Saturday, March 2, 2013

Borderland

It's been one month now since we packed the Tabbies and our belongings into the car and headed for the border. That sounds like a long time, but the city and the region in general still feel very new and very novel. Each morning, I look outside to see what kind of day we're going to have, and by 6:30 am the sun is already streaming through the windows. It makes me happy each morning to see these clear blue skies, and I greet the Consulate guards with a "Good morning, and what a beautiful day it is!" They smile, politely because - let's be honest here - we live in the desert and it's sunny about 330 days per year. But to me, it's still a gift each morning to have that reliable blue overhead. Of course at this time of year, it's nearly freezing each night and so far has only hit the mid-60s at the height of the day. You might just hear me singing a different tune come July when it's 108.

While the climate and the scenery is so foreign, the cultural differences are more subtle. Living on the border is a land in and of itself, neither 100% of either country. In Colombia, we had zero expectation that the taxi drivers, doormen, waiters, or just regular people on the street would speak English. Every greeting defaulted to Spanish. But here, we always start in Spanish and frequently the response comes back in only slightly-accented English. Our television, with only the rabbit-ears antennae we're using for reception, gets a few El Paso stations perfectly, and only a handful of fuzzy Mexican channels. So we end up watching US news, listening to NPR each morning on the radio, and living what feels to be an American life. 

In fact, I think our life here might just be more American than the one we had before. For starters, I'd never been to a Wal-Mart before moving to Juarez, and now have a Costco membership - for the first time. We find ourselves strolling the aisles of Home Depot on the weekends, among regular Mexican families also picking out grills, throw rugs, and potted plants. Sure, about once per week we pop over to El Paso, usually to buy pet supplies (WHY is clumping cat litter priced like gold in every other country? WHY?!), and also to buy all the bits and pieces that the Mexican groceries don't carry, like ricotta cheese, dryer sheets (another WHY?!) or Greek yogurt. Being in the US is obviously easy and familiar, but I'm starting to feel a sense of belonging to the other side, the Mexican side instead. I like to tell people in El Paso that we live in Juarez, and then tell them how much we like it, just to see them react. Naturally, most people have been here longer than a month and can remember well when the city earned it's frightening reputation for being the Murder Capital of the World. But now, the level of violence has dropped below that of even some US cities. And after walking through the Parque Central and seeing families feeding ducks, couples kissing on benches or teenagers teaching each other break dancing moves in the community center - it just feels peaceful and comfortable. Maybe I'm fooling myself, or maybe it really is pretty okay. 

The other night we returned from a day trip to New Mexico in the early evening, driving downhill towards Juarez and over the border after dark. The lights of our new city spread out before us, the mountain range to the west silhouetted in the last bits of sunset. Directly over the river (the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo is a now just a dusty depression - how disappointing it was to learn that!), Mexico begins: with its street vendors walking the lines of waiting cars selling candied apples, brooms, Chiclets or bags of fruit; with the  potholed streets that lack storm drains and therefore flood whenever it rains; with the cheap dental offices hoping to attract a slice of the medical tourism business; and with the ever present street-side comida rapida stands. It DOES feel different, and I'm glad it does. 

We joined the Foreign Service hoping to be out of our element, to have to figure things out, to bore our friends for years with stories that start with, "Well, when we were in Upper Volta..." But here in the Borderland, the differences certainly exist, but they're more subtle. Like the fact that turning left is seemingly prohibited, and instead an intricate system of u-turns has been established so that drivers must flip a u-turn and then turn right instead. Or the fact that there are guys in every parking lot who watch your car and then help you back out of your space for spare change. 

While it would be easy to live here and base our lives on the El Paso side, as many of my coworkers do, for us it wouldn't be as much fun. I'm thrilled to have conversations with the nice Mexican families in the hot dog line at Costco, or while feeding carrots to the mascot giraffe at the park (his name is "Modesto"). It's truly a hybrid life here, but I think we're going to dig in just fine. And hey look - it's sunny again!








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