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The main content of this journal. Longer items dated according to their occurrence, not the time of posting. Follow the link in the summaries to view the full text.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


number fifty-one

Travel abroad, and especially living there, is always an experience rife with mystifying new complexities. Maybe he most mysterious part is that thin political line on the map between two countries. 1,658 words.

[NL]—Living abroad, especially in México, has given me a much more intricate view of the political boundary known as the border. At home, it was easy to think of the border in narrower terms than it is now. The border was ours; you know, American. On the other side, foreign nations went about their daily, foreign lives. To some, those nations represent a clandestine desire to cross that border and take up residency in the US, legally or otherwise, and the border is something primarily in need of control or defense. To others, México or Canada are places to escape or retire to, and the border is a gateway to home base. Still others concern themselves with products that might be imported over the border and then sold illegally. In the US, the border with México runs 1,951 miles along the southern edges of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Between México and Texas, the border is a partly muddy, partly dry half-baked river called the Rio Grande. This river is the busiest international border in the world.

But what the border now represents to me is a complicated and utterly necessary international line in the sand, replete with imponderable rules and regulations, international laws and confusion. It is owned by more than merely the US and México, and is used by nationals of many different countries. It is the source of custody disputes that are decided at the Hague, a critical market for multinational vendors, and a two-way trouble spot of bureaucratic documentation for anyone utilizing it in its capacity as a conduit. It is a swath of the best and worst of its two worlds, amalgamated and alchemized into a whole third world which can be confusing and familiar at one moment, and confused and overly familiar the next.

If I sound like I am complaining, I want to stress that I am not. As a US citizen, the border is mostly open to me. While it is difficult to get the type of visa I need to live here for two years—or to work, or to buy property—it has been very easy to get temporary ones that allow me to stay and travel. Plus, every time I cross that magical border again, these easy visas—really only tourist cards—are renewed. It is far more challenging for my counterparts to cross the river in the other direction, requiring vast documentation proving national ties, costing hundreds of dollars, and sometimes requiring US sponsorship. And if that weren’t enough, while the majority of the people I meet on this side of the border appreciate my business, interest, and presence; my counterparts might be met with paranoia, racism, and jingoism. These knee-jerk reactions in the US color the views of the physical border, and its users, for a far greater number of people than the radicals who write in the newspaper op-ed pages, rant on talk radio, and mobilize into a volunteer armies (who literally sit in state’s defense against the tide of illegal population daily threatening America’s terrestrial shores). Even moderate people might find themselves thinking in terms of the border as a doorway for an alien Them to use when desperate to make a new life, and We venture through to enrich the life we have. Reasonable people might conclude that the laws being broken at the border are primarily being broken by Them.

Living abroad can clear that attitude right up. In the expatriate community it is easy to come across the opposite type of story. Custody battles loom large, and it has become a very difficult paperwork hurdle for a single parent to bring a child across the border. Worse, foreign criminals have been known to kidnap, rob, or kill here. It is possible that kidnappers, robbers, and killers attempt occasionally to flee here, imagining that they might be safe outside of US jurisdiction (an idea so fundamentally wrongheaded that it takes but a few seconds of clear thought to see the lunacy in it). Runaways, joy riders, and underage drinkers cross the border regularly for an escape into the thrill of adventure. Interestingly, the unconscious misperception that the international border is somehow theirs, solely within the purview of the United States, adds to the possibility that perfectly innocent travelers might skip the small but legalizing step of actually getting proper documentation for the trip, adding to the problem. Others, hypothetically, are unable to get this documentation because they truly are entering the county illegally or for illicit reasons. Even the most innocent excursion, no harm intended, could represent both things.

A dad might take his son for a day trip into Mexico to see a relative, and do so without mom’s knowledge. A group of fourteen year olds could decide to take a road trip after school one afternoon to learn something about the world. It is very easy to enter México with benign intent and still be breaking the law. México doesn’t require much more than a driver’s license to visit border areas for a day or two. Tourist travel cards are required whenever a traveler ventures outside of México’s border zone, which extends approximately twenty-five kilometers into the interior, or stays for over three days. This assumes that other intents and purposes are legal. In the instances above, for personal reasons, people who don’t feel like they are doing anything morally wrong may still fail to do what is legally right, fearing exposure. In other instances, ignorance of the rules or how to go about actually following them, can be a culprit.

Ten years ago, I traveled all around México without the proper forms simply because I could not find the building in which I was supposed to get them. No one ever bothered to check until after midnight one night on a bus between Tulum and Veracruz, when armed men identified me as a traveler without legal documentation. I had not intended to do anything wrong; nor was I more than marginally aware that I had. I was not breaking any imperative laws. But I was, technically, an illegal alien.

Like many illegal aliens crossing into the US, most people traveling incorrectly in México are rarely identified, and are not considered too much of a threat to the nation, either. When they are caught, México seems to be overly gracious in handling them. Reading the newspaper, it is possible to find citations for travelers committing crimes and finding their way to Mexican prisons, or deportation back to home prisons. But the innocently guilty, like yours truly in Veracruz or these other standard, hypothetical lawbreakers (our runaways, for example), tend to be treated with kindness. At most they are asked nicely to leave. They can be detained in youth shelters until they are picked up by parents, or escorted back to their country of origin. In the case of teen runaways or thrill seekers, this means that they will be treated to a hot meal and some shelter after their money has run out. Runaways don’t tend to break many laws. Often, they are simply too young to be legal. Maybe they have traveled over the border with undeclared items, minor amounts of controlled substances, or pets that have not undergone quarantine. This might cause a little hitch in the friendly system México employs to deal with these kids. Now we are talking a little bit of extra crime, smuggling maybe, controlled substances; or perhaps merely the minor snag that the shelter just doesn’t allow pets. Our hypothetical runaways never thought of themselves as smugglers, surely; the pet was purely for personal use. In my own case, since I was not underage, carrying contraband, or otherwise illegal beyond the status of my travel papers, I was given the opportunity to belatedly obtain them several months into my trip. Our hypothetical runaways are in a little deeper. They must be supervised and then repatriated. The contraband pet must be quarantined or dealt with in some other way.

It is possible, then, to imagine that someone else might take the pet, if only to remove the obstacle. Maybe it is almost midnight, raining heavily, and the police are on their way. Whatever social worker, security agent, or Samaritan, seeing that the loved and un-quarantined animal presents a legal issue for México and the kids, a stumbling block to their shelter, and its own problem of repatriation, might take the pet temporarily until something can be worked out. This harmless act of kindness, to kid and animal nationals like, also falls on the other side of border legality. So, in this hypothetical way, the innocent fault can spread, accidentally turning more unsuspecting victims into international scofflaws. Plus, it is impossible to imagine that there will ever be a time when the pet and the kids would be able to be reunited, anyway. It is another wrongheaded idea cleared away with a little further speculation. The next day, or whenever the hurricane is over and the parents show up to drive the runaways home, the pet remains contraband. Smuggling back over the border would make it illegal in two countries. So, either the animal would have to permanently adopt the cover of Mexican pet, or expose the web of lies that its hypothetical presence outside of quarantine represents.

So, after so many stories and so much conjecture, I am getting to the point where the paranoia and suspicion I feel in regard to the border has nothing to do with those trying to use it for the usual illegal purposes of invasion or trafficking. Rather, I am concerned about what innocent lapse or overlooked detail will make me the next accidentally illegal alien abroad. In other news, today we finally found a permanent home for a sweet little gray Mexican kitten that we found on the street just before Hurricane Emily hit the Tamaulipas seaboard.

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Friday, July 22, 2005

Emily's Last Day

number fifty

Part three of my experience with Emily: today Hurricane Emily disappeared completely from the map, leaving only aftermath, her toll taken in more flooding and buildings and jobs than in lives. 563 words.

© the Weather Channel[NL]—The last thing that I did before going to bed last night was to change the towels we’ve had catching the water that has been seeping in around the windows and mopping up the puddles on the floor beneath them. Throughout the night, I was aware of the wind moving around the house, but not so much that the trees were whipped violently around. Just a spooky yawning sound. It rained most of the night. By the time I woke today, Emily was gone, all that was left of her was a sky full of gray streaks and a ghostly purple puff on the satellite images.

Well, and water. Monterrey is flooded in places, and there’s a Catarina River where there is usually merely a Catarina river bed. During the last day or two, all of the sports fields and tents that usually populate the dry bed had been removed, and the river managed to flow, full of not much more than run-off, much the way nature originally intended. Apparently, there are still places in town without power, and several roads are still closed because they are either under water, or too strewn with debris to travel on.

Overall, I have been very impressed with the way México handled the storm. Thousands of people were evacuated along the Mayan Riviera in the Yucatán before the first, category 4, hit; and then thousands more along the fishing villages on the Gulf Coast for the category 3 version that came at Monterrey. Many of these folks were picked up by army trucks as they walked along dragging their luggage. Many were put up for free in inland hotels and makeshift shelters. While a sadly large number of people lost their houses and their means of employment, it seems as if there were no casualties. I can’t stress this enough: none. Nobody died.*

Outside, the thick cloud cover is low enough to completely enshroud the surrounding mountains. The hill that separates San Pedro from Monterrey is completely visible, but the larger la Silla and los Mitras mountains are chopped off at the knees. This would be a striking day to go mountain climbing, if I was certain that I would not need a boat to get across the valley itself. The clouds are a dark color, but thinner areas are allowing light to penetrate in places, giving the environment a bright gray quality occasionally lined with golden sun. It is raining now, but these are gentle showers which are coming and going, totally different from the all day, from lesser- to greater-degree storms of yesterday. By the end of the weekend, I hear, the showers will have subsided, even, and then the occasional pocket of hurricane wreckage will be the only things left of Emily. And construction sites on the coast, of course. And a river.

*A small, sad note. Apparently, after all my lowered evaluation of the danger to the people who live here in San Pedro, the one recorded fatality of this storm, in either incarnation, was reportedly washed away in flood waters right near my house. I have no idea how—I never saw any amount of flooding on our side of the little ridge that separates us from Monterrey. Possibly she was somehow caught on the side of a mountain and was lost in the flash flooding of its sudden watershed.

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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Hurricane Emily, middle day

number forty-nine

Part two of my experience with Emily: her category intensity has lessened but she continues to head right for our house. Break out the towels and candles (and bread and cheese). 894 words.

© the Weather Channel[NL]—7/20/05 10:35am EST—Good Morning. Some real rain started hitting the ground about ten minutes ago, seeming to fade in and out in intensity. There is still very little wind, but visibility is, like, nothing: I can maybe see a hundred yards. This place is surrounded by mountains (We are on one of them), and there is no way to tell. The temperature on the patio is 72 F, several degrees cooler than I keep the air conditioning in the house. Looks like Emily made landfall about 6:30am EST, and is trucking inland at ten miles an hour. Centrally, after several hours of being on land, her winds are still turning at right about 110mph. Brownsville, Texas has reported gusts of up to 63mph. Currently, I have no information on the storm surges (coastal México was supposed to endure tidal movement up to twelve feet higher than the norm). Nor can I seem to ferret up any information on exactly when Emily heaved ashore in Laguna Madre, about 90 kilometers south of the US/México border. She is still heading maybe a little north of where I am sitting.

As I have written this, the rain has eased up a little, and visibility had increased enough for me to barely make out some of the mountains around me. It is still pretty quiet out there.

7/20/05 2:45pm EST—Pitched and less-pitched rain all morning, but seems to have leveled off a little now, so I suspect that we are between the arms of Emily’s pinwheel. The wind has still not gotten dangerous here, while Matamoros (on the Texan border coast near Brownsville) is reporting gusts of almost 70mph. I can hear it at times howling around the house, but not terribly often or sustained. The temp has gone up some, but is still a freakishly cool 76 F. Visibility has improved over this morning, but the day remains hazy and dark. Emily is still headed right towards our neck of the woods, and after being land bound for nearly seven hours, is still turning at 85mph. She’s also speeding up, heading cross-country at 10mph.

© the Weather Channel7/20/05 5:19pm EST—There’s actually very little new to report. The rain is still happening, but it has settled into a easy pace unlike the gusty rain of this morning. Otherwise, it still looks very much like it did: cold (70’s F), gray, with low visibility. In Monterrey, the dry riverbed running through the south of Centro is raging with water, and there are multiple areas out of power. Several main roads near the riverfront have been closed. This is more of a way to limit people from driving around, probably, than any real concern that the usually non-existent river would be over spilling her banks or flooding out the raised roads around her. But Emily is almost here, and is still coming right for us at 12mph, and swirling at 70. We still have power (obviously), so I am going to go make a sandwich.

7/20/05 8:54pm EST—Emily's eye folded in and she became a tropical storm around 6:30 EST earlier today, and that tropical storm continues to move directly over our heads at 12mph, wind speeds are 50mph, just five miles per hour less than the hurricane category one. We are still not experiencing the kind of winds that have ravaged the Gulf Coast of México, but the gusts that we are getting don’t seem to be slowing down much. Local broadcasters are stating that the worst is yet to come. This worst will apparently be when the center of TS Emily passes overhead in about four hours or so. It has continued to rain non-stop, and portions of Monterrey seem to be enduring some pretty heavy flooding. Several airlines have discontinued service today already, and the airport is scheduled to close later on tonight. Sunshine's workday has been cancelled again for tomorow. A main bridge over Rio Santa Catarina has mostly washed away. Thousands have been evacuated from lowlands and poorer, surrounding neighborhoods. From where I sit, looking out the window, the visibility is lowering again. I can no longer see our neighborhood, just rain and clouds that reach all the way to the ground.

© the Weather Channel7/21/05 2:50am EST—Now the wind is getting gusty. Occasionally it howls around the house, and blows the rain straight at the windows. Visibility has become odd now that it is night. The lights of downtown San Pedro are very clear, but the giant, iconic mountains surrounding us are completely invisible in banks of clouds. This includes the top of the mountain my house is on. Tropical Storm Emily is pretty much overhead now, though she doesn’t necessarily have a defined center anymore. After about fifteen hours, the rain has again become intermittent, and right now seems to be taking a break. Sunshine’s employers made the decision several hours ago to close again tomorrow mostly taking into consideration that many would not be able to navigate to the building in the possibly increased overnight flooding. Since there has been little phenomena besides heavy rain, the cats haven't freaked out too much. Many of my windows are leaking, but nothing has broken, including the plants and things outside. I keep finding frogs clinging to the concrete walls around the yard. I’ll bet I don’t have to water that yard again until September.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Hurricane Emily, first day

number forty-eight

Part one of my experience with Emily: this storm is crazy. It speeds up and slows down and gets bigger and smaller. This post covers the first days of sporadic updates to this blog as Hurricane Emily marched overland directly at Monterey. 1,006 words

© the Weather Channel[NL]—7/19/05 10:00am EST—Hurricane Emily lost a lot of speed over the Yucatán Peninsula, dropping to category two (barely: sustained winds a the eye were about 55mph) yesterday as she returned to the open sea in the gulf coast. Slowing a little, she also picked up a little more mass, widening considerably even as she dumped a lot of her rain on Cozumel and Cancún. Her pressure started to drop again over the gulf, and as of this writing, she is speeding back up: her winds are 90mph, and that number will probably rise. It is forecasted she’ll now be at a strong category three when she reaches the gulf coast about two hundred and fifty kilometers directly west of Monterrey.

And that’s kind of weird; I am not sure I have ever seen a hurricane shoot so levelly west before. She took a little of an upswing right before the Peninsula, and then only because of running aground. Since she has been in the Gulf, she seems to have been trying to correct her westerly bearing. Of course, I have been outside loudly calling her name.

Today is the day she’ll start to hit. The eye will hit sometime late tonight, or early tomorrow am. I am going to, at least temporarily, keep tabs on what is happening with the storm, as well as what is happening outside. When these two things come together, I will probably lose power for a while. We are on the side of the mountain, so while I suspect that any sustained accumulation of water due to torrential rains will indeed cause flooding, that flooding will be lower than our house. I hope. We’ll see. The emergency groceries were bought yesterday, and Sunshine’s employers have cancelled most of business tomorrow. Now I wait to see what happens.

7/19/05 10:30am EST—Weather clear with big puffy cumulous clouds. Very little breeze. Temperate eighty-six degrees, Fahrenheit, but humidity feels higher. Emily is threatening the coast with storm surges that should be hitting within the hour. I can not tell there is even a storm, much less anything like that, from here.

© the Weather Channel7/19/05 12:45pm EST—Weather here much the same as before. Some of the clouds getting a darker look to them, but still lazily hanging there. The ominous thing about them seems to be that they are losing definition. The edges are getting hazy. Temperature still pretty low at 92 F. Emily up to 95mph winds, traveling 14mph WNW. First buffeting of Gulf Coast about 45 minutes ago.

7/19/05 3:15pm EST—Still very much as it has been here, but all of the clouds have gone smeared across the skywith lowered visibility over Cerro de la Silla. Temp at 88 F, no breeze down here at all. Birds are all atwitter and everything. Looking at the Weather Channel satellite images to the left, it seems as if the coast is finally getting some of Emily’s rain. As for her, she's spinning at 100mph now, and slowing to 12mph WNW. Her eye is about 200 kilometers from landfall.

7/19/05 5:05pm EST—Okay, it’s cloudy now. Sometime in the last hour the sky got really dark and covered over by a continuous ceiling of level grey. The wind has not really picked up, though, and the temp has gone up to 92 F. 20-45mph winds, and lots of rain, are hitting the coast from Galveston to Veracruz. Looks like the front wall of the hurricane is just beginning to touch up against the coast to my east now, and Emily’s storm front has moved into Nuevo Leon.

© the Weather Channel7/19/05 8:01pm EST—It started raining about two hours ago. It started in with the wind a little, too. About an hour ago, the sun peeked under the flat disk of cloud cover for a little while. The rain comes in gusts like the wind, but neither are very dramatic yet. Emily has picked up speed again: swirling at 125mph, and coming ashore at 13. Several reports from Southern Texas mention winds nearing 50mph at the coast, where weather professionals predict 3-12 foot storm surges before the eye lands. Currently, it is dusk in Monterrey (even though there’s about ninety minutes until sunset), but there is no wind or rain. Just eeriness.

© the Weather Channel7/19/05 11:43pm EST—And it remains spooky out there. All of Monterrey and San Pedro feels hunkered down, but nothing is happening. There’s no rain, no wind, there are tiny little white puffball clouds in the air. Looking to the left you will notice that the eye of the hurricane is under fifty kilometers from the beach, and that there is clear sky here. I suppose this is predictable; “the calm before the storm” is a cliché for a reason. But the cliché seems unexpected somehow, tonight, when I know Emily’s landfall is just an hour or three away. Maybe more: she’s taking it at an easy seven miles an hour now, holding at a 125mph maintaining a category three status. She is holding her course for just north of us.

7/20/05 3:03am EST—The center of Emily will be running ashore two or three hours from now, apparently (she keeps slowing off the coast), and I’ll be asleep for that. There is a thrown- off part of her storm wall heading around her now, being aimed right at us. But the mountains here have been protecting us from much of what she can do from a distance, and probably will defeat this projectile cell, too. Contrary to expectation, Emily has sustained 125mph winds, even though the pressure in her eye is still dropping—one more little surprise for me. This means Emily is still powering up, and might possibly achieve category four by landfall. Outside in San Pedro, it has grown thickly clouded again, and rain is coming and going. Still not a lot of wind. By six am what is going to hit us should be hitting us, though. If it is loud enough, I’ll probably wake up and report it. Goodnight.

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Monday, July 18, 2005

Like Dry Leaves

number forty-seven

When I look into the sky over the parking lots and landscaping of San Pedro, I can just make out the storm clouds gathering. Hurricane Emily has already hit Mexico once, and now she is coming for us. 1,160 words.

[NL]—Today was a gorgeous day: cool, mostly cloudy with shockingly blue sky between ominously speedy gray clouds, a little blustery. I was somewhat surprised by this, owing to the Hurricane.

I was first alerted to Hurricane Emily two days ago when she was about sixty miles east of Jamaica, forecasted to travel a gentle, elliptical west-northwesterly curve, her eye churning over Kingston and heading ashore the following week in southern Texas. My own prediction, based, as always, on what it is I have seen in the past, had the hurricane making a sharper turn north during her Jamaican landfall; then savaging Cuba, losing a lot of strength over the Keys, and hitting the US mainland as a tropical storm on Florida’s left coast.

I was very wrong, of course. Emily was a wee lass of a category two hurricane back on Friday, advancing on Jamaica at a little over three miles an hour. The thing is, she never took that small turn the weather people predicted, nor the larger one I spent the majority of the weekend talking about. As she kept to the open water, passing beneath Jamaica, she strengthened into a category four storm of 155mph winds. She sucked up a considerable amount of water and picked up her momentum, speeding up to eighteen miles an hour. Late tonight or early tomorrow morning she will beach herself on the Yucatán Peninsula, just north of Tulum. But she won’t be stopping there. By Monday night she should be heading on through the gulf. Straight at Monterrey.

By last night it was raining wildly outside, though if I was reading the satellite right it is merely due to some westerly systems that are affiliated with Emily only because her high-pressure front wall is forcing them onto our mountain ranges. We went out on Friday night, but it just seemed too tedious to try to navigate around yesterday, especially with no end to the weather in sight. But once today dawned relatively clear and very nice, we decided to chance a trip to the mountain overlook of Obispado, located just west of central Monterrey. It might be the last time we get to leave the house for a while.

In the majority of Monterrey pictures I can find online there are one of two different landmarks. The vast majority of these photos, of course, include the Cerro de la Silla, our iconic Saddle Mountain. The other landmark is the little hillock of Obispado, rising shortly from the city center, dwarfed by the surrounding spectacle of the Sierra Madre Oriental, and flying one of the largest flags imaginable in atmospheric conditions. Pictures that do not include Obispado are often taken from the top of it. Obispado mountain, as short as it looks with its high-contrast background, is still tall enough to serve as an excellent lookout point for Monterrey, which turns out to be another strikingly large-looking city from this vantage. We parked about two thirds of the way up the hill, and walked to the top. Running along the switchback road a the base of the hill is a little civic museum and the eighteenth century Bishop’s Church that lends its name to the mountain. There is also, apparently, a convention center, fine dining restaurant, and gift shop. We walked right past all of this to get to the top of the mountain. And the top of this mountain, smallish in the pictures but large enough to see from the top of, is an enormous thing when hiking to the summit. We were both thanking our lucky stars that the temperature was no longer in the forties for this trip. I was also pretty happy about the constant driving wind which seemed to strengthen a little with every new foot we trudged up from street level.

The view was worth it. I was able to see almost all the way to the airport. It was easy to tell how different parts of the city are not as far away from each other as getting driven around has made them appear. Things that took twenty-five minutes to reach by cab were, in reality, just over there. Monterrey stretches, puddled in the flatness of this river valley, to the horizon in the places that the horizon is not populated by enormous mountains. We watched a train come in from the direction of Saltillo and the caves that riddle las Mitras. It was so windy up there that the birds were having trouble making it over the top, sliding sideways or backwards into a more navigable altitude. The thunderous den of the flapping Mexican flag, a football field over our heads, made it hard to even hear this wind. Sunshine wondered whether the flag would cause casualties if it ever flew from its pole out over the city. Yes, she concluded, that flag would kill some people. From the top of Obispado, I was able to finally locate the whereabouts of Monterrey’s huge central double cemeteries of Dolores and Carmen. There they widely sat, northeast of the mountain and west of the Alameda’s puff of green treetops. Maybe no one would have to die if the runaway flag landed there.

Heading back down the mountain to these cemeteries, we paused to take a look at the Templo Obispado. The church is very nice, a noted architectural example, and I thought that all of the cool cacti growing on the grounds were particularly interesting. It was a little tricky to get the car out of its parallel space and down the side of the mountain, but Sunshine managed it, and we found the cemeteries without much difficulty. The place was utterly beautiful, a vast metropolis of stone and concrete, crypts and above-ground plots, peopled by hundreds of angels and Christs and Virgins. We were only able to stay there for about twenty minutes before they closed, according to the posted hours, but we did get to wonder around for a while, looking at row upon row of quiet, scenic, and shady final resting places. The place was overgrown by giant shady trees, many of which were palm, and it just seemed like a nice place to be. From the cemetery it was possible to see Obispado’s three hundred and thirty foot flagpole rising from its silly stump of a hillock.

By the time we were heading back to the car there was a man with a bicycle who was fastening one of the two doorways into the front gate shut with a giant chain. He didn’t speak to us, but I am pretty sure that if we had not left when we did, we would have been locked inside the cemetery’s ten foot privacy wall overnight. While that would certainly have had its attractive aspects, I certainly think that there would be a much more appropriate time to try it than ground zero before the pending hurricane.

Flag versus coming storm. Photo © the Author

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Tuesday, July 05, 2005


number forty-six

My first ever US Independence Day celebrated abroad is also celebrated millions of miles away from the planet at breakneck speeds. 828 words.

[NL]—I forgot to take my camera to the Fourth of July party. If I had, I would have had the digital technology to capture this moment of my international life: Dan still has wet hair from the cannonballs he was doing earlier as he lights off tubes of sparks that sail over his privacy wall. In front of him, nine or so people sit and watch; eventually they break into a cracked and variously certain rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. It is not the first holiday I have spent while expatriated from my country, but it is the first where that is an overt irony.

This is Dan’s party, and he has been good to us. There is plenty to eat and drink—he’s even barbequed ribs on the brick grill that came installed in his back yard. He and a DEA agent have been diving from the top of the pool house into the smallish pool. People are friendly and happy, and there is very little to indicate that our little American party is so estranged from its nation of birth. I am standing approximately one thousand miles away from the last place I celebrated the Fourth of July. I strongly suspect that the police will be called at any moment: today is just a weekday for Monterrey, and what we are lighting up sounds enough like gunshots to possibly alarm an already tense northern Mexican community. The police never come, though, possibly because all of the neighbors are at work.

This has been an eventful long weekend, full of sci-fi and Independence Day parties. Today, before coming to Dan’s house, we watched Guerra de los Mundos in the VIP theater at the mall. Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise examined the working-class freedom-fighting father in a hostile, alien-ravaged world in a way that was informed by the events of September eleventh. I ate a Philadelphia cream cheese and manchego crepe during the post-apocalyptic apocalyptic turmoil.

On Friday, Sunshine attended a more official party at her employer’s, an annual black tie event that is orchestrated to reacquaint area VIPs with the charming nationalism of their American guests. A celebration so structured and premeditated that the night is very much more like work than gaiety. Sunshine and her coworkers are instructed to mingle in Spanish and spend very little time talking to people that they already know. Classy background music provides the ambiance, wine sparkles, there is a great attempt made to produce classy hors d'oeuvres from “typical” American cuisine. This party is confusingly enacted on a date close to, but never on, the fourth day of the month.

I had assumed that I was not invited to this function due to the fact that I am not an official spouse and this is such an official party. When it became apparent that I was sort of expected to go, it was already way too late for me to have the suit dry cleaned in time. I was ambivalent: on one hand, it would have been interesting to see such an classy shindig; and on the other, well, it seemed so much like work. Sunshine had been preparing for nothing else for the past week, working with committees for decorating and catering and inviting and et cetera. She seemed to have had a good time when she came home that night; but she came home exhausted and she seemed equally glad that the whole thing was finally over.

By last night we had taken our first road trip in México, braving the flames of the sun to travel down the way to Santiago. Sometime early on the morning before we did this, 83 million miles away from where I am sitting, a US space probe, moving at 64,000 miles per hour, fired a washing-machine sized bullet at a moving comet, finally scoring a direct hit fifty-two minutes after midnight last night. The first fireworks already, with it being a holiday in only two American time zones. The Deep Impact space probe had traveled over 266 million miles in a 172 day flight plan. Both the impactor and the delivery vehicle sent back thousands of riveting digital images. The whole maneuver was conceived to help Earthlings study of the origins of the universe by taking a good look at the insides of an ancient comet. This feat was pulled off with only very slight deviation in trajectory and impact predictions that were worked out before the probe’s launch in January. This is wonderful space news, and a towering testament to math and engineering, evident both in an elliptical orbit somewhere between Venus and Jupiter, and here in this room where I watched the whole thing unfold wirelessly on my laptop. I think about this feat of science every time the DEA agent cannonballs into the pool, sending a plume of water into the neighboring yard.

NASA’s Tempel 1 Deep Impact mission and other news can be found here.

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Monday, July 04, 2005

Only 41

number forty-five

A half hour or so south of Monterrey there is an idyllic little town called Santiago. Between these cities, stretched along the hot highway, there is a shopping Mecca. 1,714 words.

[NL]—México’s Carretera Nacional (Highway M85) runs its sun-blasted course from the Tamaulipas border town of Nuevo Laredo, through Monterrey, and on to points increasingly south of the border. Taking this route down through the arid dust bowl of Nuevo Leon’s winding midpoints, the next town on the map is Santiago, about thirty kilometers deeper into the interior. About twenty K along the way is the popular shopping area of los Cavazos which is conversationally referred to as “la Carretera” because of its proximity to this main artery. Starting just behind Monterrey’s iconic la Silla mountain, snug in the scorched earth of the northeastern Sierra Madres, this long strip of booths, concrete shops, and corrugated metal lean-tos winds along both sides of the Carretera Nacional for a half dozen sunny blocks. This strung-out mercado is a great place to shop for many things considered traditionally Mexican and attracts a prodigious amount of daily visitors to what is otherwise a baked and sunburned cake of dusty heat.

To further our circle of familiarity, we decided to head off on our first Mexican road trip on this beautiful July day. Sunshine could show me this much ballyhooed roadway market, and we could both see the quiet little village of Santiago, tucked into a crevasse in the surrounding mountains, where there is a honest-to-god lake and the very famous waterfall Cola de Caballo, or “Horse Tail Falls.” Santiago or bust.

Driving south along the Highway, we came to the medium-sized mission church that signals the beginning of the Carretera. This traditionally whitewashed two-story adobe building had been turned into a store for Mexican arts and crafts. The place is beautiful and filled with beautiful things: ceramic lily tree candelabras and clay animals, hand-painted vases of all sizes, woven fabrics, and wooden Loteria-themed wall shrines made of beans and bits of glass. They had the coolest wicker loveseat I have ever seen, long, low, and with jaguar heads for armrests. The stuff was, for the most part, priced in a way I felt pretty good about, and I even ended up buying a jaguar head planter for my bathroom. But the pure joy of the place is the building itself: the mission church with a capped well in its newly-covered courtyard and little off-center adobe bell tower. The floors are covered in slate tiles. The stuff for sale fills the first floor and the courtyard within the old privacy wall, covering every centimeter of flat space on the floors and walls. Some things even hang from the ceiling. Upstairs, in the back, are living quarters, I assume for the proprietors, opening onto a pretty, somehow green, little vine-filled back yard.

The heat today was amazing. I am pretty much getting used to the dry, furnace heat of this semi-desert world, but today was almost surreal. On the way out of town, in occasionally heavy but slow-moving traffic, the air conditioner in the car meekly struggled to putter out thinly chilled air. I kept trying to crank the little knob to “high” but it was already as high as it would go. By the time we pulled into the mission church twenty-five minutes later, my Coke was like coffee and I was somewhat afraid to get out of the car. The parking lot of the church, a patch of road shoulder roasted sterile long ago, sits adjacent to what must have originally been the gate to the church’s outer courtyard. Here there are already many interesting, larger scale items of interest for sale, but today it was simply too bright to see anything (and to hot to feel around). We scurried into the shaded open courtyard in self defense.

The accessible part of the building was not air conditioned. Inside this uninsulated clay oven, the air took on a more humid quality; though if this was because of some residual dampness in the old well, or just a byproduct of the shade, I do not know. It was so neat in there, however, with so very many interesting things tucked around everywhere, that we stuck it out for a good twenty minutes before retreating to the car and promising to return in the fall. The car was a blazing crematorium, or course, the Cokes just this side of actually simmering; but at least there was the puttering blat of cool AC, and a breeze through the windows once we got going on the highway again.

Not far down the road we started passing flower and fruit sellers (about the twenty kilometer mark south of Monterrey). Then we were passing a strip of road where the majority of the parked vehicles were advertising dogs for sale. Cages were lined up along the baked shoulder and in the backs of pickup trucks, men standing beside handwritten signs would hold a playful little tuft of puppy up to the passing traffic. Another minute or so later, we started flashing by the Carretera proper: runs of low stalls and concrete bunkers connected across the road by stout pedestrian bridges, busily populated by shopping families beneath fluttering tarps and Mexican flags. We opted to stop here on the way back when it was a little cooler, maybe. So we drove straight on through the action to the sleepy town of Santiago.

Santiago is such a quiet little place that it was very easy to find a parking spot on the zócalo right in front of the eighteenth century catholic church. The town is idyllic: leafy and slow—certainly a complete reversal from the modern reality of downtown Monterrey. Like some preserved TV village, Santiago sports a laid back, Sunday afternoon sort of a small town ambiance. People strolled around the town square, listening to popular music playing from inconspicuous speakers throughout the plaza, birds chirped, flowers bloomed. There is really very little to do in Santiago: it is a small place, visited mostly as a jumping-off point for the area’s scenic nature preserves or for the water sports offered down by the lake. It is telling that the free map we picked up at the tourist center is dominated by friendly arrows indicating the shortest routes to these surrounding areas of interest. A tiny map of Santiago with the Church in the center and multiple invitations to leave town. But the overlooked village itself is very appealing, rambling colorfully across its gentle slopes, verdant and very picturesque.

Down the hill from the middle of town, with its church and zócalo, three Italian restaurants, a pharmacy, and little civic museum, we could see across the street to the large lake pooling at the bottom of the mountains to the southeast. We wandered in that direction for a while, but didn’t feel like crossing the highway on foot, so we turned around and chose one of the Italian restaurants to relax in. This is when we noticed something very strange: we were sweating like crazy. Twenty miles away in Monterrey, I have never gotten so much as a damp armpit due to arid surroundings that steal the moisture right out of my skin. In Santiago however, nearly on the shores of a large lake, where there is precious moisture just laying around on the ground, it is a whole lot more humid. Actually it is sweltering, sultry, and oppressive.

So we retreated for an hour or more into the restaurant, which was vastly more successfully air conditioned than the car. I liked the place a lot, it was dark with high wooden ceilings and the waiters seemed to actually be Italian. We sucked down a number of drinks, and the appetizers were yummy, but I was served a fettuccini that was full of ham. What I will remember, looking back, is that the whole time we were there, we were wiping hot sweat out of our eyes. By the time we left, we had grown accustomed to the temperature inside, and stepping outside felt like taking a hot shower. The climate in July, in Santiago, is a lot like the North Carolina summers I left behind. It is far more uncomfortable than the more deadly desert air a few miles north. We hurried to the car, and headed back to the arid places to which we have grown accustomed. Getting in the car was uncomfortably akin to settling into a stew.

With over two hours of blinding daylight left, we parallel parked in the toasty berm alongside the Carretera. The revolving electronic sign we had just passed had the late afternoon temperature written out in small light bulbs: 41 degrees. Outside the car, I could feel my lips begin to crack, but at least I was not basted in sweat anymore. For the next hour plus, we strolled along the Carretera down sidewalks shaded with stretched blue tarps. Beneath the tarps were rows of stores selling souvenirs, saddles, and stationery; plants, pottery, and custom wooden shelving; bedroom sets in wrought iron flower or crescent moon motifs, electronics, jewelry, hardware, cutlery, tiles, terracotta, and toilets. There was one overpriced squirrel monkey who looked pretty comfortable in the heat. Roaming along beneath the tarps was like window shopping beneath a solar strobe: alternately too sunny and too shady to see.

Incredibly, standing between the shaded sidewalks and the shops were long lines of working stoves griddling up all manner of traditional Mexican fare; and, incidentally, filling the covered areas of the Carretera with clouds of billowing heat. We bought a deck of Loteria cards and water, but the hungry could choose from funnel cakes, cornbread, gorditas, tacos, and select peelings from vivisected spit-roasted baby goats. It smelled wonderful, but I was beginning to blacken around the edges by the time we finally headed back to the car. A little less than an hour remained before nightfall, and the sun was now almost to the low line of scrub that decorates the mountaintops. Inside the car we were cozy and warm, nothing near the broiling we had endured earlier in the day. We nosed our way back into the heavy traffic heading toward Monterrey; north to the constant 24 degrees of our ferociously climate-controlled desert sanctuary.

A short explanation of Loteria can be found here.

The Loteria deck I bought looks similar to these; but not these, or these.

Can I have cream in that? Photo © the Author

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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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