One item on my list of things to do in California never got fulfilled before I moved out of the state: visit Tijuana so that I could take a peek inside Mexico. I finally did get the chance to visit in July while on business in San Diego. For a tour guide I had my work buddy Rob who visits TJ about once a year. Finding our Thursday afternoon available, we decided to go on a brief stroll south of the border.
Getting to the border from downtown San Diego took about 15 minutes. We took the last USA exit for Camino de la Plaza and entered the maze of streets and parking lots that is San Ysidro, California. (It looks like just a slightly nicer version of Tijuana with the peace of mind of being on the familiar side of the fence.) We found a good $4 lot on the grounds of what appeared to be an abandoned motel and started working our way toward the border.
We zig-zagged through a maze of walkways up and over the highway to get into the border crossing. We passed through one tall turnstile, then right past a few officers doing occasional random checks, I guess, and through another pair of turnstiles into Mexico. Immediately the smell changed. It wasn't a heavy stench but a light pervasiveness of sewage in the air that continued the entire time we were in the country.
After following a corridor of walls we entered a plaza with some pharmacies, souvenir shops, and restaurants. Bright, tacky, bold-worded signs in English were everywhere. We strolled across the plaza pretty quick and wended our way up over a pedestrian bridge crossing the Tijuana River. This was a narrow green ribbon flowing down a broad cement channel. The river carried suds, occasional piles of garbage, and probably other stuff. A few beggars sitting along the bridge held paper cups.
One thing I had noticed at the border crossing that made me a little nervous is that we were the only Caucasian people around. Somehow I thought the border would have groups of American tourists moseying across, but I didn't see very many. Rob told me later it was the smallest number of Americans he's seen in Mexico, and that many of the stands normally housing souvenir shops were either closed or empty. The economy, plus the swine flu scare, plus some drug-related violence earlier in the year seem to have hit Tijuana tourism pretty hard. This made us prime targets for vendors hawking their wares. They could spot us coming a mile away.
After crossing the bridge, we took the main pedestrian route heading toward Avenida Revolucion. Before reaching the Ave. however and its giant archway, Rob abruptly stopped at a fish taco restaurant and declared it was time for dinner. He had been to this place at 125 Madero (marked by yellow signs and Tecate advertisements) several times and told me it was his favorite. The restaurant had an open front and picnic tables, but we had a roof over our heads. The menu was printed on a cardboard sign in black marker. In the upper-right corner was listed "Viagra Soup - $4.99. It works!"
View Great fish tacos in Tijuana - 125 Madero in a larger map
I ordered a supreme taco and, when prodded by the owner, assented to ordering two. I also ordered a Coke, following Rob's Guatemala mission trick of washing down dinner with a Coke in order to "kill the bad stuff". While the kindly owner and his wife were grilling up the tacos, we were treated to chips out of a plastic basket and a bowl of green salsa that had been sitting on the counter. The salsa was excellent and very hot!! The tacos had everything on them as well, and, while small, they were extraordinary. I asked the owner what the meat was and he replied "Marlin". All that for $5. Only bummer was the small bug crawling across my plate when I was done but I just pretended (and prayed) that it had wandered on there from somewhere else as I was finishing up my meal.
Our stomachs full, we proceeded under Tijuana's landmark arch toward Avenida Revolucion where we walked south for probably five or six blocks. Merchants at every store approached us with greetings in English, promising wonderful wares if we would only step inside. Some of them yelled out endearing statements about Seattle, since I wearing a Mariners t-shirt. One guy asked if we would like to pay some money to take a picture next to the "Tijuana tiger", a burro that I guess had been painted to look like a zebra. The burro was cool but sadly we had not brought a camera. Other men on the street asked if we liked women, and tried to entice us to enter adult clubs or allow them to lead us to other related activities.
After crossing what seemed like a fairly busy east-west thoroughfare, we walked one more block and turned around for the return down Ave. Constitucion, one block west. We had not yet reached the landmark big Mexican flag flying over downtown Tijuana. Rob said he walked to it once but by the time he reached it the neighborhood had gotten pretty sketchy.
The plan was to poke around in some shops on the way back, but Constitucion didn't have as many touristy shops and was a busier street. After a few blocks we jogged back over to Revolucion, where I started taking a look at some children's sized fake soccer jerseys out on the sidewalk. The owner pounced on me and let me inside to look at others that were on display. He quoted me around $40 the first time and when I started looking at something else he immediately dropped it to $25. I started looking at an adult-sized "I (Heart) Tijuana" t-shirt instead, which he quoted at $15. Rob later said his younger lady assistant was quoting him how low he could go in an Indian language while I bartered. Rob served a mission in Guatemala and is familiar with this kind of language.
We went back and forth for a while on the shirt. I got it for $11 but I think I was had. The owner showed no gratitude and yelled at me as I left the shop, angry that I had not taken a package deal for the kids soccer jersey, which he had dropped to $10.
We continued toward the bridge, but first Rob had to stop to get a peeled mango on a stick from a fruit stand. While we were waiting, some little kids came up with boxes of trinkets. One had a bunch of cool little bobblehead turtles, so I bought one for a dollar. It's held up pretty well through abuse from my kids since I've been home.
After crossing back over the river we wandered around the plaza looking at some more kids soccer jerseys. We asked some shopkeepers just lounging around if Tijuana had a futbol team. They said that yes, they were called Xoloitzcuintles (never would have been able to spell that without Google) and that they were okay. They played in the A division, and they had just beaten Chivas 2-1 the other night. Unlike the other storekeeper they were nice and told us to have a nice day, even when we didn't buy something.
I also looked at some stained glass art that had a Seahawks logo. I felt it would be too tacky despite the fairly reasonable $8 I was quoted. The shopkeeper must have been disappointed. He was already polishing it up for me once I showed the slightest interest.
The return to the USA border was not well-signed and I was glad I was going with a Tijuana veteran in order to not take a wrong turn. You have to walk down a longer corridor to get back, past some street merchants. I bought a few pieces of Bubbaloo gum from some kids right by the border complex. Good memories from Argentina...
We entered the hallway and room of the return walk-across border complex, and the place was apparently relatively deserted. We picked one of the four or five lines and sped through in about 5 minutes. After showing my passport, answering a few token questions, and passing my shopping bag through an x-ray machine, I was back on blessed American soil.
The drive home was crazy. It was about 6:00 PM and everyone was trying to return from work to their homes in Mexico. The main border crossing is on I-5 but folks were taking side-streets to get there and San Ysidro had been reduced to gridlock. We started back over the freeway on Camino de la Plaza but that was mistake because the road intersected the final freeway onramp to I-5 South that everyone was trying to use to shortcut the line. We flipped a U and headed north on San Ysidro boulevard. We had to wait through some more gridlock but it was a fairly easy drive to get onto the next onramp leading north. From there, smooth sailing on the freeway.
The poverty in Tijuana is a contrast to our comfortable way of life in the United States, but it is what I expected to see. I didn't find it much more disturbing than the excessive displays of wealth alongside homelessness that I've seen in downtown San Diego this week. The exploitation of women and children that occurs in Tijuana is definitely a problem and hard to see or understand. One other thing I had a hard time getting used to were people shouting greetings and other things to each other in the streets in very loud voices (not common in the USA to raise your voice above a certain level). I guess I always thought they were shouting at me.
Next time I go to Tijuana I'd like to get on a city bus that does a loop route and take the loop around the city, not getting off. I would do this in the morning, if possible. It might also be fun to walk a similar route near the border, just one or two blocks off the tourist circuit. Although I can now say I've been across the border, I still feel like I've yet to see the real Mexico.