Monday, April 19, 2010

Tightwad Travel Tip – Reach a Person, Not a Phone Maze

I had a question regarding airline luggage requirements but dreaded calling American Airlines. In the past, I endured several minutes of telephone prompts before I ever reached a human being who could answer my question.

This time I lucked into the Contact Help website which gave me a number to call for my baggage questions and told me the numbers to press (1 and then 0 twice) to expedite matters. A friendly person was on the line in five seconds!

This wonderful website exists to help us find ways to avoid companies' telephone mazes, so that we can actually talk to live human beings and get the answers we need as quickly as possible. I'm delighted with this discovery and bet you will be, too!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Driving in Mexico - Part Three

David is feeling fairly confident about driving in Mexico, but, as with most first-time visitors, he's nervous about encountering policemen. Most policemen are honest, of course, but there are always a few who give the rest a bad name.  And, of course, all the guidebooks talk about bribes (mordidas - literally “little death”) that sometimes have to be paid to policemen who stop drivers on trumped up charges. Although the government has largely curtailed this practice, a policeman may still try to extort money from you. I told David to remember these points to avoid having to pay mordida.

When a policeman stops you, even though you’ve broken no law, he may ask for your driver’s license. A favorite way of getting mordida is to say he will keep your license until you pay for the “ticket” right then and there. If he asks to see your license, show it to him, but do not let him take it. If he does so anyway, get out your notepad and ask for his name and badge number. (Su nombre, por favor? Su numero?) Then get out of your car to walk around and get his license plate number.

This will almost always stop any further action on the policeman’s part, and he will return your license and tell you to go on. The reason is because the policeman knows he is doing something illegal (keeping your license) on trumped up charges, and he realizes you’re savvy enough to report him. He would rather let you drive on than lose his job.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Driving in Mexico – Part Two

Don't drive at night in Mexico. When I mentioned this rule over supper last night, David couldn't understand the logic. Did that mean we'd never go out for dinner during our month in Ajijic?

I quickly assured him that we could drive locally at night, but traveling highways for long distances after the sun went down was certainly not advisable. There are three reasons for this.

A truck driver with a flat tire may have stopped on the road earlier in the day and conscientiously placed boulders behind him to direct cars to the other lane while he changed the tire. But when his car was road-worthy again, the chances are that he didn’t go back to move those rocks. During the day this is a minor problem, but at night it presents a major hazard.

Another reason is that most ranchers cannot afford to fence their land, so cows and horses routinely cross major (and minor) roads whenever they like. When the air cools down at night, cows, in particular, seek the heat-absorbing asphalt to stay warm. They love to lie down in the middle of the road and have yet to learn that this is a deadly practice.

The last reason for avoiding night driving is that some Mexican drivers believe they are preserving their car batteries by not turning on their lights at night. If the rocks or the cows in the middle of the road don’t get you, the car with no lights will!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Driving in Mexico – Part One

David has consulted some of the websites I mentioned in the last article, and he's enjoying reading The People's Guide to Mexico every evening, so most of his concerns about our month's vacation in Ajijic have been put to rest. But one aspect of living in Mexico still has him worried. Driving. Despite my reassurances, he is still a bit nervous about getting behind the wheel.

And, of course, his apprehension is understandable. Driving in Mexico is not for the faint of heart. Because most Mexicans are fatalists and believe that what will be will be, they drive with gusto and little thought for the future. Most drivers see stop signs as mere suggestions and passing on blind curves as an opportunity to prove their machismo. But, as long as we don’t adopt these attitudes and we try to drive defensively, any trip we take should be a pleasant one. There are just a few points we'll need to bear in mind.

As much as possible, we will want to take the cuotas (sometimes misspelled as quota or something else approximating cuota) or autopistas (a synonym for cuotas) if we decide to drive to San Miguel de Allende. These controlled access, four-lane roads save endless time and aggravation. This is one area where we will not try to economize by taking the two-lane “free” (marked libre) roads. Since most Mexicans cannot afford the cuota tolls, we'll only see another car every couple miles or so. There are usually refreshment stands, or restaurants, and bathrooms at the toll stations which make the driving even more pleasant. And, if we have any sort of car trouble, the government maintained “Green Angel” truck will come to help us. These Florence Nightingales of the roads will dispense gas and water, change tires, make minor engine repairs, and just generally do whatever is needed to get us back on the road again. And the best part of this service is that it’s free!

We won't rely too much on road signage. The Mexican government seems to think road signs are a waste of money, so they are few and far between. The ones we will see can be a bit disconcerting because the town we're looking for will most likely not be listed as one of the destinations. Instead, a city a thousand miles away may be printed on the sign. For example, when I lived in Ajijic six years ago and wanted to access the Guadalajara bypass in a westerly direction, I followed the road signs for Nogales (some three days’ drive away). A good analogy in the United States would be driving from New York to Philadelphia by following the signs for Miami. So, we'll try to be aware of the major city nearest our destination, even if it’s hundreds of miles away.