The Economic Adventures of a Transborder Street Musician

Heading down south for the big Pesos.

Fitter, Happier, More Productive… March 1, 2008

Filed under: Fridays — ramonalvarado @ 2:47 am
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I was nervously excited yet there wasn’t a way for me to overtly express it as obviously as I once did with frenetic pedaling when on a bicycle. Full speed-an amazing and mind boggling 18 mph- I surfed my Goped amidst the cars in central El Paso. Maybe my turns and zigzags were slightly more anxious, maybe my head was stiffer all the while, maybe I gave a few more fingers or yelled a few more obscenities to cellphone driver drones; maybe I did all of that at the same time, many times, at every a single swift  of my wobbly Goped but I wouldn’t know. I was nervous.

I arrived at the downtown area where I surfed past the streets at cruising-speed but because of the narrowness of the lanes, the smallness of my being amongst the buildings and the ant-like illusion of the crowd I just felt faster, action-style faster. I arrived, I parked and I walked through the border. It’s funny but you can really smell it as soon as you are right halfway past the Rio Grande. A mixture smell of smog and lard flows towards your face as you walk down the bridge. It smells as it sounds as it tastes, like the language: spicy, spacey, spoty but also quite diffused…lardy.  Something between a taco and a cloud.


I have this vision of an image being swallowed by a vacuum. That’s how it felt when I opened the guitar case on the sidewalk. Everything shut up as if absorbed by that hollow in the heart of my instrument. It was a beautiful day but I couldn’t play for that long. My fingers and throat need to readjust to the task.

Day 17 


Amount of money made: $5.57

Time played: maybe 1 hr.

Exchange rate: 10.6o pesos per dollar.

Being back: let me check my MasterCard…oh, yes, priceless.


71°F February 14, 2008

Filed under: Wednesday — ramonalvarado @ 1:32 am
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I wasn’t going to, I had other things to do during the day and besides I hadn’t quite properly prepared but I went for it anyway because the weather said so. I looked out the window, decided to do it and then gathered up my stuff. I went to the room in the back to tune my guitar with my Wurlitzer tuner/something else (500 lb. church organ or something like that), cut the excess string from the new strings I’d just installed yesterday, grabbed the guitar strap from my son’s guitar, put it on mine, got it in the case. I also changed clothing from a t-shirt to a shirt and a coat, I got my passport and put it in my purse (I’ll keep on calling it like that, don’t you even mention it!), grabbed my goggles, reflective vest, helmet and a sip of water just before heading out.

Right at the door I decided that it was a bit much to carry the purse with me when my guitar case had extra pockets for gear. So I went back to seat my guitar on the couch, got my camera, my chain and my passport out of the purse and into the guitar case pockets.

As I was going out I thought it was a bad idea to have my passport just dangling around with the rest of the stuff, so I stopped, got it out and into the little side pocket of my coat it went. Once outside I got my goped started, warmed it up a bit, accelerated on neutral two or three times and headed towards the front yard door. While doing so I felt a bit overdressed. Never mind wearing a fancy shirt or  a coat to busk in the streets, but rather the fact that such a coat was dark dark blue and made out of wool while it was sunny and 71°F outside. So I went back in, threw the coat on the bed, got another sip of water, rushed out, got on the goped and took off.


The ride was quite nice actually. The streets of downtown El Paso were buzzing with people and they all stared at the goped as if it was something out of this world, not like cool-out of this world, but rather ridiculous-out of this world. With a face that seemed to say something like “what’s that gonna do when it gets squashed by a Hummer!” Anyway, I arrived at the bridge, proceeded to lock my goped and helmet and as I walked towards the booth to pay my 35c to cross the bridge I remembered…the coat, the little left side inner pocket and my passport inside of it. Needless to say, I didn’t make it across the border. It was just one of those instances where you can picture the strawberry ice cream ball tumbling towards the floor from your clumsily tipped cone, all in slow motion. I just unlocked my goped, got on it and headed back home full speed.


They don’t call it the Sun City for nothin’. February 11, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — ramonalvarado @ 10:21 pm


This is just a little present for some of my friends and readers who are still somewhen (yes, I just made that up) in winter time, somewhere in winter land,  while we Sun City dwellers have to annoyingly carry our jackets on our arms by noon. Whether it is good or bad, here’s a piece of home. I’ll start busking again this week, I have to admit that I am again somewhat nervous. Passports are now required and lines are said to be longer than usual. I am not taking my Goped across yet, I’ll assess the situation first and then decide upon the practicality of the matter. See you soon.



So you thought… February 9, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — ramonalvarado @ 8:18 pm
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New lira

So you thought I had made it big and forgotten all about the small time busking, right? Well, in case you don’t already know, I haven’t just yet and I haven’t forgotten about the busking thing either, how could I? Not long ago I told a painter friend of mine from Canada how the busking thing felt to me as if finally, after a long time, my soul was able to fit into that emotional suit it had been longing to fit into its entire life. I guess its not the busking thing in itself but rather the whole experience that has a certain element of Gipsyness and just playing out there brings my whole body to smile unexpectedly.

I know it has been a long time without a guitar but the past month has brought some good things. Two things specifically: A guitar of my own that arrived yesterday (I won’t say brands or anything like that because I frankly don’t care enough) and a Goped (a motorised standing scooter). So the busking thing just got a little easier. I have a case for the guitar and I can jump on that goped and head out full speed (20mph) towards the downtown crossing bridge. I’ll do that this coming week, so expect some more adventures being posted very very soon. Thanks for waiting!



We Had No Idea January 23, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — ramonalvarado @ 6:19 pm
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You must know that in addition to the trans-border bi-city complexity of this urban conglomerate we also have a separate little military city embedded within. It isn’t precisely located in what one could call the heart of the urban area but maybe in what might as well be the prostate of El Paso. The name of this military complex is Fort Bliss and according to the 2000 census it is home to something like 9,000 people. Now, the year 2000 is long gone and Fort Bliss is changing and growing really fast. It is said that the base is being prepared to receive as many as 40,000 people in the next 5 years.  That being said without any particular commentary allow me to tell you a little anecdote that happened this weekend.

As I sat at work just staring at the mountain from afar waiting for a story to unfold a call came. It wasn’t for me but rather for the person with whom I share a tourist information booth, that happens to be inside Fort Bliss. The caller informed my working neighbor of something happening at one of the gates of the military complex, a protest of some sort. According to the caller it had to do with some anti war thing. Because I was so extremely busy giving out tourist information to soldiers that can’t even leave base, as soon as she informed me of such happening I grabbed my camera and said “I’ll be right back.” I started rapidly walking towards the indicated direction when I suddenly remembered that my bicycle had been parked at the bike rack for the past week and a half. So I walked back in the opposite direction, past by my booth again and towards the northern exit of the building. I grabbed my bike and started pedalling.


When I got to the indicated gate all I saw was a lot of military police vehicles and some sort of improvised barricade, I thought it was over but still decided to go a little further out of base. So I crossed the overpass that leads to base and when I was pedalling down I saw the protest:  a group of 5 or 6 ladies and a teenager holding American flags and a bunch of banners surrounded by something like 20 bikers, all in full leather attire with more American flags counter-protesting the protesters. Some of the bikers were ridding annoyingly around the protesters drowning their voices with their exhaust. As I arrived nearer to the event, I parked my bicycle next to the cops safeguarding the whole ordeal. Three of the slogans written on the banners inevitably caught my attention. They said: “God is you enemy”, “Pray for more dead soldiers” and, “God hates fag enablers.” From this I kind of deduced what the protesters were about, I’ve read about them and I know they had nothing to do with the antiwar movement, nevertheless I decided to let my inner journalist out and start asking questions. From the demographics of the event I decided that between extremely pissed off bikers, some weirdo haters and law enforcement officers my best bet for reliable, educated and updated information was an objective and knowledgeable cop. So I started with the questions, casually:

Me– “So…what is all this abut?”

Cop– “That’s what it is all about” He said pointing to the banners of the protesters.

Me– “Yeah, yeah, but I mean, who are this people?”

Cop– “Liberals I guess…”

I guess I had tapped not just the wrong source of information but the I-don’t-care-about-anything-I-was-just-sent-here-and-all-I-know-is-that-liberals-suck source. So then I thought about my second best possible source: a biker lady with a cardboard sign.

Me– “So what is this all about?” 

Biker lady-” They are protesting our troops.”

Me-” I understand, but who are they or how did you know that they were going to be here in order to mount your counter-protest?”

Biker Lady– “I don’t know, you should ask that guy over there…”

She pointed to a guy across the street who was holding an American flag, was dressed in leather, had the inevitable beard and was wearing a nice and friendly confederate army hat.

Me– “Hi, I was told that you could tell me what’s going on here, where are these people coming from?”

Biker dude– “They come from Fuckin’-Nuts-Land, Kansas” 

Me-” Ooookay…And…uh… how did you know they were going to be here in order to counter-protest?”

Biker dude-” We have our ways…we have our ways.”

Me-“Oh, alright….well, thank you for your answers.”

Confyborn to be wild

I know I wasn’t being extremely objective here but I just didn’t feel like asking the actual protesters, it seemed to me that it all came to show you the amount of entropy that can permeate even such a small public gathering. I mean, I wonder who knew what was actually happening and what reasons if any existed for the happening. The protesters were protesting a funeral of a General that died in a motorcycle accident (whatever that has to do with homosexuals and how and what they enable just escapes my reasoning); the counter-protesters were protesting the fact that this group was protesting the troops and; the cops were just staring at the void like inanimate shields that only filtered the friction as a matter of some lunatic liberals rubbing against some hard-line patriots.

It kind of tells you how far is El Paso from anywhere. Far enough from Mexico to fear it, so outside of Texas that anybody running for office runs as a Democrat,  further away from New Mexico than from Arizona defying geographical logic and just…well, you have no idea, and apparently neither do we.

Sorry about the no-busking thing…I swear it won’t be too long.


Subtleties January 16, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — ramonalvarado @ 3:18 pm
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Hundreds of people cross the border into El Paso every morning. There is a line at the bridge starting at 3am. The earliest birds are clearly crossing for labor, there is always a congregation right across the bridge where school buses pick up laborers to go to fields in the west edge of town or in new Mexico or construction sites in the far northeast and east of El Paso.

The later birds, the ones from 5 am to 8 am and even later are very often students that attend both the University of Texas at El Paso or any of the Community College’ campuses. These students are often citizens of the United States that live south of the border with their parents. Some rent flats because it is so much cheaper to live down there. But one of the interesting phenomena that arises with the transborder student and even with the El Paso’s regional student in general has to do with textbooks. I personally boycott textbooks in general, I don’t buy them or use them at all. It does take a toll I must say but it is a principle that I have kept for at least 4 semesters now. The reason I do this is because I regard the textbook industry with the same scorn as the pharmaceutical one, for taking advantage of the same people they are supposed to help and doing so in their most vulnerable of situations. So my choice is to boycott text books, but the majority’s choice in this region is to borrow them, take them across the border and xerox them for a fraction of the cost. This is sometimes even encouraged by sympathetic professors (fact which I admire, not because of the encouragement of the illegality but because they stand on the side of the student not the academic machine). So the interesting part is that if you ever get searched at the border for any particular reason and a xeroxed book is found on you they can confiscate it and you can be subject to fines, large ones too. It is specially during back to school season that this is enforced to a higher degree than normal, of course. So again, our dear border officials aren’t just there to prevent Saudi Arabian terrorist from passing as Mexicans though the border, they are also there to defend the principle of higher education at the highest cost in the western world. If you encounter long lines at the border during back to school season, don’t be annoyed, be thankful that all of those evil book smugglers are being targeted and our way of life safely kept.


P.S. Picture taken by Gustavo Martinez from Fromex


It’s official. January 15, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — ramonalvarado @ 4:15 pm
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I didn’t have to wait, but was rather invited to a warm and casual get together…at the guitar owner’s apartment. It was a realy delightful evening, full of beautiful surprises and innovative conversations, in content and style. The invitees talked about all sorts of relevant issues like how ought cigars to be smoked, dwelling for a few minutes on the important matter of whether their smoke should be inhaled or just left there enveloping the gustatory receptors in the upper respiratory system. The nature of comedy, physical and oratory was emphasized throughout our enlivened tertulia in the living room but the height of the night, in many levels, was reached when the host and I climbed the emergency stairs in the back of the building to have a smoke. Here the host even told me, in the friendliest of manners, that she had saved a couple of guitar catalogs with some affordable guitars outlined by her for me. That really made me feel better about the whole deal, all I needed now was the money to buy one of those, as easy as that.

Anyway, while I get my act together (pun intended), I think we should refocus the content of this blog. I seem to have minimized the single most interesting element of the whole adventure: the border crossing. We live in a trans-border metroplex that hosts more than 2 million people and the dynamics of our lives are both extremely complex and extremely simple. We have a national media-based monologue, completely ill advised if you ask me, on the border and its security. Millions of dollars are being spent to upgrade, enhance, and tighten this ridiculous frontier and with the elections coming everybody is talking about how things should be over here, without any knowledge of how things really are. I am a fan of passports myself, I love the look on them and what they represent, I love to get them stamped and I use mine whenever I can to cross the border, but the reality is that even with the new laws taking place, a friend of mine just last week was able to cross the border with nothing but a check stub, another, just the same week, with just a Community College student ID. I like that, I have no problem with the idea that border officials are there not just to ridiculously obstaculize the entry of foreign travellers but mainly to facilitate entry to citizens. This frontier ideal of mine has even put me behind their little glass cells for hours more than a couple of times, once because of my lack of ID (even though the law until this past year allow me to state my citizenship orally and required nothing else) and a second time because of my accent. Yes, my accent. They didn’t buy  my explanation: that I had learned my vocabulary from Big Bird and my enunciation from Antonio Banderas, because he was the hottest phonetic source around theat time. They said I was British and they had to question me.

This is just to show you part of the complexity of simple procedures here at the border and to refocus a little on the nature of crossing it as often as many people here do. Hopefully the busking will resume soon whether with a guitar or with a drum.