Hike up Mount Philo

Bob and I just did our first almost 1-er in Burlington! (As opposed to the multiple 14ers Bob did back in Colorado.)

We hiked up Mt. Philo on a recent Sunday while visiting Burlington for Champlain College Family Weekend. Mt. Philo State Park, which sits atop 968-foot Mt. Philo about 13 miles south of Burlington, was created as Vermont’s first Vermont State Park in 1924. With 237 acres offering breathtaking views of the Lake Champlain Valley and New York’s Adirondack Mountains, the park is a favorite of local hikers, picnickers, and even college students.

The hike was short but steep and challenging. The view of the Vermont countryside and Lake Champlain from the top was spectacular. We also found inspirational poetry at the top …

… and we loved the message in the field below.

 

There are several camping sites at the top, as well as a group cabin, and we were surprised to see they were not in use. The best part was the Adirondack chairs that beckoned us to sit and enjoy the beautiful day and the view.

We met a couple of artists on our way down painting the view with watercolors.

Selfie of the day!

 
 

By Lisa Hamm-Greenawalt

We have a new name!

“Life is Short, the World is Big” is our philosophy, our passion, our lifestyle, our motivation, our inspiration.

But as a blog title, it was just TOO LONG!

So we are in the process of changing the name of the blog to Messy Suitcase! After all, we are living out of a few suitcases stuffed into the back of our truck (along with three musical instruments, three cats and our youngest child, Lex, who is on a gap year from college). OK, we let the cats and Lex sit in the back seat, but you get the point!

Every few months, we pack up those suitcases — often with “help” from the cats — and head for our next destination, where we again live out of messy suitcases!

Connect to Messy Suitcase on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and YouTube — and watch for our YouTube channel to get a lot busier.

Thanks for supporting Bob and Lisa in our travels … because life is short & the world is big!

Do you recognize Ellie Smoit, the Adventure Cat, in our new logo?

Discovering Mayolica Pottery in Santa Rosa

We recently had the privilege of visiting a pottery workshop called Mayolica Santa Rosa, where a family business turns out breathtaking, intricate, handmade pottery lovingly
created with dedicated fingers and devoted hearts.

The simple two-story cinderblock workshop occupies one side of the street in
the ancient, dusty village of Santa Rosa, high on a mountain about 25 minutes northeast
of Guanajuato. A huge showroom is across the street. (Unfortunately, we were
not allowed to take pictures in the showroom, to prevent any thievery of their
designs.)

It’s not a place many tourists visit, especially Americans, and it’s their loss. Javier Salazar, the wonderful manager of the Casa Estrella, where we are fortunate to be staying, generously drove us and another couple, Carolee and Gilberto, up to
the village to see how pottery is made. The suites and apartments in Casa
Estrella are filled with beautiful pieces from Mayolica Santa Rosa.
The sign over the door of the store

Visiting the Workrooms

The workshop is a high-ceilinged building with two large workrooms.
In the front room is the giant kiln, as well as shelf upon shelf of unfinished
pieces of pottery ready to be transformed into works of art. 

The big white box on the left is the oven

We were amazed as we watched one man hand-draw a stunning, detailed design
onto a large pedestaled bowl. His name was Juan, and he was the only one entrusted
to design the pieces.
The artist at work
Up the stairs and in the large back room, the Area de la Pintura (painting area), several painters painstakingly
painted the colors within the lines of his design, carefully shading the pieces, which appeared
pastel and bleached until after they were fired in the huge oven.

Before firing in the oven
The intensity of colors after firing
Mayolica Santa Rosa was founded in 1963, and is dedicated to
the manufacture of Mayolica Ceramics, a porous type of ceramics that originated in
Spain. It gets its name from Mallorca Island, which was on the trade route to
Italy. All the pieces are turned and decorated by hand. The business is
currently represented by the third generation of eight brothers.
Seen outside the door to the painting room
The sign outside the painting room says (in my bad Spanish translation): “Welcome to the Painting Area. Every piece that you admire and acquire is unique because each one carries part of the artist, since it is delivered with a feeling unique for its creation, with the best quality.”

Visiting the Showroom

The entrance to the showroom

This fresco, outside the family’s home next door,
is a great example of their work.
The sheer volume and quality of the pieces for sale in the
massive, two-level showroom is absolutely breathtaking. There were plates and
bowls, cups and saucers, pitchers and vases, fountains and pots, statues and
urns, tiled frescoes, and more. The intricate designs were derived from life in
Mexico: groups of fruit, flowers, village scenes, chickens and pigs, Frida Kahlos,
and many, many Catrinas, the reverential, skeletal image of death in Mexico.

UPDATE, May 26

I just discovered several beautiful pieces of Mayolica pottery in our apartment, Casa Estrellita, at Casa Estrella. (Watch for a blog about the amazing art in our apartment!)

And I found this beautiful tile wall art by Mayolica Pottery in the fitness center at Casa Estrella. Enjoy!

The Herradura Tequila Express

(Even
though we have moved on to Guanajuato, we still have a few blogs from our life
in Tlaquepaque to post. Enjoy!)
Living
in Tlaquepaque, we were less than 50 miles from the birthplace of tequila, the
town of Tequila. So of course we had to visit and become acquainted with Mexico’s
most famous alcoholic beverage!

What is
Tequila, Anyway?

Tequila,
a type of mescal made from the blue agave plant, was first made in the 16th
century. Mexican law states that tequila can only be produced in the Mexican
state of Jalisco and in limited number in three other states. Tequila must be
40% alcohol (80 proof) in the US, but in Mexico it’s usually 38%.
There
are over 100 distilleries producing over 900 brands of tequila, and many conduct
tours and tastings at their haciendas.
We
decided to splurge and signed up for a day trip on the Herradura Express, a
special train leaving from Guadalajara to the Herradura Hacienda in Amatitan, a
town adjacent to Tequila. There were three classes of seats on the train. We
selected the middle-class ticket which cost $2400 MXN pesos each, or about $125.

 We
Ubered to the train station, checked in and selected our seats. Even though we
had been told the train had been sold out, we had four comfortable seats and
a table to ourselves. There was a bar in our car, which was kept busy the whole
day.

Carlos, our bartender

Tequila on
the Train

We
were immediately served water, juice and a box breakfast. But once the train left
the station, at 10 in the morning, they switched to serving tequila-based
drinks. I can’t even remember what they all were or how many we had, but the
drinks were definitely flowing, including Margaritas, Tequila Sunrises, Horchatas
(a Mexican rice-based vanilla drink), White Russians, a coffee-based drink
called The Bull, and many more.


After
about 90 minutes or so of traveling amid a breathtaking landscape, including fields
upon fields of blue agave, we arrived in the tiny pueblo of Amatitan and
transferred onto buses for the short ride to the Hacienda 
Herradura. We got
into the English-language tour and were off.
The Tequila Volcano
Agave plants

The Tour
First
stop was walking by some blue agave plants, which we learned take 8 years to
mature to the point they could be used for tequila. Next, we watched a Jimador use
a coa (a wooden-handled cutting blade) to strip the leaves from the plant to get to the heart,
also called a pina because it resembles a pineapple, which is used in the
distillation process. 
The Jimador with his coa chopping off
the leaves of the blue agave plant
We saw the row of ovens where the pinas are baked. Next, they are squeezed repeatedly to get the agave juice, which is distilled and then fermented in giant barrels. The pulp is removed and used for other things such as candy and even furniture. 

The ovens

A pile of pinas

Tasting

Next
we walked through an ancient section of the facility that is no
longer used, and led to a tasting cellar. Tasting glasses were neatly laid out on
tables.


A bilingual talk was given on the “correct” way to drink tequila:
Swish the glass in a circle to check out the “legs” of the liquid. Breath in
the scent. Breath in through your nose, hold it, sip tequila onto your tongue.
Swallow. Breath out through your nose. Finally, emit an “Ahhh” and empty your
lungs. We started our tasting. To the best of my recollection, we tried 5. We
could taste the differences, particularly the smoothness, between the various categories
of tequila:
  • “Blanco”
    or “plata” is a white spirit, unaged and bottled or stored immediately
    after distillation, or aged less than two months in stainless steel or
    neutral oak barrels. It is used in cocktails.
  • “Reposado” is aged two
    months to a year in oak barrels of any size
  • “Añejo” aged one to  three
    years in small oak barrels
  • “Extra Añejo” is aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels.
 Our favorite was
reposado.

The Barrel Room

After the tasting,
we were led into a huge room in which they kept empty barrels in which tequila
had previously been aged. Herradura has a program where a restaurant or bar can
come to the distillery and purchase an entire barrel for $10,000 USD.
This yields 240 bottles at a per bottle price of $40. The distillery will then
customize bottles of the tequila from  the barrel for the purchaser, and the
purchaser gets to customize the top of the barrel.

Lunch … and more
Tequila

By this time we were
ravenous and finally made it to lunch, where we sat at a long table and they served us even more tequila. I sat next
to a guy from St. Louis who had been doing work in Las Vegas and on a whim
decided to fly down to Guadalajara for a few days. He knew a bit about tequila
and told me to ask for a specific high-quality tequila. I did. It was the good
stuff and very smooth. He was asking for them two glasses at a time. They
served a delicious lunch of chicken, potatoes and vegetables, and we were
entertained by a Mariachi band and some folkloric dancers.

Mariachi

Folkloric dancers

 Of course, we needed
a souvenir, so we went to the tequila stand they had conveniently set up and
purchased 950ml of one of the Reposados for about $25 USD. We had been told
that they would engrave our bottle for us, but unfortunately, the engraver
called in sick that day. That was probably a good thing; otherwise, it would
have been difficult to part with the engraved bottle and we definitely don’t
have room for it in the truck. (Later note: It does fit in the truck and we are
saving it.)

The Trip Home

It was time to go,
and we loaded onto the buses for the trip back to the train. Once on the train, the cocktails continued to flow until we arrived back in Guadalajara at around 8 PM.
To our complete surprise, neither one of us were feeling any effects of the
non-stop day of drinking, although there was one group on our train that was
definitely loud and raucous on the ride back.

Cocktails on the trip home
All in all, we had a
great day. It was pricey but the experience was worth it!

Guachimontones – the Round Ruins

Today we visited Guachimontones, one of only circular ruins in the world.

You’ve most likely heard of Tulum and Chichen Itza, but Guachimontones is unique and surely the most interesting place you’ve never heard of! Located just an hour outside Guadalajara, this prehispanic archeological site made for a wonderful day trip.

We dug out our hiking floppy hats and slathered on sunscreen, because we knew it would be an active day spent outside on a mountain top in relentless sun. Even so, since we got an early start, the weather was surprisingly pleasant.
We paid just 590 pesos apiece ($30) (plus lunch and tips) to be picked up at our home in Tlaquepaque and driven more than an hour northwest of the city, far into the countryside to the village of Teuchitlan, to experience the ruins and learn some history during a free guided tour (both Spanish and English versions are available).

We ended up getting a private tour because the bus was full, an added bonus! Our driver, Hector, spoke English well but agreed to speak Spanish during the ride up to help us practice.

When we arrived, after driving through the village of Teuchitlan (where Hector said the main industry is sugar cane), we walked up to the Visitors Center and watched a short video in English that described Guachimontones. We learned that the site was constructed between 350 BC and 350 AD and served as the base for what is called the Teuchitlan tradition. The population reached about 40,000 people at its peak.

The people of the time, perceived through their own works

Beto shows us a social scene

We then set off with a guide named Ivan (and about 30 other people) to hike a quarter mile up a steep cobblestone road to the sacred grounds on the hilltop. There we found a series of temples built in concentric, stepped circular pyramids, each surrounded by a moat-like grass “patio,” which in turn was surrounded by about eight lower temple-like structures. The hill continued climbing, with more Guachimontones farther up.

Since we had chosen to take the Spanish tour instead of waiting an hour or two for the English one, we were a little at a loss to understand everything. Ivan said the central circular structure (the Guachi) is where the priests go, as well as people dressed in bird costumes, to appeal to the gods. , but we got to experience the music that they play during rituals (Bob was chosen as one of the musicians, with a drum that looked like a tambourine), learn a little bit of a dance, and climb to the top of an unexcavated “Guachi.”

There were also a number of ball fields where warriors competed with balls made out of animal skins, hitting them with their hips and shoulders Winners had the honor of having their skin cut open and pieces of precious black obsidian inserted inside, while losers could have their fingers or hands cut off.  The “Messi” or “Ronaldo” (if you follow soccer) of the Teuchitlan world might have raised bumps of obsidian all up and down his arms! (We also learned that they wore little and woman tattooed their breasts, but that’s a story for another day.)

This ancient civilization thrived for about 700 years before being presumably wiped out by the Tequila volcano in about 350 A.D. The museum in the Visitors Center displayed incredible murals depicting life and events of the time, including the tragic volcano.

This picture from the Visitors center depicts the volcano

After the tour, which included some independent exploration, we headed with our driver Hector to the village by the lake below, where we dined in a lovely lakeside restaurant called Monte Carlo (the most expensive place we have eaten in Mexico, though lunch and drinks still came to only about $25).

Learn more about Guachimontones here. 

We Made it to Tlaquepaque!

We finally made it to Tlaquepaque!

Our 6-day trip from Pennsylvania to this village just south of Guadalajara where we planned to spend our first four months in Mexico ended up taking 14 days, but we finally arrived on Jen. 19 – exactly four months after we left Colorado.

On the Friday of our week in Leon, Lisa and I decided to bite the bullet and try to get gas so we could continue on to Tlaquepaque. (If you recall, we were only in Leon because we couldn’t get enough gas to get to our final destination, Tlaquepaque.) We were determined to wait all day if necessary. A few days earlier, we had been told that the Leon government website listed stations that would be receiving gasoline that night or the following morning. We looked at it and saw only 20 stations (for a city of 1.5M people) getting gas. Our observations supported this, as we would see lines at only 1 of 10 or 12 gas stations we passed as we Ubered around town. And the lines were long.

And even though we kept hearing the situation was going to get better, it didn’t. So we enjoyed Leon and ignored the gas situation for a few days. Why stress over it?

But on Friday, Lisa read in the Mexico News Daily that a pipeline was opening to Leon on Saturday, and the number of stations pumping was supposed to increase to 35%.  Lisa wanted to get to Tlaquepaque, so we decided to give it a shot.

The Early Bird Gets the Gas

So we got up before 6, gathered books, tables, drinks and snacks to entertain us during an anticipated long wait. and drove to the nearest gas station. There wasn’t a line, but that was because they weren’t pumping. We continued down the road and saw a line several blocks long for another station. As we drove by, we saw that they were pumping gas. We tried to make a u-turn to get to that station on a side road, but we were unsuccessful, being forced to take a long way onto a highway and wasting 10 precious miles worth of gas in the process.

When we doubled back we spotted another gas station that was also pumping, with a shorter line, so we got in line. Lisa and I discussed that we really needed at least 600 pesos worth of gas to get to Tlaquepaque, but stations were limiting sales to 500 pesos per car. We agreed that 700 pesos would provide a bit of a margin of error if we got lost. Finally, we discussed what we needed to say to the attendant, in Spanish, to attempt to get that 700 pesos worth of gas.

The early morning line for gas

The line moved quickly and we were soon at the pump. Lisa hopped out and told him that we were trying to get to Tlaquepaque, where our house was, and 500 pesos wouldn’t be enough to make it. Could he help? He told us that all he was allowed to give us was 500 pesos. But nonetheless, he pumped 600 pesos, looking furtively in both directions to make sure no one noticed. Then, in an act of compassion, he reset the pump and pumped us full with another 550 pesos of gas! We were ecstatic! And, of course, we tipped him generously.

Made it to the pump in just 15 minutes

Success — a full tank!

A Full Tank, But Locked Out

In our wildest dreams, we had never even considered that this would be the outcome. We had our Leon Airbnb rented for another day, but on the short drive home, we decided that we would pack and head to Tlaquepaque as soon as we could get packed up. later that day. We did have one small glitch: We only hade one set of keys for the apartment, which were inside with Lexie, and she was sound asleep. It could be hours before she rose. Her phone ringer was off so we could not reach her.  outside the complex gate for half an hour or so, Lisa got the idea to contact the woman who rented to us, and our host quickly brought us a second set of keys that allowed us to get in, get Lexie up and start packing. Instead of waiting in a gas line, we ended up waiting an hour and a half to get back into our apartment!

Finally On The Road

We were on the road for our 2½ trip by 11 AM. About 1½ hours into our trip, closer to Guadalajara, I thought that it might be a good idea to fill up again. However, from that point on, almost all gas stations didn’t have gas and the one or two open ones we saw had huge lines. So when we arrived at our rented house in Tlaquepaque, we parked the truck with 5/8 of a tank and decided to use walking, public transportation or Uber until the situation is stabilized here.

But, we’re here and getting settled in. We’ve essentially been traveling for four months since we left Colorado, so it feels so good to be settled for a while!

Our new home!

Gas Crisis in Mexico

We didn’t make it to Tlaquepaque! We literally ran out of gas. 
Well, we didn’t completely run out of gas, but we did get low enough on gas to not have enough make it to Tlaquepaque, and we couldn’t find any more.

Why No Gas?

Mexico has what are called huachicoleros, or gas thieves. The initial image that comes to mind is someone with a 5-gallon container and a hose that siphons gas out of cars. But in Mexico, the issue is far, far bigger, to the tune of $3B USD a year in stolen gas. And it’s not stolen from cars, it’s siphoned right out of the large gas pipelines that distribute the product from refineries to various points in the country. 
The gas is stolen by the cartels in a very systematic, almost professional manner. Tapping these lines, with flammable gas running through them, is a dangerous process, and can only be done by extremely skilled people. The government says over 12,000 taps have been put into the gas distribution pipelines. 
 

Sad, empty gas station

A Government Crackdown

This has been going on for years, but Mexico’s new, anti-corruption president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, took office last month and started cracking down. He decided to fight the huachicoleros by stopping the distribution of gas through the pipelines, identifying the taps and then more vigorously guarding those lines. The plan was to replace pipeline distribution with distribution by tanker truck.
Unfortunately, that distribution plan has failed to meet the needs of the population, leaving some areas, mostly central Mexico — where we are — with a gas shortage (actually a distribution shortage).
We knew about this 10 days ago before we left Pennsylvania. Fully aware that we were heading into the area hardest hit by the shortages, we thought that surely the kinks in the distribution system would be worked out by the time we got to Mexico, especially after we were delayed another two days at the border.
Our trip through northern Mexico was uneventful and there was plenty of gas. There was even plenty of gas in Matehuala, six hours in, where we stopped overnight and easily gassed up the next morning. We knew that one tank of gas wouldn’t get us to Tlaquepaque, so we wanted to go far enough before stopping to ensure we had enough in the tank to make it the rest of the way. 
Unfortunately, when it came time to stop, first there weren’t any gas stations for miles, and then the next one we found didn’t have any gas. Its gas nozzles were just lying on the pavement, and a long line of cars idled a half mile back along the roadside. We drove 40 miles to the next town where there was a possibility of finding gas, but none of the five gas stations there had gas either. 

Choosing a Detour

So we were faced with a decision, and discussed it while looking at a map of Mexico: continue on toward Tlaquepaque and hope we could find gas, or turn left and take a detour toward the closest city, Leon, where we could find pet-friendly lodging and hope to find gas. We chose the Leon option, not wanting to chance being stranded on a roadside with three cats.
We found the Hotel Soleil Business Class, an affordable, pet-friendly three-star hotel, and walked down the street to a gas station that didn’t have any gas. The attendant told us he wasn’t scheduled to get gas for 4 more days.
We knew we had a problem, so we went and booked a two-bedroom Airbnb apartment in Leon for a week iand decided to make lemonade out of lemons.

Making Lemonade

Leon wasn’t on our initial list of places to visit, but it has turned out to be a wonderful discovery! There’s lots to see and do here, the cats like the apartment, and we are really enjoying our stay.  
Meanwhile, we’re monitoring the gas situation online. We have seen a few open gas stations with long lines, and have heard about people waiting four or six hours or more for gas, and then coming away with only a few pesos worth (because of 500-peso limits, about $28US), or not getting gas at all. We are not “line” people.
We are not getting in that line
 At some point, when the situation improves, we’ll get in what should be shorter lines, only when we can get enough gas to make it all the way to Tlaquepaque. And then we’ll move on to our next adventure.
In the meantime, join us in exploring Leon!

Crisis at the Border

Today we were supposed to enter Mexico. We didn’t.

Blame the U-Haul Driver

It all goes back to a U-Haul truck that caused a horrendous car accident for Bob and Lexie last August. It merged into their car on a highway when they were going 65 MPH, Lexie took evasive action to prevent impact but hit a car beside her, and in a blink of the eye, our 2013 Toyota Tacoma truck was totaled. We got a replacement (2015) truck as quickly as we could but couldn’t get it officially registered in Colorado before we left for our cross country trip in September. With a flight to Europe scheduled for Sept. 30, we had no wiggle room.

The border building

We actually got into Mexico but had to turn around and go back out

Bob before the denial, still hopeful

So when we got to Vermont after the Europe trip, we registered the truck there (since we own property in the state), but had limited time to receive the permanent registration and tag stickers, and they hadn’t arrived by the time we had to set off for Mexico.

So we arrived at the Mexican border this morning hoping they would let us cross with the temporary paperwork, but despite our best efforts, and speaking with every single Mexican who worked there, it was a no go.

So what to do? We had a hotel and a house booked in Mexico and no way to get there.

Working on Plan B

We left the border dispirited, found a McDonald’s with Wifi back in Laredo, bought an order of hash browns for Lexie to rent a corner booth, and called Vermont DMV, only to discover they had screwed up our mailing address (omitting the box number to save space) and the paperwork we desperately needed had been returned to their office. The automobile title was still in the mail to our mailbox in Colorado, but also going to an incomplete address.

Working out PLan B logistics in Mickey D’s

We appealed to the young man on the phone to email a copy of the registration, but he said they “don’t do that.” We asked him to FedEx the registration to us in Laredo, but he said they “don’t do that.”

We started working on changing hotel dates (supposedly non-refundable) and trying to figure out where to sleep tonight. We saw a UPS Store across the parking lot and went in, asking if we could receive a Fed Ex there. The answer was yes! Bob got on the phone to DMV again, this time reaching a wonderful woman named Diane who was sympathetic to our plight and willing to go the extra miles to FedEx our paperwork from Montpelier to Texas, to arrive by 10 AM Thursday morning.

Finding Lodging

We thought about crossing the border on a temporary visa for a couple days and staying in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico — where AirBnB rates are one-third the cost of the U.S. side — but we were afraid we had too much stuff in our truck to clear customs successfully. We found an AirBnB two-bedroom rental in Laredo that allows pets and quickly booked it, then hung out over a long lunch killing time till we could get in.

Our rental for two nights

So that’s where we are tonight — hoping our paperwork truly arrives tomorrow, and then hoping the registration will be sufficient to get our vehicle into Mexico, since it could be a couple weeks before we get the title sorted. The other consideration is that we only have ten days since getting the cats’ international health certificates to enter Mexico, and we only have three days left or we will have to find a new vet and pay for the process again!

Try, Try Again

If all goes well, we plan to try again on Friday to drive our vehicle into Mexico.

We’ll keep you posted!

  

We are headed to Mexico!!

Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019

And we are off!

Our menagerie of three humans, three cats, two saxophones, one guitar, one harmonica, two bikes and a bunch of bags and suitcases has left Grandma’s house in Mechanicsburg, PA, and we are off on our next adventure!

Six days driving 2,400 miles to Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Mexico, with a stop for a day in New Orleans in the middle. Follow us on the journey!

 9:21 am: Leave Mechanicsburg. Ellie starts crying.

10:16 am: Welcome to Maryland. 67 miles. Ellie is still crying.

10:26: am Welcome to West Virginia. That was quick! Still crying.

10:47 am: Welcome to Virginia. 103 miles. They are coming fast and furious! Guess what Ellie is doing?

The rest of the day: Taking turns driving through Virginia and into Tennessee.

8 PM: We finally reach Athens, Tennessee, around 7:10 PM, settle the cats into the Super 8 Hotel, and are now waiting for our food at the Applebee’s across the street. Ellie cried more than half the time and then acted out at the hotel by hissing at the other cats. Such a pleasant traveler.

Day 1 is in the books!

Kitty accommodations

Kitty accommodations

Double-decker kitties

Packing the truck
Remembering the bikes

Day 2: Tennessee to New Orleans


We were too busy enjoying New Orleans to blog about this. Watch for the blog later!


Day 3: New Orleans to Laredo


12 hours of quiet cats. ‘Nuff said. Tonight is our last night in the United States. Tomorrow we leave for Mexico!