All posts by Lydia Gregory

Lydia brings to the group a unique perspective on this whole Mexico deal: she’s actually Mexican. Well, make it half Mexican. The other half is also Hispanic, which happily makes her 100% Latina and that’s just how she likes it. Besides the obvious personal experience she has accumulated over her many years of eating one abuela’s pozole and the other’s arroz con habichuelas, she’s had the good fortune to have served as Mexico Editor for one of the nation’s top travel agent magazines and a PR guru for a boutique agency specializing in upscale clients in Mexico. Add to the mix a stint as a TV personality, an enlightening few years as editor of a woman’s publication on a Caribbean island, a swing as editor of a bilingual wedding magazine in Miami and another couple of years as fashion and beauty editor of a seriously swanky fashion rag (yeah, the one with the short French name) and the result is a very opinionated, very passionate, very short person in very high heels. We hope you enjoy her rants, raves and commentaries and she invites you to please drop in and play in her sandbox.

What If The Shoe Was On The Other Foot? Some Thoughts On Violent Crime And Tourism

By Lola

What if CNN headlines blared “Drug Violence Claims 4 Lives In Popular Vacation Destination” every time a gang-banger (any color, any race) shot up a rival gang’s sidewalk in Los Angeles? What if Fox News ran a constant ticker that read “Murder Chose Chicago 131 Times This Year” and held forms discussing why the city should be boycotted? (In fact, September in that city ended last week with 30 homicides. Nearly 20% of the victims were teens.) Should travel warnings be issued for the Windy City? Should we close up California because, according to the LAPD, even though overall gang crimes fell 12.2 percent, 31 more people were shot [this year] in suspected gang crimes, an increase of 4.9 percent?

I wouldn’t be lying if I said the US has more violence than other first-world countries—and that’s been a fact even before drug use in this country escalated to the point where every enterprising dealer south of the border wanted a piece of the action. We have more robberies, rapes and assaults here. We glorify violence in our movies and our TV shows. We breed serial killers. Meth labs are popping up like daisies in the suburbs (and we all know how sweet and mellow meth-heads can be). We are now even venturing into suicide promotion with the sudden spike of bullying in our schools.

So… honestly. Where are our travel warnings?

Are you mad yet? You should be. This is a great country. It’s a beautiful country. And if you stay away from the scary section of town, if you don’t deal drugs, if you aren’t a hooker and you steer clear of shady bars, chances are you’ll have a ball and be safe as houses in every city, coast to coast. It’s not a guarantee, though, because even in this great nation of ours, innocent lives have been claimed in crossfire. But the police scanners certainly won’t keep me from enjoying the fall weather along the Navy Pier in Chicago or spending a weekend of pure fun in Los Angeles.

So why should I cancel my visit to Puerto Vallarta? Or forget my plans to visit Mexico City for a week?

I shouldn’t. And neither should you.

Yes, be careful. Yes, take normal precautions. No, don’t go to the locus of the cartels for a drive or a drink.

I know I’m not the only one out there who thinks this way. I’m not a lone voice in the wilderness, but sometimes it sure feels that way. So, I’m doing what I can with the tools I have.

Here are just a couple of links from like-minded people. I know there are many more of you out there. Raise your voice. Let it be heard. Thousands upon thousands of people in Mexico depend on tourism for their livelihood. People who can’t feed their children become desperate. And we all know about desperate people. Please help reverse this desperation by looking beyond the headlines.

Thanks for your time.

Lola

The Economist Blog: “Mexico: Safer Than Canada”

Mexico Boutique Hotels Blog: “Travel Warning for the United States?”

Guest Blogger Kristine MacKain: Cool Oaxaca Blog (Part 3 – Final)

This is the final installment of our friend Kristine’s Cool Oaxaca Blog—¡qué sonido tan triste cuando se acaba! She’s given us a wonderful glimpse into life in Mexico; we hope to see more of her soon. ¡Muchas gracias, Kristine!

Saludos a todos,

Lola

Rescuing A Oaxacan Native

Oaxaca from rear copy
Oaxaca, skin and bones...

Interesting developments here. We have been helping Rebecca (our property owner and wife of Tony) rescue a dog (Rebecca rescues animals and has a full blown operation going here at the farm where we’re staying). Over the last three weeks now, we’ve been searching for the dog in our car. When we find her, we coax her to eat (we carry cans of dog food in our trunk). The dog is a female, very gentle and shy, easily dominated by other dogs, and was literally starving before Rebecca and her “team” (us and our neighbor, Mary) went to work to save her. We’ve been able to get medicine for worms and fleas into her food and wiped some disinfectant on her for the flies that had taken up residence on her back. We’ve watched her go from too afraid to approach us at all, to approaching and quickly wolfing down the food and then running away, to eating while we touch her a little bit, to taking food out of my hand ever so gently.

Three days ago she ran up to us with confidence and wolfed down the food. Two days ago when Rebecca left in her car after feeding her, the dog ran after her car! Later that morning, after three weeks of gaining her trust, Rebecca and the Vet were able to put a leash on her and carry her to their car. The Vet examined her carefully and said she was about 1.5 years old and has had at least one litter of puppies. She has lost her front teeth, probably, the Vet said, from trying to eat rocks for sustenance. They were her permanent teeth so they will not grow back.  But otherwise her health is fine, and he has already had her vaccinated and spayed!

I’m besotted with the dog now — we already have a name for her….Oaxaca. I think that may be a cheesy name if she stayed here in the state of Oaxaca, but in Guanajuato, it will be a cool name.

Well, at this moment I am waiting for our new dog, Oaxaca, to be delivered by the Vet. Our mutual adjustment period is about to begin….

Megan House and a Dog Named Oaxaca

O's first morning at the casita
Oaxaca's first morning at the casita.

Oaxaca, the dog we recently rescued from the streets, easily adapted to being in our casita but spent most of her first days in her bed. One morning, while I was working at my desk in the living room, I heard growling and hissing coming from the kitchen, then a scramble—I looked up to see two cats dashing toward the bedroom followed (too closely) by a big white blur nipping at their heels. The dog and cats are now at a standoff.  No more feeding the cats in the kitchen. Even when her bowl is empty, Oaxaca patrols that kitchen entry like a sentry. Having said that, Oaxaca is not a neurotic dog and her transition to civilized life has been very fast, indeed. The first two days with us she inhaled her food (I didn’t hear ANY chewing!) but once the food began to appear on a regular schedule, she started to eat normally.

She was a bit slow to respond to affection, though. We petted her but she just looked at us rather blankly, her tail tucked between her legs. I imagined she’d learned not to trust the behavior of humans, even acts of kindness.

Rebecca who, with her husband, Tony, own 40 acres of property in the countryside just outside the city of Oaxaca, has been running an animal rescue operation on her property for several years. She has rescued large and small animals– horses and burros, cats and dogs. To date, she has two kittens and four puppies waiting to be adopted and has kept for herself eight adult dogs (because adult dogs are almost impossible to place in homes). She calls her business “Megan House” in memory of her first and most beloved dog, Megan, a German Shepard with a great personality that she rescued from the streets of her pueblo.

Washing a rescued dog.
Washing a rescued dog.

Rebecca and Tony live on the outskirts of San Pablo Etla and, like many pueblos in Mexico, the village is filled with stray dogs roaming the streets in search of food. Some of the dogs are in bad shape, like Oaxaca, and when Rebecca identifies one of those dogs, she and her local Mexican Vet, Luciano, go into high gear. They begin by feeding the dog and gaining its trust, often mixing medicine into the dog’s food. Eventually, they transport the dog to the Vet’s office where it is spayed and further treated, as needed. Sometimes the dog is released back onto the streets but if a dog is too ill, Rebecca takes it to her kennel at home. Occasionally, it becomes part of her family. As a result of their efforts, this team of two has transformed the pueblo—improving the lives of many dogs and preventing overpopulation through spaying.

To call Rebecca’s dog rescue operation a business is a bit of a stretch; in fact, it is a charity, financed by Rebecca and Tony. The word has gotten out about Rebecca’s efforts and now people regularly bring her animals they find discarded on the streets, such as puppies and kittens too young to survive without their mothers. The GOOD news is folks also regularly appear at Megan House looking to adopt animals.

I think you have to be a bit crazy, as well as a saint, to do the work Rebecca does. She is totally focused and will not retreat from any dog who needs her help. Mexicans generally care for their pets but in one instance, Rebecca found a sick dog, owned by a local family, who was being terribly neglected. Instead of turning her attention elsewhere, she engaged Luciano (the Vet) as cultural mediator and translator and approached the family about their dog’s poor condition. She offered to pay for the medical treatment the dog needed and later, when the dog was on the mend, she and Luciano educated the family in how to care properly for it. Now that takes chutzpah!

On our third day with our new dog, we took Oaxaca for a walk. As we made our way up a hill, I walked ahead of Cedric and Oaxaca, who was on a leash. Oaxaca began to whine, clearly not

Oaxaca's first walk.
Oaxaca's first walk.

wanting to be separated. Other than growling at the cats, that was the first time I’d heard her voice.

Later that afternoon, I was working at my desk and Oaxaca was, as usual, lying in her bed. After awhile, I felt a nose pushing its way under my right arm. I looked down. It was Oaxaca. She was wagging her tail.  I got down on the floor and folded my entire body over hers, giving her a big bear hug. She groaned, wagging her tail faster, then let out a big sigh. I think that was the moment we fell in love. When I rescued Oaxaca, I was so focused on what I was doing for the dog that I did not realize what the dog was doing for me.

Now our vacation is over and Oaxaca is back home with us in San Miguel de Allende. On our vacation, we visited an archeological site and explored some artisan villages but we didn’t go birding and we never made it to the coast. We were too busy spending time with wonderful people and learning about their lives in Oaxaca—Rebecca and Tony, Mary and Bill, and Penny and Victor (who are in the process of buying a house near Casa Raab). We learned all about homemade mezcal distilling and hiked through Tony’s maguey fields. And then there were those gigs, singing and playing the bass with the Bodega Boys.  You can use a guidebook to help shape your trip, but you won’t find any of these adventures in a guidebook.

Most important, there was the business of rescuing our new dog, Oaxaca. We always knew we would be bringing home crafts and things from our travels—you know, rugs and pottery and stuff.  But we never imagined we’d be bringing home a dog!

Pantera, a rescued cat.
Pantera, a rescued cat.
Waiting for a home.
Waiting for a home.
Dickens, another rescued cat.
Dickens, another rescued cat.

Guest Blogger Kristine MacKain: Cool Oaxaca Blog (Part 2)

Please enjoy Part 2 of Kristine’s take on life in Mexico—we’re sure you’ll enjoy it as much as we did! Stay tuned for Part 3 tomorrow!

Lola

Could We Live Here?

We’ve seen amazing places, met artisans who do excellent work, even bonded with our taxi driver, Lupe, who sometimes takes us to the city.

The road from Bill and Mary's to our casita.
The road from Bill and Mary’s to our casita.

We’ve also met a number of people we REALLY like who are living here. In fact, we think WE want to live here! The owner of this property has land for sale and the views are stunning. We’d have to sell our house and we’re not sure we want to do that yet but we’re looking into it. We could buy land, build the house just to our specs, and live off the grid. I love Oaxaca; there is something mystical about this place:  the valleys circled by high mountains here, the way the mountains shift colors during the day, shifting from shades of green to dark blue by evening, the gray mist that settles over the meadows in early morning—it is truly stunning. The city of Oaxaca is messier and not nearly as charming as a place like San Miguel de Allende and it’s generally a poorer, dirtier place in the suburbs and villages (pueblos) surrounding the city. Also, there is poorer communication (as in no local papers and little formal gringo organization). But the setting is to die for. Also, the birding is fantastic–a testament to the great natural habitats here. Our neighbors, Bill and Mary, have counted 250 different bird species in their back garden!!

We had such an amazing time yesterday at a mercado about 25 miles from here –it was the best mercado I’ve visited outside Morocco — a Zapotec pueblo (in the rug weaving region) called Tlacolula (get your tongue round that!).

Zapotec Indian women in native dress dominated the scene along with live turkeys, oxen harnesses, baby chicks, goats, handmade pottery, and mezcal demonstrations, as well as a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. You had to buy everything by the kilo and it was always the same price–20 pesos. We figured we got over $60 worth of fruit and veggies for about $12. The groceries were so heavy that Cedric had to make two trips to the car! We’ll never eat it all. We asked for one mango but were told it was five mangoes or nothing!

There was an incredibly beautiful church adjacent to the mercado that was filled with people wandering in and out. Walking out of the church we almost ran into a middle-class woman carrying a live turkey in a bag, its head bobbing back and forth in consternation. Mexican folk songs were being played and some guys were singing along. The experience was SO foreign– a mix of Mexican and Zapotec and not one sighting of gringos (except us) to corrupt the authenticity of the scene.

Thinking later about the chaotic, vibrant, messy, startling experiences in the mercado, and how strangely excited and satisfied I was having wandered through all that, I wondered what it was about Target and Home Depot that was so mind numbing, so excruciatingly BORING.

Church shrine in Tlacolula.
Church shrine in Tlacolula.
Tlacolula pueblo church.
Tlacolula pueblo church.
Woman buying tortillas at the mercado.
Woman buying tortillas at the mercado.
Waiting to be lunch...
Main dish waiting for pick-up…
"Turkey to go"
"Turkey to go"
Corn on the cob, mercado style.
Corn on the cob, mercado style.
"Moto taxi" in San Pablo Etla, "our" pueblo.
“Moto taxi” in San Pablo Etla, “our” pueblo.

New Guest Blogger + Cool Oaxaca Blog (Part 1): Welcome, Kristine!

¡Buenas tardes a todos! I want to introduce a new guest blogger, Kristine MacKain, who has some great—and fun—stuff to share with us about life in Mexico. We’re always happy to hear positive things about this country we love so much, and hope it inspires more of you to come visit.

Here’s a little bit about her:

Kristine MacKain, Ph.D. is a former research scientist and speech pathologist, now retired and living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She and her husband, Cedric Johnson, are happiest when they are traveling, seeking adventure, and learning about world cultures and how other people live. Cedric says that each time Kris visits a beautiful and interesting place, she wants to live there. Consequently, he’s learned never to attach himself too firmly to their home base!

And here’s the start of her contribution (it’s a long story, so we’ve decided to blog it up over the next few days, so stay tuned for more adventures—and pics—from Kristine!)

Oaxaca, Mezcal, and the Local Gringo Band

Less than a month ago, my husband, Cedric, and I rolled into Casa Raab, our Oaxaca farm destination just outside Oaxaca City. We drove down from our home in San Miguel de Allende (SMA) on the Arco Norte, a new expressway that avoids Mexico City, passing through the city of Puebla, then dropping south through slate blue mountains into the state of Oaxaca.

We are renting out our SMA home right now, and we were planning on a quiet month in the country, following the suggestions in our guidebook: doing some birding and taking some trips to the coast, touring archeological sites and artisan villages. Venturing into unknown territory, however, we could not have imagined the adventures that awaited us.

ccCasa Raab guest bottling mezcalThe road into the property was dirt, rutted and bumpy. Close to the main house, four gringos crowded together outside behind a tall, narrow rustic bar-height table bent intently over a collection of tall glass bottles as one of them poured clear liquid through a plastic funnel.

“Hey, glad ya made it,” said the guy doing the pouring. “I’m Tony,” (our host and property owner)

“What are you guys doing?” I asked.

“Oh, we’re in the process of bottling some homemade mezcal.”

bbTony at his homemade mezcal distillery
Photo by Jeff Charles

We followed Tony to the casita with our luggage, and he got right down to business: “Why don’t you two unpack later and join us right now for some mezcal tastings?” We were tired after the 7-hour drive, but we had just read a very interesting article in the New York Times pronouncing mezcal as “the next big thing” and describing it as “complex, gorgeous and endlessly intriguing, distinguished like great wines by a strong sense of place.” The place to which the author was referring, of course, was Oaxaca. How could we refuse?

Mezcal is crafted by hand almost exclusively by small, homegrown distilaamaguey crop for mezcalleries, and Oaxaca has more mezcal distilleries than anywhere else in Mexico. The drink is made from various species of the agave plant, called “maguey” in Spanish. It has a smoky flavor and tastes vaguely like single-malt scotch. We were anxious to try it.

Relaxing at the mezcal bar with Tony and his guests, we learned that the guests were from Washington D.C., and had been to Casa Raab several times, seeking adventure in the machinations of a homegrown mezcal operation. They hoped to become mezcal connoisseurs and introduce several types of mezcal to their friends back in D.C.

We found we could quickly discriminate between mezcals that had been aged for several years and those more recently produced; mezcals also differ in color from clear (recent) to caramel (aged, in oak barrels).

Tony has a band called The Bodega Boys, a revolving group of guys and gals who live part of the year in Oaxaca, and  play each week at the mezcal bottling site. Would we like to join them in their next jamming session? Well, we didn’t sing or play an instrument but Tony said that didn’t matter, just show up!

Tony's top drawer mezcalAfter four samplings of mezcal (we really can’t remember), we were making our way back to our casita when Cedric said: “Now THAT wasn’t in the brochure!”

A week later Cedric had to go back to the states for a few days and Tony asked me to come watch his band. There was no audience but me so they talked me into singing with them!  (This was much easier once I’d had a few mezcals). I even played the tambourine. We sang for THREE hours. They asked how long it had been since I’ve sung with a group and I said, “About 45 years….” (I think that was the madrigal group in high school). Two weeks later, the band had Cedric playing the bass.

The most fun aspect of travel, I think, is the unexpected. As I planned this vacation, could I have possibly imagined that Cedric and I would be drinking homemade mezcal, singing and playing the bass with a bunch of guys in a local band??

Guest Blogger Carolyn Patten: Fiesta Time? Listos??

By Lola

Hurrah for Carolyn! She’s still in San Miguel de Allende (yes, that’s a note of envy creeping in my voice) and sending in a Travel Wench’s eye view of the town’s preparations for the grandest fiesta of all: the Bicentennial!

“In a country with an almost reverent attitude about fireworks and an actual patron saint for same – San Juan de Dios – the party atmosphere is never really undercover. Mexicans work harder than any people I have ever know, and they also know how to celebrate, dance, play music and get their yayas on like no other.

Look closely: yep, that's confetti!
Look closely: yep, that's confetti!

In slightly less than a week, Mexico will be caught up in the biggest party in 200 years – the 200-year anniversary of the 1810 revolution that declared independence from Spain. Here in San Miguel de Allende, the fervor is especially intense. This lovely city was where it all began, with the “grito” or shout of independence, delivered from the balcony of the Allende home across from the elegant cathedral, the Parroquia. For the past several months, the square in between the cathedral and the Jardin has been the site of folklorico dances, concerts, beauty queen contests, speeches and general extreme high spirits – even more than usual, and that’s saying a lot.

La Virgencita de Guadalupe, Mexico's own patron saint
La Virgencita de Guadalupe, Mexico's own patron saint

The main streets are decorated with red, green and white streamers and sparkly stuff. Bullfights are planned, parades are in the making, art galleries and restaurants are buffing up for a stream of visitors and, unless you just don’t like fun, there is absolutely no reason not to be part of the celebration.  The Bicentennial comes at a time when this sweet country is under siege in the press and those visitors north of the border are hesitant about making the journey.

But, I tell you, if there is an ideal time to visit, it is starting right now. The Independence celebrations hit their peak the week of September 13. San Miguel will take a pause to catch its breath, and then October 1-3, it’s time to pay homage to San Miguel Arcangel, the patron saint and guardian angel of the city. More parties, parades, fireworks and happy faces. In November? Put on your dancing shoes and stock up on sugar skulls, because the Day of the Dead is a huge two-day fiesta all over the city.

And have I mentioned that prices for gorgeous, full-service hotels and top restaurants are rock-bottom right now? Yep. If you’re feeling the pinch in the U.S. or Canada, this is definitely the place to stretch your dollars. Fly right into Mexico City and take a comfy shuttle or streamlined air-conditioned bus into San Miguel, or take an alternate flying route into the Leon/Guanajuato airport and reserve a spiffy shuttle from there direct to your hotel room.

Bienvenidos to party central!”

Balloons and toys sell briskly in the Jardin...
Balloons and toys sell briskly in the Jardin...

Ignacio Allende's statue keeps an eye on the festivities.
Ignacio Allende's statue keeps an eye on the festivities.

Cancun bar bombing: Yes, it happened, but not how – or where – they say it did!

By Lola

Again with the sensationalist headlines. Again with the overblown rhetoric. Again with the lack of “minor details” – yes, bad stuff is happening. No, it’s not in the middle of the cafés and nightclubs haunted by tourists. It’s in the restaurants and bars haunted by the NARCOS.

Zora, the Roving Gastronome, Dios bless her, hit the nails right on their square heads. Enjoy her post responsibly, and please help spread the RIGHT news: http://rovinggastronome.com/mainblog/2010/08/31/cancun-bar-bombing-not-a-tourist-issue/

Bitter Reality:’Border Wars’ Nat Geo Channel Series Embeds Viewers Inside Real-World Battles Raging Across Our Borders

WASHINGTON, Aug. 18 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — An estimated 10+ million people live in the U.S. illegally. From the controversial border fence to controversial immigration laws, illegal immigration is hotly debated. For those responsible for securing our borders, protecting our nation goes beyond politics, as they intercept daily an illicit flow of narcotics, money and weapons. The risks have never been higher, with the violent Mexican drug wars a stone’s throw from U.S. soil and criminals armed with increasingly sophisticated technology.

Premiering with a sneak preview Sunday, August 29, 2010, 9 p.m. ET/PT before moving to its regular night and time, Wednesdays 9 p.m. ET/PT, on September 1, Border Wars returns for a second season with 16 episodes of real-world pursuits, surveillance, interceptions, busts and rescue missions at some of the busiest and most dangerous border crossing points into the U.S., including in California, Texas and Florida. Ride shotgun with agents patrolling the Rio Grande, just across from the epicenter of violent cartel wars, where heavily armed criminals outnumber agents. See how ground and air units use the latest military-grade technology, including drones, thermal imaging and mobile cameras. And join agents as they raid stash houses to break up smuggling operations, or risk their own lives to save those close to succumbing to harsh weather and terrain. And, go behind-the-scenes as agents secure Super Bowl XLIV against terror threats, while patrolling Miami for human and drug trafficking.

  Premiere episodes include:
Border Wars: Death on the Rio Grande
Sunday, August 29, 2010, at 9 p.m. ET/PT

A young man drowns crossing the Rio Grande, and agents must identify him to return his body to his family. Next, agents target a human smuggling operation and raid a safe house. And inspection of a bell pepper shipment finds invasive snails that could destroy thousands of acres of U.S. cropland.

  Border Wars: Checkpoint Texas
Wednesday, September 1, 2010, at 9 p.m. ET/PT

An 18-wheeler carrying 1,000+ pounds of concealed marijuana is discovered by a rookie agent and his canine partner. Meanwhile, a group of illegal crossers takes agents on a four-hour chase and it’s going to require local ranchers and a thermal imaging camera to catch them. An Ecuadorian woman and young daughter — injured, dehydrated and famished — are rescued in harsh terrain after being abandoned by smugglers.

  Border Wars: Contraband Highway
Wednesday, September 8, 2010, at 9 p.m. ET/PT

At the border checkpoint in Hidalgo, Texas, a car is found to have hidden firearms. Members of BORTAC, the tactical unit that specializes in smuggling routes, discover what could be a remote transfer point for illicit goods. The team hopes to close on an active operation — if they can avoid detection by cartel scouts. Officers dismantle a hidden compartment in an SUV, and confiscate $600,000+ of crystal meth.

For more information, visit natgeotv.com/borderwars.