Before this trip to San Diego, I had never left the United States. I saw all the other guys leaving the country, heard the talk about international travel around the locker room, but I was still hesitant. I kept telling myself that it was OK to have stayed in America, that not crossing a border didn't make me any less of a man, that I was saving myself for a trip to a very special country, someday. Finally, this week, I decided to just get it over with and lose my international virginity to Tijuana.
We parked in San Ysidro and walked across the pedestrian bridge and walked into Mexico around 1:00. The very first thing I saw on the Mexican side of the border was a large table run by the Church of Scientology urging me to read Dian�tica, by L. Ron Hubbard. Very soon I realized that Tijuana was the most aggressively commercial place I'd ever visited, beyond even Las Vegas or Times Square in New York. Every person one encounters in Tijuana, aside from federales, either makes their living off of tourists, or is a tourist themself. I know this isn't representative of Mexico as a whole, of course, just a consequence of Tijuana being a border town.
The main focus seems to be on products or services that are more illegal and/or expensive in the United States. I knew this before going, but it was still surprising to see three or four pharmacies on every block advertising the ease in which one can get prescription-free painkillers and sexual aids. Alcohol for American kids age 18-21 appears to be a big industry, as do tax-free cigarettes, Cuban cigars, and "massages." Also big in Tijuana are horses painted to look like zebras, and children selling small packages of chicle, but that last one is almost too sad to mention.
In his travel writings, Allen Haim has mentioned how being in a place that's both economically depressed and aggressively commercial makes you stop seeing people's humanity, and I noticed the same thing. Nearly every store employs a man to sit in the doorway, yelling slogans to entreat passerby to come in. At first, I tried to decline politely, but soon realized that any response at all just encourages more aggressive pursuit of your tourist dollars. My travel companion Gene Wood called it a super-competitive breeding ground for memes, as each place tries to determine the most effective combination of "Hey guys," "Hey friends," or, in one place, "Picture for your neighbor's wife?" to rope in buyers. I didn't stop anywhere, partially because I didn't need any gold chains or religious figurines, and partially because I didn't want to feel like I was participating in the exploitation.
By far the most interesting part of the trip came when we tried to recross the border. The trip back to the US requires walking over a ramp and then, somewhat counter-intuitively, walking across an eight-lane highway. After that, there are a lot of parallels between the trip across the border and an amusement park line. The line to America winds around and goes into different rooms, so that you don't notice how long it is. There are pictures of wacky characters, only they're suspected drug traffickers instead of anthropromorphic animals. There is a large caution sign, not involving ride safety, but instead, warning that all conversations and actions are being videotaped. Judging by reactions in our line, I suspect a good percentage of that video footage is of people reading said warning sign out aloud. Just like how people in whelchairs can cut to the front of the line at Space Mountain, anyone with a bicycle or ticket for the Mexicoach bus gets to go into a shorter line at the border. This particular quirk leads to businessmen in thousand-dollar suits clutching battered child-sized BMX bikes, in order to return to America more quickly after purchasing discount cigarettes. It is clear that for many in line, America is the happiest place on Earth.
My trip to Mexico was pretty brief, but I think that's to be expected for your first time. I was confused and scared, I felt like crying at times, and after it was over all I wanted to do was go to sleep. Still, I could see what a special, intimate experience international travel can be, and I'm sure that the next time I find a special nation I really care for, I'll be a gentler, more compassionate tourist.