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1/4 of July June 13, 2012

Posted by alwaysjan in Travel.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A friend recently asked me about my family’s sojourn in Mexico. I told her I’d send a link to this post which I published in 2007. But, low and behold, it  had vanished! As in “Gone Baby Gone.” Fortunately, in my early days of blogging, I  printed out a copy of everything…just in case.  So here it is again in all of its “Old Glory.”

When I was a kid growing up in Omaha, the days leading up the 4th of July included a pilgrimage just outside the city limits to buy fireworks. These were piddly-ass fireworks by today’s standards; sparklers, snakes, pinwheels, pop-bottle rockets, and the real show stopper – the Roman candle. My brother always managed to secure some M80s and cherry bombs. These served to remind us that it WAS possible to blow your hand off with one of these babies.

Neighborhood families would pool their fireworks and put on a show. My father arrived carrying a length of a tin downspout to these gatherings, which did double duty as a poor man’s rocket launcher.

As kids, we were only allowed to play with the snakes and sparklers on our own. We wrote our names in the air, immune to the bacon-grease snap, snap, snapping on our arms. On July 5th, the air smelled vaguely like gunpowder and the driveway had black spots where the snakes that grown, writhed, then turned to ash.

The 4th of July I’m thinking about today though was spent in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. We were desperately looking for Puente Numero Dos – Bridge Number Two, the only route, save wading crossing the Rio Grande, to get back into the U.S.

My family; husband Richard and sons, Taylor, 10, and Ian, 6, and I had moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico to escape the high cost of living in New York. We’d had a ridiculously fun time in Zihuataneo, Mexico a year before and Mexico and the ghost of Frido Kahlo beckoned. Never mind that we’d never actually set foot in San Miguel. Hey, I’d done the research.

“You mean you’re moving to NEW Mexico,” friends queried.  “No, Mexico!”  we replied rather enjoying the look of shock on their faces. We were ready for a change, and we were up for anything, short of moving to New Jersey. A sojourn in Mexico sounded exotic and the price was right.

San Miguel de Allende is a gorgeous colonial gem nestled in the mountains three hours north of Mexico City. It’s long been a mecca for artists and has an established colony of American expats, who are drawn by San Miguel’s beauty and cheap real estate.

I flew to San Miguel two weeks before the arrival of the troops. It was my job to secure the beachhead and lease a house. “Remember,” my husband implored. “Only rent a house that’s already furnished and has a telephone.”

Well, can you imagine what kind of house I rented?  Three floors stacked like a stucco layer cake. No furniture and no phone. It was the garage that was the deal maker. Richard and the boys were flying to Omaha so my parents could give us their 4-cylinder Oldsmobile Firenza station wagon. We hadn’t had  a car in 11 years so this was a BIG deal. We couldn’t park our new/old car on the street!

My family arrived. It was then I realized it wasn’t New York that made me feel stressed. It was my family. Not a good sign. The house I’d rented had recently been remodeled and all of the construction had stirred up the scorpions. Every time we took a shower, a scorpion climbed out of the drain. Just the anticipation of their appearance made the shower scene in “Psycho” seem G-rated. There were so many scorpions that I took to sleeping with a flashlight on and aimed at the ceiling. Just in case.

Four days after we’d moved in, the toilet on the second floor wouldn’t flush. We tied a dog leash to a bucket and lowered it into the cistern beneath the patio to get water while awaiting the eminent arrival of the “handyman.” We carried the bucket of water up two flights of stairs just so we could use the toilet. I was starting to feel like I lived in Africa – my life was starting to revolve around obtaining water. All I needed was a jar to transport it on my head.

I’d first been shown the house during siesta time, the only time of day it turned out that the aerobic studio across the street was not open. We were awakened at 6 a.m. each morning by a pulsating disco beat and a woman yelling, “Uno, dos, tres!”  They knocked off for siesta then continued until 10 p.m. Disco was still alive in San Miguel.

The burro next door began braying at the crack of dawn. This was followed by ten minutes of silence and then the braying started in earnest. We joked that it was the Mexican snooze alarm. And the coyote tethered to the roof on the other side of us howled at night. We laid awake in bed. Less than three weeks into our sojourn, we’d lapsed into severe culture shock. For the first time I uttered the “L word” – leave.

There was one small problem. I’d signed a two-year lease and our landlord, Pat, had no intention of letting us wriggle out of it. Pat was a widow from Michigan who’d retired to Mexico. She’d married a local attorney, a certain Sr. Caballero. Pat bore more than a passing resemblance to Marjorie Mane’s “Ma Kettle” character. Finally, we told Pat we needed to talk about our situation.  I’d paid first and last month’s rent plus a security/cleaning deposit, so I thought that just maybe, she’d let us off the hook.

Just in case she wanted to play hardball, I was the designated weeper. The trouble was, once I started crying, “I want to go home,” it was no longer an act. I really wanted to go home. Pat was unfazed. “You know what you need?” she said matter of factly. “You need to go to the corn roast over at the Presbyterian church and meet some nice folks.” She added that if we did try and break the lease, her husband, Sr. Caberro, would have our car impounded so we COULDN’T leave.

Panicking, I ran up to the U.S. Consulate to talk to Colonel Maher, an ex-CIA op, whom I’d met with once before. It was siesta time and the consulate was officially closed, but the shuttered windows to his office were open. I could see him sitting in the dark, feet up on his desk, and smoking a cigar. He looked like he was plotting to overthrow a mid-sized country.

I called to him and he came over to the window. I breathlessly explained our predicament. He listened attentively, chomping on the cigar before giving me his best legal advice.  “I know Sr. Cabellero,” he said. “He’s well connected. So my advice to you is to disappear.” The shutters snapped shut.

Now when I’d leased the house, we’d also inherited a maid, Lara, from the previous tenants. Lara was incredibly kind and was paid so little I would have felt guilty not to keep her on. We’d never had a maid before and I felt so awkward about having someone clean up after me that I walked around and helped her clean. Lara told me the previous tenants, two American women, had left suddenly in the middle of the night after only two months. A pattern was beginning to emerge..

We frantically began packing up the car with Lara’s help. Pat lived just up the street and had a clear view of our house so there was an air of urgency. All of the furniture I’d bought at the mercado would go to Lara, and all of the housewares as well. To my mind it was not much, but I came to realize that to Lara, it was the world.  We knew her husband had cancer and she was supporting an unknown number of children.

A relative of Lara’s arrived with a truck to cart off the furniture. Lara’s husband sat in the back of the truck, too weak to help. I wrote out a letter and in my broken Spanish bequeathed all of our personal items to Lara as regalos, or gifts. Lara cried with happiness. Her children would sleep in beds for the first time that night. We kept one small side table with a hand carved top, which we tied to the top of the car.

When Richard and the boys had arrived three weeks earlier, the car was packed to the gills. Now I had to squeeze in along with my luggage and a set of Mexican pottery that I couldn’t bear to leave behind. The car was essentially a low-rider heaving under the added weight. Richard took the hills out of town slowly. With every bump, we could hear the bottom of the car scrape against the cobblestoned street. We headed north. From time to time we looked in the rear view mirror, half expecting to see Sr. Caballero chasing us with a posse.

Richard was retracing the route he’s already driven to get to San Miguel, but for me this was uncharted terrain. I was trying to take in the surreal landscape that is northern Mexico. In the middle of nowhere, a person would appear alongside of the road. We passed people who sold dried rattlesnake skins for a living. They lived in “houses” with organ cactus as walls.

The first night we stopped at motel that had never seen better days. When the guy at the front desk asked for our address, we mumbled something about being in transition. “Hippies!” he ascertained. This was the early 90s and the mere mention of “hippies” made me feel like we’d fallen through a rip in some time continuum. But, Taylor set him straight. “We’re homeless!” he announced.

The plan was to cross the border into Laredo, Texas. On the south side of the Rio Grande lies the sprawling bastard child city that is Nuevo Laredo. It’s the equivilent to living on the wrong side of the tracks. Nuevo Laredo has been plagued by the kind of violence that accompanies drug trafficking. Wearing a badge is akin to wearing a target.

It was summer and the temperature hadn’t fallen below 100 for days. Even after the sun had finally set, there was no relief from the heat. When we finally saw the lights of Nuevo Laredo we cheered. In the distance, we could see the lights of Laredo, Texas – the promised land. All we had to do now was find Puente Numero Dos, or Bridge #2, and we’d be home free. It was then that steam from the radiator began billowing out from the hood. We cursed the universe. Then cursed it some more. We pulled over and waited for the temperature gauge to go down then drove another mile. We stopped and repeated the ritual. It was slow going.

The boys’ survival instincts had obviously kicked in because they’d stopped talking altogether. They knew the next thing to blow was going to be mom or dad. Finally, we saw the sign; Puente Numero Dos.

A huge American flag waved on the Texas side of the bridge. I’d never felt such a surge of patriotism. That’s my flag! I felt like the character Sally Field played in Not Without My Daughter after she’s recovered her kidnapped child and is running toward the American flag at the embassy.

Only 40 feet from the border, plumes of steam engulfed the car and we shut off the engine. I steered and Richard pushed. Slowly, we inched toward American soil. A U.S. Customs agent walked over to greet us. Never had English sounded so melodic. We stood there sweating and shell shocked. As the border agent checked our papers, we heard what sounded like a series of explosions. “What’s going on?” we asked. The border agent looked at us, incredulously. “It’s the Fourth of July!“ he said. We looked up to see the sky filled with fireworks.  We didn’t care that they were red, white, and green.

We got the last room at La Quinta, only a stone’s throw from the bridge on the American side. Taylor walked into the room and promptly threw up. He then rinsed out his mouth (“Mom, can I drink the water now?”) and announced, “I’m hungry.  Can we go somewhere and eat?”  Richard took the boys to the Denny’s next door where they gorged on chicken-fried steak. Me, I laid on the bed in the air-conditioned room and turned on the TV. The sound of Ted Koppel’s voice was the sweetest lullaby I’d ever heard.


1. CZBZ - June 14, 2012

That was hilarious! I read the whole thing to my family during dinner, ha!! Great story!



2. Tim B. - June 14, 2012

Another good one, Jan. It reminded me of my time as an anchorless military brat, packing up every year or two, coming and going like rented furniture. Loneliness was an act of patriotism. Of course, when Uncle Sam is the landlord, it’s a little more difficult to slip away into the night. “Have you heard about the Midnight Rambler?” Oh, it was a Firenza!
P.S. That reminds me…why are we forced to demonstrate both our patriotism (the national anthem) and our religiosity (“God Bless America”) at pro baseball games?

Okay, I’ve only been to three pro baseball games in my life. I remember peanuts and Crackerjacks and overpriced swill beer. Yes we did sing the national anthem, but I don’t remember ever singing “God Bless America.” But my memory could be faulty because I actually believe I once dated you. LOL This summer. My house. You. SO/SB or you can leave the little woman at home. Operators are standing by. Jan


3. shoutabyss - June 14, 2012

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. I had a rough Fourth of July once, too. We were on a boat anchored off the Queen Mary and had a front row seat for the fireworks. On the top deck was a BBQ. It was heavenly. By the time the fireworks started, though, my girlfriend was bent over heaving her guts out (seasick) and my young son was freaking out, with hands over his ears, screaming “Make it stop!” because the fireworks were too loud. Good times.

Sounds like there were fireworks coming out of ever orifice and then some. If only “Make it Stop!” was an app on my iPhone. Cathy and I have had fun talking behind your virtual back. LOL She said a picture was requested, but too much airbrushing is required. 🙂 Having fun in Kansas City. Always, Jan


4. Catherine Sherman - June 28, 2012

Thanks for the memories! I lived vicariously through your tales from Across the Border, and now here you’ve related even more fascinating and delightfully written memories. I remember fondly Richard, the boys and Wily stopping over night at our house in Kansas City on their way to Mexico. We didn’t have a pet then (I can’t imagine life without pets now!), and it was fun to watch Wily scamper around the house. When Wily peed on our carpet. I thought: “Hey, this isn’t so bad, I think I’ll get a cat.” So I have you and Wily to thank for our beloved Malcolm.

I remember poor Wily got stung on the nose by a scorpion, and that you had a hard time finding towels that were color-fast. I remember that you soon discovered there was an aerobics studio across the street that started noisy workouts early in the morning.

I remember you saying that San Miguel was a refuge for American ex-pats who “were wanted at home, and not wanted at home.” Wanted, as in “on the lam.”

Most of my Fourth of Julys have been unremarkable, though pleasant. Watching fireworks, friends hanging out, eating. One July 4th I do remember, though, as being unpleasant. When my daughter Laura was a toddler, we lived near the park where the city put on its fireworks display. We didn’t go, because Laura hated loud fireworks, which we’d learned from the previous year. We couldn’t escape the noisy cannon blast fireworks, though, even in our house with the windows shut and the draperies closed. She screamed at each “bomb bursting in air.” The display lasted for an HOUR! We think the city must have gotten a good deal on the bombs, because there were dozens.

For years, my husband and son Matt loved to buy fireworks. My husband loved it so much (he’ll deny that he “loved” it) that he and his friend Henry got certified in conducting professional fireworks displays. Funny thing was that after my husband was certified, he never bought another item of fireworks. He helped with one display at a Kansas City Royals game, then he lost all interest in shooting off his own. (July 4th sure has been a lot cheaper since!)

I’m singing “God Bless America” now. And “The Star Spangled Banner.” and “America the Beautiful!”

Actually, Wily was never bitten by a scorpion, but that possibility loomed large. When the scorpions started coming up through the drain in the shower (while we were showering), Richard was ready to cut and run. As for you, I’m surprised you don’t cringe every time you hear “bombs bursting in air.” And I had no idea Mike got a professional certification in “blowing stuff up.” It’s good he retired early from that line of work. That might explain why he still has both hands. In some ways, it seems like this happened yesterday. Other times, it’s like a different life – but one I lived. Always, Jan


5. lesley - July 5, 2012

Jan, I love this post…it invokes a memory wholly yours that we appreciate you sharing. Especially this Brit.
Congratulations on your celebration yesterday and your weather..
The scorpions intrigue and horrify me but I’ve done lizard infestation in the Canaries and strange Spanish wasps with tails like Maine coons!
The main firework day here is November 5th( Guy Fawkes, Bonfire Night).As a child we made a ‘Guy’ and carted him about in a cart,looked like a scarecrow of sorts,always,always with a hat and moustache.Then, he was piled on the bonfire amidst fireworks in a park or local neighbourhood. Bangers,Firies,Catherine Wheels…and we cooked baked potatoes on the fire. Also sparklers….
Guy Fawkes of course was intercepted in the process of blowing up the British Parliament,he was caught and tried and executed in 1605.
Whether you believe in his fight or not, the date is enshrined in our calendar as a Fireworks Display Night and trounces all political allegiances every year. Perhaps no bad thing.
It’s one of these milestones in history that bring one what is to come, that is, the sailing of the Mayflower…the Pilgrims…leading onto the desire for Independence. And rightly Independence.
Your anthems and particularly the Star Spangled Banner have to be the most poignant in the world. As a Scot, I also love’ O Fleur O’ Scotland’. Patriotism has it’s place, without bigotry or exclusion, a place of belonging and pride and collective memory.
Thanks again for the post and hope you are enjoying your hols as I am!
Light Shine

It was worth crawling out of bed – finally – to read your insightful comment. I love the names of all your fireworks, but then I’m smitten with the way you Brits have a way with words. I had no idea that “bits and pieces” could be applied to so many situations until my Lesley in Suffolk brought me up to speed. 🙂 But they have their own way of talking there that’s like no other.
Like most Americans, I knew little about Guy Fawkes until I was on an NPD forum and members (the ones who spell “behavior” with a “u”) began wishing each other a safe Bonfire Night. Watching the movie “V for Vendetta” was a start. I’ve since read “An Utterly Impartial History of Britain or 2000 Years of Upper-class Idiots in Charge,”which was a rollicking read (and given to me by a parent who married a Scotsman).
Any holiday that can trounce all political allegiances is a welcome respite from what’s become such an acrimonious political atmosphere. I’ve never seen people so polarized here though I do blame some of this on those dour-faced Puritans, whose legacy still lingers in our national psyche.
Wish the pond was merely a trickle, so I could jump over and have a coffee with you. Always, Jan


6. SeekingCharity - July 22, 2012

My retired hubby and I have talked off and on about moving to Mexico (we live in New Mexico). Thank you for this post, I believe we will stay on this side of the border.

In your reply to Les above, you mention the dour-faced Puritans. In researching my genealogy I have learned that two of my ancestors were on the second ship after the Mayflower, that landed on Plymouth Rock in 1623.

Which explains a lot.


Hahahaha regarding your ancestors. I recently read a book on English history and the English were eager to send those Puritanical “party-killers” packing. 🙂
We went to San Miguel in 1993, so I know so much has changed since then. When my husband last flew into Mexico City and Leon on business, he couldn’t believe that Costco has huge stores there. At the time we were there you had to go to two different stores to buy the parts to assemble a hose with a metal fitting on the end. It was also just as cel phone were coming into play, so that would have made a big difference.
I think anyone contemplating such a bold move should rent a house for several months to test the waters. Jan


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