Chiapas

My twenty-six year old daughter, Sarah came down to Mexico a couple of weeks ago and the plan was for her to spend a few days hanging out with me in my little town in northwestern Michoacán and then we’d spend the remaining few days traveling together.

She made her reservations a month or so earlier and after some discussion decided to arrive and depart from the same airport located in Guadalajara, in the neighboring state of Jalisco – which is a 2 hour drive north of my house. The alternative would have been Mexico City but she decided she wanted to see Guadalajara, a city she’d never visited.

That was the easy part of the planning process. The next step was filling in the blanks, to decide the details for wresting the most from our adventure in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas. After all, this was the busy Easter break travel season so some preplanning was in order.

The locals told me not to worry about Chiapas, it wouldn’t be crowded. They all reassured me that just about each and every Mexican heads to the beach for this holiday. It’s a big tradition for both the week before Easter and the week after Easter. Those are the time-honored days when so many Mexicans go to soak up the hot sun on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

And because Chiapas was such a long way from any beach the reasoning stood that it was a safe bet to easily find lodging inasmuch as most hotels would underutilized and we wouldn’t have to do anything so limiting as to have to make reservations in advance.

Not just wrong. Way wrong. And how wrong every person was who told me ‘everyone goes to the beach for Semana Santa.’ After having just returned from a non-beach destination during this time I think it would be more accurate to say that just about each and every Mexican is somewhere other than home during Easter. Many Mexicans travel during this time and not just to the beach.

And you might ask yourself as you read this, ‘What kind of idiot travels without making advanced reservations anyway?’

This kind of idiot, thank you very much. And I’ve been hugely successful at it; at least until recently. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

So I would ask you in return, how would one go about making reservations for a 2-3 month tour of South America? Impossible, right? Or an impromptu trip to Europe where you buy a plane ticket in and out of London and then catch a ferry at some point and feel your way across the continent; destinations unknown? Read Graham Greene’s classic travel memoir, ‘Journey Without Maps’ for a more heroic and dangerous application of a similar adaptive travel methodology.

Anyway, that is the way I, and then Sarah and I, have traveled in the past – reservationless, by feel, and deciding our direction in short bites of time – and damned successfully I might add. But you’ve heard the expression, ‘twice shy, once bitten?’

Well, I about got my ass bit off – not once but twice – summer before last on an 800 mile solo biking adventure while touring the splendors of the Michigan/Ohio Rustbelt. I should append the last part of that statement. The bike trip started in the vast relentlessly cold unchanging featureless wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (on the just recently thawed shores of Lake Superior) and ended in the equally uncivilized gray friendless wilderness of rust, ruin and decay; a region that sadly and ironically was once home to some of America’s greatest and most progressive cities. But this was before the nation slid into what a recent NY Times editorial called a ‘High-profit, Low-prosperity’ state of being.

And yes, I was forewarned about the possibility of some weekend festival or local art and craft show creating a momentary motel room deprivation event but I did my research and had concluded my route was safe. But as it turned out, Rogers City had a long weekend craft show every summer that was so hugely popular that they hadn’t felt the need to advertise it for years. The dates and event were something only the true cognoscenti must have known.

If you have never been to one of these weekend regional crafts shows or missed the sarcasm implied in cognoscenti then listen to how the late Jim Harrison perhaps summed up the culture best when he dryly observed, ‘That only in the Midwest is overeating still regarded as an act of heroism.’

So anyway I wound up in Rogers City, Michigan on a cold sunny summer Friday afternoon to discover that every motel room had been booked solid for months. That shouldn’t have been a crisis except I had been biking all day mostly uphill into a stiff cold wind coming straight off Lake Huron and the next (maybe next) habitation was another 35-40 miles down the road.

That particular problem was rather fortuitously solved by a room cancellation; a case of being in the right lobby at the right time.

And next up, who would ever thought that Chelsea, Michigan – a town of some size, progressive, gentrified and all – would host only one functional hotel? And then found to be mostly booked solid by a large highway construction crew? Only my early check in – it was a short riding day as I was meeting long lost family that day for lunch – staved off another possibly calamitous brush with homelessness when I managed to nab one of the last two available rooms.

So why hadn’t I sensibly packed a tent along? Simply because they are heavy and bulky and along with a sleeping bag take up a hell of a lot of space on a bicycle. Comfort wise I really don’t ask for much out of any trip. I do like and have come to expect the most minimal of shelter requirements like having a roof over my head every night. But that was turning out to be an easier said than done kind of expectation. The ever welcoming travel inns of yesteryear were it seems snuffed out years ago by profit-centric corporate America.

That was a long and winding preamble right? Get over it. The tale I am about to tell is equally lengthy but hopefully it should enlighten you gentle reader. As what I am about to say speaks to the very mercy of God and to his never ending, ever flowing love and kindness to the fools and madmen who were born to trudge the earth counterclockwise.

The day before we were to fly into Tuxtla Gutierrez I had forebodings. Almost like there was a little voice in my head telling me to book a room, at least for our first night in San Cristobal. It was a persistent nagging voice and so when my daughter got out of bed I broached the subject with her and she agreed thinking the plan prudent.

We fired up the computer and punched in a web address for the first best hotel found in my 4 year old Lonely Planet Guidebook. The website was less than helpful so I called the hotel only to hear the person say that they were booked solid. The same for the next dozen hotels. We even tried Trip Advisor where we our call got routed all the way to far off India only to learn that a single room among a select few expensive others was available for the princely sum of $400 per night.

I wanted to scream. $400 for a sight unseen hotel room of unknown providence! There was no freaking way I was going that route. A whisper of calmness blew in my ear. ‘Keep searching fool. There is another solution. You just need to keep looking to find it.’

Digging deeper for another hour using different searches we finally found a hotel with only a single two-bedroom suite left for the more reasonable sum of $220 per night. It was, as it turned out, the perfect suite in the most perfect hotel in the very center of the old part of the city. So here we were, running out of road – booked flights and no rooms – and this tiny miracle happened our way.

The clerk/receptionist – a true angel of mercy – patiently guided me over the phone through the reservation process. My credit card, after a bit of initial fumbling (like the spelling of my name using Spanish pronunciation for the individual letters), eventually took and so it was we had finally scored a room for both our nights of stay in lovely San Cristobal de Las Casas.

Note: Doubt the angel of mercy bit? Think on this again my doubting friend. Her name was Angelina (Angel) Cruz (Cross). Coincidence? There are no coincidences in this world. At least not in my world. What some choose to call coincidences are really just thoughtless explanations carelessly tossed about by those who lack perception, individuals incapable to do any thinking beyond, lazily choosing to idly pass off their good fortune as luck.
(PS – Oh yeah and the hotel is called Los Archangeles, ‘The Archangels’. Hmm. You doubters are not so sure now, are you?)

Without further discussion we then quickly decided to book the two remaining nights in Chiapas: a night in Ocosingo and our last night – and 2-3 hours further down the road – in remote Palenque. I had already booked our last two nights of Sarah’s trip out of a ‘what if?’ fearfulness at the grim thought of my favorite hotel in Guadalajara being booked. Certainly I wasn’t the only fan of the venerable 400 year old hotel? And I most certainly didn’t want Sarah to miss out on staying in this grand old hotel where the rooms have 15 foot ceilings with the place literally oozing charm and ambiences dating almost to the time of the conquistadores.

This six day trip of ours to Chiapas and back ended up requiring significant planning. After all it involved booking a flight out of remote Palenque whose tiny airport was only open two days a week for a total of four flights: two inbound and two outbound.

So I had to work backwards and once I had those flights established I could book the Chiapas inbound flight – Guadalajara to Tuxtla Gutierrez – and then thread the needle by connecting our Palenque outbound in Mexico City with a compatible connecting flight back to Guadalajara.

And miraculously, everything that was crammed into that very narrow six day window – from all three flights to all four hotels – each and everything all worked out. Unbelievable.

But there were some close calls. Our flight departing out of Chiapas was delayed 30 minutes due to traffic back up in Mexico City (which we were to find out first hand was weather related). On arrival we spent an additional 30 minutes cautiously circling above the airport doing incremental descents: 35,000 feet to 30,000 feet. Then another 2000-3000 feet until we stayed in place for what seemed like forever at 20,000 feet before dropping to 16,000 feet to where we could finally make our final approach.

I was watching both the seat TV displays informing us of our speed, elevation, and whatnot while looking out the window watching the flaps on the wings. There was a massive cloud system hovering over the city and if the plane sensors were even marginally accurate the wind at times was really howling.

I could see with every drop in elevation how the pilot was feathering the flaps as he did his best to skirt around the most massive of the stacked cumulous clouds. Try as he did the plane still experienced some jolting drops as the moisture content in the clouds made for different air densities; affecting air pressure, creating currents and instabilities.

It was exciting. But in a bad way. As the plane did what amounted to a long spiraling descent with something like 6 – 8 elliptical passes around the city, this particular passenger was made keenly aware that we were stuck high in the sky in a long metal tube that desperately wanted to be on the ground. After one significant jolt and drop, my daughter saw me gripping the armrests and tried to reassure me by saying 2015 was the safest year on record for air passenger traffic. ‘Yeah,’ I was thinking, ‘it’s all fine until the one time it isn’t. And besides it’s 2016.’

The delayed arrival made our connecting flight time tight. Included in that was another minor complication just worth mentioning to say that finding our departing gate was challenging to be almost mysterious in its elusiveness.

How’s that? The departure gate for GDL was posted to the electronic boards but didn’t map to the actual signage at the departing gate until just moments before instead posting a delayed Lima (Peru) flight out of the same gate. This provoked numerous questions: What was an international flight doing, going out of the national terminal (if so, and were we in the right terminal?)? What was a LAN (Chilean airline) hostess doing still manning a gate for a delayed flight? And why didn’t they update all the boards and signage?

A much more important close call came in almost (almost) losing our checked bags. We got to the Palenque airport with plenty of time to spare for the whole check in, security process. And while doing so I was able to confirm a suspicion I’ve long held that small airports have significantly more rigorous security procedures than their larger brethren. This conjecture was simply because the small airport personal are bored with too much time on their hands and overanalyzing you as well as rifling persistently through all your stuff contrives to be annoyingly fun and serves to take every security person’s mind off the fact of what positively shitty jobs they have.

So our meticulously packed bags were hand searched almost to the point of being completely unpacked. Sarah’s actually was. They even went through her bath bag to the extent of even unsheathing her toothbrush. And before and afterwards we were asked numerous (and highly redundant) questions about what we were packing in our bags. At some point I thought, ‘Gee, I don’t know. Why don’t you go through all my shit again? As if you haven’t already touched it enough already.’

So we had no sooner gotten through that part of the preflight pleasantries when it occurred to me that maybe (just maybe) our bags weren’t checked all the way through to Guadalajara. I was replaying the check in process in my mind and I didn’t remember anyone asking us what our final destination was. Nor did I remember at anytime anyone even saying the word Guadalajara.

I dug out our checked bag receipts. They didn’t say ‘GDL’, the airport code for Guadalajara. I hurriedly made my way back to the check in counter where I was told they – the airline- didn’t hand off bags to other carriers. Unbelievable, right? That’s been a little luxury I have obviously been taking for granted for umpteen years.

If checked, we’d then have to pick up our bags on the carrousel in Mexico City and then recheck them with the airline we were flying to GDL.

‘Holy shit,’ I thought, ‘what a absolutely stupid non] policy! And the additional time and labor to go out and then reenter through security! And if we got into a time crunch – which we did – we’d most certainly get screwed dealing with retrieving and rechecking bags. And in Mexico City’s gigantic airport nonetheless.

But the most important aspect to this particular close call was that if I wouldn’t have done a replay of the check in events and just falsely assumed that our bags were checked through to GDL then we’d have most certainly lost them most probably forever. How?

Well, the bags would have spun around on the carrousel in Mexico City until they were a) stolen or b) retrieved by airport personal to be shunted off to some storage bunker situated in the basement of a mostly abandoned office complex on the other side of the city.

And after I had figured the whole missed bags/disconnect thing out – like maybe in the airport in GDL watching the carousal wind endlessly on sans bags – I would then have contacted the airline having to go through multiple 800 numbers, navigating numerous transcontinental multi-lingual CTI systems to reach their baggage claim department only to learn that worst case, the bags could not be located or best case, the bags were somewhere in the proximity of Mexico City and if they could be located I could have them sent back to me in care of GDL for an enormous fee. And with the airport in Guadalajara being 4 hours and a $120 roundtrip away, the additional penalties would have made the retrieval exceedingly more painful. The last statement presumes the bags wouldn’t be lost, stolen or in any other way misappropriated once they reached GDL.

The scenario immediately called to mind a similar checked bag incident that occurred in India some years ago. I had checked my bag and then later while wandering around the airport waiting for my flight I had just happened to look out a particular window and see my ‘checked’ bag lying out on the tarmac with half a dozen or so other bags. I got curious and started asking around as to whys and wherefores only to learn that I (and everyone else) had to go out and point out my bag say to someone ‘that’s my bag’ before they’d actually load it on the plane.
A necessary yet unmentioned process step much like the one in Palenque. Like, ‘Oh, you wanted your bag to go with you? And all the way too, huh?’

And because we were no longer checking bags in Palenque we had to carry them on the plane with us which in and of itself was no big deal except those bags had to go through yet another security step where the bastards found and confiscated my Swiss army knife. My Swiss army knife!

I was freaking livid. In retrospect I am surprised they didn’t arrest me for causing a scene because by then I was that aggrievely agitated in a major pissed off way.

The logic flow had me flummoxed. We had to carry the damn bags on the plane because the airline couldn’t be bothered with handing them off to the carrier of next destination. And so in the end I get doubly penalized when they took my harmless, non-locking Swiss army knife. And it was the perfect model with the scissors, the magnifying glass, and a corkscrew. I’d had it for twenty-five years and I was positively sentimental over the damn thing. And they took it from me!

So shortly thereafter I was standing in the men’s room washing my hands when the European gentleman standing next to me had the absolute temerity to whine about the lengthy security process. I turned to him and snarled, ‘They took my knife, man. The bastards took my knife.’

He quickly looked down as to better attend to his hands, refusing to meet my ferocious gaze in the mirror before edging out of the restroom always keeping one eye over his shoulder like I was some kind of dangerous lunatic.

And you thought this was going to be some polite travel chatter about a vacation in Mexico?

Grow up.

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