A February 2001 trip
to Tijuana by Elli Metz
Quote: Despite its bad reputation for underage drinking and dancing girls, Tijuana is a border city like no other. A first-timer's view of this much-misaligned city by the border.
Restaurant | "American Nostalgia, Mexican Style"
The entire establishment is done in this strange Mexican-American nostalgic hybrid. Old license plates and movie memorabilia from fifties' television shows (American, both) line the walls, and sitting inside is like being in a Mexican version of TGI Friday's. Despite that, the huge glassless windows that line all sides of the eatery section are a huge draw. You can observe the Avenue without being observed (it seems) and watch the drama unfold outside. It's a perfect people-watching location.
The food is cheap and good (under $10 for lunch, with drinks), and drinks are always two-for-one. During happy hour (which is a liberal three p.m. to close on most days), you're also given a tequila shot with every beer purchase. You never leave Escape Club without being well-lubricated. For the teetotalers among us, they do offer nonalcoholic frozen drinks (margaritas and daquiris), as well.
Best of all, it's G-rated during daylight hours. It's well-worth the time and money spent here.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on February 17, 2001
939 Avenue de la Revolucion
Local artists and artisans hang out at the Friends of Art museum, and they are more than willing to tell you anything you'd like to know about the processes of art ... and the wonders of Tijuana.
The man who runs the place is an amazing soul. When I mentioned that I do digital collage, he spent nearly twenty minutes telling me that I should be in galleries everywhere, that he could see the talent in my eyes. This, with my work sight unseen. It is a nurturing plalce for artists and viewers alike, and I highly recommend it being a priority stop for your Tijuana trip.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on February 18, 2001
Amigos del Artes
The thing about Tijuana is that any drug is legal, with or without a perscription -- for personal use only. I know, even as I mention this, that there is a certain percentage of the population that's already got their shoes on and headed for the door to drive down here for their own personal drug du jour, but that's not the point here.
Drugs in Tijuana are extremely cheap -- a fraction of the cost that they are in the US. A friend of mine goes here every month to get some kind of foot medication that costs her more than $500 for name brand in the states, and only costs $50 in TJ. If you are without health insurance and are feeling lucky (drug interactions are your own problem if you misuse this store), you can pick up your needed prescriptions in Mexico and transport them back across for personal use only. Be warned that they -may- check them at the border, and if it is a medication not approved for use in the US, you may not be able to bring it across.
The big red pharmacies are the cheapest places in town, to boot. They speak English well, and will answer your questions about interactions -- but you have to ask. This isn't a hold-your-hand Rite Aid; this is off-the-street.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 6, 2001
The pervading sentiment in the U.S. -- at least in this area of the US these days, is that our border should be closed to Mexico. It's a poor country, the advocates say. Our system can't handle the influx of immigrants from the South that would occur. I've read the editorials, the jokes, the letters to the editor. I've seen political cartoons and heard of the propositions before California's state congress that would give police the right to stop anyone who appears "Mexican" to ask for proof of citizenship.
Still, it seemed remote to me, despite the fact that Tijuana and the "protected" border lie only twenty minutes south of San Diego. This opinion of our neighbors -- quite literally -- didn't even touch me.
Ever since arriving here in southern California, I've wanted to see Mexico. Hardly an international traveller, I've been across the United States, and to Canada several times, but never to a country that seemed so remote and different in my mind.
People were quick to tell me the urban legends surrounding Tijuana. Don't drink the water. They'll mug you. They'll crash into your car and make you pay or take you to jail. The police are all into bribes. It's nothing but a giant strip club, and they have donkey shows on the street. It'll depress you -- the poverty is staggering. You have to be fluent in Spanish. Don't go after dark.
Some of them, I even believed.
* - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - *
When I suggested to Henry a trip across the border, his response was understandably less than enthusiastic. He'd also grown up with the urban legends. We decided hesitantly to go anyway, but to leave the car at the border and either walk across (which is common) or to take the bus.
Both of us were nervous. Urban myths can poison the best intentions.
* - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - *
We could see it from the road. For several miles, signs foretold of the border checks and warned repeatedly that guns were illegal in Mexico, and Mexican car insurance was needed.
Following the advice of the guide we'd purchased, we parked at a border lot. Across the street, on the hills in the distance, a large Mexican flag waved limply in the drooling breeze.
"Is that it?" I asked Henry.
He looked distracted and nervous, and mumbled, "I think so."
A large trade exists in transporting tourists across the border. (A second trade exists in transporting Mexican citizens back, though it is illegal and decidedly not above-board.)
The largest of the buslines is a fleet of red motorcoaches, Mexicoach, which leaves the lot we parked in and, for $2US, gives round-trip rides to the heart of Tijuana -- the Avenue de la Revolucion. They leave every fifteen minutes from a kiosk near the entrance that sells tickets and gives tourist information for free.
A motley crew had assembled there, waiting for the next bus. A young couple, college-aged and dressed in summer grunge. A rich-looking woman and her entourage, speaking fluent Spanish and relaxing in the shade. Several businessmen. Another couple, this time speaking to each other in an English accent. A man with a shaved head.
My excitement was growing.
We were checked at the border by a Mexican man in a military uniform with a strong Spanish accent. He boarded the bus and spoke sharply to a man carrying bags from a duty-free store on the US side of the border. (If you carry your purchases to Mexico and back, there is no tax paid on them, and the prices are much lower.) The man, understandably, looked frightened, but passed the check. We were allowed to drive on.
We quickly found out why we'd been advised to leave our car in the States; our driver was fearless. Traffic teemed around the bus, only moving when the driver began to merge, opening or not. He, like the other traffic drove close to the other cars, fast, and stopped quickly. The sound of screeching tires was a common backdrop. It made California's rush hour look like a walk in the park.
Along the road were billboards in Spanish and English, announcing not only events, clubs, and retail outlets, but also lawyers familiar with Mexican law.
For the first time, I felt humbled; a foreigner.
Honestly, it was a little anticlimactic for me in the station. There were little stores all over, catering to the tourists -- it was like being inside a foreign strip mall.
The only difference I found was in the shops themselves. The salespeople, trained to entice customers to buy by sheer will, are hyperagressive. Walking by, they called out, "Hello, senor! Buy your wife pretty things here!" or "Come inside and look senora -- I'm sure than that guy will buy you whatever you want!"
I was startled enough that I didn't even go look. One man, when we paused to look at some Japanese-like swords, told us a story of his two wives and nine children. I felt so guilty that I promised to return after we'd been out on the Avenue.
I'm not sure what I was looking for, really. Maybe just a sense of "otherness" -- assurance that we hadn't just crossed an invisible line, but that we'd really gone somewhere else. Somewhere with a unique culture, new rules, new laws, different people.
For all the stories told about it, Tijuana's public face tries hard to look less like a place of debauchery than a tourist mecca. The signs were polite, but worded in a way that would put the most straight-laced among us at ease.
We wound our way through the glorified mall, learning quickly to say very little to those who called out selling flowers, ceramics, and knives, to find the open air of Revolucion.
Greeting us were a series of those signs -- "public drunkenness is not tolerated", and "a well-behaved tourist is a welcome tourist!" After pointing them out to Henry, grinning, it occurred to me that its reputation, though greatly exaggerated, must have some truth to warrant such public notices.
"Are you scared at all?" I asked him.
"No. Well...maybe a little."
"Good. Because I feel like a fish out of water."
I must look like an easy target.
Maybe it is the practiced wide-eyed stare I get in new places; one I was wearing as I looked from sign to sign trying to call on my ten-year-old knowledge of Beginning Spanish I from high school so I could pick words out of the signs that I could recognize.
"Zapatas....that's "shoes", right?"
"Very impressive!" Henry said encouragingly, only serving to fuel the fire in my strange language fascination.
I strained my ears to listen to the conversations of people around me, but heard mostly english mixed with broken spanish. Even the shopkeepers called out in English. I did pretty well with the signs, though -- of the words I learned as a senior in high school, my retention rate ten years later is about half.
Not bad, I thought, picking "preguntas" out of a sign.
"That's "questions", right...?"
From behind, a man emerged. Wearing sunglasses and smiling, holding out a thick gold chain -- one of many wrapped around his arms.
"You want to buy one of these quality gold chains for your wife? Only forty dollars! High quality. Real gold."
Henry tried to say no. There was no stopping the relentless vendor, though.
"You like silver instead? A deal for you. Only twenty-five dollars! Just look at this one, senora!"
He pulled a serpentine chain from his arm. I noted that he looked like a strange version of the Tin Man.
"It's very pretty," I said. A mistake.
He followed us for two blocks, lowering the price every few steps, until we ducked into a restaurant to escape.
Strangely, the club/restaurant we went into was named "Club Escape", a fact we found very funny when we were safely inside.
It was, according to the waitress as she delivered the bucket of Corona for Henry and two virgin pina coladas for me, always Happy Hour at Club Escape. With his duo of beers, she also delivered a little Nyquil-sized cup of Tequila, a packet of salt and a lime wedge.
Neither of us had had anything to eat before leaving the states, figuring that since we both liked Mexican food, getting it IN Mexico was probably a good idea. The waitress disappeared after delivering our drinks.
The pina colada was great. I'd ordered non-alcoholic drinks so that I could be steady, and because alcohol dehydrates me -- with all the talk about the water being what it is, I didn't want to take a chance on finding out that Montezuma's Revenge was a real occurrence. Henry doesn't drink much -- he'd wanted just one beer, and all of a sudden, it was turning into a party for one on that side of the table.
Mexican tequila, I guess, is the best there is.
The street sounds drifted inside. It was like any other bustling city street, really. The difference was in the people, their way of relating was similar, but not the same. There aren't a lot of the taboos that we have here -- there isn't the same fear. People that don't know each other talk openly in the street. Friends will embrace or kiss. The US seems almost puritanical in comparison.
One old lady, carrying a stick of paper flowers, stopped in front of the window. "Buy a flower for your lady?" she asked Henry through the window.
I picked a blue one.
We couldn't stay forever at Club Escape, though I wanted to. I wanted to watch all day from my perch at the window, drinking up the atmosphere with the pina coladas. We waited for an opportune moment ("opportune" being defined as "chain-vendor-free"), and darted out into the fray.
Along the street were statues of rock, commemorating various Mayan and Aztec gods. This one of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, stood at the opening of an alleyway that wound back as far as we could see. People milled around the shops lining the alley, and we followed them, looking to get awy from Revolucion's more touristy nature.
The alley was lined with art.
Dimly-lit in the midafternoon sun, it seemed we'd left the slow-moving, shiny tourist areas, and found an ever slower-paced real world.
An old man walked past us, shakily coming to a stop to wipe his brow and greet us. Two identically dressed boys played catch with a ball. (We found out later that they were working the door of a strip club in that alley.) A few tourists had also found the place, milling around buying tortillas and Mexican candy from the stands that blocked the road.
There was a wooden sandwich sign that read, "Discover the REAL Tijuana..." and gave more information in Spanish. One of the words was "museo"...museum.
We wandered off to find it.
In an inconspicuous looking building, at the right of the stairway, a painted sign announded the "Amigos del Arte" -- the Friends of Art museum. Inside, two men sat opposite one another on wooden benches. One played a guitar in a sort of slow chord progression, and the other listened intently, his eyes closed. On each wall, old sepia-toned and crudely colorized photos hung with captions beneath or beside, printed in Spanish.
I picked up several brochures before the first man's song ended.
"Bienvenidos! Welcome!" one of them called out. "Come in, come in! Have a look around!"
We complied, smiling, and I wandered to the far wall, reading the captions of the photos, picking out words and trying to pronounce them silently. I was batting about half -- I could either recognize or discern what about half the words meant. The two men, meantime, talked to Henry.
"Where are you from?" they asked him.
"Ah! Beautiful city!"
The other admonished him, "You've never been to San Diego, Pablo."
"I have!" he retorted, reverting to Spanish to, presumably, tell the story of his trip to San Diego.
I just concentrated on a commemorative photo of the old Tijuana main street and tried not to smile. Some things don't change, no matter what language you're speaking.
We heard a noise on the stairs.
A man came from the back room, carrying a wooden shelf and artist supplies. He set the shelf on a table and started sanding it and painting it lightly with a sponge.
"Do you mind if I take your picture?" I asked him. He shook his head and posed -- a working pose.
"What?" one of the others said, "You don't want our picture, too?"
I laughed. "Sure..."
"Now you make sure to tell all of your San Diego friends about the Amigo del Arte!"
"I will. I definitely will."
We stepped back into the alleyway, the sound of guitar music beginning again behind our footfalls as the door swung closed behind us.
The alley appeared to curve, but further back, a small cul-de-sac held a fountain and several shops. One sold metal lizards to hang on your wall, and the proprietress was more than willing to make a deal with me for a beautiful blue iguana that I wanted for the side of my own iguana's cage.
"For you, only seven dollars," she began.
"I only have five," I said, taking out a five-dollar bill. It was a lie, but then again, so was her initial offering "just for me".
"All right. Today only. Five dollars. For you."
Shopping in Tijuana has a sort of thrill of the chase that you don't get up north, where the price tags are pretty much the bottom line.
Our guidebook mentioned an art gallery.
The accompanying photos were full of color and light, and I wanted to see. So we wound our way back after haggling -- and buying -- a god and turquoise ring that Henry liked on my hand. ("Now you are engaged in Mexico!" the shopkeeper said as Henry slipped the ring on my finger. "Only in Mexico?" Henry answered.)
We found it on Revolucion, hidden away between a drugstore and a serappe shop.
I was dazzled. The store had painted furniture and gorgous wallhangings, and in a locked case, my newest obsession.
Oaxacan (wa-HAH-kin) art is carved wood and hardened leather, painted brightly in figures of insects, animals, and people. The store was vastly overpriced with a sign posted that said that prices were firm (no haggling, American style), and I ended up buying nothing. It planted a seed, though, that I've been indulging on Ebay since.
Just what I needed. Another obsession.
Some parts of our trip showed an urban city, away from the main tourist areas, that weren't as polished as Revolucion. The smells of urine and sewage were strong there, graffiti and decay decorated the walls, and the people milling about looked much less than friendly. It looked, really, like any urban area.
The difference is that Tijuana, a city of a million people, is crucified for these areas. Whereas, say, Philadelphia for example, is not. I've seen Camden, New Jersey, and it is far worse than what I saw in Mexico, and probably has more seedy bars and strip clubs.
Nobody says that the whole of Philadelphia is bad because of Camden or areas of West Philly. Nobody makes judgement on the USA and its inhabitents as a result of finding one of these areas.
It struck me as less than fair.
Many stores searched for employees.
Most of the Help Wanted signs that we saw on Revolucion were looking for bilingual workers. With the huge tourist tides, I'd noticed that most of the store workers and vendors spoke English, sometimes broken, but well enough to pass and be understood.
On a side street, down a hill and past tables of street vendors selling jewelry, trinkets, and souveniers, cashing in on the fringes of the Revolucion crowds, was an art supply store/english school. A local told us that the rates were exorbitant.
I wondered, though, how knowing english would affect the earning potential of those who chose to pay.
The bus was much more full on the return trip, most carrying bags and looking like they'd enjoyed just a wee bit too much of the good Mexican tequila.
"It wasn't that scary," I said to Henry.
"No, it wasn't."
"We should go back soon."
The Mexicoach stopped at the border.
We were let out of the bus, and made to walk single-file through customs. A scrubbed, fresh-faced Marine looked at our drivers' licenses and bags, and waved us through. Others, he stopped and sent through a revolving gate to some other bureaucrats for processing or further investigation.
As we walked through the building, we crossed back over the border on foot, leaving Mexico behind to wait for the bus to pull forward and across the same invisible, powerful line.
Other than the gaggle of armed Marine guards, it didn't seem all that different to me.
A "protected border" implies there is something to protect against. We have put up fences with armed guards and barbed wire. We have propogated myths of an unseen, brown-skinned "enemy" to the south. We have done things and passed laws that are decidedly Mexico-unfriendly.
Why? It's the question I can't answer.
The only thing I could imagine is fear. We fear the unknown, the foreign. The only way to eliminate that fear is with exposure, and putting up walls isn't the way to foster that kind of dialogue.
Fifteen minutes away, and Mexico might as well be another world.