Arches Sunset

Arches Sunset

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Legacy of Albuquerque

After an action-packed and constantly eventful four and a half months away, it was time to return to the UK. Somehow, the entire load of stuff I had transported out with me made it back into my bags and the car crash suffered two days previously was not severe enough to prevent me from flying. Before bidding farewell to New Mexico, I took one last bus ride into town to peruse the tourist shops and admire Albuquerque's Old Town.

San Felipe de Neri Church in Old Town Albuquerque

The morning of my flight was a beautiful one and I enjoyed the Southwestern sun with temperatures back to a bearable level and the adobe buildings revealing their best hues. As I sat on a bench in the centre of the Old Town, I contemplated the wild adventure that was now reaching its conclusion. There still remained so many things that I had not seen or had not done. And yet, I realised that that would always be the case, that I could not do everything and instead reflected on the amazing and fantastic journey that had started in the Heathrow departure lounge back in August. I am adamant that this long stay in New Mexico will be enormously beneficial in the long run. I gained much in the classroom that will affect the remainder of my degree in the UK, but I also made a host of friends in the USA and around the world that will set me up superbly for future travels, and the life skills I gained will, I hope, prove invaluable as I move forward in life.

A UNM Lobo

Ducks exploring the frozen surface of the campus pond

Hokona Hall, my accommodation at UNM, with the snowy Sandia mountains providing the backdrop

The Hokona Hall courtyard

The buildings of UNM and Johnson Field - even in winter the skies are a powerful blue shade

For the time being though, I took it all in and enjoyed a last wander around the UNM campus, reminding myself of all the happy memories that had been created there. It really was a wrench to leave but at the same time, I was greatly looking forward to returning home and getting back to the British way of life! The flight towards Denver afforded me a last look at the majestic Sandia mountains and the impressive sprawl of Albuquerque. I saw the alien formations of Tent Rocks and the snow-capped peaks of northern New Mexico, which I had conquered in September, skied down in December and in whose shadow I had endured the darkest hour of the trip following the car crash. At Denver, there was a final glorious sunset before all faded to black as I journeyed on to Virginia.

A last view of the sprawling city of Albuquerque, with the mountains and plains beyond

Winter Wonderland - the snowy Rockies in Colorado

A colourful rainbow of light - my final sunset, over Denver

My friend Jonathan's parents kindly allowed me to stay for my final night and the following day, it was onwards across the Atlantic; I arrived at Heathrow early on a Tuesday morning. Immediately after arriving I took the Underground up to north west London to visit my friend Joe, my other good friend from primary school (along with Jonathan). It seemed fitting not only to catch up with Joe having recently reignited my friendship with Jonathan, but also because a day spent in the capital was exactly what I needed after such a long period away! To see Trafalgar Square, Oxford Street, the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye and the Shard brought it home to me that I was back. I no longer sounded foreign, the coins in my wallet had value again, drizzle ran down my cheeks and then I realised that it was all over and normality had resumed.

The River Thames and London Eye welcoming me back to the UK!

Wintry London - such a marked contrast from Albuquerque!

In the days, weeks, months, years to come, the memories will begin to fade but I will keep the library of photographs I took, the pamphlets and brochures from all the places I visited, the t-shirts, the magnets and of course, the Mexican condoms. This blog will, I hope, help me to consolidate my memories of the fantastic experience that has just finished.

Finally, one other thing will continue to remind me of Albuquerque and that is the magnificent series Breaking Bad. It was nigh on impossible to write about New Mexico for four months and not reference this TV show, so I had to fit it in somewhere. Before going to UNM, I had heard the name but had no idea of the content or the popularity of Breaking Bad. Telling the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who starts 'cooking' crystal meth to provide for his family following his cancer diagnosis, Breaking Bad is a gritty and realistic drama filmed and set almost entirely in Albuquerque. I succeeded in watching the complete series from beginning to end during my stay in New Mexico and found it utterly gripping and compelling viewing with the added bonus of regularly seeing a location in Albuquerque to which I had been.

Walter White's house in Albuquerque

From now on, I will be able to stick on an episode of this show whenever the withdrawal symptoms start to kick in. Rated by some as the greatest TV show ever, Breaking Bad has revitalised tourism to New Mexico. Perhaps there are a few negative depictions of the Land of Enchantment, particularly in the criminal underworld, but as far as I am concerned, the more people that are encouraged and enabled to go and see Albuquerque and go and see New Mexico, the better!

Trip Stats:

2 Countries visited (USA & Mexico)
3 Time zones visited (Eastern, Mountain, Pacific)
Sports watched (Baseball, Football, American Football, Basketball)
Nights slept in car
8 States visited (VA, CO, NM, UT, AZ, CA, TX, NV + District of Columbia)
33 Miles walked climbing mountains
90 Minutes spent queueing for immigration at Dulles Airport
131 Days spent in the USA
4,016 Metres of elevation change (from Wheeler Peak, NM to Monterey Beach, CA)
4,440 Photographs taken
6,220 Miles travelled by road

Map showing the geographical area I visited (each US county I entered is shaded white)
- there is still much more of the country to explore!

10 Things I Like About the USA (no order):
  • Widespread friendliness and hospitality
  • Enormously contrasting natural landscapes, including true wilderness areas
  • Fantastic sunsets over the desert
  • Excellent hiking opportunities
  • The fact that wild animals have not all been killed (the UK has eliminated bears and wolves and is working on badgers, whereas in the USA I saw wild sheep, coyotes, deer, marmots, chipmunks, birds of prey and numerous other creatures)
  • Food (hundreds of fast food places, thousands of flavours of foods available, complimentary drink refills)
  • Cheapness of most products (imported Cadbury's Dairy Milk is almost the same price as in the UK, whilst many other goods cost the same number of dollars as they do pounds)
  • Love of sport (great to see sport treated so passionately, although it's a shame there aren't more 'proper' sports like football (soccer) or rugby being played)
  • Amusing misunderstanding of geography (this is a positive because it provided me with laughs aplenty - 'Your accent's Australian, right?', 'You're British? I thought you said you were from the UK?')
  • WiFi almost everywhere (in city centres, supermarkets, fast food restaurants, service stations etc.)

And 10 Areas In Which the USA Could Be Improved (no order):
  • Government shutdowns and their consequences for planning visits to national parks
  • Respect for, or lack of, anyone attempting to visit the country (hidden visa fees, huge immigration queues, general rudeness of border control staff)
  • Understanding of 24-hour time or metric measurements (Liberia and Myanmar/Burma are the only other wholly imperial countries)
  • Treatment of pedestrians and facilities for urban walking (or maybe that's just New Mexico), coupled with poor public transport (cars are very often the only viable option for moving around)
  • Roadways (the grid system confused me because everything looksed the same, and intersections seemed far more dangerous than roundabouts, even before I had an accident at one)
  • Recycling facilities (the UK is not as hot on this as Germany or Benelux but it is still far more advanced than the USA with regard to sustainability as far as I've experienced)
  • Use of the English language - the language is confusing, illogical and over-complicated as it is, but the British method is just inherently better! (words inappropriate to their definition, like 'football' or 'biscuit', are particularly irritating)
  • Inclusion of tax in prices to avoid confusion (accentuated by the fact that the largest commonly-used coin is the quarter, worth a puny 15p)
  • Toning-down of the obsessive (and often wholly unnecessary) patriotism
  • Poverty and deprivation in large cities like Albuquerque, Washington DC, San Francisco and Las Vegas - the wealth gap appears to be much bigger than in the UK

10 Things I Learned:
  • You can take the Briton out of the UK, but it's impossible to remove the Britishness from the Brit! Being 4,900 miles away from home reinforced my national identity, and as much as I loved my time in the US, I am very glad I am British and not American
  • New Mexico's history is every bit as vibrant as I thought it would be
  • The Southwest in general is inherently beautiful
  • The Grand Canyon is a must-see, and my failure to get there necessitates a return trip - I would never have imagined that snow in Arizona would prevent travelling there
  • New Mexico is a blue state but there are still plenty of Republican supporters and it's important not to aggravate them by criticising the USA's terrible lack of gun control laws
  • Be observant and cautious in all places so as to avoid assault and mugging (especially in San Francisco)
  • Many people in New Mexico don't speak English. Accidentally saying 'S'il vous plaît' instead of 'Por favor' does not count as speaking Spanish
  • Most Americans have no idea that England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom are three different entities
  • Many Americans have no idea that New Mexico is not Mexico
  • Breaking Bad is amazing

Friday, 20 December 2013

The Final Trip

Before abandoning New Mexico and returning home, there was time for one final weekend away. This time I targeted two places that I had seen on different television documentaries at a young age, namely the Grand Canyon in Arizona and the Hoover Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border. On the Friday of my last full weekend, I set off with four others for Las Vegas, Nevada (the plan was to see the dam first and then do the canyon on the return leg, and this also allowed a night in Vegas to see the Strip under cover of darkness).

The outward journey was long and uneventful until the lights of Las Vegas appeared, glistening, on the horizon as we approached. Our arrival entailed driving back and forth along the Strip and phoning various hotels inquiring about accommodation (my plan had been to see the Strip and then park in a campground beside Lake Mead but this was not well received and so we found a cheap hotel instead). Despite our long journey, we did not immediately go to bed and spent the night walking through the Strip admiring the impressive light displays, from the classy to the downright tacky.

Christmas Tree beside 'St Mark's Tower'

The 'Statue of Liberty'

Las Vegas is disgusting. To be fair, it was almost exactly what I expected but there was no atmosphere that served to proclaim Vegas as anything other than a destitute palace of sin. Barely two minutes after exiting our hotel, my friends and I were offered cannabis by a man on the street, who didn't take hints and proceeded to try to sell cocaine too. Everywhere there were large bouncers in black overcoats handing out (or more precisely, shoving into one's hands) cards advertising strip clubs, with offers like 'a free ride in a limo to the strip club). One gentleman, who is presumably very intelligent and in the running for a Nobel Prize, had a sales pitch involving the line, 'it's cold outside, come and warm up with some titties in your face.' Elsewhere, the streets were riddled with either scantily-clad lost young women whose fathers were giving them a lift, or prostitutes. My hope is that they were in the former category but I suspect they fell into the latter.

The Bellagio Hotel, which contains more rooms than there are people in Bellagio, Italy.

Casino Royale - one of my favourite anecdotes about Las Vegas is that when Ian Fleming
was researching for his book Diamonds Are Forever in 1955, he and a friend gambled in
every casino in the city but left as soon as they had made $1, thus being able to claim that
they had taken on every casino in Vegas and won!
(As under-21s, my friends and I had no such luck...)

The city's iconic sign

And yet, it was hard to argue that there was not some kind of magic about Las Vegas. Never mind the drunken rabble that scattered across the streets, the scores of homeless people, the lonely, bored and tired men mindlessly pulling levers to fritter away their money in hot, sweaty casinos at four in the morning, the drug dealers, the bouncers and the prostitutes. For despite all this, the glitz and the glamour still shone through and many of the lights were frankly mesmerising. I still think I have no real love for Las Vegas but the city was definitely an enjoyable place to go. Certainly, I would not recommend travelling specifically there on holiday from the UK, but it's undeniably a spectacle that is worth seeing from the nearby area.

After a short night's sleep, we set off for the Hoover Dam and then the Grand Canyon, having allocated a little time in the morning for some retail time. The Hoover Dam was for me, far more spectacular than Las Vegas because of the sheer human effort needed to construct it and the wonder of the design. Without it, Las Vegas would not be what it is because it requires water from Lake Mead (the reservoir behind the dam) and hydroelectric power to fuel the lights and run the casinos. Migrant labourers during the Great Depression expired in fifty degree heat in some of the tunnels and risked their lives scaling the cliffs just to create this majesty to human ingenuity. It was thought that the Colorado River could never be tamed, but an army of low-paid workers living in caravans in Boulder City gave blood, toil and tears to preventing flooding and providing electricity and water to Nevada, Arizona and California. This to me was infinitely more incredible than some neon and tall buildings made to look like other cities.

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the USA, created as a result of the Hoover Dam's construction

'High Scaler' statue, depicting one of the men who risked their lives scaling the
surrounding cliffs during the dam's construction

The Hoover Dam glowing in the afternoon sun

The sun sets behind the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, opened in 2010, with the dam and its
intentionally rocket-like towers, which were supposed to reflect the modernness of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s

As the sun set, we moved off east towards Arizona and after a couple of hours it became apparent that the weather was to be a major cause for concern. I had looked up before and ensured that the Grand Canyon would be open and accessible but an unseasonal snowstorm was pushing in from the west and created terrible driving conditions between Flagstaff and Grants in New Mexico. The Interstate became a sea of white and we were lucky to be doing thirty through north-central Arizona. All the roads north of Flagstaff were completely impassable and to avoid the roads turning icy, we pressed on and made it back to Albuquerque before we suffered serious problems. It was a tremendous shame not to reach the Grand Canyon as this was just about the only major attraction that I had intended to visit before coming to the USA that I had not succeeded in visiting. However, it has been there for millions of years and will still be there whenever I manage a return trip to the Southwest.

The snow was ultimately the cause of this problem, but I profited from it later in the week when I went to Santa Fe on the Friday before I returned home. I had completed my exams on Thursday so Friday was a day on the ski slopes. My friend Antonio was snowboarding and I was on skis and because I had more experience, we stuck together to begin with before I ventured higher up the mountain onto some more challenging pistes. Santa Fe is not a large resort but there was enough skiing to have enormous fun, and the weather was almost perfect. It was sunny but very cool on the lower runs and higher up the mountain was in cloud and barraged with an icy wind, although this cleared later on. The views were beautiful off across the desert and totally different to the purely mountain vistas of the Alps.

Winding down on the slopes at the end of the term!

Glazed pine trees and an icy wind at the top of the mountain

Looking down from the pistes to Santa Fe and beyond

After our final run, we returned our equipment and started the hour-long journey back to Albuquerque. It being a Friday the 13th, something had to happen and I had been apprehensive about skiing but felt safe once off the slopes. Unfortunately, as we were passing through Santa Fe, we suffered a car accident whilst crossing an intersection. We had been turning but a larger car trying to make it across the intersection before the lights went red rammed us at about thirty by my estimation. As the passenger, I bore the brunt of the impact but it luckily only hit the side of the bonnet and the front of my door and I sustained only a small cut to the head. For me, the most lasting effects have been the shock of it and the image, engrained in my mind, of a large white vehicle cruising towards us and knowing I was utterly helpless. I had turned to shout at my friend to brake and before I looked around, we had been t-boned. I feel sorriest for my friend because of his wrecked car, but I was almost unscathed and so it was another American experience, albeit one I had never wished to have and hope never to repeat.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Thanksgiving in Three States

This year marked my first Thanksgiving, and a few days' holiday just before the final phase of the term was very welcome. My friend Isaac had invited me to his house in Sunland Park, a town close to El Paso, just on the New Mexico side of the Rio Grande, and so on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving we set off south from UNM.

The New Mexican desert close to the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated

The first stop was at White Sands National Monument, about two-thirds of the way between Albuquerque and El Paso. White Sands is known for the missile range there but it also contains an area of gypsum sand dunes about the size of the Isle of Man. I had already seen plenty of photographs of the dunes, which under summer sunlight are a beautiful white colour. The day I went was unfortunately overshadowed by cloud, and so Isaac and I were surprised when we arrived to see the aforementioned shade of dune. On closer inspection, the whiteness was not sand but snow, as the previous week's cold spell had produced snow that had settled on many of the park's dunes.

Snow on the dune fields

Families playing on the snow

Golden sky to the south over the glazed sand dunes

The resultant effect was utterly alien, and the combination of sand and snow was bizarre. Visitors often bring toboggans in order to ride down the dunes but the virgin snow created an even better surface on which to slide. The snow also enabled us to create a snowman - probably one of very few ever made at White Sands! I had removed my shoes so as not to fill them with sand and so by the time we left my feet had had a strange sensory experience on the cool sand and freezing snow, and were a curious mixture of red and white all over!

The slightly unconventional snowman we made!

Other visitors with proper toboggans, and a mountain backdrop

At around sunset, we arrived at Sunland Park, where Isaac introduced me to his delightful family, after which we left again for a short tour of El Paso itself. We ate at Chico's Tacos, a fast food chain exclusive to El Paso and famed in the local area. Isaac's family briefed me on the potential for gastric problems to arise, but thankfully no such issues were forthcoming and the rolled tacos in tomato sauce were actually pretty tasty too! On the way back to Isaac's house, we took a diversion up into the Franklin Mountains, from which there was an excellent view of the lights of El Paso and the neighbouring Mexican city of Juárez.

Thursday was Thanksgiving itself, and the first event of the day was the annual parade in the centre of El Paso, which was definitely very different to any similar parade in the UK. Much of it consisted of marching bands from local schools and multiple municipal vehicles like fire engines, police cars and road sweepers, as well as local politicians riding in open-topped cars. The most vibrant parts of the parade, though, were the large number of intricately decorated carnival floats that meandered through the city's streets, many of which were vamped up with music and pyrotechnics. It was clear that a huge amount of effort had gone into the parade and there was an obvious sense of community as everyone came together to support the parade and wish each other a happy holiday.

In the afternoon Isaac and I helped out with the cooking preparations for the evening's meal, which was eaten at Isaac's aunt's house. This was a real family occasion, reminiscent of Christmas and I felt thoroughly accepted. The combination of traditional turkey and a variety of Mexican food had filled me up, and instead of retiring to bed when we left, I went to the shops with Isaac and some of his family!

The Friday after Thanksgiving is Black Friday, when most US retailers advertise massive discounts on many products. This year the deals began in the evening on Thursday and thus we went then instead of waiting until the morning. The shopping centre was manic, especially as El Paso is so close to Juárez, and therefore large numbers of Mexicans had migrated across the border to take advantage of cheap shopping! The following day, I found myself migrating the other way...

At the USA's southern border

Given my proximity to Mexico, it was in the back of my mind to try to cross the border, but Isaac's family, who have experience in that country, were initially dismissive owing to the inherent danger of tourism to Juárez. I was prepared to accept their advice as I was already aware of Juárez' reputation; in 2009, it was declared 'the most violent zone in the world outside declared war zones' and in 2010 there were 3,075 homicides in a city of around 1.5 million people. This violence, due to a conflict between rival drug cartels, has subsided in the last couple of years and Isaac's family reconsidered about taking me to Mexico, although they emphasised the importance of sticking together and staying in the more touristy parts of the city.

Crossing the bridge over the Rio Grande was no trouble and once on the other side, the difference was startling. The city was packed with traffic in the streets adjacent to the border and there were policemen using whistles and hand gestures directing traffic in place of traffic lights! The roads from the border to the Mercado Cuauhtémoc were uneven and there were many potholes, which was such a contrast to the US side of the river. Not all the differences were negative though, and the market was fantastic to walk around. We began in an indoor market in which almost all the available space had been filled with a multitude of colourful clothes, food, medicines and trinkets, leaving just enough room for the market-goers to move around in between the stalls. We wandered around lazily taking it all in, and spent time looking at rabbits and parrots on sale, as well as chihuahuas (appropriate as Juárez is in Chihuahua state).

We stopped briefly beside a stand featuring various medicines and treatments for a range of ailments. Upon inspecting a contorted black shape hanging above a table full of bottles, we were told that it was a dead skunk, and by the sound of the description, it could cure most illnesses known to man. Likewise, there were numerous rattlesnake skins on sale, which apparently treated cancer and herpes among other things. As if to encourage the woman flogging these unusual medicines, Isaac's sister then requested something to counteract 'bad vibes' and was instantly offered a bottle of black liquid whose label featured a pentagram and whose instructions stated that one was to shower with it daily to rid one's personal demons. Startling difference to the USA indeed!

We climbed the steep stairs to the upper level of the market, where there were several restaurants but the whole floor was so smoky that it was difficult to breath or even see - a far cry from Western standards of health and safety! We then progressed through both indoor and outdoor markets, all the while remaining wary for pickpockets and suspicious activity that could endanger us. However, these lingering fears dissipated quickly and it was easy to enjoy gazing at all the wonderful goods on offer. We ate some delicious Mexican food including local cheese, sugar cane, corn in a cup and a variety of Mexican sweets, all of which were significantly less expensive than similar produce north of the border. The outdoor section had a whole area dedicated to food, as well as shops with trays of pirate DVDs, fake football shirts and cheap clothing. Interesting people were in abundance, including one man who owned a pair of fortune-telling birds.

After finishing at the market, we took a little time to explore the central part of the city in the vicinity of the cathedral. There was another small market here, occupied by Tarahumara natives from elsewhere in Chihuahua state selling their traditional products. They spoke Spanish when interacting with customers but I also heard some of their own language, an indigenous Mexican tongue in the Uto-Aztecan family. This was really pleasant to experience, especially having studied native peoples of Mesoamerica in one of my classes!

The cathedral in Juárez

The cathedral was an intriguing building because it had a colonial-style façade on the outside, but a very modern and plain interior. There were a few statues and the stations of the cross adorned the walls but otherwise it was rather sparse inside, which seemed unusual to me in such a Catholic country. One thing that did strike me as very unusual was a statue in the entrance of St. Judas. I had never before seen Judas being venerated in any way, but the text beside the statue explained that forgiveness can come even for those who make the worst decisions in life, as Jesus had forgiven Judas for betraying him.

Outside the cathedral there was a crowd gathered around a bandstand in the plaza and a board with a large red ribbon showed that it was an AIDS awareness demonstration. The main feature of this was a dance by eight young Mexicans in traditional dress. I am able to understand some basic Spanish, but the accompanying song was too fast for me to pick out what was being said. The basic message about safe sex was clear though, and the very stereotypically Mexican-sounding music made it easy to forget that this was only a couple of miles from the USA. The secondary feature of the event was a number of women distributing condoms and Spanish-language sex education leaflets, which made for some novel souvenirs from my visit to Mexico!

Dancers at the AIDS demonstration

By this stage it had got dark; Isaac's family had been concerned about leaving before sunset in case of any violence but the afternoon had felt fairly safe and they were content to spend a bit more time in Juárez. We went first to a restaurant that they recommended and ate flautas (meat-filled rolled taco shells) before heading to a small fairground and wandering the food stands. The last stop was a place selling delicious ice cream albeit with a relaxed attitude to food hygiene. The trip back to the USA involved waiting around on the bridge, where numerous Mexicans attempted to clean the car for us and sell us pirate DVDs. US border guards patrolled with several sniffer dogs but for the queue was fairly flowing and we waited under an hour drive back to El Paso before returning to Isaac's house.

The brief jaunt across the border was definitely eye-opening and I certainly had not been expecting such a marked contrast with the affluence of the USA north of the river. The trip had been very exciting for me as it marked my first visit to a 'non-Western' country and also the first country that none of my immediate family had previously been to. I hope that some time in the future I will return to Mexico and experience it properly because it is a vast land full of geographical and cultural contrast, and I also hope that Mexico's ongoing drug war will end so that it will be possible to return to Juárez without fear of cartel-related violence.

On Saturday Isaac's family and I travelled through the portion of Texas that is due south of New Mexico before crossing the border to Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico. Carlsbad Caverns are some of the largest caves in the world and were home to some spectacular speleotherms (cave formations). There was twisting path from surface level to the caverns followed by a lengthy passage through the remarkable subterranean landscape, although there were also many other caves branching off the main cavern which were not accessible and some had not even been formally surveyed yet.

Guiding the way through the caverns!

The entrance to Carlsbad Caverns

Beautiful cave formations

Towering stalagmite

'The Chandelier', a wonderfully blade-like set of stalactites

Gorgeous yellow deposits resembling a sort of beastly mouth

Sunday saw Isaac and me return to UNM, this time sticking to the Interstate all the way from El Paso to Albuquerque without the diversion to White Sands on the outward journey. We stopped just over an hour outside Albuquerque to visit the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, home to thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes spending the winter in New Mexico. Around sunset the birds return to the marshes beside the Rio Grande and so we witnessed a large number of birds flying in, and even more already on the ground. In places the roads that wound their way through the site came extremely close to the birds, which were making an incredible noise! As we exited the park we came across three deer and watched as they slunk away, apparently unaware that we knew they were there and unwilling to break into a run for fear of being spotted. Very soon after this, the sun went down and we eased into Albuquerque to complete an adventure-filled five days away.

Autumn shades at Bosque del Apache

Sandhill cranes coming in to land

Sandhill cranes silhouetted against the afternoon sky

Snow geese

Sandhill cranes

Smooth reflections on one of the lakes

Mule deer doe

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

November at UNM

November was a quieter period, as university work became more concerted. The period between San Francisco and the end of the month marked the longest stretch of time I spent without leaving New Mexico. Consequently, this post will focus more closely on life at UNM, an important piece of my time in the USA that I have largely neglected to mention thus far.

The beginning of November marked the start of the basketball season, something which really excited me. It is worth noting that despite my negative comments about American Football, I am not critical of American sport in general. Basketball in particular attracted me because I appreciate the near-constant, flowing action of the sport, as opposed to the fragmented gameplay of American Football. Secondly, as someone who endeavoured to witness as much of London 2012 as possible, I was already well aware that basketball is great to watch. In addition, UNM's Lobo team is one of the top teams in the USA and therefore their games promised a high level of skill and a strong likelihood of a home victory.

The first game I attended was a friendly against Eastern New Mexico, which resulted in an 87-68 win for the Lobos, and the consistently dramatic play was coupled with a great atmosphere in the Lobos' stadium, The Pit. With the court sunk into the ground, the stands literally occupied a pit, and the whole arena was a sea of red, all chanting for the home side and performing distracting hand gestures to put off the other team during free throws. As a Brit, I couldn't help but feel that some of the gamesmanship of the spectators was a little unsporting, and the 'who's that?', 'who cares?' chant when the opposition team players were announced was also pretty rude. Nevertheless, I fully entered into the spirit of things and found the experience wholly more enjoyable than the American Football game earlier in the term.

UNM (in white) v. Eastern New Mexico

A Pepsi-endorsed airship circled The Pit during breaks in play

UNM (in grey) v. Alabama A&M

I returned to The Pit the following week for the proper season opener, against Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University. I had thought the atmosphere in the previous game was as good as it got, especially as the match was against another New Mexican team. I was definitely mistaken, though, for the start of the competitive season meant that the crowd was even noisier and more supportive than before. Thankfully the game lived up to this hype and UNM romped home to an 88-52 victory, with very strong indication for much of the contest that the hosts would score twice as many points as the visitors. I was able to attend the next game as well, a far closer contest but once more, The Pit lived up to its advertised reputation as the best sporting venue in New Mexico. Charleston Southern University gave UNM a much closer run for their money, but a period in which UNM scored several unanswered baskets proved decisive, as they won again with a 109-93 scoreline. At the time of writing, the UNM Lobos have a 5:1 win:loss record and an average of 85 points per game. Having witnessed firsthand the basketball team's skill and the unique setting in The Pit, I wholeheartedly hope that UNM will win tournaments this season!

The week after this third basketball game heralded the arrival of proper winter weather with a cold snap that saw temperatures below zero punctuated with snow and ice, and I found myself wearing thermals under my trousers and at least five layers at all times! In an attempt to warm up, my friends and I went karting one evening. I had only really done this once before, aged fourteen in a Belgian car park entirely uninfluenced by health and safety. Growing up watching Formula One for as long as I can remember, my sporting idol was always Mika Häkkinen, but when I received my stat sheet after the race I had not quite emulated my hero. My lap times were either fast and error-free or very slow owing to a number of spins on the same section of track due to my being over-zealous with the accelerator in the run-up to one corner. Despite this, I was awarded the winning position in my heat due to the fact that I posted the fastest lap time, achieved on my final circuit. This was definitely a worthy accolade although the lack of consistency would certainly hamper my racing career and I am sceptical that I am ever likely to progress to an F1 car!

International karting exhibition!

A marshal rushes over to intervene once more in my fast but incident-filled race!

The majority of November, however, was taken up by classwork with the final assignments prior to the exam period in December. I took four classes at UNM, all history, and all of which related to North America as I felt that to be geographically most relevant. (There were some interesting classes about Europe on offer but it seemed counter-intuitive to travel 5,000 miles and then study the Renaissance or similar!)

One class was entitled 'History of Early Mexico' and involved studying Central America over the course of about a thousand years, from the pre-colonial period through to Mexican independence in the early nineteenth century. Special focus was given to the period of the Spanish Conquest, from 1519 onwards, and also to colonial Mexico. The course was very interesting in terms of how society in medieval Spain was reflected in Mesoamerica and in how race relations were presented, with colonial Mexico being a largely tolerant and inclusive multi-cultural place. Meanwhile, this was relevant to my location in New Mexico because although the main focus was in the region of Central Mexico, where Mexico City (formerly Tenochtitlán) is situated, New Mexico was a part of New Spain and then Mexico until its 1848 takeover by the USA.

This event marked the temporal starting point of another of my classes, 'New Mexico since 1848', which detailed the complex federal and state processes that have shaped New Mexico during the 165 years it has been a part of the USA and the 101 years it has been a state. Much of this involved disputes over land; New Mexico has a land area one-and-a-half times the size of the UK but with only two million people, with white Anglo-Americans, Spanish- and Mexican-Americans and indigenous groups (such as the Navajo) being the main ethnic claimants to this land. This course involved a research project, for which I studied the left-wing Hispanic nationalist movement based in northern New Mexico during the 1960s and 1970s.

This again connected with a third class, 'the 20th Century American West', due to the emergence of various civil rights movements in the West during the 1960s, like the Black Power movement, much of which came from Oakland in California. This class detailed a wide range of events and processes in the American West, including the birth of national parks, construction of the railroads, Asian emigration to California, the development of the atomic bomb, the oil industries of Texas and California, relations with indigenous communities and a host of other factors that have shaped the USA as it is today. The sheer interconnectedness of all these events was extremely absorbing, made all the more applicable to me by the fact that I visited a number of the places mentioned during the course of my travels.

Finally, I took a class called 'US Military History to 1900'. This had a background in Ancient Greece and Rome but predominantly revolved around the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the American Civil War. Whilst much of this was based on the east of the country, New Mexico cropped up as well in the context of the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War. This war led to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a set of terms imposed by the powerful USA against the defeated Mexico, by which Mexico ceded 55% of its land area to the USA, including California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Wyoming and Colorado, thus linking this class back to my study of the history of New Mexico.

Having taken all these classes for the best part of four months, I can honestly say that I fully enjoyed every one of them, but also that the format of these classes differed greatly from my experience at Exeter last year. I am used to the British lecture/seminar system of university, but the classes here were organised more like school classrooms. The secondary readings that supplemented the courses were discussed to some degree, but with far less scrutiny than in seminars at home and the regular group presentations that were a key element of my first year at university were non-existent. There was some level of analysis but on the whole, the format of the classes involved learning and reciting historical information, rather than really challenging historical sources and closely considering the manner in which history is conducted. This is not to suggest that classes here were somehow easier or less stimulating than at Exeter, but rather to highlight that the study of history at UNM is far more different to Exeter than I was expecting.