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Traveler's advisory: make it Mexico.

The yellow house with the arches and the brown roof, it had an owner you know as Old Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra. The all-white house belonged to John Wayne. The red-and-white one has had several owners, including Wayne and Red Skelton."

Hollywood? No. Even if you were listening with your eyes closed, you'd begin to have doubts when the tour guide continues, "The blue house is where John and Jackie Kennedy spent their honeymoon." You look up to where he is pointing out another million-dollar-plus abode clinging precariously to the almost perpendicular cliff rising up from the water. Any lingering doubts vanish with the setting sun as its dying rays focus for our benefit upon a gleaming, alabaster mansion, beautifully arched and swimming-pooled, that had been a vacation home, says our guide, of the late shah of Iran.

No, not Hollywood. Our excursion yacht was plying the placid waters of Acapulco Bay, Mexico. It was in celebration of our 47th, or thereabouts, anniversary, that we had come. I had proposed taking a canoe trip from Spencer, Indiana, to Freedom for the occasion. Even suggested climaxing the event with a cookout on a sand bar. I figured this would get me past the happy occasion for something like the five-dollar rental fee for the canoe and maybe a couple of bucks for turkey hot dogs and buns.

My bride of whatever years it is, however, thought Mexico would be more fun. When I got up nerve enough to argue the point, she flipped me for it. I was still limping when we boarded the plane for Dallas, the first leg of our flight to Mexico City. And I had paid $1,174 for plane fare, three nights in Mexico City, overnight in Taxco and three nights in Acapulco. The days, I would learn, were not included.

When it comes to optional tours, Lois can't drive the 23 miles from Freedom to Bloomington without taking an optional tour via New Hope and Whitehall. Thus we had no more than hit the lobby of our Fiesta Palace Hote than I was shedding another $108 (American) for a Tour of the Pyramids, Folklore Ballet and the Nightclub Tour. Had I not, at the airport, exchanged a $100 bill for 15,000 pesos I might have made a bigger fuss. But when you're rich, rich, rich, what the heck. Not even Montezuma, for all his revenge, could interfere.

There's something wrong with that Montezuma theory, anyway. True, Lois came down with a classic case of the Aztec Two-step, as it's known in cultural circles, before we ever left the airport. But I had vowed a mighty vow that I would not be a drinker of the water or a partaker of unwashed fruit. I would prove once and for all the superiority of the macho male over the delicate feminine constitution. I was struck down shortly after midnight.

Item No. 8 of "Helpful Hints While in Mexico," a pamphlet thoughtfully left on our dresser, offered several possible excuses. "Most people who take ill, blaming Montezuma [their spelling], usually get sick because they do so much running around, eating and drinking. Mexico City is 7,400 feet above sea level. At this altitude it is wise to take it easy, Especially for the first couple of days. Good restaurants are careful to wash their fruits and vegetables in a chlorine solution, and they serve only purified water." So read the text.

"This doesn't make sense," I complained to Lois the next morning. "I haven't been running around. At least not until after midnight. And I've had nothing to drink but 'de caf' and ginger ale."

"And plenty of ice cubes in the ginger ale," she pointed out, in that irritating voice a wife reserves for cutting hubby down to size.

"No germ from an ice cube is going to have enough left on the ball to corrupt a man's internal tract," I pointed back. "So it's got to be the butter. Cows drink the water that makes the milk that makes the butter. And for all their seven stomachs they aren't exactly purification plants."

On your way to the National Palace, seat of the Mexican government, you'll begin to believe that all 17 million residents have at least one car each, most of them double-parked on both sides of streets plainly marked "No Parking," or words to that effect. Fortunately, most of them are Volkswagens, or of that genre, or you might see little else. Since you won't be driving, the only difference it will make to you is having to suck in your stomack as the poor chap at the helm patiently wedges the bus down through this metal maze and onto Juarez Avenue, "The Broadway of Mexico City."

You'll scarcely have adjusted to the awesome size of the palace and the grandeur of its architecture before being overwhelmed by a gigantic three-wall mural from the brush of the painter Diego Rivera, one of Mexico's proudest cultural assets. Six years in the making, this panoramic masterpiece carries you across the country's turbulent history and spans the tribes that came from Asia via Alaska to the Mayans, the Toltecs and the Aztecs. Here you'll see the arrival of Columbus in the New World; Emperor Montezuma; the expedition from Cuba led by Cortez, who became master of all Mexico; Montezuma killed by his own people; Indians in slavery; insurrection; and the Republic of Mexico being officially recognized by the United States and Britain in 1825. Indeed, it's somewhat like television with the volume down, except the mural is far more moving.

On the walk across Constitution Plaza to the Metropolitan Cathedral, begun in 1573 and resplendent in gold beyond belief, your tour guide will fill you in on the founding of the city itself. As I got it, Mexico City was founded on a lake--that's right, lake. Seems the Aztecs were instructed by their gods to build the capital city wherever they found an eagle perched on a cactus and devouring a snake. And that eagle chose to eat his snake de jour on a cactus growing on one of two islands in the middle of Lake Texcoco. Eventually the lake was filled in and Mexico City rose upon it. Now, some 600 years later, there's a problem.

As envinced throughout the city, buildings are sinking. Our guide pointed out one that had been built at ground level but now had 14 steps leading down to it. Other buildings, like the old shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, have tilted, cracked and are now abandoned. The monuments, we were told, are sinking at a rate of two inches a year. "but that's all right," said our guide. "We've got lots of altitude."

Mexico City is filled with monuments. We saw monuments to historic races, the Revolution of 1910, Angel of Independence, mothers, oil workers, school teachers--you name it, they have it.

By the way, if you should be late for a tour appointment, don't sweat it. You'll never adjust to their "time difference" anyway. Only one hour by the clock, "Mexican time" turns out to be any old time, what the heck. The morning of our tour to the pyramids, we were in our places with bright, shiny faces at the appointed hour of 8 o'clock. Our guide showed up promptly at 9:20. Without apology. After all, hadn't he given us an hour and 20 minutes to observe the traffic from our hotel lobby?

On the 30-mile drive to Teotihuacan, the "City of the Gods," Antonio, our guide for the day, made a brief stop at the new Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The appearance of the Virgin, where the shrine now stands, had such an impact that 8 million pagan Indians converted to Christianity in seven years. Religion being the center of so many Mexicans' lives, today you can still see streams of people who have walked for miles, or inched along on bandaged knees, to beg a favor from this revered lady. We saw one woman who had made her painful pilgrimage on bloody knees while cradling a baby in her arms.

At this major holy place of Latin America, vendors seize the opportunity to hawk all kinds of soubenirs, and men dressed as Aztec Indians dance in the shadow of the statue of Pope John Paul II, a recent visitor. Inside, while the priest says Mass beneath the rays of a two-ton and chandelier, people pray, others weep, tourists gawk, adults eat lunches, kids lick lollipops, babies cry and over it all the choir sings alleluias. Don't miss it.

Teotihuacan, also roughly interpreted "the place where gods were chosen," is dominated by two colossal architectural works: Pyramid of the Sun and the lesser Pyramid of the Moon. Looking at them, one gets the feeling that their connecting mile-long walkway, the Avenue of the Dead, was named for those who have tried to make it to the top. Archaeologists have found no passageways, no tombs; nothing but rock upon rock upon rock.

Of the remainder of the city itself, dating back to the time of Christ, you will marvel at original and restored evidence of its condominiums, water and sanitary systems, ceremonial center, fresco paintings, pottery and sculpture. If your guide is as well informed as Antonio, this ancient civilization will come alive as he takes you back to the organization of Teotihuacan society, its religion, its history, its urban planning. One thing he won't be able to tell you is why that civilization suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.

If your itinerary allows but two nights in Mexico, make one of them the Nightclub Tour: dinner at Del Lago's beautifully gardened wine and dinery, then following your leater through the exciting confusion of Garibaldi Square, full of itinerant guitar strummers, open-air concessions and hawkers of everything from searpes to salami, to Santa Cecilia nightclub and floor show.

The Ballet Folklorico de Mexico is also a must. Just to step inside the gorgeous Palacio de Bellas Artes is return enough on your ten-dollar investment. The singing, dancing and pantomiming by the cast of brilliantly costumed natives is a dividend you won't soon forget.

As we returned to our hotel after this gala, too hyped to sleep, the devil stopped us at the elevator and said, "Why not pop into the coffee shop for a quick hot fudge sundae? It will be such a comfort to your insides." And Lois agreed that he might just have something. Or maybe it was she who said it. Anyway, we did it.

Because menus are printed in both Spanish and English, we had no trouble ordering. The trouble came with the flexible, scalloped-edge dishes and sundaes were served in.

"Maybe they're supposed to be eaten," Lois suggested, pushing hers aside when finished. But I had to tear off one of the scallops and test it. And it wasn't bad. So when the waitress came with the check, she picked up Lois' dish, looked at me, looked under the table, then back at me.

"I ate it," I said. She looked at me, looked at Lois, shrugged her shoulders and left. Maybe the thing wasn't to be eaten, but in my condition it didn't make much difference.

Route 95, the John F. Kennedy Highway, takes you to Acapulco via Taxco (pronounced TAHSKO). An expressway it isn't. A driver who should attempt to make it so runs the risk of greatly increasing his speed by failing to make one of the almost continuous curves that cut through, up, down and around the Sierra MAdre mountains. Or coming to a sudden stop against the side of a cow or maybe having to peel a goat out of his grille.

Tours stop at Taxco for more than just the beautiful view. In one word, silver. Having seven working silver mines in the area, the industry today supports more than 2,000 craftsmen in some 100 workshops creating pieces for the dozens of retailers along the streets. Among the fantastic items, we hovered longest before a showcase featuring a full-size silver pineapple, leaves and all. It also featured a price card of 3 million pesos. What that reduced to in American money I didn't bother to figure. I settled for a $20 ring instead.

At the end of the John F. Kennedy highway lies Acapulco.

As our tour book understated, "The mere sight of the city is a pleasure in itself." The city at night, a glittering necklace draped around the black bosom of the bay, is a sight the word "pleasure" can in no way cover.

From the 11th floor of our bayfront room, the view was so spectacular that I shot all my film before we ever hit the beach. So I was on my way across the street to buy film when I made the mistake of stopping on the median instead of stepping directly into traffic. Otherwise I wouldn't have been approached by this fellow with the silver bracelets.

"How much?" was my second mistake.

"Twenty dollars," said he.

"No way," I said.

"For two," he quickly responded. "One for a gift."

"I'll have three besides my wife's," I said. This strategy allowed me to return to my wife proudly bearing four silver bracelets, all for $20. The next day at the dock, while we waited for our excursion yacht to be readied, three different men tried to sell us identical bracelets for $2 apiece.

Luckily, the harbor cruise had been included in our package tour, or we might not have pulled ourselves off the beach or out of the surf or away from the bathroom to take it. But bug, beach, sun, fun and surf be darned, do take the cruise. And see those famous dwellings that will make you want to go home and throw rocks at yours.

Afterwards, we settled for taking turns challenging the surf on a raft, at two dollars a day. Getting beyond the surf with its strong undertow was a bit of a nuisance, but once you made it, everything went swimmingly. As we stretched out in the sun, the waves dippled and danced and rocked you cruelly into a false complacency.

The trouble was, as I see it on replay, I came in too far forward. This caused the nose of the raft to stick in the sand, which allowed the crest of the oncoming surf to catapult me end over applecart onto the beach like some bloated sea bass.

Dumping the sand out of the crotch of my swim trunks, to keep them up, and out of my ears so I could hear, I reached to push my glasses back in place. No glasses. No glasses! For an hour I stood there waiting for the next crashing wave to cast them ashore. And all the time thinking about getting home from the airport. Either I would have to drive blind or let Lois take the wheel. Which didn't leave much of a choice.

Well, we finally made it home, and yes, we're going back. For one reason, I'd like a chance to test my butter theory. And I definitely want to see Acapulco again. Then maybe Ixtapam/Zihuatenejo, Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta. My glasses surely have got to wash up somewhere along there.
COPYRIGHT 1984 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1984
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