"This is more than a kilometer," the Taxi Libre driver said with a lot of irritation and just a hint of fear in his voice.
"OK, maybe I made a mistake, Buddy. Maybe I meant two kilometers instead of one," I tersely answered. Now the taxi driver was just straight pissed.
"You don't know the difference between one kilometer and two?" He was so pissed he didn't even try to hide the sarcasm. It was as blatant as can be. But I have been coming up to Lomas del Encinal for years and I had played out this scene in the past.
"Heck no, Buddy. I'm just a dumb American. In the USA all we got are miles." What comes next is usually a muttered, "You're in Mexico now, Pal. So learn it!"
This taxi driver didn't say nothing about miles or Mexico. He was worried about the darkness. "Where are you going? There aren't anymore houses up here!"
"Sure there are, Buddy. You just can't see them in the dark." You couldn't see anything at all except what was directly in the high beams of the taxi. We were going up a dirt road that was strewn with large granite rocks and riddled with holes that could tear up a small economy car like the one he was driving.
I knew I was going to have problems with this guy from the moment I got into his white and orange Taxi Libre. It was in front of the Pueblo Amigo Hotel-Casino, a few minutes walk from the San Ysidro-Tijuana border, and it was near midnight. The taxi stand is near the entrance with its statue and Caliente betting kiosk. These drivers cater to a clientele with money to gamble. Many of their fares no doubt head to some of the better parts of the city.
When I utilize this stand I usually feel the drivers out before I close the deal. I tell them I'm headed for one of the furthest and most isolated barrios in the city. It's a long way from their plush location near downtown Tijuana. Some drivers hem and haw, trying to up the fare. Others look confused because they think they know the whole city but not everyone knows about Oak Hills. A small handful, usually the ones most dapper in their appearance, will complain about the dusty unpaved roads and say no way. On this night there was only one driver - a small, fastidiously-attired fellow. Right off the top I offered him more than the going rate. I could tell he didn't want to go but the money was too good to pass up.
Fraccionamiento (Fraccion - a broken part of an integral) Lomas (Hills) del (of) Encinal (Green Oaks). Oak Hills will never be confused with Beverly Hills. At least not anytime soon. It is located in the foothills visible along Tijuana's eastern edge. The city's eastern perimeter is more or less the four-lane highway called The Blvd 2000. It is a state highway which extends northwest to south from Tijuana's far northeast corner all the way to the Puerto Nuevo-Rosarito-Ensenada corridor that travels down Baja's Pacific coast.
In order to reach Lomas del Encinal you must exit at the Altiplano (High Plains) off ramp and then head left, under the bridge and begin ascending the steep, unpaved grade that leads toward Lomas. During the cartel wars of 2008-9, this bridge and the area around it was much more isolated and proved to be a favorite dumping ground for dead bodies. On the other side of the Blvd 2000 is a barrio called Mariano Matamoros. It is one of the toughest neighborhoods in Tijuana and the saying is that "In Mariano they kill for free."
This is not true. Like many places in Mexico, the going rate is about two hundred dollars.
"Are we almost there?" This was about the third time in the last few minutes he'd asked that question. We were only about two and a half blocks from my destination but the terrible condition of the dirt road and the inky black darkness prevented anything but a snail's pace.
He started ranting about how poor this part of Tijuana was and how much he detested coming up here.
When we reached about two blocks away I told him to let me off and paid him the full fare. It was worth it just to not hear his voice complaining about the darkness anymore. Two blocks at midnight thru this familiar neighborhood is a walk in the park for this old Chicano from East LA. Besides, there was a good reason for the pitch darkness here near the top of Fracc. Lomas del Encinal. The electricity had been cut off for days now. Milk and meat, bought with scarce pesos, perished in refrigerators as families huddled around expensive candles (5 pesos - 45 cents each) for warmth and light.
The reason why the electricity had been turned off up here in these cold hills was because the CFE, Mexico's electric company, had cut the lines because they were installing concrete power poles and rate usage meters. Fracc. L del E is a recent housing development, maybe a couple of decades old. By American standards this would already be an aging neighborhood but that's because in the USA neighborhoods are built in their entirety and sold as brand new, complete houses.
In some Tijuana housing developments there are a mixture of housing forms to choose from. Once upon a time, here you could purchase a concrete/cinder block home, wood home, pie de case (a lot with a 12 x 16 room made out of discarded garage doors from the US), or a simple empty lot. If you don't have a finished house then you build yours as you can afford it. Using whatever material you can purchase or scrounge up.
Electricity up here arrives via diablitos (little devils) connected to wires strung upon rickety wooden posts cobbled together from discarded scraps. A diablito is slang for tapping illegally into a power line. Only in this case the power line belongs to the real estate company selling the properties so it's not an illegal diablito. The majority of the people using diablitos are paying the real estate company monthly house/lot payments which presumably pays for the electricity.
When an area fills up with legal home owners who've paid off the company the CFE comes in and puts up concrete power lines, street lights and tells everybody to purchase a mufa if they want to have electricity. A mufa is the box which holds the meter disc, attached to a heavy metal pole and with a copper rod and wire attached to it for grounding. The entire package costs about 1,350 pesos (100 dollars) and you have to install it yourself on your property but according to CFE guidelines. Once that's done the CFE comes and installs a disc and you start paying your own electricity bill.
Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it?
Miriam thought so. The single mother of two teenage daughters and a five year old boy had bought a pie de casa over a half dozen years ago. During that time she turned her one room wooden shack into a stucco'd, multi-room dwelling and her dirt yard into a lush garden complete with a lime tree that is the envy of the block. When the price of limes reached ridiculous levels earlier this year, Miriam's lime tree was a blessing. Miriam has what Americans call a green thumb. Many of the plants in her garden, including the lime tree, were started from seed.
The mother of three was ecstatic that 'regulated' electricity was coming to her barrio. When she first moved into Fracc. L del E, electricity arrived via a straight wire from the pole to your house's wiring. There was no breaker box. The electricity tended to surge and flow with neighbors usage and so this played havoc with light sockets and appliances. Not only would bulbs burn out quicker from all the dimming and fading they were doing but fans and heaters tended to burst into flames while microwaves and popcorn makers didn't work at all, which was definitely a good thing. Installing a breaker box helped a lot but some appliances like microwaves still wouldn't work.
When the CFE announced their intentions, Miriam scraped together the hundred plus dollars needed to purchase and install her electrical meter and pole. It wasn't easy but the family pulled together, sacrificed further and got it done. What happened next is funny in that sad way that is the ridiculousness of mankind.
Everybody's electricity got cut off. The housing company said the residents who were going to get discs could no longer use their lines. On the other hand, the CFE said no one without a disc (which they must install) can draw off their nice new powerful lines. In fact, there is a 60,000 peso fine for doing so. That is almost the price of a small lot in Oak Hills.
Supposedly, the CFE had a schedule and had they been able to stick to it, then everybody would have gotten what they wanted. Of course it didn't happen that way. Everything from a grass roots anti-government group called antitorchistas, to the holidays, and the plain old difficulty of the rugged terrain -- The CFE has maps but the streets have no signs -- delayed progress.
Last week, I was walking to the local mom and pop store when a CFE truck pulled up next to me. Two guys were inside and the guy sitting shotgun was holding a map. They asked me where a street was. I had never heard of it. I told them the names of the several streets around us and I watched as he was trying to find them as they slowly drove off.
And that was why I was having to deal with the snarky Taxi Libre driver at midnight in a very dark part of eastern Tijuana. In my reusable tote bag I was carrying candles, flashlights and batteries - lots of batteries.