My First Year in Mexico

“Aren’t you scared?” Alfonso, my new brother-in-law, asked as we concluded a family visit near the Texas border before my husband and I headed for the city with the strange-sounding name: Guadalajara.  Of all the things I had felt as I left Texas to move to another country, scared was not one of them.

The drive was long, but I was overjoyed to be in the interior of Mexico at last.  A twelve-week college missions trip in Juarez, barely across the Texas border, with a weekend side trip to Chihuahua, had made me want to see more. We stopped in Monterrey, where I met my husband’s Tia Chucha, then we drove on to San Luis Potosi, where we stopped for the night. I’m not sure that I clapped my hands like a child when we finally saw the lights of Guadalajara in the distance, but I was that excited.

Some friends who had already been there for a year invited us to stay at their house while we looked for an apartment, but we didn’t get their letter with the address of their neighbor who would give us the key. We knocked on the door of the house across the street to ask if perhaps they were the designated keepers of the key. They weren’t, but they insisted that we stay with them, and for a week we had a bedroom, breakfast and dinner with that generous family.

We found a place to live–a furnished third-floor apartment and took care of business at the medical school and the American School of Guadalajara, where I had been hired to teach sixth grade. The apartment was cool and comfortable, but it was too pricey for our budget, so we moved down the street to more affordable old-fashioned suites. Bathroom and kitchen were decorated with beautiful blue tiles, and the yard had full-grown banana trees.

In February, we heard there was a vacancy in an apartment building on Morelos Street.  The apartment was unfurnished, so it was less expensive than ours, just 600 pesos or 48 US dollars, and it was bigger, with three bedrooms, an open patio for washing and hanging clothes, and a maid’s room with its own tiny bathroom.  We moved in with a formica table, plastic-covered chairs, and a bed, gradually acquiring other pieces of furniture as we were able to pay for them. We found a woman to come clean the apartment once a week. When our first son was born, she came to work for us full time. Esperanza stayed with us through four more houses and fifteen years.

Teaching sixth-graders at the American School of Guadalajara was a challenge.  I had to master the science and math lessons just ahead of the students, since I was prepared to teach English and journalism.  The students spent half a day in an all-English self-contained classroom and the other half in all-Spanish.  I had two groups of all-English.

The school was a two-story cinderblock building around a large open courtyard with open-air hallways facing the courtyard.  Behind the buildings was an open yard with a soccer field, a volleyball court, and basketball hoops.  The office and library were near the entrance.  A teacher’s lounge, bookstore, and snack bar were located in the classroom building.

The students wore uniforms–dark blue pants and pinstriped shirts for the boys, pinstriped shirtwaist dresses for the girls, navy cardigans for all.  They were well-behaved.  Monday mornings students, teachers, and staff gathered in the courtyard to salute the U.S. and Mexican flags, carried proudly by as they were paraded by a color guard, chosen for their good grades and excellent citizenship..  They stood up when teachers entered the classroom, and they said “Thank you, Miss!” when they were dismissed. There was a break between the English-Spanish switch, and “lonches” (sandwiches made with a bolillo (French bread) split in half and filled with ham, lettuce, and jalapeno chiles) were available at the snack bar, along with other treats.  There was no formal lunch hour, since the students were out in time to go home for traditional mid-day meal around three o’clock.

Edna Mardus was the librarian. She was usually surrounded by kids, whom she knew well enough to make tailor-made recommendations of books she thought they would like.  My school librarians had always seemed to be in charge of protecting the books from our grubby hands!  In the teacher’s lounge, Edna had book recommendations for teachers too, and she always had interesting stories of her own to tell. So did her husband, Fred, who taught math, physics, and chemistry. Fred and his identical mirror-image twin were born in South America on February 28, 1904, to Hungarian parents.  He loved to tell what the one-in-a-bazillion odds were of someone like him and his twin brother being born.  In 1968, the whole school celebrated Fred Mardus’s 16th (64th) birthday.  The well-traveled Marduses were gifted storytellers.

They were the first of many people with amazing stories that I met during my years in Guadalajara.

Packing Wisdom from a Veteran Stand-by

Packing can be stressful. What should I take? What if I forget something? I can’t guarantee that all stress will disappear if you follow these packing guidelines, but they should help. They have been gleaned from years of traveling, including a lot of stand-by travel as the fortunate relative of an airline employee. A lot of my own stress and a few mishaps have made me think about ways to avoid unpleasantries.

Don’t worry too much about forgetting things

Make sure you have your passport and tickets and your money and credit cards. You can buy a toothbrush! The same friend who gave me that advice also suggested this: when you think you are all ready, take twice as much money and half as many clothes! Not always possible, especially the money part, but worth thinking about.

If you travel often, keep your packing supplies–travel sizes of toiletries, plastic bags, shoe bags, and so on in your favorite suitcase ready to organize for your next trip.

Invest in a really sturdy rolling carry-on and a large-capacity personal item

I like a backpack as my personal item so that I can have my hands free when I need them and because I can carry more weight comfortably on my back than on my arm. My purse is packed away until I arrive. For short trips these should be all you need. You can always check the rolling carry-on if you want to, but you have to check a big suitcase or leave it behind. Ask your airline about rules, limitations, and extra charges for checked bags before you buy, pack, or check that bag. A foldable extra carry-on or suitcase is very useful if you find that your luggage expands during trips because of rushed-up packing or souvenir purchases at your destination.

Having to riffle through everything in the suitcase when you need one item is annoying, so I put things that are alike together to save time. The zippered compartments on the outside and inside of luggage are helpful, but I have never found a suitcase that has enough organizing pockets, so I use mesh laundry bags for different categories of clothing–one for underwear and socks, one for pants, one for tops, one for accessories. I include an extra one for bringing dirty clothes back home. A thick sealable plastic bag for a wet swimsuit or sweaty shirt is also a good idea. Shoes should have their own bag, so you don’t mix shoe sole street germs with your nice clothes. I have a big zippered plastic pouch for toiletries with smaller pouches inside for bath things, hair things, and make-up.

Airline standbys have to be prepared for an overnight stay if they don’t get on a flight, but regular passengers can also experience delays or get separated temporarily from their checked baggage. (I learned this after an uncomfortable night in La Quinta, sleeping in the buff and heading out the next day without face cream or makeup.) So…

Always carry these items in your carry-on or personal item

  1. change of underwear
  2. comfortable sleepwear
  3. small sizes of indispensable toiletries, including a toothbrush and small toothpaste
  4. swimsuit (opportunities to swim can happen unexpectedly when you get the standby bump)
  5. socks, and a light jacket or wrap for the flight. Airplanes can be cold even in the hottest weather.

Limit what you pack as much as your fashion needs will allow

You may want to re-think your fashion needs in exchange for more freedom, but that’s your choice. Making a day-by-day wardrobe plan helps me make choices while I’m still at home, not on the road so I avoid hauling unnecessary articles around. Here are my personal basics:

  1. underwear for every day of the trip if possible. It doesn’t take a lot of space, and it is the one item that I want fresh every day. Laundering in a bathroom sink or a relative’s washing machine is a possibility but not something I want to spend my valued vacation time doing.
  2. comfortable walking shoes to wear on the trip and just ONE pair of presentable shoes in a go-with-everything color. Shoes take up valuable packing space. A really special occasion like a wedding might call for one more pair of shoes.
  3. sleepwear, already packed in your carry-on. A bath robe takes a lot of space, so I choose pajamas or a nightgown with a light robe decent enough for sharing coffee on leisurely mornings.
  4. bottoms (pants, skirts, shorts) in neutral colors, maximum of four. For short trips, limit of two or three. My preferred tone is black, but if you like white or tan, go for it.
  5. no-iron tops, the fewer the better. It’s okay to repeat. Four or five work for me, with multiple uses on longer trips. It gets boring, but the freedom is worth it.
  6. an easy-to-wear outfit for an unexpected dressy occasion. For men, a sports jacket that can pass for a suit.
  7. accessories, as needed
  8. make-up, bath needs, and hair tools and products. A hair style that can be air-dried is a great asset when traveling. I stopped carrying a hair dryer when hotels started to include them as standard equipment, but if you must have one, invest in the smallest and lightest one that will do the job.

Happy Travels!

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