September 16 1998, Wednesday
ublished in a free local San Diego computer magazine called ComputorEdge was a good deal on a used 15 inch computer monitor, so Kim and Sophie came with me when I went to go buy the thing. The place was amazingly close by, just down the canyon in Mission Valley. It was run by a middle-aged Asian couple and there were several skinny young men doing most of the work, especially in the back. I asked if they were hiring and the Asian woman thought I was asking if she was "high." Not a good way to begin a business relationship, but she sold me the monitor for $15 less than I thought it was going to cost: $85.
n the afternoon, after a series of delays, Kim and I set off for nearby Mexico. She had a little flyer promoting the town of Rosarito some miles southwest of Tijuana on the Pacific coast.
As we were about to descend onto I-805 southbound, we saw a most unusual spectacle, a young white man with long hair, possibly dreadlocks, rolling along on a skateboard pushing a baby carriage. It was a most California-in-the-90s vision.
urther south, as we passed through the southern city limits of San Diego into the increasingly depopulated desert to the south, I felt an creeping sense of dread at the prospect of crossing into Mexico. This wasn't going to be like going to Canada or even Detroit, these people don't speak my language and they've amassed on the border, willing to take foolish risks just to get here, to the land of McDonalds, Walmart and Exxon. It must be bad in Mexico, it must really be bad, and we were about to see just how bad it really was. We'd been smoking pot, so of course I had an unusually profound connection to my feelings about these things.
hrough the distant haze we could see a little rise in the land, and it was densely covered with civilization. A huge Mexican flag waved above it all in the breeze. Mexico. Whoah, dude.
Mexican authorities didn't stop us or ask us any questions as we went through their customs. It wasn't any big deal that we were coming into their country, bringing objects and ideas with us. But if we were to have sudden second thoughts, now was not a good time for them. Angry metal fingers on the United States side ensured that traffic leaving the United States was going in only one direction.
hen we really were in Mexico. Aside from the palm trees, it was a completely different place than southern California (or any place I've ever been). It even smelled different, a sort of a faint raw sewage odour mixed with trash burning smoke, industrial air pollution and fumes from cooking maybe, though I'm not sure. But, most of all, things looked different. Gone were the irrigated grassy lawns, the washed cars, the tidy homes with me-too decorations. A large fraction of the houses were in disrepair or defaced with graffiti. And most repairs looked to be of the makeshift variety: a little corrugated metal over a hole in the wall or a tear in the roof. As much attention was given to the walls around homes as to the homes themselves. There was a strange mix of old and new; in some neighborhoods there were a good number of satelite dishes pointed at the sky, though many of these were missing large fractions of their wave-reflecting surfaces. Neither Kim nor I had ever been to the Third World before, and it was all so different from anything we'd ever seen that it came as a bit of a shock.
People and dogs were everywhere, walking slowly or even sleeping outside in the shade of trees, especially right along the border fence. The people all looked roughly the same: short, stocky, with dark brown skin and black hair. There were no light-skinned people or black people.
The road we traveled, Mexico Route 2, passed westward just south of the border with the United States. Occasionally the top of the steep roadcut went right to the border fence itself.
The border fence was, of course, entirely constructed by the United States; Mexico could care less (in a New Orleans kind of way) whether people come or go. Like the old Berlin Wall, the border consisted of two parallel fences and a dusty no-mans-land between them. The outer fence was a solid wall of slightly corrugated sheet metal hard along the actual border. It was topped with thick blades pointing upward to cut the fingers of anyone foolish enough to try to climb it. Viewed from the Mexican side, this first line of defense was a sadly battered entity, covered with hasty graffiti in Spanish and, in some places, either undermined or peeled apart (and hastily repaired from the American side). The secondary line of defence was a groomed dusty zone punctuated every several hundred feet by guard towers. Border patrol sport utility vehicles prowling this zone were nearly as numerous as the towers. Beyond this was the final obstacle: an expensive fence of stout iron poles set too close together for a person to fit between them; on top of these was a grouping of concertina wire angled out over the no-mans-land.
The border went straight as an arrow from Tijuana to the Pacific Ocean, over any intervening topography in the way. Near the coast, the topography became rather rugged, but the border was every bit as relentless as the forces that had shaped the land.
I have to say it was a moving experience to see a fence like this established to preserve the differences on either side, holding the Third World back so we in the First World can ride our lawnmowers and devour our cheeseburgers in peace. I took lots of pictures with my digital camera trying to capture the sublime reality of it all, the thing that no one will say, that we don't especially like these Mexicans. On some level we're terrified of the stereotypes: their poverty-tested-ruggedness, their casual disregard for the value of human (or any other) life, their fecundity and their apparent inattention to hygiene. But, sadly, my camera couldn't see what my eyes were seeing:
e took Mexico Route 1 (a $1.60 toll road) down along the foggy Pacific coast to Rosarito, a fairly major tourist town. When we got off the toll road in Rosarito, we saw lots of California license plates mixed in with the Mexican plates (black on orange, with a number and the words "FRONT BC" for "Baja California"). We found a little store selling cold beer (so it said in the English sign translation). I went in and tried to make sense of the prices, but being a Gringo and still somewhat stoned, it was all a mystery to me. The six pack of Tecate cost me $2.50 in American money; we'd never bothered to get pesos.
e found a little outdoor café in a commercial district anchored by an engorged Seven-Eleven type of convenience store (though none of the familiar American franchises were in evidence anywhere in Mexico). We sat down at the bar and Kim did her best with her two years of college Spanish, saying "Tres tacos to go." The boss woman understood English, so we didn't really have to fight the language barrier too hard. Somehow the idea of "to go" was lost, though, and they fetched us a basket of chips and some sort of delicious salsa which I've never encountered before. We also ordered a cold rice drink, but just as soon as we did, we realized we were violating one of the basic ground rules we'd intended to obey: don't drink the water. So Kim gave up on her drink and ordered a bottle of cervesa. She was about to bring up the water contamination issue with our waitress, but I thought that rather impolite and did what I could to distract her. I impulsively decided to drink but rice drinks, not wanting them to go to waste and wishing to fully partake of the Mexican experience, including the water. But I was smart enough not to suck on the ice cubes.
We did end up getting the tacos to go, and I handed the waitress two five dollar bills. She gave us $5.50 back and said it had only cost us $4.50. This Mexican vacation thing isn't exactly expensive. It occurred to me that it's in a restaurant's interest to treat Americans fairly and not exploit their naïvité. Because if an American has a good experience and is not overcharged, chances are good he will recommend the place to his American friends and perhaps return again some other day.
e found our way down to the ocean, parked the Volvo in among numerous Mexican vehicles (most actually looked to be in good shape) and then walked around a few low concrete buildings across the wide sand beach down to the ocean, where we put down our blankets and broke out the tacos and beer.
I looked up and down the beach and was immediately struck by the differences from an American beach. The sea wall was completely different from the one I'd seen along Pacific Beach or any American beach. This one was obviously a private sea wall, built by individuals to protect their individual homes. It varied greatly in terms of quality and even location. Some homebuilders located their sea walls far back from the beach and others encroached frighteningly close to the high tide mark. In some places it had been smashed away completely and never been restored. In the States, of course, such a sea wall would be government built and maintained and would run straight and strong a certain mandated distance back from the water. But in Mexico, rules about such things either don't exist or aren't enforced.
Some of the buildings here on the beach had even apparently been abandoned and left to collapse and grow up in weeds. Conversely, beachfront property in the States is far too valuable to be left in such disrepair.
Then there were our fellow people on the beach. It wasn't a crowd, but there were a fair sprinkling of us, families mostly. Kim and I were clearly the only Anglos there, and it was a little odd to stick out so much. I don't think I've ever been in a place before where it was so obvious that I didn't belong. And I'd thought I was white the first time I'd waded into the Pacific Ocean. But no one really interacted with us as if we were any different, aside from the vendors who walked up and down the beach trying to sell things such as soap bubbles, stuffed Mickey Mouse dolls, cotton candy and ice cream.
Several kids spent a great deal of time and energy using a shovel to dig a pool-shaped hole in the sand near the rising tide. Eventually the waves came up so high that they washed over it and reduced it to nothing, as all things come to be one day.
One little girl was especially fascinated by the waves crashing on the beach. When they were especially large, she would cry out "Oh my God!" This English expression is probably well known in Mexico, though I suspect this girl was saying it for our benefit.
Up above us on the beach, a couple attractive, stylish teenage girls sat by themselves on a beach towel. Eventually they were joined by a couple thin, stylish teenage boys. They all wore jewelry and it immediately occurred to me that they were probably members of higher economic class than the ones we normally encounter who have fled to America to do menial jobs. Flirtatiously, the boys started lighting fire crackers in the sand. These weren't your usual Fourth of July fireworks that frat boys toss off their frat house balconies, they were little bombs that exploded with enormous power and a brief flash of light. I have my doubt the Mexican fireworks industry is any more heavily regulated than the private sea wall construction.
Along with the vendors and at least one cripple trying to separate us from our dinero were several dogs and groups of sea gulls interested in our food. The begging dogs behaved exactly like the vendors. They'd come and stand staring at us for a moment, and, if we gave them nothing, they'd quickly move on to the next people. The beggar dogs were all females with big teats; they probably had litters of puppies in among the abandoned buildings. You just don't see wandering maternal dogs like this in the States. They'd be picked up by the dog catcher and consigned to the SPCA, or if they were owned by someone, they'd be spayed. But these dogs looked as if they were getting by completely on their own. The stylish teenagers gave a couple of the dogs slices of ham. We'd run out of food by this time, but Kim wants to be sure we bring ham next time we come to Mexico.
Another odd thing we saw was groups of cowboys, the kind that no longer exist in America, riding their horses up and down the beach. They had ten-gallon hats, checkered shirts, chaps, pointy star-shaped spurs, the works. Then there were people on three-wheeled motorbikes racing up and down along the water, sometimes within inches of playing children. There was no concern about issues like safety, noise, or tranquility. There was no one enforcing any rules, there weren't lifeguards, there were no signs warning about anything. This was Mexico, everything anyone wanted to do could be done and if you fucked up and died, it was your fault.
The water was even colder than it had been in San Diego. No one was surfing or swimming. Occasionally someone would wade out a short ways, probably to piss. That's mostly why I went wading.
Eventually Kim succumbed to one of the vendors and bought an ear of what looked to be corn on a cob stuck on a stick. When the vendor asked if Kim wanted parmesan cheese and salsa on her ear, she figured, "Sure, why not, when in Mexico..." I was suspicious when the price for this was a whole dollar, but what the hell, if it brought joy to this woman, it was worth a dollar. Surely she could make that dollar go a lot farther in this land than we could.
Unfortunately, the ear of corn was so horrible that we could only muster a few bites. The parmesan cheese was completely unsuitable to the flavour of the corn, imparting a rotten, funky flavour. The corn itself was undercooked, rather hard and not especially sweet. It must have been field corn, the kind one feeds to cows. Kim tried rubbing the cheese and salsa off the ear, but that didn't help. We ended up sticking it in the sand for the dogs and seagulls to devour.
nlike the stylish teenagers, we entirely cleaned up our beach site, taking our bottles and other rubbish with us. Someone had attached a Post-It Note to the windshield of the Volvo demanding $1 for parking, but no one was in evidence to collect it, so we just hit the road. Heading away from the beach, we passed the corn on the cob vendor woman returning to her trailer park. She'd just made a whole American dollar, so she was packing it in for the day.
Up along the coast on Mexico Route 1, the fog had lifted and we could see out across the beautiful ocean. I had to piss so badly that I filled an empty Tecate bottle twice before I felt comfortable. emptying the urine out onto the highway was a messy affair.
Heading back towards Tijuana, the border was again a prominent feature of the landscape. Viewed from the west, the sprawl of Tijuana ends abruptly at the border fence; to the north is unsettled American desert, to the south are the endless rambling shacks of Mexico.
merican customs were a lot more fussy than Mexican customs had been. There was a traffic jam at the border, extending well into Mexican territory. Here we fell prey to vendors, squeegee people, beggars and such. The squeegee people were polite when we shooed them away, even stopping to scrape the suds off our window so Kim could see the road. All along the right side of the Mexican traffic jam were vendor stands bursting with tacky nick-nacks geared specifically to unimaginative Americans. None of the goods looked to have anything to do with Mexico; the single most outstanding item was numerous copies of Winnie the Pooh.
As we rolled over the border line, the rumpled, pot-holed asphalt was replaced with a smooth surface and the beggars were replaced with American customs officials pacing back and forth in search of suspicious vehicles. At least one drug-sniffing dog was also present. At the moment of actual customs questioning, the customs official could tell we were Americans, though he quizzed us about the state code for Michigan (the car still has Michigan plates). I never said a word; all Kim said was that I was her boyfriend. There was no I.D. check and it was over in 20 seconds. From there we passed through a zig-zag concrete obstacle coarse and then we were loosed on the American Interstate System, heading north on I-805.
ack at the cabana in Normal Heights, San Diego, I suspected I was already getting sick from the Mexican water I'd drunk. I had a headache and a weak fever and my stomach in knots. This wasn't helped when Rita told of her Mexican water drinking experience. She has a way of emphasizing things with simple, comic repetition, in this case, "Diarrhea, diarrhea, diarrhea, diarrhea, diarrhea!"
I tried to dehydrate myself with vodkatea. Whether that worked or not, I don't know, but soon I'd completely recovered. I suspect my health problems had been entirely psychological. I'm sensitive that way.
one year ago
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