There comes a time in every man’s life when he’s standing at a border. On one side, safety and predictability; on the other, risk and new experiences. If any of you had read my online dating profile, you may recall that I wrongfully claimed I “loved variety” and “new experiences.”
In my case, my border was the legitimate border between the US and Mexico. Conservatively, I have been warned no less than 17 times about going to Tijuana.
“There are men with guns!” my aunt had cautioned.
“It’s filthy,” someone else said.
“Watch your wallet…Don’t take anything you wouldn’t be comfortable leaving in Mexico.”
I looked at my new iPhone for a good minute. Then tucked it in my pocket.
After visiting vineyards in Sonoma and almond orchards in Bakersfield, we were one grow house away from completing the agricultural trifecta.
While planning the trip, we looked at a map and the proximity of Mexico. We can skip over my undying love for Mexican food. The prospect of getting my first passport stamp was also alluring. Plus, we had a half day free to explore. All those tortilla chips started to tip the scale.
The day started meeting Toussaint, a med student in the area, for breakfast. I’d already eaten, since my threshold for sustenance is six minutes after waking up. I ordered a bagel and everyone else got oatmeal. We shared our plan to cross the border and asked about safety. Our breakfast companion, originally from the Dominican Republic, said it’s fine during the daytime, but warned that coming back across the border could take hours via car.
While eating Michelle’s unguarded bowl of oatmeal, I said it might be my last meal and I didn’t know how long they’d hold me in a Mexican prison. Toussaint possesses a laugh that fills a room. It’s more than a laugh. Almost a guffaw. I’d credit the acoustics of the colorful café in Chula Vista, but I’m rather certain his sincere, bellowing crescendo of a laugh would fill even the most boisterous environment.
It has been confirmed by nearly all my friends that I wouldn’t fare well in prison. Let alone an international prison where the only words I know are for la comida. My best shot of survival would be ingratiating myself with a cell mate involved in food service.
We finished potentially our last meal and went to pay the check. The waiter had a perfectly manicured beard and a baseball hat on backwards. Displaying our uncertainty about the adventure, we also asked him about crossing the border. He advised to park the car on the US side, facing North and to cross the border on foot.
Perhaps my brain has been influenced by nightly new footage, but I envisioned the border being a large fence with barbed wire. Instead the border was a large cement wall. Perhaps there was barbed wire at the top. But the only barrier to leaving the US was a metal revolving gate, like one you’d see at your high school track. Yes. Yes, it is that easy to leave the US.
My first sight once in Mexico? Two men with riffles. I’m guessing they are riffles. They were big and I’m nearly certain they weren’t water guns. A very small part of me hoped there would be a welcoming committee with tortas and tacos. Didn’t someone tell them me and mi estomago were coming?
¡Bienvenidos Tijuana! My first impression was that Mexico was like a more rundown version of a fringe neighborhood in Chicago. I felt like Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny when he arrives in the south. I know I stuck out. Sadly, I never learned how to say “Oh shit” en español. There was an armada of cabs just past the border. Fortunately for me, Michelle is fluent in Spanish. I’m normally verbose but the surefire way to make me go mute is to take me to a land where I don’t speak the language. The cab drivers had matching uniforms and reminded me of ticket scalpers. Meech negotiated the rate and we hopped in the cab.
Now I know where cars from the ’80s go to die.
Everyone who had a shop or a cab tried to get us to spend our money with them. For $5, the driver took us to downtown Tijuana. It was a strange experience. I didn’t totally feel like I was in another country and it certainly wasn’t Canada. Maybe it was the fact that I was able to walk right in.
Once in downtown TJ, we walked around and I took in the sights and smells. The shops were a rotation of bar, tourist/t-shirt shop, discounted drugs, and taqueria. For some reason the smells also cycled between food and feces/garbage.
We made our way to la iglesia. Prayers of thanksgiving and prayers for safety were in order. For the middle of a Thursday afternoon, there were a fair amount of people inside the open-air church. It had a lot more statues of saints and a ton more candles. There was one corner that housed a statue behind glass. Surrounding the statue were black and white pictures of women. The flyers were for people that are missing.
We returned to the streets and went into a photography museum. The exhibit highlighted scenes from Mexico’s battle for independence, with military generals posing. One man had a face that screamed, “Don’t even think of putting this on Instagram!”
After all that tourist activity, I was in need of some fuel. What would a trip to Mexico be without food? Earlier in the day we had asked what the exchange rate was so we had an idea what things cost. The taqueria offered three tacos for the equivalent of $1. ME GUSTA! TODOS TACOS! We had a sampling of pollo, carne asada y pescado. Now I can say I’ve had tacos tradicional.
Our final stop in TJ was a little coffee shop. I’d gotten my fix on tacos, now it was Michelle’s turn. Since she knew the language, she started conversing with the barista. Show off! Another man was seated behind us in the small, but cozy café. Meech had mentioned that it was my first trip to Mexico and they started discussing Tijuana.
We joined Tony Barragan at his table. He had his laptop, a cup of coffee and his Blackberry resting atop a book. He asked me if I spoke Spanish and I told him I understand it but don’t speak it that well. Kindly, he started speaking in English. He urged us to go to Rosarito to get a better impression of Mexico than Tijuana. Tony gave us specific instructions on where to go and how much it should cost. He was our Mexican Jeremy! Instead of the wiggle, Tony advised us on cabs to Rosarito Beach.
But before we left, we talked with Tony for nearly an hour. We learned about his life and how he became a model scout. He started ditching school and would design window displays. One of the standout moments of the entire trip was when he told us about a model he discovered while walking the streets of TJ. Tony spotted a man washing cars. “And he was gorg-eous.” Tony went up to him and informed him that he was a model scout and he wanted him to come to his office to take some shots. The car washer was aggressive toward Tony and ignored his offer. But the he ended up showing up to Tony’s office when he was told. Tony took some shots and an agency in New York was interested in seeing the newly discovered model. Tony told them he wasn’t ready, but they insisted. Reluctantly, Tony sent him. Once setup in New York, the model was to go to meetings at the agency. While walking around New York, he saw a sign at a construction site looking for workers. In exchange for a day’s work, he would receive $100. He ended up working at the site and not going to his meetings.
The agency reached out to Tony sharing their displeasure. Once the model was back in Mexico he met with Tony and said how the accommodations weren’t good enough for him. At this point, Tony mimed taking off earrings and tucking them in his shirt before executing a perfect Z snap.
After some training and polishing, that car washer is now traveling the globe and will be walking in a show in Milan.
Sadly, neither of us stood out to be global models. But Tony gave us his phone number in case we got into any trouble. We stepped outside and Michelle asked me what we should do. I mentally went through how much cash we had. We weighed our options, checked the time, then got in a yellow van for Rosarito.