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Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Ten Years Later

number eight

I’ve been to Mexico before, but not Monterrey. A little about this and that. 690 words.

[NL]—Almost ten years ago I bought a one-way train ticket to Mexico. I had envisioned traveling until my funds ran out, and I had no idea exactly how long that might take; so I quit my job, too. I just up and went. It turned out to be the catharsis I was looking for. I traveled the edges of Mexico for over two months, and every day was one of the best I have ever had.

I entered Mexico by walking across the border from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez, which cost me a quarter. I can still remember the fascination I felt walking over that bridge, the confusion I had trying to find the immigration building where they would issue me a tourist visa, and the trouble that I later got into when it surfaced that I had never managed to get that important slip of paper. From there I had stayed up a very long day: waiting for the train to take me through Chihuahua and on down the Copper Canyon to the little town of Creel. In Creel, I finally got some sleep.

During the months that followed, I rolled around Mexico on a whim, staying or leaving places at random, picking little hotels full of expatriates and caged birds by the way they looked to me when I passed them on the street. I left my travel guide on the train in Los Mochis; for someone who wanted it more than I did. All I needed to do was meander.

Still, through most of my wanderings, I had some primitive idea of my route. After numerous little beaches, and jungle towns, and Mayan ruins, I found myself in a bus station in Veracruz, deciding on my next destination. Recently, I had been pulled off a bus in the middle of the night by machine-gun toting border patrolmen, where I had it explained to me that I needed more than a passport to be this far into Mexico. I feigned ignorance, all the while slapping myself on the forehead, months too late, for not getting that tourist visa right over the bridge from Texas. These men had written me a note to give to the immigration office in Veracruz, and put me back on the bus. They let me off easy. I followed their instructions; and finally, I was a legal alien. But instead of moving on to the next interesting Mexican town (which would have been Guanajuato), I noticed Brownsville, Texas on the schedule and bought that ticket on a whim. I headed home six days before Christmas.

The punchline to this joke, I guess, is that for the near decade since I returned from Mexico, I have remembered that there were places that I had failed to visit. While I have longed to return to the markets of Guadalajara, or the deadly beaches at Zipolite, it is Guanajuato I knew I would return to Mexico for. Or: Durango, San Luis Potosi, San Miguel, Teotihuacán. Never at any time was there a plan to visit Monterrey, Nuevo León.

Why? I don’t really know. Monterrey is the second largest commercial center in Mexico, and the third largest city by population. It is modern, industrialized, and many say it is as American as Texas or Southern California. Monterrey is hard at work being the apex of wealth and economy for all of Latin America. The photos I have seen make it look pretty utilitarian, if not downright ugly, and while the towering mountains that surround it offer a scenic backdrop full of nature excursions, I am just not really that kind of tourist. Mostly, it seemed to me to be a big, bustling, modern city, and I just wasn’t interested.

Of course, now my job is to make myself interested. Soon I will be quitting my job and getting a one-way ticket to the border again. Soon I will pay my quarter, and slam into the confusion and personal evolution that comes with summary change. I had better be finding out that there are things to love about Monterrey.

Like, for instance, what other towns are close.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2004


number seven

I am enjoying playing around on my regular long weekends in DC. I am also playing around with enjoying what is possible in this media. Bear with me. 782 words.

[NC] —One nice side effect of getting to spend so much time in DC is the slow perusal of the museums there. This is, I am sure, the great pastime of the District Neophyte, and makes short work of my facetious dual citizenship self-description. Nevertheless, I will gleefully own up to this shockingly sub-urbane and immature behavior. I go to DC every two weeks or so—at present I am in a longer stretch—and aside from the pleasures of mnemonic triangulation, swankly named cosmopolitan eateries, and the Halls of Power, there are tons of museums.

Now, I had a little trouble collecting a cite for the actual scientific quantity of actual scientific two-thousand pound American tons these museums comprise; but I’ll bet it is a large number. Most everyone at one time or another has visited DC; with a field trip, for example, or a demonstration—and all are probably aware that from the nation’s capital building to its phallic symbol, the roads are literally lined with giant museums. Much has been said of the architecture and heritage of these museums; much has been praised about the collections therein. I would frankly like to add to all of that, but I am in no way qualified. In this tritely glib entry of useless assumptions (from the tony distain of tourist draw to the phallacy of that which is pointy), I draw attention to my own Gen X attention wanderlust and its pop culture collection of eclectic interests. I will never studiously understand or employ an understanding of the thousands of scores of items I stroll past in measured meander. All I have is the total certainty that it is all really cool.

I like, for instance, that the North Carolina A&T State University sit-in Woolworth's lunch counter from Greensboro is on display at the National Museum of American History. I used to eat grilled cheese sandwiches at this counter while on break from wasting time at the comic book store of my youth. No guarantees that this is the very same stretch of counter that I used, mind—never mind that which was used by the four civil-minded gentlemen of 1960 who broke down the law there—nevertheless; it made me feel good to see it. And that is only the most personal example, out of thousands, that strike me every time I take out all of the metal in my pockets and place my jacket on the conveyor belt to enter the next wonderful collection. I’ll barely mention the rows of thousand year old china, the photographs, the Hindu statues, and the illuminated Ottoman scrolls gracing the labyrinth beneath the Freer, Sackler, and the African Art Museum knot.

I’ve gotten to see the Friendship 7, complete with a little dummy of John Glenn. It amazed me that going to space should look so claustrophobic. I’ve seen junk from Skylab, Atlas delivery systems, a lunar lander, the Spirit of St. Louis, and rocks. All without ever making it to the second floor of the National Air and Space Museum in the three hours I was there. I had barely enough time to see one wing of the National Gallery of Art, but that was okay because the cool Gauguin and Picasso and Goya (and Van Gogh and Cassatt and Sargent and Renoir and, and, and) were in that side anyway. What did I miss on the other side? Renaissance, Sculpture, the Netherlanders. I haven’t even set foot in the Arts and Industries Museum, the segregation museum, the sculpture place, National Museum of the American Indian, or the Museum of Natural History. I.M. Pei National Gallery of Art's East Building, with concourse waterfall, is astounding from the inside, and it is there I gaped much longer than I expected at two different Pollocks.

The end of this post is approaching because I have only been to DC half a dozen times, give or take; and also because I have grown tired of typing. There is much more I’ve seen, and more to see. There are probably scientific American tons I will never see. It seems, now that I know Sunshine will be posted by the beginning of February, that my museum-going DC citizen lifestyle is temporarily drawing to a close, as well. Part of the life I will be leading with Sunshine around the globe will include intervals where we live in DC while she undergoes new training, and I am looking forward to pitting myself against the Museums again in the future. Hopefully, I will never grow so urbane a Districtista that these buildings become something passé, tourist-filled, and to be avoided.

Or I might have to switch to the zoos.

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Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Election Day of the Dead

number six

Sitting in a bar and watching the election on a holiday. There is nothing about this that turns out the way I want it to. 745 words.

[NC]—“Strange bedfellows” is an interesting term for the guy sitting next to you at the bar, but that is the sort of oddity that you are presented with on days like today. November second is always the Mexican Day of the Dead, where ancestors are fondly remembered and children indulge in cadaver-shaped yummies. This year it also happens to be the first Tuesday in November, and although I am not a young enough man to claim that this has never happened to me before, I do not remember a Presidential Super Tuesday colliding with El Dia de Los Muertos before.

Like most everyone I know, I voted earlier today; and like many, I spent the evening watching TV. Mexicans the world over spent the night before in a newly cleaned graveyard or around a special area of the house. Either would have been decorated with candles and photos and food that might present a reminiscence of their departed loved ones. Country houses smelled of the pan de muertos cooked since the end of October, corn flour, and a hearth fire. Children ran around and played with gifts. Homilies and offerings to the dead, and the living, spiced life—and decorated it as well. Since before the European conquest, indigenous people have believed in death as the beginning of a new existence and the entering of a new world. Thousands of years later, Mexicans still celebrate a holiday, synchronized with the Catholic All Souls-- and All Saints Days, wherein the dead are reported to return to the world for a visit with friends and family. Much like the roots of Halloween, the mischievous dead are warded away with salt, sugar and symbolism, while the welcome dead are treated to a dinner plate and little shrine. Graves are washed and candle-lit vigils are manned in quiet, but merry, gravesite gatherings.

This serves to uphold a tradition of acclimation with death, and the idea of death, that is near and dear to Mexican culture, and to my heart as well. Both the pre-colonial Americas and Catholicism tend to include images of death in popular iconography, and deathly themes in instructive stories. It is used in both cultures to wash away the fear of impending doom, so a citizen can live life without that particular shadow. Modern Mexico has more than loomed at this cultural crossroad, jovially churning out political cartoons, fine art, desserts, and games serving the triple purposes of enlivening, satirizing, and celebrating the lives of the dead, and death’s impact on the living. This goes on all year long, frankly, and evidence can be seen in a culture that cherishes its dead people. This is a culture that still occasionally photographs stillborn babies for the album, knows the names of great-great-grandparents, and feels no faux pas when alluding to the departed. These things all culminate, of course, on el Dia de los Muertos (though classically celebrated for an eve and two days), when attention is raptly paid to the predeceased.

I like this holiday. While I have grown out of the need to homogenize some relativity for my interests (in this case, I no longer attempt to parallel this pre-Colombian ancestor holiday with the Celtic harvest fest which engendered Halloween—although the synchronistic Catholic patina remains), this holiday represents a collusion between feelings mostly left unexpressed in my culture and edible decorations that excite me. This is a holiday I try to celebrate. Within the last several years, I have weathered the deaths of several people close to me, and always had a moment or two reserved for them on this day; in the form of a glass of something, maybe, or a night wandering in the cemetery remembering nice things.

This year, however, I spent my time in a bar, which is not uncommon, watching the map of the United States turn mostly red, and trading pith and consolation with a strange bedfellow in a hand decorated T-shirt reading “go donkeys.” I had a pretty good time, all things considered. In retrospect, I even feel that I was in the spirit of the holiday: lampooning the workings of the world, and hoisting one in the strange face of political whim with my T-shirted fellow. But looking back now, I think that maybe I missed my first opportunity to revel, along with the Mexicans, in the memories of the loved ones I have lost this year.

Maybe I have made up for that some here.

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It's that time again. Beginner headquarters is picking-up house and relocating back to the United States on July twenty-fifth, 2009, to enjoy a month at home with family and friends. By the end of August we'll have set-up a semi-permanent household in Washington, DC, near the Cleveland Park metro stop on the red line. [DC metro map] Then, sometime after Labor Day, our boxes and boxes of stuff should catch up with us. After that it'll be smooth sailing till sometime in July 2010, when we will be moving abroad again, this time to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina for a little real winter.

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