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While there, I become obsessed with the idea of adopting a little boy. He has a round face and enormous brown eyes and the chubbiest little hands I have ever seen. I gave him more candy than he could possibly stomach and a small bag of Cheetos that he finished in nearly one gulp. I kept handing him food, which he took out of politeness. Clearly, he is stuffed.

The children are obsessed with my daughter’s hair. The girls run their fingers through it and place braids and rubber bands in it. The tips of her white blonde hair are green from a summer spent in swim lessons. The little girls are amazed. I hear them say verde over and over again.

My kids fit right in amongst the others and are soon laughing and playing basketball with a group of ten children. My nine-year-old son Jake has shared his Silly Bandz with a tall, lanky boy in exchange for candy. The two spend the rest of the day attached at the hip. Language doesn’t get in the way.

After being chased around by a group of giggling preteen girls intent on putting his curly hair in pigtails, Andrew, my 11-year-old, asks if I can get him some water. We head inside and down a flight of stairs to the kitchen. A young woman with shiny black hair is washing dishes.

“¿Podemos tener agua, por favor?” I say, hoping that I have just asked for water.

“Over there,” she says pointing to a large pitcher.

“Oh, you speak English. My Spanish is horrendous. Did I ask for water correctly?”

She rolls her eyes, unimpressed, and continues scrubbing the dishes. I consider offering to help, but it is clear she wants nothing to do with me.

In the courtyard of the orphanage, Conrad and I toss a ball around with Sophia, a young girl around the same age as my oldest son, who is in the sixth grade. She is a tough kid and has spent a large portion of the day tackling other girls and giving menacing looks. She smiles a toothy grin at Conrad as he passes the ball in her direction. It is in that moment, with Sophia sitting between me and my father-in-law, that I realize that he is an extraordinary man. I’d never noticed before. He is something of an eccentric Uncle Sam. He has come to Mexico looking for acceptance, love, and a fresh start.

He’s loud and beer bellied. He’s crude and makes inappropriate Mexican-American jokes. But he is filled with a deep love of Mexico. He has no plans of ever living in the U.S. again. He’s a quasi-patriot run amok in Baja, and the outcome, oddly, isn’t terrifying.

Back home he is dismissed. Conrad is the ex-con with the studio apartment over someone else’s garage. No one will hire him, and as a result he has started up his own successful telemarketing company specializing in pesky political robocalls. Back in the States, the plump lady who works the midnight shift at the gas station wouldn’t even consider dating him.

In Mexico it is different. People don’t view him as a tragedy. He is not trying to take advantage of anyone. He is looking for love. On weekends, the house is filled with children from the orphanage. He bought the fabric for their quinceañera dresses, and Eunice made them. They are stunning. They show me the photos. All of the girls are smiling brightly in their beautiful gowns.

They are starting a program for the orphans, the older ones, to find job placement when they are too old to live at La Roca. They are considering adopting a 16-year-old girl who has a deep affection for Eunice, only the girl is hesitant because Conrad is a gringo.

I have done a 180. Before, I believed Conrad had lost his mind. It is quirky, some would say outlandish, that my kids will have a five-year-old step-uncle and that we regularly visit one of the most dangerous areas in Mexico. But I am happy that Conrad has gathered up his life. I am learning to love Tijuana as much as he does. I relish the idea of my children seeing a part of the world outside of the U.S.

Midafternoon, Eunice asks if I want to go shopping with her. I’d rather not; the children at the orphanage are so sweet that I could spend days there. She insists, so I agree. We leave Aaron and his two brothers, along with my kids, behind at La Roca. Conrad tags along.

We shuffle in and out of dozens of stores. Eunice lingers in the racks trying on item after item. Conrad often joins her in the fitting room. At the last store I witness them shop together for lingerie.

On the drive home, Conrad casually mentions that Eunice used to work at a beauty shop doing the nails and hair of the transgendered prostitutes who work in Tijuana’s red-light district. “The women used to fall asleep while I did their nails because they are up all night pleasing men,” Eunice tells me.

Conrad takes it upon himself to drive through the transsexual red-light district, an alarmingly short distance from the orphanage. Conrad wants me to see “just how much they look like women.” Hordes of tall, masculine ladies are lined up under street lights.

On Sunday, we attend their church. We arrive late and everyone is staring at us. They set up seats for us in the front row. I feel awkward and self-conscious. People are glancing suspiciously in our direction. The children from the orphanage are three rows behind us. When I look back, they wave at me. I spot the little boy with the big brown eyes. “There’s our soon-to-be son,” I say to my husband, who in turn rolls his eyes at me. The service lasts two hours. At the end, people come to the front to be prayed for. There is a great amount of sobbing and choking back of tears. It makes me uncomfortable. Public displays of emotions are too much. A woman in a black dress sobs so loudly and so terribly that she is shaking.

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Comments

bajajulio Nov. 23, 2010 @ 7:43 p.m.

Great Story. I live in TJ. Will look up "La Roca" and see what I can donate. TJ & Mexico has much to offer. Do visit. Crime and violence is also widely prevelent in the USA as well as MX. This should not keep you from living your dreams.

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monaghan Nov. 26, 2010 @ 10:56 a.m.

Siobhan is quite the writer.

Every other sentence carries the possibility of a hideous occurrence that never materializes and repressed dark feelings. We're not sure if the guy with tattoos on his face is a member of the Salva Trucha or if the family actually got lice. The message for Bajajulio is about "living your dreams." For me, well, it's open-ended, but it feels as ominous as it does larky.

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David Dodd Nov. 26, 2010 @ 12:31 p.m.

Craig's List, Tijuana, Singles Party, and "In-Love"...

All you need to add is lice and transgendered prostitutes. And of course, two days in jail for a traffic infraction. Because what Tijuana story doesn't include two days in jail and a $1,000 dollar fine? I must be the luckiest man on Earth, and certainly the luckiest person in Mexico. In almost two decades here, I've never had lice, have gotten out of several infractions with a twenty-dollar bill tucked neatly underneath my identification, managed to raise three children without having to rely on a Craig's List Singles Party, and have been lucky enough to have never been accosted by wiener-gifted chicks in short skirts.

And my advice, take it or leave it, is to avoid people with tattoos on their faces, I can't recall anything good coming from anyone that didn't have the good sense to politely decline the invitation to permanently write on a portion of their skin that cannot be easily covered up during a job interview. But you know, that's just me. Everyone else's mileage may vary.

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Fulano de Tal Nov. 28, 2010 @ 2:11 p.m.

What is the point of telling us your personal experiences, as if what happened to you is somehow representative of the entire population of visitors to Tijuana?

If you took 5 bullets out of a 6-shot revolver, spun the cylinder, pointed it at your head, pulled the trigger and the gun did not fire, would you believe you are justified in telling everyone that playing Russian Roulette is perfectly safe?

Are you trying to deny that Eunice did not spend 2 days in jail for what is a simple moving violation, even in Mexico? Are you trying to deny that Conrad's car is not in the hands of some Mexican cop?

You admit to bribing Mexican police with $20 bills, which is a felony in Mexico. Why don't you also admit that you do not speak for everyone else?

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SurfPuppy619 Jan. 15, 2011 @ 7:46 a.m.

and have been lucky enough to have never been accosted by wiener-gifted chicks in short skirts.

refriedgringo = +1

VERY FUNNY!

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SurfPuppy619 Jan. 15, 2011 @ 7:44 a.m.

Siobhan is quite the writer.

============ She sure is!

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nan shartel Nov. 26, 2010 @ 6:46 p.m.

i perceive this as satire...and ur trying out ur script for an "in poor taste" Saturday Night Live skit

next week u can put up a sweet and sour rants when some other unloved family member falls in love with a Muslim

and discuss how much fun it is to be fully enveloped and sweating in a 100% Egyptian cotton burka in 100+ degree summers and learning to make falafels with ones eyes peering thru a cloth cage

u will of course quickly learn Farsi...and find the beauty in poems by Rumi reading them in the original Persian

if this isn't a "tongue in cheek" piece shame on u

JMO

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Silvergate1 Nov. 28, 2010 @ 1:55 p.m.

Great story about Tijuana that the average person never knows about. OK, you mention that Eunice is still married. Where is her husband and how does he fit into this scene? Keep up the great work!

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artful1 Dec. 1, 2010 @ 1:43 p.m.

Siobhan, Excellent writing,honest,touching,human.Your style totally engaged me and the people I turned the article on to, several being Mexican nationals...and in response to a few above comments that felt that you were slamming Mexico, go back and read the story, perhaps you have missed something (like your heart? brain?) because I so get the car being taken away scenario, it happens all the time down here, you just can't let nationals drive your car with U.S.plates. Also "got" the lice thing and had to chuckle as I and my children have had the same experience of passing that hat around with smiling giggling children. I loved the story. It should be a movie. Best wishes and more power to You, Conrad, Eunice and your families. From a gringa who lives in Baja

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Kathryneileen Dec. 3, 2010 @ 7:37 p.m.

I loved how the author's attitude towards this man changed and became much more compassionate and understanding. Who could blame him for living in TJ? May he find the love he needs.

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SurfPuppy619 Jan. 14, 2011 @ 8:48 a.m.

Twenty years later, he is an alcoholic and drug user, they have a passle of kids, and they have to live with his mother because he doesn't work.

20%+ of CA is unemployed or under employed.

Employment is not entirely in the control of the one who is looking for work. Drug problems won't help.

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SurfPuppy619 Jan. 15, 2011 @ 7:50 a.m.

The point is, Eunice may one day see Conrad as the rest of us do--when she gets her head out of the clouds.

Except the writer also had your view>> in the begining. As the story unfolded she changed her view and really came to admire Conrad.

I was expecting this to turn out really bad at the end, like Eunice played Conrad like a cheap fiddle, but that was not the case...... in any event it was interesting-gave a multi dimiensional look to the people which I did enjoy.

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