Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Month in Mexico – Ready, Set, Go!

The Ajijic, Mexico, I remember

After Jazzercise class Thursday, Sue came up, squeezed my shoulders and said, “Now, remember, have a good time but be extra careful.”

Our neighbors seem to think we've lost our minds. They were all gathered in the cul-de-sac last night undoubtedly discussing our travel plans. As David and I left to walk the dog, they called out to drink plenty of tequila instead of water and to stay away from the drug lords.

From e-mails and conversations, we've gotten the impression that people are puzzled as to why we are thrilled to be spending a month in Mexico. They assume we'll encounter Death Valley-hot weather, gunfights in the streets, dysentery at best, and the plague at worst!

We hope they're wrong. That's not the Mexico I remember. It's been six years since I lived there, but I hope the country hasn't changed that much.

Puerto Vallarta Sunset - photo by Courtney Zimmerman

David and I are assuming that most of the people who are issuing dire warnings have never seen the part of Mexico we'll visit in June. They've been to Cancun, the Baja, Puerto Vallarta or one of the border cities and assume that is what all of Mexico is like. We believe that's akin to visiting only Miami, Coney Island, or the Bronx and assuming all of America is like those places. We don't think so, of course; Mexico is as diverse as the United States or Canada or the European Union.

But, then, I guess we'll find out who's right when we get there!

David just handed me the last item to tuck in the suitcases—a slip of paper with our destination and phone number in case our baggage gets lost. Our friends may think we've lost our minds, but at least we won't lose our luggage!

We hope we don't lose you either, so please come along with us. The journey may be a bit bumpy, at times, but it's bound to be an adventure that we'll want to share with you. See you right back here in a few days!

Tightwad Travel Tip – Dialing 800-Numbers from Other Countries

Calling my bank in the USA because of an incorrect withdrawal is a nightmare I never want to deal with on a trip. Still, if an emergency arises or if a credit card is stolen and I must dial a toll-free USA number, I do not want to compound my misery by paying a fortune to make a phone call.

Luckily, there is a convenient service provided by AT&T that makes toll-free USA numbers accessible and free.

Before leaving home, use this AT&T site which provides dialing instructions to reach toll-free stateside numbers from 150 countries. Make note of the number(s) you will need for all the countries on your itinerary. Use the Detailed Dialing Instructions and the Dialing Demo to find out how to make the call.

Note that in some countries, only partial numbers are provided. For example, the number given for France is 0-XXX-XX-0011. If you click on the Run Dialing Demo, however, you are given the whole number which is 0-800-99-0011.

Be aware that this service is free only if you're trying to reach a toll-free number. Phone charges apply if you're dialing any other Stateside phones.

The site also supplies other useful information about phoning internationally.

Lessons from the NY Times Frugal Traveler

The frugal travel writer for the New York Times is retiring.  In this column, he ponders the definition of "frugal," and he shares the travel lessons he's learned over the years.

Three Things I’ve Learned About Frugal Travel (and the Things I Didn’t Do)  By MATT GROSS

Six years ago, I had a regular job, in an office. I was there 9 or 10 hours a day, made a decent living and even found the work occasionally interesting. But I was also bored. More than bored — I was restless. Perhaps like many of you, my readers, I lived for the week or two a year when I could venture out into the world to explore, and in the intervening months at home I’d live vicariously through other people’s tales of adventure.

Eventually, however, I couldn’t take it anymore. I saved up about $5,000 and quit my job to go to Cambodia and Vietnam, where I’d lived almost a decade earlier. My plan was to spend several months researching a novel there, then return and … well, I hadn’t figured that part out yet. Frankly, it didn’t matter to me. But, by a quirk of luck, I began writing for the Travel section and, a year later, I was asked to take over the Frugal Traveler column. The rest, as they say, is history.

And now my tenure is history as well. After four years, I’m handing in my Frugal Traveler badge. But before I do, I wanted to share a few of the things I’ve learned:

1. Frugality Is in the Eye of the Beholder

From the very beginning, this column has struggled with the question, what is “frugal”? When I started out, in the pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter era, this column was pretty narrowly defined: it was a print article about a weekend trip on $500, in a place where $500 would not seem to go far. “Frugal Newport, R.I.” was my first, an unstinting but anxiety-filled 48-hour romp through the posh town of yachts and mansions with my wife, Jean. From there, I toured a world of amusing headlines: “Frugal Palm Beach,” “Frugal Jackson Hole.”

By 2006, when I was planning my first summer-long Frugal Traveler trip – Around the World in 90 Days — the budget had to change. If it stayed the same, I’d end up spending close to $20,000! But what counted as frugal for 90 days in 12 vastly different countries? Rather arbitrarily, we settled on $100 a day — as an upper limit, mind you, not as a goal. Of course, my readers had something to say about that. Here’s a typical comment: “How dare you call yourself the Frugal Traveler? In 1983 my best friend from college and I took off with 6 month round the world plane tickets at $1700 apiece.” (In 2009 dollars, that would be $3,660 to $6,860 .)

Very quickly, I realized that every traveler has a different definition of “frugal travel.” To many, it means youth hostels and supermarket meals — and nothing else. To others, it means seeking out coupons, discounts and freebies. To me, frugal travel has come to mean two things. First, it’s about value. In general, I’m reluctant to spend money, but if something is a truly good value, I’ll open my wallet, whether it’s 50-cent roadside kebabs in Beijing or $88 for the world’s best bed-and-breakfast in Shanghai.

But more important, it’s about realizing that your budget — whether high or low — does not determine the quality of your travel experience. To travel well, you need to pack an open mind, a lot of energy, infinite patience and a willingness to embrace the awkward and unfamiliar. No amount of money in the world can buy those things — because they come free.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Ten Days in a Carry-On - New York Times Slideshow

In this NY Times slideshow, flight attendant Heather Poole shows you how to pack forty items of clothing, two pairs of shoes, and toiletries into one carry-on bag. 

If you're trying to avoid the luggage surcharge, try her technique.  It's as close to magic as a traveler is likely to get.

Heather's technique avoids a mess
like this!

Whether or Not You Can Afford a Vacation in Europe This Summer Depends on Your Choice of Lodging

The euro is down but airfares are up, so how can you save money in Europe this summer?  Arthur Frommer recommends an apartment rental, and I agree wholeheartedlyHis article--click on the link below--lists some excellent sources for the do-it-yourself renter. 

View from David's and my rented Paris apartment balcony

Whether or Not You Can Afford a Vacation in Europe This Summer Depends on Your Choice of Lodging on Arthur Frommer Online

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Anticipating Mexico!

I'm getting anxious to see Ajijic again.  Three weeks seems too long to wait, so I've been poring over old photos.  This one shows my three-story house lit up at night. 

The living room was on the first floor (See the photo below.), the kitchen and dining/family room were in the middle, and my bedroom suite/office, where I had spectacular views of the entire village, occupied the entire top floor. 

I felt like Scarlett in Gone With the Wind whenever I climbed the romantic outside staircase.
My $550 rent included a casita that was screened from my house by several huge grapefruit and banana trees.  Each level of the two-story casita contained a huge bedroom and full bath. 
I was quite popular when I leased that house and lots of
visitors enjoyed my casita!

Getting Legal in Tucson

As David and I prepare for our month in Mexico where we'll undoubtedly encounter some frustrations either with bureaucracy or local customs--or both--I was reminded, when I stumbled across this article I wrote six years ago, that dealing with bureaucracy in the United States isn't always easy either. 

Since yesterday marked my one-month anniversary in Tucson, I decided to celebrate by getting "legal."  A trip to the DMV in the morning yielded a driver's license that thrilled me no end with the panorama of the Grand Canyon in the background.  I also couldn't help noticing that my picture looks a lot better than the one taken in North Carolina four years ago, before I left for Mexico.  That must say something about the stress of teaching or the serenity to be found in Mexico--not sure which. 

It's a good thing the license doesn't have to be renewed until I'm 65, because the DMV parking lot seems to be a dangerous place to be.  When I was telling the car inspection man later in the afternoon about the woman who'd run into my bumper causing minor damage that morning, he said that was nothing.  Seems a woman was run over in the parking lot last week --the driver never stopped--and two weeks ago there were eleven police cruisers and a SWAT unit surrounding the building.  When a girl was caught cheating on her written driving test, she went outside and called the police on her cell phone saying a man with a gun was holding the DMV people hostage. 

My inspector said that they'd gotten used to just about everything there, including famous people dropping by (Though heaven knows why they want to stop there, given what happens in the parking lot!)  and he dropped a few names:  Linda Ronstadt, Andy (Can't remember the last name.), the most famous left-handed baseball pitcher in the world, and Kevin Costner. 

I dreaded the next part of the getting-legal-day-- car inspection, registration, and license plate because I drive an almost twenty-year-old van and there's usually something wrong with it.  I know of at least one problem with the front headlights, and I shuddered to think how many more would be revealed by an inspection.  Just fixing the one problem I knew about would mean getting a part shipped from the Bus Depot in Pennsylvania, finding a mechanic to repair it, and a return trip to the inspection place. I wondered, as I drove to the emissions testing center a couple miles away, just how many other parts would have to be replaced. Then, of course, there was the dreaded emissions test itself.  How could my ancient car possibly meet today's strict air quality standards?