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08 August 2010


I have traveled to countries all over the world but had never been to Tijuana. It's the nearest non-US city to me, and easily accessible by day trip. Yet embarrassingly, it remained more unknown to me than the hawker centers of Singapore or the old town streets of Prague.

So I set out to change that.

Not wanting an opportunity to go to waste (and wanting to put some miles onto my new car), I decided to go on my soonest day off. Why not? I tried to gather people together to join - but in the end, only Michelle was available for the day trip. And so things began to fall into place: TIJUANA HERE I COME!

It had been a fun week, with two Aussies surfing my couch for a few days. The night before, I had a night out with a close friend who's leaving for grad school. That night I ate yak meat for the first time, took in some live music, and enjoyed good times and Belgian beer. Life was rolling on. Thus, that Saturday, I woke up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy - adventurous and unstoppable. Well, unstoppable until I hit the traffic on the 405.

The Aussie brothers had to catch a flight from LAX to Vegas, so they left around 7:30 to catch the bus to the airport. Less than an hour later, Michelle was at my apartment ready to go. None of the people I had contacted through Craigslist for a rideshare came through, so it was just the two of us. I gathered what I thought I needed - cash and my passport tucked into my money belt, and we were soon on our way!

Here was the plan: Drive to San Diego, park at a trolley station, ride the trolley to the border, walk into and around Tijuana, ???, PROFIT! (okay, maybe not profit, but we were definitely running this trip on a budget).

Then there was traffic. It was due to an accident right by LAX. Almost serendipitously, I got a text from Andy the Aussie that they were going to miss his flight to Vegas. I thought, I'm right by LAX, I could easily pick them up. Well turns out the flight was delayed too, so they had time to make it on. It's incredible how things always align at the right moment.

So the two hour drive turned into three. Michelle and I spent a lot of time discussing that everyone we talked to was nervous for us. We had fears in the back of our minds that Tijuana was a crime-ridden slum run by drug cartels, and that we would get kidnapped, turned into drug mules, held hostage, or something. I didn't really think it was that bad - millions of people live there everyday without being killed, and I don't really stand out as a tourist, so it wouldn't be too bad. Still, those fears provided the context for our visit.

I parked at a trolley station in National City and we were soon on a trolley to the border! The neighborhoods passed by, and the composition of people riding the trolley became steadily more Mexican. We reached the end of the line, the San Ysidro border, and Michelle and I simply followed the crowd into what looked like a nondescript parking garage. It was actually a pedestrian bridge over the freeway and to the border crossing.

After spiraling up and down either side of the bridge, we simply walked through the metal revolving door and were in Mexico!

That was easy.

There were a couple police outposts right by the border entrance, but we weren't stopped once. The walkway opened into the street, with plenty of taxis eager to snap you up. I naturally had my guards up. Nevertheless I was surprised with the level of persistence that taxi drivers (and shopkeepers) insist that you choose them. I had plenty of opportunities to master my "No, gracias!".

We walked down the gauntlet of tourist-trap souvenir shops and "2 for 1" restaurant-cantinas. There weren't very many visitors anywhere. Right before crossing the river, there's a big plaza that was near deserted. There were small stands along the sloping path that spirals up to the bridge over the river. The Tijuana river is a giant empty concrete-lined channel; cars were parked along the bottom. The staircase down the other side of the bridge smelled pungently of urine.

Soon we were on Avenida Revolución. There were shops selling touristy stuff. Not much different than the touristy part of any major city. We were hungry, though, so we headed straight for the red light district, home of the restaurant mentioned on Wikitravel that served goat. The goat meat dish is called birria, a meat stew that was absolutely delicious! Michelle and I split that, they kept refilling our tortillas (which were freshly hand-made) and even the stew! I also decided to order a gordita. I knew the name "gordita" from Taco Bell, but I wasn't exactly sure what a real gordita was. I soon found out: It is pure cheeeeeeesy awesomeness!

It's essentially a super grilled cheese sandwich WITH CARNE ASADA and made with freshly hand made tortillas instead of bread. Simply amazing. We were both elated to be eating such great food.

We then walked around the red light district. There were plenty of girls just standing on the sidewalk, with apathetic looks on their faces. The area reeked of despondency. However, the neighborhood didn't feel overly dangerous, not any more than the "dangerous" neighborhoods of LA on a lazy Saturday afternoon, despite the fact that Michelle and I were the only non-Mexicans around. We then returned to Avenida Revolución.

[My camera had developed "the shakes" again, so a lot of my pictures came out very blurry. I had to violently shake the camera to get it to stop vibrating - quite a hilarious sight, as you can imagine.]

We bought two Mexican wrestling masks as gifts for the birthday celebrants we would be meeting later that night. It was amazing having to haggle so aggressively to buy something. The salesman originally said the masks were $65 each! We eventually got him down to $10, but I wonder if we could've gotten him lower. Meh. Soon afterwards I did a similar bargaining tango with a shop lady for a wall-sized Mexican flag for my collection. $15 - I feel I should have held out for a lower price. It's funny, the moment you start walking away, the price they offer suddenly halves.

After walking all of Revolución, we set our sights southwards, toward the big flag that towers over TJ. You could easily see it from the U.S. too. So we walked there.

Then we walked past a small city park, with a creepy homeless guy talking to himself and yelling loudly. That moment was probably our "dangerous encounter" in Tijuana. And I just felt as I would feel in LA when a homeless guy yells at me.

We then walked past a few shops selling caskets and funeral accessories. Wikitravel described this area as the more genuine and authentic side of Tijuana. Think about that for a moment.

We continued walking in the sandy bright sun. Back across a couple of not-so-noteworthy neighborhoods that vaguely reminded me of parts of San José, Costa Rica. We stumbled upon the Tijuana Cultural Center (or whatever it was).

Michelle and I sat in the shade of the large globe and rested our legs. (I was wearing chucks this whole day, so my feet were beginning to feel worn down.) I finished my water bottle.

The afternoon passed quickly. It was already 5pm and we needed to get back across the border. So we walked across the river, tried to see a side of TJ beyond the usual tourist routes, but alas, there really wasn't much worth noting. There WAS, however, a Thrifty Ice Cream stand right before the border! Of COURSE I had to get a scoop. I munched on my cookies and cream while waiting in line at the border. It took like half an hour almost to get through the passport check. Meh.

Back in the U.S.! The trolley took us back to my car, who had survived safely in the parking lot. I drove through downtown SD because Michelle had never really been there, which astonished me. I got a voicemail from a potential rideshare, but by the time I got back to the US and could call him, he had already found a ride. It was 8pm by the time we got back to LA. There were two girls couchsurfing with me that night. And it was a good night indeed, as Hollywood beckoned, but that's a whole other story...

So, to summarize my impressions of TJ: It's safer than I had feared; but also less exciting than I anticipated. There weren't cantinas with rowdy teenage American tourists pouring out into the streets. There were only shopkeepers along the tourist streets who, upon spotting you as a tourist, latch onto you like a leech and can't be shaken off. It's no spring break paradise by any means, and it has a deep sadness running through it, as it's essentially a city existing only for people who can't actually make it across the border. Living so close to pristine San Diego would definitely affect one's psyche. There didn't seem to be much respect for the case in large bustling cities. Tijuanans seem much more willing to proudly proclaim their status as Mexican, not as Tijuanan. The border has truly become entrenched, with people safely on either side unaware of the difficulties that the troops on the ground have to endure everyday. Yet, the people here manage, just like in any other city. And as uninspiring much of Tijuana turned out to be, living here probably wouldn't be too bad. There's a lot of change and upheaval to keep things interesting.

Overall, it feels like there wasn't much to celebrate about Tijuana. Much like each shopkeeper, TJ seems destined (or doomed) to be dependent on whatever San Diego is willing to throw its way.

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