My mother loved our yearly summer family vacations. She’d stock up on guidebooks and buy new rayon outfits for herself, my sister and me that would travel well. But Mexico as a destination was likely my father’s choice. He loved art, archaeology, and the literature of Latin America, particularly books by Gabriel García Marquez, whom he met on a ship when he and my mother were on their way home from Europe. My mother didn’t really care where we went on vacation, she loved having my father’s undivided attention for two to three weeks, going to dinner, staying in hotels. What she absolutely didn’t love, though, was having to taking a plane to get where we were going. The thought of a long flight to Mexico City filled her with dread.
“I know,” she announced excitedly after some thought, “We’ll take a train!”
A three-day train trip sounded pretty cool to 14-year-old me. It would mean sleeping overnight in a pullman car, eating in the dining car at tables covered with white cloths, meeting interesting fellow travelers, going by myself from one passenger car to the next, balancing on the links that shifted underfoot, feeling the whoosh of sudden warmth from the air outside. It would be an adventure.
What I didn’t know but was soon to discover was that my 17-year-old sister Carol and I would be sharing a berth at night, crashing into each other and the walls as the train careened back and forth around the curves. We got no sleep at all. My sister was in a pretty foul mood by morning and my stomach was queasy.
In San Antonio, Texas we switched from The Texas Special passenger train to a Mexican line that moved so slowly I thought I could outrun it. Every fifteen or twenty minutes it stopped, letting passengers off to buy food or chat with relatives before inching on again to our next stop. When I went to the Ladies’ room, I was horrified to discover that I had gotten my period before it was due, and I had packed no Kotex. My father, always the hero, hurried off the train at the next stop, ducked into a small bodega where he pantomimed what he was looking for, and proudly emerged with a brown paper bag in hand that discreetly hid a blue and white box of feminine napkins.
After three days and two miserable nights we finally pulled into the station in Mexico City, at which point my sister crossed her arms defiantly and glared at my mother. “I am absolutely not going to take that damned train back to St Louis when we go.” There is nothing so fierce as my sister when she needs to be. So at the end of our trip, my father put my mother on a train and took Carol and me to the airport where the three of us took a plane home. I don't remember my mother complaining about the arrangement. As much as she hated traveling alone, she hated flying even more.