For the last few weeks I’ve been waking up each morning at exactly 3:30. I know this because I instinctively reach over to hit the backlight button on my alarm clock and see how far I am from dawn. My dog curled up beside the bed stirs and lifts his head. Upon realizing I am not about to produce either a walk or a meatloaf, he goes back to sleep.

Not me.

My life revisits me at 3:30. A snapshot collection; the opposite of a highlight reel. I relive the worst days, I feel again my greatest humiliations. The hot-faced sadness of my 12 year old self is close around me like a blanket. I take a wincing walk through my own bad decisions. All the worst of me sits around the bedroom like a vicious middle school slumber party looking for someone to turn on. Good memories never jolt you out of sleep but the bad ones are always waiting in the wings. I marinate in my faults. I feel the constraints of my life closing around my wrists like vines. I wish I were anyone else.

It’s probably normal to have doubts about the work/life you choose (if you are fortunate enough to have had such choices) but in this job doubts are harder to manage. Having jumped through a fair number of hoops and waited out any number of obstacles to even get the job any doubt is magnified by the niggling dread that all along you’ve been chasing an illusion. So at 3:30 you lay in bed and wonder whether you can trust your own judgment any more. Should you of all people really be running your life?

It’s not so bad — my life, that is. It has its very good points, it has some not good. On the whole my life is a charmed one. Only I wish I were awakened in the night by good memories to usher me towards morning. The memory of my mother’s hands on my forehead when I was sick as a kid; the taste of strawberry shortcake at a fairground; a rainy day with a good book; the lacerating cool of the Pacific Ocean on the Washington coast; the safety of another body curled against mine before I fall asleep. These things remind me of all the good parts on the path so far. Remind me to be less afraid of the steps coming next.

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What It’s Like

We went to visit a factory a few weeks back.  One of those “get to know the neighborhood” things. Juarez’s factories, or “maquilas,” are the economic engine of the city.  We walked down to the production floor.  Long assembly lines, mostly women, put together computer monitors and plasma TVs which groups of men then wrap, pack, and stack in infinite rows. We walked along the line, stopping at each step in the assembly process.  One woman in particular caught my attention.  As the assembled monitors came to her she would twist each on its stand: left, right, up, down, left, right. Then she would send it along the line and turn her attention to the next.  Left, right, up, down, left, right.  Next.  I wondered if at night she dreamed of a never-ending line of monitors to be swiveled. I wondered if, in her idle moments, her hands still made those motions involuntarily. Left, right. Up, down.

She works forty hours a week.  She makes $250 a month.  The monitor retails for $300.

On the visa line I see 100 to 150 faces a day.  They pass in front of my window every two to three minutes. I take their fingerprints.  I ask them a few questions.  I make a decision.

I remember a few details: a toddler’s pigtails; an old man’s hand on his wife’s shoulder; a woman’s pink t-shirt that read “Las Vegas Does it Better!”

I forget almost everything.

I make people cry, smile, glare in disgust, and wander away puzzled.  On my best days I am quick, painless, easily forgotten.  On my worst I am the devil behind two panes of glass handing you a piece of paper, telling you I’m sorry, calling the next number. It’s 8am, it’s 12pm, it’s 4pm.  The woman takes the paper, tears pool below the cataracts in her eyes, and the guard points her towards the exit.

I shuffle paper, tap on the keyboard, wiggle the mouse up, down, left, right. I dream of computer screens and waiting rooms. I dream of adjudicating visas for my dog. My grandmother.  Vampires.

Every day I sit behind bulletproof glass and talk in to a microphone.  Maybe I’m a diplomat, maybe I’m making change on the Jersey Turnpike. My drive home is Autobahn meets Thunderdome — beat-up cars, shiny trucks just waiting to be carjacked, convoys of federal police, their faces covered, their guns at the ready.

At night: a walk with the dog down nearly empty streets, a cocktail with friends as the sinking sun bleeds orange across the clouds. It gets late and a sixteen-piece mariachi band wanders in, their jackets sparkling and their pants clanking with metallic embellishment.  They play song after song. The lights come up on the border fence and bleach the night sky.

There’s a grim, carnival-esque feel to everything. At stoplights people come up to my car to sell me cigarettes, guavas, a SpongeBob SquarePants sleeping bag, and the daily paper.  Sheet-covered corpses are sprawled across the whole front page.

The dry heat is broken by sudden thunderstorms that come from nowhere to pull a black cloak across the sky. Wind bends the trees backward.  Rain spits onto sizzling pavement and creates lakes in the uneven, oft-patched streets.  Violent thunder and brisk snaps of lightning bring a halt to the rain and then suddenly the storm is over. The clouds part, a rainbow streaks down to meet the horizon.

My neighbors party late into the night.  A barbecue, a bouncy castle for the kids, empty bottles of Tanqueray lay abandoned on the grass and at 3am: karaoke.  First Julio Iglesias, then Gloria Estefan, then Lady Gaga. In the morning pink vomit covers the sidewalk.

People have dinner parties. You buy a bonsai tree at the gas station on your way home. A teenager in white face paint and stained overalls juggles flaming torches beside the highway.

I sit in my chair, I switch the microphone on, I call the next person to my window.

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Middle Ground

So I’m out walking the dog last night when all of sudden four police cars come booming down the road, surround the guardhouse of the gated community I’m walking past and ten guys with guns hop out to go talk to the guard.  At the same time a fire truck — appearing for all the world to have come directly from a casting call for a Lassie remake — appears up the road and two guys start wrassling with the hose.  I start hustling the dog back the other way (tiny, fish-scented treats held aloft of course — my dog may have an active nose but it is not for danger) and other cars, sensing that all is not well practically jettison their transmissions in their quest to be elsewhere.  Then, before I’ve even got the be-tailed halfway down the block all the men and all their guns pile back into all their cars and speed off into the night.  The firemen abandon their quest to liberate their hose and head the same direction, tailpipe smoking.   It took two minutes, I doubt I was in any real danger, but it was a good reminder: stay aware, don’t forget where you are, and always bring fish treats.

Many days I have to remind myself where I am — it just bears so little resemblance to the place I imagined when all I had to go on where news stories and gory New York Times photo essays.  There are no burning cars in the street, we aren’t sleeping in our bathtubs with flak jackets over our heads, Leonardo DiCaprio is not lurking in the background taking notes for his next ripped-from-the-headlines major motion picture about a scoundrel narco-trafficker with a heart of gold who falls for a crusading photojournalist with a weakness for lovable immorality and Ayn Rand-ian speechifying about the true nature of evil (Lord, I hated Blood Diamond).  And yet.  And yet, 47 people were killed over the weekend, the police are shot at every day, and the local newspaper runs weekly stories about the top spots for carjackings.

It’s the epitome of cool it would seem to carry on amidst danger and chaos as though you were merely navigating a particularly lively night club but what do you do when, apart from an ill-timed dog walk, the danger seems mostly hypothetical to you, but is in fact very real.  To carry on normally seems callous, to live in fear seems excessive. I guess you just keep keeping on — but with a watchful eye for Mr. DiCaprio sneaking about with his notepad.

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Smile and Nod

When someone says something to me in passing in Spanish and I don’t catch it the first time I ask them to repeat it.  If I don’t get it the second time I try and forestall the inevitable transformation into Mrs. Richards from Fawlty Towers (“Do you have A HEARING AID?”) and hope that a smile, an energetic chuckle and a few “si, si”s will do the trick.  Probably 75% of the time I get away with it, appearing at best to get it and at worst to be a bit daft. But I can only imagine what the person on the receiving end the other 25% of the time must think:

“Excuse me, do you know how to get to Zaragoza St?”  Ha!  Ha, ha. Yes, yes.

“Please ask your dog to stop licking my shoes.”  Yes!  Yes, *chuckle* yes.

“That shirt is extremely ugly.” Eh-heh-heh-heh.  Yes, yes indeed.

I suppose I could try and pass this affliction off as a very eclectic sense of humor but I think I’ll have to settle for one out of every four Spanish speakers thinking I’m a bibbling idiot.

In other news, my household effects are set to arrive tomorrow.  All the things I thought I could do without for two months but not forever will be liberated from their shipping crate in an explosion of packing tape and souvenir DC dust.  And all those odd, passing desires I’ve had — to bake a bundt cake, wear combat boots, read W.B. Yeats — can at last be indulged.  All at once even!  Ha!  Si, si.

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In the Right Light

If all you had to go on were the media images you’d think all of Ciudad Juarez was lit with the jaundiced yellow glow of streetlamps.  Every picture I see of the city in the news, and every effort to represent it on camera makes it seem as though the whole city has chronic hepatitis: wan, sickly, and dirty yellow.  And perhaps as long as the biggest stories coming out of Juarez surround the violence (late night shootings, gang warfare, police raids) then those will be the most enduring images of the city (handcuffs, bright lights of police cars, crime scene tape, dead bodies) and all these things will be lit in the foreground by a yellow streetlight standing sentry, bathing the chaos below in that harsh, isolating yellow light.

But I prefer the light in the mornings when I step outside with the dog for a long walk before work.  It’s not yet oppressively hot and few people are up.  Grey and purple clouds are untangling themselves to reveal the Franklin Mountains and the sun is only peeking over the horizon.  The sky is vast, the air fresh, and the world, or at least my little square of it, quiet.  We walk for a long while seeing a jogger here, a factory worker there, but generally seeing very few people at all.  It’s pretty, and peaceful, and a good reminder that Juarez is not just a headline, or a problem.  It’s a place.  A place that has seen more than it’s share of pain, suffering, and senseless violence, yes.  But a place where people get up every day, kiss their kids, water their lawns, go to work, and just generally carry on.  And every morning the sun comes up and the streetlamps turn off.

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Before coming to Ciudad Juarez I had spent over five years in DC living with roommates.  I’d liked that well enough but I was pretty excited to have a place all to myself.  It turns out though that all to myself is a little much.  So I visited the El Paso Humane Society and found myself a roommate.

He is way more photogenic than I.Meet Toby!  He’s a sweetie.  He lived on the streets before being picked up by animal control, then spending almost five months at the shelter, so he’s a little skittery around people.  I’m hoping he’ll learn to love his home here and feel safe.

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A Question of Speed

So, I’m having an excellent time here in Juarez, meeting wonderfully friendly people and getting a decent tan. I’m even rather enjoying driving in Mexico. Is the style a bit aggressive? Are the rules rather open to interpretation? You bet. But it’s a creative enterprise and it keeps you entertained on your commute.


I do not yet understand the seeming fondness among Mexico’s municipal governments for speed bumps. Rooted though they may be in the desire to regulate speed on residential roads, the zeal with which speed bumps have been deployed (around Ciudad Juarez anyway) is alternately hilarious and terrifying. Long and loping or short and violent; gently sloped or almost square in shape; painted a shocking yellow or concealed amongst innocent (and flat) black pavement the speed bump is as integral to the driving experience here as the roving patrols of federal police in pick-up trucks and That Guy (and there’s one on every block) whose car horn, deployed with obvious glee, plays “La Cucaracha.”

The speed bumps themselves seem to do very little to regulate speed. A Volkswagon traveling opposite to me yesterday that rounded the corner on three wheels, hit a speed bump of the short and violent variety, briefly took flight, and landed with a crunch that had auto repair shops three counties away perking their ears up in delight, returned to its previous cruising speed with almost insouciant rapidity. It seems a matter of pride to flout, avoid, out-maneuver, or sail over the ubiquitous bumps. The speed bumps also don’t seem deployed in any rational way, i.e. to control traffic in pedestrian-heavy zones. Random lumps of black pavement in vaguely speed bump shape appear at random intervals on main thoroughfares. Many of them only go across one lane. These speed bumps in particular are never painted and emerge at random. Now, don’t get me wrong. The resulting wild zigzag of cars executing a merge of desperation across three lanes of traffic to avoid a camouflaged lump of black asphalt in the leftmost lane certainly livens up the driving experience. But one of these days it’s going to liven up my car repair payments and that is not a day I look forward to.

It’s a mystery, this affection for speed bumps. I hope to one day get to the bottom of it. Though hopefully not while holding the last remains of my suspension in my hands, sobbing, as “La Cucaracha” toodles in the background.

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Don’t let the geographic proximity to the US fool you: Ciudad Juarez is most definitely another country. You feel it the moment you clunk-clunk your tires over the rumble strip on the border. And so I feel that potent blend of bewilderment, terror, and exhilaration that comes to every traveler dipping a toe in new waters. I want to know everything instantly and have no patience for my own ignorant fumbling. So far every person I have met has been unfailingly kind and helpful which has made being painfully new much easier. I imagine the local staff in particular are very used to seeing new people come and go — yet still, they find time and energy to be patient and friendly and I for one am very grateful.

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The Lost Goodbye

One of the sadder parts about the moving process is that right when you need to be saying goodbye to many important people in your life, you are so frazzled by the stress of it all that you end up fumbling the fond farewell.  I have the benefit of being able to say I can come back for a visit — Juarez and DC aren’t that far apart.  But still. For now, all I can say is that I will miss you all terribly and in a couple of weeks when my brain is once again situated inside my head I’ll be able to more articulately express how grateful I am to all the wonderful people I met during my time here and how much they mean to me.

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Stuff It

There’s nothing like packing to move to bring out your inner misanthrope.  Staring at piles of your own stuff you begin to hate yourself (why, why, why did I buy these things?  Keep these books?  Choose this furniture? I am solely responsible for the global consumption epidemic.)  Attempting to sell things you don’t want to take with you to other people makes you hate the world.  This is always the part in the moving process where I want to set everything I own alight and take to the open road with nothing but a knapsack.

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