CONFESSIONS OF A COUNTRY COURT REPORTER yt? u7 hi

As it is for most people, the time comes when one has to make a living all by one’s self. Mine came when I was first a grass widow. That’s a very old-fashioned term meaning a divorcee.  I did so for the most part “working for the man,” as it was called back in the day. When First Husband took off to build his love nest in another tree, my only skill was typing. Given a typing test as part of the application, I almost always secured the job by typing so fast my fingers were a blur. My average speed was 100 words per minute, no errors. Needless to say the job for which I was applying was mine for the asking. The problem was the job never paid a living wage and First Husband only paid child support when it suited him to do so. It never occurred to me he would not pay the amount we agreed upon: $150/month).

When my lawyer suggested I set the agreement up so that the child support would be paid to me through the court, I refused. First Husband adored his sweet little girls, and he was gainfully employed, as was his new wife. I did not wish to insult him by forcing him to pay support through the courts. Ha! What an idiot I was. The ink wasn’t dry on the divorce decree before he just couldn’t make it this month, and he would get caught up next month, and on and on. The answer was obvious: I had to get married again. And thereby hangs a tale for another telling.

The most money I made was working in my own business: court reporting. It was also the most fun I had while making a living at the time. John and I had married, and we moved back to his hometown, Watertown, New York. I had become interested in court reporting after typing transcripts for the Grand Jury reporter in Nashville. After researching court reporting I found, to my surprise, there was no license needed. There was no skill required except an ability to quickly take down every word uttered and then transcribe the testimony neatly and efficiently. Most reporters who worked in actual trial cases used a transcription machine, which took at least three years to learn in a special school. There was only one requirement to become a court reporter: one had to be a Notary Public. The testimony was not acceptable unless the witness had been sworn in by a genuine Notary Public. The testimony had to be signed and stamped by the N.P., before it was legal. That’s all it took to become a court reporter. Easy Peasy.

Among my possessions was a tape recorder operated by a foot pedal or a button on top of the machine. I also had two high-quality microphones on stands that my electronic genius buddy hooked up to my fancy recorder. To be on the safe side I had a plain-Jane tape recorder to use as a back-up. I could also write faster than the speed of light using my own bastardized version of shorthand. I applied for a Notary Public stamp, which soon arrived in the mail, and I was in business.

No one had ever seen all this paraphernalia spread out in a courtroom. I therefore opted to make myself available only for private depositions. It had never been seen in those proceedings either, but I felt it would be easier to pull off among less legal surroundings. I did trial runs casting friends and family as attorneys and defendants and plaintiffs. My only stumbling block was reading back testimony, as was often required. Most of the time, I could do it from my short hand, but sometimes if it were long, I had to run the tape back and hope I guessed correctly where it was. Most of the time I hit it with no problem.

There were still a couple things I absolutely had to have to be able to pull it off. I had used them before, and found them to be reliable and in good working order, but I had never called on them to see me through anything as bodacious as this. I don’t know how to put it delicately, so I will only tell you it takes a pair of them, if you get my meaning.

I had done some legal typing for a court reporter in Watertown, New York. She mentioned to me she had so much actual trial work she was swamped. I had typed some testimony for the grand jury stenographer in Nashville. I told her I felt confident I could handle some easy court reporting. I didn’t tell her how I planned to go about it, but I don’t think it would have mattered. She was eager to unload it.

In a few days, she called me and asked if I could go down to the jail and take testimony on a parole violation hearing. Sure. No Problem. I would be glad to help her out.

On the appointed day, I found my way to the jail and told the policeman on duty I was there to take testimony for a parole hearing. I was a half hour early, but I was hoping I would have time to scope out the landscape and set up my equipment well ahead of schedule. The cop led me down a hallway and unlocked a door for me. I went in and he locked the door behind me. There was a long table at one end of the room. At the other end was a closed metal door with a barred window in the top. On the other side of the door there were sounds the like of which I had never heard. I’m no babe in the woods, mind you, but I heard some phrases the definition of which was and still is a mystery to me.

I set up my equipment and before long a man came in. On his hip was a holster and a large pistol.

“Damn, I forgot,” he said, as he smiled at me. “Take this for me,” he said to the cop who had let him in, as he drew the gun and handed it to him. “I’m not supposed to be armed for the hearings,” he said to me, apologetically. He introduced himself to me and asked where the usual court reporter was. I told him I was standing in for her. I said she was not feeling well. I didn’t see any reason to tell him she was eager to unload this particular job, because her actual court work paid more money, and she didn’t want to give any more of it up in order to run down to the jail to preside over parole hearings.

He insisted I call him by his first name, which was fine with me. We talked a bit, and he asked about all the microphones. I told him about my system, and asked about where everyone was to be seated. I wanted to place my microphones to best pick up the various voices. He gave me the information I sought, and said he had never seen a system such as mine, but it looked okay to him.

So far so good.

In a few minutes, another man came into the room. He was very tall, quite distinguished, and impeccably dressed. Tom, the parole officer, introduced me and told Mr. Tolino, who turned out to be a representative of the New York State Board of Parole in Albany about my recording system. It was okay with Mr. Tolino as well. Great!

“Well, let’s get started,” said Mr. Tolino. “Let’s have the first parolee.” Tom went to the door through which all the noise had been heard and yelled a name. In a few minutes, a young man came in accompanied by an older guy whom I knew to be a Watertown attorney.

I swore in Tom, the parolee, and the attorney. It seemed the young man had violated his parolee by fighting in a bar after drinking copious amounts of vodka. Tom told the story, and the attorney asked for leniency, given the fact that it was the youngster’s first parole violation. Mr. Tolino asked the parolee if the story Tom told was true, and the young man said yes, but he didn’t start the fight, and this other guy pissed him off, and…”

Mr. Tolino interrupted him. “I asked you if what your parole officer said is true.”

“Yes, sir, but…” he started.

“Thank you,” said Mr. Tolino. I will present the evidence in the form of this young lady’s transcript (with a nod toward me – making him my hero forever and ever) to the parole board, and you will receive their decision by mail. Next, please.”

The scene was repeated almost word-for-word with the next parolee, who had been involved in a drunken brawl, but he didn’t start it, and so on.

This time when Mr. Tolino said, “Next, please,” Tom told him that was it. There were no more parole violators.

“Do you mean I drove all the way up here from Albany for only two cases,” asked Mr. Tolino, incredulously.

“Well, yes,” said Tom. I thought there would be more by now, but if I had delayed these two hearings, those guys could have walked. The deadline for their hearings was this week.”

Mr. Tolino packed up his belongings and left, with the long trek back to Albany ahead of him. Tom explained to me that when a parolee is arrested for violating the terms of his parole, his hearing before a rep from the board has to take place within six weeks. If it happen in that time period, the parolee must be released. As I came to know Tom better in the four years I took testimony for the Board of Parole, I found he preferred to have his parolees in jail or better yet, prison. They were a lot less trouble to him. If he caught one of his guys so much as spitting on the sidewalk, out came the cuff links, and Tom fetched the nearest cop to accompany the miscreant to jail.

I had one or two interesting cases, but they were mostly arrested for drunk and disorderly, neither one of which was the guy’s fault, of course. I remember on one occasion after we had heard four or five of the same tired old stories, Mr. Tolino said, “I swear if one of them walked in here and said, ‘Yes, I did it myself with no help or instigation from anybody. It was all my fault,’ I’d let him go right then and there.” But no one ever said anything even close to it. It was never their fault.

Ant that’s how I became the official stenographer for the New York State Board of Parole. John always got such a kick when my check came in the mail. He loved it when one of the neighbors was nearby. He’d take the envelope plainly marked with our address and the Parole Board’s return address out of the mailbox and say, “Oh, oh, Millie has another letter from her parole board. I hope they’re not going to send her back to jail.”

There were big yuks all around. Everybody in town knew what I was doing, but they laughed anyway. It was a very small town.

I suppose if you’ve stuck with me this long, I should give you a story. The story I shall tell you has another part, which I’ll leave for another time, or maybe it will just be in the book.

After I had worked for the Parole Board for about a year, Tom called and asked if I might be available for a certain date. I was, and as I wrote it down on my calendar, he said, “This one is not your garden variety parole violation. The guy is nuts, and has violated his parole three times before. He’s violent, and, as you know, we’re not allowed to have a guard or a weapon in the hearing room.” I noticed an evil chuckle in Tom’s voice. “You’re likely to have an experience you won’t forget.”

“All right, Tom, if you’re trying to scare me, it’s not working,” I told him, with a chuckle of my own.”

“Fine,” he answered. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” and he rang off.

On the appointed day, I arrived at the jail, just as Tom was disarming himself. As I spoke to the cop on duty at the dispatcher’s desk, I saw Tom take out his gun and put it in a locker.

“You sure you won’t need that this time?” asked the dispatcher with a laugh. Tom turned to respond and saw me.

“Hey, don’t scare Millie like that,” he said, still chuckling. “Let her draw her own conclusions.” I hadn’t the slightest notion what they were talking about.

The dispatcher took me to the hearing room as usual and unlocked the door. I thanked him and entered the room. There, much to my surprise, was a state trooper with the biggest German Shepherd dog I ever saw. Now, I don’t like everybody to know this, but I’m scared of big dogs. It goes back to my childhood and is explained fully elsewhere in the book.  Mr. Tolino was also already there and we were soon joined by an unarmed Tom and yet another policeman.

Tom explained to the hearing officer that the parolee we were to hear today was Greg Compland. He went on to say the guy was a wild man. The prison psychiatrist diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic. He was violent and spent long hours misreading the law books in the prison library. Always serving as his own attorney, he had violated his parole numerous times and after each violation hearing he sued most everyone present. Compland had already told Tom if things didn’t go well for him, he was going to sue everyone this time, including the dog.

I didn’t know what to expect, but when he was finally led in I realized the dog was a mere pussycat next to this guy. He was huge. Not fat huge but tall, powerful huge. His eyes were wild, and he was gritting his teeth. In the past, the parole violators simply entered the room from the cellblock door and sat down at the table. Compland, however, was handcuffed and escorted by a guard. The guard uncuffed him and Compland sat down at the conference table. Because the rules stated that no guard could remain in the hearing room, this one went back into the cellblock. Tom walked back to the door with him and I heard him whisper, “Stay close.”

“Before we get started,” Compland said suddenly, “I want a copy of this transcript.” He glared at me.

“Well, I don’t know,” I mumbled. “The parole board pays for one transcript.”

His fist crashed down on the table. “And they’ll pay for mine, too,” he yelled at me. The hearing officer held up a calming hand. “We’ll pay for your copy, Mr. Compland, and it will be delivered to you at the jail.” And then turning to me, “Bill us for two transcripts, Mrs. Entrekin, and deliver Mr. Compland’s copy to him at the jail.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, thinking to myself if Compland waited for the transcript to be delivered personally to his cell, he’d better learn a little patience. I’d take it as far as the dispatcher, but that was it.

Mr. Tolino, the hearing officer told Compland he was entitled to an attorney, and if he could not afford. . .

“I’m my own attorney,” Compland thundered.

“Fine,” said Mr. Tolino. How do you plead?

“Not guilty,” the furious Mr. Compland answered.

“Proceed,” said Mr. Tolino.

“I call to the stand this K-9 officer here and his dog,” said Compland.

“We really can’t put the dog on the stand, Mr. Compland,” said the hearing officer.

“It’s necessary for my defense,” said Compland, glaring at all of us around the table.

“Very well,” was the answer, “but I’m sure you know I can’t swear it in.”

Tom muffled a giggle and I kept my eyes glued to my notebook, writing frantically as I did so. As soon as the K-9 officer was sworn in, Compland suddenly stood up and leapt at him. The dog sprang into action and threw a flying wedge between his master and Compland.

It took awhile to settle things down again. The dog responded immediately to an order from Norton (the K-9 officer) to cease and desist. The rest of us were considerably more ruffled.

“I rest my case,” said Compland, smugly. And then to Tom, “your witness.”

“Uh, what just happened here?” asked Tom to no one in particular.

“The dog is trained to defend me if I am threatened,” said Norton in an official-sounding voice. “It requires no voice command from me. All K-9 dogs are schooled in this manner.”

“Aha!” shouted Compland. “See, he admits it. That’s what he did that night!”

“What did he do that night”? asked Mr. Tolino. “I don’t think I understand.”

“Well, take a look at this, and then you’ll understand,” said Compland, taking from his lap a scuffed and beat-up leather jacket he had brought into the room with him. One sleeve was ripped at the elbow. And then to me, “This is Defendant’s Exhibit A.”

I dutifully took a sticker from my notebook, marked it “Exhibit A,” and handed it to Mr. Tolino. The court reporter is supposed to personally mark the exhibits, but I was reluctant to get close enough to Compland to stick anything on his precious jacket.

“That (expletive deleted) dog tore my new jacket,” continued the wild man, “because he thought I was going to attack this guy.” He indicated Norton.

“If I could explain, sir,” said Tom. “Mr Compland caused a disturbance outside a bar in Watertown. The bartender called the police. Two officers tried to subdue Mr. Compland. They called for backup and two more officers arrived on the scene. They were unable to reason with the parolee. The K-9 officer was on routine patrol. He saw the disturbance and stopped. The other policemen had succeeded in wrestling Mr. Compland to the ground.

“When he saw the dog and the K-9 officer, he freed himself from the officers’ grasp and went for Officer Norton. The dog intervened.”

“Do you have other witnesses?” Mr. Tolino asked Tom.

“Yes, sir,” said Tom. “Shall I bring them in?”

“Yes, one at a time, pl. . .”

“Oh, sure, you’re going to gang up on me with all these lies,” said Compland, jumping from his seat at the table. “Maybe you don’t know it, but I’m a paranoid schizophrenic, and there’s no telling what I’ll do!” He clenched one fist and grabbed Tom by his shirt front with the other hand. The dog pricked up his ears, but since it wasn’t Norton who was being menaced, he didn’t seem to care.

“Sit down, Mr. Compland,” ordered the hearing officer. In the meantime Tom reached for his gun and then remembered he took it off before he entered the hearing room. Compland continued to rant and rave and bounce off the walls.

I was frozen with fright. Suddenly, I heard myself asking quietly, “Is all this on the record?” Mr. Tolino looked at me with what I can only describe as a desperate expression.

“No, I don’t think so,” he whispered. I turned the machine off and put my hands in my lap.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” screamed Compland. “I want every single word of this in the transcript.” He was suddenly all over me, fumbling with the recorder trying to find the on/off switch. All reason having left me by this time, I tried to protect the recorder. It did, after all, cost me an arm and a leg. And now it seemed there was a clear and present danger I would lose an arm and/or a leg and the machine.

I leaned forward and covered it with my body. Compland continued to fight me. By now, everyone in the room was shouting and pulling at Compland. He was so strong he had no trouble fending them off. I was stiff as a board. If he managed to get the machine away from me, he would have to pick me up bodily and then pry it loose. I’ve never been so scared.

Over the melee, I heard Mr. Tolino shout, “The dog!” I guess Officer Norton gave the dog a command, but I didn’t hear it. The next thing I knew, Compland was on the floor and the dog was on top of him. Tom ran to the cellblock door and yelled for the guards. A dozen or so of them came and carried Compland, kicking and screaming, back into the jail.

It was over. We all sat and stared at each other for a long time. Mr. Tolino asked me if I was hurt and did I want to see the doctor. I told him I was ok. He then said to me, “Let’s go back on the record.” I turned on the machine and the hearing officer said a few well-chosen words about Mr. Compland indeed being guilty of violating his parole by his actions in the hearing room, and he would be sent back to prison forthwith. I was shaking so badly, one of the guards helped me gather up my equipment, and he carried it to my car. I assured him I was recovered enough to drive myself home, although I didn’t believe a word of it.

About a year later, Tom called and asked if I were available to serve as stenographer for a parole violation.

“Sure,” I said and began to write “parole hearing” in my daybook. “It’s an old friend of yours,” said Tom, with a wicked laugh. “His name is Greg Compland.”

“Oh, no, what must I be thinking,” I said, erasing the words from my book, “Here’s an entry I overlooked. I have a deposition that day. Rats!”

“Too bad,” said Tom. “I guess we’ll have to get somebody else.”

“Looks that way,” I said. “Sorry.”

By the way, Greg Compland is not this guy’s real name, and you can quote me. The next time I was at the jail taking testimony, Tom told me that I had missed a high ol’ time in the hearing room. Compland was even more violent and threatening. After that hearing, which also included the same K-9 unit, Compland sued the hearing officer, Tom, the county jail, the New York Board of Parole, and, best of all, Norton as the K-9 Officer and–wait for it–the DOG!

 

 

 

 

WE’RE ALL IRISH ON ST. PATRICK’S DAY

When I worked at the newspapers, my favorite journalistic thing to do was research, It still is. I think some of my best work is the result of plowing through reams of old magazines and microfilm to scribble notes, which later were compiled by way of midnight torture into a WORD document that was then rewritten at least a dozen times. I was never satisfied with it, but as I heard in an episode of Mr. Selfridge, “Nothing sharpens a journalist’s pencil or her wit like a deadline.” There were many occasions when an editor ripped my story from the printer and sent it to be pasted up, as I begged her to let me give it one last look. Ah, the bad ol’ days. I don’t miss them. The Internet is God’s gift to a features writer. I wrote the following little story at least 25 years ago. It did require research, but not hours and hours of wrenching hard work. In fact, if I remember correctly, I enjoyed doing it. I know I loved writing it. Hope you like it as well.

 

The banks and the post office won’t close for it, and most of us will have to trudge into work just like any other day, but never mind; this week gives us one of our favorite holidays. We’ll wear a bit o’ green on March 17 and celebrate, because we’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.

How we celebrate is strictly a personal matter, and will most likely have nothing to do with the patron saint of Ireland. The kindly and simple bishop who brought Christianity to that country would probably be amazed at our raucous remembrance of him on his day.

On the other hand, maybe he wouldn’t mind all our hoopla so much, for if ever there lived a saint to have his day shrouded in a jumble of myths, all firmly rooted in thin air, St. Patrick was the one.

For example, remember those snakes that he was supposed to have chased from the Irish countryside into the sea? Sorry. It just didn’t happen. Zoologists determined a long time ago there were no snakes in Ireland at the time St. Pat trod the shamrocks.

In fact, it may come as a surprise to learn that he wasn’t even Irish.

Patrick was actually British, or more accurately Roman, since Great Britain was part of the Roman Empire when he was born in 389 AD to Christian parents. When he was 16 years old, he was kidnapped by pirates and taken to Ireland, then a wild pagan country, where he was sold into slavery. He escaped after six years and vowed never to return to Ireland.

But the future saint shouldn’t have been so sure. In a dream, an angel came to him and handed him a bundle of letters marked “from the Irish.” This most unlikely legend is probably true, for it is sketchily documented in “Confessions,” one of his two writings still surviving.

The letters begged him to come back to Ireland and to bring Christianity with him. Patrick decided to answer the call. His life constantly in danger, he traveled over the island preaching, and transformed the heathen land into a Roman Catholic country.

The most prevalent legend about St. Patrick’s ministry may or may not be true, but it makes a charming story. One day he was preaching to a great crowd assembled in a field. His listeners were having difficulty understanding the Trinity. In a flash of inspiration, Patrick bent over and plucked a trefoil shamrock.

“Do you not see,” he asked the people, “how in this wildflower three leaves are united on one stalk, and will you not then believe that there are indeed three persons and yet one God?” Bingo! The assembly made the connection and the shamrock became the symbol of the Trinity as well as the national emblem of Ireland.

St. Patrick lived to the ripe old age of 72, a rare feat in those days. His death occurred suddenly on a day in early spring when the shamrocks had just barely greened the hillsides. Shocked, the people of Ireland went into a long period of mourning. When it was over, no one could remember whether the good man died on March 8 or March 9. Perplexed, they added the two numbers together and came up with March 17, probably another myth. When St. Patrick was canonized, the made-up day of his death became his feast day.

So, celebrate however you choose. If you’re thinking a night on the town might set your Irish eyes to smiling, many local watering holes turn into Irish pubs for a day. One of them might just be your cup of tea or, more likely, your stein of green beer.

If a boisterous night out doesn’t appeal to you, rent a video of “The Quiet Man,” stir up a rich Irish coffee, wrap yourself in a green afghan, and be an Irish couch potato for the evening.

St. Patrick stood up for his beliefs, and he won’t mind if you sit down for yours.

 

DREAMS OF MEXICO

At the very tip of the Yucatan peninsula is a beautiful hotel built along the lines of a Mayan structure. Its architecture is an homage to the people who lived in the area a thousand years ago. It is Dreams Cancun, and because of its location at the “end” of Mexico in the southwestern direction, it is surrounded by the turquoise Caribbean Sea. The sun has bleached the sand to a white powder. Everything is perfect on many levels. Honeymooners and retirees love it. But families, even those with small children, seem to have as much fun as anyone.

I was invited along with travel writers from around the world to attend the launch of Dreams Cancun’s “Delphinus” program. It was a chance to swim with the dolphins, and I happily accepted the invitation.

The month was June, and no doubt about it, Cancun is hot, hot, hot in the summertime. By the time I was shown to my room it was after lunchtime, and I had spent the last six hours either in one of three airports or waiting on the curb for the hotel van to pick me up. I was dripping with sweat. It was too much to civilize it by calling it perspiration. I realized I was also hungry. I was impressed with the Mayan-sculpted hotel, and had I not been so uncomfortable I would have dropped my belongings in my room and set out to explore the premises and find a restaurant. I was, however, reluctant to venture back out into the heat. My room was wonderfully icy, and the decision had to be made between cool and hungry or hot and well-fed.

The dilemma was solved by a soft knock on my door. It was a lady with a big bowl of fruit and a bottle of ice-cold champagne, along with a welcome note from the hotel management. I thanked her as she uncorked the champagne and set up table service for me. It was, in that instant, “comfort food.”

I wandered out to the balcony overlooking the dolphin pool to enjoy the champagne. The dolphins were at play, jumping in and out of the water as the trainers put them through their paces. The incessant heat washed over me again, and I realized I could see the dolphins almost as clearly from the comfort on the cool side of the glass doors to my room. The fruit was ripe and juicy and perfect as I washed it down with the champagne.

That evening, the writers gathered in a rooftop party room for introductions and more food. Martinis were the elixir of choice along with trays of hors d’oeuvres passed around by white-coated servers. I’m not a fan of martinis, but the server suggested I might like the chocolate version of a vodka martini. He seemed most unhappy to leave me as the only person in the room without a drink in her hand, so I accepted the mud-colored martini.

As I took a sip I noticed a Hershey’s kiss in the bottom of the glass. When no one was looking, I inched my way to the far edge of the crowd and turned my back. I quickly scooped the kiss out with one finger. It was the work of no more than two seconds to melt the kiss in my mouth, lick my finger and pour most of the drink into a potted palm. It’s a trick I learned years ago. One must be careful to keep some of the liquid in the glass when transferring the drink to a potted plant, thereby forestalling the waiter from offering another drink. It is sometimes difficult to retain one’s dignity during the maneuver; therefore, it must not be attempted without a high degree of confidence that comes with years of practice.

When all the writers were sufficiently inebriated, we were ushered into a delightful restaurant, where we enjoyed a steak dinner. I’m also not a steak fan, but I did not want to push my luck. I opted to eat whatever was set before me. We had a great and good time as we got to know one another. My dinner companion was a writer from Sports Illustrated. Trying to strike up a sports-oriented conversation, I told him I was devoted to world-class tennis, and I asked him his opinion of Andy Murray. He treated me to a blank stare and told me he didn’t know the name. After searching my memory bank for a topic in another sport, and coming up with nothing, I decided I would leave the conversation choice up to him. He didn’t seem the least bit undone by his failure at dinner table chit-chat, and I decided I shouldn’t let it bother me either. We spent the rest of the meal chewing our steaks.

After a sumptuous dessert (also chocolate-laced) we were off to the hotel’s nightclub to watch a dazzling performance by a Cuban band. Cuban music is very popular in all of Mexico. With the colored lights and salsa music, it was a fine way to top off the evening.

But the biggest thrill of all came the next morning. After a fantastic breakfast in a tent specially set up for the occasion, we heard some welcoming words and were instructed as to when it would be our time to swim with the dolphins.
Later, in a special room, we were divided into groups and given life jackets. We were shown a movie about dolphins, and an instructor told us what was considered proper visitor etiquette when we entered the dolphins’ domain.

He told us that under no circumstances were we to hold onto the dolphins’ dorsal fins. We were to stroke them as much as we liked, because they enjoyed it. He asked if any of us were pregnant or any of us were in a bad mood. No one owned up to either condition. He spoke of the dolphins’ acute sensitivity. They could tell if anyone was pregnant, mean-spirited or worse, both. The animals avoided anyone in either condition. He told us a story about the hotel’s employees being pressed into service as guests when the dolphins first came to the hotel. No one admitted to being pregnant. When they entered the pool, the dolphins avoided one girl, and she was very disappointed. That evening, she took a pregnancy test and surprise, surprise, she was indeed pregnant. The dolphins knew it before she did.

dolphins_over_line

As soon as we entered the Dolphinus pool, two very friendly dolphins greeted us. We had been told they loved to be stroked. The dolphins weaved around the seven of us as we ran our hands over their sleek backs. We enjoyed it as much as they seemed to like it.

The instructor told us to line up at one end of the pool and to shout a word (which I no longer remember). The dolphins were nowhere to be seen. As we yelled the word, the dolphins shot from the water behind us and soared over our heads to dive into the water once again. All I can say is it was thrilling.

We were in the water for about an hour as the trainer put both the dolphins and their visitors through exercises designed to delight all of us. The animals danced for us, waved to us, kissed us, and gave us a ride across the water as they pushed the bottoms of our feet with their snouts. It was an experience I will never forget, and one I highly recommend. There is a special children’s program that is a never-to-be-forgotten experience for kids 3 to 12 years old.

The hotel grounds and various buildings are beautiful, and it is all-inclusive. Eat, drink, play all you want for one price. My press trip included two nights at Dreams Cancun and two at Dreams Tulum if I wished. I could have spent four nights at Dreams Cancun. Because I am interested in the Maya culture and its history, I spent two nights at Dreams Tulum. It is a brand new property, and it is so beautiful. The hotel van took me down the road to Tulum and the next day, I went to the ruins left behind by the Maya.

It was this trip that gave me my fascination with Things Mayan. I have now read and studied the Maya with great interest. Many of their descendants live within a few miles of the temple ruins. The people who lived there in the early so long ago were sophisticated beyond their historic times. Their calendar is said to be more accurate than the Gregorian calendar. They were expert astronomers. The guide showed us the tiny holes in temple walls where on particular nights, the moon sends a single beam through the opening to illuminate a religious icon on the opposite wall.

I’ve been to Tulum several times. The last time I was there was in 2011. Previous to that time the temple ruins were closed at dark. They are now open until 11 p.m., and lit by colored lights. A guide is provided with each group.

Tulum at Night

It is quite a sight. As I said to my readers when I was a travel writer, of all the wonderful places I have been, Mexico is the best. And best of the best is the Yucatan, where the presence of the ancient Maya is still felt, and seems as real as their descendants who cherish their culture and willingly share it with interested visitors.

DO YOU HAVE THE FEBRUARIES?

You know what that is, don’t you? It usually strikes when you have reason to believe the snow will melt today, and just when the last little drift is about gone, the sky turns about 49 shades of grey, and the snowflakes begin falling. Again!

If it were 50 shades of grey, it would be shocking or maybe a little interesting; however, at 49, the next snowstorm is just boring. “But it’s so beautiful,” my southern family and friends say. No, my dears. Green is beautiful, as in leaves and grass, and yellow is beautiful as in daffodils and sunshine, and red is beautiful as in geraniums and cardinals, but white is ugly when it’s snow that covers everything in sight. Fortunately we do have cardinals that hang with us in the wintertime. Were it not for them, I’m sure the suicide rate would be much higher when the Februaries strike.

It’s funny – or it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic – I have no need to look at a calendar. I’m just fine on January 31, but come midnight, I go into the dumper. I stay here until the first of March. That’s the problem right there: Did you hear me? I said “here,” as in Granville, Ohio. “Here.” I don’t belong “here.” I belong in Mexico. It’s February, isn’t it?  When a body is somewhere other than where a body belongs, it’s bad. Believe me: it’s bad.

I belong in Guanajuato this February. Sometimes I belong in Los Cocos on the west coast in February, and sometimes I belong practically dead center in Mexico. If you place the tip of a finger in the center of a Mexico map, you will touch Guanajuato. It’s one of the wonderful colonial cities. It looks the same as it looked 300 years ago when the locals ran the Spanish out of Mexico. What a story that is! I love the story and lucky you! I’m going to tell it to you.

The Spanish dispatched the Maya and the Aztecs when silver was discovered running in thick veins through the mountains of central Mexico. They enslaved everyone they could find and sent them into the mines to bring out the silver. The Spanish landowners became very rich, and they lived it up for 300 years. They built beautiful buildings, elaborate cathedrals and vast plantations, many of which are still there today.

The place where I always stay in Guanajuato is in a house called Casa de Pita (Pita’s house). It was built by Pita’s great, great, etc., grandfather 300 years ago. Her family has lived there ever since. It is now a guest house with apartments and rooms, which she rents to visitors. It’s a lovely place, and I feel at home there. My hostess, Pita, is also my friend.

To continue the story, at about the time Pita’s ancestor was building her house, the indigenous people, many of whom had by then cross-bred with the Spanish, were plotting to take back their country. The leader of the gang was Father Miguel Hidalgo, priest of a church in the small town of Dolores, Mexico. The pope and cardinals of the Catholic Church already looked upon the good priest with a gimlet eye, for he had publicly questioned the church’s authority. Dolores is near Guanajuato, where the Spanish army was holed up in a granary called the Alhondiga, which had been turned into an armory.

I have been to the Alhondiga many times. It is a huge square building, with an empty middle, where the grain had been kept, but at that time, September 16, 1810, a garrison of Spanish soldiers guarded the armory. I’ll tell you about today’s Alhondiga later.

Now, down the road about 70 miles or so was and is the town of Querattero.  The governor had his office and his home in the center of town. His wife was Josefa Ortiz. Unbeknownst to the governor, Josefa sided with the rebels. She held regular meetings with the plotters right under the governor’s nose. She called her meetings a literary society. Having never had a reason to mistrust Josefa, she got away with it.

One night, the governor was meeting with the military leaders in the room next to Josefa’s room where she was holding her “literary society” meeting. Josefa heard the conversation from the governor’s group, and she thought she heard what could very well be a bomb shell. It was early September in the year 1810. The rebels had planned to attack the Alhondiga the following November. But as Josefa crept closer to the governor’s door she heard the generals agree to march on Hidalgo’s insurgents in three days. Just as she turned to run back to her meeting, the governor caught her. He had been suspicious of her literary society and now he knew Josefa was up to no good. He took her to her room and locked her inside. She did not have time to tell her friends what she had learned. She was frantic, but there was nothing she could do. How could she get word to Father Hidalgo that the rebels must march on the Spanish immediately before they were attacked?

Just then, there was a noise at the door, and she heard one of her fellow plotters softly calling to her. Quickly, she whispered through the keyhole, telling him to ride as fast as he could to Dolores to tell Hidalgo that he must gather his forces immediately and attack the Spanish army in the Alhondiga. All would be lost if they followed their original plan.

The keyhole listener ran to tell the other “literary society” members the news. They quickly scattered to alert the countryside, while he rode to tell the priest. When Hidalgo heard the news, he rang the church bells. Everyone knew they had to gather what weapons they could find and go to the churchyard immediately. Father Hidalgo issued the famous “grit of Dolores,” the call to arms.

Word spread through the countryside and hundreds of farmers, miners, and soldiers marched to Guanajuato. When they reached the Alhondiga, the Spanish fired on them from windows and the heights of the building. The rebels had no defense.

But Father Hidalgo had an idea. He strapped a large flat stone to the back of a miner and gave him a torch. “Crawl to the wooden doors of the building,” he said, “and set them alight.”

(I have written this story many times in a lighter vein and have pointed out that the good padre had just invented the bullet-proof vest, and has never received credit for it.)

The miner did as he was told. When he reached the double doors he torched the bottoms of them. The huge doors went up in flames, sending the Spanish soldiers pouring out, choking with the thick smoke.

It was September 16, 1810, and it has been celebrated every year since. The Victory at Guanajuato was the first battle of the War of Independence. The war continued for three years and the heroes of that first battle, including Father Hidalgo, were killed, and their heads hung in cages suspended on each corner of the Alhondiga. He is honored everywhere. The Town of Dolores is now named Dolores Hidalgo. I have been to his churchyard many times. I have seen and heard the same bells that summoned the rebels to go to war.

I never tire of the Alhondiga, I go there every year I go to Guanajuato. One side is dedicated to the heroes of the war of dependence. There are bas relief statues of their heads in each niche lit by spot lights. There is a huge wooden door to the gallery, much like the door the miner set afire. The miner is called El Pipila, or “the turtle.” A huge statue of El Pipila is high on a hill overlooking Guanajuato. There are few places in the city he is not visible.

Guanajuato is a place that is more special than I can tell you. There are tunnels leading into the town. No matter what time you happen to arrive there, you can hear music as your taxi emerges from a tunnel. There is dancing in the jardin, street performers, troubadours singing from every club at night, mariachi bands playing at each outdoor cafe. Artists are at work in the town square, and groups of singers in medieval costumes walk the streets singing till all hours.

I can’t possibly express how much I miss Guanajuato. I miss Pita, Gerardo, Carmela, Arixci, Nando, Paty, Juanita, Fernando, Pepe, Monica, Edgar, and all my friends there. I think about them every day. If only I could hear Gerardo play his guitar and sing just one more song to me, I would be content

My heart is in Guanajuato today. I only wish I were there with it.

WHAT’S TODAY ALL ABOUT? COME WITH ME AS WE DELVE INTO ST. VALENTINE’S DAY

Unless you’re color blind, you’re going to see red today.

Let’s just hope the red you see will be a heart-shaped box of chocolates or a lacy nightie or some beautiful red roses. Valentine’s Day is not the day to see red if you’re mad at your mate. Better kiss and make up. For it’s time once again for cupids, love birds, and hearts.

Nobody really knows how the most romantic day of the year got all mixed up with that most crucial body organ, but red hearts and St. Valentine go together like St. Patrick and the green shamrock. St. Valentine’s Day was originally the Roman feast of Lupercalia, but was Christianized in memory of the martyr, St. Valentine. In the Middle Ages, Valentine became associated with the union of lovers under conditions of duress; i.e., Romeo and Juliet.
The Roman Catholic Church dropped St. Valentine’s feast day in 1969, but by then it was a genuine holiday, showing up on calendars all over the world, so we continue to shower our loved ones with red gifts and even the most dyed-in-the-wool cynics become softhearted on February 14.

There’s that word again: heart. The encyclopedia tells us that it is a chambered organ that pumps blood through our bodies on the average of 72 times a minute, or a total of 35 million gallons over the span of a year. In that year, it will beat two and a half billion times. It is the most likely of all our body parts to kill us. More people die of some kind of heart disease than any of the other modern-day death threats.

Further research into the red hearts-Valentine’s Day relationship reveals that in addition to the before-mentioned softhearted, one can be considered warmhearted, which is pretty much the same thing. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a hard-hearted (or even worse) a heartless person. We can do things wholeheartedly, or with a light heart or a heavy heart. We can feel fainthearted, downhearted, or even have our hearts broken. A heart to heart talk is usually good for us, and to have the cockles of our hearts warmed feels wonderful. If we get too mushy and sentimental, someone is bound to call us a bleeding heart.

Richard the Lion Hearted was said to be a fearless warrior; Pope Valentine was a good man but held his high office only a few short months back in 827; and Dustin Hoffman’s Cherokee grandfather said “My heart soars like a hawk,” in the movie, Little Big Man. Lorenz Hart composed “My Funny Valentine;” Oscar Hammerstein II wrote, “The last time I saw Paris, her heart was young and gay;” William Wordsworth penned “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky;” and General Valentine Blacker said, “Put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.”

Not exactly conclusive.
But maybe we don’t really need to delve into the question at all. We can just eat the bonbons out of the heart-shaped box, wear the naughty red underwear and the sparkling jewelry, and display the red roses where we can enjoy them most. Perhaps even a bit of poetry wouldn’t be amiss to celebrate such a special day. This is from “Love Songs of the New Kingdom,” written by an anonymous, obviously lovesick poet sometime around 1200 BC: “…and as I long for your love, my heart stands still inside me. Sweet pomegranate wine in my mouth is bitter as the gall of birds. But your embraces alone give life to my heart.”
After those elegant, romantic words
there’s just one thing left to say:
Happy Valentine’s Day
heart

OH, THE WEATHER OUTSIDE WAS FRIGHTFUL 

You may have heard me refer to my roommate, John, as “Last Husband,” and sometimes just “L.H.” The sobriquet has a double meaning: he was and is my last husband. Conversely, I was and (probably) am his last wife. We have been together and apart for the past 47 years. We kind of became accustomed to each other. Now, we live together, but we’re not living together, if you get my meaning. Just thought I’d clear that up.

John was born way up near the Canadian border in Watertown, New York. The first time I visited his Yankee homeland to meet his family, it was summertime. I was a new bride (for the third time). The homestead was a beautiful 100+ year-old house on about three acres on the Black River. His grandparents lived downstairs, and his parents lived upstairs. John’s mother was born there as was John, himself, some 26 years later. It was the only home either had ever known.

When John was 10 years old, his parents built a cottage on Lake Ontario, the most contrary body of water on the planet, as I was to find out in the distant future. I loved the old homestead on the river, but his parents took us to the cottage for the weekend. It was located on Pillar Point, a sliver of land jutting out into the lake. Lake Ontario beat on the point’s rocky shore, and the wind blew the water with such force, the spray constantly spat on the cottage windows, a good 100 feet from the water line.

It was bitterly cold, no matter what the season. Before long I called it “Polar Point,” a nickname not altogether appreciated by Last Husband’s mother, Marge. As I was also to find out in the future she did not altogether appreciate me either. The feeling was mutual, which is another story.

I was introduced to a bazillion family friends, all of whom told me about the deep, deep snow, and the ferocity of the winters. I was shown pictures of children walking dangerously close to power lines as they skipped atop snow piles. I saw photos of cars freshly dug out of six-foot snowdrifts. “We have to put the antenna up when we park the car so we can find it the next morning.”

Like so many programmed robots they all said it. To that, Marge invariably added,  “You have to be tough to live up here. We’re Survivors!” Interestingly enough she seldom left the indoors, and then only to get into the car to be driven to and/or from the homestead and the cottage.

To further illustrate the locals’ endurance skills, they included their little forest friends in the endless recitation of anecdotal evidence. They pointed out a narrow barkless circle about four feet up the trunks of most trees. “That’s where the rabbits chew the bark off as they stand on top of the snow.” Snow was the beginning, the middle, and the ending of every story.

One tale I loved was about the spectacular snows of Tug Hill, the topographical anomaly near Watertown that causes the horrendous snow depths. In the old days, the postman drove a two-mule wagon to deliver mail in Tug Hill on an erratic schedule because of the snowstorms.

On the morning in question, there were a few flakes in the air, but the mailman thought he could finish his run before the storm started blowing in earnest. He alighted from the wagon to take the mail to a house located at the end of a lane. The homeowners were glad to see him and invited him in for coffee.

By the time he left, the stuff was falling thick and fast. When he reached the spot where he left the wagon, it and the mules were gone. Search as he might, he couldn’t find them. He decided to wait out the storm in the house. When the storm subsided or as they say Upstate when it “stopped storming,” he looked again for the team to no avail.

Finally, he went back to his own home, figuring the mules pulled the wagon away and someone would contact him soon and tell him where he could find them. No such call ever came. The wagon and the team were found during the spring thaw, just where the mailman had left them. The mules were frozen solid in the same position they were in the last time he saw them. Is that a terrifying snow story or what?

In the fullness of time, it came to be that John and I and my two daughters moved from sunny Southern California to the frigid snowbelt cinched around Upstate New York. I can’t remember now why we did such a thing, but I seldom know why we do anything.

After I spent my first winter there, I had no trouble believing the mule story or any other tale of snow-caused atrocities.

We moved up there in November. Our first house was in Oswego. By this time, there was usually at least one measurable snowfall. It hadn’t happened yet. We took the girls to school on the next Monday morning. All was going well. John went to work at the Niagara Mohawk Power Station. He had secured a good job as a nuclear reactor operator, one of the same positions he served in the U.S. Navy on a nuclear fast attack submarine.

I had been working ever since First Husband took off to build his love nest in another tree (fodder for another story some day). That had been six years earlier, and I felt very housewifely as I returned from taking the girls to the bus stop. As I went about my homey duties, humming a merry tune, I noticed the wind had picked up. Inside of ten minutes, the most horrendous snowstorm I ever saw was blowing ferociously. The snow was horizontal as it rushed past the front window. I peered out to see if some of the snow happened to land on the ground, and I couldn’t see it. I mean I couldn’t see the ground. Astounded, I looked up, and to my complete surprise I couldn’t see the house across the street. Nor could I see our own mailbox at the end of the short driveway.

What in the name of all that is holy was going on? Was it the end of the world? Could we next expect The Rapture? Fer Gawd!

I turned the radio on, and the announcer was telling us not to be concerned. “It’s just lake effect,” he said to reassure us.

Just lake effect? I don’t remember exactly what he said next, but he intimated it was not a real live snowstorm, because it was “just lake effect.”

In no time at all, the snow stopped. The sun didn’t come out, but at least the snow quit its horizontal zipping past the front window. I peered through the glass to see the ground. Much to my surprise, some of the snow had managed to drop out of its frantic sideways rush. To what did my wondering eyes appear but probably three of four inches on the ground. I was shocked.

Just as I breathed a sigh of relief, the race was on again. This time from the other direction. Whereas the snow had come from the left (I have no idea about norths and souths, etc. I have all I can do to recognize left and right) only a few minutes earlier it now ran pell mell in front of my window from the right. I was beginning to feel like Alice. You know Alice. She found herself in Wonderland before slipping through the looking glass.

To cut to the (snow) chase, the same phenomenon kept happening for the next two hours. Every time it stopped before changing directions, I ran to the window to check the depth of the snow. There was no doubt. It was growing by several inches after each outburst.

Now, I had real worries. The children were scheduled to be let off the school bus at the corner, a good 50 yards from the house. The last time I saw them, they were wearing sweaters and light jackets. The guy on the radio kept announcing, too gleefully I thought, a precipitous drop in the ambient temperature. I could only hope the snow was in the stop phase of its insane rush first from the right and then from the left at the time the school bus stopped.

I gathered up coats, scarves, hats and gloves and slogged through 18 inches of snow to the corner. Thank goodness, the storm, or lake effect or whatever it was called, had stopped. Just as I reached the bus stop, both the big yellow bus and the big white snow arrived at the corner. I was terrified. The children would be scared to death. I had to put a calm, ain’t-we-got-fun face on it.

Much to my surprise, they alighted from the bus laughing and talking nonstop about the wonderful snow. I gave them their winter duds and instructed them to put them on immediately. They couldn’t stop laughing. After I helped them get coated and hated, I realized we were in what I came to know as a “white-out.” I had not the slightest idea how to find the house. All I could see was white as the icy snow stung my face when I turned in a circle trying to find the house.

Fortunately, Mandy (the oldest at 12) was born with an unerring sense of direction.

“It’s this way, Mom,” she said. “Follow me.” We followed as the three of us pushed through the deepening snow, to our nice, warm house. The girls were still overjoyed to see all that snow. It was the most they had ever seen. That was to change. Both the depth of the show and their overjoyed reaction to it. But that came later.

When John came home from work, he explained the lake effect phenomenon to us. It was due to the proximity of Lake Ontario and the crazy wind coming on land in waves, first this direction, then another direction. He said a lot more about it, but as John’s explanations are wont to be, it was long and involved, and unless one was a true weather lover, it was profoundly boring.

We stayed in the Oswego house for a year before we built and moved to our cabin in the woods. It was a totally different experience, but the lake effect snowstorms were pretty much the same. We stayed there long enough for me to gain a proficient and accurate assessment of snowstorms. I could tell in a matter of seconds whether it was a “real” storm or merely lake effect.

The radio announcer always outdid himself explaining to us which snowstorm was pelting us. Sometimes he would say he had to run outside before he could tell us, and he would do so during the next commercial break. He always came back, breathing heavily and triumphant as he announced whether it was real or lake effect.

It ceased to matter to me after the first few storms. The end result was always the same. A foot of snow that piled on top of the foot of snow from the last storm that piled on top of the foot of snow from. . . . . you get the idea.

Suffice it to say by the time we moved out of the snowbelt, we wished never to see another snowdrop as long as we lived.

TIP-TOEING IN TEPIC

Hasta Luego, Amigo
The Mexico Life

This is a story about the second time I visited Tepic, the capital city of Nayarit on the west coast of Mexico. It was in the winter of 2005. My first visit was in 1984.

I didn’t have particularly sweet memories of Tepic from 21 years ago, the last time I was there. But today’s sojourn there erased what few fond memories I have of the place. Come to think of it, I don’t have any memory of Tepic at all, except that I changed buses in its nasty bus station when I traveled from San Blas headed to Puerto Vallarta.

I am staying at Casa Mañana  in Playa Los Cocos. The owners, Lourdes and Rinehard, live in Tepic. It was Monday morning, and Lourdes had been at the hotel for the weekend. She was headed back home, and she kindly offered to give me a ride to Tepic. I wanted to do some souvenir shopping.

She has a spiffy new VW in a sedan I haven’t seen in the States. Almost all Volkswagens in North America are partially made here in Mexico. Street-ready VWs cannot be bought south of the border and driven home across that border; they don’t meet US specifications. More’s the pity, because they are significantly less expensive here. Many of the city police cars and taxicabs are VW bugs.

Playa Los Cocos (Coconut Beach) lies about 30 miles south of Tepic at the end of a harrowing, curvy road that weaves through the jungle and tests the nerves of even the most skilled driver. Having driven the road many times, Lourdes didn’t seem to notice as we sped along, slowing only for Mexico’s ever-present speed bumps. When we reached the outskirts of Tepic, she apologized to me and said she hoped she was not scaring me with her driving.

“One can’t be too polite when driving in the city. You have to assert yourself,” she said as she cut off a dusty pickup truck and came close to clipping a bicyclist. Seeing the near misses just as she was speaking, I believed her every word.

Salvador, the Casa Mañana waiter who has adopted me, and helps me improve what can only be described as my deplorable Spanish, had drawn a map on a napkin showing me the location at the station of the buses that traveled the road to Playa Los Cocos and would let me off in front of the hotel. He told me to use as a landmark the tall cathedral on Victoria Street. It was only five blocks from the bus station.

Lourdes dropped me in front of the station. Across the street was the “zocolo,” or the town square. There were the usual fruit stands on the zocolo edges, and a student band was just concluding a noontime concert. I kept to the street leading to the church. There was a variety of shops and farmacias. I wanted to buy presents for my family and cut-rate medicines for me. But first I had to have some cash.

There was a Banco Mexico on the street, and I went in to exchange a travelers check written in US dollars for pesos. Knowing I was supposed to co-sign the check in front of whomever was going to cash it, I started to sign it at a teller’s window. She waved me away and pointed to a counter with a pen and a calendar on display. Anyway, I thought she was pointing to the counter. I was confused, but I signed the check and took it back to her window.

“No,” she said, pointing to a bank officer in the back. At least I guessed she was a bank officer. She was seated at a desk rather than a teller window. In the States, such a configuration usually indicates a lower-rung officer.

The well-dressed, beautiful young lady, took my travelers check, and told me I had to sign it again. I pointed to my signature now in two places on the check.

“No,” she said again. “Aqui,” she insisted, pointing to a space under the signature line. I signed it again.

She took the check, carefully inspected it back and front and asked for my passport, which I handed over. She examined the photo on the passport, which is probably the worst photo ever taken of an earthling. Daniel, the kid at the hotel, who cashed a previous travelers check, teased me about it, saying it looked like a picture one would find on a wanted poster.

The bank officer held the passport up where she could compare the photo with my actual face. She frowned. By this time, I had not seen a smile in the entire bank. Everyone looked at me as though I might be an imposter at best and Ma Barker at worst.

Trying to lighten things up a bit, I said, “Yo tiene un malo dias.” I was trying to say, “I was having a bad day,” pointing to the passport picture. But whatever I actually said seemed to deepen her concern. She took the check and my passport to a more official bank officer. This one sat in a floor-to-ceiling glass office. That glassed-in officer now held my passport aloft and inspected my countenance some more.

The un-glassed-in officer came back to her desk. There were still no smiles or the slightest indication of the standard “friendly banker.” She punched a few numbers on her telephone and started writing on the back of the travelers check. When she finished, there were four closely spaced lines of numbers on the back of the check and more on the front. I’ve cashed many travelers checks in Mexico, but I’ve never been subjected to that much scrutiny.

At last she gave me the check, my passport, and a printed slip. The slip had more numbers on it. Now I had the slip, my passport, the numbered and re-numbered travelers check, but still no pesos. She returned my steady gaze, except to look around me toward the front door.

No, I thought, it’s not Ma Barker. She thinks I’m Bonnie and she’s looking for Clyde who must be waiting for my signal to burst into the bank, tommy-gun blazing. I made the gesture with upturned hands and raised eyebrows meant to indicate, So, what do I do now? She stood up and motioned for me to follow her.

Back to the original teller we went. I had the feeling she wanted me to put the items in my hand into the metal scoop at the bottom of the glass partition separating the teller from me. I looked about pondering that the officer at the desk where I sat for so long was the only individual in the bank not in a glass cage. She looked very small, but she was obviously capable of taking care of herself. Maybe she was a black belt or one of those colors that mean her hands must be registered with the Federales as a lethal weapon.

Now in front of the teller again, I felt sure I would at last get my pesos and be off on my shopping spree.

Not yet.

The teller punched some buttons on her telephone and listened as she wrote more numbers on what was now a tattered travelers check. She, too, sized me up by my passport photo and frowned. I smiled at her. There was no show of reciprocated friendliness from inside the teller’s cage.

At long last, she riffled through a stack of multi-colored paper money and pushed it at me in the metal scoop.

I thanked her profusely. “Mucias Gracias,” I said.

“De Nada,” she answered, still not smiling. At last they let me go. Glancing at a clock as I made my way to the door,  I saw that my transaction had consumed 40 minutes of the banco’s and my time, just to cash one of those quick and easy travelers checks.

Leaving the bank, I walked four or five blocks up Victoria Street, stopping in first this shop, then another. I bought shirts for the grandsons, some wooden tops, five pens, each decorated with a yarn and feather God’s eye, and I bought Daughter Mandy a pair of orange and yellow sandals “Hecho en Mexico.”

I crossed the street beside the large cathedral Salvador told me about and started down the other side of the street toward the zocolo, stopping to take a picture of the church’s tall spire against the puffy clouds in a beautiful blue sky.

I had only gone a few steps, when someone touched my arm and said, “Excuse.” I turned around and saw my arm was being touched by the long arm of the law. A member of the policia had interrupted my shopping spree. 

How nice, I thought. Like so many policemen in Mexico, he was going to inquire if I needed directions. Something was wrong, though. This one didn’t seem the least bit friendly. He must be related to someone in the bank, and it runs in the family, I thought..

He rattled off some Spanish, and I picked up the word, “photograph.” As I always do when I don’t understand a word and I think someone is being helpful, I said, “Ah, si.”

His eyes grew wider, as he took a step nearer. The touch on my arm now turned into a grasp. Not menacing, but nonetheless a grasp.  I looked at it and said, “Que?” (What?)

After a few minutes of mutual misunderstanding, I realized he was asking me if I took his picture.

“No,” I answered, and shook my head. Then, I was astounded when he asked if I took a picture of the bank. (“Photograph banco?”)

“No, nada,” I answered as plainly as I could.

There were several more questions from him all of which I answered with “Mande?” or “Que?” Then I realized he was asking me if I didn’t take a picture of him or the bank, what was I shooting?

I searched my limited Spanish vocabulary for the word, “church,” but came up with nothing. I pointed at the cathedral. Taking out my camera once again, I pantomimed as I pointed to the top of the church’s spire. I said, “church” about five times.

Having shot pictures all over Mexico, I know the protocol: (1) If you want to photograph a man, his child or his burro, ask permission. Ladies don’t seem to mind. The man will probably ask you to pay. It is rude at that point not to cross his palm with a few pesos. (2) Never take a photo of an Indian. In fact, don’t even let an Indian know you have a camera on your person. The story about a guy being stoned to death because he took a photo of a local ethnic group may be a Mexican urban legend, but I never take the chance. (3) Buildings are fair game. Shoot away.

The policeman was finally satisfied I was not taking pictures of him or the bank for the purpose of sharing them with my bank-robbing comrades. We would just have to case the joint in person. Besides, the bank was three blocks away, and it wasn’t even close to the church steeple way up in the sky. I don’t know where the cop was when I snapped the picture. But should there be a next time, which I doubt, I will proceed with the picture-taking assuming the police are all Indians.

I made a quick decision then to take a bus back to Playa Los Cocos as fast as I could. I didn’t exactly feel welcome in Nayarit’s capital city.

I made my way to the bus station and was told the bus that passed by the Casa Mañana would leave in one hour. Fine. I forked over 13 pesos, much to the confusion of the ticket agent. He pointed to 30.00 on the ticket. I just as vehemently pointed to the 13.00. I’d had about enough of Tepic’s inhospitable attitude.

There was a boy standing at the ticket booth who, I was told, had spent a great deal of time in California. The boy pointed to the 13 and then to his watch. Whoops! The 13.00 meant 1:00 p.m., and the 30.00 was the amount of pesos the bus trip cost (about $2.73). I was a little embarrassed, but all three of us laughed.  Amazing! There were at least two people in Tepic who knew how to smile. I felt better.

I bought the ticket and took a seat in the street level waiting room. The buses left the station by an exit immediately adjacent to the place where I was sitting. It soon became clear I would die if I sat for an hour breathing their noxious exhaust fumes. I sought refuge on the upper level where the buses took on passengers.

I waded through my memory weeds trying to remember leaving from that very bus station for a trip to San Blas many years ago. The bus I was to take today was considerably bigger and in better shape than the bus I rode 21 years ago.

Remembering there were reserved seats on the primera classe buses, I mused they must have abandoned the assigned seating because no one paid any attention to it anyway. When we climbed aboard the bus that was to take us to San Blas in 1984, I remember there were two people sitting in the seats that had been assigned to my husband and me. We said nothing, and took seats in another part of the bus.

When at last the driver indicated the 2005 bus was about ready to take off, I climbed aboard and sat in the second seat on the right-hand side. Almost immediately, an older Mexican gentleman told me I was in his seat. He asked to see my ticket. Mind you, almost all this communication was accomplished using hand signals. I wasn’t sure what was going on.

“Ah, cinco,” he said, pointing to the number, 5, previously overlooked, on my ticket. He pointed to the seat across the aisle.

“Lo siento,” I apologized, and stepped across the aisle to take my correct seat. A Mexican lady of my approximate age and weight sat down beside me in the aisle seat. We were a bit crowded. Our passenger list now numbered six, but I knew we would pick up more who would hail the bus from the roadside.

We were soon out of town and back on the jungle curves where we were to spend the next two hours if we were lucky. If we were not lucky, we would either spend the time in the hospital or in the morgue.

The driver, obviously trying to break a land speed record, “put the pedal to the metal,” as we said in those carefree teen years. We zoomed through the jungle missing by mere inches vehicles coming from the opposite direction.

There were tiers of mountains, fading into blue haze on the horizon. There were banana fields, agave and tobacco fields and thick jungle foliage sprinkled with the intense colors of tropical flowers. Yes, it was beautiful. I half expected to see Sigourney Weaver at the edge of the jungle cooing to a mountain gorilla. I did spot a truly fine iguana that blinked its eye as the bus sped by.

I tried to think only of the breathtaking scenery, but mostly I was scared.

Suddenly feeling a little sick, I slid the window open next to my face and drew in the fresh air. About this time, the lady in the seat beside me drifted off to dreamland. Sharp curves to the right caused her sleeping body to lean into my terrified one, crushing me against the side of the bus. She neither knew nor cared that the Angel of Death awaited us at the apex of every hairpin curve. Had he not claimed many a life at a curve in this very road, now marked with a memorial cross? Had he not called home many at one time where the curve was marked with many crosses, no doubt done in by a bus crash?

My seatmate seemed perfectly comfortable as she took her afternoon siesta. The line was crossed when her head drifted toward my shoulder. She also neither knew nor cared that I have a life-long prejudice against being touched by strangers. The same prejudice had already been breached in Tepic by the cop.

She apparently wanted to cuddle  as she laid her head so close to my face, her hair tickled my neck. I jerked my shoulder upward, which brought her out of her stupor enough to lean in the other direction, thereby avoiding what could have been a nasty scene.

As it happened the bus arrived at my hotel in only one hour and 50 minutes, knocking off 10 minutes of our ETA and at least that many years off my life. I stumbled over the cobblestones in the Casa Mañana parking lot and climbed the steps to my room. Once there, I plopped down on my bed and was soon off to dreamland myself.

But before I dozed off, I promised myself I wouldn’t take a bus or any other form of transportation, including a burro, to visit Tepic again. Enough, as they say, is quite enough.


 

Addition to story as of  2014: In my usual manner, I spoke too soon. I have now been in Tepic many times with no harm befalling me at all. My favorite dentist practices there, and several friends live there. There is a beautiful new bus station at Tepic, and most of the buses no longer belch noxious fumes. I still love Casa Mañana,  and I have spent many wonderful times at the hotel. That area along the Pacific Coast is now called Riviera Nayarit, and the tourist office is marketing it as the next big tourist area of the many big tourist areas in Mexico. My friend, Lourdes, is now a grandmother, although she still looks as though she has not yet seen 45. She built a casita on a farm near the hotel, where she raises fruit trees and keeps horses. I have yet to see it, but I hope to visit again soon