Saturday, November 20, 2010

Don't Mess With Texas

It’s not easy to eat organic in McAllen, unless you are perhaps looking for something hydroponic. Afterall Texas intercepts more than 100,000 pounds of pot a year. On a single night flying with the Texas Department of Public Safety, DPS, we found ourselves in a high speed chase that netted 1800 hundred pounds of marijuana with a street value of 700,000 dollars. My stomach was in my throat as I had flashbacks to flying with the Thunderbirds shortly after I arrived at the Pentagon. Please don’t let me throw up. I made it through 17 rounds of chemo without throwing up. But helicopters always make me sick. I first realized I was pregnant with Luke on a Blackhawk in Afghanistan - threw up in the Korengal Valley and nearly hit Admiral Mullen.

But I digress.

I knew we had entered the Wild West when I arrived at DPS headquarters in Austin and I entered a room full of law enforcement - all male and most wearing Stetsons. My team had already arrived from L.A. Keith Railey and Laura Prabucki. The “A Team”. We sat in new state of the art ops and intell center. I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore when they showed us a map of 66,000 sex offenders scattered across the Lone Star State. And during our interview, word came in that the local authorities had just captured one of Texas’ top 10 most wanted. “We’re a law and order state, ma’am.” They weren’t kidding. It’s just that the cartels south of the border had not gotten the memo.

That morning in Austin, my best friend from 5th grade Ginny Taylor Scott picked me up with my goddaughter Sophie and her big sister Lily at the airport in Austin. Ginny, you’ll remember, set up this blog for me a year ago. In fact my trip to Texas coincided with the one year anniversary of when she flew out to DC shortly after I was diagnosed. She and Sarah Williams helped me babyproof the house for Luke. I remember both of them everytime I go to open my kitchen cabinets and my fingers get pinched in the babylocking door or when the toilet seat cover remains locked as I am running into the bathroom followed usually by at least one child needing my undivided attention. There are also the 2 baby gates that remind me of the Erez crossing into Gaza that I have to make my way through just to get from my front door to my bedroom. Luke is the only one who remembers to shut them behind him.

Ginny and her family had mapped out every vegan option in Austin for me. Our first stop was Casa de Luz where Ginny’s father was none too pleased as we sat on a porch outside of a “whole grain, no sugar, nothing white” family style buffet which looked like it was right out of the Moosewood cookbook: steamed kale, broccoli soup, beets three different ways, cabbage (“cancer hates cabbage”) and some more cabbage, and a walnut paste that reminded me of eating Georgian food at Mama Zoya’s in Moscow. The kids had a little brown rice and the almond cookies I sneaked them for desert. En route to Ginny’s house, we passed silver air stream trailer after air stream trailer of yummy street food - Peking Duck, crepes, tacos - these funky trailers are an Austin trademark.

We sneaked in a 90 minute yoga class just up the road from Ginny’s stylish ranch home in her Austin suburb. We ran there. It was one of those Baptiste flow hot yoga classes similar to what Lila used to teach. One of the hardest classes I had ever taken - we must have done 45 minutes of plank on my mastectomy weakened pecs, but I was floating when it was done, the perfect antidote to flying cross country and leaving Washington at 5 am. The next morning Ginny wanted to show me her Pure Barre class - it should have been called pure butt - because that is the only muscle we worked. I could barely walk when we were done and coming on the heels of the yoga class 12 hours earlier my body was crying “uncle.” And just as Lila and Anne-Marie did in San Francisco and Santa Cruz, I was given the royal treatment. At breakfast Ginny got up early to cook me steel cut oatmeal. But she almost didn’t let me have the chopped organic Medjool dates that I love because she said they are the highest sugar content on the glycemic index. Is nothing sacred? How about all the anti-oxidants in dates? She took care of that with the most perfect bowl of mixed berries each morning - and, of course, a pot of freshly brewed green tea.

My healthy eating ended on the five hour drive south to the Mexican border. I had visions of little Mexican roadside stands with fresh guacamole and salsa. Instead en route to McAllen, it was Cracker Barrel and Jack in the Box. McAllen was a strip mall gone mad. On the days that we were by the Rio Grande doing lives, we would drive for miles just to find something fresh. I have never seen more fast food American chains concentrated in one city. It must be the home of the fried bean burrito and french fry. Insane. It was a slippery slope. The healthiest thing I could find on one particular day was the grilled chicken sandwich at Chick-Fil-A. Yo.

But this was Fox country and boy were we given the royal treatment - and boy were the cartels happy to see us leave when we finally packed up our satellite truck and live shot position on the banks of the Rio Grande. For two days straight from 7 am until 8 pm we essentially blocked a lucrative corridor where drugs and people cross into McAllen and then make their way up the interstate highway into cities all over the US. By just having a presence we stopped the flow of drugs for two days - we did what Homeland Security and the National Guard have failed to do by “just showing up.” We were eyeball to eyeball with the cartel members. 2 spotters, then 4 sat across from us for the entire 2 days. They were wearing camouflage and hid in the bushes about 100 yards from us on the other side of the Rio Grande River inside Mexico. It was surreal. We had two State troopers with their binoculars and guns trained on them, as we stood exposed doing our live shots. If it hadn’t been so unnerving, it would have been like we were on safari in Africa. But this was a real hunt and these were vicious predators.

I spoke to one State Trooper - a former Marine who served in Fallujah in 2007 and he said he had a greater chance getting shot here in McAllen than when he was in Iraq. Shocking commentary. You have to see it to believe it. The cartels are brazen. They recruit in our prisons, they have co-opted our gangs. It’s a 40 billion dollar industry. Who is doing all of those drugs? I have no idea why we haven’t created a DMZ down south. 97 percent of the illegal immigration comes through the southwest border.

It’s a game of cat and mouse that we are losing.

To put it in perspective, one restaurant owner, who introduced himself as Che and whose family restaurant in McAllen, The Patio, is in a building that dates back to 1693, told me that to understand the border region one needs to remember that it has always been full of bandits and kidnappings and shoot-outs. Nothing new. Well maybe so but we make a mockery of our law enforcement by sending National Guard there with 10 bullets per soldier - only to be used in self- defense. They are an impotent lot and this is not Mayberry.

When I got on the Delta flight to leave, I smiled as I opened the In-flight magazine and read a first person story written by one of George Lopez’ comedy writers. He was lamenting what he dubbed the “Tofurkey” holidays that he spent each Thanksgiving with his mom, a devout vegan. “Like most 12-year-olds, I just wanted to be ‘normal’,” wrote Dave Hanson. “I groaned at the wad of bulgur, lentils and diced tofu she’d crafted into the shape of a small turkey. Side dishes included a grain dish of seaweed and groats, mustard greens in a foamy, turbid broth and gravy made from whole-wheat flour, soy sauce and apple cider.” As he tucked into the mashed potatoes, he asked in dismay why the potatoes tasted “grainy”? His mom replied: “Potatoes have no nourishment. I added raw wheat germ.”

It is a conversation that could be had at either end of our dining room table.

I remember a year ago when my dear friends collected money for what would be a year of spoiling. It started with an organic turkey covered in a dishtowel (no plastic). And carried on through the year as the wonderful personal chef Christine Merkle helped me back on my feet delivering food that was carefully crafted from Whole Foods - all thanks to the extraordinary generosity of my dear friends - you know who you are. This Thanksgiving, I won’t be wearing a wig, but I will be saying “Thanks” loudly, even as I dip into my mom’s alternative brown bread stuffing. I hope you can hear me wherever you might be with your families because you, dear reader, gave me my life back. I am now back to covering other people’s wars, which is exactly where I belong.