Leaving Juaréz

Another in the Mad Jubilado series

Border crossings always involve some stress. After all, borders do represent the absolute authority of the state over the legitimacy of persons. Will the state accept me as who I claim to be or not? Are my papers in order? Will they allow me to cross, or will I be detained for an unknown time? Lots of young men with guns on both sides view everyone with both suspicion and indifference. Crossing an international border can be a critical inflection in the trajectory of a life.

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Crossing at the Bridge of the Americas

Juaréz has become the iconic dangerous border town. Investigative journalists have written Important books about the extreme murder rate, frequent disappearance of women, and drug cartel shootouts, suggesting an endemic culture of violence. For the past few years, we traveled from Santa Fe, New Mexico, down the center of Mexico, stopping in Chihuahua, Torreon, Durango, and finally the old city-center of Mazatlán, on our way to a small town on the Pacific coast.

Although I had been to Mexico many times in my life, only once before had I driven long distances through Mexico. That time I spent most of my 1964 college summer there. My roommate and I drove down the west coast to Guadalajara, spent eight weeks living with Mexican families while completing our college language requirement. Then we drove to Mexico City, climbed the pyramid of the moon nearby, and drove up the east coast to the border. Then, just about out of gas money, we turned west to return to California, where we were teased for our newly acquired Mexican accents.

At the Texas border, the U.S. border guards made us take everything we had out of my VW van, and take everything out of all suitcases, backpacks, etc. We suspected that they were certain these two bearded young men must have been carrying some contraband. They looked disappointed as we took our time re-packing all our clothes, ten-dollar guitar, books, and assorted trinkets into the van. It was a degrading experience, but it was also the nineteen sixties.

Now retired, this Mad Jubilado and his esposa have begun to enjoy spending at least part of the winter in a small fishing village on the west coast of Mexico, where the daytime temperature hovers around 80 degrees F, and the water at the beach is comfortably cool. We take our dog in the cab and too much stuff in the bed of my ever-reliable Tundra.

After three winters in La Peñita, getting there was less than half the fun. It’s a long drive, but we have found some nice reasonable hotels with gracious staff who accept our dog. Las carreteras cuotas are as good as New Mexican highways, with frequent clean rest stops. The peso had taken a dive, with among other factors the U.S. presidential election of 2016 – “I will build a great wall…” So, we are able to live on about the same money as if we’d stayed home.

However, the transition to a warm pleasant winter is all about the border crossing. Once we had gotten our new tourist cards and temporary vehicle import permit at the aduana (customs) checkpoint on the highway south of Juaréz, we felt as if someone had lifted a great burden from our backs. We were ‘good to go’ in Mexico.

Driving through Juaréz is much like driving through Los Angeles, Albuquerque, or any other large U.S. city. Its violent reputation is not visible in the direct experience of driving through mid-day, heading south toward Chihuahua. Everything seemed quite mundane. Yet, the world is changing in very dangerous ways far more rapidly than most of us are aware or will admit. That is largely because the urban-industrial machine that operates across all borders keeps plodding along as if the nations they define were actually doing something about global climate disruption.

On the Road Again: Hasta La Vista, La Peñita

La Peñita, I shall return! Well, I would not equate myself with that eccentric WWII general, but I do plan to come back to La Peñita next winter – how could I not? To return to that vibrant little village by the sea has too many reasons to list – most of them too complicated to try to explain here. But I would do it in any case, if only to see Martín again.

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Downtown La Peñita

That reason is complicated too. What an interesting character. Martín is a carpintero (a carpenter/woodworker, builder of windows, doors, cabinets, and furniture of all kinds) in his small shop La Peñita. Some would consider him an anachronism or maybe an inefficient economic actor in a worldwide industrial system that has passed him by. When I met the old man – well, I’m not sure if he’s older or younger than I am – three years ago, I felt an immediate affinity. That little old man with rotting teeth, standing in his flip-flops on the dirt floor of his woodshop, just glowed with serenity. He seemed completely comfortable in his carpintería on a side street a few blocks from the center of town. Martín had worked in the U.S. for awhile many years ago, remembering only a few words in English. We talked about wood and the world for an hour, despite my broken Spanish.

Searching for Huanacaxtle

I had been looking for a source of Huanacaxtle, a tropical hardwood sort of like mahogany, but with beautiful complex grain patterns. It is found throughout Central America and goes by several different names. I had seen some beautiful tables and other furniture made of Huanacaxtle in a gallery in Mazatlán, when we stopped over there, near the end of our first road trip to La Peñita. The grain, color, and figure of this wood are amazingly varied, rich, and muy bonito. After seeing finished pieces in that gallery, I seriously wanted to buy some to take home and make something with it.

Martín is a rare find in this world today, even in Mexico. He’s been working with wood for over a half-century. I might not have found Martin had I not asked a rather unlikely source if he knew anyone in the area who cut or milled Huanacaxtle. Seff Ramirez runs a typical roadside fruit stand on the highway a few km north of La Peñita. He operates a rather nice nursery there too. The man knows how to use a machete. We had stopped to get some of those delicious mini-bananas that are so prolific in the area. I had decided to ask anyone I met if they knew of a carpintería where I could buy some Huanacaxtle.

The Road to Martín

I always try to speak Spanish in Mexico; too many Norte Americanos expect everyone to speak English. That seems presumptuous to me, despite the surprising number of expats and tourists living or traveling in throughout Mexico. Seff surprised me when he answered my question in California English. I asked about that; turns out my guess was right, he’d lived in California for many years. Anyway, when I asked about Huanacaxtle, he said he knew a guy in the local pueblo up the road aways who occasionally cut planks to make furniture for himself or his neighbors.

I asked Seff if he could contact the wood-cutter to see if he had some to sell. It was getting close to our time to depart La Peñita and drive north through the central highlands and deserts to cross the border at Juarez. I wanted to buy a few pieces that would fit in the bed of my pickup truck amid all the other stuff we took with us on a three-month trip through Mexico. I wanted to make something of that beautiful wood in my home woodshop. That did not work out at first. (More, in the next installment of the “On the Road Again” series.)

Not On the Road Again: Missing the Run to La Peñita

Having grown up in Southern California, the Pacific coast of Mexico has a familiar comfort for me – and it’s warm in the winter. You can actually get out in the surf in January in La Peñita, a small fishing village of about 20,000 people halfway between Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta. I spent the summer of my junior year at the University of California, Santa Barbara traveling throughout Mexico – by VW van or course. I lived with a family in Guadalajara for two months that summer. In those eight weeks, I learned far more Spanish than in all the classes I’d taken at the university. That is when I first could really speak Spanish. I’ve been re-learning it ever since.

Traveling can provide a perspective not otherwise easily obtained. Of course, if you go from one major hotel-chain location to another, or stay in one “all-inclusive” resort, it would be like stopping at a different Burger King joint in any city in the U.S. – the anti-quality of sameness.

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Overlooking La Peñita

That is one of the reasons we chose La Peñita. It is a real Mexican town, even though quite a few Canadians spend the Winter there. Another is that it’s a small fishing village. We had fresh garlic and herb Dorado that Cynde baked for dinner our second night there on our last trip – caught that morning, bought in the afternoon, cooked in the evening – not shipped from anywhere, not “previously frozen” at Whole Foods, not processed in any way other than being cleaned and filleted, once carried from the boat to the Tienda de Pescado. Mmmmm!

Sometimes, in the midst of life in the swirl of the growing dangers of the climate crisis and post-electoral madness of Trumplandia, a little change in perspective can do wonders, just like a fresh-caught fish dinner. The drive down through Juarez, Chihuahua, Torreón, and Durango, with a slight detour to Mazatlan, was itself an education, each time we’ve made it. So many welcoming and friendly people. Same urban dirt and dense traffic in these cities as you will find in any medium to large city in the world.

But I wonder whether the Mexican violence meme may be overstated. I must look up the comparative crime rates with, say, Albuquerque, which reputedly had the greatest rate of citizens killed by police in the U.S. one recent year, before the Justice Department put the ABQ police department in receivership. The non-stop evening news stories of shootings, drunk driving crashes, domestic violence, and drug arrests reflect a certain U.S. social disorder.

My best perspective on Mexico so far, I obtained by engaging with regular folks in the stores and streets of that little town, La Penita, getting the lay of the land and feeling the pace of life. I will miss the long weeks hanging out there this year; medical issues always seem to complicate life.

On the Road Again: the Run to La Peñita

I was never much of a winter person. I grew up in the Los Angeles area, a coastal desert of Mediterranean latitude that became an urban desert many generations ago. The big seasonal changes in LA were not really that big, but very consistent when I was growing up there. Lately, at least for the last couple of decades, climate destabilization seems to be pushing conditions to extremes of drought, fire, and flood.

No “New Normal,” just No Normal!

This year, huge fires caused havoc in Northern and Southern California. Just wait, some winter torrents just may wash away more Malibu hillside homes this year. In the past, we had the occasional forest fire and flood. But today the scale is unprecedented.

Typical LA seasons went from hot and smoggy September and October to rainy winter to spring and summer coastal fog. The high deserts of the Great Southwest, where I now live, are very different. Droughts have come and gone for centuries. So have heat waves.

But things have changed here too. The bark beetle extended its reproductive cycle with global warming and it has killed off most native piñon trees and now threaten the mountain Ponderosa forests. The Rio Grande barely keeps flowing as western states puzzle over water allotment agreements much greater than available water. There is no “new normal.” Normal is gone.

I’ve always like the desert. It has a certain stark beauty that changes seasonally much more than most people realize if they have not lived in a desert, especially a high desert. Of course, the urban desert doesn’t change much from season to season, even though the seasons grow increasingly erratic.

The high desert of Northern New Mexico experiences distinct seasonal changes. Yet its beauty remains as it is transformed each cycle. The monsoon rains of late summer turn the landscape quite green in the Santa Fe area if the monsoons do not fail us as they did last year. Winters are relatively dry, except for the snow, which varies considerably from year to year.

Several years of drought have resulted in part from such a small winter snow-pack that little water is available to store or recharge aquifers. In fact, most of the snow evaporates before it ever has a chance to melt into a runoff. This year looks better so far, but it still seems a struggle to reach “normal” snowpack.

The New Familiar

But after ten years away from Southern California, well, I miss the beach.

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Santa Fe is famous for its sunsets as well as art galleries and high-end restaurants, but the sunsets at La Peñita are serious contenders.

So, for the past few years, we head south for the coldest months of winter. After all, jubilación (retirement) allows a certain freedom of movement. Besides, a good laptop and

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Copper loves to run on the Beach and swim in the surf.

an adequate Internet connection will allow me to write and post my Mad Jubilado rants and also my climate and society posts here on TheHopefulRealist.com. And, I love to take my dog for a good run on a deserted beach.

The road trip from Santa Fe through Central Mexico to a little town, La Peñita, on the Pacific coast an hour’s drive north of Puerto Vallarta takes a few days. But it offers insight into the contrasts and parallels in how people in Mexico and the U.S. live in this era of unrecognized transformation. Each fall now, I look forward to experiencing the wonders, charm, and rough edges of Mexican culture, economy, and those warm sandy beaches over these three months or so of warm winter on the Pacific coast of Mexico. What will the contrast tell me about how we live in the U.S. Southwest? I’ll let you know in coming posts…