By Paul Berry, age 32
I caught a plane from Portland to LAX just as the sun was rising. I had about a four hour layover in LAX, which I spent getting nervous. Then I caught a flight to Mexico City, where I quickly met up with my cousin Vince. About an hour later, Jenn, Mari, and Boaz showed up. I ran to hug them and they cracked confetti-filled eggs on my head. Vince took us to a nice restaurant where I had some astonishingly good Mole, but I could barely eat it owing to my nerves. Then we went back to Vince's house and I climbed into bed.
I hung out with Vince's family (Nora, Daniel, and Sophia) in the morning while the others were waking up. Vince's family is clearly very well off compared to a lot of Mexico City--I guess a lot of that is because his company deals with American companies, so it gets some of its income in dollars. Nora took the kids to school and headed to work. One the rest of us were all up and showered, Vince took us to work, and then Nora drove us into the Zócalo part of Mexico City, where we checked into the Hotel Rioja.
We spent the afternoon puttering around Mexico City, running various errands. I was still pretty out of it, from a combination of travel exhaustion and nervousness. In the evening, Mari got in touch with her uncle Octavio, and we decided to go out to meet him. This required a long (2hr?) subway/bus journey, so we wound up staying the night.
I woke up feeling myself again. No one else was up yet, so I pulled out one of Octavio's magazines and attempted to read it. Later, when Jenn woke up, she encouraged me to try reading an article to her aloud while she washed dishes. I was actually able to make some sense of it, thanks to seven years of studying French in school, and Jenn's willingness to answer questions.
Octavio's house isn't quite as decadent as Vince's, but it's large and beautiful, and so is the area around it. We went for a long walk and Jenn gathered leaves for her leaf press. Octavio told us about a beach we should go visit, about 40 km away from Acapulco, called Playa Carrizal. While Octavio was talking, I listened with all my might, and actually started picking things up. I even understood a joke in Spanish at one point. For the first time in my life, I realized what a beautiful language Spanish is.
In the afternoon Octavio and his wife drove us around Mexico city running errands, eventually dropping us off at Hotel Rioja in late afternoon. Jenn and I decided to explore on our own for a short time (which turned into a long time, to Mari and Boaz's frustration). We had some awful food at a bar about 10 blocks away, and had some nice discussions about life and how the trip was going so far. When we returned it was too late for anyone to feel like doing anything so we sat around watching awful soft core porn on the television and went to bed.
We all woke up quite early, caught the subway to the bus station, and got on the bus to Coyuca de Benitez, the nearest bus station to Playa Carrizal. The journey was fairly drab--Mexico seems to be mostly unpopulated desert, as far as I can tell. But the destination was awesome: a small, bustling town with brightly colored concrete buildings, exciting street markets, and outrageously warm weather. It was surrounded by coconut plantations. We took a taxi to the beach, which turned out to be a secluded restaurant/B&B kind of place called Restaurant Aida, with nothing but sand separating it from the ocean. Mari, quite pleased at being old enough to drink in Mexico, insisted that we hang out and drink piña coladas on the beach.
While we were hanging out, about 30 biology students arrived and pitched tents on the beach in the middle of our view. It was slightly frustrating to have our secluded paradise interfered with, but we (especially Mari) would soon find their presence charming.
The air was hot (>80 degrees, I think), and the water was warm enough to swim in for an hour before getting cold. We spent the rest of the day playing in the waves, lying in hammocks, eating, and drinking. When night fell, we went up the beach to get out of sight of the biologists so we could play in the waves naked. Then we lay around on the beach stargazing.
Octavio had told us that if we got up before sunrise, we might be able to see baby sea turtles hatching on the beach. So we woke up to Jenn's cell phone alarm (the only clock we brought with us on the trip, if I'm not mistaken) and went for a walk in the early morning darkness. Sea turtles, unfortunately, were not forthcoming. Nor, for that matter, was the sunrise. We kept looking back at slight glimmerings in the sky behind us, hoping that they were the beginnings of the day, but each time they just seemed to be the faint city light from Acapulco. After a while Mari and Boaz got tired and headed back to the room.
Jenn and I kept walking until we were a few miles away from the Aida, at which point we reluctantly concluded that we weren't going to make the sun rise by waiting for it. It wasn't really cold at all, so we curled up on the beach and went to sleep. We awoke just as the sky started brightening, and got to witness the sun rising through light clouds over Acapulco as we walked back. I hadn't brought my camera, which was quite unfortunate, because we didn't have another sunrise like that for the rest of the trip. Later, we swam in a lagoon, had some breakfast, and then took another nap under a wooden structure thatched by palm leaves.
In the afternoon, we found Boaz and Mari again. Some amount of logistical work was called for, since we would need to leave that night if I wanted to catch my flight from Houston to Portland on Monday. That would have been a shame, since that would have left Jenn and Boaz with two days to kill in Houston before their flights home. We figured that having two extra days for the entire group in Playa Carrizal was way better than having two extra days for Jenn and Boaz in Houston. Besides, at this point in the trip I was in a state of utter bliss, harboring fantasies about staying in Mexico until my visa expired in July. So we headed into Coyuca to make some phone calls.
Changing the flight was hard. Next time I make a trip like this I'm going to make sure there's someone back in the states who knows my itinerary and is willing to help me make changes. My first attempt was to ask Portland friends for the American Airlines phone number, and try to call them directly to reschedule. I eventually got ahold of Kim and got the number from her (thank you Kim!) Unfortunately, the number didn't work. So then I called my mom, who, bless her, was willing to just take care of everything.
Mari and Boaz got bored and went back to the beach. Jenn and I puttered around Coyuca while Mom worked on the flight arrangements. We found a nice hill overlooking the city and took some pictures. We bought some fruit and bread to bring back for the others. About 45 minutes later, I called my mom back and she had rearranged the flight without a hitch. I now had a flight back on Wednesday, about the same time as Jenn's.
Back at the beach, we had dinner and went stargazing again. We saw sand fleas that glowed because of their diet of bioluminescent algae (at least, that's the reason the biologists gave us). We were viciously attacked by mosquitoes, a problem which the locals combat by burning coconut husks. Any source of smoke, they explained, would do (in the kitchen they burned egg cartons), but coconut husks were a particularly abundant and convenient thing to burn. I couldn't get comfortable stargazing owing to a sore back, so I eventually headed to bed. Jenn said she would give me a backrub the next day.
I woke up earlier than the others, so I wandered around taking pictures of some of the places I'd been the day before. I found the coconut we had burned to keep the mosquitos away, and the shelter we napped under. I took pictures of sand. At some point I ran into Jenn, who gave me the promised backrub. Eventually we found the others, and we all decided to splash around in the waves for a while. Jenn and I managed to get past the point where the waves broke, with Boaz watching from the shallows. Mari, who had gone off to rest for a while, was good-naturedly upset that she had missed it. Going past the breakers was wonderful and more than a little bit scary. It seemed to take no time at all to get out where the water was too deep to stand in, and forever to swim back to shore. Also, I am definitely not as good a swimmer as I was back when I used to go bodysurfing back in LA--I never caught any waves.
When Mari got back, we all went for a swim in the lagoon. In the evening we hung out with the biologists playing connecto cuatro on the spare pages in Jenn's notebook.
This was supposed to be our last day in the area near Coyuca. Jenn and Mari headed off in the morning for some nude sunbathing, on the theory that if there was ever a good time to get a sunburn, it was at the end of the trip. Boaz and I stuck around the hotel reading. There was unfortunately some confusion about who was invited to that event, leading to some hurt feelings. But, speaking from what I saw, we got through that and were friends again relatively quickly. In the meantime, I ran into some Americans who had moved to Mexico a few years back--they invited us to come visit their house down the road, but unfortunately it looked like there wasn't going to be time.
In the afternoon we did some more swimming on the beach, and this time Mari, Boaz, and Jenn made it past the breakers while I watched from the shore. Jenn made some very respectable bodysurfing attempts. In the evening we checked out of our room, rode a taxi back into Coyuca, and bought 10:45pm bus tickets back to Mexico City.
The plan at this point was that we would all bus to Mexico City together, and then Mari would part ways with the rest of us, since her next destination was Tuscon, and ours was Houston. There were a few hours left, so we took turns with one half of the group going out for internet or food while the other half watched the bags. At about 10:30, we had our first disaster: Jenn realized that she had left her bag, containing various important items like her passport, in the internet kiosk, which was now closed.
She ran back to talk to the folks who ran the hotel below the internet kiosk, and found out that it wouldn't open again until after 10am the next day, by which point the next bus to Mexico City would not be until 10:45pm Monday night, and we would be in serious danger of missing our flights. However, they knew where the owner of the internet cafe lived, and were willing to drive her to his house for 100 pesos. After a brief and exciting discussion, we decided that Mari should go along to Mexico City as originally scheduled, and Jenn, Boaz, and I should stay behind to get the bag.
Picking up the bag actually went very smoothly--everyone was very friendly and helpful, and the bag was exactly where Jenn remembered leaving it. The hotel below the internet kiosk put the three of us up for the night for something like 150 pesos.
We woke up with plenty of time to make the 10am bus to Mexico city, so first we took a taxi about halfway down the road back to Playa Carrizal, where we could buy some hammocks. We also did a few other errands. By the time we got back to the bus station we were feeling fairly jovial, and I made some crack to Jenn about how we were weathering our disaster so well that I'd kind of like for another one to happen. No sooner were those words out of my mouth than we got the bad news from the bus agent that the bus had only 2 seats left. Groan. Suddenly we were looking at the 10:45pm-and-possibly-missing flights problem again.
At this point Boaz suggested that we take advantage of our status as rich tourists and offer to buy someone's ticket to Mexico City for an exorbitant fee. Jenn spent a few minutes psyching herself up to make this announcement, and very nearly did so, when one of us got the bright idea to ask the station agent whether there was another way to get to Mexico City. Why yes, he said. Just take a bus to Acapulco and go to Mexico City from there. We would only be about an hour or two behind in our journey. And so we saved ourselves from the embarrassment of broadcasting ourselves to the whole bus station as rich bumbling gringos.
We arrived in Mexico City in the early afternoon, and decided that our best bet would be to hang around the city for the rest of the day, and then take an overnight bus to the border town of Matamoros (the Mexican counterpart to Brownsville, TX). So we bought tickets and then headed into town for food. A woman in the subway asked us if we needed help decoding the subway map, and we said "we're looking for good food". She made a recommendation that turned out to be superb. Eventually we returned to the bus station, sat around on benches waiting for the bus to Matamoros to be ready, and then you'll never guess what happened--we missed the bus! I guess this was disaster number three at this point. Fortunately, it turned out to be no big deal. We simply changed out tickets to a slightly later bus that was headed to Monterrey.
I slept on the bus going to Monterrey, not terribly well, mind you--sleeping in unusual places and situations is a skill I am still trying to cultivate. We arrived in Monterrey and bought a ticket to Matamoros, no problems. We were all paying much more attention this time, so we didn't miss the bus. However, we had our fourth minor disaster anyway: the bus broke down about 45 minutes away from Matamoros, leaving us stranded. After what seemed like two hours the bus company sent a second bus to pick us up and take us the rest of the way.
At this point is was evening again. Considering that Jenn and I had flights to catch in Houston at around 1:30, spending the night in Matamoros was not an option. So we bought Greyhound tickets to Houston, boarded the bus, and went immediately through Customs. I wimped out and put on shoes for customs, because I was worried about attracting attention and causing a delay that would make us miss our connection. Boaz didn't (he's another barefooter, if you didn't know). Then we rode through another night, during which I got even worse sleep than the previous night. Mexican buses are more comfortable than U.S. Greyhound buses.
At last, Wednesday morning, we were in the familiar U.S. I was happy to finally be able to contribute to the task of figuring out how to get where we were going, a burden that Jenn had been shouldering for quite some time. I managed to discover the light rail system and had the bright idea of asking for a map at the front desk of a hotel. I also obtained bus directions to the airport from the visitors center in City Hall.
Jenn, meanwhile, exercised her fast friendship-making skills (or at the very least, being-friendly skills)--she managed to strike up conversations with: a guy in the bus station who had escaped from a group home, two Spanish speaking folks who were having trouble figuring out how to buy a light rail ticket, a security guard who told us where we could find breakfast and a nice view of the city, and a random bicyclist dude who turned out to know someone in Portland. I need to find an environment where I can practice being-friendly skills like that on strangers.
Anyhow, to make a long story short, we arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare, checked in for our flights, ate some lunch, sang Sacred Harp songs, and departed on our various and sundry flights to Portland.
Pictures are now up on flickr. If you don't want to sift through 350 pictures (and I don't blame you) you can look at the highlights.