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July, 2008:

We’re going hunting for a panda…

“Flurry of activity” barely begins to describe our 2nd weekend in Mexico City. John managed to come across invites to multiple events at our apartment complex, which kicked off Friday evening with a “Christmas in July” party. Theme parties are only the best thing ever, and Bertie executed this one to its fullest with a 10-foot inflatable lawn Santa outside her door, Christmas lights a-go-go, Christmas caroling to live piano music, egg nog, Christmas cookies galore, and even a yule log cake with meringue mushrooms (love love meringue).

Sculpture representing man + nature

Sculpture representing man + nature

Saturday night followed with a poolside welcome BBQ with more meat than I could even dream of. The now internationally renowned Carmann Family Pizza Dip made an appearance and was promptly devoured, though I was generously offered the last bite. The feeding frenzy continued on Sunday with a beautifully planned baby shower for Raquel, also down by the pool. We ladies daintly ate a tasty bacon quiche, apple crisp w/homemade caramel sauce, a tasty crab concoction, mini crab cakes, mini pigs in blankets, and more.

"Ok ok, I'm aiming for the American guy in jeans. Who's your target?"

"Ok ok, I'm aiming for the American guy in jeans. Who's your target?"

So perhaps it was because of all of this other excitement, that our daytime activity on Saturday paled slightly in comparsion…  Things started off well; we wandered through Lincoln Park near our house, which is filled with interesting sculptures, an aviary, and beatiful trees. We visited the aviary in honor of our bird-owning friends Alek & Kate, and made a few purchases at the market, which was filled with vendors ready to make a deal.

Any candy you could dream of...

Any candy you could dream of at the market..

 We also witnessed girls sprinting to keep their car from being towed (they succeeded), and a older man operating a remote-control boat made of water bottles being “driven” by a half-nude Barbie doll.

Barbie may not be in complete control here

Barbie may not be in complete control here



Then, we decided to go the Chapultepec Zoo… We entered off the main street (Reforma) into what we assumed would be the zoo. The optimistic “Zoo –>” signs ran us through the gamut of vendors selling everything under the sun, with a particularly high frequency of cotton candy vendors. After walking for about 15-20 minutes & seeing no animals besides oddly-colored squirrels, we finally arrived at what appeared to be the offical zoo entrance and picked a direction to start exploring.

Only the best panda display ever

Only the best panda display ever

We were a bit uncertain what the zoo was going to be like, because one of the first things we saw was a big crowd of people clustered around a glass window, snapping photos like madmen. What was the exciting animal in this exhibit???, we wondered, rushing over to the action. Well, it was two STUFFED PANDAS. Hmm. Uh, what kind of ho-tel is this?

The frenzy over the stuffed pandas was made all the more amusing by the fact that when we walked another 50 feet around the corner, there were two LIVE PANDAS, virtually ignored. Guess I have some things to learn about operating a successful zoo in Mexico.

Other highlights included exhibits of:

Isn't this kind of like having a pigeon on display?

Isn't this kind of like having a pigeon on display?

  • a lone black crow (un cuervo, as in Jose)    





  • two prairie dogs (perritos de las praderas), living in the least prairie-looking environment I’ve recently seen
  • and a cool, massive rhinocerous who began jogging around his pen, giving me new appreciation for why you wouldn’t want to be on the jeep side of a rhino vs. jeep faceoff.
Yes! Prairie dogs!

Yes! Prairie dogs!

...clearly here in his natural prairie habitat

...clearly here in their natural prairie habitat

I think I will also add myself to the list of “highlighted exhibits”, because that’s what I felt like by the time we left the zoo (and no, I didn’t exacerbate things by wearing heels). As we walked through the zoo, numerous young children seemed torn between staring at the animals & staring at la guera alta. I also enjoyed the minimum 3-4 “Send a Sentry” incidences I observed throughout the day.

For those of you who have never been out with me standing in a public setting, “Send a Sentry” involves a group of people sending one member of their group to not-so-subtly a) walk by me, b) walk around me, or c) stand near me, so the remainder of the group can assess how short that person is in comparison. I am thinking about simply attaching a tape measure to my back to make things simpler for everyone. A tape measure in meters, of course.

Our air freight from Virginia gets to apartment faster than Cablevision

In seemingly a new air speed record, it took less than a week before we were the proud recipients of SOME OF OUR WORLDLY POSSESSIONS!! We sent all our clothes and some key kitchen accoutrements via air freight, and were very excited to see them all arrive safe & sound at our apartment complex in Polanco. Since we didn’t really know what to expect, we’ve been overall pleasantly surprised by our new dwelling. 

Check out some pics of our apartment here

Check out some pics of our apartment here

Really big kitchen w/plenty of storage, plenty of space overall, pretty clean, and a nice pool/bbq area right outside our door. There are a bunch of other embassy folks in this complex as well who have all been super-friendly, so we are happy to be making progress assimilating!

Turning this “house into a home” as absorbed much of our efforts these first several days… Lots of scrounging the grocery stores to stock up our cupboards/fridge, searching Amazon for what I can’t find here, and having near-daily interaction with my pal Octavio from Cablevision. 

In an naive attempt to be productive & not be intimidated by my lack of Spanish mastery, I trekked on over to the Cablevision store to set up our internet & cable TV. Having tried to prep myself with the correct terminology in advance, I felt my discussion with Octavio went smoothly enough. (And by smoothly, I mean it ended with me giving out my credit card number, signing multiple pages of 5-point Spanish font contracts & possibly signing over my first born child to Mexico’s telecom monopoly.)  Octavio assured me someone would call the next day to set up the install. (odds: zero %)

After re-contacting Octavio two days later, he then called us back Sunday morning & in a flurry of rapid Spanish, informed us the install couldn’t happen because the guy who lived in our apartment before us did not pay his ~$200 USD bill. John & I shuttled the phone between each other until he hung up. Octavio then proceeded to call back each morning for the next several days, wanting to discuss with me about the mystery bill, with me responding “No entiendo como esto es mi problema” in increasingly sharper tones. Luckily John has a magical contact at the embassy who has a magical contact at Cablevision, who confirmed a) the guy who lived here before us didn’t even have Cablevision, and b) that the install guys may actually come next week.

Lesson learned: get a native speaker to call & set up your cable & internet for you. And don’t sign up with Octavio.

Good yet tiring times on the Turibus

Three trips on the Turibus is one or two too many. While John was at his first day of work on Tuesday, I ran some errands in the AM & then ventured down to the Turibus departure point in the early afternoon. The open-air bus runs two routes– one east/west between Polanco (where we live) and the Zocalo (downtown). The “Ruta del Sur” runs from Madrid Square south to UNAM (the largest university in Latin America).

As per my hope, the main route was a great overview of all the highlights of Mexico City & made me excited about all the things we have to DOOOOO here! It was great to see such amazing architecture, innumerable restaurants & mysterious street carts, loads of museums, and the odd naked group protest (of which I saw two). Of course, inching along in the bumper-to-bumper traffic was also a cautionary lesson of ‘never drive near the Zocalo’. 

Click here to see the random album of Turibus pics

Click here to view the album of Turibus pics

On Thursday I did the south route, which takes you by the World Trade Center, San Angel, the Olympic Stadium, Frida Kahlo’s home/museum, UNAM, and more. I would say while there are definitely some highlights, the south route is a bit more sparsely populated & sloooow. An added bonus was the random 25 minute stop we made while it was raining in Coyoacan for no apparent reason, at which point I began to get a bit jittery. However, not knowing any other quicker options for getting back near Polanco, I stuck it out until we got back to where the south route spurs off from the main route (~4 hrs later?), and then walked the hour it took to get home. :)

Since John had been at work all week, he missed out on the city overview, so I told him I would come with him on Saturday (I am clearly the best wife ever), though only on the main route. Luckily traffic was much lighter & the bus much less busy, so it was a mere 3 hours of us getting sunburnt on the bus.  I am now officially Turibused-out, so any of you who come to visit will just have to hope that John & I have learned how to drive around the city by then, and that we’re feeling generous enough to give you a TuriMaxima tour.

Words of wisdom from the Embassy

poorly-taken picture of the US Embassy from the street in front

poorly-taken picture of the US Embassy

Wednesday was my first foray into the fortress that is the U.S. Embassy, aka. Embajada de los Estados Unidos. The Community Liason Office kindly holds Newcomers’ Briefings once a week, where a variety of folks give you an overview on life in Mexico City & within the Embassy. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how much useful info they gave us, but here are a few of the more salient points:

  • There are loooaaadds of cool places to go visit in Mexico, and the embassy will plan trips to some of them for you.
  • There are some jobs for spouses in the embassy, but you might not be super excited about them.
  • They will also try to help you find jobs at private companies, but finding a unique job/getting all the legal issues sorted out is surprisingly tricky.
  • The Mexican VAT is almost as bad as the UK’s, slapping a cool 15% on almost everything you buy.
  • They know that some Americans get jittery when they can’t have stuff they like, so the Embassy has a commissary that sells things like Ranch dressing packets & Vic’s cheddar cheese popcorn.
  • Don’t promise random Mexicans that you can get them a visa.
  • There are plenty of charities & activities in Mexico City that could benefit from your time & attention.
  • Just like everyone always says, don’t drink the water, and detox all your fruits & veggies before eating.
  • The pollution is worst from Dec-Feb (during the dry & cold seasons) and better during the rainy season esp. when it’s warm.
  • Odds of you getting what my friend Bonnye likes to call “the poops” at some point are about 99.9999%.
  • Odds of you ending up with an angry parasite in your belly that requires crazy medicine may not be THAT high, but are probably close.
  • Flaggin down/riding in libre taxis is a good way to end up “in a pickle” as my friend Ryan might say.
  • When a city holds over 20 million people, you are bound to run into some of the bad ones; wandering around alone at night in deserted areas dramatically increases your chance of meeting them.

The other two highlights of the day were:

  • Meeting another spouse who is currently a “lady of leisure” here in Polanco, much like myself, and who promisingly found humor in many of the same incidences that I found amusing during the day
  • Hearing another newcomer ask, “Can you buy Mexican dogs and cats here?”  Which apparently struck me as funny enough to make me start crying from laughing so hard. Good way to make a first impression with John’s coworkers.

Don’t show weakness in the D.F.

God bless the driver from the Embassy. He met us just after the last set of tolls outside of the city, so that we could follow him to our apartment on Monday. Initially we were really appreciative, having heard numerous anecdotes about how much la policia in D.F. like to pull over folks with U.S. license plates for a little “chat”. About 5 minutes into the drive, we were really, really appreciative, when a policeman on a motorcycled pulled along side us & gestured for us to pull over. Ruben began honking, and once the cop realized we were following someone with diplomatic plates, he let us continue unscathed (and with all of our pesos still in hand).

Our drive into the city & subsequent taxi/bus rides quickly taught us the cardinal rule of driving in Mexico City: he who hesitates loses. Or perhaps better described as– if you show weakness and/or worry too much about minor details (like stop signs/traffic lights/pedestrians), it will take you forever to get where you’re going and you will elicit innumerable honks/hand gestures/obscenities in the process.

To be fair, I have yet to venture out behind the wheel, but am busily taking copious mental notes & feel like I have already seen enough to throw out a cardinal rule. I reserve the right to modify it after my first traffic accident.

Spanish lessons don’t always cover ordering breakfast

Note exciting dust storm near bush in distance

Note exciting dust storm near bush in distance

Our route to Mexico D.F. (D.F. meaning ‘Distrito Federal’, or Federal District, similar to Washington D.C.) took us from Nuevo Laredo through/around/near Monterrey, Saltillo, Matehuala, San Luis Potosi, Queretaro, and southeast on into the city. We stuck with the toll roads most of the way there, and were pleasantly surprised by the road quality on our first day of driving. The mix of flat, arid terrain and harsh hills/mountains provided some interesting scenery, as did the numerous dust storms I kept struggling to capture on film. (Note to self: dust storms, much like ranchers, do not like to be fenced in.)

After about 8 hours & merely one experience with the heralded seat-less, toilet paper-less toilets of Mexican gas stations (note to self: I need to start doing squats again in the gym; my quads have atrophied), we arrived at the Holiday Inn in San Luis Potosi. Hotel was decent, and although paled in comparison to the hallowed La Posada, we did get a coupon for a free tequila. And so we had our first experience with proper Mexican tequila drinking.

  1. You sip the tequila (is that even allowed in the USA?)
  2. You alternate sips of tequila with sips of chilled sangrita (different from sangria, BTW)

At any rate, John & I figured we were basically locals now, until the next morning. We needed to get on the road, so didn’t have time for another cushy, sit-down brekkie at the hotel. And as embarassed as we were about propagating the classic stereotype of Americans loving to eat at McDonalds abroad, we decided to drive through the McDs across the street as an issue of efficiency. One would assume the breakfast menu would be posted at the drive-through, right? But you’d be wrong; all we saw were pictures of hamburguesas and papas a la francesa.

when a hope for a little sausage biscuit turns into a Swanson's Hungry Man size meal

when a hope for a little sausage biscuit turns into a Swanson's Hungry Man size meal

John began a polite conversation in Spanish to clarify that yes, they had breakfast, but whatever else he said just made the McDonaldite keep asking whether he wanted a hamburguesa. Apparently “Yo quisiera un ‘sausage biscuit’” wasn’t cutting it. I leapt into action, grabbing our dictionary, flipping to the ‘S’ section, and began yelping “Salchicha! Salchicha! Ask for something with a salchicha!” Finally, after requesting algo con salchicha, we were promised two desayunos especiales, which sounded right up our alley: special. And so we departed what was hopefully our first and last Mexican McDonalds, contentedly stuffing our faces with eggs, sausages, english muffins, coffee, and a variety of salsas.

You might run to the border, but you will crawl back

a 'must stay' on your next trip through Laredo, TX

a 'must stay' on your next trip through Laredo, TX

“When you get to Laredo, cross the border & get your car permits, then come back across the border, stay in Laredo, and head out early the next morning,” we were told. Uh, ok. Things seemed off to a good start, as I had sussed out the best place to stay this side of the Rio Grande, La Posada Hotel. This place was gorgeous, with two pools, swim-up pool bar, spacious & super-clean rooms, and amazing food- rare for hotel restaurants. After checking in & exchanging some pesos at the Casa de Cambio down the road, we zipped across the border to Nuevo Laredo to get our visas sorted & our car import permit. The entire process was overall surprisingly smooth & the lines weren’t too crazy; we even bonded with a random Mexican/German couple who now live in Dallas. 

Leaving Laredo proves to be much faster than entering it...

Leaving Laredo proves to be much faster than enterting

The part we were dreading came on the way back, where we got to sit in the standstill line of cars slowly snaking from the car permitting building over the Rio Grande to the US border for over 1.5 hours. (As per the photo, you’ll note that the lanes going back over bridge #1 into the States are just a little backed up…)  I think we easily could have been to Monterrey in the time that it took us to get BACK to Laredo. If we were advising someone else, we would probably suggest getting to Laredo in the evening, staying at La Posada, dining/drinking like kings, and getting up at the crack of dawn to go wrestle the car permitting place. However, that approach would meaning missing out on breakfast at La Posada, which I could not in good conscience tell someone to do, so you’ll have to make your own call. :)

Texas, our final frontier

On the Riverwalk in San Antonio

On the Riverwalk in San Antonio

We rolled into Keller, TX in the evening on July 10th, and were excited to see our friends Heidi & Scott, and their boys, Nathan & Aaron. Luckily, we arrived in time for a brief showing of the latest and greatest in the world of toys– an impressive collection! :) The adults managed to down a few beers & some tasty cheesecake before all four of us passed out from exhaustion.

San Antonio was next on our agenda, a mere four hours away; child’s play after our recent full-day drives. We stayed in a B&B down on the Riverwalk, and set off for a late afternoon wander about. FYI, the rest of downtown San Antonion is a tick scary/abandoned in the evening, so my hot tip is not deviating too far from said Riverwalk. Though we did find one gem off the beaten track on the way back to our B&B, the Cadillac Bar. Stop by for tasty nachos & autentico cervezas.

well, at least one of them is wearing pants

well, at least one of them is wearing pants

In a nutshell, probably wouldn’t rush back to San Anton for another visit, although the stop was not completely unproductive thanks to this strategic photo of John emulating a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory marketing bear.

Mmmmm chair…

There’s not a lot to be said for our drive from Grand Island down to Dallas/Fort Worth. Driving through Kansas and Oklahoma on I-135/I-35 *may* have even fewer redeeming features than driving on I-80 through Nebraska. The only highlight was after becoming ravenous & hoping against hope that we could find somewhere to stop besides Hardees or Burger King, a light came down from the heavens and shone down upon Lincoln Perk in Hesston, Kansas. Caffeine jolt AND lunch AND wireless internet all in one!

Furniture offers a lot of flavor inspiration for gelato?

Furniture offers a lot of flavor inspiration for gelato?

As we were waiting to place our order, John & I were both eyeing the array of gelato offerings. It was then that he queried, “I wonder what chair tastes like?”

“I think that might be chai,” I clarified.

Grand Island’s Coop de Grâce

Conversation I’ve had a zillion times in my life (second only to anything regarding my height):

Stranger: “Where are you from?”
Me: “Nebraska!”
Stranger (in a tone implying they know more than one city in Nebraska): “Oh! Where at in Nebraska?”
Me (in skeptical tone): “Grand Island… Do you know it?”
Stranger (in a tone admitting they aren’t 100% certain of any cities in Nebraska): “Ermmm… Is it by Omaha…?”

One of the premier flyover states

Probably the best of the 'flyover states', thank you very much

Few of the folks I’ve met on the East Coast are overly familiar with Nebraska, much less my scenic hometown of Grand Island (which is arguably neither grand nor an island… discuss.) So, I figured this would be a good forum to highlight our family home, via the sharp photo I took of our travel atlas as John & I cruised into NE.

Where in the world is Grand Island, Nebraska

Where in the world is Grand Island, Nebraska

(This also highlights the 2.5-3 hour drive we have from the Omaha airport anytime we fly in for a visit…though that pales in comparison with the 5-6 hour roundtrip my parents have to come pick us up!!)
After stopping for a brief caffeine break in Omaha with high school friend & even newer-newlywed Susie, we made it to GI, where we had a joyous reunion with my parents, Larry & Marcia, and Dave-the-dander-producing-Jack-Russell-Terrier. As has become tradition, we promptly went to the premier restaurant in town, the Chicken Coop.

Non-chain restaurants tend to come and go in Grand Island, but this spot has now been around for an impressive 4+ years. Not only do they have fried Wisconsin cheese curds as an appetizer, they also brew their own beer and it’s actually good. As much as I love beer, microbreweries don’t always do it for me, but The Coop (in conjunction with Thunderhead Brewery) is definitely worth a stop. Larry & Marcia are fervently working to keep The Coop alive via regular visits AND, I was impressed to note, no longer even need to look at a menu. They just know. Keep on clucking, Chicken Coop; keep on clucking.

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