Drive to Mexico 2020

Our second time driving across the Mexican border was a bit different from the first, even though we used the same crossing – Colombia Solidarity Bridge in Laredo, Texas.

Getting Us Into Mexico

The first time we crossed, in January 2019, we had Mexican Visas, the first step in attaining Temporary Residency in Mexico, because we expected to stay long-term. This time, our Temporary Residencies had accidentally expired because of the extra time we spent in the States taking care of my sick mother, and we knew we are going to stay less than three months, so we entered with Tourist Visas.

The difference was that this time, we each had to pay a Tourist Visa fee at a cost of $575 MXN, about $390 US. (Note that this fee is included in your airline ticket fee when you fly into Mexico). This entailed the initial stop at Immigration office, a stop to pay at the Banjercito window, and then another stop at Immigration to finalize our paperwork.

Getting our Truck Into Mexico

Next, we had to get the Temporary Import Permit for our car. This cost $400 USD, which is supposed to be reimbursed when you leave Mexico, plus a processing fee of approximately $51 USD. I wasn’t as prepared this time as I was previously and I had left copies of my driver’s license and passport buried in a folder in the back of the truck, so we chose to stand in the copy line at the border facility and get those copied.

Registering the truck

Next, we had to drive through Customs. It seemed as if every car was chosen for inspection, and ours was no exception.

Inspecting the Cats

This time was that they asked for documentation for the cats. We were traveling with only two because Ellie, the third, was now living at Champlain College in Vermont with Gavin, our youngest. Effective January 1, 2020, you no longer need a Certified Health Certificate to bring a cat into Mexico, but they can physically inspect the cats for open sores, health problems, etc., and you need to prove they have rabies vaccines. The Inspector made us pull out the paperwork, which unfortunately was stored in the far reaches of the truck, entailed a near-total unpacking. He very thoroughly reviewed the paperwork.

Noxy and Kaylee patiently waited during the truck inspection

X-Raying the Truck

Next, Lisa and the cats had to get out of the truck while I, once again, drove it through the x-ray machine. Once they reviewed the x-rays, we were free to go.

The truck x-ray machine
Our truck is inside this x-ray machine

In the end, it took us about 1.5 hours at Mexican Immigration and Customs. Fortunately, there weren’t lines (which is why we like Colombia), or this could have been much longer.

Welcome to Mexico!

And then we were in Mexico! We didn’t take time to celebrate, but pressed forward to get to our first night’s lodging before dark.

Lisa’s favorite sign

We drove about 6 hours to Matehuala, where we had a reservation at the same cat-friendly motel we stayed at last time, Las Palmas Midway Inn in Matehuala.

Our new Garmin GPS seemed to under-estimate our travel time, by about an hour both days. We didn’t run into traffic either day, so that wasn’t the issue. Maybe it was the fact that many of the Mexican roads we drove on incessantly changed speed limits, going anywhere from 110 kph to 60 kph and back. It may be difficult for the GPS to deal with that along with the fact that there may be few people driving those routes and providing route time feedback. It could also be that we drive the speed limit while many Mexican drivers don’t necessarily do that. I don’t really know how the GPS time estimation works, so this is all just a guess.

We love our new Garmin GPS

Another thing that may impact the time estimation is the number of toll booths. Overall, we passed through 10 of these booths at a total cost of $924 MXN, or about $50 USD.

Stopped by the Mexican Cops (the Federales)

Finally, the last thing that was different on this trip was we were stopped by the Federal Police on two occasions. The first of these seemed to be more friendly. The second one was at an organized Federal Police checkpoint. Here they pulled over several people and performed inspections. They asked me 3 times if I had weapons or drugs (armas, pistolas, drogas) and then had me open the back of the truck and open selected suitcases, even going to the point of asking me where my shoes were in one of them, which I had to subsequently dig out. They also frisked me. Asking me to empty my pockets, patting me down and having me lift up my pant legs. So, that was a different experience than last time as we weren’t selected for the inspections as we drove through several of those checkpoints before.

Nonetheless, we arrived in Mexico City with enough time to unload, park the car and find an extremely nice restaurant to have a couple of beers, dinner and watch the Super Bowl (in Spanish).

New Orleans, Part 2: The National World War II Museum

On our single full day in New Orleans, we opted for history instead of entertainment and headed to the National World War II Museum. It was, without a doubt, one of the most spectacular, illuminating museums I have ever experienced in my life. This museum, which started out as the D-Day Museum in 2001, and is located in New Orleans because most of the landing craft used on that turning-point day in history was manufactured here. The D-Day Museum was so well received that it was expanded a few years later to become the National WWII Museum.

Lisa’s dog tag

You start by getting a dog tag to represent a soldier you will be tracking all day at check-in stations, and board the same kind of train many soldiers took when they embarked on their journeys. It was a truly immersive experience as, with seats rocking, the train whistle blowing and the grainy black-and-white landscape flying by, the conductor welcomed you aboard.

Beyond Boundaries Film

After getting off the train, we started our explorations by watching the 48-minute film Beyond Boundaries, a 4D experience narrated by Tom Hanks that used film and other sensory effects, including a 1930s wooden-cabinet radio, falling snowflakes, a plane cockpit that lowered from the ceiling to punch out an air battle scene, and more to introduce us to the sheer magnitude of World War II. The mini-documentary stunningly put into perspective the global threat presented by German Furer Adolph Hitler, Italian Benito Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito of Japan, the Axis leaders who wanted nothing less than global domination. It ended at the climax, the bombing of Pearl Harbor that dragged the United States in the war and engaged every person in the country in the fight for the very survival of democracy.

We learned how the ill-equipped United States, previously hesitant to join in the war as Nazi forces took over country after country, stepped up when it came under attack. Men young and old rushed to join the war effort and defend their country against the invaders. Women, who were home raising children, took factory jobs and churned out an incredible volume of planes, jeeps, weapons, artillery and more.

The European Theater

The WWII Museum is comprised of five buildings, and we only had one day, so we chose to enter the Road to Berlin: European Theater gallery. I don’t even know how to describe the experience after this. We spent five awe-struck hours being assaulted from all sides by grainy black-and-white film, sound and lighting effects, real-life voices telling their stories, radio broadcasts, flashes and explosions, and much more.

This breathtaking exhibit took us through the major steps in the European campaign, starting with North Africa and moving across Italy, southern France, Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, D-Day, England, and  Germany, that culminated in the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. We experienced the shock that troops felt when they discovered the atrocity of the concentration camps and the slaughter of 6 million Jews, as well as millions of others deemed inferior to Hitler’s Aryan race. We met military leaders and foot soldiers, journalists (including Ernie Pyle’s life and death) and pilots. We saw airplanes and jeeps, nurses’ uniforms and bomber jackets. We shivered in the snowy woods in Germany and leaned away from incoming anti-aircraft fire from a small plane. I thought of my three Troisi uncles who flew many missions in Europe and for the first time had a concept of what their experience was like.

A plane goes down during an air battle

My dog tag soldier, John, was a 17-year-old who went to Canada to pursue becoming a pilot when the United States rejected him because of a previous broken neck. He ended up doing bomb runs for Canada, and then England, before the United States decided to let him join. He won a medal of honor and was a prisoner of war in Germany for more than a year.

Planes, Jeeps and Submarines

We also visited the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, where we saw a number of WWII planes and jeeps, as well as the Medal of Honor Exhibit.

Wartime aircraft
Medal of Honor recipients

We still need to go back to see the other Campaign of Courage: The Pacific Theater, especially since that’s where Bob’s dad was stationed on a Destroyer Escort in 1943-45. There’s a whole hall, the Arsenal of Democracy, that we didn’t have time for, and a doomed submarine experience I’m interested in. The outdoor area is under construction to create a Freedom Garden.

New Orleans is about a lot more than Jazz and Jambalaya. If you visit this city, definitely devote a day or two to the National WWII Museum. To get the full experience of the museum, watch Bob’s video on the Messy Suitcase YouTube channel.

By Lisa Hamm-Greenawalt

New Orleans, Part 1: Jazz and Jambalaya

We just spent a couple of nights in New Orleans to break up the road trip from Pennsylvania to Mexico City. We rented a lovely, pet-friendly cottage through AirBnB that had a kitchen, living room and two bedrooms, just a short Uber ride from the action.  It was pristine, affordable and super comfortable.

After working out and showering, we spent our first NOLA night on Bourbon Street, a place we barely got to explore last year when we came through because it was just too loud for Gavin. But this time, with Gavin off at college, we headed down there again. Mardi Gras is still a month away, so it wasn’t high season yet, and we headed out early to avoid crushing crowds and deafening noise.

Bourbon Street is the heart of the touristy French Quarter, and we were planning to go to historic Preservation Hall to see classic New Orleans jazz. For $20 seats on the floor, we would need to stand in line outside to get day-of-show tickets. After a day spent driving, we weren’t in the mood.

Bourbon Street

So we instead opted to get a more local experience recommended by our Uber driver, Joe. First we shared a mouthwatering dinner of blackened redfish and jambalaya at an oyster bar on Bourbon called Le Bayou. Jambalaya is a kind of dirty rice with spicy tomato sauce and andouille sausage. We also enjoyed hurricanes, a classic New Orleans drink with rum and fruity juices. Our waiter kept calling us “y’all,” so we couldn’t forget we were truly in the south. After filling our stomachs, we strolled along Bourbon, taking in the crowd scene, and even saw a school band marching up the road, followed by a small parade of what I assume was a krewe, a social organization that helps put on a parade or ball during the carnival season, which runs January and February.  

Bourbon Street is amazingly loud, even in the off-season, and the road is closed to traffic so people can just wander at their leisure. Musicians with saxophones, guitars or even just spoons and plastic buckets, entertain for tips on street corners. The shops are filled with colorful art, with candy skulls, masks, voodoo paraphernalia, and jazz accouterments.

We walked about a mile to Frenchmen’s Street, a locals’ favorite area. Frenchmen’s is lined on both sides with lively bars and restaurants. As you wander along the sidewalk, you can listen to the music blasting out the open doors and choose your poison. Most have no cover and a local clientele. We chose Marigny Brasserie, and enjoyed an hour of music by a sweet jazz duo. A drunken regular celebrating her 71st birthday alone plopped down next to me at the bar and I was friendly to her. That turned out to be a mistake as she subsequently kept hitting me to get my attention, then ranting in a slurred voice about the injustices of her life and why it was horrible that the bar was showing The Waterboy and Captain Phillips on the big screen when people should be getting to know each other instead. Since she sitting on a stool between me and the band, it was impossible for me to watch the band. I guess if you want to be where the locals are, sometimes you have to put up with a local!

But we ducked out and wandered, encountering an Art Market where local artisans sold jewelry, paintings, even hand-made three-string guitars.

The band at Bamboulia’s

On the second evening, we ate at Bamboulina’s, a cozy bar with exposed brick walls, and enjoyed incredible pulled pork and a wonderful blues band. If I lived in NOLA, I think I would go to Frenchmen’s every weekend and try a different bar each time! Our last Uber driver encouraged us to try Magazine Street in Uptown New Orleans next time, so watch for that blog in the spring when we pass through again on our way back north!

Up next … The National World War II Museum

Back in the Saddle Again

It’s hard to believe it has been seven months since we left Mexico. A brief summer interlude in Vermont getting one of our vacation homes ready to sell and settling our youngest child, Gavin, into Champlain College in Burlington turned into a much longer stretch in the USA when Bob’s mother, Jane, called us in August to say she had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Enjoying a boat ride in Montreal during a weekend off working on the Vermont houses

So after spending the summer painting a house, tiling a kitchen, planting two gardens, refinishing a floor, staining two decks, replacing windows, and doing more tasks than I care to remember on both houses – punctuated, thank God, by a couple of long weekends in Montreal and Burlington and many visits to local craft breweries – we moved into Jane’s house in Mechanicsburg, PA, in October to care for her in her last months.

While living here, we kept busy. Lisa signed up for National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) in November and wrote a long-postponed book. Bob threw himself into the editing of his many videos from our time in Mexico for the Messy Suitcase YouTube channel. We both spent countless hours studying Spanish and practicing our instruments (Bob saxophone, Lisa guitar). We spent 9 days in Cancun in November, during a period when Jane was doing better and we needed a break.

The official winner’s certificate for Nanowrimo. Lisa wrote a YA fantasy novel called Elephant Rock.

We also spent time with some of Lisa’s family members around the winter holidays, and got to know Jane’s neighbors in her over-55 community. As her health deteriorated, we became quite attached to her regular visitors from Homeland Hospice, who became our family’s lifeline: her CNA (certified nursing assistant) Sherry, who came every day to bathe and dress her; her hospice nurse Hannah, who visited weekly; and our social worker Pam, who supported us all in too many ways to count.

Jane was able to lift a glass of champagne on New Year’s Eve. She passed away a week later.

Meanwhile, we cared for Jane and tried to keep her comfortable. We watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy with her. The kids came home for Christmas break and got to spend time with their grandmother. Bob’s sister Beth came to visit regularly.

And on Jan. 7, 2020, at the age of 89, Jane Greenawalt left us.

Now the funeral is over, the spawn are back at college, and we are officially empty nesters. Although Jane’s stuff still needs to be sorted and dispersed, and her condo needs to be fixed up to sell, we are deferring that till the summer.

It’s time for us to get back to our lives, at least for a while. So we are planning to return to Mexico later this month and spend the rest of winter and half of spring there. We’ll come back in late April, before Gavin’s school lets out for the summer, and spend some time in Vermont before returning to PA for the next round of heavy lifting.

This time we are headed for Mexico City! We are excited at the prospect of living in a big city, after spending the summer in rural Vermont and the fall in this Harrisburg suburb.  We are currently deciding between several condos in a safe neighborhood – Condesa, Roma Norte or Polanco – near a huge park (a requirement for us as runners). We are also looking at language schools, because we plan to study Spanish every day, at least for the first month, the way we did in Tlaquepaque last year. It will only be for two hours a day this time, because Lisa is editing her book and we want time to enjoy the city.

We’ll keep you posted as things develop! Right now the plan is to leave Jan. 28 and drive our trusty Toyota Tacoma (with two cats on board; the third now lives with Gavin at school) slowly south, stopping in Cincinnati, Memphis and Austin on the way so we can see some friends and take some breaks from the road. We should arrive in CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico, Spanish for Mexico City) on Super Bowl Sunday.

Wish us luck! Hasta luego!

Mexico City, here we come!

Vermont Open Studios 2019, Part 2

Meet the Artists

We visited the studios of about 13 artists during Fall Vermont Open Studios Tour weekend. We met artists who crafted using a large variety of media, including potters, wood workers, painters and a digital artist who combined computer art with oil, markers and other media. Below is a list of the artists we visited, grouped by type of art. I have included addresses, phone numbers and websites in case you have any interest in visiting their studios or purchasing their products.  Meet some of the amazing artists we encountered!

 
POTTERY/CERAMICS
 
 
Diane Echlin
Diane favored blues and greens that she created for her pottery, and attached decals from a US artist to some of her pieces.
428 S. Wardsboro Rd
Newfane 05345
(802) 365-7874
 

 
 
 
 
Walter Slowinski
Walter’s specialty was teapots and vessels, and he often attached found pieces of wood and even beads to his one-of-a-kind pieces.
658 Orchard St
Brattleboro 05301
(802) 257-1030

 

 
Maya Zelkin
Maya worked out of an unheated barn off the grid to create pottery for the home in earth tones.
116 Coldham Rd
Shrewsbury VT 05738
(802) 492-2045

 
Naomi Lindenfeld
Naomi crafted unique jewelry and pottery for the home using swirling layers of colored clay.
330 Meadowbrook Rd
Brattleboro VT 05301
(802) 258-6475

 
David Stone
David created simple, affordable, useful pieces for the home, including coffee mugs, soap dishes, sponge holders, and bright orange ceramic jack-o-lanterns.
1735 VT Rte 103
Cuttingsville 05738
(802) 492-2301

 
 
 

WOOD

 
Rich DeTrano
Rich’s turned bowls and vessels, often accented with sticks, were the highest quality we saw. His dragons were amazing, but alas, not for sale.
488 Andover Rd
Ludlow VT 05149
(802) 228-8894

 
Gerry Martin
Gerry handcrafted spectacular bowls while celebrating the natural imperfections of wood, often leaving live edges.
998 Lincoln Hill Rd
Shrewsbury 05738
(802) 492-2244

Gerry with his optician’s stand-turned-tool holder
 
Gene Felder
Gene Felder use a noisy lathe to turn his wood, preferring instead to create artistic bowls with hand tools.
149 Adams Rd
Shrewsbury VT 05738
802-558-9068

 

GLASS

 
Zachary Grace
Under the watchful eye of his caged parrot, Zac created copper and glass pieces using a hand-made furnace.
446 Williams ST
Brattleboro 05301
(802) 251-0402

 
Contemporary craft gallery and open studio experience featuring live glass blowing by Randi Solin and the open ceramic studios of Natalie Blake. Randi demonstrated how to create maple leaves out of hot glass.

(This wasn’t part of the Open Studios Vermont circuit, but we dropped in and got a wonderful glass demonstration.)

 

METAL ART

 

Stragnell Art

R Sanford Stragnell
 
Sanford, a former electrician, used castoff tools and electrical parts to create metal sculptures of animals and nature.
PO Box 394
Castleton 05735
(802) 468-2327

 
 
 

 Vermont Rocks, Original Sports Sculpture

John Davis
John, a triathlete, created unique pieces comprised of native rocks and stainless steel figures of athletes, including rock climbers, runners and fishermen.
442 S. Wardsboro Rd.
Newfane VT 05345
(802) 380-9773
 
 
 

 
 

PASTELS

 
Lesley Heathcote
Lesley used pastels to create bucolic images of animals and birds.
32 Larkin St.
Brattleboro VT 05301
(802) 257-0951

DIGITAL ART

 
Michel Moyse
Michel, a former film editor, created unique digital art projected onto an interactive screen.
81 Pleasant Valley Rd
West Brattleboro 05301
(802) 257-7605

Vermont Open Studios 2019, Part 1

Incredible Artistry in the Green Mountain State

We recently spent a peak fall foliage weekend visiting artists’ studios and workshops around southern and central Vermont. The quality and variety of the craftsmanship that we discovered on Saturday, the first day, was so enthralling that we repeated the expedition in a new region on Sunday.

Vermont Open Studio Weekend is a fascinating event organized twice a year by the Vermont Crafts Council, a nonprofit comprised of artists that seeks to nurture public appreciation for “the quality, beauty, and history of Vermont crafts and artwork in order to encourage and sustain the creation of original craft and art work in Vermont.”
 
Vermont is amazingly welcoming of artists, and they return the favor with a fierce devotion to their craft and by generously welcoming people into their studios and even their lives.
 
Open Studios Map and Guide
We found nests of artistic production and inspiration on Main Streets and at the ends of dirt roads. We saw price tags in galleries ranging from $10 to $1,200. We often found the cast-offs, pieces discounted because they were not deemed high enough quality, to be as interesting as the finished pieces. Unfortunately, as wanderers whose possessions need to fit in the back of our truck, we are not in the position to acquire art right now, but we saw many pieces that we wanted. In the end, I bought one colored-clay necklace.

The Tour

We spend the first day around Brattleboro, a city in the southeast corner of the state that attracts a disproportionate percentage of artists, many of them New York transplants. The second day we visited a studio in Ludlow, where we’re staying, and then headed west toward Shrewsbury, Castleton and Rutland.
 
 
The Studios
 
We discovered that most Vermont craftspeople work in
studios located in or close to their homes. Some were near downtown areas (Brattleboro) or even on the main street (Castleton), but many more were in remote areas, far off the beaten path. We drove many miles up narrow mountain roads and around bends, through gold-and- red dappled fields and past squawking wild turkeys, to find studios inside barns surrounded by trees and fields. These were places we never would have discovered on our own, but bright yellow “Vermont Open Studios” signs directed us to each new discovery and beckoned us in.
 
The artists’ studios were amazingly diverse and told part of the story about their residents – whether it was a basement transformed into a woodturning workshop, a drafty wooden barn, a retrofitted garage, an upstairs bedroom or a large, beautiful dream studio made of barn wood and giant windows. A former film editor who had worked on major studio films in New York had built a huge, slick studio barn for his oversized digital art.

Diane Echlin’s studio
Nature’s Turn’s studios
Maya Zelkin’s off-the-grid studio
 
Orchard Street Pottery studio in Brattleboro
Michel Moyse’s Digital Art studio

The Tools

 
The artists’ tools, often self-crafted, showed real ingenuity.
 
One woodturner had retrofitted an optical stand he bought for $5 at a local fireman’s auction into a tool holder. Another created an electric hammer because his hands got so sore from hammering metal. Several had designed and built wood kilns or stoves out of bricks and mortar, sometimes even dismantling them to move and then reconstructing them in a new location. Most of the potters, not satisfied with any commercial product, created their own glazes.

Maya Zelkin’s handmade wood-fired kiln
Sanford Stagnell’s Hammer Machine

The Effort

Not one did anything the easy way.
 
They labored painstakingly to produce the detailed result they wanted, even if meant waiting a year while wood cured before carving it, rebuilding an entire kiln because it didn’t heat right, or disregarding wood-turning machines in favor of the rougher precision of hand tools and elbow grease.

 
 

Next up: 

Vermont Open Studios 2019, Part 2: Meet the Artists

Author: Lisa By Lisa Hamm-Greenawalt

Hasta La Vista!

That’s it, we’re doing it. Our oldest child Aryk is off at university in England. Our youngest child Gavin has just graduated from high school. Rather than be empty nesters, my husband Bob and I are stepping off the treadmill and hitting the road to spend the next decade or two exploring the planet.

The family in London
The family in London

Our oldest child Aryk is off at university in England. Our youngest child Gavin has just graduated from high school. Rather than be empty nesters, my husband Bob and I are stepping off the treadmill and hitting the road to spend the next decade or two exploring the planet.

We are relatively young and healthy, and the stock market has done good things with our investments over the last few years. So we are renting out our house just outside Denver, putting our stuff in storage, and packing up a few suitcases, three cats, our daughter (for a gap year) and our musical instruments and heading south of the border to explore Mexico for the next few years. We plan to spend three months at a time in different communities, mixing up cities, mountains, coast and historic pueblos, to really get beyond just a taste of this glorious country.

I know people think we’re crazy. Whenever I tell them the plan, they look at me uncomprehendingly.

Why are we doing this?

  • Because travel opens your eyes and heart in ways nothing else can.
  • Because meeting all kinds of different people expands your horizons.
  • Because learning a new language stretches your mind and keeps your brain supple.
  • Because settling in one place forever feels limiting.
  • Because the ocean is beautiful and the mountains are glorious.
  • Because thanks to social media we can stay connected to old friends and dear communities while we make new friends and create new communities.
  • Because Mexico has a low cost of living and high quality of life.
  • Because … salsa and mole sauce.
  • Because … bougainvillea and pelicans.
  • Because … waves and reefs.
  • Because … whales and dolphins.
  • Because … ruins and festivals.
  • Because … the Day of the Dead and Three Kings Day.
  • Because … tequila and mezcal.

When we’re done with Mexico, we plan to move on to Central America and South America.

When we’re done with Central America and South America, we’ll give the cats back to the kids, ditch the truck, fly across the pond (Atlantic Ocean) and begin exploring the rest of the planet.

Because life is short. And the world is big. Join us on the adventure!

Author: LisaPosted by Lisa Hamm-Greenawalt