My Secret Identity as Mexican Fisherman: A Day in the Life of an Independent Study Student Working With Dr. Xavier Basurto
by Sharon Chan -- April 6th, 2011
Blog post by Connie Liu, alumni of 2010 Mexico trip.
It was like one of those car commercials where a sleek, new car is doing doughnuts in the middle of some vast expanse. Although our 15 passenger van was not nearly as sexy, we were tearing down the “road” in middle of the Sonoran desert. We had just visited a shrimp farm which bore greater resemblance to an image sent back by the Mars rovers than a farm. Next stop: Old Kino.
After speeding through the sand, hitting several ditches that sent everyone 6’0” and taller flying into the ceiling, we started to see signs of civilization. Rundown, blocky, multi-colored houses of the artisanal fishing town sprouted up around us. Over a year ago, our professor (Xavier) had collected some log books from a local fishbuyer which documented his daily transactions: how much he bought, from whom etc. Now we were on our way to the fishbuyer’s house so Xavier could sick one of his research cronies, i.e. Me, on the guy to interview him about his life as a fishbuyer.
Ah but I’m sure everyone who has done research before knows, research cannot be conducted on an empty stomach. Faithfully observing the researcher’s code, Xavier gave me a proper send off by taking us to…THE TORTILLA FACTORY! My fellow Americans, I regret to inform you that you have NOT had a REAL tortilla. All the tortillas you get in the supermarket? Fake. Taco Bell? Cardboard. You have not had a real tortilla until you’ve had warm one fresh off the press in an authentic tortilla factory. Then you will, as I did, see the light. Testament by a real, 1st time customer:
“I never knew tortillas could be so good” – Ted.
I stuffed my face and got back into the van feeling energized for field work. We drove to the fishbuyer’s house only to find he was out running errands and would be back around 6:00pm. It was maybe 5:30 so Xavier bribed the class to wait with a trip to the ice cream stand. What I didn’t expect was to be dropped off and left to fend for ourselves. Xavier pulled up on the shoulder across from the ice cream stand and gave me the following instructions “You guys are going to cross the street, get some ice cream, tell them to keep a tab and I’ll pay it when I get back. I’m going to go get some gas.” Like a Soccer-parent taking a bunch of kids to ice cream after practice, the van door opened, 14 kids filed out, waved bye to their dad and frolicked across the street.
So we bought treats with no money. Several minutes passed and there was no sign of our father. Oh man, did Xavier just ditch me with the bill?! Well we had two options: 1) order a round ice cream for the locals passing by a la Xavier 2) Ruuuuuuuuuuuun! Before we decided what to do, Xavier rolled up at the ice cream stand with several passengers in the van. There were definitely no passengers in the van when we got out. Now the roles were reversed “Look who I found on the street corner! It’s some local indigenous friends! Can I go play with them? Pleeeeeease?!” Oh alright. It wasn’t quite like that but our kind professor did offer a ride to some friends so he roared off again and finally returned to settle the bill.
After all that, we went back to the fishbuyer’s where Xavier decided it would be best if he dropped me off and I waited. It was like one of those survival shows. This American will be abandoned in a Mexican fishing village, left to battle social elements, in the packing plant of a local fish buyer. No translator, no dictionary, just pure cultural immersion. This is Culture Shock: Field Research! “Ok Connie, you stay here. I’ll call around 7:30 to check in on you.”
So I was about to embark on my adventure of a life time when Xavier spontaneously decided to buy some fresh seafood from the fisherman who had come in to sell his catch. He had brought in 150 kg of penshells harvested in two hours at a depth of 40 meters. Imagine diving at 130 feet with all that pressure on your head for two hours while lugging a bag of cannon balls …good god. Pen shells in theory, resemble scallops. But check out the abductor muscles on theses puppies. Imagine a slab of solid meat the size of a tangerine. Who wouldn’t want that? So Xavier bought a few from the fishbuyer’s assistant. “How much does it cost? You don’t know? Ok here’s 100 pesos, tell the fishbuyer I’ll pay the difference when I pick Connie up.” Great, stuck with the bill again.
Xavier left and I began my immersion experience. I spent the next hour and half helping the fishbuyer’s assistant and his wife chill and pack the penshell purchases from the day. The “plant” was a modest establishment, a single room filled with a few freezers, an ice maker, and a sink. The penshells were placed in 5kg bags, chilled, packed into boxes marked “eggs” until the box was morbidly obese, and taped shut. After some hard work, the assistant’s wife cut up a penshell, put some lime and hot sauce on it, and offered it to me. Raw seafood of prepared in a questionable manner? Yes please! Screw what people say about eating sketchy food in a developing country. I might regret it later but it’s been two days and nothing’s happened. Fingers crossed.
So we finished packing the day’s products, 1,000 some kilos. From here the boxes were loaded into a truck for Hermosillo, a nearby city, where it would be unloaded and reloaded into other trucks for distribution around the country. By the time the fishbuyer got back, it was already 7:30 and the man was incredibly busy. He literally said “Hi, I’ll be right with you” and continuously took calls/met with his staff for the next half hour. Seeing how busy he was, I offered to return another day. We agreed to meet later and I got picked up. Elapsed time “abandoned”: 2hrs, 30 minutes. Status of interview: not done. Thus ended my survival experience of the day and although I didn’t finish what I set out to do, it was pretty awesome. Welcome to a day in the life of an independent study student under the direction of Xavier Basurto.
Note by her professor: “By the end of the week Connie had successfully completed all the work she set-up to do, including interviews to two key informants, summaries of the interviews, and follow-up interviews to each of them. She also had the opportunity to report on her research experience to our class”.