Category Archives: Out and About in Virgin Territory

Personal observations and notes on the road and at home.

1500 Characters Is Not Enough!

Hotels.com asked me for a review of the Camino Real in Saltillo. I labored over it, because it had been formulating in my little brain all last Sunday when we finally made it home. After all that work, they said I’m limited to 1500 characters. Nyet! So I’m posting it here.

Great beds, great view, but bring your own food and a screwdriver.

I have such a love/hate relationship with this hotel. My husband and I have stayed here many times, going and coming between San Miguel de Allende and San Antonio, Texas. It is exactly half way on our journey, perfect to arrive around 4 in the afternoon, rest a while and then enjoy dinner. It is set up on a hill with mature trees, lovely grassy areas and spectacular views of the Sierra Madre. The staff is always welcoming and competent. (Well, this last time, we were sent to a room that was already occupied, but I’m married to Larry and forgive dyslexic tendencies.)  The beds are wonderful, the rooms spacious, and every one we’ve ever stayed in has had either a private patio or some other amenity to recommend it. There is a double security gate, and circuitous roads leading to your particular bungalow. You feel like you’re going to be well taken care of. That’s what works.

What didn’t work on this last trip was the phone in the room, the clock radio (obviously broken, but set up on the nightstand like for decoration), the wardrobe doors which wouldn’t stay shut and we kept running into, the shower head which sprayed in a wide circle and was unadjustable so you had to stand over by the open door to the shower stall in order to get hit with the water, and the electric hairdryer that fell off the wall. There was one tissue left in the dispenser. We just kept laughing. It was like Fawlty Towers.

In times past (and we’ve been staying here off and on for ten years) there was an excellent steakhouse with a panoramic view of the Sierra Madre. That has closed. So we ate in the bar on the trips prior to this one. Going north this time, the desk manager said that the restaurant was open again, and was located up where they have always served breakfast. OK, we said. (once you’re installed there, it’s a pain to get in the car and go elsewhere for dinner.) Both meals were basically inedible. My salmon was still frozen cold in the middle, there was rice instead of the potato listed on the menu, and the “steamed vegetables” was a pile of mushy stuff that looked like it had come from the garbage disposal. Larry’s enchiladas had been microwaved and couldn’t be cut with a fork. We recounted our experience to friends in San Antonio. “Eat in the bar,” they counseled. “It’s great!” So we rebooked and stayed again going south. The bar was being used for a wedding reception. We snacked in the room. “How bad can breakfast be?” we wondered the next morning. We were hungry. The yogurt and granola were nice. Everything else was so salty as to be gag-inducing. I paid the bill, since we were checked out. With tip, 400 pesos. We shoulda gone to McDonalds.

I made one last trip to the ladies room, as Larry was waiting below with the car. The little guy mopping the floor motioned me into a stall. I finished, about the same time he did. No flush. No water at the sink either. The water was shut off. He looked at me and shrugged. I wonder if the only thing that works at this hotel is the staff!

Susan J. Cobb Talks About Her Inner Guadalupe

Newspaper article preceding my talk last Wednesday in San Miguel de Allende sums up what I’m about these days.  Thanks to the Education Committee of the Community Church!

Omnibus Mexicanos From Texas to San Miguel de Allende

I wrote earlier about taking Omnibus Mexicanos north to Texas, and promised I’d write about the return trip when I felt better about it. It’s time. I’ve had a massage and a lot of rest. It wasn’t an easy trip. Like the trip up, the major problem was at the border. Last time it took us six hours going through U.S. Customs. I wrote that taking a “direct” bus that crosses the border wasn’t such a good idea, that it would be better to get off and take a cab or walk over to the Laredo bus terminal. I should listen to my own counsel.

On this recent return trip, I considered various options of getting to Laredo from San Antonio, crossing the border on foot or by taxi, and then taking wonderful executive class ETN southward. I asked a friend whose husband owns jukeboxes and ATMs in various bars across Texas if she was going to make a collection run to Laredo. “I hadn’t planned on one, but, hey,” she said, “you speak good Spanish. Maybe you can talk to this guy named El Cocodrilo about why there was only $28 in his jukebox after two weeks instead of $500.”  I started looking at bus schedules again.

“Maybe going back won’t be so hard,” I reasoned. “U.S. Customs can’t be that stringent about people leaving the country.” I’d heard about Transportes San Miguel, a line that offers cross-the-border service between San Miguel de Allende and Texas. But I could not find any information on how to get in contact with them. Search engines came up with reviews of their service, but not phone numbers. Evidently the majority of their clientele does not book over the internet. Maybe doesn’t book at all, but just shows up.

I went back to the Omnibus Mexicanos terminal in the 400 Block of Broadway in San Antonio. The schedule posted on the internet indicated I’d have to change buses in Queretaro to get back to San Miguel, with quite a layover time. But the girl at the counter told me there was a new service, a bus that left at 1:00 a.m. that went directly to San Miguel. It wouldn’t even stop in Nuevo Laredo, she assured me, but would cross the border and go directly to San Felipe, Dolores Hidalgo (two towns close to San Miguel de Allende) and end up in SMA. There aren’t that many people going this time of year. The bus should be almost empty. Would I like to try that? “Sure,” I said, and  bought a ticket for $77. That was Tuesday afternoon and I showed up Wednesday night – or, actually Thursday morning. I had a few panic attacks about mistaking the date, since my ticket definitely said Wednesday, but it was definitely Thursday that the bus would leave.

At 1:30 a.m., I was among three passengers remaining in the terminal. Fifty or more other people had boarded buses headed to Zamora, Guadalajara, Monterrey, and, finally, I was told to board a bus that had just pulled in. It was labeled “DURANGO,” a direction ninety degrees off the course I’d expected to be headed. Everything would be ok, they assured me. I’d change in Nuevo Laredo. “But…” I began. Never mind. I boarded an overflowing bus, finding a window seat beside a woman who was inexplicably seated on the aisle. Oh, it was her walker that occupied the seat I needed.

I won’t go into graphic detail. I changed buses five times on the trip. The first time was before we even got to Laredo. It was at the twenty-minute coffee stop they make in the middle of that three-hour trip.  I ended up climbing over the lady with the walker three times.  There were five of us on the bus I changed to, headed to Mexico City. At least it was a course correction. The next was at the bus terminal in Laredo, where we found that U.S. Customs had closed the border hasta el amanecer. Until dawn. We sat with about thirty other buses (where did they all come from?) for four hours.

It was full daylight before we crossed the bridge.  A uniformed Mexican official boarded the bus and asked to see our documents. I presented my passport and FM2 card. “Where’s the piece of paper you got when you left Mexico?” he asked. I had no piece of paper. The official who had scanned my documents when I left Mexico had said nothing about getting a piece of paper. The man guarding the entrance back into the country was unsympathetic. “You have to have a piece of paper. How can we keep track of you if you’re not in the system?”  Well, I’d sort of wondered that myself  ten days before. This card business was new. Before I’d had a little paperback book that was dutifully stamped each time I crossed the border.  But who was I to pose questions at 7:30 in the morning after a thirteen-hour bus ride north? Guys in uniforms are supposed to know what they’re doing. (OK, that’s a whole area of discussion we won’t address here.)

“Are you going to let me back in?” I asked plaintively. It wasn’t even in Spanish. I was ready to grovel. He softened and said, “Por supuesto.” Of course. “But get that piece of paper next time. You have to have it.

Next stop, customs. I was lucky. I hit the green light. The bus driver greeted me on the other side of the building and escorted me back to my bus, lost in a sea of vehicles.

We  stopped for another hour at the terminal in Nuevo Laredo, and again at another customs stop. And I know I changed buses yet again somewhere out in the middle of nowhere where I and my two much-handled bags, my pillow and blankie, my bag of fruit and nuts and a giant handbag were handed over to another capable crew of Omnibus Mexicanos drivers.

The buses were clean and comfortable, the drivers were all well groomed, exceedingly polite, to the point of being gallant. But I was feeling frayed. After one change, I’d been told I’d need to transfer in San Luis Potosi. After another change, I was told the transfer would be in Queretaro. It wasn’t until we stopped for a thirty-minute breakfast somewhere at the crest of a hill near Saltillo, and I engaged the current crop of drivers in a confusing conversation, that I found that I was indeed on a bus headed directly for San Miguel de Allende. I would not have to change again. How do you say Hallelujah in Spanish?

I arrived in San Miguel at 6:30 Thursday evening.  I was the last passenger left on the bus. Their  “new service” evidently hasn’t caught on too well.  Still has a few rough edges, I’d say.

More about bus travel in Mexico:
Wonderful trip on ETN

Staying On One Bus to Cross the Border Not Such a Good Idea

Sounded good. ONE big bus from San Miguel de Allende straight through to San Antonio. Reserved seat with what looked like  a vacant one beside me. Not too many people headed north this time of year. Wahoo! And it was great until we reached the bus terminal in Nuevo Laredo. Then the fourteen of us on the great big Omnibus de Mexico, who had all slept comfortably on the twelve hour overnight drive, we transferred to another bus. Climbing the steps, I was prepared to reclaim seat sixteen, a window position with number fifteen beside it still empty. Wake up, Susan! The entire bus was already full!

“Find a seat anywhere,” they told us. “It’s just for crossing the border.” I wedged myself  and my provisions in beside the little old man who had been my across the aisle companion on the way up.  He was as bewildered as I was.  Truth be told, everyone on the bus had that stunned vacant stare reminiscent of movie scenes involving  Germans ushering passengers into cattle cars.  To lighten the mood the driver started a movie.

The Switch was less than entertaining when viewed at a distance of a foot and a half at full volume. The plot involves Jennifer Aniston trying to get pregnant through artificial insemination.  Visual imagery needed no translation in many of the “comedic” scenes.  Turkey baster, anyone?  My seat mate and I dutifully avoided looking at each other.  When the movie was over we were still in line and hadn’t moved an inch. We stayed that way for another forty-five minutes.

I’ll cut to the chase. U. S. Customs goes over every passenger bus with a fine-tooth comb. Passengers disembark with all their belongings, go through a line and everything is x-rayed. Then a dog and a woman go through the bus. Then a huge x-ray machine travels over the bus. I’m so grateful it had cooled off to 80 in Laredo.  The whole process, waiting included took over four hours. Then, after we were back on the bus, we were informed that it would be ANOTHER forty five minutes before we could leave the customs area. There’s some policy about allowing only a few buses to leave at a time. There has to be a twenty minute gap between them…or something like that. Anyway it was like waiting on the runway in the take off line up. We were allowed to disembark and seek refreshment in a sort of no man’s land. There was a guy there selling soda in eight ounce HEB bottles for two bucks a piece.

Once on the bus, we headed for the terminal in Laredo, where we sat for a while. Once on the highway w we  went an hour and a half AND STOPPED FOR A TWENTY MINUTE COFFEE BREAK! Then it was the Border Patrol check point where the bus was boarded and everyone once again presented their passports. Most of the passengers were U.S. citizens, as far as I could tell from the flashes of blue that were waved.

Our previous experience on ETN was great.   I wouldn’t hesitate to do that again. But sometimes the most direct route isn’t the easiest!

Why This Year We Took the Bus Going North

For those of us who have reached the stage in life when we’ve got more time than money, bus travel offers an affordable travel alternative. For those of us living in Mexico, a long way from loved ones, it is not only affordable. It can be downright enjoyable. I’ll write this blog in three stages, most helpful info up front. Hang in there til the end, and you may still find something useful or entertaining.

Contrary to a favorite travel tale of my husband’s, buses in Mexico do not always involve a chicken in your lap. That was 1972, we were students, and I didn’t know one bus line from another. I’m sure there were differences then. There definitely are now. In February, 2011, I took a bus from Guadalajara to San Miguel de Allende, and fell in love with ETN. My experience with them was so fantastic, I decided that was the way Larry and I would travel north to Texas this year. The trip was a success, and here are the reasons why:

Affordability. The regular one-way fare between Guadalajara and Nuevo Laredo when I purchased our tickets was MN$1,115 (MN indicates pesos). But Larry and I are over sixty and have official cards, issued by INAPAM, to say so. Among other perks, we get half price on bus tickets. So MN$1,115 was what we paid for two of us. That’s right at US$100. Our tickets from where we live on the Pacific coast to Guadalajara had been MN$135 a piece, about US$11.  So our round trip tickets from home to Nuevo Laredo came to just about $222.That’s a heck of a lot cheaper than either driving or taking a plane.

Flexibility. This is a big factor for me. In 2010, due to health issues, airline bankruptcy, landslides, Homeland Security policies and death in the family, I either had to replace, change or forfeit parts of six different airline tickets. That gets very expensive. This past June, we bought our tickets out of Mexico just a day before we left.

Time Schedule. Since the ETN bus leaves Mexico in the evening and arrives at the border in the morning, the thirteen-hour, practically non-stop trip doesn’t take big chunks out of daylight hours. One could conceivably leave La Peñita at noon, arrive in plenty of time in Guadalajara to take the evening bus, and be with family in San Antonio by noon the next day.

Safety. Hi-jacking buses would probably be as profitable as a crap shoot, and a lot more trouble. They’re full of students, middle class travelers and senior citizens like us. We were waved through military checkpoints and border crossings.

Comfort. The seats on the executive class coaches are wide and few, and fully recline. There are extended leg supports, as well. With lots of room below and above for stuff you’ve carried on, these buses have even most first class airline seats beat.

Amenities. Each seat has its own headset. Some have individual TV screens. If not, there are flat-screen monitors strategically placed. There’s free wi-fi on board most executive class coaches. The bathrooms are compact, with an additional door separating the seating area from the bathroom/coffee bar area. A sack lunch (nothing special) is provided. You are welcome to bring your own food on board, but keep it neat, as these buses are really clean.

Stage 2 – Further details if you’re interested:

 I didn’t have a clue how luxurious ETN was until I stepped on board. I should have had an inkling of what to expect from their waiting lounge in the main bus terminal (the “new” Central de Autobuses) in Guadalajara. The white marble floors there were spotless, the personnel dressed in business attire, the bathrooms well-appointed and pristine. It wasn’t quite on a par with the Admiral’s Club, but it was certainly a cut above your normal airport waiting areas. There were even power ports available for recharging cell phones and plugging in laptops.

I might interject here that Guadalajara’s “new” (that’s what you tell the taxi drivers) Central de Autobuses is not just a big building. It’s a series of big buildings set in a horseshoe shape. Look for major names of bus companies, such as Omnibus de Mexico, Primera Plus, Vallarta Plus, Turistar de Lujo. These are just a few. There are other lines, such as Tufesa, which offers executive class service and some “platinum” service to destinations in the western United States, which have their own terminals close to this main conglomeration. The complex is big, but well organized and not particularly intimidating, except for myriads of cab drivers offering their services.

One of the beauties of bus travel is you can stay close to your “stuff.” You check your baggage as you line up to step aboard. That way you can offer advice – and hopefully a tip – to the baggage handler. They accommodate odd pieces, like over-sized picture frames and crates of pottery with no additional charge or grumbling. My friend Hala, here in La Peñita, stocks a large part of her shop Hamaca Maya by traveling and transporting her goods by bus.

And the “stuff” you can carry on board can be pasty, jelled, or liquid. No worrying about whether your tube of toothpaste is under three ounces or if your nail clippers will pass. Bring a paring knife if you want to cut fruit for your lunch. Bring a jar of peanut butter. It’s OK! The security check does weed out firearms with a quick look through hand held bags and briefcases, and you can’t bring on any alcoholic beverages to drink. I forgot I had a bottle of wine I was carrying to a friend. The agent waved me on and told me it was OK, as long as I didn’t open it.

There are twenty-four seats on the ETN and other executive class coaches, instead of the usual fifty-plus that you find on regular coach lines. They are placed three across, two on one side of the aisle, and a single on the other. They are as wide as first class seats on commercial airlines – wider than some I could name – and when fully reclined, your head is far from the knees of the passenger behind you. He or she probably already has the elevated footrest in place. Getting comfortable is the primary object on ETN, and it’s easy to do. I felt nestled in my wide, cushy seat, happy to let the guy in the suit, as well-dressed as any airline pilot, take charge of all the driving. He was not to be disturbed, separated from the passengers behind a sealed door. I wonder, Do they call that area up front the cockpit, like they do on planes?

There’s a cup holder for the drink you were given at the door, along with a ham sandwich in a plastic bag. The ham sandwich was definitely sub-par, but there’s plenty of room to store your own provisions. It’s a good idea to bring something to eat, because the trips are generally long with minimal stops. My trip in February from Guadalajara to San Miguel de Allende took five hours. There were two stops before reaching its final destination, the first in Leon and the next in Guanajuato, but neither offered the opportunity to get off and buy anything. When Larry and I traveled from Guadalajara to Nuevo Laredo, we left at 8:45 in the evening and arrived in Nuevo Laredo at 9:40 the next morning. There was a fifteen-minute stop in the wee small hours of the morning at a mini-super/diner/cantina somewhere in the middle of nowhere. One look at the aging hot dishes in the buffet line, and the processed snackie stuff and I got back on the bus, happy I’d provided our own dinner earlier.

It does occur to me that these long stretches may be uncomfortable for some people, because all bus lines provide a completely smoke-free environment. That means in the bathrooms, as well.

The bathrooms on the bus were better equipped than the one in the cantina, where an ancient proprietor dispensed fragments of toilet paper for three pesos each. Admittedly one has to contend with a certain amount of sway in a bus bathroom, but that’s true on an airplane, as well. At least, you don’t worry about dropping several thousand feet. On the ETN coaches, and its cooperative line Turistar de Lujo, both men’s and women’s were behind a preliminary door, so any objectionable odors were entirely sealed off from the seating area. None of those could last very long, because the ventilation fans were, to say the least, intense. Between the two bathrooms and behind the first door was a coffee bar of sorts, with hot water and instant Nescafe available.

But we chose sleep, not coffee. There was a movie, Indiana Jones and Something or Other in Spanish, which I listened to on the personal headset provided each seat. Then the lights went out and all was quiet. We slept through Mexico, waking sometimes when the bus slowed down to go through a military checkpoint or a tollbooth. There was a major stop in Monterey at 7:30 in the morning. From there we started stirring and getting ready to disembark in Nuevo Laredo. We arrived right on time.

When I go north again this way – and that’s a when, not an if – I won’t do what we did this time around. From the Nuevo Laredo bus terminal we rented a taxi to the Laredo airport and rented a car to go to Lubbock. That was expensive, and time consuming. Hertz didn’t open until noon, so we had to wait around a couple of hours. (We’d sailed through the border in our cab on Sunday morning and got to the airport way ahead of when I’d said we’d be there.) What I found once I got to the bus station in Nuevo Laredo, and what I haven’t found on the internet, is that from Nuevo Laredo you can buy bus tickets to most destinations in the States, including the relatively short trip on up to San Antonio. That’s where we’ve got family who live in the King William district only a few blocks from the downtown bus station on St. Mary’s. This makes getting to see family, literally an overnight affair. Next time we’ll get all the way to San Antonio, and then think about how to get to other parts of Texas. There’s a good chance it will probably be by bus. If you want to know why, read on.

Even further details that might be really tedious to some people.

 We only used the Hertz car for twenty-four hours. It cost $105 plus all the gas. After visiting with my mom for ten days, I thought we’d rent another car, drive to San Antonio, use it there for the last ten days of our trip, and then drop it off in Laredo. Hah! We literally could not drop the car off in Laredo. The rental car companies would not let us do it. Laredo is in a different “region” than Lubbock. It’s also in a different “region” than San Antonio, so I’m not sure just where Laredo falls, except “on the border.” But I digress. Back to the rent car. If we rented it in Lubbock and dropped it in San Antonio, the ten days would cost us $1,020. But, if we were in San Antonio, then the ten days rental would cost us only $276.  Go figger, as they say in Texas. Those are some hefty drop charges! One-way tickets on Southwest on such short notice were over $600 for the two of us. And since to get any where by air in Texas, you have to go through Dallas and wait, traveling by air from Lubbock to San Antonio would take most all of one day.

So, we sampled bus travel in the U.S. Greyhound style. Lubbock’s bus station is at the edge of downtown, which is absolutely DEAD at night. We know because we left at 9:45 p.m. Tickets for the two of us to San Antonio came in around $80, and again, we bought them just before we left.  The quality of the coach fell far short of ETN or even Primera Plus. Bus drivers in the U.S. don’t dress as “professionally” as they do in Mexico, and they weren’t separated from the passengers in a spacious cockpit. But the seats were more comfortable than coach class on a plane, and they were filled with as colorful a variety of people as you find in coach class these days.

The trip from Lubbock to San Antonio took about nine hours through the night, because we stopped at five different places. When we drive ourselves, it’s daylight, takes about seven hours, and we usually stop once for bar-b-que and a bathroom. We arrived with the early morning light in downtown San Antonio, just across the the Cakery Bakery on the corner of Pecan and St. Mary’s. How handy!

For domestic travel Greyhound allows one bag free for each of us at fifty pounds. The agent in Lubbock winked us by when the scale showed we were a shade over. He charged us $10 for the extra 50-pound bag we had picked up along the way, full of Lubbock purchases. (Well, what else are you going to do in Lubbock except shop and eat out?) By the time we took Greyhound ten days later from San Antonio to Nuevo Laredo, we’d added yet another 50 pound bag. But because our tickets took us across the border we were allowed two free bags each. What a deal!

I’m not going to rag too much on airlines. We need them. I’ll use them. But I can look forward to seeing a lot more of my friends and family to the north, more cheaply and more spontaneously then being limited to just air travel. It’s good to have options, and even nicer to enjoy them.

Prayer in the face of social networking

When Larry picked me up at Puerto Vallarta’s Diaz Ordaz airport last Sunday, I had been away from Mexico, for all intents and purposes, since August 1. I was eager to return to my “quiet spot” on the globe and try to digest the megatons of information, contacts, counsel and inspiration one tends to pick up on a book and conference tour. We exited the airport and sat in traffic for an hour and a half. No lie. There was a bicycle marathon, and four lanes of the main road through PV had been shut off for the purpose. It was a sabbath-day gridlock.

I’ve felt the same way about my poor brain. It’s a mess in there, a veritable jam-up of post-publication counsel on how to “get my message out there.” I’m advised to LinkIn, Tweet, Facebook, gather my tribe, organize my contacts, make lists on FaceBook, put together video trailers for Youtube, polish up 10-second, 30-second, 2-minute soundbites, get a decent photo, form partnerships, teleconference, tag and drive traffic to my website, seminarize, monetize, categorize…..frankly, “Ize” gettin’ a little overwhelmed.

As I was crawling under the covers last night and emerging this morning, the last verse of a hymn I’ve known since childhood came cruising in like a welcome traffic cop. The words point the way out of the gridlock, a pointy arrow of direction, if not to the fast lane, at least to a clear path.  They are part of a poem written by that “other Mary” in my life, Mary Baker Eddy.

My prayer, — some daily good to do to Thine, for Thee —

An offering pure of love, whereto God leadeth me.

Mario Vargas Llosa in Mexico

I just saw the news that Mario Vargas Llosa has won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

I snapped two photos of this rock star of Spanish literature last year at the Guadalajara Book Festival, the second largest book fair in the world.

Vargas Llosa was surrounded by young Mexicans, mostly under thirty, all vying for his autograph. I got these shots by holding my camera way over my head and hoping for the best.  I then zoomed in and cropped the image.

I didn’t mind. As a former teacher and a current writer, I’m delighted to see young people going gaga over an author instead of a pseudo celebrity. Prompts me to ask the question: Are these the young people south of the border who we want to keep out of the U.S.?