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Road Trip down to Mexico

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.

Iowa: more pigs than people

Iowa's public transit system

Iowa's public transit system

As we were driving in our separate cars from Chicago to Iowa City, I gave my Dad a call to pass some time. “Are you going to stop at The Machine Shed in Davenport?” he inquired. Apparently he’d been to this classic establishment (“A Restaurant Honoring the American Farmer”) many moons ago on an officiating trip through Iowa. This sounded like a no-brainer to me, so I promptly called John & let him know that there would be no stopping to pee until we got to Davenport.

Unfortunately, we’d just eaten lunch & were too full to stuff down either the “Country Fried Chicken” or the “Full Pound Chicken Liver Dinner”, but the ambiance did not disappoint. We took the obligatory photos of me riding a pig and John driving a tractor near a 10 foot ear of corn. Walking away, two emotions coursed through our veins: a) good ol’ Midwestern pride, and b) sheepishness for having used a restaurant’s bathrooms without eating there.

John envisions what 'working the land' might be like

John envisions what 'working the land' might be like

 

We had a lovely visit at Paul & Juliana’s home in Iowa City, where we were well impressed with the flurry of baby prep. Mark my words, this child will be the best dressed girl in Iowa City, thanks to the fortuitous hand-me-downs of her trendy cousin down in Texas! After a tasty diner breakfast on Sunday at the Hamburg Inn, Iowa City’s premier “Meet the People Stop” for all aspiring politicans, we headed up for a visit to George & Wini in Albert Lea, MN. John’s grandparents were a pleasure to chat with as always, and of course didn’t let us hit the road without some tasty peach cobbler!

my natural state in any moving vehicle

my natural state in any moving vehicle

In Mankato, MN, we had more excellent food & fellowship with John’s mom Penny (who is the new proud owner of my ’07 Nissan Altima!), hung out on the farm with John’s dad Bob & wife Pam (in their impressively mosquito-free screened-in deck), and even got a little time with the soon-to-be newlyweds, Ryan & Melea.  As we departed Minnesota, now consolidated into one car, I was happy to resume my normal role: Passenger Seat Slug.

Chicago: best city for… bacon?

After awakening from our cushy suite at the Hotel Palomar in Arlington, VA at a much earlier than hour than any sane person should be functioning, John & I got ourselves on the road to Chicago on July 3rd. I suppose this should have been an emotional departure from the city where we bought our first home together & first lived as a married couple…. but I think we were too tired/stressed to appreciate the moment.

 A mere 13-ish hours later, we arrived at the lovely home of our kind hosts, Andy, Melanie & Carson. Melanie taught me how to keep the boys in line back in the good ol’ days of electrical engineering classes at ISU, and those skills seem to be coming in handy with the newest challenge of raising their 9-month old son! :) It was great to see them, despite the fact I left their home the next day with a Wiinjury and was walking like a gramma for a week. Note to self: vigorous Wii Boxing matches should not be attempted without back support.

all-u-can-eat bacon

all-u-can-eat bacon

We allotted another day to revisit John’s old stomping grounds in Bucktown/Wicker Park (visit Letizia’s Natural Bakery ASAP people– they refuse to use dirty-dirty margarine, only tasty delicious butter) & visit a few more friends. I must say, I was reminded that Chicago is indeed my kind of town when I saw the sign at the right. God bless you, Whiskey Road Chicago, your love of pork, and your barely coherent website. I’ll never know why we didn’t schedule our trip around your marketing whims.

And so it begins…

John & Julie's wedding

John & Julie's wedding

So after finally getting adjusted to living in the same city, having a mortgage, and driving on the Beltway, John & I decided to change it up this summer. First, we decided to get married in Scotland. Planning a wedding in the same time zone? Simply not enough of a challenge for us. So in May 2008, we drug a few family & friends over to Glasgow & tied the knot. Then we said to ourselves, “Okay, after the honeymoon, let’s give ourselves exactly one month to get ready to move to another country.”  And so it was during June that we ran through zillions of to-do lists, quit my job, packed up our lives, rented our house, got all sorts of new official-looking IDs, said farewell to our friends & families, and drove down to Mexico City for John’s job at the US Embassy & my MBA program at Thunderbird/Tec de Monterrey.

I promised a blog to the many folks I left behind. “It will be riveting,” I assured them. “I will update it daily with wacky shenanigans; it will be like I’m right there next to you in the [office/Panera/pub/living room/wine festival/improv class/cheese store].”  Secretly, I gave myself about 25% odds of actually doing anything.

Well, those odds have now gone up to 100%, but I am taking new wagers on whether I will actually manage to keep this up for 2 years. Or whether it will be even readable, much less riveting. If you’d like to make a bet, please add a comment with any insights. Rewards will vary, but may include a) street tacos from D.F., b) giardia, or c) both.

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