This past week, we flew down to southern Texas to check in on my parents. They have a winter house in a cute little gated community on a palm tree-lined street about 4 miles from the Mexican border.
My parents started spending their winters down in Texas in the mid 1990s. Before September 11th, we used to absolutely love going down there. There was so much to do in a day. In the morning, you would drive (or bike) four miles to the Mexican border. The town of Nuevo Progresso was in front of you; and you could hear the hustle and bustle of an active tourist community. As you would walk over the border, a nice Mexican border guard would wave and say “Hola” and “Bienvenidos” and off you would go to have the best shopping experience you could ever imagine. Your first stop would be to El Disco, a Pharmacia extraordinaire. Back then, these mega stores were filled not only with cheap pharmaceuticals, but also jewelry, cosmetics, pottery, shoes, vanilla, Kahlua and a whole host of other things. As you walked down the dusty street with tumbleweed flying by, there were loads of merchants selling everything from flip flops to tequila decanters. You could get your shoes shined, your teeth polished, and your nails and hair done. You could stop and eat a corn cob on a stick from one of many street vendors, and pick up some cinnamon or tamarind candy. You would admire the pretty pastel-coloured buildings and the experience of something a little different. The smell of tortillas and laundry detergent permeated everything. Your ears were filled with singing and classical guitar music. Everyone was in a great mood and the experience was cheerful. The locals let you practice the Spanish you had stopped using after high school without making fun of you. Usually by the time you’d get to the end of the street, you were a little tired, and Pedro the street barkeep would serve you an amazing margarita for $1.00, which you would drink even though it was only 10:00 in the morning. You’d tip him an extra dollar because it was a nice experience. By the time you were through, you had spent $30 and had so much stuff you had a hard time carrying it home. By the time you got home at 11:00, you were ready for that siesta. You would think about what you are going to search out on your next trip, tomorrow.
Fast forward to today, post 9/11, the stock market crash, and the efforts to keep illegal immigrants out of the U.S. This trip we had a lot of reservations about making that trip to Mexico now. There have been lots of problems with kidnappings and individuals getting caught in the crossfire of the drug wars. All around the bridge there is that ridiculous George Bush fence which is 18 feet high; so the scenery of entering a pretty little village is gone. There is still no customs entering into Mexico, but the border guards carry machine guns. It is hard to appreciate the word “Bienvenidos” being expressed by someone who is both smiling and carrying a machine gun with their hand on the trigger. Once you are on the other side you realize things are different. It’s subtle but it is there. There is less variety. The sales are gone. The good stuff is gone. People only go so far down the block to do their shopping out of fear of being kidnapped. The music is there, but it is more somber. The place smells less inviting. You stay very close to each other. Pedro is now further up the block toward the bridge and his $1.00 margarita is replaced by a $4.00 one. You don’t tip. The line at U.S. customs is long and they want to see everything. The dogs are out. You don’t go back again.
Nuevo Progresso is an ultimate example of what results when multiple issues out of the control of the average person occur at once. Once thought of being an international city, it was a huge point of transfer of goods and culture, and a place where international relations stood tall. Not so long ago, I can remember seeing pottery made in the studios along the back streets in Nuevo Progresso being sold out of a truck at the intersection of highway 50 and 7 in Brampton. I used to get a huge kick out of this (especially since a $12.00 hand painted sink in Mexico sold for $150.00 in the Brampton truck). It was a relatively open border. People had jobs, maybe not great jobs, but the cost of living was dirt cheap, and people could afford to feed their families and put a roof over their head. Commerce reigned supreme. Life was good. There wasn’t the despair. Once the Americans became afraid to go to Mexico, and/or their stock portfolios prohibited the purchase of another set of silver salad tongs, the drug lords completely took over, and the locals fled into the countryside, or worse got so desperate that they paid to get transported out of there. Wal-Mart came in not far from the border on the U.S. side and there was no longer any need for cheap Tide or Chiclets. The pastel-coloured buildings have faded in the sun. The whole thing is really very sad. The saddest thing for me was when we returned to the parking lot on the U.S. side, we found all sorts of shell casings from various types automatic weapons strewn around on the roadway. (I’m not embellishing this!) It is clear that there are just some days you CAN’T go there.
For the last couple of years, we have seen fewer and fewer family members visit Toronto. The main reason–border hassles, no sense of a deal, no sense of doing something fun and interesting. Equally, I have had less desire to travel to the U.S. for the same reason. The first person or business to figure out how to return to the simplicity and joy of 1999 is going to make a fortune. After all, that is the current value of our stock portfolios, so maybe that is the level at which we should be thinking.