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.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Rapid And Sudden Collapse

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

~ "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams

* * * *

People come and go like clearance sales and lottery tickets, much as all events that are sometimes ordinary but fill some empty spaces for memory in our thick and stubborn skulls. We are certainly here temporarily, and while the important components of life serve as donkeys that we use to haul around such memories, it is these donkeys that we most neglect to address. All of the times I’ve crossed the border into the United States of America, many of which were quite eventful, will only serve mostly as wasted moments and dubious opportunities at storytelling - of occasionally angry tales involving inhumane treatment of tourists and expatriates, and several inadequate and poorly trained gatekeepers. I have crossed that border thousands of times along with thousands of other people who likely have their own bad memories.

The border is the donkey and my many crossings are packed onto it, its legs buckling under the weight, and it stands obstinate and unfriendly in its burden.

Richard Millhouse Nixon opened the current National Border facilities at San Ysidro, California, by deciding to have every vehicle entering the United States of America thoroughly searched for a period of twenty-four hours. President Nixon was somehow convinced that people were smuggling contraband into the United States of America about as easy as rivers carry water. They didn’t find anything of note back then, which only proved that Nixon was a few decades too early. Many people have bad timing; this is not a trait limited to those who hold office.

Timing was not an issue with me on Monday, nor did I have anything with which to burden the beast. For the first time in many, many years, I timed it perfectly - a border crossing in which I had absolutely no wait. I walked up to the gatekeeper and actually had to fish identification out of my pocket at her counter, when usually I have a good long time to have everything ready to present by the time I get up there. I wanted to do a dance except that it was ten o’clock in the morning and I had a tequila hangover, two circumstances that discourage spontaneous celebration of any kind.

* * * *

It wasn’t but a week ago that I awoke to the radio and to a voice that informed listeners that the Joint Forces Command of United States of America placed Mexico at risk of rapid and sudden collapse, on equal footing with Pakistan. After I stopped laughing, I began to wonder then, if they are so incorrect about Mexico, how accurate could they possibly be about Pakistan? The voice on the radio said the worry about Mexico was from fears that violence by the cartels and how this was something that the Mexican government was having a difficult time controlling. I shrugged and got dressed and came downstairs to make some coffee and read.

Apparently, the United States of America has its own issues controlling violence up there, according to the news reports I read every day.

Then I read about the four hundred million dollars in aid that the United States of America is gifting Mexico, in order to fight the war on drugs. This aid is not being given in the form cash money, but in equipment. The United States of America also estimates that the value of the drugs that are smuggled into their country each year from Mexico are valued at somewhere between ten and twenty billion dollars. I didn’t need to break out a calculator in order to realize that someone up there failed mathematics.

* * * *

I did my business over there quickly and efficiently and made my way back over to this side of the big metal fence. I looked for any sign of impending rapid and sudden collapse and I found nothing out of the ordinary. The tourists are still mostly missing, the Mexicans in Centro still do what they can do to survive in spite of it, and everyone else here seems quite fine. I met up with Scott and we had a few beers and I asked him what he thought of the possibility of a rapid and sudden collapse here. Scott laughed.

"I wouldn’t know," he said. "Everything looks normal to me."

I bought some tacos and took them home, watching out the window of the taxi, looking for signs of civil unrest. People here were just being people. I walked in the door and Anna was watching television. My tacos tasted every bit as wonderful as they always have. From my office, I could even hear my neighbor Ted over the hum of my radio, in his backyard and tinkering with metallic objects getting ready to fire up the grinder. Everything was just fine.

I hope that everything is just fine in Pakistan, too.

Approaching the border with the United States of America.

Pedestrians keep to a narrow walkway.  Usually, one is lucky if the line starts here.

Approaching the entrance.

The old customs building is now used administratively.

In the U.S., the San Ysidro Trolley Station.

The big metal fence.

Re-entering Mexico.

The first large plaza that tourists walk into in Tijuana.

The Tijuana River.

A motel on Calle Madero.  Pink with yellow and blue trim?  Sure.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bringing Home The Bacon

I told Anna to grab a jacket - unsure of what was going on outside, the suddenly unpredictable climate here produced rain yesterday along with some sunshine. I needed to go to the supermarket, and Anna is great insurance in cases like forgetting something important the moment after I walk out of the store – if I am alone, I have to make two trips, but with Anna, I can send her in while I wait.

"Do we have to take the cart?" Anna asked, obviously hoping for a quick trip

"We’re taking the cart."

How embarrassing for her! To be seen with her father toting along one of those carts that the old ladies use to carry their goods home must be a traumatic event for a teenager. To keep Anna’s mind off of it, I handed her my camera, and told her to shoot whatever she wanted to.

"Except for me pulling the cart," I added. "That’s off-limits."

The other thing I reminded her was that taking pictures inside of a business in Mexico is technically not legal unless you first get permission. If I had been the one with the camera there would have been trouble, or at least they would have wanted money for the privilege of photographing their shiny offerings. A fifteen-year old native, however, innocently practicing her hobby, would either be overlooked or else warned to stop.

Off to the market we went.

Calimax Fiesta. Calimax is a large chain of grocery stores in Mexico. At one time they nicknamed each store, and one could actually navigate Tijuana using the different stores as road markers.

* * * *

Even fifteen years ago, many supermarkets here were not well stocked nor regularly maintained. My initial perceptions, tainted by the clean markets with an abundance of inventory in the United States of America, were not based so much from what I was experiencing but more from what I had experienced. I saw the stores as dirty and inadequate. And they were, except that Tijuana has changed a lot in seventeen years. But back then there was no way to quickly build more supermarkets.

I love these chiles. From left to right, serrano, güerito, jalapeño, california, pasillo, and morón (or bell).

Chile California, also known as Green Chile, is always sold fresh here, it is difficult to find it canned.

Imagine San Diego with no more than perhaps thirty supermarkets. Most of these supermarkets would become so overcrowded with customers that no matter how much labor it took in order to maintain the stores, it would quickly turn into a somewhat hopeless endeavor. And supermarkets operate on the principle of selling in large volume in order to lower their profit margin and be competitive, which precludes spending money unless it’s necessary. The solution, or at least the best solution, would be to build more stores.

Fresh strawberries. In January.

Cilantro, radishes, and green onions belong together, they are all garnishes for tacos here.

Tijuana was in a constant state of flux twenty years ago, acting as a leaky portal into the relatively stable economy on the other side of the big metal fence. The population grew at a rate where Tijuana’s infrastructure, already inadequate for the population that existed even twenty years prior, became so heavily burdened that every large storm was a disaster and systems designed to provide the population with basic necessities failed regularly. Mexico’s economy, for a wide variety of reasons – including an often-corrupt government and a lack of sound regulation in banking and finance – was in a constant state of crisis.

Building new stores was not an option for most of the supermarket chains. Who would finance them?

The scales weigh in kilos and the prices are in pesos. Other than that, and some of the produce and fruit sold, it isn’t all that different than anywhere else.

* * * *

There will always be differences in supermarkets when comparing Mexico to anywhere else, most of which are cultural. Anna was born and raised in Tijuana, and while she’s seen supermarkets in the United States of America, she has not experienced the changes that I have in presentation concerning the stores here. I didn’t pay much attention to what she was up to, but I did catch her taking pictures of the dairy section.

"Why are you shooting that?"

"Look at all of this milk!" she said.

"Honey, most places have milk."

"Yes, but dad, look at all the milk!"

I shut up after that and concentrated on shopping. Anna, when not shooting pictures or poking fun at some of my purchases or not advising me on the brand of toilet paper that mom prefers, took every opportunity to use any mirror that she ran across in order to assure that her hair was still perfect. I never realized what a priority this is for a teenaged girl until recently. I always thought that the supermarkets used mirrors in order to promote the perception of inventory depth, obviously a mistake on my part.

Produce. I sent Anna to get me a head of lettuce. I guess she wanted a souvenir.


There are items, and large sections of all supermarkets in Mexico that I find endearing. While the markets have begun to prepackage many meat and poultry products, the butcher counters here can’t be beat. And cheeses, I have never seen so much fresh cheese before, the variety is amazing. Twenty years ago, I never imagined that there was such a thing as a style of chorizo, but there are so many styles I couldn’t even begin to explain it all in a sentence or two. These are the most profound differences compared to the supermarkets that I grew up with.

The locals love their eggs, which are relatively inexpensive here.

Mexico’s supermarkets offer a vast selection of sugary goo. Don’t even begin to ask me, I have no idea what the attraction is.

* * * *

The supermarkets in Tijuana began to change during the approach to the twenty-first century, whether by coincidence or by the effects from several changes that occurred at the time. The big metal fence, once porous and relatively easy to traverse, became increasingly difficult to get through, around, or under, and Tijuana’s permanent population began to cement itself, and less migrants arrived for what once was simply a pit stop. Concurrently, the economy in Mexico began to stabilize, in large part due to the diligence and patience of the Zedillo administration. Banks and other financial institutions were scrutinized, and regulated, and financing became an option once again.

More types of picante and chile sauce exist than I ever imagined. Appropriately, lime presses hang nearby, because chile and lime go into everything here. Soup, shrimp, potato chips, and whatever.

Many supermarkets here have their own bakery inside. The breads are outstanding, although the locals seem to prefer pastries from the smaller bakeries.

It didn’t take but a few years into the twenty-first century before supermarkets started popping up everywhere in Tijuana. Most are now clean, well stocked, and not so impossibly crowded as they once were. Notable exceptions still exist in the more urban areas, where building more stores is not so much an option due to unavailability of land. While the peso is fluctuating and the World economy is volatile and affecting Mexico as much as anyone, so long as this squall can be ridden out, Tijuana’s supermarkets every bit as wonderful and often times better than anywhere I have ever shopped.

As much as these people love their beans, you would think that I could find a kidney bean somewhere in all of this. Not a chance.

And this is just some of the packaged cheeses. There is more in the other side of the case, and a long counter that sells fresh cheeses.

* * * *

The last stop in the supermarket was the tequila section, where a young lady kept trying to assist me with my selection. This was nice of her, even if it is her job. Both me and Anna kept attempting to politely hint to her that I was fine left alone to browse the massive inventory and choose my own poison, but it wasn’t until I put a bottle in my cart that she stopped trying to be helpful. We found a short line - any other Saturday in the afternoon in that same supermarket around the time that Anna was born and we would have been in line for checkout for at least on hour. These days, it is the easiest thing about grocery shopping here.

This is my counter is my nemesis. Here is where you purchase Chorizo, bacon, lunchmeat, and so on. The last time I was here, there were thirteen people behind the counter, I stood there for five minutes looking at them, until finally someone asked me if I wanted anything. I was then asked five times if I wanted some hamon de pavo (ham-flavored processed turkey). Just bacon (unpackaged, you can buy it in whatever quantity you need) and chorizo, thank you.

Check-out. Young boys and girls bag your groceries for a small tip.

Anna and me rolled our goods over to a counter near the exit where, upon entry, people are encouraged to check for storage anything that they happen to be bringing into the store. We were there for the cart, the embarrassing thing that I use when I don’t wish to carry forty pounds of groceries for a few blocks. We had to wait for an older man who came in to do some shopping, he was having the young lady behind the counter stash what he had brought in with him. Two stacks of aluminum cans, three very long and sharp and heavy steel rods (try bringing that into a supermarket in your country), and a minute later, we got our cart.

It’s nice to know that some things here will never change, no matter what the economy brings.

(Photos courtesy Anna M. L. de Dodd)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Nearly Tourists

Because these things happen, it was no longer ninety degrees yesterday, as it had been here for over a week. After the forty-degree days of a few weeks ago, I have no idea whether to bring a jacket or wear a tank top. The weather, the stock market, and the money exchange rate are fluctuating madly, in spite of the new guy in charge of things on the other side of the big metal fence. Rocio’s parents stopped by yesterday morning, they have never been over there and they don’t much care to go, but they are curious sometimes about the politics.

"So, this new guy is going to stop the war over there?" they asked, or at least they were waiting to hear what I had to say about it. My son - their grandson, is over in Iraq at the moment on his second tour. They think that he is stationed in Germany. Rocio says that it’s better this way.

"Apparently," I said, "but Obama’s about to learn a lot of information that none of us will probably ever know. I have no idea what will happen next."

The distressing news to me was that our local fruiteria seems to be closed now. I shouldn’t be so surprised, as their inventory had been shrinking for quite some time. It was convenient, and the fruit and vegetables were mostly really good, better than in the supermarket. And they had the best pork chorizo in town.

The fruiteria, days before it closed. Not much there, but what they had was excellent.

I grabbed a coat and headed out to the boulevard to get a cab. The sky wasn’t sure what it wanted to do, there was sun and there was overcast and it even sprinkled a little bit all of the way to Centro. I crammed myself into a collectivo with eight other people and we took off, toward Downtown Tijuana, where we could become nearly tourists.

View from the alley out into the boulevard. Different color cabs identify different routes.

Near the Racetrack, a lot of surprisingly tall buildings.

One of the only remaining relics from the casino, this chimney was used to burn trash.

Finally in Centro, a view looking north at the dwellings that cling to the hill on the other side of the Tijuana River.

* * * *

The Nuevo Perico was again almost empty on Monday, and so there we were, the unusual suspects, gathered around on one end of the bar along with some not too unusual suspects. Scott and me stayed for a good long time, swapping stories and so on, others came and went, only to show up later somewhere else. Run an errand, have a beer, run another errand, have another beer, many locals spend a day this way.

Thankfully, I always seem to miss karaoke day.

The Nuevo Perico, from the back facing toward the front door.

Two lovely young local girls enjoy a beer during a break from work.

That is a genuine regulation NFL football. Honest.

Mexico is different. The local government invents some new rules, many of which make no sense. One of the rules that came up a few years ago was that unless you served food at your establishment, they would shut you down, pull your liquor license, and fine you. Mexican bar owners found ways to comply, serving botanas, or hors d'oeuvres, from makeshift kitchens in order to comply with the new rules. Obviously, there was money involved, too, for the food license. Taxation is an impossible ongoing battle for government here, but they find ways to obtain revenue as potential taxpaying enterprises look for ways to pay as little as they can. It works somehow, for both parties.

Scott reads a Tijuana newspaper while Javier looks at television.

Joe and his family own the Perico. Joe served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Jody arrives and immediately begins to charm the girls.

Me and Jody, arguing. This argument was over his insisting that Jewel was the lead singer for The Cranberries. Other arguments are even more stupid.

Javier left, then Jody left angry and still believing that somehow, Dolores O’Riordan is secretly moonlighting as Jewel, and so Scott and me headed down the street and went to another bar, called Tropics. Tropics is about as close to a dive as a bar can get. Very little in there has changed in twenty years, the beer is cheap, the clientele is often, well, sleeping off last night’s drunk, but it is sometimes open all night. It is sometimes deserted in the afternoon.

Tropics from the front, very long and narrow.

From the back, a good view of the long and oddly shaped bar.

The cantinera drinking yogurt or something.

No idea. A dance move, perhaps?

The rules for operating a bar in Baja are simple. Well, maybe not so simple. The law states that bars may open no earlier than ten in the morning (liquor may not be purchased before that time in a store as well), and may not be sold after two o’clock in the morning. I presume this gives people eight hours to sober up here, unlike Americans who only need four. But there are exceptions. For every hour that a bar stays open after two, a fee must be paid. Obviously, the longer that the bar remains open, the more it costs the bar.

Every so often, sometimes as the government changes guard, the system is scrapped, and a new system is put into place and the fees go up. Suddenly, no one is open past two anymore. The local government, noting the loss in revenue, then negotiates the price down to the level at which some bars are willing to pay. This happens frequently, and makes for some unpredictable moments for those who enjoy drinking all night.

After a beer, I went across the street to the Dandy del Sur while Scott went to grab a few tacos and promised to join me later.

* * * *

The taquero rolls his cart down Calle Sexta getting ready to open up shop. It must be almost six in the evening.

The Dandy, a Tijuana icon.

This guy was sitting where Charlie used to always sit. He’s Italian, and quite a character, he’s been kicked out of the Dandy more times than I can remember. Apparently, he’s a wonderful accountant here, unhindered much by the Italian accent in his Spanish. The locals call him, "Pechetas", which is how he pronounces, "pesetas", which is loose slang for coins, because he is always changing paper money for coins to put into the jukebox where he will play the same song four times in a row. He gets hooked on a song, and plays it over and over again. For a good while, he was also awarded the nickname, "Mr. New York". Apparently, Sinatra has more global appeal than once realized.

No bar can possibly use that many brandy glasses. They are cleaned twice per week anyway, just in case.

A while back, suddenly, smoking was banned in bars in Tijuana. Apparently. Or not. The "No-Smoking" signs are still there, along with the ashtrays and matches. Obviously, money is involved somehow, that perhaps there is a permit to buy. Welcome to Baja.

Javier showed up again right after Pechetas left, and we waited for Scott, drinking beer and I ordered a scotch for desert. Imported booze is expensive, and the government actually sends people around to make sure that the bars in Tijuana aren’t buying cheaper in the United States of America instead of purchasing the stuff in Mexico, which is marked with some official government symbol. Obviously, the way to get around this is to refill the empty bottles with the illegal hooch. Some do, only to buy a new bottle in Mexico whenever the date-stamp makes it necessary.

None of us stuck around there long, all of that drinking can be exhausting, and I need some time for my right wrist to heal a bit. I got some tacos to go and caught a cab home. Like a pitcher, I keep my arm on ice until my next start, next week, when I’ll have another chance to show the tourists how it’s done.

The Dandy is quite popular, especially around midnight, but even at eight in the evening.

Scott is amused by something.

I could write a novel about these two. He’s an American who owns businesses here, she’s his reason for not finding something more profitable.

Sandra, the beautiful and wonderfully smart-ass cantinera in the Dandy, assuming you speak Spanish and appreciate phrases containing a lot of sexual double entendre.

If you see this guy down there, avoid him at all costs! He’s not the tourist that he appears to be.