Sunday, September 28, 2008

Feels Like Home

In the past year, I have lived in three different countries. I have changed apartments four times. I have had three different jobs. And counting. The Spanish word for folks like me is vagabunda. My grandma calls me a gypsy. I like to think of myself as a traveler.

But even the most hard-core travelers get tired sometimes. They grow weary of packing and re-packing their few wordly possessions into backpacks/suitcases/garbage bags. They get tired of juggling bus schedules and plane tickets and waking up in different time zones and speaking different languages. They want a place to hang their proverbial hats.

In short, they want a home.

Up until last week, I thought that my home was going to be Culiacán. I arrived in the city in late July and did some serious nesting very quickly. In a matter of weeks, I rented an apartment. I bought a washing machine. I made fast friends with an amazing crew of 20-something Culichis. But, as you well know, my plans changed very quickly.

This week, I'm back on the road, suitcases and bus ticket in hand. The thought of starting over again (again) in a new city is exhausting. Learning the ropes at a new job. Looking for a new apartment. Buying a new washing machine. Making new friends.

So it was nice to get a little dose of home this weekend. On my way to Oaxaca, I stopped to visit some old friends in Mexico City. From Mexico City, we traveled together for another friend's wedding in Querétaro, the city that served as my home when I was an exchange student back in 1999. Despite the fact that nearly a decade has past since we all lived in the same city (or the same country, for that matter), we've been able to keep in tabs on each other. I've visited them here in Mexico. They've come to Chicago. And we've shared pictures, emails and the occasional international phone call.

I can't describe how nice it was to see everyone -- in person. How nice it was to be back in a familiar city. How nice it was to kiss and hug and laugh together. I'd forgotten how good it feels to be with old friends -- people that know your history and can appreciate all of the twists and turns of your path in life. It was just what my travel-weary soul needed. A little dose of familiarity in what has otherwise been a time of contstant flux. A little reminder that there are folks here in Mexico who really know me (and love me anyway). A little boost to get me through what will certainly be lonely and frustrating times ahead as I transition (yet again) into life in a new city.

It felt like home.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Coming Clean

Okay, I need to come clean: I haven't been exactly, um, forthcoming with all of the details of my life here in Culiacán. It's not that I've lied to you in past postings. It's just that I've omitted what some people might consider rather significant parts of what my day-to-day is like here in Sinaloa. The thing is that Culiacán isn't all cheery blog posts on Chihuahua dogs with pink nail polish and wacky city buses and raspado addictions. The truth is that Culiacán is actually kind of a dangerous place.

No -- scratch that -- it's a very dangerous place.

For years, Culiacán has been headquarters to the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the biggest drug cartels in Mexico. They supply the US market with cocaine from Colombia, marijuana from Mexico, and opium from Asia. The boss, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán is one of the most wanted men in North America. Mr. Guzmán is a man of two faces, one part Al Capone -- infamous outlaw -- and one part Robin Hood -- responsible for much of the prosperity in this would-be-poor region.

It's this dichotomy, this two-faced nature of the drug trade, that causes the narcoculture here. It's ingrained in everyone, the regular people and drug bosses alike. It's the reason that many local folks worship a would-be saint called Jesus Malverde. He's an outlaw who died in the early 1900s, but people go to his shrine -- located by the cathedral here in the city -- to pray for safe travels, especially when taking, ahem, journeys "up north." It's the reason that Culiacán's streets are clogged with flashy Hummers with narcocorridos (kind of like gangsta rap en español) blaring out of the speaker systems. It's the reason that even honest folks speak of the narcotraficantes as "good people" who "do a lot for the community" and have "nice families."

For a long time, these two sides of the city co-existed in a delicate peace. Guzmán used to live right here in Culiacán. His kids were students at my school. The rumor mills churned with seemingly-benign stories about seeing Guzmán out and about in the city -- there's a famous tale about his bodyguards locking down a huge famous restaurant called Las Palmas this spring. Nobody was allowed to leave while "The Boss" and his family dined there, but at the end, he picked up the tab for everyone in the entire place that night.

So everything used to be fine in Culiacán. Regular folks went about their business, felt safe in their city, and turned a blind eye to the not-so-legitimate enterprise that fueled much of the local economy. But then the proverbial mierda hit the fan this May: One of Guzmán's sons got gunned down by a rival cartel at a shopping mall. So "El Chapo" himself went into hiding, the rest of the family fled to somewhere in Europe, and Sinaloa braced itself for Guzmán's revenge. At the same time, the new-ish Mexican President, in his ongoing plight to crack down on drugs throughout Mexico, sent the army here to weed out all the narcotraficantes.

These two events disrupted the illegal-but-peaceful status quo that previously existed here in Culiacán. Now, there's a three-way conflict between the two cartels and the federales. This means that big army trucks patrol the streets and a trip to the supermarket involves walking past armed soldiers with big machine guns while picking out your breakfast cereal. Newspapers are full of headlines about drug raids at homes in "nice" neighborhoods and cartel bosses being gunned down in the streets.

And this is the scene I arrived at in July. I knew a little bit about the violence before I came, but naïvely thought that if I went about my business, living my little English-teaching life -- full of past participles and verb conjugations and stacks of essays to grade -- that'd I'd be safe. That I could avoid the violence. That because I've traveled -- unscathed -- to places like war-ridden Nicaragua and landmine-filled Cambodia, I'd be just fine.

But two weeks ago, I found myself hiding under a table at a restaurant with $200 stuffed down my shirt as men with ski masks walked through with big guns, demanding that customers surrender their wallets, watches and cell phones. Terrifying. I'd gone out to dinner -- to a sushi restaurant of all places -- that night to celebrate a co-worker's birthday. Her 70-something-year-old mother had come with us. So the three of us hid our valuables and trembled together under that table, quietly reminding each other to breathe, trying to seem as inconspicuous as possible.

I'd never been so scared in my life. Upon hearing the men enter the restaurant and start screaming for us to get down and cooperate, I'd braced myself for bullets to start flying. I thought that a narco boss was in the restaurant, and that he -- and likely, the rest of us -- were going to unceremoniously meet our ends. So, in a sense, I was strangely relieved when it became apparent that the incident was "just" an armed robbery, probably prompted by the fact that drug trafficking isn't quite as lucrative as it used to be, given that the army's in town now. (Read: jaded sarcasm. Maybe I'm more Culichi than I realize.)

In the end, the three of us got very lucky. We weren't hurt, and the men left the restaurant before they got around to robbing our table. But the incident was a serious wake-up call. I'm not immune to the violence in this city. There is nowhere to hide from it -- especially not underneath a table in the back of a restaurant.

So now I'm acutely aware of the reality of life here in Culiacán: Armed soldiers patrol my neighborhood as choppers fly overhead. An acquaintance barely misses a stray bullet while driving down the street in his car. My Mexican friends speak of being involved in armed assaults like my pals in Chicago talk about yet another dismal baseball season for the Cubs. It's an everyday annoyance, just part of normal life.

So I'm throwing in the proverbial towel. Today was my last day at work. Early next week, I'm taking a bus 1500 kilometers across the country to Oaxaca, a state on the south Pacific coast that has offered me a new job and a new start. The decision was difficult and the transition has proven stressful -- I've had to break a work contract, wiggle out of my apartment lease, and scramble to sell all of my new furniture.

But what has proven most difficult is saying goodbye to all the amazing Culichi people I've met during my time here -- honest, hard-working folks who don't have the option to pack up and ship out like I do. People like Dora. My landlords. Maricruz and Fidel. Señora Cucqui. The folks in my kickboxing class. The members of the mariachi band that practices down the street. My students. My work colleagues. The steady stream of folks who have responded to the "Furniture For Sale" ad I put in the local paper, who come to my apartment and look at my things and ask why I'm leaving, and then shake their heads in frustration at my response.

They think I'm doing the right thing. They're supportive. They're embarrassed that this has been my impression of their city. They'd like to leave, too, they tell me, except their families are here. Their work is here. Their lives are here.

I will think about these people long after I leave their city. I will miss them, but more than that, I will worry about their safety.

And I will think hard about what drugs mean to this community. In a way, it's difficult for me to hate the drug trade. I see the opportunities it gives to people here, to better themselves, to have access to good healthcare, to afford to feed their families and to send their kids to school. Without drugs, this place's economy would just be tomatoes, and folks likely wouldn't be able to make ends meet. But at the same time, I can't condone the violence and death that the narco trade brings. An average of 100 people die each month in Culiacán as a result of drug-related violence. That's in a city of under 800,000 people. Culiacán is the most violent place in the whole country, a dubious honor when you consider that Mexico is home to crime-ridden communities like Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and, of course, Mexico City.

So, that's my been my life for the past two months. One part Hollywood action movie, one part terror flick. Now that I know that I am definitely leaving this place, I feel like I can come clean. A little piece of me will always be the Gringa Culichi, so I'm going to continue blogging at this web address, even from Oaxaca. Stay tuned for my next entry from my new home, but in the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for the headlines from Culiacán.

And please keep my dear, dear Culichi friends in your thoughts.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

¡Viva México!

What better way to spend Mexican Independence Day than crammed into the back of a Nissan with your belly full of Japanese sushi?

There is no better way, at least in my opinion. That's exactly how I passed last night, the eve of Mexican Independence Day. Today, September 16, is the anniversary of Mexico's break from Spainish rule. It's kind of like the Fourth of July back in the good ol' USA.

Normally, celebrating independence goes down something like this: Folks gather in the streets and in bars on September 15 to partake in what is called the Grito de Dolores. The Mexican President leads the entire nation in yelling "¡Viva México!" at 11 p.m. The grito (shout) is followed by lots and lots of fireworks and mariachi music. Then, on September 16, families get together to barbecue outside and eat lots of food.

But it is raining today. And last night, as mentioned, I ate sushi and rode in the back of a Nissan.

Maricruz and I had planned to end our Copper Canyon adventures by celebrating the Grito with some of her friends in a town called Los Mochis last night. But, true to Mexican Time, the Chepe train was running behind schedule. So we ended up disembarking a bit early and snagging a ride with a family from Culiacán that we'd met aboard. A guy from Mexico City also joined the fun -- he needed to get back to Sinaloa to catch his flight home. So there were seven of us crammed into Señora Cucqui's tiny Nissan. I shared the front passenger seat with her 13-year-old daughter, while Maricruz squeezed into the back with her two sons and the guy from Mexico City.

The trip from Chihuahua back to Culiacán was supposed to take about three hours -- quite a long time to spend shoehorned into a car, arms and legs falling asleep because they're pinned in strange positions. But then it started to rain (read: pour, Noah's Arc style), which slowed us down even more. We opted to break up the trip by stopping for dinner. And being the eve of the most patriotic of Mexican holidays, Señora Cucqui's kids opted for the most Mexican of all cuisines: Sushi.

Cucqui's family admired my chopstick skills as we chowed on sushi a la mexicana. Red, green and white banners adorned the Japanese-themed restaurant, and a large sombrero provided by our waiter made for an interesting photo opportunity. Turns out Cucqui had visited Japan a couple of years ago to participate in a business conference, so we compared notes on Tokyo and all of the weird things that we'd eaten. Her kids practiced their English with me. We sucked down pitchers of Mexican-style green tea.

We may have missed El Grito, but we had a great time anyway.

Ever the generous hostess, Cucqui not only bought dinner for Maricruz and me, but also refused to take the gas money we offered her when she finally dropped us off at my front door at 1 a.m. I was absolutely humbled by her kindness. ¡Qué viva México!

Sheer Laziness in the Copper Canyon

'Twas Mexican Time at its finest. We'd biked just three kilometers in four hours. It was already 2 p.m. and we had about 19 kilometers left to go on the trail. We needed to return the bikes by 7 p.m. At least our bellies were full of peanut butter and tortillas. We'd need the energy.

A bit of a backstory is required here. We were in Copper Canyon (Barranca del Cobre), a massive series of mountains and valleys that's about four times the size of the Grand Canyon up north. The "we" in this scenario is myself and Maricruz, one of my dearest Culichi friends (and the only other person I could convince to join me on this crazy adventure), along with two random-but-lovable backpackers from London that we'd met along the way.

Copper Canyon is located in Chihuahua, a state that's famous for little dogs and amazing cheese, which lies just to the east of Sinaloa. The canyons themselves are only about 200 kilometers away, but the only way to access them is via the Chepe, the Chihuahua-Pacífico train, a journey that takes about 12 hours each way. It was on this magical train that the Culichi, the Gringa, and the two Brits formed their unlikely friendship, cementing plans to tackle the Barranca together by bike the following day.

So the four of us found ourselves in the Barranca's infamous Mushroom Valley (Valle de los Hongos), victims to Mexican Time. We'd putzed around Creel, the little mountain town where we'd stayed the night before, spending a good part of the morning stocking up on essentials for our bike expedition: red wine, the aforementioned peanut butter, and the knockoff Notre Dame baseball caps to keep the sun out of our eyes. Finally on the bikes, we'd taken our sweet time getting to our first stop, a cave that was home to the Tarahumara, an indigenous community that's called the canyon home for hundreds of years. And then we leisurely peddled into the Arareko Valley, home to rocks that look like mushrooms, frogs, and, yes, even erect penises.

We paused for pictures approximately 546 times along the way.

We each took a turn falling off our respective bikes.

We stopped to eat bananas.

We climbed rocks and did yoga poses on top.

We giggled.

And then, shortly after our leisurely lunch of peanut butter and tortillas, we realized that it was 2 p.m., and we'd ridden the equivalent of about 1/4-inch on the full-page route map given to us by the bike company in Creel.


Maricruz, the only sane one of the group, opted to flag down a passing tour bus to get back into Creel. She'd hurt her knee in an Mushroom Rock-related incident and didn't think she'd be able to keep up with the breakneck clip that would be required of us to get back to Creel on time.

That left me with the two Brits. We peddled the 19 kilometers through the rest of the valley, past pine forests and Tarahumaras, across an old airstrip, and directly through rather large, water-filled potholes in the road that left us mud-speckled but refreshed. We reached Lake Arareko at about 6 p.m., just in time to cut our plastic water bottles into makeshift wine glasses, ready to share the Cabernet that one of the guys had been toting in his backpack the whole day.

We biked back to Creel -- muddy, sunburnt and buzzed off the red wine -- and somehow managed to turn in our bikes just 20 minutes late. Thus ended a wonderfully lazy day. Dear, dear Mexican Time, how I love thee...

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Turning Mexico

I've been away from Japan for about six weeks now, but I don't really miss it.

Maybe it's because Japan is here with me in Mexico.

It shows up in the strangest of places.

For starters, sushi joints are to Culiacán as Starbucks are to Chicago. They're seemingly on every corner, and, despite what would seem like breakneak competition for business, they're all packed. But the only thing that Japanese sushi and Mexican zushi (as it's called here) have in common is rice. While the Japanese stuff has copious amounts of raw fish and minimal amounts of anything else, zushi a la Mexicana actually has very little fish. Instead, it's rice stuffed with cream cheese, avocado, cilantro and jalapeños, and the soy sauce you dip it in is spiked with lime juice and orange juice. I wouldn't exactly call it sushi, but I like it anyway. It's kind of like how Mexican food in Japan was actually nothing like Mexican food in Mexico (or anywhere else, for that matter). Last I checked, fajitas did not involve broccoli, corn or mayonnaise, but I digress....

Sushi/Zushi aside, one of my first culichi (as the local folks call themselves) friends was a guy named Fernando. Fernando is Mexican, but he teaches Japanese at a local language school. He's a pretty unasuming guy (I first met him when I went to inquire about classes at the school, and he was working at the registration desk, backwards baseball cap on his head and chile-tamarindo lollipop stuck in his mouth), but he speaks the language flawlessly. It puts me to shame. You see, Fernando's never actually been to Japan. I don't think he's actually ever been out of Culiacán. I lived in Japan for a year, and still muddle through basic vocabulary and grammar structures. But Fernando's patient with my crappy japonés. I may actually learn more Japanese in Mexico than I did in Japan.

I'm also enrolled in kickboxing classes. The teacher, Fidel, is about 4'6", which would put him in good company with the guys in Japan. He's also been doing martial arts since he could walk, and has a black belt in karate. I sweat through his class three times a week. What I lack in coordination and, well, skills I make up for in determination. I can't describe how cathartic it is to kick and punch and grit my teeth after a long day of dealing with chatty 15-year-olds. I'm hooked.

So, I'm finally turning Japanese. A year behind schedule, but whatever. ¡Que viva México!