That impression got reinforced last week during a seven-day sojourn to Mexico’s seaside resort town of Mazatlan. “Wow,” I heard myself thinking in a strange, reverse déjà vu, “this is the Philippines of North America.”
It wasn’t my first excursion to the United States’ closest neighbor to the south. Growing up in Southern California, in fact, I’d made many trips there as a rowdy young high schooler, mostly to the border town of Tijuana to taste the local tequila and flirt with wild bar girls willing to do almost anything for a couple of bucks.
I don’t share this out of bravado, mind you, but to impart an idea of what life was like for a young gringo growing up near the border back in the crazy wrinkles of another time. Once my best friend, Ron, and I—feeling our oats and determined to lose our respective virginities—tried our luck at what we thought was a house of ill repute on one of TJ’s darkest corners. In the end, though, the only thing we lost were the coins in our pockets confiscated by thugs dispatched to our respective rooms to shake us down at their leisure.
“Geese, what just happened?” I asked my fellow would-be sinner, who I found sitting outside on a curb following our gut-wrenching ordeal.
“I’m not sure,” Ron muttered.
Then we both broke into peals of laughter, finding humor where only demented teenagers would. Nothing to do, we figured, but continue south to Ensenada for our planned weekend of spearfishing, carousing and drunken debauchery.
As I matured, so did my Mexican journeys. In the mid-1970s, I spent a year studying creative writing at Instituto Allende, a small college just north of Mexico City, in a picturesque artist and writer’s colony called San Miguel de Allende. “It’s a quaint town with beautiful colonial-style buildings and cobblestone streets,” I wrote years later in a book called Nazis & Nudists. San Miguel, I continued, is “a birthplace of the Mexican revolution where patriots from throughout the country gather to pay homage to their history each year.”
All that happened long before I ever laid eyes on the Philippines. And when I finally did, the strange sense of familiarity struck me like a liberated brick. The colors, smells, sounds; all bore Mexican flavors. My Filipino friends had Hispanic surnames. And lumbering along the highways with silver crucifixes dangling from their rearview mirrors, the discordantly colored jeepneys resembled Mexican buses.
The reason for these parallels is obvious, of course: both countries spent centuries as Spanish colonies before gaining their independence. The architecture, religion, customs; all stem from common origins. And though each culture has since developed in its own uniquely delightful way, there is still much that they share.
“Beyond our historic ties,” columnist Gideon Lasco wrote in a recent edition of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, “contemporary Mexico can teach us so much about various issues [serving] as a mirror of our own experiences.”
And so I acknowledge a life sandwiched between residencies in oddly similar countries.
The recent journey to Mazatlan, ironically, transpired in the company of none other than my old friend, Ron, the same guy who, 55 years ago, sat laughing with me on a curb in Tijuana. Today we are both senior citizens, retired or semi-retired professionals, husbands, and grandfathers; far cries from what we were on that fateful long-ago curb. Which explains why our most recent Mexican experience constituted a marked departure from those of the past; instead of lurking in dark rooms, we slept on comfortable beds, ate good food and relaxed with our oh-so-patient wives.
Not unlike how I now spend my time in the Philippines. The more things change, I guess, the more they stay the same.
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David Haldane’s most recent book is a short-story collection called “Jenny on the Street.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning author, journalist, and broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.