November 30th 1981

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Enjoying our luxurious hotel

For breakfast, I craved a café con leche, so we were extravagant, + had one in the hotel restaurant.  It turned out to be an expensive day all round.  Strolled through the market once again – it is almost next door to the hotel, so it can be difficult to avoid it.  On to the tourist office, to obtain a map of the town, + then cakes for the food part of breakfast, from a panaderia.  Also bought a short history of Mexico in English – another $100.  We’ve been having a problem finding Christmas cards, most of them here being like the worst you find at home, and expensive to boot, but managed to find an attractive postcard, bought some envelopes, + solved our problem.  Next visited the Instituto Allende, a prestigious art college in town.  A very attractive place, with a good view of the town on the hill up above it.  Then an area called El Chorro, with a massive terraced building – I don’t even know what it was, tho’ clearly it is not in use now,  but impressive all the same.

Coming back thro’ town, we bought me a woven shIrt for $180.  It was the sort of thing I’d been looking for, + was very pleased with it.  We then returned to the hotel to take ourselves a siesta, tho’ we didn’t sleep, but sat out on the terrace outside our room, first having lunch, a frightfully uninteresting onion sandwich, after which I read the History we’d bought, while Val began on the task of writing cards.

When the afternoon cooled a little, we went for a walk, first up on the hill above the town (where the condominiums are rising rapidly) + then back down + out towards the river.  It was getting dark now, so back to the hotel, once again to lie around – what luxury!  Come evening, once more to the town square, eating first enchiladas + tostadas at a small restaurant, then (I think) tortillas at a stall.  Good cheap food.

Not easy to comment on the above, as it all seems very pleasant  and relaxed.  It is interesting to think back on those times; both Val and I have a memory of a pretty dismal time, with poor health and always struggling to keep to our budget.  Well that may have been the case, but is not reflected in the diary entry.  I was very pleased with the shirt I bought, only later discovering that the material it was made from was largely used to make dishcloths.

November 29th 1981

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The cheerleaders!

A good night’s sleep – we were tired – then after a snatched carbohydrate breakfast, decided to pack up our things + take them straight to the bus station.  That would take us through the centre of town, so we could take some pictures of the more interesting plazas, buildings.  We liked Queretaro, especially around the historic centre of the town – because there are so many surprising little courtyards, popping their heads up at you as you round a corner.

On our way into town, however, we discovered there was a carnival procession on in town, to mark its 450th anniversary, so we found ourselves a spot, dumped our bags, + watched them all go by – rich Queretaro parading before poor.  It was a bit slow-moving, but there were some good items, my favourite being the drum-majorettes, who were all very good-looking – I suspect a professional import.  As is often the case, the carnival suffered somewhat from not having constant music.  There were bands, but they were too few + far between.  I would have had a mariachi band every third float (but then, it wasn’t my carnival.)

A more sombre group

When it was all finished, the crowd dispersed a little, we walked to the centre, rested a little with a couple of cokes, Val took a picture or two, + then out to the bus station.  Only a half-hour wait there, then on a bus to San Miguel de Allende – not much more than hour away.  Once off the bus, first stop was lunch – rolls filled with un poquito de cheese + some onion – then, once again, the accommodation search.  First place was $250, + very nice, but decided to check elsewhere.  Plodded up the hill to the town centre, then, wisely decided to split up – 1 to look after the bags, the other to search.  First Val looked, then me, when she returned hotel-less.  Tried 2 suggested in our guide – 1st full, but lucky with the 2nd.  Still $248, but really very luxurious.  Fetched Val, then we strolled around the market + a bit of the town till early evening.  Sat around reading, showered, then out again.  Town square was very lively, + were able to eat cheaply from an open-air stall – enchiladas, then syrup pancakes.  PS I forgot – we drank margaritas tonight.

And so, as is our usual practice, we are off on our travels again, desperate to fit as much as possible into the time, with none left to linger.  However, always on the lookout for any opportunity , we caught the parade.  Mildly embarrassed to read my appreciation of the obvious charms of the cheerleaders…

Probably the first example of what was to become a regular approach when arriving in a new place: one to sit and watch, the other to look for accommodation.  Much better than both of us lugging heavy bags around, and becoming short-tempered as a result.  We thought we were being very clever… but then discovered it was common policy with backpackers.  Ah well.

November 28th 1981

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Val at the Juarez memorial

Were awoken by the prod of a broom – the stationmaster (I think) was sweeping up, + gave us our peremptory cue to leave.  Our first real view of Queretaro impressed us – the streets were clean, narrow + quaint, the morning was yet cool, + we had the place to ourselves.  The first call was for coffee – I had a delicious café leche (rapidly becoming my favourite breakfast drink), while Val contented herself with a common or garden “negro”.  We were stung tho’ – 30 pesos.  2nd call of the day, a panaderia, + we sat in a pleasant square to consume our buns.  The tourist office, next – not an easy place to find, + a bit of confusion about whether they were open, but some useful information, along with a useful list of hotels.  A list that proved useless, however, since all of them were full or expensive or both.  The search just about killed us tho’ – the sun was now up + ready for business, + our bags grew heavier with every step.  Eventually, we put our bags into the left luggage at the bus station, + then set out to see a little more of the town.

First of all we strolled out to the aqueduct, a magnificent piece of engineering, with 63(?) arches, built solely, it seemed, to serve one convent.  We took a short tour around that too – tho’ since it was in Spanish, I understood little or nothing, (and Val a little less.)  The markets were the next stop – isn’t it funny that the foreign markets are more interesting than English ones, even the food depts.  We strolled over to the town’s other convent, which wasn’t open – then continued on to the monument to Juarez, a Mexican lawmaker.  It’s a huge statue. Set up on a hill.  Strolled back to town along the river – merely a trickle really – + then renewed our attempt to find a place to stay.  After much effort, discovered a casa de hespuedes – a boarding house – for a mere 150 pesos.  Then, en route to fetch our bags, visited the museum.

The aqueduct

Come evening, set out to find a bar – fruitlessly.  In a little plaza, found women selling cooked food – we had a sort of crispy pancake with syrup.  Then, finally getting into a bar, informed we couldn’t be served, Val being female.  Understandably, she was pissed off. (Me 2.)

Really going to town on ticking off the tourist sites – as is our wont.  We rarely just lazed, nearly always making sure we saw what there was to see, and then being anxious to move on, to the next town, site, temple…

Usual problem finding somewhere to stay.  In that pre-internet age, it meant physically walking around and knocking on doors, rather than doing so virtually… which is what we do now, of course.


November 27th 1981

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The cathedral

A bad day today.  Said goodbye to Henry, but the Germans were either asleep or out.  We headed off once more to the Australian embassy, but there received a fairly severe setback to our hopes, since the woman there insisted that it was impossible to apply for a working visa outside of one’s country of nationality.  And yet the LA consulate had issued us with application forms.  In any case, they hadn’t yet received our forms, + the consul was away + wouldn’t be back until Tuesday, so all we could do was leave the matter hanging + say we’d be back.  It did make us both feel pretty fed up tho’, that can’t be denied.  Went back briefly to the hotel, left a note for Franz + Anita, then set off to visit a couple of Mexico’s historic buildings. 

First was the Cathedral, + we were taken in by a self-professed “guide”, who offered to show us the “catacombs”.  In fact, they turned out to be boring underground corridors, + he was patronising, tedious, + generally uninformative.  And we were charged $2US for a wasted half-hour.  Rum ti tum.

We then took a quick look at the National Palace – an uninspiring building – then made our way back to the hotel (stopping briefly at our favourite panaderia) to collect our bags and move on out.  Then, once again, the walk to the station, tho’ it was nothing like as far this time, as we were able to walk straight there by the most direct route.  I spent ages queuing for a ticket when we got there only to discover I was in the First Class queue (how silly of me!)  The train left at 6, so we still had a couple of hours to kill, so we sat outside in the sunshine on the grass.  Until, that is, Val remembered she’d left her shoes behind in the hotel.  My Spanish being the better, I trotted back to fetch them – fortunately, the room was still unoccupied, so there was no problem.

We were able to get ourselves fairly comfortable seats on the train – tho’ partly at least because we found our way to an older, less popular carriage.  It was our fear that we might do as we did before, + miss our stop, but the conductor saw us right.  So, at 11.30 or so, we arrived at Queretaro station, where we rolled out our sleeping bags, + slept.

Not sure I know who Henry is/was – presumably one of our fellow-travellers.  And our experience with the Australian embassy was entirely typical of the somewhat haphazard way we were approaching our travels, just seeing what was available.  Though it could have its drawbacks…

And leaving things behind was another repeated motif of our trip, mostly, as in this case, with no serious consequence.

And yet another example of our using the stations as impromptu (and, crucially, free!) sleeping places.  Have my doubts that it would be quite so free and easy nowadays.

November 26th 1981

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Beetles as taxis

A day that began with real problems, + ended happily… as you shall see.  It had been our intention to stop off at Queretaro, about 150 miles before Mexico City, + had been told the train got there at 3 am.  We woke ourselves several times during the night, + finally got ourselves together at 2.45, only to discover Queretaro had passed.  Ho hum.  So we slept again, being awoken later by the conductor who wanted to see our tickets.  It didn’t seem to bother him that we’d missed our stop, but he was a bit upset when Val couldn’t find part of her ticket, but he gave up in the end.

When we all disembarked in Mexico City, the first stop was coffee – it was breakfast time.  Turned out to be an expensive coffee + bread rolls.  Then the 2 other Germans set off for Puerto Escondido – supposedly a really nice town on the coast – while we remaining 5 set about trying to find a hotel that Franz had heard was good – the Hotel Pennsylvania.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have an address – just vague directions.  We started to walk + after a while asked directions, tho’ without very much success – people either didn’t know, or their directions were vague, or inaccurate, so that we wandered hither + thither for ages before finally discovering the phone no., getting better directions, + asking again (of course!)  The hotel was OK, tho’ overpriced – $250 for a double room.  And especially considering they were in the middle of totally refurbishing the place, so there were builders + builders’ muck everywhere.  Franz managed to get cement dropped on his jumper straight away.  But at least the rooms were comfortable.

The Hotel Pennsylvania

A short rest, then we all headed into town, first to the information office, where we grabbed maps, + then to the markets.  First stop was a panaderia.  Our guide book says that they are a delight – they’re better, they’re paradise.  They work on a self-serve basis – you grab a tray + some tongs, + get going.  We all loaded ourselves with various breads + pastries, then took them out to a small courtyard down the road to eat them.

Next stop the food market – terrific, colourful + fairly cheap.  It was good fun just to wander round + browse – much better than Sainsbury’s.  In comparison, the craft market that we visited next was disappointing – trashy commercialised rubbish, + housed in an uninteresting modern building – more like a multi-storey car park – at that. 

We left the others at this point to visit the Australian embassy, but to our annoyance it closed at 3, so we were quarter of an hour late.  Still, the walk enabled us to drink up a little more of the Mexico City atmosphere.  Like most cities in the world now, I suppose, it’s busy bustling, + packed with traffic.  And like most latin cities it’s noisy.  I liked the aura it gave off – the combination of big city buzz, with the street traders + sellers of… different… foods.  For some reason (are they still made in Mexico?) the roads were awash with VW Beetles – this would, of course, attract my attention.

Anyway… returned to the hotel, + spent some hours simply lying around recovering.  All sorts of fun + games with the shower – first it worked, then it didn’t, then there was no cold water, then no hot.  Despite these little problems, I managed to get myself showered, but Val was left hot + sticky.  So I, being a noble spirit at heart, popped down + managed to convey the information that all was not well, shower-wise.  And amazingly, the senora fixed it straight away.  Meaning that Val got the last laugh, since she got the best shower.

We arranged to go out sometime after 8 – how frightfully civilised, eh?  We were off to the Plaza Garibaldi, which our guide books recommended, both as an eating place + place of entertainment.  A fair walk, but by no means an unpleasant one.  And the Plaza was really excellent – lots of mariachi bands in friendly competition, ranging from very good to pretty poor, as well as other entertainers.  And then the food hall – incredible.  Just row upon row of eating houses all virtually identical, yet all trying hard to persuade you to choose them.  Eventually picked one at random, + had a fine meal.  Then, after coffee, more music + laughter, home.

Usual problems with time – you would have thought that we would have sorted something out by now – meaning that we found ourselves unexpectedly in the city.  Quite clear too, however, that we were enjoying having the company of others.

The Beetle reference is to the fact that that had been our car – the one we had left with Pete when leaving – back in England.  I would not have thought it would have made the best of taxis, being pretty compact, and with only two doors, but what do I know?  And it does seem that we are starting to enjoy the night-time life and vigour.

November 25th 1981

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I had intended to combine an account of today’s adventures with yesterday’s, since all we did today was sit on a train, but really I should record the train journey in rather more detail – it is pretty unique.  Not, I repeat, that anything happens – we were on the train from quarter to midnight yesterday to 7 tomorrow morning (if you follow me) + we didn’t crash.  Still…

The single most important thing about the train (I’m going to generalise) is the food.  We had brought a small amount of food with us – mostly fruit – but there is so much on sale that it really isn’t necessary.  Not from a buffet car, you understand – at every station the locals were out in force to sell their wares – enchiladas, tortillas, tacos, sweetbreads, cheeses, fruit, coffee, cold drinks, sweets.  Sometimes this is done from the platform, sometimes they board the train + try there.  And so far, we’ve been pleased with all we’ve bought – our stomachs, after their initial uncertainty, have borne up wonderfully.  And the food is cheap too – usually 5-10 pesos.  In addition to these, the guards also sold various things, tho’ I don’t know whether this is part of their job specification, or they were freelancing.  Anyway, this added beer, rock and little jellies, as well as early morning coffee, to the menu (tho’ not as cheap.)  Finally, all sorts of other little goodies might appear at various times – eg cheap jewellery, little toy horses.  Quite the travelling market.  Mind you, it is needed to compensate for the scenery, which really kin Northern Mexico is pretty dull.  We both amused ourselves with reading most of the time – I’ve finished the short history of the Roman world we bought, + have started Gulag Archipelago (I’m back to prisons again), + Val is reading “The Mill on the Floss”.  We also played a few games of cards, but the sitting down, reading, + sun gave me a headache.  However, to our current experience at any rate, the 2nd class compartments are by no means the stinking, overcrowded cesspools that have been described to us – about standard British Rail in fact… so far, at least. (Val says the bogs are worse here.)

You will already have noted my preoccupation with food, and this is just another example.  I suppose because it really is one of the highlights of every day.  It is also specific; so that when having nothing else to write, I could list each item for each meal… and frequently do.

November 24th 1981

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Annette (or possibly Anita)

Woke to find people all around us, so dragged ourselves together from our places on the floor – I at least had slept well –  +staggered out into the wide world, to try + find the bus going to the other station – Chihuahua has 2.  Fortunately we happened upon a group of students who happened to be going near there, so they were able to guide us.  First job at the station was breakfast – coffee + donuts all round (except for Franz – he was reacting badly to last night’s soup.)  From then on it was a lazy day sitting in the sun – a lovely day for that.  Val, I + Anita too for part of the way, did walk in a little to town to perform some errands – bank, post office, shopping – but the rest of the day was reading, writing + music.  Talking of the latter, while we were playing “John Barleycorn”, a bunch of local kids gathered to listen.  At first they were very shy + quite sweet – but they soon lost that + became a pain in the ass.  However, just about the only thing we could do was wait for them to get bored + go away.  Fortunately, after quite a while they did so, + then F + A returned from their shopping, which made it rather easier to ignore them.

Statue of Pancho Villa, Chihuahua

We moved into the station soon after, as it had begun to get cool, but there was still quite a fair wait – our train didn’t leave till nearly 12.  Met a Canadian girl – Henriette – who seemed quite good fun, + she + we went out to get something to eat (tho’ for various reasons it turned out to be enchiladas in the station followed by a hamburger outside.  When the train arrived, it was very crowded, but that almost worked to our advantage, since we were forced into a carriage which we thought was first class but turned out to be second, + was really pretty comfortable.  Weren’t all together at first (the 5 you know, plus 2 more Germans) but after a couple of stops + various people leaving, managed to join up as one bunch, tho’ the company we gave each other was mostly psychological, since we weren’t able to converse.  Slept surprisingly well.

Just killing time really; the sort of thing one has to do all the time when travelling.  Still recall the frustration of having to deal with children over whom one has no power whatsoever; even irritation merely acts as confirmation for them that they are winning.

November 23rd 1981

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Despite sleeping both in Val’s sleeping bag, it was a very cold night, + I slept little.  Val fared rather better, especially with her woolly tights on.  I was very disappointed in Val’s bag – not only was there a gaping hole around the top above the zip, but the zip itself around two sides became icy cold.  Rum ti tum.

When we emerged, were both shocked + unsurprised to discover ice on the tent – the coldest camping I’ve ever done.  While we were taking down our tent, the farmer called us in to his house to warm our hands, and then gave us a cup of chocolate each – a  very pleasant surprise.  The house was really not much more than a 2-roomed shack, with an oil-can stove.  Most notable were the large number of religious pictures + models on the wall.  Said goodbye, giving him Uncle Joe’s hankies as a present, then walked back into town, only to discover we were very late for a meeting with Gerhardt.  However, all was well.

The tours of local sites we wanted to go on were expensive – $US18 an hour – but we were able to arrange a two-hour tour.  On reflection, it probably would have been better to have found our own way on foot, but nonetheless the tour was interesting, + the guide, Sr. Domingo, was able to drive us to a number of interesting local places, + was knowledgeable too, being a former teacher of Indians.  Saw various small groups of Indians, a beautiful lake, some amazing natural rock formations in the shapes of various animals – best of all, a visit to a cave dwelling.  Amazingly primitive, tho’ also with all sorts of modern junk lying around.  And there was a big pot of corn mash boiling away to make liquor.

Cave dwelling
Looking out

Back at lunch, where we just lazed around waiting for the afternoon train.  Met a nice German couple – Franz + Anita.  Train journey was uneventful + boring, especially as we were separated from the other 4.  When we arrived at Chihuahua, Gerhardt left, + we 4 went for a meal – a rather strong + salty seafood soup.  Then back to station – sat, then slept.

Spending rather more than we wanted on a tour, but it was interesting enough, and we have to remind ourselves that the purpose of the trip is not just to spend as little as possible for as long as possible.

For the first time in our trip, we have stumbled upon a tourist trail, leading down through Mexico, meaning that for the first time we are able to hook up with other travellers: good for company, good to share security, and information, especially when we are very much finding our feet.

Better warn you in advance that I seem to call Annette Anita (or call Anita Annette) quite a lot, using the names fairly randomly in my diary and photos, but it is just the one person.

But once again, we were treated with kindness and generosity by strangers, and ones who had a lot less than we did.  Uncle Joe was an old friend of the family, that we might have visited, and my mum had given us a pack of fancy handkerchiefs as a present.  Since we had not managed to fit him in to our trip around the US, the hankies were surplus to requirements, so made for a suitable present… even if our hosts did seem a little puzzled.

November 22nd 1981

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The farm where we stayed

In order to catch the train, leaving at 7, we had to be at a nearby hotel to catch a bus at 6.15.  Being clockless, this caused a problem, + each of us had to venture downstairs at an unearthly hour in order to discover the time.  Despite this, we managed to be late, + had to run for the bus.  I was already very weak, + very nearly called the whole thing off…  But I didn’t, + survived (despite being charged $50 each for the bus ride.)

After what we had read + heard about 2nd class train travel, the train was a pleasant surprise, being really not very much worse than shabby British.  And immediately the hawkers starting plying their wares – books + parrots to a variety of foods + drinks.  We cheerfully refused them all.  The train stopped many times, + every stop brought a new collection of salespersons, mostly kids.  We passed some fabulous scenery – mountains, bridges, tunnels.  Eventually we reached the Continental Divide – the Divisadero – where everyone could get out + take a look.  And impressive it certainly was.

The Copper Canyon

And then on to Creel, arriving there at about 5, still with a little daylight.  Looked around for others of our ilk to consult as to a place to camp.  When that failed, we tried some locals… again, no  success, so we just walked out of town, intending to find a patch of scrub.  However, Val was nervous of going too far out, so I suggested we ask at a nearby farm – tho’ that is rather a grand term.  The farmer was very nice, + made it clear we were welcome to camp in his field… which we discovered also held a pig.  We set up, + then went to town (2 senses) for dinner.  A small restaurant, a fine meal – soup (onion for  Val, a superb asparagus for me) + tacos.  Met an Austrian called Gerhardt, + arranged to see him tomorrow.  Then home.

Lit a fire with wood supplied by our host, then, while it burned, Val penny-whistled + I sang.

I seem to recall we had acquired a clock of some sort to help us get up for apple-picking, but clearly we don’t have that any more, nor even a watch (a thing I can’t live without nowadays)

We stopped off in Creel, a small village on the route, because we could, at no extra cost, and because we decided that, in our pell-mell rush south, we weren;t really taking the time to see anything. so decided that Creel would give us that opportunity. Sheer chutzpah helped us find somewhere cheap… free… to stay however.

November 21st 1981

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I am going to consider, against all precedent, that this day began at 4.30 yesterday, since, to all practical purposes, it did.  The bus journey took about 22 hours, + tho’, as I have said, it wasn’t all that bad, like any bus, it was crowded + noisy + smelly.  And then there was the other problem… but I’ll come to that.  The dark hours on the bus were periods of drugged numbness, sinking too slowly to sleep, only inevitably to be awoken for some stop, usually a 20 minute rest, but the craziest being customs + immigration, I don’t know, some 150 miles into Mexico.  Along with nearly everyone else, we had to drag ourselves + our luggage off the bus + thro’ customs.  Many were searched – we were waved straight thro’ + back on the bus.  Later, that problem I mentioned – I discovered I had diahorrea.  Great.

The daylit hours were not much more interesting, but we finally arrived at Los Mochis on time.  Set about finding a hotel, the one mentioned in the guide being far too expensive, but fortunately Val had the energy to find us another for $200 (that’s pesos) – about $US8.  We wandered, getting various bits of shopping, + buying our train ticket for Creel the next morning.  We then returned to the hotel… + there we stayed.  Val slept for a while, tho’ she was a bit ill too; I was just ill.  She woke several times to see me sitting on the toilet – there was no door.  Eventually I took some Diocalm, + half an hour later I was sick.  Then, at last, I could sleep.  I had been, as well as ill, profoundly depressed all day.  I think mostly it was culture shock, suddenly thrust into a world over which I felt I had no control.  Mostly, of course, this is a language problem – my Spanish is schoolboy, + rusty at that.  I think also I am feeling homesick – tho’ that, too, must be associated with ordinary sickness.  When ill, one wants the comforts of home.

So, stomach problems – destined to be a part of our lives for quite a while, and disturbing, seeing as we had eaten very little since arriving in Mexico.  Possibly as much nerves as anything.  Not yet getting much of the buzz of Mexican life.