“Aqui, por favor.” The taxi cab pulled alongside the curb. “English is okay, my friend.” As I emerged from the cab, two men competed urgently to get me to enter their respective restaurants for a nice refreshing cup of Tijuana tea aka Corona. I looked about. A restaurant named “The Caves” with decorations of the Flintstones. Definitely the winner. The waiter smiled wide, spoke softly in English, and attended to my every motion as music by “The Doors” blared in the background.
Almost instantly a bucket of Corona arrived on my table–just my cup of tea. The menu had large photographs of the food requiring the customer to say nothing, simply point and get what you want. I asked the waiter what he would recommend. He recommended everything. One by one. High tea in Tijuana doesn’t come with elaborate descriptions of the food. Shrimp. Enchiladas. Steak. Or a combination plate. “Yes, I would like enchiladas and steak. Well done. Thank you sir.” I never order steak well done, but I allowed fears of Montezuma’s Revenge to inform my choice. “Oh and guacamole.” Dave Monk recommended that I try the guacamole in Tijuana. I ate so much guacamole and chips, I barely had room for the enchilada and steak.
Having lived most of my life in California, I have long thought it a shame that I have visited Canada, the Philippines, Germany and a number of other countries, but have never visited Mexico. I’ve been to Canada four times. Four times. It’s also a shame that I hadn’t learned Spanish. I had to take care of some business in San Diego and the hotel sat just 25 minutes from the Mexican border. I needed to go to Mexico. At least, just once in my life.
After a hectic trip to the airport, a claustrophobic flight on Southwest, picking up a rental car and driving to the hotel, I asked myself if it was worth it. Fear loomed large. Friends told me it was a sad place where children begged for money as their parents sat a distance hoping for pity. The car rental guy told me it was dangerous. People get kidnapped. Wikipedia states that Tijuana is one of the five most violent areas of Mexico.
As I drove towards the border, I started having my doubts. Why take the risk? Just so that I can clear it off my checklist? Ultimately, I decided that since I was going during the day time, my fears were exaggerated. After having my Tijuana tea time, I wondered the streets. Tourist trinkets lined the avenue. Purveyors of cheap massages called out to me. In desperation, one guy called out in ever increasing intensity cried out, “Hey, hey, massage. Massage. Girls. Pretty girls. Hey, hookers, we’ve got hookers!” hoping I would stop. Well, if you got hookers, then sure! I thought you were just selling a massage. Gosh, why didn’t you just say so. In some ways, Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana reminded me of Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Except New Orleans doesn’t hide the sex. It’s right there on the front door in full color photographs.
Having satisfied my curiosity, I decided to make the short walk to San Diego rather than take a taxi. On my way back to the border, I took the wrong path. Tourist shops gave way to unmarked buildings. Dogs looked up at me from the shade. Talk radio played noisily from an alley. Old men smiled and nodded as they looked up from underneath the hoods of their cars. Fear crept into my head. Was I lost? I stopped looking around in curiosity. I focused. Straight ahead. Then I caught myself, how many times had I walked down more dangerous, more violent streets in the Philippines without even an ounce of fear? Fear felt like an unwanted intruder and yet, it kept my feet moving steadily through the unknown. Finally, I came upon signs for the border and exited with a few questions from a customs agent.
While recalling the events of my trip, a friend of mine told me that Tijuana is not Mexico. At the time, I agreed. Yet, Tijuana is Mexico as much as Fisherman’s Warf in San Francisco is America. Aside from the obligatory visit with friends from out of town, the candy coated, t-shirt enabled experience of America at Fisherman’s Warf has held no interest for me for years. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the tourist trap, it’s still a product of American culture–no matter how much of it is manufactured in China. Tijuana is still a product of Mexican culture even if the culture bends to satisfy the most craven desires of it’s visitors–visitors that mostly come from the United States.