Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Ice Cream

"The door to novelty is always slightly ajar: many pass it by with barely a glance, some peek inside and choose not to enter, others dash in and dash out again; while a few, drawn by curiosity, boredom, rebellion, or circumstance, venture in so deep or wander around in there so long that they can never find their way back out."

- Tom Robbins, Villa Incognito, 2003

* * * *

Liberty is like ice cream, it comes in about as many different flavors as one could possibly imagine, and new flavors are invented often enough. Free nations of the world - or those that claim to be free - tout their brand of liberty like some ice cream parlors might advertise their flavor-of-the-day, and ultimately, like ice cream, selection is left to the taste buds of the consumer.

When I was a kid growing up in the United States of America, the ice cream flavor of liberty was red, white, and blue. Liberty was one nation, indivisible. Liberty was when the ’69 Mets won the World Series. Liberty could be Bob Dylan and Barry Goldwater, Elvis and The Beatles, station wagons and Harley-Davidsons.

Liberty was Walter Cronkite back then.

The flavors have changed so far as liberty is concerned in the United States of America. In fact, you are made to choose between red and blue ice cream now, and if you like any flavor other than red or blue then you shall be branded with Nathanial Hawthorne’s infamous letter A on your lapel, afraid to commit. Liberty is the war against terrorism and the war against drugs, or else, the war against antiwar or even the war against the war on drugs. These days if you live in the United States of America, your liberty is controlled by the Department of Homeland Security, they probably have a list that defines what liberty is supposed to be.

Be sure and leave behind your cigarettes and toss any liquids or gels before boarding that next flight to Liberty, U.S.A. Sometimes, it makes me wonder if the money that some Mexicans chase to get over there is worth the effort.

* * * *

"I lost two hours of my life today, two hours that I’ll never get back," I told Jody last Friday in the Nuevo Perico.

It was eleven-thirty in the morning and I was on my fourth beer and my third scotch. Anna had no classes but someone had to go to her school for a meeting at seven-thirty in the morning that at least one parent was required to attend. I am on vacation, so I was the logical choice, never mind that I am a gringo and never mind that I am a male entering into what is considered a side-room in the hallowed den of Mexican motherhood.

There were two other men there, and we were as quiet as church-mice. About one hour and a half was spent on school uniforms and related matters, as we sat in uncomfortable seats and tried not to grimace while mothers and teachers bartered interpretations of what constitutes an overly-pleated skirt. During all of this, people arrived as much as one hour and ten minutes late, giving a buenos dias as if they were expected to be late, that we should be honored by their arrival at any moment they chose to honor us.

This is Mexico - no one complained, it was expected.

After two hours and fifteen minutes, rankled more by my own inability to shrug it all off than anything else, we all got out of there and I hopped a red cab and eventually made my way to Centro de Tijuana.

Ten o’clock in the morning is about the perfect time to walk the streets of Centro. The rateros and vagos are sleeping off last night’s mischief, shops are opening up, the sun begins to warm the vacant streets and sidewalks. I purchased a San Diego newspaper and slowly wound my way down to calle Sexta, into the Dandy Del Sur.

It was like an oven in there.

The only other bar that one can count on being open at exactly five minutes after ten in the morning is the Nuevo Perico. I used to go there when it was called Armando’s Ladies Bar, the key words being Armando’s and Bar, there were seldom any ladies there. Armando finally sold the place, and Joe bought it and changed the name. Back then it was a good place to drink in the afternoon and into the evening, but times have changed. They dropped their prices and it serves well now as a magnet for vagos and rateros.

But before noon, anyplace that’s open in Tijuana is a good place to drink.

* * * *

Jody gulped down his beer and ordered another.

"She told me that on Wednesdays they don’t always show up," Jody told me about his eye doctor.

He had been having a lot of problems with his eyes, problems that liquor and beer and girls wouldn’t resolve. On Charlie’s advice, he took a cab out to someplace near the Grand Hotel one Wednesday and waited two hours while not one doctor in the building came to work. He made his way back to Centro for more liquor and girls and went back to see the doctor a few days later.

"It’s Mexico," he said, "I’m used to it. So are you, heck, two hours is nothing here."

"I know, I know," I assured him.

Jody excused himself and left and so did I when I finished by scotch, and I headed around the corner to a place that I have passed at least a thousand times and never stopped at.

The Chiki Jai is a restaurant opened in the nineteen hundred and forties, supposedly Hemmingway was a patron, along with many stars of American Cinema. No such boast would get me to eat at or even visit any such place, but every time that I have passed by, the cooking of paella and other seafood tickled my nose. I never had time to stop. Friday, I had nothing but time on my hands.
Twenty dollars later, which is a small fortune to spend on a lunch in Tijuana, I was convinced that there would never be anything better to do in Centro de Tijuana with a twenty dollar bill and an appetite than to roll the dice in the Chiki Jai. The camarones en mojo de ajo were excellent, and my next visit will ensure a sampling of their famous paella.

Maybe even today, the last day of my vacation.

* * * *

Liberty in Mexico is red, white, and green ice cream. With a cherry on top, and chocolate sprinkles all over, and some sort of a syrupy covering that coats the beautiful sugary mess. Here, liberty is tacos of your choice at every other street corner, black-and-white Cantinflas on that old television set at the peluqueria, the old man who passes by every day at four in the afternoon, yelling, "Tamaaaales! Taaamaaaleeees, rico, de elote, de chile verde, de dulce!"

Liberty in Mexico is crooked cops and honest criminals, twenty different brands of tequila, kids playing soccer in the street. I would miss the four propane trucks each day that drive by our house and honk a dozen times, the hermanos that stop by your door every Sunday to try and talk you into a new religion, and even the power outages and the occasional lack of running water. If the price of this liberty means having to spend two hours listening to an argument over the number of buttons that a schoolgirl should be permitted to undo in accordance with the current temperature in Tijuana, then I have paid my price for this Liberty, at least until the next small inconvenience.

Liberty in Tijuana, Mexico is deciding to go have some paella at the Chiki Jai on the last day off that I’ll have for a couple of months.

* * * *

Tom Robbins might be correct about novelty, but the one thing that he might not have taken into account in Villa Incognito is that sometimes those of us who venture into the realm of novelty aren’t looking to go back at all. At least, I didn’t leave any breadcrumbs.

And if, by chance, any of that red, white, and blue ice cream from the cone of liberty that I came in with happened to drip out onto the path that took me here, then certainly it has all melted away by now. The challenge, then, that I should ever leave this place, is to remember that no amount of ice cream of any flavor could possibly make me forget that four pleats in a skirt is considered acceptable attire on a schoolgirl.


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