Travels Without Miranda, #1: Tijuana, Mexico

Our journey begins in Mexico, in the border town of Tijuana.

I went there just to say I’d stepped foot in Mexico. I was in southern California, crossing Hollywood off my to-see list, and knew that I would most likely never again return to that part of the world, at least not in the life I was currently living. It seemed silly to be so close to Mexico and not go, just to say I’d been, even if Tijuana does not represent the ‘true’ Mexican experience.

After spending a night at a motel just south of San Diego, I drove to the Mexico/US border. There is a large parking lot on the US side where visitors can leave their cars and then walk over the border. Entering Mexico was anti-climatic as there were no border checks. I was greeted by taxi drivers eager to get my business, but I decided to walk the one kilometre or so to the centro.

Oh, Tijuana might not have been the true Mexico, but it was a sight to behold for someone who had never left the developed world! It was exactly the way I imagined a southern border town would be; very hot, dusty, and chaotic. It smelled of spices and sewage and there was this cacophony of people chattering in a language I could barely understand and vehicle horns blaring. It was as though I had stepped through a wormhole to a world a universe away. I just stood there on a sidewalk on the Avenida Revolución and drank it all in for a long, long spell.

Avenida Revolución in Tijuana, Mexico. Photo by Johntex

Avenida Revolución in Tijuana, Mexico. Photo by Johntex

I only spent about an hour and a half in Tijuana, starting with some shopping, for lack of a better term. It was more like a sparring match with vendors who peddled an odd assortment of goods that spilled out into the streets, some nice, most gaudy.

I wanted a leather purse and everyone was eager to sell me their product at a ridiculous markup. I finally found one seller with purses I liked and then the battle began.
“One hundred dollars!” the seller proclaimed
I laughed, retorting “Mucho caro, adios!”
He called me back, yelling “Okay, fifty!”
I shook my head. “Quince!”
“Thirty-five!”
“Veinte y no mas!”
“Oh, you’re hurting me! Twenty-five!”
“Veinte!”
“Twenty-five!”
“Veinte!”
It became clear that twenty-five was the best I was going to do and I gladly paid it, learning after that I had paid a fair price. Not a bad introduction to bargaining with pushy sellers!

Next, I went into a shop selling linens and met a cultured gentleman who spoke impeccable English. He gave me some tips for a safe Tijuana experience and I repaid him for his kindness by purchasing four beautiful placements at a bargain $1.25 each. I eat on those placemats every day. I might have only spent five hours on Mexican soil, but every meal I eat at home validates the experience.

One of the many things I like to do when I travel is visit the local grocery stores, so I quickly popped into one in Tijuana. It was a surprising experience in that the supermarket looked no different from those in the US or Canada and even carried many of the same products. I was tempted by some exotic-looking fruit, but wasn’t sure what I’d be allowed to bring back with me to the US, so I bought nothing.

My final stop in Tijuana was the wax museum, well worth the fifteen peso entry fee. I learned quite a bit about the history of the area and important historic figures while discovering that my reading comprehension of Spanish is more than sufficient for tourism purposes.

Tijuana wax museum (museo de cera)

Tijuana wax museum (museo de cera)

It was mid-morning when I stepped out of the museum and the sun was already set to broiling. I had had a lot of fun, but it was enough. I headed back to the border, fending off vendors hocking products made from seashells.

Entering Mexico might have been easy, but returning to the US was not. I spent close to three hours on my feet under that brutal sun waiting to get through customs. Folks in line who come to Tijuana regularly told me that this was unusual. I heard many complain that customs had never been this thorough in processing folks coming back from Tijuana on foot.

Finally, it was my turn to enter the shadowy, and comparatively cool, customs building. The conversation with the border guard made the three hour wait worthwhile for its comic value. He just couldn’t understand why a Canadian was entering the US from Mexico on foot, even after I told him that I’d left my car on the US side. He asked if I lived in Mexico (what?!) and expressed shock that I, a woman, would have gone to Mexico alone. I think that he finally let me go just because he couldn’t understand my situation. To this day, I can’t figure out what was so complicated for him to understand!

I paid dearly for my five Mexican hours in a journey back to Los Angeles that should have taken a couple of hours but which stretched into closer to nine, thanks to a gridlock on highway 101 and two unplanned adventures into military installations.

Even though I’ve been told that it was stupid of me to have gone to Mexico, even for such a brief period of time, citing all the dangers I could have possibly put myself into, the experience was completely worth it. I don’t even regret the mad dash back to San Francisco that should have been a leisurely trip up the Pacific Coast Highway. Sometimes going somewhere just to say you’ve been is a good enough reason to go.

Two years later, I had Tijuana in mind as I told an Alaskan customs officer that I was going to Chicken for the day, just to say I’d been.

10 thoughts on “Travels Without Miranda, #1: Tijuana, Mexico

  1. If you liked Tijuana, you will LOVE Mexico (the REAL Mexico. You have the perfect attitude for a traveler!

    Our first taste of Mexico was exactly the same as yours – a day trip into Tijuana, only ours was in 1966! I don’t think much had changed between your trip and ours. Norma bought a purse as well but Norma being Norma, she paid full asking price. She is a better bargainer now!

    I am looking forward to this series…

  2. Not sure what that attitude is, but glad I have it. 🙂

    I was very proud of my hard bargaining, and in Spanish to boot! 😀

    I’ve been trying to come up with a relevant way to share some of my past travels and this series came to me during a slow moment at work.

  3. Thank you for such an accurate description of your visit. We don’t get that very often.

    You were lucky to have met Dr. Dorón of Hand Art. He is truly an asset to Revolución, one of the leaders in cleaning up the image of the street and toning down the aggressiveness of those whose merchandise doesn’t sell itself. Here at The Real Tijuana we hope to run an item about him and his efforts soon.

    Your experience with U.S. Customs and Border Protection points out a truism for readers whom you have encouraged to visit us: that Tijuana, like any city in Mexico, is best experienced over the course of several days rather than several hours. This is not just to amortize the time waiting on the CBP but also because the city needs time to open up to you.

    It’s unfortunate that you were greeted by the smell of sewage. While every country has a characteristic aroma, “eaux de toilette” should not be part of ours. Tourists typically travel through the oldest parts of the city, however, where the drainage was installed in the 1920s and ’30s. Over the last five years Tijuana has been replacing that system aggressively with a very modern system: you might have walked by a point where they were just putting the finishing touches on the renovation.

    • Thank you for your comment, Francisco! I have no idea how you stumbled onto this post, but I’m glad you did.

      Looking back over my notes, I do believe you have correctly identified the man I met at the linen shop seeing as the linen shop was indeed Hand Art! I do have to say that it’s really neat to have someone validate a post the way you have.

      As for the sewage smell, it was mostly while I came over a bridge that passes over what I assume was a drainage ditch of some sort. I think that with the kind of heat that was going on that day, such odours are hard to avoid.

  4. I WAS PLEASENTLY SURPRISED SEEING YOUR BLOG AND COMMENTS ABOUT MY BUSINESS ,WE HAVE BEEN OPEN SINCE 1955 , AND HAVE ALWAYS TRIED TO MAKE VISITORS WELCOME HERE , i WOULD LIKE TO INFORM yOUR READERS WHEN COMING TO TIJUANA TO LOOK FOR THE “OUTSTANDING HOST ” IT IS AN ANNUAL CERTIFICATION GIVEN BY THE SECRETARY OT TOURISM OF BAJA CALIFORNIA ITS IS DONE YEARLY IT IS ALSO REVIEWED BY THE FEDERAL CONSUMER PROTECTION AGENCY PROFECO AS ISESALUD pUBLIC HEALTH DEPT FOR RESTAURANTS IT IS STATEWIDE iiAM CURRENT PRESIDENT OF CETURMEX WHICH WE MONITOR BUSINESSES IN THIS AREA CHECK OUR WEBSITE http://WWW.CETURMEX.COM.MX FOR AFFILIATED BUSINESSES THANK YOU ALL FOR YOUR KIND COMMENTS OF HAND ART

    d
    dR jACK DORON

    • Dr Doron, thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog! I have very fond memories of speaking with you. You were one of the less chaotic moments of my morning in Tijuana. 🙂 Cheers!

  5. BY THE WAY I FORGOT TO INFORM YOU THE BORDER WAIT NOW ON FOOT ARE A ,LOT LESS RTHAN YOU EXPERIENCED USUALLY AROUND 30 MINUTES AND BY CAR THE AVERAGE LESS THAN AN HOUR EXCEPT FOR THE EARLY COMMUTERS AROUND 8 AM THATS WHEN IT DOUBLES IN LENGHT OR SPECIAL MEXICAN HOLIDAYS MOST OF THE BORDER WAIT AR LOCALS (TIJUANAS POPULATION IS TWO AND A HALF MILLION AND MOST OF US DO SHOP IN SAN DIEGO AREA

    BEST WISHES
    jACK

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