common sense and was always "aware of my surroundings, " I found every part of Mexico I visited to be as safe or safer than the average American city.

The downside of playing things by ear and having no detailed plans was that I didn't do much of anything besides travel. I'd chosen to stop in Creel because it was about a third of the way along the route, and was one of the few place names I recognized. The trains left a little past 6:00, with the usual lack of announcements or guidance. Apparently the first class and second class trains start out separately, then the cars are combined into one very long sequence somewhere along the way. There actually were signs indicating which was which, but nothing to indicate the car numbers so that you could find your assigned seat. More asking asking asking... I ended up next to a group of tourists who were pleasantly surprised when I recognized their New Zealand accents.

In Creel, there were a number of outdoor activities available. Me, I was utterly exhausted and spent much of Saturday napping. Part of it, I guess, was the tension of traveling in an unfamiliar part of a foreign country with half the people I'd talked to about it thinking I was nuts. Things were going well, and I just wanted to relax and count my blessings. I strolled around town, and ate at some excellent restaurants. The town had a touristy feel, but wasn't very fancy at all. It had an incredible number of homeless dogs that lounged around wherever there was shade.

On Sunday, I walked a mile or so out of town in the direction of a Ferris wheel in the distance. Next to the amusement park, there was a memorial of some sort. I asked one of the workers at the park, and they told me about the "Creel Massacre," pretty much as recounted in the link here. Sobering stuff:

On Monday July 9, I got on the train again to finish up the trip to Los Mochis on the Pacific Coast. Ended up sitting next to an American mining engineer, originally from El Salvador, who'd been around the world managing mostly silver mines. He was there on business, investigating an accident at one of the mines. We talked a bit about things, the memorable tidbit from him being his take on Latin American culture: No one ever feels happy about a friend's or neighbor's or cousin's success. There's always an undercurrent of jealousy or envy present. I hadn't ever thought about it that way before, but it occurred to me from my own experiences over the years that he was probably right.

He got out somewhere about two-thirds from the end, and the train proceeded on toward the coast. It passed through terrain that varied from alpine to jungle to high desert. At some point, I got the idea of standing out on the area where the cars connect and enjoying the "aire libre." The sun was setting as we pulled into El Fuerte. It was supposed to be some sort of great tourist destination, but looked pretty pud-in-the-mud to me. On and on we went, until long after dark. Finally the train stopped, and didn't move on again. No announcement, of course, but with everyone getting off I figured it must be Los Mochis. It was.

Los Mochis is a no-nonsense port town on the Sea of Cortes. Mazatlan, about six hours to the south by bus, is a better known port with a touristy vibe. It has some surfing beaches because it's just where the Sea of Cortes ends and the Mexican mainland becomes the west coast of the Pacific Ocean. Some online sources stated that the ferry to La Paz in Baja California no longer ran from Los Mochis, but only from Mazatlan. Each and every online source said that catching a ferry from Mazatlan was a sure bet. Either way, it was past 10:00 PM when I caught a taxi with several other passengers from the train and we headed for a hotel the driver recommended that was to be near the bus station.

He was good to his word. For less than $40, I found myself in a comfortable room in a hotel that wouldn't look out of place on a side street in South Beach. Those bozos in El Paso could take a hint from them as far as running a quality establishment goes. I gave it a review here:

In the morning, I walked over to the bus station, bought a ticket, and waited all of fifteen minutes for the next bus to Mazatlan. It was a longer ride than I'd remembered from thirty years ago, taking most of the day. On the way, I carefully weighed the options and made the decision that I should make the most of my time exploring Baja; I could fly to Guadalajara anytime on a separate trip now that my mind was becoming more comfortable with and open to the concept of traveling in Mexico again. This was my frame of mind as the bus pulled into Mazatlan.

Well sir, I caught a taxi out to the ferry port, having a nice talk with the driver about the security situation in Sinaloa. He said it was much improved over ten years ago, when it actually was a dangerous place to travel. He dropped me off, and was about to pull away when the security guard at the entrance asked us both to wait. He explained that the ferry had broken down a month or so ago, and wouldn't be running again for some time. If I wanted to catch a ferry to La Paz, I'd have to go to--get ready for it--LOS MOCHIS!!!

Hmmm... The security situation may be much improved, but the War on Accurate Information apparently continues. I was absolutely floored. I had the driver take me back to the bus station, and then sat there for awhile trying to figure out WTF I should do now. After about a half hour of pondering, I decided to catch a night bus to Guadalajara afterall, since I was actually closer to there than to Los Mochis now. I hung out for several hours, enjoying some seafood tacos and beer and walking around the place a bit. The bus left reasonably on time, and I nodded out so soundly that the next thing I knew it was daybreak and we were on the outskirts of a city I had many a strong feeling about.

Caught a taxi into town after talking to the ticket desk about the schedule of buses back to Los Mochis. I decided then to stay four days in Guadalajara, and to try to time my arrival back in Los Mochis to be convenient for catching the ferry. I'd be shorting myself on the Baja part of the trip, but felt that I could always go back on another trip, in the same way I'd planned before to fly to Guadalajara... before this  ferry business intervened. The driver recommended a rather unattractive but conveniently located and inexpensive hotel just off the Calzada de Independéncia, a few blocks south of the Mercado Libertád.

I slept awhile on arriving, then noticed that just about everyone else in the hotel was a federal police officer. The hotel is used to billet them during their tours of duty, which apparently change often enough that they house them that way. It wasn't too much of an issue, aside from the discomfort of seeing uniformed men with automatic weapons and armored vehicles milling about everywhere. I wasn't much inclined to chat them up, but they were polite and pleasant enough. Not quite oriented yet, I found my way to the cathedral with a few wrong turns, then headed north toward the UdeG.

It wasn't as far as I'd remembered it being. The buildings and the neighborhood had changed a little, but were still recognizable. I found the PROULEX office, not far from where the program started in 1987. The director was happy to meet me, and we talked for about half an hour. He'd been around since the early 1990's, and remembered a few of the people I'd worked with. I walked around by the old classrooms, had lunch at one of the restaurants in the strip mall we used to frequent, and got my fill of nostalgic feeling. Actually, I'd been pretty fed up with the place at the time I left, and never thought I'd come back... but I suppose time wounds all heels.

Walking back, I got myself a little better oriented. I hung out in the plaza behind the cathedral, then found Calle Belén and the complex where the Spanish classes were held the first time I stayed here in summer 1973. The gate guard let me go inside for a look. I made my way to the Mercado Libertád, then to the place next to it that was once the Plaza of the Mariachis. There were a number of mariachis morosely hanging around, but not playing any music. Apparently it ceased to be officially their plaza sometime in the early 1990's, when the guy who popularized mariachi music passed away.

The next day, I walked the entire distance from the cathedral to Chapalita, where I'd stayed in 1973 and lived for a time later in 1987/88. The Mendoza's family home at Cubilete 13 was no longer there, to no surprise. Even in the late 1980's, it was obvious that the area was undergoing a re-zoning to commercial properties. The address was now an orthodontic surgeon's office. Though my feet were getting tired, I continued on one more mile to the Plaza del Sol shopping center for a look around, recalling that first day in Guadalajara in 1973 when my new roommate and I walked there and heard the Beatles' version of Til There Was You playing on the public address system. Was able to catch a bus back downtown, but still had to walk quite a ways to get back to the hotel.

At some point, I bought two leather eyeglass cases at the Mercado Libertád to replace the worn out ones I'd gotten there in 1987. I had one of the old ones with me, as I nearly always do. It had been all around the world with me, and now I found myself throwing it away in the same place where I'd bought it! The market of course looked the same, but the merchandise seems to be extremely heavy on sneakers. I went to the place where Rosa Rojas once worked. Even by 1987 she'd moved on, yet I couldn't help thinking of her and wondering where she is now.

There was a festival in the plaza celebrating the various cultural aspects of Jalisco. I hung around listening to music and watching various performances, then--being properly dressed for a change--I took a look at the inside of the cathedral during a Mass. I called one of my old Cubilete 13 roommates from the plaza, a surprisingly easy thing to do in this day and age. He still lives in Oxnard, and we've stayed in loose contact over the past 45 years. He had no trouble guessing where I was calling from, and we had a nice chat about old times and more recent things like the wildfires that were affecting him. Later in the day, I walked to Parque Agua Azul, not realizing that it was just down Calzada de Independéncia not far from my hotel.

On a late Saturday morning, I checked out of the hotel and spent much of the day at the festival. Had dinner at a mediocre Chinese buffet near the plaza, and hung out a little longer. Around dusk, I caught a taxi back to the "new" bus terminal; the old one was next to Agua Azul and is used only for short routes nowadays. It was a rather long wait for the bus back to Los Mochis, which was several hours late. As before, I had no trouble falling asleep on it and was surprised to wake up with us on the outskirts of town.

The ferry portion of the trip was by far the most tedious and aggravating aspect of it. The port is about 15 miles out of town, though taxis are quite inexpensive compared to the U.S. I caught one out there, and bought a ticket for that evening. It was to leave at 2:00 AM rather than at 11:00 AM, as all the online information said. I went back into town and checked into the same hotel as before, wanting just to rest there during the day and check out before midnight. I used the hotel's pool, walked around looking for a place to eat, and finally got some delicious tostadas at an outdoor restaurant. They didn't serve beer, but also didn't mind if I got one at the convenience store down the street and drank it with my meal.

About 11:00 PM, I returned to the ferry terminal. It wasn't that crowded, and people seemed to be buying tickets on the spot without problems. Still, I was glad I got mine in advance. The ferry ended up leaving almost 6 hours late, with the loading process taking forever. For once, there was someone guiding the crowd along as we passed through a military checkpoint and had our bags inspected. For some reason, men and women had to be in separate lines. Once we got to the ship, it was the usual instructionless chaos. I followed people upstairs to a common area adjacent to the ship's restaurant. It had a door to the outside, with a pretty good view from the back of the ferry. There I stayed, alternating between nodding out on a sofa and standing on the deck outside.

As we pulled into La Paz, there were--believe it or not--several announcements over the world's lousiest public address system. Though each announcement was made in both Spanish and English, I couldn't understand a word of what was being said. Nobody in the room was doing much of anything, so I just stayed there. Once in port, I watched the ferry unload many heavy commercial trucks. It was an orderly, well organized process that was interesting to observe. I didn't see any passengers disembarking, and in fact it didn't look like any sort of passenger terminal. I figured the ferry might move on to another terminal to let off the passengers.

Finally, after another incomprehensible bilingual announcement, people began to line up. I got in the line, and as I approached the exit the woman in charge told me in English, "This is for the drivers. You go out the other door." Well, so I did, only to find that the other passengers had disembarked long ago. I still don't know WTF the process was, how I came to be in that particular room, or what I should have done differently.

There were "colectivos" into La Paz, which are cheaper than taxis. I rode with five or six other people, including two women who kept arguing with the driver about the fare. At one point, she looked over at me and commented that I probably couldn't understand Spanish... The driver let us off at the bus station along El Malecón, or boardwalk. I found a place to stay at the rather upscale but still inexpensive Hotel La Perla; I think it's the only time in Mexico that I spent more than $50 for a room. 

Just about everyone I met in La Paz insisted on addressing me in English, whether they were able to understand anything I said back or not. Very reminiscent of Japan... Nonetheless, I had a pleasant evening there, sitting on the hotel balcony over the boardwalk with a couple of beers. I was getting pressed for time, having several things to do in San Diego the upcoming weekend. I decided that I could see Cabo on a separate trip, as there are direct flights from San Diego and I was now once again quite comfortable about traveling in Mexico. This time, I was going to have to basically run through Baja.

Knowing very little about Baja, I decided to travel from La Paz to Guerrero Negro the next day. I wanted to travel during daylight, so that I could see the countryside. It was about a 15 hour trip, and arrived in the wee hours of the next morning. I did indeed get a nice "taste" of Baja as we passed through the deserty south part of the peninsula, over bare mountains and into the jungle-like area around Loreto, a place I'd like to spend some time in if I return. Much of Baja was beautiful, and the variety of geographic areas was surprising. I'd always imagined it as a big piece of sand with a few dry, windswept mountains.

This time I didn't sleep much on the bus, and arrived very tired in Guerrero Negro. I took a look at the bus schedule, and saw that there were only a few departures toward Tijuana each day. There didn't seem to be much around the bus station, but I found a small hotel a few blocks away. and slept until mid-morning. Back at the bus station, I bought a ticket for a late evening departure to Ensenada. The town had a large salt processing factory, and little else. It was a fairly prosperous place largely due to the factory, but that and whale watching in season seemed to be the only activities. For lack of anything else to do, I asked a lady in the park which way the sea was, and tried to walk to it on a deserted road in extreme heat. After a couple of miles, I turned back. I had a decent meal in town, and basically hung around for hours waiting for the bus.

We got into Ensenada around daybreak. Once again, there was no announcement of stops and no visible signage at any bus station as we arrived. Ask ask ask... Yes, this is Ensenada. I had no idea which part of town we were in, and hadn't been in Ensenada since 1984. A fellow selling breakfast sandwiches pointed me toward the port, and I stopped at several hotels to try to get a room. The street led right to the port area, which was less than a mile away. I got another inexpensive but nice hotel room there, after offering to pay for two nights since I was arriving at about 6:00 in the morning and planned to stay that night as well.

Ensenada did not impress me. The port area isn't very big, and a navy base takes up most of the waterfront area to the north. There's a public beach about a mile beyond it, but it's nothing to crow about, especially if you're from San Diego. The touristy area is just inland from the port, and includes Hussong's Cantina and Papas & Beer. I tried going into Hussong's, but it was extremely, ear-splittingly noisy inside, one of those crowd phenomena where all are trying to make themselves heard over everyone else until everyone is yelling at the top of their lungs. It's basically just a famous name, with four walls and little decor. Papas & Beer was bigger and less crowded, with several sections. I preferred just to get a couple more beers at the Oxxo and watch TV in my room.

On Friday July 20 at 8:00 AM, I was waiting to catch the bus to Tijuana. The attendant looked at my ticket, frowned, and told me the bus wasn't scheduled to leave until 9:00. Buses came and went, came and went, with no announcements and no signage. Each time I had to ask the driver if this was my bus. No señor, no señor... Two other buses were going to Tijuana, but they weren't the one I was supposed to get on. Mine was specifically going to "La Linea," which I figured out meant la frontera, or the border. Once I finally got on the bus, I was surprised by how quickly we found ourselves nearing Tijuana. The distance is only about 75 miles, while I'd thought it closer to 120 or so.

I followed the crowd through a big elevated metal tunnel that led to the American side, crossing over just before noon. Though the Mexican tourist card says that I'm required to return the card when I leave the country, there was no one at any point to give it to. Technically, my residence status is still as a tourist in Mexico! Though the crossing area has changed since the last time I was there, I recognized the bridge over the freeway and made my way to the trolley station. I don't ride the trolley that often, and found the instructions for buying a ticket to be written in the usual incomprehensible all-American gobbledy-gook, making me wonder if the Latin American way of providing no instructions at all really was any worse.

Seeing a Greyhound office near the trolley, I stopped to ask if they had a service similar to the one I used in El Paso, taking people across the border to their Mexican counterpart. No one spoke English well enough to understand what I was asking, and--being no longer in Mexico--I didn't feel like talking to them in Spanish.

Guadalajar Guadalajara!!!

More Guadalajara

The ferry from Los Mochis to La Paz

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Cross-Country on a Motorcycle, Revisited

It's a little bit sad to think that a year can pass so quickly. There's been not a day gone by that I haven't stopped to think about the fascinating trip from San Diego to Miami Beach and back that I undertook on June 11 of last year, returning July 15 safe and utterly astonished at what I'd accomplished. It was not only the ride itself; it was the concept that I own comfortable residences on each coast, and made a project of riding a motorcycle from one to the other and back. Now it's just two months short of the first anniversary of starting out, and I feel like I've done so little living in the meantime.

I'm 63 years old. Finally, more because of my own apathy than the aging process, I seem to be slowing down. It's less that I can't do things than that I feel like I've already done just about everything I ever wanted to do. I still bicker regularly by text with my old childhood-sweetheart-become-late-middle-age-flame. She turned 64 a couple of days ago, works way harder than I do, and has little time for romance... which is why we wait until the weekends before pouring out an endless string of messages to each other, mostly about whose fault it is that we failed to make our lifelong dream of being together come true.

That makes things sadder still. We're too old for young people's dreams, and we know each other too well now to idealize. We get along pretty well for short spells... which frankly is good enough for me, but she takes the woman's view that enjoying oneself is never enough. There always has to be "MORE" to a relationship than being happy.

However, it's more than just being well into late middle age and realizing that I'll never really connect with the gal I've thought about for most of my life (to the frustration of both of us). It's the memory of that damned trip. I described it in great detail over two entries awhile back, and understand that it was written primarily as my own personal record rather than to entertain anyone else. Here though, I'd like to get into more of a summary of what was significant about it and why it leaves me feeling so sweet-sad and wistful.

It was, first of all, a collection of destinations I'd thought of visiting for quite a long time, most related to my childhood and early adult memories. Going to Prescott to work on my lot is about as romantic as digging a drainage ditch, but setting out on the rest of the cross-country trip from there is etched in my mind like a video clip. For the past two decades--since I got to know the area by car--I'd thought it would be neat to ride a motorcycle over the hills east of Prescott through Jerome, then up Oak Creek Canyon from Sedona to Flagstaff. Last summer, I did it! Then I continued east, thinking of the old Route 66 song and the Eagles' "Take It Easy" as I passed through Winona and Winslow, cruising like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in my own version of "Easy Rider."

There was Claude, Texas, where the locals thought it kinda cool that I'd made a pilgrimage to the filming location of "Hud," the old Paul Newman movie with Patricia Neal, Brandon DeWilde, and Melvin Douglas. An older lady who maintained a historical museum there took me to the old movie theater where DeWilde and Douglas sang "Clementine" to a bouncing ball. There was the camaraderie on the road, as bikers commiserated about the relentless winds that buffet the area and make the riding anything but easy.

A couple of days later I spent an afternoon in the area around Dealey Plaza, seeing first-hand the long familiar places described in the lore surrounding the Kennedy assassination. There was the long trip through the south, ending up on the Gulf Coast at Mobile and following the western coastline of Florida all the way down to the southern end, visiting cousins along the way in Tampa. There was that moment along Highway 27, where I pulled over at the edge of the Everglades to look at a map and reassure myself that I had--indeed--made it to within 25 miles of my East Coast hideaway!

After five days of resting and soaking in the ocean, there was the return trip over a slightly different route, stopping first in Ocala and telling the young hotel clerk about the Royal Guardsmen--the only Ocala locals I'd ever heard of--and their 1966 hit, "Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron." Then it wasn't more than a few days before I was making my way along the Gulf Coast again, passing through bayou country near New Orleans. After that, Galveston, where I played the Ventures version of the name-sake song made famous by Glen Campbell while lying in bed with a 6-pack of Corona.

Next Austin, with a visit to the LBJ Library & Museum, and another get-together with a cousin. The list continues... Roswell and the International UFO Museum, Benson and "The Thing," which is a dumb roadside attraction but another one of those things I'd idly wondered about for the past 50 years. On the day before returning home, there was the Pima Air & Space Museum, full of retired aircraft that were new when I was a kid. On my last night on the road, I finally stayed at the Space Age Lodge in Gila Bend, another long-time wish... and then I was home, exhausted but safe.

It was in my condo in Miami Beach, though, that the trip acquired a soundtrack. Somehow, of all the old songs on my phone, it was The Beatles' "Good Night," which ends the White Album, that stuck most in my head. I've spent a lot of time wondering why. Though Dealey Plaza is an eerie place, the trip was overall a happy experience, and everything--except the fuel pump going out in Prescott on the second day of the trip--went phenomenally smoothly. Still, that rather sad lullaby comes to mind late at night whenever I think about the long ride cross-country.

Now, finally, I think I get it. You have to understand that I'm in my early sixties, have never married, and have no children. In other words, I'm a fairly typical white guy of my generation. I have vivid memories of earlier times, of being a child in the 1960's at the height of the Vietnam War (and the heyday of the Beatles). I own a condo in Miami Beach about a mile south of the site of the old Americana Hotel, where JFK made his last speech before returning to Washington safely for the last time; he headed to Texas three days later. By weird coincidence, it's also a little over a mile north of the Deauville Hotel, where the Beatles stayed--and recorded their second Ed Sullivan Show appearance--during their first American tour... barely three months after the assassination!

The woman I fell in love with during my high school years in San Diego, and wondered about for much of my life after she moved away, lives less than ten miles northwest of my place in Miami Beach now. She went through the marriage/kids/divorce thing, but never really forgot about me either. We got back in touch in 2010, with her kids long grown and her divorce final, but the initial thrill of that is long gone. We don't even get along that great... but we can't seem to get out of each others heads. I sometimes think of us as being somewhat like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who clashed at times, eventually divorced... but loved each other to the end. She's even slightly older than I, though 8 months is nothing like the 7 year difference between Lucy and Desi.

The conundrum is that so much has come and gone, never to return. Unless I live to be 126, my life is more than half over. Still, I remember so many things so clearly, and on this trip I experienced first-hand so much that I'd always read about but never really seen. I also reconnected with relatives I seldom see, both of them from my father's side and both for the first time since he passed away in 2011. I'd seen my cousin Jim briefly when he was in San Diego for his son's graduation from Marine Corps boot camp in 2009, but hadn't seen or heard from Michelle since 1981! Her two kids were small then. It happened to be her husband's birthday when I was passing through, and we all got together for a party. The now middle-aged kids remembered me, and particularly the motorhome I had bought during my last year in the army in Washington, DC and was driving back to San Diego the last time they'd seen me.

The trip, I guess, was a kind of tying together of old things, yet I wouldn't have survived it by being a soft-headed sentimentalist. The road was rough at times, full of strong cross-winds and slippery turns and junk-strewn byways and unfamiliar terrain. I did it, and I'm not sure what to do next.Though the song was in my head before I got to Austin, the visit to the LBJ Library imbedded it there, with the ultimate memorial to the president of my childhood largely dedicated to '60s nostalgia.  Then that evening there was the visit with my cousin, and remembering that the longest time we'd ever hung out was spring break week 1967, when my dad decided to take his family to Texas to visit his brother's family. We don't keep in touch closely, and really barely know each other, but getting together in Austin meant a lot.

Though hardly a highlight, I remember vividly as well the midway point of the trip, collapsing in my condo in Miami Beach and listening to that song before I went to sleep. It gave me a sense that all was well, yet all is ephemeral and temporary. Then a new day comes; you face reality, and be as tough and resilient as you have to be.

Also, I'll always remember the final miles of the trip, telling myself to keep alert and not blow it all at the very end. I didn't, and rode up into the driveway of my West Coast condo complex just as I'd departed it five weeks before, with everything looking pretty much the same. I covered the bike, lugged my backpack inside, pulled off my boots, poured a nice glass of Captain Morgan... and played that song as well as others. After a few more glasses of The Captain, the lyrics to "Taps" came into my head, perhaps as I thought of Dealey Plaza. It made me feel that Somebody Up There had to have been watching over me as I made my way:

Day is done
Gone the sun
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky. 
All is well; safely rest.
God is nigh

God was nigh... throughout that trip. For whatever reason, He wanted me to experience deeply all the lessons that this sentimental journey and at times quite hazardous adventure could offer.

"Good Night," final track of the White Album, by the Beatles:

"Hud," theater scene:

JFK at the Americana Hotel, Nov. 18, 1963:
(one mile north of my place, across from Bal Harbour Shops)

The Beatles at 81st Street, Feb. 13, 1964:
(four blocks south of my place, in the Open Space Park)

Dealey Plaza, while heading east

Cousin Michelle in Brandon (Tampa area)

Bayou country, on the return west

Cousin Jim in Austin

Friday, February 16, 2018

Belated Farewell to a Childhood Friend

It’s been a blessing to have grown up in the Rolando area of San Diego, yet to have traveled the world and seen other places. Along the way, I’ve managed to stay in touch with a kid from my kindergarten class who remains to this day, probably, my best friend in the world. As a couple of sixty-somethings now, we get a kick out of surprising people who ask how long we’ve known each other!

From time to time we get together with another Henry Clay alumnus, a relative newcomer whose family moved to the area in 1965, when he was in 4th grade. We don’t dwell too much on the past--though inevitably it comes up—and the other day we got to wondering about one of our old classmates.

He’d lived on Filipo, just a block or so from Henry Clay, and was in the same classroom with me from kindergarten to 6th grade, back when 6th was a part of elementary school. The other two friends referenced above knew him, but were sometimes in a different classroom from us. Almost inevitably, the kid and I became pretty good friends, though our interests weren’t all that similar. He moved to the San Carlos area of San Diego toward the end of our time at Clay, back in 1967, as the Summer of Love was getting underway. His older sister had a ’63 Chevy Impala convertible, and drove him to school during that last month or so while she finished up the school year at Crawford.

We spent the afternoon of our “graduation” from Clay--the day before the iconic Monterey Pop Festival got underway and two weeks after the release of "Sergeant Pepper"--swimming at the Golfcrest Country Club, having a fancy lunch, and cruising around with his sister in the convertible. We really thought we were something! His folks invited me to stay over that night, and we sat up playing board games and feeling very grown up. Then, as such things go with childhood friendships, we rarely saw each other again.

My best friend also moved to San Carlos somewhat later, during 8th grade. Thus did the two of them renew acquaintance throughout high school at Patrick Henry, and once in a blue moon the three of us would end up in the same place at the same time. However—as such things go—he was never as close to me as during the time we all grew up together. He hung out with completely different circles of people, and didn't care much for the things we thought were fun.

The other night, we were thinking of the kid on Filipo and wondered what ever had become of him. We’d each run across him by chance a time or two over the years, but not recently, so we did what any group of 21st century geezers would do: we Googled him.

As all too often has happened over the past decade or so, up came an obituary. We hoped it wouldn’t be him, but the birthdate and his sister’s name matched. He’d passed away in 2007 at the age of 51.

We’d all been out of touch with him for too long to get really worked up about it, but it was sad just the same. He was interred all of 7 miles from the college where I teach, so I took a drive over to the memorial park, right across from the entrance to Sycuan Casino. It’s not a big place, and with directions from the office I found his marker easily.

It sits under a willow tree, with a wind chime sounding occasionally in a peaceful breeze. His mother had outlived him, but was now interred with his father in a plot next to his. I stood for a few minutes, recalling the things we used to joke about and the way the world was when most of life lay ahead of us. I pulled weeds from around both headstones, and asked my old friend if he had any advice from the Great Beyond.

There was no reply, but it was such a tranquil place that I can only imagine he rests in peace. I told him that I feel blessed for the times we grew up in, and promised him that I’d try to be more appreciative of being alive… perhaps that was his advice. I made no promise to return and visit him, and he’d probably just want me to get on with life anyway.

Thus was another of life’s little mysteries resolved, and another small circle closed.