Finally, here i am in Tucson/Arizona - and it's just as funky as i thought it would be, a welcome change after the bland vastness of Phoenix. I've wanted to come here for years, mainly drawn in by the music of Calexico (a homegrown band that made its claim to indie-fame over the last 10 years) but also simply because i love the desert. For me, there's just something compelling and almost cathartic about barren landscapes, dry heat & huge cacti - and the Saguaro National Park offers just that, right out the door, bordering Tucson to the East and West. Stay tuned, as I'll try to do some backcountry hiking (hopefully withough getting my brains fried) out there over the next couple of days.
But Tucson is also (quoting the Lonely Planet here) "one of the most culturally invigorating places of the Southwest", being at the crossroads of cultures for hundreds of years. First, the native Americans were here for God-knows-how-many years, living the good & maybe not so simple life. Then came the Spanish, trying to rule the new continent and convert everyone to catholicism by building their missions & presidios. However, Spain would soon become Mexico down here and after the Mexican-American War in the late 19th century the Americans did their best to turn it into a decent American city. Traces of all these periods can still be found in the city, its people, and its music - Calexico are living proof that Tucson embraces the fact that it's a melting pot.
Earlier today, i watched an interview with lead singer/guitarist Joey Burns explaining why he fell in love with the place. According to him Tucson - although a sprawling place in the Sun Belt that's still growing - has a smalltown feel, at least downtown. And indeed, when i stepped off the train, and walked out of the Historic Depot, i found myself right across the street from the historic Hotel Congress, which has been welcoming guests since 1908 and is still a major watering hole for locals & visitors alike. And though it may not be quite as majestic, similar things can be said about the Roadrunner Hostel, my home for the entire week. Like Tucson in general, it seems to be a crossroads of cultures, a place in transition, with people from all kinds of countries & backgrounds popping in & out. It seems like everyone here has a story to tell, and language barriers melt faster than snow in the sweltering heat outside.
People usually don't come to Tucson/Arizona just to hang out here. Well, some probably do, but those are rarely the tourists; maybe retired people from the North (the Americans call them "snowbirds") looking for a sunnier climate, or artsy folks looking for a cheap way to live. Kevin for example, my first aquaintance at the hostel, just felt he needed a change. A young, tall, white fella from Boise, Idaho, he married an African-American woman originally from Sudan. Since neither his, nor her family were exactly pleased with that (remember, racism goes both ways!) they decided to make ends meet in Tucson, where she had a cousin. Kevin found a job with an elderly care center (snowbirds don't fly forever, so elderly care is big business down here) and drove all the way down from Boise to Tucson in 2 days. Since he had to wait for his appartment, he checked in at the Roadrunner for 1 night. I invited him for a beer at the Hotel Congress and he tried to turn me back into a Catholic, assessing that i was still "searching"... we had an interesting talk.
The next morning (meaning today)) i met Aniek, an ecology student from the Netherlands. Over Belgian waffles and a cup of coffee (both part of the complimentary breakfast at the Roadrunner) i found out she came to Tucson for a field study, during which she has to collect & categorize desert ants, some 100 miles out of town near the Mexican border. Normally i would have laughed out loud at that point, but having a girlfriend who studies ecology as well, and is about to do the same thing with bugs for her master thesis (actually, Kati just has to categorize them; somebody else has already done the collecting) i stoically continued to munch on my waffle, and gave her the look that says i've seen it all. Since her course only starts on Thursday, we decided to explore downtown together and ended up at the Tucson Mall, where we both stocked up for our upcoming field trips. She bought a head torch for spotting ants (and, quite possibly rattlesnakes) and i bought trekking shorts & a hat to withstand the heat of the Sonora Desert. We had a good time, found out we both love The Wire, (another thing she shares with my girlfriend!) and had a huge lunch at Bison Witches on 4th Avenue, Tucson's main drag.
Back at the hostel i was just enjoying my siesta, when another newcomer checked into my room - Miguel from Northern Mexico, who's been living in the United States for almost 10 years, working for a copper mining company in Morenci, Arizona, but spent the last 2 years working in - you guessed it - elderly care in Tucson! The reason for this career move was, of course, love - he got into a relationship with a Mexican-American woman from Tucson. Whereas his family still lives in Sonora, the northwestern state of Mexico, her whole family has moved up to Tucson and built an existence here years ago, so he decided to move in with her. But the reason he ended up at the Roadrunner Hostel was also love - or rather, the end of it. His girlfriend just broke up with him 2 days ago, and the poor guy had to find some place else to stay. I offered him a beer and a sonic shoulder to cry on... Calexico, of course. After all the band lists Portugese Fado as one of their influences, and that genre (ideally accompanied by a few glasses of Port Wine) is the ultimate remedy for broken hearts (although Jack Black would only call it Sad Bastard Music - LOL).
I ended up with another roommate, when Alec from Melbourne/Australia checked in just a little later. His opening question "Do you knouw a nooice place to grab a drink in Tuckson?" (the "c" is actually meant to be silent, and the word thus pronounced "Too-Sawn") quickly revealed that he really just got stranded here, after sharing a ride with a girl he had met in Austin, Texas. I took him for drink at the Shot in the Dark Cafe, where i had spent an allnighter the day before, after arriving on a delay at 2 a.m. in the morning and not being able to check into my hostel before 7 a.m. The nicest thing about that cafe (apart from offering free wifi, playing some of my favourite music, being really close to the hostel, and having a fridge with a sticker that says "I'd rather live in denial than live in Phoenix") is that they'll sell you a Pepsi for 1$ and it even comes with ice and a straw (no refills, though *g*). I found out Alec had studied fine arts in Melbourne and worked for an art gallery there, before he decided to pack it in, and use his savings for a big trip to the US, not unlike mine. He started in New York, then went to Austin, and wants to rent a car and drive it up to Wyoming now. Eventually he'll fly down to Buenos Aires and do some travelling in South America, too. He didn't seem like a real backpacker, though, and also seemed to dislike physiotherapists, calling them "over-achievers" at one point. I'll try not to hold it against the Australian Fine Arts Community, though.
Finally, just minutes before i started writing this, i got into a conversation with another guest, a middle-age woman whose name i forgot and who was looking to share a ride to Flagstaff, Arizona. Turned out she had rode her bike all the way down from Oregon but decided it was too hot to ride back. When i told her about my plans for the Saguaro National Park, she suddenly pulled 2 entry tickets for the Sonora Desert Museum (worth 14$ each) from her pocket - which she had snagged somehow, somewhere - and gave it to me for free. A very nice suprise since that's exactly what i've planned next... maybe i can fix her up for a ride with Alec in return! ;-)