travel

Road Trip 10: Driving South of the (U.S.) Border

I always get anxiety when I cross borders. This day was no different. Maybe it was time I got shaken down at a god-forsaken desert border crossing entering Peru 40 years ago. Thankfully, I haven’t had any problems since.

It was still dark when I left the hotel in Cotulla, grabbed breakfast at McDonalds, and filled the car’s gas tank. The gas station, right off I-35 was a sea of white pick-up trucks with equipment filling their cargo beds. Their drivers were filling their coolers with ice, preparing for another day in the oil patch. I too, topped my tank with “cheap” American gas. Gas in Mexico runs about 13.5 pesos/liter or $3.20/gallon.

I decided to cross into Mexico at the new Columbia Bridge about 20 miles north of Laredo. I had heard that crossing there was easier than in town, especially with a car. Because I was traveling about 700 miles into Mexico, my car needed a visa too. The visa is a sticker that you’re supposed to put in the center of the windshield below the mirror. It is coterminous with your immigration visa.

Columbia Bridge border crossing. Mexico is at top of photo. Notice the traffic!

Columbia Bridge border crossing. Mexico is at top of photo. Notice the traffic!

Just like my friends said, the border crossing was easy. I arrived on the Mexican side around 8:45 and was out by 9:15. It was a ghost town. There was no line and only two gringos, including me, getting permits for their vehicles. I got my passport stamped and paid for my car permit. The custom agents, however, were like the Maytag repairmen with not much to do. So, they checked my car and asked me to take out some boxes from the trunk to check. After rummaging through a few boxes of household goods and my suitcase, they decided I was indeed moving my belongings to Lake Chapala.

“Are you driving all that way alone?” One officer disbelievingly asked. I replied in the affirmative, and he shook his head obviously thinking I was nuts.

Relieved, I drove through what seemed an endless road of truck terminals and warehouses, eventually meeting up with Federal Route 85 south of Nuevo Laredo. This highway would eventually take me to Monterrey, where I would head west almost to Saltillo, and then south again.

The toll road south of Nuevo Laredo. Just blue skies and me.

The toll road south of Nuevo Laredo. Just blue skies and me.

Approaching the mountains just north of Monterrey, Mexico

Approaching the mountains just north of Monterrey, Mexico

Driving on the highways in Mexico isn’t much different than in the States – with one exception. Passing. As with most rules of the road in Mexico, they’re suggestions. If you’re passing, oncoming vehicles will generally move to their right to give you more passing room, especially where there’s a shoulder. If you’re overtaking a car going in the same direction, they will generally move to the right too. On 2-lane roads double yellow lines fall into the “suggestion” category. You never know what might be around the next bend.

As you can see from the posted pictures, my first exposure to Mexican roads was the equivalent to an American interstate highway or improved 4-lane highway. I was able to cruise most of the time at 80 mph, and was passed by Mexicans and Gringos as if I were standing still. For most of the trip, passing wasn’t a problem. Of course, there are always exceptions like steep hills with a line of tractor trailers and tandems inching their ways to the top of the grade. Yes Virginia, it is possible to pass a truck going 10 mph safely where there’s a double yellow line.

Mexico is a beautiful country. Once I got about 50 miles south of Nuevo Larado, the Mexican countryside seemed to open up with broad expanses of desert landscape outline with sierra in the far distance. What I learned was that about every 100 miles the scenery changed from desert to canyons to steep valleys back to desert to farmland. For miles the mountains ringed the road, sometimes close and sometimes far into the distance.

I was told to stay on the toll-roads, called Cuotas, as much as possible. Not only were they safer, better maintained, and limited access, but your toll entiled you to free roadside assistance, should you need it from the “Green Angels.”

Roadside Mexican town south of Matehuala early in the morning

Roadside Mexican town south of Matehuala early in the morning

An occasional Mexican roadside village lined the non-toll roads (Libre). They all look the same whether in Qintana Roo, Coahuila, San Luis Potosi, or Jalisco. They were generally dusty congregations of buildings lining the highway – mom and pop restaurants, garages, assorted retail establishments, and the ubiquitous Pemex station.

That first night in Mexico, I stopped at a hotel in a town called Matehuala with a restaurant. It had been recommended by friends, and was about halfway to Lake Chapala from the border. Arriving around 4:00 pm, I took advantage of the short day to enjoy a beer, and an early dinner.

On the road early the next day, the sun was just coming up over the mountains to the east. You could see fog hanging in the valleys providing a white contrast the changing colors of the mountains –purple, red, green. Matisse would have found inspiration.

Cliffs north of the 2-lane toll road west of San Luis Potosi

Cliffs north of the 2-lane toll road west of San Luis Potosi

I bypassed the city of San Luis Potosi, and once again the scenery changed. Huge cliffs rose to the right of the cuota that reminded me of pictures of Utah. It appeared to be great climbing country. Over a few more mountains and through good sized Mexican town, and I was on the outskirts of Guadalajara – just a hop, skip, and jump from home.

But this part of the trip would be the scariest. The southeast end of the circumferential road – the pereferico – merged into the road I needed to take to Lake Chapala. But, it was going the wrong way – toward Guadalajara. The exit had a bus stop and gas station on either side of it so it made it very messy trying to merge into the traffic. It was pretty hairy negotiating entry between busses leaving the bus stop, cars and trucks cruising along the highway, and cars merging into traffic from the gas station.

This sort of intersection happens a lot around Guad. You need to merge going the wrong direction and travel a-ways until you come to a Retorno where you either cross over or under the highway to go the other way. I was pretty close to the airport, and knew that a retorno would come up soon. A half mile later I traveled up and over the highway and found myself going in the right direction. With two major highways coming together, you’ve gotta wonder why they didn’t just build the retorno at the end of the pereferico so you could merge either direction.

It was late lunch time, and I had been saving my appetite for burritos. There’s a Guadalajara institution on the road to Chapala just before you go over the mountains that rim the lake. It’s open 24 hours. All the Mexicans know about it and a few gringos too. I was introduced to it on my trip to Ajijic, by the guy who picked me up at the airport. This would be the first time there since then.

The place is like a cafeteria with indoor and seating. You go through the line where a steam table holds a dozen or more burrito fillings – beef, chicken, pork, veggie, spicy and mild. The server takes a flour tortilla, smears it with refried beans, puts a mound of whatever filling suits your fancy, and rolls it up. You then pick-up a soda, beer, or water at the checkout. It’s all good, cheap, and filling.

Home! Just over the hill.

Home! Just over the hill.

Fortified from a couple of burritos and a beer, I began the last leg of my road trip over the mountains, arriving home around 3:00 pm.

Whew! I made it, a little bit tired, but safe and sound. Every once-in-awhile, you need to shake up your life a little. What an adventure!

Finally, I would get a chance to use the garage door opener.

Road Trip 50th Reunion

Road Trip 5: 50th Reunion in New Jersey

High School reunions are strange events, and my high school class is a very unusual phenomenon in the annals of high school reunions. We’ve had reunions every 5 years since that happy day in 1965 when 435 of us at Livingston High School, in New Jersey, were thrust out into the cruel world to commence the rest of our lives. I will admit that I’ve enjoyed every one of those reunions, and look forward to many more.

Over the years we’ve all changed, and some of us have grown up. Over the years, reunions have been a place where I’ve enriched friendships from my adolescent days, and developed new ones with people that I barely knew at the time. It seems we often find more in common with people as adults than ever took the time to find out as kids.

So, it was with a sense of excitement that I left Massachusetts behind, and headed down to “Joisey” for my 50th. I looked forward to reconnecting with the usual folk who had been faithful attendees over the years, as well as with those who had never been to a reunion before and I hadn’t seen since high school.

Over the years, Livingston High School has had some notable alumni. Governor Chris Christie, thriller/detective author, Harlan Coben, and Jason Alexander (of Seinfeld fame) graduated many years later than me. Coben often used Livingston as a setting in several of his novels and referenced many familiar streets and places we all recognize from our youth. Our class has its share of published authors, and very successful people too, but none with the notoriety of Alexander, Christie, or Coben.

I arrived in New Jersey with a wad of nice crisp $20 dollar bills fresh from the ATM and the Stop at Shop in Sturbridge, MA (does anyone have 4 $5 bills for change?). I was to meet a bunch of close friends at “The Landmark,” one of those Livingston eating and drinking institutions used by generations as watering hole. Rumor has it that George Washington passed by on his way to New York.

The Landmark in Livingston, NJ

The Landmark in Livingston, NJ

Lunch was a warm-up for the rest of the weekend. The reunion committee (which has more and more become a “virtual” committee, scattered across the country) had planned several activities leading up to the “main event” on Saturday night. On Saturday morning one of my classmates who spent his career teaching at the high school, arranged a tour of the high school.

Is this School I Went to?

The enrollment at LHS is roughly the same as it was in the ‘60s, but somehow they need what seemed like twice the space. The building now has two TV studios. I’m not sure why a high school needs one – but two? Oddly, the cafeteria was about the same size as it was 50 years ago. With many of the students opting to eat off-campus these days, and fewer probably eating there since Michelle Obama started supervising the menu, the cafeteria might someday become obsolete. Hey, maybe they can build a few TV studios in the space. Then we moved on to what seemed like a field house complete with a new gym, indoor practice areas, and a “fitness and wellness center” that would put God’s Gym or Planet Fitness to shame.

Livingston's monument to student health and fitness

Livingston’s monument to student health and fitness

All in all, the high school tour and an informal lunch afterwards gave some of us an additional chance to connect. The evening’s activities were almost anti-climactic.

Everyone Needs an “Elevator Speech”

When you go to one of these events, there are too many people there to carry on a meaningful conversation with anyone. So you really need to prepare an “elevator speech.” The idea behind an elevator speech is that you can communicate important information to a complete stranger between the time an elevator’s doors close and open – 15-30 seconds at the most (of course, depending on how many floors you go and the speed you).

The question I got asked most often was “why are you living in Mexico?” I had put my whereabouts on the class’s Facebook page and reunion page. The answer to that question could occupy the time it takes to drink a few beers. But, after about 10th time, I had perfected my answer:

“I live in a beautiful place. It’s springtime all year long. The cost of living is about a third of what it is in the states. There’s tons to do, and the people are friendly. Oh…and it’s not here!”

Whew!

“But what about safety?” was always the next question. “There’s more crime in Newark (10 miles away as the crow flies) than anywhere near where I live,” I’d reply. “There are bad places you wouldn’t go wherever you live. It’s no different where I live.”

The evening passed similarly, delivering my elevator speech and listening to those of others. Every once in awhile, I’d get into a more involved conversation. It’s a shame, but three hours is never enough time to catch up on 50 years with even a fraction of the people who attended. I’m very thankful that the pre-reunion activities provided more opportunity.

But we did have time for a little joking around too. One of my friends’ wives staged a “before and after” re-enactment of a picture taken at Seymour’s Luncheonette in, I think, 1964. Alas, Seymour, seen below, in front of me (with a red circle around my face) passed away. Only one of the original classmate posers has passed away, and another couldn’t get to the event. So, several others filled in.

The Guys - Then and Now

The Guys – Then and Now

If you measure success by what percentage of us returned for the festivities, the professional reunion company informed our group that the LHS Class of 1965 set a record: the highest percentage of attendees of any class they worked for.

Remember all the senior awards from high school, like “Best Athlete” and “Most Likely to Succeed.” In my next post, I’ll poke a little fun at them with my own list of “Senior” awards.

 

Photos of LHS provided by NJ.com and is under the copyright of its owners.

Road Trip 4: Clueless at Checkout

It’s funny how some personal interactions can tell you so much about the region of the country you’re in. On my trip, I had several interactions that blew my mind! In the northeast, people often get paranoid about interacting with strangers, and build walls around themselves. This interaction in central Massachusetts is classic!

It was a dreary morning –the second day of October. It had been rainy and cloudy since I left Cape Cod a few days earlier. Having owned a winery, I know that the second week of October is harvest time for Chardonnay, and can’t help but feeling bad for the wine growers in southeast Massachusetts. You do NOT want rain at harvest time.

It was Friday morning, and I was in my car with the trunk and back seat loaded with a ton of things I think I’ll need in Mexico, but probably will never use. Maybe the Villroy-Bosch coffee cups, but probably not the aluminum roasting pan. I was driving down to New Jersey on my way to my 50th high school reunion.

It was early autumn, and the color of the leaves should have been changing. The further inland you are, the earlier the foliage changes color. As I was driving west (inland) down the Mass Pike, I was struck by the lack of color. Apparently, it was a dry summer in Massachusetts, and the weather was being blamed on a late change of foliage and a lack of brilliant colors. When I got to Sturbridge, Mass., I stopped for breakfast.

One of my bank accounts requires at five transactions a month to avoid a service fee. I needed some money, so after breakfast, I found an ATM at a Stop and Shop supermarket up the road. The machine spit out 5 crisp $20 bills.

I needed to comment on what happened next, and didn’t want to forget about it for my blog. I remembered that my iPhone has a voice memo function. So after getting back on the interstate, I recorded the following interaction (but haven’t figured out a way to upload it):

Voice Memo Mic

I went to pick up a snack for the trip and got on line. There was a woman in front of me. The cashier finished ringing up her groceries, and the woman ran her debit card through the terminal to pay for them. She must have asked for cash back, because the cashier proceeded to count out her change in a stack of $5 bills. The woman looked perturbed, and asked the cashier if she had any larger bills.

“No,” the cashier replied. “That’s all there is in the register.”

Standing there watching this transaction with a stack of nice fresh $20 bills in my hand, I thought I’d help the “poor” woman out. Looking at her, I piped in, “I’ll give you a 20 for four of your fives.”

You’d think I’d threatened her life. Not sure how to react, she nervously turned, grabbed her bags, and high-tailed it out of the store.

I’ll bet if I asked the cashier the same question, she’d have accepted my offer. She then would have turned and handed my “unworthy” bills to the woman who would have gladly accepted them.

Maybe it was my Mexican accent? (Not)!

Road Trip 3: Cape Cod

It was a cool crisp afternoon when my son, Mike, picked me up at Boston’s Logan Airport. We drove out to Needham, picked up my car, and did a few errands before meeting my daughter Nina at Chili’s for a drink. I was on my way to Cape Cod for a few days on the beach, and Chili’s was on the way, yet centrally located for Mike and Nina.

We sat and talked and waited out the usually horrendous south shore rush hour traffic. Three drinks and an appetizer-sized flatbread pizza later, sticker shock started to sink in. The bill topped $30, compared to maybe $10 in the Lakeside area.

Cape Cod MapI was going to a cottage condo community called Pilgrim Beach Village (PBV) in the town of North Truro.  North Truro is the last town before Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. It’s about a two hour drive Boston when the traffic is agreeable. Most people recognize the area as they pass by on Route 6. Dozens of cottage colonies line the local parallel road, Route 6A, on one side and the shore of Cape Cod Bay on the other.

Pilgrim Beach Village at sunset. My room was the first window on the left.

Pilgrim Beach Village at sunset

PBV is one of the first such colonies as you drive down the hill on 6A. When my kids were growing up my family used to stay there on Memorial Day weekend. PBV consists of 19 units, some cottages and some motel units. All have an unimpeded view of the bay, Provincetown in the distance, and magnificent sunsets. I reserved a studio unit, #12, on the motel side.

Arriving around 10:00 pm, I fruitlessly looked for a bite to eat, and had to dig into my travel bags for a day-old roll. By this time, I had been up 18 hours, and fell into bed without unpacking. That could wait until the next morning.

I spent the next few days relaxing and making use of PBV’s dumpster to cleat out my car. Now, you have to realize that P-town is a major gathering place for gays and lesbians. It’s main street, Commercial Street, has numerous gay bars, and transvestites work the crowds of tourist to draw them into drag shows. P-town is also a major fishing town inhabited by blue collar fishermen and their families – many with roots in Portugal. I find it remarkable that the two communities seem to peacefully coexist.

One evening, trying to decide what to have for dinner, I found out there is a Barbecue joint in Provincetown. It is called “Two Southern Sissies BBQ.”  I always thought that sexual preference mattered when it came to BBQ. With a name like that, I had to see what these two sissies could cook up. Unfortunately it was a take-out joint, and I really wanted to sit down and have a beer with my Q. I opted for another place and a Portuguese stew.

2 Southern Sissies BBQ, Provincetown, MA

2 Southern Sissies BBQ, Provincetown, MA

Then I moved on to Needham where I stayed with my friend Martha, celebrated kids’ birthdays which are four days apart, and with the help of Mike reduced the size of and payment for my storage locker by 1/3.

As September moved into October, it was time to get this “road trip” on the road. After spending $1400 on maintenance, my car, with its full payload challenging its suspension, was ready to go,. Onward to New Jersey and my 50th high school reunion.

Road Trip 1: Am I Crazy?

Over the course of the next few posts, I’ll be chronicling a road trip from New England to Lake Chapala, Mexico. Over a 3-week period, it will take me through 13 states and more than 700 miles into the heart of Mexico.

Why would I undertake such folly alone? Friends in the States can’t understand why I would. Mexico is dangerous. Isn’t it? They can’t understand how millions of Mexicans can take to the highways (yes, they do have highways!) and return home safely without receiving a bullet in the head from the drug cartels.

The other thing I think they find scary is that I’m driving alone. Well, the title of this blog is Retired ‘n’ Single. Besides, unless my traveling companion carries a gun, he or she wouldn’t do much to save me from violence on the road. In the States, random acts of road rage and violence occur almost daily. What’s the big deal?

Maybe they figure that someone riding shotgun would help keep me awake. But, one of the ways I stay awake is to crank up the radio and sing along at the top of my lungs! A travel companion would most likely jump out of the car screaming after the first five miles…or less. Unless they liked to sing too. Scary!

So, I promised anyone who cared that I’d be careful…that I wouldn’t take any unreasonable chances…that I wouldn’t drive at night in Mexico…that I wouldn’t contract any STDs…and that I’d take my vitamins every day. The good news is I’m here to tell you about my road trip.

But, before my road trip, I first needed to fly.

Buses and Mala Suerte

One of the smaller buses in traffic on the carraterra

One of the smaller buses in traffic on the carratera

Don’t ever stand at a bus stop with me. I am mala suerte – bad luck. The local buses generally run about every 5-10 minutes…EXCEPT when I need one! Either the bus is pulling away when I arrive at the bus stop, or I wait a long time before another one shows up.

Believe me. I don’t plan it this way. But it seems that it always happens. This is particularly true if I have some place important to go or am late for an appointment. I’ll wait and wait and wait. I think the buses must sense this and purposely go slow, or their drivers are clairvoyant and like sticking it to the antsy Gringo.

The Mexicans with whom I stand appear to take it all in stride. They know the bus will show up ahorita – eventually. And because there hasn’t been one in awhile, it will be packed to the gills.

I’m getting better about lowering my expectations and my anxiety level too. That’s because every day I live here I shed a little bit of my North American attitude. Pretty soon you realize that the people with whom you’re having those important meetings and appointments are either Mexicans or others who have already adopted a Mexican attitude.

15 minutes late? No problema!

Someone once said: “Life is about showing up.” They never qualified it with today, manana, or ahorita. My ex-wife, who lived in India for awhile, says that for the Indians it could be “the next lifetime.”

small bus SA

Small bus approaching the bus stop outside my house. On my way to Ajijic,

There are basically 3 types of buses here, and you can pretty much get to anywhere you want to go without hassle. There are the fancy Chapala Plus buses that travel directly into Guadalajara about which I wrote in a previous blog post. Then there are the big local buses that also go to Guadalajara, making multiple stops along the way. Finally there are the smaller buses that run between Chapala and Jocotepec. They run along the carratera too, but make side-trips into the villages of San Antonio along the way. They’re usually not as well appointed as the bigger buses, and you get bounced around quite a bit on the village streets.

inside small bus

This interior is rather luxurious for a small bus,,,new plastic seats. What a pleasure!

I never quite understood why there are different prices for the same trip on the different buses. But if I take one of the larger buses to go from San Antonio to Chapala, I pay 9 pesos. If I take a small bus, it’s 7 pesos. The seats may be cushioned in the larger bus (but not always) and usually plastic in the small buses (but not always). In a small bus, the driver usually wears a polo shirt (but not always) and the drivers of the larger buses where white buttoned-down shirts (I guess they appreciate that in Guadalajara). Go figure!

bus stop sign

The sign says: Bus Stop. Prohibited to put garbage here (it doesn’t stop anybody!)

I’m fortunate to have a parada – bus stop – right in front my house. The little buses rumble up the street after circumventing the plaza a block down the hill, and re-enter the carratera a block further up. With an aggressive driver, if you don’t take your seat quickly, you could find yourself tossed onto the lap of some unfortunate abuela and her bag of groceries.

All in all, however, the transportation system works pretty well here…for everyone but me and those poor souls who choose to stand next me waiting for the next bus.

Qué lo vaya bien!

Thanks Mom

When my Mom passed away, I was going through her bills. Nestled with a bill from her United Mileage Plus credit card, were two free passes to the United Club expiring one year hence on May 31, 2015. I smartly tucked them away for a rainy day.

Little did I know, at the time, that I would be moving to Mexico, and would actually have a need for them. As I related in an earlier post I couldn’t find them when I had a long layover in Houston on Halloween 2014 (see my post about that disastrous trip).

Well, those passes came in handy on my last trip. I was faced with a 4 ½ hour layover. Weary from a 3 ½ wait at Logan Airport and a 4 ½ flight to Houston, I thought I could put one of the passes to good use. Thank you, Mom.

For you frequent flyers and airline club members, this is probably nothing new. As far, I’m concerned United out-did themselves this time around. I was real tired and hot and sweaty from my walk from Terminal C to Terminal E (I needed to stretch my feet and get some exercise).

Once inside, I plunked my stuff down along-side a comfortable chair, I headed to the bar for a well deserved drink. To my surprise, the gin and tonic was free, as well as the two subsequent glasses of Chardonnay. Stepping up to the food bar, I helped myself to hummus, Israeli couscous salad, cold luncheon meats, cheese, and vegetable soup, among some other goodies. Plugged into the free Wi-Fi, I answered emails, then read a book. I could have even taken a shower if I wanted.

I almost signed up for a Mileage Plus card. But then again, it is United Airlines. Does anyone know where I can get free passes to a Singapore Airlines club?

“Changes in latitudes…”

If you’ve ever been out of the US for an extended period of time, coming back can be strange. The United States is different from anyplace else in the world. In the past three months, I’ve made the return trip twice. Each trip felt very different.

In March after a four month absence, I flew into one of the worst winters for snowfall in Boston history. Bostonians had really been beat up by an endless barrage of snow storm after snow storm for the entire month of February…almost 100 inches. They had suffered commuter rail and subway cancellations, endless traffic jams, and days of back-breaking snow shoveling.

After deplaning, it was evident that city was in a sullen mood. No one smiled. No one seemed happy to be home. People on the bus to South Station just looked plain uncomfortable. The commuter rail riders looked considerably more weary than they usually do. Coming from sunny 80 degree weather, “What,” I thought, have I gotten myself into?

My car's there somewhere!

My car’s there somewhere!

However, Boston still felt like home. The room I had stayed in the previous year was ready for me. My car was somewhere under a pile a snow, and after a strenuous three hour shovel, I freed it. It started up on the first try thanks to Tom and Barbara Harkins. They had let me store the car in their driveway, and had been starting it regularly before it got buried.

After a week, I returned to Mexico for another two months. Coming back to Boston in May the weather was considerably better.

But Boston felt different.

There were several reasons for this. I really had no place to call home in Boston. Martha, from whom I had rented a room, was getting her house ready for sale and her sister from Georgia was coming to help her clean it out. I could only stay there for two nights. I had planned visits to friends on Cape Cod and relatives in New Jersey. So I booked a room with AirBnB for the remainder of the trip.

The other reason was that I had decided to make a home in Mexico and live there year-round. I had signed a one-year lease for a house about a mile down the road from where I was staying.

I had been toying with idea for months. But once you get off the fence and make a commitment, it does something to your head, All of sudden the answer to “where do you live?” is no longer “the Boston area.” It’s “San Antonio Tlayacapan, Jalisco, Mexico,” and I can’t even pronounce it!

For the first time in I felt like I was a visitor in the Boston area that I’d called home since 1974. Looking to the future, I returned “home” to Mexico looking at the next chapter in life’s adventure a little differently.

Happy Ending – Halloween Nightmare – Part 3

Finally we're on our way!!!

Finally we’re on our way!!!

After failing to get Flight 676 off the ground twice, we de-planed again. United found another flight crew and announced our departure for 3:30. At the customer service desk, I changed my connecting flight again. The flight from Boston to Houston takes about 4 hours. I didn’t want to take a chance on me and my checked bag making a 7:09 connection, so I booked the last flight out of Houston for Guadalajara at 9:09.

In times of adversity, strange things can happen. The passengers on UA676 were talking with each other and joking. My attitude was “I’ve got 6-months. If I don’t get to Ajijic today, so be it.” After picking up my second meal voucher, and getting a sandwich for the flight, I was back in the emergency row waiting with great anticipation with everyone else.

We taxied. We made it to the end of the runway. The engines revved. A cheer went up from the passengers. Would the plane really lift off? It was about 3:45 EDT.

Airborne, the cabin crew doled out free alcoholic beverages. Sitting with my Tito’s Vodka Bloody Mary, I had this weird Ground Hog Day-like thought. I turned to the woman in the aisle seat, an interior designer with a Halloween party to get to that evening, and mused: “I wonder if when this plane lands we’ll find ourselves back in Boston. Or worse, 2 million years BC like the 1970s horror flick about the airplane that crashes in the land of dinosaurs.”

The bloody mary and the stress knocked me out for a while. Fortunately, we landed in Houston a few minutes early. Another cheer went up from the passengers. I raced from Terminal C to B to see if I could make the 7:09 flight. I was told that because my bags were going on the 9:09, there wasn’t enough time to make the bag switch. So, I’d have to wait for the later flight – 2.5 hours.

Aha! I thought. I have a couple of free passes to the United Lounge. By this time, I could use a couple of free drinks. “Now where,” I thought, “did I put them?” I looked in 2 wallets that I had, and my backpack. I couldn’t find them. I should have put, at least, one of them in my wallet, but there were none to be had.

I ventured to the front desk at the United Club, explained my situation, and pleaded with the receptionist. No go. L This was the coup de grace. Now all I needed was for the 9:09 to be cancelled.

Exhausted, I downed a few beers at Chili’s, and at 8:30, made my way to the gate. At 9:00 I was sitting in the emergency row, with extra leg room, of a tiny Embraer 145. It was with some trepidation that I handed over my carry-on for plane-side baggage checking. After what seemed like an interminable taxi, we took off on our way to Guadalajara.

Customs went smoothly. My checked bag amazingly arrived after 3 baggage tag changes. The temperature outside the terminal was a pleasant 62, as the taxi driver loaded my bags into the cab. “It’s cold tonight,” he said while shivering. “Not as cold as where I came from,” I replied.

Courtesy of Mexdfmagazine.com

Courtesy of Mexdfmagazine.com

I was too tired to try to speak Spanish, so I just sat there and took in the night-time “scenery” of lit-up gas stations, convenience stores, and late-night taco stands. As we rounded, the corner on Jose Manuel, the light outside the gate, was on. I gave the driver a tip, and inserted my key into the gate’s lock. It still worked!

Vivianne, my landlady, greeted from her balcony. “How was your trip?” she asked. “It’s a long story,” I answered. “I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.”

I crawled into bed around 1:00 am, Ajijic time. It had been 21.5 hours since those church bells woke me up.

Next morning, as I unpacked my backpack, I reached way down to the very, very bottom. There was one last thing to take out…2 free passes to the United Lounge. Talk about adding insult to injury.

Failure to Launch – My Halloween Nightmare Pt. 2

Where we spent the first part of the day...waiting at the gate.

Where we spent the first part of the day…waiting at the gate.

After a bite to eat for breakfast, I was soon in my seat on United flight 676 – nice and comfy – legs stretched out J. The plane pulled back from the gate and the engines started. Woo-hoo! It was 9:30 and I was on my way!

Now, this was October 31, Halloween. The spirits were working their magic on United Airlines that day. Or, maybe it was just plain sloppy ground operations. As we started to taxi, the plane started to make sounds like there were spirits trapped somewhere in the hydraulic lines and were trying to get out. So we stopped – the pilot obviously trying to figure out what was happening. The plane then moved off onto the airport’s equivalent of a railroad siding for more diagnostics. After 10 minutes, we headed back to the gate. Failure to launch #1.

Back at the gate, the pilot explained the left engine had a “history.” The mechanics were troubleshooting, and if it was a simple fix we’d be back on our way. 15 minutes later, he came back, and notified us that the primary and back-up systems for some compressor line were bad, and the fix would take 6 hours – after they got a part from Newark. United would try to find another plane or re-route us. As long as the flight crew was certified to fly the new plane we’d be all set.

I would miss my connection in Houston. So they moved me from the connecting fight at 2:30 to 5:45. 15 minutes later they found a plane – inbound from Houston and scheduled to arrive at Logan at noon. The flight crew of my original plane was certified to fly it, and after servicing, we’d be in the air around 1:00 pm.

At 1:00, I was back in the emergency row of another airplane. We were ready to go – or so we thought. We had lost a few passengers who had been re-routed, but this was a slightly smaller plane, and couldn’t fit everyone from the first plane anyway.

The pilot then made an announcement: the last item on the crew’s checklist was fuel, and United had forgotten to fuel the plane! “We won’t get far on what we have,” he explained. And, besides, they also forgot to replenish the ice. It would be 20 minutes to ½ hour. Failure to launch #2.

By the time they refueled the plane, unbeknown to the passengers, the fight crew was bumping up against a critical milestone. Flight crews are allowed to fly 10 hours in any 24 hour period. This crew had already gotten permission for a legal 2-hour extension. We needed to be airborne by 1:55.

We taxied out to the runway. However, we didn’t get into the regular queue. We were on the side watching other planes take-off before us. Finally, we taxied to the end of the runway and waited for the engines to rev. We waited…and waited. The plane finally began to move…and taxi back to the gate.

Before the plane could take off, United needed to provide the crew with the plane’s weight. 1:55 came and went without providing the critical information. They would need to find another flight crew. Failure to launch #3