Thursday, December 29, 2011

Presidio, TX and Ojinaga, CHH

Eric and I really didn't know what to expect of the Presidio/Ojinaga area.  Up until this point, most people we have visited in border towns have given us contacts for farther down the line, but Presidio/Ojinaga was a vast empty space on our border contact list--no one we had talked to knew people there or even knew of immigration work going on in the area.  And while the population of Presidio is small, the port of entry is really significant--it is the only port in almost 500 border miles--that is one half of Texas' border miles and one quarter of the distance of the entire border!  The nearest port to the west is in Fort Hancock/Porvenir and the closest to the east is all the way over in Del Rio. It is a very isolated part of Texas and Mexico, but we knew there had to be something going on there.

Not having any contacts in the area, we turned to to look for a free place to stay and an easy way to meet a Presidio resident.  Our luck could not have been better: 2 of the 3 listings for Presidio were people who worked in the immigration field at the Mexican Consulate in Presidio and they were roommates. 

Mexican Consulate employees: Jerry, Erick and Maximiliana
We spent a significant amount of time with one of our hosts, Erick Hernandez. He drove us all over Presidio and Ojinaga and the surrounding area and introduced us to relevant people on both sides of the border.

Presidio has a population of around 5,000, a large percentage of whom work for Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement or other authority stationed on the border (ATF, DEA, etc.).  The town feels very small, though when we arrived it took us quite a while to find one of the three restaurants, not because it is a large area, but because so many stores and restaurants were no longer in business.  Ojinaga, just on the other side of the river, is a bustling city, home to 22,000 people and 4 small maquilas.  Ojinaga and its residents have felt very few effects of the drug war, and border city Presidio has not had a murder since 1999 (debunk the spillover violence myth!).  Ojinaga declares itself to be the most "unspoiled" border town which retains a strong Mexican rural culture.

The first full day we were there, we spent most the day in Ojinaga.  Erick brought us over and our first stop was Mexican immigration at the foot of the bridge.  We talked with some folks about deportees and migrants in the area only to learn that Presidio/OJ is not a major crossing point and very few people are even deported through this port.  However, last year US immigration officials began busing in 40-80 people per day from Arizona to be deported through Ojinaga, and immediately the Mexican immigration authorities and Mexican Consulate put pressure on DHS to stop these deportations because the city had no infrastructure in place to accommodate the deportees.  Fortunately, they did stop and now the city sees just a few deportees per day, if any.

From the bridge we went to the two Ojinaga shelters which can house deportees or migrants. The first was a DIF shelter (DIF is the Mexican equvalent of Child Protective Services) which houses unaccompanied minors caught crossing in the area until a family member is contacted.  The second shelter was for adults and was not exclusively for migrants, instead it served as a rehabilitation center of sorts that trained people in technical skills so they could make it on their own.  Unfortunately, we were not able to talk to people who ran either shelter.

Dormitory of the DIF shelter

That about concluded the immigration portion of our tour of Ojinaga--not a lot of services offered, but not a lot of need.  Next, we went to the plaza, saw the cathedral and walked around town a bit, enjoying amazing bread from a great local bakery that bakes in a mesquite wood burning oven.

Amazing panaderia La Francesa! See the wood burning oven in the wall?

Bakery employee cutting out donuts

Los Conchos river near the Port of Entry
Then Erick brought us to the Conchos river which is responsible for significantly increasing the flow of the Rio Grande when they the two rivers join in Ojinaga.  The Rio Grande hardly has any water when it becomes the international boundary in El Paso and the water that is in it is brown, so it was really lovely to relax on the riverfront of the beautiful Conchos.

Erick then drove us about 30 miles out of town to another part of the Conchos river--this time where it has carved a huge canyon in the mountains.  We made it just in time to get a good glimpse into the canyon and watch the sun set.

Los Conchos river about 30 miles from the border as it carves canyons into the rocky hills

After the lovely scenic tour, we dove into Ojinaga culture and had a delicious dinner of tacos and enjoyed some drinks and karoke.  Eric and I realized we knew almost all the words to one of our favorites: Vicente Fernandez's Estos Celos.  It was a great day.

"...jamás aprenderé vivir sin ti..."

We hung out the next few days in Presidio, often with staff of the Consulate who were very interested in our trip and eager to tell us the work they do in the community. Interestingly enough, one of our host Erick's primary tasks is to find ways to bridge the two cities of Presidio and Ojinaga and he was proud to tell us about binational events he has organized--one of which was a health fair that included a binational bicycle ride and a day of games right on the river front including a tug of war across the river!  It was awesome to see that the Consulate not only does the usual administrative tasks regarding passports, visas, etc., but also seeks to create a single binational community.

It was only on the morning of our departure that we realized why the asthetics of the Presidio/Ojinaga border area were so pleasing: there is no wall!  We have seen sections of the border without walls, but within cities there is often two or three walls, so this was really new. Of course, the border is a river at this point so that is a deterrent, and there is a large swath of open land on both sides of the river which makes visibility really high, but I was still really surprised to not see a fence.  Not only was there not a wall, but the river was not in a concrete canal like it is in El Paso to keep it from changing course.  Instead, here it just looked like a beautiful, natural river.  We can only hope that all the border can look this welcoming someday.

No fence on the Rio Grande/Bravo, U.S in the foreground, Ojinaga on the far side of the river

Looking north at the Chinati Mountains, Mexico on the left, U.S. on the right

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Days 20, 21, 22 & 23: El Paso, TX to Presidio, TX

Day 20: Monday, November 28    El Paso, TX to Fort Hancock, TX     Miles: 52 (total: 979)    Flats:  0  Elevation: 3,740 ft to 3,580 ft

Back in the saddle again! Riding today felt great. It was hard to imagine leaving El Paso again, but getting on the bikes again felt right (except for all those extra layers we had put on).

We passed pecan orchards and cotton fields (marshmallow plants) and mostly stayed in populated areas. That was a nice change, because so often we are going 30, 40, 60 miles of nothing but nature, which is usually really lovely, but more difficult on the mental game.

Marshmallow plants!

We rode a good part of the day along an irrigation canal of the Rio Grande river which was amazing because every once and a while we would spook up beautiful white egrets or huge blue herons from the water.

Amazing (camera-shy) egrets!

We had the name of a Sister in Fort Hancock and tried calling various times during the day with no luck. Upon arriving in town, we swung by the parish office where she works, but it wasn't open. We had arrived about 3:00pm so we had plenty of time to find a place to stay so we just bought a Powerade and were chilling outside the little convenience store, asking people who walked by if they knew the Sister.  After asking only a few people, a woman invited us to stay with her and her 5 kids next door. What generosity!  And to trust a couple of strangers like us!

It was a really fun night, watching zombie movies and helping with homework with the kids who ranged in ages from 4-19.  The older girls (14, 16, 19) were so fun and didn't even blink an eye when they saw us sitting in their living room.  The mama made us dinner and chatted about the family's history of moving back and forth from Mexico to the all around Texas.  It was such a privilege to be part of this family for a night!

One member of the family we stayed with!

Day 21:  Tuesday, November 29     Fort Hancock, TX to Van Horn, TX    Miles: 74 (1053)   Flats: 0    Elevation: 3,580 to 4,050 ft

We headed out of Fort Hancock plenty early and decided to pop across in order to see Porvenir, Chihuahua.  We just biked over and back, took some pictures of the wall and chatted with the CBP agents. I kinda wish we had made it a point of the trip to cross through every port of entry, pero it's a little late now!

Just across the border in Porvenir, Chihuahua

After that honeymoon day back on the road on Monday, this day was rough.  Early in the day, our nice quiet road ended and we had to get on highway 10--our second stint on the freeway.  And it was a couple hours of uphill in the Sierra Blanca mountains.  I kept thinking how great the coast downhill was going to be, but it never came! 

Up, up and away

After lunch in the town of Sierra Blanca, we got back on the frontage road and seemed to continue going slowly up. Then all of the sudden, our frontage road ended and we had to haul our bikes across the oncoming traffic to get back on the right side of the freeway.  We knew we had to ride the freeway earlier, but we didn't expect to get on it again!

End of the road!

By that time, the sun was setting over the mountains behind us and we finally got to fly down into Van Horn where we were planning to camp.  We got a nice diner dinner, overpaid for a tent site and went to sleep, totally exhausted and apprehensive about doing another 75 mile stretch the next day.

Day 22:  Wednesday, November 30     Van Horn, TX to Marfa, TX     Miles: 74 (1127)    Flats: 0    Elevation:  4,050 ft to 4,685 ft

Rough day(s).  Lesson learned:  when you rest for over 2 weeks, go easy on the first couple days back on the road. Two 75 mile days in a row was probably not the best idea, but we really had little choice as Texas is frickin' huge and cities are quite far apart.

After a few miles on the road, we had a little pick-me-up and just the encouragement we needed to push all the way to Marfa.  Our contact in Marfa, Tim Johnson, a former Annunciation House volunteer who we had not met, but had been in contact with, pulled over as he drove by to introduce himself.  He confirmed that we would have a nice, warm place to stay when we arrived in Marfa, which really helped us push on.  He was on his way to El Paso, but assured us he would be home by 4 or 5pm.  For the rest of the day, I kept thinking how it took us three days to get to Marfa from El Paso, but in a car you can go there and back faster than we can cycle 60 miles! We travel in one day the distance you can drive in one hour in a car!  Tough to think about as you crank down (or up) the road.

This was a sloooow uphill day and the wind, once again, was not on our side.  There is one little town between Van Horn and Marfa, but there isn't even a shop to stop at.  Instead, we stopped and had our lunch at a art installation right outside this little town of Valentine--a Prada store in the middle of the desert.  It's fantastic.

we had ourselves a little pizza-Prada photo shoot

We ate some pizza that a very friendly man gave us and had ourselves a little nap outside the Prada before pushing on the last 35 miles.  We got to Marfa after dark, so happy to meet Tim, his girlfriend Caitlin, and his friends for a beer and some room temperature water at a local bar which used to be a funeral home!

We spent two rest days in Marfa since we couldn't even bear to look at our bicycles seats, let alone sit upon them, and because our contact in Presidio wasn't going to be in town until Saturday.  We mostly just hung out and walked around town, checking out local shops, galleries and The Marfa Book Company owned by Tim, who had graciously offered us hospitality.  We also got to see the first showing of the film Pincus on Friday night, made by David Fenster.  It was very well done, about a man who cares for his father who has Parkinson's.  It seemed quite personal too, as the man with Parkinson's in the film was actually David's father. After the film and a visit to the Museum of Electronic Wonders and late night Grilled Cheese Parlour (awesome), we watched some short films online by David which can be found here.  I recommend Wood and the Fly Amanita (the only two we've watched, so far).

Day 23:  Saturday, December 3    Marfa, TX to Presidio, TX    Miles: 62 (1190)   Flats: 0   Elevation: 4,695 ft to 2,580 ft

We bid our farewells to arty Marfa and headed South to the border.  Since the elevation drop between Marfa and Presidio is significant, we thought it would be all downhill, but of course, there was plenty of ups and downs and a headwind to keep us warm and keep us working.

This was one of the most beautiful rides of the trip and none of my photos do it a bit of justice. 

lunch at the church in Shafter ghost town
After about 45 miles, we were past the Chinati Mountains and we were practically able to coast down to Presidio.

We are excited to visit Presidio, TX/ Ojinaga, CHH because in asking for contacts all along the border, we haven't heard of any organizations or work being done in the area.  Luckily, via, we found a place to stay and the host happens to work at the Mexican Consulate!

More on Presidio/Ojinaga in the next exciting episode! (after a few days in the cold, camping at Big Bend National Park)