A moral’s in there somewhere. The Authors Collection.

Standing on a hill and overlooking the coastline of Puerto Vallarta
Standing on a hill and overlooking the coastline of Puerto Vallarta

IT WAS A DISCOMBOBULATED TRIP from the beginning. I know. I had a front row seat. I was the discombobulated traveler. It was thirty years ago. I was travel editor for Southern Living Magazine.  And we had been holding on for years with broken fingernails, trying to survive during lean times, and there had been only a rare few thick ones.

But now the magazine was no longer being looked on as a barefooted ragamuffin in the publishing industry. More and more, we were being besieged by the country’s top travel destinations, begging, pleading, coercing, and occasionally bribing us with free hotel rooms and a breakfast or two to write a few thousand good words about their individual pieces of heaven on earth.

I had spent a lot of time lost on Southern highways, hitting all of the hot spots from Pineapple, Alabama, to Ninety-Six, South Carolina, and that included a layover in Plum Nelly, Georgia – named because it was plum out of Tennessee and nelly out of Georgia. I don’t make them up. I just write them.

I walked into the office one fine summer morning and found an invitation I could not refuse. It was from Mexico. It was from the President of Mexico no less. He and the minister of tourism had invited our chief photographer Gerald Crawford and me to three glorious days in a beautiful resort overlooking the sun-spackled beaches of Puerto Vallarta. Free airline tickets. Free meals. Free rooms. Life didn’t get any better than this.

I checked the dates on my calendar. I had planned to be in Wizard Wells, Texas, on Thursday with a quick jaunt down to the Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, on my way home.

It was a tough call. I sent my regrets to Wizard Wells, and we headed to Mexico. Breaux Bridge wouldn’t even know I hadn’t shown up.  Beer and crawfish can do that to a festival.

There we sat in our first class seats, flight attendants bringing free liquor and wine to anyone who had built up a good thirst after departing from Birmingham, keeping our bellies filled with gourmet meals and our faces awash with hot towels.

I leaned back and tried with all of my might to remember what had I learned in my ethics in journalism class. I recall some professor saying something about never accepting anything free in exchange for a story. The details were foggy. The flight attendant set another Bloody Mary in front of me, and by the time the glass was empty, I couldn’t remember ever having taken an ethics in journalism class.

Puerto Vallarta would be fine this time of year. Puerto Vallarta would be fine any time of year. It was. The resort was elegant. My room was large and luxurious. My window looked out past an art work of floral gardens and on toward the Pacific Ocean. The breeze was warm and crisp. I could hear music in the background.

Don’t worry, the President of Mexico had said.

Don’t worry, the minister of tourism had said.

Everything will be paid for.

You are our guests. Life in Puerto Vallarta is on the house.

I believed them both. I carried a hundred or so dollars with me to buy a handful of souvenirs to carry back home and to the office. The dollars were quickly spent, the trinkets quickly packed. We ate steak and lobster, and we drank their wine, and I smiled at the waiter, signed my name to the check, and added a generous tip.

The President of Mexico would take care of it. Or at least his minister of tourism would.

On Sunday afternoon, about four o’clock, we checked out of the resort. Our flight was leaving for Atlanta, then on to Birmingham, in a couple of hours. We had plenty of time. Our bill, the gentleman behind the desk said, came to four hundred, thirty-eight dollars and eighty-six cents.

I smiled. “It’s being taken care of,” I said.

He frowned. “By whom?”

I smiled. “The minister of tourism in Mexico City,” I said.

He frowned. “That’s not what your bill says,” he said.

I frowned. I couldn’t have come up with four hundred, thirty-eight dollars and eighty-six cents if I sold everything I owned.

I looked at Crawford. He shrugged. He pulled out a worn credit card. I didn’t carry one in 1971.

The man behind the desk took it and smiled. He swiped the card. He handed us our receipt.

And Crawford whispered, “Let’s get out of here.”

“We’ve got plenty of time.”

“Now,” he said.

“Why?” I asked as I hurriedly followed him to the door.

“The card has been expired for six months,” he said. “They just haven’t figured it out yet.”

We grabbed a taxi and raced to the airport.  Crawford had a ten-dollar bill. It was enough. We walked hurriedly up to the gate for Aeronaves Airlines, and the agent said, “I’m sorry.”

“About what?”

“We no longer fly to Atlanta.”

“But I have a ticket,” I said loudly.

He shrugged. “Fine,” he said. “We don’t have a plane.” He nodded to the far end of the airport. “But Mexicana Airlines is gong to Atlanta,” he said.

We ran to the Mexicana gate. The flight was leaving in ten minutes. I handed the agent our tickets.

He shook his head. “We don’t accept Aeronaves tickets,” he said.

“But I’ve paid for them,” I said.

“You didn’t pay us,” he said.

“Do you have two seats left for Atlanta?” I asked.

“We do.”

“Can we get them?”

“If you pay for them.”

I turned to Crawford. He pulled out his expired credit card. The agent took it, swiped it, and handed us our tickets. If the plane left on time, we might be out of Mexico before anyone realized we were broke, criminals, and probably fugitives by now.

The plane sat on the runway for two hours.  I looked out the window and saw little men in little orange suits with ropes and ladders and monkey wrenches and duct tape running up and down the wing. Something was obviously terribly wrong with an engine.

Crawford and I sat back and held our breath. Every minute, I expected to see a band of gendarmes walk through the door and down the aisle, carrying handcuffs with our names on them. No one came.

At the end of two hours, the engines roared to life, and I smiled at a flight attendant as she walked past us. Her face was drawn and white. The tray she held was shaking.

“Well,” I said. “I see you fixed the plane.”

“No,” she said. “We changed crews.”

Some kid fighter jockey had decided he could get a piece of junk metal to Atlanta with one engine missing.

There is a moral to this story somewhere. It’s been years, and I’m still trying to figure it out.


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