Follow the adventure from the beginning

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Rockabye Sally: Part Two

Same day and then some, now in the U.S.

When I first hear the police siren in Cotulla, Texas, I do what everyone does. I slow down a bit. I think about maybe pulling into the right lane to let him pass more quickly. I check my seatbelt. I also check Gabriel’s since he’s fallen asleep again. I look into my rearview mirror. And there it is. A flashing, patriotic display of “Welcome back to the U.S. Miss Waller. We’ve been watching you.”

Not a problem. I can handle these guys. I’ve never been pulled over in the United States, but I know perfectly well how to smile at just the right angle to avoid paying a fine or slipping a bribe to a cop in Mexico. While living in Monterrey, I learned that dealing with authority south of the border is like dancing a delicate waltz. It’s convincing a police officer that driving with your headlights on during the day is not actually a crime and that by law, you’re not obligated to pay him. Meanwhile, he’s not sure that’s entirely true. And neither are you. It’s juggling a roundabout explanation with your boss about why you couldn’t get to work before noon last Friday. You even waltz with self-proclaimed parking lot attendants; the ones that want to charge you 30 extra pesos to watch over your car just as you’re pulling into a publicly metered spot. I may know few things about myself, and I may be traveling the world to discover more, but one thing I do know is that I am an expert dancer.

“M’am, I’m pulling you over because my radar reading says you were goin’ 81 in a 65. That’s 16 miles over the speed limit.”

“Oh, officer… oh my. I didn’t realize. I saw 70 posted and thought I was just a few miles over. “

“Seventy is our daytime limit. It’s 65 at night. You have your license and your insurance card?”

“Yeah, here’s my license. I have my insurance card too. It’s somewhere,” I point to the pile of bags and boxes, “back there.”

“It’s ok,” he tells me, as he takes my license. “I’ll be right back.” That’s what I like to hear. Cutting corners from the get go. Surely we can settle a deal.

Officer Ruiz returns to my driver side window and asks me to step out of the car. In Mexico, you never step outside the car. In order to keep the dance floor safe, and at an even keel – officer stands outside, you sit inside.

“This is the number you’ll need to dial in order to report to Judge Victoria Rodriguez before February 13,” the officer explains. “Here you can see that your infraction corresponds to this fine amount.” His index finger lands on $270. You have got to be kidding me. This is my gas budget to get the car back to Pittsburgh before flying to Stockholm. I’m shocked.

“But officer, isn’t there some way to work this out?” ¿Como nos arreglamos? The male lead’s next step in the waltz should read something like, “Well, m’am, you tell me. What do you propose?” Bueno pues, digame usted… ¿que es lo que usted quiere hacer? And the dance continues in this fashion, flawlessly.

“M’am, like I said, you’ll have to call Judge Rodriguez sometime next week in order to pay the fine. I’m sorry, but I can’t really give you any other recommendations.” It’s ok. His suggestion rings through perfectly clear anyway.

This side of the Rio Grande, honey, we dance the fox trot…


Day one of the 32-hour drive from Monterrey to Pittsburgh lands us in Austin. Gabriel and I are both applying to graduate programs at the University of Texas (MBA and Global Policy degrees respectively), and so we take advantage of the trip to visit admissions advisors, tour campus, and feel out the city’s weird vibe.

Pulling into the Motel 6 just north of campus, we’re anxious to unpack our overnight bags and head down to 6th street – Austin’s premier party street. Tomorrow we sample academic life; tonight we sample student life. The Cuban receptionist hands me our key. We have to pull around, out of sight, in order to access our room.

The motel is full this evening; vans and station wagons line the backside of the building. Stepping outside my car, I pat Sally’s hood and thank her for a safe day. Double click the car key; swipe the hotel key, in then out. I walk inside the room, fall backward onto my double bed, and clack my boot heels together in the air. Such a long day, and we’re finally here. I thank Gabriel for making the trip with me. We embrace for a slow moment. Our eyes meet. And simultaneously we consider one more thing we’d like to do today…

Salsa dancing! (If you thought anything else – go, repent, and sin no more!)

We change our clothes quickly. Within 15 minutes we’re out the door again, cruising south on I-35, listening to Colombian Vallenato, tapping our shoes against the floorboard, wiggling our hips in the seats. I’m ready to show Austin that the waltz isn’t the only step I know. It’s merengue and salsa!

Mieeeeentes tan bien…” I’m singing now, and as I’m singing I notice a fast breeze slipping through the top of my driver side door. Strange. The window isn’t down. I turn around. “Oh my God,” I mutter. The window should slide seamlessly into the roof of the car. Mustang doors (the same for both coupes and convertibles) do not fit into an upper metal frame. Mine at this moment, however, is leveraged outward, bent away from the roof of the car. I’m slow to understand.

Before I can even imagine, Gabriel gets it. He knows why the window is pried open just enough for an arm to get through. “They stole my laptop,” he says. So matter-of-factly, so sure, and so completely disappointed.

“But when?!” I demand to know. We’d never been more than five meters away from the car in our hotel room, and for no longer than 15 minutes. “I mean, this guy would have had to break into my car with us practically watching!” I’m indignant and breathless, because this is exactly what he did.

“I had it right there,” Gabriel says, his face blank, his arm reaching around behind my driver side seat, feeling nothing but the rubber floor mat where his leather computer case once lay. “I knew I should have taken it out first,” he says under his breath, recounting the crime to himself, step by step. “I just didn’t think. Seven years in the Mexican barrio and nothing. Ten minutes outside the car in the first world and…” He trails off.

I am already turning the car around. Salsa music on mute. As soon as I pull into the motel, I tell the receptionist that we’ve been robbed. She says “that’s awful,” then shrugs her shoulders and tells me that local calls are free from the room phone. I tell her thanks, but state it more as a question.

The Austin police arrive while Gabriel answers questions from hotel security. The hotel guard writes down the most relevant information on what appears to be a hello kitty notepad. He scratches out every third word, and repeats every second question. The Austin police officer is my age – a dusty blonde boy. He takes fingerprints from where my door was pried open and tells Gabriel to call with the computer’s serial number as soon as he has it.

It feels right to report the crime in the same way that it feels right to fold fresh laundry – dot the “I’s” and cross the “T’s.” The reality is, however, that your laundry will always unfold and always get dirty again. The Austin police must receive hundreds of these cases from around campus each year. The chances of recovering the laptop case and all of its contents (computer, ipod, two years of corporate material) are remote. We simply have to accept it. No further business here.

The next day, we drive two more hours and arrive at College Station – a small university town just outside Houston. My mother is waiting for me there at my grandfather’s house – a beautiful Home and Garden retirement ranch. We enjoy our weekend together, discuss the crisis, visit the George H. W. Bush Library, and I begin to ponder the next leg of my journey – a transition from Gabriel’s arm around my shoulders to unabridged books on tape about the Bin Laden family with my mother. A change from Spanish to English; from the past four years to the next four.

When it’s time to say goodbye to Gabriel at the Houston airport, it feels like moving to a new high school during senior year. It’s pulling away from four years of ups and downs, ex-boyfriends, first Thanksgiving dinners away from home, achievements, and disappointments. It is a heavy moment for me because Gabriel’s faithfulness during years of friendship and now something more has grown into one of the few assets in my life to continue appreciating in value, unscathed by the crisis at hand (to understand more about this faithfulness, please see footnote C). My mother waits for me in the car as I watch Gabriel walk through airport security. Letting everything go. Shoes in the bin, please. Knowing emptiness in order to later become full. Your belt too, please. Following something, hoping it takes me there. Passport and boarding pass, please. Saying thank you and wishing with everything that I’ll see you again soon.



Footnote C: It’s the middle of the night and I am dead asleep in Monterrey. I live in a state park called Chipinque. It’s a mountainous nature reserve full of creatures – even black bears – and strange, not so edible plant species. I feel something crawling quickly up my leg and it stops. I’m sure that I am dreaming and fall asleep until it starts again. It’s moving more quickly, and this time it lands on my face. I’m slapping myself now; sure that this is no longer a dream. I’m throwing sheets and pillows, standing above my bed, fumbling to find the light, looking down. It’s a scorpion. On my face. In my bed. I’m screaming, frightened and totally creeped by it’s long, curvy tail tapping up and down against my mattress. I am frozen. I reach for my cell phone, not sure how to best go about killing this creature. My fingers go on auto-dial. Gabriel picks up.

It’s Friday night and I’m going through a rough break up. My roommate is out of town. All my friends are busy. I call Gabriel and ask him what he’s up to. He says he has plans that evening, he’s taking a girl out to dinner, but says he’ll be right over. He changes plans with the girl, turns it into a group thing, calls up his friends, and brings me along. Together, we redefine the term “double date.”

I’ve never cooked a turkey by myself. Eleven people are coming to my house for Thanksgiving dinner. I’m working on the sweet potato casserole, the stuffing, and the cranberry sauce. I realize I’ve forgotten some of the ingredients, and that I won’t have time to finish the menu before guests arrive. I’m overwhelmed. Gabriel puts on an apron, starts washing the turkey, peels sweet potatoes for two hours, and asks me to write down a list of the missing ingredients, a table cloth, and some champagne. He takes the list, runs all over town, and returns just in time – not a single thing missing.

I tell Gabriel that I’m afraid of leaving Mexico. That I’m not sure I’m making the right decision about quitting my job and going to Europe. He puts his hand on top of mine and tells me that this is what I was born to do. That if I don’t do it now, the dreams I have will stay inside and start to hurt, that I have to go, and that he’ll never be farther than an ocean away. We talk about the possibilities. About when we’ll see each other again. Perhaps later in the journey. Maybe in the summer. Perhaps in Paris. “Yeah,” I say. “I like the sound of that,” again. “See you in Paris.”

Monday, February 16, 2009

Rockabye Sally: Part One

Last day in Mexico

Some stories begin at the end. Four years in Monterrey changed my life forever; and to wake up one morning knowing that day would begin another round of equally challenging changes deserves nothing less than a solid swig of my favorite tequila (I don’t mean that figuratively by the way, I mean it quite literally. It was 9:30am). Over time, Mexico adopted me and managed to make me one of its own. My experiences there taught me to do more than speak its language; I learned to tell its jokes. I came to understand its complicated traffic laws and even invented a few of my own. More than friends, I grew a family there, and I soon discovered that my journey across the border would come to represent Mexico’s hesitation to release me from its hard earned embrace.

It’s mid-morning. Time to hit the trail. I slip on my favorite cowgirl boots, and saddle up my two-door mare, Mustang Sally. Everything I own now fits into her trunk. It’s actually an incredibly liberating feeling to own nothing – warm wind blowing right through my trousers. I should own less more often. I water the horse, and pass by the bank to pick up my fair share of the past few years’ poker earnings (for information on my obsession with westerns, please see footnote B).

Every cowgirl needs a good scout. So Gabriel, my cubicle-mate recently turned more-than-cubicle-mate, decides to ride Sally into Texas with me. His presence is a comfort as the highway from Monterrey to Nuevo Laredo is littered with possible dangers. A recent U.S. State Department Travel Alert warns U.S. citizens: “Mexican drug cartels are engaged in an increasingly violent fight for control of narcotics trafficking routes along the U.S. - Mexico border. In order to combat violence, the government of Mexico has deployed military troops in various parts of the country.  U.S. citizens should cooperate fully with official checkpoints… Firefights have taken place across [the country] but particularly in northern Mexico. Criminals have followed and harassed U.S. citizens traveling in their vehicles in border areas including Nuevo Laredo. The situation in northern Mexico remains fluid; the location and timing of future armed engagements cannot be predicted.”

And, here we go. Pennsylvania plates, car reined by a young little white girl. No sweat. The violence in Mexico is mostly invisible anyway. Until you receive an e-mail forward like I did once with a video attachment showing decapitated narcotics traffickers hanging from the ceiling of a dark warehouse in Tijuana, and a second video showing decapitated bodies shoved into a ceramic tiled shower stall in Juarez. Or until the U.S. Consulate in the city where you live is attacked by grenade and gunfire. Or until the local television station where you deliver a weekly report is threatened by narcos, bombed with a grenade and shot at. Or until you show up at a friend’s house and see her brand new Mercedes riddled with bullet holes and find out she’d been caught in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and had very nearly missed becoming another innocent casualty in Mexico’s bloody drug war. Then it’s not so invisible. But for your own sanity, you pretend like it is.

Organized crime is coffee talk in Mexico. It’s on the news. It’s the rumor that the son of the cousin of your friend from the job you had 10 years ago was assaulted in a taxi cab at 4am near the Starbucks on Vasconcelos. You sleep peacefully at night though, because you keep organized crime in the same place you keep all the poverty and all the corruption; in tightly closed Ziploc bags, measured, and categorized by date. It’s the same way any of us deal with difficult realities – the war in Iraq, pollution, debt, and personal grudges. It just happens that some of us have bigger Ziploc bags than others.

Beautiful desert mountains, cactus, and altars honoring La Virgen line the highway. Gabriel is asleep. I am driving, fifth gear, listening to Vicente Fernandez wallow in his melodic sorrow about all the women in Mexico he has lost. Make that one more. In the distance, maybe 500 meters down the road, I notice a couple military vehicles and a toll bridge. A man dressed in fatigues is waving a red flag. Slow down. This is nothing outside the norm for a Mexican highway. Just a routine checkpoint to guarantee my own safety.

“U.S. citizens should cooperate fully…"

I’m closer now, but still a good 250 meters away. Somewhere between the bullfighter effect of the red flag and the fact that there are no cars in front of me, I fail to see the series of three or four rather treacherous speed bumps between the soldier and me. They aren't painted or marked by any signs and I hit them dead on. The car bottoms out on one of them and from nowhere another soldier appears – a clone of the one in front of me with the red flag. But this one is cocking an AK-47, yanking the stiff metal handle on the side of the gun. Within seconds he’s pointing it at my tires. Gabriel wakes up and starts to yell.

Que chingados hiciste?!” I’m yelling back that I have no idea, that I didn’t see the speed bumps, and a news story from a few months back flashes into real time. Middle class father accidentally shot on the highway from Monterrey to Texas. He had pulled away too quickly from a military checkpoint. They thought he was trying to escape so they shot at his tires and missed. Instead they hit him in the shoulder. His wife was right next to him and his kids were in the back seat.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” I yell. I don’t know who I’m yelling to, but I’m yelling. And then I’m laughing. Stress causes some people to overeat, other people to cry, and still others to hold babies over balconies. My laughter is like that – a strange response to a strange situation. Gabriel flicks my shoulder, like shhh…!

Red flag soldier starts waving his bandera emphatically, motioning for me to pull over. My speed, the Pennsylvania plates, a car full of misshapen bags and boxes – it all leads to a stone faced boy poking through the trunk of my car. Despite my rodeo show entrance, however, the revision of my belongings is quick and easy. As soon as they see Gabriel’s respectful fear, and my cluelessness, they're eager to just pass us through the barricade – get rid of us so they can find what they're really looking for. No further business here.

By the time we get to the international bridge, the border checkpoint that connects Nuevo Laredo in Mexico to Laredo in Texas, it’s mid-afternoon. The lines to get into the U.S. aren’t too bad today, however crossing the bridge is always tedious. Driving over that dusty, dry riverbed, I am reminded of the power this moment has for my life. One girl’s mission to walk on water – over the Rio Grande, across the Atlantic, and to the frozen waters of the wintery Baltic Sea.

“U.S. citizen m’am?” the border guard flashes a light in my eyes at three in the afternoon. She wears her hair tightly pulled back, dark, slick and shiny. I tell her yes and hand her my passport. “What are your plans?” she asks. I explain that I’m moving home from Mexico. That I’d been living there and working full time. “Living and working in Mexico?” she clarifies – as if she’d just heard a priest tell a lie. “And who’s he?” pointing to Gabriel. “Mexicano?” she switches seamlessly to Spanish.

Si, vengo para acompañarla hasta Houston,” Gabriel tells her that he’ll come with me to Houston and fly back to Mexico from there. She asks for his permit, the one you need to go beyond 20 miles inside the U.S. border. Gabriel shoots me a look, coupled with one of those baby hanging over the balcony smiles. He has his visa, but the permit is something new. A slip of paper that you must acquire for land crossings into the U.S. Air crossings are different. Gabriel doesn’t have it, and the appearance of my plates, the back seat stuffed with black trash bags, and the story I’ve been sticking to all along about living and working in Mexico, is raising suspicion.

They tag a yellow notice on the windshield of my car.  The woman tells me to “Go over there. The officer will tell you what to do.” I pull up slowly. This time careful not to bottom out over the large unmarked speed bumps. An officer motions for me to pull into a parking place next to a long steel table.

They pull Gabriel aside and ask him to step into the immigrations office. He’ll need paperwork; electric bills to prove his permanent address, bank statements to prove he’s not here to look for work, and a pair of scissors to cut through all the red tape. He disappears, and I know that this is the part where they will ask us questions separately to corroborate our responses. It’s like that couples game show where you can only win if the other person knows absolutely everything about you – “How did you two meet?” “Her maternal grandmother’s maiden name?” “Scrambled or sunny-side up?”

Outside, I am forced to empty everything from my car. Every bag, box, sheet of paper, and gum wrapper. And since the four or five officers standing around are unable to help – they can’t tamper with the evidence – I am resolved to bend over for 30 consecutive minutes while big bellied men and their German Shepherds get a load of the gringa trying to drive herself across the continent.

I stare at all of my belongings laid out across the steel table, as if a complicated operation were about to be performed. Dogs start sniffing. Officer starts poking around. He makes the same observation that I do – there is absolutely nothing worth over Goodwill prices here. Dogs still sniffing. I put my hands on my hips, trying to catch my breath from the heavy lifting. Officer finds my collection of Catrinas, Mexican clay sculptures made into skeletons, dressed as fine ladies from the early 20th century. The officer unpacks them all, each one from 12 to 16 inches tall. He taps on the bones to see if they are hollow. To see what type of powder filled bags might fit inside. The dogs continue to sniff and this time they hit the jackpot. My sack of dirty clothes.

We continue like this for two hours before I am allowed to repack my car. Gabriel emerges victorious from the immigrations office, permit in hand. We are free to go. I kick Sally into gear, urging her on toward I-35 north to Austin. Deep breath, big sigh… Mexico is behind me now, but this trip has barely just begun.


Footnote B: I am 19 years old, hiking south toward the U.S. – Mexico border with my mother through Big Bend National Park in Texas. It’s spring break during my freshman year of college. Some friends are in Florida, others on the Jersey shore, but I am a cowgirl out on the open range.

My favorite English course this semester is called Literature from the American Frontier. We read dime store novels, Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. These stories thrill me. Cowboys and Indians, Mexican cattle raids, and town prostitutes just looking for love.

When my mother offers to take me hiking in the very heart of where I imagined these stories to take place, I spring at the opportunity. Each day, we pack our sacks – peanut butter sandwiches, nuts and bolts, fruit, and water – and walk for hours and hours. I tell my mother that she can call me Lucy Bell and that we are looking to settle west; looking to find new opportunities.

One of my favorite hikes lands us at a natural hot spring on the shore of the Rio Grande. We change into our swimming suits. Right there, right in front, for all of Mexico to see. We dip our whole bodies into the warm water coming straight from the ground. Some of the water flows over into the rushing Rio Grande. No one is here. Not for miles and miles. There is absolutely nothing. The complete and utter desolation allows me to feel just the opposite. Full to the brim with everything. Open range welcomes young, new cowgirl to Mexico.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Smack dab


I just turned 25. Enter stage left: Ms. Mid-20 something! By all accounts, this year is supposed to be one of the more fabulous ones in a woman’s life, so I decided to start it in style.

After living in Monterrey, Mexico for nearly four years, I quit my fantastic full-time, stability granting, career-woman job to go and chase after some of the world’s most impractical goals before later moving on to start a Master's degree. Get a Mohawk. Learn two more languages. Travel Europe for five months on a three-month tourist visa. And of course, (sorry Mom and Dad – I recognize I may not have been completely upfront about this next one) visit the nudest of nude beaches.

The list continues, but these are some of the more pertinent items on order. For information on the origin of this list, please see footnote A.

I should also point out that the vision for this plan came into being prior to the world’s decision to turn into a giant pit of quicksand and economic turmoil. It’s important to note because when the U.S. government decided to inject its first $700 billion into America’s financial system last October 2008, the dollar flexed it muscles around the globe, strengthening against other world currencies.

Within four months, my hard-earned savings from the past three years were devalued by nearly 30% against the dollar. I’d been gathering my travel fund in Mexican pesos. But now, just like the monopoly money poker bets placed on Wall Street, the exchange-rate value of my pesos took an unexpected hit.

Things just got…

…a little more interesting.

While preparing to leave Mexico, I sold nearly all of my belongings for enough money to purchase a one-way ticket to Stockholm, Sweden. I cut my hair (not a Mohawk yet, but still shockingly short – enough to stir up that “I ain’t nobody’s woman” feeling I would highly recommend to any girl in her mid-20’s. Piercings, tattoos, and drastic wardrobe changes can also do the trick, however I tend to suggest the less permanent options for us beginners).

The week of my 25th birthday was my last one at work. I packed my boxes, handed over the keys to my cubicle, said a few teary eyed goodbyes to the people who’d become my family in Mexico, and set off driving toward the Texas border. Cowgirl meets wild new frontiers.

I am in every way, "Caught in the Middle." Mid-twenty something girl quits job, enters radical transition phase between steady work and steady schooling. I am caught in the nasty wire transfer from pesos to dollars. In the middle of a rabbit-hole plan. Between countries, cultures, and languages, and I’ll bet that in some way you are too.

Welcome to my collection of stories for people who are mid-way there. For those who are in the middle of a big decision, people caught mid-discussion, for half birthday enthusiasts, middle children, and middle managers. I hope you’ll find pieces of yourself here, between things old and new, near and far – somewhere between birth and death, because ultimately we’re all somehow… Caught in the Middle. And what matters most is how we choose to work it when we're walking that middle line.


Footnote A: It’s 2am in July 2006. One of those perfectly warm Kennywood cotton candy midnights in Pittsburgh. No better time to take a dip in our backyard pool with my sister and our childhood friend, and frankly there’s no better time to do it in our skivvies. No one’s watching – I can almost hear our neighbor snoring through his second story screen window. I follow my sister’s lead, the path of strewn socks, t-shirt, and shorts leading up the back patio stairs toward the pool deck.

The three of us run around the edge of the pool, giggling, still a little performance shy. Splash! Sister takes the plunge. I follow. Friend follows. We all get out, skipping around the pool deck. Fairy-like. Laughing, cackling really. Splash! Here we go again… in and out, up and down. Little Gollums running in the night. Whoosh! Down the slide – cold, wet fiberglass against the back of my legs and on my hips.

We play like fireflies, and we send our laughter up to the universe. And it is the truest laughter I have ever released, the kind that splits through all sadness and forces you to discover things. In this moment, my sister’s freest of free spirits inspires me. My friend’s courage fills me. It is one of the happiest memories I hold onto in my life. And if something so simple could bring me that much closer to myself, why not make a list of a few other simple goals to bring me closer still – a few more adventures to help grow these girl bones into woman ones with just a little more grace… and a little more style.