Monday, June 27, 2011

Day Two

"Okay, it looks like the first thing on the room service menu is lube" Holly commented. I looked at the Spanish menu. "Yeah, they list condoms too. And they really seem to highlight which channels are 'adult' as opposed to say, CNN, like a normal hotel" I answered. We swung open our garage door and walked up to OXXO for coffee. As we came back in, we noticed a pretty hot woman with a very small dress on, really high heels and a lot of makeup for ten o'clock in the morning. The ladies with the headsets that ran the place were shepherding her through a nondescript door. We went about our business.

"You are in a total hooker hotel!" my former exchange partner cried as we walked to a bar to watch the Mexico - U.S. game. "It's so cheap because people only stay four hours! Are there a lot of adult channels and a pretty good sound system?", "Well, yeah now that you mention it....", "They didn't give you a key because nobody needs a key! They do what they're going to do and then they leave! If a hotel is called a 'motel' in Mexico, that's what it's for. You should get out of there" he informed us. You learn something new everyday.

We raced over to the east side of town to my old neighborhood to climb the hill to Hector's house for dinner. I was running late and tore across town and up the potholed dirt hill, until the car slowed down, sputtered and stopped. Hmmm, gas really helps these things run. I was horrified. Late, and now out of gas. Rude asshole American. Hector and his friend jumped out of the car and inserted a tube in Hector's gas tank. His friend took a "bien bonito trago" of gas in his mouth and spit it out in an attempt to siphon gas into a jug for my car. The tube wasn't long enough. They stood in the dark on a dusty hill above Tijuana, rosaries gleaming on their necks while I backed my car down the hill and to the side of the potted dirt road and jumped in their car to go back to town for gas. Hector's friend played loud, American gangster rap as we bumped along the road. People burned garbage in the street in front of the mix of shanties and modest homes that make up Hector's make-shift neighborhood. Finally, we had the gas and climbed the hill again, using a modified plastic bottle as a spout to insert the gas in Holly's car. It wouldn't start. "La bomba," Hector's friend commented, "está vacia". He directed me to roll the car backwards down the hill until I was on flatter ground. It took a while. The car finally started. We roared up the hill and arrived at the dinner party, now two hours late, while Roberto and his wife and Josefina and my sister, who does not speak Spanish, patiently waited. Rude asshole American. I was mortified.

We talked until late in the night. I was tired, and my Spanish powers of comprehension started to fail me the later it got, as wild barrages of words flew out of my friends' mouths. It had been a long day. A trip to Playas, game watching in Zona Río, a race back to east Tijuana and a long dinner party. We headed back to our hooker hotel. The place was hopping. Cars pulled in and out and the headset ladies scurried from room to room, many pushing cleaning carts in order to ready the rooms for the next four hours. We pulled in. "We're in 110" I told the woman with the headset. "Your room has been turned over," she informed us, with a smile, "you have to pay". "No," I answered "we paid this morning". "On the weekends the rate is only for five hours," she informed me "do you want to take your room for five more?". "No," I answered, "just tell me how we can get our stuff". We quickly cleared out and drove toward the centro. It was late, pushing two in the morning. We wheeled into a high end hotel, one with a front desk, keys and wifi in the rooms. No lube, no adult channels.

We paid the insanely exorbitant rate and slept as if in a tomb.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


It was late. It felt oddly surreal and strangely good to be driving the streets of Tijuana again. Familiar. As if this past year didn't wipe the whole experience away, snatch it from my grasping fingertips. I was back.

I'm not so good at planning. I've frankly gotten really bad about it when it comes to traveling and just figure everything will be fine as long as I have my passport and multiple means of accessing money. We drove past the university where the graduation would be held, hoping to find a place to stay nearby. It was the same dusty university I had visited long ago as a guest with the other English teachers from my TJ school. There is nowhere to stay out there.

I drove through my old neighborhood, avoiding the few hooker-ish hotels that exist over there. Alec's words came into my mind...."There's this place, the blue and white used to pass by there, you know, after it goes down that huge hill toward Otay. It's like a fortress, it has walls around it, Holly's car would be safe there. I think it's for some kind of Japanese CEOs that come to visit the maquiladoras". Well I was hard up, and I followed his directions to the walled place that actually looked freakishly nice, for only 300 pesos? I pulled in. A guard rail stopped incoming cars. Wow, security, nice! Oddly, a woman sat in a glass box and rolled out a drawer, like in gas stations in bad parts of town. It seemed out of place in the beautifully manicured hotel. "Do you have room for two people.....," I asked in Spanish "is this a hotel?" I continued, while eyeballing the garages under each room. Maybe they were condos? "You can speak in English" the woman responded curtly. "We have room. Three hundred pesos". I put the money in the drawer. She stared back at me. "Do we get a key?" I asked. "It's open" she responded.

We drove past the dark condo-room things, were we the only people staying there? One garage door was open and we drove in, closing it behind us. We went upstairs. The room was huge and decorated in a modern, yet kind of Stanley Kubrick style. The bathroom looked expensive and crazy modern, something you would see in some expensive hotel in the centro. A little door in the wall opened so that food and expensive bottles of liquor, wine and champagne could be inserted through the wall in your room without having to let a room service person in. It had a flat screen TV, air conditioning, cable and a giant king sized bed. In short, it was awesome. But in Otay? Why in Otay? In the middle of the factories? This place really didn't look like a business hotel and the one thing it lacked was a decent wifi connection. Something odd and kind of hooker-ish was afoot, but oh well.

We left early the next morning after paying for another night and closing our garage door behind us, racing to the ceremony that began at 7:30AM. I was tired. I slightly questioned the wisdom of voluntarily attending what could be five hours of graduation ceremonies. As I drove through the parking lot, I saw my old students walking with their caps and gowns. A sense of deja vu washed over me. Thankfully, they were late too. I immediately saw Hector and felt completely at ease. We rushed into the auditorium and stood in the back, as familiar and surprised faces of my former fellow teachers passed and greeted me with hugs and kisses.

Suddenly, the vice principal was at my side, grabbing my arm and ushering me to the front. Oh, no, oh no. My sister was abandoned to Hector's care and I did not know what was in store for me. Please don't make me speak to the crowd, please don't make me speak to the crowd. As I moved to the front, I again felt a sense of deja vu, remembering the many times I was ushered to the front of assemblies and events, a trophy for my school. I was being swept up again, as if I had never left. It felt so familiar, and embarrassing all over again. I was seated in the front row and the superintendent and my former principal began assailing me and the crowd with praise, praise for my year in Tijuana, gratefulness for my return and declarations of mutual love between me and my former students. When my kids spontaneously rose and cheered emphatically, smiling and waving at me, I suddenly realized I was going to cry. It has been a long year, and I forgot how good it felt to be appreciated, for whatever reason.

I stayed for all of the ceremonies. My face hurt from smiling so hard. I had lipstick smeared on my face from hugging and kissing so many people...Hector, Roberto, my exchange partner, Josefina...all the familiar faces from that year that went so fast. The second ceremony of the day was for the formerly dreaded Electronics students, my bobcats, the kids that gave me a run for my money when I arrived in TJ and grew to be some of my favorite students. I was horrified when I was ushered up on the stage next to the principal, superintendent, valedictorian....the police chief. This was not supposed to be my day, it was a day to recognize the kids. As the students filed up to receive their diplomas, shaking each hand at the table, I was eternally grateful for my placement. It was just so good to see their faces, to be able to congratulate them individually, to grasp their hands, one by one, to not skip a single person.

As the third ceremony began, I watched a dad walk slowly into the room, carrying a congratulatory plaque that many parents were giving their children. He wore Dickies pants and a baseball hat, his skin dark from the sun. He glanced furtively around the room and went outside, only to return with a balloon to accompany his plaque. He sat down for a minute, looking at the flowers the woman beside him carried. He went back outside, returning with a bouquet of red roses. I was again introduced to the crowd an met with surprised cheers from my kids who again jumped to their feet. After the ceremony, I chatted and snapped pictures with the kids. I realized this was the true end to my Tijuana teaching experience. It was the last time the students would all be in one place at one time. I would not be at another graduation ceremony, I wouldn't even know the students. Mine were leaving, finishing and embarking on the next stage in their lives. What I thought was the end last year really wasn't, this was.

The man in the Dickies pants wandered around, flowers, plaque and balloon in hand. Finally, his daughter spotted him. She burst into tears. He smiled and quickly whisked away a tear of his own.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Go West

I woke up bright and early and loaded my stuff into the car. My trusty ’97 Mazda was maintenanced and ready for its triumphant return to Tijuana. I picked up my sister and drove toward the highway.

Two hours later, we were sitting in a transmission shop in Alabama. “Anywhere from $500 to $1900?” I heard myself reiterating to the mechanic. “The parts won’t be in until Monday…..?” It was Friday afternoon. I got drunk while waiting for someone to pick us up and stared dismally out of the window as we road back to Atlanta.

Saturday morning, I was awake again, put the same clothes on that I had worn the day before and pretended like it was Friday. I got in my sister’s car and we headed west.

A day and a half later, we started seeing Border Patrol check points as we headed west, then south, south south. We entered Brownsville. Agents had a man surrounded on the side of the road, his trunk open. Strange, shanty like houses lined the border. “Does someone live in there……?” I asked and stopped, as I saw a man walking out of a pieced together home. The border wall cut through their backyards. A dusty expanse on the other side was Mexico, mi querido México.

We drove west. The border wall stayed on our left as we passed through vacant, blighted towns. Shanties were mixed indiscriminately with larger homes, some that looked older, oddly historic and strangely reminiscent of homes I had seen in Chihuahua, Chihuahua city, on the other side….something that continued but had been interrupted by a large rusty wall.

We stopped in Eagle Pass for the night. We passed through the empty downtown that would be charming if someone, anyone, actually opened something up in the empty storefronts. We drove by the river, or what we could see of it through the border wall. Suddenly, there was a space, a huge space; a large gate that was part of the border wall was wide open. We stared through. Across the narrow expanse of Río Grande, Mexico sat. Kids swam in the river with a couple of adults. It was tranquil and strangely homey and lovely in the late afternoon sun. And then the Border Patrol pulled up, tearing down the dirt road and stopping, staring at the Mexican side. The kids got out of the water. We left too.

As we careened through El Paso a day and multiple border patrol check points later, I saw the signs pointing to Mexico, to Juárez, and suddenly realized I was in the line TO Juárez and no one was letting me out and I shoved my way into traffic and out of the line, determined, bound and determined, not to go there.

We drove by the wall separating El Paso from Juárez. Was it caging Mexico out, or caging it in? Tidy houses mixed with shanties lined the dusty Mexican side. Some roads were paved, some were not. Water ran through the street. White people played golf on the American side. A massive crowd of people waited in line over a long bridge that went over the highway, a line that extended from the gate to the United States and into Mexico for as far as the eye could see.

We drove west, through the desert of New Mexico flanked by Border Patrol trucks and on to Arizona. We stood, gazing through the border wall on a dusty road west of Douglas in a desert so familiar to both of us, when a racing truck with a plum of dust behind it tore up. I snapped a picture of it, then continued doing what I was already doing, basically looking around. For once, I actually wasn’t doing anything wrong. “Hey… ,“ the Border Patrol agent said tentatively through his open window, “…um, just uh, taking some pictures? We have cameras. Someone called us in on you.”

We headed toward Nogales. Wildfires got in our way and clouded the air above the desert, reminding me of a summer long ago when a helicopter picked a sick man up and flew him into the sky while the fire glowed like lava from the hills. Nogales looked different in the daytime, much different than the nervous couple of evenings I spent there one time, one strange time while fireworks exploded in the sky and things scurried in the night. The border wall cut straight through the town, dusty houses butted up against it on the American side and brightly painted houses squeezed against the Mexican side.

As we passed through the Imperial dunes, my Arizona memories were replaced by California ones. I remembered the moonlit night I had spent a year ago, driving through the glowing dunes after finishing my last day of school in Tijuana, crying and singing in a strange delirium of emotions and separation. We came to Holtville and stood in the odd part of the cemetery, way in the back, where only “John Doe” bricks mark the graves. Signs warned of stepping on the ground, that it would cave in. By the graves. People say the bodies, the migrants, are not buried in caskets in their pauper graves. Flies swarmed and one bit me hard on the face, leaving it itching for days. A migrant-friendly group had put crosses up, wooden crosses, each painted carefully with “No olvidado” across the front. They were inserted by the bricks.

We looped around the familiar country roads heading south. Finally, we came over a hill and Mexico exposed itself before us, a sea of twinkling lights in all directions. After days of avoiding the lanes that point straight toward Mexico, I drove straight in.

Oh, Mexico. How I’ve missed you.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Holiday by the Seashore

"There is a point when redneck turns to savage" the silver haired gentleman stated in a genteel, southern drawl, referring to the party that had just left. The bar was dark, though the late afternoon sun blared outdoors. I liked the seediness of it, the sunny beach sitting right outside of the salty, dark little bar. It was filled with old people. Locals. A bike ride gone bad.

"So why doesn't the Obamas visit the Greece? He goes to Polonia! In Greece, we broke!" the older, well, Greek lady ranted as she handed us our food in the cinder block hut next to the highway, which strangely, has really awesome Greek food. In Atlanta, which is not exactly known for Mediterranean delights. I stared at the ripped out, calendar photos of Greece that lined the walls of the waiting area. Mykonos and the rest of the isles seemed completely out of context in the rather dingy, warehouse area where the low rise building sat and had been sitting for as long as I can remember. I stared at her wide eyed, afraid to speak. Not because she scared me, but because I was scaring myself. A new medication I had just starting taking was leaving me in a scared fog, a fog so freaky that I had called my sister and asked her to babysit me, to come get me, come get me now. The second day wasn't so bad, but I was still nervous, so she let me stay by her side again, all day. And eat take out Greek food.

We have been going to the Georgia coast since I was a kid. I loved it at first and then went through a stage where I didn't find it so awesome. I wanted the big, sandy, vegetation free beaches that I had seen pictures of, flanked by neon blue water. Or at least dark blue, Pacific style water. Pretty water that you could see your feet in. Not the strange dunes filled with long brown and green grass, separated by sand from the gray waters of the Atlantic. I've come full circle and love it again. The drive through the marshes to the beach, the vegetation on the dunes, the gray water, the odd, unpopularity of the beach, mainly because it is not Florida, St. Simons or Hilton Head. I find it beautiful and sleepy in a fully southern way. I wasn't sure if I would ever really need to leave the house after viewing our rented, 1920's beach house, but managed to run down the splintery, wooden path to the sea at least once a day. It made me think of the really early days on Great Lakes in Michigan, at the old beach cottages we went to in the days before the big move to the South. I loved the lakes but have never returned. I spent the week riding my bike and jogging, while looking at the pretty old cottages that gave some kind of folks from Atlanta or Savannah a seaside getaway one hundred years ago.

So, it's on. A few days until the adventurous ride to T.J., adventures in Mexico and San Diego and Arizona. You can't see me, but I am crossing myself, Catholic style. I didn't learn it as a kid when I sat in a room with a priest rattling off the sins of a nine year old, or the day I walked down the aisle of a big church wearing a white dress and carrying a tremendous carafe of red wine. I learned it in Mexico, before my many rides wheeled out on the Tijuana roads to take me home from work, crossing their shoulders and heart and kissing their fingers, then putting the car in drive.

It really doesn't seem to hurt.