Posts Tagged 'Travel'

We missed the bus

Arriving at the San Diego airport after my seven-hour train ride, we discovered a vacant spot where fifteen minutes earlier the Rancho La Puerta chartered bus had once stood, ready to take us to the Mexican border crossing in Tecate. Our travel plans were now in disarray. We would need to find a way to get to the border on our own. Then cross it and somehow get to the Rancho, our intended spa for the next seven days.

Cellphone communications with the spa revealed that we were not alone in their missing persons file cabinet. Others, foolish enough to trust the veracity of plane and train schedules, had apparently run afoul of similar circumstances. The spa had a ready answer to how we might reach the Mexican border. “Take a taxi, it’ll cost about $100”, they said. “Call us when you get there, and we’ll send someone to collect you.” Perhaps not wholly reassuring, it was the best we could hope for given our foolhardiness in trusting Amtrak.

Jackie had reserved an airport valet parking spot at a cost almost equal to what I paid for my first car some fifty years ago. Inflation can be insidious. We pulled up to valet parking and found that the attendant, a lovely young woman, was skilled in speaking the English language. That is, she appeared skilled, until you noticed that her words did not always fit together in a meaningful way. At times, it seemed her responses were intended for someone else who was looking over my shoulder.

I’m not xenophobic. Nor do I begrudge anyone the right to make a fair living. But, when one is about to turn over a forty-thousand-dollar blemish free Mercedes for seven-day safekeeping at a uncaring airport, one might be forgiven for expecting a basic level of communication skills. I asked, “Are you the person who will park our car?”, The comely young lady responded “I’m Natasha. Can I help yourself?” Rephrasing my question, I said “Natasha, you can be of great help to us. We have a reservation for one of your parking spaces. Will you park the car for us?” Smiling, she responded “Do you have any reservations?” I wanted to say “Yes, Natasha…about you.” However, I remembered my Ukrainian-born parents, and restrained myself.

Other one syllable questions narrowed our differences. And Jackie’s penchant for retaining evidentiary materials that supported our claim to a reserved space sealed the deal. We asked where we might find a taxi. Natasha pointed her finger across the street and said “Taxi, there.” Natasha made it clear that the only way to get to the taxi stand was to go with bags in hand into the airport, take the escalator up one floor and use bridge over the street to find nirvana.

The spa had suggested we take an Orange taxi for the trip to the border. It took us a few moments to realize that Orange was the name of the taxi company, not the color of their cars. Afraid to cause mass hysteria among the drivers waiting their turn in line, we dutifully schlepped our bags past a dozen Orange taxis and arrived at the front of the lineup. A friendly face greeted us with, “I’m Boris, welcome to my taxi.” I restrained myself from asking the obvious question, “Are you all from Eastern Europe?”

Instead, I told Boris where we were headed. Forgetting the first rule about asking a cabbie how much, I said “The spa said that the ride would cost about $100.” With just the slightest hesitation he said “Yes, that’s right.” I could have kicked myself.

Boris had a lot to say. I felt true kinship as he rattled on about his two cabs whose medallions had each cost him just short of two hundred thousand dollars. And were now selling for bupkis in the age of Uber and Lyft. And his five children, each of whom had or were attending some rather expensive schools. I decided on a larger tip.

It took about forty-five minutes to reach Tecate on the Mexican border. The only evidence of an invasion by any sanctuary seeking Central Americans were two bored Mexican soldiers leaning against a wall.

We exited Boris’s taxi $100 lighter and were greeted by Raoul, the emissary from the spa. Speaking English better than I can, he said “I am here to escort you through Mexican customs and then give you a ride to Rancho La Puerta. Welcome to Mexico.” The skies brightened considerably and the weight that had been residing on my shoulders for the last ten hours suddenly began to lift.

The customs office is situated in the same complex that houses both a PayLess shoe store and a 7/11 mini-mart. Raoul led us through one of those one-way turnstiles that seems to promise to encase you for life should you stop it from spinning. We entered a small concrete block building and were introduced to Julio, the man of authority in these parts. Julio asked us to sit on plastic chairs behind a four-foot long table that bore nothing but two pencils.

We were asked to fill out some forms that would allow us to enter the country. Instructions were delivered by Julio in shotgun fashion that seemed intended to test us. I was reminded of an old World War II spy movie that might have starred Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland. The one where the Nazis question them in an effort to discover the names of the Resistance ring leaders. Like Danny Kaye starring in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I felt like leaping over the table, sucker-punching Julio, grabbing Jackie and, with guns blazing, find my way back to the good old USA.

To no one’s surprise, there was the obligatory discussion about the cost of the visas that would allow us to exit Julio’s clutches. “That will be twenty-eight American dollars each.”, said Julio. I handed him three twenties. I never saw the four dollars change.

The ride with Raoul to Rancho La Puerta was made in inky darkness.

Choo, choo

We spent a week at Rancho LaPuerta over the Christmas holiday.

It started last summer under the massive oak tree that has been resting peacefully for some two hundred years in front of Jackie’s house in the Arbolada. Sitting in the two comfy chairs beneath its canopy, the blessed silence was interrupted with a question from Jackie, “Would you like to spend a week at Rancho LaPuerta?”

Recovering from my semi-stupor, I suggested that the answer to her question required some additional information, “What is Rancho LaPorta?”

“LaPuerta, LaPuerta, not LaPorta” she admonished. “LaPuerta means door while LaPorta means porthole.” Thank goodness for her spot-on translation. Spending a week squeezed into a porthole was definitely not my idea of fancy travelling.

Further interrogation revealed that Rancho LaPuerta is an upscale fitness spa located in Tecate, Mexico, about an hour’s drive from the San Diego airport. So far so good. Additionally, the spa served real food instead of the Bugs Bunny diet enjoyed by Jackie at her regular stomping grounds, the Optimum Health Institute. I was sold enough to suggest a phone call to the spa.

Jackie is not one to postpone tasks. Once assigned, they are quickly disposed of. Grasping her iPhone X with those cute little fingers, she deftly connected to the Rancho. Ten minutes later, my Visa card’s available balance surviving on fumes, we were booked into the Rancho.

Conveniently, Jackie’s plans immediately prior to our Rancho excursion included a one week visit to Optimum Health in San Diego. She would drive to OHI. I would then meet her in San Diego, drive her car to the San Diego airport and take the Rancho’s private bus from there to the Mexican border. To get to San Diego, I could fly from LAX, or take the Amtrak train from Ventura.

Ever since our trip to Costa Rica, I have had sufficient time to hone my dislike of airports and airplanes. The opportunity of a relaxing trip on the train was too tempting to pass up. Checking the Amtrak schedule, I found a 7:30am departure from Ventura that, five and a half hours later, would deposit me in San Diego more than two hours ahead of the Rancho’s bus trip from the airport to the border. Enough time for Jackie to scoop me up from the train and dump us at the airport. It was the last scheduled Rancho bus trip of the day, Missing the bus would cause complications too horrible to contemplate. And my Spanish is not so good, por favor.

I booked a seat on Amtrak 768. And over the next few weeks, I endured the horror stories related to me by the hapless souls who had banked on Amtrak to get them where they needed to be, yet failed miserably. No matter, surely I would be the exception to the rule.

Joy is Ojai’s airport and train station driver of choice. A delightfully gabby woman who combines wit with daredevil driving, she picked me up at 6:35am on departure day. It was Saturday and traffic on the 33 was almost non-existent. The uneventful trip brought us to the Ventura train station twenty minutes ahead of schedule. Piece of cake.

Except for an overhang, the train platform is exposed to the elements. But twenty minutes on a chilly morning seemed like a doable wait. Rolling my suitcase up the platform ramp, I deposited myself in a spot where the sun offered some warmth. There’s a digital time display on the platform that also informs riders of train arrival time. It said Train 768 will be twenty minutes late. I quickly calculated that I now had less than two hours of leeway before I would run out of time. My pulse reacted from the adrenaline rush. Then my logic took over and said “It’s only twenty minutes late, dummy. Not to worry.”

I stared at the clock as it ticked down 768’s arrival time. Then, without so much as a by your leave, the display blanked out and returned with a new arrival time…8:10am. Another twenty minutes charged to my declining spare time balance. Like a watched pot, I’m convinced that the digital clock moved ever slower as I gazed at it. Minutes seemed like hours. My life passed before my eyes.

768 arrived at 8:25, nearly an hour late. Hoping I had seen the worst, I hopped aboard, stowed my bag and found a window seat that gave me full view of the surroundings as we passed and stopped at too many stations. Oxnard, Camarillo, Moorpark, Simi Valley, Chatsworth, Van Nuys. Was there a place on earth that this train was not going to stop? At each stop I mentally shoved the passengers on and off the train, hoping to gain back some precious minutes.

And then the conductor said, “We will be making an equipment change in Los Angeles.” A what? What’s wrong with this equipment, I thought. It’s been good enough to get us this far. Why not just keep things the way they are? I’ve got no time to spare. I’ve got to catch a bus.

And so we changed equipment. Amtrak employees wandered around the train platform like lost sheep. And I lost the last remaining hour of my spare time. Not yet finished teasing me, 768 lost another twenty minutes on the last leg of the journey. I started practicing my Spanish. Donde esta el banyo?

I had been texting Jackie, keeping her updated on our lack of progress, my accelerating heart rate and my rising blood pressure. Poor sweetheart, she had been waiting anxiously at the train station like a war-time wife. When I did arrive, she embraced me like a soldier returning home from the Battle of the Bulge. Her iPhone was hot to the touch from pleading with the bus company to delay their departure.

She drove to the airport like a woman possessed, only to see the bus already making its way to the Mexican border. It was, like in the movies, all I could do to stop her from blocking the twenty-ton bus with her tiny car.

And I thought, where was Mussolini when you really needed him?

 

Bargain Hotel

I hadn’t been up to the Bay Area since Ila died. It was time.

On December 30, Jackie and I returned from a week in Tecate, Mexico. That gave us two days to do laundry, spend New Year’s eve with friends and then hop back in the car for the seven hour drive to Berkeley on New Year’s day.

Highway 101 seemed very retro and uncrowded. The sun shone on the rolling hills and I felt the increasing anticipation of a visit too long postponed. Jackie made the trip even more enjoyable as I often glanced at her next to me, bundled up in a tight little package of loveliness.

We had originally planned to stay at Berkeley’s Claremont hotel. A staid, posh establishment that has stood the years gracefully and elegantly. But eleven hundred dollars plus extras for two nights’ lodging seemed like extravagance run amok.

Enlisting son David in my search for comfortable lodging at a reasonable price, he suggested the Durant Hotel near the University. A google search revealed that the hotel had been re-christened the Graduate Berkeley. Booking a room at a fraction of the Claremont’s budget busting rates took little effort.

We arrived at the hotel mid-afternoon and entered a lobby that seemed eerily devoid of other human beings. A relatively dark interior, coupled with comfortable but out-of-style furniture, added to the feeling that we had been transported to the mansion featured in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. A kindly desk clerk, without a hump, took my credit card, handed us two keys and pointed to the one operating elevator; the other being out of service for the foreseeable future.

Before schlepping our bags to our room, we did a whirlwind tour of the lobby and environs. The restaurant was cold, both in appearance and temperature. No problem, as the University campus is populated by a flotilla of eating establishments. The twenty-four-hour fitness center, which appeared cavernous on the hotel’s website, contained one elliptical machine, one treadmill and one other multi-purpose device that might have seen service in the Spanish Inquisition. And it too was cold.

Finishing our tour, and yet to encounter another guest, we rode the elevator to the sixth floor, found room 623 and entered a suite that could best be described as quaint. Unable to pass each other in the aisle separating the bed from the wall, we adopted a you first methodology that prevented serious injury. An inspection of the bathroom brought back childhood memories of my parent’s Chicago apartment in Albany Park. The floor was covered by those same tiny white hexagon tiles that look like it took forever to create. The sink (no double plumbing here) seemed designed for Lilliputians. Brushing one’s teeth would prove to be a challenge, focused on preventing a flood of biblical proportions.

I did the usual manly inspection of the heating and air conditioning system. The room had one of those units mounted high up on the wall. The kind you wave your hand at above your head to see if the unit is running, much less delivering the proper air flow. I eyed the thermostat on the wall and did the usual random clicking. There appeared to be only two settings, off and cooling. Surely, I thought, there must be a heat setting. After several dozen repetitive clicks that predictably produced the same results, I cast aside my manliness and phoned the front desk.

“Hi, I’m cold and can’t seem to get the wall unit to dispense any life-sustaining warmth.” The same young man who had directed us away from the non-functioning elevator said, “The wall unit does not dispense heat.” He continued, “There is a radiator in the corner of the room. It delivers heat.”

I had noted the radiator in question but had dismissed it as merely an historic artifact, abandoned in favor of the 1980’s wall unit. The type of radiator that had last been seen at my Bar Mitzvah, celebrated in my parent’s Albany Park apartment. Surely he was jesting about delivering heat through this potentially explosive device. Silly me.

The young man continued, “You just crank the knob at the end of the radiator to regulate the heat.” Feeling I had little choice, I surrendered and said, “Thanks, my mother would be pleased with my newfound skill.” But the young man was not finished. “The heat will only be available at 5:30 this afternoon and every afternoon.” At first, I thought he was joking or pretending we were subject to some sort of World War II rationing. Then I realized he was quite serious.

It was now 4pm and I said, “But I’m cold now. By 5:30 I will have frostbite. You will be responsible for the maiming of an old, cold man who had only asked for a little heat to ward off the aging process.” The young man relented, “I can send up a space heater.” He did, and I stayed very close to it, and to Jackie.

The Claremont seemed like a bargain.

Simple Pleasures

Did you ever listen to friends describe their latest adventures?

“Uzbekistan was amazing. So many things to see. The people were great. Can’t wait to do it again.”

“Our trip to New York was mind-blowing. Had to book tickets to Hamilton two years in advance…worth every penny. You should go.”

“The Falkland Islands were one of the top five events in my life. I’ll never forget the sheep in the road. Weather was perfect. Never knew there were so many ways to prepare mutton.”

Time was that I would think “Why aren’t I doing things like this?  I must be missing out on life.”

Probably so.

But things being what they are, Sweetie and I tend to find pleasure in simpler things. Things that don’t involve shleps to the airport, uncomfortable plane seats, annoying children and rude adults.

Like yesterday.

The library foundation bookstore is closing for a major rebuild. We wanted to sell lots of books so that we could avoid moving them to temporary storage while we build the new structure.  We volunteered for the 2:30 shift and arrived to find very little activity. One or two customers, much like a normal day. So since we weren’t really needed, we excused ourselves and went for a walk.

One of our favorite places is Rains department store. A venerable institution serving the community for over a hundred years. Weekends are pretty busy in the store but on most weekdays you can call the store your own. We hardly ever leave without buying something. Sort of like freshly marking our territory.

There’s a wooden bench just off the main aisle in the women’s department. I’m sure it’s intended to allow the ladies to sit and try on the shoes that are cloistered in the area around the bench. It looks uncomfortable but the bench’s shape sort of matches my fanny so I can sit for a while before I develop calluses or bone spurs. We often alight on that bench and stare at the dozen or so women’s shoes that beckon to be tried on.

Spending thirty minutes or so sitting on a wood bench in Rains’ shoe department may not sound very exciting. And it’s not. So to lighten things up, we sometimes pretend that we are on a cruise. At other times we pretend that we are waiting for a city bus to come rolling down the department store aisle. In either case, we must look odd to the sales people and to the customers. But, being old, most observers simply assume we’ve got nothing better to do and ignore us.

Yesterday was special, though. I began staring at the array of shoe boxes stacked directly ahead of me.  About thirty of them in about six stacks.  All the same brand. I zeroed in on the 3×5 stickers glued to the end of each box that announced the style number and shoe size of the contents. I wondered “Are all those labels glued to the box by hand or is there some clever piece of machinery that does it?” I compared the placement of each label and the amount of empty space surrounding each. My suspicion was that they were hand applied. But I couldn’t be certain. So I asked Sweetie for her wise counsel. Recognizing a unique opportunity, she smiled and immediately bought into the adventure. Carefully eyeballing the boxes and measuring her response, she said that she was certain beyond a reasonable doubt that a machine was doing the deed. Good enough for me.

Having some time remaining in our busy schedule, I then focused on the boxes themselves. I was surprised that each shoe size seemed to have a box whose dimensions were tailored to the size of the contents. What a revelation! Sweetie was not nearly as excited as me since she claimed to already be aware of the shoe box size protocol. Probably because she has more shoes than I do.

So there you are. A relatively inexpensive adventure that did not require a plane trip, questionable accommodations, tickets bought two years in advance, or the need to learn a foreign language.

Now won’t that be an amazing story to tell our friends when they return from the Galapagos?


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