You don’t need to remember this, but I remember that Trinh and i connected on the fact that she was reading ” Why Nations Fail” and kept it in her motorbike during the distant era that surrounded our first few dates in 2014.
As Tommy and I drove through the Arizona desert, I observed the economic transition to Mexico for the first time. ” Why Nations Fail”, an eye-opening book on economic development , that pushed me towards a career in development, begins with a comparison of how towns that were split in 1800s by the drawing of the US-Mexican border took very different development paths after the line was drawn in the literal sand between the two countries.
The US-Mexican border is similar to the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, where the Mexican and Cambodian roads are somewhat worse after you drive in from the US or Vietnam. Just like on the border of Cambodia, the difference in infrastructure was stark. The US side was an uninhabited desert. The Mexican side has a tiny town whose economy was made of supporting the border guards and street vendors selling things to tourists who waited in their vehicles to pass back into the US.
The roads on the US side were new and shiny with yellow freshly painted lines separating the lanes. The roads on the Mexican side, just like Cambodia, were wide well-worn road with washed away lane separation lines.
Effortlessly passing the border and border town on the Mexican side, we eventually traveled through another stretch of desert and approached the tourist town of Rocky Point / Puerto Penasco. Driving along the Mexican roads, I noticed older US car brands that had gone out of business in the recession of ’08 – Mercury & Saturns. I guess after the recession hit all the Saturn automobiles drove themselves across the border or their manufacturing was already outsourced to Mexico and without demand in the US, they were just dumped in Mexico.
A major difference between the Mexican and Cambodian border was that there was no check of documents, passengers, or cars when departing the US and entering Mexico. Even Cambodia, the wild west of Southeast Asia… checks those who enter to “enforce” visas and tariffs.
Entering Mexico, an American can simply just leave the US with no questions asked. Hollywood was right -If you and I survived robbing a bank, we can just drive away into Mexico. Because there is no check on US persons in Mexico there is nothing to track when I enter or exit, no visa to expire, no stamps, nothing to tell me I need to leave.
As we waited through a traffic light in the border town, I looked at the people walking, talking, and riding bikes. I thought, “I can just enter their country at any time, for however long I want and they can’t enter mine”. It seemed unfair, not that they couldn’t go in, but that me coming in was so open, visa-free, and encouraging. Then I realized that Puerto Penasco, in particular, is in some sense an extension of the US, but Arizona is not an extension of Mexico. This is a defining imbalance between the divorced neighbors. The unequal relationship between the US and Mexico is highlighted by the long lines of cars waiting to enter the US, juxtapose to the easy drive through to enter Mexico.
Even now after a whole day in Mexico, I haven’t even used Mexican money yet, because everyone accepts the US dollar. Vietnam outlaws the use of USD in official transactions in order to control their currency. Mexico like Cambodia allows the USD to flow.
We drove to our small bed and breakfast in the town, the town has all the qualities of a town in rural Thailand – sleeping street dogs, people walking about, street food hawkers, bare buildings. Think of the town where we transferred buses on the way to Khao Yai.
When we went to the reception desk an older American woman my mother’s age chatted our heads off with information about what to do in Puerto Penasco. She and her girlfriend decided to open a BnB called Mermaids. The two older ladies told us all sorts of things. I thought they had to be high to be so talkative. They walked me into their kitchen and introduced me to Tajin, an amazing Mexican spicy, fruity, salt and I bought a bottle to bring back to Vietnam.
At one point one of the women was trying to demonstrate to me why not to leave my phone on a restaurant table. Standing at her kitchen counter, she demonstrated how a would-be theft would use sleight-of-hand to steal a phone. To demonstrate that sleight-of-hand, she slipped a knife, that happened to be on the kitchen table behind her back and distracted me with other topics. At the same time, Tommy walked into the kitchen from the bathroom to see, without context, an older lady talking to me while holding a knife behind her back. We all laughed that she seemed to be plotting to stab me.
When we got into the room, we laughed because we had to share a bed. Since the Bnb owners were gay and the place was mostly booked by lesbians we laughed that we came off like closeted gays when we asked for separate beds. I’m certain the ladies thought we were together because of how familiar we are with each other and how we bicker like lovers.
Then Tommy and I ventured, we’d walk over a mile to Puerto Penaso’s seawall, town’s main going-out area. I liked walking to get a sense of the place with small one-story houses like Black Town in Sydney, dimly lit streets, guarded by gates, Spanish speaking dogs roaming around, Spanglish speaking cats dreaming of better days, and kinda beat up roads.
Realizing it was a bit far for us to walk, we hailed a passing cab, which turned out to be two guys in a car without a taximeter. They looked like movie extras casted to play ” Latin Gangsters”. Shaved heads, white Tshirts, tattoos and baseball caps. I was a bit nervous in the beginning because I’ve never really been macho Mexican dudes before.
Once Tommy began speaking Spanish they laughed and opened up, ” It’s good you speak Spanish otherwise the trip would be double”. Everyone really opened up to Tommy whenever he spoke Spanish, it was like this magical enchantment that he would use to turn all the sour-faced laborers into friendly guys and gals. Throughout the trip the people we met, taxi drivers and waiters were disappointed I didn’t speak Spanish.
After politely declining to buy our own “mermaids” from the dudes, we got dropped off at the main nightlife street along the sea wall. The Malecon, Seawall is a broad 1/2-mile esplanade along a seawall. The Malecon has a one-lane street parallel with the seawall, and a row of bars and restaurants on the other side of the road. We would spend the next few hours here. Here is where the story begins.
Since it was Friday night, the Malecon had different clusters of Mexican brass and piano bands playing along the esplanade. It was heart-warming because around each band had crowds of young and old Mexican families and friend groups dancing their unique swaying dance. People brought ice coolers from home and beers from the Oxxo convenience store to watch, listen and dance. While we watched and they danced hawkers moved up and down the street peddling flowers and all sorts of goods. This thought circles me back to our Sydney Uber driver who said that, “Greeks and Vietnamese like to hang out outside”. Although there are a million economic factors for why Mexicans are much more often outside, it is a way of living I’m more accustomed to now after living in Vietnam for years.
One older man had little jumper cables and a battery clipped to his belt. He would let people hold the cables and get shocked. He was looking for people who wanted to publically display their endurance by withstanding the shock. Both men and women tried his shock machine. I thought about all the hawkers in Saigon and how this shock machine would make it fun to go around shocking drunk people for cash.
I was happy that there was street food available in Mexico, and we got michalados. Michalados are a spicy clamato juice and beer drink I first tried in Saigon. It was fun to see that people actually drank this oddly delicious drink. As I watched the drink vendor manhandle the straws he put into my drink, I remembered Montezuma’s Revenge and the Grand Temple of Tenochtitlan.
We sat on some large steps that doubled as stage bleachers and listened as a full Latin band took a small stage to sing ballads. I was delighted to see families happily walking around, children running and playing with toys, young people being overly macho or sexy, people driving by with their windows down cruising the Malecon with their supped up trucks, Jeeps, and dune buggies.
The road along the Malecon had cars driving slowly with their windows down to soak in the music laden night air. There was a bunch of these small dune buggy Jeeps driving on the road with bright neon lights and loud music. There were tricked out pick-up trucks with neon lights in the wheels. It was like a 16-year olds dream to crossbreed a strip club’s neon lights with a pick-up truck.
I realized what I had been missing since coming to Phoenix was everywhere in Mexico. I had been missing the sense of life, all ages going about their business outside and in the open. Life in Phoenix was hidden within air-conditioned buildings, at the Malecon like in Saigon’s Pho Di Bo, children were running around, old people were sitting, alcoholics were scourging for cans to recycle, stocky men were dancing in public to little street bands. Tommy commented on how wonderful it is to be in a culture that encourages confident public dancing.
Sadly, while one band was playing up a storm another band walked up into Malecon. This band had uniforms and they had more trombones, tubas, drums, and once they started up the crowd flocked to them. The first band just stood there in silent abandonment in awe of their new competition. Just moments ago they were the coolest band on the block – well popularity is a fickle teen.
The main street had a bunch of large pharmacies on it. Odd to see pharmacies next to bars and bands, but the pharmacies were for the Americans to buy cheaper medicines without a prescription. It reminded me of the things I saw in the Dallas Buyers Club.
Eventually, we made it to a tourist bar and I saw a waiter at the bar salsa dancing with two women at once. Which was plausible and novel to see.
At the bar we ran into a group of Tommy’s Mexican acquaintances from Phoenix, two girls and two guys on a weekend trip into Rocky Point like us and they invited us to join them for drinks in the street after the bar closed. We walked with them back to the part of the Malecon with the bands and we are street tacos and churros. They all preferred to speak Spanish, so I connected with them through my interest in the music.
With the bars closed, they invited us to their condominium to drink our beers by the ocean. We assumed their condo was closer to our place, but in fact, it was a few miles in the other direction. The beach here, like Da Nang is lined with high rise buildings, and they were staying in a huge resort-like condo complex with three buildings.
Just like how in Penang we had to buy beer from one shop late at night, on our taxi to their place we had to go to a small after-hours beer stall to pick up beer. I sat with the beer in thin plastic bags of ice melting on my lap as we drove with six passengers in a cramped Sedan, blaring loud Mexican music all the way down the beach roads towards their resort condo.
We went to sit by their resort’s private beach, Tommy, of course, wanted to go swimming in the ocean at night – like he wanted to GO SWIMMING. He said as he and I got into the ocean, “I want to swim out until I’m uncomfortable.” I followed him in, but the cold water discouraged me from swim out as far as he did. Abandoned, I waited in the silent ocean darkness and scanned my eyes across the ocean searching for the splashing of Tommy kicking as he swam. When he did return, he swam passed me and I followed him to shore like a sheepish dog. We all went up to his friends’ rental and dried off.
Tommy decided he wanted to take a bath. So while he ran the bathwater, I told everyone I’d sleep on the sofa bed and passed out before Tommy finished his bath. Tommy, myself, and David ( one of our new friends form that evening) ended up all sleeping on the same bed. I woke up at about 9 AM or 10 AM feeling super dry and out-of-place. Tommy, whom I found giggling on the sun-soaked porch with the another guys, told me that he hadn’t slept much that night because David and I kept rolling in the bed. So he wanted to leave and head back to our BnB to rest.
As we walked into the parking lot I said to Tommy, “I haven’t gone out all night like that in years” and Tommy said,” Yeah, I like that this is like an experience for you. I do this like seven times a year”. The lifestyle of a single man pent up in a copper mine is different from a gradually fattening soon-to-be 30-year-old.
It’s been fun to see Tommy and his rationally optimistic decisions. He got so hungry this morning and went out from our Bnb to get street tacos. When he returned, since we lacked a desk and chair, he ingeniously sat on the toilet and ate with the sink as a table. He is doing a great job of introducing me to Mexico through the Mexican people who open up to him when he speaks and the easy-going lifestyle Americans envy about Mexico’s resort towns. Now we are back in our place and Tommy has passed out so I thought I’d share this with you.
Tommy and I woke up at about 4 PM and headed to the beach. The beach was similar to the beach in Dong Hoi, nice but under utilized. We had nice conversation about what to do next in life, I picked up seashells for our apartment, watched the sunset over the rocks. Then we went up a small hill that over looks the city and had a fancy dinner meal overlooking the city.
Now we are back at the BnB and resting a bit. Tommy is burned out from work and looking for a change, but doesn’t know exactly what and when to make the change. I shared with him that I’d I might like make writing a bigger part of my identity as I go into a career that hopefully more interesting, then endless mostly Emails.
Tommy has a million interesting thought to share