Walter Mencken 8:33 a.m., Nov. 21
- Community Blog
- Beyond The Big Metal Fence
Either Side Of The River
It starts slowly here in Baja. The sky, normally blue with an occasional puff of a cloud, fills with more clouds, and the wind comes up. People bundle up in their coats if they brought one, and continue walking to wherever. It becomes noticeably overcast and people wonder why they didn't witness the change. Everything is gradual up to this point.
Small drops then begin to fall, merely a nuisance at first, but soon there is enough water to mix with the dry dust on the ground, and small muddy patches become exposed. The occasional pedestrian slips and skates along, and the drops become larger and quicker, and anyone with an umbrella employs it's use. Water begins to pool in the once-dusty streets and passing cars avoid deeper puddles. There are about as many cars as there are pedestrians here.
Again, without fanfare, the sky has become angry and dark, and quickly the rain begins in earnest. Almost instantly water fills the gutters until they overflow, out onto the main boulevard, and pedestrians crossing any street soak their shoes and even their pants up to their shins. They stay to the inside walking on the sidewalks so that the water spray from passing cars cannot reach them. They hurry along now, pressed by the possibility of something worse yet to come.
When it gets really bad, streets running north and south on either side of the Tijuana River become small and powerful rivers themselves, bringing with them everything from large rocks and small boulders to used tires to all sorts of trash and tree branches. Cars moving east and west along the boulevard are often blocked. Even large vehicles that try and get through the rushing wall of water coming down from the hills above will be swept unceremoniously aside, saved from further disaster by a chain-link fence or a strip-mall parking lot light pole. At their worst, such storms claim lives.
When it rains in Baja, I think back many several years ago to a time when I was struggling to learn the language here and when Rocio's father felt comfortable enough with me to take me to a ravine up the hill where some of his work-mates lived. It was Sunday, their only day off, and the ravine was littered with flimsy shacks strewn about with no planning. The idea was to build a shack where one could find or grade a small flat lot. On these small flat lots, whatever material could be found was used to make something resembling a shack, and in the shack there were curtains separating sleeping quarters into two or three sections.
No one was from Tijuana, everyone had come from somewhere else, ostensibly to cross into the United States of America to look for seasonal migrant work, but they decided to stay in Tijuana and work instead; or else, they were simply waiting for the right time to head north. We sat in front of one particular shack and shared Tecates while the wife of one man swept out the inside of their shack, earth floors. Their children were clean and appeared healthy, dressed nicely in slightly worn but very clean clothing. It humbled me greatly.
The recent rains here have been heavy at times, and that always makes me wonder whatever became of those people.
Where shacks once stood, houses are eventually built, and even in the many ravines that hug either side of the Tijuana River, either the government or a developer carves out dirt roads and improves unimproved and ungraded lots. Many of those areas now feature reasonably well-built dwellings with cement block the popular building material of choice. Why cement block? Money.
Since Tijuana began to develop, banks would not lend to anyone wishing to build a wooden structure. Not only does wood burn, but wooden structures can be disassembled and moved should the owners find themselves down on their luck and unable to make the payments. The cement block dwelling is a guarantee to the banks that even should the owner default, there is something tangible for the bank to recover and sell again. And often times, the banks do just that. This is what happens.
When I came down to live in Tijuana about twenty years ago, I brought a pregnant wife, two kids, all of our possessions, and two dogs with us. The dogs - which I purchased when they were puppies - were brothers, both of which survived parvo. Neither survived for very long in Mexico. The dominant dog was the first to go, when we lived briefly on the north side of the Tijuana River, he escaped the backyard and was hit by a car. Again, this is what happens.
I buried him about five feet down, it was the hardest I've ever had to dig in my life. We were several hundred feet above the river, yet the soil was all hard clay once you dug six inches down. No amount of water softened it, and this was my first clue about rain in Tijuana. I pulled out perfectly round rocks, rocks that were undoubtedly shaped thousands of years earlier when the Tijuana River was broad and vast. I went through two shovels that day.
In the winter of 1993, before Anna was born, it was an El Niño year and the storms came like waves of blood-hungry soldiers. Luckily, we moved to the South side of the river before Anna was born, before the biggest storm that hit Baja during that cycle. The death toll from that storm will never be known. The remaining dog was never the same after that, I came home from work one day and found him dead in his doghouse. I would like to think that he died of loneliness.
Again, I dug deep, hitting hard clay, and struggled once again to reach five feet down. That taught me two lessons in life, that no matter which side of the river, the ground remains the same; and that while many say that the lack of water in Baja is a big problem, I remain convinced that even a little bit of water here is often times too much. The water on the hillsides of the river take the loose silt to the bottom of the hills, and no water is ever able to soak into the soil. Once at the bottom of the hillsides the silt eventually makes its way into the Tijuana River, and mingles with seawater once it is dumped into the Pacific Ocean.
Everyone in Tijuana has a cellular telephone, myself excluded, even the children. When I think about that family that lived up in the ravine in the hills, I imagine that if they remained in Tijuana then they have more suitable housing. Even if they are still in that shack, I will lay odds that everyone there owns a cell phone. Twenty years ago, even for expensive residences near boulevards, there was a waiting period of three months minimum just to get a land line. The communications systems were still analog here back then, maybe up to fifteen years ago or so.
The water problem is slow to change, unlike communications here. The city tries to build proper drainage, but it's an impossible task to fight against nature and the type of ground you have to deal with here. The Tijuana River is now concrete-lined from the Pacific Ocean all of the way back to the Rodriguez Dam, and the drainage has improved in certain areas. But the hard clay and the unpredictable flow and the lay of the land will never change.
I have never owned another dog since the first two died for more than a few days. When we lived up the hill, a small stray pup - a mutt - wandered in front of our house and we took him in. We fed and watered him and he responded nicely. Then he caught parvo. We took him down the hill and paid the veterinarian to put him out of his misery, and paid the vet extra to save me a busted shovel or two. At some point when we build a house south of here and closer to the coast, I might get another dog. Even if I'm unlucky with it, the ground is much more forgiving there. Maybe even, so is the rain.