Follow the adventure from the beginning

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Traveling Trinkets

The journey continues, crossing the Atlantic

I have a dead butterfly in my pocket. It’s perfect, just like a Monarch should be, and wrapped safely inside a miniature ivory locket. I’m also wearing a silver, four-looped ring forged by a jewelry smith from southern Mexico. I carry a clothbound journal with mountains of messages from home, each one waiting for me to reach its page during my journey. And then there are the farewell kisses that draw pretty constellations across my cheeks…

I am a walking alter.

I am a connecting passenger from Pittsburgh to Chicago to Copenhagen to Stockholm.

Fellow travelers check their tickets: United Airlines flight 8802, group 3, boarding time 16:45. The men with suits and briefcases must be trying to make an early Monday meeting. A few families look like they are returning home. Still others will be visiting their parents, or maybe a girlfriend. Most trips are like this – point “a” to point “b” journeys. Start here, end there.

I check my ticket and see the same information: United Airlines flight 8802, group 3, boarding time 16:45. I crane my head back to see the departure information screen and confirm the schedule. Pass through security, one more time. Then the gate monitor reminds me again. They all make it perfectly clear that I have no idea where I am going. Add axis “z” to this trip where point “a” and point “b” won’t take you anywhere without a third coordinate. Start here, end up in outer space.

I want to tell you that this is an overwhelming feeling, but it’s not. It’s like asking your father how he learned to parallel park. It’s a process, and you are mostly unaware. I anesthetize any possible shock with daydreams. I imagine the series of events that brought me here: the countless, however significant choices I made to take the blue pill and not the red one.

See, swallowing the blue pill isn’t as smooth as a sip of cough syrup. It’s not fast and no single dose will do the trick. First you need to research the side effects and consider what has happened to others who have chosen to ingest. Then you have to find a glass of water that will push your decision down. And of course, you will need to find good company. People to hold you up on the days the blue pill gives you a stomachache and turns the floorboards beneath you into prickling heads of cactus.


It’s September 2008 and one of my best friends in Monterrey is getting married. She’s from Europe, he’s from Mexico. The celebration will be a Swedish, Hungarian, Italian, Latino affair.  The bride’s family comes over from Europe, friends arrive from the U.S., and I am excited to meet them. I open a hostel in my apartment, and we are fully booked. Two Swedes from Stockholm sleep on couches; another two from Halmstad in my bed; and I sneak under the covers with my roommate. We are together for an entire week. This is the first time I hear Swedish. It’s also the first time I try Sweden’s Turkish Pebbar (Turkish Delight I later rename it after C.S. Lewis’ White Witch treat) – an intensely anise flavored candy with spicy pepper filling. I teach them salsa, they teach me swear words, and I decide it’s time to invent an international document I’ve come to call the Travelers’ Code (this surely already exists but, just for fun, let’s pretend it’s mine).

The Travelers’ Code is a list of should’s and should not’s. For example, four Swedes come to my place. We get to know each other, share a few tequilas, learn new words and habits, and eventually form a bond. I should go and visit them in return. I should see where they are from. I should begin a bed-for-bed barter system. And I should not delay. Open wide. Pick your color.

Now, I am looking for a glass of water. The blue pill is in my mouth. I’m chewing on it, trying hard to swallow, but I can’t seem to get it past my tongue. I’m not sure where to go or how to get there. And then I find it.

It’s 9am on a Friday morning. I come to work, sleepy Chinese eyes, papers stacked to the top of my cubicle. I sit down and open my computer. Here, stuck to the keyboard, I stumble across a most unexpected and quenching surprise. It’s a post-it note from a good friend who understands my thirst. She sits just a few cubicles away and has left me a Friday morning wake-up call. The post-it stares at me and washes my questions away. It says, “You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

And I should not delay…

Windows start menu; open internet explorer; enter the address; I am available for travel on February 7, 2009; Visa card; are you sure you would like to purchase?; yes; itinerary confirmed; one-way; Pittsburgh to Stockholm; take a deep breath; now go tell your boss.

The rush of adrenaline this purchase sends through my body is the electric shock a Super Bowl champion must feel as he first tests the weight of Vince Lombardi’s trophy. Instead of Cadillac’s latest Escalade, however, my victory is accompanied by tight indigestion. A tummy turning realization that the blue pill is on its way down, and it’s not coming back up.

I start to explore the consequences. I will move from point “a” to point “b.” And then to points “c,” “d,” and “x.” I will write. I will waste time. I will slow down. I will test myself. I will get scared, happy, lost, and (insert adjective here). But first, before I leave, I will attend a local performance of the Broadway musical A Light in the Piazza with my mother. I was unaware beforehand, but the show is about a girl’s first trip to Europe. She explores Italy; gets scared, happy, lost and (insert adjective here). And she sings:

“I’m just a someone in an old museum, far away from home as someone can go, and the beauty is I still meet people I know… this is wanting something, this is reaching for it, this is wishing that a moment would arrive. This is taking chances, this is almost touching what the beauty it is.”

The lyrics reach my shoulders and pitter-patter through my eardrums: a river of water diluting the blue pill’s initial sour aftertaste, turning it into something sweeter and more permanent.


And now, after many glasses of water, I am floating through airport corridors, following signs, turning circles. I am flying over the Atlantic. It’s a timeless “Caught in the Middle” kind of place, somewhere between GMT -6 and GMT +1. Then, I am landing in Copenhagen, listening to the soft Danish announcements come over the airplane intercom. Now I am in the Schengen Region, and then a quick flight to Stockholm. I am hitting the accelerator. Ride ‘em cowgirl!

Mina damer och herrar, välkomna till Sverige!



Footnote E: A quick word about the trinkets I carry…

The Monarch butterflies migrate through Monterrey twice each year. Once in the spring as they head north toward Canada, and once in the fall as they head south toward Morelia, Mexico to breed. According to the Indians in Mexico, the butterfly is a sacred symbol for life beyond the grave. The butterfly must first experience the cocoon’s sleepy death before fluttering its beautiful orange-yellow wings in life.

The butterfly is also an important image displayed during Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration in November. During this month, the Monarchs arrive to Morelia. And Morelia is one of southern Mexico’s most traditional locations to celebrate El Dia de los Muertos – this holiday honoring life after death. Honoring souls that could not be conquered. Butterflies have always been an important part of my life. They appear when I am troubled and often bring a deep breath of clarity to my confusion.

It’s November 2008 and the butterflies have just come through Monterrey. Look up. Go on, throw your head back! It’s an amazing show of transparent and twinkling wings. Hundreds, thousands, more and more keep coming. They are beautiful and they are taking me with them. It’s time to leave Monterrey. Time to follow their lead.

I tell Gabriel that I saw the Monarchs and that they made me feel light and secure. He says nothing. His response is more sincere than words. He walks around the forest that surrounds my apartment and finds a treasure, just for me. A number of butterflies fall from the sky, tired from the journey, unable to continue. Gabriel finds one that has fallen softly, no wing damage, only colorful perfection. He wraps it for me. Close your eyes; hold out your hands. Now smile.


Idunn is a friend from Norway. She lives in Monterrey and hosts a farewell dinner in my honor. She invites Laura the bride and Lisette from the Netherlands. We share salad, homemade lasagna, traditional Scandinavian vanilla sauce, warm coffee, and Regio gossip. These girls understand what it’s like to need a little help getting big decisions settled into your stomach. Idunn sees a bit of heaviness in my face. She pulls me aside, takes me into the bathroom, and closes the door.

“You don’t have to be afraid,” she tells me. “Because I have this for you.” She pulls a silver ring off her left index finger. It’s a deformed four-leaf clover. She says she bartered for it with an old lady in a dusty Monterrey antique shop. The way Idunn puts it, the ring has something special about it. Some enchantment cast by the Señora who sold it to her. “It’s supposed to bring you good luck. It helped me find mine. But then I discovered that I’ve had the good luck inside me this entire time. I hope you’ll find this too and then give it to someone else.” I smile as we embrace, and with my hands around her neck, I slide the ring onto my left index finger.


This year, my favorite Christmas gift came from my sister. She bought me a clothbound journal smothered by an image of a whirling butterfly. She dedicated time and energy to hunting down important childhood friends, high school friends, new friends, total strangers, everyone. She asked them to encourage me by writing notes on random pages. She tells them, “Your words will be a part of my sister’s journey, so make ‘em good!” Kimberly is a blue pill woman. More than anyone, perhaps, she understands the consequences of my decisions, how they make me feel, how they simultaneously thrill and terrify me. She absorbs the vibrations of these decisions with me and together we share cups of tea, cans of beer, card games, and Albert Einstein talks, long into many nights to help get that blue pill down and keep it there.


I’d love it if you bought me a new Coach bag. Airline miles, bottles of Herradura tequila, or a $130,000 scholarship for my Master’s degree (figure based on the latest “Estimated Cost of Attendance for Two Years” information sheet sent by Columbia University where I have just been offered admission to their School of International and Public Affairs for August 2009), would also be great. But nothing, and I’m being so serious, nothing could ever replace the value of two parents who send you off on a crazy man’s journey with hugs and kisses. My father says he’s proud of me and my mother says I am precious to her. Worthy of my father’s praise and sacred to my mother despite being unemployed, unsure about what’s next, up in the air on a Master’s working out, shaky on my savings, and generally all sorts of turned around. Their kisses cushion and protect me; block my falls and tell me exactly who I am.

“This is being thankful, this is counting blessings…”

Monday, March 2, 2009

Rockabye Sally: Part Three

Final days prior departure to Europe

I am jammed into an interstate ditch; trapped safely in the passenger seat of my nearly overturned Mustang. I am frightened and turned around. The car faces oncoming traffic, and my hands are shaking, face white, feet cold. I am very thankful to be alive. To my left, an icy forest. To my right, northbound lanes on I-69 skate their way toward Big Cabin, Oklahoma. Ask me how I got here and I’ll tell you it’s a whirlwind – a twister of icy skies, Bin Laden family secrets, Chinese New Year blessings, and ancient Cherokee curses. And then I’ll tell you that it’s just one more piece to this giant 25-year-old puzzle that I am trying to solve.



“Looks like we’ll ride barely ahead of the winter storm belt’s northern edge,” my mother assures me. We stare at the TV screen together inside my grandfather’s Texas ranch, sipping on our morning coffee, slowly chewing a moist piece of pumpkin bread. I tell her that I agree, and that I’m anxious to get as far as we can today – maybe even reach Springfield, Missouri. A tough 14-hour drive sprawls before us.

Before we go anywhere, however, I have an appointment with Al Garcia. He’s the body shop manager at Varsity Ford on Highway 6, and he’s promised to jerry-rig the driver side door of my car – the one that’d been broken into just a few days before in Austin. If done properly, the job should take four to five business days, but I’ve got a plane to catch in Pittsburgh, so there’s no time for a proper repair.

Al tells us that it will be a few minutes while he and his crew perform this makeshift surgery. As we wait in the lobby entrance, I hear the body shop employees singing along with an all too familiar voice. It’s Chente, my 69-year-old Mexican Sinatra. Two workers simultaneously let out a melodious cry into the morning warmth. It’s a sad cry, like a Johnny Cash caw only more guttural. Mexicans remedy this call with a cold gulp of tequila chased by one long swallow of an icy beer. I know this music very well. It penetrates me, and once more I reach toward something familiar, toward the past four years, until Al Garcia pulls me back.

“Ms. Waller?” he leans his head and shoulders around the corner from inside the workroom. “Your car is ready.”

I look her over. Of course she’s still slightly bruised, but the repair is good enough to get us home. I ask him about the paper work I’ll need to fill out. I know how car dealerships work. One hour of time in the body shop equates to approximately $102.54 in billable services.

“Don’t worry about it m’am. It’s our pleasure to help.” I hear another boy join the chorus in the back of the shop, and I quickly recall that this is not the first time (nor will it be the last) that Mexico finds its own way to surprise me and watch over my journey. Though I am unaware of it at this moment, Al Garcia is the first of many angels that will fly by my side today.

First gear. Second gear. Third. And we’re off.

By the time we get to McAllister, Texas, up toward the Oklahoma line, the winter weather front begins to kick in. Grey skies, along with cold, rainy flurries. We listen to books on tape to pass the time; a fascinating memoir by Carmen Bin Laden about her struggle to divorce one of Osama’s 29 brothers, Islam, and escape Saudi Arabia’s strangling grasp. 

I listen to Carmen’s story about her gradual, almost unperceivable slip into cultural and religious imprisonment. She bravely recounts her experiences, what it was like to live inside the most elite Bin Laden compounds in Saudi Arabia – a place where men count women as another expensive possession to be traded and sold, but never loved. I learn about Saudi women’s thirst for affection and their tendency to turn toward their husband’s other wives to attain this physical comfort. Unnatural lesbians acting under unnatural circumstances.

I listen to this story just as I am stretching into the consequences of my own decisions. Quit job: check. Leave Mexico: check. Abandon stability: check. Say goodbye to friends and boyfriend: check. I travel north with Carmen Bin Laden: two women exploring the enormous depths of their own freedom.

It’s dark now. After eight hours driving I start to imagine strange lines on the road. I see buildings where there are none, and realize it’s time for me to rest my eyes against the incessant winter rain. I ask my mother for help. We pull over and as we change seats, I notice that the car’s antennae is bent backward, frozen solid with a thick layer of ice. I remember what the man at the last gas station said.

“Where ya headed?” he noses into my travel plans. I shake with cold while pumping the gas, my fingers red and momentarily arthritic.

“Up north toward the I-69/I-44 exchange to Springfield.” I say.

“Oh, you’re not gonna make it that far…”

“Oh really? What’ve you heard?” I’m interested now.

“That it’s an excellent day to go fishing.”

“What?” I’m confused.

“Yeah, that it’s fine weather for ice fishing,” he clarifies. I quietly observe that the last body of water I’d seen was back where the Rio Grande is supposed to flow, far to our south, at the Texas – Mexico border.

Mother takes over driving. She revs the engine to feel out the clutch and I imagine the sound of her first car; a metallic, pine green ’78 Camaro – an “eat my dust, mine are bigger than your’s” kind of car. I would have loved to see her pull through campus, shades on, hair down, hot rod woman conquering year 25.


The ancient Indian curse I’m going to tell you about now is a thirty-second deal, and this is how a good tall tale begins. In the half minute it takes my mother and I to change seats, the rain thickens. It goes from chicken noodle soup to a cold cream of tomato. The ancient spirits urge this to happen at least once a year, somewhere in Oklahoma, near Cherokee reservation land. For as much snow as I’ve seen, tasted, and sledded on in my life, I have never lived through its power in the American mid-west, and the Cherokee curse was not about to let that continue.


About ten minutes down the road, Mom hits a fish tail and starts to breathe fast and heavy. She pulls out of it quickly, expert toboggan driver meets concrete racecourse, but we both agree: it’s time to find a place to pull off and stay the night. The Missouri line will have to wait until tomorrow.

Sooner than we can find shelter, however, Mom hits a second ice patch. This one pushes us forward, faster than before. We skid onto a bridge, and in an instant – before we can scream, or say “shit,” or get scared – we are Kristi Yamaguchi in the middle of a triple axel, about to break both our ankles on the way down. We ricochet in toward the middle concrete divider, sliding out of control. We want to hit the barrier though – it’d keep us from tumbling over the edge of the bridge, into icy waters. Great weather for fishing. Mother is desperately turning the wheel, no brakes – they only make matters worse on ice – and now we’re spinning 360 degrees, facing oncoming traffic, headed for the ditch past the bridge, skating backwards at 40 mph. Still no screams. Only heavy whew’s and hmm’s as we make a silent landing in an icy drainage canal.

Though the ditch cradles our fall, Sally baby lulled to an icy still, I am far from the soft comfort of an evening bedtime. I look over and see Mom’s white face traced by a shadow that lines her frozen expression. Today is one of the first times I am pushed outside her womb, January 26, 2009. This moment forces me to understand that the protective tissue that gave me life before birth actually spans much more than nine quick months of pregnancy. In fact, it stretches for more than 25 years, and is full of encouragement and doctors’ visits, prying questions, report cards, and favorite birthday cakes. Perhaps we can only fully measure the depth of our mothers’ wombs once we personally witness their humanity, a very real fear, a battle against cancer, or maybe even once we have a baby of our own. In any case, the entirety of the situation is summed up into our simple and quiet set of mantras, “oh my,” we keep repeating, “hmm…,” “yes, we’re okay,” one more time, “myyy.”

Larry Hayes’ headlights shining right into our eyes come as a bit of a surprise, and a lot of relief. He slides his F-250 to the side of the road, very nearly joining us in the ditch, and steps outside his truck rather slowly – so slowly that we’re not sure if he’s taking the time to grab a weapon or a flashlight. I ask my mother if I should roll down my window. She is still apologizing for the accident; says she really tried to get us out of the spin. I put my hand on her thigh and tell her she saved my life. She is much more of a cowgirl than I am, and I know she was the one to face this riding challenge for a reason. I would have steered away from the spin, not into it, putting us at approximately the bottom of a river.  

“Everyone alright in here?” Larry shines his light through the cracked window against our ghost skin.

“Yeah, just a little shook up,” my mother says. Larry tells us he’s a deputy sheriff from the county over, he’s out delivering propane to shut-ins, and asks us if we think we can get Sally back on the highway. Mother gives it a try. Her hands are shaking. So are mine. The tires spin out against the ice. We trade seats, wading through grainy slush so I can try. No luck. Sally’s not going anywhere tonight.

“Well, I’can get you up to the Super 8, three miles down the road, but what I don’t want to do is leave you ladies out here much longer. The semi’s are gonna run me off the road, and it’s a mighty long walk fer the both of you in this kind of cold.” I look at Mom with question mark eyes. She silently affirms by grabbing her purse.

“Better take what you need,” Larry warns. “This storm isn’t gonna quit anytime soon. Grab what you can and we’ll throw it in the truck.” In all my haste, I only take my purse. Mother grabs a canvas tote. And we’re off. Goodnight, Sally. See you when the ice lets up.

We’re lucky to get one of the last available rooms at the Super 8. We tell them we hitchhiked in and they ask us if we own the abandoned black Mustang – police have already radioed it in. After crawling across an icy parking lot to reach our room, Mother and I take an inventory of what we’ve managed to bring from the car. I pull out my wallet – $3.47. Mom pulls out a cell phone charger but can’t find her handset. I have no toothbrush. Mom struggles to find her blood pressure medication. And then I notice her canvas bag.

“Whatcha got there?” I ask, hoping for an extra t-shirt, maybe some socks. She opens the cloth handles and pulls out something so unexpected, so completely absurd, that I’m almost sure you won’t believe what I’m about to tell you. Even if I offered to pay you a million dollars, I bet you’d never guess that my mother lifts out a giant, head-size, Chinese grapefruit. It’s true. We’re stranded in an ice storm. No clothes, no toothbrush, no money (my mother left her credit card at a restaurant in Houston, and all my money is rolled up in an international wire transfer somewhere between Monterrey and Pittsburgh). But at least we have a soccer ball sized source of vitamin C (to learn more about this grapefruit, please see footnote D).

I wish we had time to sit around a campfire. We could share a warm whisky, and I’d tell you many stories about the subsequent 55 hours of solid ice and immobility in Oklahoma. I’d tell you about the tow truck’s struggle to find the car next morning. About how we thought somebody had stolen it and then found out it had just been buried in snow and ice. I’d tell you about a Dallas head fur woman who prays a “hedge of protection” over all of northeastern Oklahoma at the Super 8’s bagel breakfast. We could laugh about the best (under any other circumstance, worst) Reuben sandwich I was finally able to order at the neighboring truck stop, after surviving 36 hours on snickers bars and potato chips. Or I could tell you in all seriousness about Middle American hospitality, do unto others as you would have others do unto you. But these stories will have to come another day. I’ve got a plane to catch, and that one-way ticket is a nonrefundable trip – my reservation for a growing pains journey.



Footnote D: We are in the Hong Kong Super Market, back in Houston’s Chinatown, with my mother’s brother, David, and his Chinese wife, Mai (pronounced My-Oh-Mai!). They have graciously invited us to spend the day with them to celebrate Chinese New Year, together with Aunt Mai’s family.

We mosey around the produce section. Discount seedless grapes, oversize roots, spoiled heads of lettuce, pickled everything. Sweet smells, sour smells, rotten smells. Next aisle contains bags of shredded dry eel, salted fish skin, chile powder, garlic, and garbage bags full of salt.

The store is wild and full. People running last minute New Year’s errands. Kids dressed in bright red, the color for prosperity and good luck. It’s tradition to give specific gifts to loved ones as a way to bless them with prosperity for the coming year. Aunt Mai and Uncle David give me a beautiful red envelope, decorated with a glittery Buddha on the front. Inside I find $8. A perfect number destined only for unmarried women in the family. My mother receives a gift basket wrapped in shiny red cellophane. Glittery ribbons, nuts, another Buddha envelope, and at the center of the basket – a giant, Chinese grapefruit bought specially from the Hong Kong Market, a sacred symbol of positivity and good fortune. Blessings and prosperity for the start of a new year.  

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.