The Final Chapter – Out Of Mexico

walkawayOne hundred and seventy-four days, 17,000 kilometers, 21 states (10 U.S., 11 Mexican), 28 hotel rooms, 9,200 topes, six dogs and five cats later, we’re home. I’ve been procrastinating about writing this final blog because, once I do, the experience will truly be over. I fool myself by thinking, if I delay writing the last post, it doesn’t have to end. I can continue to live it. But then, that would be living in denial, and I’d rather be living in Mexico, so here goes.     The day after The Day of the Dead we pointed the Subaru north and two weeks later we rolled into Kamloops, where we’ll spend the next five months house-sitting…nobody. No cute cats, no nasty cats, no adorable dogs, no horn dogs. It’s quiet. Too quiet. But let’s begin at the end.

1The drive up was, as expected, not as fun as the drive down. Back in May, a whole highway of adventure stretched out in front of us. We had no idea what we would see, who we would meet, what we would experience. Many of these places we’d never been to before, and we didn’t know the people whose homes and pets we’d be caring for over these next five months. But coming home? That’s all so predictable. We’d driven these highways before, seen these sights before, had these experiences before. There was no adventure awaiting us at the end. Just a long, straight, boring road out of Eden, to mangle a song title from The Eagles.

telaq10When we motored out of Patzcuaro on November 2, we didn’t head directly north. We first went west, to the coast, back to the beach, to San Blas. En route we stopped once again at Tlaquepaque because, well, just because we like it there. We tried to book into the same hotel we stayed in on the way down, the Quinta Don Jose, but they were all booked up. So we went about a block or two away to the Casa de las Flores, a similarly priced and styled abode. This one had a really cool garden courtyard that was so dense it brought us back to the jungles of San Pancho. Lots of flowers, too, hence the name. If you’re ever in Tlaquepaque, I highly recommend either of these two boutique hotels. Once again, we strolled the streets (much easier, now that my foot was well on its way to being healed after the Great Sayulita Bridge-Dangling Debacle a month earlier), bought too many trinkets, and had a yummy steak dinner at El Tacote.

The next day we headed for San Blas. It took only a few hours to get to the turn-off, which indicated that the small beachside town was 17 km away. Two kilometers into the turn, another sign announced that San Blas was 37 km away. Ya gotta love Mexico; those sign-posters have quite the diabolical sense of humour. After an hour of winding, bumpy roads we reached the orderly little town, and checked into the Hotel Hacienda Flamingos. This place has quite the history. It was apparently built as a German consulate in the mid-1800s, remodeled as a hotel in 1950, and completely renovated in 1998. Some guests have reported encounters with what the staff imaginatively call “untanned guests”, i.e., ghosts, but we sensed nothing otherworldly. We didn’t even sense the no-see-ums the town is infamous for.

After we got settled, we went for a late lunch at McDonald’s. Not the golden arches, but a nice-looking little bar-café that appeared to have some good choices. Turns out, it was a bad choice. The server was indifferent and the food matched. A Big Mac would have been infinitely better. We then walked around and saw, well, nothing. There was little going on along the shore, except for a handful of kids listlessly kicking a soccer ball through the sand. The town itself was so quiet even the crickets were hesitant to chirp. We bought a six-pack at the corner abarrote from a surly storekeep and headed back to our room. At least it had a deck, where we sat and watched the sky turn from turquoise to navy to black. This is San Blas at off-season. Not even the famed jungle tours to the crocodile estuary were operating, since there was no one to take them. The next morning, we beat it outta there and called it a lesson learned: coulda definitely given this town a miss.

Heading north, the drive to Los Mochis took roughly 6 hours. There’s really not much to say about this town, other than it’s a jumping-off point for the famed Copper Canyon Train tour. For us, it was simply a pit stop. The next day we aimed straight for Mazatlan. Out of some twisted sense of sentimentality, we pulled into the El Cid Hotel, where we’d stayed some 30 years ago. For $17 a night. Well, mi amigos, the world has changed. Mazatlan has changed. One of Mexico’s biggest tourist destinations back then, it’s grown like a mushroom since. We pushed our way through the busy streets, now lined with all manner of hotels, condos, shops and restaurants. And that $17 a night room? We got it; for $130 more. And they had the audacity to charge an additional $8 for the privilege of accessing their wi-fi. Out of principle, we declined. We had an early supper at a nice Italian restaurant across the street, then returned to the hotel where we watched the sun set from the beach-side bar and reminded ourselves: you can never go back.

The drive north from that point was mind-numbing; nothing but ranchland, farmland and agricultural land. Flat, straight, dull. We rolled into Guaymas at dusk and checked into the Hotel Playa de Cortez. It was clearly off-season here, too, as it appeared we were the only guests. We popped into the deserted hotel restaurant for a bite and considered ourselves lucky that, as the only guests, it would be a quiet night. Midway through our meal, we saw a woman walk through the courtyard in a long white dress. A wedding dress. She was followed by a woman in a long red dress. A bridesmaid’s dress. Perfect. The reason the hotel was empty was because a wedding party had reserved it. We steeled ourselves for a noisy night.

p1040569Bummed, we walked down and sat on the old pier to watch the sunset, snapping pictures as the fading rays burnished the mountains from brown to copper, and suffused the town of San Carlos across Bacochibampo Bay in gold. It was really quite picturesque and Rick was pleased he got some excellent shots. When it was nearly dark, we got up to leave. I turned around, and with one swift, unfortunately placed footstep, I kicked the camera into the sea. We heard the sickening kerplunk and stood frozen in shock. Then Rick whipped down to the sand, waded into the waves up to his knees, and fished the camera out. Back in the room, we assessed the damage. The case had not protected it from the water; it was soaked. We dried it as best we could, then left it to air out. Knowing what salt water does to anything electronic, however, we didn’t hold out much hope.

We climbed into bed at 11 p.m. and thought, we’re lucky the front desk put us on the other side of the hotel, since we couldn’t hear a sound coming from the wedding. As we switched off the light, they struck up the band. The happy couple and their guests boogied for hours into the night. At one point, we heard what sounded like gun shots, an all-too frequent occurrence at some Mexican weddings these days when drug thugs open fire on the wedding party just for the hell of it. Fortunately it was just fireworks. Bleary-eyed the next morning, we tried the camera, but it just wouldn’t work. Bummer. If there was a bright side, it was that we were at the end of our trip.

We stopped in San Carlos to visit our Kamloops homeowners, whom we house-sit for in the winter, had a lovely brunch, then made a run for the border. The entrance to the crossing at Nogales, Arizona, stretches for miles, with high concrete and barbed-wire fences. You’d have to be Spiderman to slink across undetected. We inched along for an hour and a half while Mexican vendors strolled between the lanes offering us a last chance to buy blankets, bowls, jewelry, paintings. You have to applaud their tenacity; these guys just don’t quit. The actual border interrogation took just a few minutes and we were on our way. I guess they figured we were the Canadian border guards’ problem. Not so fast. About 25 miles past the border, we were stopped at a military checkpoint. This was a first. The solider boy, who looked remarkably like Brendan Fraser, couldn’t quite grasp the idea that we were Canadians in the U.S. from Mexico, so he ordered us to pull over to the side. Another military guy then scrutinized our passports and our story. With images of a strip search and hours in a sweat box under a single bulb rippling through my brain, I was relieved when he turned out to be more interested in the concept of house-sitting than drilling us for intel. So we gave him the housecarers.com website and we were on our way. Who knew it was so easy to bribe the U.S. military.

It was strange driving on American highways once again. Here, there are actual lines on the road and people stay within them. When someone signals, you don’t have to second-guess their intent. No one tail-gates, or passes you on corners. They drive with their lights on at night. There’s no swerving around cows or donkeys. There are no dead dogs on the side of the road. And, sweet Jesus, there are no topes. It took some getting used to, as Rick was tempted to slam on his brakes every time we approached an exit ramp. Later that night, sitting in a sports bar, it all felt so surreal. People were speaking our language; we didn’t have to point at the menu and launch into charades. The waitress was blond and chirpy, the food big and bland, the beer watery. We were officially in the U.S. We missed Mexico.

From Tucson, we once again headed west, to Palm Springs. Although it’s lovely, I’ve always thought there was something not quite right about Palm Springs. It just feels so artificial. No way should there be a city that rises up out of the desert like that. It’s just not natural. From there we skirted L.A. and spent two hours in San Francisco rush hour. Where do all these people come from? I’m not sure if this is still true, but at one point, there were as many people in the state of California as there were in all of Canada. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, gazing out at a sea of red lights that stretched into the distance, I didn’t doubt that for a second.

Although we’ve driven it many times in the past, the California-Oregon coast still makes us gasp, it’s just that spectacular. The weather continued sunny and warm, so the pictures we could have taken would have been phenomenal. If only we had a working camera. At Cannon Beach, it turned rainy and cold. We were undeniably back in the Pacific Northwest. We comforted ourselves with a nice dinner at the Irish Table, a restaurant Trip Advisor raved about. It did not disappoint. Neither did the guards at the Canadian border the next day. Admitting to spending five months in Mexico put the entire crossing on high alert. We half-expected the national guard, the royal cavalry, and a tank or two to command us to stand down. But this was at a small, rural Idaho/B.C. crossing, and the unlucky bastard who drew the short straw to search us clearly would have preferred the back-up. They have no x-ray equipment, no sniffer dogs, no sophisticated sensing equipment whatsoever. All searches are done by hand, with flashlights and screwdrivers (to pop off our light fixtures, to scrutinize under the hood, to peer inside caps and into crevices — anywhere enterprising drug smugglers might think to stow their stash) and are conducted outside, in the cold. As he was methodically dismantling our car, I commented to the guard that things would be so much quicker and easier if they would join the 21st century and spring for some modern technology. I’d even submit to the much-maligned full body scan if it would speed things up, I told him. I have no problem baring my butt in the interest of haste. He grumbled, “I hear ya’.” An hour and a half later, we repacked our car and headed home. Less than an hour inside the border, we hit snow. For the love of god, this is too soon.

And now, as I gaze out my frosty window at a snow-crusted golf course, my mind drifts back to the warmth of Patzcuaro, Barra de Potosi, San Pancho, Erongaricuaro, and the people and pets who became surprisingly special to us. I used pseudonyms for them all, but after our time together, they’ve agreed to have their true identities revealed. So the cast of characters, in order of appearance, are:

In Patzcuaro, our first house-sit was for Judy and Lee and their Thai Ridgeback named Tai (“Senor Frias Orejas”), a fierce-looking beast who would rather I not reveal that, in actuality, he’s a real softie. Judy and Lee also own another lovely home, a vacation house, which is available for rent (or sale), on the coast in San Pancho (www.casaladera.com). Next, in Barra de Potosi, we sat for Gary and Zoe and their sheltie Tessa (“The Contessa”), she of the dazzling smile, and terrier Clinker (“The Colonel”, after Hogan’s Heroes’ Colonel Klink), he of the Oscar Mayer wiener tail. Then we headed up the coast, just north of Puerto Vallarta, to San Pancho, and our longest sit, at two months. This was for Bill and Barbara and their menagerie Kahlua (“Oprah) and the three amigos: Horatio (“The Duke”), Valentino (“Bebe”) and Pico (“Monty”). Their home is actually a B&B, which they co-own with their friends and partners Judi and John. The B&B, which was closed for the season while we were there, is called Casa Obelisco (www.casaobelisco.com), which is for sale, if you want to own a piece of paradise in a funky little beach town. If not, go stay there, meet the stars of the blog! Finally, we headed back inland to Erongaricuaro, a muy poco town in the mountains, to sit for Phyllis and Jon and their dogs Luna (“Tia Maria”) and Rigo (“Jack”), and cats Rocky (“Greta”) and Cosmos (“Brat”).

They were all strangers when we first met, but they all became friends by the time we left. Some even referred to us as family, which warmed our cockles, whatever cockles are. Back in the frozen north, we think of them often. And when we reminisce about caring for their prized possessions, their pets, it never fails to bring a smile to our faces. We miss them all more than we could have imagined, and we look forward to seeing them again.

p1020202Did this house-sitting adventure “catapult my life into a state of nirvana,” as I’d written at the beginning of this blog? It did, actually. There are many, many “Mexican momentos” I can look back on that never fail to set me off on a wonderful daydream, a loopy grin on my face. That’s the beauty of travel: whenever I’m feeling blue (or cold!), I can sit back, close my eyes, and transport myself back to a special moment. Will I fall back into the dreaded rut, now that I’m back? Probably. But not for long. In the end, this journey opened my eyes, and taught me that you don’t have to live your life in a rut, you don’t have to postpone happiness. There’s another way to live. Better get busy.

PS: By the time we left Mexico, this blog had garnered an astounding 4,998 hits. The most viewed post, with 168 hits, was “Save the Last Walk For Me”, about our last day in Patzcuaro with Senor Frias Orejas. The second-most read, with 147 views, was “I Left My Heart …” about our last day in San Pancho. Thank you to the homeowners, who allowed us to chronicle our adventures with them and their pets. And thank you to the readers who followed along on this incredible journey with us, and for the wonderful comments you made. We loved having you along for the ride with us! We’ll keep you posted on the next adventure.

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