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Saturday, May 28, 2005

Sphere Wars

number thirty-one

Star Wars at the Golf Ball, but my inner eight year old slept right through it. 1,322 words.

[NL]—Today we went to Monterrey to see la Guerra de las Galaxias: Episodio 3—la Venganza de los Sith. It had opened here at the same time that it opened in the US, and mostly I had not been that excited about seeing it after viewing the last two Episodes. Like many people my age, I am forced into being, to certain measure, a Star Wars geek just because I was the right age (when the original movie opened) for it to take root in the foundation my developing creativity.

No big deal. I saw Star Wars dozens of times in the theater because that is what the seven- and eight-year-olds I knew did. The movie opened when I was six years old, and its first run lasted until I was eight. From first grade until High School, it is easier to add up the time a Star Wars movie was not at a theater near me. I know the names of all the ships and characters and planets. When I see a scene from what has been retroactively re-christened Episode IV: A New Hope, I have a familiarity with what I am watching akin to my familiarity with natural numbers. To illustrate: when you ask me what place p has in the alphabet, I have to talk my way through it—“m, n, o, p, q”—but I know exactly, without thought, where fourteen falls in the numerical system, how it relates to the numbers before and after it, even how it relates to numbers significantly removed in the chain. If I were to say “q, m, i, e, a” it might take a little bit of figuring to realize that I have, starting with q, listed the alphabet backward skipping three letters between. Not so hard to identify the same pattern if rendered “17, 13, 9, 5,1”. Both are ordered systems we all grew up with, one is merely grasped far more abstractly, understood far more readily. This is a long tangent to illustrate the very simple, basic understanding that has developed between Star Wars and a culture of seven-year-olds who recognize it inside out. When I see that random scene from the first movie, I know where it comes in the in order. When I hear the lines, when I see the machines and planets, I know—surely as I know when I hear “fourteen”—exactly what is happening, what has happened, what will happen within the set comprising this film. I have no need to view Star Wars in order. It is that completely understood, its set is so thoroughly recognized.

For me, it was the first movie in the series that was this important. Star Wars opened on May 25th, 1977, and I saw it a few months later. I was watching this movie while I was still learning how to add numbers and spell two-syllable words. For many people younger than me, it was the second Episode that was special; even younger, the third. There are many, many people out there who are rendered geeks accidentally, as a trick of their development, by this series of movies.

But I moved along. While the original series of Episodes entrenched themselves into my development, I was still actually developing. Even by the time the third film was released I was starting to leave them behind. The third film is the one that that really caught in Sunshine’s childhood attention, she is a little under seven years younger than me. I cannot fathom what it would be like to be a newly seven- to ten-year-old kid watching them now, but I think it is possible that the wonder still holds, that there are still those today who are honestly and unapologetically enchanted by this galaxy far, far away.

In Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith opened subtitled in a mighty array of malls and VIP lounge theaters scattered across the countryside. My inner seven-year-old had finally gotten wind that something was going on, and slowly the disappointment and total exasperation I had been feeling regarding these movies was beginning to dissipate. Lucas’ inability to deliver a clean, coherent narrative devoid of gaudy faux realism and acres of talky high school civics theory had receded behind the strings and horns of the soundtrack in the film trailers, and I was ready to get in line. We chose to go see the movie in Monterrey’s Cinema Rio 70, a white geodesic sphere looming in the Centro district, incapable of being compared to anything but a Golf Ball.

This theater is great. Looking as if it is sunk nearly to its equator into the sand trap of Nuevo Leon, it stands about three stories with a curved concession stand forming a base that honestly probably keeps it from rolling away. On the inside, the geodesic panels have been sprayed matte black, and the huge screen faces not-too-uncomfortable wooden seats. The screen is hung the only way it is possible to hang a flat sheet inside a curve, and thus stands pretty far away form its backing wall. This backstage space is lit up like daylight before the movie starts, and seems to house a hell of a lot of speakers, because between the amplitude and the terraced (non-stadium) seating at the conjunction of all possible angles, the aural effect is just shockingly loud.

In the past, with hype films that I feel certain will prove to be disappointing, I have placed my faith in the event itself. Certainly, if the movie is to be a dumb gallery of CGI cameos interspersed with wooden philosophy, the best thing to do is gather up a number of friends and stand in line really late at night like an excited kid. Eat a lot of snacks, drink a lot of caffeine, rail and rail. It is not impossible to make a stupid movie into a pretty fun party, and still recapture a little forgiving youth in the process. In other words: fall for the hype. Why not? The movie costs the same anyway, right? It’s a sealed environment, like a space station. Let the candy smells and lights and posters invade a little with its carnival-quality. Let the nearby fans explain why all of this is so exciting. Let the inner geek take over a little in this isolated atmosphere. This had been my method for many, many animated summer-release extravaganzas like the Matrix movies, previous Star Wars Episodes, and whatever Jerry Bruckheimer is working on now. It might not make me like these films much better, but it makes me have fun while I am watching them.

Here in Monterrey, this was a difficult thing pull off. The theater is great, but scheduling time to see the movie, what with getting a cat and all the tea paper stuff, was predictably haphazard. We were thwarted a number of times before we finally managed to cram it in today. This left precious little time to get excited about such an incidental endeavor. Finally, there just were not any friends to drunkenly gather.

I don’t mean to sound sad. I had an okay time watching this movie, but it turned out to need every bit of the outside support I thought it would. I would have enjoyed it more, as meaningless as it is, had I enjoyed it with people who were very into it, and very excited about it. Sunshine and I were fairly apathetic. We went to the movie, that was all. No big deal. Afterwards, we went for a walk around Monterrey. I will in the long run remember this as going to a cool theater. That the ‘70’s gimmick building somehow helped to develop my understanding of the ‘70’s gimmick of my fanhood; all in a spherical home world far more like a golf ball than a space station.

Click here for a full movie review.

Cinema Rio 70 in Monterrey, NL. Photo © the Author

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Friday, May 27, 2005

Tea and Shadows

number thirty

Sunshine brings a stranger home. And she gets stranger and stranger. 752 words.

[NL]—Long before I managed to get down to México, Sunshine had been talking about getting a cat; and that cat arrived today. Up until late this weekend, this cat has been a slowly focusing reality, winding its way though concept—“maybe we should get a cat”—to concrete theory—“there are plenty available, and they are not that expensive to feed”—to conceptual realism—“when Joel leaves somebody has to take his cat.” I have tentatively provided the counterpoint in what I fooled myself into thinking was a hypothetical discussion. I offered the data about the destructive power of cats, the difficulties that may be involved with obtaining a Mexican vet, the sheer temporariness of our stay in any one country. None of this seemed to slow the time between my arrival in San Pedro and Joel’s departure, however.

Apparently, that time actually sped up. It shortened. I had been being very tentative because I was told that I had until mid-June before the previous owners packed out, and the kitty decision needed deciding. That took a distinctly more immediate twist this weekend when we were called and told that we needed to pick the cat up by Wednesday.

Most of this week, Sunshine has been concentrating on the newest extra-curricular services she is providing. This time, she has volunteered to deliver a talk on the history of the international tea trade at a tea function. This was to be held, we initially were given to understand, on Saturday afternoon; but in the same immediate spirit that infected the cat timetable, we discovered Tuesday that it was to take place on Thursday. We had already wasted her rare free hours at the beginning of the week by going to see Sahara, and Sunshine was now faced with the prospect of writing a twenty-minute presentation on a brand new subject in two evenings after work. And on one of those evenings, she was going to have to pick up a cat.

The cat was described to me like this: a black, three- to four-year-old, castrated male, shy around a lot of dogs and children, born and raised in Mexico. Answers to the name Shadow. The cat had become a more concrete reality than I had initially hoped, but I was prepared to try making the best of it. I love cats! This one would not come with a litter box or food. We were going to have to spend some of Sunshine’s precious writing time getting these things, too.

By Wednesday morning, Sunshine had already worked until after bedtime once on the paper, and there were two neon-colored clear plastic cat bathrooms, litter, wet and dry food in the pantry. Here is where I began to reflect that the cat had been philosophically approaching tangibility for a while. Right now I was ruminating on the brink of Schrödinger’s cat-box, the object accelerating toward manifestation along a countdown that started with an innocent little aside about having a pet. Soon the future would flip its lid, inside there would be a real cat, instead of the philosophical cats we’ve had for the months previous.

What I was not prepared for was the cat itself. There was at least one more incarnation for this beast, as I discovered on Wednesday when Sunshine walked through the door with a borrowed plastic pet carrier, and emptied its contents onto the floor. Out dumped a seven-year-old, declawed, black and white female, bug-eyed and freaked out, who immediately made her way behind the washing machine and wouldn’t come out. Vet records showed receipts from Illinois in the name of “Kitty,” Sunshine said she was told the cat “sheds when it is nervous.” I’ll admit that I was pissed, sitting in the floor with white and black hairs wafting in the air conditioning around me. But inside I was a little bemused, too. Sunshine went off to write until well after midnight, and I did the cat-sitting, trying to coax this newest cat out from behind the major appliances. We seemed to have run through at least three distinct cats so far in this venture: a fantasy cat, a false advertisement cat, and then this actual cat who was haunting the laundry room. In another few days or weeks, this cat might warm up to us, come out of its shell a little. By that time, I think it is clear that it will have become yet another whole, new cat.

But we will still be calling it Shadow. Maybe.

A cat stops hiding for five minutes as favor to Author

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Home Theater

number twenty-nine

In San Pedro it is possible to feel like a VIP in their special movie theaters, even after a week of being a menial laborer in my own home. Our home. 1,079 words.

[NL]—Tonight we went to see Sahara at the VIP theater in the mall. We live very near the mall—it is located just on the other side of the grocery store form the Costco—and last time we went to a movie there (the Interpreter), we walked. Today we drove, though, because if we hurried, we would be able to catch a show in one of the multiplex’s VIP theaters: plush recliners with footrests, wait staff, alcoholic beverages and sushi menus on little tables between every cluster of two seats. Having worked at the Janus Theaters in Greensboro, NC, I had a little trepidation about the whole idea of “lounge” theaters. At my ex-employer’s, the special theater was a dismally dark and musty place, with the atmosphere and squalor of a neighborhood tavern. Spilled beer and stronger smuggled substances had managed to seep into plush, but uncomfortable, squares arrayed before a disastrously incorrectly-shaped and misaligned rear-projection system the size of a large sports bar TV. The few times I actually went and saw a film there (at least in its later days), I was dismayed at the dank, blurry, and cropped-down spectacle of it all. When the theater finally burned down, this room was shielded by its own crust and left vulcanized but otherwise untouched.

But this is the culmination of a fairly busy week. The bookshelves had finally arrived, hours after they were expected, and ten minutes before we were to attend a smallish dinner party thrown by one of Sunshine’s coworkers. Thus, there had been no time to put them all together; but the penne was excellent, and the salad we took was pretty spot on, too. This was the first time I had taken the opportunity to meet the people that Sunshine works with, and I found them friendly and charming. The next day, I’d just spread bookshelf pieces all over the kitchen floor when a man with a lot of pagers came by to install grounded wall sockets in all of the outlets on the outside of the house. He didn’t speak any English, but I don’t really worry too much about that, anymore. I just apologize, make the universal call-someone-else sign with my thumb to my ear and my pinkie at my mouth, and hand out a cold Coke from the refrigerator. This guy was in a hurry to get on with it anyway since I was following him around the house with a hammer. Next time the doorbell rang, it was some English-speaking folks dispatched by the make-ready coordinator to pick up the welcome kit full of appliances they gave Sunshine during the months she was waiting for her stuff to get here by truck. We’d put it all in one place (the kitchen table), and so they busied themselves with boxing it all up while I crawled around the kitchen, fitting cams into locks and lining up wooden pegs. The next time the doorbell rang it was Hector, the man Sunshine had hired to “do the yard.” Hector is round and very friendly and only speaks Spanish. This is the first time Hector had been by in the three weeks since I had arrived in Mexico, and I was unsure how I was supposed to proceed. The back had never been mowed (it had reached a height that would keep kids out of school if it had been snow), and the front yard had been tended to right before Sunshine had come to Laredo, but had not been paid for. Plus, the poor grass had not been watered during the time Sunshine was acclimating, and the sunny front yard had been burnt to a bright brown. Luckily, the make-ready guy could translate for us, because I was running out of Cokes.

Eventually everyone cleared out of the house, and I got the bookshelves finished up, too. By the time Sunshine got home from work, all of the boxes were unloaded and we busied ourselves with the last few hours of putting things away. Then we ordered a pizza and looked around because there just wasn’t much else to do besides break down and give away the empty boxes and sweep up. This was easily handled the next day because there is always someone moving out of town. We celebrated the next night, too. Heck, we’ve been celebrating ever since.

The VIP theaters here are totally different from the Janus, thankfully. I should have expected this, owing to San Pedro’s tony urbanity. The standard theater that we had seen the Interpreter in was pretty nice, much like what is expected in the new millennium from a stadium theater: THX Digital Sound, Very large screen, and no seat in the house too awkwardly forward or to the side. It had been crowded (it had been a Saturday night at the mall), and the theater had pretty much filled to the brim, but it had remained comfortably roomy. Theaters here get very dark. Dark enough that it is almost impossible to see the person sitting in the seats on either side. Plus, they usher the crowd into one door at the beginning, and out a different door at the end. Otherwise, there is nothing terribly exotic about the experience.

Not so, the VIP treatment. The theaters are pretty much the equal of the standard theaters (all have excellent sound and light quality), but the chairs are very far apart and very comfortable. I would imagine that it is most difficult to remain awake in these chairs, in the dark, if the movie proved to be even the slightest bit underwhelming. Plus the wait staff is efficient, and clears out by the end of the trailers and PSAs against DVD piracy. The intermittent clinking of silverware as patrons eat their baguettes or crepes would have been far more irritating if there had been more than two other people in the theater. A tip: movies in the mall in San Pedro are far less crowded in a theater costing twice as much and during the middle of the workday. All in all, it was a very good experience: and my crepe was excellent, the movie highly enjoyable, and the place was unbelievably clean. But, honestly, the best part was that when we went home, it was to a finished home, filled with easily accessible things, put away where they actually go. I could keep celebrating all week.

Click here for a look at the floor plan.

Photo and construction by the Author

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Thursday, May 19, 2005

Look Before You Leap

number twenty-eight

All I ever seem to write about is homemaking and my burgeoning domesticity. But Jesus, there are books laying around freakin’ everywhere. 808 words.

[NL]—Fifteen days ago we noted that there were some really neat, albeit smallish, bookshelves at the grocery store closest to our house. We had liked them, but since they were close, we had decided that we would like to see what other stores had to offer. Fourteen days ago we were at the same grocery store, picking up some things, and we noted that one of the shelves was gone. Over the following weekend we looked at shelves at Costco, and various and sundry other stores, many of which were grocery stores. There was nothing, really, comparable. The next time we were in Carrefour, the grocery store closest to us, two of the three shelves that we had picked out were gone. We asked an employee about it, and he said that they were planning to receive an order, maybe just after the weekend. So we waited through the weekend.

Sunshine’s job provides us with a house when we are posted abroad, as well as the furniture for that house (in most cases). We had heard going into this thing that bookshelves were a rare commodity. I do not believe that this is because there is a very pressing need for shelves among Sunshine’s compatriots. Rather the opposite: no one really needs many bookshelves, so there just isn’t much supply. In the “special requests” box on the housing form, where many people ask for central location, school accessibility, room for pets, southern exposure, or bathtubs, Sunshine had requested a bookshelf. And that is what we got: one bookshelf. I took the whole thing up with my DVDs, and then we got all these boxes. Looking for more shelves stretched out for weeks.

During this period, I had been fixing up the house. Sunshine had spent a great chunk of her first full week back to work after my arrival working the Hemispheria Summit, a trade corridor congress that included dignitaries from most of the US and Mexican states that border each other. Governors, Cabinet Members and the President of Mexico were there. Sunshine filled her days being a member of Monterrey’s go-to team, and her conversations became peppered with words like “motorcade,” “armored car,” and “advance team.” Her seventeen-hour days during this summit afforded me between ten minutes and half an hour’s company for several days straight, and what I did with all of my alone time was crank out the house. By the end of this latest weekend, I had lifted almost every large piece of rental furniture in the house and hauled them from room to room. I had unloaded nearly every box. I had then broken down those boxes, and set them out for the trash guys. I had made all of the food every day. I was getting exhausted; but I was also getting the hang of domesticity. It was exciting, because the house made a good goal. I couldn’t help but notice, kicking back with a rum and Coke at the end of an evening, that there were still about thirty forty-pound boxes of books laying all over my otherwise quickly-shaping homestead.

On Sunday, when the conference was finally totally over, we went to Home Depot, and bought the first and second bookshelves we saw. Less extravagant by far than the perfectly square book cubbies we’d seen at the Carrefour, these were utilitarian at best, but would still match the house (if not the other furniture). Mostly, I was just sick of all the damn boxes, and had learned that “look before you leap” is a bad rule for furniture.

We got three shelf units. Two are large and standard (blond wood-looking, with six adjustable shelves), and the third is more like an adjustable wooden CD rack that we are using for paperback books. We had Home Depot ship them, and they arrived today. It took me about fifty minutes to put the first big one together, and about ten to put it together the second time. The little one was a little more difficult, but I still had them all ready to go by the time Sunshine came home.

It took us about two hours to fill them up. There were still about ten boxes of books sitting around the house, but that is a whole lot better, right? We ate a nice Thai noodle soup (made from ramen) that I created, and talked about getting more shelves.

Finally, fifteen days after losing our opportunity to buy the first shelves we saw, we have four new units (two big and two small, identical to the ones above) arriving by delivery tomorrow. These will compliment the three units we already have, and should take care of the rest of the books with some room to spare. Now I feel like the house getting really close to finished.

And it is a good feeling.

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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Strange Sushi

number twenty-seven

I finally manage to leave the house today on a lunch date with one of Sunshine’s contacts. The Barrio Antiguo is very nice, but I have discovered that even sushi can be unexpected here. 916 words.

[NL]—Now, today I got out of the house. Apparently, Sunshine and a coworker have been exploring a process by which the man’s poetry can be translated into Spanish. This has given Sunshine some interesting material on which to practice a new skill, and brought her into collaboration with a woman who freelances as an interpreter and translator. All this is just a shortened way of setting up going out and eating lunch today with Sunshine’s friend Leticia. I was looking forward to getting out of the house for the first time since I had arrived (since I am not counting grocery stores). I was still a little shy about barging into Mexican culture, and we were both a little leery of the traffic on a Tuesday afternoon, so we opted to take a cab to Monterrey’s Barrio Antiguo, where the sushi restaurant that Leticia favors is located.

The simplest way to draw a map of the Centro area of Monterrey is to draw a tic-tac-toe board. The up/down line on the left is the major artery that we’d taken through Monterrey on the first day. This is the north/south line (#2) of the elevated metro. The tic-tac-toe line on the right is the eastern border of the Macro Plaza, Monterrey’s large monument- and plant-studded paved central park. The bottom line in the game board is the Rio Santa Catarina, the mostly-dry riverbed that is probably responsible for this valley, and is lined with ten-lane highways and attendant remora service roads making life a real bitch if navigating toward all points south (like where I live). The side-to-side line to the north of the game board is the other large road following the metro’s east-west route (line #1), and leading north of Cerro de la Silla toward Laredo. With me? This is vastly inaccurate, as none of these lines are straight (or flat) in the real world; but it should get the gist across somewhat.

The Barrio Antiguo (antique neighborhood), is located in a little triangle in the south-western corner of the square just right of center. It is framed by the Plaza on its left and Rio at its bottom. Here, in this little island in the midst of all this traffic, is a quant little colonial Mexican village, which is all that is left of the way Monterrey was originally intended to look. It is beautiful, with little, narrow cobblestone streets and overhanging trees; and it makes my heart flutter for the more romantic fantasy Mexico it is more possible to glimpse in poorer towns. In the leading edge of this neat little old quarter, there is a little neon green all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant. Predictably, this is where we are headed.

I am still a little, shy as I have said, and this is why I ended up drinking tea. I just couldn’t be entirely sure that the waitress had looked at me and very clearly said “would you also like tea?” So I nodded. Sunshine’s friend Leticia was extremely nice, and was very happy to speak in English the whole time we were eating so I would understand what we were saying. She also gave us a book containing the letters of Frida Khalo translated into English (which I am very excited about because I am a fan). She stressed that she’d picked it out of her own collection, so it wasn’t really a present. I felt bad that it had never even occurred to me to take her a luncheon gift.

Sometime after my delicious sweetened iced tea arrived, after a lot of shop talk between bilingual people, we stood to walk down the line of sushi trays. Since the extent of my Spanish today seems to be nodding, I took the rear, and did what they were doing. The restaurant was still nearly empty since Mexicans tend to eat during siesta, sometimes as late as two. Of the five different items there were to choose from on the sushi bar, not one seemed to contain any ingredients I don’t eat. There were stuffed mushroom caps, California and crab rolls, bowls, and some tempura. It wasn’t until I had gotten back to the table that I realized that the tempura was fried crab-stuffed chipotle peppers. They were wonderful, and really very hot. I ate two of them.

The dinner lasted about two hours, there is never any rush in Mexico, and Leticia kept trying to get me to go up for seconds, but I was okay with my one helping. She and Sunshine talked about this and that, and it was all very charming. When she got around to biting into her pepper, she said it was too hot, and didn’t even eat the rest. Finally we got up to leave, and as we walked past the sushi trays I noticed that there had been at least two-dozen things added since our first pass. Apparently, the lesson here is to get the sushi when it is crowded in the joint, not when it is empty.

Out on the streets of the Barrio Antiguo it had begun to rain, and I watched Sunshine very closely as she placed her hands on Leticia’s upper arms and gave her an air-kiss to the right cheek. When she turned to me, I feel I did a really good job emulating Sunshine exactly. Then Leticia left us, and it was up to us to figure out where to get our cab to our home.

And our boxes.

Photo Illustration by the Author

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number twenty-six

Two days to catch my breath here south of the border before a huge orange truck pulls up in front of the house and starts unloading everything, everything in the whole world.. 503 words.

[NL]—The thing is, it took me a little while to get back to Monterrey. It is a good distance from my house, and I pretty much will have to take a cab if I go there alone. This is no bother, really. Monterrey is filled with things to do, sure, but so is San Pedro; so is this house, for that matter. When I arrived on Saturday, my action plan included only sitting around in the air conditioning and doing very little. I accomplished this with gusto: we filled two glasses with Stewart’s Ginger Beer and dark rum, and Sunshine and I clinked them together on our tiny front balcony while I re-lit and re-lit the candle we’d taken out with us. We clinked the next two glasses together on the patio in the back. And the next two. The candle worked better in the back yard where the privacy wall kept most of the wind away.

Sunday, I continued this wonderful streak of lazy disinterest in getting back into a car. I explored around the house, and I looked out all of the windows. Sunshine and I watched a lot of TV, and we clinked some glasses together some more.

By Monday, I think Sunshine was growing a little tired of my dedication to laziness. We were due to get her shipment of household items (which, in government acronymic jargon is called the HHE) in the morning, and I think that Sunshine was determined to get me out of the house in the afternoon. But, as it turned out, the HHE, which is really a giant Mack truck with thousands of forty-pound boxes of books on the back of it, didn’t arrive until almost four-thirty, and wasn’t unloaded until almost six.

By this time, there were sixty-seven smaller boxes, and nine more larger boxes, strewn about the house. Any gushing I might have done about the sizeable and airy minimalism of this place withered and died. A lot of Sunshine’s interest in dislodging me form my nesting also gave up the ghost. I made some food, and we knuckled into putting things away. There was a point when we did go out to the grocery store for some odds and ends. It is right between the Costco and the mall, and about a four minute walk, but we drove anyway. It is far larger than the average grocery in the States, but the extra room is given to extra things: cell phone stores, appliances, toys, tires, office furniture. We were there for some cereal and maybe some cheese, but we ended up spying an array of bookshelves that we thought might go in the house nicely, and we did have all those books with no home. We decided to sleep on it, maybe see what else is available here before we jump to any conclusions, right?

Back at home I noticed that the bigger boxes were just about exactly as tall as Sunshine.

I started looking for some glasses to clink.

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Monday, May 02, 2005


number twenty-five

It all seemed to easy to navigate when I was looking at it on a map, but in reality Monterrey is big and wadded up and filled with traffic. Luckily, I live thirty minutes away. 932 words.

[NL]—Nearly thirty minutes after we’d arrived in the outskirts of Monterrey, we arrived at my house. Monterrey had been pretty much what I’d been led to expect by the photos and websites I’d seen while anticipating my arrival: industrial, non-beautified, and teeming with people. It is a bustling modern metropolis, obviously slapped hastily together as it charged through its rapid expansion. In this way, it sort of seems like Mexico’s Charlotte, North Carolina; or maybe Greenville, South Carolina.

I had acquainted myself pretty well with the maps that I had seen, but was still surprised when I half knew where we were in the city as we drove through it that first time. Reality is always surprisingly different from the expectations I build when I read maps. The landscape is shockingly confused and mazelike when I am plonked down in the middle of it, instead of very flattened-out like on paper. Even in Mexico, where many places have buildings that top off at four floors, turns vertical and confusing. I know this is a pretty obvious thought, what with maps being sheets of paper, and cities being corridors of multi-colored buildings heaped on top of one another in an uneven and unplanned chaotic scatter mostly obscured behind the observer’s present vantage. Still, it is striking to me every time. In this instance, while I was wowed by the sheer size of Mexico’s third-largest city, Matt was pointing out certain landmarks outside the van’s windows (he made driving here seem easy, if not sane). I gradually realized that I knew pretty much where I was. There was the metro station, where the two public transportation lines come together. That meant that the bus station was going to be up on the right. We were going to turn left through the center of the city. The Macro Plaza, Monterrey’s answer to Mexico City’s National Zócalo, a large monument of open park space smack in the middle of downtown, was going to be up several blocks to the left after we turn. Eventually, we were going to get to the river (which is mostly a river bed), and then we would turn right and head past the Consulate. Matt confirmed everything I said. I felt at least a little less lost.

Of course, the map did not really prepare me for all of the mountains. Every picture of Monterrey seems to include its iconic Cerro de la Silla, so I was expecting “Saddle Mountain” to be looming over everything. But there’s also Cerro las Mitras to the west, and Chapenque to the south, not to mention all of the little hills and valleys Monterrey spills over and around. This means that the town is far more sprawling and jumbled than I expected it to be. Even after I had noted that Monterrey maps contain less than the average number of straight lines, and I’d assumed the reason that many of the roads seemed to merely end is because they are pointing up pretty tall slopes, the reality surprised me. Monterrey is a city of dramatic and dazzling natural backdrops, to be sure.

Somewhere in the traffic and confusion after the passing the Consulate, we picked up the road that took us under the ridge that separates the suburb of San Pedro from the center of Monterrey. On the other side of the tunnel, traffic lessened somewhat, and the buildings and landscaped greenery began to look a little more like Beverly Hills than Charlotte. Here we passed along a wide speedway of large, mostly US, shopping opportunities like T.G.I. Friday’s and Home Depot. There were a number of giant malls, banks, and grocery stores. We turned right a the Costco.

So now I am at my house for the first time. It is very, very large and dazzlingly white. Almost all of the internal walls are the same stucco-looking cement that make up the outside walls, too. Every bedroom has its own bathroom with a shower, and the entryway has a water-closet. The kitchen is enormous, with a walk-in pantry. Appliances like washers and driers and microwaves have built-in nooks for that sharper image. There is a white privacy wall around the whole rear of the house, which means I don’t have to close the blinds unless I want it dark. Most of the closest houses are a story below me down the hill we live on. I can see at least one mountain out of any window in the house. Sometimes that is all I can see. It is possible to view the famous Cerro de la Silla from the dining room table. The place is made of marble where it isn’t stucco; and, currently, it is empty like some deco Miami Vice set. When I call out to mi amiga, I echo, like, thirty-seven times.

It is a really nice pad, to be sure. It’s a nice neighborhood. But Monterrey is a disconcerting distance away, over the mountain I can see from all of the windows facing north. I am afraid that it would take me over forty minutes to get there on foot, even if I could find a way over the hill and through the traffic. San Pedro seems nice enough for the “richest neighborhood in Latin America,” a quote I can attribute to damn near everyone who lives here, but it isn’t wildly exotic. Near me there is a park, a lot of neighbors I can’t visit without explaining myself to the guard that runs the gate, and Cerro Chipenque.

And Costco. Finally, I am a member of a Costco.

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A la Frontera

number twenty-four

I finally reunited with Sunshine in the border town of Laredo. Here I changed cars and was ferried on over the Border and south to Monterrey. 813 words.

[NL]—Laredo, Texas, may be a less-than-charming place. From the highway, it looked to me like a very little town very bloated down its arteries by the business that is to be boomed from nestling up against another country. It seemed as if the city planners had drawn a T in the Texas dust: where the east-west pole was the border, and then populated the post with Wal-Marts, strip malls, and brightly painted bunkers with yards full of tin souvenirs. When I entered Mexico almost a decade ago, it had been through El Paso, and while dustier—and equally hell bent on its border identity—it had seemed like a fairly merry place, complete with a bon-homey sort of “welcome or adios” to the peregrinating masses it was built to serve. In contrast, Laredo seemed far more utilitarian, like it was there to register in the rearview mirrors of the no-nonsense shoppers it was built to convey.

Much of my sense of Laredo, to be fair, is gathered from looking at it from the highway like that; or the hotel windows. I found the Pizza Hut friendly enough, and the Best Buy was filled with helpful staff. By the time we were visiting our last USA gas station heading south, I was still ready to hit the road and miss Laredo very little for the rest of my life. This said, I was sort of happy to discover, after leaving the highway and nearing the actual border, that some faint pulse does beat beneath Laredo’s conduit.

Most traffic pumps on down the Wal-Mart highway, toward Puente Internacional 2. The bridge shunts traffic to the east sides of both Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, her Mexican sister city. This is the fastest way for commuters, because Texas highway 35 becomes Boulevard Luis Colosio at a two-dollar toll booth, and then becomes the bypass straight through to Monterrey. We assumed that this was going to be the higher traffic route, and less charming to boot, so we exited the highway to delve into the dense cluster of downtown Laredo. This route turns into the wider cluster of Nuevo Laredo’s main drag after the two-dollar toll at Puente Internacional 1.

This possibly far more scenic route did wonders for my recollections of entering Mexico in the nineties. Here were all of the signs and tourist information postings. Here were all of the street dudes selling newspapers and hearty food from oily paper bags. The traffic was slow, making it easy to appreciate all the two-story, brightly-painted square buildings with ten foot tall, brightly-painted bilingual advertisements (present in either of los dos Laredos). People swarmed everywhere, music blasted, and the tempo seemed to quicken with the temp. It was all somehow a little terrifying because it was something that I wasn’t actually navigating myself, and also because it happened so fast. In recollection, it happened too fast, like it always does. I still remember longing to hang out in Ciudad Juarez ten years ago, but afraid to actually do it with little preparation and a lot of luggage. Today was the same, over too fast and not fast enough, and I look forward to the time when I can go back, a little less jumpy because it will be a destination and not a hurdle.

Entering Mexico, Sunshine tried to spot the bullet holes from last week’s newest narco-altercation, which she said might be evident all over the toll bridge. We didn’t see anything. Maybe the shots were fired on bridge number two. Leaving Nuevo Laredo, we stopped to get a newspaper at one intersection because Sunshine and her coworker Matt were hoping that they were actually in it, but they weren’t. Matt assured me that they would be in the other paper, that we could pick up in Monterrey. Then we drove on and on thought northern Mexico, and my heart calmed as the border receded.

Northern Mexico is nice: the landscape is filled with crops which give way to low scrub; which, in turn, gives way to blue succulents and the intermittent really tall cactus. Beside the road, we saw an occasional stock animal tied near a well. The roads were creepy, potholed disasters for a while (Sunshine had killed a tire coming through here almost three months ago—she showed me the spot), but the traffic moved us along at a nice clip, and the conversation in the car was fun and interesting. Occasionally we’d pass though a narco- or immigration checkpoint, but we’d always get the wave-through. Eventually we hit a toll bridge signifying that we’d moved from freeway to expressway. This was a far nicer road, and Matt got the van up to a far nicer clip than before. We reached Monterrey, and then San Pedro, in a little over two hours.

Maybe we were all hurrying to get away from the border.

Home in San Pedro taken by Matt before I'd even gone inside.

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Sunday, May 01, 2005

Cherchez la Femme

number twenty-three

On the road to Laredo and eventually my new home in Monterrey. 1,003 words.

[AT LARGE]—I guess I figured it like this: if I was going to leave town and country, friends and family, then I had better get somewhere. The design of my leaving had always been to meander around the landscape, seeing this and that, and finally end up at the border when Sunshine was able to meet me and carry me away to my new life. But striking out of Kentucky I started noticing that there was a flaw in this plan. It had worked out pretty well for Sunshine and her dad, who had taken a full week to travel from Kentucky to Laredo, and split up when Sunshine had crossed the border. They had spent quality time looking out at America, and their enjoyment was infectious enough to warrant our burglary of their plan. But I had a growing sense, as we headed down I-64 through Lexington and Louisville and across the Tennessee border, that this wasn’t working out so well for me. I was pinned between the extraordinary effort it took to leave Greensboro, and the far greater effort it took to endure the last eight months estranged from Sunshine. Between points A and B, it was decidedly hard to concentrate on the driving.

Still, I was hurting, and called off the first day’s ride by the time we were advancing on Nashville. In Kentucky, I had already altered our route to miss New Orleans and much of the southern area I had seen numerous times before. Still later, we had slimmed the trip again to take us in a straighter line directly trough Texas. Mom was surprised that I wanted to stop after driving barely five hours, but was happy to comply. So we pulled into a sleazy as hell Comfort Inn we had chosen out of a coupon book based on the criteria that it was right off the highway. At this creepy motel all was deserted until about seven, and then there were people hanging out in the parking lot all evening. We made sure that the computer, ratchet set, and other important things were out of the car, which we parked in a spot optimal for quick getaway. None of the vending machines worked (the only one with a cord that made it all the way to the wall had a handwritten note that said “Please NOT Use This Machine Because it is Broken Please. Okay, --Management), and while I was on the phone with Sunshine, two people slouched by and asked me where to “find the stuff around here.” By the time I was going to bed, mom and I were in agreement that we were changing the plans from “meandering around the landscape”, to “getting close to the point B”, and then staying in one location for as long as possible. This would cut down on the traveling aspect of our border run, but it would concentrate the vacation part.

At first we thought that Austin might be a good destination, but after getting on the road by ten the next morning—both alive!—we decided that San Antonio would be better since mom had really loved the day that she had spent there, and I had never been. We crossed into Arkansas by early afternoon, and Texas by five. We got gas in Dallas, and were approaching Austin by nine-thirty. We stopped at a rest area swarming with loud trucks and birds where the bathroom had no roof. At some point, we had decided that we owed ourselves a stay in a comfy-type hotel. The creepy Nashville motel had us jumpy enough to lose any discretion we might have had, so we ended up staying in the Capital Marriott Austin for a night, and heading out at noon the next day (mom said that as much as the place cost, we would be hanging out until checkout).

Austin is only ninety minutes form San Antonio, and if we had known that in Dallas, we would have pushed on through in that one day. But I am glad we did it the way we did, because we got to drive around in Austin for a while, and see famous Austin landmarks. We got to San Antonio right around two, with plenty of time and daylight to: get totally lost, find ourselves, then find a La Quinta, check in, and do a little wandering around the architectural marvels of San Antonio (including the Alamo), all in the first day.

Hey, I fell in love with San Antonio. We stayed there for three days, and it was diverting and nifty enough to keep my mind off the fact that this was a numbingly long time to wait between leaving someplace, and arriving someplace else. The idea was to view this as a vacation (even though what I was doing is relocating), and we did all the right things: shopping, museum, IMAX. Mostly, we walked around the downtown, and it was really enjoyable. I was longing for me and Friday to get to Laredo together, and to see Sunshine for the first time in three months, but I also had a great time in San Antonio.

The last little leg of our trip started Friday at noon, eight hours after we had struck out for Kentucky the previous week. Laredo was a pretty quick two and a half hours down the road, and we got there in plenty of time for me to get really bored and antsy before Sunshine called me at six thirty, or so.

And that was it, sort of. We spent the night in the Holiday Inn in Laredo, where all the food is meat, and the décor is ‘seventy-five; and then we left about one this afternoon. After a week of putting it off, mom and I said so long,; and then I hopped in the van to the border as she headed on back down the road we come in on.

And that was the last of all the leaving.

Photo credits, from left: the Author, el Joy, the Author, el Joy.

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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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