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Gary Borders: Sunburn trumped safety concerns in Chihuahua, Mexico

Gary Borders

When I told folks I was going to spend a week in Mexico and Big Bend working on a magazine story, a few acted as if I had signed my death warrant. “Are you going to have any security?” one friend asked. No, we didn’t, though there was certainly safety in numbers with five of us working together — including a scientist who lives and works in Mexico. My brother Scott had the wisest perspective, noting that many millions of people live in Mexico, and the vast majority get through the day just fine. I liked my odds.

I was the first to arrive at the Chihuahua airport in this city of nearly a million people, sprawling across the desert, so I hailed a cab to get to the downtown hotel. I practiced my utterly inadequate Spanish on the driver, which is possibly why he gave me a brand-new deck of playing cards, illustrated with Mexican figures and iconic symbols, such as a string of chile peppers and a fellow with a guitar. Maybe he hoped it would shut me up.

My afternoon was free, so I set off to explore after I checked into the Quality Inn. The city plaza was just a block away, dominated by a cathedral with twin spires and a dome, lots of pigeons competing for space with little children chasing the birds. Parents licked ice cream cones while keeping a watchful eye on their kids. I slipped into the small chapel adjoining the cathedral and sat for a few minutes, reflecting on the unlikely series of events that had brought me to this place. And I felt safe.

The following day was spent talking to folks in the desert sun, at the end of which I realized sunblock was an absolute necessity. There were several stores downtown, but none opened until 9 a.m., and we were set to leave at 8. I Googled “Walmart,” and figured out the store opened at 7 and was only 10 minutes away by cab. Then I figured how to say “Please wait for me” in Spanish — esparame, por favor, and hailed a cab outside the hotel.

Walmart was located in a much newer part of the city, a shopping district that also contained a Home Depot and even a Starbucks. If I squinted a certain way to block out the signs in Spanish, it looked like I was in Longview.

The doors to Walmart were wide open, but most of the lights were off. A strong smell of disinfectant assaulted my nostrils. Nobody was at a cash register, and a few women were still mopping the floors. I found a young man stocking shelves toward the back. I had no idea how to say sunblock in Spanish. I tried alto del sol, which in my head translated to “stop the sun,” but later learned I was saying “high sun.” As he looked at me blankly, I began goofily pantomiming the sun frying my nose and me rubbing stuff on it. That unexpectedly worked, and he pointed me in the right direction. I definitely felt like Graham Green’s “Ugly American.”

All this took about 10 minutes, during which I remained the only customer in the store, and the lights remained dimmed. I don’t think I have ever been the only customer in a Walmart. The stores in our town stay open 24/7, and I doubt they are ever empty.

I paid with plastic, something like $754 in pesos, about $50 for all I bought, and walked out, still the only customer. The cab driver was waiting patiently. He also received a generous tip for his time. I lathered up with sunblock, ready for another day in the desert.