Category Archives: Nuevo Laredo

A big loan from the girl zone

FOUR more days. Ha! I´ve been having a difficult time learning to live in the moment and enjoy what little time I have left here. I still have some stuff I need to finish up (I´m pretty sure I´m going to spend all day tomorrow editing video). If nothing else, it feels good to acknowledge my eagerness-frustration.

I spent this last week visiting the branch offices in two other border cities on the Texas-Mexican border, Acuña and Piedras Negras. They were both fairly run down and a little depressing, which is to be expected of two places that have been pretty badly hit by the economic recession. Advice to Countries and Governments: DON´T sign trade agreements that will have your country´s economy completely tied up and dependent on the U.S. Bad things will happen.

What was really awesome about the visit, though, was getting to spend time with the all-female staff in both branch office. On top of working the normal 12 hour workday that seems to be standard for microfinace, most of them are single mothers. One of the managers commented that when putting notices in the paper advertising open positions at the office, she´d considered putting ¨single mothers only.¨ ¨When you have no one to depend on but yourself,¨ she said, ¨you know what it is to work hard.¨

I was completely unprepared for how healing and nurturing and lovely and wonderful and other positive adjectives it would be to spend time in an office with only female staff. It really made me feel how microfinance can be an effective way of forming communities. It makes me want to write cheesy, overwrought metaphors, like ¨I felt my heart being enveloped in a healing white ball of light.¨and so on. It was, as Tori Amos once sang, ¨a big loan from the girl zone.¨ The positive energy and sense of solidarity and support in the office was very empowering. Today when I left, one of the loan officers gave me a jacket she´d never worn because it didn´t fit her, and told me that I had an angel looking after me. I went for WEEKS suffering in the rain and the cold of Nuevo Laredo (what can I say, I didn´t pack for the cold weather because I was expecting to be in a desert!) with nothing more than my steadfast green hoodie I´ve owned since summer 2006, way back when I swiped it from a former housemate, the bitchy one who was dating the guy that got fired from Modest Mouse. My green hoodie, while steadfast, wasn´t much for protecting me from the chilly winds, but I stubbornly persisted over the weeks without buying a proper winter coat, much to the surprise and wonder of many people in the office. I think somewhere in the back of my mind, I believed that when the time was right, a winter coat would present itself to me, and that I didn´t need to go looking for one, it would find me. And it did.

New jacket, female Piedras Negras staff and FVP director

Just one of the ways in which my visit was a gift, I guess. Another one was this certitude: from now on, when anyone asks me what my political beliefs are, I´m going to say ¨radicaly, hardcore, scary feminism,¨ unequivocally, without heisitation. And let them figure it out from there, if they want.

Some other things:

—-I watched Todd Haynes´ Bob Dylan biopic I´m Not There on Mexican cable last night alone in my big ole hotel room and I really, really loved it, especially the music. Since getting back to Nuevo Laredo today I´ve been listening to Bob Dylan all afternoon. The movie reminded me a lot of the concept behind Tori´s American Doll Posse and some of the things I´ve been preoccupied about this year, the idea of having a firmly-established ¨self¨ or identity that was already completely formed and resting somewhere already inside of me, and that the decisions I make and paths I choose need to act as a form of chipping away the surrounding layers, in an attempt to somehow reach this perfectly formed self, in order to become it. Well… I don´t believe that anymore. I think that we all have wisdom inside of us, yes, but I don´t think we´re ever perfect or completely, wholly put together. I think we all go through life fragmented. But ultimately having a changing, constantly shifting self can be a GOOD thing. Terrifying, yes–but also good! Or as the last lines in the movie (spoken by Richard Gere, of all people) put it:

“People are always talking about freedom, the freedom to live a certain way without being kicked around. ‘Course the more you live a certain way the less it feels like freedom. Me? I can change during the course of a day. When I wake I’m one person, when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else. I don’t know who I am most of the time. It’s like you got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room. There’s no telling what can happen.”

(Apparently this line is based on a Dylan interview in Newsweek in which he says, “I don’t think I’m tangible to myself. I mean, I think one thing today and I think another thing tomorrow. I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else. I don’t know who I am most of the time. It doesn’t even matter to me.¨ Food for thought.)

—-I´ve been daydreaming a lot about Alaska recently. I don´t really know why. I think in the back of my head, I feel like it could be a potential option, to head there for three to six weeks in the summer and work 14 hours a day and make back all the money I´ve spent working for free for Kiva. It probably won´t happen, but it´s one of those potential paths (one of many) that I like to think about. Thinking about paths and options and choices is what keeps me going. As my mother once told me (very wise advice), ¨you gotta create options for yourself!¨ 2010 is gonna be a good year.

—-I almost never read the newsletters that get sent out for the yoga class mailings lists that I´m signed up for, but for whatever reason I read the most recent one I received and it really struck a chord with me, especially when thinking about the winter and changing seasons and what the past two months have been like and the lessons I´ve learned and impermenance:

For me, the last year has been a roller coaster ride of amazing blessings and tremendous challenges. As a result of all the ups and downs, I found myself losing my sense of grounding and connection with my teaching and my own yoga practice (yes it happens to yoga teachers!)—hence my perceived inability to write anything I deemed worthy. As my frustration grew, my inner voice turned toward demands, criticisms, and expectations, driving a deeper wedge between myself, my mat, and most importantly, my inner wisdom and teacher.

Most of you have had this very same experience within your personal practice. Much like the natural world surrounding us we experience waxing and waning, periods of dormancy and activity. Life is fluid, impermanence is the only thing that remains as a constant. The seasons change, the earth moves through its rhythms and cycles of birth and death, from big losses and gains to small, seemingly insignificant ones occurring again and again on a daily basis. We shed emotions and evolve into new spaces and places in our lives. This time of year especially, since it is a time of beginnings and closings, can feel like a heavy burden. We can feel wrenched away from those things in our life that provide stability and safety. So much backward and forward thinking can cause us to lose track of the very moment we exist in and as a result we end up feeling run down, depleted, and out of balance. All we can do in moments like these is be with what is, to let go of any need to change our present experience and instead practice radical loving acceptance of whom we are and where we are this minute, week, month, or year. To do this we must take the time to reassess our needs moment by moment and remind ourselves to nurture the lines of communication between our emotional and physical selves. Sometimes it feels like what we give out is not adequately restored by what we bring in. In these times, pause and have patience to listen to what is being asked for intuitively, because it is only through our own mindfulness that we continue to be effective in our relationships with others and ourselves.

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Filed under Mexico, Nuevo Laredo, quotes

Practicing mindfulness, Henry James-style

I have nine—eight—seven days left here. Is it bad for me to be counting them down? I know I’ll miss Mexico when I’m gone, the same way I miss every place I leave. It’s a bad habit of mine, wanting to be somewhere else so badly that it interferes with my enjoyment of the present moment, of where I am currently. (Man, does that sound like a problem of mankind or what? The inability to appreciate and remain in the present time and place!) I’ll miss the street food, especially the amazing sopes I ate at that random cart with my Uruguayan friend by the park this Sunday. I’ll miss the karaoke bar with the giant hat in front, and the man in the sombrero walking around at 2AM pouring tequila out of a leather flask down the throats of anyone who opened their mouths.

I don’t know what lesson to take away of my time here. I don’t want it to be one of defeat. I wish I were able to say that I learned something, that a moral, a truth I’d always desperately been seeking had been announced loud and clear. It definitely wasn’t WOWZERS!! Microfinance really and truly is the solution to all of the world’s problems, especially global poverty!! (To be fair, I didn’t come here expecting to see this.) I was thinking of something finding something along the lines of, OH! Yes, this kind of work, development work, this is really the kind for me!! Or: WOW! I’ve thought of a really great idea for a future masters thesis, thanks to my field research here! Neither of these two statements are completely true… but I can’t say that they’re total lies, either.

I guess I thought that coming to Mexico again would bring about some kind of closure for me. I have a big thing for retracing my past steps, in the hopes that lessons I missed the first time around will reveal themselves more clearly. I was last here in 2007, during a summer job in Tijuana, and it was really, really, really good experience, to say the least. I healed a broken heart, made amazing friends and learned a ton. I’ve done the same here (minus the broken heart bit—strengthened it, you could say), but it hasn’t felt as intense. I dunno how much that has to do with being 24 as opposed to 21. Mostly, this time around I feel like I’ve had to deal with MYSELF a lot, which is maybe an inevitable consequence of living alone in a country where you really don’t know anyone. I mean, I made friends, I hung out with people—I am going to let myself be proud of myself for the relationships I’ve established in this community, dammit. I came here wanting to be immersed in the feeling that I had come full circle. It didn’t exactly happen that way, of course, because life never happens the way you want it to. It could have been better. But it also could have been a lot worse.

Wow, I sound really ambivalent, don’t I? I guess that’s a result of the counting-down-the-days feeling I’ve been mired in since Corey left. I’ve been left wanting to kill time so bad. I wanted to chop it up with an axe, just have it over, done with, so that I could move on to the next step. I always get this itchy feet feeling whenever the 10-week mark of being in a new place creeps around. It’s not that things are bad here, it’s just that I really, really miss my family, and I’m very, very ready to be in Portland with them (if only for a limited time). I also am very anxious to be with Corey, to really commit to this relationship and to being together, like definitively together in a very grown-up way—I was already pretty sure about this before coming here, and now it’s the one thing I can say I’m DEFINITELY sure about. So, I guess if nothing else, that’s one definitive, horn-blaringly loud truth that I’ve learned. One is better than none, right? I love the idea of him coming with me on my next placement with Kiva (which is no longer in Ecuador, by the way. I’m not at liberty to say where just yet, but trust me: I’m more than pleased. It makes perfect, ridiculous sense for me to be there, in more ways than one).

I guess I’m trying to extract some hard-earned wisdom here at the last minute, during the eve of my last week. Um. What else will I miss about Nuevo Laredo? The street cats I’ve come to recognize from my block (the black one, the calico one, the five kittens, one of whom I found dead on the street a few weeks ago). Estacion Palabra and the shelves full of comforting books I’ve come to memorize, scanning the rows every weekend. The bar decorated with frog images, where you can order six Coronas in a bucket of ice. Mini Super JIT, my local grocery store and local provider of weekly 6-packs of Miller Lite, where I still have an outstanding “cuenta” of 10.50 pesos when I bought a box of Special K cereal and didn’t have enough change with me. The grilled elote (corn) you can buy on any street corner. People’s gardens and the things they grow: cactuses, agave, orange trees, yellow trumpet-shaped flowers (Corey spotted a lot of interesting nut trees while he was here, always fun to walk around the neighborhood with a botanist). The sunflowers that suddenly appeared out of nowhere on an abandoned empty lot near my house, the sight of which nearly brought tears to my eyes when I glimpsed them from a car window (NATURE!!). The mockingbirds that explode into a cacophony of hoots and calls like clockwork every sunset, darkening the sky above the street plazas as they fly from tree to tree. The Christmas lights hanging over the cement walls in front of people’s houses. My $120/month apartment with its two rooms, the toilet that always smells, the floor tile I use to cover the pan when I’m boiling rice, the fruit flies that somehow succeed in thriving in my papayas in the fridge (OK… maybe this not so much).

Relics from Nuevo Laredo: James, pepper spray, Miller Lite, flowers from the street

I wanted to write “these past few weeks have been as hard as reading a Henry James novel” but that’s not really true. Ha. I’ve been reading “Wings of the Dove” and it is, as they say, slow going. I’ll be slogging through a murk and mess of run-on sentences and obscure references with no idea of what’s going on when suddenly a flash of insight and wisdom occurs, in a beautifully written sentence that just makes sense, and it feels so beautiful in contrast to all the murkiness and confusion that come before. Hey, sounds a lot like human consciousness, right? No wonder this novel was referred to with regularity in David Lodge’s Thinks, a great book that deals with the question of consciousness, among other things.

“Consciousness” is one of the most common words in this book. I wonder if it’s used almost as much as “solitude” in “Cien Anos de Soledad” (my high school Spanish teacher claimed that “soledad” appeared at least once on every page of the novel, I’ve never actually confirmed this). It’s… difficult. But rewarding. Henry James is another author who’s difficult to recommend. The director at my MFI (microfinance institution) saw WOTD on my desk, picked it up and asked me if it was good. All I could say was “um…” not wanting to be blamed in case he bought a copy in translation, read a page and then stared into space wondering what possessed him to listen to the advice of the scraggly haired American. (He’s a great guy, by the way, and is a big reader himself—during our first conversation we talked for ages about books and authors and and and oh, it was wonderful!) As an experiment, back in Portland when I had Dove checked out from the library but never got around to reading it (I probably still have a late fine to pay on it, boo!), I had my housemate read a page. I think he probably made it through the first sentence before throwing it on the floor and shouting “WHAT THE BLEEP IS THIS BLEEP.” yeah. I mean, just look at the opening sentences:

“She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him. It was at this point, however, that she remained; changing her place, moving from the shabby sofa to the armchair upholstered in a glazed cloth that gave at once—she had tried it—the sense of the slippery and of the sticky.”

The slippery and the sticky. I love it. One of the main characters in David Lodge’s Thinks does a great analysis of this passage, in which she discusses how these opening sentences are a wonderful example of James’ stream of consciousness technique: there’s no omniscient narrator, hovering above and letting us know what is going on in Kate Croy’s mind. Instead, we are in her mind, feeling her anxiety, her restlessness, as she paces about the room. It’s a very interesting technique, but probably hard as hell to write, and it can be damn draining to read. You’re always right there, right in the character’s mind as their thoughts swirl darkly and wildly around as judgments, projections and imaginings take the forefront. Entire chapters take place around four or five lines of dialogue (probably more, but it feels like less). Henry James was a very, very talented man (or as I put it more crudely to Corey, the guy could write like a MF).

I can’t imagine anyone in this day and age being able to write like this (I believe in the 100+ years in which “Dove” was published, no one has). It was an interesting experience to read this novel after reading Portrait of a Lady earlier this year (which I think might very well take the coveted #1 slot on my oh so important favorite books of 2009 list. Ha). Another David Lodge novel, Author Author, is a work of historical fiction dealing with James’ brief foray into the theater. Apparently James abandoned writing altogether for a good decade or so in the 1890’s in order to take a stab at writing plays, in order to produce critically acclaimed theatrical pieces that would bring him popularity, respect and adoration from millions (needless to say it didn’t happen that way—did I mention already that life never happens the way you want it to?). What his theater work did provide him with, though, was the ability to write just from a character’s mind. In a play, there’s no narrator setting the scene or providing omniscient narration. It’s just the dialogue. It’s all about “reading” the scene: the reaction to a sentence, the way a woman looks at a man, or at a younger American woman with money, the way the entire atmosphere of a room can change with the arrival or presence of a certain person. Instead of a light penetration, where the narrator tells you what’s happening in a neutral voice and gives a narrator’s viewpoint on the character’s attitudes and motivations, dipping in and out of character’s minds the way you dip a tortilla chip into salsa, you have a DEEP penetration, in which you never leave the viewpoint as seen through the character’s eyes. It’s intense and involving, and as exhausting as being trapped in your own head, with all the yappings and yippings that go on up there.

My favorite character in this book so far has been Milly Theale, the young doomed American who comes to Europe only to be callously taken advantage of by the old school British. At first I was surprised that James spends so much time inside Milly’s head during the first 200 pages, because in the movie (which is okay; the Portrait of a Lady film is a superior adaptation IMHO) she’s very much treated as a distant, secondary figure to Kate and Denscher, the scheming couple. The part where she leaves the doctor after hearing some bad news (or is it just ambiguous news? You never can tell, with James) and walks quickly through the streets of London with her heart pounding may be one of the best passages that I’ve read all year. Her are some of the excerpts I underlined, the ones that really struck a chord with me:

(171) She literally felt, in this first flush, that her only company must be the human race at large, that her field must be, then and there, the grey immensity of London. Grey immensity had somehow of a sudden become her element; grey immensity was what her distinguished friend [the doctor] had, for the moment, furnished her world with and what the question of ‘living’, as he put it to her, living by option, by volition…

she had been treated—hadn’t she?–as if it were in her power to live; and yet one wasn’t treated so—was one?–unless it came up, quite as much, that one might die… But the beauty of the idea of a great adventure, a big dim experiment or struggle in which she might, more responsibly than ever before, take a hand, had been offered her instead.

(173) Here doubtless were hundreds of others just in the same box. Their box, their great common anxiety, what was it, in this grim breathing-space, but the practical question of life? They could live if they would; that is, like herself, they had been told so; she saw them all about her, on seats, digesting the information… the blessed old truth that they would live if they could.

(176) It was perhaps superficially more striking that one could live if one would; but it was more appealing, insinuating, irresistible, in short, that one would live if one could.

Good stuff. Moments like these don’t happen often in James, but when they do, they’re like a flash of lightning. Just like day to day existence: sometimes it feels like you’re going through one murky day after another, and you don’t know what it adds up to, and you don’t know what it means, and then all of a sudden—BAM! Some insight that you didn’t have before hits you clearly, and all of a sudden you seen your life in a different way than you did before. And then just as quickly as it came it’s gone, and you’re back to your nail-chewing ways, spilling lentils on the floor of your apartment, hoping that the toilet isn’t clogged and eating the last of your stale Special K flakes with the last few drops squeezed out of the soy milk carton. It’s a shame that such beautiful, illuminating flashes of insight don’t come around more often. Though I guess if they did, they wouldn’t be that special, would they? Now that sounds like a form of hard-fought wisdom…

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Filed under consciousness, Henry James, Mexico, mindfulness, Nuevo Laredo, wisdom

My Old Friend Onetti

Resting proudly on top of the mess on my desk.


Onetti has unexpectedly entered my life again, perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. Onetti is hard to read, dude! Heck, most of November (again, for whatever reason) was pretty hard. I keep thinking about what my Dad said about his time in the Peace Corps, that the first month is always the best, because everything is really new and exciting and you’re just constantly stimulated by all these new sights and sounds and smells and people. But hey, my boyfriend finally came for a long-awaited, much anticipated visit over Thanksgiving weekend, and now I’m feeling as refreshed and as reinvigorated as though I just came back from a long vacation. For better or for worse, I have three weeks (!!) left in Mexico. And then, it’s off to Quito (again! What is it about this strange ecuatorial country that keeps calling me back?) for a second placement with Kiva. And then…? 

I’d brought El astillero with me to Mexico, but Onetti didn’t pop up officially until my first or second week here (how time blurs things together!!). I was eating meat tacos at the taco cart across the street from the office, when this guy asked me where I was from. We started talking and I learned he was from Uruguay. “Oh!” I said. “I wrote my undergraduate thesis in college on an author from Uruguay.” “What was he called?” the man asked. When I uttered Onetti’s name, much excitement on his part ensued, and he turned out to be a huge Onetti fan. All I could manage was what… I travel all the way to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and eat at a wooden taco cart across the street from the office, and I end up talking about Onetti, of all people? 

So that’s how I ended up meeting Diego, who insanely enough shares the same first name as my thesis advisor at college, another coincidence that feels too crazy and bizarre to be real. I feel like I’ve spent most of this year acting like the main character from Arlt’s The Mad Toy, stumbling around in a desperate attempt to find a mentor of any sort at any price, and ending up meeting a bizarre assortment of random characters. 

Anyway, so Diego’s excitement at meeting another Onetti afficionado ended with him scheduling a presentation about Onetti at Estacion Palabra (the local reading/cultural center) on December 4th. We’ve both been working on it together.  The name of the presentation is “Los sueño rebelados,” (“The rebellious dreams”), a cute play-on-words of one of Onetti’s short stories, “Un sueño realizado” (“A realized dream,” or “A dream come true”). We have power point slides with music and everything. 

It should be pretty fun. Diego keeps insisting that there is no intellectual culture in Mexico and the only people who are going to come and friends of his from his government job and people who want “to look good and impress others.” After Bolaño’s scathing indictments of the relationship between Mexican artists and politicians in The Savage Detectives, I’m really not that surprised. I’m not too hung up about it, I feel like I ‘m sort of just coming along for the ride. And of course I’ve enjoyed hanging out with Diego, getting to know him, being introduced to musicians like Laurie Anderson and Mercedes Sosa, borrowing his random intellectual DVDs (Secrets and Lies, Rhaspody in August, all those documentaries from Iran). Meeting him has been yet another random, inexplicable encounter and friendship of mine in a city that seems to be full of them. 

The goal of the presentation is basically to try to convey the importance of the Onetti universe: what it consists of, how it’s constructed. Onetti is a pretty interesting author, but not an easy one to recommend. I wouldn’t really recommend him to a friend looking for “something to read,” you know? My thesis advisor put it best when he said to me once, “You know what? A lot of the time, Onetti is just plain boring, in the sense that nothing ever happens in his books.” And that’s exactly the point. Nothing happens. The most liberating, exciting thing that takes place for Onetti characters is when they indulge in acts of wild creativity. An author in a deadbeat job writes a screenplay that turns into a novel that eventually turns into a world of its own (La Vida Breve/A Brief Life). A doctor writes down the stories invented by various men about a woman’s funeral in an attempt to explain the drooling, gross-looking goat that attended (Para una tumba sin nombre/A grave with no name). A young man enjoys a woman’s fantastical stories about her exotic vacations, love affairs and adventures when he thinks they’re made up, but when he finds an album filled with photos that proves that they’re true, he feels inexplicably, devastatingly disappointed  (the story story “El album”). 

Storytelling is always inevitably linked to lying in Onetti, and in turn lying is linked with freedom and liberation. Usually, the fictitious, created world ends up supplanting the real one, as it does in La Vida Breve, where a novelist named Brausen writes a book about a town called Santa Maria which turns into a real city and ends up being the setting for most of Onetti’s subsequent novels and stories (one of the best scenes in El astillero takes place when Larsen stands underneath the statue of BRAUSEN-FUNDADOR, Brausen the city founder). Lying, story-telling and creating is often referred to as a game, and most of the joy the characters find comes from playing it. Onetti characters are always seeking to “conocer” or “saber”, to understand or to know, but what they usually end up finding are lies and stories. 

The man himself


The search for knowledge is big theme in El Astillero (The Shipyard), which took me all of November to read. It’s an incredibly well-written book but I also found it difficult to read. It really is a “novel without a plot.” The novel opens with the main character, Larsen, returns to Santa Maria five years after being expelled from the town for running a whorehouse (the plot of another Onetti novel, Juntacadaveras or Bodysnatcher). Shockingly enough El astillero was written BEOFRE Juntacadaveras–I say “shockingly” because so much of the melancholic, elegiac tone of Astillero comes from the feeling that you’re missing the first half of the story. It feels like watching Return of the Jedi without having seen The Empire Strikes Back: you see shots of Luke’s missing hand and you’re like “whoa, what’s up with that? Something really intense must have happened there.” But you’re never told specifically what, you have to figure it out for yourself. It creates a very interesting atmosphere for the story, where everything feels incredibly charged and loaded with the weight of this history you don’t have access to. 

Anyway, so a lot of El astillero feels like the story of Larsen’s fall from grace, even though you never know in full detail what his “grace” was. Basically, the gist of the story is that Larsen returns to Santa Maria and gets a job working in a dilapidated, run-down shipyard, in a somewhat half-hearted attempt at a “comeback,” an attempt to make his life feel meaningful or purposeful. What does he do? He hangs out with his co-workers, Galvez and Kunz. He courts the daughter of his boss, Petrus. One of his co-workers tell him that he has a piece of paper that could incriminate Petrus and send him to jail, and the way Larsen deals with this is maybe the closest thing resembling a traditional plot that this book has. 

An Aimee Mann soundtrack would be pretty excellent for this book. “Going Through the Motions.” “It’s Not.” “I Cannot Get My Head Around It.” There’s a lot of descriptions of winter and cold weather, which fits in with the theme of old age, declining years, the feeling that the best part of one’s life is behind them and that there’s nothing to look forward to (jeez, no wonder I felt so down all November, if this was the main message entering my brain!). 

There were a lot of things I liked about this book. I liked the theme of madness that made me think of Don Quixote and The Savage Detectives. Galvez and Kunz can maybe be seen as acting as a sort of Sancho Panza to Larsen’s Quixote, as Larsen muses: 

“si ellos están locos, es forzoso que yo esté loco. Porque yo podia jugar a mi juego porque lo estaba haciendo en soledad; pero si ellos–Kunz y Galvez–, otros, me acompañan, el juego es lo serio, se transforma en lo real. Aceptarlo asi–yo, que lo jugaba porque era juego–, es aceptar la locura.” (85) 

(sorry I can’t translate the quotes, feel free to plug them into a translator!) This is a very “Onetti” theme, thinking about games and participating in them for the heck of it, in order to “accept madness.” Petrus the boss is definitely portrayed as a crazy King Lear-type patriarch, continuously insisting that any day now the shipyard is going to be back on its feet, raising Larsen’s salary without Larsen having ever received a single paycheck. I say that Larsen is quixotic in the sense that he’s “engaging in foolish impracticality in pursuit of ideals”–but then that begets the question, what ideals? What does Larsen believe in? What does he want? There’s one passage where Larsen ponders about his reasons for working at the shipyard, with “el único propósito de darle un sentido y atribuir este sentido a los años que le quedaban por vivir y, en consecuencia, a la totalidad de su vida.” (72) Larsen starts out with this very strong desire to make his life feel purposeful by taking the job at the shipyard, but it ends up being this crazy, fake game of madness–very appropriately Onettian. 

The descriptions of poverty are also some of the most interesting in the book. All of the parts concerning Galvez’s very pregnatn wife, living in her husband’s squalid, disgusting cabin with a pack of dogs, are pretty gripping. I also like the parts that refer to the “larger” Onetti universe, as when Larsen stands underneath the statue of BRAUSEN-FUNDADOR. It all feels very symbolic and like excellent material for a dissertation. 

I really, really liked this book. I’m not exactly sure what’s going on in it most of the time, and I don’t think it’s just the Spanish. The ending feels VERY Faulknerean, with a very Onetti twist (not to give too much away, but we’re basically provided with two endings of Larsen’s fate, and we get to choose which one we want). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we got to do this in real life? Pity… 

I may not know much but I know that I’m definitely going to have to read this again, preferably in English. 

And that there’s still a lot of work left to be done. 




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Filed under books, Mexico, Nuevo Laredo, Onetti

maps and lessons


Am I basking in the Sea of Knowledge? Or lost in the Foothills of Confusion?

Last Saturday in Estacion Palabra I re-read The Phantom Tolbooth and most of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I literally gasped when I saw “Tolbooth” on the shelf. This was one of my absolute favorite books growing up, the rare children’s fantasy world novel that stands alone and isn’t part of a trilogy. I love any book that has a map in the opening pages, period. “Tolbooth” really does a wonderful job of capturing what it feels like to be a kid whose childhood is defined by books. The movie critic in Salon sums up this feeling very nicely in a recent review:

I’m not talking about the overrated notion of “being returned to a sense of childlike wonder,” or anything like that. I’m talking about a movie that captures something even more intangible than that, the very texture of an experience… the quiet, intense joy I felt as a kid, first poring over illustrated details in picture books (the nooks and crannies of Beatrix Potter’s rabbit warrens and mouse houses, for example) and later in the semi-fanciful, semi-naturalistic details to be found in Kenneth Grahame and A.A. Milne and Dahl.

“The Phantom Tolbooth” is just so unique is so many ways: how can you not love Subtraction Stew? Or jumping to the Island of Conclusions? When Milo was lost, winding his way through the Doldrums, and managed to escape by thinking hard (i.e. putting his brain to good use) all I could think was God, what a valuable lesson for me at this point in my life. This past week has been a little difficult for me because so much of it has been pure office work. I mean, I managed to get a lot of work done on projects on my workplan, all with fancy, scary sounding titles like “Operational Cost Analysis” and “Interest Rate Calculation/Verification.” Next week I’ll definitely be out in the field meeting clients again (I’ll probably end up missing the office!). But humans were truly not made to be shut up in offices, hunched in front of little computers all day. Thank god I enjoy my co-workers and feel like the work I’m doing is actually important and has a point to it; otherwise, I can see why office jobs could be a slow, droning form of suicide for many people.

It was fun to re-read the Eggers book too, which I hadn’t touched since 2000, the first time I read it. I was in summer camp at CTY at Skidmore College in New York. I remember feeling very impressed that my creative writing teacher knew Dave Eggers. Anyway, I LOVED the book. I was convinced it was completely and utter genius. I carried it around with me everywhere. I read it lying on my stomach in the grass, hanging out with the goth kids as they talked about Smashing Pumpkins and drew things on their shoes with black marker. I think I may have even cursed myself a couple of times and my apparent lack of talent: “why can’t I write like Dave Eggers?!”

Well… I’m really glad now that I *don’t* write like the Dave Eggers in AHWOSG. (I don’t mean this as a diss!) Now that some time has passed, this book stands out in stark contrast to everything he’s written afterwards (“Velocity”, “What is the What,” the Katrina book that looks really interesting). So much of it takes place inside twentysomething-year-old Dave’s head, which can be an intense place at times.

I was really afraid upon picking up the book that I was going to absolutely HATE it, kind of like the people who watch The Graduate thirty years later and realize that Benjamin Braddock is an absolute dud and that Mrs. Robinson is truly the only likeable character. However, my fears were rapidly assuaged once I read the description of how Dave’s younger brother used steak knives to cut open bags of pretzels, or the classic MTV Real World application interview. The “Dave” character is just intensely trapped in his head, painfully so at some points. However, although it can get a little claustrophobic at times, I think it’s wonderful and incredibly honest. It feels extremely 90’s. The 90’s was a very “Me” decade, wasn’t it? Everyone wanted to be introspective and painfully honest, Little Earthquakes-style.All those female-singer songwriters, Kurt Cobain strumming his acoustic guitar and singing about his pain. (My sister writes more about the theme of exposure in AHWOSG here.) What do we have now? A global melting pot, I guess, with M.I.A. and people wanting to get back to their gardens.

There is a ton of death and decay in this book. This is not a fun-hearted, haha, fun and games book with ironic slackers cracking witty comments (though there is some of that). I thought this book was hilarious when I first read it; this time, I found it incredibly sad (maybe this is just a sign of how I’ve gotten older. This book is filled with death and injuries: friends, parents, family members. More than anything else, the main message that stuck with me after re-reading this was how Eggers seems to be saying Life is crazy, and it’s really hard to make it out alive and unscathed.

It was a good reading choice at this point my life, in a week where two girls from my college were hit by a car in Portland, on a street that I myself have biked past many a time, almost every morning in fact from January to May on my way to work at the elementary school. One of them was killed and the other is in a coma and apparently it’s increasingly unlikely she will wake up. I didn’t know either of them, we were nevertheless connected through friends-of-friends the way that everyone is in a small school at Reed. One of them was friends with my older brother; I had a class my senior year with the other girl. She was actually one of the first people I ever talked to at Reed, shortly after some kind of assembly had finished and we were all filing into the cafeteria and I was freaking about not knowing anyone so I just started talking to the girl in line ahead of me about our outdoor wilderness orientation trips. I don’t think we talked ever again after that. And now she’s dead. That… that makes me sad.

Isn’t that crazy how people can just DIE, just disappear completely off the earth?? Think about it: you’re crossing the street to go to Fred Myer, and then in the next ten seconds you no longer exist. The Internet especially makes things weird, because you’re leaving behind an online record of yourself. Your Twitter, facebook, livejournal account will suddenly become like these untouched statues, your last footprint on earth. It’s terrifying, though maybe you could also think of it as reassuring… maybe. I’m not sure what lesson I’m supposed to end with this. Try to live in the moment, I guess. Or as I said on the phone with my dad, “you gotta enjoy your steak tacos when you have them.”

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Filed under death, Mexico, non-fiction, Nuevo Laredo, Uncategorized

Reading Murakami and Steinbeck in Nuevo LaredoReading

This novel begins with such a normal scene: the narrator in the kitchen, boiling spaghetti and listening to an opera, “which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.”(5) There’s absolutely no indication in the first 100+ pages that the story is going to end as weirdly as it does.

This was absolutely the most perfect book in the world for me to read at this particular point in my life. The friend who gave it to me told me he’d read it during a time in which his “flow was obstructed,” and I guess the same goes for me. There was just something so warm and reassuring about reading this book. I would be in the office or in the field all day in Nuevo Laredo, learning all these new concepts and absorbing all these incredibly draining, intense experiences, and yet, at the end of the day it would all be okay, because I knew I could come home to my little apartment, sit on my beat-up couch, eat my cornflakes and yogurt and read another 100 pages of Wind-Up Bird. It was like coming home to cuddle a stuffed animal, albeit one that talked a lot about the Japanese military efforts in Manchukuo.

I loved reading this book. *Loved* it. I wanted to hug it to the chest and clap my hands gleefully with happiness, like a happy seal. I love all the different Joycean techniques Murakami employs to tell his tale: computer chats, letters, newspapers, hallucinatory dream sequences. It feels important that the story begins with a very straightforward, realistic narrative that is almost boring in its simplicity: a man begins searching for his wife’s missing cat. In the last couple of chapters, you’re no longer sure if what’s going on is happenning in this world, a parallel universe, inside somebody’s head, or inside several people’s heads (that’s about as spoiler free as I can be). Also, as a history geek, I loved reading the parts about the Japanese army in Mongolia or the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the prison camps in Siberia. There’s so many parts of the world and of history that I have yet to learn about…

My absolutely favorite thing in the world about Murakami is all his descriptions of what the characters eat. A ham, tomato and cheese sandwich. Stir fried green peppers. Coffee, constantly. These little details sounds so simple, and yet they add so much to the story: it grounds it in something that’s so real and very much every day. The literary cliche gods help me, but I have to call it Kafkaesque: we believe all the crazy things that happen later, because everything that happens early on is so credible, to the point of being monotonous almost. It really is clever technique.

This is a very postmodern novel in the sense that it deals a lot with the question of the self. As in, do we actually have one? Can you ever actually “know” yourself, let alone another person? More than anything else, I think this is the central question of the novel. It reminded me a lot of Tori Amos’ concept album, American Doll Posse, in which she assumes the persona of five different female archetypes, each representing a different side to the female personality. This idea of having several different selves, as opposed to one that is already neatly, conveniently formed, is a theme I believe I’ve already brought up in this blog. I really like the idea of having this “wise self” inside of me, this very pure, intuitive wisdom that I can turn to, time and time again, in order to reassure myself and calm myself down, make myself feel like everything is going to be all right. What about all my other selves? Is complete integration an illusion? Is being mildly fragmented the best that any of us can ever hope for? The question feels even more relevant if you consider victims of trauma like war (as in Wind-Up Bird) or rape (as in American Doll Posse). Trauma can shatter you, splinter you apart. How do you go about rebuilding yourself, making yourself whole again?

This idea of rebuilding and coming together appears in a very different form of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the other book I looked forward to coming home and reading these past few weeks. Steinbeck is about as straightforward as narrative realism gets, not much I can call postmodern here (though please feel free to correct me!). I liked how this book made me want to listen to Bruce Springsteen (which makes sense, since Bruce Springsteen has obviously read Steinbeck. I was surprised by how easily you could update The Grapes of Wrath to a 21st-century tale of immigration to the U.S., if you just substituted the Joads for a Mexican family, changed Okies to mojados, throw in a scene of crossing the Rio Grande.

Oh, it just makes me sad, it makes me angry, it makes me want to—I don’t know, I was going to write “run into the street, burn something, write to a Congressman,” but to be completely honest, what it makes me want to do is read more. I want to read more about the history of labor movements in the early 20th century, I want to read more about the development of 21st-century immigration policy, I want to read more about socialism. I want to sit up late reading drinking my carrot juice, underlining passages in pencil and maybe even scrawling a note to myself in the side margins (yes, I am thus revealing myself to be a book vandal!). I want to read and think and write my thoughts down and them talk about them, late into the night with other people. And then I want them to give me more books to read and tell me, “I think that you would like these ones.” More than anything else it makes me feel hopeful and happy to think that there are other people like this in the world, other people who can relate to the feeling of your heart beating as you hand a book over to another person, the words in your throat bursting with eagerness as you say “oh! This one—you really need to read this one!” What would the world be like, after all, without all these people who want to read great books and think silly thoughts about them and then go out and do completely random-seeming things like intern for a microfinance institution in a border city?

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Filed under bruce springsteen, comfort food, Nuevo Laredo, social justice

Gabo in Nuevo Laredo

Even though this is my third week of living in Nuevo Laredo, I feel like the main thing I want to talk about is all the food I’ve been eating because that’s one of the things I find most exciting about being in Mexico. Like yesterday I went to this giant market with my co-workers and their kids that everyone calls las pulgas (the fleas). There’s a saying that “para calidad, hay que ir a liverpulgas” because apparently there’s a trendy department store in either Mexico or Texas that’s called Liverpool… hence the ironic play on words “liverpulgas.” For lunch we had a big steaming bowl of menudo, or soup made of lining from a cow’s stomach. I’m not going to lie to you… it was hard to finish. I poured on the little green chilis and onions and cilantro like nobody’s business. But yeah, I’m proud to say that unlike the tripe tacos (I could only eat one, and it made me horribly ill), I ate the whole bowl of menudo. Go me. And then we walked for what seriously felt like 2 kilometers through the stalls. I ended up only buying one shirt even though I seriously need more, I’m sure all my co-workers have noticed by now that I wear the same rotating set of six shirts every week.

The main thing I wanted to write about here, though, isn’t so much the food or what it’s like to live in Nuevo Laredo or what I’m doing here (you can read all that on the Kiva Fellows blog). What I wanted to say here was that yesterday I found a plaza right near my apartment that not only looks like a good place to go running, but more importantly, there is a LIBRARY right near by! Well, I guess it’s not really a library, because you’re not allowed to check books out, it’s a “center to promote reading.” But they have shelves and shelves of books of photography and novels in Spanish and English. I spent an hour reading “Richard the III,” struggling to understand how everyone was related but loving the hell out of it. I only left because the place closed.

The coolest thing is that it’s named after none other than Gabriel Garcia Marquez, autor nacional de la tierra de mi alma. Yes, apparently he donated serious monies to build the place and came to the inauguration naming ceremony and everything. Apparently (according to the informative plaques inside the building) Gabo has a special affection for Nuevo Laredo because it was the first part of Mexico that he passed through.

The reading center built right by the railway track, which is where he took the train with his family. It’s an awesome, well-lit space with a snazzy little cafe. And a children’s center that is filled with the EXACT SAME inflatable green turtles from IKEA that I wrestled mightily to blow up for the Boys & Girls Club! A strangely small, surreal world indeed. I wish I’d taken a picture for proof.
Garcia Marquez’s books translated into different languages such as Estonian, Czech and Danish.

Reading = Growing, and lovely old copies of Don Quixote behind a glass case.

Oh, it just all brought tears to my eyes, the sight of books lined up on shelf after shelf. It just seemed like such a tranquil, lovely scene of beauty in the middle of a city that gets such a bad rep from everyone. It’s discovering places like this that makes me so glad and grateful to have the opportunity to travel to cities that are brusquely dismissed as “not worth it” or “unsightly and dirty” in guidebooks. Lago Agrio and Coca in Ecuador. Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo in Mexico. Cali in Colombia isn’t exactly spoken of as a haven of beauty either. But I love these cities! It’s what I’m used to, what I grew up with. Cracked sidewalks covered in grass. Dogs with the dirtiest, most disgusting eye sockets you can imagine, all runny with pus and so gross it just makes you want to vomit. Street food. Sugary drinkable yogurt. Men hissing ooh beautiful white girl wherever I go (okay, this I can live without).

I think something a lot of people get out of traveling is the feeling that they’re suddenly experiencing what it’s like to see themselves through someone else’s eyes. When I moved to Portland I experienced the opposite effect; it was like suddenly and magically becoming invisible. Suddenly, I could blend in, I wasn’t the white girl with the hair that always inevitably stood out in the crowd anymore as an obvious foreigner. In Portland I can lie and say that I’ve grown up in Oregon my entire life and that I’d learned Spanish in high school and no one would ever be the wiser. How weird, right?. How funny that when I travel to Spanish-speaking countries I get the feeling like I’m coming home, that I’m returning to a comforting site of familiarity, that “standing out” as the obvious clueless foreigner is the state I’m more used to.

Some cartoon drawings hanging on the walls of the reading center.



Filed under books, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, library, Nuevo Laredo, travel