Wednesday, December 10, 2014

On the border...

(as always, click to embiggen)

I was born and raised in San Diego, California, about a half hour from the Mexican border. When I was growing up, it was entirely possible to ignore the border, if you were a typical White kid like I was. Tijuana, the sprawling, messy city on the other side, was a place that a lot of the time, White San Diego seemed to pretend wasn't there, engaging in an act of civic denial.

Or, Tijuana was there, but it was "The Other," the place where you went to engage in transgressive behavior, to get drunk, gamble, go to donkey shows, do things you wouldn't do at home.

Or, Tijuana was a problem. The poverty. The sewage spills. The migrants who crossed illegally. And later, the drug wars. Something you guarded against, built walls to keep out.

Of course, there was always another side. Latino families with roots on both sides of the borders, who crossed back and forth all the time. People who lived in one city and worked in the other. It was easy to cross, before 9/11. You'd go for a couple of hours. Eat some street tacos. Buy tequila. Do a little shopping. Go to the bullfights if you were into that kind of thing. Maybe drive down to Puerto Nuevo for lobster, and beans, rice and tortillas.

I remember one time when I was in college, and I was driving a friend home around 11 at night, and somehow missed his exit.

"Let's go to Mexico," he mumbled, half-asleep.

"Okay," I said, and we did (I had the presence of mind to stop and buy Mexican car insurance before we crossed).

9/11 changed that. Even more, the drug wars put an end to that casual crossing. The violence devastated the tourist economy in Baja California. People were afraid to visit. And many residents were afraid to go out at night.

But in recent years, Tijuana has made a comeback. The cartel violence has died down. The city is a hotbed of electronics assembly and manufacturing.  TJ has become known for its culinary and cultural scene. There's increasing talk of the "San Diego/Baja Mega-region."

And since I'd recently moved back to my old home town San Diego, I decided it was past time for me to revisit Tijuana. Some friends and I signed up for a market tour with an atypical tour company, Turista Libre*, founded and run by an American journalist who lives in TJ. We would visit several markets via an old school bus. It seemed like a great way to get reacquainted with Tijuana, which to be honest, I'd never known all that well to begin with.

We took the trolley to the border, something I'd done in the past, but so long ago that I barely remembered the process.

Nowadays, at least, though there are physical barriers aplenty between the US and Mexico, the "border" is not always clearcut.

Crossing on foot is easy. You might even say, "pedestrian." You head up a path that feels almost like an afterthought. Sadly, there's nothing on the US side that suggests anything neighborly. What it feels like is that you're entering a prison.

Don't worry, your ad here can be seen by over 8 million people a year! 

But it's easy enough to get in. 

And here we are!

Looking back toward the US

We walked a bit, to a parking lot where our battered school bus waited, loaded up on pan dulce and Nescafe and headed up into the hills, to our first destination: La Villa Swap meet. Heading up there, you see a lot of housing that borders on shanties, little homes and businesses in crumbling disrepair, graffiti, everywhere. What you might have pictured Tijuana to be. 

The swap meet itself? 

I don't have any photos that capture the scale of this thing, and the truth is, when you see it, you can't really tell just how big it is, how far it goes, how many little side streets it spills into. It just never ends. You'll find:

Clothes. Oh so many clothes. Clothes, shoes and bags. DVDs. Stereos. Drum kits. 

Food of all sorts. And snacks. Tacos. Gorditas. Churros. Huaraches. 

(this stuff)

And all kinds of furniture.
(I have no explanation for the bowling balls)

Used tools, engine parts,  whatever all this is...

Tires. Car parts.

 (this place lets you use their bathroom for a quarter)

And musicians. And friendly people in general.

Our next stop was to the oldest market in Tijuana. Given that Tijuana is a new city, it's not very old: the Hidalgo Market opened at this location in 1984. This is a place where you'll find all kinds of food products, piñatas, kitchenware and pottery. Also, a rather upscale coffee stand, where the barista told me all about the beans and encouraged me to smell them.

Our last stop was on Avenida Revolución. Back in the day, Revolución was the epicenter of Tourist Tijuana, where you'd have your photo taken with the donkey painted like a zebra, get plastered at bars that served underaged college students and buy all manner of tacky souvenirs: gigantic sombreros and cheap maracas and cartoon mescal worms.

Many if not most of those places are out of business now, leaving Revolución quiet, almost deserted, at least on a Sunday afternoon.

But in the place of those tacky tourist shops, new and interesting things are appearing: Small, local businesses selling edgy T-shirts, hand-made accessories, and art. I happened upon a little food court tucked on the other side of a tunnel-like passage of shuttered stalls, where they had hummus, portabello burgers, and craft beer, among other things, with distressed wood tables and the kind of vibe you'd expect to find in in any middle-class hipster neighborhood.

Yes, I tried the beer. And it was good.

After all that, it was time to return to the border…where there were still approximately 900 pedestrians in line waiting to cross -- a wait that could take as long as three hours. 

We circumvented the worst of this by paying $6 a person to get onto an old airport shuttle bus, that for some reason was allowed to go to the head of the pedestrian line, where after about 55 minutes or so, we were able to debark and finally, head into US Customs.

Which is nothing like US Customs at any airport I've experienced. It's small and dimly lit and grimy, sort of like the worst small-town Greyhound station you've ever seen, and although I'm sure most of the CBP staffing it are fine folks, we encountered one guy who screamed at people in the wrong line and another who was just kind of an asshole. The rest were perfunctory and and not particularly friendly. The best I can say is that once we were actually in the Customs area, it didn't take very long to get through. But the fact that it routinely takes pedestrians hours to cross is a national embarrassment. Frequent border-crossers apply for the Sentri Global Entry or Ready-Pass programs, and I plan to do that ASAP.

Because I plan to return to Tijuana and Baja soon, and I hope to visit often. I like living on the border.

Lisa…every other Wednesday...

*If you're interested in visiting Tijuana, I recommend Turista Libre to get acquainted with the city. I'm signing up for the craft beer tour, for sure! 


  1. Great orientation to Tijuana, Lisa! I learned a lot. Makes me comfortable going back again. Well, except for the screaming border control people.

    1. Yes, this guy was...well, a real jerk. Indifference was about the best they could do.

  2. I see that Tijuana's Santas know how to chose the right folk to hang out with!

    You've convinced me to return to Mexico the next time I'm in San Diego. Does one still drink the beer rather than the water, or is that just your preference, Lisa? :)

    1. Now that they have craft beer, I'd stick to the beer, Jeff!

  3. Thanks for the tour! Seeing those pedestrian crossings reminded me of Cheech Marin's movie, Born in East L.A.

    1. You're welcome, Jono! And yeah, I remember liking that movie quite a bit.

  4. I went only once, long before the feverish development in tijuana. The main street (Revolution - I recognize the big marquee) was paved, with bars and cafes for los Americanos. It was about 3 blocks long and ended abruptly. The side streets were not paved and were dusty, third world environments - donkeys, shacks, old battered trucks, even a water trough in the street with spigots...I thought it was exotic!

  5. Lisa, one day I will come with you. I have never been in Mexico, which is a lot to say for an American who has been in Namibia and Paraguay. You will give me the excuse I need.

    1. We will do this, Annamaria! Mexico gets such a bum rap. Yes, there are problems (government and police corruption high among them). But I think Mexico is an amazing place with a lot to offer.

    2. (and I should've added, "US agribusiness and drug war" to the list of Mexico's problems)

  6. Replies
    1. Stan, you'll be happy to know that the Guadalupe Valley (not far from TJ) has excellent food and wine -- which I'm pretty sure you can sample in Tijuana restaurants.

  7. I was one of those Latino families you mentioned as my Mex-Am father would drive the family across La Linea twice a month to pick up Pemex gasoline, white bread bollilo rolls, wrought iron accessories for the garden, and haircuts ($2.00) for the kids. Lunch was as Super Antojitos of of Ave. Revolucion. His big kick was to drive his Porsche 911 though US Customs (with my brother and I scrunched in the backseat).