Category Archives: reflection

Wrong Turns and Singing Frogs

Read previous: Bullfights and on to Puebla and Oxaca

July 10

The experiences of this day would remain vividly in our minds throughout the remainder of our trip.

We headed out for Taxco in our newly washed car with half a box of stale cookies for lunch. We had been quite specific about not wanting to have our car washed when approached by a man in the courtyard of the hotel the previous evening. Nevertheless, when we walked out of the hotel the next morning, our 1968 dark blue Cutlass with the white vinyl top, was sparkling like new. The Industrious man we had seen the night before made a job for himself in order to earn a little money.

The reason we only had a few stale cookies for our trip was because the hotel we went to for breakfast only made enough lunches for its guests. We shrugged our shoulders and said we would just get all the little hiccups and inconveniences out of the way during the morning so we could have smooth sailing on our journey to Taxco.

I drove the first 100 miles with the windows down enjoying the balmy weather. We were in a good mood as we sang our favorite songs all the way to Cuatla where we stopped for gas. Cuatla is famous for its association with several revolutionary leaders including Emiliano Zapata, one of Charles’ favorite heroes.

We encountered another hiccup in Cuatla when we realized that we didn’t have enough of the right currency to pay for the gas. The local bank was closed, and the hotel we found would not cash a traveler’s check. We eventually found a restaurant that would give us an exchange for our U.S. dollars.

By early evening, we were starving and the road out of Cuatla toward Taxco was unpaved. The towns we passed through were not on the map, and it was getting dark as we maneuvered our way across nearly unnavigable terrain. We eventually realized that we were hopelessly lost. We just kept driving until we came to a stop at a gate, and men in uniforms carrying rifles seemed to appear out of nowhere! There were blinding lights shining through our front windshield and through the side windows. I frankly don’t recall the exchange we had with the men, but we apparently had driven up to an army base. To say that we were frightened in no way describes how scared we were. We must have indicated in some manner that we were headed to Taxco.  

We were both shaking as we drove back in the direction from whence we had come. By sheer luck, we finally blundered onto Highway 95. After the experience with the soldiers, we had no inclination to talk, so we sat quietly as we drove the last 20 miles to our destination. We finally began to exhale when we were registering as guests at the Hotel Loma Linda in Taxco.

July 11

Yes, we were starving the next morning when we had breakfast at the Hotel Loma Linda. In daylight we made note of our room number, 108, and we knew that this must be our lucky number.

We could see where people lived from the balcony of our hotel room. It was fascinating to see that the houses, like white stacked boxes, were built up and throughout the mountainside.

Taxco is known for its silver. While Charles put the Hemisfair sticker from the San Antonio World’s Fair on our car, I walked next door to a shop that was advertised as a “silver factory.” I was disappointed to see that the prices were so high since I thought it really was a factory. I should have known that the prices would not be good because of all the tour busses outside.

After breakfast, we decided to walk to the center of town, stopping at every silver shop along the way. We marveled at how the streets composed of rocks, stones, and bricks just seemed to naturally grow up into the mountainsides.  

After spending the entire day walking around town, we returned to the hotel to inquire about tickets to a famous night club we had heard about called “Las Cantarranas,” translated in English as “The Singing Frogs.” The tickets were not yet available, so we took a drive to locate the place during daylight hours since there were no lights on the highway or roads at night and we didn’t want to end up in a place like we had ended up the night before. The club was open so we went inside to check it out. We wished we hadn’t seen it in the daylight. It was not at all inviting, but we had heard that it was “the” place to go for entertainment.

After dinner at the hotel, there was a thunderstorm, so we had to postpone our night out. It’s a good thing we did because after the most delicious ice cream that we had ever had in our lives, we took turns in the bathroom the rest of the night. We learned later that we had such a reaction because the ice cream was made of goat’s milk. For years after this trip, if we saw any type of food indicating that it was made of goat’s milk, we would recall our Taxco experience and take a pass.    

July 12

On this day, we headed for silver shops along the highway. All the “Platarias” seemed to have the exact same merchandise. Just before we decided to go back to the hotel, a young man ran out of his shop and literally dragged us inside to show us something “different.” His jewelry was beautiful and unusual because he had blended copper, brass, and silver. He proudly showed us how he executed his craft. Unfortunately, we had spent all the money we had allocated for silver and could not buy any of this unique jewelry.

Other than walking around and shopping at shops for silver, according to our Trip Tik, there was nothing else to see or do. We took an afternoon nap before supper and played Gin Rummy until it was time to dress for our evening out at Las Cantarranas.

That night, we learned that the mansion or hacienda where Las Cantarranas is housed was built in the 1500s. We thought that it had to be the most unique club in the world. While it looked like a pile of ruins in the daylight, it was transformed at night.

Upon entering, we found ourselves in a cave-like room lighted only by candles in brown paper bags placed on top of tree stumps that also served as tables for drinks. Tables and chairs were small and placed close together in front of a raised platform for the band. The platform was also a place where guests could dance if they chose to do so.

After about 45 minutes in the room with the band and some dancing, everyone was led downstairs to a cozy room that had windows. In this room, all the guests sat on padded benches very close to the floor and the raised platform was just large enough for a single chair. After everyone was seated and had been served drinks, the owner of the club came out to welcome the guests, first in Spanish and then in English. After a most effusive welcome, he shared the history of the building. Then he introduced the main attraction. We sat spellbound for about half an hour as we were entertained by a most gifted and marvelous Flamenco guitarist.

Our next stop was outside on a patio. When we were all seated, five gaily decorated men climbed a 70-foot pole that did not appear to be too stable! Four of the men sat on a square that they put together with four wooden boards. The fifth man stood on another piece of wood that was about twelve inches in diameter in the center of the square of boards where the four men were spinning around like they were on a merry-go-round. The man on the 12-inch platform in the center danced on this small piece of wood while playing a flute-like instrument. All the while, the four seated men had been holding torches. Suddenly, while everyone was watching and listening with amazement to the music of the man in the center, the four seated men fell backwards and started spinning around the top of the pole. They were only held by a rope attached to their feet! Now all five men held lighted torches as they spun around down the pole until they reached the ground. As onlookers, we were out of breath just watching this performance.

Next, we were all ushered into another room where entertainers from Trinidad and London put on a very spirited and fun show with a lot of singing and dancing. After this, there was, yet, another space for entertainment! This second patio was built over a natural waterfall, and the loud music and psychedelic lights created the right atmosphere for dancing. When the music stopped, we thought it was time to leave, but not yet. Two male dancers from the Ballet Folklorico topped off a most entertaining evening!

Can’t wait to get to Acapulco!

Bullfights and on to Puebla and Oxaca

Read previous: Adventures–planned and unplanned–in Mexico City

July 7, 1968–Bullfights

Our last day in Mexico City before going to Puebla, we have only a couple of things on our schedule after getting breakfast at a smorgasbord restaurant called Shirley’s. Still looking forward to every meal, we posit that we’re so hungry all the time because the meal schedule is different than our regular routine of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We need an excuse.

Although we would not entertain the idea today and would be embarrassed to talk about it, we were truly excited about going to a real live bullfight! Told we would need to hire a guide to take us, that’s just what we did, setting out with one other couple for the bullfights. The plan was to spend the entire afternoon at the arena.

Despite rain all afternoon, we were awed by the spectacle of the bullfights. We didn’t know whether the rain was a bad omen or not, but it seemed that things just didn’t go as planned during the bullfights. For example, a bull jumped the high fence to chase a matador’s helper; a picador stuck a bull and was unable to remove the pick, so the poor man was fined; a matador’s cape was caught on a bull’s horns and it looked as if the bull was teasing the matador rather than the other way around. Most disturbing was the fact that three matadors were gored and had to be taken from the arena. We couldn’t say we “enjoyed” the bullfights, but we were certainly intrigued and enlightened about a sport that was completely foreign to us.

The only other plan for this day was to have one more night in the Zocalo, enjoying the lights and sounds of the city with others.

July 8, 1968–Puebla

The next morning, we drove around for two hours before finding the highway to Puebla. Finally arriving in the late afternoon, we checked into the Senorial Hotel. It was not our first choice, but we were happy to find a place since we had no reservation. With nothing to do before dinner, we shopped for onyx since we heard that the city was famous for the quality of the stone here.

We decided to have dinner at the hotel restaurant. Sitting near a large showcase window so we could see outside, instead we seemed to be the main attraction for those passing by. We surmised that the people of Puebla had not seen many “colored” people like us. Entire families would stop, scrutinize us, and talk amongst themselves.

We felt a little like we were back in the United States, especially at the behavior of a White man in the restaurant. When we arrived, the man had just been served a beer. He looked at us with what we interpreted as disdain, to put it mildly. He muttered something under his breath and his neck actually began to bleed. His face reddened and he paid his check without drinking his beer and left the restaurant. Now, he could have been bleeding from a nick when shaving and just lost his taste for the beer, but we couldn’t help but think that he left because of us. We laughed after he left and said that he probably came all the way to Puebla to get away from ‘Negroes,’ and here we were.

We thought we would have steak for dinner. What a mistake! The meat tasted like liver to me, and I couldn’t eat it. Because Charles ate his steak, I teased him that he was eating some of the bulls that we had seen the day before. I think that “bull meat” must have been the cause of Charles’ sleep disturbance that evening. From his sounds and movements, it seemed that he was fighting bulls most of the night, though he never awoke while I barely got any sleep.

Our restless night might be the reason we forgot Charles’ camera when we left Puebla the next morning for Oaxaca. When we discovered that the camera was missing, we turned around and prayed all the way back that it would still be there. Our prayers were answered. After we fetched the camera, we set out again.

July 9, 1968–Oxaca

The drive to Oxaca was long and tedious because of bad roads and many curves around mountains. Charles drove all the way because I could hardly keep my eyes open after not getting much sleep.

We arrived in Oxaca at 2:30 p.m. and were unable to get a room where we had planned to stay. Our second choice was the Hotel Marguerita. We were just in time for a lunch that provided what we called “bulk” but not much flavor. After lunch, we drove to the marketplace. As in Mexico City, there was an abundance of food and colors to excite the senses.

Oxaca is known for the quality of its black pottery. We bought a few pieces for ourselves and added to our load of gifts for friends and family. I bought a nice tote bag for my sister, as well. After driving and walking all around town, we returned to the hotel where we entertained ourselves with a game of Gin Rummy.

Next destination–Taxco

Adventures–planned and unplanned–in Mexico City

Read previous: Independence Day Abroad

July 6, 1968

We got up at 8:30 and I had the experience of ironing a shirt and a dress on a round table. Despite the struggle, the pressed garments didn’t look too bad. It’s funny how, for years after, I would recall this experience and think about how lucky I was to have an ironing board with edges.

After breakfast, we headed to the San Juan Market on a bus where the sweetest little boy sang beautifully for tips from passengers. Everybody works in Mexico City.

When we arrived at the Market, we walked first through the colorful and naturally odoriferous produce building, which had fruits and vegetables of every description. Next, we walked across the street to the merchandise market. We were amazed at the number of leather goods, baskets, serapes, and silver pieces for sale. We wanted to buy most of what we saw, but we practiced restraint because there was so much more to see.

We left the San Juan Market and took a bus to La Merced, an almost indescribably lush marketplace. There was a huge building with nothing in it but fresh fruits and vegetables. Charles and I had to pray for willpower to keep from buying a tomato, a cantaloupe, or a watermelon. This produce was as beautiful as one could imagine.

Outside and all around the building on the sidewalk were men, women, and children of all ages selling everything from shoes to almonds and peanuts. We went to markets underground and found huge sections of clothes in the most vibrant and beautiful colors we had ever seen. It was almost overwhelming to the senses. In another section, there were more baskets to be sold than we could have imagined existed.

After so much sense stimulation from things to see and buy, we decided to go back to Chalpaultepec Park to visit the Archaeological Museum. Having never been to Central Park in New York City, we marveled at the fact that this Park with so much to see was in the middle of Mexico City.

We didn’t know which bus to take so we took a guess and, WOW, what a bus ride! We thought that if we took a bus on the main street near San Juan Market, it would eventually go back to the Reforma, the main thoroughfare across Mexico City. After we boarded our best-guess bus, the driver turned the bus around and proceeded to drive in the opposite direction than we thought we would be going. We had a map, so we tried to keep some sense of direction by following the bus route on the map. But as soon as we thought we had located our position on the map, our bus driver would turn the bus on two wheels and take off down narrow side streets, careen around circles, and on and on until we had no hope of figuring out our location. We were sure that we went places no tour would ever go and no guide would ever recommend.  

On our mad bus ride, we saw the beautiful University of Mexico and lovely houses near the university in an area appropriately named University City. While there were many shops here, as well, we didn’t get off the bus. Since we couldn’t locate where we were on the map and could not communicate with the driver, we decided to enjoy the trip and hope the bus would eventually retrace its route and finally take us to some familiar place.

To our horror, after a long ride, the bus went to the bus terminal with just the two of us left on a bus that earlier had been packed with people like sardines in a can. The bus terminal was a vacant lot that looked like the city dump. Near this place was a series of very small dwellings made of tin and rocks inhabited by some of the poorest people we had ever seen.

There were about five buses ready to leave the terminal, and our language handicap was more apparent than ever as we tried to figure out which one to board. Finally, after pointing at the place we wanted to go on the map, we were directed to a particular bus. Feeling some sense of relief after getting on what we assumed was the right bus, we realized that we didn’t know when or where to get off the bus. We were poor babes in the woods. Luckily, there was a young man on our bus who was at the terminal when we were trying to find out which bus to take, so he knew that we were hopelessly lost. Though he never acknowledged us during the bus ride, when he was getting off the bus, he called out to us and indicated where we should get off the current bus in order to catch another bus.

 It took more than half an hour to get on the next bus because of the crowds. We finally reached the Reforma, a place we knew. There, we took a bus back to Chapultepec Park, where we took a tour of the Archaeological Museum. Our tour was in English, and that made a huge difference for us.

It was after the tour when the effects of not eating for eight hours, having anxiety about being lost, and being on our feet for so long began to take their toll on us. We dragged ourselves aboard yet another bus to get back to the hotel. It was such a relief to shower since my deodorant and that of our fellow passengers on the buses failed very early during the day, not to mention having been puked on while on one of the buses.

In deciding where to go for dinner, we considered the fact that we were starving. Gambling on a good restaurant was just too risky, so we returned to the Chalet Suizo. Charles wanted to try a dish he had seen on the menu when we were there before. We arrived to discover that the menu had been changed and what his mouth was watering for was not available. We both enjoyed pepper steaks, however.

After dinner, we decided that there would be no more buses on this day. We walked back to the hotel, and I hand-washed my puked-on clothes in the bathroom sink before we went out again. We went to Las Gitanerias to see Flamenco dancing and to listen to classical music. We decided to splurge and take a taxi to the club only to find that there was no show on this night. We looked on the bright side and said that it was fine because we were dead on our feet.

Evidently the taxis were not empathetic to our plight: After waiting and waiting, we ended up walking back to the hotel. Needless to say, we slept soundly after an exciting day.

Looking forward to seeing a bullfight and moving on to Puebla!

Independence Day Abroad

read previous: Crossing the Border

July 4 and 5, 1968

Back in the United States, it was Independence Day; in Mexico, it was just another day. This would be the first among many times when traveling beyond our own borders would vividly remind us of the fact that the United States is not the center of the universe around which the rest of the world revolves.

In preparing to leave Ciudad Valles, we found that our morning routine had to accommodate a new experience. Hotel personnel brought to our room a small pitcher of very cold water from the restaurant. We were told that the water in the pitcher was pure but the water from the tap was foul. We learned that we had to brush our teeth and wash as well as possible with the icy water from the small pitcher.

After the brisk wash-up, we enjoyed a great hot breakfast, with delicious coffee, which is always a good sign! Charles had hotcakes and ham, and I had minute steaks and fried potatoes. On the side, we also had what I now realize were probably refried beans, but not knowing what they were at the time, we just let them be.

After our past disappointments in trying to find lunch or snacks along the way, we decided to purchase lunch from the hotel restaurant to take with us. While it wasn’t the barbeque we would have been having at home, the price was right. For 12.50 pesos (US$1.00), we bought a cheese sandwich, boiled egg, small roll, potato chips, bottles of water, and some candy.

Charles had driven most of the day before, so today was my turn. The drive was like a ride on the flying turns at an amusement park. The curves were tight like bed springs and we would have to lean on our sides as we rounded them. The mountains sometimes looked like stumps and clumps of shrubbery, with patches of gardens and rock up and down the mountainside. When we got high enough, we realized that what we thought were shrubs were actually tall trees growing very close together. Some of the trees were growing out of solid pale-colored rocks and slabs of stone. With the shadows, sometimes the pale stones seemed as if they were bleeding a black liquid.

Charles with a camera and mountains in the background
We stopped along the way for
Charles to take pictures
of the mountainsides.

Curving around the mountains, we met oversized buses and trucks, as well as women, men, and children standing in the road selling odds and ends. Highway signs were few and far between, so we never knew what to expect when rounding a curve. There were small dwellings up the sides of the mountains and skinny animals everywhere. Frequently, we saw women washing clothes or bathing children in the clear streams flowing down the sides of the mountains.

Charles and I talked about how even when people were not wearing shoes, the clothes they wore were clean and presentable. What we saw caused us to reflect on how, regardless of the level of one’s means, people can choose how they express their dignity with whatever resources they have.

The higher we drove up into the mountains, the cooler the air was. We turned off the air conditioner and stuck our arms and hands out the windows to touch damp cool puffs of clouds.

When we arrived in Mexico City, we found a place to wash our clothes and had an excellent meal at the Chalet Suizo, a Swiss restaurant. I don’t know what we ate, but the meal was so good that we spoke of this restaurant for years to come.

After dinner we took a walk before retiring to our luxurious Hotel El Presidente. Full stomachs and excitement about being in Mexico City kept us awake. We had not been drinking much water throughout the trip, so we were thrilled when we saw a sign on the faucets in our beautiful bathroom that read “aqua purificado.” Surely this meant pure water. We drank a lot of water that night.

During breakfast at the hotel, we noticed that the water we were served was in a bottle labeled “Mineral Water.” We wondered why they would serve bottled water when there was pure water from the tap. After inquiring about this, we learned that “agua purificado” did not mean we should drink the water!  We were informed that if we had wanted drinking water, we should have called room service. Wide-eyed, gagging mentally, and anticipating stomach cramps or worse, we began to laugh—if we had been thinking, we would have realized that if there were no glasses in our room, we were not expected to drink the water. I don’t recall now what makeshift way we were able to drink the water; we probably had empty bottles from our lunch. Leave it to us to tempt fate.

After breakfast we started walking to find the market. We walked for hours through construction work, along side streets, and through rain, but never did find the market. We did, however, visit the Palace of Fine Arts and the Zocalo, and even went into the Cathedral and National Palace near the Zocalo. Since it was raining, we took the bus along Juarez and the Reforma to go to Chalpultepec Gardens. Because the rain was incessant and the air was so cold, we decided to return to the hotel rather than take the tour. Yes, it was cold in July!

We showered at the hotel and dressed for dinner at the “Focalare Restaurant of Italian Cuisine.” Everything was DELICIOUS! By the time we finished dinner, it was almost 9:30 p.m. Since the rain had stopped, we took a bus back to the Zocalo, which was lit up the way we imagined Times Square would be at night. People were all around, and it was exciting just to be there. From there, we went to a famous restaurant on Genova Street to see the Can-Can and have drinks. Great day and evening!

Next, let’s tour Mexico City!

Crossing the Border

read previous: “Escaping 1968”

July 2, 1968

We are so excited! Eager to get on our way to Mexico! We’d never traveled anywhere and now were traveling beyond the borders of the United States. At breakfast, we didn’t even mind that the Holiday Inn restaurant kitchen cooked our bacon on a grill that had obviously not been cleaned after grilling onions on it the night before.

We thought we were getting out before the crowds at the border, but when we arrived at the customs station everyone else was there too. There were at least 200 people ahead of us. It felt like we were in the Tower of Babel; we really wished that we had paid more attention in our high school Spanish classes. The first officer to help us spoke only Spanish; when he realized we spoke only English, he summoned another officer who spoke some English. Charles was so excited to hear English that when the officer asked him a question to which the response would have been “yes,” or “si” in Spanish, Charles responded with a French, “oui.” I teased him about this for years.

After two hours, we had our papers and were able to cross into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, just across the border from Laredo, Texas. We navigated through streets that were crowded with cars and people. We couldn’t believe how many stores were along the way. Houses were more than a little modest, built of stone and wood.

MountainView

Mountain view

When we reached the highway, we found that it was too narrow for passing. As we approached signs, I was busily looking up the translations to make sure we were following the map. We could see part of the Sierra Madre Mountains from the highway. The views were breathtakingly beautiful. Hills, steep mountains, patches of shrubbery that looked like nappy or kinky Afros, cacti, stumps of trees, tall trees with pineapple-shaped bark on the trunks and palm-like tops.

We would be in the valley for a while, and then ascend into the mountains with solid rock on both sides of the highway for a distance, and then the rock would give way to a corduroy of green on the mountain sides. As we traveled down the mountain sides into the valleys, it was as if the palm trees that surrounded us were thousands of people with outstretched arms worshiping the sun.

It was 2:30 in the afternoon when we arrived in Monterrey, Mexico. We had no trouble finding the Ramada Inn because it was on top of a mountain. We were impressed! After the onion bacon at our last hotel restaurant, we decided to go into town to eat. Although there was a language barrier, the people worked with us to try to communicate, and we were more than grateful for their kindness.

Since there was no TV or radio in our hotel room, we thought we would buy some playing cards to pass the time when we were bored. Try explaining playing cards to a shopkeeper when you don’t speak the language. Thinking that we had bought a deck of playing cards, we later discovered that what we bought was a set of cards to play a game like Bingo, which would have further necessitated a special table. Charles, being the wizard that he was, devised a makeshift deck since the number of cards worked. That night, we played the first of many games of Gin Rummy with the strangest cards.

July 3, 1968

Leaving Monterrey, we were fascinated at how the mountainsides were covered with colorful houses. We traveled on Highway 85 to Ciudad Valles. Driving this highway was a challenge because it wound around the outer rims of mountains. It was also extremely narrow with even narrower bridges making it only possible for one car to cross at a time. In addition to slowing considerably because of all the curves around the mountains, we shared the highway with goats, horses, and sometimes people walking. We made a game of imagining what the goats and cows who stopped in front of our car to stare at us might be saying: “What are you doing here?” “Are you lost or something?”

HotelValles

Hotel Valles

Relieved to leave the highway, we arrived in Ciudad Valles just after 5:00 p.m. Hotel Valles was a pleasant change from the vanilla Holiday and Ramada Inns. It had been around for a while and was quite elegant in its own way. Built of stone with curved archways on the outside, the inside revealed high ceilings, and the space for our bedroom, vestibule, and bathroom was larger than our entire apartment back home.

Too early for supper, we explored the town on foot and became something of a main attraction to the locals. We were famished, having eaten a lunch consisting only of a coke and something resembling a Hostess cupcake so stale that it scratched our throats when we swallowed. We tried what we thought were potato chips, pappas fritos. We only needed to try one to realize that our digestive system would not be able to handle the heavy grease-soaked pig skins.

Our hotel restaurant was our salvation. The food was so good at supper, we thought we had died and gone to heaven. Charles had filet mignon and I had baked ham Hawaiian style. If I had to pick a theme for our road-trip honeymoon, it would be food. With all the culture and history surrounding us, the most memorable events for me involved food.

Thoroughly satiated and dead on our feet, we retired to our room, where I rolled my hair and Charles reviewed the AAA book.

Next stop, Mexico City!

Escaping 1968

It’s 1968, and there is so much to be sad and angry about. I wake up every morning realizing that it’s not a bad dream or a nightmare: the nation is still enmeshed in the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in April and Robert F. Kennedy in June were all-too-real. It is just too much.

Rounding the bend of our first year of marriage, a hard year of teaching high school students, and living in an apartment where a mouse left tracks on our stove after eating our cherry pie that we left to cool while we went to the laundromat, Charles and I strained toward that clearing that would be a long summer vacation. We had diligently saved money from every paycheck for our postponed honeymoon, bought a new car, and headed southwest out of Chicago for our road-trip honeymoon.

Charles used to tease me about inviting other people to go with us when went out for fun. He would ask me with a smile, “Are you afraid to be alone with me?” He wouldn’t be surprised that I’m inviting you to go on our honeymoon with us. Just as we escaped from 1968, wouldn’t you like to get away from the sadness and anger of 2020?

We divided up the driving so neither of us would drive more than 200 miles at a time. The first stop was Miller’s Trailer Camp somewhere between Carthage and Joplin, Missouri. Charles is the outdoor type and had been quite excited about getting all the equipment to do some camping along the way. The closest I had ever come to camping was having a tailgate picnic in a park.

The campsite was cute with a little white house with red trim for the store and two more red and white houses for the showers and toilettes. We pitched our tent under a beautiful oak tree surrounded by white peonies. The temperature had been in the 90s during the day and was below 50 degrees at night. It was so cold!

TripTikAfter sleeping outdoors in the cold, I woke up the next morning with a sore throat. I could barely talk and had a headache. I felt awful! We packed up our tent and headed for Tulsa, Oklahoma. We visited the sites recommended in our AAA TripTik. Determined to keep to our trip plan, we pushed on to Dallas, Texas. When we arrived, we discovered that the Lions International had booked every room in town. After driving around looking for a room for more than two hours, we considered our options. We couldn’t stay at another campsite because I knew I was going to die if we did.

Our only option was to drive on to Arlington, Texas, where we found a room at the Clayton House Motel. We were excited to eat at a local Mexican restaurant, but my cold symptoms were so severe, we had to leave to find medicine. Notwithstanding the fact that the cold was getting worse—a throat so sore I could barely swallow, a stiff neck, and feeling sick all over—we enjoyed the sightseeing in Dallas the next day.

In Austin, we dropped our bags in our room at the Roadway Inn and went out for Kentucky Fried Chicken since my throat was feeling somewhat better. Although I could swallow without much pain, I was far from being free of the cold. I could not stop coughing and just knew that I would cough myself to death right there in Austin. Despite lack of sleep and exhaustion from all the coughing, we kept to our sightseeing plan in the capital before heading west to Johnson City, Texas, population 854, where we peered into the three open rooms of very modest  accommodations at the house where President Lyndon B. Johnson had lived in from 1913 to 1934.

About an hour after leaving Johnson City, we arrived in San Antonio and went directly to the motel. Upon entering our room, the dampness and stuffiness set me off on a coughing fit so bad that Charles took me to a hospital. Going to a hospital emergency room with a cough is a bad idea. We returned to our room and I continued to cough, feeling bad for Charles having to endure my coughing and complaining. While I didn’t sleep at all, I guess Charles was so tired he could even sleep through my hacking cough. We found a doctor in San Antonio the next morning, but after seeing the doctor’s office and being around the very sick people in the waiting area, I decided that it was better to die from the cough than from some other disease I might contract from the doctor’s office.

Charles looking out from the top of the Tower of the Americas

Charles looking out from the top of the Tower of the Americas

One of our major destination stops was in San Antonio. We were excited about going to the 1968 Hemisfair—that year’s World’s Fair, themed “The Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas.” We loved going to the top of the “Tower of the Americas” where we could look out over the entire fairgrounds. We visited all the pavilions and toured the fairgrounds by both train and boat. We were most fascinated by the Laterna Magica, a Czech movie house in three dimensions—what we now call multimedia. The Hemisfair exceeded our expectations. We loved it!

Considering our tight budget, it had been difficult to find good places to eat along our journey. That is, until we discovered Earl Abel’s. We ate every meal there while in San Antonio. Food never tasted so good!

Next stop, Laredo, Texas, where we went directly to the AAA office to get our tourists’ papers. Leaving the office to get gas, there was a sudden downpour so heavy that we had to pull to the side of the road. While waiting for the rain to slacken, Charles glanced over our hotel reservations for Monterrey, Mexico. We laughed at ourselves when he discovered that we yokels were about to drive into Mexico on July 1, when our hotel reservation was not until July 2. We were so glad he discovered this before we crossed the border and had no place to stay for the night. Thank goodness we could stay another night in Laredo. We were able to get a room at the Holiday Inn, and we had supper in the hotel restaurant. We didn’t even complain when our main course arrived a full hour after our salad and beverage were served.

After two weeks in which we had not seen any folks that looked like us, we met a “Negro” couple in the Holiday Inn restaurant. They came to our table and introduced themselves, and we ended up visiting with them in their room after dinner. They were from Detroit and were making their fourth trip to Mexico.

After being in our room for a while, we realized that I was not coughing! There was no odor or damp smell either. We thought we’d celebrate. We needed ice cream! Charles went out in search of the treat, but the only flavor he could find was banana nut. Now, I had eaten so much banana nut bread in college—a charitable gift for poor colored students from an old couple in Charleston—that I’d said I would never eat banana nut anything again. But this was different. We were able to get spoons from the hotel restaurant and, with great anticipation, prepared to dig in. The ice cream was so old that when we opened it, we discovered just ice and soft nuts. No cream anywhere. We could not stop laughing.

July 2, 1968, heading for the border…

The Mask

emoji with smiley face on mask and frowning emoji with no maskLike you, I have lamented the fact that, in 2020, wearing masks out of caution and necessity robs us of the sheer joy of seeing smiles on peoples’ faces.

I saw a lot of smiles recently as I spent weeks looking at the scores of boxes and albums of photos our family has collected over the years. There were photos of family members, friends, colleagues, and some people I don’t even remember.

I smiled or laughed out loud when I recalled the circumstances or occasions around which some of the photos were taken. Nostalgia is one of my favorite pastimes—whether through photos, videos, journals, or conversations.

While I was steeped in the process of looking at hundreds of photos, I began to wonder about what might really be going on with some of the people who were smiling for the camera. Were the smiles on these faces a reflection of our reality at that moment in time or not?

When I looked at some of the faces, I imagined that the smile displayed was prompted by the entreaties of those taking the photos asking the person to say “cheese,” or “money,” or the photographer saying something funny that would make the person smile. Given the festive and happy occasions, however, I’m sure the majority of the smiles came without prompting.

Optimistically, all of these people with smiling faces were having a good time and were happy at the moment the picture was captured. Likely the smiles were articulating their true feelings. Yet, I wondered if some of the smiles captured may not always have told the story as it truly was. The smile itself may have been a mask behind which the person was masquerading as someone who was happy and having a good time.

I wonder if our new normal of wearing a physical mask actually makes this kind of masquerade harder. Perhaps covering the smile that used to serve as a mask will make us take more notice of the eyes to discern the true state of a person. They say the “eyes have it.” Can the eyes—like a smile—be warm, convey love, enjoy humor, express sheer joy? Or will our eyes unmask us and reveal more than we want to share?

Wearing a tangible mask, then, may also be a test of how sophisticated we are at expressing the range of our emotions in what may be more authentic interactions than when we could flash a spontaneous smile. How will we fare over time when the reflexive smile will not be as accessible in our arsenal of communication tools?

Happy Birthday, Ida!

Ida B Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

On this day—July 16—158 years ago, Ida Bell Wells, a tireless and formidable crusader, was born.

As an investigative journalist, Wells informed, bullied, and cajoled the readership of Black publications to fight for their schools, their rights, their dignity, and their lives against a racist and segregated Southern culture.

Writing for church publications and early editorials using the pen name, Iola, she is best known for her anti-lynching editorials and speeches, though she was a founder or prominent member of every civil rights organization of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Famous during her own lifetime and revered after her death, she fought for racial justice, women’s suffrage, and human rights with both intelligence and heart.

In addition to her pamphlets and editorials, she excelled as a speaker at home and abroad, exposing the shame of racism in America, particularly as concretized and illustrated by the brutal lynchings and mass murderings of Black people. This diamond of a woman had many precious facets, and if she were pressed to identify any flaw, it might be that she had human feelings and could be hurt by the slights and betrayals of people who should have been some of her strongest supporters. Despite the hurt and sensitivity, she soldiered on, standing in the front lines of the cause even as she faithfully carried out her duties as a wife and mother.

Reflecting on the extraordinary life and monumental achievements of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, I see her as a beacon that shines the way and a staff that supports all of us who want to gain the right to call ourselves the sons and daughters of Ida.

Ode to Gwen B.

I still perspire when I think about how anxious I was as I sat waiting for my first interview after graduating from college. While I waited for the principal to see me, I tried to push back thoughts about not belonging at this predominantly white suburban high school. I tried not to think about how different my background probably was from everyone else who worked here. Who else was black and from the west side of Chicago whose only qualification for the job beyond the college degree was a traumatic student teaching experience at an all-white high school in southern Illinois?

I was sweating out my interview clothes as I sat in a chair with my back to a glass wall separating this office from the hallway. I was facing a long counter behind which at least half a dozen efficient-looking white women were engaged in various activities—at the counter responding to all entrants, typing on typewriters, or working in file cabinets.

I had been in the building for about half an hour and had not seen another black person. As I contemplated this fact—as if on cue—a tall, beautiful, black woman with short red hair cut and shaped beautifully breezed into the area smiling as if she had just heard a joke. She greeted everyone by their first name and inquired about their well-being. Everyone and the entire space seemed to brighten to match this woman’s mood. As a chorus of greetings were returned, I thought I heard my name. This startled me, and then I realized they were addressing “the other Gwen,” a descriptor that would be heard frequently once I was hired. How random that both of us would teach in the English Department. Not only that, but we both married men named Charles.

Gwen B. and I were among the very few black teachers and administrators in this predominantly white suburban high school in the late 1960s that was transitioning to become more racially diverse. There were tensions at every level as the community was adjusting to the change. Lucky for me, Gwen B. was “my person” during these first years of my career. She was friend, counselor, mentor, and coach. She immediately took me under her wing to do what we now call “onboarding.” She helped me understand the context in which we were working as competent teachers whose first responsibility was to our students. She modeled for me that we could be proud that we were black and also get to know and accept people who wanted to be allies. Most of all, she stressed that we didn’t get paid enough not to have fun.

I still marvel at my luck in being “adopted” by Gwen B. because everyone loved her and wanted to be in her presence. Light from her orbit enveloped me and made me feel and be regarded as someone who belonged. The teachers’ lounge was a fun place to be when Gwen B. was there. She loved to tell funny stories and make people laugh at themselves. She would always crack herself up at her own pithy one-liners. She was the party.

Because she was my confidante, I shared embarrassing moments with her, sometimes to my regret since she always found them to be funnier than I thought they should be. One day at school I fell and slid all the way down the stairs on my back. Luckily, there were no witnesses. I proceeded to my classroom and began writing on the board, Hearing some muffled giggling. I turned and asked the students what they were finding so funny. Laughing so hard he could hardly get the words out, a student asked, “Miss Jordan, who’s been walking on your back?” It was funny and I had to laugh. I told Gwen B. about falling, getting dirt on my back, and what happened in the classroom. I lived to regret telling her because she never missed an opportunity to ask me, “Miss Jordan, who’s been walking on your back?”

Gwen D and Gwen B smiling while sitting on couch togetherGwen B. was not only my mentor, coach, and counselor regarding my job, she was also the kind of friend who kept my spirits up as I planned a wedding. She coerced her husband, Charles, into taking our wedding photos. She persuaded her retired babysitter to take care of one more baby, so I could return to work. There were no major events during the first years of my career in which Gwen B. was not there as a confidante and supporter. I like to think that the supportive friendship was mutual, which is why after many years and much geographical separation, we never lost contact.

Lest someone think that Gwen B. is a natural nurturer offering sweet words of comfort and wisdom, I must correct that image. I always found it fascinating that this woman, laughing all the while, could turn any conversation into a litany of expletives that flowed like a river. I seldom used profanity except after a conversation with Gwen B., and then I could not help myself. Her big personality was infectious, and I wanted to catch some of her joy.

Gwen B. is a rare gemstone, the depths of which are yet to be discovered. Her defining traits that had the greatest imprint on me as a professional are courage and humor. To me, no amount of education and training could have been as effective in supporting my success as having “my person” with whom I could share anything and expect that she would help me discover within myself the strength and courage I needed to help me move forward.

Thank you, Gwen B., for being “my person” when I needed you most.