Travels with Pulque in the Time of COVID-19(Or, What Were We Thinking?)

By Julie Etra

Chapter 1

Love. COVID-19. Non-sequiturs? Like everyone last summer, we were stuck at home, as lovely as it is, but surrounded by fires and smoke for two months. My husband Larry (aka Lars) says “Let’s get a dog.” I am thinking, “My honey needs a dog. I am gone a lot and he needs the company, a buddy, a shep.” We had been dogless for almost five years, and he said it never occurred to him that we would not get another dog.

I remind him about our age (me 67, him 73) and dog longevity (estimate 16), but I am thinking “Good Idea! Responsibility! Exercise! LOVE!” Lars can sit on the deck with the dog, read a book with the dog, shoot squirrels, or watch the dog chase them and the rabbits. That was Friday, we started looking online and making a few calls as we had already decided we would get the same breed we’ve always had since we’d been together. This would be our fourth Australian cattle dog, aka Queensland heeler, and our last. Monday afternoon Larry looked at the pups and Tuesday he selected a 6-week-old male queenie from the back of a pick-up and, lo and behold, we were the parents of Pulque. That was June 23, we now had a handful of puppy love and lifestyle change in what we thought was mid-pandemic.

Why Pulque? Pulque is fermented agave juice, a pre-Hispanic Aztec (Mexica) beverage that preexisted the Spanish introduction of the distillation process. It is also the name of the ranch dog in the great book Como agua para chocolate by Laura Esquivel. He would be bilingual, we’ll take him to Mexico, he can practice there, immersion is a good thing.

Chapter 2

By July 16, in mid-summer heat typical of the Great Basin, I had ants in my pants (thankfully not sweeper or army ants found here on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca), and needed to see our friends on the Sonoma Coast of California. First road trip with the pup, now 11 weeks young, his maiden voyage in a puppy doggie halter. I had been working in Tahoe, about an hour drive from the office in Reno, so I was somewhat aware of the challenges of road travel during a pandemic, namely few pit stops or lunch options. We took our tow-behind trailer, to spare friends not particularly partial to dogs or rambunctious puppies, but also to have a toilet and fridge on the road; it is a long drive. This turned out to be a good plan. Rest areas were closed, the wildlife viewing areas were closed, the stop at the fruit stand proved fruitless, the taco joint in Dixon infeasible with the pup, even if it was open. Valley Ford, where we always stop for local cheese, great wine, and sometimes a sandwich prepared by the same older ladies, but nope, they were not there and had been replaced by creepy young men, but the temperature was 20 degrees cooler and the puppy was miraculously behaving and letting us know when he needed a pee stop (an on/off highway ramp).

We drove through dense summer fog to our destination just north of Fort Ross. It was great to see our friends, enjoy outdoor cocktails and snacks while socially distancing with mandated masks, facing the stunning Pacific from the deck of their former restaurant at Ocean Cove, the pup chewing our feet. The trip home was uneventful, with our typical stops closed and a pup we could not leave in the truck, regardless. He would bark, bark, bark if one of us was out of sight, a trait (often annoying) he maintains to this day.

Chapter 3

August 10. Still no facemask or social distancing mandates in the state of Nevada, still hot and smoky in Reno in the eastern valley of the Sierra Nevada (which means “snowy mountains” in Spanish, as Nevada was once part of Mexico), time to get out of town. Lamoille Canyon was the next COVID-19 Pulque trip, seven hours east across arid, flat, and dull I-80 with nary a tree in sight until we reached Elko and fueled up.

In spite of the pandemic, or because of limited entertainment and recreational opportunities, the campground was almost full. The remote canyon is awesome, formed by a retreating glacier and atypical for Nevada in terms of geology, morphology, vegetation, and wildlife. The energetic pup is hard to handle in a somewhat confined campground with leash regulations and lots of other dogs. He loves to play with and chew his retractable leash, he loves other dogs, he loves EVERYONE, another trait he has maintained (and a bit unusual for a heeler). We try to be patient and are entertained by his other antics and curiosity, bounding up the trail, pouncing through the vegetation, curiously cocking his cute puppy head from side to side at the creek, but again saying to ourselves, “What were we thinking? Are we too old for this?”

Chapter 4

Ocean Cove Campground, California, October 25. The pandemic was in what we thought was full throttle, little did we know at the time. Towing the trailer to the coast again, the pup is now 5½ months old. We have joined our friends again but this time at a private campground located above cliffs facing the ocean. What a gorgeous place. Masks are required at the little store, but folks are not social distancing, and there was the uninvited visit from a totally obnoxious cigarette-smoking COVID-19 denier getting way too close, with of course no mask. It was not easy to manage Pulque with so many other dogs, but he had started playing with the frisbee, which is great exercise and a great babysitter, us tossing it to him on the sandy bluffs in between the rock outcrops.

Chapter 5

At last, dear reader, the trip to Huatulco. After some debate, we decided to return to our house here where we usually spend about five months. We were nervous not so much about catching the virus in Mexico as we were about catching it en route, and if we did come down with it in Mexico, we would have very limited options for care. But we did not want to remain in the US, where we presumed it would get much worse, as proper health protocols had become volatile political statements and people were headed inside for the winter.

And so, we began to plan. Not so easy! And of course, it became almost exponentially more complicated with the dog. American Airlines would no longer take dogs, Aero Mexico had too many stops and layovers, including Mexico City. After consulting a few friends and our neighbors here in Huatulco we decided to drive a one-way rental to the border, a two-day trip, and fly directly from Tijuana to Huatulco on Volaris. Yes, they would take the pooch, with super-specific requirements for the paperwork, and kennel. It was also interesting that the cost for the pooch was half that of a U.S. carrier. We also thought that being in country, customs would be easier.

We left around 11:00 on November 13, having picked up the sanitized rental at the empty airport desk and upgrading to an SUV. We took off in the first winter storm of the season. As we left a full rainbow appeared, I am thinking this is a good omen, but driving into an 80-mph headwind, with the pooch perched in between the seats for a good view, we passed four wrecked tractor trailers and I am reconsidering the rainbow and what may lie ahead along the drive to San Diego. Reno to Lone Pine, once we were out of the storm, along the steep and dramatic eastern Sierra Nevada is a stunning drive and we have a styrofoam cooler loaded with snacks and libations, and four home-cooked meals for Pulque. One night in Lone Pine, take out dinner, then back on the road south.

We made it to the border at Chula Vista, staying in the sanitized, restricted, and sort of pet-friendly hotel closest to the airport (an additional unadvertised and non-refundable $150.00 for our precious puppy). San Diego County was now red, with no inside dining, so we ordered delivery and watched CNN and the not-happening transition to the new administration. This was really hard on the puppy. ACK. But so good so far.

The following morning, after dropping the car off, we did a pre-check-in at Volaris on the U.S. side, where they scrutinized the pooch’s paper work. We were fortunate to grab two baggage carts as we had the wheel-less kennel, two big rollers, and our laptop rollers. We figured that once we were on the Mexican side we might be able to find porters (they have their own union). With our Cross Border Xpress passes, we crossed the pedestrian walkway and went through security (and customs, as it were) for the first time and bingo we were in the chaotic and surprisingly full Tijuana airport where we were immediately told to put the dog in the kennel. People were masked but not socially distancing and there was one helluva long line! Barkie, barkie, bark, bark, bark, even with a half a doggie downer. We finally made it to the special needs counter, and with a knot in my stomach I watched the Volaris rep read through our paperwork, not knowing whether we would pass, or what to expect. BARK, BARK, BARK, BARK. Another half a doggie downer, the paperwork seemed to be in order, but wait! The kennel does not meet their specs, it is too big. Can’t be, we mutter to ourselves, after having bought the last suitable but wheel-less kennel in Reno, but this is resolved with an additional too-big-kennel fee, and off goes our six-month old pup (not the required eight, ahem) down the conveyor belt, bark, bark, barking, the knot still there.

We go through security again, and board. The flight is crowded, and has, typical for Volaris, little leg room. Everyone is wearing cubrebocas. The passengers are mostly nationals, maybe a few Americans as we think we hear a little English. Four long hours later we land in Huatulco, get our luggage, here comes the bark, bark, barkie on the conveyor belt, and our friend Larry is there to help us disassemble the kennel and take us home. The pandemic had not even peaked yet in the U.S., we did not know precisely what to expect in Mexico, but this is what we were thinking: “Doggie, Huatulco, home, at least for now.”

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