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, May 16, 2009

Social Network

"A private sin is not so prejudicial in this world, as a public indecency."

- Miguel de Cervantes

* * * *

The taxi, a comfortable van painted distinctively green and white to identify the route it would take, rolled slowly westward toward downtown. As has always been the case with taxis colectivo, people are picked up randomly along the route until the taxi is full, dropped off at the nearest safe point requested, and refilled and dropped off this way until the end of the route. Unlike metered taxis, the route cabs charge a flat rate. The twelve miles I would be traveling would cost me ten pesos, under a dollar. This is a very economical way to get around, and much faster than taking a bus.

I would enjoy this convenience much more was it not for the invention and popularity of the cellular telephone.

Change is inevitable, even in Tijuana. The vans are a recent development, replacing the hundreds of station wagon taxis taken out of service a few years ago because apparently they were an eyesore for the mayor in office at the time. Metered private taxis came into being a few years before; previously one obtained the services of a private taxi by haggling a deal with the driver beforehand. The convenience store chains where the majority of cell phone owners purchase their minutes are also recent in their volume and as unavoidable in Tijuana as fast food franchises from the other side of the big metal fence.

These differences have changed the way that Tijuana feels and has had some small impact, at least, on the culture. There are still small neighborhood markets everywhere, still small independently owned diners and restaurants, still sedans working as route cabs, and one can still haggle with the driver of a route cab to get a direct trip to somewhere. The cellular telephone, however, has had the most effect; it has sharply changed some aspects of the culture of Tijuana.

* * * *

Rocio's mother gets around. This I mean at face value and in not implying any significance other than that when someone calls my house looking for her because they can't find her at her own house, I remind them that the lady loves to wander her neighborhood. She is friends with everyone, Doña Mago, where Mago is short for Margarita, her given name; nicknames are much more common in Mexico than on the other side of the big metal fence. Her husband is a hard-working man named Elias, but the immediate family calls him El Borracho, meaning "the drunk", and in shorting it to Acho, it remains his nickname to this day.

Elias no longer drinks, but when he did, it was a spectacle – I've never seen anyone who could get so drunk and not pass out.

Mexicans are incredibly social - much more so than are Americans, and Mago is a part of an amazing social network; most Mexicans are a part of an amazing social network. Twenty years ago, it was rare that anyone had a telephone. Telephone ownership was expensive and waiting lists were clogged with people who had enough money and were lucky enough to live near a telephone line; these people were content to wait six months or more for installation. In those days, as now, Mago would go calling on friends throughout the day and they would gossip in hushed tones. Wonderful rumors were born from those whispers, passed on from person to person in the course of a week or a month.

One time Mago told me in Spanish, "Have you heard? The world is going to end next Thursday."

I laughed. I asked her where she got such a notion, and she informed me proudly that everyone was saying that it would happen. That was many hundreds of Thursdays ago. Obviously, there was no truth to that particular rumor. These rumors were passed on privately, person-to-person. To do so publicly and to be overheard would brand one as being scandalous.

One time, when my Spanish was getting good enough to have the ability to construct and speak an intelligible sentence, Elias took me down to a poorer section, within walking distance, and introduced me to some of his work-mates. This was an extraordinary honor for me, a gringo invited into the social network. The men do not gossip. They drink beer outside of the house, talking about work or sports, or else each other. I remember the wife of Elias' friend sweeping the dirt floor inside of their home – which amounted to nothing more than a shack with no apparent front door – and his two beautiful young daughters helping their mother. Poverty is only relative. They had each other. They had their social networks. They had chickens and eggs and made tortillas by hand.

There is no doubt in my mind that fifteen years later, those girls are now proud owners of cellular telephones, even if they still live in that same shack.

* * * *

From the back of the green and white taxi on my way downtown, I tried not to overhear when the cell phones rang. Everyone had one, from the obviously poor to the apparently affluent; except for myself, I find a cell phone to be an inconvenient leash. In line crossing the border, I was surrounded by one-sided conversations right up to the point where cell phones must be turned off. All of these conversations of one-sided scandal!

After crossing, which included an incident where the border security people took one young man out of line and interviewed him and then made him wear a surgical mask and sit quietly at a revision table, I quickly finished my business and re-entered Mexico. I decided to stop at the Nuevo Perico and have a beer or two and get in touch with my own social network, waiting for Scott or maybe Jody or someone else I knew to come along. Even in the bar, cell phones were going off regularly, the only time the conversation was taken outside was when the jukebox blared. Javier came in, and we watched the spectacle together.

"I don't have any use for one of those things," he said after another one went off.

"I couldn't agree more. It's like wearing a leash. An electronic leash where anyone can reach you at any time."

We drank and got caught up; my almost daily trips to downtown Tijuana are now reduced to once or twice a week. Javier and me talked about how culture is sometimes marginalized by technology. Then we discussed more important matters, like sports and the climate and his years in the army and the insanity of crossing the border. All of the while, cell phones went off irregularly but frequently. We bought each other a beer and then I got out of there and headed over to the Dandy del Sur for one last drink; cell signals don't seem to easily penetrate the walls in the Dandy.

I wasn't in there any more than ten minutes when Javier appeared.

"I thought you would be here," he said.

"No cell phones," I said, laughing.

I made my trip home uneventful. After getting some tacos at the corner to go, I flagged down a taxi with a meter and got in the back seat. The meter was broken. I told him where I wanted to go and we negotiated a price of one hundred pesos. The extra ninety pesos were certainly a value since I didn't have to listen to the one-sided conversations of other passengers. Except for taking the freeway, which didn't exist when I first came to Tijuana, everything was just like it was twenty years ago, which is okay by me.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Of Masks, Fences, And Efficient City Government

As if an imaginary barrier could stop one thing from going somewhere else, or even a real barrier like the big metal fence could stop anything and anyone, people here are wearing masks in order not to contract some mysterious virus. It somehow escapes the psyche of Tijuanenses that, regardless of the boundaries they encounter and still manage to get over, some things in life can't be stopped. Masks, fences, inhospitable terrain, reasonable precautions, it doesn't matter. Obviously, this is irony at its best.

Build a big giant fence and they'll get over, under, or through it; let a flu strain mutate, and surgical masks dominate the pedestrian population.

There are no cases of the current flu, the swine flu, reported in Tijuana. Apparently, this doesn't matter. Some people here have decided that surgical masks will somehow save them. I think that they would be better off covering their ears, because nothing spreads faster than panic. Relax my friends. We're going to be fine.

Thursday, I defied the Mexican government's suggestion that I remain at home and instead crossed the border. I sort of had to. I had an appointment to get my passport, I need one in a month or else the United States of America will not let me enter their country anymore. I tried to go to bed early on Wednesday evening, but my nocturnal habits betrayed me. Even tequila didn't help much. I crawled into bed after two in the morning. This is what happens.

Rocio woke me up at five-thirty as she left for work, but my body decided that I had more time. A ten-thirty appointment begged me for just another fifteen or twenty minutes. I was out of the house at about a quarter after seven, hung over, bleary-eyed and wishing that I had the night before to do all over again. I took a taxi libre to the border, ten dollars. It was crowded, I sipped on a coffee and it took forty-five minutes to cross.

My familiarity with San Diego is mostly specific. I was born there but not raised there, so I can only rely on where I've been. All of those years working in Chula Vista and I never really explored the East Side of the city. On the trolley I felt like a tourist. I got out at the Palomar Street station, as if programmed by five years of habit. I went to the first bus I saw. "How do I get to F Street and Fourth?"

"You want the seven-oh-one," the driver said.

I found the right bus climbed aboard and told the driver where I needed to go, generally, and he nodded. "City Hall, near the library," he said. I sat and grabbed a schedule. As we rolled on, I told him that I would have been better off riding the trolley to H Street and getting there backwards. He laughed. But time was on my side, I told him that it didn't matter either way.

When I had called last week to make this appointment, the lady on the other end of the line was extraordinarily helpful. My notes, however, written hastily on the back of an envelope that would have been otherwise discarded, were poor and not very handy when it came to where she told me that I would have to get a certified copy of my birth certificate. I went to Chula Vista City Hall, I figured I would start there. It was eight-forty in the morning. They were closed.

* * * *

Government in Baja, and in all of Mexico, is largely inefficient in many ways. People wait in line for hours for the most simple of transactions. Sometimes the United States of America is the same way. Visit the local department of motor vehicles and the proof is usually there. Or else, the social security office is a good place to experience the inefficiency of government. It isn't usually limited to one country or one state. It is everywhere.

I remember the first time I applied for a passport. It was complicated. It took many days, several hours for each transaction. I held that passport for nine years until it was stolen here in Mexico, not more than a couple of months before it was set to expire. I laughed when it happened. Not one time was I ever asked for that passport, neither in crossing the border nor in my dealings with Baja officials. I didn't need it, and I didn't care.

I remember reporting it at the border afterward. They shrugged. "It doesn't matter," they told me.

Back then, it didn't matter.

Seventeen years ago, when I crossed the border, I was asked my citizenship. When I told them that I was a citizen of the United States of America, they simply waved me through. There were no x-ray machines, no computers at the stations, and only occasionally I was asked for identification. Undocumented migrants passed freely through the traffic lanes, running in packs of one hundred or more; rarely was even a single one apprehended. The climate of border travel was completely different back then.

When I hear someone remark about or else read some statement concerning illegal border crossings being a current problem, I laugh and think about seventeen years ago. I remember when it was a problem, when the signs and flashing lights all over interstate five warned motorists to be cautious of people crossing the freeway. Back then, border officials were more concerned with the relative safety of both the motorist and the illegal immigrant than they were of actually capturing the illegal immigrant. Times change.

Governments change.

* * * *

Chula Vista City Hall was closed, but there was a maintenance worker there. "We open at ten," he told me.

"Forgive my ignorance, but I need to get a certified copy of my birth certificate," I told him. "Where would I do that?"

"Ah, then you need to go to the clerk's office. That's on Third and H Street."

I got there at ten minutes until nine o'clock. Seventeen dollars and fifteen minutes later, I had it, a certified copy of my certificate of live birth. I walked down Third Street, knowing that I would get there early, back to city hall. Some lady was pushing a cart as I passed her on the sidewalk. She was agitated.

"The police should just leave me alone," she said, imagining that someone was listening.

There were no police anywhere. I smiled. She was safe. It was nice to see that some of the people who seem to live in their own imaginary world were not confined to the streets of downtown Tijuana.

I arrived almost an hour early for my appointment. I filled out an application and the very wonderful lady - the same one who helped me on the phone a week earlier - she took my picture and very carefully checked my application. She then took my money orders, stamped everything, and even made me a photocopy of my birth certificate. She was wonderful.

By ten-thirty that morning, the time of my initial appointment to obtain my passport, I was already on the trolley headed south toward San Ysidro.

I had thanked every employee of the City of Chula Vista that helped me, I let them know that it was the most efficient local government I had ever run across. When I set up the appointment to apply for the passport, I was given every piece of information I needed, including exact amounts in order to get money orders. Getting my birth certificate was easy and fast, and applying for my passport was painless.

* * * *

At noon, Jody rolled in to the Nuevo Perico and I shared the details of my wonderful morning in the United States of America.

"How much did it cost you?"

"Over two hundred dollars, I had to get it expedited both ways so it will arrive in two-to-three weeks. And I also got the crossing card so I don't have to carry my passport around," I said.

Jody shook his head. "That's a lot of money."

"It's my own stupidity. I should have done it six months ago. But the speed and efficiency of the City of Chula Vista pretty much takes the sting away. Besides, all of the times that the United States government kept threatening to require passports to cross, only to extend the deadline. How am I supposed to know when to take them seriously?"

"I'll be having to renew mine in a couple of years," Jody said.

"Do it in Chula Vista," I recommended.

We parted ways, and I wandered up the street, people in surgical masks passing me, the race books closed, the schools shut down, only the bars and the pharmacies could be counted on to remain open in Tijuana. During the long cab ride home, I thought about how it was probably the first day in many years that the time I had spent in the United States of America was more pleasant than the remainder of the day in Mexico. I think it has to do with the fact that dealing with an efficient city government is a better experience than the fences and masks that awaited me back home.

At least, the bars weren't as crowded.