Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Mexico: You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me

Hey it’s me. Back after a long hiatus of doing I don’t know what. 

Not writing, mostly. 

Otherwise, I’ve gotten older not wiser, but you already figured that out, I’m sure.  

I’ve also retired from my job. That meant I had to navigate through signing up for Medicare--God, do they send a lot of mail. When I wasn't signing up for Medicare, I've alphabetized my spices and rearranged my sock drawer. And I’ve even refinished a chair I bought at the Nittany Lion Inn’s going out of business sale, where yes, I did cut in line ahead of about 200 people because I was worried that all the toilet brushes would be gone. 

As they say on local news, but the big story is…

Earlier this month friends (Jeff, Carrie, Pam) and I went to Mexico. I think this was my sixth trip in eight years, so you could say it's getting to be a habit with me. (Thank you 42nd Street for this gratuitous show tunes reference.) 

Rather than doing an all-inclusive resort or packaged tour, we planned our own trip. We spent a few days in San Miguel de Allende before flying to Puerto Vallarta to catch a ride to the beach near Platanitos. We lounged and loitered there in an oceanfront house for a few days. When we were fully lounged and loitered, we doubled back to Puerto Vallarta for an overnight before flying home. 

San Miguel de Allende, founded by the Spanish in the 16th century, is in the mountains north of Mexico City. It’s very popular with American tourists and rightly so, it’s a cool place and very gringo friendly. 

Getting to San Miguel is part of the fun. Sixteenth-century Spaniards didn’t think much about airports, so the nearest one is in Queretaro, an hour or so’s drive from San Miguel. The airport is about the size of the University Park Airport—basically one gate. You just hire a car to meet your flight, chat up your driver whose English is about as good as your Spanish, and in an hour or so you're in San Miguel.

In theory anyway.

I booked a driver to be there at 2:00 pm. Shortly after the appointed hour, a guy showed up, holding a sign that said Richard Brant. I don’t know if anyone has ever spelled your surname incorrectly but it’s happened to me plenty of times. When I was a kid, our cleaning lady never called my mother anything other than Mrs. O’Brien. Bryant doesn’t seem that hard to spell, but the y that sounds like an i is confusing, the whole thing starts with a capital letter, and so on. Go figure. Fortunately, my cousin Kobe made it big in the NBA. Now when folks have trouble with my surname, I just say “like Kobe” and even the deeply befuddled pick up on that. 

I walked over to the driver and said that I was Richard Bryant and after lots of chatter—his good English made up for my abysmal Spanish—away we went. 

For about fifteen minutes that is. 

Then there was a flurry of phone calls with his home office. After much discussion, they figured out that they were looking for someone named "Richard Brant" arriving on a Volaris flight, rather than Richard Bryant arriving on American. As travel snafus go, it didn’t come close to having my organs harvested or being kidnapped by the cartel. But I felt a little bad for this guy who just wasted half an hour of his time. 

As luck would have it when I went back to the terminal, there was a driver holding up a sign on notebook paper that said "Rick". His English was worse than my Spanish, so after a little bad Spanish/bad English to and fro we decided we were the people each of us had been waiting for (would that dating were that easy!) and off we went. Carlos was cute, 25-ish, and grooved to an 80s playlist—which I told him was muy bien. 

The big attraction of San Miguel de Allende is that its centro historico hasn’t changed that much since the sixteenth-century Spaniards left in the nineteenth century. You needn’t worry about anyone paving paradise and putting up a parking lot: the center of town is a UN World Heritage Site. 

My chums and I rented an AirBnB on a steep and narrow cobblestoned street in the centro historico. We were just a couple of blocks from the town's main square. 

The house didn't look like much from the outside, but first impressions can be deceiving.  

Our house was great—stylish living and dining areas and half bath on the ground floor with three bedrooms and bathrooms on the second floor. 

The third floor was an uber-cool roof deck with a killer view of the city. AND a washer and dryer. The photos don’t do it justice, it was a great place to stay.

My compadres' arrival was delayed by flight issues so the first evening, I explored the city on my own.  

It was my luck that some sort of religious pageant was in full swing. Groups of costumed dancers were having the time of their lives processing around San Miguel’s central park, accompanied by LOTS of loud drumming. It was so loud that I was surprised there weren’t street vendors selling Excedrin. 

Some celebrants were dressed as indigenous folks...

...others, as, well, I don’t know what. 

Some toted banners identifying their parish or patron saint. It was quite something. 

Like Joe Tourist, I took a selfie. 

There were plenty of gringos at the parade, all older—meaning my age or younger—and more country club than Sam’s Club. The word is out that San Miguel de Allende is the place to be. 

Since I was flying solo for dinner, I asked our AirBnB host for restaurant suggestions. He urged me to go to Mezcalaria, which happened to be right across the street from our rental. Mezcalaria was handsome in an Asian-ish-minimalist-ish kind of way—delightful, really.  

Our host said that if I were feeling friendly, I could sit at the communal table in the restaurant’s garden. 

That’s how I had dinner with a lovely couple--an attorney and an interior designer-- who’d just moved to San Miguel from Carmel. They were helpful in giving me the lay of the land, what to see, what to miss, and what the place would be like for aging recently retired doofus hipster wannabes considering spending more time there.  

I spent lots of the day--and the next few days--enjoying the architecture of San Miguel's colonial churches...

...and their creepy statuary. 

Shortly after my friends finally arrived, we did as my friends from Mezcalaria suggested and went to CityMarket to stock up on beer, wine, and so on. The cab ride there was a treat—through narrow cobblestone streets, cool buildings everywhere, choice cars ("Look! There's a VW Thing!"), and great people watching. Cars seemed to move through the tangled web of narrow streets as if controlled from above. There was no honking, shouting, bird flipping, or even a raised eyebrow at the other drivers. It was practically Swiss. Amazing! 

CityMarket was the most upscale supermarket that I’ve ever been to--the love child of Harris Teeter and Harrod’s Food Hall. The supermarket was just so stinking cool--it was like the buffet at Wynn Las Vegas except a supermarket. It's one of my favorite sights in Mexico. 

As soon as we’d finished shopping, the doorman (yes, the supermarket had a doorman) ran out to the street to hail us a cab for our return trip. While we waited for a cab (elapsed time, 5 seconds, tops) a stylishly dressed woman of a certain age drove up on a four-wheeler. I've gone for groceries on a motorcycle (as in later in this trip) but never on a four-wheeler, let alone on a four-wheeler while dressed to the nines. It was quite something. 

We did do one super touristy thing—a Sunday afternoon food tour of San Miguel. I’m not usually a fan of guided tours—what’s that line from the old Anacin commercial? “Mother! I’d rather do it myself?” On the other hand, it was all about food and a guy has to eat. Since my default is red checkered tablecloth rather than fine dining, I’m likely to miss a lot in the food world if I don’t make an effort. 

Between Sunday breakfast and our food tour, we had time to knock about. Mindful of my friend Susan’s remark about being a traveler, not a tourist, a death march somewhere to check a box off a list didn’t seem like a worthwhile endeavor. Plus, what would top CityMarket? Carrie and I decided to let the world pass us by enjoying the plaza in front of the church of San Francisco, while Pam, a practicing Catholic, went to Mass. 

I should point out that Pam has a very different idea of the meaning of on time than I do. My parents were in the military. If you’re supposed to be someplace at 10:00 am, you’re supposed to be there before 10:00 am. On Sunday, on time means you need to be at church well before the service for a little howdy-do-ing before settling into your pew before the choir and clergy enter and the service starts. For Pam, there is no such thing as on time. She says she’s on time for church if she gets there before the homily. I’m no expert on Catholicism but I’m pretty sure that’s not how they start Mass.

So…Pam wandered into church and texted back that they were at the offertory and that she’d stay for the service unless we were scheduled to be doing something else. 

Carrie and I watched a mariachi band hang out and enjoyed a little downtime in the plaza while Pam did her thing. 

After a while—I can’t tell you how long—Pam was out of the church and sat down by me laughing. She hadn’t gone to Sunday Mass, she’d gone to a funeral. In her typically scattered way, she hadn’t noticed that she was at a funeral until she walked up to the front of the church for communion and saw the casket front and center. Oops! 

We were still laughing when they wheeled the dearly departed’s casket out of the church onto the plaza. The mariachi band, finished with its hanging out, struck up a tune for the benefit of the assembled multitude. As mourners gathered around the casket, they opened it up so folks could have one last look and one last cry. 

It was really something. And as a connoisseur of funerals, I mean, REALLY something. I turned to Carrie and said in astonishment, “And some people don’t like to travel!”

I thought, this could be the first episode of a documentary series on my future streaming service, The Funeral Channel. Funerals of Foreigners. Has a ring to it, doesn’t it?

We were still laughing about Pam later that day when we met our food guide, Victor. He navigated us through sampling the local fare at several different restaurants and even a gelato stand while giving us a spot of local history, and providing oodles of local color. Victor was a contestant on that famous international game show, Mexican or Gay? and as the person with the world’s worst gaydar, I have no idea what the answer was.  

Victor was a delightful host. Did I mention that our afternoon's outing was made even more special by running into another funeral? Well it was. This one was more like a parade with lots of flag waving and hoo-haw. 

The next day we opted for a bus ride to the nearby city of Guanajuato to see its famous/infamous mummy museum. Who wouldn’t do that? 

As I've said (once or twice) travel is educational. The first thing I learned on the way to the mummy museum was that you need an ID to buy a bus ticket in Mexico. Who knew? Not me, that’s who. 

Luckily we were at the bus station in plenty of time for me to take a cab back to our place, ask the cabbie to wait in my halting Spanish, dash inside for my wallet, and take the cab back to the bus station. 

The bus was an absolute delight, way way more comfortable than air travel in the part of the plane that I sit in, and about 1,000 times better than taking the Megabus in the USA. After an hour's trek through rural Mexico, we arrived in Guanajuato. 

The Guanajuato bus station is on the outskirts of town so we took a city bus (positively Soviet in the comfort department, presumably purchased used in Bolivia circa 1948) into the middle of town—fortunately the bus driver told us when to disembark.  Then after 20 minutes of getting oriented, it was a simple 30 minute walk straight up in Calcutta like heat, humidity, and smells, to the Mummy Museum. 

I was expecting the Mummy Museum to be delightfully macabre in sort of a David Sedaris way. Wrong. It was just plain creepy.  These are not mummies like Egyptian mummies, wrapped in bands of cloth and stored in a golden sarcophagus. 

No, these are people who died in a 19th century cholera epidemic. 

Death by cholera wasn’t their worst bit of luck. Years later, after no one came forth to pay the bill for their “perpetual care” the bodies were disinterred. The climate of Guanajuato is perfect for desiccated human remains so now there are 50-some “mummies” on display.  Some of them have labels, which are in both Spanish and horrendous English. One of the mummies may have been buried alive, the jury seems to be out on that. They have another 50 mummies in storage. Why they don't give them a decent burial is beyond me.

At the end of the tour there is a coffin thoughtfully decorated with an Instagram logo where you can have your photo taken. 

Like so. 

OK, that part might actually rise to the level of David Sedaris, but the rest of the museum was just sad. 

After the mummies, we walked back downtown and eventually took a cab to the bus station for our trip to San Miguel. The scenery in the two towns was interesting, the bus rides pleasant, but the mummies, not so much. 

That evening we had drinks with friends of a friend in Richmond. Peggy told them to look out for my orange UVA baseball hat, and sure enough, they saw me walking through the square and called out to me. It was great fun though I might have had one too many (or so) margaritas. 

The next day we said Adios! to San Miguel and cabbed back to the airport to catch a flight to Puerto Vallarta for the next part of our trip. The flight was uneventful except for the barfing kid in the row behind us. 

In Puerto Vallarta, our driver, Carlos, had a sign that said "Rick Bryant" so there was no mistaking that we were in the right place.

After a quick stop for booze—featuring an unscheduled educational experience on the supermarket escalator—we settled in for a long drive to our place at the beach. 

We went to the same place last year, but this time we opted for a different one of the nine houses. 

It had a great Zorro-at-the-beach vibe. 

We didn’t do much of anything but read, hang out, go to the beach, eat good food, and enjoy a few adult beverages. My cousin Paul and his wife Robyn live around the corner. In my book, bunking in a house-around-the-corner is the best way to visit folks. Paul’s brother David and his wife Carolyn were finishing up a beach adventure as we were starting, so it was a treat overlapping with them too. Paul and Robyn's daughter Chelsea completed the gaggle of Bryants. We toasted "Viva Mexico!" with champagne at 10:00 am.

We had great fun with cousin Chelsea. 

She took us to a deserted beach...

..and then the townie beach where we enjoyed the local fare. 

After five days of hard core relaxing, it was time to head back to Puerto Vallarta for one night before flying back to the USA. We opted for the bus again, and this time I knew to have my ID at the ready.  I catch on. Eventually. 

Our AirBnB was on the top floor of an older oceanfront building in the gay part of town, which seemed to be all of central Puerta Vallarta, from what I could tell. 

Rainbow flags were practically ubiquitous and there were plenty of stores selling swimsuits that only gay porn stars look good in...or out of, depending on your point of view. 

Who doesn't want to go to "Where Leather Meets Fur" for a paloma? 

After taking a walk along the oceanfront promenade and dinner at an outdoor restaurant, we went to a cabaret to see my favorite drag act, The Kinsey Sicks. The Kinseys performed at the Festival last summer and I was tickled pink to see they were performing in Puerto Vallarta.

They were debuting a new show, Drag Queen Story Hour Gone Wild. I guess debuting a new show in Puerto Vallarta is the drag version of a Broadway show starting out in New Haven. 

The show was great fun. 

Hilarious even. 

If the Kinseys are performing anywhere near you, go! 

After the show we went to the upstairs bar at the theatre for open mic night…where the accompanist was a Liberace impersonator.  

Who knew that was even a thing?  As I’ve said, travel is filled with learning experiences. 

So that was it. It was a great time. I love Mexico and can’t wait to go back. Perhaps next time around I’ll travel with someone who will crash a bris… who would miss that? 

1 comment:

  1. It's time to take this onstage as standup (with slides).