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Mexico: Part One-Los Algodones, BC

Layne and I waiting in line to cross the border into the US. The government was shut down and this was the longest we waited–2 hours.

Two hours from Borrego Springs and just a 15 minute drive from Yuma there’s a border crossing at Andrade, CA. The US side is Quechan (Kwatsáan) reservation land. There’s a big casino at the freeway exit and the tribe operates the secure parking on the US side of the border. On the Mexican side is a very small town, Los Algodones, that now has some 400 dentists, earning it the moniker “Molar City”. Other services are available too: optical, dermatology, pharmacy, plastics (cosmetic surgery), massage, haircuts, pedicures, and so on. We began making trips to Los Algodones last year because Jonathan had lots of dental work that needed to be done. I don’t need to tell anyone that dentistry is very expensive in the US. In Mexico one can obtain excellent dental care at a fraction of the cost. Jonathan went back this January to continue the treatment plan that was started last year. We make the two hour drive from Borrego Springs to Andrade, park the car on the US side, walk across the border, get the work done and then walk back to the car and drive home. In the past, crossing the border has involved anywhere from a ten minute to, at most, an hour wait. It’s a long day but generally pleasant. 

I’ve enjoyed going along to visit and see what there is to see. I enjoy chatting with the merchants and exploring the town while Jonathan is in the dental chair. There’s a pretty extensive market place with everything from cheap toys to beautiful jewelry, wood carving, paintings, metal and ceramic folk art.

I have an opinion about Mexico which is based on my travel experience over the past forty years. I like the country and I like the people–friendly, resourceful, smart, quick-witted, and good natured. Respect is an important cultural value and I cringe when our government treats the Mexican government and its people disrespectfully. There are criminals on both sides of the border. I always feel safe when I’m there.

Our first visit this year was in January. Jonathan had dental work, our friend, Layne, an initial evaluation. Most often evaluation and initial work are done on the same day. In Layne’s case she needed a procedure that would require anesthesia so they required that she return the day before her procedure for labs, and then have someone there, with car, at the dental clinic to drive her home.

This gave us the opportunity to experience another way of visiting. Our friends, Russ and Renée, also needed some work done and so they joined us. We drove to the border the day before the appointments, crossed into Mexico by car, drove to a really nice hotel. We parked the car and spent the night in a brand-new condo suite. The hotel is called Hotel California-and we did get to leave the place. There was a bit of a problem at first because our reservation had been lost when they had a computer crash. The motel was full, true to Mexican hospitality standards they were able to provide us with lodging in their brand new condo suite. I think we were the first guests to stay there.

View of Los Algodones from the porch of the condo at Hotel California. Construction still in progress.

I loved seeing what happens to the town after the tourists go home. The border is only open between 6 AM and 10 PM. After about 4:30 in the afternoon the vendors disappear, offices begin to close, and small-town Algodones emerges. We had a delicious dinner and a restful night.

While I was walking around I met a fellow who was preparing and selling nopales. Nopales are prickly pear cactus paddles. He was sitting on the corner scraping the thorns off with a sharp knife, then placing each paddle in a stack. The nopales that I’ve seen and eaten at home come from a can. I haven’t liked them that much because they can have a gelatinous, slimy, character. But I’ve always wondered how one might get from a prickly pear pad to something edible, so I stopped to talk. Once the salesman knew I was interested, he kindly showed me how to scrape off the thorns and then brought me to another woman who was selling various stews that contained the cooked nopales. It was very interesting and I bought a bag of fresh paddles for $3. When I got home I googled nopales and learned that the key to slime-free preparation is to cook the nopales prior to adding them to whatever dish you have in mind. The nopale has a lovely, mildly citrusy flavor. My favorite so far was grilling on the BBQ. You just brush it with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and grill it for a few minutes on each side.

That green leaf-shaped item on the left–think of it as the steak in the middle of your plate and add sides. Yum!

Bocce, Anyone?

Spurred by our new park’s impressive bocce court, Jonathan has taken an interest in playing bocce. He’s played it before with James and his neighbor, Jim. He invested in a set when we made our foray to La Quinta for groceries and other supplies. He decided that before he played at the public court he’d better be working on his game and so he has set up a court in the desert behind our trailer. This means that there are some obstacles on the course: rocks, cactus, and definitely irregular terrain. In fact there’s a cable box right in the middle of the field. Pretty soon it became a regular thing and to make a long story short he hasn’t made it to the park court yet. Every afternoon is bocce time and there’s a pretty regular group of players that show up. It’s quite lively.

Here’s the court–rocks, cable box, irregular terrain, and small cactus add to the challenge.
Doug lobs a ball while Jonathan, Steve, Larry, and Sue (hidden behind Larry) look on.
Jonathan gives it his best shot. Is it skill or luck? Couldn’t have a more beautiful backdrop.

Thanks to Sue MacDonnell for her excellent bocce photos and to Julia Sommer for her skillful editing advice. And thanks to all for reading and being such good sports. More about Mexico in my next post–Chacala yoga retreat. Stay warm and enjoy the winter y’all. It’s not exactly warm here but when I complain about cold and wind I don’t get much sympathy from the folks at home.

Hell Hole: One Step at a Time

I’m way behind! I love writing this blog. And I also love actually doing the stuff that I’m writing about. I’ve been so busy with the doing that I haven’t had time for the writing. That’s all. Thanks to some bad weather I’m actually able to do some writing. It’s raining and it’s windy. I realize that those of you who are living in areas where snow and icy conditions prevail may find this silly. I agree. I think it is really quite nice here. And the desert is turning very green. We are stocking in anticipation of being sequestered when the valley is invaded by thousands of visitors to see the Super Bloom that may arrive in a month or so.

Anyway, I want to tell you about a hike that we did back in early January. It was a coolish day in the desert-a great time for a hike. Hiking on days that are cool means you don’t have to worry quite so much about this problem:

The State Parks idea of a humorous way to encourage people to carry adequate water. The sign says, “They didn’t bring enough water”.

We decided to hike up Hell Hole Canyon with a group of friends. The hike starts about a mile from our trailer door on the desert bajada just west of the Park visitor center and the more popular Palm Canyon hike. Over the first one to two miles there are lots of Ocotillo and creosote, the typical flora for this area. It’s a gentle, well marked uphill trail and quite easy.

The usual suspects: Tom, Bill, Stephanie, Marilyn, Jonathan, me, and Layne with one beautiful blooming Ocotillo.

As the canyon walls close in, the terrain changes and the nice easy trail disappears, replaced by boulders. There are three oases and at the third there’s a waterfall with ferns-so says the guidebook and people who’ve been there. I’ve hiked here before but never made it past the first oasis.

I think this is the approach to the first oasis. There are parts where there really isn’t a trail to follow.
Fortunately, Jonathan was able to move a couple of rocks off the trail for me.

We all really wanted to make it to the third oasis because of the waterfall/ ferns. As it got harder and harder I was able to keep walking with that simple little method of focusing on each step individually. I think it’s a great metaphor for life. There’s always challenges and we just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Every time I thought about stopping I just focused on that particular step. Quite meditative, it was. “One step at a time. There’s nothing else, just this moment, this step.”

In some sections there actually is a trail to follow. This is still in the lower part of the canyon.

Layne, Stephanie, and I all had our moments when we thought that we might just call it a good day. Tom and Jonathan did a lot of scouting for best routes. There was one particular spot where we stopped to rest on a big boulder in the sun and I seriously wondered why I needed to go anywhere else.

Lunch at a sunny spot. Pretty nice, right?

But there’s so much to see along the trail.

Interesting rock formations.
Morteros: Kumeyaay Native American nomadic peoples used the rock to process pinyon nuts, mesquite beans, and desert agave.

Birds: on this hike we saw an Oriole and we always hope to see Phainopepla. (Didn’t see one this day.)

Keep your eyes open for Borrego. That’s the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep. (Didn’t see one of these either.)

It’s very surprising to see Sycamore and Willows growing alongside the Palm trees.
Near the second Oasis
Nice view from just above the second oasis looking back down the canyon and into the Borrego Valley.

We never really had any kind of time limit other than knowing that in January it gets pretty dark and cold in these canyons by about 4:30 in the afternoon. That allowed us to just keep pulling up over the rocks, stretching to climb, crossing little rivulets of water. And finally we arrived at the third oasis and sure enough, there was a small waterfall with ferns growing all around it.

Oh so worth it!

The wind is gusting up to about 40 mph and it’s raining intermittently so more inside activities. I’m sending this out and then I’ll start on the next post. Coming up next: Mexico.

What makes community?

The new community park is almost finished. One Sunday morning, shortly after we arrived in Borrego Springs, we strolled around the new park to get acquainted. It’s pretty amazing. Children were playing in the playground and on the basketball court there was a fast game in progress. We noticed the tennis courts (with pickle ball option) and the sandlot volleyball court. There’s also a real Bocce court complete with the crushed shell surface that’s preferred. There’s a dog park too. Bike racks for the playground, at the amphitheater, and at the new library just across the road. And right there on the edge of this property is the new San Diego County Sheriff ‘s Department. It all feels pretty safe, idyllic really.

The solid granite signpost for the new community park. Library in the background.
At the Borrego Springs community park playground this sign reminds the kids that this is their home.

We stopped to chat with a couple of women who were getting ready to play tennis. They told us that the park was presented to the community a couple of weeks ago. They said it was an emotional event for the town. “People were pretty amazed,” they told us. “We didn’t really know how it would look and how much would be here.” I agree. Last year we were part of the process for input for the building. We reviewed different site design proposals and voted on the ones we liked the best. It was clear that a lot of careful thought had gone into the project. But seeing it in reality has been very moving.

All this got me thinking about community. While we enjoy lots of amenities in Borrego Springs: grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations and other services, many shops that stock various “lifestyle” needs, these things come at a cost. We really are isolated by distance from large population centers and by the surrounding desert. I’m always reminded of our isolation on bike rides. Whenever we get a few miles out from town there is no cell coverage. A few years ago, on our way to a hike, we learned about this isolation first hand. We pulled off the highway near a trailhead in an area that looked solid. It wasn’t. Our truck sank into the sand, all four wheels were buried up to the axles. No cell reception. We couldn’t budge. Close to where we parked there was a fellow sitting behind his pickup truck. He eyed us menacingly and said, “Get out of here, you’re disturbing my peace.” He observed us trying to make some progress in complying with his demand. “Oh great,” he growled. “You’re stuck.” Pretty soon he came over to help us. His theme was that Jonathan was way too “old and feeble” to be trying to dig out the truck and that he’d like to ignore us but he couldn’t because he was a Christian. (God Save Us!) This went on for quite a while and he didn’t have any more luck than poor feeble, old Jonathan in getting us out. We were getting more and more nervous stuck out here with this somewhat edgy “Christian” when, out of the blue, a big flatbed truck with “duelies”, 4WD and a winch pulled up and its driver got out. “Do you need some help?” He proceeded to quickly hook the winch to our truck and with one mighty shudder our entire big truck vibrated its way to solid ground. We gave him our heartfelt thanks, he declined money, and was on his way. Mr. “Christian” watched in silence and after our guardian angel left he asked, “Where did he come from? Did you call him?” Nope, he was just a nice guy passing by who decided to stop and help. I could have said more but words failed me.

And that is Borrego Springs in a nutshell. It seems to me that this isolation creates community, it gives the town a unique sense of togetherness; kind of like we’re all in this together. In general, people seem kinder, perhaps more tolerant of differences. In the 2010 census there were over 3,000 residents in Borrego. We aren’t full time residents, we’re snowbirds. Whenever I meet year-round residents I’m always curious to find out what it’s like to be here all year. The short answer is “HOT”, but they also like how quiet it is. And the amazing thing is that they aren’t stingy with it. They let us snowbirds flock in, noisily fluttering around. They share their home. I love the diversity of this place. All kinds of people, some are a little colorful, some rich, some poor. There’s lots of resourcefulness. I love that I hear a mix of English and Spanish being spoken. It makes sense. We are about a 2 hour drive from the Mexican border. I get to practice my language skills with lots of folks who are happy to help out. The diversity of the people helps me to see the diversity of the desert landscape a little more clearly. I don’t think it’s the whole story about community, but it’s a start.

Desert Living

While I’m trying to figure out the mechanics of publishing my thoughts on this blog you’ll probably find it a little disorganized. That’s because I’m using a new blog web support thingie and so there’s, once again, a very steep learning curve.

So I’ll stop complaining and just start writing…

We arrived in Borrego Springs ten days ago. It took three days to get here because we like to keep the trailer hauling short and during daylight hours. Since arriving in Borrego we have reconnected with friends and gotten busy doing the things we love to do.

Biking: we have been pedaling around the valley and yesterday we rode up to the Yaqui Pass summit. It was a beautiful day and it takes me about an hour to get to the top. I like that I’m by myself when I’m riding. The desert is beautiful and it’s a great meditative activity. The rest of the group is faster than I am so I lost them (or they lost me). Some how I arrived back at the trailer just a few minutes after Jonathan and it was quite a ballet that we managed to do an out and back ride without seeing each other on the return jaunt.

St Richard’s Catholic Church: We really like the catholic community here and we arrived just a few days before Christmas. There’s a new priest-Fr Fernando. We recognized many of our old friends and were happy to see them. I got the mass times wrong so we ended up with a couple or extra hours. A great opportunity to go out for Christmas Eve dinner at Carmelita’s.

Music: Linda and Steve Kramer are camped near us. Linda came equipped with a full keyboard. I brought my violin because it’s quite a bit smaller than the cello. I haven’t played the violin in about 10 years so it’s not sounding too great. But Linda is quite skilled and very patient and we’ve been enjoying working on some simple classical duets and our second attempt sounded much better than the first.

Borrego Springs Community: Last year the community was deep in discussion and planning for a new library and park. This year it was nearly completed and is absolutely amazing. The new library is spacious and inviting, with outdoor patio area and built to fit in with the desert environment. Across the street is a new playground, various game courts, dog run and the new sherif’s department office.