One of the perks of journalism used to be the junkets to foreign lands. Embassies, airlines, and resorts were happy to give us a good time, all expenses paid. The quid pro quo was puff pieces about our delightful experiences. This soft corruption ended for me about 1990 when Fairfax banned junkets.
In 1983, for no good reason, I scored a junket to Acapulco, Mexico. It remains my lifetime’s most ulcerous travel experience. Even 34 years later, I still flinch about that trip.
The saga began with a shout from our editor, “Who wants a week in Acapulco?”
“Me!” I shouted back across the desks, expecting a torrid tussle with colleagues.
But I was the lone applicant. It was a travel agents’ conference in Acapulco, followed by a sampling of Mexico’s terrific archaeological/historical sites — a nice break from cranking out stories about tax.
All I knew about Acapulco was Elvis Presley’s Fun in Acapulco movie of 20 years earlier, where he co-starred with Ursula Andress (I’ll waive the easy pun). Actually Presley never set foot in Mexico, doing his scenes on a Hollywood lot because he’d become persona non grata after an earlier visit.[i]
My glitches on departure from Melbourne AIrport were not dire but not good omens either. My wife driving, we set off along the freeway in good time, with a detour to collect a stack of reporters’ business cards from the home of a colleague en route. We got lost, had sharp intra-car altercations, and arrived late at the Departures ramp red-faced and no longer on speaking terms. I exited the car giving wife a perfunctory peck on the cheek, and she burst into tears. A parking official ordered me back to deliver a more romantic farewell, probably not part of his job description.
I hastened through formalities and with a sigh of relief, settled into my TAA seat for takeoff.
A call: “Is Mr Anthony Thomas on this flight?” I raised my hand. The hostess handed me – for heaven’s sake! – my pad of travellers’ cheques. I had dropped the bundle in the ticketing queue. A Good Samaritan had picked them up and the airport staff had tracked me down, minutes before the plane shut its door.
At Sydney I rang wife to complain that I had previously asked her to sew up the rip in my jacket’s inner pocket. This had not been done and the travellers cheques had slipped through the gap. Wife did not take kindly to being scapegoated. Most women can intuit her retort.
Nothing untoward happened at transit at Los Angeles, except that my short-term US visa carried a coded notation that I had been an Australian Communist Party member (from age 18-22), which aroused surliness from officials.
I changed to Mexico’s official carrier, Aeromexico, for the leg to Mexico City. It turned out that the entry airport for immigration was Guadalajara. We landed at 4am and by then I was in a long-haul travellers’ zombie state. We shuffled in a queue for our entry stamp and somehow I exited to the domestic transfer gate without the clerk’s bang of his stamp on my passport. The omission was a time-bomb because there was now no evidence I had entered Mexico legally.
But I had no premonition of this catastrophe to come. I finally settled into my hotel in Acapulco and dutifully attended talks for travel agents about why Acapulco exceeded any other of earth’s delights.
I scanned my welcome pack. It offered delegates a free add-on flight to another Mexican tourist destination plus several days free hotel accommodation there. This looked promising. I needed to justify my BRW Magazine trip with a business story or two. There was nothing in the add-on’s terms to prevent me nominating Mexico City, where I could do some serious interviews.
I explained my odd preference to a couple of young Mexican travel officials at the conference desk. They grudgingly conceded that the terms permitted it technically but not in spirit. They kept me waiting lengthily while they attended to other people and then told me to come back at noon next day. When I did, the desk was closed. I finally cornered them and they did sign my free-hotel stay in the capital’s swanky Zona Rosa district.
“Could I please get a room that’s not near the lift?” I asked.
After more discussion the older man said “Sure!” and scribbled a note in Spanish. “Give it to reception,” he said.
Their hostility abated. They wished me a great trip, and we split up with friendly handshakes.
Back at my hotel I evinced the repulsive conditions of “Montezuma’s Revenge”. I’d avoided bug-ridden water but the buffet’s salads had been washed from the kitchen tap. Bodily fluids rocketed incessantly out of my every bodily exit. Everyone thinks their gastro is the worst ever survived, and mine was like that. Two days went by.
Somehow in a fevered and dehydrated state I staggered onto my plane for Mexico City. I lunged for an orange juice, downed it and it stayed down. My gastro was over.
At the new hotel I handed reception my signed accommodation warrants and the hand-written note. The desk clerk briskly checked and ticked the form but did a double-take at the note. He conferred with peers and then in a sorrowfully polite and sympathetic way told me, “This note says that under no circumstances are you to have any free accommodation.” Yet another gringo outsmarted by the natives.
As it turned out, prices in Mexico were ridiculously cheap for holders of dollars. That’s because Mexican governments had way overspent their prospective oil revenues and defaulted on USD80b of debt. This led to three peso devaluations totaling 500%. Tourists with dollars could spend like royalty. For the locals, it was not so pleasant. Everyone who had borrowed dollars now owed five times as much. Businesses went broke, workers got fired and the economy was flat on its back.
I’ve forgotten what the hotel charged, but dinner at its best restaurant was $A12-$15 and amazingly, a domestic air trip was barely $A20.
I went on a shopping binge and bought a suitcase-load of presents for my short-suffering wife, including a Parisian-style sky-blue satin nightie; suits and shoes for myself; kids clothes, you name it, at what were like charity-shop prices.
I went to an optician’s shop for new specs. They were delighted to have a customer and made a big fuss of me.
For work, I interviewed a Chamber of Manufactures boss at his large factory. En route to his office we passed a room with a couple of women workers, and I asked what he was making in the main factory. “Nothing,” he said. His workforce was now just the two ladies.
At another executive’s home, I commented on the old rifle on pegs above his mantelpiece. “That belonged to my grandfather,” he said. “If ever things here get too bad, I’ll load it and serve my country.” I was used to the idea of Leftist revolutions but he was readying for a coup from the Right.
My guide Leticia drove me about, cheerfully pointing out the neo-Gothic mansion of ex-police chief and cocaine-trafficker Arturo Durazo which the new government had opened as a “museum of corruption”.[ii]
After a day at the glorious ruins of Teotihuacan I was ready to fly back to Los Angeles and home. I had my old suitcase full of old clothes and unwashed underpants, plus a new-bought suitcase stuffed like a treasure chest with finery.
It was early on Sunday and the airport was somnolent. At the check-in desk a bored male clerk assessed my ticket, passport and US visa. Ticket: OK. Visa: OK. Passport: he thumbed through the pages, getting irritated.
“There is no entry stamp, senor. How did you arrive?”
“I’m sorry but I have no evidence of that. Kindly go to the Immigration Office.”
I vaguely remembered that 4am mix-up at Guadalajara. How could I have been such a damn fool?
At Immigration, bored officials conferred and advised that my departure to Los Angeles was out of the question until the entry issue was sorted out. “How long?” I asked. They shrugged. “A week? Maybe a month. It depends.”
A further horror dawned. Even if my entry snafu got sorted out, my US Visa would have expired.
In forlorn tones I thanked the immigration people. Lugging my old and new suitcases, I roamed through the sleepy airport in near tearful state, hoping like Micawber that something would turn up.
Most offices were shut. The few people on duty couldn’t be bothered with my self-inflicted problem.
I had only one resource: my status as a guest of Aeromexico. I discovered the airline’s office, and two officials sat up in surprise. I flung myself at their feet, metaphorically and very nearly literally. Their English was not good but my faulty passport told its own tale. They took an interest in this rare predicament and tossed around scenarios, none sounding hopeful.
I’d arrived with several hours to spare but by now boarding calls for my plane were adding to my panic.
The officials explained that the immigration crisis point would be at touchdown at Mazatlan en route, where passport formalities took their final form.
They came up with a stop-gap measure. They would telex to Mazatlan and request some leeway for a befuddled and none-too-bright Aeromexico guest from Australia. The Mazatlan people might or might not be sympathetic. Depending on their mood, I would either exit Mexico or sink into a Sargasso Sea of insoluble problems. One of the chaps walked off to the telex office and came back with a copy for me.
I rushed back to the ticketing desk, suitcases clattering. This time I got a boarding pass and the suitcases disappeared down the chute.
We rumbled skywards. With most bad shocks, the onset is sudden and there’s not an hour of foreknowledge. But with each minute in the air, I felt my whole body tensing and warping at the crisis to come. My imagination pictured hide-bound officials unwilling to budge an inch.
I was like an adrenalin-filled animal poised for fight or flight, or the third choice often overlooked, frozen to the spot.
At Mazatlan I joined the shuffle to the small and non-descript terminal. We formed a queue to immigration, passports in hand, plus, in my case, the telex.
The room had its immigration counter on one side and a booth opposite with tourist tat of the sombrero kind, and some duty-free liquor.
A young official took one look at my telex and waved me aside to be dealt with last. Every other person got processed and drifted out the door to the transit gate.
The young man now gave my case his attention. He locked eyes with a colleague, they conferred, shrugged, and BANG! he brought down his EXIT stamp. It was done so casually. I couldn’t believe it.
I tried to sincerely thank the officials, but they seemed unimpressed. The elder made a gesture towards the liquor counter. I took the hint, raced over and returned with a Black Label whisky which they palmed under the counter.
Now I was treading on air. A dead man had been brought back to euphoric life. And so I returned to Los Angeles, and headed to baggage collection. After the usual wait, my No 1 suitcase of old clothes materialized. I waited for my treasure-filled No 2. Everyone else got their bags and left. No more bags came out, especially not mine.
It’s human nature, after surviving one crisis, to get worked up about some new trifle, e.g. the fate of my plunder from Mexico City. I fought back waves of anger and self-pity.
At the missing-bag counter, they said the bag was probably still in Mazatlan. It would turn up eventually and they would ring my Los Angeles hotel.
I knew better. The bottle of whisky had just been a down payment on the exit stamp. Some lucky stud in Mazatlan was now got up in my Saville Row-quality suit and heading for the hacienda where a senorita in a pale-blue satin nightie lay panting.
A homeless person took up residence under my hotel window and for two nights howled like wolf. I felt the same.
On the phone the lost-bag people gave the standard response, “Nothing yet”. On my final morning, with departure to Melbourne at 2pm, I took a call from the airport, “Your bag has arrived, it’s here for collection.”
Well I never! It was a piece of cake to grab it, put the two bags down the Qantas chute, and make my uneventful return home.
Little remains to tell. The lingerie items and especially the sky-blue satin nightie, were all too small for my wife, who in any case was expanding through pregnancy. The new gentleman’s shoes pinched and I had to throw them out unworn.
I wanted to reward somehow the Aeromexico officials at Mexico City whose help had saved my bacon. I didn’t know their names but from their telex, one was called Nuno. I drafted a letter on best BRW letterhead to the director of public relations at Aeromexico, showering Mr Nuno with praise for unparalleled customer service. I visualized Mr Nuno’s delight at this unexpected fillip to his personnel file. After I posted it, a colleague pointed out that “Nuno” was just the telex operator.
Some months later, I thought the new Mexican specs needed a check and dropped in to a Bourke-St optician. He tested them and asked, “Where did you get them made?”
“Well, the centres of the two lenses are out by nearly two centimetres. I’m surprised you haven’t gone cross-eyed.”
Now an optician might get such a measurement wrong by a millimeter or so, but two centimetres was no accident. I imagined the Mexican opticians exchanging winks as I left their shop. Every patriotic Mexican resented free-spending gringos profiting from their distress.
I deserved worse: the Acapulco junket was just a near disaster. And getting stuck in a Mexican-US no-man’s-land would have made a better story. For all that, I was happy to get back to writing tax and accounting revelations.
Tony Thomas’s book of essays, “That’s Debatable – 60 Years In Print”, is available here.
[i] Some high-up had posted Elvis a signed blank cheque which he could fill in for the amount, provided he came and sang at the mogul’s daughter’s 15th birthday party. He declined the offer, whereupon the mogul invented calumnies about him that led to riots and burning of Elvis records.
[ii] Durazo had brought in a 2% “voluntary” levy on policemen ‘s wages, ostensibly for his mausoleum. The police budget was so straightened that cops had to pay for their own bullets and motorbike petrol. They in turn practised the “mordida” or private-enterprise fining of motorists.
Durazo’s reform-minded successor had the right idea, saying,“ The police cannot be an island of purity in a society like ours, but we will try to reduce corruption to the level of the rest of the country.”