Making the Most of Tucson, Arizona

US/Mexico border in Nogales, AZ

US/Mexico border in Nogales, AZ

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The first time I saw the sky in the southwest, I was stunned. Buildings and trees hug the earth, and the light is clear and bright, so the sky is broader and bigger. The earth is tan or red in places, and the cacti, mesquite trees, and scrub brush only add to the otherworldly look of the place. Tucson is a small, affordable, and manageable city in the Sonoran desert, whose population increases in September because of the arrival of students (about 50,000 young people) and soon after, the snow birds from the east coast (about 20,000 seniors). Roughly half of the people in this progressive and arty town are Chicano, so it also has a good Mexican vibe.

We ventured south to Nogales, Arizona as part of the conference. The border fence cuts Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora (Mexico) in half. We learned about water issues and militarization in the border region. Starting salary for a border patrol guard is $50,000, so it definitely seems like a way out for people who would otherwise be stuck in retail or food service jobs.

We stayed an extra day after a conference to do some sightseeing, and a local activist and friend suggested Pasqua Yaqui pride. The tribe fought long and hard against conquest and became known as fierce warriors. Shockingly, the Pasqua Yaqui were only legally recognized by the US government about thirty years ago, so the attendant advantages of tribal recognition (land, financial resources, access), are relatively recent. Pride day included lots of traditional dancing and music, food, vendors, resource tables, and a souped up car show on the reservation. It was a lovely celebration of solidarity, tradition, fun, and a sobering reminder of our nation’s history.

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There is no shortage of delicous Sonoran food in Tucson. One evening, we went to La Indita, a casual, family run place which serves indigenous Tohono O’Odham and traditional Mexican food. The homestyle guacamole, the Tohono O’Odham style beef with red chile, and calabacitas were delicious. The flan was very sweet and perfectly creamy, not curdled and overbaked like so many places do. Another evening, Cafe Poca Cosa, with its rotating selection of Mexican dishes in an upscale setting, truly dazzled. We shared the plato poca cosa after noting the portion sizes at an adjacent table. On that night, the sampler included a rich chicken mole, a layered creamy broccoli dish, and a spicy beef dish. There were rich beans and pillowy corn tortillas on the side.

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Another evening, we had a margarita at a local favorite on Congress. And, in true city as small town fashion, we ran into our host at Cafe Passe, a good coffee shop with a huge outdoor patio in the back, on the popular 4th Avenue. Around the block is a mural to a young Mexican American who was gunned down by border patrol.

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And of course, I loaded up on southwestern staples at Native Seed/SEARCH. This store sells seeds and food products. It’s a bit on the pricy side, so some locals balk at the idea of shopping here, but living on the east coast, I can’t easily access many of these items. I stocked up on prickly pear cactus candy, mormon tea (for allergies), blue posole, bolita beans (hands down makes the best refried beans), corn snacks, and Ga’ivsa, cracked roasted Pima corn. Chiltepins were sold out, likely due to an article in the current issue of Edible Baja Arizona. All the more reason to return soon.

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Berlin This Time: Impressions, Art, and Objects

exhibit on a remaining section of the Berlin Wall, image of a boy and his dog in Belfast

exhibit on a section of the Berlin Wall, image of a boy and his dog in Belfast

The last time I was in Berlin, it was early fall. Everything felt gray and drab, chilly. I had just gone through a bad breakup and spent most of my time going to memorials to victims of the Holocaust, the Jewish Museum, the Berlin War Memorial, and so on. History loomed everywhere, shadowy and spooky. I was impressed by the very public attempt to apologize and heal from injustice perpetrated against others (a lesson we could learn from in the US, I imagine).

This time, I deliberately kept things a bit lighter, and had a very different experience of the city. It’s amazing how much your interior world affects your impression of a physical place. One of my favorite things about Berlin is zipping around on a bike: it’s flat and sprawling, with abundant protected bike lanes, and hoards of other bike commuters. My friend lent me a rickety cruiser and I set off on a self-guided Socialist East Berlin bike tour that I read about online. There were also public exhibits explaining the architecture along the way. At some point, I arrived at the massive concrete campus of the former secret police, now the Stasi Museum and archive. Much of the exhibit was in German, but there are fantastic objects on view, ranging from everyday objects and games to indoctrinate people to Socialist principles and all sorts of cameras hidden in everything from ties to boomboxes to birdhouses. There are photographs of the burgeoning punk scene and other political dissenters as well as an entire office from the time, with pristine mid century modern furniture worthy of envy.

Then I rode down to the East Side Gallery, the largest surviving section (1.3 km or 2/3 mile) of the Berlin Wall, now a display of murals of graffiti-like art. Recently, part of this wall was threatened with demolition for– wait for it– luxury condos. It’s a story I hear in every city I’ve visited over the last few years: more and more luxury condos for wealthy foreign investors who don’t necessarily live in the city– or even country– pricing out people who live and work in those cities.

On the other side of the wall was a stunning temporary exhibit, Wall on Wall, photographs of walls in other countries intended to stop immigration, reduce conflict, restrict movement. It felt like you could step into the huge panoramics, taken at borders like those between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, North and South Korea, the US and Mexico. The German photographer, Kai Wiedenhöfer, poignantly said that “walls reflect a failure of politics.” It was sobering to be reminded of the barriers that humans erect at a place celebrating the removal of one.

The next day, I biked to the Pergamon Museum on the city’s Museum Island. The highlights of the museum are truly monumental. You walk into and throughout the enormous Pergamon Altar and the Gate of Babylon as well as an intricately crafted paneled room from Syria, the Aleppo Zimmer. A numbered audio tour is free with admission, so you can learn more about details that intrigue you. I found the exhibits that explained the enormity of the archeological undertaking to be most intriguing. In Iraq, for example, war and looting have largely destroyed the potential for valuable insight, since only a small percentage of work had been completed there.

Hallo Berlin! Stay tuned for more posts on Berlin nightlife and food.

Stasi Museum

Stasi Museum

Socialist latchhook

Socialist latchhook

Wall on Wall exhibit, image of Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona, where I'm headed to next

Wall on Wall exhibit, image of Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona, where I’m headed to next

detail of the Aleppo Zimmer

detail of the Aleppo Zimmer

detail of the Pergamon Altar

detail of the Pergamon Altar