Cara Lopez Lee is the author of "They Only Eat Their Husbands: A Memoir of Alaskan Love, World Travel, and the Power of Running Away," and the creator of Girls Trek Too, a blog & workshop dedicated to inspiring women to approach life as an adventure.
(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Friday, April 23, 2010)
March 29, 2008
Bok Sa Town, Toishan, China
Yesterday, I hoped to find the village of my great grandfather, Ma Bing Sum. I had thought he was from the village of Gong Hao. But it turns out that Gong Hao isn’t a village; rather, it’s a small district of many villages. Our hotel's owner, Mr. Wong, knew of one village where a 99-year-old man still lives, and he suggested we go there, in the remote hope that the man might have known my great-grandfather. It seemed unlikely, as Ma Bing Sum left in 1908, a year before the old man was born. Still, I was eager to meet someone who could tell me about the ancient traditions of the region. So we called ahead, and Old Mr. Ma was expecting us.
A driver with a minivan took us several kilometers to a small cluster of villages. More villages were scattered in the distance, amid endless rice paddies where tiny green shoots poked out of square plots filled with water. Grey hills floated in the misty distance. We turned down a dirt lane to the tiny village of Git Non, and stopped in front of a small house. Before I knew what was happening, two or three people shepherded us into a tiny courtyard already crowded with eight people or so.
More villages were visible across endless rice paddies, where tiny green shoots poked out of square plots filled with water.
Old Mr. Ma was sitting in a wheelchair, but he rose to greet us. He was thin, his face sunken with age, yet he seemed filled with unusual energy and quickness of movement and speech, for someone nearing 100. Several hands pulled at my arms and shoulders, as competing voices quacked and rang and chirped in my ears, insisting I sit in the plastic chair across from Mr. Ma. A tiny paper cup of tea was thrust into my hand. I was startled when a string of firecrackers exploded outside, in celebration of the Qing Ming festival. Everyone put their hands to their ears. Smoke drifted into the courtyard, stinging my eyes and nose.
Mr. Ma was thin, his face sunken with age, yet he seemed filled with unusual energy and quickness of movement and speech, for someone nearing 100.
My translator, Fiona sat between Mr. Ma and me. Women of varying ages, from teens to middle years, gathered around us. The man spoke in an old Toishanese dialect, so Fiona, too, needed a translator; one of his young granddaughters stepped in. Half of the time everyone was chattering at once, eager to help, excited to meet a foreigner with ties to their village, however tenuous. Even Fiona seemed amused, overwhelmed, and deafened by the commotion. “It’s louder than the firecrackers,” I told her.
The group explained the reason for the crowd: today was Mr. Ma’s 99th birthday. They invited us to stay for the celebration after we finished our little talk. We politely declined, because I was unintentionally becoming the center of attention and I didn’t want to steal the spotlight.
Eager to let them get back to their party, we began telling the old man about my great-grandfather. I handed him a few photos and a copy of a letter my Uncle Roy once sent from Hong Kong to his father in El Paso; it was written in Chinese. After studying these items for several minutes, the old man let out a loud sound of surprise, echoed by everyone around us: “Hoh! Hoh! Hoh!” Mr. Ma recognized the characters of my Uncle Roy’s Chinese name, Ma Tsi Kaye. I was doubtful, because Roy had never been to Gong Hao. But the old man was adamant - not that he’d met my uncle, but rather, that he’d seen the name in the village’s book of Ma family ancestors, an entire book dedicated to the Ma family lineage.
We began telling the old man about my great-grandfather.
Relatives of the same surname tend to gather in one village. Not only was this a Ma village; as it turned out, everyone in this village was a Ma from my great-grandfather’s clan. Not close relatives, mind you, but relatives. All Roy had known was that his father was from Gong Hao, but Gong Hao comprised some eleven villages, seven of them Ma villages. It was through sheer luck that I had happened on the exact village of Ma Bing Sum!
Someone brought out a red book, filled with line after line of Ma family names, going back many generations. Yet Mr. Ma quickly found the page where Ma Bing Sum’s name was written. Ma means “horse.” Sum means “forest.” I’m not sure what Bing means, and Fiona didn’t know either. Under his name were the names of the three eldest of his four sons from his first marriage. Mr. Ma pointed out my uncle’s name, Ma Tsi Kaye: Uncle Roy’s father had named each son after one of the horses of Genghis Khan.
Someone brought out a red book, filled with line after line of Ma family names, going back many generations.
There was more: in his youth Mr. Ma had, indeed, met Ma Bing Sum. He explained that, although my great-grandfather had moved to El Paso, Texas, he had returned to Git Non once or twice. Old Mr. Ma was probably a teenager or young man at the time. He remembered that Ma Bing Sum had brought a son and two daughters with him, possibly his only children at the time. Most important, he remembered that Ma Bing Sum had a Mexican wife. This unusual fact clinched it: these were too many details to be coincidental. I felt moved close to tears. Why? For a man I never knew, whom my grandmother and father recalled with bitterness? I don’t know why. But a strong chord pulled at my stomach, where my belly button linked me to the past.
He remembered that Ma Bing Sum had a Mexican wife. This unusual fact clinched it: these were too many details to be coincidental.
I waited patiently through another lengthy exchange – it took several comical minutes to pass words from me, to Fiona, to the granddaughter, to Mr. Ma, and back again, often yielding an answer of just one halting sentence. Finally, Fiona turned to me excitedly and said that my family’s old house was just a few doors down, and this family was exhorting us to go see it. “Wow, this is a bonus!” Fiona said. I couldn’t agree more.
We arranged to come back and talk to Mr. Ma at greater length within the next couple of days. Before we left, I offered to take birthday photos of him with his family; while we’d been talking, more relatives had begun arriving from out of town. He insisted we take the photos in front of the ancestral hall. Mr. Ma put on a suit jacket and someone handed him a cane. Then he walked with slow dignity to the community building, just a few doors down. Fiona told him, “You still look handsome after so many years.” It was true.
Everyone gathered around him for several photos, and then asked me to join them for the final shot. It’s ridiculously easy to pick me out in the picture: some people think I look Chinese, but never in China.
Mr. Ma insisted we take the family photos in front of the ancestral hall. It's ridiculously easy to pick me out in the second picture.
After that, we walked down the path, past laundry hung on bamboo racks, and brick homes the color of soot, to see my ancestral home standing on the corner: one of the largest of the village’s few dozen buildings, the largest at the time it was built. Mr. Ma and his family had explained, “Your family was the richest family in the village.”
My ancestral home stood on the corner: one of the largest of the village’s few dozen buildings.
The wooden shutters of my great-grandfather’s two-and-a-half story house are now cracked and hanging askew, and the wooden double-doors of the main entrance lie hidden behind two padlocked metal doors. It wasn’t possible to go inside. The wife of our driver said she used to play inside the abandoned house as a girl, and she recalled that it was elegant. The exterior combined different styles popular in China and America in the early 1900's, with graceful European-style cornice work along the roof's edges.
The house combined styles popular in China and America in the early 1900's, with graceful European-style cornice work along the roof's edges.
The house stood near the front of the village, near the fish-stocked pond typical of Toishan. Next to the pond were several family vegetable gardens, planted with ridges of cabbage, carrots, coriander (cilantro), and more. The square rice paddies beyond went on for kilometers. All the village households huddled tightly together, for mutual protection and social unity. And they all faced one direction, more or less: toward the pond. In Feng Shui, water represents fortune, so the homes faced this good fortune to invite it in.
In Feng Shui, water represents fortune, so the homes faced this good fortune to invite it in.
At the front and back of the village stood altars to the ancient earth spirits that guard the village. People make offerings at these altars to keep the village safe and its crops bountiful.
At the front and back of the village stood altars to the ancient earth spirits that guard the village.
While we looked around, one of Mr. Ma’s female relatives brought us a plate of fried dumplings. “M’goi san,” I said. (Thank you.) But Fiona corrected me, “For a gift, you say ‘dou zhe.’” I giggled, repeated the new phrase, and added, “Hou hou mei.” (delicious.) The woman said she was impressed at my efforts to speak Chinese, though I was slightly embarrassed that I knew so little.
However, I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but truly welcomed by these people. Fiona explained that, because I was related to Ma people from this village, "to them you are like family." This idea pleased me no end. Perhaps that’s because when I was growing up my own family often left me to my own devices. Sometimes I felt like a foster child, passed from house to house. So perhaps I’m always searching for family, everywhere I roam.
(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Thursday, April 22, 2010)
March 28, 2008
Overseas Chinese Hotel
Bok Sa Town, Toishan County, Guangdong Province, China
In the town of Bok Sa, I'm not merely one of the few foreigners: I'm the only non-Chinese foreigner. As such, I've become an instant celebrity. Last night, our plump, smiling, short-haired, crooked-toothed waitress explained that many Overseas Chinese come here from America, but they all speak Chinese and they all look Chinese. That's why the people in this town keep staring at me, not quite as often as people stared the last time I came to China, but just as boldly and just as unsmilingly. I keep trying the advice I saw in a blog post; another traveler in China said a big smile would draw one in return. So, instead of looking away, or staring back with the same stony eyes, I smile. Nothing. They just keep staring.
Many Overseas Chinese come from America to stay at the Overseas Chinese Hotel, but they all speak Chinese and they all look Chinese.
On the other hand, when I arrived, the proprietors of the Overseas Chinese Hotel, Mr. Wong and Mrs. Ma, smiled and chattered, forward and friendly, as they tried to figure out how I might find the family of my great-grandfather, Ma Bing Sum. I tried to explain that I didn't expect to find his relatives, that I merely hoped to find his village, Gong Hao. Fiona translated their reply, "They are only used to people who come here to find their family." In my case, this seems impossible.
My great-grandfather once cried in front of his daughter Leila, when he read a newspaper from Toishan County and saw an obituary for his last surviving relative. He told her that's when he knew: there wasn't a soul left in China who knew him or was related to him. His only remaining ties to this planet are American. But I couldn't dissuade the relentlessly helpful Mr. Wong and Mrs. Ma, who continued staring at my old photo of Ma Bing Sum, as they talked about the many Ma people of Gong Hao. Ma is the primary family name in this area, although there are also plenty of Wongs and Liangs.
As we walked upstairs, a middle-aged Chinese man on the stairway overheard me speaking English, turned, and widened his eyes at my un-Chinese face. He remarked with surprise on my visiting this remote place.
"I'm here to find my family," he said.
"Me, too!" I said, pressing a hand to my chest.
"This is my first time ever coming back here," he said.
"Me, too!" I said again.
"My family name is Ma," he said.
I practically squealed, "Me, too!"
Two of his male relatives joined us on the landing, and we all began puzzling over the name Ma Bing Sum, a.k.a. Ben Mar. A tall, stoop-shouldered, balding man of 50 or so said that his grandfather was born in 1882. My great-grandfather was born in 1887. "Maybe they knew each other," I said, grinning. But the coincidences ended there.
The first man had just arrived the day before, but he was already leaving. "This is a very backwards town," he said. His tone and tipped brows told me to heed this warning and get out as soon as I failed to find whatever I was looking for. I felt a sinking in the pit of my stomach that hasn't left since.
The sight of our dismal rooms didn't make me feel much better. The stiff twin beds had mattresses so thin that I would feel every spring etching circular patterns into my back throughout the night. Mrs. Ma put on the pathetic bedding while we watched: a white hanky of a sheet and a flat little pillow. Not trusting the cleanliness or history of the sheets, I would sleep in my sleeping bag.
The stiff twin beds had mattresses so thin that I would feel every spring etching circular patterns into my back throughout the night.
Looking out my window at the impoverished streets of town, with the warning of the American Mr. Ma fresh in my ear, I conferred with Fiona about our planned six-night stay. We decided to pay for three nights, and decide later whether to stay or move on to Guangzhou. Still, I'm resigned to linger as long as I'm discovering anything new or interesting - if only about myself.
We went down to the dining room for lunch. The large room was hazy from the cigarettes of three men sitting at one table. Four women played mahjong at another. We sat near a window, as far as possible from the smoking men. The gold tablecloth was soiled, wrinkled, and riddled with holes. We waved away flies.
Our waitress brought tea, washing the cups at the table: rinsing them with the weak, pale, hot tea, before pouring some of the watery mixture into the cups for us to drink. Then she brought plates and chopstickes in a large metal bowl full of steaming water. She used tongs to turn the dishes in the water, and then set them on the table. Both washing procedures sloshed huge quantities of water onto the tablecloth.
When she brought our chicken, I was slightly taken aback by the decapitated, shriveled, boiled head, laid proudly at the proper end of the other body parts - announcing the freshness of our food. I tried to cover the head with parsley when Fiona wasn't looking, but she ate the parsley. There were little more than scrawny hints of meat clinging to mostly bone and skin, but the taste was fair. We also ate a delicious soup made with yellow flowers, though I politely avoided the chicken feet paddling around the bowl.
Bok Sa is the very definition of a backwater town.
After our meal, we wandered around town for an hour. Bok Sa is the very definition of a backwater town: with a barely-moving river, and small canals brackish, dead-looking, and scattered with garbage. I was charmed, though, by the incongruous sight of many buildings which, as Fiona put it, "are not Chinese." Not quite, anyway.
I was charmed by the incongruous sight of many buildings which, as Fiona put it, "are not Chinese."
Many of the buildings have elements of European architecture: Victorian shells atop piedmonts, Grecian columns, stained-glass windows, curling cornices. The Western styles were likely borrowed from America, who had borrowed them from Europe. These homes were built by Overseas Chinese to show off their wealth some 60 to 100 years ago. Today, they're broken, cracked, blackened, crumbled, and neglected.
These homes were built by Overseas Chinese to show off their wealth some 60 to 100 years ago.
Many of the broken-down showplaces now serve as shells for family shops, where poor merchants sell dusty goods of doubtful use. A few video arcades amuse young boys. Some places sell fruit: apples, grapes, oranges, mangoes, and tiny sweet bananas.
Some places sell fruit: apples, grapes, oranges, mangoes, and tiny sweet bananas.
On a dusty road next to the river, three vendors hovered over steaming cook-pots. Fiona asked what they were selling. The answer: "Dog stew." Fiona wasn't any keener on the idea than I. We saw many stray dogs sleeping or wandering the streets, and she speculated that maybe their brothers or sisters were now someone's dinner.
About the willow leaves, she said, "This is so their ancestors know the way to come home."
(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Tuesday, April 20, 2010)
March 26, 2008
I wanted a “hearty” breakfast. Fiona Zhu wasn’t familiar with that word, so I said, “I want to eat a meal that will make me feel full and make me strong… so I can walk all day.” She still seemed at a loss, possible because I also said I wanted to eat what locals eat. Finally, I mentioned jook, a rice porridge usually served with bits of meat and vegetables. I’d never eaten it before, but it was something my Uncle Roy had told me he remembered eating when he lived in China. Jook was something Fiona understood.
We found a tiny restaurant with no English-language menus or pictures, so Fiona picked all our dishes. She ordered jook with fish; I ordered mine with beef. We shared a plate of changfen: small, smooth rice-flour rolls with a texture like surimi, served with dipping sauces. We also shared a pyramid-shaped treat called zongzi, made of glutinous rice stuffed with filling and wrapped in bamboo leaves; this one was filled with pork and egg. I found the changfen and zongzi tasty. The jook tasted fairly nondescript, but I was excited to taste a dish from my uncle’s childhood.
When Uncle Roy and his brothers and sisters lived in China, at first they ate jook with meat and vegetables, because they were well-to-do by Chinese standards. When their fortunes waned and World War II reduced Hong Kong Chinese to living on rations, there was less and less meat and vegetables to put in the porridge, and soon, less and less rice, until the jook was mostly water. Although our breakfast was “heartier” than that, it was composed mainly of rice, rice, and rice, and I began to wonder where my nutrition was going to come from in China, how Chinese people survived, and how I was ever going to manage another bowel movement.
I wanted to try to guess the path Uncle Roy took when he was a boy: the day he was caught on the street when he heard the American bombers coming.
After breakfast, we hopped on a bus to the Star Ferry Terminal, so we could walk in the Tsim Sha Tsui district. I wanted to see a few of the old buildings from my uncle’s day, and try to guess the path he ran when he was a boy: the day he was caught on the street when he heard the American bombers flying toward Hong Kong.
The waterfront's old clock tower once marked the terminus of the old Kowloon-Canton Railway.
We wandered along Salisbury Road, starting at the Star Ferry terminal. There, we checked out the waterfront's 1921 clock tower, which once marked the terminus of the Kowloon-Canton Railway. The Greek-revival-style tower of red brick and granite still bore the scars of World War II: obvious patches where multiple holes from multiple bombings and strafings had been filled in with replacement cement, red clay, or putty. I was amazed it had survived.
The tower of red brick and granite still bore the scars of World War II.
Continuing along Salisbury Road, which once faced the water, but now faces the massive buildings along the waterfront, we stopped at the pale silvery-green grandeur of The Peninsula Hotel, once and still the finest hotel in Hong Kong. This hotel stood near Uncle Roy’s boyhood flat on Salisbury Road, and his flat on Nathan Road, two of several places where he and his family lived while trapped on Hong Kong Island during the Japanese occupation.
The Peninsula Hotel stood near Uncle Roy’s boyhood flat on Salisbury Road, one of several places where he and his family lived during the Japanese occupation.
It was in The Peninsula Hotel, in Room 336, that the British officially surrendered to the Japanese on Christmas Day, 1941. And, if I understand Roy’s story correctly, it was this same elegant hotel that my uncle ran past, as he tried desperately to make it home before the bombing raid arrived.
It was in The Peninsula Hotel, in Room 336, that the British officially surrendered to the Japanese on Christmas Day, 1941.
I think it was along Salisbury Road, just before he turned, that he saw the man hiding under a honeysuckle bush. “I loved the smell of those honeysuckle bushes,” Roy told me. But that day, he looked at the man and thought, “Are you crazy? That won’t protect you from a bomb,” as he continued to run for his life. I think he must have been about to turn left onto Nathan Road, when he heard a voice tell him, “No! Not that way! Take the alley.” As he turned down the alley, the bombs began to explode along the path he’d almost taken.
Young Roy made it to the flat, as the bombs continued to fall.
Today, Nathan Road is filled with the roar of double-decker buses, small taxis, and foreign tourists.
Today, Nathan Road is filled with the roar of double-decker buses, small taxis, and foreign tourists. None of the old four-, five-, and six-story residential buildings of my uncle’s era remain. Now there are shops. Now there is the glittering cesspit of the Chungking Mansions, where small flats serve as cramped backpacker hostels. Now there’s an old gray concrete tower of flats, with dripping air conditioner boxes, and pants hanging to dry outside smeared windows.
Uncle Roy’s Hong Kong is mostly gone, destroyed, not so much by the Japanese or Americans, as by time.
But not all of it. We found the old, steep, curving road up to Signal Hill, also known as Blackhead Point, where the 1907 signal tower still stood. The small Edwardian style tower looked like a cousin to the old clock tower below. This was where a metal ball used to drop every day, in sight of the ships, so navigators could check their chronometers. That was before they started using radio signals, before my uncle’s time. But the tower was here in his day, and now gave me a glimpse of the color and texture of his childhood.
This signal tower was where a metal ball used to drop every day, in sight of the ships, so navigators could check their chronometers.
Today, a small park surrounds the tower with pink flowers, scattered trees, and singing birds, a relatively peaceful place from which to view the east opening of Victoria Harbour. The noise of the traffic and tourist hordes is a distant roar. Nearby, a small pagoda-shaped pavilion provides a contrast to the English-style tower, while a distant high-rise dwarfs them both. Much of the city encompasses such visual contradictions.
After our excursion, Fiona and I wandered down a nearby side street, and found a nightclub called CD Bar, where they served Thai food by day. We grinned at each other and nodded. For dinner, I ate chicken satay with peanut sauce and steamed rice. Yet more white rice. Still no "hearty" fare. But if Uncle Roy could run for his life on a bowl of watery rice porridge, surely a few pieces of chicken on a stick would be enough to get me back to the bus stop.
(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Sunday, April 18, 2010)
March 26, 2008
Mong Kok, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Yesterday morning, Fiona Zhu and I ate breakfast at a noodle shop. I ordered rice noodles with pork in soup. I expected little bits of pork, and was disconcerted to see an entire chop in my bowl. It was tasty, although I could see why some people think Cantonese food bland compared to Szechuan or other, spicier regional cuisine. Our waitress also brought us a pile of steamed Chinese greens. The bitterness was a sweet reminder of childhood, when Chinese food with Gramma and Grampa at a small Cantonese restaurant in East LA was an almost weekly part of our lives.
At breakfast, Fiona told me she’d found a bus that would take us straight to the city of Toishan, come our third morning in China. The ride would take four hours. In Toishan City we would catch another bus to the town of Bok Sa to find lodging. From there, we would find transport to the nearby village of Gong Hao, where Fiona has discovered that the main family name is still Ma. I almost cried when she told me this. I have very distant relatives in that village. Strange, it never seemed important to me before.
Fiona and I ate breakfast at a noodle shop.
I told Fiona a little bit of my family history: how my great-grandfather Ma Bing Sum left China in 1908, how he married a 13-year-old Mexican girl in America and years later raped (or seduced) her 14-year-old sister (depending on who you ask), and how my grandmother was born to that second girl. I told her that my grandmother’s half-brothers and half-sisters moved to China to grow up with a Chinese education. My grandmother, who had not yet been told that her uncle was also her father, refused an invitation to go with his other children to China. The Mar children, as they were known in America, got stuck in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation in World War II.
Ma Bing Sum owned a Cantonese restaurant in El Paso, Texas, where he was known as Ben Mar. Later, after his first wife died in China, he married another Mexican woman. Together they had four more children. So he had at least 15 children, although he probably had more because, as I told Fiona, “he really liked a lot of women.” Ben was something of a scoundrel, who my side of the family never really liked. I told Fiona that I supposed it might seem strange that I would take an interest in him. My only explanation was, “Good or bad, he is my great-grandfather.” Her firm nod of understanding told me she knew exactly what I meant. Ancestors are important to Chinese people. Perhaps it would seem stranger to her if I was not interested in my family history, no matter what beasts and skeletons might lurk there.
Fiona told me that some of her information came from a man who lives in Toishan. He makes a living helping Overseas Chinese find their families in China. This makes sense, because most Chinese Americans can trace their origins to Toishan County.
After breakfast, we walked down Nathan Road to Victoria Harbour, at first walking about two kilometers in the wrong direction, before turning back, laughing. Luckily, she stopped to ask directions of two men, who seemed stunned that we planned to walk all the way to the waterfront. It was about a half-hour later before she told me that they’d told her it was about an hour walk to get there. No matter. Though I was exhausted, I was also too awake to return to my room. We could have taken a bus or subway, but I felt the need to move my limbs, however sore, after sitting so many hours on planes the day before.
We stopped often to sit down and rest.
We stopped often to sit down and rest: once, in a small sheltered spot next to a fountain where water spilled down uneven brick walls, another time, in a public square where men played Chinese chess, some of them surrounded by other men – curious, lackadaisical, placing bets.
We stopped in a public square where men played Chinese chess, some of them surrounded by other men – curious, lackadaisical, placing bets.
We stopped at a pastry shop, where I bought a sweet bun filled with cream and topped with blueberries. I also stopped to photograph construction workers climbing bamboo scaffolding alongside a building - an ironic sight in a city so modern, yet I’ve heard that bamboo is quite strong and perfect for the job.
Bamboo scaffolding: an ironic sight in a city so modern, yet I’ve heard that bamboo is quite strong and perfect for the job.
We took a long pause at the banyan trees in Tsim Sha Tsui. The tall, venerable, elderly gents with arthritic trunks and scraggly beards sat across from a bright white row of young shops. These types of trees were common here when my Uncle Roy lived in Kowloon as a boy, along with my grandmother’s other brothers and sisters.
The banyan trees were common here when my Uncle Roy lived in Kowloon as a boy, along with my grandmother’s other brothers and sisters.
When we reached the waterfront promenade, we strolled the Avenue of Stars. In an homage to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the sidewalk is paved with bronze-colored stars featuring the handprints and names of Chinese celebrities.
When we reached the waterfront promenade, we strolled the Avenue of Stars.
It was a depressingly foggy day, not an inch of blue in the sky, but the scene was still impressive: Hong Kong Island’s crowd of tall and immense buildings clustered across the blue green water that gently slapped the pilings below us. The IFC2 Tower of the International Finance Center rudely blocked a clear view to Victoria Peak. However, the sea air was refreshing, and I tried to explain to Fiona how much I appreciated these sights and sensations after being landlocked for so long in Colorado.
We walked on until we saw a Starbucks, where I gave in to the unremitting coolness of the day and invited Fiona to enjoy a warm drink with me in the outdoor seating area. I’d vowed not to do Starbucks in China, but I couldn’t even make it 24 hours without breaking down and ordering my usual grande non-fat three-pump chai.
Fiona had a cappuccino.
(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Saturday, April 17, 2010)
March 25, 2008
Anne Black Guest House/YWCA
Kowloon, Hong Kong
I have no idea what time it is, only that it’s still a dark time of morning and few cars are passing on the usually busy streets of Kowloon, eleven stories below. I feel a fragile safety in my tiny cocoon of a room, about 10-by-8 feet, with a shared bathroom across the hall. It’s much like a college dorm room: clean, tiny, sterile, with two small twin beds and a sink, behind an anonymous door at the beginning of a brief row of anonymous doors.
I’ve woken twice: once with the conviction that it was still the middle of the night and only jet lag had woken me - I was right - and again just half an hour ago, with the conviction that the dull orange glow drifting in through the blinds was the first hint of sunrise - I was wrong. It’s still dark outside, and that orange glow is the diffused light of halogen street lamps suffusing the invisible fog that hovers unseen over the darkened city of Hong Kong.
I feel a fragile safety in my tiny cocoon of a room.
Someone down the hall has a TV on, at a polite, murmuring volume; I heard it as I shuffled across the hallway to unlock the bathroom and pee. The bathroom is clean, with two toilet stalls and two shower stalls. Perhaps I’ll shower at the pre-crack of dawn, before anyone is likely to come in. I still retain some of the internal modesty of the only child, though I try to ignore it when it seems unnecessary.
I wish I hadn't let Fiona Zhu, my interpreter, leave last night before I went out to buy bottled water. I could have bought the water myself, but I was too exhausted to contemplate the possibility of a non-English transaction. So my mouth is dry and I’m thirsty.
Fiona met me at the airport. She’s a pretty, friendly, quietly laughing woman of about 32, with a slightly moon-shaped face and generous cheeks, framed by long dark hair. Her round head floats precariously above a slender body in jeans, a t-shirt, and a small backpack. When we met, she kept trying to help me with my duffle, but I consider her my interpreter, not my porter, and I politely but firmly told her not to worry about it. She has a degree in international finance, “but I’m not too good at finance,” she confessed, laughing. Her parents own a factory that makes industrial kitchen products, so she works in international trade, a related field. But she says she likes working as an interpreter, “to open my eyes to more,” and “to meet people I would not meet otherwise.”
Her English is good, but some words she dredges up slowly and hesitantly, sometimes using replacement words to fill gaps. When I told her that the temperature was below freezing when I left home, but that it was normally a bit warmer than that in March, she called the unusual cold snap an “accident.” “Yes, an accident, a little unusual,” I agreed. In any case, it’s warmer here, around 70 or so when I arrived after dark last night, and likely to be even warmer by day.
She asked if Hong Kong looked much different to me than it did when I was here nine years ago. “No,” I said. “Still bright, still busy, still crowded with people, still noisy.” We shared a laugh.
Hong Kong (Kowloon): “Still bright, still busy, still crowded with people, still noisy.”
On the bus from the airport we shared the biggest giggle when she told me she enjoyed reading my website and the story about my pole-dancing class. I covered my mouth in embarrassment. I told her I didn’t know what it was like in China, but 20 or 30 years ago “nice” girls weren’t supposed to do pole dancing, and now that had changed so that sometimes even old-fashioned housewives did it for fun. She laughed and reassured me that she knew this, on both counts.
When she asked how long I’ve lived in Denver (eight years, this time), I told her the many places I’ve lived: California, Colorado, Alaska, New Mexico, North Carolina, and back to Colorado. She seemed quite awed, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. But it doesn’t seem to have curbed her warmth.
To dissuade her from once again trying to carry my heavy duffle, I told her, “I lift weights,” and mimicked lifting two dumbbells to clarify.
“Sometimes. Not very often.”
“I think you can do anything,” she said earnestly.
“Yes, I can also become invisible and I can fly.”
We both laughed. But it’s not far from the truth. I’ve flown here, to the other side of the world, and I’m now invisible, on the 11th floor of this YWCA. I confess, I don’t want to leave this room.
I’m now invisible, on the 11th floor of this YWCA.
I don’t own a watch, and usually check my cell phone for the time. I didn’t bring it, knowing I don’t have international service and am unlikely to need it. But that means I have no convenient way to tell the time. The birds started singing a few minutes ago, then stopped; I see no hint of sunlight anywhere outside my window, so they must be mistaken. When I turned the TV on a half hour ago, an American news anchor was discussing the close of trading on Wall Street with someone on the floor of the NY Stock Exchange. So I guessed it to be about 5:00 a.m. here, but I have no idea.
I’ve always loved to travel, but at this moment I just wish I were home. I’m eager for this adventure, but equally eager for it to end, before it has even begun. What is happening to me?
(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Friday, April 16th, 2010)
March 23, 2008
United Flight 869
Somewhere over the Gulf of Alaska
I’m flying in a jet bound from San Francisco to Hong Kong, 30,000 feet above the Pacific, taking the same journey my great-grandfather took 100 years ago on that same ocean’s surface - in reverse. When he left Victoria Harbour for San Francisco in 1908, he couldn’t have guessed that one of his many descendants, a woman who never met him, would be able in the space of just 13 hours to retrace the trip that was about to take him more than a month. But he might not have been surprised, for everyone in Toisan had heard astonishing tales of unimaginable riches and unthinkable new ideas in the country they called Gold Mountain.
Ma Bing Sum journeyed for the reasons other men of 20 leave the lives they know and seek out foreign lands, and for the reasons other young men of Toisan did so at the turn of the last century despite American laws forbidding their entrance: to seek his fortune, or at least, to escape the poverty that was the lot of most people from the hilly, unforgiving lands of Toisan...if they failed to send a father or son to Gold Mountain. Perhaps he also went for the same reason people of 20 strap on backpacks today and head to exotic destinations: adventure.
Why I, of all people, should pursue the story of Ma Bing Sum...why I should be the one makes no sense at all.
Why I, of all people, should pursue his story – back to its source in the county of Toisan, in the district of Bok Sa, in the village of Gong Hao where the Ma family lived either nestled or trapped between hills and a manmade pond, between a grove of trees and rice paddies, between tradition and a need for the wealth that a new world can bring – why I should be the one makes no sense at all. To the children of his first wife, he seemed something of a slave-driver. To the children of his second wife, he was a kindly old man. To my grandmother, he was the father she never knew until it was too late for anything but anger. To me, he is a ghost who haunts the past of his long-secret daughter - my grandmother, the only mother I ever truly had - and who therefore haunts me. For we all inherit the wounds of our parents, one way or another.
To me, he is a ghost who haunts the past of my grandmother, and who therefore haunts me.
Yet much as I’ve hoped to find a sizeable ogre to give my historical novel a dark force, evil dragon, or demon king, I’ve only found what one always finds when one tries too hard to dig up a bad guy: instead a human being, evil and good, powerful and weak, handsome and ugly, brutal and compassionate. Like many descendants of immigrants, I carry within me the blood of despotic men and the women they conquered, the blood of scheming women and the men they ruined. Rapists and victims, deceivers and deceived, conquering races and conquered, the dark and the light.
I was not brought up in Chinese culture, and only those who wish to see can discern the one-eighth of Bing Sum that lives on in me, a century after he arrived in San Francisco and told the first of many lies that would play a role in shaping my life.
I was not brought up in Chinese culture, and only those who wish to see can discern the one-eighth of Bing Sum that lives on in me.
Some people say we cannot know where we’re going until we know where we come from. I claim no such lofty goal. I’m simply curious: about that long ago young Chinese man looking across the vast Pacific toward an invisible land, about a young Mexican girl who was not yet born, and about the one part of the world where people from two such oddly matched cultures could have hoped or dreaded to find each other: the Old American West, in its rapid push to become the New.
I don’t speak Chinese, so I’ve hired an interpreter, though I can ill afford it. I’ve been taking Mandarin classes and practicing with a computer program, but Mandarin is difficult and I only speak about as much as a toddler, perhaps less. Cantonese is the prevalent language of family life in southern China, but most young people know at least a little Mandarin, and I couldn’t find a Cantonese teacher. So my head is filled with the sing-song sounds of Mandarin words and phrases: some important, such as dui bu qi, (I’m sorry), others that I simply enjoy the sound of, such as piao liang, (beautiful). According to my Chinese friend Vicki, my pronunciation is about a 4 on a scale of 1 to 5, but she says, “Your tones need work,” which renders my pronunciation useless, as the tone of a word changes its meaning.
The tone of a word changes its meaning: I guess the same holds true in English, in its own way. If my grandmother or my father had been better able to reconcile with their pasts, perhaps the tones of their words to each other, or to me, would have been different…and mine to them. Perhaps we would have all led different lives.
If my grandmother or my father had been better able to reconcile with their pasts, perhaps the tones of their words would have been different.
But I’m not going on this trip to undo the past. I’m traveling to Toisan, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong to glimpse what I can of the remains of a time I never knew, trying to experience some flash of a shape or color, sound or smell that might once have captured the attention of Bing Sum, my great grandfather. If the soul lives on in our DNA, then perhaps it is he who wants to go back, and I’m only along for the ride. He did always sound like just the sort of wicked old ghost that would take possession of a woman’s body, if not her soul.
I’ll arrive in Hong Kong at about 5:45 tonight…that is, tomorrow. Flying into the future in search of the past: I suppose it would be wise to expect my curiosity to be rewarded by turning my whole point of view upside down, backwards, and reversed.
(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Friday, March 9th, 2012)
The night before Revolution Day, David, Patricia, and I took their mother to El Pistolero, “The Gunfighter," to celebrate her seventieth birthday. I suppose there was a certain revolutionary spirit in Carmela’s tossing back a beer in a bar with her son and daughter — an act of defiance against age, and time. We then spent the night in a motel with an old-fashioned wagon in the courtyard, and I thought, “So Mexico romanticizes its history, too.” We’d planned to go out for breakfast in the morning, but nothing in Nuevo Casas Grandes was open on El Día de la Revolución.
We’d stepped into a spaghetti western.
You see, 101 years ago, Francisco Madero ran for president against dictator Porfirio Diaz. But Diaz rigged the election and threw Madero in prison. Madero escaped to Texas, and on November 20, 1910, he called upon the Mexican people to revolt. On November 20, 2011, David declared, “My mom has to have her morning coffee!” So we stopped at a convenience store in Nuevo Casas Grandes to buy her coffee-to-go.
Casas Grandes was the site of one of the early battles of the revolution. About 100 people were killed, and federal forces defeated the rebels. These days in Nuevo (New) Casas Grandes you can buy individual, factory-made, plastic-packaged pumpkin empanadas, even on Revolution Day. I opted out. I just don’t like single-serving pies: American or Mexican. My stomach rumbled in revolt against a breakfast-free Sunday. One-hundred-one years ago, the whole country of Mexico rumbled in revolt against hungry Sundays-through-Saturdays.
The green-gold cottonwoods along the Casas Grandes River stretched into chill blue waking light. Wheaten desert grass cut a broad ribbon between low mountains. We turned onto a new road, a shock of shiny, zippy blacktop, to the village of Mata Ortiz: some 2000 people nestled before a comfy armchair of a mountain called El Indio.
We got out of the car at the smallest plaza I’ve ever seen, where Carmela plopped down on a bench as if she owned the joint. Patricia pointed down the dusty street, to a lone cowboy on horseback trotting our way. We’d stepped into a spaghetti western.
Warrior statues stood watch from a wooden fence.
The town consisted primarily of two long rows of homes, humble but not impoverished. A few abandoned adobe huts leaned here and there. But the other houses declared that this was an artist’s colony. A two-story home of cheerful yellow stucco winked at us with a blue door. Warrior statues stood watch from a wooden fence. One modern adobe home was smoothed, rounded, and painted an eye-aching blue that prompted me to say, “This reminds me of…” just as I spotted her name celebrated across the gateway arch: “Viva Frida Kahlo!"
The modern adobe home prompted me to say, “This reminds me of…” just as I spotted her name celebrated across an arch: “Viva Frida Kahlo!”
The adopted name of this town’s artisans adorned a metal plaque above most doorways: Ortiz. The village name, Mata Ortiz, had made me laugh the first time I’d seen it. I thought it meant “Kill Ortiz,” and the threat and humor implied made it seem a perfect hometown for my fictional Lopez family. So, in my historical novel, I’ve created a pueblo with a similar name. Patricia informed me that mata also means a "starting point" or "birthplace." Actually, Mata Ortiz was named for Juan Mata Ortiz, a local hero who won a battle against Apaches in 1880. But I like the idea of it being a birthplace — of the Mata Ortiz artists’ movement, which began with one boy in the 1970’s.
When Juan Quezada was twelve he quit school to help support his family. While gathering wood in the mountains, he found pottery shards left behind by the ancient Paquimé people. He taught himself to recreate their style, and added his own creativity – working with fingers and knives, and using cow manure to fire the pots. An American bought some pots to sell, and a few ended up in the hands of an anthropologist, who came to Mexico to find Juan and offered him a stipend to dedicate himself to his art. Juan has passed his ceramic skills on to his family, who have passed it on to their families and neighbors. Today, Mata Ortiz boasts some 400 artisans.
Juan Quezada taught himself to recreate their style, and added his own creativity.
All 400 of them still seemed asleep this quiet morning, except for a couple of guys brushing horses in backyards, and a miniscule but ferocious black mutt defending his front yard. When I strolled off to explore the town, Carmela admonished her daughter Patricia, “You go after her. I don’t want someone to take her!” As if an artist might emerge from the silence, kidnap me, and bake me in a kiln.
As Patricia and I walked down the street, a middle-aged woman stepped out of her house and sang in a three-note legato, “¿Quieren-ollas?” (You-want-pots?) We did. She let us in through the bedroom, past the unmade bed, to a tiny dining area. A table filled the room with pots vastly different from the classic red, white, and black designs I’d seen on the Mata Ortiz website. Her husband and son were the artists: a soft-spoken man and a teenager rubbing sleep from his eyes.
The father showed how he picked each divot into the clay with a small knife.
Their pieces were a unique blend of prehistoric and ultra-modern. Some were unfired, but most were shiny black, thanks to long firing times in the quemada, or kiln. All had tiny repetitive designs, and the father showed how he picked each divot into the clay with a small knife. The son made black pots that looked like a cross between metallic flying saucers and woven baskets. As an experienced haggler, I tried not to act too eager, but I knew I’d buy one. The son seemed startled by my interest. Perhaps most tourists come here to enter a prehistoric time-warp? If so, he’d taken a risk in making these. They were fantastic.
Perhaps most tourists come here to enter a prehistoric time-warp? If so, he’d taken a risk in making these.
Patricia and I said we’d look around first and come back. When we stepped outside, David and Carmela where in the car, creeping down the road, searching for us.
We didn’t know how to approach the next potter. Sure, there was probably one in every house, but was it proper to knock uninvited? We didn’t have to: twice more, women approached and asked that musical question, “¿Quiren-ollas?” and in we walked to a house or shop.
But my heart belonged to the alien black saucer basket. So I returned and bargained. Someone once told me a deal is good when both buyer and seller are smiling. The deal was good. If I’d bought the same piece in Santa Fe it would have cost much more, but then it wouldn’t have cost me a trip through the drug-war territory of Chihuahua, Mexico.
We then visited the village’s river, Río Palanganas, tributary of the Río Casas Grandes.
We then visited the village’s river, Río Palanganas, tributary of the Río Casas Grandes. Rivers play an important role in this desert and in my novel - offering both a means of survival and a perilous barrier to escape. This one was an algae-lined trickle. Falling in would be a mucky, chilly pain-in-the-ass, but not deadly. It was pretty: ducks lolling, water mirroring, trees arguing whether it was spring or fall.
Carmela marched ahead of us, up a grassy hill topped by a humble pair of Catholic shrines.
We crossed the main road to a grassy hill topped by a humble pair of Catholic shrines. Carmela marched ahead of us to the top. Spread below us, I saw the fictional pueblo and valley from my novel, almost as I’d dreamed them: an old painting of one of the final places of peace before war arrives. But Carmela saw something else: a mirage of the mountain village where her seven sons and daughters were born. “It’s just like Terrero,” she told Patricia, with a smile and a sigh.
Carmela saw a mirage of the mountain village where her seven sons and daughters were born. “It’s just like Terrero,” she told Patricia.
At the edge of town, people, horses, cars, and wagons began lining up to celebrate Revolution Day. We returned to watch a parade so short it brought nostalgic tears to my eyes — which makes no sense because I’m from Los Angeles. Cheerleaders performed gymnastics, and one boy flipped from the top of a pyramid and fell on his back, drawing a puzzling cheer from the spectators. Schoolchildren waved swirling ribbons. Donkeys and cars pulled wagons full of children wearing swirling skirts and magic-marker Zapatista mustaches. When a cartload of kids shouted, “¡Viva México!” I imagined them thinking “¡Viva Mata Ortiz!” a town proud of creating art from earth.
Donkeys and cars pulled wagons full of children wearing swirling skirts and magic-marker Zapatista mustaches.
The three-hour drive back to Juarez was uneventful. As we drew within some twenty kilometers of the city, Patricia pointed out the great white silhouette of a horse, painted high on a mountainside. It marked the ranch of a drug cartel. “To let us all know who’s boss.” She told me about the dead bodies the gangs often leave hanging under the city’s bridges for everyone to see. She said it filled her with coraje: rage.
One-hundred-one years after the Revolution, was it worth it? Marching in a parade to celebrate a war for freedom isn’t the same as being free. There’s a new war in Mexico, and for now the bad guys seem to be winning. Still, I brought home a lustrous black olla, and wherever people can create art - even art as dark as night - there’s still hope.
(The names of the modern people in this story have been changed for their safety, except Juan Quezada.)
David drove, and his mother Carmela rode shotgun, stiff-backed and silent - maybe because her son's CD of thumping, electronic Latin dance music was vibrating the compact car around her.
“This music doesn’t bother your mother?” I asked Patricia, who sat with me in back.
“No, my mom doesn’t mind at all.”
“It would drive mine up the wall,” I said. I didn’t mention that it was doing that to me. It was nice of David to drive, and I thought it would seem ungrateful to complain. I tried to tune out the music.
The Chihuahua desert was as stark as I’ve described it in the novel I'm writing.
Studying the scenery didn’t help. The Chihuahua desert was as stark as I’ve described it in the novel I'm writing: creosote, sand, mesquite, sand, yucca, and sand... miles of prickly drab, topped by cirrostratus-whipped sky. The distant hills struggled to look mountainous, as if the desert wanted to rise to more than it was: a place not to get caught on foot without water.
I'm sending my fictional Lopez family across this forbidding terrain as they flee the Mexican Revolution. The repetitive landscape might tempt anyone to revolution, even if it would change nothing. Death might seem change enough.
I had feared meeting robbers on the highway.
I had feared meeting robbers on the highway. But they would die of boredom waiting for an American like me to come along with payoff-money in her backpack. Even Mexicans were scarce on that lonely road.
We stopped at a short lineup of faded businesses – the only notable crossroads between Juarez and Ascensión – to eat at an unremarkable café. During the previous day’s long drive to her daughter Sara’s house, Carmela had sighed, “I’m bored.” So now, as we unfolded from the car, I asked her, “Are you bored?”
“Yes.” She laughed.
Inside, we ordered burritos. Mine tasted too salty.
“How is it?” David asked.
“Pretty good,” I lied.
He looked skeptical. “It’s a little too salty,” he said.
The frankness of David and his mother made me wonder whether all these years that I’ve thought of my Mexican grandmother as a complainer, I might have been misinterpreting a culture gap. Dare I suggest that the desert might breed a culture of complaint?
After lunch, we drove to the nearby military checkpoint, where half a dozen young men in khakis manned a small shack. Such checkpoints have been around since long before Mexico’s drug war. I wondered if there were soldiers posted at this very spot during the Revolution, which had officially started the next day 101 years ago. A soldado asked David to open the trunk, but didn’t look inside our bags. Maybe a baby-faced driver, rocky-faced grandmother, and two petite middle-aged women signaled little threat. I imagined a dangerous but lucrative life as an angel-faced arms smuggler.
We passed fields of twiggy bushes dotted with sloppy tufts of cotton.
A couple of hours later, we passed fields of twiggy bushes dotted with sloppy tufts of cotton. A truck passed, cotton bolls pressed against its wood slats, trying to escape. We’d reached Ascensión, the farming town I’ve adopted for a scene in my novel where one character gets beaten and nearly shot. The real Ascensión grabbed my attention in 2010, when hundreds of village vigilantes attacked and killed two teens suspected in a rash of kidnappings. But when we arrived, the town looked too drowsy to kill anyone.
The real Ascensión looked too drowsy to kill anyone.
In the plaza, whitewashed trees rose from just enough trampled grass to keep the dirt from flying away. Men leaned over shoeshine kits and candied apples. Aging cowboys tended to Saturday’s hard work of sitting silent or muttering. A barber in an apron leaned against his shop, waiting for customers or nothing. The silence traveled out to the fields and across the desert, where there was no one to hear it.
The labyrinth of adobe ruins gave the nearby city its name: Casas Grandes, or “Big Houses.”
Another hour of driving took us through the city of Casas Grandes, and onward to the labyrinth of adobe ruins for which the city was named: Casas Grandes means “Great Houses.” Its Indian name is Paquimé, a settlement that thrived from about the tenth century to the fourteenth century. It was one of several large communities built by Anasazi-type people, the “Ancient Ones" usually associated with the American Southwest.
Paquimé may once have formed part of a symbolic circuit. I’ve been to Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, and Chaco Culture, the major Anasazi ruins of Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico: North, West, and East. Paquimé lies to the South. On maps, the four ruins form a cross, perhaps marking the four directions so important to ancient farmers. I felt as if I were completing the last leg of a quest.
Paquimé’s ruins looked melted instead of toppled.
The main difference at this fourth site was that the buildings were made with poured adobe, while those at the other sites were made of stacked rock. So Paquimé’s ruins looked melted instead of toppled. It’s apartment complexes undulated in waves of pale, rose-tinted clay flowing against the warm blue afternoon. They rose higher in the center than at the edges. This earth goddess was returning home: head high, shoulders defeated, hands crawling back into her mother.
Some of the rooms had eroded down to just three feet high. “I picture teeny tiny people living here,” I joked.
“They probably were tiny.” Patricia didn’t laugh – maybe because she’s four-foot-eleven.
In the burial chamber, dividers delineated even smaller compartments where bodies were bundled into fetal positions for their return to the earth.
In the burial chamber, bodies were bundled into fetal positions for their return to the earth.
The Paquimé people might have descended from nomadic tribes who originally traveled across the Bering Sea Land Bridge from Asia during the last ice age. Yet they weren’t nomads themselves, but farmers who lived off the same land for generations. Their ghost town was quieter than Ascensión. Still, I imagined a bustling community: children playing, women hauling water, men working the fields, elders and priests arguing about politics and religion, athletes playing ancient soccer on the rectangular field — a symbolic game of life versus death.
We couldn’t see the river, just its strip of cottonwoods and other trees turning gold-green with the slow turning of desert seasons.
The ruins stood near the Rio Casas Grandes, the river my fictional family follows on their journey. As they prepare to cross the water, they see soldiers at Paquimé. We couldn’t see the river, just its strip of cottonwoods and other trees turning gold-green with the slow turning of desert seasons.
The Revolution left its mark at Paquimé, on a pile of earth called the Mound of the Heroes. That’s where revolutionary forces buried their dead after the Battle of Casas Grandes in 1911. Carmela sat on the steps to rest, even though it wasn’t allowed. When I saw her coppery Indian face atop the mound, I felt that maybe she was a descendant and had a right to be there.
The dead were still there, lying beneath her, their complaints silenced long ago.
(The names of the people in this story have been changed for their safety.)
(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Thursday, January 12th, 2012)
Around noon, an aging sedan rolled up. A skinny, baby-eyed girl-woman got out, stepped up to the courtyard gate, and gave me a puzzled smile through the bars. She had long, metallic-red hair, mod side-bangs, and fluffy white ankle boots.
“Sara?” I asked.
She widened her eyes, as if shocked at the very thought. “Anita.”
“Un momento.” I rushed toward the house to find someone to unlock the gate.
Anita is Sara’s daughter, a twenty-year-old student at the University of Ciudad Juárez. She had arrived to take her Aunt Patricia, Grandmother Carmela, and me to her mom’s house, a forty-minute drive through the gauntlet of Juárez.
Once-upon-a-time, with Americans crossing the border to shop for novelties and bargains, Juárez used to be a great place for entrepreneurs.
We first drove through the busy old streets of el centro, or downtown. Tiny businesses crowded cheek-to-cheek sold clothes, food, electronics, repairs, and more. It seemed half the shops were vacant. El centro was starting a fast, runny, crumbly slide into decay. Patricia and Anita discussed why so many shops were boarded up or abandoned: the owners couldn’t afford monthly extortion payments to the cartels.
“It’s such a waste,” Patricia said, “since Juárez is a perfect place for a small-business person to flourish.” With Mexicans coming to Juárez to work in American and other foreign factories, and once-upon-a-time, with Americans crossing the border to shop for novelties and bargains, it used to be a great place for entrepreneurs. Now it’s a horror. “The same thing happened in America in the 1920s,” Patricia said, comparing the cartels’ stranglehold on Juárez to the power the mobs had in Chicago and New York during Prohibition.
Anita’s oversized eyes grew rounder as the car crawled through the narrow streets. I wondered why she looked so scared. Surely this street full of people wouldn’t erupt into gunfire on a sunny Friday afternoon. Would it?
She visibly relaxed when we reached the broad Avenida 16 de Septiembre. The thoroughfare passed under the main bridge to El Paso, then changed names about four times along its extensive length. The avenue was lined with so many modern restaurants, car dealerships, big box stores, and warehouses that it felt as if we were passing through the shopping districts of multiple American suburbs. “Juárez is so big,” Patricia said. “Juárez is huge,” I echoed.
The long, sleepy drive took us to an apartment-size, two-bedroom home, huddled behind another locked gate. Patricia’s sister, Sara, greeted us with a broad smile and open arms. The friendly, chubby, unassuming woman kissed my cheek, then insisted that Carmela and I rest on the couch, while her seven-year-old daughter Sylvia and little cousin Eladio played underfoot. Sara and Patricia refused my offer to help prepare lunch, and I didn’t insist, because the kitchen was so tiny that the two sisters kept running into each other. Two couches and a dining table lined a shotgun room where I had to uncross my legs to let people pass, and the table had to be pulled away from the wall so we could eat together. Even then, we ate in shifts, because Patricia's brother David and a friend joined us, making nine for lunch.
Instead of the tight quarters getting on everyone’s nerves, it seemed to only increase their closeness. Chatter and laughter warmed every nook and cranny. I’d spent plenty of time over the years with my own Mexican cousins from large Catholic families, so the chaos felt more or less normal.
Sara was very attentive to all of us, but grew shy at any hint of attention to her. Still, when I praised her fantastic pork chile colorado, she confided with a chef’s pride the secret to her tangy red sauce: orange juice. For dessert she'd baked a moist carrot cake balanced with a light, pleasing coconut frosting.
My greatest pleasure was watching and listening to the two children, maybe because this required only rudimentary Spanish. Like her mother, the beribboned Sylvia was smiling and quiet, though not too shy to show off her swimming awards. Eladio recited his long list of physical injuries, real and imagined. The real one was a bruise under his eye, which he insisted Sylvia had given him. Everyone laughed at this fib. They’d seen what had really happened, though I couldn’t understand what that was. No one seemed to mind when Eladio bounced a tiny ball in the house, so I bounced it back to him. He missed and it bonked him on the nose, sending everyone into gales of laughter – another injury for his list. Though the kids played hide-and-seek and giggled like kids everywhere, when it was time to go they seemed exceptionally disposed to hug and kiss the new person in their midst.
Toward evening, Anita’s and Sylvia’s dad stopped by for an hour to cuddle and talk with his daughters. Patricia explained that he doesn’t live with them, though he and Sara are not divorced.
As the sun lowered outside, Sara asked me, “Are you scared to be in Juárez?” I said that I’d traveled to dangerous places before and that I tried not to dwell on it. I explained that I felt safe with Patricia and her family, since I trusted my friend not to take me anyplace too dangerous. At this, I shot Patricia a warning glance, making everyone laugh again.
Sara drove us back to Carmela’s house at twilight, and her daughters came along. When we arrived it was seven o'clock and night was falling. I wondered why they risked driving after dark in this city under siege.
Maybe fear becomes so exhausting after a while that it turns into a giggling nervousness, or foolish fearlessness, or numbness through which an inner voice occasionally calls out: “Hey! You could die any moment!” Does everyone answer that voice the same way I do? “Yes, but I have a feeling it won’t be today.”
(The names of the people in this story have been changed for their safety.)
(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Wednesday, January 4th, 2012)
I woke to the safe sounds of a gas burner igniting, a pan shifting, an egg sizzling. It was only then that a rooster started crowing somewhere in Colonia del Carmen. Perhaps he sets his clock by Carmela. I lingered in bed, until I heard Carmela and her daughter Patricia muttering in Spanish and figured it must be time to come out of hiding. I had no clear idea of the hour. My cell phone is my usual watch and I hadn’t brought it, unwilling to pay roaming charges in Mexico, or to risk having it stolen on the desperate streets of Juárez.
The pan dulce was a soft, airy, lightly sweet reminder of my L.A. childhood.
When I emerged it was 7:30 and Carmela was hanging laundry in the chilly morning shadows of the courtyard. Every day she washes dozens of towels and smocks for her son Diego’s hairdressing shop. She then made us a delicious herbal tea from canela (cinnamon) and flor de azahar (orange blossom).
“Good for calming the nerves,” she said, “para la tranquilidad.”
“I need that,” I teased. “I have an energetic personality.”
She smiled and offered her sincere hope that her tea would help.
For breakfast we ate fried beef, flour tortillas, and pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread). The pan dulce was a soft, airy, lightly sweet reminder of my L.A. childhood. My grandmother grew up in El Paso and L.A. Her mother, Altagracia, was born in Chihuahua: Mexico’s largest state. No one knows which town, but she must have passed through Juárez to get to El Paso, Texas – where she lived most of her short life. Perhaps the tastes I learned at my grandmother’s knee in Los Angeles – pan dulce, cosido, sopa, chorizo, menudo - are the tastes of El Paso, which are, in great part, the tastes of Chihuahua.
Could I be a reincarnation of Altagracia? I carry some of her DNA, so part of her does live on in me. Maybe that DNA called to her, and she, in turn, called me to Chihuahua.
Patricia had planned to get her hair done at her brother’s shop, but changed her mind, because he was busy with customers preparing for the Revolution Day weekend. I asked her if Diego is forced to pay extortion to drug cartels, like other business owners in Juárez. She said that he would never tell the family if he were, because he wouldn’t want to worry them. But the beauty shop next to his has been extorted, as has a neighboring convenience store.
When sunshine split the courtyard in two, I drifted outside to sit on the stoop and write. Carmela’s skittish dogs lazed nearby in squares of warmth. I never did get any writing done, not because of the dogs, but because of my friends’ hospitality. I had barely gathered my thoughts, when Patricia emerged with cushions for me to sit on. I hadn’t written more than a few words, before she returned with a glass of water. I had finished maybe a sentence, when Carmela came out and asked about my writing.
I had mistaken it for just another of Mexico’s abandoned businesses, until Carmela told me the story.
I became grateful for the interruptions, when Patricia came back to suggest I take a photo of a crumbling building nearby. I had mistaken it for just another of Mexico’s abandoned businesses. Then Carmela told me the story:
The tree grew so close to the center, and provided so little cover, that I kept pointing and repeating: “This tree?”
A year earlier, the building had been a rehabilitation center for drug addicts and alcoholics. Then, on Sunday night, December 5, 2010, cartel gunmen – I don’t know how many – stood at a nearby tree and opened fire on the Alcance Victoria Centro de Rehabilitación. The tree grew so close to the rehab center, and provided so little cover, that I kept pointing and repeating:
“Yes, this tree.”
Those guys must have had some cajones.
“You can still see the bullet holes,” Patricia said.
“You can still see the bullet holes,” Patricia said. Damn straight. The gouges were huge. Closer inspection revealed shattered glass below the vacant windows. Inside, below a wall painted with the words "Casa de Oración" (House of Prayer), lay a shambles of drywall, plaster, glass, and abandoned odds and ends. The center remains closed. “Everyone is too scared to return,” Carmela said.
The rehab center remains closed. “Everyone is too scared to return,” Carmela said.
The night it happened, Carmela heard the gunfire, but didn’t know what it was. She thought her daughter Sara had come to visit and was pounding on the door, just to be silly. But when she opened the door, no one was there. She walked to her fence and saw smoke rising from the rehab center. She crouched down and hurried inside, not returning outside until ambulances arrived.
One man was killed, eight people injured. That same night, gunmen hit another rehab center across town, shooting three more men to death.
Cartels have attacked many rehab centers in Juárez, and throughout Mexico, hunting for rival gang members who might be hiding out or recruiting among the easy pickings. If they've killed innocent bystanders in the process, perhaps the gangsters view that as a warning: it’s not good for their bottom line if customers quit buying their products, and it boosts their sense of power to keep everyone frightened.
“The little girl who lives next door to my mom is still terrified,” Patricia said. “She also had a shooting at her school. Pobrecita (poor little thing). She jumps every time she hears a loud noise.” Patricia's mother cried for weeks. “Can you imagine an old lady going through that?”
As I bent to photograph the lone yellow flower growing in the rubble-filled lot, I imagined someone driving by and shooting me.
As I bent to photograph the lone yellow flower growing in the rubble-filled lot, I imagined someone driving by and shooting me. Unlikely, yes, but not unfounded. Dozens of Mexican journalists who've dared to publish stories about cartel atrocities have been killed, kidnapped, or threatened.
Back in Carmela’s courtyard, my eyes followed Patricia’s pointing finger to a mountain just a few miles away. “That’s El Paso, right there.” There’s a war in Carmela’s backyard… in America’s backyard. At that moment, it seemed too close to home – for all of us.
(The names of the people in this story have been changed for their safety.)