Thursday, December 10, 2009

Transitions


I just got back from a visit to Alaska. It's always a great pleasure to return, catch up with family and good friends, revisit favorite places and gaze at the very mountains that exist unchanged from my earliest memories.
It's a long trip that I have made dozens of times and it has become routine, but I have learned to enjoy the familiar transitions along the way. The journey typically begins as I lug bags past my hammock and under the arches of the patio to board an early morning taxi that delivers me to one of Mèrida's bus stations, and a morning bus, le lujo class (movies with headphones, drinks, recliner seats, nice bathrooms), for the four-hour trip from Mèrida to Cancun. It is easy to sleep on the ride; the scenery along the modern Mèrida-Cancun toll road is mostly the uniform green of the flat, forested Yucatecan plains. There isn't much variety in the view. I always plan a couple of extra hours for this trip, to allow for weather or bus problems, and normally arrive in Cancun with a little time on my hands. It has become my habit to trail my luggage out of the Cancun bus terminal, and eat a hearty lunch of enchiladas or a burger, followed by leisurely cups of coffee over the newspaper, at the Sanborn's restaurant across the street. Sanborn's is a large chain and a Mexican institution; I remember in the early 90's arriving in Guadalajara fresh from Barrow, and going to eat in the first restaurant I saw: a Sanborn's. Since then, Sanborn's restaurants have been a reliable and comfortable place to go when I visit larger cities in Mexico.

After lunch, I cross back to the bus station and grab an airport bus, and upon arrival at the airport board a shuttle or take the ten-minute walk over to the new Terminal 3. The first order of business is to go to the Immigration counter for an exit visa. Next, to Alaska Airlines to check in, and afterward to pass through security into the boarding area. The new terminal was designed so that it is impossible to get to the boarding gates without walking through the duty free shops, which in addition to tequila sell exactly the same types of expensive perfumes, designer watches and other "luxury" products seen in duty-free shops the world over. Here, sunburned tourists can squeeze some final moments of enjoyment from their vacation by maxing out their credit cards, if they haven't done so already. Personally, I walk quickly though Duty Free. Once through the gauntlet, there's plenty of time to get a latte and relax.
It's a more-than-five-hour flight from Cancun to Seattle, which these days is my port of entry into the United States. Alaska Airlines has added additional flights and this is a good one; in the past we normally passed though customs and immigration in the noisy chaos of always-under-construction LAX before a circuitous walk to a different terminal and encounters with hollering, cocky TSA employees, in order to board the connecting flight. The direct Seattle flight saves time and line-standing energy, and at Seatac the formalities are calm, friendly and efficient. My itineraries usually include a long stopover in Seattle, arriving late in the evening and boarding a northbound flight early in the morning. Often I pass the seven or so hours on a favorite couch in a little nook of concourse "C" at the airport. It is secure and quiet after midnight and the only people you see are the cleaning crew. It is easy to sleep if you don't mind being watched by security cameras as you do so. I don't mind because I can really sleep; there isn't much worry that someone will pick my pockets or snatch my bag. And, mornings are calm there because my bags are checked through and I haven't passed outside of airport security. I simply wash up and change shirts in the spacious restroom, eat breakfast, buy a paper and coffee and wait to board my plane.
Occasionally in Seattle, I work out a longer stopover and go into the city. This recent trip was one of those. A friend since my Anchorage days in the early '80's, Paul picked me up at the terminal, and I spent a pleasant 22 hours in Seattle, hanging out on the houseboat he lives in on Lake Union, eating out, and catching up. My family lived in Seattle for several years when I was small; it's always interesting to look around and discover that, despite all of the growth and changes, many of the familiar landmarks of my childhood are still there.

Flying to Alaska from Seattle is always the same: there are friends and familiar faces on the plane. I often get to talking with old friends, former neighbors, coworkers or ex-students in the boarding area. Sometimes I see people I haven't seen in years, or decades. It's always interesting, and time spent waiting to get on the plane passes quickly.

Arriving in Sitka or Juneau, I am always struck first by the cool moisture of the clean-scented air, something that it's easy to take for granted when you live in Southeast Alaska all the time, but when I have been away, it is the first thing I notice. The exact nature of this aroma of home is something a little beyond words that revives distant memories and awakens feelings. When I walk off the plane, I know exactly where I am.

Speaking of home, sometimes when I pass through immigration when returning to the States, the officer who stamps my passport will say, "welcome home," as he or she returns it. Since I was born and lived most of my life in Alaska, it will always be home, however in more recent years I also feel very much en casa, at home, in Mexico. After my visit up north, I arrived back in Mèrida late in the evening a couple of nights ago, and in the morning when I woke up there was nothing to eat in the house. I decided to walk the three blocks to the market at Parque Santiago, where there are some small restaurant stalls, planning to order an omelet. When I arrived, the hot, tangy aroma of choco lomo, a breakfast broth with chunks of beef and served with onions, radish, cilantro, sour orange wedges and tortillas -- a very traditional Yucatecan breakfast -- reached my nostrils. I used to eat this breakfast when I first bought the Mèrida house, before I fixed it up and put in a working kitchen. Eating choco lomo is among my first warm memories of living in Yucatàn, and the unique smell brings back the sentiments and memories of those first exciting days here.

I said "buenos dias" to the couple I sat down next to and ordered the choco lomo, with a Coke. Very Yucatecan. When it came, I put the garnishes in my broth, broke up the meat and liver chunks and began eating the meat rolled up in tortillas. It really tastes great contrasted with the cold, fizzy cola, sucked through a straw from the green glass bottle. A young man who makes his living selling sweets in the park whipped the tray off his head to display his wares and asked me if I wanted a meringue. An older man played an electronic keyboard and sang traditional songs for tips just down the corridor. It's interesting, but I realized while eating that breakfast that Yucatàn no longer feels foreign to me. I seem to be "going home" when traveling in either direction.


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