0586 Reconnecting with my Roots (Mexico 001—revisit)

Navojoa Travel Blog

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Entrance to Navojoa

Navojoa.  This one word probably stirs up more buried emotion than perhaps any other.  This town was my incubater, my eggshell for eight long years as I tried to figure out what life was all about.  Eight long years of quiet frustration as I longed to leave--  and yet something held me back.  I knew I had to wait until it was the right time.


And now, as I look back on the person I was back then and I can hardly recognize myself.  I look back at my thought processes, my view of the world, my daily routine--  and I simply can’t recognize that skinny white kid with big glasses who was the only person to wear a bicycle helmet in the entire city.

Old soccer buddy


“In the land of the blind the one eyed man is king” is perhaps the one sentence that best summarizes that period of my life more than any other.   Back then, I thought I was so knowledgeable, worldly-wise and experienced because, hey, I could speak two languages! Wow!  And I had spent time in and understood the cultures of two countries!   I had no idea that in other parts of the world, people speak an average of four languages and interact with dozens of cultures and nationalities on a daily basis.  But since few people in my neighborhood had traveled or knew as much about the world as me, I felt I was a king there.


This was period of ambitious idealism in my life.  I really felt I could make a difference in that little corner of Mexico.  When I learned that the young folks from the areas indigenous tribe, the Yoreme tribe, are forgetting their language and losing touch with their roots, I detemined that I would learn Yoreme to try to encourage them to save their language.

a house lit up for Christmas
When I learned that a lot of the young folks in the neighborhood were dropping out of secondary school, I determined that I would figure out a way to offer them evening courses so they could get their diplomas.  I participated in the census, wrote an article for the newspaper, I played trumpet in the municipal band and visited the old folks home, the orphanage and any young person I felt needed to my wise counsel … I felt I was a pretty important guy there in Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico.


And then one day, it was time for me to move on.  I traveled across the ocean to discover that this world is very, very big and very, very old… and I’m just one little guy who really doesn’t matter much in the big picture. 


I wasn’t sure what to do.  A part of me wanted to go back to Navojoa where I could be “king” once again.

neighbors in El Datil
  But I was absolutely fascinated by what I was learning about the world, seeing civilizations that have endured for thousands of years and discovering concepts and ideologies unlike anything I’d ever experienced in my little neighborhood in Navojoa. 


It was a critical time for me.  I was in my mid-twenties and I felt like I had to go back to square one and figure life out all over again.  And once I did, I would never be able to look back at my life in Navojoa in the same way.


Coming Back


That was fifteen long years ago when I packed my guitar, trumpet, and everything that I owned and headed off to seek my fortune.

  A lot has changed in my life.  Many times I’ve tried to fantasize what my life would have been like if I had married, say, Miriam across the fence, or Ana Lilia two miles down the canal road, put down roots, and stayed my entire life there in Navojoa.  It’s a bizarre experience to try close my eyes and imagine that life.  I just can’t think of that person as “me”--  as our experiences, thoughts, beliefs, goals, outlook on life is just a total contrast.


And now I’m going back.  Going back to visit that “imaginary me” to see what his life is like, how he has--  or hasn’t changed…



After  miles and miles of semi-desert scrub with rugged mountains lining the horizon, the bus reaches the bridge over the Mayo River--  a trickling stream that occasionally becomes a mile wide river if the dam upstream gets too full.



Hotel Del Mayo is still there, with a sign “Best Western” underneath--  apparently it’s become a victim of globalization… as is the sign “Ciudad Hermana, (Sister City) Santa Fe Springs, California”


The majestic cottonwood trees along the truck road into town have been cut down, leaving nothing but scrappy tire repair shops and ceviche stands along the way… but there is a shiny new multiplex cinema showing a few things have changed here in Navojoa.  


I get off the bus at the Norte de Sonora bus station in a part of town that looks as scruffy as ever.  But I’m immediately struck by the variety of restaurants and food stalls everywhere.

El Datil
  You’ve got taco stands, tortas, carne asada, tamales--  a dozen different options in just a hundred foot radius.  These are food stalls that I wasn’t all that interested in when living here, but now they really make me salivate.


It’s a Sunday--  my only weekend here on this trip, so I’ve got to take advantage of it and see as many people as I can.  And within minutes after dropping off my bag at a cheap “casa de huespedes” I’ve run into my first old aquintance.  It’s Jonatan, the drummer in the band I used to play in… he’s now living in Tijuana and is here just for the holidays… then I see Homero… the “little kid” that could have been my brother-in-law… he’s now working in construction up in Edmonton, Canada… Apparently I’m not the only one who has moved on from Navojoa…


Then I head back to the north end of town to Mesquital and the rural neighborhood of El Datil where I used to live.

  Here too I see some peculiar changes.  Where there were one very simple homes with no doors and little boys running about naked, now there’s a four lane boulevard slicing right through the rural area… and every house seems to have beat up old car or two parked in front.

I later learn that a few years ago, the government relaxed its restriction on importing used cars from the U.S., and apparently the whole area just got completely flooded with old, junk cars--  many of which now only serve as front yard decorations…


I meet some of the old neighbors and catch up on the gossip.  Of course almost all the kids I used to play soccer with, or go rafting on the river with are now hitched with kids of their own (“legal” marraiges are the exception in these parts).  But things have changed--  it used to be that these “unnofficial” marriages lasted a lifetime, but not any more… Several of my old buddies have gone through some nasty breakups.


The hours go by quickly as I chat with different folks in the neighborhood.

  It’s a very relaxed, laid back feel--  like I’d just been gone for a week, rather than 10 years.  It’s interesting to note the contrast between this and Morocco… In Morocco, they would feel obligated to lay out the red carpet, serve me a 3 course meal, and I would have to stay the entire evening in one home to do a “proper” visit… whereas here, I just amble about, chat for a a bit on someone’s front porch, where they might offer me a glass of water, and then move on.  Quite honestly, I actually like this casual interaction without feeling that I’m imposing on anyone.


I pull out my guitar and sing a couple of Spanish songs dedicated especially to my old neighborhood.  Although I’ve sung these songs many times around the world, it a whole different experience singing to people songs that I’ve written about them… 


And finally it’s time to call it a day…


Two Days Later.

December 29, 2009


My plan had been to use Navojoa as a base to wander around and parkbench memorable towns and villages in the area.  Yesterday I went to Huatabampo, and today I was planning to go with a couple of old friends to La Aduana and Alamos up in the hills.  But the other fellows couldn’t make it, and it suddenly struck me that this trip might have another dimension to it beyond just my parkbenching project.  This might be the chance for me to finally find a bridge between my present life and my past life. 


So I spent the entire morning with an old friend who is going through a bitter divorce.  19 years ago, he was living with his girlfriend, and I was the one who pressured him to get married, because I believed it was the right thing for him to do.

  Now, he tells me, he lived through 19 years of hell, and is finally a free man, and considers himself lucky because all of his kids have chosen to live with him.


It’s a sobering moment to see how my influence--  though good intended--  had such painful, long term consequences on some else’s life. 


And so, the rest of the afternoon, instead of rushing around from town to town with my guitar, I just spend it walking up and down the streets of downtown Navojoa.  This is the first time on a trip that I’ve allowed myself to get distracted from my parkbenching project, but I feel that this might just be a very critical moment in my life.  This is, after all, the end of a decade, and maybe my visit to my old hometown could have a hidden purpose to it that I don’t yet understand.

Obregon Blvd



The Reconnection


December 30, 2009


Plaza 5 de Mayo, Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico…


There’s a cool, gentle breeze as I sit at the rim of the little dugout amphitheatre with my guitar in the middle of Navojoa’s main (and only) plaza.

  Nearby there’s a life size manger scene, a couple of helote, hot dog and champurrado stands… Maybe 20 or 30 locals stroll around the plaza… families with young children… lovestruck couples… teenage boys on skates…


It’s an pleasant and peaceful scene.  Nothing particularly beautiful or postcard-worthy… You have to go a lot deeper into Mexico if you want the truly authentic colonial charm.  Here the most attractive monument is a golden angel at the top of a pillar--  and that was just built a couple of years ago!


But on the other hand, there are a LOT of culinary delights within just a 2 block radius. Delicacies that I’ve only really come to appreciate after years of absence…  Tacos de carne asada, pollo asado, fresas congeladas con crema, huevos con machaca y frijoles, gorditas, pozole, quesadillas… the list goes on and on… I may be a bit biased here, but after travelling to 70 countries, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best street food is to be found right here in the town where I grew up…


I put down my guitar for a moment.

  My heart beats faster as imagination suddenly kicks into overdrive as an entire alternate lifetime is laid out in front of me.  It’s so vivid and clear--  all the emotions, the highs and the lows of this “alternate life” flood over me, as if in just a few minutes I’m able to fast forward through that entire lifespan…


I see myself moving back to this town, this place where I spent 8 crucial years of my life: from age 14 to 22.  I see myself reasoning that, since this is where my roots are, it would make perfect sense for me to come back here and spend the rest of my days here…


I see myself playing my guitar here at this plaza day after day--  and then maybe heading on toward the market to enjoy a couple of tacos or maybe a licuado de fruta.

an old friend and his three kids
  I see myself finding a place to live here… a job… and then, falling for the seduction of one of the local girls… settling down… raising a family here…


I see myself dusting off my old cowboy hat and boots, and heading off to the villages in the mountains to strum my guitar under some mesquite tree… the rocky hills to La Aduana…the dusty streets of Masiaca… the lush wheatfields around Etchojoa and  Chinotahueca… Maybe brush up on my Yoreme vocabulary so I can make older village folks smile with a “Ketche Aleiya!  Jachise ane?”


I see myself living that life, day after day, year after year… walking these same timeless streets and markets… Uncovering little hidden gems in the culture here that no casual passerby could possibly notice…


I see myself an old man… looking back on this life.

  A life where not only the years, but the decades sort of blur into a single seamless dream… Interrupted only by an occasional quick trip up to Arizona or down to Guadalajara or Mexico City. 


And strangely, this “old man” feels not regret or sorrow as he looks back on that life.  There’s something almost bewitching about that thought.  Something romantic about the predictability and the routine, and of finally being about to call a place “home” without a shadow of a doubt…


I can’t help but smile at the irony.  Just a few years ago, the thought of being stuck in Navojoa would make me recoil in disgust--  to live in a dusty farm town where most people have absolutely no interest in what is going on in the rest of the world (except for maybe their neighbour up north, Gringolandia)… Not long ago this was the worst sort of prison I could imagine, and I’d thank my stars that I had been able to break free from this place.

a musician friend and his extended family


And now, I find the thought of being stuck here downright enticing…


Clearly, a transformation has taken place in my heart.  Suddenly it strikes me that for the last 15 years, I’ve been running away from my past… from my hometown… from the world and culture that I grew up in… I’ve deliberately tried to get as far as possible from this world as I can--  both literally and figuratively.


And now, my days of running away are over.  I’ve come back home.  I’m finally ready to acknowledge the vital role that this town had in shaping me into the person that I am.

This used to be wild countryside next to my old house
I’m finally willing to even fantasize about  making this my home again…


And then suddenly a question jolts me back to reality…


“What about my determination to play music to the entire world?”


No, there’s no way that I can accept that the songs I’ve written were destined to be heard only in the Plaza 5 de Mayo in Navojoa, Sonora.  They were destined to be sung all around the world.  And I have only gotten started doing that. 


I must make a choice: do I come back here and immerse myself once again in the corner of this planet where my roots are, in the place that hides clues to my identity and person… or do I head out once again, and trod the lonely paths of this world, with my guitar slung over my shoulder, singing to random strangers and empty plazas?


I must go on.

This is my destiny.  This is the path that I was born to take.  Almost as soon as I start to “reconnect” with my hometown, I must break away once more.

I never thought I’d feel a tinge of sorrow in doing so.  A part of me will always remain here.  The “Alternate Me” will continue living that quiet life… taking walks along the canal and enjoying the silhouettes of the palm trees in the sunset… stopping at a street stand for a couple of tacos… then going home to my Mexican family…


… But the “Real Me” must head out to the cold world once again, to brave another 600 towns in another 30 countries… and then another… and another… Until I finally determine that my mission is complete--  I’ve played music for the entire world…

Maybe then I’ll finally be able to settle down and call some place home…


The Last Day of the Decade

December 31, 2009


And so, on the last day of the first decade of the millenium, I opt to spent it doing very ordinary, run of the mill things--  things that I might do on any average day if I were to live here in Navojoa… Invite a friend  and his daughter out for pizza and a movie afterwards… chat with some old neighbors… relax for a bit in the plaza watching people stroll about.

City Hall and a new monument
  I kind of wish there were some sort of bit street party here with the whole city out welcoming the new year, but maybe a sleepy, quiet New Year’s Eve here in Navojoa is what I need right now.  I want to drag out this fantasy of “what if I were to live the rest of my life here” just a little bit longer…


The New Year’s Party


I’ve dreamed for years of coming back here to Navojoa, and putting on a concert and singing the songs that I wrote dedicated to this city.  Today that dream will become reality… well, sort of…


A friend, Juventino, invites me to a party out in San Ignacio where some important city officials and businessmen will be.

  Juventino is looking for a job, and he tells me that showing up at someone’s party is where you make connections and can get a job. 

That’s funny… I was always under the impression that folks here in Navojoa drank and went to parties to lose their jobs!


So we go, and I take my guitar with me, and the quickly ask me if I’d like to play some music… and so I put on my first “plugged” concert of my tour.

It was a bit clumsy, with no mike stands, one guy had to hold a mike to my face and another held a mike to my guitar--  but I did it… I played “Los Del Barrio” “Mexico Querido” as well as one of my best English songs “Find a Woman”.  It was a special moment--  another way of bringing my life “full circle” by playing my music here in my hometown.

Afterwards we mingled with folks for a bit.  One guy, who had been drinking quite a bit, started telling me of his exploits as a bodyguard/hit man for one of the officials… I don’t know how much of it was true or not, but it was a reminder that this isn’t exactly one of the safest areas in the world.

   People around here talk about chopped up bodies being dumped on the street, bodies getting dropped from airplanes, grenades being tossed into nightclubs and hearing machine gun fire at night as if these were just as normal as car accidents or kids stealing chewing gum--  I guess just about anything can become “normal” if its what you hear about and see it frequently enought…


Folks start dancing, and I figure to join in the dance would be an appropriate way to bid farewell to the town of my youth.  I feel a bit uncomfortable, not because of my poor dancing skills, but because I was worried that I might accidentally get to close to one of the ladies and her trigger happy husband or or brother might missinterpret thing…


And that was my Last Dance in Navojoa.


And so, after one last stroll around my hometown, I head to the bus station, boad the bus, and bid Navojoa farewell.

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Entrance to Navojoa
Entrance to Navojoa
Old soccer buddy
Old soccer buddy
a house lit up for Christmas
a house lit up for Christmas
neighbors in El Datil
neighbors in El Datil
El Datil
El Datil
Obregon Blvd
Obregon Blvd
an old friend and his three kids
an old friend and his three kids
a musician friend and his extended…
a musician friend and his extende…
This used to be wild countryside n…
This used to be wild countryside …
City Hall and a new monument
City Hall and a new monument
a baile in San Ignacio
a baile in San Ignacio
photo by: nathanphil