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!”
“Veinte y no mas!”
“Oh, you’re hurting me! Twenty-five!”
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.


I’m home. It’s fabulous to have a life now that I feel is worth coming back to.

My flights went smoothly. Air Canada is definitely the only way to fly. They absolutely rock. Just as we were boarding at SFO, I heard my name being paged. The reason was that I was currently seated next to an infant and they wanted to move me as far away from it as possible. Would I mind moving up to the first row behind first class (more leg room and quicker to deplane) and have it all to myself? Then on the Calgary to Ottawa flight someone goofed and I wound up with a free meal which was a step up from tuna and carrots (surprisingly faboo veggie stuffed panini with a side of tortilla chips and salsa).

The last two weeks (okay, thirteen days) are already starting to be a bit of a blur, but I have to say that my favourite thing about the whole trip is something I haven’t mentioned yet and something that is going to sound absolutely inane:

My last name is fairly common there.

Every place I stayed or made a reservation, I got a strange look when I started to spell my name, as if I was telling them how to spell Smith or Jones. Even people whose native language is not English knew exactly how to spell the name. How refreshing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The best part of coming home was, of course, Tabitha’s reception, followed by coming back to a keyboard with accents. My French correspondents are going to be thrilled. 🙂 And French, of course, I can’t wait to go run a few errands tomorrow, if anything’s open, just to hear my mother tongue again. Running into French people twice in SF and then into a group of québécois in LA.

Speaking of québécois in LA, the best part of the whole traffic jam on Friday was coming onto a station that boasted that it plays every kind of music imaginable and began to list it: hip pop, hard rock, classical, country, rap… on and on and then… “And québécois! ” I couldn’t believe it!

*glances at the clock* It feels like only 21:45 while it’s 00:45. I think the jet lag is going to be pretty brutal since I don’t imagine myself in bed for a couple more hours!

Great trip and I’m thrilled to say in full honesty that, when I tally it all up, the best part was coming home.

Thursday through Saturday

Oookay. It’s as if I’ve lived a million lifetimes since my last post.



Day started at the Hollywood Museum, outside of which I apparently ran straight into Drew Barrymore. At any rate, that was the consensus among the group who happened to see a strikingly familiar looking woman…. Inside, there were three floors of amazing movie props and memorabilia, ranging from Gone With the Wind and Stargate costumes to items from Marilyn Monroe’s home. The museum is housed in the Max Factor building and I saw the ‘green room’ where he found Lucille Ball’s perfect shade of red. I highly recommend this museum to movie buffs.

Then I took a two block walking tour of Hollywood, which was really interesting because we got to go into two places where tourists can’t go alone. The first was a ‘speak easy’, which was a secret drinking room from the prohibition era. The second was the Egyptian theatre, usually only accessible if you have tickets to see a movie there. It has a beautiful ceiling!

Finally, I had a semi-private (group of four) tour of the Kodak Theatre, where the Oscars are hosted every year. This alone made my trip to Hollywood worth it. So, we were wandering around backstage for a minute when the guide said: “Get your speeches ready!” and pointed through some curtains. Next thing I knew, I was on the very spot where the winners give their speeches! Once the awe dropped a little, I gazed out over the familiar theatre and realised just how beautiful it is. I quickly ran through my list of favourite actors who have been busy lately and came up with one name. “Do you know where George Clooney sat last year?” I asked the guide. He grinned and said: “You got one I do know. Right there–” he added, pointing to a seat. “That’s where George Clooney was sitting when he got his Oscar for ‘Syriana’.” As a JOKE I said to him: “Can I go sit in George Clooney’s seat?” and the guide said YES!!!! So, I went down to the first row of seats and perched myself on the edge of the seat, but was told to make myself comfy for a bit and admire George’s view, which I did. 🙂 When we finally moved on, the guide whispered to me: “Go look at a couple of years worth of Oscar footage–Leonardo Dicaprio sat in that seat this year for ‘The Departed’ and Clint Eastwood sat there two years ago for ‘Million Dollar Baby.’ I bet you’ll be watching the telecast next year to see who’s in YOUR seat!” Is that cool or what?! LOL

I’d then had more than my fill of LA and decided that a studio tour or visit of the Griffith Observatory would require more energy than I was willing to put in, so I decided to take off for San Diego so I could visit Tijuana Friday morning.

The drive to San Diego was long because of traffic in both LA and San Diego, but tolerable, and I arrived around 6 at my motel a mere ten minutes from the Mexican border.


Woke up early and took off for the border. Parked, then walked to Mexico (not something I ever thought I’d write!). There are NO border checks whatsoever! I wandered around Tijuana for a couple of hours, picking up a purse and some place mats and visiting the wax museum (surprisingly good), but I got my fill pretty quickly. The city was hot, dirty, and stinky and the cat calls and pleas to come look at junk were getting harder and harder to ignore. But what fun! I got to barter in Spanish (apparently, I paid a reasonable price for my purse considering its low quality), and met a shop keeper who gave me tips on how to not get taken and how to get around Tijuana. He said I had no obligation to buy from his shop, even after I’d picked out the place mats, but I insisted, considering a) how much time he’d spent talking to me and b) how unique and inexpensive the place mats were. He was a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the street. I also visited a Mexican supermarket, which had most of the same products as in the US/Canada and a surprisingly good level of hygiene.

The guide books make a big deal about easy it is to get to Tijuana, but there is no mention about how hard and long it is to get back! I stood in line under the harsh Mexican sun (please roll your eyes at that) for almost two hours before I finally got to a border control officer who seemed confused by my Canadian passport and the fact that I was alone:
Him: When did you cross over into Mexico?
Me: This morning.
Him: And you’re alone?
Me: Yes.
Him: What did you buy in Mexico?
Me: A purse and place mats.
Him: *stares at my passport for a minute* Do you live in Mexico?
Me (thinking WTF?!): No…
Him: And. You. Went. To. Mexico. ALONE?
Me: Yes.
Him: Ooookay. Have a nice day.
Geeze, I was going to a very touristy place, not some dark back alley….

The rest of Friday sucked donkeys and doesn’t merit much mention except that it really, really, really, really, really, really, really sucked donkeys to spend seven hours in stop and go traffic from the Mexican border through San Diego and Orange counties and realise that at the rate you’re going, you’ll be lucky to get to San Francisco in a week.

Let me pause here to say that signage for the coast highway is really bad and I wound up on a Navy base. Twice. The first time, the soldier was very friendly, telling me to go to the lights and do a u-turn. Which I did, to find him frowning and waving me over. He didn’t like that I didn’t have a licence plate. That was so not fun, even though my car was legally registered. The US government is SCARY!!! I know I’ll laugh about this. Someday. Maybe The second ‘u-ey’ on a naval base was fine…ish.

At any rate, I had to give up my plans for driving up the coast and wound up taking the five, which is inland, and which added I don’t know how many miles to my trip but saved me perhaps an hour of stop and go traffic through LA, not that that’s saying much since I got a couple of hours of stop and go traffic beyond LA. Let’s just say that I was very tired, very angry, very frustrated, and very exhausted by the time it was dark and I was passing Bakersfield with still a hard five hours to San Francisco when I had hoped to have only an easy two hours left. So, I capitulated and did the smart thing, pulling into a motel that was surprisingly cheap and very nice. The only part of that trip worth remembering was my most memorable Esbat ever, driving down a lonely California highway with the full moon in my rear view mirror.

Let me pause here to say that California is a lot like Ontario, with concentrated urban centres that have very little between them, at least when you go through the centre of the state. It can become frighteningly desolate, especially when you’re going through the mountains and it’s getting dark and you haven’t seen a motel for many miles. I’m glad I had the smarts to stop when I did see one, instead of pushing on a bit longer.

I took off at seven this morning and made it to Neil’s for twelve. I dropped off my luggage then went downtown to return the car, came back here for food and entertainment, then went down to the Wharf just to smell and see the sea one last time.

Thus ends what I think has been the most amazing journey of my life, one that took me out of my comfort and familiar zone completely.

I’ll have lots of time in the next few weeks to put up more pictures for those interested.

If all goes according to scheduling, I will be taxiing in for a landing in Ottawa in precisely 25 hours.

The Plan

I am about to embark on the most structured trip I’ve ever taken, even more so than my month in Scotland in that I have actually made reservations. My fixed itinerary is such:

June 19th: depart Ottawa in early AM to arrive in San Francisco by dinnertime, with a four hour layover in Vancouver
June 20th to June 23rd (inclusive): explore San Francisco, with a trip to Alcatraz booked for the 23rd
June 24th: drive to Las Vegas by way of Sacramento and Reno, to arrive sometime in the early evening at the Gold Coast Hotel and Casino
June 25th: spending the morning on a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon, with a flyover the Strip upon returning to Vegas

Then things get fuzzy. I’m not sure if I’m leaving Las Vegas the 26th or 27th, but I’ll spend the second half of the week in Los Angeles, concentrating on Hollywood. Depending on how late in the week I arrive there, I’m hoping to have time for a day trip to Tijuana, Mexico. Whatever I do, I must be back in San Francisco by June 30th.

July 1st: depart SF mid-day to arrive in Ottawa very late after a 1.75 hour layover in Calgary.