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.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


On Monday, as Anna arrived home early from school just as the sky darkened, the rain began slowly and then ultimately came down hard and thick in a way that seldom occurs here. I waited while poised to make a run for dinner ingredients whenever the rain stopped. I continued waiting until it became apparent that the rain had no intention of making it convenient for me to run down the block to the small local store, down the narrow alley one block and a half away. The supermarket, just across the street from the convenience store, was probably out of the question. The water comes fast down the hills south of us and it pools in the main boulevard, Díaz Ordaz, where it patiently waits across all four lanes for gravity to take it somewhere else.

The storm drains, designed for a much smaller city, sometimes choke helplessly on anything larger than a few sprinkles when the water begins to flow.

The rain had eased slightly as I strapped on my old work boots and began to trudge through the cul-de-sac, over some mud, and then into the alley, which had turned into a river. I walked along the sidewalk looking for somewhere shallow to cross, and all of the way up to the boulevard there was nothing. Another fellow, ten steps ahead of me, turned back and smiled at me helplessly as I caught up to him and we stood there and thought about what to do next.

"We need a bridge," he laughed toward me in Spanish.

He shrugged, and jumped into water that went up to his knees, waded quickly across, and stood triumphantly on the other side of the alley. I retraced my steps back up the alley, three blocks above, where I finally found a spot to cross. I came back down and hugged the narrow sidewalk on the other side of the alley, and twenty minutes later I was buying bacon and ham and beer while remembering how the water was shut completely off for almost three days not two weeks ago.

Those were the days!

I returned forty minutes after leaving for what is normally a five minute errand, and I was already dicing potatoes when Anna came downstairs in her customary fashion, curious and adorable, however adorable that one could imagine a fifteen year old girl who is almost as tall as I am.

"Whatcha makin’?" She asked with that overemphasized colloquial American accent, pretending to have to stand on her toes to look over my shoulder.

"Soup. Cream of chicken with bacon and potato, and some grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. Soul-warming food for the coldness," I told her.

"How was it out there?" she inquired.

"A river. But it’ll never be as bad as it was around the time that you were born," I said.

Anna waited for me to tell the story, but instead I found myself singing the National Anthem of Canada for no apparent reason.

"Dad, you are so weird," Anna told me.

"Probably. But nothing was weirder than the Gigante market in Las Brisas a few weeks before you were born," I started.

* * * *

In the summer of nineteen hundred and ninety two, we rented our first house in Tijuana. It was located on the north side of the Tijuana river, in a small neighborhood on a hill, and it was called Guaycura, which could have been anywhere in Tijuana so far as I was concerned. All I knew is that it was hotter than hell inside of that house, so I spent an unusual amount of time outside. I found work quickly in an American maquiladora, a job I quickly grew to hate, but I was used to hating wherever I worked.

It began raining in early January, right about the time that I quit that job and we moved across the river onto a larger hill on the south side, Infonavit Latinos. It was the first time that I had ever heard of El Niño, that occasionally unpredictable cyclical anomaly whereby unseasonably warm ocean water causes Pacific winter storms to crash mercilessly onto the North American Pacific Coastline. Wave after wave of storms hit through January and the Tijuana River swelled then relaxed and then swelled then relaxed again, and so on. In those days, most of the roads went right into the river, there were only two bridges west of the Rodriguez Dam, all other automotive crossings were made over roads that were built to allow the shallow river to flow over the pavement.

People used to drive their cars into that river and park on the shoulder and wash their vehicles; the river water wasn’t very clean but it was free.

One rainy evening I brought Rocio to the small clinic in Las Brisas, she thought that she was having labor pains. It turned out to be a false alarm, but they wanted to hold her there for an hour or so to make sure. I needed a cigarette and I was fresh out, so I walked across the parking lot in the rain toward the Gigante market, and the skies suddenly opened up and it started to pour. In seconds, as I made it just underneath the roof of the façade in front of the store, it was coming down harder than I had ever seen rain fall anywhere other than the Arizona desert in the summertime. I stood and watched in awe, and the downpour refused to stop; just when it seemed that it couldn’t come down any harder, it did.

Finally, I went into the supermarket, and just a few steps inside I noticed that no one was moving. While it is to be expected that there would only be perhaps a dozen customers in there, what with the rain and the evening and all, I realized that everyone had stopped what they were doing. Shoppers held their carts still, grocery clerks stopped entering prices, baggers stopped bagging. Everyone was looking up at the ceiling.

Water, in steady streams, all throughout the store, was coming down through the roof, through the light fixtures – which remained lit as if water affected them not in the least – and landed everywhere. The floor, through every aisle, was drenched and the water was slowly pooling, and rain even poured from shelves of groceries as if by design from some exotic shopping experience in a really bad aquatic science fiction movie. Slowly, people started moving again, but with their heads seldom leaving the ceiling, in case something else happened.

I bought my cigarettes and got out of there.

I brought Rocio home in a nineteen hundred and seventy-eight Honda Civic CVCC, which, I swear, floated when it had to. Rivers were borne from side streets sloping toward the boulevard, cars were stalled everywhere, but I pressed on, determined to find just the right speed to get through the water without allowing it to enter the tail pipe nor come over the front of the engine and flood the distributor. Somehow, we made it back up the hill to Infonavit Latinos and slept while the rain continued throughout the night.

In the morning, we learned the devastation. The water in the reservoir behind the dam had suddenly and quickly crested over the top, and the Mexican engineers in charge had no choice but to open the floodgates. There was no warning given to the squatters that camped in that river, they were swept away along with trees, roads, dirt, mud, old tires, and everything else. The official death toll was released weeks later by the government, but it is still considered a joke. No one will ever know how many people died that evening, too many bodies will never be recovered.

A lot of people blamed the Mexican government because it was easy to do, but I knew better. For years, police and other officials had been trying to get the squatters out of the riverbed. That night, the rain came so hard and so fast, that the dam surely would have given way, and perhaps thousands of lives would have been lost. The only fault that I found with the government was in attempting to minimize the official number of casualties. It only made things worse.

* * * *

Tuesday, it was drying out. I left, later than I wanted to and too late to get some Cuban coffee, and went to the United States for twenty minutes and came right back. I walked into Centro at around noon, and ran into Jody on his way to somewhere, to meet with someone, but I did find Scott in the Nuevo Perico. I seem to miss him more and more these days between the times where we can drink more beer than we should at any one sitting. Scott plunked some quarters into the jukebox and Cuban jazz decorated the talk about the rains.

We drank a lot that afternoon.

In the evening we wound up at the Dandy del Sur and I found out that Scott isn’t making his yearly trek up to San Jose for the holidays, so he’ll be coming here instead. We’re trying to get Jody to come as well, but I have a feeling like every year, he has some young girl ready to cook him up some tamales or pozole and perhaps something else. Regardless, I came home Tuesday evening and told Anna that Scott is coming over for Christmas dinner.

"Do I know him?" Anna asked.

"Not unless you’ve taken to drinking at the Nuevo Perico," I teased.

She rolled her eyes and went upstairs.

* * * *

Rocio left at five-thirty on Wednesday morning and about two hours later it began to rain hard again. It rained even harder than Monday, and it didn’t let up, I lay in bed happy, at least, that Rocio missed it. I fell back to sleep and then awoke at nine and came downstairs and made coffee, and it was still raining like crazy. I knew that Anna didn’t go to school, and I heard her upstairs moments after I took the first sip out of the mug. I smiled.

After the great rains of nineteen hundred and ninety three, they built bridges over the river and cemented the entire distance from the Dam to where it enters the United States of America. Once on the other side of the border, the river empties into a flood plain, poorly designed and recklessly unimproved. Tijuana fixed things here enough to where what once happened will never happen again, except that there will still be flooding to some extent, people are no longer in danger of being swept away should the need arise to open the floodgates of the Rodriguez Dam.

At ten o’clock the telephone rang, it was Rocio.

"And Anna?" She asked.

"Upstairs, I imagine," I said.

"You have to check, it’s raining very hard," Rocio pressed me.

I put down the receiver and went upstairs. Anna had already called her school and classes were cancelled. She was in bed, covered, watching television, unaffected by anything. I went back downstairs and picked up the receiver.

"We do not have a stupid daughter," I told Rocio.

At four in the afternoon, the rain had finally stopped, and I had to go to the supermarket. I called Anna down and we took off to survey the damage. The street, and the sidewalk across from us, was littered with everything from brush to trash to tires, but the water had apparently drained nicely. We bought groceries and came back just in time to get rained on again, but before it started coming down hard we arrived home. Turning on the news, the only devastating pictures were coming from the United States of America.

Apparently, the portion of the Tijuana River that flows over the border, unimproved and poorly planned, claimed the lives of horses, goats, dogs, and cats. At least no people were lost over there. Still, after almost sixteen years, the irony is inescapable when the water begins to flow.


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