There are times when the miles and miles of Texas feel like walls, not spaces. Memorial Day is coming up and I'll have a few days free but I'm too broke to fly anywhere and just a little too short on time for another Mexico bus trip. I'm having trouble thinking of anyplace within striking distance where I really want to go.
A museum prowl in one of the cities holds some appeal, but I'm freshly back from a family outing to the Fort Worth MOMA and feeling throughly beat up by just those few hours on Texas' bleak and harried intercity routes. I could maybe talk myself into a barbecue pilgrimage but what would I do in Lockhart or Llano once I've gorged? I got my fill of pseudohistorical Texas kitsch years ago. I don't fish so my only associations with the coast are salt, sand and sunburn. I do like a shady freshwater swimming hole, but not when I have to share it with holiday weekend crowds. Notwithstanding the most pleasant May in memory, it's mosquito and chigger season and not my idea of hiking weather. The one outdoor experience which is really appealing would be to get some altitude, but the nearest mountains are 400 miles away.
So I'm feeling like a landlocked castaway: landscape, landscape everywhere and not a sight to see.
I do have one odd thought looming in my mind like my own Devil's
Tower. Years ago, on a trip back from Taos,
I passed through a tiny town hugging the foot of a spectacular
ridge sticking up from the surrounding plains. It would have
been somewhere on a meandering diagonal route from
Lubbock to Austin, probably on US 84. I've been Googling and not finding any central-to-west Texas towns which claim such a feature.
Can anybody think of the place I might be remembering? If I
can identify it, I suppose it might be as good an arbitrary
excuse for an excursion as any.
Two puzzles that the Interwebs may be able to solve for me: I'm looking for Delta flight tracking maps and wondering when the winter rush for Mexican bus travel ends.
My daughters and their mom are about to take a long-awaited trip to India. They will be on Delta's new direct flight from JFK to Mumbai using what the airline says is a polar route. The girls want a route map for their scrapbooks but to my surprise, I can't find one on the Delta site or anywhere else I've looked. The best I've been able to come up with is a couple of tools to generate generic great-circle maps. They show the route as grazing Greenland, going over Iceland, Scandinavia, western Russia, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Pretty cool! But of course the actual route might vary considerably from the idealized great circle.
And is Iceland far enough north to be called "polar"? Tinkering with the ACSCDG tool I see that shifting the route a few degrees east to avoid Afghanistan would also shift it further north into the Arctic.
As for me, I'm thinking about using this break to take another short bus trip to Mexico but I'd like to time it for after the end of the holiday rush. Presumably the southbound traffic has already peaked. But what about northbound? Does it happen in time for people to return to work January 2nd or so, or does it last longer, maybe up till school starts again mid-January? Anybody have any ideas?
My old blog posts about bus travel to Mexico (1, 2, 3, 4) keep getting so many hits that I've decided to do something silly and unscientific: I've put up a SurveyMonkey survey about a hypothetical site devoted to Mexican bus travel.
If you think you'd ever travel to Mexico by bus or read about it online, please take the survey. Thanks!
At the beginning of August the girls and I did a road trip out to West Texas with an excursion across the New Mexico line to Carlsbad.
I'm a wimp about long drives and generally feel pretty wiped out just by a run from Austin to Houston or Dallas. But from the Hill Country on, I-10 is a traffic-free 80+ MPH cruise, so at least it wasn't stressful and all I had to contend with was shoulder and back pain from my unergonomic car. The girls were great -- a pile of books on tape from the library was enough to keep us all cheerful. We got through the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Tipping Point (while they were reading and I had the audio faded to the front of the car), and a good chunk of The Hobbit.
West Texas in August sounds like a crazy idea but I was surprised to learn that it's actually more pleasant out there than in Austin. I'd always imagined that the Davis Mountains are too puny to have cool weather but happily that's not true. The air wasn't Rockies-crisp but it was a far cry from the oven we've been living in all summer. Another cooling feature was San Solomon Springs at Balmorhea State Park, a spring-fed pool of cold, deep water full of fish. It's hidden in plain sight just four miles or so off I-10, perfect for breaking up a trip; we hit it both going out and coming back.
Our major destination was Carlsbad, New Mexico, where we're fortunate to have a hospitable cousin who put us up for two nights and showed us around. We did the Caverns, of course, and also the Living Desert State Park, a native-species zoo and botanical garden worth a trip to Carlsbad in its own right. Our cousin also took us to the Fiesta Drive-In, a thriving three-screen drive-in theater which is the biggest movie venue in town. We watched "Cars", not my favorite Pixar product but an appropriate choice for a drive-in in New Mexico.
After Carlsbad we returned to Texas with stops in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the ultra-funky Van Gogh Books in Van Horn. We ended up at the beautiful and well-run Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park. It was one of those experiences, like riding Amtrak on a good day, when you get a nostalgic feeling of good will toward government and its cheerful and efficient representatives in uniform. This trip reminded me why I once wanted to be a park ranger when I grow up.
From Ft. Davis we did short excursions to the McDonald Observatory and a scenic three-corner run through Marfa and Alpine. I've been hearing rumors of the hipster art colony that's sprung up in Marfa but didn't know much about it. We didn't stop because I knew it wouldn't be the girls' thing, but now I know I've got to go back,
maybe one of these Octobers for the Chinati Foundation Open House.
Just a quick drive through town gave me fantasies of what it would be like to live there -- a small Texas town with a pleasant climate, a sense of style, art that goes beyond bluebonnets and longhorns, and an NPR station? Who knew!
My other obligations permitting me a vacation for the first time in a year and a half, last week I took a quick jaunt to Real de Catorce, Mexico.
It was just what the doctor ordered: cool and dry, giving me a little break before the full Texas summer sets in. Real de Catorce was once a prosperous mining center of 30,000 people but around the turn of the last century the mines failed and it became depopulated. Now it's rebuilding and is back up to a population of around 1500. The result is a quiet little colonial town, with enough amenities to be comfortable but not totally overrun with tourists. Although every other person in Austin I talk to seems to have made the trip in the past, I only saw maybe a dozen gringos in my three days there, the bulk of the tourists in town being Mexican. During the week there weren't many tourists at all but on the weekend the place filled up, with a good number of middle-class vacationers and many more people of modest means arriving in the backs of trucks. I'm not sure whether the latter category should be considered tourists or pilgrims, as one of Real's big draws is its church dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi. The main street is lined with stalls selling religious articles. I was tempted to buy a glowing plastic Jesus but uncharacteristically I wasn't feeling very ironic.
I'd been afraid that my out-of-shape lowlander cardiovascular system wouldn't be up to hiking at 8000 feet but I needn't have worried. Although the mountains around Real de Catorce are quite steep, there are mining roads with gentle grades that curve around them for miles so I didn't have to take on many hills. For future reference, the best hike I took started on Calle Zaragoza leading northwest toward the cemetery. There are a couple of steep sections on your way out of town, but just a little way past the cemetery the road levels out. I took it out to where it ends overlooking the plains that go west toward Zacatecas. In three hours I saw six people, a few horses and a couple dozen burros.
Whether because of mine tailings or a longer history of overgrazing I don't know, but the hills immediately adjacent to town are the most barren land I saw. A few minutes out of town things became more lush, still desert but with everything under 12" tall in bloom. I guess there had been recent rains. I wished for somebody who could explain the plants to me. Many of them looked like relatives of the Texas natives popular among xeriscapers, especially some salvias, but in miniature.
I also wished for a camera that was working better; none of my macro or low-light shots turned out. But a few pics were good enough to put up on Flickr.
Now what the googlers have been waiting for -- Texas-Mexico bus service, part IV.
On this trip was I think I finally solved the puzzle which has been a perennial thread (1, 2, 3) in this blog: I found a bus line I like between Austin and north central Mexico. It is Turimex, a branch of the large Grupo Senda conglomerate. Turimex isn't quite ejecutivo class but it's pretty good, with clean buses and more legroom than an airplane. I took an overnight bus from Austin to Matehuala (the jumping-off spot for Real de Catorce) and another one back. Both times the bus was on time and the border crossings went smoothly. Austin to Matehuala was about 13 hours and $50 USD. Unlike most Mexican bus companies, Grupo Senda has a website with schedules and, of all things, working online chat with a ticket agent! In Austin the bus stop is at El Dorado Meat Market at 5001 Airport Blvd (next to the Tamale House), 512-419-0300. Turimex doesn't advertise in Austin -- thanks to the commenters who encouraged me to track them down.
From Matehuala, the trip to Real de Catorce has got to be one of the more picturesque bus routes in Mexico. You catch a second-class bus (but clean and in good repair) that goes through a couple of small towns and then turns onto a cobblestone road which winds up into the mountains. It stops at the mouth of a former mining tunnel where you shift to a smaller bus to do the last 1.5 miles into Real under the mountain and in the dark. The tunnel is so narrow that traffic can only go one direction at a time. Matehuala to Real is about 2 hours and $5 USD; the only caveat is that the return leg through the tunnnel can get very crowded on the minibus.
That's the report. I'm happy to say that the pleasure of visiting Mexico is still worth a long bus ride, even at my advancing age. I used the same bus survival techniques as before, right down to a Paco Ignacio Taibo II novel, but with a real iPod this time instead of the hillbilly version. I can't wait for the next trip.
So I'm on my way to TagCamp, trying to find my way through Palo Alto traffic armed only with a printout from Google Maps. I've been circling for half an hour, looking for roads that don't really connect the way Google says they do, when I look up and what do I see? Google HQ!
Okay, I didn't have the presence of mind to stop and take that pic (thanks, Flickr), but if I had stopped, it would have been hard to resist going inside and complaining...
Last week's New Yorker was their annual travel issue, and I'm reading its pages through tears of Fernweh. There are lots of things to blog about in it and I'll probably update this entry, but wanted to start by mentioning profile of Tony Wheeler of the Lonely Planet guides. Plenty of fodder there to interest LP-bashers and admirers alike.
Trying to get some schoolwork done during spring break, I have left the kids with their grandparents for the day and holed myself up in a wireless hotspot in beautiful Garland, Texas.
Apparently libraries in this part of the world don't provide wireless. At least the Garland and Dallas libraries don't -- I hear rumors that the ones in techier and better-heeled Richardson and Plano might.
I tried the Free Texas wi-fi hotspot list and learned (no surprise) that it's slightly out of date. For the benefit of Googlers, here's an update:
I'm having a fine time in Montreal even if I've been too busy to make it to the recommended sights: no Mont Royal, no Old Montréal. Next trip, I suppose. Mostly I've been shuttling between the conference hotel and my cozy, clean and much cheaper one a 15-minute walk away.
The weather has been cold and snowy enough for me to know I'm not in Texas but not bad.
I've been wimping out to the extent of doing as much as possible of my walk back and forth through the maze of tunnels connecting much of downtown. Together the tunnels constitute one giant mall of shopping and food courts; in fact I'd guess that the Mall of the Americas couldn't touch underground Montreal in the food court department. Despite their familiar mall-ness, the tunnels' twists and turns, ups and downs, and cryptic or absent signage have a science fiction air about them. I'm reminded of the Robert Heinlein book set in underground cities on the moon, and I'm sure that if invaders from another planet ever send their troops into Montreal's tunnel system, the people of Montreal will make as short work of them as Heinlein's lunar defenders did.
This weekend I’ll be at the Information Architecture Summit in Montreal and then next weekend I’ll be back in Austin for South by Southwest Interactive. If you read this blog and you’ll be in either place, let’s get together.
Oh, and if you have travel tips for Montreal, I'm all ears.
I'm back from my whirlwind trip to the two Laredos, Monterrey and Zacatecas. I'll blog the fun stuff in the next couple of days, but first I'll do a brief followup to my previous posts on bus travel between Texas and Mexico.
The bottom line about bus strategies seems to be that you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't.
Going south I took my friend David's advice and bought a ticket to Laredo with the intention of walking across and catching an ejecutivo-class overnight bus to Zacatecas. But Greyhound managed to lose my bag in San Antonio (don't ask me how, as my bag should never have left the bus, but the baggage handlers in Laredo say it happens all the time). After much fumbling around on the part of Greyhound it did show up, three buses and six hours later, which made me miss the southbound overnight connections. I ended up spending the night in Laredo and breaking up my trip in Monterrey, about which more later.
Walking across into Mexico was easy and a pleasantly dramatic way to move from one country to another. It made me think of a half-remembered Graham Greene story involving the bridge that I must look up. The hardest part was trying to find an official on the Mexican side who would issue me a tourist card. Mexico is happy to have anyone enter its border zone, no questions asked, and the checkpoints further inland are spotty enough that you could easily end up days and hundreds of miles later discovering yourself to be an illegal alien, just because you didn't know to look for the obscure little Migración office when you first arrived.
Nuevo Laredo is hardly paradise but not especially scary; the red light district must be out of sight somewhere. A cab to the bus station cost me US$5 just as Lonely Planet said. There I caught an ejecutivo to Monterrey and it was as advertised, clean and comfortable with more legroom than flying coach.
Coming back north I tried the other strategy and booked an overnight ticket straight through from Zacatecas to Austin on Autobuses Americanos, one of the lines operating in both Mexico and the US. The bus was only first class, not ejecutivo, so no extra legroom, and it was packed full of families returning from Christmas with the relatives. I was squeezed in between a family of seven and a plus-sized grandma. That made for pleasant conversation and plenty of entertainment from the kids, but not exactly comfort. The bathroom was used so heavily that halfway through the trip the driver advised us to reserve it only for emergencies.
The worst part about the through ticket, though, was crossing the border back into the US. We spent three hours in a long line of buses waiting to get through customs, not as bad as the seven to ten hours I've heard of, but frustrating anyway. I kept thinking that in that time I could have walked across (there's never that much delay for pedestrians), had a nice meal, and caught the next bus north from Laredo -- assuming there were seats to be had. But it was because I didn't want to be at the mercy of Greyhound again that I chose a through bus in the first place.
The next time you hear Bush talk about increased funding for border security, laugh. The multi-hour backlog in Laredo was due to short resources and inefficient management at the border crossing. The facility was large enough to handle heavy traffic but configured for manual inspection of buses and luggage, and trying to work in a misconfigured space meant the buses had to make maneuvers like backing up through a crowd of people. There was only one airport-style scanner for our luggage but the real bottleneck was the inspection of the buses themselves. That required a large mysterious scanner or sniffer mounted on a truck which would slowly drive by each unloaded bus. There was only one such bus-scanner for the whole border station so each bus in series had to unload and get sniffed. Had there been more than one, and had the physical arrangement permitted buses to unload in parallel with other buses getting scanned, the process would have run several times faster.
(That wasn't the only misfeature of the border crossing, by the way. It also had the worst toilet facilities I saw during my trip. After sitting on the bridge for hours, we hundreds of bus passengers were greeted with a row of three overflowing port-a-potties and nowhere to wash our hands. I'd have expected better in Bangladesh.)
So anyway: there's no good and reliable way to travel by bus between Texas and Mexico. The best strategy seems to be to get to the border however you can and cross on your own, using ejecutivos on the Mexico side when possible; but even then fate in a form as simple as an incompetent baggage clerk can completely undo your plans.
I was supposed to wake up this morning in Zacatecas, but in the family germ swap a week ago I managed to come down with a nasty cold. Until I kick it I think I should stay in the land of central heating and avoid overnight bus rides.
If anyone has a quick fix for the upper respiratory blues let me know. Right now I'd like to roto-rooter my sinuses and get on with it as my window for travel is shrinking fast.
If I'm better in a couple of days I might still go but take a less ambitious trip -- perhaps to Monterrey to check out the MARCO, the Macroplaza and New Year's Eve with the fresas in the Barrio Antiguo. I've always favored rural, historic and working-class Mexico and indulged in some heavy reverse snobbery about the modern comforts available to the affluent, but having seen the comfortable side of Rio I'm wondering how the other half lives in post-NAFTA Mexico.
Anybody been to Monterrey lately who can tell me whether such a trip would be worth the trouble?
Although it is the duty of every good Austinite to despise our ungainly neighbor to the east, I have to admit it: I like Houston. Had I not been dragged there kicking and screaming I never would have known that there's anything to like. Houston's charms are so hidden that you pretty much have to be a long-time resident to find them, reversing the old saw about the nice place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there. I ended up living in the Houston area for ten years and have spent another ten traveling there once or twice a month on business. That arrangement has ended (see below) and I'm not sure when I'll be back. So at the risk of having my Keep Austin Weird sticker revoked, here are thirteen things I'll miss about Houston:
Why am I no longer traveling to Houston? Well, last Tuesday I turned in my ID and said my farewell to Rice, where I've worked for the past thirteen years, ten of them as a telecommuter. I'll be going back to school, specifically the master's program at UT's iSchool. I'm excited. More about that soon, probably in my other blog.
So as I walked out of Rice's sallyport in the filtered December afternoon sun (I don't recall whether Goodby Mr. Chips had a theme song, but if it did it should have been playing), one consolation occurred to me:
At least I don't have to put up with the %^#@*!!! Houston climate any more!
Many thanks to everyone who replied to my previous thread on Mexican bus lines operating in Texas. My research continues. In the spirit of the Tijuana Busboard I rounded up all the Spanish-language papers I could find in Austin and scoured them for bus ads. There were more such papers (a subject for another blog entry) and fewer such ads than I'd have expected; clearly this bus network still relies primarily on word of mouth. Here are scans of all the ads I saw, dated approximately the first week of December 2004, subject to change without notice, your mileage may vary, swim at your own risk, caveat emptor, cave canem:
Although I'm still intrigued by these cross-border bus lines, I'm starting to think that it
may be easier to use domestic buses and handle the border crossings on your own, not only to avoid long delays for vehicular crossings, but because that gives you more flexibility in scheduling: there are a lot more connections to choose from in and out of Nuevo Laredo than the handful which terminate in Texas. And I find the idea of doing the border crossing by day and then catching a night bus more appealing than planning to cross the border mid-journey at 3:00 AM. See the comments in my previous post for more info.
I'm trying to research el cheapo overland travel to Mexico and running into some questions that Lonely Planet and the like haven't answered. I'm hoping that someone who knows the lowdown will Google in here. Oh, lazyweb, I invoke thee!
First, since NAFTA it's a common sight to see Mexican bus lines operating in Texas cities. I gather that they offer direct tickets to numerous destinations in interior Mexico. I've done long-haul bus travel in Mexico in the past and it was pretty grueling, with lots of long layovers and unreliable transfers along the way, but the claim is that these lines will let you go to sleep in Austin and wake up in San Miguel or San Luís Potosí (with a 2:00 AM muster for Mexican immigration, I suppose). Have things improved that much since my day?
I've also heard that, thanks to Homeland Security restrictions, multi-hour delays at the border for vehicles entering the US are now common. Therefore it's been suggested that it can be quicker on a return trip to catch a bus to Nuevo Laredo, walk across the pedestrian bridge to the US side, and then catch a Greyhound for points north. Maybe, but that operation sounds like it would be a multi-hour process itself, since neither station is adjacent to the bridge. Anybody have any recent experiences to report?
Another complexity is that there's no central station or source of information on Mexican bus lines operating in Austin. So far I've checked out the one that stops next door to Mr. Natural: Autobuses San Luís, 1907 E. César Chávez, tel. 512-320-0104, with nightly service to Laredo, Monterrey, San Luís Potosí, Querétaro and Celaya. I'm still looking for Autobuses Conejo ("más rápido que el Greyhound"), Autobuses Americanos and any others in town.
Secondly, another rumor is that there are so many expats and snowbirds who travel regularly between Austin and San Miguel de Allende that they have their own rideshare website, or at least their own watering hole on somebody else's site. Any truth to that? I don't see any sign of them on Craigslist.
Finally, it's at the wrong corner of Mexico to do me any good, but someone has set up the ingenious Tijuana Busboard: digital photos of the posted schedules at the Central de Autobuses in Tijuana, BC. Subject to change without notice, of course, but much better than no info at all. If I end up making this trip, perhaps I'll copy the idea and put one up for Nuevo Laredo.