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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (9/16/12) 11:54pm - ... wherein Peter recaps the trip south of the border, down Mexico way.

So the Mexico trip started unpleasantly.  I stuck around at the last dance of DCBX only for an hour or so -- nobody wanted to dance with me all that much -- before I went back to the hotel for a two-hour nap, and then headed off to the airport.

I had a four-leg trip from Norfolk to Yuma.  This wound up happening because (1) I bought my original Austin-to-Norfolk round-trip with frequent-flier miles, and (2) I then changed the return leg from Austin to Yuma, Arizona.  In order to make that change, and make that change so close to the travel date, and keep the trip on legs that were eligible for frequent-flier-miles purchasing, they had to send me all over the damn place.

So I flew from Norfolk to DC, from DC to Houston, from Houston to Phoenix, and from Phoenix to Yuma.  This was on United Airlines.  United has a codeshare with US Airways.  My flights ended up alternating -- United to USAir and back again.  And in DC and Houston, this meant I had to go from one terminal to the other, which meant that I had to exit and re-enter security (and get backscatter-scanned) every time.

I lost stuff on the way.  Right off the bat, the Norfolk TSA agents looked askance at my little tub of shaving soap.  It's basically like a bar of soap that you apply water to with a brush to generate lather.  They said I couldn't take it on the plane.  I should've raised a stink, since it's not a gel, not a liquid, and not anything you can blow up a plane with, but it was the wee hours of the morning, I was exhausted, and I tend to default to diffidence to authority under even the best circumstances.

Then I left my $20 eyeshades on the Houston-to-Phoenix leg.  I've filled out a lost-item form with United, but I'm sure I'll never see that again.

So I wasn't in the best mood when I arrived at Yuma International Airport.  It's a rinky little thing, five gates or so plunked down by a small city, desert and mountains clearly visible beyond it in every direction.  We deplaned, got directed across the tarmac, and wandered around lost for a bit 'til I flagged down an employee who could tell us where our luggage was going to show up.

That finished up.  I got my luggage.  I had too much luggage for a brief trip to Mexico.  I had my usual backpack, and also a larger backpack -- the maximum size allowed for carry-on -- and both of them were filled to capacity.  This is because Mexico was the third leg of my trip -- I'd gone to Houston to perform in the Houston Fringe Festival, and then I'd gone on to Virginia Beach to dance at DCBX.  So a good chunk of the big suitcase was just dirty laundry.

I found a sign for ground transportation, and headed there, and walked out into a dry, hot afternoon.  I saw a couple of middle-aged men chatting next to their taxis, ignoring this latest batch of Phoenix arrivals.  I finally wandered up to them: "Is this the place to wait for taxis?"  They noticed us all of a sudden, broke off their conversation, and the larger middle-aged man motioned me to his vehicle and asked me where I wanted to go.

This was Rick, of "Big Rick's Taxi".  Imagine George R. R. Martin with a shorter beard.  I threw my bags in the back and sat in the front passenger seat, which was evidently the custom in Yuma.  We drove out of the little town and into the desert.  We chatted as he drove; the conversation was mostly me asking him about Yuma.  It's crazy-hot there -- the record is somewhere in the high 120s.  They had just had a monsoon come through, though, so things were okay for now, just 100-ish or so.  He talked about how he'd wound up tagging along with a family he'd driven to a San Luis resort for the length of their stay.  He gave advice for Mexico: don't drink the water, as it'd cause digestive trouble; don't eat anything out of a pushcart, as it might be roadkill; etc.

Soon I got to the border crossing.

I gathered up my bags.  I threw the big backpack on my back; I wore the smaller one in front, like some sort of pregnancy pouch.  And so I doddered up to the border station, 6'1", pallid as a cavefish, and looking as much like a doofussy tourist as humanly possible.

I didn't see the crossing for pedestrians, so I wandered into the road entry.  "Whoa!  Whoa!" shouted a border cop.  And soon I was standing in a traffic island, handing over my passport, and explaining that I was there for four days, to get some dental work done.  The pale, heavyset border guard made a cursory examination of my bags, told me to stay put, and took my passport into his office.  So I stood there.  Across from me stood a narcotics officer -- moustache, sunglasses, flat affect -- with a drug-sniffing dog.  The dog was at least part German Shepherd -- thus, in my eyes, it was one of the most adorably cute creatures in the whole world.

"Nice dog," I said.

"He really isn't," he said.

There was a long pause after that, because what do you say to that?  We eventually had a halting conversation about how the dog was part Malamute, and those dogs "have no attention span.  They just see something, and -- fwoot -- they're off."

"I've heard they're hard to train," I said.

"No, they're easy to train.  They just do their own thing."

There was a long pause after that, because he'd said something like a zen koan.

Then the border guard jogged back to us (huffing), handed me my passport, and I was off.  I doddered into the border town.  It was quiet and dusty.  Every building looked like a building on the edge of town.  I stopped in at the tourist's center, and asked the attendant where the town's hotel was.  She said a few words of broken English, accompanied with explanatory hand gestures, and pointed at spots on the well.  "Great!  Thanks!" I said affably, while thinking I have no idea what she told me.

Off I went into the town.  Let's recap: 6'1"; cavefish pallor; wearing two giant backpacks at once.  I stood out a bit.  A random guy on the street shouted, "Señor!  Need some help?"

"No, no, I'm fine," I said, doddering onward in a random direction.

A block later, a second guy piped up.  I turned him down.

The third guy -- short, unhappy, think "Mexican Joe Pesci" -- shouted at me from down a side street.  I was now four blocks from the border crossing and, because I'm idiotic w/r/t directions, totally lost.  I waited as he approached, and told him I was looking for the hotel.  "Yeah, La Hacienda is this way."  He went.  I followed.

We quickly got towards the edge of town.  I grew hesitant, but kept going.  We now were literally at the edge of town, with  nothing beyond the last buildings except sagebrush and low desert hills.  To my right was some sort of cinder-block structure with razor wire on top.  A few guys sat on the corner in its shade, glaring at us.  And now my helper, named "Israel", was motioning me around the far corner of that building.

I balked at that.

We had a spirited discussion which basically circled around Israel saying, "I promise you, you can trust me," and me saying, "No, not really."  God, I'm gonna get shot here, I thought.  I was about to walk back the way I'd come when a van came down the dusty, half-paved street.  It stopped and its window opened.  "You going to La Hacienda?" asked the driver.

"It's... oh, it's around the corner?" I asked.  "Sorry," I said to Israel.  We walked around the corner, and then we saw, at the end of a block of unpaved dust, La Hacienda.  It looked like a nice little place.  And in fact, there was usually a great big sign to the effect of "Don't worry, La Hacienda is around this scary-looking corner", but the rainstorms that Big Rick had talked about had blown it to the ground.  So I went to the hotel.  The gruff-looking hotelier (think "Mexican Horace Rumpole") gave Israel five bucks for helping me out, I paid up-front for my room, and I was good to go.

The room was small and modest but pleasant enough.  I had a single room with a bed and a lamp and an adjoining bathroom.  I had a little air-conditioner keeping the place cool.  I had a TV, which I promptly unplugged so I could plug in my netbook power supply.  The walls had bits of art designed for maximum Mexican-ness -- sepia photo-portraits of Mexican cowboy singers; bits of Mexican ceramic work; a print of an oil painting of an idyllic Mexican town.

Sleeping would be difficult for me on this trip -- I had lost my eyeshades, and the curtains put up a weak fight against the merciless sunlight -- but I took a nap.

After that, I settled pretty directly into life at the hotel.  I took my meals at the hotel restaurant, where Reina cooked up simple, cheap fare.  I mostly ate three things -- the $5 burger-and-fries; the $4 ham-and-cheese omelette; or, if I was recovering from dental work, the $5 soup -- and drank Fanta, which was the only palatable soft drink they had left.  It was all decent-enough food.  So I sat in the little restaurant section (really just three little tables outside their kitchen), with my netbook in tow.

They had WiFi at the hotel, which was very convenient, although occasionally the entire Internet would just -- bloop! -- disappear for no reason, only to reappear ten minutes later.  I chatted incessantly with online friends, and also worked through my first decent-sized freelancing project.

Eventually, I talked a bit with the other hotel patrons.  They were all in their 60s and 70s, retirees who came to Los Algodones to have expensive dental work taken care of.  In another month or so, the city would be overwhelmed with so-called "snowbirds" -- elderly retirees who migrated south of the border when autumn set in, and came back to the States for springtime.  They were pleasant and friendly, and a bit bemused that a youngster was coming around for dental work.  One night I settled in for my usual hamburger just as a 67-year-old brought Reina a couple of fillet steaks to cook up -- this in spite of the fact that all his front teeth were filed down to nubs, awaiting some permanent crowns that were to be installed in a few days.

He figured he didn't have the appetite for *both* of the steaks in the package he'd bought, so he invited me over to share his meal.  I accepted.  We ate fillets and salad, him repeatedly trying to eat with his front teeth only to discover they weren't there, me gingerly trying to avoid my temporary-crowned molars.  He offered wine; I tried one sip, made my usual "I'm drinking alcohol" face (note: identical to my "I'm about to violently vomit" face), and ordered myself yet another Fanta.  And we had a pleasant meal, with conversation that had the air of checking in from our respective ages.

The town itself seemed to offer nothing of interest.  It was a dozen or so dusty streets, mostly devoid of activity, but still crowded with buildings.  Most of the buildings were dentists' offices, interspersed with a few pharmacies and optical shops.  The other buildings were ramshackle shops with folk-art tchotchkes.  Maybe once a block you'd see a bar or a restaurant. 

On my last full day in Mexico, I tried exploring the town a bit, but it was just street after street of the same thing -- like it was part of a video game whose programmers had hired a really lazy level designer.  And every corner I turned, somebody would be chatting at me trying to "help me find something" or directing me to "this great bar" that they knew about.  I realized that what I didn't like about this town was that I couldn't be anonymous.  I couldn't blend in.  Every street in this town was a minefield of sudden, un-asked-for interactions with strangers.

I did have a go at dropping by the pharmacies at the end of my trip.  I checked into picking up allergy meds, but I discovered I could pick up my allergy medication cheaper online, and from merchants I trusted.  I looked into picking up Xanax -- AKA "the magical pills that let me sleep on planes" -- and found them at a decent price ($30 for 30 pills).  But then I figured there were non-zero odds that the pills were counterfeit (it's amazing what they pump out of China these days), and I worried that this would lead to border-crossing trouble, since Xanax is a type IV controlled substance.

Strangely, there was no place to just buy... stuff.  I couldn't find a place that sold, say, an apple, or a book, or a canister of shaving cream.  (This last one was of interest to me -- recall that my shaving soap had been confiscated by the stupid TSA.)  So I mostly stayed in the hotel.

The dental place I went to was a corner shop -- little, but clean, and set up with three chairs.  The chief dentist there -- the one who actually did all the work -- had been working on patients in Mexico for thirty years.  If I had it to do over again, I probably would have picked a dentist who was fluent in English and who had trained in the US (Sani, the default place for tourists, costs a bit more but probably would have been worth it).  It was really frustrating hearing the dentist discussing what he was doing with his assistant, and me having no idea what was happening beyond that there was some sort of drilling happening.

And of course there was that whole imbroglio where the work they did was markedly different from the work that Mannem Dentistry had recommended.  I think it worked out for the best, as stressful as it was.  We'll see how this work holds up in the coming years, but it seems like I've gotten all of Mannem's concerns addressed, got a couple of teeth crowned that were in danger of fracture, got a crown replaced that was in dire need of replacing, got a silver filling (one that would have inevitably cracked its tooth) replaced with a composite filling, and gotten tooth whitening thrown in for good measure.  And all this, plus the hotel, plus the air fare, was over $1,000 less than I would have paid at home.

So basically, all of this worked out well for me -- I think -- but I would have done it slightly differently if I'd known all the facts ahead of time.

Like I said, I didn't do much.  I frittered away time online.  I worked through my freelance project.  I bounced from my room to the courtyard to the restaurant.  I read bits of H. P. Lovecraft.  I was bored, and I was glad when it finally came time to leave.  My last day in Mexico, I stayed in the hotel just long enough to have breakfast, then a hotel handyman gave me a ride to the border.  He spoke no English at all.  At the start of the trip he kept asking me, «¿Sani?»

"Um... no.  What?"  Yes, it is very sunny.  I'm okay with that.

We finally sorted out that he was trying to take me to the Sani Dental Center, and I said, "No, I need to go to the border crossing."

A moment of complete confusion.  Then: «Ah -- ¡la frontera!»

«Sí, sí, necesito ir a la frontera.»  It was the first Spanish I'd spoken the whole trip.  My accent was horrible, and my grammar was embarrassing, but suddenly words started coming back to me from high-school language classes.  I started babbling bits and pieces of Spanish just because I was surprised that I could.

But the trip was very short.  I handed the guy a buck -- «Lo sinto, es mi último dolar.» -- and went to the border crossing.  A taxi took me to the rinky-dink Yuma airport.  Planes took me to Phoenix and to Austin.  Local improvisor Ryan Hill carted me back to my house.

Now here I am.  Hopefully my teeth will hold together for some time, and I won't have to go back to Mexico any time soon.

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[User Picture]
From:bellatrixamici
Date:Sunday (9/16/12) 11:20pm
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This is a great story. I was very entertained while reading it.

Loved this part: "And so I doddered up to the border station, 6'1", pallid as a cavefish, and looking as much like a doofussy tourist as humanly possible."

Hey, at least you knew it!
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From:hujhax
Date:Sunday (9/16/12) 11:45pm
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Thanks!
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From:biscuitpig
Date:Monday (9/17/12) 10:33am
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What Kaci said, this would be a great Armando monologue.
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From:hujhax
Date:Monday (9/17/12) 11:31am
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Thanks!
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