Archive for December, 2008

Miracle on the Road to Oaxaca

EspanaUntil the Aswan Dam plugged her up, the Nile River flooded every year, spreading her chocolate waters across the land of Egypt, and depositing the rich sediment of eroded topsoil from the heart of Africa, to fuel another year’s productivity in the fields.

As regular as the Nile’s rising waters, a seasonal flow of migrant Mexican farm workers heads south from the States, going home for the Christmas holidays. Like the Nile, they carry with them a load of riches to deposit from one end of Mexico to the other. Pick-up trucks and TV sets, kitchen appliances and talking baby dolls, chainsaws, mattresses and blow driers— anything that is more expensive to obtain in Mexico than here, will end up riding the river of people back home.

This yearly tide of travelers has spawned a parasite class of thieves, extortionists, and pick-pockets, who line the highways home. Crooks are crooks the world over, but among the various rateros who afflict the homecoming Mexican farm workers, the most reprehensible element is the corrupted law enforcement officers of their own government.  Crooked cops and customs police invent a multitude of spontaneous impuestos, multas and cuotas to put an official seal on their bribery and highway robbery.  For migrant farm workers, the border between Mexico and the US, where they pass the under the scrutiny of their own customs officials, may be the highest hurdle to cross on the race home, but it is hardly the last.  Any fly-speck village can be the scene of a crude hold-up, and any innocent action on the road may be a pretext for detention, if some cop thinks he needs more money or a new toaster.

España, our tractor driver, discussed his upcoming trip before he loaded up his two pick-up trucks with his sisters and his accumulated wealth of household items and tools.  At lunch break, underneath the shade of the elderberry trees, everyone had stories to trade about the trips home they’d made in years past. I heard the joy of homecoming, mixed with trepidation for what may be lost. Everybody on the crew had a war story about a trip home, but maybe because he was the one going home next, España’s story of a previous return was the best.

Eight years ago, when he’d last returned to Oaxaca, España had a little Datsun pickup truck.

“Oh yes,” everybody remembered the pick-up truck; “small, brown, a little beat-up, but with a decent motor.”

Eight years ago he was returning without much money, because it had cost him so much to live back when he was migrant, always moving from ranch to ranch.

“Oh yes,” murmured the other guys like a Greek chorus, as they ate their tacos, and drank their soup.  “Not much money, but still more than if you’d stayed in Oaxaca…”

España was on his way home, still in Sonora crossing the desert, just south of San Luis Rio Colorado, when a highway patrolman pulled him over.

At this point there was a general rumble, heads nodded, and someone stopped chewing long enough to pronounce the verdict: “pinche parasito.”

The officer approached the pickup truck, eyeing the vehicle’s California license plates from behind his insect eye, aviator sunglasses. He bent over to speak through the window. “Señor Indio,” he announced, “You have been driving in a manner threatening to the safety of the Republic. “The fine will be $200 dollars.”

The taco eaters scoffed with contempt.

“…in twenties.”

There was a roar of outrage. Jose passed around a paper plate of pickled jalapeños.

España waited for a minute before resuming his narrative. “So I told the patrolman.  ‘Señor Policeman, I don’t have $200. I have barely enough cash to buy the gasoline to get me to Oaxaca City.’” The officer listened with a stone face. He straightened up, pulled a wallet from his pants pocket— a wallet gorged with money— and he pulled out a crisp twenty dollar bill.

“Señor Oaxaquito,” said the officer, “Better that I give you some money,” and handed España the bank note.

Everybody cried out in disbelief, “Impossible!” “Increible!” “A miracle!”

“Ho-ho-ho,” Don Gerardo said. “España must have met the Mexican Santa Claus.”

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

holiday note: Andy will rest over the holidays and he’ll be back with more great stories from the farm and beyond in 2009. 

Going To Vacaville

On a recent camping trip in the Panoche Hills behind Hollister I ran into a charming buffalo couple so I took some pictures, including one extreme bison close-up that I sent to my friend, Mitzi, as a Thanksgiving Day greeting card. She wrote back, “That buffalo got pretty close, eh?” I wouldn’t want Mitzi to imagine that I’m some sort of adventurer or thrill-seeker, so I followed up with a clarifying letter that wandered in some interesting directions. Apropos of nothing, I send you all today an edited version of that letter, hoping that you might enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Here is the photo that prompted the letter, along with a less graphic, more scenic and sentimental picture of the Panoche Hills on a beautiful fall afternoon.  buffalo nose

Dear Mitzi: The buffalo gal in the photo was on the other side of the fence with her boyfriend. She seemed quite tame and sweet, but I’d never be so stupid as to crawl up a buffalo’s nose. I remember that back when I went to the University of California in Davis there was a fellow raising buffaloes for meat north of town along Highway 113, and right next to his buffalo ranch was a dairy. One day a buffalo bull got a whiff of a cute Jersey cow in heat and plowed down the fence that separated him from the cow of his desires. That’s the thing about buffaloes– a fence has to be of really massive construction before it serves as anything more than a mere suggestion of limits to a determined buffalo bull.

Mr. Buffalo was making whoopie with the whole herd of milk cows when the dairy farmer showed up. The farmer was horrified, of course, about the random mixed-race coupling going on, but he couldn’t convince the buffalo to give up his poly-amorous ways and go back home. The dairyman did manage to chase the bull out of his yard and on to the county road in front of his farm and then he closed the gate. Instead of being discouraged, the bull figured he’d follow his nose down the road and see how the situation developed. The country lane fed into another road, and then another, until the bull ended up trotting down an on-ramp onto southbound Highway 113, where he was soon challenging traffic and provoking a commotion.

The highway patrol officer who showed up to deal with the issue was a fine public servant, but he was no cowboy, so he radioed his commander for help. The commander was thinking that the officer might be hallucinating so he sent a CHP chopper over to investigate, and when the helicopter came in low for a look, the bull Bison spooked and ran down 113 all the way to where it merges with southbound I-80. It was only the beginning of afternoon rush hour, but the introduction of an angry buffalo onto the interstate played havoc with the commute.

I was at home studying Nietzsche at the time and my housemates were drinking beer in the living room and watching TV. “Hey, Andy,” they were yelling. “Get in here. You gotta check this out!” The Live at Five news people had picked up on the story and dispatched their own traffic copter to film the scandal from the sky, so we were treated to a great overhead view of thousands of honking, pissed-off commuters headed home at one mile per hour behind a buffalo bull who trotted purposefully down the centerline of the freeway, throwing a horn and an evil glance at anyone who tried to pass him.

More CHP officers made their way through the snarl of cars but they were helpless too. A 2000 pound buffalo bull does what he feels like, and this one felt like going to Vacaville. Not only were the officers constrained by their ignorance of wild bovine management, they were also now being watched live on TV by a million people. They couldn’t just shoot the beast or the animal rights activists would be all over them like flies on a cow pie. The slow motion chase went on and on as the buffalo headed south trailing cops and choppers like OJ’s white Bronco. Anchormen filled the airwaves with speculation and traffic backed up down 80 farther and farther towards Sacramento and the capitol dome. Someone at my house went out for more beer.

Eventually CHP headquarters decided to shoot the bull full of tranquilizer darts and the SWAT teams reached for their rifles. Bang, bang, bang. The darts worked. The bull fell over, asleep on the centerline, and the only problem that remained was what to do with a ton of living, breathing, stoned meat that could wake up at any minute and start thrashing around and bellowing. A tow truck made its way through the traffic jam and got into position. The errant bull was winched onto a trailer and tied down with a mile of rope. Then the officers whisked Mr. Buffalo home so he could sleep off his party in the security of an eight foot high corral made out of railroad ties. So much trouble and vexation, and all the bull wanted to do was meet some cows! But girls are like that; they cause all kinds of problems.

RedDog looking at PanocheCopyright 2008 Andy Griffin


Barack Obama’s national blogger has just moved to San Francisco post-campaign and is doing college essay tutoring for high school students.  She can be contacted at for more information.  Why this blurb here? Sarah’s one of my mystery box customers and I find her charming.  She’s also currently looking for a fabulous ball gown for the inauguration, of course! -julia  (Sarah says: I’m also doing plain old coaching for writing (essays, stories, etc.) and blogging lessons — after the new year, but people are certainly welcome to sign up now! I have an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University…)

Two restaurant events:

Serpentine is turning 1! Thursday Dec. 11th

Delfina is having a craft fair! Sunday Dec. 14th

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