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.
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.
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.