Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Near Folly of Youth

When I was doing my year abroad at UCC I was just twenty or twenty-one and I was becoming more confident in myself. Physically I was strong and I felt the vigor of youth. I was a very active member of the boxing club. To people who had not known me before, my actions, as well as prejudices about Americans, defined me. I had the opportunity to rewrite myself. I was far more outgoing with the college girls than I was in the States, and was shocked to find my familiarity reciprocated. I was more apt to take stances where I hadn’t in the past. I had more of the luxury of acting out of principle than ever, as well.

I had a pretty, young girlfriend with whom I was quite enamored. We both considered our relationship to be a dramatic event more than a comfortable and rewarding condition. I think everyone should have at least one such relationship in his or her life so at least a smile might cross their lips in the fleeting moments on the way to the grave. My girlfriend was not frail, but neither was she a vigorous Amazon; she lived in her head rather than in her body and was a skilled artist and an accomplished linguist, even at her young age. I valued her and cherished her, and I believe that her lack of physicality, among other things, evoked in me a protective, almost paternal, attitude.

One day we went for a pint with two of the guys I lived with, the American and the Northerner. We were all friends and we all got along famously, it was not at all out of the ordinary for all of us to while away an afternoon or evening. On this particular day we decided to go to a pub called the Loch. It was set on a pond a fair walk from our house. The pond had a swing set and a small park where families would bring their children to swing and to feed the ducks. Once in a while you could see a swan. It was a nice place. The pub was nice on the inside, but its draw was that there were tables outside, and on the nice, long summer nights you could take your pints by the “loch” and watch the fowl parade by. That is exactly what we were doing.

The four of us sat around a picnic table under a tree and discussed politics, literature, economics, and culture, and nursed our stouts so as to afford a full evening out. I was immersed in our accelerated conversation, engaged in the mental gymnastics of timing glib comments and dispatching ever worsening puns. There was quite a crowd ringing the loch, and the level of noise was high for the outdoors, but I had shut out all the rock-skipping children and impaired college kids. Our conversation met an expectant pause and the two guys said that they had to excuse themselves to the bogs. I also rose, as it was my turn to fetch the pints, and we left my girlfriend sitting outside alone.

Anyone who has been to an Irish beer garden on a summer Friday night could tell you that getting three pints of stout and a shandy is no easy task. It could be likened to trying to walk from one end of a Tokyo subway to the other, at rush hour, and then back while balancing a spinning plate on your chin. I was still insinuating myself into the crowd when I saw my girlfriend coming through the door carrying all of our coats. I caught her eye and beckoned her over, asking what was happening. She said that it had gotten a bit cold, and that she thought it might be nicer to come inside and sit by the fire for a while. She looked upset, and I asked her what had upset her. She told me that there were some boys at the next table saying some things, but that it was not worth making a fuss about. She told me to get the pints and to join her at a table that she indicated by pointing her chin, saying that it would be the best table in the place when darkness fell. I agreed and told her not to be upset, and she said that she wasn’t. I saw her walk to the table and meet our friends as they came out of the bathroom. There was a short discussion and they looked at me and I nodded. They all proceeded to the table and sat down.

As they all were in the process of settling in I took the opportunity of their distraction to slip back out the front door. I was young, as I said, and hadn’t yet completely figured out which offenses were worthy of true indignation. I walked to the table we had occupied and saw the group of young men to whom she had referred. There were six of them sitting at an adjacent table, all clearly in a heightened state of jocularity and camaraderie brought on by a powerful mix of alcohol and testosterone. They were cat-calling a couple of girls walking by as I approached.

They were at a picnic table, three on each side, and I approached from the foot of the table, if the head were pointed toward the loch. As I got nearer two of the guys pointed out my presence to the obvious ringleader, who sat at the head of the table. He took their comments and looked over at me, and in that split second that followed I learned something about myself that I would rather not have known.

There were six guys, three on each side, and I assumed that they were all right handed. If I were to fight them all I would have to take advantage of the fact that most of them were seated while I was standing. I could use my mobility to approach them on their weak side and use what martial arts I knew to incapacitate three. Then I could go over the table, assuming that the other three would have gone around it on either side, forcing them to come back around the table to confront me. This would afford me the opportunity to choose a side to advance on, and meet, and it would naturally be the side with one, rather than two, of the remaining combatants. That would buy me three seconds alone with the one before the two would factor into the melee. I felt that at that point the situation would have degraded to me facing two, standing, and that I could have taken any two of them in an even match. The thing that I would rather not have known about myself is that I was willing to do it. In order to take a man out of a fight completely you had to put him in so much pain or shock that he could not function, or to knock him completely unconscious. I knew doing that would involve eyes, throats, collar bones, and jaws, and I was unfazed. I had made the conscious decision to impair any or all of these guys, perhaps permanently, and to take any similar punishment they might be able to mete out against me. When I think back now on what drove me into that atavistic, reptilian corner of my brain I realize that it had very little to do with the girl and everything to do with my pride, and my assertion of my place in the tribe.

“Were you just out here with that girl?” he asked.
“You know I was,” I replied, “What did you say to her? Couldn’t you see she was with me?”
The ringleader was the only one speaking. He wasn’t particularly combative. He seemed confused.
“Did you come out here alone, to six men, because she was put off by what we said? My God, that’s fucking brilliant. Really, we didn’t say anything bad, just joking around a bit. If she was put off then we apologize, but you’ve got some nerve, I’ve got to tell you.”

I didn’t know what to do. I was tensed, on the balls of my feet and ready to pounce on these interlopers and to vent fury. And now it wasn’t necessary. The world came back into focus. I was completely disarmed and at a loss.
“As long as we understand each other,” I mumbled, and shuffled back into the pub, both relieved and disappointed at the same time.

As I came through the door I saw my girlfriend at the table by the fire with the Northerner. The look on her face as she saw me could be described as nothing but adulation, so ill-deserved and so misplaced. My American friend returned from looking for me and we rounded out the night. In retrospect, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to learn my lesson without having to deliver or receive a serious drubbing.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

American Geisha

I left the West Coast after camping on a glacier with an old friend, discussing my decision to fly back to Africa to marry. I got on a train in Eugene Oregon and started to let some of the agitation leech out of me. I had recently divested myself of everything I owned, gotten out of a job, left the house I had lived in, caught waves, climbed mountains, and talked about what I was doing and why. Finally, as I crept onto the train and put my entire life into the overhead bin I knew I would have three days of largely uninterrupted revelry and self-reflection. I already felt better rested as we laboriously climbed through the Cascades along the banks of the Columbia. By the time the conductor was regaling us with the story of the Donner party I had napped briefly and was ready for a hot smoke and a cold beer.

I made my way down to the observation car, which is the car on the Empire Builder that has glass walls and roof and seats that all face outward. You could smoke there, and on the ground level there was a booth, really, where you could buy cans of Bud from a cooler. I went right to the beer guy and got a beer and returned to the top to observe the U.S. rolling by. I fell into an empty seat and opened the beer, putting it into the arm of the seat. I took out a pack of smokes and went to light one when I was interrupted. A young woman was sitting in the next seat over, and was asking that I light her cigarette. She held it in her mouth and leaned over, under the dual assumptions that I would provide a light and light it for her, both of which I did.

She was a woman who I normally would have taken notice of before sitting next to her. She was young, had a beautiful face, and whose body was not just functionally fit, but had obviously been sculpted for maximum visual impact. Under other circumstances I may have been intimidated by her looks into sitting somewhere further away. Indeed, there were a fair few unattended young men in the observation car not sitting by her, and I think misplaced intimidation may have been in more than one mind. Since I had made the decision to return to Africa to marry, though, the presence of my yet-to-be wife was with me constantly. She inhabited the quiet place in my mind with the aspect of a wraith-like afterimage, keeping me sedate and preoccupied. I had no need of anything from this young woman, so I had nothing to fear either of her or from her.

She thanked me and I commented on the beauty of the view. We fell into conversation of our destinations and what brought us to where we had been. The transfer of information was intended to fill the silences and make our convergence on the same seats bearable, but as we learned more about each other our curiosities were further piqued. Before long we were engrossed in an active and meaningful conversation.

My side of the conversation consisted of revelations of facts you already know, and of points of view and timely comments on her utterances. I will spare you its recitation. What is of interest is what I learned about her and about her point of view. Here is what I found truly interesting.

She told me that she was traveling along the corridor of the northern rail line. She had to make frequent stops and hated to fly anyway. She was a dancer from New Jersey, but she traveled along the northern border of the US and Canada by choice. She said that she had always craved attention, since the time she was a young girl, and had excelled in dancing school. But because she needed attention and loved to make moving her body her occupation, she told me, “I had to take off my clothes- it was the next logical step and it was so natural that I never had an ethical ‘dilemma’.” I found this admission both fascinating and refreshing. I had gone through young adulthood thinking that exotic dancers were all somehow forced into the profession as an option of last resort, and that they were caught up in some sordid web of underground life. It didn’t occur to me that they may actually have normal lives and have chosen their occupation because it truly was, for them, the best fit.

I asked her about the clientele, if there times when she felt unsafe. She said that there were no times when she felt unsafe in this part of the world, but that she would not do what she did in her native New Jersey. She told me that the bachelor farmers of North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin were mostly good natured, well mannered, rough gentlemen. She said that they were lonely, and that their loneliness touched her. She explained how it made her feel as if she were doing some good in society and filling a deep need by providing not only succor and companionship, but also comfort to these men.

I laughed. It caught her attention and brought her out of her soul-plumbing groove. She leveled a curious and disdainful eye on me. I felt I had to explain. I told her that I was not laughing because what she was saying was amusing, but that I was laughing because I so easily recognized the correlation between what she was saying and what I had heard from a “comfort woman” in Korea. I paraphrased what the comfort woman had told me, which was that sex was not the object or the center of her industry, but that listening and understanding was central to the service provided. According to her, Asian (particularly Korean) comfort women filled the traditional role of women in the old society. They made men feel important, and led them away from their substantial day-to-day cares by engaging them in petty distractions that bordered on flirtation. With a broad repertoire of mimes and programmed reactions they could elicit emotions and responses from their clients. They perfected the “yin” to the male “yang”, and this was their product. If a man left her company feeling good and knowing that he would seek her out again then her interaction was successful. When she told me this, on that beach in Korea, I was assailed with the image of a T-lymphocyte forming the complementary shape to neutralize a jagged, threatening virus.

The dancer admitted that she was never a student of culture, but that she had always thought of herself as a student of psychology. She said that the Asian women had obviously given some thought to the whole thing, and asked what else I could tell her. I told her that they had been perfecting the role for hundreds of years and that she could learn more and stand on their shoulders by researching the geisha. She said that she would, and that she should be getting back to her first class sleeper car because the dining service would be serving her suite soon. She gave me her card and said that I should call her the very next time I was in the north but didn’t have a deadline or a strict itinerary. She offered to take me out for dinner and a show, which was kind. I thanked her and told her in truth that once I returned from Africa, if I returned, then my future was completely up in the air. We took our leave and I went back to my tiny seat, encroached upon by the rotund thighs of the drunken businessman next to me, and rooted through my backpack for peanut butter crackers and a boiled egg.

Thank God there were still two days to disentangle my thoughts.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Egg Lady

I was used to being an oddity by the time I became aware of the egg lady. I had been in Ghana for over a year and I had been at my site for about a year even. There were things that became a natural part of my day that theretofore had been stressors and that served to distract me from the normal observations I would make in the course of my life at that age. Before my interactions with the egg lady were over I was to learn to scrutinize my own perceptions of the apparent and the inferred. For that piece of self awareness I owe her so much; I won’t even try to get into the rest of it.

After my arrival at my site in the village of Besoro I was afforded the attention a rock star would get, but I had none of the benefits that went along with celebrity. I found that I was the sole representative of not only my country, but also of my race. I would be followed by children who would chant at me, asking for money and food, and who would scatter in fear if I were to turn my head. People of all ages gave me such attention. The elders told me how to live my life, every preacher made a play to have me attend his church. Women of my age were very forward with their curiosities.

For a long time I was so concerned with personal and professional matters of immediacy and urgency that I was constantly dealing with the moment, even though many of those moments were spent battling a cultural lethargy that I was not yet educated enough to understand. I chalked up some of what I considered then to be victories and got some committees formed and some concrete things built. I stayed busy in my personal life too.

When I finally had found the groove where my life was not a battle of convincing the community that they wanted my way or moment to moment spin control over my interpersonal relationships with authority figures and peers, I began to reap the rewards of the intercultural experience. I settled down to be myself and to live my life as a regular person, but a regular person in a West African village. The people got more accustomed to my being around and allowed me more leeway to live in normalcy. It was then that I noticed the egg lady.

I was in the center of the village for some reason or other. The village center was like the downtown. It was where the transport came and it was where stalls and kiosks were erected to carry out the commerce of the village, like the local Times Square. I was smoking a cigarette and leaning against the post of a building which needed my support more than I could count on its support. Across the street behind a small handmade school desk stood a young woman selling eggs.

She looked to be in her late teens or early twenties. Her comeliness and natural beauty were undeniable. I’m sure I had seen her before, but had not taken specific notice of her because she did not go out of her way to be noticed. She had an air of confidence about her, but not of arrogance. My initial impression was overwhelmed by what met the eye, but my subsequent surreptitious glances stoked further curiosity rather than sated it.

She caught me looking, and as I was rather more confident and less proper than I had been in the past, I winked at her. She was surprised by it I thought, because she laughed. She didn’t laugh coyly or coquettishly as if engaging in a flirtation, but she laughed like a child would when startled with a funny gesture or surprise face. That ingenuous laugh endeared her to me even more.

I took myself away as my piece of business required, but I noted to myself that I should get to know this girl. As was the local custom I sent my second man to make inquiries after her on my behalf. The initial feedback was positive. Apparently her concerns were whether or not I was encumbered with any relationships, what my intentions were with the inquiry, and to let me know that she would not engage in any meetings that were not at first properly chaperoned.

She came to my house and we spent an early evening cooking, discussing our different cultures, laughing in two languages, and laying the foundation for a friendship by clocking shared experience time. The twilight came, there was no electricity, and she took her leave. I walked her to the road. I wanted to kiss her, to touch her, but the opportunity was not presented, and I knew it was calculatedly not presented.

I went out of my way from then on to put myself in her line of sight during the day. As I went on with my business and she with hers, as we carried on our wake-a-day lives the coincidental incidents where we met and were made to interact became quite frequent. We would treat each other with mock aloofness then. Our interactions during the private time we made for each other were far less staged. She was learning about the world beyond the village through me and I was gaining more specific insights into the microcosm of not only Ashanti life, but also the life of the village too.

I can not say that I did not suffer from the same yearnings that all young men in my situation do. Prior to interacting with the egg lady I had not governed the conduct of my part in intercultural interrelationships by locally sociologically accepted rules. I did not press advances if there were no indication of reciprocal interest, but I had become accustomed to the reciprocal interest being present.

I could tell that this beautiful girl was interested in me. I knew she was interested in what I thought, how I felt, who influenced my life, how I would act in certain situations, whether or not I would let circumstances influence and compromise my ethics. She wasn’t interested in whether or not my eyes were actually cold because they were blue or how long it took to grow hair on your arms. As time went on she showed her interest by actually caring for my health and well being.

By the time the coming gloaming would not chase her back to her mother’s house we had built a solid relationship on the foundation of shared experience and mutual respect. She had ensured that our relationship was not marred by a premature acquiescence to the basest inclinations that lurk around relationships once they are known to be more than acquaintance. She was able to manipulate me as if she had known me all of my life. The first time I put my lips to her ear it was to whisper an inside joke in public, and the first time we were breathless in each other’s arms it was from laughter.

I can now admit that I had prejudged her, and that this was a terrible disservice. I had allowed my biological reaction to the text she portrayed to cloud my initial judgment of her capacities. I had allowed experience of others of her ethnicity to fill in blanks around what I perceived her behavior would be. I had allowed experience of others of her beauty to project character traits onto her. All mistaken, all wrong.

I think, all things being equal, that if our relationship were to have progressed at the predictable pace and evolutionary cycle of my previous relationships then we would have known each other as intimate acquaintances and would not have afforded ourselves the opportunity to explore who we truly were and could be to each other. I know that she did not premeditate the progression of our relationship and that her actions and activity was a derivative of who she was as a person.

Slowly, surely, I fell in love with her. I never had a chance.

Now, when I sit in traffic on a frigid night, or battling my way through the current of thronging, angry Boston commuters on the red line I find my mind wandering back to those sultry African nights when I had the undivided attention of a beautiful young woman who wanted to properly and meticulously fall in love. I am often overcome, overwhelmed, by the longing for those lost days, and my greater heart, from my solar plexus to my Adam’s apple becomes a vacuum of need for that beautiful young woman.

I suffer like that until I come through my front door and I am assailed by the savory smell of West African cooking and a different beautiful girl jumps into my arms with the cry of, “Daddy!” And the egg lady, all these years older, but still young and beautiful gives me her trademark smile; a smile that affects me the same way in our Boston suburb as it does in our house back in that village. It serves to remind me that home is truly where the heart is, and that I should find a job closer to home.

Asia, Bullfights, and a New America

I remember coming home from Korea for good. It was a strange trip, as were many of the trips I took back then. I traveled a long distance in space in a short distance in time. The world around me changed rapidly and my ability to relate to it and to digest and react to the local environmental stimuli did not change as quickly. Luckily, I had experience and training in dealing with entering new cultures and situations. One might not think that returning to one’s native country would require training in dealing with new cultures, but it does. Expatriates often imagine that their home country stays the same while they are gone, and that everything will be the same when they return. This particular journey home served to punctuate how change is as constant and as consistent as the staccato rhythm of rocking train cars on steel rails.

I left Pusan and flew through Kimpo International Airport in Seoul straight to Los Angeles. I remember the approach to LAX very well. I don’t know why it sticks out in my mind. I had never been to LA by that time; I had flown through San Francisco on my way to Korea. I fully expected LA to look like any of the other big cities I had seen from the air. I had just come from Korea, which was at the time the most densely populated country in the world- even more densely populated than Japan. Everywhere in Korea the people congregated in tightly packed population centers in order to preserve the most arable land possible because arable land to the Koreans was a very important resource in the national defense. I thought I would see outlying farmland or unoccupied forest or mountain and then suburban housing and finally the eruption of skyscrapers and ribbons of highway that encircle big cities. Los Angeles was nothing like that. Los Angeles began far out of the center of the city and continued on forever and ever. The height of the buildings remained fairly low and there were no hills that broke up the endless grid of neighborhoods and businesses. In my mind LA was the reason the term “urban sprawl” was coined. It amazed me that people could live there and not go mad.

After shuffling through the velvet ropes and being herded through customs I was deposited outside on a curb at LAX. I don’t know why I was surprised to see palm trees and to feel the warmth of the Southern California air. It was then that I was introduced to LA’s world-famous smog. I waited for a while and was met by Lynne H, who I had worked with in Korea trying to find investors for American inventions, which is another story entirely. After a brief reunion greeting and introduction to a friend who had accompanied her on the trip to the airport I put my bag in the trunk of her large American car and we were on our way to her place in Indio.

Lynne’s friend was trying to draw stories out of her about her long and interesting career as a private investigator and Lynne was trying to get some stories out about the time when she was the first female matador in the Tijuana bullrings. She had planned for us to spend a long weekend in Tijuana to attend a bullfight. It was her intention to provide me an education in the sport, as we had long discussions in Korea about the value of blood sport in the modern era. We got stuck in traffic in Korea-town, a section of LA that is exclusively Korean like Chinatown is Chinese. The people on the street were all ethnic Korean, Korean was being spoken, and the signs were almost all in Korean, but the buildings were distinctly American and the cars were all American. I had not slept in a day and a half, and I had a few minutes of not knowing if I was in Korea or America. My eye was drawn to the Korean stimuli outside the window, but the temperature was definitely not Korean and I was attempting to feign interest in the conflicting conversations about tracking killers and killing bulls. It was a kind of confusing I had not experienced since mefloquine side effects in the Sahel. Eventually Lynne said that they would not bother me any further because I must be exhausted, and I apologetically agreed. The car started moving again and I dozed, waking up in the driveway of one of the dots on the endless grid I had seen from the sky.

Lynne lived with her husband in a middle class home in Indio. Lynne and her husband were in the process of getting a divorce, but were obviously still very good friends. They had been in the process of divorcing for some months and they were still living together. I found that very strange. I was at first a bit concerned that her husband would be uncomfortable with a single man staying under his roof as a guest of his wife’s- I was not completely comfortable with it. Her husband Dave turned out to be a great guy, though, with whom I hit it off immediately. Perhaps he knew the relationship between Lynne and me. I was a friend of Lynne’s boyfriend in Korea. He had introduced me to some business opportunities that never panned out, but I got to know them quite well while we waited for the business to fail. They were quite a bit older than me, so that made my platonic interaction with Lynn in the U.S. that much more believable.

Lynne and Dave set me up in the extra bedroom and insisted that I rest in order to refresh myself after the long journey. I told them that I wanted to try to stay awake as long as I could in order to normalize my schedule as quickly as possible. They insisted a bit more and then acquiesced. All four of us sat at the kitchen table and discussed the itinerary of the journey Lynne and I would take to Tijuana. We would spend two days touring Southern California from the house in Indio and then drive south to Mexico where we would stay in a nice hotel Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday night before returning to Indio Monday morning. I would then be put on a train in Santa Barbara for a three day journey back to Massachusetts.

I had never been in Southern California before. After I got out of the Peace Corps I took a trip to Northern California and Colorado with Noah, an old friend from home, but we never got further south than Davis. This was my first chance to soak up the atmosphere of what I had seen on TV and movie screens all my life. While Lynne and “Mrs. Dr. Carter” caught up in the living room I stood outside with Dave grilling steak and drinking a Corona. We talked about the potential for flash floods the same days that there was the potential for flash fires. He told me about treasure hunting with his metal detector and genuinely piqued my interest in it. We talked about differences in the culture of the West Coast and the East Coast. He told me about the nuanced differences between what he called “coastal Southern Californians and desert Southern Californians”. Over the next two days I had the opportunity to carry on different iterations of the same conversation with Dave. As Lynne was preparing me for my Mexican bullfighting education Dave was carrying on my education in Southern California culture. I enjoyed and appreciated his input and I endeavored to observe his lessons in action as I moved through the Southern California days.

Rancho Mirage, Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and Indio were all stops on my whirlwind tour of Southern California. I ate in some of the restaurants that the stars ate in. I attended a rally for South American immigration. I started my one day Spanish language course by shopping on the roadside and ordering at Carl’s Jr., a fast food place we don’t have on the East Coast. I tried to assimilate as much of the total experience as I could. One day we were driving on the highway through the southern part of the city, which as I said, is huge. Lynne’s old American car started to make a thump-thump-thumping noise and I hung my head out the window to see what it might be. One of her retreads had come off, unpeeled from the core of the tire, and was certain to pop, leaving only a tire husk on the side of the highway. I told her what it was and pointed to a gas station at the next exit. I insisted that we stop there so I could throw the spare tire on or get the tire changed. She slowed down as much as she could, but refused to stop. I did not at all understand why she wouldn’t stop. I again let her know, as we passed the exit, that the tire wouldn’t make it very far.
“What does the exit sign say?” she asked.
“Crenshaw Boulevard,” I replied.
“Uh-huh,” she said, by way of explanation. I didn’t get it.
“I don’t get it,” I said. She then explained that white people didn’t stop at Crenshaw Boulevard. Not for a flat tire, not for a raging fire under your hood, not if gremlins swarmed over your vehicle and pulled it apart bolt by bolt. It was not until after I returned to the East Coast that I learned that Crenshaw Boulevard was famous for its gang activity.

I had in the past wondered why one area could be “good” while an adjacent area could be “bad”. The attributes of the land and the resource endowments were the same, what made the difference between a good place and a bad place? I first thought of this regarding Campello, my neighborhood in Brockton, as opposed to West Bridgewater, which is a nice little town on the other side of a political boundary- an imaginary line. I still don’t have an answer, but in Southern California it was much easier to make the distinction. A bad area was brown and a good area was green. This is because the wealthier people can afford water to support their landscape. Indio was mostly brown, but Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage were green. They also had mostly gated communities, in which the people who were keeping the land green were brown. The difference between good and bad areas divided by an imaginary line was about to be completely driven home by the differences across the line that separated San Diego from Tijuana.

The day that we left for Mexico we woke up early and had to lay in provisions for the drive. According to Lynne, no one should go into the desert without extra water, adjustable size belts, and at least one spare tire. She said that people died when their cars gave out in the desert, because of the elements on the U.S. side and because of the elements and the bandits on the Mexican side. I said I found that difficult to believe in the modern era, but she assured me that her tenure as a CHP had proven it. When we were properly provisioned we lit out for the border. I asked if she wanted me to drive for a while, and she said that since I had not driven in so long that it would not be a good idea for me to get behind the wheel on that particular stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. It was not long into the trip that I realized that she probably was right, but I still wished I was behind the wheel so I could hit the brake at my discretion. She still drove like a CHP, and going over the mountains there were sheer drops of what seemed like thousands of feet. I was in the passenger side so I could easily see the guardrail less than an inch from the door and beyond it the smiling face of St. Peter following his index finger down the list searching the “F”s. When I wasn’t completely terrified I was in awe of the stark beauty of the mountainous desert. There were some similarities to the Sahel that I could see, and in retrospect I can picture some similarities to the edge of the Saudi desert. I knew then as I sat in the passenger seat that there was a magnificent experience to be had out there in the desert, but that I couldn’t ever get an appreciation for it from the seat of a Lincoln.

Thankfully, we stopped at a roadside restaurant and I was able to gather my wits. It was an old working ranch that had been turned into a sort of an attraction. There was ground water there, so originally it was a Pima Indian settlement. The settlement then became the site of a Spanish Catholic mission, and the mission church had been turned into a museum. We went through the museum and it was there that I learned that the Pima had made bread from ground acorns from the many oak trees that grew in the area. My nephew John has some Pima blood, so I took note of all that I could. It was interesting. I had the opportunity to get a buffalo burger in the restaurant. I had never tried buffalo meat, so I got one. I found that it was leaner than beef but less flavorful. If I had to live off the land on the plains I could easily get used to buffalo. The burger was enormous, but I ate the whole thing so I could say that I didn’t waste any part of the buffalo.

We continued on until we could see the ocean, and it too was a rewardingly beautiful sight. The highway ran alongside San Diego for a long while, and to my eye, from the front seat of a car, San Diego looked like a very nice city. If we weren’t trying to check in before nightfall we would have stopped to see Chicano park. Close to the border we saw those highway signs that seem so surreal, the ones with silhouettes of nuclear families in running poses. The signs that make motorists aware that families of illegals may be sprinting across the highway. I couldn’t believe they were real- I still can’t. As we approached the border traffic became stop and go, and we inched toward Mexico.

The border between Mexico and the United States was not at all how I had imagined it. I took a long look at it from afar as we approached and I realized that our southern border is much more porous than I, and I expect many other New Englanders, ever imagined. There were streams of cars on either side of glorified tollbooths and chain link fence. There were stairs leading over the fence funneling foot traffic to the customs checks. It reminded me of the border with Canada, which I had seen several times, but the Mexican border was much browner, hotter, and more sinister. For us blue eyed Caucasians with American passports I thought crossing would be much easier than it would be for Mexican-looking people. I was wrong. Crossing from the United States to Mexico was easy for anyone at all. The U.S. was not trying to keep anyone in and Mexico was not trying to keep anyone out. From the U.S. side of the border the crossing was the inconvenient wait of a traffic jam. On the Mexican side it was an open air bazaar not terribly unlike some of the busier markets I had perused in Africa. In fact, the surroundings and the weather made me think of Bolgatanga. The big difference was that in Africa I could communicate. In TJ I was just another gringo who no hablo Espanol.

We drove through the outskirts of the city and in toward the center, to the hotel near the bullring. There was the first and only time thus far that I have experienced the third world in America. Clearly the people were poverty stricken and clearly they were battling for subsistence on the edge of a bustling city. I saw shacks thrown together out of whatever material was available with naked and barefoot children darting in and out of outdoor cooking fires. In my mind I was reliving visits to squalid villages, but this time there were big American cars parked here and there, and some of the building material was obviously the sheet metal of defunct appliances. In Africa the destitution is set against the background of forested nature, and one does not get the feeling that the people are destitute as much as one gets the feeling that they are only lacking cargo. The people there laugh and smile and fight and drink and love, but they do all those things without the trappings of manufactured stuff all around them. In Tijuana the destitution was clearly juxtaposed against a well developed city, and though I do not know how it affected the occupants of those shanties it saddened me that much more. The sociologist Max Weber wrote that one cannot miss what one has never known, and postulated that those in close proximity to great wealth will feel poverty stricken, even if they can subsist handily. As we drove out of the shanties and into the manicured, palm-lined streets I guessed that he might be right.

We arrived at a hotel whose name now escapes me but was clearly one of the better hotels in the city. It was located close to the bullring and the streets around it were well kept and clean, and so were the people on those streets. The hotel was set up like an old Roman villa, with a large swimming pool in the center and two tiers of large rooms around it in a horseshoe shape. The front of the hotel took up the last side of the pool with the reception area facing the street and a restaurant half in and half out of the covered building, so patrons could either eat in the building or poolside. Upstairs over the restaurant was the nightclub, and there was a swim-up bar inside the pool. We each paid about thirty dollars per night for our large poolside rooms. Each room had twin beds, bathroom and shower, and free HBO. It was a great bargain, and I’d go back in a heartbeat if I had the chance.

We checked in at the hotel and then went out to get something to eat and to meet some of the people to whom Lynne wanted to introduce me. It turned out that the hotel was where the important people in the bullfighting world came to stay during the Tijuana season. The shops and restaurants around the area were the places where one could expect to rub elbows with the bullfighting elite. Lynne really was the first female matador in Tijuana, regardless of how much I wanted to disbelieve her. When we strolled out into the heat of the dusty late afternoon we were met by one after another of well groomed, well heeled, slick middle aged aficionados who stopped Lynne to greet her and schedule some of her time for later conversation. We met critics who wrote for the newspapers in Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Madrid. We met ranchers who were famous for producing the finest bulls in the Americas; the ranchers were celebrities in their own rights. We met picadors and rodeo clowns. We met judges. We met every kind of bullfighting dignitary there is, and they all knew Lynne. I was beginning to think that there was no bullshit in the stories I had heard as we sat by the Pacific with Korean beers eating crunching, wriggling, live things from the sea. At those times in Korea I had the local vocabulary and I knew the powerful people. In this instance, in Tijuana, I was very definitely in Lynne’s world.

Lynne suggested the place to go and when we got there she surreptitiously tipped the maitre d’ to get us seated ahead of the line. She ordered in Spanish and it was there that I was introduced to real Mexican food. I had eaten faux Mexican food at Mexican places in Massachusetts, and it was always good, but I knew in my heart of hearts that it was not authentic. The authentic Mexican food was far more nutritious and delicious than I had had before. The patron spices his or her own food with peppers in Mexico, so the food can be spiced to taste. The Mexican beer was good too. I tried a Tecate because it was so much cheaper than Corona or Dos Equis, and found that I liked it better than Corona but not as well as Dos Equis. Mariachis wandered among the tables serenading people for small donations. I was unused to the local currency and did not know what was considered acceptable as a tip or payment, so I deferred to Lynne’s suggestions of how liberal to be with the pesos. We finished a good meal and made our way back to the hotel to turn in for the night in order to be well refreshed for the full day the next day.

Later that night I was as surprised to see Lynne in the hotel bar as she was to see me. She had assumed that I was still experiencing jetlag, which I was, and that I wouldn’t want to be out after dark, which I did. Lynne was ensconced at a table with some of the bullfighting dignitaries that we had seen on our walk earlier. There were introductions all around again and I got to use my new Spanish phrase, “mucho gusto” until it came as naturally as the Korean it was edging out of my head. I made polite conversation with everyone and was able to communicate so well through clearly spoken English and Spanish and through patient translators that I was warmly received by the who’s who of the bullfighting world. I was invited to tour the bullring the next day and to attend the viewing of the bulls, which is an honor not afforded to any “nuevo aficionado”. I graciously accepted and must admit that I felt quite a bit like Ernest Hemingway.

Lynne asked me to accompany her to the bar to carry drinks even though there was a waiter shuffling drinks to and from the bar. I went. She took the opportunity to apprise me that one of the older gentlemen, a critic from an interior newspaper, was projecting his attentions on her rather forcefully, and that she had told him that we were there as a couple in order to distance him. I had to bite back a laugh because the old codger was well into his seventies to the eye, and Lynne was as much older than me as he was of her. I somberly agreed to bear this in mind as the night progressed and could barely keep from writing a situation comedy on the premise. Sometimes life is funnier than fiction. I have told a couple of people this story as a funny anecdote and they seem to think that this was Lynne’s way of intimating that we should spend the remainder of the weekend as more than traveling companions, and seeing the story in print the telling of it does lead one to believe that. However, I never got the feeling that that was her intention and I was usually rather attuned to such insinuations. I think to properly appreciate it you had to have seen the old critic. Thinking about it still makes me smile. Ha!

Not long after returning with the drinks Lynne took her leave while I was still at the table, making it difficult for the old codger to follow. It was cannily done. I assumed that the folks would take their leave as the night grew long, but apparently no one was going to make the first move. Eventually midnight rolled around and they were all still in attendance. I had drained enough Tecate bottles to render the language chasm a moot issue and was having a good time learning about Mexico, bullfighting, and the individual’s lives. I found out that the slick, handsome, young men on the dance floor who comported themselves like astronauts were actually matadors. The toreros had a fast and loose reputation and were living up to it on this particular night. The dance floor filled up with pretty young girls who acted as satellites dancing around the mainly stationary matadors. The poor slick matadors were terribly outnumbered, but were holding their own famously. As my beery eye lingered on one or the other young girl too long they called me out to the dance floor in English and Spanish, gesturing with their hands and their eyes. I remembered my acquiescence to Lynne’s charade ruefully- the old goat was still at the table! I finished the last beer I had and also took my leave, bested by the gray haired Mexican teenagers. I was later to learn that in Mexico it is not uncommon for people to start their night at ten and only go to bed when the sun comes up.

The sun came through the window’s louver and detonated my head far too early the next morning. I had slept until almost 11:00, but that was OK, because everyone else had too. I rolled out of bed and showered and brushed my teeth. I sat in the hotel’s restaurant and drank some very good strong coffee and had authentic huevos rancheros. My tongue found it excellent, but my stomach thought it a bit heavy. I finished it and took a swim in the pool while waiting for Lynne to come out of her room. I swum up and ordered a Bloody Mary as hair of the dog that bit me. It was all very decadent, but refreshingly so. I was wishing for a Korean mok yok tang and some hae zhang kuk to chase the hangover away. I sat watching the aching and weary Mexicans and gringos emerging from their rooms and felt a twinge of homesickness for the comfort and familiarity of Pusan. I was still dreaming in Korea. The heat and the music reminded me that I was no longer there.

Lynne came in from the street side of the pool. She went to bed so early the night before that she woke up bright and early and went out souvenir shopping. She told me that we would tour the bullring early that afternoon, so I should make my preparations. I let myself float around lazily for a little while longer and then got out and got ready to go. The tour of the bullring was one of the best takes I can remember.

I can remember quite clearly the ride to the bullring on that Saturday afternoon. Lynne didn’t want to drive if she didn’t have to, and I got to experience my first Tijuana taxi ride. The brine of the experience was not the speed of the vehicle or the meandering through the tangle of streets, but rather it was the haggling with the driver over the price of the ride prior to getting into the taxi and then haggling over the price again when we arrived at the destination. There was a meter, but the driver insisted that it did not work. Lynne’s Spanish was impeccable, but the driver pretended not to understand either English or her Spanish. I was tempted to begin haggling in Korean or Ashanti, but I knew that would not get us a better price. Throughout the ride I hung on for dear life and kept my eyes glued on the cityscape zooming by. Lynne commented that I was like a typical first time gringo turista with my neck swiveling around to take it all in. She may not have known, but I was more interested in how many Americans I could see than in the local hawkers or the urban poverty. It crossed my mind that the lure of life in the charming slow lane might attract quite a few American expatriates, and I wondered if there were a significant amount of Americans who made their homes in Mexico or if the Mexican lifestyle exerted cultural force on Southern California or Texas and slowed the pace of life in the abutting areas of those states.

We arrived at the bullring and Lynne paid with dollars while I fumbled with dollars, pesos, and Korean won. I told her I’d pay on the way back and asked if there were anywhere I could change Korean money. By way of answer she only laughed.

We were met by some of the crowd from the previous night. The facility was closed to the public and our tour would be a unique, uninhibited experience. The critics were very nice to me and walked me around the facility. There were people in various stages of preparation and as we approached each was happy to be interrupted in his work and describe what it was he was doing. Many of the hands working directly with the horses and the bulls appeared very gruff. They were hard working men who were short in their answers and obsequious to no one. Although I could not understand their speech I knew their responses were terse and utilitarian. They had a large metal tub in the stable filled with ice and cans of Tecate, which they held and disposed of nonchalantly. They didn’t care at all that they were working or that people were watching. They reminded me of construction workers in New England, and though we couldn’t really talk, I liked them anyway.

We met picadors and matadors walking the ring in teams. I didn’t realize that the picadors and matadors colluded so closely in formulating their strategies to conquer the bulls. The actual bull fighters were deferent to the critics, and it was clear that they were interested in influencing their press at any opportunity. I could tell that they were trying to advance their careers just like so many businessmen at cocktail parties, trying to leave powerful people with positive impressions about them. I thought that they may have overdone it a bit, in light of the fact that the world would be able to see how skilled they were or were not at their craft the very next day in the center of the ring.

All the while we were meeting and talking the critic from Los Angeles was progressing my education about the sport as a whole and about the constituent parts as we encountered them. I think she most appreciated my lack of understanding of the sport and could sense how interested I really was. I would be doing the sport a terrible wrong if I attempted to paraphrase the lessons of that day, so I will not. I was not so surprised to learn that there were matadors who were more European than Indian, even though they were all Mestizos. The whiter matadors played to their whiter, more affluent crowds who could afford seats in the shaded area of the arena, the “sombra”, while the darker matadors played to their proletariat supporters in the sun-struck, or “sol” part of the arena. The critic made me promise to take note of the placement of the bulls the next day as the two matadors worked their charges. I said I would, and I did, and she was right.

I was brought to meet the rancher who provided the bulls. I had sat next to him the night before and we had some exchanges that began as probing questions and probable answers intimated through gestures and long shot vocabulary. Toward the end of my night I had begun to substitute some high school French for Spanish, thinking it might be understood. Surprisingly, some of it was. On more than one occasion during our exchanges we were quite obviously following separate lines of inquiry and response, and building on our erroneous one-sided conversations. For example, he would say something that I would interpret to be a question about life in Korea, and I would do my best to be understood in my response. He would gesticulate and lean in to be heard over the music and then nod knowingly, and I would assume he had built on my response or asked a follow-up question. When eventually, incontrovertibly, we knew that we were on different wavelengths we broke down into the kind of laughter that is self perpetuating; the kind of laughter that precludes all propriety and is so conspicuous as to draw stares from adjacent tables. Because we were unable to communicate verbally we connected on a level more rudimentary than cerebral, and we had a good time. I learned from the Los Angeles critic that he was fabulously wealthy (he was very well turned out) and that he paid for our night of revelry.

He was happy to see me and we laughed at our shared gestures indicating aching heads in the morning. I gave him Korean cigarettes; he gave me a Cuban cigar. He took care to explain about the bloodlines of the bulls he raised and how they stretched across the globe. The critic translated quite clearly and took care to verify that I understood. By the time our brief conversation was over I had a much deeper appreciation of the importance of the breeding and ranching of the bulls to the sport itself. The ranchers were as important to the sport as the matadors. I also had an invitation to the ranch, where apparently I could stay as long as I wanted in perfect comfort. As I asked the critic to translate my inability to accept his hospitality she intimated that this was perhaps an opportunity I should not pass up. I promised to think about it and reply by Sunday night.

The critic took her leave to rub elbows with movers and shakers, as the tour was at its end, and I thanked her profusely. I shook hands with the toreros and bad them be careful in their conflicts the next day. I wandered into the holding pens again to internalize the fear I had of these massive animals. Casually I pulled a Tecate out of the tub and cracked it. The hands gave me a cursory glance and left me to my own devices.

As it stood I didn’t have to pay for the taxi back to the hotel. We caught a ride with some of the out of town bullfighting dignitaries. Lynne and I agreed to relax for a while and reconvene for a late lunch or early dinner and some sightseeing and souvenir shopping. I went back to my room to bathe and relax. I then went to the front desk and changed some dollars for pesos, only to find out later that I never needed to. I drank some tea and took a quick siesta and woke to a knock on my door.

Lynne took me to a part of the city that had open air cafes with overhead misting tubes like there were in Palm Springs. She said that this part of town was where we would find the most developed amenities. I told her that it was very nice, but that I wanted to see something a bit less cosmopolitan, that I wanted to take in a bit of the local color. She understood and asked what, particularly, I had in mind. I asked her to take me to a place she used to frequent when she was living there fighting bulls. She laughed and said that all of those places were gone, thankfully, and that she outgrew them for her own safety. We went to a place I’ll never forget, though I’ll never remember where it is. We took a cab to somewhere close to but not in the barrios we drove through the day before. We got out, walked for a while, and abruptly ducked into a shabby building’s basement. Along the sidewalk outside I was sure there were eyes on us that we could not see. I had just gotten one of those strong feelings, like I had when the British soldier had his sniper rifle’s crosshairs on my neck, but I never found the source of my unease. We walked into the small, dim basement eatery and Lynne sat directly at a high table on the side, and I sat opposite her. The place looked like it was a storage room that had been converted into a business. Lynne ordered a local specialty for both of us and it was somehow, magically, exactly what the doctor ordered. I’m under the impression still that it was some kind of pulled pork on a bed of rice, but it reversed all of the gastrointestinal issues I could tell were mounting. There were no other gringos in the place. There were probably six or seven guys and they were all drunk. They were not happily sharing a drink with some friends on a fanciful afternoon; they were about the business of drinking heavily. They had bottles of tequila sitting on their tables and they drank, shuddered, and poured again. There was no question that they were drinking to numb out the heat, smoke, and stench of the world outside the door that was their lives. I had been in many such drinking parlors in Africa, but none of them had food this good. I was just waiting for one of the drinkers’ anger at the world to be turned toward us in the form of shouting, mumbled insults, or loud insistence that we buy booze for the locals. I had steeled myself for a conflict that never came. I was unused to being one of such a prevalent minority. Gringos stood out here, but I guess were common enough to be window dressing.

Leaving the eatery, we headed toward an outdoor market where tourists normally shopped for trinkets. It was pretty busy but the sellers weren’t as aggressive as I thought they would be. Many of them waited for the buyers to approach them. I was told by Lynne and “Mrs. Dr. Carter” back in Indio that the popular things to buy for souvenirs were vanilla, tequila, and hand woven blankets. I bargained a bit and bought a couple of things. I didn’t stick to my prices like I would have in Africa or would later in Hong Kong because my heart wasn’t truly in it. I was bargaining for tourist trinkets because I felt I should, not because I really wanted to or needed anything.

We again returned to the hotel to repose until the evening’s activities were to begin. By this time I knew that the night would start late and would go late, so I half dozed and watched a movie. I got the distinct idea that it was not problematic for Mexicans to have several late nights in a row. In Korea there could be a holiday or festival or even just a Saturday night that allowed people to get out and blow off steam, but you wouldn’t see the same people out the very next night doing the same thing. This was to be my brush with the Latin lifestyle, and I was just a bit rueful that it would be spent with a group of people out of my age group.

We all got together at the hotel bar and decided that we would go out to where the matadors said they were going to be for the night. They went to Senor Frog’s, which I was to learn was a modern franchise bar that was famous for its outrageous youthful benders. The critics said that there were matadors from around the circuit who were in town to watch the bullfight tomorrow, to check out the competition, and they were all going to Senor Frog’s. We decided we would go along as well.

We took a taxi there and when we got to the parking lot I knew this would not be a low key night with elders. The place was packed with young people and there was a pervasive nervous energy that ran through the line of people queued up to get inside like electricity. I thought the older people might be put off or feel out of place, but they were as embroiled in the atmosphere as any of the youths. My earlier rue about the company was misplaced. When we got to the front of the line I realized there was a metal detector at the door, and there were security guards frisking the patrons before allowing them entry. This gave me pause and made me wonder a bit. The critic from Los Angeles voiced her concern about the relative safety of the place if there were such stringent security measures, and the rancher, I think, shouted her down, cajoling her for her lack of adventurous spirit. Lynne’s translation proved me right, and we all went inside.

When we got inside the rancher insisted that some of the workers put tables together to accommodate our party, which was large. While they were at that I went to the bar to get drinks for ladies with whom I was standing. One wanted a mixed drink and one wanted wine. I wondered how I would order these drinks, trying to remember the drabs of Spanish that I had picked up over the last couple of days. I looked around for the bar. The place was exactly like so many modern bars all around the world. It had an open floor plan with high ceilings with ceiling fans and subdued décor. The bar was long and made of hardwood, and was conspicuously stocked with every kind of liquor known to man. There were two bartenders and people were stacked up three deep waiting to be served. I waited patiently and when I got to the front I started to stammer out my order in weak, faltering Spanish. The bartender motioned for my to move my head closer so we could hear each other over the music.
“Just tell me what the hell you want!” he shouted in my ear. I guess they got a lot of Americans there. I gave him my order, chuckling to myself, and when I told him I wanted beer he asked me if I wanted a big one or a small one. To me that was an unnecessary question, and I quickly said that I wanted a big one. What I did not realize was that a small beer was a bucket of ice with four pony Coronas stuck in the ice and a big beer was a bucket of ice with seven pony Coronas stuck in the ice. I paid and tipped the bartender and struggled back through the crowd to the table. I had to explain my misunderstanding and asked anyone if they cared for a little beer. There were no takers.

Because the tables were pushed together the outside table almost touched the dance floor. There was only one unoccupied seat and it was at the very end. I sat there and put the bucket of beer on the table. I was taking in the atmosphere and watching the people as they drank and danced and bounced around. Everyone was fashionable and everyone was well aware that they were seeing and being seen. The scene was both avant-garde and high society at the same time. I tried in vain to carry on a conversation above the oppressively loud music but soon settled in to enjoy the unique experience for what it was.

I had only gotten halfway through my first beer when the fight broke out. Apparently one of the out of town bullfighters was dancing with the girlfriend of a local bullfighter, which is offensive enough in and of itself, but he had also taken liberties considered to be inappropriate with the girl. I was to learn that this was the immediate cause for a long standing rivalry to manifest itself as a violent incident. There were associated parties aware of the situation all around the bar, and when the two principal antagonists began throwing punches, they all did. Just like in a movie the entire place erupted as if on cue. Half of the crowd went down in tangles of appendages like in real fights, but a fair few remained on their feet swinging fists and hurling glasses. I was not in a mood to get involved in a fight of any sort in Tijuana because I had heard that Mexican jails were not hospitable places to be, and none of my next of kin knew that I was in North America, never mind that I was in Tijuana. I sat rigidly at the end of the table trying to stay alert in case some projectile or other should encroach on one of the ladies with whom I was sitting. Although I was just sitting down I had adrenaline coursing through my veins and I was more awake than I had been in a long time. Across the dance floor two guys were locked in combat. The one with his back to me leaned over a table to grab some utensil to use as a weapon of opportunity and his counterpart rushed him and grabbed him under the arms while continuing the charge. The one with his back to me had to backpedal in order to keep from losing his footing, and the charger raced with him all the way across the dance floor. I kept my eye on these two until I realized that they would arrive at our table in a second. Thinking quickly I grabbed the beers off of the landing zone and placed them on the floor by my side. No sooner was the beer safe from harm than two angry, sweating, cursing Mexican youths landed on our table. For a second the scene was laughably grotesque. These two guys were struggling in a battle of physical strength, I was holding a half full beer above them, and on the other side a middle aged Mexican woman was loudly berating them both, as if they were her children. The one contacting the table rolled off and took the assailant with him to continue their struggle on the floor. Out of nowhere police and security guards appeared and swept everyone on the floor out toward the door in a practiced maneuver. Because I replaced the bucket to its original spot, was evidently unflustered, and continued drinking the beer, I was left alone as were the rest of the patrons at our tables. The entire incident took no more than six or seven minutes tops.

The clientele with whom I had arrived decided that it would not be wise to stay, and we took our leave of the place and the brooding crowd of sanguine youths in the parking lot. One of the doormen advised me not to take the bucket, but encouraged me to secret the remaining bottles around my person for carriage back to the hotel. When I did, I realized just how cold beers left in a bucket of ice can get. When we got back to the hotel everyone said their goodnights, but I had the same hum in my ears that I had after boxing matches at college, so I took my tiny beers poolside and went for a swim while admiring the stars. As I toweled off and was putting myself to bed I thought of what a strange sequence of events filled up the day and I thought about the bullfight I was to see the next day. That night I dreamt of the time I was swept off the streets by the Korean military and in my dream the Korean language filled my ears. In reality it was an argument between two of the domestic workers at the hotel that woke me up, jolting me into a world of loud, angry Spanish. I took a leak and wondered how much weirder it could get.

The next day we woke up and had breakfast together and went to the bullring. The atmosphere was one of festivity. There were people selling programs and there were hawkers of all sorts outside the arena. We went inside and took our seats on the “sombra” side. The people with whom we had been interacting up until that point were sequestered away in special press boxes and judges stands. Lynne told me that sitting in among the people was the best way to experience a bullfight. She explained the entire event as it unfolded, and the electricity of the event was undeniable. According to Lynne, and later all of the others, there could be no better bullfight to attend as one’s first. It was rife with drama, courage, honor, and violence. The first matador was the European looking Mexican who worked his bull masterfully and dispatched him with workmanlike efficiency. His muleta work was a study in form and finesse. The shouts of “ole!” that welled up from the crowd were well deserved and heartfelt. We had the best view of his work because he brought the bull to our side, as the critic said he would. The judges awarded him both ears and the tail, showing he had earned the prize of their respect. The second matador was the dark mestizo who waved off the picadors so his bull would not be too wounded to be spirited. He brought the bull to the “sol” side of the arena, and took bold chances with him. His bull seemed angrier than the one before him and one could feel the malicious rage as he flailed his murderous horns harmlessly through the empty cape, until he finally located the matador and gored him horribly, throwing him over his horns and through the air. The first matador was called to draw the bull away as assistants dragged the wounded matador outside the ring. The first matador had gotten the bull’s attention and then had jumped over the boards as he approached. The bull found himself to be the only one in the ring for a short while, and his rage played out alongside his confusion. Lynne explained that in the event that a matador is gored the other matador on the day must finish his bull. She further explained that once the bull has figured out to go for the person instead of the cape, they are infinitely more dangerous. She said that this was the case with almost all bulls who were allowed to live to sire the great lines that were sent to Europe. This was obviously no consolation to the first matador who knew the danger he was in as he reentered the ring. He was visibly shaken and fearful. He had not taken the same chances as the first matador and his bull had been less dangerous from the outset. He approached the bull and allowed one or two wide passes, then he retired as far away from the bull as he could get. The audience, including me, was rapt. In my mind this had gone from a guy fighting a bull to a bull fighting a guy, and the bull had the upper hoof, so to speak. Then the wounded matador limped back into the ring, using his sword as a crutch, determined to finish the bull or let the bull finish him. The lighter skinned matador was visibly relieved and hopped the boards without being asked. The crowd who had been happy to oblige the stand in matador with “ole!” broke into a chant of “Torero! Torero!” stomping the aisles of the arena in cadence and making the entire structure shake. I knew this man had come to kill this animal, but his courage was undeniable. The bull seemed to recognize his assailant and attacked him at once. The matador allowed a few close passes, going down on one knee and leaning an arm on the ground for support, but always keeping the bull’s blood pumping out of its body. Then, when the matador could no longer muster the strength to work the cape he had to deliver the coup de grace, and there was only one way to do it. He lured the bull into a full charge straight at him, at the last moment throwing the cape to the ground and fully exposing his body. When the bull lowered his head to gore the matador, the matador placed his hand between the bull’s eyes and leapt over his horns to plunge the sword down between his shoulder blades and through the heart. The noble bull instantly fell in a heap, and the matador collapsed.

The crowd had gone absolutely wild and the arena was in complete pandemonium. Medics had run to the field to take the matador away and were assailed by a hail of flowers that piled up on top of him on the stretcher as he was removed. A judge came to the center of the ring after conferring with his compatriots and held up the ears, feet, and tail, indicating that the matador had earned them all, because the matador could not receive them. Lynne told me that no one would leave the grounds until they learned the fate of the matador, so I flagged down the beer guy and bought a Tecate. We stayed on site until it was announced over the loudspeaker that the matador would be able to make a full recovery in time.

The critics had all run for interviews and to make sure their articles would make the press times for their publications. The ranchers were aggressively marketing the bull’s progeny to principal parties from around South America and Europe. Lynne and I went out for dinner to discuss the afternoon, and after dinner she went in search of an old friend who she said she absolutely had to see before we left the following morning. I went back to the hotel to rest. I turned on the air conditioner and watched a movie, but eventually grew restless and went back to the hotel bar. A lively crowd had gathered again and the bullfight was the topic of conversation. I was again beckoned by a local nymph I had seen there previously. Her name was Matilda, which I thought an odd name for a Mexican girl.

The next morning we were able to prepare, take our leave, and depart at our leisure. We had a much longer wait at the border and were subject to questioning and a cursory search of the vehicle prior to being allowed to cross back to the U.S. side. It was a relaxing ride back to Indio. Lynne did not risk life and limb on the highway this time. I had the same distinct and comforting feeling that I used to get on rides home from the beach in the back of the family station wagon as a child. We got back to the house in Indio and unwound with some languid pleasant conversation about the trip. We called it an early night in preparation for an early day.

The next morning we got up early and Dave drove us to Santa Barbara. I said my goodbyes and thanked them for a wonderful re-introduction to American life. We promised to keep in touch, which we didn’t. I got on the Southwest Chief which would take me through Albuquerque and Flagstaff and then follow the Mississippi up to Chicago. I purposely took a three day train journey so I could remain anonymous and acclimate myself back to American life. I sat in the viewing car and watched the desert roll by until it became a flooded plain in Missouri that looked like an inland sea. By the time I got to Chicago to get on the Lakeshore Limited I had resigned myself to putting on a tie and crawling into an office for a regular nine-to-five job that would drive me crazy. Of course it would only be a few short weeks later that I would be moving into my house in Hawaii and catching my first few waves off the leeward coast of Oahu.


This blog is intended as a repository and sounding board for autobiographical short stories. I had heard that I should write down some of my experiences so many times that I eventually figured I'd give it a whirl. I am not a writer, I am a banker, but there are many things a banker can find to write about. Some of these posts have been posted previously on a blog to which a friend was kind enough to allow me to contribute.

As I add posts please be kind enough to render your feedback. A good friend once told me that criticism is a gift, and a lack of red ink is a disservice. I would really like to know what you think, about the stories and the writing.

As I write some of my memories down, I find that surprising things stay with me, like the memories of smells and of how people treated me. And I find that I am reminding myself of what is important in life and how to manifest that priority in day to day "mundane" activity.

Thanks for joining me. Let's start with a big one you can read in as many sittings as you like...