To date, all my travel stories on TravelGumbo have been in the past tense. And all my travels out of the country have been multi-month, multi-country affairs. Now, after a move home to California and short adventures closer to home, I’m looking beyond borders again, to one city in particular and it seems like an opportunity for a report of a different kind, starting at the very beginning, rather than from arrival at the destination.
I’ve been struggling, for the first time in decades, with the problem (if one could call it a problem) of where to go next. For years my life was arranged around my travels - I worked half the year and traveled the other half. My house was designed to be left safely for indefinite periods. I indulged in long trips, usually Europe in the Spring and Asia in the Fall. Now in my new home, in the town where I’ve always wanted to live, I seem to be content to just mostly stay put, with a growing fear that I won’t go anywhere far away, ever again.
When I say “struggle”, I don’t think it’s too strong a word to describe what has been such a huge part of my life. I thought about it constantly, names of countries floating into my consciousness, only to fade with my enthusiasm and I’d neglect to put any of the thoughts into action. I struggled for days with the American Airlines AAdvantage website, trying to come up with an acceptable itinerary on which to spend my miles and nothing was coming together.
Another damper for me of late was the issue of continuing to travel alone. For years I had friends who would join me, one on some of the long trips and another on shorter ones in Europe, but both had become unavailable. I was feeling unable to rouse any enthusiasm, despite many weeks spent alone in the past, and wondered now if this might be the biggest factor of all.
Still not knowing how I really felt about leaving home, and without a destination decided, I could at least tackle the “how long shall I travel” question. The problem was multifaceted.
- My home insurance company demands I not leave the building unoccupied for longer than 30 days.
- I’d prefer to not have a stranger house-sit, and my friend/former husband may or may not arrive from Brazil, fear of commitment in myriad forms.
- This would be my first trip longer than a week since I moved and I still have
lingering fears about whether I actually want to leave home, though I spend an inordinate amount of time frustrating myself thinking about it. I’m also horrified by the thought that I may not go anywhere, ever again, even places I love and to which I always thought I’d return.
- And there’s the issue of money, most of which is being sucked up by renovations on my middle-aged house.
Generally speaking, two things have had more impact on my ability to travel less expensively than any others, since 2006 my American Airlines-affiliated credit card, with which I earn air miles with every purchase, and Airbnb. The latter arrived on the scene in it’s infant form in 2008 and I signed up in 2010. The site has done 2 things for me, replacing income lost when I left my job by making it possible for me to rent my guest room to other travelers, and providing nicer lodgings at a lower cost than I could otherwise afford when I travel myself.
I began thinking more seriously about Mexico and a hypothetical stay of 3 weeks. It was a great deal shorter than I was used to traveling but sounded reasonable for a single untested location. Using miles appeared not to be the most efficient way to pay for flights to the city that interested me most, Oaxaca. I looked on a website I find very useful, Matrix Airfare Search, for cost comparisons. During my optimum time frame, September or October, Aeromexico flights from Sacramento to Oaxaca had dropped to an interesting number, just under $340 roundtrip.
As I considered going to Oaxaca, when I wanted to do something constructive in a decision-making direction, I’d go to the Airbnb site to see what was available and compare the rooms and apartments with well-reviewed budget hotels for price and location. I was pleased to find there were a number of listings on the site and from time to time I’d see a new one. I took particular note of one that appeared, a spiffy-looking private room with an attached bath and entrance through it’s own door off the courtyard of a colonial house, a short walk from the heart of the old city, the Zocalo. The day I felt ready to commit, I checked that the airfare was still available and contacted the host of the room to make sure it was also available for the 3 weeks I’d chosen. My inquiry was answered immediately, always a good sign, and I booked both flights and room.
Basic decisions made, the plan now seems to be progressing effortlessly. I believe I’ve reached the point in my personal travel life when I want to choose a country or town I like and make it a kind of second home. I thought for some time that place might be in Asia but now I’m hoping to love Oaxaca enough to want to go back regularly. It’s relatively close, the cost of living is low and Americans are allowed to stay up to 6 months a year in Mexico. In the meantime, I’m excited about my trip and I’ve learned over the years that once one is committed to a course of action, the rest has a way of taking care of itself. We’ll see.
A month later: Did I say “effortlessly?” Reading back over some now smug-sounding sentences above, I realized there had always been some aspect of a trip to a new place that I hadn’t anticipated would give me difficulties. Two days after I made the Aeromexico reservation I received an email announcing a “flight reassignment”. Already? To my relief, the flight change was actually an improvement to the layover that I’d been vaguely worried about, 2 hours to change planes in Mexico City. The new version gave me 3. Perfect, unless it all went south on my way south.
A month to the day after I made the reservation, another email, subject “flight cancellation”. No breaking the news gently. The very thing that had encouraged me the most, the direct flights from Sacramento to Mexico City, now seem to have vaporized and 2 flights became 3. I don’t mind changing planes once, almost always do, but I’ll pay good money to avoid changing twice, part of a long-standing 50%-less-likely-to-lose-luggage policy of mine. The new routing was through Guadalajara, on to Mexico City, then finally to Oaxaca. I could already see my bag languishing in a steaming quonset in Guadalajara as I made my way to beautiful colonial Centro at my destination, left with what I stood in for the duration. This definitely meant a heavier day pack. The only good news was that the first flight left earlier, at 11 PM instead of 1 AM, and the last flight on my return would get me in at 9, rather than 11 at night. Small blessings.
My usual reaction to such a situation would be to resist, to go online and see how I could make it better, bend them to my will. I thought about doing just that and immediately discarded the idea. After just a month, there’d been 2 changes already, and with 2 1/2 months to go, why bother?
Why bother? Redoing page 1 of my itinerary, replacing 2 flights with 3, my eyes focused on 2 lines in my return journey:
Sun, Oct 11 OAX - MEX 2:21 PM - 3:44 PM
Sun, Oct 11 MEX - GDL 4:00 PM - 5:25 PM
Sixteen minutes to change planes in Latin America’s busiest airport. Startled, I decided to sit with it for a while. Extrapolating, I suspected that if I missed the connection, which seemed more than likely, there would likely not be flights to get me home on Sunday night. More likely, I’d end up with an unscheduled overnight in Guadalajara. How did I feel about that? An interesting situation and I was leaning heavily toward just letting it play out. It’d cost me another $10 in parking at Sacramento Airport, but otherwise, I was in no hurry, would rather arrive home in daylight and, presumably, Aeromexico would be obliged to put me up for a night. On the downside, my checked bag might arrive in Shanghai about the time I woke up in the morning to continue on home. Still, I found myself inclined to see just what might happen. Adventure comes in many forms.
That evening. I chickened out. The agent on the phone at Aeromexico was as surprised with the 16 minute connection time as I was. So now I’ll be leaving Oaxaca a bit earlier, good timing between flights. While I was at it, I had him tweak the middle flight going down, giving me more time for 1 change and less for the other, both better. Sorry, folks, about the offer of some transit excitement, maybe some other time. Oh, and he confirmed, no more direct flights from Sacramento to Mexico City. It was too good to be true.
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.org
One week later. Email from Aeromexico. Subject: Flight reassignment. This time my flights returning home, the new ones, had changed, the first later by almost an hour and a half, now just after noon, the others by a few minutes. It amounts to an improvement, as I dislike having to leave for the airport early, but the transit time in Mexico City had also shrunk, to just under an hour and a half. It should be okay, barring delays or change of terminal. And I realized, if I hadn’t before, that travel to Mexico may be a free-form sort of experience.
This reminds me of the first and only other time I flew to Mexico, from Tucson to Guaymas. Travel down consisted of the flight, then a taxi into town to the bus station and a bus down the coast to Navojoa, then a second bus inland to Alamos, my destination for a week over Christmas. I remember the crowded buses and when I boarded the second bus in Navojoa, the driver indicated the seat just behind his where there was more space, for which I was glad. I’m not sure why he put me there but the view was great and I was reassured by the proximity. But I digress. On the return trip, the flight was late getting to Guaymas from Tucson and while we waited it got dark. It was a problem because the Guaymas airport had no runway lights, so our plane landed in Hermosillo, about 80 miles away. It was a small plane and there weren’t many of us, all Americans. They loaded us into a van and drove us to Hermosillo to the airport and right up to the plane, which was waiting for us. It was like a movie, when the limo pulls onto the tarmac next to the private plane. It was fun that time but I’m beginning to wonder what possible surprises may be in store in my near future.
If I’m looking for a second hometown for some easy twilight-years change of scene, closer may be better. This time I’ll proceed with 3 flights, instead of the 2 that I’d hoped for, that will get me to Oaxaca. If I love it enough, maybe 3 won’t be too many. If it proves to be too complicated, I may want to consider someplace else, like Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara, 1 flight away. On the questionable side, it’s home to thousands of retired Americans. It occurs to me now, that may be why Aeromexico bothers with direct flights from a podunk airport like SMF.
Next week: Why Oaxaca?
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