Once, Tom and I had a few hours to kill until we had to catch our plane in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  We decided to take a city tour that would drop us off at the airport.  It sounded like a great idea.

Unfortunately, most of the tour was spent in gridlock traffic.  We did see Castillo de San Cristobal, but we did not get to see Old San Juan.   The driver ended up cancelling lunch, and instead of leading us to a shopping district in the city, he parked outside  tourist shop in a suburb.  If the A/C and sound system on the bus had worked, we might have felt a little less cheated, since it wasn’t his fault that the traffic was so bad.  It was a very difficult few hours.

Last fall, I visited my brother in Pasadena.  Our plane came in on time, and we took the Flyaway bus from LAX to meet my brother at the subway in downtown Los Angeles.  I’m told that is the best way to get downtown.  However, it was a very long bus ride, with horrible traffic that I thought would never end.  There has to be a better way.

Then there was the trip to Mismaloya from Puerto Vallarta.  The roads were in nightmarish repair, and I wondered if I had just stepped into the movie that made Mismaloya famous, Night of the Iguana.   I wondered if this trip would even be possible in a year or so if the government didn’t fix the road.  Somehow, the scary ride enhanced the experience, but I’m a little more tolerant of the scary than most.

As a child, my father’s work took us all over the country.  For a year, we ended up in Berkeley, California, while my Dad completed his master’s degree.  We would travel all over California on long weekends and day trips.  One such trip took us to San Diego.   My memory put us in a motel just over the border from Tijuana.  My mother and her friends wanted to go shopping in the Arts and Crafts Market and tourist dives.

Later that night, my father wanted to find some authentic Mexican food, apparently convinced that one cannot get tamales anywhere but Mexico.   I don’t remember why we ended up taking a cab.  It might have been a desire to protect our 1974 Dodge Dart.  Anyway, Dad found us a cab.  It was not a yellow cab.  In fact, I’m not sure it was even a Taxi Libre.  There was a meter, though, and from my center seat in the back of the cab, I couldn’t see anything except the meter creeping up, as the driver took us through every back alley and pass-through in the city.  It occurred to us all that maybe we should be alarmed, since we were clearly being kidnapped.  Except, I think I remember my father telling the cabdriver that he wanted tamales.  Is it kidnapping if your driver eventually lets you out in front of a restaurant that served tamales?    I think I must have fallen asleep, because I don’t remember the meal or the trip back to the hotel, which must not have been so eventful.

The next day, we went back into Tijuana for some more shopping.  We were done at about noon, but our friend’s wife wanted to stay behind and do a little more shopping.  We got in the car and found the giant border crossing.  This was in 1974 or 1975.  There were lines of cars as far as I could see, and there was a steady stream of people walking beside us.  We inched slowly back into the country, but when we stopped at the border, the crossing guards took a look our car at our friend sitting in the backseat and decided that we were attempting to pass a Mexican National off as a Jewish man from St. Louis.   It’s possible that they realized their mistake when he opened his mouth to answer their questions with an accent that did not sound remotely like it could roll an R, but they probably were not too motivated to let us through when our friend expressed great offense that he was being mistaken for a Mexican.

I recall being pulled over to the side of the road… of being escorted into a small waiting area… and watching while they took all our luggage and purchases out of the car, examined under the hood, and removed the tires from the car.  It wasn’t much longer than 20 minutes, but we’d already been in the car for about two hours.   Of course, they didn’t find anything, but I learned a few valuable lessons about border crossings that day:

1)  If you are driving your own car; make sure it has a working airconditioner.  I seem to remember sweltering under the border sun.

2)  Don’t drive if you can help it.

3)  If the border agents ask you a few questions, don’t be snarky–especially if you have a lot of Maracas in your trunk.

There are a lot of better ways to see the sites.   For example, we had a great time taking the trolley in New Orleans up to the garden district one rainy afternoon.  And in Paris, there is no better way to see the city than from a boat traveling the Seine River.   And then there are your feet.  Most of the time, if you are touring a condensed city area (such as Old San Juan), you might just want to hoof it.  Most important, you will want to plan how to get around to avoid getting stuck in three hour traffic jams and losing valuable sightseeing opportunities.

USA Today offers some tips for arranging city tours.  One that isn’t listed is to find tours that are organized by non-profit historical preservation societies.  You will find that these tours tend to be very informative, and often, the cost of the ticket helps fund the organization.

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