[This post is the first in a series that chronicles the events leading up to and my experiences on a day trip to Baja California Norte on 2 July 2017. The consumption of Mexican craft beer will be chronicled in subsequent installments.]
It never occurred to me to even consider visiting Tijuana until I clapped eyes on it from the US side of the border. Like most Americans, I had no reason to doubt the stereotype that Tijuana was, well…not safe. Gringos went to TJ to get cheap Viagra, for easy access to legal prostitution, or to witness unnatural acts of depravity involving donkeys, all the while risking getting randomly abducted or caught in the crossfire of warring drug cartels. When I lived in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, some of my friends would periodically take road trips to Baja. I never took them up on their invitations to venture south of the border, since these excursions invariably involved someone’s surfboard or wallet or Jeep getting stolen.
San Diego, although blessed with some of the nicest weather and consistently good surfing in the Continental United States, has a disjointed blandness and a lack of progressiveness about it, not to mention an unusually high concentration of Republicans due to the Navy presence. The city seems to be in categorical denial about its close proximity to Mexico. Signs on I-5 South refer only to the “International Border.” Until my friend Carlos, who hails from Monterrey, moved from Boston to San Diego in August 2016, I never associated San Diego with Mexico either except to make note of the abundance of good, affordable Mexican food there.
When I visited Carlos last October, two weeks before the debacle that was the 2016 Presidential Election, he took me to the oddly deserted (and sparsely visited) Border Field State Park, the southernmost point in California, to take in the jarring sight of the portion of The Wall that extends 300 feet into the Pacific Ocean. It was significantly fortified after 9/11 to keep out all of those Mexican terrorists. Mexico will not have to pay for it, because US taxpayers already have– the ocean extension project in 2012 cost $4.3M.
Experiencing the border zone for the first time resulted in an unsettling degree of cognitive dissonance. As we walked around the wall on the windswept, desolate stretch of Imperial Beach, Carlos pointed out a small open area between the section of the fence on the Mexican side and another one that runs parallel to it on the American side. If it weren’t for the garden full of native plants at one end maintained by a team of dedicated volunteers, the so-called Friendship Park would look like No Man’s Land. It is accessible only from the US side on Saturdays and Sundays between 10 am and 2 pm at the discretion of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Friendship Park is the sole section of the border zone between San Diego and Tijuana where people can stick their pinkies through the wire mesh of the fence and make physical contact with their family and friends on the Mexican side. Though I am essentially the opposite of touchy-feely and sentimental, these restrictions struck me an unnecessarily dehumanizing. Many well-meaning people are working on changing this policy. [Some of the Trump-voting trolls who lurk on Facebook clearly do not approve, however.]
We then proceeded to Las Americas Premium Outlets to find a bathroom. The fact that there is a large shopping mall on the American side of the San Ysidro border crossing should come as a surprise to precisely no one. The mall parking lot directly abuts The Wall, which allowed me to catch an intriguing glimpse of the hilly sprawl of Tijuana and the prominently positioned and certifiably ginormous Mexican flag. The photograph below does not do it justice.
Carlos asked offhandedly if I had brought my passport (I hadn’t), so we had no choice but to remain within the confines of the outlet mall. We made a plan then and there for a junket to his home country the next time I showed up in this neck of the woods. On the drive back to San Diego, Carlos further piqued my curiosity by regaling me with tales of his initial visits to Tijuana and the colorful characters that he had encountered there.
We ended up having dinner that evening at bar with a punny name on University Avenue in Hillcrest near his apartment that has a sign out front that was so amazing that I must include it here, even though it has nothing to do with Mexico whatsoever. Advice for the Ages: Don’t be a Creepy McCreeperson.
Coming Up Next… Baja California or Bust: Part 1, in which we actually cross the border.