When Mexico Was Flat
By Jesse Aizenstat
We normally go south of the border to surf. Even when there isn’t surf, we surf. But today was different. My headache—from too little caffeine and too much alcohol—held my brain hostage like a prisoner to his ball and chain. As we passed through the jagged, bottlenecked lanes of the border crossing, the fumes of poorly firing engines bombarded our senses. “Hold your breath,” I said to my buddy, who was slumped in the driver’s seat, rather indifferently guiding the wheel, “we are now in Mexico.”
The 2008 Baja Surf Guide describes Baja Malibu as a destination for which surf connoisseurs fly halfway around the world to experience such shacking sandbar barrels. The California authors of the book proudly explain that from San Diego you can simply hop in your vehicle and motor 20 minutes south of the border. When we got there, guarding the gate was a preteen with what looked like a painted-on mustache. I said to my friend, “Looks like Mustachio is going to make us walk.”
After we parked the truck, then ever so slowly stretched, paused and sipped bottled water, we started to make our way down the cobblestone hill to the sea-breezed break of Baja Malibu. The morning air was brisk and offshore. There were few clouds, the sun was already feeding our skin with warm goodness, and the cry of the gulls suggested to me that below this polluted Mexican village there was once a beautiful meadow. We arrived at the stairs, sliding our hands down the rustic handrail, testing the bounce of the flimsy staircase. When we got down to the sand, we saw that those concrete steps were only an inch thick!
“Surf’s flat,” my friend muttered. I gave him a nod of agreement.
So we each found a rock and just sat on it. The beach was fine sand, with beautifully worn cliffs towering in the background. Yet there was a definite sense of disappointment: I hauled my ass out of bed at 6 in the morning! And did I say sleep-deprived and hungover? The uncrowded and epic waves of northern Baja were breaking only in memory. So we just sat there on our respective rocks, toes in the warm, smooth sand, gazing out at the lake in the Pacific.
What do two restless surfers do when the surf sucks? Jog? Perhaps. But there is something about the thrill of wave riding that stimulates the youthful soul. My buddy said, “Well, it’s Saturday, and we’re already in Mexico.” Everything seemed fair game. We sluggishly stood up and braved the bouncy stairs again back to the truck.
Our underpowered, stick-shift truck barely made it up the hill to pay a visit to what was clearly a statue of a Spanish Jesus. What else were we going to do with our day? We were already in Mexico! Just as the truck’s engine sounded as if it had come down with a case of whooping cough, we found ourselves at the top of the hill and parked on the grassy flat.
The Jesus hill was rough and volcanic. Yet the recent rains had left a healthy amount of grass, filled with blooming blue lupine. In newfound excitement, I briskly made my way over to the wooden giant. Holding Jesus a dozen feet off the ground was an umbrella of six giant metal beams, with a half-dome that was visible only when walking under it. I had never seen this part. All I had ever known about Jesus was that He looked to be blessing the coastal valley with his open arms and sculpted smile. I asked my buddy how much he thought it would cost to erect a statue of myself. “You could get one too. They’d probably give us a deal if we got two of them. What do you think it costs to rent a hilltop?”
It was then that I heard the voice. Surely we were the only two derelicts on the Jesus hill, so where the hell was it coming from? Jesus? Can’t be. Pause. Continuing toward the center of this elevated dome, I realized that the mystical voice I heard had actually been my own. The engineers who made this statue designed it so that when you were standing directly under Jesus, looking out at the volcanic point breaks of Baja California, you could hear yourself talk, with a Gregorian chant-type echo. “Ha!” I exclaimed. “That’s going to cost us extra!”
In some backward chapter in my life I managed to swing a trip through the Middle East. The Islamic call to prayer that religiously came thundering through the speakers of every Muslim minaret became normal to me. I even came to miss its calming effect. If you have never heard this Islamic chanting, it’s a true exhibition in guttural Arabic, mixed with an acknowledgment of the mystic “oneness” of Allah, or God. “So,” I said, “far fuckin’ out,” while remembering the inflections of this chant. It must have been either the previous night’s alcohol—which happens to be an Arabic word—or the overwhelming feeling of standing atop a Mexico hill, enjoying the echo of my vodka-roughened vocal cords: I started chanting this medieval Islamic call under the Jesus dome. Though this may seem like a juvenile joke, there was something about the Mexican reverb from my Arabian tune that made me feel connected … to something.
Leaving the Jesus hill, my buddy and I—now really feeling the thrill of traveling—decided to take our jalopy down a seemingly deserted dirt road. We saw a small, dark-looking villager running along the desert canyon. He must have been about 5 years old. Remembering that the last house we saw was more than 10 minutes behind us, I told my buddy to hit the brakes. I reached into my pocket and gave this beautifully sincere ragamuffin a crisp dollar bill. For a moment I felt like a “sir” in the queen’s British lordship, but as the child’s face opened with warmth and awe, I realized we had what a head doctor would deem “a human connection.” As we sped off through the valley, I could see in my passenger-side mirror that the child had started running again. This time, with his right hand raised high, he was proudly clutching his new Washington note. “He’ll probably give it to his mom,” said my friend.
“Probably,” I replied. “But what if we had given him a hundred? Do you think he’d even know the difference?”
Coming down that semi-abandoned dirt road, probably once used for some kind of mining, it we decided we had had enough of bucolic Baja. Most of this underdeveloped peninsula is some variation of desert. I had always thought it would be the perfect place to test one of those space rovers, something that would cost more than most of these people could imagine. Feeling like kings, even on a college student’s dime, we decided to make our journey back and hit up our favorite taco place in the rowdy spring-break capital of Rosarito. What the hell, we were already in Mexico!
Yaqui Taco is little more than a shack to the average soul. It is on a relatively quiet corner, but the neighbor keeps five barking, potentially rabid German shepherds atop the building next door, killing whatever calm the taco customers might enjoy. My friend said, “It looks like a drug lord’s house in a movie. I mean, the place has huge gates, bars on the windows and a compound look that hints of Colombian cocaine.” I couldn’t have agreed more. Walking briskly to avoid further enraging the dogs, I went into the shack and ordered. The guy behind the counter chopped the carne asada on a pale tree-stump cutting board. (I have seen these thick cutting stumps only in the taco shops of Rosarito.) He then loaded the fresh corn tortilla with spicy salsa, fresh guacamole and everything else that makes Mexican food that much better in south of the border.
As we ate, I realized that we were utilizing the last of our evolutionary canine ability to sink our teeth into the goodness of these tacos. With one eye on the angry German shepherds, and the other on my taco, I was suddenly reminded how much humanity differed from dogs. Even by the time I licked my fingers for the last of the delicious hot, clearly homemade salsa, the vicious German shepherds were still barking and growling from their assigned spots along the conspicuous rooftop.
Standing up, feeling very satisfied yet still on edge from those fuckin’ hounds, I said to my buddy, “Let’s go check out Papas and Beer. For all the times I have been to Baja, I’ve never been.” The poster child for the hedonistic party scene, Papas and Beer provides the perfect example how many of Mexico’s border towns have morphed into unruly destinations for tourists with money to drop. We started to make our way through the outskirts of the taco shop shantytown into the beach area and tourist nightclubs. The closer we got, the more “side bars” we passed. Some hustler would be standing outside saying something like “Hey, my friend, do you want to get fucked up?” I would reply with something smartasstastic like “Oh, no thanks, sir, I’m a messenger of God. I don’t partake in such lustful sin.”
“Two for one, amigos. Come on in! First one’s on us.” These are some of the standard lines that door hustlers throw at tourists. Sometimes it gets quite vulgar. I once walked by a restaurant, about 20 miles south from where I was standing, and a weathered bandito said in an unusually quiet voice, “… and I’ll let you eat my wife’s pussy for $20.” Not only did I let out an unruly California guffaw, I stopped and talked to the haggard pervert for a while. Though I did not go into his eatery—or take him up on his initial offer—his crude style has unfortunately been burnt into memory.
Following the posters of computer-generated half-naked women, we found our way to the infamous Papas and Beer. Because of the recent drug cartel violence near the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as the downturn in the American economy, most Yanks don’t go to these clubs anymore. And besides, it was only 11:30 in the morning! At the front of this extravaganza stood five stereotypically macho security guards. And yes, all had mustaches. They looked like they had put away enough cheap beer (and perhaps devirginized enough underage WASPy American girls) for a lifetime. If Pancho Villa were still alive, these would have been his thugs.
We entered Papas and Beer and were escorted by the most junior-ranking doorman to the bar. He was a younger lad, struggling to grow his mustache. His excessively spiked hair struck me as a sign of cheesy American counterculture that had become popular with the new generation of Baja scenesters. Nevertheless, I found him amiable. Understanding that his job made him an eyewitness to a treasure trove of border town Mexico stories, I asked, “So, my man, what’s the craziest shit you’ve ever seen down here?”
I knew it was a loaded question. That was the point. This was a place that had multiple decks for dancing and was littered with strobe lights over a mechanical bull-riding cage. But what I found the most enthralling was the underground lounge that looked like the “special room” at a strip club. My buddy had ambiguously described it as a “hookup room.” I knew this was a conservative assessment at best. Failing to take into account whoever else was in earshot, the young doorman proudly proclaimed, “I saw a white bitch get fucked right over there last week! She did some guy, and everyone could see. She loved it.” I paused, matter-of-factly studying the spot on the weather-warped deck that had theoretically harbored the event. If I had been anywhere else, I would have been jaw-dropped and stupefied.
I took a temporary seat at the bar. “Two beers, please.” The metrosexual bartender with the same spiked hairstyle gave me a round of cold Dos Equis. Maybe it was because my friend and I were the only customers in this massive nightclub, but the beers cost only $1.50. Armed with my favorite Mexican alcohol, I followed my wingman and comrade in adventure out to the picturesque sandy beach in front of Papas and Beer. With a straw sunshade over our heads, the warmth of the sun reflecting off the hot white sand and the sound of the gentle waves in the background, we squeezed the lime and slowly sipped the same potion that perhaps had caused naive Americans to have public sex.
Not 20 seconds later, a line of roving vendors tried to sell us everything from Top Gun-style sunglasses to cheap Chinese whatevers. Though I was eager to bliss out one of these poverty-ridden merchants, I remembered that I was on a college budget and getting ready to graduate into the worst economy since the Great Depression. I bought nothing and chatted with my buddy about the notorious spot on the deck.
It was about 1:30 when they came over. And in this otherwise vacant beachfront bar, why next to us? Two very well-kept, middle-aged yet young-looking Latinas took the adjacent lounge chairs. Our previously lax staffer rushed to take their orders. A minute later, a daughter, about 14 years old, came parading out from the disco. These women were done up, light of Spanish skin and seemed to be of a different class. Ah, I thought, rich Mexicans.
I once took a class covering Marxist international relations, which explained that the rich and land-owning class, the bourgeoisie, had global connections to the rest of the world’s rich and powerful. The proletariat, or the “everyone else” class, did not. This theory was all the more proved when the clearly cared-for daughter came out with a prissy and entitled phrase in American-accented English. Not only were these rich—and very good-looking—older women commanding respect in Baja, they were manifestly rooted in the international bourgeoisie. Sometimes, it’s just that obvious.
I’m 23 years old, and I have been lucky—and notably unlucky—with enough women in my life to know when I am being played. So yeah, I’ll just say it: One of these Latin divas was flashing us her thong underwear. She had turned her back on us gringos, giving us “the view.” We continued to lazily lounge, drinking our beers while occasionally saying “No gracias “ to the trickle of beach vendors. Her posture became more pronounced, allowing her styled jeans to lower. Her provocative, pink and slimly cut lingerie divided her butt cheeks into a tightly molded shape of seduction. The thong-flasher wasn’t bad-looking, though she had a little bit of that big Latin mama thing going for her. I wouldn’t really describe her as sexy, but her deliberate display seemed to trigger an animal instinct inside my brain that primitively fixed my eyes on her. Sitting there on that Rosarito beach, I was being not so subtly lured by an older Mexican woman. She smiled. I offered to take a picture for the three of them. She smiled again.
I’ve been to these crazed border towns enough times to know that such women rarely travel alone. Some have very powerful husbands and friends who wouldn’t hesitate to beat my gringo ass into a pulp. In the States there is kind of a “no harm, no foul” rule when it comes to talking to most women. But not in the border towns; not in Rosarito; and certainly not at Papas and Beer. I tried to be politely semi-responsive to the woman’s game, while at the same time making sure to look generally uninterested. I knew that this older woman was asking my foolishly young impulses, “Am I still sexy?”
On the drive home, it occurred to me that the bucket of beers those women ordered was also split with the daughter. Though I was partly trapped in the seductive limbo the thongmistress was playing, it also seemed that the older hens were teaching their chick a lesson. And what better place? Not only was Papas and Beer stationed on a virtually deserted beach in bribe-your-way-out-of-anything Baja, but during the day it was a nice bar in a reasonably controlled environment. Upon reflection, the whole shebang seemed like a crash course in sexual femininity: how to drink, how stay in control and perhaps most importantly, how to catch the eye of a male, theoretically of a higher caste than yourself. Nevertheless, they treated me like an object—I mean, what about my personality?
By 3 in the afternoon we were once again choking on the heinous fumes of the border crossing. I was completely wasted—not by $1.50 beachside beers but by my lack of sleep and our random aimlessness. It had been a long day, and I was ready to imprint my unshaven face onto my soft, freshly washed pillow. Relaxed into the shotgun seat of my buddy’s truck seat in a tired, semi-hallucinatory state, I drifted into a flashback: the flimsy staircase at Baja Malibu, my Arabian chanting under the Spanish blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus, the dollar-richer not-so-Spanish-looking kid, the fuckin’ hounds with pronounced canines, then the seduction lesson by a squad of aristocratically trained Latina mamas. It had been a hell of a day.
When I stumbled through my front door, my crusty-eyed and freshly awakened roommate said, “Oh, hey, man, I was going to go with you this morning, but I heard the surf was flat and it wouldn’t be worth it.” I smiled and said, “Yeah, perhaps” and fell straight into bed.