Tag Archives: Drugs

Tijuana – in the shade of the USA

It seems we can’t escape newspaper articles, radio reports and TV programmes about the border between the USA and Mexico, and all this has led me to think of my travels along that border some years ago.  I wrote an article at the time for The Traveller magazine and I thought it might be interesting to use it as a Post on my Blog as when I was there the border seemed to benefit the American tourists almost as much as the Mexicans

So, here it is.

Tijuana Border (2)

You’ll see them every evening, peering through the holes in the fence at the patrolling agents on the US side, or astride the wall, silently waiting for sundown and their chance to make that final spurt for freedom.  These are the ‘chickens’ – illegal immigrants who nightly swarm across the high steel fence that snakes inland from Tijuana to San Diego.  Like the old Berlin Wall, this one also has arc lights and guards equipped with night-vision cameras.

San Diego County, USA, borders Mexico for approximately 70 miles but the wall itself runs for only 14 of them.  Further north, the immigrants risk a gruelling three or four day journey across tough, arid terrain, but from Tijuana to the suburbs of San Diego it is only a short run.  Joselito spoke for them all.  “If we don’t make it tonight, there is a chance of finding some sort of job while we wait for another day.  So we stay”.

Tijana Border

Tijuana is a tough place to live: it is noisy and dirty, the crime rate is high and drugs are easily available, but for the scores of people who arrive daily from all over Mexico, this frontier town is the gateway to new beginnings and new hopes,  Many who come here to try their luck at crossing the border end up finding ways to support themselves and their families in Tijuana itself.

You will see them on the side-streets of the city: the brick-makers who squat by the streams, the farriers who tool and fashion the graceful Mexican saddles and boots, the touts who stand by the sidewalk, a damaged car door in one hand and a panel-beater in the other.  Their customers are Americans who drive their cars across the border for high calibre work at one-tenth of what it would cost in California.

That’s not the only thing that attracts Americans to Tijuana.  Drugs and dental treatments that are expensive in the United States are cheap and readily available in this border city.  It is almost certain that the American matrons you see clutching  pharmacy bags have just picked up a six-month supply of Prozac at giveaway prices, a supply of chemotherapy treatment or a mixed bag of sleeping pills and wake-up pills.

Rich and poor live in close proximity here.  There are modest houses of concrete and metal alongside magnificent colonial-style mansions, interspersed with crazily leaning shacks.  Plastic containers, splashed recklessly with scarlet and yellow paint and filled with scented red and pink geraniums, define the ‘garden’ space in front of these dwellings.  Here and there on end walls are brilliant murals of darkly exotic flowers and oceans and skies of an impossible blue, a naive art that owes more to the capacity for gaiety and colour in the Mexican temperament than to any innate artistic talents.  Even here, strolling groups of traditionally dressed Mariachi bands want to serenade you and if you have suffered six versions of  Quantanamera in 30 minutes it may be prudent to know the title of one or two other Mexican songs.

mariachi-2770114_640

Twenty years ago, Tijuana was little more than a clutch of ragged adobe houses and a few stores, a border town of such searing poverty and dirt that I was glad to leave it.  Today it is a city in its own right, a city that has a future – of sorts.  Above all, it has a young and vibrant population, one of the reasons why Samsung, Sanyo, General Electric, Ford and other multinationals have invested billions of dollars in the city and why they currently employ more than 100,000 workers here.  The fact that there is work for thousands where before there was nothing will not halt the border crossings, but it makes the plight of the ‘chickens’ less hopeless and enables some of them to remain in their own country.

Meanwhile, the steel border, illuminated at night, adds a frisson of excitement, a charge, to life in Tijuana.  And those gaunt figures that sit astride it today will be followed, inevitably, by others tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

Chiang Rai and Thailand’s Hill Tribes

 

Chiang Rai Merit Making
Chiang Rai Merit Making

 

Located on a plain beneath the outermost edge of the Himalayan range is Chiang Rai, capital of the province of the same name and until recently one of Thailand’s best kept secrets.

Without the slick presentation of big sister Chiang Mai, 180 Kl. to the south, Chiang Rai is a pleasing town with much less traffic, wide, clean streets and few skyscrapers. Here in the heart of the slow-paced province, the market-place and temple are the hub of the community, as they have been for centuries.

This is the part of Thailand that to date has attracted few long term visitors yet it is arguably Thailand’s most undervalued region. A province of mountains and rivers, you’ll find yourself everywhere either on a river or in the hills or mountains that form one continuous rippling green chain across the northern border with Laos and Myanmar, offering the most accessible base from which to venture into these countries. It is within easy reach of the Golden Triangle, that magnificent and tranquil setting where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet on the Mekong river, and where the S.E. Asian drug trade was spawned in the poppy fields.

Golden Triangle

 

The essence of Chiang Rai is its untouched environment and breathtaking scenery, understated and soft hued, like a Chinese brush painting. Towering mountains and craggy limestone peaks loom out of the soft, opalescent, morning mists, elephants haul teak on river banks, and families drift up and down the rivers on their bamboo rafts which are transport, house and working stations.

Cultivation in Mountains

Most western visitors come here to visit the hill tribes, among which the Lisu, Akha, Karen and Yao who live in settlements of thatched huts in the mountains, are the best known. Home to thirteen different hill tribes who migrated from various parts of South China and North and Central Burma, there is a wealth of ethnic cultures in this small area.

It is a vexing question as to whether the visitor to the hill tribes is an agent of destruction or preservation. Exposure to outside influences has certainly altered the lives of the hill-tribes and many now expect payment for being photographed, an action that is viewed by some as a step towards the destruction of their culture. An alternative view is that the money earned gives the hill tribes an enhanced view of their culture and the interest shown in this aspect of their life helps to preserve this.

Akha Hill Tribe family

The province wants to show off its many delights and is seriously out to attract visitors. Most of its attractions are cultural and natural, so they are looking for a more ecologically aware kind of tourist, one who will appreciate the natural beauty of the area and its shy but friendly people. Indeed, the people are one of the greatest assets of the area with a gentle innocence and a uniquely northern curiosity about the visitor.

Elephant Bathing
Elephant Bathing

From Chiang Rai one can take a boat ride up the river to the village of Rammit, home to the Karen tribe. Because of the dense jungle that stretches for miles the elephant is the only animal capable of working here, and the Karen have become excellent elephant trainers and handlers. The journey takes about 40 minutes and a good time to arrive is midday when the elephants have finished morning work and turn the river into their playground and bathtub.In these hills also, you’ll find Doi Mae Salong, where the descendants of the soldiers of the 93rd Division of the Kuomintang now live, combatants who made the long journey from China after the civil war. It is a long winding road with wooden one-story shop houses on either side selling food, sweets (bite carefully into the most appealing looking, some are positively foul) and Chinese medicines. Snakes bottled in Brandy, spiders in oil, scorpions in wine are all popular buys with the locals but most of the Chinese descendants tend tea and coffee plantations, orchards and vegetable. gardens.

In these hills also, you’ll find Doi Mae Salong, where the descendants of the soldiers of the 93rd Division of the Kuomintang now live, combatants who made the long journey from China after the civil war. It is a long winding road with wooden one-story shop houses on either side selling food, sweets (bite carefully into the most appealing looking, some are positively foul) and Chinese medicines. Snakes bottled in Brandy, spiders in oil, and scorpions in wine are popular buys with the locals, but most of the descendants of the 93rd, tend tea and coffee plantations, orchards and vegetable. gardens.

Merit Making on the Streets of Chiang Rai
Dawn, and a young girl makes Merit in Chiang Rai

With little effort, you can imagine you’ve wandered back into an older age. Layer upon layer of mountain ridges drift in and out among the clouds from your vantage point in the village which is set on a slight incline in the mountain side. Rich green farmland runs down into narrow valleys and mountain people with heavy loads on their backs can be seen trekking up and down the paths. There is little noise apart from the sighing of the wind in the bamboos and the soft boom from the bronze bell in the temple.

In recent memory, the opium poppy was the  only cash crop grown in the high mountains at over 1000 metres where the temperature was very suitable for the its cultivationp9, but strenuous efforts by the Thai government and various NGOs have weaned the hill tribes from their reliance on this and nowadays, soya, sago and other crops have taken their place. This alteration to a way of life unchanged for centuries has placed pressures on the different cultures and this is altering them in many ways. Apart from the poppy, there are no more forests to which they can move, no more trees to chop down and burn, and no patches of plants and herbs for medicine and food.

Street sceme Mae Sai (Border with Myanmar)
Street scene Mae Sai (Border with Myanmar)

M0st accept a settled existence and Tourism is playing an increasingly important role in ensuring this for their eventual survival. Inevitably tribes will diminish or vanish, but they have adapted before and can adapt again. Anything that can raise them from the grinding poverty of their daily lives can be construed as destructive only by the most perverse of eco-tourists.

There are many small hotels and inexpensive guesthouses in the hills, especially in the border area of Mae Sai, but don’t expect western food. Horses and mules can be rented for distant journeys and local people serve as guides. The hill tribes ignore borders, cheerfully crossing and re-crossing the border between Thailand and Myanmar and, some say, occasionally venturing back home to China.

So when thinking of the cool mountains of Thailand, think Chiang Rai rather than Chiang Mai,a town which is, in most people’s minds, merely a northern version of Bangkok.