Mexico Travel Adventures Continued

Gail Howard's Travel Adventures in Mexico in 1957

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We awoke at our usual hour, dressed and went out to see how much damage had been done. A few blocks away, a five-story apartment building had collapsed into a pile of rubble. Bodies of the twelve families living there were never recovered.

The Hilton Hotel was split in half. Hotel guests had fled their rooms, rushing out into the streets in various states of undress, some totally naked. Many buildings had collapsed or cracked, and streets were littered with broken glass. A 20-foot gold plated angel sitting 150 feet on top of Mexico’s Monument to Independence had crashed to the ground and shattered into a thousand pieces.

Communication was disrupted and all power had failed. Newspapers reported that it was the worst earthquake in memory. Realizing this earthquake was making headlines all over the world, our next thought was to find a way to let our parents know we were alive and well. The Red Cross sent cables for us (and anyone who asked) at no cost, for which we were very grateful.

We left a ravaged Mexico City behind us as we set off for the port city of Veracruz, where we hoped to find a boat to take us to Progreso in the Yucatan. On the way to Veracruz, the bus passed through a wide variety of scenery: mountains, desert country with huge cactus trees, then tropical jungles with luxuriant green growth.

We stopped at the Hotel Ruiz Galindo in Fortin de Las Flores. Each morning, bushels of fresh gardenias were tossed into the swimming pool. The fragrance of those fresh floating flowers was heavenly. I never enjoyed swimming as much as I did in this pool. My fingers withered before the flowers did. Beautiful classical music was piped in not only at the pool, but throughout the hotel. Sadly we left the hotel with the gardenia-laden pool and the little baby duck that cleaned the pool of bugs.

Within an hour of our arrival in Veracruz, we found a small boat that was ready to leave for Progreso in the Yucatan as soon as the captain gave his OK. We quickly bought bananas, peanuts and bottled Tehuacan water and boarded. The trip would take three days, so two seamen were kicked out of their bunks to make way for two paying passengers. After settling in our tiny cabin next to the boiler, we went out on deck to watch Veracruz slip slowly into the distance. The cargo was a load of cabbage, already starting to rot.

Sneaky Pete rushed in behind us to put sheets on our bunks. He then proceeded to undress and hang his clothes in our closet. I bawled him out for hanging his vestidos in our private cabin. I thought vestidos meant clothes, but it means women’s dresses. From Progreso, we made our way 20 miles inland to Merida, capital of the State of Yucatan. Most of the inhabitants of Merida are pure Mayans. Another 80 miles and three hours later we were in Chichen Itza, which cast its spell on us even before we arrived. It was a moonlit night and the huge white pyramid of Kulkulkan seemed to float in front of us.

In archeology class, we had learned about this fascinating area, and had to see it for ourselves. Chichen Itza was founded in the early 300s, abandoned in 668, then rebuilt in 964. It grew and prospered for four centuries, until 1448, when the Aztecs drove the Mayans out. We climbed to the top of the 80-foot high pyramid of Kulkulkan, admiring the red-stone jaguar and exquisitely carved plumed serpents. Close to the pyramid is the Cenote (Sacred Well) where virgins, gold and precious stones were thrown as an offering to the Mayan gods. We saw the Pelota, a ball court, where deadly games were played. Losing teams lost more than ego or point spreads. They lost their heads, as depicted so clearly in the still intact bas reliefs. Uxmal, like Chichen Itza, was an important Mayan metropolis. The House of Nuns had almost a hundred rooms, which were occupied by generations of virgins destined for the sacrificial well.

New Orleans and Cuba

By now, our meager funds were about exhausted. It was time to get back to the United States and earn some money. Terry flew back to California where she continued her career as a television script writer/producer. I took buses all the way to Louisiana, and arrived in New Orleans nearly broke. I rented a room in the house of a widow, Mrs. Duncan, and her widowed mother and five cats at 2216 Cambaronne.

Finding work took top priority, and immediately I got a job as demonstrator in a supermarket. My job was to sell Roehmer’s milk and to give away a box of crayons with each half-gallon purchase.

It was a fun job. I was amazed that people listened to my spiel and even bought my milk. To people from Central and South America, I sold Roehmer’s milk in Spanish. The case emptied so many times that a stock boy did nothing else but supply me with milk. I saw to it that no Sealtest, Bordens or Velvet milk was sold!

But after a few days, I had learned all there is to know about demonstrating milk. It was time to find more substantial work.

I next landed a job as a medical secretary at the Ochsner Foundation Hospital for $175 a month. My take-home pay was a mere $34 for a 40-hour week. Still, they took their job offer very seriously; the interview lasted almost two hours. Because they trained only one medical secretary a year, they wanted to be sure of their investment.

I had never been a secretary before and knew nothing about medicine, but I figured I could apply myself and do the job well before anyone found out. The lie I felt most guilty about was saying that I would be living in New Orleans permanently.

My boss, Dr. Carrera, was a well-known pathologist. Although he dictated letters to me, most of the work was transcribing lengthy discourses from a Dictaphone machine. I was curious to know what in the world it was that I was writing about, so I studied the Medical Dictionary before work, after work, on the bus, and while I ate in the cafeteria.  As I transcribed autopsy reports, I found them fascinating. My medical dictionary had hot pages—I used it constantly.

But before long I was ready to move on. When I told Dr. Carrera that I was quitting my job, he took it surprisingly well and was very understanding about my leaving.  He said that since he got to know me better, he realized that I needed something more creative than what I was doing, that I had more to give than my job demanded. He told me I was too intelligent for the routine work.

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