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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Cuernavaca, Mexico

While we await my next installment of my series on retirement, I decided to include this interesting travel log that occurred during my first year in retirement.  I hope you all enjoy.

 

Cuernavaca, Mexico—A Special Senior Moment

          Our trip to Cuernavaca in 2010 was an exciting and memorable experience.  My wife, Joann, had an opportunity to study language and culture in Mexico while she worked on her Masters in Education.  Newly retired, I figured that I would go with her and indulge in my passion for photography.  Joann suggested I study with her.  She said with some humor, “You know, as we get older, it is good to learn a foreign language to keep the aging memory cells working fine to avoid those senior moments.”  So traveling, learning a language, and photography became the plan.  Who can argue with that common sense?
While, only a week, the trip was packed with wonderful experiences.  It consisted of classes at a Universidad Internacional dedicated to teaching Spanish Language, Mexican culture, and history.  We lived with a Mexican host family and went on several cultural excursions.  All of this cost us, excluding airline tickets, about $1500.  This total immersion in the Mexican culture could not compare to the typical resort vacation that Americans usually take in Mexico.  This was a great experience in language learning, cultural diversity, history, and developing relationships in another country!
Getting There
To get to Cuernavaca we flew to Mexico City.  At the airport, we met other students from Joann’s college and then traveled by bus over the mountains south to the City of Cuernavaca.   Over 50 years ago, this city was an easy reach “get away” trip from Mexico City for Mexicans.  Now it is an expansive and ever growing city in its own right.
Our bus started out in the rush hour traffic taking a four-lane road through numerous fringe neighborhoods of the City skirting around the downtown.  This road connected with a major highway that took us over the mountains.  When we came to traffic lights, there were street vendors selling gum, flowers, candy, snacks, and cigarettes to those trapped at a standstill in their cars.  The 52-mile trip that usually takes an hour and one half ended up taking well over two and one half hours.

            Eventually, the traffic thinned and the bus followed a road that climbed the mountain range.  Nearing the highest altitude, it started to rain.  Indeed, it rained hard as we climbed further up the mountain.  At every turn in the road, we saw the clouds waft close to the ground.  We observed that at some point around 8000 feet, there developed a tree line of pines that continued to surround us as we climbed to 9000 feet.  The pine trees stayed with us until we reached approximately 6500 feet as we descended into Cuernavaca.
            The mountainside terrain was rugged on each side of the highway.  It was not until we came very close to Cuernavaca that we started to see evidence of farming and then gradually began to see suburban dwellings.  When the bus took an exit off the main highway, we came quickly into the midst of many winding streets until one those streets that we took suddenly stopped at a series of building marked Universidad Internacional, our final destination.


 Our Host
We took our baggage off the bus and went into a classroom near the main entrance to meet university officials.  There we got instructions about the coming days and met our host, Martha, a woman that was perhaps in her early 60s.  We went with her and got our luggage and stuffed it in her late 90s Dodge trunk.  Then we were off with Martha incessantly speaking in Spanish and pointing at things as we drove to her house.  Frequently, she indicated things she showed us as “muy importante.”  We felt lost catching only a word or two as she pointed at street signs and buildings.  All the time she was so cheerful and we so bewildered and tired from our long trip. 


When we got close to her house, she made a point of telling us that we must turn on Pino (the name of her street) to get to her house.  She wanted to make sure we understood that we had to turn at the "Casa Blanca Uno Tres Dos.”  This was a big white house, with the numbers “132” imprinted on it, located at that corner of Calle de Pino and Calle de Franco Villa.  There we turned left. 
Martha and her husband, Salvatore, a retired college professor, live in a nice home, which included two garages behind a high wall.  In their yard behind and adjacent to the house they had a small swimming pool along with many plants enclosed by walls on three sides of the house as well as a steep hill behind the house.  The neighborhood was located in a quiet section of the town about 15 minutes from the University.  When doing research prior to the trip, using Google Map Satellite view, I had actually found an aerial view of their house with the small kidney shaped pool visible at their house on Calle de Pino.  Later during our visit, I showed them this map and they were very surprised about the detail and the availability of that information on the Internet.


At supper that first evening, we met Rachel and Emily.  They also were students at the University.  They were in Cuernavaca already a couple of weeks and still had two more weeks to go in their Spanish study program.  Emily spoke Spanish quite well since she majored in Spanish at her university in the States.  We learned that she wanted to do missionary work in Ecuador.  She helped as translator occasionally during our stay though reluctantly at times, since she believed we needed to learn the language the hard way by trial and error without her help.  We could not speak much Spanish without the use of the dictionary and we stumbled through sentences.  Of course, that is the process to learn when immersed in a foreign environment. 
After our delicious cena of chicken and rice, Joann and I learned the plans for the coming days.  We quickly reviewed with Martha (Emily translating) arrangements for getting to the university the next day for orientation and our first excursion to a nearby town (Tepotzlan) in the mountains northeast of Cuernavaca.  We learned that Martha would make us a lunch and give it to us after breakfast and drive us to the University.  In fact, Martha took us every morning to the University.  She picked us up between two and 3 pm if we were coming back to the house.  On this first day, in the evening when we got back from Tepotzlan, we were to take a taxi back to our host family’s house.  Martha gave us special written instructions that we showed the taxi driver.  She told us to hire taxis marked as “Radio Taxi” because they gave us the best fare.  On subsequent days, we used this card every time we hailed a taxi with great success.



The School
The next day, we went to the University and spent the morning getting orientation instructions, qualifying for the proper level of language class and getting our schedule.  Even though we had studied some Spanish at our local community college in the States, our ability to speak scored us both a spot in the beginner class.  Our classes included 3 hours of Spanish, 1 hour of culture, and 1 hour of history each day for the week.
During our week of classes, we experienced the challenge of learning Spanish with little or no English spoken in the class.  The Mexican culture and history classes were taught in English by an interesting if not somewhat radical professor, who shared many opinions with us about how poorly the needs of the people in Mexico are met by the government.  From him we were able to learn about the numerous revolutionary movements throughout the history of Mexico.  This certainly helped us understand the great disparity between the rich and the poor of this vast and interesting country.
Cuernavaca
Cuernavaca, frequently referred to as the “City of Eternal Spring” is hilly and plush with beautiful plant life.  At nearly one mile high elevation and nestled between two Sierra Madre mountain ranges, the weather is relatively mild for this southern latitude.  It rarely gets hotter then the mid-80s and there are frequent showers that account for the rich and lush plant life.



Near evening of our first full day in Mexico after school orientation and our trip to Tepotzlan, we arrived back in Cuernavaca.  The taxis dropped us off at the Central Plaza.  There we took in the sights for a few hours and sat outdoors at a nice coffee and ice-cream shop across from the Central Plaza.  The Central Plaza is the heartbeat of the city and serves as the gathering place for young and old.  Vendors ring the plaza selling food and souvenirs.  Every day during our stay in Cuernavaca, the plaza pulsed with events such as indigenous native dancers, soccer players, art expositions, couples dancing the rumba, and many other events or performances.  Branching off from the Central Plaza were streets filled with nice restaurants and cafes as well as expansive shopping areas with many bazaars and malls.



Interspersed among the lovely shopping and dining spots were interesting cultural and historical areas such as the Borda Gardens, many old churches and the Cortez Castle (now a museum) once used by the Spanish Conquistador.  Every afternoon after class, we spent time visiting these spots as part of our cultural awakening.  In the short time we were there, the city became a friend where we could relax, talk with our classmates, enjoy a drink, and finish the day with a delightful meal in comfortable surroundings.

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Martha and Salvatore
One evening, everyone at Martha’s house played cards.  We all had a wonderful time leading up to the games especially, since Joann would chant Victoria, Victoria, frequently taunting the others about the upcoming good time and victory that would be Joann’s.  In the end, we think Martha held the day, since she was continually changing the rules or making them up as they played.  All of this was in good fun. 
During one of the games, Martha suggested that on the last evening of our visit, we all should go out and have a drink together.  We truly believe that Martha was enjoying our company, since Salvatore stayed to himself most of the time.  Thus, Martha had some company that she was enjoying.  Martha said that he was a little depressed after retirement and worried about their children especially one daughter who was having a difficult time.
On another afternoon, we stayed home with our host family.  We all did some studying and, additionally I had an opportunity to spend time with Salvatore.  It so happened that on a prior day, Martha said it was ok with Salvatore if Joann and I had a glass of his wine.  Because of this, I felt obligated to get Salvatore another bottle of the same wine.  Luckily, there was a supermarket near the University, where I was able to buy two nice bottles of red wine.  One was a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon identical to the bottle to be replaced, and another was an Argentine Malbec wine we were sure would be a hit. 



That afternoon, I sat with Salvatore, who spoke no English, and we found a way with my Spanish dictionary, one of the bottles of wine, and his photographs of a trip to Patagonia to spend an hour sharing common interests.  The wine and the pictures made it possible.  He had brought out the pictures, since I had mentioned I always wanted to travel to Patagonia
An added benefit to breaking the ice included my giving Salvatore a book about Chicago loaded with photographs and written in Spanish as well as a Calendar for 2011 with pictures of Chicago.  We had brought these as gifts for our host family, since the University suggested that we bring a gift for our host family.  During this conversation, I learned that Martha and Salvatore had visited Chicago nearly 30 years before and had seen some of the sights shown in the pictures.  Martha and Salvatore showed a lot of excitement in the gifts.  I believe they truly enjoyed receiving the book and calendar.



Excursions
On the day after our arrival in Mexico, after we completed university orientation, in groups of threes, we took taxis to Tepotzlan.  Unfortunately, it rained a lot and got us all wet but it did not dampen our enthusiasm.  We immediately set off to see a 16th century church and convent, and then browse a colorful market place.  After that, we gathered as a group of 15 to 20 students and guests at a restaurant called “Los Colorines.”  There, we enjoyed fine authentic Mexican food and had a wonderful time getting to know each other and taking pictures.  Tired, but happy, we found a taxi stand and again in our groups of threes found our way back to Cuernavaca.



Next day, Sunday, we had to be up at 6:00 am to prepare for our trip to Teotihuacan (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) to see the ancient Pre-Columbian temples of Indian tribes that inhabited the central regions of Mexico.  This was another bus trip this time back across the mountains and then 25 miles northeast of Mexico City.  On this trip, we saw the slums that surround Mexico City.  In these slums, millions of people live in tin and concrete shacks.  We imagined that few if any of those living in the slums ever would experience what we were experiencing in their own country.



Our trip to Teotihuacan was an opportunity to see the City of the Gods and the various pyramids (temples) such as the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon.  Many of us climbed to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, which is the third highest in the world at 234 feet.  The city established around 200 BC lasted until its fall sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries AD.  At its zenith, Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas with as many as 200,000 inhabitants, placing it among the largest cities of the world in that period.



On the next to last day in Mexico, we took a two-hour trip by public bus to Taxco.  This is a famous silver mining town and market place.  It sits on the side of one of the Sierra Madre mountain ranges located southwest of CuernavacaTaxco is a very picturesque mountain town filled with steep and narrow streets that ran between shops.  Midway up the side of the mountain in the center of the town is a major church built by the Spanish in the 1700s.  We toured the church and took in the breathtaking views while panting our way up the steep streets.  We took many photographs of this scenic mountain town, visited many shops, and bought silver jewelry before heading back to Cuernavaca.



Departure
That evening after the trip to Taxco, back in Cuernavaca, Martha took the five of us downtown to a lovely restaurant called Las Mannanitas.  There we had a couple of drinks and enjoyed one of the more expensive and chic places in Cuernavaca.  We sat in a courtyard that had traditional Mexican architecture and elegance. 



It was obvious to us that those who came to this restaurant were the more affluent of Cuernavaca.  When I recall this evening, I cannot help but remember Martha’s comments that the well off in Cuernavaca fell into one of a four categories of people.  She said that those that lived in the nicer neighborhoods and had the money to spend in Mexico were doctors, lawyers, teachers, and drug lords.  I wonder how many drug lords were at Los Mannanitas that evening.  It was just the day prior that there were drug war related killings near one of the main bridges of Cuernavaca.
On the last day, Martha took us on a little tour of the neighborhoods near her area.  There were many beautiful homes.  They were of varying styles of hacienda with the closed-in fenced areas.  When you go down the streets in the residential areas, every house was behind a high wall.  In a few instances, there was even barbed wire.  It was obvious that the “well to do” were very intent on maintaining protection and security of their homes.



Martha made us laugh on that last day.  She was steering the old dodge around and over speed bumps and potholes frequently.  The dodge had to creep over potholes to keep from scraping the bottom of the car.  Indeed, every morning when she took us to the University, if we got over one of the speed bumps without scraping bottom, we would cheer.  Now the potholes were another matter.  As I said, it was very funny to Joann and me that Martha said that many people call CuernavacaCuernabacheBache in Spanish means pothole.
So at last, Martha dropped us off at the University and we said our goodbyes.  Then we took the chartered bus back to Mexico City and its airport.  It was a beautiful sunny drive over the mountains.  I sat close to the front and could see through the expansive windshield the wonderful country we had visited, with all of its beauty as well as its problems such as slum areas we saw on the day of our trip to the ancient temples.  This was a great experience and not a typical vacation. 
This trip was important to me in the beginning of my retirement because it helped me focus in on how I want to live the rest of my life.  I want to continue to see the world both near and far by bumming around taking photographs of what I see, writing about it, and learning as much as I can about the ways of others including some of their language.  In fact, Joann, since she has a great gift for writing perhaps will join forces with me.  I will focus on the photography and first drafts of travel details and she doing the final editing.  This would be a terrific way to keep my mind active to help avoid those “senior moments.” 
Finally, I would love to go back to Cuernavaca, stay a month, and study more.  Then I could actually feel like I deserved the diploma that I received for just the one week of language, culture, and history training.  Most importantly, in that time, I perhaps could truly begin to have a more meaningful conversation with Salvatore and Martha.

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