Saturday, December 24, 2016

Saltillo Trip Wrap-Up

Driving home from Saltillo, we had time to reflect on all that we had learned and experienced during those few days of adventure.

First and foremost we learned that the language we are learning online is often not the language spoken in Mexico, we also learned that there is a big difference being able to read/write/speak/understand in a controlled environment online with no time constraints or pressures to understand and respond immediately.  I personally suffered 'stage fright' when on the spot in a live situation, whereas Gerald is not at all scared of making mistakes and not being understood or of understanding incorrectly.  We proved yet again that we are a good team, he communicates well and I have the vocabulary and numbers.

Secondly we learned that the driving style is much different there than at home.  We are constantly amazed how close the vehicles get to each other, how crowded the roads are and often without distinct lanes.  There were so many times that we could not figure out if we were on a 2 lane or a 3 lane road - the truth is that these were likely 2 lane roads that 3 lanes of traffic were squeezing onto. The driving skills in Mexico are much different than they are here, with so much traffic coming from all directions, people just push into where they need to be whether or not there is space for them.  There is a patience and understanding though, if someone needs to be in the lane that you are in, then you just let them in front of you and you move to change lanes when you need to - no matter how fast or slow everyone is going, that merging attitude just works somehow.  The other thing is that there are speed humps in unexpected places and they are usually barely (if at all) visible.  You really have to keep your eyes wide open and your wits about you at all times, watching the traffic in front and behind (overtaking is a real high speed art involving split second decisions).  There was one speed bump that we even hit bottom on even though we were moving slowly and carefully.

Generally the laws of the roads are suggestions in Mexico, where even solid double yellow lines do not prevent overtaking and you need to be very aware of what is happening behind you because you are expected to pull onto the hard shoulder so that people can pass you.

We also learned that the people are generally very friendly and prepared to help and to understand your struggles - we need only to try our best to speak the language, to communicate to the best of our ability and to be respectful and understand that we are the strangers.

To all those people who have been warning us about the dangers of Mexico and cannot understand why we would want to travel the roads there, we say Mexico is no more dangerous or corrupt than the USA.  Never once did we encounter any problems with our safety or even feel threatened in any way.  We walked the streets of the suburbs and the city and encountered only normal, friendly and compassionate people.  Not once were we in a situation where a bribe seemed to have been expected, nor were we ever pulled over while on the road for any reason.

We are ready to face the challenges ahead and feel more confident that we have a better understanding of what we will be up against.

The next step now for us is to have a planning session to iron out the details about when to do such things as renew our passports, finalize the end of lease on our apartment, sell/donate the last of our possessions, sort out details and timing of car insurance etc.  At the moment, we have kept the Temporary Import Permit for the car and our visas, they are valid until June 2017.  Then we will have to make a decision as to whether to do a border run to get the T.I.P. money back and buy a new one as well as get new 180 day visas for ourselves or just to cross the border into one of the other countries that we will be exploring.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Down Town Saltillo

Today was a really nice sunny and warm day and we headed downtown to the historical district and the main plaza (Plaza Armanas) in search of the Cathedral.  We managed to find a parking spot at the side of one the many narrow streets right at the park.

There are actually a couple of cathedrals. First we came across the Temple de San Francisco de Asisi which is a Franciscan church built in the 19th century.
We wandered through some alleys on our way to the main Cathedral.

Finally we came across the Catedral de Santiago de Saltillo and it was so amazing that we have quite a few pictures for you.

Look at the ceiling details.

The carvings on the beautiful white exterior and on the heavy wood doors are magnificent.

After leaving the cathedral, we walked back past the Franciscan Church and found that a service was just beginning - we took part in the service, understanding barely a word but feeling at peace and blessed that we were able to be here and be part of this special time.

We relaxed with some coffee in the pretty little park area in the square. White Christmas garland was carefully draped along branches of all the trees and it looked like snow.

From here we were on that eternal search for a bathroom and found one in a strange little store - standard price, 5 pesos - the lady handed us a wad of toilet paper and pointed us to the usual seat-less toilet in a corner.  We also found that place to be the local internet cafe - look at the coin operated computers !

Next stop on our walk around town was a new plaza that was still being built next to a school. People hurrying and scurry around, taxis coming and going as parents picked up their children from school all the while workers busy cutting stone, hand painting the curbs yellow and sweeping every little bit of cement dust from the newly laid concrete sidewalks in the plaza.  The adjacent street is filled with brightly colored houses - I am actually getting to really like these colors, something that I would never have previously thought I would do.

Sian - this one is for you.  You fell in love with the yellow school buses in USA, here is a yellow school bus in Mexico.

La Escuela Coahuilla (Coahuilla is the state that Saltillo is in)

Their cleaning and attention to detail was every bit as good as mine!
Then it was lunch time and what a lunch we had (all for about $20 including tip).  We had an amazing plate of chicken fajitas, special potatoes with sausage, 2 beers, a top shelf tequila, a bottle of water and olla (local traditional coffee made with dulce).
Making Tortillas

Cooking our Lunch

Enjoying our beers before lunch

One glass was blood orange juice, one was lime juice and the third was Don Julio Tequila.  Gerald's choice with the tequila was blood orange, mine was lime juice.

Off exploring again we found that shoe shopping in Mexico is HUGE - there are so many shoe stores.  It is also very different because all the shoes are displayed in many large blocks of windows, you select your shoes and then line up to get into the store and give the shoe code and your size to try on and purchase.

We wandered through tiny little alleys with all sorts of items on sale, clothes mixed in with fruits and meat stores - no logic behind all the stalls crushed in together.
Then we came across a fabric store that seemed to go on forever - so many different types of fabrics at what (for us) were amazingly cheap prices.
Karin, this one is for you.  Oh how much fun we would have being let loose in this place
We made our usual way home (wrong turns, find the way to the right road) having enjoyed a fabulous day of discovery, practicing our Spanish with the Manager of the lunch restaurant and other people that we came across - proud of ourselves for being able to buy time in a rest room, for ordering lunch and sharing small talk with a couple of people.

This little adventure is just about over as we head back home to San Antonio tomorrow to regroup, try to shed a couple of Mexican food pounds and start preparing for our retirement adventures in earnest.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Wandering Saltillo on Foot

Enough driving for a while - we decided to walk to the local pharmacy to get Gerald's Alopurinal.  We did well explaining our need, asking how much and paying for it.  It was a lovely sunny, warm day after a chilly start (and the hot water was not hot, guess that is something we may have to get used to).  Since we wanted to get some steps in and explore more, we decided to walk to HEB - yes, our favorite grocery store from Texas is here in Saltillo, Mexico.  We passed interesting buildings and shops and found out that there is no such a thing pedestrian crossings at traffic lights or pretty much anywhere else here which is ironical because we saw pedestrian crossings on the highway seemingly in the middle of nowhere when we were driving to Saltillo.  So today we have learned to ask how much something costs and how to walk across a busy street - you just have to look at oncoming traffic and walk fast or run to at least the middle and repeat.  We didn't see a lot of pedestrians but did see that is the way to do it.  We shared a gordita from a street vendor as a snack on our walk and it was lovely (cost about 50 cents).

HEB was fun, comparing products and prices and we stopped at the cafe at the exit and shared a sandwich and coffee while trying to contact our host and let him know that we had run out of gas for the heater.

Walking back seemed much longer than walking there and it was actually hot - I was sweating and wondering why we didn't take a bottle of water with us.  That reminds me, the mini water filtration system that we bought a while back is really paying off - I am filling bottles and our lovely RTIC thermal cups with water and not having to worry about finding water to buy.

We passed several restaurants both fine dining and local places and found that the prices of food are very cheap (especially with the current exchange rate) but are still unsure what we want to do for supper this evening.  When we passed a Panaderia y Pasteleria, I just had to go in and have a look at what they have even though it was a bit late in the day for a bakery.  We ended up treating ourselves to a chocolate bigote (like a chocolate croissant) for 9.50 pesos (almost 50 cents) - we took that home and shared it with a cup of tea while catching up on blog writing and Spanish lessons.

Suddenly those cold floor tiles are feeling very good after overheating while walking in the hot sun all day.

No pictures today but lets see where we go tomorrow!

Saltillo Day 2 - Museo del Desierto

It was cold again in the morning and we huddled over coffee and oatmeal while working with TelCel to get our new phone working.  I managed to get someone on chat at the TelCel site who was able to chat in English with me - we finally realized that the phone was not working yet because we had to buy more minutes.  He completed the activation and helped me navigate the site to purchase minutes and now we have a working phone with a Mexico phone number and data as well as an account that we can use to buy more minutes/extend time when we get back here in March.  This is a big achievement toward our future travels.  One of so many hurdles and experiences.

We decided to go to the Desert Museum and have lunch there as I had read that the restaurant just inside was a good place to eat and also on Tuesday the entrance fee was reduced. At the museum you have to take a ticket at the entrance to pay for parking as well as the entrance fee (the fee for the over 4 hours that we were there ended up being 30 pesos - a whopping $1.50).  We saw that the entrance fee was 90 pesos each and there was no mention of a special Tuesday price (nor a senior discount which we always see in USA) so Gerald handed over 2 x 100 peso notes, the lady gave him back 100 and rang up our entrance fee giving him another 50  back as change.  Wow Tuesday entrance fee really is cheap @ 50 pesos for both of us ($2,50 for two people ??).

Once inside the museum entrance I was able to ask (in Spanish) directions to the restaurant that I had read about on trip advisor and we sat down for lunch.  It was very quiet there as we looked at the menu - there was only 1 other person eating and his lunch looked good so I asked the server what he had, it was the meal of the day so we ordered one each.  Just look what we got for the princely sum of 75 pesos each ($3.75) - soup, bread, meat with vegetables and rice as well as a drink (aqua fresca of the day).

The museum is well worth visiting- we couldn't help compare it to the Sonoran Desert Museum that we had visited in Tucson while on vacation with Ian and Sian.  This one wasn't not as classy but it still had a lot of good exhibits both indoors and outdoors and we were captivated for about 4 hours in spite of the fact that all of the signs/information was in Spanish.  We sometimes spent time trying to understand as much as we could and sometimes just enjoying the exhibits without working on our language skills.

The dinosaur exhibit is big and that is to be expected since Coahuila (the state that Saltillo is capital of) is 'the land of the dinosaurs' according to the license plates that we have seen on the cars here.  The Dinosaurs skeletons ranged in size from T-Rex to a little 10 inch (25 cm) one (second photo).

 The cactus exhibits are fascinating with some strange and beautiful cactus varieties.

There are huge greenhouses where they propagate many varieties of cactus and sell them to raise money to aid the maintenance of the museum and to maintain the lands and the cacti on them. 

The live animal exhibits were interesting but nothing really special.

Except this cute line of turtles going nowhere !

There is also a good reptile exhibit,

We met three really cute and excited triples who were happy to pose for a size comparison photograph.

What on earth is this?  A snake with legs?  We could not really figure it out from the Spanish information but it is certainly fascinating.  I bet Ian could help us out with this one!

These two 13 year olds from Mexico City approached us because they had been spotting us as being from the USA - they spoke good English and were smart, confident boys.  I never did see them with any adults but they were really enjoying themselves and we enjoyed some good conversation with them.

In spite of all the people (though not really crowded) and the children, I was amazed at how quiet everyone was.  In museums and tourist spots in USA I am often disappointed at the noise, the constant loud chatter and squealing, that is everywhere.  Here people are more quiet and respectful, not at all what I had expected after constantly being warned about the noise in Mexico and Central America.  We are also finding that people are generally very friendly and forgiving of our lack of Spanish, so many times people have translated for us without us even asking for help. 

After we left the museum we had planned on going to the Cathedral and the Main Square but it was already after 5 and we decided to do a drive by to see where it was so that we could visit it another day.

Can you imagine driving these roads on your commute home each evening - the traffic was very heavy, not so fast on these backstreets (actually stopped most of the time) but there is a courtesy that is very surprising - people somehow get in and out of lanes and side streets without any sign of stress or road rage.  Another thing that really hit us was that we were expecting to see dirty streets with trash all around - as you can see, these streets are clean and not at all like we were expecting.

We did find out however that just because it looks like a 1 way street, it doesn't always mean that it is - it is just narrow.  There was one place where Naggy told us to turn right and then left and we saw 3 lanes of traffic facing us on that right turn street, we backed away and went a long way round get back on track but as we were heading away, we saw a taxi turning to the right but going to another street on the left, it was actually a skew cross road.

Navigating the traffic is something of a challenge with seemingly crazy drivers changing lanes at flat out speeds, making split second decisions.  Actually they are all really good drivers in crazy situations but you have got to, as Gerald puts it, "drive like a 'loco'".

The drivers are courteous and will let you squeeze in, all you have to do is use your indicators!  And watch out for the wild drivers that don't think twice of making a left turn across 2 lanes from the right most lane!  One of those "If you don't like the way I drive, stay off the sidewalks!" drivers!  The Mexico map card that we bought online for our Garmin GPS is really paying for itself over and over again and we got to the museum almost effortlessly with "Naggy's" help.  The biggest challenges are 1) the posted street signs don't match whats in the GPS or there are no street signs, 2) One way streets - not very well marked but it seems like if you need to go a short distance the wrong way on a one way its ok, just avoid the on coming cars!