Departures: NM99: Part 3

Juarez City... Border Double-Crossing...

In Juarez City

1999.03.19 FRI

I crossed the bridge, looking down at the Rio Grande, which was in a cement-lined bed. The Rio Grande had changed course some time back, changing national boundaries as a result. Nations could no longer allow that sort of thing to happen, so they'd created this channel for the river. There appeared to be almost no water in it--"Grande" hardly seemed the word to describe it. There was a canal running alongside of it, on the USA side, that held more water. I suppose it would be a pity to let a bunch of foreigners get ahold of too much of our water, especially out here in this desert.

I suppose I was in a grumpy mood when I stepped off the bridge and onto La Avenida Juarez en El Cuidad Juarez. I walked past the guys who yelled "Hey, taxi," not realizing that they were not trying to call taxis--they were offering their services. I walked down a narrow, straight street lined with narrow retail storefronts. Every third business was a bar, closed at this early hour. There were stores selling knick-knacks, there were stores selling crafts, there were restaurants. But mostly there were bars. It could have been anywhere. It felt like Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco--an area which still drew tourists even though it had long since lost whatever made it different from any other tourist trap. Delivery trucks brought ingredients to restaurants, re-supplied shops with bric-a-brac. One guy got up close to me and tried to sell me some cigarettes. I wondered how bustling this place got at night if I was getting hustled this hard before 9:00 in the morning.

About a klick South of the border, there was a plaza, a mission, an old city hall. The plaza was pleasant. Scattered groups of people talked in low tones. Older people sat alone, taking in the scene. I walked through the plaza, up some steps to the raised yard in front of the church, sat and looked down at the plaza for a while. This plaza felt more genuine than the street of bars I'd left behind. This plaza reminded me of similar public gathering places in San Francisco's Mission district.

People keep talking about how multi-cultural San Francisco is. I suppose they're right. I'd picked up about as much Mexican culture living in San Francisco as I was likely to get dallying in this bordertown.

Most of the old city hall's carved doors were covered with sheets of black plastic. Its windows were covered with plastic. I bobbed around with my camera, trying for a picture that showed off the building's ornament without being overpowered by these preservationist measures. My concentration was broken by a guy who wanted me to take a picture of him feeding pigeons. I peered at him. He didn't seem crazy, yet he seemed to seriously think I might want to take a picture of someone feeding pigeons. I smiled and edged away. Maybe my radar for street-crazies didn't work in this foreign land.

I wasn't exactly sure what to do next, so I kept walking.

I walked East along La Avenida 16 De Septiembre. The touristy area fell away into a general retail area, which in turn fell away to a ramshackle area. This area had some businesses, some empty buildings, some gutted buildings, and some empty lots. I walked past a barbed-wire-enclosed dirt parking lot as an armed guard escorted a parker from the lot to a doctor's office across the street. There was an occasional mansion, each one with a walled-in yard in front.

Eventually, a new touristy area started to emerge. While the area on the Northern stretch of La Avenida Juarez had catered to foot traffic, this area seemed to expect vanloads of people to show up, hungry for platters of food and pitchers of alcohol. I began to think that Chevy's might be more authentic than I gave it credit for.

Around the ProNaf center, I took some pictures, finished a roll of film, and changed film. I cleverly abandoned the finished roll of film on the ground after I was done, not realizing this until hours later. Same bonehead maneuver I'd pulled in Miyajima.

[Photo: ProNaf!]

ProNaf Center. Some might say it's not a very impressive photo, but it was the first one of the trip that I didn't misplace, so I'm fond of it.

I wondered if some Mexican local would find my roll of film, develop it out of curiosity. I wonder what this hypothetical local would think of all the photos of ancient telephone switchboards.

I headed North, never seeing the "Lincoln Statue" mentioned by the AAA map, but had no trouble spotting the shiny gold-colored lion statue (provided by Lions Club International) or the mind-bogglingly gaudy huge yellow and purple gear statue (provided by the Rotary Club International). I wondered if the local government kept these monstrosities around as admonishments to local artists: it's up to you to keep aesthetic standards high; we obviously can't rely on the Americans.

[Photo: El Pollo Loco en Espanol]

I walked North along La Avenida De Las America. I walked along the sidewalk. When I ran out of sidewalk, I walked along the dirt shoulder. When I ran out of dirt shoulder (when it ramped away into a steep slope), I ran along the edge of the road until I could run across another road to another place with a sidewalk. I began to suspect that I wasn't really in a place where pedestrians were supposed to be. But this seemed like the best way to get to the Bridge of the Americas, a route back to El Paso and the USA, so I perservered.

I came to a sort of monument. It would have been an island in an artificial pool if the pool had been filled with water; since the pool was empty, it was a strange stone and cement monument, a raised platform with daises and flagpoles. Apparently it was part of a ceremony to celebrate how well the USA and Mexico got along after they resolved their border dispute when the Rio Grande had gone wandering. No-one was there now except for me and a gardener. I continued Northward.

Back in the US&A

I came to a bridge. Unlike the Santa Fe Street bridge, there weren't any helpful signs telling me which way to go here, but I soon found a pedestrian area on the side of the bridge and once again crossed over the sickly Rio Grande.

Photo: View of the border from the Bridge of the Americas.
[Photo: That ditch? That's the border?]

On the other side, I found myself confused. To my right, cars whizzed Southward. To my left were sloping concrete barriers and chainlink fence. Ahead of me was a simple concrete shack. There was no obvious way to go. There was a 4x4 Border Patrol vehicle in front of the shack, with someone inside. I started stumbling towards him, wearing my best clueless expression.

A border patrol guard emerged from the vehicle. "Did you just come from there?" Yes, I had.

"Okay, you need to go over to the other side of the road." I looked at the road, at the cars whizzing past. My eyes got wide. I asked, "That road?"

The guard pointed out that there were breaks in the traffic, and sure enough there were. I hopped the barrier and trotted across the road to a building on the other side, which turned out to the customs and immigration gate. There I showed my passport to a disinterested guard. He asked me what was in my backpack. I said it was my jacket and camera and stuff. Then I started sweating. My camera was in my pocket. It wasn't in my backpack. I'd lied to a customs official. Not necessarily a smart thing for a longhaired boy to do entering the USA from Mexico. But the guard waved me through without searching anything. Maybe he figured that most drug smugglers know enough about border crossings to walk on the right side of the road.

I emerged from the building onto a sidewalk next to highway 110. I was in a maze of overpasses and underpasses in which I wandered, lost, for the next 15 minutes. I finally emerged, took my bearings from the radio towers on Comanche Peak and Crazycat mountain, and started trudging back towards downtown and my motel.

Along the way, I stopped at some dive called La Poblana for lunch. There was a lot of formica in evidence. This was not a classy joint. I got cheese enchiladas with onions on top. They tasted better than the supposedly super-duper spinach enchiladas I'd had the day before. The enchilada sauce was nothing special but the onions gave them some flavor.

I walked back to the motel, taking in the sights of Montana Avenue.

I showered, changed, and went for dinner at Gonzalo's, a restaurant on Nevada Street, cross-street Kansas. It wasn't mentioned in my guidebooks, so I suppose I shouldn't have liked the food, but it had the best food I'd had in El Paso. Once again, I found myself eating cheese enchiladas. Once again, they weren't particularly exciting cheese enchiladas. But these were the best I'd had so far. And the decor of the place was great. Exposed brick walls, a fountain, lots of flowers. I could have sat there all night, except that I would have felt self-conscious taking up a table so long after I was done eating.

You've heard that too much fatty food is bad for you? It's true. After eating those cheese enchiladas, I was walking back to my motel room. I was pretty phlegmatic, and was coughing a lot. At one point I looked up from coughing, only to notice that I'd walked out into the middle of the street with the crossing light against me. Motorists were glaring at me. I was glad that none of them had run me over. Just say no to excessive dairy products, kids!


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