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Scoping out dental bridges along Trump's big beautiful wall

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U.S. President Donald Trump vows to build a "great, great wall" along the U.S.-Mexico border. I had bridge-building in mind when I crossed the border in February.

Trump is seen by many as a man with a big mouth. My mouth has gaps in it, the result of pulled teeth. To make eating satisfying and productive, you need a dental device called a bridge. I have two bridges, and one was failing. The Mexican town of Los Algodones specializes in building bridges along with root canals, crowns, and all other dental work.

Los Algodones is located about three hours east of San Diego, just off Interstate 8, at the intersection of California, Arizona, and Mexico. In this town of 5,000 residents, the primary industry is medical tourism.

There may well be more dentists per capita here than any other place on the planet. In addition to the 350 to 500 dentists, Los Algodones has an eye-popping number of optometrists and enough pharmacies to supply a pill-popping town 100 times its size. There's also an increasing number of businesses that offer Botox injections and other forms of cosmetic enhancements. I did not see a fountain of youth, but maybe that was in one of the private courtyards.

All this is jammed densely against the border gate. Ski towns are a bit like this, with much of the most tight-packed action next to the ski lifts. Los Algodones is even more chummy. It was as if all of Whistler was compacted into just Whistler Village.

The town once had a different livelihood. Algodones means cotton in Spanish, and the adjacent Colorado River provided an essential ingredient for growing cotton. Then, the Colorado River actually flowed to the Pacific Ocean. No more. Upstream, the river has been robbed at almost every turn. The final kidnapping occurs immediately upon its arrival in Mexico, at Morales Dam. This is on the edge of Los Algodones.

Given my interest in rivers, bridges, and dams, I drove through Los Algodones to see the river's final denouement after flowing 2,250 kilometres from its origins along the Continental Divide in Colorado. It was different here, south of the border: A soldier atop a truck cradling a gun, scanning the landscape. Across the sandy remains of the Colorado border, U.S. border patrol agents prowled in their white SUVs. I felt a little spooked when getting out of my car, sure that my every move was being observed.

None of this assuaged my companion's fears that we had no business being in Mexico without a guide. Canada seems so much more... well, for lack of a better word: American.

Returning to the business district, we found a place to park and walked toward the bizarre bazaar of cheap crowns, root canals, and other dental merriment. From several places we were hailed by sidewalk hawkers wanting to draw us inside for a spell in the dentist's chair.

For a while, I considered Los Algodones. My regular dentist had given me a range of US$4,700 to $5,700 to replace the failing bridge. Wincing with financial pain, I sought alternatives: A dental college would charge less than half that much if I surrendered my mouth to the supervised work of a student. Finally, I found a dental chain with an office three kilometres from home and experienced dentists: $2,100.

That same work might cost $1,000 in Los Algodones. But there's always the lack of predictability. California's Desert Sun, a newspaper in Palm Springs, the resort community located two hours north of Los Algodones, talked with a local dentist who said that 20 per cent of the work he sees done in Mexico isn't up to U.S. standards. He's paid to fix the mistakes.

A retired dentist in Colorado had also advised me to think about what happened if things didn't go right. A long trip back to the dentist's office, he said. Good advice. My procedure in Denver has not gone well. I've squirmed in the dentist's chair seven times already. I'm beginning to think that Trump will get his $21 billion wall before I'll get my $2,200 bridge completed. I'm glad I'm not trying to commute to Los Algodones.

As for travelling in Mexico, it costs $30 a day in extra car insurance. You can, however, just walk across the border. Even if you don't need new specs or a Botox injection, you can find good food, colourful street vendors — and, not least important, a new appreciation for what you have back home.

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