Tijuana Mission Trip 2.0

I. Prologue: Flight to San Diego.

The guy next to me has never been on a plane before. We are rubbing elbows en route San Diego. Clouds rejoice out the window. I’m high on music and the joy of another day. Planes make me emotional. Pen to paper, burgundy ink, tears in my eyes. Acceptance speech for a sunrise. I thirst and repent.

We fly above a blanket of water made white in altitude. The wing reads: NO STEP. Or is it PETS ON? I’m in an anagram mood. Palindrome if you can get it. It’s how the west was won. Or how the stew was now.

It’s Sunday morning, July 21, 2019. I’ll be crossing over into Tijuana later on, if everything goes according to plan. I am to rendezvous with a group of 28 from my brother-in-law’s church, Burlingame Presbyterian. We’ll be building a house somewhere in Tijuana this week, up on a hillside I hope. Mesa, cerro, montón.

I ate a falafel sandwich in the airport. It was from a stall at the University City, MO farmer’s market, dateline yesterday. Falafel, parsley, diced tomato, pickled cabbage—wrapped in a pita-like bread that my wife calls “lavash”. She likes saying that word. It’s a great falafel, generous portion. Five bucks. A steal.

She got me up at three o’clock. “Huh? What day is it? Where the heck am I?” was my response. My phone alarm triggered six minutes later. A bit of turbulence now, as we’re back in a cloud. Not the cloud but an actual, literal cloud. A piece of weather. Bring on the horns. Captain assay. Kansas the Obscure.

I’ve requested water, one ear open, the other with music in it. Bumps on this flight but no bruises. Sound like a bruise of the air. Fashion wazy, super wavy, undone undulation, tropical trombone. Will somebody please get the phone? My sternum is ringing with weekend sunshine.

Cloud sandwich, thin blue meat of sky. Occupy Wall Street, occupy the bathroom. Mouth for me please the words, “There’s somebody in there.” No entrada. Por supuesto. Por favor. Necesitamos construir la presa. The reservoir, the dam. The aquifer that filled a million years ago. I promise, I’ll sip slowly.

Sit up straight. Brush your teeth. Floss. Love your neighbor. Wash behind your ears. Get eight hours of sleep. Stay in your seat when the seatbelt sign is illuminated. Look both ways before crossing your t’s. Dot your i’s. Do me proud.

“Is this going to be another modern medicinal opus?”

“Man, I don’t know what it’s going to be.”

“It can be whatever you want it to be.”

“Its own instrument.”

“That only you can play.”

“That I play best.”

Music shuffle’s killin’ it over Kansas. Or Oklahoma, wherever we are. New Mexico maybe. Arcade Fire, Herb Alpert, Grateful Dead. I didn’t know the song “Althea” until yesterday. Or I wasn’t conscious of knowing it. Helm might’ve played it.

I’ve been building up a massive playlist I’m calling “Old and New For Ever”. Nearing 500 songs. All the hits, all the classics. I see nothing now. I’ve got very thick sunglasses on. Ice chomp. Word games. Game words. Mega sword. Drawer reward.

Crop circles of New Mexico drawn by demons demonstrating decency. What? Oh, I drank a lava lamp. I recalcitrant time. I James Joyce. I Ulysses. I am stowed fully beneath the seat in front of me. One, two, three hours. Nine times sudoku. “Nine times….” Is it OK if I write awhile, if I write a mile? If not I’ll just nap on this lovely looking cloud, this funny looking glass, this jabberwocky, this frabjous portmanteau. Is nuclear unclear? Sí.

Where’s this stuff coming from? Bernoulli divine. Geyser gallery, regalry, fina naif, serious cirrus, Icarus rescue, circus cruise, purple scruple, crepuscular corpuscle. Miniature minivan fits only one kid.

Iron noir, in the thing of the night, Tecate coyote, freight fighter, order redone, condone the condor now that it’s no longer endangered. It’s a mask scam, where the deals lead. Someone leaked the decal, the lads were clad in magenta magnets, bedlam was balmed with a marble ramble. In-flight ice cream: terse desert or tapioca apricot?

II. Make a Run for the MCD.

Filet-O-Fish and fries makes me think of lunch at MCD on the road with my Dad.

At 11:52 Pacific daylight I was at a McDonalds, 4350 Palm Avenue, San Diego, CA. I ate two Filet-O-Fish and a small fry.

After McDonald’s, I went outside and looked for a spot to sit. I took a seat on the ground against the brick in front of some dark, apparently closed restaurant. I didn’t know what the name was. “Hong Kong Egg Waffle” read a sign in its window.

I put my writing glasses on, got out my pen and notebook. And… a minute later an orange car pulled up, three people got out and proceeded to open the door to the dim restaurant. The proprietress gave me a look. I felt like a bum.

So I’ve moved. I’m now upright but leaning against the front of a truly empty storefront a couple doors down. It feels like an H & R Block used to be in there. I’m not very comfortable. Lugging my enormous backpack around has stressed my neck and part of my back.

There’s a park across the street. Men of an indeterminate age are playing soccer. It’s in the seventies here. The airport was freezing. I hung around there for a couple of hours after my flight landed but I did very little.

I just sat and watched people mill about. Families in the midst of travel drudgery. There was a squeaky Yorkie. I was near baggage claim. Numerous people were waiting for luggage that was apparently spinning unclaimed on another carousel. Looks of mystery on these travelers’ faces. The airport did seem to have a problem matching the carousels with the incoming flights.

A man steps out from the Toritos Mexican Grill, says “Sí,” then vanishes.

There was a hiccup concerning our van rentals. The order was for four minivans but the rental company was virtually out of minivans so we got only one minivan and then two of the larger passenger vans, which seat 12-15.

Fitting our people isn’t a problem but Dan, the leader of this trip, is a little concerned about our cross to Mexico. He has indicated to the Mexican government that we are showing up in four minivans (in addition to: the two Sprinter-style cargo vans, which the group rents in the Bay Area and drives down; and, Frank’s truck, which he packs with a cornucopia of tools, buckets, stakes, sponges, shovels, and wheelbarrows and drives down from southern California).

I am in the lone minivan, which can seat seven if necessary. I am one of two eligible drivers. John N, the other driver, drove us to this strip mall from the car rental branch, down I-5. He is an attorney with a military background. His two sons are in the van as well as a nephew of his. And Danilo, who plays baseball.

III. 940 Dennery Road.

At 13:23 we are leaving San Diego. We rendezvoused with the rest of the group at 940 Dennery Road, same as last year. It is outside the Starbucks at this location that our group checks in with representatives from Amor, the organization that runs the entire operation we will be participating in. Amor owns the camp where we set up our tents. They work with the people in Tijuana whose houses we will be constructing. And they always have one of their employees with us while we are at the job site and as we are driving to and fro. In short, they act as constant liaisons on our behalf.

Looking east through the parking lot at 940 Dennery Rd.

I did a couple of things different at the rendezvous point this time around.

I had caught some sun sitting outside the Starbucks there last year, as we waited for some delayed members of our group to catch up with us. This year I told myself I was going to get out my sunscreen at the airport in San Diego and get some on. Which I did.

I also heard it suggested that there were bathrooms at the Home Depot about a hundred yards away from the Starbucks. I’m reluctant to go into a business and use the bathroom if I’m not buying anything. I thought about getting a shot of espresso at Starbucks but I couldn’t justify it.

So I hurried over to the Home Depot, empty Nalgene clipped to a loop on my shorts. I walked to the far side of the store, past every aisle, where I found a spacious bathroom. On the way out I filled my Nalgene at a water fountain. Yeah, I didn’t buy anything at Home Depot either but I felt much less conspicuous going into the big-box store than I would have in a café. And I have done plenty of business with Home Depot over the years. This was a stop I will make again.

Now we’re headed to the border. John N is driving. Our seventh van member, work site leader Mike M, has joined us and is sitting shotgun. Mike’s been on something like thirty of these mission trips now. This won’t even be his first foray into Tijuana to work on an Amor house this year.

IV. Crossing into Tijuana

Just as quickly as we leave the shopping center at 940 Dennery we are executing a brazen seven-vehicle convoy pull-over. Not sure why. Maybe we are doubling up with another group? We just about had an accident, the convoy sort of trailing back into traffic as we tried to fit ourselves along the side of the road.

OK, we’re rolling now, along the 805. To the 905. A worn footpath in sere grass. International Border, five miles. Mountains in the distance. Otay Mesa. Siempre Vivre Rd. John is calling out the names of exits. U Turn to the USA.

Nada que declarar. Estados Unidos Mexicanos.

At 13:54 we are waiting at the border. Off to our side is a bay for pequeña importación, low value imports. Engine off, windows down. The Amor rep is asking us to open our back door, the trunk. I can see people walking through the border crossing. There’s a dog now, a canine giving our bags a sniff.

Trunk closed. That’s a relief. I’m taking a close look now at one of the two large passenger vans. It’s long! I wouldn’t want to be driving it.

Salida. Exit. Mexico. Tijuana. There’s a backup coming the other way. We’re pulled over again, voluntarily. A pine tree out the window. I don’t think we crossed into Mexico through this station last year. “Alto” reads a red octagonal sign with white letters. A parque.

Tecate corridor, Highway 2. A stop light. Palm trees, what looks like an aspen. It’s dry. Prickly pear. Sushi restaurant. Soccer field. Bomberos Tijuana. Street food. Now an opening. Valleying. A father and son pushing their bikes up a hill.

“This road’s better than El Camino for crying out loud.”

We’re between mountains, like in Colorado, or Utah. Wall! Border wall. To our left, to the north. Contiguous. Iron? A rusty red. Eight feet high? It cuts into the hillside.

Suddenly it’s a little greener. Wind in the palms. Some flattening out. By the looks of it, the playa at camp will be windy. Stones, boulders on the hillsides. I’ve lost sight of the wall as we’ve tended south.

This is a smooth road. Turning to the south. Large round boulders. Accesso planta dart. Windmill. This is the back way into camp. It has a rural feel but there’s actually quite a few plants or factories back in here. The road has gotten very rocky. A metal structure manufacturer. Galvanization. A burned area. Car carcasse. Lots of old tires. A guy in a chair under the shade of a tree just looking out at the road. Railroad.

We take a right onto a much smoother, paved road. There are lots of cars stopped on the side of this road. There are canopies set up. Lots of them. Is it a market? We’re close to camp. Turning right, I know this road. There’s the old, snub-nosed flatbed lorry. The silo-like red cylinder lying on its side in the dust. At 14:42 we are at the Amor Hacienda Camp.

V. Settling in at Camp, in My Tiny Tent.

I’m in my tent unpacking. I hear Mike M outside, checking out my Eureka Spitfire.

“Who’s in that tent?” he asks someone. “That’s a tiny tent.”

Ha, yeah it is. It’s a backpacking tent but it can and will—and has!—slept two. Plus a Yorkie. Plenty of times. Right now I’m rolling up the fly flaps to get some breeze going through here. That helps. The sides of the tent itself are largely mesh so when I roll up the fly flaps I’m basically sleeping right outside. Now the setting sun wants in, too. It has not cooled down yet.

I’ve showered, standing to dry—the wind. I’ve got enough room in here, I think. B’s air mattress seems sufficient. There was a spider in here. Hmm. Not sure where it came from. I’m trying to write, propped up on my left side. It’s uncomfortable.

What I’d love here at camp more than anything is a desk in the shade. The simple things go far. I could sit at one of the tables under the mess tent, where we have breakfast and dinner. But if I’m writing there it’s pretty antisocial. Not that I say much anyway. Mostly I just listen. I do miss Graham being here.

I haven’t looked around carefully but it sure does look like there’s been some development directly northwest of here, toward what I think is San Ysidro Mountain. Grading. A leveling into the slope of the mountain. Maybe some construction right around that gas pipeline node, if that’s what it really is. Maybe it’s just a propane storage plant. That’s what Dr Mark calls it. Boy, I’m roasting in here. There’s the dinner bell anyway.

18:46. We ate. Rice, beans, carnitas. Corn chips. There were tortillas but I like making nachos out of this meal. I used my metal plate, bamboo utensil and metal cup. Cheryl commented on my attempt at sustainable dinnerware. I used water and a couple napkins to wipe everything down.

“Was there a dessert?”

“No, but do you want the rest of my churros?”

She drops an F-bomb.

“Watch your language!”

“I’m trying!”

I am a little homesick. This is good for me but I’ve got a pit in my stomach.

VI. First Night: Ukulele, Sunset and Jupiter.

Peter N, with his ukulele, and Brian and Asher W
(photo by John N)

One of the younger band members—Peter N, from my van—has a ukulele. And he plays it well. It’s a sweet sound. Bright and citrusy. What a sunset tonight. Cirrus—mare’s tails. Some high cumulus. Pink and orange. Gradual.

Alex led worship tonight, did a fine job. Played the keyboard too, his forte. We sang but not so loudly. The younger guys had the fire going. Scrap wood. Small groups. Good group. Frank’s in mine, leads mine. Sincere group.

This setting draws the emotion out of me. Like night does a bat. But why not talk about what’s important? And how can what’s important not make me emotional? There are young men here with their fathers. It’s not that I wish I had done this trip with my Dad. But it makes me think about the time machine I want to get in, the one I don’t have. That doesn’t even exist. And maybe just feeling that, and meaning it—knowing that feeling. Maybe that’s as good as anything. But why does it fill my eyes with tears?

I’m on my back in my tent, headlamp on, green ink to paper. There seem to be very small—pequeña—pale bugs—wood lice?—in this tent. Did I bring them, from my attic, where the tent is stored? Unlikely. I see that they can pass through the mesh of this tent.

I turn off my headlamp, look out. It’s dark. The stars are better here than I recall. Less haze? Looking south, as my tent runs lengthwise roughly east-west… I see what looks like Scorpius. Yes. And what’s that misfit “star” glomming onto Scorpius but Jupiter, the brightest object in this sky. If I had binoculars I could see its moons. I’ve got a poem about it, written earlier this month but not yet posted. Jupiter has dozens and dozens of moons. Las lunas. One is bigger than Mercury.

This trip is gonna do a number on this tent. I didn’t bring the piece of two-ply plastic sheeting I made to fit under it, what I call the “footprint”. I could only carry so many things. I see a stone indenting up into the tent floor, thinking about trying to get through. Alas. Alackaday. Amor.

I’m tired. I’ve got my teeth to clean. There are road sounds but not many. I see planes traveling the same approach path to… Tijuana’s airport? But I can’t hear them. I saw cattle in a neighboring field. The surname of the family we’ll be building for is ‘Olivares’. It’s 21:20.

Propane storage facility sounds. Loud metallic thudding. A truck exiting from there, a drum on wheels. Did my teeth, topped my mattress off. Phone, via battery pack, is at 99%. Took a look at both Dippers. Me and Polaris, a kinship. There are more lights at night across the gravel road to the west. More activity on that road, too.

I’m not certain what the temperature is but I was just out in a t-shirt and shorts. This is a higher low than what we had last year. A horn sounds twice, now again. Sunday night in Tijuana. Farther away out there… music. From a car? It’s faint.

I miss my dog, and my wife, and my parents, and my brother. Otherwise there’s not much I’m lacking for—that desk. Jupiter is so bright. A year ago—heck, a month ago!—I could not have told you that it was Jupiter.

VII. Night Poem: Las Lunas de Gavilán.

I didn’t see it coming,
Not like that comet.
They forecast that comet
From out of Cepheus,
Windward of Venus.

Red lamp
Mesh tent
Time change
Baja breakfast

Las lunas de Gavilán,

Whose gold we are—
Whose gold are we?

Not the first lamp,
Not the tiki torch

The bunsen in the throat
The manic thermostat
That pickled cabbage ponytail
Whipped me with its real long braid.

I am sleeping in my luggage.

Only the bullfrog
Who breathes red light
Knows when I’ll awake.

VIII. First Morning: Sound the Alarm.

It’s 2:32. I’ve slept alright. Had to voy al baño. The good news is I drank a lot of water yesterday. But after dinner my body decided it was time to jettison. It’s quiet now. In our camp and all around. I hear crickets. Distant traffic. A few snores. My fly flaps are still rolled up. Not chilly. Latent coughs. I’ll get a few more hours now.

5:15. Alarm, next tent! That’ll get you up. It’s still going! Buenos días, Mexico. Let’s drive some nails.

Buenas días, Mexico!

Light over the mountains. Well, there’s a hand to hold onto. Onto a lyric that has different words I’m molding the phrase: “I’m Spanish, so insane.” It feels good to be awake. I was just tossing and turning those last couple of hours anyway. I need to get my pillow situation figured out. Then ratified! Or, seven minutes until coffee.

IX. Initial Drive to Worksite.

7:20. In the van, headed to the site. Dog in the street! Mike announces that we are the foundation van. We’ll be working on the spot where the house will sit, first evening out the ground there. Then we’ll construct a frame for the concrete to be poured into. We’re talking about boards.

“The quality of the lumber has improved tremendously.”

The two best eight-footers, the seven best twelve-footers.

As we drive I see street food stalls, this is east Tijuana, tent city.

Staked-off lots along the side of the road. Homes? It must be a market. Sweet little white dog. Canopies, rag-tag pen. Smoldering remains of last night’s fires. This is all new, to me. Are these refugees? Asylum seekers? It’s a base camp of sorts. Trash pile, wildflower. Cinderblock dwelling. Localized boulders. Antorcha. Agua purificado.

At a three-way stop, we are taking a left. We had continued straight there last year. Bricks, wood scraps, pallets, piles of them. Dogs. A railroad defunct. Chickens. A man running a grinding wheel. The sound of it, the sparks. Razor wire. Woebegone columns of brick. A gym.

Partly cloudy. Dog at gas station scratching itself. A… farm? Stalks of something wrapped by ringing palisades with green cellophane. Pizza Hot. Pastiche of corrugated metal. Tacos el… something… I can’t read my writing, the road was too bumpy. Banners. Straw hat stand. Pizza Movil. Sit-down cafés under tarps.

Stoplight, turn right. A woman shielding her eyes from the sun. Fed Ex depot: Football fields of Fed Ex tractor-trailers. Radiodores. Gas station. Food stall, tire wall. A lady sweeping. A man carrying a 2 X 8. Rehab facility. Funeral home. Trails in the hillsides. We’re flying and trying to keep up with the convoy. El Refugios. Graffiti. Rubble. Security check point?

A new shopping center. Carl’s Jr. Hills on either side now. Tan grass, scorch marks. Cinder block plant. Accelerating, decelerating. Cell towers on a hill. Warehouses. Aqueduct. Enormous warehouses and factories, well looked after, including the grounds. New-ish.

Some traffic. More pallets. Cargo bays. Sparrows pecking at the dirt. A 7-11. People sort of willy-nilly running across the road. Steel manufacturing.

“Huge maquiladoras.”

That’s the word here for the factories and plants of multinational companies. Hyundai. Jumbolon de Mexico. Honeywell. Maxon. I think we’re southwest of the city, thirty-six minutes in. A bouquet of hapless balloons, returned to the ground. Retaining wall. Baseball field. The city goes on and on.

Taking the ramp to La Presa, smoke in the distance.

“Well, I hope we’re getting close, gentlemen.”

Traffic circle. Climbing. Hugo dog. A high school. Hyundai shuttle. Jalopies. Plateau playground. Dogs. Dog party.

Danilo wakes up. “What, we’re still not there yet?”

Minutes later, at 8:12, we arrive.

X. First Day, Lunch break.

Looking back up the dead-end street in the direction of the main road. Part of our group works on a wall panel. The chihuahua lives atop the house next to our work site.

Escribo un minuto, por favor. It’s lunch break. I’ve eaten—a ham, turkey and cheese sandwich with pickles on wheat. Magically good. Warm water. A banana. Sabritas (Lays potato chips).

We’re somewhere in the south of Tijuana. A neighborhood called Tres de Octubre. Why? Yo no sé. We’re up on a hill, on a dead-end street. There are a few other houses on the street. Not far away is a fairly busy street lined by a mix of storefronts and other nondescript buildings. There are a couple of churches. Traffic is steady along that road. The street we’re on is pretty quiet though. Cacti, palms, mesquite, eucalyptus. If I stand with my back to the work site I have a view down the hill.

View downhill across the street from the work site.

We are building for Ricardo and Jasmín Olivares, and their children. The house we’re building is not as big as last year’s. So, it could go more quickly. I’ve been doing foundation work. Driving stakes with a sledge to hold the wooden frame in place. I’ve also been swinging a pickaxe. This was to scour out a little trench running all along the inside of the framed area. This way, the concrete, as it’s poured, can “grab” the ground a little better, forming a sort of lip that prevents the concrete slab foundation from sliding around.

The frame is in place. Level and square. To determine level we used a level. We had a little bit of difficulty throughout the leveling process, going from one side of the rectangle to the next. We had three sides of the rectangle level but the fourth seemed not to be, something that is physically impossible.

Leveling the wooden frame, into which the concrete is poured.

Once we were satisfied the frame was level we determined square by running tape measures across each diagonal of the rectangular pad. The measurements needed to be equivalent.

A car turns in. We’ve taken over the street, with canopies and seats—our picnic spot.

I’m happy to report there is a baño situated nearby, between the building site and the house that’s right nearby. That house belongs to Jasmín’s mother. Ricardo and Jasmín, who are probably each around thirty years old, are currently living in a small dwelling located somewhere nearby, on the other side of the grandmother’s house I heard it said.

We’ve got some of our tools piled up in front of the grandmother’s house, which is painted a light purple. Even though it’s next door it’s situated below us, Tijuana being what it is, dwellings built on hillsides, everything at a slant. Or tiered.

The black chihuahua in the photo above lives on top of the grandmother’s house. When it’s on top of the roof it’s barking most of the time, especially when someone walks back toward the baño, the walkway being about in line with the height of the purple house’s roof.

The chihuahua, in its natural habitat.

We’ll be getting back at it here shortly. I’m hot. Sweaty but I feel alright. I haven’t driven a nail yet but I didn’t do much foundation prep last year so this is expanding the range of things I can do on-site. It’s about 11:45.

XI. Back at Camp on Monday Evening.

Back at camp, ants on the ledge while I write. “I too will clap my shoes over here.” I will say hello again for the first time. I will love you and mean it.

A breeze, a shoot of aloe. “You were the last person I suspected of being in that tent!” It was the perfect crime, like spending two dollars on a haircut while on a trip to Tijuana.

Aggressively pink, an overly excited chicken. Sand, rocks and cement. A little bit of rain. A convoy on Highway 2, running east-west between Tijuana and Tecate. A rag I picked up off the ground to wipe our mixing tools.

The ants climb along my arm to get to my writing hand. But they’ve got the wrong arm. I’m facing south, looking at the main road running past the Amor campground. I call it the Tecate Road. It’s paved. On the map it’s officially listed as Carretera Vieja a Tecate. Or Calle de la Niña. It is a road of many names. There’s another gas and chemicals storage plant on the south side of this main road, a storage plant listed on the map as being operated by Pemex, the largest company in Mexico.

I’m tight in the head—behind the eyes. It’s not possible to drink enough water. The sun, all day until our drive home. I drove home. Keeping our convoy line intact is tricky. As we drive I see how the neighborhoods change. Ojo de Agua is a neighborhood closer to camp on that north-south road. I could see myself in Ojo de Agua, if I ever lost everything but myself. I’d buy twenty tacos for two dollars and call it a day.

It’s twelve past five in the evening. The color of bread is garlic bread. There’s a zaniness to Tijuana, a levity. An innocence? A disguised peace.

A meter reader came down the road along the work site today. I am thinking of all the street food we see on our drive. I sense a lack of attitude in the people here. Or maybe I’m just more relaxed myself, somehow. There’s an easiness despite the traffic, despite the haze.

I love the pickup trucks where the guy has a speaker rigged up and he’s driving around selling bottled water or little canisters of gas. As we got back to camp this evening some truck was going along the main road with the kookaburra song playing. Why? An advertisement?

There are so many small businesses along the street. Nothing but little stalls, sometimes with a theme but often as not with only a few odds and ends for sale. On the drive back this afternoon we passed two different ‘Farmacias Similares’. In front of both locations were people in white coats, with signs. Even with our windows rolled up I could hear the music coming from these farmacias. “Come, visit the pharmacy. We have music.” Maybe that’s enough.

XII. Monday Encore: I Will Write Until I Sleep.

The sunsets at Amor Hacienda Camp are often stunning.

Is there anything I wish I had packed but didn’t? A microfiber cloth for wiping sunglasses and writing glasses would be nice. More magnets, or a safety pin? I brought a length of cord to use as a clothesline but I have nowhere to run it, certainly not in this tent. Maybe a cigarette lighter charger for phones in the car. I wish I had a piece of scouring pad and a little bit of Dawn dish soap for cleaning my dishes.

I hear Spanish, a little ways off, my nostalgic companion. We did complete the concrete foundation today. Beyond working on the foundation frame I did several wheelbarrows’ worth of concrete mixing. Whoa boy. I think I partially tore the UCL in my right arm (elbow). I might need Tommy John surgery. I’m only half-joking. It kept cramping there. Right flexor mass strain?

Concrete mixing is all about hoes and wheelbarrows. Into a wheelbarrow, we would add five shovels of the sand & gravel mix and one shovel of cement. Then someone takes a handful of the glossy white fiberglass feathers and tosses them in.

We were dry-mixing those ingredients first, which is to say we were mixing them before adding any water. This was good protocol. Certainly you need water, something like two or two-and-a-half gallons per wheelbarrow. But it’s easier to mix the dry ingredients with themselves before having someone slowly add the water in. The sand and cement will still try to secret away some dry pockets: the very center of the wheelbarrow, its corners, along the sides. One person works one half of the wheelbarrow while opposite him someone else works her half. Then you switch which half you’re pushing, scraping, pulling. Like yin and yang. Repeat and repeat.

I wheeled and dumped a few wheelbarrows’ payload of mixed, wet concrete into the burgeoning pad. But I did not do any of the smoothing of the pad, what is called tamping and screeding. In which two people at opposite ends of a twelve-footer, kneeling beside the pad, see-saw or smack down the twelve-footer across the pad to compact and smooth the concrete. Dan was using a trowel to float the smoothed concrete to get it perfectly smooth, the final touch. Frank brought a spray bottle Dan used to mist the surface to make it just a little more workable. I know from my own stucco work at home how back-misting ensures workability and proper curing of a cement-based compound. In that sun? You have to keep it moist. It’s a wet cure.

Hello, Jupiter. Yes, I see you. No, I do not have a telescope. I will look at your many moons some other time, thank you. Did Jupiter just wink at me? No, the planets never do.

XIII. Tuesday Morning, Weather Surprise.

It’s 4:54, Tuesday morning. I guess I’ll get up. I have to go al baño. I have heard some of the other guys talking about how they keep a pee bottle in their tent. It’s something to consider although I kind of like the quiet walk to the baño in the middle of the night.

Is that lightning in the distance? Sure looks like it. To the south. I dismissed the first flash as… well, I wasn’t sure what it was but I didn’t think it was lightning. Then I thought maybe it was heat lightning.

Now there’s thunder, and plenty of it. Yikes. The storm appears to be south of us, southeast. I am watching closely.

5:12. Birds cry in the distance. It sounds like a cockatoo, something tropical. The clouds above us move not at all but lightning lights the page as I write. The storm is closing in. I’m-a batten down the hatches. To the mess tent!

Airbrakes on the Tecate road. Whoa now, to the east, the instant watershed map of a lightning strike, titanium white but with a little of what makes blue blue, purple purple. Closely followed by thunder, that bird crying, a dog barking. A rooster sounds as well. The sky is lightening but the sunrise is obscured by the storm in that direction.

I never made it as far as the mess tent. I had to stop to describe the lightning. It’s not raining yet. I’m sitting in someone’s rocking camp chair, writing by red light. Eugenio and his wife are in the midst of coffee and breakfast prep. I cannot so much see as hear them. But now for the second consecutive day… at 5:20 am or so… someone, Eugene or his wife, slowly drives down the camp road in an early-century green Ford pickup with just the hazard lights on, a pulsing orange-yellow in the early dark of morning. The sky clears a bit more in the east.

At 5:52, rain. I am in the mess tent. I’ve made my lunch, the same: two sandwiches, a banana and a granola bar. I’ve got coffee. I ate a banana as part of my eventual breakfast. The group is moving around a little earlier today, stirred by the weather. Poncho sighting!

XIV. Drive to Work Site, Tuesday.

It’s 7:19. We are headed out. Eugene’s wife is writing something in a notebook. American Express, a minivan and rudimentary Spanish. It is a lovely language. I’ve been meaning to say that. An example is “Lo siento,” for sorry. Exiting camp, 7:22.

Rusted train car on a woebegone spur. Who put it there? Who’s gonna bring it back? I’ve never really noticed all of these residential buildings—tenements—west of Hacienda Camp. They can’t be that new but they are more expansive than I remember. Along the main road out in front of this development is a line of small buses, taxis maybe. They display signs in their windshield identifying their destination. You can’t go just anywhere in them but you can get to some critical spots.

Roadside burn. Dig a latrine. Sleep on plywood. These small roadside settlements are too real. Pallet fence. Tarp house. Piles of end.

Three-way stop. South through the brickyards, primed boulders. Schnauzer. Hexagon tiles for sale. Se vende. People waiting for a ride. La escondida. Lumber for sale. Cord. Secondhand sinks. Fruit. Bottle of Pepsi, five pesos. Or 25 cents. Mofles. Mufflers? Altisa trolley system. Excavated hillside terrace.

I heard Roger and Dan saying at breakfast that our site had had some work done on it before we got there. A sort of tier or terrace was dug into what had been a slanted hillside. That left a wall of dirt on the north side of the site, about seven feet tall. There’s a eucalyptus tree at the far end of that dirt wall, at the corner of the site. Dan said he was worried the tree would eventually fall into the house. The wall itself is going to need to be shored up, at some point.

It’s raining as we make our way through Tijuana. The pavement’s wet. To our south is a major land excavation. Clearing, shaping, leveling. Making way for… factories? A shopping center? We take the ramp for Via Rápida Ote. Next a ramp to Bulevar Simon Bolivar. Over the Tijuana River.

We have taken a right onto Blvd. Gustavo Diaz Ordaz and now we’re waiting to take a left onto Bv. Manuel Contreras Sur. Door store. Flimsy door, $10. Traffic circle. Lagunitas IPA for sale at the OXXO. Uphill on Manuel Contreras. This stretch is crazy bumpy, my pen on the page is like a spiking EKG. But if you can read this it means we made it there alive.

Trash day in the neighborhood. We roll in. Residents begin dragging or lugging their trash out to Contreras Sur. Empty pet food bags as trash bags. I have such respect for that. For their way. It is my way too.

XV. Tuesday Evening Decompress.

19:21. I’ve got nada right now. We got back later than usual. Eugenio was ringing the dinner bell as I was walking back from the shower.

Tamales tonight. I had a nice conversation with Rodrigo, who grew up in Chile. He is back again this year with both of his sons.

Nice clouds in the sky. Not my best day at work. I hammered my thumb once, then glanced it again. Right away I stuck it in this random coffee mug that I had filled with ice.

Overall I didn’t feel that useful or productive today. Randy was impressive. He sure knew how to sink a sixteen penny nail. He was saying he used to frame houses in the summer in Utah, when it was the offseason for skiing. He’s not afraid of heights, he’s walked steel beams. He was up on the roof sections today, like Roger. Randy is a ringer.

I nailed in some bird blocks. I was toe-nailing one side, then going in straight on the other end. I like that approach. There’s more risk of splitting the block when you’re toe-nailing. I was then marginally involved in what became a complicated process of squaring the roof.

At this stage, we have raised the six wall sections and added the two roof sections on top.

There was a bit of a disagreement about the wall frames being plumb. We had carried them up to the house site from below, where they were constructed on a nice level patch in front of the purple house (grandmother’s house). On the concrete pad, we stood the wall sections up and nailed them together. Plumbed them (made sure they were straight up and down), squared them (made sure it was the same distance along each of the long diagonals of the rectangle they made). Then braced them, in what we would come to learn is perhaps not the optimal manner.

Roger and Randy were starting to nail the roof sections to the wall frames when one of the braces was taken off and re-applied, at Joe’s behest. Joe was our on-site Amor rep. Up to this point he had been pretty quiet. His daughter, Esther, had attracted more attention by virtue of the princess dress she would wear while she played with neighboring children and interacted with our group.

Pretty much as soon as the brace was moved Roger called out something about the roof sections bowing out where they had not done so before. He was wondering what the heck had been done. Joe had previously mentioned something about the placement of our wall-section braces being suboptimal but I guess there was still something about the plumbness of the wall sections or even the degree of level in the pad that was nagging him.

For a moment, it was mass confusion. It was loud with everyone banging, a disagreement was brewing. Mike called out for everyone to stop what they were doing. Had we relied on a bad level when we were leveling the frame for the foundation? Was the site already graded out to pretty much level when we got there?

We took a collective step back and started to check the walls again for plumbness. It did appear that the original level had some quirks to it. We got another level and made some adjustments—some by sledgehammer—to the wall sections and on the roof. We were back on track.

I had been putting bad nails in the wrong place. Cheryl made this home for them.

When I didn’t have anything specific to do I went around picking up nails off the ground. Some were still good, some were bent. I put the good ones in the bucket or box where they belonged. I put the bad ones in a paper bag and then into our large plastic trash bag—the bag into which we put our lunch trash. Later I found out we aren’t supposed to put bad nails in our trash. I was able to fish them out of our trash and add them to an old coffee can for bad nails that Cheryl started.

Maybe I do have more to say esta noche but I don’t have the wherewithal right now. Where is that desk I ordered from Amazon de Mexico?

One last observation. The guards here. I know that Hacienda Camp was guarded before but… I feel the guards’ presence here now more than last year. The guard in the fluorescent vest sitting in the chair at the corner of the lot. I think about those fledgling encampments on the side of the main road, both west and east of Hacienda Camp. I asked Joe if the people trying to live there were Tijuana residents or refugees from Central America. He thought it was about fifty-fifty.

XVI. Tuesday Night, Writing on Fumes.

22:04. Gads I’m tired, growing peevish. Petro trucks clang along. Those I don’t mind. I could listen to them all night. And the crickets. I think we’ve killed most of our suburban crickets with pesticides and even herbicides. I think about the signs in yards happily proclaiming that they’ve had someone spray to keep the mosquitoes down.

There is music coming from somewhere. The guards? There seems to be one new group somewhere in camp. Including us there are now three or four different groups. One group, which has been here for a couple days, was boisterous and riotous until just a few minutes ago. What is that music? Ugh.

Scent of trash fire. Yeah, that’s Spanish-language music. It’s possible it’s not coming from our camp. Maybe it’s the propane people. Who knows?!

Small group got heavy again. The big questions. I go with it. I like my small group. We’re listeners. A sincere group. It’s therapeutic for me. An annual therapy session in Tijuana with people from or associated with a church I’ve never even been to. Well, why not? It’s a little random but that doesn’t mean it can’t work. Maybe this is a new sort of travel genre other people could benefit from, too.

I’m in my tent. I just clicked the lock button for the minivan because I wasn’t sure I had locked it earlier. Sorry to everyone who is near enough the van to hear it issue its honk of confirm. It’s really not too loud. Not nearly as loud as the horns on the larger vans. Those are pretty jartling.

The traffic is light but consistent out on the main road. I’m looking at a map of the area now. The large residential grouping to the immediate west is called ‘Margarita Residencial’. There must be enough people living there to substantiate their very own bus line. I wonder if it’s possible to walk from here, board one of the buses and get to the border. Not that I’d have any reason to do that.

You can see some of the roofing crew on top of the house. From left that’s Henry, MJ and Danilo. Mike’s on a ladder putting roof trim in place, pinning any hang-over shingle paper in place. That’s Roger in front of the door.

I am drifting back mentally to the work site. I left off my telling of the construction process with the roof. Once the two roof panels go on—each is a square, they are mirror images—they are covered with plywood. Then with strips of black building paper. Then with strips of what I think of as shingle paper. It’s essentially building paper covered with tar and then with cinders. But I’m not taking credit for any of the roofing work because I wasn’t up there at all. Sabrina was running the roofing crew, which consisted mostly of the younger group members. And Tom. He loves it up there. Which makes me curious.

I spent some time in the house backing out nails that were holding down building paper or shingle paper but missing the rafters. Ideally, any nail that’s going into the roof is being driven not just into the plywood but also sinking into one of the rafters (the sturdy wood beams running the length of the two roof sections). I did some of this backing out of errant nails last year. At first I was enjoying it. I either used my hammer-face to send the nail back up or I’d take a sixteen penny nail, hold its head to the errant nail’s tip, then hit it up.

From the left you’ve got twelve sixteen penny nails, six eight pennies, three roofing nails. And one quarter, for scale.

But it’s hard to communicate with the people on the roof in order to tell them in what direction they need to be re-hitting the backed-out nail. At times one of the two doors of the house would be blocked by someone else working, sometimes on a ladder. Or a door would be blocked because a team was wrapping the house in building paper. Or Roger would be working to hang an actual door in the door frame. It’s all a bit of a cluster at times. I got to where I knew I wasn’t doing a lot of good backing out the nails if I didn’t have a means of relaying to the roofers where it should go instead. I was probably just making them feel bad. So I looked for something else to do.

XVII. Midnight Bano Sortie.

Clearly it isn’t midnight in this photo but this is what the guard booth looked like one evening in 2018.

23:48. Yo vuelvo desde el baño. The guard or guards were still sitting outside that station, a small sentry post I photographed last year when the sun was out. I remember its door just lazily swinging in the sun and dust. The station appeared defunct.

Tonight a guard with a high-beam flashlight was scanning. Actively? Perfunctorily? It’s hard to say but last year I made plenty of midnight and 3 a.m. bathroom sorties. I don’t recall seeing a guard working a de facto searchlight.

It was dogs that woke me up. In the baño I heard the coyotes calling. Laughing, crying. Rejoicing, despairing. Plotting. Planning. Which is what the dogs heard. Which is why they barked. So I woke up. So I saw them searching.

XVIII. Wednesday Morning Already?

5:04. My next-tent neighbor Danilo gets up. He has been consistently waking early. I’m surprised to see it’s five already. I slept better. I hear that strange bird call out again just now.

It reminds me of when I lived in Austin, Texas. I would hear what I thought was a young kid calling out for his mother. One street over. He would call and call. She wouldn’t answer. Finally one day I had enough. I went over there to put a stop to it. To give this negligent madre a piece of my mind.

When I got over there I saw a screened-in porch with a bird cage in it. It was a bird that was doing the crying. Cockatoo maybe. I felt pretty dumb, like I’d been had. But it did sound like what I’ve been hearing here.

5:58. I made a sandwich before hearing that the Olivares family will feed us lunch today. Chicken molé. I’ve had some coffee, exchanged texts with B. I’ll dress for work, then eat.

It’s mostly clear but the overnight low couldn’t have been below 65°. Add thirty degrees to that for the high. But it’s a dry heat. Or: put on plenty of sunscreen.

XIX. Driving into a Tres de Octubre Market Cluster.

7:22. Setting out on our final drive to the Olivares work site.

“Whenever I text my wife to ask her to do something I always put a heart on the end of it.”

I had hurried to hit el baño right before we left. There is a big tun of water by the baños, with a spigot that provides good flow. But there isn’t any soap back there. Next time: bring a bar of soap just to stash back there, so I can wash my hands there. I like our wash station plenty but in an instance where I’m pinched for time, which is pretty much every morning, it’d be nice to get the post-baño washing done right then and there.

“Nos vemos,” says John N, as he passes one half of our bipartite key dongle to the guard at the gate.

“There are some pretty good speed bumps here.”

Ducto de gas. Scrubby hillside, Margarita. Red dish, blue dish. Woman in a purple sweatshirt carrying a bucket. Three people to a shack. A shirtless man my age and his parents. Pickup truck, full bed. Tiny tent nearby. Sleeps how many when that’s all you’ve got? Canopy frame, no cover. Agave, Hugo dog.

There are 300 hours of video uploaded to You Tube every minute. Crows, their shadows along the hillside. Boulder field. A pond? I saw cattails. Coal pile. Dog hopping, bad hind leg. Fresh paint, blue and white. Prickly pear. Old man with a pick axe. Dog resting roadside. Caulk for sale, toilet seat.

Plastic trash prevalent right where road meets brush. Bottles, wraps, bags. Speed bump, quick stop. Centro de salud. Ojo de Agua. Roadside tamales, burnt lot backdrop. Gas station color scheme: pink and teal.

My neck aches. Herky-jerky traffic flow. Lots of burnt hillsides, fields. They could be controlled burns. Prescribed burns. I’ve seen plumes from the site. Dark smoke. Maquiladora town.

I’m listening with my eyes closed. Open them, look right. Taxi bus. Locals with earbuds looking at phones.

CAT backhoe digging, grabbing, swiveling, dropping dirt. Slow going this morning on Avenue de los Insurgentes. To the right the Cerro Colorado, thirteen red and white towers atop. Ramp to Via Rapida Ote. Ramp to Bulevar Simon Bolivar. The ground in the crook of this ramp’s curl-around arm is landscaped, there are newly planted trees.

Gallo. Cemex. We are close to the traffic circle. The road we catch out of the circle is also called Tres de Octubre. A dog swats at a fly.

I’d said before when we were driving to the building site that I thought we were south or even southwest of Tijuana but we’re really still southeast of Tijuana. The Baja California peninsula starts to swing east pretty quick so it’s hard to be southwest of Tijuana. We are due south of Otay Mesa, where we crossed into Mexico.

Stalls starting. Weekly market? Clothes, produce. Notebooks! Junk, socks, pizza, ties. You name it! Belts, hats, sunglasses. Both sides of the street are lined where not they were before.

View of the Avenue Manuel Contreras, or is it called Tres de Octubre? It is the main road just a short walk from our work site. This is looking east. There were stalls lined all along both sides as we arrived in the neighborhood that morning. When we left there at 4 p.m. it looked like this.

Eggs. Glue traps. Hot sauce. Sponges, picture frames, jumpers. Dresses, light bulbs. Foosball tables. Two of them. Hard hats, old cell phones.

Uh oh. We’re trying to turn in, onto the dirt road toward the house. Parking trouble. Our usual parking spots filled. Vendors camped on the house’s street, waiting for us. And/or residents parked there to shop the market. Cluster cluster.

XX. One Coat Stucco Lunch.

We are getting ready for lunch down in front of grandma’s house.

A seagull smells the molé and wings in for a look. Coat one of the stucco is complete. Us in wide-brimmed hats, the road blocked. Extended family here. Jasmín, owner of the new house, her two sisters, her mother. Several small children.

We are moving our chairs and canopy down to the patio area in front of the purple house. The stucco is sand and cement. Dr Mark thought there was also lime mixed in with the cement. I’m not so sure. Either way, we mixed up enough of it to complete the first coat. It will dry while we eat.

Sun, the sun. I changed the bandage on my thumb, doused it with Neosporin. Dr Mark then put a bit of duct tape around the bandage. My disposable gloves actually held tight as I spread stucco, mostly by hand. That’s the Gary method. Forget the trowel. Just get the stucco on—evenly if possible. It doesn’t have to be smooth. The first coat’s supposed to be rough and the second coat we sponge down, defining the final texture that way.

The house with the first coat of stucco applied. In the foreground of the photo (left) is the screened frame we use to remove rocks from the rock-sand mixture (the stucco does not contain rocks). To the right is what we called the hot dog cart. It was just there. We learned how to use it. We set our water on it.

Wheelbarrows, ladders, a barking chihuahua, a look down the valley. This dirt road. A wooden frame with screen stretched over it so to sift the gravel out of the remnants of our rock-and-sand pile. Our tools, our bags. This hot-dog cart. Gloves, belts. Our names written on our things. Two seagulls.

Sunglasses, sweaty clothes. Tarred clothes. Sabrina tore her pant seat on a nail yesterday. Big tear. Tom gave her his shirt to wrap around her waist.

Wires overhead. Some for power, some for… communication. Entertainment.

Coolers. Two water, one ice, one Gatorade. I’m just standing up here writing, the sun be damned. JESUCRISTO ES EL SENOR is written on Cerro Colorado, its 13 towers in the distance.

Bags of cement, a trough full of sand. Our water bottles. Nalgenes, a Kleen Kanteen, HydroFlasks. I gotta bring the Hydro next time. To stash my own ice. Next time? As if it is a done deal. Tijuana, love it or leave it? Here you can do both.

“Dónde está mi papa?” asks Esther, Joe’s precocious daughter..

“Yo no sé.”

The stucco hawks and trowels are soaking in water, so they are clean and ready for the second round.

The molé was fantastic. I had seconds.

“Están listos?” asks Jasmín.

She and her sister walked to the main street. Got ice, cola, plastic cups. Estamos listos. Tiempo de molé.

XXI. Handing Over the Keys.

A couple dozen Tijuanans gathered for the ceremony: the handing over of the keys. Friends, family, maybe there’s no difference. I like this feel. That those gathered here all have some connection.

Jasmín’s family is handing out shaved ice to everyone. Maybe that was the ice she went and got. Little yellow spoons. There is a second chihuahua here now. It is blind.

Ricardo, in his Pirates hat, is standing with a group of guys. One has a Hyundai hat. One has a Yankees hat. Then there’s a guy in blue shoes who is holding a Rubik’s Cube!

The work is done. The house is done. I did a bunch of sponging of the stucco. Sometimes on a ladder, sometimes standing on an upended bucket. The thickness of the stucco was a little uneven in spots. I’ve got cement residue on my hands and arms. When I’m sponging the water runs down my hand, down my arm, into my armpit, down my side.

The Olivares Family in front of sus nuestro casa.

Jasmín speaks for a few minutes, she’s emotional, there are tears in her eyes. Rodrigo does the translating, a natural. Ricardo speaks. Ricardo’s mother speaks, tells us what it means to her that her son and his family have a place that is their own. A window, with a screen, looking out onto the road, down into one of the august valleys of Tijuana.

I am shedding tears behind my sunglasses but this is a good kind of cry. They are happy, satisfied tears. To see a family excited about our work, for their neighbors to participate in the moment.

XXII. Wednesday Night Tent Writing.

21:32. They’re all long days. That’s part of the point, part of the draw, both prospectively and retrospectively. But not in the moment. In the moment it means the tent is a mess, that I’m abnegating the little things—rushing.

I hear little pops of things hitting my tent. It’s not rain so it must be bugs. The bugs have been a presence. Mosquitoes, gnats, flies. I have bites around my ankles.

Music on in my tent via phone. A little party in here.

I’ve put my makeshift pillow—the PATMOS, GREECE zippered canvas bag my parents bought in Greece decades ago, a great little bag currently stuffed with mostly clean clothes—under the armpit of my left arm as I lay on my left side writing this, neck aching. But I don’t know how else to situate.

This backpacking tent is great in many ways but I can’t stand up in it, not even close. I have tired of doing all my changing while on my backside. Into trunks for the shower when I’m sweaty, dirty, querulous. Out of trunks when I’m wet and pissed off because I’m not dry and I’m getting my mattress wet. There’s no changing room here, per se. We’re supposed to have a swimsuit on in the shower block, but that makes getting dry difficult. Last year I just walked around in my trunks and the sun and the wind finished the job.

This year I’ve been shy of the sun in the evenings, in part because it’s been so warm. Also, my showers have edged into dinnertime so I haven’t had the leisure option of walking the campground in my suit to dry off.

Well, I’m dry now, reasonably comfortable. My tent desk still has not arrived. Maybe I’ll have to join Prime after all. That reminds me of the motorcycle delivery guys we see passing us as we do our speed-bump, bad-pavement-crawl through Ojo de Agua nearing camp in the evening.

XXIII. Thursday Wake-Up.

5:15, next-door alarm.

Twenty minutes later, with coffee. I have felt better. When I awoke the neck of my t-shirt was soaked with sweat. On the bright side, I did not get out of my tent for a straight six hours, waking only to toss and turn.

If I had to describe how I feel, I’d say, “Dust bunny.”

Or, “Sun pimple.”

Or, “Lost luggage doing one more turn on the claim carousel before an airport employee heaves me up and slowly rolls me away on an omnibus cart to a sad corner office where people show up mad and confused but might leave with relief, me in tow.”

Or maybe it’s not as bad as that. Here’s how: I have yet to sip First Coffee, though it is in my metal cup, right next to me here, and if only I would stop to take a sip.

“Good morning,” says Roger. There’s hope after all.

Frank has already made his sandwich. He, among others, wears a bandana around his neck. I guess to block some sun there, and to catch some sweat. Some folks will wet their bandanas, to add some cooling action. I had written ‘bandana’ down on my pack list but opted out. It’s something to try.

It’s 70° in El Gavilan, Baja California, Mexico.

“It looks like you’re headed to the first tee.”

“How’s the writing?”

What if I just wrote all day? Pages to fill….

But sandies to make, dirty pants to don, dusted boots to tie on.

“Another day another dollar.”

The mosquitoes bob and weave.

6:02. I’ve made a lunch, headlined by a ham and turkey sandwich that included mustard, mayo and a slice of American cheese. I left out the lettuce. I had previously believed the pickles to be the reason the sandwich would get soggy. But then I was thinking, as I ate my sandwich late yesterday afternoon—because the Olivares family served us lunch—about how iceberg lettuce is ninety-something percent water. It was wilted. I picked it out. So maybe the lettuce is the soggy sandwich culprit.

Mess hall chatter: it’s going to be a hot one (again) today. Mid-nineties. Stopping at a taco stall on the way back, in Ojo de Agua?

I’ll eat some cereal now.

XXIV. Drive to Second Site.

7:18. Sunny. We are in the van. Seven of us. In the convoy line. Slaps at skeeters. Dan fills a thermos with convoy.—err, coffee. I have thought about coffee at the work site.

“Good morning darling daughter. Please remember to circulate foundation letter for approval. Period.”

Snarky comment from the back, laughing. The Danilo Conspiracy. We’re all involved. Convoy on the move.

Haul-away camp dumpster overflowing. Paper plates, plastic cups. Styrofoam cups. Napkins. Flimsy plastic silverware.

“Gracias. Nos vemos.”

Where are we headed? We pass the taxi buses queued outside Margarita. I’d like to walk through there one day. The sidewalks look pretty nice. Like something out of the United States. Florida or somewhere. A wide boulevard separated by a median leads into the development from off of the main road. There is a street sign there, unusual in and of itself. It is for the road of Many Names, which in front of Margarita Residencial the sign appears to call Estocarril. A street sign that calls the street “this street”.

A jogger, up the path into the hills. Probably a great place to run. We take the same left turn south when we get to the three-way stop. We had gone east—straight through that intersection—last year. It took us past the field to the south where they were systematically burning trash.

We pass the strange farm field and now I see that it’s prickly pear being grown there, rows of small cacti, each plant encircled by wooden stakes and then with green plastic wrapped around the stakes. Like those train cars where you can hardly tell that it’s cars inside. A little red house with blue trim. Roadside market, hardware. I pick out something new every day. Gas lines, with valves and dials.

An Herbalife store. They see it. We talk about it. Short selling. Pyramid scheme. The stock! I think of my dad. Who I have heard talk about this stock before. Roadside business: a table, gingham cloth, umbrella, cooler. Barbería. Now a left turn where before we were turning right. New ground!

Hills to the south. Rows and rows of tractor-trailers. A neighborhood rising with the hills. Cemento y block. Sand piles. This is Highway 2, running from Tijuana to Tecate.

A right turn, onto a long road that starts out very, very straight, stretching out in front of us. Oddly straight for Tijuana. It will dip and then begin to rise, then start to change directions a bit. We pass by a couple of feeder lots. Lots of cows. Loads of hay. The road is very bumpy here. More cows. Their heads through bars of fencing, to eat the hay. A picture to go vegetarian on. God help me.

Then, in a large pen, a single horse. Rising now. Stylish house with a terra cotta roof to the left. It’s rural now. Crow on a telephone pole. Expanse, open and rolling. Lots of trucks on this road. It smoothes out. There aren’t many houses out here. The road’s been cut right through these hills. Suddenly wide and smooth.

Still, there’s a lot of trash on the roadside. I wonder. Plastic, styrofoam. Turning right. Dirt road. A fledgling village, on a hillside. A lot of these houses look like Amor houses. Then there are a couple of rather grand, carefully constructed stone walls. With nice stone, not cinder block. Mike says he’s been here. This is where he worked on a house earlier this year. The road we were just on is the road to the new Tijuana dump.

But look at those clouds! Look at that sky! Our second work site, southeast of Tijuana.

It’s a different locale. We’re out in the middle of nowhere. That’s why there’s trash on the roadside despite there not being many homes out here. It’s flying out of the trucks. Someone says it looks like Tatooine here. Moisture farming.

Grinding up a hill in a minivan. We need Jeeps. Van struggle, skid, churn. Stacks of cinder blocks. But that stone wall up there is splendid. And curious.

Verging on mackerel sky. The strange wall is visible, to the right and above the house we worked on the final day.

XXV. Man on a Hot Shingle-Paper Roof.

Roofing. Not far off the ground. Eight feet, seven feet. Driving roofing nails, the shortest of the three nails we use. Trying to sink them in a rafter. I’d only ever sent them back out of the plywood, from below (from inside the house when they missed).

I needed to get on the other side of it. And did. It’s not that easy to sink them in the rafters. We use a chalked slap line but it’s fallible. Could we employ a stud finder up there? I think I did alright sinking mine. I was using my hammer to knock, to feel for a different sound.

I hadn’t been on the roof before, but I enjoyed it. From left, that’s MJ, Henry, and me.
(photo by Dr. Tom Stodgel)

Then I slung some tar. Slathered it down on the leading edge of shingle paper before we overlapped it with a new row, starting on the low side of the roof, working our way up to the high side. When we were done laying the paper, and nailing it down, we slobbed tar on any visible nail head. And we put it in any holes remnant of misdriven, backed-out nails.

It’s toward six. We’re back at camp. I’m leaned up against one of the big vans, basking in its shade. Looking south, into a field that lay between us and the main road. There are cows in the field. They weren’t there this morning. Several of us snapped photos.

I thought these random concrete cylinders were cool even before a cow walked into one.

The cows are mostly quiet. I hope they are lowing tonight, all night. It’d be like at Farm. I’ve realized there are similarities between this trip and Farm. Both are rural. Not quite off the grid but enough so to result in a dramatic reduction in my smart phone usage.

There are no leaf blowers here! None. I haven’t heard one the whole time we’ve been here. Nor a weedeater. Not even a lawnmower. I love our Midwestern oaks and maples but their leaves are the only reason I haven’t yet gone to xeriscape.

Three people on bicycles out on the main road. It’s probably 120 yards from here to there.

XXVI. One Last Night of Writing in the Tent.

I saw a tiny owl just now. Burrowing owl? On a fence post. In my headlamp light. Then it flew away. Two seconds. At 22:20. Seven, eight inches? Tan, not dark. Maybe light grey. Interesting. I wonder now if it could be the source of the other bird call I have heard here, the one I had ascribed to a cockatoo. The owl calls at sunrise?

I’ve got the fly rolled back on both sides of my tent, open to Mexico, to the night, to the sky. That is not a spider on the floor of my tent but a smudge of tar. Innocuous but permanent. It’s getting toward tomorrow.

Jupiter and Scorpius slide away. Corona Australis and Sagittarius behind them. I never thought I’d get here. Where? Tijuana. This trip? Amor. These friends of mine? The last night.

I said more and more Tijuana makes me think of Farm—Iberia, Missouri, friends’ farmland, an old farmhouse I dabble at maintaining. Where I write, cook, ramble. Cut, chop, burn wood. Solitude.

What is similar? It’s something about this place and the people I share it with—not just the group but also the people of Tijuana, their ways, their approach, their constructions. Aesthetics here means a coat of colorful paint once the building is good enough to last for a while. No one thinks about forever here. Or maybe everyone does. I haven’t figured out which.

Old garage doors employed as fencing. What about the rest? Time will tell, and it can always be burned.

I am at my best here but I feel a bit of a fraud. Folks, I’m not this good a guy. I’m often saturnine, mercurial, aloof—impatient! But somehow here I shelf that. Check it, deep-freeze it, lay it away, fade it. Mum’s the word. How little I am able to say! Walking a thin beam at impossible height and I tippee-tippee-day-day across, no problem.

This one’s for the people of Tijuana. Wherever they’re from and wherever they’re going. I wish I could speak their language. It’s also for the pillars of this trip, as I know them to be. You know who you are! I stand back and watch, and drink water. And put on sunscreen. And reach out into the future with my little cat’s paw.

I wasn’t sure I’d fit in on this trip this year, on my own, but I don’t have to worry about that now. I’ve already been invited back. It was earlier tonight when I was getting ready to go for a shower, fussing with something just outside my tent. Mike came up to me, in a giddy way.

“C’mon, I’ll buy you a cup of cold water,” he said. “Or a lemonade. Whatever you want.”

“I haven’t showered yet,” I said.

“Well, go take a shower then,” he said. “And next time, bring a bigger tent.”

The end.