2010: Viva la Independencia! 3 Ladies in a Red Car on the Bicentennial Independence Route to Guanajuato (Excerpt #2 from Taco’s Adventures with Ma in Mexico)

In 2010, one could find signs all over the country for ‘Ruta 2010’. It was a play on words – or in this case, numbers – for the year (2010), which broken up (20 and 10), represent the 200th anniversary of the Mexican Independence movement and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution.  The country was brimming with excitement and national pride, waiting for the major celebrations to begin.

The Rutas de la Revolución consisted of 3 main routes. Each followed the paths of the revolution’s jefes: the Ruta de la Democracia on the trail of Francisco I. Madero; the Ruta Zapatista followed Zapata’s footsteps and the Ruta de la Revolución Constitucionalista followed the trails of Carranza, Obregón, González and ‘Pancho’ Villa.

There were also 3 main Rutas de la Independencia; we would focusing on one of them – the Ruta de la Libertad. More importantly, we were going back to a picturesque town that Ma and I fell in love with in 1987: Guanajuato,  Guanajuato.  So nice, you have to say it twice. In P’urhépecha: ‘Quanax huato’. Translation – not so romantic; it doesn’t exactly conjure up an image of the romance and legends the town holds, but definitely amusing:  Hilly Place of the Frogs.

Guanajuato – Hilly Place of Frogs, Colonial Buildings and Winding Streets

El Cubilete – Cristo Rey looks down upon Mexico with open arms.

Just outside of the town of Guanajuato is the mountain which is the geographical center of Mexico: El Cubilete, with the impressive statue of Cristo Rey on top, arms outreached.  I pulled over to take photos; we had all decided not to visit it, as we had all been there done that; besides- my memory was quite intact from that visit – a gazillion hairpin curves on a road 3 feet wide with no safety railings and straight drops down: I did NOT want to drive that road!

Guanajuato!

Beautiful Guanajuato is behind you, Taco! Turn around!

Contrary to what I had read about driving in Guanajuato being a nightmare and impossible to navigate, I found it very easy; signage was very good. There was a fair amount of traffic; I had to drive around in a circle, as all streets are one-way. That was not as frustrating as it otherwise might have been, as the streets are soooooo charming!  We found ourselves in the middle of town, right by the Alhondiga de Granaditas, high on my list of Must Sees. The Alhondiga was the setting that made El Pipila famous…

El Pipila

Looking down upon the town upon a lookout is a huge statue of El Pipila, a local hero of the revolt against the Spanish at the beginning of the war for independence. El Pipila holds a torch in one hand, lifted up in triumph. His real name was Juan Jose de los Reyes Martinez, a local miner who, like all the others, was fed up with the rich getting richer and treating the rest like vermin. The cry for freedom was sounded, and the march was coming to Guanajuato.  Meanwhile, the Spanish Royalists got wind of it, and hid themselves and all their wealth in the Alhondiga, a massive, fortified stone building.  The doors were thick, nobody could break through.  Along came young, strong Juan Jose, who strapped a boulder to his back to protect himself from bullets, set fire and broke the door down –dying in the process, but allowing the insurgents to enter and massacre the outnumbered royalists. The bloody story does not stop there: the leaders of the insurgents were later caught, executed, and their heads were hung from hooks on the Alhondiga for 12 years to discourage future uprisings.

El Pipila (translation: ‘hen turkey’ – named either for his freckled face or hen-like cackle, depending on who you believe!) looked out for his people then, and he continues to do so now, with his mighty stone torch, he reminds us that even the smallest peon can make a difference.

We stared at the immense walls of the Alhondiga. This imposing structure gave me chills as we walked around its massive walls, and I shuddered at the thought of the battle. It was only 2-3 blocks from where we parked, but the walk was on a slight incline, forcing us to no walk at a ‘Sandy’ pace. We got there at 2:45… it had just closed!  It actually closes at 3:00pm, but they were not letting anyone else in.  Espy and I snuck in through the exit to take photos inside of the murals and bell… I touched the wall- what stories it told.  Bloody ones, for sure. Too often that is the price we pay for freedom

WholyFit on the rooftop!

We walked from there to the Hotel San Diego.  Ma and I had stayed there in 1987, we enjoyed it and the history of the hotel, and I thought the location across from the Jardin Union was the best for her – not to mention that it was the only one with an elevator! (I got up early the next day to practice WholyFit on the rooftop.  It was a bit cold, but the sky was blue and perfect, the area was perfect, the view was perfect, so it felt… perfect!)

Lovely Baratillo Plaza

Wandering through the lovely winding streets…

We walked the few steps to  the Jardin Union.  There were many artists setting up their paintings in front of the Teatro Juarez 2 doors down.  We all three just loved wandering the beautiful winding streets, admiring the colonial houses.  I also noticed something very different: every young person who passed us by, moved to the outside of the sidewalk- and most of them wished us a good afternoon ‘buenas tardes!’- how very polite!

Peace monument, in front of the cathedral

We wandered over to the Plaza de la Paz.  The plaza was for peace- the area surrounding it was where the most ornate buildings were – the former homes of the elite pre-independence Royalists and the old cathedral.  A cute little park was nearby with a strange fish fountain and another pretty church.  Like many of these old colonial towns, there certainly were a lot of Catholic churches very close to each other – as if there had been one per wealthy family…

Perhaps just as intriguing as the winding streets were the wandering estudiantinas, dressed in Shakespeare era costumes and advertising the Callejoneadas – ‘Alley Walks’ , a university tradition in Guanajuato.  The students are actors, singers and play minstrel instruments; they take groups of people at night through the famed alleys, stopping to sing and tell legends of the alleys. It had been a very long day for us, and we thought we would just watch the start of the show from our hotel room (it faced the jardin, where it would all begin), and give our weary bodies rest.  But, at 10:00pm, Mom and I decided we had the energy and would join in. The festivities started in the stairs by the church, like provisional theater seating. We were given a flower and a souvenir tiny ceramic pitcher with a spout.  A comedy act was going on to get the crowd going, we got into groups, and followed our 6 estudiantina leaders. Through the alleys we went, uphill at times, but there were so many people that we moved slow (which also kept us warm as it was in the 40s – cold!), and not difficult to walk uphill.  There were a couple of difficult spots, but other followers would reach out and help Ma if they thought she needed it- it was so beautiful! There were about 6 places where we would stop; we were not close enough to hear the legends, but when they started to sing, it was loud and clear. Most songs we knew and we sang along with, as did everyone.

Ma flirting with one of the estudiantinas.

The Callejoneada!

Mom and her beaus!

There was 1 couple who did not speak Spanish – I do not remember where they were from – but they did not care about the language barrier and just laughed and enjoyed watching the festive camaraderie. On the third stop, we were asked to take out our souvenirs – the estudiantinas made sure everyone had one- and they came around with orange juice to fill them up, telling us to pretend it was wine!  We were shown how to drink by pouring from above and letting the ‘wine’ pour gracefully into our mouths… We all drank our orange wine at once; mine went oh-so -gracefully all over me.  The same thing happened to at least half of the crowd; we all got a great laugh out of that!  Our last stop was near the Callejón del Beso to hear the legend of the ill-fated Romeo-Juliet type lovers who lived across the tiny alley from each other, but were forbidden to wed. They could kiss from their balconies, which were less than a foot away from each other. After telling the tale, ladies were asked to stand on one side of the street; the estudiantinas serenaded us.  By the time we got back to the hotel, it was almost midnight.  My mom, the 78 yr old trooper that she was, had thoroughly enjoyed herself. What a wonderful experience it was!

Dolores Hidalgo Cuna de la Independencia Nacionál – Dolores Hidalgo, cradle of National Independence

When a friend had told me there were muchas curvas in the road to Dolores Hidalgo, I figured he was warning me as an elder, nothing more; I certainly did not remember the road being that bad the one time I was on it in 1997 (although I had a bad case of bronchitis and was really out of it then).  What I did remember was driving through Dolores Hidalgo and all of the beautiful pottery being sold off the side of the road- we didn’t even have to go into town!  I was ready to shop, with visions in my head of plates, bowls, colorful coffee mugs and planters for the balcony.

There was no cuota (tollway) to Dolores Hidalgo. Let me rephrase that: There was no cuota to Dolores Hidalgo Cuna de la Independencia Nacionál – the actual name of the town. Everyone calls it Dolores Hidalgo for short! I had asked at the gas station prior to leaving town.  No problem, I figured.  It was only 53 km – just a bit over 30 miles. How bad could it be? It did not take long to find out- or figure out that my friend’s warning was just. It was 53 km of pure hairpin curves waaaay up in the mountains, on a road built for cars the width of toothpicks.  No guardrail; just a sheer drop off a cliff, 6 miles down. Scary or nerve-wracking are words that just do not suffice for this road. Having said that, the scenery was nothing short of spectacular, and I kept Ma occupied by taking photos that I knew would probably not turn out. Actually, some did – but none of the dangerous curves to prove my story. Oh, well. At least she didn’t notice I was hyperventilating… Fortunately, a slow-moving truck was in front of me, and I relaxed – praying he would not go more than 30 kph!

A superstitious person would stop me right here and tell me this was my penance for not driving up to see the statue of Cristo Rey.  I am not superstitious in the least. I in no way believe that God would have thrown in some extra nasty curves in the road just to teach me a lesson – not for a millisecond. I do, however, believe God has a wonderful sense of humor, and He knows that I appreciate that. I can believe that He made my brain a bit fuzzy back in 1997 so that I would not even notice all the hairpin curves in the road to Dolores Hidalgo.  I can believe He knew I would laugh in the face of anyone telling me the road might make me nervous, and He knew my response would be HA! Me, nervous?  And I can believe He knew what my reacting was going to be when confronted with That Road.  I can believe that He knew I would handle it, albeit with white knuckles, and later be able to laugh about it. Yes, God has a wonderful sense of humor.  I was humbled; I learned my lesson. Don’t scoff at others when they try to give you a warning – it might just help you prepare!

Our first stop was the Museo de la Independencia Nacionál. Set in an 18th century former prison, where, after the cry for freedom, Hidalgo went and freed the inmates to join his movement. The museum pays a loving homage to Miguel Hidalgo with murals and paintings; original documents from the independence movement are on display along with weapons- often nothing more than simple farmer’s tools.

Outside Dolores Hidalgo’s house

From there, we headed to a historical 18th century house, once home to Miguel Hidalgo – the Father of the Independence movement. Miguel Hidalgo was a priest- a rebellious one, at that. It is said that he was sent to the town of Dolores as punishment for his rebellious ways, at it was a sleepy town, waaaay off the beaten path. Hidalgo was one of the good guys; he loved and respected the indigenous people; he taught them the craft the town is known for today – Talavera ceramics, rivaling only Puebla in its craft. I had read he also introduced wine making, which really pissed off the Spanish crown and the church, as it took from their profits. Gaining more respect in my eyes, the indigenous-loving rebel Hidalgo was part of the conspiracy to overthrow the colonial government. A revolt was set, but word got out to the Royalists, so Hidalgo took a stand. On the night of  September 15, 1810, Hidalgo stopped making wine, and made whine… a cry- a battle cry for freedom, what is known as el Grito de Dolores.

Church where the Grito de la Independencia was cried

From there, we went to the church where the Grito took place and the bells summoned the people; the bells have long since been removed and are now in Mexico City. A countdown to the bicentennial celebration of independence was right next to the church.  We walked along the church courtyard where Miguel Hidalgo gave the Grito de Independencia; it was an incredible feeling to stand on the spot where the cry for freedom began. In my imagination, I could see it clearly…

Sistine Chapel of the Americas: the tiny church in Atotonilco

At 12:30pm, we hit the road, backtracking on the Ruta de Libertad to the tiny town of Atotonilco.  Very tiny. So tiny you had better not sneeze when entering the town, or you will miss it entirely. Atotonilco played an equally tiny role in the independence movement: Hidalgo and his band of insurgents made a quick stop in the church to take its banner.  That is not why I wanted to see this church so badly; its nickname drew me to it: the Sistine Chapel of the Americas.

The church in Atotonilco

Atotonilco means ‘place of the hot waters’. An old dirt road lead us past a few houses; not much of a town. But then we saw the church… The church was incredible, both inside and out. Outside, the stucco had almost a pink tinge to it, and stood in stark contrast to the brilliant blue sky. The church looks immense from the outside. The exterior was very plain, very much the opposite of the interior. No flash was allowed; no problem.  I did not want to see the work get damaged any further as it is.  I had read that people had scraped off paint chips over the years as souvenirs. Unbelievable – I will never understand that lack of respect!

Part of the ceiling. Too dark inside – most photos did not turn out … 😦

The interior is tiny; the ceiling is covered with amazing frescoes.  There is so much is going on, you don’t know what to look at. I had my printout of a few points to look at, and bought a small guide outside the church.  I gave up trying to read either.  We three split up to lose ourselves in the fusion of thought portrayed in living color. Ma followed a cat; I think it may have been a tour guide in his 5th life. Some paintings were very dark – in color and design.  The portrayal of Jesus was particularly bloody, with bleeding, decaying people all around him.  I had read the priest who had the church painted had worked closely with the artist, telling him what to paint.  Who knows if that is true- but it is very thought provoking!

While nothing can touch Michelangelo’s work, the work here is painstakingly detailed and incredible, nonetheless. Although the church has been on the World Monuments Fund’s list of top 100 most endangered historical monuments in the world, it is being lovingly restored and is now a UNESCO world heritage site after centuries of neglect.  On the way out, a couple was talking to the person in charge at the church entrance.  They began moving furniture, and he started snapping away… with a flash. Close up. Sad…

Guanajuato will always be dear to my heart; I am so glad we did this trip.  It holds such warm memories of adventuring with Mom – 1987 was probably the first time we ever did that together – and to be able to relive that in 2010 was truly a blessing for me.

Ma, Espy and me – Callejon del Beso

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Taco’s Mexican History 101: VIVA MEXICO! THE CRY FOR INDEPENDENCE (Excerpt #1 from Taco’s Adventures with Ma in Mexico: 2010)

THE OTHER CONQUEST: COLONIAL MEXICO

Mural in stairwell of the Alhondiga, Guanajuato. The indigenous people – slaves – cry out to Dolores Hidalgo for help.

The Spaniards had conquered; a new era began: Nueva España. Mexico became a viceroyalty of Spain, its capital was built upon the ruins of Tenochtitlán and named ‘México Tenochtitlán’, renamed in 1584 as ‘La Ciudad de México’ – Mexico City.  New laws were instated, such as one stating no cruelty to the indigenous people, but they were not very well enforced.  Some colonial officials such as Nuño de Guzmán became notorious for their cruelty.

The Spanish crown sent the Catholic church to the new land and convert the pagans; churches went up left and right, using indigenous people as workers (some would say slaves).  Along with it went the Spanish Inquisition and the auto de fé – public ceremonies of the Inquisition kind that included hangings and burnings of the heathen.  This went on from 1571 to 1850 – when the very last auto de fé took place.  That is not to say that all clergy were evil; there were a few, such as Vasco de Quiroga. who defended the indigenous people and truly did portray love.

The indigenous people may have been protected, but they had no rights in the eyes of the Crown.  Three centuries of this can leave a bad taste…

VIVA MEXICO! THE CRY FOR INDEPENDENCE

We now arrive in 1810. The encomienda system is in place: land, property and slaves are given to high-ranking Spaniards: appointed officials, military and the rich; the Catholic church controls the rest.

Put yourself in their sandals.  Imagine yourself as an indigenous person of Mexico: Your people were once under the cruel Mexica/Azteca dominion. Your people thought they were finally free of domination; your people even assisted Cortés and his cronies to usurp the Mexicas!  Along comes the Catholic church, telling you about their just, all-loving God, convincing you- more often than not by force- to convert to Catholicism – or die. You were made slaves by the very people you thought came to set you free. The church which talked about love does not even allow you entrance into the churches your people labored to build.  You are not allowed to own land or horses- those are privileges given only to those with pure Spanish blood.

Try another pair of shoes on. Picture yourself as a Meztizo (part Spanish, part indigenous).  While Spanish blood flows through your veins, your blood is ‘tainted’ and therefore your rights are limited; you are considered to be above indigenous; below Criollo.

Change shoes: now you are a Criollo– a person of pure Spanish blood, but born in Mexico. Sure, you’re pure-blooded, but still considered lower than the high-ranking Peninsulares: those born in Spain. While some Criollos have positions of power, the Peninsulares (AKA by derogatory term, Gachupines) are given preference by the Crown.  You are highly-educated, well-read and familiar with the ‘Enlightenment’; freedom, democracy and Utopia are discussed in your circle.  Many ‘enlightened’ circles speak of discontent, with talk of overthrowing the Gachupines and ending the privileges that are making nobles and the church richer.    Think about it. Unless you are a Gachupín, you can understand why a revolt is inevitable.

Secret meetings were held all over New Spain, although it was treason to even whisper of freedom from the Crown.  These groups were not exclusively male; highly-educated Criollo women also partook in discussions. One of Mexico’s greatest heroines, Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez (AKA La Corregidora/magistrate), was such a woman.  She and her magistrate husband were sympathizers; she convinced him to allow political meetings in their home (the Querétaro Conspiracy). Attendees included Captains Aldama and Allende (sympathizer priest Miguel Hidalgo in nearby Dolores was later informed).

A revolution was planned for December, but early morning September 16th, the Gachupín authorities discovered the conspiracy and ordered the magistrate to apprehend the rebel leaders. He locked up Josefa in her room to keep her from informing anyone; she found a way to get word out, and the leaders fled.  Hidalgo, enraged at the discovery, took matters into his hands. History says he freed local prisoners, imprisoned the Gachupines, rang the church bells and called his underprivileged parishioners to arms:

Dolores Hidalgo – Grito de la Independencia

“Viva Fernando Séptimo! Muera el mal gobierno! Mueran los Gachupines!”  (Long live Fernando VII, death to bad government, death to the Gachupines!)

Truthfully, what the ‘Grito’ included is disputed; the above is the most consistent of the many versions.  But no matter what- it was pretty radical- coming from a priest of Spanish blood!

Statue of Hidalgo calling the people to arms; the church in the background is where it all began.

The first Mexican Constitution was signed on October 22nd, 1814. The war raged until September 27, 1821.  Independence was finally won.

INDEPENDENCE?

The next 80 years were anything but dull on the Mexican calendar. It began with an emperor ( Agustín de Iturbide), who ruled for less than a year. A presidency was finally agreed upon, but with supreme Executive Power (1823-1824). Then came the 1st Republic of Mexico (1824-1864), which saw many presidents, including the 1st – Guadalupe Victoria, war of independence hero Vicente Guerrero, and the not-so-well-beloved-in-history General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, aka the Napoleon of the West, who was president of Mexico on 11 non-consecutive terms. He was in charge when the 13-day siege of Texas took place in 1836 (Remember the Alamo!) and Tejas gained independence from Mexico, as well as during The Mexican-American War (1846-1848), after which Mexico lost to the USA the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Next came hero Benito Juarez (the Mexican Abraham Lincoln) with the struggle for liberal reform and abolishment of slavery – the Reform War (1858-1867), followed by the French Intervention and the Second Mexican Empire (1861-1867), in which Napoleon sent his cousin Maximillian and Carlota to rule his new Mexican Empire from Chapultapec Park in Mexico City.  The Battle of Pueblo took place during this time, on Cinco de Mayo, 1862. Maximillian was captured by Juarez’ troops in 1867, the Republic was restored and Juarez took power once more.  The Republic was restored, but along came dictator Porfirio Díaz, and an era known as the Porfiriato (1876-1911).  Health services and education improved greatly; the railway and telegraph were brought in across the country. Foreign investment and increased taxes helped bring industrialization to Mexico, but the wealth did not trickle down to the masses.  The rich got richer; the rest wanted a revolution…

Shades of Chevy Chase in Seville (Excerpt #1 from A Pile of Rocks on the Side of the Road: Taco’s European Adventures)

Look Kids! It’s Big Ben, Parliament!                                                                     …I Mean it’s la Giralda, the Cathedral!

FAREWELL TO RONDA

Starting Point: Ronda. After a good night’s rest before the satisfying continental breakfast provided by the hotel, we took a quick walk across the street to take in the morning light at Alameda del Tajo, the park with the lovely gardens and dramatic view we had explored the night before. It just seemed the perfect place to say goodbye to the lovely and romantic town that had embraced and nursed Vidal and his stomach ailment; this beautiful ancient town upon the cliffs. We thanked the hotel staff once more and at 10am headed off; having decided Sevilla would be our next stop. Vidal was still feeling a bit weak, and as this was our ‘wing-it’ portion of our Spain road trip, we thought it was best to focus on the ‘must see’ places first. We knew there was much to see in Sevilla, but we weren’t sure how many nights we would need there to experience it all. A quick stop for a supply of Vidal’s ‘agua tonica’ medicine for the road, and we were off!

CALL THE BARBER, DON JUAN, & CARMEN; LOOK OUT, SEVILLA, HERE WE COME!!

Sevilla was the #1 choice overall in Spain for each of us, and we were pumped! Knowing it was the birthplace of flamenco was enough to get our toes tapping, fingers snapping and clicking our heels all the way there; then there were the museums, the history we both craved to drink in. Number One on that particular list for both of us was the Archivo General de Indias -The Archives of the Indies; where every document of the discovery of the Americas and subsequent conquest by both the conquistadores and the Catholic Church were held. Myself being fascinated with history, I knew I could easily lose myself within its walls for minimum 2 days, and knew Vidal would be right there with me. Then there was the famous landmark, the 15th century Gothic cathedral (largest Catholic cathedral in the world, not including St. Peter’s basilica) and Giralda (the name for its equally famous minaret/bell tower), and the narrow winding maze of the medieval Barrio de Santa Cruz: the old Jewish Quarter. Let’s not forget some of Sevilla’s famous characters: The Barber, Don Juan, and of course, Carmen. Would their ghosts be wandering the streets? Would we run into any bands of gypsies who would gladly put on an impromptu flamenco show for us? And let’s also not forget the world famous celebrated Andalusian horses. How to fit one of those beauties as a souvenir in my luggage, I was not sure … Nor was I sure how my cats would react when I tried to figure out how to keep it on our balcony; Pippi Longstocking I am not (well, only once for Halloween, but that was in 6th grade, and my mom drew the line at bringing a horse in the house!). But at that moment, those were all just fleeting thoughts as we drove onward to Sevilla, and thankfully, NOT having to do so all the way on another country highway!

THE ANDALUSIAN COUNTRYSIDE

The highway to Sevilla was very scenic, not much different than the previous day’s ride with fields changing colors from green, yellow and gold; the mountain backdrop turning into rolling hills. We spotted a couple of castles perched above typical Andalusian whitewashed towns along the way, but too far away for photo ops. We had seen a sign early on for Arcos de Frontera, a place on our lists of ‘Wouldn’t Mind Seeing’, but the exit never appeared, so we never stopped…

THE SOUTHERN BELLE

At 11:30am Sevilla came into view, we could see it was a sprawling city. Spain’s fourth largest, it was a former home to Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, Jews and Moors; supposedly founded by none other than Hercules. It retains much of its Moorish influence; although Sevilla itself was returned to the Christians in the 13th century, the Moors were not expelled until 1492. It was the ‘southern capital’ of the Catholic monarchs Isabel and Fernando in the 15th century and became the Gateway to the New World after Cristobal Colón discovered the Americas. His remains are supposedly in a mausoleum in the cathedral. Of equal importance in Sevilla’s (infamous) history is the Inquisition- the Catholic monarchs Isabella and Fernando had moved the Holy Seat to Sevilla in 1481. Not exactly something I would care to have on my list of accomplishments, but  that’s me.

WHERE’S THE YOU ARE HERE SIGN?

We arrived in Sevilla at 11:30am on the dot. Entering the capital of Andalucía, it looked like any other big city. We looked (okay, I looked, as that is the co-pilot’s job!) for ‘Centro Historico’ signs for the historical section, but saw nothing. Very confusing. It felt like we were driving for a good hour (in reality, more likely only 15 minutes) before I finally spotted ‘Centro’, so we gave that a shot, followed the signs. Finally! I whooped- hollering and bouncing in my seat (almost giving Vidal a coronary attack) as I spotted the towering Giralda, knowing we were heading in the right direction. Without having a map of Sevilla, I figured we would just find the cathedral and grab a cheap hotel near it, simple as that. As Mexico’s cities were laid out similar to Spain’s, it seemed logical that, as in Mexico, the cathedral would be at the heart of the city and everything we wanted to be near would be within walking distance.

HISTORICAL BUILDINGS, WE MUST BE IN THE RIGHT PLACE!

We followed in the direction of the Giralda, which towered like a beacon leading us to it; passing up historical buildings and parks on the way that we had read about: the Torre de Oro, Parque de Maria Luisa, the Plaza de España. But most impressive was when we were in view of the Cathedral with Giralda towering next to it, and all that surrounded it: The Archivo de Indias, the Palacio Arzobispal, and the Alcázar. I advised Vidal to park somewhere near the cathedral so we could find a nearby hotel… I really thought that would be easy; Vidal had really forgotten that we had no hotel reservation (we were supposed to be WINGING IT, I reminded him!). No street parking available, Vidal was seething as he kept driving, eventually finding a parking garage 5 blocks away, in the Barrio (‘neighborhood’) Arenal. We parked and took off to find a cheap hotel, hostel or pensión nearby. We wandered around a plaza behind the parking garage and through alleys, finding expensive hotels but no luck for a cheap one. We knew we would not find hotels as cheap as one can easily find in Latin America, but this was bordering ridiculous. Our friends in England had lent us a Spain travel book, which we had brought with us. In it were recommendations of a few hotels with $$, $$$ and $$$ in lieu of prices for the hotels. There were no cheap $ hotels listed, but there was one which seemed quaint and which Vidal became obsessed with finding – regardless of my pointing out the $$$ sign which indicated it would NOT be in our price range. We found it, it was indeed $$$, we kept looking for an alternative. 30 minutes into the search (not to mention it was HOT!) and afraid to wander too far (as I personally knew 2 people who’d had their rental cars broken into), we headed straight for the cathedral and decided to try our luck on the other side of it, where we initially thought would be more expensive.

THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD THAT LEADS TO YOUR HOTEL

Through very narrow and winding streets, we saw a sign for Hotel Sierpes someone near the expensive hotels had recommended, so we followed it. Very quaint; even better it was very cheap. Right up our alley. Literally. The streets were all so narrow they could barely pass for streets, but could pass for alleys. The interior was full of Spanish charm, with beautiful tiles, a bit of religious art in the form of the face of Jesus with his thorny crown painted over 12 tiles; the lobby looked much like some cozy living room with chandeliers, a few antiques here and there, wicker furniture, lace curtains and a grandma asleep in a rocking chair near the TV; a crocheted blanket thrown over her. We paid, got our key, and were given a map to follow to drive back, as they had a parking garage included. The guy told us to be careful, as it was now mid-day rush hour, and we might not be able to make a left turn on the main street.  If that happened, we would have to go up a few blocks and around to the main roundabout and head back to make a right turn… Sounds easy, right???

LOOK KIDS! IT’S BIG BEN! PARLIAMENT!

With my great sense of direction, we found the parking garage and our car lickety-split, I with the map in hand and Vidal at the wheel, following the directions on the map to the main street-Avenida de la Constitución… No left turn. We waved to the Cathedral and Giralda on the left as we passed by, found the roundabout and headed back, but had to go a few blocks out of our way, as the right turning lane was blocked at an inconvenient spot for us… but we missed the right turn. We had to turn around, wave once more at the Cathedral and Giralda, back around the roundabout and the long detour… Missed the turn again. Turned around, waved at the Cathedral and Giralda. Back around the roundabout, this time Vidal snuck in behind some other cars who snuck into the supposedly closed right turn lane, as I cowered low in my seat, as if that would make us and the car invisible… The Cathedral in sight…. SLOWLY… Vidal turned right. We followed the map, which unfortunately was not too clear about one way streets, and we ended back up on the main street. Thank God we didn’t have a problem with our tiny Rent-a- Matchbox Car, as nothing bigger than a thimble could maneuver through those narrow streets! Turned around, waved once more at the Cathedral and Giralda, once again around the roundabout and the illegal right turn lane, made the right turn and tried another street… Same result; led us back to the main street. Yes, we were stuck with Chevy Chase as his unforgettable character Clark Griswald in National Lampoon’s European Vacation II! I waved on the left at Big Ben & Parliament…I mean, at the Cathedral & Giralda, round the roundabout and who cared if we were caught in the illegal right lane at that point; back to the right turn… This time we were going to ask a taxi driver. He gave us directions, which naturally led us immediately to where else? Avenida de la Constitución! I could no longer keep a straight face as my overactive imagination had replaced Vidal in the driver’s seat with Chevy Chase/Clark Griswald, grinning maniacally. Roundabout…Illegal lane… Right turn… Ask directions… Avenida de la Constitución. No longer certain if Chevy Chase/Clark Griswald was shouting out loud or just in my head, but I heard him clearly:

“Hey, kids! Look! Its Big Ben! Parliament!”

although I was not quite sure what kids he was referring to, as we had not brought our cats with us. Maybe I was just hungry. Roundabout… Illegal lane… Right turn…

SERIOUSLY, ARE WE THERE YET?

Vidal wanted to pay a taxi driver to follow; I was a bit more optimistic (more accurately just plain adhering to my rule of NEVER asking for directions- I WILL find it!) and said no, let’s have faith and try following the map just one more time. Supposedly we were supposed to turn left on this one street, but it said wrong way. The coast was clear; we went for it, praying… And at 2:30pm sharp, we found the hotel, a full 3 hours after we had arrived in Sevilla. The guy had all but given up on us, as it had been over 2 hours since we had left him! The beauty of it was that we had discovered in a roundabout way (pun intended) that we had just accomplished one of my wishes: To wander the streets of Barrio Santa Cruz: the Jewish Quarter. Yes, God really does have a marvelous sense of humor. We unpacked, freshened up and headed for the cathedral, only to find the Giralda was closed for construction. Oh, well. So we would not get our bird’s eye view of Sevilla on that trip…  Having said that, I was not so sure I wanted to see anything more of Giralda quite yet, anyway!

Excerpt #1 from ‘ What’s a Taco Doing on the Forbidden Island? : Taco’s Adventures in Cuba’ 2000

In October of 1999, Vidal was sent to work in Varadero, Cuba for six months.  Never one to shy from exploring new grounds, I started packing the minute I heard (4 months early).  ‘The Forbidden Island – here I come!’, I thought to myself.  American media did not frighten me; I had lived abroad long enough to know that life in other countries was not quite as awful as the Associated Press would have us believe; the ‘America Way’ isn’t the only way to live.   I had just spent a few months in my native Chicago and was ready to get the ‘city’ out of me and the ‘tropics’ back in.  Cuba, here we come!

Not yet having dual citizenship, I would land on Cuban soil as an American. That meant I would not be able to find employment – which was fine with me, as that meant I would have more time to explore!

While I was there, I took full advantage of traveling around on various tours, either free as a perk of Vidal’s work, or as an invitation by tour guides who had befriended us.  Internet was available at Vidal’s nearby office, but the connection was ridiculously slow, so I would write long bulk emails about my weekly adventures, and thus my travel stories were born.

Living in southern Mexico in a tropical destination certainly has its advantages. The palm trees, the ocean, beautiful beaches with a mountain backdrop, lots of vitamin C from the citrus fruits in abundance and vitamin D from the sun, moist skin never in need of moisturizer, it is summer all year round, an abundance of fresh seafood, all the tacos you can eat and sunsets so beautiful your troubles fade away. Being bilingual also has its advantages while living in a tourist destination- – it makes it much easier to find a decent paying job, sometimes with perks.  The advantage of life in an often unheard of destination of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo is that peace and tranquility can always be found, and of course- it is a great excuse for your friends and family to come visit you!

But like any place in the world, there are disadvantages of life in the tropics.  Silly things like big bugs, and the fact that frizz-less hair happens only in dreams.  The real inconveniences are that I rarely get an MLB baseball game on my cable package (‘fútbol’/soccer rules here) and for the first 10 years I lived here, there was no cheddar cheese or grocery store chain – if one wanted to buy beef or chicken, you would have to wander through the mercado to choose which hanging carcass you wanted your selection chopped off.  Fresh?  Absolutely! Stinky?  Ditto!  Perhaps the biggest downfall of living in still relatively unknown tourist destination is that there is less job security – tour companies are more likely to pull out of Ixtapa than they will Cancun, especially when there is a world crisis such as in 1999, with the whole Y2K scare.

But let’s look at the bright side of things and turn those disadvantages to advantages: Big bugs are easier to see and therefore easier to exterminate, you save lots of time, energy and money on hair products as nothing works; just wash it, brush it and go! That precious time saved means more time to enjoy life!  As far as the no MLB baseball games are concerned- well, I honestly cannot think of an advantage for that. The lack of cheddar cheese… nope, sorry.  As much as I love to be an optimist, there is never an advantage to living in a place with no good cheese or baseball!  As for lack of job security- as long as you are a well-respected employee, the company you work for just may find an interesting option for you, such as offer you a position for 10 months in some other busier destination.

And that is how we found ourselves in Cuba.

I wasn’t actually breaking the law; I had done my research, studied the law in effect at that time.  It stated that American citizens were not prohibited from traveling to Cuba, we were just prohibited from spending money.  If one went to Cuba, we had a daily spending cap of something ridiculous like $25 for food and lodging combined, including transportation to, from and within Cuba as well.  I spent nothing, nada. Really!  Well, sort of.  I was able to fly to Cuba for free from Toronto (perks of being the wife of an employee).  As Vidal had access to a vehicle, my transportation within Cuba was free, as well as all the excursions within.  The company provided him with an apartment, so all that was left was spending money on food.  As Vidal bought all the groceries and paid for meals out, I was legally covered.  So technically, I was not breaking any law.

I truly believe that travel is much more than an adventure; it is an education.  If we open our hearts to the new culture and are willing to learn who the people are, the experience is so much more rewarding.

In Cuba I learned:

* Cubans are not anti-American

* Not all baseball games have peanut vendors

* Using a metal spoon in an aluminum pan on a quirky electric stove is not wise. Unless of course you want curly/curlier hair

* Chickens can fly, but Russian planes should not

* That I should never gripe when I feel my choices are limited for food in Zihuatanejo

* Cubans do not hate Americans.