Mexico - Part I - Monterrey

The next stop for Star Wars was Mexico.

I was the most excited and scared for this portion of the trip. I love visiting foreign countries and going further into Mexico than Tijuana appealed to me greatly…however…that country is under extreme duress right now as the government is in a public battle with the drug cartels for control over the cities and the country as a whole. Our tour was taking us to two locations, Monterrey and Mexico City. When I first signed up for the tour I was more afraid to visit Mexico City as a fellow musician I play with in Chicago was shot in broad day there and it is very public that they have a high crime rate but as the date drew nearer for us to go it became apparent that Monterrey was just as dangerous. Apparently a month or so before we got there drug cartel entered a local hotel, demanded a guest list and kidnapped several hotel patrons…some of whom have not been heard from since. Monterrey for years was a mountain resort town, an expensive privileged area to live in and one where many higher up in the cartels would raise their families…with so many cartels fighting for power they’ve brought the fight home so to say and unfortunately the city of Monterrey and it’s citizens are at their mercy. So now I was just scared to go to both places. I promised both my Mom and Mick that I would use good judgment and only travel in groups.

We started our journey to Mexico early from Austin. The company pulled some strings and was able to get us our pay checks a few days early so we could deposit them before we entered the country rather than having to carry them around an already unsafe area. Monday I hustled in the Austin heat to drop off my check and catch the bus to the airport. We were traveling as a group, crew, orchestra, and production. Our set and supplies were being driven to the border where Mexican drivers were picking up and would drive the set to the Mexican locations. (side note- the border confiscated all our catering food, waters, spices….crappy) It was fun traveling with everyone for once but the lines seemed to get longer and longer…entering into Mexico we obviously had to go through customs and I found it hilarious watching everyone get a little nervous to go through all the check points. We were all down to one bag again (we had to give up our other bag again and wouldn’t see it until Fresno!) One of my favorite memories was watching as everyone cleared customs…once you handed your form to the agent you had to step up to a machine that you pressed a button on and it randomly gives you a green or red light. If you get the green light you are clear to walk through into the terminal…if you get the red light you get the privilege of having your bag manually searched in front of everyone…it was like a 70’s game show…I fortunately won…Shawna and Colleen however were red lighted….Once we were all through security and had changes over our dollars to pesos we hit the buses…the Monterrey country side was very pretty but tragic looking at the same time…shanties and poverty. The city itself is nestled in the mountains, quite different from what I expected…for some reason I thought it was a resort town, meaning it was on the beach but in fact it’s a mountainous resort area. No wonder the richest of the rich in Mexico live and raise their families. In recent months it’s become a hot area for the cartel fighting each other for power by kidnapping and killing at whim. With all the security concerns all persons with the tour, crew, orchestra, production, primary cast was all staying at one of the nicest hotels in Monterrey, The Intercontinental Presedente hotel. The hotel was a little older but it was nice and it did have a whole system water filtration system that cleaned the water for the whole hotel which was nice because we were all warned to not drink or even brush our teeth with the water or eat any food that may have been rinsed in water…we all made our way to our rooms tired yet excited to check out the surroundings. It has happened a few times on tour that when you get you our room you find that someone is already in it! And unfortunately for Shawna this happened to her here…she was moved into 4 different rooms and every time there was someone already in it! So side note…when you get into a room make sure you engage the deadbolt…can you imagine someone walking in on you??!?!? Anyhow, I made it to my room, it was at the end of a really long hallway…the room was sort of odd shaped but it had an outstanding wall of windows facing the mountain side. There was a sliding glass door leading to a huge patio and me being in a bad mood was like” great this isn’t safe I have a communal patio right outside my room and to make things even better the lock doesn’t work” man I was pissed…until about an hour later when I thought I might as well and see how and where this thing goes…when I stepped outside I realized it was not only a HUGE patio…it was private and all mine….I spent a good portion of those three days just sitting in one of the loungers drinking coffee and just looking at the mountains…It was amazing!

 Counting and checking the exchange rate for Pesos.

 Enjoying the view and my morning coffee.

 Outdoor dining set.

View from the sliding glass doors.  The patio wrapped around to the right.

The first night we were there a group of us decided to head across the street to the mall. We were hungry so we thought we’d check out what their food court would have…it had tacos, tacos and pasta! Oh and a Chinese place…we wandered for a bit and then took the plunge and ordered. There were a lot of hand signals and broken spanglish…but we all managed to get our food and it was pretty decent. It’s hard to order and try to remember what might have touched water…everything was canned or bottled soda/water and no lettuce or any fresh vegetables….since ordering took forever a few of us went over to the bookstore in the mall and bought Spanish - English dictionaries. I would use this religiously for the next week and I had a blast trying to talk to people. Some of my friends just shut down when someone would try and talk to them in Spanish but I enjoyed every second of it! The mall was huge and it had some very high end stores. It was really nice. And the prices were a little less expensive than in the U.S. so we did some damage at the “Claire’s “ type stores and the shoe stores of which there were no shortage…Mexicans love shoes and they have some of the cutest shoes I have ever seen…they also have small feet so pretty much nothing fit me...we also hit the grocery store. We got bottled water, alcohol and snacks. It was fun to roam the store and try and figure out what some of the items were. As it got dark we headed back across the street. Even though we were in a group we didn’t feel like we should be outside the hotel past dark.

Mexican food court was delicious!

Shawna and Tim...Tim got very flustered when was fun to watch;)

 Peter and Me.

Karin got PASTA!

We had all Tuesday off and our group knew we wanted to go see some stuff, but we were concerned about safety. We were in the lobby of the hotel mid morning and we ran into some others who were going to this outdoor market. We wanted to go but none of us spoke Spanish well enough to feel comfortable getting there…then my friend Elizandro (a colleague and friend from Chicago) came out of the elevator doors…he must of seen the look on our faces because we didn’t even have to ask him to come with us…he simply said “Okay ladies were are we going” A sigh of relief washed over us…He was willing to get us to the Callas Morelos (literally Morelos Street) it’s an outdoor mall of shops. The hotel got us a limo service (it is not advised for foreigners especially to use cabs off of the street) Elizandro sat up front with the drive and 4 girls squeezed in the back seat. We asked all the questions we could think of and Elizandro patiently translated every question and answer. It was awesome! After a quick bite to eat Elizandro had to leave us to meet up with some friends but he wrote down a bunch of phrases for shopping and the info and phrase to call our limo service in my dictionary…he even had me practice saying them so he knew we would be okay. It’s interesting, while he was escorting us nobody approached us about anything...after he left we were cat called and followed…we brushed it off but were well aware of our surroundings. The day went pretty fast. We did more costume jewelry and shoe shopping. One of my favorite things was when we saw one of the many pastry shops. You go in and get a pair of tongs and a tray and shop for everything you want and then they package it up for you. We were trying to speak such good Spanish but were very happy when the woman behind the counter said in perfect English, “I can speak English so what questions can I answer for you!” As we left we saw the little old lady in the window throwing the dough around…she was so cute and posed for pictures! Another shop we saw was a pet store that had monkeys in the window and to be honest it looked as if the animals were very ill cared for. I tried to take pictures but the security people were on me like white on rice yelling that there were no photos allowed. We were also yelled at by a shoe shop owner because we had taken pictures of us in front of his shoe store. He actually wanted us to pay him for taking the photo…we promptly left his establishment. The Callas Morelos is downtown near the palace and museums’ etc...we would have loved to walk around outside the mall area but again were warned to not leave and we were heeding all warnings. A funny side story…after eating our meal and our pastries we of course needed to use a restroom. We found a mall type building and went in and in my now expert Spanish I asked, “Perdon, donde es banos?“ A security guard pointed to where they were located and Shawna, Colleen and I made our way in…as stalls became available we each took one…until we were all situated and realized that there was no toilet paper…in fact there isn’t’ even an area for or a toilet paper roll to hold the toilet paper…thankfully Shawna had some Kleenex on her…I just found this interesting…I guess in Mexico they don’t provide that in public places. They also don’t flush toilet paper…you are suppose to wrap it and throw it out…gross I know but I thought this was interesting so I wanted to share. Around 6 pm the sun started to go down and a different set of characters were starting to come out so we decided it was probably time for us to head back to the hotel. I practiced the phrase one last time “Puedes venir a recogernos en la calle morelos” we got a handful of pesos on hand incase we needed more time on the pay phone…and after all of that…the driver didn’t pick up…SHIT! As we were trying to call for the limo every taxi stand driver was eyeing us and offering us a ride. I think at on point one of the girls suggested we just take one of them but I am glad we didn’t…instead I called the hotel concierge and explained who we were and where we were at and he promptly sent a limo for us. The hotel was amazing for that. They have reputable people who they have car service contracts with and it’s a set rate. I felt so much more safe in an unmarked taxi that the hotel had sent for us. We asked on the phone how we would know it’s the hotels’ car and he gave us the make and model of the car and when describing the driver he chuckled and said, “I am sorry it sounds bad but he is bald and how you say…fat.” I thought that was hilarious. It didn’t take very long for the car to show up and the relief we all felt at seeing the car was pretty instantaneous! We later found out that the location we had been all day was the exact location that the hotel kidnapping and murder had taken place about a month previously.

Quatro damos..shoved in the back of a car!

One of many shoes stored we shopped at...this is the one where they wanted us to pay for having taken the picture.

Me and my extra large donut...that was fresh and delicious.

Little old lady makin' the donuts!

View from the front seat of the cab ride back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel we decided to chill for a bit and then Shay, Shawna and I decided to meet for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. We had a nice quiet dinner and just relaxed until large business party showed up and three men from the party came over to hit on us! It was sort of funny. They were super nice and lived in America now. We told them we were married but they still offered to buy us drinks. We think they were just trying to show off in front of their clients. We had heard from some other members of the orchestra that there might be a big party that night in the hotel bar because it was two members birthdays, Patty (Cello) and Ros (Horn). Rumor had it that they had hired a Mariachi band…as we were paying our bill we heard the beautiful sounds of the Mariachi and ran over to the bar, just in time to see the tail end of the two cakes being smashed into each of the birthday girls’ faces. I like both of these girls a lot but I couldn’t help feeling like a dirty American…cake and icing were everywhere, the floor, the pool table felt, the tables and sofas…that aside the Mariachi band was awesome. I love experiencing other cultures’ music, like when I was in Japan, experiencing the Kitaro drums was one of my most favorite memories. There were plenty of bottles of Tequila making the rounds and all in all it was a fun bonding night for most of the orchestra. One of the best parts was when Angel (Bass Trombone) sat in with the band and serenaded the ladies.

Erik with Bday Girlfriend, Patty.

The band...who was awesome!

Colleen, Richard, Jim, and Bday Girl Ros.

Kathy doing her part to clean up...licking up the frosting from the pool table.

4 amigos

Angel sitting in with the band.

Wednesday was show day but the shows were late, 5pm and 10 pm…that’s right…a show started at 10 pm! It was crazy. Since the shows started so late we had extra time in the morning and when I got I up got a hold of the group and we all met to try and find a good breakfast. Before I left I saw Chris on line on Facebook chat…I mentioned that we were leaving for breakfast and that I hadn’t seen him since we had gotten to Monterrey…he replied that he was afraid that he would get mugged and so he had been in his room for the past two and a half days! I told him to meet us downstairs…when we got to the lobby we could all see his lips were chapped and his eyes glazed over…he said he was so parched because he hadn’t had any water or even brushed his teeth since we had gotten to Mexico...I told him that the hotel’s water was filtered and his eyes lit up.. “will you guys wait for me to brush my teeth?” “Please do!” I replied! It was just so funny to us that he had stayed in….we were all a little scared about being there but since we were traveling during the day and in groups we figured we were being cautious! We went back to the mall and had breakfast at the malls’ Chili’s it was pretty funny to eat there. I had banana hot cakes…they weren’t like normal pancakes…but they were delicious. After a little shopping I headed back to the hotel to get ready for the shows. Since we were performing outside the U.S. there are different rules on what we can bring into the country and what the company could sell…etc…for example we were not allowed to use our catering company in Monterrey. We also could not bring our own merchandise to sell. I found this most interesting. In lieu of our merchandise local merchants set up their own tents (think outdoor Saturday Market) and sell completely unauthorized merchandise to the public. The whole Star Wars company thought his was hilarious though because the merchandise was cheap and stuff you really just wouldn’t find anywhere else. After our sound check I wanted to head out but we were warned to not leave the building because this was an unsafe area. So we ate our catered meal and waited but after reports came back about how much funny merchandise there was out there we all decided we couldn’t pass it up so with another colleague who spoke Spanish, Angel, we headed out doors to check out the merchandise. It was a crazy scene…at the top of the ramp for the loading dock there were probably 30 different tents and 50 different vendors all yelling out the prices for their merchandise. There were literally hundreds of people around. I was pretty overwhelmed and scared. Grasping our money we made our way slowly through the crowd. Since the first show was getting out and the second show was getting ready to start there were a lot of people in transit. In fact the first show was completely packed. A few people recognized us from the first show. It was so cute because they asked us for our autographs and if they could take pictures with us! I could only take a few minutes out there so after I grabbed a few stickers and odd t-shirts I headed back in. The second show was only half full and we couldn’t figure out what had happened…we heard it too was sold out. We played the show and the audience loved it when Anthony Daniels spoke a few lines in Spanish, “Uno Mass?’ he’d ask at the end when fishing for an encore…”Si” they all yelled in unison. In trying to get out of the performance venue we were held up by a mob…people had to be cleared our for them to open the gates and then suddenly our bus door opened and Anthony and his companion Christine jumped on. Management wanted them to ride our bus and not their normal limo back to the hotel. Apparently the reason our show as half full was because the cartel took over the streets that night. They boarded and held up public buses and car jacked fancy cars looking for certain public officials. From what I understand thousands had been held up because of the road blocks they had installed across the city…at least one official went missing. Seeing this madness and coming this close to this kind of behavior was scary for most of us. We were leaving the next morning for Mexico City and I think we were all starting to miss our native land the good 'ole US of A.

Shows to date: 22

Number of hotels stayed to date: 17
Best hotel to date: Omni Hotel, Ft. Worth TX (though the Intercontinetal Hotel in Monterrey had the best view!)
Miles traveled to date: 7,542


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