Day Two of couch-hosting and we have decided to not only leave the couch behind, but to travel to another country for the day. With a few hours notice I contacted some of my bilingual friends that may be able to join us and help translate Spanish. Our other travel choice was to head north near La Jolla. When my bilingual neighbor Mike was getting in the car I was sure to ask if he had his passport. He has chosen not to return to Mexico for years, but I guess he found it difficult to say no to four girls, three of whom will within weeks be over 5,700 miles away making it a bit more difficult for a day trip.
The last time I was in Mexico was 17 years ago with my dad. I have now called southern California home for over a year and have had a passport the whole time. It’s not the lack of understanding another language that has kept us (the husband and I) from travelling south often, but the Navy doesn’t want him in Tijuana and my insurance company won’t cover my car (seeing the way they drive and park makes me understand). Perhaps upon his return we can find our way to Tecate or Cozumel and experience more of our neighbor’s culture.
I drive the five of us down to the last exit in the United States and find a parking lot along the border. From here, we will walk about a mile across a pedestrian bridge, past the trolley station, and behind the Mercado International to the border. During our walk we are being orally and visually recorded. We can’t believe how easy it is to just walk into Mexico once we cut through the stream of people waiting in line to get into the U.S.
As much as we might try to blend in our skin is too pale. There are plenty of people along our way to downtown Tijuana selling bracelets, piñatas, ponchos, sombreros, and other Mexican wares. It almost seems as if we have walked into Pharmacialand as the locals know what us northerners come to visit for – cheaper drugs and alcohol – and they are more than willing to supply it in copious amounts. Every door we pass has a man outside trying to sell and give away booze.
We pass some dogs sleeping in the shade. There is a welcome (in seven languages) sign with a bike rack. We pass a food cart and I want to be hungry. There is trash on the sidewalk and some people kick it out of their way as they pass – almost reminds me of NYC, but they keep their trash bagged in piles. It’s one thing to jaywalk in the United States when you risk the chance of one person running a red light. Here, if there is space in the lane in front of them and no cars in the way, and even if there may be, these drivers are going through the intersection.
We wait for our light to cross and watch as a man almost gets hit. Then a police car drives by and I can understand that he is yelling in Spanish, ”for the driver ahead of him to get the f*ck out of his way!” The girls are surprised by this and I too am taking in the contrasting differences between cities – San Diego where most people abide by the law and Tijuana where the laws seem almost written for fun. Seeing the way other countries live their daily lives can make you either appreciate the luck your country gives you or make you wish you could move somewhere else that affords you more luxury.
After a few more blocks of walking we start to see night clubs, restaurants, customs offices, clothing shops, and Bodegas (corner store). We make our way to the 99 Peso Store (with the currency exchange rate it equals the $8 store) for shorts as the girls are more stocked in winter clothes. We find the sales rack and they are able to buy shorts for $3.50 and receive some pesos in change. We pass some zonkeys (Tijuana zebras) on the way to get some super glue for shoe repair.
Zonkeys are a popular tourist attraction and are a crossbreed between a zebra and donkey. In the 1940s they were painted donkeys so that they would stand out better in black and white photos on sunny days. The super glue is paid for in pesos – all that change can weigh down your pockets. I open the glue and upon application it begins to give off fumes and then heat up causing me to choke and worry my guests. Note: do not apply indoors.
All this walking is making us hungry and being in Mexico is associated with drinking margaritas. We walk upstairs to El Torito Pub Restaurant where the drink options are much more than the food choices – nachos, guacamole, and chicken enchiladas. There was probably more there, but we went with the two meatless options. The nachos came covered in cheese, sour cream, and jalapenos with beans hidden below. The guacamole was the best I’ve tasted since Gil’s in Phoenix.
Margaritas were 2 for 1 and the table was covered in pink cups. Mike resisted temptation and ordered a Pepsi, but we were able to talk him into trying Absinthe for the first time. All this imbibing would lead to needing a restroom and I’ve been to a fancy one a time or two that drew my attention, but today’s would be its lack of fancy that made it extra special. We enjoyed sitting on broken seats, looking for the one roll of toilet paper for multiple stalls, and laughing as our feet poked out below the door.
It’s sad that tourists have to be so disrespectful to a place, but I’m glad the locals don’t feel the need to invest extra dollars in an attempt to impress the few of us that do care – it helped add to the ambience of the place. I think we had just as much fun in the bathroom as we did at the table taking funny pictures. A guy selling aluminum jewelry came to the table and unknowingly was wearing my name on a bracelet. He let me take a picture with it, but I didn’t buy it. I had a ring made of the same stuff and though they are easy to bend in the making, they are just as easy to bend in the wearing.
On the restaurant’s flyer it mentions a free mechanical bull ride and a orbitron. We are all excited to ride and the guy running the bull says he will take it easy on us because we are too sober to land on the floor with no padding. We all get our 40 seconds of fame and it is harder than it looks to stay atop an animal (real or not) with such force. I ask about the orbitron, but it is locked and possibly out-of-order at least for today. We still climb in for pictures and maybe one day I can return to experience this ride.
It’s still early in the day but we agreed to return to the States before dark. We take a few more pictures of signs, streets, shops, and landmarks to remember our trip on our way to the end of the line. Coming into Mexico was no problem, but the U.S. prefers x-ray bag inspections, passports with questioning, and a possible secondary inspection (which could be some online clarification or a gloves needed in the other room deal). Mike assures us this is a light day as there are only three bends in this line.
An hour later and we have covered a lot of ground. This line is more civil than I thought it would be. There are plenty of offers for taxi rides, water, ice cream, liquor, and churros. We resist and spend the time in line chatting with each other and making the guys behind us laugh (they understood more English than we gave them credit for). A lot of the others in line wait on a more frequent basis – they had luggage with wheels, hats on, and books to read. Sabrina would learn the hard way about the difference in the sun’s burning capabilities in Germany vs. Mexico…at least she was the reddest.
Another hour and we are in the federal building (already technically back on U.S. soil) as the plaque outside showed the official imaginary line and only two people cut in front of us. Mike goes up, shows passport, says United States, and is free to walk through the door because he is bagless. I walk up, give my address, ask for a passport stamp (am told I have to fly), and wait in line to get my bag checked. On the other side I check for my guests and the line seems to be moving so I go to use the toilet. Once done I check again and there is no line for the x-ray machine.
I figure they must be outside waiting for me. When I only see Mike I quickly turn around. The guard asks me to keep moving, but seeing the worried look on my face says he can answer a question. I ask how long before my friends come out and he says it could be anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours. As much as I don’t want to wait I know I’m not leaving until I find out if they are ok. About 15 minutes later Nici comes out and she is greeted with a happy hug.
Relieved that the wait will only be a few more minutes I go to the snack station for a bottle of water. When I return they are all there. They were taken to a booth of computers and had to wait for security to enter some information and then they were free to go. I’m guessing it’s being from Europe, studying in Canada, arriving in the U.S. the day before, and then spending the day in Mexico that caused anyone to question their frequent travels.
The girls have offered to make me dinner and dessert and have invited Mike too for being kind enough to take the day to help us out. Dinner will be kasespaetzle (cheese noodles). The literal translation of spaetzle is ‘little sparrow’. Sabrina made it by pushing a dough mix through a colander into boiling water and then added cheese and onions to complete the dish. Nici helped by weighing ingredients and then took over cutting onions when the tears became too much for Marita.
The onions took longer to cook because of a misunderstanding. I thought we were deep-frying them – we were supposed to brown them. We ended up draining as much oil as possible to help speed up the process. It was fun finding things in my kitchen that could take the place of cookware easily found in Europe (or perhaps a home that makes international dishes instead of going to restaurants for them). I was asked for a flat thing to scrape with (a spatula). Dinner was delicious – enough so that we all had seconds. Dessert was lettu (Finnish crepes) made by Marita with strawberries and ice cream on top.
So there we are…four girls and Mike standing in the kitchen…all with something in our hands…when I happen to notice two little paws go from standing on the hardwood floor of the living room and onto the tiled floor of the kitchen. Without hesitation, and due to habit, I simply shouted, “Out!” Sparky listened, but the girls had to laugh when they realized I wasn’t abruptly kicking them out in the middle of prepping a meal.
We didn’t have dinner until 8:30 pm and dessert until 9:30 pm. It was fun fitting that many people into my kitchen at once. I helped by finding dishes needed and being the photographer. And we got Mike to help stir the onions. We said goodnight to Mike at 10:30 pm and then spent the next few hours talking and painting our nails with the color changing polish. 48 hours together and we have already done so much. I wish they had another week in the area, but I know seeing a little means a lot.