Chapter 1.  Rendevous in Texas

© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2002 All rights reserved.


Day 1 - Sunday, January 13, 2002 - Pharr, Texas

(Bert) Although we are strangers, it would hardly seem that way. Handshakes, quick introductions and then hearty conversations pursue in earnest. It's as if we already knew each other. Perhaps our common interests paved the way. Certainly birding is one, but even more so, is our common interest in traveling. As we gather in small groups in the warming sun on the open lawns surrounding our campsites, I hear about a year's travel in Europe by VW bus, a fish research project at the big lakes in Africa, birding vacations to Costa Rica, study groups in Belize, vacations in New Zealand and Australia - these are folks that like to travel. A few arrived in Pharr before today and by the end of the day everyone is in the area even though the actual starting day of our adventure is not until tomorrow. All of us share the excitement of anticipation. We've been waiting many months for the onset of our 65-day RV caravan through the Yucatán and Belize. We've studied the archeology books, looked at road maps, and poured through the pictures and descriptions of birds we hope to see. Anticipation is in evidence when most of the group shows up at my impromptu sign to go look for a Burrowing Owl and a flock of Green Parakeets. Of our target species, the former is a no-show - an empty concrete tile that I was told usually holds a resting owl near Santa Ana - but the latter gathers in a flock stringing out across two high wires and numbers nearly 400 at dusk in McAllen. Squawking, preening, fluttering, shuffling, they are a raucous mass of bright green feathers and a delightful foretaste of days to come.

(Shari) "Let the games begin!" Caravan participants do not have to arrive until tomorrow, yet all but two are already here, and those two are close by. Larry and Marlene, our tail gunners, have begun to put numbers and stickers on the rigs for identification. Bert and I have begun to answer the numerous questions people have before entering Mexico. True to form, I cannot locate two boxes from the main office. I am - and therefore everyone is - missing trip logs and proof of Mexican insurance. Tomorrow is a Federal holiday and NO MAIL DELIVERY. Since the campground office was closed today, I intend to go up there first thing in the morning and really quiz the employees to look for our boxes. Why oh why can't it go smoothly? I guess that is why we have a job, huh? In the afternoon, along with Marlene and Larry, we take a short trial trip to the border. Here I get my first test on my Spanish knowledge. I have been studying a computer program and have self taught myself its 30 lessons. The information man tells me he does not know English. I start in on my halting two-year-old Spanish. "Que hora es todas officinas abierto al miercoles?" The answer in return is "las ochos" so I know I am understood. Success! (I asked at what time are all of the offices opened on Wednesday and was told at 8 AM). The young man then directs us to the tourist office where we complete the visa forms. Upon receiving Bert's completed form, the young clerk asks him if we intend to travel to Belize. We are told that next time we must go to the Mexican consulate office in McAllen if we intend to remain longer than 30 days in Mexico when traveling to Belize. Now what does that mean? Another snafu? Oh well, tomorrow is another day to solve the problem. After returning to the car, we drive another 5 miles into Mexico as a trial run for Wednesday. Last year we missed the turn and do not want to make that same mistake. Upon our return to the campground a group of birders are waiting for us because Bert has promised to take them to try to see a burying owl and green parakeets. The operative word here is "try" since we never do find the owl. However, all are delighted with close to 400 green parakeets squawking on power wires above a shopping center, a good unplanned trip.

(Bert) I have a strong urge to correct non-birder Shari on her cute name for the owl species, but since we didn't see it, perhaps her name is a good as any.

Day 2 - Monday, January 14 - Pharr, Texas

(Shari) The caravan police are going to be called in because this group is too chatty and does not wear their name badges. They'll come and whip them real good with their wet noodles. Our day is full of errands - bank, Sam's Club, Wal-Mart, phone calls, UPS office - each place waiting, waiting in lines. Arriving back at R-TENT (the affectionate name I gave to our 36-ft. motorhome) at 2 PM, Bert and I hurriedly put away groceries and eat lunch before heading off to the 4 PM meeting. I am so pleased to see the group introduce themselves to each other and really mingle. My opening "string game" is a hit and even surprises our four repeaters: Woody and Gwen and Pat and Lee from last year's trip are coming along again this year. I warn the group not to listen to or to believe any of the stories that they might relate about last year's caravan, especially about pants with zippers around the legs and caravan congestion on a crowded city street with a steep incline. Each person, upon entering the room took some yarn, no less than one foot and no more than 25 feet. I told them to take as much as they needed, but never told them what its purpose was, so of course some took the minimum and some took the maximum amount. After Bert and I introduce ourselves, I inform them that while wrapping the yarn around their finger they must introduce themselves, talking until the yarn is wound completely. Some have plenty of time to talk; others are caught up short in mid-sentence. Woody manages to put a new twist on things by starting with it wrapped and he unwraps as he talks. Everyone else also finds an amusing way to relate some facts about their lives. It is a good group, one that seems to be full of life and fun. For the next two hours Bert and I talk. We talk about entering Mexico, traveling in Mexico, birding and social activities, emergency procedures, food, and road conditions. We distribute a day-by-day schedule, a list of amenities at the various stops, insurance papers and the trip logbook with detailed mileage markers. We answer questions and complete a trial copy of our visa forms. Finally we finish our orientation agenda and are able to snack and socialize before returning to R-TENT for some late dinner. I am reminded of something Tom Sawyer said, "I have found out that there ain't no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them." I think we will like this group.

(Bert) "My, they are a chatty group," Shari comments to me as we try to get the group's attention to start our Orientation Meeting. After introductions all around, we learn we are a diverse group of prior professions, personalities, hometown provinces and states, but we share a common interest in our joy of observing nature and, more specifically, in birds. During the next couple hours Shari and I take the group through an introduction of traveling in Mexico, camping suggestions, caravan protocols and general advice that will make our trip operate more smoothly. Our presentation is interrupted with lots of good questions and frequent laughter, a characteristic this group is quickly developing into a trait. The session ended, we all have a mental "To Do" list of last minute items that need attention before our departure. Earlier, Shari and I had already spent most of today chasing around the Valley for supplies and errands. Even with all prior preparation, a few items always seem to fall to a last minute frenzy.

Day 3 - Tuesday, January 15 - Pharr, Texas (Milepost 0)

(Shari) Cecile shouts 'Yellow-faced' while Nelda, sitting next to her says, "I have 'Grassquit'. The group is starting a mixer where one person is given the first part of a bird name and the other is given the last part. The object is to pair up and these two ladies are sitting next to each other, but unaware that they are a matching pair already. Pouring into their books to find clues and asking others around them, it finally dawns on the two that the bird is a "Yellow-faced Grassquit" and they belong together. Nelda and Cecile are so pleased with themselves that they give each other a hug. This is exactly what was supposed to happen. The group is getting to know one another. Bert hands out three questions for the pairs to work on, and so begins our first birding workshop. It is good to have something go right today, for the hours preceding the meeting were fraught with problems, mostly with insurance issues. I guess that is why we have a job, I say again. It must be very difficult to read handwriting and transfer VIN numbers from an application to an insurance form. Over seven of ours came in wrong and we needed to execute endorsements and fax them back to the office with corrections. One of those seven we did wrong, for heaven's sake. Two couples still needed to apply for insurance and that always takes time at the last minute to get documents faxed in and returned before offices close. But now our money is exchanged, our insurance is in order, our tanks our empty, our fresh water is full, and we have gasoline and propane. WE ARE READY TO ROLL!

(Bert) "I am lost; where are you?" asks one of our readers of Day 1 and 2. I can't resist e-mailing back my answer, "Pharr, Pharr away." I guess I'd lost sight of the fact that our 200+ readers live across North America and several are from Europe. Actually, Pharr is a small Texas city on the U.S.-Mexico border, just east of McAllen and about 100 km from the Gulf of Mexico. We start our caravan here because of its proximity to the border and the easy access to truck and auto repair and service, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Sam's Club, propane, fuel, etc. And, it is to all of those places we visit today. Lee and Steve head to Camper's World in search of an external water filter, helpful in Mexico for filtering out sand and other particles from the water. Jerry fills his propane tank; several others top off their gas tanks. Larry and Gilford work on finding the electrical problem on the cord between his truck and 5th wheel. I get an extra jug of radiator fluid. Shari and I make corrections in Mexican insurance policies (VIN and plate numbers mostly) and fax them back to the insurance company. Two more couples sign up for medical evacuation insurance and we send in their premium. The list goes on and on. One-by-one, we check off items on our "To Do" lists. At 4 PM we gather for a birding workshop, which I start with a few identification challenges. Starting with cryptic field notes, including abbreviations, notes taken on last year's trip and, today, working in teams of two, the group is asked to identity birds. Reader, try this one yourself:
Jan 26, Catemaco
~ washed out YBCh
wh patch back of eye
yel breast
greenish back
wh belly
greenish sides
I clue them in on the abbreviations (YBCh = Yellow-bellied Chat, wh = white, yel = yellow), and they have Mexican and U.S. bird books to browse. Each team eventually identifies their assignment as well as a "Mystery Wren" and we discuss the advantage of taking good field notes when trying to identify new species. Then I hand out the birding itineraries and the site-specific bird checklists and we briefly review our plans. All this talk of birds and Mexico and Belize increases our anxiousness for tomorrow morning's departure to places "Pharr, Pharr away."

pond to the question of where we are going this year. My answer is met with a blank stare. "How do you spell that?" comes back as the second question. Unless, of course, the questioner is a birder. To a birder, Belize conjures up either a special memory or a touch of envy: perhaps the thought of a tropical jungle or of brightly colored parrots. It is place that few people have visited and far fewer have reached by highway from the U.S. But Belize is only one of the stops on this winter's expedition, and, then, only for a little over a week. Before we reach our terminus, we will be visiting the eastern part of Mexico and then cutting a coastal path around the Yucatán peninsula, stopping often for birds, Mayan ruins and anything else that catches our interest.

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