Friday, February 12, 2010


I’ve learned a new Spanish word recently: agridulce.

Having that word in my vocabulary toolbox would have been helpful ten years ago when I found myself sitting at the dining room table of my Mexican host family’s house in Querétaro, trying to put into words what I was feeling upon leaving Mexico. I’d spent an amazing semester as an exchange student with them, but it was time to pack up my bags and go home. It was sweet and bitter at the same time: bittersweet. I tried to explain the dichotomy to them, to find a translation for the word on the tip of my tongue: bittersweet. They stared at me blankly (it could have been that my already-bad Spanish was made completely incomprehensible by the tears rolling down my cheeks).

Lo siento, Sarita. Sorry. I’m not sure how to translate that.”

Having the Japanese version of the word available to me would have been helpful 20 months ago when I grappled with the same emotions upon leaving Japan. I’d spent an amazing year teaching middle school English in the rice paddies of rural Fukui prefecture, making friends in unlikely places and living dreams I never thought I had. But when it came time to tell my classes how I was feeling, I was at a loss for words and my Japanese team teachers were at a loss for a translation.

Gomen-ne, Sara-san. Sorry. I’m not sure how to translate that.”

I was reading a mindless gossip magazine en español the other day, trying to take my mind off the big changes ahead. I’d been doing entirely too much thinking (worrying) about the future, entirely too much reflection (reminiscing) about the past, and was feeling drained. Just as I was trying to clear my head of my emotions, in creeps the perfect word to describe them, right in the middle of an interview with Tina Fey translated to Spanish: Agridulce. (Literally, “sour and sweet,” or “bittersweet.” Ironically enough, it's also used to describe the flavor or what we English speakers know as sweet-and-sour chicken.)

Be it a reference to a botched recipe for Chinese food, or an accurate portrayal of my complex emotions, ten years later, the word was worth the wait.

Today is my last day at work. I'm leaving Huajuapan tonight and will board a plane on Sunday with a one-way ticket that will take me to a place I’d never thought I’d return to, had you asked me three years ago. I’ll be doing the same things (I’m going back into PR, but this time I’m doing it for a Latino-focused community group, work that I hope to find infinitely more rewarding than hawking sausage or formerly-overweight spokespersons of restaurant chains), in the same city (Chi-town is still Chi-town, for better or worse) with the same people (I have amazing family and friends who have been briefed on the horrors of reverse culture-shock).

The thing is, I’m completely different. I’m not sure how the new Sara – the product of 30 months abroad – will behave in the stomping grounds of her former self.

It’s a daunting excitement. It’s a sad happiness. It’s a comfortable adventure.

Above all, it’s agridulce.

I’m so glad I have a word to convey that emotion to the people around me. And I’m finding more and more that the emotion is universal. Upon hearing agridulce -- followed simultaneously by a quivering lower lip and a big smile -- they’ll inevitably offer me a hug, a shy smile, or a kind word. They identify with me. They’ve been there.

Que te vaya, bien, Sarita.” I hope it goes well for you.

Igualmente.” The same to you.

In the spirit of offering some sort of closure – to myself, if to nobody else – I’d like to say muchas gracias, arigatou gozaimasu and thank you to everyone who has kept tabs on me as the Gringa Culichi, and as my former Japanese version in Muy Oishii. It’s been a whirlwind adventure, full of amazing highs and devastating lows, an experience that I hope to have the good fortune of being able to reflect on for years and years to come. I’m looking forward to seeing how exactly living the experiences of setting off alarms in public restrooms in Japan, playing with street children in Cambodia, getting a pedicure with flesh-eating fish in Korea, seeing social injustice in Guatemala and dodging bullets in Mexico might shape the chapters of my life in the future.

For now, it’s time to close out this one. Publishing the last post of my Gringa Culichi blog – the virtual representation of my globe-trotting life – is just as agridulce as saying “hasta luego” to its physical manifestations: my Mexican friends, the breathtaking Oaxacan landscape and my amazing students here at the university. I talked about bittersweet emotions as the last post of my Japanese blog, and it seems only fitting to do the same here. It's the same emotion in any country, in any language.

Thanks for being a part of it all, the bitter and the sweet.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

File under: Things NOT to miss about Huajuapan

If I had a large-scale construction project to undertake, something that involved the tearing down of concrete walls and the backhoeing and bulldozing of the subsequent rubble, the time I’d pick to start the project everyday would obviously be 11pm.

I’d feel the need to put in an honest days’ work, so quitting time would be scheduled for eight hours later, promptly at 7am.

I’d be working through the night, so I’d obviously need to find a really, really bright light to illuminate my workspace, one that could easily be positioned to also shine directly into the (hermetically sealed) bedroom window of my neighbor across the street, ensuring that she could see the undersides of her eyelids as she fruitlessly would try to sleep, tossing and turning and punching her pillow as she would work through her repertoire of bilingual curse words, doing all she could to keep herself from running into the road in her pajamas, her bloodshot eyes ablaze with rage as she’d yell obscenities at me and my crew like the potentially-violent, half-crazed gringa that three days of sleep deprivation would turn her into.

But I wouldn't worry about her. Instead, I’d feel fortunate that I could undertake this project in the great city of Huajuapan de León, a commuity of 80,000 people that somehow manages to be 100 decibels louder than Chicago, a city of 8 million, a place where the everybody is used to noise at all hours, so nobody would even think to complain, except that grouchy gringa across the street. I’m glad that the municipal government would understand that my concrete wall would be more important than my neighbood's sleep. They’d even give me a permit so that I could park a truck right outside the construction site. I'd have to have some way of hauling away all that rubble. It’s OK that it would be blocking the entire road. Nobody in their right mind would be up at that hour anyway, you know?

I’d leave that big truck idling in the street the entire time, just because. The low, loud purr of that powerful engine could provide something of a backdrop to the scrape-lift-crash syncopation of the bulldozer’s scooping and spilling of rubble. It’d be a nice rhythm to work by, don’t you think?

I’d count my blessings that the project doesn’t fall during the months of December or July, or else my big, idling truck might get in the way of the processions of loud speakers, mariachi bands, fireworks and devout Catholics that parade down that same street at 4:30am. Gosh, we’d sure have a problem if that were the case.

Luckily, in February, the only other living beings up all night would be the street dogs who would bark at my bulldozer and that cranky, pajama-clad gringa across the street. Why wouldn't she just go to bed?

Yup, 11 pm it is. Sounds like a great plan.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Laughter in a time of goodbyes

With three short weeks to go until I move back to the khaki-colored world that is Chicago, I’ve begun a series of long, sad, drawn-out goodbyes here in Oaxaca. As was the case in Japan, the proverbial painful Band-Aid is being removed very, very slowly, allowing for multiple opportunities for tears and hugs and sentiments.

This past weekend, I traveled to Juxtlahuaca, my novio’s hometown, a picturesque pueblo that time has left behind, tucked away in the Sierra Madres. Our trips to his childhood home are usually for happy occasions: his mother’s birthday, a cousin’s child’s baptism, the chance to hang out in a cemetery with his extended family. But the churning, unsettled feeling in my stomach reminded me that the purpose of this trip was different: We’d made the 2.5-hour journey so that I could say goodbye to his family, a group of warm and wonderful people who have accepted this funny, awkward gringa into their home and hearts from the first day we met, a day spent in search of fish on a mountaintop almost one year ago.

His parents, brother and sister all understood the reasons for my decision to move back home. As sad as it would be to tell them goodbye, I knew that I had their support. What worried me was how his 6-year-old niece was going to react. Like the rest of her family, "M" has accepted me unconditionally, affectionately calling me tía (aunt), seemingly unfazed by my funny accent and habit of asking her uncle to define the often-incomprehensible Spanish that excitedly spills from her mouth when she runs to greet me at the door with a big hug. Like many kids that grow up in Oaxaca, "M" has seen multiple neighbors, friends and family members leave her community for work in El Norte, often unsure of when -- or if -- they will return. It broke my heart to think that I’d be leaving her for seemingly the same reasons.

But "M" wouldn’t allow me to be sad. Seemingly sensing that I needed a good laugh, she told me about her recent vacation to the beach, showing off her braided-and-beaded hair as she recounted all the details:

"Sara, I went to the beach, and -- guess what? -- I saw a lot of people from your planet!"

"M" and her mother had taken a road trip down to Oaxaca’s coast and spent a week beach-hopping. The fact that the Spanish word for "country" (país) starts with a "p", just like the word for "planet" (planeta)makes "M's" slip understandable, but no less funny.

Or perhaps she really does think that I -- and "my people" -- come from a far-away galaxy. I wouldn't blame her: "M" went on to tell me of the scandal she’d seen in Zipolite, an unapologetically liberal beach in otherwise-conservative Oaxaca, often frequented by hippie-dippie foreigners and their Mexican counterparts who enjoy the community's clothing-optional rules.

"A lot of them were naked. Does everyone go naked on your planet?"

No, M, we don’t all go naked in Chicago. It gets too cold.

But maybe you can come visit me someday on my planet. In the meantime, I’ll fondly remember yours.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Pursuit of Khaki-ness

Khaki isn’t exactly the prettiest color in the world.

It’s the stuff of Gap ads and corporate casual dress codes, the proverbial “vanilla” of the crayon box: It’s not really the color I’d reach for if I were asked to paint the picture of my life for the past two and a half years.

I’d choose orange for Buddhist temples. Or green for the calm forests I used to cycle through in Fukui. I’d choose white for the uncompromising neon light of Korean cities, or a warm brown for the faces of smiling Cambodian children. I’d pick blue for the sea lapping at Oaxaca’s unspoiled virgin coastline and the endless sky of the Mixteca. Pink for the church in Huajuapan that I run past in the mornings and for the laundry room at my old apartment in Culiacán. Yellow for the threads woven into Guatemalan textiles.

Red for the color of the three faithful suitcases that have accompanied me on my incredible 30-month journey through five countries in two hemispheres, an experience that has helped me fulfill goals I never knew I had and to become a person I never dreamed I could be.

Nope, I never would have reached for the khaki-colored crayon to paint all of that.

Khaki, according to a co-worker, is the color of Chicago. The color of the cold plastic seats on the CTA. The color of file folders. Of cubicle walls in downtown office buildings and of the pants of the people that work in them.

My colleague, who left Chicago years ago and has since found a new home here in Huajuapan, never wants to go back to khaki. At least that’s what she told me yesterday when I told her that I was moving back to the city we both used to call home. It’s funny how we cling to the words we hear when we’re sharing the results of big, life-changing decisions.

Khaki or not, it’s time for me to go home. The reason is simple: The colors of a globe-trekking life, once vibrant and exciting to me, are starting to fade. Travel, once my raison d'être, leaves me feeling a bit hollow. Wanderlust-y weekend treks to exotic locales make me more exhausted than enlightened. As Paolo Coelho-ish as it might sound, through all the travel and time zones and tears and triumphs, I’ve finally found what I was looking for: Me. (Or at least a better understanding of how I fit into this crazy, big-but-small world.)

The decision to return to a khaki-colored life would have horrified the girl who, thirty months ago, sold off every last possession that wouldn’t fit into her three red suitcases and set off in search of adventure.

But the idea of khaki doesn’t scare me now. And that’s how I know I’m ready to go back, mature enough to handle it. Khaki may be the color of the biggest adventure of all: Settling down. Being brave enough to realize that personal growth and fulfillment don't necessarily come in the form of a passport full of stamps and a scrapbook full of photographs. Instead -- and here's where I'll go all Paolo Coelho on you again -- it's about daring to put down roots, to contribute to instead of taking from a community, and to see the day-to-day color in what, from the outside, may seem to be a pretty simple, khaki-colored life.

In five short weeks, my three red suitcases and I will again arrive in a foreign land, a place that will surely be unfamiliar and difficult at first, with the seemingly insurmountable task of making that new place feel like home. The Chicago I'll return to isn't the same Chicago I left in July of 2007. But this time, my process of building a home for myself will be different because I know what home really is.

Home: It’s only fitting that I had to stray thousands of miles away from it to truly understand it.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


The last thing the Yucateco cab driver said to me before exiting his taxi to go talk to the Federales (the notoriously-corrupt federal police force in Mexico) was to tell ‘em that I was his cousin.

Eh, yes. The green-eyed, sorta-blonde, freckle-faced gringa sitting in the back of your cab is obviously your cousin. Ob-vi-ou-sly. The feds are totally going to buy this one, buddy.

But we hadn’t done anything wrong. There was no reason to worry, yet for some reason I started to sweat, sitting in the back of that taxi watching the machine gun-clad Federales approach in the rearview mirrors. Maybe it was the hot Yucatán sun.

The whole thing started out innocently enough: I flagged a cab outside of the airport on the first day of our vacation to the Yucatán Peninsula, the sticky-out southeastern part of Mexico that is home to well-known cities like Mérida, Cancún and Playa del Carmen. We’d decided that a quick trip to the region would be just what I’d need before heading back to frigid Illinois for the holidays. After all, my tan (or resulting sunburn) would be the envy of all of my friends back home.

Now, in all of my travels to the many corners of the world, I’ve found that one thing usually holds true: The first couple of minutes in place have a way of setting the tone for the entire stay. Foreshadowing, if you will. So if this constant were to prove true in the Yucatán, getting pulled over by the cops within 10 minutes of landing in Mérida was the universe’s way of saying that our little vacation was going to kind of suck.

And it kind of did.

But our trip wasn’t nearly as lousy as that cabbie’s day.

He got pulled over for picking up passengers outside of his permitted zone. It was mostly my fault. Sweaty and suitcase-laden, and not knowing the traffic rules in Mérida, I’d flagged him down on the sidewalk just outside of the airport. Being a nice guy, he’d stopped to give us a lift to our hotel. We hadn’t driven more than 100 meters before those damn Federales honked and flashed their lights and pulled him over. That’s when he told us to tell them that I was his cousin. And that’s when I thought this violation was going to be a bit more serious than a zoning issue.

We waited in the taxi as the cabbie walked over to the police car, showed his license, and handed ‘em a fistful of money. Then the cops walked over the cab and proceeded to question the mismatched pair in the backseat. I, super nervous, suddenly Spanish-less, and obviously not the cab driver’s cousin, diverted my eyes and let my Mexican novio do all of the talking: Yes, he was the cab driver’s cousin. (Lie No. 1.) Yes, the cab driver was a good guy, just doing us a favor. (Lie No. 2.) Yes, we’d just arrived in Mérida, on vacation from Mexico City. (Lie No. 3.)

No, he couldn’t actually verify the cab drivers’ name, despite the fact that they were cousins. Oops.

The Federales had a good laugh at that one, and much to my surprise (and relief), let us off the hook. The cabbie came back to the car in surprisingly good spirits. Just a matter of bad luck, he said. These damn Federales are really cracking down on this zoning stuff, he explained. No need for this little incident to ruin our vacation, he assured us.

We zipped our way through Mérida and arrived at our hotel, where the cabbie parked along the curb. We generously tipped him to help offset the fine he’d received on our behalf. He helped us get our suitcases out of the trunk and told us to have a nice day.

And that’s when a bus rounded a corner and smashed into the back of his cab.

Thankfully nobody was hurt, but the words the cabbie yelled to the bus driver aren’t really repeatable, seeing as how as this is a family-friendly blog. The novio and I looked at each other and backed away slowly, escaped into our hotel, proceeded to check-in, go to our room, and unpack our suitcases. Forty-five minutes later, we could still hear the commotion in the street from the hotel lobby: The cabbie and the bus driver still exchanging heated words, and the honking of nearly an hour’s worth of backed-up traffic.

So the cabby had a pretty rotten day. And we had a pretty rotten vacation. After being pulled over by the cops and nearly crushed by a bus, things stayed kinda lousy for us in the Yucatán. I got sick. My camera got wet and stopped working. And it rained for five of our seven days there. I didn't get a tan (or even a sunburn), which, as you'll recall, was the whole point of this trip in the first place...

But we did salvage our time in the Yucatán with lots of laughs, a run-in with huge iguana on a pyramid, a visit to the region's cenotes (underground swimming holes) via horse-drawn railroad car (you have to see it to believe it), a frigid snorkeling tour, a beach bike ride in the rain, and lots of pictures, courtesy of the camera on my novio’s cell phone. We even had, like, 45 minutes of sun on our last day on the beach.

If you’re ever in Mérida, look for my “cousin,” the cab driver. He’ll be the guy with the smashed bumper and the Federales on his tail. And given his bad luck with us, he could probably use the extra fares.

NOTE to all my beloved Gringa Culichi readers who have noticed the nearly month-long lapse since my last entry: No, I haven't died from the swine flu. I've simply been über busy, hosting hippie biker friends here in Huajuapan, wrapping up work at the university, taking the aforementioned worst vacation ever, and celebrating the holidays state-side. Thanks for your emails; I'm glad to know my entries have been missed. Here's hoping that 2010 is your best year yet!