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Tales From The Borderland

I remember entering Tijuana. In the early 70’s it stunk of decaying dead dogs, acrid burning rubber tires, and acrid choking diesel exhaust. Grey and shabby. Crowded with humanity. Poor, desperate. Very few places I had been to in the past could have measured up to the squalor and destitution of that town. Yet, it had a certain likable charm. Hard to describe. I suppose you had to be there to see it.

I drove south along the San Diego border fence. Along the river aqueduct heading to Playas de Rosarito. It was a more upscale version of that same endless stretch of humanity. I passed all the futile and failed attempts to breach the borderline fence. Faceless people, mostly men, sat with their mochilas- backpacks. They were waiting for that slim chance to dash into the open fields of the US. It was something that for most would be but a crushed and distant dream. For many, life along the border felt made up of those endless hopes. Made up of failed attempts, and broken promises.

From there the trip would take me to La Fonda, Rosarito Beach, past Salsipuedes. Then on to the high bluffs overlooking the beautiful Pacific Ocean.

Before arriving at the port city of Ensenada, I would stop at my favorite panaderia. A great little tienda that sold what I would easily say was the world’s best bolillo. It was a “to die for” hard roll that was on par with the finest of European bread. These panaderos lost no opportunity to use that famous ingredient—Manteca de Cerdo. Pork lard. They used it when preparing those delicious treats. The smell of the baking rolls coming from the small confined kitchen was maddening. It was intoxicating. I couldn’t help but grab those little gems and stuff them into a plastic bag. Then buy some mantequilla, and after, resume my drive to the community of Ensenada. My head was spinning with the thought of sitting on a quiet tranquil beach, bollio bag in hand. Along with a short supply of Tres XXX beer and a small larder of cheese--far from the maddening crowd.

Beyond the Muelle, the road ran south and led to a right-hand turn that fed onto the infamous Estero Beach. It was a long spit of sand dunes and trails that encircled a large swampy lagoon. It filled with crab, fish and ghost shrimp--maybe a bat ray or two. Across the road and on the ocean side, I knew of wonderful and secret hot pools. Along the edge of the ocean, one had to test the waters with one’s feet. Then feel for a hint of warmth, and dig in the shore break to find those gems of paradise. Only then to make a small shallow trough to lie in and enjoy the morning tranquility. Bolillos, soft sun, hot water, cold beer. To quote George Gershwin: “Who could ask for anything more?”

After setting up my campsite along the lagoon, I headed to the abandoned casino. It was a holdover from the prohibition era of 1920 to 1933. It was a hybrid of Spanish and Moorish style. With, at one time, a grand tiled roof and surrounded by wondrous gardens. Built by the famous boxer, Jack Dempsey. It was also rumored that gangster Al Capone was one of the corporation’s silent and secret partners. A bit of a dark past.

At that time, the casino was a hotbed of gambling and everyday vice. It drew many celebrities. Along with movie stars and other notables hoyploy from the north side of the border. As predicted, after the alcohol ban lifted the casino took a nose-dive and fell into decay. There was no longer a need to make that long drive from the US to Ensenada. Only to enjoy the heady and illicit highlife.

I found myself in a burned-out shell of a building. The proud walls held few remnants of their gleaming past. The white pillars lining the main thoroughfare shed their broken pieces on the floor. The soft glow of the late afternoon light entered. It came through the broken remnants of the once beautiful glass windows. One of the wonders of the casino’ was the Grand Ballroom pavilion. Large, circular, cavernous. But, the best part was its ceiling- a huge dome structure roughly 15 meters in width and 10 meters high. Its architectural shape created a wonderous “Taj Mahal” echo effect. The flutist, Paul Horn, could have saved a long trip to India had he known about this. (Paul Horn, Inside the Taj Mahal I & II)

Standing on the outer perimeter of the room I clpped my hands. The sound produced a diminishing clap-clap-clap-clap-clap-clap delay. As I walked closer to the center and clapped, the sound shortened. It became a faster cla-cla-cla-cla-cla sound. Finally, at the very heart of the room I clapped again. I heard the amazing c-------l------a------p. A long, pure delay that reverberated for over 30 seconds. Then it desolved back to silence. Being there by myself and feeling free, I couldn’t help but indulge in a bit of discrete esoteric vowel chanting. The ancient and deceased Monks of Mexico were with me that moment. The room swirled with the spiritual sounds of mock high prayer. An ode to the bolillo gods!

The next morning, I got up early as the sun was rising. The day had proved to be a perfect one for ghost shrimping. The tide was out, the breakers small and the wind mild. I had brought my trusty homemade ghost shrimping tool. In anticipation of this very moment. I kept it in the car. Picture this; a long tube of PVC, 4” in diameter, with a wooden handle crossing it at the top end. It was like some kind of nautic Celtic cross. Inserted into the PVC pipe, near the handle, was a custom-made plunger. Created from another smaller piece of PVC. And, designed to produce a vacuum when pulling the plunger back. Very cool.

I pushed the tube into the sand at the surf line, pushed it in as deep as the beach would allow and pulled back the handle. I withdrew and swung the device around toward the dry section of the beach. Then expelled my expectant catch onto the ground. My lucky day! There lie several small briny and glistening ghost shrimps; beautiful and transparent. Most people would have used them for bait, but not me. After several hours of collecting my catch, I headed back to my campsite, grabbed a metal pot, and threw them in. Adding in a little water, I stirred them up a bit and then let them soak until they cleaned.

Into the pot went carrots, garlic, onion, parsley or cilantro, salt, and pepper, and of course wine. Soon, after applying a little heat, the brew was stewing sinisterly. It was smelling fabulous. Bouillabaisse by the Sea. It wasn’t long before the other campers were checking out the source of the maddening aromas. They couldn’t believe that someone could create a feast from such a simple sea creature, in such a simple place. Huele Bien! Más Que Bien! I made some friends that day.

The sun soon set. The night cooled. And, the stars appeared as they began their glittering evening display. Yet, it’s funny how you know when it’s time to go. Something says, “It’s that time, pack it up.” Could be intuition. I don’t know. So, the next morning I left.

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