Saturday, August 11, 2007

It Was 50 Years Ago Today....

No, no, no! This is not another quiz. I am not Mexico.

50 years ago, well, maybe not 50, maybe 49. And maybe not today, but sometime in the summer of whatever year, long ago, my friend M and I decided to spend 18 days driving around Mexico. Our starting point was New Orleans, and the endpoint was to be Mexico City. I had no car, so we were driving M's car, which was not new, but it was in good condition.

Since M did not want to do all of the driving, she decided to teach me how to drive right before the trip. All of this happened rather quickly, and it seems that there was barely enough time for me to learn enough to pass the driver's test, before we were off. Looking back the scheme sounds like risky business. At the time, parts of the Mexican highway system were known to have pretty bad roads. Our parents were not thrilled with our idea, and they would not have been surprised if we had never returned. There were stories floating about of tourists disappearing in Mexico, never to be seen again. Two women in their early twenties, driving to Mexico without a man to protect them was not their idea of a safe trip.

Since M's father belonged to AAA, we told them where we wanted to go, what cities we wanted to visit, and that we did not want to travel the same road twice. They mapped out the trip for us. I'm looking at an old atlas, and I see the roads we took. Before we left M's father taught us how to change a tire. It was a good idea, but what a joke - for me, anyway. I'm not at all good at that sort of thing.

We had a flat tire before we got to Lafayette, Louisiana. Fortunately, we did not need to use our newly acquired tire-changing skills, because four college boys stopped and changed the tire for us. We were to have four more flat tires during the trip.

On we went to San Antonio, Texas, where we spent the night with my uncle and his wife, before taking off the next day for Laredo, where we crossed the border. We drove into the Sierra Madre Mountains as we approached Monterrey, which was exciting to me, since I had never seen mountains. Before long, we were in the big city. Some areas that we rode through were kind of rough looking with what we called "gauchos" loitering about the streets. We were crass and not PC at all back then. We called the country folk in Mexico "peasants".

I had not done much city driving, so I was a little uneasy at the wheel in the city. At one point, as we searched for our hotel, M was screaming at me, "Alto, alto!" and I was not paying attention. You see, I was the one who "spoke Spanish", not M, and, in the rush of the moment "alto" was not registering as "stop". Once the dangerous moment passed without serious consequences, I said to her, "Here, you drive. Why on earth didn't you say stop?" The sign said "Alto", so that's what she screamed out.

We made our way to the hotel, and I don't remember much about the city other than that I was pleased to get to the hotel. I suppose we walked around a bit and had supper, but my memory of the rest of our time there is gone. I tried to reach M today to see if her memory was better than mine, but I believe she is traveling.

Next morning, we headed for San Luis Potosí, passing through Saltillo and Zacatecas. We traveled through dry desert areas. I remember seeing the dust devils, the little whirlwinds dusting up the sand. Before long one of them passed over our car, and I was shocked that it shook the car so. I viewed them with a lot more respect after that.

We came upon a car with US license plates, which had struck a pedestrian on the road. The place seemed deserted, with no sign of housing nearby, but "peasants" were converging on the scene on foot. I could not figure out where they were coming from. I'm ashamed to say that we did not stop to see if we could help. We had been warned so many times of the perils of being abducted that we were afraid.

I look at online pictures of San Luis Potosí, and nothing seems familiar. We must have been in a hurry to get to Mexico City. I believe that was where we drove into a service station, and the attendant told us we had another flat tire. We had him fix the tire, and, once again, we did not have to use our lesson from M's father.

Guadalajara was our next destination. I liked the city and our hotel a lot. The climate was wonderful. I remember thinking that I wouldn't mind living there. We stayed there two nights, and washed some clothes in our hotel bathroom, because they'd have two days to dry. The clothes dried overnight, much more quickly than we thought.

We visited nearby Tlaquepaque, which today seems to be a major shopping center. In the quaint old town area, authentic Mexican arts and crafts were on display for sale. I wonder if we went there to shop. I believe we went to visit the historic area and to see the crafts. We were not traveling with lots of extra money for shopping. What we had was for expenses of the trip. I don't remember buying anything there. I think we were intent on getting to el Distrito Federal.

We were advised not to drink the water and not to eat uncooked fruits and vegetables while we were in Mexico. We drank Cokes and a Mexican beer which I enjoyed, Carta Blanca. I Googled the beer, and it is still sold today. We eventually forgot about the warnings for fruits and vegetables and ate them with no worse results than a mild case of Montezuma's revenge while we were in Mexico City.

I wanted to go to Guadalajara because of a song about the city that I liked at the time, not the Elvis version, a Spanish version. Yes. We went to Guadalajara because of a song. I remember the city as having avant-garde architecture. I know our hotel was modern. One of the elevator operators at the hotel was a gorgeous young man about our age who enjoyed having a mild flirt with us each time we used the elevator, and we flirted right back. Although he spoke English, I boldly tried out my high school and college Spanish with him. One morning, as we were in the elevator on our way out, he inquired of us, "Planta abaja?". I answered, "Si", having no idea what the words meant. He could have said, "Do you want to have sex?" for all I knew, and I answered yes. He asked in English, "Do you know what that means?" I was honest enough to answer, "No". He said it meant "ground floor". It was a funny moment, and we all enjoyed a laugh. I have forgotten a lot of Spanish, but I've never forgotten that phrase.

Another phrase - or sentence which I have never forgotten is, "La tubería de gasolina se gotea." Yes, the gas line of the car sprang a leak somewhere along the way in an area where no one spoke English, and I believe that it was in Guadalajara that we were told, as we drove up to the hotel, that we had our third flat tire. Again, we escaped having to change the tire ourselves.

In whatever city we visited in Mexico, if we had time, we generally headed for the Roman Catholic cathedral, because it was usually old and located on a historic square. Here's a link to a picture of the cathedral in Guadalajara from Wiki. I don't remember it, but I believe we must have gone there. What a travel reporter I am!

We left Guadalajara and headed for Mexico City through the mountain roads which led there. We came to dread seeing the road sign CAMINO SINUOSO accompanied by an s-shaped line. The curves were sometimes unbelievably frightening. The Mexican drivers whipped around the curves rapidly and sometimes in the middle of the road, having to do last minute adjustments to avoid collisions. Remember that I had just learned how to drive. We were both crazy.

At one point we could see the road where we were headed on the side of a nearby mountain. M must have been driving, because I was watching with alarm, as two buses approached from opposite directions. The mountain roads were narrow. The buses inched past each other, slowly, slowly and at one point part of the rear wheel of one of the buses was partially off the side of the road. They made it safely past each other, and I, and I'm sure all the people in the bus on the outside, breathed a sigh of relief. I told that story later, in Mexico City, and the response was that, indeed, buses did fall off the mountains roads from time to time.

Not much of a travelogue, is it? Mostly about us and the car, yes, the car, and the car story is not over yet. This was my first trip on my own. I hadn't traveled much before at all, having gone only as far as the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the summer. This trip was an adventure for me. I loved being on my own in another country, with an opportunity to practice my very poor Spanish skills. The Berlitz phrase book was a godsend, as it seemed to address most of our needs. At least, I had some notion of pronunciation and was able to make myself understood on most occasions.

I'm going to make this a two-parter, for it's getting long. To be continued....


  1. What a great story, Grandmère! I too have fond memories of trips I made in my 20s that were foolhardy but delightful. Thanks for sharing this one. I look forward to the next installment.

    I observe, however, that you don't remember much of what you did in those cities. Dare I infer that you had more (much more) than one Carta Blanca? ;-)

  2. Dare I infer that you had more (much more) than one Carta Blanca?

    Lisa, LOL. Anything's possible. I do sound like Alberto Gonzales, don't I? I wonder if he drinks Carta Blanca.

  3. Yes, I can't wait to hear the rest.

    Two women in their early twenties, driving to Mexico without a man to protect them was not their idea of a safe trip.

    My parents would have tied or locked me up so I couldn't have gone. What a wonderful adventure. I'm envious, not having ever been mainland south of the U.S. border.

    Did you really not have any trouble being young women on your own (and terribly attractive ones, I'm sure, desipte MP's best efforts at altering all the photographic evidence)? I've been reading the book Eileen was reading (Eat, Pray, and Love) in the Italy section and the author pointed out that things had changed a lot for women traveling alone in Italy from when she first visited. It wasn't always easy for me even in the early 1970's in France and later in the 1980's in Spain. I suppose having a companion, even a female one, must have helped.

  4. Did you really not have any trouble being young women on your own (and terribly attractive ones, I'm sure, desipte MP's best efforts at altering all the photographic evidence)?

    Klady, depends upon what you mean by trouble. We had car trouble.

    We got oggled and leered at, and perhaps naughty Spanish comments were directed toward us, which we blissfully did not comprehend, but that was the worst of it. Perhaps, being two and not one woman alone, made a difference.

    It was one of the most enjoyable trips I ever made.

  5. 'I said to her, "Here, you drive. Why on earth didn't you say stop?" The sign said "Alto", so that's what she screamed out.'

    This is very James Thurber-esque, if you know his story, 'A Ride with Olympi' in which he tries to teach a Greek man how to drive standard shift in French and gets 'gauche' and 'à droite' mixed up. It's hilarious.

    I eagerly await part two.

  6. Caminante, I read many of Thurber's stories and books back in the day, but I don't remember the one you describe, another Alberto Gonzales moment.

    Life often seems Thurber-esque to me. Perhaps that's why I remember incidents like the one described.

    I have not written Part 2 yet, so it may not come today or tomorrow - or even the next day.

  7. Grandmère, I can hardly wait for Part Two. Road trips with gal pals are some of the fondest memories of my misspent youth. Do you remember when you could stay at Holiday Inns from coast to coast with your Gulf Oil Card? Why my dad let me do that, I’ll never know, but he did. (If Mother had lived, it would never have happened; she had way too much good sense.) Why my friends’ parents trusted them when they went with me is another mystery. Heavens, if they had only known! You brought back such good memories of so many good times.

  8. Boocat, I'm wondering how we paid for all the tire repairs and car repairs during the trip. I wasn't carrying that kind of extra money. M's father must have given her some kind of card that we could use for those unexpected expenses.

  9. Grandmère, I had copies of all of Dad’s oil company credit cards for emergencies. I’ll bet most young women of that time did. Most of our fathers’ worst fear was that we would be caught out on the road with car trouble and no way to take care of it. I remember calling him in tears one time when I was in transit to New Jersey to work for the summer. I had crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and gas had gone up to $.359 per gallon. (It had been $.25 when I left Louisiana.)I felt like I had been robbed. He laughed and told me to expect it to go as high as $.45 or $.50 as I approached New York. Oh, for the days of $.50 per gallon gas to return. I would gladly pay that now.

  10. Boocat, the price that sticks in my mind is .29 per gallon. It seemed to hover thereabouts for quite a long time.

  11. Great story! One of my observations from our road trip in Mexico in July was that the roads are MUCH improved over that era. There are excellent divided highways between cities these days, though all toll roads. You might have had less car trouble on these.

    I remember a couple of car trips across the US when gas was $.29 a gallon. I agree; it stayed there a long time. Late 60s, very early 70s.

  12. it took me awhile to get to this, but it's wonderful so far! I can't imagine this adventure! You were so brave! I can't imagine just learning to drive and then driving to Mexico. But then, I'm from Minnesota. Maybe that is part of it.

    Can't wait for part II.

  13. Jan, I'm sure Mexico is quite different from 50 years ago. I've only been back to areas where cruise ships stop since then. We should do a trip there.

    Diane, we didn't think we were doing anything brave. We wanted an adventure, and that's what we got. Many young people don't think too much about consequences and plunge ahead. I'm so glad we did.

  14. Oh, Grandmère Mimi, this is great! Thank you!

    My mother took the BUS down to Mexico to marry my father, who was down there on a fellowship, and also working as a young journalist. She was sick of waiting around in Brooklyn, so off she went. Yes, by bus! In 1940! Now you two HAVE to meet. You're much younger than she is though -- she is 88, almost 89.

    I can't wait till the next installment. And I may have to phone up my mother and read her all or part of the first installment... (Though if I do she will chide me for spending too much time blogging, so perhaps I'd best not and just slip the story into the conversation sometime and say "Guess what a friend of mine told me?")

    As for Alberto Gonzales, whatever he says he drinks, he's lyin'.

  15. Jane, I'd say that your mother taking the bus to Mexico was more of an adventure than our trip.

  16. I didn't mean to be competitive ;-) -- but just had to share the story. Your trip sounds more fun during the travel part (company is always good) though my mother had a nice goal at the end... And she and my father are still married after lo these 67 years, Godde bless them.

  17. Wow, 67 years! Godde bless them, indeed!


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