After leaving Tucson in style (i went for a last Margarita at the Hotel Congress, dancing & singing along with a girl who delivered the Red Hot Chili Peppers' classic "Sir Psycho Sexy" during a Karaoke event - a song you would never even find on a playlist in a Karaoke joint back home) i was in for my first night train ride with the Sunset Limited to El Paso, Texas. And talking about the Red Hot Chili Peppers, that is exactly what El Paso is famous for: its red chile, which i couldn't wait to taste. Because of my backpacking adventure in Saguaro NP and some financial constraints (my credit card got lost/stolen) i couldn't really enjoy the Mexican food of Tucson as much as i wanted to, but believe me, i'm gonna make up for it in El Paso, which - as the name suggests - is as Mexican as it gets. Spanish slides even easier off most tongues than in Tucson, since more than 80 % (compared to Tucson's 35 %) are "Hispanics". And it is also a lot closer to Mexico in a geographical sense - only the Rio Bravo seperates El Paso from its Mexican Si(ni)ster city Ciudad Juárez, a city that has became notoriously famous in recent years, earning itself a reputation as the most violent city in the world!
According to US State Department Reports more than 1.800 people have been killed (and 17.000 cars have been stolen) in Juárez between January 2008 and February 2009, and there's still an official travel warning in place. Drug cartels and associated criminal elements have retaliated violently against individuals who speak out against them or whom they otherwise view as a threat to their organizations, and these attacks have included the abduction and murder of two resident U.S. citizens in Chihuahua. Mexican president Felipe Calderon sent troops into the city in 2009 to quell the violence, but the drug cartels are just as powerful (if not more) than the government, and these Mexican goons don't fuck around. There was a shocking documentary portraying one of those hitmen running at last year's Viennale ("El Sicario") which, unfortunately, i haven't been able to see. And even before the escalating drug war, Juárez was no stranger to violence: the book "The Daughters of Juárez" is a provocative read about the horrific series of female homicides that took place in this city over the last 9 years.
Another film that hints at these border issues (though on a fictionary level) is the Coen Brothers' "No Country for Old Men", an equally violent and excellent movie that may have even inspired me to go to El Paso in the first place. When my mother saw it a couple of months ago (she hated it, of course), i had to promise her i'm not going into that area. I tried to calm her down, explaining that the movie is set in the 80's and mostly plays in and around Del Rio, which is 366 miles further into Texas, but with all that violence in Juárez, it was hard to make a case for El Paso, and it's still a very similar setting: a city at the Rio Grande, which can be casually crossed over pedestrian bridges to get into Mexican territory.
When i read in a copy of USA Today that a few bullets from a recent Juárez shootout had even hit El Paso's City Hall (!) i was also questioning my travel plans, but the increase in Border Patrol and the presence of Fort Bliss, a major military base on the US side, has created the bizarre situation that, while neighbouring one of the most violent cities in the world, El Paso is actually one of the safest cities in the entire Southwest, or even the country. The dreaded "spillover of violence", as USA Today concluded, is mostly a rumour hyped up by Republican hardliners, and the article was backed up with a comparison of crime rates in Arizona where El Paso indeed came across as one of the safest places.
Still, those statistics are clearly influenced by the massive military/police presence in the city, and it came as no surprise to me that even my Couchsurfing Host Jacob came here to work for the Border Patrol! 28 years old and originally from Alabama, he moved to El Paso 2 years ago for his job and bought a house in the Northeastern Part of the city. He picked me up from the train station and actually had to go to work in the afternoon/evening, as he was undergoing a test at the shooting range that same night!
He admitted not really liking El Paso much, mostly because of the desert climate, but what he didn't know when he moved here: just 25 miles east of the city is one of the world's most sought-after climbing areas, the bouldering paradise of Hueco Tanks, which is named in typical El Paso fashion - the Spanish word Hueco ("Hollow") and the English Word Tank (as in a water tank); reason being that this little climbing oasis in the desert consists of 3 small and oddly-shaped granite mountains containing numerous hollow pockets which can hold rainwater - the "Hueco Tanks"! Used by pueblo people in the old days (who left some interesting rock paintings), and discovered by climbers in the 80's (who left some uglier "rock art" & chalk marks) this 880-acre State Park had to enforce a daily visitor's quota and restrict access to certain areas of the park, as climbers from all around the world were flocking into the park, especially during the colder season, when it's Winter elsewhere, but just the right temperature to climb down here. However, on a hot Tuesday in early August we didn't have a problem getting a permit, and Jacob was happy to try climbing outdoors for the first time in his life - he even ordered himself a pair of climbing shoes and a crashpad, which arrived just in time the night before!
We climbed around on the "Warmup Boulder", and after a SUBWAY pit stop for lunch a few miles outside the park, went back in and hiked up the "Chain Trail" for some more bouldering on the top of North Mountain, where we met Laura & Alberto, a nice Italian couple who joined us for some bouldering in the afternoon. Since they didn't have a crashpad, Jacob was happy to offer them his, and Alberto and i used it for some nice climbs up in the Potatoes District:
An approaching thunderstorm forced us to get off the mountain, but shortly before the park closed we went back to the Warmup Boulders, where Alberto flashed "Dumbo" (V0), a testpiece that i hadn't been able to climb earlier due to one tricky dynamic move. However, after watching Alberto do it (and studying it on video for a few minutes) i was able to pull it off myself. In the end the Rangers had to remind us to leave the park, as we were just getting into the groove! And my hands felt sore that evening, proof that i haven't been climbing much at all over here in the States. I'm already looking forward to November, when i'll be back at the gym regularly with my "Monday Night Climbers", hopefully redeveloping some calluses on my hands! ;)
On Wednesday i checked out Downtown El Paso and spent some time looking around for nice Western clothes. I almost ended up buying a Larry Mahan cowboy hat, which i thought really fit me and would've made a great souvenir from West Texas, but my new replacement credit card asked for authorization from my bank in Vienna, where it was midnight at the time. Unfortunately, since i didn't want to spend 119 $ of my precious cash money, i had to leave the hat there. But just FYI, that was still a moderately priced cowboy hat, they also had a diamond-laced Stetson for 5.000 $ there (of course locked up behind a glass display)! YEE-HAW!
After my little shopping tour, i took a long walk across downtown, along railway tracks, past bread & dairy factories, residential areas, and a local park to finally arrive at the legendary L & J Café where i met Jacob and 2 other couchsurfers for dinner. I was neither impressed by the food nor by the crowd (maybe that place is only happening on weekends, because i spotted many celebreties on the wall - a photo of Ethan Hawke with a pretty Latino girlfriend amongst others) but the place was definitely authentic Mexican, with a big TV screen above the bar that didn't play baseball, but... Telenovelas!