Baja California or Bust: Part 3

[This post is the fourth and final part in a series (Part 0, Part 1, Part 2) that chronicles my experiences on a day trip to Baja California Norte on 2 July 2017.]

Soon after waving farewell in the rear view mirror to Hazy Jesus, Carlos pointed vaguely eastward and said “the wine is over there,” referring to the Valle de Guadalupe.  A wine aficionado I am not.   I know almost nothing useful about wine and rarely drink it.  Carlos made the (accurate) assumption that I wouldn’t care if we skipped the excursion to Mexican Wine Country.   I was, however, curious enough to ask Google to find me a $0.10 summary of Mexican wine.   “Wine blends are quite popular here, although they don’t always follow European traditions…Mexican wine is still very much a frontier of wine.”   The Valle de Guadalupe was featured in the New York Times Travel section last April, so the proverbial cat is out of the bag.  

Just north of Rosarito, Carlos spontaneously decided for the sake of variety to veer off to the right to Carretera Federal 1 (a.k.a., Mex 1 Libre), the alternate, toll-free, inland route into Tijuana.   We encountered several pickup trucks with entire families riding in the back, which appears to be socially acceptable in Mexico.  It is either not illegal or not enforced by traffic cops.   Who needs over-engineered car seats– or rear seats at all, for that matter– when you can just throw the kids in the cargo bed and hope for the best?  The Border Wall may have stopped helicopter parenting in its tracks.

We drove past many tire stores.   There were llanteras literally everywhere.    If your vehicle is ever in a need of a replacement tire in Tijuana, I can assure you that they’ve got you covered.

As we descended into Tijuana, we caught sight of a series of large manufacturing facilities, maquiladores, most of which had oversized “Esatamos Occupando” (We’re Hiring) balloons on the roof.   Approximately 150,000 people are employed  in manufacturing jobs in Tijuana.  The medical device workforce has more than doubled in the last six years and now numbers over 40,000.   Tijuana attracts many immigrants from the south of Mexico who come to the city in search of employment.   Tijuana has also established itself as a center of plasma and LCD television manufacturing.  American companies are increasingly taking advantage of the robust pool of skilled workers and labor costs that are up to a factor of five lower than in the US.   Tijuana’s location on the map presents compelling logistical advantages over Asian countries that produce goods for the US market.   As someone who frequently communicates with colleagues in Malaysia at 2 am, I can appreciate the convenience of being in the same time zone more than most.

As we approached the city center, we reviewed the plan for the evening– to explore Avenida Revolución, the tourist center of historic Tijuana in Zona Centro, sample some more Mexican craft beer, and eat again.   Avenida Revolución was the first paved road in Tijuana.  It flourished by harboring dens of iniquity that catered to Americans during Prohibition in the 1920s.  

I kept an eye out for a landmark in order to remember the intersection near where we parked.   A suitable candidate soon presented itself.  Don’t pay more.  Just don’t do it.

We encountered several posses of Spanish-speaking Asians, presumably descendants of Chinese laborers who constructed the Mexican railway system at the turn of the 20th century.   [A recent surge in immigration to Mexico from non-Latin American countries has garnered media attention.]  

Baja California authorities have gone to great lengths to encourage Americans and other English-speaking visitors to feel welcome in Tijuana and thus be more inclined to spend money there and inject it into the local economy.   We saw many of these signs advertising help in English for tourists in distress hanging from light posts:

Dialing 911 or 112 (the European equivalent) from any cell phone in Baja California connects to the Mexican emergency services.   All English-speaking callers are transferred to bilingual 078 operators.  Mexico switched its nationwide emergency number from 066 to 911 in January 2017, an event covered in this hilariously biased Fox News article: “The government apparently seeks to imitate the perceived reliability of the U.S. number.”   

As the sun started to set, we realized that we had gone for altogether too long without beer.   We walked past Hotel Caesars, an establishment that claims to have invented the eponymous salad in the 1920s.   The bar that Carlos had in mind was closed for a private event, so we continued down the street for a few more blocks, at which point we headed down an alley past a barber shop to Colectivo9 ,  a small enclave of upmarket street food establishments located here.  Since it was nearing closing time (8 pm), our attempt to secure empanadas met with epic failure.   

We did succeed in acquiring libations from a small bar nestled in the corner behind a sliding glass door, Barrica 9.  I ordered a bottle of Marabasco Hefeweizen from Colima on the Pacific Coast of Mexico brewed from local wheat (photo courtesy of a guy named Omar on Untappd who drank it 2 days ago).   

As it happens, Colima also produces about half of all limes grown in Mexico.    Fortunately for me, this middle-of-the-road hefeweizen had a low banana quotient, unlike some of its German counterparts.  During the fermentation process, Munich wheat beer yeast produces significant amounts of isoamyl acetate, the ester responsible for that hideous banana smell.    Carlos selected another Mexican IPA that he said was OK.   

The “Beer Marriage” poster on the wall, reproduced on the Barrica 9 Facebook page, caught my eye.  It provides sound advice on food/beer pairings:

The death metal emanating from the jukebox and a pathetic American guy in his 20s commiserating with the bartender about his troubles with women started to annoy us, so we took our brews out to a table near a waterless fountain.   Just as we were about to leave, the bartender popped out to give Carlos his jacket, which he had unconsciously abandoned on a bar stool.   

What better way to compensate for being denied hipster empanadas than to stop in for a Caeser salad at the bar of Hotel Caesers?  The place has retained its old-school character.  The walls were festooned with classic photographs and framed newspaper articles from bygone eras.  The bartenders no longer make use of the cash register.  Note the point-of-sale terminal partially obscured by the beer taps.  We snagged the only two remaining seats at the corner of the bar.

Sticking to my usual “when in Rome” philosophy, I ordered a paloma, a classic Mexican tequila cocktail tragically overshadowed by the margarita.   Substitute the triple sec and sweet and sour mix accompanying the tequila for Jarrito’s grapefruit soda and you have yourself a paloma.  Add copious amounts of lime juice and lime garnish and serve over ice in a highball glass with a salted rim.   All bartenders know that lime is tequila’s best friend.    

Carlos attempted once more to order pulpo, but the bartender regretfully informed him that it wasn’t happening for some reason that I didn’t quite catch.   I contentedly sipped down my paloma and did what I do best, refrain from talking to anyone.    Carlos, however, struck up conversations with our neighbors on either side of us at the bar, which resulted in two “I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried” moments in the space of ten minutes.

The couple to our right had ordered three Tuétano de res rostizado (roasted beef marrow) appetizers, one of the other house specialties (pictured here).   Carlos admired the presentation, which prompted the guy to pick one of them up by the fork stuck into it and place it on Carlos’s plate.   Carlos looked over towards the wife, who showed no signs of objecting, so he ate it, thanking them profusely.  Although never explicitly stated, I suspect that they may have pitied him after overhearing his tales of pulpo woe.  As he was finishing it off, the famous salad finally appeared.   In the main dining room, they make a big show of assembling it the table, but bar patrons get it unceremoniously plopped in front of them.  The recipe is not a closely guarded secret. It exceeded expectations.  

As we chomped away, a white American guy in his sixties and a Mexican woman who looked less than half his age took the seats to our left soon after the previous occupants vacated them.   The woman whispered something into his ear and then devoted her full attention to her phone.   Her male companion ordered two beers and then exclaimed to Carlos: “Man! I need a drink.  I almost got thrown in jail this afternoon.”  He then proceeded to regale us with a blow by blow.  “I was upstairs in one of the rooms getting some sweet action and smoking some weed.   Someone in the hallway must have smelled it and called the cops.  I flushed the evidence down the toilet and opened the window and managed to convince them not to arrest me.”  

My  thought bubble went something like this: “WTF?  That is an image that I could have lived without having in my head…TMI…What a lecherous old geezer…I cannot imagine any scenario where that situation would be even remotely appealing for her without a significant financial component…He probably didn’t abide by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act…Some men are pigs…Oink!”  I took one last sip of my paloma in silence and raised my left eyebrow slightly.   Carlos managed to change the subject and ended up getting a recommendation from the guy to spend a long weekend at the Bahia de Los Angeles.  Human beings are odd creatures.  

Caeser salad in our bellies, we bid our newfound friends adieu and walked back down the street to Don’t Pay More and the Mazda.  Night had fallen, but we both agreed that there was more beer to be had.   We headed south to Blvd. Agua Caliente and after driving around in a circle, managed to locate Baja Craft Beers on a side street.  

 I admired their beer plumbing system and commented to Carlos that we had outfitted the bar at Venture Cafe with a variety of Micromatic keg couplers.   In fact, I wrote about keg couplers in great detail on this very blog. The couple next to us interjected that they had been having a debate about the brand of the couplers, which struck me as odd because they all said “Micromatic” on them in large font.  But perhaps reading is overrated.   

Although predictably not on the menu, two empty Pliny the Elder bottles adorned the wall above the bar.   

But I didn’t come to Tijuana to drink beer from Russian River in Santa Rosa, so I again opted for a Mexican brew, La Bru Copper Ale from Morelia, the capital of Michoacán.  Morelia is located approximately 300 miles east of Manzanillo, the capital of Colima on the Pacific coast.  Manzanillo happens to be the only other place in Mexico that I’ve visited.   The most noteworthy aspect of that trip was the drug-dealing surf guide who drove the wrong way on a divided highway and got strip searched by the Mexican army.  But that is a story for another time.  The beer was decidedly mediocre.  It had a weird metallic, bitter aftertaste and was my least favorite beer of the day.   It wasn’t nearly as bad as Carlos’s selection, however.

He ordered a Zacas Pale Ale, brewed in Zona Norte of Tijuana, a.k.a. the red light district.  Although advertised as an English pale ale, it had a bizarre smoky flavor and was borderline undrinkable.   But BCB got an A for effort with the repurposed keg light fixtures.  My father, a retired lighting designer, applauded their creativity.  

Although the beer we ordered was not the best, it certainly didn’t set us back very much.  

As we contemplated heading back to America, I said to Carlos: “It is a categorical imperative that I eat a taco in Mexico.”  Immanuel Kant probably spun rapidly in his grave when I said that, but no matter.    Carlos consulted Google and we set off towards Tacos El Gordo (“The Fat One”).    The synthesized voice in Google Maps had a hilariously bad Spanish accent, but it got us there.   Although it was nearly 11 pm at this point, Tacos El Gordo is open until 4 am, even on Sundays.

Carlos ordered us two asada and two pastor tacos.  The pastor was probably the best taco I have ever tasted.   The asada had an interesting green sauce and, while extremely good, did not quite compare to its pork cousin. 

I captured Carlos deep in taco contemplation– an inadvertent Tindr photo for the ages.  

Carlos checked the wait times at the two border crossing zones.  We opted for the Otay Mesa crossing, about 5 miles east of the main San Ysidro point of entry.  I had brought my passport, but neglected to bring the credit card sized Global Entry ID card, so I was not eligible to cross back into the US in the auto express (SENTRI) lane.  Additional research suggests that even having the card in my possession might not have been sufficient.   As we set off towards the border, Carlos had to brake hard to avoid hitting a man who took it upon himself to run across a poorly lit section of a divided highway.  It did not strike me as the wisest decision if self-preservation was a priority for him.

Accessing the Otay Mesa SENTRI  lane is not for the faint of heart.  It involved a circuitous drive through the eastern outskirts of Tijuana and an abrupt turn back westward to access the border.   By the time Carlos dropped me off at the pedestrian crossing zone, it was close to midnight, so there was no line to speak of.  The Customs and Border Patrol officer checked my passport and asked “Are you bringing anything back?”  I replied: “No.”  He waved me along and I re-entered the United States of America on foot.   Not my first pedestrian border crossing– I walked between Israel and Jordan and back a few years ago– but surreal nevertheless.  I proceeded approximately 100 yards towards a 7-11, at which point Carlos pulled up in the Mazda.   The timing could not have been better.   A noteworthy ending to a memorable day.

On the drive back to San Diego, we marvelled at the parallel universe aspect of crossing the border.  It’s as if a switch gets thrown as soon as you go from one country to the other and separate partitions of your brain get activated.

Postscript: Last Saturday 29 July 2017, I was at AT&T Park, a stone’s throw from my apartment in San Francisco.   I decided to buy a hotdog, because that is what one does at baseball stadiums regardless of whether or not baseball is actually being played.  In this case, it was not.  James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt, staples of my non-New Wave musical lexicon in high school, were performing.  It was apparent that my presence was bringing down the average age of the crowd, a phenomenon that rarely occurs these days except at the symphony.   In any case, instead of the $20 bill that I was expecting, I pulled out a 500 peso note that I apparently did not spend in Tijuana.  It will buy about nine beers the next time I return to Mexico.     

Overpriced hotdog and bottle of water in hand (I refuse to drink Coors Lite under any circumstances) I returned to my nosebleed seat with a lovely view of the Bay.  Shortly thereafter,  James Taylor obliged with a fitting theme song for this series.

 

Baja California or Bust: Part 2

[This post is the third in a series of four that chronicles my experiences on a day trip to Baja California Norte on 2 July 2017.  Previous installments: Part Zero and Part One.]

We returned to the car after acquiring some electrolyte beverages to combat dehydration from Oxxo, the 7-11 of Mexico.  Carlos asked if I would be up for one more stop in Tijuana before setting off towards Ensenada in search of beer and seafood.  Feeling adventurous after having just consumed a fried insect, I saw no reason to object.   We headed east on Avenida del Agua (yep, aptly named Water Street), which lead us up a steep hill to an entry/exit hut equipped with traffic barriers.   Spanish was spoken and Carlos convinced the attendant to open the gate by pushing down forcefully on a big white handle inside the booth.   We ascended a dirt road to Casa Manresa, a spiritual retreat and meditation center run by the Jesuits.   The center was consecrated in 2007 by Bishop Rafael Romo and named after the Spanish village in Catalonia near where St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, had profound mystical experiences while living in a cave for a year in the early 16th century.  [Sometimes I wish that I could live in a Catalonian cave and not talk to anyone, but perhaps not for an entire year.   Never mind.]  The place had a spectacular panoramic view of Tijuana and the Pacific Ocean.  We ambled along the brick path, nodded hola to the caretaker, and skulked away quietly when we saw a religious service in progress through the picture window facing the ocean.  

We went back from whence we came down the hill and merged onto Autopista Escenica Tijuana-Ensenada (a.k.a. Carretera Federal 1D), a toll road between Tijuana and Ensenada.   The three tolls totaled to approximately 6 USD each way.  It is possible to drive 100 km from Tijuana to Ensenada for the price of crossing the Bay Bridge.   

Carlos pointed out the Baja Convention Center, another flimflam of a public infrastructure project, on the outskirts of Rosarito.  The resorts and nightlife of Rosarito attract many Americans due to the beachy locale and proximity to the border.  High-rise condo developments are popping up in fits and starts, but Miami Beach it is not (at least not yet).  Delayed or possibly abandoned construction projects spotted the landscape on the ocean side of the roadway.   

After we passed Puerto Nuevo, known for its grilled Pacific spiny lobster, the landscape became more dramatic and started to bear more of a resemblance to the Big Sur area of Central California.  Because I fervently believe that Pacific spiny lobster is woefully inferior to the Maine equivalent, we opted to bypass Villa Ortega’s, one of the most popular grilled lobster destinations in Puerto Nuevo.  The Salsipuedes Bay remains largely free of development.   We stopped to take in the view from the southern edge:  

As we passed beneath this road sign, I wondered who made the decision only to translate the first half into English and tack on the “Have a Nice Trip” at the end.  Furthermore, I have never understood why anyone even bothers with half-assed fake palm tree cell towers.  Just screw the LTE microcells to the light poles and be done with it.

On the northern outskirts of Ensenada, Carlos pulled the Mazda off the road into a dirt parking lot and was directed to an obviously vacant parking space by the dude in the fluorescent yellow vest.   We had arrived at Aguamala Cerveceria in El Sauzal.  Beer!  Beer at Last!  The literal translation of Aguamala is “bad water” obviously, but it also means “jellyfish” in Latin America– an alternative to “medusa.”    Given that the brewery was founded by a marine biologist and is a stone’s throw away from the Pacific Ocean, the place is aptly named.  The marketing collateral and labels all featured colorful line drawings of marine creatures.

The Mexican craft beer movement is in its infancy.   Difficulties acquiring brewing equipment and ingredients and a draconian tax code that favors beverage giants present structural challenges to small start-up breweries.   A Coloradan who started Baja Brewing Company in Cabo San Lucas in 2007 described some of the trials and tribulations of Fighting The Man with the help of a Vice ghostwriter.   Mexico is the 6th largest consumer of beer in the world, but its market is dominated by mass-produced light lagers (e.g., Corona, Pacifico, Dos Equis, and Modelo).   Although enjoying exponential growth in recent years, craft beer has a measly 1% market share in Mexico.  

The Aguamala taproom and brewery are built from six stacked shipping containers– a sombrero tip to the craft beer guzzling hipster demographic that makes up a significant fraction of their customer base.  Carlos and I are by definition too old to be hipsters and we heavily favor snark over narcissistic displays of irony.   As should be self-evident from the existence of Kegomatic.com, we are quite partial to craft beer.   At least craft beer that doesn’t taste disgusting.   But I digress.

 The friendly, green-haired bartender took our order.   Being creatures of habit, we did not deviate from our typical taste profiles.  Carlos opted as usual for the ridiculously hoppy Astillero Imperial IPA (7.1% ABV, >120 IBUs).   I don’t like beers that taste like Pine Sol, so I went for the  Marea Roja American Brown Ale (4% ABV, 43 IBUs).  The menu claimed the Marea Roja had 42.8 IBUs, a level of precision that strains credibility, so I rounded up to the nearest IBU. I’m not very good at long-winded, flowery descriptions of how beer tastes, so suffice it to say that my first sample of Mexican craft beer was not too hoppy and generally meh.

Carlos tried to convince me to split an order of sopes de pulpo con pipian (octopus sopas with mole).  Given that I feel quite strongly that octopus should not be food, I demurred.   We instead compromised on molletes de cabeza rez con chicarrron (molletes with beef cheek and pork rind).   Admittedly, that combination sounds questionable, but they were actually delicious.  Carlos took a photo of the mollettes, reproduced here so we never forget what we ate and you don’t either.

After quaffing down the last of our miniature servings of beer (everything in moderation etc.), we hit the road again and arrived in Ensenada about 20 minutes later.   We attempted to beach the Mazda in a sketchy parking lot behind the fish market.  The attendant at the entrance confidently assured us that there were plenty of spaces, which turned out to be a bald-faced lie.  A vindictive streak came across Carlos.  Just as he was gunning for the exit preparing to act indignant and refusing to pay, the parking gods shined mercy down upon us.   An old guy driving a beater Toyota pulled out of a space right in front of us.   

We quickly traversed the very fishy smelling seafood market, which did not bear much of  resemblance to Pike Place.   The beefcakes in rubber aprons hurling salmon were conspicuously absent.  At the time, I wondered what was up with the “mercado negro” on the sign and promptly forgot about it until I pasted this photo into this post.  Carlos trawled the Spanish language Internet (pun intended) and learned that from 1957-1967, only a select few fishing companies had authorization from the Mexican Government to sell of certain species of fish, but individual fisherman sold them illegally at markets such as this one.   The Black Market moniker stuck after these anti-competitive restrictions went by the wayside.   The Mercado de Mariscos in Ensenada was in fact established in 1958, so this explanation seems plausible.  

I have a soft spot for signs that state the obvious, although I must confess that the incongruity of the background being red and the hydrant being white bothers me more than it should.   Nevertheless, the fact that Carlos’s t-shirt purchased at the Wal-Mart mothership in Bentonville, AR matched both the sign and the hidrante itself enhanced the composition considerably, if I do say so myself.


After capturing this photographic wonder, we wended our way through the backlot of a Starbucks in search another brewery, Wendlandt Brewpub, on Blvd. Costero, one of the main drags in Ensenada.  No pithy comments on the quality of the beer are forthcoming because the place was closed.  Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to drink beer on a hot Sunday afternoon?   Alas, a lost opportunity to part us from our pesos.  So onwards we wandered.

The friendly ladies behind the counter at the SuperViagra pharmacy (Welcome Amigos!) directed us to the vaunted Mariscos El Guero food cart around the corner.   The pigeon perched on the roof did not immediately inspire confidence, nor did the “seafood supply truck” parked across the street.   

However,the glowing Yelp reviews and the teeming hordes of locals and Mexican tourists made me less incredulous.   We both opted for two medium classic shrimp cocktails, which came in one of four sizes. The woman taking orders worked with admirable efficiency, explaining all of the available options, shepherding people through the line, and collecting their money quickly.   Additional staff took orders on the opposite side of the truck for tostadas and oysters on the half-shell, which were dished out with much more expediency.  We had ample opportunity to watch the staff prepare the cocktails to order.  The liberal amounts of pico de gallo, avocado, and lime juice resulted in hands-down the tastiest shrimp cocktail I have ever consumed.   And being a seafood-loving native of New England, I have consumed many in my lifetime.   

Carlos was crushed when he learned that they were out of pulpo.  (To state the obvious, I was perfectly content with the shrimp status quo.)   But then word spread amongst the patrons waiting to be served that another batch of pulpo was on its way and that anyone could supplement their half-eaten cocktail with some chopped up tentacles once it arrived.  We loitered around the cart for what seemed to me an excessively long time.   As we snarfed down our cocktails, a guy drove by who has much cooler Volkswagens (of varying sizes) than I do or ever will.  I breathed a sigh of relief when Carlos finally gave up on the pulpo and begrudingly agreed to go somewhere else.

We soon encountered an abandoned Party Bus.  Perhaps it too was observing the Sabbath along with its friends at Wendlandt Brewpub.

Another discount pharmacy we happened upon had American flags plastered all over it.  I wonder why?  Lecherous old gringos with erectile dysfunction who don’t want to pay full price, that’s why!  The establishment sold acne medication and antibiotics for good measure.   A single dose of a potent antibiotic does eradicate most STDs, after all.   Imagining lecherous old gringos with pimpled complexions wasn’t that much of stretch either.   It all made perfect sense.

 

The same cannot be said for the scene we subsequently witnessed at one of Mariscos El Guero’s competitors around the corner.  I suppose mariachi bands need seafood to snack on too.  And chihuahua-owning riders of crotch rockets need to feed and water their beloved pooch (said beast was obscured by the crouching woman in the purple shirt).

Before returning to the sketchy parking lot and heading back north to Tijuana, we took one final stroll along the boardwalk adjacent to the ocean.   It was awash in Mexican families enjoying a leisurely Sunday afternoon along with a smattering of American tourists and had a carnival-like atmosphere, complete with a troupe of Mexican folk dancers and a random guy in a Woody costume.

I felt an overwhelming urge to capture an image of this quintessential example of Mexican beach food stall advertising.  It is perilously close to the absolute apex of tackiness.  After ODing on this explosion of kitsch, we decided to retreat back to Tijuana.  

As Carlos piloted the Mazda north, the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, a 75 foot tall steel and fiberglass statue that weighs 40 tons, came into view perched on a hill in El Morro, 6 miles south of Rosarito.   He has even secured the adoration of the Yelpers.  I spontaneously felt the need to photograph Him in his Hazy Splendor, perhaps subconsciously suspecting, for some inexplicable reason, that it might be somehow fitting for this post to both begin and end with Christian iconography.   

Coming up next in Baja California or Bust: Part Three (the final installment)– we return to Tijuana to eat and drink our way down Avenida Revolución and circuitously make our way back across the border to San Diego.

Baja California or Bust: Part 1

[This post is the second in a series that chronicles my experiences on a day trip to Baja California Norte on 2 July 2017.  Baja California or Bust: Part Zero explains the motivation behind this expedition.]

Fast forward to June 2017…   As the 4th of July long weekend approached, it became abundantly clear that I needed a break from working way too much in the traffic-infested, dystopian wasteland of office parks, suburban tract homes, and strip malls that is Silicon Valley.   Sitting at home in San Francisco early one Saturday morning, I caught a glimpse of my surfboard, lurking dejectedly in the background during a FaceTime call with my brother in London.   The urge to go surfing prompted me to send a text to Carlos to inquire about the prospect of a return trip to San Diego. It did not take long before we resurrected our plan for a Tijuana adventure.  

Shortly after 8 am on Saturday 1 July 2017, I strapped the surfboard to the roof of my geriatric, unwashed, yet still fully operational 2005 Volkswagen Passat station wagon and began piloting it southward towards San Diego.  It was smooth sailing on I-5 until about 25 miles north of Los Angeles, at which point it became abundantly clear that many, many other people had similar ideas. I generally find long-distance car trips therapeutic, but it ended up taking 9.5 hours to drive 482 miles, which tested my patience considerably.   Upon arrival, a few whiskey cocktails at an establishment in Normal Heights called Sycamore Den took the edge off.  I did not, however, order this one, which is very, very wrong:

Since Mr. Volkswagen lacked the requisite Mexican auto insurance, Carlos and I set off, uncaffeinated and with empty stomachs, at 9:15 am on Sunday morning in his much more modern Mazda towards the San Ysidro border crossing, a mere 16 miles SSE of the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego.

As we approached the border, the signage on I-5 began to more openly acknowledge our neighbors to south: translating “International Border” into Spanish, citing distances in kilometers, and alerting motorists that Exit 1A, Camino del la Plaza, is the “Last USA Exit.”   

However, the word “Mexico” did not appear on a green freeway sign until less than a mile from the border, at which point another strategically positioned ginormous Mexican flag came into view.  As it happens, ours is not the only country on Earth called the United States.  The official name of Mexico is Estados Unidos Mexicanos, a factoid of which I was completely unaware until watching Ingobernable on Netflix a few months ago at Carlos’s behest.  

As anticipated, our Sunday morning drive was blissfully free of traffic.  We made it from La Jolla to the outskirts of Tijuana in approximately 20 minutes.  Crossing into Mexico was only slightly more eventful than driving through the toll plaza on the Golden Gate Bridge.   Motorists are forced to make a very sharp left turn past the blue “Nothing to Declare” lane markers above the roadway and then abruptly merge into two lanes, all the while periodically dodging randomly placed obstacles installed for the sake of security theater.  

All of the drivers comported themselves with remarkable civility, waiting their turn, which would never have happened in Boston.  Carlos commented that the US Government had compelled Mexico to install an expensive vehicle scanner that takes up an entire lane of traffic but essentially never gets used.   Several bored-looking Mexican aduanas were half-heartedly inspecting the interiors of a few randomly selected vehicles.  

As we entered the Zona Rio section of Tijuana, Carlos pointed out the inaugural segment of a massive rapid bus line upgrade that runs alongside the Tijuana River.  It had all of the trappings of an ill-conceived boondoggle of a public infrastructure project for which Mexico is somewhat legendary.  Our first stop was at a Banorte across from a megaplex movie theater to withdraw some pesos with which to purchase our breakfast, and snacks, and lunch, and beer, and cocktails, and dinner…  I found it disconcerting that Mexican currency is also denoted by the $ sign.  The peso took a nosedive after Trump got elected in November, but it has almost fully recovered.  (Some currency traders probably made a killing.) The USD/MXN exchange rate was hovering around 17:1 that day.  I withdrew 1500 pesos, or approximately 88 USD, from my Bank of America checking account entirely without incident.   Carlos, the actual Mexican, ran into some issues.  Two attempts at two different ATMs were met with epic failure.   Then Bank of America started texting him about suspicious charges.   He responded as instructed, attesting to his legitimacy.  Within seconds, the red flag on his entry in the Magic Database of Account Holders in Good Standing in the Sky had been removed and the previously recalcitrant cajero automático disgorged his pesos.

Flush with Mexican currency, we drove more or less around the corner to the Sánchez Taboada branch of Los Chilaquiles, a local chain in a nondescript strip mall.  The line snaked out the door.  

While Carlos went inside to inquire about the wait time, this man looming over the parking lot, a plastic surgeon also named Carlos, caught my attention.   That is quite a coup to secure the toll-free number 1-800-TIJUANA.  I was in awe.  (Dr. Carlos also advertised heavily next to the expressway directly adjacent to the San Ysidro border crossing.)  

With only a few exceptions, most parking lots and streets in popular shopping or tourist areas that we stopped at were manned by late-middle aged men acting as parking attendants sporting high-vis vests.  These guys seemed to self-organize and did not appear to have any official affiliation with the surrounding businesses.   It is customary to exchange pleasantries with the attendant after you get out of your car to establish an understanding that he will keep an eye on your vehicle.  When you’re ready to leave, you palm him 10-20 pesos if your car escaped unscathed, income that I’m guessing he does not report on his federal taxes.

The estimated wait time exceeded the limits our gurgling stomachs.   We opted instead to decamp to another outpost of Los Chilaquiles near TJI airport and the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California.  Carlos commented that it was fortunate that I didn’t go inside the first place, because the tasty food smells would have done me in.   We were immediately seated and promptly ordered café de olla, coffee spiced with cinnamon and piloncillo (an unrefined Mexican sugar that dissolves quickly), a juice concoction called a Vampiro that had beets and carrots, tasted healthy, and turned my tongue purple, and Chilaquiles Benedicto, a riff on Eggs Benedict.  Even though the establishment was not particularly busy when we showed up around 10:30 am, it took what seemed like an eternity for our food to come out.  

The waiter pitied us after a while and comped some mollettes, open-faced sandwiches on bollilo, a local version of a baguette, slathered with beans, salsa, and cheese– the ultimate in Mexican comfort food.  The mollette, for something so simple, packed a flavor punch and temporarily quashed my increasing hangriness.   After more than 40 minutes, like a manna from heaven, our meal appeared.  Admittedly, I am a foodie.  However,  I am definitely not a peddler of Instagram food porn, so I will use my words instead.  Chilaquiles, if you have never experienced them, are a traditional Mexican breakfast dish that puts leftover tortillas and salsa to extremely good use. Judging from the waistlines of most of the patrons, los chilaquiles will quickly make you fat if you eat them in sufficient quantities.   La cuenta served as a stark reminder that I reside in one of the most expensive cities in the universe.  All of that food cost $19.54– for both of us.  

Blood sugar levels back to normal, we did a quick drive-by of the airport, which has boomed since the introduction of the Cross Border Express in December 2015, an enclosed pedestrian overpass that enables easy access to TJI from the US side.   Not many flights to Mexico depart from SAN, so Carlos often flies from and back to Tijuana to visit his family in Monterrey or travel to various destinations around Mexico, Central America, and South America for work.

We started to ascend one of the many hills within the city limits of Tijuana.   Carlos randomly pulled over to the side of the road.  

As we walked over to the edge of the sidewalk next to a small retaining wall, he said: “You’re probably wondering why I stopped here….” and then I saw Her.  La Mona, a five story, hollow concrete statue that doubles as a residence and workshop for her creator, Armando Muñoz Garcia, nestled in the midst of a collection of ramshackle dwellings.   Others have waxed poetic about La Mona to a greater extent than I ever could.  Her exterior varies at the whims on the artist.  She had recently been whitewashed when I clapped eyes on her, but Carlos had previously photographed her in a multi-colored bodysuit.  Garcia has a grand vision to line the border with a procession of giant nude Amazons.  It will likely not be actualized within his lifetime.  

We made one final stop before venturing south along the Baja Peninsula at Les Playas de Tijuana to experience The Wall from the Mexican side.  

As we strolled northward along Avenida del Pacifico, Carlos stopped to purchase a plastic baggy full of chapulines, which happen to be in season, from a street vendor.  They are, in fact, toasted grasshoppers from Oaxaca that are seasoned with garlic, lime juice and salt imbued with agave worm extract.   I did make an exception and captured a photo for posterity, primarily to remind myself how of revolting they looked.  Carlos gleefully consumed much of the bag, crunching away with abandon.  It took considerable willpower on my part to eat a bug. I survived and it didn’t taste bad per se, but biting down on the fried chitinous exoskelton was not an experience that I wish to repeat.   There are less disconcerting ways to incorporate protein into one’s diet.   Mexican restaurants in American cities have started to hawk chapulines tacos to hipsters.  Behold Exhibit A.

I couldn’t help but observe the stark contrast between this beach thoroughfare and, for instance, Manhattan Beach, CA, which has evolved into an overpriced, stylized, nouveau riche, yuppy hellhole.   Les Playas de Tijuana– down-at-the-heels, decrepit, odorific, but full of character– is just beginning to show the first signs of gentrification.  Real estate speculators will descend in droves before long.   It will be fascinating to return in ten years.  

And then there’s The Wall.  Unlike the windswept wasteland on the American side, the Mexican section runs adjacent to a long stretch of sandy beach that was full of families enjoying a leisurely Sunday afternoon.   Children were splashing in the surf, but stayed close enough to shore to avoid the obvious rip currents.

A section of the fence memorializes Mexican citizens who served in the U.S. Military.  An adjacent section was painted blue by a Mexican-American artist from San Diego, Ana Teresa Fernandez, creating an optical illusion from certain vantage points that the wall has disappeared into the sea and the sky.

The pinky-through-mesh scenario through the fence surrounding Friendship Park is no joke.

This obelisk marks the first established border following the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War in 1848.   The man in the blue shirt on the left of the photo is talking to one of his relatives through the wall.  The Japanese tourist is preparing to take a selfie.

The Plaza Monumental de Tijuana (“The Bullring by the Sea”) was built in 1960 and seats approximately 20,000 people.   As the popularity and social acceptability of bullfighting has waned, the venue hosts an increasing number of concerts, boxing matches, and other cultural events.

Our tax dollars at work, from a Mexican vantage point:

The last photo I took at Les Playas de Tijuana captures the persistent humanity on the Mexican side and the authoritarian sterility on the US side.

Coming up next in Baja California or Bust: Part Two– we head south on Carretera Federal 1D towards Ensenada and stop on the way to drink some Mexican craft beer.

Baja California or Bust: Part 0

[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.