Peace and Quiet

I like peace and quiet so much. This probably sounds like a tragic confession from a kindergarten teacher. Both peace and quiet are two things that are most elusive to someone in my line of work, and yet sometimes I crave them with my entire being.

You probably don’t have a lot of sympathy for me, because moving to a country like Mexico from one like Canada isn’t exactly a solitude-seeking life change. Mexico is a vibrant gal, she’s a mover and a shaker, she’s color and light, and she’s often planning a fiesta. Canada by comparison folds her hands in her lap, sits on her chesterfield (sofa) and doesn’t make a scene until the hockey game is on.

But I do need my quiet time every now and then, because it makes me feel less like slamming things and more like smiling gently at my children. And although my tweenager children are becoming more and more likely to go days without noticing me as long as food shows up regularly, I enjoy feeling like a benevolent motherly figure rather than a red-faced, twitchy one.

So I made myself a little to-do list for the spring break:

  • Make a bed angel every day (like a snow angel, but with pajamas and warm blankets)
  • Spend time sitting in the sun while the children find their own entertainment (that doesn’t involve asking me what they should DO when there’s NOTHING to DO)
  • Go somewhere where I rediscover the Sound of Silence

Finding a quiet place in the sun during Mexico’s celebrated Semana Santa is always going to be a challenge. Plus, we are saving money for our trip to Canada this summer, so we didn’t want to travel far.

But staying at home was not a silent option because, two days before Easter, our neighbor pulled up IN A TOURIST BUS with his entire extended family and probably several extra people who looked like they needed a vacation. They trooped out of the bus, set up two tents on the front yard, and packed roughly twenty-five people inside of their four bedroom home (which, unfortunately, shares a wall with our home).

Understand that I don’t begrudge our neighbor one bit of his family fun, because he’s so incredibly friendly and lends us his ladder whenever we ask for it. Also because I really do love that, in Mexico, family is always welcome, even if (especially if) there’s lots and lots of them.

And I’m actually grateful for this occurrence; because it became clear that it was time to put some effort into my search for silence. And I am here to tell you that silence can be had in an hour and a half drive out of town and into the mountains. It resides in a tiny, pop. 600 town called San Sebastian del Oeste.

Now, I’m not going to go into the history of this town because today that’s not my point. I LOVE history and I find Mexico’s history fascinating. And I think you should go to San Sebastian and discover its mining roots and colonial architecture. It’s going to knock your boots off.

But what I want to tell you is that, in San Sebastian, silence really does have a sound. It’s so quiet that my children were the loudest sound-producing items in the entire village. It’s so quiet that I heard the page turn in my e-reader.

We stayed at the Hotel Mansion Real. This mansion was originally built in 1750 and was renovated just over a decade ago, so the romance is real. It has a central patio where you can read or just enjoy the view of the mountains, surrounded by original eighteenth century architecture and citrus trees. Inside the rooms there is satellite TV, so once you hike for a couple of hours and take in a whole bunch of calories at the Café El Fortin in the plaza, you can plop the kids there and enjoy the tranquility on the patio for a sec.

The hotel is located just behind the central plaza, backed against a walking trail that leads you through these little orchards and parts of the village itself, winding around the white bricked homes and cobbled streets. You will need a floppy straw hat, a flowery journal and flowing cotton clothing in order to fully fantasize that you are living inside an eighteenth century novel.

Gil and I plan to go back there without kids one day, because it’s hard to do the eighteenth century romance when the kids keep asking where to charge their IPods. But I’m glad we took them to do some exploring and to enjoy some family time far from the busy Easter crowds. And making bed angels in an eighteenth century mansion makes it an almost dignified holiday pastime.

Have Bug, Must Travel

I love to travel. I loved it before I had a chance to brag about it on social media. I loved it before I knew how edgy and cool my photos of sheep eating grass by some standing stones in County Kerry would look on Instagram. I loved it before Twitter was invented and before Facebook could post my location in the Vatican Museum standing under the Creation of Adam. In other words, I loved it before I could really make anyone jealous over it. That’s true love, man.

I didn’t fully develop wanderlust until I was an adult and backpacked across Europe for four weeks in my twenties. It was an ideal time to travel as I was recently debt-free, owned whatever fit in my parents’ basement while I was between apartments, and had no children.

For most of that trip, one that I took with another companion, I was terrified, lost, exhausted, and almost always confused, thanks to the currency of six different countries (pre-European Union), about four different languages that I did not speak, and absolutely no spatial awareness skills (pre-Google Maps. It was a dark age).

I can honestly tell you that it was the happiest time of my life to that point.

When I moved to Mexico, I did a lot of traveling with friends within the country and fell even more deeply in love with waking up in a new place every other day and exploring a brand new city/archaeological site/mind-blowing landform. Traveling in Mexico is not without its difficulties. Especially if you don’t speak Spanish and you need to ask for directions for a place that is not on any of the regular maps you have (I survived several years without Google maps, actually. I still can’t remember how).

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1998 in a Dublin youth hostel. As you can see, we had saloon doors to keep the other guests out. They certainly didn’t.

I felt like I had found my own personal heaven on earth.

But then I had children. I know people who travel all over the planet with their babies and preschool-aged children. I think that’s really nice. And their Instagram photos of the babies smiling at the top of the Eiffel Tower are adorable. But my husband and I mutually and resoundingly agreed that we would bide our time and only travel to places close to home or where there were grandparents.

When you live in Puerto Vallarta, there are lots of places you can visit that are close by, interesting, and cheap. We went on many great mini-vacations to places like Guadalajara, Lake Chapala, San Blas, Guayabitos, among others. We spent a few days in Sayulita every year in order to get away and use someone else’s A/C unit. We loved those times and we looked back on them fondly. We took bi-annual trips to Canada to enjoy our family and a cooler climate, and went to exciting, bustling Mexico City several times in order to visit abuelos, tios and primos.

But it wasn’t long before we turned a measuring eye to our older school-aged children and began to wonder if they might be ready to stray a bit further from home. Last year we tried it out and took an epic road trip through Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende on our way to Mexico City. On our way home we took a swing through Hidalgo to the Grutas de Tolantongo.

Our kids weren’t ALWAYS as excited about the history of the Mexican Revolution as we were on our many museum tours, but they roused themselves pretty quickly when we saw the mummies in Guanajuato, or wandered through the tunnels underneath the city to try to catch the ghost of La Llorona. I think I even caught a glimpse of their pre-maternal mother’s travel fever once or twice, flashing hungrily in their eyes when climbed to the top of a mountain and swam in the dipping pools of Tolantongo.

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Grutas de Tolantongo, Hidalgo

This year, we found ourselves on the Ruta Puuc in the Yucatan, dropping in on the pyramids of Uxmal and Kabah. We hunted around the caves of Loltun and found pre-historic handprints on the dark walls deep underground. We took a bike ride around the archaeological site of Coba and climbed the only climb-able pyramid left in the area.

We were sweaty, exhausted and thirsty at least half of the time. Our rental car, in real life, wasn’t exactly (or anywhere near) as shown on the booking site. Google maps completely gave up halfway through the trip (we survived).

But every night we sat down together for dinner, usually at a different place from the night before. And every night I looked around the table and realized that my family had never been happier. If travel is a bug, they were all scratching a brand new bite. As a mom and a teacher, I felt a great sense of accomplishment. Nevertheless, my work here isn’t done. We have just gotten started.

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Chichen Itza, Yucatan

My Kind of Crowd

If you want to get away from the multitudes during Semana Santa, which is a popular time for Mexicans to travel, I don’t really have much to recommend. A lot of people have told me that if I travel ANYWHERE in Mexico other than a coastal town, I will be able to avoid the crowds, because everyone goes to the beaches in Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, and Mazatlan.

I have found this advice to be profoundly misleading. I’ve spent several Easter vacations unsuccessfully asserting my children’s right to experience such things as the panda bears at the Mexico City Zoo while being elbowed out of the way by more experienced local parents.

 

When I first moved to Mexico, my colleagues and I figured we’d be these crazy backpacking fools and go to new, exciting places on Easter break so we could get away from the crowds. We tasted tequila in Tequila, did some tile-shopping in Puebla, and camped on the black sand beaches in Cuyultlan, Colima. Without fail, everyone else in Mexico got there first, buying up the coffee-flavored raicilla and drinking all the Coco Locos on the beach.

We even traveled 70km outside of Oaxaca City to a tiny mountain hotsprings called Hierve el Agua, meeting precisely zero human persons on the gravel switchbacks. When we got to the top I jumped out of the car, excited to breathe some lonely air and jump in a natural springs-fed basin.

I think I squashed some poor kid’s floatie and spilled his dad’s beer when I jumped into a throng of bathers. So much for The Road Less Travelled.

So at this point in my life, I have decided that my goal is not to avoid the multitudes of Semana Santa. My purpose is only to relax, by whatever means necessary (and with the hope that the means are also relaxing).

One of my husband’s hermanos en la musica, Edgar Farid Barik, is a manager at his family’s resort, Hotel Balneario San Juan Cosala, located in a town by the same name along the beautiful Lake Chapala. Hot springs well up from the ground there, and the family has been using the mineral-rich waters to create a lovely oasis for the last fifty years.

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Parents: You need to read this part carefully. You must come here with either a) another family or b) grandparents (and be as lucky as we are to travel with grandparents who love exploring as much as we do!) Because this hotel also has a spa that contains several soak tubs with the following ingredients: apple cider vinegar, coffee, red wine, flowers, jamaica water, oatmeal, soy milk, among others. Imagine this! You can SOAK in the very things that give you the most pleasure in your life (Edgar wisely reminded me beforehand that the coffee and red wine was for soaking purposes only).

The spa also contains a “temascal” (natural steam room), aromatherapy, massage rooms, and a mud bath area. For 155 pesos each, you will be able to enjoy a two hours and forty minute tour of the different soaking tubs, mud treatment and steam room and KIDS ARE NOT ALLOWED!

Not only that, there are several thermal pools all over the grounds where children ARE allowed, and one of them includes a diving board and water slides. The rooms were spacious and bright, and they have silent-after-10pm rule that is actually enforced! Yes friends, I have the phone number!

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About fifteen minutes away is the picturesque town of Ajiic where you can stroll along a calm, family-friendly malecon along the lake. My kids got a gentle horse ride along the shore for 50 pesos each, led by a young, cheerful cowboy who clearly doted on his animals.

Did we escape the crowds on this year’s Easter vacation? Absolutely not. There were many people at Lake Chapala, and most of them were national tourists. But at the Hotel Balneario San Juan Cosala, the family environment wrapped us up like a warm blanket. Whether we were relaxing in the soaking tubs, flying down the water slides, or sitting on our outside deck, we were among people who, like us, were finally getting a chance to reconnect with the people that they loved.

And that’s my kind of crowd.

Putting the MIS in Adventure

I feel like I could probably start every weekly article with “last week was quite an adventure.”  Something is always going on around here that is either a) exhausting b) unexpected or c) disastrous. It’s probably based a lot around the fact that our family machine is about as organized as a well-oiled ferret. But this particular week we took things up a notch.

Our son’s excellent taekwondo teacher, Professor Lauro Perez, invited all the students in his class at the American School to a tournament in Guadalajara. Our son really wanted to go. More than he wanted to play Xbox. More than he wanted to play Xbox while reading Harry Potter’s Goblet of Fire for the third time. We decided to be supportive and go, traveling in a caravan with two other families going to the tournament.

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On the way to our hotel, we all decided to stop at El Trompo Magico, which is a really great children’s museum with tons of activities and exhibits. We went around 4pm on a Saturday and had most of the place to ourselves. Admission was a super cheap 40 pesos per person. The children spent a couple of wonderful hours in workshops such as news casting and animation, and got to pretend they were in a supermarket and a hospital, among other activities.

We stayed in the Centro Historico, right in the heart of the city. The Centro Historico is rich with colonial architecture and history. Our hotel sat right beside the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady, which sits on the central plaza or zocalo, buzzing with buskers and artists of every type.

guadalajara church

Right on the zocolo is a restaurant we almost always visit, called La Antigua, a family-friendly Mexican restaurant with great views of the four hundred year old cathedral. It’s been open for over a hundred years and has a rich and interesting history, and also has an astonishingly tolerant attitude toward groups with children.

This was all both wonderful and chaotic (we were traveling with six adults and five children, so chaos wasn’t entirely unexpected). But the real fun happened on the way home while making some pretty steep climbs. Our car decided that it was hot and tired and sent us smoke signals right in the middle of a particularly steep ascent. We immediately pulled over, as did our friends who were kindly following us.

I have lived in Mexico for nearly sixteen years, and I’ve never broken down on the highway. Most people ask me if I feel comfortable driving in Mexico, and my answer has always been an unhesitant yes. This was put to the test while standing at the side of a busy four-lane highway, engine steaming and burbling merrily.

We tried calling the emergency number you always see on the highway signs, 074. They were very nice and very firm about us calling the “Angeles Verdes”, 078. This number rang and rang, but ultimately cut us off every time. The folks at 074 told us that this problem actually had nothing to do with them, and good day, before hanging up.

At that point, one could certainly start feeling a bit hopeless. I spent some tense moments squinting at the long brush beside the road, wondering what type of shelter I could fashion for the night. It was all a bit grim until we heard a shout and looked over at the truck of a Green Angel, who had been driving by on his regular route, looking for hapless folk in grass shelters and broken-down vehicles. As soon as he jumped over the cement meridian barrier, a tour bus stopped and the driver came out to lend a hand.

Long story short, these two wonderful humans got us back on the road (after being gifted with precious Krispy Kreme doughnuts). The Green Angel promised to keep behind us until his route ended. He said that, on all toll highways, the Angeles Verdes (a service provided by the Mexican Secretary of Tourism) are on the road from 8 – 6pm, looking for folks to help, and the hotline is open 24 hours. He also said that it usually works, but that it was probably just busy, so we should keep trying if we got cut off. Not only did we have the Green Angel’s support, our friends never left our coolant-dribbled wake. The world can be such a marvelous place to live.

Our family very often puts the capital “MIS” in adventure. But thanks to the Green Angels and some very kind Samaritans, this particular story ended well. Travel in Mexico? Absolutely. With the same car? Well, that might be another story that begins with “last week was quite an adventure.”

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Why You Should NEVER Take a Family Road Trip in Mexico

I have spent my entire motherhood waiting to take my children on The Epic Road Trip. I have these incredible memories of my childhood in a car, driving to new and exotic locations (when you are five, new and exotic is the World’s Largest Easter Egg in Vegreville, Alberta).
In any case, I couldn’t wait to give my kids the gift of the true family vacation: the views, the stops at weird tourist attractions, the carsickness, even the “I WILL TURN THIS CAR AROUND”. All of it.
I imagine many parents wouldn’t have waited nearly eleven years, but then again, most parents tell me that their children are great travelers. Like beauty, I think this is a classic case of the eye of the beholder. I have a low whining threshold, and both of my children developed their early physical coordination skills through their untiring efforts to escape their car seats. So we waited while braver parents went ahead and Instagrammed their children’s hilarious seatbelt contortions.
Some years we flew to Canada to see my family. Sometimes we flew to Mexico City to see Gilberto’s family. Once, about four years ago, we made a short foray into the road trip world: a drive to Chapala to visit friends. We got lost on the highway. Our rental car was struck by a renegade motorcyclist in Guadalajara. We hung up our driving gloves and cooled our heels.
This summer Gilberto had a musical commitment in Mexico City and I knew it was my big chance. I mapped out an entire two week tour on our way to his heavy metal gig in the Districto Federal (another term for Mexico City).
I have learned so many things about myself, my partner and my family from two weeks on the road. I already knew these people better than anyone, and now I know so much more. For some of it, I am grateful. For the other stuff, well, its information I may be able to use at my children’s weddings during my speeches. It should get me a laugh.
Here’s why (with tongue firmly in cheek) you should NEVER take your children on The Epic Mexico Road Trip:
1) Highways – Contrary to what some people think of Mexican highways, you will NOT get the full cultural experience of waiting and sweating behind a cattle truck that breaks down every forty miles on a two lane gravel road. Mexico’s federal “cuota” highways are up to eight lanes and 110 km/hr. You are going to get to your destination, maybe even ahead of schedule. Bummer.
2) Sights – Once you get to a city like Guanajuato, you will have a lot of trouble choosing what sights to see among the many incredible historical sites, museums, art galleries, and natural phenomena. You will have to prioritize. What a drag.
3) Security – We never once felt unsafe or experienced any sketchy situations on the road. Now I feel like I’m contradicting the advice I get from my own government to keep off the highways in Mexico, stay at the resort and not talk to people. It’s not very patriotic.
4) Common sense parenting – Unlike many places in my home country, many of the natural sites have been left as-is. There aren’t necessarily hand-rails on everything or warning signs or people to hold your hand while you walk on the paths. There might be an arrow painted on a rock or two so you won’t get completely lost. Hopefully. This is both crazy-cool and a huge responsibility to parent your kids through situations you can’t completely predict. Oh, like real life.
5) After experiencing life on the Mexican highway, you will want to drive it all night long. Or at least all daylight long. You will have to come back to reality in order to save up enough dinero to take another Epic Mexican Road Trip. Because the real danger here, my friends, is that you won’t be able to stop with just one.
Mexico road trip

Sayulita Holiday

Our family has been going to Sayulita ever since the children were babies. We love to stay in places where we pay for the air conditioning up front and then use it irresponsibly. At least once during every trip my husband will come into the bedroom of the condo and find me under all the blankets, clad in my coziest sweater, smiling to myself. This is what I do for amusement when it’s 38 degrees in the shade.

I enjoy researching all the hotels and condos on sayulitalife.com and then contacting as many as I can in order to get the best price and the coldest air conditioning. As a result, we have stayed in exactly eleven different locations in Sayulita, and nearly every last one has been amazing.

This time, our family (grandparents and all) stayed on the quiet north end in a two bedroom condo called Casa Maraica.  It’s in a serene, beachfront, gated neighborhood with a pool. The air conditioning is in every room and it is first class chilly. Not only that, the condo has its own rooftop terrace where you can sit and listen to the waves and see the stars.

After every visit to Sayulita I promise myself to slow down just a bit and check out the night sky more often. I step out onto my front lawn the very next evening and look up, waiting for that same peaceful feeling to start seeping in. What seeps in instead are about five mosquitoes that somehow find the inch of available flesh. What also seep in are the children’s voices, calling me from inside the house: “Mom. I still don’t know how to use the toaster.” “Mom. I am in the shower and I forgot to bring my towel like I have forgotten to do for the last ten years of my life.”

Sigh. It’s not the same. Let’s agree that it’s just not the same.

The relaxation and the renewed enthusiasm for life in general and stars in particular are great benefits to going to Sayulita on a short holiday. But the greatest part of going to the same vacation spot every year is that I am able to see how the children have changed over the years. For example:

  • We don’t have to go in the pool with them anymore. I can sit on a deck chair and maybe even READ A BOOK! Yes, friends, I read a very long book on a vacation with my children, and nobody drowned once. Those swimming lesson? Best investment EVER.
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  • My kids eat Real People Food now (mostly). I don’t have to pack one and a half car loads of the only food items that they will eat and are definitely not available in Sayulita. No more horror upon opening the cooler and realizing that we left behind the special organic chocolate milk drink boxes. No more turning toward my tearful child with a fake, bright “Daddy’s going to go back to Vallarta to get your chocolate milk, it’ll just be a SEC!”

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  • Naps are a thing of the past (or, for the sake of clarity, naps for the KIDS are a thing of the past). Gone are the days of spending fifty-two minutes packing a beach bag full of teething cookies and squeezable applesauce tubes and then returning to our condo in forty-seven minutes so the kids can have their midday siestas. And to all of you who are saying “why didn’t you just skip the naps for once?” I would like to ask why you would want to spend your holidays with dangerously unstable people in a rented home on which you’ve placed a large damage deposit.

I’m excited to see what changes I’ll see in them in our holidays of the future. I think the goal for next year will include independent toaster use. sayulita 3 Sayulita 6sayulita 2

Villa Azalea

I find that my husband and I are pretty easy to please when it comes to weekend getaways. If I can shower without someone knocking to ask how much I really liked the toaster, that door can be made of canvas just as well as ornamented gold.  Happily, our seventh wedding anniversary was spent in a place much closer to Florence’s Duomo than the tent we camped in when I was six.

Cupocity has really upped our family’s game. Half price day passes, restaurant deals, and even hotel discounts, there are offers every day. Not only that, places come up that we would never have heard of otherwise, and this was the case when we began to plan our night away. So we can feel exactly like tourists on the weekend and still manage to make soccer practice at school on Monday. Win/sort of win.

Our kids like to be included in family outings nowadays and can’t imagine that our trip would be one iota of fun without them anyhow. We explained to our children in terms that they would understand by calling it a “sleepover for mommy and daddy”. My daughter pointed out that we got to have a sleepover every night anyway, so it still wasn’t fair. I then asked her if she had already finished her homework.

Villa Azalea Inn and Organic farm is family-owned and situated just past the Botanical Garden, on km 184, about ten minutes before El Tuito. I noticed a coupon for less than half the regular price for one night with three meals included.

It’s always wonderful to feel like you are so far from home on a quarter tank of gas. We stepped onto the lush, green property and into the cool of the little hotel and were immediately transported. It is sophisticated and cozy at the same time. Dulce Arguero is the owner and met us at the door to give us a mini tour and take us to our room.

Here are our favorite things about Villa Azalea…. We recommend you take a trip and start a list of your own!

  • The property itself, what a unique little gem! We had a gorgeous view from our room of the river and the pool. Others had views of their beautiful gardens which include fruit trees and a variety of flowers. You could sit out in a beach chair in a little river oasis to enjoy lunch or just a bit of relaxation, hang out in a couples hammock, or choose one of two pools for a swim.
  • The FOOD, my friends, the food! The coupon included three meals and each one was taken on the balcony with the same wonderful vista laid out in front of us. We were taken on a tour of the property by Dulce’s son. In the garden he had us choose our own lettuce, basil and tomatoes for our lunch salad. Dulce knows her way around a kitchen and uses only the freshest, most delicious ingredients. If you let her know ahead of time she is happy to accommodate special diets.
  • The silence. The quiet. The tranquility. How many other ways could I say that? It was golden. We took a walk up the river and the ONLY thing we heard was the water and each other (and three neighborhood children who called “Hey gringaaaa!” But in the loveliest way.). We came back and chose a movie from the immense selection and hung out in our room. There may have been some dozing that happened. Hey man, romance looks different for everyone. You say wine and roses, we say all that PLUS George Clooney, Sandra Bullock and a warm comforter (it’s a bit cooler at night than Vallarta. Pure heaven).

If you would like to know more and reserve your own chance at eating like royalty and napping like kittens, check out their website at http://www.villaazalea.com.mx