October 17th, 2010


That Was Yesterday

Went to Mexicali yesterday with Dan, Rex, and Roy so that Rex could blog the Mexicali gay pride parade. I decided it'd be more interesting if we crossed over into Mexico at Tecate and drove to Mexico that way because I always wanted to see La Rumorosa, a rocky mountain pass that descends from the mountains in the middle of Baja down to the desert where Mexicali's located. Bought my insurance online yesterday (US insurance isn't valid in Mexico), no problem there. Packed a cooler full of ice, threw in a few bottles of water, and hit the road at 9:15 yesterday.

When you enter Mexico as a passenger on a bus or when driving, they have a button you need to press that will give you either a green or a red light at random. At the Tecate border, we got the red light, complete with loud sirens. Awesome. Pulled over to secondary inspection and briefly chatted with a Mexican customs officer; we didn't have anything to declare, so we were on our way pretty quickly. We headed a few blocks into Tecate to get breakfast at El Mejor Pan de Tecate, or The Best Bread In Tecate, which has the best donuts in all of California. Yum. Bad coffee, but I noticed that the locals got espresso drinks across the street at the Oxxo convenience store, so I know what to do next time.

We hopped on the toll road headed East, paid our $4.25 toll, and drove for maybe forty-five minutes before reaching the hamlet of La Rumorosa, which is where the road gets interesting. They've got lots of wind farms up now - it is windy up there - and we slowly descended into the desert through huge rocks and plenty of crashed cars from decades ago slowly rusting in the sun. Temperatures crept to nearly 100 degrees - it's still very warm over there - and when we reached the bottom, we were treated to a leisurely military checkpoint, complete with pimply teenager wearing a machine gun. Given that there was no line, he took his time, but he eventually waved us through. We then passed turnoffs to a remote hot springs resort, the salt flats where Luciano Pavarotti sang to celebrate Mexicali's 100th birthday in 2003, and eventually passed a couple of geothermal power plants before entering Mexicali proper.

Me, I first went to Mexicali back in the 1970s. My Dad would sometimes volunteer at a children's clinic there - he's a podiatrist - which meant we'd make the long drive down from Stockton to hang out at the Hotel Lucerna pool while he worked. Super fun times for us kids, especially as we'd get a date shake in Indio on the way. These days, Mexicali's bigger than San Francisco, with about a million people living there; it's sprawled like crazy, and we spent a lot of time dealing with slow traffic and construction as we crawled towards Costco.

Yes, Costco. I love Mexican corn flakes, and I'm of course completely intrigued by Mexican wine - almost none of it is exported, and the stuff that is generally the cheapest of the cheap, six dollar bottles that are okay but not much more. Costco is of course pretty much middle class Nirvana wherever it is in the world; we stocked up on pesos at the ATM and hit the aisles. I found three bottles that looked interesting: a 2002 Ch. Camou, Monte Xanic chardonnay reserve, and a cabernet from Coahuila state in central Mexico (where the first winery in the New World was built hundreds of years ago). Got my cornflakes, a lot of cheap sugar and coffee, and then Dan noticed that Nochebuena beer had just gone on sale, so he put a case of it in the cart as well. Nochebuena beer is only brewed for the Christmas season and isn't exported, so it's a rare treat: you have to be in Mexico to get it. I've never had it, myself. Finally, Rex grabbed a bottle of Bacardi Solera and we were ready to check out.

We left, and I stashed the wine in the cooler - with temperatures in the upper 90s, I had to, or else it'd cook on the way home. We then headed across the street to Mega, a Mexican hypermarket, where Rex ran off to look for equipment to deal with a hangnail. Me, I bought a couple more bags of ice and a Coke. As an aside, you know you're in Mexico when there are plenty of store-uniformed parking attendants guiding you to parking spaces and helping you return your shopping cart... pretty ritzy stuff! Yes, it's probably just that it's cheap to hire a bunch of staff, but there's something pretty cool about parking under sun shades and... oh, wait, those are security guards too, so yeah, there's probably a big crime problem here just behind the surface. Hm.

Next up was a trip to La Ribó, which I had understood to be the best wine shop in northwestern Mexico. I was hoping to find a bottle of Mogor-Badan chasselas, which I'd had in Mexico City on my birthday last year and really, really enjoyed. They didn't have any - there's not a lot of it made, and it's almost impossible to find - but they did have a really interesting, carefully assembled selection of the best Mexican wines you could find. Pricing is always a bit of a shock; I'm guessing that taxes are fairly high in Mexico, at least compared to California, and that scarcity of their best wines doesn't help either. Most of the wines started at $20 - dollars not pesos - and a few of them were well into $100 territory. It's funny, but it's so easy to think of Mexico as dirt cheap... and it can be, sure, but there's a big, growing middle class there as well and it's clear that they spend money exactly as well as we do in the States. I picked up a six pack of different wines and got out of there to the tune of about $200, about what I was expecting. They had a single bottle of Mogor-Badan red wine (no idea what it is exactly), which was awesome; I bought the rest strictly based on criteria such as "can I afford this" and "is this a cool looking label or what?". Among the finds were some Mexican bicentennial wine - to celebrate Mexico's 200th anniversary on September 16, 2010, local winemakers banded together to produce some limited edition bottlings; I have one each of the 'cheap' one at $18 a pop. Into the cooler they went, and then we got serious about the business of the day: the Mexicali gay pride parade.

Some brief background information: Mexicali is the capital of the state of Baja California. Mexico, like the USA, is a republic with a lot of different states. Sonora, Baja California, Coahuila: these are all states. Recently, Mexico City - which isn't a state, but a Federal District much like DC - began allowing same sex marriages. Shortly thereafter, the Mexican equivalent of the Supreme Court also decided that all other states are required to recognize same sex marriages performed in Mexico City ("the DF" for short). So far, so good. However, a couple of weeks ago, the conservative government in Baja ("BC" for short), passed legislation that essentially says "we're not going to recognize those marriages." It gets more complicated; the legislation can't take effect unless the 5 "municipalities" (more like counties, really) in BC essentially sign off on it as well. This is why the annual pride parade in Mexicali was switched up to be more of a political protest this year.

Anyhow! We dropped Rex off at the start of the parade route so that he could talk to the activists who had organized the parade, and the rest of us headed a few blocks south to Beijing, one of the many Chinese restaurants in Mexicali. (For a while, there were more Chinese than Mexicans in Mexicali, and there's still a huge Chinese-Mexican community there.) Dan, Roy, and I feasted on a ridiculous amount of food; we went with the $8 menu, which included egg rolls, barbecue pork with spicy mustard, fried shrimp with Mexican mayonnaise, fried rice with pork, broccoli beef, and orange chicken. That's some of the best Chinese food I've had in years, but also very much of the old school North American Cantonese style; it's the kind of thing you only find in rural Washington state or similarly out of the way places these days. The fried rice was really interesting; it tasted very Mexican (I think it was something to do with the pork in it). Fresh limes served with our Cokes were a really awesome touch as well, and the Chinese-Mexican staff spoke perfect English to boot. All in all amazing.

While we were paying the bill, Rex texted us to let us know that the parade was starting, so we drove back up to the border fence and waited just a short while longer before the parade got going. Thanks to the heat and size of the city, the parade turned out to be a motorcade; a couple of dozen motorcycles, trucks, and cars drove slowly around the main streets of Mexicali, complete with police escorts on motorcycles and a huge flatbed truck with a few go go dancers and a couple of drag queens. Sweet. It was pretty cool seeing the friendly police officers stop traffic so that the gays could continue their procession; even cooler were seeing the locals smile and dance along to the pounding disco music in places. After an hour, the gays stopped at a small park three blocks south of the border, where the organizer did an interview with Mexican TV, a group picture was taken, and then folks went off to hit the gay bar. Us, well, we were done for the day, so we headed a few blocks northeast to wait in the long, slow, frustrating queue of cars crossing over to the USA.

After an hour of inching forward and declining all kinds of goods and services (cold drinks, ice creams, statues of tortoises, velvet paintings of the Last Supper, statues of beer drinking animals in sombreros with penises, Virgin Marys) and watching a wide range of beggars (grandmothers, people without legs, people with severe eczema, crippled children, the blind), we finally made it around the short curve to the border crossing itself. As luck would have it, we got a young Mexican-American woman as our border officer, who was emphatically not amused that we were taking 24 bottles of beer across - she wondered out loud if we'd ever crossed the border before - and within a couple of minutes she'd bundled up our passports along with an orange card, stuck them under the windshield wiper, and ordered us over to the secondary inspection lane. Joy.

Secondary inspection isn't just an awesome CD by Mexican electronic musician Terrestre. It's also where you get sent if they think you're taking anything across the border they suspect you shouldn't be. We parked, and waited just over an hour before a friendly officer came over to talk to us. We spent that hour watching families stand in front of their cars while they inspected them thoroughly for contraband; the poor woman to the right of us couldn't get her car started afterward, and they wouldn't let anyone else reposition their car so that jumper cables could reach her battery, so they eventually hooked up a couple of sets of jumper cables to get her car started.

Long story short, we were upfront about the alcohol we were carrying, and the officials made a list. Apparently - and this is news to me - the amount of alcohol you can bring back over the border if you're driving is dependent upon not your nationality or payment of import duties or excise taxes, but upon your state of residence. If you're Arizonan, for example, and you cross into the USA at Mexicali, you're welcome to carry a "reasonable amount" of alcohol - say, six liters of tequila or something - per person. However, if you're Californian, then sorry, you're allowed to carry one liter and one liter only of alcohol, regardless of what kind of alcohol it is. In short, three bottles of beer only, which strikes me as ridiculous. They did the math and decided that we were allowed to bring six bottles of anything across, period. We began by getting rid of the beer; the officer helped out by carrying one of the two cartons over to a special sink they had mounted in the secondary inspection area, complete with a permanently mounted bottle opener. It took some time, but I had to open all 24 bottles, pour the beer down the drain, throw out the caps, and put the bottles back in the cartons so that they could toss 'em. Next up, Rex agreed to throw out his rum because it was fairly cheap - ten bucks, I think - and then the Santo Tomas port-style wine, because it was screwcapped and maybe ten bucks. Total damage so far: forty bucks, which is incredibly annoying because the excise tax on beer and wine in California is a whopping twenty cents per gallon - and Federal tax on beer is five cents a can, not much more for wine. So what's the purpose of this exercise? You cross the border with twenty-four bottles of beer, which represents a loss to the State of about $1.85 in taxes (including California state sales taxes), and you're not allowed to simply pay the taxes and import the beer - nope, you have to pour it out, because that beer is somehow a threat, I guess? I have no idea what the rationale behind any of that was. You'd think that we'd have the technology to just have a kiosk at the border run by the State of California that would allow you to enter the amount of alcohol you're carrying, swipe your credit card, and get a receipt for your taxes. Heck, you could make that apply to all travelers, remove the arbitrary one liter duty free limit, and generate more revenue, period (the taxes on hard alcohol are way, way higher than for wine and beer).

But I digress. We're now down to eight bottles of wine, no beer, and no rum. The officer has graciously agreed to allow us six bottles, which is slightly more than the four liters we're allowed to take home from Mexico. I grab the two bottles of bicentennial wine - they're the cheapest, and I figure that any novelty wine like that is probably not going to be amazing - and take them over to the sink. I remove the capsules from the bottles - the plastic stuff that covers the cork - and we hit a snag. I don't have a corkscrew, and they don't either. They're well prepared for beer drinkers, but not for wine drinkers. Things bog down. Our officer goes to find backup in the building; me, I stand around and shoot the breeze with two more agents. It's friendly, chatty, and actually kind of interesting; they suggest that the only workable solution to the problem is to do your drinking in Baja, rent a hotel room there, and come back in the morning with nothing but a hangover. They also say that they've heard that they're making wines in Baja now (shhhh: they've been making them longer than we have in San Diego county), and they think the bicentennial wine is pretty cool (almost all of the officers here are American-born bilingual Hispanics). I point out that I was born on September 16 (Mexican Independence Day) and am bummed that I won't be able to try the wine. Eventually - and God knows Dan, Rex, and Roy have been waiting in the car for a long, long time now in the extreme heat and are probably as tired and exasperated as I am - our officer comes back and generously, graciously agrees to let us take the wine. No one can find a corkscrew, and I can't just leave it with them; what I'm supposed to do is apparently return to Mexico, drink it there or buy a corkscrew there, and then return to the border, but it's late, I'm tired, and I'm very happy that we're allowed to proceed with eight bottles of wine, net loss to the combined tax coffers of the USA and California slightly over one dollar notwithstanding.

People talk a lot about freedom in America, and this is why I don't always feel free. I don't see any problem at all with driving half an hour to a neighboring country, buying locally produced products that are not exported, and then driving home to California. I also believe that it's only fair to ask people to pay the tax due when importing goods to the USA. In the case of wine and beer, it's not a lot of money - maybe fifty cents a six pack - so why shouldn't we make it easy for citizens to do this? Hell, just make a Web site where you can prepay, print your receipt, and show it to Customs when you come back to the States. But no: instead, you are allowed to bring three bottles of beer home with you, period. What useful purpose this serves is beyond me: how do four bottles of beer represent a threat in any way, shape or form? Thirty cents in taxes is far, far less than the salaries of the officers who were paid to supervise me as I emptied them into the Calexico drainage system. Is it just that American beer distributors (such as Cindy McCain) are politically powerful enough to have enacted laws that prevent you from doing this?

Anyhow, once all of the border drama was behind us, we turned left in Calexico and set out on the last adventure of the evening: dinner at Camacho's Place, a Mexican restaurant in rural El Centro - seriously, like ten miles out of town, way out in the boondocks - that's been there since 1946. We pulled up, walked in, and found a nearly empty dining room with a really smart, funny, and somehow vaguely Tea Party-ish woman holding down the fort. We had tacos, machaca con huevos, and beer while talking about Mexico (she hadn't been there in maybe 15 years because it's so corrupt) and the uselessness of the border controls (she thinks it's ridiculous that they require passports now, especially because she grew up a mile north of the border and they didn't need passports for most of the lives (and I totally agree with that)). We paid up, bought some homemade cat toys for fifty cents, and started the long drive home to San Diego, eventually finding the freeway after dealing with random road closures (earthquake damage?) in the dark, foggy farmland - good times.

One last annoying Border Patrol check - this time from a fresh-faced 18 year old who mostly just looked bored - we stopped for gas, noted that our cell phones were on a Mexican tower (the interstate goes very, very close to the border there), and finally made it home to fall asleep just before midnight.

All in all, a fascinating day, even if we lost an hour and forty bucks thanks to ridiculous alcohol policy. Hopefully the wine will have been worth it - I'll blog it later - and with any luck the BC gays will see that legislation die due to benign neglect (the government changed shortly after it was passed, so there's a very good chance they'll simply ignore it, which means it will never take effect).