The good news about our arrival in North America in mid-December was that, in spite of arriving too late in São Paulo for our connection and being re-routed through Washington, D.C. (not exactly on the way to Los Angeles), we were upgraded to business class. Ahhhhhh, that seat for overnight! The bad news was that when we approached the immigration officer in D.C. he enthusiastically called out to Newton, “So this is your mother!” Once Newt had corrected him, I added, “Give me a break, I just flew all night.” I keep hoping my red, teary, plane-allergy eyes and our long-stolen wedding rings could explain? This guy would have let me through with explosives strapped on, he was so embarrassed!
Everything looked up again when we saw Elise, at last. After a couple of days, the three of us drove down to Baja, Mexico, to meet up with Jake, his girlfriend Larissa and her mother, Danya, of Albany and San Diego. Jake was moving at that time from Tijuana to the town of Rosarito, where many more online poker players hang out. We had rented a beautiful condo on the ocean there for five weeks, and Elise and Danya stayed for the holiday portion. We were escaping the construction hell at our house and awaiting a California trade show for Newton in late January.
Oh, Christmas Tree
It can be challenging to find a good Christmas tree on December 23rd, but it turned out to be impossible in Rosarito. The last one on the lot looked like a soaked Yorkie (soaked in soggy white foam ‘snow’). We tried the Mexican Walmart (they were out of trees) and experienced something I can only call surreal, but then I am not a Walmart shopper when it’s not two days before Christmas, either. The words “crowded” and “racks of surplus” come to mind.
Giving up, we later pulled into the condo garage only to really notice for the first time a large metal sculpture of cactus that someone had deposited there. After we dragged it inside, I pulled out the colored paper, scissors and lights I had brought in lieu of ornaments. A frenzy of spirals and snowflakes ensued, and in no time we had a real Mexican Christmas tree! It was very pretty by the fire, which was absolutely necessary every evening.
The six of us were especially good at going to restaurants, but I made my one signature dish – macaroni and cheese not from a box – on Christmas Eve. We were all also very good at hitting the hot tub outdoors around sunset, and very good at playing loads of games together. Jake travels with quite a stash of games, so we competed seriously through several versions of trivia; we laughed through ‘Headbandz,’ where everyone has to guess the person, place or thing written on the card on their foreheads by asking yes or no questions; we panicked through “Catch Phrase” on Jake’s cell phone, where you guess from your partner’s hints what random thing has come up, according to the category, before the increasingly rapid beeps run out. (These beeps generally coincided with heart palpitations at that point.) This was very fun at home or at beach bars until we exhausted all the good categories and had to go with ‘Words of the Dead.’ ‘Bananagrams’ crossword is always a favorite; then there was that one where you chose whether to draw, act out charades, roll letters and make a sentence, or hum - to indicate the answer. Many laughs. Oh, and there was arm wrestling.
The hot tub is hidden here; it’s on the far patio:
We drove the beautiful scenic highway south to Ensenada and the wine trail. We seemed to be the only people on the wine trail, so a man at a freezing castle-like winery opened a tiny cell, complete with iron bars, and sold us our tastings. This place below was much nicer and free from dungeon fantasies, though I wasn’t a big fan of Mexican wines; the reds seem heavy, there are few whites, and all are rather expensive. Apparently, some Russians started the vineyards in the region.
Auld Lang Syne
New Year’s Eve was mostly…just…freezing. I’m convinced it was 37˚ tops, and we went to a basically open air bar near the beach. Even just three months after freezing in Dublin, I stubbornly opted not to pack my winter coat once again. I made do with a blazer and wool scarf. Danya did pack appropriately and had to get a cab home, anyway. I toughed it out, miserable standing next to the fires they had built in table-side wheel barrows which stunk up clothing (permanently) and burned the eyes and lungs more than they warmed anyone. My one drink for the evening was a sipped shot of tequila, as everything else just sounded cold. The highlight was definitely Newton and then Jake clinging to the mechanical bull. Impressive; hilarious. Kinda sad. The gang seemed much more impervious to the cold than I and helped to jolly-up the event.
Mexican Extortion Story
Newton drove to Tijuana with Jake to pack up the remainder of his possessions; the other roommates had already moved out. It was only several days later that Jake discovered he had left his custom desktop computer under the table in the most beautiful high rise in Tijuana. In a panic, he called the realtor to see if the computer was still there and to arrange to pick it up. Apparently, Jake’s ‘friend’ who had held the lease had objected to this guy’s shady realtor tactics and had withheld several months of rent, unbeknownst to Jake. Now Mr. Shady wanted to recoup some of that via Jake’s computer, even though Jake had faithfully paid his share to his ‘friend.’ Now the friend said he would rather pay for Jake to get a new computer than deal with Mr. Shady Realtor any further, so Jake offered $1,000 for the realtor to allow him to go up and retrieve it. The realtor countered with $1,200. Jake said he would do the transaction only with a receipt - so there could be no pocketing of the cash which should go to the apartment’s owner.
On the appointed day, Jake, Newt, Larissa and I drove off to Tijuana to get Jake’s computer and eat in one of his favorite restaurants. The Shady Guy was surprised to see Newton there planning to go up to the flat with Jake and whispered, “Oh, just the two of us.” Newton insisted. Upstairs, Jake asked for the receipt before handing over the money, the Guy refused to give a receipt, Jake grabbed his big computer and the Realtor Guy grabbed him, Newton pushed the realtor away and Jake made it through the door, calling the realtor a crook. The script gets awkwardly funny at this point because they all three had to wait for the elevator and ride down. The Realtor kept saying he would call the police, that this was not the way “we do it in Mexico,” to which Jake and Newton happily replied, “go ahead, call the police.” Newt called Larissa and me in the lobby and said to hightail it to the car in the garage. The rendezvous at the exit gate (open, thankfully) included some sidekick thug who said we were not allowed to take anything from the apartment, a completely silent cop who would not make eye contact with anybody, the crooked realtor, who said we could never prove the computer was ours, to which Newt replied, “We could prove it in a second.” Jake was yelling from the back seat to the gate party that this guy was a con artist. It occurred to all of us in the car at about the same second that the policeman was not going to intervene for the shady guy and that the gate was open right there in front of us, so we just suddenly pulled out. Instead of enjoying a favorite Tijuana restaurant, we hit the highway and didn’t even stop in Rosarito; we sped past to a popular place…laughing, re-enacting, worrying, celebrating, with intermittent silence.
I took advantage of our extra weeks in this peaceful place to counter the stress and personal grief caused by the construction that has been clobbering us from across the road and, even more so, on the road in front of our house. Warm sunny days made breakfast and lunch on our Mexican patio possible without the interruption of fumy delivery trucks. I could do yoga on the bedroom balcony any morning with little more than the sound of gentle ocean waves and a gorgeous view to distract me. What was missing from my pre-construction beloved routine was the more untamed experience of nature from my Brazilian balcony perch. And this precisely manicured landscaping must have been sprayed, as almost no creatures were visible anywhere apart from the wonderful gulls and fish-divers over the ocean. I came to cherish one hummingbird and the poor one-legged seagull who spent hours on the railing in the hot tub area. It’s hard to say one misses insects, but the invisible, insidious reason they were absent bothered me. Very joyous to observe were the seemingly endless, smooth rides the wet-suited surfers caught in the frigid Pacific in front of us. Some of the surfers were quite old, but then Danya and I stumbled onto some young, dashing movie-star-caliber youths peeling off their wet suits on our walk. I love beauty.
Rosarito and the surrounding area, being so close to San Diego, host many, many Americans who either have vacation houses, commute from there to work in San Diego, or live there as retirees and surfers (and online poker players). The condos are well-appointed and hardly Third World. In fact, we used our first garbage disposal and garbage compactor here, not to mention our lovely reunion with a dishwasher and a clothes dryer! Between these fancy condos along the highway is the mix of charmless local businesses, great artisan souvenir shops and quite a spate of mostly foreign-owned restaurants for the gringo clientele. We had some wonderful meals. The juxtaposition of this mammoth statue of Jesus overlooking elegant gringo mansions says it all. We wondered: if Jesus were to crash down onto the homes in a storm, would that be considered an act of God by the insurance companies?
The police are instructed, apparently, to leave the gringos alone on the highway and look the other way when gringos bar-hop with drinks-in-hand. Locals are not allowed such privilege. Of course, there are the wayward cops who prey on tourists or the clueless by stopping them on the road and devising a bribe-or-jail type scenario, but savvy gringos know what names to throw around to jeopardize the cops’ employment. Though I passed most of my time in the peaceful condo, I held on to any local flavor I found, being in Mexico and all. Best were the real taco joints and the extraordinary ceramic, glass, and metalwork sold in the artisan shops. These set Mexico apart, certainly from the Northeast of Brazil. Most of the Mexicans were truly lovely – friendly and gentle – if slightly too deferential to the rich gringos who, for certain, bring a higher standard of living to the area with their dollars.
Jake and Larissa found a great condo for the year a few minutes up the highway and moved in in early January.
Elise managed a fun long weekend visit over Martin Luther King Day. We all returned to Tijuana to take her to the border, ducking near Jake’s old apartment and having lunch at Caesar's – the birthplace of the Caesar Salad. We found their version absolutely without equal. Crossing the border is a common topic of conversation around there, as the regular car line can mean three hours of waiting (and this happened to Elise and Danya after New Year’s). Commuters carry a special pass for a faster lane, and, as Elise discovered on this second crossing, vans and special taxis are available to hasten the pedestrian experience. She rode a van all the way to Los Angeles for $25, though it was a bit duct taped-together. At the end of our stay, Newton and I found a special cab while dragging all our luggage to the pedestrian line. We were so relieved, having paid in advance, when the driver re-materialized after dropping us at the customs and immigration point. He took me to the San Diego train station and Newton to the airport. Newton was heading to Lake Tahoe to ski with his business partners ahead of their trade show, and I was off to L.A. for 6 days with my beautiful daughter. Adios, Jake and Larissa!