Thursday, February 21, 2013

Cazadores de Casas Internacionales

Welcome to this week's edition of "Cazadores de Casas Internacionales*" 

We have two house-hunters interested in finding a cozy home for the next few years in this Mexican borderland. What have we got to show them today?

How about a lovely 3BR/2.5 BA single-family home in Ciudad Juarez?

Join us on a tour and let's see if this newly-arrived couple will be making an offer!

Realtor: Today I'd like to show you a well-maintained single-family home in a gated community in an up-and-coming neighborhood of Ciudad Juarez. You'll see that this home is within quick commuting distance of your work and close to restaurants, a popular and fancy mall and an easy drive to the US border crossing.

Couple: Sounds great! Let's see it!

Realtor: Note the secure community with quiet, wide streets, open play areas and charming street lights lining the lanes.

Couple: Ohhh... yes, very nice. I imagine us walking here in the evenings.

Realtor: But wait until you see the inside; I think it has everything on your wish list!
Let's start with the roomy garage, and note the attractive exterior color scheme and landscaping, all in keeping with the desert setting. 

Couple: Ohhhh... yes, very nice. I like this already. 

Realtor: I want to show you the kitchen first. The modern appliances and ample storage space will make any gourmet chef happy.

Mrs. Couple: Ohh... stainless steel appliances and granite counter tops! And a dishwasher... hahaha, you know I have to have my dishwasher!

Mr. Couple: A six-burner gas stove and a big pantry. I could really work with this space!

Realtor: And notice lots of natural light and the open-plan that flows into the dining and family room.

Mrs. Couple: Yeah, we could really entertain here, and Mr. Couple wouldn't be separated in the when he's cooking for us... hahahaha!

Realtor: Now, I understand you all have pets - let's just take a look at this lovely, fully enclosed back yard! Your animals will be secure in their stone-wall surrounded yard with lawn, rose bushes and decorative desert-friendly trees and flowering shrubs. Come take a look and just picture all the evenings you'll spend grilling out here!

Mrs. Couple: Oooh... yes, this will be great for the cats, and you're right - we'll certainly be enjoying lots of Northern Mexico sun here. I can't wait to start gardening again.

Mr. Couple: And is that an automatic sprinkler system I see? And a new shed for gardening tools?

Realtor: That's right! And the high stone wall with metal spiking on top will keep your home secure.

Mrs. Couple: But let's go see the rest of the house. I hope the master bedroom is as good as the kitchen is!

Realtor: Of course! But let me show you the formal living room before we head upstairs, and note the high ceilings and lovely wrought-iron banister staircase first. 

Mr. Couple: Yes, very nice, very comfortable.

Realtor: But come upstairs and let's take a look at that master bedroom, and naturally - you'll want to see the walk-in closet!

Mrs. Couple: Wow, I think there's even enough room here for all my shoes! But where will you put your clothes, Mr. Couple? Hahahaha....

Mr. Couple: Hahahaha, yes, I guess I'll have to use the guest bedroom!

Realtor: So... it sounds like you two are pretty happy? Can you see yourselves living here for the next few years?

Couple in unison: I think we can. Let's make an offer!

-Cut to two weeks later and Mr. and Mrs. Couple and their cats have settled into their new home.-

Realtor: So, how have you all settled into your new Mexican lifestyle?

Mr. Couple: We're working on the yard, and can't wait to get a grill fired up soon!

Mrs. Couple: But the cats love it and they've already claimed one of the guest bedrooms and all of the overstuffed sofas... hahahaha... they explored every corner right from day one!

Realtor: Well it looks like we found a perfect home for these new residents to our borderland. All that's left to say is Viva Mexico! 

And we'll see you next week on the next edition of Cazadores de Casas Internacionales!

*This is not an official edition of "House Hunters International." 
Please note all sarcasm and excessive and intentional use of exclamation points. However, we really do like the kitchen and the walk-in closet. 
And the yard.
And the cats love their new bedroom.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Road Trip: Day Five

Location: Lindale, TX to Pecos, TX
Miles: 1336 - 1888
Weather: 50 - 76 degrees. Misty all morning until we passed through Ft. Worth, then clear and bright. 
Soundtrack: Miles and Miles of Texas (Listen while reading, they put it better than I can.)

Staying the night in Lindale, just north of Tyler and only half-way between the Louisiana border and Dallas, put us a few hours behind schedule. By "schedule," I mean the sketched-out plan we'd proposed that would break up the drive equally. We'd hoped to be to Ft.Worth instead, which was still 120 miles in front of us, with a big hump of Dallas in between. We had time to make up!

Toby is enchanted by his first cow sighting through the morning mist.
In such a misty morning, I had flashbacks of news stories past: "50 car interstate pile-up said to be caused by heavy fog." It didn't help that the route was so heavily traveled by 18-wheel big rigs, and bordered by those darn concrete Jersey barriers that I just know will take me some day when I sneeze while driving 75 mph on the highway. Or get distracted by a bee that suddenly comes in my window. But again... that's just me. My husband had the wheel this morning and fortunately he isn't as paranoid as I am. 

Texas started to look very much like it should, or like I'd imagined. Ranches are larger, with painted white metal-pole fencing surrounding grazing herds of horses or cattle. Grand stone archways marked the entrances, the name of the ranch declared over the broad tree-lined driveways. Why here are people more prosperous, when just a few hundred miles back the scene was completely different? Instead of trailers, the ranch houses were predominantly low brick expanses with large eaves to shelter the house from the relentless, drying sun. 

The next notable difference was the explosion of mall-sized mega churches. Not one or two, but one after another after another, and all with interstate frontage and massive parking lots. Towards the edges of Ft. Worth, and out of the urban zone, the "cowboy churches" began. Besides the church hall itself, there was also a riding arena alongside, complete with the cloverleaf barrel pattern set up, roping chutes and livestock pens. A little prayer, a little riding - integral parts of the Texan fabric, apparently. 

Seen on a billboard: "Fried pie! BBQ ribs! Open at 7 a.m." 

I'm not sure what bothered me more about this: the idea of taking a perfectly delicious pie and deciding that it would be better if immersed briefly in boiling grease, or the fact that there was enough early morning demand for this delicacy, along with ribs, to require someone get up at 5:30 am to open the shop, greet the customers and provide them with this wholesome morning meal. 

Texan roadside humor
Outside of Ft. Worth, we saw the first highway sign listing El Paso on the distant horizon, 545 miles away, to be exact. It was about noon, and we figured that if we just pushed and pushed - we could be there by 9:00 tonight. But the idea of nine more hours in the car, with three of our members crossing their legs until the litter box stopped moving was too much to expect. 

The landscape was changing now that we were out of the urban area, too. The land was drier, with cactus and small, scrubby gray trees that looked like even in a good, soaking rain they'd never come back to green lushness. We saw our first tumbleweed, but it was disappointingly stationary. And let me not forget the oil pumps, their bird-like heads bobbing up and down everywhere. These began dotting the horizon as soon as we entered Texas, but now seemed to be common backyard features like kids play equipment. Further west, the ranches were now dilapidated, sand-blasted gray wooden houses, looking 100 years old, but were probably only 20. The trains  stretched out longer and longer, and farms of wind turbines broke up an otherwise featureless horizon. 

Approaching Odessa-Midland the oil and fracking industry took over and we were hit by the distinct frontier town feel. Nearly all the vehicles sharing the interstate with us were  shiny chrome-grilled, full-sized trucks: Fords, Chevys, GMCs and Dodges only. It reminded him of Dutch Harbor, Alaska and the fishing industry there, in that the scene was dominated by testosterone-driven, masculine professions. Aesthetics not important here, just the pursuit of hard work and a big paycheck. Due to this industry boom, and the need to import huge quantities of workers, the hotel rates anywhere near Odessa and Midland shot from the usual $70 per night straight up to $250! We knew this coming in, and had planned not to stop until Pecos, which promised a government rate of less than $100 per night. We pulled into Pecos after covering over 500 miles and found the Quality Inn alongside the interstate. No government rates were being offered anymore, the receptionist told us, and so for $179 we shared a fairly smelly and nasty hotel room with the obligatory toenail clippings stuck into the carpet beside the bed. Ewww!  The staff were very friendly, and our fellow residents were all the oil and fracking industry workers with their company trucks parked outside the rooms. The inside courtyard rooms offered access to a sunny patio area overlooking the closed pool containing a few feet of green, littered water. This view could be enjoyed from your very own plastic lawn chair, along with your own rusty coffee-can ashtray. No expenses spared!

Pecos oil pump at work just outside our motel
We had dinner at the motel's "Joe's Italian Restaurant" just off the lobby. The menu offered all the classic Italian favorites, and we were surprised with a pretty good, spicy pasta dinner. Down the hall, we had an after-dinner beer at the "Red Iguana" bar/nightclub. We weren't the only ones in the bar, as there were a few tables of single or two men together, all derrick workers, killing time before going to bed and starting all over again early tomorrow morning. We struck up a conversation with the cocktail waitress who told us that she and the bartender drive in from El Paso each week to work the busy bar (apparently the weekends get pretty crazy - I could only imagine!) and stay in an RV in the motel's parking lot. I'm not sure why there were no capable Pecosians available for this work that the owner felt the need to import the staff, but that is apparently the case. 

The next morning, we enjoyed our free continental breakfast in the same "Joe's Italian Restaurant" dining room. I thought the Texas-shaped waffles were pretty clever, but really - they're just copying what Colorado has been doing for years. We got an earlier start, and before packing up I wandered around the motel, hearing pairs of ring-neck doves cooing, adding a soft touch to the otherwise bleak and rugged landscape. 

The final push to El Paso will be a short one, and we should be pulling into our new city by just after lunch!
Miles and miles of Texas!

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Road Trip: Day Four

Road Trip: Day Four
Mileage: 1007 – 1336
Location: Pearl, MS – Lindale, TX
Weather: Misty overcast with sun breaks, 50 – 67 degrees

We didn’t get out of Pearl and back on the interstate until after 11:00 because my husband was on the phone with various car insurance brokers working on our dual US-Mexican coverage plans. We thought we had it settled months ago after learning of our posting to Juarez, but it turned out that the US carriers won’t cover us in Mexico and vice-versa. So, many, many phone calls and two separate insurance plans later, we received the necessary proof of coverage via email for Mexico and packed up the furry buddies to leave.

Western Mississippi didn’t offer much more to look at than eastern Mississippi did, to be honest. It’s not that it’s ugly (it isn’t), it’s just that they don’t put the nice stuff along the highway. We reached the Mississippi River just about lunchtime and turned off the interstate north into the town of Vicksburg looking for some kind of funky BBQ shack. The road wound along the top of a high cliff overlooking the river, with a view of the Big Muddy and a massive, flat barge just barely taller than the water level being pushed upstream by a powerful tug. Along the clifftop drive were dozens of statues memorializing lots and lots of dead Confederates, as my husband put it. In 1863 it was the site of the siege of Vicksburg, which effectively “split the Confederacy in half.” (I didn’t know any of this before, but looked it up later.) Anyway, it was a very interesting town, half of which was spruced up with new stores and some obvious local investment, but the other half had been let lie since maybe the 50s or 60s. We never found that BBQ shack, sadly, so Church’s Fried Chicken would have to do for lunch, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Dodger, who demanded his share straight away. Still licking our fingers, we said goodbye to Mississippi and crossed the bridge into Louisiana.
Barging up the Mississippi

Taken while driving by - mentions supporting the right to bear arms

Circa 1960s menswear shop in Mississippi

Lovely hilltop museum that was probably the Town Hall in better days

Faded balcony along the Mississippi River

Interstate travel offers such a homogenized and boring view of the countryside, so we decided to hop on a parallel country highway to see more of the towns, houses and in general get a sense of what Louisiana was like. This meant giving up about 15 mph on the speed limit, but we decided that if it was holding us back too much, we’d just hop back onto the interstate. Louisiana straight away had a different feel to it from its eastern neighbors. The trees grew ankle-deep in murky gray water, with Spanish moss draping from the upper branches. In the “no surprise here” department, there were still huge numbers of trailers or pre-fab homes as in Mississippi, but there were also nice wrought-iron touches on the eaves or front porches of the brick houses. This is a state we’ll definitely return to explore more, but for now we could only make time by cutting across the northern width. It didn’t take long to get to Shreveport, near the Texas border, a city whose people consider themselves closer to Texans and Dallas than New Orleans. This was demonstrated in the truck window decals we saw showing Calvin peeing on the Saints emblem, and heralding the Cowboys instead.

Finally, just before sunset we left Louisiana behind. It’s always so interesting to me how different a place feels just after crossing a border, and entering the Republic of Texas was no exception. The horizon broadened and the rolling hills gave us a view of a wide expanse of state that we now had to cross. In fact, we’ll spend the next three days working our way across the wingspan of Texas.

First night: Lindale, TX.
First impression: Not great. While checking into our hotel, I chatted with the front desk clerk, noting that we were happy to be here as we’d been driving since Washington, DC. This was her reply:
“Washington, DC? Oh! I’m so sorry!” she says with a snarky smirk.
I figured she was talking about the distance we’d been driving. Nope.
“We watch the news and we know about all the horrible things that are going on up there!”
Uhhh… what? Did I miss some recent atrocity on the news yesterday?
“Horrible things? What do you mean?”
“We just see it all on the news – all that awful stuff that’s going on up there.”
“I still don’t know what you mean. What stuff?”
“It’s on the news; it’s just awful.”

Oh, I get it. She’s talking about politics. Of course now she’s made me mad and I can’t let it go and continue to tell her that it’s just a great place to live, so many different kinds of people and great things to see. We had a wonderful stay there etc… But now she can tell I’m on to her and has clammed up. I silently dare her to make a remark about the President, but she doesn't take the bait. Wise girl.

We unload and Ugly Surprise #2 comes when my husband goes to the mini-mart nearby for a beer. It seems we've picked a dry county to bed down in for the night. With the advice from the young guys working at the mini-mart, my husband was able to find a “wet” county just 15 minutes north, and knowing that a few cold beers would be worth it, he got back in the car to make the trek.

This could be a very, very big state indeed.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Road Trip: Day Three

Day Three: Chattanooga, TN – Pearl, MS

Mileage: 616 – 1007

Weather: 66 – 48 degrees - clear and mostly sunny

Soundtrack: “O Brother Where Art Thou” 

Shortly outside of Chattanooga, we drove through a small corner of Georgia and then into Alabama. Our first rest stop in Alabama showed a marked difference in the temperature and landscape from our first two days. Pulling over for PB & J sandwiches for lunch at the rest area, we smelled the sweet piney woods for the first time. And even though it’s still only early February, there was a pond of frogs croaking in the background and paths through the trees cushioned with dry pine straw. For my husband, these sights, sounds and smells meant home. There was a marked difference in the sights outside the windows from the highway, too, with the piney woods replacing the gray and dormant deciduous trees of Virginia and Tennessee.  
Blue skies and pine trees - welcome to Alabama!
In Birmingham, we picked up the interstate that we’ll follow all the way through Texas and cut a diagonal line across northern Alabama towards Mississippi. As the first time I’d ever been in Mississippi, I had been excited to visit a new state and see what the real Deep South looked like. It looked like pine trees. The highway is bordered by these forests for the majority of Alabama and all the way to Jackson, MS, with only small glimpses through the trees to cleared areas where it looked like the trees had been harvested. No old men sitting on porches, playing their harmonics with their hound dogs by their side, or grandmothers hanging laundry on the line outside the weathered gray wooden cottages. It was just trees.  

Toby joined Dodger and Daphne atop our luggage and boxes in the Captain’s Seat, where all three snuggled down quietly to nap or watch the world go by. Once in a while, someone would climb down from above my headrest to sit on my lap, but quickly bored of it and headed back up the stack. Despite our making it available, nobody used the litter box, ate from the kibble bowl or drank from the waterer that keeps sloshing onto a towel in the back of the car. But at least they’re there… in case they change their mind. 
The modern Beverly Hillbillies and their cats?
Eastern Mississippi didn’t look too different from Alabama except for one unfortunate difference: the marked increase in road kill alongside the highway. Disturbingly, it wasn’t only deer, raccoons, coyotes and possums, but also dogs – people’s dogs everywhere! And all types of domestic dogs, too, tragically.  

We made it to central Mississippi, just outside of Jackson, by dinner time and pulled into a motel in Pearl in time to settle the kitties, unpack the car (*sigh*) and head out to find a spot for dinner and to watch the second half of the Super Bowl. We each pictured finding some local flavor, some divey fish fry joint with cold beer and a big screen. Instead, we found rows and rows of neon-sign chain restaurants with different themes and quirky decors, but chain restaurants all the same. The local flavor just doesn’t live alongside the interstate anymore; I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by the continued strip-mauling of America. We settled on Logan’s Roadhouse, with bowls of peanuts on the tables and shells on the floor and a sassy young waitress named Georgette. She couldn’t recommend what beer was best on tap, as she swore she only drank tequila and said she wanted to come with us to Mexico. The restaurant was lined with big-screen TVs for the big game, and big groups of big families taking up most of the big tables. And by “big,” I don’t just mean families with many members, I mean BIG families. And how can you not be big down here when it seems that every meal starts with baskets of rolls or biscuits dripping in butter, is battered and fried, is washed down with pints of sweet tea, and comes with a choice of two sides (like mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese or fried okra)? I ordered sautéed (in butter) seasoned shrimp on skewers and a side of cinnamon apples. Let’s be honest here: this is basically a big bowl of pie filling disguised as a dinner side instead of a dessert. Georgette later brought me an extra buttery roll so that she could show me how to make a quickie apple pie. Even stuffed full of shrimp and the first round of buttery rolls already, it would have been rude of me to not try her special recipe. After all, I’ve been burning lots of calories sitting still in the car for six hours a day, right? Urgh. But it was tasty. 

Mississippi had two other quirks that peeved my husband in particular. First, they don’t sell beer after 5pm on a Sunday, even a Super Bowl Sunday. Second, the hotel TV was programmed to turned itself off after about 15 minutes. Apparently it’s the hotel’s energy-saving methods at work, and one need only hit the remote to reactivate it, but I thought it would be better if it required the watcher to do some jumping jacks or go run around the block before it would turn back on. Probably just the apple pie biscuits nagging on my conscience.  

The five of us piled onto the lone queen bed in the room and tried to get some good sleep before the next day’s long haul into Texas. Unfortunately for me, the lightest sleeper on either side of the Mississippi – this didn’t happen. There’s always tomorrow night.

Next: More MS, LA and Eastern Texas!

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Road Trip: Day Two

Day Two: Bristol, VA – Chattanooga, TN
Miles: 361-615
Weather: Blowing snow, icy, windy and mid-20s

This travel day was planned to be shorter than the others as we had a fixed destination: visiting my husband’s brother and sister-in-law, plus step-sister and her family in Chattanooga.  Having not seen them for years, we wanted to arrive as early as we could to extend the visit beyond just pulling in for dinner and then heading back to the hotel. The weather had other plans.

First, the cats had to be persuaded to come out from under the bed once again. Persuasion might be the wrong verb, but I’m not sure which one to use that accurately describes the escalation in force which begins with begging, bribing with treats, pleading, threatening to leave them behind and finally pressing our cheeks flat against the hotel carpet in order to reach said putty-tat by the scruff, turning them sideways and not-too-graciously dragging them out from underneath the furniture. Besides asking about government rates and easy car-to-room access when making hotel reservations, I’m now inquiring about the weight of the beds and sofas, and whether or not these pieces can be lifted to fetch reluctant fur travelers. Frankly, I think a petition should be started requiring hotels to use platform beds, thus saving us all a lot of time and effort in the stressful packing-up and moving-out process.  But that’s just me.

Once loaded into the car, they quickly settled, and by the time we got up to a steady highway speed, Daphne and Dodger had found their perches on the mounds of luggage behind our heads. Toby, not known for either his jumping or climbing skills, caterwauled for a while and then resigned himself to nesting in the litter box. Really Toby, have some pride, man!

Leaving Bristol, on the VA-TN border, it was 23 degrees and the small amount of snow that had fallen the day before wasn’t going anywhere.  We drove for a ways and then at the first break, I took the wheel. Shortly outside of Knoxville, TN the blowing snow started. It wasn’t the big, fluffy flakes that hypnotize me when I look up into them (thankfully), but rather the driving, pelting granules that formed a glossy sheen on the highway. Soon the line of traffic ground to a stop and we realized there must be a wreck ahead, and not surprisingly either.

“Honey, do folks from Tennessee know how to drive in the snow?” I asked my husband, who’s from the South, and thus the subject-matter expert for all inquiries for the next three days’ drive.

“Sure, it should snow some here every year.”

This lead me to conclude that the 10-car smash up we passed shortly afterwards was either a freak ice storm that took otherwise perfectly prepared motorized by surprise, was involving only people from other states making their way to the Super Bowl, or just a case of plain bad luck for all involved. The dozen or so other cars we passed littering the ditches, wrapped around trees, flipped over in the slushy roadsides or simply slid off the roadway put to rest any question about their winter driving capabilities.  My brother-in-law later told us, “Oh heck no! People in Tennessee can’t drive in the snow!”

We crept our way between Knoxville and Chattanooga, and by the time we got to our hotel the streets were simply cold and dry, but no longer slushy or snowy.

After the first night’s hotel room, sharing the bed with the Tabbies, we opted for a suite at Hotel Two with separate living and bedrooms. It was super nice, actually nicer than our Oakwood Apartment, and once released from their carriers, the kitties immediately set out exploring all corners, undersides of all beds, behind each dresser and the topside of each pillow. We left them in peace for the evening, and shared a lovely dinner and night of catching up with my husband’s family.

Tucking into bed last night, my husband admitted that it would be nice to stay here a few more days. It’s only Day Two, and already the packing-unpacking-packing routine is getting old. However, with having a hotel suite instead of single room, we were able to give the cats the living room and then close the bedroom doors to give us some relief from the feline parade that generally starts about 04:00 a.m. and doesn’t cease until all humans are awake and preparing bowls of food for the true masters of the house.

We spent the morning visiting family again for breakfast and letting the cats explore their beautiful suburban home, complete with screened-in porch with view of a pond, a brook, birds in trees and real grass. What could be better, right? According to Daphne, it would be better if they got rid of those terrifying raptors suspended from the ceiling in each room, spinning and preparing to attack unsuspecting kitties. She was smarter than that, and promptly bolted under the love seat.

Yeah, she has a point; and we realized that we’ve never had a ceiling fan in the house before. Poor love.

Next Phase: TN, GA, AL to MS!

Friday, February 01, 2013

Road Trip: Day One

Distance: Miles 0 - 360

Location: Falls Church, VA to Virginia - Tennessee border

Appropriate Song: Country Roads

We woke up this morning to a flurry of light snow falling on our moving day. But it really wasn't falling, in the sense of going from up above to down below, because of the swirling winds, the snow was going every different direction other than down giving us our own little inside-the-snow-globe effect. The Tabbies weren't fooled by any of our packing up, and as soon as they finished their breakfast, retreated to under the bed. As if we'd leave them behind...

By 11:30 the car was stuffed to the gills, including the rooftop carrier, and the cats were in their carriers in the back-back of the car. Two hours down the road, we pulled into a gas station for bathroom breaks and to open the carriers for the kitties, giving them free range over the back of the car. I kept an eye on them for Worst Fear #1 - cats diving under the accelerator pedal in the fast lane of the interstate, but nothing near that happened. In fact, it was better than expected, with Daphne immediately making herself comfortable in what I now refer to as the Captain's Seat: her bed on the pile of suitcases, coolers and boxes behind our seats at headrest level. Instead of wild-eyed and freaked out, she was quite relaxed and enjoying the scenery. After not too long, she was even asleep.

To check on how the boys were doing in the back, I had to crawl belly-down over the pile of stuff and scooch as far back as I could to reach them. I could barely scratch behind their ears, but could easily see that they were pretty quietly curled up either in their carriers, or right in front. Awww. Better than expected!

We soon came to realize the one big problem with a six-day roadtrip heading south-west: the sun. As in, driving off into the sunset. It seems the last four hours of our day were spent squinting through our sunglasses, and the last hour wishing we had extra pairs to layer on. See what I mean:
Bright horizons sound good, but this is ridiculous!
We pushed on 360 miles and our nearing our first state border. The five of us are now snug in a hotel room and the Tabbies are no doubt thinking, "So... this is the new house you've been telling us about? Man, you must've lost your job, mom!" But as long as they eat (yup), use the litterbox (yup), drink water (we're watching) and don't howl all night (Toby!) - this trip might just go okay. 

Meanwhile, we'll all watch the scenery unfold outside the window. For now, it's rolling hills, farm houses and barns in frosty hollers, and stands of dead-looking winter trees, huddled against the 23-degree day.