Walking between San Ysidro, California, and Tijuana, it’s hard to tell exactly where you cross into Mexico. Between the calm of San Diego County and Tijuana’s raucous downtown welcome there is a quiet between-country space, where a guard watches blankly as pedestrians stream through a checkpoint, none of them pressing the stoplight button to determine whether they will be checked.
My first steps into Tijuana are met by a consumer Candyland. I can buy a taco, a poncho and a miniature guitar the color of blue Flav-R-Ice within 30 feet. I feel like I have just walked from a dark room into a concert in full swing.
With a honk, my boyfriend and I find our guide for our 12-hour TJ exploration, Derrik, a journalist from the San Diego Union-Tribune who spends his days in the U.S. but lives in Mexico and commutes twice daily across the world’s busiest border. He’s halfway to being a contented expat, but the word transnational is too academic to describe a life spent on both sides of an international divide.
Our first stop is the Playas de Tijuana, Playas for short, a beachside suburb that anesthetizes all of the city’s stereotypes with its warm sun and quaint restaurants serving fresh fish and cold beer. A wide swath of sand bustles with random patches of activity—an odd religious ceremony belonging to a faith we can’t place, youth-group gatherings that look like a cross between Boy Scouts and the National Guard and a small political rally that takes over a corner of road above the beach. On the main oceanside street, a carnival is unpacking rides painted in purples and pinks and airbrushed with images of Michael Jackson and Elvis, who tower over us like soft-focused kings.
We call the United States a melting pot, but Tijuana better fits the description economically. Poverty abuts wealth in a jarringly apparent way that does not exist in the United States. Well-kept homes stand shoulder-to-shoulder with decrepit buildings whose roofs are patched with cardboard boxes, and trash lingers along otherwise neat streets. The trash and tumbling houses don’t seem like the result of laziness or disregard, though. Life just feels too massive here, like a moss that’s spreading over the rolling valleys in the form of tiny boxy houses in bright colors.
That spilling energy has a northern limit, and the specter of the border is a constant, if sometimes invisible, presence in Tijuana. In Playas, just feet from the youth groups and families, a set of tall black metal rails rises out of the sand, spaced unevenly with enough room between them that a person could pass through. Guarded by a lone jeep, the border known as a thoroughfare in the international trafficking of drugs and weapons looks like just what it is: an arbitrary line drawn in the sand.
In other places the border’s rippling metal face is painted with advertisements that give way to a memorial of named white crosses commemorating those who’ve died trying to reach el Norte. In some places the wall is a work in progress, a construction site more than anything else, and in others it is the hulking giant in the shadows, out of sight but never fully out of mind.
Back in the city, the smell of Tijuana reminds me of New York, or any metropolis where the sheer volume of people seems to push against its physical boundaries. One corner smells like the most delicious tacos ever made, and the next reeks of piss and rotting trash. I want to scarf down tacos al pastor and throw up at the same time.
Finally, the sweet smell of a sidewalk cart wins out. For 10 pesos we buy a bag of miniature fresh cream pancakes called pan de nata and devour the warm pastries before we finish crossing the street. I wish they sold them on every corner in Las Vegas.
And every corner in Tijuana’s downtown tourist district is trying to sell you something. From lunch (“Ya comimos”—“We already ate”), to a carriage ride pulled by a donkey painted with zebra stripes, to a plaza full of costumed mariachis-for-hire in noisy pants, there is a constant barrage of offers in English that is both comfortingly familiar and desperately grating. A few blocks away, the English fades along with the hard sell, giving way to a Tijuana where locals down beers and watch Mexican-league soccer games on bar-side TVs.
At the supremely funky Dandy del Sur, the bar is dimly lit, and pictures of war heroes in their deathbeds grace the walls. The locals’ watering hole, which inspired its own song by Tijuana-based band Nortec Collective, only closes for half an hour of daily cleaning, Derrik explains. The owner, an aging woman who sits statue-like at the end of the bar, gazes out over her tiny kingdom, as patrons shell peanuts and pop them into their mouths between swills of Modelo and Pacifico.
The Tijuanesa who makes the strongest impact on me, however, is La Mona. Standing three stories high, she is the Mexican Statue of Liberty, a present from the artist Armando Muñez, who gave the city of Tijuana the 56-foot, 18-ton concrete statue as a 100th-birthday present. Or he tried to, at least. Derrik fills us in: When no one wanted to pay Muñez to make the figure officially titled “Tijuana III Millennium,” he did the only logical thing: He built it in his own backyard. Cracked but still beautiful, La Mona, with her ample hips and curves, is today tucked away among the ramshackle houses and clotheslines. A Mexican secret, she is visible through a chain-link fence on the side of a road.
Much of Tijuana is not quite in view. You have to squint at it, or explore past the storefronts and flashing lights. Shopping between stops for beer, we duck through an unimpressive doorway where a small market unfolds away from the street. The place feels like a Mexican Narnia, a whole world barely visible from the endless traffic. Burlap bags heaped with beans and chilies look out onto a botánica selling herbs and amulets and a shrine with dozens of candles illuminating two small skeletons in colorful cloaks. At a stall filled with candy, Derrik purchases a piñata in the shape of Mexican cartoon character El Chavo del Ocho. Now we are the gringos walking around with a piñata that looks like a small child.
We end the day at El Dragon Rojo (the Red Dragon), another hip locals’ bar where yard-long margaritas aren’t on the menu, and Mardi Gras beads would look as foreign as a portrait of George W. Bush. Surrounded by a mix of aging couples and chatty hipsters, we down liter bottles of Victoria beer called caguamas and take pictures of El Chavo and each other.
“Charming,” I’ll tell friends when they ask what Tijuana was like. I’ll tell them that no, I didn’t meet any narcotraficantes, and I didn’t see a donkey show. Instead, I saw a glimpse of the city: frenetic, congested, delicious and dirty, and positively infected with an energy that makes me feel like I’ve been living in slow motion. “Really,” I’ll tell them with complete sincerity, “it’s charming.”