Thursday, May 28, 2020

Reflecting on Travel: semester in Mexico City in 1979

Mr. Charles Shreiner (1924-2019), Director of the Latin American Studies Program at St. Joseph's University, who was responsible for offering the junior year program in Mexico in 1979. I jumped at the opportunity.

Practically everyone on the planet is grounded because of the coronavirus, and travel plans have to be postponed for our own safety and the safety of others. While we're all waiting, the two things that I can do are the following: 1) look back on previous trips and cherish the memories, and 2) take local drives to look for places to walk and take in scenery (in some parts of the world, the restrictions in place won't allow you to do this). I have been exceedingly fortunate to have spent over 40 years traveling to wonderful locations, and have a storehouse of memories to draw upon. Much as I've enjoyed the exhilaration of traveling, I equally enjoy taking the time to remember these experiences and appreciate them even further.

Housemate Eliel Garay, originally from Acapulco, who celebrated his birthday with a drink of rompope liqueur 

The first real opportunity I had to travel afar in any meaningful way was during a semester in Mexico in 1979, when I was a junior at St. Joseph's University. Our university had a study abroad program with the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, and it was a fabulous way to get acquainted with another country and culture. We international students stayed at individual houses not far from the university, as there were no dormitories. The university's international department sponsored day field trips to places like Teotihuacán, site of impressive pyramids; nearby Cuernavaca; and the mining town of Taxco. The climate was ideal, and social opportunities with housemates and fellow students were abundant. There were also concerts at the university, and I recall seeing a gentleman named Carlos Maceiras play classical guitar and then break into jazz, which electrified the audience. 

In March, midway through the semester, we felt movement in our house at 5:15 am, and concluded that an earthquake was striking. We went to the doorway and rode it out, then tried to go back to sleep. Shortly afterwards, we saw a huge flash resembling a lightning bolt, which turned out to be the power plant, after which the electricity went out. Housemate Eliel Garay, with his quick wit, sang Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet" after things settled down.

Later we learned that "something happened to the university" and went outside to find out more. As we walked to the university and met up with some of our classmates along the way, we realized that it had been toppled. The university had a long main building with five wings connected to it, labeled A to E. Part of the main building split off around wing C, bringing down the remainder of that building, then flattening wing E like a set of dominoes. No one was in the building when it happened; the last students in the building left at 2 am.

I was studying in Mexico City in 1979 when an earthquake destroyed Universidad Iberoamericana, the university I was attending

The International Department was completely under the rubble, as were the travelers' checks I had kept there for safekeeping. I had bought Citicorp Travelers' Checks at AAA before leaving for Mexico.  Wagons-Lits managed these in Mexico City, and I went to the office to put in a claim. I was told that I would have to have a police report, which I would have to get at a certain precinct. It turned out to be a waste of time. My Mexican friends told me instead to go to the "Delegación Política," and one of them accompanied me to the office to get the required documents. In the meantime, my parents had wired me money to tide me over. Ultimately, I was able to return to Wagons-Lits and get the money, but later learned that my friends who had brought American Express travelers' checks got their money on the spot at the Amex office. You can guess which company I used after that!

With the university in ruins, all the offices moved in cramped quarters to the library, a separate building that was still standing. All our classes moved to the residences of several of the housemothers who had been renting out rooms to us. I recall in one house, a beautiful Russian wolfhound would strut in and out while we were having classes. It was initially uncomfortable, but all of us made it work.

After finishing our studies in May and saying our goodbyes, I accompanied one of my classmates who was driving from Mexico City to Austin. We drove to San Luis Potosí, saw a band in the plaza who was playing 70s disco music, and stayed the night at a decent hotel. On the second day, we stopped at an open-air market and I got a nice cowboy hat. Back on the road, we got to drier land and ultimately Saltillo. The town was pleasant, but my friend wanted a hotel with an enclosed garage to protect his car, and the hotel turned out to be a disaster. The bathroom floor flooded as soon as I flushed the toilet. During the night we were tormented by midges and tried sleeping in the car to get away from them. After our horrible night's sleep, we hit the road again, crossed the border at Piedras Negras/Eagle Pass to avoid the traffic at Laredo, and proceeded on to San Antonio. The contrast between Mexico and the US could not have been greater: brown all around on the Mexican side, green on the US side. San Antonio was marvelous with its River Walk, and we made up for our bad experience in Saltillo by staying at a nice La Quinta in San Antonio. The next morning we had a sumptuous Mexican breakfast at a restaurant named "Mi Tierra," paid a visit at an Army base as my classmate was an Army lawyer, having reached the rank of Captain, and proceeded to Austin. I spent some time in Austin with my classmate, then proceeded to fly to Dallas and then to Tampa. My ultimate destination was Lakeland to stay with my aunt and uncle, along with another student who had decided to go to Guadalajara first before meeting up with me in Tampa. We enjoyed Lakeland and visited the pre-Epcot Disney World. I recall that the temperature in late May was 85 degrees Fahrenheit - not as oppressive as it normally would have been. After our stay there, we flew to Atlanta and made our way to Chattanooga to stay with my friend's brother. From there we were able to go to Lake Winnepesaukah Amusement Park in Rosswell, Georgia, and later Rock City, Cloudland Canyon, and Lookout Mountain. After all that traveling, we flew to Atlanta and back home to Philadelphia.