“This looks like Egypt!” exclaimed one of the passengers on the bus.  Mary and I were shocked and surprised by the desperate barrio.  Weren’t we going to a fancy beach hotel?  These were among our first minutes of foreign travel, riding a bus from the airport to our hotel on the Mexican island of Cozumel.  On subsequent trips, buses used an alternate route to avoid the squalor. 

This was our honeymoon after 14 years of marriage.  Our tiny wedding had been on a Thursday afternoon two days before graduation at the University of Illinois.  We shunned graduation ceremonies and departed for Tucson where I had a summer job, and we were to begin graduate school in the fall. 

Our previous vacations had been holidays with family or backpacking in the mountains.  This time we were going to the beach.  The idea that this was the first of dozens of foreign trips would have been incomprehensible.  What was most attractive, was being relieved of parental responsibilities by Mary’s parents.  Ann was six years old and Adam four.   Lacking local family, we had not had a single complete day without our children since Ann’s birth. 

The day the arrangements were completed, Mary was wearing a sombrero when I returned from work.  For weeks, we constantly played James Taylor’s “Mexico.”  

Oh, Mexico
It sounds so sweet with the sun sinking low
Moon’s so bright like to light up the night
Make everything all right.

We had been to border towns while living in Tucson but otherwise had never been out of the US.  

Mary always wanted to travel but our decision to marry derailed her planned European trip the summer after graduation.  We had developed skills and interests in being outdoors, especially backpacking.  Now we were to learn that we had a wonderful compatibility when traveling.  Trips reduced our anxiety and tension and put us into mind states that, while accessible, do not persist at home.

The refreshment we feel upon return lingers for weeks.  Soon, we hunger for the next opportunity to share our flexibility and good humor.  Our trips have had occasions of frustration, fright, and anger; including with each other.  But the intimacy developed by working through those times enriches our experience and has become a principal reason we are always planning the next journey. 

That first trip taught us a lot. After viewing the dreadful poverty on the ride from the airport, we entered our hotel’s beautiful, palm-lined driveway.   Our naïveté as travelers must have been obvious.  We were assigned the worst room in the hotel.  There were four or five stories, but our room was in the basement across from the laundry.  There was a slight sewer odor.  It was damp and clammy.  We tend not to complain. We said nothing. 

We savored dinner that evening, our first enjoyment of Mayan Lime Soup and Yucatecan beef.  That night, however, a couple of large cockroaches emerged in our room.  I dispatched them before turning out the light.  

Hours later, I felt an insect crawling.  A three-inch cockroach flew off the bed when I leaped up in alarm. That was enough. We demanded a new room in the morning. They quickly gave us one on the third floor as if they were expecting our complaint.  I wondered if they sized up travelers and tried them out to see if they could keep that room rented because the hotel was generally full.

The next issue was bicycles. We wanted to explore the island without the expense of a rental car.  Besides, we had been admonished to never drive in Mexico.  We went to a rental shop in the small town of San Miguel.  They had bikes, but they were a mess, rusted and with no gears.  They rattled and squeaked but were somewhat better than walking on uphill stretches.  At least we could coast on the downhill.   

The bikes enabled us to fulfill one of our fantasies.  By riding along the coast and inspecting every dirt path that led to the ocean we found a secluded beach. Eventually, we learned taxis were cheap and fast and used them to move around the island. 

A priority on this trip was snorkeling, a new experience for both of us.  The first three days, however, were windy with occasional heavy rain.  Gear was available for use in our hotel’s shallow lagoon, but Mary did not want to try it without the instruction she expected to receive on a guided snorkeling excursion.

We saw a sign in town and signed up.  We checked daily–too windy they said, for a couple of days. Finally, a clear, calm day arrived.  We excitedly boarded the boat but were surprised at how slowly it chugged out to sea.  That morning we had seen people snorkeling in the small lagoon at our hotel but now we were out in the ocean.  Mary was disconcerted.  After what seemed forever, the slow boat stopped.  Our leader put on a mask and fins, stood on the side of the boat and in thickly accented English, said: Snorkel here!  He jumped in.  That was Mary’s hoped-for instruction.  I spent most of our time helping Mary become comfortable with the mask and snorkel.  Here it was deep water. It would have been easier to wade in by our hotel.   We did not enjoy it.

This snorkeling tour included lunch.   The boat pulled up near shore.  There were people tending a fire. Balanced on small rocks was a metal shelf scavenged from a refrigerator. That was the grill for fish and tortillas. There were also rice and beans in random plastic containers.  Were they clean? We wondered. Later we perused a Cozumel guidebook. “Beware,” it said, “of being tricked into a so-called snorkeling tour that employs old slow boats.  The trip will take twice as long and provide little experience beyond a slow boat ride.” We were learning.

Fortunately, we loved snorkeling from the beach and spent hours doing so.  Being a birder, it was no leap at all to be an observer and identifier of marine life.  I bought a guidebook for use on land and another we could use in the water for identifying fish, corals, shrimp and so on.  When the waters were calm, we found that Mary could put an arm around my waist or her hand on the small of my back and we could stay together while I did most of the swimming.   We also learned the advantage of floating still in one location such that creatures we had not seen at first would move.  Two pairs of eyes were better than one!

Back on land we would examine the field guides and write down what we had discovered.  We saw eels, pufferfish, and parrotfish.  Snorkeling at night was also a revelation. Out came the snapping shrimp.  The constant popping sound was fascinating.  Species of fish that hid during the day, such as soldierfish, emerged in the darkness, using their large eyes to find prey.  

We enjoyed snorkeling so much, we decided to become certified as scuba divers.  On a subsequent trip to Cozumel, we did a night dive and learned the importance of selecting the right dive master.  Because of the night snorkeling on previous trips, we had already bought a good dive light.  For this dive, it was just Mary and I and the dive master.  He had a light and gave Mary another, so we were all equipped.  Minutes into our dive, thirty or forty feet below the surface, the dive master’s light went out. I gave him mine and we stayed close but then Mary’s light went out as well and we had to surface.  Now we knew a better check-out of “certified” dive tours was also necessary.

Scuba is an activity we enjoyed and would do again, but we have not missed it after we stopped.  The activity is very gear intensive.  Being fitted and suiting up are annoyingly time consuming. And, as noted, there was the need to secure a trip with a boat and dive master. It is expensive.  The biggest problem, though, was going with other people.  Starting late, waiting at the dock because not everyone has shown up on time, seemed commonplace.

Our worst experience was a drift dive on Cozumel’s famous Columbia Wall, known for its “vast and intricate reef environment.” The dive is known for “all kinds of nooks, crannies, caves, and tunnels, as well as lots of beautiful views into the open water.”  There are “huge coral pillars that can hide large marine creatures such as barracuda and sea turtles.”  We were eager.  This was our most expensive dive to date, also the most challenging and potentially, the most rewarding.   

Drift diving means there are significant currents.  Divers descend to the necessary depth and go with the flow, floating along, viewing the coral wall as it is passed.  The problem with drift diving is that it is difficult for a group to stay together.  When diving in a non-drift area, the boatman can stay over his group, even if there are multiple groups nearby.  If a diver runs out of air, that person can surface and be picked up while the rest can continue their dive.  With drift diving, it is difficult to signal the boatman.  If one person surfaces while the boatman is following the group, that person is liable to surface behind the boat. If the boatman sees them and stops for retrieval, he will have lost contact with the others.   Hence, with the crowded reefs at Cozumel, if one person uses all his air, the dive is over; everyone needs to surface.

Sadly, on our longed-for drift dive, there was an overweight man who chain-smoked and bragged about what a great diver he was all the way to the reef.  Being an out of shape smoker, he used up his air in less than 10 minutes and we all had to surface. We judged that Mary had almost 30- minutes of air remaining and I nearly as much, but we were cheated out of the time by our trip mate. 

Not all our diving experiences were unsatisfactory.  We had learned.  Later, in Hawaii, we carefully selected our trip.  The divemaster insisted on interviewing us to make sure we were sufficiently experienced. He also told us what time the boat was leaving whether we were on it or not.  He only took six divers. We saw other boats with up to thirty. It was more expensive, but it was also a perfect experience. 

While our propensity to minimize interactions with others was innate, these experiences trained us to seek out ways to be on our own as much as possible.  For that reason, we often travel in the off-season or to rustic locations. 

On the early trips to Cozumel, we learned to venture far from our hotel for meals.  We enjoyed new foods and drinks.  Was there a Yucatecan beer we wondered? Leon was a musty dark beer at that time.  It became a favorite.  Let the tourists drink corona, we thought. 

For years, Cozumel was our place. We went there seven times, but it had changed drastically by our last visit in 1992.  During our first visit in 1984, we were able to view the central square on Saturday night as it had been for decades.  Families sat on the benches.  Couples and single youths walked around in circles on display.  It looked and felt like “real Mexico,” to us.  On our final visit there was nothing to see but tourists being bothered by hopeful vendors. 

Our favorite beach area was San Francisco Beach which had the clearest water with the most brilliant white sandy bottom we had ever seen. We always spent most of a day there, floating and enjoying the scenery.  Usually there were less than ten or twenty people at the beach.  Now, in 2023, this once-free beach is a “club” requiring membership or an expensive daily entry-fee.  An internet photo showed four rows of chairs and umbrellas.

On the mainland, we snorkeled at Xel Há–a clear pool at the end of a potholed, unpaved road. Now, it is part of a major resort with a daily entry fee exceeding $100. The same was true of Akumal. Then, a couple of small palapas served a simple lunch of fish, vegetables, and a beer. Now, besides massive hotels, there is a major residential development with high rises and time shares.

Mary and I at Xel Há, November 1985.

On that first trip, we decided to fly to the mainland.  We took a taxi to the airport.  A small green plane was rolled out. We were told to wait.  There seemed to be trouble starting it. Once the engine clanged to life, enough white smoke billowed out that it obscured the plane.  After the smoke blew away, we were waved aboard.  Our heart rates were elevated until the short flight was over.  After that, we always took the ferry. 

We met another couple who wanted to visit Tulum, our primary objective, and agreed to share a taxi. Finding a driver was easy.  Curiously, the driver had the longest curved fingernails I had ever seen.  We did not know enough Spanish to ask why.

That first visit to Tulum anteceded local hotels. There was no entrance fee. No restaurants. There were a couple of local vendors selling handicrafts and a handful of tourists. A quick internet search now yields dozens of hotels. The area is known for gourmet dining. The beach must be cleaned each morning because of copious seaweed caused by polluted runoff and rising sea temperatures. We will not be back.

On one early trip, we also visited Cobá.  It was in the middle of the jungle. We climbed the pyramids by ourselves.  Now, there are hotels.  We returned on our final trip eight years later.  We saw a family in full Mayan regalia.  I wanted a photo.  They wanted money.  It had a totally different vibe. 

Nonetheless, visiting Tulum, Cobá, and the small ruins on Cozumel inspired me to read John L. Stephens’ famous books (Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán) describing his explorations with illustrator Frederick Catherwood in the 1840s.  Eventually, I acquired and read translations of books written near the time of the Conquest and by contemporary researchers.  We were enthralled with the enormity and mystery of the Mayan civilization, as well as the stories of deprivation encountered by the first European explorers. This led to a lifelong interest and subsequent trips to other parts of Mexico. 

Cozumel also gave us our first occurrence of illness during travel.  This time we were accompanied by friends. We were taking a 20th anniversary trip together.  I remember well the evening we returned to a restaurant where we had enjoyed menu staples of Yucatecan beef or chicken a few days previously.  I felt a need to be different and ordered a fish dinner with unusual seasonings. The others loved their meals.  I hated mine. It was too rich and oily.  The next morning, we were taking the ferry to the mainland. I felt “off” from the beginning.  I probably already had a slight fever.  Then came waves of nausea. We hired a driver to deliver us to Tulum.  In those days, before development overwhelmed the area, Tulum was a fantasy destination for Mary.  She was excited to show the ruins to our friends, visit the beautiful beach, and float in the water that the ruins overlook.

By the time we arrived in Tulum, I needed the bathroom.  There was an old, filthy, tiny facility.  I barred the door and endured a dreadful thirty minutes as my companions looked at trinkets being sold by vendors and ate lunch.  We entered the ruins as I felt better, but the nausea returned.  I told the rest to come back for me when it was time to leave.  I sat on a ridge outside the main area of ruins and overlooking the ocean.  Here I sat and vomited relentlessly into nearby shrubs. 

In between, I sat in the shade feeling no relief because I was burning from fever.  I remember looking down at Mary and our friend Ann floating in the ocean.  My wife’s fantasy had come true. Not mine!  I did not improve during the night.  We had the hotel direct us to a doctor.  As he gave me antibiotics and anti-diarrheal pills, I will never forget him saying, everybody here has some kind of bug. It affects their lives, but they are not familiar with anything else.  A day or so later, I recovered.

My next bout was ten years later in Greece.  Mary and I had dinner at a beach side restaurant in Sougia, Crete.  Nothing tipped us off for what was about to happen. We retired normally but three hours later I woke with the most extreme pain I had ever experienced.  Besides the nausea and fever, I was frightened.   When a wave of the extreme agony washed over me, I asked myself, is this what it feels like to die?

The proprietors of our small hotel called a doctor.  He was alarmed by my pain.  He suggested it might be my gall bladder and sent us to the hospital in Hania, a couple of hours away.  Poor Mary had to drive on the very curvy road as I moaned in the passenger seat–even curling up on the floor at times.  She found the hospital but there were many people in the waiting room.  I was hurting so badly, I writhed on the floor while waiting. 

They put me in a room and inserted an IV.  The young doctors who attended me seemed competent, but they smoked–even in my room.   I was given a battery of tests. It was interesting because the custom was for family members to deliver samples, wait for results, and feed the patient.  The nurse drew blood, gave Mary the sample and indicated the direction of the laboratory.  Mary wandered the halls holding up the vial of blood, using hand signals to ask for directions.  She was told to return at a certain time for the results.  When I was due for an ultra-sound to check my gall bladder, it was Mary who rolled me to the room.  The net result was a diagnosis of food poisoning. 

I was discharged and we were sent to a pharmacy. The doctor there gave me pills besides the prescription ordered at the hospital.  I asked what they were.  She did not speak English. After a pause, she said, this fix what is wrong.  Perfect! I wish we had more medications like that.

Fortunately, we knew of a comfortable rural hotel nearby.  I soaked in a bathtub for hours.  Mary, exhausted by lack of sleep and worry, went to a nearby restaurant and returned with a beautiful Greek salad. The sunset view on the porch revealed a peaceful rural landscape with the Aegean Sea in the distance.  Mary was finally relaxing after such a trying day.  Then she tripped and spilled her salad on the floor.  Her cry of anguish might have matched those of mine earlier in the day.  She salvaged what she could and tearfully ate the remains.  

I woke up the next morning feeling as if nothing had happened.  We returned to Sougia and finished our trip.  Our last hour at the beach is indelible in my memory.  The sea and sky were clear.  I swam into the water alongside a large rocky outcrop and twirled in the water—telling myself, as I have many times since, don’t ever forget what this was like! In retrospect, that experience was worth my frightening illness.

The most alarming physical problem was when I disembarked after an all-night flight to Barcelona.  My usually clear vision was full of “sinkers and floaters.”  A couple of days later, I realized I needed to see a doctor.  We were visiting a friend in the village of Ille-Sur-Tet, France and after calling for advice, she took me to a hospital an hour away in Perpignan.  Over the course of visits on three separate days, I was seen by two ophthalmological surgeons and other doctors. I underwent several exams and eventually had laser eye surgery. 

The retina specialist in Grand Junction later told me he was impressed with the techniques used, that the condition I had was very dangerous, and that they may have saved my sight in the eye.  The cost to me was less than a $100!  Maybe that was outrageous as the treatments in Mexico and Greece had been free.

It may sound like I was always the sick one, but Mary has had more days of foreign illness.  Frequently, for the first days in the lowland tropics, she feels borderline nauseous and has a day or two of impairment.  Nonetheless, we have so much fun that she’s never suggested it was not worth it.

A couple of years ago, Mary inadvertently drank untreated water in Ecuador.  Unfortunately, the attacks began while I was out birding.  She was frantic with pain when I returned.  I asked a few questions and was certain this was what had happened to me in Greece. Instead of being panicked, I could calm her and help her wait it out. Our hosts at the rural birding lodge suggested we visit a doctor, but the pattern was too familiar.  We had learned.  We had brought antibiotics.  Mary felt better the next day and rapidly recovered.

Our experiences with illness are an argument for doing cruises, or other group tours where medical assistance is part of the package.  So far, however, our aversion to crowds is greater.  My dislike of crowds is greater than Mary’s, but she is artful at the careful planning that permits us to pick locations and times that shield us from hordes of people.   There are compromises.  For example, when we hiked Spain’s Costa Brava, it was too cold to swim in the Mediterranean, but our reward was having the trails and beautiful little restaurants to ourselves.  Usually, as in the tropics, the risk of bad weather is increased in the offseason.  Only once has that really hurt us. I recounted that experience in a previous blogpost.

Surprisingly, despite our usual avoidance of travel with others, we were persuaded to organize and lead tours ourselves.  Our frequency of tropical travel had been noted by one of the leaders of the local Audubon society.  He suggested we design and lead birding trips as fundraisers; something we did three times to Costa Rica and once to Ecuador. Those were mostly good experiences but included enough setbacks that we decided four such trips were sufficient.

For instance, we learned that many people do not listen to or read instructions.  We always planned to give people an “out” on long birding days.  Mary was the safety valve. She would return to our lodging or the bus whenever anyone else wanted.  We thought this was communicated clearly. Once, we told our group Mary was ready to return.  Later, a woman began complaining.  I reminded her Mary had already left. I offered to ask our driver if he would take her back to the lodge, but she thought this would make her too conspicuous.  She angrily answered in the negative as she gave me a big shove in the back. Later from her written trip comments I learned I was “clueless.”

But, to me, it is other travelers who can be clueless.  Once, on a commercial birding trip, the guide and arrangements were great, but the range of people was a problem.  One man, from Ireland, was a big-time lister, that is, a birder whose sole intent was adding new species to his life list. “Listers,” such as this man, come in two extreme types. One is passive and barely knows a crow from a dove.  Others, like this man, are excellent birders but are single-mindedly focused on their limited goals.  Whenever we saw a species this man “needed,” he ran to the best viewing location and risked knocking everyone over to be certain to have a view.  Seconds later, he would say top banana, top banana and step back and begin looking for the next bird.

Personally, I like to indulge myself and watch the behavior of new species if only for a short time.  Nonetheless, the Irishman was an excellent trip companion, albeit with an interesting demeanor and attention span.  Unfortunately, there were others on this trip who seemed dense.  Two were so oblivious about making noise at night while owling that our young guide had to take the risk to tell them to shut up and stop moving so much.

On our last morning, as we sat down to breakfast, our guide said our agenda for the day was impossibly full.  I recognized that as code to order the simplest things on the menu so breakfast would be quick. Instead, one woman began explaining to the waiter how to cook an elaborate omelet that was not on the menu.  The guide shamed her by saying “Really?”  She changed her order, but I wondered if the guide, who was cheerful and patient otherwise, received a bad review. I did notice that she and her husband apparently did not tip him as is the custom.  These experiences explain why we “do our own thing” whenever possible. 

Do-it-yourself travel involves driving.  Aren’t you afraid to drive? I am often asked.  My responses are so far, so good, and ask me again after we have an incident. Driving requires courage.  Plus, I believe an indicator of a couple’s compatibility is how well they do when driving and navigating unfamiliar places.   Mary is a willing navigator, although she does have a penchant for screaming when fearful. 

I tend to err on the side of boldness.  Occasionally, the results are humorous.  Once in Puerto Rico we found ourselves in a narrow alley with walls and houses nearly touching the car. In front of us was a flock of chickens running frantically unable to avoid us.  Once in Spain, I drove the car into a curving, narrowing alley that was a dead end.  I had to back out with Mary directing me outside the car.

I have done most of my foreign driving in Costa Rica.  On our first trip, I asked our friend Raquel about what seemed to be many reckless drivers.  Costa Ricans, think they have a sixth sense about whether there’s a vehicle around the next curve, she replied.  Once when being chauffeured by a commercial driver, I asked him and he waved at the traffic and said, the hospitals are full of them.  Luckily, most incidents in that county involved being laughed at by school children who realized we were lost tourists or mud.

Roads in Costa Rica can be muddy (near Ciudad Niely).

Once we hired a guide to visit a remote mountain area known for bad roads and ease of becoming lost.  He was not a birder, but he knew the route.  He asked if I had 4wd. When I replied in the affirmative, he enthusiastically suggested I drive.   When we picked him up in the morning, we were surprised to see that his own vehicle was shiny, beautiful and the most tricked-out, off-road vehicle we had seen in Costa Rica.  Why wasn’t he driving, we wondered—especially when he threw two tire chains, “just in case,” in the back of ours? 

The day went well until it began to rain during our return.  Sticky red clay flew everywhere as it caked the tires.  On a steep section, we slid out-of-control toward the mountainside. I managed to stop, but the driver’s side front wheel was hanging off the road.    Had we rolled three or four feet further, both wheels would have been suspended in the air.  The guide and I spent thirty or forty minutes in the pouring rain trying different combinations of leverage and the two tire chains to move the vehicle. I asked if we could call for help.  That is when he told me he was the president of a local off-road vehicle club and did not want to suffer the major embarrassment of calling for help.  We kept trying.

Eventually, after piling brush and scraping clay off the tires, we managed to get back on the road.  Then we had to drive several unpleasant miles with two tire chains, one on the front and one on the back. Our rental vehicle was engulfed in red mud, inside and out, as was I.  Moreover, the ditch had been next to an anthill.  I had numerous bites.  What a mess!  Our guide also let slip that he was taking a couple on a “coffee tour” the next day.  Now we knew why he wanted me to drive; he didn’t want to wash his vehicle that night.  A local car wash was able to make ours presentable, but it was days before I had no more traces of red clay under my fingernails. 

Only once have we had car trouble.  A landslide had blocked a foggy mountain road, marooning us as we watched a man with a bobcat working to remove the mud and rocks from the pavement.   Our vehicle was on a blind, downhill curve, so I had left lights and flashers on.  After a while, we moved up a few car lengths, but I forgot to turn off the lights.  After a considerable delay, we were told one lane and then the other would be allowed to pass.  Our car would not start.  Suspecting a dead battery, I began frenziedly running up and down the line of cars asking if anyone had jumper cables.  Not only would we not be able to go on, but we would be blocking the line of traffic behind us. 

While Mary and I gesticulated to each other in consternation, a diminutive Tico in a small beat-up old car waved to me.  He already had his hood up.  His tiny car contained what I took to be his wife, three children and his mother-in-law, all piled on top of one another. One of the children was a sleeping infant.  The man spoke no English.  He ignored my badly enunciated Spanish as I tried to ask what he was doing.  He gestured until I realized he was removing his battery to switch with mine.  His car was a standard transmission which would be easy to start with my battery by rolling it down the hill.  As we were about to switch, a North American behind us, who had previously declined to help, brought out a generator and started our car.  We will always remember that spontaneous generosity so typical of Costa Ricans. 

It is worth noting that a driving app does not solve all problems.  Once in Arles, France, our GPS routed us the wrong direction on a narrow, curvy one-way street.  I backed up and drove away hoping to get far enough to be routed differently.  This was the old part of the city; a warren of old narrow, curving streets and tall buildings. Our second try brought us to the same location. So did the third.  Frustrated now, we pulled over and consulted a map.  Although we could not see it, we were less than ½ mile from our hotel.  I told Mary to hang on.  I turned on the flashers and with constant honking, headed up the narrow one-way street. Although the GPS would have had us stay on the one-way street longer, I saw a shorter route at the top of a hill, bounced over a curb and sidewalk, drove through a parking lot, and arrived at our destination. 

Lack of driving experience in a country has also caused problems.  On our first day in Portugal, I did not understand how to obtain a ticket needed for the highway we were driving.  When we exited, the attendant who collected the toll screamed at us. That mistake cost us more than the embarrassment. 

Another time we had to return a rental car in Nice, France. I had driven the car for a week, so I was accustomed to it, but the parking lot for returns was at the top of a tall building.  We had to ascend a narrow spiral drive to reach the top.  The car did not have enough power in the lowest gear.  In the next gear, I had to drive too fast.  After stalling the car three or four times, I finally, “went for it,” ascending much too fast with my feet alternating between the clutch, brakes, and accelerator and with Mary screaming in my ears.  We reached the top safely.  I pulled into the first space. All four tires were smoking.  Lucky for us, there was a key drop, no attendant.  We quickly slunk away to the odor of burnt rubber.

Mexico has the worst reputation for driving.  One always hears, if you have an accident, do not stay. Leave the area.  We have also heard of shakedowns from the police and being stopped by locals.   Those problems can be avoided by not driving in certain areas, such as near the border and certain large cities. 

Before making what became three lengthy driving trips into the Yucatan peninsula, we had checked with an ex-pat.  She assured us that both the people and the police were trustworthy if we did not venture near Cancun.  We also asked about a particular route in the State of Chiapas.  Our confidante told us, you can take that road.  You will not be killed, but there will be an incident. We went another way.

Still, we had unsettling experiences. On our first trip, we arranged to rent an inexpensive car from an independent garage in Mérida.  A man at the airport had our name on a card and motioned us to follow. Once in the parking lot, he pointed at a car and then the glove compartment. Papeles (papers), he said. Then he gave me the keys and began to walk away.  In my halting Spanish I asked about signing a rental agreement or paying a deposit. He shrugged and indicated we would settle things when we returned the car.  There we were. No map. No instructions.  Was the car hot?  Mérida uses the same name for many of its streets and is not set up a grid, but like a spiderweb from the city center.  We were soon hopelessly lost while looking for our accommodations.  After a long time and a couple of phone calls, we found our hotel.  It all worked out and the next time we visited, we rented from the same business.

Regrettably, it did not work that way in Campeche City. This time we were renting from a well-known agency.  We had heard stories about extra fees. We were prepared, or so we thought. First, they handed us a placard saying our credit card insurance was not valid unless we had a recent letter from our insurance company. We had it. The next placard requested a statement or license for the credit card from the Mexican government. Again, we had obtained the needed letter. Another placard appeared with an additional excuse.  We argued.  The two men behind the counter were stolid. We had arrived on the last flight of the night. It had been a lightly loaded small plane. We continued to protest. Finally, I looked around the terminal. It was the four of us and a janitor. We paid.

That trip had other surprises.  On a rural road in Chiapas, a man pulled a chain across the road. He was collecting for a local project and was surprised that he had apprehended tourists.  He dropped the chain; I accelerated and left him behind.

The muddy rural roads we had been driving had enough bumps, rocks, and brush to loosen the undercarriage.  Driving down the road, it suddenly disconnected, and the front portion dropped onto the pavement.  I pulled off under a shower of sparks.  We were lucky.  I was able to wedge it in place with a tire iron.  A brief view under the car revealed problems, but the car being so muddy when we returned, the attendant did not even inspect it.  He took the keys and drove off. I expected to hear back from them, but I never did.  The upshot is that, as in the US, most incidents are minor.  We will keep driving as long as our luck holds out. 

Of course, the most important part of our do-it-yourself travel is the hours of planning.  It is not an exaggeration to say that Mary should list travel-planning as a hobby.  She spends days reading countless trip reports and reviews.  She brings pages of printouts with explanations and alternatives.  The benefits are enormous.  Here is a simple example: we were traveling with another couple and had an unplanned night in Florence.  We walked indecisively back and forth for an hour before choosing a restaurant.  The food was poor and the prices high.  Usually, Mary has done the research and has already made an excellent choice.  On that same trip, we encountered an unexpectedly closed venue, and another time a rainy day.  Each time, Mary was ready with an excellent back-up plan. 

Now, when I think back to that first trip to Cozumel with our only goal being relief of responsibilities from work and parenting.  I can scarcely believe we have taken more than fifty foreign trips.  Our lives would have been rich and interesting in different ways without the travel, but what great fun it has been.  

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