Guatemala City–It is the hour before dawn on the last day we will spend in Monterrey, the madrugada of our despedida. I can smell the desert night that was and the desert day that will be, a day months in coming, postponed, canceled, rescheduled. It is the end of September and summer still fills the darkness with a memory of stunning light and heat. It is the end of September and we have yet to leave Mexico. It is the end of September and we were supposed to be in Guatemala at the beginning of August but the pandemic has put the whole world in a waiting pattern and we can hardly complain.
There is a long drive ahead of us and the first order of the new day is to walk the dog and stretch my own legs. Burton pulls at his leash and we cross the modernist bridge that arches over Avenida Vasconcelos leading to the Calzado. I have walked those oak lined trails hundreds of times over the last two and a half years. Now they are closed. Burton does what he is supposed to do and then turns around, eager to go home. The purebred Springer Spaniel joined our family here when he was eight weeks old. Now he is full grown, 60 pounds. He is almost embarrassingly handsome with the step and manner of his lineage, but even as a tiny puppy small flaws were evident that ended any career as a show dog. We like to think that gave him a better deal than his perfect litter mates. He is our Mexican Springer Spaniel named for an English explorer and he knows things are changing. For the last week he has been sitting on our feet or placing his body between us and the door, clearly nervous, clearly saying, Do not forget the dog. Remember to pack the dog. I am part of your pack. We have no intention of forgetting the dog and do our best to put him at ease.
I stop at the top of the bridge, looking down the wide avenue that has been an unremarkable, everyday part of my life. It is the street that leads to my favorite supermarket, my martial arts classes, to church, to a friend’s house. I can remember the first time I crossed this bridge when I didn’t know where it led. I look down into the tree shaded park where every Saturday I explored a small flea market and talked with the merchants. Monterrey has been good to us. I think of leaving Mumbai three years earlier in a driving rain, so sick and exhausted that I barely cared if the plane crashed so long as it would end our time in India.
The sky begins to lighten and the day will break hot and cloudless and bright. I will miss Monterrey but it is time to leave. Our house is empty, the walls stained by two young boys, cookouts with friends, a dog growing from a puppy. There are holes in them where things used to hang and the space echoes with nothing to muffle sound. Our black Honda CRV is full, bags and belongings fitted into an intricate puzzle leaving just enough space for humans, canine, and some visibility. It is still far less than we could have taken with us on a plane.
Back home, my wife is drinking coffee and the boys are in the shower. There are all of those last minute things and I long ago realized that any road trip departure time is aspirational. But then we are ready. I lock the doors for the last time, never to return to this light-filled house. Our neighbors come into the street to see us off and I hand them the keys then drive the familiar route to work to drop off our ID cards.
It is 1000, two hours later than I wanted to leave, but still well within the safe travel hours. Our high speed dash will follow a well-paved toll road through the desert almost due north to the border. This is some of the most dangerous and contested land in North America. The border city of Nuevo Laredo is a war zone and the non-toll road a few miles to the west, is the regular site of pitched battles between armored columns of cartel gunmen and Mexican military and police. Statistically there is fairly low risk driving the toll road during daylight but nothing ever is guaranteed. Every time you step out the door you don’t know when or if you’re going to return.
I always have a set of trips I want to do formulating in my head and journals. There is this ideal, false in my opinion, that the best trips are unplanned, spontaneous bop prosody behind the wheel, free of care or destination. I have had incredible trips that sprang, full-formed like an unplanned beatnik Athena from the head of Zeus, but lack of planning usually means a trip will never happen. Go back and read On the Road. Kerouac was a planner.
In my journals I have endless notes for trips, complete with itineraries, research, reading lists, expenses, gear, contacts. I don’t know if these trips will ever happen but that doesn’t stop the planning for them. The thing is, trips that never happen have a life of their own anyway, complete with memories, gear, and expenses. Trips that never happen leave us different than we were before. If you plan to go somewhere and read about its history, religion, geography, research and allocate funds to buy appropriate equipment, begin making time for that in place of something else, then you are different. That place has changed you even if you never get on a plane.
The pandemic stymied a trip to Tibet as well as a job in Kenya but it somehow made this drive from Mexico to Ohio possible. When we arrived in Monterrey we were not allowed to drive this stretch of highway. When the rules changed, we talked about making a trip to Laredo but it never seemed worth the time and risk. We talked often about how fun it would be to drive home, but it seemed that time and security and other practical concerns would make those plans untenable. Then the pandemic made travel by air both impractical and unsafe and for those and other reasons we would be leaving by car. Of course our fantasy of an extended ramble home, stopping here and there and enjoying the great American road trip, would be changed to taking the most direct route, eating drive through food, wiping down fuel pumps, and dreading each gas station bathroom even more than usual.
Plan the details and leave room for chance and improvisation. I knew what song I wanted the trip to begin with and Creedence Clearwater Revival, Suzie Q, vibrated through the car as the highway headed out of Monterrey. Just as the road began to open up I pulled over and rearranged things for a better view and then we were off again, merging and dodging semi-trucks carrying all manner of goods, licit and otherwise, north to the U.S. Ports of Entry. Finally the extraneous traffic peeled away, the highway opened up and so did I, changing the stereo to Dwight Yoakum and accelerating to 90. There was no reason to linger on that road even if most of the drama takes place just off it.
There is one gas station about halfway through three hour drive but the tank was full. I wanted to be at the border as soon as possible, and no one needs to see a lone family traveling through the desert, no matter the early hour. The desert passed in that weird state on an unfamiliar road where time seems to lengthen. One hour seems like three, two like five. My wife changed the stereo to Loretta Lynn and suddenly the signs for Nuevo Laredo appeared and then we are there, in line, stopped, a thousand feet from what’s left of the Rio Grande, from our perspective the Rio Bravo del Norte. Laredo and the United State are just over there, just out of reach. We wait, inching forward. People thread their way through the idling cars selling drinks, sunshades, tempting our restless kids with cheap toys. A man walks by carrying a crucifix half his size. He is bent under its weight, sweating in the hot sun, looking for someone buy the cross. Finally, we are almost at the bridge but we have to return a special import tag for our car. In normal times there is an office, clearly labeled, right on the bridge but it is closed; these are not normal times. We have to return that tag and get vague directions back into Nuevo Laredo to some office under some bridge but it isn’t as if we can just make a u-turn. We begin having waking nightmares that we’ll have to cross into the U.S. then recross into one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico. Halfway across the International Bridge we explain the situation to U.S. Border Patrol Agents and they move some cones and get us turned around, heading back the way we really don’t want to go. I ask the man if he knows where the office is.
“Hell no, sir,” he replies, “I never go over there.”
But it turns out that the directions weren’t so vague or, anyway luck is with us, and we not find the bridge and the office under it. A Mexican Customs Agent takes the tag, puts it into the proper bureaucratic context, and wishes us safe travels. The whole process takes five minutes, only when we get back in line, we are more than a mile farther back than we were at the beginning. The man is still carrying his cross up and down the exhaust choked Calvary, looking for a buyer. We are at the border more than five hours before getting to the last checkpoint. The Border Patrol Agent looks over our passports and asks a few perfunctory questions. She casts a bored eye across its passengers and we are released back into the wilds of our own country or, anyway, the part called Texas.
Perhaps it is my own BS, my internal stand up philosopher coming up with theories to give some meaning to it all, but I feel this peripatetic yet structured life causes us to perceive time differently. My simplified version is that Western philosophy and science tend to view time and history as a linear progression. There is a beginning and an end and along the way some things happen. The Eastern view is that time is cyclical, that the end is a beginning is an end and that we all take many turns through the cycle of life. Or something like that. My guru was out to lunch when I got to the top of the last mountain. But I tend to see time in the Foreign Service as more of a circular affair and life back “home” as more linear. The process of our lives makes me aware of each change, each season. The logistics of assignments and training, deployment and leave all repeat themselves over and over with minor variations, nailed as we are to the great wheel of governmental dharma.
This is an oversimplification, as are most things, but our lives go something like this: there is a list of possible assignments. You research them, talk about them with your family, fantasize about them, and game the good and the bad of each one in relation to the others. You officially list them in order of preference and you wait and wonder and worry if you made the best choices. Then, at a certain point, the esoteric signals of the invisible Mandarins indicate that you have been assigned to one of those places but not to which one. Something like, Your requests have been looked upon with favor, mortal. You need not revise your list again. This, perhaps, is my favorite moment though it lasts no more than a few days. Think about this. You have ranked ten places, all with some promise, and after all the anxiety, you know you will be going to one of them. But not which one. Imagine you know you will be moving next year but you don’t know if you will be moving to Ecuador, Armenia, Guatemala, Uzbekistan, Morocco, Japan, Nepal, Zambia, Sweden, or Brazil. You are in this delicious and frightening state of suspended animation, stuck like a sprinter in the blocks, waiting for the gun. Then they tell you and your soul moves on a little bit, but unlike that sprinter, this is a very slow, very long race. (In our case we found out we were going to Guatemala, a country I was already familiar with).
But say this is you and your family, not ours. You are required to take Home Leave in the U.S. after every foreign assignment but, having been in Mexico, you aren’t going to need language training. So, in essence, you’ll leave one country, go on vacation, and a few weeks later be living in a new country but that’s still at least a year away. There are all the preparations and paperwork, requests for training and orders to be cut (this is the government after all and you officially have to belong somewhere). Eventually the day comes and your Permanent Change of Station begins. You are cut loose, released out from one Post and in transit until your next Post takes possession. Everything goes into reverse. The men come and pack your things and nail them into crates. They disappear just like they arrived a few years before. You wonder about what trucks and ships they will go on and if you will ever see your Household Effects (HHE) again, but it’s really a small worry. There is nothing you can do about it, and after packing out over and over you come to half hope everything falls into the sea so you can truly embrace your nomadic existence. Then the day comes and you return to the airport from whence you came, musing on the memories of your first drive into town, wondering if you will ever pass this way again and, perhaps, not much caring. This part of the circle comes to a close. There is too much else to do. There is a new life in a new country to figure out. In between a visit home where everything has been progressing in a fine, linear way with little to mark time’s passage other than the usual events of the calendar, holidays and birthdays punctuated by births and funerals, and the march of the seasons from cold to hot and back again. Days turn to nights and nights back to days and it seems, back home, like there is enough time.
You visit friends and they are older and grayer and of course so are you. It is always fun but there is always an underlying recognition that you left them and in that leaving you are a reminder of the places they have not been. The passage of time intrudes on the matrix. You are the specter of age and decay and of missed opportunities in new lines around the eyes, the grey hair that wasn’t there before. It is always good to be home. You walk familiar streets and don’t worry about violent demonstrations or malaria or anything else. It is always good to be home. You eat and drink with little fear of it making you sick and for a moment you are are returned star telling tales of foreign lands and you think, maybe this wandering life is overrated. But Home Leave is just long enough for the bloom to come off. Your friends have other lives now. You left them after all, and in turn you remember why you left. And soon enough it is time to go. You want to smell that clean dirty smell of jet fuel. More than anything you want to get through the other end with all your people, animals, and baggage intact and open a new door with new keys.