San Diego Deep-Fried Quesadillas
Everything was just out of reach as I lay on my left side in a bed at Tijuana's newest and most modern hospital. I had to sit up or lie down only on my left side because of a stinking wound the size of a pack of cigarettes on my lower right back. The pain was exquisite -- a merciless, unrelenting pain that kept me awake at night, that made it difficult to move, that sent the muscles in my buttocks into periodic spasm.
It was now late August of 2007, and for the third time in a month, I was tethered to an IV line pumping three different powerful antibiotics into my veins. The hospital room was top- of-the-line, designed with patient comfort in mind: individual climate control, cable television, local- and long-distance calling at the touch of a finger, high-speed Internet access so I could connect my laptop, a reading lamp, an in-room programmable safe, and a spacious private bathroom. Twice a day custodians swept, mopped the floor, emptied the garbage, and left new towels and little hotel-sized bars of soap.
What looked like hardwood flooring was really just a laminate floor covering; on two sides, large squares on the walls stood out in relief, giving them a sculpted look; an abstract Southwestern print in shades of orange, red clay, and dirt brown hung on the west-facing wall, the northern exposure featured high windows the width of the wall, and if I opened the eggshell-colored aluminum blinds, I could see the "Torre de los Médicos" (Doctors' Office Tower), a ten-story, terra-cotta structure suggestive of older Mexican architecture but with modern lines.
When the hospital opened in December 2005, at a cost of $70 million, many Tijuana doctors moved their practices to the tower. The hospital is situated on Avenida Paseo de los Héroes, a tree-lined boulevard in Tijuana's Rio Zone, directly across the street from a T.G.I. Friday's restaurant. Two blocks away is a Sam's Club and the immensely popular Ocean City Chinese Buffet. A few blocks up a hill on Boulevard Salinas are other American franchises: McDonald's, Burger King, Carl's Jr., Smart & Final, Bob's Big Boy. In the last ten years, such franchises have sprung up from one end of the city to the other -- Office Depots, Costco warehouse stores, Ace Hardware, Home Depot, Kentucky Fried Chicken -- although a few, like Wendy's and Jack in the Box, folded after a few years.
Despite all this free trade, Tijuana maintains its Mexican identity. Some of the tastiest food in the city comes from thousands of mom-and-pop businesses, and so it is in El Mirador, a few miles from the beach. My neighbor Beatriz operates a little restaurant from the patio of her home on weekends. Beatriz, who lives with her twin sister, a son, a daughter, and a tenant who rents a room from her, sells pozole, menudo, and other traditional Mexican fare. My favorite -- now off-limits by doctor's order -- is a distinctive version of quesadillas, made with corn tortillas filled with cheese, onions, lettuce, and tomato, then deep-fried. An order of three costs $2. During the day, a food cart selling tacos a vapor (steamed tacos) sits in front of Beatriz's home; at nightfall, until about midnight, another family sets up a portable taco stand, and the aroma of tacos de carne asada fills the neighborhood. Up and down Boulevard El Mirador are variations on the theme: more taco stands; food carts featuring hot corn on the cob; a fellow who stands outside a neighborhood grocery from 8:00-midnight most days, selling homemade tamales from two big aluminum pots; a neighbor lady who irons clothes at her shop for 50 cents an item, next door to a dentist's office run by her daughter. Another neighbor's son runs a charbroiled hamburger stand from 3:00-11:00 p.m. in front of the family home, where his widowed father, Don Raúl, rents out three added-on apartments. Two blocks away, a lady who looks to be in her 60s runs a nighttime hotdog stand. And deadly dogs they are, fatty Rosarito-brand hot dogs, wrapped in bacon and grilled, served with mayonnaise, mustard, grilled onions, catsup, and, unless the customer specifies otherwise, hot, diced serrano chiles. Somehow, word reached her of my diet, and she refuses to sell them to me.
I often see the hot-dog vendor early mornings walking to daily Mass at the neighborhood parish, San Juan Bautista. Every June, on the feast of the saint's nativity, the parish holds a parade down the boulevard, and every Christmas there is a parish fair. On Friday afternoons, a shop that sells student supplies also sells out-of-date breads, bagels, and sweets purchased from supermarkets in the U.S. All the proceeds go to the parish. On weekends, many neighbors sell used clothing, furniture, and appliances in front of their homes. When I first moved here, I furnished my home from those yard sales. The refurbished refrigerator and washing machine I purchased from one such sale are still going strong after five years. Almost every day, a pickup truck parks on a corner a block away, and from the back of the truck you can buy fresh whole watermelons, strawberries, oranges, pears, and sometimes peaches and mangos. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and painters park their trucks along the boulevard, some with hand-lettered signs offering their services.
My Golden Cage
Three stories below my hospital room was a well-maintained garden with lush green foliage and blooming red and orange flowers; in front of the office tower was a patio with aluminum tables and chairs -- but it was rarely used. After I learned that the pump controlling my IV had a battery that lasted for up to three hours, allowing me to disconnect it from the wall plug and wheel it around the room, I made frequent visits to the window. When my cardiologist, Dr. Mario Zúñiga, stopped by to check up on me, I asked, "Why doesn't anyone use the garden? Why can't I be given access?" "Because," said the doctor, "you are connected to an IV line." "Yes," I said, "but there are sometimes hours between the administrations of medicine. Why can't the nurses cork the line during the intermissions, allowing me to move about more freely? After all, they do this briefly each morning so I can shower." Zúñiga sighed in exasperation. "Okay," he said. "You can use the garden for 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon. I'll note it in your chart."