Mid-Valley
Travel Club

 

Letters from Mexico

Tim Murphy sends these despatches from Culiacán, N.W. Mexico, where he is now living:

FIRST LETTER

SOY CULICHI! SOY GRINGO! SOY CULICHI-GRINGO!


Culiacán, Sinaloa

El día de la independencia de México!

Things have been busy. I am settled in here and all is well. I have been writing a series of vignettes that I will share with you about life here in Culiacán titled:
1. MÉXICO, MÉXICO Y MÉXICO: WHAT WHERE?
2. SOY CULICHI-GRINGO, BUT WHERE THE HELL IS CULIACÁN?
3. EL GRITO
4. THE HOUSE ON CALLE MANASLU
5. THE LUNCH
6. AN ELECTION YEAR: A BATTLE OF COLORS, PARTIES &
PERSONALITIES
7. A TINACO STORY
8. QUE PASA CON EL GAS? GASPASA & THE MYSTERY OF THE
MISSING GAS
9. WHY I DON'T HANG MY TRASH FROM TREES
10. EL RIO NEVADO DE TOLUCA
11. SOY TIMOTEO MARIDO DE EZME
12. TACOS! TACOS! TACOS! AND NOT A TACO BELL IN SIGHT
13. BRAZILIAN JAZZ IN A MEXICAN COFFEE HOUSE
14. TEQUILA!
15. THE NARCOPOLITICAL TRAGEDY AT CINEPOLIS
16. ALTATA AND NUEVO ALTATA
17. TEACHING MEXICAN STUDENTS THE VALUE OF BEING ON TIME
18. FAMILY VALUES IN A CULTURE WHERE FAMILY IS THE VALUE
19. INFUSING ECOLOGICAL CONSCIENCE

1. MÉXICO, MÉXICO Y MÉXICO: WHAT WHERE?
I am living in México, have papers showing that I am a non-immigrant resident of México, but do not live in Edo. de México nor Cd. de México. Huh? Mexicans refer to their capital, Mexico City to us gringos, as simply México. When a Mexican says he’s going to México next week to see his cousin… he means Mexico City. He may also say he’s going to DF (De-Efe) or Distrito Federal which contains about half of Mexico City, much like Multnomah County contains about half of Portland. If his cousin lives outside the capital in the State of Mexico, he would say he’s going to el Estado de México. Very seldom do Mexicans refer to México DF as Cuidad de México or Mexico City. It’s not all that different than Americans saying they’re going to Washington or DC for a trip to the Capitol or Washington State to watch Mariners play at home. It would be more confusing I’m sure if Washington State wrapped around Washington DC and the USA was known to one and all as the country of Washington! Another bit of confusion occurs when gringos refer to themselves as Americans… since México as well as Argentina and Perú are nations in the Américas, North and South, everyone from Tierra del Fuego to Barrow, Alaska are technically Americans. So to avoid confusion, most Americanos who live south of the USA border refer to us as gringos.


SOY CULICHI-GRINGO, BUT WHERE THE HELL IS CULIACÁN?
I am here, a newly hatched Culichi-Gringo, having moved from the comfortable confines of my blue house in Jefferson, Oregon to an unknown new life here in Culiacán, Sinaloa. I find it somehow interesting that I left the capital of a Northwestern state, one state away from the border to the same relative geographic position in Mexico. Culiacán is the capital of Sinaloa, a small state (population) in Northwest Mexico and has roughly 700,000 people. For bearings, Culiacán lies about 1000 km (650 mi) south of Tucson, Arizona and 200 km (125 mi) north of Mazatlán on a coastal plain with plain view of the mountains to the east which are about the same distance away as the Cascades are to Salem, Oregon.

When you drive north of here on the 4-lane highway, you eventually cross into Sonora, pass through Hermosillo, the capital city, and after many hours of desert, hit the border. When you drive south, you arrive in Mazatlán in a couple of hours, then pass into Nayarit, Jalisco and eventually México. You can drive west only for 45 minutes, they you will sink into the Pacific and can only drive east for an hour or so until you are halted by the immensity of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains. I have heard that beyond Sanalona Reservoir, about 45 minutes east of town, it is best not to drive at all (more on this later).

Culiacán lies at the confluence of two major rivers in this region, the Humaya and the Tamazula. The Humaya flows out of the great canyons of the Sierra Madre Occidental, the southern continuation of the Rocky Mountains, high, difficult to cross and partly still very wild. In the state of Sinaloa, there are only two places to cross the Sierra, on in the south by road from Mazatlán to Durango and the other by train from Los Mochis to Chihuahua through the ¨Copper Canyon¨. Culiacán lies at the confluence of two rivers, the Humaya and the Tamazula, which flows out of the same Sierra Madre and drains a vast area stretching far into the state of Durango. The two rivers form the Rio Culiacán which flows across the flat coastal plain to empty into the Pacific in the Bahia Altata. Altata is the place Culichis go to the beach and some folks have weekend houses there on the bay. Most Culichis though, make a trek to Altata for a day, get their feet wet and feast on fish and seafood at the many cafes that line the bay (more on this later).

Culiacán surprising enough is an old city, considering it is far from nearly everywhere of significance in both the 16th and 21st centuries. The city was founded by a real exceptional bastard of bastards, the conquistador Guzmán in 1542. It is a real shock to me to think only 19 years after Cortés conquered the Aztecs and founded the Spanish city of México on the ruins of their grand capital Tenochtitlán, some crazy español wannabe conquistador would find his way to where the Rio Humaya meets the Rio Tamazula and establish a town here. We are 15 hours by bus from Mexico City on 4-lane highways… Guzmán and his bunch of thieves were riding horses, so their asses had to be sore by the time they arrived here! They set up shop near the confluence of the rivers for obvious reasons at the site of a Nahuatl-speaking Indian village named Colhuacan. For whatever crazy reason they decided to wander through Sinaloa, they were surprised I am sure to meet up with fellow españoles, ex-conquistador Cabeza de Vaca and his 3 renegade companions, who WALKED naked to Culiacán from what is now Galveston Texas! (Take a look at the map to appreciate this feat!) Cabeza de Vaca had tried without success to conquer the Seminoles in Florida (something the Gators I hope have better luck at this year!) Cabeza de Vaca had lost 396 of his 400 men and had escaped with their hides by boat from somewhere around Tampa and landed half starved somewhere near Galveston where they were captured by Indians there and put into slavery. Eventually though, they were freed and because they had healed some folks, held in high esteem among the tribes and were accompanied from one area to another by a growing throng of Indians and handed off from one tribe to another as they headed west-southwest. Eventually they arrived in Culiacán and admonished the evil Guzmán for his horrible treatment of the Indians here. In the end, Guzmán was later jailed in Spain and Cabeza de Vaca was sent to Paraguay to colonize that faraway place and later jailed for being too kind to Paraguayan Indians. I suppose the lesson for that time was to always be a medium bastard and be forever free of Spanish jails! The feat of walking from Texas to Sinaloa has not been duplicated before or since. Feeling adventurous, give it a try!!

Culiacán is a modern city for the most part, very little to nothing exists from colonial times here, and it´s a mixed bag regarding old Mexican buildings. Some buildings like the Art Museum and the Portales Restaurant have been marvelously restored, but many are in various stages of decay. Mexican cities have a glorious traffic device called a Glorieta, a big traffic circle roundabout where a number of boulevards come together and the people in the glorieta have the right of way unless it is signal controlled otherwise. The glorietas have monumental statues in the middle, such as Cuauhtémoc, proud final emperor of the Aztecs who nearly pushed Cortez out of México, Emiliano Zapata, looking every bit a kickass revolutionary on his horse or Los Niños Héroes, the student cadets in Chapultapec who tried in vain to defend the seat of government from the invading US army in 1847 after Santa Anna and his professional army had flown the coop. The kids fought valiantly and rather than surrender or be taken prisoner by the invading US Marines, they wrapped themselves in Mexican flags and jumped to their death. The martyrdom of those kids has since become a symbol for both heroism and the price of abdication by those in authority. Every city in Mexico has a boulevard or monument dedicated to their honor. Cities in northern Mexico also have dedicated memorials to Zapata and/or Pancho Villa and streets named after the cast of revolutionaries who turned the country upside down in 1910.

The city spreads from the confluence of the rivers in all directions, but is much more compact than US cities, even Portland. Most houses have walls that touch the neighbor’s house or patio. The outdoor spaces are private patios and a few private clubs, public parks, plazas and glorietas, school grounds and university fields, rather than expanse of lawns and garden spaces. People have little gardens in their patios in the old Spanish and Arab custom. Like in parts of Oregon, Culichis call their downtown the city center, el Centro which has a beautiful cathedral built in the 1800s, a huge public market where you can buy anything from fresh fruit, vegetables, meat or fish brought from Altata this morning to knockoff Ray Bans, leather sandals, made in China tennis shoes, student backpacks or baseball team t-shirts.

Culiacán is also a city of roads, boulevards and lots of cars. It has more cars per person than any other city in Mexico. You can plainly see the car dealerships in town are doing all right. On Blvd Zapata, is Ford, Seat (stylin’ Spanish sedans and coupes), VW, Nissan and Chrysler-Dodge. On Blvd Tres Rios is Renault, Honda and the Limo store. On Blvd Pedro Enfante, is Toyota, Chevrolet and Pontiac. Out by the airport is another Nissan, another VW and Fiat. Next to el Tec (where I teach) a Volvo dealership is being born. All the dealerships are spanking new or modern snazzy and the sales staff doesn’t attack you if you stop and look. The prices are slightly less to equal prices for similar vehicles in the USA. The big difference is the interest rate… here you pay at least 12% (most pay over 20%) for a car loan and 3% annual ownership tax. The boulevards come together at right angle intersections where pedestrians have the first go in all directions including diagonal like in Europe, then the cars can go; at crazy angle glorietas where pedestrians best learn to haul ass or become road muffins, and at acute angle Ys where suddenly two become one or visa versa. Getting lost was second nature the first few weeks here, but I’m getting the hang of the place now.

Culiacán el Centro has two plazas, elsewhere known in Mexico as zócalos, but here known as plazuelas. It was at one of the plazuelas, that lie in front of the beautiful old government building, now the main office for UAS (Universidad Autonoma de Sinaloa), that I, transplanted gringo, heard my first EL GRITO!

SECOND LETTER

3. EL GRITO
La Plazuela UAS
I felt comfortable yet all everything around me was a new experience… the plazuela was full of people, milling around, dancing, bouncing their little kids on their shoulders, holding their babies, hand in hand, arm in arm, abrazos and friendly handshakes among friends who happened to meet and greet. There were food stalls, cold drinks, tacos con carne asada, elote asada (bbq corn on the cob), cotton candy piled high and pink on tall sticks held by a man with a bicycle horn to gather attention to his wares in the midst of the action. They had music before and after EL GRITO. Carlos Beltrán, the grandson of the famous Mazatleca opera singer, Lola Beltrán, sang beautiful rancheras (country ballads of love, loss and redemption) accompanied by 2 guitars, a bass and a gourd player. They all had brilliant red shirts and black corvat ties. Carlos, the star, had a white shirt and the obligatory ranchera cowboy hat. Before Carlos and his red-shirt players, there were dances with a live band… stunning women in Spanish dress, white with red and green, their hair tied up with tricolor ties did old time dances with the dudes decked out in full snazzy cowboy duds. After EL GRITO, the fireworks started and la Banda San Ángel Sinoloense played radio top 40 Norteño, salsa, cumbia and danced on stage with chorus line high kicks with trombones, trumpets and clarinets. Along with the band, was a short chubby woman wearing a short skirt and baseball t-shirt and the bandmember’s girlfriends who climbed on stage to join the dancing. While the stage was busy with music and revelry, a guy was running through the crowd carrying a papier maché cow over his head with fireworks attached to it streaming out red, white and green fire and smoke. The same cow was part of the dance troupe earlier, but it wasn’t shooting fire and smoke then!! Toward the other end of the plazuela, near the gazebo, was the most amazing piece of Rube Goldberg art I have ever seen. Called a castle, it looked like a tower at least 10 m tall made of wood and bamboo with at least 200 different spinning fireworks attached somehow. The master of ceremonies would light some strand of fuse hanging down at the bottom that would set off another set of streaming red, white and green fireworks and rockets would blow into the sky. As he exhausted the spinning fireworks on the lower levels, he would light fuses that would carry the show higher and higher into the Goldberg and finally, the top, flipped out like a solar dish opening on a space shuttle and it would spin around horizontally spewing sparks over the crowd who would move back as they saw fit, rather than be cordón sanitare´d to a far away place. It was up front and personal. The grand finale after the spinning rockets near the top was a spinning orange rocket at the very top that erupted and threw three spinning white fireworks high into the tropical night. I have no clue how the whole didn’t set alight. After the extravaganza, the Rube Goldberg thing just stood still as the MC put out burning embers in the grass and walked around carefully checking nooks and crannies with his trusty fire extinguisher at his side.

It was not a Rube Goldberg castle that lit the fuse that crashed the Empire of Spain, but a cry from a church balcony by a rabble rousing parish priest named Hidalgo. His EL GRITO DE DELORES, a call for independence from Spain from the church balcony in Guanajuato, an old mining city in Central Mexico turned the world of its time upside down. Hidalgo didn’t mince words… Viva México, Death to the Guachupines! (Those who wear spurs!) Although Hidalgo and his buds were later rounded up and summarily executed by the Spanish authorities, the cat was out of the bag and after a long nasty war… New Spain was México! Last night though, on the 194th anniversary of the original, I heard not a vitriolic political grito, but a kinder gentler grito, a call to support public education, a call for modernity, a call for sustainable development, a call for VIVA MÉXICO! VIVA SINALOA! VIVA UAS!

4. AN ELECTION YEAR! A WAR OF POSTERS, COLORS AND PERSONALITIES
PRI Red White Green (Partido Revolucionairo Instutional) VS
PAN Blue White (Partido Acción Nacional) VS
PRD Yellow (Partido Revolucionario Democratico) VS
PBS Green Orange (Partido Barzonista Sinaloense) VS
PVEM Green White (Partido Verde Ecologista de México) VS
PT Red White (Partido Trabajadores)

Since this is an election year in Sinaloa, and the governor who, like the president, cannot succeed himself, brings out the políticos to major events. At the other Grito at the Casa del Gobierno, he brought out a bunch of them, but at the UAS, the stage belonged to the musicians and dancers, the political atmosphere was more subdued. Yet the plazuela was full of minions handing out flyers and little fans with candidate’s pictures and party affiliations printed on them to one and all… I saw people with Aguilar PRI fans and wearing Heriberto PAN hats. It seemed to me that when it is as hot as it gets here in Culiacán, you fan yourself with the devil if that’s the only one available. I saw briefly a local candidate from the PRD, the social democratic party of the left, and met the candidate for mayor from the PAN, Eduardo Leyson. I introduced myself and shook his hand and wished him good luck. His daughter is in my class and from what I see of the PRI here in Sinaloa, it is high time for a change. The PAN, a right of center party that brought NAFTA to Mexico has made a mess of the federal government in far away México, but like in the States, you can have a good local party and a lousy national party. The PRI has run Sinaloa since the Revolution and 80 plus years of one-party state is high time to clean house. The PRI has taken a couple of hits the past week or so… more on that later. I would tend to support the PVEM being the environmental dude or the PRD being the socially progressive dude, but like in the States, I would have to support the party that can oust the horribly corrupt incumbents! I would be flying the blue and white for the PAN here, because they and only they could dislodge the PRI from its perch of power. But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter a gnat’s ass what I think about the election in Sinaloa, because as a non-citizen resident, I can’t vote!

5. THE LUNCH
Before going to hear El Grito, I took in a different México.

Centro Estudiantil del Instituto Tecnología y Estudias Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM)
ITESM is commonly called by all of us who work there, teach there, or study there as simple el Tec, but to the rest of los Culichis, you have to say el Tec de Monterrey to distinguish it from el Tec de Culiacán. I was hired by el Tec to teach Earth Sciences, History of Science and Technology, and eventually develop a program in Environmental Sciences. When I drove into town in late July, Culiacán was a sweltering greenhouse where the only respite from the heat comes from late afternoon downpours. Rain does not gently drizzle like in Oregon, but arrives like the falling anvil in the Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner cartoons. The skies here are seldom grey for more than a day; they build thunderheads and unload on the land like elsewhere in the semi-arid tropics. But one thing is very odd though… although Culiacán lies only a half-hour from the sea, the rain comes not from the Gulf of California most of the time, but spills down from the Sierra, like it does in Denver or Reno. Most of our rain comes from the Gulf of Mexico unless a Pacific Low is bringing a pineapple express northward and happens to dump on us en route. In 1991, one of these pineapples brought with it a hurricane in tow and put most of the city under a couple of meters of water!

Although we are not technically tropical, since the Tropic of Cancer lies about 200 km south of here, what´s the diff? It was pushing 40°C every day in July and early August, sometimes climbing up to 41° or 42° which is really freakin hot… like 108°F! Since I was staying with a family in a nice neighborhood near the downtown, I decided to park my monster truck the Ford F-250 Super-Duty Extra Cab longbed pickup at el Tec to avoid having it get hit on the narrow streets. So, I took the bus to and from work, and would walk from the downtown drop point to the house to save the 4 pesos, get some exercise and get to know the city a bit better. Each day, I would take a slightly different route to learn one more street or block. This way, I found the bicycle shop where they not only sell bicycles, but fix them, build them, assemble them, paint them, etc. I also found a good taco place, a good sushi place, a travel agent, a western wear store, the HQ for the baseball team, los Tomateros! (More on them later) I spent my first two weeks at el Tec translating materials into English and in training, learning the collaborative education approach that el Tec uses and is a world leader. This is not “I talk you listen” teaching, but the students become responsible for their learning and teach each other. It’s a lot harder to make happen than traditional education methods, but more successful in capturing the minds of many different types of learners. I’m still very much on my own learning curve here, but enjoy my job and feel I am getting through most of the time.

Ok, yesterday I got an invite to a lunch with the Rector of el Tec… not just el Tec campus in Culiacán, but the el Tec system. Dr. Rangel came to our campus here in an outlying state in NW Mexico with a small campus to have lunch with us, meet the new professors and pepper us with questions. He is being invited to international conferences and is a keynote speaker and asked us what we thought, as foreign teachers, what approach he should take in his presentation. He wondered whether USA educators would listen and accept information from a Mexican national who runs a Mexican university system. The thing that folks in the USA probably wouldn’t understand right away is that el Tec is as modern as any campus in the world in terms of its teaching setup. We have webtec, a fully integrated intranet teaching system, in the classroom and accessible through Wi-Fi throughout campus, a digital library accessible from any laptop anywhere within reach of an internet connection or Wi-Fi. There is no excuse that “The library was closed, so I couldn´t do my homework!” The library is open and you can browse even if you are in Burbank or Fiji for the weekend! We accept homework via webtec or email. No excuse that “My printer ran out of ink”. We can access vast teaching resources via the internet or courses on webtec in each classroom. They teach foreign languages by using the language rather than lectures. For students in English, they speak English, work in English, are taught English in English and because of us foreign professors, are taught other curricula in English by native speakers. For students studying French, they go to France for 3 weeks and study culture and immerse. For students studying Japanese and Chinese (Manderin), same deal, they go to Japan and China for immersion. The Tec system is not a backwater, but really on the leading edge of the curve. I offered Dr. Rangel my idea that rather emphasize WHAT the Tec is teaching, but rather HOW the Tec, as a large multi-campus system organized itself and made the institutional effort to bring about the advances. The lunch itself was sumptuous. We had smoked salmon and capers for appetizers, fresh raspberry-guava juice, green pea soup in a bread bowl, chicken breast with fresh mushrooms and gravy, potatoes, broccoli and fresh bread, a pound cake with caramel sauce, coffee and cookies. Wow! I was glad to get the invite. This is why all I had for dinner was one elote asado with chile and lime on it…. That was enough to hold ME for the day!

 

THIRD LETTER

6. THE HOUSE ON CALLE MANUSLU
When I was looking for a place to live here in Culiacán, I really had no ideas as to where, but the how much was important to me. I had had enough of paying all my available money to cover basic living expenses… my main beef with living in Oregon, other than the cold winter rains, the Salem parking Nazis and the endless political bullsh*t at work, was paying so much of my salary into mortgage, utilities, vehicle and insurance that the end of the month was generally in the red and I was forever borrowing from my credit card to make ends meet. I found it frustrating to have 20 years of professional experience, a good paying job, yet have to borrow from my credit card to buy a cup of coffee after the 15th of the month! For a few months, this is an ok idea, but for year in year out, it gets very discouraging. So, with this unpleasant experience in my mind, I was looking first for something in the 2000 peso per month range, so I would have plenty of ready cash and could do things rather than own things. This was part of my basic thought process when I decided to move to Mexico in the first place. So where would a newly arrived gringo look for a place to live? There are no Gringo Gulch Estates in Culiacán, nor would I want to live there if there was such a thing. This is not Mazatlán, nor Puerta Vallarta, nor Cabo San Lucas! Ok… so, I go off looking at a few apartments and houses available in the part of town that I knew from walking around… el Centro, Colonia Guadalupe and Colonia Popular, where Ezme and Heidi (more on them later) had been bequeathed an apartment from the previous tenants, also teachers at el Tec. They were paying 2300 pesos for a nice 3 bdr apartment within walking distance to downtown and a 2 bus ride trip to el Tec… maybe 25 minutes with connection time. Looked good, but already taken. The other places we looked at for prices varying between 1500 and 3000 pesos were not very nice… either had evidence of leaking roof, evidence of really dirty previous tenants, or just coyote ugly. In Colonia Guadalupe, there were some nice places for rent or for sale… but in the 5000 peso and up range. I couldn’t really justify such an expense here… I’m not trying to impress anyone. After some discussion with the Mendoza family who I was staying with, it turned out that their granddaughter had a house in a colonia in the far northwest part of the city, vacated by her mom who had moved to the States. It was going to stay vacant, since the mom was planted in el Norte and Carolina lived with her grandparents while attending el Tec de Culiacán which was within walking distance of their house. Unlike most American teenagers, Mexicans have very little interest in moving out of the parental or close relative household after finishing high school. Carolina had a free house to live in but living by herself was not something she relished. The only kids who leave the home of their parents are those who go to study in a different city and generally those kids live with a relative in that city or get a place together. After some discussion I drove out here and took a look, and realizing that it is on the far edge of Culiacán, but only 10-15 minutes from el Tec, decided to rent this house for at least a year. Carolina earns 2000 pesos per month and I get a nice little 2 bdr house, fully furnished, all utilities already hooked up (more on this later) with an air conditioner, fridge, washing machine, solar clothes dryer, gas stove and oven, hot and cold running water (who needs hot… hence the water heater is in the OFF position), tile floors throughout, a place to park my monster truck off the street, and the place is cable and internet ready. It is a one-story green house on a street that if placed in a US city, you probably would think twice about walking down it, but in Mexico, looks can be deceiving… you have to look again… look twice… look for details. It is not WHAT is in the street, but more important WHO is out and about in the street? Street toughs? Kids playing impromptu street soccer? Families having a barbeque in their driveway spilling into the street? Women sitting under the shade of street trees talking and holding babies? Construction workers fixing, upgrading or building new houses? In the case of Calle Manaslu this side of the canal, it is all the above minus the street toughs. The first look is not terribly inviting: half finished two-storey homes with piles of construction debris spilling from unfinished garage spaces… bags of garbage hanging from trees, a few broken down cars under reconstructive surgery… vacant lots with weeds as tall as me. At the end, the street ends in a low pile of dirt that used to be a canal, but was filled in as the city occupied the farmland that lay under the houses. What is the end of the street really isn’t since anyone and most everyone simply drives over the dirt to the neighboring colonia and instantly the street becomes Calle Tengri Kahn and it connects to another boulevard whose name I don’t know but the route I take to work to make fewer left turns!

Yet, after a second look, I saw some beautiful two-storey houses with flowers in pots, tiled garage floors, decorative ironwork, and swept perfectly clean… I saw simple one-storey houses like mine, clean brightly painted, some with enclosed garages where the driveway used to be, some with decorative ironwork, some with a new extended room built where the enclosed utility patio used to be. I saw houses under construction, some actively being built, cement contractors busily transforming raw brick and concrete walls into a finished look… I saw cars that one day were torn apart and in intensive care, being put back together and back on the road… I saw a half dozen businesses being run out of people’s homes… a taqueria, an internet café, a grocer with limes at the ready when you run out, a papeleria with birthday cards for those last minute occasions, a corner carne asada vendor who can sell you tacos or just the barbequed beef ready for whatever you need it for. This neighborhood or colonia lies far northwest in Culiacán, north of the rivers, north of the last main cross-town boulevard, north of the last Oxxo (like a 7-11 of México), and only a 10 minute walk from watching the sunset over open farmed savanna. Closer in, within one week of introductions, I was invited to drink beer and have boiled shrimp and salsa with my neighbors. They have invited me to come out sometime to their rancho for a fiesta and ride horses. I feel at home despite the fact I don’t speak excellent Spanish, am a gringo foreigner and just arrived "off the boat."

I live in a little one-storey house at the “end” of Calle Manaslu just before you hit the dirt pile! Manaslu is a small street in a neighborhood of streets named for great mountains of the world. In my neighborhood, exist Cotapaxi, Nevado de Toluca (the boulevard 3 blocks away), Everest, and Tengri Khan spelled ´Kahn’. Calle Manaslu was named after the great Manaslu of the Himalaya… some 8000 plus meters in height. Lacking any great characteristics, this street is pleasant enough, easy to get to where you need to go, el Tec, the airport, the bus station, el Centro, the shopping zones anchored by Soriana on Blvd. Emiliano Zapata, the Wal*Mart/Sams at Tres Rios or the Mercado Central downtown… easy to get to night out spots in el Centro, las Quintas, or Tres Rios… yet quiet, residential and a nice place to live. Yet in reality, the neighborhood or colonia or fraccionamiento (Fracc. for short) is pretty much flat, lying on the upper river terrace of the Humaya River, hence the name Rincón de Humaya.
Houses in the fracc. come in various shapes, sizes and colors. My house is painted all green except for a blue tile strip over the porch and a red brick enclosed utility patio out front. The house is constructed from cement and brick as is customary. I understand that the termites here would eat a wood house in many small but tasty bites. The roof is gently angled to a couple of drains that dump the rainwater through the parapet unceremoniously over the porch into the driveway. Why the drain doesn’t angle the other way and water the little strip of garden is a mystery to me.

7. A TINACO STORY
Where shall I start? A tinaco is a tank that holds water and sits on the roof of nearly every house in Culiacán. Much like dwellers of hot places around the globe, Culichis know that when the water runs out, you’re in trouble, so to minimize this trouble, they devised a storage system that tides you over when the tap would otherwise be dry.

And since we are in México, you really can’t expect all the services to work all the time. Hence, the water system shuts down every day at 1400 hours and sputters back on sometime between 2100 hours and midnight. This water problem is not due to incompetence or bad management, but rather Sinaloa has suffered from six years of drought and this summer’s daily deluge has refilled the reservoirs to near or exceeding normal levels, but water conservation efforts are ongoing. So, for those hours when no water is coming in from the city line, the tinaco offers a respite from coming home from work a sweaty mess and allows you to take a shower with tepid solar-heated water.

But something was amiss! I would arrive home every day and find I had no water. I would climb up the window iron to the roof and check the tinaco… empty! How could this be? My tinaco holds 450 liters, about 100 gallons of water and should’ve been full this morning before the water was shut off. I surely don’t remember leaving any water turned on in the house in the morning, but next day, I decided to check things out before going to work. I climbed to the roof, made easier by the lift off my rear bumper to the window iron to the parapet and over. In the cool of the morning, the roof was a good place to be. I could see all of the city, the Sierra Madre looming to the west, the cathedral towers in el Centro and that there was a big park just to the east of my house with soccer and baseball fields. I also found my tinaco to be full. The tinaco operates much like a big toilet or stock tank. It has a float ball and a valve that shuts off the incoming water when the water level puts pressure on the valve via the float. The water enters the tinaco from near the top, fills it and then exits to feed the house when no water is available from the bottom. An inline check valve assures that the water doesn’t run back through the feeder line to the street. Another check valve lies just beyond the water meter at the sidewalk. All looked ship-shape, so I went back down, double checked all faucets and went to work. I arrived home at about 7 pm and it was still hot hot hot, maybe had cooled to a refreshing 37° (98.6°F). I was looking forward to the tepid afternoon shower but to my chagrin, no hay agua! I climbed to the roof and found the tinaco yet again, empty. I checked the lines… no evidence of leaks. Since it hadn’t rained yet, but was threatening, I could see no water on the roof, so after climbing down rapidly so to not serve as a lightning rod for the incoming storm, I checked both the meter valve, front hosebib, inside the house… no evidence of leaks anywhere! Yet no water! Ayyyyyy… somehow 450 liters of water just don’t evaporate from a closed tank! So I called Emile, Carolina’s (la dueña or landlady) uncle and my friend and mentor here at el Tec. He came out and we bought a new tinaco valve and float thinking that somehow it may not be filling properly, but this didn’t make sense to me since it was full this very morning. After some discussion, Emile called the plumber and the next day he had replaced the check valve on the roof which was allowing the water to flow back out to the street where it looked as if maybe someone was using the water from the street hosebib. Next day, I went through the same routine, climbing to the roof before leaving for work, observing a full tinaco and no obvious leaks. That evening I came home to water in my pipes and all was happy. So I thought the mystery of the tinaco was so easily solved. Until the following day, I came home to find yet again, no water! Ayyyyy no! How could this be? I had water yesterday! In fact, I had water some days but not others all along. So to follow the hypothesis that my water was being used to wash someone’s car or kids were playing with the valve, I pulled off the handle, climbed to the roof, found a full tinaco, and went to work. At 7 pm, I had no water again, so the weak hypothesis that my water was being used elsewhere was nullified.

Fortunately for me, I had bought a 19 liter bottle of drinking water and my friend Mike gave me his extra water spigot thing, which leaked and had to be taken back to Wal*Mart for a replacement, but in any case, I had water to drink and I filled the big stew pots I had brought with me for some unknown reason with tap water each morning, so I could wash my hands and dishes before the system came back on again. But the part that really bothered me was that I couldn’t figure out where the water was going. So, after a few more days of head scratching, and having water on a random basis, I suggested to Emile that somehow the water must be running back through the meter to the city lines and check valve at the street must be broken. He brought back the plumber who changed out the check valve and SHAZZAM! The check valve at the street was in the permanently open position allowing all my tinaco water to flow back through the meter to refill the city line. He fixed it and I have had water every day since!

The funny ironic part is that the city ceased water restrictions and periodic shutting off of the water in the fracc the following day! Now, my tinaco sits on the roof gathering heat and I need to remember to periodically shut off the city water to allow it to refresh!

FOURTH LETTER

8. QUÉ PASA CON EL GAS? GASPASA AND THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING GAS
After the Tinaco mystery, I was mildly amused but still curious to discover why 2 cylinders of cooking gas had disappeared in less than 3 weeks. In Culiacán, nearly everyone cooks with gas. But nobody has a gas pipe that connects their house to the gas company. Culichis do not have a gas monopoly, but a thriving competitive gas business. Since the price is controlled by the government, the companies compete on quality of service. And I learned that not all gas companies are created equal. For the first 2 weeks, I did all my cooking on the flat grill part of my waffle iron and my George Forman grill, which worked great for Egyptians (grilled bread with a hole with an egg in the middle), pancakes, tacos, quesadillas and sandwiches. I bought a coffee maker since my coffee maker was (a) broken, and (b) located in my trailer in Phoenix, Arizona, which is a 2-day drive from here! So I had coffee and vittles. But cooking with gas, was beckoning to me, I only had to get my two cylinders refilled. The cylinders look like welding tanks, stand about 1.5 m tall and hold each enough gas for a month or so, depending on how much you cook and how much hot water you go through. Since I had put the hot water heater into the OFF position, I figured a good month per tank for cooking only. One morning when I don’t have to arrive at Tec early, I heard the “clang clang clang” of the gas truck. Here they have a stake truck full of cylinders, and the driver or assistant clangs against the empties with a chain making a familiar “clang clang clang” that lets the folks know it’s gas time! I had heard lots of clang clang clang before, but the truck seemed always a few blocks away. This time, he was right in front of my green house and I stopped him and bought 2 cylinders from him. This cost $470 pesos, or about $44 US. I got out some detergent and we checked for leaks, paid the man and went to cook some food. Yea baby! Cookin with Gas!

All was well and good until about 2+ weeks later, I turned on the stove and found it not to light. Hmmm, ran out kinda soon I reckoned, but I’ll switch tanks and get some food on the table. Big surprise. No gas in either tank! The next day, I talked to Emile about it and asked him how long the tanks should last. He said at least a month for one person, especially with the boiler (WH) off. So there must be a leak (fuga) somewhere. He suggested we call Gaspasa, a reputable gas company (orange tanks) and get them out to check for leaks and sell me some more gas. If I could remember the name of the other company, I could haggle with them (provided I could find the receipt) for the tank that may have been sold to me empty. Gaspasa arrived and checked the pipes and valves for a leak and found that gas was leaving the test tank with the boiler and stove off. They identified the green tanks as Rivera Gas, a new company, and suggested I try to get another tank from them since the one I had either leaked or was sold empty. As far as my house, there indeed was a leak somewhere, either in the boiler or in the feeder line to the stove. Ouch. Since Mexican houses are built from cement and brick and any line in a wall means that you tear into cement walls or run new lines exposed. Either way looked like a fairly major undertaking and I wasn’t convinced at all the leak wasn’t in the boiler itself. I had turned on the pilot only and had smelled gas a couple of times, checked and found the pilot had blown out from the wind and I could whiff gas. It seemed to me that the boiler was blowing gas from the pilot and the control was shot. So yesterday, Gaspasa came back out and sold me two FULL tanks of gas and a plumber came out and replaced the boiler which was DOA. Apparently, (a) the quantity of iron and crud in the water is tough on boilers plus (b) the fact that this house was vacant most of the past 1+ years plus (c) the boiler sits out in the uncovered patio taking the full force of the weather… make for a short boiler life.

So again, I’m cookin with gas! What do you think the chances of buying more gas from Rivera Gas? Hmmm, how about not highly likely! And very glad my Dad, Mr Plumber, taught me a few things along the way. Here, I don’t have to fix everything… it’s easy enough and cheap enough and being a tenant, not my responsibility to pay for it, but it’s a huge benefit to have a clue how things work so when things do go wrong, I have a good inkling how what needs to be done.

9. WHY I DON’T HANG MY TRASH FROM TREES
At first, I was a bit aghast at the sight of the plastic bags of garbage hanging from the beautiful flowering shade trees on our street. I set out my plastic bag on the sidewalk, which mostly contained Styrofoam from unloading boxes and some kitchen junk since I am able to recycle my paper and cardboard at el Tec. The next day, I was not happy to find the Styrofoam scattered about my front yard and driveway. It looked as if a stray dog or cat had found something of interest in the bag and tore it up scattering the Styrofoam around. My tree is too young, too flexible, too elastic to hold the trash bags, so I devised a way of getting my trash off the dog/cat corridor of fun. I found the Coleman lantern holder that I for some reason, had brought with me, tied it to the cement street lamp power pole and made an artificial tree to hang my trash from.

 

FIFTH LETTER

EL RIO NEVADO DE TOLUCA
Culiacán lies in the semi-arid tropics but you would not know that during the months of July, August and September! Nearly every day, we get rain. Some days we get a LOT of rain. And it happens fast.

One Saturday afternoon in August, I decided to walk down to the local internet café and check my email and chat with friends online. It was hot and humid like every other day, but once in the internet establishment, a room built on the front of the house on the corner of Manaslu and Blvd. Nevado de Toluca, under the blast of air conditioning, I soon forgot the humid heat outside. What I did notice was the flash of lightning and the big raindrops falling. I figured I’d better get home, so I said bye, quit out of Yahoo!, paid the proprietress and left. In this couple of minutes, the storm had focused its attention and the rain was coming down in buckets. Blvd. Nevado de Toluca had become el Rio Nevado de Toluca, with rapids! Since one side of the blvd was about 100 cm higher than the other, the water cascaded from the side streets into the blvd, cascaded from the higher level to the lower and ran south in a torrent carrying pieces of small tree branches, trash, weeds, banana leaves and other debris. I figured I’d best get home quick, so I walked up the blvd. a couple of blocks, where it was running lower than curb high and crossed. I got soaked. By the time I got home, I was completely soaked as if I had gone swimming in all my clothes. I also remembered that I had put the clothes out in the solar dryer earlier to dry, so they got a thorough extra rinse cycle. The rains continued for another hour, the storm subsided and moved on. I climbed up to my roof to watch the action as it moved to the west… zap, zap, black rolling thunder clouds, streaming rain and I knew some other boulevard was turning into a rio!

SOY TIMOTEO MARIDO DE EZME
A marido is a husband. How did I become Ezme’s husband? Who is Ezme? When was the wedding? Why were you, my dear family and friends not invited? Ok, hold your horses! Ezme is a teacher of Business English at el Tec. She arrived here in Culiacán a few days before I did… drove down in her hot dog VW Golf V-6 GTE from Spokane, Washington. Ezme is a funny, cute, 25-year old, bohemian girl, raised by Northwest hippies in the groovy coastal city of Bellingham, which lies between Seattle and Vancouver, BC. Before coming to el Tec, Ezme had been teaching at the Universidad Autonoma de Guanajuato in the historic mining city of the same name (where Hildalgo shouted his El Grito and had his head removed for his trouble!) Ezme was not happy with UAG or living in a museum city where driving was a nightmare and simple tasks like buying groceries was a hassle. As noted earlier (see The House on Calle Manslu, above), Ezme was hooked up with Heidi, also an English teacher from Calgary, Alberta, who had lived for a short time in Celaya, near Guanajuato. El Tec thought this a perfect match, these two sharing a place, keeping down expenses, etc… But like the proverbial computer-selected college dorm roommate, this was a household made in hell. Ezme loves to cook. Heidi will not cook under penalty of death. Ezme is jovial, outgoing, pushing the envelope, loves her students, is so happy to be here, away from Guanajuato, everything is water off a duck’s back for her. She loves Mexican culture, Mexican food, music, finds amusement in almost every experience here. Heidi is somewhat unsocial, stays in her room for days, growls at her students, and is adapting at best very slowly. She refused to share the cost of a cylinder of gas, because she would not use it and would eat every meal out. She was miffed at Ezme over splitting the cost of a bottle of drinking water ($16 pesos or $1.50 US). So, Ezme decided to find her own place and when she did, I offered to help her move stuff since I have a truck the size of a small locomotive. All the new folks here have needed to make some major household purchases for their new homes. I have offered to give rides to Sams/Wal-Mart, etc. to pick up baby cribs, TVs, bookcases, wall-hangings, washing machines, etc. I took Ezme, Mike and Heidi to Sams and Ezme bought a membership. Mike got in on his North Carolina membership which got Heidi in as his guest. Sams has a deal where you can get a family membership for the same price, and ironically, as luck would have it, my documentation for residency has the all-purpose address of Heidi’s and Ezme’s (former) apartment, so I became Ezme’s husband… just like that… lacking ceremony, but husband nevertheless. So I have a Sams card with my name on it courtesy of my marida (wife) Ezme. Since Timothy was a tough spelling task for the clerk, I became Timoteo Murphy, marido of Ezme in the eyes of Sam Walton’s Mexican establishment.

 

SIXTH LETTER

UNSOLICITED ADVICE!

If I could offer a single piece of advice for anybody ever contemplating living in another country, consider first and foremost… how much you like the food! If you love it, you will be in love with your new home, if you hate it, you will enter a hell from which you will be seeking extradition post haste!

TACOS! TACOS! TACOS! AND NOT A TACO BELL IN SIGHT

One of my fellow foreign teachers at el Tec is teaching her students Business English. She assigned to her class a franchising presentation of some business that might be franchised and become a success here in Culiacán. One of her students proposed bringing in a Taco Bell franchise. She told us about the various proposals at lunch one day over savory gorditas de carne asada from the el Tec cafeteria, that ironically, would put Taco Bell to extreme shame. She thought it was interesting, but the rest of us just laughed. Has your student ever eaten at Taco Bell? We asked. She had asked the same question and got a resounding no, but… No but he had seen the ads and it looked good!

So, unless some intrepid entrepreneur can bring in Taco Bell and force PepsiCo to severely upgrade the merchandise, we are blessed with Tacos! Tacos! Tacos! And not a Taco Bell in sight.

Tacos in Culiacán are a culinary experience like jumbalaya in New Orleans, steak sands in Philly, microbrews in Portland, coffee in Seattle, raviolis in New York, steak in Buenos Aires or fried catfish and hush puppies in the Mississippi Delta! We have taquerias everywhere and of every kind, but the kind that dominates are local mom and pop businesses, where they work out of their home or a stand on the street, centered on a barbeque where charcoal and wood are burned to make a nice smoke flavor in the meat. The beef is real beef, from real cattle raised on local ranches. It is set in marinade for a good while before it hits the grill and then grilled to perfection, chopped and piled high in homemade corn tortillas (for tacos) or wheat flour tortillas (for quesadillas).

In fact, I have to take a taco break now and will tell you more about it on a full belly!

Ahhhh, four tacos later, I am recharged and ready to tell you about the real thing. While barbeque beef, carne asada, is the star of the show here in Sinaloa, the sheer variety of available tacos is something to behold. Since I arrived in late July, I have either made or eaten while out, tacos made from beef, lamb, pork, cabrería (young goat), fish, shrimp, chicken, cheese, vegetables including onions, garlic, tomatoes, chiles, cabbage, green peppers, squash, radishes, pumpkin, nopal (cactus) and avacados. The only thing that comes to mind that I have not had in tacos here is ground beef, American cheese on crispy, preformed, deep fried tortillas, so maybe there is a niche for Taco Bell!

Of the medley that is available, of course, you can mix and match ingredients. Tonight, for example, I bought some carne asada fresh off the grill from my neighborhood taco stand plus five tortillas, limes, salsa and grilled onions enough for five tacos for 30 pesos ($2.75 US). I could eat only four, so the other one will contribute to lunch tomorrow. At the next taqueria, a block further away, they have a going operation… la dueña makes the tortillas per order and puts two tortillas per taco on request. El dueño mans the barbeque, a man’s job in México, and the son chops the carne, plies the fresh tortillas still steaming hot from the griddle full of carne asada, lettuce and grilled onions ready to eat… at the tables laid out in what in the garage which after closing becomes the home of the family Chevy pickup. Covered bowls contain the salad… sliced cucumbers that you eat with salt and lime, stinging salsa casera (red and roasty), roasted jalapeños and onions, and guacamole sincillo (avocado purée). They serve cokes, horchata (a refreshing sweet vanilla flavored rice drink), tamarindo (made from the fruit of the tamarind tree), Jamaica or jasmín (sweet iced tea made from hibiscus or jasmine flowers). Two tacos, salad and something to drink will run about 25 pesos ($2.35 US). While the more substantial taqueria provides seating for 20 and has a TV and and/or music, the little taco stand on the corner manages to provide one table and a battery operated TV also, all run by one guy, Rodolfo, whose wife makes the tortillas daily and who packs the business in his Nissan pickup that looks like it has been reclaimed from a crusher not a moment too soon.

A more upscale operation is can be found in the place of La Palomita de los Pobres, a small local chain of restaurants which specializes in stewed pork tacos, quesadillas and a pinto bean soup that is simply good enough to make a full meal of. La Palomita’s salsas are among the best here in Culiacán and that is a compliment! Their restaurants are simple but nicely done, so it is a special treat to eat there. And to hit the bean soup with salsa and lime is a taste experience that cannot be adequately described… I can only suggest you stop by next time you are in town and try it yourself.

While La Palomita de los Pobres is a classy place, it is not upscale by any means… in el Centro, next to the Plazuela, Los Portales occupies one of the few restored colonial buildings in Culiacán, a building which it doesn’t stretch the imagination to see Pancho Villa entering on his horse, running the time machine back 90 years. Los Portales is a classy and classic place with incredibly good enchiladas made from carne asada, chicken, pork or goat (cabrería). All are good and they serve ice cold Pacifico or Carta Blanca with the meal making a hot evening cool down a bit.

Also downtown and way downscale, is Dona Tita, a cafeteria style taqueria that puts together one of the best gorditas in the city. A gordita is a fat corn tortilla that is cooked a bit less… not crunchy in any regard, but cooked through on a grill or open fire. Dona Tita is a chain based in Tamilupas (the México south of Corpus Christi Texas), so they must have restaurants all over. The Dona Tita in the El Forum mall provides good mall food and is always busy. I had my first nopal gordita at Dona Tita in the mall and it was great.

Surprisingly, el Tec cafeteria, called El Borrega (The Lamb) also makes an excellent gordita, but a different style. They put lettuce and vegetables on top of the carne or chicken, crumbled Chihuahua cheese, crema (somewhat akin to sour crème) and accompany it with a cup of caldo (soup) that you pour over the gordita and eat it with a fork. The first time, I drank the soup and ate the gordita like a taco which was tasty of course, but a culinary social semi-disaster with the lettuce and crema going all over… so when in Rome… you pour the soup on the gordita and eat it with a fork. You don’t have to show me twice! Despite my initial misgivings about pouring soup on my gorditas, I have found them to be different and very tasty this way.

Despite the fact that cow on the barbie is king here, shrimp and fish on the barbie are also good options, and beer-battered lightly fried shrimp tacos à la El Shrimp Bucket in Mazatlán is something to behold! (More on the sea breeze culinary experiences later!) I have eaten a lot more of some vegetables here than I ate in Oregon. First, radishes… something I ate sparingly in salads, have become a staple… meaning when I run out, I get more! I eat radishes (rábanes) as a garnish, as a salad with cucumber, and more commonly, lightly sautéed with green onions and tomatoes to form the base for omelets, mixed with carne asada or pork for tacos or to provide a bit of extra zip to guacamole. Next, cucumbers… they are the vegetable of choice here, right up there with tomatoes, onions and chiles. Peel em, zap em with lime and chile powder and eat em! They are the base for salads here… you start with cucumber (pepinos) and add stuff! Avacados (aguacates) are a dream here. I didn’t eat too many of them in Oregon because they were damn expensive. Here, the Hass variety run 15-20 pesos per kilo or 60-90 cents per pound and they are the pricey ones. I buy the aguacate regional, the huge smooth skin local variety for 7 pesos per kilo, so I use ‘em all the time, in guacamole (with onion, garlic and radish) or just sliced in tacos, salads, sandwiches omelets, whatever! Some vegetables of course, I didn’t eat in Oregon, like the nopal, a tasty veggie made from cactus. It goes well in tacos and is good in salads and salsas! Tonight, I sautéed some nopal with onions, tomatoes and radish then hit them with lime and put them in the tacos with carne asada and topped with Herdez salsa verde! Yum! And because it was part of my diet so completely in Oregon, I cannot delete the importance of tomatoes, onions and chiles here! Surrounding Culiacán lie fields in all directions full of tomatoes, onions and chiles. The local pro baseball team is not the Tomoteros for nothing! A day does not go by that I don’t eat tomatoes, onions and chiles here! Another long lost taste friend is the jícama, a white crunchy vegetable especially good on hot days with chile and lime… I remember eating jícama with lime juice, while living in Tucson sitting in the shade of the porch.

The local fruit scene is also good. Like tomatoes and chiles, a day cannot pass without squeezing lime juice into something. You buy limes from the market, from the street corner store, from the pharmacy, from the Oxxo (7-11 mexicana), served with just about every meal, served with beer, served with mixed drinks… the lime (limón) is the most important fruit in this part of México! After Rey Limón, the choices and quality are outstanding. Sinaloa produces guava, mango, lemon (lima), orange (naranja), grapefruit (toronja), bananas (plátanos) not grown commercially here but brought in from Chiapas, coconuts (cocos) and some guabánana and other tropical fruits. Most of these more traditional tropical fruits come from further south, Nayarit and points south, while temperate fruits like grapes (uva), apples (manzana), peaches (durazno) and pears (pera) come from the highland states of Durango and Chihuahua, irrigated uplands in Sonora or from El Norte (USA). The markets are full of fruit and stuff made from fruit. Fresh squeezed orange juice can be had for 8 pesos a half liter from street vendors to Wal-Mart. Fresh fruit finds its way to garnish cakes and pastries. Restaurants serve aguas which are a mixture of fresh squeezed fruit juice and water… very refreshing, or smoothies, frappes and other drinks made from fresh squeezed fruit juices and stuff. The Ades label puts out boxes (like milk, they keep without refrigeration until opened) of a very yummy drink made from soy and fruit juice which is hard to beat on a hot day… So many things are good on a hot day which is a good thing, since hot days are not a rare occurrence in Culiacán, but THE NORM!

My favorite fruit juice here is guanábana! Also good is the guanábana yogurt made by Nestlé and the Italian ices with nearly any fruit flavor! I have made a mixture of yogurt and granola my breakfast of choice during the hectic work week and eat cereal with milk more rarely, usually as a light dinner when I get home late from el Tec and when I had a big lunch.

I have found Mexican food to include tacos beyond belief in tastiness, but beyond the taco, there are wonderful soups, including caldo de gallo (chicken consommé), leek soup, pumpkin soup, and of course the tortilla and bean soups, potato salads, macaroni dishes with vegetables eaten both cold and hot, and mole… ah how could I not mention mole… the most Mexican of dishes, made from the exquisite marriage of cacao (chocolate) and chile, stewed for hours, likely at least as many recipes as there are Mexicans who make it, mole is a dream to behold. The most intriguing thing about mole to me is that you cannot distinguish any of its base ingredients… no TASTE of chocolate nor chiles make their appearance, rather it is an incredible synthesis of flavor and taste. One of the better places to eat mole in the city is one of two Café Miro restaurants, which serve a chicken breast mole with vegetables and grilled queso asado Chihuahua (smoked cheese). When the word Chihuahua is mentioned here, it brings the thought of fine cheeses, like the word Tillamook in the Northwest or Wisconsin to much of the USA. Yes, small yippy dogs of the same name exist in Culiacán and Chihuahua City for that matter, but the largest state in México is noted first and foremost for its cheeses produced largely from the German Mennonites who colonized many parts of Chihuahua, and secondly for its revolutionary fervor and the home of Pancho Villa. Small yippy ankle biters are way back on the list.

Like in Oregon, I have found the Mexican cheeses, whether the fine Chihuahua cheeses, or the braided Oaxaca cheese from that state far south, or some of the local cheeses from Los Alamos, are great for egg dishes. I maintain my personal tradition of making a substantial breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays, even if I am the only one to enjoy them. I make Egyptians, the hole in the bread filled with the egg, covered in ham (jamón) and cheese (queso) followed by pancakes or waffles with plain yogurt and ligonberry syrup that I brought with me from Oregon. When that runs out, I will open the Grade B Canadian maple syrup I brought with me courtesy of Trader Joe’s in Lake Oswego! When I run out of maple syrup, I suppose that means that I need to make a trip back to El Norte and get some more!

What do I miss? Certainly not Taco Bell. And not hamburgers because I can buy excellent ground beef at MZ (Safeway mexicana) and make killer good hamburgers here at home… not hot dogs, because salchichas are everywhere, but Culichis don’t eat them in a bun… they slice em up and pour (hard to guess huh) chile and lime on them and eat them with toothpicks! And surprisingly not sushi… sushi is nearly as plentiful here in Culiacán as tacos! There are upscale, middle zone, po’boy sushi and teriyaki places everywhere. I have eaten some good sushi here and the sushi at Cinépolis is as good as Fuji Rice Time in Salem. Although Italian food is limited, the Italian restaurant in the Cinépolis is excellent, if not a tad pricey. I hear there is a French restaurant somewhere in town, but I have not tried it. Fast food Americana exists in the form of KFC, Burger King, Subway and I passed today for the first time, a McDonald’s. Steak and seafood houses also exist in medium and upscale versions, although I can’t attest to whether their food is good or not. The big hotels all have fine dining restaurants but I don’t go to those places. So what do I miss in terms of food? Mmmmmm… I miss gyros! I miss Nicolas Restaurant Lebanese food (fortunately my mentor here is of Lebanese descent so he always brings pita bread and hummus to parties!) and the gyros at the Macedonia! I miss also Mongolian Grill which simply does not exist here, but should… hmmm, now here is a good idea for a franchise opportunity!

RECIPE FOR A REAL SPANISH OMELETTE SINALOA STYLE A LA TIMOTEO

This is not the IHOP version. This is a facsimile of a real omelette that can then be put in a tortilla for a breakfast quesadilla. The key thing here is that very few spices are used, just the flavors of the fresh vegetables, meat (which carries the spice) and cheese carry the plate.

Chop _ red Spanish onion
Chop _ fresh chile verde (or use canned in a pinch)
Chop 3 fresh or canned jalapeños
Chop some cilantro
Thin slice 3 med radishes
Thin slice 3 roma tomatoes
Finely chop as much garlic as you like or spoon out some minced ready-made garlic
Slice _ avocado (or use guacamole if you have it)
Course grate some white cheese (queso ranchero, queso asadero, queso Chihuahua, queso Oaxaca, queso cotija if available or use Monterey Jack or smoked white cheese of some kind in a pinch)
Cook and slice 1 chorizo ranchero (very hard to find north of the Tortilla Curtain), machaca (stewed marinaded beef or pork loin) or leave out for a vegetarian version
For two hungry people… use about 4 eggs, beaten lightly with some milk

A dash of corn or olive oil, sauté the chile verde, jalapeños and radishes first (wait on the chiles if canned), add onion next, then chiles if canned, and when the radishes and onion are fully grilled on one side, add garlic, tomatoes, cilantro… keep sautéing the veggies.

When veggies are ready, take out of pan, toss in the desired quantity of egg mix add some sautéed veggies, cheese and chorizo, flip, flip, voila!

Garnish with avocado or guacamole, a dash of crema (like sour crème but creamier) and some salsa like Herdez salsa verde or salsa casera. Top with fresh chopped cilantro or parsley. During September, one side salsa verde, the other salsa casera with the crema in the middle, chopped cilantro in the crema!

Bon apétit amigos!

SEVENTH LETTER

BRAZILIAN JAZZ IN A MEXICAN COFFEE HOUSE
Another taste sensation is Café Azul, a second story coffee house overlooking the Plazuela UAS where I heard El Grito on 15 Sept. Like Café Miro, this coffee house serves good food, and exceptional coffee, frappes, smoothies, aguas, Italian ices, and crepes with a delicious almond or walnut flavor syrup with pieces of the nut covering the light crepes.

On Friday nights, the Café Azul comes alive with Brazilian Jazz. The band is excellent and provides a good backdrop for enjoyable conversation among friends and a good unwind after a week’s work. The group of new el Tec teachers made Café Azul one of our favorite haunts, either en group or amongst ourselves with new friends we have met here in Culiacán. The first week though, we had a controversy to solve beyond whether to order Carta Blanca, Pacifico or Tecate beers. The band consisted of a male sax player, a female lead singer guitarist, male drummer and an undetermined bass player. We spent the evening grooving to the music but despite changing beer brands, could not determine the gender of the bass player. S/he made it more complex by having an obvious benefits based relationship with the obviously female (and a very cute obviously female at that). We made some bets between us and came back the following week to do some more “research”. Having selected Carta Blanca the first week, we switched to Tecate and went to work. After a set break, the cute guitar singer chick went toward the bathroom with her beau/belle in tow. Our own Kim, Math teacher from Holland, jumped up having a substantial bet on tap with her boyfriend Joap, to win her cause. After some time, she came back. We set down our beers in anticipation to either win or lose some cash, only to be disappointed to learn that the pair never hit the head, but spent the set break making out in the back of Café Azul. No pesos have changed hands, but everyone still has their hypothesis intact. We went back the next weekend to further our studies, and found a new band playing… so we ordered up some Pacificos and listened to the band play… jazzy blues.

TEQUILA!
Tequila is a place. Tequila is a drink. Tequila is a state of mind. Tequila is a song.

Most Mexicans drink beer when they want to imbibe, and Mexican beers are generally good, light, malty lagers that go down good on a hot day and go well with tacos. But tequila is the national drink of sorts, the stuff of legend, song, dance, lament and of course, serious hangovers. Listen to country songs about Mexico, and it sounds like Texans go to the border, cross, enter some nondescript border town, get hammered on tequila, stumble home, lose their dog, their pickup truck, their señorita, get thrown in prison, find Jesus, become patriotic Americans… something like that.
For Mexicans, tequila was not something they took much pride in until recently. I understand that 20 years ago, a host wouldn’t offer tequila to guests, but imported whiskey or some sort, but this is changing since gringos love the stuff and it has gained a following in Europe. In Mexico, tequila, is drunk straight up, with or without lime, ice cold better than warm, but never with ice cubes, never watered down, never mixed. For gringo tourists, tequila is either with salt and lime, mixed into a crazy concoction with sugar, ice and lime called a margarita, which is seen by Mexican men as a girlie drink here, much like a wine cooler in the USA. Men drink tequila straight up or drink beer, while their chicas drink margaritas. At least, this is what I have observed in Culiacán, Sinaloa.

The drink itself, must be made from the blue agave plant (Agave bluensis) which grows all over, but is specifically cropped for drinking purposes in the state of Jalisco, around the city of Tequila. The farmers grow the agave, a prickly perennial native to central Mexico, for five years or so, cut out the meaty heart of the plant, squeeze out the juice, ferment it and distill it into tequila. If you mix blue agave with one of the many other relatives of the plant, you cannot make tequila… it becomes another popular drink, mezcal. It is not that mezcal is not as good as tequila, because sometimes, it tastes every bit as good, it just ISN’T tequila. Like grapes fermented into bubbly from places not in Champagne, France are not champagne and wine made from a mixture of pinot noir and other hearty grapes is not pinot noir, but red table wine, no matter how delicious it is.

I have not been to the city of Tequila, which is in Jalisco, about 9 hours by bus from here near Guadalajara. I understand that it is not a pretty town, but has some interesting museums and of course, you can watch them make tequila there. I also understand that outside of town, you can go to small mom and pop operations and buy some excellent tequilas for reasonable prices. Someday, I’ll have to go and check it out.

My limited research into the flavors and types of tequila are limited to what is on sale at Soriana, what is available at parties I attend and what the house drink is at the bars I frequented in Mazatlán and here in Culiacán. When I came down to Sinaloa in March for my interview, I stopped in a very local yokel tavern establishment in a backwater section of Mazatlán and ordered up a couple shots of tequila. They poured Suiza, the standard bar brand here. Jose Cuervo is found in bars, but more often those frequented by tourists than the real mccoy establishment I stopped in where the band played Banda and the barmaids were over 50 and the clientele was equal or older and played grabass with the barmaids like college kids were doing with younger cuter barmaids at hipper places down the Malecón in the Zona Dorada. The Suiza is a good sipping tequila, reasonably priced, but by far, not the best. Here in Culiacán, there is a cantina called Tequila, that serves at least 50 different kinds. It’s a good place as any for this kind of academic research. It is a semi traditional cantina, meaning that they let women in, and it is more civilized than more traditional cantinas, which are one of the last refuges for machismo. As a gringo, I find the semi traditional cantinas interesting places to go and see a culture in transition… these are not glitzy discotheques with techno dance music blaring but no room to dance. There is the classic discotheque here in town called Shooters that has live music and weekly specials and some room to dance. Mazatlán has many aimed for gringo college kids on Spring Break and at least one geared for Mexican party animals called El Coleseo Sinoloense, which is so packed that you wonder how anybody can dance in there.

When I left Mexico in March, I stopped in the duty free at Hermosillo Airport and picked up a liter of El Zarco Reposado, an aged deep honey colored tequila with a nice label that shows and tells the story of a vaquero (cowboy) on it for 133 pesos to take home. I had a party for my friends before I left Oregon and we sampled the El Zarco. It was smooth, smoky and nicely flavored, a pure malt highland scotch of tequilas, worth every centavo. The Soriana regular price for El Zarco is only 79 pesos, so besides being excellent, it is a bargain too! If you watch TV, you see many beer ads, a few tequila ads that all tell you that if you imbibe their brand, you (the guy) will be swamped with attractive women! The one I like best is a Mexican version of an Old Milwaukee ad. Guy in bar eyeing three hot chicas, who get up and start singing karaoke flinging off unnecessary clothes while they dance and sing… one gives the guy, who’s drinking Cabrito Reposado, the come up here wagging finger and he looks surprised, “Who me?” His buddies push him up and he joins the three hot girls in a rendition of the Cabrito Reposado song! Yea, just like real life huh? I guess this didn’t happened to me because I didn’t order the pricier Cabrito!

Whether TV ads are true or not, for sipping, the Reposado (reposed or aged) tequila is the way to go. You can find much cheaper bottles of “Blanco”, white or new tequila, but good Blanco can be more expensive than a Reposado. I don’t know why. Last week at Soriana, I decided to sample a pricier bottle of Blanco that was on sale at less than half price … (79 pesos down from 179) called Tres Magueyes, a brand that has been around since 1942, where they use “only finest agave grown under the sun of Altos de Jalisco for seven to ten years”. I figured, for the price, what the hell, why not experiment? Worse comes to worse, I can mix it with lime juice, ice and sugar and make delicious girlie drinks with it! But it turns out, it is a stiff light biting tequila that has an initial kick but a smooth finish. Conclusion: Next fiesta at my house, it goes on the cabinet for the guests with a bowl of salt and limes!

Unlike the commonly held idea about tequila, it does not come with a worm in the bottle. Only one or two brands of mescal that I have seen here are bottled “con guasave”, which kinda funny, is the next sizable city north of here, “Worm”, Sinaloa… now you think marketing New Coke was hard, how about a city named after worms that afflict the agave plant! The tasty mescal that I sampled at a recent birthday fiesta, was every bit as good a fine tequila, called Zacatecana, or something like that. And, no guasave.

Somewhere between Blanco tequila and the honey-colored aged Reposado is the light honey “Del Oro” which is the tequila most commonly exported, but not as common here… people tend to prefer the Reposado to drink and Blanco to mix. For those who are willing to spend more than $8 US on a bottle of tequila, there is “Añejo”, or old tequila, which is aged far more than Reposado (reposed, rested, kicked back!) I hear that a good Añejo is something to behold, but this Culichi gringo is rather cheap and is happy to sip his Reposado or Blanco he got on sale at Soriana!

Beyond tequila, Mexico produces rums of varying qualities, from good stuff to cheap sugarcane squeezin’s called aguardiente that can be bought for 13 pesos a (plastic) bottle. This stuff is excellent to clean your teeth when you run out of bottled water! They make some excellent rum drinks with every kind of fruit you can imagine here in Mexico. El Café Azul must have 20 listed on their menu. However, for rum, I picked up a bottle of Havana Club, imported from Cuba, partially to try a real “Ron Cubano” and partly to say “Nego” or I refuse to honor what I consider an immoral and stupid blockade the USA has placed against Cuba, when at the same time, buys gazillions of dollars worth of stuff from China, which is every bit as, or more oppressive than, Cuba! Turns out the Cuban rum is very good, definitely better than Bacardi and equal to the better Caribbean rums I’ve tasted.

The Mexican brandy, wine and faux cognac are good, but not exceptional, but incredibly cheaper than the imported version except for wine. For some reason, unknown to me, the better Mexican wines, from the north of Baja California, which have similar growing conditions to Southern California, are pricier than either Spanish or Chilean wine. I tried two Mexican wines at an art exposition for a Sinaloa artist at el Tec last month. Pedro Domecq, the Spanish firm, runs most of the vineyards in Santo Tomás, the Napa Valley of Baja California Norte, so it is not surprising that they taste very similar to Spanish wine.

EIGHTH LETTER

THE NARCOPOLITICAL TRAGEDY AT CINÉPOLIS AND THE HAZARDS OF THE SIERRA MADRE
Cinépolis is one of the new multiplex theaters in Culiacán, modern spacious with VIP salon seating that makes you feel like you are watching the movie from your personal theater. They show new releases of US, Mexican, Spanish films and the occasional Argentine, Chilean or French film subtitled in Spanish. Some of the US films are subtitled and some are dubbed in Spanish. The Cinépolis complex has a small mall with upscale sushi and Italian restaurants, a coffee house, various stores and an Office Depot attached. Wednesday is discount movie night at Cinépolis where 26 pesos (just over 2 bucks) will get you into a good movie and 32 pesos (under 3 bucks) will get you VIP seating! Since arriving here, I have been to Cinépolis four times taking advantage of the Wednesday night discounts, which is about the same number of movies I saw in theater in Oregon over seven years. Cinépolis is a place for people to congregate in the comfort of air conditioning, catch a movie and a bite. And like most of Culiacán, it is a safe place to hang out and the sushi across the lobby is really good. Sushi is a part of the culichi pantheon of good things to eat like carne asada tacos, jasmine and hibiscus iced tea and horchata de coco (a rice drink with coconut…. very refreshing).

Earlier I had mentioned the Lake at Sanalona. This place lies up the Tamazula River in the foothills of the Sierra Madre. Right now, it is at 105% capacity and overflowing the dam which is providing no flood control for the time being. Last year, the lake was nearly dry, since the monsoon rains were lacking. The Sierra has been getting well watered this year and the rivers are running over their banks. Beyond Sanalona, the road continues into the Sierra Madre Occidental and although passable for cars with high clearance or pickup, it is ill advised to go exploring in the hinterland beyond the lake. Like the movie, “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” there was and still is gold in them thar hills, but most of the riches brought down from the mountains these days are not mineral, but vegetable. The Sierra Madre Occidental, unfortunately, is one of the focal points for the international drug trade. Even for a visit to the 400 year old mining town of Copalá about an hour and a half from here, it is advised to travel by bus or at least in a pickup driven by a Mexican bearing a Sinaloa plate. Not advisable for gringos, culichi or otherwise, driving gringo vehicles. Being safe is a big priority for me no matter where I am, so I tend to heed local advice. Beyond Sanalona, the country becomes outstandingly beautiful and the Sierra rises up to some of its highest summits, and it is ill advised to proceed at all. The two avenues by which the Sierra is considered safe for passage and exploration are the highway that runs from Mazatlán to Durango to the south, and the train, the magnificent Chihuahua Pacific Railroad that runs from Los Mochis to Creel to Chihuahua through the Copper Canyon’s tunnels and bridges. This is an epic train trip, one of the finest rail journeys in the world. This area is a national security zone and fully patrolled by the army, so it is safe for trekking, camping, hiking, and climbing. The remaining Sierra Madre in Sinaloa is sadly off limits for everyone not under protection from the local drug lord.

This unsavory bit of reality is caused by the juxtaposition of geography, history and savvy entrepreneurship on the part of some local business tycoons. Culiacán was not settled by the genteel Spanish aristocrats or artisans like Morelia or Cuernavaca. The Indians here were not organized into empires nor city-states as in Central Mexico. Culiacán, as I mentioned before, was established by the evil conquistador Guzmán and his gang of adventurers and thieves. The tribes here also were not a cultivated bunch of folks, wanderers, hunters and warriors like the Apache of the Southwest USA. As a result of the early development of mines and vast ranches with little civilizing influence of the Church or State, Sinaloa developed a less religious, more cutthroat entrepreneurial culture than in more traditional states in Central Mexico.

Culiacán lies on the major transportation corridor between the West Coast of the USA and Mexico, Central America and Colombia. The geography and a peculiar historical twist of fate have put the Sierra in Sinaloa in the foreground of the drug business. Before there were dams, reservoirs, canals, vast irrigated farmlands to grow all those tomatoes, chiles, cucumbers, onions and beef and an industry to turn them into food for supermarket shelves from Culiacán to Calgary, Sinaloa was a hardscrabble backwater… a kind of Latino Tennessee before TVA came to town. The sheer immensity of the Sierra and subsequent difficulty of east-west movement isolated Sinaloa from both the Southwest USA and the rest of Mexico until Mazatlán became a tourist destination, and international airports, 4-lane toll highways and NAFTA came along. In that tough-as-nails environment of miners, cowboys, big ranch bosses and poor-as-dirt campesinos, the US Government made an offer that, as in the Godfather, was not refused. In the 1940s, the US was in the midst of fighting World War II and trade routes that had provided opiates for morphine were damaged or nonexistent at the very time when morphine was sorely needed for the war. Uncle Sam rode into town and asked the savvy entrepreneur class of Sinaloa to produce opium for export to the USA at prices that made tomatoes and chiles a losing proposition. Sinaloense farmers went to work planting opium poppies and an industry was born. The tricky thing about such industrial startups is that it simply doesn’t go away when the market changes. Entrepreneurs simply adapt to whatever the market requires and continue to make money. The morphine market abruptly changed after the war, since pre-war trade routes were reopened and synthetic substitutes were developed. Yet, poppies continued to be cultivated, not for open market sale to the US Government, but for the black market that had pre-existed in US cities. The conditions in the Sierra are not that different than in the foothills of the Himalaya in Afghanistan, likely a little better in most years. So this illicit industry rolled along and developed the underground infrastructure and corrupting influences that naturally occur where black markets exist throughout the world. Fast forward to the 1960s, when drug use in the USA increased: the poppy producers of Sinaloa moved to increase volume and market share. When the cocaine boom occurred in the 1970s and all the cool people in the Hollywood Hills and a future president studying at Yale were snorting the stuff, the local capos of the drug underworld moved into the new business with gusto. In the 1990s when crack became a widespread epidemic in the USA, the illicit movement of product from Colombia to the USA had a local hub operation, and business was booming. The more pressure that was put on ports like Miami and New York, the better it made business for the nouveau-riche capos of Sinaloa. As in Colombia, the movement of drugs north made for empty hauls home, so the operators took clean advantage of the lack of gun laws in the USA and filled the larder with weapons for the ride home. Thus, like the historical Atlantic sugar – slave – rum trade or the Pacific silver – opium – tea trade with China, this ugly business made money hand over fist, and was economically efficient because nobody was running empty. The wash of weapons into México has made Mexico City one of the more dangerous cities in the continent and made the Sierra Madre Occidental a land of unsafe passage.

Ironically, the city of Culiacán is relatively safe in the midst of all this nasty business of drug trafficking. This city has few murders that are not related to the drug business, fighting the police or a rival, or in some cases the police protecting the rival. In this ugly business, a hostile takeover is not a metaphor. Yet, the city is mostly quiet. El Centro is safer, I would suggest, than downtown Portland, a city of equivalent size. The chance of losing your car or being assaulted in most neighborhoods of the city is pretty slim. People are out walking at night… men, women, families, students, old folks. The plazuela is full of people milling about, sitting, talking, drinking coffee or a beer at one of the cafes, lovers sitting on benches together excluding the world from theirs, prayer vigils in front of the cathedral, some kind of evangelical event singing, dancing and praising the Lord, little kids feeding pigeons, stalls selling food, handcrafts and bootleg CDs… not a place of fear, but the center of a living dynamic tropical city.

My neighborhood is about 5 km from el Centro and it is very quiet at night unless it’s fiesta time. Last Saturday, they closed the street and put in a rented inflatable giant beanbag thing that the kids could jump around in until they passed out from exhaustion. The street was filled with card tables and plastic chairs, as barbeques churned out the carne asada that filled the tacos for probably 50 people. Norteño and banda music blared from the open doors of a Chevy pickup with a beefed up stereo. Coolers were full of cold beer, Pacifico, Carta Blanca, Modelo, Tecate, the beers of Northern Mexico. Every weekend, families are grilling out, in their driveway or front patio, rather than sequestered in their back yards alone. People here invite neighbors, even newly arrived culichi-gringos to join them for carne asada tacos and a beer, friendly conversation and a hearty welcome to the neighborhood. On days without fiestas, or weeknights when everyone needs to work the next day, you can hear frogs, bats, crickets and some funny lizards that make weird noises. Calle Manaslu is in this regard not that different than Jefferson, Oregon minus the weird noise-emitting lizards and the impromptu street parties. Unlike here, where police do not bother people having a party in the street, impromptu street parties in Oregon would bring on police attention faster than a bank robbery in progress! I have not seen police presence on Calle Manaslu, although I occasionally see them cruise down the two boulevards a few blocks away.

All this quietude makes the tragic events at Cinépolis all the more out of place and an eruption of the ugly underworld into the generally peaceable daily life all the more disturbing to culichis, this gringo model included. Since I am a cheap culichi-gringo, I go to the movies on Wednesday rather than Saturday nights which, as it turned out, was a good thing. Two weeks ago, on 11 September, Cinépolis was rocked by a shootout, a police chase and the subsequent demise of one Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, drug kingpin, his wife, his bodyguard, at least five out of town gunslingers and sadly an innocent bystander, a parking lot attendant who was working for a paltry wage to support his family. I knew something was up when, crossing the bridge over the Tamazula, I saw a piece of guardrail was out, and the other side of the bridge was awash with police. But I don’t watch TV nor read the Sunday paper often here, so I really didn’t find out what had happened until Monday when my students were talking about it in class.

The following days’ news was thick with stories about the tragic event and, more fascinating, the aftermath. Apparently some hired guns from the State of Durango were brought in to put a professional hit on one of the kingpins of the local drug cartel. This capo, Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, was the brother of the guy known as the “Lord of the Skies,” who mysteriously died while undergoing surgery in Mexico City a few years ago to completely change his identity. This family has been under indictment for many nasty crimes associated with their business interests for years, so it was no surprise to anyone that somebody wanted the capo to cease living, but the time, place and method of his demise shocked everyone. The hired guns put the capo to rest at Cinépolis, in the most public of places, in a violent shootout where an innocent person was also killed. If the shootout had occurred on the capo’s farm outside of town or in a seedy warehouse or even on the street while the creep was driving around, people would have figured the bastard got what was coming to him and moved on. But such a thing doesn’t happen at a public gathering place in Culiacán! This is not Tel Aviv or Bogotá… public spaces here are peaceable. The subsequent police chase of the killers led to their car flying through the guardrail on the bridge and into the Rio Tamazula (which explained the police presence and missing guardrail when I went by some time later). At least five imported gunslingers we permanently out of circulation and more of them were captured, whereabouts unknown. The whole thing has Hollywood screenplay written all over it, but it really happened!

The more insidious issue that cropped up nearly immediately after the shootout was the identity of the bodyguard, who turned out to be a member of the state ministerial police force and appointed by Governor Millán. The governor and his politicos who are in charge of public security immediately moved into damage control mode (cover-up mode according to 80% of the population polled by Noroeste, the local newspaper, and to the opposition parties vying to toss out the ruling PRI from office on 14 November.) How could a known criminal boss with outstanding warrants be protected by a high level police officer without the knowledge of that police officer’s upline? Hmmmmm? We are not talking bubba cop here, but an appointed position with some rank. While this is indeed very bad business, it isn’t a problem unique to Culiacán or México… change the names and it could be a scene from Serpico or Miami Vice. But Mexicans are fed up with the endemic corruption that afflicts their country and inquiring minds want to know who knew what when how and why! The federal attorney general’s office and the PAN are leading the inquiries. The PAN is the leading state opposition party and holds the Presidency of the Republic, but neither the governor, state congress, mayor, nor city council locally. Governor Millán is a lame duck since he cannot succeed himself, and is lambasted in the press as the worst governor in the history of Sinaloa, and an embarrassment for the state. It is hard to say how this drama will play out on election day or whether the federal and state prosecutors will get to the bottom of who knew what when how and why. Even in Sinaloa, a place where things tend to be easily swept under the rug, the opening of the political system and multiparty democracy is pressing for change. The fact that the federal government is controlled by the PAN, which has brought in the army to patrol some highways and in outlying towns where police presence is iffy, presses the issue forward in a visible way. The state police, who drive 4X4 Dodge trucks and who are armed like the army with M-1s, seem to be patrolling the major boulevards a bit more visibly. It is clear that the endemic corruption that allows the drug lords to operate their fiefdoms here and makes the Sierra Madre an unsafe place to travel, was exposed in an unambiguous way at Cinépolis two weeks ago. Whatever the outcome, sweeping this tragedy under the rug is far less likely than it would have been ten years ago.

 

NINTH LETTER

LOS TOMATEROS DE CULIACÁN: BEISBOL SOUTH OF THE BORDER
It turns out that baseball (beisbol) is a big deal in Mexico, much like in Republicana Dominicana, Cúba and Venezuela. Mexican players have become stars in the Major Leagues providing outstanding pitchers to teams from New York to L.A. I was anticipating opening of the season here in Mexico, since our home team, los Tomateros (tomato growers) are the reigning champion of la Liga Pacifica (Pacific League), which includes the Aguilas de Mexicali (Eagles), Laranjeros de Hermosillo (Orange Growers), Mayos de Navajoa (Indians), Cañeros de Los Mochis (Sugar Growers), Algodoneros de Guasave (Cotton Growers), Yaquis de Obregón (Braves since they were the last tribe to be subjugated), and Venados de Mazatlán (Bucks). As you can see, agriculture is big around here! Los Tomateros opened last Tuesday against Mazatlán and won handily. I was going to go, (I have a friend here whose sister works for the team and had free tickets), but was absorbed by grading mid-term exams and had to bail… Damn.

Well, good things happen to those who wait. Last night, I got to go to the game on free tickets. Since it was not an opening night extravaganza, we got a better pick of (free) seats and plunked down in row F overlooking first base. We had the cheerleaders five rows below us and the bullpen just beyond the cheering section. The cheerleaders would switch back and forth between first base and third base perch and alternate with the dancing Tecate girls in bright red high stepping Tex-Mex getup, with bikini tops and Tecate cowboy hats. Arrrrrrrrribbbbbbba! Ok, let’s say the seating was better than OK! The Tomateros were down 2-1 after the first inning, the announcer talking like a soccer dude when the next batter came to the plate… not a simple Francisco Martinez, but a FRAANCISSCO MAAAAAAAARRRRRRRTIIIINNNNNEEEEZZZZZZ! which would erupt a cheer from the stadium. Between innings and during every lull in the action, the camera dudes would scope the audience for cute women, funny looking people, babies, cool little kids who would give a big thumbs up and wave wildly, old couples, young couples, swaying couples, dancing couples, whatever caught their eye, and throw it up on the scoreboard in bright Technicolor. One hot dancing chica who seemed to know when you’re on camera and you’ve got it, flaunt it, cuz it’s your moment of fame, did just that. The camera dude gave her many moments of fame as she danced from one side of the stadium to the bullpen to photograph her son with the players behind him. An old guy was dancing to banda beat with a slightly plump women half his age, who was flaunting and amusing the hell out of everyone. We almost missed a home run by the home team while watching them dance the night away. Mexican baseball is serious, but fun and playful. The stadium is big but not impersonally big, so you can really see the game. The play is good, the pitching in there with 90 mph fastballs, 86 mph sliders and the outfield is 400 feet, so a home run is a good hit. A big difference is the food and the food prices. Beers are 15 pesos ($1.35 US) and you can get dang near anything you want to eat… hot dogs, hamburgers, tacos, peanuts, candy, chips, chiles, corn on the cob, and something called tostitiquetes, which is a bag of Tostitos chips filled with chiles, cheese, elote (cooked corn) and chimoy (native fruit). It was really good and salty enough to make you order a Tecate (the official beer of los Tomateros!) After yummy baseball food, beer and a third inning single with 2 RBIs followed by a double and 2 more RBIs, los Tomateros sealed the fate of the Mayos de Navajoa. Things got worse for the visitors when Cantu, the 2nd baseman for los Tomateros with a .667 average, slammed a homer with 2 men on base. The poor Mayos got a run in the eighth, but the 11-5 score for the home team made for a pretty festive atmosphere. After the game, the parking lots emptied and people hung around and talked, taxis were busy picking people up since parking is limited and expensive (price of 2 beers). Hundreds of people simply walked toward home, maybe within a kilometer or so of the stadium or parked elsewhere. No road rage or crazy stuff going on after the game, jovial and mellow. It was fun. I will be going again soon.

ELECTIONS – ELECTIóNES
Elections are colorful, interesting and at times overwhelming, but the fact they occur is a good thing… it means the people at least have some say in the process of choosing their political leaders. The USA election was watched carefully by everyone here, from high flying politicos to the guy at the end of my street, who barbeques carne asada on a grill made from a Chevy truck rim cris-crossed by rebar. The news media carried the election stories and how the outcome may effect Mexico and Mexicans who reside in their home country, and those who have crossed over into El Norte.

My observations here in Culiacán are: the closer one is to the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), the more complacent one is regarding the election north of the border. It would appear that may priistas feel that Bush is pro-NAFTA, so Mexican produce from Sinaloa will move north without impediment. The PRI runs Sinaloa and most municipalities in the state, except for Mazatlán (which is run by the PT Workers Party). Surprisingly at least to me, those who are working hard to dislodge the PRI from their 80 plus years of power here in Sinaloa, especially the PAN (Partido Acción Nacional), are the most concerned about the election in el Norte. The panistas are largely middle class business owners or professionals and currently occupy the halls of power in far away México (that's Mexico City, see previously), but Sinaloa is a hard nut to crack, and dislodging the PRI here is akin to dislodging the Republicans from Utah or the Democrats from Massachusetts. Yet, it is Vincente Fox, the President of the Republic, a panista, who was a personal buddy of George W. Bush, when they used to trade barbeque recipes over the fence while they governedn adjacent states. The panistas here are fiscally conservative, if that makes any sense in Mexico. Their motto – “Con la fuerza de corazón” (From the heart with all your strength or With all the strength of the heart) – strongly implies that these business people have a heart and are not of willing to sell their grandmother to make a fast buck. In the USA, these folks could possibly fit in the old fashioned concept of the Republican party, small business owners who cared about their community, were progressives, but tight with the buck (maybe like Tom McCall, former Gov. of Oregon, God rest his soul). Yet the panistas I have met have the greatest sense of concern about Bush being reelected in the USA. I would have expected social democratic parties on the left, the PRD (Partido Revolucionario Democratica, whose slogan “Por lo tú queres!” For what you want or what you love!) and the PT (Partido de Trabajadores, whose slogan is simply ¨Capacidad y honestidad” – Ability and honesty!) to be leaning heavily toward the Democrats in the USA, but it is the PAN and the Greens (Partido Verde Ecologista de México) who seem to be most concerned about a re-elected Bush. I have not met a Mexican of any political stripe here in Sinaloa, even those who think Bush is good for business, who supports the Anglo-American war in Iraq. All seem genuinely pleased that Mexico has no part in it.

The PRI are expansive, spend money like there's no tomorrow, and are using the power of incumbency to boost their party’s chances to hit the public trough in the future by pouring money into the campaign, especially in this final week before the election. The PRI’s slogans say it all “Siempre más por todo” (Always more for everyone… it has a better ring to it in Spanish!), “Más progreso para tí!” (More progress for you!), and “Más empleo! (More jobs!). The commercials, which run sometimes back to back for state and municipal candidates, have a background chorus singing the Más empleo, Siempre más por todo, Vota PRI! anthem, while a woman with a pleasantly sexy voice explains how we will all have higher salaries if we vote PRI next Sunday. To me, how they can pull this off is dubious… the PRI has run Sinaloa for 80 years and things are as they are… how can another six years of PRI make everyone’s dreams suddenly come true?

The PRI, despite the "revolutionary" in their name, are the status quo here and run state and local government like Tammany Hall. They are definitely not all bad, considering that the current governor, despite his unsavory links to organized crime, has broadened the Culichi cultural scene by constructing the Pablo Villavicencio Concert Hall and starting from scratch the state symphony orchestra (more on that later). And a week before the election with Culiacán tilting toward the PAN and all other towns minus Mazatlán firmly in the PRI’s pocket, you would not believe how much pavement can be laid down anew by Mexican workers backed by political will. I am not sure how we pay for all this, but the orchestra sounds awesome and the new pavement is nice!

So two nations sitting next door to each other have elections within a week of each other and while Mexicans are watching el Norte with a wary eye, I doubt many Americans even know elections are going on down here. Both Canadians and Mexicans share the view that bordering the USA is akin to sleeping with an elephant, and no matter what the elephant does, it’s always best to sleep lightly and be ready to jump to avoid being squished. The elephant is not too concerned how restless you are unless you actively bother it somehow, so best sneeze softly and keep the trucks running north full of tomatoes to keep gringo salad bowls full all winter!

CULTURAL LIFE IN CULIACÁN
To be honest with all of you, I had no idea what to expect from the Culichi cultural scene before I came down here. But the more time I spend here, the more pleased I am by the varied and endlessly interesting cultural milieu available in Culiacán. Since arriving here in July, I have been to at least five concerts, ranging from bluesy rock'n'roll (Eric Burdon and the Animals), to banda (the free show at the el Grito in Sep), Latin rock (Café Tacuba) last night in a downtown nightclub, and classical (performances by the Orquestra Símfonia Sinoloa de los Artes) in the new Teatro Pablo Villavincencio. The orchestra is an interesting story in itself. Some five years ago, Culiacán had a small opera company with an accompanying orchestra made up of Mexican musicians and an American conductor. Then, the governor (who still holds the job) decided to enhance the cultural scene by putting together a state orchestra. Looking around the world, he hit on an exciting and brilliant strategy… find an unemployed Russian orchestra and hire them, lock, stock and borscht to move to Culiacán and play wonderful music for Culichi audiences. To round out the social benefits to the community, he made them a traveling orchestra based in Culiacán, but they play in Mazatlán, at the recently restored and stunning Angela Perralta theater, in Los Mochis, Cosalá (small mining town in the Sierra) and Guasave (small farming city north of here). Last Thursday, I hear a stunning performance of Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky and world premier performances of the Symphonic Suite “Culiacán” and “fjdfadfjsfo.” The piece titled after the city was sponsored by the state government, written by Eduardo Gamboa, an internationally-renown composer who lived here before going off to London. It was a stunning piece of work and the local audience loved it. The orchestra is largely comprised of Russians with a few Mexicans and Bulgarians thrown in, conducted by an American who speaks Spanish with more of a gringo accent than I do, despite having lived here for more than 20 years. You might think the Russian orchestra would play their Mussorgsky with pure joy, which they did, but they also have played Mozart, Handel and these modern pieces with equal aplomb and enthusiasm. For me, Pictures at an Exhibition holds a special place since it was the first classical piece I ever really heard, and definitely ever liked. I first heard this piece performed at the Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles in 1974 by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the English rock band, who performed it with Moog synthesizers, guitar and drums backed up by a pack of violins. I remember thinking how much I liked the piece, how I bought the ELP album of the same name and one day after listening to it, thought “Who is this Mussorgsky guy?” I went to my record store to find out and as a result, became a big fan of classical music. So, for me, hearing Mussorgsky played by a Russian orchestra was a special treat!

I have missed performances by the heavy metal band Poison, the Kumbia Kings (Selena’s brothers), Misa Flamenco, tango artists from Argentina, the Yugoslav National Dance, and a dozen others because I have been too busy teaching and grading papers! Every week, some well known Norteño band plays in the Republica Bar or the Tequileria Bar. Every week, the symphony has at least once concert from September through April. Every week the Foro Tecate has some band performance. There is more to do than I have time for, despite the fact that I live right in the city of Culiacán. Beyond name performances that come to town for concerts, the baseball and soccer leagues which are going full steam right now, there are numerous local venues for music and dance. The Casa de Cultura has dance performances. The UAS (University Autonoma de Sinaloa) has music and sports programs going on all the time they are in session. There is a photography exhibit going on downtown while at el Tec, we have had two exhibitions of famous painters since I arrived. Every weekend, clubs have live bands and small cafés like the Café Azul have live jazz performances. Hotel clubs have house bands or more famous national bands stop and play. There is a street downtown where mariachis congregate and you can hire them to play at a party, wedding or other event. Or you can walk down the street and listen to them play as they wait for paying customers. Culiacán is not Guadalajara, but it is active, culturally alive, and lots of fun.

 

TENTH LETTER

AUS BUS FROM MAZÁTLAN TO CULIACÁN
I am riding the bus to catch the plane to get to Los Angeles to layover 2 days before returning to Portland on New Year's Eve. From there, I have a couple of days to ease back, watch some American football before returning to work in downtown Portland. I spent Christmas with my girlfriend Magui and my family, who flew down from Redding CA to Mazatlán. Getting tickets to a deluxe, warm, sunny place like Mazatlán in December on a last-minute basis was no picnic and I would not recommend it. What goes for $400 to $450 in October tends to double or nothing for the Christmas season, yet I got my tickets for $585 RT using the most complicated and circuitous route possible on 4 airlines. Amtrak from Salem to Portland, Bus to Max to PDX, America West Portland to Phoenix, Phoenix to Mexico City with an all night layover… yea! Then Aero México to Mazatlán. To get back, I take the AUS (Autobuses Unidos de Sinaloa) highly recommended because they run every 20 minutes and don’t wait until they’re full to leave. Nice buses too, and only 95 pesos for teachers or students, 125 pesos for other folks. So for $9 of bus, I saved $100 in airplane tickets! Good investment. Next is Aero California from Culiacán to LAX, arriving at 11 pm, so ya gotta layover no matter what. I opted for a 2-day layover to save yet another $150 on my flight to PDX on the 31st arriving around 11pm to take the Max to my part time Oregon abode. So, en route to Culiacán, I complete a cycle and will complete this vignette titled Culichi Letter. Sometime during the year 2006, I will head back south and likely stay put in Sinaloa, México. And for you readers, I wish you a happy, safe and exciting New Year!

THE CILICHI RIVIERA: ALTATA AND NUEVO ALTATA
Altata: the words ring of magic for the culichi. When you live tantalizingly close, but not at the sea, and the climate is hmmmm, well, could be thought of like Florida on steroids during the long summer months, and the air is still, every breeze somehow leading or trailing scads of rain and thunder, you can understand the longing for an ocean breeze, a cold beer under a palapa, swimming, surfing or simply staring at a large expanse of water. Culiacán has no beach culture to speak of, the culichi Riviera does not resemble the French or the Redneck, but in the mental map of the culichi, it represents that perfect weekend getaway.

Altata and Nuevo Altata represent two vastly different mental maps, different subcultures, and different socioeconomic strata of Culiacán society. Oddly enough, even Nuevo Altata, with its beachside palapas, reliable surf, warm water and endless stretch of sandy beach, does not bring out a semblance of beach culture… Nuevo Altata is not Southern California nor Rio nor Cancun. It is the uptown side of Altata proper. When I say no beach culture, I mean that all the things that this former Californian, former Floridian, former temporary resident of Brasil, thinks of when going to the beach… scads of lovely, bikini-clad women catching rays, skaters rolling up and down the sidewalks, cruisin’ the seaside boulevard, Frisbee, volleyball and impromptu fútbol games on the beach, surfers waiting and catching their personal big kahunas, kids playing in the sand building grand castles and peasant hovels all to be washed away with the rising tide, beachcombers searching for treasures made from shell or fallen from tourist pockets, lovers entwined in each others arms in the surf or on the sand… none of this or very little of the beach culture I am familiar with passes by the shimmering sands of Nuevo Altata. This is an exclusive place although parking is in a big sandy lot and there is no admission charge. This is a family place although most families are not on the beach. This is a beach where people go for the day unless they have a beach house in the exclusive developments south of the public beach. This beach is not open for business until 10 AM and closes at dark unless you live here. The bridge to the beach, located on a peninsula that closes the north side of Altata Bay is closed until 10 AM and closed after dark unless you are a resident who wants in or out. On the beach itself, they have planted some palms, which are not fully leafed out to provide a smattering of shade. The restaurant and bar have a big palapa and little ones to provide more shade, make a good lunch and of course, provide cold beer and drinks. The entry is beautifully appointed with flowers, rocks, and walls with lighted accents, much like you would find in Palm Beach County or Santa Barbara. Yet, the beach itself, despite being stunning in its tropical wonder, is usually not very populated, a few families and a few couples and a few groups of friends mostly sitting on the sand chatting, a few venturing into the surf mostly to cool off and returning to the sand or the bar. Most of the women wear shorts and a shirt of some kind, a few a bikini top with shorts… no tangas or dental floss bikinis here… Nuevo Altata is neither Fort Lauderdale nor Copacabana! Occasionally, a pick-up fútbol (soccer) game will happen, but not often as one would think on a Latin American beach. Occasionally a surfer is working the waves but most of the time, the great ocean expanse is empty of humans, and home to pretty blue jellyfish. Despite the jellies, I always got out body surfing or boogie boarding at Nuevo Altata, but then again, I am a former Californian, an Oregonian who is still so damn excited to find 80 degree ocean water…

Old Altata or simply Altata is a different world… only 15 minutes across the bay by motorboat, and seven miles across the guarded, gated bridge and through the estuarine flats, you enter the traditional, but locally touristy village of Altata, located not on the ocean, but on the bay. Altata Bay is lined with weekend homes of moderately well-to-do culichis and the village itself is mostly traditional Mexican pueblo… providing shelter and livelihood for those who depend on the fruits of the sea rather than the sea itself. Hundreds of small boats are pulled up to the empty spots on the beach, a sandy strip in front of the row of small restaurants that also serves the town as Main Street. Altata is the only place I have been where bus service is provided to the waterline and at high tide, Main Street is closed and the front patios of the restaurants are in the bay rather than alongside. During the weeks, Altata is a quiet village of fisherfolk who go about their daily business, fixing nets, working on outboard motors, talking about how bad the catch is with friends and neighbors over a few beers. But on the weekends, especially Sundays, the place is solid people, wall-to-wall culichis, driving the sandy bay front back and forth in their Ford Lobos and Nissan pickups, cabs packed, Banda music blaring from the stereo, beer in hand… the restaurants are full of families and friends gathered to soak up some sea air and fill up on fish, shrimp and other seafood prepared a dozen different ways, all tasty…tacos de pescado, camarón mojo en ajo, and to drink beer, brought in buckets full of ice. All is a good time, feet dangling in the bay while eating, and moving chairs and tables to slightly higher positions as the tide rises past mid calf. By nightfall, the crowds thin out as the Ford Lobos and Nissan pickups head east across the estuarine flats to the irrigated sugarcane fields of Navolato and in less than an hour, to the great Oz city of Culiacán.

TEACHING MEXICAN STUDENTS THE VALUE OF BEING ON TIME
This is a fine example of the tongue-in-cheek saying, “Those who can't do, teach!” For my friends, family, acquaintances and associates… y’all know for a fact that Tim Murphy lives on “Island Time”, “Brazilian Time”, whatever. I am sure that I was late for my birth and will most certainly be late to my own funeral. Yet, when I interviewed for the job in Culiacán, I was duly informed that part of my duties as a professor at el Tec, was to infuse by example and by not-so subtle pressure, for my students to be on time, every time. El Tec sees timeliness as next to godliness or at least goldliness and intractably tied to the future of Mexico as a great trading nation and business partner with gringo and international economy, which is ruled by the clock, rather than the position of the sun in the sky. When I informed my friends at Oregon Dept. of Transportation about this aspect of my new job, they took turns howling with laughter, and then bought me a very nice timepiece with an easy-to-set alarm on it. To my friends, thanks! This watch has saved the “teaching Mexican students the value of being on time” effort from certain doom. Many times during thunderstorms, the power would go out and my clock radio would tell me how many hours had passed since the power was restored. But my gift timepiece would keep on tickin’ and beep me into life at an hour too early for my own good, but I would shower (since I got the tinaco fixed, I always had water!), eat some yogurt, run out the door, race through traffic to el Tec, race to my class and arrive at least 2 minutes before 07:30! Never once was I late! I know such things are as hard to believe as finding a live brontosaurus hiding in the willows down at the fishin’ hole! Now my students who apparently did not have the advantage of a gift timepiece relied on their mothers, their alarm clocks with a snooze button too large or too easy to reach and would arrive at class 5, 10 ,15, 20, 30, 40 or more minutes late. This is fine in Mexico in general, but at el Tec, NO NO NO! Everyone can be 5 minutes late… no more, then they are marked “falta”. A falta is a falta, no matter if you are sleepy, sick, tired, hung over, choked on your papaya, missed the bus, got run over by the bus, whatever… you get a falta.

 

ELEVENTH LETTER

FAMILY VALUES IN A CULTURE WHERE FAMILY IS THE VALUE
REDUZCA TU VELOCIDAD, TU FAMILIA TE ESPERA reads the highway warning signs in Sinaloa… “SLOW DOWN, YOUR FAMILY WAITS FOR YOU”… how different the concept than in the USA where everything from birth to death is a notice to speed up, and especially speed up if your family is waiting for you… damn, we Americans do not like to wait for anybody or anything. I remember my family waiting for me… always pressure and driving way too fast to arrive “on time” because fashionably late is not in my family’s dictionary! Every time I see these signs I think of how family is distinctly different in Mexico than the USA. These signs are a visible tip of the great iceberg that is family in Mexico and throughout the Latin world. Under the waterline, there are many distinctions that become obvious, even during a short visit, but fully exert themselves when you live here.

Interestingly enough, in politics, Mexican politicians do not spend much time yakking about family values. Sure, they show off their wives or husbands now and then and President Vicente Fox spends a good deal of time on TV talking about how good his administration at building houses for Mexican families, but the endless drivel that falls from the lips of American politicians about family values simply is absent from the political discourse here.

However, the tip of the iceberg, the effervescent highway sign reminding speeding Ford Lobos to slow the hell down, not because the cops will nail them with a radar gun, but because their family is waiting for them and wants no harm for them. Sure, a cop may be around the next bend with his radar ready to nail zippy Lobos, but mostly on rural highways, the cops are in the villages enforcing speed limits where the people live, rather than on the open road.

The value of family, like the iceberg, extends far below the obvious trends. Mexican families tend to stick together and for the most part have less intergenerational warfare than families north of the ugly border fence. The house on Calle Manislu provides a good example. The house is owned by Celia who lives in Minneapolis. Her oldest daughter, Carolina, is “property manager” not because her mom set her up in a business or wanted to invest north and rent her house but because Carolina does not want to live there… by herself. Consider the number of American college-age people, men and women, and consider how many would turn down free rent in their own place … in order to live with their grandparents!! Carolina is not an anomaly but an expression of the norm. She came back to Culiacán because she felt isolated in Minnesota even though her mom and sister lived there. She missed her grandparents, her aunts, cousins etc. So she came back to attend college at the other Tec in town, el Tec de Culiacán, earned her degree in engineering all the while living with her grandparents rather than by herself or with a friend in “her” house on Calle Manislu. It was her aunt and uncle, Letty and Emile, who applied pressure and convinced Celia to allow Carolina to rent the house and provide income for Carolina while attending college. Simply, if I was not associated with El Tec and had the confidence of Letty and Emile, the house on Calle Manislu would have remained vacant because of family values generally trump real estate values.

When Mexican students go to college, they tend to stay as close to home as possible unless they have relatives in another city with a suitable university or at least can go to college as a team… brother and sister go to the same university in the same town and share an apartment. The college life as portrayed by Animal House does not exist in Mexico. Mexican universities do not have a fraternity/sorority scene, a dorm scene, or student ghetto scene where thousands of students are living in seedy apartments and houses in the “U” neighborhood. Most Mexican students live with their families.

Families are fused between generations in a vertical sense and extended in a horizontal sense. Most Mexican families who do not live in the same town or region spend their vacations visiting relatives. My friends in Culiacán have extended family throughout Mexico and the USA. On vacation, they visit their aunt in Tucson, their grandparents in Morelia, their brother in Guasave or the cousin in Saltillo. It is less typical to take an individual vacation to someplace where family is not. Birthday parties are a popular way of getting together and for families with tensions between people; the birthday party becomes the glue that connects everyone at least once a year. Further south, el Día de los Muertos - the Day of the Dead, 2 November - also serves to reconnect not only family with us today, but also those who have passed. This ancient ritual combines elements of Aztec, pre-Aztec and medieval Spanish Catholicism in the same way that Christmas in the USA combines traditional elements of Christian ritual with crass materialism. The further south you go in Mexico, the more importance is placed on this day. In Culiacán, I was very surprised that the Tec did not count this day as an official holiday… but Cinco de Mayo likewise was not listed as an official day off either… go figure!

In business, the family is likewise center pivot for the enterprise. Most businesses in Mexico are private family owned and managed. This is reflected in the expectations of my students, who nearly all considered their careers with their family’s business or planned to start their own. Very few had any interest in working for either a company outside their family sphere, the government or elsewhere. Most planned to stay in Culiacán or Sinaloa, a few who had family in the USA wanted to leave Mexico or had thoughts of working or living abroad, such as in London. With the Diaspora over the past century north to the USA, nearly everyone in Culiacán has at least one family member who lives in the USA or had lived in el Norte at some time in their lives. Business ties become an extension of family ties and extend to the community like the ties between neighbors to their colonia. The down side of all this familiar coziness is that it is difficult to make the Mexican economy as “efficient” as that of the USA or other countries where economy trumps family.

Mexican political life is also an extension of family business enterprise. Most political parties are family businesses rather than ideological organizations. Hence, Mexico has a Green party that isn’t really very green, a Workers party that isn’t really much of a Labor party, etc. Each of these parties provides endless job opportunities for family members at the expense of the taxpayers who support the political process through grants to the parties. This tight family/business structure also makes fighting corruption and nepotism next to impossible because most everyone wants to support their family through their business. When their business happens to be governance, the temptation to pad the family nest at the expense of the taxpayers is irresistible for many. So, like most things in life, family values is a wonderful and central part of the human experience, but is not always a panacea for society’s troubles.

TWELFTH LETTER

INFUSING ECOLOGICAL CONSCIENCE
Mexico as a nation may lie on the cusp of having a national ecological conscience. In this respect, the piece of NAFTA as amended by the Clinton Administration, which pegged environmental and labor issues to an otherwise stone-cold trade treaty has had positive effect. Mexican environmental groups, such as Pronatura, are active and making progress toward a more sustainable future. The Tec is moving toward ecological conscience by recycling paper and cardboard, by developing a sustainable operations plan for each campus and developing a sustainable development program at the main campus in Monterrey. El Tec supports the environment by providing in-kind support and has a teaching position for the state office of Pronatura, an environmental non-profit (called A.C. Asociación Civil in Mexico). Pronatura Noroeste has its office provided by el Tec on campus. This reduces the operating expense and provides an academic base camp for its outreach and extension programs throughout the state of Sinaloa. The head of Pronatura Noroeste, Xicotenecl Vega, who goes by Xico (pronounced HEE-co), works tirelessly to preserve pieces of Sinaloa, conserve the vast resources of the coast and Sierra Madre. The projects include ecotourism in the Sierra with a beautiful tent and cabin camping area in the cool pine forests that carpet the high Sierra above 1800m (6000 ft) These forests provide refuge to a number of endemic and migratory bird species, some of which live nowhere else in the world. Pronatura is developing a conference and educational center up there. It is beautiful and quite a shock during the torrid summers in the coastal plain far below. Pronatura is also developing estuary restorations in both north and south Sinaloa.

Yet, the conscience is in its infancy and, like a baby, needs to be nourished, pampered, and cared for in all ways. Mexico has not had in its past, much time nor luxury of developing a sense of what could be, rather adapts strikingly well to what is, and has largely succeeded despite a rugged geography, largely an arid climate with no major rivers to move freight, a history where tragedy has outrun comedy, survived invasions by gringos both American and French, a bloody and complex revolution and a population that has outpaced jobs, infrastructure and the best and worst of planning efforts. So, even I, a dedicated ecologist, can grasp and have empathy for the lack of progress in the environmental arena. Yet, I also see endless opportunities to build on the progress made in the past few years and reverse some long-term negative trends. First, Mexico has good public transportation. This helps to keep numerous individual gas-burning autos off the roads. Second, Mexicans are a bit closer to the land. Nearly every family – at least in Sinaloa – is not more than a generation from the land, and has relatives who live on the land. This ranching ethic at least ties people to their land, yet has not been a significant part of environmentalism, as in Europe. For transportation, the good part is lots of people, even those like me who own cars, use buses for many trips, both in the city and between cities. It is easier, cheaper and more relaxing to take the bus than drive between Mazatlán and Culiacán. Now, to build on this progress, what a difference an efficient diesel engine burning biodiesel would make for this country. The older buses belch black smoke from inefficient old diesel motors. The newer buses are only somewhat better, but a far cry from clean-burning! So the air could be made a lot cleaner by improving diesel fuels and diesel engines. Now, the trash problem. I lay out this hypothesis: Not too long ago, almost all food in Mexico was packaged or prepared in natural cartons… tamales wrapped in a cornhusk. Restaurants used glass and porcelain cups and plates. So, if you get a tamale from the corner stand, eat the tamale and toss the corn husk in the street, either it will be consumed by hungry street varmints or be returned to molecules by ants and other little decomposers. Either way, it was tossed and gone in no time flat! Fast forward to today… Plastic, paper, cans, bottles… mostly plastic. Mexico makes and uses an incredible quantity of plastic. And the generational habit of tossing stuff in the street has run way behind the technology to make stuff that doesn’t decompose, it just piles up and looks like hell. In the old days, when your horse or mule died, you buried it and it went away. When your Vocho (VW Bug) dies, you can bury it but it wont go away.

This is where we teachers at el Tec step in trying to infuse a bit of ecological conscience in our students. Many practical problems we work on in class involve clean water, reducing waste, clean air, etc. My students had a homework to go home and see what was in the street for a block in front of their house, determine the source of the street stuff, and come up with a solution to reduce the amount of the stuff. It is little bits, but if something got through to a few students and they change their behavior and conscience a bit, I believe we are headed to a cleaner, more progressive Mexico.

POSTSCRIPT 1: ELECTIONS 2004 AND 2006
ELECTIONS – ELECCIONES
Elections are colorful, interesting and at times overwhelming, but the fact they occur is a good thing… it means the people at least have some say in the process of choosing their political leaders. The USA election was watched carefully by everyone here, from high flying politicos to the guy at the end of my street, who barbeques carne asada on a grill made from a Chevy truck wheel rim cris-crossed by rebar. The news media carried the election stories and how the outcome may affect Mexico and Mexicans who reside in their home country and those who have crossed over into El Norte.

My observations here in Culiacán are: the closer one is to the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), the more complacent one is regarding the election north of the border. It would appear that may priistas feel that Bush is pro-Nafta, so Mexican produce from Sinaloa will move north without impediment. The PRI runs Sinaloa and most municipalities in the state except for Mazatlán (which was run by the PT Workers Party until the mayor was thrown out for spousal abuse and replaced by a moralistic PAN mayor). Surprisingly, at least to me, those who are working hard to dislodge the PRI from their 80 plus years of power here in Sinaloa, especially the PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) are the most concerned about the election in el Norte even though Vicente Fox, the panista President of the Republic is an old pal of ‘W’ up north. The panistas are largely middle class business owners or professionals and currently control the presidency and state government in Jalisco (Guadalajara), but Sinaloa is a hard nut to crack and dislodging the PRI here is akin to dislodging the Republicans from Utah or the Democrats from Massachusetts. The panistas here are fiscally conservative, if that makes any sense in Mexico, and their motto, “Con la fuerza de corazón” (From the heart with all your strength, or With all the strength of the heart), strongly implies that these business people have a heart and are not willing to sell their grandmother to make a fast buck. In the USA, these folks could possibly fit in the old fashioned concept of the Republican party, small business owners who cared about their community, but were progressives but tight with the buck (maybe like Tom McCall, former Gov. of Oregon, God rest his soul). Yet the panistas I have met have the greatest sense of concern about Bush being re-elected I the USA. I would have expected social democratic parties on the left, the PRD (Partido Revolucionario Democratica, whose slogan is “Por lo tú queres!” – For what you want or what you love!) and the PT (Partido de Trabajadores, whose slogan is simply ¨Capacidad y honestidad!” – Ability and honesty!) to be leaning heavily toward the Democrats in the USA, but it is the PAN and the Greens (Partido Verde Ecologista de México) who seem to be most concerned about a re-elected Bush. I have not met a Mexican of any political stripe here in Sinaloa, even those who think Bush is good for business, who supports the Anglo-American war in Iraq. Mexicans seem genuinely pleased that Mexico has no part in it.

The PRI are expansive, spend money like no tomorrow, and are using the power of incumbency to boost their party’s chances to hit the public trough in the future by pouring money into the campaign, especially in this final week before the election. The PRI’s slogans say it all “Siempre más por todo” (Always more for everyone… has a better ring to it in Spanish!), “Más progreso para tí!” (More progress for you!), and “Más empleo!" (More jobs!). The commercials which run sometimes back to back for state and municipal candidates have a background chorus singing the Más empleo, Siempre más por todo, Vota PRI! anthem, while a woman with a pleasantly sexy voice explains how we will all have higher salaries if we vote PRI next Sunday. To me, how they can pull this off is dubious… the PRI has run Sinaloa for 80 years and things are as they are… how can another six years of PRI make everyone’s dreams suddenly come true?

The PRI, despite revolutionary in their name, are the status quo here and run state and local government like Tammany Hall. They are definitely not all bad, considering the current governor, despite his unsavory links to organized crime, has broadened the culichi cultural scene by constructing the Pablo Villavicencio Concert Hall and starting from scratch the state symphony orchestra (more on that later). And a week before the election with Culiacán tilting toward the PAN and all other towns minus Mazatlán firmly in the PRI’s pocket, you would not believe how much pavement can be laid down anew by Mexican workers backed by political will. I am not sure how we pay for all this, but the orchestra sounds awesome and the new pavement is nice!

So two nations sitting next door to each other have elections within a week of each other and while Mexicans are watching el Norte with a wary eye, I doubt many Americans even know elections are going on down here. Both Canadians and Mexicans share the view that bordering the USA is akin to sleeping with an elephant, and no matter what the elephant does, it’s always best to sleep lightly and be ready to jump to avoid being squished. The elephant is not too concerned how restless you are unless you actively bother it somehow, so best sneeze softly and keep the trucks running north full of tomatoes to keep gringo salad bowls full all winter!

The elections of 2004 passed with status quo maintaining power in the USA and Sinaloa. Both elections were a few percentage points spread between those who won and lost. In Sinaloa, the new governor, Jesus Aguilar Padilla, a protégé of the former governor, Juan Millán, has made some show of anticorruption and new initiatives, the most noticeable of which is the new state logo that adorns road signs and the new license plates. Yet Culiacan continues to grow, new buildings sprout from the land and new neighborhoods of homes rise from the dust to shelter the growing and prospering population. So, vamos juntos por mas! may have been at least true to some extent.

The elections of 2006 are the first in Mexican history where an opposition party holds the presidency and is running a multi-party election to maintain power. The PRI had the golden opportunity to show its progressive tendencies and fielded a slate of solid candidates in the primaries including the popular governor of Estado de Mexico, Arturo Montiel, and the squeaky clean governor of the border state of Coahuila, Enrique Martinez M. The PAN offered solid candidates also, including the governor of Jalisco, Alberto Cárdenas, but the favored candidate was the protégé of President Vicente Fox, Santiago Creel, a party hack who lacks both charisma and ethics. The outcome of the primaries, though, put the PAN in a good position to win with a solid candidate, Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa, former Energy Minister and party chieftain (as well as a Masters from Harvard). The PRI dropped the ball and selected Roberto Madrazo, an old school party hack that does not inspire the confidence of many Mexicanos. The PRD is running a strong campaign led by Mexico City mayor (equivalent to the Governor of NY rather than the mayor of Washington DC in clout!) Andrés Manuel López Obredor known as AMLO. Right now it is a horse race and any candidate could win, but I would put my money on AMLO or Calderón. I am sure there is plenty of fretting going on in Washington DC, especially about AMLO, since he is a classic left of center politician, a popular guy who loves baseball but a hard man to work for. Calderón would likely stay the course politically but run a more open and possibly less corrupt government. So, like the horse track, it’s off to the races and may the best candidate win!

 


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