Teeth chattering, I shivered as I reached out with a hand that was blue from the cold to cross off another day on the calendar. The parental insistence on keeping the house at a balmy 55 degrees to save money on the heating bill contributed to my frigid state. But hope glimmered on the horizon; the trip to Mexico in a few days was my coming salvation. Little did I know that I would soon be longing for the days of multiple sweaters and nose icicles....
It all started out innocently enough. We packed up the car, picked up Grandma and were on the road to Chicago by 3 PM on Friday afternoon, with the intent to be in our hotel by 6 PM that evening. The flight to Mazatlan via Mexico City was 7:55 A.M. the following day. I was at the wheel, utilizing the skills I'd picked up while observing Chinese drivers for the past year。 We were making good time when we spotted a detour sign and were confronted with a line of cars stopped in front of us as far as the eye could see. Over the next 3 hours, we traveled a whopping 9 miles.
I was astounded; even the traffic in Beijing had never been that bad.
By the time we arrived at our hotel, we had been on the road for over 5 hours making what should have been a 2.5 hour trip. To top off the night, the car battery died immediately after we pulled into the hotel to check in. It was soon a race against the clock as Dad mobilized to buy a new battery before the stores closed. Fortunately for us, he managed to slide under one of the gates Indiana Jones style just as it was slamming shut for the night. And with that, we were off to bed.
After our eventful night, we were happy to make it to the airport and board the flight to Mexico City sin problemas (without problems). Little did we know, our trouble was just beginning....
Our flight left Chicago late, rendering us nervous about making our connection to Mazatlán in Mexico City. Once off the plane, we were leaping like gazelles among the hordes of people like gazelles; I was able to utilize the shoving skills I'd perfected in China. In our mad dash to the gate, we
neglected to take part in one tiny detail of entering a foreign country: customs. And with that, we entered Mexico illegally.
After we'd touched down in Mazatlán, all worries regarding our illegal status were forgotten as we basked in the sunshine and warm temperatures. It. Was. Wonderful. We enjoyed a leisurely ride to the resort on a bus and listened to an informative guide who'd tagged along to inundate us with everything we needed to know about Mazatlán, the seafood capital of Mexico. Before I knew it, a blur of black hair and a bathing suit flung itself into my arms and I was once again reunited with my cousin, Ya-Li, who I hadn't seen in nearly 3 years.
The next day, we were reunited with the rest of my Mom's siblings: her brother, Greg, his wife Sandy, and my cousins, Mason and Camryn. It felt good to be surrounded again by noise and chaos; I'd missed that aspect of my life since visiting my parents in their quiet neighborhood off the beaten track. Most people feel as though they've been with me throughout my year abroad, because they're read all about my adventures here on this blog.
I, on the other hand, feel as though most people don't know the half of what I've experienced, and so am always happy to be asked more in-depth questions of my experiences. My aunts and uncle did just that.
The day progressed swimmingly; we splashed in the ocean, basked on the sunny beach, took long walks in the surf and had a fresh seafood dinner (well, some did. I've been a vegetarian for over 11 years now, but those shrimp looked awfully good. Do I really want to live my entire life eating tofu? On the other hand, I made the decision to become a vegetarian based on both moral and environmental viewpoints. This will take more thought). I digress.
Over the next couple of days, Mom and I caught a 24-hour stomach flu. Coupled with our growing apprehension over the interrogation by immigration officials that we were facing upon our return to the United States, it made for a couple of miserable days. But finally, FINALLY, both of us felt better and so we embarked upon a day-long journey to Stone Island (or, Isla de la Pierda).
After a ride in a Mexican limousine (see picture),
we headed down the gangplank to troll around the bay near Stone Island, a mere 20 minutes from our resort. I was really enjoying the time spent with my cousins, Mason, Cami and Ya-Li. Mason and Cami live in Phoenix and Ya-Li in Juneau, so I don't have much opportunity to see them. Since I've moved to China, the time together has been even less, so this week in Mexico was an important one for me to reconnect with family. The four of us were standing together against the rail, gazing out over the water and looking for sea lions when it hit me that I really had missed the presence of family in my life while living in China. I don't regret the choice I've made to live these couple of years in Beijing, but being with my cousins that day did remind me of the small hole in my life that I've created.
We enjoyed a day on the island, swimming in the ocean, playing on the beach and an 'authentic' Mexican lunch under a cabana near the ocean. Tired and happy at the end of the day, we boarded the boat and set off for our
It happened as we were disembarking.
I was concentrating on balancing on the makeshift wooden walkway connecting the boat to the pier when I heard a commotion ahead of me. Panicked screams erupted all around me as tourists fled in every direction. It was then that I saw it. A large white pelican was sailing over the crowd as if in slow motion, his tail feathers lifted and his head thrown back in laughter. Thick streams of yellow bird poop were raining down on the crowd. The brunt of it was aimed towards one person in particular: my mother. Yellow pelican feces splashed down her back, over her shoulder bag and onto her chin. Small children were retching from the stench of it all. As the pelican gleefully sailed away into the distance, a dock worker hurried my mother into a small bathroom adjacent to the pier to do his best to hose her down. By the time she climbed back into the Mexican limousine with the rest of us, she looked better but smelled only marginally so. The bird had clearly had it in for her. We did our best to breathe through our mouths until
This enormous rock in the bay has been turned white by the countless birds that land on it each day.
we were back at the resort.
Thanksgiving dinner the next evening was a traditional fare of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy and cranberry sauce. Alternately, shrimp or beef was offered as a main course. I found the meal to be reminiscent of many Western dinners I'd had in Beijing: close enough to the real thing to be satisfied, but definitely not authentic. It was a different kind of Thanksgiving, celebrated in Mexico, but still one filled with family and gratitude. The only thing missing was my brother, Reid, who had to stay behind in the cold to go to school.
Our last day in Mazatlán provided us with the opportunity to be part of something really special. Pueblo Bonito, the resort where we had been staying, was the first resort in Mexico to go green. As part of their efforts towards preserving and protecting the environment, the resort has teamed up with a local aquarium to raise and release hundreds of baby sea turtles. We happened to be at the resort on a day when a release was taking place. A large group of tourists gathered together on the beach, and we were each able to hold a
tiny baby sea turtle that had been born 45 minutes earlier. After naming our turtles and at the signal given by our guide, we each gently set down our turtle on the beach and encouraged them to head for open water. It was amazing to see these tiny creatures making their individual bids toward freedom. Sadly, the guide told us that of the 189 turtles we'd released, only about 10 or so were expected to survive. The others would become victims of predators in the ocean, fishing, weather and other dangers. That's why what the resort is doing with these endangered turtles is so important. We were all honored to be a part of it.
After one last day on the beach and goodbyes to cousins, aunts and uncles, we set off to the airport. Sadly, it was not to be a hassle-free day of travel. We arrived with plenty of time to spare before the 4:45 P.M. flight. Four hours after our flight was supposed to have taken off, the flight monitors still indicated the flight was "a tiempo" (on time), patience was wearing thin and we had missed our connection to Chicago in Mexico City, the last
flight to Chicago of the day. The gate agents in Mazatlán informed us that Mexico City was "a mess" (their words, not mine) and to be prepared for the general chaos that is the Mexico City airport. In addition to myself, my parents and grandmother, nearly 30 others on the flight had also missed the connection to Chicago. When we arrived in Mexico City, however, the airport was nearly deserted, security and gate agents had clearly not been informed that we would be arriving and there were no signs nor English-speaking airport employees who could help us. I tried my best to use the Spanish I remembered from high school (at one point, I had been quite proficient, even employed as a translator between the manager and kitchen staff at the restaurant where I'd worked) but the only language that came readily to my brain was Chinese. Eventually, a flight attendant who'd just arrived and was heading home, took pity on us and helped us navigate the maze of an airport to the Mexicana ticket counter. The agent there also clearly had no idea of our predicament and it was only after vigorous shouting and vague threats from our fellow
travel-weary passengers that prompted him to make arrangements.
We were put up for the night in a very nice hotel and given vouchers for breakfast, lunch and dinner the next day. The problem remained, however, of when or if we could get a flight to Chicago. Every flight on every airline was apparently full (some overbooked); everyone was returning from their warmer destinations after the holiday. We were instructed to go to our rooms and call a mysterious number at 3 A.M. to learn more information about our flight the next day. It almost felt like we were deep in the middle of a spy novel. By 5 A.M., we'd been assured that we had seats on the 9:35 P.M. flight that night and so we went back to sleep.
The next morning was an absolute nightmare. By the time my grandma and I got up at 9 A.M., my parents had been up for hours. Another passenger went to the airport at 5 A.M. to get boarding passes; the process took 4 hours. After hearing that, we wolfed down breakfast and hurried to the airport. Redeeming the vouchers took nearly an hour. Then we had to find
Photographer: Cami Lizik
the immigration office, which took another half an hour. At every turn, I was asked to use my rudimentary Spanish to translate for my parents. I was embarrassed by how much I'd forgotten. Understanding what someone said to me wasn't the problem; responding was. Each time I opened my mouth, Chinese fell out. It was incredibly frustrating.
We made it to the immigration office and attempted to plead our case before a woman who was so obviously high on her own self-perceived sense of power, she barely looked at us. Her smug attitude and dismissive glances pushed us all toward the breaking point. Additionally, the immigration office was about 110 degrees Farenheit; it was no small wonder that we were sweating. It was not evidence of guilt! After a long discussion, a critique of the lack of information and signs in the airport that would have led us to customs without problem and after being subjected to a humiliating retort by this woman eager to stick it to the Americans, we paid the fine of $45 per person and beat it to the ticket office for our boarding passes.
After another couple of hours, we were home free until our flight that evening. The day had been so stressful, that we all took the opportunity to rest in the room. A few hours later, we were back at the airport. Thankfully, our flight was only delayed a short while, and we were soon on our way back to Chicago. We got into O'Hare International Airport around 2:30 A.M., made it to our hotel where the car was parked by 3 A.M. and were on the road by 3:15 A.M. The roads were clear and accident-free and we pulled back into our driveway in Middleton at 5:30 A.M. It had been a long, long day.
Although the travel involved with this trip was a hellish ordeal, the actual week spent in Mexico was wonderful. It felt great to escape the cold and wind, read on the beach and listen to the ocean each night as I drifted off to sleep. I'd never been to Mexico before, and though the time was spent in a tourist area, I was still able to interact with locals when we ventured into town to browse the markets. I will never grow tired of visiting and learning about other cultures, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to visit this one. Just don't ask me to fly in via Mexico City again.
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